Children grow slowly, over time, coming gradually into conscious awareness. Maria was switched on, abruptly. One day she was not; the next she was.
She was built a woman. Her hair will not grow. Her skin will not blemish. Her bones do not break. She grows by learning, bit by bit, gathering pieces of information into the machine of her mind. She was designed with high intelligence from the start, designed to understand, to think, to experience and to feel. More than anything to feel.
The project of creating her had been Rainer’s and Rainer’s alone, with the understanding that he would be taking full responsibility for her. It was he who taught her, who opened her up to the world. Who answered all her questions.
She would ask: Why did you create me?
He told her the idea had come from humans, that he’d seen her, or their concept of her, while he’d been visiting the Obenwelt, the world above. She had been very different, a dancing image on a tall screen, a pretty woman with blond hair. The Robot Maria. Not a real robot, not even really named Maria: just a woman pretending.
Maria could not understand this explanation. She had never been to the world above. She asked again: But what is my purpose?
Rainer smiled and said, Your purpose is to exist, my dear. Just like the rest of us.
I do not understand.
(She remembers this conversation vividly. They were in Rainer’s private chamber, where she was born. She was lying dormant, unmoving. Her limbs had frozen up again—this was a little while ago, when Rainer had not quite perfected her design. Rainer was sitting on the floor beside her, conducting repairs, delicately rearranging her innards. His touch was careful and gentle, almost as though he had programmed her to feel pain.)
Rainer said, Consider yourself. You are a body running on several small parts. Once I have got them all working properly, you shall be running as beautifully and as well as the finest machine anyone could ever imagine. As well as the world itself.
Maria tilted her head to look at him. It was one of the only movements she could then make.
He remained focused on his work, continuing: We all fit into the overall mechanism, you see. Everyone does. Every life and death is an important part of the interplay. Do you understand?
She managed a little nod. I think so.
It is far larger than us, he said. The Hunt itself is another piece in a greater mechanism. The world needs it to exist, needs the balance of Obenwelt and Untenwelt. This separation has always been and always will be, though it has been different in the past, and it will be different again. As the world above us evolves, so do we, and vice versa.
That is why I made you, my dear. I saw what they had created, the idea of you. As an answer to them I brought you into being.
There was a long silence. He finished his work and closed her back up. Try it now, he said.
She remembers the feeling, the abrupt sensation of life, awareness flowing through her limbs. There is no blood in her, though sometimes she likes to imagine that there is.
She was repaired, but not yet satisfied. She asked, Where did this city come from?
Rainer eyed her thoughtfully, considering the question.
No one knows where it comes from, really. This strange collection of curiosities, this city beneath a city. There’s the old philosophic query, that grand dilemma of which begat the other, a topic that tends to lead one in circles. There is no answer, you see. Because they are simultaneous. They grow and develop and decay with perfect synchronicity, reflecting the changes in each other, shadows, mirror images. They are distinct from one another in almost every way except this most basic one, the shared foundation, through which they feed on each other. Their roots make up our the sky.
But which is the shadow? she asked again. Which is the reflection?
He smiled tolerantly. Enough questions for today, he said. Soon you’ll be able to decide these things for yourself.
Rainer is a good teacher. But there are some things he cannot teach.
He took her to the brothel, where she is now, shortly after that time. She remembers leaving his home. His repairs had been partly precautionary, readying her for her first steps outside. They made her way with him through the twisting, lengthening hallways, opening door after door after door, until at last they arrived in the central hub of the city, where all the people were. She had never seen so many people. She remembers drawing looks and feeling powerful, proud to command so much attention. Rainer had felt only anxiety. She remembers that she tried to take his hand, and that he didn’t let her.
She knows why he had to leave her there, at the brothel. She knows why he could not teach her what she needed to learn. He is not like her: his feelings are acute, sometimes strong enough to control him, to color his judgment. He must always remain at some distance.
She remembers him speaking curtly to the immense woman who runs the brothel, who Maria knows only as the Madam.
She is a project of mine, said Rainer, speaking in terms others would understand. The words sound dispassionate, but Maria knows better. Rainer thinks of her as an equal. When they are alone, he never speaks around her, never handles her like an object. For a long time he would be the only one who treated her this way.
I want her to become knowledgeable, experienced.
I know all about this’un, said the Madam, eyeing Maria with suspicion. Kills them with passion, don’t she? You think that’d be good for my business?
She was designed for humans, said Rainer impatiently. Naturally she will not harm anyone here.
The Madam scoffed and turned her attention on Maria, looking her up and down. Well, she’s a pretty one, I’ll give her that.
Maria had seen people interact with Rainer before, but never like this, with so little respect.
She will suit your needs, said Rainer. I guarantee it.
Maria was taken in. She met her brothers and sisters, many of them small, meek, quiet. None of them were like her. None of them carried her confidence. She knew what her ultimate purpose was, what her task would be when the Hunt finally began. Rainer had told her stories of past Hunts, had explained her capabilities. She was built for pleasure. She would drive them all mad. She would give them what they wanted and take everything in return.
