Meeting of One

Madison Scott-Clary

Ioan Bălan — 2309

Ioan Bălan, despite all attempts to keep emself from sinking into the depths of whatever ey was studying, always managed to find emself mired in details ey could not hope to escape. They twined and twisted around eir wrists, tripped em up about the ankles, and tugged em ever deeper into the fractal complications of whatever topic ey decided would be the subject of eir next work.

On the Perils of Memory, the recent monograph ey had completed on an unnerving social breakdown in one of the old clades — those collection of individuals forked from a single uploaded consciousness — had garnered em no small amount of notoriety and plenty of credit on the reputation market.

It had also gained em a split of eir own. Dealing with the complex relations of a set of individuals created as true copies from a single personality and sensorium had driven them deeper and deeper into the weeds of study. Ey had immersed emself in the problem so thoroughly that the Ioan that came out the other side of the research was no longer the Ioan that had gone in. The change was so great that the fork ey had sent to do the investigation had individuated, had undergone some process of speciation at some subtle level, leaving em unwilling to merge its experiences back with the Ioan prime. It had changed its name and left after sharing its memories, and moved out to live with a member of that ‘family’, such as it were.

Ey had still not made up eir mind on whether this was a positive or negative experience.

Since the monograph had been published and reviewed — and reviewed and re-reviewed — ey had no shortage of requests for further anthropological work within the System. Ey had grown accustomed to sorting the requests into different bins. Ey had one for requests that were totally outside of eir area of expertise (ancient methods of cryptography? In what wild universe would ey be considered any sort of expert on those?), another for serious but truly boring inquiries (yes, you run an algorithmic attempt at solving complex mathematical equations, but young Ioan had failed trigonometry three times over before giving up), and one for serious inquiries worth exploring.

This last was divided into roughly two piles, itself: the first was, of all things, on topics of religion and the second was everything else. The first pile far and away outsized the second.

The current subject was spurred note ey had received titled “The Joseph Chace Friends Meeting”.

The name alone was enough to grab Ioan’s attention. Was it a meeting of one person’s friends? If so, why was it tagged ‘religion’? What would they meet about? A fan-club, perhaps? Those still lingered, even in this post-self society.

The note clarified:

Mx. Ioan Bălan,

My name is Joseph Chace and I am the…well, the language fails me. Organizer? Sole member? Recorded minister?

Either way, I am part of the Joseph Chace Friends Meeting. This meeting began on the occasion of my upload into the System as one of the first Quakers (or, at least recorded members).

You must understand a fact about Quakers: if you are to run a meeting (church, as you might call it), you are going to have committees. That’s just a fact of life. Clearness committees to admit new members, committees on faith and worship, etc etc.

It is not a requirement, but as someone who spent their embodied life bounded by the constraints of a Quaker meeting, not having those things felt like leaving home.

To that end, and with the lack of other Quakers uploading, I devised a method for creating a meeting of my own. Given your anthropological work on the Ode Clade business (well done, by the way!), I thought you might appreciate my attempt at a meeting of one. I understand that you are a busy individual, but if you are able to, I would love to invite you to a meeting for worship. We will discuss more at the time should you accept.

Many thanks,

Joseph Chace#prime

This was not the first religious movement that Ioan had found or been asked to investigate, though it was certainly the oldest — or perhaps second oldest, if one counted the visits to New Vatican. As an historian, ey was well acquainted with the unspoken maxim that, should one wish to be at the center of grand changes, whether in society or in thought, one ought to hang around centers of religion. In the past, ey had followed (with a fork, natch) more than one cult in whatever state of formation.

Ah well, it was worth checking out, was it not?

As easy as forking one’s personality was within the System, it always felt to Ioan as though it came with a brief thrill of splitting: a sudden doubling, a sudden branching of experiences. Four hands were better than two, though.

Ioan forked into Ioan Bălan#d11600f1, who left with a pad of nice paper and a nice pen to go along with it to investigate this meeting of one.

Ey was greeted by Joseph Chace. A Joseph Chace, ey soon realized, for the unassuming building, low-slung and painted drab, seemed to be populated entirely by copies of the same person.

“Joseph? Uh…Chace Prime?” Ioan asked.

“Chace Epsilon, actually. Prime’s setting up, but we’ve all been briefed. Ioan, yes? A pleasure to meet you.”

