Konrad pulled a book from the shelf and carefully turned its pages. It was a copy of East of Eden. He lay on his back, looking up at the yellowed paper with the same devotion he might have given the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. A stamp on the faded cover read:
A Gift to the New York City Public Library, July, 2051.
Across the room, Ferdinand looked toward his friend.
“Quite the collection,” Konrad said, gesturing to the books on the shelves. “When you leave, what happens to them?”
Ferdinand smiled sadly, but his voice maintained a mischievous air. “They gather dust,” he told him.
Konrad handed his friend the book.
“Give them to a museum, I say. Put them on display for the people to see.”
Ferdinand took the book and, lovingly, turned the pages. He spoke with his eyes still fixed on the codex.
“All the books the people care to see are already on display,” he noted, “Say the museums.”
He raised his eyes to meet his friend.
“And several libraries’ worth in storage,” he added, setting the book down and walking over to the window.
“Already so jaded,” Konrad inquired, “After only two months’ marriage?”
Ferdinand looked indignantly at Konrad.
“—Your Excellency,” Mr. Wittberg added with mock deference. He settled restlessly into an armchair facing out onto the courtyard. Ferdinand smiled and leaned against the window frame.
“What news is there?” he asked more seriously.
“News?” Konrad repeated disgustedly. “We’re at the edge of the world, now, my friend,” he explained. “The news is that we haven’t fallen off.”
“Things will get better,” Ferdinand insisted. “How have you been entertaining yourself?”
“The usual. There’s a tavern, near the barracks, where the soldiers spend their evenings.”
Konrad paused to light a cigarette, which he smoked with a hollow expression. Ferdinand continued to look out the adjacent window.
“The food is unspeakable,” Konrad continued, “But there’s absinthe, and a back room that the officers and dignitaries use as a club.”
Ferdinand scoffed without seriousness. “Buried in a bottle?” he asked jokingly.
“There are worse things to die of than conversation and drink,” argued Mr. Wittberg. “You might try it,” he added.
“Dying?” Ferdinand asked, turning from the window. The light-hearted mood evaporated as quickly as a snuffed candle. The friends exchanged the thin, vulnerable smiles of men who had made out their fate long before it brushed their cold, trembling hands.
“Am I in exile, then?” the Vice Chairman asked with quiet seriousness.
“Only if a man can be exiled to his own future,” Konrad replied honestly.
“There is no better preparation to inherit the world, I suppose,” Wittberg concluded wisely, “Than to waste away on drunken, idle talk.”
Ferdinand laughed and shook his head, but as he turned back out the window to overlook the garden and the street below, his eyes shared none of his mirth.