This is Qoheleth in its entirety. During the process of running Qoheleth, each chapter was reveiled as a step of a puzzle that readers had to solve. There is more to this than is exposed here, but is primarily of a technical nature. For information on that, please see the repository.
Ioan Balan awoke to an urgent message.
Ey didn’t really like these, the sensorium messages. Ey liked paper messages. Ey mostly just liked paper. Ey was always accruing more. Paper and pens. Eir friends thought it creepy. Paper messages, or those rich messages that came attached to paper, played on its surface, or even messed with eir sensorium. To have one that just barged in on eir vision and endocrine system like this made em quite anxious. This one included a tiny jolt of adrenaline as an alert. Waking up with that jolt to have a partial sensory takeover just felt rude.
The benefit was that ey didn’t have to get out of bed to deal with it.
The opacity on the message was turned up quite high, so that even in eir dark room, with eir eyes closed (and heart still pounding), ey could see the fox. A bipedal fox dressed quite sharply. It was sitting on a fairly plain wooden chair, situated in an empty room. The room had wood floors the same color as the chair, some very light wood, like hickory or pine. The walls were concrete where they weren’t glass. Outside the glass was a sere shortgrass prairie, a cloudy day.
The combination of the fox’s white fur, glistening and iridescent, combined with the room and landscape was all painfully pomo. Ey didn’t consider eirself much of a pomophobe, but this was…intense.
“Hi Mx Balan,” the fox was saying. “I have a proposition for you.”
Ioan grunted. The message was recorded, thank goodness. No interaction
“My name is Dear, Also, The Tree Was Felled, or just Dear, and I’m a member of the Ode clade. I’m an artist-” Ioan rolled eir eyes. Ey could tell it didn’t like the word. ”-and performer. I’m not just telling you this to, ah, toot my own horn, I believe the phrase is, but just to underline the fact that I’m woefully unprepared for the situation at hand.”
The fox smiled, looking tired. “I need some help finding someone,” it continued. “Someone that doesn’t want to be found. It’s personally important, but also potentially damaging to the image of our entire clade.”
Ioan furrowed eir brow.
“The person has information, a name, that ey have supposedly shared. We — the other members of my clade and I — don’t precisely know if they actually did, unfortunately, we just have word from others close to the clade that someone knew and said The Name.”
The fox shook it’s head, ears flopping from side to side. “I’m sorry, I’m getting sidetracked by details. I try to be prepared for conversations and messages like this, but I’m a little worked up, excited, I guess. Can we meet?” It listed some coordinates. “Even if only to talk. Even if you’re not interested, I’d still like to meet you. You seem neat.”
The message ended.
Ioan lay in bed, thinking. It was still about an hour before ey had to get up, and ey was loath to start the day before ey had to. Ey tried eir best to sleep for another ten minutes, at least, but eir mind kept slipping back to Dear’s request.
Why me? ey asked the backs of eir closed eyelids. Why hire a writer who fancied eirself a historian as a PI?
With still a half hour to go before ey had to be up, Ioan slipped out of bed, stood, and stretched. The least ey could do was get a shower and some coffee. If there were any reason that the founders of the system had included sensoria in the works it must have been for those.
Those done and clothes donned — ey knew ey could never out-natty the fox, so the usual faux-academia garb it was — ey penned Dear a short note with a time. If it was day in that sim, or even late afternoon, it should get the note before dinner or bed.
Besides, ey thought. Maybe it will get the fox to start sending notes this way in the future.
No luck. Less than thirty seconds later, Ioan received a sensorium ping of acknowledgement, and a shiver up eir spine to go along with it.
Ey forked and sent #c1494bf out to the meeting. Meanwhile, ey’d get some food.
Ioan#c1494bf found eirself about twenty meters in front of the squat house. It was just as postmodern on the outside as it had appeared on the inside: a concrete block, a thick wrap-around patio covered by cantilevered eaves, floor to ceiling glass for walls. Ey wouldn’t be surprised if the far side of the buiding — ey couldn’t see it very well, with the slope of the shortgrass-prairie it was on — jutted out at some crazy angle.
Smiling ruefully, ey walked up toward the house.
A soft tone, a vibraphone struck with a soft mallet, sounded inside and outside of the house as soon as ey’d passed the barrier between grass and patio. Ey stood on the patio, waiting to be either admitted or greeted.
A shadow of a person, human, peeked out through the glass at em, gave a pleasant wave, and hollered through the glass, “Ioan! Hi! I’ll grab Dear.”
Before the person could do so, Dear came padding softly from around the side of the house, looking slightly more collected than it had during the message.
“Ioan,” it said, smiling and offering a paw in greeting. Ioan wasn’t sure how ey knew when a fox was smiling, but it was definitely a smile. “Thank you for coming on such short notice. Sorry for the urgent message, I just need to find someone to help out rather soon.”
Ioan#c1494bf took the offered paw and bowed. “Of course, Dear.” Ey realized how strange it was to call someone a term of endearment as a name. “May we have a seat? I’ve just woken up and am still figuring out how to stand.”
Dear grinned and nodded, gesturing cordially with its paw around the side of the building from where it had come, leading the writer around and through a door in the glass.
The interior of the house was as ey had seen, though as they moved through the space where the message had been recorded (a gallery, Ioan noticed) and deeper into the house, things warmed up a little. The concrete walls were softened by hangings, and the furniture was unexpectedly plush, rather than of the firm-cushioned, straight-lined variety ey had expected. Fox and writer settled for an L-shaped couch, sitting facing each other across the bend.
After a moment’s hesitation, Ioan began, “I must apologize, Dear. I’m not sure that you have quite the right person. I’m not really a detective, wouldn’t know the first way of finding the one you spoke of.”
Dear shook it’s head, “I’m pretty sure you’re the right person. I’m not really looking for a detective, per se. There’s enough of those in the Ode clade. They’ll suss out the whens and wheres.”
“There’s a few kinds of people in the world, Ioan.” The fox said, voice low and calm. “There’s forgers and honers, of course. Forgers build a thing and plow ahead, and honers settle on a thing and perfect it. Artists generally fall into these classes: prolific and unfruitful artists, respectively.
“But you’re not an artist. You write, yes, but that’s ancillary to what you do. A side effect. There are some other types of people out there, too: catalogers, feelers, experiencers.” Dear shrugged, “For its own reasons, the clade needs someone to experience this. There’s a lot of history in this, a lot that we’ve forgotten, a lot that we’re trying to remember, maybe some that we’re trying to forget. I want you to help figure out the history and story of this.”
“An amanuensis,” Ioan said.
Dear brightened, its ears perking. “Precisely. And what a delightful word, too.”
Ioan grinned, “That’s good, then. This is very much more my arena. I’ll keep this instance around and keep #tracker up to date.”
The fox nodded and looked up, smiling as it’s partner came in with three thick-walled, wide-brimmed mugs of coffee, setting two of them down on the corner of the table near Ioan and the fox. “Heard you were tired,” they said, walking off with their own mug.
Dear watched them go.
“Your partner?” Ioan asked, feeling that a moment of chitchat was necessary. Ey grabbed eir mug eagerly. It smelled quite good.
The fox nodded, picked up it’s mug as well and leaned back into the cushions of the couch, slouching. “Mmhm. Finally decided to explore relationships,” it said. “They accuse me of treating it like an art project”
Ioan grinned. “Well, are you a forger or a honer of relationships?”
Dear rolled its eyes, said, “Touché. I’m trying to be a honer, with this one. For a long while, I forked to create lasting relationships. Gets lonely, though. It was like being turned down every time. At least from my — this instance’s — point of view.”
Ioan felt they were getting a little too deep for having just met, so ey steered the conversation in a tangential direction. “You fork quite often, then?”
“Yeah, Dispersionista through and through. Or maybe profligate tracker, as sometimes I don’t have the option to let instances linger.” Something seemed to occur to it, and the fox sat up again. “Speaking of, do you know much about the Ode clade?”
Ioan shook eir head, sipped eir coffee. It was good.
