*** March 21 ***
"Oww!" Claudia grabbed her left wrist with her hand, and bit her lower lip. "You know, wasn't it bad enough that I sprained my wrist while helping wrangle the Zamboni of doom?" The vacuum banged into her chair and continued to bang. Without even looking at it, Claudia gave it a pet and a shove to put it back on track.
"No, of course it wasn't. Since I'm injured, I get left behind to watch the Warehouse, which wouldn't be terrible except for the part where I'm typing one-handed. Arguably I could take the day off, except the mini-blizzard we had in this morning will be a soupy mess by now. Ah, the forty degree temperature swings of the Badlands in spring. "
Claudia put her feet up against the edge of the desk as she leaned back in the chair, cradling her arm against her chest. Slowly she lowered her head back until she was looking at the things behind her. "So much easier to surf the internet two-handed. What to do, what to do, what-"
Popping to her feet, Claudia went behind the chair and explored a corner of the room which she had only dusted. "Books. I hear that people actually prefer them to e-readers – who am I to judge?" She pulled out one volume randomly and then another. "God, Artie, these are the field notes of Warehouse agents that have gone before us. These should be digitized! Can I scan one-handed?"
Claudia slid a notebook out of the stack far enough to read the name of the agent on the front. The notebooks were in chronological order. "Reading things in order sounds more like an Artie or Myka thing. I'm much more interested in diving into the good stuff. Oh, hello!"
The notebook she was holding had been penned by Irene Frederic during the years that she was a Warehouse Agent. The next two notebooks were also written by Mrs. Fredric. Claudia had never seen Mrs. F filling in a notebook or touching the books on the shelf. The first entry in the first book was November 1951. The final entry in the third book was January, 1961. "It seems your Warehouse Agent career ended when you became the Caretaker of the Warehouse. When someone's brain function went snafu, and they wrapped some kind of mystical ribbon around your wrist."
She flopped into the nearest chair and ran a finger along her injured wrist, vividly remembering when Dr. Vanessa started to wrap that ribbon around it. Using just her feet, Claudia spun the chair enough so that she could peer through the blinds into Warehouse 13, and then slid further back to admire the view, "Knowledge is power."
She opened the notebook and read about Mrs. Frederic's final case as an agent. It was pretty cut and dry, lacking all the color that typically goes along with solving a case and retrieving an artifact. Her writing was very much Mrs. Frederic's style in everything – direct, to the point, professional. However, when that case ended, there were no follow on notes; there were no mentions of what had happened next. "Boy, you were secretive right from the start. Perhaps one of your co-workers was chattier."
For the rest of the afternoon, Claudia skimmed the notebooks of past agents, looking for clues. Miss Elizabeth Dalton had apparently been the caretaker prior to Mrs. Frederic. There wasn't much about Dalton in the agents' notebooks once she became the Caretaker. Much like the current crop of agents, they talked about a supervisory agent, like Artie, who ran the day to day show. Apparently they all came from a certain mold too; because the general consensus amongst the notebooks that was that the supervisors were highly competent pains in the ass.
She was even able to locate a notebook with precise, cursive handwriting telling Dalton's story as an Agent of Warehouse 13. She had been practically adopted into the Warehouse at age eight after agents had saved her, but not her family, from an artifact. It sent a chill up Claudia's spine to read that because she felt a kinship.
"The part of me that adores Lord of the Rings is tempted to think of this as destiny, but the scientist in me would rather the world play by a few rules. Besides, Mrs. F got a job at the US Treasury, got married, had a kid, and worked her way up the ranks until she encountered weirdness on the job. Her story sounds much more like Myka's or Pete's rather than mine.
Claudia got up and paced the office musing about the Caretaker's notes. "Agents write notebooks. Caretakers deal with the Reagents and the government and anyone else that tries to get its hooks into the Warehouse. If Mrs. F is keeping a diary, she's not keeping in Artie's office – she'd keep it with her. But where is Dalton's diary or for that matter the diary of the Caretaker before Dalton, Susan Penwell? Well, obviously not on the shelf with the Warehouse Agent's notebooks. The Reagents may have custody, but maybe not."
Biting her lip, Claudia dived at the computer. Taking care not to tweak her injured wrist any further, she started a search for the Caretaker's section of the Warehouse.
*** June 21 ***
"It's going to be hot today. Not that it's hot now, but by the time I’m done…" Claudia let the thought trail off, as she yawned. "God, it's twenty after four in the morning! I hate Daylight Savings Time." The pre-dawn light was illuminating the roof of Warehouse 13 where she was standing. Claudia double checked her safety line, pulled her goggles down over her eyes, and clicked a button on a remote control. A winch began feeding out line as she carefully walked down the side of the building. Over the curve and down in the middle of the wall was the feature she had been seeking. With a click of the remote she stopped and dangled just over her destination.
"Okay you worked just fine from the ground, remote don't fail me now – especially since it took me weeks to wire everything to work with a remote!" Claudia pressed another button on the remote and heard gears begin to turn and mesh. A rectangular box began to extend from the building just like Miss Dalton's notes said it would. Once it was out about a foot, the front began to curve to the south-east. Claudia started the winch and went further down so she could shine a red penlight into the tunnel opening. Just as she was doing so, an inner door slid open.
Turning off, off her light, she was able to see a green glow bouncing around the reflective walls of the light tunnel. The green was coming from the flashlight that she had aimed at the hidden panel inside the warehouse. Dalton's notes weren't a map, and it had taken a lot of time staring at the wall inside to figure out which one of the panels was not like the others.
"Nice." Claudia kicked her legs and enjoyed the freedom of swinging for a moment when the glint of the rising sun reflected off her goggles. It was coming up in the north-east, away from the opening. "No rest for the clever!" She swung around and allowed the winch to pull her up a couple of feet.
Out of her pack she pulled out a device cobbled together from bits of metal, mirrors, lenses and a protractor. "You look a little steam-punkish, but you'll do."
