The truck lurched wildly from one side to the other as it rolled over the seam where the gravel path from Rowe joined the hardroad. Once all four wheels were on the smooth paved surface and angled toward Seal Tooth, Sevv gave the weak shaky smile of a man stepping from a boat to the shore, embarrassed by the obviousness of his relief.
She tried to figure out a way to talk to the old professor. A hailstorm of almost-questions fell around her. She only caught a glimpse of each before they became part of an indistinguishable slurry of unresolved ignorance. Becoming a professor would require learning, and learning required questions. She couldn’t just sit back and observe the world as she had from her tree. Not only was she ignorant, she was too stupid to figure out how to learn.
Sevv was no help at all. He just sat there blinking and twitching. His thin trembling lips oscillating between a weak optimistic smile, and a thoughtful disapproving frown.
Up ahead, the crumbling skeletons of two bridges arched over the hardroad. Their approaches had long-since tumbled into heaps of deteriorating shapestone and the rusty rotting ends of iron bars. Blackberry brambles carpeted the ground, and had rolled up to swallow the jagged mounds entirely. Had it not been for the recent cold withering their broad leaves, she would have mistaken the piles of rubble for a hillock or berm.
A line of massive shapestone pillars sprouted from the mess like the stumpy remains of a line of enormous trees. Each pillar reached higher than the last, until they were nearly the same unbelievable height as the arches. She thought there were creeping webs of ivy growing up the sides of the pillars, but as they drew near, Reyan saw that these were actually vast networks of cracks. Each pillar was marred by dozens of black spaces where chunks of shapestone had broken free and smashed down into the roiling chaos of boulders and brambles below.
The caravan passed beneath the arc of the bridge. She craned her neck to look up through the window as it drifted overhead. The underside was as high as the top of the tower in Rowe. It would have covered the roof of the leader’s house with its shadow. It spanned the width of the hardroad, but could easily have crossed two more lanes side by side.
“That’s the biggest thing I have ever seen that wasn’t a mountain.”
“Things will only get larger from here.”
“Who built it?”
“It’s impossible to know, but by the looks of them, I’d say these structures were already old during the Systemic Era. If the System had designed them, the shapestone might have a few cracks but it would not be so utterly ruined.”
“Why are the arches still standing?”
“Hard to say. But eventually everything falls.”
They passed the remnants of a car by the side of the road. Now, it was little more than a slumping mass of tarnished metal, crumbling glass, and sun-faded plastic shot through with dried blackberry brambles. All the abandoned cars and trucks near Orloton had been cleared away generations ago, so this was the first real car Reyan had ever seen. She cocked her head curiously.
“The Eye pass over us, let’s stay wide of that mess,” Sevv mumbled to himself, or maybe the horses.
Finally, Reyan knew what she wanted to ask. “What’s so bad about tech?”
“Tech bred dependency and laziness. Laziness feels good at first, easy, like you’ve won some game, but that feeling will lay a pretty and comfortable road to your eventual discontentment. And that there was just normal tech. Thinktech was even worse. It thought our thoughts, it made our decisions. Strangely enough, it always seemed to think about and decide upon more thinktech. If you ask a rabbit what sort of animals are best, you should not be surprised when you are overrun with baby rabbits.”
“Weren’t the System thinktech? I thought they were good.”
“They were. The problem wasn’t the System, my dear, it was us. We were the ones who handed over every difficult or uncomfortable aspect of our lives to them. The System, for their part, did their best to improve our lives in all the ways we requested. But then, all our tech let us down.” She was patiently waiting for him to continue, but he somehow misread disbelief on her face. He said, “It’s true. We remember.”
“You where alive?”
He waved her off dismissively. “Of course not. But we professors are society’s memory. Do you know about the Calming?”
Reyan wondered if it counted as knowing something if she had heard a word but never considered its meaning. At what point did a thing change from being unknown to known? It probably had to do with being able to explain it to someone else. She certainly couldn’t do that, so she shook her head.
“When the Calming came, it destroyed all the tech. Because we relied on it so heavily, we were left with nothing.”
“But why do we hate it?”
“I wouldn’t say we hate tech exactly. There’s even an official technical faculty. Kavi will join it when he graduates.”
