Every year in January, Cast of Wonders highlights some of our favorite episodes from the previous year. It’s a great chance for us to take a bit of a breather, and let you, our listeners, catch up on any missed back episodes with new commentary from a different member of the crew.
Today’s episode is hosted by assistant editor Katherine Inskip.
by Maria Haskins
The library hadn’t been there the day before, Ella was sure of it. That patch of dirt beside the rusting piles of spaceship debris outside the refugee camp had been bare, with nothing but weeds and rocks on it. Now, there was a library there. She knew it was a library because it said LIBRARY right on it, painted in glittery letters. The word was spelled out in the twelve most commonly spoken languages and dialects in the camp. Ella recognized them all from school, even if she could only read and understand five of them. .
The building was small and rectangular. It looked like a brightly painted version of one of the metal shipping containers Ella would see at the spaceport when she went there with her friends to scavenge for leavings. Of course, you weren’t supposed to go scavenging there, but everyone did anyway. You could find anything there – scraps of metal and junky electronics for the trader, even food, if you were lucky.
Ella squinted at the library’s sign. She was supposed to come straight home after school, but school had ended early since the power went out, and Pappa wouldn’t notice she was gone until later. And who had ever heard of anyone offering books around here? Better take the chance when it was offered.
Ella opened the door and stepped inside.
Quint’s boots hit the ground. Soft, black sand today, an azure ocean lapping the shore, a violet sky with three pale moons above. Another planet, another day, another world to burn. Another day in the glorious service of the Star-born Empire.
Quint sighs and grabs her pack. It’s hot. The kind of heat that burns in your lungs when you inhale. The kind of heat where even the breeze won’t offer any comfort. She covers her ears as a tight formation of Empire-drones screams by overhead, scanning the countryside for stray refugees and rebels, flame-guns at the ready. Across the water, on the other side of the inlet, a damaged skimmer marked with the blazing emblem of the resistance swoops across the water and slams into the rocky mountain side. The fireball blooms, black and orange, the soundwave reaching her a moment later, distant and muffled, but even so it jangles her nerves.
Too many bad days, lately. Too many bad nights.
Quint turns her back on the water and looks up the hillside. Whatever the city looked like before, it is nothing but rubble and ruins now, smoke and ashes swirling in the hot winds. Every building has been destroyed, razed to the ground, except one. Far above Quint’s vantagepoint on the beach, one building stands untouched, brightly painted walls gleaming in the sunshine.
“Guess that’s where I’m going,” Elle says to the officer waiting for her by the disembarkation ramp.
“Sure is. A library. Got some sort of force-field up, I guess. The local squad leader tells me they haven’t been able to crack through it so now it’s your problem. You’re the fire and explosion tech they tell me. Head up there and get it out of the way.”
“A library? Why do we need to burn a library? No chance we can just leave it in place and move on? This place looks plenty destroyed as is.”
“Word from on high is the same as always, burn everything to the ground, leave nothing but ruins. Kill those who won’t give up. Don’t act like a newt. You know the drill.”
Yes, Quint knows the drill. For years, she’s burned cities throughout this part of the quadrant for the Empire. Blown up rebel strongholds and bridges, space-ports and factories, armies and storage depots. Never a library, though. Soft targets like that are usually long gone by the time she’s called in.
Quint checks her bag to make sure she’s got what she needs. Of course, she does. She’s always prepared, carrying enough incendiary devices and explosives carefully packed into her bag to blow half a moon apart, let alone a library.
She wipes her forehead. Takes a swig of water from her bottle. This planet is too hot. A simmering kind of wet heat that gets in your lungs and brain, until it feels like her flesh is about to melt off the bones.
“Any chance you’ve got a drone or moto-vehicle I can use?”
“Comedian, huh? Leg it. And be back before dark.”
Quint shoulders her pack and begins to slowly work her way up the hill from the beach, through the rubble-strewn streets.
Inside, the library smelled of mint tea and apples, and the scent reminded Ella of what her afternoons used to be like, back when Papa would still make tea for her after school. When he even might have some sugar to stir into her cup
With an effort, she shrugged off those memories. The room she entered was small but filled with stacks and boxes and shelves overflowing with books. Even in the chaos, there was order. Everything was divided into sections, and each section was carefully alphabetized by author. Most of the books were regular glow-tablets, the kind they used at school whenever they were allowed to read rather than forced to listen to the Empire’s standardized educational audio. But here and there, Ella saw paper books that had to be ridiculously old, and worth a fortune if you found the right trader.
Ella navigated between the teetering stacks and boxes, letting her fingers skim the tablets as she passed, igniting the titles they held.
She felt suddenly dizzy, almost as if the room, or the ground beneath it, had shifted.
