Today we present Inksucker by Aidan Doyle. Aidan is an Australian writer and computer programmer who loves travelling and has visited more than 70 countries. His experiences include teaching English in Japan, interviewing ninjas in Bolivia and going ten-pin bowling in North Korea. The majority of Inksucker was written during a 51-hour ferry ride from Osaka to Shanghai; it was originally published in the Worlds Next Door anthology and was shortlisted for the prestigious Aurealis Award. Aidan is currently working on a zombie novel set in Japan. You can find out more about him online.
Your narrator is Danielle Daly, who last read for us in Episode 27, My Boogie Man.
Due to our website crash in April 2014, we are in the process of reconstructing our back catalog. Please enjoy listening to the episode – we’ll have the show notes up as soon as we can!
Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
by Aidan Doyle
If you’re a monster, stop reading this right now!
I’ve hidden lots of traps in these words. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
My name is Zoe and I’m 14 years old. I know how dangerous words can be. My family owns the best bookshop in all of Melbourne. There are thousands and thousands of books and the shelves stretch as far as you can see. The further you walk from the shop’s entrance, the older the books get. If you keep walking in a straight line for more than a few hours you can find books thousands of years old.
One afternoon when I got back after school, the shop’s front door was locked. Dad and I live in a small apartment inside the shop and Dad never closed during the day unless there was an emergency. I used my own key to unlock the door.
It was quiet inside. There was no sign of Dad. I checked my mobile phone; no messages. I tried calling him, but there was no answer. I checked behind the main counter. Books and papers were scattered everywhere, a mess Dad would never put up with. One of the older, more dangerous books must have kidnapped Dad. It had happened once years ago, before I was born. Dad was a cryptolibrocologist and specialised in finding, decoding and translating old books. He was internationally recognised as the world’s foremost expert on wordnamics, the science of word movements. Sometimes some of the books wanted to find out as much as they could about their rivals. When the books had kidnapped Dad last time, Mum had rescued him. But Mum was gone now. So it was up to me.
I loaded up a backpack with some supplies, including a grappling hook and a tent. I had never been more than a few hours walk into the shop. Dad had said that on one expedition he had walked for two weeks and still hadn’t reached the end of the shop, so it was impossible to say how long I would be gone.
I also took Dad’s jar of sundried adjectives. He had grown them especially and told me not to touch the jar unless it was an emergency.
I slung the backpack over my back and hurried down the main aisle. The shelves at the front of the shop were crammed full of the latest releases and bestsellers; tales of wizards, vampires and code-breaking teenaged vampire wizards.
As I walked further into the shop, I heard the audio books muttering in the distance. I passed shelves loaded with Westerns, boys’ own tales, Dickens, Japanese woodblock prints and European illuminated manuscripts. The ceiling got higher and higher and eventually disappeared from sight. Clouds formed overhead and the sun made its way across the sky. The aisles grew further apart and grass replaced carpet.
I trekked through the evening, passing stories inscribed on parchment and vellum; Icelandic sagas, Egyptian hieroglyphics and eldritch tales inscribed on stone tablets.
I was comfortable walking through the shop during the day, but at night was another matter. Once darkness fell, it became a different place. The sound of pages turning in the darkness and the distant howls of the werebooks frightened me.
I pitched my tent in the shelter of a cookbook tree. I climbed up the branches and picked some fresh cookbooks. I had packed my own food supplies, but it’s always better to eat fresh food. I skimmed through the cookbooks until I found a picture of a chocolate pagecake that looked particularly tempting. I tore out the page and added some water. It was delicious.
Satiated, I unrolled my sleeping bag and crawled inside. I said a prayer to Our Lady of Immaculate Punctuation and tried to get some sleep.
The next day I trekked across the Plains Without Punctuation Except for the shelves the terrain was barren with not a plant or tree in sight Dad had told me the commas and semicolons had fought a terrible war there long ago and there had been no survivors Even the full stops had perished in the fighting There was no water or cookbook trees so I had to rely on my own supplies I walked all day until I finally reached the edge of the plains and once again saw some full stops.
After three days journey, I saw an enormous, pyramid-shaped building in the distance. It lay in the centre of the aisle and stretched more than one hundred metres into the sky. Green lights flickered in the sky near the pyramid’s top.
When I got closer, I saw that it was made from thousands of books stacked on top of each other.
I had never heard about this pyramid before and I immediately suspected it had something to do with Dad’s disappearance.
I took out the grappling hook, clipped it onto my belt, and put Dad’s jar of adjectives into my jeans’ pocket. I started climbing up the steps formed by the thousands of books.
When, after an arduous climb, I finally reached the platform at the top of the pyramid, I saw Dad kneeling beside an altar, his feet chained.
A tall humanoid figure stood over him, its pale skin covered in word tattoos. An inksucker; a kind of vampire that licked the words from books.
I had thought some of the old books had kidnapped Dad, but an inksucker was much worse. They were almost impossible to destroy. Even if you killed them, they would return from the dead, reprinted in another edition.
