Peering through the doorway to Jenever’s chambers, Igraine felt repelled by an ominous atmosphere surrounding the Doctor.
A soldering iron was fizzing as Jenever sat hunched over her desk that was covered by a wide variety of components.
Igraine didn’t get it. She had always assumed Jenever was a physician. The doctor’s behavior had been atypical as of late in general. Just when Igraine was hurting the most. Igraine grabbed her left arm as another burning sensation flowed from the palm up to her shoulder. It even hurt to grasp her throat. “Uhm, Dr. Jenever?”
“I’m busy, Angel,” said Dr. Jenever without looking. “I’ll visit you later.”
“What’s wrong?” Igraine asked her.
“Nothing is wrong, Angel,” she said, aggravated while staring at the tip of her soldering iron. “I just don’t have time right now.”
After some hesitation, Igraine took a deep breath and said, “Yes, there is.”
“Igraine!” The doctor calmed herself and asked, composed. “Are you having new issues?”
“Non… It’s just.” Igraine squeezed her hands together. “Are you leaving?”
Looking to her side, the doctor exhaled. “Yes. I am. But I’ll be back in a few weeks.”
“Yes. I have some business to attend to.”
“Igraine! What did I just say?”
Igraine’s body was trembling. “But-”
After dropping her tools, Jenever moved her goggles up and looked at her. “I get to you when I get to you!”
Breathing became harder as her skin was wet with perspiration, and tears were forming behind her eyes. Ashamed, Igraine ran away. Storming into her room, she grabbed Anwin from the bed and dropped herself on the sheets. Her body was hurting so bad, she couldn’t imagine lasting for much longer. And what did it matter if Jenever didn’t want her around? Who would? Nobody ever wanted her around. Tears were running down her cheeks as Igraine hugged her doll tightly. “What now, Anwin? It hurts so much….”
While standing on the desk, Anwin tried to see what Igraine was hiding behind her back.
Grinning mischievously, Igraine closed in on her fluffy companion and then revealed her secret. “Look, Anwin, I got you a friend.” She said, offering Anwin a bunny-doll she had been hiding. “Come, take it.”
“It's for you, silly.”
Finally, Anwin accepted the bunny. But after inspecting the plush toy, she dropped it while looking at Igraine in confusion.
“It's a rag doll, like Dolly,” Igraine explained. “Remember her?”
Anwin didn’t seem interested.
Losing her patience, Igraine crossed herself. “Anwin, please pick her up.”
Anwin was holding the bunny by the ear as Igraine carried her to the mattress.
After putting her friend down, Igraine sat on her knees beside the bed and looked her straight in the eyes, “Anwin, I am going to leave for a couple of days. But then I’ll be back, you understand?”
Anwin cocked her head.
“It means I can’t be with you during that time.” Igraine was fighting back a tear. “Uhm, so, Bunny will keep you company till I am back. “Dr. Vermouth will walk with you when-”
The doll jumped on Igraine’s hand, wrapping herself around it.
“You can’t come, Anwin… You have to understand, I can’t be there for you all the time.” She felt a frog form in her throat as she recognized Anwin’s distress as she was contorting herself like a scared snake. “The world above ground is a very dangerous place for little dolls like you. So…” She sighed. “ I have to start packing. Time to go to your pen.”
Slowly, Anwin raised her arms.
“Anwin, look. You left Bunny lying there. She’ll be lonely. You want her to be lonely?”
The doll shrugged her shoulders in apathy.
Igraine frowned. “Anwin. Would you like it if I left you behind?”
The doll shook her head.
“Neither does Bunny. Go get her.”
Reluctantly, Anwin returned with her new toy so Igraine could take her to the crib. As Igraine was packing her carpet bag, Anwin was watching her from behind bars.
“You want to draw, Anwin?”
The doll shook her head in rejection.
“Be that way.” Igraine used her manipulator to move her wardrobe trunk from atop the closet and set it upright on the floor. A fan of hangers unfolded as she opened the case. On one side of the coffer, she would hang her leather coat behind a purple vest. On the other, she would store her gear in the secured drawers. From the largest drawer, she pulled out her operator bag containing her field equipment. She was just packing her blue syringe vials when she noticed Anwin reaching through the bars for the bunny doll that lay beside the crib.
“Anwin, don’t throw Bunny out,” she said, returning the rag doll and going back to packing her bags. Going through her field kit, she inspected her reflection in the green surface of her asymmetrical goggles, thinking, that soon she’d be Associate 244 again. She smiled ironically. So strange that after a week of mothering a doll to go back to being-
Igraine stopped when she caught Anwin pushing the bunny through the bars again.
“Anwin! Bad!” Igraine pushed the rag doll back into the pram. “Stop being such a spoiled brat!”
Upset, the doll ran and hid under the pillow together with Bunny.
