Editor's Note

This is one of those stories that can be enjoyed on its own terms or as an intertextual work. I thought I detected the influence of Poe’s story “The Gold Bug”. I’m less sure about the cipher attributed to one Mr. Tyler and published in Poe’s article “Secret Writing” (1841) in Graham’s Lady’s And Gentleman’s Magazine. Poe never published the solution, but dedicated sleuths cracked “Mr. Tyler’s cipher” (most likely, Mr. Tyler was none other than Poe) and showed it was from the final scene of Joseph Addison’s play, Cato (1712): “The soul secure in her existence smiles at the drawn dagger and defies its point. The stars shall fade away, the sun himself grow dim with age and nature sink in years, but thou shalt flourish in immortal youth, unhurt amid the war of elements, the wreck of matter and the crush of worlds.”

Abhijeet Sathe’s story is set however, not in some ruined mansion, but in the cyberpunk era; the feel is gnostic rather than gothic. His characters are steeped in net lore, they maintain disembodied friendships with care, the economy is based on trust, and the outside world is the labyrinth from which they seek to escape. This is not however, a cyberpunk story. There are no ports in skulls to jack into the net, no Japanese gangsters, no android dolls, no motorbikes, and characters wear shades not to look cool, but because, sunlight. In other words, this is a story of the here and now, of the people you see in the next cubicle, their fingers hovering over the boss key as you get up to go to the loo. Secrets? They don’t have any secrets.

— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine

The missive arrives like the others: formal, cryptic, and cavalier with spelling.

_dear friends, bairn burning bright can all bee?_
_why will you sleep a sleep why?_
_best, eponia’s seeker_

It is an hour before schedule.

No matter. The change in time is but another facet of the riddle. We have picked apart the Seeker’s puzzles for seven years, we will decipher this one too. Perhaps this is the last one. Perhaps the kernel at the heart of this missive shall reveal where the Seeker may find the sought: Eponia, trickster-goddess of Lycea.

We know what you are thinking.

We have all been called that and worse.

If you had seen what we have and chose not to follow, you would be crazy.

In the time our swelling ranks have dogged his side, Eponia’s missives have predicted thirteen national elections across the globe, the covid pandemic, the post-covid crash, the wars in the continent and the spike in pork futures. Alas, we are not of the Seeker’s calibre. Though we try to decipher these lesser riddles in time, we only manage after the election is called, after the millions are dead or after the options have expired like so much rotten pork. Yet we persist. The sharing of these ancient mysteries is the price the Seeker pays to continue his hunt, and we are keen to make the best of them. The price for us to support his hunt is small change (practical immortality for the price of a coffee a month? You would be crazy to not try.)

The Seeker recruited the first of us by revealing her signs. Eponia has been practically begging humanity to find her, leaving subtle traces everywhere: from the Gita to Gilgamesh, from the Hindenburg manifests to commented code tucked away in in abandonware. She was challenging us all through the snarled tapestry of history and legend. Whosoever finds me, she cries, shall receive my blessing: a million years. A million years!

All she seeks is the right kind of mind, a mind equal to her own: a mind like the Seeker’s. And what a mind his is. Once a director at a three-letter agency, the Seeker’s hunt began in a fifth-level clearance file (he had shared it once in one of the now-deleted forum archives) naming Eponia as the object of a now defunct project from the sixties. After he drew closer and closer to the heart of the goddess’s intellectual labyrinth, he found that she had guarded herself with too many cyphers for one mind, as formidable as it is. Hence, he formed the forums to decipher the Eponian enigmas deemed lower priority than the ones he focuses on. It has been seven years now, and the Seeker has honed his process to a fine edge, using it to slice out missives from his ever-growing corpus of Eponia’s bread crumbs and disseminating them in a public forum of hundreds (Thousands? Dozens? Who can tell?) of operatives without leaking anything to those not in the know.

After all these mind-wringing years on the trail of a goddess who could be anywhere, shaped like anyone or anything, we know the Seeker and his work as measured, judicious and purposeful.

When the missive comes an hour too early, we know it is no mistake. All deviation is meaning. Our math-oriented types begin cracking the cipher. While the eggheads do their magic, the rest of us work out the meanings of the time change (some even miss shifts to pursue their theories.)

Around sundown, sanduskyone updates the forum, claiming to have cracked it.

“Coordinates!” Posts sanduskyone. “Need help narrowing down”

We roll our eyes and carry on trying to decipher the missive.

It is hard to take sanduskyone seriously after the Appalachian debacle.


Years ago, the Seeker missed one missive.

First, he had posted the following.

_dear friends, with deliverance on._
_lachrymose d-tap sustained._
_best, eponia’s separated_

Then he had gone silent for a whole day.

