I’m an engineer. My main diet should be engines, but I live on books. And every day after I finish my tasks in the lab at New Canada Engines, I go book-hunting.
Books are printed on paper on New Canada, so it is not as difficult to gather a collection as on some of the other colony worlds, or even on Earth. The library here in New Toronto is immensely well-stocked and has provided me with inspiration. The local culture values books, and especially recently I’ve been noticing a proliferation of tiny bookshops popping up, selling everything from Austen to Zalania.
I am taking the long way home from the glider station one day – regretting my decision with each step against the crystal eruptions of snow suspended in a freezing wind – suspended until they hit my face, that is – when I spot a flash of dark fur in a shop window. A lucky flash of fur, indeed: a cat has squeezed its way between the windowpane and what looks to be a genuine paper edition of a score of the Fire Opera, a work by my favourite New Canada composer, Lauretta.
Of course I step into the shop. How could I not? Immediately, the furball pounces on my feet and attacks my shoelaces. I laugh. An woman about my age – late twenties in New Canada years, early thirties in Earth time – emerges from the back, carrying a mountain of books. Her unruly red hair is tied back nonchalantly and her dress is green with a full skirt. Not the fashion at the moment, but she pulls it off wonderfully.
“The cat’s not for sale,” she says with mock sternness.
I presume this is the shop owner. She seems to adore green – there is green trim along the bookcases and the window display and green lettering denoting various categories of books – music, colony planets, Earth, New Canada, and an odd little corner with different, bolder lettering. Science Fiction. That particular bookcase’s bottom shelf is devoid of books and is instead filled with green cushions. Perhaps to enhance the comfort of the little beast that is currently attacking my shoe?
“Actually, I was more interested in that score in your window…” The cat is insistent and bats at my leg. I bend down to pat him and he begins purring like a little engine. He might be louder than some of the engines in the lab at work.
“My cat seems to like you.”
“My name’s Asimov,” I reply, with uncharacteristic impulsiveness. I never strike up conversations with strangers, not even friendly shop owners. Usually I’m quite introverted. Usually. But now something compels me. I notice that the shop owner’s eyes are brilliant and laughing and full of sharp intelligence; that her hair creates a bright cloud of unruly red curls.
“Ah, a Historical Earth name,” she says, a smile pulling at her lips. Mine’s Corinne. “But Asimov is a last name. What’s your first name?”
“That’s my first name,” I reply ruefully. “My parents are from Earth but I don’t think they know how names work.” She fights to suppress a giggle.
“Ah,” she finally says, calming her features back to bland politeness. Why would this silly thing amuse her? She walks over and picks up the cat. In her arms he becomes completely docile. “Never been to Earth.”
“Oh, neither have I!” I exclaim, a little too loudly. “My parents never cared much for naming convention, or convention of any kind. The genre this author wrote in escapes me.” I close my mouth before I can ramble any more.
“Isaac Asimov wrote science fiction,” she provides, and gestures vaguely at the boldly lettered shelf to her side. “His narratives may seem quaint and outdated today but imagine reading that stuff in the context of his time. We didn’t have interstellar travel yet. We had just the one planet, too! The essence of some of his stories really cuts to the heart of the colony world experience.”
“I’m embarrassed that I know next to nothing about him,” I reply. A silence grows between us. I can hear the ticking of a clock. She saves me.
“Maybe you’re more of an opera lover.” I nod in agreement. “We have a reading desk in the back,” she tells me brightly. I want to take her up on it but hesitate a little too long. “And free coffee, and Asimov the cat to keep you company.”
“Your cat has the same name I do?” I must sound very dismayed. She laughs, this time out loud.
“I’m afraid so,” she replies.
“Won’t I bother you?” I ask.
“Do you see many other customers?” She counters. The shop is empty, save for us and the cat. “I’m still new to this bookshop game. I think I need to reorganize and make the display more appealing.”
“It was very appealing to me.”
“I know, but I’m pretty sure you’re one of a kind.” I grin, then realize it’s a very wide grin. Foolishly wide. Why not stay, though? I make myself at home at the desk. The feline Asimov stretches out on the smooth wooden surface, occasionally lying down on top of the Fire Opera. I good-naturedly push him off and he returns insistently. I keep turning the pages, marvelling at Lauretta’s beautiful notation. The bookshop’s clock strikes Evening Mark. No, not possible. I must get going.
“I think I’ll buy this opera score,” I say to her as I pass the counter on the way out.
“It’s yours without charge,” she replies, eyes twinkling.
“I… I can’t…”
“Accept it? Oh, you can, but only if you agree to my conditions.”
“There’s a performance of the Fire Opera at the theatre in two days. Buy the tickets, and I’ll consider it a fair trade. They cost the same as the book.”
“I love … I love opera!” I manage awkwardly.
“Thought you might, given that you spent an exceedingly long time looking at an opera score just now,” she says. We exchange contact card codes, laughing. A contact card code never made me laugh before.
As I leave the shop I take a look back and see Corinne putting a new book into the display case. The cat named Asimov sits under it in the window, watching me as I walk away into the snow.
Story © 2019 Clio Em. Image © 2018 Hali Rey.