Every Friday I post a short story for free. It stays up for one week and then I take it down so that I can post another. Enjoy this one while it lasts!
When humanity went to the stars they took many things with them. Brencis, the Eternal Librarian, ensured that they took the books. Unfortunately, humanity also took along their greed, their blindness and their short-sighted focus on all the wrong things.
The Eternal Librarian is a touching exploration of human nature, determination and the love of learning that is dedicated to librarians and book lovers everywhere.
The Eternal Librarian
By Meyari McFarland
The air stung Laurens’ nostrils, cold and sharp so that he felt as though the hairs were freezing solid with every breath he took. He’d never breathed air this cold. The ship hadn’t allowed such wide swings of temperature. It wasn’t good for the environmental systems. Laurens wasn’t sure he could get used to it, not when the cold seeped into his clothes, made his skin prickle and tighten, made his fingers ache with the cold.
Despite the cold, though, the planet was beautiful. Laurens had studied the pictures for ages before they arrived at the Eternal Library, poring over the static ones that had been sent ahead. Niels had been absorbed in the immersive holograms sent so that they’d have a feel for what it looked like before they got here.
The holograms hadn’t done the Library justice.
Nothing could. Overhead, the sky was blue and bright, a shade that Laurens had never seen outside of very special dyes. Except no, the blue shaded from deeper indigo up directly overhead down to pale, washed out blue like the color of Niels’ eyes near the horizon.
A horizon, that was strange. Wonderful. Intimidating. Terrifying. So much space, all spread out around them for hundreds of thousands of miles. The Eternal Library sat in the middle of the biggest ocean on Chesna’s southern continent, floating like a man-made continent.
No, a reef. He’d read about reefs, seen pictures of them, too. Huge underwater structures created by tiny creatures that added a little bit every day until they’d created a habitat for hundreds of other species. That was what the Library reminded him of.
“It’s so huge,” Niels whispered as they followed their guide along a long pathway bordered by shrubbery with glossy green leaves as big as Laurens head and delicate pink and gold flowers the size of Laruen’s thumb. “I didn’t expect the library to be so big.”
“I know,” Laurens agreed. “How could this fly?”
They exchanged a long look, Niels’ expression skeptical. Laurens probably looked confused. He normally did. But that was justified. The Eternal Library was supposed to have existed for over twelve thousand years. The Librarian was supposed to be even older. The information they’d been sent as they approached the solar system, colony ship limping and stuttering as it tried to slow down so that it wouldn’t overshoot the system entirely, said that the Librarian had walked on Old Earth.
Born there. Grew up there. Created the first Eternal Library and taken it to the stars. How a single person could possibly live that long, do that much, didn’t make sense. The Librarian would have to be a huge figure, larger than life, as white and fragile as spun zero-g glass.
“There he is,” their guide said, smiling and nodded over his shoulder at them. “Busy as always. He never does seem to slow down.”
There were four people working companionably together to plant what looked like flowers. Little ones, just barely more than shoots coming up out of their tiny pots. Laurens stared at the plants and then frowned because none of the people working at the planting seemed to be what he’d imagined as the Librarian.
One was a woman, slim and obviously young, her dark hair lying in thick curls over her shoulders. Next to her was a burly man a good head taller with arms that were as thick as Laurens’ thighs. That one was odd because his shirt seemed too tight over his chest, as if there was something stuffed inside. Twins boys, neither more than five or six years old, giggled as they patted the earth around the shoot they’d just planted.
“Sir!” their guide called. “Our guests arrived early.”
The man looked up and then smiled so brightly that Laurens felt as though the air warmed up to something approaching normal for their ship. Niels’ breath caught so he seemed to feel it too. As they stared and their guide chuckled under his breath, the man patted the woman’s shoulder and then stood.
Which revealed a woman’s wide hips, narrow waist and thighs that made Laurens stare with awe. Thick and strong, as muscular as the arms; this couldn’t be the librarian. Unless the Librarian wasn’t actually human?
“Welcome,” the Librarian said as he strode over. He was taller, too, a full head taller than either Laurens or Niels, so it felt as though a wall had suddenly stood up and walked over to them. “I’m so glad you’re here. We have so many questions for you!”
“This is the Librarian?” Laurens asked and then winced, clutched his brand new access pad to his chest.
