FROM THE SPICE GROVE PUBLIC LIBRARY
In the evening, when the library has closed, the ’bots have locked the big front doors, and everything is quiet, I hear once more the patter of Chandra’s black Mary Janes on our white Neostone floor. It seems strange, but now that we’re back home I can’t stop thinking about Chandra. Or Audrey, whom Chandra called “the lady captain.” About the girl I knew once and the woman who had loved and accepted me. What it was like for the three of us on board the Three Sisters. How we had looked over the rail sometimes, peering straight down through clear blue water and beholding the ravening monsters of the deep.
Am I or am I not the master of my thoughts? When I choose not to think of those things, my mind fills with thoughts of Dr. Fevre and his brother, and of all the wondrous things Dr. Fevre had accomplished—all of those things and the green box, too. Was he a wizard? I had done a few impossible things myself.
At other times my mind spins with all the thousands of things that happened then. Sometimes I do my best to think only of the good things—of the pure and shining things, because I know that destiny and the world are not all dark. Love is more real than the longest river, and kindness means more than any mountain range.
When I have finished deciding on all the thousand things I can never forget about Colette Coldbrook and the crude little mine that circles some other star, I promised myself I would never write about anything like that again. No! Not ever again! Because it hurts too much and tears my soul to shreds when I strive to think back on all those things: Audrey, the boundless sea, Cadaver Island, Buck Baston, the dead girls, and all the rest. Now I cannot banish those things from my thoughts. The high, empty, echoing, haunted house at the top of the hill and all the rest of it. The click of high, hard heels in another room on another floor. Now it seems to me that writing down all the most important events here may help me clear my mind and let me think instead of the little empty things going on in this unmeaning museum now. Things over and done with when I have finished. If I ever do.
Or anyway I dare to hope that this writing may.
Now where to start? What would you like to read about, dear unborn fully human patron, and what must you read about first if you are to understand the rest? Perhaps I should begin when we left—but just a day or two before that might be better. Too soon a start outshines too late, or at least so it seems to me. If I should begin a bit too soon, please leave a note in this manuscript advising any future readers to skip my soft, overripe beginning and jump to the true beginning as you would yourself if you were ever to read all this again—instructing your future self to begin to read on page whatever when all the dull machinery of importance has been set in motion.
So I’m going to go way far back and start my story where I want to, with graceful Rose and my friend Millie.
Millie Baumgartner is like me, a reclone resource here in the Spice Grove Public Library; and I’m sure she looks quite a bit older than she really is. Gray streaks in her lustrous brown hair, lines in her face, and a little too plump; but she has a wonderful smile that she was not using when she came up to me and whispered, “They’re going to get rid of us, Ern. Have you heard?”
The Fire did not seem likely so soon for either of us; so I shook my head, more than a little bit puzzled.
“We’re going east in a beautiful new truck. Brand new and really elegant.”
I stopped myself from saying, “Huh?” and shut my mouth instead.
“The new truck means the Continental Library. They say that’s where it goes.”
I said, “If they were going to burn us, they could do it in the incinerator here, Millie. You know they could.”
She did not say a word, so after I’d given her a good chance to, I went back to talking. “You wrote all those wonderful cookbooks. Sometimes it seems like you get checked out three times a week.”
That made her smile, honest and warm. “You’re a sweet boy, Ern. Thank you.”
“I doubt it. Truthful, though.” I’ve got to talk like that, just in case you’re wondering. I have to talk exactly like the exposition in the first Ern A. Smithe’s books, whether I like it or not. My brain was hardwired for it from the beginning, and I cannot do one damned thing about it no matter how much it embarrasses me.
“I’m a terrible troublemaker, Ern. I criticize the groceries and the cooking. Sometimes I go into the kitchen and try to teach the cooks how to make a tossed salad. They don’t like it one little bit.”
That must have made me smile. “They should be grateful.”
“Yes indeed. And everybody everywhere ought to be a whole lot nicer, but saying so doesn’t help.”
I agreed but couldn’t keep from grinning.
Millie tapped my chest with her index finger. “You’re a troublemaker, too, Ern. You’re a big one.”
Pure as snow I declared that I tried not to be.
“Well you are, just the same.” Her plump finger tapped my chest again. “Shall I list all your faults?”
I just about laughed at that one. “Dinner’s in another hour, and you’ll need a lot more time.”
“Later, maybe.” Millie sighed and started over. “It’s you and me and Rose.” By that time I had noticed her orange tag. Now she held it up. “A ’bot’s looking for you right this minute with one of these. It says ‘AA twenty-three.’ AA means the new truck.”
It did, and the orange tag also meant interlibrary loan. Those numbers on the tag told the ’bots which truck to which library; it seemed to me that for Continental the number ought to have been one, but that was not what was on our tags. It should have tipped me off right away, but I wasn’t sharp enough to get it.
