DEGREES OF STARVATION • by Beth Cato

Charlotte sank her pitchfork into the fragrant compost and daydreamed of libraries — the old-fashioned sort, lined with yellowed tomes of liver-spotted pages and fragile leather spines that crackled against her palm.

As data technician officer for the colony on Whitney VI, she used to be mocked for her fondness for antiques; now, they all lived as the pioneers of Earth once did, relying on ancient methods to stay alive. It was a strange education, really. She marveled at how the compost stank of vinegar as it slowly decomposed, and how the piles steamed on cool mornings. Calluses and blisters had once been quaint physical maladies described in literature; now, her hardened hands knew just how to grip the pitchfork, her body tilting for perfect leverage.

A horn blew at the far side of the field. She paused, studying the rows. The Gendal firebombing of Primary had been devastating by itself, but the aliens had also obliterated the ansible connection to Earth and partially reversed the engineered chemical balance in the soil. The native dirt of Whitney was hostile to Earth’s seeds, and they had few nanobots left to lace within the furrows. The few hundred survivors saved any scrap of food acceptable for compost, and scientists scoured the forest for any native biodegradable material that might possibly work.

As it was, the current compost was imbalanced — the decomposition too anaerobic due to an excess of food and green waste. No one spoke of the next harvest, the next winter, but imminent doom loomed over them.

Times like this, she ached all the more for the escape offered by a book in her hands. That was the only way she would ever leave this place.

Other workers ambled towards the common area where the smoke of cook fires lashed the dark gray sky. Charlotte, though hungry, rested her pitchfork handle upon her shoulder and walked the opposite way, into the ruins of Primary.

Rain resumed — it rarely seemed to cease at all — and pattered against her hood. The rarity of sunlight meant their remaining solar-powered generators focused on essential tasks. The millions of books in the colony’s computers may as well have not existed. Not that they would have fulfilled Charlotte’s need, anyway. She wanted real books like the ones her grandmother read from on Earth so many years ago.

Her well-worn path into the city was a stream of ashy mud.

Some of the colony elders had tried to stop her evening hobby, saying she needed to preserve her energy for the morrow’s work. However, a psychologist spoke in Charlotte’s favor, saying they each coped in different ways.

Charlotte coped by digging into the ruins of Michele Castiglione’s library. The colony financier had imported tons of centuries-old hardcover books for a climate-controlled heritage museum. It had once been her favorite place, with its stained glass dome and shelves of native purple brumble-wood. She used to close her eyes to breathe in that rare perfume of paper.

After her full day turning compost, she had only one hour until nightfall. Faint light gleamed on the blackened brick edifice. Beyond that, the museum had buckled in on itself. Intact bricks had been stacked to one side in a new wall. Everything else, she shoved away. Crumbs of masonry mounded like cairns. In the thick of the city, everything stank of wetness and decay.

She dug into the ruins. Chunks of brick bounced off her mud-encased boots. She needed books. The genre didn’t matter. Anything that stole her mind away from Whitney VI would do. She needed to hunker by firelight and find the perfect angle to illuminate a page.

Bricks fell away and revealed the 90-degree slant of a bowed bookshelf. The purple wood was almost black in the weak light. Charlotte stared. She stooped to stroke the wood with her fingertips, unbelieving. She finally made it to the library.

She dropped to her knees, squinting to see inside. Rain coursed the mountain of debris and plunked on her shoulders as she blindly fumbled inside the cave.

Her fingers found something slick. She recoiled, suddenly aware of the filth on her hands. She retreated to the nearest puddle to wash the muck away, then dried her hand on her innermost shirt. Then, eyes shut in effort, she strained to find the treasure again.

Charlotte sheltered the book with her body. The hardcover had curved like a brumble-wood trunk, the pages as wavy as her unbound hair. It opened with a juicy crunch. Text wept trails of ink down the paper.

Numb, she reached inside again to find more books in haphazard piles. Their covers sloughed at the pressure of her touch.

The sun crawled behind the mountains. She remained there, as still and dead as the ruins around her.

No books. No escape from Whitney VI. With a cold breath of wind, the rain stopped.

These books were ruined. But maybe, just maybe, some were still preserved inside. But these dozens and dozens? Gone. Useless.

A fragment of page drifted like a leaf on a nearby puddle. Like a leaf. She gasped, then bit her lip.

