by Jason McGraw
Jessi takes the shuttle to her cousin Emmy’s settlement. It’s her
first time outside of the primary city that humans started on this
extrasolar planet. Emmy’s city studies the ruins of an extinct sentient
race that formerly inhabited the planet. It isn’t the ruins that entice
her; images and maps of the ruins are everywhere. She wants to see the
new animal species that was discovered inside the ruined city. They're
nicknamed the bookworm.
The human children leave the domed settlement with oxygen masks to
supplement the planet’s air. They don’t have to walk far before they
see three bookworms in a depression of loose soil. Emmy picks one up
and hands it to Jessi. The bookworm feels like a bag of jelly. It’s as
long as Jessi’s hand and it’s the color of the soil. It doesn’t have
eyes or nostrils. The bottom of the animal is tough as leather. The
rest of the body is smooth and soft as silk.
“They breathe through their skin,” Emmy says.
“I thought they’d have eyes,” Jessi says.
“They rub their noses on things. See the others?”
The bookworms on the ground are rubbing an end of their bodies on a
long ribbon of paper that’s coming out of a black plastic sphere.
Jessi’s bookworm wiggles and slips out of her hand, twisting to land
leather-side down. It lands on the sphere and tears off the paper tape.
“It’s strong. And fast.”
Emmy agrees. She bends down and picks up the sphere.
“A clicker. It attracts baby bookworms.”
Emmy presses a button. Paper ribbon with tiny holes runs out of a
thin opening. Emmy lifts the tape for Jessi to see. “It’s Braille.
These are the counting numbers, one to ten. Then some examples of
arithmetic. Then it solves 1 divided by 7. The quotient will print one
number at a time each second. Zero — decimal — one — four — one —”
“Like Pi — it never ends.”
“Exactly. Bookworm babies love math. That’s how they grow. They rub
on clicker tape as they absorb the air and grow bigger.”
Emmy rolls the tape around the clicker and throws it overhand in the
direction of the ruins. Jessi stands erect with her eyes wide.
“So that tape is food for them,” Jessi says.
“Just for the babies,” Emmy says. “For the juveniles, we put out
old tech manuals, textbooks, anything really. English, Mandarin,
computer code, it doesn’t matter, the bookworms rub their noses on the
pages and get bigger. When they are three times the size of a baby,
their skin gets all leathery and they grow a mask. The mask is silicon,
like the shell a clam makes on Earth. Then it digs in the ground and
“What happens then?”
“No one knows. We’ve never seen anything younger than a baby or
older than a ‘leather.’”
The girls walk in the direction of the ruins. Jessi sees books with
their pages open and larger bookworms rubbing on the paper. She doesn’t
“We first discovered the bookworms in the ruins. They would rub
their noses on the walls, even walls without any writing. We think
there’s information on those walls, that we can’t see it, because the
bookworms ‘eat’ it.”
Jessi speaks with a soft voice. “How many bookworms were here when
you got here?”
“Not many at all. That’s why we feed them. If we can find a way to
communicate, they can tell us what the ruins say.”
Jessi stops walking. Emmy turns to face her.
“Don’t tell me, Jessi. Don’t tell me you believe what they say
“It’s true. Everyone knows the genetics of the bookworms are not
like anything else on this planet. The bookworms came from somewhere
“How is that possible? They’re tubs of jelly! How would they travel
“They eat knowledge. They learn. They flew here from their home
planet on somebody’s spaceship. Then they learned about the alien
people here, ate their books, and took over the planet. They probably
killed the original aliens, and flew away in their spaceships. And now
they’re going to do the same to us!”
“Don’t be ridiculous! You held a bookworm. You know they can’t fly
“What do the adults look like? What will they be after they grow
underground? You don’t know, no one knows! But now there’ll be
thousands because you’re feeding them!”
Jessi turns and walks away from Emmy. Emmy stares at her back. The
sphere she threw makes soft clicking sounds as it continues to
calculate one divided by seven. A new baby rubs its nose on the paper.
© 2019 Jason McGraw
Jason is a new sci-fi writer, former teacher, and current nursing student.
Find more by Jason McGraw in the Author
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