“That’s me, Brencis,” the Librarian laughed. He patted their guide on the shoulder and gestured for Laurens and Niels to follow him. “Every time we make contact with another group of humanity they respond the same way. Let me guess. You were expecting some fragile old man with skin like paper and a long white beard?”
Brencis, the Librarian, led them out of the garden by a different path that included a long flight of stairs made of fine white stone shot through with black veins. The stairs led up into a tall building with fluted columns that rose four times the Librarian’s height over their heads. Its roof was huge, flat and decorated with more intricately carved flutes and curves, flowers and scrolls.
Their footsteps echoed in the huge interior space. Brencis didn’t seem to mind it but Laurens immediately tried to walk more quietly, to set his heels down as gently as possible. Niels stumbled every couple of steps as he tried the same thing. When Brencis looked at Laurens with one bushy eyebrow raised, Laurens winced and mentally reviewed the conversation.
Oh yes. Question.
“Ah, yes,” Laurens admitted and bowed an apology at Brencis. “I do apologize.”
“Oh, no, that’s fine. We tend to steal people’s breath away here, much less their wits when they first arrive,” Brencis replied with a graceful wave of his hand that made his biceps flex dramatically. “Your mental image is better than the ones who assume that I’m some ennui driven wastrel who lives for nothing but stealing people’s books. That’s just annoying, that. I’m surprised that your ship sent people so quickly. There are so many repairs to be done that I wouldn’t have thought you could be spared.”
“We… hoped… to get some education on how to better fix our ship,” Niels said, his face far too grim for the carefully crafted lie they’d been given.
“Hmm, all right,” Brencis said with a nod and a tiny smile that wrinkled the skin around his eyes until it looked like the corrugated insulation inside a cabin’s walls. “Did you want full digital copies of the library or just the sections on ship design, maintenance and repair?”
Laurens stopped in his tracks, staring at Brencis. He couldn’t have just offered to give them the entire Library. Could he? When he turned to Niels, Niels was so pale that he looked like the bare sketch of a man, just a few dashes of watered down paint against a white canvas.
“Excuse me?” Laurens asked. “The full Library.”
“Of course,” Brencis said, grinning at them both. He’d set his fists on his too-wide hips, elbows out, so that he seemed wider than the whole building. “We’ll give it to you of course. There is a price but not one you can’t pay.”
“How much?” Laurens asked.
He’d expected that they would have to spend days working out the full cost. They probably would. This couldn’t be so simple, just walk in and you got everything you ever wanted to know. Every book and record the Eternal Library held passed into your hands for nothing. But whatever the cost was, he and Niels would figure out a way to pay it. It was the only way that they would be allowed to go back to the ship, back to their home.
“We require a copy of all the books on your ship,” Brencis said. His grin widened as Laurens spluttered. “Digital is fine but we can make scans of physical ones if that’s necessary. You’ll receive a full digital copy of everything in the Library in return, plus any books, up to one hundred thousand copies, that you want in physical form. And we can give you lessons on the different languages, too, if you wish, just like we arranged to learn your language. Star charts from the other ships that have come through. It’s a very nice database.”
Laurens opened his mouth, searching for words, only to have a thoroughly undignified squeak come out instead. He took a step back and then his legs went to water. The floor caught him, brutal and cold but somehow the only thing that made sense in the entire universe.
“Our books,” Laurens whispered.
Brencis, the Eternal Librarian, knelt and smiled as he carefully laid thick fingertips against Lauren’s wrist. “Nearly passed out there. Sorry. I thought you’d all been informed of that. We operate on the Library of Alexandria’s rules. All books that come within our reach are added to the library. We do go a step farther and share our knowledge with whoever wants it, but yes. That’s the price. Your books. Technical, entertainment, verbal, written, digital, whatever. It’s the only way to make sure that it survives forever.”
The smile on Brencis’ face faded into a dark, determined look that made Laurens’ stomach clench nauseatingly. He swallowed hard and very cautiously pulled his wrist out from under Brencis’ fingers. This. This was what he’d feared when they’d been told that they had an Immortal leading the Library. Even with as little understanding as Laurens’ had had of the Library’s language, he’d heard the importance attached to the Librarian, Brencis’, immortality.
