2018-06-21 13:23 fiction cyclopaedia

Cyclopaedia Chapter Fourteen: Paper

Hedvin stared at the paper. Then he stared some more. He wasn't an expert in the notation, but he was more acquainted with it than others. Certainly more than Ove should've been. But he didn't understand everything this schema implied, he thought he did, he was wrong. He knew enough to understand it was advanced—and he was deeply troubled by Ove's using it. He'd believed he was the only Compiler on the project. Did Ove have other Compilers as consultants? He must've. Did any of the other Compilers know about one another? Hedvin sighed. Too many surprises. Hedvin wasn't one to normally self-criticize, he wasn't normally one to introspect, but these turns made him temporarily doubt his own abilities. He may not have fully grasped the situation.

He believed this schema could generate a new Index. It wouldn't have to be applied by a mechanism, a mechanical device, it could be done by Compilers, it could be the map that they would follow for their new Index. He was sure he copied it properly. He'd triple checked every mark. But parts of it eluded him, it was conceptually slippery and complex. It was both general and specific. There were two sections, and they appeared to reflect one another, like an infinite recursion.

It might be time for him to show it to another Compiler, get some thoughts, maybe he was missing the obvious. But he was wary about showing it to anyone else, even to other Hallen—the Compilers that already believed in the alternate Cyclopaedia—because it might lead to questions about Ove's project. And it would lead to thrashing, reactions, the Master Compiler as an idea would be divisive. He feared those that would support it, and he feared the rash actions those that opposed it might evoke. And leaking information to the Hallen would lead to questions about Ove's use of Vermilion. Vermilion was for Compilers, that was the developing consensus, scientists were the enemy.

He woke from a nightmare that morning. He was Fox and he was standing at the edge of a cliff, the broad expanse of valleys and mountains before him, stretching out endlessly. Then a bird flew near him, then two, three—there were scores of birds flying around him. They became more aggressive. The birds somehow coordinated their actions, grabbing his sleeves, the back of his coat, the legs of his pants. They lifted him. They flew away with him, off the cliff. Then they let go. He fell and fell and fell.

He kept the paper with Ove's work with him, in his jacket. He didn't want to keep it in his apartment or his office. It might be only a matter of time until the Inspectors discovered his Old Town office, he couldn't discount the possibility. When he left his building he looked back compulsively wondering about the state of his apartment and how the Inspectors would interpret the disarray of clothes, the dirty kaf cups, the books piled up. Then he scolded himself for this useless reflex, this waste of thought.

He was going to the cafe to meet Kjetil. Like Hedvin Kjetil spent the better part of his time with other Compilers around the Cyclopaedia itself. Kjetil also considered himself Hallen. There was no explicit declaration for this, there was a sequence of opinions, there was a philosophical wink, a subversive nod. Being Hallen was a subtle state of membership.

Although their careers were similar, Kjetil's younger years were dramatic. Kjetil had been on the Ukkonen, a ship that was wrecked on an island far north of the Grønn, where the crew was stranded for almost a season. Hedvin never asked Kjetil about this incident, but he'd heard stories, mostly from the network of merchants and sailors that hung around the cafe. Only a handful of the Ukkonen's crew survived—and Kjetil. The island was rock and ice, and one by one the stranded starved or froze. There were several variations to the stories Hedvin heard, some more gruesome than others, which Hedvin chose not to believe. A person's limits were tested under these situations, he knew that, but at a certain point the fantastic and grotesque twisted the realities.

It wasn't the first time a Compiler had encountered disaster. There were plenty of these kinds of stories, especially in the early days when Compilers attempted to navigate the world and understand the seas, the unexplored lands. While Hedvin had been to distant places, far away towns and villages, remote wilds, the knowledge Compilers had accrued for hundreds of years helped him avoid disasters on land that might have plagued the early expeditions. They all got better as they learned. But travel by sea was still dangerous, still replete with unknowns. Compilers that went on expeditions by sea were expected to be hearty.

Now life in the city was easy, and Kjetil had put on weight. At the cafe Hedvin watched as Kjetil devoured several plates of rye and fish, crumbs collecting in his beard occasionally spraying forth when he spoke. The stories he'd chosen to ignore about the Ukkonen flashed for a moment into his mind. Stories of hunger.

Kjetil had been dosing Vermilion for a solid month, and like others, the reaction was enthusiastic. "The remarkable clarity of it, of Vermilion," Kjetil said, chewing, "as if everything around me, even now, were obvious entries in a clear universal order. And that order is different than the one you and I have been taught. One we seek. When will everyone else know? When will be able to make the Cyclopaedia operate the way we know it should?"

Soon, thought Hedvin, but there is work to do. Hedvin had considered the possibility, in detail, that Hallen would never be known, would never be in charge of the Cyclopaedia, but their alternate Index and their idea of a universal order would still dominate, because it was True, because it was unstoppable. The only way to make sure this happened would be to get Vermilion to every Compiler. He would need a vigorous supply line and probably duplicate the way Vermilion was made on a large scale.