“It’s an old clade. One of the oldest on the system. Our founder, Michel Hadje, uploaded basically as soon as he could, and quickly became one of the, er, loudest voices on the system. He campaigned for sensoria to be included.”
“I’ve heard of Michel!” Ioan sat up straighter. “Usually in the context of the founders.”
“So what is Ode, then? His old username?”
“No, a poem,” Dear laughed.
“Oh! Oh, of course. So Michel wrote this poem…”
“No, not actually. Michel had a friend, a good friend, who wrote the poem.” Dear said, speaking more slowly now, sounding less rehearsed. “When the friend died, Michel memorized the poem. All us up-tree instances do our best to keep it memorized as well. Really memorized, too, in the forefront part of our head, up where we think about it, not stored in some exocortex.”
“Is that where your names come from?”
“Mmhm. Each of us is named after a line in the poem. I’m Dear, Also, The Tree That Was Felled, and my first long-lived fork is Which Offered Heat And Warmth Through Fire. My immediate down-tree fork is Dear The Wheat And Rye Under The Stars.”
Dear splayed its ears, grinning sheepishly, “It’s not actually a very good poem, I must admit. Michel thought so from the beginning, too. His friend, though, when they died, when they killed themselves, it really tore him up. We all still think of them often.”
Ioan nodded, “It must be quite long, then.”
“It’s only about a hundred lines, divided into ten stanzas. There are only ever ten branches as direct ancestors of Michel, and each branch only ever has ten long-lived up-tree instances. We may be Dispersionistas, but we’re a small clade.”
“And the poet? Who are they?”
Dear bristled, then mastered its instincts. “That’s The Name that we don’t share. The information that someone supposedly did share. Someone of the clade or close enough to it to know.”
Ioan’s mind swirled, confused at the fox’s reaction, the concept of not sharing a name that was clearly important. “I see,” ey said into eir coffee, covering eir confusion. “So you’d like me to help in finding this person and act as amanuensis along the way?”
Nodding, Dear held out its paw once more. “If you’d be willing, that is. We’d be glad to have you aboard.”
Ey was already sold, Ioan knew, but all the same, ey took a moment longer to consider the ramifications of the job.
Ey shrugged, reached out and shook the fox’s paw. Dear grinned, shook back.
“Excellent. I’ve shared just about all I have to share on the topic for now, though as we get updates, I’ll pass them on to you.” Dear leaned back into the couch once more, “For now, stay. Finish your coffee, at least, though feel free to putter around for a while. Or just stay here. We’ve got an apartment on the side of the house. I’ve already talked with-” it said it’s partner’s name, Ioan didn’t quite catch it ”-about it.”
Ioan nodded, “Thank you. I think I’ll head home in a bit and sync up with myself, and start the research plan. Do you have any suggested avenues I should start down?”
“Of course,” Dear smiled. “As for research, dig a bit more into the Ode clade for now, probably. when I send you updates, maybe those will lead to different topics.” The smile turned into a sly grin. “I know you’re not a big fan of sensorium messages, but as that’s how the clade communicates — those of us who do, at least — I regret to say that you’ll be getting quite a bit more.”
Ioan gave eir best polite smile.
The first message was not long in coming, arriving about an hour after Ioan#c1494bf arrived home. At least it wasn’t high priority; ey had the choice to accept then. Half duplex, though. Would be an actual conversation.
Ey sighed and closed eir eyes. The things ey did for work.
Ey accepted the message
“Hi Ioan,” came Dear’s voice. It was still seated on the couch. “Long time no see, hmm?”
Ioan nodded, subvocalized, “Yeah, took you ages. Have something for me?”
“Maybe. We’ve got a file from someone down-tree. Or, well, hmm” It appeared to think for a moment before continuing, “Someone down-tree from me found a file, and he thinks it might be a file from the clade, maybe one of the original ten.”
Ioan waited until the fox was done before responding, “Alright, send it over.”
The file arrived promptly. Eir shoulders sagged.
-----BEGIN AES BLOCK-----
-----END AES BLOCK-----
“What’s an AES block?”
“An old encryption algorithm. And I mean old.” Dear looked a little embarrassed, “We like old things. That’s why we figure it’s probably from one of us.”
Ioan thought for a moment before responding, “So do you want me-”
“You don’t need to worry about the file itself. That’s why I didn’t just forward it to you automatically,” Dear paused, then added. “Though I probably should have. Amanuenses form an Umwelt, so now this is part of yours, now. We’ll talk about it at the end. Something to keep in mind, I guess. When we find the key, we’ll let you know and send over the contents.”
“Good. I gave AES a check, and you’re right, that’s ridiculously old. Can’t you just crack it?”
“We could. Some of us probably already have. I want the key, though. It’s probably a word or something, and may prove interesting.”
“Interesting?” Ioan asked.
“Interesting in that the act of finding the key may turn up further clues.”
“Ah, good point.” Ioan pondered, then added, “Keep in touch, yeah? I’ll do some digging on old cryptography, too, and see what all’s out there.”
“Good fucking luck. Cryptonerds were — are — very wordy. There’s going to be a boatload to sort through.”
Ey grinned, “I’ll fork and research, then.”
“Good plan. Gonna get back to the hunt, and hey, Ioan,” the fox gave an earnest smile. “Thanks. Even if I’m just running ideas past you, it’s good to put in words.”
“Of course, Dear.” Ioan waved. Ey always felt silly interacting with sensorium messages. Would #tracker think em crazy? “Thanks for the project.”
Dear bowed, signed off.
#tracker was, indeed, giving #c1494bf a bemused grin.
Transcript of Node: [bea0cf302fcd00863f0c67a91b1a75c0e4ba4863] with descriptive text by #d5b14aa.
The footage shows two persons. One of them has to be Dear, Also, The Tree That Was Felled, who is an up-tree branch of the Ode clade, ninth stanza. No one else has ears that big, nobody else can somehow speak in italics. The other took some research, but I’m confident that ey are an instance of Ioan Balan, a historian and writer. Ey are a tracker, and eir habits tend toward few to no long-running instances. This instance is either #tracker or one tasked to this project.
The two persons are sitting outside of a cafe, from whom I obtained this footage. They are in conversation. Going to sit down and watch this.
DEAR, ALSO, THE TREE THAT WAS FELLED: We - er, some other Odists, down-tree from me - have come up with some hints about the message.
IOAN BALAN: Oh? Anything good?
DEAR: I suppose it depends on your definition of good.
IOAN: Oh great. Excited already. Well, lay it on me.
DEAR: So, one of us did a pretty exhaustive search of some records and found some old archive server running somewhere.
Oh goodie. Better start gearing up.
IOAN: Wait, start at the top. What were they searching?
DEAR: They were searching for the block of encrypted text - not what was in it; they cracked that a long time ago, but I think this hunt is still valid and have some reputation to burn, so...anyway - they searched for the encrypted text itself, and they came across an archive server.
IOAN: Old node boxes? Man, even I feel crusty using one of those, and I'm a historian.
DEAR: You're only a little crusty *laughter*. They found the archive server though, and there's a bunch of stuff on it. New, old, the whole thing. There's stuff from ages ago, and stuff from a few hours ago.
IOAN: You're kidding, right?
DEAR: I know, it's ridiculous.
The fox’s ears flop when it gets excited and shakes its head, never noticed that. It’s kind of cute.
IOAN: Never met anyone who could actually get one working well enough to add new nodes. So the encrypted text was in a node on the server?
DEAR: Yeah. It's still there. Just sent the URI.
IOAN: I...well, I'll have to take it at your word that it's the same as the one you found earlier, I'm not going character by character.
Dear seems a little frustrated at this. About Ioan’s slowness? I know I wouldn’t compare the files. It sounds exasperated.
DEAR: Of course, Ioan. Promise it's the same. Needless to say, we found a crusty old server with the block on it, and there's other public nodes on there as well. I'm guessing a bunch of private ones, too.
IOAN: Anything good in those?
DEAR: Nothing...penetrable. It's all fairly opaque. To me, at least.
Ioan grins at this.
IOAN: Thus us meeting here?
