Sat. August 18th, 134 SE 1:24 P.M.
Dik-Tak Activated: Notetaking mode
Status: Inkwell: empty. Capacity thirty percent.
Please wind me.
Elsie sits at desk in front of a blank parchment screen. Early thirties. Fitzpatrick skin type 3. She wears the current fashion. Subdued purple and white pinstripes on a low-cut square-bust bodice. A touch of lace for modesty. Her grey hair is sloppily powdered, slipping off her head. She catches it and sets it aside. The hair on her head is black and tightly pinned.
Behind her is Stadtoben skyline. Very high. Stained-glass windows of an unidentified building slightly below us. Glass depicts the hierarchy of angels. Possible location: 23rd and Main.
Weather is fair, sky yellow and foggy. Geodesic dome seems in disrepair.
Elsie’s fingers tap but do not depress the keys of a gold writing ball. Advanced model, B.F & K, seven inches in diameter. Shiny.
Elsie pulls bottle from drawer. Yellow 750 ml. Label obscured by Elsie’s hand. Bear and honeycomb visible.
Elsie lights a fashionably thin cigarette, Karo brand. She runs a hand through her hair. She hits her telegraph lever with the bottom of the bottle. Telegrams ruffle into reading tube.
Telegram Reader: Urgent from Gefängnisturm.
Telegraph Reader: Good evening, Frau Simper. I must have confirmation as soon as you are able to release Otto Lang’s documents to us.
Elsie: He’s Rainer Liebling to you.
Telegram Reader: Please update me on the Dik-Tak’s status. I will send a man to take the dossier as soon as you can compile it. It is of utmost importance to the city and to Herr Lang for us to have this information. Regards Aufsicht Ida Thomalla.
Yellow bottle is Bärenfang. Elsie leans forward, types rapidly on the writing ball. Clacks and wonderful noise. Her fingers slip. She takes another drink of Bärenfang. Text on the parchment screen reads:
“Frau Thom alllla, I’m workng as hard and as fast as I can. I have a newspaper to run and a friend to worry about. Plaese kindly, fuck off.”
Elsie rips off the parchment and throws it into the shredder. She leans back, resumes smoking, her feet on a stool. Grey Claude Defries boots. She hikes her grey and purple skirt to her thighs. No stockings.
Elsie resumes typing.
“Thank you, Aufsicht Thomalla, for your deep concern about my dear friend’s safety. I have my best tinkerers working with the device as I write this. We fear we will delete precious documents if we rush. I will send you all his personal documents as soon as I can arrange for them. Has there been any news on his capture that you can share with a simple civilian journalist? Respectfully, Elsbeth Simper.”
Elsie rips off the parchment, folds it, and feeds it into outgoing telegraph slot. The contraption whirs, transcribes, delivers, and then destroys the message.
Elsie rubs her pinned hair, taps the lever for the next message. She drinks again.
Telegram Reader: Lowest Urgency from Sergeant Hansjörg Jost of the Nachtwache. Dear Elsbeth, please forgive my abuse of this channel and my informality. I do not write as an officer of the law, but as Otto’s close companion. Have you heard any word from him? I’m terribly worried. Desperately hoping this is a stunt. Hans.
Elsie exhales smoke. Evocative.
Elsie removes the telegram from the device. She reads it, turns it over in her hand. She drops it into her ashtray and flicks her cigarette ash on top of it. The paper burns.
Elsie frowns at me. She opens desk drawer and puts a sheet of paper under my paw. She refills my inkw
Dik-Tak Activated: Recall mode.
Status: Inkwell: 62 Percent. Capacity 100 percent.
I have 19 entries recorded. Please enter the date you would like to recall. Would you like a list of contents?
Contents of Otto Lang’s Dik-Tak
Weds. May 9th, 134 SE :: Wed. July 11th, 134 :: Wed. August 1st, 134 SE
Fri. June 15th, 134 SE :: Sat. July 21st, 134 SE 12:30 p.m. :: Thurs. August 2, 134 SE
Tues. June 19th, 134 SE :: Sat. July 21st, 134 SE 12:45 p.m. :: Sat. August 4th, 134 SE
Weds. June 20th, 134 SE :: Sat. July 21st, 134 SE 1:10 p.m. :: Sun. August 5th, 134 SE
Wed. July 25th, 134 SE :: Tues. August 7th, 134 SE :: Sat. July 28st, 134 SE
Sat. August 11th, 134 SE :: Tues. August 14th, 134 SE :: Wed. August 15th, 134 SE
Sat. August 18th, 134 SE
Are you sure you want me to write all entries?
Thurs. May 10th, 134 SE
Dear Readers of Der Stadtoben Spiegel, one of the chief delights of being the only male fashion writer on staff is that it falls on me to review various so-called men’s trinkets. Such a burden! Good friends, how shall I endure?
This week, I’m delighted to bring you a device from Pascal Selig, a genius in the art of reviving the designs of the Silent Tinkerer. Selig, a former soldier and current eccentric is a convivial old man with a pronounced wheeze and a marvelous eye for detail. He commemorates his service as a demolitions expert by displaying photos of explosions and firing a toy cannon once a day.
His latest recreation, which he calls a Dik-Tak, is a small anthropomorphic windhund sitting at a writing desk. With a glossy coat of brass fur, the mechanical pup looks at the world with soulful eyes. One delicate leg is raised, pen in paw poised to take notes. While outwardly, the machine is merely a peculiar statue, if one places a sheet of paper beneath the reclined leg, cranks the tail gently, the precious little windhund will perk its ears and record as its master dictates.
I have not written a word of this article by hand, and I intend utterly to forget the art of penmanship. I shall save generations of gloves from death by ink stain.
The Dik-Tak is a lovely device for authors who pace, as it produces letters with the uniformity and precision of a writing ball, but without grounding the author to a desk. Also, the writing windhund is remarkably accurate. This saves the professional writer the occupational hazard of missed keystrokes due to exhausted fingers and refines the amateur scribbler’s prose by countering unsightly spelling errors and erratic formatting.
Furthermore, like most modern writing devices, the Dik-Tak can telegraph the document it has composed. So, when I finish dictating my latest article, I can send it directly to my editors at Der Stadtoben Spiegel.
Though the Dik-Tak does create some unusual problems for diarist. While paper pages may be easily destroyed, the machine has a long-term memory and may be called upon to rewrite the pattern of any entry by title or date. Fantastic for fashion writers, devastating for teenage girls with nosy mothers or cruel little brothers.
Which brings me to address the category of the automaton as men’s trinket.
Herr Pascal Selig offers the device in a store which specializes in men’s watches and magnification eye-wear (the latter, frankly, is too hideously practical for a lady and probably for a proper gentlemen too). Yet this noble windhund should not remain entirely in the hands of us men. The mechanical pup with its variety of facades would make a charming armful for a lady as well as a gentleman, a child as easily as an adult. An elegant gold and ivory windhund would beautifully grace any office desk. Parents can choose to forgo the frankly adorable façade of the windhund and expose the cogs and ink rivers flowing through the contraption. Thus stripped, the device would be an artful study of human engineering and remove the ‘toy-like’ appearance for students. The base model, which is the attractive brass Dik-Tak pictured [above? Wherever you put the picture, Elsie. Did you receive it?], is available in Herr Selig’s shop on 14th and Market. It costs, without individual customization, fifteen hundred Vereinsthalers.
Enjoy your weekend vacation, ladies and gentlemen. Tomorrow, as always, I will pen (or rather dictate) my Unprofessional Opinion Column, which reflects my personal views on the new wing of the royal library. Fair warning, I’m not a fan as it seems needlessly restrictive, though the architecture is simply gorgeous.
Rainer Liebling [1 note for E.]
Fri. June 15th, 134 SE
If I had any wisdom, I wouldn’t record a private diary on a contraption where entries can be easily reproduced, but I have neither shame nor wisdom, and I’m beyond lazy about personal discretion. Besides I’m positively bursting with news I legally can’t share with anyone.
Elsie received a letter from Gefängnisturm. Yes, The Gefängnisturm. Vitally important, hideously ugly, black tower prison tower, which provides life and safety to all who dwell in its shadow but mars the otherwise heavenly skyline of Stadtoben.
When she first told me Ben the Stoic had written to me, asking to be interviewed by me, to confess publicly to his crimes of terrorism to me. Well, simply I thought Elsie was joking.
When she insisted, I scoffed. I’m only a fashion writer. It had to be a hoax.
Then Elsie admitted she received the letter nearly a week ago. She hadn’t told me because she wanted confirmation of the letter’s validity from the warden of Gefängnisturm.
I was utterly stunned. Firstly, because Elsie had kept a secret from me. Just last week, I went on record with Rolf Clausen saying it was utterly ridiculous. Won’t I look like a fool, now?
And secondly, what does a terrorist want with a fashion critic? I’ve done my share of human interest pieces, no mistake. Interviewed opera singers and authors and historians for my Friday column. I mean to sit that Pascal Selig down one day and get his story. But a terrorist? That sort of personality doesn’t really suit Rainer Liebling’s frivolous sensibility.
So, Elsie and I went back and forth, about it.
I said it was silly for me to write it.
She said no one else could.
I said I didn’t want to.
She said it would be good for my career if I ever intended on being taken seriously.
I maintained I have no intention of ever being taken seriously.
And here my clever little editor trapped me.
She said, “Well, if that’s the way you feel. It’s probably for the best. The warden at Gefängnisturm wasn’t going too keen on letting a zleute in.”
Oh, wait, that’s incorrect. She said zweiteleute, because Heavens forbid the great Elsie Simper use any kind of slang.
Now, I know Elsie isn’t stupid enough to think she was being subtle. Partly because she knows full well, she doesn’t have to be. That’s a gauntlet I can’t walk away from since there is absolutely no good reason for a zleute to be kept from legitimate journalism if he wants to pursue it.
I took the letter and disappeared into my office to research for the rest of the day, and if it weren’t for Dear Secretary Clara, I would have forgotten lunch with Hans.
Tues. June 19th, 134 SE
Dear Readers of Der Stadtoben Spiegel, I know I promised a discussion on various styles of gentlemen’s wigs, but you’ll have to forgive me for breaking my routine a day early.
It is with deepest and most humble satisfaction that I can, at last, confirm the rumors circulating in the gossip forums (Sorry Herr Clausen, Darling, I had to lie to you). I’ve been taking great delight in watching this debate, knowing but unable to share the truth. As unlikely as it would seem, three weeks ago, I indeed received a request from Prisoner 16 asking to tell his story in my widely read Unprofessional Opinions Column.
Fourteen years ago, Prisoner 16, known in the popular imagination as Ben the Stoic due in part to his notorious refusal to speak, was arrested for his involvement in the abduction of Höchste Tebelde Albrecht, Prussia’s last princess. Though he was found guilty and has been imprisoned for his part in the crimes, without his confession the death penalty is unlawful. That being understood, if the gentleman wishes to face execution in order to tell his story, I would whole-heartedly offer him the pen.
Under my powers, I would have interviewed him the very day I received letter. However, Gefängnisturm, for good reasons, historically bans zleute from entry, even highly lauded professionals such as myself. Over the past three weeks, the staff here at Der Stadtoben Spiegel has been negotiating with the authorities and the man himself in hopes of finding an acceptable way to present Prisoner 16’s story to the public.
While, we offered to send a primäreleute—specifically, the esteemed Frau Elsbeth Simper— the prisoner made it abundantly clear he will speak to no one but me. A dubious honor, to be sure.
Last night representatives at Gefängnisturm officially denied my request for an audience.
I write this specific column to set the rumors to rest and to indicate Der Stadtoben Spiegel’s ongoing commitment “to do our all to report all.” I am not afraid to enter the prison tower, nor to speak to a prisoner. As far as I can ascertain, I am not the target of a madman’s obsession, though I appreciate my concerned readers for their flattery. Nor is the story a hoax presented by Der Stadtoben Spiegel’s staff, our subscriptions are doing quite well, thank you. Nor is there a conspiracy to prevent the ruling families from obtaining new information about Höchste Tebelde’s whereabouts. At least none that I am aware of.
I appeal to Ben the Stoic to reconsider and to speak his truth to Frau Elsbeth Simper.
In the meanwhile, for younger citizens (I was twelve at the time of Höchste Tebelde’s abduction), I’d like to share this papers’ report of the tragic night of August 14th, 120. This will appear in my Friday column tomorrow.
For now, I’d like to share some historical context. This will make me seem like an ancient man, though I’m not quite thirty, so I crave my readers’ forgiveness. My interest in history has always been a bit of a dinner-party trick, and I’m delighted to indulge.
For thousands of years after the global collapse, all the peoples of the world were isolated from each other and left to their own devices beneath impermeable geodesic domes to save them from the rising ocean, the hostile sun, and other miscellaneous catastrophes. However, in Year 0 of the Sectoral Era (SE for you kids) a team of inventors from Albion, Edo, and the American continents (working together via radio) successfully tested the first permeable domes. This lead to a revolution in human culture as regions physically disconnected for centuries finally came in contact again. As permeable domes replaced the impermeable domes of the past, newly connected sectors joined the world leadership of the Intersectoral Council.
I mention this since it was only passingly mentioned when I was in school. Prussia did not adopt the new calendar system or gain membership until 123 (which is why some adults have to pause to do math when you ask them their birthdays). The ruling families in Prussia, in the interest of our people’s safety and cultural heritage, decreed that before we transitioned to a permeable dome, we would construct a new city. Thus, modern day, Stadtoben was literally the city built above the old providences of Cologne, Berlin, and Munich (in case anyone wondered why the west, northeast, and southeast residential neighborhoods go their names).
Personally, I remember a growing sense of excitement and eagerness as I watched the sky above my childhood home being terraformed. I was only seven when constructed started, but I still remember the shadow it cast. Literally. When I stood outside the grocer’s lot at the end of my neighborhood, I could look up and see the edge of the dirt and the scaffolding of our new society. They took our church apart brick by brick to rebuild in the sunshine of a new world. Soon my family packed our bags, and we too were replanted in a society where we could for the first time in generations hop on an Intersectoral tram and visit other sectors.
By the time I was a teenager, most citizens had evacuated to Stadtoben neighborhoods as they became available. And yet even a year and a half after the expected completion date for relocation and with acres of adequate housing, several thousand people remained below in what became known as Unterstadt. This population was mostly extremists who either would not voluntarily evacuate to our new society or were criminals in hiding to escape detection. All but one of the ruling families, the Karolins, had made the transition to Stadtoben surrendering the titles of royalty for our current system of representative democracy.
The morning of August 16, 120 SE, Princess Tebelde Karolin was the last princess to leave behind the archaic system of monarchy and joined a ruling family through her marriage to Höchster Philipp Albrecht. As she came to the surface, so too should have all her loyal subjects. The following day, the gate into the entirely empty Unterstadt was meant to be sealed permanently, and the process of transition would have been complete.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I leave you with this. Tomorrow, this column will print what I read in Der Stadtoben Spiegel, formerly Der Berlin Spiegel, on the morning of August 15th when I was just twelve years old.
Thank you for once again for your indulgence. This remains, though it is a day early, my unprofessional opinion.
Weds. June 20th, 134 SE
Dear Readers of Der Stadtoben Spiegel, to briefly recap yesterday’s column:
The rumors are true. I received a request to hear and report the confessions of Prisoner 16, a terrorist involved in the abduction of Höchste Tebelde. Unfortunately, Gefängnisturm has declined to let me conduct the interview on a basis of my citizen status.
Der Stadtoben Spiegel will be using this space to re-print our report of the last princess’s abduction fourteen years ago.
Anarchist Terrorists Suspected, One Arrested
Höchster K. Albrecht Injured by Explosion in Elite Honeymoon Suite Only Hours After Wedding
15 August 1012, Berlin Neighborhood, Stadtoben – The newlywed, Höchste Tebelde Albrecht, formerly Princess Tebelde Karolin was abducted late last night from the wedding suite of the Majestic Winter Hotel. Authorities suspect the terrorist group, Vergiss Niemanden. The anarchists detonated explosives and destroyed the suite’s wall. One man seized the former princess, and another entered the room to attack Höchster Philipp Albrecht who was mildly injured in the explosion. Höchster Philipp resisted and delayed his attackers long enough for his personal guards to break through the wall and open fire on the terrorists. One escaped into the airship with Höchste Tebelde, while the other was injured and arrested. Guards, fearing damage to the Höchste, could not fire on the escaping airship but gave chase into Unterstadt to no avail.
Höchster Philipp is expected to make a full recovery.
So far, the arrested terrorist has made no statement, but authorities can see that the abduction was carefully planned. Internal sabotage is suspected as the alarm systems failed to react appropriately and explosives must have been placed on the inside wall to prevent detection. Staff and guests at the Majestic Winter Hotel are being held for questioning and interrogation. Any relevant information may be sent to the Gefängnisturm for review.
The unknown prisoner, who has thus far refused to speak, has been charged and found guilty of terrorism. He is expected to be sentenced to death upon confession and imprisoned indefinitely until then. Many believe he will be detained until Höchste Tebelde is returned safely.
The airship disappeared in Unterstadt making it inconceivable for the ruling families to move forward with closing the Prussian gate. Both the marriage of Princess Tebelde Karolin and closing the Prussian Gate have been highly controversial as several thousand of her citizens who refuse to relocate to Stadtoben remain in Unterstadt. There have been petitions to arrest and forcibly relocate these people, to preserve areas of old Berlin to cater to the citizens, to gas the rebels and ensure their painless deaths, or to create a seal which can be opened and closed as needed as these human beings inevitably regret their choices and become refugees. However, these measures have systemically been refuted in favor of a permanent seal for the protection of Stadtoben from the poisoned earth and the decay of the previous environmental dome. After several extensions on the relocation deadline, every humanitarian effort has been made.
With the abduction of Höchste Tebelde and her detainment in Unterstadt, it is not possible for the ruling families to seal the final gate until her return or confirmation of her death. The Albrecht army is expected to march in full force into Unterstadt in an effort to locate and rescue the former princess.
–Maxwell V. Simper
Of course, dear readers, today, fourteen years later, we know the Prussian Gate remains open, and Prisoner 16 remains utterly silent and imprisoned. We can also anticipate that on or around August 15, the Vergiss Niemanden will once again send footage across all of Prussia to show the sad and fair former princess, Höchste Tebelde Albrecht bound and blindfolded, still awaiting rescue.
On Monday, I promise I will return to my standard fare and discuss for gentlemen how to get the best fit of waistcoat for your stature and for ladies how to find appropriate and fashionable gifts for your gentlemen friends (I also promise I will not just be talking about my favorite cravat and scarf combinations).
Thank you for one again for your indulgence, ladies and gentlemen. This remains, as always, my unprofessional opinion.
Wed. July 11th, 134
Dear Readers of Der Stadtoben Spiegel, I inform you with delight and appreciation: I shall be the first zleute to ever enter Gefängnisturm. Another dubious honor to be sure, but one I accept with gratitude for the citizens who petitioned the authorities, Gefängnisturm, and the ruling families. Thus, with the explicit permission of Höchster Philipp Albrecht himself and nearly a month after I was initially contacted, I will begin my interview with Ben the Stoic [Let’s not be too formal, Elsie dear or they’ll think you wrote this].
Many thanks to Elsie for letting me announce this in her column [Or whatever wonderful thing I ought to say about you, dear. Find attached permissions and all the other stupid documents I need to make this official].
–Rainer Liebling [2 Note for E.]
Sat. July 21st, 134 SE 12:30 p.m.
I’m inside Gefängnisturm. Deeply unsettling to dictate that. Basic notes for article:
Um, this place is terrible. Terribly noisy. Terribly dark. Terribly hot. Utterly oppressive.
Main hall is pale and civilized. Numbers of offices and nicety. But once I was past the first barred door, I realized I was inside an enormous pocket watch, shut off from the sun. I understand Gefängnisturm generates the dome and much of the power for the public works, but I hadn’t considered the sheer amount of gear work such an undertaking required. Of how it would boom and whir and whine and smash around me. The whole tower vibrates like it’s in danger of shaking itself to pieces at any given moment.
However, I recall standing outside and looking up, being overwhelmed by the silent stillness of the black tower. It looms like a nightmare. The black brick soaks up the sunlight and turns that heat into steam to propel the cogs to power the geodesic dome. High above the black point, I could see a rainbow arching in all directions stretching above the city. At times it solidifies into the geometric patterns of the dome. Sometimes it shimmers hardly substantial beyond its source, as if Gefängnisturm absorbed all the color in the world and the rained it down on Stadtoben.
But I can’t say I was nervous yet. The two soldiers that greeted me were remarkably pleasant. Confirming my identification and my purpose, and very happy to meet me. One remained at the front door looking like he could catch the tower if it crumbled. The other escorted me past the front offices, showing me off to the heads of all the big bureaus, travelling me through a veritable maze of official business. I felt a little dirty seeing these distinctly non-civilian places.
We came to an unmarked wooden door and entered a kind of communal closet filled with mud stained black trench coats. It was strange to see so much black cloth. One soldier’s uniform is enough to inspire respect, but the discarded coats of at least a battalion was strange. Especially, when my soldier took my hat and long coat and hung them amid the field of black. Mine was substantially shorter than the rest, and the sky blue looked shocking.
“It a bit like a bluebell in a quarry,” I observed.
My escort chuckled, “I shall share that quip with my wife, and she might believe you were actually here, Herr Liebling.”
I lifted my eyes to his face, decided he was too tall to be unmarried and so I drew my little book of perforated portraits and a small pen from my vest. “What is your wife’s name, sir? And yours? I’ll give you undeniable proof.”
“Emmeline and Joel.” It gave me great pleasure to see the soldier light up and I tore off one of the portraits. I’m fond the image, though Elsie says it makes me look like an Albion tart when I slick my hair back.
“Do you know her favorite flower, Joel?”
I wrote in the upper corner, “To Emmeline, Joel’s rose in a quarry,” signed it with a flourish, and told him he ought to hide it because I didn’t have enough for every married man here.
Joel tucked it into his uniform shirt pocket as it if were worth two hundred vereinsthalers. And who knows, in his neighborhood maybe it would be. But before he entered a series of codes and keys into a big metal door on the other side of the coat room, he gave me a bit of a warning. He said, “I don’t think you will have that problem, Herr Liebling. Have a good journey.”
When he opened the barred door, I realized I was only then entering the tower of shadow and misery. I left Joel behind and was handed over to a rotating team of guards. A woman at this first door hardly personable enough to greet me with more than an unforgiving nod brought me to a team of three men who in turn passed me on to another team. On and on deeper into the giant pocket watch. Surrounded by the repressive black of all their uniforms, I began to feel improperly dressed. This is an entirely foreign experience to me. Even as a child, I’ve always been perfectly dressed for any and every occasion.
But there is no proper dress code for a zleute fashion critic visiting the highest security prison in the sector.
