Fifty-three minutes before she’s due to meet the others at the departure terminal, Indira Rasmussen, who has had two days to get used to walking without a filtersuit, stands transfixed in a shop at the corner of Robson and Thurlow. She’s holding a book. Not quite square in shape, a rectangle really. Nine inches by six. And hefty. At least two inches thick.
Sweet Thursday Used Books.
It’s not supposed to be here. It wasn’t on the grid. According to the data, this is supposed to be a coffee shop. There are four, one on each corner. The other three are where they’re supposed to be but this, on the northwest corner, is not.
She’s heard of them. Bookshops, that is. Four years ago Professor Li Chen gave a presentation on “Bibliomania of the West: Alexandria to Amazon”.
The importance of the bookseller as a middleman between the consumer and the printed word entered a sharp decline early in the 21st century, fading into oblivion as the digitization of content coincided with the relaxation of global copyright laws.
And yet, here she is, standing in a bookshop, holding an actual book in her hands.
The criteria for objects retrieved: They must be small. They must be useful. They must fit into your daysack. Petra and Klaus are collecting vegetable matter, Kendra and Raymond are in charge of small animals – as long as they have some use. No kittens – no puppies. Household pets were outlawed decades ago. Li Chen again:
“On the North American continent alone in the 21st century 30 per cent of households contained one or more cats, 36 per cent had a dog, and 22 per cent kept some variety of rodent.”
Professor Chen allowed a small pursing of her lips.
“We can only imagine the toll on the environment with millions of domestic animals shitting and pissing at random.”
Chuckles. But she was serious.
“Be grateful. If it weren’t for the Seventh Great Extinction we might be swimming in excrement. Not to mention the land needed to grow food to feed them. It is my opinion that they would have done better to eat their dogs.”
Which of course they did. Eventually.
So, no pets.
But books? No one said a word about books. No one expected there to be any books.
“Can I help you?”
A slim woman dressed in green is bearing down on her. She’s smiling – they smile a lot in this era, nobody ever mentions that – but Indira can’t take her eyes off the woman’s hair. It’s red. Red-heads died out three centuries ago, along with colour blindness and hemophilia. Is there a connection? She will check it out when she gets back.
“Are you a fan?”
“The book you’re holding. Are you a fan of her writing?”
“What’s your favourite?”
“—I love them all.”
“Me too. When you think of how much she wrote in such a short time. It’s a pity she died so young.”
When making contact, practice empathy. Talk about what she wants to talk about.
“That’s very sad. Did you know her well?”
Uh-oh. Mistake. What’s the first cardinal rule of contact? Think before you speak.
Luckily, she sees it as a joke. “Oh, right – yes, wouldn’t that have been wonderful! Well, let me know if I can help you.”
Clutching her book to her breast – she thinks of it now as her book – she begins moving around the shop, taking in the layout. Fiction & Literature. Faith & Spirituality. Health & Well-being. History. Somebody – many somebodies – took the time to sit down and write these.
There was no money in it. The writing, that is. According to Professor Chen, they wrote for the love of it. It was one of the few times they ever knew her to make a joke.
A handful of chairs by the window offer a place to sit and browse. Indira takes one of the empty ones, places her right thumb on the surface of the book, and waits. Nothing.
Maybe it needs to be open. She lifts the cover, flips several pages and comes to a block of text. She places her thumb on the middle of the page, presses down. Waits. Again, nothing.
The man in the next chair leans over.
“Can I help you with something?”
“It’s not working.”
“I think it’s missing something. It won’t read.”
He takes the book from her hand, opens it, riffs through a few pages.
“It looks all right. You’re saying you can’t read it?”
“I tried. It’s not working.”
“Well . . .” A pause. “Is English your first language?”
How much should she say? Do not over explain. Keep exposure to a minimum.
“I think I’m used to reading a different way. How do you go about it?”
He smiles. “Well, I guess I start at the beginning and work my way to the end.”
“Really? The very beginning? And you keep going from one page to the next to the next?”
“Uh-huh. Right to the end.”
“How long does it take you?”
“Depends on the book. A day or two, sometimes. Maybe a week.”
A week. No wonder reading went out of style. Who would have the time?
It is a book. She will never have a chance to hold it again. She will never experience what it means to read one. The thought makes her sad and confuses her, too. In all her 26 years on the planet, she’s never had the slightest twinge of longing for something so . . . useless.
The currency they gave her has all been spent. An iPod, three video games – Grand Theft Auto, World of Warcraft, Angry Birds – and a virtual reality headset. She hesitated over the headset: it was expensive, cumbersome, and limited to the visual senses. But the young man who sold it to her was passionate about it – “It’ll blow your mind, lady” – and so she handed over the last of those lovely, crisp $100 bills, politely declining the service contract.
She should put it back where she found it. Indira gets up and heads towards the door, the book still in her hands. She reaches the table, pauses for the briefest of moments, and then continues. Right out the door. And now she’s outside the shop, heading quickly along Robson Street. Expecting at any moment to feel a hand on her shoulder, a puzzled voice bringing her to a halt: “Excuse me? Did you forget to pay for that book?”
She hurries along the pavement, grateful for the directional implant guiding her steps. She remembers what happened to the women from the Trillian Expedition – the ones who came back with a stolen painting. They hadn’t meant to steal it, but somehow it ended up in their storage module. They were charged with looting and lost their research privileges. Permanently.
Klaus and Petra are waiting for her at the bus terminal when she arrives with seven minutes to spare. Their daysacks are bulging with fruit.
“Real oranges,” Petra says, “can you believe it? And a banana. We had grapes but Klaus ate them.”
“Did you wash them first?”
He rolls his eyes. “Of course, what do you think? You think I’m an idiot?”
“What did you get? I’m dying to see. You were gone for such a long time.”
She takes the book out of her sack, holds it up so they can get a good look at the title.
Nobody says anything for a minute. Then,
“What is it?” Petra says.
“What do you think? It’s a book.”
“There aren’t any books,” Klaus says. “Only coffee shops.”
He reaches for it, but Indira clutches it to her chest.
“I just want to hold it,” he says.
“When we get back. I promise.”
Petra places three fingers on the groove of her wrist, and listens.
“They’re on their way. Fifteen minutes . . . twenty at the most. Where are you going?”
“I just need to sit down for a minute. That bench over by the gate . . .”
She opens the book, takes a deep breath. Start at the beginning, he said. And work your way to the end. The trip takes a week. She has time.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Klaus is standing over her.
“They won’t let you keep it, you know. It’s not useful.”
“They don’t have to find out.” But they always do.
Klaus shrugs. A book. What’s the point, anyway? He’s only a little jealous that it was Indira who stumbled on it. In the end, though, what good is it? He and Petra are returning with something valuable – the genetic material from this fruit will produce oranges and bananas to feed the world.
He probably shouldn’t have eaten the grapes.