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The atlantis project

CONNECTION

The Atlantis Project,

Book 1

By Manuel Lempereur

***

Published by:

Manuel Lempereur at Shakespir

Copyright © 2015 by Manuel Lempereur

****

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

Shakespir Edition Licence Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

 

Copyright © Manuel Lempereur, 2015.

All rights reserved.

Registered in June 2015.

Published by Manuel Lempereur

97150 Saint-Martin, Parc de la Baie Orientale.

English translation by Heather Bourn.

 

 

“One morning, one of us had run out of black, and so he used blue…”

Pierre-Auguste Renoir

 

 

1 THE TURNING POINT

2 TAKING OFF

3 HEAT

4 MEETING GIUSEPPE

5 FRANCISCO

6 VICTOR

7 REVELATIONS

8 THE FEAST

9 EXPLANATIONS

10 INTERLUDE

11 FURTHER EXPLANATIONS

12 MAKING CONTACT

13 CONNECTION

14 A NEW WORLD

15 DEAD END

16 THE OLD MAN

17 THE CITY

18 GUIDANCE

19 INTERRUPTION

20 THE PASSENGER

21 THE COUNCIL

22 BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

23 CONSCIOUSNESS

24 A FRESH START

25 SACRIFICE

26 ESCAPE

27 FINAL CONVERSATION

28 RETURN TO REALITY

29 RESURRECTION

30 DISTRUST

31 THE INTERVIEW

32 CLEMENTINE

33 DECIPHERING

34 THE NO-GO ZONE

35 A SIZABLE PROBLEM

36 THE LONG TREK

37 THE NETWORK

38 ROSALINE

 

 

1 THE TURNING POINT

 

The apartment was cramped. An unexpected guest could have easily described what the two of them had been up to for the last three days, from the vestiges of their home-body existence cluttering the place. It had to be said; merely dressing themselves or clearing the table was a challenge. And for good reason: living with a twin brother on a daily basis was no mean feat. It required constant compromise. Furthermore, as these brothers were joined at the abdomen, and knew it would always be so, life together could be quite a trial. However, it would be unfair to reduce their situation to such a simplistic observation. They had been living like this for over thirty years now; each had learned to cultivate his own uniqueness, which added a little spice to their life.

Jacques was a little gruff and sure of himself, whereas Charlie liked to lend himself a detached and distinguished air. While one of them was yelling in front of a football game on TV or watching a B-grade action movie, the other would be doing his best to concentrate on reading the latest literary prize-winning novel. Actually, no, that was not exactly it. To be fair on Jacques, he also read books occasionally. He was even quite a fan of some science fiction authors. Being a Siamese twin was not always easy, but all in all Jacques and Charlie did not fare too badly and were rarely bored. Even if there were only limited activities within their reach, they had long ago learned how to add a little interest to their otherwise very humdrum life. It was almost 11 o’clock on this particular day and nearly three hours since Jacques had stubbed out his last cigarette.

“Charlie, it’s nearly three hours since I had my last smoke.”

“So I’d noticed. If it could be a bit longer it wouldn’t bother me.”

“How do you always manage to stay so calm? It’s as if all the nicotine I inhale doesn’t reach you.”

“Of course it does. How could it not? It’s just that, unlike you, I know how to master my body and what it tries to impose on me. You know, by the way, that I strongly urge you to do the same. If you’ve read what’s written on your cigarette pack, you must know that ‘Smokers die younger’, and, ‘Smoking seriously harms you and others around you.’ In both cases, that means me.”

“Okay, I get it! That’s enough nagging. I hereby inform you that I’m going to put my book down, lift my butt off this couch and get some pants on as fast as I can. I’ve already waited too long.”

Charlie sighed.

“It’s no use arguing. Stop huffing and move.”

“Are you going to bother poor old Michel for your filthy cigarettes again?”

“Yup, that’s exactly what I’m going to do and you’re coming along, whether you like it or not.”

Michel was their next-door neighbor. Jacques, accompanied by his faithful other half, had rung the bell but, as usual, the man was slow in coming.

“I hope he’s not out. That’s all I need, for him to start getting at me too.”

At last the door opened. An acrid smell emanated from the apartment and slowly invaded the stairwell. A man in his fifties stood before them, rather surly, his face marked by drink and tobacco

“Hey, Twins, what’s up? You sick of hanging around in your rat hole?”

“I’ve run out of cigarettes. You know how it is. You get irritable, you can’t stand anyone anymore. Sometimes you even feel like stuffing your brother’s book of etiquette down his throat. You get the picture?”

“As you can see, Jacques is suffering from withdrawal, which is making him rather irritable.”

“Wait here. I’ll just get my coat on and I’ll drive you there. It’ll do me good to get out for a bit. Elisabeth isn’t home from work yet and I’m getting sick of waiting.”

Once Michel had disappeared, Jacques looked at Charlie with a smug grin.

“Okay, I know just what you’re thinking. Michel is very kind and he’s always been there for us. But I do think you could show a little gratitude instead of smirking.”

Jacques did not answer, preferring to savor his delight. At last Michel reappeared. As was often the case, he had donned black jeans and cowboy boots. The get-up had no doubt been the height of fashion in its time, but now seemed completely outdated, even ridiculous. Pointing this out would no doubt be futile. At best he would not take any notice; at worst he would be offended, but would not change his habits for anything in the world. It was one of those seemingly insignificant quirks which carry an unexpected weight of personal identity and which, it turns out, are better left well enough alone.

Even before entering the underground car park, the twins knew what was coming. Yet again, Michel crowed over his beautiful car, his pearl, his trophy. In a word, a precious little jewel of an Audi which, five years after its purchase, was still blowing the household budget. He was actually rather amusing, and both Jacques and Charlie were quite glad to be able to rely on him. His kindness and generosity helped them overlook the quirks of a poor soul with a destiny just as pathetic as their own. After listening patiently to his usual spiel, they got into the rear of the vehicle, being careful not to mark the still-shiny leather of the back seat. The maneuver was not easy and Michel helped them, very gently and carefully. The scenery slipped slowly by Charlie’s attentive gaze. Michel, for his part, gave a running commentary on the radio news. Looking up at the central rearview mirror, he spoke to the twins.

“Wouldn’t you like to learn to drive one day?”

“How do you think we’d manage that? Charlie at the wheel and me operating the pedals, is that it?”

“Joking aside, it’s not that we wouldn’t like to be a little more independent, but it’s beyond us. It will never happen, unfortunately.”

“These days they make specially adapted vehicles. Maybe there would be something for you.”

“You think so?”

“It’s possible. In any case, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Wouldn’t you like a nice little city car like this one? Owning a car gives you freedom, and if you spend enough it can even be a little slice of heaven. Look, I bought this one over five years ago and she’s still as nice as new. You just need to take good care of her, pamper her. Above all, you need to make sure you take her to a good garage. If you take old Michel’s advice, at least she will be faithful to you for a good ten years, minimum. I could give you some good addresses if you like. Are you scared or what?”

“Maybe.”

“What do you mean, Charlie? He’s talking trash. It’s got nothing to do with fear; it’s mainly a financial issue. With our only income being a ridiculous little invalid’s pension we’ll never be able to afford a specially adapted car – maybe a moped, if we’re lucky.”

Jacques was quiet for a moment before hammering on, “Anything custom-made is incredibly expensive. As well as finding the money, we’d have to fill out a ton of forms, put together a file to show we’re eligible for financial assistance, and that’s just the start. That sort of thing’s not for me. My brother maybe, but in that case I’d have to be willing to go along and personally, I refuse to do a whole song and dance routine just to validate my rights. Think of all those people in wheelchairs! They’ve been fighting for years, so the powers that be will get them proper sidewalks and ramps into buildings, and they’re only just starting to get their act together now. And there are lots of those people, tons of them. There are even rich people who end up in a wheelchair, so you see, extremely rare cases like ours, they don’t really care about us.”

“You sound bitter, Jacques. You shouldn’t be so negative. Things are changing. It just takes time, that’s all. You know, I believe we never can tell what life has in store for us. Sometimes there are really nice surprises just around the corner.”

“Yeah, or really bad ones!”

Michel had already passed by three tobacconists. He finally pulled up in front of The Naked Bar. Clementine was looking her best and welcomed them with a radiant smile.

“A packet of Gauloises for Jacques please, lovely Clementine. You’re looking resplendent today. You make me think of a poem by Verlaine.”

“Really? You’re such a romantic, Charlie.”

Charlie assumed his most cultivated voice as his brother looked on, horrified, and launched into one of those effusions he so prided himself in.

“’The violins blended their laughter with the song of the flutes/ And the ball was in full swing when I saw her passing by/ With her blond hair playing on the spirals of her ear/ Where my desire like a kiss sprung forward/ And wanted to speak to her, not daring to…’”

Jacques could not suppress a groan. He had never been able to stand seeing his brother make a fool of himself playing Don Juan, when their physical appearance was quite simply repulsive. He felt badly for Charlie, when he threw himself into exercises in style from a bygone era. But Charlie had not finished reciting his poem.

“’Nevertheless, she went, and the slow mazurka/ Carried her in its indolent rhythm like a verse/ – Melodious rhyme, sparkling image…’”

Clementine, on the other hand, seemed to appreciate this nonsense. At least, if it wasn’t so, she was quite skillfully leading him to believe it was.

“You’re making me blush, Charlie. You’re the only one who says such nice things to me. If only all men were like you. I know some who could take a leaf out of your book.”

Behind them, a mother and daughter were waiting. The little girl, with long, brown hair, wore thick, round glasses staunchly planted on her surprisingly large, slightly snubbed nose. Her rather portly mother was tightly swathed in a sea-green suit, topped off with a leopard-spotted scarf for best effect. Her elegance was not open for discussion.

“Mummy, what’s wrong with those men?”

“Hush, darling.”

Jacques turned around, bringing Charlie with him, cutting short his flirtatious enterprise.

“Why ‘Hush’? There’s nothing wrong with us, kid! We’re stuck to each other because we go well together. That’s all.”

“This is the way nature made us,” answered Charlie. His index finger raised, and his tone grave, he was preparing to launch into a most knowledgeable lecture when the large lady interrupted him.

“You must excuse her, Gentlemen. She’s never seen any…”

“Wait. Let me guess. Monsters, maybe? Is that it? Unless it could be… Yes. That’s it! A freak of nature!”

Jacques’ tone was noticeably more aggressive, far from the unnecessary, but often funny, jibes he was so well versed in.

“Oh! Come along, darling, let’s go. I’ve heard enough of this. If I were you, I’d be a little more discreet.”

“Snob!”

Charlie was trying to catch his brother’s eye.

“You know very well I can’t stand it when you behave like that! What did that little girl ever do to you, Jacques? You always have to feel threatened by the way people look at you. Do you see me hassling everybody? It makes me cringe. It’s not at all the image I like to project. I know you couldn’t care less, and it’s such a shame. You’re exasperating!”

“Keep your advice to yourself, Mr. Poet. I don’t want to discuss it. Not today.”

Jacques scowled. His face was tense, still under the effects of his outburst. Of course the little girl had done him no wrong, but his analysis was basically correct. She was undoubtedly a well-educated, conservative, little rich kid. Too conservative perhaps, to understand one day what a man like him – a monster to mere mortal eyes – had been through, in order to grow as a person. Too conservative to comprehend all the trouble and sorrow that jeopardized his identity and self-worth a little more every day. Actually, she probably didn’t deserve any better, and her mother had ended up speaking her true mind quite cruelly. “If I were you, I’d be a little more discreet.” Well no, Jacques actually thought the exact opposite – to Charlie’s disapproval. The anger slowly subsided, giving way to a deep feeling of disgust and uneasiness.

“Hey, it doesn’t matter,” said Michel. “You’re just a little nervy today. Come on, I’ll buy you both a drink. It’ll help you relax.”

He looked at Clementine.

“Don’t worry, Clementine. They’re a bit uptight at the moment, but it’ll pass. Sorry about your client.”

“Never mind. The atmosphere is a bit tense these days. She’ll get over it, don’t worry about that. Go take a seat. I’ll come and take your order.

Charlie was also watching the young woman’s reaction carefully, but he understood from what he observed that she was taking it all with much kindness and consideration. They sat down at a little table at the rear of the bar, facing the television, which was showing the results of the day’s horse races.

“In five minutes they’ll be broadcasting live the results of the Vincennes Quinté. Today I put everything on Bernice, an outsider, at thirty to one odds. If I win, I’ll make a killing, my friends. I’ll buy you that car! After that, all we’ll need is to find you a chick and you’ll have it made.”

“Oh well done, Michel. What a tactful remark!”

“Ah, come on, Jacques. We can have a little joke, can’t we? Seriously. Haven’t you ever thought about it?”

“About what?”

“What do you think, Charlie?”

“You mean… getting married?”

“Maybe not, but at least meeting a girl, or maybe… two?

Jacques had finally lit a cigarette. For a few moments he savored the relaxation it brought him then began to answer the question in a light-hearted tone.

“It seems complicated to me. A ménage à trois is always complicated. And we’d have to find an understanding soul who wasn’t too particular.”

“Someone like Clementine perhaps…”

Those were the last words Michel ever uttered.

“Jacques… Jacques…”

The cloud of dust, still thick and suffocating, obscured the bodies. Charlie could hear a strident, painful whine resonating in the depths of his brain, as if it were trying to pierce it through and through, until it burst. It was impossible to move, to open his eyes and survey the disaster while this unbearable pain would not let him alone.

A good ten minutes passed before his muscles would relax completely. Silence. A deathly silence had just crept in. Then nothing. No more laughter, no more raised voices; even those awful noises – first the explosion then that dreadful, interminable whine – had disappeared.

Finally, Charlie opened his eyes. Jacques’ head was slumped forward, motionless, covered in a thick layer of dust. Charlie attempted feebly to get up, without success. His only view was of Jacques’ partially open, horrified eyes. His face was pallid, expressionless. Was he dead? No, impossible. He couldn’t explain how or why, but Charlie could still feel his brother’s life flowing through his own veins. He was certainly alive. But for how much longer?

“Help! Help me!”

He recognized the voice immediately. In a sudden, impulsive movement, he tried to get up, and then thought better of it. One false move and his Jacques’ neck could snap, putting an end to their miserable existence.

“I’m over here.”

“Charlie? Is that you?”

It was Clementine’s voice coming from behind her counter. Her haggard face was streaked with long runs of blood, but the cloud of dust still hanging in the air meant Charlie could not see her.

“Yes. Come and help me. Jacques is unconscious and I can’t move. He’s still breathing.”

“Keep talking to me. Don’t stop! I’m going to try and follow the sound of your voice.”

“I don’t want to die, Clementine. Not today. Not like this. I’m afraid for Jacques.”

“Don’t be silly. He’s going to live. You’re going to live, too.” Her voice thick with tears, the young woman searched for words to reassure him.

“What about the others?”

“The others…”

Clementine picked her way through the bodies. Charlie listened in silence to her sobs and frightened cries each time she came into contact with one of her dead, mutilated clients or friends. With his head on the side, he couldn’t see her coming. He could only hear her and it was not until she put her hand on his shoulder that at last he could see her face, twisted with fear.

“They’re all dead, Charlie. All of them.”

“And Michel?”

“He’s gone, too. I’m sorry.”

She fell to her knees beside him. Charlie could not do anything for her. Once again, he found himself reduced to helplessness. He could only use words to help her get a grip on reality. Words, mere words, when he would have liked to hold her and pull her out of all this horror, carry her far away from here, take her under his wing.

“And you? You’re not injured?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“But you’re bleeding?”

Clementine brushed her hand over her face and looked at the mixture of blood and dust that covered her fingers.

“It’s nothing serious; at least I don’t think so.”

“We’re going to be okay, Clementine. Leave us here. Go find some help.”

Outside, smoke stretched as far as the eye could see in the city. Absolute silence reigned, and bodies were strewn all over the pavement. Through the window she could see Charlie watching her carefully, slumped amidst the debris with Jacques. From this distance she could not see if he was crying too, but the scene was unbearable. She turned on her heels, went back into what was left of her bar and made her way toward him, determinedly. A smile crept across Charlie’s face. From that moment on, she would never leave him alone again. He said nothing, and neither did she. He simply let her maneuver him, which she did very gently. Charlie helped her as best he could, but Jacques’ inert body made the operation difficult. Once he was upright, they managed to find their balance, and Clementine took them in her arms before bursting into tears again. He was remembering Michel’s sentence, “You know, I believe we never can tell what life has in store for us.” For now, nothing else existed; all that mattered was this moment and everything it meant to him. For the first time, a young woman was crying in his arms. Maybe he was going to die soon, but she was here, pressed against him. She had come back to get him, get them. In a soft, calm voice, he whispered in her ear.

“Pull yourself together. We need to go now. Thank you. Thank you, Clementine.”

Regaining her composure, she began to walk slowly, with Charlie leaning on her, doing his best to lighten his weight. He had tremendous difficulty moving without Jacques’ help but, forgetting their physical pain, they managed to keep moving onward for nearly an hour without saying a single word. Around them, nothing seemed to move. The atmosphere was strange, as if all these corpses were not real, as if it were a bad dream that would soon come to an end. It had to. Oh, Jacques! Why did you have to leave me now? thought Charlie.

Clementine finally broke the silence.

“What has happened?”

“I don’t know, Clementine. I have no more idea than you. What could have caused such a disaster? Maybe some sort of attack or industrial accident, unless war has broken out. I don’t really care. I just want to get my brother to hospital. That’s all that matters for now.”

“We’ve been walking for almost an hour and I still haven’t seen a single survivor.”

“Let’s keep looking. We have to get out of this hellhole eventually. Let’s stop thinking and just keep moving forward.”

“Sorry, Charlie. I just don’t think I can handle it. I…” She did not have time to finish her sentence. The muffled drone of a helicopter flying over the street had just interrupted her.

“At last! We’re saved! We’re saved, Charlie. We’re saved!”

She shouted as loudly as she could in its direction, frantically waving her arms. The aircraft, which had just flown past them, finally turned back. A man clad in a white jumpsuit and gas mask, called to them, megaphone in hand.

“Stay where you are! We will inform emergency services of your position. They will come and collect you as soon as possible.”

The helicopter continued on its way without further ado. Charlie and Clementine sat down side by side, patiently awaiting their rescuers. Relieved, she put her arms around him and lay her head on his shoulder. For his part, he was impatient and edgy, anxious to have Jacques treated as soon as possible. Clementine was holding him tenderly, which was what he had always dreamed of, but again, happiness eluded him.

Once more, an imposing silence fell. The cloud of dust was beginning to dissipate, and the sun finally made an appearance through the thick cloud cover. An old pigeon with straggly feathers landed on the sidewalk, right next to them. It wandered around for a moment, and then flew away again. A few seconds later, a voice spoke in Charlie’s head.

Are you worried about me?”

I’m going crazy, he thought.

No, Charlie. You’re not crazy; it’s me, your brother.”

Charlie turned to look at Jacques, but his head was still immobile, showing no sign of life. Petrified, he turned quickly toward Clementine again. His heart was racing at a terrifying rate, an all-too-familiar sensation.

“Talk to me. I don’t feel at all well. I can hear Jacques’ voice. Something’s wrong. I know it. I’m losing my mind! Please, tell me something, anything, but say it quickly. I’m going to pass out!” Charlie was spilling the words out at top speed.

“What’s wrong, Charlie? Don’t panic, you’re still in shock, that’s all. Everything’s going to be okay, you’ll see. The doctors will bring him back to us and everything will be like it was before. Calm down. The ambulance can’t be far off now.”

But the voice in Charlie’s head spoke again, “Don’t be scared, Charlie. I don’t know how all this happened, but I’ve just come to, and thanks to you, I’m still alive, even if we don’t have control of my muscles again yet. Hang in there. I need your help now more than ever.”

In the distance, the echo of ambulance sirens could be heard, and a fleet of vehicles rapidly invaded the street. One pulled up in front of them. Two paramedics got out.

“You are going to be fine, now. Come with us. Are you alone? Have you come across any other survivors?”

“No,” replied Clementine, “no one.”

“Take care of my brother first, he’s unconscious.”

“Don’t worry, sir. You’re going to be fine. Let me put this mask on you. We’re going to put you on oxygen until we reach the hospital, where you’ll be treated as soon as possible.”

“Give the mask to him. I’m fine.”

“We have enough masks for all of you.”

Charlie lay down on the stretcher and relaxed. Clementine sat beside him as the ambulance took off, its siren screaming. Through the window they could see the streets running past, with survivors here and there, coming out of the buildings, one by one. The further they drove, the more people they saw in the streets. At last they came to a zone which had not been touched by the disaster, where life seemed to be carrying on as usual. For now, Charlie was calm, relieved. He was letting himself be carried like a baby, pretty much as he had always done, once again entrusting his life to the hands of unknown strangers. They were taking care of everything, and everything would work out, as always.

You see, Clementine, we’re going to make it.”

“Who are you talking to, Jacques?” he answered under his breath. “She can’t hear you. Just relax, wait and see.”

Charlie fell asleep, lying on the stretcher; while Clementine, sitting nearby, watched over them as she would have her own children if she had had any.

 

 

2 TAKING OFF

 

Jacques had woken up the day before, a little confused, but apparently in relatively good health. He had pulled out of a strange sort of coma – generalized motor paralysis –which had impeded all voluntary movement, including eye movement. They had already been in hospital for over a week. The loss of consciousness in and of itself had been quite brief, only a few hours, but the doctors did not know about that. Charlie preferred to keep silent on that point, worried that they would think he was crazy, or treat him like a guinea-pig, two scenarios which his past made him fear more than anything. For the first time since their admission to the hospital, they were allowed to step outside, accompanied by Clementine. Their actual return home was not planned for several more days yet. They would have to wait a little longer, while the doctors watched for possible symptoms of post traumatic stress syndrome; symptoms which, they were told, could sometimes be delayed. What “home”, anyway? Did they still have one? They had not the slightest idea. At best, they would find an apartment covered in that fine dust which infiltrated everywhere and even made its way into the middle of wardrobes and clothes. An apartment which they would need to set straight quickly, but with whose help? Michel was dead, now. The same was almost certainly true of the rest of their friends; friends, or rather contacts, who could already have been counted on the fingers of one hand and who would no longer be counted at all. Only Clementine was left, but for how much longer?

The three of them sat in silence in front of the hospital, attentively observing the constant coming and going of ambulances to the Emergency Room. A little further on, life seemed to have returned to normal in the city. People walked with hurried steps, eyes averted, without speaking; they only looked at each other or smiled when absolutely necessary. Two nurses were smoking in front of the entrance to the maternity department. Ambulance horns and sirens filled the air once again, but the deathly silence which had reigned following the terrifying noise of the explosion, lingered in their minds. It had been a leaden silence; the streets emptied of all human life for mile upon mile; a dead, petrified town; the timeless experience would be forever engraved in their memory. Today, at last, they were resurfacing in an inhabited, living, noisy world, which seemed strange, or rather, foreign, as if they no longer really belonged in it. They remained silent, fluctuating between the impression of a return to normal, which should have been reassuring; and the anxiety of having lost everything, of having to rebuild, without knowing where or how to begin. They felt more alone than ever, after years spent trying so hard to be accepted, building up piece by piece, one by one, a small but precious social network, which had just collapsed in a few seconds, like a crude house of cards. It was Charlie who broke the silence first.

“Well! What now? What shall we do?”

“I don’t know! Maybe we could start by asking those two nurses for a cigarette, and then we could take some time to think things over.”

“Leave it to me, I’ll ask them for you. They’re more likely to give me one, and the doctors specifically said you were to avoid all physical effort for a few more days.” Clementine stood up, before adding, “You must realize that smoking is not exactly recommended for people in your state.”

“What is recommended for our state?”

“What about you, Charlie? You don’t mind?”

“No, go ahead, let him have his smoke. I think I may even join him in his vice, if it comes to that.”

But Clementine did not have time to act. An army vehicle and a black limousine pulled up in front of them. Three uniformed men and a woman in plain clothes got out. The young woman, a pretty, athletic brunette with short hair, spoke in a polite but firm tone.

“My name is Hanna. I work for the French Secret Service. Please get your belongings together as quickly as possible and come with me.”

“Actually, we are wearing all our belongings, I’m afraid.”

“Very well, in that case, let’s not waste any more time.”

“I think there must be some mistake. I fail to see how we could be of any use to you. And for the time being, we are under strict orders not to leave the hospital.”

“There is no possible mistake, sir.”

“What about Clementine?”

“She will be coming with you. We have a few questions to ask you, and then you will be free to go home. The medical staff will be informed of your departure. There’s no need to worry about that, we will take care of it. Now, let’s be on our way, if you please!”

They followed Hanna to the car and got into the back seat, while the young woman took her seat next to the driver. A two-way mirror separated the front of the limousine from the back seat, so that for the duration of the trip their only view was their own reflection. Profound silence reigned in the vehicle, barely broken by the vibrations of the road and the dull roar of the engine. Even Jacques did not dare to break the silence. The image of the twins and Clementine in the mirror only served to add to the strangeness of the situation, as they had nowhere else to look. After a few minutes, Hanna’s voice came over the speakers.

“We will be arriving soon.”

She could be a little more forthcoming. I wonder what interest they could really have in questioning us.”

“They’re probably recording the testimonies of all the survivors for their inquiry.”

If he could have, Charlie would have liked to answer Jacques without speaking audibly, too, but this new gift was one of the rare things which they did not share.

It was Clementine’s turn to speak.

“Do you think they’ll really let us go as soon as they’ve finished questioning us?”

“Of course! Don’t worry. It’s just an interview to help with their inquiry.”

Jacques spoke aloud, “How should he know?”

“Oh, because you know something about it, do you?”

“No more than you do. But if I were you, I wouldn’t jump to conclusions.”

After several long minutes the vehicle finally came to a stop. The right rear door opened, letting in a blinding light. The features of Hanna’s face were backlit.

“Here we are. You can get out.”

Clementine went first. The tension had just risen another notch, becoming almost tangible. They were walking over the grounds of a small aero-club, and just in front of them was a chrome-colored jet, marked with the initials E.T.I.

“Climb aboard, please.”

“Wait a minute! What’s all this about? We were just supposed to answer a few questions about the accident. Where are you taking us?”

“Don’t worry, Jacques. You can trust me. We will tell you more once we’ve arrived.”

Now things are getting seriously complicated. We’re going to have to stick together. I don’t like that woman at all!”

Charlie answered him in a whisper, “Thanks for telling me, but for once in our lives, something exciting is happening! Just enjoy the moment. I get the impression that the time has finally come for you do something worthwhile.”

I admit that the prospect of boarding a Secret Service plane is quite exciting, but…”

It was obvious that Clementine did not share that opinion. Charlie noticed her reluctance immediately, but could not imagine continuing without her.

“Come on, Clementine,” he said quickly and firmly. “I don’t think they’re really giving us any choice.”

Charlie, who was not usually inclined to venture off the beaten track, suddenly felt strangely exhilarated. It was probably his taste for the theatrical coming to the fore. Perhaps too, he simply did not want to look back. The interior of the plane was very spacious and comfortable. Muted opera music made for a relaxed atmosphere and soon an attractive hostess approached them.

“Please be seated and fasten your seatbelts during take-off. I’ll be along shortly with some refreshments for you.”

“Thank you. It won’t be a long flight, I presume?”

The hostess, still smiling, ignored Charlie’s question and returned to the front of the aircraft where she took a seat and fastened her safety belt. There she remained, facing them, with a fixed smile; carefully adopting an elegant posture, back straight and shoulders back. Clementine was silent. She did not seem particularly relaxed, but rather resigned to following an imposed plan of action. Besides, she knew that they needed her now more than ever. Their self-assurance and confident talk were for appearances; a façade that served to hide acute fragility and, she thought, a naivety that made them an easy, defenseless prey. She did not know what awaited them but she would be there to face it with them, with all the skills and devices that a woman is capable of using in her relationships.

While Charlie was focused on the take-off, both nervous and fascinated by this new experience, Jacques was carefully observing the magnificent hostess, with her impassive face, like a wax statue whose smile has been permanently sculpted. After a few seconds, the plane’s blinds were lowered, preventing Charlie from continuing his contemplation. The young woman roused herself to bring them cold drinks and snacks. Twenty minutes later, the three companions fell into a deep sleep, induced by the sedatives she had carefully placed in their glasses and which quickly took effect.

 

…Jacques was sitting beside a charming young lady reading a women’s magazine. She had her legs crossed and her head down, so he could not make out her face. He was wearing a black suit, and had a small, metallic briefcase handcuffed to his arm. They were both in the front row of what vaguely resembled a commercial airliner, apart from the plane’s gigantic dimensions. Behind them, were hundreds of rows of passengers, as far as the eye could see. Jacques could not see the people’s faces clearly, any more than he could see the features of the young woman seated beside him. The plane’s windows were huge, too, but their opaque glass only let in a very filtered, bluish light, creating an eerie atmosphere. Nevertheless, Jacques was not frightened; simply surprised to find himself there without knowing where he really was. Something else was bothering him. He felt deep down that something was missing. He felt lighter and especially free, despite the strange, enclosed space in which he found himself. He could not explain it; it was simply a feeling that, in a split second, became his primary concern.

After a moment of contemplation and hesitation, Jacques decided to strike up a conversation with his neighbor, albeit a little nervously. He seemed to know her from somewhere, but could not remember precisely where.

“Excuse me. I’m sorry to interrupt your reading. This might seem crazy, but I can’t remember where we’re flying to. To tell the truth, I’m not really sure what I’m doing here, or even where we are.”

The young woman slowly looked up at Jacques, who was horrified to discover a wax face with a big, fixed smile, shimmering with pale pink gloss. He stared at those lips. They seemed to be the only human, fleshly thing he could latch onto for the moment. Very soon, all that filled his mind was the image of those luscious lips, with their pale, yet provocative shade of pink. The rest of her face became more and more blurry, as did the area around it, until it all disappeared completely in a halo of light which slowly faded.

Now he was alone in a wilderness which he quickly realized was the surface of the Moon. His feet were deep in dust so fine he felt as if he were walking through flour. All around him there was nothing but flour as far as the eye could see, forming here and there hills and little canyons. Looking up, he saw the Earth. It seemed to him to be an enormous, reassuring and welcoming, blue ball. He remembered footage of Neil Armstrong taking his first steps on the moon, and the giant leaps he had made, being free of his earthly weight. So Jacques began to jump, higher and higher, deliriously happy. He felt as light as air, and was soon flying over the lunar mountains and plains, until he fell into a muddy hole, which he could not manage to climb out of. His body became heavier, and the more he struggled, the further he sank into a sort of slimy paste, where he was probably going to be trapped forever. Seized with panic, he began to yell with all his might, as if anyone could hear him here, alone out in space. That was when he noticed a slim silhouette in the distance, slowly drawing nearer. The silhouette was still too far away for him to identify who or what it was, but now he could hear a soft voice saying, “Is everything okay, sir?”

Jacques opened his eyes and found himself face to face with the beautiful hostess who had just been haunting his dreams. Now, her face was quite real and her permanent smile had given way to an expression full of gentleness and compassion.

“I’m fine, thank you. Perhaps you could help move me into a better position. My brother, Charlie, seems to be sleeping soundly, and the position we have gotten into is not very comfortable.”

 

 

3 HEAT

 

A few hours later, the plane came in to land on an atoll in the Pacific. The small strip of land, marooned in the middle of the ocean, was cut in two by a long, dusty runway. The fronds of the sparse coconut palms lining the runway were waving vigorously, buffeted by the trade wind. Their first breaths carried the odor of damp earth, mingled with the smell of kerosene. The moist, heavy atmosphere saturated their lungs. They were almost suffocating, as if the air were not actually breathable, being so full of humidity and different aromas. They were aromas tinged with earthy scents, woody aromas similar to those sometimes smelled after heavy rain has just washed the hot soil of a forest. Added to these was the pungent odor of kerosene. The strong wind made no difference; on the contrary, it skimmed over their faces and limbs, enveloping them in a constant, uniform heat bringing no relief or respite. They were a very long way from home; there was no doubt about that. The shock to their senses did not end there, either. They had just been plunged abruptly into a sea of light and colors so vivid they were almost fluorescent. The blue of the ocean was especially intense, a multitude of variegated hues, each one brighter than the last. Clementine, following the others, came to the realization that she was in no hurry to get home.

On the tarmac, a uniformed man was waiting to welcome them. They set off again without further ado, in a simple jeep, and quickly arrived at the nearest beach. There, a military barge awaited them, and the man drove on board, without a word. Neither the twins nor Clementine bothered to ask where they were, or even where they were going. Anyway, it was too late to change this course of events, which seemed to have been carefully planned. The moist, heavy heat which had reigned until now was slowly replaced by lukewarm air, cooled by the sea breeze and the spray. The clear, luminescent water revealed dark coral heads sitting on the sandy seabed not far below them. After a few minutes, the water darkened suddenly, giving way to a much deeper blue. The barge had just left the shallows of the coral plateau and entered the blue waters of the Ocean.

“Where do you think they’re taking us?”

“I don’t know, Jacques, but I can’t see anything on the horizon except the vastness of the ocean. I must say; I’m not too comfortable with the thought of sailing on like this, far from the shore. Remember, we’ve never learned to swim, and for good reason –”

“Yes, because of fear!” Jacques interrupted, a little sharply. “If I remember rightly, you were the one who refused to stick at it. Michel had kindly offered to teach us in the city pools but our initiation never made it past the changing rooms, because you were so afraid of exhibiting yourself, or of sinking like a stone. You didn’t even try, so don’t go complaining to me now. It’s too late.”

“I don’t feel too good at all, Jacques. Are you feeling hot, too?” Charlie loosened his shirt collar in a rough, clumsy gesture. Then Jacques realized that his brother was in urgent need of reassurance, which he offered in his own way.

“Calm down, Charlie! Let’s trust our lucky star. It won’t let us down now, after all we’ve been through together. Remember the day when we slipped in the bath? I had my head under water and you were in a panic. It took you over a minute to decide to act. You were squealing like a stuck pig, rather than thinking about how to get me out of there. If I survived that, trust me, we are going to survive this little boat trip. Just enjoy the salt air – get a good lungful!”

Charlie said nothing, but followed this advice, a little sheepishly. After a few minutes’ sailing, they came to a large, metallic buoy, partially submerged in the waves. The soldiers moored the barge to it then one of them approached the jeep.

“You may get out now. Take your personal belongings and go stand at the bow. Someone will be along to pick you up in a moment.”

“Who will pick us up, and where will they take us?” asked Jacques.

“You’re expected on the sub-marine base of Mataiva, situated just below your feet. They’ll be surfacing in a moment to collect you.”

“Look!” cried Clementine.

A second, metallic sphere, had just surfaced near the barge. It was slightly larger than the mooring buoy, and resembled an enormous, steel ball. It was metallic gray, and fitted with several, especially thick, portholes. A heavy door opened, revealing a small passenger compartment.

“Climb aboard. There is only enough room for the three of you. They are expecting you below. It only takes a few minutes to reach the base.”

The ball plunged straight down, pulled into the depths by a long cable, which seemed interminable. The twins and Clementine were speechless, their eyes riveted on the unbelievable sight before them. After a few seconds’ descent into the deep, night fell. Only a small point of light remained visible, directly below the bathyscaphe. The light approached very rapidly until the point of contact. Finally the sphere penetrated a vertical tunnel dug in the rock which lined the ocean floor. A few seconds later it came to a halt, and the heavy door opened in the midst of an enormous chamber. A crowd of people were bustling in all directions and, facing them, stood an elderly man with white hair.

 

 

4 MEETING GIUSEPPE

 

He was an elderly gentleman in a blue lab coat. His snowy-white, shoulder-length hair was slightly tousled. He addressed them in a warm, friendly voice, with a pronounced Italian accent.

“Hello, Gentlemen, I have been looking forward to meeting you!” The old man seemed extremely pleased, and so eager to meet the twins that he did not even notice the presence of Clementine. His accent gave him a jovial, reassuring air.

“Your trip must have been tiring. I will show you to your room so you can have some refreshments and rest for a few hours. We will talk when you wake up.” He turned briskly and walked toward the vehicle parked in front of the door to the bathyscaphe.

“That’s very kind of you, but I highly doubt that sleep is our priority right at this moment?” answered Jacques. “Perhaps you could start by telling us who you are, and above all, what we’re doing here?”

“Ah! Yes, you are right. I didn’t introduce myself. I am Professor Giuseppe Milan. I am in charge of the N.H.I., or Non Human Intelligence, Program. Rest assured, I will explain everything in due course. Suffice it to say that we have need of you, and you alone.”

“And Clementine?”

“Your friend is here for your support. She knows you well, from what I have been told. Am I right?”

No one took the time to answer him. The twins, breaking with their usual habit, invited Clementine to get into the vehicle first. She sat in silence. The car first crossed a huge, artificially lit auditorium, before entering a tunnel, several miles long, and entirely made of windows. Giuseppe took advantage of the trip to present the base and its workings to them.

“As you have probably realized, we are on a secret military base here. There are nearly 1000 meters of water and several hundred meters of rock over us. Through these windows you can see our soil-free gardens which provide food for the whole complex. Plants, fungi and protein-rich seaweed are grown here thanks to the expertise of our engineers and bio technicians. Our objective is for all of the more than 10,000 men to be able to live in total self-sufficiency. Our water is continually recycled, but for now we still need a regular supply of fresh water, which we obtain from sea water through a desalination plant.”

Charlie was astonished and obviously fascinated by all this technology. He was grinning from ear to ear, revealing the somewhat childish delight of someone who cannot, or does not event try to, hide his pleasure when presented with something new or extraordinary.

“This is incredible, especially as it’s so huge! The ceilings are so high; it’s hard to imagine that we’re underground.”

If I were you, I’d be more concerned about finding out why all these people want to live forever after in total self-sufficiency, cut off from the world, under millions of cubic meters of rock and water. You’ll have plenty of time for amazement later. Something tells me that we’re not getting out of here any time soon – if ever!”

“120 hectares to be precise”, continued Giuseppe. “We are now entering the residential zone. There are more than 4,000 dwellings here, arranged in districts. You will be in room 3727 and your friend will be in number 3728. Your room is part of a sub-group called ‘Hubble 37’. This one is particularly spacious. It is made up of only 28 rooms which all open onto a common living area. Some residential domes have up to 130 rooms, but no personnel outside of the team can enter here without special permission. This pavilion is reserved for researchers from the cybernetic unit, which I will tell you about in more detail after your rest. They all know about your coming and are impatient to meet you. Here we are!”

The vehicle pulled up in front of one of the numerous steel domes situated along the main road. This one, along with all the others, must have been fifty meters’ high. It had no windows. Only one enormous door provided access to it. The door, like the dome, was made of a very dense metal which showed no irregularities or traces of oxidation, despite the humid atmosphere of the base. Giuseppe pulled up in front of the huge, metallic door. In its center was a second, smaller door, of a different style. It was not as rounded, or as smooth and seemed incompatible with the rest of the dome. The metal it was made of seemed slightly different and showed traces of rust. A simple brass plaque carried the name, “Hubble 37”. The door opened automatically as the vehicle approached, and they could see the interior of the dome.

They entered an inner court where several vehicles of the same type were parked. The rocky walls were lined with plants, over which a thin stream of water was trickling, its sound making for a peaceful atmosphere. A few brightly colored flowers showed here and there, contrasting with the different shades of green that covered the walls. Only the rather low, very luminous ceiling gave away the totally artificial nature of the place. Giuseppe got out of the vehicle and this time spoke to Clementine first, as he opened the door for her.

“Here we are, Miss. Now, please follow me; I will show you where you will be staying with some of my friends.”

Jacques and Charlie followed suit and also climbed out of the vehicle, rather clumsily. In so doing, Jacques bumped his head hard on the roof of the car.

“Ouch! Damn it! You could be a bit more careful, Charlie! What’s the hurry? I’m here, too, remember!”

“I’m so sorry! I wasn’t paying attention.”

“I I’m in the way, just say so. I know you’re taking your mission seriously, but you might just need to keep your feet on the ground.”

“Listen, stop all your fussing. You’re going to get us in trouble. For once just keep quiet and take an interest in what’s happening to the three of us.”

Jacques, surprised by his brother’s confidence, and a little put out, decided to keep quiet and follow his advice. Giuseppe opened a door which led to the interior of the dome. The pavilion’s 28 rooms were arranged around a large, slightly raised circle, in the middle of which was a sort of metallic plate of impressive size, fixed to the ground. The area was well-lit and the height of the dome alleviated the feeling of confinement. Hanging gardens partially filled the space over the dwellings. They were actually small, landscaped platforms suspended by cables, with partially glass-bottomed floors. Their arrangement on several levels allowed the light coming from the high parts of the dome to be diffused perfectly.

“It’s astonishing, isn’t it? We have organized these pavilions so as to limit the feeling of confinement. When they have a little leisure time, residents can take time out to relax in one of our suspended solariums. It’s the best remedy we have found to counter the effects of stress resulting from living in an enclosed space in the absence of natural light. Of course, their use is limited to one hour per day so that each person can take advantage of them as his schedule allows.”

“How do they get up there?” asked Charlie, amazed at the beauty and the impression of lightness given off by the whole infrastructure.

As he spoke, one of the gondolas began its descent. The long steel cables slowly lengthened and lowered it toward a sort of slightly raised landing, situated over the canteen.

“Well now, I think you have just found the answer to your question. How fortuitous; that’s Francisco who’s just come down. You’re in luck; he’ll be relaxed when he meets you. Let us join him in the canteen.”

“How can they tell who is in that gondola?” Charlie said softly. “With all the vegetation, you can only make out a vague silhouette.”

Giuseppe, who had heard him, answered, “You can discern a series of small, differently colored lights along the underside of every gondola. Each resident has a color code which allows him to be identified when he goes somewhere. In fact, there are eight small diodes of variable color, which means exactly 40,320 possible combinations. Currently, that is largely sufficient to cover all of the individuals working on this base. It seems unbelievable, but after a while, the eyes adjust and begin to recognize the algorithm in the same way as they would identify a mere shade of color. Otherwise, one may always consult the digital chart just in front of you,” he added with a smile. Émile will process your enrolments as soon as we have finished our tour.”

Do you think you’re allowed to smoke here? Ask him if you can smoke in the recreation areas.”

“I guess I’ve never known you to hold on for so long. I wasn’t thinking about it, but now that you mention it, Jacques, the idea of being completely nicotine-deprived doesn’t thrill me.”

“Good! Go on then, ask him the question!”

They were entering the canteen. A sign stood before them, obviously strategically placed. It said in large letters: SMOKING IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED IN THE CANTEEN.

If it’s prohibited in the canteen then it must be permitted elsewhere. Ask him.”

Charlie answered softly, “You’re wearing me out, carrying on like a kid. Take some responsibility – ask him yourself!”

“Is something wrong, Gentlemen?”

Clementine quickly answered for them, afraid that Giuseppe might discover Jacques’ new gift. “No, no, nothing. Everything’s fine. Charlie sometimes has moments of confusion when he talks to himself.”

Jacques quickly added, “Yes, he sometimes goes a bit weird, but he soon comes round again.” Then he spoke to his brother again in a loud voice, adopting an obviously condescending tone, “Don’t stress! If you’re worried about whether smoking is allowed on the base, you just need to ask. I’m sure Giuseppe would be quite happy to answer, wouldn’t you, Giuseppe?”

“Yes, of course. Don’t worry about that. There are specially designated areas for smoking. However, only electronic cigarettes are permitted here. You can pick one up from the pavilion’s concierge.”

Charlie wore a sardonic smile, pleased to have found some revenge for the way his brother had just thumbed his nose at him. Jacques was clearly unhappy with the idea of having to forgo real tobacco. Clementine, who was used to their pranks, smiled broadly for the first time in a long while, to the great pleasure of the twins, who had been starting to miss their usual audience.

Inside, the canteen was quite pleasant. A dozen men were eating in a rather noisy atmosphere. Through the hubbub of conversation it was possible to distinguish several languages. The loudest group were the Italians, who had put several tables together in the middle of the room. A little off to the side, a small group of Asians were eating at one table, while a Hispanic-looking man, sitting alone, seemed to be engrossed in reading his book.

 

 

5 FRANCISCO

 

Little by little, the noise subsided and all eyes turned toward the twins. Giuseppe, who preceded them, headed for the table of Italians.

“Follow me, I will introduce you. Gentlemen, may I introduce to you Jacques and Charlie. They are new to the base and will be staying in your pavilion. Their help will be of great value to us. I’m relying on you to give them a warm welcome, along with their friend, Clementine, who is accompanying them.”

One of the men stood to his feet and spoke to Clementine, “Please have a seat. Come and join us, along with your friends.” Two others quickly followed suit, giving up their seats to welcome the new arrivals.

“Please be seated. Mario will make the introductions. I must leave you for a moment,” said Giuseppe. He moved away immediately in the direction of the man with the book. The four Asians came over to join in the introductions. During all this time, the lone man had not looked up from his book. Giuseppe took a chair and sat down on his left. The two men did not look at each other. Giuseppe seemed to be speaking to him, but their eyes never met.

“Francisco, I have come with the Siamese twins. They are accompanied by their friend, a young woman who cares for them. She seems very discreet.”

Francisco, still looking at his book, answered, “There are three of them?”

“You could say that, yes.”

“That’s inconvenient,” replied Francisco. “I need to know whether I should consider that there are three of them, or whether I should act as if they were only two. I need to know, you understand? It’s important to me. You know what I’m like, don’t you? You’ve known me for a while now. You must realize that I need you to be precise.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll get used to them. Besides, they both seem like very kind people.”

“Okay then. You can count on me. I was expecting two brothers, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll think of them as three people. I’ll get used to it.”

“Are you ready to meet them?”

“Yes. Bring them over. I’ll welcome them.” Francisco finally looked over toward the twins. Giuseppe stood up again to rejoin the group, by now very lively.

“Well, I think we’ll continue the introductions later. Our guests must be exhausted after their long trip. Please come with me; I must introduce you to Francisco. Then I will show you to your rooms.”

Before joining Francisco, Giuseppe took Clementine and the twins aside, to prepare them for the meeting.

“Before I introduce you, there are one or two little things you should know about Francisco. He is autistic. In fact, to be precise, he has an unusual form of autism which affords him some special abilities. In certain areas he is an extraordinarily intelligent man. Without him, our cybernetic research program could not continue. Unfortunately, his condition makes communication a little difficult. He probably will not look at you, or perhaps only fleetingly. Your coming is a source of anxiety for him – as is any new encounter – but if you do not startle him, he will quickly get used to you.”

“Yes, I understand,” answered Charlie. “Don’t worry; we’ll do our best not to startle him. Jacques and I have spent quite some time wandering the corridors of insanity.”

Giuseppe, very concerned by what he had just heard, asked a little sharply, “Just what exactly do you mean?”

Jacques replied quickly, “My brother simply means that, in light of our very unusual condition, we have had to spend many years in hospital, where we have been in the company, enjoyable or otherwise, of other patients in the neurosurgical department. Other than that, there’s nothing to worry about, even though I must admit that it’s not always easy to be in harmony with oneself when there are two us making decisions.”

Then he addressed Charlie internally to reprove him, “You know I don’t like you talking about that!”

“I see. Come along,” replied Giuseppe, still rather taken aback by what he had just heard.

Francisco stood waiting at his table. He smiled and extended his hand, all the while his eyes looking into space. His book lay on the table. Its cover read: “The Chess-player”.

“That’s an excellent book you have there,” said Charlie. “I’ve read it and re-read it for years. It is Stefan Zweig’s novel, isn’t it?”

