Free Fiction Monday: Petra and the Blue Goo

Free Fiction Monday: Petra and the Blue Goo

Petra loves books. And she loves her job at Nuovo Italiano Rare Books Library. So when a group of Bathybobles threatens to destroy those precious books—and to win a game, no less—Petra must stop them.

Once she gets the slime out of her eyes, of course.

“Petra and the Blue Goo,” by Hugo Award-winning author Kristine Kathryn Ruschis free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook through various online retailers here and is included in the collection Colliding Worlds, Vol. 4which is available in ebook, trade paperback, and hardcover here.

 

Petra And The Blue Goo

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

 

They squooshed. That’s what Petra first thought when she heard them approach. They squooshed.

Worse, they left not-so-little blobs of wet blue goo wherever they went.

Petra stood behind the desk at the Nuovo Italiano Rare Books Library and thanked every god she’d ever heard about that the actual books were behind clear walls. Because these creatures had no respect for anything.

She folded her hands together so that she wouldn’t hit the security button below the desk. She’d hit it too many times in the early days of her career here, and she’d become known as Petra the Panicker. Quintavas, one of the guards, even called her Pee-Pee, and winked whenever he did it, as if she appreciated the joke as much as he did.

Maybe she was folding her hands together so she didn’t have to call him.

The Bathybobles bounced their way past security, holding their gold passes in their cilia. The gold was striking against their bright blue bodies which made her think of nothing more than ugly pulsing balloons with hair stuck randomly to the exterior.

She tried not to shudder as she watched them bobble inside. That bright blue splotchy trail they left smelled of rotting fish tacos, and made her think of the night she got the job, when she and her then-boyfriend celebrated at a campus food cart, and followed everything with tequila.

She hadn’t had fish tacos or tequila since.

The Bathybobles did not speak any human languages. In fact, they did not speak in the way that humans understood speech. Instead, a pale little balloon floated about the group and then broke into pieces, spelling:

We Have Come For Our Book.

The fifth group today. Damn the organizers and their lack of specificity.

The first four times, she’d been polite. But the idea of these squooshy damp things near her precious books made her want to heave. (Okay, to be fair, it was the stench that made her want to heave. But the sentiment remained the same.)

“No, you haven’t come for your book,” she said, not caring that she sounded both annoyed and rude. She had no idea if Bathybobles could even hear, and she doubted they understood tone.

We Need A Book.

“Read your—” she almost said “damn” and caught herself just in time “—instructions. You’re not entitled to a book. You need some kind of image of yourself—” Yourselves? she wondered, and that sent her down the thicket of nouns, proper nouns, and aliens.

If the Chair of the Museum headquarters had wanted her to deal with aliens, then that Chair should have trained her in alien communications. But nooooo, she’d been promised a humans-only job, in a humans-only environment, in the humans-only section of Nuovo Italiano’s Roma Principa.

She wasn’t supposed to interact with aliens if she didn’t want to.

Well, she didn’t want to, and yet here she was, staring at the fifth group of them today.

They were all looking at her expectantly, with beady black eyes that popped up along the front of their balloony selves. A dozen beady black eyes each.

Oh, these creatures gave her the creeps, worse than the last ones had.

“You need some kind of image of yourselves with a book,” she said as firmly as she could. “That’s all we can provide here. If you want to purchase a book, then you can go to Delia’s Old Earth Treasures, which is six neighborhoods from here, in Antique Village. I can give you a map—”

No Map! the broken-up pale bubble read. Book!

Oh, great. Their translation program was weak. Who the hell designed this stuff anyway?

She leaned over the desk, raised her voice, and spoke slowly. “I am not authorized to give you a book. I am only—”

Not Give. We Buy.

“Not here,” she said. “This is a library. We don’t sell anything.”

Yes. The stupid balloon was forming to read. Library. Book Home Base. We understand.

“You don’t understand,” she said, raising her voice even more. Then she realized what she was doing. She was yelling at smelly things that had no ears.

Good job, Petra. Very mature.

But she didn’t know what to do. She obviously didn’t speak Bathyboble either.

“We. Do. Not. Sell. Books,” she said, deciding to keep it simple.