How could he have lived so long? The longer you lived the less durable your body became. It didn’t make sense that he should be hale and hearty, strong enough to pick both Laurens and Niels up on one arm and carry them about like they were children.
“All you want is our books?” Laurens asked.
He twisted around until he could kneel, too, on both knees instead of one like Brencis. Even half up off his heels, Laurens was short and slim, a child’s build compared to Brencis’ burly frame. But the dark look in Brencis’ eyes faded into something kind, gentle, perhaps even loving.
“Why?” Laurens asked and dared to reach out to take the Librarian’s calloused hand. “Why would our books matter so much to you?”
Erin stared across the Senate floor. She’d never seen the Librarian attend one of the meetings before despite the fact that he was the de facto ruler of Earth Three. He was taller than she’d expected, dressed in a simple sleeveless tunic over tight leggings that showed off legs corded with muscle. His hair had been cropped so short that the legendary curls were barely visible and his skin, usually depicted as a rich brown looked pale.
Perhaps the lights? She couldn’t tell. Or maybe it was the tension that made the Librarian’s jaw jump and his fingers curl claw-like as people meandered about the senate floor before settling to their assigned seats. It was a major vote. Perhaps he was concerned about it?
His glares were all directed towards the faction that wished to privatize the Eternal Library, ensuring that people couldn’t access it without paying proper fees. It was odd that he’d be upset about that. The sheer amount of money that would be generated for the Library should have pleased him. They’d estimated that even the most nominal of fee would bring in billions of credits from all over the system. And if their plan to charge out of system visitors more for access and adding their knowledge to the Library it would double or triple that amount.
“Be seated!” the ushers shouted, pushing people none too gently towards their seats.
Erin wondered if some of them even knew where their seats were. She’d never seen the entire senate filled before but as silence slowly fell she realized that every single seat other than the Librarian’s was filled.
Nervousness pooled in her stomach like acid eating away at her confidence in the plan they’d brokered. Once silence fell only the Librarian remained, standing in the center of the senate floor with his hands on his wide, powerful hips.
His lips pressed together as he scanned them all, eyes hard and dark. Erin shivered as his eyes landed on her. This was a dangerous man, a man who could steal from the governments of Old Earth and create a space station that was actually the first colony ship ever created. Of all of them, the Librarian seemed to be the only one with the will and power to accomplish whatever he wanted from sheer determination.
“You will do this, won’t you?” the Librarian said, his voice low and harsh but easy to hear even up on the upper tier where Erin sat. “You’ll destroy everything the Library has stood for out of sheer greed.”
“It’s not greed!” Erin gasped and then flinched as every pair of eyes in the senate turned to her, including the Librarian’s. She cleared her throat and stood, hands clenched in front of her chest. “It’s not greed, sir. We want to make the Library stronger, better. That takes money. A nominal fee is the best way to accomplish it. We all agreed on that.”
“So you did,” the Librarian said with a grave nod of his head. His jaw clenched again and his nostrils flared with anger. “You’re all wrong.”
Erin flinched. The other senators around her rumbled, muttered, growled at the Librarian though none of them would say so openly. She bit her lip and squared her shoulders.
“Sir, the universe has changed since the Library settled here,” Erin said. “We have to change with the times. You’ve lived a long time. Surely you understand that.”
The Librarian barked a laugh that was so harsh and sarcastic that Erin flushed and glared back at him. “Child, I’ve been alive for over eight thousand years and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s when to cut my losses and run. So be it. You’re all fools and you’ll kill the Library within two hundred years. Mark my words. It’s over and every single person in this room is to blame for it. I’m done.”
He turned and strode towards the door. Erin blinked, trying to find words, some way to stop him from just leaving. This was an historic event. He should be here.
“You’ll… sign the law?” Erin called just as the Librarian put his hand on the ancient door knob.
“No,” the Librarian said. He turned and looked back up at Erin with a little smile on his lips that looked so sad, so lonely, that she shivered. “Because I won’t be here. I’m taking my belongings and leaving the planet, child. Rule yourselves from here on out. I’m done with the lot of you.”
He flung the doors open and strode out of the senate. The instant the doors crashed into the wall and rebounded towards closing the senate chamber erupted in shouts. Erin collapsed back into her chair, shaking as she pulled up her data screen and tracked the Librarian’s progress.