Claudia rested the device on the light tunnel, at the center point on the building and then tweaked the settings until one side was lined up with the rising sun and the other was pointing down the axis of the tunnel. "Now the sun always rises in the east, but a little to the north in the summer and a little to the south in winter – at least in the Northern Hemisphere. Anyway, at this latitude there should be 67 degrees between today, the Summer Solstice, and the Winter Solstice. But have a look at that, there is 75.8 degrees! That means…" She pulled out a set of notes and shook her head. "It means that someone made a well-intentioned, but critical failure when they realigned you after the tornado in 1921."
Stuffing the notes back into her pack, Claudia took a wrench out of her back pocket, checking that it was still tied to her belt loops with a short length of rope. "It's a long way to the ground and I do not want to drop you," she said to the wrench and then tried not to think about the part where she was thirty feet off the ground. Using the wrench and the occasional shot of silicone spray, Claudia was able to loosen the alignment bolts.
"You know, Artie talks about all the cool features inside of you, like the Escher vault and Henry Ford's electric car, but he doesn't talk about you." Claudia gave the Warehouse wall an affectionate tap. Part of your design involved the passage tomb at Newgrange, Ireland. Why, I don't know – or at least I won't find out until the Winter Solstice. But this light tunnel is supposed to be the equivalent of your roof box. The thing is that there's a big latitude difference between South Dakota and Ireland. Someone used Newgrange's settings and at this angle, the light tunnel would never let sunrise in on any day of the year."
After tightening the last bolt, Claudia tucked her wrench back into her pocket and placed the alignment tool back into her pack. Swinging back around, she looked into the tunnel and pressed the button on the remote. The protective panel slid back into place and the tunnel retracted into the wall, leaving the wall looking completely solid.
From her pack Claudia pulled a long object, wrapped in paper and turned to the rising sun, her back resting against the Warehouse wall. The rising sun caused as her goggles to automatically darkened into sun glasses. She smiled. "You know I didn't have to do this on the morning of the Summer Solstice, but it's kind of cool."
Pulling back the paper, she took a bite out of her turkey sub with bacon and avocado dressing. As she bit into her sub, she thought that she had the best job in the world - Warehouse Agent. She didn't want to think about the future that Mrs. Fredric and Dr. Vanessa had hinted. Instead, she wondered what was going to happen on the morning of the Winter Solstice, six months away.
***September 21 ***
The repair she did on the light tunnel, back in the summer had almost been too easy. The checks and repairs that she had been making inside since then, made up for that. When the first Warehouse 13 had burned down, Agent Dalton became Caretaker Dalton, taking over for deceased Caretaker Penwell. None of the records that Claudia found talked about the fire itself, and left her with more than one question, like how Penwell became deceased and while the Warehouse burned, were there ribbons being wrapped around wrists?
Dalton's notes around the construction of the second Warehouse 13 had been cryptic. The Winter Solstice light tunnel that Claudia had been working on was considered some kind of bonus – it was non-essential to the Warehouse operation. That explained why when it stopped working in 1921, the repair efforts were always a back-burner thing, and why everyone seemed to have eventually forgotten about it, except for Dalton.
Dalton didn't record what actually happened when the light hit the sun tunnel correctly, but it involved other permanently mounted features inside the Warehouse. The features were mostly along the roof, where it was tough to get to, not that that stopped her.
Claudia's Farnsworth let out a shrill tone.
"Claudia! Where are you?" Artie demanded.
"Fitzgilbert 2246." Claudia took another swipe at the curved support with her cleaning rag, bringing back the shine to the mirrored surface. It was odd, because from the ground you couldn't even tell it was reflective. "Just a little dusting or should I say de-gooing. You know how neutralizer travels."
"Yes, yes, whatever! I need your help. Myka just called in – Pete and Steve vanished in front of her eyes."
Claudia felt her heart sink as she quickly climbed down the ladder and laid it on the floor. "What do you mean vanish? The Cejet wand was only supposed to put out twinkle lights that convinced people there were fairies."
"It was, and it does, but Myka saw something else."
Claudia was running toward the control room. "A second artifact! I'll be there in five."
It wasn't a wonder anymore how polishing the non-essential feature got relegated to the back burner.
*** December 19 ***
"Right, I have no idea what is supposed to happen, and I need more coffee." Claudia let her head fall back as, she groaned. Then she double checked her pack and confirmed the presence of a thermos. "At least they chose Winter Solstice and not Summer Solstice. Sunrise at 6:30ish instead of 4:30ish. Not that I wasn't up before dawn on the Summer Solstice too. I don't know why, it's harder to get up early in the winter." Her watch beeped.
She glanced at the time and knew that she should get moving. Clipping in, Claudia zipped toward the center of the Warehouse. Routine as it was nowadays, zipping was still a whole heck of a lot of fun. Having reached her destination, Claudia let go, shouting, "Perfect landing!" She hit the floor, stumbled a few feet forward, but regained her balance by grabbing onto one of the storage racks. "Not landing on my butt is pretty perfect."
Claudia took off her helmet and put it down with her pack, pulling out the thermos. After pouring some coffee into the plastic cup that served as a lid, she pulled out her tablet. "Time is synced to the US Navel Observatory; not as easy as it sounds with a device that gets its timestamp from a major telephone carrier, but I am brilliant, ha, ha," she deadpanned and then shrugged. "Another three minutes. Stopwatch is set to start at the official Naval Observatory mark for sunrise. "
She slipped her tablet back into its place on her belt holster and took a sip of coffee. The second she did, Claudia wanted to check the time again.
"I can be patient." She sipped her coffee. "Probably. Okay, according to Dalton's notes, everything should be automatic. The rising sun hits the light tunnel, on the correct angle, causing it to open and…and what?"
