Episode Seven: Of Two Minds
All the varied peoples of the Lowcity have their own… eccentricities. Every different type of resident is unique in their own ways, some major and some less so. The Hohi float, the Skitterlings burrow, most Lesh leave such physical activities to their machines. Like any other Lowcity residents, the Golnur are unique- but the most unique trait they possess is possibly the most simple of all: the sheer fact that they do not live in the Lowcity at all. You may think that this is not so unique- there are Hohi, after all, who do not live in the Lowcity. But it is a different matter for the Golnur, and admittedly this trait is also based in a technicality: the Golnur do live in the Lowcity… but also, they do not. And this is, quite certainly, very different to how some Hohi live in the city and some do not. The area where the vast majority of Golnur spend their lives is known to non-Golnur as “The Nest”. It is known to Golnur as “Golnur”, because in their view of the world there is little reason to make a distinction between their territory and themselves. The Nest existed before the Lowcity did, dug into the soil near the subterranean Reservoir by creatures from which the Golnur of today evolved. It is only in recent centuries that contact was made, as conditions on the surface drove the Golnur to burrow deeper and then spread out in all directions. Some may debate whether or not the Nest is part of the Lowcity or merely a close neighbour, and indeed relations with the Golnur are more along the lines of diplomacy between nations than municipal discourse, handled in the vast majority of instances by Lesh diplomats on behalf of the Lowcity as a whole. However, here at the end of the world, people tend to think of the Lowcity as synecdoche for the whole world anyway.
There are Golnur who never set claw within the main body of the Lowcity at all, but even those who spend the majority of their lives within its tunnels… are also elsewhere, in a way. A way that neither you nor nobody else in the Lowcity can ever fully grasp. Perhaps you could say that, while their bodies are within the Lowcity, their minds are elsewhere. Perhaps you could say that they do not have minds at all, in the way that most would describe them. Many in the Lowcity are of this opinion, comfortably assuming that the Golnur are a more organic form of the automata that the Lesh use and never really thinking to look deeper than that assumption. And again, perhaps it is not so misguided an assumption- but it is an assumption based in other, more faulty assumptions. The fact is, they simply lack a frame of reference from which they can comprehend the true nature of the Golnur.
Once, the Golnur were not unlike what you would think of as ants, simple creatures whose actions were dictated by pheromones and chemical trails, with no minds of their own. That was a long time ago. Now they are not much like ants at all. The average example of what most Lowcity residents think of as “Golnur Drones” has a two-part abdomen with a broad back, a head half as long as their abdomen which features compound eyes and articulated antennae, and six legs. For the most part this will sound familiar, although one may note that the body of an ant should have three sections, not two. There are many key differences, however. Most immediately obvious is their size: a drone may grow as much as six feet long, and nearly a foot tall, although this would be a large example. Another obvious but worthwhile aspect is that- similar to the relationship between Fallen and the things you would call birds- the Golnur still exist, whereas the things you would call ants most likely do not. While ants have been known to engage in minor acts of food cultivation, the Golnur are far more ambitious: it is rare to see a Golnur without some tool or another strapped across its back, as it is rare in the Lowcity to see a Golnur who is not there with purpose. Their minds are far superior to that of their ancestors in that way… and in another far more significant, but far far harder to explain- much less understand. Because the mind of a Golnur, depending on one’s definition… may not be entirely its own.
Again, many Lowcity residents assume that the Golnur behave as a Hive, in that they possess a central controlling intelligence- a Queen, in other words. Others, with a more complete but still far from complete idea of the truth, think of them as more akin to a colossal Difference Engine: each drone is simply a cog in a machine with no real agency or identity of its own, with the Hive as a whole acting purely logically based on the inputs it receives from the outside world. In fact, there is a minor controversy among Umbressi and Lesh historians over which came first: the Lesh theory, or the Umbressi technology of the Difference Engine, with one side arguing that the theory was born out of comparison to the technology and the other that the technology was inspired by the nature of the Golnur. It is not difficult to imagine which group of people tends to be on which side. However, both are based in the belief that this is how the Golnur function at all: an incomplete understanding of the situation. The Golnur are not an unthinking organic machine, and they are not controlled by some omniscient Queen. They are a Hive Mind of sorts, but they are more than a Hive Mind- or perhaps, each individual Golnur is more than just a member of a Hive Mind.