“You have faculties, no? You hear, you see, you think, you have muscular strength.” She nodded. “Well, the System have faculties as well. We professors specialize in one of these systemic faculties. Kavi will become part of the System’s technical faculty. Parr is in the theoretical faculty, and I specialize in systemic processes, methods, and tools. There are other faculties of course—agricultural, historical, medicinal, etcetera—far too many for any one person to embody. The System defined a set of concerns, protocols, and functions for each. It is extremely important to the health and fidelity of the System that we learn and faithfully act out our faculty’s role. Which do you think you’d like to be?”
“Can’t I learn them all?”
Sevv grew silent and his eyes narrowed. Then he said, as though Reyan understood almost nothing, “The System is limitless. You are only a human. You have human limitations, my dear.”
“I thought professors understood the whole System.”
“While it is true that professors know more of the whole than your average faculty member, when we’re not out on circuit, we focus our instruction very narrowly on our area of expertise. Concerning yourself with the goings on of the other faculties makes the entire System less efficient. Now that you know, are you sure becoming a professor is still what you want?”
“Speak up. A professor needs to project her voice. Again, please.”
There was seldom a clear and single why for the things Reyan did. It wasn’t that there was no reason, more that there were hundreds of different competing thoughts and ideas and desires and fears, and out of that tangle of whys emerge the thing she ended up doing. The systemic methods that Sevv taught were the first tool she’d ever seen that helped her structure and focus that tangle of concerns. If the System had devised the decision matrix, then the System understood her mind. If that was true, she wanted to understand all there was to know about them.
Reyan had always been apart from other people, just as the professors were apart from the towns. But where her separation left her feeling lonely, it gave the professors a mystical quality that made the townsfolk respect them. If someone respected you, you might teach them. Tom, her young friend back in Orloton, had shown her what it could be like to have someone to teach. She had only ever taught the boy silly things—how to skip stones or light fires or tie good knots—but it was enough to get a taste for the joy of harvesting her own knowledge, planting its seed in another, and having it take root.
While Reyan tried to think how to say all of this to Sevv in a way he might understand, they came to a stretch of hardroad lined on either side by evenly-spaced maple trees. Their gnarled trunks were like the arms of smiths punched deep down into the shattered ground. Beyond the uniform line of maples, the forest grew wild and thick and various. Soon, Sevv grew impatient with her silence. Finally he said, “Would you like to know what I think? I think you are at an age when one begins to project an image of themselves into the future. You are looking at that future self and are unable to tell what clothes you will wear, what tools you will hold in your hands, what words will be on your tongue. So, you look around you for clues, and the only thing you see is a caravan of professors. And so, you see yourself in a robe, a compendium in hand, speaking from a small platform out on circuit. It makes sense. It is understandable.” He turned his eyes back to the road.
She considered what Sevv had said, and for a moment wondered if it might be true. Then she decided that, if it were, the idea of becoming a professor would feel cold and inevitable, like a muddy rut she had fallen into. Instead, it felt as warm as two people singing the same note. But there was still a worry planted in her mind, perhaps by Jax, or Avalina, “The others, back in Rowe, they all seem to think that Seal Tooth and the University change a person.”
Sevv sat silent for a few moments, thinking. He shifted uneasily on the bench. He drew a deep breath as though preparing for a long speech then said, “Knowledge changes a person. That is how it should be. One must let the System take up residence in their heart and mind. Otherwise it is all just information wrapped in poetic words but incorporeal.”
“Why did you become a professor?”
“If I simply told you I was born a professor, it would be near enough to the truth. It probably had something to do with wanting to leave my home town. I was born in a place very much like Orloton. I left only eight years after my naming, but even then I knew the town would not have been kind to a boy who would grow into a man like me. But that was very long ago, and I am no longer that boy. It is far easier to tell you why I remain a professor. Would you like to know that?”
Reyan wasn’t sure she did, but she was absolutely sure he was going to tell her. She nodded and fixed her eyes on the long stretch of hardroad ahead.
“Despite what your little friends back in Rowe suggest,” he paused to give a knowing smile, “there’s little luxury to be found hauling my old bones around the circuit in this rickety old truck. Every year, I have to leave the comforts of my home to stand before crowds of half-asleep nodies who have no interest in what I’ve come to teach them.” He looked at her and saw her surprise and laughed. “My dear, I know perfectly well what they think of my lessons. But I do not profess to be loved or admired. I do it for the order. Left alone, everything falls apart. The System is no different. It is the professor’s job to keep it all together. To keep the System tuned. It’s the most important job there is. Now, you might ask, ‘what about the farmer or the fisher who feed, or the lumberman or the worker who provide shelter?’”
