The city was a place where the edges of Ferdinand’s lives ran together, like points on a manifold, drawn against each other by the alchemy of time, colliding in unexpected geometries.
When he was a boy, his days had run parallel to the route connecting Standard Tower with Schloß des Meers, down the thoroughfare and into the millpond arms of the lake. He had taken his breakfast with his mother in those days, on the terrace, draped in the green fronds of palms coaxed from ancient history. When he was very young and his father had been away on Company business, he would lie beneath the breakfast table and listen as the litany of directors gave its report. The voices would murmur, on and on, and his mother would nod or scold or command—each where appropriate, for, regardless of her social behavior, in business Madame Chairman was entirely beyond reproach. Ferdinand would hold tremendously still and pretend he was a pin in a great sheet of plateen, and that the droning of the courtiers was the wireless. If he was very careful, he could almost feel their voices vibrating his electrons, shaking him back and forth, passing their signal through him and into the waiting hands of the world—but then a tray of strawberries would be set on the table. His concentration would shatter, and with it, his prophecy.
“No,” Jordan said. “Your surrender is not enough.”
Ferdinand was tempted to let go; to open his arms and angle his hands against the wind; to be swept up and away forever.
“I can’t give you what you want,” he said. “I am a builder of cities, not men.”
“You don’t believe that.”
“I’d like it not to be true,” Ferdinand insisted. “That’s not the same as disbelief.”
“When you stand at the top of your tower, what do you see?” Jordan asked, turning so she was facing him head on.
The Vice Chairman caught the full force of her argument in that single stroke. How beautiful it was, in spite of everything, to be her pawn.
“I see a world propped up out of ashes,” he told her, picking himself up so he was resting on his elbows. The sky above them was growing dark, and he could see the first pin-pricks of starlight through the tenuous gauze. “I see thirty million souls, shaking off the darkness and sitting down for tea. I see the comfort of the world we’ve built them, and I see its flaws. Do you think that doesn’t bother me? I would get down on my hands and knees and scrub out the past—brick by brick if that was what was necessary—but I don’t have the right. Neither do you. Those wounds are not—and never will be—ours to heal.”
“That is a pretty argument,” Jordan told him. “The kind made by pretty men standing above pretty worlds, grown just ugly enough to enhance their beauty. How extremely convenient your hands have been tied in precisely this arrangement.”
The ocean was a frozen wall, pressed against their faces even as the heat from the dunes blew in on the wind.
“What good will it do?” Ferdinand asked. He turned to look at Jordan. “What good will I accomplish by bringing Rainer Jøberg to Greifswald?”
“Do you expect that I can tell you?” she said, returning the question with a question. “That I can give you certainty?”
“No,” he said. “But what you’re asking of me is treason. I think it’s reasonable to know why.”
Jordan pulled the jacket she had been holding over her shoulders.
“We’ve said all we’re going to say on the matter,” she declared. “If you’re not convinced by now, I can’t see how you ever will be.”
The Vice Chairman laughed. She was a cloud against the water, advancing to overtake him with the full force of her natural will.
“And I can’t see how you’d ever stop trying to change my mind,” he said.
“Maybe you’re right. But anyway, I suppose I know it’s a hopeless cause.”
The Vice Chairman spread out along the ground.
“Is that what I am?” he asked. “Or rather, is that what you think of me?”
“Yes,” Jordan said, tilting her head so she could squint at Ferdinand in the fading light, “At least I would have said so at first—when I didn’t know you.”
“Oh?” Ferdinand asked. “And do you know me now?”
“And has that changed your mind?”
Jordan lay down next to him.
Ferdinand smiled. It was the slight, self-deprecating smile with which he won arguments against lesser foes. He knew it would gain him nothing but it mattered to smile it just the same. She would appreciate that.
“Then I am already defeated,” he said. “You know what I will do, and I know it. You’re only toying with me.”
“No,” Jordan said. “Your surrender is not enough.”
O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanch de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.
- T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
The cold sank into Jan’s bones and would not let go.
Even as far south as Rotterdam, the marsh was frozen in December. The ice was thick, but not as thick as it would be in February, at the height of winter. Out on deck, Rainer Heinrik Jøberg squinted into the darkness, huddled into his hurricane coat. Jan watched his friend. The muted cough of the skimmer’s oxygen-starved engine was swallowed in the mist. They puttered along, inching up the coast away from Amsterdam.
It was the kind of town a respectable Republican gentleman like Jan Collier should have avoided. It had been less than a decade since Amsterdam had been incorporated into the Republic, and the legacy of poverty was still evident inside its dome. But for all its flaws, Amsterdam was on the rise. Prospectors and refugees from all corners of the empire crowded its streets, eager to make their fortunes in the desalinization industry flourishing outside the settlement. Outfitters and inns and watering holes sprang up in the manner of an ancient boom town, stretching its inadequate resources. Just that summer, the Republican senate had voted to replace Amsterdam’s plastic dome with a plateen barrier, enfranchising it as a fully-fledged town of the empire.
It had started a fight. Every day, Jan was more and more frightened by his position in the middle of it.Read more
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?