fiction

2018-08-19 13:22 short-story flash-fiction fiction elixir Benjamin Brood

The Last Day

The sounds of his footsteps, the dampened squelch of his sneakers, were the only human things left in the empty halls. The faint, ignorable hum of central air was ever-present. He imagined miles of conduits, venting, pipes, wires and other building guts behind the walls and floors, persistent, dedicated and slowly corroding. It must've cost a fortune.

Today was the last day for the mall. It was the last day too, for CellPoint, the store he'd worked at for almost a year. It wasn't a very good job, but it was a job, and it was easy, and the owner never hassled him as long as he sold cell phone cases. He was pretty good at it, when people came in anyway. He wondered if anybody would come in today, he doubted it.

CellPoint was the last store on the last day.

The morning sunlight warmed the windows of closed stores, the brown paper colored like milky coffee. These used to be Sears, KMart, Victoria's Secret, Spencer's, JCPenny, FiNAILly, Candylicious, dozens of others, they closed one by one. Not just the big stores, but all the little ones that fed off the overflow of people, like little fish who attached themselves to the behemoths — once they went away it was only a matter of time until the little fish died off.

The store opposite CellPoint, across the wide, beige corridor with a floor decorated with ugly, pastel triangular patterns, was there maybe six months. It sold junk from auctions and vinyl records, it was called Rainbow Junction. The guy who owned it was always stoned. He had plans and ideas, he would talk for hours at first, walking over to CellPoint on a pretense to borrow something. He'd keep saying, "Great talking to you, have to get back if there's a rush", then continue talking and talking. But customers never came in. He stopped visiting that much, probably realizing the mall was doomed and his business was a failure. The day Rainbow Junction closed, movers came to take away the inventory, and the owner seemed a foot shorter and his eyes were swimming in black circles. The mall shrinks you, he thought, a big place like this, you can't get your head around how big it used to be.

He wondered what it used to be like. It used to be a town inside a town, with identities on a shelf, a food court for flavors of some bland alien world, reliable and free of surprises. He didn't know if he would miss it. It was designed that way on purpose. Tomorrow he'd be out of work and he figured he'd just stay home like everybody else.

2018-08-12 12:22 fiction cyclopaedia Benjamin Brood

Chapter Twenty: The Lost Tree

Quiddity rolled back and forth in bed, pulling the covers over himself until he felt he was suffocating. He thought of the Cyclopaedia, the thing he created, and he hated it. How was it possible to spend one's life in an enthusiastic frenzy of building, collecting, negotiating, and evangelizing only to wake up one morning full of loathing. No it didn't happen instantly. Not in a single morning. It was such a gradual accretion he didn't notice it until the loathing was rooted in place. And now it was too late. He was old, he wasn't young enough to destroy anything. Destruction took a necessarily incendiary humor. It took the vitriol of immortal youth. It took bittersweet rage. At his age there was little enthusiasm and a surplus of skepticism. But he hated it, he decided, he hated the Cyclopaedia. The dozens of Compilers now criss-crossing the globe, astutely and devotedly capturing the nature of the world, he hated them too and the oaths they'd taken to perform their tasks. How sanctimonious. Why would they waste their lives on it? They believed the Cyclopaedia was theirs, but it wasn't theirs, they worked in the service of it, just as he inevitably worked at the service of the powers of the world — the compromises he'd made allowed them too great a share of his idea. It had become dirty with commerce. What he should've done, he thought, was stayed in his room. Never have told anyone about it. Instead of making the Cyclopaedia as large as he could, make it as small as possible. And not tell anyone. No, telling anyone was his first mistake. It was a mistake of pride, and unverified arrogance, telling anyone was his desire for reward and praise. And these were incompatible with the idea of it — they polluted the project, the purity of the original was twisted into an institution, a hierarchy of authority, a resource to be battled over. He'd wanted to make sense of the world, and, he thought as he pulled the covers back over himself after gulping air, he simply revealed what everyone had suspected — that the oldest species of motivations dominated their lives, the greed and ego, the wealthy and the powerful. Worse, he may have helped them, those representatives. He should never have left his room. He could've indexed the world without ever seeing it, he wouldn't need to have sent people on dangerous voyages by sea to the far corners, discovering new lands, new rivers, new flowers, new animals. He could've imagined everything right here. The fold of the sheets before him, like the rippling of mountains, he would declare it a new country, and create an entry for it in the proper work, a real Cyclopaedia of the mind. The table across from his bed, it was a plateau, wide, reaching far into the distance, populated with roaming creatures, gigantic, not bothered by hunters because of its remoteness, attacked by no predators because of their size and number. The curtained window on the other side of the room was a faint sun, illuminating the plateau and the mountains in a manner he'd formerly described as "late afternoon" — but now on the plateau of the table those shadows stretched half a continent. This was an alien world. If he couldn't destroy the Cyclopaedia immediately, or soon, he would have to devise some means to destroy it later. He believed he could do this. There was a way. The idea made his heart thump. He would begin another Cyclopaedia, an alternate work, which contradicted everything in the first. He would set up the conditions for an unavoidable battle, between the very large and the very small, between the authoritative and the imaginary. Neither would win. Winning wasn't the point. The point was equilibrium, to remove the weight he'd deliberately placed on one side of the scale, he'd then purposefully stack the opposite side. Who could he trust? Nobody. But that didn't matter. He would be manipulative. He would plant seeds. To trust anyone else with it meant failure, like the Cyclopaedia it had to live and grow on its own, in the dark maybe, for a long time maybe, but it would grow. Yes, he thought, there needs to be an antithesis. Making sense of the world outside oneself could not happen without an imaginary world. He would build it. He would construct the basis, here, in bed, as the landscape around himself revealed a geography that was as rich as the Cyclopaedia, the four corners of the room were enough. But the legacy of this project required conspirators. And yet he understood he couldn't reveal his intentions directly. He would have to put the alternate, the imaginary, inside the existing — inside its conception, inside its philosophy. The imaginary would generate itself, over time, finding necessary adherents. They may not even be fully aware of their allegiance to this lost tree, this dreamed index. It would be magnificent and subtle. And some day this machine of subversion would awake, a map of this small room, powered by dreaming, by a landscape of a story, a fable. The real things of the world would be consumed, indexed for the alternate, until the Cyclopaedia was no longer a museum but a long walk through the woods, an eternal tale. Quiddity got out of bed and went slowly to his desk. He drew out a long sheet of thick, fibrous paper. Decades of work had led him to a concise symbology, a kind of calculus to plot the course of ideas. He began composing, hesitatingly — then as the course of things became clearer, he wrote with harried desperation.

2018-08-11 12:48 fiction cyclopaedia Benjamin Brood

Chapter Nineteen: An Empty Kit

Leaving now would mean a difficult journey. Maybe deadly. It would be getting colder, fast. As he went north he might become snow bound. There were little cabins along the way, at least until he deviated from the known routes and went through that endless area of forest. Regardless, if any kind of storm hit when he was in transit, he'd be in big trouble. And if a storm hit after he'd arrived in the village, he'd be stuck there, maybe for the entire, long winter. But, he told himself, he wouldn't have to be there very long — just long enough to get what he needed. He didn't have to worry about approval from the Cyclopaedia, someone had taken care of all of that, the Garde of course. He could come and go as he wanted. Well, not as he wanted. As he needed. He knew who he worked for, in essence — he needed to bring back another batch of Vermilion, so it looked like no matter how he felt about weather, he was going.

There were logistical problems. The main train line would stop in a town farther south from where it normally terminated during the warmer months. Then he'd get a seat in an old fashioned wagon, in the back, packed with sheep probably. At the top of the arc he'd set off on foot. Supplies were an issue since he'd need more in the cold. He'd have to carry more of everything. He wasn't the most adept back-woodsman, although he'd gone through all the same courses and apprenticeships other Compilers went through. The training was more rigorous for others depending on their interests and future duties. Nobody had ever assumed he was an explorer, his talents were clearly elsewhere. But he knew enough, which the more experienced Compilers might tell him was just enough to get into trouble.

He had to consider getting the shipment of Vermilion back. Since it was potent, so it wasn't terribly voluminous. But this would be the last time he could do it on foot, if he wanted to increase the return in stages. Next time he'd need to expand the operation to a team. And expanding the operation to a team meant confiding in people, which was against his nature. He liked the simplicity of it being only himself, responsible for success or failure. If it were an operation then there would be conflict, no doubt. And there would be deviation of interests, there would be inequity. He despised this kind of conflict. But it would have to be done. Maybe Kjetil would join him? After all, he was already heavily dosing. And he was an experienced traveler, although the stories he'd heard about the survivors of his ship the Ukkonen were disturbing.

He would have to convince the woman in the village to increase their output. What was her name? Miika, he thought, it was Miika. He would have to convince her as well, eventually, to show him how to make Vermilion properly. Maybe the specifics weren't just local to the village. Maybe they could set up operations elsewhere in the region. It was difficult to believe the grubs could only exist by the village. However, what if there was some unknown, rare element in the soil they live in, which only exists in that exact area? These could be problems. Yet he had necessary expertise available to him — he needed to weed out the trusted members of the Hallen, to get them involved, and he also needed to hide from them the fact that the Garde, and by extension the Sovereigns, were involved. No — directing the endeavor. More than involved.

It was useless getting paralyzed by the complexities. He put his Compilers' kit onto his desk, its parts unpacked and arranged neatly. He looked at the components and wondered what he could replace. All of it, or nothing. He wouldn't be doing any Compiling this trip, that's for sure, and unlike the previous journeys, where he'd had to make copious notes and drawings of that damned wasp, this time he wouldn't need to cover his activities explicitly. He should still have the kit itself, the case, it was an identifier, it was solid evidence he was a Compiler. It is useful to be seen as a Compiler while traveling, the kit was unmistakable, well known. And then he'd fill the kit with Vermilion on the way back — it would hold enough of the dust to cover three or four times the number of users that he had now. He would need to figure out something else in the future of course, but for the moment this would do. He took the kit's supplies, the pencils and paints, the cards and inks, the tiny glass vials and the tinctures for in-the-field experiments, he put them away into his cabinet. He took the portable copy of the index, with its tiny print, its impossibly thin paper, and he put it in his desk. He had another index now, he wouldn't need it.

The case was now disturbingly light. It gave him a chill because this was so abnormal. The weight of a kit was a precise and well known sensation to all Compilers. It demonstrated their security, it was a physical measurement of their Oath. Now it was an illusion, an empty kit was just an emblem, without substance, describing his transgressions from that Oath perfectly — an exciting and obscene rebellion from a life's dedication. It was both an exhilarating and sickening sensation.

