Image from Metropolis by Fritz Lang

After Curfew

A Teslapunk Tale of Grotesque Horror in an alternate Berlin, 1933

Ursula fumbled in her bag, pulled out a crumpled pack of Gauloises and shook it. Nothing moved inside. She hooked her finger in the opening and ripped open the soft pack. Empty. At least there weren’t any broken ones. Not that she was above reconstructing a smoke from remains any more. There was no point searching the ashtrays, the waitresses had already been through and swept the tables.

The night club was empty but still reeked of stale smoke and beer. Verflucht, she needed a cigarette. Heinrich didn’t sell cigarettes even though his rich and connected clientele smoked all the time, he kept his business clean and stayed clear of the black market. You couldn’t get anything German in the shops except the basics, everything else was an illegal import.

It was past curfew and the Künstlichesoldaten would be patrolling the streets which made getting another pack harder. She’d been out after curfew before, the British patrols were not frequent enough to be a problem if you were careful. As long as they didn’t see your face.

She climbed to her feet, pulled up her stockings and re-clipped them to her suspender belt — she’d lost weight, maybe she could get a new pair that weren’t too pricey — and straightened her pencil skirt. As an afterthought she glanced round to make sure no one had watched her, but the place was empty. She found she didn’t really care much anymore.

She headed to the bar. Her stilettos clicked on the wooden floor, while her soles stuck on every half-dried patch of beer. She reached the bar that ran the length of the back wall opposite the dark stage.

“Hey, Heinrich!”

There was movement in the back office and a limping shadow passed across the wall, much taller than the man who emerged. Heinrich was in his late 30s and had survived the ’11-’18 war by being invalided out early with a leg wound, before the conflict had degenerated into global anarchy from which Britain emerged as winner by default. They were the last nation standing.

Everything was bad now. Ursula taught history during day, and sang in the evenings to make ends meet while prices went crazy round them. She gave her students the version of history the British allowed, with as much truth as she could get away with.

She gave him her best smile. “How about you pay me up to date?”

He glanced at the crumpled pack she’d forgotten she still held in her hand. She was forgetting a lot of things recently. This morning she had to stop on the corner of the street and ask the way to the school. At least she had still known where she was going.

Heinrich was holding out a thick sheaf of notes, including a wad of the new 10,000 Englichemark. She hadn’t even noticed him getting the money.

“You okay, Ursula?”

She gathered up the notes from his hand and stuffed them in her purse. “Just need a cigarette.”

“You want to count them?”

She glanced down at her bag and then back at him. “I trust you.”

He put his hand on her wrist. “No point me telling you not to go out?”

“No point.”

“You need to be more careful.”

He fancied her but the feeling wasn’t mutual. She knew she was attractive, despite the lack of food, and if she wanted a man she could do better than the owner of a sleazy club. “You going to unlock the door for me?”

He released her wrist, headed to the end of bar and out towards the door. She hadn’t thought he’d gripped her tightly but she could see a darkening of the skin where his fingers had held her. She rubbed the marks absently then picked up her bag and slung it over her shoulder.

She no longer owned a coat. The leather one she’d had disappeared one night a week ago, but the weather was so hot she wouldn’t have worn it anyway.

Once upon a time she wouldn’t have dared walk the streets in a short skirt and blouse but now, if she got mistaken for a Hakler, she might decide she needed the money. She hadn’t done that yet — not that she could remember, anyway.

She pushed through the curtain into the dark entrance hall. Heinrich scanned the street through the spy hole then drew back the well-oiled bolts soundlessly.

“Be careful.”

“You said that.”

“You’re a good singer, Ursula. People like you, I don’t want to lose you.”

Yes, they liked her well enough. But they came to the club for the other acts, and she seldom got any tips, unlike Fräulein Benz and her Lascivious Midgets.

She placed her hand against his cheek. “And I need your money to buy cigarettes. Don’t worry, I’ll be back.”

She slipped out into the moist warmth of the summer night air. Flickering Tesla beams criss-crossed the sky obliterating the view of any stars that might be out, even the moon could barely compete. The eerie blue and violet glow of the beams gave enough light to travel by but created strange shadows, and they buzzed constantly filling the air with a background sound like a million flying insects. It was a sound that got into your brain and would drive you mad if you let it.

