As he stepped out of the sleek electric sedan that brought him to his appointment with Director Von Belkin, Rudolf Keim allowed himself one quick glance up at the crystal spire soaring into the heavens above the Palace of Enlightenment. The Spire, Centrum’s principal landmark, was both exalting and humbling. Despite all the advances of modern science in Hayven, the greatest minds in the Institutes had never yet discovered how the ancient colonists had constructed it – or why.
Keim himself felt both exalted and humbled as he jogged up the granite steps to the entrance, dressed in his best suit. He had been to several events at the Palace but never to a private meeting with the Director, the leader of Hayven’s government and of the Progressive Order Party. Director von Belkin was an inspiration for thinking people all over the Continent, a driving force for modernization and unification across the entire planet of Colony. And he wanted to meet Doctor Rudolf Keim personally, sent a sedan car and driver to collect Keim at this early hour, with practically no advance notice!
Granted, Keim was the youngest associate director ever appointed to the board of an Institute. He was still in his 20s, unusually energetic and rather well regarded, to be honest, thanks to his prolific publications and popular lectures. But what was the reason for this meeting? Director von Belkin was a very busy man. Surely, he did not summon people merely to congratulate them.
Keim barely acknowledged the succession of security guards, receptionists, and other functionaries as he made his way through the lobby and plaza and up the office tower to the grand foyer where other men waited nervously for the tall double doors to open into the Director’s conference room. These men seemed distracted by their own preoccupations, paying little attention to the glorious vista of the capital through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The Spire rose on one side and the hills on the other, with the world-famous Observatory atop one of the nearest heights. But Keim drank in the view of the Observatory from this unaccustomed vantage. His new office was there, the seat of his new-found prestige.
“Doctor Keim?” He turned to see a stunning blonde in her 30s with a severe, short haircut, dressed in a pencil skirt and short jacket, standing at the open doors to the empty conference room. Her voice was peremptory.
He cleared his throat. “Yes?”
The blonde looked momentarily surprised, perhaps expecting someone older. The waiting men looked over at Keim with curiosity and a hint of jealousy.
“This way, please,” she said, stepping aside just enough to admit him into the conference room. He smelled a slightly sharp perfumed scent as he passed close to her, more businesslike than floral. She gestured for him to continue right through the conference room to the smaller door at the other end. When she opened it for him, he was surprised to find himself in the large, private, corner office of Director Peter von Belkin. The blonde silently backed out, closing the door behind her.
The great man himself stood at a window facing the hills. He looked older than in the pictures and on the large posters all over the city, but that was to be expected. There was still an undeniable force about him, Keim thought to himself.
“So glad you could come over this morning!” von Belkin enthused, waving Keim forward to join him at the window. Keim started to lift his right arm for a handshake but thankfully remembered that the Director had an aversion to touching others, because of germs.
“But of course, Director!”
“Have you seen your Observatory from here? It is a wonderful perspective, to observe the Observatory!”
Keim chuckled appreciatively.
“I never had that opportunity before, sir. Normally, I am up there late on a cold night, alone but for a servant or graduate student taking notes as I dictate, bundled in griffon furs, gazing through a metal tube with precisely polished mirrors at one of our moons or the mysterious Sphere as it rushes across the sky, or perhaps at the distant stars.”
“Rather the poet, are you young Keim, as well as one of our rising scientific luminaries?”
Keim felt heat rising to his face and feared he had overstepped. The first-year university students appreciated lines like that in his lectures, especially the girls.
“Sorry, sir, I do love my work.”
“And we need such passion for the race to advance. I mean, of course, the human race.”
“Of course,” Keim agreed.
Director von Belkin turned and gestured toward a low bookshelf displaying his own published works: Seeing Clearly. Science over Sentiment. Rising to Enlightenment. Battling Darkness. One Rule to Save Us. The Order is Now!
His face (a mature but younger version of it) appeared on the cover of each book – serious, visionary, determined. The tone of the titles and of the books had become increasingly militant over time, as Keim well knew, because he had read them all.
