April 15, 2023

Aged Plant Fibers and Ink

by James L. Steele

“He flipped the pages again and inhaled. The aged, yellowing fibers. The ink. The glue. The years. The ambient dust. All of it combined into a scent that was uniquely alien.”

Ker’r rose from all fours and walked on his hind legs as he rounded the corner. A bipedal stature was never required, but it made navigating this part of the city much easier.

The black-furred canine had white stripes around his midsection. He couldn’t afford clothing, though it wasn’t required here among the structures arranged in a grid along avenues.

The Planet of Paper District, complete with authentic asphalt, authentic stone, authentic brick, all transplanted from a real city block and reconstructed here. Numerous canines in sight also walked upright to help complete the sensation of living in another culture.

Loose-skinned and tight-skinned reptiles rubbed elbows with the upright canines and felines, fur and scale colors ranging from muted browns to garish greens and pinks. Some of the less experienced people stumbled trying to stay upright while peering through the windows at the various items of clothing some of them would buy and wear.

The district extended a few city blocks. Just a brisk stroll away from these streets lay normal civilization underneath the weather-dome that kept the snow and the rain off and allowed everyone to live in comfortable, dry burrows. The spaceport lay a mere day’s walk from the dome, making it far enough out of sight to believe this was an extraterrestrial place.

The Planet of Paper recreated. This was the closest most of them would ever come to visiting the world for themselves. It helped Ker’r comprehend a civilization that left so little behind and yet so much.

He scented the air to orient himself. Habit from the outside, as scent did not guide here. He had to rely on his eyes, and it took him a moment to remember how to do that.

He crossed the street, remembering that this would have been difficult on the Planet of Paper due to the petroleum-burning machines zipping up and down the asphalt. He passed over the yellow lines, as did a few others visiting this place of different customs, living by senses they were still trying to understand. Getting used to the idea of sight guiding one’s life was a critical step. It’s why Ker’r first came here. The Bindings brought him back nearly every week.

Rounding the next corner, he paused to let a group of red-scaled lizards pass, both carrying brown sacks. Ker’r could taste hints of the Bindings in those bags. That scent would be potent for weeks before it began to fade — one of the reprints, certainly, as Ker’r knew the originals began to fade mere hours after opening.

No datascent panel on the door gave information on this place. Businesses in the District had flat signs over the door, written in the glyphs the dead civilization once used. This one had an image of a Binding, transplanted directly from the Planet of Paper itself.

He turned and pulled the door open. This shop was one of dozens around Ker’r’s world, and one of hundreds in the community of planets. Inside was like entering another civilization, with chairs all around, and a central seating area with proprietors behind a counter-top made of polished tree fibers. The entire place was made of the cores of various types of trees, and the smell alone made him feel part of another civilization — just imagining how anyone could focus with this scent in their head at all hours of the day placed him in another civilization, as they might have lived.

Most of the canines and felines and lizards donned clothing to varying degrees, some wearing trousers only, or a shirt, or just an overcoat. Everyone had at least one page. A few had entire Bindings, purchased from the collection in the adjacent room that was off-limits to the public. Two felines were passing a Binding back and forth, flipping the pages, breathing the air coming off. Ker’r tried to scent it discreetly, but that was difficult for a canine.

He took a seat at the counter. The white-furred feline noticed him and turned.

“You weren’t here last week,” he said, leaning forward.

Ker’r smiled with his muzzle, imitating the photographs of the people on the Planet of Paper. “Good to be back, Erok. Patrols kept me out. Had to redirect six asteroids. This is my first day off in two weeks.”

Erok smiled back, showing canines, a threatening gesture anywhere else except the District. “This is the place to come when you want to feel as far removed from patrols as possible.”

Ker’r took a sniff, glancing at the walls. “It’s easy to forget there are other planets out there with the scents of this place closing in on you.”

“It does feel like it’s holding you down, doesn’t it? I enjoy that sensation.”

The feline slipped a raised disc in front of Ker’r. The canine leaned over and scented it. It had encoded olfactory information on it, and with a single sniff he knew the menu and the prices.

