2018-06-08 14:47 fiction cyclopaedia

Cyclopaedia Chapter Eleven: Konrad

After retirement from the Division, Konrad and his wife Alea opened a book store on a side street in the Capital. The place was small, and out of the way, set apart from the other shopping that attracted the wealthier customers of the district. They preferred it this way.

They lived in an apartment above the shop. Over the years the delineation between the two spaces eroded. The shop became part of the apartment, the apartment became part of the shop. Both Konrad and Alea were usually there, reading, or moving and repairing books, or talking with the few regular customers who came in to visit more than to purchase anything.

For many years in the summers Alea would travel north, to a cabin by a lake, saying she couldn't stand the stale air of the city. Konrad would grumpily keep the shop open, claiming he enjoyed the time apart but really hating every moment she was away.

And sometimes Inspectors would visit.

On these occasions Konrad and his guests would sit in the back storeroom, a place barely large enough to hold the shelves and books stacked up on the floor, and against the walls. There was a small desk he had with bundles of papers, years worth, completely covering the desk, overflowing off the side, a slope of paper and twine. Konrad would brew punishingly strong kaf and they would talk.

Alea discouraged these visitations, was rude to the Inspectors, telling Konrad she hoped she'd never see any of them again. But Konrad indulged his guests. He was retired but he enjoyed that his experiences were considered valuable. Konrad was the only Inspector to have ever convicted a Garde. For this act alone his opinion would be sought out.

Opposing the Garde in any way was unusual, back in his day, unheard of. The Garde did whatever they wanted, when they wanted. And they used to do it more flagrantly, even mockingly, displaying their untouchable status to the Division at any opportunity. A Garde murdered a judge. Konrad was given the case and he chose to pursue the Garde instead of acquiesce to their position. He pursued it as he would've any murder—bringing the Garde in, seeking evidence and witnesses, although usually that testimony was given anonymously due to fear. He pushed for a sentence of hard labor in a northern work camp. Like any trial, the accused would need to prove innocence, something the Garde was unable to do. The trial was closed, and secret. The repercussions were far reaching. It would change the way the Garde behaved. It put Konrad's life at risk.

Maybe, he thought years afterward, they never really believed he would take it that far, to the final court and to a trial, they never really thought he would persist. They may not have believed he would survive the assassination attempts. Looking back it was a mystery why he pursued a conviction. Why had he done it? It meant living the rest of his life worrying he would be struck down, that he might disappear, that his shop might go up in flames. He was young then, and young people are crazy, he thought. He didn't tell any of the Inspectors who visited him that in retrospect, given a second chance, he never would've done it.

What he did tell Inspectors who visited was how the Garde operated. He told them where the lines were, what responses they could expect. He knew their culture. The Garde saw the trial as a betrayal by the Division. The trial set a precedent. Only now, years later, did he believe the Sovereigns actually supported, even helped construct those series of events. He doubted that he would've been allowed to continue living otherwise. That judge was killed against the wishes of the Sovereigns, killed in some dispute with the specific Garde. Konrad had done the Sovereigns' work for them, instead of Garde discipling Garde, they'd allowed him to do it, and by doing it loudly they sent a message to the Garde declaring in essence "you are above the laws of men, but not above the Sovereigns, and we can use the Division against you if we wish". Konrad knew he'd been manipulated.

Konrad got an early retirement with the highest honors. He earned the respect of his fellow Inspectors. But it nagged him. The Sovereigns knew what he would do before he did it, and he believed it was what they wanted, to rid themselves of a problem, to enforce a punishment they could not directly perform themselves.

When Alea passed away he closed the shop for a month. He did nothing. There was nothing for him to do. Should he leave? Where would he go, he was old. So he opened the shop back up, when he felt like it, most days, and he took visitors again. This is where he would die, he knew this. But sometimes he looked over his shoulder, at night, on some of those small side streets, wondering if, or when, a killer might step out. A long unpaid price to finally be paid. Maybe he wouldn't even see this assassin, maybe it would be mercifully quick. It would be easy to kill an old man.

When Slv&Elin walked into the shop, the old bell above the door jingled pleasantly, the warm odor of books and sunlight filled the space. They'd known Konrad a few years, having been introduced to him by their instructor at the Division, who'd known Konrad many years before that. This social flow of information was a tradition, handed down to Inspectors that appreciated, or could utilize, Konrad's recited lore. He was a valuable link to the past.

