I proceeded to lie down beside the window, turning my gaze to the innumerable stars.
I concentrated on the rate of my breathing, settling into the rhythm of my heart. Feeling it below your hand in your chest, a heart seemed so fragile. And yet it carried on tirelessly. Once I had read that a healthy heart is designed for a billion beats, not much more or less. That number had frightened me: the magnitude of the effort of our reliably long-suffering engines. I had shuddered at the magic that kept them beating. It seemed the spell might come undone at any moment.
The agents had done precisely that. I tried not to think of the wasted beats, of the fuel left to idle in my engine.
I tried to think of the road.
Of my city behind me in the rearview mirror, of the sun setting low at opposition, burning the skyline in electric pink and red. Of the crows in the skeletal trees, conjuring shapes in the air as they took to flight together. Of their outlines against the barriers, black as omens above the highway.
I tried to think of bare feet in bed, hanging just off the edge. Of the buzz of fluorescent lights, warming up in the dark, or the bitter taste of tea, left too long to steep in cups of fine bone china. Of window panes at night, rattling the changing weather, bearing down the stirring wind.
But I thought only of machines, rattling around in human shells. I wept a good while longer.
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.
Ferdinand and Konrad sat in the car on the way to the Babic farm. They drove through a rocky canyon overgrown with piñon and sage grass. Suddenly, they turned a corner and the ravine opened up into a proper valley. Groves of lemon and olive trees nestled from the gentle swells of ancient talus all the way down to the fences, level with the road. To one side ran a modest stream. At the top of the highest rise, overlooking the valley, sat the Babic ranch house.
The car pulled up in front of the house. Ferdinand and Konrad stretched their legs and admired the view. The red of the soil and the warm greens of the orchard blurred together in the haze of the heat rising up from the lowest parts of the valley. The sun reflected brilliantly off of the stream. The highest rooftops of Greifswald could be seen in the distance, just peeking above the steep walls of the canyon.
A slim, tanned woman in a ruby-colored silk shift emerged from the house, a picture of simple elegance. Standing on the steps of the luxurious porch, she called out to her guests.
“Welcome, gentlemen, to the Farm!”
“We were just admiring the singular view,” Konrad replied.
The visitors walked up to the lady of the house. Konrad kissed her cheek warmly. He was about to make his customary introduction, when Ferdinand spoke instead.
“Dear lady,” the Vice Chairman said warmly, “May I present you Konrad Wittberg, Ambassador of the Republic.”
Konrad was visibly surprised. If Rosalind was taken equally aback by the unorthodox etiquette, she didn’t show it. She extended Konrad her hand.
“The honor is truly mine, citizen,” she told him.
Konrad gestured toward the Vice Chairman.
“Ferdinand-Kristoff,” he said casually, “Vice Chairman.”
Rosalind turned to Ferdinand.
“Your Excellency,” she said, “It’s a pleasure to have you in our home—such as it is.”
“I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful setting, Madame,” said Ferdinand.
“You’re overly gracious, young man,” the lady of the house replied, disapproving of the use of her sister’s title.
She stepped between Konrad and Ferdinand, turning so that all three are facing the entrance, and put a hand around each of their arms.
“Why don’t we retire to where it’s cooler?” she suggested. “The others are waiting.”
Ferdinand and Konrad were escorted through the Babic house toward the rear courtyard. The ranch house interior was comfortably elegant, but lacked the glamor of the finer town-homes of Greifswald. Much of the decoration was old colonial English. On the walls hung numerous family portraits from before The Fall, as well as pastoral scenes of the formerly lush countryside.
Rosalind led her guests through a small solarium, thick as a jungle with rare tropical plants, acquired at great expense from one of the few remaining botanical institutes. Beyond the open solarium doors, the other guests were gathered around a teak table at the center of an open courtyard, shaded by the branches of almond trees. Several of them looked as if they intended to stand, but Ferdinand raised his hand to signal that there was no need. The Bürgers glanced at one another uncomfortably.
“Bürger Wittberg,” Rosalind instructed, “There’s a place for you next to Captain Steinbau. Vice Chairman, you’re welcome to sit across from my husband.”
Graciously, Konrad and Ferdinand took the places indicated by their hostess. Konrad looked around the table, taking stock of the others who had gathered. To his right was Jonas Steinbau, to his left the lady of the house. Babic was seated beside her, at one end of the table, with Ferdinand at the other. On the side of the table opposite Konrad, Bürgers Wohlhändler and Biedermann flanked none other than the lovely Jordan Cole. She wore a sapphire blue dress with a cowled boat-neck and fluttering cap sleeves. Her hair was pinned in precarious golden waves.
