2100: global warming has taken off exponentially, and Earth has become a planet hostile to life on a worldwide scale. Civilisation is in collapse everywhere, human beings have not much longer to live and they know it. In a world with no possible future - at least for humanity - how would we react?
Would we, like Pradeesh Gorayan and his family, go to Geneva and shut ourselves up in an Enclave beneath a dome and carry on our daily life as if nothing had happened? Would we, like Mercedes Sanchez, in Spain, take refuge in religion and wait for angels from heaven to take us to the Garden of Eden? Would we, like Fernando, Mercedes' son, join the Blasters and provoke destruction in an orgy of fire and violence?
Would we, like Paula Rossi and her children, leave Italy to try and reach an Enclave in the hope of sheltering there? Would we, like Melanie Lemoine, a hermit in the Forez Mountains use our final efforts to save the remaining animals?
Would we, like Olaf Eriksson the sailor and his wife flee the Lofoten Isles and look for a slightly less inhospitable land, unsullied by human presence?
It is the time of exodus, and like ants on a burning log, the last humans are running every which way to escape hellfire - but there is no escape. Except perhaps, towards the stars... But how and for whom?
An ecological anticipatory thriller where both human and economic stakes are high. Jean-Marc Ligny condemns the destructive folly of our free-market world.
Four parts made up of six quite short chapters (one per character) that mix and intermingle according to the encounters between the different protagonists. Between each part, a descriptive portrait that presents, using a short story, the situation in a symbolic region, emblematic of changes in the climate happening at the time. For example: the Tuvalu Islands (Pacific Ocean), Greenland, Bangladesh, Amazonia, Siberia, Indonesia, Sahel, New York, Beijing... These pictures do not necessarily have any link with the main story; they are inserted between the different parts rather like "postcards".
Translated from the French by Galatea Maman
Forests precede civilizations, deserts follow them.
Covenant, The Road (2011)
An Evening in Europe
Sheltered From the Hostile World
Like every other evening, Pradeesh Gorayan verified that everything was in order in his laboratory before closing the doors on it and going home. He'd let his assistant Mathilda leave a bit earlier so he could make his security rounds in quiet serenity - this was practically a ritual with him. The lab benches were clean, products all in their places, the stem-cell cultures active and well-insulated... and the mice, his precious mice, were alive and as healthy as could be expected. It was hard to obtain rodents these days - at least genetically pure ones - so he could not allow them to be squandered. The two test subject groups, ‘Gilgamesh' (untreated control mice) and ‘Methuselah' (treated mice), were still behaving in the manner foreseen in the protocol.
In passing, Pradeesh stopped in front of the second-floor windows and looked out at the lake - that was another of his rituals.
It spread beyond the exterior of the dome, and its aspect often indicated the weather outside. But today he didn't need to observe the lake to guess the weather.
An apocalyptic storm. Cascades of rain sliced the surface of the lake, Dantesque flashes of lightning painted it with zebra stripes and struck the dome with crackling sprays of blue fire. Actually, "apocalyptic" was not the word. New superlatives were needed, as what was apocalyptic twenty years ago had become banal today. The strangest thing was the silence. Only by straining his ears could Pradeesh perceive, just barely, the heavy grumbling of thunder and the vast white noise of the rain. The Observatory's double-paned windows attenuated sound, of course, but it was the dome - its triple thickness of altuglass, Freon layer and carbon nanofibers - that provided the ultimate insulation against noise, against rain, wind, heat, dust...against the hostile world outside.
Gorayan shivered at that thought, and forced himself to chase it away and pursue his inspection. But it constantly pricked into his thoughts, whether he was working or resting in the shelter of his little bubble, surrounded by his family... Like everyone else, he supposed.
At least everyone who had a shelter.
His round completed, he carefully locked the door of the old building (alarms and electronic locks being defunct) and went down the ancient stone steps. At the foot of the stairway, he turned around and raised his eyes to contemplate the gray façade, with its curved portico and high vaulted windows, and its slate roof topped with the bell-shaped zinc cupola that had given its name to the Observatory - Physikalisch-Meteorologisches Observatorium, to be precise. A function that had ceased long ago, well before his biogenetics lab had been installed. Pradeesh appreciated this building redolent with history, a venerable temple of learning, all the more imposing when haloed with lightning, like some dwelling of Jupiter.