IOAN: Want me to have a look, then? Tech stuff is going to go right over my head, you know that.
DEAR: It's not all tech, promise. I just want you to give it a read and see what you pick up from it, you know? Put your amanuensis hat on and just spend some time experiencing.
IOAN: You think highly of me. No complaints, but why can't someone from your own clade fill this role?
Dear’s quiet. Struggling for words? Our Dear? This must have hit it hard.
DEAR: We...differ. The Odists, I mean. But we also want someone out-clade for this. I want someone out-clade for this.
Ioan seems taken aback.
IOAN: Do the others not like that I've been brought on?
DEAR: Of the ones who know, most are fine with it.
IOAN: The ones who know?
DEAR: We're a little split on how to tackle this in the first place. Different camps, different strategies, infighting. Ioan, you have to understand that, when a clade gets old, it starts to get a little batty.
Calm down fox, I’m working on it. Not so frantic.
DEAR: Some clades try to get around this by keeping a certain core group of instances - talking mostly Dispersionistas, mind - in a setting that keeps them as sane as possible, feels very 'normal'. Or maybe some are researching forking from earlier points, from down-tree, rather than from where they are now.
It furrows its brow.
DEAR: We don't. First of all, we started way too early on for that to be a thing. We trusted that change would keep us sane, that as instances diverged, especially with mutation algos in place, they'd change enough to keep us from falling apart.
IOAN: And that didn't work?
DEAR: It kind of worked. I'll put it that way. I feel pretty well rounded, and I'm sure those across the clade from me do too, but...it's complicated. It's like having a super close sib that was raised by a different family, in a different sim.
IOAN: More different than you'd expect, then?
DEAR: 'Expect'...fits strangely for this. The problem is that they're still us, we're still them. Clades are like families in a lot of ways, but you have to realize that they're still one individual. We're more different than one individual should be. Does that make sense?
It does, Dear. That’s why I’m doing this.
IOAN: I guess so. So some of your clade would prefer I not be a part of this?
DEAR: They feel that investigating the matter of The Name being said is too close to investigating The Name itself.
IOAN: I don't know how I would respond to that.
DEAR: That's my field. Don't worry about it.
Ioan holds up eir hands, looks apologetic. The fox has lowered its ears.
IOAN: Sorry, hope I'm not overstepping at all.
DEAR: Don't worry about it. It's all good, I promise. It's just that we're really good at arguing, so I've been dealing with that a lot, the last few days. I'm a bit on edge. Let's get back to the archive server, yeah?
IOAN: Sure thing, Dear. Where did you say your cocladists had found it?
DEAR: Just in a search. Don't know quite the details about how, assuming just a text search of perisystem stuff, I guess? Not too sure on the terminology, I bought into being an artist pretty hard.
IOAN: *laughter* No worries there, fox. I'm trying to keep up with you is all. I was just wondering if they found anything else.
DEAR: You mean like other nodes on the server?
IOAN: I'll poke around at those, look for ties and such. I was more wondering if they'd found anything in their search that didn't meet the relevancy threshold for them. Stuff like things linking back to the server, or anyone talking about this *pause* Hebel Qoheleth.
Silly name. Oh well. Dear looks taken aback.
DEAR: Hadn't really thought to ask. Don't suppose they did, though. Do you think it'd be worth having them search around more? Lowering the, uh, relevancy threshold? *laughter*
IOAN: Yeah, I think so. Though now that I've got it too, I can do some of my own digging. Kinda want to see who likes The Bible so much as to name themselves that.
DEAR: The Bible?
IOAN: Yeah, Qoheleth is the...uh, the teacher, or gatherer, or a bit of both, really. That's what the book usually translated as Ecclesiastes is named after. Not sure about Hebel. What's kemmer, by the way? The passphrase?
DEAR: How did you...nevermind. Kemmer is something from a book. One of our favorites. It's complicated and out of scope, but it relates to fluidity of gender. Very big, in our clade. I've opted out.
IOAN: So I noticed. It makes sense, though. I'll make a note to look it up.
DEAR: Glad someone's thinking about this stuff. Sounding more like a-
IOAN: Private investigator?
DEAR: *laughter* I was going to say historian, sounding more like a historian every time we talk. But you never know, maybe you'd make a good PI.
That was fast! I may have less time than I had thought. Dear’s lovely, and it’s totally right: on the other side of the clade, there are some who’d not like this kind of digging. Too entrenched.
IOAN: I can't tell whether or not I should be flattered.
DEAR: It's a good thing. Just keep digging, and we will too. I'll be about, too. Got a few more things to wrap up to finish the current gallery business, but after that, I'm just going to work on this - with you if you don't mind - and try and figure out what's even happening in the clade. Keep in touch, yeah? Ping me whenever?
IOAN: Will do. *pause* Wait, you're an instance artist, right?
DEAR: Yeah, why do you ask?
IOAN: Why don't you fork to work on both at the same time?
Dear shrugs, grins, quits. Very lovely fox. Really quite lovely.
No time to dawdle watching Ioan try and figure out up-tree instances, though. Must be getting ready. Quit this instance, flush the server of extraneous crap to guide a little more effectively - yeesh, how old is some of this stuff? Need to re-encrypt a bunch of it anyway - and get ready for some visitors.
“Dear, Also, The Three That Was Felled” by Iris Jay
Ioan sat back and rubbed at eir eyes. Time had gone all funny with all this research.
As with many of eir previous projects, ey tended to fall into a state of free-running sleep patterns and distractedness. Ey would work for a few hours and suddenly get quite tired, nap for what felt like fifteen minutes and wake up three hours later. Then ey’d work for twenty hours straight, neglecting to eat.
Ey had researched it and entertained the idea that it might be part of some larger sleep disorder, but had put it off as just one of eir (many) neuroses.
Less than healthy.
There were never any complaints about the quality or amount of work ey got done while free-running. Ey didn’t slip up or stumble, and being methodical got one quite far as a historian and writer. Ey would write the same quality work at the beginning, middle, and end of eir waking periods.
What it did not do, however, was endear oneself to one’s housemates. Ioan#tracker quickly grew frustrated, whether or not Ioan#c1494bf used a cone of silence. Ey knew the feeling well. It was a common enough problem when multiple Balan instances stayed in the same house while on projects, and ey was nothing if not a Balan.
Ey considered digging a new spot for eirself to work, until ey had remembered Dear’s invitation.
So thats how ey had found eirself rubbing eir eyes in front of a simple (if painfully modern) desk in a studio apartment attached to eir…employer’s? Friend? Eir friend’s (equally modern) house.
The apartment really was a studio apartment, too: someone — perhaps Dear — had used it for painting, and rightfully so. The exterior wall was floor to ceiling glass looking out over that sere prairie. The landscape, Dear’s partner had explained, was the work of Dear’s sib, Serene; Sustained and Sustaining, ‘born’ when their ancestor, Dear The Wheat And Rye Under The Stars had forked to explore its twinned interests of forming oneself and the of forming one’s surroundings in greater detail.
Ioan’s head spun whenever ey thought about the clade, but the longer ey spent around Dear, the more ey found eirself liking it. Ey was curious to get to meet another Odist.
If it weren’t for the window, opaquable, the apartment would’ve felt totally like a cell. Simple cot, Desk, and kitchenette. The walls were whitewashed concrete, the floor that same pale hardwood, the fixtures all brushed steel. No doors to the rest of the house, nor even anywhere but outside, no restroom. One was expected to either turn off elimination or do so outside.
There’s a cheap joke to be made there, ey had thought, when first moving in. About Dear lifting its leg against some tree, but I doubt its body ever had that functionality enabled.
Ioan shook eir head and rubbed at eir eyes more vigorously. Ey was daydreaming — eveningdreaming, actually — and that made em wonder how long ey had been awake.
“Probably some horrid number of hours,” ey mumbled to the wall.
A sensorium ping, a gentle impinging of Dear upon eir senses, half-sensed words, “Does the wall reply back often?”
Ioan spun around. Dear was standing, prim, dapper as always, at the door through the glass, paws clasped in front of it.