Eventually, I was presented with a sort of military tour guide. I think his name was Müller, but I will be honest we didn’t converse. He explained to me all about the cogs and noise and sun-power but all with his hands behind his back and his face forward. I was much too afraid of the darkness to recall any of it in detail. I wish I’d been able to turn on my little scribbling windhund. I believe I am expected to write about the tour in the column, for I was given a pamphlet.
Rustle of paper.
Yes. Upon cursory inspection the pamphlet is verbatim what the man told me.
But I’ve never been so… oppressed by darkness. Can’t imagine dwelling in such an absence of color. I mean, I’m not afraid of authority or the rules which keep everything in Stadtoben safe, but this is a place which… well, it makes one ask what happens if one is in conflict with the overall idea of what is safe.
Rainer Liebling laughs.
Of course, dear readers, this is why Rainer Liebling is no soldier. His poor pastel heart is sent into a twitter of fear just walking down a dark hallway.
Elsie told me this morning, I must not pretend to enjoy this or be silly in any way, and it strikes me now as powerfully stupid advice.
Audio unclear. Grinding noises. A deep breath then slow exhale.
I had another note I want to record, and no one has come for me yet.
While I was being marched past the rows of inmates…
And most of the cells are quite empty, I shall be happy to report. The prisoners inside looked well cared for and more bored than unhappy. While I was being marched past them—I was given notes about that as well, though…
Rustle of paper.
Spit out your damned thoughts, Otto. It reminds you of the Bureau of behavioral problems. Is that so wrong to say? You were terrified at any moment one of the soldiers would open a cell door and pull his gun on you and tell you to get comfortable. That those men who towered over you in their acres of pristine black cloth would decide your prettiness couldn’t hide your disgustingness and they’d lock you inside until you learned to act like a man and to not be proud of your aberrance.
These soldiers are only people. They exist for my protection. Just ordinary people like Emmaline’s Joel.
But for some reason when one is flanked by soldiers with guns at the ready, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that one is being marched to his doom.
And while the darkness of Gefängnisturm is filled with oil and steam and copper and dust, there is nothing in my mind more like it than the Bureau of—I know the VerhProb is sterile and mostly beige, but something about that long walk with soldiers.
Maybe someday, if I do write something serious… It’d be like this:
We all walk through the doors of the VerhProb when we are thirteen. Children and unclassifiable citizens. And we emerge hours—sometimes days—later as adults with the citizen status we shall carry the rest of our lives. This is a rite of passage, and it should not be easy, but something to be faced with Prussian confidence and resilience.
Like many, I didn’t need doctors or flashcards of nude men to know I was zleute. Though I believed then—as I believe now—there is no shame it such a slight abnormality, I remembered how small and frightened I felt. Terrified these adult strangers would judge me and find me beyond lacking. I knew my fated designation. I made no attempts to hide from it. Rather I had prepared for it, had confessed to my parents, had been assured there was nothing to fear on this day.
So, when I went before the doctors to determine my sexual status, I walked with more dignity and confidence than I felt. So much so that when I was shown to the doctors, one whispered to the other thinking I could not hear, “here’s a dandy who’s going to fail with pride.”
What a strange little thing you are, Scribbling Windhund, for me to tell you that now. I bring it up now because I saw myself… I realized I was forcing that same confidence into my walk as I was toured through the prison. And I feared if my façade of strength dropped for even a second, the teeth of those great gears would chew through me like paper.
How uselessly poetic.
Sat. July 21st, 134 SE 1:05 p.m.
No one is coming, yet.
I have to keep reminding myself I’m in an officers’ mess hall and not in a prison cell. It doesn’t look like a cell. The cells were white with black floors and ceilings, while this room has a very fine parquet with a kind of scrolling border. This room is insulated, so it’s quieter and cooler.
It’s being left alone that unnerves me. I checked the door just now to see if I was trapped. There’s a guard stationed outside. I amused myself by trying to talk to him but found him utterly unresponsive. He repeated, “In another ten minutes, you will be processed,” so frequently I’m confident he would have said it if I’d asked for his name.
I am also confident the delay comes from Aufsicht Ida Thomalla. Head officer. Warden. Witch-queen. I will not write about her for I have nothing polite to say and to insult her would be like a grown man solving a child’s puzzle box. It is too easy and beneath me.
However, I will say this. Thomalla matched her office like she was a doll inside her packaging. No! She wasn’t doll-like. Aufsicht Thomalla matched her office like a monster in a diorama. As if she and the room had been molded by the same tinker’s hand with the purpose of unnerving small children.
I can see him now, an old man—like Pascal Selig—stooped from a lifetime of applying his art, tweezers primed between finger and thumb as he painstakingly adjusted the details of her sleek black uniform. He’s designed her so carefully. With the wide lapel of a man’s suits jacket but trimmed appropriately tight to her muscular curves and hard hips. Her black blouse coarsely made since the softer fabrics of a proper ladies’ gown might catch fire in the heat of this damned tower. Her buttons are solid brass and far too small for a woman of her height and…girth, shall we say?
That’s unkind. Just because the woman is chipped from the same quarry as a man, just because she stands at least a foot taller than me, just because she’s a person wider than me doesn’t make her fat. Indeed, I doubt there’s an ounce of softness in her body.
She was a soldier, an officer, through and through. No matter how it was pleated or flared, the feminine skirt, which hadn’t been in fashion for at least five years, could not soften the shine on her boots or the point of her saber.
I’d bet she wore men’s underthings beneath it though.
Ah, that was too mean. I wish I could erase it.
Rainer Liebling chuckles. Then goes on softer, colder.
Her office had not a trace of color in it. All mahogany and bright, clean paper. Her wall hangings were roster lists of prisoners and feeding schedules. Her decorations were spare cogs and springs, handcuffs, and batons. The accessories on her desk were a trench helmet and a black and white photo of a man as stone and steel as herself.
I wanted to ask if he was a father, brother, or lover, but I was polite when I greeted her. I didn’t even have the chance to lie about what a pleasure it was to meet her before she said, “I instructed you to wear simple clothes.”
“I thought I was, Aufsicht Thomalla,” was my answer.
But childishly, as if I’d forgotten my ensemble, I looked at it. Did the same again, just now. It really is a simple costume, though uselessly feminine compared to Aufsicht Thomalla’s sleek uniform. In her room of austerity and order, I was the only dash of color. If my coat had been a bluebell in a quarry, my entire person was a bouquet in the land of the dead. What had seemed terribly plain to me this morning—trousers and thin over-jacket an understated pinstripe Robin’s Egg and October Sky Blue—now seems terribly fussy. The indigo vest is a double button that fastens nearly at my shoulder worn over a crisp white shirt with Slate-tips on the cuffs and winged collar. The final highlights, of course, are a patterned blue silk scarf and smoky cravat. I don’t even have a decorative pocket watch. So I have no idea how long I’ve been waiting.
When she’d instructed me to remove my cravat, scarf, vest, jacket, and shoes, she stopped mid-way through saying my professional name. It was too ridiculous in her mouth. Nothing was darling to her, but especially not me. “What is your real name?”
If she’d been a tad kinder, I would have told her, but the disgust behind her steely eyes beat the fear and docility out of me. I took off my jacket, which I’d been longing to do since I walked into the inferno, and the cravat and scarf. But I left on my vest and shoes to test my limits. “The office of Höchster Albrecht assured me my artist’s name was acceptable professional identification.”
She sucked in a stern breath perhaps to growl at me, but before she could speak, I said as pleasantly as possible. “What kind of cravat is acceptable?”
“None. Prisoner 16 will choke you to death with a shoelace.”
That brought a little of my fear back, but I stood firm. I had holes in my socks, and I couldn’t bear for those soldiers to see. And if I removed my vest, my little book of portraits might fall out. The humiliation would have killed me.
Furthermore, it was undignified to ask a grown man to strip so far down. I felt nearly naked with my throat bare, and I wasn’t some day-laborer or soldier she could command.
When it became clear she would stare at me until I obeyed or defied her, I said, “I shall take my chances, since I imagine it would be just as easy for him to throttle me with his bare hands as make a garrote out of laceless ankle boots.”
I’ve been in a great many fights with cobblers, but I’ve never had a woman look at my feet with so much loathing. My toes practically wither—
Click of a door opening.
Unknown Man: Herr Liebling.
Rainer Liebling: Oh! Yes. Hello, sir.
Unknown Man: We have permission to bring you in for the interview. Did you need more time to…?
RL: No, thank you! I pace when I… Let me turn off my little Windhund. Isn’t it an excellent little trinket? Fantastic tool for—
Sat. July 21st, 134 SE 1:10 p.m.
White noise, ticks, clock ticks, whir, grinding, audio unclear, white noise.
I hope you don’t mind. I brought along a little contraption to take notes. The inventor calls it a Dik-Tak.
Unknown man: The inventor?
Rainer Liebling: My apologies… the recreationist.
UM: The inventor called it a complicated piece of shit to scrawl notes. Besides, I liked when you called it a Scribbling Windhund.
RL: Uh…yes. The re-creator, Pascal Selig, believes the original design is probably from before the global collapse.
UM: Is that what they’re telling people about me these days?
UM: That binder over there with the sketch of an inkwell. Fetch it here.
A chair scrapes, metal scratching, clocks tick, audio unclear.
RL: This one?
UM: Yeah. That’s it.
RL: Oh! Please don’t touch it! It’s a very delicate machine.
UM: You think I’m likely to break it? Do you want its eyes open?
RL: Sorry. Its eyes?
UM: It marks what it hears, but it will also write what it sees. Not as well, you understand. Words are easy. Visual impressions are…complicated. Need to be trained.
Papers rustle. Drumming. Book thud. Whirring. Metal scrape. White noise.
RL: I’m not sure I follow, sir.
UM: Look at page…24 of that notebook.
RL: Oh! You’re a recreationist too?
UM: No. I’m an inventor. This is one of mine.
Room is approximately 27 square meters. Barred windows. Sky. No visible landmarks. Chair. Workman’s table in far right. Seated on a couch is a man putting something in his pocket. Location: Gefängnisturm.
Two occupants of the room. Farther from Dik-Tak is unknown woman/man/woman/man
RL: What is it writing?
UM: What it sees.
Farther from Dik-Tak is Rainer Liebling. Young adult. Fitzpatrick skin type 1. Eyes blue. Yellow hat.
RL: It’s…describing me?
UM: As best as it can.
RL: So, I see. That hat is my hair, Herr Windhund. It happens to be the height of fashion.
Blonde hair the height of fashion. Vest grey. Shirt blueish.
Rainer Liebling laughs.
UM: It will learn more as you dictate description and show it images. But the feature is mainly for notes. It can get more and more detailed.
Closer to Dik-Tak is an unknown man. Late thirties. Fitzpatrick skin type 4. Hair and eyes black. Poorly shaven. White sheet with black polka dots.
Rainer Liebling and unknown man laugh.
UM: It’s a very dumb puppy.
RL: Shall I use that description in my column, sir? Oh, never mind, I promised my editor I would be serious.
UM: Pity. I like the idea of all Stadtoben thinking of me as a prisoner who wears nothing but a polka-dotted sheet. Herr Windhund, they’re oil stains on a pair of coveralls.
Unknown man wears white coveralls with oils stains.
Whirring, clock noises, thunder, drumming.
UM: Herr Windhund, recalibrate to adjust to the noise of the tower.
RS: But you didn’t actually—
Unknown man raises a hand. Full of ink stains.
*recalibrating to white noise *
Room has white walls and black floors. Brightly colored sketches hang on nails on wall.
UM: All right.
RL: So, in this sketchbook… You designed this?
UM: They let me make toys if I show them sketches and they determine they’re non-lethal.
UM: From what I’ve read in your column. They call me the Silent Tinkerer.
Silent Tinkerer: I keep my notes on a separate sheet of paper. My handwriting is messy, and I like to keep my sketches neat.
RL: But you’ve designed half of Prussia’s…
ST: Thank you for saying. I imagine the designs are much improved.
RL: I don’t know. Pascal Selig never mentioned it could see.
ST: Like I said, this one is a complicated piece of shit to scrawl notes. I like the façade he gave it though. Very cute. I envisioned it inside…a softer skin. Like a stuffed animal.
RL: I have a feeling Herr Selig designed it for me.
ST: You a dog lover then?
RL: I have a weakness for gold and black.
ST: Colors of elegance. That’s what you called them in your, uh, column…oh, I guess it was around January. “In Preparation of the Albion Season.”
RS: Oh, yes. I didn’t think you actually read my column.
ST: Why else would I specifically ask for you, Herr… is that your real name? Liebling?
RL: Of course not, but if I told you the truth, I wouldn’t be your darling anymore. Sorry! That was inappropriate. I’m used to… reporters asking and—
ST: What’s your real name?
Seated in chair, Rainer Liebling fidgets with the sketchbook in his lap.
RL: Otto Lang.
Silent Tinkerer laughs.
ST: Surprisingly humble name.
RL: You can see why I changed it.
Silent Tinkerer nods, smiles, leans on his hand, on his elbow, on the couch.
RL: I was advised to take a woman’s name. So I had to go to three papers before they’d let me write a fashion column under a male name. Even then, I started by sharing with Elsie Simper.
ST: Yes. I read hers as well. I prefer her historical essays to yours.
RL: Do you now?
ST: I don’t much like how you reprinted a fourteen year old story about the night I was arrested instead of trying to investigate it yourself.
RL: I’m sorry, you didn’t like it. But you invited a fashion critic, not an investigative journalist to interview you.
Silent Tinkerer sits up, but stays slouched, hands in his lap. Eyes on floor.
ST: I didn’t mean to say I didn’t like it. I would have liked to read your opinion on the events. Will you tell me about when you first started?
RL: Started what…
ST: What you said just now, about when you started out sharing with Elsbeth Simper?
RL: Oh, sure. I did all the writing. She did all the drinking. Just kidding. Elsie’s a sweet lady. Great editor. Hates fashion. You know her uncle is the one who wrote that article about your arrest? He was a drinker too, rest in peace. He fell on a letter opener, I hear. Real tragedy.
ST: You don’t talk about yourself very well.
Rainer Liebling smiles and leans forward.
RL: Neither do you. I think you’re more mysterious now than when I came in.
ST: Tell me about Prussia.
ST: Tell me about Prussia. I live in a tower. What’s it like down there?
RL: Oh, very beautiful. The three neighborhoods are the most functionally designed in the world. A sector built for the needs of its citizens. But I’m sure you know all about the building of Stadtoben.
ST: What’s it like for the homeless?
RL: There are no homeless. There are family homes run by the military for people who are not capable of caring for themselves. Is that what you mean? My sister’s husband runs one. They serve them food three times a day and they let people make simple goods like canvases and crates as occupation.
ST: How about disease?
RL: Are you asking—
ST: What happens when someone very poor gets sick.
RL: They go to a doctor.
ST: Who pays for treatment?
RL: No one. Oh, our taxes.
Rainer Liebling giggles nervously.
RL: I feel like I’m in in a civics quiz.
ST: Do you know the crime rate?
RL: There is no crime. I mean, I’m sure there’s petty theft and things but…no one attacks anyone in the street and steals their shoes. This isn’t America.
ST: Is food free, too?
RL: No. There’s markets. If you need assistance you can go to a government office, like where my brother-in-law works and they will feed you. Usually in exchange for volunteering to make the meals in the schools or the orphanages or family homes.
ST: Sounds utopic. I know there’s a ton of support of the arts. Hell, your clothes are an art form. I hear the music from the parks sometimes. See the plays and the galleries advertised in the papers. I know you support inventors.
RL: What are you getting at, sir?
ST: Nothing sinister. Prussia just seems like a nice place to live.
RL: It is.
ST: Tell me about how you broke open the fashion industry.
RL: I…I didn’t either. I just asked to be included in it.
Silent Tinkerer leans back on couch and smiles.
ST: When you were fifteen you were outlawed from representing Stadtoben in the Intersectoral tailoring competition, so you submitted your designs through some other sector that had never won.
RL: The Caledonians.
ST: Yes, you designed a man’s suit based on the tartan. Their kings adopted it.
RL: Still use for daily wear. It was an interesting challenge to incorporate their history and talk them out of wearing kilts—
ST: They had to create a new category so they could give you an award. The next year when Stadtoben allowed you to design, we placed first. Lords and Ladies in Albion paid minor fortunes for your designs. You redesigned the Intersectoral police’s formal wear. The queen mother of Versailles wanted you for her sons’ personal tailor.
RL: I was lucky. I got the reputation of a wunderkind, and I had the talent to deliver.
ST: Don’t be modest. By the time you were twenty, you could have gone anywhere on the planet and commanded the fashion industry.
ST: But you stayed in Stadtoben. Why?
Rainer Liebling shifts un—
RL: I’m a true Prussian.
ST: You stay in a country that won’t let you tailor, where the designs you sell become the property of the state because you’re a hobbyist and there’s a cap on the amount of income you can take from this hobby.
RL: Service to the state before self.
ST: That’s noble of you.
RL: I am happy to do my part and have no use for…excess.
ST: You had to fight to write a daily column for the official newspaper. A column I might add that is read across the planet and worshipped by the Lords of Albion as gospel.
RL: Is that why you—
ST: And all this in the name of “inclusion”. You’re a reformist.
RL: Don’t twist—I’m not. I only—
ST: Go on. Finish your thought.
Rainer Liebling’s hand covers his mouth, and he shrugs.
RL: I’m not a cultural reformist.
ST: You tasked men in this country to be as beautiful as the women. And you proudly admit that you have the sexuality to judge.
RL: It’s not like I could hide…
ST: You’re right. You’re not a reformist. You’re a revolutionary. I deeply admire that.
RL: You’re wrong but, I… I’m glad you admire my hard work.
Rainer Liebling exhibits postures of nervousness, looking over his shoulder, fidgeting. Then startles and touches the metal clockwork attached to his ear. Dik-Tak analyzing…
Device is a radio transmitter and receiver. Advanced model. Design 923 Silent Tinkerer, modifications made. Signal range limited to twenty feet.
Rainer Liebling appears calmer. The Silent Tinkerer smiles.
ST: You didn’t know they were watching? Why else would they give you that earpiece?
RL: I didn’t think it… worked both ways. And I didn’t see any augen, so…
ST: The whole ceiling is an augen. You’re safely under surveillance.
Rainer Liebling relaxes.
ST: Is that why you stay in Prussia? I’m told people who are used to constant monitoring feel alone and afraid when the guards disappear.
RL: Is it not safe outside Stadtoben.
Silent Tinkerer watches Rainer Liebling. His eyes move constantly but never away from Rain—
RL: It’s curious you should say that. In one of my first personal pieces, I wrote…
ST: All while I traveled abroad, I felt an unaccustomed terror. I found myself becoming paranoid, forever plagued by the thought, ‘what if this person did violence to me? How could they be caught? How could I escape since there are no guards to protect me?’ I returned to Stadtoben like a kitten who has strayed from his mother and nips at her tail and paws at her side, and out of gratitude to be welcomed back will not leave her sight again.
RL: You can quote it?
ST: I have a good memory, it’s… a passage I’ve given great thought.
RL: I’m surprised a terrorist takes such an interest in a lowly columnist.
ST: Not so lowly. Besides…
Silent Tinkerer leans back on the couch, spreads his arms. Casual.
ST: My real name was Karl Schneider. I come from a long line of tailors.
Rainer Liebling touches his earpiece and seems alarmed. Karl Schneider laughs.
Karl: Oh no, did I send the birds into a twitter?
Karl Schneider lifts his eyes to the ceiling.
Karl: If it helps you, Dame Malice, I was born on February 20, in the Prussian year of 976.
Unknown Voice: Enough for today.
Karl: She’ll let you come back. Don’t worry.
Unknown Voice: Civilian, please come to the door. Prisoner 16, go into your proper cell.
Rainer Liebling immediately rises and walks to the door. Karl Schneider pauses, lingering on the couch, then picks up the Dik-Tak.
Karl: Herr Liebling.
Unknown Voice: Return to your proper cell, Karl.
Karl: Doesn’t take her long to get informal does it? May I call you, Ida, now, or do you prefer Dame Malice?
Dame Malice: I prefer obedience. I will not allow the civilian to return if you do not obey as we discussed.
Karl Schneider rises. One palm lifts, the other tilts the Dik-Tak. Ceiling is black. Metal and glass mingled in places. Dik-Tak analyzing…
Devices are lenses. 9 – 15 centimeters. Surveillance cameras. Advanced model. Design…not found.
Karl: I’ll obey. I’ll obey. Don’t forget the Scribbling Windhund, Herr Liebling. I look forward to reading your column.
Rainer Liebling steps forward.
DM: Stay by the door, civilian.
Karl Schneider rolls his eyes and takes Dik-Tak into alcove. Previously unseen. There is a full-sized bed and sectioned off toilet and shower. There is a metal grate above. Karl Schneider closes the grate. He holds the Dik-Tak through the bars.
Karl: Come and get it. I’m no threat.
Boom and hiss from the grate as clamps rise to hold it in place. Rainer Liebling takes a step forward then looks at the ceiling.
RL: May I—?
Rainer Liebling stays still but chuckles.
RL: This all seems a little extreme to me.
Karl: Dame Malice likes extremes. She’s very efficient. Very Prussian.
The cell door opens. Two guards with rifles aim at Karl Schneider, who remains stationary holding out the Dik-Tak in one hand. The other raised.
When a guard moves forward to seize the Dik-Tak, Karl Schneider pulls it into the cell and steps back.
Karl: Let him get it.
DM: I don’t like your games, Prisoner 16.
Karl: I know. That’s what makes them so much fun. Come on, Herr Lang. You want your notes, don’t you?
Rainer Liebling crosses the room. Karl Schneider extends the Dik-Tak. Rainer Liebling take the—
Karl: You don’t have anything to fear from me.
Karl Schneider seizes his arm. The guards point their guns.
DM: Release him!
Karl: They’ll tell you what to write. Show me I can trust you to say what you see.
DM: On the count of three, execute Prisoner 16.
RL: Let go! She’ll—
Karl: There’s no reason for you to come back if I can’t—
Karl Schneider releases Rainer Liebling and kneels in the cell with his hands behind his head. Rainer Liebling holds Dik-Tak against his shoulder. Darkness.
RL: You can. I never lie.
Rainer Liebling shakes as he walks out of—
Wed. July 25th, 134 SE
[Elsie, I’m aware this is a problematic piece. Specifically, that it’s offensive to the subject, then sympathizes with radical political beliefs. But you must print this as I’ve written it or I can’t guarantee Karl Schneider will speak to me again. Send to L. Thomalla if you are squeamish.]
Dear Readers of Der Stadtoben Spiegel, I have been inside Gefängnisturm, and it is indeed a marvelous machine. Like walking into a perfect pocket watch, the tower is as orderly, pristine, and humane as modern as a true Prussian could ask. I regret that my interview with Prisoner 16 was cut short, due to the diligence and concern of the authorities, but I have received permission to return in the near future. And I did learn the gentleman’s name.