Claudia let her hand fall to her hip as she looked to the roof, trying to find all the bits of ceiling that she had polished. They really weren't visible from the ground, but the maps she had made, let her know that she was near the center of the strange pattern they created. Dalton's notes were frustratingly obscure, and there were no notes at all in the agents' notebooks from the time that the light tunnel had been operating correctly.
It had taken some digging, but she found out why in the revisions to the Warehouse Manual. Back in Dalton's day there had been a rule that only the Caretaker was permitted in the Warehouse for seventeen minutes after dawn from two days before the Winter Solstice to two days after the Winter Solstice. There was a six page chart with the exact dates and times extending from Warehouse 13's commissioning out for about two centuries with a footnote reminding that corrections would be needed to account for lack of a leap day in the year 2100. Dalton apparently had the pages deleted around 1951.
She had given up, which Claudia didn't quite get. Was there something else that broke or was something removed from the Warehouse? The light tunnel had been so frustratingly simple for Claudia to fix, that Claudia wondered why she had to do it. But then again, Dalton had been afraid of heights and had never made it out to inspect the light tunnel herself.
Claudia didn't know how long she actually was patient, but it was at an end. She lifted her arms and walked in a slow circle. "Okay, Warehouse, I get it, it was a little egotistical of me to think that I could solve a problem that a Caretaker worked on for over thirty years. I'll go back to the drawing board and really-"
The warehouse was reasonably well lit, but it began to glow yellow from the top down. It was starting in the south east, at the precise place where the light tunnel let in the solstice dawn. Sunlight was flooding the ceiling, bouncing off all of the pieces of metal that Claudia had hand polished over the previous six months. Things began to hum and vibrate.
"No, no, STOP! I'm sorry. Artifacts shaking and falling is not good!" She pulled out her remote control and stabbed at the button that had closed the tunnel over the summer, but the automated system was now fully in control bypassing Claudia's rewiring. It was doing what it was supposed to do, Claudia reminded herself, but it didn't quell the panic.
"Think, think!" Claudia took a breath. "The sun is rising and coming in the window, but it's only going to do that for seventeen minutes, because that's what happens in Newgrange. The Warehouse should be able to survive for seventeen minutes, right? Right! Yes it should."
She looked down at her arms which were glowing. She turned them over and they were still glowing. "I am not glowing. The light is coming in, being intensified by the mirror and lens system, making it seem like I'm…" Claudia swallowed and spun around. "Glowing."
Up above, she could see that the tops of the racks were not lit. Grabbing her gear, she ran down the aisle toward a ladder when she hit an intersection. The light was flooding the aisle she was standing in, but not the adjacent areas. "Get out of the way, get on the ladder? Get safe, get…"
Claudia smiled, "Get the answers!" She ran toward the ladder and straight up the steps. About half-way up, she stepped out of the light for a moment. It was filling the ceiling in the South-east corner, and bouncing out further afield but the inner features were channeling the light down the aisle she was in.
"Think, think, think. Newgrange – the roof box lets in the light slowly and then it fills the entire inner chamber. Uh, uh, think. Shifts in the earth's axis and the procession of the stars means that the light doesn't reach the back of the chamber anymore," Claudia felt her face crinkle in frustration and then it hit her. "The back of the chamber! The light has got a destination; it's going somewhere!"
She rushed down the ladder and ran down the aisle, trying to outrun the rising sun to find out what artifact it was targeting. It had to be something that had been there from the beginning – an artifact that had come from a previous Warehouse that had become the heart of Warehouse 13.
The aisle ended in a T-intersection. Cross aisles to the left and right with a collection of artifacts that she didn’t recognize. She started reading index cards and finally slammed her hands against her thighs. "What the hell? This is a mid-century modern aisle. Nothing here predates World War II!" Claudia turned around and saw the sunlight fast approaching.
"Left or right?" She glanced in both directions and then looked down. There was a giant medallion set into the floor, with Roman or Greek drawings. "What are you?" Claudia demanded. "You look like a Bronze Age manhole cover!"
"What is a manhole cover?"
"You know, something that covers a hole that's big enough for a man to fall through," Claudia said and then wondered who the hell she was talking to. Blinking against the light, she spun around and kept talking to cover her nervousness. "It's an entrance to the sewer and who the – oh my god! This is a ruin, except it isn't actually a ruin, and you're wearing a toga."
As Claudia's eyes adjusted to the lighting, she could see that she was inside some piece of ancient architecture complete with wall frescos, stone urns, and what could have been an altar. More importantly she wasn't inside the concrete and steel walls of the Warehouse.
"Men wear togas, they are cut from a rectangular cloth," the woman who was apparently not wearing a toga said. Then she squinted at Claudia. Then very slowly she pointed at herself from neck to ankle. "I am wearing a stolla." Then she grabbed the edge of her white robe and said very slowly, "Pal-la."
"Yeah, despite appearances, I'm not actually stupid," Claudia said and then added under her breath, "most of the time." Clearing her throat, she stood up straighter. "I'm Claudia, and could you tell me where we are?"
"This is the Temple of Vesta, which is not a ruin."
"Vesta, that's Roman, right? Are you sure this isn't Newgrange?"
"Vesta is the Goddess of Hearth and Home that enfolds Rome in her protection. This is Rome."
"Right, Rome, Temple of Vesta - what does that make you?" Claudia laughed nervously." A Vestal Virgin?"
There was silence for a few seconds as Claudia took it all in. She looked at her feet and saw that she was standing on a disk, the same shape and size as the one she found on the Warehouse floor, without the ornamentation.
"Okay, I was standing in the Warehouse, and now I've been swallowed by an artifact." Claudia clapped her hand together, glancing to the left and right, wondering if there might still be an escape route.
"Warehouse 14?" the woman asked.
"Fourteen, no. Wait, you know about the Warehouse? Why would you say fourteen?"