Every individual Golnur is linked, although that is an inadequate word for the depth of the connection they have. Every individual Golnur is their own person with their own personality, although that discredits the importance of their connection with their fellows. And, in what may be the most crucial aspect of the Golnur mind but is certainly the hardest to grasp, that specificity of self is malleable, almost modular. Part of every Golnur’s mind is always elsewhere, in a collective realm conjured by their collective will. This realm, confusingly, is known as “Golnur”, as it is such an intrinsic part of the Golnur way of life that they see no reason to consider it as separate from the Golnur themselves. This lack of distinction has, naturally, contributed to the difficulties non-Golnur have in understanding the Golnur mind; as such, non-Golnur have taken to calling it the “Runlog”, which isn’t particularly imaginative but it does the job and is the term which will be used here. Within this “Runlog”, the lines and edges of Golnur become blurred, hazy, irrelevant. It is a place where the boundaries that divide can be- must be- shed, giving way to a sort of euphoric collectivism. At any given moment a Golnur individual may tend more or less towards its individual or collective selves, striking a momentary balance between its specific self and the Golnur as a whole as their inclination or the situation demands. It is all but impossible to determine the intellect of a single Golnur, as who could really say where the individual ends and the collective begins. And few have ever tried, because few even know that this dichotomy exists- and the Golnur themselves don’t even understand the question. To them, living solely as an individual is as incomprehensible a concept as their situation is to most others. It must be so lonely, so limiting! Some would go so far as to say they pity the single-minded, wondering how they can possibly live such a small life.
Each Golnur’s relationship to the Runlog is unique, but while it is commonly accepted wisdom that it is impossible to wholly disconnect from the Runlog there are those who… obfuscate parts of themselves from the collective. They retreat into themselves, hiding parts of their cognition from the rest of their species; this is somewhat more than frowned upon, and there is no way to conceal the concealment, as every other Golnur can inherently tell when another is holding back. It is somewhat akin to being known as a Perjurer in other societies: those who hold back parts of themselves from the Runlog are not to be trusted. Not exactly ostracised, but… worthy of distrust, as only those who have done something worth concealing would do so. For the most part this has little material effect on the lives of those who choose to live this way, but today is an exception. Because today, there has been a murder in the Nest.
Murder among the Golnur is rare for a number of reasons. For starters, having a mental connection to those around you tends to lead to the sort of enhanced empathy that precludes such violent acts. Then, there is the increased likelihood of getting caught: one must be very certain of their ability to kill swiftly before attempting to kill someone who can broadcast their identity to the rest of their species. And yet, a body has been found: a young male, just barely past maturity, recently assigned a role as a waste recycler, found dead in a little-trafficked region low in the Nest. It was a quick death, no doubt: a puncture in the back of his head, piercing directly through the exoskeleton and into the vulnerable nerve centre beneath. Quick enough, judging by the fact that no Golnur knew of his death until his body was found, that he had been unable to broadcast his fate into the Runlog. There is a murderer in the Nest, and within moments of the body’s discovery every Golnur knows it. But the knowledge of who the guilty party is does not follow. That information is not in the Runlog, a gap in the fabric of Golnur knowledge as keen and devastating as the hole in the victim’s head. It is disconcerting, disquieting. The search for the guilty party begins swiftly, and the Golnur method of investigation is as precise and brutally efficient as the hole in the victim’s head: across the Runlog, the word is spread that all Golnur who have hidden parts of themselves to the Runlog are to be rounded up. Their secrets will be secret no more.
