Kreisler’s Automata

Issue #10

I.

Whenever Theodore smiled at me I might almost have imagined him an angel. When he leered at me then in the hall of mirrors, on that day of October in the year 17—, I understood certain grim truths about angels previously obscure to me. “Tonight, Ernst,” he said, “you will take her; despoil her of her virtue, ravage her, leave her without a hope in the world. It is all arranged.”

“No!” I cried. “It is monstrous!”

He chuckled and led me through the array of glass. “The Prodigy will play before the court tonight at the palace of Count H—. You’ll watch the performance, then find your way to a certain bedchamber. Olympia shall be awaiting you therein. You’ll ask her a question of my devising. No more than that! Speak the words, she will be yours. Helpless.”

I said nothing. “I know the greatness of your want,” he said. “I am your friend, am I not? I understand it all. Lust, desire; and then, she is beautiful.”

“Yes,” I murmured. “Yes, she is.” I could not imagine her beauty, could not frame it in my mind; I was helpless before the question it implied, that same question Theodore now demanded of me and which I dared not answer—what would I not do, to touch that grace? We walked on, watching ourselves watching ourselves.

The mirrored hall was the only entry to a wide fairground not far from the city of V—. A week before, the country field had been waste wilderness; then walls of iridescent metal had been raised, by whose agency none knew. A gatehouse was built in the center of the walls, and mirrors set within the gatehouse. Reports had spread that a fair was in preparation. Yesterday visitors had finally been allowed within the walls, following which the most peculiar rumors had spread, catching the imagination of polite society. Theodore and I had made the short walk to see the truth for ourselves, and to speak on weighty matters. “Do you know much of her history?” Theodore asked suddenly.

I shook my head.

“I have learned a fair piece, I think,” he said. “Some of her past. She has been a mystery since she came to court. But not to me. No longer to me.”

Together, we exited the hall of mirrors.

We confronted a clock-tower from which depended a banner bearing the words Kreisler’s Automata and the image of a black bird clutching a gear. Beyond was a clockwork city-in-miniature, its structures built not of masonry or timber, but of iron and copper and stained glass, jade and amber and turquoise; they glittered even in the dull grey light of day. The city’s inhabitants were automata: mechanical men and mechanical women, shaped like residents of all the far times and places of the globe. Wandering Turks, Chaldean astrologers, robed Confucian scholars—we set off walking among them, and they paid us no mind.

“There is a crime in her past,” said Theodore.

“I will not think evil of her,” I told him. He smiled.

“As all men say of women they do not know well,” he observed. “But there it is. A thing dark enough that even to hint at it would bring about her expulsion from court. Therefore, merely a question put to her alone shall serve to establish your knowledge. Your dominance. And that is what you wish. Is it not?”

I stared at the automata around us, very like living ensouled mortals, but also like waxworks, like mannequins, like ambulatory nutcrackers. Their flesh was brass, their eyes quartz, their expressions and fashions painted things. Mostly they were content to counterfeit the habits and motions of animal men, going about their business as normal townsfolk might, except that none of them spoke or made a sound; only, occasionally, one might see them pause, and tilt their heads, as though listening to a music too profound for human ears.

“I cannot believe what you say of her,” I said at last. “About Olympia there is a glory which lives forever. A glory I wish I might....”

“That’s a fairy tale,” said Theodore. “Glory. What do you care for glory? You’re rich.”

I could not immediately answer him. Yes, I was rich; but that was chance and birth. It seemed to me that there was more to be hoped for, to be won or known or dreamed of. And: “Olympia cannot be bought,” I said. “Therefore the value of my wealth is less than absolute.”

Theodore laughed. “Do not say that she cannot be bought,” he told me. “Say only that you have not yet found her price. But it may be that I will be able to assist you in that.” I said nothing to this remark, suspecting a philosophical difference between him and I that was beyond my capability to enunciate.

Some of the mechanicals we passed interacted with visitors in a limited fashion. Before a vast tournament-grounds where automated knights jousted, I played a game at chess with a black king; I lost badly, for lack of concentration. We passed the atelier of an artificial painter who was the very image of a master from the Italian Renaissance, and he offered to limn us, displaying for our edification works of his devising; the precision of their perspectives unnerved me. We walked through a bordello of fabricated queens, of Helen and Semiramis and Cleopatra and Beersheba, and observed their curious interactions; I was educated and saddened, and found myself imagining things I dared not dream of but desired still. The whole of the fair was marvelously strange, built with a craft beyond any science I knew. But I had heard so much in recent years of the progress of rationality and of understanding. Who could say what was to be defined as impossible?

I wondered what else might be built, there in that artificial paradise. Could a new Olympia be constructed, her body put together piece by piece, a machine made for beauty? I, a new Pygmalion, might then have my Galatea with the blessing of the Queen of Love; but no, I was not so far deluded—her identity was hers alone, and what I craved was beyond my power to copy, merely to adore.

At the heart of the clockwork city Theodore and I found a palace which, like a mad Gothic cathedral, seemed built of arches and colored glass and curious fluted columns. From within came the sole sound we had heard produced in all the city, a rapid music in a minor key played by a harmony of many instruments. We entered to find the main hall of the palace was a theatre filled by a synthetic orchestra. There were dozens of automata, each with its own instrument; a parliament of mechanical musicians, sitting in ascending rows on our left hand and on our right. Past the aisle diving the facing rows of players was a vast pipe organ on a raised dais, its body bone-white, the pipes coiled round the keyboards like swollen serpents. A black-cloaked figure, the focus of all other musicians, played upon the organ. And before the dais, in the aisle, a man was dancing.