The stupid translation balloon thing formed a question mark. Well, that, at least, was clear.

“Go. To. Delia’s Old Earth Treasures,” she said, just as slowly. “They. Sell. Books.”

Not here? the balloon read.

“Not here,” she said.

Then there was hissing and burbling. The Bathybobles piled on top of each other, forming some kind of blob. Their cilia merged into hairy tentacles. Two tentacles gripped the desk, pulling it back. Two more reached for her.

She managed to push the security button before she got swept up in a mound of cold blue goo.

 

***

 

Rotted fish tacos really didn’t come close to describing the smell. Maybe gigantic mounds of rotted fish combined with gallons of cat urine and an undercoating of stale beer came closer. But not much closer.

Petra had never smelled anything like it, and she had never smelled anything like it on her, and the only thing that kept her from vomiting was the feeling that she was already covered in vomit—and not her vomit either. Cold vomit, collected from the back of some restaurant that had given all of its patrons food poisoning.

She shook her hands, trying to get the blue goo off them, and then realized it was hopeless. She was hopeless. And the white linen dress—historical white linen dress that vaguely suggested something one of her heroines, Jane Austen, would wear—was completely and forever ruined.

Petra had donned that dress early in the morning, when she had thought the promotion that the library had signed up for would be decorous, and she needed to be part of that decoration.

She considered wearing something that suggested Earth’s New York of the 1930s, where the scavenger hunt rose in popularity among the wealthy. An homage, she thought, to the current scavenger hunt, which had been designed to serve as adventure travel and local promotion.

Of course, it had evolved beyond that—various wealthy alien groups trying to outdo one another by winning the hunt the fastest—but she had never imagined this.

She had imagined herself, leading scores of new tourists through the displays, explaining how, even though books and reading had gone digital five centuries before, collectors still liked the feel of actual paper books, so much that when those collectors first traveled into space, they used up some of their weight allowance to bring a beloved physical book.

So many beloved physical books made it into space that the Nuovo Italiano Rare Books Library was actually a branch of rare books libraries all over the human-inhabited system. And each branch, each and every one, had at least one book by Jane Austen.

Only a handful of other authors writing in English could claim that distinction—and only a few of that subset, a very few, were women.

Oh, Petra had imagined her little talk, and then maybe a promotion because her clear love of the written (emphasis on written) word would make her invaluable to the library, and her boss would realize what a treasure he had in her, and she would become the head librarian, someone allowed not only to touch the books, but to actually read one without a guard in place to make sure she didn’t rip a page out of the book or try to slip it into a pocket.

On some level, she had known that the dream wouldn’t become reality, but she hadn’t expected it to explode in a geeble of blue goo as Bathybobles ran roughshod over her library.

She wanted to cry.

Instead, she wiped goo out of her eyes as Quintavas the security guard touched the edge of the overturned desk as though it might burn him.

“Where’d they go?” he asked her.

She looked at him incredulously. “Follow the trail,” she said, and somehow did not add you idiot. “And hurry.”

Suddenly, alarms went off throughout the section. She closed her eyes to gather herself, and instead, her eyelids stuck together. She wiped her hands on her dress, then wished she hadn’t. All she could do was shake off her hands, and then shove her fingers in her eyes, ignoring the sting, and hoping that nothing bad was happening to her eyeballs.

When she finally got her eyes open, she saw Quintavas slowly picking his way around the bright blue slime trail.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” she said and pushed past him, deliberately bumping into him along the way.

“Hey!” he said.

“They’re getting that crap on the books,” she said, “and if the books are ruined, you’ll lose your job!”

Somehow, that didn’t galvanize him into action. Maybe he thought the books were already ruined. Maybe he didn’t like the job.

She didn’t care. She loved her job (except on days like today) so she sprinted down what was usually one of her favorite corridors in the entire building.

It was built of real wood from Earth, and if she had given the tourists their imaginary tour, she would have pointed out each type of grain, and which wood was made from extinct trees, and maybe even mentioned how difficult it was to import those woods to this place.

Instead, she could see the slime eating away at the wood’s surface, and as she ran, she thanked her lucky stars that she hadn’t been the one who suggested the scavenger hunt to promote the library. In fact, she had argued against it.