Igraine swallowed in aggravation. “That will teach me to give you something nice!” Then again, Anwin was probably angry as well. No matter, Igraine figured. Anwin would have forgotten all about it when she got back.
Before heading for the bathroom, Igraine turned on the radio to get a reaction out of Anwin. But to no avail. Even when she had donned her hat, Anwin had not emerged. With the carpet bag in hand and the travel wardrobe beside her, Igraine opened the door. She looked at the crib one last time. “Anwin. I’m going now. Want to say goodbye?”
The pillow didn’t move.
“Fine. Goodbye then.” And so she closed the door behind her. She couldn’t recall a single moment Anwin hadn’t been in arm’s reach these past few days. But it was inevitable. Igraine took a deep breath. Yes, it was time to be Associate 244 again.
After a long journey by the Arlberg railway, running through the northern periphery of the Austrian Alps, Igraine got a first glimpse of the town in the rocky hills. As nobody was looking, Igraine shoved her eye patch aside for a better view. Despite passing some factories in the Rhineland and Bavaria, this area looked so rural, idyllic even. As the train drove across a viaduct, she observed a row of farmers in the valley cutting wheat without a single tractor in sight. From a distance, the town up the mountain slope looked just like those in the promotion photos. An irregular pattern of wide Bavarian-style houses with prominent gables and wooden balconies. Igraine shifted uncomfortably in her dress as the high-pitched screech of the brakes cut through the thumping of the wheels. Despite enjoying wearing corsets from time to time, she hadn’t grown up wearing them. She glanced at her multi-clock wristwatch set inside an octagonal frame. Reading the smaller dial beneath the main display, she estimated the time she’d been away, assuring herself there was enough time before heading back to Sanctuary.
As she walked out of the station, carriages were parked in the round-a-bout delivering the passengers. It was a quaint mountain town with a thriving center and a surprising amount of gift shops.
Entering the park at the center of the roundabout, luggage in tow, she looked at the people enjoying the late afternoon. She couldn’t help feeling as if she had traveled back in time to a simpler period. No electric carriage or music being blasted by speakers. Perfect. It would be a shame if something happened to this place.
Eventually, she noticed a young man sitting on a bench whose cufflinks resembled the horned owl of the Association.
Igraine adjusted the silver owl pin on her lapel and approached him. “Guten tag, Mein Herr. Could you refer me to the local evening theater?” she asked in German.
Smiling politely, he produced his pocket watch. “Isn’t it a bit early, Fraulein?”
“I had a long journey from Den Hague, Mein Herr.”
He glanced at the pin on her lapel. “Your feet must be sore, fraulein.”
Igraine smiled despite herself. “Your number must be 189?”
“It is. But you can call me Rollo Vespa. Welcome, Associate 244.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mein Herr. You may introduce me as Igraine Mortuba.”
He bowed his head in respect. “An admirer of the romances,” he remarked.
“Igraine,” he said. “The mother of Arthur Pendragon?”
“It is?” she said, surprised. She knew about the famous legend from audio plays but never investigated it.
“Ja, according to the twelfth-century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, her beauty made Uther Pendragon declare war on her husband. Then, one night, Merlin cast a spell on Uther, disguising him as her husband Gorlois, so he could seduce her. Thus, bringing Arthur to life.
The story of Arthur’s conception left her speechless. “How… romantic.”
“They have happily married afterward,” he remarked defensively.
“Well, glad to hear it had a fairy tale ending.”
“And isn’t that all we want out of life, fraulein?”
Igraine couldn’t help but smile. “You sure know your English literature, herr Vespa.”
He got up. “I have a weakness for English culture. It’s so… innovative.”
Igraine sighed, thinking of all the technological wonders she had seen on other planes.
“You don’t agree?”
“Forgive me, Mein Herr. I am very tired.”
“Ah, of course. I’m afraid we are somewhat ill-prepared. We only got word of your arrival this morning.”
“That is fine, herr. I would like to be informed of the current situation as soon as possible.”
“Allow me,” he said as Igraine was about to haul her coffer. “Oh,” he exclaimed, attempting to lift it. “You carried that luggage all the way here?”
“I had help,” she said, not mentioning she was referring to her manipulator.
As the coffer’s wheels hobbling across the cobblestones droned out his voice, he hesitated to ask. “So, what brings an English lady to an Austrian backwater like this?”
“I was requested to provide my expertise to this investigation.”
“I see,” Vespa responded to her evasive answer. “And here I was thinking we had it all under control.”
“You can’t be too careful,” Igraine said.
“And your expertise is?”
“Forgive me. But I cannot speak of it in such a public setting.”
“Of course. Well, our hotel is around the corner,” he assured her. “I already arranged dinner.”