These pages would enrich the compost heap in time for the next harvest. Perhaps they wouldn’t starve after all.

She had the detached awareness that she should be glad, relieved — the other colonists would be.

Oh so gently, Charlotte stroked the bowed binding of a book. Her stomach roared, but it seemed so minor compared to the hunger of her mind.


Beth Cato’s novel THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER will be released by HarperCollins Voyager in September 2014. Her stories can be found in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, InterGalactic Medicine Show & other magazines. Her website is www.bethcato.com.


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 average 5 stars • 1 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Congratulations on the book publication! I liked the world created in this story, the character and her dilemma, but I wanted more of that moment when she decides to compost the pages. I felt that needed to be sharpened. That’s the climax, as I see it, and it’s a compelling one.

  • Congratulations on the book publication! I liked the world created in this story, the character and her dilemma, but I wanted more of that moment when she decides to compost the pages. I felt that needed to be sharpened. That’s the climax, as I see it, and it’s a compelling one.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    Please–pick a world-view and then stick to it…

    Blisters and calluses are “quaint physical maladies described in literature”–but that cracking new library of masonry, stained glass and locally-harvested wood shelves was only recently built?

    But everything’s destroyed now, and the colonists, entirely unused to manual labor of any kind, still were able to forge that particularly antique antiquity, a pitchfork?

    Did the aliens bring this now endless rain? There had to have been plenty of sunlight before, if we’ve got mature forests.

    And please, please don’t write a protagonist who’s just too vaporous to make it through a flash story without staring unbelievingly at the wrecked building she knew she was heading towards, gasping at the expected sight of a destroyed book. Or washing her hands in a puddle even though all that rain’s beating down on her.

    Quarantine the gasping and lip-biting in ye olde bodice-rippers and let the girl have a little character here. Two stars.

    • Edward Beach

      Meee-ow! 🙂

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        Well, no, Edward. I just don’t like when authors make fools of their protagonists. Poor Charlotte’s just about ready for the smelling salts but it’s not her fault. She just does what her creator makes her.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    Please–pick a world-view and then stick to it…

    Blisters and calluses are “quaint physical maladies described in literature”–but that cracking new library of masonry, stained glass and locally-harvested wood shelves was only recently built?

    Though everything’s destroyed now, the colonists, entirely unused to manual labor of any kind (despite that library), were able to forge that particularly antique antiquity, a pitchfork?

    Did the aliens bring this now endless rain? There had to have been plenty of sunlight before, if we’ve got mature forests.

    And please, please don’t write a protagonist who’s just too vaporous to make it through a flash story without staring unbelievingly at the wrecked building she knew she was heading towards, gasping at the expected sight of a destroyed book, or washing her hands in a puddle even though all that rain’s beating down on her.

    Quarantine the gasping and lip-biting to ye olde bodice-rippers and let the girl have a little character here. Two stars.

    • Edward Beach

      Meee-ow! 🙂

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        Well, no, Edward. I just don’t like when authors make fools of their protagonists. Poor Charlotte’s just about ready for the smelling salts but it’s not her fault. She just does what her creator makes her.

  • Carl Steiger

    I can’t suspend my disbelief with this one for a number of reasons. Apologies are offered for the nerd-speak which follows:

    As much as I love liver-spotted pages in leather bindings, I can’t see a kindred spirit (Charlotte for example) being deemed psychologically suited to be an interstellar colonist. We know she wasn’t born here on Whitney VI if her grandmother read to her from hardcopies on Earth. So Charlotte was recruited for the mission and arrived with the other colonists on an FTL ship, or else they hibernated during the trip.

    As for the tons of books: Unless the colonists arrived on a gigantic generation ship (already ruled out by Charlotte’s memories of Earth) I can imagine these being present here only if the colony has been established for many years. The books would be either manufactured locally or (much less likely) imported via established commercial traffic. That the books were imported by the “colony financier” implies that they arrived with the colony ship or very soon afterward. In the real universe we’ll be lucky to transport corporeal humans at all for an initial colonization of an extra-solar planet. Hauling a library of hardcopy books along on a whim is simply not going to happen.

    I think we can eliminate FTL travel as well. If it were available, surely the authorities on Earth would make an effort to evacuate the colonists, or at least try to find out why communications were cut. (Unless Earth has been wasted as well, but it isn’t said here.)

    The reference to colony elders doesn’t fit well. Charlotte, an original colonist, should be one of the “elders” herself.