Karl Schneider, age thirty-six, is a man with many aliases.
Prisoner 16, Ben the Stoic, and the most renown of all, The Silent Tinkerer.
That’s correct, Ladies and Gentleman. I confirmed with several of the city’s leading tinkerers and recreationists. The designs of the Silent Tinkerer are provided by the government libraries. We have long known of an unnamed genius craftsman who drew complicated contraptions which modern tinkerers have attempted to re-create. What I never knew, was that the designs are not only done in the same hand, but with the same type of pencil and the same kind of paper. One consistently available to a prisoner. Apparently, as ‘new’ designs are ‘uncovered,’ they are sent to all the recreationists in the city who receive additional government stipends for the product when it is fully functional. So, it seems the apparently limitless amount of designs of the Silent Tinkerer and indeed limited to the extent of a modern prisoner’s life. We have all been benefiting from a common prisoner’s genius for over a decade, and he deserves at least that recognition.
Even without these external investigations (reaffirmed by the staff at Gefängnisturm before printing), I believed Karl Schneider when he said he had designed my scribbling windhund. Just a glance around his cell, which is about the size of my mother’s garden, revealed a man of intense intellect. The few simple comforts of the apartment include a workbench and wall space decorated with hundreds of colorful sketches of his inventions past and future. It was the only splash of color in all of Gefängnisturm, I might add. [Do not edit, Elise.]
And yet if one were to pass Herr Schneider in the street, it’s likely one would take no notice of him except to pass him the reins to one’s horse or to pay him wages for a day of labor. He possesses the height and width of a man who works with his body. His features are unremarkable. Unkempt hair as dark and silken as soot. Fingers and white coveralls permanently ink-stained. Deeply-sunken restless eyes. The man studies every new addition to his small world with a surgeon’s intensity, and he possesses an intellect that frankly caught me off guard.
I expected Prisoner 16 to be a terrorist by rote. A dull and desperate man reciting well-worn phrases about tyranny and oppression. But this man was no angry, uneducated farmer. No dim youth who’d gotten carried away by his friends’ bad ideas or the charisma of an evil tempter. He is a clear-minded, well-spoken, craftsman and would blend utterly into the fabric of our society.
That the man is a genius cannot be questioned.
Nor can the fact that he is an anarchist and deeply disturbed.
Below I have, in the interest of full transparency, included the warden’s report of Karl Schneider’s early life. I was given permission to use this material for the column, and I think it informs my readers of the gentleman’s early life better than I could.
I will say that while I do not agree in any way with the anti-Prussian behavior that drips like a poison out of the man, as I read this reports I was moved as much be horror as sympathy. I found myself consistently wondering what would drive a young man with such intelligence to steal from scrap yards and food stalls. Why didn’t he apply to a patron? Or seek out shelter in the church? How had Prussia failed him so utterly that he would need to stoop to these levels of criminality when he was only fourteen? The answer, of course, is that this was not the Prussia we know today.
So, to the younger generations, recall his times were different than ours. While he is only a decade older than me, Prussia was once a dark and strange place where orphans were not uncommon, royals were not reined in by our strong military ordinances, and people, even children, slipped through the cracks of society. A child born today in Prussia with Karl Schneider’s intellect and talent would never have been left to be twisted into sedition.
[You should receive a report from Aufsicht Thomalla, along with her permission to print.]
On Monday, as always, I will return with my standard fair and discuss for gentlemen the merits of thin ties in bold colors with a stand-up collar—I know old fashioned, but don’t judge yet. For ladies, how to launder and press your husband and son’s jackets with ease and efficiency.
Thank you for once again for your indulgence, dear readers. This remains, as always, my unprofessional opinion.
Rainer Liebling [3 notes for E.]
Sat. July 28st, 134 SE
In Karl Schneider’s cell. Workbench is messier than last week, crammed with paper and ink. Karl Schneider sits in stool by the window, arms crossed. He fiddles with a folded newsprint.
I wanted to start with the report you printed about me.
Rainer Liebling: Should I have investigated personally?
Karl Schneider: No. I doubt you would find anything more than that.
RL: That is true. I tried.
Karl Schneider leans forward.
RL: I tried to talk to people who had known you, but I found no one. I wrote a letter to the ruling family of your old serfdom, the Albrechts. Had tea with the family, which was very exciting for me. The old man had some faint memories about an upstart boy who’d steal machine parts, and he remembered buying some contraptions and turning a blind eye to all the scavenging on his land. His older sons remembered nothing. Though Höchster Philipp had a lot to say about you.
Karl Schneider laughs.
KS:Nothing too positive, I hope? He and his brothers always struck me as more interested in riding and swordplay than their tenants.
Karl Schneider rustles the newsprint in his hand. Then sets it down.
KS:It’s a clever way to print what they told you to and sneak your own thoughts in. It’s a little too slick. I’m not sure I believe a word you write, but I badly want…
Karl Schneider studies room behind Dik-Tak *recalibration* studies Rainer Liebling.
RL: To tell your story?
KS:Yeah. Let’s go with that. I wanted to start before my criminal record, when my family belonged to the Plattners. That’s when I was, as you said, twisted into sedition.
RL: I wanted to say blasphemy, but Elsie worried we’d offend the Catholics.
Karl Schneider laughs.
KS:Well, I hate God almost as much as I hate Prussia, and you can quote me on that.
RL: Herr Schneider, please. I intend to keep my job. It’s the only reason they let me in here.
KS:You can call me Karl. I fully intend to dismiss all formalities and address you by your name once I get the nerve.
RL: Is nerve something you lack, Karl?
Karl/Karl Schneider/Karl: For the first time in fourteen years, it seems.
No discernible movement or change in room.
RL: You were going to tell me about—
Karl: The Plattners. Do you know them?
RL: Not personally. I doubt they would have tea with me. They own the farms.
Karl: No farms. Underground warehouses filled with controlled, agriculture.
RL: I… what?
Karl: Stadtoben is fed by thousands of acres of underground vertical fields.
RL: But they have pictures of fields… and I went to a farm on a field trip.
Karl: Did you ride horses?
Karl: And saw lots of grain and flowers?
Karl: You saw his private gardens. The bulk of it is underground. If you don’t believe me look in the folder with the little plant on it.
RL: No, I believe you. I just…
Karl: Vertical shelves. Full of plants, under special lighting. Requires less water, and it’s about 420 times more efficient than fields.
RL: And this was when you were a boy?
Karl laughs and bends forward on his knees.
Karl: Hell no. About six months after I was arrested, they realized how they’d lucked out by locking up one of the smartest in Unterstadt.
RL: And so humble.
Karl: That was humble. You’ve met Thomalla. You think she’d agree to have just any prisoner trotted out to supervise an engineering project?
RL: Did the Plattners request you?
Karl: No, those fat fucks won’t remember me either. They had hundreds, maybe thousands of serfs working their farms when I was born. But my father was one of them, and he taught me all about farming. He did hops, mostly.
RL: Oh! Did he sell to a distillery?
Karl: He didn’t sell anything. He got the right to live in a shack and dream.
Rainer Liebling, seated on the couch, looks nervous, picks at his britches.
Karl: Mama was a tailor. Like I’d told you, I came from a long line of tailors, but not real tailors like you.
RL: I’m no tailor. I’m a fashionista.
Rainer Liebling and Karl laugh.
RL: But what is real tailoring like?
Karl: Well, Mama had four colors of fabric. Black, brown, navy, and white for special occasions. Black wasn’t only a military color then. Most people wore it. Mostly she made overcoats for shepherds and fancy dresses for confirmations and weddings. I mended lots of pants and shirts before they raised our taxes and I went to the fields—proper farmland fields. Acres and acres of land. But before the farming…I mended jeans.
Karl: Denim trousers. It’s not a Prussian invention… Um, it’s a sturdy cotton fabric. Worn by farmers. We did a lot of work for farmers. I first got into mechanicals because Mama had an ancient machine for sewing, but it broke constantly. I stole my first scrap metal to make it new parts since she could work so much faster on the machine.
RL: Yes, one of the Silent, sorry one of your early designs was for a mechanical seamer.
Karl: Oh, you started looking into my work?
RL: Well, Herr Schneider, one might say you’re my new hobby.
Karl: I’m flattered. What do you do when you’re not researching terrorists?
RL: So, you stole scrap metal to help your mother?
Karl laughs and paces back towards the window.
Karl: I’m such a sympathetic story. But yeah, that was the start. I built her a new one. A better one. The prince stole it.
RL: But… why!
Karl: I drew too much attention to us. Made us a target. I’d sell little gadgets I re-created from the heaps to other serfs, hand mixers or these little things you could flick open and get fire from. Clockwork toys. We got a bit of money from it, and Papa talked about buying out our debt, moving out the country into Berlin so Mama could be a wealthy woman’s tailor, and I could go to a school for mechanics. I got too excited by his talk. Started making bigger contraptions selling them for more, fixing machines. It drew the attention of Jürgen Plattner, our prince.
RL: He ought to have patroned you at once.
Karl Schneider shakes his head.
Karl: You’ve lived a very middle-class existence, Otto Lang. The Plattners were interested in serfs and beer. Rent and hops. They had no use for a machinist. The prince said it was against nature to further the minds of his peasants. He accused me of stealing machines from the children I went to school with. So, I was beaten the first time, and all our mechanicals were taken away. Mama started working in the fields.
RL: That’s criminal. The police…
Karl: Only worked for the rich.
RL: He’d never get away with such a thing now.
Karl: I’m sure.
RL: He wouldn’t—there are laws to protect us.
Karl: I’d be happy to debate with you about how the modern laws are disastrous abuses of privacy and personal freedom. Or how the rich have more power in your so-called democracy than they ever had in the monarchy. But I know you won’t be able to print any of it, so…I’ll stick to my days as a hopeful farm-boy. You can sell that.
RL: Very considerate of you.
Karl: One tries to be a good host. Where was I?
Rainer Liebling leans over the Dik-Tak to read the paper.
RL: Your mother started working in the fields.
Karl: Right. I left school at about nine, I received permission to leave Plattner’s land and work in Albrechts’ shops as a mechanic. Our rent went disgustingly high, but I made my mother a new sewing machine with stolen scrap parts, and I’d sell the blankets and coats she made to serfs in Albrecht’s lands. Between her tailoring and my wages, we almost saved enough money to buy Mama’s way out of Plattner’s service. I was indentured to Albrecht, but that would be fine. If Mama and Papa were business owners and not serfs we could petition the king when I was of age for the forgiveness of my debt.
RL: But they died?
Karl: How does your research say?
RL: A consumptive disease. Tuberculosis?
Karl: It wasn’t tuberculosis, but it consumed them, all right.
Karl perches on stool becomes uncharacteristically still.
Karl: Semi-permeable domes needed to be tested. The Plattners offered a few hundred acres of their fields for testing. The family received a reward for their service since they put millions of crops in danger.
The family never told the serfs.
RL: That doesn’t sound—
Karl: And the first Prussian designs didn’t work.
RL: But without a dome, you wouldn’t last a week.
Karl: You’re right. I misspoke. The first Prussian design worked a little, but not enough. We called it sun-sickness. I don’t know if anyone official ever gave it a name. I don’t think it’s likely as they were in very deep denial about it. My little sister, Hannah…
Karl wipes his—
Karl: Was one of the first to die. She’d walk through the fields on her way to and from school. It started as just vomiting, and we thought she had the flu. We thought she’d get better, but then she started bleeding with no cause, getting bruises when she’d just been lying in bed because she was too tired to move. Her skin blistered and parts of it…slipped off. Then she died.
RL: How awful…
Karl: We lost twenty little children like this and Plattner closed the school and insisted the old building was to blame. So, the older kids started working in the fields until a new school could be built. Mostly, they irrigated the crops. My father suspected our dome was malfunctioning. They were all failing in those days, it seemed. Farmers started getting sick. Smaller weaker men, the older children. New orders came to transplant the crops to a floating field and workers were paid double to work even night. So, we all went into the fields.
Like all the Plattners’ serfs, my parents bought their debts by the time the crops were moved to the floating fields…saved from the failing dome on the backs of poisoned slaves. But they didn’t get the symptoms of the sickness until their debt had been paid. There was eventually a huge legal blow-up about who owed compensation to whom between the Plattners and Albrechts, you might be too young to remember it.
RL: My older sister wrote an essay on it. I remember her reciting it in the mirror.
Karl: Albrecht proved that the sun-sickness came not from the living conditions in his tenant buildings but from the fields. Plattner avoided paying for the healthcare of all his dead and dying serfs because they’d bought their debt. In this way, nearly three thousand farmers lost their lives because of an engineer’s mistake in a semipermeable dome, and none of the ruling families had to pay a cent to help their orphans, or bury the dead, or even just as an apology.
RL: I… that wasn’t part of my sister’s paper.
Karl: I’m sure it wasn’t.
RL: I can see how you would feel betrayed.
Karl: Oh, can you? Because I didn’t then. Not yet anyway. Hundreds of us orphans insisted that the ruling families had compensated us. That Albrecht or Plattner did their part to take care of us and helped us become good citizens because they ‘took us in’ out of charity.
RL: Your family was loyalist?
Karl: To the end. Me too. I thought the Plattners were excellent people because they provided hospice care for both my parents and they died in comfort. But I did the math later. I never had access to official financial records, but by my guess, Plattner made about five times what he spent on their care collecting damages for the ruined harvest.
Karl: I found out later there was a cure for the sun-sickness. Maybe it was more than we could afford, maybe Mama would have chosen to remain in hospice anyway, but she was never given the option. Papa died too fast. The last letter I have from my mother, she’s praising the ruling families for their generosity in providing her health care, medicating her until her death—and patroning me. I wasn’t patroned. I was put on an assembly line to make floating fields and robotic threshers. Plattner found out he could grow potatoes under the cheaper dome and he had an army of automaton labor that needed building. They’d break your fingers if you stole metal and they wouldn’t feed you if they caught fooling with machines.
Karl paces rapidly before—
Karl: And still I was a loyalist. I thought I was being punished for getting above my station. It was a silly hobby for me. I became a rebel because I didn’t want automatons in the field. I wanted to be out there planting. So, I joined a gang that made sure not a single automaton was properly constructed, but that each machine had a tiny, easily missed part from one section of the line or another. They’d break down within the month. Plattner blamed it on the hostile environment.
Rainer Liebling remains silent. Karl paces.
Karl stops before workbench. He pauses looking at his papers and the pens there. Rainer Liebling shifts on the couch, hands on his knees fidgeting. Then he draws a little book and pen from his vest.
Karl: You seem antsy, Herr Liebling.
RL: I…I never heard about any semi-permeable dome tests.
Karl: Of course not. Would you love Prussia if you knew about the either accidental deaths or systematic murder of it lowest class? The rulers dreamed of an elite society of military experts, of cultural critics, and artists. A clean and pretty city, small enough to be fed from the fields around Prussia. If you were deemed too stupid, too poor, or not Prussian enough, you were removed. Accidents happened all the time in my world. Chemical fires blazed through entire blocks. Sea-walls crumbled and flooded. Each time, the princes would get to take a stand about the shitty conditions and the need to rebuild a new better Prussia. But we’d been decimated by the time they started building Stadtoben.
Rainer Liebling writes in his book. Karl resumes pacing, then walks with purpose and comes behind the couch. Karl laughs and Rainer Liebling jolts and hides—
Karl: Saunter into sedition…began with conspiratorial thinking as a child? I like that saunter into sedition.
RL: I…I’m sorry.
Karl: It’s what you’re here to do. You want a—
RL: You have to admit what you’re talking about is… madness. An elite upper class purposefully killing off worker?
Karl: They didn’t need us anymore.
RL: You can’t believe that?
Karl: I can believe what choose. I’m may be a prisoner, but I’ve got the freedom of my mind which is more than I can say about anyone walking on those streets letting their military watch them.
RL: That kind of evil…it’s not possible.
Karl: I comfort myself by believing it is.
RL: The idea of a systematic massacre comforts you?
Karl: Considering the alternative, damn straight.
Rainer Liebling watches Karl confused.
Karl: If it was a deliberate extermination, it was kept secret. It was orchestrated by a very small number of wicked, powerful people. If it wasn’t orchestrated, if it wasn’t a secret… It haunts me thinking it wasn’t… All that death just… It keeps me awake at night. Sometimes I can’t make myself believe it was on purpose and I… I end up throwing chairs at the wall until they sedate me.
RL: What’s the alternative?
Karl: That was all suffered and we all died and we were just ignored. That a part of humanity just ignored another part of humanity, when the waters rose, and the sickness spread, and the droughts drained the life from us. That because we didn’t have money, you watched us die.
Karl: I prefer the conspiracy of evil people doing wicked things in secret because it shields myself from the reality of everyday people doing nothing.
Karl walks to window.
Karl: Did you want a proper piece of paper to take notes?
RL: Sorry. I just—yes.
Karl: Paper is the one thing they give me freely. Books, they ration, but paper and ink…
Karl brings him paper and ink. Rainer Liebling accepts it but doesn’t begin to use it.
RL: Thank you.
Karl: What were you—ah, a portrait book.
RL: Yes. I’m in the habit of taking it everywhere. It will sound vain of me, but it makes some people pleased to have.
Karl: I can appreciate that. May I have one?
Rainer Liebling folds a page in the books and begins to tear.
Karl: May I have the one you wrote about me on?
Rainer Liebling looks up at him and then tears a different page out of the book.
RL: Why not.
Karl looks at the tiny page with admiration.
Karl: It’s amazing how different you look in person.
Karl: I think it’s the clothing. In real life it’s blander than—Well, I suppose Dame Malice has limited what’s acceptable?
RL: Indeed, she said I had to wear understated beige or blue. And even so, I’ve been chastised both times I’ve visited.
Karl: What a silly thing. Is she worried the sight of strong colors will enrage me?
Rainer Liebling smiles.
RL: personally, I think…
Karl: feeds on power games, indeed. The woman gluts herself on the squirming of her underlings. I’m extremely confident she’d let you in if you came in wearing nothing but a pink chiffon chemise.
RL: Ha! I couldn’t bring myself to…quite that level of disobedience. I’m sorry my simplicity offends you.
Karl: Offend isn’t the right word. It…it’s more intimate than I expected. I thought you’d look… In the pamphlets, you always look so neatly constructed. Here, you are missing vital elements of the façade.
RL: The façade?
Karl smiles at him and raises one eyebrow.
RL: What pamphlets?
Karl is very still and very silent. He looks at the portrait in his hand then walks over and affixes it to a corkboard over his workbench. Then he stands very still looking at it.
Karl: I’ll show you my favorites.
RL: All right…
Rainer Liebling turns on couch as Karl goes into the alcove. From under the mattress, he pulls out a binder. He brings it to the couch. Paper is glossy and colorful, painted fashion pamphlets.
Karl: May I sit?
RL: Of course.
Rainer Liebling moves closer to the arm. Karl sits very near and shows him the binder. Rainer Liebling flips through the brightly colored pages. He shows growing discomfort.
Karl: I stole these from the fashion pamphlets in the libraries whenever I could over the years. If they take it now, it doesn’t matter, because I have you visiting in real life.
Rustle of paper. Soft, slightly fast breathing.
Karl: I hope you’re not upset.
RL: Only a little. Have you been collecting a long time?
Karl: There’s a backlog.
RL: How long—
Karl: About two years.
Papers rattle. Rainer puts his hand to his mouth.
RL: Ah, I… I’d forgotten about this portrait. It seemed…less indecent at the time.
Karl: It is. It’s only your Prussian modesty working against you. Someone from America or New Roma, even Edo wouldn’t bat an eye over that much skin.
RL: No, I’ m aware… But seeing it in your—in this context that makes it…explicit.
Karl: There was a reason I wouldn’t accept anyone but you. Telling my story to just anyone isn’t worth dying for.
RL: I’m… I don’t know what to say.
Karl: It’s unfair of me to expect you to say anything.
RL: Is that one…um, your favorite?
Karl: No. Not nearly. It’s this one.
RL: Ah! That’s an Louisa Böttcher suit. Isn’t she wonderful?
Karl: Yes. I love the work she does for you. Especially the lapel pins.
RL: Yes, she’s a dear and so very… detailed. I can’t imagine one of her designs in beige.
Karl: Or for an audience of one condemned man.
RL: Please, the whole world watches when I walk in here. It’s starting a new trend in daily men’s casual wear in Albion.
They look at the pictures.
RL: Claude Defries. He’s understated.
Karl: He’s dull. No vision. Not like Louisa.
Rainer Liebling laughs.
RL: I didn’t expect an anarchist to be the first man to share my love of fashion.
Karl: If you could work as a tailor or outside the sector, I’m sure I wouldn’t be.
Rainer Liebling takes a breath but doesn’t speak.
Karl: I must apologize. A good host doesn’t make his guests so…uncomfortable. I’ll tell my story and allow you to leave. No sense in forcing you to return again and again.
RL: No! Not at all. I’d rather you be comfortable and tell me the whole story. I thank you for your honesty. I just didn’t expect—
Karl: I think you did. You mentioned it in your first article about me. There’s no danger, of course. Half a dozen good soldiers with nothing better to watch than us. They’d kill me and leave a half-forgotten princess to rot rather than risk any harm to you.
RL: Well, they live in fear of their wives and sisters.
Karl: So witty, so beautiful. It’s very unfair, Otto. Even if I won’t get to see the full effect, I’m happy to have gotten to meet you. But I’ll go on anyway… where was I?
RL: The conspiracy of the rich to murder the poor.
Karl: Christ, what a deadpan.
RL: Is that what you call it?
Karl: Obviously. What would you call it?
RL: I’m sorry.
Rainer Liebling touches his earpiece.
RL: I’m having trouble hearing you over… They are talking in the observation room about how you hid that collection of portraits and whose fault it is. It’s very unprofessional and makes it difficult to focus.
RL: Also, they are feeding me lines, which I don’t appreciate.
Karl: I bet that will shut them up.
Karl leans across the couch toward Dik-Tak. Rainer Liebling jolts and stands. Karl—
Karl: Relax, Otto. I’m not coming for you.
RL: I… I prefer formality.
Karl: You want me to call you Liebling?
RL: You know, I’ve never regretted that name as much as I do today.
Karl: Otto it is.
Karl rises and walks around the table to pick up the papers from the Dik-Tak. Otto/Rainer Liebling/Otto sits back down on the couch. Karl reads papers, then replaces.
Karl: I’ll resume from the factory, and I’ll go back to my window.
Otto: Wherever, you are comfortable.
Karl sits down again on the couch very near to Otto. Otto is visibly uncomfortable. Brows angling together, shoulders tensing.
Otto: Please don’t—
Karl: It’s the rebel in me. Always testing boundaries. If you give the devil your little finger, he’ll take the whole hand.
Karl moves to the far end of the couch, loops his arms around the back and angles to look at Otto.
