After his meeting with Edward Willoughby more than a month ago, Tom Fearing was very much ‘a new man’. Not surprisingly, his wife Cheri noticed this change immediately. Her reaction was simple: she was happy and, if the truth be told, a little relieved. She remarked to her parents that her husband appeared to have a sense of purpose. Her parents, however, were less taken with the change in their only daughter’s husband. To their credit, neither would voice their doubt that this recent ambition would amount to anything more than another well-meant and insufficiently executed plan. This attitude was somewhat understandable. Tom was one of those people who managed to maintain a crippling dependency on the approval of others without, somehow, surrendering any autonomy.
Tom now approached his blog with an enthusiasm that threatened to metastasize into fervor. After two weeks of research following his interview of Ed Willoughby, Tom felt confident enough to start his project, a series of articles on the history of the blogosphere. The emphasis would be on the people who pioneered this remarkable offshoot of the worldwide web and he was now in a position to provide an insider’s view of those early days, courtesy of his association with Edward Willoughby. The change of heart in his previously reluctant advisor, might have been something of a red flag to another blog writer. Unfortunately, Tom was far too invested in the idea of being the man who revealed a long hidden secret, to consider asking Ed why he was now so willing to talk about a subject that, prior to a month ago he was denying even existed. Success was the only thing that mattered to Tom Fearing. If one were to ask, he would insist that he was willing go to any extreme or pay any price for the success of the series of articles, (now titled, ‘Blogdominion’, a History of an Empire of the Air). And if then, one were to suggest that by following in the footsteps of the people whose story he was about to tell, he might meet with the same end, Tom Fearing might seem unconcerned. Of course, he did not yet fully understand how their story ended.
The first article was published and the results were encouraging. The dashboard of his blog not only showed how many people visited his site and how long they stayed, but suite of tools for activity analysis told Tom whether or not his blog was being spread by word of mouth. Tom understood all too well that success of a blog was not found in the numbers of individual readers as it was in the development of a following. That people would read his work and tell others to do the same is the difference between knowing that one was a good person and being told by strangers that one was a good person. By the 3rd day, Tom Fearing’s blog broke 500 reads per day and showed no signs of letting up. Tom called his website developer and told him to proceed with the maximum SEO campaign. So far, so good.
Tom allowed himself to feel hopeful…conditionally. Very much like a teenage boy making out with a girl for the first time, his excitement was kept in check by the simple fact that he was totally flying blind. Each successful effort (on his date or in his blog) resulted in increased fear and increasing desire. Desire, of course, carried the day.
So, on this December afternoon, Tom Fearing took out his cellphone and scrolled through his address book to ‘Willoughby’. Just as he was about to hit dial, he put the phone down on his desk and decided to dial the Chicago number from his house phone,
“Hey, Ed! It’s Tom, Tom Fearing!”
“What?! No, this isn’t really that important. I can call back if you’re busy…”
“Well, just wanted to talk about the series. Ha, ha The series of posts on the history of the blogosphere that we talked about when we met last month? I’m happy to say that we’re off to a really strong start! Between the first post announcing the series and the ‘Chapter 1’ post, our visit rate took off. Well, …try 500 reads by the end of the first full day!
“…did you really? well, the number of people online was smaller back then…. adjusted for audience share. Oh, no… I believe you and I can see how those kinds of numbers of readers would be way, way more… sure.
“Anyway, this is a really good start! The coolest thing is that this is happening without putting effort into hooking into networks or any of the real SEO type stuff… What? No, my blog is still titled, ‘One View or Many, Insight into the Human Experience’
Well, yeah, kinda long for a blog title. But I’ve added, ‘…presents’ at the top of the Landing page. Everything a visitor sees points them to the series, which, by the way, I decided to call ‘Blogdominion’ yeah, it is a cool name.
“So anyway, we’re about to get to the real beginning of the story, of how you and Barry Audet and the others formed the ‘Hermes Consortium’…”
The internet is, in part, about information. So is a fine, hand-tooled leather, gold-embossed encyclopedia. Less than two generations ago, good parents would feel that they were not providing for their children’s education if they didn’t invest a month’s salary in this most library-like of reference books. The one quality the internet possesses that an encyclopedia does not, is to allow for the exchange of information. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan: ‘The message is the medium.’