Perhaps von Belkin is getting impatient as he grows older, impatient to see his vision realized in Hayven and beyond.
“I must congratulate you on your new directorship at the Astronomical Institute, Doctor Keim. Or may I say, Herr Professor Keim?”
“Ja, natürlich, Herr Direktor.”
The conversation shifted from Nu English to Modernen Duych, the German tongue Keim spoke at home but not normally in the workplace or in public – although increasingly it was used for some lectures at the Institutes, to weed out the less serious scholars.
“We must continue to rely on English in daily conversation,” von Belkin remarked, “because it is the common tongue of the Continent, and Hayven’s population is comprised of people of many stripes. The historians tell us English had become a rather simplified world language for the colonists. But I find that Duych is more precise, do you not also? My parents spoke it, and it pleases me that so many of the scientific elite do as well nowadays. No doubt that is partly because of the historical influence of Dr. Schuler, the first Director of Colony, and his Council of Experts. So many of them came from what the records refer to as the ‘European Confederation’ on the colonists’ home world.”
“Yes,” Keim said carefully. “That language has advantages, although it is more difficult to teach. I use it sometimes as a sort of secret language among select colleagues.”
“Just so!” beamed von Belkin. “It is one reason I choose many of my assistants from the Duycher community. It is convenient to have an elite speech, yes? But I am always happy to promote intelligence and initiative wherever it is to be found. Unfortunately, I find that certain groups tend to cling to their outdated traditions. This fact, combined with inbreeding, leads to stupid and obstinate characteristics in people. I understand that our ancestors made compromises to ensure the health of a colony on any unknown world they might find, such as sending people from different lands and with different skills, including menial laborers. But we know our world and our needs now, and our population grows. It is time for us to make deliberate choices about how we survive and succeed and reach for the stars again on this particular world — Colony. And we should have called it ‘Schuler’s World,’ as I am sure you agree, in honor of the first Director!”
Keim was a little overwhelmed by this monologue, but the ideas were not entirely new; they were mostly found in von Belkin’s writings. The Director led him over to a softly lit display case in the center of the room.
“Here, I show you something few have ever seen. These are Director Schuler’s personal items. Yes! Preserved from 500 years past!”
Keim gazed curiously at two small objects resting on purple velvet. The larger one was a rectangular device that would fit in a hand, seemingly made of glass with a crack across the front. It was covered on the back and thin sides with a cushiony synthetic fabric in a deep grey color, clearly flaking away with age.
“We dare not examine it too aggressively, of course,” von Belkin explains, “but the provenance is well attested: it belonged to Dr. Schuler himself. We believe it was a sort of tool that he used daily and kept near his person, although we cannot guess the purpose. The experts assure us that they have found traces of the very prints of his fingers on the glass!”
“Amazing!” whispers Keim. “And the other object? A piece of jewelry?”
“A bit large for that, but yes, it could have been worn on clothing or around the neck, with a chain running through that stem at the top. It is a polished metal oval, as you can see. We cannot identify the alloy of which it is made. Very clear lines are incised in the metal on this face, in patterns we cannot decipher. The other face is perfectly smooth. Enigmatic, yes? Again, there is no mention of it in the records, and we do not know the purpose, but it was with Schuler’s effects.”
Director von Belkin, famous for his penetrating gaze, looked dramatically into Keim’s eyes. “And this brings us to the real reason for this meeting. These personal relics of Director Schuler are fascinating, yes, and they inspire a sort of reverence. But there are colonial Artifacts all over the Continent, many of them right here in Centrum. They are treated with a mix of reverence and indifference because we do not understand them. And one might say that the largest Artifact of all is one that you look at daily and nightly.” He paused expectantly.
“The Sphere,” Keim nodded with immediate understanding.
“Just so. The records we have from the colonists are what they wrote down hurriedly as they were fighting the new planet and each other. This is what Dr. Schuler made them do when he founded the first Institute, the Institute of Remembered Science, as they lost contact not only with their home planet but with the knowledge that came from it. The Sphere must be something the colonists left in space to watch us and help us.
