2018-09-30 10:00 fiction cyclopaedia

Cyclopaedia Chapter Twenty-Four: Northerly

Hedvin carefully measured the powder. It was inexact. He didn't have his usual equipment. He was in a small, dingy room at an inn next to the train station before his last stop, which was another day up the line. Soon he'd head off into the forest and the real north, where there'd be no comforts at all. Uncertain that he'd be able to get a reliable dose of Vermilion before he made it to the village, he'd have to do it now. He tapped the vial, discharging too much of the red dust. He didn't have his dosing mechanism, it was too cumbersome to carry. And he didn't have his original fox mask of course—not that this mattered since the mask took two people to operate, as per village tradition. You never took Vermilion alone in the village. He sighed. He tapped the dust out of the vial into a porcelain bowl. What was this bowl? Oh, he realized, it was an old chamber pot. Whatever, it didn't matter, it would suffice. For a moment he stared at the uneven, stained and rotten wood of the window sill, the faint sundown showing a yard full of miscellany, chickens, firewood and trash. Dinner was a flavorless stew, punctuated by bits of gristle. He was hungry but he knew he would have to get used to it, this gnawing sensation would be normal, he'd be strictly rationed.

The dust fell into the chamber pot like red snow. He wasn't sure how he'd do this, but the need had become visceral. A towel? He'd wrap a towel around his head.

As the day had plodded along the universe began to feel disjointed to him. A depressing disorganization of fickle associations. There was no higher order, there was only incomplete, grubby conceptions. The dirty bedspread. The crooked door. The dim old lamp. The idea of a difficult journey. The memory of the innkeeper's acne. The faint sense of persecution from the actions of the Inspectors. The mundaneness and relentlessness of these wore on him, he felt them draining his life, graying his hair, making dark circles under his eyes. It was really too much, the idiocy, it was really too much.

He looked at the red dust. It was scattered on the pure white surface of the porcelain. As the lamp flickered behind him it became an animated sequence of resolve and relief. He threw the towel over his head. He put his head over the chamber pot. He blew hard, kicking up the dust, a cloud into his face trapped by the towel. He kept his eyes open, he willed them open, then he inhaled deeply, as deeply as he could.

He heard things fall into place. The floating misery was diluted, then disappeared. There was order, there was certainty, there was definition. The flux was gone, replaced by a rightness of elements. He would make it to the village and back. He was sure of it. He would move quickly, quietly, and he would get what he needed. He thought of the Inspectors for a moment, their inevitable pinched bureaucratism, irritated that he'd run away, wondering if he'd vanished too. Then they'd discover that his trip was approved by the real authorities, the Sovereigns, and that there was nothing they could do about it. Riding the immediate crest of clarity from Vermilion, this scenario wasn't one of spiteful pleasure, he merely acknowledged it as fact.

What happened to Ove?

Hedvin didn't believe his own explanations. The Inspectors were right to imply that Ove wasn't the sort of man who'd simply leave, or to get involved in a torrid affair. These situations were completely unlikely. So, then, the Garde. The Director was a vicious fucker, he thought, who had direct connections with the Sovereigns, he could've had Ove killed, because Ove's work was basically done and they didn't need him anymore. And Hedvin suspected Ove was only loyal enough to support his own goals, they probably worried Ove could take his knowledge with him. That's something he didn't tell the Inspectors. He didn't tell them because it might've further implicated himself. Ove was successful in creating the Master Compiler, it would collect and categorize everything. But the fact that Hedvin was violently against such a monstrosity didn't mean he'd ever necessarily hurt Ove. However, he did intend to harm the mechanism. One way or another he was determined to destroy it. This, too, he'd wanted to conceal from the Inspectors. He didn't know how he'd do it, that didn't matter presently, but the Master Compiler couldn't be allowed to exist.

There would be a revolution in the Cyclopaedia. It would need enough support to counter the Sovereigns' influence. He believed they could be convinced as well, after all, all they cared about was money and commerce. Their investment in the Master Compiler was created by a belief that the future was mechanistic. He was positive it wasn't. In the coming years, he thought, they would be made to understand the differences between automation and intelligence.