In that radio silence, sanduskyone went bug-shit crazy. They riled us all up into deleting our accounts, changing our login keys, replacing our handles and kicking out three forum moderators. “Feds! Spooks!” They had said, and we had listened, spooked by the feds. The next day, just as sanduskyone’s purges were ending, our phones and laptops dinged at the usual time with the chime of a forum update. This missive was much more straightforward than the usual.

_dear friends, ariadne spake lions. So too anansi._
_attachements in space evidence._
_best, eponia’s forlorn_

And then, the Seeker had posted the first photo.

_a shirtless black man, bald but bearded, stands by a pasty-looking, bespectacled white woman. his arm is around her shoulder. his shirtless chest now looks hewn from rock, but there are no odd bulges from roids or overexercise. this is not the body of a man pumping iron under neon lights. this is human clay baked under open sun. his gaze is turned into the phone camera, away from her heartbroken expression._

It had turned out that the Seeker dropped his charging cable somewhere on the appalachian trail. seekers_spyder_girl had worked out the cryptic coordinates in the last missive, tracked him down, and handed him a battery pack a few hours before he could make it to a power outlet.

Unfortunately, the photo did mean Tracy (handle: seekers_spyder_girl) had to end her journey with Eponia.

The secrecy clause is so simple, yet people keep forgetting.

It had been clarified in an uncharacteristically lucid missive a few years ago.

_dear friends, tell none you distrust._
_meet none in the minds._
_all the miraculous signs and wonders lead me to her._
_best, eponia’s destined_

The Seeker obviously wanted us to stop advertising, pull up the drawbridge, and turtle. Despite this obvious meaning, many still debated the interpretation. Some argued secrecy would be counterproductive; that it would reinvigorate the interest of the three letter agencies. Some even suggested the Seeker was a psyop. Others argued that keeping Eponia’s blessings to ourselves was immoral.

Thankfully, the remainders agreed it would be safest to keep leaks to a minimum.

Those that disagreed were still free to leave.

Then the Seeker posted the first photo and forced us into a decision. It took us less than a day to find seekers_spyder_girl’s name, address, job and school. We even found the name of her dogs (Trixie and Rover.) once she had been exposed, we had no choice but to manage Tracy out of the operation.

She really did not take it well. Despite claiming to understand the secrecy clause and op-sec, she had expected special treatment for being an oldhead. When she did not get it, she wigged out and tried to let the feds into the forums.

Luckily, sandra429 is some kind of systems person in one of the three-letter agencies. They helped us rip down our systems and build them back up in a complicated onion-shaped configuration to fly under the fedar. It is all very jargony and wizardly. Nobody but sandra429 really understood. We trust sandra429, though. They are one of the oldest members of the operation. They had first found the Seeker and set up the forum and the channels to fund him.

Once the feds were fended off, some wanted to kick sanduskyone out for freaking.

“Expecting feds around every corner is tinfoil,” they had said.

“C u c k o o!”

The rest of us knew better. If the feds could do it to the Panthers and Ruby Ridge, they could definitely infiltrate us. Even if the agencies were not looking, the Seeker’s former colleagues at those agencies certainly were not above looking for her.

A million years of life! Who would not want to be practically immortal?

Feds, we are told, are human too.


The missives have landed at the wrong time for six days but the whole pattern is finally clear. We operatives are lumbering to a consensus on the forums. The missive is encoded within an anothetic cipher. Each word’s letter order generates a number, which is then decoded using a numeric key. The key to this particular number is the unix epoch timestamp for the time of the new update. Plugging and iterating on these inputs reveals the Seeker’s latest message.

It is a set of coordinates. To a location somewhere in the midwestern prairie.

sanduskyone has been proven right for once.

“Between Pleasantville and Pella.” sandra429 confirms. Shortly after, sandra429 adds an edit. “I dont trust it.”

Are these untimely missives being posted by an impostor? Has the Seeker simply started keeping daylight savings? Why now, though? Why suddenly? We do not know.

We analyze them backward and forward, inside and out. They still look like the usual missives, but at the wrong time (the ‘right’ time breaks the cipher.) We chat in the forums. We text back and forth on private networks. Something is afoot and we do not like it.

“Someone should go check on him.”

We all debate the merits of this on the forums. It makes sense. Yes, someone should, indeed, go to check on him. The forum falls silent, torn between our innate desire to help and the risk of discovery.

cazzieope forgets the secrecy clause and posts, “anyone near the coordinates? I’m an hour out west. Can make it after my saturday shift.” We will never see that idiot on the forums again. They will leave quietly, remembering what happened to Tracy.


While we excoriate cazzieope in the forum threads, something very different happens in meatspace. If the Seeker has been replaced by an impostor, we need to save him for the search to continue. If the Seeker has not been replaced, then something of monumental import must have happened for him to advertise his location again and change the missive time after seven years of consistent secrecy.