What he didn't like was the work he was doing inside it.
He entered the Dorfstrasse, then walked the six hundred meters home, under the photophore streetlamps. Their golden glow was violently eclipsed every few seconds by livid flashes of lightning crashing onto the immense web of steel struts overhead. Now that he was in the street, he could hear the vast humming noise of the rain more clearly as it struck the dome in powerful gusts. The continuous rumbling of thunder produced a saturated infrabass he could feel in the pit of his stomach, and the dome itself produced a deep buzzing counterpoint, which vibrated throughout its structure under the wind's assault.
None of this really frightened Gorayan. The structure was engineered to resist a Force 12 hurricane. It could withstand an avalanche, landslide, fire or earthquake (to a certain point). Brutal variations in temperature had little effect on it. Three miles long and eight hundred yards wide, it was one of the largest domes in Europe. It encircled the whole city of Davos (but not the lake, which no one regretted), and was anchored in the foothills of the surrounding mountains. Still, gigantic as it was, Pradeesh often felt he was living in a fishbowl. He wasn't the only one with that impression, even though most considered it a plus, an acquisition, a privilege. They were lucky to live inside the enclave, sheltered from the hostile world. He wasn't so sure, despite the incomparable living conditions. He felt it was dangerous to be kept in ignorance, not to know what was going on in the outer world, and he doubted that things could last very long like this, even with their so-called unassailable dome. He straightened up, lengthened his step and breathed in a great lungful of artificially-cooled air, hoping to chase away his uneasiness and his dark thoughts. Oh well! Do like everyone else, forget about the future and take advantage of each passing day... It must be the storm that was irritating him, making him remember there was a wretched, hostile world out there, and no matter what they thought, the enclave residents were not totally isolated. Here all was calm, the air was pure and smelled fresh as dew, the grass green, the trees blossoming. The photophores glowed softly above the road, the houses bordering it were clean and neat, their gardens well-maintained... Pradeesh greeted the rare passersby he met with a friendly nod or a few words, "What an awful storm!" or "And how are you? Come have a drink sometime..." He knew most of them, those hypocrites: all honey outside, all vinegar within, criticizing him - an outer, he parachuted in, his Indian look, his bizarre occupation, a geneticist - and wondering what he was really up to...
I'm cooking up your longevity gene for you bunch of free-loaders, and you don't deserve it!
Maybe that also was putting him in a bad mood. Not the work itself - transcoding and recombining genes was his deepest passion. But its goal, to prolong the lives of these parasites, since they no longer bore enough children to perpetuate the species but wanted to enjoy their gilded cage a bit longer, as long as it lasted...what an aberration! Hello, neighbor. Not a good day for skiing, is it? Skiing, ha ha. Pleasantries just a tad scabrous followed by a forced laugh...
Davos had been a famous ski resort once. You could still see the traces of ski-tows people used to take up to the runs, and other lifts - those that hadn't been recycled, that is, or that outers hadn't been able to carry off. Sometimes, when the north winds blew, a little snow landed on the summits and managed to remain a few days. The city became effervescent when that occurred, because everyone wanted to go up and see it, and the security service went into an uproar because that involved exiting the dome. Some people carefully maintained skis they'd inherited from their ancestors, in hopes of using them at least once a year. But that opportunity was more and more rare.
Pradeesh lived in an ancient chalet built on a rock foundation. It was all right angles, beams, balconies, balustrades and overhangs of dark-brown wood, with three levels, a steeple even, and huge enough to hold three families. But only he, his wife Karin, and Pandora, his daughter, lived there - Davos had no lack of space. It was situated close to the border of the dome, on the lowest foothills of the Schiahorn near the old funicular station where Pandora had played as a child. A few scatterbrains in Davos dreamed of putting it back in service... To go where, to do what? Hope for a return of the tourists? Contemplate the desolation of the world from the heights of the Weissfluh? Make it a means of flight in case of attack? There was no sense in it. What we should do...
