2018-07-08 20:07 fiction cyclopaedia

Cyclopaedia Chapter Seventeen: The Outage

On the third day of the outage they began rationing fuel. Far corners of the Archives would remain dark. Several halls in Collections were pitch black. The places that had window light during the day weren't necessarily illuminated when night came. For many at the Cyclopaedia, working until dawn was habitual. But as fuel was rationed the staff which dutifully toiled at night were told to go home. Instead of going home they clogged the local pubs and restaurants, taking advantage of this strange, new, nocturnal freedom. There were several arrests for public disturbances. The regular patrons of these places thought the flood of liberated revelers were an invading army, instilled with all the extra vitality of not having to work.

This celebratory behavior was initially seen as an unfortunate anomaly. But the second, then third night of it caused public scandal. And there was nothing the Council of the Cyclopaedia disliked more than scandal. The Cyclopaedia was supposed to be an inscrutable, silent monolith of pure information without human stain. There was an emergency meeting, tense, recriminatory, where the consensus was that they had to procure more fuel for the Electric backups. More importantly, they agreed, they needed to vent their full rage at the Ministry Of Internals who ran the municipal Electric, which showed no indication of returning.

There had never been an outage like this. Some of the oldest staff in the Cyclopaedia had started as children, called 'runners', who once navigated the stacks, retrieving entries and materials—they remembered a time before Electric, and now they were sought for their ancient expertise. Lanterns were discovered in long forgotten storage rooms. The elevators once manually powered by ropes and gears had years ago been converted to Electric. They considered stripping the wiring to return these and other machines to manual operation. Old things were dusted off.

On the fourth day of the outage there was a sense of impassioned retreat at the Cyclopaedia—that Electric had never been very good to begin with and that within a week they could dispense with it entirely. Other casualties were the Electric sorters, machines that flipped through the thousands of cards that often made up a topic, the resulting cross-referencing requiring similar labor. Of course this also used to be done by hand. It would have to be done by hand once again. The 'sorters', like the 'runners', were chosen for their physical abilities rather than intellectual prowess. People with nimble fingers and quick eyes were sought out from the existing workforce. There was something satisfying about the work, the contact with the paper, the bodily effort exerted to seek and retrieve. It was, however, slower. For agencies and researchers that relied on the Cyclopaedia this would mean a backlog. The decreased rate at which information flowed would throttle every avenue, every channel. To the Council this was, at least openly, unacceptable. However, in the top floor of the Administration complex that looked out over the rooftops of the Capital, it was argued that slow was better than nothing. If Electric wasn't reliable, and they had to face recurring outages, they would routinely be rolling back to old methods, they would have to ingrain the old ways into everything that happened in the Cyclopaedia. This was contrary to years of research and planning that anticipated an almost completely new Cyclopaedia—one using the latest advancements, technology that was being developed in expensive laboratories by talented expertise. To the Council of the Cyclopaedia, this sudden, physical reality of systems reliant on one another was sobering. To the technologists who'd made careers out of Electric, it was terrifying.

A runner took a lantern from the cabinet, deftly igniting the wick, then re-examined the slip of paper allotted by the front desk. On the slip were coordinates, indicating a resource somewhere inside the Cyclopaedia. It could be close, it could be far. If the resource was very far, the runner hands off the slip at a relay desk no farther away than their maximum range. The floor of the halls have been polished by a million steps, stairs are worn in the middle, the stone of them a flexible annotation to the ceaseless work of hundreds of years. A protocol reemerges during the outage—which runner has the right of way in the oldest, thinnest passages? There is a bow of heads, a intuitive calculation of distance, an interaction whose laws happen faster than any machine could perform, and one runner is allowed to pass. Calculating machines, huge and heavy, would not fit here, in the maze of subterranean tunnels. Instead long sequences of conveyors had been installed in the Electric age, incoming and outgoing, pushing and pulling references and materials through the passages without the artful dance of the runners' brief interactions. And so the old ways, after the fourth day of the outage, were surfacing as if they'd never become obsolete.

What would be done with a Master Compiler during an outage? How would the information be transferred by this ideologically automatic system? The Council started to reconsider this. They called upon the director of the project, who proudly informed them that the Master Compiler has its own Electric source and was "totally unaffected by this outage". Excellent, they said, but how do we collate? How do we dispense? How do we sort? How do we analyze? How do we maintain the operations that appear to be dictated magically from the whirling gears of a mechanism? The Director spoke, as they'd heard before, of the brilliant future, the promises were tantalizing. Efficiency! Interoperability! Speed! And yet the nagging question of the remaining infrastructure, "brittleness" was the word the Director used, would have to be seriously addressed. Lanterns burned in the depths of the Archives underneath them as they spoke. Runners scrambled through information. Collation and sorting was accomplished by thousands of fingers, collectively. The older voices in the Council were self-congratulatory—their steadfast, long held rejection of change was proven. And the younger voices were intoxicated by the challenges of creating an entirely new, independent system, discounting what they felt were the mired ideas of the older generation. There was no middle ground—everyone on the Council believed the outage proved some concrete ideological victory.