Francisco, flustered, took the book and slipped it into the pocket of his jacket. “Yes, it is. Welcome. My name is Francisco. I turned thirty-six years old, twenty-three days and seven hours ago. I earned a PhD in Physics twelve years ago from Paris-Diderot University and a PhD in the History of Ancient Civilizations from Paris-Vincennes University five years ago. Since then, I have been doing research work with Giuseppe. He has told me a lot about you.”

Jacques spoke internally to Charlie, in a sarcastic tone, “Well! I think you two are going to get on marvelously well together! This is all very interesting, but I don’t understand why we still don’t know what we’re doing here; or how they can have heard of a pair of poor old handicapped guys like you and me.”

“We are flattered that scientists such as yourselves are showing such interest in us, but now my brother and I would like to know the reason for our presence here,” said Charlie, looking back and forth from Giuseppe to Francisco. “How can we possibly be of service to you?”

“I understand your impatience,” answered Giuseppe. “Tomorrow I will come and pick you up at 6:30 am. We will go with Francisco to the research center. But for now, let me show you to your rooms. Ah! I almost forgot; I still need to introduce you to Émile, the concierge. He will give you your electronic cigarette and your identity codes.”

 

 

6 VICTOR

 

The next day, in a small room in the research center, Giuseppe was seated opposite the twins and Clementine. Slightly off to the side, Francisco was franticly tapping away on a tablet which he held in his lap. The room was fairly austere. In fact, there was nothing more than a table and chairs surrounded by four, pale gray walls. The only light came from the hundreds of little diodes set in the suspended ceiling.

“Well! The time has come for me to provide you with some more specific information”, announced Giuseppe. “First of all, you must realize that very few people know of the existence of this subterranean base. Bringing you here was absolutely intentional. Following the explosion you were hospitalized in the neurosurgical department of Professor Sam-Yong.” He turned to Jacques, “During the examinations carried out on you, neuroimaging showed the activation of the cerebral areas used for language, although at that time your head remained inert. The blood flow and electrical activity of your neural pathways correlated to similar activity in your brother’s brain.”

After a brief pause, he spoke again, “You are telepathic, aren’t you? Has this always been so?”

Eventually, Charlie spoke up, getting in before Jacques. “Yes, I think you could put it like that. This phenomenon occurred after the explosion, just when I thought I’d lost Jacques forever. To be honest, I was very surprised when I heard his voice speaking to me internally. At first I thought I was hallucinating, but it wasn’t the case. This sort of gift, that you call telepathy, has remained despite my brother’s recovery. To be precise, Jacques alone has the gift. I can only hear him but I can’t answer, apart from in the usual way. This had never happened to us before.”

Jacques spoke internally to Charlie, in an accusing tone, “Are you sure you know what you’re doing, Charlie? The idea of being considered as guinea-pigs by a cybernetic research team does not thrill me at all!”

Giuseppe turned to Francisco. “Francisco, now that we have confirmation, I think you can introduce them to Victor.”

Francisco finally looked up from his tablet and took them over to a door which opened onto another, entirely glassed-in room. The tall windows sloped inwards at the bottom, and being opaque, it was impossible to see through them. The whole room was filled with an intense blue light.

Francisco stood facing the central window. Again, he tapped on his tablet then looked up. The opacity of the windows gradually cleared, revealing below them the naked body of a giant, whose anatomy resembled that of a man. His thick, gray skin covered an enormous body, with an impressive muscle structure. The dimensions of this being were truly gigantic; more than ten times that of a human, at least. His massive, heavy body lay on a metallic platform similar to the one on the raised circle in the center of Pavilion 28. His head was completely covered by a white helmet, with a multitude of tubes and cables leading to a small console nearby. The room where the giant lay was similar in every way to the steel domes in which the pavilions had been built, but this one seemed to have been emptied of its contents. All that remained was the huge metal platform in its center. Everything was bathed in a violet-blue atmosphere generated by the LED lights covering the whole surface of the dome.

“This is Victor!”

 

 

7 REVELATIONS

 

Back in the smaller adjoining room, Giuseppe, Francisco, Clementine and the twins had returned to their seats. Francisco was typing away again, his eyes riveted to the tablet, while Giuseppe launched into a long monologue.

“Victor is in hibernation. He was discovered nearly 20 years ago at the same time as the subterranean cave where this base has been set up. In the beginning, the High Command’s intention was to build a huge military complex capable of housing the nation’s lifeblood in the event of a cataclysm of nuclear or natural origin. This decision was made following an increase in the threats to human existence. Today, the threat of nuclear war is not the only significant risk we face. The extremely rapid spread of emerging viruses and pathogens on a global scale is now the primary cause for concern. Rather than terrorism, which the media have been milking for years, our worst enemies are increased population density and the ability of individuals to travel very quickly from one part of the world to another. It is not a question of whether a global pandemic will one day threaten the existence of humanity, but simply when it will happen. So, this base is first and foremost a place for experimentation and isolation. It is a sort of quarantine center, designed to help us overcome a hypothetical crisis. One of our missions is also to fine-tune new medical technology.

“The cave was discovered during oil exploration works. Probes revealed the existence of a vast air pocket in the rock of the ocean floor. Usually this type of cavity is at least partially flooded, but strangely, that was not the case here. Initial analysis even showed that the gas composition of this air pocket was identical to that of the air we breathe above ground. To penetrate here, we had to drill a tunnel, taking care not to cause leaks which would have let seawater inside the cave. In the very first days of exploration we discovered these domes; made of an alloy unknown on Earth. In the one where we are now seated, we found Victor. This giant is nearly eighteen meters tall and weighs several tons. Given his anatomy and muscle structure, he must possess Herculean strength. Since that day, our scientists have used the most advanced technology to try and uncover the mystery of his presence here. Unfortunately, Victor has never been able to come out of the profound sleep he is engulfed in. To be honest, we do not even know how long he has been here, and even less where he came from. However, today’s technology has significantly advanced, particularly in the area of neuroscience and cybernetics. Recent research has allowed us to ascertain that Victor’s brain activity is not completely inexistent. The explosion you were victims of, the origin of which is still unknown, greatly increased the amplitude of this residual electrical activity.”

Francisco was still clutching his tablet, but had ceased typing for several minutes. He began to speak, staring into space, “Yes, it has greatly increased. One day he’s going to wake up, that’s for sure. I will be here to see it, and you too, I hope. You are going to help me, aren’t you?”

“Francisco is sure that Victor is going to come out of his vegetative state. I always pay careful attention to his intuition. He is rarely mistaken and some might say that it’s actually because of him that you are here. It is nothing magical, however. Francisco reasons in a way that escapes me, but his intuition can nearly always be verified. It is usually based on the correlation of quite concrete factors. He is convinced that you are the only ones able to make contact with Victor.”

“Just what exactly are you expecting of us?” asked Jacques. “Unless I’m mistaken, you think that I, Jacques Guillon, am going to change the face of the world by communicating telepathically with this being from somewhere else. Well, I’d rather be quite frank with you; clearly I am not capable of that and although it’s been a pleasure coming here and talking with you, I’m waiting for just one thing: to go home and get back to my old life.”

Breaking with habit, Francisco looked directly at him for a split second, before speaking again. His face was blank, expressing no emotion whatsoever. “According to the information I have received, your apartment building was destroyed in the explosion and most of its residents had to be evacuated. I think I can confirm that you are now alone, just like Victor.”

“Francisco is right”, continued Giuseppe. “Life out there could be very difficult for you. We are offering you an extraordinary opportunity to collaborate on an exciting research project. After all, there is no risk in trying. Once the experiment is over, the army will take care of your return to civilian life. If, as you say, communication is truly impossible with Victor, we will know very soon and you will be able to go back home.”

Charlie and Clementine still had not spoken. Jacques turned to Clementine. “Clementine, don’t you agree with me?”

Clementine, in a surprisingly calm and collected manner, gave him an answer which he was not in the least expecting. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s your turn to do something for others now. If I had your abilities, Jacques, I think I would like to get to know Victor and help him to wake up.”

“But what about you? What are you going to do? There are people up there waiting for you!”

“We’re not talking about me. They need you and Charlie. And I’m staying with you whatever happens.”

Charlie, stimulated by what Clementine had just said, spoke up, “You can count on us, Francisco. We’ll do all we can to help you in your mission. When do we start?”

Jacques felt a little embarrassed and offended at being belittled by Clementine, and by Charlie’s reaction to this unsettling turn of events being so different to his own. He kept quiet until the end of the conversation.

“Very good,” said Giuseppe. “It’s nearly midday. Let’s join the rest of the team in Pavilion 28. Today is Mario’s birthday. He has been in the kitchen all morning preparing Italian specialties. His father is a famous chef in Naples. Every year, when he comes back from leave, he brings local delicacies and new recipes that he is eager to prepare, to the great delight of us all. Most of the food that we eat is produced here, so you see there isn’t a lot of variety in our meals.”

 

 

8 THE FEAST

 

It was half past twelve in Pavilion 28. For the occasion, one large table had been laid in the center of the canteen. The whole team was gathered together. Even Francisco, in his own way, had joined the group. He had placed himself at the end of the table, where he was typing, a white headset over his ears, his eyes riveted to his tablet. On their arrival, the twins took a seat at the end of the table, near Giuseppe and Francisco. Before Clementine even had the chance to sit down, Mario suggested that she sit opposite him, next to Caterina, the only woman on the team.

“Clementine, come over here,” said Mario, “You must feel lonely among all these men. Caterina will make room for you next to her.”

Clementine moved toward him hesitantly, after a brief glance in the twins’ direction. Caterina was a very attractive, tall, slim woman. For the occasion she wore a red dress with a plunging neckline, over which her long black hair tumbled. Despite the long months she had spent confined to the base, her skin still bore the olive tone typical of Mediterranean women. Her immaculate make-up emphasized her brown eyes and full lips. The fine, slightly angular lines of her face evoked an intelligent woman of strong character. She welcomed Clementine with a wide smile, moving over slightly so she could take her place beside her.

Only Mario remained standing, a glass in his hand. “Well now! Dear friends and colleagues, I propose we drink to the health of our guests, in the hope that they will survive my culinary experiments, just as you have done all these years! This year once again, I hope we may enjoy a little rest and recreation together, over these special Italian dishes I have prepared for you. I know that for some of you it is a reminder of home; let’s not give in to homesickness however, but make the most of the present. So, let’s raise our glasses to the team and our guests!”

Next, Giuseppe stood to his feet, glass in hand. “Thank you, Mario. No doubt we will survive your cooking once again. After all, until now we have managed to survive the canteen meals.”

There was a burst of laughter which showed that Giuseppe’s words expressed a sentiment shared by all. He began again, “Without further ado, let’s wish Mario a happy birthday. He’s turning 40 today! I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank him for his sense of humor and the optimism that he has shared with us for nearly twelve years now. Let’s forget our work for a while and drink to his health.”

Mario, who had just sat down again, immediately engaged Clementine in conversation. “Do you know Italy, Clementine?”

“I went there once when I was small. I have very happy memories of the trip, although they might be a little romanticized, being the impressions of a little girl. To be honest, Italy to me is mainly the memory of walking along little streets lined with old, stone buildings. When I look back, I see myself as a little girl walking down a cobbled street in the sunshine with a gelato in my hand, while my mother tried unsuccessfully to make my father appreciate the wealth of culture and architecture. I have never been back, but I’m sure it must be a wonderful place.”

Caterina joined the conversation. “Your memory is a little clichéd. However, I must admit that for myself also, what comes to mind when I think of my country is mainly the warm summer evenings, the smells of Mediterranean cuisine and little streets filled with people talking in familiar accents. Are you married, Clementine?”

“Ah, no, not yet,” she replied, a little surprised.

“Am I to understand that it’s on the horizon?”

Mario looked reproachfully at Caterina then chided her gently. “Cati, not so fast; give her time to settle in.” Then, to Clementine, “You must excuse Caterina; she’s a little too direct sometimes.”

“No, no, don’t worry about me! No harm done; after all, there’s no secret.”

“By the way; you didn’t answer me about Italian cuisine, but I’m sure that you will like the entrée. I have prepared a burrata with some perfectly matured Parma ham.”

Burrata, here?”

“Yes,” replied Mario, looking very proud of this accomplishment. “But make the most of it because it’s not likely to happen again anytime soon. As for all the extra-fresh produce; transport and entry permits to the base were no easy matter.”

At this he stood, smiling, and put on his apron. “And now, I must ask you to excuse me for a few moments; I am needed in the kitchen.”

“Can I be of assistance?” Clementine asked enthusiastically. “I certainly don’t have your culinary skills, but I manage quite well in the kitchen. Maybe I could help you serve the dishes?” She rose from the table as she spoke, leaving Caterina, who had not planned on helping Mario, to herself. Smiling coolly, she looked the new arrival up and down, finding her a little too helpful for her liking. Mario readily accepted Clementine’s offer of help. They both headed for the canteen kitchen, under the watchful eye of a rather surprised and suspicious Charlie, who had been following the whole conversation while his brother was recounting their adventurous life to a captive audience.

Jacques, to all appearances still involved in conversation with his neighbors, spoke internally to Charlie. “Let her live a little! It’s pity that she feels for you, not love. Come down off your cloud every once in a while.”

This cutting remark hurt Charlie all the more as he could not reply immediately; at least, not verbally. He turned to Jacques, but he was still in conversation, as if nothing had happened. So Charlie got up from the table, dragging Jacques with him.

“I’m sorry, but my brother and I need to pay a visit. Could you tell us where the restroom is please?”

Jacques, surprised, was obliged to follow, abruptly leaving off his conversation. The twins were soon alone in the canteen restroom.

“Couldn’t you have waited a little?” asked Jacques, reproachfully. “I don’t need to pee. What are you talking about?”

“That’s true; the bladder is one of the organs that we share. I can’t lie to you about that. It’s a shame we don’t share the same heart. That way, you might be capable of sparing me that sort of hurtful remark.”

“Were you offended by what I said to you earlier?”

“Don’t you feel anything for her?”

“Yes, I do. Clementine is a very pretty girl. She’s also very sweet, and certainly the only woman who’s ever considered us as men, and not as monsters. But to go from there to seeing anything more than a friendship… I really think you’re making a mistake. Don’t go spoiling everything and making yourself miserable over a desire that you can never satisfy.”

Charlie, his eyes filling with huge tears, looked at his brother without speaking. Jacques, who would have liked to console him, searched for words he could not find. So he placed his hand gently on his brother’s shoulder, all the while looking into his face. Then Charlie, his voice still quavering, changed his tone and confided in him, as a child would confide in his mother.

“I know you’re doing this to protect me, but sometimes I’d just like to be able to live my own life, without you always there observing my slightest move, or even worse, guessing my most private thoughts. Even if nothing can happen, I’d like to be left to dream on, and even deliberately deceive myself with own little fantasy. Don’t you understand?”

“Of course, Charlie. But you’re not alone. I’m here, too. What’s more, I’ve always been here and I probably always will be. For better or worse.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I mean that I like pretty women, too. I’d like to have some intimacy, too. I’d like to have a sex-life without a price-tag, too. I’d like to feel that a woman loves me. But I understand one important thing: it will probably never happen, and if it does, she would have to love the both of us.”

After a short silence, Jacques spoke again, “Right now, we’re experiencing something incredible; an adventure which you didn’t hesitate to take on earlier, in spite of my reservations. I only hope that you’re not doing this as some proof of your courage and self-sacrifice to Clementine.”

“You’re probably right,” answered Charlie, both resigned and relieved to have confided sincerely in his brother. “I’ll try to live in the present and fully enjoy what is happening to us here. Let’s go back to the others. They’re probably starting to wonder why we’re taking so long.”

Back in their seats, the conversation picked up again and this time, Charlie gave in to the natural interest he usually had in other people. He willingly let himself be carried along by the engaging flow of conversation, forgetting about Clementine for a while. Around four o’clock, when the meal was coming to an end, Giuseppe rose from the table, wishing them all a pleasant evening. He thanked Mario warmly and left, leaving Clementine and the twins in the company of their new colleagues and housemates of Pavilion 28. Curiously, they were quite at ease and not overly concerned by the departure of the man who had been their guide until now. In fact, it was a long while since they had spent such a pleasant afternoon, surrounded by a group of people who were both friendly and intelligent.

By half past six, there were only five people left in the canteen, grouped around one end of the table. Mario and Alvaro were still in deep conversation with the twins and Clementine, over a glass of Cognac.

“What kinds of alcohol are typical of your region?” asked Alvaro.

“To be honest, I don’t really know. We live in the center of Paris and don’t often have the opportunity to get out of the city.”

“Yes we do”, Charlie contradicted him. “Remember? Michel took us to the Passerelle restaurant one day for a regional wine-tasting. If I remember rightly; there was one called le Noyau de Poissy.”

Jacques replied teasingly, “Yes, that’s right. I think it was more a sort of liqueur – a sickly sweet one. But you liked it, though.”

“I’ve never heard of it,” said Alvaro, “but after hearing what Jacques says, it doesn’t sound too good.”

“If I understand correctly, you do not always share the same tastes?” joked Mario. “I hope it’s not the case when it comes to women?”

Charlie, embarrassed, began to blush at the thought of broaching this delicate subject in the presence of Clementine. Jacques decided to come to his aid by taking things in hand. He broke into a forced laugh, anxious not to let anyone notice the embarrassment caused; then he steered the conversation back to the initial topic.

“Charlie loves fruit liqueurs. Actually, for that reason alone, I’m sure he would like Italy. As for me, I prefer to savor a good French wine from time to time, or an old Cognac like this one.”

“But we have some excellent red wines in Italy,” replied Alvaro, a little put out. “You French are not the only ones who know how to make good wine.”

“Ah, Gentlemen, you mustn’t upset Alvaro about his homeland, or you’ll pay for it!” Mario interjected playfully. “And you, Clementine? What do you usually drink?”

“Oh, I’m rather like Charlie. I like fortified wines and a good on-tap beer from time to time. Apart from that, I don’t know a lot about wine. I was working in a bar and tobacconists’ before the explosion.”

As she said the words, images of the disaster flooded her mind. Her face clouded suddenly and tears started to run slowly down her cheeks, now flushed with emotion. Sitting beside her, Mario wondered what was wrong, but Clementine could not manage to speak. So he laid a comforting hand on her shoulder and said nothing.

In the end it was Jacques who broke the silence.

“The explosion has affected us deeply. You could say that we lost everything in the disaster, starting with our friends, but also our homes and our way of life. It dawns on you gradually. Until now none of it seemed real, but as the days go by, you start to feel the pain. Even today I’m not sure if I’ve really taken in what happened to us that day. Anyway, there’s a “before” and an “after”, that’s for sure. For now, it’s as if my mind refuses to think about the past. All that remains, are images of the explosion, in flashes; bodies lying on the ground, dust, blood, the feeling of solitude, injustice. Why others and not us? Women, children, everyone was dead except us. And then there was this little girl who I’d been horrible to just moments earlier. Just because of a look and a tactless question. I can’t help thinking about her today. I imagine her lying dead, beside her mother. Those thoughts come back to me often, but I try to chase them out of my mind, to push them away, as far away from me as possible. It’s too late now; it wasn’t our fault and we can’t change anything.”

The mood had become heavy, much too heavy for Jacques, who had said much more than he intended. Just as he would push away the images that regularly invaded his mind, he quickly pushed away the emotions that were starting to get the better of him. Taking hold of himself brusquely he steered the conversation in another, more technical direction this time.

“I guess we don’t know any more about the explosion? What really happened? Do you know? Was it an attack? Maybe Giuseppe knows. He’s the one who brought us all the way here.”

Mario exchanged looks with Alvaro before answering Jacques. “I’m sorry, but we don’ know much more than you do for now. We simply assume that there could be a link between that event and the research that we’re carrying out here. At least, that’s the theory maintained by Francisco. He is personally convinced of the simultaneity of the explosion that happened last Sunday in Paris, and the sudden increase in electrical activity detected in Victor’s brain.”

“That said, it is only a hypothesis, and not even a very scientific one,” added Alvaro. “After all, it wouldn’t be the first time that two events have taken place at the same time without there being any link between them. But Giuseppe has blind faith in Francisco, anyway. Those two are like an old couple.”

“How so?”

“Alvaro means that they have known each other for a very long time. Francisco is the son of his first wife. Giuseppe raised him as his own son. It’s thanks to Giuseppe that he’s here today. I suppose you were told that Francisco is autistic?”

“Yes, we were”, Charlie replied.

Mario decided to launch into a detailed explanation of the bonds that united the two men, who seemed so different.

“During his childhood, Francisco was placed in a so-called special center, where he vegetated more than anything else. One day, his mother walked out, leaving no address. She left everything behind; her personal belongings, her car, her dog, her son and, of course, Giuseppe. Francisco showed absolutely no emotion following her departure. Since then, Giuseppe, who had grown attached to him and saw huge cognitive potential in him, decided to take over his education, with the help of his colleagues from the neuropsychology lab where he worked at the time. So Francisco grew up surrounded by some of Italy’s most brilliant scientists. Little by little he learned to communicate, be sociable and especially to exploit his extraordinary capacity for logical reasoning and memorization. With Giuseppe’s help, he then went off to study in prestigious Parisian universities and eventually found his place in the small, very closed world of fundamental research. In fact, I believe that his mother’s leaving was the best thing that could have happened to him. Giuseppe doesn’t seem to have been too affected by it. Anyway, even when she was there, he hardly noticed her at all; he was so absorbed in his work. The world of research is probably one of the places where highly autistic or simply unusual people, can fit in most easily. To want to spend our lives gazing at test-tubes, forsaking all else, I think we must all be slightly autistic or sociopathic. But, you see, with occasions like today I try to make up for that.”

“But you, Mario, what brought you here?” asked Clementine. “You seem to enjoy the good life.”

“That’s true; it’s sometimes difficult to remain shut in here for months on end, even if the place is big. I –”

“Don’t you have a wife or children back in Italy?” interrupted Charlie.

“You know, I’ve been here for over ten years. Giuseppe came and found me when I had only just finished my thesis. At the time I was not ready to settle down. When he told me about the N.H.I. program and the existence of this base, I immediately saw it as the chance of a lifetime. I finally had the opportunity for a unique experience of furthering myself. And also, I was flattered that Giuseppe had chosen me to be part of his research team. At the University he was a role model for many of us. His work on reprogramming stem cells was opening the door to all kinds of possibilities and had our young apprentice sorcerers’ imaginations running wild. Today I don’t regret my choice, even if coming back from leave is sometimes difficult.”

Jacques seized the opportunity to bring up another topic that was close to his heart.

“A nice cigar would be just the thing to round off this delicious feast you prepared for us with such finesse, I must say. Unfortunately, it’s one of the many things we’re not permitted to do here. Do you smoke, Mario?”

“There are a lot of regulations here but, you know, there’s always a way to allow oneself a few liberties as long as one maintains a certain level of discretion.”

At these words Jacques’ face suddenly lit up with a blissful smile. Mario left the table for a few moments before coming back to them.

“Come with me. I’m going to take you to one of the hanging gardens. There’s no place better for savoring a last moment of relaxation and meditation before going off to the land of Nod.”

The little group moved as one man toward a door at the end of the canteen, but Alvaro left them, after wishing a good evening to all. A staircase led to the landing where they had seen Francisco come down a few hours earlier. Mario stood in front of a small console with a tactile screen which allowed him to choose the hanging garden he wished to bring down. He asked Clementine and the twins, who had been standing back, to come closer so he could explain how it worked.

“You can choose any one of the unoccupied gardens. There are fifteen different gondolas. Each one has its own special features. It’s up to you to choose according to your preference. It’s mainly the kinds of plants and their arrangement that differs, but the gondola’s position under the dome is also very important, especially if you want to be shielded from curious eyes. Strictly speaking, there are not supposed to be more than two people per gondola but for tonight we can make an exception. Garden number 13 is one of the highest and most pleasant.”

After selecting number 13 on the screen, Mario looked up, pointing to the highest point of the dome. They could hardly make out more than a dark smudge coming down toward them. The intense light coming from the concave ceiling enveloped the small platform so that the first details were only perceptible when it was halfway down. First, it was the flowers’ vivid colors that stood out, and then a small, low table between two wooden lounge chairs became visible through the glass floor. The seat cushions were of the same green as the first leaves of spring, when the buds are just starting to open – that soft, peaceful green that brings back the optimism and taste for life that usually accompany the first signs of warmer weather. A discreet fence, hidden in the shrubbery, marked the edge of the landscaped platform. Only its steel gate was visible, opening automatically as the gondola touched the ground. Slowly, the cables lifted the little group into the heights of the dome, amidst a surreal décor, still bathed in light despite the lateness of the hour. Mario took a small silver case from his pocket. With one deft clip, he cut the end off of the first cigar, which he held out to Clementine.

“Ladies first!”

She accepted it with only slight hesitation. Mario took an old Zippo out of his other pocket. Clementine’s first breaths let out large puffs of opaque smoke, releasing a characteristic aroma.

“I can see that you’re an old hand. I chose small Havanas that I get from a specialist shop in Naples. Actually, I am no expert, but it’s a pleasure I have become accustomed to over the last few years. Apparently these ones are particularly appreciated by connoisseurs.”

Mario turned to the twins. “Jacques, I suppose you are eager to try one? Charlie, do you smoke too?”

Jacques answered for him, “My brother is a dyed-in-the-wool puritan. He spends a lot of his time trying to talk sense into me and, if possible, to make me feel guilty.”

“I’ll let that slide,” said Charlie with a smile. “Actually, what Jacques says is true. I’m not usually a smoker, but on occasion I do appreciate a fine cigar, especially when the circumstances lend themselves to it, as they do today.”

Mario laughed heartily at the well-defined roles the brothers assumed, forever united in spite of themselves, by an unbreakable bond. In some ways they were like an old couple who had learned to grow together without forgoing any of their original differences. They were all savoring the moment and the little garden was plunged into almost complete silence for a few moments. Plumes of smoke rose slowly from the gondola then dispersed into the gleaming heights of the dome.

Mario spoke again, in a more serious tone, “You know, it may be your difference that saves you one day.” Then he fell silent, leaving the twins to wonder about the true meaning and relevance of his comment.

 

 

9 EXPLANATIONS

 

Giuseppe stood before his audience. Despite his long years in a strictly scientific world, he had never been able to resist enriching his speeches with expressive gestures – no doubt reminiscent of his national origins.

“First of all, you must know that Victor’s state is close to that of hibernation, although it has lasted for centuries, perhaps even millennia, according to our estimation. In fact, we do not know for precisely how long he has been in this state. His sleep is therefore extremely deep and very old. His muscle tone is practically zero. In spite of this, we have been able to establish with certainty that Victor dreams. Of course, we are not able to discern the nature of his dreams, but it seems that some of them resemble what we know as nightmares. Several times, his eye movement has sped up markedly and his brain activity has shown significant acceleration. We even thought he might wake up suddenly, as is the case for humans when the emotions caused by a dream become unbearable.”

“But that has never happened?” asked Charlie.

“No. As you can see, Victor is still asleep and the mystery remains intact.”

“You said he had recently shown signs of waking up, following the explosion we were involved in. Isn’t it more likely to have been because of one of the nightmares you mentioned?”

“We thought so at first, but the signals recorded are of a different nature this time. In particular, this activity has not been accompanied by the previously observed eye movement and it continues today, whereas after the nightmare phases his brain activity quickly decreased again. This is why we think that Victor has detected something from an external source, like some sort of signal which may have begun a slow awakening process.”

Jacques spoke up, “Am I to understand that you think this monster could wake up any minute? In that case, why do you need us?”

“That’s not exactly it,” answered Francisco. “Victor is certainly no monster. He is a being of unknown origin who, according to all probability, must be of superior intelligence. The problem is that if my reasoning is correct, the waking phase could well be very long. We need you here to get to know him and possibly accelerate the process that has begun.”

“As Francisco says, the waking phase will probably be very long. It may possibly last several years or even decades – assuming it even eventuates. We can be sure of nothing. For the time being, it is only a hypothesis. We cannot afford to just wait, especially as it would be preferable to have obtained more information before it happens, because afterwards we don’t know what, or rather who, to expect. Whatever happens, it would be a lot more difficult to study Victor’s psychological functions at that point. Don’t forget that we are talking about a being that is possibly of intelligence far superior to ours. In that case and taking his size into account, it is better for us to be ready to enter into communication with him when the time comes. Or else the consequences could be disastrous.”

Francisco saw fit to complete Giuseppe’s explanations. “If it is correct that Victor received a signal from an external source, we don’t know who sent it or for what purpose.”

“That is also one of our concerns, indeed. Suppose the signal was sent by other N.H.I’s, what will happen when he wakes up?”

Mario, obviously bothered by the undeniable assertions of his colleagues, decided to intervene. “Francisco, you can’t be so certain. All this amounts to nothing more than theory based on very little concrete proof.”

Francisco, who was fidgeting more and more nervously on his chair, held his head in his hands. He answered Mario, much like a child submitting to parental authority. “That’s true. You’re right, Mario. I’m sorry.”

Giuseppe quickly came to his rescue. “You needn’t be sorry, Francisco! Even if Mario is right to play down conclusions which may seem a little hasty, he must also recognize that your intuition has almost always proved correct until now. And also, we need a basic hypothesis to work from – flawed though it may be – if we are to make headway without being overtaken by the circumstances.”

“Okay! Let’s get to the facts,” said Jacques impatiently. “We have agreed to help you, even though, personally, I don’t know what miracle we can possibly work. How are you planning on making contact with him?”

“Very well, I’ll try to be brief. Firstly, I must confess that you will not be the first to try this experiment. Others have already attempted to delve into Victor’s mind, but unfortunately, they did not succeed. We do not know exactly what caused these failures but several theories have been proposed. We will come back to that later, once I have explained in more detail the main points of the experiment…

As Giuseppe continued his talk, Jacques spoke internally to his brother, “What happened to the poor bastards who failed the test?”

Charlie answered him in a whisper, all the while pretending to listen attentively to the old man’s words. His voice was barely audible.

“Let him finish. He would tell us if it was really dangerous. We’ll sort that out later.”

Jacques remained silent but his face had clouded. His confidence in Giuseppe had just been severely shaken, although he could not say exactly why. It was just an uneasy feeling that had not left him and was now impossible to ignore. He could have simply asked a direct question, but lacked the nerve. Maybe he was reluctant to seem like a coward again. Giuseppe demanded their attention again, which focused Jacques’ thoughts on what was being said, rather than on his impressions.

“I guess you have already heard talk of stem-cell research and the extraordinary possibilities it is opening up in the medical world?”

Like a good student, Charlie did his best to answer Giuseppe’s question. His scientific knowledge did not stretch very far, but he happened to remember some information on the topic.

“I heard something about it during the debate over whether research on that type of cell should be allowed or not. If I’m not mistaken, I think they were hoping in the near future to be able to recreate vital organs like the heart or the kidneys from those cells.”

“I have been working on this type of cell for many years now, but the standards imposed by the Committee on Bio-ethics impeded a great deal of large-scale work which would have allowed us to progress more rapidly. It was especially the harvesting of stem cells which posed difficulties, because they are mainly embryonic. To cut a long story short, the benefit of using such cells lies in the fact that they are not yet differentiated and therefore make it possible to progressively form all the other cells of the organism. To be able to do this, we must master every stage of cellular differentiation. So these cells have opened up a new approach to living matter and to medicine in general thanks to what is now known as cellular therapy. Several years ago, the first encouraging results were recorded, but we gradually met more and more obstacles, arising from a developing legal framework and increasing pressure from religious groups. Thankfully, in 2007 the Japanese scientist, Shinya Yamanaka, developed technology enabling us to make any differentiated adult stem cells revert, and genetically reprogram them to create pluripotential stem cells, called “I.P.S. Cells”. In other words, today it is possible to harvest differentiated cells from any living being and make them revert to the state of an undifferentiated stem cell. Are you following me?”

“Er, yes. I think so,” replied Charlie rather unconvincingly.

Jacques decided to speak up, which took considerable courage. “If I may, haven’t these techniques also been criticized because they have opened the door to human cloning and a biomedical revolution with as yet unknown consequences? I’m mainly thinking of the ever-present fantasy of transhumanism and the potential for abuse in the bio-cybernetic world. In other words, to use your expression, we may be approaching the end of humanity as we know it today. Perhaps even its end pure and simple if our technology overtakes us and we create independent intelligent beings.”

A brief silence came over the group. Both Charlie and Clementine were stunned by the pertinence and vehemence of Jacques’ words. Giuseppe was equally surprised. Jacques actually seemed to know a lot more than he let on, and was obviously passionate about the subject.

“I can see this subject interests you, Jacques!”

Jacques, rather proud of himself, replied in a calmer tone, “Oh, well I’m really just a big fan of science-fiction. It’s a very instructive genre that raises questions about humanity and where it’s going – despite what the purists say, like my own brother, who will only read Literature with a capital L.”

“Well then, my dear Jacques, you will soon realize that here, reality has surpassed fiction. For ten years, our team has been working on neural stem-cell differentiation, particularly in the hippocampus region of the brain. Just like embryonic stem-cells, these cells are pluripotential, except that their differentiation potential is limited to neural cell types such as neurons and the other cells that make up the human brain. This technology has raised very high hopes. Very soon it should allow us to treat numerous degenerative brain diseases linked among other things to the ageing population. As you can see, our research is not only a source of doom and gloom. It is also the source of considerable progress in the treatment of major human illnesses. It is also the promise of increased longevity and moving toward the preservation of humanity. What’s more, I would remind you that this is the primary mission of the Mataiva base. Apart from the medical applications which I have just mentioned, we have a parallel research program which aims to recreate, from I.P.S.’s and neural stem-cells, what could be called a cerebral pathway. To be precise, it is more like a neural probe, capable of establishing a neuronal connection between two distinct brains. To visualize this more easily, it can be compared to a cable linking two computers. Such a cable allows the passage of selected information from one computer to the other, but each computer conserves its own functions and not of all the information is transferred or even transferable. Some, however, can sometimes pass from one system to the other unintentionally, which makes the task more complicated.

Jacques decided to interrupt Giuseppe.

“Is that what happened with the previous experiments?”

“That did occur, indeed, but many of the technical problems encountered during our previous attempts to connect with Victor’s brain have been resolved since then.”

Now Charlie, who had just understood the implications of what Giuseppe was saying, spoke up.

“You mean you’re going to plug your neural probe into us, and biologically connect us to Victor. Is that it?”

“Only you, Charlie,” answered Francisco.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I need to clarify a few points with you first. As it happens, delving into Victor’s mind is no simple matter, despite the very advanced technology we are utilizing. We think that one of the main reasons the past attempts failed lies in the fact that the volunteers involved in the experiment were not capable of coping with the huge influx of information. It seems that they lost their free will to the extent that they could no longer distinguish reality from what was similar to a waking dream, largely made up of material from their own minds…”

On hearing these words, the anxiety which had been slowly mounting in Charlie suddenly reached a whole new level. He felt as if he were suffocating. His palpitations became tangible until they reverberated in his head. He was breathing faster and faster, and soon a sensation of freezing cold overwhelmed him. Large drops of sweat trickled slowly down his pallid face.

Jacques noticed his distress and spoke internally to him, “Now you’re beginning to understand my doubts. It’s not a game anymore, where your waffling and your literary capers can pull you through. The guys who tried this before us certainly didn’t come out of it unscathed. It’s not too late to say no, you know!”

Clementine watched Charlie for a few moments. She had noticed that something was wrong too, but she didn’t move.

“Is everything okay, Charlie?” asked Giuseppe.

Charlie tried to pull himself together. He held his breath for a few seconds then cleared his throat rather noticeably before answering in a slightly husky voice.

“Yes, fine. Just a little hot flush. I get them from time to time.”

“Well, it’s midday, anyway. I suggest we take a short lunch break. We’ll continue our conversation at one o’clock, if that’s okay with you. Unfortunately, I have some things to see to, but Mario will go to the canteen with you.”

Giuseppe found himself alone with Francisco.

“Are you sure about this, Francisco? Charlie seems mentally fragile. What will happen if he panics during the connection?”

Francisco’s eyes met Giuseppe’s, furtively then he answered quite confidently, “That’s a risk which I have just calculated, but it will not last indefinitely. He should gain control of himself after a few minutes. If the worst comes to the worst we could always tranquilize him. Anyway, we don’t have any choice. An opportunity like this will never come up again.”

 

 

10 INTERLUDE

 

Clementine was having difficulty swallowing the cold macédoine salad that the canteen cook had carefully coated in a grayish mayonnaise with dubiously identifiable seasonings. A second plate sitting on her tray contained a slab of freeze-dried turkey, still steaming. It was served with mashed potatoes, supposedly “home-made”, whose color and consistency made her think of a tomato coulis that has lost the vibrant red that once made it appetizing. The canteen held the promise of a new feast, each day that the friends were to spend on the base. The grotesqueness of such cuisine, especially after the repast they had enjoyed the day before, at least helped to relax the atmosphere.

With a laugh, Jacques said to Mario, who had only taken the salad, “Aren’t you hungry, Mario?”

“Oh, well, it’s not that I’m fussy, but I prefer to savor the gastronomic memories of yesterday. Besides, the shock would be difficult for my digestion to cope with. It’s better to make the transition gradually.”

The wise words of Mario immediately set the others laughing, which was a welcome relief from the ambient tension.

Even Charlie had his color back and laughed as he happily quipped, “Thankfully, we’re on a base full of scientists, so each dish is carefully labeled, or else we might have trouble identifying them!”

And Jacques added, with a grin that he could not suppress, “What about the cook – do you think he’s from Naples too?”

Everyone laughed heartily, even Clementine, who finally gave up on trying to finish her salad. But Jacques went too far. Trying to unite everyone around a childhood memory bathed in nostalgia, he made an unhappy allusion.

“I bet they also serve stewed sheep’s brains, just like Mama used to make, ‘because they make you smarter’!” Charlie was no longer in a jovial mood. His face became grave again as he questioned Mario, “Why did Francisco say that I would be the only one to be connected to Victor? Do you know?”

Mario, though rather ill-at-ease, decided to answer anyway.

“I should really let Giuseppe explain this to you, but since you’ve asked me, I’ll do it.”

Jacques was really starting to appreciate Mario.

“Giuseppe hasn’t told you yet that the main reason for the earlier failures stems from the fact that the volunteers were not able to free themselves from Victor’s hold. As I hinted last night, your physical and psychological duality will be your advantage in this experience. By connecting only your brain, Charlie, we will be able to leave Jacques’ brain free, which will ensure a grasp on reality. This grasp on reality is only possible because Jacques is able, for some inexplicable reason, to communicate with you through something approaching telepathy. Therefore, even though there is no neuronal link between your two brains, communication is possible.”

“Is that what will stop Victor from taking control of my own mind?” asked Jacques.

“Yes, exactly. Each of you will have a crucial role to play in the experiment, which is interesting because your different temperaments seem particularly well suited to this configuration. I don’t think I’m mistaken in saying that you, Jacques, are probably the more pragmatic and logical of the pair. Charlie tends to daydream more and be more in touch with his own feelings. These specificities are indispensible for neural connection because the volunteers must let themselves go completely, without any resistance. Unfortunately, until now, no one has been there to bring them back to reality.”

Jacques finally found the opportunity to ask the question that had been bothering him throughout Giuseppe’s speech.

“What happened to them?”

“I don’t know a lot, but Giuseppe told me that they recovered after periods of coma of varying length.”

“Well, that sounds like fun!” remarked Jacques, looking at Charlie.

“That is unlikely to happen to you. Your situation is completely different and you’re certainly not here by chance.”

“What do you mean?” asked Charlie.

“I mean that the probability of finding Siamese twin brothers with the ability to communicate telepathically, which began at the very moment when Victor’s brain activity showed an unusual increase, is close to zero. All this becomes even more troubling when you consider that these elements came together at the very same moment as a mysterious explosion whose cause is still unknown, but which could very well be at the origin of a signal sent to Victor.”

 

 

11 FURTHER EXPLANATIONS

 

At one o’clock on the dot the explanations began again in the small room adjoining the dome where Victor lay. Giuseppe had launched into a long description of the experimental procedure to be put in place for connecting Charlie and Victor. He wasn’t actually saying anything different than what Mario had already told them, but he went into more detail and explained the technical aspects more fully. Jacques noticed that Giuseppe did not seem to be hiding anything that could be disturbing, including the fate of the previous volunteers. He even went into some detail about what had happened to each of them. It certainly was not a happy story, but in the end they had all pulled without any irreversible damage. At least, that was what Giuseppe maintained, and Jacques now allowed himself to be convinced by the elderly man, who seemed more like a mad scientist than a dangerous manipulator. Giuseppe was so passionate that he even made the project seem fascinating to the twins. They felt quite exhilarated at the prospect of becoming heroes in an extraordinary scientific adventure which had the potential to change the face of the world.

Then Giuseppe, noticing that his audience was showing increasing interest, decided to move on to the visual phase of his presentation of the procedure. He knew that some of the technical details could be problematic and that was what he was coming to.

“As you can see in this video, it is necessary to temporarily remove the upper part of the cranium, in order to ensure a direct neuronal connection. The pictures can be a little shocking when you’re not used to this sort of procedure, but it is actually a routine operation.”

“Routine?!” Charlie snapped vehemently. “You’re telling me you’re going to open my skull, but I shouldn’t be worried because your team is quite experienced? You’ve got to be kidding!”

Jacques answered him internally, but a sarcastic smile crept over his face.

Don’t worry. The man says you won’t feel a thing. Trust him. Clementine will be proud of you, and it’ll be an opportunity for me to become better acquainted with your anatomy!”

Charlie turned and glared at him, while Francisco took his turn to take up the explanations, thinking that perhaps Charlie’s resistance would melt under a shower of increasingly technical, additional information.

“The bio-cybernetic lab team has been working for seven and a half years on this project. Our technicians underwent a lot of training before connecting a human brain. They started with frogs, then rats, then they moved onto pigs, monkeys and finally, you. In the beginning we suffered some loss of test animals, which showed signs of intense pain, but now that problem has been eliminated. The instruments used for cutting the cranial calotte have also been greatly improved, you know. The circular saw has been replaced, thankfully, by high precision laser cutting. The calotte is then removed and placed in a fluid which ensures perfect preservation of the bone and epidermal tissues. This technique ensures optimal healing and limits the risk of brain damage.”

Jacques smiled and said rather sarcastically to Francisco, “Well, I must say, you really know how to choose the right words to reassure my brother. I’m sure he can’t see any reason against trying the experiment now! Can you, Charlie?”

Francisco then attempted a rather shaky justification.

“Well, it’s just that for me, when things are explained more clearly, I find them easier to accept. I don’t like not knowing what I’m committing myself to. You understand? So I thought it would be the same for Charlie.”

“Thank you, Francisco,” said Charlie very gently and kindly. “Don’t pay too much attention to my brother’s remarks. He’s sometimes a bit of a tease. As for me, I think I’ll eventually get used to the idea of this operation. You seem to know what you’re talking about and even if you gave me the best medical demonstration in the world, I wouldn’t understand a thing. I don’t know anything about the subject. It has never really interested me, actually, unlike Jacques, who has always been a lot more down-to-earth. A long time ago I decided to live in the world of ideas and not concern myself overly with the purely material aspects of life. It doesn’t prevent me from fearing death from time to time or behaving like a real coward, but when I do, I always end up telling myself that if these things happen, they were meant to happen. There’s no point in fighting them. It’s far better to watch them unfolding and try to learn as much from them as possible. A contemplative and somewhat fatalistic mentality like this entails a healthy detachment which can sometimes save your life when the conditions become psychologically unbearable. Human beings are unique in that they can detach themselves, at least mentally, from reality’s grip and take refuge in a purely intellectual world. They can therefore escape temporarily from a force that threatens to destroy their identity. I’m sure you understand me, right, Francisco? In my humble opinion, that is one of the main themes in the book by Stefan Zweig that you seem to enjoy so much.”

But Francisco did not answer. Without looking up, he carefully pushed the book deeper into his pocket.

Charlie turned to Giuseppe and said solemnly, “Giuseppe, there’s no point in explaining any further. Simply tell me what is necessary for the smooth running of the mission you’ve entrusted to me. The rest is not important. I’m ready, and just like you, I have faith in Francisco. He wouldn’t lie, I know it! I don’t think he could, even if he wanted to.”

 

 

12 MAKING CONTACT

 

For the first time, Jacques and Charlie were standing in front of the huge body. The thick, grayish skin which covered it revealed the contours of an impressive muscle structure, enlivened at times by barely perceptible twitches. Despite his enormity, Victor seemed human. Every detail of his anatomy was similar to ours, down to his feet, each with five, perfectly aligned toes with translucent nails. Standing there, before this body at once so totally foreign and yet so familiar, was a disturbing experience. Charlie would have liked to stretch out a hand and touch the strange skin, but the thought made him so apprehensive that he was quickly dissuaded from the idea. Victor was neither fat nor thin; his rounded torso and massive shoulders testified to undoubtedly colossal physical strength.

Charlie would soon be united with this being, whose identity and history were completely unknown. The human likeness reassured him. He felt closer to him, and even managed at times to identify with him. Letting his imagination meander, he even managed to project himself into what he supposed were Victor’s thoughts. He was probably feeling alone, cut off from his own. Perhaps he too, would never see his wife, family or friends again. After thousands of years spent on an uncomfortable, ice-cold, metal platform, they must all be dead by now; unless they too, were in hibernation somewhere. Perhaps Victor would notice Charlie’s intrusion into his dreams. What would happen then? After the initial surprise, would he be glad of a little company, albeit of a different sort?

“So, how do you like your new friend?” asked Jacques.

Jacques had never been comfortable with moments that seemed too solemn. He always felt the need to lighten the mood, to Charlie’s great regret. So many times, he had been arrested in full flight while was savoring a special moment, or a personal victory. Still, it did not really matter. Over the years he had learned not to let it bother him. Soon he would be alone in Victor’s dream.

I’ll be keeping my eye on you two! Try not to forget me when you’re in there. That little voice you’ll be hearing will be mine. You know – the one that’s always reminding you to keep your feet on the ground. Pay attention to it!”

“I can always count on you for that. You try and take the time to listen to Francisco’s instructions and be sure you aren’t tactless with him, like you are all too often with me. He may be autistic, but our lives will soon be in his hands. Just stick to what he asks you to do, no matter what you think!”

“Don’t worry; I can be serious when I need to be. But you, my brother, will be in a rather less comfortable situation than me during this business. When you’re lost in limbo, maybe even I won’t be capable of doing anything to pull you out of there. In that case, you’ll have to search deep inside of yourself to remember that you’re not just one person, but two. We are inseparable, and I’ll be here beside you, whatever happens.”

“You’ll be able to talk to me, but what about the other way around? How will you know what I’m going through and how I’m feeling, once I’m in there?”

“I don’t know yet. Maybe I won’t be able to, but I guess, since our bodies are joined, that I’ll definitely feel something. It’s already the case when you get anxious. I’ve never told you before, but when that happens, I feel your anxiety even before you’re aware of it. There’s no reason why that should change. Trust me.”

“It will be a bit like when we were children. I would have bad dreams and often you would wake me up before the end of the nightmare. I would hear your voice then you would appear in my dream for a moment, just before I’d wake up and realize you really were there.”

“That’s right! I’d forgotten all about that. You’re right; it’s probably going to be something like that. Unfortunately, it will be a lot more complicated than that, though, because you won’t be able to get out of your artificial sleep that easily.”

Mario came up behind them. He had overheard much of their conversation.

“Victor will be there, too. You will need to take him into account.”

“Oh, you’re here, Mario! You overheard our little chat?”