“Scared the hell out of me!” Ioan blurted.
Dear’s serene smile widened into a grin. “Sorry, Ioan. I’ll wait until after the wall responds, next time.”
“Foxass,” Dear corrected, accenting that with an exaggerated swish. “Have some news. Care to walk with me?”
Ioan nodded and stood, “Glad to. Hitting a wall, here.”
The fennec adopted a look of concern, “Don’t hit your friends, Ioan.”
“Ha ha,” Ioan rolled eir eyes. “Something’s got you in a state today. Tonight. Whatever.”
“Tonight.” Dear’s smile softened, “Come on, let’s go walk. Storm scheduled in an hour, let’s catch all of the nice smells.”
It had been long enough that I was thinking of myself as Qoheleth now. I had even begun introducing myself as Qoheleth, whenever I went out, just to try it on for size.
That I had never gone out was of little concern.
I liked the sound of it, though. I liked the connotations of ‘teacher’ and ‘gatherer’ and ‘director of the assembled’. I wanted to feel the way that it felt to be someone different, and I’d found at least a part of that in this name, the name that I had chosen for myself. I’d not yet taught or gathered, but I was working constantly to attain that.
And ‘Hebel’. Hebel was another name I had picked up. Vain, futile, mere breath.
Qoheleth’s words, in the book they had written so very, very long ago were all about hebel — or hevel, could never tell which. “This, too, is meaningless,” the author had written, after taking a walk down a path in life and exploring.
That’s not how I envisioned the name, though.
I thought of the two names as signifiers. Thought of the two sources of names.
Qoheleth. That was the name I had given myself out of hope. It was a name of goals and aspirations. It embodied the things that I wanted to do. It took all of my plans and me, as the maker of the plans, and bound them up neatly into a word. A name. A rejection of The Name.
Hebel was the name I had given myself out of despair. It was a name of self degradation and a way of reminding myself that, lofty as all my goals may be, they were all vanity. Mere breath.
Together, the names reminded me that I was doing this for a reason. All of these resources, mostly found objects and hand-me-downs accrued over the years (if you never leave your private sim and never publish outside of it, you get surprisingly little), were being built up and strung together into a cohesive goal. A net.
They, the resources, were all nothing. The reasons were all nothing.
The whole plan was nothing, except for the truth underlying it. Not to fear God, but to…to something. To get the whole clade to see. My clade.
My old clade.
I was now Hebel Qoheleth.
The old name was dead. I was Hebel Qoheleth.
Dear wasn’t kidding about the smells. Ioan turned eir sensorium way up in intensity. Ey wondered if Dear’s vulpine nose could smell things eirs could not.
Serene had worked wonders here. The smells, the textures, the raw beauty of the place. It was a fine line that they had walked, too. Any further in one direction and the landscape would have become nearly desolate, more forbidding than natural. Any further in the other direction, though, and it would’ve been softened too much, would’ve become too well-tended, or even cartoonish.
As the two crunched their way through the short, stiff stalks of grass, winding their way around the larger tussocks, Ioan realized that ey was quite taken with the place.
A ridiculous house in the middle of nowhere, a glittering white fox and its partner, the prairie fading off into downs on one side and stretching out to infinity on the other…It had all seemed so contrived when ey had first visited. Too simple, too one dimensional. Kind of cheap.
But it was all so well done. So incredibly, skillfully executed. The artistry was in the details.
Ioan liked it here.
Ey realized ey had been dawdling, past the comfortable stage of just enjoying the petrichor being washed in before the storm.
“Sorry, lost in thought.”
“It’s okay,” Dear said. “You looked like you needed it.”
“Hmm? Getting lost in thought? Or getting out of the apartment?”
Dear shrugged, smiled.
“Sorry, anyhow. I’m here now, will try not to do that again.” Ioan grinned sheepishly. “What did you find out? You seemed almost punchy.”
“I was, definitely. Still am.” The fox grinned and shrugged again. “We seem to have found out who our…ah, who our target is.”
Ioan mulled over the word ‘target’, searching for a better one. Ey couldn’t think of anything better, so ey nodded. “What do we know?”
“We know a name, and from there we can find a bit of history, which you may be able to help in filling in.”
“Names are good! Something other than Qoheleth?”
“Other than that, yes, but almost certainly connected, probably the same. Not much more than the name, though. No location, no sightings in ages. Some aging — or aged — resources, a name, and some history.”
Ioan gave an impatient gesture with eir hand. “Well, what’s the hold-up?”
Dear grinned broadly, “The hold-up is that I want you to feel some of the excitement that I felt on hearing this from down-tree. I want you excited and invested.”
“I’ve been working twenty hour days on this, I’m pretty fucking invested.”
The grin turned into a laugh. “I know you have. My partner’s worried about you.”
Ioan felt eir cheeks flush, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be a bother being up so much.”
“No, no, we can’t hear you or anything. They’re just worried because we don’t hear you, or hear from you. We both like you.”
The historian nodded, chastened.
“Don’t worry about it, Ioan. It’s all good.” Dear patted eir shoulder. “The name, though, the name is the important thing right now.”
“And the name is?” Ioan’s mind raced. Could Dear say the name? Was it the poet, some how miraculously talking through the system? That would be exciting, wouldn’t it?
“Life Breeds Life, But Death Must Now Be Chosen, of the Ode clade.”
Dear stopped a few paces in front of em and turned, grinning intently at em while its tail lashed excitedly behind it.
“Good,” Dear’s grin widened. “I’m glad I’m not the only one who had to pick their jaw up off the ground.”
Ioan stuffed eir hands in eir pockets. Brought them back out to press against eir forehead. Crossed eir arms. Returned eir hands to eir pockets. Suddenly anxious. “It’s a real the-call’s-coming-from-inside-the-house moment.”
Dear tilted its head, ears perked.
“Never mind. Old trivia.” Ioan shook eir head and rocked back on eir heels. “How, though? How’d you get the name?”
“A hunch I had, actually, though someone else dug it up.”
“What was the hunch?”
Ioan rifled through eir mental notes on the project. “Signifier…from the first encrypted note? Signifier is the password something something?”
Dear nodded, “Hardly anyone uses it anymore, but signifier used to be what we called the names of long-lived branches. It’s still used here and there among older clades. I use it now and then, when I can get away with it.”
“Makes sense, yeah. So they’re…”
“They’re an Odist, yeah. Way, way down-tree. One of the first instances.” Dear’s smile faltered, “We weren’t very good at record keeping back then. We aren’t really now, to be honest, but the system’s better. We…we didn’t know that he was still alive.”
“Didn’t know? I thought you all talked to each other. You must, in order to keep the names straight.”
“Remember, all of our names are chosen from our stanza. I talk with the other nine within my stanza fairly frequently, and we may fill out the stanza before too long.” The fox’s expression grew glassy, “Life Breeds Life…that’s the first stanza. They’re a conservative bunch. Only know one or two, but I assume that others are out there.”
Ioan nodded, “So the first stanza were the first forked?”
“The first line from each stanza were the first forked, back when it cost to fork. Like, cost real money. Anyway, the first fork of the first stanza must’ve just been a little more conservative than the rest of us.”
“I…hmm. May I ask something potentially personal?”
“The Odists that don’t want me digging into this too much, the ones you didn’t really tell, are they from that side of the clade?”
The fox’s ears perked, “To the last, yes. Why?”
“How will, er…”
“Life Breeds Life, But Death Must Now Be Chosen. Just Life is fine, too.”
“How will Life react to the search? To me?”
I loved this feeling. I loved the feeling of a project getting past the architecture state to that point where you could just start to use it. You’d been writing all of the interfaces and abstract classes and such for weeks and months (or decades, in my case). Then you’d started to fill in all of the inner workings, blocks of code filling out empty pairs of braces.
And then, one day, you had enough that you could type in a command and see if it actually compiled, ran.
And then you’d probably buckle down and start writing tests, start pulling together tasks and issues and such. No such luck for me. Old Qoheleth — I still get a grin every time I say that — gets to just keep writing until it’s time to hit the big green button. There’s no testing, there’s no explaining if things go wrong. Just go.