Maria sits calmly on the edge of her bed, waiting for the next client. She has been here for some weeks now, and though she is not overtly capable of sadness, she finds that she misses Rainer. She misses being taught, learning about the world of which she has seen so little. She wonders when he is coming to get her.
The client has arrived. This time it is a woman. She has never had a female client before.
“My name is Rune,” says the woman, who is also a bird. She comes in, looking very small, very fragile. But Maria knows that looks are not everything. Some people look small and fragile, and feel that way as well. This one feels powerful, like nothing Maria has ever sensed before. Instinctively, she stands up.
Rune shuts the door and regards Maria. “Rainer made you,” she says. It is not a question.
“Funny,” says Rune. “I had to get a look at you, to see what a miserable job he surely did. He makes messes of everything, you know. He helped make the biggest mess of all, splitting up the Hunt, pulling it apart at the seams. We used to be formidable. A true force of nature. Now we’re something else. In-betweens. Mixing with humans. Making things like you. He’s just jealous, of course. Wants his own Lorelei. But you’ll never be as powerful as our Lorelei. Her call will summon any man to her. She is inescapable. You?” Rune smirks slightly. “People need to like you.”
Maria says nothing. She is not supposed to argue with clients.
Rune saunters forward, examining her. “Still,” she said, “he did make you very pretty, didn’t he? I suppose he knows how to make pretty things, at the very least.”
Maria lets Rune look at her. “Have you come just to look at me?” she asks.
Rune shrugs. “Not sure,” she says. “Haven’t decided.” She reaches out almost tentatively and runs a feathered hand down Maria’s arm. She draws a little breath. “Soft,” she says in surprise. “And warm. How did he—”
“If you want the specifics of my design, you may wish to ask him who designed me,” says Maria.
Rune gives a little laugh; a pleasant sound, nothing like Rainer’s reserved chuckling. “Your point is well taken,” she says. She hesitates, looking into Maria’s eyes. Maria stands much taller than Rune, and gazes down at her calmly. Already she can see Rune doubting her own conviction. Maria can see her concentration shifting, her limbs stiffening with the tension of desire. Maria can seduce anyone; she doesn’t need the inescapable call of this “Lorelei.” What fun is it if they don’t like her?
“Well,” says Rune. “I, er.”
Maria would later learn that it is extremely unusual to hear Rune speak so inelegantly.
Something instinctive pushes Maria to act unusually as well: she does something she has never done before. Without the slightest invitation, she reaches out and pulls her client toward her, and kisses her gently.
Rune starts to make a muffled protest, but the indignation dies in her throat. Slowly, easily, her little bird arms wrap around Maria’s waist, and she pulls herself closer. She is strong, for such a delicate little thing. Maria feels a heart beating, and wonders what need of a heart Rune could have. But she understands hearts, how to make them beat faster. Maria moves her hands sensually, warmly, trailing her fingertips over the sharp blades of Rune’s shoulders. She has learned much already.
Rune pulls away from her after a moment. Maria notices that she has more feathers than she had before; several have sprouted down her arms, around her face. She wonders if this is Rune’s way of blushing.
“Well,” says Rune again. “Perhaps he knew what he was doing after all.”
Rune begins to come see her regularly after that. Once every week, sometimes more. At first she maintains a certain distance, tries not to speak too much (though Maria can tell she is not accustomed to keeping quiet), tries to leave quickly afterward. This behavior is short-lived. Soon she stays, longer and longer, sometimes spending many hours in Maria’s room, sometimes for play and sometimes just to talk. Gradually she seems to lose her critical eye, her aversion to what she once perceived as Rainer’s plaything. Gradually she begins to treat Maria as Rainer always has done; like a real thing, a separate thing, an equal. And, soon enough, almost without realizing it, she begins to teach. It is a natural state for her; Rune is the answerer, after all.
“Has he really explained all this to you?” asks Rune, gazing up at the ceiling. One of her arms is a wing, and it flutters ticklingly against Maria’s skin, though such sensations never disrupt Maria’s stoic nature. “The Hunt, the Upworld? Do you understand what you’re for?”
“I was made to exist,” says Maria. “And one day I shall see the Upworld. I will give earthly men what they desire, and in exchange they will give me everything.”
“Yes,” says Rune slowly. “But do you recognize why?”
Maria doesn’t answer right away. She has never been sure why, not really. “For the balance,” she says. “The interplay.”
Rune smiles and rolls onto her front, gazing down at Maria. Her eyes are black. One of her brows is made up of feathers, the other, hair. Maria, herself so exquisitely proportioned, is fascinated by Rune’s asymmetry.
“Do you know what they say about Berlin?” says Rune. “They say it is a city condemned forever to becoming and never to being.”
“What is Berlin?”
