A little bell rang at the front of the cafe and the young man raised his eyes toward the door. He waved with a tired smile at the woman who walked through it. She looked about his age, with slim shoulders and dark hair pinned in a wave at her brow. She sat down beside him at the bar, lying her hands across her purse on the counter.
“Is seven a large number?” he asked, as if to himself.
“No,” he said, taking her silence for a response, “You’re right. It isn’t a very big number, after all.” He paused. ”But what about 210 million? Bigger, right?”
“Look,” she began.
He ran his finger around the rim of the gin glass. ”On the other hand,” he continued, interrupting her, “1.4 parts in one trillion is nothing. A flash, wouldn’t you say?”
The woman got up from the bar.
“I’m not going to sit here and listen to this,” she said. ”You’re the one who asked me down here in the first place.”
“Please don’t go,” the young man said. He sounded soluble when he said it, like he had already dissolved into the swimming sea of molecules around him. It seemed like the kind of thing the universe wanted him to say, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to mean it.
In its lack of conviction, the young woman found it strikingly earnest. She paused.
“Look,” she said again, hand fidgeting with her sleeve, “Is everything alright? I got your message and I thought you might be in some kind of trouble or something.”
“No,” the young man said and shook his head. ”No trouble. Today is a very ordinary day.”
“Ordinarily,” she asked, “Do you drink so much?” She gestured to the glasses on the bar.
“Ah,” the young man replied. ”I never liked gin,” he explained. ”But I think I’m coming around to it.”
When a baseball is thrown into the air, it travels upward until it stops. There, it experiences a single instant of zero velocity, paused at the apex of its trajectory.
Even in that moment of stillness, unseen forces are moving in the background. Entropy balloons and bulges, pressing ever forward, knotting in on itself like a loose pile of twine. It stretches time in one direction. Gravity defines directions, too, like in and out, up and down. It carries time in its pocket and space, too, waiting ever patiently for inevitable collapse. Somewhere below, the ground spins on, the residual twirling of an ancient cloud of gas and dust: before that a fire, and before that, a star. These are the memories that drag on the ball.
Some time later, the baseball lands softly on the ground. The time and the place of that landing are the work of the forces, dark and shining, infinite and singular, regular and chaotic, that remember forever but can’t help but forget. Yes, the time and the place are of the work of these things. Of these things, and an actor. Somebody threw the first pitch.
A young man with hooded eyes and pale, blonde hair sat at the bar, not thinking overly much about baseballs. In front of him was a glass of gin, neat, half-finished, which he sipped at lengthy intervals. Beside the gin stood a highball glass, and beyond that, the kind of wide-mouthed goblet that had once been the fashion for drinking red wine. The planets in alignment.
A little bell rang at the front of the cafe and the young man raised his eyes toward the door.
The club at the back of the tavern was dark, lit only by chandeliers much too large for the little room. There was a separate bar, and a stage. The tables were arranged in intimate conversational areas. At the largest and central-most of these tables, a game of cards was being played. A group of spectators looked on.
Ferdinand and Konrad entered the cozy room. All heads turned in their direction. The game of cards was put momentarily on hold. Konrad tipped his hat to the players. Leopold Babic, one of the game’s organizers, spoke first.
“I don’t know what passes for manners in the City, Wittberg,” he said, looking knowingly at the Vice Chairman, “But in the country, we introduce our guests.”
“Pay no mind to Babic,” Konrad told his companion in a voice loud enough for all to hear. “He’s spent too much time on The Border; his blood’s gone Wild.” He paused. “It’s not his fault that he’s a brute.”
The crowd laughed dryly, Babic included.
Completely without fanfare, Konrad gave Ferdinand his introduction. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he said, “His Excellency, Ferdinand-Kristoff of Edena, Vice Chairman of the Company Standard.”
The crowd of card players stood, and Ferdinand removed his hat. “Please,” he said, indicating that they should sit.
The players and spectators returned to the game. Ferdinand and Konrad stood close to the table and watched the remainder of the hand.
“What’s the game?” the Vice Chairman asked Mr. Wittberg.
“Storms,” Konrad told him, “No blind. Dealer chooses trump.”
“A humble game for a humble venue,” Ferdinand replied.
Across the table, Babic overheard their conversation. “The dog fight and the horse race are only as sophisticated as the money that rides on them,” he observed. “Wouldn’t you say, Your Excellency?”
Ferdinand smiled. “I’ve been known to gamble,” he replied.
“Tonight?” Babic asked, shuffling the cards.
“What is your opinion of Cannon, Mr. Babic?”
Babic smiled knowingly. “I took an oath,” he reckoned, “To serve at The Company’s pleasure. I assume that includes the dealing of cards.”
Helena stood on the open balcony of the highest tower of the house. Far below, on the other side of the clear barrier, the sea glimmered like an emerald in the rocky setting of the bay. Her hands shaded her eyes. Ferdinand came up beside her. He leaned on the rail and gazed out toward the water.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” he asked.
“What is it?” Helena wondered aloud. “It seems large for a lake.”
Ferdinand was astonished, but remained kind. “The sea,” he informed her.
“It’s not how I’d imagined it,” she declared. Suddenly, she turned away, realizing that perhaps she should have been embarrassed by her naiveté. After composing herself, she looked back at her husband.
The Vice Chairman was interested. “Well, go on,” he insisted.
“Didn’t men go mad with love for the sea?”
“You don’t believe it?” he challenged.
Helena looked back at the glistening water. “It’s nothing but a looking glass!” she exclaimed.
“What were you expecting?” Ferdinand asked light-heartedly.
“I thought,” Helena began, then paused, collecting her disorganized impression, “It would be crueler. Less forgiving.”
“Is that what love is?” Ferdinand wondered, bringing his hand to his eyes, squinting at his wife through the broken canvas of daylight.
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.