There had been another Electric outage so the back of the shop was dark, although even with Electric, there was little else than a small standing lamp. Customers would have to squint in the dark corners for books they may realize they'd never before needed. On the way to the book shop Slv&Elin saw a variety of people milling around on the streets, many of them office workers, looking listless as they waited outside smoking and chatting, waiting to see if the Electric would come back on. No doubt many hoped it wouldn't and they'd be told to go home. Many of these people's work lives had been converted by tools that required Electric, although Slv&Elin knew that at the Division the immensely deep basement that kept the files, on cases and citizens, continued to be stored in boxes and folders, handwritten, and the keepers of these records navigated the stacks using oil lanterns, like miners, knowing every twist in its labyrinth and every alcove by heart. An Electric outage for the Division mattered only for Wires, which many of the older Inspectors complained about being a terrible dependency regardless.

Konrad stepped out from shelves when he heard the door. Slv&Elin thought that he must've been physically imposing when he was younger, but now he was shrunken with age, with a hunch and thick glasses brought on by the cruel occupation of books. He welcomed them, locked the door behind them and turned the window sign to "closed". He led them to the back room where the morning sun illuminated the impressive stack of papers cascading over the desk. They wondered how many of these were older than themselves. He turned on a burner to make kaf. "Someone in the shop earlier said that about half the city is without Electric. Doesn't bother me." He fiddled with the grinder and the pot. "This building didn't even have Electric until ten or fifteen seasons ago. So, how's the work load at the Division these days?"

"Heavy. Busy," Elin said, looking down, pained.

"We're working on a disappearance. Odd. Complex," Slv said.

"Two disappearances now, actually." Elin added, sighing, "An assistant to a scientist who has disappeared is now also missing."

"We had his cooperation to help us bait the lead suspect. And now we can't find him," Slv said.

A day after their interview with Jon at the Division they sent word when and where Jon's meeting with Hedvin should be. He never responded. They went to his apartment and he wasn't there. They checked with their network of informants and he hadn't been doing anything suspicious, and he hadn't been traveling. The usual places he went, he did not go to. The people he usually talked to, they hadn't seen him. The Director at the laboratory had no idea where he was. They found nothing strange in his apartment, nothing looked out of order. It seemed he simply stopped existing. Since this was directly connected to the disappearance of Ove, it of course became their case as well. But it bewildered them. There was no logic to it. And there was no indication that Hedvin had done anything untoward or violent. It raised the possibility that the Garde were involved, after all, if a person was going to disappear, they were the best equipped to make that happen. But why the assistant? There had to be knowledge the two shared that connected the events.

"Hmm. Frustrating I'm sure," Konrad said, "Wouldn't this indicate the actual suspect is the assistant, who has fled, or that indeed your lead suspect has done away with both of them?" Konrad poured out three short, famously potent cups, the smell of kaf hovering.

"Normally. Should've made things easier in fact," Slv said.

"This has turned out to be anything but normal though," Elin added. "We think the Garde are involved. The lead suspect is, we believe now, a misdirection, a red herring."

"Ah," Konrad uttered with brevity, sipping from the cup.

"We're anticipating contact with the Garde. This is outside the usual bounds of best practice, we know. But we believe it's better to get a sense of where we stand," Slv said.

"Yes, this is a rational," Konrad said, "Of course, as you've probably heard me say before, the rules of the Garde are not our rules, their world is not our world. They are not rational, they worship the Sovereigns—but more than that, importantly, they worship their own position, their brotherhood—they aren't an organization like the Division, they are chosen, they are a way of life." Konrad sat in a chair that had softened and molded itself to him over the years. "You said the missing man was a scientist? What sort of scientist?"

"He was working on automating Compiling for the Cyclopaedia," Elin said, "A huge machine."

"Interesting, although I can't claim to fully understand that, other than generally. Automation I mean. Despite that I can guarantee you the Garde are involved," Konrad held the cup with infinitely practiced efficiency.

"What makes you so sure?" Slv said.

"The Garde were always one step ahead in my time. I'll bet they still are. They had a source of information we didn't. We had informers, we had the Cyclopaedia, we had files on citizens, statistical analysis from the Ministry. But the Garde seemed to know everything that's happening everywhere. They're never surprised," he sank into the chair farther, his old frame almost being swallowed up by it. Slv&Elin listened.