You like the quiet a bit too much, Ms. Relling, her boss had said. We need a bit of excitement around here.

Well, they had excitement, in spades, as the wealthy set in Old New York used to say. The alarms were screeching, and she was running (running!) and that made her breathe in the occasional drop of goo, stinging her tongue and hoping to hell that the goo wasn’t peeling the enamel off her teeth the way it peeled the varnish off the floors.

She reached the first T intersection where the main corridor branched into two before a wall of floor-to-ceiling books encased in a clear box that protected them against the light.

And apparently, against Bathyboble tentacles, since goo dripped off the display.

She paused for only a moment, trying to decide which way to go. The screeching alarm seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, so she couldn’t use that as a way of determining where the Bathybobles were and what they had done.

She had to go by the layers of goo. And there was more goo heading off to the right than there was to the left.

She glanced over her shoulder. No Quintavas. He was probably still daintily picking his way past the goo trail, trying to keep his stupid shoes pristine.

Normally, she would hope that the other security guards would hurry to the crisis, but she’d never been in the library during a crisis, and Quintavas’s behavior made her doubt the initiative of his colleagues.

So she stopped long enough to do something that was completely forbidden for someone of her level: she broke a tiny seal on one of the walls, activating emergency protocols. Now, the security guards in the facility had to respond, as did the guards within thirty minutes of the library.

Anyone who failed would lose their jobs.

On any other day, she would have felt guilty about putting their jobs at risk, but today, she didn’t care. She wasn’t going to be able to stop the Bathybobles alone.

She rounded the corner, and saw a long bulging line of blue pressed up against a wall display. It took her a moment to realize that all of the Bathybobles had become one long Bathyboble, which was trying to squeeze itself (themselves?) into the cracks between the floor and the protective covering.

Tentacles were forming, and heading for the bookshelves.

If the blue goo destroyed wood floors, it would definitely destroy books—which were, after all, made of wood.

“Stop!” she screeched.

They didn’t. The tentacles waved, blue and out of control.

Stop!” she screeched again.

They couldn’t hear her. Dear God, she had forgotten that. They probably weren’t taking time to read their translation program either.

She had to get their attention.

Stop!” she screeched one final time. “You’re violating your participation agreement! If you touch those books, you’ll forfeit!”

The tentacles froze as if a hard frost had hit the shelves.

What? the stupid little word bubble appeared over the thick blue line.

“You heard me,” she said, although she knew that technically wasn’t true. They hadn’t heard anything at all. “If you touch those books, you’ll forfeit, and you’ll never be able to participate in a sanctioned scavenger hunt again.”

She had no idea if that was true, but by God, she’d make it true if she had to fight the league to her dying breath.

(Which might be Real Soon Now, considering the way her lungs felt after she’d swallowed even more blue goo.)

You cannot make us forfeit, the pale blue bubble read. We are district champions.

“I wouldn’t make you forfeit. Any violation of the rules automatically disqualifies you,” she said. Or, at least, she prayed it was so, because if it wasn’t, she had no leverage at all.

Where were those stupid security guys?

The tentacles waved, and her breath caught, forcing her to inhale even more goo. She cleared her throat so she wouldn’t cough.

And then the tentacles slid out of the cracks and back into the long line of blueness. The blueness separated into its various blobs and bounced toward her.

She resisted the urge to kick them.

We need a book! the stupid bubble read.

“No,” she said. “You need an image of you with a book, and we can get that from our security feeds.”

The bubble’s message remained the same, and she was about to repeat herself when the message reformed.

Acceptable.

She let out a tiny huh of satisfaction. Two birds, one little image. A sign that the Bathybobles had found the book for their scavenger hunt, and a sign that the stupid creatures nearly destroyed thousand-year-old artifacts.

Then she realized that she had killed three birds here. She would have definitive proof for her boss that scavenger hunts involving non-humans were a stupid idea to promote a library in the human section of a human neighborhood of a primarily human city.

She almost told the Bathybobles to stay put, but she doubted they would.

She looked around. No security guards yet. And the alarm sounded far away.

She peered at the clear wall in front of the books. Technically, that wall had not been breached.