“How kind of you,” Ferdinand thanked Babic.
“It’s my honor,” Babic said drily, “Your Excellency.”
“You have a beautiful home, Bürgerin,” Konrad compliment Mrs. Babic.
“Rosalind, please, my dear,” she insisted. “We’re among friends.”
“How is it, Madame,” Ferdinand inquired, “That you came to own so many antiques?”
“Family heirlooms,” Rosalind replied, crinkling her nose again at the title. “Before The Fall, they were sent to the Continent for safe-keeping. Now, they’re my little reminder of a lost world. Even the cloud of paranoia sometimes has a silver lining, I suppose. Do you know our other guests?”
“I know the Bürgers Wohlhändler and Biedermann from the Assembly,” Konrad informed her, “And Captain Steinbau from the Club. This charming lady happened upon me in His Excellency’s garden, but I regret I did not catch her name.”
“Jordan Cole,” Jordan replied, extending her hand.
At last, Ferdinand recognized Jordan from the Club. Slowly, he registered the difference in her attire over their several meetings and the implications thereof: she was a cross-dresser. His reaction was writ clearly on his face, and Jordan saw it plainly.
“Bürgerin Cole,” Konrad said warmly. “It’s a pleasure to be formally introduced. What a shame you have no love of politics; your presence would have added a much needed breath of fresh air to this morning’s proceedings.”
Ferdinand could no longer hold his tongue. “Disinterest is not the only thing keeping the lady from the assembly hall,” he said. “Do you own any books, Mademoiselle Strauss?”
Konrad was surprised by his mistake.
“None I care to barter for my vanity,” Jordan replied tartly.
“Pardon me, Mademoiselle,” Konrad stammered, embarrassed. “I had assumed—“
“It’s perfectly alright, Bürger Wittberg,” Jordan assured him. She looked coolly at the Vice Chairman. “Titles don’t carry much weight, out here on The Border.”
“Are you of some relation to the Babic clan, Mademoiselle Strauss?” Ferdinand inquired, equally distantly.
“I’m Jordanah’s Aunt on her mother’s side,” Rosalind interrupted. “My niece came to live with us after my sister’s death.”
“I’m sorry for your loss, Mademoiselle,” Konrad said to Jordan.
“How kind of you, Bürger,” Jordan replied, “But I was only a child. My family is here, in the place where I was raised—different as it may be to the place I was born. No doubt you have similar feelings.”
“I consider Mr. Wittberg my brother,” Ferdinand interjected.
From across the table, Marcus Wohlhändler spoke up. “In the Republic, Your Excellency,” he pointed out, “All men are brothers.”
Ferdinand laughed. “A noble claim, Mr. Wohlhändler,” he remarked. “I’ll raise no objection.”
Konrad changed the subject. “You have an astounding piece of property, Babic,” he said. “I’m glad I’ve finally had the opportunity to see it.”
“But you haven’t really,” Babic replied, “—not yet.”
“Perhaps after dinner,” Rosalind suggested, “You might take the Bürger on a walk through the orchard. It’s lovely and cool in the early evening.”
“I have no doubt,” Konrad agreed. “How many acres is it, all together?”
“Two hundred,” Babic informed him. “But there’s only water enough to plant half that, in the best of times.”
“You should count yourself lucky,” Marcus Wohlhändler added. “This spring, my neighbor was forced to let three quarters of his fields lay fallow.”
“Is water the sole limitation?” Ferdinand wondered aloud.
“Did you imagine you’d build a pipeline, Vice Chairman?” Jordan asked impertinently. “You charge for light and air, why not capitalize on water as well?”
“Don’t be impolite, Jordanah,” Babic chided her. “You give the impression we have no manners.”
“It’s quite alright, Babic,” Ferdinand assured him. He looked seriously at Jordan. His voice dripped with condescension. “I’m the one who’s been rude. I haven’t yet paid my compliments to your niece’s exceptional dress.”
“Such flattery,” she replied coldly. “—Your Excellency.”
“Not in the least,” Ferdinand insisted. “It’s a tremendous color for your complexion, to say nothing of the cut.”
“Tell me,” he added pointedly, “Was it quite expensive?”
Jordan smiled facetiously. She was well aware of the direction the Vice Chairman was taking his argument. “Obscenely,” she informed him, intentionally taking the bait.
Ferdinand took a bite of his dinner. “Ladies in glass dresses ought not to throw stones, Mademoiselle,” he said with satisfaction. “Or does the money your father earns with The Company come from something other than light, or air?”
