Generation after generation, engineers have maintained the barricade, a shield that protects civilization against Turbulence, this strange force that destroys both minds and machines. As Turbulence grows ever more intense and the barricade begins to fail, can Ritter live up to the demands of his father, an engineer the equal of any hero in the Five Great Classical Novels, as they struggle to prevent this civilization from falling like every civilization has before it?
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ann VanderMeer.
The barricade ran the length of the frontier. It was transparent and still when calm, but the section before Ritter shimmered. Once coiled as though in tangled skeins, Turbulence now splattered like paint, coating this section of the barricade with patternless splotches of colored light. Generation after generation, engineers had maintained and overhauled the shield that protected civilization against this strange force that destroyed both minds and machines. Ritter’s first posting was supposed to be more maintenance and less overhaul. Unfortunately, the barricade, rather than stilling the Turbulence, twisted and writhed as threads of Turbulence clogged its pistons. Smoke bloomed as the barricade’s flawed machinery destroyed itself.
Ritter’s partner hung just over the smoke, threads of Turbulence snaking through his dead body. He’d decided to show Ritter, the new academy graduate, how engineers really worked. But the barricade was malfunctioning, not just broken down. It would need a new design to account for an attack mode that Turbulence had never before exhibited, not merely its stripped gears replaced, but the seasoned engineer had refused to listen. The blaze of Turbulence that leaked through hadn’t taken more than few seconds to destroy his mind.
Ritter shot a distress flare. It carved a thick spiral in the air as it soared. Help would arrive sooner or later.
A faint whine echoed in his head. A cart was trundling toward him from the other side of the barricade. He sensed it as clearly as if it were right in front of him. Its motor was clanging itself to pieces, its throttle was stuck open, and its steering had seized. In minutes, the cart would plunge straight into Turbulence and its driver could do little about it.
Ritter threw himself onto the barricade. His hands clutched a cracked, invisible girder. It tossed him back and forth like a banner in a storm. He imagined a tarp, the equations for which Father had drilled into him when he was six. It unfurled over this section of the barricade, its elegant curves guiding Turbulence toward adjoining sections. Vast multicolored plumes parted, rushing along the tarp to areas of the frontier where Ritter hoped the barricade was still in working order.
Ritter’s section calmed down. His partner, no longer an engineer, fell through the barricade. The dead body splayed on the ground like a pile of broken struts.
In Ritter's mind, the barricade felt like a palimpsest. His sense of the archivist who drove the cart and the feral library that trailed it bled through in all the wrong places. Ritter recognized the archivist. When Ritter was a child, Deck’s job was to shepherd a library from camp to camp along the barricade. Deck shared Father’s tent whenever his duties took him to Camp Terminus.
For Ritter, telepathy was simultaneously a gift and a curse. The gift was that Ritter could know that Deck had aimed the now-uncontrollable cart at Ritter, confident that Ritter would save him somehow. The curse of telepathy was that Ritter couldn’t tell what lay just over his own head. Echoes of shelves on the approaching library’s giant book walls seemed like the barricade’s girders. A myriad of small shelves of Deck’s mind revolved around each other in curves that soared through dozens of dimensions. They seemed to entwine the machine that surrounded Ritter like the nest of tubing that connected the pistons to the compressors. He’d never met another engineer who had to put up with the chaos of minds interfering with the sense of machines in their heads.
Creating a machine was like working out subtle mathematical analyses while hoisting unbalanced boulders into their proper places. Father could imagine vast, complicated designs outright. Everyone else imagined parts into reality and then hefted into place. Crenels deepened on gears Ritter imagined into tiny battlements. Cams smoothed into pleasing ovoids. He mated them to motors and actuators that he belted and wrestled into the design. Ritter’s body ached from the strain and sweat stung his eyes.
The new design came together methodically. Teasing out what were parts of the barricade and what were phantoms of the library and archivist slowed him down. He jumped every time the tarp buckled under the strain of roiling Turbulence. Father would have been disappointed with how long it was taking him, but Father now led Camp Terminus, a day’s trip away.
The cart and the library galloping to keep pace looked like toys hurtling toward a tangled swarm of glowing, variegated threads as intangible as the barricade meant to stop them. Ritter dismissed the tarp and braced against a girder. The barricade swayed and rippled, alternately squat and lithe as it untangled then dissolved threads lashing at it.