The alarm was coming from another part of the library.

Oh, joy.

 

***

 

She corralled the Bathybobles and led them outside the library. She told them if they didn’t wait on the sanctioned floor material that could absorb their slime (and yes, she said slime, and yes, it felt good), then she would personally disqualify them.

The Bathybobles vibrated, sending a hum through the area. It took her a moment to realize that her words actually scared them, and that was the Bathyboble equivalent of shaking in fear.

Before she went back inside the library, she stopped in the public restroom and washed off as much goo as she possibly could. Her dress (which was fortunately not dissolving—apparently linen was not composed of wood fiber) was plastered against her body, but there was nothing she could do about that.

She squeezed out the linen so it wouldn’t drip, rinsed off her hair and face, and took off her ruined shoes. She rinsed off her legs and feet, then walked barefoot back to the library, carefully avoiding the trail of blue goo she and the Bathybobles had left.

As she stepped back inside, the alarm shut off mid-thrum. A group of Aenrosids huddled near the desk, shifting from foot to foot to foot to foot in unison, as if they were practicing some kind of dance. She had no idea that square four-footed creatures could be so coordinated.

Excuse me, one of them said, but can you point us to the Librarian?

“I’m the librarian,” she snapped, “and I’m dealing with an emergency. You stand still. If you so much as move a muscle, I swear, I will break you into little pieces.”

Then she stomped off, not even berating herself for her unprofessional behavior.

She could just hear them. Where are the books? We need a book. We’ll buy a book. What’s a book, by the way?

She wanted to punch something. She wondered if she punched a Bathyboble, would it squoosh or explode?

She kinda hoped she would find out.

She stomped back to the security room, expecting to find the lazy guards sitting on their butts and laughing at her predicament. Instead, she found the room full of Hairy Maglefesians. She had no idea how they even got in.

They were the size of small dogs. They had probably snuck in when she wasn’t looking. She’d heard that Hairy Maglefesians practiced the art of stealth: she just hadn’t believed it until now.

She didn’t see any of the guards. The Hairy Maglefesians looked at her as if she were going to kill them with long and slow torture.

She was tempted.

As she reached for the comm, the door opened, and Quintavas pushed a young human male into the room. He had a collectors bag, perfectly designed to handle the most fragile items.

“Look what I found on the way to the goo fest,” Quintavas said. “The son of one of our sponsors.”

The young man raised his hands and said to Petra, “I didn’t do anything. Please, help me before this man ruins my reputation.”

The young man’s fingers glimmered in the light. Petra did something she wouldn’t have done two hours before.

She slapped her palm against his.

His skin exploded in light and color.

Bastard.

“If you didn’t do anything,” she said, “why do you have a collectors bag and protective skin seal?”

Only people who handled fragile collectables even knew what that stuff was.

“I—I never come to the library without them,” he said.

“I’m sure that’s probably true,” Petra said. “It makes theft of valuable artifacts so much easier.”

The Hairy Maglefesians chuffed behind her.

“We’re not stealing anything,” one of them said to her.

“Oh, I know,” she said. “You’re participating in the scavenger hunt.”

“Yes!” it said, its tail wagging. “All we need is a book.”

She sighed in exasperation. “All you need is an image of you with a book.”

“Actually, no,” the young man said. “They need a book. It’s in the rules.”

Her gaze met his. “Give me a copy of the rules,” she said.

He called the rules up on a small device, and she realized he could give her anything he wanted to.

“No.” She whirled, and spoke to the Hairy Maglefesians. “You give me the rules. And the map.”

One of the Maglefesians handed her a device that felt like someone had drooled on it.

She understood the map, but she couldn’t read the words, if indeed the scratchings on the screen were words.

She extended the device back to its owner. “Call up the English version, would you?”

The Maglefesian tapped the device with its wet nose. She felt her gorge move again, and she swallowed hard.

If this day ended without vomit, she would be very, very happy.

The English version of the rules came up, in 6 point type, sixty-five pages long. But she’d read more complicated documents in her day, and it didn’t take her long to find the pertinent section.

The young man was indeed right. Participants had to have the physical artifacts.