“Some of it. I’m glad to see that you already have quite a realistic idea of what awaits you. However, there are some practicalities that you are not yet aware of, which Francisco is planning to explain to you today.”

“What sort of practicalities?”

Mario did not answer. He pretended not to hear, and turned to Francisco, who was tapping away on the screen of the small white console.

“Giuseppe is not here this morning. He will be joining us later. Let’s go and see Francisco.”

Near the console, very close to the white helmet which covered Victor’s head, stood a new object. It resembled a sort of chaise longue with a thick mattress covered in something like white leather. Its seat was wide, and its back separated into two very different parts. The right side, furthest from Victor, looked comfortable. It had a white pillow made of the same material as the mattress cover. The left-hand side, however, resembled an egg that had been split in half. It was obviously a helmet, identical to the one worn by Victor, but of human size. Its interior was also padded. A semi-circular metal join separated the upper part of the helmet, which did not contain any padding.

“Hello Charlie,” said Francisco, without raising his eyes from the screen. “Hello Jacques. I’m just making some final adjustments before beginning the presentation.”

“It’s quite intimidating being so close to Victor. He’s enormous,” said Charlie, anxious to share his feelings with Francisco.

“Probably. You get used to it quickly, you’ll see.”

There was a short silence while Francisco completed the final adjustments on the console. His extremely down-to-earth reaction did not exactly encourage Charlie to further the conversation.

At last Francisco looked up from the console and asked the twins to come closer.

“As you might have already guessed, this is where you will be stationed during the connection experiment with Victor. If all goes according to plan, it may be necessary for you to spend several weeks lying on this couch without moving. For this reason, our team utilized materials in its design that are especially adapted ergonomically to this type of situation. In any case, sensors will be installed to take continuous physiological readings, allowing our medical team to take all the necessary measures to ensure the operation runs smoothly. Jacques will be able to eat meals in the usual way, but Charlie will be fed through a gastric tube, as the stomach is not one of the organs you share. Of course you will have a urinary catheter.”

“That sounds like a fun plan, doesn’t it, Charlie?”

This time, Charlie decided to take things lightly, with a little humor.

“Indeed it does! I wouldn’t like to be in your place. Something tells me the exquisite canteen fare would go down more easily through a tube than in the usual way.”

Mario, who was standing a little further off with Clementine, also responded to Francisco, who had not understood Charlie’s little joke and was continuing his presentation mechanically.

“Francisco? I don’t want to interrupt your program, but it seems to me that Charlie has a point. After all, mealtimes will be one of the only things that will add interest to Jacques’ day, giving him a little pleasure. His daily routine, if the experiment lasts as long as planned, could be psychologically and physically draining.”

“That is true. You are right, Mario. I will tell the cook to prepare some special meals for Jacques.”

“To be honest, I was thinking in more general terms. Actually, it seems to me that Clementine and I could make the experience less difficult for Jacques.”

“How would you do that?”

“Oh, well, nothing complicated; just by chatting with him and preparing some nice Italian dishes, for example.”

“I don’t see any problem with that, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the program. However, for the Italian dishes, you will need to have the ingredients checked by the medical team beforehand. We must not allow the risk of food-poisoning to compromise the experiment.”

Jacques looked at Mario and Clementine with a satisfied grin. Mario was definitely an exceptionally kind and thoughtful guy! His first impression was proving to be true.

Charlie was getting a little jealous of Jacques, who would be on the receiving end of all Clementine’s attention while he was wrestling with the nightmares of an extra-terrestrial being, his skull cracked open like a mere egg shell. But what annoyed him even more, was knowing that Mario and Clementine would be spending a lot of time together while he was unable to keep an eye on them.

He in turn made a joke. “I hope you’ll think about me. I’d appreciate gazpacho and any other tasty liquids you can squeeze through my gastric tube!”

Clementine laughed heartily, looking affectionately at Charlie. Such tenderness felt like a dagger stabbing his heart. He suddenly remembered Jacques’ words during their disagreement at Mario’s birthday dinner. Maybe he was right. Clementine probably did not feel anything more for him than friendship, occasionally mixed with pity.

“Okay then. The issue is resolved, isn’t it?” asked Francisco.

“Couldn’t be better!” answered Jacques. “You can continue your explanations, Francisco.”

Francisco, unperturbed, picked up his technical monologue just where he had left off, as if someone had pushed the “play” button.

“There is one more delicate issue which will require a preliminary learning phase. Don’t worry, it won’t take long.”

Francisco paused briefly to pick up a small index card sitting on the edge of the console.

“Although Charlie will be immersed in Victor’s thoughts to some extent; unlike Victor, he will not really be asleep. Indeed, it is necessary for him to remain partially conscious during this journey, otherwise he will not be able to memorize or recall a lot of the information gathered about Victor. Ironically, Charlie will nonetheless have to let himself go, without trying to control everything, if he wants to penetrate Victor’s mind and access his memories. So we’re not actually dealing with a true state of sleep or of wakefulness either. It is more like something close to a waking dream, except that the subject is not letting himself be guided by his own dream, but by someone else’s. In other words, it’s a state that could be qualified as hypnotic, in which all awareness and attention are focused on Victor’s mental activity. Conscious control of the perceptive, cognitive and motor functions is therefore significantly reduced, although contact with reality is not completely lost.

“His level of consciousness will fluctuate regularly. At times, contact with Charlie will no longer be possible then at other moments, he will return to a state close to that of wakefulness and will be able to communicate with us. Of course, he will not be completely awake and we mustn’t expect him to speak to us directly. He would actually be incapable of speaking, as speech is a motor activity, which requires the mobilization of numerous muscles and nerves; however Charlie will be paralyzed during the whole time he is connected.

“He will be communicating with us via a neural probe implanted in the Broca area of his brain. This region of the cerebral cortex is responsible for producing spoken language. To keep it simple, let’s say that this neural probe is a sort of interface, capable of transcribing Charlie’s thoughts in the form of written text which will show up on the console screen. We will then be able to interpret his thoughts and respond through Jacques. I do mean ‘interpret his thoughts’ because they will probably be confused, even without accounting for transcription errors stemming from the neural probe itself. Although we are quite proficient in this technology, you mustn’t forget that research in the area of human-machine interface is still very recent. Tests on human guinea-pigs are still anecdotal.”

Charlie was struggling to keep his mind focused on these explanations, which had become rather too complex for him. His eyes, like his thoughts, strayed toward Clementine, which Jacques noticed immediately. He spoke internally to his brother.

Concentrate, Charlie! She’ll still be here when you get back. What Francisco says is crucial for everything to work properly. This time, I won’t be there to do what you have to do for yourself, so make an effort, please! The experiment hasn’t even started yet and you’re already daydreaming.”

Meanwhile, Francisco had continued his monologue. Jacques, who had now lost the thread of the presentation, found himself momentarily in the position of an outside observer of the scene, instead of being completely absorbed by the actual content of Francisco’s speech. He was thinking that not even once had Francisco’s eyes met his, since the moment they entered the room. It was as if he was talking to himself, and yet there he was in front of them, his eyes wandering aimlessly. I must concentrate, he thought. At the same time he could not help thinking that Francisco was certainly very unique. Although certain aspects of his behavior made him seem totally absentminded, it was also obvious that he was trapped in a cruel reality: he was incapable of understanding emotions, and all that is implicit to human relationships. No doubt the humor that Jacques was so fond of using, to ease his pain and get him through rough patches, would be no help to this guy. Thankfully, Mario was different.

Francisco was now explaining to Charlie how they would have to go about configuring the neural probe in order to make the transcription as accurate as possible. To do this, Charlie would need several hours of training right after inserting the neural probe; and all this was programmed for no later than six o’clock the following morning.

 

 

13 CONNECTION

 

Charlie could feel a slight prickling sensation above his temples. For a split second a vague odor of burning flesh filled the padded compartment where his head lay. He felt a slight, painless tugging on the top of his skull then nothing. Now soft music with a gentle, repetitive tune was playing inside the helmet. The visor had become opaque several moments earlier and he found himself cut off from all external stimulation. He could not feel his body anymore and this absence of sensation gave him an intense feeling of well-being; an impression of freedom he had never experienced before.

Suddenly, he noticed his brother’s voice speaking to him telepathically, but it was fainter than usual.

They have just inserted the neural probe, apparently successfully. For now everything seems to be going according to plan. In a few minutes you’ll be connected to Victor. According to Francisco, you won’t notice the connection straight away. Your train of thought will simply take an unfamiliar turn and you’ll be inundated by a flood of images, which you’ll need to ride out. We don’t know yet what form you will perceive me in when I speak to you, but my voice will probably be accompanied by a visual representation constructed by your own imagination. Whatever the representation or its mutations, you’ll need to go by the sound of my voice, which shouldn’t change too much. That will be your guide in an otherwise visual world.”

The voice fell silent for a moment then began again, a little more clearly, “Okay! Now it’s time to use the graphic interface. Answer me in writing, so I can be sure you understand everything I just told you.”

Immediately, a small text appeared on the console screen. It was proof that Charlie was still quite with it and that he was managing to use the neural probe perfectly well. Jacques, lying beside him, could read his brother’s answer with the aid of a small screen attached to his seat. The text and all the physiological data were viewed and recorded on the console, and also simultaneously in a research lab room, where part of the medical team was at work.

…Everything’s okay, Jacques. I’ve never felt so free. I’m ready to take the plunge now. Try and keep an eye or me, but if ever things should go wrong, make the right decision and save yourself.

Don’t be ridiculous. Just be sure you don’t forget where you come from. Your real life is here, even if it hasn’t always been an easy one for us.”

… You can count on me. I won’t forget you!

Good luck, Charlie!”

Jacques pressed the remote control that Francisco was holding out to him, which initiated the last phase of the neuronal connection. His anxiety was now tangible. His face had darkened and his eyes narrowed. He closed them, to concentrate solely on his internal feelings, attentive to the slightest signal that could be coming from his brother. If Charlie was in danger, he would know it immediately, whatever happened.

For now, the data on the console showed that Charlie had entered a phase of deep immersion. It would probably be quite some time before he could resurface and communicate with Jacques again through the neural probe. All they could do was wait.

 

 

14 A NEW WORLD

 

A small, brown moth was frantically fluttering about, flying repeatedly toward the central, naked light bulb that hung from the ceiling. Its continuous rushes back and forth invariably led to the same result – a violent collision with the burning glass, followed by a fall of several centimeters, while the insect gathered its wits and prepared a fresh attack. Charlie had watched the scene over and over again and yet, every time, he could not help feeling a certain pity for the poor creature. He was lying on his bed in a very comfortable position; strangely comfortable in fact. The lower back pain and usual heaviness that weighed him down every morning were no longer there. He felt lighter, as if his body had decided to stop fighting against him, for the first time since the twins’ birth.

The little creature was certainly no monarch, but merely a plain, brown moth. Its life was limited to a few hours of mindless gesticulations in the confined area of an apartment, while its fellow creatures covered thousands of kilometers out in the wild. Impelled by a collective mission that transcended them and all their other monarchs before them, they would return to the land of their forbears to reproduce. Giving life to new creatures, which would in turn follow the twists and turns of the great maiden voyage – that intoxicating journey, fraught with the dangers which give meaning to life, whatever that life may be – such was the destiny of those frail but superb creatures.

And yet here was this poor, dull-colored moth, whose journey was limited to convolutions which seemed at first glance, to be as pointless as they were deathly. Charlie reached out and turned off the light in a benevolent gesture, hoping by this heroic act to save the poor creature and give it the opportunity to find a new destiny for itself. Unfortunately, as he should have expected, the miserable insect, now disoriented and aimless, landed near the hot light bulb and was still.

Daylight was starting to show through the closed shutters, penetrating the bedroom with a vivid glow; the promise of a bright, sunny day. Charlie decided to get up and make the most of the beautiful weather. He turned to look at Jacques; but he was not there. There was no one else in the bed, which now seemed abnormally wide. His face was filled with fear. He could not move. He was stunned, not knowing what to do. He was in the same situation as the moth when the light suddenly went out. Something inconceivable had happened. Was he dead? Was he dreaming? He was immediately gripped by anxiety, but strangely, it did not affect him as usual. It was – how could he put it? – more academic. His body was still relaxed, although he usually got stomach cramps and was prone to alternating sensations of intense heat and cold, which completely overwhelmed him and made him fear the onslaught of some dreaded disease. This time it was different; he was mainly afraid of forever losing touch with reality.

However, little by little the sensation subsided inexplicably. He was still in the same place, nonetheless; alone in his bed. Not knowing how to get out of this surreal situation, he tried – without much hope – calling out to his brother; as if he could be anywhere but here by his side, their two bodies fused together… No answer came. Taking a closer look at the sheets, he could see that they still held the imprint of Jacques’ body, and even if the sight was completely absurd, it reassured him. Although he no longer existed at his side, Jacques had at least existed, and probably still existed somewhere.

Suddenly, one of the red window shutters blew open with a gust of wind. The sky was a deep shade of blue and sunshine flooded the room. It was time Charlie got up and got moving, despite the strangeness of the situation. He got up in one easy movement and noticed that he was already dressed in a perfectly ironed, brown suit. He even looked quite elegant and moved with confident, easy strides. He went to the window and flung it open to breathe in the morning air, which he expected to be cool and invigorating. Instead, hot, suffocating air rushed into the room. The impression was as unexpected as it was unpleasant. The sky was blue, but empty. Not a single cloud, building, or tree broke the monotony, as if his bedroom were perched in the sky, far above the ground. He quickly closed the window, filled with panic again. He looked at the maroon door that ordinarily opened onto the bathroom. It was identical to the one in his apartment, except for one detail: this one looked new. It seemed to be made of a rust-proof metal that had been colored through anodizing. He walked hesitantly toward it and grasped the door handle. The door opened slowly with a creak, which he immediately recognized as the sound it had always made.

Before him was a steep staircase leading to a small corridor, the end of which was hidden from view. He took his keys, which were sitting as usual on top of the little shoe cupboard, and left the apartment, carefully locking the door behind him. At the end of the corridor he found himself in front of a glass door, through which he could see in the distance an enormous steel dome that seemed to be ablaze in the sun. It sat in the middle of a perfectly maintained lawn, like a grassy sea; a sea which he would have to cross if he wanted to reach the dome.

As he walked, the suffocating heat slowed his movements, so much so that the dome never seemed any closer, despite the miles he had already covered. The way seemed endless, but he continued making slow, tedious progress as best he could. There were only a few meters left between him and the enormous, steel door when he noticed a small gold plaque, with ‘Hubble 37’ written on it. On second inspection, he saw another, much smaller door, adjoining the first. This one was all rusty, and in the middle was a keypad, so old that it was difficult to make out the numbers and letters on it.

Curiously, Charlie did not hesitate for a moment. He reached out and automatically typed the following code: ‘V.I.C.T.O.R.’, followed by the number: ‘3728’. Suddenly a female voice said, “Welcome, my dear Charlie! I’ve been expecting you for a long time.” Charlie recognized Clementine’s voice immediately and a radiant smile instantly lit up his face. His excitement was tangible. This was it! This time she was here, waiting for him alone, behind this door. He took a small mirror from his pocket, which he used to make sure he looked his best on this special day. He was more handsome than he had ever been and this time, there was no one around to make comments about his behavior, or steal his confidence. He cautiously took hold of the door handle and with great apprehension, slowly pushed open the old door. It made a grating noise like a freight train braking at full speed on its heavy steel tracks. The strident sound was so intense that Charlie grimaced and cringed slightly.

Behind the door was a small, red bed, surrounded by crimson curtains. Clementine was lying there, completely naked, smiling at him. This sight, although extremely pleasant, bothered Charlie so much that he began to blush. A strong feeling of guilt came over him. I can’t take advantage of this situation, he thought. But Clementine kept looking steadily at him, motioning him to join her. Large drops of sweat ran down his forehead as he stood, unable to move, incapable of taking even one step toward her. The young woman’s face slowly fell, giving way to an increasingly quizzical expression.

“What are you doing, Charlie? Do you think I’m going to wait forever?”

Paralyzed, rooted to the spot, he did not know how to answer.

Then Clementine got really cross. She got up brusquely and slipped on some white faux leather pants which showed off her beautiful curves. Her chest still bare, she came toward him and kissed him on the cheek before disappearing through a small, wooden door, which remained open behind her. Through it he could see what looked like the kitchen of a prize-winning chef. He walked to the door and opening it wide, was strangely relieved to see that the room was empty. A lone copper sauce pan was simmering on one of the gas stove’s six hobs. The aroma of soup coming from it tantalized Charlie’s nostrils and he suddenly felt unbearably hungry. He grabbed the pan and poured its entire contents into a large, white china bowl. The familiar smell of leek soup reminded him of wonderful times spent as a child, at his grandparents’ house in the country. He drank down the whole bowlful with delight. A feeling of intense pleasure came over him. He closed his eyes, fully concentrating on the flavor and aroma of the soup, which filled him with contentment.

 

 

15 DEAD END

 

The bowlful of soup that Charlie had just devoured on his own was beginning to weigh strangely on his stomach. He suddenly felt a lot heavier, so much so that he soon began to drowse on his chair. He was not really asleep, but his eyeballs started to roll upwards and his eyelids kept closing, despite his efforts to keep them open. In a moment of weakness, as his head was starting to slip repeatedly from the support of his hand, he heard a familiar voice. It seemed to be coming from himself.

Charlie! Can you hear me? It’s me, Jacques.”

Charlie jumped and began looking all around him, searching everywhere in the room for his brother, to no avail. He decided he must be going crazy, and yet he had a feeling of déjà-vu. He was convinced he had already lived through this scene, although he was not sure it had happened in this place.

The voice spoke again, “Charlie! You can’t see me, but if you can hear me, you can answer using the neural probe that Francisco implanted before the connection. I’ve already tried to make contact with you four times, without success.”

At these words, a flood of memories came rushing back into Charlie’s mind. He remembered that he was immersed in Victor’s mind and that his brother really was at his side throughout the whole journey, even though he could not see or feel him. He concentrated on trying to answer him, using the neural probe.

… I hear you, Jacques. For a while I thought I had passed away. I was afraid I had gone completely mad – things seem so implausible in this virtual world.

I’m so glad to read you, Charlie. We were getting worried here. It’s been six hours since we lost all contact with you.”

… Don’t worry. Everything’s fine. At least, I think so.

Can you tell me if anything in particular happened that could explain how you finally noticed my voice?”

… Not really. Wait, yes! Maybe I just fell asleep. At least, that’s what it felt like. Oh, and then I also ate some delicious soup, but that can’t have anything to do with it.

Was it leek soup?”

… How did you know?

Maybe because I have just eaten whole bowlful, made by Mario and Clementine.”

Charlie was about to answer when something caught his eye. A little mouse was scuttling across the kitchen, in fright. It ran toward a little hole in the bottom of the wall, disappeared inside then came out again a few seconds later. As it was watching him quite calmly, he tried to approach it, with soft, slow steps. It kept still right up until he reached out to stroke it. Then it went back into its hole and Charlie, who was now lying on the cold tiled floor, could only see two little bright blue eyes in the darkness. Those two little blue beads lost in the dark had a hypnotic effect on Charlie, so that soon he could no longer see the back of the hole, which had turned into a long tunnel, where he could stand without difficulty. Surprised, he straightened up and stretched out his right hand, searching for the wall. Even though he could not see it, he could feel something like damp rock under his fingertips. Droplets of lukewarm water trickled slowly up his arm. The atmosphere was now a lot cooler, despite the heavy humidity which made the air difficult to breathe.

Charlie kept going, walking slowly toward the two blue beads, which had become distant and minuscule. As he went on, his eyes adjusted to the dimness. Now he could make out the rocky ground, which seemed to be covered in red lichen. Looking up, he noticed that the little eyes had practically disappeared. He could only make out a barely visible, pale glow. He thought for a moment that he saw the shape of an arrow carved in the rocky floor, but the thin layer of lichen prevented him from seeing it clearly. He knelt down and began to scratch at the edges with his fingernail. Strange symbols, whose meaning was not immediately obvious, slowly began to appear. In the end, as he could not understand them, he stood up. Looking at the group of symbols one last time, he set off on his way again. But then he noticed more symbols right next to the first, which he had not yet uncovered. He quickly cleared away the lichen, and stood up again. Now, viewing all the symbols as parts of a whole, he realized it was actually some sort of map. It seemed to show the different areas of the base, but a lot of things were missing. Only the huge metallic structures, such as the domes, were visible.

However, something intrigued him. There was a whole area of the base, shown on the map, which did not resemble any place he knew of. Perhaps he had not seen all of it yet after all. This last thought intrigued him all the more. Could Giuseppe have deliberately hidden something from them? He tried to put away that thought, telling himself that it was all mere supposition, of no real value. But the idea had taken root and it continued to work away at the back of his mind. Throwing a last glance at the strange engravings, he continued quietly on his way.

The conversation with Jacques had brought him back to Earth, or rather, to the dream. He was now perfectly conscious that the events and impressions he had just experienced, and would continue to experience in the near future, were not real. They were only mental constructs coming from the connection between his mind and Victor’s. This had the effect of making him feel a lot calmer and less impulsive in his reactions to the images and situations he met. Ordinarily, he would almost certainly have panicked at the idea of being lost in some dark, damp, rocky tunnel, where he could see neither the entrance nor the exit. Instead, he was curious, and set about exploring in a calm and methodical manner.

Charlie had lost count of the innumerable steps he had taken since entering the tunnel. After the episode with the symbols, nothing had broken the monotony of the seemingly endless path. The silence was such that the noise of his footsteps echoed more and more loudly and he could now hear the noise of the water trickling down the walls quite clearly. Although he remained confident, doubt was starting to niggle at him. He seemed to have been walking for hours in this dark tunnel, and still could not see the end of it. Fatigue began to overwhelm him, so that he tripped and ended up flat on his face on the sodden floor. Slightly stunned, he tried to get up, but lacked the strength. He laid his head down gently on the carpet of damp lichen and began to think, with his eyes closed. He told himself that maybe this way he could make contact with Jacques again, since the first time it had happened while he slept. But nothing came. He tried using the neural probe to call him. He thought he had succeeded, but had no way of knowing if he really had, as no one responded.

Charlie was now lost in thought. Neither the sound of the water, nor the noise of his footsteps came to break the leaden silence which reigned. However, he did not really sleep, despite his intense feeling of weariness and fatigue. Time passed by but there was no way of measuring it. In the distance, the two little phosphorescent blue beads reappeared and quickly drew nearer to Charlie, who had just opened his eyes again. The little animal sat down on its haunches next to him and stared at him.

“Who are you?” Charlie asked, without moving.

“Never mind who I am! Can’t you see you’re going around in circles?”

Charlie, surprised, did not know what to say. What the little creature said was true, nonetheless. It had been a long while that nothing was happening anymore. Come to think of it, had anything at all happened since the beginning?

“Where is Victor in all this?”

It was right. Where was Victor in this never-ending dream? After all, most of the elements making up the adventures he had just been through stemmed from his own existence, his own little world. Nothing seemed to have come from Victor’s mind, although that was what he was meant to be exploring. Or maybe there was something. One detail could have come from Victor’s mind; it was what he thought he had identified as a map of the base. But he could not be sure if even that was not merely a figment of his own imagination.

Just as Charlie opened his mouth to reply, the mouse ran away, in the opposite direction, as if it wanted him to know he needed to go back the way he had come. He got up quickly and started to run as fast as he could to catch it up. His feet were hardly touching the ground, as if he were flying several centimeters above the lichen-covered rocks.

 

 

16 THE OLD MAN

 

A few seconds later he caught sight of the exit at last. Back in the kitchen, a very elderly gentleman, looking quite elegant, although slightly out of place, was sitting where Charlie had been seated earlier. The old man was busily drinking a cup of tea, which smelt tantalizingly of bergamot. Charlie enjoyed tea very much, and his mad run had left him thirsty.

“Hello, Charlie. Please, sit down. You must be rather tired after all these adventures, aren’t you?”

“You know my name?”

“Of course! How could I not?”

His face and hair were of a very pale gray, which contrasted sharply with his deep black eyes. He was dressed like an English lord and his clothes failed to completely disguise the thinness of his emaciated limbs. Charlie moved toward him slightly hesitantly and took a seat opposite him where a chair and a cup awaited him.

“Unless I’m mistaken, you are rather keen on bergamot. Did you know that its calming qualities have been known and used since the dawn of the age? It’s also a powerful mutagenic agent, but don’t worry, this tea will not harm you.”

“Well, actually, I did know it was a relaxant. In fact, that’s why I enjoy it’s subtle but powerful flavor. Smells sometimes have surprising effects on our emotional state. But as for its mutagenic properties, I must say that I was unaware of them, Mr…? By the way, who do I have the honor of speaking to?”

As he said the words, Charlie could not help wondering if he himself was the author of this surprising statement, which he didn’t think he had known previously. Was this the fruit of his fertile and inventive imagination again, or was something new really taking place?

“You know already! You are the one who came here to meet me, aren’t you? So why ask me the question?”

“Victor?” replied Charlie, his voice trembling.

“Relax, my boy! We have plenty of time for getting to know one another. Oh! I also have some biscuits. I think these are your favorite kind. At least, it’s a memory that often comes back to you.”

Charlie helped himself from the tin that Victor proffered him. His hand shook and a vague anxiety was slowly taking hold of his whole body.

“Can you read my thoughts?”

“But of course I can! We are connected to each other, remember? You should know that better than I.”

“That’s odd, because you seem to be perfectly in control of the whole business, whereas I have been totally confused ever since I entered your mind. About that: do you resent the fact that I have intruded here without asking your opinion? You know, to be honest, no one really asked mine either.”

“Yes, I thought as much. Actually, that is why you can see me here, sitting opposite you. Your colleagues, who attempted to intrude here before you, did not have that opportunity.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, I’m no criminal, but let’s just say that I let them lose themselves in the meanderings of their own minds – just as I have done with you until now.”

“You mean that all I’ve seen so far came from my own mind; my own memories?”

“Practically, yes. Apart from a few details.”

“What proof do I have that what you’re telling me isn’t another product of my own mind? After all, my brother could very well be having some tea back there, and I could just be imagining that I’m doing the same with you. It already happened once, when I thought I was having a bowl of soup in this very kitchen. As you pointed out earlier, smells sometimes have a surprising effect on our emotions, so why not on our dreams?”

“But you’re not dreaming, Charlie. No more than you are in a dream of mine.”

“And yet, that’s what I was told would happen. I was to stay in your dreams and access some of your memories in order to know you better.”

“I should ask you why you seek to know me and how you managed to find this secret hibernation base. But you see, I know almost everything already, thanks to the information you and your colleagues have served me on a platter in coming here. Your little human brains are like a great open book to me. I can dip into a great variety of memories at my leisure and eventually build myself quite a clear picture of who you are and what you have been through.”

“In that case, you know Jacques, I suppose.”

“Your brother.”

Now, more than ever, Charlie felt trapped in a world where the absolute dictator was this being who had nothing human about him apart from his appearance and whose intentions were at the very least unclear. Just who was he, and what did he expect of Charlie, now that he already knew everything about him without even needing to ask? He was beginning to think Francisco and his team had been well and truly mistaken in sending him here. He would probably emerge from the experience – if he managed to escape – as a meager sponge, which has been squeezed dry of its last drop, without a single trace of what he had been through in this pool of neurons, just like those who had tried before him.”

“What do you want from me?” he asked, after a brief silence.

The old man hesitated a moment, swallowing a last mouthful of tea, then he looked up and replied calmly.

“I need you, Charlie. You have to help me.”

“How can I?”

“We will see each other again in time, but for now I think it’s time for you to continue your journey. In the next room there are three red doors. One of them is partially open. You will be the first to enter. I hope I’m not wrong about you. I have faith you.”

Charlie got up and shot a last glance at the old man; a look that betrayed his apprehension.

“Don’t worry, Charlie. You’re not alone anymore.”

 

 

17 THE CITY

 

There were clouds in the sky that day. Charlie was lying on the grass, enjoying the first rays of spring sunshine that warmed his skin, although the light breeze was still a little cool for the season. He had just opened his eyes, no doubt emerging from one of those long, refreshing naps he enjoyed so much. His arms were crossed behind his head, and his back cushioned by the grassy carpet as he enjoyed watching the clouds moving along as he lay still; they travelled slowly, leaving here and there the occasional patch of blue sky.

As he turned his head slightly to follow a small flock of birds flying by, his eyes stopped short in their trajectory and widened with fear. His arm looked huge; it was also pale gray, extraordinarily muscled and slightly shiny. Terrified, he leaped to his feet and looked all around him, searching for something familiar. Everything – absolutely all that he could see – was foreign to him, beginning with his own body. It occurred to him that he was still inside Victor’s mind. He had just taken up residence inside this gigantic body, lost in the middle of a world he knew absolutely nothing about. He then remembered the old man’s last words, before he went through the door that was to give him access to one of Victor’s memories. Whatever happened, he was not alone, and most importantly of all, he had to place himself in the position of an observer of this new type of spectacle. What was about to happen must have already been written. Logically, his presence should not change anything in the course of ancient events that were deeply rooted in Victor’s memory. At least, so he thought at that point in time.

A few meters away, Charlie could see two giants, deep in conversation, who were coming toward him. The clothing they wore was made of a strange material. It was more like a sort of supple, metallic veil that was perfectly adapted to the shape of their bodies, than actual clothes. Through this light, finely woven veil, he could see gray skin, like Victor’s. They did not seem to notice his presence, but that did not prevent him from experiencing rising apprehension. He began to look around for a possible escape route. Just then he noticed at his feet a small rodent, of a kind unknown to him, but which looked vaguely similar to a mouse. Its skin seemed to be covered with thick, greenish leather, with no fur to speak of. The animal turned its little black eyes in his direction, obviously trying to capture his attention.

“Don’t move!” it said in a small voice. “They can’t see you. Remember that you’re here as an outside observer. Try to interfere as little as possible with what you are here to see.”

Charlie did not have time to answer. The rodent had already disappeared into a little burrow, dug in the thick lawn carpeting the ground.

The two giants were now less than a meter away. Charlie’s heart began to beat rapidly but he contained himself and remained perfectly still. Oddly, their language seemed familiar to him, so familiar that he understood all that was being said without making the slightest effort. It was not his native language, however, or even a language he had heard before.

One of them was slightly smaller and seemed older than the other. Apart from that, they were very alike. Their faces were similar in every way to that of a man. Only their thick skin and gigantic size differentiated them from the human race. They were soon so close that Charlie could feel the air shifting with their movements. He noticed then that the air was suddenly hotter, as if their bodies or clothing gave off a large amount of heat, much more than that of a man. The situation was all the more incongruous as he was completely naked, standing only a few centimeters from them. But already the pressure was lifting: the two giants were slowly moving away, continuing their conversation as they went. Relieved, Charlie realized that what the rodent had said was true. This made him think of the episode in the tunnel. There, too, he had encountered a mysterious mouse. What it had told him then had restored his confidence and gotten him back on track.

Who was that mouse? Was it the result of an outside influence or simply a figment of his imagination; the materialization of a part of his own consciousness; some sort of unforeseen intuition that would impress itself upon him? Many such questions were hanging over him and Charlie knew that he would undoubtedly have to find answers to them one day. But for now, he needed to follow his instinct and take the advice he had received once again in an unexpected manner.

He decided to follow the two men, keeping a reasonable distance behind them. To start with, he walked about two meters behind, trying as best he could to listen to their conversation, but although he was effectively invisible to their eyes; he had the impression that they could hear the sound of his steps on the gravel path. Several times, the elder one turned around, looking surprised and suspicious. Seeing nothing unusual, he carried on his way. Charlie decided prudently to hang back further and walk as quietly as possible on the grass beside the path, rather than on the fine gravel which had nearly given him away a few seconds earlier.

“The Council has expressed doubt as to the completion date of the third and last settlement vessel. They have said that if the delay is confirmed, it will undoubtedly be impossible for them to guarantee a place on board for everyone.”

“What will happen to those with no place?”

“From what I understand, the technicians are currently fitting out ancient sub-marine caverns in the region around Xantra. The most optimistic predictions say that all regions above sea-level will be destroyed by the impact. They think that these caverns could serve as survival shelters for all those who will not be able to leave in time.”

“What guarantee do we have that these caves will withstand such a deluge of fire?”

“Their exact location is being kept secret for now, but it would seem that they are deeply buried under hundreds of meters of rock and water. According to the experts, that should be enough to protect them from the impact, but my brother, who works on one of the bases, told me that they don’t yet know how they will go about retrieving the survivors. If there are any!”

“How could they retrieve them? They’d have to wait an eternity. According to the specialists, the planet will be turned into a veritable furnace for decades. Then there will be dust, toxic gases and polar temperatures for centuries. Any attempt to save them would be impossible for a very long time.”

“My brother told me about new hibernation technology, which is much more sophisticated than what we use on board our vessels. It could pave the way for a type of unlimited artificial sleep, during which vital functions and all the body’s cells are preserved.”

“I thought that hibernation could not exceed fifty years with the current technology.”

“I thought so too, but according to him, this new technology they are about to implement could change things. If it works, it could be possible to retrieve the survivors hundreds or even thousands of years after the beginning of their hibernation.”

“How will we know if they’ve survived the cataclysm or if the hibernation process hasn’t killed them?”

“The bases will be equipped with very low frequency electromagnetic transponders. Their far-reaching electromagnetic waves will provide very precise information about the physiological state of the survivors. Thousands of fully autonomous mini weather stations have also been placed all over the planet. They are all linked to transponders which will transmit data to the different hibernation bases. They already know that most of these weather stations will be destroyed directly or indirectly as a result of the impact, but some of them should last. At least, that’s what we have to hope.”

“It seems to me that we are regrettably preparing to abandon a whole section of our population to almost certain death. This all sounds like a huge deception that is meant to make the pill easier to swallow for those who will be sacrificed, and make the others feel less guilty.”

“No! Listen, I could be tempted to think so too, if my brother wasn’t involved in the whole business. He has worked personally on setting up the project. I can even say that he has dedicated a large part of his life to it. He has never lied to me, at least, not about important matters.”

“Maybe he’s let himself be deceived, too. He definitely believes sincerely in the project.”

“My brother is anything but naïve. He knows perfectly well what scientific and political stakes are involved in this project. He’s an exceptionally intelligent man. When we were young, he never had to learn his lessons. It was as if he just knew everything, without having to make the slightest effort. As for me, on the other hand, I had to try harder and harder to get my grades up above the average. He was different. Everything was easy for him, and on the rare occasion when I thought he’d made a mistake, I found out I was the one who was wrong. It was simply because he had noticed subtleties that were imperceptible to others. What seemed obvious to mere mortal eyes therefore became a heresy, a flawed theory, which he had rejected even before we had started to consider it. And that’s not all! … I called him yesterday and he told me he’s made the decision to volunteer for hibernation.”

The giant’s expression suddenly clouded; his black eyes gazed into space for a moment, while his companion looked on, in sympathy. He seemed to want to observe a brief moment of silence to give his friend the time to gain control over his obviously strong emotions.

“Do you think it’s too late to talk him out of it?”

“Actually, I’m going to stay, too.”

“Are you crazy? You have no chance of survival if you do that! Your brother might have good reason to stay, but not you. He probably feels especially responsible for the project and the people he is readying to embark on a one-way journey. Sometimes even the most intelligent and rational people can be driven to make the craziest of decisions when their moral integrity and sense of duty are at stake.”

“You’re probably right, but my mind is made up. I won’t leave without him and he won’t change his mind; I’m sure of it.”

“Have you told him what you’re planning to do?”

“I won’t tell him until the last minute. I don’t want to interfere with his plans. As I told you before, I have never seen my brother make a mistake. Every time I have wanted to take another path than the one he was showing me, I was wrong. This time, I don’t want to make the same error. He’s the only family I have left and neither of us has children.”

“What about Rosaline?”

“I haven’t told her, either. She will find out at the last minute, too. She’s a lot younger than me. She’ll start life over without me, I’m sure.”

“Do you realize that in the best case scenario, when you come out of this artificial sleep, none of your loved ones or your friends will still be alive? You will be like a stranger in a world totally different to the one you knew. Don’t you think that your place is with your wife and friends? Let your brother make his own choice. There’s no logic in this.”

“Exactly. It’s not logic that’s guiding me. Anyway, it’s too late. I’ve just asked that my name be struck off the “Navigator 9” list, where my place was booked.”

His dismayed friend did not know what to say. The silence that followed left an uneasy feeling between the two of them. At that moment, the elder one turned abruptly toward Charlie, who had just slipped, making a noise on the gravel path.

“This time I’m sure I heard something! I’m not crazy!”

His eyes combed the air and the ground, searching for a clue. The suspicion that showed on his face was taken by his friend to be a poorly disguised sign of paranoia.

“Are you sure you’re okay, Vikern?”

But Vikern did not answer. He was concentrating, completely absorbed by the impression that he was being spied on.

Charlie, stood stock still, holding his breath, afraid of being discovered. Straining his ears, he could almost hear his own heartbeat, so intense was his fear.

“Come on. We’re all a little uptight at the moment. This whole business is totally crazy. The experts have been sounding the alarm for centuries. We should have acted sooner. Maybe we would have been able to avoid pointless sacrifice. If some of us escape and manage to settle somewhere in outer space, I really hope we’ll learn from our mistakes. In this universe, such crises are cyclical and inevitable, simply from a statistical point of view. We didn’t start preparing in time. We were far too busy managing the city’s problems to be bothered investing time and money in a program of risk prevention worthy of that name. And look at the result! Leave or die. That’s the choice we’re faced with today. I’ll say it one last time, Vikern: come with us on the “Navigator 13”. I could still work something out with the Embarkation Bureau. I could prove to them that your skills are indispensible to my research team. They can still find you a place. Think about it, but don’t wait too long.”

Vikern did not answer.

They kept walking toward a vehicle, which Charlie did not recognize yet. It seemed to be some new type of transportation. It had neither wheels, nor engine nor propeller. It was a sort of oblong, made of metal and glass, which hovered several centimeters above the ground. The glass was tinted a slightly lighter gray than that of the metal structure surrounding it. He hesitated to follow them. He was now sitting on the cool grass, letting the two giants move away from him. His legs were still shaking and his heart was only just starting to slow from its frenetic pace. What should he do? The fear of being discovered paralyzed him, but at the same time, he was fully aware that none of this was real, or rather not currently real. It had certainly been real once, but it was not any longer. It was only a memory, Victor’s memory; or at least, what he had presented to him as such.

Even so, Charlie found himself paralyzed by something other than fear. He was bothered by a nagging doubt which was keeping from making an increasingly urgent decision. How could Vikern have suspected he was there? Wasn’t there a risk involved in interfering like this in someone else’s mental reality? Obviously, his intrusion could not help but have some effect on Victor’s mind; and probably on his own, too. He could not be sure, but intuitively he felt that there was a strong risk of their both being led into constructing a new mental reality, leaving a trace that was slightly different to the original memory. He would have to be careful in future to be as discreet as possible, even if it meant missing out on gleaning some information.

Just as they were getting dangerously close to the vehicle, Charlie finally made up his mind. He absolutely had to follow them. It was no accident that Victor had wanted him to witness this conversation. He started running as fast as he could, trying to make as little noise as possible as he ran. When he was only a few meters from them, he slowed down and caught his breath as discreetly as he could. As the two individuals approached the vehicle in silence, the windows immediately lost their gray tint, and became completely transparent. A large door opened and they both got in, closely followed by Charlie. Six large, very comfortable seats, covered in white faux leather, were arranged in two separate rows. Charlie chose a seat a good distance from Vikern, preferring the less attentive company of his friend.

 

 

18 GUIDANCE

 

Charlie’s nakedness was seriously starting to bother him. He was now sitting only a few centimeters away from the giants. Comfortably installed, he was watching in amazement as the scenery flew by. The vehicle had windows all around, even in the floor. If it had not been for the metallic structure reminding passengers that they were in a flying vehicle, they could have easily felt that they were flying on their own. The experience, which was utterly new to Charlie, made his head spin. The feeling of power and freedom it gave him was totally intoxicating – except that his nudity was spoiling the experience. What bothered him the most was the unpleasant sensation of the faux leather seat against his naked skin. No one could see him, but he was still prevented from fully enjoying the situation. It must be said that he had never been much of an exhibitionist, and for good reason. His body had always been a source of ridicule at best, or of morbid curiosity at worst. Jacques, on the other hand, saw things differently. He sometimes liked to use his body as a means of provocation; anticipating its effects with impatient delight. It was a way for him to assert himself. If he had to be different, he might as well openly advertise the fact. As least, that was what he had always loudly maintained to all who would listen. His behavior always had the effect of aggravating Charlie in the extreme. Charlie was not at ease with himself at all. In those moments, he was overcome with shame, not knowing where to look. However, he inwardly harbored a little jealousy and he could not help thinking that if he were less of a coward, he would probably quite happily do the same.

Well, there you go, he thought. It’s finally happened. Now it’s my turn to be exposed, but yet again, I have no say in the matter. I must find a way to get some clothes on fast.

As soon as he became aware of that thought, another thought came to him. Although he was invisible, that did not necessarily mean that his clothes would be, too.

“Oh well, what difference does it make anyway?” he said to himself resignedly. “There’s no point in putting myself at risk for the sake of ill-placed pride.” After all, it was not the worst thing that could happen to him and it probably would not last for very long. Even though he was not completely conscious of it, the idea of being able to see without being seen – especially while wandering around naked with no possibility of being discovered – didn’t seem as unpleasant as all that. This magnificently sculpted body was not even his, so why worry about insignificant details when an extraordinary opportunity lay before him?

“Grab the green file I left on the seat, if you will, and look at the last pages. There’s a document there that should interest you”, said Vikern.

Charlie did not have time to realize what was happening. The giant on his left reached out his hand to take the file which was sitting on the seat to Charlie’s right. He felt a dreadful jolt in his chest. At first he thought the giant’s arm had struck him, but it was only his heart which had started to gallop at full speed because of an adrenaline rush. He looked down and realized that the arm in question was sticking into his abdomen. He could feel absolutely nothing at all, but could see it moving around in his belly just as if there were nobody sitting in his seat. The hand grasped the file and soon arm, hand and file passed right through his body, in one side and out the other.

Now he understood that his nakedness was significant to nobody but himself. He had just been given absolute assurance that no one could see or touch him here in this virtual world. Only Vikern seemed to sense his presence, for some inexplicable reason. Perhaps it would be better if he did not get too close to him, but followed his companion instead, when the time came.

What Vikern referred to as a file was actually a sort of tinted glass tablet. As soon as Vikern’s friend touched it, it became translucent, and incomprehensible writing gradually materialized in its center. At first, Charlie was incapable of recognizing the slightest letter or even symbol. He had never seen anything like it before. It was a form of writing totally unknown to him. To his astonishment, however, he began to understand its meaning little by little, and very soon it became so familiar to him that he could read the tablet like a book. His mind seemed to adjust rapidly in some unfathomable way. It became clear to Charlie that Victor must be no stranger to this writing. Once again, he was aware that he was not alone in this adventure. Victor wanted him to understand something, but what?

He focused on reading the strange glass tablet. It seemed to be a confidential report stipulating that planet AS321 was no longer part of the Exodus plan. The report mentioned that the conditions required for establishing a settlement had ultimately not come together, contrary to predictions at the time the project was conceived. According to the latest spectrometric readings, its atmosphere contained concentrated amounts of highly toxic chemicals. This discovery compromised the establishment of colonies. It also mentioned that such a settlement project would require a colossal amount of work to make the atmosphere breathable. The probability of success for such an undertaking was far too slight to make it feasible. Consequently, the Council had opted for continuing the voyage for much longer than planned, in the hope that the fleet may eventually detect a planet more suitable for the establishment of colonies. At present, no avenue of research had been established and there was no certainty of the project’s success. At the end of the report, a special mention stipulated that under no circumstances whatsoever was the information to be divulged to the civilian population until such time as definite progress had been made.

“Do you understand my decision better now, Jiec?”

Jiec’s face had suddenly fallen. Usually a pale gray, he was now as white as a sheet.

“How long have you known about this? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I looked through my brother’s files when he was visiting last week. He was acting strangely. He seemed very troubled and not at all lively, although he’s usually great company. Ordinarily he enjoys a good joke, likes to talk and appreciates good food. This time he was different, so different that I realized straight away something serious must have happened. I asked him about it but he refused to talk. Senec has always functioned like that. At first he hides a thing from me, knowing very well that I’ll end up figuring it out on my own, by following the clues he deliberately leaves behind him. When he is presented with a fait accompli his response is invariably the same. He’ll say that he didn’t want to tell me anything, to spare me unnecessary grief. Actually, I think it’s mainly that he refuses to take sole responsibility for announcing bad news with potentially disastrous consequences. In taking that tack, he helps me to be on the offensive in the face of adversity. I become someone who wants to know, rather than someone who is merely subjected to events. It doesn’t sound like much, but it makes a big difference to my attitude and the way I experience events. As I told you, he is extremely intelligent and nothing that he does or decides to do is left to chance. So I looked for clues as usual, and I found these files that he had deliberately left lying on his bed. I kept this one. He knows, but he didn’t ask me for it when he left.”

“Do you think he wanted you to make the information public?”

“One thing is certain: he wanted me to have it. He probably wanted me to make a decision that he couldn’t make himself, in light of his involvement in the project.”

“If I understand correctly, this means I have scarcely more chance of survival than you.”

“Well, it’s hard to say. Actually, we are faced with a terrible dilemma. Whatever option we choose, the future is uncertain. Nobody can say today if one of the options open to us is better than the other.”

“You are forgetting that the survival of those hibernating underground totally depends on those who choose to leave. They are the ones who will have to come and rescue them and begin the awakening procedure. That is what’s planned, isn’t it? In that case, what happens if the Exodus fails? These caverns could become your tombs, Vikern.”

“Among the files I looked at, there was also a red one that my brother had carefully put in his portable safe, probably thinking I would never dare to look inside it without his express permission.”

“But you did anyway!”

“Yes! What I had just discovered was far too important for me to be bothered by pointless scruples. I deliberately went through his safe, which he had left unlocked.”

“I see! And what was in this red file? Top secret matters, I suppose. Even more revelations capable of overturning the conventional wisdom of the uninitiated, is that it?”

Vikern noticed the edge of wry cynicism in his friend’s retort. He fell silent for a moment, thinking. Then he spoke again in a calm tone.

“I know what you must be thinking right now. You’re probably starting to wonder if the pressure has sent me totally off my rocker; but you need to know that I am not under the influence of some paranoid fantasy. All my claims are founded. You’re free to take me at my word or not, but we’ve been friends for over thirty years now. If I’m telling you about all this, it’s because of our friendship; otherwise I wouldn’t say anything and you’d go rushing headlong into an affair that is completely beyond you.”

“No, Vikern! I trust you. Sometimes I’m a bit cynical. It’s probably my way of trying to rise above a situation that makes me uncomfortable. Forget about it and tell me what was in that file.”

Vikern looked a little doubtfully at Jiec, but he seemed sincere enough, so he decided to continue his explanations, trusting an old friend who had never yet let him down in all the years they had known each other.

“The file contained a long list of names, apparently linked to some unofficial alternative project. This project consists of putting in place an independent waking device which would ensure the salvation of the group that stays on Earth.”

