Amsterdam was the kind of town that members of society avoided at all cost.
Situated beyond the Border, it lay on the edge of the Lowland Territories, just to the north of the Wild Isles, but south of untamed Zealand. It was populated by men who made their money building ships on the docks or gambling on Company bids. The prospectors and sailors lived within the confines of an antiquated dome, even as the Company erected the Barrier around them. The main street, named for pioneer Anton Van Huen, was built on a rise overlooking one of the old canals. It featured a number of smooth-faced modern buildings, fashioned out of industrial-grade ceramic with a garish titanium-gloss finish. They had been designed for longevity, not aesthetics.
On the corner of Van Huen and Rolstadt Streets, a particularly nondescript low-rise sported a sign which read, “The Redlight,” in ironic neon-orange. It was the last refuge of one of the ancient city’s most time-honored comforts.
Inside, Jan Collier sat at a gleaming bench and perused his palm projector. It was early in the day, and the bar was mostly empty. While he waited for service, Jan considered the morning’s headlines. The Standard Times was reporting increased growth in the Southeast. Leon Desmarais would be pleased that their investment in the Venice to Constantinople rail was giving good returns.
Collier moved on to The Republican. He read the articles on the arts and the sporting pages, passing the time and delaying the inevitable. There had been an auto race in Lyon he had very much wanted to attend, but his business had brought him here instead, to the ghastly North.
After thumbing through the racetrack gossip, he came to the political section. The Republican always had a number of political pieces, but today he was in search of something particular. There it was, on page eight, beside a story on Councilor Mitterlöwe’s bid for re-election: Northern Voices, an opinion column written by Winston Hamilton—his companion Jøberg’s favorite pseudonym. In neat block type, it read:
A specter stirs in the Wild North.
In the shadows of the broad dunes, outside the protective embrace of the Barrier, an ancient but hauntingly familiar devil flourishes, unseen.
Not just the famine, disease, and brutality that stalk the daily lives of our adversaries, the Wild Tribes of the Wasteland, though their mean existence would curdle the blood of the most strongly constituted Republican. The horrors they face scraping their livelihood from the barren ground, it seems, pale in comparison to the treatment they receive at the hands of the Company Standard.
Accounts of mass arrests in Zealand by the SSP have been circulating in the Border towns of Calais and Rotterdam for months. Witnesses report unarmed civilians entering and exiting Company camps from Maastricht to Amsterdam, clad in ill-suited scarlet jumpers and forced to stand at attention in freezing temperatures, sometimes for hours, before being allowed indoors. The Company has denied all allegations of this kind. Accusations of SSP brutality have been dismissed by Republican police as radical propaganda.
That was until last Friday, when a pair of dissidents were arrested at the Rotterdam border for travelling with falsified papers. Among their confiscated belongings, a folio of stolen Company documents containing demographic information of eight-hundred unidentified Maastricht prisoners, was seized. Republican police have verified the authenticity of these documents, but are not at liberty to release details. The Company has filed suit in the Edena high court, demanding the papers be returned to Standard Tower, citing their seizure on illegal grounds.
Although the court battle over the rightful guardianship of these documents will likely persist for months—if not years—their mere existence raises a more immediate issue: how to ensure humane treatment of Wild prisoners on the Northwest Border.
While it is true that the Company Guard plays a vital role in protecting the Barrier from Wild sabotage, does that give it the right to intern hundreds of natives, absent of charges, sentences, or any other formal penal framework? Director Tallmadge Bloß, spokesman for Chairman Josef, has insinuated that the detainees are prisoners of war. Without the consent of the Senate, what power does the Company possess to wage such a war? At best, it is engaged in an illegal police-action, carried out by a private army at the behest of an increasingly secluded Board of Directors. At worst, it is executing wonton genocide aimed in clearing a path for so-called “progress”.
This author acknowledges the need to protect our way of life from senseless violence at the hands of Wild butchers, but do we have the right to condemn an entire race? The barbarity of the situation in Zealand borders on depravity. It is our duty as civilized Bürgers to demand the Company’s full disclosure. We must make our voices heard: in the paper, on the wireless—in the streets if need be—until human rights for the Wildmen of Zealand are secured.
At the present moment, this specter haunts only the North. If we do nothing, what assurance do we have it will remain there?
Collier frowned. It was hardly Jøberg’s best. He could see the censors’ influence all over it. How incredibly frustrating, to toil so long in the field, only to have the fruits of one’s labor plucked by some self-satisfied bureaucrat at the editor’s office. Still, it would bring the students out in force. One could always count on students to say the things the papers would not.
