The Stacks (short fiction)

They found the Machine on a long dead world. Where once it might have contained a powerful civilization, the only traces left were a few ruins here and there. Cities were nothing but indentations in the dust. Great monoliths of steel and glass were all gone. Everything was gone.
Everything but the Machine.
The first explorers claimed to have never turned on the Machine. They claimed it activated itself as they first approached. No one quite believed them at first, but as time went on, it became clear that the Machine was not ordinary. Nor was it merely extraordinary. It was, some said, magical, perhaps. The only truly magical object in the universe. The only thing that outright defied the laws of physics in undeniable ways.
Its power source went undetected. It functioned without pause, every hour of every day. It never needed maintenance. It just spat out books, churning them out from thousands of chutes in its massive frame. Where it got the paper and ink was yet another question unanswered.
It was served by thousands of small robots. The robots themselves weren’t magical. They worked like all robots did. Hundreds had been taken apart. There was nothing special about them. No one had been able to decipher their programming code or reprogram one, but when they were put back together, they functioned just fine.
Where they came from? That was a mystery. How they sorted the books or if they had any sort of system at all? That was another.
And so the books spread across the Machine’s world, and most people passed it by. An idle curiosity in a strange universe. But some people came. They called themselves Sorters, and they read the books.
Gina opened the book. It was nothing but letters strung together in random ways. Why the books were in English was another mystery, but they really weren’t. They had English letters.
She flipped through the pages, each one. Scanning. Reading. Looking for something. Anything. A paragraph. A sentence. A word. Over the years, she’d become a master speed reader, like any good Sorter. The book was nonsense. Most books written by the Machine were.
She marked the plain cover with a black marker. The bold X would let other Sorters know not to waste their time on this one. She threw it away. There was no point in trying to put it someplace different. The robots would eventually grab it and throw it on a pile.
She threw some unmarked books into her pack and headed back to camp. Sorter camps dotted the planet. Ramshackle collections of tents usually, though there was a somewhat permanent city on Mount Poe. But that was a continent away. Out here, there were a few dozen people at Camp Decartes.
Old Nan came limping up to Gina. Nan had been a Sorter longer than anyone. She wasn’t spry enough to go into the stacks anymore, but she held down the camp. Everyone was glad to have her.
Gina could tell something was wrong right away.
“What’s wrong, Nan?”
“It’s Cartwright. He found something. In the stacks.”
“What’d he find?”
“He can’t say.”
They entered Cartwright’s tent. He sat on his cot, staring straight ahead. His face said nothing. He held a book in his hands. Tightly. Almost as if he was trying to strangle it.
“You all right?” asked Gina.
He didn’t look at her. “I found something. Something terrible. Something wonderful.”
“The Truth?” asked Old Nan.
Most everyone agreed the Machine itself wasn’t intelligent, but as long as it continued to churn out books, it was hoped that one day, purely by accident and the law of averages, it would print the one book that held the Truth.
Some said this was wishful thinking. There was no way to know if the Machine created random books or if there was simply a repeating pattern too large to be glimpsed, a never ending tide of nonsense.
He shook his head. “Not the whole thing. Maybe a little piece of it. Maybe.”
“What’s in the book?” said Gina.
He glanced down at the book as if seeing it for the first time. “Oh, this. This isn’t anything.”
He tossed it aside. Old Nan picked it up and immediately started scanning. It was Sorter reflex.
Cartwright looked at Gina, and she saw awful secrets hidden behind his eyes. “It’s not what you think. It’s not what any of us think.”
“So what is it then?”
He smiled. “It can’t be explained. It has to be read.”
Old Nan tossed the book aside. “This doesn’t have anything in it.”
“Where did you put it then?” asked Gina.
“I left it out there,” he replied.
She wanted to shake him, to hit him, to shout and scream. After all this time, after all these years, after all the lives spent searching, he’d simply left it. Maybe it wasn’t the Truth. Maybe it wasn’t anything. But how could they know if they didn’t see it?
She stayed calm. So did Nan. Somehow, they held it together. Probably because Sorters were used to disappointment and frustration.
“You have to take us to it,” she said.
“I’m not going back out there,” he replied. “But I marked it. I put a red X on the cover.”
He lay on his cot and said nothing else. Just stared straight up, as if he could see through the tent. As if he could see through everything. There was no point in trying to convince him. He didn’t respond. Not to them. Not to anything. He might very well lay there until he died, she thought.
They exited the tent. A dozen Sorters surrounded them. Old Nan told them what Cartwright had said, and most set out to find the book with the red X.
Gina restocked her supplies. Exhaustion was setting in. The smartest thing to do would be to rest. Sorters died out there, among the stacks. It wasn’t a hostile world, but it wasn’t a friendly one either.
“You shouldn’t go,” said Old Nan. “Let someone else find the book.”
“What if they don’t?” replied Gina. “One more set of eyes can’t hurt.”
Nan chuckled. She would’ve been out there herself if she’d been able. She wasn’t the one to talk Gina into staying.
“Come back,” said Nan. “The Truth will be out there tomorrow.”
Some argued the Truth was never meant to be known, but those people weren’t the type to become Sorters.
Gina hugged Nan and set out among the stacks.
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