He remembered a passage from one of his Forbiddens, which one was it? An Atlas Of Freedom? A Tyranny Of Bread? It didn't matter. The author described a future society where

The measurement of wealth was not in monies but experiences. The wealthy did not exert oppressive authority to maintain their wealth, but create experiences and culture that spread throughout society.

Another idealistic book written in another idealistic age. But he thought of it, it kept resurfacing. He didn't believe the Sovereigns would ever be removed. Would the Cyclopaedia exist at all if the Sovereigns hadn't? This was idle speculation. He knew change was coming. He couldn't see it precisely, but it was coming.

It was cold in the inn, his room had a small stove and a few handfuls of wood thoughtfully provided, but cut too large for the stove, so he struggled to break pieces off or in half. He realized he missed the street bustle and hallway noises from the city—the silence up here was intense, he wasn't used to it. He focused on the crackle of the fire. He hoped he could keep it burning. The next night would be even more difficult on the trail. He recalled that years ago when he was traveling somewhere north, up here, being unable to sleep because he was so cold, it permeated him. This too, he anticipated. He prodded the fire with the rusty, metal poker. He wrapped the quilt from the bed around himself, it smelled bad, like an old, sour horse. The initial rush of the Vermilion had worn off, to be replaced by a steady calm, as if there was a fine crystalline lattice in his head, any conclusions that could be reached would be reached again in the same way and in the same manner.

Ove must've had this experience too. Everyone who took it did. Hedvin remembered the paper, with Ove's formula, the promises of a completely generative solution. But then he wondered if he'd gotten it wrong. He wanted it to be an answer so strongly he misinterpreted it. Was it something prone to misdirection? Was it purposefully evasive? If it wasn't generative, it was descriptive of something. The diagram, the map Ove left behind... A map. Not a formula. It was a map. The map may must have been about Ove himself, not the world or the Cyclopaedia.

As Hedvin sat in front of the small fire, watching the pulse of the flames, he realized this was the answer. Ove was no longer building the Master Compiler for the Sovereigns or the Cyclopaedia, he was building it for himself. Yes. Hedvin laughed. Why shouldn't Ove be like other men? Afraid of death. Self centered, not the stereotypical, rational and detached scientist. The map on that paper was an illustration of himself, it would be a reflection of himself in the Cyclopaedia. He was using himself as his own test subject. Capture himself, categorized and placed in the proper place in the tree—immortalized in the Cyclopaedia, the same way other specimens are. Eternally referenced. Knowable. A transparency of clear intention. It would be an act of incredible arrogance, to use oneself as a template for all other Things.

Quickly Hedvin corrected himself—was it arrogance? How different was a person from any other specimen? When reduced to points of data and measurable events a person could be a feature of the landscape, a person could be a tendril in the forest, a person could be an example of any bit of life. As temporary, as fragile, as desperate. To generalize a person you would have to start somewhere. He wondered if this is what Ove was attempting, to digest himself or become a reduction. The map would indicate this, and it would explain why Hedvin had interpreted it as a kind of generalization, but one that Hedvin didn't understand.

As Hedvin worked the idea over and over, and the more sure he became of it. But what actually happened to the physicality known as Ove?

He needed to ask Jon something. Only Jon would know for sure if it was possible. Hedvin remembered there was a wire office at the inn, small, probably the last wire office he would see. He would wire Jon.

Hedvin walked out into the hall and down the stairs still wrapped in the smelly, old quilt. There were spots of red Vermilion dust in his hair, eyebrows and around his nose. He was determined. He must reach Jon. It was late now and there was no one in the bottom floor, the front door was locked for the night. What time was it? He looked at the clock over the front desk. Not so late. Anyway, not late by city standards. The wire office was a little room to one side. The door was open, but it was dark. The whole floor was dimly lit by lamps. He considered going into the room but he had no idea what to do, how to operate the equipment. I should learn how to do this, he said to himself, as soon as I get back.

He would have to wake up the innkeeper. There was a back stairway, half way up was a door. He knocked on the door, rapidly, "Innkeeper! Innkeeper! I need to send a wire! It's urgent!"