Instead of returning to his home, a beautiful palace that the senate had built for him a few years ago, the Librarian strode out of the senate, down the street and then onto public transportation. She watched, ignoring the fierce debate going on around her, as he went to the Library, took the central data core that they had just upgraded with every single book, music file and game that had ever been submitted to the Library as of last week.
There were copies, multiple ones, but the master was in the Librarian’s hand as he strode right back out of the Library and onto the elevated tram that led to the spaceport. Erin clapped her hands over her mouth and bit her lip when the Librarian climbed into his personal spaceship, the one that he alone paid for and maintained, and took off.
“He’s gone!” Erin screamed.
Silence fell in fits and starts around her. Brice, her sometime-ally, sometime-friend, put a hand on Erin’s shoulder and gently shook her. She looked at him and realized that none of them knew. None of them realized just what had just happened.
“Who’s gone?” Brice asked, his gentle words a shout in the dead silent senate.
“The Librarian,” Erin said as she put the image of the Librarian’s ship climbing into space, escaping their world. “He went to the Library and took the Master Data Core. Then he left. That’s his slip. He’s gone. We so offended him with our proposal that he took the Library and left us behind.”
Erin leaned into Brice’s shaking arms, tears blurring her vision of every other senator checking the records, calling space flight control, babbling their shock and horror. Their leader, the person who had saved their ancestors from persecution on Earth Two, who had saved all the knowledge of Old Earth, was gone.
And it was their fault.
“I don’t think we’ll get away with this, Bela,” Jarmin whispered. “The rules are too strict.”
“It’s not Bela anymore,” Bela, no Brencis replied. “I’m a man now. Don’t make that mistake when we get to the checkpoint.”
“Right, sorry,” Jarmin sighed. “I wish I had your confidence.”
“More like damn your eyes determination,” Brencis replied with that grin that had convinced Jarmin that creating a secret colony ship was a completely logical thing for them to do.
Jarmin didn’t sigh, didn’t glare, didn’t do anything other than give his friend of the last several hundred years a hard look that barely dented Brencis’ enthusiasm. Strangely, it worked for them as they slowly shuffled towards the checkpoint with its armed guards and automated lasers ready to fry anyone attempting to escape. If they were betrayed, or gave themselves away which was more likely, they’d die before they could so much as turn to run.
So much had changed since Jarmin’s childhood. Earth Two had never been a fruitful world. Their terraforming efforts early on in the colonization had made a big difference, rendering the air breathable and the soil somewhat amenable to growing crops. But it had always been hard. The planet itself struggled against them and everything in the Library had been insufficient to the challenges Earth Two posed.
Perhaps that was why the government had restricted nanite implantation shortly after Jarmon reached adulthood and got his nanites. Then they’d forbidden life extension for anyone who got new nanites. The latest rules said that people with nanites that gave them added longevity were to report to have that function turned off.
They were the last two so-called Immortals on the planet. Everyone else had either capitulated to the government’s demands to die or fled out into space before theirs could be turned off. Jarmin knew of two other colony ships that had fled out into the stars, beyond the reach of the government. He could only hope that Brencis’ niece Chesna had managed to gather enough people for their colony ship to be viable.
It would be a wasted trip if not.
“Reason for departing?” the inspector asked.
“We’re delivering a copy of the Library to the space station at L5,” Brencis said with so much enthusiasm that he caught the attention of every single guard around them. “It’s amazing! I never knew that so much could fit in so little space.”
Brencis gestured at the hover cart Jarmin pushed, eyes wide as he bounced on his toes as if he was eighteen instead of four thousand years old. Jarmin sighed and glared at his back. Really, couldn’t the man attempt to act his age? After all this time you’d think that he would have calmed down a little bit.
“The whole Library?” the guard asked, one hand on his comm.
“Of course not,” Brencis huffed. “Just a tenth of it but that’s still amazing. So much knowledge packed into such a small thing. My parents used to say that they’d grown up when you couldn’t fit a bare fraction of that much into a unit the size of this room!”
He started babbling about his father, apparently a construction worker who built sewer systems, and his mother, a teacher of small children who’d taught him how to read when he was just three years old. The guard’s eyes glazed over. Even the Inspector sighed as he nodded absently at Brencis’ babble while checking the forged manifest that Jarmin offered him.