Jan looked up from his reading to the bartender. He was a short man in his late middle-ages, with thinning red hair. Taking a momentary pause from wiping down the row of shinning glasses on the counter, he motioned to Collier from behind the bar. Jan rose, reluctantly, to see what it was the man wanted.
The red-headed man looked anxiously to his left and right. Jan nodded. The bartender leaned across the bar so that he could whisper into Collier’s ear.
“He’s here,” the bartender said.
Jan nodded again.
With a sharp gesture of his hand, the bartender motioned Collier toward a white door to the right of the bar. Collier walked calmly through into the next room, leaving the owner to his compulsive cleaning.
The back room of the bar was like any other office in this part of the world: shabby and minimally decorated. Dirty white ceramic clad the floor and the walls. At the back of the office was a dingy grey couch, on which lounged a young woman with strawberry-colored hair. She was paging absently through her palm projector, wearing nothing but a black brassiere and matching lace trunks. It seemed that mornings were as slow in the backrooms of The Redlight as they were at the bar. Hearing Collier come in, she looked up from her magazine.
“In there,” she said, pointing backward over her shoulder. “The schlafzimmer is in the corridor, on the left.”
Collier walked through the office into the back corridor that connected it to the alley. Turning to his left, he felt around behind the coats for the entrance to the secret room, but he couldn’t locate a lever.
“How does it open?” he asked, poking his head back into the office.
Setting down the palm projector, the prostitute joined Collier in the corridor. She stood very close beside him, thrusting her hand into the forest of coats, rising up on her bare toes as she stretched for the handle. As she leaned across him, Jan could smell the fresh scent of her shampoo. It was a plain sort of perfume, but it suited her. Suddenly, the door swung open with a loud pop, and light from the room beyond filtered through the coats.
“There,” she said, smiling and standing upright again. She had a crooked nose, but skin like clouds of cream. “It takes some practice.”
“Thank you,” Jan said. He was struck by an unusually poignant sadness at the thought of all that practice. A silly sentiment, he chided himself.
“He’s waiting,” the young woman said pleasantly.
“Of course,” Jan said. He ducked between two ratted parkas and slipped into The Redlight’s schlafzimmer. The prostitute closed the door behind him.
Jan’s eyes took a moment to adjust to the low light.
“I half expected,” interrupted Rainer Jøberg, “That you’d ask Lara to join us.” The infamous revolutionary sat on a little bed in the back corner, his hands on his knees, smoking a stub of a cigarette. He leaned against the wall, resting his head against the cold ceramic.
“Is that her name?” Collier asked. He looked around, taking stock of the odds and ends which furnished Jøberg’s safe house. In addition to the spartan bed, there was a wash basin and a pair of folding chairs. It was a grim lodging, but Rainer would be accustomed to it. As the head of the Meteoroi League, he was a person of great interest to the Company Guard’s police organization, the SSP. They had no reason to formally charge him, but he was guilty of more than a few crimes of which they were unaware. Consequently, he took every precaution with his safety. When he wasn’t speaking publically, Jøberg was in a room like this, biding his time and writing feverishly on one of his columns.
“It is,” Jøberg said, putting out his cigarette and sitting on the edge of the bed.
Rainer Jøberg was an odd-looking man. He was very slender, with somewhat rounded shoulders from his years as an academic. In spite of his slim physique, his remarkable life had hardened every sinew of his build, giving the aging revolutionary a gaunt look. His short hair was rich brown and wild, as though after his release from prison it had never quite come to peace with civilization. It stuck out at odd angles above his brow, framing the inquisitive eyes and wry lips that dominated his face. Collier remembered when first they had met, how struck he had been by those features. Rainer had only just been released from Ehlengaard. His hair had been longer then, creeping about his ears and down his neck like a choker-vine. But his eyes had been as civilized and sharp as a Trustee’s. Collier imagined that was what a Wildman looked like: the intelligence of a man thrust into the body of a beast. It had been an all-together frightening impression.
Today, Jøberg appeared more exhausted than ferocious. He rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt and grabbed one of the folding chairs, gesturing for Collier to sit. Jan complied. Rainer sat back onto the bed, his feet extended before him, shoulders resting on the metal headboard.
“Did you see the column?” he asked.
“I read it just now,” Jan replied. “I’m surprised you’ve seen it.” Jøberg didn’t carry a pam projector. He was afraid the SSP would track the wireless signal.
“Lara was kind enough to lend me her copy,” Jøberg replied. “She’s a nice girl.”
“What did you think of it?” Rainer asked, turning the conversation back to the column.
“Factual,” Jan assessed honestly. “But not very moving.”
