Sevv’s truck lurched into motion and rocked through ruts and potholes as the horses pulled it across the barren field. After a minute, Parr’s truck followed. Kavi remained quiet and focused as though counting or waiting for some signal. Then he said “Y-up,” and the bench nudged into their backs as the truck jerked forward.
The hardroad followed the general shape of the lake for some miles, then began a slow steady climb up and away from the shore. A stand of trees came between them and the Wash. The forest grew progressively thicker until they only caught periodic glimpses of the retreating lake through breaks in the canopy. When they came at last to the top of the long slope, the forest thinned until it became a single line of trees growing up through the shapestone along the side of the hardroad. There were long continual stretches of low ruined buildings visible through the consistently-spaced trunks and branches.
Standing high above the tops of the trees and the surrounding ruins was the largest building Reyan had ever seen. It was made entirely of shapestone and consisted of a repeated pattern of window-window-door, window-window-door across the breadth of it. The same pattern was stacked twelve times up the building’s face. None of the black-hole windows had glass, but several had long tongues of greenery that hung down and waggled in the breeze. The scale of it made her head swim, but the caravan didn’t slow as it rolled past. Kavi didn’t even glance up.
It was not so surprising that the two old professors didn’t stop to gawk, they had traveled this route many times before. But as far as she knew, this was Kavi’s first time on circuit. It made her wonder what sorts of sights he was accustomed to.
“Kavi?” He jumped, his mind startled back from wherever it had gone to. “What’s it going to be like in Seal Tooth?”
“I don’t know. It’s the pop-center.”
“Orloton was technically a pop-center.”
He smiled sheepishly. “Not really. Orloton, Rowe, they’re just nodes. There are blocks in Seal Tooth that have as many people as live in all of Orloton and Rowe combined.”
“How many blocks are there?”
“I don’t know. Lots.”
She tried to imagine how tiny the houses would have to be in order to cram everyone in Orloton into a single block. She imagined little standing-room only houses with nothing but a door bundled together like cord wood on end. She wondered how they would all go to the bathroom, and laughed. “What will school be like?”
“It’s school, we study a lot. We go to class and a professor tells us things and we ask questions about those things. Sometimes we run a process, or write down ideas. You know, school.”
“How long will it take?”
“All together. To be done.”
“That depends on how hard you study. How quickly you get the concepts. It helps if you already know something about the System.” He quickly glanced over at her. She was now sitting up and listening intently. He continued. “A lot of students grew up around the University. A lot had professors for parents. If they’re a nodie, they’re probably a keeper’s kid. That gives them a bit of a head start.”
“How long will it take me?”
“Just a plain old nodie?” He smiled. “Oh, I don’t know. Five years? It just depends. You seem pretty smart.”
“What happens when you graduate?”
“You become a ‘fully functioning member of the system’s faculties’.” He said this in a deep overly-articulated way that sounded very official.
“And you’re part of the technical faculty.”
“I see Sevv’s been talking. I’m not. Not yet at least. I’m still a novice, hence the white stripe on my robe and not a single karaband.” He held his arm in the air and shook his naked wrists.
“How many are in each faculty?”
“That depends. The agricultural faculty has over a hundred members, and probably a half-dozen novices at any time. But the technical faculty is very small. When I join, there’ll just be me and the partner. There isn’t much need for it, and not too many students want to pursue it. I’m a bit of an odd duck, I guess.”
“How do you join a faculty?”
“You figure out which of the System’s needs you have the interest and skills to fulfill. Then you go talk to the faculty’s partner and they decide. Some faculty have tests, some just talk to you, some make you do something to prove you have the right skills. It just depends.”
Reyan looked down at her hands in her lap. “What if they don’t want you?”
“You try for a different faculty.”
“What if no one wants you?”
