Several hours later, Bracken bent over the open book on the cleared desk in Jaz’s office, squinting through the camera viewfinder at another page of scribbles. He’d gone through about a hundred pages and had over half the book remaining. The Sassacus script, which was scribbly to begin with, seemed to congeal into mats of black ink covering the pages. Now and then a stroke of red dashed across certain pages, but that barely relieved the monotony.
The tome’s pages looked just like those in notebooks he and his younger sister had blackened testing a pen Sadie had brought one year. She claimed it had everlasting ink. They had filled every page of ten notebooks, then proceeded through newspapers, receipts and even napkins. They had scrawled for hours, until their fingers were black and their hands were cramped, but that effort was nothing compared to the work of these Sassacus scribble masters.
Bracken had just photographed a page so black it could have been used as a paint chip, and was framing a page with a dash of red running along the bottom edge, when Jaz came in and stood behind him with an open box of cherry cobbler, looking over his shoulder.
“How’s it coming?” She asked.
“You’re in my light.”
“Sorry.” She sidestepped.
“Still in my light.”
She sat on the edge of the bed and placed her feet between two stacks of binders he’d moved to make room on the desk. She balanced the pastry box on her knees and forked up a bite. “So how’s it coming?”
Bracken returned to his task. “Almost done.”
She beamed. “Really?”
“No.” The shutter clicked; a page turned. “This book goes on forever.”
“Huey will be here at noon,” Jaz reminded him, stirring the cobbler with her fork.
“Huey will have to wait until I’m done. Are you sure this is really a language?”
“Yes. You can’t go any faster?”
Bracken shot her a narrow look over his shoulder. “If you want, you can take over here and I’ll go make the coffee.”
She shrugged. “I’ll get out of your hair, then.”
“Do.” Bracken didn’t mean to be curt, but his back felt like ten spikes had been driven into it and the book seemed to be getting longer the more pages he turned. He wanted to help Jaz, but he hadn’t expect helping to be so painful.
Jaz stood. “Want anything from upstairs?”
“A massage and a tuna salad.”
“How about cobbler and coffee?”
“Fine…” He hunched over the tome again as she went out.
Less than two minutes later, she swept back in with a coffee mug and the box of cobbler. “Bracken! Bracken, this is bad. Oz is here.” She dropped the box onto the bed with a thump.
Bracken straightened, knuckling the small of his back. “Who?”
She gestured with the mug, sloshing liquid onto the rug. “Oz! The courier who handles the books. Huey told him to pick up the book here for some reason—I knew he’d mess this up!”
Bracken took the mug from her before she dropped it. “I thought you were giving the book to Huey.”
“But he got it from Oz!”
“Okay?” Bracken sipped and blinked, looking at the cup. He’d expected coffee, or even tea, but found it was only water. Jaz must have been distracted indeed.
“Oz doesn’t know I have it!” Jaz clenched her head with both hands. “Rotting son of a–”
Bracken set the cup on the desk beside the tome. “Jaz, please. You’re hurting my ears. Can you just tell me what is going on? And this time try not to leave stuff out.”
“The lady who owns the book won’t let me borrow from her after I lost one of her other books in Langston, alright? There was a fire…” Her eyes drifted to one side and her tone became vague. “Or a holocaust? It got burned. That’s all I remember. So I got blacklisted from borrowing any more books.” She looked back at him. “Huey’s brother Tago has borrowing privileges from the Sassacus library—”
Bracken coughed. “There are more of these?”
“I just said there’s a library.”
“Of scribble books? That’s ridiculous.”
“It’s not scribble, it’s Sassacus. Now listen. Huey borrowed this book under his brother’s name. His brother owns a casino in Alchaven and is very connected. The owner of the library lends by courier—”
“This Oz guy.”
“—and he’s here right now. If he finds out Huey loaned me the book, he’ll take it away immediately, Huey’s brother will get blacklisted, and I’ll never get another chance at this book or any other, and I’ll never find the white-haired man!”
Bracken squinted at her, trying to remember details. “And the white-haired man is…”
“The guy who trapped me here!” Jaz grabbed his shoulders. “We can’t let Oz know I have the book!”
“Ow, Jaz. Careful of the camera.” Bracken shrugged her off. “He doesn’t know you have it yet, does he?”
Jaz backed away and prowled the room anxiously. “No, but he suspects something is up.”
Bracken rubbed his eyes, trying to think. At the same time he wondered how he became the adult in this situation. But then, if Jaz was frantic, the situation was probably pretty serious—at least, to her. “Okay. Why don’t you just…go make the coffee and act natural. I’ll bring the book up when I’m done. I’ll hide it in a pastry box or something. When Huey gets here, you can give him the box and pretend there’s pastry inside. Then he can slip it out and give it to Oz later.”
“You can copy the rest of the book, right? Do you have enough film?” Jaz rubbed her hands together, then started cracking her knuckles one by one.
Bracken winced at the sound and turned back to the book. “Yes, and yes. Just go and handle things until I come up.”
He waited until the door closed, and set the camera down, groping a distraught hand through his hair. He didn’t know if he would ever finish the job, at the rate it was proceeding. He just couldn’t say so to Jaz, though. It was his fault she couldn’t translate the book and get the information she needed to escape The Defiant. He’d just have to go as fast as he could and hope Jaz kept things under control upstairs until he finished. That desperate, pleading look she’d been giving him was unnerving.
Returning to the desk, he turned the page of the tome with more force than necessary, and his hand hit the mug he’d set nearby. It shot off the desk and landed on the pile of binders on the floor, splashing water all over them. Bracken hissed angrily and grabbed the stack up out of the spreading puddle. It was a good effort, but the stack wobbled and pitched forward, spilling loose pages, pictures and paper scraps across the rug. He began hastily shoving the papers and photographs into piles on the rug, away from the spill. He could sort them later; for now they just needed to stay dry and out of the way until he finished his task.
He snatched up several photographs which had escaped a fat envelope containing more of the same. One of the photos caught his eye and he paused, looking closer at it. Then he spun to the desk and turned back several pages in the tome. He stopped at one page that had a memorable red stroke resembling a half-butterfly, left center of the page, and he held the photo up beside it.
They were the same.
Bracken felt as if the floor had suddenly dropped away.
He pulled out several more photos, and these matched more pages in the book. The last photo he picked up was of a book’s cover. He compared it to the front of the tome and saw that they, too, were the same.
Bracken sank onto the bed, the packet of photos clutched between his knees. He stayed there, eyes bulging, rocking slightly, for several minutes. Then he searched for every escaped picture of scribble-writing and returned them to the envelope. He went into his room and slipped the envelope into his backpack, then returned to Jaz’s room and picked up the box of cobbler she had left on the bed. He dumped the contents into a small wastebasket, lined the bottom of the box with dry paper scavenged from the desk and put the tome inside the box. After taking several deep breaths to calm himself—which only made him feel lightheaded—he carried the heavy package up the stairs and entered the cafe.
A note about Sassacus scribbles:
On paper, Sassacus script resembles asemic writing, which is a wordless open form of writing that has no fixed meaning. A close example is this asemic translation of Flatland:
However, Sassacus script differs from asemic writing in that it has quite a lot of meaning, as it records not only action and dialogue, but descriptions of emotion, mental states and personal histories of the subjects involved. If one could understand and translate the script, it would be a very immersive experience, almost like reliving a memory.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this chapter, give it a vote!