When he dosed that morning he thought about Fox. Where did he end, where did Hedvin begin. He hadn't devoted much time to this previously, he'd simply accepted the animal that he'd chosen that first time, with Miika, he'd picked up the Fox mask. But why. At first he'd believed this was some arbitrary aesthetic choice. But as the months wore on, he would think of it, and he would think of Snake. If Vermilion permitted unified thought, concentrated mental acuity, revealing the universal index, how could it accomplish this — there had to be a center, there had to be a construct. Language itself couldn't be sufficient. The underpinnings of language, the unsaid webbing of language, maybe. And what was this? Was it Fox and Snake? Those backwards villagers, dosing themselves with Vermilion for perhaps a thousand years, still held onto their totems and their legends, living a shared story, allowing themselves to be representatives of a simplistic epic. Or even becoming a complete epitome — he'd seen them slip into transformative fugues in front of the fire, there were ceremonies, there was story telling, there were masks — it went deeper than the well known rituals, there was a conductivity that was all Vermilion. Grubs and soil, stories and fireside theater.

When he collected all of his gear he made sure he informed the Cyclopaedia of a false destination. He knew the Garde and the Inspectors would examine these transactions. They would compare them with previous entries. The logs of one's movements were a ledger of one's self, what one was interested in, what one intended, what one avoided. And so, he lied whenever possible. He'd always done this. He was confident that nobody knew where he was going. Of course this meant that if there was a storm, or another disaster happened, if he slipped from a rocky ledge, if he was stung by one of the very same goddamned wasps and died gasping for breath, there was no chance of anyone finding him. He would rot in a pile until mushrooms grew out of him. This was sobering.

His commitment wasn't incidental. What would he have done of his own free will if he wasn't roped into this contract with the Garde? Maybe the same thing. He believed he was an agent of change. He probably needed to sacrifice his well being to make this effective. He could change the Cyclopaedia. He could be the one to fulfill the promise of it, he thought for a quick moment, I could be the hero of the story.

When he was notified by a bell that a carriage had arrived for him, he hurriedly gathered his things, his bags, his empty kit, wondering if he'd ever see this miserable little apartment again. Fox knew winds could change, seasons were unstoppable.

2018-08-04 15:34 short-story elixir fiction Benjamin Brood

Doghouse

There was a man in the doghouse, in his doghouse.

It was a rainy morning, the lawn and shrubs in the backyard were a sort of drenched, satisfying green that only happens at the very height of summer. As he woke up, poured his coffee, and looked out the sliding glass door, he noticed a man climbing out of the doghouse, standing, stretching.

He took another sip of coffee and looked harder. Why was there a man in his doghouse? It was his doghouse, but it was built by the previous owner, he did not, in fact, own a dog. He'd always intended to dismantle the thing, but on several occasions when he was really determined to do it, he went back there with hammer in hand and then was reminded how insidiously solid it was, constructed to last — it would be hard to take down. It was large, and it had been for a large dog.

The man continued stretching for a few moments then sat back down on the edge of the entrance, his back slumped, and casually scratched his face which was covered with a few days of beard. The man seemed to be staring at nothing in particular.

After placing his coffee down he opened the sliding glass door. It was a large yard, long, with trees behind the property. He had to walk through the wet grass in his slippers before he could be close enough to the man to be heard.

"Excuse me," he said.

The man looked up, without any reaction, stopped his scratching. The man said nothing.

"Excuse me, you can't be here, this is private property," he said.

The man still said nothing, but stared at him, blinking.

"Do you understand? Do you need help? You can't stay here," he tried strengthening his tone. The man did and said nothing. "Why are you in my doghouse? Do you think you're a dog?" he said, becoming frustrated.

The man looked suddenly offended. "Of course I'm not a dog," the man said.

"Well good then, fine. You have to leave. If you don't leave, I'll call the police," he said.

The man shrugged, averting his eyes, looking back towards something indistinct. "Maybe you should," the man said.

He didn't know what to say. Why was the man being so difficult? He didn't appear like he was violent, or ill — simply that he didn't care. He stood there for a moment, jaw hanging open, then turned and went back into the house. He thought for a moment, drank some of his coffee. "I guess I have to call the police," he said to himself.

He dialed the local police number instead of 911. It wasn't an emergency, not a life threatening emergency anyway. He looked out the window as he dialed. The man was just sitting there. Someone at the police station picked up.

"Hello? I'd like to report a trespasser. A man, a man is sitting in my doghouse," he said.

"I see. A man is sitting in your doghouse," the voice said.

"Yes. And he won't leave," he said.

"Alright. And you want him to leave?" the voice said.

"Yes, yes of course I want him to leave," he said.

"I see. And may I ask sir, do you, at this time, own a dog?" the voice inquired.

"What?" he was becoming flustered.

"Just getting a better idea of the situation sir. Do you have a dog?" the voice said.

"I… Why, no, no, I don't have a dog. The man, he's sitting in my doghouse," he said, believing it might help if he restated the facts.

"I understand that, as you've said sir. But you don't have a dog? Why do you have a doghouse?" the voice said.

"I don't know, it was here when I bought the house. The previous owner must've had a dog," he said.

"Well, you know, these days, it's very hard to find a place, a good place to live I mean," the voice stated.

"Is it? I mean… so what?" he didn't know how to make the officer, or whoever was on the other end, understand that the man was sitting in his doghouse. "I mean — the man — he's in my doghouse!"

"And yet, you don't have a dog. It sounds like you don't even want a dog. The doghouse has been empty, is that correct? And now the man is in your doghouse. You see what I'm getting at here?" the voice said evenly.

"No! I absolutely don't see. I absolutely don't understand. You need to come get this man out of my doghouse — my doghouse!" he was becoming irate, these events were intolerable.

"Calm down sir. I think you need to calm down. Think about the man and the fact the doghouse was empty. Certainly there's some agreement that the doghouse wasn't being used or ever intended to be used. Why didn't you remove the doghouse? That would be the first thing I would think, honestly, if you were to ask me about it beforehand. But now the man is there? You see what I'm saying. The man, the man is in the doghouse. Now what I'd like you to do…" the voice said.

"To do.. you want me to do…" he said, stupefied.

The voice continued, "…is to put down the phone and just get back to your normal routine. Everything will be fine. Keep an eye on the man, in your doghouse, for any unusual behavior, or signs of sickness. If that's the case, then by all means call us back. But for the moment, the man is in your doghouse. Do I make myself clear?"

"I don't…" he said, trying to think about what was being said.

"Have I made myself clear? Yes, I think I have. Well, I'm glad we could resolve the issue. Have a good day sir. Goodbye," the voice said. Then he heard a click and dial tone, the voice had hung up. He put the handset back into the cradle.

He stared at the phone for some time. It didn't make any sense, did it? I mean the officer is right, he thought, that the doghouse was empty and I have no dog. Is this the way things are dealt with these days? When was the last time I ever called the police? The more he thought about it all, the more unsure he was about the situation and his reaction. He sat at his table and drank his coffee and stared out the sliding glass door at the man in the doghouse. The man was scratching himself again, but otherwise not doing much of anything. I hope the man doesn't have fleas, he thought.

That afternoon he poured some milk into a large, round porcelain bowl and filled it with corn flakes. He walked out back across the lawn again to the doghouse where the man was sleeping. He quietly placed the bowl on the ground.

2018-08-03 13:18 fiction short-story climate Benjamin Brood

This Burning World

It was a consistent 125F in New York City. A few months ago they shipped out all the poor people on buses. You didn't have to leave, but unless you could afford an expensive TeslaCube, you wouldn't want to stay. No one knew where the buses actually went. Somewhere in Upstate and New Jersey probably. After that, you were on your own. There was a secret report on the casualties leaked to what was left of the free press. Somebody did a Prank about it, but it wasn't that funny and it didn't have enough views to get into the Feed.

All that solar didn't help in the end, he thought. Enormous areas of land covered in black panels — by satellite the Earth looks encrusted with black fungus. Still got power, but he wondered if it mattered when the roads had melted and you couldn't go outside. Power wouldn't last anyway, he'd heard, since it was all widely distributed infrastructure made from cheap panels, and there was nobody to maintain it, and too hot to. The power would continue to degrade as usage went up.

Elon Musk celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday showing off his KulSuit in the Kansas Desert, he remembered these used to be called 'space suits'. Shrug, what is old is new again. Crappy Siberian factory stuff anyway, he bet. Musk said something about re-populating Florida. It didn't make any sense, why bother? Since Florida had been abandoned there were those Gods-Earthers who refused to leave and there were horrible stories about what they did down there, and what happened if anybody crossed into their territory. He didn't know how much of that was true, TNN broadcasts were all on the party line.

The "heat island effect" from the megalopolis on the East Coast, China, LA, parts of Europe and so on, meant that it would never get cooler there. A few EU cities tried breaking up concrete and buildings and greening the area to beat the cumulative effect, but it was too little too late. What would you do with all that concrete anyway? And how would you water the new plants?

The next storm season might tear down most of the East Coast, it was just a roll of the dice, just a matter of time. The billions spent on levees back in the 30s didn't make much difference for hurricane Ezekiel. And those other storms, what were their names? Hard to recall. There was a reactionary element in the wealthy urban population now, get what you can get, have as much fun as you can, be ready to checkout.

He was hungry, he remembered apples.

2018-07-29 20:52 fiction cyclopaedia Benjamin Brood

Chapter Eighteen: Seeing Or Seen

When they entered the Ministry they saw a uniformed man at the far front desk. It was after hours, late, there was no one else in the long hall, except to their right a cleaning man, broom in hand.

They walked forward down the almost empty, echoing hall, institutional design applied with brutal optimism that the construction was permanent. The hall would stand, forever. Forever you would be able to file a report, triple stamp an inquiry, wait in a line to find out you'd need another form. The building radiated a stale confidence that came from suppression and politics.

The officer at the front desk was, they were sure, a fixture of his post — a life-long employee of the Ministry, accepting his duties without humor, without patience, using the minimum of activity. He saw Slv&Elin. As they walked toward him he made a small pointing gesture with one hand. He pointed to a smaller elevator to one side, away from the large ornate doors that must've been full of Ministry business during normal hours. They believed it was a service elevator, and it must go down. The man's eyes remained fixed on a daily broadsheet he cradled in front of himself, occasionally and suddenly animating to turn a page with crinkly exclamation.

After closing the reluctantly secured gate, they pressed the button for their floor, keeping an eye on the front desk as the elevator descended. When the elevator settled at the very bottom floor with disconcerting sound of twisting metal and a high pitched screech, they opened the lethargic gate and saw, more clearly, a long, poorly lit hallway. Against the walls, at intervals that allowed passage, were stacks of boxes. By their relentless uniformity they could only contain paper work, probably countless sheets of standard office sized accounting, requests, memos and counter-memos. And yet there was a haphazardness and desperation about the placement of the boxes, they overflowed, obscuring parts of the hallway.