“No, quite right,” Jordan agreed, “They ought not indeed.”
Then she smiled deviously. “Not without a ready change of clothes,” she added, making snide reference to her taboo tastes.
Silence fell over the dinner party. Ever gracious, Rosalind stepped in to remedy the situation.
“Vice Chairman,” she said, “My husband tells me that you recently visited the power station.”
“That’s correct, Madame,” Ferdinand said.
“Mrs. Babic, please,” Rosalind insisted at last. The title was making her very uncomfortable.
“If you wish,” Ferdinand relented.
“Dr. Miller showed us the generator,” Babic continued.
“Oh, Laina!” Rosalind exclaimed. “What a charming child.”
“My darling,” Babic said kindly, “Laina Miller hasn’t been a child in years.”
Rosalind waved her hand dismissively. “Let an old woman relish her memories!” she declared.
“I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Miller,” Konrad interjected, “But I would hazard to guess that there are as many years between her and her youth as there are between you and our dotage, Mrs. Babic.”
“Simply charming!” Rosalind said, clearly amused by the flattery. “You didn’t accompany the Vice Chairman to the power station, my dear?”
“No,” Konrad replied. “Sadly, I was otherwise engaged.”
“Don’t be upset, Wittberg,” Steinbau said, entering the conversation at last. “Make up for it up by showing His Excellency the town.”
“Here, here,” agreed Constanz Biedermann, Wohlhändler’s second-in-command. “What is your impression of our little settlement, Vice Chairman?” she added. “Does Your Excellency languish with boredom?”
“On this matter,” Ferdinand replied with a charming smile. “I’m in agreement with the esteemed Mr. Oscar Wilde.”
“Oh?” wondered Constanz.
“When one is in town,” the Vice Chairman quoted cleverly, “One amuses oneself. When one is in the country, one amuses other people.”
Laughter emanated from all corners of the table.
“How charming that Your Excellency doesn’t discriminate,” Jordan observed critically, “—when it comes to fine literature.”
“Tell us,” she inquired, “Are his plays among the tomes that will soon grace the shelves of the District Museum?”
“I hadn’t yet considered which books to include in the donation,” Ferdinand replied. He cast Jordan a challenging expression. “But you seem to have a vested interest in the matter,” he said. “Perhaps you would do me the honor of selecting them?”
“I’d like nothing better,” Jordan accepted confidently. “—If Your Excellency would have me.”
“Consider it done,” Ferdinand said.
“That’s a decision you may well regret,” Babic observed. “Our Jordanah is a connoisseur of antique books, among other curiosities.”
“Were you sent away for your education, Mademoiselle?” Konrad wondered, obviously taken with the beautiful heiress, “Or did you become such a scholar right here in Greifswald?”
“What learning I have,” Jordanah declared, “Is the product of long afternoons in the red dirt of these orchards, enjoying the company of books.”
“At the expense of human company, I recall,” Steinbau added rudely.
“Captain Steinbau,” Jordan replied. “It’s hardly fair to blame books for my social deficiencies.”
“If Mademoiselle has any social deficiencies,” Konrad said naively, unaware of the infamous cross-dressing, “She hides them quite well.”
The others at the table exchanged knowing looks, wondering when Konrad would discover the truth about Jordan. None, however, seemed willing to enlighten him.
After the dinner, the guests made their way down the front lawn to where their cars were parked on the brown grass. Steinbau, Wohlhändler, and Biedermann had driven together. They were the first to bid their hosts farewell and drive off down the dusty road. Konrad and Ferdinand lingered on the porch with the Babic family.
“Is it too late for a stroll through the orchard?” Konrad wondered. “I’d hate to leave without seeing the land.”
Babic looked up at the sun, hanging low on the western horizon.
“We can just tour the almond groves before it’s too dark,” he said.
“Would anyone care to join us?” Konrad asked.
“I should be getting back to town,” declined Jordan. “I hate to drive through the ravine after dark.”
“You don’t live here?” said Konrad incredulously.
“Despite our closeness,” Jordan explained with amused self-deprecation, “My Aunt’s taste and my own are different enough that living under the same roof is quite impossible.”
“It’s a pity you won’t be joining us,” Konrad said, oblivious to the joke. “Do drive safely.”
Jordan smiled. “Of course.”
“Ferdinand?” Konrad asked again. He was a little drunk, and had adopted the informal tone of the evening with relish. “Will you come and see the orchard?”
If the Vice Chairman minded having been called by his Christian name in public, he didn’t show it. “I’m feeling a bit tired, I’m afraid,” he said instead. “Enjoy your adventure without me; you can regale me with the tale on the drive back to town.”