    I’d probably also question the use of the word “ansible,” but it’s been borrowed by so many authors now, it’s almost become a real word.

    All right, enough kvetching. Congratulations on the book publication! I don’t expect to live long enough to do it myself.

    • terrytvgal

      Carl said: ‘We know she wasn’t born here on Whitney VI if her grandmother read to her from hard copies on Earth.’
      story says; “She wanted real books like the ones her grandmother read from on Earth so many years ago”
      Comment: Be careful not to read into the story what isn’t there, Carl. There is no mention of the grandmother Reading To Charlotte, only that grandmother read from real books on Earth. A family story maybe told to Charlotte. Perhaps the inspiration for Charlotte’s desire for real books.

      Carl said: “That the books were imported by the “colony financier” implies that they arrived with the colony ship or very soon afterward. In the real universe we’ll be lucky to transport corporeal humans at all for an initial colonization of an extra-solar planet. Hauling a library of hard copy books along on a whim is simply not going to happen.”
      Comment: Is this not the reason we write stories, Carl? So that we can explore the improbable and do amazing things on a whim? If we were limited to only the real universe Science Fiction/Fantasy would not be here for us to enjoy.

      Your remarks made me go back and re-read the story and even with the issues you brought up it held up and worked well for me. Thanks for challenging me to be a thoughtful careful reader!

  • Carl Steiger

    I can’t suspend my disbelief with this one for a number of reasons. Apologies are offered for the nerd-speak which follows:

    As much as I love liver-spotted pages in leather bindings, I can’t see a kindred spirit (Charlotte for example) being deemed psychologically suited to be an interstellar colonist. We know she wasn’t born here on Whitney VI if her grandmother read to her from hardcopies on Earth. So Charlotte was recruited for the mission and arrived with the other colonists on an FTL ship, or else they hibernated during the trip.

    As for the tons of books: Unless the colonists arrived on a gigantic generation ship (already ruled out by Charlotte’s memories of Earth) I can imagine these being present here only if the colony has been established for many years. The books would be either manufactured locally or (much less likely) imported via established commercial traffic. That the books were imported by the “colony financier” implies that they arrived with the colony ship or very soon afterward. In the real universe we’ll be lucky to transport corporeal humans at all for an initial colonization of an extra-solar planet. Hauling a library of hardcopy books along on a whim is simply not going to happen.

    I think we can eliminate FTL travel as well. If it were available, surely the authorities on Earth would make an effort to evacuate the colonists, or at least try to find out why communications were cut. (Unless Earth has been wasted as well, but it isn’t said here.)

    The reference to colony elders doesn’t fit well. Charlotte, an original colonist, should be one of the “elders” herself.

    I’d probably also question the use of the word “ansible,” but it’s been borrowed by so many authors now, it’s almost become a real word.

    All right, enough kvetching. Congratulations on the book publication! I don’t expect to live long enough to do it myself.

    • terrytvgal

      Carl said: ‘We know she wasn’t born here on Whitney VI if her grandmother read to her from hard copies on Earth.’
      story says; “She wanted real books like the ones her grandmother read from on Earth so many years ago”
      Comment: Be careful not to read into the story what isn’t there, Carl. There is no mention of the grandmother Reading To Charlotte, only that grandmother read from real books on Earth. A family story maybe told to Charlotte. Perhaps the inspiration for Charlotte’s desire for real books.

      Carl said: “That the books were imported by the “colony financier” implies that they arrived with the colony ship or very soon afterward. In the real universe we’ll be lucky to transport corporeal humans at all for an initial colonization of an extra-solar planet. Hauling a library of hard copy books along on a whim is simply not going to happen.”
      Comment: Is this not the reason we write stories, Carl? So that we can explore the improbable and do amazing things on a whim? If we were limited to only the real universe Science Fiction/Fantasy would not be here for us to enjoy.

      Your remarks made me go back and re-read the story and even with the issues you brought up it held up and worked well for me. Thanks for challenging me to be a thoughtful careful reader!

  • joanna b.

    i enjoyed this story. i could see some of the holes in it that sarah and carl saw but they didn’t ruin my enjoyment of this sad world created in so few words. i do agree with derangedmilk that charlotte’s insight about the pages as compost could have been strengthened. 4 stars.

