2018-05-10 16:00 fiction cyclopaedia

Cyclopaedia Chapter Five: Fox

Fox sprinkled a small, precisely measured amount of the red dust into the tiny drawer in the back of the angled wooden box. On the top of the box, facing upward, was an attached, rubberized set of goggles molded to include a place for the nose. Where the goggles met the surface of the box was a fine, metal screen. On one side of the box was mounted a wide brass lever and on the other side was a large, round, knurled brass button.

He closed the little drawer. He then pulled the lever upwards, with some exertion, the box clicking crisply. He put two fingers on the large brass button. Then, hunching his shoulders, he put his face down into the goggles, inching slightly back and forth to make sure the seal was tight. He pressed hard on the button. The lever snapped down and his body jerked. There was a small, slight puff of red smoke from the back of the box, around the edges of the drawer. His chest expanded as he inhaled. He rose up, lifting his face out of the goggles. He was blinking rapidly, red tears spreading around his eyes. His eyelashes and the edges of his nose were coated with bright red dust—Vermilion.

He'd had the box, a kind of mechanical mask, constructed specifically so that he could take the drug unassisted. It cost a great deal to make. This was the first one made, but he knew there were dozens of others now, small improvements being made on the design each time, and occasionally personal customization. On the top of his box he'd had etched the image of a fox. This is what the Ksiwok called him, Compiler Hedvin, Fox.

He wiped red residue from his eyes with a stained handkerchief. Yes, everything was in place, he looked around his room. It wasn't the same experience as the first time he'd taken Vermilion—he'd adjusted to seeing the crystal lattice between Things, the angles and boundaries were clear, he was used to it, he welcomed it. He wondered how people who didn't take Vermilion could persist in a fog, why didn't it drive them mad. No, it did drive them mad, he thought, that is precisely what happens. The world is mad.

From the bottom drawer of his desk he took out a thick sheaf of papers. This was the beginning of the new Index. He'd started broadly, he started in ways that were antithetical to the methods and spirit of his training as a Compiler. But that didn't bother him anymore, those ways were wrong, he understood that now.

He'd started to make some progress when he heard the mail slot on his door open and close, a metallic twang that broke his concentration. A wire had been delivered, which wasn't unusual in itself, but the timing was off. It broke the pattern, the fairly delineated segments of time where certain events occurred, this was palpable to him, as if he could reach out and feel them as statistical monuments. This wire was important. He unfolded the message.

COME TO THE CAFE IMMEDIATELY —JON

He reluctantly returned his Index to its drawer. This was unfortunate, he was being pulled away, unable to make any more progress today, but something must've happened, Jon's wire was clear. He threw the message into the fireplace.

Fox lived in an apartment block for Compilers only. It was close to the Cyclopaedia, and it kept Compilers from mixing with the citizens of the Capital. There was nothing in The Oath that prescribed monasticism, but over the last few generations the leadership of the Cyclopaedia realized that Compilers were viewed as separate from society, and in many ways distrusted because their duty was to study, collect, and report. Some considered it a disquieting scenario—when speaking to a Compiler, anything said was first and foremost an exchange of data. Many avoided it.

Not so long ago there was considerable outrage when the public discovered Compilers had been keeping their existences, and identities, secret. Now Compilers that embedded themselves into a population were legally bound to declare themselves. There were many Compilers that disagreed with that subsequent Doctrine Of Declaration. They believed revealing oneself as a Compiler irrevocably harmed, even destroyed, the ability to gather actually objective material. They claimed people would only tell a Compiler what they wished to be known, what they wished to be true of themselves, rather than the factual basis. But being caught posing as someone else, or explicitly hiding the act of Compiling, was now a serious offense.

Fox knew Compilers who believed The Oath wasn't negotiable. They believed the Doctrine Of Declaration and other more modern practices like MetaCompiling, were abominations, and that there needed to be, or there would be, a return to the golden age of the Cyclopaedia when fundamentally Compilers answered only to the Work, and The Oath, rather than to law and agency.

He made sure some of these Compilers were now taking Vermilion.

In the last few years the subversive network of Compilers who desired a return to core principles tended to quietly talk and organize. Then they started taking Vermilion. And now Fox found himself at the center of a pending revolution.