He knocked again, then heard motion behind the door and the innkeeper say, "Just a minute, just a minute". The innkeeper opened the door, appearing sleepy and confused, seeing Hedvin there, manic, wrapped in the quilt.

"A wire? Now?" the innkeeper asked.

"Yes, now," Hedvin stressed.

The innkeeper shrugged with resignation, pulling his robe tighter around himself. They walked downstairs to the small wire office, Hedvin staring at the back of the man's greased hair, the way they do it around here, he thought, he wondered about all the stained pillows.

The innkeeper sat down at the desk in front of the wire apparatus, which was a tall, thin metal casing with exposed and tarnished internals, strips of brass as well as alternating rods and springs. At the bottom edge was a elongated area with familiar characters printed into a series of metal taps accommodating the size of a fingertip. The innkeeper reached behind the apparatus and twisted a knob, while shaking his head. A light inside the apparatus blinked. He leaned to the right and looked over a long paper roll. He shook his head again.

"What? What's wrong?" Hedvin asked demandingly, seeing enough to know there was a problem.

"There's an outage in the city. There's no signal at all. Hasn't been for hours," the innkeeper said.

"How can you tell?" Hedvin asked.

"The log, this paper roll here, every few minutes will record a signal and the time it happens. See?" He pointed to a spot on the paper, "Nothing's happened for hours."

"Couldn't this be a problem here, with this machine?"

"Nope," the innkeeper said, "light wouldn't be blinking if this end wasn't working."

"This is important," Hedvin said.

"I get that. That's pretty clear," the innkeeper reached back into the machine again, to the knobs.

"So what do we do?"

"Nothing to do. Wait til morning. Probably will be up by then. They've had outages in the city recently. Usually lasts a few hours or so."

Hedvin felt himself turning red, anger rising. But he believed the innkeeper—there was nothing they could do. It would be unfair and detrimental to push any harder.

Hedvin groaned. "Morning. Until the morning," he said.

The innkeeper responded with relieved acknowledgment. Hedvin would have to wait. He hated waiting. Although it wouldn't really matter if he wired now or in the morning. Not really. Knowing now or knowing then. He couldn't explain his urgency. It passed like a storm. He went to his room and flopped down in front of the fire, which was almost out. He had to concentrate on the fire, he had to concentrate on the necessary traveling, he had to put these distractions of Ove and the Master Compiler out of his mind. After all, there was nothing he could do about it. And the Master Compiler had been shut down by the Inspectors when they sealed the lab, so it was no longer a danger to anyone.

He slept poorly. The next morning he gathered his equipment. When he came down the stairs he saw the innkeeper.

"Still an outage," the innkeeper said.

"Oh? Well, anyway, I don't think I need to send anything," Hedvin replied.

The innkeeper nodded, an expected acceptance. "Never been an outage this long," he added.

Hedvin nodded. None of it mattered to him this morning. He began to think about the next few days and not being able to reliably dose. Perhaps I could snort it, maybe that would work. He thought. But transfer is through the eyes? Maybe he could dilute it with water and drop it in. He'd considered, some time ago, simply eating a portion of it. It might be effective on an empty stomach. The innkeeper was saying something, Hedvin went through the paces of the transaction. Rubbing it into a wound? Or creating a suppository? There had to be a better way than this arcane ritual he'd been suffering. After all, if Compilers were to take it, could they be expected to carry around ornate, ponderous devices to dose with? It was a problem that had to be solved, he'd have extra Vermilion to experiment with soon. Maybe an emulsion. Rolled into a cigarette?

Then he stood on the platform waiting for the train. It appeared in the distance, a great, imposing obsidian shape against a frost bleached landscape, exuding clouds of black smoke. It looked like an unstoppable experiment, a kind of monster. As he watched it approach with a degree of discountable atavistic fear, he thought about the contradictions of revolution. If he and his allies were willing to stop the Master Compiler, but they were also eager to discard the archaic rituals of some northern village, what would be left? How deeply intertwined were superstitions and beliefs? He wondered how dangerous his position was, whether the thin cover of his civilization could be easily ripped away.