The internet is both a repository of information and a communication system. Those companies that provided access to the internet, found themselves gatekeepers to the most necessary resource in the modern age, information. With a world of information embedded in what was also a communications system, it’s inevitable that the capabilities of one would be applied to the other. What better way to keep track of the accuracy of the information than to monitor the communications of the people as they access the information?
So when Tom Fearing, sitting in his home office in Marshfield MA said to Ed Willoughby, sitting in his office in the World Headquarters of Omni Corp in Chicago IL “…the Hermes Consortium’, a digital flag attached itself to the call. At that instant, babies and their candy were far better equipped to resist appropriation than were the two men in their conversation. At least the baby would know that her candy was at risk.
Given that the goal of this ‘information harvesting’ was to enhance the efficient operations of the system, the choice of keyword triggers was left to the individual operator. For example, if you were in the traffic-monitor-systems R&D Division, then you might set up a flag for ‘running red lights’ or ‘driving and texting’. This capacity to flag keywords was built into the system. Unit 17, as a component of Omni Corp’s web hosting services, for no obvious reason, found that it had a set of keyword flags in its heuristic enhancement sub-routine. ‘Hermes Consortium’ was one of them.
“Well, if you’re so concerned about privacy, what do you think about my writing this series as a work of fiction?
“Well, sure, I suppose we could do a hybrid fiction. Let me be certain I understand what you’re suggesting. Your name and that dead girl’s name we keep, everyone else gets a new name. To protect the innocent and everything. Yeah I get that.”
“I’ve enough information to write at least two more Posts, but I want to spend some time talking about what happened, what lead to the group splitting up. If you want, I can come out there, have lunch one of these Sundays. What? No, we don’t have kids. Thinking about it. She owns a gallery and teaches at Radcliffe. Yeah, definite overachiever.
“Let’s plan on the first weekend after the New Year.”
Tom hung up and immediately realized that he hadn’t ask Ed for the names of the other members of the Hermes Consortium. During their original conversation in November, Ed was evasive on the identities of the other college students who formed the blogging club. Tom had one name, Emily Freeman. How her name came up was decidedly odd. Tom had asked Ed if he kept in touch with the group. Clearly Ed heard this question incorrectly, as he answered by saying, “…only one that I know of and only recently. She died in an accident at a two-day symposium on the internet that my company, the Omni Corp sponsored. I ran into her quite by accident, we had a drink that night and talked a little about the old days. Next day she was dead. I might not have ever found out about her death, but there was a detective at my daughter’s school, like a week later. This detective was investigating the death of our parish priest and for whatever reason, couldn’t stop talking about Emily Freeman’s death. Weird. She was kinda hot though. Anyway. What were you saying?” And, with that, their telephone conversation ended with an agreement to talk again very soon.
Pulling a yellow lined pad from the file cabinet, Tom wrote, in self-consciously uniform lettering, ‘Note to self, look up Emily Freeman’.
The sound of a car coming down the driveway caused Tom to get up from his desk and wait at the door to greet his wife, Cheri Fearing.
“You know, you haven’t told me much about what happened at St Emily’s.” Sister Bernadine leaned back in her chair, silhouetted against the view of Chesapeake Bay behind her desk, “I’m sorry you had to walk into such a terrible scene.”
With my notes and Father Noonan’s journal on my lap, I sat in my all too customary seat, a wooden chair in front of the desk of the Mother Superior of St Dominique’s Convent.