The storm of Turbulence dimmed, its snarled mass thinned down to scattered individual threads. Turbulence swarmed around the library and cart. The library reared, its translucent tusks shoving threads aside. The library and cart passed through the barricade as though it weren’t there. For non-engineers, it wasn’t.
Now, Ritter had to stop the runaway cart. He jumped off the barricade and slammed onto the cart’s hood. Deck gave Ritter an amused gaze through the library tusk visor of his helmet, then waved. Very little fazed Deck.
Ritter’s hand found the crack between the hood and the body of the cart. An imagined knife jammed into a lever. The hood swung up, slamming Ritter against the windshield. Ritter reached around and pulled free a piece of tubing. The motor died and Ritter felt Deck engage the brakes.
“Not quite, Ritter.” The sharp, stentorian voice came from behind, not from the cart.
That voice had etched itself too deeply into Ritter for him to mistake it. However, his father was several orders of magnitude too important to respond to a new graduate’s distress flare.
“Father?” Ritter stumbled off the cart then snapped to attention. “Yes, sir.”
Meeting Father was like crashing into the sandstone cliff that had erupted into existence while you weren’t looking. Father even looked the part. Thick shoulders and a general solidity settled on all engineers, but more so on Father. Even now that they saw eye-to-eye, Father still seemed to loom over him.
“This is how you should have redesigned it.” Father marched to the barricade.
He coiled then exploded, tumbling from one girder to another. The tall, hulking figure climbed up the barricade as easily as he’d walked to it. He exchanged the end point of one hose with that of another. The wall’s jitter evolved into a slight sway. Turbulence actually seemed slightly more agitated.
“Do you understand why this is, on the whole, a better solution?” Father leapt off the barricade then marched back. His gaze could have cut diamonds.
“No, sir.” If Ritter had said yes, Father would have asked him to explain. He’d learned as a child never to lie to Father.
Father frowned. “But you at least see how it is in some ways a worse solution.”
“Worse?” Ritter’s brow furrowed. The shelves of Father’s mind, as always, revolved around each other in complex curves that traversed hundreds of dimensions. Ritter had never seen a more intelligent mind.
“Ritter, all engineering is a matter of trade-offs.” Father closed his eyes, as if to master himself, then opened them again. “Have they taught you nothing at the academy?”
This was a question Ritter was certain he could work out the answer to. If worse came to worst, he had a fifty-fifty chance.
“Rhetorical question, Ritter.” Father held up his hand. “Prepare a full analysis of the new Turbulence attack mode exhibited here and of the design deployed. I expect it on my desk tomorrow. You are now working on the overhaul of the barricade under my direct command. Understood?”
“But what about . . .” Ritter ran out of words and resorted to pointing at the section of barricade he was sworn to watch.
Father rolled his eyes. “I’ve already ordered the signalers on either side to split your territory. If they need help, they know to ask.”
“On my desk. Tomorrow at dawn.” Father’s gaze shifted past Ritter to the cart, then back. For a moment, a smile might have crinkled his face. “Fix Deck’s cart. Camp Terminus is on his way back to civilization.”
Father hefted the dead body of Ritter’s partner across his shoulders, then literally flew away. A transparent flying machine had surrounded him the instant before he leapt into the air.
Ritter stared, jaw agape, at the prone figure growing smaller in the distance. He gave in to the urge to understand how the flying machine worked, letting it fill his mind for as long as he could still sense it.
Sandstone cliffs stood in the distance, clearly visible through the barricade. The occasional tent dotted the field of rock and sparse brush that lay on either side of the road to Camp Terminus. Engineers monitoring the barricade all stared at the library galloping behind the cart as it passed them. Libraries were black, massive beasts with thick legs and transparent tusks. They didn’t normally gallop and, frankly, it never looked possible.
The cart rattled as if it were shaking itself apart. The doors and the hood clattered against their fittings and latches. Deck’s long legs kept bumping against the steering column. The power train, though, was silent. Ritter had replaced it entirely with one he’d built out of imagined parts. After the cart’s trip through Turbulence, the original power train would have disintegrated long before they reached Camp Terminus.
Ritter wished he’d had time to refit the body too, but one was never late for an appointment with Father. Between the racket and the library bombarding his mind with invitations to climb its book walls, the analysis Father wanted was going slowly. Dense symbols covered only scant pages of the thick pad on his lap.
