2018-04-19 10:00 fiction cyclopaedia

Cyclopaedia Chapter One: Compiling

Eirik traveled to the other side of the world for a glimpse of these birds. He looked up, then down, as quickly as he could, placing quick, sharp strokes onto the paper, capturing the bird's essential gestures. It was a kind of shorthand that could later be codified into a distinct profile, crucial data added about this rare and elusive specimen.

Eirik was a Compiler. He compiled for the Cyclopaedia. Compilers noted, described, drew and otherwise collected data about everything in the world—alive, not alive, or occasionally between. For them this was called The Work, a mission to categorize and record all Things, to create order and coherency in a disordered universe. There was no limit to the Cyclopaedia, it would contain references to the entire world, organized and eventually analyzed. The first step was Compiling. Nothing would be absent. Nothing would escape them.

A day earlier he scrambled up a wet, treacherous rock face, finding hand-holds where he could, grabbing at roots and vines where he had to, knowing that if something snapped, or if his footing slipped, he would fall and he would not be found—he would decay at the bottom of this mountain, one more Compiler casualty. It wouldn't be the first accidental demise of a Compiler, or the last.

He'd gained a reputation for taking risks. He'd sought out the difficult taxonomies, branches of Things and Places that many Compilers avoided. While a fellow Compiler sat in a library enumerating ancient concepts to be defined and listed, he was shipwrecked on an island that shouldn't exist, a new Place, an entirely new Category waiting for him to extrapolate, and to index its myriad specimens.

When he got to the top of the mountain he looked over an impressive expanse of forest. From here the green was like a sea, the canopy rippling in the wind. If he was right, and he was confident he was right, the bird was nested right under the ledges. He'd seen distant shapes circling in the sky several days before. Now he would have to get himself and his equipment close enough to the nests to make meaningful observations.

Every Compiler carried a kit. It was the same kit for the Compiler ensconced in the depths of a library as it was for him, on a mountainside. The kit was a consistent fixture in The Work. While the skills of the Compilers varied, their tools did not. He wasn't the only one who lugged the engraved wooden box up and down a steep slope, and he wasn't the first to make unsanctioned modifications. He'd padded the back with a heavy, durable sailcloth, and he replaced the uncomfortable thin straps with wide leather bands that he'd since worn into a state of supple pliability. The drawers of the box, and the front which folded up into a kind of field easel, he'd nailed into place. There would be no accidental fumbling of contents from this kit. In the past he'd heard stories of other Compilers inadvertently dumping their work overboard, or down a chasm. The cards, placed in slots, he stabilized with pieces of felt. Likewise the card punch, and the brushes and pencils. He didn't want the noise of shifting, clanking cargo to scare away his objects of study. The Index, a small book made with the thinnest possible paper, mere wisps, with type so small you needed a magnifying lens to read it, was strapped securely to the inside of the top lid. He kept his scratch book and pencil in the front pocket of his leather vest. With these he did the immediate work of recording, eventually moving to white boards and water pencils to capture varieties of pattern, color or particulars of physicality. This was an essential duty of any Compiler.

The last time he was in the main office there was discussion about adding something to the kits. A box had been created that captured images automatically, simply by pointing it in the direction of the specimen, and by manipulating certain levers, to record the image on a thin, specially prepared roll. He thought the images he saw produced this way were inadequate. They were devoid of color and they were, more often than not, blurred to some degree or full of some unpredictable light. There was strong opposition to this tool, not only to the quality of the artifacts produced, but also because the cumbersome box would need to be handled in the field along with the rest of the normal kit.

The supporters of the image box countered by saying that the images produced captured "Thingness". By directly placing the image of the object of study onto a surface without interpretation, a permanent record of greater value would be part of the Cyclopaedia, they said. There were loud disagreements to this position. The opposition believed that the box itself was its own kind of interpretation, and that the varieties of that media and environment were greater than the deviations of a trained Compiler with a proper, simple kit. It was precisely the presence of a thinking Compiler that would make the record most meaningful over time, rather than a flawed copy by proxy. He agreed with this, there would be no reason for him to observe this bird if he merely needed to point a box at it—he would in that case be only a mule for a box, rather than a Compiler of Things.

The leadership of the Cyclopaedia wasn't ready to entirely discount this new technology, and ordered several Compilers to carry the image box, for experimental purposes. Fortunately, Eirik wasn't one of these. If he'd been chosen maybe he would've tossed it off the side of a mountain.