Their destination was an office that was at the end of this miserable chain of bureaucracy. Certainly there was some perverse statement by the Garde in the choice of location. If nothing was left to chance for the Garde, the message remained obscured to them. They felt like they'd already devoted too much time trying to interpret, analyze, and predict the actions of the Garde. Their behavior, as they understood it, couldn't all be perfectly meaningful — some of this must be meaningful by adjacency, actions left open for influence and over-interpretation. They believed the choice of location, a poorly run, overworked bureaucracy, wasn't a perfectly meaningful choice, but intended to let them create an internal narrative the Garde could exploit. Slv&Elin were familiar with behavioral redirection, of producing circumstances that facilitated eventual clarity, but they believed the Garde did exactly the opposite — utilizing anything possible to produce haze and indecision in their prey.

Slv flipped the stone in her pocket over and over. The smoothness of it, it made a small mental noise, a popping, like a bubble bursting, over and over as she turned it. The world became saturated, going from one state to another, where edges jumped into prominence, then back to geometries of light and shade. Delineation was jogged. As she flipped the stone the changes to the world became a rhythm, one that lulled her nervousness into abstraction. Parts of the whole, she thought, I'm flipping the world end over end.

Given the incrementing numbers, the office was farther down the hall. They negotiated passage around the tall stacks of boxes, careful not to brush against them, worrying that they might fall over. When they arrived at the office, where they were to meet the Garde, they saw the door was cracked and the light was on. Pushing the door open, they saw there was no one in it. The number was correct, this is where they were told to meet. The office was small and depressing. There were no windows since they were far below ground. There were several chairs of different, randomly chosen styles placed without thought.

Slv&Elin entered the room and sat down. Soon they heard footsteps approaching. The Garde entered the room without hesitation, already aware that Slv&Elin had arrived. He sat in a chair opposite them, arranging himself fluently to face them in an open and comfortable series of self-conscious movements.

"Here we are. It's a pleasure to meet you, I've heard a lot about you, we really should've gotten together much sooner," the Garde said.

Initially not tall or short, not thin or fat, not ugly or handsome, the more Slv looked the more she realized she could see him. She flipped the stone. Flip. There was a face. There was a specific, notable physique. And the clothing, it was expensive but old. It was threadbare in one spot. He was a man in his early middle age, on the heavy side. She could characterize the build and appearance as a man who enjoyed expensive vices. She looked quickly over to Elin, was she seeing the Garde uncamouflaged too? Slv would normally be able to understand what Elin understood, their relationship meant minute telegraphing of thoughts through slight movement and vocal intonation. This had always been important during interviews. But Elin was concentrating intensely, Slv could tell nothing else. Maybe she was seeing him too.

"These kinds of meetings are not part of standard procedure," Elin stated.

There, there it is, Slv thought, she sees him too.

The Garde's face reacted with disappointment. The kind of frustration a child might show when you aren't playing their game properly. He had a face that was not used to being seen, and so it acted like it was animated by a series of strings glued badly to a skull.

"I had an interesting talk with your bookseller friend," said the Garde, tapping one knee impatiently and scowling. Slv flipped the stone, the world turned around. They could dismiss their worry for Konrad, it wouldn't make sense for the Garde to be telling them this if he'd killed Konrad. Slv flipped the stone, the saturation of the room changed. The Garde continued, "Yes, he thinks highly of your abilities and integrity, but he worries about you, and this case of yours."

"Really? Worries?" Slv said.

"The case is very involved, isn't it? So many deeply invested interests, so many possible directions but so little actual evidence. He thinks you may be in over your head — I mean, as much as he clearly has confidence in you, but given his experience in these matters, I would have to agree with him, the bounds of your investigation may become, let's say, overextended." The Garde seemed to be glancing around the room, evident that this was the first time he'd seen it.

"There is nothing outside the bounds of our investigation, we are Inspectors. Our prerogative is to find out everything, nothing remains hidden, and no one can legally prevent us from doing this," Elin said. She said it completely without emotion, just uttering facts.

"Yes, yes," The Garde said dismissively. "I've heard this before you know, this creed of the Inspectors. I'm sure it's true — but only to a point. Surely you must realize that." Then he smiled, it was thin and forced. "If you hadn't realized it, then why would you have reached out to meet with me?"

"We understand the Garde have their own means and their own sources of information. We also understand you have an interest in the Master Compiler project that Ove ran," Elin said. Slv&Elin had spoken at length the night before about keeping the meeting focused. It would be the Garde's strategy to foster confusion and drift, to inject doubt and deterrence.

"We wanted to meet for a couple of reasons. First to make clear our intention of pursuing the case, to the Garde. So that there are no dangerous misunderstandings. Second, to inquire if you have any relevant information about the disappearance of Ove and his assistant Jon," Slv added. As she looked at him, noticing the pockmarks on his cheeks, the circles under his eyes, the receding hairline, she flipped the stone inside her coat pocket. She realized there was a discrepancy that might explain them being able to see him. There were three minds here, Slv and Elin and Slv&Elin — meetings with the Garde were typically one on one, and she wondered if the abilities of the Garde were limited, or anticipatory, to these circumstances. If that were true, what did it mean that the Garde subjected himself to possible recognition? Perhaps he wanted something very badly from them. She wondered what his masters, the Sovereigns, had said — how strenuously did the Sovereigns want resolution to the situation and what particular resolution did they prefer.

"I see," The Garde said, "So this is to be one of your interviews?" He exuded disdain.

"This isn't an interview. This isn't standard procedure," Elin said.

"We're willing to exchange information since our goals overlap. But we can't stop our investigation, and we can't accept interference with the investigation," said Slv.

"You let us finish the investigation and, afterward, you can continue as you have been, with your interests," said Elin.

"Oh?" The Garde seemed amused, interest aroused. "And what if I was the one who removed Ove? What then? Wouldn't you be obligated, by your rigid reliances on procedure, to arrest me?"

"We know we can't — or rather, it would be impractical to try. Anyway, it's beside the point — we're sure you didn't. We know you want Ove back, we know that he's crucial to your project, and the last thing you'd do is 'remove' Ove," Slv said.

"You're being sensible about this. I'm glad. That's true, we aren't responsible for his disappearance," The Garde said. "It isn't in our collective interest. I can speak for the Sovereigns in this matter. It is not in our interest to get into a pissing match with the Bureau. We've done it before, as I'm sure you've heard from your old bookseller friend. It wasn't productive. It wasn't profitable. However…" The Garde looked up then back down as if divining some verbal dictation from the air, surmising what techniques of manipulation might be attempted or fitting. "…if you make any moves to attack us, or implicate us, we will retaliate. We will retaliate with the power of the Sovereigns. We will not endure another circus with a Garde on trial. Ridiculous. Our fundamental requirement here is that the project become operational again. I admit, a lot of this project is beyond me. And, I suspect, beyond you as well. Not to belittle your abilities. But we're talking about specialists here. Incredibly advanced machinery and theories. But I think the direction is inarguable. We're talking about a project that may define the future. As much as you have a sworn duty to some notions of discovery and truth, we have a dedicated purpose to the long term profits of the Sovereigns. This is why we would rather conduct this investigation ourselves — because it is our property. Ove is our property. The Master Compiler is our property. The Director is our property. The laboratory is our property." The Garde punctuated this with a set of raised, relatively bushy eyebrows, as if what he was saying was the most sensible thing in the world.

Elin said, "We're aware of these things, these realities. We have to consider everything in the investigation."

Slv added, "Anything you know about Ove, the disappearance of Ove and subsequently his assistant, will expedite our investigation and then you can return to managing your… property."

"Any information you give us, we consider confidential. And we're willing to exchange information — given the special nature of the relationship between the Bureau and the Sovereigns," said Elin.

They kept it neutral. They had an idea that he wanted to extract a reaction from them, that he would feed off this, and they wanted to starve him. The Garde paused, thinking. Then let out a short awkward laugh. "I could swear we've met before. Perhaps it's your confidence and focus that reminds me of another time. It's refreshing. Believe me when I say that I trust your word, and your devotion, to your craft. Also believe me when I say that if the Garde agree to something, you can trust us to keep a contract. But we would only enter into a contract if we consider it worthwhile. The only thing that is worthwhile here, to us, is the resumption of the project. A project you have shut down."

Elin said, "We want to let the project continue as soon as possible. As soon as the investigation is complete."

"Do you believe Ove is still alive?" asked the Garde.

Slv&Elin looked at one another briefly. This was being played out less complexly than they'd prepared for. The Garde, exposed, seemed to be falling into a discursive path they found predictable. This assured them their approach was correct. Perhaps there was a game underneath the game, but for the moment they didn't want to over-think it. Slv flipped the stone. There was a point, a moment when you understood the way in which a path would unfold, with almost absolute assurance, that everything was in place, the known things were known, the unknown things were defined, the scope of the interview was a finite event you could grasp. New possibilities would be illuminating.

"To give you a piece of information, we would need a piece of information in return," Slv said.

"I see. So, a contract. Quid pro quo. Makes sense. But — to reiterate this point — you've agreed to not pursue conviction of any Garde, and you've agreed to let us pursue our property as we see fit after the investigation — is that right?"

"Yes, that's right. That's what we agree to," said Elin.

"You have our word," said Slv&Elin.

"And you have my word. The word of the Garde. So, is Ove alive?"

"No. Although we don't have a body, we are certain Ove is dead," Elin said.

"How can you be so certain?" the Garde asked.

"A few reasons."

"First, the glasses."

"Ove had two pair of glasses. One pair was at his home. The other pair at his office in the laboratory. If he'd simply left, because of some financial pressure, a romantic affair, or stress, it's inconceivable he would've neglected his glasses given he's a scientist and no longer a young man. If he were leaving the city by train, for instance, he'd need his glasses at the station, he'd need them for his ticket, he'd need them to read the paper. If he did go somewhere else without them one of the first things he'd do is have new glasses made. That hasn't happened. We were thorough."

"I'm sure," the Garde said.

"Second — his last known location."

"He signed into his laboratory at the front desk, as usual. However, he never signed out. Our inspection found no signs of a struggle or forced doors. While the security staff weren't perfect, we could reasonably discount conspiracy or collusion. These things, spread across many people, would require coordinated narratives and vigilance about keeping a story integral. The staff was much too lazy and disinterested for this level of engagement. The obvious conclusion is that there was a flaw in the security plan or procedure that allowed Ove out of the building. But who could coerce him out of his laboratory, without a struggle, without his glasses? Someone he must've known. Promising a short absence. This leads to our first suspect, the Director."

"In routine surveillance of the Director we noted a visit — and we can extrapolate previous visits due to fuel records — to the estate of a Sovereign."

"While we might have discounted the Director, particularly due to lack of motive, this highly unusual honor, of being allowed to personally visit the estate of a Sovereign, renewed our interest in the Director, and frankly, brought us to you."

The Garde was grinning wearily. "I see. Yes, as I've said before, the project is important. And so the Director has been allowed into the estate. But, I wonder, what about the possibility Ove was kidnapped, with a body you can't declare him deceased — "

"We are allowed this power, we may declare it if we think it is certain and efficacious."