Deck was doing an admirable job of not commenting on Ritter’s repairs. Veteran engineers, not fresh graduates, had the capacity to rebuild an entire section of the barricade. That Ritter could also reconstruct most of a cart afterward was odder still. Father had been training him since before he could walk. Despite an additional course load in librarianship, studying at the academy seemed like a vacation compared to Father. Explaining this never convinced anyone that he was normal, not that Deck needed any convincing one way or the other.
The archivist had long ago rifled through Ritter’s mind as if he were some library that needed to be cataloged. All librarians were at least slightly telepathic. Otherwise, they couldn’t enter a library or know which book to retrieve when the best description a patron could muster was “a detective novel about mushrooms whose title is a type of bird.” The ability that interfered with Ritter’s sense of machines was a prerequisite for them. Some archivists were considerably more than slightly telepathic.
Vast walls crammed with books occluded the pad of paper on Ritter’s lap. Deck had already started to catalog the beast and Ritter could sense the shelves and shelves devoted to chaotic dynamics. Just because Turbulence had wiped out the civilization that had created this archive didn’t mean they hadn’t had good ideas. A citation Father would actually have to look up was irresistible.
“Junior, just go.” Deck took Ritter’s pad of paper away from him. “You’ve thought through your analysis so many times, I practically have it memorized.”
Inside the library, Ritter stood on a book wall as broad and rugged as a cliff face. His fingers pinched one shelf while his feet pressed against the edge of another. Other walls lay orthogonal to it along nine different axes so that, in total, they formed a nine-dimensional lattice.
Ritter climbed the wall, his hands and feet finding purchase in the cracks between books and the edges of shelving. Unlike engineering, his upper body served mostly as ballast here, extra weight for his legs to push up the wall. He leapt from wall to wall, searching for shelves devoted to chaotic dynamics.
At the academy, he’d liked the librarianship classes best because he actually got to take them. His engineering professors all told him to show up to class only for the exams, then assigned him independent study. He needed something to fill up his time. The student librarians were more fun to be around anyway. They didn’t refer to Father with an awed expression and a reverent tone.
Ritter had done well in his studies. He found his book quickly enough and landed back in the passenger seat of the cart with a soft whoosh, book in hand.
“Junior.” Deck handed Ritter his pad of paper back. “Has anyone ever told you that—”
“That I’d deal with Father better if I didn’t behave like a field mouse cowering beneath the great gray owl flying overhead, hoping not to be eaten?”
Deck had undoubtedly felt Ritter’s panic during Father’s grilling. Ritter certainly felt Deck’s testiness now.
“That wasn’t how I was going to put it.” Deck took a deep breath. “You’re hardly a field mouse, but the academy might have been easier to take if you didn’t also look exactly like him.”
As Ritter had grown taller and broader, so had Father’s shadow. In his last years at the academy, professors hurried to stand whenever Ritter went to office hours, only to quickly sit down again when Ritter made it clear that he was the son, not the father.
“The man whose designs have pushed the barricade hundreds of miles into the frontier gets to work with whomever he wants, I guess.” Ritter shrugged. “I’ll be the only person from my graduating class at Camp Terminus.”
“You say that as if it were a bad thing, Junior.” Deck pulled off the road then stopped the cart. “If you’re so desperate to be out from under your father’s shadow, why aren’t you a librarian? Few enough are telepathic that everyone who is gets an offer from somewhere.”
“I’m an engineer.” Ritter started writing the next section of his analysis. “A signaler in the middle of nowhere was the farthest away I could get.”
Deck unfolded himself from the cart. He was as tall as Father seemed. As a child, Ritter had thought they were the same height until he’d seen them hand-in-hand and realized Deck was a head taller. Deck squatted a few times to stretch his legs, then walked around the cart to Ritter.
“I have some pull with the archivists.” Deck thumbed through Ritter’s library book. “You think nothing of reading chaotic dynamics written in a dead language. It wouldn’t even be a favor to have you work for us. We’re still finding the occasional feral library. They need to be cataloged and translated. We’re always creating and updating archives for when the barricade inevitably fails—”
“Not on my watch.” The words had erupted from Ritter before he’d realized.
“Spoken like your father.” Deck glared at him. “Nevertheless, no civilization has ever held off Turbulence indefinitely. Your training as an engineer won’t go to waste as an archivist.”