I crept closer to get a better look.
A pile of books rested near Dad and he was tearing the pages from the books and throwing them into an iron cauldron. So that was why the inksucker had kidnapped him! It was using Dad’s knowledge of wordnamics and literary engineering to make a frankenbook, a monster hybrid of books of different genres bound together.
It’s difficult to mix different genres together. If you take westerns and science fiction and mysteries and put them together, you might get a cool story about a crime-solving robot cowboy, but you’re more likely to get a mess. It’s like a transplant operation when the body tries to reject foreign tissue. Genres sometimes reject the different parts. Someone who has studied wordnamics can overcome these differences. Because inksuckers get their strength from eating books, if one ate a frankenbook, it would become almost invincible. I had to stop it.
The inksucker twitched its nose and raised its eyes. It had smelled me. I ducked down, but it caught sight of me and bounded across the platform. I raised a fist to fend it off, but it crashed into me with such force that I was knocked backwards and tumbled over the edge of the pyramid.
A great wind buffeted me as I fell. It felt as though I was being torn apart. I tucked up my knees and wrapped my arms around my body.
I was still falling too fast. If I didn’t slow down I could fly off the edge of the page.
The first law of wordnamics states that for every adjective there exists an equal and opposite adjective.
I reached into my pocket and grasped the jar of adjectives. I unscrewed the lid and a cloud of adjectives floated around me. I frantically fumbled through them until I found slow and grasped hold of it.
Instead of tumbling headlong towards pancake oblivion, my descent immediately slowed until I stepped gently onto the ground.
I had to stop the inksucker, but it was stronger and faster than me. I thought about what Dad had taught me about wordnamics and booktopian chemistry and I had an idea. I rummaged through my pack until I found the book I was looking for. Dad always said it was unwise to travel without a dictionary – a book that literally places almost the entire language at your disposal.
The copy of Mitterschmettel’s English Emporium and Treasure Trove of Infamous Words was one of my favorite books. It was a shame to sacrifice it, but I couldn’t think of any other way to stop the inksucker.
I stowed the dictionary back in my bag and began the long climb back to the top of the pyramid. I just hoped Dad was still okay. I didn’t think the inksucker would hurt him while they were still making the frankenbook; it needed his knowledge.
When I got close to the top of the pyramid, I took out the dictionary and opened it to a random page. I wrote dwarzi at the bottom of the page.
The word wizard has special properties. Each letter is specially positioned to ensure wordnamic harmony. ‘W’ is the fourth last letter in the alphabet and ‘D’ is the fourth letter. ‘I’ is the 9th letter and ‘R’ is the 9th last letter. ‘Z’ is the last letter and ‘A’ is the first letter.
If the same letters are carefully arranged in a different sequence, the word will become unstable and can release tremendous amounts of energy trying to rearrange itself. Enough energy so that even an inksucker might be destroyed.
I climbed to the top and tossed the dictionary onto the platform, then retreated a few steps down and listened for the inksucker’s reaction.
It didn’t take long.
Inksuckers love thick, juicy dictionaries. They can’t help but be attracted by the scent of all those precisely ordered words. I heard the slurping sound of the book vampire sucking the words from the dictionary. I hoped it was greedy enough not to notice the word bomb I’d hidden.
I waited until the slurping sounds stopped and then peeked over the top.
The inksucker was hunched over, a look of pain on its pale face. It clutched its stomach and moaned. It had probably given itself indigestion by gorging all of those words so quickly.
The word bomb detonated.
The inksucker lifted back its head and howled in pain, seconds later exploding in a spray of body parts, nouns and definitions.
Words rained down on the top of the pyramid, forming small pools of short stories and puddles of sentences.
I hurried over to what was left of the inksucker’s corpse. It was gross. Wordworms drenched in ink crawled away from the body. I tried to ignore the smell of undigested prepositions and looked for the key for Dad’s chains.
“Zoe, hurry up,” Dad called. “The mixture is going to overflow.”
The cauldron shook violently and clouds of steam billowed from it.
I brushed aside some wordworms and spotted the key. I grabbed it and hurried over to Dad, unlocking the chain and giving him a quick hug.
“The mixture became unstable once the inksucker stopped monitoring it,” he told me. “We’ve got to get out of here.” He grabbed my hand and we ran to the edge of the platform.
I heard the sound of an explosion behind me and glanced around. The cauldron had burst apart and a raging torrent of liquid narratives flowed towards us. We ran down the stairs, a river of cybernetically enhanced detective elves looking for love following on our footsteps.
I flung my grappling hook towards the nearest shelf. As it caught I grabbed onto Dad and we swung out of the path of the stream of mixed genres behind us.
I released the trigger on the hook and we slowly descended. It was nice to be back on the ground. It was even nicer to have Dad back.
He gave me a great, big hug. “I’m so proud of you, Zoe. I knew you’d come and save me.”
“Just be more careful, next time,” I said.
Then we began our long journey back to the front of the store.