This was no automaton. He was skin and bones, his waistcoat absurdly tight, the boots at the end of his spidery legs tattered, a long-stemmed pipe waving in one hand. His skull was shorn at back and sides, a wild lock of dark hair fluttering over his brows. His nose was long and sharp, his chin pointed under in-curving cheeks, his ears lobeless. He was twice my age, perhaps, fifty or more. And he whirled toward us in a spray of limbs, his half-mocking smile upon his lips, and as the music ended he completed his dance with a bow: “Master Theodore! Master Ernst!” he cried. “Welcome to the Tick-tock Fair, welcome to Kreisler’s Automated Amusements! And welcome to the clockwork cynosure at the heart of my domain of improbabilities, welcome to the Palace of Wheels-Within-Wheels! Welcome I give you, yes, and welcome again!”

“Who are you?” demanded Theodore. “How do you know our names?”

The strange man danced back a step, and bowed again, a deep ironic bow. “I am Johannes Kreisler, conductor and enabler of all you see around you. I know your names, for there is little within this realm that I do not know.” He shot out his arms and black birds fluttered from his jacket; unliving automata. “All the devices of my kingdom provide my wisdom.”

Theodore’s lips quirked into a smile. “Why did you make all this, all these things? And how?”

“How?” repeated Kreisler. “Smoke and mirrors! Why? It is in my nature. Do not look further into my tricks; to men of my kind it is forbidden to reveal our secrets. Further questions you must pose to him.” And he pointed a quavering finger toward the cloaked figure at the hideous white organ.

“Who is he?” I asked.

“My crowning achievement!” Kreisler said, his mocking smile flitting about his lips. “He is the Clockwork King. Ask him anything at all to do with the past, the present, or what is to come; ask him any secret of God or woman, and he is so designed that he must answer you with the truth!”

“How is this possible?” Theodore asked.

Kreisler tilted his head. “By my art,” he said. I did not trust him. But Theodore laughed.

“Well, Ernst!” he said. “Have you anything to ask His Majesty?”

“I have not.”

“Then I shall pose him a question.” Theodore strode down the aisle between the rows of silent unmoving musicians and climbed to the dais and the complex coils of the organ pipes. He bent to speak to the Clockwork King, and as he did the King raised his cloaked head to face my friend.

“The King is the heart of this city of automata,” Kreisler whispered to me. “Him; and the organ. The key to this great work.” Then Theodore gasped.

He had straightened up from the Clockwork King, and raised a hand to his face. A moment he stared at nothing, and I began to run toward him. He shook himself, and strode stiffly down the aisle to meet me.

“What happened?” I demanded. “What did you ask him?”

“No, that must remain between His Majesty and myself,” Theodore said. “But go, Ernst. Ask a question. You’ll not be disappointed.”

He waved me on toward the dais. I paused, watching him, but he only waited for me to move. In the end I turned and made my way to the cloaked machine. As I approached, it raised its head to me, and I looked into its face with surprise. I had expected a skull beneath the black hood, picture of death. But its head was a round mirror. I wondered if that was, after all, the truth of death. Then my image in the glass of its face wavered and vanished; and for a moment in a fever I saw the face of Olympia. I started. The thing turned away from me. I leaped toward it, stepping in close to whisper into the fabric of its hood where its ear might have been.

“Shall I do what Theodore suggests?” I whispered. “Shall I ask Olympia his ruinous question?”

And the Clockwork King gave me the answer I knew to be true.

II.

Beyond the long windows the night was dark, but in the castle of Count H— there was light shining through the thousand crystal shards of immense chandeliers. It glinted from the polished marble floor, from the delicate oils of framed portraits, from a golden pot worked with a relief of snakes eating each others’ tails. All the court had come to see the Prodigy, and we sat in the elegant hall in our elegant finery upon elegant chairs and conversed in elegant echoing whispers.

Except myself. I did not speak. Olympia was not there. And in thinking of her I was too dreadfully calm for speech.

There was a stir; a child with a toy sword was making his way toward the clavier set before us. Heads under heavy periwigs tilted to see him. He wore a lilac jacket cut to his size, bravely trimmed with double gold braid-work, above a moiré jacket of the same hue. His eyes were large and quick; and he smiled as though we were the most natural scene in the world for him. He bowed to us. This was the Prodigy, named the Beloved of God.

Then he sat before the clavier. He set his hands on the keys. He began to play a wild barcarole. And deep within me I felt a shiver.

He played like an infant god. His speed, precision, and dexterity were beyond any I had heard; more than that, his music held a passion such as no child ought ever to have known. But who other than a child could have known such emotion, unmediated by adult sense or reason? Yet, yet, the more he played, the more I understood, the more he made me understand how alive this music was to pattern, to meaning. Here was paradox, all ardor in all order, played upon a toy by a child!

As he played on, a small saintly smile upon his face, I felt myself break into a sweat, my limbs a-tremble, fingers dancing upon my knee. His art raised and perfected my passion within me; and yet the clarity of his skill heightened also my intellect so that I could the more perfectly comprehend my love, and love therefore with a more perfect and complete emotion than any I had ever known. Again in that, a paradox: for my reason was in abeyance, as though I were in communion with a Power which opened to me the deepest recesses of my soul; and there in the most profound part of myself I found the image of Olympia. I cannot say truly how long it lasted, seeming at once infinite and a transient moment, like the wink of an angel.

But the music did stop, and I drew a labored breath. The court around me applauded politely and returned to their whisperings behind their fluttering fans. The performance continued as the Prodigy performed tricks. He played with a single finger. With the keyboard covered by a cloth. He called for the audience to provide him with musical phrases and from them elaborated complex fugues. It was all much stranger than the clockwork city.