“I guess that’s because I’m not really sure,” I replied, “Father Noonan’s death was such a bombshell that the reason I was there somehow got lost in the shuffle.” I quickly added, “I’m sorry Sister, I didn’t mean to sound heartless, I meant no disrespect,” I continued to talk, if for no other reason than to cover how uncomfortable I felt,
“Sister Bernadine? What I said yesterday, about my setting conditions on helping with this? Forget I said anything. I don’t know why I was being so…. whatever. You don’t need to tell me all about yourself or about whatever it was in the envelope that Sister Phyllis sent.” I had been bothered throughout the day by a feeling of impending… not anything a grand as doom, but something bad about to happen. It was a vague feeling, nothing I could put my finger on, but definitely not a good feeling. As I sat in the growing darkness of Sister Bernadine’s office, I tried to ignore, without much success, the thought that it would be a good to get up early, before Morning Prayers, and ….go for a run. I haven’t felt the urge to run, to exercise, for the feeling of pushing my body to a limit, since arriving here a little more than a year ago. And that bothered me. It felt like the person I was, before I found peace in my life here in the Order, had discovered my location and was trying to get my attention. Not a good thought. Not a good feeling.
“Why thank you, Sister Margaret. You can’t know how much I appreciate your kindness.” the glint in her eyes and the edge in her voice reminded me of why I was so drawn to this woman.
“Sister Margaret, I have just two questions for you: What did you learn about the problem with the school’s computer at St Emily’s and, was there anything in Father Noonan’s journal that has a bearing on your conclusions?”
“Well, the first thing I learned was that you were an angry, angry woman when you first entered the Order and,”
I didn’t dare hesitate at the sudden low sound of Sister Bernadine’s reaction, I knew better than to show fear or weakness, even if my effort to be funny was badly timed,
“and that Sister Phyllis thinks the world of you. She was very nice and quite concerned with making me feel at home. Also, I met an interesting police detective, by the name of Maribeth Hartley. Very impressive woman. She did not think that what happened to poor Father Noonan was anything other than an unfortunate accident. At least that’s what she told me. I got the impression that she was the type to play her cards close to her chest.”
“So you’re saying that there was nothing more to this school website problem than some virus getting into the computer?” Even in the growing dark, I could see that Sister Bernadine was totally focused on my assessment of the situation.
“No… not quite that. There’s something odd in all of this. But I can’t put my finger on any one fact, nor can I think of any specific information that would account for this feeling.” I noticed that I was holding the journal as I spoke. Its substantial weight was somehow reassuring.
“Don’t be concerned with what you can or cannot prove. We’re not in a courtroom. Just tell me what your gut is telling you,”
“Well, there’s something going on at St. Emily’s. Two deaths and, while we were being interviewed by Detective Hartley, I overheard her talking to the father of a little girl who went to school at St. Emily’s. It seems that this man knew both Father Noonan and some woman who died the previous week. That’s too many coincidences for me to have encountered on my short visit. And there’s a 3rd death.”
Sister Bernadine reacted, nothing as common as leaning forward in her chair; it was more of an intensifying her already focused attention.
“Third death? What are you talking about?”
“In Father Noonan’s journal he talks about a group of bloggers, well, at least what we’d call bloggers nowadays. This was way back in 1998.” I ignored what could only be called a ‘snort of derision’ from Sister Bernadine. “They didn’t call themselves bloggers. As a matter of fact, as far as I could infer, they’d just coined the term ‘blog’. There was a group of students writing what they called web logs. Father Noonan had a very strong interest in what they were doing, if the number of entries in his journal is any indication. Unfortunately, he doesn’t mention many names. I guess I understand, this was his journal; he wasn’t writing a history book. In any event, in one of the last entries in the journal, Father Noonan mentions one member of this group by name, ‘Emily Freeman’, and she just happens to be the girl that died the week before my visit to Chicago. I immediately started scanning back through the entries hoping to find other names, but all I found was one more name, that of an Anne Paternau. Father Noonan described her as a pre-med student who was the girlfriend of one of the founders of this group. Well, I did a search on her and what do I find, but a newspaper article describing her very recent and, I might add, very unusual death?”
“Dear God, I had no idea. I was planning to ask that you go to Chicago for the reading of Father Noonan’s will and stand in for me. If you don’t want to do this, I will understand. However, if you are willing to make this trip, perhaps we will be able to put to rest the ghosts or demons that seem to have arisen. Tell me Sister, there’s something bothering you, I can feel it,”
I said nothing, looking out the window, now framing a scene of the dying of the day.
