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.