He lightly punched her thigh. When she looked up at him crossly, he smiled. “Someone will want you, Reyan.” There was a pause while he waited for her scowl to fade, then he continued. “Of course, I don’t just want a specialized role in a faculty, I want to teach others as well. That’s why I’m out on circuit training as a novice professor. In the summer months, I’ll join up with another professor and we’ll have our own caravan. We’ll take on one of the twelve circuits. Or maybe we’ll found a new branch circuit. That happens sometimes. Maybe I could try to get through to those folks who aren’t yet organized into a node.”
“How will you know what to teach?”
“We teach whatever’s in the year’s compendium. That’s the book we give to the keeper before we leave a node. And we teach whatever we feel the node needs. How to deal with a particular issue with their crops, how to adjudicate a problem in the most systemic way. That sort of thing. I was really excited to help with Rowe’s cooling room before Tamura messed it all up.”
“Who decides what’s in the compendium?”
“How do the printers know?”
“Their partner tells them.”
Reyan sat back into the seat, curled her knees to her chest and put her feet on the dashboard. “So the partners are like the leaders of the faculties?”
“In a way. They are the ones deemed most qualified to maintain the faculty’s integrity.”
“How do you become a partner?”
“You’re selected one day and you’re a partner. Just like that.” He snapped his fingers.
“What if you don’t want to be a Partner?”
“Then you wouldn’t get selected.” He smiled as though this had been a very clever answer, but Reyan felt it was a particularly useless thing for him to say.
“Who selects you?”
Kavi leaned over to whisper to her, “The Host.” He raised an eyebrow.
“Who are the Host?”
“The Host of Systemic Partners,” he said as though it should have been totally apparent.
“How do they decide?”
“Is it a secret?”
“Nothing about the System is secret. Mysterious or unknown, sure, but never secret.”
“But you don’t know about it?”
“Not unless you’re a member of the Host.”
“That sounds like a secret.”
“It’s more about systemic integrity than secrecy. If people knew how the Host made their choices, people would try to manipulate the host. And besides, I don’t need to know, since that decision is not part of my function. There is only so much any one person can know, Reyan. I know that the sea rises and falls twice per day, but I don’t know how to predict exactly when or by how much. It’s not important to my function. A hydrologist does not know how to mend a horse’s hoof, or how to keep a crowd engaged for two hours straight.”
“Neither does Professor Sevv,” Reyan said under her breath.
Kavi chuckled. “Sevv certainly knows how to do it, but he doesn’t always remember to try.”
She thought about that moment each year when the professors handed the compendium over to Orloton’s keeper. She had seen it many times, but had never considered what had to happen before that moment. Now, she followed the line of events back from the professor’s outstretched hand to the one who had given him the compendium in the first place. She imagined the printers who had filled its pages, and the partner who decided which words describing which bits of knowledge distilled from which faculty should be included. The lines went on and on and back and back. All the faculties and functions lined up like beads on a string. The light of knowledge moving from one to another to be refracted, or refined, or intensified before sparking down the line to the next.
And it wasn’t just a single chord that led from Lem’s book directly to the compendium. Each bead strung on that thread was connected to every other in countless ways. Each specialized faculty providing food, or medicine, or knowledge to every other. The System was like an enormous web. She wondered if she might become ensnared in it, whether she always had been. And though it seemed that webs were left washed up on branches and blades of grass by each morning’s retreating fog, Reyan knew they were actually constructed in the night. They were maintained. She wondered what sort of spider lay at this one’s center.
There was always a spider.
“Do you want to become a partner?”
Kavi took a deep breath. He looked forward through the glass at the road ahead. “All that knowledge, and all that responsibility weights heavy on those who’ve joined the Host. It changes you. Not always for the better.”
“So, would you join it?”
“I would.” But it took him a very long time to force out a very unsteady answer.
After a few more miles, the caravan crested a hill and began a steep curving descent toward a dark opening in the side of a hill. The cave’s mouth was square and shrouded by a curtain of ivy. First Sevv then Parr’s truck pushed the ivy aside and disappeared into the darkness beyond. By the time Kavi’s horses began to nose their way through the vines, Reyan could see that it was not a cave at all but a tunnel.