Karl: So, I worked on a factory line making faulty farming equipment for the Albrechts. One of the gang had an older sister, very pretty girl, who’d been promoted off the line and into the Albrecht serving staff. Oh, I forgot, if you were deemed too ugly, too stupid, too poor, or not quite Prussian enough, you were to be removed. The pretty girls were frequently saved… if that’s what you want to call it. You would have been saved.
Otto says nothing. He doesn’t look up from the piece of paper Karl gave him which he has not written on.
Karl: Maybe some of them are still in the sector, you can check. I’d be curious what happened to all the pretty serving girls during the transition.
Karl: The idea of finding someone alive to corroborate my story scares you?
Otto: My cousin was a serving girl for the Albrechts.
Karl: Well, you have someone to ask—
Otto: She died in the year of the transition.
Karl: Sorry for your loss. Sickness, fire, or, terrorist?
Otto: The dormitory was attacked by terrorists.
Karl: I can tell you, I swear on my life, the Vergiss Niemanden never targeted the serving class. It wouldn’t make sense with our goals. But we were blamed for it often.
Otto nods. Says nothing.
Karl: But Dachs’ sister, Anja, our serving girl. She would give us news from the royals. Told us all about the transition, the relocation. No official breathed a word of it to us. Not at first. She would smuggle us maps and pamphlets that the rest of Prussia was getting. Notices about moving day, and the free assistance to move big items like bed and dressers and things. Pictures of the imagined public works, the gardens, the libraries. It looked like a dream.
Otto: It is.
Karl: But not for us. We never heard anything official about anything until we saw neighborhoods emptying out, relocating. Then official word came to us. We were next. Get our paperwork in order to prove we were good citizens, be ready to move. New houses and clean-living conditions. Work would be available in the new city and outside the sector. Food and water wouldn’t be rationed anymore. It quelled a lot of riots. But it didn’t stop the sickness. Just made people calmer as they waited to die. Gave us something to hope for as we wasted away.
Karl leans forward hands fisted together between his knees. He stares at the floor.
Otto watches him intently. Skittish.
Otto: Karl? Are you ok?
Karl: I’m trying not to be conspiratorial. To just lay out the facts. But of course, I don’t have proper data, only my personal memories and it’s difficult to sort what I felt…What seemed so obvious and intuitive as I looked around. They were killing us.
RL: Maybe they were trying as hard as they could to save everyone they could. People had to be… prioritized.
Karl looks at Otto a long moment, then nods and sits straight again.
Karl: Prioritized. Yes. When even the air is poisonous, and there are only so many safe places, someone must make choices for the greater good. But should those left behind be forgotten? Should that choice be erased? If it wasn’t deliberate, why didn’t they teach you about it?
Otto has no answer.
Karl: It had to be a deliberate plan from the rich, doesn’t it?
Otto: Sure. A dirty secret they’re all taking to their graves.
Karl sighs and rises to pace. Otto watches Karl. Karl leaves Dik-Tak’s line of vision.
Karl: Anja disappeared. Dachs never heard from her again.
RL: But how?
Karl: Who knows? She went to the big house one day. Worked all day. Sent the message she was staying late to set up for a party, which meant exactly that. Sorry, we had special codes. Like if she said ‘too dark to travel’ she was being followed or ‘helping so and so with chores’ means another girl was in… physical danger and needed a friend to stay with her. But setting up for a party wasn’t a code. She just…never came home.
Otto: Did you ask after her? This was with the Albrecht’s, correct? Maybe I could look in their records and find out. What was her last name?
Karl: Oh, it was a common one. Different from Dachs’. B… something? She was employed from 1002 to 1004.
Otto: Do you know—
Karl: 110 to 112 SE. I think it was 110, might have been 11. Christ, were you even born yet?
Otto: I’m not that much younger—Oh. Actually… No, I was I was definitely alive then. I was born in 108 SE. So… I was four when she disappeared.
Karl: I was fourteen. She was eighteen. Dead at eighteen. I remember because we were supposed to be moving everyone out of the factory, and Dachs delayed it for a year in hopes Anja would find us again.
Otto: But she never came back?
Karl: No. After that Dachs really came into… real leadership, I think. Started sacrificing personal comforts for the greater good and what not. The work in the factory was getting too hard. Too hot. Too many people were getting sick—the same symptoms my parents had in the early days of their poisoning—so that many of us were afraid we were working without a dome.
Otto: That was a commonly accepted theory then?
Karl: The disease was too similar. Everyone was afraid. No one official had any answers. Except that the royal families would take care of us. Some families would move. People leaving the sector, we thought. I don’t know… maybe they were relocated to Stadtoben. Maybe they were killed. Maybe they moved to Albion. This was when the Intersectoral transport was becoming a thing. It would have been possible to sell all your things and emigrate.
Anyways, Dachs got a bunch of us together, and we all lived together in Albrecht’s hunting grounds. It was about twenty degrees cooler there. Those of us who’s gotten sick got better. Maybe because we weren’t standing in the heat over assembly lines all day. Maybe because we had a dome. I don’t know.
Otto: When did the Albrecht plant catch fire?
Karl: You remember that?
Otto: My mother taught me to read using the newspaper. I remember reading about children my own age dying. I was very upset about it. Inconsolable. My mother wanted to bring me to a therapist but my father said it would only make me…
Karl: Please, go on.
Otto: He worried even then I was too feminine. His fears weren’t exactly unfounded. You never met a prissier child. Even then, my cravat was always tied perfectly. I’d spent hours on it.
They laugh. Karl leans back arms crossed, his smiles softens.
Karl: The fire was eight days after we escaped.
Otto audio unclear.
Karl: Twenty of us ran. So, they noticed. I hate to think our leaving caused it, but…
Otto: It seems likely.
Karl: I had friends who died in that fire. Older kids who wanted to come with us but weren’t convinced yet. Younger kids who we promised we’d come back for when we were sure we could feed and shelter ourselves. There were three little girls my sister’s age who called me ‘big brother’ because I always took care of them. They must have passed out from the heat and burned or stumbled into the machinery trying to find their way out through the smoke. When we went to the ruins, I looked for their remains, there was nothing.
Otto: It could have been an accident.
Karl: Of course. Why wouldn’t it be? Who’d want to hurt innocent children? No, no. Let me try to see this from a non-radical point of view. Accident, not eradication. There were always accidents because no one was interested in safety. Safety regulations slowed the work down, and we were paid by quantity of product, not by the hour. Without oversight, there was bound to be manglings, explosions, fires…
Dachs never had proof we were going to be left behind, never had proof that they were killing us. But Dachs had me. Dachs kept me in line. Gave me things to build. So, I built us bikes and poison detectors. Tents. Water filters, air filters. Anything we needed to be safe. We would go from farm to herd to scrapyard. Scavenging what we needed to live. Dachs ran the school, so we all read. It’s where I learned to read can you believe that? Without Dachs, I wouldn’t have my escape.
Karl gestures to the cart of books, the box of photos, and the newsprint on his workbench.
Karl: Dachs thought of everything…a very good leader. We had friends and families who were still indentured. They told us about the relocation, said they were ready to move on a minute’s notice as soon as their rulers told them. But the rulers never told them. Sea-walls leaked and entire neighborhoods were washed away. Do you remember that?
Karl: Oh, I thought you might because of the charity from Stadtoben. After floods, we would get donations food and clothes from good families. The flooding was more visible than the diseases to the people who had already relocated. I remember a school came down once to hand out blankets and ration packs.
Otto: My family was never as charitable as we ought to have been. I think my father was terrified… he had been a serf.
Karl: He was lucky.
Otto: No. He was smart, and he was careful, and I was…protected… I guess. It never felt dangerous to me when I was in Unterstadt and then… we relocated, and everything was beautiful.
Otto folds the blank paper in his hand, then unfolds it, then folds it. Karl leans closer.
Otto: I’m sorry. You were talking about sickness and hunger and…flooding.
Karl: What are you thinking right now?
Otto: I wouldn’t want to interrupt your story—
Karl: Please do. I’d rather—
Otto: You were talking about sickness and hunger and flooding.
Karl: It’s not your fault that you managed to escape suffering.
Otto: Also, you mentioned Dachs became the leader. Did he…What did he lead exactly?
Karl rises and paces with his hands behind his—
Otto: Vergiss Niemanden.
Karl: You’re so very smart for such a sensitive soul. Sorry, that was uncalled for. Dachs was more charitable than we should have been. We fed people waiting for their relocation. No one, not even I thought the ruling families would leave us behind. Yes, some criminals moved from neighborhood to neighborhood to hide from the relocations. Dachs and me among them. We planned on fleeing as soon as everyone else was out, going to Albion or the American Continent. Lots of us didn’t want to wait. But Dachs wouldn’t leave anyone behind.
Otto: Oh. Is that what you mean? Vergiss Niemanden—forget no one.
Karl: Yes! Thank you for understanding! You’re the first person in fourteen years. When we say forget no one, it’s not a vengeance thing. It was a solidarity thing. We didn’t know if the people upstairs didn’t know about us or if they didn’t care. But we cared, so we didn’t forget. I mean, sure some people wanted to stay in their ancestral homes or people who were waiting for the free mover service. There was a family who wouldn’t leave their bed behind because they’d just bought it after saving for years. They had a ticket and a new apartment, but they wouldn’t go until they had the means to move the bed.
Otto: Sounds so petty.
Karl: That was common early on, but eventually families like that left. Mostly it was people living out of suitcases waiting for their ticket, waiting to be told where to go, waiting to be brought back into the sunlight.
Otto: Back into…
Karl: Stadtoben covered us. But hey,
Karl: No one died from the sun sickness anymore. Dachs’ gang grew and grew. People joined who couldn’t stay in the neighborhoods because they were too crowded or wouldn’t because there was too much death and hunger and sickness. Dysentery was the big one, terrible messy way to die. But starvation was close. Rations got smaller and smaller and came less and less—we homeless thieves were eating better than most working families. People were violent. We seemed to have more guns and bullets than clean food and water. Dachs’ gang was always getting shot at because people suspected us of stealing rations, but we wouldn’t touch that stuff. Dehydrated and nasty. I thought probably poisoned, but I never had proof. We V.N.s stole the exports to Albion and Edo, the fish and the venison, the potatoes. Snatched them right out of the sky.
Karl pauses by the window, looking out at the sky. Geodesic dome casts rainbows.
Karl: There was never any real proof. To convince the people they’d been abandoned and the ruling families did not want them. Even for those of us who could sneak in and out of Stadtoben. There were still conversations about families being relocated. Hundreds and thousands every day, the papers said. We just needed to be patient. The ruling families would take care of us.
Karl: Dachs wanted to believe more than anyone that the royals would save us. That it was all a terrible misunderstanding. A disaster that was being handled as best as it could. I wanted—because I was always more radical than anyone. It’s why I wasn’t in charge. I wanted us to militarize, to lead the people out by force, right through the floor of the city above if we had to or go through the sea-wall. Just get us out and into the hands of the Intersectoral authorities. I talked about justice for their crimes against humanity and murdering the monarchy and forming our own independent government, but Dachs wanted proof.
So, the V.N.s undertook the most dangerous mission we’d ever attempted. We kidnapped the Princess Tebelde.
Karl turns from the window to look at Otto.
Karl: That’s where we’ll stop today.
Otto: All right.
Otto pockets the folded paper and rises. He touches the earpiece.
Karl: You took that very well.
Otto: The soldiers are telling me to demand more, but… there’s a lot for me to digest for the next column. A lot for me to research…
Karl comes nearer.
Karl: You look flustered. Were you not expecting me to be a radical?
Otto: I…I remembered Unterstadt very differently.
Karl: You were middle class.
Otto: Yes. But as you talked… I remembered the…
Karl: The slums?
Otto: The tenant buildings. Just outside of our neighborhood, behind a well-guarded checkpoint. It had been there my whole life.
Karl: Your prince was…
Karl: How funny. We said there’s a decade between us? According to the posters, I was the one snatching food from your infant mouth. Spreading disease and starving babies.
Otto: I could have stood some staving. I was a very fat baby. When I was…five maybe? I remember children from the tenant buildings teasing me about it. They’d steal candy from me, and run away behind the wall. Mama told me never to fight or play with them because they had diseases. Just to give them what they needed and pray for their souls. That was our charity. We prayed.
Karl: Well, you can guess my thoughts on that.
Otto: Yes…I wish I could remember their names. They probably died in the fire. They wore factory cover-alls.
Karl: What did they look—
Otto: Maybe you were all in quarantine?
Otto: Maybe the authorities meant to examine you after they had everyone else safely away. Maybe they were worried about sickness spreading. Maybe the sun-sickness was an infection and not a reaction to poisoned air.
Karl: Then they should have been studying me for antibodies because I got better. So, did Dachs. So, did most of the kids in the factory.
Otto: Maybe they weren’t sure.
Karl: You’re probably right. It goes back to that… prioritization. The sick and unskilled were a lower priority.
Karl: My how we grow in prison. Fourteen years ago, I would have had very strong words for you on the subject.
Otto: Fourteen years ago, you weren’t surrounded by armed guards.
Karl: Fourteen years ago, I didn’t get three meals a day and regular physical examinations.
Otto: Fourteen years ago, I was only just waking up to the fact that there were people behind those walls with families and that they probably didn’t have it as good as me, when the rebuilding took place. Whenever I asked my mother about it, she said all the problems with the slums would be fixed by the transition to a new city.
Karl: Right with tighter borders? Constant surveillance? Income limits and travel restriction?
Otto: The laws protect us.
Karl: They protect you. They murdered me.
They do not speak. They watch each other. Otto looks at the binder of fashion pamphlets.
Otto: I… I would like to leave now.
Karl: Don’t forget the Windhund.
Karl goes into his cage, crosses his arms and waits.
Wed. August 1st, 134 SE
Dear Readers of Der Stadtoben, Jesus Christ, how am I supposed to write about this?
Esteemed ladies and gentlemen, your life is a lie. You won’t believe me, you’ll think I’ve been biased by a madman, a criminal. Jesus Christ, I have been. The man must be playing me. Power games. Just like Thomalla. They grew weary of battling each other and they brought in a stupid little pretty-boy pawn to invigorate the battle.
Location: 4th and Lakeside, apartments of Rainer Liebling/Otto.
Otto paces. He is not wearing his usual hair. The hair on his head is short, thin, and white.
Living room has pale hardwood floor and a big fire. Hearth is pleasing shades of orange, yellow, and white to complement the dark blue marble around the base and the sunshine yellow walls. Curtains are a burnt orange which matches the cushions on the couch and compliments the hand-painted silk decorations on the wall.
Outside a grand picture window is Lakeside Street, a walk way, and streetlamps. Advanced model. Design 1426 Silent Tinkerer, no modifications made. Nighttime. Scene is romantic. Lake is tranquil. A courting couple walks by hand in hand. Gentleman is wearing understated blue tones and—
All right, Otto, focus.
Dear Readers of Der Stadtoben Spiegel, I find myself in a difficult situation. I do not have the instincts and experience of a proper journalist at my disposal. After all, I am a simple artist. A craftsman and critic of cloth. I know precious little about the history of our sector, and I’m too soft-hearted to steel myself against a master manipulator like Karl Schneider—which of course I can’t say because Karl will read this and if I’m to get Thomalla’s confession, he must think I’m sympathetic.
Otto stands by fire.
Which I almost am… Fuck!
Otto walks outside of Dik-Tak’s line of vision.
Otto carried a folder with an Albion seal towards fire. He stares at flames, then looks at Dik-Tak. He sits in chair by the fire and presses hand to his forehead. Attitude of despair. Wearing an informal blue damask banyan over a white shirt and breeches. Rather like a recovered painting from the First Romance Era.
Otto opens folder. Seal previous broken. Text reads in English—
Focus, Otto. Craftsman and critic of cloth… precious little about Pre-Stadoben, but I have certain data from the Intersectoral government’s census.
Otto sits forward over open folder. Text reads—
I would remind readers that the Intersectoral authorities are not biased to the nation of their birth. Each census report is created by a team including a native to the sector and representatives from other sectors. The facts must be accurate. These are the people who govern the planet, the oceans, half the God-Damned moon.
Otto rises and drops the folder to the floor and walks away from it.
Must be trusted. Cannot have been tampered with.
Otto picks up the folder and sighs. He opens it and rustles through the papers. Draws out one and brings it to Dik-Tak.
Herr Windhund, draw this graph:
Otto looks at the paper.
Elsie, I don’t know what to write. I can’t make sense of this. Where did three million people go? I was never any good at numbers. Perhaps I’ve lost my mind. But this list looks different than other sectors. Albion’s census doesn’t change this drastically in twenty years. They list about twenty different employment categories. Native distinctions…Someone made a note about the Prussian categories. Someone was trying to draw attention to this.
I mean 54% in poverty? Did you know that Elsie? When we were children…Over half. Over half of us were below the poverty line. In Prussia! I didn’t know.
I can account for some of the three million with the loss of foreign-born and mixed race, but what about the children born between those years? Why the change in the elderly? What did we do to make the population of people over seventy-five drops from 8.5 % to less than .02?
And less than a tenth of us were soldiers? And that’s normal!
Where did the poor people go?
4,496,634 became 4,718 in twenty years, Elsie. In my lifetime.
What do we do if Karl is right? I mean, he can’t be right. It’s obvious he’s insane and disturbed and hateful, but…what if he’s the sane one. What if…
Otto sighs, audio unclear. Otto comes to Dik-Tak. Removes paper from Dik-Tak, reads it. Runs hand through hair. Then glances at upper corner of room.
Tiny lenses. Between five and seven centimeters. Surveillance cameras. Advanced model. Design…not found.
One in seven are soldiers…
Otto looks at Dik-Tak, then at folder. Then Otto drops his notes and the graph into the fireplace. He places the folder on the desk beside Dik-Tak. He feeds paper into Dik-Tak.
Otto paces in front of the fireplace.
Can we meet tomorrow to brainstorm some ideas about this Friday’s piece? Preferably in public. I think it will be easier for me to talk when there’s a crowd around.
Can we meet tomorrow to brainstorm Friday’s piece? There’s simply too many exciting tidbits! Love to join you at our bar and chat amongst the plebian masses.
Otto removes sheet, cuts into telegraph size and feeds it into outgoing telegraph slot. The contraption whirs, transcribes, delivers, and then destroys the message.
Otto sits at desk and puts head in hands. Sighs. Sits straighter in chair and feeds a new paper to Dik-Tak.
Kindest regards Louisa Böttcher:
I would like to commission a lapel pin from your shop. I hope it will not be much trouble, but I will need to have it in hand by next Saturday if possible. I’m willing to pay for the haste and can assure you it will be captured and remarked upon by the best fashion magazine, as I mean to wear into the prison tower. I should specify. I mean by August…
Otto closes his eyes, breathes deeply. Fire crackles pleasantly in the—
Kindest regards Louisa Böttcher:
I would like to commission one of your lovely lapel pins. I’ll need it by August 11th, as I intend to wear it into Gefängnisturm. I hope this is both an acceptable time constraint and occasion, as there is no one else I would trust to do this work. Please let me know when you are available.
Otto removes sheet, cuts into telegraph size and feeds it into outgoing telegraph slot. The contraption whirs, transcribes, delivers, and then destroys the message. Otto replaces paper. Then paces. He pauses before the fire and looks down. Dik-Tak’s notes and census graph are still burning.
Three million…They must have emigrated. Must have!
Knock out of Dik-Tak’s field of vision. Otto looks. Face flush, eyes wide.
Who is there?
Unknown man Hansjörg Jost of the Nachtwache. Uh, it’s Hans.
Otto takes a poker and turns the burning pages in the fire. Then leaves Dik-Tak’s field of vision. Sound of fabric folding and door opening.
Otto: Sergeant Jost, good evening. Is there a problem?
Sergeant Hansjörg Jost.: No, of course not, Herr Lang. Never a problem with you. I…my shift ended about half hour ago and—
Otto: Very late for a social call, Hans.
SHJ: Yes, well, I was on monitor tonight so I knew you were having… you weren’t sleeping. And I… well, I…
Otto: Desperately wanted to see me in casual wear?
SHJ: …off or else nothing at all.
Otto: How scandalous, Sergeant Jost. Come in and tell me what you’ll have to drink.
SHJ: I brought Framboise… It’s like a raspberry beer. Lambic. It’s a Lambic, but it’s imported from Versailles.
Otto: On your salary? Lavish. Shall I get us… a wine glass, flute, or snifter?
Sergeant Jost is very tall, somewhat nervous. Younger than Otto. Fitzpatrick skin type 1. Brown hair and pale eyes. He wears black uniform and turns his hat in his hands. Stares into the fireplace and looks into the flames.
SHJ: Oh uh… flute, I guess.
Sergeant Jost takes the poker and tries to save the notes and Albion census graph. He flinches. He fails.
Otto: But really, Hans…
Let me pay you back…
…too precious for an enlisted man.
Hans: Well, it was technically free for me. The day shift confiscated it from tourists, and they never returned to claim it. I won it in a lottery.
Otto returns, carrying two snifters with a dark red liquid and a soft pink foam. Hair/hat/hair is maroon.
Otto: Well, I saved yours and opened one of mine. A proper Prussian Lambic.
Hans: But, Otto—
Otto: Share your confiscated imports for a less affluent lover. You might impress him.
Hans: Otto, don’t be mean. You know I don’t have other lovers. Less affluent or otherwise.
Otto: That’s very unhealthy. You should see a counselor. You might need intervention. Here. Don’t you want the drink?
Hans takes the Lambic, but he does not drink. Otto smiles, but he is also glaring. Then he laughs.
Otto: You make a terrible spy.
Hans: A spy! I don’t know—
Otto: The shift doesn’t change until 4 a.m. You’ve told me that before. You haven’t been promoted, have you?
Hans: Of course not. I don’t have ambitions for—
Otto: Of course not. No zleute ever would. So, what did they call you in for?
Hans lowers his head looking much embarrassed.
Hans: They wanted…
Otto: Oh, is that all?
Otto hands him the folder from Albion.
Otto: Didn’t it to pass through customs on its way to me?
Otto: So, you already have a copy, and it’s already been read?
Hans: No doubt. They just wanted a… second look, perhaps.
Hans looks through the folder, taps the broken seal.
Hans: This is from Albion?
Otto: From the Intersectoral Records Committee. But I’m sure there was an Albion on the team that compiled it.
Hans: How can you tell?
Otto: You know how biased the monarchists in Albion can be. Just because they got back on their feet first, they think they should run the world. No respect for history. No desire to see things done right. Adding notes and seals and things.
Hans: This is just a bunch of graphs and… population data.
Otto: Indeed from 115 to present day. Is that illegal?
Hans: No. Just… not what I expected.
Hans reads folder. Otto sits on couch, sips the Lambic. Pose is languorous, titillating, casual.
Otto: What were you expecting? Propaganda or pornography?
Hans turns startled.