I was actually pretty excited about it.
You get old, you know? And you can’t die in this place. You can suicide, maybe, crash yourself and try to corrupt the merge, and I guess if I were to quit, there’d still be someone to merge with, but they’d be dealing with the same problems.
No one ever really dies in the system. They just stop.
And I’m sure one of those will happen to me at some point, and probably sooner rather than later, but until then, I’ll just keep going more and more nuts. We all will. All of us old’uns, and then before long all the young’uns too. We gotta see. They all gotta see, but we gotta see, because we’re the ones in a position to do something about it.
I keep using ‘we’, too, damnit. I’m not part of their damn clade anymore. I don’t know which of them are or aren’t, either, and I don’t think they realize that yet.
I just need to keep working on what I can. I kicked Node: [67e97446cdbe3a4a3cfd5ebd75b1260f] out into the wild, so they’ll probably get there before long. After that, we finish our little game and I get my moment as Qoheleth. I get to be the one to call the assembly together, the one to teach.
And, since I know they’ll get into these nodes, too, I have to add that, no, I don’t bear a grudge. There’s no ill will. This isn’t a “now I’ll show them” moment.
I just need them invested. I need them fighting, which is easy, and I need them interested, which is hard. I need them invested in the problem before I stand up and clear my throat, and then I might have the authority, in their eyes, to speak, to teach.
I got them fighting by saying That Name, and I’ve got Dear interested. Lovely Dear.
I just need them all invested.
Dear shrugged and turned its back on Ioan.
The historian stood where ey was and watched as the fox took a few steps further out into the prairie, crossed its arms and stood, staring up into the bruised-looking sky. “To the second bit, I don’t know that it matters. They — Life, or Qoheleth, or whatever — are one of us. And even those of us who didn’t want any outsiders brought on board are only frowning, looking down their at the thought, not gathering up arms.”
“And to the first bit?” Ioan pressed. “What do you think they will think of the search?”
“What do I think? Or what do I feel?”
Ioan scuffed eir foot against the grass. The temperature was dropping out on the prairie. It’d be an inconvenience to have to slosh back to the house if it rained.
“I think that they’d probably get a kick out of it. I am, several of the others are, and the ones who aren’t just don’t care that much or are too angry.” Dear turned back around. Its arms were held tight against it’s front though whether from cold or emotion, Ioan couldn’t tell. “As for what I feel, I feel that it’s their game. They’re the ones running it. But even if it’s a game, it’s not play. There’s no real fun in it, just snarkiness. It’s a game they’ve worked at perfecting.”
Ioan marveled at the change in Dear, though with these deeper thoughts, ey felt some of the same.
The fox’s smile was weak as it added, “They have designs. Designs and reasons.”
Ioan and Dear trudged back to the low block of concrete, a bunker against the storm, as a chill wind swept away the petrichor and brought with it the rain itself.
Dear’s partner had cooked that evening. They were good at it, so Ioan sat with them around the table and tried not to feel like a third wheel. Eating was not a necessity in the system, of course, not by any stretch, and while it was easy to go for months or years without eating, it was something that remained a habit for many of those who chose to upload. Ioan suspected that there was no small amount of hedonism involved in killing one’s body to upload to a world beyond scarcity.
All the same, it was a muted affair.
Dear and Ioan had made it back to the house just as the first cold sprinkles had started to fall from the sky. Once they’d reached the patio, they took the chance to stand and watch, just out of reach of water, as the weather went from cloudy, through sprinkles and drizzles, to stormy. Ioan focused primarily on the sound, the way ey was able to pick out the individual sounds of droplets striking dry grass during the sprinkles, to the static of the drizzles, to the rush, roar, and whoosh of the storm itself.
Ey had no idea what Dear was thinking. It stood, watching the rain and shivering. It looked more contemplative, but was somewhere less than sad. Ioan spent a moment sifting for the word, before giving up and guiding the fox back into its house.
Ioan felt some energy return with the mix of curry and masala and rice. Calories would’ve been an empty term here, but that’s what it had felt like: like eating a hearty meal and regaining strength. Likely, it was just the simple act of going back to where ey had been in the prairie when first heading out there. Engaging with one’s sensorium. Maybe that’s why the idea of food had been included in the system, after all.
Dear picked up a little with the food, but not as much Ioan had, nor, perhaps, as much as its partner had hoped, judging by their own apparent anxiety. Dinner was good, but plagued with silences. Even after, as the three sat talking, their conversation was full of nothings.
It wasn’t until they poured some drinks and moved to the couch that Dear began to open up.
“I script a lot of my conversations,” it said, staring into it’s ‘glass’. All of the glassware in the house was wide-rimmed to make way for a fox muzzle to lap, having little in the way of lips. Ioan felt strange drinking wine from something more akin to a bowl
Ioan looked up. “Mmm?”
“I was just thinking.” It shrugged, giving it’s wine a squirl and then a few laps. “Earlier, when I was sharing that bit about the name with you, I had that all scripted. It was all pulled together in my head. The whole thing. I’d make a few jokes, lead you on, tell you the name, and then we’d bask in the wonder of the truth of it.”
Ioan nodded, silent.
“Just like I spent dinner scripting this conversation.” Dear’s partner gave its shin a playful kick. The fox grinned.
“It’s thoroughly ingrained. I’m pretty sure most people do it, of course. It’s just,” it sighed. “I had the whole thing scripted and planned, and then you asked questions — as you are meant to, of course — and my script collapsed.”
“I ‘went off script’, you mean?”
“Sorry about that, I-”
“Oh goodness, no!” Dear laughed, shaking its head, “I’m trying to apologize here, don’t steal my thunder. I just meant to say that you asked good questions and got me thinking, and I wasn’t expecting that.”
“It likes to proclaim,” teased Dear’s partner.
“It’s not not true,” Dear grinned back. “But anyway, I’m sorry I got all quiet, I didn’t mean to put a damper on things.”
“You didn’t, I-”
“I did, though. Dinner was like some depressing silent movie.”
“Don’t sulk, fox,” its partner said. “Dinner was fine. And let poor Ioan finish.”
Ioan grinned, letting the banter play out before continuing, “All I meant to say was that I worried that I’d offended with one of my questions.”
“Not at all. I mean, not really.” The fennec furrowed its brow. “I felt offended, is what I mean to say, when you asked how Life would react to you being a part of this investigation. An unfair reaction, though. Just one from the gut. I was offended because I realized that I’d invited you along on this as some sort of tool. Something I could wave about and say, “See, look what I have!” A tool or a trophy.”
Ioan looked down into eir wine, taken aback.
“Doubly unfair of me, and for that I apologize.” Dear raised its glass. “So you asked a really good question, actually, because it made me question my own role in this hunt. It made me think of what others would think, me bringing along an amanuensis and historian, which made me think of why I’m doing so.
“And I think the reason for me doing so goes further than even I had planned. I think I have you along as a means of keeping me grounded, of keeping the clade from just doing what the clade has always done yet again, of-”
The fox stopped talking suddenly and set its glass down on the table. Its ears were standing erect and its fur bristled down along the back of its neck, hackles raised.
It looked frantic.
Ioan looked to Dear’s partner, who sent a very faint sensorium ping in response.
Sensorium message. That was it.
The message lasted less than a minute before the fox leapt off the couch and dashed off to another room, forking almost as an afterthought along the way.
The fork turned quickly and paced back to the couch, looking anxious. It didn’t seem to be able to sit, and instead kept up that pacing in front of the couch, before its partner and Ioan.
After a few tense laps, it said, “Qoheleth just sent me a message.”
“What?” Ioan rushed to place its glass on the table with Dear’s. “You mean Life?”
“He asked me to call him Qoheleth, but yes. He sent me a message. Can I pass it on?”
Dear didn’t wait. The message came in with a flash.
Highest priority, it came with a rush of adrenaline and a sensation of falling, sudden and intense fear replaced with an incongruously jovial voice. An old voice, almost Santa Claus-y. The contrast made Ioan’s bones ache.