Earth… That name was like a bomb exploding to Charlie. Until then he had been listening carefully to the discussion, trying not to miss any of it, but now he found himself in the grip of an anxiety attack, as sudden as it was brutal. He had just realized for the first time that these creatures from another world were perhaps not so far removed from his own kind as that. Indeed, their appearance was very similar to that of a man, barring their size. That must have been what Victor wanted him to understand in sending him here. This realization brought a sensation of dizziness over Charlie that confused his thoughts. Bridges, points of connection, were now being made on multiple levels: a connection between beings; a connection between dream and reality; and now a connection between worlds, in the infinite course of time. Who would not have felt dizzy in such a situation? Usually, the anxiety gradually faded, leaving behind it a feeling of fatigue and lethargy, but this time it did not cease until Charlie passed out and collapsed, unconscious, his head resting on the cold metal of the dashboard.

 

 

19 INTERRUPTION

 

When Charlie opened his eyes again, he was back in the kitchen, lying on the floor. The contact of the cold, hard tiles on his cheek was uncomfortable. His whole body was still numb and he felt drained, utterly drained. His head was still rather sore, but what bothered him the most was the intense ache in nearly every muscle. He felt as if he were emerging from a long exhausting race; a sort of marathon where he had pushed his body to the point of collapse, to the extreme limit of his physical resistance. Glancing around quickly, he examined the room where he lay. He identified it immediately as the one where he had eaten the delicious soup. The thought comforted him. After the breathtaking trip he had just made, he found himself in an enclosed, familiar place again; a place where he had found refreshment and made contact with Jacques. It was also the place where he had met Victor. In short, this virtual kitchen was to him a sort of resting place, or rather a junction. It was like a type of landing; a secure, stable point in the midst of a virtual universe with no limits. He did not really know how he had arrived at this conclusion, but he was sure of it. This room would always be here and it would anchor him to reality, no matter what happened.

The room was empty; there was not a single sign of Victor. Breathing in, Charlie caught a slight aroma of grilled meat. He wondered if perhaps Jacques was eating, which would explain why he was back in here with the smell of food. After all, that was what had seemed to happen last time. He concentrated, in the hope of managing to communicate with Jacques using the neural probe. He did not need to wait for an answer.

… Jacques? It’s me. Answer me!

Is everything okay, Charlie? I’ve been trying to talk to you for days but I got no answer. What happened to you? In the last few hours your heart started racing. Your pulse went out of control; then everything stopped without any explanation. Your heart stopped beating. Then your heartbeats started up again at a slow, regular rhythm.”

… I don’t know either. I think I had a turn. At first I thought it was another anxiety attack, but the dizziness was much worse than usual. In the end I fainted and I don’t remember anything after that.

It’s time for you to come back now. The experiment is getting too dangerous.”

… No! Not now. I’ve met Victor, you know. Maybe he’s not so different from us after all. If I come back now, I’ll never know what it was he was trying to tell me.

“He’s delirious,” said Francisco authoritatively. “The connection does allow for the two subjects involved to consciously make contact with one another; especially as Victor has been in hibernation for ages. Their languages must be very different, and their perception and thought mechanisms too. Charlie cannot have met and clearly communicated with Victor’s psyche. It’s simply impossible. He has been connected for too long; his thinking must be confused. We have to get him back here to question him about what happened. We can reconnect him again if we need to. Tell him, Jacques.”

Jacques did not answer immediately.

… Are you still there, Jacques? asked Charlie.

Yes, don’t worry, I can read everything you’re saying.”

… So you understand? They mustn’t disconnect me yet. I’m on the verge of an extraordinary discovery!

“Come on, Jacques! What are you waiting for?” asked Francisco.

Mario put his hand on Francisco’s shoulder and said in a low voice, “Calm down, Francisco. Have faith in him. They have been joined together since birth. Let’s trust their intuition. Jacques will know what he has to do when the time comes. Trust me.”

Francisco kept quiet, but showed obvious signs of anxiety. Jacques was not paying any more attention to those around him. He was trying instead to focus his attention on his feelings, trusting himself alone to make the right decision.

Are you sure you’re completely with it, Charlie? You know, you’ve been immersed in Victor’s mind for quite a while now. It’s possible that your judgment may be slightly affected by your loss of sensorial, spatial and even temporal bearings. Think about what happened to the previous candidates. It would be a shame for you to wait until you’re in such a bad state that you can’t tell us about what you experienced once you get back. Don’t you think?”

… No, I’m okay. I’m sure of it. Trust me. I know I’m still completely lucid, even though I had a bit of a turn a little while ago.

It’s not exactly what you’d call ‘a bit of a turn’, Charlie! Your heart stopped beating for over twenty seconds, remember! Anyway, you need to know that if it was up to me, I would unplug you straight away. I definitely don’t want anything to happen to you just because I didn’t make the right decision at the right time. The problem is that we can’t disconnect you against your will. If you don’t want to come back by being disconnected, we risk causing you serious brain damage which could reduce you to the state of a vegetable.”

Charlie did not respond immediately. He really wanted to stay, despite the danger, in order to find out more about Victor and the extraordinary secret he held; but he did not want to put his brother’s life in danger. He knew very well that that was what this was about, even though Jacques had not specifically said so.

Are you still there?”

… You’re right, he said, contrary to all expectation. .Do the necessary to –

But the communication was suddenly cut off before Charlie could finish his sentence.

“What’s going on?” asked Mario. “Did you lose contact? Try to get it back, damn it! We can’t disconnect him unless we’re sure he’s ready and fully consenting.”

“I know, but it’s too late. He’s not answering. There’s nothing we can do for now.”

Charlie did not understand what had just happened. He was still lying with his head resting on the kitchen floor and he could hear the sound of steps echoing on the tiles, followed by the scraping of a chair.

“Ah, you’re back again, my dear friend!”

Charlie struggled to his feet. He did not need to think long before realizing that it was Victor who had just entered the kitchen. Even before he saw him, he was sure of it. The old man was sitting in the same place as at their last meeting. This time, there was nothing to eat, neither biscuits nor a cup of tea. Victor’s face was more mournful and disturbing than ever.

“You were going to abandon me, weren’t you? And yet, I had trusted you. You knew that I needed you!”

“Well, things are more complicated than you think,” replied Charlie feebly.

“What do you know of what I think? You are still like a newborn babe to me, Charlie. I know exactly what is going on. Just don’t ever forget that you are on my turf here,” he said in an authoritative tone.

“Was it you who interrupted the transmission?”

“Yes, I did. I let you talk with your brother for a while first. I believe you needed that. Going into that first memory seems to have sorely tried you. I am beginning to wonder if I’ve misjudged you.”

Charlie was paralyzed with fear. He was utterly at Victor’s mercy now and he could do with him whatever he pleased.

“Why did you interrupt the communication, Victor? I didn’t want to abandon you. I would have come back. It was just to give me time to get my strength back before connecting again. You know, if it were only up to me, I would have stayed here with you but my brother’s health is intrinsically linked to mine. You understand that, Vikern. You have a brother, too. In the past you have had difficult choices to make, haven’t you? You didn’t want to be separated from him. And yet, you also had a choice.”

In calling him by his real name, Charlie hoped to show Victor that he had not misjudged him. Despite his weakness, he understood quite clearly the message that Victor wanted to communicate in sharing that memory with him.

“You are right, Charlie. I understand you perfectly. In your place, I would no doubt have made the same decision. But what led you to believe that I am Vikern? I was not the only person in that memory.”

“It was probably your personality. And also, something strange happened. Vikern seemed to notice my presence, whereas his friend didn’t notice anything. I can’t be sure from my perspective, but I thought that you were the only one capable of perceiving things. The other person was merely an outside element included in your memory. How could he feel anything whatsoever?”

“And yet, Jiec reacted to Vikern’s suspicious behavior. He even linked that behavior to the fact that they ‘were all a little uptight’, to use his exact words. Are you sure you’re not mistaken?”

Charlie hesitated for a moment, although he was sure of what he had said. Why would Victor want him to think otherwise? For what purpose? Unless he was simply trying to test him. Maybe Victor was trying to make sure Charlie was sufficiently capable of analysis and discernment to warrant continuing the process with him. At that precise moment he was keenly aware of the fact that his next words would be of crucial importance. He absolutely must win Victor’s trust if he did not want to go back as a vegetable or worse still. He therefore weighed his words carefully and delivered them with as much assurance as possible.

“I’m certain. That distortion was obviously due to the fact that you and I are dreaming, or rather thinking, together. You knew that I was visiting your memory. A part of yourself must have followed me there and partially modified the unfolding of events. Memories are not fixed phenomena – at least, not for human beings – I suppose it is the same for you. Every version of a memory is necessarily slightly different from the previous one. That’s why our childhood memories are often very different to the actual events that occurred.”

“Well! I see that you have pulled yourself together and are capable of exercising discernment. As you have guessed, my name is Vikern. At least, that is its closest equivalent. I suppose you also understand that I communicate with you using your language, because ours is beyond your reach. Indeed, I had to translate the contents of the tablets so you would understand them. You are right: that memory was a joint construction, but I was careful to modify its structure and the objective information I wanted to communicate to you as little as possible. I could have simply spoken to you directly without imposing this difficult journey on you, but I needed you to experience these events. Certain elements of my memories may have stood out to you, whereas to me, they slip by unnoticed. Do you understand?”

“Is that why you need me?”

“Precisely. Some things still escape me and yet I have had plenty of time to examine my memories in the minutest detail.”

“So you need an objective point of view to examine these details? What are you looking for, Vikern?”

“It is too soon to tell you. It might affect your judgment. They say that one tends to find just what one is looking for. In other words, our judgment is affected by the very goal we set ourselves. We therefore miss details that would have opened up new perspectives to us. Perhaps you will have more success flying blind. Trust your intuition. Carefully observe and analyze the different situations you come across over the next few days. Otherwise, I will guide you. Lastly, don’t forget Charlie; you are working in a fragile and unstable world which is constantly being rewritten, as you explained so well, earlier. Consequently, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for you to remain as discreet as possible. Or else I will be forced to intervene in a very unpleasant way, you can be sure. I do not want you to disrupt entire episodes of my memory.”

“Am I to understand that I must go through another door?”

“On the landing you’ll find a second door which is partially open. You know the way now. Try to keep your head this time!”

“Before I go, if you’ll allow me, I would like to discuss some things with you that troubled me during the last journey.”

“Not now! We’ll talk about them when the time is right. All you need to know, you know already. Now, go!”

Charlie, looking slightly offended, complied, but this time he did not look back.

 

 

20 THE PASSENGER

 

The sound of slow, regular footsteps with a metallic ring to them resonated on the floor. Charlie was in a very small room, entirely made of metal. The atmosphere was familiar to him, but he was incapable of explaining why. He was sitting on the floor; his eyes scanned the room, taking in every detail. There was nothing to break the monotony in what he saw; not a window, nor any furniture nor even an object that Charlie recognized. Only the large, gray, slightly arched door contrasted with the angular, austere architecture of the place.

The sound of the steps settled into a regular coming and going, repeated many times over. Time seemed to stand still and Charlie’s thoughts began to wander. He was thinking about Clementine now, trying to visualize her face without altering the slightest detail, but it was no easy exercise. At first, he could see her clearly, but as time went by, the image became blurred. The daydream only afforded him short-lived comfort, and he became increasingly bored and lethargic. Just as he was beginning to nod off, he noticed a change, something out of place, in the sound of the steps that had been rhythmically marking the course of time for hours, like a metronome or the pendulum of a grandfather clock. The noise they made now revealed the presence of a second person. They both stopped behind the door and after a brief silence the heavy metal handle moved downwards without the slightest sound.

Charlie, once again the creature with gray skin and a completely naked body, looked around frantically for somewhere to hide, but the search was in vain. There was no furniture or dark corner to offer him any shelter. It was only once he understood that the two individuals were not paying the slightest attention to him that he found a semblance of relief. They were talking together, totally ignoring his presence.

“Senec will be here soon. He’s not a prisoner like the others. Try to make this cell a little more comfortable for him. He has been authorized to keep his graphic tablet with him. In light of the current turn of events, we cannot do without his skills. Even while in isolation, he must continue working on the Exodus project. Please see that he lacks nothing. I’m counting on you. Oh, I almost forgot! Don’t let yourself be taken in. Whatever he tells you, never deviate from your orders.”

“Yes, sir. You can count on me.”

They both left as they had come, leaving the door slightly open.

Charlie now knew that the situation was the same as in the last memory. They obviously could not see him, but he remembered that he had to remain as discreet as possible, all the same, if he did not want to experience Victor’s wrath and risk compromising the mission he had just accepted. So he decided to wait a few minutes, until the sound of their footsteps had faded sufficiently before leaving the room. As the door was ajar, he did his best not to open it any further. He slipped between the frame and the edge of the door as quietly as possible and found himself in a long, harshly-lit corridor.

The light was so intense that Charlie had trouble keeping his eyes open. Despite his efforts to distinguish its edges, the corridor seemed unreal, almost immaterial. The experience was extremely unnerving. It reminded him of the dark tunnel where he had spent hours wondering if he would ever find a way out; except that had happened while he was trapped in his own dreams. At the time, Victor had not yet allowed him to enter his mind. Now, everything was different. He was supposed to be exploring one of Victor’s memories, and yet he had been alone for several hours, now. There was no sign of Vikern. How could he be the guest in one of Victor’s memories, without Victor being present in some form or other? He must have participated in the event in order to remember it. Could Charlie be stuck in his own dreams again? Something was not right, but his questions remained unanswerable for the time being. He chose to move onward anyway, tiptoeing along in the blinding light. His right arm out stretched, he slid his hand along the unseen wall, which he used as a guide rope for his slow progress through this place where his eyes were of no use to him whatsoever.

After walking for several minutes, he noticed a black smudge in the distance, which was probably a way out of the corridor. It appeared to be very far off, but as soon as he had noticed it, it seemed to approach at a dizzying speed. Every stride propelled him toward that point, as if he were flying a few centimeters above the ground again. He felt as though he were being sucked into the opening. Very soon the speed was such that he closed his eyes and guarded his face with his hands, afraid of colliding with something without having time to change course. When he opened his eyes again, he was in a huge room. In front of him, a gigantic vessel occupied all the space. Charlie could not believe his eyes. At first glance, the craft had to be over 800 meters long and around 100 meters high, maybe more.

A crowd of people were working on it, in apparent calm. One of them was driving a small vehicle, towing thick glass cages. Inside one was a strange animal that looked like a monkey with no fur to speak of. Hunched over, it looked at Charlie with large, tear-filled eyes. Although the others seemed to ignore his presence, this animal, on the other hand, showed a marked interest in Charlie and did not take its eyes off him until the cage was placed on one of the gangways that led to the interior of the vessel.

The sight of the captive animal gave Charlie an acute sense of unease. For a split second, he thought he recognized himself in the sad eyes of this creature with its vaguely human appearance. He had been able to sense all the emotion contained in that one look; tinged with despair and helplessness. Much more than a look, it was actually a cry for help that had been addressed to him; a cry which Charlie had heard, but which he would probably never be able to answer. He had just realized the full extent of the tragedy that had unfolded here, tens or even hundreds of millennia ago. How many? He didn’t even know. The scale of time was much too great for him to have a precise idea. Vikern had simply spoken of a catastrophe that would transform the Earth into a gigantic furnace, destroying all hope of survival apart from the hibernation bases or the outer space colonization project.

Of course, Charlie had been taught, like everyone else, that the dinosaurs had been extinct for millions of years. Over the course of its history, the Earth had known numerous periods of widespread extinction but never, to his knowledge, did any book mention the existence of a society like this before the appearance of Man. Could it be possible that such a highly evolved society could have disappeared one day, without leaving the slightest trace of its existence on Earth? How could he believe such a thing without losing control? He had to, though. I don’t have any choice, he thought. In the end, maybe that’s what makes him like me, that little naked monkey. He doesn’t have any choice, either. His cry for help is doomed to failure. We have to accept what happens to us and do all we can to stay alive.

Charlie could feel a sense of rebellion and strength rising up within him. I can do this, he thought. Victor needs me. I will not let him take over my will and my free choice. As long as I’m alive, he will have to reckon with me. I will find a way of negotiating my exit with him in the end.

Lost in thought, as if this strange meeting had suspended time, Charlie had not noticed that a small group was heading straight for him. It was already too late for him to avoid a collision, but yet again, no physical contact took place. The three giants went straight through his body, or almost. One of them seemed a little ruffled, and quickly brushed down his clothes as if he were trying to straighten them out. This immediately reminded Charlie that his primary goal was to find clues for Victor’s sake. N.H.I.’s were already imposing enough because of their size and muscle structure, but these ones were even more impressive. Two of them were obviously guards, as could be seen by their build and their attitude. They both wore very shiny black, metallic uniforms. The third individual was of much more ordinary size. He was wearing civilian clothes and was walking under the close surveillance of the two hulks accompanying him. He was the one who seemed to have felt something during the collision. Charlie supposed it was probably Senec, and decided to follow him.

The little group stopped in front of the first gangway. It seemed to lead to the bridge.

“Go on up. You’re expected by the Council. We’ll wait here. Anyway, there’s no other way out and armed guards are waiting at the top. There’s no point in trying anything. If you cooperate, everything will be just fine.”

“Don’t worry. Where would I go, anyway? This vessel is probably the safest place on the whole planet these days. Oh, yes – speaking of that – I’m sure you’ve received your embarkation forms, haven’t you?”

Surprise and concern showed clearly on their faces. They obviously had no idea what Senec was talking about.

Senec smiled and saluted them respectfully before going up the gangway stairs which would lead him to the Council.

Charlie wanted to follow him, but the two guards were standing in front of the entrance, completely blocking his way. They were standing side by side, shoulders back, looking into the distance as they talked.

“Have you received anything?”

“No. And you?”

“Me neither.”

“You think he’s telling the truth?”

“I don’t know, but I’m going to find out. I’d better!”

“You think so? Our places are booked anyway, aren’t they? Everyone will have a place. Isn’t that what they said?”

But his companion did not answer.

Charlie made up his mind and headed determinedly toward the two mammoths. Without even noticing, he went through their enormous bodies and continued on up the stairway. Worrying that he had hesitated too long and would find the door shut, he tripped on the first step in his haste and went flat on his face on the metal stairs of the gangway. The noise made by his heavy fall was practically inexistent. However, a vibration ran along the gangway until it reached Senec, who felt it and turned around, puzzled. He looked downstairs, but seeing nothing went on his way, as Charlie got painfully to his feet, feeling embarrassed at this new blunder. He who had felt so exhilarated a few moments earlier had just come crashing back down to Earth. It must be said that Charlie had never done anything in life but split hairs and make fine speeches, straight-jacketed as he was, in a deformed and clumsy body. It would obviously take him some time to fully benefit from the new freedom of movement now available to him.

 

 

21 THE COUNCIL

 

Five members of the Council were sitting in a semi-circle in a large oval room next to the bridge. Senec came and stood before them, without even bothering to look for somewhere to sit. He remained standing, waiting for the questions. He seemed used to the protocol and knew full well what was coming. Charlie hung back, slightly behind him.

“I suppose you know why you have been brought here?”

Senec did not answer.

“You are accused of seeking to divulge information that the Council wished to remain confidential as long as we did not have sufficient guarantees. You must be aware that such behavior could compromise the whole rescue program that we have been working toward for over thirty years. Your last-minute schemes could call everything into question if ever a fringe group decided to rebel which, given the situation, is quite likely.”

“What proof do you have of these allegations? All I did was share a secret with my brother that was too heavy for me to bear – a person I know perfectly well and whom I trust entirely. I absolutely recognize that I should not have done that, but I needed to confide in someone I could trust.”

“You did not merely talk to him. You left in his possession a report which should never have left these premises. Why would you leave him that document unless it was so he could spread the information?”

“I admit that I didn’t understand the full impact of my action at the time. When I did realize, I tried to get the file back, but it was already too late. The Council already knew about the missing file.”

Another councilor, who had remained in the background until then, now leaned forward slightly and fixed his eyes on Senec. He was a lot younger than the others and his face, and posture showed a level of self-importance which Senec did not appreciate.

“What do you know about Project XK207, Senec? I am told that the number of its partisans is on the increase. What link do you have with this little group of extremists?”

Senec looked at him in disdain before replying curtly, “Councilor, I find your manner of referring to people who – like you and I – are merely seeking to save their lives, very disrespectful and quite inappropriate. I consider that in the current situation, it is unfitting for a representative of the people to be overzealous to the point of forgetting the right to fundamental freedoms. Everyone deserves respect and is free to choose, as long as his choice does not in any way compromise our system’s political and economical equilibrium. If such a case should arise, time must first be taken to seriously consider the proposition before taking any action. History has shown us repeatedly that radical and beneficial changes to our society were first initiated by minorities who were able to innovate and stand up for their beliefs in the face of a government in paralysis.”

“You sure have a nerve, Senec! Perhaps you imagine that the Council can take no action against a renowned scientist like you. Whatever you say or do, you tell yourself that we won’t manage to see through the Exodus project without your active involvement. Isn’t that it, Senec? That’s what lies behind your arrogance, isn’t it?”

“Call it what you will! As far as I’m concerned, it’s a question of personal conviction and respecting individual freedom. Apart from that, you can say what you like. The Council must have an opinion on the issue.”

The rising sound of murmuring was heard in the gathering. There was no representative of supreme authority in the Council. Each person would express his opinion and important decisions were made unanimously. However, as was the case elsewhere in civilian society, there was an unwritten code of respect for the elders. When the councilors could not reach an agreement, it was often the eldest among them who would use his influence to encourage everyone to make a compromise. In the current situation, that is exactly what happened.

“Well, it seems to me that we have already lost far too much time on irrelevant matters. All of us present here know, and Senec knows too, that the Exodus program cannot do without a scientist of his standing. I propose therefore that we get straight to the point. If you will allow me, Gentlemen, I propose we cut short this discussion and tell Senec about the decisions we have made according to the incriminating evidence at our disposal. Senec, I would ask that you be reasonable and listen carefully to what we have to say, after which time we will give you the opportunity to respond. I am counting on you, however, to keep to the point and avoid personal disagreements as much as possible.”

He looked around at the other councilors, who nodded in consent. The young councilor, although a little piqued, also agreed to the proposition, while continuing to stare fiercely at Senec.

“As you are no doubt aware, the Council has sufficient proof to establish with certainty your involvement in Project XK207. Is it now evident that you have been actively involved in the initiation and development of this alternate project. In light of this, although we are quite capable of understanding your position concerning the respect of individual freedom, we would remind you that the chances of such a project’s success are very slim. The Exodus program, on the other hand, has the unanimous approval of the scientific community. Consequently, Senec, you must realize that in encouraging this project, you are causing a whole section of the population to take an uncalculated risk.”

Senec would have replied, but the councilor motioned to him to wait until he had finished what he had to say.

“The Council has therefore decided to prohibit you from any outside contact until the situation can be resolved. It is not a disciplinary action or a suspension, but simply a precautionary measure. We hope, however, that you will continue to work with the Exodus program teams. We need you and your skills to complete the only project that is currently truly viable. I hope to be able to count on your sense of duty, and your respect for the lives of millions of individuals who put their trust in us. If you cooperate, we will agree not to take legal action against the founders of Project XK207. We will, however, make sure its expansion is limited, as we do not believe in its chance of success. Do you have anything to add, Senec?”

“Well, I’m sorry it’s come to this, as both projects could quite well have co-existed officially. I do recognize that you are acting out of a measure of wisdom and a sense of duty, to your credit. I also know, along with my colleagues, that the Exodus program definitely affords the best chance of survival for a large portion of the population in the long term, but at what cost? Many of us are not prepared to leave the planet which has been our birthplace and home to thousands of generations before us. Some have even already decided they would rather die here, at home, surrounded by their loved ones, than agree to be put to sleep with no guarantee of waking up again one day. Where will they wake up, anyway? For the luckier ones, it will be on a new planet, probably situated in the farthest reaches of space. It will be a world where absolutely everything will have to be built from scratch; a world where they will be utterly rootless, with nostalgia and the guilt of totally abandoning the world of their birth forever, as their only companions. As for the others, it’s endless hibernation that awaits them. Nothing can guarantee that we will be able to rescue them one day. It is not definite either that the sub-marine caves will afford sufficient protection from effects of the impact. I you want my opinion; it’s a huge debacle in the making. It would not have come to this if consecutive councils had not insisted on prioritizing political and economic emergencies over the financing of research into methods of preparing for this type of event – catastrophes that are very rare, certainly, but not unknown to scientists. Several times during our evolution, life has faced phases of widespread extinction. The probability of such a phenomenon happening on a timescale of several hundreds of millions of years is one hundred percent but of course, viewed over the course of a lifespan, there are much more urgent problems to be resolved.”

“Unfortunately, it is too late to change our strategy. You know that only too well. In less than three years an asteroid shower will rain down on the Earth and there is nothing we can now do about it now.”

“I know! But let’s at least leave each person the possibility of choosing the path he wishes to take when the time comes. After all, the chance of some of them managing to survive is not zero. No cataclysm has ever completely destroyed the Earth and it will probably not be the case this time either. The chance of survival is minimal but I am persuaded that it does exist.”

The youngest councilor began to speak, ignoring the accepted protocol.

“As has just been explained to you, that is exactly what we plan to do, but we do not want innocent people to pay the price for the unrealistic vision of a handful of fanatics. Are you willing to fully participate in the Exodus program and will you renounce all involvement, direct or indirect, in any other project?”

The whole Council fell completely silent, nervously awaiting Senec’s reply. They knew very well that a true commitment from Senec to the Exodus project was crucial. There were not only others’ lives at risk, but their own, too. In that regard, the young councilor’s last speech was not at all appreciated by the others.

“Yes,” replied Senec, willfully ignoring the one who had asked the question.

A deep sense of relief swept through the room, but the councilors took care not to let their satisfaction show too clearly. The eldest among them politely asked Senec to leave and go back to his work without delay. He specified however that he would be placed in isolation until the Council could make sure he was not receiving help from accomplices inside the space complex. Following that, he could return to his previous post.

 

 

22 BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

 

The heavy metal door had just closed on the little cramped room. Charlie was sitting in the corner of the cell again, but this time he was not alone. Opposite him, Senec was sitting at a small, legless table. There seemed to be a magnetic field that kept the object hovering above the ground. It was made up of a seat and a desk, both without legs. He could therefore move them around as he pleased, without the slightest effort. The artifice did not seem particularly useful but did give the prisoner an impression of ease and freedom of movement, which helped him to put up with his detention. It also meant that Charlie had to be constantly on his guard, moving out of the way each time his room-mate felt like a change of scene. Very soon the situation became nerve-wracking for him, already edgy as he was about being in a confined space.

He had to stay, however, if he was to learn more about Senec. Anyway, he did not really know how to leave this memory. He had to wait until something happened to show him the way out. For now, it was dead calm. Senec was reading and writing texts on a glass, graphic tablet like the one Jiec had used in the vehicle. Charlie could not understand them at all, but he kept glancing at them from time to time in case something suddenly became clear to him.

He had been constantly moving out of the way to avoid physical contact with Senec, but it had to happen sooner or later. In a burst of anger, he thrust the table violently toward Charlie, hitting him full in the belly. The pain was so intense that Charlie could not hold back a sharp cry before collapsing on the floor. This is impossible! he thought. I haven’t felt physical contact with objects so acutely before. My fall on the stairs was puzzling, but this is different. Something’s wrong!

Forgetting his pain, he looked up. Senec was right there in front of him, looking at him intently.

“What are you doing here?” he asked. “Can’t you see that you’ve nothing more to do here?”

Paralyzed by fear, Charlie remained mute.

“Don’t you understand? It’s me – Victor!”

“How is that possible?” stammered Charlie, still in shock. “You were Senec from the start?”

“No, not exactly. This memory is not technically a memory. Didn’t you notice?”

“Well, actually, some things did bother me: How could I have been alone in your memory? Logically, you would have had to be present or else you wouldn’t have any trace of what happened in your memory. I must admit that I still don’t understand how such a paradox can occur.”

“Some of our memories are not necessarily linked to experiences we have been through. They are merely the reconstitution of events which have been told to us. Our brain then builds mental constructs which it plays out according to what it knows. That’s why I am not physically present in this memory. According to my observation, your brain has the same faculty. Sometimes that similarity makes me wonder if our two species are perhaps not so different, despite the millions of years that separate us. It’s almost as if evolution had gone backwards.”

Charlie did not understand the significance of what Victor had just disclosed. His attention was focused solely on finding a logical explanation for what had happened.

“And yet, you’re here now. How is that possible?”

“Even if I did not experience these events, don’t forget that you are in my space here; in my mind, just as I am in yours. We are thinking together, Charlie, and in a way, sometimes we dream together.”

“In the first memory, Vikern could sense my presence at times. That’s something I can comprehend, in that you and Vikern are one and the same person. Senec, however, is only your brother. He does not exist independently in this memory. He is merely a mental construct that serves your memory. How did he notice signs of my presence, too?”

“You are right, Charlie. That is the reason why I intervened. We were getting dangerously close to the point of mental convergence. I hadn’t foreseen that such a phenomenon could occur, but now I understand. The longer we are connected, the more our brains learn to function in symbiosis. It’s obviously a side-effect of the connection. You and I must learn to recognize these areas of convergence and be wary of them. I don’t know exactly what the consequences would be, but I don’t want to take this experience beyond a certain limit.”

Now Charlie understood that he controlled very little. Without the help of Victor, whose intelligence was obviously far superior to his own, he had no chance of pulling through. He was aware that this world he found himself in, in spite of appearances, was not a film or a virtual universe that could be visited without ramifications. This virtual existence was causing constant modifications to his mental and physiological state that were as imperceptible as they were inevitable. However things turned out, he would not come out of this experience unscathed. Convergence was already taking place; a slow but relentless progression which was going to profoundly change his whole being.

“Isn’t it too late, Victor?” he asked.

“As long as we manage to counter the effects of convergence we will not completely lose our identities.”

“So all I was told about the previous candidates was not true? They all suffered the consequences of this convergence!”

“No, Charlie. As I told you, they never really penetrated my mind. I made sure they remained trapped in their own thoughts. With you, it’s different. In agreeing to open the door of my mind to you, I knew that there was a risk, but one I had to take. Now it’s time for you to go further in this memory. There are still things I would like to share with you. Observe everything you see carefully and be especially attentive to signs of convergence.”

“What can I do if it happens again?”

“Try to avoid putting yourself at risk. Otherwise, becoming aware of it seems to be enough to keep convergence at an acceptable level. When it goes unnoticed it can affect us subconsciously. Then it may gradually take over our wills, without us even realizing it. I think that our brains are ultimately seeking to converge into one single mind; making us one. Like every living organism, the brain is constantly seeking equilibrium. Homeostasis is a fundamental law of the universe. It not only applies to living beings; it is also applicable to every system that exists. Your friend Francisco knows that very well. Working in cybernetics, he cannot ignore that rule.”

“How do you know?”

“Charlie, I have access to all of your memories and a certain number of your conscious thoughts, too. Let’s just say that everything you know, I know too.”

Victor looked away, once again totally absorbed by the contents of the graphic tablet, completely ignoring Charlie.

A little hesitantly, he tried calling his name. He wanted to make sure he was dealing with Senec again and no longer Victor.

“Victor!” he called, without daring to raise his voice at first, but nothing happened.

He summoned all his courage and this time shouted his name as loudly as he could.

“VICTOR!!!”

For a split second, Senec glanced toward the door. Had he heard something? Possibly, but he obviously did not imagine for a second that it could be coming from the cell where he was. Charlie was both relieved and conscious that the risk of convergence was still very present, and threatened to surface at any moment, when he was least expecting it.

He got up, leaving the cold, damp floor where he had been sitting for quite some time, and stood behind Senec. Carefully examining his reading material, he came to the conclusion that he still understood nothing at all. However, he thought, if Victor was capable of interfering in this memory by temporarily taking on Senec’s appearance, he could quite easily have translated this text for him, as he had done in the previous memory – unless he had never read it! In that case, it would be impossible for him to translate it. That must be why he had come to tell him he had nothing more to do here. It seemed the most plausible explanation, but Charlie was not completely happy with it. He could not say why, but something kept him from leaving the room. It was probably nothing more than intuition, but in the context of the connection, what exactly was intuition anyway? After all, if Victor could read his memories and most of his thoughts, why would it not be the same for him? Could what he perceived as intuition actually be a consequence of convergence; the memories and knowledge of one of them merging with those of the other, without the process being clearly perceptible to the mind?

Charlie was well aware that the intellectual capacity of his host was incomparably superior to his own, but he also knew that Victor had deliberately sought out his help. Therefore, he would not succeed through blindly following the path marked out for him by Victor. He realized that as time went on he was gaining more confidence in himself. Somehow he was adapting to his environment.

Charlie had a strange feeling. He felt as though his mind was becoming sharper and sharper. It was as if he could perceive very quickly and clearly what he should think or do. It was a combination of intuition and discernment, but more than that; something was changing in the depths of his psyche. It was an insidious, unfathomable change, working in the shadows; a change whose consequences Victor himself could not fully measure. Convergence had probably been at work since the beginning of the connection and no one knew yet just where it would lead.

 

 

23 CONSCIOUSNESS

 

Senec was perfectly still, his fingers poised over the graphic tablet. Everything in the room was immobile, except Charlie. Not a sound, not the slightest noise, interrupted what now resembled a photograph. Worried at first, he tentatively put a hand on Senec’s shoulder. He did not move a muscle. It was as if he had turned into a statue, so that Charlie could touch him and feel the material that covered his skin. It was a strange, oppressive sensation that would have paralyzed anyone else with anxiety, but Charlie knew just what he needed to do. He moved Senec’s massive, heavy body and placed it carefully on the floor; then he took his place on the hover-seat and picked up the graphic tablet.

The writing he saw, resembling diagrams, was now clear and perfectly comprehensible to him. Unlike his previous experience, he was aware that he was interpreting the symbols and markings that were foreign to him. This time, it was obvious to Charlie that the translation was not Victor’s work. If it had been so, he would have had direct access to the text in his own language. However, he was now capable of deciphering the N.H.I.’s writing system for himself. This realization increased the feeling of power and freedom he already had even more; but his elation was short-lived. The page was static. It was impossible to scroll through the contents of the graphic tablet. Nothing he tried had the least effect on it. Obviously, there was nothing in Victor’s brain that was likely to give him further information about the contents of the tablet. He would have to look elsewhere, but where?

Charlie searched every corner of the room for something that would satisfy his curiosity. He could not accept that he had made an error in trusting his intuition. So, somehow he was momentarily free of Victor’s hold on him, but to what end? It seemed that his memories were no longer just a huge library of inanimate data. He was in a lifeless snapshot from which it would probably be extremely difficult to extract any pertinent information. Finding nothing, Charlie headed for the metal door which was supposed to prevent anyone from leaving or entering the cell without authorization. He took hold of the handle and exerted slight downward pressure. The heavy door opened without the slightest noise. Not a squeak or creak broke the silence. As the door swung open, a blinding white light filled the room. Although he could not see its walls, Charlie expected to be in the long light-filled corridor he had walked down a few hours earlier.

He stepped confidently through the doorway, but his foot never reached the floor, causing him to fall head over heels. Soon all visual cues began to disappear, including the heavy, gray door, which shrank rapidly into the distance as he fell further and further into the depths of Victor’s mind. After the first few seconds, marked by the sensation of being yanked downwards, Charlie could no longer feel anything. All was light; and there was no sound or physical sensation to give him any sense of his bearings. He now seemed to be floating weightlessly in a void, bathed in light. He felt good, surprisingly good. No anxiety, not an ounce of apprehension, came to bother him. He closed his eyes and let himself fall into what he felt to be a well-earned sleep. Why struggle, when there was no longer any tangible reality to hold onto?

Charlie! Are you there?”

A soft, familiar voice resonated in his ear. He would have liked to open his eyes and answer, but his willpower did not go beyond the stage of consciousness. He tried in vain to get his eyelids to open, but nothing happened. Charlie had already experienced this feeling some mornings when his sleep was so heavy that he could not stretch his arm out to turn the alarm off. It was as if the time between the moment when his brain sent the message to his muscles and the moment when his hand reacted had grown infinitely longer than usual.

This time, nothing at all happened. The voice was repeating the same thing incessantly, at regular intervals but he was unable to reply or move even a muscle.

Charlie! Are you there?”

Charlie! Are you there?”

Charlie! Are you there?”

Charlie! Are you there?”

Charlie! Are you there?”

Anxiety began to manifest itself in a barely perceptible way. Charlie was swimming in a feeling of bliss and well-being that enveloped his whole mind and body. It was as if the rest of his physical sensations were muted by this prevailing state.

He did seem to feel a slight tingling in his left earlobe, though. He focused exclusively on this barely perceptible feeling, remembering the relaxation classes he had attended several times with Jacques. The classes had been held inside the hospital and had brought Charlie much relief while learning to overcome the severe panic attacks that had nearly pushed him to take his life.

Thankfully, Jacques was there. Taking his life would have meant accepting the idea of killing his own brother – an unconscionable thing, which had forced him to begin therapy – but it had been a close call. He had refused to leave the apartment, even to take out the trash. He was incapable of finding a logical explanation for his behavior but he could not help it; as soon as he stepped outside, he was overcome by panic. Shaking like a leaf, his heart would beat at top speed and he was sure he would die if he did not go back inside immediately. The psychiatrists had diagnosed it as panic attacks with agoraphobia; a relatively common condition which can be treated successfully but which can sometimes lead to severe depression if not dealt with correctly. They invited him to begin therapy with a psychologist specialized in this type of disorder and gave him a medical treatment combining antidepressants and tranquilizers which brought him rapid relief.

While it was true that his brother was often temperamental and not easy to live with, Charlie had to admit that he had made life difficult for Jacques on several occasions, and especially during that period. Jacques had really helped him to get out of that impasse, going as far as accepting what should have been unacceptable. Perhaps he had even gone a little too far. In retrospect, Charlie thought that it would have been better if Jacques had not made so many allowances for him. It would have forced him to confront his fears earlier rather than wallowing in negative monologues whose only goal was to rationalize behavior that was as irrational as it was pathetic. In short, he was truly grateful to him and that episode, although painful, had brought them much closer.

After that, their relationship had been more harmonious. They had learned a lot from Andrea, the psychologist. She had listened to each of them individually. Paradoxically, that had helped them to make the necessary compromises for keeping the peace in the odd couple they formed through no choice of their own. It was at that time that they had learned the art if relaxation. It was a completely new thing for them and they had not found it easy. Charlie, who was anxious by nature, would constantly try to control everything, which prevented him from going with the flow; and Jacques, who was typically hyperactive, could not bear the mere idea of lying down doing nothing for longer than a few seconds. Suffice it to say that their first attempts had been rather farcical, but in the end Andrea’s gentle voice had overcome their resistance and they had learned to become conscious of their physical body through concentrating exclusively on their internal feelings. It had been a rewarding experience which Charlie was now trying to reproduce in this immaterial place. Maybe he would manage to get back in touch with his own body?

The voice continued to call him, always in the same tone and with the same regularity.

Charlie! Are you there?”

His earlobe was still tingling. As he concentrated on that small part of his body, he felt a kind of heat invade that specific area, and the tingling intensified until it suddenly became painful. In a swift, precise movement, he turned his head to the left, opened his eyes at last and found himself face to face with a little white mouse, who was staring at him intently. Its inky black eyes inspired confidence. It did not seem at all afraid. On the contrary, it lay impassively on the floor with its front paws crossed, which lent a nonchalant air to its posture. The blood that was dripping steadily from Charlie’s ear had formed a little puddle. Its bright red color contrasted sharply with the intense, uniform, white light that surrounded them both. It was obviously the mouse that had been nibbling on his ear for hours until he finally woke up. He simply stared at it for a moment, without saying anything.

You’re back!” it said. “It’s about time! We really thought we’d lost you.”

… Who are you talking about? Why did you hurt my ear like that?

Which ear are you talking about, Charlie? Are you injured?”

… Of course I’m injured! What a question! You’re the one who bit my ear and made it bleed, and now you’re asking me if I’m injured?

Listen, Charlie. I’m not sure if you’re quite with it. I don’t know what you can see right now, or who you think you’re talking to, but it’s me – your brother.”

…Jacques?

Yes, that’s right! What’s been going on all this time?”

…Oh, it would take far too long to tell you! And I’m not sure I’m capable of explaining it. The connection is much more complex than Francisco thought.

Aren’t you managing to find your way around in Victor’s memory?”

… No, that’s not the root of the problem. You can’t be physically connected to someone’s brain without fundamentally changing the way it functions.

You mean the connection is damaging Victor’s brain? This time you really need to get out of there. I don’t like the turn things are taking at all! We have to stop this experiment as soon as possible.”

… No, Jacques! If you disconnect us now, I’m not sure I’ll make it back in one piece.

But the longer we wait, the deeper you seem to sink into the recesses of Victor’s mind. This time we had to give you an adrenaline shot to change your level of wakefulness and try to re-establish contact with you. The process seems to have worked, but it’s not without risk. After the shock caused by the injection, your heart started to race and your brain activity rose to a level never before seen in a human brain. Then the activity decreased drastically and your heart stopped again for several seconds. I’m telling you, Charlie: you need to stop the experiment. If you don’t do it for me, do it for yourself. You and I both know that you have to be willing for us to get you out of there.”

… I know all that, Jacques, but I just need a little more time. There are some things I still need to do here. The injection had an unexpected effect. I think it enabled me to see some things that were beyond me before. It really would be too complicated to explain it to you and I’m not sure if we have the time, but I think I managed to partially free myself from Victor’s hold on me. The change may have been linked to my level of wakefulness. The adrenaline must have increased my state of awareness. But there’s more!

What is it, Charlie?”

… Our brains are no longer strictly speaking two distinct entities. Victor calls it “convergence”.

What do you mean? I don’t see what you’re getting at.”

… It doesn’t matter, Jacques. Not now. The process has already been operating since the beginning of the connection. It’s unavoidable. Francisco should have foreseen the phenomenon before beginning the experiment.

If you’re sure of your choice, I can’t stand in your way, but you need to know that everyone here is very tense. I’m not the only one who’s worried about you. When we last talked, the neural probe was disconnected even though you were just starting to show some sense. Since then we haven’t been able to find the cause of the communication failure. Today we can talk, but the technicians still don’t understand what happened. They think the neural probe must have some fault that they didn’t notice before implanting it. According to their hypothesis, the malfunction is occurring intermittently, which explains why we can still make contact sometimes. If it gets worse, we might simply lose contact with you for good, Charlie. If that happened, we wouldn’t have any other choice but to disconnect you without warning you. God only knows what would happen then!”

… I know what happened.

What?”

… Victor disconnected the neural probe so I wouldn’t abandon him.

Behind them, Francisco, whose anxiety had been on the rise for several days now, turned to Mario, his head down and eyes glued to the floor.

“The situation is becoming worrisome,” he said. “Charlie is losing contact with reality. He thinks he is on a mission and is starting to believe he’s omniscient. He insists on continuing regardless of the danger. If the neural probe gives out completely, we’re headed for disaster. We have to do something, Mario.”

“Yes, Francisco. I think you’re most likely right, but what can we do? If we disconnect him now, while he’s completely delirious, he might never find his feet again.”

“Maybe we should try to replace the neural probe, but the operation is risky and it would require a partial disconnection, at least while we do the implant.”

“What would the consequences be?”

“Charlie would lose all access to expressive language for several minutes.”

“And then?”

“Logically, it should not have too much impact, but we do not know if he is using that area of his brain to navigate or communicate with Victor.”

“If I understand, you mean that there is a significant risk that the procedure would greatly disturb the equilibrium that Charlie has developed with Victor.”

“It’s a risk that I have no way of calculating.”

“What do you imagine the consequences would be if such a phenomenon occurred?”

“Well! In that case, they could both lose it. Their respective minds may no longer be capable of sorting and organizing their sensorial perceptions.”

“Is there no other solution, Francisco?”

“Yes. We could decide to wait and do nothing except monitor Charlie’s physiological state, in the hope that he’ll make the right decisions.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes, Mario. I’m afraid so.”

Giuseppe, was present that day, but had remained in the background. If he was not more forthcoming, it was undoubtedly to avoid interfering in the close relationships which had developed within the little group; leaving Francisco and Mario to manage the situation. Now he decided to intervene and what he said was categorical.

“Let’s trust Charlie. There’s too much we don’t know, for us to take any risk other than that of trusting him and letting him continue. Settle for managing his state of awareness through the use of adrenaline. It seems to work. However, I think it would be preferable to give him more frequent shots, but of a lower dose. That should reduce the risk of damage to his heart. If need be, tranquilize him slightly, but only if you have strong reason to do so. We must have information about Victor. Also, try to get him to talk as much as possible when you make contact. Ask him about Victor; have him tell us what he knows. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Giuseppe,” answered Francisco.

Mario said nothing. He was both relieved that Giuseppe had made the decision for them, and at the same time he was concerned that Charlie’s safety was being neglected in the interest of the experiment.

Meanwhile, the conversation between Jacques and his brother continued, via the neural probe. Charlie had just explained to him that Victor had detected the neural probe and managed to put it out of operation, but that since then, something must have changed. Perhaps Victor wanted Charlie to be able to communicate again, or maybe he had lost control of the neural probe. He was also considering another possible explanation, which he only alluded to.

… Jacques, you know that it’s not like me to overestimate myself. I usually do the opposite.

That’s true, Charlie, and I’m pleased that you have gained confidence in yourself since agreeing to this mission; but you still need to bear in mind that you may not be quite your usual self right now. In addition to the adrenaline shot we gave you, the brain makes its own chemicals. Besides that, Victor’s brain is not neutral, either.”

… You’re probably right, but I’m sure something new has happened in my relationship with Victor. It was as if I had the upper hand for a brief moment. I trusted myself and my own intuition, but above all, I managed to read their writing system as if it were my own language.

Do you think you managed to regain control of the neural probe?”

… Maybe, but I don’t know how.

Mario joined the conversation.

“Jacques, Giuseppe thinks it’s better to leave the decision up to Charlie. However, he will need to inform us a little more about what he has discovered concerning Victor. We need to gather as much information as possible about him. The more we know, the better equipped we will be to make the right decisions. You should try to find out more.”

Jacques had heard what had just been said perfectly well, but he did not want to reply. It was clear to him that the proposition was not completely sincere. Above all, Giuseppe wanted to take the experiment as far as possible, and he knew it. Nevertheless, he complied, and steered the conversation toward the discoveries Charlie had made about Victor.

What exactly do you know about Victor?”

… Well, things are still a little hazy, but apparently he seems to have been hibernating in this cave for a lot longer than we thought. He is part of a species not too dissimilar to ours. In a lot of respects they make me think of us, but their technology is much more advanced.

Maybe not to the point of prolonging life for such a long period – keeping beings in hibernation for several centuries already seemed unlikely. Charlie, are you sure you can really trust what you perceive in that artificial realm?”

… Listen, you asked me to tell you about Victor and that’s just what I’m doing! You’re probably right; now is not the time to talk about it.

Clementine had been keeping a constant eye on Giuseppe and Francisco. She had never completely trusted Giuseppe and did not particularly appreciate Francisco. Those two surely know a lot more than they cared to let on. She drew near to Jacques and whispered something in his ear. He looked up from the screen briefly in Giuseppe’s direction, and then continued the conversation with Charlie in a lighter tone.

You’re right. Who am I to question what you tell me? Here I am, lying on my seat, waiting all day for you to answer my calls. The rest of the time I eat, drink and chat with Clementine and Mario. Francisco too, of course, but he’s not exactly very talkative.”

… They’re taking good care of you, I’m sure. I think about you all the time. Tell them I can’t wait to get back there with you all, and sit down to a good meal together; to see your faces and smell, touch and taste the flavor of things again.

That won’t be necessary – they’ve just read everything you just said.”

… That’s right! I was forgetting that our conversation was public.