In one of the largest chambers in the Nest, the secret-holders gather. There is no point in fleeing, as there can be no hiding: their very nature makes them stand out like a bonfire in the dark. Soldier Golnur guard the exits as a precaution, and as a simple but effective display of the consequences for failure to cooperate. All present know what is to happen here- after all, it is written into the Runlog. All present must confess by letting their mind fully reconnect with the Runlog, releasing the memories they had sought to hide into the collective consciousness- including, theoretically, the memory of the murder. If the murderer confesses, then all will be allowed to keep their secrets- though often this experience will scare them into letting down their walls anyway. If the murderer does not reveal themself willingly, however, then the gathered secret-keepers will, one by one, be interrogated. While the old systems of pheromones and chemical communications may have fallen by the evolutionary wayside as the Runlog became their primary method of communication, the Golnur still possess the highly sensitive sensory organs necessary to receive such signals. And now, they are turned against the secret-keepers. One by one the suspects are subjected to an overwhelming sensory onslaught, buffeting them with every signal, every emotion, every instruction that could be imagined. The most primal parts of their minds recoil at the overload, exposed to sensations that have not been felt in generations. And, one by one, they open themselves fully to the Runlog. None can withstand the torment for long, and many are so terrified at the sight of their fellows’ suffering that they give in before their torment even begins. The Runlog fills, momentarily, with the whispers and echoes of suffering- not the sensations themselves, mercifully, but the after-effects, the deep emotional outpouring that results. Many in the Nest are tempted, paradoxically, to shut themselves off from the Runlog until the interrogation is over. But they resist the urge; partly because they fear that doing so would bring suspicion upon them, and partly because they know this is the price they must pay for the suffering of their kin. This is not a thing that is done lightly, but nor is it done with regret. It is what must be done, to find the murderer.
One by one, the suspects open their hearts to the collective, revealing the things that they had suffered so dearly to protect. Thieves. Adulterers. Frauds. They will all pay, eventually, for the crimes they confess to today, but for now there are more dire things to learn. But once the final suspect gives in, revealing her secrets to the Runlog and the echoes of suffering mercifully end, they are replaced with a disquiet even greater than that which met the interrogations. Because, despite the many confessions that were felt today, not one of them was a confession of murder. The killer was not among the Golnur who concealed part of themselves from the Runlog. Justice has not been done. Theories abound as to how this could possibly be the case: perhaps the killer killed themself from the guilt, in some location where their body has not yet been found? Perhaps the killer was not Golnur at all, but some other villain who somehow snuck deep into and out of the Nest without being detected? There are suggestions, hastily retracted, that outside help might be brought into the Nest, that the investigative methods of other Lowcity societies or the collaborative efforts of the Unifiers might find something that the Golnur themselves could not? Consensus is never found, and neither are answers. The mystery of the killer will lurk in the corners of the Runlog for many years to come, in much the same way that rumours claim the killer still lurks in the tunnels of the Nest. A spectre that haunts both worlds, without shape, without reason.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all, even greater than the death of that young Golnur or the suffering of those accused- some of whom will feel the trauma of that day for the rest of their lives- is that it was all for nothing. The Golnur were never going to find the killer, in no small part because of their very nature. They are mistaken in their belief that fully shutting out the Runlog is impossible- but, in a way, they are not. Severance is possible, but one cannot sever their connection with the Runlog and remain Golnur. This is something most Golnur only discover in the absolute depths of despair, as they feel the presence of all their people and see a future where all they feel from that connection is hate and disgust. It is only in that moment that they find within themselves the capacity for… annihilation. Very very few have ever come back from that ledge, and the killer is not one of them. She lashed out at her lover in an act of passion and rage, and regretted it far too late. And so in a final act of despair, she severed herself from the rest of her kind. And, as it turns out, from her own mind. A Golnur without the Runlog is… incomplete. They are no longer the thinking, feeling being that they once were. In fact, they are much more akin to the ant-like beings from which the Golnur evolved. Just a thing without thought, a machine that exists to eat and follow basic stimuli without knowing what they truly meant. In many ways, exactly what most other residents of the Lowcity already think the Golnur to be.