Paperback: 1C d6 PY+210, | ~8 / ~27
Paperback: 2C d1 PY+199, | ~12 / ~35
Hardback: 4C d14 PY+212 | ~9 / ~32
Hardback: 6C d3 PY+202 | ~19 / ~44
OB: The John Varley Reader John Varley Ace, 2C PY-201 d2 ~12 | ~133

Learning to understand the menu was itself a skill and often required a guide just to comprehend what one was ordering. C denoted the continent, d was the district, PY denoted the year it had been bound, calculated to the number of solar cycles on the Planet of Paper. Paperyears. Negative numbers indicated estimated solar cycles before the year the planet had first been discovered.

They always had one Original Binding on the offer for page-by-page consumption. These were the only listings that included an olfactory bitmap representation of the glyphs on the spine of the Binding. Comprehending images with datascent was difficult for anyone, but he had enough experience with Bindings that he could visualize them.

Many Originals were never for sale as a whole, as retailers often only received one copy of each, so they had to be sold per page. One had to be extremely wealthy to buy those Originals as entire Bindings.

Anyone could buy a Binding and take it back to their den, but it was never the same as experiencing it in a place like this, as close to how the hairless bipeds might have enjoyed them on the Planet of Paper.

He looked up at Erok. “Paperyear minus two oh one. Surprised you can still buy whole Bindings.”

The cat nodded. “We have enough copies to sell in whole. The older volumes are getting rare though.”

Ker’r laughed. “What will we do when we run out of originals?”

“We’ll have to stop saying plus and minus. Paperyear will be all positive numbers, and new Bindings will be considered originals. By then they’ll have printed enough to create Bindings good enough to be called Originals.”

“They won’t be the same,” Ker’r said. “They can’t reproduce the patterns. They use random arrangements. The ink patterns make a difference. I didn’t believe you when I first started coming here, but you turned me into a believer.”

Erok nodded, tail also lashing in amusement. “By then someone will have figured out how to reproduce the ink glyphs accurately.”

“I thought they already had.”

“It has to be done manually. Most of the machines are still silent without the computer systems that ran them.”

“I’ve heard the explorers believe the computers were based entirely around the sense of sight.”

Erok nodded, another gesture that meant something entirely different outside the District. “The people who once inhabited that planet used their eyes and ears exclusively. Scent may not have been a large part of their society. Their computers would have produced something visual as output.”

The canine took another sniff of the disc and received the menu directly into his mind again. “How would that be practical? Will we ever understand them?”

“We’ve managed to communicate with people who sense electromagnetic fields instead of their sense of smell. I like to think we’ll make progress with creatures who use their eyes.”

Ker’r chuckled. “Until then, I’ll start with the 4C hardback, please.”

“Page or Binding?”

Ker’r thought about it for a moment. “The whole Binding.”

“Good start. It’s a light, easy experience, just complex enough to be intriguing but not too overwhelming.”

The cat reached underneath the counter and opened a sealed cabinet. He pulled out a hardcover, and then waved a meter in front of Ker’r’s eye to deduct the purchase from his account.

The Binding before Ker’r was twelve years old, and it resembled an Original down to the very glue used to hold the individual pages together. The plant fiber sheets had just begun to turn yellow. Ker’r picked up the Binding and opened it to one of the middle pages.

First Opening was always the most impressive. The fibers inside the closed pages were now exposed to air for the first time since printing, and with just a little agitation, they released their bouquet.

Ker’r took a deep and long breath. Then several short sniffs. The ink had decayed enough to mingle with the fibers, and they now combined with the dust they had accumulated.

Another planet twirled up his olfactory nerve and danced in his mind. Language had millions of words to describe scents, and yet somehow all of them failed when describing the myriad of sensations contained within a Binding made from plant fibers from this particular world, aged for just the right amount of time in exactly the right conditions.

People all over the community of worlds tried to mimic this with local plant fibers ground and pressed into leaves and then aged in climate-controlled structures, but nothing matched the complexity of the Bindings produced on the Planet of Paper.