Jarmin’s stomach clenched but no, the Inspector didn’t actually read it. He just certified them and waved them through, lips going thin as Brencis kept chattering and chattering and chattering until they were through the checkpoint and onwards to the blessedly empty automated shuttle that would take them all the way to freedom.
“It worked,” Jarmin whispered once they were off the ground and he could see the curve of Earth Two through their view screen.
“Of course,” Brencis said, grinning at Jarmin as he patted Jarmin’s thigh. “Never underestimate the power of a good story, my young friend. People see what they expect, not what we are. If you play into it they’ll look right over you and never realize what they allowed to escape.”
“Where did you come up with all that stuff?” Jarmin asked, his hands shaking as he ran them over his face and through his hair, tugging hard enough to pull strands free.
It took a long moment before he realized that Brencis was staring at the view screen, a soft smile curling his full lips. He’d never seen that look, no, he had. When Chesna had brought her latest baby, adopted from a teen mother who couldn’t care for the child despite government resistance to such arrangements, Brencis had taken the child and cradled it with just that look in his eyes.
“What?” Jarmin asked.
“My father actually did put in sewer systems,” Brencis murmured, those sad-happy-grateful eyes turning to Jarmin. “And my mother was a teacher her entire working career. I told them about my family, about home, Earth. Old Earth. That they didn’t listen, didn’t understand, isn’t my fault.”
Jarmin spluttered and then punched Brencis’ broad and getting broader by the day bicep. “I’ve asked you about that for years!”
“Not my fault that you didn’t listen,” Brencis laughed and laughed and laughed as they escaped from sure death with all the accumulated knowledge of the human race riding behind them.
“The techniques should be highly effective in addressing your problems,” Ernesto said. He tugged at his doctor’s coat, long and white and strange still even though he’d been working at Longevity Inc. as a doctor for almost five years. “We should even be able to give you the majority of your mobility back. You will need to exercise and stretch, of course. There’s only so much the nanites can do if you don’t work with them.”
The treatment room was more like a gracious high end hotel room. They sat in the outer room with its comfortable couches with fine micro suede fabric that Ernesto couldn’t have afforded if he tried. Two oil paintings of gardens hung on the walls and the glass table between the two of them was littered with brochures that the patients usually pored over while asking uncomfortable questions about sexual function improvements.
He braced himself as his newest patient eased herself down onto the sofa and put her hands on her bony knees. But she didn’t reach for a single brochure. And she didn’t look at all uncomfortable to be there, odd given her age. Ernesto would have expected her to find the whole thing strange and vaguely threatening like his other elderly patients.
“That’d be lovely!” Bela Robinson, heiress, philanthropist and financier of the world’s first fully self-sustained space station exclaimed as she brushed back a strand of purple-dyed curly hair that had escaped her messy bun. “These old arms have given me trouble for the last fifty years and my knees have been a bother since I was twenty-five. Too much work, I’m afraid. Can they help with my eyes? Will the nanites be able to make my skin less dry?”
“Oh yes, those are easy,” Ernesto said, grateful that she didn’t want something impossible like a totally different face like his last patient had demanded. “We can effectively roll back the clock until you look as though you’re fifty, forty, maybe as much as twenty-five or so. It all depends on your genetics, really. The more years you’ve been given genetically the better the nanites work.”
Bela laughed, her face transforming into a network of smile wrinkles. She was taller than Ernesto, maybe five ten or eleven despite being stooped with age. At seventy-three she was on the upper edge of the patients they normally saw but her mind seemed clear and she moved well despite her stated problems with her knees.
“I’ve probably got another good thirty years,” Bela said and then honked a laugh as he stared at her. “Oh, your face! That’s priceless. I wish I had my phone out. Whee! But no, really, I probably do. Most of my relatives live into their late eighties. A lot have lived into their nineties. My mother died just last year at ninety-eight and she was only three weeks shy of ninety-nine at the time. I’m only seventy-three. I’ve got a good twenty-five to thirty years of life in me and let me tell you, after fifty-some years with bad knees and wonky arms, I’m ready to make a change.”
Ernesto laughed, breathless from just the sheer force of personality Bela gave off. He mentally readjusted their treatment goals for the day. Obviously he should have read the file more carefully because he’d assumed Bela was there for as many more years as she could get instead of something aimed at disability issues.