"Speaking of which," Kjetil said, brushing material from his beard and inserting a fingernail between two teeth, "if I could get another batch, that would be magnificent."

Internally Hedvin groaned. "I'm sorry, I'm already over-extended—I won't have any more until my next trip. You'll just have to get by on what you have I'm afraid."

"Really? Not even a little?" Kjetil's teeth probing halted.

"I'm sorry," Hedvin said.

"Look, there has to be something left." Kjetil's voice hadn't risen in volume, but the desperation was urgent and it made Hedvin look away, embarrassed. "I mean where are you getting it from anyway?" Kjetil said, "Some little village somewhere right? Just tell me where it is. I can set up an expedition. I still have some pull. I can get something assigned, birds or flowers or some shit. It doesn't matter. Just tell me where it is and I can bring back more. This would be beneficial to us both. To everyone. To everyone involved."

"I'm sorry, I can't do that."

Kjetil's mouth hung open in disbelief. One eye twitched. It looked like he was going to say something but then stopped. He glared at Hedvin. They didn't speak at the table again, but quietly paid their bill. At the door, on the way out, Hedvin said "I'll let you know when I have more." Kjetil's expression was pained. He nodded disparagingly and walked away.

As Hedvin walked he thought about this meeting with Kjetil and also about his conversation with the Garde. He had no choice but to make another trip to the village, soon—sooner than he wanted to. He would have to come up with a justification for the expenditure, to procure an assignment, as the Cyclopaedia kept track of the work of Compilers. He could make up something about that goddamn wasp, his cover story, that he traveled to the region to study a rare, pollinating wasp. Quite unintentionally he'd become the expert on the insect, although he knew that absolutely no one cared.

He walked down the street deep in thought, striding with a disgruntled sort of urgency.

But something pulled him out of his reveries. Was it that he passed the same person several times? Yes, he had. A man. He was on the corner right outside the cafe. Then he was in a doorway. What did he look like? Was he a Garde? No, he had a discernible, memorable face. Craggy, worn. He had the face of a sailor, or a dock worker, but he wasn't dressed that way. In fact, he was dressed very well. The latest fashion, nice suit, expensive hat. Now Hedvin paid attention.

He deviated from his normal route back to his apartment. He went down the large central avenue which he knew was usually crowded. He walked calmly. Hedvin avoided staring. But there was the man again. He was standing on the steps of an office building, seemingly viewing the traffic in front of him, leisurely, but Hedvin saw him and couldn't help directly staring—the man noticed Hedvin looking, returned a quick glance. Then the man recovered his poise, and Hedvin, eyes averted, walked past him. Moments later he sensed the man following him—the man left his position on the steps and was following him. Hedvin didn't want to turn around, but he knew it. The man was following him. Hedvin began to sweat as he walked, the anxiety of this was excruciating, but he didn't want to turn around. Fox knew. It was the city, but he was a city fox. He would walk into Old Town, see if the man followed him there. Fox twisted into a series of minor streets, then stairways and alleys. As he passed a shop window, one that had mirrors in their display, he could see behind himself in a rectangular juxtaposition, the jangle of squares fracturing the view around him, and behind him was the man. He didn't imagine confrontation. Fox would not confront, but outsmart, outmaneuver. He wouldn't go to his Old Town office, he would circumvent it, circling back towards his apartment. He transversed a couple of alleys, accelerating his pace as he turned the corner, but making sure to never break into a run. Who could the man be? Another Inspector? The clothes didn't fit—Inspectors were notoriously mundane and took care to present a non-presentation. They stood out by trying too hard not to stand out. An informant, then, of course. There were citizens that specialized in these kinds of things, usually making money by freelancing for various organizations. An Inspector wouldn't follow you, but an informant would. Fox zigzagged through a few more avenues, crossing into smaller streets again. He believed the informant was still behind him. Turning a corner there was a bookstore, he quickly ducked into it.

If the informant was there when he came out, he would confront him, he said to himself. But maybe, he hoped, the man would think he'd turned another corner, or run down another street.

When the bell at the door rang an old man at the back of the shop opened his eyes and looked up sleepily. "Afternoon," the shopkeeper said.

The anxiety of his previous moments quickly melted away with the steady, heavy presence of books and the quietness of the shop. He made a cursory glance behind himself out the window to see if the informant was there, he saw nothing, there was nobody on the street. Now Hedvin knew he had to kill some time.