Hans: Otto, don’t be—
Otto: Because all pornography is illegal in Albion, but especially the kind I’d be interested in. They have rehabilitation schools for well, I don’t think there’s an English word for zweiteleute.
Hans puts the folder into his satchel then takes his satchel off and leaves it on Otto’s desk. He picks ups his drink, drinks deeply then sets the empty glass down.
Otto watches him.
Otto: It’s Versailles, you’d have to worry about. Positively decadent there. They take lascivious pictures of even their most innocent guests. I’ll have to show you mine someday.
Hans sits beside Otto. Otto smiles.
Hans: You would be a good spy.
Otto: I don’t know what you mean. I’m just taking a break because my lover has come to visit me while I was working late. You should savor the Lambic. It’s potent—
Hans takes Otto’s drink and sets it down on the coffee table. He leans very close to Otto and takes off the maroon hat/scarf/hat. It slithers. Otto brushes his thin hair with his hands.
Otto: You’ll have to pardon my—
Hans: It was my night off. They called me in to calm you. What upset you?
Otto remains impassive, pressed deep into couch. Hans’ hand brushes over Otto’s pale hair.
Otto: You are here on state business, Sergeant Jost? A soldier’s duties never end.
Hans: You know me, darling. I live to serve.
Hans leans closer. Kiss/whisper/kiss. Otto jolts and pushes Hans away.
Hans: Did I do something—
Otto: I forgot to turn the windhund off.
Hans: The what?
Otto: The Dik-Tak. It records everything it hears. Don’t you read my column?
Hans: Why bother? I’m a career soldier. It’s against the rules for me to be fashionable. Besides, you’re pretty enough for both—
Thurs. August 2, 134 SE
I title this as for my counselor but I doubt I will go before my next mandated appointment and by then this will all be passed. Why! Karl Schneider will be executed as a terrorist by then…
Location: 4th and Lakeside. Window seat. Bright, beautiful morning. Dik-Tak positioned in window ledge.
Otto sits in the sunlight, sewing white lace into a mostly white cloth with painted on rainbow stripes.
Herr Windhund, it’s called Whitework embroidery. Shut your eyes.
Right, so this is for a counselor I won’t see. But I wanted to make some record of my emotions. Maybe for my own private nostalgia. Maybe in case, it doesn’t go away before I see the counselor and I need to remember specific details. I have notes in a private diary from the first day I met Herr Schneider, but… that diary is in the bedside table, and I don’t want wake Hans.
The silly boy. I can’t tell if I’ve corrupted him and he’s obsessed or if he’s trifling with me and I’m stupid enough to be used. Either way, he’s appeared frequently in the past few days. It seems whenever I get too deep into the history books or get too flustered writing about all this—I can’t tell if what I’m reading is conspiracy, propaganda, or truth when I’m in the thick of it. Either way, Hans is always there to offer a distraction.
And what’s worse, I can’t stay distracted by Hans. I keep…fantasizing about the terrorist. I thought I’d go in and play this little game Aufsicht Thomalla wants me to play, keep on his side until he reveals what she needs to call it a confession or until he slips about the princess. But Karl…
He’s got his hooks in fast and deep.
I catch my mind wandering to him and the worst times. Making tea for my mother, trying to fall to sleep. While Hans was seducing me last night. Usually, when he’s kissing my neck and putting his hands under my shirt, I get lost in the scent of his soap or his aftershave, but last night…
I found myself staring at the Augen. Wondering if another soldier was watching Hans make love to me. I’ve had that thought before. I bet we all have. But I couldn’t keep my mind off those other eyes on us. I started thinking about the other boys I’d gone to night school with. Erik had once harbored the ambitions to be a music teacher. He’d tried to outwit the VerhProb, and it had taken him two days to get his citizen class. He said he’d contemplated suicide when they made him a zleute, and no one else understood but me. His dreams had been crushed. Johannes, another artist in the school, was particularly cruel. But he was able to be a painter because it was not against the law for him to paint the way it was… the way it is for me to tailor. Johannes never understood; Erik didn’t like performing. He liked teaching. Paul and Flyn joined the army. I know Paul is sergeant of the roads now, surveying the construction crews. I’ve heard a rumor that Flyn was on track to be the top sergeant of the Nachtwache. But I wonder if he’ll ever watch through the protector’s eyes by day. Or is that not his role as a zleute.
I was thinking all this as Hans kissed me. Even as my lover opened my shirt and whispered softer words than I deserved, I thought about the most powerful zleutes I knew. No politicians, of course. No one in the ruling families, by some miracle or secrecy. I couldn’t get beyond Paul and Flyn in the Nachtwache. And then I thought about my list of friends, the wealthiest zleutes. I couldn’t think of any who held public post. Merchants who inherited the family business. Entrepreneurs like me.
I didn’t realize how utterly distracted I was until I asked Hans out of nowhere if he knew anyone like us who had been successful in the normal way.
The poor man was totally caught off guard. He’d been opening my breeches for Christ’s sake and didn’t understand that I’d been unfocused. The most hurt laughter and ‘wait, what?’ I’d ever heard in my life. Though he took it so much in stride… I had the suspicion at that moment that he really was a spy, someone who found his way into my bed as part of his career ambitions.
It is cruel to think of Hans that way. I found him after all.
“Never mind,” I told him. “I’m over-thinking things. It’s not your fault I’m distracted, and I hope you don’t hold my bad behavior against yourself or me.”
Hans smiled, and it was real concern. He kissed my forehead in that tidy little way he does that makes me feel pretty and insignificant at the same time, “my poor darling. Under such stress. What can I do to turn off this little brain of yours?”
As he said it, as I realized what I’d said, and I recognized a script from night school. In the abnormal behavior training, we were taught not to over think our citizen status, and to interpret someone second guessing it as a sign of excessive stress. Mental and sexual health professionals warned dwelling on it, over-exploring an undoubtedly unfair and overly-cautious system would cause us undue distress. Taught us techniques to alleviate the stress ourselves and for our lovers.
And they are right, of course. Hans was right to remind me it is stress.
It is only stress.
Better minds than mine have weighed the pros and cons of citizen classes. They’d studied the dangers of my aberrance to others and more importantly the dangers it brings to myself. The laws govern us for the greatest good and our own protection. I have to trust this is true and trust the professionals to guide me.
After all, I’m no doctor. If I was a zleute for any other reason—say I suffered from a mental illness like depression or had some addictive tendency—I wouldn’t question that I needed my medication or my mental or physical therapy, or whatever routine the professionals set for those people. Because those rules would be for my well-being. If a person is suicidal or starving themselves, they’re not really a danger to society, but Prussia looks after them in the laws because the state cares about its citizens’ happiness and well-being.
Sexual aberrance is nothing more than a large-scale addictive tendency, or better a sexual disorder which effects … what was the number? Three percent… of the population. The laws are our prescription and dictate how we should best proceed for our own well-being.
See, I’m perfectly capable of being my own counselor. No need for extra appointments.
Sat. August 4th, 134 SE
We are in Karl’s room. The cage is down, and Karl stands near the bars. He wears his customary white coveralls with ink stains in a splatter pattern, especially concentrated in the sleeves where they seem accidental and in the thighs where the doodles are deliberate. Karl watches closely as an unknown soldier pats/strokes/slaps Otto.
Closer to me is Otto, dressed today in a solid beige suit with a matching vest. Rather than his customary subdued striped shirt, he is wearing a mostly white shirt with a rainbow of pastel streaks in the bell sleeves and from the collar. He is without a cravat or tie. The shirt’s collar is turned inward with a crisp intentional edge, though the look appears to be slovenly. His blonde hair is the height of fashion.
Unknown soldier is wearing a black uniform, neatly pressed and starched.
Karl: Maybe you should strip him, Dame Malice.
Otto gasps and blushes.
Dame Malice: If you want to leave that cage, 16, you will refrain from inappropriate remarks.
Karl lifts his palm skyward.
The soldier continues pat/stroke/slap
DM: Did that toy just bark?
Otto: It’s not dangerous. I promise.
Dame Malice comes closer to me, squinting and investigating. She/he/she is in her forties. Fitzpatrick skin type 2. Wears a pistol, unknown make and model. Black jacket and skirt. Questionable fashion.
DM: Who designed this?
Otto: It’s a recreation by Pascal Selig. It’s nothing more than an automaton to scribble notes. It’s probably out of ink.
DM: Is this one of yours, 16?
Karl: You never gave me the kind of metal I’d need to build that.
DM: But in design?
Karl: That thing is so poorly reconstructed I don’t want to take credit for it, but I suppose the answer is yes. And you know it.
Dame Malice walks out of my view.
DM: You may put on your radio, Herr Lang. Let’s get right to business today, gentlemen. I’d love to have an execution order on my desk tomorrow.
Karl and Otto watch her leave. Door slams, locks. Otto mouths ‘bitch’ when she is gone. Otto untucks his collar from his vest. The collar of his shirt is unfashionably long, stitched with Whitework embroidery and painted in the same rainbow pastel as the sleeves. The two ends hang like a scarf. Otto ties it as if it were a cravat around his neck.
Karl: Very clever. Looks nice.
Otto: I hope you won’t strangle me with it.
Karl: Not me.
Clang and a hiss. Karl’s cell opens and he steps through, walks to me and leans over reading my notes.
Karl: Herr Windhund, Dame Malice was giving Otto a pat down.
Karl looks at Otto and smiles.
Karl: Aw, you taught it personal pronouns.
Otto: When I revisited the notes, I saw it referred to itself in the third person. I didn’t like it getting above its station and putting on such airs.
Karl laughs. Otto stands near the work table which is cleaner than in the past. He picks up a piece of paper, then puts it down.
Otto: We received news about Anja Böttcher.
Karl: Yes, it was good to dedicate section a piece about her. Nice investigative work.
Otto: It didn’t do any good. The woman in charge of her employment says Anja Böttcher was dismissed several weeks before she went missing. A group of cold case hobbyists found her photo had several points of commonality with a prostitute found dead in the shipping district.
Karl: I’m sorry to hear that. Will you be printing it?
Otto: Elsie says no. She thinks it’s better to leave it a mystery than give it such an unhappy ending. But I knew you’d prefer the truth.
Otto comes closer, holding the radio earpiece in his hands.
Karl: I’m not sure I believe it, but Anja was like a mother to most of us so…
Otto: I don’t believe a damned word.
…received the calls much too soon…
Doesn’t make any—
Dame Malice/machine/Dame Malice: Herr Lang, you will kindly put on the radio.
Otto: Sorry, Aufsicht Thomalla.
Otto affixes the advanced model radio transmitter over his ear.
Karl: I noticed Elsbeth had a hand in this last article.
Otto: I needed help with all the researching and… frankly, I had trouble starting. Witty human interest pieces are more my usual style, and I don’t have her experience with serious subjects. I want to treat your story with proper dignity and respect. But I don’t recall that she had a byline. How did you know?
Karl: She falls into formal patterns like ‘according to Blank comma insert quote. Followed by, in addition.’ While you tend to phrase things more… conversationally. For example, you wrote: I spoke to Herr Ingot of the Historical Society, a hale and hearty man in his early seventies. ‘There was a great deal of sickness in the days before the transition to Stadtoben,’ the gentlemen admitted to me in his office. ‘Terrible, tragic deaths were common especially in places where the people lived very close together and didn’t have enough money for clean water. They built the city above for that reason, to reduce the crowding and supply clean water to all citizens.’
Otto: Serves me right for asking.
Karl: I’ve always had a good memory. I’ve read it over and over. You and Elsbeth are able to so rationally explain everything.
Otto: We weren’t there.
Karl: She might have been. She’s got a few years on you, hasn’t she?
Otto: Not as many as you, I think, but I’d never ask. I’m a gentlemen and Elsie scares me. Besides she’s far too professional to let her own bias invade her writing, let alone her protégé’s.
Karl: You should ask her point of view on the slums.
Otto: If you’d like to interview with Elsbeth instead of—
Karl: Don’t be an ass, Lang. You know you’re the one I want.
Otto does not answer. Blushing and looking away. Karl and Otto sit again on the couch, close together.
Otto: Last week, you said…
Karl: Go on?
Otto: Last week, you left off with the most daring operation you and Dachs ever attempted. Kidnapping Höchste Tebelde.
Karl rises and goes to window.
Karl: This was the first time, you understand. Not the time they caught me.
Otto: The first time!
Karl: Oh yes, don’t bother trying to research it. I’m sure she never told and neither did Dachs. Her governess and co. probably thought Tibby ran off to screw some other noble.
Otto: I’m sorry…Tibby?
Karl: Let me go back a bit. We poached Albrecht’s cows and horses, sacked his food caravans, and stole the water he exported. So, we spent a lot of time in his lands, and Tebelde’s family, the Karolins lived on the property next door. Now, they were still a group of selfish, sin-ridden, shit-eating cousin-fuckers, but maybe they weren’t as evil as other nobles.
Dame Malice Machine: Watch your language, Herr Schneider.
Karl starts to say something. Otto reaches out a hand and touches his wrist.
Otto: Don’t bait her on my behalf. The Karolins weren’t as evil as other…
Otto blushes brightly.
Karl: No. Their serfs all lived in the house with them. So, they never worried about the dome. In the Karolin factories, they made flying carriages. I used to watch them fly out on shipping days and think if I’d sold my debt to the Karolins and not the Albrechts I might have been a loyal Prussian. The factories were adjacent to the big house, and they grew wheat on all the spare land so if nothing else everyone had bread.
It was very hard to plan to steal from The Karolins because none of their people were with us. You know, you want to steal some of Albrecht meat vats you say to someone in your group: hey talk to your sisters on the feeding floor and see when a shipment goes out. We didn’t have anyone on the inside for The Karolins because no one ever ran from The Karolins.
Otto: So, they were a good family?
Karl: Or better at keeping their serfs imprisoned. You never know.
Anyways, one day, we found out one of their shipping days in advance and because I liked playing with shiny new machines and because Dachs, not unlike our own Good Thomalla, found it beneficial to exercise my mental capacities, we planned to go after her shipment. We did not expect the princess to be personally escorting it.
Otto: So, you were just baiting us with the kidnapping the princess last week.
Karl: I’m sure even Scheherazade encountered occasional discrepancies.
Karl leans far over the couch behind Otto. Otto is uncomfortable. Karl laughs and pats Otto’s shoulder.
Karl: Now, I’m being unkind.
Karl comes around the couch and sits in the chair out of my field of vision.
Karl: Once we realized who we had… we took advantage. The thing you have to understand about Dachs is that Dachs is never a violent person. Dachs is the sort who stays calm and smiling and lets the gun do the threatening. Usually, it worked out pretty well, but Princess Tebelde would not back down. She kept asking what we wanted her ships for. If we were going to hurt anyone.
Otto: She sounds very brave.
Karl: Oh yeah, Tibby is a force. Spine of steel. Eventually, Dachs and the princess sit down for a meal and talk terms. Dachs lets go of most of the shipment because Tibby says losing it all would ruin The Karolins. Tibby agrees to open her gate and take in some of Dachs’ youngest people. Dachs overestimated by about a hundred, and we spent the night rounding up kids from all the slums to go to her. We had particular trouble with the orphans. Little biters were so used to taking care of themselves they didn’t trust us.
Otto: When did this happen?
Karl: Oh around…115 SE. Tebelde was seventeen. Five years before she was abducted.
Karl: Her parents were not active in any community. Never let go of the monarchy. Quiet, shy people, but they raised their daughter to be bold and to be good, and she apparently had a lot of strong thoughts on the treatment of the serfs and the role of the monarchs to serve.
Otto: You talk about her like you knew her very well.
Karl: After that first day, we played cards every Thursday. She’d tell us about whatever the nobles would tell her about the transition and the plans for Stadtoben. We’d tell her what conditions were like for us. She’d run charity drives and petition for sanitation reform in the slums. She’d send in food and blankets, and eventually, she had all the children left in the Unterstadt.
Otto: all the orphans or…
Karl: No, all. We tried to keep families together, but most adults came with debt to other nobles, and she couldn’t draw too much attention to it without risking someone looking at her family’s finances. They might realize she didn’t have the money to feed everyone and was getting… resources elsewhere.
Otto: Oh! From—
Karl: Dachs, yeah. The agreement was that Dachs would bring food and water and Tibby would shelter or sponsor them. Try to get them out into the sunlight again. Then the rest of her family and most of her wealthier citizens relocated, and people started talking about her marriage. She stayed below, in the darkness with her people. She insisted on remaining on her property until the last man, woman, and child had left.
Otto: That was unusual?
Karl: Oh yes. In the rural areas, we’d seen other nobles take their workforce and servants and leave the farmers and fishers in their cottage without any notice about the relocation. The first news some farmers heard of it was when the army came knocking and demanding they vacate so the buildings could be safety scrapped. A lot of those displaced worked came to us in the slums. There were rumors about farms full of people being bricked off as they filled in Unterstadt to make support beams for Stadtoben, but it took weeks to build those columns, so I never put much stock into it.
Otto: There were others more conspiratorial than you?
Karl: Maybe about architecture and engineering, but not much else. As I’ve said before, it was easy to believe the worst when you were living it. It was getting harder for us to move around and there wasn’t much need. Tibby—Princess Tebelde convinced Dachs the way to go wasn’t theft but, sustainability. We’d already stopped stealing live animals and food stores on the move because she talked us into breaking into Albrecht’s meat plant and getting the vats of the living stuff to grow ourselves. She had six big ones in the compound, and we kept going in to get more until he relocated the whole operation. We didn’t have a way to grow wheat indoors yet. I didn’t perfect the lighting rigs for the vertical gardens until I was in prison and had a chance to study the ancients work with electricity and the kinds of high-intensity discharge lighting required to…you know what, let me stick to Tebelde and not get into farming.
Otto: Sure… uh, as a noble, wouldn’t she…She would know if they planned on leaving people behind.
Karl: If it is conspiratorial thinking, she’s more nuts than me. Absolutely convinced they were deliberately doing it, but she had no proof. To the other nobles, she was just a kid. A pretty face who could paint pretty pictures and talked too much about politics. They expected her to get married and calm down when she had babies. But Tibby, like I said, she’s a force.
Otto: She must require a great deal of guarding.
Karl: From Dachs? Do you really think—oh, that was very clever, Herr Lang. Of course, she requires constant care and vigilance.
Karl laughs. Otto shrugs.
Otto: You were talking about sustainability, children, and her position in society?
Karl: Princess Tebelde, I’m sure your research would tell you, was one of the most vocal opponents against the Prussian Wall. She didn’t understand why it needed to be sealed completely.
Otto: Well, that’s obvious. No one wanted a literal underclass. Living in the slums and darkness below our feet. Coming up only to work or cause mischief.
Karl: There were so many other, more humane options, but somehow none of those compromises were made. And while nobles dithered back and forth. Sea-walls kept breaking, people kept drowning and drinking bad water. Soon Stadtoben covered all the farmable land left and because of the advancing of the support columns the only option left was a wall. The nobles had built themselves an enormous slum, and they’d left it full of the people they didn’t need and didn’t want to see. The only thing left for them to do was seal it off and forget the people they left behind. And Tebelde made it very hard for them to forgot, or to blame, or to explain away those people.
The nobles were always attacking her. Saying she had exaggerated the numbers of people left behind. Or that she needed to be patient until the final buildings for the people were constructed. Or that she needed to stop pandering to her unruly peasants and let the army come in and forcibly evacuate the people. Dachs and I had a set up in Stadtoben, and we saw how your newspapers reported everything going on down there. You would have been… eleven about this time. Do you remember when the army marched past the Prussian Wall?
Otto: Yeah. They came back with a hundred refugees. Brought them to hospitals for being malnourished and sick. Mother allowed me to donate all my books and old stuffed animals.
Karl: That’s nice of you. The army took away a hundred, but they killed about a thousand. Not because anyone was resisting either. They called us all criminals, and some of us were. But mostly, we were poor people. Yeah, some of us were just unwanted. Immigrants, biracial, gays and lesbians. But mostly we were poor.
I saw Prussian soldiers stand on a wall and point their guns at orderly lines of men and women with suitcases and identification, waiting patiently to get through the wall and back into the sunlight. I watched them fire.
Karl: That’s the day Vergiss Niemanden became a threat. That’s when Dachs let me… that’s when we militarized. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar.
Karl walks around couch and leans by the window to looking down at Stadtoben.
Karl: I don’t like making weapons. I like making sewing machines and clockwork toys. It made me a sick trying to design cannons and guns, things to spread disease. Perfecting the nuances of a machine meant to deliver death…I never wanted to do it.
Otto: But you had no choice? They needed weapons, and so you had to make them.
No discernible movement from Karl.
Karl: The next time the soldiers came to ‘evacuate us,’ it was the soldiers who fell in the thousands, not us. Some people broke through part of the wall, demanding to be processed and relocated. Most of them ended up in prisons and deported. I’d like to see the facts on that if you can find them. I’ll bet Albion will know. They must have millions of dark-skinned Prussians in their servant class now. Our mission changed. Rather than trying to keep Prussians alive until they could go to their new homes, Vergiss Niemanden focused on getting people out of Prussia. But they’d trapped us. Closed us in. The semi-permeable domes were gone, and even I couldn’t figure a way through an impermeable one.
Otto nods sadly.
Otto: It was the last and greatest technologies of the ancients.
Karl: Yeah, it was a bitch to lick. But give a man fourteen years with nothing but pen and a paper and books…
Otto: So you figured it out?
Karl: The credit goes to a team in Albion, but it allowed the Intersectoral authorities to liberate a lot of old countries. Of course, Prussia took the knowledge and built a new one.
Karl points at the sky.
Karl: When they rebuilt the roof on Gefängnisturm a couple years back. This tower generates an impermeable geodesic dome, not a permeable one. If you tried to take an airship out anywhere, but at the checkpoint, you’d crash.
Otto: Is that so?
Karl: Yes. The rainbows—have you seen them? They fan out like a disc on top of the tower, and they’re only visible over Gefängnisturm, isn’t that right?
Otto: I’ve only ever seen the rainbow standing at the base of the tower and looking up.
Karl: Well in any other sector, you’d see the rainbows all through the sky depending on where you were standing and what time of day it was. The refraction happens at the site where the conduit— you know, technical details are not the point. Other sectors have permeable domes, but Prussia cracked the secrets of the older model and improved it so they could control all entry.
Otto: It makes for a strong border.
Karl: No. It makes a prison. It keeps out Intersectoral intervention. It means fiery death for anyone trying to escape. Other sectors don’t need to keep the law out and their people in.
Otto: We are our own nation. We don’t need other sectors interfering.
Karl: The people with their faces in the dirt are the fastest to defend the boot on their neck.
No discernable change in room.
Karl: Regardless of what Stadtoben is now, once those first shots were exchanged, Unterstadt became a prison. If you go out into the fields below Prussia, between the support columns, the ground is littered with machine parts and bones of people trying to escape. Once they decided to seal us in, they wouldn’t even let us emigrate.