We all arrive —slowly, inexorably, privately— to the same conclusion.

There is only one course of action to take.

We descend on Pleasantville, drowning the little Iowan village in operatives. At first, we pretend we are all here on business trips or sightseeing, but the fiction wears thin after hundreds arrive to the same grassy plot outside Pleasantville with no sights to see and no business to be done.

We discover we are both fewer — some people have several names online — and more — vice versa — than expected, averaging out to about the same. We all silently work out how many years of life we will gain when Eponia’s gift is divided — a few thousand each. It is not eternity, but it is enough.

We set up tents on the grassy plot and organize search parties to look for the Seeker in the plains and the nearby woods. We are standoffish at first, introducing each other by our handles. We call ourselves by our handles at all times, numbers and all, even when singing along over the camp fires.

Then, on one morning sortie, c0ralm0rx and xx_wiltinglily_xx are put into the same search party. By sheer coincidence, they recognize each other. “Julie? From Ridge High?” “Mark? From band?” In a flurry of searching, we all identify Julie Matheson and Mark Wilford. Both of them grew up in Janesville, Wisconsin, where Julie still lives; Mark has moved to Oneonta, New York, to pursue a career in woodworking.

We hold a hushed debate to adjudicate Julie’s and Mark’s excommunication.

Then sandra429 takes it out of our hands. He points to a straw-haired man in a beige polo and says, “Aston Carmichael. Minneapolis. Associate at Gurning Mills, a greenfield investment fund.” The man’s stunned expression tells us sandra429 is correct. The finger switches to a woman with a deep spray tan, electric-pink hair and a hairband with fluffy cat ears on it. “Becca Holt, but you go by Sakura Hime. You’re– um, alternatively employed.” The girl winks and replies, “proudly so, Sandra-san.”

The rest of us cower from sandra429’s magic finger, but he puts it away with a wry shake of his head. “A few photos and a little scriptbashing is all it takes. Dozens of us here can do the same. Let us abandon this charade, friends. Coming here has already compromised us all.” He smiles cheerily. “Let’s try again. Hi, everyone. My name is Bill Goodwin. I’m an insurance adjuster in Yachats, where I live with my two daughters and my fluffy good boy, Chester.” he says, flashing a photo of a happy bernese on his cellphone.

Bill’s reveal warms us all up to the idea. We share our names, our addresses, our jobs, our identities. sanduskyone, turns out to be a portly, bearded gentleman named Scott Camford. He lives in Castalia– not Sandusky, insisting that he only claims Sandusky around people who would not know Sandusky from Toledo.

Everywhere around us, tsingtauruses and orlyyarlys turn into Marys and Bills and Ryans and Pams. We swap contact details and promise to stay in touch. Most of us are americans from the bottom forty-eight, but two flew from abroad — London and the Philippines — at great expense. We are doctors and lawyers and engineers, but we are also truckers and housewives and librarians and clerks. We are young, but we are mostly old. We have all shades, but we are largely white — even the Philippine is an expat.

We came together as a community, but we know we are in decline already. We are not about to recognize how the real treasure were the friends we made and then sing kumbaya. Despite the sudden effusion of camaraderie, we know why we are here. We are here to find the Seeker, hoping he has found Eponia. In the process, if we can become the Seeker’s favored partner in — or the only owner of — the bounty of Eponia, that is just a happy coincidence.

We are cursed with a question that will not be answered till too late: which ones of us would return to camp if we find the Seeker and which ones would bolt with the bounty?


The question is answered one morning a few days into our search. Bill Goodwin walks into the grassy plot, striding through the clouds of breakfast fire smoke and morning breath, a familiar face by his side.

We leap to our feet, the air electric with anticipation.

Bill Goodwin has found the Seeker.

He looks the same as in the photo with Tracy, except his jeans have faded and his white-and-black Frederick Douglass beard has bloomed into a full Santa Claus cloud. We stare at the pair in wonder, not daring to speak.

Bill Goodwin has found the Seeker and decided to bring him back to camp.

Confusion and guilt gnaw at us, but we are more worried about the Seeker’s appearance. In person, he looks like someone you would avoid on the train. The Seeker sees us staring and smiles back at us with a full set of teeth, assuaging some of us.

Then he raises his clasped hands and waves them triumphantly like a prizewinning boxer.

Our misgivings disappear under his beaming expression like prairie fog under the sun.

He has found her.

“I must thank you, my friends.” The Seeker’s voice is raspy and reedy, not old and venerable as we had expected. “Your support has been invaluable. You fed me. You clothed me. You allowed me to survive this long and arduous journey. And so, I give to you everything that was promised. In my hand, I hold the daughter of the earth, the autumn virgin, the goddess herself: Eponia.”