Reyan would not have asked any of those things. She considered pointing this out to the old professor, but his speech had developed the same sort of momentum that had carried him through yesterday’s session, and interrupting him was as daunting as jumping onto a moving horse.
“Look around you Reyankaiya. What do you see?”
This was the sort of question that adults were forever asking kids only to become annoyed when one answered. It was best to keep quiet until they answered it themselves. She waited.
“There is balance. There is order. This is no coincidence. There is a way to it. Do you understand?”
In all her life, Reyan had never felt anything like balance or order. She certainly didn’t understand any sort of way. She shook her head.
“Well, it is a very subtle thing.” He continued, “While it’s true that each of these are important, it is the professors who understand how all the roles, as well as the ground they plow, the rivers they ply, and the trees they fell relate to each other. Given that, it is our role to help them make good systemic choices, to help them understand that tugging on the farthest corners of a web can still bring the spider.”
“And what is their role in the System?”
This seemed to frustrate the old professor. “It is on us to maintain the systemic order. That is why I have remained a professor all these years.” Then, in a near-whisper he added, “I have spent my life in service of the System, meditating on complexity and pursuing the governing assert. After years of study and life on circuit, it is all there is of me.”
While he talked Reyan grew excited. “It’s like that for me.”
She was disheartened to see him snap out of his self-induced trance and narrow his eyes suspiciously. “How do you mean?”
“Like if I pull the end of a string here,” she tugged at an imaginary string in the air, “I know something will move over there.” She pointed past Sevv’s nose to the corner of the cab. He followed it with his eyes as though she might actually be pointing at something. “But I can’t always see where the string goes. I don’t know what will move, so I’m scared to pull any strings at all. But yesterday, drawing out that matrix in the dirt, that was the first time I ever felt like it was knowable. Now I want to learn what all the strings are tied to.”
Sevv stammered, “Well, it’s not that…”
She cut him off, “And once I understand where all the strings go, I want to help others be good the way you do.”
Sevv staunched whatever argument he had been forming. His eyes slowly turned to look forward through the windscreen. “We shall see.”
The hardroad came to a river and began to follow its course. A wall of blackberry bushes snaked along the shore obscuring the view. But here and there they caught glimpses of the flat creeping river through divots hacked into the brambles or where great slabs of rock or shapestone kept the tendrils at bay. Several footbridges spanned the river and there was one bridge which could have accommodated the caravan if they’d tried. The river widened steadily until no bridge could hope to span it. “Is that the ocean?”
Sevv smiled, “The Wash. He’s just a lake. A big one to be sure, but not the ocean. I bet that’s the most water you’ve ever seen in one place.”
It was true, but it also felt like an insult. She wasn’t sure how it could be both at once, so she nodded.
The hardroad clung to the Wash’s western shore. The eastern shore fled rapidly. Within a half-hour it was as thin as the edge of a leaf. Within the hour it had disappeared, and the eastern hills appeared to rise up directly from the surface of the water.
They came to a large field of gravel and dirt that sat between the hardroad and the lake shore. No trees grew there and the few bushes were stunted and hunched as though shouldering a burden. There were tight clusters of brown weeds dominated by thistles whose mangy heads had gone to seed in the late summer and now quaked in the sharp autumn winds. “What is wrong with this place?”
“No one knows,” Sevv said. “You’ll see these sorts of places now and then.”
“Is it safe?”
“No one lives near such places, but it makes for a fine lunch stop. It has a clear view of the Wash and no prowling animals to frighten the horses. I’ve been stopping here for more than forty years, and caravans have been stopping here long before that.”
The caravan left the hardroad and crunched into the gravel lot. Sevv reigned in the horses and set his brake. Reyan jumped down from the cab and walked back to Kavi’s truck. He was already untying a bucket from the rack on the side of his truck. “Can I help? With the horses I mean?”
He smiled at her with his crooked lip.“Sure. Go pull the buckets from Sevv and Parr’s trucks and meet me at the water.”
She found a wood-slat bucket lashed to each of the professor’s trucks, untied them, and carried them down to the lake where she and Kavi flooded them.
They each carried a bucket and shared the third between them. The hempen rope handles cut hotly into her hands as she and Kavi walked stiff-legged and careful back to the caravan. Despite their best efforts, water kept sloshing onto their boots. This struck them as funny somehow, and they laughed each time it happened.