The tunnel walls were smooth and patterned like the skin of a fish or a snake. Someone had drawn symbols and spelled words by smudging away the grime in places to reveal the glossy surface of the tiles. She saw, “Byron and Susan” in the center of a heart. Someone else had drawn a large circle with two jagged lines cutting through it to form a V. There was no light in the tunnel and with the vines shrouding the entry and the curve of the hardroad, it quickly grew darker until she could no longer make out what was wiped onto the walls.
In the blackness, every sound the caravan made bounced off the glazed walls and repeated several times before falling below her hearing. Every second that passed brought with it hundreds of echoed clops and clatters from two dozen iron-shod hooves. Beneath that boiling syncopation was the continual land-slide rumble of the metal tyres rolling on the hardroad and the pings and pops of buckles and chains and bits of gear swaying on the racks.
The noise was beginning to grow unbearable when she saw a blue-gray glow on the left wall, then she could see the outline of the horses’ ears. Finally, a bright line of daylight appeared and quickly expanded as they rounded the curve and the exit came into view.
The reverberating clamor began to fade by degrees as Sevv’s truck then Parr’s left the tunnel. When they exited, they found themselves on a ridge over-looking a broad gap in the earth. The far side was mostly forested, but several blocky gray structures pushed up through the trees. Each was easily twice as large as the huge building they had passed without comment a few miles back. Like the other, these too were lifeless and dark and seemed to slouch under the weight of loneliness.
Just ahead, the hardroad became a bridge that crossed most of the canyon before curving and descending down along its far wall.
Once they were on the bridge, she could see that the canyon’s sheer shapestone walls were easily forty feet tall, and the canyon was about one hundred and fifty feet across. It had been gouged into the world, not by some mighty river, but by a massive flow of hardroad which flooded the canyon from wall to wall and stretched into the distance in either direction as far as she could see.
The thin ribbon of hardroad she had traveled from Orloton, which she had always considered vast and endless, was a mere tributary. Now she had arrived at the confluence and her way here subsumed and utterly vanished.
Other bridges spanned the canyon. Ramps climbed up and down the walls, all of them twisting and bending and overlapping like a giant version of Avalina’s braids.
There were no trees growing on the canyon floor. Nor was there any sign of animals. Debris and the stripped-down remnants of old tech had been swept to the base of the walls leaving a clear path down the middle of the hardroad. Tall weeds eked out a living in the small cracks in the shapestone walls and drifts of detritus along the periphery.
Even with the rubble piled up along its sides, the hardroad was wide enough that their caravan could easily travel side-by-side. And soon, that was exactly what they did. Kavi grinned wide. He snapped his reins and shouted, “y-up!” His truck moved up along the right of Parr’s. Kavi’s horse blew a fluttering sound and swayed its head sideways to rub up against the cheek of one of Parr’s horses.
When Parr looked over at them through the window of his cab, the professor’s concentrating frown disappeared into a smile. He nodded a greeting to them.
Parr’s truck picked up its pace and came up along the side of Sevv’s until they were all lined up shoulder to shoulder moving down the middle of the hardroad.
“Are we almost there?” Reyan asked.
“Pretty soon we’ll be crossing the King’s bridge into Seal Tooth.”
“King’s bridge? Seal Tooth has a king?”
Kavi shrugged. “No. That’s just what the bridge is called.”
After another mile, the hardroad ahead climbed to a crest. The caravan fell back into a single-file line. They spaced themselves until there were a dozen truck-and-team lengths spread between them.
“Why are we slowing?”
“Just to be safe. We don’t like to cross King’s Bridge with more than one truck at a time.”
Panic gripped her. “Is it not safe?”
“Don’t worry,” he laughed, “It’s safe enough. King’s bridge is old, but it hasn’t fallen yet.”
“Yet? So it’s going to fall?”
“Everything falls eventually, right? We just don’t want an entire caravan to be on it when it does.”