“They won’t write about the trains,” Jøberg added with disappointment. “It would be better if they would let me write about the trains.”
“Company editors,” Collier snorted, removing a pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket. “They can’t seem to understand how much more dangerous it is to print a half-truth than a full one. If you ask me, they leave far too much to the imagination for their own good.”
“Still,” Jøberg said, holding out his hand for one of Collier’s cigarettes, “We’ve got them talking about it: Mitterlöwe and her ilk. We’ve finally got them talking.”
He took the cigarette from Jan’s outstretched hand and lit it with his collapsible lighter. Rainer took several contemplative puffs and leaned back against the wall. He closed his eyes and drew the smoke slowly into and out of his mouth. In that moment, he looked very old. It frightened Jan more than he cared to say.
“How was the City?” Jøberg said at last, his eyes still closed. “I want to hear all about it.”
Sometimes, when Jøberg was particularly tired, he’d listen to Collier’s stories of the Three Cities. Jøberg had been born in Edena, the son of an Anglo merchant. Though he had been a boy in the bustle and hum of the whirring Metropolis, since his arrest it had been very difficult for him to get travel papers into the City. Things had gotten serious with the League, and it had been over a year since he’d been to his boyhood address in Kambrücke.
“I had a meeting with Gerald Cooper,” Collier began. “He was in Edena on business, poor man. You know how he hates it there.”
Jøberg said nothing, but leaned his head further back against the wall.
“He wasn’t staying in the house on Kamstraße,” Collier continued, “But had rented a room further south, on Duchard, in the Old City. You know, where the Holland Hotel overlooks Umberland Square.”
Jan hated to be so verbose, but Jøberg was in one of his moods. He would prefer it that way.
“When I arrived,” Collier continued, “Cooper’s man brought me out back, where the Chancellor was taking his lunch in the courtyard. I sat down with him, and we discussed the matter at hand.”
“What did he want with you?” Jøberg wondered aloud, blowing smoke smoothly through his lips.
“He called for me in Paris,” Collier explained, “A simple telegram, very cryptic, sent a week before the wedding. ‘Greifswald,’ it said: ‘—Gerry.’”
“Ah,” Rainer mused. “The Chancellor must have known about the Vice Chairman’s pending reassignment.”
“I don’t know how,” Jan said, “He wouldn’t let it slip. Wouldn’t say why he’d chosen me to share in the secret, either. Very odd, the whole business.”
“Did you go to the wedding?” Rainer inquired.
“Yes,” Collier said, “Chancellor Cooper insisted.”
Jan took a cigarette out of his pocket for himself. He tapped it pensively against the pack before giving it a light and lifting to his lips.
“Gerald insisted?” Jøberg repeated.
“He had a message, for the Vice Chairman,” Collier explained with annoyance, “I was told to remind him that he had friends outside the Company.”
“That does seem unusual,” Rainer agreed, “But hardly sinister. Just a loving uncle, sending his nephew a bit of advice through his only available channel. You said yourself how unhappy he is to be in Edena.”
“So I did,” Jan admitted. “It seems all this has made me paranoid.”
“Mmm,” Rainer added distractedly. He was drifting in and out of the conversation, enjoying the taste of Jan’s expensive cigarettes and the sound of a familiar voice. Jøberg was prone to nervous episodes, but Collier hadn’t seen him this bad since the previous fall, when they’d smuggled a railcar of explosives to the Pyrenees. Jan eyed his mentor anxiously. The whole situation was bad. The little safe room was practically a prison cell. Inauspicious, indeed.
“Did you speak to the Vice Chairman?” Rainer asked suddenly, breaking from his trance.
“Yes,” Jan replied, recalling the unpleasant exchange. “He wasn’t too pleased to see me.”
“He has the good sense,” Rainer declared, “To dislike the man you pretend to be. Can you fault him his ignorance of the truth?”
“Are you suggesting that I tell him?” Jan replied angrily. Jøberg could be annoyingly superior, especially when he was right. Jøberg was always right.
Rainer laughed. It was warm and husky. Collier smiled in spite of himself.
“No,” Rainer admitted. “That matter remains wholly at your discretion. Now,” he added, “Tell me about the City.”
The conversation carried on in this manner late into the night. Jøberg was hungry for news of the capitol. What of the parks, and monuments? Which buildings been renovated; what restaurants had opened? Had the Standard football club finally rid itself of that useless manager, Kohler? (He was disgusted to find that they hadn’t). Jan did his best to be obliging. For hours, he spoke clearly and slowly, painting his isolated friend the most detailed picture he could muster of the home he sacrificed for the Cause.
“And on my final evening,” Jan concluded wearily after hours of talk, “We took our supper at the Ginko Leaf.”