And as for why the killer was never caught in this state, despite being clearly incapable of hiding… There are two reasons. Firstly, completely cut off from the Runlog as she was, she no longer registered as Golnur to the senses of other Golnur she happened by. Golnur use the Runlog to sense each other more than they know, and a Golnur disconnected from the Runlog registers more as a topographical anomaly than a person, unless one really focuses hard. But there is another, far simpler reason why she was not caught: she left the Nest. Not of her own volition, however. Shortly after she severed herself from the Runlog, while mindlessly searching for food, the killer stumbled onto a pheromone trail. Not a completely uncommon occurrence, as even long after the advent of the Runlog some pheromone signals are still used in limited circumstances. But this is not a trail left by those of the Nest. It leads out of the Nest, out into the Lowcity, where no Golnur will find her. She follows it, without knowing why, on and on to an unknown destination. She doesn’t wonder where she is going, or who laid the trail. She is just a beast of instinct now, all the passion and thought that led her to this state irrevocably gone. Perhaps she will find her destination, eventually, if it exists. Perhaps not. But whatever happens to her, whether that destination is nearby or beyond the city’s tunnels, in every way that counts she is already long gone from the Lowcity.
When one first lays eye upon a Hohi, from close enough that their features may be discerned, among the first questions raised is invariably “How do they see?”. Not unreasonable, as they are as eyeless as they are earless, noseless, and less every other kind of orifice one might care to mention. The answer, as is often the case in the Lowcity and especially the case with the Hohi, is complicated. In no small part this is because, in this as in most other ways, the Hohi are different to other Lowcity denizens. They do not see as a Skitterling or a Fallen does, they do not smell as a Grib can or hear as a Lesh might. As far as most knew they might well share any or no traits with the strange Golnur, their only rival in the Lowcity for the throne of “least knowable”. The simple answer is that the outer layer of a Hohi is porous, filled with an incredible number of holes so small that none can see them with the naked eye. The inner layer, whose patterns some claim to see in the shifting of phosphor lamps, holds the sensory organs that the outer layer lacks; however, these too are so different from those any observer might have that no real progress has been made in understanding them. For most, though, this explanation is enough: you can’t see their eyes or ears, because they’re on the inside. As complete and comprehensible an explanation for the Hohi as any other. The only real sensory difference between the Hohi and most others is the matter of colour: while the spectrum of colour visible to the varied residents of the Lowcity varies greatly, the spectrum visible to whatever a Hohi has for eyes is by far the narrowest. But, blind to colour as they may be, they are not exactly colourblind. They can feel colour. The colour receptors that most have in their eyes are, instead, located on the ends of the Hohi’s tendrils, and by brushing their tendrils across a surface they can feel what colour it is. By the time one learns this of the Hohi, they have usually learned so much else of them that this barely even registers as odd.
But most in the Lowcity do not learn much of the Hohi, for the simple reason that they do not encounter them. They are limited to the uppermost levels of the Lowcity, not by law but by their own nature. They are creatures of the sky, much like the Fallen; but even moreso than the Fallen, they abhor the ground. And a life below its surface is not just unpleasant, but deadly. The same strange anatomy that allows the Hohi to defy gravity itself renders them acutely vulnerable to increases in pressure. A Hohi which soars up to the very edge of the world’s atmosphere will suffer no ill effect, but that same Hohi must be very careful as it returns to the ground lest they suffer from Compression, the effects of which are too unpleasant to describe. And below ground- in the Lowcity, for instance- the pressure increase rapidly outstrips what they can handle even given time to acclimate. As a result, Hohi are only ever found in the uppermost levels of the Lowcity, never descending more than a handful of kilometres below the surface. They do, however, often ascend beyond the limits of the Lowcity’s earthen ceiling: perhaps the most unique trait possessed by the Hohi is their ability to survive in the toxic environs of the surface without issue. The poisoned air poses no issue to them as, while they do need to breathe, some quirk of their anatomy means that not only can they breathe toxic air- the air they exhale is purified of all contaminants.