"We're certain but not absolutely certain. Another reason we're talking to you. If there were any other information we're not aware of, it could change this assessment."

"As far as kidnapping, there haven't been any demands, no contact, no other indications that his has happened — especially as time has gone on. So we have eliminated it."

The Garde shrugged. "Your methods are more rigorous than mine I suppose. Our realities might overlap, but my world is not driven by the truth, or the idea of truth like yours. We understand that the only predictable things in the world are people's capacity for lies and evasion, their greed, and their fear." The Garde sat back, relaxing a little, saying, "Are there any other suspects? What about Compiler Hedvin, surely he must be a consideration."

"Ah yes, Compiler Hedvin. But, as per our agreement, quid pro quo," Elin said. So the Garde was aware of Hedvin. This was an important wrinkle.

"Fair enough." The Garde grinned again, but widely and with obvious pleasure. "What I know, which you don't know, is that Ove was a drug addict."

"Drug addict? What kind of drug?" Slv asked.

"You've never heard of it," The Garde said, "it's called Vermilion."

"How long was he addicted? What are the effects?"

"Months, at least. It produces a profound sense of clarity. And of connectedness, I guess you'd say. Ideal for a scientist," the Garde said.

"Where did he get this drug?"

The Garde replied, "Ah, now. Quid pro quo, as you proposed. I'm no inspector, but I'm guessing the information I just gave you might make a few things fit together."

"Yes. It might be helpful. Compiler Hedvin? Yes, he's a suspect, but only in some ancillary sense. His arguments with Ove were personal, he's a radical who's involved with a dissident group inside the Cyclopaedia. He's also hiding evidence from us that was given to him via the assistant — he doesn't know we know of it. He's hiding something else and he has some involvement, but we don't believe he is directly responsible for Ove's death. Although…" Slv&Elin came to a conclusion quickly, surfacing like it had been barely submerged in water, "Did Compiler Hedvin supply Ove with this drug?"

"Yes," The Garde said, nodding.

"And do you consider this drug your property as well?" Slv asked.

"Ha. I'm afraid we've become a bit lopsided in our agreement, our quid pro quo. It is extremely important to hold to contracts as they've been agreed upon. I believe we've reached the end of our session." The Garde stood, pulling his waistcoat down over his slightly protruding belly. "It's been fruitful. Well worth the time."

"One more. You can ask anything in response," Slv said, then she immediately regretted the hastiness and openness of her offer.

The Garde sighed in a dramatic manner. "Alright," the Garde said.

"Where does the drug come from, who supplies it? We have no intention of interrupting your interests in this specific commerce, but how did Compiler Hedvin end up distributing it?"

"Effectively Hedvin is the source, believe it or not. Hard to understand how he came upon such a thing, but he obtains the drug from a village somewhere up north. I don't know where. Eventually we will know, but at the moment, at this scale, it's not that important. See, one of the differences between us is that we, as an organization, the Garde always think in very long terms. I don't need to tell you that, I'm sure you've realized that through your research and informants. We both have our informants." The glare of the Garde was unsettling. "Of course Hedvin is temporary. You must see this too. He believes in revolutions, he believes in the individual, he's an idealist. He believes in the ideology of the Cyclopaedia instead of the business of the Cyclopaedia. You and I are different — but I'll bet we can see the same things there, in Hedvin, the same impressionability, the same qualities that are in his antique Compiler brethren. The drug comes from the Compilers. For now. It comes from their sense of oath, their ideas of a collective heroic story… I can't claim to understand it. All in good time. But Hedvin, he's your source, inevitably." The Garde sat back down, onto the edge of the seat, hands on his knees. "And now, I suppose, a final question."

"As we've agreed, yes," said Elin.

"What's it like being paired?" The Garde asked.

"Excuse me?" replied Slv.

The Garde said, "It's fascinating, the training regimen of Inspectors. And those who are paired, I hear, are particularly valuable."

"I don't see how…"

"…how this is relavent to the matter at hand."

"It is precisely relevant. Precisely. You have certain skills, and advantages. They are used in this case. Regardless, our contract — quid pro quo."

This wasn't the first time Slv&Elin had been asked this question, but it was rare, and considered intrusive or impolite. And coming from the Garde it was, in a way, juvenile. He must not want any more information about the case, they thought, he must've made his conclusions and now just satisfies his personal curiosity. Or he was concluding the meeting by trying to make them uncomfortable. They felt obligated, but they refused to be made to feel uncomfortable.

"The academy collects rigorous, expansive profiles," Slv said.

"They attempt to find overlaps and matches for possible candidates," said Elin.

"Finding an actual match is relatively uncommon. Their criteria is quite strict."

"And those that are matched don't necessarily pair."

"You can't know until a year into training whether pairing will work."

"It's not like we're one person, as some have poorly presumed…"

"…It's more like the combination of the two of us makes up a third person, one that we have to work to maintain."

"The advantages are combined intelligence, a confirmation of observations by the two of us for the third."

"Where some people might find statistical thinking awkward or unnatural, it has become an intuitive ability for us, or it."

"And the disadvantages?" asked the Garde.

"Quid pro quo," Slv said.

The Garde was briefly disappointed. "Ah, well, we'd better not. It's best to conclude here. So fascinating however." The Garde stood again, "It really was a pleasure. Since expediency of the investigation is the primary concern, I will leave this more efficient means of contact with you in case you need to get in touch with me. Perhaps we can repeat our little game." The Garde took a small card from his vest pocket and placed it on the desk next to himself. Slv&Elin also stood, taking note of every aspect of his face, as he turned slightly to put the card on the desk, they noticed every angle of his face, its marks and folds, creases and pattern of neatly shaved beard. What they hadn't told the Garde was that they could see him, and that one of the advantages of being paired was perfect visual memory. Out of a crowd of a thousand people, even a million, they would recognize him. It may never happen, but they would know him instantly, and the word of officially paired Inspectors on this account could never be doubted. They didn't know if a Garde had ever been identified like this before. It was an asset they wanted to keep quietly for the moment.

2018-07-12 14:00 fiction cyclopaedia Benjamin Brood

Chapter Seventeen: Rabbit’s Story

The forest was alive. A single toothy and rough creature, as it swallowed him whole he could look back at the sun on the wide plain full of rocks and grass behind him, a moment of apprehension as he disappeared into it.

Eirik made guesses about the path he should make. His original path was long gone, consumed by the unstoppable growth of the very brief summer, now quickly retreating. How long had he been in the village? He'd arrived when it was cold. He left when it became cold. Normally he kept close track of his time. But this expedition was not normal. He still felt the influence of Vermilion. He was no longer addicted, but he had to accept that it may have changed him, or some part of him, permanently. The world throbbed, the world was a rippling stream, the world was an unfolding series of connections. Normally he kept better track of his time. Otherwise he could be stuck in a place like the village for the winter. The very long winter. The winter that lasted most of the year. He took a chance now by leaving so late in the season. But he had to get back, back to the Capital, back to the Cyclopaedia, back to stop Fox.

He thought about his supplies and how far he had to go. He could forage if he needed to. He was far from any known route. A mistake in direction would doom him. Through the tops of the trees the patch of sky looked heavy and gray like it might snow. This would be unfortunate. He conceived of a pace for himself, he set the amount for his daily rations. These were things he was familiar with so he did them coldly, methodically, without provoking his own expectations.

What would the forest think about him being here? The same habitual response as his own, he supposed, he was subject to the forest's whims, but without strong reactions — a series of connections that involved him, but were not fully determined by him.

At night he set down in a bed of leaves, a small fire for warmth and consolation. Traveling alone this way, dragging through the forest like a weight, untenable, the fire was a relief. He had to battle the monotony of traveling. Days would overlap and grow and become tangled, you become trapped easily. The jumble makes you directionless, he thought. He stared at the fire listening to the sounds it made, the fire would always sing the same song no matter what was burning. At the edge of his vision, on the other side of the fire he noticed the glint of a pair of eyes, trepidatious, jerky movement of fur, ears, the face of a rabbit. He did nothing but watch. Rabbit sniffed. Odd, he thought, a rabbit at night near the fire. And Rabbit stared back at him, at Bird, and he thought, ah well Rabbit sees Bird, and Bird sees Rabbit. And Eirik dozed off to sleep this way, knowing that he should tell Rabbit to go away because you might not be safe here, something might want to eat you. As he fell asleep, in a half aware state, he felt heavy and paralyzed, Rabbit moved closer and looked at him and spoke quietly to him, telling him a story.

"It has been a long time," Rabbit said, "since we could really jump. We could jump across a whole field, we could jump across this entire forest. We could jump into the sky, we could jump to the bottom of the ocean. We could fly. But Raven grew jealous. Why do I have wings to fly with if Rabbit, with only its legs can jump right into the sky? And so Raven came up with a scheme to steal it from us. He would be the only one who would go into the sky. One day Raven told Rabbit that there was a huge garden, full of things to eat, the largest vegetables Raven had ever seen — there was nobody protecting this garden. It was there for Rabbit to eat, Raven said. But Raven knew better, the field was overgrown with terrible vines — and when Rabbit jumped into the field hoping for something to eat, the vines grabbed Rabbit and held him down. Rabbit could not jump away, he was held fast by the vines. And Raven flew over Rabbit and laughed. Who owns the sky now? Raven mocked. Please help, asked Rabbit. No, said Raven, it's time for you to stay on the ground in the dirt. But I can't move, if I stay here very long I'll starve to death. Said Rabbit. Well, that will teach you something, said Raven. Please, pleaded Rabbit, I'll do anything you ask, just don't leave me here to die. Only under one condition, said Raven. Anything, said Rabbit, I'll do anything you ask, just don't leave me here. You must swear, swear for all time and all of your kind that come after you, that you will no longer fly — you must stay on the ground. Said Raven. If you will free me from these vines that are crushing me, then I swear that no rabbit will ever leap, or leap into the sky again, we will stay on the ground and only hop. And so Raven freed Rabbit, and that is why we must hop. But once we could leap. We could jump across an entire field, we could jump across the whole forest, we could jump into the sky, we could jump into the bottom of the ocean."

He thought about Rabbit's story the next morning. He would never find it in the Cyclopaedia. He would not be the one to add it. Why should everything be in one place? He'd wondered if the Cyclopaedia was too big, if the purpose of it was a mistake, that trying to put everything in one place was dangerous. If everything is in one place, then it can be controlled. But to discover Rabbit's story you would need to sleep in the forest.

He asked himself if he still belonged at the Cyclopaedia — Compilers devoted their lives to it, as he had. What else would he do? What else would he believe in? No, he thought, there was a whole world to believe in, if the Vermilion had done anything it had shown him this, he didn't need an authority to make sense of the world for him. He would fight Fox not because Fox betrayed the Cyclopaedia's Oath, but because he wanted to protect the Village.

He buried the embers of the fire. He put stones back into the places they'd been. He coaxed the soil he'd disturbed back into a configuration that appeared untouched. A trained eye could see he'd been here, but that didn't matter, he did it because the forest told him to.