Ioan bowed. The Chaces were a pleasant group and Ioan found emself liking them immediately. The taste of their dress was close to eir own faux-academic garb, all tweed suits and rumpled dress shirts and wire-rimmed glasses. Ioan could easily picture any one of them as a colleague, had ey chosen academia. They were unfailingly kind to the last.

“So, what exactly is being set up? What is the procedure?”

“We’re getting the meetinghouse ready,” Chace Epsilon explained. “We used to have the sim in a permanently set-up state, but we realized early on the social utility of having to arrange chairs, start the coffee to brewing, and unlock the doors. Something about the preparation of the space is as much a part of the experience as actually sitting in silence.”

Ioan followed the Chace along a stepping-stone path through shrubbery to the building’s gated entrance. “I have noticed that a lot of rituals, if you will pardon the term, have an aspect of opening and closing, whether it’s a sentinel and passphrase to enter the space, or even just a shaking of hands at the beginning.”

Chace Epsilon nodded, beaming. The clade had clearly decided that this academic look should come with a kindly, wrinkled face, and the expression pleased Ioan immensely.

The gate unlocked, Ioan was led into a perfectly square room. Chairs, padded and upright, were arranged in an octagon within that space, truncating the corners to leave room for slow-spinning rattan fans with aged motors and antique lamps. Chaces in varied attire were filing in and sorting themselves into the chairs, talking in obviously well-acquainted clusters.

Ioan attempted to slip into a chair near the back, close to the door, but was guided instead by Epsilon to sit in the center of one of the trapezoids of chairs that made up the seating arrangement.

“There is no ‘back of the room’,” he explained. “We’re all here on the same footing, and I’m here to answer any questions before and after the meeting. You know how this works?”

“I think so. Silence unless you have something to say, right?”

Epsilon nodded, “Yes, but as an observer, I’d like to suggest that you remain in silence for the meeting. You’re free to take notes if you’d like, however.”

After the last of the Josephs Chace filed into the room and had taken their seats, one of them — Prime, Ioan assumed — stood and spoke. “Welcome, all. Today, we will wait in expectant silence. If you are called to give vocal ministry, please stand and say your name, and when you are done speaking, you may sit down again. Please give time for the meeting to digest any testimony before continuing, should you have anything to add.”

And with that, the meeting began. Prime sat down once more and the room fell to silence broken only by breathing and the occasional shuffle of legs being crossed or uncrossed.

Ioan found emself somewhat wrongfooted by the brief introduction followed by total silence. There was no sermon, no reading, no music. No call to the egregore preceded this sudden, overwhelming group awareness, and no words were spoken as slowly, the room seemed to fall into synchronized breathing and some unseen, unknown, unknowable companionship welled among them.

Ey felt apart, in this meeting of one, despite the twenty-odd individuals sitting in the room. Ey felt alone and singular, and not just for the occasional note ey scribbled on the pad. Ey felt apart as an other in the midst of a group so intimately bound.

The silence was not heavy. It was not oppressive. It simply…was. Ey sat with legs crossed, and recalled previous investigations that required meditation, calling on those reserves to keep emself present and observant, not to mention — though ey wasn’t entirely successful — to keep emself from fidgeting.

Perhaps twenty minutes elapsed in silence before one of the Chaces stood.

“Joseph Chace Eta. I was thinking this past week about the idea of simplicity, and how that applies to not just the base mechanics of life, but also the ways in which we interact with each other. Honesty and earnestness sometimes feel outside our reach, but still an honorable goal to strive for.”

He sat back down and the silence once more fell.

The meeting continued thus for a little more than an hour, during which only three people spoke. The second two expanded on the idea of simplicity that the first had suggested, refuting small points, adding some of their own.

It was a means of interaction that went beyond conversation. It was not a debate, it was not a presentation or lecture. The members simply stood and stated a thought, and then sat back down to let everyone totally and completely digest what had been said.

It was, Ioan realized, not all that dissimilar from writing letters. One had the chance to chose and compose one’s words carefully and then share them out loud, while the others had time to read and digest, simply taking in this information or perhaps formulating a response. It was a series of statements given as epistles to a congregation, read aloud and taken to heart.

An epistolary community, ey thought, and smiled.

Ioan sat across a long table from Joseph Chace Prime, a cup of cooling coffee next eir notepad. Chace talked, and Ioan listened.