There was of course a deciding voice. They must defer to the Sovereigns. But before arguments were presented, the internal disagreements had to be formalized. This was the proper way of doing things. Shortcuts would invite disaster and wrath. As frenetic activity bubbled in the guts of the Cyclopaedia, the anxious and perhaps paralytic ruminations of its mental state continued in the Administration complex, built when Electric was new and perfect, without consideration for the benefits of natural light, it was now almost completely dark.

Then a sputter of light. The filament of a bulb flows feebly, gains strength. Faces turn and look up, squinting, hopeful. But soon the bulb dims and goes out. Sighs of disappointment. And the rattling of belts, sorters and elevators clang through the massive building as the temporary surge triggers abortive mechanical spasms. Heads turn with looks of fear that the brief jolt of Electric has caused permanent damage. At the same time engineers hovering over their dials and meters at Central Electric jump as the surge surprises them—the generators work, the lines are intact, but they can't understand this behavior. Was there a monstrous thing squatted at the generators, gigantic and thirsty, drinking from the wires like it was a stream, drinking every bit of it, voraciously? The monster pauses momentarily and then there is a flood of power released into the system. Engineers swear in frustration and eventually collapse in weepy fatigue. They have no idea what the problem is, it defies the laws of Electric they were taught. What is happening should not be happening. Leading scientists are called in, arriving confidently, sure that the primitive problems of engineers can be easily solved by the higher level thinking of academia and scientific inquiry. They too are quickly stymied. The next step is blame.

The beginning of the sixth day of the outage brought civil disturbance.

The Cyclopaedia closed its main gates, adding additional guards to the remaining entrances. There was no sense of impending danger, simply precautions, the Council said. They considered themselves guardians of the world's knowledge, and although it hadn't happened in their lifetimes, in the past there had been periods of upheaval. Now the Electric outage, coupled with an unusual heatwave, had aroused old passions of inequity. Cobblestones were torn up and thrown at soldiers who confronted the protesters. Soldiers attempted to strategically steer them into choke points. There were casualties. The Sovereigns carefully kept track of the news from their estates, then quietly blocked off their own roads.

It surprised no one that the first brick thrown was in Old Town. Without Electric the pumps that kept water flowing in Old Town's ancient, poorly designed plumbing stopped working. As badly conceived as the old wells and hand pumps in the four corners of Old Town had been, they now would've sufficed. But they'd been removed in modernization efforts. Instead the area's citizens, and perhaps more importantly, the black market, were dry, waterless. And for these people, petitioning authorities was never viable. They would take what they needed. If there were Electric backups and fuel they could get into the neighborhood, they would get them. And they did, quickly. Soon the black market of Old Town was dominated by the exchange of Electric. Ad hoc wiring was strung. Electric backups and fuel from wealthier areas and institutions disappeared. As rotten food piled up on the sidewalks outside the expensive restaurants on Spice Row, the bosses in Old Town sat in chilled rooms with artificial light, eating well stored goods, and negotiating deals for access to power, or things that used power. Even if the Electric came back right now, they argued, what about next time, you'll want to have options next time.

Fringe political forces used the outage and the unrest similarly. When soldiers came into Old Town to get back Electric equipment and fuel, they were met by an agitated group of citizens who benefited from the localized power generation. Take our Electric away so that the rich in Park Square can have it? There had been a buried but volatile resentment, it merely needed a little help to become explosive. There were people who wanted a violent uprising, and they could use a long-held sense of injustice to achieve it.

When soldiers, believing themselves cornered by the angry mob, opened fire and killed half a dozen citizens, word spread through the rest of the Capital quickly. Physical lines were being drawn by the Ministries, to isolate and quell possible riots. Ideological lines were being drawn by citizens who sympathized with one side or the other—supporting the martyrs of Old Town and seeking radical change, or keeping the status quo ('Didn't the protesters who were shot bring this on themselves?'). Arguments escalated, friendships were broken, squabbles became entrenched positions, disagreements became fist fights, fist fights became riots.

The Cyclopaedia tried to capture these events as they happened. They sent out several Compilers whose expertise was the Capital, an urban taxonomy, to collect timeline data for the major entry known as City. Unfortunately, these Compilers had never been in situations such as riots or revolutions. They'd spent their lives keeping track of the civil ebb and flow of a stable metropolis, noting the boundaries of commercial districts, the political flora and fauna, the construction of landmarks, the social lives of magnates and cultural developments.