Stop. Pradeesh had preached enough about "what they should do." He had pleaded the case of the outers so many times he'd put himself in a bad light. He knew the end was unavoidable, so why keep tilting against windmills? He wanted to live these last days in tranquility with Karin and Pandora, if it would just please last a long while yet. That's why he conducted, without fuss, the idiotic and futile research that they asked of him - to prolong human life! Still, somewhere in a hidden corner of his mind, he nurtured a grandiose dream of humanity's transgenic adaptation to the new climatic conditions.
"Hello, girls!" he called out as he entered the house.
Only the domestibot answered, with its clipped female voice, over the house's ambiophone.
"Good evening, Pradeesh. You have received a vocal message from Karin. Would you like to hear it?"
"Yes, go ahead," he said with a sigh.
"Darling, I'm held up at the office, an orientation meeting. I don't know how long it'll last... If it gets late, don't wait for me for dinner, everything you need is in the fridge. Hugs and kisses. I'll see you later." End of message.
Pradeesh frowned with disappointment. He hated coming home to an empty house.
"I have no news of Pandora," the domestibot responded. "Would you like me to perform a search?"
His daughter had a remote, equipped with GPS, that allowed her to be found wherever she was if she didn't deactivate it. Luckily she often forgot to do that.
"Yes, go ahead," he repeated. "And serve me a whisky in the living room."
"There are only seventeen centiliters of whisky remaining. Would you like me to order more?"
"No, not for the moment. Remind me later."
The domestibot tended to push consumption, as if it were an activity it particularly relished. He'd heard you could adjust that, but Pradeesh was much more comfortable with genes than with q-bits. Of course, the domestibot dated from an era when you could still easily find anything you desired. Now, with the price of whisky so high... He should guard the precious nectar for a better occasion, but, in the absence of Karin's arms, he needed a palliative to relax, to evacuate the stress of the day.
His glass of whisky, with two ice cubes just as he preferred, awaited him on the polished wood bar in the living room. As he carried it outside to the balcony, the domestibot appeared again.
"Pandora is now at the residence of Thomas Kellermann, 14 Riedstrasse in Davos-Platz. Would you like me to establish contact, or send a message to her?"
"No, forget it."
Yoakim, Thomas Kellermann's son, was her boyfriend of the moment, or one of them, for all he knew. He was a hedonist of the worst type, ruining himself in the nastiest kind of debauchery with the excuse of "Damned if you do, damned if you don't, so take advantage of the time left." A very bad influence on Pandora, but what could they do - cloister her in the house? Punish her escapades? She was sixteen now, she could demand emancipation by alleging mistreatment (she'd already threatened to do it). That would be a source of endless annoyance, for she had strong support among Darwin Alley kids, who used and abused her. She could simply leave home, or even the enclave, and Pradeesh feared nothing more than seeing his small family broken up. The harder the times, the tighter the family ties should be, he thought. That Pandora took any available drug or screwed any guy at hand was deplorable and dangerous, but it was nothing compared to what awaited her if she left the enclave... There, anything could happen, even the worst. Pradeesh was well aware he was a bit too lax, but he saw no other solution, save to love his daughter in spite of everything and try to keep her close to him.
He ruminated on these thoughts, his elbows on the antique balustrade of age-worn wood, sipping his whisky and watching the storm performing its pyrotechnics on the dome far overhead. Before, this type of storm did not hit before July, but now they rolled out in early March.
Pradeesh finished his glass and was considering asking for another - not very reasonable, but the vision of his daughter with Yoakim Kellermann, her legs in the air, was not the most relaxing thought - when suddenly all the lights in the house went out, and only sporadic blazes of lightning lit up the darkness outside.
Karin Ziegelmeyer shared Pradeesh's spirit of rebellion and lucidity about the state of the planet, but she was not ready, like him, to throw up her hands and sacrifice her convictions for a bit more comfort and respite. Perhaps that was because she was more aware of real conditions outside the enclave, and the daily calvary that outers endured. She worked in the Reception and Insertion of Foreigners service - the immigration office in short - where she handled requests for admission to the enclave. Her job consisted essentially in refusing 95% of the files, and for the remaining 5% she had to "sort the wheat from the chaff," that is to say, find out if they had skills the enclave needed or found useful. The final decision was out of her hands, though. She rarely even learned the outcome, because she had to transmit her endorsements to her bosses, whose criteria for judging remained a mystery to her. A thankless task. She had to constantly suppress her innate compassion in the face of cold economic necessity, plus she had to tolerate the inevitability of bribes and clandestine passes - also handled by her bosses.