"Elizabeth Dalton was the Caretaker of Warehouse 13. Since you are not Elizabeth, I thought…"
"Thought?" Claudia shook her head and then got it. "Oh! You assumed that the Warehouse met one of its unfortunate endings? Buried, abandoned, burned to the ground or exploding like a supernova or something like that?"
The woman half-smiled and shrugged.
"How is it that you know about the Warehouse? And you name again."
"This is the Temple of Vesta, which keeps the hearth fires and lifeblood of the City of Rome. I am Vestalas Aemilia Tertia, Caretaker of Warehouse 3, which rests beneath our feet. You are not the Caretaker of Warehouse 13."
"Me? No! I mean, Mrs. Frederic is." Not that Claudia could stop the words tumbling from her mouth any more than she could stop the thoughts racing in her head, but it did occur to her that she might have crossed a line. She laughed nervously and smiled widely as she scratched behind her ear.
"Vestalas Aemil-, could I just call you Amy? I'm a Warehouse Agent, or you know, technically, an Agent-in-Training. You know, funny thing how there used to be a rule about no one but the Caretaker being allowed in Warehouse 13 during the Winter Solstice dawn." Claudia coughed, but couldn't stop herself from talking. "Part of my responsibilities involves doing maintenance around the Warehouse and it seems-" she laughed. "That I fixed you. Well, not you, you. This place. Excuse me, but didn't Warehouse 3 meet an untimely end like the rest of the Warehouses? Oh! The Great Fire of Rome – did Nero burn you down?"
There was a very pregnant pause and Claudia bit her tongue to stop herself from making a joke about pregnant pauses and Vestal Virgins.
"Amy," the woman said. "My father would have disapproved, but my father disapproved of most things. I like Amy."
Amy let out a breath and then turned and walked up two stone steps. She took some wood from a holder and fed a fire burning in a stone cauldron. "Warehouse 3 did meet an untimely end. I was Caretaker during the last days when the Empire turned from the Roman way to the Christian god. More and more, intolerance for the old gods rose, and the Reagents felt that Warehouse 3 was in jeopardy, even under the protection of the Temple of Vesta. Warehouse 3 didn't burn in Nero's fire or any other fire. It was simply emptied and abandoned."
"You look really sad," Claudia said, as she took a couple of steps forward and then remembered that it probably wasn't appropriate to hug a stranger, especially if the stranger was an artifact. "Warehouse 13 has almost gone kersplatt a couple of times and my friends, my fellow agents are always in danger. What I'm saying, I guess, is that I get it."
Amy reached out and touched Claudia's hand. Her eyes opened wide and then she smiled. "You are not the Caretaker, but perhaps you will be some day."
Claudia pulled back her hand and felt her stomach lurch. "You know, let's not jump ahead. I want to be a full-fledged Warehouse Agent, maybe do a couple of tours with my guitar. You know, just the bar circuit, nothing fancy. I don't even know if I'm the kind of person that's cut out to be a Caretaker. No offence, but I want some choices in my life."
Amy laughed. "Do you know the life of a Vestal Virgin?"
"I'm guessing you spent a lot of time doing each other's hair?" Claudia wanted to kick herself. Amy auburn hair was pulled up in elaborate braids that summoned to mind Mrs. Frederic. Was the style a requirement of the Caretaker's job? Since Claudia never planned to grow her hair to braiding length, maybe she would be disqualified from being a Caretaker.
"My hair is that of a Roman bride – the Vestalis were the brides of Rome. This was not really what I was asking, when I asked what you knew about our lives."
Claudia was getting the are you stupid look again, but she didn't know how to answer the question. "I really don't know anything about the Vestal Virgins. I'm guessing it didn't involve a lot of men."
"And therein lies the power," Amy said. "You would be selected very young to serve thirty years – I was eight when I came to the Temple. Because you were considered to be married to Rome and you were free of patria potestas - your father wouldn't control you. I could own property, unlike other women. After service, a Vestalas was completely free."
"Yeah, that was thirty years of service, right? Wasn't that most of the lifespan of the average Roman? But hey, we're about the same age, so maybe you haven't given it much thought," Claudia said, trying to diffuse any potential offence.
"I am seventy-five – or that was my age when things changed." Amy held out her hands indicating the space they were standing in. "I became the Caretaker during my twentieth year."
"No way – really? You look like you're my age. Mrs. Frederic – well, she doesn't."
Amy inclined her head toward her shoulder.
"Okay, this is fascinating, but can we go back to where are we and how do I get home?"
"Oh yes, I can explain. Come, sit." Amy sat on a large floor cushion.
Figuring that she had nothing to lose, Claudia took the one next to her.
"It was the year of the Empire – no wait. Elizabeth Dalton helped me learn the modern references. It was 394 AD."
"CE," said Claudia. "Not that AD is wrong! In fact, it would have been completely right in Miss Dalton's era. It just means, in the year of the Lord and a good chunk of the people on the planet don't actually swing that way. CE means Common Era."
"Well since the Christianity was one of the contributing factors to all this, I like the term, Common Era. The empire had been officially Christian for almost fifteen years. There were many that worshipped the old gods and old ways, but the numbers dwindled. Emperor Theodosius, may he burn on in fiery torment-"
"Not a fan," Claudia said and then quickly added. "Not a favorable view."
Amy shook her head. "He destroyed many temples and holy sites."
"Wait. I'm not trying to offend or anything, but based on what I know of more recent Warehouses, I'm surprised that Warehouse 3 was in a temple – under the control of a religious institution. In our time, we would be concerned about some zealot deciding to do crazy things with the artifacts in the name of – well, in the name of some god or goddess."
"Interesting," said Amy. "We had that concern with many religions, but the Roman Temples were different, although perhaps you won't trust my judgment in this. Many of the temples, such as this Temple of Vesta, served the government of Rome. We performed the rituals and rites that were considered necessary for order amongst both the patricians and plebeians."