2018-07-08 20:07 fiction cyclopaedia Benjamin Brood

Chapter Sixteen: 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 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 disturbance. The regular patrons of these places thought of the influx of liberated revelers as an invading army, instilled with all the extra vitality of not having to work.

Initially this celebratory behavior was seen as an unfortunate anomaly, the second 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 with no human stain. There was an emergency meeting, tense, recriminatory, where consensus was that they needed to get more fuel for the Electric backup. 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 workers in the Cyclopaedia, those who'd started as children, as 'runners', had once navigated between floors, retrieving materials for requests — they remembered a time before Electric, and were called upon for their ancient expertise. Lanterns were discovered in long forgotten storage rooms, the elevators for materials once powered manually by ropes, gears and pulled by hand, had years ago been converted to Electric. These things were now examined minutely, with the intention of going backwards — they considered stripping the wiring to return the machines to manual operation.

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. This 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 ones. Again 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. A lot 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, it was argued, behind closed doors, in the top floor of the Administration complex that looked out over the rooftops of the Capital, that slow was better than nothing. If Electric wasn't reliable, 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.

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 if off at a relay desk no farther away than their maximum range. The floor of the halls have been smoothened by a million steps or more, the stairs are worn in the middle, the stone of them a flexible annotation to the ceaseless work of hundreds of years. A runner protocol that matches a previous age reemerges during the outage — who has the right of way in these thinnest of passages? A bow of heads, a pre-calculation of distance, an interaction whose rules happen faster than a machine could calculate. Not that calculating machines, huge and heavy, would fit in the maze of subterranean tunnels here. 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 been forgotten.

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 unique power 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 a thousand collective fingers. 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 system and discounted 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, now almost completely dark.

Then a sputter. The filament of a bulb flows feebly, gains strength. Faces turn and look up, squinting, hopeful. 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. Mechanics heads turn with looks of fear that the jolt will have caused permanent damage. At the same time the 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. It's as if some monstrous thing squatted at the generators, gigantic and thirsty, drinking from the wires like it was a stream, drinking every bit of it voraciously so that there was nothing left to flow. The monster pauses and then there is, momentarily, an flood of power released into the system. Engineers swear in frustration, then eventually collapse in weepy fatigue — they have no idea what the problem is, it defies the laws of Electric they were taught in school. 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 scientists. They too are quickly stymied. The next step is blame.

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

The Cyclopaedia lowered 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 most important institution in the world, and although it hadn't happened in their lifetimes, in the past there had been periods of upheaval. Now the Electric outage and 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 — killing 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 yards. 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 leather and weeds, the rich manipulated the troubled supply chain to favor them. 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 yards 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, there was a large number of citizen casualties. However the crowd inflicted damage as well, the deaths of soldiers was not insignificant. It resulted in martial law being declared.

And in this battle an urban Compiler tried to stand unseen, observing, trying to record events and accounts of actions — but the slow boil of capture and collate, a patient understanding of the accretion of information did not 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 account 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 around them.

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 Central Electric 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 once ignored dangerous political views, once ostracized, found themselves with voices and with a 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.

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. At the funeral pyre eulogies were given, 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 moral decision.

2018-07-01 12:44 fiction cyclopaedia Benjamin Brood

Chapter Fifteen: An Inquiry

Konrad locked the door, turning over the sign then performed a brief, brilliantly efficient sweeping of the floor, mastered over decades.

There was no sunlight on the front window at this time of day, the shadows from the buildings opposite the shop advanced in the late afternoon. The displayed books in the window became subdued. As he finished sweeping and prepared to go upstairs he suddenly knew that someone else was there. It was a vibration, a sound in another pitch, a displacement of existential volume. And this feeling was familiar. He knew it must be a Garde. Looking back at his desk, where he sorted and priced books he saw someone sitting in his chair.

"The shop is closed." He said. "I know who you are, or at least who you belong with."

The figure was exhibiting the same lack of specifics he'd come to understand as Garde trickery, or fashion. There was a hat, a face, a coat, a suit, but these were indistinct, or insurmountably generic. Surely, Konrad thought, I am old and this Garde couldn't yet been born back when I was an Inspector. And yet he was recognizable in some way, this too must've been part of their camouflage.

"That's too bad, I was looking for a book." The Garde said.

"I wasn't aware the Garde were really readers." Konrad replied.

The Garde laughed a little. "Oh, I think you'd be surprised how much we've changed over the years. We've adapted with the times. Very different than in your day."

As Konrad got closer to the desk he noticed the smell of expensive tobacco, and a hint of something sweet like an alcohol, brandy perhaps.

"That's true, it was a long time ago, before your time certainly." Konrad said.

"Perhaps. But let me ask you — and I only inquire because you seem to be renowned for giving advice — if I wanted to put a stop to an investigation, how would I go about that? The Bureau and their Investigators are a very determined group, with almost complete powers over anything in sight — without being unnecessarily aggressive, what can be done to make them loose interest?" The Garde said.

"Are you speaking of a particular investigation?" Konrad asked.

"Well yes… I have one in mind, yes. You may even be familiar with it. The case involving a missing scientist from a notable laboratory. Since you still seem to travel in Inspector circles, you may even know the Inspectors on the case. Young. Bright. Devoted. A paired couple — I hear that's very sought after these days, two heads are better than one they say, of a like mind. I just want to help them out, really, by saving them some time."

"You disposed of the scientist? You had him disappeared?"

"Of course not, don't be ridiculous. These aren't the old days. This is the modern age. We don't need to do anything like that. And why would we even want this scientist disappeared? Has anyone even asked this? Your Inspectors, have they even considered this? Not in depth I think, not enough. We have our interests, they have theirs. We both want the scientist found. And we are confident we know where he is. There's no need for an investigation at all — if it's left to us."

"Because it's your project isn't is? The thing in the laboratory?" Konrad was tired from the day, by nature, or schedule, he felt tired. He pulled up one of the chairs from the side of the table to sit on, the Garde noticed this and stood up.

"I apologize, after all, this is your chair, your desk."

"It's fine. This chair works just as well." Konrad shifted his weight, uncomfortable. "Where were we?"

"How can I get these Inspectors to understand we can take care of this problem. Just as they may have consulted you about a meeting with us, now I'm consulting you about a meeting with them. What are they looking for? How can I convince them?"

"I'm too old to play games with you, so I'll take your question at face value. The Inspectors are bound by training, and duty, to pursue this as far as they can. And you must know that at least since my time, their investigation is independent, no one has the power to stop it. Not you. Not the Royals. Technically. I'm not dumb, I understand there are agencies at work, there are deals, there are long term subtle arrangements. But the Inspectors' power, unlike yours, is that of clarity — instead of obfuscation to benefit your masters, they are devoted to an ideological principle of revelation. If you know where the scientist is, you should tell them. Then the investigation will be resolved and you can proceed with whatever your interests are. You're right, this is a new age, and unlike my time where I chose to fight you, they have chosen not to. They care about the investigation, you cannot stop them, but you can help them."

"This is very sensible, I should've known, it's why your advice is so sought after. But keep in mind, I'm not the only Garde — and the Garde aren't the only forces in motion — it's in their best interests, the Investigators' interests, it's for their protection too. It would certainly be better for their careers in the long run."

"These are casual threats I'm guessing. Your kind are used to making them."

"I could easily make a threat that wasn't casual. After all, you are no longer an Inspector. There's nothing stopping us from getting rid of you. It might get their attention."

"I'm surprised you've waited this long."

"Ha! I'm not serious of course. It wouldn't be worth it — besides, we know the denigration you suffered for opposing us back then, we know the price you paid."

"Oh, and what price did I pay?"

"You were ambitious. Your stature in the system rose, you would've advanced beyond the Bureau and moved into a ministry, you would've been political. Instead you were retired at a young age and have spent the rest of your days here, in this bookstore."

"In that case then, let me thank you. I would've been miserable. If there's one thing being around books has taught me, it's that you're never as important as you think you are — and as a young man I mistakenly believed I was very important."

The Garde shrugged. A smirk. Despite the optical diffusing, Konrad thought, you can always tell when they smirk. The Garde said "Regardless, if you see our Inspector friends, make sure you pass along the thoughts we've discussed".

"I'm sure they'll be speaking directly with you very shortly."

"No doubt you are correct. As usual. I bow to your wisdom." The Garde stood from Konrad's desk. "If I had more time today I'd browse for a book — always looking for something good to read — but I know it's closing time. You do have a nice collection of Forbiddens don't you?"

"I have a few of the classics, as many as one would expect."

"Another time then." As the Garde walked out, the delineated sphere that surrounded his head obscured titles on the spines of books he passed.

After he left Konrad made sure his daily, normal routine was complete, the shop tidy. He would wire Slv&Elin, telling them the Garde had visited — just as he knew, the Garde expected him to do.

2018-06-24 21:41 fiction cyclopaedia Benjamin Brood

Chapter Fourteen: Like A Mountain

Jon, Ove's assistant, was nowhere to be found. They would have to follow up on this too. There was the slimmest chance it wasn't related to the case. That, however, would be an anomaly, an extreme anomaly. This was their case — they had to follow up on everything. The closest person on the same project to the original missing person was now, also, missing. The connections must be finite.

They'd just finished interviewing Tore, the second assistant who said he hadn't seen Jon since the lab had been closed. They ran through the usual questions, maybe a little wearily. Tore answered the questions similarly — everyone, they thought, was tired of this investigation. They would have to interview the Director again, they would have to question Compiler Hedvin again.

"Hedvin is the obvious suspect, we could just arrest him now, legitimately."

"If the Cyclopaedia pushed back however, we'd have a real problem on our hands. And then there are the interests of the Garde."

The previous day they'd searched Compiler Hedvin's apartment. They were also having him watched. They wanted to know where he went and who he talked to. The search of the apartment turned up nothing, as they'd expected. But they signaled they were willing to escalate the investigation, that was important. If he did kill Ove and then kill Jon, they were at a loss for any motive. Anger over a project he didn't agree with wasn't enough reason for this degree of premeditation or this level of risk and personal danger. Compiler Hedvin had an easy life, a life that many would envy, why would he risk everything out of ideological anger and disagreement? And yet they sensed, if sense was the proper word for an Inspector to ever use, another factor — Compiler Hedvin was misdirecting, there was something he didn't want them to know. They would be failing as Inspectors if they didn't find out what he was hiding. Hidden things must be revealed. They wouldn't stop until they understood what it was, and they assumed Compiler Hedvin knew they would pursue it, since he was smart and likely had a basic knowledge of how Inspectors worked. So they had to play this game with him. And the situation made Slv&Elin angry. Because they were being forced into Compiler Hedvin's world. And they knew that world inevitably involved the Garde.