But then the performance ended. I knew it was time, then, to seek the true Olympia. What did I after all feel? Hope, dread; it was a monstrous joke that the one cause could inspire both emotions at once. Olympia, I thought.

I arose to go to her, but it seemed in my agitated state that I was hemmed in by idiot conversation. No, Countess, I really had no opinion whether the Fischer von Erlachs or the Hildebrandts were the greater family of architects. Yes, a pity that the Russians could not be counted on in the war, and surely the Prussians would take advantage of our lack of unity. Indeed, I had been to the fair-ground of the automata, and though there were some points of interest the overall effect seemed to me quite trivial. No, sir, I am not Theodore; it is a common error, for we are of an age, and have a similar bearing... perhaps a small resemblance in some minor features....

Then I was through them, and done, and I found my way to the bedchamber I sought.

I entered without a knock, and found her regarding herself in a full-length mirror; not intent upon herself, but upon something not obvious to my sight. I watched her twice over, in reality and in the glass: her hair more golden than gold; her face an irregular pearl in the fineness of its curves, and its luminescence; her body at once the summation of earthly promise and the gateway to heavens beyond hope. Yet hope I did. “You are here,” I said aloud.

She turned to me, wordless.

“I have a question for you,” I said. “Olympia, I have a question.” Olympia; how I felt the pressure and movements of my own lips, forming the syllables of her name. In such foolish trivia does love make of us a satire on ourselves.

“Ask,” she said.

“Olympia,” I said, “I love you, and am of good birth, and hope to attain a fair inheritance. Olympia, I ask you, will you be my wife?”

“No,” she said. I trembled, and felt myself struck by lightning.

“Then—” I said, faltering, “then—”

I rushed to her, and took hold of her wrists, though she tried to draw back. Her flesh! There was a crashing in my ears. I could not blink.

“I must ask you something,” I said, and halted.

“Will you?” she asked; and in the neutrality of her voice, the banality of it, I found a source of anger which drove me to demand of her that which Theodore had given me to ask.

“Who was it,” I asked, “who provided Claude-Adrien Helvétius with the heresies published in his terrible book De l’Esprit, that was condemned by the Sorbonne, banned by the Crown of France, denounced before the Parlement of Paris, and finally burnt in public?”

She laughed, an easy silver laugh. She drew her arms back from my nerveless fingers. “Never trust another man’s question, even if he’s the very image of your self. Your friend Theodore bent his efforts to discovering my secrets, but found no more than I wished. The heresies of Helvétius were Helvétius’s alone. Now, for your presumption, I must require something of you.”

“Anything!” I cried. “Olympia, I will do anything for you. Ask it.”

She said: “Kill Theodore.”

I drew back. She strode by me without a look. “How could I do such a thing?” I whispered.

She paused at the door. “But you must.”

“Will you be mine, if I do?”

“I am not to be bought; especially by an act of murder.”

“Then—”

“I am not without knowledge myself.” She smiled, sad and impudent. “I know who first debauched the Lady G—, now the court’s most notorious whore. I know who tampered with the firing-pin of the dueling-pistol of the Count F—, so that it misfired and caused the Count’s death. I know who waylaid a messenger bound for the Bishop of C— so that certain gambling debts could not be paid and the respectable curate was compelled to eternal damnation for the sin of self-murder.”

“Theodore, all of them,” I said.

“I mean to expose him.”

“Can I do nothing to save him?”

“You may slay him,” she said, and left the bedchamber.

I could think only of how wrong had been the advice of the Clockwork King.

III.

I staggered home in a daze, the castles and churches of V— whirling half-unseen about me. Theodore was waiting at my house.

“And?” he asked as soon as he saw me. “And?”

“You were misled, Theodore,” I told him. He stood as I walked past him to the high hearth which was the centerpiece of the sitting-room; the green stone fireplace, the mirror above it a solid slab of glass and quicksilver, surrounded by wood worked into serpent-shapes and grinning gnomic faces. Upon the mantle were a pair of empty brass candlesticks with marble bases. I picked one up. It was very heavy.

Theodore took a step towards me. “What do you mean?” he asked.

I inspected the candlestick, searching for a flaw. There was none. “Theodore... ah, but how long has it been that we’ve known one another? As long as I can remember, it seems.... But no, no. I recall it now, years ago when I met you, I was a student, you became my shadow; lengthening to gain for me all things by all means, shrinking to insignificance when unneeded; you have done well for me, allowed me to make my way in the world, and what then if you have done evil? For it was only when I met you that I became fully healed of my childhood delusions.”

“Ernst, what do you mean?” demanded Theodore. “I know nothing of these delusions.”

I turned to him, clutching the candlestick in my right hand while my left played about its base. “When I was a boy I fell ill, once, and lay in this room; I remember fixing upon the reflection above the mantle-piece, how it seemed, then—when every sane part of me was overwhelmed, leaving awake only those dim forms which lurk in the depths of every mind—that the mirror showed the way into another place, a fairyland in which the vain material things of this world were metamorphosed, made strange, become the implements of all glory, art, desire. Even once I had recovered from the fever I believed in this other world; until I met you, and then it all seemed the most obvious madness. But now... now I think that what I saw in the glass was, after all, a reflection; a reflection from inside my soul. It is a true world, Theodore, awaiting our entry; if we have the courage.” My hand traced the heavy brasswork of the candlestick, and for a moment I said nothing.

“Ernst,” said Theodore. “You must tell me what transpired between you and Olympia tonight.”

“She knew of your inquiries after her secrets,” I said. “She’s laid you a false trail. More: she knows about the Lady G—, the Count F—, the Bishop C—. And she will reveal all.”

“What!” Theodore cried. “That—that—then you, what did you do?”