Once the top edge of Parr’s truck disappeared over the crest, Sevv picked up his pace and climbed after him. Kavi and Reyan waited their turn to mount the quarter-mile slope up to the bridge’s high-point. Once Sevv’s truck had disappeared as well, Kavi swallowed hard and grew serious. “Hold on to your seat.”
The shapestone walls of the canyon shrank away revealing tall pine trees which began to fall away as well, and the view opened up. There were hills rising up from the shoulders of other hills for miles in all directions. The gray haze of the intervening distance washed them out until there was no texture, just their shapes and colors like a storm cloud’s belly.
There was a cluster of rod-straight angular objects erupting from the base of a nearby hill. The shapes reminded her of the clusters of frost crystals that heaved up from the forest floor on cold autumn nights. While none of these things appeared larger than her thumb, she knew that was just a trick of the distance. Whatever these were, they were impossibly tall.
“What is that?”
“That,” Kavi emphasized, “is Seal Tooth.”
“But what are those?”
“What do they scrape?”
He laughed. “I don’t know. The clouds? The ground, maybe?”
They continued their assent and she could see the far shore of a lake working its way around the feet of the scrapers. Kavi pulled his team toward the low shapestone barrier that had grown up on the side of the hardroad. As they approached the edge, more of the lake came into view below them. A few specks sat on the surface of the water. Once she realized that these were not water bugs but boats, an overwhelming terror spread through her. She had climbed hundreds of trees in her lifetime. She had gone to the very tops of ridges and peered over the edges of dizzying cliffs, but she had never imagined being this high. What was worse, there was no tree trunk or rock face connecting her feet to the earth. There was nothing but air and the far-distant surface of the water to catch her if she fell. She put her feet against the side door of the cab and pushed herself along the bench into Kavi’s side.
He steered the truck back away from the edge so that the lake at least disappeared from view.
A fierce wind suddenly came up and rocked the truck from side to side.
“Just close your eyes. That’s what I do sometimes. The horses know the way, and nothing seems to bother them.”
She did close her eyes. He wrapped his arm around her and squeezed. It crushed some of the air out of her but also made her feel like she wouldn’t fall apart.
When the truck leveled off and began traveling down the other side. Kavi loosened his arm and bounced her head from his shoulder. She opened her eyes.
Slowly, the trees and the hills rose up to block their view of Seal Tooth and the lake. Her panic began to subside.
Sevv and Parr’s trucks were waiting for them. Once they were reunited, the caravan entered another shapestone canyon and passed below more bridges. Then all at once the wall on the right side of the hardroad fell away. Now Seal Tooth was close enough that she could see the details of the scrapers. Some were black as charred wood and others reflected light like the setting sun bouncing sparks off the surface of a pond.
“Are there so many people in Seal Tooth that the houses need to be so large?”
“People do live in the scrapers, but most of the rooms are empty. Always have been. If people live too close together, a year’s plague can spread quick as fire, so we try to keep them separated.”
“How were the scrapers made?”
“I’m not sure exactly. They’re all shapestone and metal and glass. They’re from the Systemic Era. We can’t build anything like them anymore.”
Since crossing King’s bridge, the hardroad had continued a steady downward slope. The lake spread out to their right and now the boats on its surface were more obviously boats.
The hardroad belted the waist of the hill to their left. When they rounded the bend, they passed under what appeared to be another bridge. This one was not made of smooth shapestone like the others, but of timbers and rocks and variably-sized lumps of broken shapestone all fitted together to form a series of pylons and arches. The bridge began on the hillside, spanned the hardroad, and continued in a long straight incline that disappeared into the pop-center below.
Kavi noticed her quizzical look and explained, “It’s the aqueduct.” As they passed under one of the arches, a huge glop of water splashed across the windscreen. “It carries water from the reservoir at the top of the hill down into Seal tooth.”
A single lane of hardroad curled off from the main and ran along the aqueduct into Seal Tooth. The caravan took the turn and followed the aqueduct’s line down into the heart of the pop-center.