Otto makes a small unidentifiable noise.
Karl: You don’t believe me?
Otto: No. I can’t pretend to.
Karl: That’s all right. I won’t hold it against you.
Otto: I just… I can’t accept that the same sector which saved every man woman and child during the chaos and destruction of the global collapse would in only a few generations turn so much in the other way. It’s not how progress works.
Karl: It’s human nature, though. Complacent morality. You can pat yourself on the back and say, we’re not like Albion or Edo. We saved everyone. They don’t have trouble feeding people now, because they let people die in droves then. We did our part, and we are good. We’re doing our best, but sometimes nothing could be enough and people slip through the cracks.
Otto: That’s not how you felt at the time?
Karl: That’s not how I feel now! I don’t give a shit about how great your parents were if all you’re doing is sitting on your ass.
Otto: Is that a personal attack, sir—
Karl: No! This is about people who aren’t lucky enough to get out. People who are only asking the right to live. There’s such a tiny, tiny difference between falling through a crack and having the crack you’re living in being filled with cement and trash and darkness. Before the transition, you had to be smart and god-damned lucky to get away from poverty. Every single thing had to go right for your father to get out of his station. He never got sick on the wrong day, he never said the wrong thing, he always befriended the right people, he always made the right choice. He didn’t get held back by a family, and he didn’t get killed by accident. The stars aligned and he escaped and stumbled into something good. But tell me, Otto, is your dad smarter than me?
Otto: No. Not even a question.
Karl: No. He got lucky. And that’s why you weren’t a serf. How many other people did they leave behind who didn’t get lucky? How much intelligence? How much talent? How many lives just thrown away because they didn’t have the exact type of intelligence they could test or the talent they could see, or the looks of the people in charge?
Otto looking at floor.
Otto: Three million.
Karl: What did you say?
Otto: Just a guess. Three million.
Karl softens. Comes closer to Otto.
Karl: How did you come to that number?
Otto shrugs. Audio unclear.
Karl: At the time Princess Tebelde was kidnapped there were just under three million people trapped down there in the darkness, and we had no way of getting them out, and no expectation they would ever be allowed to leave.
Otto: Will you tell me about the kidnapping?
Karl: In time.
Karl returns to looking out the window, then comes around to lean on the arm of the couch.
Karl: I suppose you’re tired of coming here. It must be an ordeal.
Otto: It… presents certain challenges.
Karl: Like how you’re going to write about all of this in a way that keeps me amenable and doesn’t get you put in front of a firing squad?
Otto: That’s a bit excessive. My mother would murder me herself before the guards got near enough to arrest me.
Karl: Can we talk about you for a while? I’m losing my temper remembering all this, and I want to… give you the chance to look at the evidence and tell me why I’m wrong. And there is a firing squad waiting for me.
Otto: Don’t be too obvious, Karl, Dame Malice is listening.
Karl grins. He sits on the couch, closer to Otto.
Karl: You know, I know you’re playing me. I don’t mind, and I hope you keep doing it. I like it when you pretend to be on my side.
Otto starts to speak then stops. He looks uncomfortable.
Karl: That’s unfair of me. Tell me about your family. You mentioned an older sister?
Otto: She would not like me talking about her to a…to you.
Karl: No, I imagine she wouldn’t.
Otto: Aufsicht Thomalla keeps asking me to move away from you. She thinks it’s indecent for a zleute to—
Karl: What is that anyway? You’ve mentioned in a few times in your articles, but never with enough context for me to puzzle it out.
Karl: Zleute. Some kind of slang?
Otto laughs and blushes.
Otto: You have been in here a long time. It’s short for zweiteleute.
Karl: Second people?
Otto: Did they not have…citizen classes in Unterstadt?
Karl: Yeah, Nobles and the rest.
Otto: Well, I suppose we’re more…equal than that.
Karl: What’s a zweiteleute?
Otto: It’s…hard to explain something so basic. There’s just a very small part of the population who is not… primäreleute.
Karl narrows his eyes.
Karl: Please explain further. What makes you a zleute?
Otto: Well… me personally, or—
Karl: Yeah. You personally.
Otto licks his lips and squirms.
Otto: It’s…you know it’s funny. The distinction exists specifically to prevent awkwardness like this. I, personally… I am sexually aberrant. Others are mentally or emotionally aberrant. Some are foreign-born or areligious, but harmless in their own sphere.
Karl: And the purpose of the distinction is…
Otto: To get better care and safety measures from the state.
Karl: So, it’s a good thing? You’re happy to be a secondary person?
Otto: Happy isn’t the correct…I have a sickness, and if I remain in my sphere, I am safe. There are certain jobs a zleute can’t take. I can’t be a…a tailor, for example, or teach children or work at certain retail positions because they might put me or others in danger of… For example, someone with emotional aberrances might not be able to be a counselor or a lawyer, or a doctor because of the stress… I really only know the restrictions specific to me.
Karl leans back farther on the couch.
Karl: Okay. So, you can’t work with children because you’re a pedophile?
Otto: What?! No! God, no! It’s not that. I’m attracted to men. Adult men! That is… that’s not a zleute is.
Karl laughs. Otto’s face reddens.
Otto: You bastard. You’re teasing me…
Karl: Of course, I am. I live in a tower. I’m not dead. I just wanted to hear you say it.
Otto rises and walks out of my vision.
Otto: You are very disturbed.
Karl: Well, I’m a terrorist. What’s that? A dritteleute?
Otto: A Geächtete.
Karl: Oh, outlawed and outcast. Lowest of the low. Lobbed in with the actual psychopaths, pedophiles, and murderers because I defy their laws.
Otto: You murdered a princess.
Karl: We didn’t kill anyone. Review the facts of the night if you have too.
Otto: You may as well have. Keeping her locked up for years. Away from her husband and her family. It’s cruel, and there’s been total silence from your little band. It’s not like she’s a hostage and she would be exchanged for you or anything. They just parade her out once a year. And why? Out of cruelty and—
Karl: To keep the sea-wall in place.
Otto: Sorry, what?
Karl: They do it to keep the sea-wall in place
Otto, considerably calmer, returns to his place on the couch.
Karl: In the North East part Prussia, there’s a sea-wall that the N.V.s upkeep. If they seal the Prussian Gate with an impermeable dome, they will cut us off from the wall. Eventually, that seawall will fail. The dome will filter the poisons in the ocean, but it won’t stop the water. If they close the Prussian wall, Stadtoben will drown us.
And I have no doubt, they’d do it in a heartbeat except the people know she’s with us, down there, in the darkness. So, they keep the gate open, the keep the sea-wall under our control. They’ll dump their trash and their corpses. Make it as poisonous as possible. They’ll send us their sewage water and their diseased animals. But the nobles won’t drown us as long as there’s a chance their beloved last princess would be broadcast as she died. And that’s all we ask for. For now.
Otto: I’m sorry. I should have kept my temper.
Karl smiles and moves closer on the couch.
Karl: I like your temper.
Otto: Well, I didn’t mean to offend you.
Karl: You didn’t. Your acceptance of these laws does.
Otto: There’s obviously a lot I don’t understand about Unterstadt.
Karl nods and moves his hand onto the back of the couch, closer to Otto. Karl pulls the earpiece off—
Otto: What are you doing?
Karl crushes the transmitter in his hand. Otto stands.
Otto: Karl, you broke… you shouldn’t have—
Karl: She thinks I’m going to attack you. She thinks I mean to beat you to death because you’re homosexual. Have you ever heard of anything so ridiculous?
Karl takes Otto’s arm and pulls Otto back down to the couch on top of Karl.
Otto jerks, but cannot move away. Karl holds him immobile and speaks inaudibly into Otto’s ear. Otto’s face flushes, his eyes widen, and his shoulders and back become stiff with stress and fear.
Karl: used to call it riding.
Karl releases him. Otto falls off the couch and runs out of my view, toward the door. Karl gets onto his knees and put his hands in the air. He is smiling.
Sound of many boots, many soldiers enter the room.
Dame Malice: Schneider, you’re lucky we don’t shoot you, right now. I told you to behave.
Karl keeps smiling.
Karl: Will you be back next week, Otto?
DM: No. I don’t think he will, Herr Schneider.
Karl Schneider/Karl/Karl Schneider rises from his knees.
KS: Pity, I was going—
DM: Get down, now!
Karl Schneider advances.
Otto: No! Of course, I’ll be back.
No one moves.
DM: You’d risk your life for a newspaper column?
Otto: For the truth. The citizens will not be satisfied until they know how this ends, Aufsicht Thomalla. You’ll do more damage to the sector than good if you don’t let him finish now that you’ve let him start. Please, let me return. Karl, please do as she says so I can return.
Karl Schneider sits on the couch, casual stance. Glares.
DM: On your knees on the floor, Karl.
Karl/Karl Schneider/Karl continues to glare and doesn’t move.
Karl: Don’t you want to know where the princess is being kept? The little cocktease nearly got it out of me today. Next week I’ll tell him about the actual kidnapping. I might slip up again.
DM: Your lies are not appreciated.
Karl: I think you’re just sore that he’s gotten more out of me in three visits than you did in fourteen years. Will that look back in your retirement papers, Ida?
DM: Lt. bring Herr Lang to safety.
Karl: Don’t forget his notes.
Dame Malice approaches me. She snatches the papers and extends them behind her. They are gone when she picks me up and turns her back on Karl. There are three soldiers with guns aimed. She walks past them into the hallway where Otto stands with a guard’s hand on his shoulder.
Sounds of the door closing and locking.
Otto: Aufsicht Thomalla, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to botch it.
DM: This close. We nearly had him when he was talking about the weapons, but did you see how he skirted it? I never wanted to make them. It makes me sick. Why couldn’t he have just said, I hated making them. He gave us nothing by implication. The slick bastard.
I’m carried down the walkway into an elevator. The cage closes. Booms. Ticks. Thunder.
DM: You’re right. I can’t execute him until the people get the answers they are looking for. We can’t fake the rest of the story because the Vergiss Niemanden is still out there and who knows what they’ll do if we print something they know he wouldn’t tell us.
Otto: I’m sorry I’m not better at this.
DM: Why would you be any good at this? You’re not a soldier. We nearly had him today. Maybe next week.
DM: That shirt by the way.
DM: Did you make it?
Otto: Yes. By hand in my own apartment. It’s not illegal for a zleute to sew his own clothes. Only to have a business doing it for others.
DM: I’m not on the Tagwache. I don’t give a shit about the petty civilian laws you break. What is your rationale for constantly disobeying me?
Otto: To get him to think I’m on his side.
DM: That’s a wonderful answer.
Otto: I’m sorry it doesn’t satisfy you. There will be a lapel pin next week.
DM: That you’re making?
DM: By hand in your own apartment?
Otto: Madame, a proper lapel pin is shorter than your pinkie finger and as flimsy as a paperclip. He’s not going to—
DM: What would it do in your eye?
Otto: Puncture it, no doubt, but even he wouldn’t be strong enough to get past the bone of the eye socket to the brain. Not before you came through the door shooting. He could do more damage with the screwdriver you left on his workbench.
DM: Fair enough.
Otto: You better make sure you don’t leave that broken machinery with him either.
DM: Believe me, Herr Lang. We know what he is capable of when he has a few tools and a bit of metal. I don’t like giving him silverware.
Otto: May I have my automaton back?
DM: What? Oh. Here.
Otto: Thank you, Aufsicht—
Sun. August 5th, 134 SE
To Dr. Klein,
I’m having trouble sleeping again tonight, and as per your instructions at our last unscheduled meeting (I am still very grateful you saw me with no prior notice) I’m writing this letter. I am terrified to write it on paper myself since I know you want documented proof of my personal heresies. Well, there goes this draft. Nicely done, Otto. Soldier through and revise later.
It is challenging to remain objective about the facts of history when I can only see it through the lens of this man I’m obsessed with. I still think obsessed is a strong word. I think I would be able to find relief from thoughts of him if I were not my job to research the facts of his life and times. But I will admit, at least in this unusable draft, that it’s the first time in a long time I’ve actually enjoyed my job.
That Karl Schneider himself is dangerously disturbed in his feelings for me, I have no doubt. His outburst when we last met is proof. I find myself unable to stop thinking about it.
I know you have assured me that it is common, especially among zleutes, for our brains to confuse the symptoms of fear and lust, but I insist that the two are separate. I know I fear Karl. Not only for the physical threat but for the mental danger. And I feel that utterly distinctly from my fantasies about him. But they are two very different things, and I feel them very differently. I’m not getting off on the idea of him murdering me after all.
Maybe I shouldn’t revise. After all, I’ve never picked a fight with Dr. Klein and I’ve been a patient for my entire adulthood. I don’t trust myself to not censor when I revise. If anything, Klein can see the proof of my distress in this outburst. It’s so difficult to convey my distress in person to an authority figure.
Anyways… back to useable material.
Tonight, I attempted to follow your advice and act out the fantasy, to…explore if the recurring lustful thoughts were because of the man or because of the erotic possibilities of his lewd suggestion. I chose Hans since I trust him more than my others. I am only reporting this because I have no doubt he is a loyal Prussian, an earnest idiot, and a man who takes his diaries to his sex councilor very seriously. I don’t want discrepancies.
I did not follow your instructions thoroughly. Reviewing your memo, I see I disregarded your advice about the conversation before the act. I thought this was the same conversation we’re always supposed to have to ensure consent and everything. I didn’t anticipate Hans’ reaction when I…acted on the fantasy.
I do not want to imply that Hans was inappropriate in any way, so I hope you will not purpose action against him because of my stupidity. No! Say…confusion. If anything, I would have preferred he’d been inappropriate. If he’d been disgusted when I straddled him, or if he’d thrown me off when I tried to behave so actively obscene… the whole thing is unbearably embarrassing.
He was startled then took it in stride as too much stress. He laughed and redirected me to a proper sexual position and said, he called me a tease and said I was too bold and that was not my role. I hate him for that. I hated him at the time, but I didn’t stop him.
I suppose it would have been better to have discussed the position ahead of time and explain what I need… that a doctor had advised me to act out this fantasy at least once. Hans probably would have been less, I don’t know, is condescending the correct word for a man as shy and mindless as Hans? Less annoying. Less presumptuous.
I regret I was unable to focus or enjoy the rest of the encounter, but I’m not certain if Hans knew. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Which is more my usual style of self-inflicted non-consent. But that’s an old problem we’ve often discussed, so hooray, I’m also regressing.
And while I’m being so honest, because I will certainly re-write this letter now and I will do so by hand to ensure that I can erase my stupid outbursts of passions, since those are rapidly becoming more and more common. While I’m honest, I will admit, that I can’t stop wondering what Hans meant by role. Where did he learn his role? I certainly don’t remember being taught mine. Maybe mine is just the natural role of someone so slight and so pretty. Maybe it was because there were so few other boys in my night school who were as effeminate as me. Maybe I’ve just always lived in the knowledge that these things were done to me and not by me.
I mean, it’s not like I wanted to…use him as a woman. I’ve no problem with…It’s just… the idea of being the one on top, in control of the movement, riding is the way Karl described it. The freedom of it, the… the power of it.
I’ve never had that kind of freedom. I’ve always been pinned or pushed by a lover’s weight and…and I’m consumed with the thought of it now.
But Hans outright laughed at me. This empty-headed man who thinks the world is his to coddle and pat because he has a gun around his shoulder. The self-righteous child. If he’d been appalled, I wouldn’t hate myself so much. If he’d been angry, well he was angry. He just knew better than to act on it. But if he had shown it, I would feel justified in feeling like a victim. In thinking he was cruel. But to laugh at me. That the idea of me having control is laughable.
Of course, it is. The man hardly blinked in forcing me on my back and getting my feet to my ears again. I couldn’t have stopped him even if I’d wanted to. I didn’t try because…
Frankly, I was worried he wouldn’t stop. Then I’d have to report him—
Only I wouldn’t of course, because… I mean, this is Hans. He’s a very attractive man. Very sweet. And a soldier, it would ruin his career. When I rewrite this I can’t be unkind and blame him.
I just…I wonder where Hans learned his role. I wonder who gave him permission.
Tues. August 7th, 134 SE
Dear Readers of Der Stadtoben Spiegel, in stark contrast to my previous pieces about Prussia before the transition, today’s article will focus on the nobility. In particular, the Karolin family.
Lord, I never expected I would have to write a sentence that dry in a fashion column.
As I’ve been researching what my home was like in the first years of my life, I’m struck again and again by how much more palatable life is post-monarchy. While I’ve thought surely the poorest among us were certainly the people who benefitted the most from the transition, after learning about the life of former Princess Tebelde, I wonder if it was not the wealthiest who most benefited from the death of their privilege.
Time and time again, I would come across stories of immense repression. Arranged marriages, pin-holed careers, stifling societal expectations, and nearly constant vigilance from a population waiting for the next scandal real or imagined. Here’s just a sample of personal diaries, letters, and biographies from the time:
[Elsie, hi. Obviously, I sent you far too samples many to be usable. I definitely want to highlight the lady who walked off her roof when the art school rejected her, the king who murdered his son’s servant for seducing him and the hate-filled marriage his son had afterward, and the noble who wanted to be a priest and wasn’t allowed. I have important pro-Stadtoben points:
We support artists in a way we never did before.
We do not condone (or you know, outright murder) homosexuals anymore or enforce arranged marriages.
And I think a lot of the people writing in will be assuaged if we talk about the Lord Saint.
I think a military one would be useful as well since so many of these lords were basically pressed into service, but I’ll leave it to you to choose your favorite.]
Princess Tebelde, by nature an out-going, sharply intelligent girl, suffered more than most, in this system. Her parents, currently permanent residents in Neo-Roma, were shy and withdrawn even before their daughter’s abduction. Viewed by her peers as alternatively too mannish, too aloof, too passionate, and too sensitive, Tebelde Karolin would have thrived in our culture of gendered equality. She was a highly political mind and wrote several essays about the treatment of tenants and serfs even before the deterioration of the geodesic domes. Her writings are filled with petitions for change, education, and better living conditions. For example:
[The excerpts from her 1009 appeal for the peerage to gather funds and buy out the debt of all middle-aged parents and elderly persons.]
In addition to her passionate appeal for the betterment of all—truly enlightened principles very much in line with our modern ideals of service and state before self—she donated heavily to charities and had extraordinarily forgiving housing taxes for her citizens.
[Can we please, please include the chart I sent you about the debt differentials between sovereignties? I despise the Plattners.]
Truly she was a remarkable leader in all ways. Especially given her youth and the lack of involvement her family had shown previously.
Her final years in Prussia have confused her legacy. Many readers have written in expressing contempt for our Last Princess. Declaring that the woman was just short of heretical and unworthy of our attention let alone the continued expense of keeping the Prussian gate open. But I insist an investigation of her writings and her speeches will show that Princess Tebelde was completely in agreement with the rebuilding of Prussia, with the relocation of all our people, and with the death of the monarchal system.
[Elsie: How many of her excerpts may we include? I particularly want to have her final speech. I rather like what I wrote about it. Found it very stirring, if I may say so myself. I’m also partial to the image of the princess in all her finery holding a skeletal child wearing rags with the city above casting a shadow across the world. It’s rather striking. Really, I think I want to write an article about her costume, but I suppose I’ll have to settle on my thoughts about her character… I’ll work with you on the excerpts, tomorrow. Here are the last bits… Maybe the first bits. What do you think?]
I write this column in direct opposition to what I was asked to write by Gefängnisturm. The staff hoped I would avoid speaking of Höchste Tebelde for fear the public opinion will turn against her. I will be honest, Karl Schneider seems intent on convincing me of the radical idea that she was affiliated with the group. However, I do not believe she had anything to do with the activities of Vergiss Niemanden. Our research has proved this idea is utterly preposterous. Rather, I think this is another example of Herr Schneider’s conspiratorial madness getting the best of his good judgment.
Tebelde Karolin was a friend to all her citizens and strove to make life better for every single person in her care, including unfortunately the budding terrorist organization who would eventually steal her from us. I firmly believe the princess did cross Karl Schneider’s path in her charity work. She may even have accepted donations from the V.N. to help feed her people in times of hardest strife but to suggest that she would condone theft, rebellion, or violence is ridiculous.
She was a true Prussian.
I know this essay will cause many unpleasant disagreements. So, I thank you for once again for your indulgence, good Prussians. This remains, as always, my unprofessional opinion.
[Sorry, it’s a mess Elsie.]
Sat. August 11th, 134 SE
The cell is very quiet. Karl lies on the bed inside his cage. Otto sits on the couch which has been turned toward the cage. Otto wears a new suit, mostly beige with details in maroon, such as buttons and pockets and a lapel pin. Karl watches him with great intensity but also sleepiness.
Karl: You look lovely today.
Otto touches the decoration on his lapel.
Otto: Louisa Böttcher’s design.
Karl: I could tell. It’s… wonderful.
Otto: Thank you.
The lapel pin is a five-centimeter-wide knot, mustard colored. Like an elaborate rose but folded and sewed with thick black thread.
Otto: It’s taking them a while to come let you out today.
Karl: Oh, Thomalla didn’t tell you? I was too upset by this week’s article. She determined I was not to be allowed out of my cage.
Otto: I wondered why they rearranged…
Karl: It makes no difference. I’m not allowed to touch you or anything.
Otto looks at the floor.
Karl: You’re right. It didn’t stop me last week.
Otto: I’m sorry this week’s article upset you so much.
Karl sighs, sits up and—
Karl: Memories are a powerful thing. Between her speeches and the pictures… they’re right to keep me locked up today.
Otto: Well, I hope you can forgive me.
Karl: You did nothing wrong. I… My humors have never been particularly well-balanced.
Otto: Humors? What a charming old-fashioned…
Karl: I don’t actually believe in them.
Otto: Of course not.
Karl wipes his brow, distressed.
Karl: The little boy in that picture. The one where she’s hugging him on her hip, and he’s got his head on her shoulder, and you can see the city under construction above them.
Otto: Yes, it’s a beautiful image. I—
Karl: He was shot.
Karl: Moritz was his name. He was seven in that photo, though he looks much smaller. He was actually a very mischievous kid, but he was tired that day. We’d been… there had been violence.
Otto: How was he shot?
Karl: He’d make a game in the warzone of stealing ammunition from the dead and bringing it back to those of us behind whatever barricade. He was fast because he never wore armor. One day… we had the high ground, so he had to scramble uphill to get to us. It slowed him down just enough for someone to get a clear shot of his skull. Bits of his brain all over the place.
Otto: And he was seven?
Karl: Yeah. Saddest bit. He had a relocation card. A place to live in Stadtoben. But he…
Karl puts his head in his hands.
Otto: … wouldn’t leave anyone behind?
Otto sits in chair and stares at his hands. Then lifts his head.
Otto: Suppose we talk about frivolous things today. Silly things about before the transition?
Karl: You think there was a hell of a lot of frivolity in—
Otto: What was dating like?