Before he left the apartment he put the mechanical mask back into the cabinet, covering it roughly with folded bed sheets. Then he flipped the token on his door to indicate he was out. In the hall he saw several tokens indicating that the occupants were on expeditions. The status of each Compiler always known to any other. There were supposed to be no secrets. As the angles of Vermilion-induced symbolism glimmered and vibrated, he saw each of these doors as caves and warrens and nests, their residents meek and harmless, and he, Fox, walked down the hall knowing that many of them would not have a place in his revitalized Cyclopaedia. He nodded to a Compiler on the stairwell, who was also on Vermilion. Fox could tell. There didn't need to be any occult handshakes or signs, it was there, as microscopic changes of movement, a sonic quality that had a pitch only another taker could hear. A shared crystal mind. They didn't say anything because it was unnecessary to say anything.

When he stepped out into the street the afternoon sun was tight and pointed. The shadows contained an inky black intuition that made him pause. There was something here, he thought, something had changed today, it required decoding. If he'd had more time he could explore it, but he had to meet Jon. He made his way through the thin, obscure streets around the campuses of the Cyclopaedia, a physical expression of the mental process that a Compiler needed before emerging into the public streets of the Capital. Citizens were allowed here, but none came, either because of a sense of intimidation or an unspoken, unwelcoming sensation. Just as well, Fox thought.

Once on the boulevard he altered his pace slightly to match citizens. He still wore the coat of a Compiler, but like the others in his order he was adept at mimicking the body language of the crowd around him. He wasn't hiding, he wasn't breaking the Declaration, and yet he was skilled in anonymity. Occasionally someone would look at him, directly, quizzically, as if suddenly recognizing there was a Fox here, and then the person would quickly turn away, the whites of their eyes flashing discomfort.

He turned onto the street with the cafe. The street was shaded, discrete, and blissfully deserted. The cafe wasn't exclusively for Compilers, but they gravitated there. Any citizens that stumbled in usually had mutual interests or associated business. The Cyclopaedia, after all, was the largest institution in the world, naturally there was a significant amount of attached business, mercantile, habitual, or otherwise travel related. Did a Compiler need to go half way around the world? Did a Compiler need to coordinate a large expedition to a remote volcano, or glacier, or cavern? Did a Compiler need ancillary geographical data to confirm or deny a particular route? Captains, furriers, suppliers of paint or paper, map makers, scientists and researchers, all of these could be found at one time or another in the cafe.

Jon Orten, a young scientist who assisted Professor Ove on a project at the newest research facility, sat at a table to one side of the cafe, away from the windows. The cafe was quiet today, there were a couple of subdued conversations between Compilers and sailors and Compilers and merchants, and the smell of fresh kaf permeated the space, along with the resulting sipping noises. If you drank it, you did it loudly, as per custom.

Jon spotted Fox coming in, squinted and lifted his cup to drink. As Fox sat down one of the waiters came to his side, promptly delivering another cup.

"Ove is missing," Jon said.

"Missing? For how long?" Fox asked.

"Several days. His wife said he never came home. He didn't come into work the next day."

"Were Inspectors called in?" Fox handled the cup.

"Yes. And I assume the Director brought up your name," Jon said.

"I'm sure he did." Fox understood his friction with Ove had caught the attention of the Director. It didn't matter though, since the Director was incapable of understanding the point of their argument. The friction was necessary.

Jon gave Fox an awkward look, twisting the cup in circles.

"You think I'm responsible?" Fox could see Jon was suspicious, that he'd assumed malfeasance or worse.

"No, nothing like that," Jon said, lying badly. "The odd part is that Ove never signed out of the laboratory."

"The guard was probably asleep and Ove probably forgot. But why come to me with this? The most likely thing here is that Ove is sequestered in a frantic and monstrous engineering euphoria, and will show up in a couple of days, claiming he can solve the world's problems," Fox stated.

"You really don't like him do you?"

"That's irrelevant. We work together because I was ordered to work with him. My opinion hasn't changed since the beginning. Ove is brilliant but it's wasted on the wrong problem. He's trying to solve something that doesn't need solving. The Cyclopaedia will change, soon, and it won't be because of a mechanism—it will be because of a shared vision, a change in thinking. In the end it will be a decentralized symbolism, a pervasive agreement and unification."