He flipped the pages again and inhaled. The aged, yellowing fibers. The ink. The glue. The years. The ambient dust. All of it combined into a scent that was uniquely alien. It took effort to process the nuances, which left him feeling drained yet satisfied.

Erok was showing canines again. “To your liking?”

Ker’r exhaled. “Very much. And you have a whole room full of these things.” He gestured to the sealed door that led to the side room which housed shelves and shelves of Bindings. “How can you go in there and not just curl up in a corner and breathe it in all day?”

He leaned forward and bumped noses with Ker’r. “I’m a professional. We take lessons in how to keep our minds sharp with so many scents around.”

“I wish I had your restraint.” Ker’r flipped the pages, billowing his fur. “That’s why I’m still doing asteroid patrols.”

Lowering his lips to cover his canines, the feline leaned back and moved to attend other clients, leaving Ker’r alone on another planet created by the old fibers in this Binding. The transplanted asphalt didn’t make this place real. The reconstructed buildings made of fired stone and planks of tree fibers didn’t make it real. This Binding did. He turned around in his seat and looked out over the shop.

The green-scaled reptile sitting upright in a plush chair from that other world hundreds of light-years away also had one of these hardbacks and was flicking her tongue over the pages as she turned them. She passed it to the feline in the chair beside her, who flipped the pages, letting the air blow her tan fur around.

A group of four rodents sat by the window, each with a paperback. Ker’r heard pieces of conversation about survey vessels that had discovered a new planetary system and were scouting for resources.

Ker’r flipped the pages again, puffing the fur on his face and chest. Part of him wanted to roll in this scent, and this was why he kept coming here. The smell of these Bindings brought out something peacefully primal in everyone.

He’d heard the stories about this District and the culture it represented. A planet whose local name they still didn’t know, inhabited by people who left very little behind. Machines had decayed. Magnetic tapes were blank. Computer systems empty. Evidence of a massive solar discharge in the then-recent past, and then stillness.

All that remained which seemed remotely comprehensible was aged plant fibers and ink bound and stored in various buildings on every continent of that empty world.

The scents contained in those Bindings dazzled the exploration team for so long they were an entire year late returning home, and they brought many Bindings with them. By then the scents had faded, but traces of them lingered and tantalized others. People came from all over the community to catch this incredible new scent from an extinct civilization.

Eventually someone figured out how to recreate the fiber sheets and make new Bindings. With enough time, the fibers aged in much the same way. Even new printings had a delicious bouquet to them, gradually changing and gaining nuance and depth and complexity with age.

Many sought their fortunes on that world, figuring out how to run those printing presses, or selecting the right plants for harvest, or analyzing the ink and attempting to reproduce the patterns on the pages. Early attempts at creating Bindings had no ink, just blank pages carefully aged. The addition of ink improved the complexity greatly. Now hundreds of printing presses were running all over the Planet of Paper. Each region had a local climate that presented unique challenges to aging the paper or producing the ink, and finding suitable plants to use was also a challenge, as they grew so slowly. Careful management was needed to balance out printing and aging with replenishment.

Understanding all the work that went into creating this Binding was as much a part of the experience as the scent itself.

The door opened, and a winged lizard carrying a sealed case walked inside. She was wearing a white blouse and black slacks, similar to the ones seen in the monochrome moving-images that had survived. The ensemble complimented her green and black scales, and this person was the best dressed out of anyone in the shop, including the proprietor, so all gradually turned to her, scenting her discretely from a distance. Her clothes smelled just as alien as the pages, hinting they had been made in a restarted facility on the Planet of Paper.

She approached the bar and took a seat next to Ker’r, placing the case on the counter-top.

“Ege,” the feline said, approaching from the other side of the bar. “You’re here late.”

The lizard kept her wings folded tight to her back, an uncommon posture for her species. She had practiced for this.

“Shuttle was late. This is my only stop.”

She opened the case. Ker’r lowered his Binding as he turned to see. The case was very much designed in the style of the extinct civilization, and it contained five sealed plates, each just thick enough for a single page. Ker’r recognized them as battery-operated, climate-controlled compartments. He wished he could lean over to taste the info panels.