Karl’s snarl relaxes into a smile. Then he laughs.
Otto relaxes on the couch and also grins.
Otto: Oh, is that new? It’s when two people—
Karl: Dating is not an invention of your great society.
Otto: I’m aware. I was being witty. What was it like for serfs and rebels?
Karl: I’m surprised you want to start there after how uncomfortable I made you last week.
Otto covers the radio transmitter.
Otto: I… well, there’s no one I really trust…
Dame Malice: Herr Lang, you’re leaning on your radio, and it distorts the sound.
Otto: Oh, so sorry.
Karl crosses his arms and stretches his feet out in front of him. Informal sprawling pose suitable for modeling bathing dresses and not much else.
Karl: Dating was… well, what is dating like now?
Otto: Sure. When you want to meet someone new, you go to your club, and you can see a catalog of all the other men… or women this is also for a primäreleute though they have an eye toward marriage and zleute, of course, don’t have a restriction on number of partners or an expectation of a long-term relationship. Uh… You see the catalog, and you can choose to write to people or find out if they are in the club at that time and go over and meet them. Sometimes you really hit it off… not just physically, but also… emotionally. Then you meet up outside of the club in your own homes, which I think is the way most primäreleute go about it. Though in my experience most zleutes stay in the club with their dates.
Karl: Jesus Christ, maybe your society did reinvent dating. So, you just go to any sex club—
Otto: You have a membership, and you want to pick one where you will meet the most compatible people. For example, mine has mostly artists and creative types. Not a lot of businessmen. Or rather when we do get businessmen, they are the type who admire creatives. No conflict there.
Karl: So, the government is even meddling with who you fuck?
Otto: No, it’s a convenience. It’s not controlled by the guards. It’s… just a convenience.
Karl raises his eyebrow not convinced.
Otto: I thought it would be a silly thing and not upset—
Karl: Relationships were inconvenient. You met people in your day to day life at work or in a bar or dance hall, and if you liked them, you asked them on a date. The object could be either sex or a long-term relationship, and you had to make sure you both were on the same page. Or you should if you were a decent person or didn’t want to get hurt.
Otto: Sounds complicated. I mean, mixing work and play and… sex.
Karl: It was. Because there were no rules. So, like… let’s say you have feelings for… what’s her face, Elsie? But she’s not in your catalog, so you’d just never ask her on a date?
Otto: I’d never ask her because she’s a woman and a primäreleute.
Karl: Oh, you’re only into men.
Otto: You’re not?
Karl: No, I’m bi. So, say you meet a guy at… I don’t know the market. You flirt with him—
Otto: No, hold on. Well, firstly, I’d never flirt with a stranger in public. That’s not safe or decent. But I must know. What’s bi?
Karl grins amused and leans forward against the bars of his cage.
Karl: You’re adorable when you’re nervous. It means I’ve had sex with men and women.
Otto: But you prefer men?
Karl: After the dry spell I’ve been under, I’d take either. I might even be desperate enough for old Dame Malice.
Otto looks deeply uncomfortable.
Karl: Sorry that was meant to be funny. No. Gender never mattered to me. Personally, I always liked oddities, strong personalities or unusual looking people. People that didn’t match up with the normal machinery of humanity. Like yourself or… once, I had a boyfriend once who was trans, which is probably illegal here. He was born a girl and living as a boy, so bisexual might not cover all the asses I would tap, but—
Dame Malice: You’re being inappropriate, and you need to change the subject.
Otto nods reprimanded. Karl scowls at the cameras.
Karl: You ever been in love with someone, Otto?
Otto: Me? Oh, no.
Karl: Why not?
Otto: I… What a funny question!
Karl: Come on now, I’ve told you plenty about me by now. Give me something.
Otto: I’ve had many lovers. But zleutes…it’s not really love, is it?
Karl: It could be. It’s not impossible for gay men. Just because you’ve been told you can’t love that way.
DM: That’s enough, Prisoner 16.
Karl: They’ve conditioned you to dismiss your strong feelings, to settle into this fuck and flee culture.
DM: I will end the interview now.
Karl: And because they interfere whenever you start to question…
The cell is silent. Karl—
Karl: You can’t really come to your own conclusions. So maybe you have been in love, but you ended it before you really knew. Before the crush could make it all the way to real friendship and love, because of the outside pressure.
Otto stares at floor and runs his fingers over his knees.
Karl: So, have you—
Otto: There was a boy… Erik. He was a musician…
Karl: Go on.
Otto: He hated performing. He wanted to teach. It’s not right to talk about him.
Karl: What’s he doing nowadays?
Otto: I’d prefer…
Karl: Did he leave the sector?
Otto: Yes. In a way.
Karl: In a way, what does—oh. I’m sorry for your loss.
Otto: He’d always exhibited depressed tendencies, so it wasn’t… We went to night school together. We were… bad for each other. The experts said our temperaments were the worst possible combination for two zleutes and he refused to see me regularly. For his own protection. I agreed. To avoid him, I started going in and out of Prussia with my designs. Caledonia, Versailles, Albion… But whenever I came back, he was always here… always waiting. I thought maybe we could indulge in each other if we were careful. He disagreed and he hated… Especially, because I… I didn’t call on him. I did once and he rejected me and—well, my pride couldn’t tolerate that so I never did again. But I never sent him away. He tried to make me promise to tell him no, but I…I never did. So he’d give in and he’d call at my club, or my door, or my office. I thought he’d come around to my way of thinking, but… he couldn’t stand his own weakness. One day, he made sure he wouldn’t call again.
Otto: Are you satisfied?
Karl: I’m sorry. I didn’t—
Otto: Herr Schneider, do you want to tell me about the night of August 14th, in 120 when Vergiss Niemanden kidnapped Höchste Karolin-Albrecht or not?
Karl: I do. I do… Let me get my wits together…
Karl lies down again. He puts his hands over his eyes, breathes deeply. He says into his hands.
Karl: I think I told you already, but you look very lovely today. I especially like the lapel pin.
Otto: You did say, but I thank you again.
Karl: And you said you made the pin for me. Yes…
Karl: I am sorry. I didn’t expect…you behave like a man who’s never been hurt.
Otto: There’s a type of lighthearted person who wears their pain not as a decoration but as a support. While others can afford to display their wounded hearts in their lapels and earrings, we wear ours as bracers and corsets to hold ourselves stronger. We cover the ugliness with so much brocade no one can see it and so they think there is nothing about us but prettiness.
Karl: You never wrote that in your column.
Otto: It’s not for Rainer Liebling to say—Are you ill? You don’t seem yourself today.
Karl: Don’t I?
Otto: Well, you can’t seem to sit straight, and I’ve never seen…your eyes so still.
Karl: Sedate and well-behaved, am I?
Otto: Never that. Just… sloshing comes to mind.
Karl laughs. He sits up and leans forward against the bars.
Karl: You’ll think I’m being conspiratorial again, but I suspect they drugged my breakfast. I’ve had a damned time focusing. She’s got the real power here and she wants me sloppy, you know. It’s why I never talked before. It’s easier to say nothing than it is to say the right thing.
Otto: Suppose you just tell me about—
Karl: Vergiss Niemanden. Höchste Karolin-Albrecht. August 14th, 1012. No. 122 Sector—
Otto: 120 Sectoral Era. You missed the two—
Karl: Tibby didn’t want to get married. I may have mentioned last week. She hated most of her suitors. Albrecht was the bearable one. He was sympathetic to her cause, possibly just to get her to like him, to be the one person in the room she didn’t hate. He always struck me as the kind of slimy bastard who could play any role needed as long as it got him what he wanted in the end.
Otto: Which was to marry Tibby?
Karl: Well, she was very pretty, very rich, and if her politics could be controlled very talented in the arts. She’d be a nice little piece to have on the mantle. Not my feelings toward her, you understand. I thought she was a force, but Philipp Albrecht labored under the delusion she’d be easy to manage if he could assuage her politics. Her words, not mine. I didn’t know the man. But she said he thought it was like that. Like her concern for her people was a vice he could be train out of her.
Otto: Did you ever meet Höchster Albrecht?
Karl: Well, he’s the fellow who got me arrested, so… yeah? He hit his head during the explosion, and I worried he was going to stumble out the… hole in the tower. He tricked me and managed to grab and hold me until his guards came in.
Otto stops talking and touches his radio.
Karl: What lines are they feeding you?
Otto: Play dumb. Ask him to go back a few hours. Maybe flatter him and ask if the explosives were his. Now, she’s swearing at me. Dame Malice has quite a mouth on her when she’s frustrated. What did you do that she would sedate—which she’s denying—and lock you up?
Karl: I got out of this damned room. Made it to the elevator before they brought me down.
Karl: I was very agitated.
Karl: She wants to know about the explosives? They weren’t mine. We had an old bomber, Caully. What he lacked for in personal creativity, he more than made up for with his ability to follow directions and puzzle a thing out. They want to know how the bombs got on the wall outside?
Karl: Tell them to revisit their footage of the night. The bomb was inside the room.
Otto: That’s not possible.
Karl: That’s what made the abduction so special. It wasn’t possible.
Otto looks cross, but not with Karl.
Otto: Don’t be stupid, Thomalla, because he’s not. And did you really drug him?
Karl smiles and leans his head against the bars.
Karl: Is Dame Malice getting inappropriate?
Otto: She’s getting desperate.
Karl: Did she drug me?
Otto: She won’t confirm or deny.
Otto twists off the earpiece and tosses it onto the couch. He stands, walks closer, leans against the cage.
Otto: I’m done. Do you have something you wanted to talk about, Karl? I came here to write your story not be mocked by a soldier. I get enough of that in my personal life.
Karl smiles and looks up at the ceiling.
Karl: I’m surprised she’s not telling you to put it back on.
Karl: Actually, I don’t mind talking about the weeks leading up to her escape. Philipp Albrecht made a deal with Tibby. They drew up a contract to keep everything honest. They would be married. I don’t remember what he got. Her money, I guess. She got access to the neighborhoods and hotels he had empty in Stadtoben and an understanding all her people would be housed there until the Intersectoral council could accept the ones who wanted to go with them. I ought to mention all marriage contracts between nobles had to be reviewed by all the ruling families in those days. So, everyone had to agree to all terms. After her wedding, there would be no one left in Unterstadt. She had that in writing, so I don’t know if you’ll be able to find her marriage contract now. They promised every criminal, rebel, innocent child would be out and in the care of the Intersectoral police to be judged by Intersectoral laws. Then the Prussian Gate could be sealed.
Otto: Seems fair. You expected clemency from the Intersectoral Council?
Karl: I don’t know that the truly reprehensible among us would stick around to be brought to justice and returned. They might have gone over the sea-wall, it was possible. But yeah, we did. Hell, for all I know Dachs and I might have ended up in this tower together. Dame Malice could have had her execution order ten years ago.
Otto: Fourteen years.
Karl: God…I’ve been here so long.
Karl: Did they ever install new street lights in the residential area? You know below…18th street? They said in the papers they were going to.
Otto: What’s that have to do with anything?
Karl: Oh? Nothing…they used one of my designs. I wondered how they looked. I could see the trucks. They did build it. They finished in April…
Otto: Maybe you should see a doctor, Karl. You…
Karl: No. They do this all the time. When I’m unreasonable. I just liked my design for the street lamps. Sun-powered. In my mind, they shimmered in the moonlight. Have you seen them?
Otto: I have. They’re very beautiful. There’s some outside my house.
Karl nods and sits with his head in his hands.
Otto reaches through the bars to touch his arm. Karl looks up his eyes half-closed.
Otto: Karl. What went wrong? With the contract?
Karl: For the lamps?
Otto: Tibby’s wedding.
Karl: Oh… you know, I’m not really sure. I know the Intersectoral police were here. They were ready to process and transport all of us. If you look at pictures of the wedding day, the sky is full of Albion and Edo airships. It was truly remarkable how the global community answered her call. I think it was the centuries of isolation made us all more…invested in each other’s injustice. But the airships were never given permission to enter Prussia. And because Prussia used an old—did I tell you about the impermeable dome?
Otto: You did.
Karl: That I cracked it. I figured it out? I told you that?
Otto: Not the technical details, but—
Karl: You don’t want those, do you?
Otto: If you want to tell me about that you can.
Karl looks at Otto intensely.
Karl: But I was talking about the airships. Tibby’s wedding. Yes. The dome was up and impenetrable and so, they couldn’t come in. Tibby activated her escape plan and Dachs and I went to help her out, and I got arrested. Fuckin’… was it twelve years ago?
Otto: Don’t worry about that. Princess Tebelde anticipated the nobles’ betrayal?
Karl: She didn’t trust any of them farther than she could spit and she was a lady so she couldn’t spit far. My personal theory—it will run into the conspiracy for you. I think Philipp Albrecht was more than happy to lose his wife. Just between you and me, if he weren’t a prince, he probably would have been promoted to a queen.
Otto: That’s vulgar, and you are half-mad.
Karl stands and then leans over Otto on the other side of the bars. Otto shifts, then stays.
Karl: You telling me Albrecht never gave you a look-over when you went there for tea?
Otto: Oh, darling, that doesn’t make him a homosexual. I’m a danger to primäreleute men. Or so I’ve been told. I’d never pick an inappropriate partner.
Karl: I never stood a chance then, did I?
Otto smiles and shakes his head.
Karl: You sure you don’t believe in love?
Otto: I believe in lust and in strong friendship. I don’t believe it’s healthy to mix them.
Karl paces. His long strides take him across the cage very quickly. Then he pauses and takes the bars in his hands. Resolved.
Karl: I believe in love because I saw Dachs and Tibby together.
Otto turns toward him in the cage.
Otto: The princess and… and a terrorist.
Karl: Tibby was a force, but Dachs… Dachs could charm the stars out of the sky. They started out dating by your definition. Just two attractive people fucking. I thought it was a rich girl getting her kicks in the mud. I didn’t think feelings would get involved. But something changed, and everything went sideways. Tibby started making mistakes and her people at home got suspicious. Dachs got greedy, lost sight of the greater good. They were in love, and Vergiss Niemanden stopped fighting a revolution and started behaving like the princess’s personal army. We could have blown our way out of Unterstadt any day. Between my inventions and Caully’s bombs. We could level Stadtoben in a night, but our leader loved a pacifist.
Otto: You didn’t stage a coup?
Karl laughs and shakes his head.
Karl: Against Dachs? Jesus Christ, no. She was… Tibby, I mean, Tibby was too good.
Karl shakes his head violently and then sits down.
Karl: That bitch drugged me. I don’t care what she says, she did and I won’t say another word. After… I will answer you. I didn’t stage a coup. We all agreed with… with Dachs. Because when you see people in love like that when you see that hope and happiness, it makes you want to help them, makes you want to give up everything to keep that alive. Then Tibby killed it and went and got married.
Karl lies down.
Karl: Alright, you might as well go home. I’m done talking today.
Otto: You said, Princess Tebelde anticipated betrayal? What was she prepared to do?
Otto: Was she going to lead some kind of political movement, do you think? Or was there a fall-out between her and Dachs? I mean, all these years in captivity, held prisoner by her ex-lover. That’s gotta be interesting.
Karl turns his head to Otto and smiles.
Otto: Okay, let’s talk about something else. Why don’t you tell me about how you cracked the geodesic dome? Talk technical to me, genius, and we’ll see if I can keep up—
The locked door opens behind me.
Dame Malice: That’s enough, 16. This little exercise of yours is finished.
Dame Malice takes the sheet I have written and tears it to shreds.
Otto: Good afternoon, Aufsicht Thomalla.
Dame Malice grabs Otto’s arm and pulls him toward the door out of my view.
DM: Herr Lang, this will be your final visit.
DM: You’ve had your fun, 16. I hope it was worth it. I’m going to petition the ruling families to get me an execution order. You’re clearly criminally insane.
Otto: No! You can’t he hasn’t come close to—
DM: If you write a word of that slander he’s just spouted at you, I cannot guarantee your newspapers’ continued operation or your own personal safety.
Karl: Let’s not be subtle.
DM: Shut up. Princess Tebelde was a decent a pure girl—
Karl: Did she save you, Ida? Were the Thomallas smuggled out of the darkness—
DM: You’re a terrorist. Everything you say is a God-Damned lie.
Karl: Give me one more day. With him. Without drugs. Then I’ll confess whatever you like.
Dame Malice trembles. Anger. She seems to be—
DM: Not a chance in Hell. You’re a danger to my sector, to my citizens.
Otto: Please, Aufsicht Thomalla, I’ll come back if you let me. I’m not afraid.
Karl is very calm.
Karl: I’ll confess to attempting to assassinate your queer little höchster. And more than that I’ll tell you where to find the princess. No more games. Just let him come back once more. Without drugging me.
Dame Malice sighs.
DM: Once more, or I’ll shoot you myself, Karl, and call it defense.
Karl: I believe you. And I think that’d be grand. Nice and fast. In the head like Moriz.
Someone picks me up and carries me to the door.
Karl: Otto! Shit! Otto, wait!
We spin back around. Karl looks sad and desperate, standing now, holding the bars.
Karl: Otto, may I have your pin?
Otto: Oh? This?
DM: Go into the hallway, Herr Lang, at once.
Karl: Yes. Just let me… let me have the pin. It’d be a shitty weapon, Ida. You can see that.
Ida/Dame Malice/Ida: What do you want with it?
Karl: It’s foolish, I know, but…I just want something that belongs to him. Consider it the request of a dead man.
Otto puts me down on my side.
*recalibrating ocular array *
Otto: May I?
Ida: You’re the one he’s obsessed with. Do what you want. You both disgust me.
Otto brings the lapel pin to Karl and very gently presses his hand to Karl’s chest and pins the floret of fabric to his coveralls. Karl watches him very calmly, very intensely.
Karl: Listen, darling. Don’t you get into any trouble over…
…next week whether you come back or not. Stay away, and you’ll be safe.
Otto: Safe? What do you—
Ida: Get your toy and get out, Lang. Now.
Otto picks me up and heads toward the door.
Tues. August 14th, 134 SE
Elsie, as per our conversation in the office today, I’m rewriting the conclusion paragraph. I think your edits are a bit forced, though I, of course, agree with the sentiments. I concede that it’s unfair to mention how funds might have been diverted from construction to relocation without access to the financial records. I also concede I can’t suggest Prussia should have relied on other sectors for aid. We aren’t Americans after all.
Please review my revisions:
Ladies and Gentlemen, consider the decisions those in power had to make. The massive undertaking required to unify our people, to move them to safety, and to give us a new enlightened society. As Herr Schneider said, there were casualties, people lost along the way, unlucky ones who slipped through the fingers of the people reaching out to help them.
There is a delicate balance between safety and freedom and Prussia tips on the side of safety. Old Prussia was corrupted by the financial power the monarchy was able to hold over others. Our society prioritizes the needs of many over the needs of the few. As any zleute can tell you, this is a system that impinges on certain freedoms of privacy and place. I, for example, will never be a tailor, but I that does not mean I will never be happy or that I will never be successful.
However, I will never be shot by an armed person who denies my humanity. I will never starve or suffer illness because I do not have access to clean water or shelter. I will never lack because wealthier people are hoarding their resources and turning a blind eye to my suffering.
I believe with all my heart in the ideals of Prussia. But we must never forget the cost of our society or the people who suffered before our generation so that we could attain the wealth and comfort we possess. Forgetting this history may trap us and allow others to trick us into repeating it.
Elsie, maybe this isn’t any better. I’ve very tired of all this, and I’m struggling to make sense of everything. We’ll talk tomorrow.
Wed. August 15th, 134 SE
Otto’s office. View of the city, the river. Gefängnisturm looms in—
Dear Readers of Der Stadtoben Spiegel,
I’ll be taking a brief hiatus from my unprofessional opinion section for the next month. I know many readers will not miss it, but I hope many more of you will. I need a bit of time to—
What? Recalibrate my own mind?
Otto chuckles then catches his breath.
Knock on the door. Otto looks up. Dismal. He presses his hands to his eyes, then grins at the door.
Elsie, darling, are you bringing cupcakes?
Elsie enters with papers in hand and a red pen behind her ear. She wears bland gray skirts with fraying lace. The height of fashion three years ago.
Elsie: I got your revision from last night. We can’t print any of—
Otto: Why not? What is illegal?
Elsie: Nothing. Of course, but… It’s only…
Otto: I write a fashion column?
Elsie: You’re a zleute.
Otto looks up at her. The smile goes out of his face, and he looks very tired.
Elsie: I’m not saying it’s subversive, or anarchistic. I think you rather improved that from your early drafts. But…there are those who will say you are too sympathetic.
Otto: Let them talk—
Elsie: What if it’s Tagwache doing the talking? Otto, I love you too much to let you go to some rehabilitation, to ruin yourself over… because some man turned you around.
Otto: Yeah, it’s his fault. No doubt.
Elsie: Isn’t it?
Otto leans forward hands on his eyes again.
Otto: I shouldn’t go back.
Elsie: I wasn’t saying that. The rest of the article is good. Great reporting. There’s no way you can go back to just reporting on clothes after this.
Otto: I’m not going back. Rewrite the conclusion however you like. I don’t want to go back in that tower again.
Elsie: Now, I wasn’t suggesting—You can’t walk away from this story. You have to finish this story, Otto. If you leave now…the whole publication could fall! Gefängnisturm is threatening me at least once a day. I have bags of complaints coming in, calling for your resignation and for mine or demanding that we ‘liberate your mind’ from the fashion column and let you write like a man. It’s starting riots in Albion. Those monarchial bastards, calling us backwards and uneducated. And why am I suffering this stress? Because I let you write when no one else would have tolerated you.
Otto stares up at her.
Elsie: What’s that look for?
Otto: Frankly, I’m waiting for you to call me names. I’m expecting zweiteleute with a nice bite to it. Maybe filthy. You’re too classy for something like shit-fucker but then again, my father’s personal favorite was the relatively mild fudge-eater, and that hurt the most because it was so silly.
Elsie: I’m a professional.
Otto: Oh, I also thought being my friend had something to do with it.
Elsie rolls her eyes and sighs.
Elsie: Do be dramatic—You know what. I’m sorry. That was inappropriate of me. If you need the break, of course, you must take it. Your mental well-being is more important than—
Otto: I’ll go back.
Elsie: You don’t have—
Otto: I’m going back.
Otto points to the papers.
Otto: Do you want me to try this conclusion again?
Elsie looks at the papers and bites her lip.
Elsie: No, I’ll re-write—
Otto: Then you put your name on it as a co-author.
Elsie: I can’t… Fine, I’ll publish as is, but I want it on the record that—
Otto: When we print news of his execution, we will retract everything.
Otto: You’re not in the room with him, Elsie. He reads this. He lives and dies by this.
Elsie: You’re right, I’m not in the room with him. I’m in the world, and I can see this objectively. Let me make a few changes for your safety. I’ll have it done by the time you’re done with lunch. We can talk about changes over drinks tonight and print it tomorrow. Sound good?