“Do?”

“What did you say to her?”

“What was there to say?” I swung the candlestick through the air so that its base fell heavily into my left palm. “Nothing could dissuade her.”

“What will you do now?”

“What, indeed,” I murmured. I held the candlestick in both hands for a moment. Then I set it down upon the mantle. “Theodore—you must go. You must flee the court.”

Flee,” he repeated. “I’ll see her dead first.” I snatched up the candlestick and whirled around. He was gone; I heard my door slam. He was gone.

I went to my bed, and at once the cruel Sand-man flung his grains in my eyes, and I slept, and dreamt:

I chased the Queen of Elves through a deep and shadowy forest. Though I ran as fast as I could she was always out of my reach, dancing to the music of a wild barcarole; her face was the face of Olympia. At last I came upon the ruin of a city. Every black bird that fluttered from stone to stone and every rat that crawled among the dust and every wolf that skulked in the shadows was an automaton. And their master, coiled around the spires of a broken palace, was a dragon pale as leprosy, pale as a skeleton left unburied for a hundred years, pale as the horse of death. The Queen of Elves ran into the city with a laugh. Her actions were not determined or mechanical but born of freedom; and, enticed by her liberty into madness, I ran after her.

I chased her through an ancient graveyard where a ghost watched us and brooded; I knew that this was the ghost of the man that had betrayed this city to the dragon, and he had the form of Theodore. I chased Olympia past a fallen monument, which had once been a statue of a gnomish figure with a brass crown and the ironic grin of Johannes Kreisler. I chased her at last into the dragon’s palace, which was also a cathedral, for things blur into each other in dreams. I reached out to catch her. Then the dragon roared, with the sound of an organ bellowing a tremendous note, and the building began to collapse. Masses of stone fell as walls of iron and copper and jade and amber rose to replace them. Olympia, the Queen of Elves, danced up the falling stones to a heaven which returned my gaze upon me.

I awoke, realizing that the art of the future could be made only by those that the present deemed mad.

From beyond my window I heard screams, and distant gunfire. I looked out, and saw flames in the streets; V— was burning. In the city there was an army on the march.

The automata had invaded the city.

IV.

The thought of Olympia came to me, and I felt then again the rage of emotion she inspired: love, yes, and loathing for her murderous command, for that agony of indecision I’d felt while holding the candlestick. I desired her, more than ever I’d desired any thing I’d known, her, her voice, her figure, her teeth, her hair, her name, the lightning that was in her eyes and beyond all other lightnings. I, her slave, knew I must find her, and save her from these automata, and then perhaps she might love me. So I went out into the city, driven by her image.

I ran through the empty streets, avoiding all signs of motion, all sounds. The castle of Count H— was dark. I hammered at the door till a servant with an ancient blunderbuss shouted that the party of the court had fled to the Hofburg, the Imperial Palace. I dashed on.

Automata filled the streets. They were searching for something, I thought; turning men and women out of houses, gathering up pistols and swords, taking prisoner confused bands of rake-hells and late-night celebrants of dubious deeds and other squires of the night’s body. In everything the actions of the automata were perfectly planned and supremely rational, without a single wasted motion. I saw some mechanicals familiar to me: Chaldeans, Confucians, and Semiramis now bearing a rifle over her shoulder; and there were other things, too, gryphons and unicorns and blue-skinned multi-armed Indian gods. Stranger somehow were the automata in the guise of ordinary men and woman, such as might almost have been everyday citizens of V—. But for the fact that they did not speak. And their curious habit of tilting their heads to the side at a certain angle, as though listening for a silent music.

Once, I saw a collection of faceless mechanicals working in an improvised outdoor foundry, shaping molten metals into copies of their own forms with automated caresses. I thought in terror of the rate of replication of the mechanicals, each of which on its own might make another self, their population doubling at will, never suffering loss due to accident or age, growing in perfect powers of two; then I thought of Olympia, and how Olympia and I could become one out of two.

Nearing the Hofburg I heard a voice crying “Help! Help! Help me, for your living soul!” I whirled, to see a bedraggled Kreisler staggering down a narrow street toward me. “You! I know you!” he said. “Theodore! No—Ernst! Ernst, you must help me, Ernst. The Clockwork King has gone mad!”

“What has happened?” I called to him in a whisper. He flung himself upon me and gabbled into my face.

“The King! It’s all the King! All these others, mere extensions of his will! The King will conquer us all, for the sake of my question! And then—why, then the world is over, and there will be nothing under heaven but automation.” And he laid his head upon my shoulder in a swoon.

I dragged him to an alley and did my best to revive him. When he began to show intermittent signs of consciousness I hauled him to his feet and set out with him for the Hofburg. Near any automata, I let my stride become as aimless as his own, and we passed as two drunkards. But meanwhile he had begun to gasp out his story, in whispers.

“I made him,” Kreisler told me. “The King was my dream, and I made him a thing of the waking world; I made him, with his terrible organ, an organ of generation of thought, a device to answer every question, and I asked him my question, the question that consumes me, for I am an artist, Ernst, a poor one it may be, but an artist I promise you, and I asked him: Where is the art that shall perfect the world?

Art, Ernst, art the product of every desire, for lovers forge by their own heat within the furnaces of their brains the images that they desire, and in this they are the emblem of the artist, whose art must have at its base desire, desire to make a thing, to change the world, just as the lover must have his loved one and change what he loves by the addition of himself—and where is the love, the desire, that shall change the world so to perfect it? My question, Ernst, the only question that matters!

“But from that, this! He means to answer my question, creating himself the art of perfection, automated sterility! He made the other automata, his army! They are not thinking things like him, merely his hands, his tools, guided and controlled by the profound notes of his organ—his tools, with which to remake the world. Now, now he begins to carry out his true plan!”