“Well, then we can probably give you at least another fifty years,” Ernesto said, “in addition to the years you already have. It shouldn’t be too hard. You are aware, of course, that this is experimental, still. We can’t guarantee anything.”
“Child,” Bela said, reaching over to pat his hands and smile gently at him. “I know that. I helped fund the original research that created your nanites. Hell, I’m still funding it. I just decided that things have progressed to the point that I might as well take advantage of it. I’d like to be a bit more mobile before I move to the space station, you know? That’s still a month off. We can make that date, can’t we?”
“Of… course,” Ernesto said, blinking at her. The switch from calm and cheerful to terrifyingly intense sent a chill up his spine. No wonder she’d done so much with her life. “The implantation takes only a few minutes. We monitor you for four hours to make sure that they settle properly. And then you’re on your way with a new portable treatment pad that lets you ensure that they’re still working. We’ll automatically download the data every time you come in, if you choose to do so. I’m sure that it will be fine.”
“Excellent,” Bela said. She shoved herself back up to her feet and nodded at the other room where the expensive treatment bed and computer equipment waited. “Let’s get to work. I’ve brought my ereader so I’ll be fine while we wait for everything to settle.”
Ernesto nodded and then laughed under his breath as Bela strode straight into the treatment room as if she was excited for a grand new adventure. He followed and then watched as she examined all the equipment, nodded over the programming interface and then cooed at the IV bag full of glimmering nanites. It looked like the finest of glitter suspended in water.
It took three tries to find a vein which Ernesto apologized for profusely. Bela didn’t seem to mind at all. She watched the first few drips into her veins and then had him pass her the ereader. All that energy, that drive, smoothed out into a gentle, loving expression that Ernesto stared at.
“What are you reading?” Ernesto asked an hour later as he monitored the nanites moving through her body.
“Hmm?” Bela asked. She blinked and then laughed. “Oh, nothing important. I started with a novel I had never finished. Not a very good one but at least it had a good ending. Now I’m reading about orbital trajectories. Should finish this one before we’re done. I think I’ll move on to Shakespeare after that.”
“You read a lot, then?” Ernesto asked, smiling back at her bright, enthusiastic joy in her reading material.
“Oh yes,” Bela murmured, that gentle look coming back. “I always have. My whole family has always been readers.”
Bela frowned at the mud slowly washing away from between the sticks, stones and tumbled-down logs that she’d used to build her dam. It should have worked. Really. Beavers used just this sort of thing to create their dams and they created whole lakes with them. All Bela wanted to create was a little pond on the edge of their huge overgrown yard. She must not have read enough yet about how dams work.
She shook her head and stood up, mud swishing between her toes as she scrambled up the bank of their little stream back onto the beaten down path that meandered through the blueberry and elderberry bushes. Father had shown her the tracks, given her an old, old book he had gotten as a boy scout, that said ‘deer’, ‘raccoon’, ‘dog’. She could read them as well as she could any of the books inside. Scattered between the animal tracks were Bela’s footprints, her big brother Oleg’s shoe prints. That one over by the apple tree that never bloomed was Father’s boot print, heavy tread dug in deep from Father’s weight and firm tread.
Then she swept through the blueberries and out into Mother’s precious kitchen garden. Rhubarb guarded the far end where the deer came. Then there was asparagus, artichokes, great huge heads of cabbage both red and white. The strawberries had stopped bearing a while ago but the carrots had great frilly leaves thrusting up into the air next to the corn patch that never produced more than a few ears of undersized corn.
“Bela,” Mother sighed as she ran up. “You’re covered in mud.”
“I was playing,” Bela said with a shrug. She pointed to her shoes on the back porch where they wouldn’t get wet or muddy. “I left my shoes. They’re nice and clean.”
“And your skirt, I see,” Mother said with a fond shake of her head. “Come on. Inside. You’ll need to get cleaned up before you eat. I won’t have that much mud spread all over the house. What were you doing to get so muddy, anyway?”
Bela grabbed her shoes and hated shirt, slipped past mother and then grinned at the way Father laughed and shook his head. Oleg lay on their battered old couch with a book in his hands, two on his stomach and a stack of them on the floor by his side. He snorted and shuddered as if being outside in the sun on a beautiful summer day was a horrible thought.