So many books. Who had set this up? Maybe it was one of those do-gooder organizations. Rich people from rich Empire-planets, looking for someone to feel sorry for. In that case, she better make use of it before the money and pity ran out and the place closed again.
“Hello.” Ella looked up at the woman behind the counter. She hadn’t even seen her there until she spoke, and now that she did see her, she stumbled back. The woman seemed immeasurably tall, dressed in a flowing, dark tunic with a black scarf covering her hair. Her face didn’t seem wrinkled, exactly, but even so, Ella got the feeling that she was much older than she looked.
The woman’s large dark eyes looked down at Ella, and the light from the door glistened in them, like reflected fire slipping across deep water. “I’m the librarian,” she said. “You want to borrow a book?” Ella nodded. The woman’s voice was deep and soft and she spoke with an accent that reminded her of Mamma. “All right. Look around and pick what you like. Rules are you can keep the books for six weeks, and you can borrow as many as you like. But if you don’t return a book on time there are late fees, OK?”
“What kind of fees?” Ella thought of the glass jar she kept under the bed in her room. It was where she stuffed any stray coin or other valuables she found at the spaceport, but these days it was mostly stuffed full of pretty rocks.
The librarian smiled. Her face looked strange when she smiled, like there was maybe another face underneath the one Ella could see. “Don’t worry. It’ll be no more than you can afford.”
The library shimmers like a heat mirage above the ruins. Quint almost thinks it isn’t even there anymore, as if it’s blinked out of existence all together. Then, she walks a few more steps, wipes the sweat out of her eyes beneath her helmet, blinks, and there it is again.
Quint isn’t quite sure why it makes her so uneasy to be burning a library. She isn’t even sure when she last saw a library, or when she last read a book. It’s been years. Since sometime before the war, before basic training, before she was shipped out here to fight a war no one even remembers in the central quadrants. Quint isn’t even sure if it’s the same war that raged when she was a child, or if it’s a new one that started since. All she knows is, the Empire feeds and clothes her, and she decided long ago that she didn’t need more motivation than that.
“Always reading,” Pappa said when he came in after work, reeking of oil and fuel from cleaning ships at the port. “What good will it do you here?”
Pappa didn’t sound angry saying it, just sad.
“Mamma used to read to me,” Elle said and immediately wished she hadn’t, because any time she mentioned Mamma, Pappa’s face changed. It changed now, too, and so did his voice.
“You need your sleep. Put it away.”
Ella put the book away and pretended to sleep, but when she heard Pappa snoring, she brought it out again, reading beneath the covers until the glow-tablet’s battery ran down to zero.
She couldn’t explain to Pappa how the books made her feel, though she always thought Mamma would have understood it better, maybe; that feeling of coming home, of belonging, as she read the words.
The force-field that protected the library from a week’s relentless bombardment by the Empire’s flyers is like nothing Quint’s ever seen. In fact, she can’t see it at all. She tries to get a reading on it with her scanner, but it doesn’t register. No matter what test-pattern she runs, it’s as if there is no field. As if the library somehow has miraculously evaded the heavy artillery-fire that killed everyone that didn’t flee in time.
Now, the library’s opaque glass door opens at Quint’s touch, swinging outward on quiet hinges.
Inside, the building is nothing special, a standard sized pre-fab dwelling, painted bright from roof to ground. But when she steps inside, Quint’s senses reel, and for a moment her eyes deceive her. Instead of the brightly lit interior that should be there, with sunlight streaming through the windows, she sees an ancient, darkened, cavernous space lit by flickering lights – like flames, fire.
She stumbles, but then her eyes clear and she can see again, and the place is as it should be.
The library is made up of several small, brightly lit rooms, each one lined with shelves and desks over-flowing with books. Quint shuts the door behind her.
No answer. In fact, it’s too quiet. Quint can’t hear any sound at all in here, not even from outside. No drone engines, no army broadcasts, no distant explosions. She peers into the closest room, looking between the shelves. If she has to blow up this building, she’d rather do it with no one inside.
“Welcome to the library.”
Quint swivels around.
There is a woman there, dressed in black, a scarf draped over her hair. She is tall, almost as tall as Quint, and her voice is soft and deep. Familiar. The air in the library felt cool when Quint first entered, but now, she feels a flare of heat, her heart throbbing fast and heavy against her ribs.
“You have to vacate the premises,” Quint says. “My orders are to demolish this building.”
“Is that so? But why? It’s a library.”
“I know. Orders. This city rebelled against the Empire and…” The woman doesn’t speak, she just looks at Quint, and her face registers neither fear nor anger.
“This city, it’s gone, you know that, right? You should leave and if there’s anyone else here, they should get out, too. I don’t know how you managed to keep this place safe until now, but once I set off these charges,” Quint brandishes her bag and notices her hands are shaking, “this place will be levelled.”