“And you,” I whispered back, “did you know nothing of this? Did you not see?”

“I saw nothing. I believed myself the King’s master. I cast myself as the master of the fair he had created. Until tonight, when I was outcast by my own creation.”

“But why do they begin here? Why now? Why in V—?”

To these questions Kreisler had no answer.

Then we were at the Hofburg, where we found a direly confused situation. Barricades had been raised, and some battered automata twitching on the street before them demonstrated that the palace was in a state of siege. The defenders allowed us, as living creatures, entry; at which point I discovered, firstly, that the greater part of the city was under the control of the automata, which were advancing from all sides, and secondly, that while such soldiers as were left maintained a stout defense of the Hofburg, the members of the court continued a frantic revelry in a hall deep within its walls. With conquest inevitable, what else was left?

I left Kreisler with the soldiers, to instruct them as best he was able, and ran to find the court. They were dancing to the frantic tunes of an improvised orchestra, mismatched instruments howling in the hands of semi-skilled players, while the aristocracy danced, their suits and dresses disheveled, the whole of them maddened, frantic with the awareness of oncoming death.

“Olympia!” I cried. “Where is the lady Olympia?” They paid me no mind, though I shouted and shouted, and pried a flute from a musician’s hands and beat him about the head, and interrupted the couples at their play. “Has no-one seen Olympia?” I demanded of them all; and no, no-one had, or yes, someone thought somebody had; but they had not; but they had heard that she had been seen; she was in the palace, or she was not; but if she was, then she was not with the rest of the court. She must have run into another wing, to hide.

The Hofburg had been built out from a Medieval core, like an oyster forming an irregular pearl around a fleck of grit. After a hundred years, it had developed into a grand edifice with any number of hiding-holes. But I was determined, I would find Olympia, I would uncover her secret place. So I wandered down empty, cold halls left dark by the exigencies of the siege. “Olympia!” I cried, again and again, “Olympia! Olympia!”—until I would break down in laughter at myself, seeking out of love a woman I hated with a passion. Then the thought of her fired my limbs, until I trembled and broke off my laughter and set out to seek her again. What did it matter if V— burned and the Empress and all her court were massacred? I cared not two straws for any of them. But Olympia, Olympia must be saved.

I came in time to the great library of the Hofburg, and made the shadows therein echo with her name. I walked through the great ink-and-paper scented darkness, a hundred feet, two hundred, and still more stretching away before me. I stood between two globes, one of the earth, one of the sky, each half a man’s height in diameter, and once more I called out: “Olympia!”

“She’s not here,” a voice replied. “She’s nowhere in the Hofburg.” A hand reached out of the darkness and set the earth whirling, wobbling on its axis. I stepped back, up against the stars. Theodore stepped forward, his sword drawn.

“You’ve searched for her?” I asked. “Why?”

“I mean to kill her, of course,” Theodore answered. “It’s the perfect time for it; always commit your murders under cover of an attack by a hostile army. One corpse more or less won’t be looked into.”

“You can’t,” I said.

“Can’t I?” asked Theodore. “I don’t understand. Why not?”

I lunged forward and grabbed the wrist of his sword-arm. “I love her.”

“You want her. There is a difference. I told you, I understand these things.” He tried to pull his arm free. I would not let go. “Ernst, the woman threatens my standing at court; threatens my life. How else should I deal with this? I’ll kill her. That’s only logic.” He wrenched his arm free, losing his sword in the process. I snatched it up. “Take it, then,” he said. “There are others.” He smiled at me, and strode away into the shadows.

I tried to follow him, but was quickly lost. I walked among darkness for a time, Theodore’s sword in one hand, flute in the other; until I heard high echoing voices, and followed them to a gothic chapel where the Prodigy was playing with three young Archduchesses close to his own age.

“Hello,” said the Prodigy as I approached. “Have you come to watch over us?”

“I suppose so,” I said, sitting in a pew.

“I was about to tell a story,” he said. “It’s one of Nannerl’s tales.”

“Please, go ahead,” I told him. He began, his story punctuated by distant rifle-shots or cannon-shots shaking the stones of the old church. “Once upon a time there was a man,” he said, “who went walking through a forest at night. The man was great and noble and clever. But his shadow hated him. It wanted to lead him to his doom. The beautiful Queen of Elves saw this from the other side of the mirror, where the Elves have their kingdom.”

“What mirror?” asked an Archduchess.

“Any mirror. In fact, the man had a mirror in his traveling-pack,” said the Prodigy.

“How can Elves live on the other side of a mirror?” asked a second Archduchess. “That’s stupid.”

The Prodigy said, “It’s not stupid at all. Because they’re magical, and like to hide things, the Elves make spells so that whenever we look in a mirror we only see ourselves, flopped around backwards. But really on the other side of any mirror is Elfland. Anyway the Queen of Elves decided to help the man. His shadow had become a wraith, which was leading him down all sorts of wrong paths, and before long he would be drowned in a bog, or killed by a pack of wolves. But the price of the Queen passing through the mirror from Elfland was that the curious King of Gnomes could come through as well.”

“Didn’t the man notice?” asked the first Archduchess.

“No, because the wraith had made the man drop his pack-pack with the mirror in it, because it was filled with flint and tinder, and clothes, and things which could have helped him in the forest. I forgot to say that before. Now the Queen of Elves made the man fall in love with her, and together they prepared to kill the wraith. But the King of Gnomes had gone looking for treasure, and he had woken up a big dragon. The dragon swallowed the King in one bite, and then it took the man prisoner and made him its slave!”

“What did the man do?” whispered a third girl.