Ritter could see the disappointment on Father’s face now. Then again, at Camp Terminus, hundreds of minds would interfere with his. Father might be disappointed anyway.
“Deck, how alike are minds and libraries? You repair minds the way you repair shelves and restore books, right?”
“Well, people’s minds aren’t libraries, of course. You’ve sensed that yourself. Otherwise, we’d just restructure our shelves, fill ourselves with books and to hell with the academy.” Deck set the library book on Ritter’s lap. “Minds are far more complicated, but a few archivists can— No, Junior.”
“But you can do it. Destroy the parts of my mind that read everyone around me.”
Deck stared at Ritter for a minute. A frown spread across his face.
“It’s a terrible idea. The shelves of a mind are more interconnected than those in any library. Much of your time at the academy would become an impenetrable blur. I don’t know who you’d be—”
“But they’re not so interconnected yet that you can’t disentangle and destroy them but leave the rest of me intact.”
“Junior.” Deck glared down, taking full advantage of his height. “That you can pull that out of my mind is a reason not to do this.”
Deck strode back around, jumped into the driver’s seat, then pulled the cart back onto the road. “Take some time to think about my offer. Given how much of this cart you’ve imagined, I’ll be visiting your father for a while.”
The mechanics at Camp Terminus would replace what Ritter had imagined with physical parts so that he could spend his capacity on the barricade. They’d compare his work to Father’s and then, like the professors at the academy, find it wanting. He knew it’d be good to do something where he couldn’t be compared to Father. Actually meeting Father’s expectations, though, seemed so much better. He could do that if, like any other engineer, the only mind he sensed was his own.
As usual, engineers approached Ritter with open arms and big smiles as he entered the canteen, only to mutter awkward greetings when they realized he was, not the father, but the son. Conversation had now resumed its usual simmer. Everyone laughed at their own jokes a little too hard and enjoyed each other’s company a little too desperately. One way or another, Camp Terminus broke engineers.
When Ritter was six, Father burnt offerings at Mother’s grave, then brought Ritter with him to his new posting. Camp Terminus was always located where Turbulence was the most violent and consequently where the barricade was in the worst shape. This wasn’t the location where Ritter spent his childhood, but this was still the place where he spent it.
Ritter took his post-shift meal alone in the corner. Steam rising from a bowl of rice always carried with it the smell of home. Bits of garlic and hot pepper flavored his plate of thinly sliced pig’s ears. Salty, metallic cubes of congealed pig’s blood floated in a light but gingery broth. His appointment with Father at sunrise, however, had stolen his appetite. The hour left until the meeting could not have been passing more slowly.
A long shadow spilled over Ritter. Deck lurched over the table, his hands clasped behind his back.
Ritter narrowed his gaze. “Father can’t meet this morning. You have . . . a box of papers you’re supposed to give me instead.”
“Very good.” Deck tossed the box onto the table. The bowls and plate clattered as the box landed with a thud. “Open it.”
The box had a flap tied shut with a string. Ritter pulled out a thick stack of paper. A piece of cardboard jutted out from near the top of the stack. The analysis Father had ordered stared back at him. Ritter flipped through his own work. The pages had empty white margins where Ritter had expected a torrent of words in Father’s sharp, precise hand. The only notation Father had made was a check mark at the top of the first page. Ritter hated the surge of joy rushing through his body. This was the most praise he’d ever received from Father.
The piece of cardboard separated his analysis from the rest of the stack. Father had inscribed on it in an uncharacteristic scrawl: “Plans for new barricade. Analyze then suggest better trade-offs.” Ritter peered quizzically at Deck, whose eyebrows lifted in innocent curiosity.
“Good news?” Deck’s mouth creased into a gentle smile when Ritter glared at him. “This is not how your father’s sense of humor—yes, he does have one—works. He’s quite serious about wanting your analysis.”
Ritter leafed through Father’s plans. It was written in Father’s native language, dense blocks of equations surrounded by intricate diagrams. Anyone else might have expected to see this in translation, but Ritter had grown up with this language. Deck was undoubtedly right. Father expected him not only to understand this but have something intelligent to say about it. Ritter supposed that wasn’t impossible.
The lone check mark stared at Ritter. Father would never be happy with Ritter merely understanding this design. With so many minds impinging on his, however, he’d never focus well enough to implement it.