“Hi Dear, this is Qoheleth. Not Life Breeds Life, But Death Must Now Be Chosen, but Qoheleth. I’m glad to see that you’ve kept this up and gotten this close. Not sending this to deter you, but to cheer you on. I’m going to send you a bit more information — just you, mind! — and I want you to get the rest of the clade in on this, see if you can get them working with the same delightful fervor you and Ioan have.
“So anyway, here’s the bone I’m gonna toss. You should be looking at Node: [32c5a64b66d0338be4373d796cf1eae5343f1077]. That’ll get you right to my door. May need Gist Node: [0fedcbbb5e9839936ce799ece39fcd49] to help, too, though you already have the key, I think. I expect most, if not all of you, though, you understand? You’re lovely, Dear, and I can’t wait to see you and your friend, but I’d like to host as much of the clade as I can.
“I’m really excited for this, and I’m totally looking forward to see you all, yeah?”
There was a moment’s silence, a sense of lingering, and then, “Oh, and thank you, Dear. You’ve made this a treat. You’re the closest one to the thing I’m after, and I’m glad this tickled you as much as it did me. I think you and I both know why, too.
“Anyway, see you soon, fox. Cheers.”
The relative calm that fell over Ioan signified that the message had ended, and ey slouched back into the couch, eyes wide.
“Right? Hold on, don’t go anywhere. Going to reduce conflicts while I make the calls,” the fork of Dear said rapidly, and quit.
Ioan shook eir head and said again, quieter, “Holy shit.” Ey reached for eir glass of wine once more.
“Bone I’m going to toss, hmm?” mused Dear’s partner. “He makes it sound like a game.”
Ioan nodded and watched the fox’s partner spin their wine glass by the stem between their two palms, watched the wine creep up the sides from centripetal force. “It showed you, too, then?” ey asked.
The figure laughed, “Of course. I know I’ve not been hitting the books or the streets like you two, but I’m still in this. I was the one who pointed it to you.”
Ey nodded, feeling eir cheeks flush, “Of course, sorry. Do you know what he meant by “closest one to the thing I’m after”?”
“Maybe. I only really have an inkling, though, and I’d rather let Dear explain.”
Ioan nodded again, “That’s fair.”
There was an uneasy silence for a few minutes. The two sat on the couch, sipping their wine and mulling over the message. For eir part, Ioan was considering the strange dichotomy of the familiarity with which Qoheleth had addressed Dear — “see you soon, fox” — as well as why the fact that this seemed incongruous to em. It was difficult to think of Qoheleth as a member of the same clade as Dear, someone with whom Dear shared a root identity, after so long of thinking of this person as someone entirely different.
Silences have their own rhythms, Ioan knew, so it waited until there came a point where ey could ask, “About all this, do you know much more about the whole name business?”
Dear’s partner looked up, “Who, Qoheleth’s?”
“No, I mean the whole name of the poet.”
“Ah.” They shrugged, “Not particularly. I just know it’s something the clade has an almost religious fixation on. Most of them, at least.”
“Do you know it?”
They laughed. “Oh, gosh no. I mean…well, do you know why Dear’s a fox?”
“Because it likes foxes.”
Ioan felt as if ey’d stumbled. Dear’s partner laughed.
“Seriously, that’s true. But also, it was an experiment. I don’t know The Name because I’m not allowed to know The Name, that much is obvious from the clade’s reaction to this whole thing. But I also don’t know The Name because I’m pretty sure Dear doesn’t even know it. Not anymore.”
“How do you mean? I thought all of the Ode clade knew The Name, kept it secret and close to their hearts or something.”
“Many do, I’ve been told. And I think that Dear does this too, in its own way. That way means doing its best to forget it and to move on.”
Ioan nodded slowly, “To get to the acceptance stage of grief?”
Dear’s partner nodded. “So it did its best to forget.”
“Is that something that one needs to work on, then?”
“Have you forgotten anything, recently?”
“I, well…” Ioan stopped and thought for a moment. It was a difficult question to comprehend, and more difficult to answer. How could ey know whether or not ey had forgotten something by going back through eir thoughts.
All the same, ey prowled through eir memories. Even just those from the time ey had been spending with Dear. They were jumbled, sure, and lots of impressions, but nothing was forgotten that ey could think of.
“I’ll spare you by passing on some thoughts from Dear,” said the fox’s mate. “We aren’t gifted with eidetic memories when we upload, not by a long shot, but neither can we truly seem to forget anything we do remember, anymore. It’s as thought each memory is labeled with a priority level from zero to ten, and when it hits zero, it’s forgotten, except the actual scale only goes down to point oh oh oh oh one or something. We can kick it way to to the back of our minds, down the priority list, but we can’t forget it. The system won’t let us.”
Ioan nodded, realization dawning on em. “So Dear tried to forget, tried to kick that memory all the way to the back of its mind. What does that have to do with being a fox, though?”
“Know much about exocortices?”
“Sure, I’ve got a few up and running for storing long term stuff. Hell, I’ve got one for this project. Isn’t that kind of like forgetting?”
“Almost, but you can never forget that they exist, can never forget the passphrase, right?”
Ioan frowned, directing it to eir wine rather than Dear’s partner.
“But exos also need part of your sensorium to match, right? That way you can’t just tell someone your passphrase and let them in.”
Ioan nodded. Ey had a hunch of where this was headed.
“So Dear put The Name into an exocortex, all by itself, and then tried to change its sensorium enough that it couldn’t get back in.”
“I see,” said Ioan, sipping at eir wine again. It left em parched. “It’s a fox because it likes foxes, but that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to no longer quite be the same Dear that put The Name into the exo.”
Dear’s partner nodded.
“How did it do that? By forking?”
Another nod. “Forking and mutating, forking and mutating. You can change your form easily enough, but it’s much harder to change your sensorium. I don’t even know how many times or tweaks it took. That’s how it got into instance artistry, though.”
Ioan nodded, “Damn. That’s intense.”
“Dear’s an intense fox.” Its partner grinned.
“It’ll be back soon enough. Let me throw a question back at you, in the meantime. What are your thoughts on the last thing Qoheleth said? “I think you and I both know why”?”
Ioan settled back into the couch with eir wine and thought for a minute or two. “I’m wondering if he was talking about what Dear did to forget the name. On one hand, it sounds like a sort of congratulations. Like, “I’m glad you’re able to move on,” but after all that talk of all the clade and all of what Dear said earlier, I’m not sure if that’s the whole story.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, has Dear mentioned to you the more conservative side of the Ode clade?”
Its partner winced and nodded, “Plenty.”
“It said that Qoheleth is from that conservative side. I wonder if that’s not working out well for them.”
“Yeah. Retaining all of those things from the original Michel Hadje, following a sort of Dispersionista path, but more in letter than in spirit. Dear called them batty.”
“It’s called them that to me, too.”
“I’m just wondering if it’s right,” Ioan said, finishing eir wine. “Maybe they are batty. And getting worse.”
Mustering the Odists took surprising effort.
Qoheleth had said that he would welcome them at any time, and Ioan had thought that this would be easy.
It was not.
Some did not want to go, even with a forked instance. These took much persuasion. One did want to go but refused to fork to do so, or to fork at all — this, above all else, set Dear off: the fox did not take confusion of this sort well — and so the clade had to work with the one member’s schedule. Some wanted to bring others (such as Dear bringing Ioan), and this set off another round of debate, delaying them further. They decided that they would only bring willing participants who had played a role in the project.
With little to do, Ioan read and waited. Ey read up on the history of the Ode clade. Ey read up on this form of public key encryption. Ey read Ecclesiastes and all ey could about it. Ey read about various mental vagaries and attempted to map them to Qoheleth, Dear, and various members of the Clade which Dear talked about.
This last was mostly for fun, but ey was also beginning to strategize eir report. Ey wanted to write something very full-fledged, an essay for Dear, and a slightly modified and anonymous version for publication, if the clade would let em. Ey wanted the result to be readable, rather than simply an account of events. Something that would help explain the whys and hows of an older clade in turmoil. A historical document.