There wasn't any point dwelling on it, he thought, changes were inevitable. Compilers hadn't altered their basic routine for several hundred years. As the size and importance of the Cyclopaedia expanded, and the world around it became more complex, many Compilers held onto their traditions fervently, perhaps desperately. He knew there were zealots. He disagreed with them. The fundamental mission of Compilation was reactive by its very nature. It only made sense that the sect of Compilers would seek to adapt. And yet with all the knowledge and categorization available to them, he knew that Reason hadn't won. Reason might be a result, but the mechanisms and motivations of their occupation often relied on being unreasonable.

He considered half a dozen different ways to hang from the side of the cliff near the nest when he decided a little caution was warranted. He would spend extra time and effort approaching from below. He might not be as close, but he would be close enough. Also, remaining there, in place, for a day or more would require stability. If he dozed off, which was inevitable, he could fall. He scanned the side of the cliff. There was a tree and prodigious roots for him to embed himself in. He carefully worked his way into position, slowly, to prevent falling, but also because he didn't want to startle the birds. Since they weren't yet studied, and weren't yet categorized, he had no idea how they might react to perceived predators. Would they abandon the nest for good if they saw him as a threat? He didn't want this to be the first vector of Compilation.

He was relieved to get into position without frightening them. The nest was near, but not near enough for him to touch it. He saw a couple of downy white bundles, chicks, shuffling in the straw of the enclosure. He saw no parent birds, but he took precautions to conceal himself so they wouldn't see him when they returned. After he had loosely covered himself with leaves and branches, he waited. The nights were short this time of year, and lighter. He wouldn't be able to properly sketch, but he would be able to glean. He would note their numbers and movements. Then at dawn he would begin sketching.

Soon the parents returned, he tried to ascertain their differences. Size, color, feathers, actions. Which gender was which? He hadn't seen the eggs being laid, it didn't matter for the moment. Collect data. Continue to collect data. In one sense this bird was an infinite series of entries and adjustments as continuous as anything else in the world. The Cyclopaedia would never be complete, he would never be done, others would study these birds after him. He did take pride in being the first. This is why he was a Compiler willing to take risks, more than some others, and why he was criticized for it—he always wanted to be the first to see something or go somewhere. It wasn't a trait that the tradition of compiling could do without, not if the Cyclopaedia was to eventually contain all things. He'd seen the attitudes and expectations over time become more staid, academic, and hesitant. He rejected this.

He would like to resurrect the older perspectives, from the days when the Cyclopaedia was new, a wide world in front of them to understand and organize. He felt that the rise of MetaCompilers in his own lifetime was unfortunate. Disastrous? Perhaps. The preoccupation with itself rather than the world outside itself would only harm the institution over time.

Then the birds did something remarkable. As the daylight dwindled, the long shadows transforming into soft blue shards, the crest of the adult birds began to shine. Slightly at first, he could've almost discounted it, then it became doubtless and clear—their crests emitted light. He'd heard about fish that do the same things, an ability to glow in the ocean. And insects, likewise, flickered in the forest. But until now it wasn't known that any birds could do this. He saw the two nearest him, the gentle white light of their heads move back and forth, bobbing. Then he looked out across the cliffs and he saw hundreds of them, clustered in places. On some cue he couldn't discern, the birds took flight, in groups, with single stragglers following soon after, and they flew around the cliffs making songs.

The beauty of it took his breath away. He scratched down a few notes, recording numbers and what he guessed were intervals of rest and flight. He tried to indicate the staccato and overlapping periods of birdsong.

Later that night the birds settled down. He could see the faint glow from them in their nests dwindle until it was gone. What a strange ritual, he thought, it might take years to understand why they did this. As he dozed off he indulged in a measure of self-pity. Someone else would discover why they did this, he wasn't the kind of Compiler to study a single thing in depth, his lot was to roam. In the brilliant, golden age of the Cyclopaedia during the rush to flesh out the major branches of central taxonomies, Compilers traveled the world finding all they could as quickly as they could. There were specialists now, there were SubCompilers who would spend their lives detailing these birds. No reason to bemoan this, it was what it was. Was he a traditionalist? As he fell asleep, having tied himself to the tough, thick tree roots, he thought this is the way of all observed things, moving from simple to complex, from obvious to obscured.

Dawn lightened the valley incrementally, mist rising from the dark, damp forest floor, the cliff side was warming up. He methodically stretched each cold, cramped limb. He ate some attaqquks from his bag—a heavy mixture of fat, berries, and dried fish.