They'd used some of their less reputable contacts to get in touch with the Garde. These operations were never easy, they were told, and almost never obvious because the Garde didn't want them to be. You might have to wire someone, who then wires someone else, and so on, until you get a cryptic response. Or you would be asked to bring something to a park, or a restaurant, or a forgotten street, leave it in a particular place. Or you might be told to walk somewhere, at a certain time, day after day, to prove you wanted the meeting, knowing full well you were being watched the entire time. Slv&Elin made the assumption they were already being watched by the Garde. This situation them angry as well — if they were being watched, then the Garde already knew they wanted a meeting, why bother with the theater? They'd been told to leave a written note at a bar, with a bartender, and hoped this most recent method of getting in touch with the Garde hadn't already been deprecated.

The next day they found a brand new hat in front of their apartment door. OK, they thought, this is contact — a new hat, pristine, placed directly in front of the door, centered perfectly in front of the door, it must be the Garde. Are we supposed to wear the hat? Which of us? Were they meant to bring the hat somewhere? There was no note. Why such opaque methods? They knew of course, these methods were meant to keep them playing, just like Compiler Hedvin meant to keep them playing. Looking inside the hat they saw the label of the maker. So they went with that. They traveled down to the hat makers' shop. They returned the hat, which the hat maker accepted wordlessly. After this they received a letter by courier directing them to a train station at a certain time. Grudgingly, because they knew what was going to happen, they made their way to the train station. They stood on the platform for an hour then left. The next morning they got kaf and pastry from a bakery on the way to the bureau — inside the pastry bag was a note. It instructed them to go to, after hours, an obscure office in the basement of a building used by city planning and sanitation. Perhaps this would be the actual meeting. It fit the Garde's profile, have the meeting on unfamiliar territory after convoluted steps to make the attendees feel off-balance and insecure.

The night before the meeting Slv opened the drawer she kept the things her mother had given her before she died. In it was a bag of smooth, small, black stones. She didn't know what animal skin the bag was made from. The stones were all nearly the same size and shape, heavy for how little they were. They had an interesting purple glimmer in the light, like the wet feathers of a crow.

Her mother had been from the North. She met Slv's father who was a government surveyor and they fell in love. She moved back to the Grønn with him but had never really been happy. As her mother grew older she talked more about her village in the North, about being a girl by the ocean, the dangerous beauty of the endless winter, of the stories they told in the village. The things Slv kept in the drawer were the things her mother had as a girl, that she'd kept with her all those years in the Grønn.

The stones, her mother said, are the blood of the world and will protect you. But you have to be careful with them, they want to return to the ground, they will try to get themselves lost if you aren't careful. But they will let you see things the way Nunataata, the world father, sees them. They will let you pass through the ground as if it were water. They will let you be immovable like a mountain.

Sometimes Slv would take a couple of the stones out of the bag and hold them in her palm, clicking them together. She imagined her mother doing the same thing.

The night before they were to meet the Garde she took two stones from the bag and she handed one to Elin. Slv told Elin what her mother had said about them. It didn't matter if they believed in it, Slv thought, the stories of the world do not require belief. If the Garde wanted theater they would bring their own stories, the Garde were not as powerful as her mother's stories.

When they left in the morning she could feel the weight of the stone in her pocket, it was there, and she hoped would make her like a mountain.

2018-06-21 13:23 fiction cyclopaedia Benjamin Brood

Chapter Thirteen: Paper

He stared at the paper. Then he stared some more, he wasn't an expert in the notation, but he was more familiar with it than most. Certainly more than Ove should've been. He didn't understand everything this schema implied. He knew enough to know 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.

The 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 might be time for him to show it to another Compiler, get some thoughts, maybe he was missing an obvious element. He'd been 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 might lead to questions about Ove's use of Vermilion.

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, 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 — and they flew away with him, off the cliff. Then they dropped him. He fell and fell and fell.

He kept the paper with Ove's work 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 the 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. He and Kjetil had similarities as Compilers, he'd spent the better part of his time with other Compilers around the Cyclopaedia itself. Kjetil considered himself Hallen too. However, early in his career Kjetil had been on the Ukkonen, a ship that wrecked on an island far north of the Grønn, where they were stranded for almost a season. Hedvin never asked Kjetil about this, but he'd heard stories, mostly from the network of merchants and sailors that hung around the cafe between their travels. Only a handful of that crew survived — and Kjetil. The island was rock and ice, and one by one the stranded starved or froze. There were several variations on the story, of a more gruesome nature, which Hedvin chose not to believe. It wasn't the first time a Compiler had encountered disaster. There were plenty of these kinds of tales, especially in the early days when Compilers attempted to navigate the world and understand its seas. 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 the disasters on land that plagued the early expeditions. But travel by sea was still dangerous and fraught with unknowns. Compilers that went on expeditions by sea were expected to be hearty. Now their 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 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. 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 that their Index and their idea of a universal order would dominate regardless. 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?"

"I'm sorry."

"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. Kjetil continued, "I mean where are you getting it from anyway? 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 involved."

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

Kjetil's mouth hung open in disbelief. One eye twitched. He appeared like he was going to say something but then stopped, simply glaring 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 incident and also about his conversation with the Garde. He believed 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. 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 normally. He avoided glaring. But there he was again. He was standing on the steps of an office building, seemingly viewing the traffic in front of him, leisurely, but Hedvin saw him an couldn't help directly staring — the man noticed Hedvin looking, gave a quick secondary 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 informer, then, probably. There were citizens that specialized in these kinds of things, usually making some 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 man was still behind him. Turning a corner there was a bookstore, he quickly ducked into it.

If the man 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 stop opened his eyes and looked up sleepily. "Afternoon."

Hedvin wondered where the old man kept the Forbiddens, those books that the Ministry 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 quite severe, and once there were enforcers who actively sought out offenders. In his grandparents' generation this was a very 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 as forbidden. Although the tradition of keeping them separate remained — technically the laws continued, even if they were rarely enforced. And a few 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.

"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.

"This way." 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. 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 wanted so too did the previous reactions against the great powers and wealth of the Sovereigns. He flipped through one of the books. A passage about the coming revolution, which hadn't happened. "Like a match to dry tinder. The People are the tinder. We must be the match." It went on this way.

Perhaps it was possible, he thought, to incite the people 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.

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 the book he'd been seeking, without any idea that he'd been seeking it. He'd hide it with the others.

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 man 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.

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 man 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 this, 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.

He took the book he'd bought out of his pocket, he flopped down on his couch and he chose 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 age, he thought, full of strong opinions and dramatic struggles, another age when people believed a few words might be able to change everything. Hedvin drifted off to sleep, the book sliding out of his hands, thinking of Ove's machine spinning and clicking, and written on every punch card in the bin was his name.

2018-06-16 15:00 fiction science-fiction elixir Benjamin Brood

Those Of Us Who Remain

There were more than sixty of us in the ship when it launched. We were told exactly how long the trip would take. Fourteen months. Why couldn't we all be put to sleep, I wondered. I asked this, why couldn't we be put to sleep. They said it was a much more valuable experience if we were awake and together for the fourteen months. I think they just didn't know how, they would never admit this, that they never knew how to do it.

We started playing Airlock only a couple months into the trip. The game was simple. At the beginning of the day-cycle, the Airlock override code was changed by the computer to a two letter designation. Then the computer picked someone to go into the Airlock. The ejection countdown would begin — the person had five minutes to enter the override code and stop themselves from being sucked into space.

There were 650 permutations.

There was about enough time to enter them all if you were good with the keypad, and if you were methodical about the sequence. If you weren't, if you skipped a combination that might have been the override code, well, that's what made the game fun. Fairly soon we grew a little bored of this — of having the computer choose who went into the Airlock. There were certain individuals who were annoying, or who regularly forgot or disobeyed The Rules Of The Ship — so we put them into Airlock. Honestly, I have to admit around that time, let's say that we added a lot of Rules as we saw fit. It became impossible to know all the Rules really. But then this too grew tiresome when there were fewer of us. After all, those of us that remained had become very, very good at entering the combinations into the keypad.

One day a couple of us, OK, maybe it was only me, yes, I think it was only me, changed the override code to three places. That's 15,600 permutations. There's no way to enter them all in the time given, and even if you could, you'd probably fuck some of it up, meaning there's still a chance you'd go WHOOOSH right out into space. Sometimes people would get lucky. A lot of times they didn't though. The game was more fun this way, we agreed, much more fun. Who would win? Who would be the last one? It consumed us.

The few of us who were left drew up an ordered list, and one by one we went in and bit by bit the list dwindled. Until yesterday there were two of us left. And I saw the panic on his face, my fellow traveler, as he hammered away at the keypad, sweating and grimacing as the countdown continued unabated, closer and closer to the end — then WHOOOSH. And that was it, I was the winner, I was the last.

Now I find it less satisfying than I'd imagined. The long journey ahead, I know how boring it will be. I've decided to keep playing. Really winning, I mean winning BIG, is making it the whole way. This morning I changed the override code to four places — 358,800 permutations. As I stand in front of the Airlock I'm cracking my knuckles and stretching. I will remain.

2018-06-14 12:48 fiction cyclopaedia Benjamin Brood

Chapter Twelve: Miika Says

Eirik sat with Miika in her hut. The strong smell of grass and fire was pleasant. He'd been to remote places like this before, and he'd come to associate these pervasive odors, grass, smoke, mud, fish, fat, skin, as sensations that encapsulated the terms "home", "true", "correct". There was no exact word or phrase for it in the Capital, but here they did have a word for it — "llaKik", or literally "village nose". The reaction to strong sensations was different here than in the cities and towns. The evidence of decay was repellent to the urban dweller. But not without reason. In the city Eirik would have to spend so much energy on the social structure, and so much energy on the physical and conceptual structure, that anything from outside that structure, anything that jarred this sense of investment in civilization was generally loathed. You could not admit decay. Not so in the village. In fact many of these things made life what it was, made life living and bearable, usually under environmental adversity. They were a reminder of life, that life continued, the reverse being seen as terrifying — absence, removal, a void, sterility. The broad flat, white expanses of winter were only tolerable because of the brutal cold and the unrelenting wind. If you were cold, you were alive. Their conception of eternal punishment was an underworld after death, of an infinite field of ice but with no wind and no cold. An eternal void where the punishment is absence. Whereas the damnation of urban dwellers was a theatrical convolution of injustices, tortures, discomforts, and strong sensations — the precise elements that meant life to one meant the threat of animalism and death to the other.

Miika stopped working when she and Eirik talked, she took the speaking seriously and gave him her entire attention as a courtesy. They spoke of the village. This was necessary, Eirik knew, all conversations began with speaking of the village. But what he wanted to talk about was Vermilion trade. How could he convince her that they should stop? What right did he have? None. What would they care about Compilers and their Oath? What would they care about the Cyclopaedia trying to catalog the world? Miika's world already made sense, they didn't need anything like that. For them, taking Vermilion wasn't a problem, it was simply another part of life. So, then, he thought, maybe there was an aspect of the drug trade he could argue with. Imagine, he thought, that I was from this village, what would be important to me, what reason would I have to stop trading?