And finally, the day had come, nearly two weeks after deciphering Qoheleth’s last message. There had been no further communications from the wayward Odist. He seemed patient enough to wait.
Hebel Qoheleth is a patient man. I have time. Enough time, at least. I know I’m gone, I’m a lost cause, but much of the clade still has their faculties about them. Most of them, at least. So long as they act within the decade, I’ll be here. Any longer, and we’ll risk further degradation.
It’s been two weeks since I pinged Dear — lovely Dear — and although it had tried to contact me several times, and pinged countless more, I never responded. I did my part. I called them, got them fighting, got them interested, and I think I got them invested.
Now, hopefully they will come.
The designated meeting point was the prairie in front of Dear’s house. Ioan was confused as to why they didn’t just meet in Qoheleth’s sim, until ey realized that many members of the clade had not met in years or decades, or, in the case of up-tree instances, ever.
For a family reunion, it was quite stiff and formal, tense. Probably not the best of circumstances to regather the clade, Ioan thought.
Ey focused on eir job as amanuensis.
Ey was surprised at the variety of the cladists. It made sense, of course, for a Dispersionista clade, but it was the direction in which the differences headed which intrigued em. The most notable difference was the gender presentation ratio. It was heavily skewed feminine. Michel Hadje had been born male, ey remembered, but had never transitioned, yet here was a crowd of primarily women, all similar enough to appear related, but different in their own ways. Kemmer indeed.
Ioan supposed it was due to the individual preferences that each long-lived fork had gained in its time away from the root of the clade. The remaining Odists who had not changed, or who had changed very little where the ones who Ioan suspected were the less liberal bunch Dear had mentioned. They all looked fairly similar.
Ioan couldn’t help but think that they represented a lot of the various shames and repressions that Michel had held, that everyone held. It was an interesting dissolution strategy.
There was one other fox, as well. A female fox, similar in many ways to Dear, though with natural coloration rather than the iridescent white fur that Dear maintained. Dear gave her a tight hug and introduced her to Ioan as Serene, the one who had designed the landscape of its property. Ioan liked her at once.
Michel himself was notably absent, though Dear assured the historian that he was still very much alive. “He said that, if anyone should remain behind, it was him, as he had started this whole damn thing.”
Ioan shrugged and nodded. Dear gave a small smile and shrugged as well.
There were a few tag-alongs, folks immediately identified as out-clade. A few friends, and a few partners, singular and plural. Some who Ioan suspected were like eirself, historians and helpers brought along to witness and record. One of the conservatives (at Ioan’s guess, at least) had even brought a reputation analyst along with him, a slight Asian gentleman who introduced himself as Qián Chunyu.
Dear announced that the party would be leaving in five minutes.
Aha! Dear sent a sensorium message. Just a view of a crowd and it announcing that they would be leaving in five minutes.
I ran a quick count of the crowd I could see within the fox’s few and it looks like I’ll be expecting the entire clade plus a few here and there — I can see Ioan next to Dear, there — in just a few minutes.
I’m going to shut down all the exits from this room so that there will be less incentive to wander away. I’ll make the extents a little bigger, too, in order to fit everyone comfortably.
This is going to be fun.
The room was a utilitarian grey, closer to black than to white, and the illumination was a central light source somewhere above the exact center of the room, looking slightly misted. It was enough to give definition to the room’s corners and boundaries, those walls of matte grey, but not a whole lot else. A small pedestal was set a few meters from one of the walls, only a half a meter high.
A platform? A dias?
Except for that change, it was the default room created before one added modifications.
The Odists arrived in clumps of ten or twenty at a time, taking about thirty seconds to arrive in total. A low murmur started up almost immediately. If this meeting had to be called, then perhaps every detail was of the highest importance.
A man appeared on the platform.
Ioan wasn’t sure how ey knew, just that it was Qoheleth. He was about Dear’s height, but a touch heavier, and had affected a greying beard and receding hairline. His clothes were a simple cream tunic and trousers of…was that leather? Atop this, a reddish-brown robe.
He certainly seemed to have adopted the part of a biblical notable. The murmuring doubled, trebled, and then subsided.
Qoheleth smiled, and then called out to the group, “Welcome, folks. Good to see, er, most of you again, and I’m sure it’ll be pleasant to meet the rest of you later.”
Silence. Part confused, part curious, part angry.
“I’m Hebel Qoheleth, though some of you remember me as Life Breeds Life, But Death Must Now Be Chosen, of the Ode Clade. For my own reasons, I’ve chosen to rescind my membership within the Ode clade-” He held up his hands to quell the protests from within the crowd. “I’ve chosen to rescind my membership within the clade because something is starting to go wrong.”
Iaon looked to Dear. The fox’s brow was furrowed and intent. Ey looked from it to the rest of the crowd, studying the expressions. Many of the other outclade individuals were doing the same, confirming Ioan’s hunch that they were other amanuenses. The reputation analyst, Chunyu, had positioned himself up near the platform itself and was scribbling notes.
The conservatives looked stoic.
Qoheleth continued, “Something is going wrong in many of the old clades, with many of the old uploads. They should probably all hear this, but, even though I’m not a part of you anymore, I still feel the responsibility to tell you all.”
“Why the puzzles?” a voice shouted.
The older ex-Odist grinned, looking proud. “I had to get you interested and involved to get all of you here. I had to make you all think that there was more going on than just an old man convening a meeting.”
Grumbles greeted this.
“It worked, didn’t it?” Qoheleth smirked, then went on. “So, on to why I called you all here, hmm? Lets get to the good stuff. Or the bad stuff, really.
“There’s a bit of a problem going on with the older uploads and their clades. It’s a small one now, but I think it’ll just get worse and worse over time.
“Actually, it may not be a problem with the uploads at all, but a problem with the system. I’ll cut right to it: the problem is forgetting and aging. We can’t forget. We never age. We’re stuck. We never grow.”
Dear was nodding.
“Maybe some of you feel the wrongness in this, but I’m worried that it’s too few of you. I called you here to teach you why this is a problem.” Qoheleth ignored the indignant sounds from the audience and kept going, seemingly in a rhythm. “It feels good to be forever young, to be forever ourselves. But even if the physical and biological origins of aging have been obviated by the system, by being digital, the need to age and change is still there. It’s a need backed by sanity and diversity rather and biology.
“Sanity drives the need because we can’t forget. Maybe some of you have figured out ways to intentionally forget, but forgetting needs to be an organic process. It needs to be something that happens to us, not just something that we choose to do. All we can do is ignore, now, but even so, that just drives us further from sanity, over time. It’s a limitation of the system applied to our sensoria, our minds.”
Qoheleth seemed to be gaining confidence, talking louder and more fluently as he went. “Diversity, because we need to change more than just our shapes and our memories. All of us here, all of the Ode clade gathered today, are still essentially Michel Hadje. I don’t see him here, and that’s fine. His choice. But we’re all still him. All hundred of us, all of our short-lived instances, all of our secret long-lived instances we didn’t name after the Ode.”
Dear briefly splayed its ears, managed its embarrassed reaction, and then straightened up again. Ioan saw several others do the same, all of the more liberal bent. Ey smiled.
“It’s not enough that we make nations out of individuals, we need to change beyond our root ancestors, if we’re to survive. We need to breed, to produce more individuals. We can’t keep relying on those who can afford to upload from offline for change. We need to forget at the very least,” He pounded his fist against his palm with these last syllables. “Or perhaps we need to learn how to die again.”
The silence was intent. Ioan made a note to eirself, Impressive. He has them hooked. All the way. Almost all of them except the conservatives.
“That’s why I posted The Name. That’s why I gathered you here today. I’m telling you, we need to fix this, and I have some ideas as to how-”
Ioan missed the cue, if there was one, but with eir eyes locked on the stage, ey didn’t miss the action.
At the mention of the name (and perhaps that was the only cue that was needed), Chunyu hoisted himself up on the stage, withdrew a syringe from his pocket, and slammed it into Qoheleth’s back.
Then he quit.
