Author’s Note: I could have called this a prompted fic. It’s not, in the sense that I didn’t give myself any lyrics or quotes; no one did. It was just that part of this ended up going rather close to Liana Mir’s “Remembering Lena.”
The human planet called him back. He did not want to listen, but he felt himself too close to giving in to the hunger again. He knew he must find some means of distracting himself, and the humans were still intriguing. He could use his curiosity for a while.
He would not return to the places he had been before. That was too dangerous. Something smaller. Something else. He would know it when he found it, and yes, indeed, he found his way to a place that offered him hours worth of diversion, if he could only take advantage of them.
Books. They lined the walls and dominated the room, shelves upon shelves of them. In a few places, some decoration defied the convention of the rest of it, not a bound volume but something more, and he wondered if the framed paintings belong to someone famous. They were familiar somehow, but he knew very little of art.
“Is there something I can help you find? Something in particular you’re looking for or would you like to browse a bit?”
He turned to face the woman, frowning. Her hair was not tipped in blue paint this time but purple. Still, she was the same. She had been in two places he had visited, and he would believe her not one of the humans, perhaps of the other races that spanned the galaxy and considered themselves its chosen guardians, but he did not understand why she would greet him with warmth and a smile if she was. She would not have let him go the first time.
His people were too dangerous to live. That was what he had been told, what he had learned of himself. If anyone knew he was on the planet of the humans, of one of the races still considered “children” in the terms of the universe, they would rush to deliver their harsh punishment for his trespass. He knew that. He had chosen it for other reasons—this was not a planet where contributions were made to the benefit of the universe. They were too new, almost expendable, yet so fascinating to him, like the inhabitants of the fourth planet, and he preferred to see the growth over the accomplishments of the past.
“I am here to see books. That is all. The sign said books. I came inside.”
“You like books, do you?” She had another smile on her face as she walked toward the nearest shelf. “We have a lot, as you can see. I can help you narrow down your selection, though. It can be a bit of a maze in here.”
He studied the room. “There is no maze.”
She laughed. “You are very literal, aren’t you? I should have known. I thought you were familiar. You’re the one that didn’t know anything about art. Do you have no knowledge of books, either?”
“I am… not from around here.”
“I gathered that much the last time. What do you want to know about books? How they’re printed? How they’re written? What they’re like to read? Will there be a moment when someone jumps out and reveals the hidden camera that follows you around as you play this prank on people?”
“I do not think that I have ever played anything. Not a game, not an instrument. Not a prank.”
“I feel sorry for you.”
He shook his head. “Your pity is unnecessary. The less I have done, the better. The stronger the curiosity, the quieter the hunger.”
She frowned, rubbing at a place on the side of her head as she did. “I’m not sure you make much sense.”
He found himself explaining it to her, though most of the time he did not try. “It is a question of balance. Anything can be countered. It requires an opposite of equal or greater force. My hunger is no more powerful than any other sensation I might be aware of, but I find curiosity is one of the better ones as a counterweight. As long as I travel, learning a bit here and a bit there, I can avoid consuming too much.”
She gave him a look, her eyes ranging from his feet to his head, brow furrowing as she did. “You don’t look like you have a problem with your weight. You really some kind of bottomless pit?”
“Oh.” She shrugged, picking up a book from the shelf. “Here. This one will give you a good idea of what makes a book—well, before the digital age, at least. Printed pages, bound together. You still see them, just like this, though not as much as you used to. Take a look.”
She tried to put the book in his hands, and he backed away. She frowned, and then someone called to her. “Luna!”
“Excuse me,” she said, dropping the book into his hands as she rushed toward the back of the shop.
He looked down at the book, but it was too late. He should have thrown it away from him, but he hadn’t had time to think. He’d destroyed it. He didn’t even feel the slightest bit sated, just ashamed. He did not have the funds that humans used, and he could not repay her for the object that he had ruined.
He turned toward the door, having no choice but to go on. Only one day back, and he had already made a mistake. He should go back to the barrens and stay there forever.
“Where are you going?”
He stopped, looking back at her. He needed to explain about the book, but he did not know how. People did not understand him or believe him.
“You always run off like that? Should I ask you where you hid my book, or did you burn that, too?”
She rolled her eyes. “Come on. There was a hole in my canvas like you’d set the thing on fire or something. I had boyfriend in high school who was a pyromaniac. He used to set my hair on fire everyday. I’ve seen people who had it bad before, but you… you didn’t even use a lighter for that. How do you do it?”
“It… It is difficult to explain and not what you think. I tried not to take your book. I knew that would happen, but you put it in my hands, and now it is gone.”
“That happen to everything you touch?”
“No wonder you know nothing about books, then,” she said. She turned her head to the side and frowned. “All right—I won’t call the cops for shoplifting or vandalism if you prove that you really were just trying to learn more, not destroy stuff.”
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Well, if you want to learn about books, why don’t we read one? I’ll hold it. I’ll read it. All you have to do is sit there and listen.”
He wanted to smile. “You… you would do this for me? I confess, your books make me quite curious.”
“And I want to be sure I shouldn’t have you locked up because the pyro I used to date started burning buildings when I broke up with him, so… yeah. Come back tomorrow. I gotta close up the shop now and deal with some… stuff, but tomorrow should be okay. I mean, it won’t be—”
“I should not inconvenience you more than I already have. I have no money to pay you.”
She snorted. “If it was about money, my family wouldn’t run a secondhand book store. I’d have a career where I actually earned something instead of needing to paint lines over my crap all the time. Besides, money can’t cure everything.”
“I would not know.”
“Just trust me. I’ll look for you tomorrow.”