“I was the first of my old meeting to upload. There were only about fifteen of us, and we were all getting old, all struggling to face a world that we felt had long since moved on. I had cancer, so it seemed a natural choice to come here and complete what work I had left in me. Despite the loose eschatology of the Friends, the desire for leaving the world better than when you had entered it, I was still not eager to die. So much still to do and see. As an academic, I’m sure you understand.”

Ioan smiled and nodded. “Always another project, yes.”

“Of course. So I uploaded. It was early on in the history of the System, so it was a painful and gut-wrenching process. I don’t know if that’s changed.” He paused and then laughed at some expression on Ioan’s face. “I suppose it hasn’t. Either way, when I uploaded, despite regular messages to my old meeting, I felt somehow locked away from my community, something that I had toiled to build from the ground up after leaving my parents.

“To be without a community is a strange feeling. It’s not just a feeling of loss, but one of needs and expectations not being met. I always felt like I was missing something, like I had a space inside me that needed filling.”

“Were you not able to find one here?” Ioan asked.

“I have friends here, of course, but nothing quite the same. And no, to preempt your next question, I was not able to find any other Quakers here. We are not Luddites, but it was early on, you understand, so the System was small and largely based around a certain exploratory techiness that doesn’t often permit religion.”

Ioan sipped at eir coffee and thought for a moment before guessing, “So you forked. You made enough copies of your personality to have your own meeting.”

Chace Prime nodded. “It was unintentional at first. I had forked to work on a separate project while I continued on the one I was embedded in, and after a few months, wound up getting in a conversation with my fork about what life had been like before. We reminisced and went our separate ways.

“This continued two or three times before the idea solidified. I continued to fork as needed and talk with my up-tree instances, merging them back into myself only rarely.” He sighed, adding, “When you’re old and lonely, you’ll take any conversation that you can.”

Ioan gave this comment the kind silence it seemed to demand.

“There were four of us, three descended from myself but sufficiently changed by their independent experiences so as to start to feel like new people and not just duplicates. It was Beta who suggested we try having a meeting for worship. A joke at first, but it dredged up comforting, communal memories, and so we all agreed to just keep meeting.”

“Did you ever fork specifically for the purpose of building this…uh, congregation?”

Chace laughed. “A few times, I’ll admit. Rather, I forked for things that probably didn’t require it. A research interview I promised myself I was too busy to actually attend. A dinner function I didn’t want to go to anyway. Just little things that didn’t need another copy of myself, but that would simply add to the meeting.”

“So how does being a meeting of one differ from what you remember?”

He looked thoughtful. “I would say that we agree on more, but that’s not quite true. I think the set of things we agree or disagree upon tend to differ from a more heterogeneous collection of individuals. The process of individuation is slippery and ill-defined, but we are starting to experience it in the various shiftings of focus and changes of mind. We Quakers are perhaps overly fond of the phrase ‘the inner light’ or ‘that of God in every one’, but that has been a common meditation of mine over the last however many years since we began this experiment. That light is in every person, but when your self is duplicated and bound into a new individual, does that person count as a new ‘one’? We have to accept that the light of God is within them, but is it the same light as its progenitor? Does that light shift and change along with us as our differing experiences lead to individuation?”

“Have you come to any conclusions?”

“I don’t know.” Chace Prime shrugged.

Epsilon, who had rejoined them after a conversation with a few other Chaces, piped up. “Once, I thought that the qualities of that light within each of us didn’t matter, but I’ve since fallen away from that opinion. If the light is meant to guide us in our testimony, and if we accept that our testimony will change with our experience, then that guidance must change as well.”

Prime added, “I still waffle about whether or not it matters, but the more I understand this new form of community, the more I think that even a meeting of one is still just that: a community.”

Ioan set eir pen down and finished eir coffee in the silence that followed, the table collectively lost in thought. A silence lacking the spiritual weight, yet as kind and companionable as the one they had just shared.

Finally, ey asked, “So, if you had to boil your actions down to a goal, what would it be?”

Prime and Epsilon looked at each other, expressions mirrored to an uncanny degree.

It was Prime who spoke. “We have, up until recently, been focused on recalling that sense of community through our meeting of one, just Joseph Chace in communion with himself. I think it might be time to branch out, though, and perhaps open the meeting to others.”

“Any particular reason why?”

“We’re all still the Chace clade. We can only become so different from each other. It’s time for some fresh ideas, some new life breathed into us. It’s time for the community to grow. No proselytizing, I think, but providing an opportunity.”

“It’s time,” Epsilon added, eyes focused on some grand idea Ioan could not see. “It’s time to turn outward.”

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