“You know, Sister Margaret, you and I are not all that different, I can at times…”
“Begging my Mother Superior’s pardon…there’s only one 5’7″ 133 pound red head sitting here….”
Sister Bernadine’s laughter filled the room and, for a moment, made me feel confident again.
“No, nothing I have the words for…it has nothing to do with going to St Emily’s or your friend Father Noonan dying or computers or anything.”
“What is it then? Is it about your life here? Are you having doubts about your Calling, perhaps?”
“No, yeah, no, it’s mostly about my life before coming here… nothing in particular…it’s just some of ‘the old me’ seems to be making demands. The thought of going back to the way I was before is terrible. And the worst thing is that here, at St Dominque’s is so where I want to be. I love being in the Order, serving God to the best of my abilities and in a true family, one that feels more like family than when I was a little girl. I’m probably not making sense.” I got up and walked towards the door.
“You’re afraid of that part of yourself, that you thought you left behind when you came to us, is going to take this all away, and that part of you whispers that you don’t deserve this good a life?” Sister Bernadine’s voice had taken on a distant quality, as if she were talking to herself as much as she was talking to me.
I turned back towards Sister Bernadine, who had gotten up and stood at the windows behind her desk, her shape muted in the shadows just beyond the reach of the modern lamp on desk.
I felt the tears rolling down my face before I knew I had started to cry. My feet moved me through an office made blurry by tears and Sister Bernadine wrapped me in her arms and nothing but crying followed…
She said nothing, simply was my anchor for the five minutes that seemed to last an age. Finally, I stepped back. Sniffles failing impressively, I wiped my face with the sleeve of my habit.
“And so, young Sister, you have learned the secret power of the extra wide sleeves. Tell no one and use this power wisely.”
I blinked. We both laughed.
“Sister Margaret, you’ve had a very difficult two days, so let me stop being your Mother Superior and simply be your friend for a moment. You fear that to do what I ask will require you to draw on the skills and experiences from the life you left behind when you stood at our door with a single suitcase. My goodness! You were a sight! All the nuns were beside themselves over the arrival of a striking young woman with amazing red hair, badly cut short and who stood at our door with a look on her face that spoke of being chased. I recall Sister Catherine saying, “There! Now that’s a girl who, if she stays, will become a very good nun’. And, yes our Sister Catherine.” Sister Bernadine smiled at the look on my face,
“But know this, you can’t run away from yourself. If this is the life God has chosen for you, running only delays the inevitable. So embrace who you are…the good, the bad, the heartless, the selfish, the petty and yes, the one who is always looking on from a distance, afraid to approach for fear of being cast out.”
“Well, jeez Sister, you never told me that being telepathic is a requirement for the job of Mother Superior.”
We both laughed.
Maribeth Hartley stepped out of the shower, the luxurious and very elaborate walk-in shower that was part of the master bedroom suite of her parent’s home. Her parents both died five years ago, leaving everything to their only daughter. The walk-in shower was the one place that Maribeth Hartley felt safe, but she would have laughed in your face were you to suggest that to her. The phone in her bedroom started to ring. She didn’t bother to put on a robe, the curtains on the second floor were always drawn closed. The world was not allowed on the second floor of the house where she slept. Maribeth picked up the phone.
“Hey! Sister Sister!! How you are doing?
“Really? You are? When? I’ll totally give you a ride from the airport. Out to Mt. Prospect, right? No, no problem at all.”
“Fine, I’ve been good. Work is… well, it’s been alright. What? No, he didn’t call me after… fuck ’em you know? Shit!! Sorry, on the phone it’s easy to forget the whole Bride of Christ thing. Not that there’s anything wrong with it! No, I was not about to say some of my best friends are nuns! No, really. Every now and then I might get a call, but no, no one serious. You know how it is, you just get so …so wound up that you just need to go out there and get some guy to…. sorry, forgot again.”
“You must think I’m a such a slut. You don’t? What a nice thing to say.”
“Yeah, anytime. Email me your flight info.”
Cheri Fearing drove home from the doctor’s office in a state of mind that, relative to current efforts to develop the technology of self-steering cars, would have the engineers turn green with envy. Parking in the garage she sat.