"So what could their source of information be?" he said, "Their own informants? This source couldn't be so significantly different than ours. The conclusion I came to, later, years after I'd left the Division, is that the Compilers work for both the Sovereigns and the Cyclopaedia and that their data flows first through the Sovereigns, who determine what will end up as information given to the Cyclopaedia. I have to imagine there are strategic omissions. Things that give the Sovereigns an advantage—financially, for power, for knowledge. Any project that plays with this key formula would have to maintain that advantage. Any automation would need those same priorities. If your scientist has approval from the leadership of the Cyclopaedia, then necessarily he would have terms dictated to him by the Sovereigns. He would have to fulfill a contract. And because of this he would also be having regular meetings with the Garde."

"We have wondered if Ove, the scientist who disappeared, had crossed the Garde—broken the contract, and was removed by them," Elin said.

Slv added, "Which is another reason to feel this out by contacting them."

"I think we've talked about this kind of thing a little bit before—in my experience the Garde are rarely ever directly responsible for murder. It's not impossible of course, but it's not their way, it's clumsy. Physical intimidation? Yes. Extortion, destruction of property? Yes. Ruining a life by destroying someone's reputation? Certainly. But murdering a high level scientist who is working on something that would give them a greater advantage? Less likely," Konrad said, "But you're right of course, contacting them is obligatory now, you've got no choice. They'll be expecting it and it's better for you to contact them instead of them contacting you. No one wants a surprise visit by the Garde," Konrad added, raising his wispy eyebrows.

"And this has got to happen off the record," Elin said.

"We can't make it part of the official investigation," said Slv.

"I suppose some things will never change," Konrad's smile was leathery but not bitter, "And what would you put in your report anyway? Nothing they say could be used, you would have to get them into testimony. At least in my case, it had to be a special closed court, and that's not likely to ever be allowed to happen again."

"Was it worth it? What you went through to get the conviction?" Slv&Elin asked.

"Oh, I don't know. I was young," Konrad's voice was thin, "I thought I would be able to change everything. It was remarkable I survived given how aggressive I was. I wouldn't recommend it," he laughed, "Be smarter. Think long term. The world will change one way or another, it always does. And you shouldn't ever believe you've got something on the Garde, if you do, you're probably getting played. I'm not saying you should let them dictate your actions, if I accomplished anything in my time it was that the Division can operate without them, independently, according to common law. Now they should have an understanding that they can't interfere with your investigation. But you should also understand that you can't really interfere with them either," he said, "When, and where, are you planning on meeting with one of them?"

"Soon," Elin said.

"In a few days," added Slv.

"We haven't reached out yet. There's the back of a restaurant we know, it's public, but it's not public," said Elin.

"Obviously meeting at the Division is out of the question," Slv said.

Konrad said, "They'll want to be the ones to setup the place to meet. This has always been very important to them. Otherwise they'll show up where you live, and you don't want that. You can suggest the place, but then the Garde will cancel the meeting at the last minute, or not show up. Trust me. You'll have to meet somewhere they want to meet. Part of it is control on their part, I think part of it has something to do with how they hide themselves, their faces. I wonder if they can't control the environment, they can't hide their faces. During closed court I saw what I believed were several Garde faces. Not perfectly, but more than they'd ever wanted to reveal. They will not allow you to put them in that position."

"That's good to know," said Elin.

Slv said, "The most important thing to us is to find out is what happened to Ove, and what happened, now, to his assistant."

"We have no intentions of confronting or trying to punish the Garde."

"Our goal is to find out what happened to those two men. If possible stop anything else from happening."

"And the next step is talking with the Garde."

"With whatever that brings."

"It's a strange case, we don't know where that will lead us, if anywhere." Slv&Elin said.

"Yes," said Konrad, "Better than I did anyway. At least for your own safety and peace of mind. Remember, after you meet with one of them, for a while afterwards, a few days maybe, you will experience some peculiarities. Small things may feel misplaced. The scale of certain objects might be off. The sensation of being watched. It is disquieting."

"We've heard about this, most of this stuff–"

"–We thought was socially generated, fear induced, effects of stress," Elin said.

"Could be. Still don't know what they do or how they do it. Having experienced it I suspect there's more there, it might be in one's head, yes, I assume it is, but whether it's inside one's head or outside, I'm not sure that matters, what is the difference really. You will experience these oddities as a side effect to how they hide themselves. It's as if they're able to remap basic elements, things around us, what basic elements are. A face is no longer a face, a small cup is the same as a large cup, what you remember as left is right, and so on. They pollute the assumption we have of things. The map we have, in our heads, they have some power to replace it with one of their own," Konrad ran his finger across the top of the little cup, as was custom, indicating the end of the kaf.