"Yes, you've said this before. And my response remains the same, the same as Ove's," Jon said. "People cannot spontaneously agree on categorical boundaries. They need an authority to do it for them. An authority that has to be emotionless. But we've been through this. It's pointless to go through it again." When Jon was irritated his posture became more rigid, and he spoke quickly with more confidence. "What I want to know is did you notice any changes in Ove's behavior in the last few weeks?"

Fox thought of course, he started taking Vermilion. But he didn't say this.

Eventually maybe Jon would take Vermilion too, but this would require time and preparation. For all of Ove's faults, his thinking was adaptable. Jon was more constrained, the argument would need to be blunter. He would benefit greatly from Vermilion, but Fox knew Jon would be resistant. Ove was regularly dosing, and it transformed his thinking. Ove saw the new Index, Things were clear to him. Perhaps in the end that realization was too much, considering his life's work could be made instantly unnecessary. If he'd gone missing Fox assumed Ove either committed suicide or retreated to a remote location outside the Capital to digest these consequences of understanding. And yet the more Fox examined those scenarios the more he doubted Ove committed suicide—his exposure to Vermilion would've prevent this, suicide becomes obsolete, it's a paradoxical gesture, it's messy.

However, if Ove was in retreat somewhere, he would soon be looking for more Vermilion, and the only place he could get it was from Fox.

"I didn't notice any changes in his behavior. Look, I'm sure Ove will turn up," Fox said.

"Well I did notice a change in his behavior. I didn't mention it to the Inspectors because I didn't know how to characterize it, or why it seemed troublesome," Jon said.

"You should've told the Inspectors."

"There's no point in making vague assertions or assumptions. But I've been thinking about it and I wondered if you'd noticed too."

"How did his behavior change?"

"He seemed distracted. Some of his little habits stopped. He was less communicative. He usually kept a close eye on what we were doing, which sometimes I admit was difficult, but Pietr and I knew this was because he invested so much of himself into the project. Then suddenly it was as if he didn't care, we went about our work with no oversight. I chalked most of this up to Ove's overwork or some kind of malaise. But then I found this." Jon carefully took a piece of paper from inside his jacket and unfolded it. He handed it to Fox. It was Ove's handwriting on paper from his office. Jon said, "I don't recognize this. This isn't math. I don't know what this is or what these symbols mean."

Fox stared at the paper. This was symbolic calculus for the new Index. It was generative. It could cut months, maybe years off of Fox's work. If it was right—and Fox suspected it was, given Ove's abilities—it was potentially monumental.

"Hmm," Fox said, restraining himself, "I might know what this is. I seem to recall something like this in old Cyclopaedia documents. Perhaps Ove was doing historical research? It would make sense given the parameters he needed to understand. Look, why don't I hold onto this—I can compare it with papers from the Archives."

"Alright," Jon said, then hesitated. "Wait, look, be careful—really I should never have taken it. I should tell the Inspectors. It might be important. I wasn't thinking clearly at the time."

"Well now, don't be so hasty. I sill think Ove will turn up. And what would the Inspectors do with the paper anyway? They'd have no hope of knowing what it is," Fox said.

"Surely you know the Director's rules about taking research. No. No, no. I think I should give it to the Inspectors. I'll admit I took it. I wasn't thinking. That's the best thing to do, give it to the Inspectors." Jon hedged, appearing worried.

Fox folded the paper. "Now, now, why don't I run right over to the Archives with it, I'm free this afternoon, I'll compare it to a few things. Then I can have the paper back to you this evening, or tomorrow morning at the latest, then you can do whatever you feel you should do." Fox put the paper into his jacket. Jon had no choice but to concede the point given Fox's greasy ease.

"Alright. As long as you have it back to me by the morning. Then I'll contact the Inspectors." Jon held up one finger in his pronouncement to highlight the certainty of his intentions.

Jon and Fox left the cafe, Fox reiterating that he would have answers, and return the paper. Jon walked in the opposite direction, Fox walked the way he'd come, back towards his apartment. He would return the paper tonight, as he'd promised, but first he would copy it.