"So you were a civil servant? That makes sense – the US Secret Service runs Warehouse now. Rome paid you or paid the Temple of Vesta."
"Very much so and we were required to execute important civil functions. Beyond the rituals and public offerings, we were to make to maintain Vesta's fire." She pointed to the burning caldron. "We provided fire to any household that required it. This was both a literal and spiritual task. We kept the wills of the patricians including the emperors. "
"So you're telling me that the Temple of Vesta would have had the last will and testament of Julius Ceasar?"
"Gaius Julius Ceasar, yes, and Mark Antony as well - Elizabeth asked about these two specifically."
Claudia was getting caught up in the history and asked, "Cleopatra?"
"Why would the Temple of Vesta in Rome hold the will of an Egyptian Queen?"
"Point," Claudia said. "But how does keeping wills translate into keeping artifacts?"
"We were entrusted with many ancient and sacred relics, such as the Palladium of Troy. That was another blow when it was taken to Constantinople."
"Entrusted with relics and secrets – that's a natural stepping stone into being a Warehouse."
"Yes, until we began to lose are standing as the empire became Christian. The Reagents opened Warehouse 4 and every artifact was moved over a period of ten years."
"So how did Warehouse 3 get here?" Claudia asked.
"In 394 CE, Warehouse 3 had just been emptied, and I was completing the steps to permanently close it. That was when Theodosius came to the Temple of Vesta, a relative of his anyway. A woman called Serena walked into the temple with a cadre of guards. She removed a necklace from Vesta's statue and put it on herself!" Amy pointed the unadorned statue of Vesta next to the flames. "Soldiers put out the flame. Well, they were trying to when I seized a shield from one of the soldiers."
"And?" Claudia demanded.
Amy shrugged. "And we are here. When the Regents unlocked this place, they said that I somehow took all the residual energy of Warehouse 3 and turned Warehouse 3, myself and the shield into an artifact."
"Wow." As much as Claudia wanted to get home, she was becoming fascinated with Amy and the knowledge she brought of the Warehouse's history and the creation of artifacts.
"While it was unintended, the Reagents and I determined that this was a fortuitous outcome."
"Uhm, I'm not sure I'd consider being trapped in shield a fantastic outcome," Claudia said, remembering she was supposed to be figuring out how to get back to the Warehouse.
"Normally, I wouldn't have either, but I do not feel the passage of time except for these periods of light – what is it now, seventeen minutes?"
"Seventeen minutes!" Claudia shouted and pulled out her tablet, which amazingly was still running. "There's just over a minute left, what should I do?"
"Come back tomorrow and the three days after for seventeen minutes more," Amy said.
"Amy, I will, and I really mean that, but I was asking what I should do now?"
"Vesta's necklace will let you pass back out of the shield."
"Vesta's necklace – the one that Serena took?"
"Yes, it should be an artifact in Warehouse 13. Didn't you bring it?"
The temple grew dim like the sun was setting. In a panic, Claudia ran to shield in the floor.
***December 20 ***
Suddenly the light grew brighter and Claudia had to hold her hand to stop herself from crashing into the temple wall. She had ran right over the shield and nothing happened. Claudia looked at the stopwatch in her tablet. "Seventeen minutes, forty seconds. The timing must be off. I must have reset the light tunnel wrong."
"Claudia," Amy called. "It is the next day."
"It can't be the next day," Claudia insisted. "My timer clearly says that this started about eighteen minutes ago. And see, the date time stamp says December 20. Wait! It should say December 19!" She gasped for air, "It can't be the next day!" Claudia rushed back to Amy. "You need to fix this, right now!"
"I cannot fix this anymore than I could have stopped the closing of Warehouse 3. The last thing to leave the temple before I turned it into an artifact was the necklace. It is the key."
"I didn't feel anything – the light just went out for a second. This is bad," Claudia paused, letting the ramifications hit her. "Amy, is this your life? Do you just live seventeen minutes at a time?"
"Claudia, I am seventy-five, my Warehouse is gone, and at my age, I'm lucky to have all my senses." Amy stood up and crossed to where Claudia was standing next to the shield in the floor. "Seventeen minutes at a time is a blessing for me."
"This is not a blessing! At least for me it's not. I haven't had a chance to do anything. Well, alright, some things, but nearly enough."
"Of course you haven't, and you won't be trapped here. There are people that will miss you if you are gone."
"How do you know that? I mean, there are, but how do you know that?"
"Because I am Roman and Rome is all about the family. The Temple of Vesta was charged with securing the hearth – the heart of the home and therefore the heart of Rome. What shocked me most after joining the temple was that I had family here too. The Temple of Vesta was filled with girls too young to be away from their mothers, all thrown together, but also teachers, friends, and mentors. We became a family, we sister priestesses. And then I was shown the mysteries of the Warehouse and gained another family."
Claudia was waiting for Amy to elaborate, but she didn't, and Claudia really didn't need her too. What she needed was to gather her thoughts, so she went and sat on the cushions. "The Warehouse is my family, too. Pete, Steve and Myka are like my brothers and sisters. Artie is like my dad, a weird, cranky dad, but not in a bad way!"
Amy sat down next to here. "And they will notice when you are gone."
"They will, but how did I get in without the Necklace."
"I don't have any good answers other than that is how it work. Anyone that stands on the shield when there is enough light or power enters, but you must touch the necklace to get out."
Claudia frowned and nodded. "That actually explains why no one was allowed in the Warehouse but the Caretaker. You wouldn't want agents accidently stepping into Warehouse 3. And because you're kicking out the agents, you only open the shield for a limited time. Limited time." Claudia gritted her teeth.
Amy put a reassuring hand on Claudia's shoulder. "They will find you."
"But I should help them try and find me." Claudia emptied her pack onto the marble floor. "First the Farnsworth. I wouldn't normally reach for this first when trapped in an alternate dimension, but since the tablet is getting some kind of signal, it's a possibility, you know what I mean?"