With a dramatic flourish, the Seeker parts his hands, revealing a golden beetle with six black flecks. At first, some of us are taken aback. A bug? Then we realize: what better place to hide? A goddess hiding in the form of an insignificant insect. The perfect hiding place.  Shapeshifter. Tricksteress. Goddess.

We gaze at her in awe. The goddess Eponia, the last of her kind, the object of our seven-year search. They had deemed her dead. They had called her a myth. But here she was. The immortal trickster. Ten thousand years old, older even than civilization.

We cannot believe it. We can believe it. We weep with joy: silent tears, loud wailing, beating of chests and gnashing of teeth. We are beside ourselves. Our words catch in our throats and our spirits soar. It is over. He found her. We found her. We encircle him, chattering with excitement. We are practically immortal.

We are going to be immortal, all of us.

The Seeker looks around the circle, his distant gaze slipping over us, still seemingly seeking something. The smile slides off his face. “Where is Tracy?”

A chill descends on us, unseasonal under the clambering sun.

“Where is Tracy?” The Seeker repeats, his eyes sweeping the crowd.

The tension mounts till one of us breaks and a whispered confession pierces the silence. “She had to be removed from the operation, Seeker.” The Seeker’s eyes grow wide, revealing bloodshot veins. We all shift uneasily in place as our cheeks burn with shame. Someone else adds on, “She compromised the secrecy of the operation.”

“Secrecy?” The Seeker asks in a puzzled voice. “She saved me!”

“We just wanted to keep the operation safe, Seeker,” Bill Goodwin says, taking a step closer to the old man, his hands held out palms up.

“Secrecy?” The Seeker repeats. “Why?”

Why? We exchange wary glances. What does he mean ‘why’?

Some of us begin to remember that we don’t know much about the Seeker apart from his quest. All of us know the reason we joined, that now-deleted post that said “for the price of a cup of coffee a week, you can become practically immortal.” No archives hold it. Most of us have not even seen that post. We just heard about it. Many of us signed up for the operation on a lark. Just in case. A lark that lasted seven years.

“Why!?” The Seeker asks again.

“She endangered the journey!” One of us offers.

The anger leaves the Seeker’s demeanor. On the contrary, he is calm, his serenity radiating outward, soothing us even as an unreadable expression crosses his face.

He raises a trembling palm to the heavens, splaying out his fingers and squinting through them at the sun. We stare greedily at Eponia scuttling around his other palm, not flying away, besotted with the Seeker’s mind. He looks down at her, then back up at the sun, before nodding to himself.

“None, no, not one,” the Seeker whispers, still nodding.

Some of us feel it in our gut a moment before it happens.

We know what is coming, but we are too far away to stop it. By the time his outstretched hand is falling, it is too late. Those who cottoned on early dart forward to save Eponia from this crazy man’s hands, but we know we are too late.

We are too late.

Thunder echoes across the clearing as the Seeker claps his palms together.

Nothing happens. The skies do not weep. No quakes rive the earth. Dogs and beasts do not howl in mourning. There is no red sky or tide of blood. Not a frog in sight. The universe does not at for this killing.

The Seeker parts his hands, and a shattered carapace falls out.

Seven years.

Seven years of late nights and arguments. Seven years of work and love and effort and community. Seven years of our hopes and dreams waft lazily to the ground. Every face stares in deadly silence. In each other’s eyes, we see the pain we share.

We were going to be immortal. Instead, we are seven years older.

We may blame ourselves, but we blame him first.

We are on him before the beetle hits the grass. Half of us watch as the other half falls on him with the fury of the scorned. We are professionals and pacifists, but we are also cops and soldiers and bouncers. We look away as we humiliate his limp body. Long after life has drained out of him ruby-red and noxious, we pack up our tents and leave the stained prairie behind.


We return to our lives, broken dreams sitting in our stomachs like shattered glass. We do not contact each other. Occasionally, one of us runs into another in the street. We pretend to not remember. But we do remember. We remember everything.

We remember the terror in his eyes. We remember his pain as he was branded and beaten, as our vengeance was enacted upon him. We never drown out his old man voice begging for mercy. Till the day we die, his pleas ring in our ears. Till that day of final rest, we guiltily remember the glee in our hearts that day on the blood-red prairie.

We remember how it felt when the brave stood up for justice. Though our dreams were not fulfilled, they were avenged. It feels good to know that. The skeptics will still jeer at us. Even as we step into the grave, they will hoot and holler. But it will not bother us.

We know the truth, and they do, too.

We will die having fought and lost. Whereas they will simply die.


The cry of the cicada
Gives us no sign
That presently it will die.

Basho (1644-1694)
Translated by William George Aston


Abhijeet is a writer who has spent a lot of time watching and being extremely online people. His work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Tasavvur and Dark Matter Ink. You can find him online at @bingingout.bsky.social or follow his work at linktr.ee/onebigdoodle

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