They gave each team of horses a bucket and Kavi loosened their tack so that they could stoop to drink. Once they had had their fill of water, he strapped a canvas feedbag onto each of them.
When Kavi and Reyan had finished tending to the horses, they found a small folding table set up near Parr’s truck. There was hard cheese, cured meat, and bread still fresh from the bakery in Rowe.
The professors’ cold red hands sliced meat, crumbled cheese, and tore off hunks of bread. But the two men did not speak. They reminded Reyan of an old couple whose conversations had grown awkward and eventually retreated into separate interior monologues. They silently sat and looked out at the blend of textures playing out upon the surface of the Wash. Near shore, the water was ice-smooth and mirrored the sky. Then there was a broad band where gusts of wind pulled feather-like smears across the surface. Beyond that, the water churned and boiled with white-capped waves.
Reyan and Kavi took their seats. “It’ll be nice to be home,” Kavi tried. The professors jerked in unison as their minds rushed back to them from across the water.
“It is always good to be home,” Sevv agreed.
Parr looked at Kavi, then back out at the lake. He nodded.
Kavi tried again to breathe some warmth into the cold embers of their meal time conversation. “I’m looking forward to being back at school.” It didn’t catch, so he elaborated. “To go to a café, or the theater, hear some live music. I can’t wait to see my friends.” Finally he tried, “It would be nice to hear a joke every once in a while.”
“We joke,” Sevv protested, but offered no evidence. Parr huffed a staccato half-laugh and kept his attention on his food.
Sevv said, “I, for one, am looking forward to sleeping in a room where I can’t touch both walls at the same time, and having a floor under me that doesn’t rock whenever I cross it. I feel like I’ve been at sea all summer. I miss the company of my faculty. Being on circuit is important, but it can be painfully dull. All application and no theory, all teaching and no learning.”
“We are—all of us—students before we are professors,” Parr intoned as though reciting something learned by rote.
“And what do professors learn while out on circuit? Seems there would be a lot.”
“Exchanging ideas with nodies is something of a one way proposition,” Sevv chuckled.
“What about you Professor Parr,” Kavi asked. “What are you looking forward to in Seal Tooth?”
“My library,” he said.
“It’s not really your library, is it Parr?” Sevv smiled. “It is just the library.”
“The library then. And a large enough desk.”
“Professor Parr keeps the library back at the University,” Kavi said. “He has Lem’s copy of The Book, you know?”
“Is that what I saw you reading this morning?”
“What? In his truck?” Sevv scoffed. “No, my dear, that is just a professor’s travel copy. Very much abridged. Maybe you’ll get to see the original some day.”
“Perhaps.” Parr said.
“What about you Reyankaiya?” Sevv asked. “Is there anything you’re looking forward to when we arrive in Seal Tooth?”
“No one calling me ‘Reyankaiya’ ever again.” Her answer sounded more snarky than she’d intended.
Sevv drew back his head and blinked. “What shall we call you, dear? Kaiya, as Lyssa did?”
“Certainly not ‘dear’.” That sounded even worse. She knew she should apologize. Lyssa would have made her. But there was something satisfying about saying exactly what she had, and she couldn’t make herself feel sorry about it. “Just ‘Reyan’.”
“Then why would Leader Lyssa have told us to call you…” She watched Sevv’s eyes move about as though her name was written before him and he were parsing the letters into its separate meanings of “rises above” and “chaos”. He understood. He looked horrified, then appalled, then embarrassed.
She noticed Parr at the edge of her vision smiling down at his bread and cheese as though someone had whispered something funny into his ear. “I was wondering how long it would take you to say something, and for Sevv to put it all together.”
“You could have just asked me,” Kavi said.
“You might have said something without being asked,” Sevv snapped.
Parr stood. “How about we talk less about Seal Tooth and do more to get ourselves there.”
There was a wordless time when food was wrapped, table and stools stowed, and horses’ straps were tugged and tightened. Reyan helped Kavi collect the feedbags, and splashed the buckets’ dregs across the hard-packed earth.
Reyan didn’t want to say so, but she did not want to ride with Sevv for the rest of their trip. She was trying to decide what to do when Sevv himself came to her aid. “I’m sure this one has had enough of me for one morning. Why don’t one of you give her a respite?”
“I’d love to have her,” Kavi said.