About an hour later they handed out navy-blue winter coats and put the three of us in the truck—that was Millie, Rose Romain the romance writer, and me. When I had ridden in one of those trucks before, interlibrary loan had meant sitting on stacks of books in the back, and it had been bumpy and too dark to read back there. This was way better than that. Just to start, we were not really riding in the truck. The truck pulled a couple of big trailers, and we were in the second one. There were about two hundred disks, cubes, and real old-fashioned books with pages in it with us; but it was specially fitted out for reclones like the three of us, for breathing, bleeding library resources who didn’t count as fully humans and could be torn to pieces by angry patrons pretty much at will. Read my first book if you don’t understand. It’s here too.
Now back to the truck and its trailers.
The biggest plus of all was that our trailer was adequately heated. Another big, big plus was plumbing; there was a chemical toilet with a green curtain around it, and a washbasin, far better than a bucket of water and a hole in the floor.
There were narrow fold-up bunks on both sides, too; upper and lower bunks, not cushy but almost as good as the soft, self-heated mats we slept on in the library. These bunks were, as Millie put it, actual beds that you could fall out of. By fully human standards that trailer was crowded and uncomfortable; but I remembered the truck I had ridden in when Owenbright sent me back to Spice Grove, and this one was a long ton better.
Up there I should have mentioned that there were lights inside, too, bright bottled sunshine we could turn on and off; and there were strong primary colors all over, red and blue mostly. But the main thing as far as I was concerned was that there were windows. I had expected no windows, and if somebody had told me there would be windows, I would have expected notint. These were variables, which gave us a fine opportunity to argue about which ones should be light and which ones dark, and which of the dark ones were too dark or not dark enough. You know.
Millie and I wanted all of them pretty clear, and Rose wanted all of them black, so nobody could stare at her and maybe make finger signs. Rose was a redhead, ghost-pale and slender only at the waist; she looked to be about twenty. How old she was really I have no idea. (With reclones like the three of us you can never know for sure, because what if we’re not telling you the truth?) Millie looked about fifty, and my guess was thirty or forty. Rose? Who the hell knew? She had to have a shelf right next to the floor, meaning a Number One because she said men—meaning me—would try to look up her skirt if she had to climb a ladder. Listening to her argue about that with the ’bots and cry at the librarians, I got to where I would have tried it just to keep her happy. If you’ve been wondering why Millie called Rose a troublemaker, now you know.
So three troublemakers on their way to Continental, or at least that’s what we thought. Did we make lots of trouble for each other on the truck? You bet we did! If I was to tell you all about it, all the loud two-way quarrels and all the louder three-way arguments, you’d laugh yourself sick.
Here’s an example. Millie wanted nice clear windows so she could reread her own cookbooks and look through the old magazines for a recipe column she had written way back when.
I wanted them clear, too. For me it was because I wanted to see out. Sure, I liked seeing the wide, wintry plain, the pine woods full of flying snow, and all the icy rivers and haunted ruins just like other people; but there was more to it than that. When you feel like you’ve spent your whole life in the Twenty-first Century and all of a sudden you get reprinted and find yourself up where I did, you can’t help trying to get your bearings—or anyhow I can’t. I’ve never been able to figure out where Saint Louis used to be; but I’m pretty sure the big snowcapped mountains Arabella and I had flown over to look at one time used to be the Rockies. I had a notion that Spice Grove would have been somewhere in Nebraska, but that could have been wrong. It could have been in the Dakotas instead, or even someplace up around Winnipeg.
Anyway, the mountains were the best part. The worst part was the old-time city, with torn-up streets branching off the highway, a few ragged kids, and a lot of empty buildings. I liked those every bit as much as Rose liked Millie’s cookbooks.
So the argument was two against one, and so easy I felt kind of guilty about it. When it was over Rose sat on her bunk with a blanket covering her lap and those long, smooth legs, put her hands over her tits, and pouted; and Millie and I felt bad enough to turn the window across from her full dark. The other three we left as clear as notint.
Every so often I tried to quiz Millie about Niagara, where it was and why they called it that, and how it had gotten to be the capital of the continent. She did not know much more than I did, but she reminded me that the falls move. Falls are really just water pouring over a cliff, and as time passes they wear away their cliff so that stones and gravel fall down it with the water. Rock by rock, the falls creep upstream.
So that was bad and there was more. In my time, only a little bit of the water really poured over the falls at Niagara; the rest was tapped off to drive turbines and generate electricity. All that was nuclear now, so there would be a lot more water going over, enough to change things pretty fast. Was this Niagara what we called Niagara Falls, New York, back when I was born? Or else Niagara Falls, Canada? Was it both? Maybe, but maybe not. So when I got a good opening I tried asking Millie a whole bunch of questions, starting with, “Why do you think they want us?”
That first one made her laugh. “You think they want us just because they’re getting us?”
I held up my orange tag. “Interlibrary loan, right? They must have asked for us.”
“They didn’t. That’s what my source said.”
That raised my eyebrows. “It sounds like you’ve been talking to a librarian. I’ll keep quiet about it, and you’d better keep quiet, too.”
“Suppose I told you that a bunch of us, six reference reclones and four librarians, sit around together to sew a quilt, Ern? You know, in Handicrafts after the rest of you have turned in. Naturally we chat while we stitch. Want to look at the place where I stuck my finger with the needle last night? I jumped when Eloise told me that Continental was desperate to get me, and that’s when I stabbed myself. I was attempting suicide.”