Find a way back to it, Professor Keim! Find a way to unlock the secrets of the many Artifacts, including the Sphere itself! Where other Astronomers have failed, you must succeed! I have created an Artifacts Initiative, with experts from several Institutes. It will work in secret, and it will have all the resources it requires from the state, including the military. I want you involved.”
“I … I am honored, sir! I will go wherever the trail leads to find these answers!”
“That’s the spirit! We will crush ignorance and superstition and wrest these gems of power and knowledge from the fools who are holding on to them, wherever they are in the world. We will discover what these Artifacts did and perhaps make some of them work again or reproduce them ourselves. Imagine the power we will have in our hands! And one more thing, Professor Keim. You will need to free yourself to make these explorations.”
“Ah. The university …”
“They will understand if your assignments no longer allow you to maintain a regular teaching schedule. You may, of course, give special lectures from time to time. Some of your work may lend itself to publication, but for the most part you will be working in secrecy. Such are the sacrifices of working for the greater vision.”
“I … understand, sir.” This would indeed entail sacrifices, Keim was beginning to realize.
“And I am told your domestic situation is challenging?”
“Ah … yes. My wife. A brilliant researcher in chemistry. Until there was an explosion in her laboratory. She never fully recovered.”
“You should carefully consider what, if anything, is to be done. It has been more than a year. You have my greatest sympathy, of course. We have been giving much consideration of late to the burdens of the irreversibly afflicted on families and society.”
“I have been following this discussion, of course.”
“Naturally. Well, I wish you the best. Dr. Simpson will be in contact with you shortly about the Artifacts Initiative. As it will involve intensive work and frequent travel, I hope you will arrange your affairs so that you are able fully to engage.”
“I won’t disappoint you, sir. Again, I am honored that you thought of me in this connection.”
By this time, Director von Belkin was standing near his desk, and he had somehow transmitted a signal to his blonde assistant. She appeared at the open door, and Keim took the hint, bowing his head and walking quickly out to the foyer. The assistant called the name of another man.
Water splashed pleasantly in the fountain, catching sparkles of sunlight that reflected off droplets on the leaves in the vines spreading over the grey rock. Ilsa smiled at Keim as he approached her with flowers in his hand.
“They are tho pretty, Rudy!” she exclaimed, slurring her words and rising awkwardly from the bench to greet him. As she turned, he struggled not to recoil from the sight of the burned side of her face. No matter how they tried to brush her long hair, going prematurely grey, or dress her in soft, flowing robes, the damage was always visible.
“Rudy.” Only his mother called him that, when he was very young. And then Ilsa. He realized suddenly that he tolerated the pet name; he never loved it. It was not dignified.
He could have got over Ilsa’s disfigurement, he was sure he could have done that. It really did not matter, for brains or bloodline. But the burning timbers that cracked her skull took away part of her mind, and the doctors said she could never get it back. It was as simple as that, really.
Keim gave her the flowers and a quick kiss on the cheek. The fair one.
Dr. Brandt came over to join them after a few minutes, while a nurse stepped up to Ilsa and admired the flowers, distracting her.
“Have you reached a decision at last?”
“There is really no hope, is there?”
“None at all, I’m afraid. You have no children?”
“We spoke of it and decided to wait, because of our careers. There always seemed to be time.”
“My job is … changing. I won’t be able to come visit.”
“She lives for your visits. So, it would be a kindness.”
“Is it … painless?”
“Absolutely. Very gentle. Dignified. The van comes Wednesday. Stop by my office. The papers will be ready for you to sign. It is for the best.”
Keim nodded, gave Ilsa a last smile and a wave with a gloved hand and walked briskly away before she could plead for more time with him.
Such a tragedy. We made a perfect couple in our time. Perhaps … perhaps someday I will meet a suitable woman of intelligence. A physicist would be ideal, to complement my interests. Chemistry is a bit pedestrian … but the right personality matters, too. I hope for Ilsa’s sake that Brandt is right. Painless. And dignified. Just as I would want for myself, surely.