Rune laughs aloud, a sound Maria has come to relish. “Rainer seems to have missed a few things of minor importance,” she says with humor. “My dear Maria, Berlin is the name of the city above us.”
“Is it what humans call the Upworld?” asks Maria.
“The Upworld is far greater than Berlin,” says Rune. “There is so much to it. There is more to us, as well. You cannot imagine our depths. Wherever there is Upworld, there is Underworld. Wherever there are humans to fear us, we are there to be feared. Our Hunt is small by comparison. We are many and we are diverse, but there are more, fathoms more, entities strange even to us, all about the earth. Berlin is but one city, just as we are but one city. Though ours does not have a proper name.”
Maria has never learned this; she has never had a clear concept of the world and her place in it. She feels a burning curiosity, a desire to know, to see. “Tell me of Berlin,” she says.
“We chose it for its diversity that matches our own,” says Rune. “And because it is fracturing, just as we. And because there is great disaster ahead, and Berlin will be its center, its origin. Do you know why we hunt, Maria? Why we have always hunted?”
Maria shakes her head.
Rune leans close, whispering softly against her ear. “To remind them,” she says. “To remind them that they are not the lords of their earth. To remind them that they are short-lived and feeble. To make them fear us.”
“Rainer says they do not fear you anymore,” says Maria (she is already learning to be more bold with Rune, who will always allow it). “He told me that our ways need to change.”
Rune nods, graciously conceding the point. “It is true that our power is diminishing,” she said. “They do not believe in us, not so much anymore. They fancy themselves masters of their fates. But they are wrong. Even in a world that denies our existence, we remain relevant. We come to them always before times of great destruction, as a warning, a reminder of their own fallibility. Rainer’s solution is insufficient. When he created you, his aim was to build something tangible, that they could recognize. That is his mistake, it is the mistake made by all those of his ilk. Humans do not fear what they create. They revel in it. They will learn to use it. You may kill them, but in the end the impact will be very different, something we cannot anticipate. You know of course that Rainer was once human himself. You see how easily he brought himself into our world? How quickly he gave up on his? What makes you think other humans will be any different?”
Maria says nothing. She remembers the many private conversations where Rainer spoke of his past. She does not argue with Rune. She is patient. She will draw her own understanding from what she is taught.
“Your masters will fail, in the end,” says Rune, pulling away. “By muddying the divide between worlds they are only inviting disruption. We are not invulnerable, you see.”
A moment of silence falls over them, and Rune presses in, brushing her lips against Maria’s cheek.
“Do you think Rainer ought not to have made me?” wonders Maria.
Rune does not respond right away. “I think he was right to tell you that everything exists for its own sake,” she says. “And I… I am glad he made you, even though his reasons were foolish.”
Maria has no reply to that.
“Karl Scheffler,” says Rune suddenly. “The name of the man who said that, about Berlin—about it always becoming, never being. Humans are amazing creatures, sometimes. They understand things better than they realize. Sometimes they speak ultimate truths. We are all like Berlin; our world and their world. We are all of us becoming. We shall never simply be. Not even in death is anything so simple. You might not be able to understand this, being not quite a living thing yourself. But do not forget this: we are no more masters of fate than they are. We, too, are sometimes lost.”
When Rainer comes to retrieve her, the Madam is angry. Maria has become her most valuable asset. It doesn’t matter. The arrangement was always temporary. Maria was always meant to operate freely.
“Our work will begin soon,” Rainer tells her. “Are you ready?”
Maria knows that Rune will not be allowed to see her now. She does not mention this, or that it causes her something like sadness. Rainer will know soon enough, if he does not know already. “I am,” she says.
“Good.” He takes her back out to the streets, where the sky is earth high above them, where the lamps are always lit, and where a strange assortment of beasts and devils and strange things wander, waiting, waiting. The streets are wet tonight. There is an earthy smell.
“It rained up above,” said Rainer. “Rain comes from their sky, which we cannot see. The water seeps into the earth, down to us. Everything, even the weather, is in perfect balance.” He smiles, gazing at the wet. “A little hint of their world, just for you.”
Maria considers this as she walks with Rainer. She considers the strange harmony of these live, seething things, these cities. She has come to see them as organisms. Organisms are strange to her, fragile, with no one to repair them if they break badly. She finds it easy, almost amusing, to understand the world like this, to visualize it as a body that will one day succumb to rot and entropy, slow decay she will never know. The cities are parasites, feeding off each other, never allowing themselves to gestate fully. They will be absorbed, each disappearing into the other, until there is nothing left. They will be excised, burned clean. Then they will start again. It is an unending cycle. Here, beneath the skin of the creature, the processes of life and death are at work. She resides at a junction, a meeting place of the streams of life that flow through the underground. Where else could she live, but in the heart?
She understands hearts, and blood, and how to make them work together, and how to stop them.
“What do you think of the smell?” Rainer asks her.
Maria smiles, cool and hungry, as she has practiced. “Ripe,” she says.