She was kidding about the suicide and desperation. I knew it, and she knew I knew it; so I said, “They didn’t ask for us?”
Rose looked up. “They don’t need us and wouldn’t want us. Continental has dozens of copies of everybody.”
“Spice Grove would like to get rid of us,” Millie said. “I told you that.”
“Sure. They’d burn us tomorrow if they had the guts. We’re troublemakers.”
“Only Spice Grove can’t do that, because there would be too many questions. You were right about me—I get checked out almost as much as I’d like to be, just to start with. There would be pressure to get another copy, maybe quite a lot of it.”
“Rose not as much. For her it’s five or six times a year, I think. But still…” She let it hang.
“Sure. That’s quite a bit more than I do.”
“It is, but that girl who checks you out every year has connections and a ton of money. Besides, she used to be a teacher here.”
She meant Colette Coldbrook. I said, “Sure, but it was in a private school.”
“In a posh prep school. That gives her more pull, not less. She’d have questions, her influential friends would have questions, and what could they say?”
I had thought of something. “If they wanted to get rid of us, they wouldn’t have to burn us. They could just offer all three of us for sale.”
“It might be months before we sold, Ern; and one or two of us might never sell at any price. This works right away. We’re gone, aren’t we?” Millie took a deep breath.
I could see she was afraid the driver would overhear her. There was a gadget in our trailer that we could switch on anytime we wanted to talk to him. We kept it turned off, but did the OFF position really prevent him from overhearing what we said? For all we knew it could be on all the time. I doubted that he would worry a lot about what three reclones were saying (or even four, because there were four bunks), but you never know. Somebody with a lot of clout might want him to be worried about it and write a report after the run.
“What they’re doing now gets rid of us for a while, and if they’re lucky it will get rid of us forever. They tag us for interlibrary loan and send us off to Continental. Spice Grove has less than twenty reclones.”
I nodded. Before we left there had been eighteen.
“Continental will have hundreds. Thousands, maybe. I’ve no idea what its budget is, but it must be incredible. Half a billion a year or even more. So what do they care about three more reclones, three reclones they don’t even have to pay for? From what I’ve heard, there are a hundred million titles on Continental’s shelves. The bureaucracy must be enormous.”
Millie warmed to her subject. “It could be years before somebody realizes that they never asked for us and sends us back. Years or decades, even though they’ve probably got dozens and dozens of copies of all three of us already.”
I said, “A couple dozen of you, anyway.”
“And dozens and dozens of me,” Rose put in.
No way was I sure of that and I doubt that Rose was either, but I said, “Right. One hell of a lot of you both.” Anything to keep the peace.
Outside our trailer, snowbanks, leafless trees, and snow-covered ruins—plus fully humans wearing what were probably heated hats and mufflers—flashed by. Especially leafless trees. There were a heck of a lot more trees than fully humans and their farmhouses put together. I had a good many more questions for Millie; but they were not all that interesting, my questions or her answers either. I’ll skip those.
Miles, kilometers, and furlongs down that lonely, winding road our truck finally pulled in someplace for the night. Stopping for the night meant supper for everybody and a nice warm room close by for the driver. As I may have mentioned, I still had quite a bit of the money I’d taken from Colette Coldbrook’s shaping bag; but I kept it in my pocket, feeling pretty certain I would need it later.
So all three of us ate the supper the driver bought for us, which meant a cup of chicken noodle and a club sandwich on white toast. I told him he didn’t have to take us back to our trailer, we would take care of it ourselves. No deal on that—he marched the three of us back and locked us in.
It was pretty dark in there with the lights off and all four windows dialed to BLACK; but undressing was a problem anyway, one that all of us had most likely seen coming. I undressed first, telling the ladies they could look if they wanted to. I don’t think either of them did. After that, I climbed into one of the top bunks and turned my face toward the wall. In the morning I found out that Rose had slept in her clothes; it was something I ought to have seen coming, but I had not. That much modesty in one of us seemed pretty silly.
We got to Niagara the next day. I already knew that most of the Continental Library was underground in tunnels and big shadowy underground rooms that were almost three hundred years old; so I expected only a small building up on the surface. Wrong! It was huge, the pale stone nightmare of somebody who had seen the pyramids once, and it had too many levels for me to count before we rolled inside. We stopped; before long our driver unlocked our door and all three of us got out. What happened next was simple, quick, and quiet—and it caught me flat-footed.
He locked it behind us. I had not been expecting to get back in, and I do not think Millie or Rose had either; so it struck me as kind of strange. He, or more likely his boss, thought we might try to get away from something.
Pretty soon after that, one of the ’bots who had been unloading the truck and the first trailer came over and said, “Come with me.” Then it herded the three of us ahead of it the way they do, arms extended and spread wide. We hiked down rough corridors without windows for an hour or so, with me wondering where the hell we were going. When we finally got there, I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was.
Copyright © 2020 by Gene Wolfe