“Father doesn’t want just an analysis. He has always expected that his son would be an engineer just like him.” Ritter looked up at the archivist. “Please, Deck. You could fix my mind—”
“Junior, you know your father loves you more than anyone else in the world, right?”
From anyone else, that would have been a platitude. Deck, though, was Father’s oldest friend. Only duty ever kept them apart. Deck was sworn to recover and restore feral libraries. Father was sworn to defend the world against Turbulence.
“I don’t want to disappoint him.” Ritter held out the stack of paper. “He wants me to build this with him and so do I. I understand what I’m giving up. If you won’t help me, I’ll find another archivist—”
“No. If anyone is going to do this to you . . .” Deck exhaled audibly, his mind blasting a reluctance that soon would no longer insinuate itself into Ritter’s mind. “Come on, let’s find somewhere private.”
A loud shriek rent the air. Ritter jumped in his seat. Except for Deck, everyone else in the canteen glanced oddly at him, then returned to their conversations. Deck simply stared at him, concerned.
No one else had heard it. Ritter closed his eyes and shook his head, trying to drive the shelves of other people’s minds out of his own. The barricade was about to fail. Fatigued gears and piston seals about to crack inundated his mind. He sprinted out of the canteen and headed toward the massive storm of Turbulence about to arrive.
In the distance, skeins of Turbulence lashed at the barricade. Engineers clung on its girders, dark specks tumbling against a multicolored light show. Loud, sustained shrieks still rang in Ritter’s ears. He raced toward the barricade, leaving Deck, despite the archivist’s longer legs, in a trail of dust somewhere behind him.
Father ran along the barricade, ordering engineers to retreat and then to erect a retaining wall behind him. Those dark specks slid down, pooling at the ground. They scattered back, finally distinguishable as people as they grew closer.
Turbulence wore down the barricade. Bright tangled threads crushed gears and flayed open pistons as they squirmed through. Father was constructing some sort of machine on the barren ground, engineers still running past him. A low drone filled the air. Sparks danced around Father as he swung up and down the frame of girders he’d created, forcing gears into place, attaching tubing to pistons.
No machine constructed by just one engineer, even Father, could possibly settle or divert this much Turbulence. As more of the machine coalesced into being, Ritter realized what Father intended to do. Ritter redoubled his sprint, his arms pumping furiously and his thighs burning. He shouted at the engineers in front of him to stop Father, but they simply continued to erect their retaining wall. Maybe they didn’t understand Father’s machine. Maybe they were too focused on building the retaining wall. Or, more likely, they were too loyal to Father.
The barricade ruptured. Wild gears and belts flew away before they dissipated. The shrieking in Ritter’s head stopped, leaving only a hollow ringing in his ears. Turbulence burst through like a flood of heavy spring rain. Multicolored skeins entangled engineers who’d fled too slowly or too late. Threads flayed the shelves of their minds. Volumes of knowledge split and fell. Engineers slumped to the ground as they forgot they needed to breathe or, for that matter, how.
Father’s machine unfolded, stretching like wings just behind the failing parts of the barricade. Hinges droned as machinery cantilevered into place. The ground trembled when the machine landed, a solid wall that ran the length of the breach. Father stood in the middle, tiny compared to the oncoming storm.
Turbulence pelted Father’s machine like random splotches of paint. They unspooled with uncharacteristic order. Threads wormed through Father’s machine from all directions to converge on him. They swirled around him, swallowing him inside a multicolored cocoon. He lifted into the air as his machine funneled the storm into him.
Imagined machines consumed Turbulence well. A person consumed Turbulence even better. An engineer who might have stepped out of one of the Five Great Classical Novels consumed Turbulence best of all. By the time Father forgot how to breathe, the storm would be no more trouble than a gentle mist.
Hands grasped Ritter’s shoulders, lifting him off the ground before he could charge over the half-constructed retaining wall. Ritter’s legs kicked uselessly for a few steps before he let them dangle.
“No.” Deck set him on the ground, but didn’t let go. “Let them finish first.”
Engineers swarmed over and around Ritter, leaping from girder to girder, securing tubing to pistons. So many minds crashed into his that Ritter could barely nod his head to agree. The designs for the retaining wall lit in his mind like the sun and blinded him.
Deck was taller and longer-limbed but Ritter had been lifting heavy machinery since he was a child. However, Ritter kept his boots still and his arms by his side. Removing Father now would overwhelm the retaining wall and the engineers still hanging off it.