For all that, Davos was depopulating. Birth rates were declining, empty houses gathered dust, and the enclave had need of new blood and dynamic, positive energy. This was not a widely-held opinion in Darwin Alley, especially in the high spheres of local power. They were afraid of their own precious spaces being restricted, of having more mouths to feed, of being obliged to share. Lengthening their lifespan was the option they'd chosen instead. Keep on partying on Medusa's raft and let the rest of humanity drown in giant tempests... They considered their raft unsinkable.
The monthly policy meetings served to redirect the service's goals and motivate employees like Karin by discussing difficult cases "democratically," to make them think their opinions counted and that they participated in decision-making. But this evening was special: the director of the service, Hermann Hechter, had received "precise instructions" to review quotas in view of lowering them. From now on, it would be not 5% of outer requests that could be accepted, but only 2%.
"That's awful!" protested Karin. "Davos is dwindling, fading away. Davos needs new hands! Energy, youth! Children! In the street, I only see old people!"
The director - himself a rather aged man with round cheeks, a little white moustache and a shrewd smile - spread his arms deprecatingly.
And lick the boots of the powers-that-be to hold onto your job, you old piece of trash, thought Karin bitterly.
"I have folders filled with desperate families," added Carmilla, Karin's colleague, a busty Italian always stuffed into sexy, tight clothes. "Children dying of minor infections that we could easily treat here. Pregnant women with anemia, obliged to prostitute themselves for food. Babies that will be devoured by Flesheaters if we can't..."
"Carmilla, we cannot alleviate all the misery in the world," interrupted the director, spreading wide his arms again.
Pity did not work with Hechter, Karin knew, that's why she didn't even attempt it. But, like her, Carmilla had a big heart, and she'd taken this job in the hopes of saving lives, for the humanitarian work, and like her, she continually came up against the finicky, superannuated administration personified by Hechter, flunky and moral backer of Darwin Alley.
Karin returned to the charge. "But one day or another, the world's misery is going to crush us if we don't fight against entropy in a positive way. And it's not in pro..."
She interrupted herself; she'd been about to commit a grave error, as Pradeesh's research on the prolongation of human life was supposed to be confidential. She wasn't even supposed to be aware of it. She corrected herself as best she could: "...not in proclaiming restrictive decrees that we can re-energize the enclave. What will happen if the dome is damaged one day, or if the air purifiers break down and we have no one competent enough to fix them?"
That was a poor example, she realized immediately. For this type of problem, technicians were recruited and trained within the enclaves, at least in enclaves that could still provide training of that level. And if they had to bring one from somewhere else, there still existed secure transports, though the price for that was hefty.
"I wonder what our service is good for then," grumbled another employee, a long-time worker. "Why not just close it entirely? That would eliminate all this useless data pushing."
Because the old miser would lose his smidgen of power, and with that his place in Darwin Alley, Karin thought.
Darwin Alley was not just a road and a neighborhood; it was also a private club, the elite of the elite. There existed a Darwin Alley in every enclave in the vast world, and all were interconnected at a higher level than the enclaves themselves (and relied on those satellites that still functioned). Darwin Alley represented itself as the "core group" of humanity, protected to survive no matter what, to ensure humanity's future existence and its hopes for that future. In Davos, Darwin Alley was situated in the wealthiest area, of course, between the Promenade and the Landwasser around the skating rink and convention center. And since conventions convened no more, that large hall was now the seat of local government. Karin and Pradeesh were established in Davos-Dorf, but were not members of Darwin Alley, in spite of Gorayan's role as genetic researcher. To be admitted, you had to not only attain the right social class but also adhere to the Darwin Alley doctrine (it wasn't named after Darwin by chance) of "natural" selection, that only the strongest will survive. Except that here, the strongest meant the richest and best protected, living well under their scattered bubbles shaken by hurricanes. It meant those who controlled the last natural resources and/or the last vestiges of power. Most members were old, decrepit, paranoid and avid to amass all they could get between their arthritic, crooked fingers. The project confided to Pradeesh, his secret research to prolong human life, was a typical Darwin Alley production.