Not exactly, Charlie. They can only see your answers. After each conversation, I tell them the questions I asked you and they use them to transcribe our conversation. Don’t forget that you’re hearing my voice because I’m communicating via telepathy.”

… Yes-

No! Don’t answer. Listen carefully to what I tell you. This needs to stay between you and me. Clementine has just shared her impressions of Giuseppe and Francisco’s attitude with me, and I have to agree. We are more and more convinced that they’re hiding something from us. I think that from now on, it would be better if you told me as little as possible. Just be evasive and especially keep the most pertinent information to yourself. Maybe it’s nothing to worry about, but it’s best to play it safe. I’m not sure that your safety is a priority for Giuseppe. Who knows what they intend to do to Victor? After all, they may be scientists, but they’re working for the army, let’s not forget it. Let them believe that you are making important discoveries but don’t let them know what they are until you’re back here with us. For now, don’t bother about all that. Just try to get back as soon as you have done what you think you need to do. Don’t be too long. Good luck, Charlie!”

The screen remained blank. Everyone waited expectantly for a reply but none came. Jacques turned away and spread his hands slightly, signaling that the communication had just been lost.

 

 

24 A FRESH START

 

There it was, lying peacefully near his face. It had just closed its eyes after laying its head on its front paws. Charlie, straining his ear, could just hear the tiny animal breathing. He contemplated it with much tenderness and a little nostalgia. It did not seem like much, but that little mouse suddenly meant a lot more to Charlie than a mere imaginary animal. He dreaded the inevitable moment when it would run away, leaving him alone again. He dared not move, lest he woke it up. It symbolized the link between himself and his brother; a link that he was now fully aware of again.

This animal cannot be of Victor’s making, he thought, Therefore, its image and presence here can only be the product of my own mind. Consequently, I should be able to keep it near me. I just have to want it.

Charlie slowly reached out his hand and picked up the little rodent gently. The mouse did not move. Its small, warm body fitted neatly in the palm of his hand. He could feel its regular, rapid, little heartbeats on his skin. As it still was not moving, Charlie began to believe he had been right. He would never be separated from his brother now; at least not completely. Leaning on his free arm, he got to his feet, being sure not to make any brusque movements that might wake up the mouse. It was still asleep in his hand, unperturbed. He took several steps forward, without knowing where his feet would lead him in this luminous void; a void that seemed at first to be limitless. However, he could feel the ground beneath his feet again – a sign that he was gradually getting back in touch with reality. This was a very unique reality, where he and Victor were the architects.

Little by little, the light became less blinding, and its whiteness gradually faded into nuances of color. At first they were very bright – almost fluorescent – then they started to turn to more pastel shades. Out of this blend sprang vague silhouettes here and there, which Charlie could not identify. Suddenly, two imposing dark masses appeared before him. Apparently they were the massive silhouettes of two individuals. They were standing still, side by side, a few dozen meters from him. Gripped by fear, Charlie tried to find somewhere to hide the mouse, which he was still holding in his right hand. In doing so, he realized that would be impossible as long as he had not found himself any clothes. He stopped and turned around to think.

“Perhaps I just need to concentrate to make some clothes appear. After all, I’ve managed to keep this animal with me, long after cutting off the communication with Jacques.”

He set about imagining himself in a gray suit, the same kind worn by most of the workers he had seen in the big room where the huge vessel was. As he did so, his shiny, gray skin was gradually covered by finely woven, matte gray material. It was so light and flexible that it fitted the shape of his body perfectly, giving Charlie the impression that he was wearing the simplest outfit. It was as though his whole body had just been placed in some sort of thermostatically controlled bubble. He could not say whether he was warmer or cooler than before. He felt wonderful. Perhaps his sense of well-being was rather unreasonable, in that it distanced him a little more from his earthly body. Thankfully, the parts of his skin that were still exposed provided his senses with some exterior stimulation. Whether it was simply the product of his imagination or some clever blend of imaginary and real physical sensations, was not crucially important to Charlie. He had a visceral need to feel all these sensations, as miniscule or distorted as they may be.

Without thinking, Charlie put his hand in the pocket of his pants and carefully slipped the still-sleeping mouse into it. He was afraid he might squash it inadvertently, but at the same time, he was quite aware that it did not, strictly speaking, truly exist physically. Therefore, nothing could happen to it, as long as he was personally convinced that it was still there in his own mind. It was an idea, a mental construct which linked him to Jacques. Whatever happened, he must not let Victor find it. He was determined to protect it, come what may; like a baby or some pet animal whose presence alone can be enough to relieve a life of suffering and frustration.

He looked up in the direction of the two bulky, dark shapes standing before him and moved toward them with confident strides. The silhouettes became gradually clearer, and soon Charlie recognized the two guards barring the entrance to the gangway a few hours earlier. Strangely, they seemed perfectly clear to him, while the rest of the surroundings were still bathed in some sort of vague, luminous haze. He stopped in front of them for a moment. They remained motionless with their arms crossed and did not speak. Their colossal size would have discouraged anyone from attempting to approach, but Charlie, confident from his first successful attempt, launched himself into the mountain of muscle again, convinced he would go straight through it without them even noticing. The violent impact knocked Charlie to the ground. If he had wanted to be conscious of his body, he certainly felt it now! He lay on the ground like some vulgar thug who had just been kicked out of a nightclub.

“Are you okay, Charlie? Nothing broken, I hope?”

Charlie dared not look up, afraid of meeting the giants’ gaze, but he soon realized that they had nothing to do with all this. The little white mouse had come out of his pocket during the fall. It was standing in front of him, speaking to him.

I’m going crazy, he thought. This mouse can’t see me. I severed the communication with my brother. I’m starting to talk to myself.

But the mouse spoke again. “Are you sure you’re okay, Charlie?”

This time, he decided to answer, despite being afraid he was sinking deeper into insanity. Anyway, he knew it was futile to fight against an idea. He had already experienced that in the past, and once the idea had been rejected, it always came back again, until it became a real obsession. Andrea had taught him, during his many relaxation classes, to let his mind wander, without trying to fight against intrusive thoughts. It was all about learning to let go, in order to better observe the dynamics and content of his thoughts. Then it was possible – at least in theory – for him to begin true introspective work. Awareness was an indispensible requirement when attempting to subsequently modify thought patterns and their content. He glanced briefly at the two guards, who remained undisturbed and did not even seem to have noticed his presence. Then finally, he answered.

“Yes, yes, don’t worry about me. What happened? It seems as though they didn’t feel anything, but the collision was violent. What about you? What are you doing here? Who are you, really?”

“But it’s me, Jacques!”

“Impossible!”

“Why do you say that, Charlie?”

“Because I haven’t been in communication with my brother for some time now. You’re just a mental construct. You can’t have a will of your own. As I just said; it’s absolutely impossible.”

“This is not good, Charlie. I warned you. You are starting to lose it, if you ask me. It’s starting again, just like it did when we were put into psychiatric care because of you.”

At these words, Charlie knew that it could not be Jacques speaking to him through this animal. He would never have said such a thing – especially not in the current context, when he needed his help and moral support more than ever. He decided to play along and see just where this would lead.

“Yes, you’re probably right, Jacques. I could be losing my mind right now, but you need to understand what it’s like for me. I’m completely submerged in some sort of parallel universe, deprived of everything that’s familiar to me.”

“Don’t worry, Charlie. I will guide you. Together we’ll find what you’re looking for and then you’ll be free to go back to your home.”

“You mean our home!”

“Yes, of course. We are all looking forward to seeing you, Charlie. Clementine is starting to miss you. She’s very worried about your health. Let’s finish this mission. Those two guards you just collided with – I think you ought to try talking to them. They might have some information for you – something that would help us to make some progress.”

“Yes, you’re right. I’ll try, but you get back in my pocket. They might see you.”

“There’s no risk of that – I am only real to you, remember!”

The mouse climbed onto his shoulder and Charlie struggled to his feet. The two hulks were looking at him with completely expressionless faces. Apparently he was no longer invisible. Was it because of his clothes? Possibly, but his intuition held him back from pursuing that line of thought. The true explanation was quite different, and even if he did not have the answer yet, he knew that it would be a lot more complex; probably something to do with Victor, or with the convergence phenomenon. For now, he could not see any other option, other than following this strange, unnerving guide. He would make it, so long as he managed to keep his mental independence. He would have to do as it said, without ever completely adhering to its doctrine, and sooner or later he would get the upper hand again. In a slightly shaky voice, he spoke to the guards.

“Hello, Gentlemen.”

The two guards kept looking at him, but did not respond. The mouse whispered in Charlie’s ear.

“Tell them you are a worker from platform 109 and you were dropped off here by mistake.”

“Er, I’m a worker from platform 109 and there must be some mistake. Would you be so kind as to tell me where I am, please?”

The two guards answered in unison: “Boarding platform number 9. Show us your card, please!”

“Um, yes, of course.”

The mouse whispered again.

“Look in your pants pocket. It’s in there.”

He delved into his pocket and pulled out a small, metallic card with a name on it, followed by a series of numbers and symbols. He held the card out to them rather apprehensively. They looked at it briefly then the larger of the two leaned toward Charlie.

“No sir, it’s no mistake. The Council wishes to assemble all the workers, whether they work on assembly platforms or boarding platforms. The meeting will be held in Room A28 which is right behind you. You may go there immediately. About a hundred of your colleagues are there already and the rest will arrive shortly.”

“Thank you, Gentlemen. Excuse me for bothering you.”

The guards assumed their previous position without further comment, and Charlie headed toward the place they had just shown him. He walked down a long corridor, along with many other workers going in the same direction. After a few minutes’ brisk walking, they came into a vast hall, its walls entirely made of windows. A crowd of strangers, dressed like him, began to press around the front of an imposing white stage, where five empty seats were arranged in a half-circle.

Charlie was intimidated by this crowd of strangers – especially as he thought he was now visible. He had never liked crowds and even if he had been successfully treated for agoraphobia, he still felt quite apprehensive when he found himself in this type of situation. He positioned himself as near as possible to the corridor he had just come down. It was an old habit that he had actually learned to give up during therapy, but which still lingered.

He knew perfectly well that he should not do it, because it only served to feed his phobia. As a general rule, he tried not to give in to this temptation whose origins, according to Andrea, went back, to the dawn of time. It was a sort of survival instinct that drove all potential prey to identify all available escape routes in the face of perceived danger. She had explained to him that this instinct, while very useful to animals, could also be useful to Man, but that sometimes it occurred to an exaggerated extent, in the absence of any real danger. According to her, that was the reason for the physical manifestations he felt when he would go outside during that period. His heart rate would suddenly increase and he would start to hyperventilate, which led to a feeling of general unease and a loss of his bearings. But all that was long gone, now. Even if he was ill at ease, at least he knew that he would not have a reaction as strong as he did in those days. At worst, he would feel a little uncomfortable, but it would pass. Anyway, he was near the exit.

As time went on, the crowd grew denser, until he soon found himself surrounded on every side. Even the corridor was full, to Charlie’s misfortune, as he was now trapped. His anxiety had been gradually and inevitably increasing for several minutes now. He tried to avoid the others’ eyes as much as possible, but he felt watched. In spite of his thermal clothing he felt extremely cold and was shivering so much that his teeth chattered. Even so, drops of sweat started to run down his face, and his heartbeats resonated throughout his whole body at a dizzying rate. Then suddenly, it all stopped. His heart found its slow, regular rhythm again and he felt relieved, almost peaceful. He looked around him and realized that no one had paid any attention to his panic attack. He even wondered if they really could see him, or if he was invisible again. It was a strange feeling, but not a new one to Charlie. He had already felt the spectacular effects of a strong dose of tranquilizers when he found himself overcome by panic. A few seconds ago he had been having an anxiety attack so intense he thought he would never get over it.

He could no longer feel the mouse’s little paws gripping onto his shoulder, either. He turned to look at it, but it had disappeared. He looked all around him and searched in all his pockets, to no avail. Its absence should have been a relief, and yet he felt disoriented and helpless, as if he had just lost a part of himself.

He cleared his throat conspicuously but no one paid any attention. Then he stretched out his arm toward his nearest neighbor. His hand passed straight through him, as if he were nothing more than a hologram. Everything seemed to be back the way it had been. He took one step forward then another, and realizing that he could move through the crowd like a plane flying through a vast cloud bank, he continued on confidently until he reached the stage. At that very moment, the cortege of officials was making its way through the crowd with difficulty, following their body guards. He immediately recognized two members of the Council, accompanied by the two guards he had just been talking to. Among them was the young, impertinent one who had tried his best to unsettle Senec during his questioning before the Council. Charlie watched him climb the steps before the audience of workers, his self assurance verging on arrogance. He had not done anything to him personally, but Charlie could not help detesting him.

 

 

25 SACRIFICE

 

The small group of speakers consisted of four men and one woman, or of four masculine and one feminine N.H.I.’s, to be precise; although the feminine one was rather androgynous. Only her clothes and the curve of her hips hinted at her femininity. Other than that, just like the men, the skin on her head was only slightly hairy and her face was as hard and serious as theirs. She was the first to speak to the perfectly silent and attentive crowd.

“Gentlemen, you and I all know that for many years now you have been working hard on the construction of the Navigator fleet, and we congratulate you for accomplishing such a mammoth task.” She paused for a second, looking grave then went on, “Unfortunately, our reason for assembling you here today is that we are faced with a difficult situation. Despite all our efforts, the work has fallen too far behind schedule. Until now, we had hoped to be able to finish building the Navigators before the fateful day. However, a week ago, our statisticians handed in their latest calculations and I’m afraid they are unambiguous. We have no chance of terminating construction of all the vessels in time. We are now faced with some painful decisions.” A clamor rose from the crowd, who had just realized the Exodus plan was taking a dramatic turn. The speaker raised her voice to make herself heard.

“As you probably understand, we have decided to focus the work on five of the nine vessels.”

On hearing this figure, the crowd erupted in anger, literally drowning out her voice as she tried in vain to speak over all the commotion. The atmosphere was electric. The mob seemed on the verge of stampeding, and a number of them could no longer contain their anger. Charlie decided to get up on the stage. It was pointless, as he was not in any danger, but he found it reassuring and from up there, he would be better placed to observe the scene and hear what the speakers were saying. Eventually, one of the workers also climbed onto the stage, uninvited and began to speak, looking at each of the five councilors in turn.

“We cannot agree to this decision. If necessary, we will work night and day, but we cannot resign ourselves to sacrificing a whole portion of our people. Tell your statisticians to recalculate their predictions, taking those new parameters into account. Train more workers – even women and children if necessary – but we will finish the work on time or no one is leaving, mark my words!” He stepped down from the stage, to thunderous applause.

The young councilor got to his feet, scanning the workers’ faces one after the other.

“We understand your consternation and indignation. If necessary, I am willing to give up my place on board, but what about you? And you?” he said, pointing to them one by one. “Are you willing to sacrifice a whole society because of your refusal to face reality? If we don’t focus our efforts on these five vessels, it will not be five, but only two – or at the most three – vessels that are finished on time.”

The shocked crowd calmed down and listened attentively to the alarming picture he was painting them.

“We would encourage you to think very carefully. In any case, there is no alternative. I’m sorry,” he said, taking on a compassionate air, before returning to his seat.

The crowd remained silent for a long while, stunned by the news that had just hit them with all the force of an irrevocable decision. The female speaker began again, this time being careful to choose a gentle, appeasing tone of voice.

“Gentlemen, from today, we will be restructuring the teams in order to maximize the number of vessels that will be operational before the impact. We share your fear and pain. I have children of my own and if it were enough to put them to work to resolve the issue, I would not hesitate to do so. Unfortunately, that would be pointless. There is no other solution, believe me! Now, I ask that you return to your posts and follow the new orders you will be given.”

She turned around, but before returning to her seat, she looked Charlie up and down. The little white mouse was on her shoulder. It looked at him too, but with tenderness, as if it wanted to draw Charlie into its net again. Apparently, they were the only ones who could see him, and the animal was certainly present for a reason. Without hesitating, Charlie followed her into the midst of the official cortege. The crowd was slow to disperse and the guards advised them to wait a while on the stage before braving the mob again. The young councilor approached the female speaker.

“Emma, I really appreciated the way you managed to win over all those men while sending them back to work. You sure know how to put your feminine touch to good use. We should have more women on the Council, I always say.”

“Quit the flattery, Firsc. I don’t care for your manners. You felt you had to step in just now, as if the poor little woman desperately needed a man to handle the situation. What a great image of me you projected to the crowd! Using fear as a means of persuasion is an utterly masculine tactic, and yes, it might be good to encourage women’s access to the Council.”

“Maybe. But fear brought that army of workers ready for battle to their senses. Their leader was beginning to get a little too cocky for my liking. His name is Pyrias, if my information is correct. I’m going to see about meeting him personally tomorrow. On that subject, it’s a shame Senec was not invited to our little gathering. They tell me he is still under house arrest. That’s a pity. He would have found it very interesting, no doubt.”

“You don’t like him, do you? And yet, he’s a man of conviction. He is not afraid of following through on his commitments.”

“What are you implying, Emma?”

“I’m not implying anything. I just wonder if you would actually be willing to give up your place to one of the workers, as you so piously claimed just now.”

“What about you? Would you give up yours?”

Emma did not answer. The guards invited them to step down from the stage, now that the crowd had sufficiently dispersed. The small group walked down the long corridor and took their places in hover car like the one Charlie had ridden in with Vikern and Jiec. It travelled at a sickening speed, tilting upward until it was almost vertical. A few moments later, they entered an enormous underground gallery, which Charlie recognized immediately. It was hall of domes.

There were hundreds of steel domes, similar in every way to those that housed the pavilions of the Mataiva base. This place was identical except for a few external things; the roads in particular, which must have been added by humans when they fitted out the cave as a military base. The vehicle deposited each of them in front of a different dome. Emma got out last, accompanied by Charlie. Her pavilion was number 524. She opened the huge steel door of the dome easily, and turned to Charlie.

“Come in. There’s no one else here.”

An astonished Charlie entered the dome. The place seemed a lot smaller than he remembered. The cupola-shaped ceiling was certainly high, but not as high as all that, after all. The interior was comfortably furnished in minimalist style. It was not really an apartment, but more of a bedroom, with a bed and a small work-space where a desk was piled high with different colored tablets like the ones Senec had smuggled out to inform his brother. The contrast to what he had seen in Pavilion 28 was striking. He realized that men were truly Lilliputians compared to these giants, and now that he was in the skin of one of them, everything seemed normally sized to him. He even felt a little cramped, after the enormity of the boarding platform. He was scarcely more comfortable here than he had been in the cell where poor Senec was locked up.

Emma put her portable safe down near the desk and invited Charlie to sit on the only chair in the room. He complied, while she sat opposite him, on the edge of the bed. Despite the androgynous look that her smooth, hairless scalp gave her, she had a certain beauty about her and knew how to carry herself in a way that emphasized her femininity. The mouse was still sitting on her shoulder, but she seemed unaware of it, which greatly intrigued Charlie.

“Should I call you Emma, or Victor?” Charlie asked.

She did not answer.

“I had seen you sitting on the stage for quite a while. At first I thought you were a worker, but nobody else seemed to see you except me.”

“You’re not Victor?”

You’re Victor! You’re Senec’s brother. Don’t you remember me?”

Charlie was literally paralyzed with fear at her words, but his only option was to continue the conversation, accepting this new identity which she had just revealed to him. He realized that the effects of convergence had just surpassed his wildest imaginings. From now on, he and Victor were one and the same. He was no longer a simple traveler lost in the memories of another being. He had become that other being. He was no longer exploring Victor’s reality. They were both developing it together from the data contained in Victor’s subconscious memories. After a brief pause, he replied weakly, “You’re probably right, Emma, but I’m not really sure where I’m at. I think I’ve partly lost my memory. I’ve even forgotten who I am.”

“What’s happened, Victor? What did you come here to find?”

“That’s what I’d like to know. Help me, Emma. I’m lost.”

Emma’s expression suddenly softened. She obviously felt compassion for this powerless man who was entrusting himself to her care. She took his hands and answered him in a soft voice, “Don’t worry, Victor. Everything’s going to work out, I’m sure. Get some rest. I don’t sleep much and I have some files to finish by tomorrow morning. You can stay here until you feel yourself again.”

Charlie lay down on the bed and fell into the deepest of sleeps almost immediately. It was dreamless sleep that would see him through till dawn without interruption.

 

 

26 ESCAPE

 

The next morning, Charlie awoke to an empty room. There was a hand-written message on the desk from Emma, informing him that she had gone to the Council room. She asked him to wait until she came back at midday and invited him to take a look at the contents of a graphic tablet which she had left out on the night stand. Charlie lay down on the bed again and picked up the tablet. As soon as he placed his hand on it a three-dimensional screen appeared. After that, he needed to do nothing more. The images, diagrams and text scrolled by as he read them. It was as if the tablet adapted its speed and contents to his capacity to take in the information. The scroll speed adjusted with meticulous precision according to his reading speed.

Charlie remained captivated for hours, hypnotized by the screeds of information unfolding before him. When the door opened he jumped, surprised to see Emma back so soon, as it seemed to him that she had only just left.

“Hello Victor. I see you found my message. I hope I haven’t been away too long?”

“To be honest, I didn’t even notice the time go by.”

“I brought us something to eat. I was supposed to have lunch with the Councilors, but I found an excuse to get away. I didn’t want to leave you on your own too long. Did you have time to familiarize yourself with the contents of the graphic tablet?”

“Yes, most of it. At least, I think so.”

Emma cleared off a corner of the desk and put down a tray covered with a sort of metal dome.

“Help yourself – you must be starving!”

Charlie approached the desk, but he had no idea how the object, which he supposed was a meal-tray, actually worked. He searched all around its edges for some sort of notch that could open it, but found nothing of the sort.

“Oh, yes – sorry! You haven’t seen this model before. They’re trays our engineers have just finished developing. Soon the whole Navigator fleet will be equipped with them. Look, you just press down lightly on the cover. That starts the food cooking and when it’s done it will open automatically.”

Charlie followed her instructions and a few moments later the cover opened, revealing a steaming tray with a sort of strange-smelling cube on it.

“Try it. It’s a protein cube with added vitamins. I think these ones taste like meat. If you don’t like it, there’s a plate of raw fruit and vegetables on the side.”

Charlie tried all the dishes. The flavor was not so bad after all. He told himself that it was as good as what he had eaten at the canteen with Mario. Anyway, this food and its taste were merely virtual. He wondered for a moment whether Jacques was experiencing any of this too.

“Aren’t you going to eat anything, Emma?”

“No, go ahead. You can have it all. I’m not hungry.”

Charlie finished the whole tray without being able to tell if it was enough to satisfy his appetite. Then he asked Emma what he should do with it.

“Leave it there. I’ll take it back to the central kitchen. Let’s talk about what you just read.”

“Well, I’m not sure I understand all the details, but I gather it’s about a construction project for an underground city in some secret location. However, what I don’t understand is the reason for the secrecy. Senec told me about this type of project, but he said they were run by the Council itself. He talked about underground caverns where a whole section of the population could be placed in hibernation while awaiting rescue, but this project is a little different. It’s about an actual city with all the right conditions for a population to live self-sufficiently for an indefinite period of time, until conditions are suitable for them to return to the surface.”

“Senec didn’t lie to you. These subterranean bases do exist. Actually, the space center is built on one of them. The pavilion where we are now is located more than 1,000 meters underground. Maybe you didn’t notice because the new hover cars that we use are extremely fast. This base has two huge separate residential galleries. For now the pavilions are used to house personnel working on building the vessels, but later, they will be converted into hibernation domes.”

“But, we’re not under the ocean floor?”

“No, of course not! You do have some strange questions. Don’t you remember arriving at the space center?”

Charlie felt quite disoriented by what she had just said. He was positive he was in the cave where he had been taken millions of years later by Giuseppe’s team. He thought back to his geology classes and remembered that the Earth’s surface had been significantly modified over time. Maybe it did not look anything like it had in the past. Or maybe it was simply not the same base after all. He decided to fall back on the excuse of amnesia to save himself again.

“As I said, I’ve forgotten a whole part of my life. My memory is only just starting to come back.”

“How did that happen?”

“I don’t know. I think I must have had a turn shortly after arriving at the space center. When I opened my eyes, I was alone and couldn’t remember anything.”

Emma did not pursue the matter but she seemed intrigued by the idea of a sub-marine base. Victor claimed he had forgotten everything, even his own identity, so why would he be so surprised? What reason could he have for thinking that the base was under the ocean?

“Do you really not remember me?”

Charlie hesitated a moment. Her face suddenly reminded him of something. It was a feeling of déjà vu that he could not put his finger on.

“That’s odd!”

“What’s odd?”

“I can’t remember anything at all about you – or about anything else, if it comes to that – and yet, your face is familiar to me. Actually, I’m sure we’ve met somewhere before.”

“Victor, we spent several years of our childhood together! I’m Emma Sleitz, your cousin!”

Charlie felt a strange sensation. Ideas and images rushed through his mind at a sickening speed. It was as if a door had been unlocked. The memories came flooding back; memories that were not his own.

“Emma!” he said, feigning pleasure at recognizing her at last.

He did remember her, but these memories were from Victor’s perspective, not his. Even so, he felt genuine affection for her and really enjoyed talking with her. The flood of memories was accompanied by an intense, incoherent emotional exchange but he was not the only one responsible for his attraction to this young woman. From the beginning he had been at ease with her. She had rescued him and been extremely gentle with him. He had felt safe with her straight away.

“At last, you remember me!”

“Yes, Emma, and I can’t tell you how relieved I am,” he said with a sincere smile.

Emma took his hands and squeezed them warmly.

“I’m happy too. I haven’t seen you for years.”

“Not since you went away to study in Irignia, unless I’m mistaken.”

“Yes, that’s right!”

“How did you end up here?”

“It was your brother who talked me into it. He was already working on a project for an interstellar voyage. Of course this was before the Exodus program began. At the time we were still carefree and I found the adventure exciting.”

“You always did enjoy a challenge. You were passionate about politics and you were always sure that if you were in leadership you would know what to do to resolve the most disastrous situations. And now you’re a Councilor! How did that happen? Senec didn’t tell me anything about this. I know he’s not exactly talkative, but even so!”

“Well, it’s a little complicated. If he didn’t tell you anything about me, it’s for good reason.”

She paused for a moment and looked away. She seemed to be organizing her thoughts before launching into a detailed explanation of what could be classified information.

“At the end of my studies the Assembly proposed that I put my skills to use on the construction project of this subterranean base. I had thought I would be working in the administration of public affairs but as I told you, Senec convinced me to accept the proposition. A year ago they elected me as Councilor.”

“You’ve done very well. Senec and you were very different, anyway. I’ve always known that. Studying was never difficult for you. In any case, I’m happy for you.”

“That’s kind of you, Victor, but you know, I have some important things to tell you. Can I trust you? What I’m about to say must not leave this room.”

“Of course! I have no intention of betraying a childhood friend – even less my own brother’s friend and colleague. Don’t worry about that – I can keep a secret.”

“Actually, Senec and I don’t have absolute confidence in the Exodus project’s chances of success, for many reasons; primarily scientific, but also political and human. We think the probability of the project failing and wiping out our whole race in one fell swoop, is much too high for us not to have an alternate solution. However, the Council has always refused to go down that track. I think they’re afraid of sowing doubt in people’s minds if they did. If it were publicly known that they are unable to fully guarantee the project’s success, it would probably set off a protest movement, or even a revolt. Then there would be a risk that religious or extremist groups would gain some credibility. They could exploit the panic such an admission would generate and the irrational behavior that would inevitably follow.”

“Aren’t they partially right?”

“Yes, of course, and that would reduce the project’s chance of success even further. You saw as well as I did the workers’ reaction when we told them that the Navigators would not all be ready in time. In the face of death, God only knows what a living being is capable of doing to save stay alive.”

“But I thought they preferred to double their efforts to finish the vessels.”

“No, Victor, they were prepared to make a decision with disastrous consequences! They wanted to carry on, with their heads buried in the sand. That choice is totally irrational, governed by fear loyalty to the group. All possibilities have been assessed by our technicians and statisticians and if that solution was viable, we would have said so.”

“But, what to you and Senec plan to do, then, if your specialists have found no other viable alternative?”

“Well, that’s just it. There may be another one, and we have been working on it for over two years, in utmost secrecy of course, so as not to arouse the Council’s suspicion, but also for the reasons I have just explained. We don’t want to compromise the official project’s chance of success, either. Our project is only a complementary alternative and in any case, it cannot include the whole population. What’s more, it’s not the only alternate solution. As you know, the Council itself has unofficially begun building subterranean bases to house those excluded from the program. These bases are a good enough solution, but they have significant issues and the long term survival of the population involved is far from certain. To tell the truth, apart from the fact that we do not know whether hibernation produces harmful effects on the body in the long term, the main pitfall stems from the fact that both projects are inextricably linked. That means that if the Exodus project fails, nobody will ever come to rescue the population that stayed on Earth. And there is another much more complex problem to take into account.

“Supposing the passengers of the Navigator fleet win their bet… In other words, suppose they find a planet suitable for settlement, in an area not too far from our solar system. Suppose they manage to found a sustainable colony there and rebuild a society that is sufficiently advanced to launch a rescue mission. Suppose hibernation and the living conditions in space don’t alter their fertility to the point of jeopardizing the survival of the species. What would they find when they got back to Earth?”

“You think they wouldn’t manage to find the subterranean bases, or get to them?”

“That’s a possibility too, but beyond all the technical issues, there is one which is much less obvious and yet very real, which the Council refuses to take into consideration. It could take at least hundreds, if not thousands of years to overcome all the technical problems. Who will be in charge by then? Won’t they prefer to convince themselves that it’s too late to rescue the hypothetical survivors back on Earth? I’m not convinced otherwise. Lastly, we have to take evolution into account. The two groups would be worlds apart. One of them would have evolved independently in a new environment and a new society, while the other remained unchanged, inert, and unaware of the passage of time. They’d be worlds apart, you see? They would have lost their bearings and would find reintegration incredibly difficult.”

“Isn’t that better than death?”

“Maybe. But we see things differently.”

“So what do you plan on doing?”

“The Council thinks that Senec is linked to Project XK207. That’s why they’ve put him in solitary confinement. They think they know all the ins and outs of this alternate program, but the reality is that their informers only know the tip of the iceberg and nobody here, apart from you, knows that I’m part of it. You understand why, in revealing this to you, I’m putting a lot more than my own fate in your hands.”

“If you only knew…” murmured Charlie.

But Emma did not seem to hear. He would have liked to tell her all that he knew about the future and the role that he was playing here now, but that would not be sensible. Intelligent, attractive and likeable as she might be, Emma did not exist and Charlie was aware of that. She was only a phantom straight out of the mists of time; the phantom of a young N.H.I that Victor had once known. If she was here with him, talking to him, it was only because her presence could help them – Victor and himself – to gather and assemble essential information stored in his memory, which he could not access yet. The scene he was living out in this reality driven by convergence was, in some way, a dream. Nothing could happen here that did not stem directly from the memories, the imagination and of course, the desires of both of them. But this dream was pleasant and nothing could have persuaded him to break the spell. The desire to do so would have been enough, but he did not want to.

“Why are you giving me this information?”

“I don’t know. Maybe because I trust you.”

It doesn’t matter, thought Charlie. She may not have any particular reason. If she’s giving this information to me, it must only be because I’m looking for it. What role can I play in a story that belongs to the past, apart from observing and analyzing what I am allowed to see? He might as well reassure her about that. It would not cost him anything, and he wanted to.

“You’re right,” he said in a reassuring tone. “I’ll do everything I can to help you if I can be useful in any way.”

He knew perfectly well that such an assertion made no sense either but it added to the coherence of the conversation, and therefore to the dream itself. However, he was already aware of beginning to distance himself from the situation and if that did not stop soon he would jeopardize the continuity of the dream. Emma’s face was still clear, but the décor was starting to blur slightly and time seemed to stretch so that he could now pay attention to his internal thoughts without Emma noticing. During the moments when Charlie separated himself off from the conversation, she remained frozen, not speaking, and only began to talk again when he turned his attention back to her and what she was saying. He was a little like a dreamer who wakes up for a few seconds in the middle of a very pleasant dream and must concentrate not to let it escape so he can find it again when he falls back to sleep. He concentrated as hard as he could on Emma’s words. Her voice seemed to be the common thread of the dream. All the rest was merely a construct gravitating around that. Emma was the driving force, the vector that allowed him to access the multiple branches of meaningful information rooted in Victor’s memory. With relief, he felt himself coming back in touch with her. She was talking to him, and in future he would try not to let himself wander too far again.

“We must get Senec out of that cell. The latest news I heard concerning the work’s progress was not very good. They absolutely need Senec. He’s the architect of the XK207 City. Without him they will never manage to complete such a technologically complex project. He is indispensible and the Council members know it.”

“Why are you talking about a city? Isn’t it more of a subterranean base? How could a city resist the impact of an asteroid shower?”

“It’s not strictly speaking a city like Irignia or Sivitz, which both have over 50,000 inhabitants. Actually, we should be talking about an inhabitable subterranean base, but the name “city” was chosen for its psychological effect. We want to recreate a small underground town where around 10,000 people can live – not merely survive – until the effects of the cataclysm have passed.”

“You’re not planning on hibernating?”

“No, Victor! That’s exactly what differentiates our project from that of the subterranean bases developed by the council. We don’t want to hibernate. We want to continue to live and develop, whatever the risk. None of us wants to go to sleep without knowing if – or where – we will wake up again one day.”

“But how is it possible? Where would you find enough food and air to ensure the survival of all those people?”

“The city is being built in a very deep natural cavity, located in the immediate proximity of an enormous underground freshwater lake. This endless source of water will provide drinking water and oxygen, not only for the people, but also for crops and livestock.”

“But what about light and energy sources? How will you produce those?”

“That’s the tricky part. Senec is currently working on the top secret development of a nuclear fission generator, but to do so he must smuggle out plans and parts that can only be found in the space center. It’s a practically eternal source of energy because its fuel is deuterium, an element readily available in sea water and also in polar ice, so we could obtain it without leaving the city. Many pipelines are currently being drilled to supply the reactor.”

“In that case, I suppose the city must be beneath the ocean floor. But how could such an enterprise escape the Council’s notice? It must require large-scale work!”

“The natural cavity that we have chosen to use is located at the South Pole, only 300 meters below the surface of Antarctica. The ice cap covering it in that specific area is more than four kilometers thick. According to Senec’s latest predictions, based on the data he recently managed to extract from the space center’s database, the layer of ice should be sufficiently thick to absorb most of the impact of the asteroid shower.”

“You’re not worried that the shock will set off a huge earthquake that could destroy the cavity? It would seem quite a plausible scenario to me. I certainly don’t pretend to compete with my brother’s expertise, which is far beyond mine on the subject, but it seems to me that such a phenomenon has occurred several times over the course of history, causing significant modifications to the Earth’s crust each time.”

“As I just said, the ice cap, and also the ocean covering the submerged land will act as a giant buffer zone. Of course we can’t be certain of anything, but we hope we are not too far wrong. No solution is 100 per cent foolproof. Ours isn’t, any more than those developed by the Council, but we believe in its chance of success. We will survive, the time it takes to rebuild a society above ground. To begin with, we will rebuild it at the bottom of the ocean if living conditions above ground take too long to improve, but we will do it. We have to. We have to believe in it and keep on believing for hundreds or even thousands of years. How could we survive stuck underground and keep up hope for generations if we were not convinced we made the right choice?

“The question should not even be asked, Victor, and I hope now that you will join us, unless you prefer to try your chance on one of the Exodus project vessels. It’s up to you to make a decision now. I know your brother has made sure you will be guaranteed a place on board the Navigator fleet. He’s a very private man and does not share his feelings, even with me, his childhood friend and closest colleague on this project. Even so, the fact that he allowed you access to reports that compromise the Council leads me to believe that he would like to count you among the future citizens of our city. He has designed and is overseeing the entire construction of this city; a last resort city, which he has decided to call Australopolis because of its geographical location.”

Charlie did not really know how to answer her question about making the right choice, but he also supposed that Vikern had not chosen that option at the time because they had found him millions of years later, hibernating in what seemed more like one of the bases built by the Council than a mythical lost city. Did this city truly exist? Had they succeeded in completing their project? If that were the case, it should be possible to find evidence of it today. It was at that precise moment that he realized deep down inside that he had just laid hands on the secret Victor had sent him to find in the recesses of his memory. He wanted to know what had happened to his brother, and now they had good reason to suppose that Senec was not one of the Exodus candidates, any more than he had accepted the hibernation plan developed by the Council, contrary to what he had told Vikern some time earlier. He was probably dead now.

Emma’s face froze, taking on the form of a white wax mask with a fixed smile. Her pink lips made a striking contrast with the immaculate white of her skin. He recognized her perfectly, as if the mask had been poured directly onto her face. The fine layer of wax followed its contours exactly, emphasizing every detail, even the dimple that always accompanied her smile. The image was a blow to Charlie’s heart. At that moment he knew that he would probably never see her again and the realization was more painful than he could have imagined.

He tried in vain to concentrate but he could not escape the flood of emotions and suddenly began to cry as he never had before. He was drowning, completely overwhelmed by this emotional torrent. Hunched over, he grasped his head in his hands. His body trembled and shuddered with intense spasms. The pain washed over him uncontrollably in endless waves of images and sensations jostling and jumbling around in the complete chaos of his thoughts. It was the paroxysmal surge of cerebral hemispheres whose destinies were intertwined.

Emma’s question had just opened something up in Victor’s memory. It was a crack, or not exactly a crack, but rather a bridge, a meaningful pathway which had suddenly made it possible for memories, which had been buried for millions of years in the recesses of his mind, to emerge. These images and sensations were not all that emerged. They were accompanied by an emotional explosion that neither Victor’s mind nor his own could cope with. The spasms got stronger and soon became convulsions. Thick, white foam oozed from Charlie’s open mouth. His unseeing eyes were wide open. One last spasm convulsed his extremely rigid body then there was nothing. He lay immobile, curled up on the floor; his open eyes staring blankly.

 

 

27 FINAL CONVERSATION

 

All was quiet. Intense fatigue steeped Charlie in a strange torpor. His mind seemed foggy and his vision only allowed a halo of soft, blurred light to filter through. Even so, he felt a sense of well-being, as though he had barely awoken and was ready to sink back into a long, refreshing sleep. It was as if his thoughts were in limbo, and he was simply enjoying this peaceful state without trying to grasp at any sort of reality. He needed rest; a dreamless sleep devoid of stress and apprehension. Even though he could see nothing in the flood of white light; internally he was perfectly conscious of his body and the total relaxation that dominated it. The only slightly unpleasant sensation came from his eyes. They felt scratchy, but not a single tear managed to escape from his tear glands. A tear would certainly have soothed that dry, itchy feeling. Charlie had no idea what could have happened to put him in such a state, incapable of moving or thinking. Only one thing mattered for now: sleep, to sleep as long as he needed to. Nothing else was important.

But try as he might, sleep would not come. Instead, he was still overwhelmed by this ongoing torpor. His thoughts gradually began to flow again. They floated by slowly, without him being able to catch hold of them and follow their course. They were like little dead leaves, carried along by the slow current of a stream. He observed them like objects with no particular content or meaning, and endeavored instead to carefully study their physical appearance: their color, shape, texture and also the way they moved along in the constant flow of the current. It was a hypnotic, contemplative state, completely free of any urgency or feeling of obligation. Charlie let himself be carried along, but could not find the sleep that he so willed to come. However, the silence was gradually broken and a subtle, slightly tangy odor filled the atmosphere. It was the delicate, intoxicating smell of bergamot which he easily identified. Background noises were still muffled and difficult to make out, but he seemed to recognize the clinking of metal on china. He knew it; Victor was here, having a cup of tea nearby, probably sitting on one of the kitchen chairs. He was waiting patiently for him.

“How are you, Charlie? I was worried about you.”

From the very first words, he recognized the old man’s voice. He could not see him yet, but the tone he used seemed friendlier, less domineering than during their previous encounters. He would have liked to get up and join him at the table but could not manage that yet. He had only just regained control of his thoughts; his will was not yet strong enough to command physical movement. His body ignored him. It remained deaf to his commands. Concentrating again, he thought he managed to move a finger on his right hand, but the scope of the movement was so small that he could not be certain. Perhaps it was only an illusion. Words would not come out of his mouth either, so he was unable to respond to Victor, who continued the conversation on his own.

“I thought you weren’t going to make it, you know. That surge was violent. It seems that your brain was not able to cope with the effects of convergence.”

Then the silence returned. Charlie perceived sound with unusual sharpness. He could hear quite clearly the old man swallowing his tea. He also heard the metallic sound of the biscuit tin being opened. It probably contained the delicious orange zest biscuits they had eaten together. Then came the sound of a soft crunch, followed by regular, conscientious chewing, of which he could hear every minute detail.

“I think you call it epilepsy; a disorder which we also know, but we have learned to limit its effects. I noticed when the first signs began. As for me, the metabolic decompensation was only partial, thankfully, but I couldn’t do anything to help you. Believe me; I’m very sorry, Charlie. I had to protect myself to avoid the seizure becoming too severe. I’m not sure you would have survived total decompensation of both our brains. Even if you had survived, the intensity of such an electrical surge would probably have erased your memory, which is something I want to avoid at all costs. Do you understand? In a way, you could say that I just saved your life, but it’s the very least I owed you.”

Charlie began to move his jaw slightly and could now flex all his fingers. The old man fell silent again and swallowed another mouthful of tea before placing his cup delicately on its saucer.

“Come along, Charlie. These biscuits are delicious. I’ve left some for you. I know you love them.”

“I’m not sure if the effects of convergence were the only cause of the seizure,” said Charlie, who had summoned all his strength to respond.

“Ah! It’s about time you woke up!”

“Yes, I’m back, but I’m not sure whether I should thank you for that yet.”

He struggled to his feet as he spoke and came to join Victor at the table. Without a word, the old man smiled and gestured for him to sit on the chair he had already pulled out for him.

“What do you mean?” he asked, calmly.

“Just before passing out, I saw a large part of my life flash before my eyes.”

“Does that surprise you?”

“What surprises me is that a lot of the images and memories were not my own. How do you explain that, Victor?”

The old man took time to think before replying. His smile had faded slightly, but he did not seem overly concerned by the question.

“You know, my friend, I am not omniscient. That is precisely why I needed your help. However, you are undoubtedly right; convergence was probably not the only cause of the seizure. When Emma asked us if I was ready to follow her and Senec, it was like an electric shock to me. I had such an intense feeling of guilt and then a whole raft of memories came flooding back which I couldn’t control. And it wasn’t only memories that came back.”

“They weren’t simply memories! The surge of emotion they brought was violent! I suppose that’s the very reason you buried them.”

“You’re not wrong, Charlie. I didn’t have the courage to join them in their adventure. And yet I loved Emma deeply. I have always loved her, but she was my cousin so it was not allowed.”

“I thought that it wasn’t a true memory. I thought it was only a virtual experience that we were building together – a sort of waking dream that allowed us to look into the deepest parts of your memory. Isn’t that what you told me, Victor? I didn’t dream that too, did I?”

“That is effectively what happened, Charlie. The experience you just had never existed, except in both our minds at the moment when convergence made the two of us one and the same person.”

“But how did you memorize the information used in that dream, then? Have you ever even been to the space center?”

“Emma and I maintained a relationship by correspondence after she went away to study in Irignia. After a long period without any news from her she suddenly began to write letters which came to me covertly, through one of one of her friends. She knew her mail would be monitored by the Council, as was the case for all personnel working at the space center. She was in the habit of confiding in me, but her last three letters were of quite a different nature. She gave me all the details of the project she and Senec were working on and asked me to join them as soon as possible.”

“And you never did.”

“No, I didn’t even answer her.”

For the first time, a tear flowed out of each of his large, gray eyes. This new fragility made a poignant figure of the old man from the mists of time. Charlie knew that he was only an image, a symbol of the true Victor; the colossus that lay alongside him in the great hall of domes. Even so, he wanted to take him in his arms and console him, as he would have done an old friend on the verge of breaking down and confiding his pain to a lifelong companion. He had only known him for a few weeks, but convergence had united them forever; maybe not as Jacques and Charlie were united, but in another way; a way that was both virtual and quite real. It was the union of two minds, two fundamentally different lives; an unnatural union whose full extent they probably had not yet measured. Charlie would never be the same again. Victor would always be a part of him and he sensed that, even though he was not fully conscious of it. Even so, he could not quite bring himself to touch him, and settled instead for looking at him with a face full of compassion.

“Why not?” asked Charlie.

“I don’t know. I think I was afraid.”

“Afraid of what?”

“Afraid of everything; afraid of the Council, especially afraid of dying. I didn’t have it in me. I was afraid Emma would see that. I would have had to face up to her and my brother. And then there was my wife. I didn’t want to take the risk.”

“You didn’t believe in their project.”

“The Council had been conditioning us daily for several years to believe that there was no viable alternative to choosing one of the two solutions they offered. Senec and Emma’s project was so complex it seemed almost utopian to me. What’s more, there was a real risk that the Council would hinder its development or even derail it and punish the culprits, of which I would have been one.”

“And yet, in the first memory, you seemed to say that you had complete confidence in Senec. You said he wanted you to know about the failings of the Exodus project so you could make the information public. At that point, you said that you had decided to stay behind with him, too. Senec himself seemed to think that the hibernation bases were a good alternative to the Exodus project, and unless I’m mistaken, at the time he was already working on the development of an independent waking system to compensate for the risk of the Exodus mission’s failure. If he had actually managed to get his programmed waking device to work, I would have understood your decision to stay with him on one of the hibernation bases; but apparently he set off on another track, so why such an irrational choice?”

“The choice wasn’t totally irrational. Senec actually did set up a waking device, using a computer program implanted in the whole operating system for the hibernation bases. If you are here talking with me today, Charlie, it’s because it has functioned successfully.”

“Millions of years later! Why wait so long?”

“That, I don’t know. Nor do I know what the criteria are for its activation, or what its source is. But what I do know, thanks to you Charlie, is that Senec and Emma probably made it possible for a whole section of the population to continue evolving, somewhere in a city called Australopolis. They must have died a long time ago, but it is possible that a part of them lives on in each one of you, unless they didn’t survive or they never managed to escape their underground city.”

Listening to him, Charlie understood what he meant when he mentioned the possibility of a part of his brother living on in each of them. He could not help thinking back to the day when he had come into contact with Victor for the first time, or rather, with his body. He had felt uncomfortable faced with a physical form at once so gigantic and yet so profoundly similar to that of a human. Victor was alluding to the possibility that a branch of his species had managed to survive on Earth and continue evolving over millions of years until it finally became Man. That called into question everything he had always been taught about the origin of the human species, but the evidence was right there and was not going to go away. Perhaps that evolution had been made possible because of the XK207 project’s success and because of Australopolis, even if there was no concrete evidence yet. Neither he nor Victor could know for sure, but a common intuition was leading them in that direction.

“Forgive me, Victor; I’m not sure if I should tell you this. I sincerely hope it’s not news to you, but I think you are alone here. According to what I’ve been told, you are the only N.H.I. who’s been found on this base. What happened? Do you know?”

“Are you sure?” he asked, without showing any sign of surprise.

“Well, that’s what Giuseppe has led us to believe, in any case. You know, my brother and I were brought here just a few weeks ago and we only know what we’ve been told. You don’t seem very surprised. Am I right?”

“Yes, you’re right, Charlie, and yet I know that there were nearly 5,000 of us hibernating on this base.”