The more he thought about it, the more the answer frightened him. The items they received for Vermilion, these things would slowly poison them, they would slowly remove the sights, sounds, smells of the village. Would life be better with the items they obtained? He wasn't sure. It would be tremendous change, and the compelling argument he came up with was that Fox was that agent of change. That Fox wanted to extract all of the living elements from the village and replace them with static, temporary comfort, an existential debt. Eirik's argument could be that Fox was an agent of evil who wanted to destroy the village. To cast the argument he would have to cast Compiler Hedvin as mythological. The Fox, he thought, wanted to steal the village. But was this fair? He doubted that Compiler Hedvin, whom Eirik had never met, wanted anything more specifically than Vermilion itself, he didn't really have any maniacal plan to destroy the village, the truth was in fact worse — Compiler Hedvin wasn't thinking of the consequences at all, he didn't care what happened to the village. How could Eirik express the actual danger of this institutionalized apathy to Miike without making it into a fable. For the village everything was narrative, everything was a story. Part of this had to with regular use of Vermilion, the impulse was vastly older than that, and from what he'd seen the drug was only an amplifier.

Bird would have to stop Fox.

"I'm worried about Fox," Eirik said, "I think he's planning to steal the Village."

"The entire village?" Miika said, shocked.

"I think the Village itself, the basic thing called the Village. The soul of the Village."

"Well," Miika said, "Fox always has plans, that is Fox. I don't know how he could steal such a thing if he planned to. What would he do with it? Why would he want it?"

"He would imprison it. He would put it in a cage. He would make it frozen and lifeless. We both work for something that would help him do this, something that names things, something that captures things and freezes them forever."

"Compiler Eirik and Compiler Hedvin? So then why would he do this and you wouldn't? He trades things we like for Vermilion, clothes and pots and pans, it's easy for us to make Vermilion." Miika said.

"I won't do that. Because now I see how it works, I know what the Village is. I won't do that. But Fox, by trading, Fox will. Soon you'll have all the clothes you need and all the pots and pans, and you'll want other things to trade, and eventually he'll ask for the Village. He'll take the Village." Eirik tried to make his point as simply as he could. Miika looked at him skeptically. She laughed suddenly.

"I guess we'll see. We'll stop him if he tries to do anything like that. Thank you for telling us about this, thank you for warning us Bird."

2018-06-12 14:36 fiction cyclopaedia Benjamin Brood

Chapter Eleven: From The Sovereign

The Director entered the laboratory and flipped on the bank of lights, turning the space into a bright, and relatively stark vault. The two small offices to the right side were dark, one of them Ove's office. The Director paused, looking across the large floor to the center well where the Master Compiler was set. Next to it were operating desks, and at one of these was an overflowing bin of output paper. Several bulbs, orange, white, blinked slowly on the console. The Inspectors ordered this laboratory sealed — no one else had been in Ove's lab since. This order included him, he should've stayed out too, but there was work to do.

He came to the lab tonight after a visit with the Sovereign. Earlier he'd driven his Engine out of the Capital and into the winding maze-like gardens of Sovereign lands, into a highly arranged estate that felt like an approximation of wilderness which was in fact intensely groomed. Decay and death happened here only if the Sovereign willed it. He saw rabbits and deer on the edges of the perfect, pit-free road, the extreme winding of which made him drive carefully. Everything here was calculated appearance, no doubt this Sovereign worked personally on the design, no doubt in an effort to best some other Sovereign's estate out of some aesthetic squabble. It was intimidating — it was supposed to be intimidating. The house, if one could call the complex of buildings where the Sovereign and his staff lived a "house", was likewise a construction of meticulous detail. He wasn't entering a building, he was entering a world. This wasn't his first time here but he knew he would never get used to this display of astronomical wealth. The Director wasn't someone who bothered championing the people, or the workers — as so many did these days — the Director considered himself a man of cultivation and taste, and yet, even then, this exposition of riches made him vaguely nauseous. No wonder the Sovereigns work through intermediaries, if enough people saw this there would quickly be a violent revolution. This kind of wealth could not last, and yet, it did, it had.

He'd waited in some antechamber buried far inside the interlocking structure that was certainly descriptive of the protections Sovereigns kept around themselves. He pondered if it was analogous to the internal state of the Sovereign himself. He was being processed.

The mechanical Master Compiler was a project important enough for direct interaction with a Sovereign. He hadn't lost sight of this. Initially it made him feel important, to be involved, to be the Director, but there was nothing in the Sovereign's demeanor that backed up his egotism. In the presence of the Sovereign he felt small, he felt like a child. He would rather have dealt strictly with the Garde, despite the side effects. It was too late for that now.

He'd told the Sovereign that Ove was missing and the the Inspectors had locked down the laboratory. He knew the Sovereign knew this, but he had to say it anyway. The smoldering, furious anger of the Sovereign seemed like his garden, an approximation of a natural element, but frightening none the less. The project must continue the Sovereign said. Well then, the Director thought, the project must continue. Without Ove. Somehow. He looked around the chamber and saw paintings that must've reflected the grandiose imagination of themselves, the Sovereign world, ancestors, mythical or symbolic conquests, hunts, dramatic poses on craggy peaks under a sky powered by allied deities. None of these portraits were concerned with reality, but he assumed they believed them to be real. The mythology the Garde worshiped them for was concrete in their own minds. The Director knew that when he returned home he would see his own abode, his carefully collected minor treasures, his carefully cultivated life as completely dirty and uncouth, himself huddled there miserably as a peon who had nothing but ignorant pretensions. Not that the Sovereigns weren't paying him well for it. But, effectively, by comparison, he was nothing.

"The project must continue," the Sovereign said, "it is vital to our long term goals — the Cyclopaedia cannot continue in the fashion it has, like a church, it has to be brought forward into this new age of mechanics. And we have to be the ones to do it, otherwise we lose an extremely important interest to us, to the Sovereigns, the Cyclopaedia is very important." The Sovereign spoke with an accent that must've been ancient, the uniqueness of it making every word throb with threatening importance. The Director believed it wasn't necessarily a threat to his physical life. It would be something worse. It would be personal destruction. He wondered how many of the derelicts on the street in Old Town he'd seen had once been like himself, now destroyed and discarded. The prospect frightened him. He wasn't willing to let it happen, with or without Ove the project would continue. Well, clearly without him, at this point. The Director began scheming about other scientists that might fit the task. For the time being he would have to use Ove's assistants as best he could. They knew the technical specifics, although they didn't know, or understand, the long term goal.

But the Inspectors. They had everything locked down, and Ove's assistants weren't even allowed into the laboratory.

He mentioned this to the Sovereign. Tacitly, he found himself tongue-tied, normally he was verbose, persuasive, fluent. The Sovereign seemed to tolerate him. "Yes," the Sovereign said, "I'm aware of that situation. The Garde are also aware. The Inspectors should be ending their investigation soon. Your laboratory will be opening back up. Don't wait for them, begin to do what you need to do, tonight if you must. The project must go forward. And no more Compilers are to be involved in this project, do you understand? We cannot fully trust Compilers with this. They have too many… conflicts. They are like a church, they are like priests in a church." The Sovereign seemed disgusted. "Don't they understand where it all came from? The Cyclopaedia is ours, it has always been ours."

Back at the laboratory the Director went into Ove's office, looking for an operations manual. Of course there must be an operations manual. He found many of Ove's things, his papers, reference materials, but nothing that was a clear guide to the mechanism, the Master Compiler. He went to the second office — where he knew the assistants worked. Some of their work had been left on the desks, unfinished. Blueprints, schemas, lists, formulas, console output, programming cards, notes and things to do. They were busy when the lab had been closed. Faintly, in his periphery he could sense the buzzing field of the device, not quite a hum, but barely perceptible. He would contact the assistants tomorrow, but right now he wanted to start the mechanism compiling again. And if Ove wasn't going to be here, and it would take him some time to find a replacement, it was best if he knew how to run everything. Where could the manual be? Surely they would've created one. He upended boxes of papers, looked through file cabinets, desks. Finally, frustrated, he left the office and went to the work consoles by the mechanical well. Was the machine paused? It must be. The majority of lights and indicators were off. The glass was a dead gray. There were a few bulbs on however, pulsing very slowly, which told the Director that, anyway, there was power. Infuriating, he thought. One of the major prerogatives of any project, especially one this important, was proper documentation. He'd witnessed basic usage before, Ove had shown him a few things about operations, but more descriptively than instructional. He believed he saw the main circuit engagements. Data ingestion? Pre-cached input and processing module activation? Not all of it was perfectly clear. But then they should've created a manual. If he did something wrong it was their fault. He felt confident that he was toggling the correct levers, and dialing the right knobs — perhaps not in the absolutely proper order, but more or less.

The consoles came alive. The lights synchronized across the two boards, there was a sound deep in the well of thousands of precise pistons, cantilevers, and calipers moving together like a million legs of a gigantic, angry insect. The hair on the back of his neck stood up. There was power flowing through now, clearly. The deck of programming cards at one of the desks flipped frantically, mechanically, but with a sense of hunger. He waited a few moments, anxiously, for a time wondering if it would never stop accelerating, that the machine would continue to amplify, those bulbs in the consoles burning so hot and bright that he'd be blinded. But they didn't. It reached an equilibrium. The gears worked, the lights danced and the output paper streamed steadily, giving every indication that each mechanical operation was being properly executed. He was satisfied.

Where was the bottle of aquavit that Ove kept? No matter, he would've seen it when he was searching for the manual. He sat in a chair in front of one of the consoles, but quickly felt a headache coming on watching the chaotic activity. He had difficulty imaging how the assistants, or some future team of workers, would be able to sit in front of such a painful, blinking and constantly demanding workspace. He retreated to Ove's office where he occasionally looked over his shoulder to make sure the tenure and velocity of monitoring remained constant. It did.

Yawning, the Director hit the lights and locked the doors to the laboratory. Let it all run tonight. Tomorrow he'd call in the assistants and they'd go through the results, get the project back on track. Inspectors be damned. The Director signed out at the front desk then took his Engine home.

It was peculiar, he thought, how he got in — without disturbing anything. The Director stepped into his living room and there was a Garde waiting for him. He didn't recognize which Garde of course, because you can't see their faces.

2018-06-08 14:47 fiction cyclopaedia Benjamin Brood

Chapter Ten: Konrad

After Konrad retired from the Bureau he and his wife, Alea, opened a book store on a side street in the Capital. It was a small place, out of the way from the other shopping that attracted the wealthy customers of the district. This was exactly how they preferred it. They lived in an apartment above the shop and over the years the delineation between the two eroded — the shop became part of the apartment, the apartment became part of the shop. Usually Konrad and Alea were there, in some state of reading, or moving and repairing books, or talking with a few regulars who came in more to visit than to purchase. In the summers, for many years, Alea would go up north to a cabin by a lake, claiming she couldn't stand the stale air of the city, and how could you stand it it's so unhealthy. Konrad would grumpily keep the shop open, saying he enjoyed the quiet time apart but clearly hating every moment she was away.

