Authors: John Chu
A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Proposed Trade-Offs for the Overhaul of the Barricade
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Table of Contents
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 â¦” 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.