"No," Amy said. "For the most part I haven't understood half of what you've said, but my years in the Warehouse have taught me that listening is often the best teacher. What is that?"
Claudia had opened the Farnsworth and had been trying to send a signal out, get a connection. "This is Farnsworth - it's kind of like radio with pictures." When she glanced at Amy's face, she realized that her definition was lacking. "Ancient Roman, no background in electromagnetic energy. Okay, let me try to simplify into a definition that will fit within seventeen minutes." Claudia thought for a moment. "Yeah, I can't. Let's just say that if this was working, I would be able to see and hear and talk to someone far away."
"Remarkable. It is like a telegraph?"
"You know about telegraphs?"
"Elizabeth Dalton knew about telegraphs, and she taught me some of this knowledge. A telegraph is collection of signals, like a tap on a drum, carried on a piece of fine metal wire." Amy took a branch from the bucket of firewood and began tapping on the marble.
Claudia pointed at her stick. "Morse code?"
"Dot-dot-dot dash-dash-dash-dot-dot-dot. SOS, which is a distress call, I think. My use of English is still developing."
"SOS is definitely a call for help. Except now that we spend most of our time actually talking to someone it's fallen out of use except for people in the military or into extreme survival. For instance, I have an App for that." Claudia pushed some things around the screen of her tablet and a list of words popped on the screen. She tapped SOS and the tablet played the same tones that Amy had tapped out with her stick."
Amy gasped in delight and then pointed at the word list. "Claudia, your name."
"Go ahead," Claudia nodded at the screen.
Tentatively, Amy touched the printed name and the tablet responded by tapping out the word. She immediately reached again, but Claudia pulled the tablet away. "Once we figure out how to get out, I'll bring you one of these and even show you had to play Fruit Combat, okay?"
Amy put on a brave face and tentatively said, "Yes."
Claudia took out her cell phone. "A telephone is voice over a wire, except we've gotten better at it, and now can now send the voice long distances through the air, like this." She dialed Myka, who was the most likely to answer at the early hour of the morning, but there was nothing like a signal. "Well not like this because there's no signal in an alternate dimension. Maybe there's something about the portal."
Claudia got up and went back to the shield buried in the floor. It was the same size and color as the one she had stepped on in the Warehouse. "This has no drawings, and it's concave. Is this leather?"
"Yes, it is the back of the shield the piece closest to your body."
Touching all the surfaces, it felt just like it look and then a faint burst of purple static lit up under her fingers. "Neutralizer. If I could treat it like another misbehaving artifact and pour some neutralizer on it-" Claudia was on her feet and half way back to her pack when Amy put a hand on her arm.
"Follow this trail of logic."
"I hit it with neutralizer, and it stops it stops being an active artifact." Claudia's brain raced ahead of her mouth for a moment. "And then this universe potentially ceases to exist with us in it. That is not the desired outcome."
Amy shook her head.
"Okay, my pack has tools and electronic devices, neither of which is immediately useful. What have you got here? How big is this dimension? Didn't you say that Warehouse 3 was somehow in here?"
"I'm not sure about any of those."
Claudia was incredulous. "You haven't explored?"
"I live in seventeen minute intervals and expect company most of the time."
"Good point," Claudia said. "But we really do have more than seventeen minutes if we need it. There are seventeen minutes for five days in a row. Four days now or more like three and a half, not that I want to be gone for most of a week."
"I will check the Warehouse 3 doors and see if it is really there," Amy said. "But Claudia, the Warehouse was emptied."
"I know, I know. I'll check these other doors. Be back in five minutes."
Both women took off at a run. Claudia went out through an arched opening and down a hall. She was debating if they took the right assignments, but as lost as Claudia was feeling inside the strange building, the Caretaker of Warehouse 3 was the right person to check it out especially if its defenses were still in working order. She took a doorway into a garden. The trees felt real and the sun felt like it could burn her face. The fruit looked ripe so she picked a few and ran back to the room.
"Hey!" Claudia called out. "I wanted to go further, but I didn't want to get lost."
Amy was coming in the other door, dragging a ragged cloth loaded with items. "The Warehouse is there, but there are only broken and worn things near the door. Oh, the figs are ripe." She took a fruit from Claudia's hand and bit down into it, making sounds of pleasure.
Claudia brought a fig to her mouth and then paused. "This isn't some kind of Persephone thing, is it? Eat three figs and trapped here forever?"
Amy took another fig. "Of course not. Worry when it's a pomegranate."
With a shrug, Claudia bit down into the juicy fruit and assessed the treasure that Amy retrieved from the Warehouse. There were broken swords and cracked pottery among other things that didn't look like they would help. "The fig is good. This stuff, not so much."
Both women looked up as the light began to fade.
*** December 21 ***
"No," Claudia moaned and ran to her tablet. They were at minute thirty-five and December 21. "Another day, another step being closer to trapped." When Amy didn't respond, Claudia asked, "What, no pep talk? Uh, encouraging speeches."
"Claudia, they are your family, they will find you."
"That's the thing, I'm not sure they will." She sighed. "I dug through the computer and found some log notes that Elizabeth Dalton had made. They may have been in a secure section of the server that I shouldn't have been in. A server is-"
"Snooping in a locked room you were forbidden to enter?"
"Close enough. She talked about a tornado, which I don't think they have in Italy. Big, scary windstorm that damaged the light tunnel that ultimately activates this place." Claudia pointed to the shield. "I just quietly fixed everything in my spare time. Then this morning – two mornings ago – I went into the Warehouse when no one was awake and followed the light."
"Did you drop anything, leave anything behind?"
Claudia walked up to her pack and looked at the assorted items. "My thermos is gone and so is my zip-line helmet. I left them on the floor."
"That would perhaps be a clue to your agents?"
"And the Warehouse now is filled with light?"
"During the sunrise, yes. Technically it's a little longer than seventeen minutes."