As they approached the Bergschloss Hotel, Igraine recalled seeing similar structures of this Bavarian architecture in Arkology, be it made of the local scrap and flora. There was something cozy about the deep gables and exposed wooden beams. She knew of Tudor-style homes in England with similar styling, but they lacked balconies.
Inside the hotel's small lobby, Vespa handed the luggage over to the staff. “We have arranged a room for you, Miss Mortuba. But it has yet to be prepared.”
“That’s no problem. Have my luggage delivered to my room, if you please?”
“No problem. We use a conference room that the town volunteered for us.”
“That’s wonderful. Wasn’t there supposed to be another Associate?” asked Igraine
“Jawöl, ehm… Oh, speak of the devil.”
From down the hallway, a man of brass complexion approached, sporting a surly frown dressed in breeches, his vest unbuttoned. The width of his shoulders occupied half of the corridor as he was holding a bag on one side while a German Shepard was walking by his other.
The deliberate way he removed his flat cap made Igraine increasingly uncomfortable that the shepherd beside him wasn’t leashed, which didn’t help.
“Ah, this Associate 267,” said Vespa in ways of an apologetic introduction. “He…”
“You must be the new Associate,” 267 said with an Italian accent without even offering his hand. “Why?”
“Why, what?” Igraine asked, looking up at him.
“I asked first,” he said curtly.
“Ah, yes.” Vespa stepped between them. “Always his charming self.” He moved aside as the dog started growling at him.
“Rex! Smettila!” barked 267 at the dog. “These are good people.”
“Ah, ja, Danke. Let's sit down for dinner, shall we,” suggested Vespa.
267 shaped his mouth in a crooked grin. “Let’s.”
Igraine stepped back as the dog approached her.
It growled softly as his black nose sniffed the surface of her dress. Fortunately, Rex obeyed as his master beckoned. “Rex. Leave the Fraulein alone.”
Inside the conference hall, a prim and proper officer of the gendarmery awaited them. “Ah, Associate. I am Lieutenant Trautmann. I am here on behalf of the council to deal with this, uhm… Anomaly.”
“Charmed,” she said, offering her hand. Will you join us for dinner?”
“I’d be delighted,” said the officer.
After they sat down and exchanged more peasantries, they got to the matter at hand.
“So, the infestation just affects the castle on the mountain?” asked Igraine.
The lieutenant nodded. “Ja, it's both a popular spa resort and tourist destination. Just after these few weeks, its closing has become problematic. The spa resort is very important to the town’s economy. Even now being closed for a few weeks, it is sorely felt by the shop owners.”
Their conversation got interrupted when the hotel staff entered with dinner served on a tray. The waiter elaborated as dinner was served.“Tonight we are serving trout with forest mushrooms. Enjoy your meal.”
Associate 267 spoke up. “Waiter. Would you bring some water for the dog, please?”
“Ehm, sir. Could you please put your dog on a leash? We have a-”
“Try it,” he dared him. “See what happens. Now, a small bowl will do.”
The waiter bowed his head. “Naturlich, mein herr.”
“Trout again,” sighed Vespa as the waiter was out of earshot.
“Of course, it's trout. It's spawning season,” muttered 267.
“Jawoll,” said the officer. “We forbade any hunting until the infestation has been dealt with. Animals found nearby the area is shot and destroyed.”
“Sounds like quite the challenge,” Igraine remarked.
“Indeed. And a drain on resources for our community. The RA Committee has not been forthcoming with any form of compensation to cover our containment efforts so far,” he remarked with a passive-aggressive tone.
“Well,” Vespa began. “I’m sure the compensation requests have been piling up in their Den Hague offices.”
The gendarme looked up from his dinner. “How do you mean?”
“I mean. More anomalies like yours have appeared over time. RA is financially strained.”
“What are you saying?” the gendarme asked, concerned.
Giving Igraine a dismissive glance of embarrassment, 267 shook his head.
Politics, she thought. It was a form of discourse that didn’t suit her. It didn’t matter what was true or practical. It was about bargaining and building trust. Knowing what the other party desired and how to exploit it. Igraine couldn’t even figure out what a doll wanted.
“So, you are telling me the committee will not grant us any compensation till you make an assessment?” asked Trautman.
“Officially, no,” Vespa assured him. “But in practice, RA’s regulators desire our approval for reasons of dependability.”
“RA offers financial aid, but also expertise that some parties desire to exploit. The Association serves no nation or other masters. We have our own agenda. That makes us impartial in matters of arbitration between RA, and those responsible for the containment of anomalies.”
Trautman hesitantly steepled his fingers “And what do you-”
“Nothing,” said Vespa.
“Nothing?” Trautman said, pleasantly surprised.
“Every associate is a volunteer. We don’t receive any payment beyond the compensation required to fulfill our oath.”
The lieutenant seemed relieved. “Ah, g