Charlie remained silent, not understanding where this was leading. A moment ago he had been worried Victor would break down, but his reaction was nothing of the sort, although the idea of losing his wife and possibly being the sole survivor of his kind should have overwhelmed him. After a brief pause, Victor continued his explanation.

“Each dome is designed to keep one individual in hibernation at a time. Before entering this one, I was personally present while my wife was put to sleep in Sector 24. One of the former connection candidates was a technician who had worked on fitting out this base. His name is Elias Conti, if I remember correctly. As I told you, no one but you has truly entered into contact with me. However, I have been free to explore their minds while they wandered, lost in their own dreams. That is how I obtained the information about what really happened when this base was colonized by humans. I think, my friend, that Giuseppe has not told you the whole truth.”

“What do you mean?”

“I told you that prior our first conversation; you had only been wandering in the corridors of your own mind, without ever really entering into contact with me. If you remember our conversation correctly, I added “apart from certain details”. What I meant by that, was that certain details of your dream did not come directly from your own memories or imagination. I voluntarily allowed those details to filter through, as I had done with each of the other humans who tried to infiltrate my mind – except that none of the others before you was able to identify them, but you did! You seemed very different. Your mind clearly distinguished between what came from you and what didn’t. You seemed accustomed to living in duality. You noticed those foreign elements immediately and wanted to know more about them.”

“The map!” exclaimed Charlie. “You’re talking about the symbols that I found in the endless tunnel, under a layer of lichen.”

“Yes, Charlie,” he answered calmly.

“The map showed symbols that I didn’t understand, but when I stepped back to look at them, I had the feeling it was a map of the base. I also remember being intrigued by the appearance of constructions that I didn’t recognize, as if there had been wings which no longer exist today.”

“Which no longer exist, or which it was deemed unnecessary to tell you about”, Victor pointed out.

“You think that Giuseppe may have deliberately concealed the existence of a whole section of the base? But why would he do that?”

Charlie was questioning Victor, but deep down inside, he was not really surprised. He had already suspected as much, when studying the map. And the last conversation with Jacques had only served to reinforce the suspicions he had about Francisco and Giuseppe especially. Of course, Francisco was incapable of lying. At least, it seemed doubtful that his personality would be capable of such a thing; but maybe he could omit certain details if he was asked to.

“Those wings do still exist, but access to them has been kept secret. Elias knew that. He had worked on building the containment wall that divides this cavern into two parts. Unfortunately, you may not be able to count on his help to find the other zone – the “no-go zone”, as they call it. I have no idea what has become of him since the connection. My source of information is limited to what those of you who have visited me know. Neither do I know what sort of mental state he is in today. He seemed to be deeply affected by the experience and failed to cope. His anxiety quickly got the better of him, filling the virtual reality I left him in with a number of elements stemming from his own fears. He was unable to leave the connection of his own volition. The departure was too brutal for him not to bear significant scars today – if he’s still alive.”

These words sent chills down Charlie’s spine. What would happen when he was separated from Victor? They had only been in the connection together for a few weeks and yet it seemed to him that the experiences he had been through here made up a large portion of his life. The passage of time – or at least his perception of it – seemed completely distended. To begin with, it was a while since he had been subjected to a cycle of alternating periods of sleeping and waking. Even his internal clock seemed to have been disconnected, so that only physical and emotional exhaustion had sometimes allowed him to experience the impression of sleep. Just as the sleeper does not know how long he has been asleep, he had no idea how long he had been deprived of sleep. Should he even think of things in those terms anyway? Francisco had warned him that he would neither be asleep nor truly awake for the duration of the connection.

“You’re worried about yourself, Charlie. You’re thinking that you may have reason to fear the effects of our separation. Our experiences together will certainly have rearranged your mind. I must admit, several times I was afraid I’d lost you, but you survived and now nothing will ever be the same again – for you or for me. When you return to your reality, when your senses fill your mind with a flood of familiar information and sensations, you will know how to get things in perspective. I’m sure of it. You were never alone, Charlie, and you never will be. A large part of what I know, and my way of thinking about that knowledge, is inscribed in you forever. In a way, I will continue to guide you on your quest, even after we are separated.”

Charlie understood just what Victor meant. He had always lived in symbiosis with his brother. He had never had his own world all to himself – he could not even imagine what that meant. In the end, this experience with Victor had not been so very different to the way he had always lived. Of course, his communion with Jacques was not of the same sort, but recently telepathy had brought them even closer – if that were possible – a sort of convergence of their minds and bodies, imposed on them by nature. What is more, he and Jacques had always shared the same daily life; the same experiences. They had been around the same people, confronted by their attitudes, since infancy. The resulting suffering did not need to be discussed specifically in order for each of them to know what the other felt. In a way, they had always been the ideal candidates for the connection and somehow Francisco had seen that before anyone else.

“Am I to understand that the time has come for us to part, Victor?”

“I’m afraid so, Charlie. It’s not that we have nothing more to learn from each other. On the contrary; I’m pleased to have met you and would have liked to take the experience further, but I’m afraid your body may not stand the effects of convergence or lack of sleep for much longer.”

“So that was the help you needed. You wanted to know what had happened to your brother. It’s strange, but I feel I haven’t contributed much at all. You could probably have found it out for yourself. All the information was there, buried in your memory. One day or other you would have become aware of it. You didn’t really need me for that. I guess the fact that you have been sleeping for an eternity could have prevented you from searching your memory efficiently, but your gradual increase in wakefulness would no doubt have allowed you to access them.”

“That’s possible, but it’s not the only thing I wanted from you, Charlie.”

“You want me to find your wife, don’t you?”

“Yes, Charlie. Right now that’s all I expect of you, even though I’m not sure you have enough influence to ensure that nothing will endanger her life. Despite the fact that my size and mental abilities are far superior to yours, it’s obvious that I am powerless to help her. I have no choice but to leave her fate in your hands. I only hope I’m not mistaken and that I can count on you?”

“You can, Victor. I’ll do everything in my power to help you. However, as you have just said, my brother and I are merely guests on this base – we are not decision-makers.”

“No, perhaps not, but you are the only one who knows part of the truth about our people. When they question you, don’t serve them everything on a platter. The influence you have will be in direct proportion to the importance they place on what you know, but refuse to tell them. Your ability to understand the human psyche and analyze your environment will certainly have increased due to the permanent effects of convergence. You are no longer a man like the rest of them, Charlie, and it won’t take you long to realize that.”

“What about you?”

“I’m condemned to stay here until the end of the waking phase.”

“How long will that take?”

“According to my knowledge, the waking phase is programmed to last for a period of at least thirty or forty years. If I’m still alive then, you’ll practically be an old man.”

“We’ll both be old men,” answered Charlie with a smile. “Forty years is an eternity!”

“But I’m already an old man, Charlie, almost a relic!” he replied, returning the smile.

With that touch of humor, Victor avoided specifying that during the waking phase the cellular ageing process would no longer be blocked, as it had been during deep hibernation. It would nevertheless be greatly retarded, so that he would not age more than a few years, although by then, Charlie would be nearing the end of his life.

“And yet, it will not be too long,” he said in a more serious tone. “Between now and then you might have managed to locate Australopolis and you’ll be able to fill me in on your findings.”

Charlie had not thought that far ahead, but it was obvious: he could not live with such a secret forever, without trying to solve the mystery. It was not only for Victor’s sake that he would take on the quest. Perhaps Australopolis held the keys to the origin of humanity, and he did not doubt the interest that Giuseppe and his team would have in that.

“Antarctica is huge. How could I find a city buried under kilometers of ice? Would there be any vestiges of it left?”

“The task is difficult, I agree, but I have faith in you. With Giuseppe’s technical help you will find it, I’m sure. You have information within you that you do not even suspect yet and when the time comes it will permit you to locate Australopolis. Trust your intuition, as you have done successfully up till now. Your intuition is the guiding force allowing you to access the knowledge that has migrated from my brain to yours, through convergence. I would have liked you to discover that information here, but now it’s too late. It’s high time you got back to your brother. Perhaps it’s better this way after all. You will find out in due time when the context is right. That will save you revealing everything to them before you’ve protected both your own interests and mine.”

Charlie supposed he was alluding to what he would have discovered through the third door. It seemed logical, but he wanted to be sure.

“You are referring to what is on the other side of the third door, I suppose?”

“That third door doesn’t exist anymore. Neither do the others. I didn’t choose those doors. At first I wasn’t sure what we would find through them, but with the benefit of hindsight and thanks to convergence, I found a whole portion of my memory again. I remember that before he disappeared, Senec sent me a long letter in which he presented in great detail the plans and position of Australopolis. I can’t remember all of the information it contained. A large part of it has not yet emerged in my conscious memory and you could probably have helped me to access it, just as you did with Emma. It’s information that was extremely important at the time. My brother had always trusted me, so I wasn’t surprised when he confided in me again, but on that occasion something was different. For the first time he was expressly telling me – or rather writing to me – what he had to say. It wasn’t his usual habit, as you know. Before, he had always arranged things so I would have to find out for myself, indirectly. That time, he probably needed to know that someone he trusted would be able to find them one day, if he had the chance – someone who would not speak of it to anyone else. So I buried the information deep in my memory and never spoke of it. You are the only other person who knows about it now, Charlie. Only you and I know where they dug themselves in at the time.”

“Do you think their descendents could still be there?”

“It’s very unlikely, if not impossible and in that case, it would mean they never made it back above ground. No, if they didn’t all die before having the opportunity, I suppose they might have tried to come up when they thought the external conditions were sufficiently favorable. Their technology would have permitted it, but anything could have happened and I don’t know any more on the matter than you.”

“I’m sorry to insist on this point, but in the event that they could not or would not come back up, would their technology have allowed them to keep living underground for so long? After all, after such a long period of confinement, anything could happen, especially politically.”

“I’m still partially capable of reading your mind, Charlie, and despite the relative separation caused by the epileptic seizure, I will be able to continue doing so as long as we are still connected. However, I admit that I do not understand exactly what you are referring to when you say ‘politically’.”

“We humans have a natural tendency to search for solutions and irrational explanations as soon as we are confronted with fear. Since the dawn of the age, Man and his ancestors – at least, those we know of – have tended toward introspection and reliance on hypothetical divinities. It’s an easy way for us to maintain an illusion of control over some of the things that threaten us. Some historians think that religions began in pre-history, in response to natural threats such as fire, storms, illness and of course, large predators. I don’t know if it was the same for your people, but if it were the case, I suppose it wouldn’t be totally unrealistic to think that the inhabitants of Australopolis, not knowing what awaited them above ground, could have decided to shut themselves in, rather than risking life on the surface. It seems difficult to imagine, I know, especially for a city planned by scientific experts, but centuries of isolation and fear could well have led to the emergence of some collective superstitions with disastrous effects. Of course, I’m merely extrapolating, and what I say may be inspired by my own personal desires or fantasies.”

“Perhaps you just don’t want to accept that they’ve disappeared. I loved Emma, and by force of circumstance you felt that too, when we were under the effects of convergence.”

“That’s possible,” answered Charlie, with a grave face.

Victor was probably right. The rounded shape of her face and her reassuring voice would be engraved in his memory for a long time. He could not forget her, and Victor perceived that.

“At any rate, what you suggest is not devoid of sense,” answered Victor. “Despite our degree of civilization, religion and superstition had not completely disappeared. Neither science, nor major philosophical and political systems of thought were ever able to replace them. Incidentally, I don’t know where this tendency toward spirituality that inhabits us (and perhaps all living beings to various degrees) comes from. I think, as you put it so well, that all mortal beings cannot help but tend toward the irrational, no matter what their degree of consciousness or evolution. Such a tendency almost certainly existed in Australopolis, especially as it seems that all the conditions would have been there to foster it. They must have been subject to prolonged, intense fear. Confinement would have only added to the impact of fear on their psyche. But we may never know anything about it for sure – in any case, not unless you find the remains of the city. I can’t say why exactly, but I don’t believe in such an outcome. I would like them to be alive today too, and have them tell me what happened, but we aren’t in a dream or a memory anymore. We are talking about reality, which I know to be generally a lot crueler and less likely to satisfy our desires.”

“You’re right; even if they had the technological means, no social being could survive for more than a few generations in such confinement. Sooner or later they would have tried to get out of there, in spite of all the fears and beliefs that may have hindered them. Life and its drive for expansion always prevail in the end.”

“Maybe time will tell, Charlie. This conversation could go on forever but you must go home now. Don’t worry about me. I will survive and I hope they will let us have the opportunity to talk again someday.”

“I would like to be able to inform you regularly of my progress and tell you about your wife once I have found her, but I don’t know how. Do you know if other connections are possible? Failing that, maybe you could learn to use a neural probe, like to the one they have implanted in me. Its use requires a little training but if I understand correctly, convergence works both ways so I guess you should be able to use it without too much trouble. Don’t you think?”

“Connection would always be possible but I don’t want to take that risk again. The implantation of a neural probe, as you call it, seems dangerous.”

“As far as I’m concerned, everything has been fine, at least up till now. I don’t know if it will still be the case once they’ve taken it out again, but Francisco seems to know what he’s doing. I think I can trust him in that area.”

“The risk of bodily harm is one thing, but there’s something else that bothers me a lot more.”

“What do you mean?”

“What use do you think they’ll make of it? I’m not at all sure of the merits of such an experiment. It is probably better if they think I am unable to communicate directly with them. They mustn’t think that they can do without you. Even if I can communicate with them, I could never follow them to see what they are really doing. You can, though. I will wait for you; that would be better. I will wait until you come and meet me again when you think the time is right. Don’t be in a rush! Take the time to weigh up the pros and cons when you need to make the decision.”

“And what if I never come back?”

“Behind me is the kitchen door. That’s how you came in the first time. Open it and keep in mind that your goal is to find the path to reality. Once you are through that door nothing more will filter through from my mind. The connection will only be physical from then on. No more signals or information will pass through the neural probe that joins our two brains. You will be completely on your own. That will give you some time to find yourself before you return to reality. Don’t hurry, but don’t forget what your goal is. Finally, I hope that you will not forget me as you would a bad dream.”

Charlie stood up and walked toward the door. He was overcome by emotion again and he knew that Victor felt it too. His back turned, he remained motionless before the little wooden door. A heavy tear hit the icy tiled floor of the kitchen. Charlie was trembling. He turned around one last time to say goodbye to Victor but Victor was no longer there. All that was visible was a thick blanket of snow, stretching as far as the eye could see. The cold became more and more invasive, quickly driving Charlie to leave behind the meeting place that had changed him forever.

 

 

28 RETURN TO REALITY

 

Behind the little wooden door there was nothing, absolutely nothing; no floor, no walls, no sky, no horizon; nothing; total emptiness. Perplexed, Charlie turned around, in search of some visual point of reference, but the only one available was the sense that he was standing on his feet. Each step was another leap into the unknown, in a world devoid of physical sensation, until the moment when his foot finally encountered something solid. There was an invisible surface which he supposed was flat, but could not see. At first, he was afraid of falling at every step, but after a few minutes Charlie was walking along without the slightest apprehension. He was not at all bothered by it anymore, actually. He was preoccupied by something else entirely. His thoughts were totally focused on what he had just been through and the memory of all those people that he absolutely did not wish to forget. He was visualizing their faces one by one, trying to remember their posture, expressions and mannerisms.

He even risked closing his eyes, fully aware that this perceived reality was not real at all. It simply reflected the emptiness of his mind, or rather the internal outpouring of a mind overcome by pain. Charlie was completely absorbed – almost hypnotized – by the flood of images running through his head. Everything else was emptiness to him; the fathomless emptiness that tends to follow the loss of a loved one or a part of oneself. It was the emptiness of grief, which sucks all the flavor and texture out of life, as if his senses had been temporarily put on standby, ignoring external stimuli to focus solely on those coming from within.

After a while – he had no way of measuring how long, apart from counting the number of his steps – an idea came to him, abruptly interrupting his painful but nostalgic train of thought. It became obvious to Charlie that he was refusing to leave convergence or perhaps it was convergence that was resisting the separation. It seemed to be clinging to some phantom vestige, one of those residual images that last for a few split seconds after an object has disappeared from view. There must be an enormous amount of energy involved such a process, engaging billions of neurons; and the separation was violently upsetting an equilibrium that sought at all costs to remain stable. That was probably why Victor had told him to take his time, while not losing sight of his goal. He had to find his reality again and leave that of convergence, or his brain would never find balanced perception again. He would risk being continuously persuaded that he was still connected. Like a schizophrenic, he would be forever lost somewhere between the real and the imagined; wandering in a reality created and populated by his own hallucinations.

He opened his eyes again and this time everything was different. He only needed to think of something for it to materialize. What appeared first was the enormous lawn he had crossed to reach the dome on first entering the connection. Charlie tried to concentrate exclusively on the memory of his first steps here, those which had drawn him toward Victor while drawing him away from his own reality. He had to find that bedroom with the bed where he would be able to go to sleep at last. When he awoke he would be with Jacques, able to talk to him again, touch him and even argue with him, if the opportunity arose. Clementine and Mario would be there, too, anxious to see him again. But for now, he had to follow this long and laborious road, without turning back or thinking about Emma, or Victor or all the others who filled his memory.

The heat had become oppressive. The sun shone in a deep blue sky, dotted here and there with white clouds that floated slowly by in the opposite direction to where he was heading. It was as if they were trying to make him turn back, drawing him in their wake toward what he absolutely must leave behind. Suddenly, he noticed a little red dot fluttering erratically a few meters above the ground. Behind him, after every step, the lawn seemed to sink down and break up before falling into a bottomless pit. There was no turning back now. A few meters further on, he realized that it was an orange butterfly with small, black markings: a monarch butterfly, the very sort that covers thousands of kilometers at its risk and peril, to reach its ultimate goal. A radiant smile lit up his face then, and he redoubled his efforts, going faster and faster so as not to lose sight of it. He lifted his feet with difficulty from the soil which had become thick and loamy. He felt as if he were being trapped and held back; sucked toward a world he so wanted and needed to get away from as quickly as possible. After a fierce struggle he finally collapsed, his knees sunk deep in the mud.

For a second he thought he was going to have to give up. Convergence was too strong. It would never let him leave. But the butterfly suddenly turned and came back to land on his shoulder. Charlie got up, closed his eyes again and concentrated on the heavy, cramped feeling that engulfed his legs. He imagined with all his might, hard, dry ground on which he would be able to set his feet and run at last without any trouble at all. When he opened them, he found that the butterfly had flown off again, showing him the way to go. Now the soil was dry and dusty, and he ran so fast that only a moment later he found himself in front of a little house. It had red shutters, which reminded him of his grandparents’ home. The door opened by itself, letting out a delicious smell of fresh baking. He was sure it was an apple tart, like the ones his grandmother would make each time he visited. The smell was both comforting and intensely familiar, which told Charlie he was out of danger.

Once inside the house he turned around for the first time and closed the door firmly. It was over. He went into the kitchen where a glass of orange juice and a slice of tart awaited him. There it all was; the plastic table cloth with its outdated motif, the copper pans, the matchboxes sitting next to the gas stove, and of course the old radio that was practically obsolete, playing old-time dance music with dreadful static. Charlie felt comfortable at last. He finished his piece of tart and laid his head on his arms before falling into a well deserved sleep.

 

 

29 RESURRECTION

 

“Jacques, wake up!”

“Huh? What? What’s going on?”

“It’s me, Mario. I think Charlie just woke up! It looks as if he came out of the connection by himself.”

“How is that possible? I thought he couldn’t wake up until the neural probe had been taken out.”

“I thought so too, but his arm just moved and his vital signs are normal again without us doing anything.”

Jacques propped himself up, still feeling groggy. In front of him the console screen showed a signal that had been blinking constantly for several minutes already.

“Are you alone, Mario? Where are the others?”

“They’re asleep. I stayed with you tonight to watch you both sleeping and then suddenly, at around two a. m. this green light started flashing.”

“What time is it now?”

“2:15 am. I didn’t realize what it meant right away but then your brother started twitching. I alerted the medical team and they confirmed that Charlie’s brain activity was abnormal or, should I say, much too normal, as if he wasn’t connected to Victor’s brain anymore. They’re waiting for instructions from Francisco and Giuseppe. They’ve been informed and should be here any minute.”

Jacques was wide awake now. He could not take his eyes off his brother’s body, watching for the slightest sign that would show he was back among them again. He quickly noticed that Charlie was breathing much faster and more regularly than he had done for weeks. From time to time he seemed to twitch slightly and his fingers moved but Jacques could not tell if the movements were voluntary or not.

“You see? He seems to be moving.”

“Are you sure it’s not just another seizure? Maybe he’s going to have another epileptic fit.”

“No, Jacques. It’s totally different this time. He’s waking up. You should try and talk to him telepathically. He might not be fully conscious of his own state yet. It could help him to root himself more fully in reality before Francisco gives the order to disconnect him physically.”

Jacques did not reply. He was already concentrating on trying to make contact with his brother again for the first time in over two weeks. It had been two long weeks out of the total five since the beginning of the connection.

“Charlie, it’s me – Jacques! Are you okay?”

He and Mario stared fixedly at the console screen, hoping to see a line of words and sentences appear again as it had when they had made contact before, but nothing came. Jacques tried again several times, until he felt Charlie’s hand grab his arm. Jumping in fright, at first Jacques recoiled, but then he seized his brother’s hand and squeezed it with all his might. He turned to him again, taking his eyes off the screen which, despite its purpose, had symbolized their separation over the past five, long weeks of waiting. Those weeks had seemed interminable; the anxiety and fear of losing him had been so strong. Several times he had thought he would never see his brother again. They had both come close to dying here, deep in an undersea cave, surrounded by people they hardly knew. Jacques had prepared himself for the worst and had almost been ready to accept it in the end. After all, they did not have much to lose, he would sometimes tell himself, but he had never given up hope, all the same. He could not bring himself to. He, too, was physically and emotionally run down. He had lost a lot of weight and felt weaker every day, but he knew that Charlie, for his part, had fought without ever giving up, despite the repeated warning signs his exhausted body had sent him. Over these five weeks he had been feeling his way; lost but never abandoned; on the verge of madness in an elusive, immaterial world. Of course, it was Charlie who had done the hardest part, but perhaps it was not the most thankless task, after all. Five weeks of lying on a hospital bed; five weeks of anxiety, boredom and doubt; that was what Jacques had been through. He had promised to watch over Charlie and be there for him as far as he could, and so he had done.

And now Charlie was back. The white helmet that housed the neural probe was all that still separated them, until Francisco and his team could disconnect his brain from Victor’s. Then, and only then, could Jacques hope to find him as he had left him before this dark adventure began. Would he be the same or would he be scarred by the experience? Jacques knew his brother was psychologically fragile. He had been there for him in the past when he had experienced the desert. He had supported him as best he could and they had pulled through. All these thoughts jumbled around in his mind as he held Charlie’s hand firmly in his own. He tried to make contact with him again telepathically, hoping Charlie would reply using the neural probe, but the response came through slight pressure of his fingertips in the palm of Jacques’ hand. Charlie obviously could not use the neural probe anymore. Maybe it had been damaged or disconnected during the violent epileptic seizure that had nearly killed him. The fact that he was trying to answer his questions reassured Jacques, who quickly told Mario, sitting nearby with a grave face.

“He can hear me! He probably can’t use the neural probe anymore but he’s just signaled to me by moving his hand slightly.”

“Are you sure, Jacques?”

“He’s my brother, Mario!”

The two men looked at each other and Mario’s face finally relaxed in response to Jacques’ smile. He smiled back, full of compassion and fondness at the sight of Jacques’ eyes alight with happiness.

A few moments later, the door opened and Francisco hurried in. He was followed closely by Giuseppe and a crowd of technicians. Jacques and Mario watched as Francisco approached them, his expression more closed than ever. He did not meet their eyes, even briefly. He hurried to the console and began tapping away on it frantically, trying to find a rational explanation for what had just happened. It only took him a moment and then he looked up at Mario just long enough to ask him a single question: “Did you do anything?”

“No!” he replied. “He woke up on his own.”

Francisco looked down again as he turned towards Giuseppe, who had just joined them.

“Giuseppe, he’s woken up. It’s impossible but I’ve checked everything and there’s no doubt. We must remove the neural probe as quickly as possible. His brain will not be able to cope with a foreign body much longer.”

“Okay, Francisco, do what you have to do. Well, my friends, we have finally succeeded!” Giuseppe said suddenly, in the warm, reassuring tone he so liked to use. “You see, Jacques, everything worked out okay in the end. We had a few big scares, I’ll give you that, but it was all worth the risk, I can assure you. I’m sure he will be able to tell us a lot about Victor. Nobody else but you two would have been capable of such an achievement. You see, Mario! Once again, I was right to trust Francisco. He’s never wrong. He has proved himself again. You knew he would, didn’t you?”

But Mario did not answer, choosing instead to let Giuseppe hear for himself just how inappropriate this sudden, premature declaration of victory sounded. The elderly man’s smile suddenly faded, and he spoke again in a much calmer tone, looking at Jacques, who was still gripping Charlie’s hand tightly.

“Don’t worry, Jacques. He’s fine. Our technicians have already minutely examined all the information transmitted by the physiological and cerebral captors that we implanted in him. They are categorical: his brain function is not damaged. Your brother will pull through without serious harm. We just need to disconnect the neural probe and take off the helmet. Then you will be able to speak with him directly. Francisco and his team are already working on it, but it will take several hours for them to take out the neural bridge and reconnect the cranial calotte. After that, we must not rush things. Charlie will need to keep lying down for several more days while he recuperates. I know it must seem long to you and you cannot wait to get out of this bed that has held you down for over a month now, but we will make sure you do not lack anything, won’t we, Mario?” he asked, with a warning look that conveyed both suspicion and the assertiveness of a man aware of his own authority.

“Yes, of course!” replied Mario, forcing a smile to show his submission to the man who was his hierarchical superior, after all. He was a superior who, although he could seem jovial and close to his subordinates at times, was nevertheless one of the top officials on this military base.

 

 

30 DISTRUST

 

Since Charlie’s return, almost a week earlier, only Clementine had been allowed to visit the small medially equipped room where the twins were convalescing. Giuseppe came in once a day to make sure everything was okay but, curiously, he did not ask Charlie about his experiences in the connection. He settled for an update on his health, both physical and mental. Several times a day technicians came to perform a whole raft of examinations and various tests of on him, checking that his sensorial and cognitive functions had not been majorly altered during the connection. This mainly worried Jacques. He badgered them with questions, trying to find out what the results of all those tests really meant. Charlie, on the other hand, did not seem concerned. He was just anxious to be done with his re-habilitation exercises so he could finally escape the physical inactivity he had endured for so long now.

Then, one morning Giuseppe did not show up at the usual time. Instead, it was Mario who came, accompanied by Clementine. Charlie was pleased to see him again and the two men hugged each other warmly. He was not at all jealous of the relationship Mario might have with Clementine anymore. Actually, he did not really know anything about it. He had not even broached the subject with Jacques over the past week, although they had done a lot of talking together. For the time being, Emma seemed to have partially eclipsed the almost obsessive fascination he had previously held for Clementine. He certainly still looked forward to her visits, but not with the same apprehension and ardor as before. Of course this sort of change did not show up on any of the tests he underwent daily, but Jacques noticed it. He had noticed several changes in Charlie’s personality after the first few hours.

For now, he was just observing him, distancing himself a little from the one he had built thirty-five years of his life with. He could not say why, but he felt distrustful toward Charlie; the sort of distrust that partners or childhood friends experience when they have been apart for too long; the fear of not being able to able to share together the way they always have, simply because one has lived a part of his life without the other. There was another entirely different feeling contributing to Jacques’ reserve: jealousy. In a way, Charlie had been living life on his own recently. His unique experience had thrust him into a privileged position. They were going to have to learn how to manage his new-found importance together, and in that respect, Jacques dreaded being reduced to playing second fiddle. The fragile balance of their relationship, that it had taken them so long to work out together, was being upset. They would now have to find a new balance, in the light of recent events.

Although Mario had seemed uptight when he entered the room, his facial expression had quickly relaxed. He seemed truly happy to see Charlie apart from lying down with his face covered by a helmet full of biotechnical and electronic technology. He could talk to him at last, even if he had been asked not to interfere with the official questioning. That was actually why he was here. His visit had been authorized only because Giuseppe thought he was the right person to take the twins to the interview. Apart from Clementine, he was the one they trusted the most. From the beginning they had established a rapport with him which had not escaped Giuseppe’s notice. If Mario had not come earlier, it was for precisely that reason. No one was allowed to speak at length with Charlie before the interview and especially not someone who knew nearly everything about the program developed by the bio-cybernetic research team. Of course it was different for Jacques, who could not be kept away anyway. Clementine, for her part, was not very talkative and Giuseppe scarcely worried about her. Perhaps he was blinded by too much self-assurance or male chauvinism, but the elderly Italian gentleman could not see the pretty young woman as a threat capable of limiting full cooperation from Charlie and his brother. Anyway, Mario’s absence would have immediately aroused the twins’ suspicion, which meant keeping him away was not a viable option.

“Ah, Mario! I was wondering where you had been all this time. If Clementine hadn’t given me news of you, I would have started to think you’d gone back to Naples,” Charlie joked.

“No, Charlie, I wouldn’t have left without saying good bye to you. You will upset me if you keep talking like that!” Mario replied, deliberately exaggerating his accent. “But never mind that. I am happy to see you looking so well, full of energy again like you were when you volunteered for the experiment,” he said in a more serious tone.

“Yes, I’m back again, as you can see. I missed you all during my long journey but I have no regrets. The experience has changed my life profoundly and it may change yours, too.”

Mario would have liked to pick up on that last remark, but he knew that everything he said was being recorded, as was anything said by the twins or anyone else who entered this room. So he pretended he had not heard and brought up the purpose of his visit, instead.

“Actually, Charlie, I have been sent to take you to Giuseppe’s office right away for an interview with the research team. Now you’re better, they can’t wait for you to tell them all the details of your extraordinary journey. They are expecting you to provide them with a lot of information about Victor.”

Charlie had known the day would come when he would have to undergo this formal interview. He had been dreading the moment, but he had begun preparing himself for it even before leaving the connection. He could remember all his experiences quite clearly, probably because of the intense level of emotion involved in all he had done in that semi-virtual world. It was this aspect that had affected Charlie most of all and that was also one of the main reasons for the fundamental changes the unique experience had worked in him. Lastly, all he had learned about Victor and the existence of a humanoid species that had lived on Earth well before the appearance of Man, was a major contributing factor, too.

But there were many other elements that were likely to have contributed to the change in Charlie. To begin with, throughout his time in the connection he had been left to himself, in a hostile and unpredictable world – a rare experience which had also taught him a lot. Nevertheless, he had never been completely alone in his adventure. Indeed, apart from a few rare exceptions, he had always been accompanied by Victor and sometimes by Jacques, too, although in a very different way to any he had known before. Without them, he would surely not have made it, at least, not completely intact, as he was today. Others before him had paid a heavy price for having to deal with an emotionally charged experience that was too intense and unstructured for their minds to cope with, utterly on their own. No, what he meant by “left to himself” was that during adventure he had been physically separated from his brother. For the first time in his life he had been free use his body on his own – as virtual and foreign as that body may have been. He had been able to express himself without having to consider or tolerate Jacques’ whims and desires. He had felt that Victor’s or Emma’s estimation of him was very different to that he was used to encountering when he and Jacques turned out in force, making social contact with all the grace of a bull in a china shop.

Lastly, there were also the effects of convergence to take into consideration. Charlie was very aware that it had significantly influenced the changes to his personality. It was convergence that had mysteriously and profoundly modified his mind, even so far as increasing his psychological potential. Convergence had also strongly interfered in his relationship with Emma. That is, if one can have a relationship with a completely fabricated, virtual personality, temporarily given life – a fictitious life, since it had only ever been the product of a clever blend of Victor’s memories, and both of their desires and projections. All these things seemed to have worked together, sometimes merging into an inseparable, interminable network with pathways that extended deep into his brain.

Anyway, in a few moments he would be faced with a barrage of questions he would be unable to avoid. He did not know exactly how he was going to manage yet. He would have to make sure he did say too much, to avoid betraying Victor and to complete the mission he had entrusted to him. His current goal was to find the hidden part of the base and its research program. He had to find Victor’s wife, now, if she was still alive. If she was not, he would have to do everything in his power to find out what had happened to her before reporting to Victor. So Mario’s announcement was rather significant and Charlie’s happy, carefree mood left. His face suddenly fell and turning to his brother, he said quietly, “My dear Jacques, I think the time has come for us to get out of this room and back to real life. What awaits us will probably not be much fun. I haven’t told you about any of the important things I learned in the connection yet, and that’s deliberate. You will understand the reason why in due time but for now, I just need you to trust me. As far as possible let me do the talking.”

Jacques looked at him in surprise. He had found it strange that Charlie had not been more forthcoming, but had not wanted to rush him, preferring to simply enjoy his company again. He had realized from the start that his brother was hiding something from him but had not questioned him about it any further. He knew that Charlie would tell him about it one day and had decided to give him space, assuming correctly that he had been through some difficult experiences during the connection.

A few moments later, they took their seats in the little car that was waiting for them on the dome’s plant-lined roadway. Charlie unconsciously expected to find one of the little hover cars he had had the opportunity to ride in twice while in the connection. He had quite pleasant memories of them and compared to those futuristic vehicles, the ordinary car that was parked in front of him now was poor competition. During the trip he watched, bemused, as the scenery passed by, looking very similar to what he had seen on the way to Emma’s pavilion. He smiled at the extremely low speed at which the small car travelled down the long road crossing the huge residential area. The engine growled like a live animal as it lurched over the bumps in the road’s irregular surface.

How different things were in the connection! Everything was easier and more comfortable. The hover cars were equipped with ultra-ergonomic white synthetic leather seats. They travelled without the slightest sound or vibration, and at a phenomenal speed, too. Even the very act of walking was more difficult here. Of course he was again hindered by the weight of a body which he partially shared with Jacques, but that was not the only reason for his discomfort. In a way, in the connection he had simply been able to imagine his movements. When necessary, he had even been able to traverse another person’s body or have someone do the same to him without anyone noticing. In short, everything was a lot simpler and more convenient, at least physically. Now, his rather rough, ill-fitting clothes were extremely tight in some places while being too loose in others. He legs were heavy and every step jarred him slightly, reverberating right through his skull. He had to make a considerable effort just to walk a few meters and was soon out of breath.

From that perspective he was beginning to miss his time in the connection. He missed it both psychologically and physically. He was glad to be back with Jacques, Clementine, Mario and the others again, but part of him had been left behind forever, just as part of Victor now lived in him. The virtual stimulation of his senses in the connection had brought on a massive rush of hormones and other chemical stimulants naturally secreted by the brain. There were also all those that could have passed through the neural probe from Victor’s brain to his, during convergence. In other words, during the connection, Charlie had been swimming in a sea of both pleasure-giving and anxiety-producing hormones, generated by the sensorial signals he received and the way he interpreted them. This had given him a particular impression of the virtual reality he was in; a completely different reality in which a whole part of his body – asleep and free of pain – had been replaced by a second body, a virtual one, which had given him at times an intense sensation of weightlessness and freedom. That sensation no longer existed today, and he sorely missed it.

After a few minutes, which seemed like hours to him, the vehicle pulled up in front of the research station. They had made the trip in silence, each aware that they were going to an interview that would be anything but casual. They got out of the car just as silently, then Mario, after identifying himself, motioned to them to go ahead of him into the small room adjacent to the large hall of the dome where Victor lay. They climbed the stairs laboriously and when they entered the small, harshly lit room at last, they found it empty. It was only a few minutes later that Giuseppe appeared, opening the door at the end of the room.

“Come with me,” he said.

He led them into the next room. The windows, which sloped in at the bottom, were on their transparent setting, showing Victor’s enormous body lying on its metal platform below them. Faced with this sight, Charlie felt deep sadness and pain, which he had trouble hiding, the emotion was so strong. A sort of nostalgia, mixed with pity washed over him. He wanted to protect Victor. He would even have taken him in his arms if he could but he knew that he had to hide his feelings at all costs if he was to be of any real help to him. He did not really understand where this sudden urge came from but he could not control it. It was as if they were united by some invisible, intangible bond. This being, which seemed so fundamentally close to him and to humans in general, symbolized solitude and powerlessness in the face of a tragedy whose final outcome they had surely not seen yet.

He discreetly brushed away the tears beginning to escape from his eyes and breathed deeply, trying to get a grip on himself before Giuseppe noticed anything. Fortunately, all eyes were on the giant’s body, but Jacques sent him a telepathic thought that was like a friend’s hand on his shoulder: “You know him so well now, don’t you? You must miss him.”

Charlie did not respond, but Jacques had just renewed the bond with his brother that would be their best asset in the future.

“It is truly a great mystery that we have here!” Giuseppe said suddenly, before turning to face the twins.

“It certainly is,” answered Charlie without hesitating.

“Although it’s certainly less of a mystery now, isn’t it Charlie?”

Giuseppe’s friendly tone seemed insincere. It was obvious to Charlie that he was trying to communicate to him an expectation of full/complete cooperation. Everything about his attitude had changed, even his facial expression, which had become even more closed. Jacques had warned him about this change he and Clementine had noticed. Charlie did not intend however to let excessive distrust color his judgment. Certainly, Giuseppe had not told them everything, but after all, why would he? He was first and foremost the head and coordinator of an ultra-confidential research program, which involved a certain number of responsibilities which he would have to be accountable for to his superiors.

Charlie knew he had to be cautious, while doing his utmost to maintain a positive relationship with Giuseppe. He did not think the ambient distrust that had crept in during his absence would be conducive to the sincere, constructive cooperation that he needed. In any case, one thing was sure; each of the two main players needed the other in order to reach his goal. After a moment’s hesitation, Charlie decided to answer him sincerely, all the while hoping to make him understand that he did not see himself as a mere pawn in the game of chess they had just begun.

“You can say that again! It has been a very rich and extremely intense journey for me. Actually, I want to thank you. If you hadn’t chosen me, there are things in this world I would never have had the opportunity to experience.”

“Don’t thank me, Charlie. You should be thanking Jacques and Francisco. They are the ones who trusted you and accompanied you all through an extremely risky process. I only followed Francisco’s advice which, incidentally, I have not regretted – in any case, not thus far. If necessary, the future will reveal whether this truly was the good and right choice.”

It seemed to Charlie that this false modesty served the unique purpose of keeping an appropriate distance in their relationship. Giuseppe was not one to succumb to flattery or manipulation by anyone, which he had just demonstrated and Charlie was going to have to take that into account during the rest of the interview.

“Now that you mention it, I’m surprised Francisco isn’t here. I haven’t seen him since I came out of the connection.”

“Well, since you mention it, I must tell you that he was particularly upset by the way in which you came out of the connection. He was not expecting it at all. As you know, we were expecting you to communicate via the neural probe that you were ready to come back. The other candidates did not have that possibility. We had to disconnect them without their consent, which caused significant damage, profoundly upsetting their psychological balance. Fortunately, today most of them have found a satisfactory balance again but none of them has been able to give us the slightest piece of useful information about Victor or the experiences they had. Francisco is very afraid that it will be the same for you, and for some unknown reason, that is particularly important to him. He feels responsible for any possible failure, and he told me this morning that he would prefer me to conduct this first interview without him. You know, Francisco can seem cold and unemotional, but when he becomes attached to someone he does not take it lightly. Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but I have rarely seen him so anxious.”

Jacques said rather tactlessly, “Isn’t it mainly the fact that things didn’t happen the way he was expecting that’s rattled him? Knowing what he’s like, I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Charlie quickly answered his brother, without waiting for Giuseppe’s reaction.

“No, Jacques, I don’t think so. He’ll definitely need some time to accept the fact that such a thing could happen without him understanding the real reasons for it. Apparently nothing from his predictions or the previous attempts led him to believe I was capable of suddenly freeing myself of the neural probe’s hold the way I did. Despite appearances, I’m sure maintaining our mental and physical well-being is very important to Francisco. He’s a young man with a very inflexible personality, but it’s precisely that inflexibility that means we can trust him. He does not experience events the same way we do. The emotions they arouse in him are not tempered. They are unmitigated. I’m sure they’re very intense, especially if he feels guilty about something that has happened to someone in his care. Personally, I don’t think such distrust toward Francisco is founded. I understand what Giuseppe means.”

What’s come over you, Charlie? This guy is still trying to take us for a ride. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed that he’s trying to bring us round by playing on our sentiments. There must be some other reason for his absence.”

Charlie would have liked to answer him in private but that was not possible. He hoped that Jacques would soon understand for himself and abstain from interfering in the conversation.

“I’m glad to see that you are not blinded by appearances, Charlie,” said Giuseppe. “I know Francisco better than anybody and I can say that there is no reason for worry or doubt about his sincerity.”

“My brother is a bit edgy after the emotional roller-coaster he’s just been on. I’m sure he has as much time for Francisco as I do, don’t you Jacques?”

“Yes, of course I do,” he said, giving Charlie a veiled, accusing look.

“Well now, all this has not helped us find out how you managed to leave the connection of your own volition, Charlie. Perhaps you can offer us some explanation of the matter? Let’s go and sit at the table, if you will.”

Giuseppe walked over to the small door, which he opened to let them through, pointing to two chairs which had already been pulled out from the table. They sat facing one another, the twins on one side and Giuseppe on the other. This time there were no biscuits or tea; no smell or object or any decoration to brighten up the little room where the interview was to take place. This was going to be long.

 

 

31 THE INTERVIEW

 

“Well now, Charlie, I suggest we don’t lose any time on insignificant details. There will be time later to go over the order of events and everything you experienced during the connection. For now, what interests me is Victor, and Victor alone. I think you said you had met him in person. You even indicated that he was at the origin of the neural probe being temporarily disconnected. Francisco thought you were delirious, but I’m not so sure. In theory, such a meeting should not be possible, at least, not in such a direct way. We would never have imagined that your minds could communicate with each other. Francisco still cannot bring himself to accept the idea, so you can imagine that it is even more unthinkable for him that Victor was able to voluntarily disconnect the neural probe, although that is what you suggested. In any case, I would like to have your opinion on the matter. What do you have to say on the subject? Did you really have the impression you were talking directly to another conscious being? By conscious, I mean a being that was capable at some time or other of showing signs of autonomy and independent will – a being that was not simply an illusion or a memory manipulated by your own mind.”

Charlie hesitated for quite some time. He had thought he would be free to tell of his experiences in the connection in chronological order. He never would have expected Giuseppe to ask him such a direct question. By tackling this subject immediately, he was forcing Charlie to walk a tightrope from the outset. And there was no safety net made up of the many clues he would have gleaned from a conversation that had gradually led up to this point. Then Charlie heard his brother’s voice resounding in his head: “You know what? I think Giuseppe knows a lot more than he’s letting on. Not only has he spent hours studying the transcripts of our conversations through the neural probe, but I think he also has access to quite a lot of concrete information which he hasn’t told us about yet. If this cave really is a hibernation base, as you explained, it must contain a lot more tangible clues, maybe even documents which Giuseppe has access to. I think he mainly wants to find out just who he’s dealing with. He obviously wants to know Victor better and be sure that the N.H.I.’s do not represent a danger to humans. At least, that’s opinion and when I mentioned Mario, he didn’t contradict me. You know, Charlie, he’s bound to secrecy in some areas, but I’m getting to know him well, and I really think we can trust Mario. He will always do what he can to give us the information we need when the time comes. Other than that, I don’t know exactly what you went through in the connection but you seem to have developed a close bond with Victor. You are the only one who knows what you can or can’t say. In your own interest, and maybe Victor’s, too, be cautious when you answer, Charlie! That’s what I say, if you still want my advice.”

Charlie could not respond immediately, but he was keenly aware that by these words, Jacques was doing all he could to renew the close relationship they had always had before the connection had imposed a temporary separation on them. He thought for another minute then finally launched into the answer that Giuseppe had been patiently waiting for.

“That’s right. I saw Victor and I talked with him just as I’m talking with you now. I don’t know why, but he didn’t look the same.”

“What did he look like?”

“Well actually, he looked like an old man – I mean a human.”

“How do you explain such a distortion of reality?”

“I can’t really explain it, as least not for sure.”

“Tell me more.”

“I think it could have been a construct of my own mind to symbolize or personify the being I was communicating with.”

“Isn’t it rather more likely to have been an illusion, or a hallucination? What do you think, Charlie? I mean, do you think that would be plausible?”

“Entirely possible,” Charlie replied quite calmly and confidently.

Giuseppe observed him for a moment without saying anything. Charlie was obviously sure about the source of his vision of Victor but did not want to get into justifications which could lead the conversation in a direction he was not comfortable with. The elderly Italian decided to stay on topic anyway, becoming more insistent.

“Do you have any arguments in favor of this hypothesis?”

“The same ones as you, I guess! In something like a waking dream, it is possible that my desire to meet Victor was so strong that my brain constructed an image of him that corresponded to what I already knew about him. Right from my first entry into his memories I realized that he had been lying here for an eternity and not merely a few thousand years as I thought at first. That discrepancy struck me, because it seemed impossible that they could have survived for so long. So it was logical for my mind to personify him as elderly –”

“Yes, but an elderly human?” Giuseppe suddenly interjected.

“The N.H.I.’s have a similar appearance to ours in spite of their huge proportions. I don’t think I’m alone in noticing that detail. You know more than I do about their physiology and morphology from studying them in detail for decades before setting up the cerebral connection research program. I can’t believe that the similarity did not bother you.”

“What are you saying, Charlie? Do you mean by that that we could have common origins with the N.H.I.’s?”

“That’s a definite possibility!”

“What makes you say that? Do you have any information that can support that theory?”

When asking that question, Giuseppe expected anything but what Charlie was about to say. He gave him a challenging look before answering.

“What about you, Giuseppe? What information have you kept secret? Are you sure you aren’t hiding anything from us?”

Charlie’s tone was no longer quite so polite. The turn the conversation was taking had driven him to take the offensive. He would have preferred things to happen a lot more gradually, but he could not play innocent or meek with Giuseppe any longer without him noticing. He thought the time had come for him to take his stand as an indispensible part of the research program. Giuseppe and his men would now have to reckon with him and it was time they knew that.

“I’m not hiding anything from you, Charlie, but I may not have told you about everything we have found out since discovering this cave. Please don’t see in that some conspiracy against you, or the desire to hide some dishonorable details from you. The quantity of data and potentially crucial information that my team has been able to gather is such that it is impossible for me to give it all to you in a comprehensive way. Tell me rather what you are alluding to and I will try to answer you as frankly as possible. We have been working in a climate of mutual trust so far and I think it is in the best interest of both of us if we continue to do so, don’t you?”

The old man’s answer seemed reassuring on the surface, but on closer inspection, it sounded like a threat or at least a warning, which did not escape Charlie’s notice. Refusing to be intimidated, he continued in the same vein anyway.

“While exploring Victor’s memories I found a map which seemed to be a plan of the hibernation base as it was initially designed. When I looked at the map closely, I immediately recognized the architecture of the base where we are now, except for the new buildings and additions that you have made for human settlement and research of course. However, there was another wing at least as vast as the first one; a wing that I had never found, even in retrospect when I searched back through my own memories. And yet I had the impression I had been all over this base, many times, before entering the mind of the one you call Victor. I also had access, like everybody else, to the map pinned up in the entrance of every residential pavilion.