On the ninth day of the Electric outage a Compiler was killed in a flash riot close to the train yard. The groups behind many of the violent demonstrations had discovered, or had been fed, information that trains coming into the Capital brought supplies for the relief of its richest citizens. As the poor of the city ate boiled leather and weeds, the rich manipulated the troubled supply chain to favor themselves. Before Electric there may have been deliveries by horse drawn carts, from storage areas clustered in neighborhoods, from root cellars and small grocers, but with efficiencies created from machines, the chain became centralized. And without machines it collapsed. These trains now appeared to be filled purely with luxuries for the wealthy instead of relief for the hungry.

The rioters were determined to destroy the targets of their anger. They were successful in burning down the train yard completely. The military reacted slowly at first, not wanting to create another martyrdom to rally around—but on seeing the size and determination of this growing, frenzied mob, the soldiers were ordered to kill. The fighting was fierce. Because of their weaponry and training, the number of citizen casualties was large. However the crowd inflicted damage as well, the deaths of soldiers was not insignificant. Martial law was declared.

In this battle an urban Compiler tried to stand unseen, observing, trying to record events and accounts of actions—but the slow tradition of capture and collate, a patient understanding of the accretion of information, didn't work here. All around the Compiler were acts of violence and destruction. The names and movements of larger entities, the persona, that was so typical of a meaningful entry, were indecipherable. It was impossible to remain neutral. The restraints of impartiality that had come with a lifetime of observation and study seemed to evaporate. It is wrong, it is wrong the Compiler thought, wrong to be killed, it is wrong to be starved, it is wrong...

The report given to the Cyclopaedia was that their Compiler lost his life trying to pull a gun out of a soldiers hands. This was incomprehensible to the Council. Naturally there'd been Compiler deaths before, many times. But these were by and large circumstantial—a ship lost at sea, an avalanche, eaten by wild animals, the occasional murder, true, but rarely a demise that was a result of the Compiler's direct interference. It went against every tenant of their Oath, and hundreds of years of respected history. What would the Council do if the unrest continued to escalate—what if there were a revolution, could they count on the Compilers continuing to fulfill their Oaths and maintain the tradition of neutrality? If they couldn't count on the Compilers then what would become of the Cyclopaedia? This was a sudden, daunting crisis after more than a century of stability. Despite any upheaval the Cyclopaedia must continue, this was the core of its purpose, to be above the volatility of society.

On the tenth day the bulbs in the Archives glowed faintly once more, became stronger, casting bright unnatural light, creating sharp contrasts and long shadows. Sorting machines came to life, full of old tasks, the hum and purr of Electric machinery an alien sound after a long absence. Optimism was guarded. An hour went by. Then two. The Electric remained on. Word was given from the main station that they believed the power would remain. This confidence didn't prevent the Cyclopaedia from keeping their provisional methods ready. Their newly appointed runners and sorters were maintained.

There would be meetings. There would be an investigation. There would be proposals. And as clashes across the city brought columns of smoke from burning barricades, the shouting from a now organized citizens resistance to advance, pushing the soldiers back and forth with increasing aggression, suddenly paused as the sound of Electric loud speakers, working again, told the crowds to disperse.

In Old Town the spotty self-generated power was suddenly augmented with genuine Electric, causing the badly done additional lines to spark and catch fire. An entire block caught, and because the riots drained resources and man power and firefighters, it continued, and burned the buildings to the ground.

With Electric in place Ministries began to coordinate their efforts to battle the protesters. The members of mobs that had nothing else to do but throw rocks during the outage could now listen to wireless, could again take the trolley, could look forward to restaurants reopening—instead of starting fires in the streets at night, these people could again have artificial light in their homes. It would take steam out of the protests. Although the leaders and theoreticians of this resistance, whose dangerous political views, once ostracized, found themselves with voices and with a new degree of influence. The issues of authority and inequality had been raised and even with Electric, resentments would be close to the surface, raw and ready to ignite. And ready to exploit. The Sovereigns were aware of this, and they made the Garde aware of this—they had to prepare. It wouldn't be tomorrow, or next week, or maybe even this year, but the leaders of the resistance would find themselves in very tenuous circumstances—caught in some scandal, discredited in the eyes of their followers, blackmailed into performing the way Sovereigns wanted them to, led down paths of false information and goaded into beliefs and actions that eliminated or subverted the effectiveness of their leadership. This was child's play for the Sovereigns, they had generations of experience. These burgeoning politicos of the resistance had no experience, they were temporal reactionaries in the world view of the Sovereigns, shallow thinkers ready to be easily played or eliminated. The Sovereigns might be rusty, but they just had to flex their historical muscles to fully dominate and suppress the resistance. They would use it to make themselves even stronger.

The Compiler who'd been killed was given an official, ceremonious funeral—but hesitatingly. The details of his death were left out of any official record. Eulogies were delivered at the funeral pyre, his objectiveness and dedication hailed, the consistency of his work lauded. No mention was made of his final act, the act of personal preference and final moral decision.