“In the dragon’s hoard—that means ‘treasure’—he found a music-box with mother-of-pearl sides. And inside the box was an angel, which made the most beautiful music in the world, nothing like a regular music-box. The man set the angel playing, and it played and it played, it played such wonderful lullabies that the dragon went right to sleep! Then the man snuck into the dragon’s study, where it kept a set of books with all the knowledge in the world—because dragons, you know, are very old and wise—and he found the wraith that used to be his shadow there, and the wraith tried to distract the man, but the man killed him, and in the books he found the One Question that he had to ask the Elf Queen, and he asked it, and she fell in love with him, and she led him through to Elfland on the other side of the mirror and she married him and they lived happily ever after.”

The Archduchesses thought about this. “I guess it makes sense,” one of them said.

“I think it’s stupid,” said the second Archduchess. “It’s a stupid story.”

“Is someone coming?” asked the third Archduchess.

Someone was coming. “Kreisler!” I called out.

“You?” he called back. “Here? Then you’re safe?”

“Of course I’m safe,” I said. “Why? What’s happened?”

“The automata have overrun the Hofburg defenses,” Kreisler told me. “V— is lost. We must flee.”

“No,” I said. “No, not at all. I know exactly what we must do.” Save Olympia; and to do this, it seemed it would be necessary to save V—. And now I knew exactly how that would be done.

I pointed to the Prodigy. “We’ll need your help.”

V.

Kreisler was skeptical of my plan, but nevertheless helped in its elaboration for the lack of a better alternative. The Prodigy listened to what I wished him to do, and agreed. He thought it sounded like fun. Kreisler did not.

We found our way from the Hofburg and made our way carefully through the streets of the city. We were two men lugging a heavy chest between us. For the eyes of the Clockwork King were everywhere, flitting through the air upon a mechanical bat, or prowling the darkness upon a mechanical cat; and so we had found a large box for the Prodigy to hide in, safe from the King’s eyes. We appeared to be two refugees, bearing all their possessions between them.

“What’s our route to the fair-grounds?” I whispered as we stumbled through the street.

“I don’t know!” Kreisler whispered back.

What?” I demanded.

“If I knew our route, he could predict it! Not knowing, improvising, we become invulnerable!” Kreisler laughed shortly; I thought, the man is mad. “The Clockwork King thinks we are weak, for he sees us all as divided in our minds against ourselves. But it is our division that gives us strength, for it is the parts of ourselves we hide from ourselves that make our art, the images of our beloved! And he, he does not dream ....” He laughed again; I thought, if madness will save Olympia, then I must needs go mad.

In any event, a skip soon returned to Kreisler’s step. His familiar sardonic smile crossed his thin lips as we approached his fair-grounds unmolested. He guided us through the city of the automata, all silent now and deserted, for its people had gone to war. And so we came to the Palace of Wheels-Within-Wheels.

We entered, to the strains of the mechanical orchestra. Underneath their music I could hear the low roar of the coiled organ, accompanying them, directing them. All fell silent as we walked into their high hall. The Clockwork King himself remained hunched over his organ; but every other glassy eye in the peculiar theatre turned to examine us.

“Now,” I said, and we set down the chest, and opened its top, and the Prodigy sprang up. “Now, play!” I commanded him, and he set to his lips the flute I had seized from the musician in the Hofburg, and played a pitch-perfect repetition of the orchestra’s own music. Then he went further, and improvised a clever twist, turning the phrase back upon itself with a precise flurry of notes. The meaning was clear: it was a challenge.

What did V— have that the Clockwork King should select it, of all the cities of the earth, for his first conquest? What had the automata been searching for with such thoroughness in the city? What but the Prodigy, the answer to Kreisler’s question?

After a moment, the flautist of the mechanical orchestra raised his flute to his lips. He played a few notes, seeking to compete with the Prodigy’s improvisation. But he could not; in a moment the Prodigy had joined the tune, and then exceeded it, playing faster, better, and then directing the music with a skill the automaton could not match. The flautist dropped his instrument, and stood motionless, head slumped forward, arms at his side. The Prodigy had won his first duel.

Then the others followed. One by one the other musicians of the orchestra attempted to duel with the Prodigy. One by one he overwhelmed them, improvising upon their tunes with a mathematical clarity greater than their own, at the same time making clear their soulnessness, their lack of emotion. While his own fervor only grew. Listening to him, I felt my own emotions rise in me, my own love, my own ecstasy, my vision of Olympia.

Until at last all the mechanical men were defeated, standing silent with their heads bowed. There remained only the Clockwork King himself, sitting at the heart of the mechanical organ, the bone-white organ of no generation but entropy. He played no music, gave the Prodigy no challenge.

“Now what?” asked the Prodigy.

Then in a sudden movement the Clockwork King brought his hands down upon the organ keyboard; there was a crash of dissonance, and Kreisler, who had been staring in rapture at the Prodigy, blanched. I ran up to the Clockwork King. He made no move. I still clutched Theodore’s blade, but even so, what could mere human flesh do against the solidity of his artificial body?

Yet I did not offer to strike him. Instead I thought of Olympia, whose behavior the Clockwork King had so entirely failed to predict when I had seen him last. Her image filled my mind. I recalled her scent, the curve of her lips, the sheer animation of her which tore my heart with lust; and I asked the infallible seer of all the created universe “What is the question you cannot answer?”

The King stood, and swayed in the silence. He was built to give an answer to every question; it was a need, a part of him as much as the need to love is a part of every human being. But to this query he dared not reply. Ah, and yet he had to. He had to, just as I had to love Olympia and had to kill Theodore. Though to answer was to admit to his imperfection, to bring on his own destruction. Unable to resolve this contradiction, he fled from me.