She crossed the street with the intention of heading towards the Tiergarten. She would keep off the main strasse where most of the patrols worked, but avoid the narrow alleys where she was likely to meet a different sort of trouble. She would not be the only one out in the night and most of those others were up to no good.

Just as she was.

British punishment was harsh for those working the black market, and almost as harsh for those using it: Transportation to one of the colonies: Mars, Venus, or worse, Mercury, maybe even one of the outer planets. It almost made her laugh the way the British had gone back to that method of dealing with criminals. Of course if you have money or connections the rules didn’t apply.

She walked for twenty minutes, the clicking of her heels was loud but did not carry in the dense moist air. Music from gramophones blared out through open windows along with fragments of people’s lives: A laugh here, a voice raised in anger there, moans of passion, and cries of pain — which she made herself pretend she did not hear.

A patriotic marching song wound itself into her mind. It was one the audience requested from time to time though it was on the banned list. Anything patriotically German was banned. The beat of the tune grew louder in her mind and she matched her own pace to it, clicking through the streets.

And then came the realisation the beat was not in her mind at all, but the tramp of a patrol. It’s unnatural precision meant Künstlichesoldaten but then, nothing else would be patrolling the streets. The artificial soldiers were the only ground troops Britain still possessed, but it had them by the million and wherever the British could transmit their Tesla energies, there their automaton army marched. She mustn’t let them see her face.

She looked around wildly, every door was shut, every window covered. There was nowhere to hide. She pulled up her skirt and ran from the marching. She turned down the next alley. This part of the city had not yet been reconstructed after the bombings devastated it.

She followed the alley around a corner and into a dead-end. It had once been an entrance into what might have been a library with its wide arch and bricked up doorway. Nowhere to hide. She went back to the turn and hugged the wall. She peered around the corner, careful to keep as much as possible of her face covered.

In the blue light the squad of twelve soldiers marched into view. Ursula hoped they would go past but instead they turned towards her without the slightest break in stride, like the machines they were. Machines, but with imprinted brains of Venusian fungus, and totally black eyes with the terrifying white dot at the centre.

She stepped backwards and her heel ran into something soft, she over-balanced and fell with her arms flailing. She cried out before she had a chance to stop herself. It seemed as if the buildings around her held their breath.

Fear moved her and she rolled over. Her betrayer was a dead dog, lying in the street. She cursed it silently as the marching feet came closer. They must not see her face, she would not be transported. Perhaps she could exceed the limits of their understanding. What if she had no face?

She turned round until she was head first towards the dead dog, and its stench filled her nostrils.

Then, with her stomach heaving, she reached beneath it and lifted its soft heavy bulk, wriggled underneath it and let the weight of it down to rest on her face. The dank fur pressed against her cheek, along her neck and touched her back.. She wanted to retch but forced her body to remain still, and the contents of her stomach where it belonged.

She focused on the marching feet that drew closer and louder, until they were right on top of her where, as one, they stopped. All that could be heard was the buzzing of the Teslas.

Ursula felt something squirming against her cheek. She closed her eyes. The maggots, larvae and beetles that were eating away at the dog seemed to take an interest in her flesh as if they were burrowing into it. She wanted to scream.

There was a whirring nearby, like the spinning of a child’s top, and something touched her calf. It stroked up to her knee. She remembered how ticklish she was there but felt no inclination to laugh. The touch moved away and then prodded the muscle of her thigh.

Nothing happened for long minutes except the repulsive movement of insects across her skin and in her hair. The rotting dog pressed down on her.

Without another sound the marching began again, moving away from her.

She forced herself to remain still with the decaying animal hiding her face. She held herself rigid though her muscles wanted to convulse. The sound of the soldiers’ steps submerged into the pervasive hum but even then she made herself count to one hundred before she jerked into motion and thrust the rotting animal from her.

She jumped to her feet whimpering as she brushed at her hair and her body desperately. In the middle of the alley she stripped herself naked and shook out her clothes. In the blue Tesla light she saw black insects fall way from her.