“I brought samples,” Ege continued, trying to keep her wings from fluttering to maintain the posture and gestures from the Planet of Paper. “Some new Originals just became available.”

“Oh my.” Erok picked up the plates and scented the info panels one by one.

Ker’r turned all the way around in his seat, setting his Binding on the counter. “What are they?”

Erok was just scenting the final plate. “Oh… Have a sniff.”

He held out the plates to him. Ker’r had never seen or held these devices before. They were surprisingly heavy. He inhaled one of the info panels. The encoded datascent instantly streamed into his mind:

George Orwell Keep the Aspidistra Flying Mariner, 1C PY-319 d7 | ~1334

The spine glyphs were rendered as bitmap information, so he saw them in his mind as the datascent became complete. He looked up at Erok, ears turned back.

“One thousand three hundred thirty-four?”

Now the lizard’s wings fluttered a little as she smiled. “Never had something this pricey?”


“These are samples for shopkeepers to decide if they want to stock the Binding, but since I’m here so late, everyone may sample them.”

Erok nodded, ears flicking in a grin. “Would be rude to keep this from everyone.”

Ker’r had sniffed the panels on the other four plates:

Changeling The Autobiography of Mike Oldfield Virgin, 5C PY-98 d3 | ~1550
Oil! by Upton Sinclair Penguin, 3C PY-113 d1 | ~1400
Crichton Jurassic Park, 2C PY-322 d1 | ~988
Far-Seer Sawyer Tor, 1C PY-206 d2 | ~1200

For the first time in years, the bitmap data for the glyphs on the spine had an impact on Ker’r. These were pages from Originals older than he was. While he took that in, the feline had made an announcement to everyone in the shop they were in for a special treat. It wasn’t usual for vendors to share samples with the general public, but since she was here, these samples were free, but mind there was only a single page from each and these pages had to last long enough for other shopkeepers to sample the Binding, so please don’t take too long.

Ker’r handed the plates to the feline. By now, everyone had risen and joined them at the counter. Erok pressed the button and the plate’s front face hissed. It opened like a Binding, revealing the single page inside. Everyone leaned closer.

The page had gracefully yellowed with age, and the glyphs had faded just slightly near the edges, showing that it had been properly stored. Ker’r knew enough about bindings to recognize the same glyphs on the spine at the top of the page. Jurassic Park.

Everyone took deep breaths. The reptiles in the room extended their tongues and tasted the air coming from the plate, being careful not to touch the page itself.

The climate of the second continent had imbued the fibers with crisp winter air, along with traces of pollen from the local flora. The paper had absorbed all of it in dust, and it became part of the page. The combination of all these elements formed the most complex and unique scent Ker’r had ever experienced. He drooled a little as his mouth worked extra hard collect it.

The well-dressed vendor had let her wings extend and was fluttering them gently, spreading the scent around the room.

“That is a paperyear minus three twenty-two,” she said. “One of the oldest in our possession, and some of the last Originals of this particular Binding. Only sixty copies left.”

The patrons were glancing at one another, in awe that they had been privileged to sample something so well-aged.

Erok let Ker’r hold the opened plate. Ker’r allowed himself just a moment to be alone with this page. He took a few more breaths, eyes closing. He wanted more, but he passed it to the person on his right instead, a feline who brought it close and took a few short inhales.

Processing something this old and with this many elements and nuance took physical effort. He felt exhausted, even after the odor stopped dancing in his mind.

“That. Is. Amazing.” Ker’r panted, tail wagging as he turned from Erok to Ege, the vendor.

She nodded. “I wish they weren’t so expensive. Scents like that should be a shared experience, not reserved for people with money.”

Ker’r’s voice sounded dreamy even to his own ears. “Will reproductions ever be like that?”

“One can hope.” She raised a Binding and took a sniff. Ker’r noticed she had ordered the reproduction paperback from today’s menu, a casual experience. Processing it wouldn’t leave her too exhausted.

When everyone had sampled that plate, Erok returned, sealed it shut, and then opened another. The volume of conversation grew louder and brighter.