The Prodigy scampered forward at once and sat before the pipe organ’s keyboards. Kreisler was with him. Together they began to play, calling the automata back to their city. Just as we had planned. And I, I ran after the Clockwork King, driven, as ever, by the thought of Olympia. For I had more that I would know.

“Who is Olympia? Where is she now? Is she still alive?” I shouted these questions as I ran into the darkness of the palace. The Clockwork King was stronger than I, physically so much more dangerous. Only, I had my questions to protect me, and his failure to understand Olympia. “Why did you lie to me yesterday? Why did you fail?” I chased him, quite mad, hurling questions, demanding answers owed me.

Did she have other lovers? To whom had she granted her favors? Or was she yet virginal? How could I make her want me the way I wanted her? What things did she desire now, and what men? What gave her most pleasure in her mind? In her body? What should I do to win her love?

Beyond the music of the organ there began to come the crash and thunder of shells exploding. The army had followed the retreating automata, and now as we raced past the windows explosions flashed in the distance. The violence inside my mind was made real, rage and lust and need, the lightnings in my mind. “What does she cry out in her moments of ecstasy?” I shouted.

I paused. The Clockwork King had led me into a darkened chamber. Then a fire flickered in a hearth; and it was a familiar hearth. I froze, seeing, impossibly, my home. The sitting-room in which I had lain ill years before. In which I had contemplated murdering my best friend. And everything in it was reversed, as though I had crossed through into a land on the far side of the mirror. At once I felt again the fever of my childhood, felt thought recede, felt nightmare overtake me. “Why are we two and not one?” I muttered.

A shell exploded outside; I understood three things at once. I understood that the mind of the Clockwork King was so powerful as to deduce the circumstances of my earliest life, and that nothing of me was unknown to him. I understood that he knew what would happen on this night, knew that Kreisler and I would bring the Prodigy to him, knew that I would ask the fearful question and chase him even so far—and so he made this room, to confuse me. But also I understood that for all his knowledge of what would come, he had found no way to evade it.

Had I understood these things rationally, I would have realized that he was, therefore, limited. But this was not the case. I screamed, and ran to the mantle-piece, and took up one of the candlesticks upon it, and threw the candlestick at the mirror. The glass shattered into a thousand shards, and I threw myself up and through the space behind it, shouting “Why do I not want it to end?

And on the far side of the mirror was an odalisque, a harem-room, filled with women, young, beautiful, veiled and nude, all turning to look at me as I fell into their home, spitting froth from my lips, bleeding from the mirror-glass that had cut me on my way. For a moment I thought that this was where the Clockwork King satiated his clockwork lusts, and I felt it keenly that he should have for his plaything whatever he might pretend to desire while my own desire was so far from my grasp.

But then I saw that among that harem were all the women of the court, and the Empress chief among them, in the guise of Venus. Not all the women of the court: Olympia was not there. But every other woman, and in their arms all the males of the Imperial court, disporting themselves as they pleased, the reality their dances had symbolized. As though I were seeing the hidden desires of everyone I knew being acted out before me, and I had no way to go but forward. I rose and began to cross the harem of the Clockwork King, and all the faces of all the men turned to me, and then I saw that they were all my face. It was I in the arms of every woman, it was I disporting myself for the amusement of the Queen of Love, yes, it was I too who was her lover, who was the male principle of this dissolute council.

A darkness passed before my face; I felt myself stagger. My fever. My wounds. Sight and sense returned before I fell to the ground. I pushed on, howling out my questions: “Who am I, that I should love? By what right do I love, what have I done that I should deserve it?” No-one there dared to stop me as I drove myself on, and stumbled into a long dark passage.

When the passage opened out again, I seemed to be inside a ruined mausoleum. There was broken stonework to every side, statues toppled and wrecked. A heap of fallen stones on the far side of the room served as a stairway up which raced the cloaked figure of the Clockwork King. Light came from a fire outside of the room, set by a fire or gunpowder explosion, flickers and flashes, and in the voluptuous shadows I seemed to see the worst of the automata, the gryphons and unicorns and foreign gods, all come home at the command of the roaring organ far below me; but they were moving at their own will, I saw them, reaching for me, and I could not say what was real and what was hallucination.

“Why must Theodore die?” I cried, staggering through them. “How will I kill him? Why does she mean more than him?” They receded before me, and I reached the pile of stones and started to climb after the Clockwork King. “Who would I not kill for her?” I shouted. But there was no answer.

Then there was fresh air upon my face, and the warmthless light before dawn. And the sounds and smoke of war.

I had chased the Clockwork King to a rooftop garden, a thick mechanical forest where evenly-spaced metal trees shadowed iron sod. The King staggered away from me, and I jumped upon him. He fell, spread out beneath me. We rolled over together, and brass arms fell upon my back, crushing me up against him.

“Why does no-one see the truth of Olympia but me?” I demanded. Roughly I tore the hood from the mirror that was his head. “How can I touch her, break her, to make her feel me?” His arms, embracing me, ground my ribs against each other and I could not breathe. Bleeding, feverish, drooling, my fingers scrabbled over smooth glass. “Why does love mean pain?” I gasped, and shattered the mirrored head of the Clockwork King, which was after all only a close-fitting helmet, and underneath was a human skull.

The skull said: “Can a shadow weigh desire in a scale, or a serpent measure art by a cord?” And then the Clockwork King fell back, and did not move, done in by the fatal question he could no longer keep from asking. His dead arms bound me, and for a time I lay atop him, drifting in and out of wakefulness, gunfire and organ music surging in my ears. I thought it odd that the question he could not answer was not, after all, unanswerable; then it seemed to me that he could not answer the question not because he did not know the answer, but because he did not dare to provide it. To ask it was to answer it. To answer it was to admit his ruin. Thus I had killed him with a question.