“There’s no one else here. Everyone that isn’t dead has left already.”
“And yet you stayed here? Why?”
“I am the librarian.” The woman smiles, and Quint feels suddenly faint, steadying herself by leaning on the wall. Closing her eyes, she draws a deep breath.
“You have to leave.”
“No. I am the librarian. I stay with the books.”
Quint trembles. It’s too hot. She can barely breathe, and when she inhales, the air is suddenly fragrant, scented with mint tea and apples.
The day the army moved them out of the camp, Ella cried as their transport rose high over the burning buildings, as the army-robots bulldozed the remains of everything she’d known into the dust. She had not been able to bring anything with her, except her school pack with one library book inside it.
Holding on to the book with trembling hands, Ella looked out the small round window. She should have returned the book yesterday, but she hadn’t finished reading, and for the first time, she had decided to risk it, and now it was overdue. She peered down at the ground as the transport swept across the camp. There was dust and smoke everywhere and she couldn’t even see the library.
Too late, Ella thought, and held the book tight, while the world slipped away beneath.
Quint is on the floor, on her knees. She looks up at the librarian, and the librarian smiles. When she smiles, it’s as if there are other faces hiding beneath the skin, faces Quint can’t see clearly.
“There you go,” the woman says, not unkindly, and nods. “Yes. You remember me now, don’t you, Ella.” Quint tries to get up, but everything is moving, spinning, turning around her, and the heat is too much, it’s suffocating her, burning through her.
“You… it was you.” Quint’s voice wheezes in her throat. It is too hot. Why is it so hot here? “You can’t be…”
The librarian tilts her head to one side.
“I can’t be what? I can’t be the same as I was when you were a child? As when you came to me, needing something to light your way through those dark nights when you thought you had nothing. Did you think you were the only child needing the comfort and wisdom of books and stories? Did you think you were the only one devouring those words to feed the parts of you that hungered? And now you want to burn it all down. Go ahead. My library has burned many times before. And each time the flames carry it somewhere else.”
“That book,” Quint breathes, not sure if she is a child or an adult anymore, “I wanted to return it, but they shipped us out and I couldn’t even…”
She’s crying, the heat is too much, the pain of the memories, the gaze of this woman, everything is too much.
“It meant a lot to you, that book. The one you kept.”
Quint tries to steady her voice but fails. “Yes.”
“When’s the last time you read it?”
“I don’t know. I…”
“Do you still have it?”
Quint can barely speak, her head swims in the heat, and the library and the woman are hard to see clearly, faces and buildings slipping one over the other, sometimes it’s the library she remembers from her childhood, sometimes other libraries, dark and majestic, small and cramped, burning and not.
“No. I lost it. Don’t know where.”
She’s sobbing. The pain of it, of losing that story she read so many times because it always felt like home even when she had nothing and nowhere and no one.
“Ah, well. The rules are you have to bring it back in six weeks or pay the late fees. But under the circumstances, I’ll grant you an extension.”
Soldier Ella Quint looks up and for a moment, everything around her – the library, the woman – is clear and in focus. And then the fire burns through it all, it burns everything, she is inside it and the librarian is in the fire, too, and Quint feels it burn her inside and outside, she is the fire and the flames and all the words written and said, spoken and thought, are in that smoke and heat.
And then it’s gone.
Quint opens her eyes. There is a violet sky above, darkening.
“Heat stroke, eh? Thought you were tougher than that. Now get up and take a drink of water and some meds and get a move on. Your transport’s heading out, and you’re all done here. Good job, too. Not sure what you did to that library but it looks like you know your business.”
Quint looks around. The hilltop is bare. There is no building, no library, no librarian. There is only burnt grass and blackened rock, the smell of mint tea and apples lingering. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees a bright orange flash of flame high up in the sky between the moons, but when she turns toward it, it’s gone.
The officer chuckles. “Took a souvenir, did you?”
Ella looks down. She’s holding a book. An old glow-tablet. It feels cool in her grip.
“Best hide it in your pack before someone sees. Empire troops aren’t supposed to go looting, as you know.”
Quint nods and slips the book into her bag.
Tonight, she’ll read it under the covers.
About the Author
Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and translator. She writes speculative fiction, and also writes reviews and roundups for the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog. Currently, she lives just outside Vancouver with a husband, two kids, and a very large black dog.
Her work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Flash Fiction Online, Shimmer, all four Escape Artists podcasts, and elsewhere.
About the Narrator
Katherine Inskip is assistant editor for Cast of Wonders. She teaches astrophysics for a living and spends her spare time populating the universe with worlds of her own. You can find more of her stories at Motherboard, Cast of Wonders, the Dunesteef and Luna Station Quarterly, and forthcoming from Abyss & Apex.