"They would notice this, yes?"
"Well yeah, if they were in the Warehouse -it shakes the whole place. I was very afraid that it would wake up some troublemaker artifacts."
"And they know that you are missing. Claudia, they will find you."
The light blinked.
"Whoa!" Claudia dashed for her tablet. "It's been under four minutes."
The light blinked again.
"They are trying to block the light," Amy said, worry etching her face
"Because it shakes the Warehouse and is therefore causing chaos. Crap!"
Something hard hit something metal and both women turned toward the shield. Claudia rushed up and started banging on it with her fist, until Amy grabbed her hand. "You'll hurt yourself, here." She handed Claudia a stick.
"It doesn't matter, nobody seems to be listening. Maybe something heavy fell on the shield, which is great because beyond being blended into the floor, it is now potentially covered. "
"Giving up hope is unattractive," Amy said in a stern voice. She took the stick and began tapping SOS onto the shield.
"That's what moms sound like – not bad for a virgin."
Amy laughed as she lost her rhythm for a second. "I did my thirty years of service, but I didn't stay a virgin."
Claudia just knew her face went beet red.
"Oh, is that it? You waiver between loving the Warehouse and thinking you should be doing other things. Claudia, you have one life, but that doesn't mean one path. Now find a way to use all these things so that I am not trapped with girl filled with longing for the next seventeen times seventeen minutes," Amy laughed.
The lights blinked, making Amy hesitate long enough to hear tapping back.
"It's may be code, but it is too fast and I’m not very good-"
"Hang on." Claudia swiped her finger across the pad and put it down on the floor. The screen began filling in letters.
"Yes!" Claudia shouted. "Tap out yes."
"Uh, Y is…" Amy struggled.
Claudia's fingers flew across the tablet. "Launch simultaneous versions of the app and try not to break its little electronic brain. Here!"
The tablet was split screened and Claudia touched the words Yes and Claudia. The tablet showed a series of dots and dashes, which Amy began tapping out.
"The necklace, what's it called?"
"Vesta's necklace – well, that's what I would have called it. I suppose that some might name it for Serena, may she burn in a fiery torment."
"Okay, that was a lot to type. Here, try this."
The tablet showed the code for Necklace Vesta Serena, which Amy dutifully beat out on the shield, until the lights went out.
When the lights came on, they were sitting on the floor next to the shield. Claudia picked up the tablet and checked the time. "That was only fourteen minutes, and it's December 23. We lost three minutes and an entire day!" She snatched up the stick and hammered the shield.
"They cut of the light, but they also brought it back," Amy said over the ringing of the metal. She stood up and walked a few steps away, making no move to stop Claudia.
"They're not answering," Claudia said, dropping the stick and standing up. "But we were communicating with them. You were communicating with them!"
"In a code that I learned seventeen minutes at a time," Amy said as she stood.
"Are you're going to try and convince me that I should look at this as an opportunity to explore other paths in life?"
"No. You will or you won't and nagging has never helped in communicating with a seventeen year old."
"Still older than seventeen! In fact, I’m twenty." Even to Claudia that sounded lame and whiny, but it didn't change the reality. "If I spend the next seventeen minute interval here, it will be next year, and it'll be legal for me to have alcohol. I'll plead the 5th on what I may have had up until now."
"Five year olds drank wine in Rome – it was safer than the water."
"Yeah, not so much in modern America."
"Humph. In the meantime, I suggest we move on with more educational pursuits. "
"I thought you weren't going to nag me into looking at this as an opportunity."
Amy waved her hand and made a dismissive noise. "I am thinking of my opportunities. I was promised Fruit Combat. Do I get to touch that, that device again?"
Claudia snatched up the tablet and tried to fight a smile from rising to her face. "Maybe."
"Well, if we cannot do it the modern Am-er-i-can way, we will do it the ancient Roman way." Amy hurled something and Claudia tasted fig.
"You did not throw fruit at me!" Claudia laughed and tried to push the fig from her face. "What the heck? Is that even close to proper behavior for a Priestess of Vesta, for the Caretaker of the Warehouse?"
"I not sure. I was always told the proper weapons were over-ripe tomatoes."
Claudia and Amy both turned toward the shield, where Mrs. Fredric was standing.
"Mrs. Fredric," Claudia was bursting with joy from the inside-out as she lunged at Mrs. Fredric and hugged her.
"Please, Claudia, you're covered in figs."
"You are the Caretaker," Amy said.
Mrs. Fredric looked her up and down, but not in the disapproving manner that she frequently looked at Warehouse Agents. "So are you." She inclined her head respectfully and then looked pointedly at Claudia.
"Oh! Introductions." She clapped her hands. "Mrs. Frederic, Caretaker of Warehouse 13, I would like to introduce you to …Amy, who has a much spiffier name, and who is the Caretaker of Warehouse 3, at least in this dimension."
"Vestalas Aemilia Tertia," Mrs. Frederic said. "I've read quite a bit about you in the last twenty-four hours."
"Call me, Amy, all my friends do." Amy smiled at Claudia.
"Mrs. F, you did read the part about the Vesta's necklace, right? Because otherwise-"
"Relax, Claudia." She tapped the brooch on her jacket. "Amy, if I understood the Regent's intent correctly, we have some business?"
"I'll just be over near the portal out of here, pretending to check my e-mail," Claudia said as she started to gather her things.
"In the Temple of Vesta, one trained, one served and one mentored. I believe we are all needed," Amy said, touching Claudia's shoulder as she walked up to Mrs. Frederic with her hand extended.
Mrs. Fredric frowned at Claudia; although, Claudia wasn't sure if it was a real frown or just Mrs. Frederic on any given Thursday. Then Mrs. Frederic said, "You're right. Pay attention, Claudia."
Mrs. Frederic reached out as if to shake hands, but instead the two women clasped arms so that their wrists touched. Both of them went stiff and then there was a light around them, practically coming from their eyes. Claudia was staring at them open mouthed, wondering if should dive in and break them up.