Then I was being pulled free of the corpse of the Clockwork King. I screamed as my flesh was torn again. But I opened my eyes, and I saw the glory that preceded the dawning sun, and saw who it was that had freed me, and then knew I was mad, mad beyond hope of return. “You,” I said. “Here.”

“Yes,” said Olympia. Did I love her? Or did I love only the image of her in my head? At that moment those two things collapsed into one. “I followed the automata when they retreated from the city,” she said. “For I am being chased.”

Behind her, climbing up the stone stairway from the Palace of Wheels-Within-Wheels, came Theodore. He had a new sword in hand, twin to his old one, which I still, somehow, held. “Ernst,” he said. “Stand aside.”

“No,” I said. He stepped forward, left hand out.

“Let us be reasonable,” he began.

I stabbed him through the heart.

He blinked, and stared at his own blade projecting from his chest. He whirled away, wrenching the sword from my hand. “Ah,” he said. “The Clockwork King ... he said that I would perish here.” He fell to his knees, and then upon his side, and died looking no man in the eyes.

For a moment in the mechanical forest Olympia and I stood, silent. The powerful throb of the organ music made a strange harmony with the shelling and gunfire at the edge of the fair-ground. I took Olympia by the shoulders. “He is dead,” I said. “He was a thief and a killer and a seducer and maybe a rapist and a traitor, for all I know; but he was close enough to my soul as to be a part of me; and now he is dead.”

She said nothing. I stared at the light of dawn playing upon her face. Then I kissed her.

We fell to the ground, which was no longer metal but true forest land, and there were trees above us with birds singing to the accompaniment of the great organ, and fireworks exploding all around us, and the sun shining; and we were there together, and loved one another.

When I returned to myself it was past noon. Some noise had woken me from a sleep or daze. I sat up. I was still upon the roof of the palace, its metal soil, its artificial forest. What had happened? What had really happened, and what had been dementia? The Clockwork King was dead nearby. So was Theodore. But the metal of the place was unchanged. And Olympia was nowhere to be seen.

I looked over the edge of the palace. Living soldiers, wearing the colors of the Empress, were demolishing the city; having shelled it from a distance for some hours, they were now evidently brave enough to approach to complete its demolition. The automata, such as were intact, were everywhere immobile. I watched the soldiers awhile, feeling the pains of the past night; then I descended into the palace.

The Prodigy was asleep, curled up upon the seat of the organ. I woke him. He claimed he had played the organ all night, until he fell asleep; he thought that Kreisler had climbed into the pipes of the organ and never come out again. “He said something strange before he did, though,” the Prodigy told me. “He said, ‘Now I see the answer; I see the way by which the answer will come; sanity is, after all, madness, and our words are too small for the truth.’” I shook my head, and we left the palace.

Outside, the soldiers glanced at us, and went about their chores. We clearly were not the enemy. It was a grey day; high clouds had rolled in, and a thin rain fell.

I left the Prodigy with a colonel, to whom I gave instructions to see him carefully back to V—. I trudged through the city of the automata. Its every proud tower had been thrown down. Its jewels were scattered about in the mud underfoot; most of them quartz and pyrite.

I came to the gatehouse with the hall of mirrors. The hall was dim, lit by the dull light from outside, bereft of mystery. Only glittering shards upon the floor, throwing slivers of me back to myself, recalled what it had been.

Then I saw, in one corner, a single mirror untouched. Whole. And madness rushed full upon me again, and I put my hand upon the glass.

I said, “Can a shadow weigh desire in a scale, or a serpent measure art by a cord?”

And at what I saw then, I gasped aloud.


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Matthew David Surridge is a freelance writer who lives in Montreal with fellow BCS contributor Grace Seybold. He's written non-fiction for a number of venues, including The Comics Journal. His story "The Word of Azrael" is set to appear in an upcoming issue of Black Gate magazine.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Clockwork Heart, Clockwork Soul” by Kris Dikeman
“The Mathematics of Faith” by Jonathan Wood

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6 Comments on “Kreisler’s Automata”

6 Responses to “Kreisler’s Automata”

  1. boonofdoom says:

    02-20-2009, 10:07 AM
    boonofdoom

    I thought this was phenomenally rich and complex. There were instances of rare wit, swaths of ornate description, and an intensely poetic, desire-driven internal conflict whose open resolution left me staring off into space for a good long while as I tried to come to grips with all I had just seen. My kind of story. Very inspiring. I will be looking out for Mr. Surridge’s name.

  2. jaspax says:

    02-20-2009, 05:38 PM
    jaspax

    A very nice story indeed. though I can’t say that I understood all of it. But I was entranced by the depth of the creation, the verisimilitude of the setting, and the wonderful language. A delightful read.

  3. Grace Seybold says:

    02-22-2009, 05:23 PM
    Grace Seybold

    To boonofdoom: Matthew Surridge is going to have another story out shortly in Black Gate #14, so if you like his style, you may want to keep an eye out for that.

  4. Scott H. Andrews says:

    02-23-2009, 11:33 AM

    Awesome–I knew he had a Black Gate story forthcoming, but I did not know that it had yet been slated for a specific issue. I look forward to that one.

  5. Sovay says:

    03-10-2009, 01:00 AM
    Sovay

    Thank you for this story. I appreciate anything with that much E.T.A. Hoffmann in it.

  6. […] longish short stories published a few years ago, one in the paper version of Black Gate and one at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I’ve been fighting some minor but debilitating illnesses for a while which have kept me from […]

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