And sometimes Inspectors would visit.

On these occasions Konrad and his guests would sit in the back storeroom, a place barely large enough to hold the shelves and books stacked up on the floor, and against the walls. There was a small desk he had with bundles of papers, years worth, completely covering the desk, overflowing off the side like a mountain slope of paper and twine. Konrad would brew brutally strong kaf and they would talk. Alea discouraged these visitations, being rude to the Inspectors, telling Konrad she hoped she would never see another Inspector again. But Konrad indulged his guests. He was retired but he enjoyed the fact his experiences were considered valuable. Konrad was the only Inspector to have ever convicted a Garde. For this act alone his opinion would be sought out. At the time it was unheard of, the Garde did whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. And back then they did it flagrantly, often mockingly, displaying how untouchable they were to the Bureau at every opportunity. But then a Garde murdered a judge, and as Konrad's case he chose to pursue the Garde rather than acquiesce to their position. He pursued it as he would've any murder — bringing the Garde in, seeking evidence and witnesses, although usually that testimony was given anonymously because of fear. He pushed for a sentence of hard labor in a northern work camp. Like any trial, the accused would need to prove innocence, something the Garde was unable to do. The trial was closed, and secret. The repercussions were long lasting.

Maybe, he thought years afterward, they never really believed he would take it that far, to the final court and to a trial, they never really thought he would persist. They may have not believed he would survive the assassination attempts. When he looked back, that he did pursue a conviction was something of a mystery to himself now. Why had he done it? It meant living the rest of his life knowing that at any time he might be struck down, that he might disappear, that his shop might go up in flames. He was young, and young people are crazy, he thought. He didn't tell the Inspectors that visited that in retrospect, given a second chance, he never would've done it.

What he did tell the Inspectors that visited was how the Garde operated. He told them where the lines were, what responses they could expect. He knew their culture better than anyone. The Garde saw the trial as a betrayal by the Bureau. The trial set a precedent. Only now did he believe the Sovereigns actually supported, even constructed this sequence of events. He doubted in his old age that he would've been allowed to continue living otherwise. He'd done the Sovereigns' work for them, instead of Garde discipling Garde, they'd allowed him to do it, and by doing it loudly they sent a message to the Garde declaring "you are above the laws of men, but not above the Sovereigns, and we can use the Bureau against you if we wish". Konrad thought he'd been manipulated. He often wondered what dramatic struggle had occurred between the Garde and Sovereigns. Konrad got an early retirement with the highest honors. He had the respect of his fellow Inspectors. But it nagged him. The Sovereigns knew what he would do before he did it, and he believed it was what they wanted, to rid themselves of a problem, to enforce a punishment they themselves could not directly perform.

When Alea passed away he closed the shop for a month. He did nothing. There was nothing for him to do. Should he leave? Where would he go, he was old. So he opened the shop back up, when he felt like it, most days, and he took visitors again. This is where he would die, he knew — but sometimes he looked over his shoulder on some of those small side streets, wondering if, or when, a killer might step out. Maybe he wouldn't even see them, maybe it would be mercifully quick. It would be easy to kill an old man.

Slv&Elin walked into the shop, the old bell above the door jingling pleasantly, the warm odor of books and sunlight filled the space. They'd known Konrad a few years, having been introduced by their instructor at the Bureau, who'd known Konrad many years before that. This flow of information was a tradition, handed down to Inspectors that appreciated, or could utilize, Konrad's recited lore.

There had been another Electric outage so the back of the shop was dark, although even with Electric, there was little else than a small standing lamp. Customers would have to squint in the dark corners for books they may realize they'd never wanted before. On the way to the book shop Slv&Elin saw a variety of people milling around, many of them office workers, looking listless as they waited outside smoking and chatting, waiting to see if the Electric would come back on — no doubt many hoped it wouldn't and they'd be told to go home. Much of these people's work lives had been converted by tools that required Electric, although Slv&Elin knew that at the Bureau the immensely deep basement that kept the files, on cases and citizens, continued to be stored in boxes and folders, handwritten, and the keepers of these records navigated the stacks using oil lanterns, like miners, knowing every twisted alcove by heart. For the Bureau an Electric outage didn't matter in the least.

Konrad stepped out from shelves when he heard the door bell. Slv&Elin believed that he had been physically imposing when he was younger, but now he was shrunken with age, with a hunch brought on by the cruel occupation of books. He welcomed them, locked the door behind them and turned the window sign to "closed". He led them to the back room where the morning sun illuminated the impressive stack of papers cascading over the desk. He turned on a burner to make kaf. "Someone in the shop earlier said that about half the city is without Electric. Doesn't bother me." He fiddled with the grinder and the pot. "This building didn't even have Electric until ten or fifteen seasons ago. So, how's the work load at the Bureau these days?"

"Heavy. Busy." Elin said.

"We're working on a disappearance. Odd. Complex." Slv said.

"Two now, actually." Elin added, sighing. "An assistant to a scientist who has disappeared is now also missing. We had his cooperation to help us bait the lead suspect."

"And now we can't find him." Slv said.

"Hmm. Frustrating I'm sure. Wouldn't this indicate the actual suspect is the assistant, who has fled, or that indeed your lead suspect has done away with both of them?" Konrad poured out three short, famously potent cups, the smell of kaf floating.

"Normally. Should've made things easier in fact." Slv said.

"This has turned out to be anything but normal though." Elin added. "We think the Garde are involved. The lead suspect is, we believe now, a misdirection."

"Ah." Konrad uttered with brevity, sipping from the cup.

"We're anticipating contact with the Garde. This is outside the usual bounds of best practice, we know. But we believe it's better to get a sense of where we stand." Slv said.

"Yes, this is a rational." Konrad said. "Of course, as you've probably heard me say before, the rules of the Garde are not our rules, their world is not our world. They are not rational, they worship the Sovereigns — but more than that, importantly, they worship their own position, their brotherhood — they aren't an organization like the Bureau, they are chosen, they are a way of life." Konrad sat in a chair that had molded itself to him over the years. "You said the missing man was a scientist? What sort of scientist?"

"He was working on automating Compiling for the Cyclopaedia." Elin said. "It would be an mechanism that acted like a Master Compiler."

"Hunh, interesting. Then I can guarantee you, the Garde are involved." Konrad held the cup with infinitely practiced efficiency.

"What makes you so sure?" Slv said.

"In my time the Garde were always one step ahead. I'll bet they still are. They had a source of information we didn't. We had informers, we had the Cyclopaedia, we had the files on citizens, statistical analysis from the Ministry. But the Garde seem to know everything that's happening everywhere. They're never surprised. So what could their source of information be? Their own informants? This source couldn't be so significantly different than ours. The conclusion I came to, too late, years after I'd left the Bureau, is that the Compilers work for both the Sovereigns and the Cyclopaedia and that their data flows first through the Sovereigns, who determine what will end up as information given to the Cyclopaedia. I have to imagine there are strategic omissions. Things that give the Sovereigns an advantage — financially, for power, for knowledge. Any project that plays with this key formula would have to maintain the advantage. If your scientist has approval from the leadership of the Cyclopaedia, then necessarily he would have terms dictated to him by the Sovereigns. He would have to fulfill a contract. And because of this he would be having regular meetings with the Garde."

"We have wondered if Ove, the scientist who disappeared, had crossed the Garde — broken the contract, and was removed by them." Elin said. "Which is another reason to feel this out by contacting them."

"I think we've talked about this kind of thing a little bit before — in my experience the Garde are rarely ever directly responsible for murder. It's not their way, it's clumsy. Physical intimidation? Yes. Extortion, destruction of property? Yes. But murdering a high level scientist who may be working on something that would give them a greater advantage? Less likely. But you're right of course, contacting them is now obligatory. They'll be expecting it and it's better for you to contact them instead of them contacting you. No one wants a surprise visit by the Garde." Konrad added.

"And this has to happen off the record. We can't make any of it part of the official investigation." Slv said.

"I suppose some things will never change." Konrad's smile was leathery but not bitter. "And what would you write anyway? Nothing they say could be used, you would have to get them into testimony — at least in my case, it had to be a special closed court, and that's not likely to ever be allowed to happen again."

"Was it worth it, what you went through to get the conviction?" Elin asked.

"Oh, I don't know. I was young. I thought I would be able to change everything. It was remarkable I survived given how aggressive I was. I wouldn't recommend it. Be smarter. Think long term. The world will change one way or another, it always does. And you shouldn't ever believe you've got something on the Garde, if you do, you're probably being played. I'm not saying you should let them dictate your actions, if I accomplished anything in my time it was that the Bureau can operate without them, independently, according to common law. Now they should have an understanding that they can't interfere with your investigation. But you should also understand that you can't really interfere with them either. When and where are you planning on meeting with one of them?"

"Soon." Elin said. "In a few days. We haven't reached out yet. There's the back of a restaurant we know, it's public, but it's not public. Obviously meeting at the Bureau is out of the question."

"They'll want to be the ones to setup the place to meet" said Konrad. "This has always been very important to them. Otherwise they'll show up where you live, and you don't want that. You can suggest the place, but then the Garde will cancel the meeting at the last minute, or not show up. Trust me. You'll have to meet somewhere they want to meet. Part of it is control on their part, I think part of it has something to do with how they hide themselves, their faces. I wonder if they can't control the environment, they can't hide their faces. During closed court I saw what I believed were several Garde faces. Not perfectly, but more than they'd ever wanted to reveal. They will not allow you to put them in that position."

"That's good to know." Slv said.

"The most important thing to us is to find out is what happened to Ove, and what happened, now, to his assistant. We have no intentions of confronting or trying to punish the Garde. I'm sure there are complexities and machinations we'll never understand. Our goal is to find out what happened to those two men. If possible stop anything else from happening." Elin added.

"And the next step is talking with the Garde. With whatever that brings." Slv said. "It's a strange case, we don't know where that will lead us, if anywhere."

"Yes. Better than what I probably did. At least for your own safety and peace of mind. Remember, after you meet with one of them, for a while afterwards, a few days maybe, you will experience some peculiarities. Small things may feel misplaced. The scale of certain objects might be off. The sensation of being watched."

"We've heard about this, most of this stuff we though was socially generated, fear induced, effects of stress." Elin said.

"Could be. Having experienced it I suspect there's more to it, it might simply be in one's head, yes, I assume it is, but whether it's inside one's head or outside, I'm not sure that matters. You will experience these oddities. As a side effect to how they hide themselves. It's as if they're able to remap basic elements, things around us. A face is no longer a face, a small cup is the same as a large cup, what you remember as left is right, and so on. They pollute the assumption we have of things. The map we have, in our heads, they have some power to replace it with their own."