One might wonder, then, why so many Hohi choose to live in the Lowcity at all. The areas they inhabit are as comfortable as any are likely to be, with higher ceilings than are typical as well as the sorts of accoutrement and furnishings that suit a Hohi, but creature comforts can only bring so much comfort when every moment is filled with a dull but always present sort of agony. Why, then, do so many Hohi come to the Lowcity? Why do they live in those tunnels when they are uniquely free to live where they please, floating above the ruined world? There are many who do; in fact, plenty of Hohi never even touch the ground, let alone descend below it. They float among the clouds in clouds of their own, dozens or hundreds of them entwining their tendrils and gently drifting over all. They see things that none below can conceive of, sunsets more brilliant than those depicted on the frescoes of the Fallen Cathedral. They know better than anyone below that, contrary to popular belief in the Lowcity, the surface is not dead. It is simply a different sort of alive to what once was. They may, even, have laid eyes on surviving places not so different to the Lowcity, the domains of Outsiders that some Lowcity residents claim still exist beyond the City’s tunnels And yet a not insignificant number of the Hohi choose to leave their floating world and live below ground. Why?
Today, the Lowcity welcomes a new resident. A Hohi from the Sunward Float, it has no name. No individual Hohi do, when they arrive in the Lowcity, though some choose to take one after some time spent among the Hohi of the City. There is little ceremony for the new arrival: it simply drifts down into one of the tunnels which leads to the surface, following the familiar fleshy tubes that provide the Lowcity’s air- irrelevant to a Hohi- down into the populated areas of the upper levels. Another Hohi drifts out into the tunnel from a nearby room; perhaps it somehow knew that the new arrival had arrived, or perhaps not. The pair entwine tendrils for a moment, then the newcomer is led towards… Well, it’s not quite a customs department, as coming and going is far too infrequent for any permanent setup of the sort. There is an area near the uppermost reaches of the Lowcity where administration regarding the surface is handled, mostly by Lesh bureaucrats: new arrivals are logged, repairs to the entrances are arranged to be carried out by Umbressi maintainers, and expeditions to the lost surface are dispatched. For even after all this time, there is still a bounty to be found in the old world. Perhaps that will be this new Hohi’s role in the Lowcity, journeying out where few others can and finding lost technology, strange new life forms, or simply the inspiration to make great art? For now, the future is wide open- and perhaps that is why some Hohi, perhaps the only people in all the ruined world who have a choice in the matter, choose to come to the Lowcity: because almost anything that can be found in what remains of the world can be found there. It isn’t paradise, not by any stretch of the imagination (especially for a Hohi) but it has- it is- potential. Perhaps that potential is, itself, the reason this Hohi has chosen to come here.
After some bureaucratic business not worth getting into, the Hohi is officially allowed into the Lowcity proper- or at least, the limited area in which a Hohi can survive. The tunnels in this area are tall and wide- by Lowcity standards- to better facilitate the Hohi who are the main residents. The new arrival is led by its new acquaintance through these tunnels, past rooms and chambers where other Hohi go about their business, the occasional tendril drifting out into the corridor in greeting. The new arrival drifts slightly higher as a Skitterling hurries past, perhaps in surprise at this unfamiliar sight, or perhaps just as an attempt at courtesy; the Skitterling barely even acknowledges the Hohi, as he knows better than to expect much in return. The pair pass through a large chamber, where Hohi drift low to the ground, their tendrils dragging through a low-hanging mist. Yet again, the Hohi prove themselves to be perhaps the most… singular of the Lowcity’s residents: this is a cafeteria. The new arrival pauses to sample the Lowcity’s cuisine by dipping its tendrils into the mist, drawing in the nutrients that it holds; as it does so, a Hohi much larger than the others floats by, a fresh supply of mist emanating out from its skin. The Hohi have no name for these individuals who make daily journeys up to the surface, where they draw in the sun’s energy and metabolise it into nutrient mist. All Hohi are capable of this feat, though only the most capable take it as their calling. For surface dwelling Hohi, the nutrient mist is food only for the youngest, or the infirm: those for whom photosynthesis does not provide sufficient sustenance. In the Lowcity, those most capable do so for all. Perhaps this is why the new arrival has come to the Lowcity: for this clarity, this specificity, of purpose? In the Float communities of the surface, roles are fluid and change constantly. No single Hohi has a specific role for their entire existence, or even for an entire week. But in the Lowcity, such a way of life is less practical, and Lowcity Hohi tend to have one task they do- and do well. Perhaps that is why some are drawn here: for that simplicity, that clarity?