Otto: Sure. I’ll meet you at our pub.
Elsie leaves. Otto puts his head in his hands.
Otto: Our pub. They’ve carded me enough to know I’m a zleute, and they don’t bother to make us uncomfortable by explaining the limitations on the drinks I can have. They trust me to be responsible. Meanwhile, Elsie can sit and drink all she likes, can get sloppy enough to accost married men and zleute men and any man really. I wouldn’t drink even if I could, I get too transparent.
She’d never go to a zleute bars, of course. Where anyone can get inappropriately drunk because they’re only offending second-people.
Jesus, I’m starting to think like him.
Windhund, draw me a table of contents.
Windhund, delete all entries that… that don’t have the words Karl Schneider, Gefängnisturm, or Windhund.
Windhund, draw me a table of contents.
Windhund, scrub all titles and replace with dates. Then print…No don’t print. Just remember them for Elsie…
Sat. August 18th, 134 SE 10:05 a.m.
Karl’s cell has been rearranged. The couch is along the wall. The bookshelf stands out on the wall nearest to the door and the workshop and bench are tucked behind it. Alcove.
Karl: Why don’t you set the windhund down on the bookshelf, today?
Otto sets me on top of the bookshelf looking into the room.
Otto: You’ve changed the layout again.
Karl: It makes Dame Malice nervous. She can see every inch of the room from her cameras, but the shelf there gives a cozy feel in the workshop an illusion of privacy.
Otto: Any reason you want the windhund here?
Karl: Close to the door so you can pick it up when she chases you out.
Otto: Are we planning our outburst today, Herr Schneider?
Otto sits next to him on the couch.
Otto: Sorry. Karl. Don’t sound so disappointed.
Karl: They didn’t let me read your last article.
Otto: It was rather patriotic. I don’t think you would have approved… well, not patriotic. Conflicted, but generally patriotic. Elsie helped me write it so I wouldn’t be accused of treason. You’ve well and truly unsettled me, Karl.
Karl: I’m glad for it. Put the radio on.
Otto leans forward and takes the radio from the table before the couch and puts it in his ear. Karl watches him twirling Otto’s lapel pin in his hand.
Otto: You’re extremely well behaved, today.
Karl: Ida said she’d let me sedate myself instead of facing a firing squad if I behaved. She even said she’d ask you to be there if I didn’t cause any trouble.
Otto: I don’t know…
Karl: Don’t worry. I wouldn’t do that to you. Not after what you said about… Anyways, I told her I’d rather be alone. We didn’t think you’d come back.
Otto: You didn’t?
Audio unclear. Karl continues to twirl the lapel pin, lazily.
Otto: Yes, but… you brought me here to hear a confession. I owe you that much, don’t I?
Karl touches Otto’s face.
Karl: You didn’t owe me anything. These past few weeks have given me my life back. I just hope they haven’t cost you your life… I mean in the metaphorical sense.
Otto: I… It’s certainly been an eye-opening experience, Karl.
Otto shifts and Karl takes his hand away.
Otto: I wish when I was eighteen, I’d known what I know about Prussia now.
Karl: Would you have gone to Albion?
Otto: Probably Versailles. Her majesties son was very easy on the eyes.
Karl: Suppose I talk about Dachs and Tibby some more?
Otto: Suppose you do.
Karl: I’ll start with the morning of the wedding.
Karl takes a deep breath.
Karl: We’d left everyone, and I mean everyone in Unterstadt at the edge of the Prussian Gate. We’d camped out near there with the meat vats and all our belongings. Every hundred people or so had a designated leader, and those groups had smaller units with their own leaders and so on and so on. It was a very military operation. Very precisely organized so everyone was accounted for. Dachs and I and a few others who were close to Tibby went through the wall through our secret breach. Caully arranged to have himself on watch, and he let us through.
Otto: Pascal Selig must have been near retirement age.
Karl tilts his head confused.
Karl: Yes…when did you—
Otto: His wife called him Caully when I met him. And they were… well, darker. I think she was an areligious zleute… I think she was Jewish. He seemed to have trouble breathing, and I was thinking of him when you told me about the sun-sickness and unwanted people left behind… Then you mentioned a bomb-maker. I went to see him to ask him questions before I came here and saw he’d left the sector. Closed shop and moved after my article about the scribbling windhund.
Otto: I wouldn’t have mentioned him if he was still here. He was a very nice man. Very talented boys. Karl and Louis.
Karl: How sweet of him.
Otto: So, Pascal Selig let you out Unterstadt along with a few others.
Karl: Yes, while the princess left through the gate. We were her back-up in case the nobles failed…and I’ll be honest, we were the ones who expected… reprisal from the Albions.
Otto: So, all the leaders.
Karl: Everyone that couldn’t give the excuse of following orders, yes. We expected everyone else to be able to go through and into Albion and Edo airships, but of course, that’s not what happened. So, she went on to her castle or whatever and got on her dress. Have you seen pictures?
Otto: I have. That’s an early Louisa Böttcher design. Very lovely.
Karl grins wider.
Karl: What have you figured out, Herr Lang?
Otto: Oh… I’m disappointed.
Otto: Louisa has been working out of Versailles for years now, but she is also…extremely patriotic to Prussian ideals. And…a little darker than the average Prussian. She seemed the right age. She wouldn’t answer any of my questions about the time before the transition, but she got very angry thinking about it.
Karl: Was this before or after—
Otto: You already had the pin.
Ida: Please speak louder and do not sit so close.
Neither of them moves.
Karl: Dachs and I went to the wedding to make sure everything went the way we planned.
Otto: Even though Dachs loved her.
Karl: Service to the state before self. Dachs wanted to be there for emotional support. I didn’t trust the nobles to keep their word.
Otto touches his earpiece.
Otto: Oh, they found pictures of you.
Otto: You were on the catering staff. You and a woman bringing in the cake. I’d like to see that. They’re looking for Dachs now.
Karl: Best of luck to them. Sometime after the ceremony, Tibby realized they weren’t letting the Albions in. I don’t know if it was a delaying tactic to try to strand people. Or if they never planned on letting them in at all, but Tibby called for us.
Otto: They want me to ask you who the woman is.
Karl: You’d recognize her. Short stature, stout, a little bulky in the hips, but with strong arms. Short hair then. Probably still short now.
Otto shifts on the couch.
Otto: Is it Louisa?
Karl: Louisa Böttcher, yes.
Karl stands and goes by the window.
Otto: They want to know about the explosives. Did Louisa place them?
Karl: They’ve got it wrong asking about the bombs. They got hung up on them because someone said years ago that the explosion shorted the alarms. They think the bombs had an electrical component and they want that technology.
Otto: But it wasn’t the explosion that broke the alarms?
Karl: No. Tibby sabotaged the alarms. Using a thing I called a neutralizer. Louisa put it into Tibby’s hairpin. It’s a tiny thing that sends out… shall I show you?
Karl peels back the lapel pin’s floret of fabric revealing…I’m analyzing… Unknown transmitter.
Karl: It’s stupidly easy to jam an alarm once you know what frequency it broadcasts and receives.
Karl connects two wires an
Excuse me, I’ve received a jolt to my system…
Hisses and the slow winding down of clockwork. The steady hum and thunder of the tower creaks and softens. The lock on the door chunks into place sealing us in.
The geodesic dome fizzles in the sky and sparks. The rainbow falls, and the sky is yellowish and smoggy without the dome.
Everything is very still. Otto stands at the window. He looks—
Otto: What did you do? The dome is gone?
Karl: Did Dame Malice ever find Dachs at the wedding?
Otto: How did you turn off the dome? Bring it back! Everyone in Prussia will die!
Karl: Otto, have you ever heard someone from Albion try to say Böttcher?
Bangs at the door. Crackle from the speakers.
Karl: They pronounce it like badger which is their word for—
Karl: Dachs was the hair stylist and decorator. She made the lapel pins for the groom and his men too. So that jolt is what hit Höchster Philipp and all the guards.
Ida is outside the door. Frantic pounding and attempts to force the metal door. Otto looks nervous.
Ida: Deploy the gas.
Karl chuckles and fiddles with the broken lapel pin.
Otto: It’s not going to work is it?
Karl: No. I redirected the vents last night into the control room. Sure hope it’s non-lethal.
Sounds of popping and shouting. A distant alarm is triggered.
Ida: Damn it, Schneider! Don’t you hurt that boy! I’ll kill you myself.
Karl smiles at Otto who doesn’t back away. He shows his hands. Micro-bombs.
Karl: Do you recognize these?
Karl: They were in the windhund’s eyes. First thing I did when you got here. Tibby had to place her own as well.
Karl affixed the micro-bombs to the wall near the window.
Otto: What are they?
Karl comes nearer to him.
Karl: You’ll figure it out. Don’t fight me.
Karl pushes Otto lightly toward the bookshelf. Otto allows himself to be lead.
Otto: I… I wouldn’t know how to fight you. I didn’t think you’d manage a way to get us alone, but I can’t say I haven’t thought about it. I’m more than a little curious… there is no one in my catalog like you at all.
Karl backs Otto behind the shelf out of my line of vision.
Karl: Did you look?
Otto: I did. You’ve thrown me into quite a state, Karl. My counselor says I’m obsessing.
Karl: You’re just saying that so I’ll be gentle with you.
Otto: Maybe. But it’s true.
Pound on the door. The hiss and fizzle of the tower.
Otto: Will you kiss me before you kill me? As a favor to a dead man?
Karl: My pleasure.
Flame and bits of stone fly inward. They hit the bookshelf’s back, but do not penetrate it. Shelf rocks. Someone steadies it.
Otto: What the hell is happening?
The room is brighter. Grey with debris, the sky is very yellow through the open wall. Dust floats in the wind. But there is no sound from the hallway or the tower.
Otto: Karl, what were those things?
Ida: Herr Lang. Otto! Are you alive? What is happening?
Karl pulls Otto back into the room walking over the debris to the hole in the tower. Otto struggles.
Otto: No. I don’t want to fall! Let me go.
Karl: Are your cameras still working, Ida? You ready to find your princess?
Shadow falls over room. An advanced model airship, recreated from Silent Tinkerer design 418, descends.
Otto: Oh shit…
The airship hatch lowers. There are two women inside. Both in their forties. The one closer to me is dressed as a man in protective armor pants and shirt. Her hair is short and gelled into point. The one farther is taller and leaner, elegant and pale, in a blue dress.
Karl: Can you see her, Ida? You’re princess is the pilot.
Engine blares, the ash and dust fly through the air and make Otto cough.
Karl: Listen, Otto, I’d hate to spring this choice on you with such short notice, but I told you to stay away. You’d given me all I needed. If you stay here, they’ll accuse you of being involved, and you will end up in the tower cells next.
Karl pulls him toward the hovering airship.
Otto: But I’m not… I didn’t know anything. I’m totally innocent.
Karl: I know that. But they won’t find you innocent. I’d put money on it. They’d love to put a little fudge-eater like you back in his place. So, I’m not giving you a choice.
Karl: You always prioritized safety over freedom anyway, darling.
Karl reaches for him. Otto dodges and runs to the door. He bangs on the security glass and the metal door. Karl laughs, catches him, then lifts Otto onto his shoulder and carries him to the airship. Otto screams. The short woman raises the hatch.
More sounds of explosion and engine noises. Hammering on the door.
The airship flies away. The room is very quiet.
Distant sounds from the street below. Screaming and sobbing.
No discernable change in room.
No discernable change in room.
Otto Lang has forgotten his Scribbling Windhund. When I am found, please return me to:
Elsbeth Simper at the offices of Der Stadtoben Spiegel at 23rd and Main, Berlin, Prussia.
Sat. August 18th, 134 SE 7:00 p.m.
Notetaking Mode Reactivated
Status: Inkwell: 12 Percent. Capacity twenty percent.
Please wind me.
Elsie sits at her office desk, chair swiveled away from the parchment screen. Her hair is unpinned and hangs wild around her ears. The bottle of Bärenfang is empty and tipped over. She takes the last of the pages I have written.
Elsie turns the chair to the desk and leans on her elbow. She reads.
Sounds of a siren in the distance. Then overhead.
Elsie: Fuck. What now?
Elsie stands and goes to window and looks out at yellow sky. Elsie crosses the room out of my line of vision. A crank turning. The crackle of a radio and an unknown man speaking.
Unknown man Citizens of Prussia, please do not panic. There has been no change to the emergency level. The environmental dome is still down, but engineers are certain it will be in place again before long. We have received your letters and telegrams, and we wish to assure you, all Prussian Citizens are safe. The army is on guard on high alert, but the fleet of Albion airships above Stadtoben have assured us they were not here as an act of war but on standby for emergency evacuation. This is confirmed by the Intersectoral police.
We wish to assure you, Citizens of Prussia you are safe. Please return to your homes unless you are in a designated evacuation area. The evacuation of all streets below 19th street remains in effect, and all citizens in with homes or businesses in the Berlin area are begged to evacuate to community centers above 20th Street.
Once again, Citizens of Prussia, if you are obedient, you are safe.
The explosion on 13th street and Gardenia was unrelated to the kidnapping of Rainer Liebling or the anniversary of Höchste Albrecht’s abduction.
Citizens of Prussia, please do not panic. There has been no change to the emergency level. The environmental—
A sound of static and the buzz and fizz of an intercepted transmission.
Unknown voice: Citizens of Prussia, this is Princess Tebelde Karolin. If you or anyone you know is in the Berlin region, below 19th street, please use the next fifteen minutes to escape. This area is in extreme danger. It will be destroyed utterly in the next fifteen minutes by the Vergiss Niemanden. I remain well and fairly treated. Herr Rainer Liebling joined me in captivity at this morning and remains well and fairly treated. He’s a very charming man.
Elsie sighs with relief. Sobbing from other rooms in the office.
Princess Tebelde Karolin: My captors have informed me they wish to give all citizens of Prussia the same courtesy that was given them to evacuate their homes and belongings. Please, if you remain in any house or building below 19th street, I beg you evacuate to someplace safe. This, on the fourteenth anniversary of my abduction, is not a normal event, but plans for serious damage against Stadtoben will be realized in fifteen minutes. The streetlamps that were placed along every major walkway as part of the Berlin beautification program were designed by Karl Schneider to be explosive. Please stay safe and away from the street lamps and Berlin below 19th street. Thank you. That is all.
Unknown man: assure you, all Prussian Citizens are safe. The army is on guard on high alert, but the fleet of Albion airships—
The radio is turned off. Elsie returns to desk and resumes reading. Sounds of the radio in other rooms, muted and unclear.
Distant pops and more sirens. Not as loud as before.
A knock on the door.
Unknown woman: Frau Simper, are you listening to the radio?
Elsie: No. I heard the message the first time—
Unknown woman: They are going to let Herr Liebling speak.
Elsie leaps from her desk and out of my view. She turns on the radio. Crackle and dead air.
Elsie: Clara, I thought you said he was speaking?
Clara: They are going to let him speak. The police stopped broadcasting the warning message and said they are waiting for Herr Liebling’s… I don’t know, essay.
Elsie: Have you been drinking?
Clara: Yeah, but so have you. So, has everyone.
Radio crackles continue.
Clara: Frau Simper…
Clara: What was it like before the transition? Was it as bad as Herr Liebling said?
Elsie: My princess was Ingrid Quandt. She used to chase us on her horse. We all kept our hair short because if you were blonder than her, she’d set it on fire. Little pyromaniac. The day her family relocated, they let her set fire to the family dormitories. My parents had already died from the sun-sickness, but I lost my older brother in that fire. The ground floor was choked with smoke. Bodies piled on the door. There was eight or nine of us that got out by climbing up to the roof and jumping. None of us knew where to go or what to do. Then the outlaws…the Vergiss Niemanden showed up. We thought they were going to eat us. Instead they brought us to another princess, to Princess Karolin. I didn’t want to go, but they made me. I was relocated to Stadtoben a few weeks later. I learned to read and write in Princess Karolin’s orphanage. There were so many of us there, and we all owed our survival to Princess Karolin. Karl Schneider called us biters… I bit a man trying to escape. I wonder if it was him.
Clara: I’m sorry. I—
Elsie: No one wants to hear or talk about it. I don’t know why they can’t just let us forget.
Clara: We all thought Maxwell Simper was your uncle. We didn’t know he adopted you.
Elsie: When the dust settled in Stadtoben, all the pretty girls found uncles.
Clara: Frau! Elsie… I didn’t know.
Elsie: Don’t go spreading it around. Max was sweet. I owe him everything. It’s just—
Elsie: No one needs to know all the bad things. We want to forget. We want to leave it buried. I don’t know why you kids won’t let us just talk about nice things like dog shows and dresses and automatons.
Otto: Sorry for the delay… I’m hopeless at speaking off the cuff, so I had to write out what I wanted to say. I’ve never actually done a public address before. If my parents can hear me, I hope to God they aren’t listening in their house on 18th street. I can see my father telling a guard he’d moved his house once before, and he was too old to care if the world dropped out from under him. If you are listening at home, Mom, please grab him by his beard and haul his stubborn ass out to 20th street. Tell him you want tea or something. Tell him you don’t want to hear your son saying treasonous things on the radio.
Otto chuckles and clears his throat.
Otto: Anyway…So I was abducted earlier today. But it’s a weird kind of imprisonment. There’s been no guns or ropes or anything kinky like that. Elsie would make me change that to interesting or fun. She’ll be listening in the office.
Elsie: The little shit.
Clara: Did he know about—
Otto: At the start of all this… Well, really all my life, I’ve wanted nothing more than to be a good Prussian. I won a service award when I was eight. I met King Rosenbaum, and he put the medal on my neck himself. I’d been digging into pre-sector history and wrote a nice essay about it. There were other awards. A lot for writing and researching. I was very proud of that skill. It started getting me into trouble after the transition, and so I was encouraged by my mother and father to pursue my interest in tailoring which I had great success at… until I wasn’t allowed to do that anymore. I did it anyway, and it worked out for me. Normally that’s all I’d write about it, but for younger readers…sorry listeners, I realize I might need to go into a little more detail.
I…uh…there’s an Intersectoral fashion show with age divisions to account for apprenticeships around the globe. It’s fairly elite. Like the Olympics for tailoring. We downplay it here in Prussia. I wanted to enter on the Prussian team when I was fifteen, but…um…
Elsie: He’s stalling for time…
Clara: How do you know?
Elsie: He hates talking about this. It’s humiliating for him.
Otto: Since I could not earn income from a job in tailoring, because I’m a zleute, I wasn’t allowed to compete. For Prussia. So, because I was frankly furious. I mean my father and mother were both tailors. My father bought out his debt to Albrecht through tailoring. It was all I knew besides essay writing, and I’d nearly been arrested for doing a research project on Germany in the early 1900s. Do you know that time period is actually very well-known in other sectors? It’s called the first World Wars. We were called Germany, and we were not good. It’s fascinating stuff. Anyways, I wasn’t allowed to do that. And didn’t know what else to do in Prussia, and I still wanted to be a tailor, so I reached out to a country who had never won in the competition, and I joined them. And damn it, we won. Though the judges made a separate category so we could win because they wanted a lady’s gown to have the first-place spot. I strayed from my notes… where was I?
Right… After the competition, I could have gone anywhere. But I didn’t want to leave Prussia. I love my country, and I still wanted to be a good citizen. So, I stayed, and I used…what some people would call my notoriety, but I hope more people would call hard-earned respect. I used that fame to get back to writing.
My point is…I’m not a terrorist. I’m not treasonous. I’m a good patriotic boy who is torn up and terrified because the ideals he loves don’t match the country, the sector, they’re attached to. Over the past month, I’ve done my utmost to reconcile the Prussia in my head with the Prussia in my daily life. I still believe in Prussia. I believe in the right of all people to be safe, happy, and educated. I believe in service of others before service to self. And yet…
I can’t say if I think the transition was a good idea or a bad one. Or rather I can say the transition was absolutely necessary and good, and the way they did it was absolutely evil. I do not believe it was a concerted effort to eradicate the poor and the ugly and the foreign, but I believe the new sector was not designed to include them. I do know that there are people who had been left behind. Whether intentionally or not.
However, it is clear to me that our education system in Prussia has neglected to tell us the entire truth about this not so distant time. I encountered a great deal of difficulty in researching information about Prussia pre-transition. But I long ago decided it is more important to search for the truth and report it than to give in to my fears. It takes a lot of courage to be honest about oneself. I think most zleutes can relate. I’ve done my best to be truthful, and with luck, I will continue to do so. Even if I have to do so outside of my home.
The young are not responsible for the mistakes of our collective past, but we are in control of the future. Of course, it is safer not to look behind us, to focus on our own face in the mirror instead of the shadow of our fathers and mother. But by only looking at the most superficial layer of the world, by refusing to confront ourselves, we are refusing our own growth. We must encounter that which makes us uncomfortable, to understand and overcome it.
Our generation is not responsible for any atrocities our elders committed, but we do stand on the ruins they left. We’ve built on them without intending to, and it’s up to us to step down from the safety of our own pedestals and shift through those ruins. We will find death and destruction, slavery and subjugation. We will find ghosts and rage and injustice, but we will also find survivors. It’s our duty to uplift the victims of our fathers, to liberate whoever we find still struggling from the weight we’ve put on them.
We must face the people we’ve hurt, to help and understand them.
Sounds of shuffling from the radio. Elsie whispers to the other woman in the room.
Princess Tebelde: Anything else, Herr Liebling?
Otto: Well, I’ve stalled another ten minutes, so I suppose… If my stubborn parents didn’t get out in time, they can’t complain I didn’t try. If they’re listening in one of the community centers, I’m sorry for embarrassing them. And of course, none of these views ought to reflect on the newspaper or Elsbeth Simper. This remains, as always, my unprofessional opinion.
Unknown woman: Is it ready, Herr Schneider?
Unknown woman: Are you ready, Tibby?
Princess Tebelde: Yes.
The ground shakes. Elsie and Clara and people in the hallway scream.
Deafening crash. Outside the window, the skyline jumps then sinks. The buildings fall inward, crashing into each other. Clouds of smoke and debris obscure the view.
Clara: What’s happening?
Elsie: I don’t know.
Clara: Are we safe?
Elsie stands at the window and looks out.
The smoke and dust from the collapsed buildings settle and sink into a deep pit. Small airships float out of the pit. Analyzing…
Dirigible balloons. Each basket is filled of people. Calculating. 1240 persons in the one nearest. Hundreds are rising from the pit. Calculating…
The Albion airships descend and open their cargo bays. The balloons float into the waiting ships.
Elsie gasps. Her eyes are full of tears.
Elsie: They’re free.
L.J. Longo is a queer author, a geek, a feminist, and sometimes pirate. A best-seller on ARe and Amazon in the Erotic Romance (most of which have to do with very unhealthy M/M relationships), L.J. lives a safe distance outside of N.Y.C. and occasionally upkeeps the very N.S.F.W. website: www.gracefulindecency.com.