Both of them stepped back simultaneously and the light dissipated. Then the weirdest thing of all happened – Mrs. Frederic laughed.
"Is everyone all right?" Claudia asked, pretty sure that things weren't.
Amy nodded. "It is an honor to be of service again to the Warehouse."
"It is my honor to meet you and to now know the last inventory of Warehouses 3," Mrs. Frederic said.
Claudia's heart sank as she rushed to Amy. "What? No! There were no doctors or ribbons, and I'm not sure what happens, but I'm betting that emptying the contents of the Warehouse into someone else's head is a bad for your health. What the- Are you telling me that you've been living seventeen minutes at a time just looking for the opportunity to pass on the Warehouse. What happened to looking for opportunities?"
"Claudia, wait-" Mrs. Frederic said.
"I'll tell her, Irene." Amy wrapped an arm around Claudia.
Claudia started to interrupt, but Amy put a finger on her lips.
"You don't know the whole story. Yes, when Warehouse 3 was closed, I was on my way to meet the Caretaker of Warehouse 4 to pass on my knowledge via the ribbon. It would have ended my life, but it was the service that I had joined. I had always been willing to do what was necessary to preserve the Warehouse."
"Why is it necessary now?" Claudia demanded. "We know the inventory of Warehouse 13, I assume."
Amy put her hands on Claudia's cheeks. "When they came to extinguish Vesta's fire, I could not stand by." She pointed at the floor. "I took that soldier's shield, and I gathered every ounce of strength in me and whatever was left in the walls of the Temple and the Warehouse because I would not let the fire die."
"And that's how this place became an artifact," Claudia said.
"Yes, I forged it with my anger, but an opportunity presented itself. The Reagents unlocked the secrets of the shield and as was required, brought me the Caretaker of Warehouse 4."
"But when they touched, information went both ways," Mrs. Frederic said. "The Caretaker of Warehouse 4 gained all the knowledge of Warehouse 3, but Amy didn't lose it. She gained Warehouse 4. I just gained Warehouse 3 and several other Warehouses worth of inventory knowledge."
"And I updated my knowledge of Warehouse 13," Amy said.
"Oh, my god, you're the Regent's backup system. They built the shield into Warehouse 13 so you could get a yearly download from the Caretaker!"
Amy turned to Mrs. Frederic. "Do you understand any of the words she uses?"
"Most of the time, and yes Claudia, you grasped the Regent's intent. Amy, I would say we have another opportunity. I think that Claudia could accompany me during the Solstice days from now on."
"I can? I mean, I want to. Just to be clear, I'm not in too much trouble for all this, am I?"
"Our time here is short; we'll talk about all that when we get home," Mrs. Fredric said, her face impassive.
"Claudia," Amy laughed.
"Hey, I do want to come back and show you my version of Fruit Combat and other modern wonders."
"Then it is done," Amy said and grasped Claudia's arm so that their wrists touched. "I take you, amata, to learn the ways of a Warehouse Caretaker."
Mrs. Frederic's watch beeped.
"Come, Claudia, our time is up. Technically, it is probably not. I allowed Arthur to set my watch, and he is always conservative."
"Good-bye, Amy!" Claudia threw her arms around the woman.
"I look forward to our next seventeen minutes."
Claudia reluctantly let go and joined Mrs. Frederic on the shield. The Caretakers nodded at one another, exchanging something with a look that Claudia couldn't decipher. Mrs. Frederic, threaded her fingers into Claudia and brought both their hands toward the jewelry on her lapel.
"There's no place like home," Claudia said as her finger touched the Necklace of Vesta.
They were standing in the blinding light, until Mrs. Frederic, pulled them to the side aisle back in the Warehouse. They both watched as the light retreated from the shield and ultimate out of the building until the light tunnel finally closed.
"You know, there's no reason we couldn't do this any day of the year. It's just a matter of re-aligning the tunnel. I could-"
"Claudia." Mrs. Fredric interrupted her and turned her to look down the aisle where the light had traveled. There was stuff all over the floor and even a few smashed crates. "It seems that we need to beef up our storage protocol to protect against earthquakes and dangerous artifacts."
Claudia spun around. "Dangerous? Are you saying we're not going back? Did you just lie to Amy?"
"No child," Mrs. Frederic said and gently touched Claudia's face. "Amy was doing her job, saving her Warehouse and has given the keepers of the all the Warehouses an enormous gift. But you've seen its power – it is a Warehouse, within a Warehouse. If we were to open it all the time-"
"I get it," Claudia said, but her heart sank a little. "It just doesn't seem fair that Amy only gets to breath for seventeen minutes at a time."
"Maybe it's not, but she is content with that. Maybe it would be crueler to her to open it for longer periods. Elizabeth showed her – you will show her – glimpses of a world that she can no longer be a part of. You want your own choices, Claudia. Accept that Amy has made hers."
Claudia knew Mrs. Fredric was right, but she was also feeling too many emotions. She nodded and sniffed them all back. "Where is everyone?"
"I made them stay away. This is Caretaker business. Now that you have repaired this feature of the Warehouse, I believe that we will re-institute the rule that only Caretaker and her apprentice can be in Warehouse 13 during the Winter Solstice." Mrs. Frederic smiled at her.
"I'm still not sure that I'm ready – ready for all of this," Claudia said, looking down the aisle of the myriad of things piled on the shelves and spilled on the floor.
"You already proved that you are," Mrs. Frederic said. as she began to walk back to Artie's Office.
Claudia watched her retreating back for a moment, and then glanced at the shield on the floor. Suddenly she smelled something sweet. "Apples. HG said that's a sign the Warehouse likes you. "
Claudia's heart began to pound and she made some choices. She spun all the way around and held out her arms. "I love you too, Warehouse. Like it or not, I'll be ready!"