They connected isolated pieces of machinery with belts and tubing. The retaining wall lurched into life. Meanwhile, the shelves of Father’s mind dimmed and splintered. The tracks they slid on crumbled into pieces. Books, their bindings cracked and pages torn, fell out of their proper places. Ritter’s eyes hurt and air refused to stay in his lungs.
Ritter shook off Deck’s grip, or maybe Deck had let go. His boots pounded the dusty ground. He leapt onto the wall, warping its machinery so that he could squeeze through. No one tried to stop him.
Engineers were still straggling back to the retaining wall from the breach. Father’s machine, clanking and puffing in a steady, complex pattern, loomed before Ritter. Above him, Turbulence knotted Father to the machine. An amorphous cocoon billowed around Father, bright colors swirling through his skin.
Ritter climbed Father’s machine, pulling himself up girders and dodging flares of Turbulence. Heat scraped his body. The almost subliminal scent of imagined parts about to burn filled his lungs. This machine might have had even less time left than Father. Still, Ritter substituted in new control gears, swapped tubing to form a new set of connections, and shoved what he hadn’t changed into new positions. The pattern of clanks and puffs grew simpler and quieter. Sweat soaked his shirt and stung his eyes.
Threads of Turbulence shifted course above Father. At first, they fluttered like ribbons in a breeze. As the Turbulence approached the retaining wall, threads tangled back into knotted skeins. Engineers shouted at each other. Men and women, seeming the size of rats, scurried up and down the invisible wall.
The cocoon that enveloped Father shrank into him and he began to fall. Ritter stretched out. His arm hit Father’s back and he hugged Father to him. Father’s head fell on Ritter’s shoulders but Father’s chest swelled, straining against Ritter’s arm.
Ritter shifted Father over his shoulder. One arm steadied Father while the other slid along girders as Ritter worked his way down. Pain radiated up his fingers as he climbed and shocked his knees as he jumped to the ground. He ran to the retaining wall, set Father down where the wall lay, climbed through a hole he created for himself, then dragged Father through.
One last group of fleeing engineers followed Ritter. The engineers, their brows creased with concern, pooled around him as he threw Father onto his back.
“Are you all right?” Ritter asked. When they muttered and nodded, Ritter pointed at the retaining wall, then dug out his best command voice. “Then what are you waiting for?”
The question stunned them out of their grief. They joined the men and women shoring up the already failing wall. Anything thrown together in a matter of minutes would need constant maintenance until this storm broke.
“You.” Ritter stared up at Deck. “You can repair his mind.”
Deck stared at Father then frowned. “Maybe, with help.”
“I’ve taken classes in archive restoration.”
“Junior, if you help me repair your father’s mind, eliminating what makes you a librarian will kill you. Everything you’ve learned, everything you can do, will be too integrated with the rest of you for me to excise. If you help me, I can never make you the engineer you want to be.”
“That’s my trade-off, then.”
Deck started away from the wall in long strides. “The canteen ought to be empty. We can set up in there.”
Ritter followed, matching pace when Deck broke into a sprint. Father weighed on him with each pounding step.
One moment, Ritter and Deck stood alone in the canteen with Father spread flat on a table. The next moment, Father’s mind surrounded Ritter. Disparate shelves, rather than revolving around each other in elegant curves, had congealed into vast, static walls arranged in a flat lattice. The equal of the best engineers in the Five Great Classical Novels, right now, had the sentience of only the simplest libraries.
Ritter’s fingers pinched the thin edge of a shelf jammed with books. His boots pressed against the back of a shelf that wasn’t. Disheveled books lay half open, scattered on splintered shelving that protruded at odd angles out of the case. Rust filled his lungs. Creaking pierced the air. Ritter hadn’t dared to do anything yet. The creaking must have been Deck somewhere else in Father’s mind.
The archivist had left him in the section of Father’s mind Ritter knew best, reminded Ritter of the archive restoration classes he’d taken, then disappeared. Day in, day out, for as long as Ritter had lived, he’d witnessed shelves of Father’s mind slide and rotate around each other. If he couldn’t restore Father’s intellect, Deck had told him, no one else was likely to do any better.
Pain radiated up Ritter’s fingers. Time to do something before he lost his grip and fell to the unseen floor below. If librarians ever let themselves maintain less than three points of contact with a book wall, they’d have a life expectancy as short as that of engineers. One of the many miracles of Father was that he’d not only lived but remained an engineer long enough to see his child become one.