She sobbed without tears and sat on the steps of the building.

It was a long time before she stopped shivering. By the light of the Tesla beams she gathered up her clothes and put them back on. She stared around at the broken buildings. She could see no one. If anyone had been watching her, well, she hoped they enjoyed the show. She did not care anymore.

She fumbled in her bag and then realised the lack of cigarettes was the reason she was out here in the first place. Taking a deep breath she stepped round the body of the dog and headed up the alley. The clicking of her stilettos echoed. She took them off and attached them to her bag by their strap. She felt better for moving silently, and could not understand her earlier arrogance.

She fished out her watch, the strap was broken. It was getting on for two-thirty in the morning and she had to teach. She was doing this just to get a cigarette? Couldn’t she survive a single day, a few hours?

She stopped in the middle of a wide strasse. Tram lines led away in both directions but not a single person moved though a cat sloped along the wall opposite her. She almost went back to her rooms. She scratched at her cheek, she shuddered as the something hard fell from her skin, leaving a tender patch. There was the tiniest crunch and a moment of satisfaction as she stepped on it, feeling the fragile beetle carapace shatter under her foot.

She could go home but she was close now. To have come so far and gone through so much just to run home seemed a waste. As long as she stayed clear of any further trouble.

Twenty minutes later she squeezed between the two planks that hid the entrance to what looked like a deserted building. It was deserted, except for the cellar. Once inside she put her shoes back on, she remembered the glass on the floor here, and the smell of excrement was enough to make you vomit. Andre liked to keep casual visitors out. There was barely enough light to see but she knew her way well enough. She went along the passage and turned down the stairs, keeping her hand on the cold metal banister.

At the bottom there was no light at all. She pulled matches from her bag and lit one. The door she wanted was at the end. She knocked. There was nothing. She banged harder.

“Go away,” said a man’s voice on the other side.

“It’s Ursula.”

“I know many Ursula’s.”

“Open up, you bastard, I need a cigarette.”

There was a muffled laugh and, after a moment’s silence, the sound of bolts being drawn. The door opened and a light shone in her face. Blinding her.

“Ursula, come in, sweetheart.”

She stepped inside. Big Andre was shorter than Ursula, and wore only a dressing gown.

The dank passageway smelled of old cigarettes and booze. Like the bar. It turned abruptly and went through into another room. It was an Aladdin’s cave of black market goods from cases of smokes, to wines, there was a packing case filled with coconuts.

There was a thin naked woman lying on a bed, her head propped up on her elbow. She made no attempt to cover herself and watched Ursula like a cat watches a rival.

“I need some cigarettes, Andre,” Ursula said turning her back on the woman. “And I’ll get out of your way.”

He rummaged in a case and pulled out a box of twenty. “A million marks.”

“I’ve got that,” she said and opened her bag.

“What’s wrong with her face?” The woman’s voice was higher pitched than Ursula expected.

Andre looked at her more closely. “What’s these blotches? Looks like beetles. You ill?”

She shook her head. “Run in with a patrol, had to hide. Wasn’t pleasant.”

Andre grunted, he really didn’t care. She could almost see the idea hit him. “Sure you won’t stay for some fun?” he said. “I’ll throw in the cigs for free.”

Ursula glanced at the girl, who had a smile that held no humour. Andre’s lust was obvious. She asked herself how much she wanted a cigarette?

Andre took her moment’s delay as affirmation. He reached out and grasped her wrist, drawing her closer to him.

What did any of it matter any more? Ursula wondered. She could not recall the last time she’d been kissed. She had had a boyfriend once. She could remember his face but not his name. One morning she had woken and he had not been there though he’d left his clothes.

Andre’s breath smelled but she let him press his lips against hers. Somehow the closeness of another human being was reassuring, it stirred a desperation in her. She allowed him to force his tongue into her mouth. His dressing gown slipped to the floor and she put her arms around him as he slid his hands beneath her blouse.

She felt his closeness, his skin to her skin. Joining. Melding. She closed her eyes as he began to struggle and the girl screamed.