"Nothing we do is useless, Hans," retorted Hechter in a syrupy tone. "Even a refused request serves in our statistical analyses. And every case we accept for entrance represents a step in the struggle against entropy, as you say, Karin. Believe me, I'm fighting to push through some difficult cases, and every victory is a joy and an honor for me. I worry about the unhappiness of others just as much as you do, Carmilla. But I have a...more global perception of the real situation."
Yeah, right! Karin had to grimace in disgust. It was well-known that Hechter worried primarily about keeping his friends happy - especially friends who could be useful - and his "fighting" amounted to procuring them positions, products and advantages, and being compensated of course. Outers came second, and the more these could pay, the quicker their files progressed - that also was well-known.
At that instant all the lights went out. The meeting room was plunged into obscurity ripped with stroboscopic flashes of lightning. The silence was broken by a deep humming that seemed to range around like a nameless menace: the dome had begun to vibrate under the storm's battering.
In a trembling voice, Carmilla said, "I'm frightened."
14, Riedstrasse was a one-story house with a rather anodyne aspect, and a backyard giving onto the Landwasser. The backyard proved less banal, in that it just had a lawn, a few ornamental bushes and a pool fed directly from the river (when it had water). No hint of even the smallest vegetable plot, which clearly indicated how rich the owner was and his connection to Darwin Alley. Thomas Kellermann had the means to buy his vegetables at any price, or to pay someone else to grow them. Only normal - he was Davos's deputy magistrate, in other words the vizier, the prime minister, the grand chamberlain of local power.
Actually, Thomas Kellermann didn't live in this house in Darwin Alley, but in a much more luxurious chalet on the heights, near the edge of the dome. He'd moved his son Yoakim into it, under the pretext that he would soon be of age. Plus it was only two blocks away from Yoakim's school, the ancient and prestigious Schweizerische Alpine Mittelschule. The same school where Pandora Gorayan was enrolled - and where both ditched class as often as possible.
They spent most of their time at Yoakim's, along with a band of slackers like them, corrupting themselves in long boring orgies, spending a fortune on rare alcohols, and drugs brought in by smugglers. They had no future. They did not want a future, and they considered speculation about it futile and useless. They lived in a rather dismal eternal present, partying without end, without fun - no surprises, no discoveries, nothing to learn. They didn't even need an excuse like a special occasion or celebration. They partied to forget the passing of time and - above all - to forget the weather of these times. They had nothing to talk about or smile about or suffer through, nothing to offer apart from their still-juvenile bodies and, in the depths of a drunken night or a bad trip, their naked souls. An anguishing abyss gaped open before them, a terrifying void of absolute, unavoidable no future. They were all persuaded theirs was the last generation, the one that Earth was to sweep off its surface in a final fit of anger. So what good was it? Why bother anticipating, hoping, making wishes on a star? Who would be there to see it rise, that star?
Pandora was a pretty girl, in spite of her crowd's current ideals of beauty (pale, skinny, ‘last survivor' look). She was half Indian, half German, with long black hair and big blue eyes, and shapely curves and hollows right where they belonged. She knew it, and liked seeing the guys check her out as she undressed before diving into the pool. The whole gang was sprawled on the lawn or in deckchairs, drinking, smoking, sniffing, getting wasted in one way or another. Some stuffed pipes or mixed up dangerous cocktails, others lazily fondled each other. On the ground kids lay passed out or comatose, but some were awake and deliriously watching the flashes of lightning. Pandora, excited by the little pink pill she'd taken, had tried to turn on Yoakim in front of everyone, hoping to launch a general orgy. That was a flop: Yoakim was too wound up to get wound up, so to say. His thing remained limp in her hand, and his mind was elsewhere. Disgusted by all these guys wallowing around like pigs, she decided to ignore them and give her attention to Cynthia, who must have been training to set a record in back floating, she'd been in there so long, immobile. She'd never done it with a girl, Cynthia pleased her, and that would teach them, those slugs - no way she'd let them in on it.
She slid her string off and sent it flying with a flick of her finger in the direction of the nearest slug, then slid into the chilly water. The pool was fed by the Landwasser, which was now wracked by the storm. Goosebumps rose on her skin, her nipples stood out as she hunched over in reaction to the cold (which earned two or three whistles of admiration). Lightning flashed over her, she felt like a star descending the steps of a palace, like in the old days...