Turbulence had smashed shelves and pushed books out of place, but these shelves had lost little actual knowledge. Ritter was librarian enough to rebuild shelves, repair broken bindings, and mend ripped pages. In time, those books would heal and become indistinguishable from the originals. Turbulence hadn’t torn any pages out or rent any book to pieces. Every book slid into its proper place, each hissing a puff of air as it did that still smelled disconcertingly of rust.
Father, however, was more than an immaculately organized collection of knowledge. Ritter scrambled onto the top of the wall. The toes of his boots jutted out past the plank that capped it. The machinery of Father’s reasoning lay below him. Rusted tracks extended, cracked and kinked out to nowhere from every wall. What ought to have been patterns of elegant curves was instead a thicket of thorns. A glowing slick stained bearings and brackets that jostled and jittered but couldn’t spin or bend.
The materials were lighter and more delicate, but the math was analogous to what Father had drilled into Ritter every day since before he could walk. He reached down for a rusted track and began to restore Father’s intellect to what he’d always seen.
Sweat dripped into his eyes. The restored material of Father’s intelligence was both slippery and sharp. Blood smeared and coated his fingers like thin gloves. He had no idea how long he’d been working when he noticed Deck peering down at him. Time moved differently in archives.
“Not bad.” Deck’s gaze swept a wide arc. “No one will ever be able to tell that Turbulence had ever overrun his intellect.”
Ghostly tracks spiraled around Ritter. They crisscrossed each other, arcing through hundreds of dimensions. Bearings spun with a scarcely audible hiss. Ritter reached for a book and Father’s mind reconfigured around him. Shelves scattered and recombined as though the wind had torn a spiderweb to pieces only to have it coalesce into a different web.
Deck hadn't even flinched when the shelf he stood on rotated and translated to its new position. Only a slow nod betrayed any sign that he noticed Father’s intellect had changed configuration.
“No one except Father.” Ritter climbed to a bearing and then tapped it, careful not to smear it with his blood. “I still have work left to do.”
Deck frowned. “Follow me.” He offered Ritter a hand. “There’s something you need to see.”
Ritter climbed up to join Deck. Where once a field of darkness had been, the rest of Father’s mind gleamed. Pieces of shelving ferried books in sweeping arcs, then merged to form not walls but something crystalline. The myriad of shelves all seemed adjacent to each other.
Deck slid on a track toward the structure. Gingerly, Ritter followed. At first, he thought Deck just wanted to show him how Father’s mind should look. Father’s intellect still had to be reintegrated into this structure. Then he noticed how barren the shelves were. Translucent slats joined from a sparse, almost hollow structure, rather than one brimming with memories.
“What’s missing?” Given that all of Father’s autonomic processes worked and Ritter had spent who knows how long restoring everything related to Father’s profession, he hadn’t actually needed to ask.
“I’m sorry, Junior.” Deck placed an arm on Ritter’s shoulder but Ritter shrugged it off. “I salvaged as much as I could. He might still remember us as colleagues.”
“Very well. I still have work to do.” If he looked at the empty shelves any longer, his chest would burst. He jumped to a track that led him back to the machinery of Father’s intellect. “Bearings to repack. His intellect to reintegrate with the rest of his mind.”
“Junior.” Deck’s voice shot Ritter between the shoulder blades. “You don’t have to be the brave engineer. Not right now.”
“Actually, I do.” By some miracle, his voice held steady. “Especially right now.”
It was oddly comforting to make bearings run freely, to make the machinery of Father’s intellect swirl around him in the complex patterns Ritter had always found so intimidating. Making and repairing machines was what Father had taught him to do and now that was all Ritter had left of him. That, somehow, didn’t stop Ritter’s rib cage from squeezing his heart.
Moonlight passed through the much-battered, but still intact, retaining wall. It curved sharply on either end to join up with the rest of the barricade. The few threads of Turbulence sweeping the wall were practically invisible. Ritter felt the retaining wall degrade infinitesimally with each pass but none of the other engineers on tonight’s watch seemed to notice.
Chunks of breached barricade and the wreckage of Father’s machine still littered the ground. Soon, Ritter and the other engineers at Camp Terminus would have to clear all that up. The barricade itself still needed to be replaced. The retaining wall had never been intended to last. Rotating teams of engineers rebuilt it day and night.