Then she leaned over security’s internal systems, and found the documents that her boss had agreed to. She had been right too: Images only. Participants were not allowed to touch any physical objects.

She looked at the young man. All of this was designed to protect someone from accusations of theft.

“Quintavas, get your colleagues and shut the library down. No one comes in or goes out.”

“You can’t—”

She raised her eyebrows at him—the Librarian Glare of Death—and, bless him, he got the message.

“Yes, of course. Yes.”

And he backed out of the security room.

“It stinks in here, you know,” the young man said. “I have to leave. I have allergies.”

She was the one who smelled bad. (Although she knew that Hairy Maglefesians weren’t exactly the most sweetly scented creatures either.)

“Too damn bad,” she said. “You’re staying with me. And you’ll be here as long as it takes.”

“As long as it takes to what?” he asked.

She raised her head, and looked down her nose at him. “As long as it takes to figure out why you people wanted to destroy my library.”

 

***

 

They didn’t want to destroy it. They simply wanted one of the most expensive items in the collection, a first-edition Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone from late twentieth century Earth. On the open market, that book could raise enough money to fund a small country—or a spectacular library.

All-in-all, sixteen different groups reached the library before the authorities stopped the scavenger hunt and forced everyone to return the items—and/or pay for damages.

The Bathyboble paid the most, at least to the library itself, although Petra believed that when the suits and countersuits were done, the amount the Bathybobles paid would pale in comparison to the fines and fees the organizers of the hunt would pay.

After all, they were claiming a simple proofing error in the regulations was to blame. And that would probably have worked, if the error wasn’t repeated in all languages—and if the sponsor’s son hadn’t been caught with a collector’s bag and skin seals.

Petra followed the proceedings, partly because she had to testify several times and partly because she was feeling vindictive. She couldn’t get a new dress to replace that linen one—she couldn’t afford it. Not even with her promotion.

She now ran the library. Her boss, who wanted the scavenger hunt to come to the library as a promotional tool, had been fired, and so had his boss and his boss’s boss.

Petra didn’t have the qualifications to rise higher in the library food chain—yet—and she wasn’t sure she wanted to when the time came.

She loved being among the books.

She could touch them now without guards watching her, and better yet, she could read the books whenever she wanted.

It only took her three months to get enough nerve to read the Harry Potter book that started all of this. Her hands shook the entire time.

The archaic language made her struggle. The references to things she did not understand, like drills and cupboards and traffic jams, slowed her down. But she worked her way through it all without using an Archaic English translation guide, and felt as accomplished as she had when she caught the Bathybobles.

Oh, hell. She felt more accomplished.

Because books stayed with you forever. Deeds remained only if they were recorded in story and song—and even then, such accomplishments were hard to understand without their proper context.

She didn’t want to give anyone the context, although she had. Nor did she want to revisit that day, although the smell of a fish taco always made her slightly faint.

That, and a glance at the front desk.

She didn’t ever want to work the front desk again.

She simply couldn’t be polite any more.

People came here wanting to gawk at her books. And she would do everything she could to prevent it.

Even if it meant telling her story, and thinking about slime, rotted fish tacos, and displaying her ruined dress.

Even if it meant a bit of notoriety.

A good librarian did what she could do to protect her books.

And Petra was a very good librarian indeed.

 

“Petra and the Blue Goo”
Copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Galactic Games, edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt, Baen Books, June 2016
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2022 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Depositphotos © outsiderzone

2 responses to “Free Fiction Monday: Petra and the Blue Goo”

  1. Sami Thompson says:

    PETRA AND THE BLUE GOO is a wonderful story! As my neurological disease progresses, my brain has been especially untrustworthy. I find it harder and harder to concentrate and focus on what I’m reading and/or doing. I’m telling you this because it’s noteworthy that I was able to sit down and read this story straight through, without losing my way or giving in to distraction.

    By the time I finished reading this, I remembered the first time I opened a library book that had been “assaulted by some idiot with an ink pen,” as my Dad put it. Naturally, I love the character Petra – she embodies so many of the fine qualities a good librarian should have.

    Thanks for sharing this story – it’s a genuine delight!

  2. Candice Lisle says:

    Oh, this is a good one! Thank you for sharing

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