“Suit yourself,” Konrad said, shrugging his shoulders.
Babic and Konrad walked a little way down the path toward the orchard. Konrad turned back and called out.
“It was a pleasure to properly meet you, Mademoiselle Strauss!” he shouted.
Jordan gave a demure wave of her hand.
“Likewise!” she said cheerily.
Jordan, Rosalind, and Ferdinand sat a moment in silence, watching the intrepid explorers grow smaller and smaller as they disappeared into the almond groves.
“I should really be on my way,” Jordan said at last.
She walked a step toward her car. Ferdinand jumped up from where he sat on the stairs of the porch and detained her by gently taking hold of her hand.
“You aren’t being fair to him,” he said, deeply sincere.
Jordan was taken aback. “Fair to whom?” she asked.
“To Konrad,” Ferdinand said. “Mr. Wittberg. He likes you.”
“And I him,” Jordan told the Vice Chairman. “Is there something the matter with that?”
“Yesterday,” Ferdinand said seriously, but not unkindly, “My wife said Greifswald was home to a transsexual. I told her it was a myth.”
“Ah,” Jordan said, “I see.”
She looked the Vice Chairman squarely in the eye. He was still holding her hand. “Is it so hard to believe that a woman can act like a man,” she added defiantly, “Without being one?
“I’m only saying,” Ferdinand insisted, “That he has a right to know. Before he becomes too attached.”
Jordan’s expression softened to one of sympathy. “You really think of him as your brother,” she mused quietly.
“Please,” begged Ferdinand. “Don’t be cruel.”
“You have my word, Vice Chairman,” Jordan said. Her demeanor had relaxed.
“Then I’m satisfied,” the Vice Chairman said, shaking her hand. “You’ll come by for the books?” he added as an afterthought.
“Of course,” Jordan said. She wore the delicate, sad smile she saved for those occasions when she needed most to mask her true feelings. Slowly, she walked down the hill to her car.
“Until then!” she added, composing herself.
“I have your word?” Ferdinand shouted from the top of the knoll.
“You have my word!” she replied.
Mademoiselle Cole shut the car door and drove off into the growing twilight. Ferdinand sat back down on the porch stairs beside Rosalind, who had been sitting in silence during the young people’s exchange. She lit a cigarette. After taking a puff, she passed it to the Vice Chairman, who wordlessly accepted.
“I think,” the lady of the house said after a moment’s reflection, “That went well.”
Ferdinand chuckled fatally. “I believe,” he said good-naturedly, “That’s the infamous optimism of your people talking, Mrs. Babic.”
Rosalind looked the Vice Chairman up and down. “You’re a nice boy,” she declared at last. “Perhaps there’s finally something to be optimistic about.”
“May I call you Rosalind, Mrs. Babic?” Ferdinand asked quietly.
Rosalind blew a mouthful of smoke out between her lips. “Anything but Madame,” she said.
Ferdinand smiled sadly. “That was an experiment,” he said, taking the cigarette back from his hostess. “Not a very good one.”
Ferdinand smoked the cigarette in thoughtful silence for a moment before passing it back to Rosalind.
“Rosalind,” he asked seriously, “How long have you and your husband been married?”
“Thirty-five years, my dear,” the Anglo lady replied. “Longer than you’ve been alive.”
“And you love one another?” Ferdinand hoped.
“Be patient, dear,” Mrs. Babic said, patting his hand. “These things take time.”
“How much time?” wondered her guest. His voice trembled.
“As long as they need, generally,” Rosalind said honestly.
The Vice Chairman grinned. In his eyes was the glimmer of genuine affection. “And they call the Anglo pessimists,” he said.
The unlikely pair laughed and shared their cigarette in the dark as they waited for the return of their companions.
At length, Ferdinand, too, drifted to sleep. His dreams were sullen and grey, plagued by the dourness of his waking hours. One hundred pale hands reached out from the corners of his subconscious, blocking him from the future, chasing him with the past, until he had nowhere to run between them. Considering the options, the Vice Chairman settled for the comfortable void of his own shadow.
When he awoke, the bullet-train had come to a stop. Across the car, Helena was still asleep, her hat listing dangerously from its post atop her head. Ferdinand sat up and turned his gaze out the window.
His first impression of the platform was that it was exceptionally dusty. In Edena, where even the smallest detail of the environment was meticulously engineered, it was easy to forget that the natural progression of all things was toward the dancing, drifting motes that meandered through the air and accumulated across the ground. Ashes to ashes, Ferdinand thought, perhaps for the first time believing it.