Up to her navel now, she took a breath and struck out - it was cold! She swam vigorously toward Cynthia, who was still immobile, rocking slightly in the ripples. How could she do it? She must be frozen! Or too stoned to feel it?
"Cynthia! What are you up to? Hey, are you asleep?"
Pandora touched her. She didn't react. Her body was chalky-white and icy.
Her face was turned toward the sky, crowned by her floating blond hair. Her mouth was open, as if she were about to say something, and her light-colored eyes stared at the lightning. Without blinking.
At that instant all the lights went out, leaving the garden dark except for the blazing of the storm - under which Cynthia's livid, unmoving features appeared like those of a phantom.
The local electrical system used an independent energy source, so the outage did not cut communications. Pandora called Doctor Schwarz, who showed up a half-hour later. The drama had pulled the troops out of their stupor, somewhat, and they had all bravely fled, except Yoakim, who was home, and Pandora, who was reluctant to leave him alone, horrified and helpless. She had pulled Cynthia out of the pool and laid her on the grass, while Yoakim, who was convinced the doctor was going to turn up with the militia, ran around trying to hide the remains of their illicit feast.
When Doctor Schwarz did arrive, he found Pandora prostrate next to the ashen body of her friend, trying to understand what had happened, to recapitulate the evening in her clouded memory. The physician rapidly found the cause of death: cardiac arrest, and not drowning, as Pandora had thought. But knowing the reputation of this band of delinquents (Davos was not large, Darwin Alley even less so) he decided to investigate further. For this, he drew a blood sample from Cynthia's arm, and plugged it into the analyzer he carried in a satchel. The apparatus did not take long to deliver its diagnosis. Doctor Schwarz nodded his bald head and looked impressed. The two adolescents anxiously looked on.
"Your friend has 2.8 grams of alcohol in her blood, but that's not what killed her, or not only that," he declared. "Worse than that are these two molecules, here."
He tapped the screen with the tip of his finger.
"PCP, an extremely powerful amphetamine, and thiopental sodium, an old type of anesthetic. Such a cocktail, at such high doses, associated with alcohol... Her heart couldn't take it."
Yoakim and Pandora exchanged a searching look, both asking themselves the same question: Who passed her that filthy drug? And its corollary, equally distressing: did they take it too?
The physician closed his satchel, got up and stared at them in turn, blinding them with his headlight.
"This combination of molecules carries a name among outers: rabia negra, or ‘Black Rage.' It's consumed mainly by Pyromaniks. And strictly forbidden in the enclave, of course."
A new ocular exchange between Yoakim and Pandora, each having guessed the response: Holger Ulrich. It was that freak Holger who had contact with the drug runners, who did not hesitate to leave the enclave to go get wasted in the outers camp, or hang out with the militia. On arriving that evening, he'd announced that he had a surprise with him, but everyone ignored him. Except for Cynthia apparently, always ready for a new experience.
Doctor Schwarz fixed his blinking little eyes on Yoakim, who looked uncomfortable.
"I'll have to report this death to the militia, young man, and note that it's due to ingestion of illegal drugs. You just might get into trouble over this."
"Is that...really necessary?" Yoakim protested weakly. "Listen, my father is deputy magistrate, surely he can ..."
"I know who your father is. I know who I have to deal with, and although I don't approve of your degenerate way of life, I am, however, inclined to avoid scandal. That's why I'll call personally. Give me his private number."
"No ‘buts,' young man. Give it to me or I call the militia."
Yoakim obeyed, his tail between his legs. The doctor reached Thomas Kellermann almost immediately. The deputy mayor was surprised at first to be contacted by a stranger (Pandora had called her own family's doctor, the only one whose number she knew by heart), but after Schwarz had given a sketch of the situation, he reacted rapidly, man of power as he was, and rapped out precise directives for the doctor to follow.
Schwarz grimaced, nodded, and responded "Yes, sir" and "Certainly, sir" and "Very well, sir." Then he hung up and, looking slightly ill, turned to Yoakim. "Your father is coming to see you right now. It'd be better for you if you remained here, young man."
"And...what about Cynthia?" Pandora said meekly.