He and Jøberg were sharing the last of the bread that Lara had brought them. The crumbs littered the plate Rainer had stowed at the foot of the bed.
“I took my usual table in the courtyard,” Jan continued. “The band was playing splendidly, despite the noise of the crowds in the street. They’d taken to the square by then, still celebrating the Company wedding.”
“Were the magnolias in bloom on Karlsplatz?” Jøberg asked, recalling the nights he had spent as a youth, carousing around a crowded table at the Ginko Leaf. The last of Collier’s cigarettes was now a stub between his delicate, academic fingers. They trembled slightly, unaccustomed to the potency of the quality brand. “I remember you could smell them in the courtyard.”
“Describe them,” Jøberg insisted.
“In the early evening,” Jan began, “When I first came in from the street, the leaves were wet with the last drops of afternoon rain. The lights of the lamps were just coming on. The glow was refracted by the dripping branches.”
Jøberg’s eyes remained closed.
“Did you dine alone?”
“No,” Jan said. “I was accompanied by Kaspia Schmitt, the Dean of Literature’s daughter.”
He put his feet up on the bed, nudging the empty plate to the side. “A pretty girl,” he informed his friend, “But gangly: all legs and collar bones. We drank like fish and talked very seriously about nothing until three in the morning.”
“And after that?” Jøberg insisted.
“I walked her back to the college,” Jan informed him, “And left her with the porter, like a perfect gentleman.”
“A reformed man,” Rainer mused. His green eyes were open now, with their gaze fixed on Collier. “No women at all, then?”
“Just a lot of old friends,” Jan answered truthfully. “Nothing changes there, you know,” he added sadly, “Always the same parties, the same gossip. Even the girls are the same, give or take a new name and a few new dresses. They’re suspended in time beneath that bubble—meanwhile, I’m trapped out here, moving past it.”
“A philosopher!” Jøberg teased. He sat up crisply, so that his feet swung down to the floor. Rainer tossed the stub of his cigarette into the wash basin. When he looked up at Collier, his eyes were sharp and lively. His melancholy, for now, had lifted.
“How long will you stay?” he asked, getting at last to business.
“A week,” Collier told him. “Father is getting suspicious, and I’ll have to be back for the summit in Geneva. That’s Monday, if you’d forgotten.”
“No,” Rainer assured him. “I hadn’t. Are you up for a little reconnaissance?”
“Where this time?” Jan asked. “Back to the Wild Isles?”
Rainer didn’t answer. Instead, he rose and walked to the little wash basin. His lithe frame moved with the restlessness of a big cat. The revolutionary leader bent down and splashed cold water on his face. His wayward bangs were flecked with moisture when he lifted his gaze to the mirror, meeting Collier’s reflection.
“Zealand,” he said coolly.
Jan hadn’t expected this, especially given Rainer’s mood. “Zealand?” he repeated.
“I’ve found a man who can take us out and back,” Jøberg explained, “In time for your appointment in Geneva.”
“A gypsy?” Collier wondered. He wasn’t certain he trusted one of the outlaws of the fens to bring them safely across a checkpoint on land.
“No,” Jøberg told him. He was already fishing through his pockets for another cigarette. Lezia, the nicotine substitute in modern synthetic tobacco, helped to calm his nerves. The chain smoker fumbled with the lighter and, gratefully, thrust the cigarette between his lips. “An archaeologist.”
“Does he have papers for us?” Collier asked, still uncertain.
“No, again,” Rainer said. He was slouched on the other folding chair now, arms crossed above the back seat, facing the wrong way around. “Too risky,” he explained, “With your famous face.”
He paused and took a long puff of his cigarette. “Our contact, Dr. Lindt, travels with a large supply convoy. He has a space for us in a disused compartment.”
Collier frowned. He didn’t much like the idea of travelling all the way to Zealand in a box intended for drilling equipment. But they would be safer than with forged papers. While the Company took great pains to restrict what academics were allowed to put in print, it allotted great freedom when it came to their travel. The Chairman seemed to have forgotten that, before for they were professors, all academics had once been students.
“Do you trust him?” Collier asked, “This archaeologist?”
“As much as anyone,” Jøberg said, puffing on his cigarette.
“As much as me?” Collier persisted. Something about the arrangement just didn’t seem right.
“I trust you,” Rainer replied, his green eyes piercing his good friend, “Least of all.”
He laughed and flopped down onto the bed.
“Which is precisely why,” he concluded mischievously, “I tell you everything.”
Rainer patted Jan patronizingly on the knee.
“Tomorrow morning,” he said: “Zealand!”