When the new arrival has had its fill, it moves on. Its companion now shows it to the area where the Lowcity Hohi rest, an area- typically- unlike most others in the Lowcity. Due to the varied requirements of its varied inhabitants, the layout of the Lowcity tends toward tunnels of varying sizes layered on top of one another, with gently sloping paths leading up or down between levels. Vertical shafts are used chiefly for the transportation of goods, rather than people- although personal elevators may be found in particularly wealthy Lesh districts. Here, however, where the Hohi dream, no one but the Hohi has cause to visit. And so the full potential of verticality is put to use in a sprawling collection of chambers not unlike a beehive where Hohi may find a spot to rest, tucking themselves into a chamber that snugly fits their size and dozing without fear of drifting away. The Hohi do not sleep, as most others do. They do something similar, and they most certainly dream, but they never lose consciousness. As with so much else of the Hohi, it is a difference that is impossible to fully comprehend- in no small part because the Hohi are uninterested in explaining it. It is a state not unlike meditation, if not quite so voluntary. But like meditation, it is almost spiritual in nature- perhaps the only element of Hohi society in which the practices around it are observed for reasons more akin to emotion than any practical concern. The Hohi must be undisturbed during their rest; not an unreasonable or unfamiliar stipulation, as most would agree that undisturbed and safe sleep are incredibly important. But for the Hohi it is not just a matter of not being awoken- again, they cannot wake, as they do not sleep- but that even the act of observing them at rest is an affront. The Hohi dormitory, for want of a better word which the Hohi do not care to give, is a unique place in the Lowcity. Many curious sorts who live in the lower areas might like to visit just out of curiosity or to better understand their city, much as they like to see the Reservoir or the Fallen Cathedral or the strange automata of the Lesh. But visitors are not allowed here. It is, as much as anything is sacred in Hohi society, a sacred place. Here the new arrival is left by its guide, as it finds for itself a nook where it can recover from the journey here. Before long, it is tucked away in a spot just right, where it can dream; perhaps of the sky it has left behind, perhaps of the task which has brought it here. Perhaps this, itself, is what has brought it to the Lowcity. To the Hohi who drift above this kind of stillness is unthinkable: even at rest, they are subject to the whims of the wind. One can easily imagine that having times of stillness, of peace, being reason enough.
With all that said, perhaps it doesn’t have a reason at all. Perhaps, in attempting to understand the motivations of the Hohi, the people of the Lowcity are imposing their own biases upon them- with the simple notion that a reason is needed? In so many many ways, the Hohi are unlike them, unlike anyone else. Perhaps needing a motivation for one’s actions is just another difference? Perhaps this Hohi has come to the Lowcity to find a motivation for coming here, and for the next thing it does. Or perhaps it has simply drifted here, as its fellows do in the sky above. Soon, the new arrival will rouse itself and properly begin its new life. It will, in all likelihood, find tasks to complete, and learn the written language that most Hohi use to communicate with the other Lowcity residents, and live out its life as it pleases. It will probably choose a name, and new friends, perhaps it will have a family. Perhaps it will do none of these things. Only after its life has ended and the totality of its story has been told will anyone else know the purpose behind its actions, if even then. Really, is that so different to how anyone else lives, after all? Anyone, at any point in time, in any place, in any world, and least of all in that strange place some call the Lowcity?