“I was making a dam,” Bela replied. “There’s a nice spot for one back by the fence. It widens out and if there was a dam there then we could go swimming.
“Good thought but we’ll have to tear it down after dinner,” Father said. “There’s rules about what you can and can’t do with streams like that, sweetie. But we can always get a permit and build one somewhere else on the property.”
“Really?” Bela said as she took the warm, wet rag Mother passed to her and sat on the floor by the door to clean her muddy legs and feet off. She really had gotten covered in the stuff. There was mud on her shoulders and down the backs of her thighs.
“Mm-hmm,” Father said. “I’ve got some books about hydrology around here somewhere. And I know I bought that copy of the latest regulations for the county, too. It’s probably up by my bed. We’ll tear your dam down and the plan out a proper one together, okay?”
“Thank you!” Bela said, beaming at him. “Can I read the books with you?”
“Of course,” Father laughed. “Should let the girl wear Oleg’s old jeans, honey. She’s outside most of the time. No reason for her to run around half naked and catch a cold.”
Mother sighed and shook her head but after dinner she brought down jeans a couple sizes too big for Bela that she pinned to fit and then started carefully taking in. At the same time Father found his hydrology book and the regulations book. Oleg came up with three picture books of home-made pools, showing that he’d been thinking of it, too. Once the pants were tight enough at the waist not to fall right off Bela’s hips she led Father and Oleg back out to her makeshift dam. The mud was gone but Father still nodded and ruffled her hair fondly as if she’d done a great thing by getting that far.
“Got that out of the book on beavers, did you?” Father asked as he and Oleg quickly and easily dismantled her entire afternoon’s work.
“Yes,” Bela said. “But I couldn’t get the mud to stay put so I obviously didn’t learn enough from it. I’m going to have to read it again tonight to see what I missed.”
“You do that,” Father said, his thick black beard bristling at Bela. “Then come ask me and your mother and we’ll see what you learned. Don’t ever stop reading, sweetie. The entire history of the world is in books. Everything you’ll ever want to know, everything you ever could create, someone’s written a book somewhere.”
“But what if they haven’t written a book on it, Father?” Oleg asked. He led the way back through the garden, frowning at the thought of it.
Father laughed and put his hands on their shoulders, leaned down and winked at each of them in turn. Bela shivered, staring into those bright brown eyes.
“Then you’ll write the book,” Father said. “Or someone else will. There’s new books being printed every single day. No one can ever have them all but it’s always fun to try.”
He laughed and led them back into the house for bedtime. Bela laughed with him, looking forward to the beaver book and then the too-difficult for her hydrology book which Father would read with Bela in his lap so that he could point to the pictures and explain what all the big words meant. Then she’d read the pool books and maybe have Mother read her some Shakespeare. That was always fun with the rhymes and the sly jokes that Father snickered over and Mother refused to explain in anything over a whisper.
And maybe before the end of the summer they’d have a pool of their very own to play in. If not, then next year she’d make sure they did get one, even better than what she could make right now. All it would take is a little bit of study and a lot of work. Father always said that you could almost anywhere as long as you were willing to study and work hard. Bela intended to follow that advice for as long as she lived.
Brencis smiled at the skinny child that the failing colony ship had sent to ‘steal’ their knowledge. So young, no more than sixteen or seventeen, and already so desperate. He didn’t remember being that young. No, he’d been that young but never that desperate. Rather than startle the poor malnourished child, he patted Lauren’s hand and helped him stand up again.
“All the knowledge of the universe is in a book somewhere, child,” Brencis said. He kept Laurens’ hand in his, as small as a twelve year old child’s against Brencis’ broad palm. “I learned that from my parents thousands of years ago and it’s held true ever since. If you have books, knowledge, and you’re willing to work hard then you can do pretty much anything you want to. And well, you’ll have books we don’t, just as we have books you don’t.”
He grinned at the way the two of them stared at him, blank and confused but so very, very hopeful.
“The one truth of my long life is that there’s always another book to read,” Brencis laughed as he led them into the conservatory where the staff worked to repair or replace paper books that were worn out. “And there’s always something new to learn. I’m happy to share that with other people and if it helps your ship survive, helps you create a whole new world where humanity can grow and expand and evolve, well. That’s a good thing by me.”
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