Once the caravan was down among the roots of the massive scrapers, she could no longer see the sun or even much of the sky. In the shadows, the air grew cold, and the wind, having nowhere else to go, blew in the horse’s faces and knifed through the rein slots in the windshield reddening Kavi’s knuckles.
She had often watched beetles or ants crawling along the forest floor and wondered how it felt to be such a small thing surrounded by such large trees. Now she knew. The scale was oppressive. She felt small and unimportant. What sort of people would build their town to make them feel this way.
Then another thought came. Perhaps they didn’t build the scrapers to make the person at their feet feel small, but to help the person on top feel powerful and free.
Perhaps it was both.
Even with generations of weather and wear, the scrapers still stood straighter and looked smoother than the new era aqueduct. She was sad for the things we had forgotten; sad that no person would ever build another scraper again regardless of their reason for wanting to do so.
The ground floor of all the scrapers were walls of glass tinted gray or brown or blue. These were enormous windows with no signs of a frame. If she looked through the smudges, past the rolling reflection of herself seated in the cab of the truck, she saw light and movement inside. Steam and smoke that smelled of bread or rendering meat or bitter boiling greens vented from the sides of the buildings.
Thirty or forty feet above the ground, most of the windows were gone and the few pains of glass that did remain were cracked and jagged. Every one of the scrapers had the same broad stripe of missing glass, starting two floors up and ending about six or eight floors later. After that the glass began again and continued up the remainder of the building.
“Where did the glass go?”
Kavi reached forward and knocked on the windscreen. “Right here. Hundreds of years worth of reuses, replacements, and repairs. Even out in the nodes, when a glazier puts new windows into a home, where do you think the glass comes from?”
The hardroad continued straight as a builder’s chalk line through the pop-center. Other roads crossed at regular intervals. When she looked down these roads she could see other streets crossing them as well, and she figured that Seal Tooth was laid out like a grid.
They passed a square field that was exactly the length and width of one of the scrapers, as though someone had plucked one of the towers from the earth and left behind a scar. The field was filled with rows of apple trees. Being late in the fall, most were stripped bare of fruit, but there were still a few people climbing tall ladders with baskets on their backs and stripping whatever fruit remained.
The caravan crossed over four more intersections, then the hardroad made a sharp left turn and continued downhill. Though they were pointed in a new direction, the city looked remarkably the same. There were some differences. Instead of glass, the bottom floors of the scrapers might be made of red brick, or veined polished stone, or plain gray shapestone, but just above eye level things remained the same. A matrix of open squares where glass should have been. Above that, a sheer wall of glass that stretched up to and cut into sections of the sky.
The air smelled of a mixture of rotting fish, musty old leaves, and old puddles. There was a bit of salt in there as well, which felt raw when she inhaled deeply through her nose. She looked over at Kavi. He was growing more and more gleeful as they continued down the long straight hill and the smell grew stronger.
Finally, the miles-long stand of scrapers came to an end. Now the caravan was passing by blocks of buildings which would have been perfectly at home in Rowe if not in Orloton. These were ancient buildings of brick and limestone, four stories high at the tallest. They clustered around large open areas that reminded Reyan of a town square except that these were paved with a basket-weave of smooth red bricks rather than gravel, shapestone, or hardroad.
It was in the middle of one of these squares that Sevv’s truck finally came to a stop. Parr rolled up along his right side and Kavi to his left.
Kavi let go of the reins. They fell slack and slid forward until the knot stopped them from sliding through their slot. He exhaled, turned to her, smiled his crooked smile, and said, “We’re home.”
A small crowd arrived from out of nowhere and surrounded the trucks. At first Reyan thought they were a welcome party like those that always mobbed an arriving caravan in Orloton. But this was no shouting mass of children. They were workers. Some tended to the horses, others stripped the hanging gear from the sides of the trucks, still others were gathering the bags and other cargo from inside. One old man was moving from wheel to wheel, closing one eye, and sighting down each tyre checking for warpage.