  • joanna b.

    i enjoyed this story. i could see some of the holes in it that sarah and carl saw but they didn’t ruin my enjoyment of this sad world created in so few words. i do agree with derangedmilk that charlotte’s insight about the pages as compost could have been strengthened. 4 stars.

  • Dustin Adams

    Carl, indeed ansible is an accepted sci-fi term, like FTL travel – we all know what it means without definition. (OK, one’s an acronym, one isn’t, but you get the idea, hopefully.)

    This is certainly a bleak world. Half way through I was wondering if any hope would arrive. Did I mention bleak? (Incidentally, I wondered if the colonists destroyed the aliens or if they aliens left. The alien bit was dropped, but not followed up on.)

    But when hope does arrive, I liked what and how it was. Books might save the world. If I’m reading between the lines properly, this is a metaphor for today’s turn toward e-books. Charlotte represents those of us who are elders in our own right, handing on to paper and board and lighting and the smells of paper. She has a library, but it’s just not the same, taken to an extreme – but that’s storytelling! Excellent.

  • Carl, indeed ansible is an accepted sci-fi term, like FTL travel – we all know what it means without definition. (OK, one’s an acronym, one isn’t, but you get the idea, hopefully.)

    This is certainly a bleak world. Half way through I was wondering if any hope would arrive. Did I mention bleak? (Incidentally, I wondered if the colonists destroyed the aliens or if they aliens left. The alien bit was dropped, but not followed up on.)

    But when hope does arrive, I liked what and how it was. Books might save the world. If I’m reading between the lines properly, this is a metaphor for today’s turn toward e-books. Charlotte represents those of us who are elders in our own right, handing on to paper and board and lighting and the smells of paper. She has a library, but it’s just not the same, taken to an extreme – but that’s storytelling! Excellent.

  • terrytvgal

    Wonderful. The writing flowed and Charlotte’s love of books made her a sympathetic character. The ending was unexpected but logical and I could imagine the spring in Charlotte’s step in the months ahead as she moved between her work and her hope to find books she could read.

  • terrytvgal

    Wonderful. The writing flowed and Charlotte’s love of books made her a sympathetic character. The ending was unexpected but logical and I could imagine the spring in Charlotte’s step in the months ahead as she moved between her work and her hope to find books she could read.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    A dystopian, off-world story that painted a suitably bleak picture for my imagination. I felt the ending needed to be stronger (unless this story is part of a larger work) and the plethora of adjectives trimmed – who cares if ‘brumble-wood’, which is obviously ‘native’ to this planet, is ‘purple’?

    • Erin Ryan

      I liked knowing the brumble-wood is purple.

    • Paul A. Freeman

      Then in the first sentence you also liked knowing that the compost was ‘fragrant’, the tomes ‘yellowed’, the pages ‘liver-spotted’ and the spines ‘fragile’ and ‘leather’

  • Paul A. Freeman

    A dystopian, off-world story that painted a suitably bleak picture for my imagination. I felt the ending needed to be stronger (unless this story is part of a larger work) and the plethora of adjectives trimmed – who cares if ‘brumble-wood’, which is obviously ‘native’ to this planet, is ‘purple’?

    • Erin Ryan

      I liked knowing the brumble-wood is purple.

    • Paul A. Freeman

      Then in the first sentence you also liked knowing that the compost was ‘fragrant’, the tomes ‘yellowed’, the pages ‘liver-spotted’ and the spines ‘fragile’ and ‘leather’

  • Jacquie Rogers

    Lovely story, Beth. As a gardener, I really enjoyed the technical problem of failing compost, and your protagonist’s solution. Beautiful prose.
    I was left wanting to know a lot more about Charlotte and Whitney VI.
    And well done for working in the old faithful ansible so beloved of Ursula K le Guin fans!

  • Jacquie Rogers

    Lovely story, Beth. As a gardener, I really enjoyed the technical problem of failing compost, and your protagonist’s solution. Beautiful prose.
    I was left wanting to know a lot more about Charlotte and Whitney VI.
    And well done for working in the old faithful ansible so beloved of Ursula K le Guin fans!

  • Walter Giersbach

    Thanks, Beth. Enjoyable story for itself, so let me withhold
    critical analysis. And congratulations on introducing some agronomy. My landscape-architect daughter would enjoy this.

  • Walter Giersbach

    Thanks, Beth. Enjoyable story for itself, so let me withhold
    critical analysis. And congratulations on introducing some agronomy. My landscape-architect daughter would enjoy this.