One of the birds in the nest had gone sometime before dawn while the other bird remained. He had to make an important decision about how long he would stay. Another day? He took the white boards and pencils out from the kit as carefully and quietly as he could. He had an excellent view of a single bird and chicks. He added color to the sketches, marking the wings of the bird with distinctive bands. Skills of Compilers to render their subjects varied, but all had the capacity to draw some representation. It was a requirement of the profession. The MetaCompilers, and SubCompilers, he sighed, didn't necessarily require this skill. But then they rarely went out into the field. He took particular pleasure in drawing, and while the boards were vital to a complete Entry, he worked into it by beginning sketches before the final attempt. This wasn't the way all Compilers worked, but he was confident it was the best way. He watched and he sketched, the bird didn't see him or didn't care. It had occurred to him that he should make a noise, or a movement, to gauge a reaction from the bird, although this was probably hasty on his part. He knew he had the proclivity to be hasty, he knew this.

Soon afterward he noticed the men with nets.

They must've moved in from the south. There were a half dozen of them, along the ridge. From his position he wouldn't have been able to see them sooner. It was only because of the curve of the cliffs that he was able to make out the quick flash of movement and the nets, the arms and legs of men in coordinated actions, the weighted nets thrown over the edge across several nearby nests. This panicked the birds, they attempted to fly outwards, into the valley, but their wings were snagged in the crisscross of the array. He presumed, with the speed this was accomplished, that this hunting was well practiced.

He heard the men and women yell out to each other. Their dialect was thick, but he spoke their language. The bird he was watching noticed them too and took wing, bolting out into the sky, escaping. Surely the hunters must've known that for every bird they caught there were five they scared away.

He packed his supplies quickly. There was no point in trying to remain unseen now. He shouted up to the hunters. He didn't want to scramble up onto the ridge around or behind them, there was more than one story of compilers being greeted by stones or arrows. He didn't want to surprise them so he shouted again. In a moment he saw a weather worn face, quizzically peering down at him over the lip of the cliff. It took him time to understand what was being said. The roll of the words, they sloshed together in a way that was awkward, he had to methodically separate the sounds in his head before he could reply.

"Are you hurt?" the man said.

"I'm OK," Eirik said. "I'm Compiling the birds," he added, unsure if this distinction would mean anything. He knew he wouldn't be able to match the accent, and in this dialect he might say things in the wrong syntactical order. Quickly he regretted saying "Compiler", he should've said "studying". The face above him was frozen for a few moments, slowly transforming into a scowl of incomprehension. Then the face retreated. He heard voices above him. He couldn't make out what they were saying. Fortunately their tone didn't seem hostile. Then the man reappeared with someone else, an old woman, similarly lined and worn, her head topped by a simple grass hat, looking down at him.

"Compiler?" she said.

He nodded.

A rope flopped suddenly down the rocky stretch of cliff, sending a spray of dirt at him, the end of the rope tied in a big heavy knot. He could've climbed back up by himself but he didn't want to turn down the courtesy. He hauled himself up the rope, and at the top they helped pull him over.

The man and the woman were dressed in several layers of skins, fur, and rough, obviously hand-woven fabric. He wasn't aware of any tribes out here, so he was surprised. Seeing them he immediately wanted to know everything about them. Since the woman appeared to recognize the term "Compiler" he discarded the notion that these people were totally isolated. However, the way they looked, the way they were dressed, the dialect—he was seeing things from a thousand years ago.

"You're a Compiler?" the old woman asked.

"Yes, I'm here studying the birds." He pointed to the baskets in the distance where he saw the thrashing of captured birds.

"They are Aaq. We hunt them," she said.

"Is your village close?" he asked her. The man with her was silent, staring at him with a mixture of fear and shock. Eirik could only imagine what he looked like by comparison, as if he'd dropped out of the sky with the birds, his clothes and accent foreign, and for all he knew, offensive.

"Not very close," she said, "we travel a long way to the cliffs to hunt Aaq."

"I've traveled a long way too," Eirik said. He'd been in a situation similar to this once before, he'd wanted to do everything he could to make them feel comfortable, but he also wanted to maneuver them in a way that allowed him to Compile. As far as he knew, this tribe was undiscovered. Where had they come from? How did they start hunting the Aaq? Now his interest in the birds deepened, he needed to understand its relationship to these people. He saw several more men and women in the distance rolling up their nets and collecting baskets. Occasional fluttering made the baskets rock and forth, they picked them up and strapped them onto their backs.

"I would be honored to travel with you," he said.

He wasn't sure "honored" was the correct word, or that it would be understood in the way he intended, so he watched their reaction carefully. They blinked several times, the man gave a sidelong glance at the woman.

The old woman looked directly at Eirik and said, "Of course, travel with us".