The swarm went about their business. They nodded courteously from time to time, but generally avoided the professors and seemed to require no direction from them.
Reyan noticed one woman who stood in contrast to the tumult of the workers. She was not rushing about, but approached the caravan slow and steady as a boat coming in through the fog. She was thin and tall, and wearing an unadorned black dress. Her arms were crossed in front of her with both hands tucked behind her elbows. When Parr noticed her he tilted his head to her and long strands of hair escaped from behind his ears and fell along his face. Sevv also respectfully inclined his head. The woman nodded back.
When she saw Kavi her pale old face lit up. She gathered the young man into her arms like he was her own child gone away for years and returned. She kissed him on the top of his head and his face wrinkled up with embarrassment. “Hey, Mam.”
She shouted over to the professors, ”What in the world have you been feeding this boy? Have you been feeding him at all?” Sevv waved a dismissive hand at her, and Parr smiled before turning to discuss some urgent issue with a worker who began nodding his furious agreement long before Parr had finished his explanation.
The woman noticed Reyan, “Looks like you picked up a stray?”
“This is Reyan, Mam. She wants to become a professor.”
“Does she?” The woman extended a hand. “My name’s Mam. I keep everyone alive around here.”
Reyan was reluctant at first to take Mam’s hand. She looked down a the old woman’s fingers. They never seemed to stop moving, and her whole arm shook slightly. Reyan looked to Kavi who smiled and nudged her ahead with his expression. So, she took the proffered hand. The skin felt smooth and cool and dry as a polished stone. Mam tightened her grip, and stared into Reyan’s eyes until it felt like she was trying to read something written on the back of Reyan’s skull. “So, you want to be a professor?”
“That’s the plan,” Kavi offered.
“Bit old to be starting off, isn’t she,” she asked Kavi, still looking at Reyan.
“That remains to be seen, Mam,” Parr grumbled from where he stood by his horses.
“If you hope to be a professor, you’re going to have to start answering for yourself.” Mam’s eyes were fixed on Reyan but she spoke loud enough for Kavi and Parr to know she was really talking to them.
“You’ll be needing a room. Get your things and come with me.”
Reyan retrieved her bag and followed Mam across the square, past a long continuous row of building fronts. Each facade was distinct—made of painted woodwork, or stone, or brick—each with a different sort of door, but there was no space separating them into distinct buildings.
In a rehearsed clipped voice, the old woman said, “The dormitories are up here on the left.”
They entered the last door, and climbed four flights of creaking stairs to a long hall. The light entered the hallway from a single window at one end and the transoms over each door. They headed toward the window at the end of the hall, and stopped two doors from the end. Mam turned the knob and the door swung into the room. She stepped aside to let Reyan enter. “Here you are. Dinner will be served in the cafeteria in three hours. Let me know if you need anything.” With that, Mam closed the door leaving Reyan standing alone in the room.
The walls were plaster and painted white, and the floors were made of wooden slats. There was a small closet barely wide enough for her to stand in without turning sideways. There was a sink against the wall, with a mirror over it. Beside the sink, in a small bag, she found a comb, a hairbrush, a razor, a toothbrush, and a lump of soap.
Across from the sink and mirror was a low bed, its mattress rolled tight and tied up with a strip of remnant cloth. When she tugged on the loose ends of the bow, it came apart and the mattress sprung flat across the frame revealing a limp pillow, a sheet, and two woolen blankets bundled inside.
Against the wall, at the foot of the bed, was a dresser with mismatched pulls. None of the drawers lined up exactly right, as though they had each been borrowed from similar, though not identical dressers. She put her bag on top of the dresser and left it unopened. She pulled on the top drawer. It was so loose it nearly fell onto the floor. In the next drawer she found two towels and a washcloth.
There was a desk near the window that overlooked an alley and the back side of another building with its many windows, metal stairs, and ladders. There was a lamp full of oil sitting on the desk. In the drawer she found three pencils, a ream of paper, and a small printed book entitled “Welcome to The University at Seal Tooth.”