Ritter sipped tea from his vacuum flask. He sat against the retaining wall, reviewing his annotations of Father’s plans for the new barricade. The rest of his team sat chatting around a fire. Low rumblings, high-pitched words, smoke and their collective fear drifted toward him. Rescuing Father had given him a reputation, not one he would have chosen.
It was just as well. Nothing would happen to the wall tonight. The large storms were still days away.
Ritter eyed the thin, gray volume he’d set next to his vacuum flask. Deck had left him a text on meditation before he’d left and promised he’d return to go over it with him. It was embarrassing to be the only engineer at camp who still received homework. Maybe he’d just keep living with everyone else’s minds invading his instead.
Someone tall yet stocky emerged from the dark. The engineers around the fire all stopped talking and rushed to a stand. A few of them pointed at Ritter. Not-Father waved the engineers away and they all abandoned their posts without question. Destroyed then restored, not-Father commanded the loyalty that Father had. After his sacrifice, maybe that loyalty was now devotion. He was still every bit the engineer Father had been. Ritter had seen to that.
Ritter rushed to stand as not-Father approached. Pages of intricate plans spilled from his lap. Not-Father gestured at him to sit back down and Ritter complied. He could have only avoided not-Father for so long. Not-Father loomed over Ritter. His eyebrows arched at the spray of paper settling on the ground. He crouched down and gathered the papers into a neat stack.
“Even if I hadn’t been told you were my son, I would have guessed.” Not-Father placed the stack on Ritter’s lap. “I’m not convinced that I wanted to be rescued.”
“I’m not convinced that you have been, sir.” Ritter focused on sorting the papers on his lap.
Not-Father nodded slowly. He had Father’s appraising gaze, the one that squeezed the air out of Ritter’s lungs.
“Fair enough.” He sat next to Ritter, his back resting against the wall. “My proposed redesign of the barricade. You’re the only reason why I remember working on it, much less understand it. Thank you. Your father asked you for an analysis weeks ago. I expected you’d be done by now.”
Ritter looked up. “Excuse me, sir?” He couldn’t hide the puzzlement on his face. Father had wanted the analysis, but why would anyone else? “I’m fresh out of the academy, sir.”
For a moment, not-Father seemed at a loss for words. He patted Ritter’s shoulder.
“Modest, as always. I haven’t forgotten everything.” Not-Father took the now sorted pile of paper from Ritter. “Your instructors have sent me detailed reports about your progress for years. So, what does the best theorist in a generation think of my proposal?”
Ritter’s eyebrows raised. He resisted making a deprecating remark, although that would have bought him some time. Everything he had ever known about chaotic phenomena seemed to have fallen out of his mind. He swallowed hard, wishing he, rather than not-Father, were leafing through Father’s plans.
“Well, sir, it’s ambitious. A wall built of bricks of small, densely packed, cross-linked redundant machines. It should be easier to maintain and more robust against the ever more violent and unpredictable storms of Turbulence as we push farther into the frontier.”
Not-Father frowned. “All engineering is a matter of trade-offs, Ritter.”
“I don’t know how many engineers, besides you, will be able to create the machinery you’ve designed. The feature size is too small and the tolerances too strict. I’ve come up with some alternatives, but . . .” Ritter shrugged. “If it’s just the two of us alone on the barricade, I think I might be able to—”
“No, you’re too easily distracted. Your best work is behind the barricade, not on it.” Not-Father stood. “Very good, Ritter. I’ll go over your annotations and we’ll discuss them in the morning.”
Not-Father nodded his goodbye then walked away. His boots, creased and dun-colored, their treads worn smooth, left blurred prints on the ground. He’d broken them down from new in just weeks from manning the retaining wall, not to mention surveying and repairing the barricade as a whole.
Ritter curled as though not-Father had punched him in the gut. He missed the man who’d decided Ritter could do anything and was always exasperated when it seemed Ritter couldn’t.
Engineers gathered again around the fire to finish their shift. Ritter didn’t need to see them to know that. The slim volume Deck had given him felt oddly heavy in his hands. He worked through its first exercises as shelves swirling around the barricade echoed through his mind.
“A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Proposed Trade-Offs for the Overhaul of the Barricade” copyright © 2014 by John Chu
Art copyright © 2014 by Julie Dillon