READ THIS FIRST – 6

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Okay, lending policy. I figure now you’ve been out and seen how much The Collection can help people, you’ll have some questions about how this works. Pretty much all of the books here are irreplaceable. A lot of stuff went up in smoke when the Cold hit, and books burn easy. For all the people who’d want The Collection for its knowledge, there’s just as many who want it for its fuel. So rule one is: don’t let other people in. Rohini will help with that.

If you want to make an exception, you have to be absolutely completely totally sure they can be trusted. It’s your life on the line, remember, not to mention all the thousands of people The Collection helps. There isn’t some kind of vetting system, that’s what human instinct is for.

Taking books outside, that’s risky too. What if it gets lost, or stolen, or damaged by ash? They’re fragile things, books. No, it’s best to work out what knowledge the locals need, write some notes, and take those outside. You can always come back and look up stuff later.

Obviously that doesn’t work for everything. Classes Seven and Eight need to be read by the person who needs them. So there’s a lending policy. They have two weeks from when The Collection arrives to finish reading, and they have to leave something with you for surety. If they don’t bring the book back, you go get it.

Mum was in charge of our late returns. When she was wielding a shotgun she could scare the crap out of me, and I was standing on the right side. It wasn’t often we had that kind of trouble, though. The people who need books from Classes Seven and Eight tend not to be overly unscrupulous. The only time it got bad was on the freight train.

There was a whole community living there. Mostly doctors and mechanics and the like, with their families. They rode the tracks, bartering skills for food as they passed people. They were scraping by, doing okay. Doing better than many. They didn’t need The Collection for agriculture, or building, or any of the normal stuff. They needed Class Eight for their kids. We stayed there the full two weeks.

The day everything was due back in, no one came knocking so we went to find out what the problem was. All the kids said this guy had taken their books off them. Tall, thin, cousin of one of the train drivers. He’d been ripping the pages out and bartering them individually as kindling, toilet paper, smokes, a fragment of story, whatever people would pay for. Of course the kids didn’t rat to us – he was one of their own, even if he was a douchebag, and we were strangers. Anyway, Mum tracked him down and gave her you-owe-us-and-I’ve-come-to-collect speech which ought to have had him pissing himself with fear.

He laughed in her face. Said he’d heard of The Collection before and he knew we had something way more valuable than books. Something that didn’t belong to us. He’d sent word to Yellow Hat the day we arrived. Which was deeply worrying, but we were on a different continent to the Dead Sea and travel isn’t exactly easy anymore, not when you don’t have an antikythera.

Then Dad freaked. He grabbed the guy by the throat and started shaking him, yelling in his face about betraying his own species, and what else did he know? Everyone around us got antsy at that stage. They weren’t inclined to stand back and watch as this crazy stranger throttled their neighbour. Mum ended up firing into the roof so they’d stay back. Sanna and me grabbed Dad by the elbows and we hustled back to The Collection. Mum had the cupboard for the emergency handle open before I’d even closed the door.

The last thing I saw of that train was the freight carriage with everyone backing up around the sides. Yellow Hat was walking slowly towards us, like he had all the time in the world. I swear he was smiling.

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