“All this could well be a mere error of interpretation on my part. After all, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if I had forgotten certain information. I wouldn’t have thought any more of it except that a question immediately occurred to me. How Victor possibly be the only survivor, and consequently the only representative of his kind, found on this hibernation base? According to what he told me, it was initially designed for at least 5,000 individuals. I think it would also be pertinent to mention again that your team was mistaken when they estimated Victor’ age at several thousand years. I can’t say right now exactly how old he is, but it would seem – as unbelievable as it sounds – that it could be millions of years. So you see, Giuseppe, my journey into Victor’s mind was not in vain. I have brought back a lot of information which could be crucially important to you and your team, and also for the rest of humanity. While this only concerned us – I mean Clementine, Jacques and myself, I had no particular reason to distrust you. We weren’t exactly given much choice in our involvement, it’s true, but we have always been well-treated. Personally, I appreciate not only the fact that you trusted me for this experiment but also that you gave me the opportunity to do something useful with my life; something likely to profit science and maybe even the progress of all humanity. I can never thank you enough for what you’ve allowed me to experience, believe me!

“But now things are different. This is not just about protecting our own interests anymore. Now I know Victor so well that it would be impossible for me to betray him. I will never be the same again, Giuseppe. This experience has deeply affected me, and it has changed my way of perceiving and thinking about things. You must take that into account from now on. I just want to trust you! Tell me about that secret wing, if it actually exists, and together we will be able to go a lot further than you could ever have imagined.”

Giuseppe was visibly upset by this answer, but it was especially Jacques who received it like a stab in the chest. Had Charlie changed so much that they would forever be strangers? Giuseppe, disconcerted, asked them to please wait for a few moments while he went to get some documents from the next room. He went into the small room with the sloping windows and closed the door behind him. Standing in front of the windows again, he stared at Victor’s huge, naked, gray body. Strangely, from this distance he looked as if he were sleeping peacefully and soundly. He could see none of the twitching that animated the giant’s body.

Meanwhile Charlie and Jacques were alone. The silence that filled the room was icy. They did not exchange a single word or phrase, even through telepathy, until Giuseppe came back. Part of Charlie regretted having to inflict such a nightmare on his brother, but there was no other way. Anyway, sooner or later Jacques had to notice the profound change in his personality. He only hoped that the future would rule in his favor and that he would find words to reassure him.

A long while later Giuseppe reappeared. He seemed to be having a lot of trouble hiding the obvious concern which lined his face. He was pushing a cart on which were a computer and an enormous glass panel, which Charlie recognized instantly. Without a doubt it was a graphic tablet just like the one Senec had used. He placed the computer on the table, leaving the cart by the doorway. Once seated again, he began typing in earnest on the keyboard. Neither Jacques nor Charlie took the risk of breaking the silence, although it became quite heavy. Several minutes later, he finally looked up at one of small room’s the metallic walls. It suddenly started to vibrate, then sank slowly down into the floor, revealing a much larger room which held a gigantic glass case below, which looked impenetrable and was quite luminous. In its centre they could quite clearly see the contours of what resembled a model of unusual size. Sitting on an enormous, perfectly polished, shiny gray, steel plinth, the model itself seemed to be made of metal also, but much paler, almost white. From this distance, Charlie could only make out vague details but quickly understood that it must be a three-dimensional model of the base.

Giuseppe stood up and finally began to speak, looking in turn at both Jacques and Charlie, who had remained sitting in silence all this time.

“Follow me,” he said calmly.

The twins obeyed without hesitating, following Giuseppe as he walked with even strides toward a platform overhanging the construction. As he got closer, what he saw reinforced Charlie’s initial impression. It did seem to be a three-dimensional model of the base. In any case, he was sure it represented one of the hibernation bases built by the N.H.I.’s. The white steel domes were arranged along a large central road, from which many smaller roads branched out to the residential areas. There were also huge buildings which were curiously empty. From their arrangement and position, Charlie supposed they must be the vast hydroponic cultivation area and the huge room where they had arrived on the first day. However, the whole thing was quite uncluttered, lacking many of the structures that are currently present on the base.

“Here we have a three-dimensional map of the Mataiva base, as it was when it was built by the N.H.I.’s.” announced Giuseppe. “You will notice that it is made of the same perfectly stainless metal, completely resistant to the effects of time, used in the construction of the domes you already know. It is an alloy that the N.H.I.’s had developed, the composition of which we have still not managed to identify.

“As you can see also, this three-dimensional model only shows the buildings that were present before the arrival of humans. It is easy to pick out the vast area of domes currently used as housing. You will also recognize the empty spaces which have been completely converted since then by our teams. I suppose that at the time they must have had a specific purpose. When we discovered this cave the unusually large rooms were completely empty. We do not currently have any explanation for that, but we put forward two hypotheses. Firstly, these huge spaces could have been used to house large mobile constructions which had been moved before our arrival. Of course, we know absolutely nothing about what type of construction they could have been. Or, it could be that these spaces were initially designed to house other equipment which apparently was never actually built. We discovered this model several years ago, at the same time as Victor’s body. It would seem that is was built by the N.H.I’s at the same time as the rest of the base.”

Jacques and Charlie were now only a few meters form the glass wall. The model was at least fifteen meters long and it seemed that the number of domes on it was much higher; maybe fifty or a hundred times more than those they had seen while driving through the residential zone.

“As you have probably already seen for yourselves, there is a whole vast zone of domes on this model that you have not had access to since your arrival.”

“According to this model,” Charlie said, “the N.H.I’s must have planned on building several thousand domes. I haven’t counted them all, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were nearly 5,000 on this model, which fits with what Victor said.”

“As you can see,” Giuseppe continued, “I have no intention of hiding anything from you. I hope I have reassured you on this point. If I have not yet told you about all our discoveries here it is simply because the time was not yet right. You must know that your collaboration with us is valuable and that we have nothing to hide, as least not anything that concerns you. You and your brother are now an integral part of the N.H.I. program.”

Charlie was silent for a moment, studying the model in its minutest details.

It’s incredible!” exclaimed Jacques internally. “This metal is a color I’ve never seen before. It’s unnaturally pale; very strange. It actually almost seems to glow. It’s as if it gives off its own light through some strange sort of radiation. Maybe it’s not a good idea to stand so close to this thing. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was giving off electromagnetic radiation.”

Charlie had been concentrating so hard on the layout of the base that he had not noticed this very obvious aspect of the object he was staring at. Jacques’ observation was quite pertinent. On closer inspection, there was no lamp or source of light present inside the glass case. The light was actually coming from the metal itself. Only the plinth seemed to be made of an inert metal. He quickly asked Giuseppe about it, seizing the opportunity to show Jacques how much his opinion mattered to him.

“Why has it been put inside a glass case?” Charlie asked, calmly.

“We did not build this case. It was already here when we found the model. Our engineers analyzed the material it is made of and it seems to be a very unique type of glass. It actually contains particles of heavy metals, some of which have not yet been identified.

“Perhaps those particles are there to counter the effects of any radiation emanating from the model?”

“I see you are very observant – unless you simply know something about this subject. Maybe Victor mentioned something to you?”

“No, this is the first time I’ve seen it, but Jacques has just pointed out to me that the metal it is made of is quite strange. It seems to give off light, which leads us to think there might be some electromagnetic radiation.”

“Your brother is right. The model emits radiation which would certainly be deadly if it was not stopped by this glass case.”

“How do you know, if you have not managed to get through its wall?”

“The level of radiation in this room is slightly above normal and evidently seems to come from this case.”

“Do you mean we’re being exposed to radiation right now? Or maybe we already were when we were standing beside Victor, since we were so near this room then?”

“No, don’t worry, Jacques. The level of radiation is far below what the human body can tolerate, even if we had to stay in this room for the rest of our lives.”

“What about inside the case?” Jacques asked.

“We cannot be sure, but our engineers think it could be particularly high. If this protective glass was broken, the whole base and the surrounding rock would be contaminated. That’s why this room is kept secret. Only a very restricted group of people is authorized to come in here and I am the only one who has the access codes.”

“Where does the radiation come from?” asked Charlie. “Is it coming from the metal itself?”

“Possibly, but we have never seen anything like it. We think it more likely that the plinth the model is resting on contains an energy source of some unknown type. Analysis using infra-red rays has revealed the presence of an extremely dense mass in its center. The temperature in there is so high that even our best equipment cannot measure it.”

“That’s impossible!” exclaimed Jacques. “Such heat would melt everything, including the rock around this cave, for several kilometers or more.”

“Nuclear fusion!” Charlie wondered aloud.

Giuseppe looked at him incredulously. He and his team had been working on the matter for over ten years and they still had not managed to establish with any certainty the nature of this energy source. He could see that Charlie was soon going to allow them to solve a large proportion of the puzzles they had been faced with.

“The N.H.I’s used that technology”, Charlie continued, looking at Jacques. “That is how they were able to power the hibernation systems for millions of years. It’s a practically inexhaustible source of energy, but it’s difficult to control.”

“I know about nuclear fusion, Charlie. It’s a subject that comes up a lot in science fiction books, but in real life the technical constraints are insurmountable. Whatever technology the N.H.I’s may have had, I don’t believe it’s possible to contain such a powerful reaction in an object of this size. Nuclear fusion is a reaction that takes place in the center of stars. It’s only because of their gigantic mass that the extreme heat given off by the atoms’ fusion can be contained. I don’t see how a simple glass case that’s only a few centimeters thick could contain it. What’s more, it’s a type of energy that’s not supposed to produce radiation, at least a lot less than the fission reaction that we use in our power stations today,” said Jacques.

“Charlie is right, Jacques. The N.H.I’s technology was more highly evolved than ours. This glass case is not enough in and of itself to contain the reaction which, if it indeed exists, most likely takes place in the heart of the metal plinth. If something is containing it, it must be that plinth. We had envisaged that hypothesis, but we were missing elements, as we were unable to study the qualities of the object more closely. The glass is certainly not there only to prevent intruders and contain residual radiation. Only magnetic or inertial containment would be capable of containing such energy and preventing expansion. In theory, such a process is possible, however, and our research scientists have been working on it for years. It would be a huge, inexhaustible source of energy for humanity.

“We are still hindered by the significant technical constraints involved in this technology. The temperature of this type of reaction can reach over ten million degrees in its center. To contain it, we would have to develop equipment which we do not have the technology for today. What’s more, containing that extreme heat is not our only major problem. Although the reaction of nuclear fusion is much cleaner in terms of radioactive waste than the actual production of energy by fission, we presume that fusion, whatever the fuels used, will inevitably emit atomic radiation likely to interact with the building materials used in containment. Only a specific alloy of metals that no nation has developed yet could prevent such a phenomenon from occurring. In the presence of ordinary metal or any other material that we currently know, the neutrons emitted interact with the nuclei of the atoms in the containment wall. They are actually impossible to contain electromagnetically and transmute the atoms that they meet into radioactive isotopes.

“The N.H.I’s, as you have seen, seem to have developed their technology mainly using metals. It is quite possible that they managed to develop alloys able to resist being bombarded by neutrons and the heat given off by the reactor. That would explain the longevity and the unknown nature of the alloy used to build this model, as well as that used to build the domes. No modern ferrous material could have reached such a level of longevity in a damp atmosphere like that of this cave. However, their alloys, I must say, seem like new. They show no trace of rust or any sort of oxidation.”

“Have you found other models like this one?” asked Charlie.

Giuseppe hesitated a moment before replying.

“This generator is the only one we have found on this base, but I must tell you that we are far from having opened all the domes.”

“But how is that possible?” exclaimed Jacques. “If I remember correctly, this base was discovered over twenty years ago. How could you not have had the time or inclination to comb the whole place? Is there something standing in your way?”

“I was expecting that sooner or later I would have to answer that question,” Giuseppe replied. “It brings us back to the question you asked me, Charlie. Victor is not alone on this base, despite what I told you, but he is the only one of those we have been in contact with who is still alive.”

“What do you mean?” asked Charlie in a harsh, accusing tone.

“We didn’t want it to happen, you know! At first, everything went very well. When we opened the first domes, we realized right away that we had made a major discovery; perhaps the most significant in the whole history of Man. We were blinded by sentiment and the desire for more knowledge. We should have taken the necessary precautions; then we would have avoided the tragedy that ensued. The N.H.I.’s were totally naked and freely breathing the air being constantly recycled by the ventilation system in each dome. That air was sterile before our arrival but the presence of humans changed that.

“The effects were not immediate. It was only after several weeks – the time it took to open all the domes of the section that you now know as a residential zone – that we noticed the first disastrous signs that the N.H.I’s were contaminated by the germs we unwittingly carried. Some of them resisted better than others but after the first six months, only five of them were still alive, out of the fifty we were in contact with. They all died over the course of the following year, despite the treatment we tried to give them. I’m sorry, Charlie. We never wanted such a thing to happen.”

Charlie’s face had turned white. Jacques remained silent, noticing his brother’s shock. He was taking the news of this tragedy very hard. The fact that it could have been avoided made it all the more painful. He understood that, beyond Charlie’s empathy for the N.H.I’s, this news must also affect the part of Victor that lived in him. His expression suddenly became a lot sterner. He was now glaring at Giuseppe as if he wished he could wipe him out with one glance.

“How can I know you’re not twisting the truth? How can I know that you and your men didn’t use these giants as guinea-pigs for the bacterial experiments you do on this base? After all, if I understood what you told us when we arrived, that’s the main reason why you’re hiding away in this place: your so-called struggle against the great pandemics of the future –”

Giuseppe, sensing an unusual rise in Charlie’s hostility, decided to interrupt his monologue.

“It’s not what you think, Charlie! Trust me. I’m sincerely sorry about what happened. I should have taken the necessary precautions involving my men. Fortunately for them, the domes contained no pathogenic substances. The N.H.I.’s had taken care to eliminate all risk of contamination before placing their people in hibernation. After the first death I understood that we had made a serious mistake. I immediately ordered that we stop the exploration of the 4,900 domes that were still sealed. A containment wall was then erected to completely isolate the other part of this base. We took care to install a decontamination chamber and a security system to prevent any unauthorized person entering the no-go zone. The ambient air in the rest of the cave underwent ultra-violet ray treatment to guard against any contamination from the air of this zone.”

Charlie’s anger was slightly appeased; but it gave way to a dull pain that he had trouble defining. It was something between anxiety and latent sorrow. He could feel the effects of convergence in him. His extreme empathy for Victor had driven him to react as Victor himself would have reacted. He could feel contradictory emotions rising up within him; an inextricable combination of suffering and hatred. Was Victor’s wife dead? Had Giuseppe really killed them through negligence as he claimed? For now he could not tell, but Giuseppe’s decision, while it had unfortunately come too late, did seem to show an intention on his part to preserve the lives of the N.H.I.’s. But to what end? He had no idea.

Maybe Rosaline was still alive somewhere in the no-go zone after all. He suddenly remembered what Victor had told him about her being put into hibernation. Victor remembered, before being put to sleep himself, that he had accompanied his wife to sector 24 of the same base. He had not specified where that wing was situated, but if the rooms marked the entrance to the cave, it could be that the first domes were situated in the zone currently inhabited by humans. There was something else that supported this theory: the dome where Victor lay was one of the very first ones and it was there that the fusion reactor had been found which probably supplied a large portion of the base with energy, if not all of it.

This thought comforted him and he felt himself beginning to regain control of his emotions. As he had already experienced in the connection, the effects of convergence were generally massive and uncontrollable when they first came over him. However, afterwards, it was usually possible to consider the facts in a more rational way and he could then manage to gain control of himself, and get back a part of his own identity again. But there was already another question in his mind. Why was Victor the only one to have survived the contamination?

“So Victor is the only survivor?”

“Yes, Charlie. Opening his dome took a lot longer. It seemed to have been protected from the inside from any risk of break-in. It was only after two years that we finally managed to open it, but not until we had taken all the necessary precautions. The entire air supply is continuously exposed to ultra-violet radiation and as you have noticed, it is impossible to enter the hibernation room without first undergoing a thorough decontamination procedure. Soon after that we put extra protection in place. That is the reason why Victor’s head is completely covered by the white helmet. It serves two purposes. It ensures that air that he breathes both in and out is completely filtered, and it facilitates the neuronal connections which made it possible for you to make contact with him. Without those precautions, Victor would be dead by now, just like his companions who were not so lucky.”

“In that case, why didn’t you tell us the truth straight away? Why did you tell us that Victor was the only one of his kind found in this cave? It really doesn’t seem necessary.”

“On the contrary! I didn’t want you to make contact with Victor, having the tragic events that had happened here at the forefront of your mind. That could have influenced your choices and your interpretation of your experiences in the connection. What’s more, we didn’t know what information Victor had been able to access. We didn’t know at the time that direct communication between your minds was possible. However, I did tell you that during previous attempts we had observed the transfer of information through the neural probe that we could not control. We were not certain, but we already suspected the possibility that Victor could also delve into his guest’s memories. Today I do not regret my decision. Evidently, his influence on his guests’ minds is a lot more powerful than we could have imagined. I realize that we are actually in control of very little. Even the way you left the connection was completely independent of our volition and without any intervention on our part. We could not consider sending you in there with such information in your memory. God only knows what would have happened to you if Victor had known about the death of forty-nine of his companions because of us.”

“Do you know someone by the name of Elias Conti?”

Giuseppe hesitated for a second. The question seemed to make him rather uncomfortable.

“I suppose Victor told you about him, unless it was Mario?”

“No, Mario didn’t tell us anything!” Jacques said quickly.

“Yes, Victor told me about him. What happened to him?” Charlie asked.

“Elias Conti was one of the technicians who worked on building the containment wall. He was one of the first to volunteer for the connection. Unfortunately, he was not as lucky as you. We had to disconnect him without his consent, which profoundly deranged his psyche. But I suppose that if Victor told you about him you must know as much as I do. Perhaps you could tell us more? I think I have put my cards on the table with you so far. I would invite you to do the same. What happened to Elias Conti?”

“I’ll give you that, Giuseppe. I appreciate your honesty, so I don’t see any reason not to tell you what I know about him. Victor told me about someone called Elias Conti; an unfortunate candidate who didn’t cope with the effects of the connection. According to Victor he was already prone to anxiety which was out of control even before he entered the connection. Unlike his approach with me, Victor left Elias to wander in his own dreams. He never gave him access to anything other than his own mental constructs. However, Victor didn’t tell me about a number of the N.H.I.’s dying from viral or bacterial contamination. I suppose he didn’t know about that or I’m sure he would have told me. I think perhaps you have the explanation for that, don’t you, Giuseppe?”

“Well, yes, of course. Elias Conti had been involved in building the wall but he didn’t know the reasons for isolating the no-go zone. Only a very few members of the research team and security personnel were authorized to know that information. I suppose that is why Victor did not find out and I think it’s much better that way.”

Charlie thought Giuseppe was probably right. Whatever information Victor was privy to, he could do nothing about it. Perhaps it was better for him if he didn’t know anything more just yet. If Charlie was to help him, the best he could do now was to look for his wife, Rosaline, and he was determined to begin straight away, with the precious help Giuseppe would give him.

 

 

32 CLEMENTINE

 

Before leaving the interview room to rejoin the recovery room, Charlie asked Giuseppe one final question.

“What is this thing?” he asked, pointing to the graphic tablet.

Giuseppe gave him a careful look, as if he knew this was no innocent question then he replied, with a friendly smile.

“That object is not of our making. We found it in this dome. I was intending to mention it to you because you might be able to help us understand how it works, but I think our conversation has been fruitful enough for today. If you agree, I think it would be better if we talk about it at another time, as it is quite a complex matter. That said, perhaps you could simply tell me if it looks familiar to you? Perhaps you have already seen others like it in Victor’s memory?”

Charlie hesitated then, returning Giuseppe’s smile, he told him he had heard something about them when he was in the connection. He preferred not to say anything more for the time being, but he knew that the presence of that tablet, if it was still in working order, bode well for the days ahead. He knew that a tablet like that could hold crucial information which he alone could decipher; at least he hoped so. He hoped that his ability to read and comprehend the N.H.I.’s writing system was still there, even outside of the connection. Before leaving, seized by doubt, he turned back again, casting a careful eye over the tablet. He was relieved to find that despite the distance between the object and himself, he could read the initials written on its edge quite easily. His brain instantaneously interpreted the initials, where others would only have seen obscure, utterly meaningless symbols. He did not understand their exact meaning, but they were familiar to him and were probably the initials of the owner or designer.

During the time it took the twins to make it out the door, Giuseppe stood alone in the middle of the room, lost in thought. The brothers’ uneven walk and their extremely unusual figure plunged him into some confusion. For a split second he had the impression he was dealing with a monstrous being that was human in name only. The fleeting impression soon gave way to a deep feeling of sympathy and compassion for these two rather unusual people, to whom life had not been kind. It was a sentiment that the twins had always evoked in those who crossed their path and took the time to get to know them. When the door had closed behind them, Giuseppe remained motionless for a few moments, his eyes focused on nothing, an affectionate smile on his face.

Through the door, Mario and Clementine were waiting together. Clementine’s radiant smile gave away the romantic nature of their conversation. Charlie noticed this detail and could not help feeling a slight pang of heartache. On turning to greet the twins, her face fell as soon she saw the grave, concerned looks on their faces. Very soon anxiety crept across the fine, graceful lines of Clementine’s face. She took Charlie’s arm to help them down the stairs as she usually did. It was well-intentioned and they knew it, but neither Jacques nor Charlie appreciated the gesture, which only served to remind them of their infirmity. They did however find a certain satisfaction in not letting on immediately that it had all gone well in the end. They would have plenty of time to talk about it in the car, they thought. The opportunity to conspire together in teasing their friends was too good to pass up.

Mario drove, as he had done on the way there, but this time Clementine sat beside him. It might have seemed like a trivial detail, except that it was the first time she had done such a thing in the twins’ presence. Evidently, something had changed in her relationship with Mario, something significant enough for her not to bother sitting with the twins anymore. She obviously preferred the company of the handsome Italian whom she had had plenty of time to become acquainted with during their absence. Five, long weeks spent in Mario’s company, while Charlie and his brother had been stuck in bed, under strict observation. Jacques had noticed it already, but had preferred not to say anything to his brother, probably to protect him, but also because he thought it was better for Charlie to see for himself.

“You didn’t tell me about this!” he said in a low voice.

What are you talking about?”

“Oh come on! You know very well – they’re together.”

Ah, yes. They could well be.”

“Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.”

Maybe, but – and don’t take this the wrong way – I don’t think your being here would have made much difference. Unfortunately, I guess it’s not only those who are out of sight that are out of mind. Handsome young men who like to laugh and are great company tend to fill the minds of pretty young women more readily than grumpy invalids like us. But we’ve already discussed that, haven’t we?”

“Okay, okay, I get it! You don’t need to go on about it.”

You asked. I was just answering your question. If you don’t like the answer, I’m sorry.”

In the back seat, Charlie tried his best to swallow his bitterness, while Jacques smiled in satisfaction. It was the satisfied smile of someone who has just proved his point beyond all doubt.

The sight of the shiny domes, lined up along the road, dripping with humidity, reminded Charlie, although it was not really needed, that all this was scarcely important. These structures of non-human origin had lost their power to fascinate him for now, just as his recent fascination for the lovely Clementine had lost its allure. These empty domes, some of them converted into human dwellings, only evoked in him a feeling of confusion, tinged with darkness and tragedy. Who were these beings who had died by the dozen through human negligence? Had there been children among them? Had they even realized something was wrong or had they simply slipped into an even deeper sleep before passing away forever? Perhaps no one would ever know the answer to that question but Charlie could not help thinking about it. Maybe he felt a duty to keep alive the memory of that horde of unknown people doomed to die. Perhaps no one would ever come to mourn for them, unless they had family members or friends among the hypothetical survivors who were still in the awakening phase in the no-go zone.

Jacques also saw the place in a different light, now that he knew, but his thoughts were mainly focused on their unknown future. He did not share the same empathy for the beings he had never had the opportunity to meet, except during the few weeks he had lain next to Victor. For now Victor was nothing more than a huge, motionless body to him, which he knew nothing about apart from what his brother had decided to tell him.

“You seem exhausted!” exclaimed Clementine. “Giuseppe was rather hard on you, I guess?”

“No, not really. He was quite polite, actually. I don’t think he was trying to make things difficult for us; at least, not too difficult. Wouldn’t you say, Charlie? Is that right?”

“Yes, Clementine, don’t worry about us. In fact, I don’t think the old man is as awful as you thought. He didn’t seem to be hiding any dark secrets from us. In any case, that’s the impression he made on me.”

“Giuseppe is quite a private person,” added Mario. “It’s sometimes difficult – even for us – to know what he’s thinking. The whole team trusts him. Behind his amiable façade lies a real driver who can sometimes be very strict when the interests of the program he is pursuing are at risk. He knows how to unite his men around a project that they only have a general understanding of. Even those of us who know him and have worked with him for many years don’t know anything of his deeper motives or of the orders he receives from his superiors. All the same, I think that he’s an extremely compassionate man. Personally, I’m convinced that he behaves the same way with his superiors as he does with us. To him, we are all integral parts in a system of which he is the hub. Each one of us only knows what Giuseppe deems necessary for us to be able to fulfill our part of the collective work. That way, nobody but him really knows where we are going, but without him we would certainly not have come this far.”

“But Mario, when I was in the connection Jacques told me about your doubts concerning Giuseppe’s true objectives. You seemed to think that he and Francisco would not hesitate to sideline my safety and physical wellbeing to serve their interests.”

“That’s true, Charlie. He would sacrifice you, just as he would sacrifice any one of us if he thought he was making the right decision to guarantee the program’s success.”

“But doesn’t that shock you, Mario? How can you accept the idea of being a mere pawn in a game of chess that only he can anticipate and comprehend?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s better that way. I don’t find his mentality surprising at all. All scientists make research their top priority. This profession demands a great deal of abnegation. How many passionate scientists find they are unsuited to social life and forego material comfort and relationships to carry out their work? Many of them have willingly perished in the pursuit of their dream. Just think of the first discoveries of radioactivity. Some did not realize the danger they were exposing themselves to, but then many of them accepted the risk. They died prematurely because they prioritized the advancement of their work over and above their own safety. Add to that the fact that we are on a military base here, and you will see Charlie, that there is nothing astonishing about the fact that we all (or nearly) agree to submit to his authority.”

“What happens to those who don’t agree?” asked Jacques.

“I don’t remember that ever happening. At least, those who tended to disagree all ended up seeing reason. Group and hierarchical pressure is much too strong and the candidates for work here are not selected by chance.”

“You know I don’t like it when you talk that way, Mario!” Clementine suddenly interjected. “Nobody can blindly follow a cause, no matter how noble. How can you agree to keep working in the dark? Charlie’s right. No one can put up with being moved around like a pawn on a checkerboard indefinitely; not someone like you, anyway! Not someone who enjoys life’s pleasures and allow himself certain liberties despite the regulations. I can’t believe you sincerely mean what you just said, Mario!”

Mario was quiet, keeping his eyes on the road in front of him. Clementine’s attitude had greatly surprised Charlie. He had not expected such a violent reaction. He immediately began to wonder what could be behind such an outburst, from a woman who was ordinarily so discreet. Mario finally glanced at her and then responded in a tone he hoped was reassuring.

“Don’t worry. I’m not a mere robot, any more than my colleagues are. We all have something to contribute and more often than not, Giuseppe takes our comments and observations into account. In that sense, we are not exactly what you would call pawns. Each of us maintains a certain measure of free-will, but we are all working toward a common goal; a goal that is much greater than us, just as it is greater than Giuseppe. The same goes for the government and the top officials who define the general extent of our mandate. I simply want you to realize that you three are now part of a program with firmly fixed rules. In that sense, you are subject to discipline you are not used to and you probably just need to accept that some things will not be revealed to you immediately.”

Charlie was just about to react, but the vehicle was already slowing down to pull up in the driveway in front of Pavilion 28.

“Here we are!” said Mario enthusiastically. “You must be pleased to be back at our pavilion, even if you ended up spending scarcely more than a few days here since your arrival.”

“Weren’t you supposed to take us back to the recovery room?” asked Jacques in surprise.

But it was Clementine who answered with obvious pleasure.

“Well, yes, but here we are! I wanted it to be a surprise. I insisted that Giuseppe allow you to join us a little earlier than planned. He agreed quite quickly but you’ll have to be as discreet as possible about what you learned in the connection. Alvaro is looking forward to seeing you. I thought you would be anxious to have some sort of social life again. Am I right?”

“Yes, you’re right. Nothing would make us happier than going home and curiously, I think that we were quite comfortable in this pavilion, weren’t we Jacques? You’ll be able to smoke a nice cigar and I don’t think I’ll have any trouble joining you!”

“As long as someone agrees to authorize this slight deviation from the rules! A friend, for example, a connoisseur who might like to share in this forbidden pleasure with us…” Jacques said, looking at Mario, who had just silenced the purring motor.

He turned around, not seeking to hide his pleasure at being reunited with the twins again.

“With a little glass of Cognac, I suppose. I’ll see what I can do, my friends! I can’t pass up an opportunity to reveal to my dear Clementine that behind my apparent submission to authority there is a rebellious soul hiding. He then burst into laughter which soon infected them all, except at first for Clementine, who seemed annoyed that her concerns were being taken a little too lightly for her liking. But the moment was much too pleasant for her not to join in too, with all the spirit required by the circumstances.

While Mario led the way, Charlie put his arm around Clementine’s shoulders and pulled her against him briefly, under Jacques’ indulgent eye, who did not object in the slightest. The embrace seemed to communicate not only all the gratitude they had toward the one who had accompanied and watched over them since the beginning; but also his approval of the relationship she had developed with Mario during their absence.

 

 

33 DECIPHERING

 

Giuseppe had just gone out of the room, leaving Charlie and Jacques alone with the huge graphic tablet.

Do you think you can make that thing work? I can’t believe it’s possible; even the fact that you managed to turn it on so easily seems totally unreal to me.”

“I know, Jacques. It must be incredible to see your poor brother manipulating such advanced technology and believe me, if I were you I think my reaction would be the same, but I assure you, this is really happening. These signs and symbols are like an open book to me now. I can read them as easily as a simple text written in our own language.”

How did you learn to do that?”

“You know, I think you can talk to me in the usual way. I’ve noticed that for a while now you haven’t bothered to use your voice when you communicate with me.”

That’s possible. Maybe I should make more of an effort, but this is so much easier. And it also means no one can listen in on our conversations.”

“Except that I have to answer you, even if I do usually whisper. But you don’t always have crucial, top-secret things to tell me. If that were the case I would understand your reasons for using telepathy.”

I guess I’m used to it, that’s all.”

“You see! It seems normal to you now, and yet it’s absolutely inexplicable, just as inexplicable as me deciphering this gibberish, dug up from the depths of time.”

“Even so, I find it hard to believe that you have changed so much in such a short space of time. It makes me feel dizzy at times. Sometimes I’d just like things to be back the way they were before, when everything was simple and predictable. I’m starting to miss your moralistic, narrow-minded attitude, you know. Don’t you feel the same way?”

“Did you spend a lot of time on your own while I was connected?”

“Not as much as all that. Mario and Clementine visited me very regularly, but sometimes the sleepless nights spent worrying about you, alone on that electronic couch seemed interminable. At any moment I could be jerked awake by the threat of danger or imminent death. I had plenty of time to mull things over and several times I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with a vegetable or worse for a brother. You don’t know how unbearable that waiting was for me. You seemed to be having amazing adventures in dreamland, oblivious to danger.”

“I’m sorry, Jacques. I didn’t realize it had been so hard for you, even if I suspected it to some extent. I was so taken up with ensuring my own survival in what seemed at first to be a world as exciting as it was unfathomable. To answer your question, I often find myself thinking about our old life and I would love as much as you to be able to take a leap back in time, but what I went through in the connection has changed my life and I know that we’re never going to relive that blessed time when everything seemed so simple compared to what we’re experiencing now. It was simple, but maybe a little too dull and monotonous, wouldn’t you say? And then there was this handicap that was literally ruining our lives, let’s not forget it.”

“Why? Because you think that’s different now?”

“Yes, Jacques! Maybe you haven’t noticed but here everything is much easier. People listen to us; they are considerate; our opinion matters… It’s everything you dreamed of, Jacques: respect and honor – not merely compassion or pity. And we’re not spending our days on the couch bickering like kids and wondering how to fill up the day, hoping in vain that some kind soul will want to talk to us or give us a little time so we don’t molder away indefinitely in that tiny apartment where our treatment and perpetual state of helplessness made it a constant shambles.”

“You’re very bitter all of a sudden, brother! I’ve rarely seen you so resentful. Maybe you think everything’s different now that you’re on a very important mission? As soon as they’ve gotten out of us what they want to know, in the best case scenario they’ll send us home after a good brain-washing; unless they have nothing to fear from a couple of poor, handicapped fools who no one would ever believe.”

“Okay! I think we have something better to do now than bicker so childishly when, as you say, Giuseppe has just given me a very important mission, which I intend to complete successfully. Anyway, I’ve had enough of your constant distrust and pessimism. We’ll never get anywhere with that attitude!”

“Ah, at last – the old you is back again! You see; I like it when we bicker. And it’s been ages since you lectured me. I see you haven’t lost your touch!”

Charlie let out a deep sigh, accompanied by a knowing smile, without taking his eyes off the graphic tablet. Jacques would keep quiet now, letting his brother put his new-found translation skills to work.

Rows of symbols scrolled past at a speed which did not even allow Jacques to focus for more than a few seconds. Occasionally, stunningly realistic holographic images would appear. Anyone could have seen that they were three-dimensional images of the different parts of the base and its buildings. After a long while Charlie slowed his reading speed and spent a long time looking at a hologram that seemed to be much more significant than all the preceding ones.

“What’s that, Charlie?”

“It’s a holographic image of Sector 24.”

“Is it significant?”

“Yes, Jacques. That’s where what I’m looking for is.”

“And what exactly are you looking for?”

“Victor’s wife,” he answered in a barely audible voice.

Did he ask you to find her?”

“Excuse me, but I’d rather talk about it somewhere else, you understand?”

Okay! Do you think she could be in Sector 24?”

“Yes, I’m almost positive.”

He tapped on the edge of the screen again and the hologram suddenly filled the whole room. The twins were like prisoners inside the huge, shiny gray dome that invaded the whole space.

“Are we inside it?” asked Jacques, amazed by such spectacular display of technology.

“Not really. It’s just a hologram of its external structure. It doesn’t tell us anything about what’s inside. At least, we can’t see it as it really is.”

“What makes it different to the other domes? I thought there were thousands of them on this base.”

“That’s where she is.”

How can you be so sure?”

“That’s where he left her before he went away; in Sector 24. We have to persuade Giuseppe to take us there.”

How do you plan on doing that?”

“As simply as possible; I’m going to tell him we need to go to Sector 24.”

Without any further explanation?”

“He won’t ask for one, I’m sure. He and I both know that it’s in our best interest to cooperate, and if you remember what Mario told us in the car, it’s not necessary to know everything in order to work together, even when your name is Giuseppe. He might be our hierarchical superior, but he’s probably experienced enough to know that he won’t get anywhere without true teamwork.”

I think you’re very optimistic. It seems to me that Giuseppe has a very specific role in this game, a strategic position which is made all the more delicate by the fact that he is also overseen by the government. I find it hard to believe that he would be happy to take on the role of a mere subordinate, even temporarily.”

“But he’s already done that!”

What do you mean?”

“Don’t you see – we’re alone in this room. It’s possible that we’re being watched or even filmed, but I don’t really think so.”

Why would he do such a thing?”

“During the interview he said he wanted to trust me and this is his way of showing us he meant it. I count on doing the same when the opportunity comes up. In the meantime, nothing’s compelling me to reveal everything to him. Actually, that’s what you were advising me to do when you said they’d send us home as two nobodies as soon as they’ve found out what they want to know, right?”

“You’re probably right.”

 

 

34 THE NO-GO ZONE

 

A few minutes earlier, Jacques and Charlie had gotten themselves into a heavy white suit that Francisco had had specially made for them. An outside observer could easily have thought that this was an extra-terrestrial straight out of a bad science-fiction film. The appearance of the strange creature, stuffed into its shiny, metallic white suit could have been that of a two-headed monster with tentacles. Fortunately for the twins, the general mood was not jovial, so no one remarked on their monstrous appearance, no matter how obvious it was. Only Clementine smiled briefly, well-hidden behind the visor of her helmet, at the moment when, while getting out of the car, they finally managed to get their balance again. It was an unlikely balance which they had only just managed to find, after several minutes of gesticulating and contorting themselves every which way. Now, planted on their four feet, and in spite of the suffocating heat inside their suit, they were finally able to take in the spectacle before them. Not so very long ago, these conditions would have been enough to set off a panic attack in Charlie; he felt so enclosed inside this artificial wrapper, which filtered every air particle that he and Jacques breathed.

Today his attitude was quite different. He was mainly annoyed at having to put up with the heaviness of his physical body at a time when he would have liked to have complete freedom of movement. Everything had seemed so simple in the connection. He and Victor actually suffered from a similar problem. They were both prisoner to a body that hindered them from taking action. Of course the comparison was limited, but that didn’t stop Charlie from feeling nostalgic about the time when they had both moved freely, virtually liberated from a physical body totally at odds with their aspirations.

Look, Charlie, we’re here! I’m curious to see how Giuseppe is going to get us through to the other side.”

A few meters ahead of them a sort of veil of purplish mist stretched as far as they could see.

“I suppose this vapor must be for decontaminating the containment wall and the chamber that is used for going through it.”

Whatever it is, the effect is quite spectacular. I have trouble understanding how this construction could not have been noticed by most of the people working on the base.”

The wall of mist bathed in ultra-violet light lent a strange apocalyptic atmosphere to the place. Jacques felt as though he were standing in front of the gates of hell. That is how he had always imagined it, anyway; a dark, misty place where at any moment bony hands could reach out and drag you into the void. He watched as Francisco walked into the misty veil until he had completely disappeared. Mario and Giuseppe stood in front of them, motionless in their white suits which had turned purple, almost phosphorescent, under the effect of the ultra-violet light. A few minutes later he came out again and Giuseppe motioned to them to follow. Clementine went in first, followed by the twins, and Mario brought up the rear. The veil of mist was a lot thicker than they had imagined. They walked for a hundred meters, following small luminous markers on the ground. It was impossible to distinguish anything at all except that little green trail that lit the way for their feet. Suddenly, the mist started to become less dense, dissipating gradually. The little group stood together before a gigantic steel wall, eaten away by rust, with droplets of condensation trickling down the cold metal.

“We will soon be entering the no-go zone”, announced Giuseppe. “On the other side of this chamber we will be in a huge sector that we have no entered for years. It is even possible that some areas have never been explored, since their discovery over twenty years ago. I am counting on you not to touch anything and to only do what Francisco and I tell you.”

Giuseppe turned around without waiting for a response and entered the code that would open the thick glass chamber that stood in front of them. The heavy, opaque door opened at last; just long enough for them to step into the confined space where a leaden silence reigned. All five of them remained in that glass cage for several minutes, while Giuseppe tried in vain to open the second door. Long minutes of uncertainty went by while he tried his best, entering successive series of figures without success. Charlie was beginning to suffer from claustrophobia, brought on by the completely enclosed, impenetrable nature of the place where they were standing. His breathing was getting faster and erratic as time went by. He started to get a slight feeling of suffocation, as if the air he was breathing did not contain enough oxygen. At least, that was what he was beginning to believe, despite his efforts to think sensibly. Jacques was uneasy too, but he immediately noticed the first signs of claustrophobia affecting his brother.

Calm down, Charlie. These suits are equipped with an autonomous ventilation system. We will absolutely not be short of oxygen; it could be hours before lack of oxygen becomes an issue. Breathe calmly and try to relax. Giuseppe will find a solution to the problem, I’m sure. He doesn’t seem to be panicking and neither is Francisco. Don’t worry.”

Charlie was not proud of the state he was in. The great confidence he had shown up till now had not stood up to the effects of claustrophobia’s conditioning and the emotional reactions it provoked as soon as the conditions were right for it to manifest. However, he managed to calm down quite quickly and breathe deeply, following his brother’s advice as he had always done in situations like this.

Jacques must be right. Giuseppe and Francisco seemed to be stoically calm about the keypad that refused to accept the codes the old man was entering. Finally, Francisco motioned to Giuseppe to step aside, reaching out to try his luck at typing in the command code that would open the chamber. A few seconds later the door opened at last. Giuseppe patted Francisco on the shoulder, as if he could feel the sign of gratitude through his thick suit. At this unexpected sight, Charlie understood that Giuseppe had blind faith in his adopted son. No doubt he had passed on all that he knew to him, and if anything should happen to Giuseppe, Francisco would immediately take over, to terminate the mission he was bent on completing. Charlie was sure that one day or another Francisco would take over the reins of this base, barring intervention from some, less understanding, outside party that decided otherwise.

From his very first steps, it became clear to Charlie that they were truly in inviolate territory. The noise of their feet, heavy in the autonomous suits, struck the ground like hammers on an anvil. Here there was no asphalted road, artificial lighting or any other human adjustment. One large metallic road, like a highway, cut through the middle of the gigantic rocky cavern before losing itself on the horizon. Strangely, the place was neither really dark, nor truly light. A pale, white light seemed to emanate from the buildings around them. The quality of the light was very unusual, similar to that which the dawn would have shed on this forest of domes. It was a light with no source, a day without sun or shade.

“Here we are in the no-go zone, Charlie. Nearly fifty square kilometers of perfectly aligned domes, divided into a hundred sectors, linked to each other by secondary roads which go off this central highway. Of course, those are only estimations based on images from our exploration drones. On the face of it, these metallic roads seem to be access roads which must have enabled the N.H.I.s to travel in magnetic levitation vehicles.”

“Have you found any vehicles in working order here?” asked Charlie, excitedly.

“No,” answered Giuseppe. “Our drones found about one of them per sector, which makes for quite a considerable number, but they all seem to be stuck on the ground. We tried to de-magnetize one, so we could learn more about the N.H.I.’s technology, but we didn’t succeed and we never managed to activate it. Perhaps you already saw such machines running when you were in Victor’s memory?”

“Yes, indeed. I guess I could even say I had the privilege of riding in two of them. They were used to move around inside the bases… I mean this base. That is, virtually, in the experience I had, but I don’t know to what extent that was an accurate representation of the vehicles’ true performance. I was amazed by their speed and the incredible silence inside them. They literally streamed through the air without the slightest vibration.”

“You seemed to hesitate, Charlie. Are you suggesting they could have built other bases like this one?” It was Francisco, speaking directly to Charlie for the first time in weeks. His tone was neutral. Francisco, true to his usual self, did not let any emotion filter through, so that the question did not seem at all inquisitive, and yet it put Charlie in a very awkward position. He had no intention at all of revealing that information to Giuseppe right now, but it was too late. The information had reached Francisco’s ears and nothing would ever be able to dislodge it from his brain, whose workings were as rigorous as they were inscrutable. Charlie understood that it would be futile to hem himself in by lying or negating what he had said; that would only have served to increase the curiosity aroused by his slip. He preferred to seize the opportunity that had just arisen, to reaffirm his role of expert, which made him indispensible in Giuseppe’s eyes.

“I’m not certain, but it’s a possibility that I have thought about, yes. In order to develop such advanced technology and attain such a high level of civilization, the N.H.I.’s must necessarily have evolved as a population that was much more numerous than the few thousand individuals present on this base. I can even tell you that they had vehicles of the same type as those that you have found, but which did not need magnetic roads.”

“Did you see them?” asked Giuseppe.

“Actually, I rode in one of them at the beginning of the connection, but I passed out, which meant I never found out where it was going. I only saw the plains and pine forests it was flying over at incredible speed. Once again, you must remember that my perceptions were only mental constructs, subject to many distorting factors. If you don’t mind, I think we should stay focused on our objective. We’ll have plenty of time to discuss these things later.”

“That’s right,” said Giuseppe. “What exactly is our objective? We know, or at least, we strongly believe, that each of these domes contains one or two hibernating N.H.I.’s and if we take Victor as an example, it’s highly probable that they are still alive. It would not be too far-fetched to think that they are probably also in the awakening phase, like him. You asked me to bring you to the no-go zone and I have done so without asking you further questions, so tell us now what we are looking for, Charlie. I could help you more easily if you still trust me.”

“We are looking for Sector 24, as I told you yesterday.”

That rather cutting answer, which was not really and answer at all, rang in the ears of the elderly Italian like a firm refusal. Charlie obviously did not want to say any more for now about the true objective of this expedition.

“This little underground city has exactly ninety-nine sectors, not counting the colonized ones,” said Francisco. “None of them has an inscription with anything resembling numbers that we can decipher, but maybe you might manage that. Follow me. I will show you the pillars that mark the entrance to each one.”

“Let’s go!” growled Giuseppe, motioning to the rest of the little group to snap out of the lethargy and fascination that the mystical beauty of the place evoked in them.

They had all followed the conversation, which had taken place only a few meters from them, their faces hidden behind their visors. They were connected by radio transmitters so there was no need to listen hard. They could also have participated in the conversation if they had wished to; there was nothing preventing them; but even Jacques had not wished to intervene, not even by telepathy. It was all beyond them; they knew very little indeed, and had no choice but to blindly follow instructions.

While they were making slow progress along the metallic road, Charlie carefully observed the first rows of domes they were leaving behind them. Suddenly Francisco, who was leading the way, stopped in front of one of them and pointed to a metal cylinder, about ten meters high. Jacques and Charlie came closer, but could not see anything written on it.

“I suppose this is one of the pillars you mentioned earlier?”

“Yes, the drones showed the presence of symbols engraved on the top,” replied Francisco.

“How are you planning on getting to them? This one must be ten or twelve meters high and I can’t see us climbing up there. These perfectly smooth cylinders don’t seem to have anything to grip onto.”

“Don’t worry,” answered Giuseppe. “We thought to bring a detailed map of the place with us. We have a high resolution photograph of each one of these pillars. Here, look. These are the symbols on top of this one,” he said, handing Charlie a little tablet that he kept attached to the side of his suit.

Charlie looked attentively at the screen, while Giuseppe scrolled through a complete map of the no-go zone with jerky movements of his finely gloved finger. Each sector was numbered, but the numbering was quite random, as they were incapable of deciphering the N.H.I.’s writing. After a short search, he stopped over one of the pillars and dragged his gloved fingers apart on the screen to bring up a detailed view of the top. A series of symbols appeared, which Charlie immediately deciphered without even noticing: Sector 4. He was not mistaken. The sectors were apparently numbered from lowest to highest and this one must be the very first, along with the one opposite it, on the other side of the main road. He turned his head in that direction and noticed another pillar, a mirror image of the first. The main highway really must cross the town, as Francisco called it, just like those long, straight streets that divide most big American cities up into a grid pattern.

“Could you show me a picture of that other pillar?” he asked, pointing to the second one.

“Of course! Nothing could be simpler.”

“Sector 3. I suppose the numbering must begin in the area recently colonized by your men. I hadn’t paid much attention to them before, but now I remember seeing two pillars identical to these ones at the entrance to the residential zone. Is that correct?”

“Yes, that’s exactly right. Perhaps you would like to see those images too?”

“There’s no need. This one marks the entrance to Sector 4 and the one opposite, on the other side of the main highway, marks the entrance to Sector 3, as I have just read on these pictures. In that case, there is no doubt that the two pillars in the residential zone are numbers 1 and 2. The sectors are numbered from lowest to highest and the colonized area is the starting point. Your men must have discovered the main entrance to this huge, underground cave. Perhaps there are others, but apparently I didn’t see any on the map you showed me, nor on the model in the dome where Victor is lying.”

What Charlie had just said, sounding as if he had just discovered it, was in fact mere repetition for him. He had already gathered much of this information from looking through the graphic tablet that Giuseppe had trusted him with several days earlier. He had been able to access a map of the whole base and knew perfectly well where Sector 24 was. That was what had made him so confident of finding Rosaline in this ocean of domes. He was therefore certain that she was not among the victims in the zone contaminated by the presence of humans, but for now it was important that everyone believe they were moving on blindly, guided only by physical clues and the maps they had with them.