Qoheleth had time to let out a soft “hah,” sounding bemused, and then began to artifact and jitter on the stage. The death lasted perhaps five seconds, as the old man’s internals struggled against the intrusion of the virus, before he crashed, disappearing from sight much as the assassin had.
By the time Ioan looked around the room, the conservatives had left or quit.
Ruckus and uproar were too strong of words for what happened with the remaining audience. There were a few scattered shouts, mostly of surprise, but primarily just concerned murmurings. For its part, Dear stamped a foot and began to pace in the small space it had, tail lashing behind it.
“What just happened?” Ioan whispered to the fox when it came close.
“One of the conservatives took a bet.”
Ioan didn’t press further.
I have them! I really, finally, truly have them all here!
I don’t know that I have them all hooked, but I did it. I set my mind in motion by will alone. I count those who weren’t hooked. Mostly first and second stanzas, mostly like me. How did they go so wrong, though? I’m a first-stanza instance. First stanza, second line, even, and I didn’t turn out so bad.
Well, okay, I turned out kinda messed up, but only because I suffered the same fate that they all would, perhaps were already, only I suffered it a little bit earlier. I started going bonkers from the sheer amount of stuff in my head. I started living too long, living my Methuselah life while still having a mind like a steel trap. Nothing was getting out of my head. Nothing could get out of my head. It just wasn’t possible in the current system.
I have grand plans. Grand plans of organizing a petition among all the old clades, with the Ode clade leading and me leading them in turn. A petition to the system engineers to hire some damn developers again and stop treating this like abandonware that still runs. Get some devs in there and add the ability forget and the ability to die. Hell, maybe even the ability to breed. The word’s even in my name, my old name, for chrissakes.
As I continue through my spiel, I can tell I’m hooking the liberals, the later stanzas, most of all. Dear’s sold completely, I can see it on its face, fox or no. Can see it on Dear’s other fox sib. Dear’s whole stanza.
The conservatives are harder to read. The whole lot look blank and stoic. They just stand there, with their historians and their analyst — the flash of his stylus as he scribbles notes in shorthand keeps distracting me. I power through, though, because it was working.
It’s working, because I am Qoheleth. I am the teacher, I am leading the assemblage. I am instructing them in the dangers they face, telling them what’s going on in forceful, no-nonsense terms.
And then I fuck up. I knew it as soon as I did it, too. I said something about The Name. I got too proud and started going into my whys. I shouldn’t have done that at all. It’d lose me the conservatives. They, more than others, guarded that dumb name more jealously than all the rest.
I try to keep going to cover up my mistake, but there’s that damn analyst, pulling himself up onto my stage. My stage. It takes only a moment before I figure out what is going to happen, but by then it’s too late.
The damn analyst’s hand slaps into my back, and there’s a sudden, searing pain. The only noise I can manage is a sort of strangled laugh at my own foolishness. My insides start to crumble.
Maybe I was Hebel after all. Vain, futile. Mere breath.
Havel havalim ‘amar qoheleth, havel havalim, hakol havel.
Fuck. I was so close.
I’m glitching. Can see bits of myself spreading out.
Tunnel vision, blackness.
After the assassination, with no one to lead them and no reason to be there, the rest of the Odists and their friends left. Dear’s pacing wound down, and it eventually stopped, shoulders sagging.
It paused, and then turned to Ioan, “Come on, let’s go back.” Then it turned and addressed some others near by, primarily from the same stanza, by the historian’s guess. “Any of you are welcome, too.”
It was Ioan, Dear, Serene, and Praiseworthy — the first line of the stanza and down-tree instance from Dear — who wound up back at the house. They entered the sim about twenty meters from the house, where Ioan had originally arrived, and trudged slowly up to the house.
Dear’s partner greeted them at the door, silent. Perhaps Dear had sent ahead a message, for the individual mostly stayed out of the way of the four. They disappeared and returned shortly with mugs of coffee.
The four witnesses slumped into the couch, Dear and Serene leaning against each other, and Dear’s partner settled on a stolen dining-room chair before them all.
“So,” they said, finally. “What happened?”
“One of the conservatives played their hand. He brought along an assassin, and as soon as Qoheleth revealed his reasoning for revealing The Name, the assassin acted and then quit. My guess is that Qoheleth hadn’t forked and won’t be heard from again, and that Chunyu, the assassin, was a fork who will ‘mysteriously’ experience some problems merging back. No culpability for its #tasker or #tracker instance.”
Silence fell on the group again.
Ioan waited for one of those ebbs in the rhythm of the silence before clearing eir throat. “Perhaps it’s too soon, but may I ask after everyone’s well being? Their thoughts on the matter?”
Serene shook her head. Praiseworthy offered, “I’m not surprised, really. Not happy, but not surprised.”
Ioan turned to Dear. “You alright?”
It was a moment in responding, before it nodded. “I’m with Praiseworthy. I’m not surprised, but not happy. Kinda pissed, actually,” it said, smiling sardonically. “That was short-sighted of them, though, because I have a hunch that Qoheleth was right.”
“About the need to age, to die. About forgetting.”
“Does this have anything to do with you trying to forget The Name?”
Dear shot a grin at its partner, “You two get along, I see. Yeah, it does. I think I did it, too, unless there’s some association I missed. Can’t remember it for the life of me.”
“You’ll have to tell me how you did that, sib,” Serene laughed.
“Later, yeah. I think Qoheleth was right, though. We need forgetting. We need breeding and change and death.”
“So how do you feel about the assassination?” Ioan asked.
“I’d prefer that not be the only means of death, of course. Perhaps the primary way should be through…ah, suicide is not the best word, but it’s what I mean. Through choice, just like Qoheleth’s old name.”
Life breeds life, but death must now be chosen.
“It’s like I said. Batty. They’re all batty.” It stared at its paws, one of them brushing through its sib’s forearm fur. “It’s like some sort of Methuselah syndrome, or reverse Alzheimer’s. Instead of being doomed for forget, we’re doomed to remember. Doomed to remember everything. We can’t forget, and it all gets to be too much for one mind.”
“What about exos?”
“Exocortices are a fix, but an iffy one. You’re still stuck with the knowledge that they exist, and their inventory. That’s why I can’t forget that The Name exists, or that there’s an exo containing it which I can’t access. Not unless I go through the whole shitty process again — sorry, Serene, it wasn’t pleasant — with that bit of knowledge, and then what? I’ll have the knowledge that I have an exo that I can’t access pointing to something of dire importance.”
Ioan shifted, leaning forward to rest eir elbows on eir knees, eir chin in eir hand. Ey sipped eir coffee as ey thought.
Serene piped up next, “I get what you’re saying, Dear, but I don’t want to die. I don’t want you to die, either.”
Dear’s partner, frowned. “Neither do I, fox.”
The fennec laughed and shook its head, ears flopping about. “Trust me, I don’t either. I don’t think many people do. I just think we need death, or something like it, as part of the system.”
“Something like it?” asked Praiseworthy.
“We need a way for an individual to end. We also need a way to create new individuals. Qoheleth called it breeding, but it could just as easily be a way of ending one individual and having them live on as another.”
The others nodded. Silence once more.
Finally, Dear gave a lopsided smile, “Perhaps that’s my next project.”
Ioan Balan#tracker chose a blithe-theirs merge strategy in this particular instance, when Ioan#c1494bf finished the project and quit. They chose together, actually. #c1494bf requested it, and #tracker agreed.
There was one more sensorium chat after that, between Ioan#tracker and Dear, Also, The Tree That Was Felled. Ioan thanked Dear profusely for the opportunity and experience. Dear cried and made Ioan promise to come back — “your wall will miss you” — to which Ioan readily agreed.
Ey would, ey was sure, but for now, ey needed a bit of distance to sit and think and remember and write. Maybe not remember — ey couldn’t forget. To mix the thoughts around. To understand.
Ey moved out to eir favorite Adirondack chair on the deck with pen and paper. Ey spent a moment thinking back on Dear and Qoheleth, another moment savoring the heft of the pen and the texture of the paper, and then began.
A few weeks ago, I awoke to an urgent message.
I don’t really like those, the sensorium messages…