This next plate contained a smaller page, but it was so yellow it looked as if it would fall apart if touched, its odor so potent it filled the room instantly. By the time the plate came to Ker’r, he already knew it.

He recognized Sawyer at the top, and felt proud of himself for knowing the glyphs without having seen them previously. Translating datascent images into sight recognition was a learned skill that did not come easily to anyone in the community of planets.

This one didn’t merely smell aged. It smelled ancient, and it had hundreds of elements and layers derived from the climate and the fibers and the ink.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying had been aged so long the paper was cracking. It had so many elements they became lost without intense focus and concentration.

Changeling was surprisingly mild in its complexity for as faded and yellow as the fibers had become.

Ker’r had to get up and leave the room, nearly falling over his head was so full. He opened the door and latched it behind him. The side room held just a single occupant, and it was ventilated and filtered so much there were no scents in here apart from his own fur, simulating the tunnels and burrows under the weather-dome, places free of scents that allowed the mind to focus.

He needed to shut out everything else and have some time to process the enormity of what he had just taken in. Entire universes contained in a single page. The complete Binding would be even more potent. He leaned against the wall and breathed the clean air for a while, pondering that a Binding like that cost more than he had in his account, and right now he was giving serious thought to going into debt just to experience it again.

After about a hundred breaths, he was beginning to feel better. No longer overwhelmed with an entire universe to sort out and process, his head didn’t feel so heavy.

Composing himself and straightening his fur, he opened the door and stepped back into the parlor. It smelled beautiful in here, a light mix of the lingering bouquets from every page and open Binding.

His nose led him to the source of the new presence: Oil! by Upton Sinclair, a dense experience that weighed heavy on his mind and lingered for a long time — hundreds of aromas, each one requiring a volume of poetry to articulate.

By now the patrons had parted ways and wanted to talk to the vendor, asking her if she’d ever been to the Planet of Paper. She had not, but one day she promised to take a trip. It would be a commitment, as she would have to be there a minimum of one year before another vessel returned.

Ker’r took his seat again. After scents like those, his hardback from the menu seemed simple and relaxing. He stuck his nose in the pages and inhaled. Very simple. Still wonderful.

“That was a treat,” Ker’r said to the winged lizard. “Thanks. I wish I could afford one of those.”

She smiled at him with her mouth and her wings. “Maybe someday the printers on the Planet of Paper will make new Bindings that are just as good as the Originals.”

Ker’r lifted his Binding. “Here’s to the People of the Aged Paper. If I could thank them, I would.” He inhaled the pages.

“So would I,” Ege replied, raising her own Binding and taking a breath, sighing in relief and this time keeping her wings still.

Ker’r turned the page and breathed the gentle fragrance. He turned to another. The odor was different from page to page. It had to be the ink. The subtle differences in the arrangement of the glyphs affected the experience. Some researcher must have confirmed it by now — it couldn’t be mere rumor.

His eyes focused, and for the first time in years, he looked at the glyphs. He stared intently. They all looked the same, just blocks and lines. Now he began to notice how some lines repeated more frequently than others. How the spacing was never uniform. How the glyphs were more than a solid wall if he stared at them hard enough.

He wasn’t accustomed to using his eyes like this, and quickly he lost focus and the bouquet came through again, lightly-aged and full of nuance.

After taking in a few more pages, Ker’r closed the Binding and waved for Erok. He was interested in the Original on the menu. It wouldn’t be as complex as the rare Bindings he had just sampled, but it was attainable. He was sure he had enough room in his head for another olfactory puzzle.

As he waited for Erok to make his way around, he promised that someday he would save up enough to afford a copy of the 2C PY-322 d1 Jurassic Park. He idly wished he could have met the people who produced such dazzlingly complex scents. They must have been advanced beyond anyone’s comprehension.


* * *

About the Author

James L. Steele is a writer in Ohio. He is guilty of book-sniffing. He assumed everyone did this and was shocked when he learned otherwise. He is the author of Huvek, available through FurPlanet, and the Archeons series, through KTM Publishing.

Visit his blog at DaydreamingInText.blogspot.com, and his twitter @JLSteeleauthor

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