Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
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Nasum Scientiam

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.

“What’s that?”

“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 disappears.”

“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 say anything.

“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 about bookworms.”

“It’s true. Everyone knows the genetics of the bookworms are not like anything else on this planet. The bookworms came from somewhere else.”

“How is that possible? They’re tubs of jelly! How would they travel through space?”

“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 a ship.”

“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 Index.

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