 

 

35 A SIZABLE PROBLEM

 

“If what you say is correct, Charlie, we will need to walk for quite some time before we reach Sector 24. I’m afraid that we may not reach it by the end of the day, in view of our slow pace in these suits,” said Giuseppe.

“You mentioned earlier that there was an N.H.I. magnetic levitation vehicle in each sector. So there should be one in this sector. Could you take us to it, Giuseppe?” asked Charlie.

Giuseppe looked at the digital map again then pointed out the way to go.

“There’s one over there, but I doubt you will be able to get it working. The general operating system must have been programmed to remain inactive throughout the hibernation period. In their place, I think that’s what we would have done, too. The amount of energy needed to power a network of this size, even on standby, must be colossal, aside from the technical risks generated by such a long time period.”

“You’re probably right, but we have nothing to lose in trying. There must be some sort of reactivation system, even if it’s only temporary.”

“Unless everything is pre-programmed, or even controlled from the outside,” added Francisco.

Charlie had not thought of this last possibility, but it did seem logical. The bases had been designed to preserve the lives of the population that stayed on Earth, for the time it took to launch a rescue mission from outer space. He had not found any information on how the magnetic network functioned while looking through the graphic tablet, but he had mainly been concentrating on the mission Victor had given him. Not knowing when, or even if, Giuseppe would give him another opportunity to search those archives, he had deliberately skimmed over all the technical documents regarding the operations of the base. Anyway, he would have needed months to read everything. Even with the new intellectual abilities convergence had bestowed on him, he was not sure he would be capable of deciphering such highly technical information. Victor himself would probably not have been able to either, unlike his brother.

“That’s possible”, he replied, “but there’s only one way to find out. Let’s take a closer look at this vehicle!”

When they got there, Charlie immediately recognized the sleek lines of the vehicle that he had ridden in not so long ago, with Emma. Dark gray and massive, there it sat on the magnetic strip, rooted to the ground like a block of iron weighing several tons. In the connection he had climbed in as easily as could be, but here it was a different story. The vehicle was designed to transport beings that were ten times the size of humans. Lined up like a procession of ants before this horizontal monolith of extravagant proportions, the little group looked utterly helpless.

“So, what next?” asked Jacques sarcastically.

“It’s hard to say. From a distance, things seemed quite simple, but I realize we are confronted with a serious problem of size. When I got into this type of vehicle I was in the connection. All I had to do was climb onto the first step and hop in. It’s true I hadn’t thought about the fact that our small size would be such an issue. We can’t even reach the door handle of this vehicle.”

“Maybe you’d like me to give you a leg-up?” Jacques teased.

“I’m not sure it’s really a time for joking around, Jacques, especially as everyone can hear our conversation over the radio, remember!”

Jacques had completely forgotten that detail. Well, it did not really matter now, so he just smiled. He took the joke even further, determined as usual to relax the atmosphere.

“Maybe we could make a human pyramid!” he continued in his jovial tone. “Giuseppe and Francisco could form the base, followed by Mario and Clementine on the next level. Then you and I would just need to put our feet on their shoulders, just like those human pyramids they do in Barcelona! It’s a pity they’re not Spanish; that would have made it much easier!”

“What a good idea! What do you say, Mario?” laughed Charlie. “Spain, Italy – what’s the difference? You Mediterraneans love your street acrobatics and know all about team work? Jacques is right; it’s time to show our team spirit!”

“Oh, I think that’s an excellent idea!” answered Mario, “Especially when you consider that, as research scientists working on a common project, we are well-versed in group spirit and sacrifice. Isn’t that right, Giuseppe?”

Giuseppe smiled behind his visor. He looked at Francisco, who did not seem at all sure about the plan that had just been suggested; then he answered, in a slightly more serious tone than his fellow team members.

“Absolutely! However, what will happen when Charlie opens the door? Don’t you think our fragile pyramid would fall down then, like a house of cards? The idea is not a bad one, but I don’t think it would stand up to the test. That door must weigh three or four tons at least. The fall could be quite painful, don’t you think?” he added, jokingly.

“Yes, it would be, Giuseppe. I’m afraid we’ll have to find another, more suitable solution. What do you suggest, Francisco?” Mario asked, trying to catch his eye, but he seemed more furtive than ever.

Francisco hesitated for a long moment, carefully observing everything around them. He scanned the bodies and faces of his team members one by one without ever making eye contact with them. The way he avoided their eyes gave them the impression they were merely part of the surroundings.

“There is no solution to this problem. If we want to try entering this vehicle we must come back with suitable equipment. For now, all we have is a small exploration drone, a few dozen meters of rope, three magnetic handles, flashlights, knives and survival kits which would allow us to survive for several days if anything went wrong, until a search party could rescue us. The magnetic handles and ropes are to enable us to explore areas that are inaccessible from the ground. They could help us to reach that door handle but even if we managed to climb up there, I doubt you could open the door, Charlie. The handle will not work without being unlocked and the equipment we have will be of no help for that.”

Francisco’s reply discouraged the group. He was right. They were full of good intentions but that was not enough for them to achieve their goal, at least not as easily as they had thought at first, in any case. Being small and under-evolved, in a world designed by giants with intellectual abilities and technology far more advanced than their own, was a handicap they had greatly underestimated.

“No”, agreed Charlie. Behind his visor, his face had lost all signs of lightheartedness.

“I’m afraid Francisco is right, Charlie. We’ll never be able to open that vehicle. I did warn you. Either we decide to turn back now, and come back better prepared next time, or we carry on our way on foot. It could be a very, very long way,” said Giuseppe.

“Wait!” Mario said suddenly. He had left the group for a few minutes, to search the area around the vehicle for any possible clues. “Come and look at this!”

Lying on the ground was a sort of rectangular, metal plaque. About eighty centimeters long, it blended into the magnetized metal of the road. On its upper side was a line of symbols and in its center they could make out a slightly darker disk.

“What could it be?” asked Mario.

Charlie came nearer the object, which was actually quite difficult to make out; it blended into the gray surface of the magnetic road so well. He looked at it carefully and easily deciphered the symbols. It was a line of letters and figures that were most certainly a personal access code.

“This could be an access card that an N.H.I. dropped before leaving. With a little luck, it may even enable us to unlock the door. Help me get it off the ground!” he said enthusiastically.

Mario tried first, without success, then Giuseppe, Clementine and even Francisco joined in, but the card would not budge an inch. It was magnetic, stuck to the metallic ground. Charlie sighed, before exclaiming in frustration, “That’s it; we’re obviously not going to get anywhere today! I’m starting to think you were right, Giuseppe. I must have been a little too optimistic. The N.H.I.’s technology seems to be locked down and literally inaccessible. Everything is oversized for the ants that we are, in comparison to those giants. I wonder how you even managed to open the domes in the colonized area.”

“Actually, we didn’t exactly open them. You could say we broke in. Our technicians had to use powerful lasers to cut through the thick, metal walls. Even with that technology, it was no easy task. I thought you simply wanted to explore the no-go zone, so I didn’t deem it necessary to bring along a team of technicians. Also, the design of the entry chamber means it is not possible to bring in material that is too bulky. For that we would need to build a new entrance, with all the risks of contamination that would involve. If you tell us what you are really looking for, Charlie, I could help work out a strategy for finding it.”

Charlie was quiet for quite some time, while Mario continued exploring the surroundings. The mood had become heavy, as each of them took stock of the impasse they found themselves in. The situation seemed hopeless; then Francisco suddenly spoke, in a barely audible voice.

“There may be another solution.”

All faces turned toward the one who had just shattered the morose atmosphere in such an unexpected way, but no one could catch his eye, as he was staring determinedly at his feet.

“Go ahead, Francisco!” Mario said impatiently. “What solution are you talking about?”

“I recently found some documents in the archives of the base that detailed a sector different to the rest. The drones had photographed a number of non-metallic structures there. Different hypotheses were put forward and one of them suggested that it could be some type of computer command center. Irvine Sigler had begun studying it, but after the first N.H.I’s died from contamination by humans, everything was stopped and the containment wall was quickly erected to avoid the risk of never being able to enter into contact with one of the giants some day. Charlie’s knowledge might help us to understand its function.”

“He’s right!” Charlie suddenly shouted. “I should have thought of it earlier. I saw that sector when I was looking at the graphic tablet. I didn’t pay much attention to it, since it wasn’t what I was mainly looking for. It clearly mentioned that there was an area for infrastructure management and networking. It’s in Sector 49.”

“But it’s twice as far to Sector 49 as it is to Sector 24 and we’re already hesitating to start that journey on foot!” exclaimed Mario.

“How much time do we have?” asked Charlie. “I mean, in terms of oxygen supply.”

“We’re not limited by that,” answered Francisco. “The oxygen supply was only necessary while we were going through the vapor and the entry chamber. Once we were in the no-go zone, the ambient air filters took over.”

“Great! That’s good news for us. How long do you think it would take us to walk that far, Francisco?”

“The sectors are along both sides of the central road. Each sector is a rectangle, about five domes wide and ten domes long. The longer side of the rectangle happens to be along the roadside. To cross one sector, we would therefore need to cover approximately ten times the ground surface area of these half-spheres. Each half-sphere measures about fifty meters at its highest point, which means that their diameter is close to one hundred meters. That means, along the highway, each sector is about 1,300 meters long; that is, the length of ten domes with a diameter of one hundred meters placed side by side, plus the width of each driveway – about thirty meters. If we consider that we need to cross forty-nine sectors, minus the four sectors already behind us, divided by two: that makes a little under twenty-three sectors, each 1,300 meters long. So we still have over twenty-nine, or more like thirty, kilometers to walk along the highway. With these suits, you seem to manage a walking speed of barely more than two or three kilometers per hour according to my estimations, without allowing for the breaks that we will inevitably need. In short, the best case scenario is that we get there after walking for ten or twelve hours, maybe more.”

“Perfect! It’s a lot, but I’m sure we’ll make it!”

Aren’t you a little too optimistic, Charlie? We’ve never walked that far before. I’m exhausted already, so I can’t bear to imagine how we’ll feel after ten hours of walking in these suffocating suits! Let’s go home. We can come back another time. That would be better, believe me.”

Charlie could not answer him without their conversation being overheard. He did realize, however, that he was still behaving like the Charlie of the connection, who could move at will, free of the burden of his physical body and several intangible laws of physics. Here, to pass an obstacle he could not simply go through it, just as to cover a long distance he could not simply fly several meters above the ground. In short, he needed to review his ambitions in the light of their physical limitations. In that respect, Jacques had just faithfully filled his role in bringing him back to Earth at the right moment. Yes, but there it was! It was impossible for him to bring himself to abandon his quest, as if something that transcended him was pushing him blindly in that direction. Looking at his fellow team members he saw that all eyes – except Francisco’s – were on him, and looking extremely doubtful.

“But… that’s impossible, Charlie,” said Mario, stunned by what he had just heard. “You and Jacques will never make it that far. You’ve only just recovered, and personally, I think Francisco was a little optimistic when he said you could walk two or three kilometers an hour on average. If we take into account the many breaks we’ll need so you can rest, it will surely take us much longer than he said.”

“Mario is right,” added Giuseppe calmly. “We should go home and come back in a few days with the necessary equipment, even what we need to get from one sector to another. Anyway, what point would there be in going to a sector that is twice as far away as the one you’re trying to reach? It would certainly be very interesting, but what purpose would it serve? Couldn’t we just stick to your first objective for this time? That already seems difficult enough to reach, don’t you think, Charlie?”

“You’re right. I realize now that I have been too optimistic. Francisco is right. Everything is locked down and it would be futile to visit that sector without what we need to complete the mission.”

“Exactly what mission, Charlie?”

But Charlie did not respond to Giuseppe’s new question.

Everyone except Francisco and Clementine, who said nothing, seemed to be against the idea of setting off for Sector 49 immediately. Charlie hesitated for a moment then timidly asked Clementine, who was standing slightly further away from the group, “What about you, Clementine? What do you think?”

“It’s your decision, Charlie. I trust you. Follow your intuition. If you feel up to it, let’s do it! Let’s not waste our precious time on pointless discussion. We all have survival kits in our packs. We won’t die of thirst or hunger, and these suits are so thick, the cold shouldn’t be a problem.”

The surprise was tangible. Clementine, usually so discreet, almost invisible, was letting a side to her personality show that only Mario had begun to see recently. She seemed ready and determined to follow Charlie to the end, although they considered that he was purely and simply denying reality. Her unwavering support gave Charlie the helping hand he needed to make his decision. They would set off right away, whatever it cost them.

As for Mario; he was gazing admiringly at this little lady with such strong character. Recently, she had been sharing his bed, to the great disappointment of Caterina, and he was now congratulating himself on not giving in to her constant pressure. Clementine had something she didn’t. There was an indefinable quality about her that enabled her to make the right choice at the right time. Unlike her rival, she knew how to keep things simple and instinctive. She had a simplicity that did not devalue her, but on the contrary, made her greater. He had never noticed the slightest trace of jealousy or nastiness in her toward anyone at all. He now knew that he loved her; and the reason why. And so, although her choice was not at all rational (and even less reasonable) he respected her too much to dissuade her from it.

“Very well, in that case, let’s go!” replied Mario, taking the first step of many. He was actually anxious to get started before Giuseppe could give his opinion.

Francisco would have no trouble following the movement, obsessed by the idea of increasing his knowledge of the N.H.I.’s and the functioning of the base as quickly as possible. He could not stand waiting, either – he never could – just as he had always had tremendous difficulty accepting his own errors of judgment.

 

 

36 THE LONG TREK

 

They had now been walking slowly through the middle of this surreal landscape with its metallic décor for eight hours. In this strange world there was no movement, no crackling or noise of any sort, except perhaps the soft sound of droplets of condensation running down the cold metal of the domes. The light itself was more of a pale, whitish glow; slightly phosphorescent, with barely perceptible silvery pink tones. However, it lent a visible pinkish tinge to the very thin layer of mist that rose all day long like a ghostly veil suspended several dozen centimeters above the ground. It was much too sparse to impede their vision or conceal any obstacles in their path. But there it was, enveloping their bodies, dispersing as they passed, to form little eddies that drifted in evanescent spirals, before rejoining the pool of perfectly static, inert molecules in this misty lake of a thousand islands.

In their clammy suits, the moisture was running too. Their foggy breath and hot, sticky, chafing sweat gave off a strong odor that they could no longer smell; their olfactories were so saturated with it, but it still made the air enclosed in their suits progressively more suffocating. Their faces were stern and focused. Not one of them thought to complain, and they scarcely spoke to one another. Their minds were completely absorbed by their physical exertion, a dreadfully slow and monotonous effort which was both physically and mentally exhausting. Of them all, it was probably Charlie who suffered the most. He was still weakened by his invasive surgery, but his face was set and determined. He would not give in to pain, and would keep walking until the end of the trek, even if he had to drag his brother to Sector 49.

Jacques was not complaining either. He did not even try talking to his brother. His legs were carrying him, in rhythmic strides, perfectly synchronized with Charlie’s. Sector after sector, their steps became heavier and more painful until the pain soon peaked at a level they resolutely put up with, despite Mario’s repeated invitations to stop for a break which he mistakenly thought would be salutary. They were right; after that climax of pain and exhaustion, everything suddenly became much easier and more bearable. The change came magically over their bodies, which were battered by a superhuman effort totally inappropriate to their physical condition. Their legs became lighter, as did their whole bodies, which became completely supple and free of pain. Optimism and euphoria even made a timid appearance, making them feel like talking again, which obviously was not the case for the others who merely continued their laborious march. Was it magic? No, simply a massive surge of endorphins, thought Charlie. He recognized the effects. His synapses had received all kinds of chemical and hormonal cocktails while his brain had been connected; opened up like a boiled egg and joined to Victor’s brain by a biological neural probe. They were simply drugs, which the brain produces in massive amounts when the body reaches a critical level above which it must rise; drugs that can save a life by pushing through the barriers of its mental and physical limits; natural drugs which came at just the right moment, and enabled them to keep going until they reached the Sector 49 less than two hours later.

 

 

37 THE NETWORK

 

Charlie finally opened one eye, squinting at the pale light of a day which would never dawn. As he lay on the hard, cold surface of the magnetic road, his head resting heavily on the pack, used for a pillow, he noticed the layer of pink mist that floated a few centimeters above his visor. For the first time, he was observing it from underneath. From this perspective it looked more like a mirror, reflecting the metallic tints of the ground. It was taking form; materializing in a fresh way, becoming almost tangible. He slowly opened his other eye, turning his head slightly to widen his field of vision. That way he could better appreciate the beauty of this vaporous veil that covered them all, like a shroud delicately laid down in the midst of a battle field. Not quite all of them…

Completely awake now, from where he lay, he looked all around the area where they had decided to take a well-earned nap. In the distance, a vertical silhouette pierced through the mist, showing only the lower part of a body. It was Francisco. The others were still sleeping, but not him. Had he only slept for a few minutes, or had he waited until all the others fell asleep to begin exploring the area on his own? Impatience had probably gotten the better of the signals of fatigue his body had been sending him. He did not really listen to his body, or not enough; he was lured instead by the siren song of logic, constantly tempting him with the promise of pure, hard rational thought which, of all the range of possible emotions, only ever let anxiety filter through. That anxiety was sometimes immense and devastating; impossible to check when it emerged in the shape of an unexpected obstacle to the logical course of his ideas. Something unforeseen; a tenacious uncertainty, a fault in his reasoning, and Francisco was suddenly only a shadow of himself. So how could he wait and rest, when the opportunity to see up close what was surely one of the keys to the mystery of this base, was right there, only a few meters away?

The others were all resting as best they could; lying uncomfortably on the road, only a few meters from what they thought was the entrance to the network center. Meanwhile, Francisco had overcome his tiredness to prepare the ground for Charlie, whom he considered to be a true gift from heaven. He was the one who knew; who would decipher and understand how the N.H.I.’s technology worked.

“Jacques, are you awake?”

Huh? What’s wrong? Aren’t we dead?”

“Stop it, will you! Wake up. We have work to do and Francisco’s already at it, aren’t you, Francisco?” he asked, knowing that he could hear him, as could Mario, Clementine and even Giuseppe, whose snoring he could hear quite distinctly, broadcast over the radio system integrated into their suits.

“Come and see, Charlie!” Francisco replied. “I’ve found a touch screen; at least I think that’s what it is.”

“Giuseppe doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere,” joked Mario.

Mario and Clementine had just woken up, but Giuseppe was still snoring loudly, completely oblivious to the public meeting being broadcast directly into his ears. They got up and helped the twins to their feet, not that they could not have managed on their own, but the double suit they shared inhibited them considerably, making the most ordinary movements, such as getting out of a bed or a chair, even more complicated. Jacques and Charlie both knew that, and rather than wriggling like worms crossing wet concrete, they preferred to lie still, waiting until someone could help them up.

In the end, it was Clementine who tried her hand at waking the old man who, at that point, seemed to be hibernating too. She knelt beside him to get down to his level and gently shook his shoulder, speaking to him softly.

“Giuseppe! It’s time to wake up now. I think Francisco has found something. You should come take a look.”

The old man slowly opened his eyes, and contemplated Clementine’s sweet face for a few moments. She smiled broadly at him, fixing her large, dark, hazel-tinged eyes on him. The veil of mist was reflected in her visor, slightly dispersed by the recent movements of the young woman and her colleagues. In the background, he could see the colossal façade of the dome at whose base they had set up their make-shift camp.

“Thank you, Clementine,” he said warmly.

He took the hand she offered him and got to his feet with difficulty, slowly straightening his back, stiffened by age. Clementine did not look like his ex-wife at all, but it had been a long time since he had received the slightest affectionate gesture. He could not help thinking of her again. Since she had left, he had never been able to replace her, burying himself in his research instead. But despite the deep love he had for his adopted son, Francisco could not compensate for that lack – especially not Francisco. He was incapable of showing any affection. In extreme cases, he might just accept his father taking him in his arms to comfort him, but that was all. There was never a word or gesture to express his love or gratitude.

“Is everything okay, Giuseppe?” asked Mario, who had been watching from a distance. “Leave your pack there and come join us. I believe our long journey was not in vain! Charlie is already deciphering the inscription Francisco found on what looks like a gigantic computer screen. I’ve never seen anything like it! This should interest you.”

The screen in question was in fact a gigantic, dark-colored, glass disk, perched on top of a cylinder, twelve meters high. Francisco was flying the small exploration drone that he had brought with him. The video camera was sending images directly to the screen of the tablet which Charlie held in his hands. He was carefully observed by the little group, who were waiting impatiently to find out more about this unusual object.

Francisco decided at last to explain to them the discovery he had just made.

“The top of the cylinder is in the shape of a glass disk, measuring thirteen meters in diameter. The drone’s thermal cameras have picked up electrical circuit activity beneath the glass surface. Several times, the electrical current has changed when the drone has come close to it. I conclude from that, that the screen is reacting to a change incurred by the drone’s presence. Several different types of technology for this type of screen exist, not counting the N.H.I.’s technology, which was apparently slightly different to ours. Some of them react to pressure on the surface, others to changes in electric charges or to an object’s shadow on the screen. The most resistant, durable screens – those generally used by the army – use infrared technology. For now, I cannot confirm that it was reacting to the heat given off by the drone, but that is my preferred hypothesis. I doubt that the air pressure from the rotary blades would be sufficient to activate a screen of this size, any more than the drone’s shadow.”

“If I may; there doesn’t seem to be any external light source in this cave”, ventured Charlie. “The light seems to be coming from the metal itself. In that case, there shouldn’t be any shadow.”

“Actually, there is. It is possible for the drone to cast a shadow on the screen because it is made of glass and does not generate any light. It should therefore be possible for the metallic surfaces in the immediate environment to cast slight shadows. However, I think that such shadows would be much too faint to be detected by the captors under the screen.”

“So you think the disk reacts to heat.”

“That is the hypothesis I prefer, In any case, even if I cannot be certain. What I can be sure of, is that this surface, which resembles glass, is sensitive to the drone’s presence and since you told us that this sector had a center for the management and networking of the different equipment involved in the functioning of the base, I deduce that this is some sort of supercomputer.”

“An N.H.I.-sized computer,” added Giuseppe, who had just joined them. “Maybe there are others in this sector?”

“No, I don’t think so,” replied Francisco. “I have been over this sector with a fine-toothed comb and the drone didn’t give me any images that led me to think there were other similar structures here. If there are any other computers here, they are either buried, or of a very different kind.”

“Why didn’t you notice it earlier?” asked Jacques. “The exploration drones must have mapped out the area long ago.”

“I suppose that at the time we must have thought it was simply a flat surface of unknown purpose. We were so focused on trying to open the first domes that a detailed exploration of this distant sector was put off until later. What could we have done, anyway?” added Giuseppe. “You are the only one capable of reading N.H.I. script, Charlie. We would not have been able to do anything with it but damage it, without attempting to understand how it worked.”

“That’s not all!” Francisco said suddenly. “The glass surface looks like the surface of the graphic tablet you managed to read, Charlie. On closer inspection I found some symbols engraved in the glass. Perhaps they will tell us something about how to turn it on. Here, you take a look!”

The minutes ticked by while Charlie regularly asked Francisco, who was adept at maneuvering the little remote-controlled craft, to move it around, exploring the disk in minute detail. On the glass surface of the supercomputer, they could make out a sort of grid, finely engraved around the edge of the disk.

“There!” cried Charlie. “I’m sure that’s a touch-sensitive on-button for the screen. Similar symbols were on the screens and graphic tablets they used. If the screen reacts to the drone’s presence, we should be able to turn it on.”

Francisco delicately lowered the drone onto the area Charlie had just indicated. Instantly, the whole disk lit up, to their astonishment.

“We did it!” cried Charlie, both amazed and incredulous at what seemed to him to verge on the miraculous. “Now, take it up a bit higher, Francisco. I need to be able to see the whole screen.”

Francisco complied, placing the drone several meters above the centre of the gigantic disk. The middle of the screen was still only a perfectly empty, pale blue surface, contrasting dramatically with the grid around the edge, whose midnight blue keys showed lines of N.H.I symbols and writing. Charlie carefully examined all of the markings, using the zoom and enlarge functions of the little aircraft’s optical equipment to his advantage. With Francisco’s help, he examined the different parts of the computer one by one and fairly soon asked to take over control of the drone himself so he could work more quickly. He knew what he needed to do, and how to do it. The way he managed the non-human technology amazed everyone. Only Francisco was as impassive as a statue, not missing any of the information he could obtain form the small miracle taking place before his eyes.

Charlie, on the other hand, was exhilarated. The further he went in his research, the more powerful and self-satisfied he felt. His level of concentration soon reached its peak, at which point he did not even hear the team’s questions and comments anymore. The feeling intoxicated and overwhelmed him beyond the simple pleasure of managing to accomplish something unusual. He could feel a growing thirst for power; a will to control everything, to be the one who knew, who could only ever be right all the time. His eyes were wild and his movements became more and more jerky, even rough; so much so that suddenly, the tablet’s screen cracked under the pressure of his fingers. Francisco immediately snatched the tablet from him. Charlie turned on him impulsively and gave him a stern fierce stare. He was prepared to rip the object out of his hands, but in a fraction of a second, his aggression suddenly left.

He had just realized that his intellectual prowess was a result of convergence and that once again it was consuming him, pushing him out of himself. Was it Victor’s personality taking over or merely some sort of side-effect of the temporary expansion of his sensorial and psychological capacities? He did not know, but right now he felt uneasy. Something in him no longer belonged to him. A divide, a split was letting another personality emerge that he did not recognize. Or perhaps it was not another personality after all. Maybe it was simply his brain’s reward loop racing; bringing continual rushes of dopamine and other endogenous opioids. After all, his almost magical series of successes, in an area where he was the only competent one, could have been enough in and of itself to account for the state he had just found himself in.

Deep down, he knew that this explanation, while plausible, was probably not sufficient. The truth was that he did not know and probably did not want to know what had really happened. This interpretation reassured him. Soon his thoughts stopped racing and the surge of emotions waned, giving way to a great void; and he began to breathe more slowly and deeply.

What’s the matter with you, Charlie? I worry about you. I’ve never seen you like that before. What on earth did they do to you in there?”

“I’m sorry! I don’t know what came over me. I was so absorbed by what I was doing that I must have pressed a bit too hard on the screen. I hope I haven’t damaged the tablet too badly? I was just about to activate the magnetic road system when the screen cracked. I was concentrating so hard I didn’t even realize. It’s a good thing you interrupted me in time, Francisco.”

Charlie was struggling to look calm, to make everyone forget his moment of confusion as quickly as possible, but Francisco still would not look at him. He only handed him the tablet again after making sure the drone was not damaged and the screen was still working, in spite of the deep cracks all over it.

“Thank you,” said Charlie.

“Now that the screen is cracked you will have to be a lot more careful with this device if you don’t want it to be rendered useless,” Francisco warned.

“Don’t worry, Francisco. I think I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll be much more careful now, I assure you.”

I know you can’t answer me, Charlie, but you can still hear me out. That kind of attitude, that way you have of cutting yourself of from everyone, that impulsivity, that almost domineering self-assurance – it’s not like you… I find your behavior quite strange sometimes, as if you aren’t yourself anymore. I don’t know exactly what happens but be careful because people pick up on it and I don’t think Giuseppe really appreciates that sort of lapse. He mustn’t see us as some sort of threat, you understand? We’ll have to talk about this again when we’re alone together.”

Charlie glanced briefly at his brother. His expression spoke volumes, which was enough to reassure Jacques. Then he went back to maneuvering the drone extremely gently, resisting at every moment the temptation to speed up the operation. He wanted to avoid damaging the equipment entrusted to him, and also preserve his own integrity. After close on an hour’s research, the drone’s constant to-ing and fro-ing came to an end at last and a dull noise was heard in the cave.

Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

“What was that?” asked Mario.

“I’ve activated the magnetic roads on all the sectors between Sector 5 and Sector 50. Now the magnetic levitation vehicles should work. I should be able to drive them if I ever find a way of accessing the on-board computer, which is also several meters off the ground.”

“Logically speaking, they should use the same type of tactile screen as this one. We may not need to physically access it.”

“Let’s hope you’re right, Francisco!”

“Have you had access to other information, Charlie?” asked Giuseppe. “I’m mainly thinking of how the domes are opened, or of the energy supply system for this entire infrastructure.”

“Yes, Giuseppe. Opening the domes shouldn’t be a problem anymore. The computer generates magnetic cards, like individual passes, which command the automatic opening of the door they are configured for. In retrospect, I remember seeing one of them being used when I was in the connection.” (Once again, Charlie was referring to his visit with Emma.) “All you need to do is get near the door for it to open.”

“In the end, the N.H.I.’s technology doesn’t seem so very different from ours”, remarked Giuseppe. “In fact, I find it quite surprising that they were able to use the same strategies and follow the same tracks of technological development. Don’t you think, Charlie?”

“I agree,” he replied, without elaborating. “In any case, in future you won’t need to cut through the doors with a laser anymore. I’ll just be able to generate access cards from here. We’ll have to verify that in situ but according to the central computer’s analysis everything seems to be functioning correctly. If that’s so, I think we can say that their technology has rock solid reliability and longevity. Our engineers would do well to follow their example.”

They found what they were looking for only a short distance from the network center. This vehicle was as huge as the first. Its sleek design and perfectly rectilinear shape made it seem very imposing; almost intimidating. Solid, massive; it seemed that nothing could move that mountain of steel. There it sat on the ground, like a hunk of rock that had fallen off a cliff-face millions of years ago. And yet, as the twins got closer, holding the magnetic pass in their hands, the little group was amazed at the spectacle before them. The sight of the metal monolith rising slowly and silently several dozen centimeters from the ground seemed totally unreal.

On its upper half, the sides, which had previously seemed massive and heavy, became gradually clearer until they were transparent. The door opened automatically, without any intervention on their part, revealing enormous synthetic leather seats. After the initial impression, Jacques quickly resumed his sense of practicality and liking for mockery.

“Well! That’s all very impressive, but how are we supposed to get into this monster? The step is at least three meters off the ground and unfortunately, we ridiculous little humans can’t levitate – “Maybe you can?” – I guess the drone will take care of the rest. It’s a shame; I would have liked to see the landscape “live”, rather than from somewhere stuck under the driver’s seat. So, what do we do, Charlie; any ideas?”

Francisco was not wasting any time. He had already taken out of his pack the rope, harness and magnetic handles. He soon motioned to Mario to come and join him near the vehicle, proffering him the material without further explanation. Mario knew what he had to do. He seemed quite adept at this type of exercise. After adroitly hurling the rope with one of the magnetic handles attached to the end of it, he yanked down on it with all his weight to make sure the device was firmly attached.

Jacques watched in envy as Mario pulled himself up on the small climbing rope. The able-bodied and obviously very agile man did not seem to have any difficulty scaling the few meters from the ground to the vehicle. He moved around in the air by the strength of his arms alone, and all with disconcerting ease, in spite of his cumbersome suit. It was the sort of thing Jacques would have loved to do if he had had the chance, but until now, Charlie had always been rather nervous when it came to taking risks or exposing their body. Things are finally going to change, he thought. But already Francisco was handing them the harness that would pull them up like dead-weights to the base of the vehicle.

Indeed, it was not a simple maneuver. Despite their rather puny physique, they weighed a lot more than one man and had great difficulty stabilizing themselves, so that they had to start over twice before successfully completing the operation. Charlie already felt far, oh so far, from the exhilarating experiences he had just had, unlocking the mysteries of the network center, but perhaps that was a good thing after all. This was it; the story of his life, and it always would be. He was becoming his old self again; caught, stuck, dependant on the good will of his fellow team members; and that was reassuring. He even found the ludicrous situation rather amusing. Hanging there in space, like a disjointed marionette, he looked down at Clementine and smiled. Still waiting on the ground with Giuseppe, she was watching them with undisguised fondness and amusement. While Charlie was nonchalantly letting himself be carried; his brother on the other hand, was gesticulating in all directions and dishing out expert climbing advice, which only added to the situation’s burlesque, off the wall aspect.

“Bravo, Mario! Thank you, Francisco. You pulled that off really well!” exclaimed Jacques excitedly. Looking up, he could see the dashboard, still several meters higher up. “Now we have to do that all over again, to get ourselves up there. This is not going to be easy!” he added.

Mario smiled understandingly at Charlie, while Francisco prepared to announce the sad news: they would not be going all the way up there, because the drone would be able to drive the vehicle – but he never got the chance. Mario spoke first.

“You managed well, Jacques! We have a gym on the base for keeping us fit. We might be scientists but we still need to stay in good physical shape. We practice climbing and mountaineering techniques a lot because we often need to use them for taking readings and samples in the cave. If you want, you can come along next week. Would you like that?”

“I’d love that! It’s a childhood dream of mine”, grinned Jacques.

“Good idea!” added Charlie.

He then turned to Francisco, who was preparing the drone for a new operation. Jacques realized then that there would be no point in playing acrobats any longer, he reasoned with himself.

When the doors closed, the atmosphere changed somewhat. Shut in, in the half-light of this timeless strong-box, they all had the same strange feeling. Would it ever open again? The worrying thought swept over the group in the way of a shockwave sweeping through everything in its path. They felt alone in the world, trapped in time, in a vacuum which could not be accessed from the outside (unless the walls were cut through with a laser) for days on end. None of them dared to mention that aloud, however, preferring to focus their attention on the progress of the drone. It was being piloted by the only person present who was capable of operating these technological marvels, developed by the N.H.I.’s.

The minutes went by and the expression on Charlie’s face remained closed; absorbed by the screen. Nothing moved. There was not a sound, not a word; just the high-pitched whirring of the drone’s blades. The little radio-controlled device occupied all the sound waves exclusively and with complete impunity, taking advantage of the extremely tense atmosphere. Then the long-awaited moment finally came. Lights came on inside the vehicle at last, and the mass of steel started to move gently. They all tried to take a look at the tablet’s screen so they could see pictures of the base. The images, transmitted by the drone’s cameras, showed a panoramic view of the main highway that the vehicle was travelling down at a prodigious speed. Less than a minute after leaving, the door opened again, putting an end to their apprehension once and for all. An enormous, perfectly shiny, steel door stood in front of them.

“Here we are!” exclaimed Charlie. “Sector 24.”

“Already?”

“Yes, already. Barely a fifty-second trip. I can’t believe it myself. All we need to do now is get down from here.”

 

 

38 ROSALINE

 

The gigantic door opened for the first time in millions of years, revealing the naked body of Rosaline. It immediately closed behind them again with a dull, muted thud; the sound of dozens of tons of steel ramming together in a brief, precise movement. Charlie and Jacques were alone. The others had received instructions to wait outside. Even Clementine had had to resign herself to not accompanying them.

As they drew nearer to the sleeping body, the tears flowed freely down Charlie’s face. There she was at last, right in front of him: Rosaline, this woman (or rather, this female being) resting peacefully; prostrate and connected just as Victor was, on the metal platform in the middle of the dome. He had never seen her. Victor had only told him her name, without ever describing her, and yet he felt as if he had always known her. There was not a shadow of doubt. It was her; he was sure of it.

The skin covering her generous breasts was perfectly smooth, slightly lighter than the rest of her body. In proportion to her, the twins were merely large insects, and her feminine attributes seemed to them like huge, gray mounds, sagging slightly outwards from her sternum. If he had to compare her to a woman, Charlie thought she looked more like a mother. Rosaline was certainly no young woman. Her wide hips, heavy breasts and rounded belly gave away her age like markers of the passage of time, made even more obvious by her nudity.

The exposure of this naked, completely immobile body was somehow obscene or indecent. It was completely different to how Charlie had experienced his own nakedness in the connection. He would have liked to cover her up, give her some clothing, to preserve her dignity, her privacy, but he could do nothing. He had not felt the same compassion or embarrassment when they had seen Victor for the first time, although he was completely naked, too. At that point, he had been nothing more than a monster to them; a giant straight out of the bowels of the Earth; a headless beast – with a vaguely human appearance, it is true – but a beast nonetheless. This was completely different. He was seeing her with new eyes. She was one of their own, unless it was the other way around. He was no longer completely human, even if he was reminded of his clumsy body all too often. He was part of their world and was working for them, of his own volition, whatever it may cost him.

Look, Charlie! She seems to have some sort of medallion around her neck.”

Jacques was right. Lost in thought, Charlie had not noticed that perfectly obvious detail, even more visible since she wore nothing else on her naked body, which was free of any embellishment. Rosaline did indeed have a finely chiseled, metal necklace around her neck. The metal it was made of looked entirely different to any they were used to seeing on the base. In view of its slightly pinkish gold color, it was probably a metal that was precious to the N.H.I.’s. It could have been gold, or perhaps another alloy of their making which closely resembled it. In any case, it was something perfectly resistant to the effects of time and oxidation. The medallion on the necklace was a small, golden sphere which glinted slightly, despite the very dim lighting inside the dome.

“I absolutely must find a way to get a closer look at that.”

Do you think it could be significant? Is that why you came here?”

“No! I came to see Rosaline. I had to make sure she was still alive. Victor asked me to; she’s his wife.”

I know that already, Charlie! But why are you interested in her necklace?”

“I don’t know, Jacques. I didn’t even know it existed until you pointed it out. It’s as if I’ve always known this woman; as if I were used to seeing her wear this jewel – which I wouldn’t have even noticed if it weren’t for you. Now I feel as if I know something deep down. That object surely holds vital information; information that Victor wanted me to find in coming here.”

From down here it just looks like a simple, metal sphere.”

“We’ll have to climb up onto her body, Jacques. I must admit; the idea hardly appeals, but we have to. There’s no other solution if we want to get closer to it.”

Why don’t we go out there and ask Francisco to let us come back with the drone? We could use it to film all over the medallion. We would probably never be able to cut through that metal, anyway.”

“No! I don’t want to draw attention to the necklace; not until I have a more precise idea of the secret it holds.”

Let’s do it, Charlie! I feel I have what it takes to be a climber today. At least she’s not made of metal; her skin should provide us with a few holds.”

“The necklace, Jacques!”

What about the necklace?”

“You said yourself that it was too solid to cut through. We can use it like a rope and pull ourselves up onto her chest.”

We can always try.”

This time Jacques and his brother were alone, faced with a sporting challenge that he had been craving for a very long time. They only had two or three meters to climb in order to reach the medallion, which seemed feasible, but if they fell, nobody would come to their aid for a long while. The heavy door would remain closed for days; an impenetrable wall to all who did not have the magnetic pass that opened it. They both clambered up, clinging on with all their strength to the long metal cable that linked them to the mysterious treasure. To their great surprise, they ascended quickly, with Charlie making every effort to follow his brother’s instructions to the letter. They were soon up on the giant’s chest. Exhausted by the brief but demanding endeavor, they sank down gently and leaned back against Rosaline’s generous breast while getting their breath back.

“You see! We’ve finally done it. We should have tried that kind of activity long ago. It’s at times like this that I feel truly alive. Who cares if we seem ridiculous compared to others; compared to able-bodied people? Promise me that we won’t let ourselves be shut up in an apartment like helpless woodlice again! After what we’ve experienced lately, there’s no way I’m going back. For the first time in ages, I’m happy, Charlie! Happy, you hear?”

Sitting alone together, or rather, sprawling on those gigantic, incomparably soft, natural cushions, Jacques and Charlie allowed themselves a moment of complicity. They were reveling in the pleasure of life; the pleasure of adventure; of a life full of the novel and unexpected, full of challenges. A life where they were in the foreground, where their opinions mattered, where the most improbable or foolhardy actions (such as climbing a giant necklace) made sense, and justified risk-taking – oh how exhilarating for people who never took risks! Tired out and worn down by physical and emotional fatigue, for a minute, a precious moment, they allowed themselves to forget everything, or almost.

“I like seeing you like this, Jacques. You know, you’ve changed a lot lately too. I haven’t noticed you being cynical in ages. And you’re more discreet, less hotheaded than before. Sometimes I even feel a bit lonely, if I’m honest. It’s a new feeling for me which is a bit disconcerting.”

“You and I will never be alone, Charlie; never completely, and I’m glad. You should be too, you know.”

“Right now, I am!”

Several long minutes went by in thoughtful silence which they were reluctant to end. They contemplated Rosaline’s peaceful face and the large, gold ball that lay just in front of them. The golden sphere turned out to be perfectly smooth, shining like a thousand suns that someone might have tamed to cater to the whim of a pretty woman. The twins could see their slightly deformed reflection in the large, convex mirror. Viewed that way, their usually squat, stocky body seemed a lot slimmer and taller than it really was. It was all artificial, but it added to the general atmosphere, symbolizing in some way the levity and happiness of the special moment.

I can’t see anything on that ball, Charlie – except our reflection, of course.”

“You’re right; there’s nothing on it. I had hoped there would be some symbols or writing or figures engraved in the metal, but apparently that’s not the case.”

Do you think we can touch it? I’m curious to know whether the metal is cold or if it gives off heat. It looks like a miniature sun, don’t you think?”

“Maybe, with a lot of imagination; but I mainly see a manufactured object that must necessarily hold a source of information or some kind of device.”

They got up in the end and each placed a hand on the perfectly smooth surface of the sphere. It was impossible to tell if it was hot or cold through his suit so Jacques began to take off one of his gloves but Charlie suddenly interrupted him forcefully.

“Don’t do that! The outside of these suits is sterile, but not the inside. We’re right up by her face – I forbid it!”

Sorry, I’d forgotten that detail.”

“For you it’s just a detail, but for her it’s a matter of life and death!”

Okay! Let’s forget it, Charlie. I understand your concern, and it’s completely justified. Tell me what you count on doing now.”

“If there’s nothing on the outside, maybe there’s something inside it.”

How do you plan on opening it?”

“I don’t know, but I’m sure Victor knew. He must be the one who hid a message in it. He must know how to open it. He might even be the one who designed it, or maybe it was his brother.”

His brother? You never told me he had a brother.”

“We’re alone now and nobody can listen in on our conversation here. I was waiting for the right moment to tell you.”

Tell me what?”

“Victor had a brother, a renowned scientist who was working on an alternate project to the hibernation caves.”

You mean there are other caves like this one?”

“Yes, there are others all over the planet!”

How many giants are there?”

“I don’t know. Probably tens of thousands, maybe more; it’s impossible to say. How many survived? That’s the real question.”

Do you think Giuseppe knows?”

“No, I’d be surprised if he did and I’m in no hurry for him to find out. He could see it as a threat to humanity.”

Wouldn’t he be right? They’re huge and their technology is nothing like ours. What would happen if they all came up above ground? Did you think of that?”

Charlie took the time to think before answering the disturbing question.

“I don’t know how to explain this, Jacques, but I have faith in Victor. We’ll see where it leads us.”

I don’t know Victor, but I do know you. I guess I have to trust you. How are you planning on asking him for the manual to this super medallion?”

“That won’t be necessary. I not only know how to read their language, but I also remember a lot of his memories. Let’s keep exploring! I feel hopeful that we will end up finding something that I will recognize.”

Jacques complied, leading the way, unstable on this soft and supple terrain. They walked around the object several times, feeling all over it until Charlie noticed a miniscule triangle that they only saw because it was right under their noses.

“There! Look, Jacques, that’s an on-button.”

It’s miniscule.”

“That’s the whole point of the system. Even though we’re ten times smaller than them, we still almost missed it.”

It reminds me of Gulliver’s Travels, except that I used to identify more with the giant than with the Lilliputians. Now it’s the opposite. I feel so small.”

Without hesitating, Charlie reached out and pressed on the little triangle with the tip of his finger. Immediately, the sphere lost its shine and became completely matte. A map of a planet soon appeared before their eyes, with its oceans and continents grouped around a central axis linking the two poles, which were also clearly visible and distinguished by a much lighter color than the rest of the land. Inscriptions also appeared along the central band in the form of writing which had remained shiny while the rest of the metal became matte. The contrast was enough to make them visible to someone who knew what to look for.

What is that? It looks like a planet similar to Earth but the land masses are laid out differently.”

“It really is the Earth, Jacques, except that we’re seeing it as it was millions of years ago, at the time when the N.H.I’s must have been the dominant species. Back then, the land was grouped together in a sort of supercontinent which began to break up very gradually due to movements of the Earth’s crust. Ever since, the fragments have continued moving to form the Earth as we know it today.”

If what you say is true, that means that they lived on the Earth at least two hundred million years ago, maybe more! That’s highly unlikely. How could they have survived for so long? No technology – no matter how advanced – could work a miracle like that.”

“And yet, that’s what happened, Jacques. They existed well before the dinosaurs.”

How can you be sure? To my knowledge no one has ever found the slightest trace of their existence on the Earth; no fossils, no artifacts. A civilization like that couldn’t go noticed. I can’t believe it.”

“When I was exploring Victor’s memories I discovered that the N.H.I.’s were trying to flee the Earth to escape some cosmic cataclysm; probably an asteroid shower which threatened to annihilate all life on the planet.”

What do you mean by ‘escape’? You mean out in space?”

“Yes. At least, that’s the project they were working on, but they started too late for everyone to be able to leave. That’s why they built these underground bases. They were supposed to protect them from the impact and its consequences while those who had been able to escape were organizing a rescue mission.”

And they never came, if I understand correctly.”

“No, that’s right. I don’t think they did. To tell the truth, I don’t even know if they survived the escape into space.”

But then, that means that unless we do something, they’re all condemned to die?”

“Maybe not.”

What do you mean?”

“You know as well as I do that they’re in the waking phase. That’s the whole reason why we’re here. Remember what Francisco told us? He thinks some sort of signal could have been sent to set off the process to bring all the N.H.I.’s out of hibernation. He actually made a link between that signal and the mysterious explosion we were victims of, but nobody could ever tell us anything more about that. I’m certain that they aren’t telling us everything. They must have managed to get to the bottom of that incident. A catastrophe of that type can’t escape notice. They had the technical, political and financial means to investigate the matter and they would have used them, believe me.”

Jacques’ face was getting progressively paler as he understood the true significance of this cave. Much more than a sensational discovery, it may even mean the end of the world; the end of human domination which nothing until now had ever threatened.

“They’re coming back!” he said aloud. “And we’re helping them! Isn’t that it, Charlie? You’re their ally now.”

“No, I’m no one’s ally – and even less, their plaything. Neither is Victor, actually. Nothing tells us that the signal came from outer space. I have good reason to believe it came from somewhere on Earth.”

What are you talking about?”

“There’s more: there’s another base – or rather, a city – founded by Victor’s brother. It’s somewhere under Antarctica.”

Another hibernation base – what difference does that make? Is that meant to reassure me?”

“I don’t know if the project succeeded, but it’s not a hibernation base. It’s an actual city, designed for gathering all those who did not trust the Exodus project or putting their lives on hold. Even the members of the Council didn’t know about it. It’s a secret city whose name, translated into our language, would be something like ‘Australopolis’, according to what Victor told me. That’s the real reason we came here, Jacques! I was looking for the coordinates to that city, and I’ve just found them! Look – the medallion is a globe of the world and the inscriptions along the equator are actually geographical coordinates: the coordinates to Australopolis.”

What do you expect to find there, Charlie?”

“I don’t know, but we only have a few decades ahead of us. We have to solve this mystery before the waking phase is over or it will be too late.”

 

 

End of Book One


The atlantis project

  • ISBN: 9781370712182
  • Author: Manuel Lempereur
  • Published: 2017-02-23 14:05:16
  • Words: 87051
The atlantis project The atlantis project