  • Cranky Steven

    Well done, Beth. Four biggies.

  • Cranky Steven

    Well done, Beth. Four biggies.

  • Chris Antenen

    This made me sad and I care about Charlotte. I guess I could find something to pick at if I read it again, but this time I don’t want to do that. It was a good but sad story and I like good sad stories.

    • Carl Steiger

      When it comes to picking at something, there’s just something about science fiction that compels me to dissect a story to death. Thanks for providing some balance here.

      • Chris Antenen

        Yoy’re welcome, Carl. I just wanted to read a story today.

  • Chris Antenen

    This made me sad and I care about Charlotte. I guess I could find something to pick at if I read it again, but this time I don’t want to do that. It was a good but sad story and I like good sad stories.

    • Carl Steiger

      When it comes to picking at something, there’s just something about science fiction that compels me to dissect a story to death. Thanks for providing some balance here.

      • Chris Antenen

        Yoy’re welcome, Carl. I just wanted to read a story today.

  • Avalina Kreska

    …saw problems with it BUT I was captivated and fully immersed in the story – because of that I gave it five stars (not something I give often) 🙂 And my compost heap is overburdened with banana skins so…

  • Avalina Kreska

    …saw problems with it BUT I was captivated and fully immersed in the story – because of that I gave it five stars (not something I give often) 🙂 And my compost heap is overburdened with banana skins so…

  • This creates a new world in a few words. It is great stuff.

  • This creates a new world in a few words. It is great stuff.

  • Edward Beach

    I guess with any story you can pick a hole here or there. For me, it was the way Charlotte recoils from the old library’s grimy walls when she’s just spent a day outdoors pitchforking whole mounds of compost – wow, that’s one fussy girl.

    I wasn’t particularly fond of “the morrow’s work” either, but that’s just because it sounds like Ye Olde Worlde-speak, and I don’t like this whole thing of placing historical references in a future setting (a la Serenity/Firefly). To me, it just feels like a TV exec somewhere has tried to appeal to both the boys and the girls (and I do mean juveniles) by setting a period drama on a spaceship armed with lasers. It worked for a load of Star Trek episodes, I suppose, but literature deserves more than telly gimmicks.

    At the end of the day though, this was actually well written and that’s what matters most. I mean, when I read back over some of the stuff I write, Jeez, it’s like someone has given an ADHD kid a six-pack of Red Bull and the Power Rangers’ back catalogue – I’m all over the place. This, on the other hand, feels smooth. I like it because it feels like I’m reading someone who knows how to write. You gotta appreciate that. 4 Stars.

  • Edward Beach

    I guess with any story you can pick a hole here or there. For me, it was the way Charlotte recoils from the old library’s grimy walls when she’s just spent a day outdoors pitchforking whole mounds of compost – wow, that’s one fussy girl.

    I wasn’t particularly fond of “the morrow’s work” either, but that’s just because it sounds like Ye Olde Worlde-speak, and I don’t like this whole thing of placing historical references in a future setting (a la Serenity/Firefly). To me, it just feels like a TV exec somewhere has tried to appeal to both the boys and the girls (and I do mean juveniles) by setting a period drama on a spaceship armed with lasers. It worked for a load of Star Trek episodes, I suppose, but literature deserves more than telly gimmicks.

    At the end of the day though, this was actually well written and that’s what matters most. I mean, when I read back over some of the stuff I write, Jeez, it’s like someone has given an ADHD kid a six-pack of Red Bull and the Power Rangers’ back catalogue – I’m all over the place. This, on the other hand, feels smooth. I like it because it feels like I’m reading someone who knows how to write. You gotta appreciate that. 4 Stars.

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  • MP McGurty

    Nice story. I definitely felt the bleakness, right down to the filth and sogginess (my feet feel wet) and hopelessness. The story appealed to me even more on a third reading. I agree with derangedmilk’s remark about the climax. I love it and the last line, so I would like to be given a bit more to really feel that moment of realization. Congratulations on your book being published!

  • MP McGurty

    Nice story. I definitely felt the bleakness, right down to the filth and sogginess (my feet feel wet) and hopelessness. The story appealed to me even more on a third reading. I agree with derangedmilk’s remark about the climax. I love it and the last line, so I would like to be given a bit more to really feel that moment of realization. Congratulations on your book being published!

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