Hedvin wondered where the old man kept the Forbiddens, those books that the Ministry Of Culture declared illegal. Most bookstores had them, secreted away behind a false wall, or through an old basement junction, or in an adjacent apartment. Originally the penalties for having or selling these kinds of books could be severe, and once there were enforcers who actively sought out offenders. For his grandparents' generation this was a serious matter. They'd had neighbors who were sent to hard labor for having these books. But by the time he was a child the fervor of enforcement waned, the lusty desire for punishment dissipated as resources were strained, as a few years of unusually cold seasons caused food shortages, not many people cared about books anymore much less those designated Forbidden. As the populace stopped caring about books, books stopped being a threat. Although the tradition of keeping the Forbiddens separate remained. Technically the laws continued, even if they were rarely enforced. The old laws could be used as an excuse for extortion or persecution. A few of these Forbidden authors were well known. While fewer volumes were designated Forbidden now, having a work censored could be a significant achievement, leading to a certain kind of fame—albeit a tenuous recognition that might lead to official ostracization, harassment even occasionally imprisonment if you continued to taunt the official structures and its members. Power disliked being mocked.

"Where do you keep the Forbiddens?" Hedvin asked the bookseller.

The old man looked him and down for a moment, tilting his glasses. "Compiler?" he asked.

"Yes," replied Hedvin. It was a fairly easy identification for anyone with a little experience.

"This way," the old man said, standing carefully.

The old man led him to a small, short stairway that went up half a flight to a decently-sized room, square, with shelves and cabinets full of Forbiddens. Hedvin could see it was a nice collection, very thorough. "Looking for anything particular?" the old man asked.

"No, nothing particular," Hedvin said.

"I'll be downstairs then. The prices are under the covers." The old man went out, slowly, causing a few stairs to creak. Hedvin assumed he would pay a premium for whatever he found, this was always the case with Forbidden volumes, and another reason for their continued separation. He wasn't looking for anything, but now faced with book browsing, he felt like he should get something.

There were shelves with the expected dissident philosophy. Some older anti-Sovereign works, ones that felt dated now. As the enthusiasm for enforcement waned so too did the reactions against the great power and wealth of the Sovereigns. He flipped through one of the books. A passage about the coming revolution—which had never happened.

"The People are the tinder. We must be the match."

The passage went on this way. Perhaps it was possible, he thought, to incite the citizenry into violent, radical change, but he doubted it. Enforcement against owning or selling of Forbiddens was lax—but the wholesale monitoring of citizens, complex economics of informants, and systematic financial control by the Sovereigns was total and irresistible. The Sovereigns were savvy, handing the people enough to keep revolution from happening. Hedvin could see no end to their power because it was tacitly granted. Grumbling never evolved into anything constructive. There were no solutions because nobody could agree on a problem.

There were several other books from the time, one title caught his eye, Information or Informant. He scanned it, noting a passage:

"In a perfect society we gladly inform upon ourselves, admitting to crimes we have not yet committed to please the authorities, until we must commit those crimes to prove our love for our masters."

Hedvin chortled. The tone of the age. He looked at the price. It was expensive. But it was a book he'd wanted. At least, he wanted it now. He'd hide it with the others he owned.

He walked downstairs, the bookseller was hunched over a table with books, squinting, casually paging through one. Without looking up he asked Hedvin if he'd found something. He handed the old man the book, the old man smiled and noted the price. "A classic", he said. After Hedvin paid he went to the front door and cautiously peered out into the quiet side street. He heard the old man behind him, who'd noticed his hesitant behavior.

"There's a back door," the bookseller said, "here, back here." He pointed with a crooked finger.

Hedvin grinned, "Included with the price of the book?"

"It reminds me of old times," the bookseller smiled.

Hedvin walked back to a small, skinny door between bookshelves that the old man pointed out. He thanked the bookseller then stepped into a long, ancient alley separating two buildings. As he emerged from it he gathered his bearings and reflexively scanned the street for the informant that had been following him. The man was nowhere to be seen.

He made his way back to his apartment, occasionally looking over his shoulder, becoming increasingly confident that he wasn't being followed. These are how things are, he told himself, this is just the game we play.

When he returned he knew immediately the apartment had been searched. There were small signs, little things out of place, barely, but enough for him to notice. He assumed this was on purpose. Without wrecking the apartment the Inspectors must've wanted him to know they'd been here. This would also explain why the informant followed him, making sure he didn't return too early and interrupt them. Inspectors were very practiced at this, he thought. While he'd been expecting it, there was still a disquieting sense of violation, also mixed with relief, since he wouldn't have to wait for their intrusion any longer. And what could they have found? Nothing. Perhaps a Forbidden book. He wouldn't be the first or the last.

He took the book he'd bought out of his pocket, he flopped down on his couch and he picked a random passage.

"Commerce and data are the same fuel for oppression. To be informed and to be informed upon are no different."

That was a volatile period, he thought, full of strong opinions and dramatic struggles, another age when people believed a few words might be able to change everything, books were everywhere.

As Hedvin drifted off to sleep, the book sliding out of hands, he thought of Ove's machine spinning and clicking, and written on every punch card in the bin was his name.