The doctor turned his attention to her now, nailing her with his incisive little eyes.
She was shivering and her teeth were clacking, despite the warmth of the ambient air, and she had her arms clasped around her chest. She had dressed, but her skimpy clothes were hardly enough to keep her warm. Shock, of course, and perhaps a secondary effect of the things she'd swallowed...
"I'll have to contact a certain private clinic to have the body taken away. But I'm more concerned about you. I think a medical exam is called for, followed by a course of treatment for addiction. Come by my office as soon as you can."
He noticed Pandora's lack of enthusiasm for that idea.
"If not, I will alert your parents too," he said. "A preliminary visit, face to face, would doubtless be preferable, wouldn't it?"
A big lump in her throat, she nodded.
"Tomorrow at four o'clock, if that suits you."
"I have class then."
"I'll write you a permission slip. For once, your absence will be justified."
Seeing Pandora's surprised look, he added, "Your parents talk to me about you, young lady. I know all about your escapades...at least those they're aware of. Go home now. You don't want to be hanging around this...place."
Pandora agreed. She had absolutely no desire to see Yoakim's father when he showed up. From Yoakim's pathetic look she guessed he was terrified to face his punishment alone, but, too bad, he'd just have to pay his dues. Sure, Holger was their main connection, but how many times had she told him he would end up getting them all in trouble?
And now, it had happened.
She blew a kiss to her dejected boyfriend, made her way out through the cluttered house to the street, where she'd parked her velectro. She had to drive home slowly, as the blackout had interrupted the engine's recharging. Its headlight traced only a trembling beam onto the dark streets, which were lit up with fewer and fewer flashes of lightning, and the its motor finally gave out a few hundred yards from the chalet. She was forced to pedal - uphill, of course. Not being used to physical effort, her heart started pounding. She was afraid it would give out, like Cynthia's. But no, that pink pill was not rabia negra. It must've been some kind of drug like ecstasy, seeing the sexual excitement that had resulted...and that had now totally disappeared. Thinking about Cynthia again, it was her white face, blank eyes, and mouth hanging open that filled her vision, and not her round breasts or white thighs floating on the ripples. The more she thought about it the deeper the pain grew in her chest, and she suddenly realized how much she'd loved her friend. Her frankness, her spontaneity, her way of embracing every facet of life, her risk-taking nature - it wasn't surprising that she always fell in with Holger Ulrich and his crazy schemes. Poor Cynthia... She'd been abusing her body for a long time, that was certain, but still, she'd died too young. Life is unfair...
They hadn't asked to be the last generation; they hadn't wanted to see the world end. So now they just wanted to enjoy what time remained to them, and above all, to be left in peace!
But she wasn't going to be left in peace tonight. First her parents reprimanded her for coming home so late, then they wanted to know what she'd been doing at Yoakim Kellerman's. And why she was so depressed? They didn't seem to have heard the news, so she pretended she'd broken up with Yoakim, and that gave her an excuse to retreat to her bedroom. No, mom, I don't want to talk about it, let me deal with it alone, okay? She wasn't alone for long. Later that night, two men came looking for her. Their posture and they way they wore their civilian clothes as if they were uniforms indicated as clearly as the cards they flashed that they belonged to the militia.
The power outage offered Hermann Hechter a good excuse to cut short the orientation meeting. He'd delivered the essential information and had no desire to listen to his employees' complaints. So he adjourned the meeting for later, sine die, and told them to go home. Carmilla protested that she was too frightened to go home alone in the dark, in the storm. Karin offered to accompany her to her door. She felt a little unsure herself, deep down, even though the dome had weathered fiercer storms, and they hardly risked any creepy encounters. But Carmilla, she had a visceral fear of dark nights and Karin knew why - she'd told her the story. Before she'd been admitted to the enclave, she'd lived in Spain with a violent alcoholic, who frequented gangsters and mixed in business that was more or less dirty. He often slept away from home, leaving her alone in their tiny apartment in the slums of Saragossa, shaking with fear as she listened to the night-time urban violence: shouts, objects breaking, chases, gunshots...
One evening, her boyfriend's "colleagues" showed up at their house. They had an affair to settle with him, but he wasn't there. They took advantage of his absence to try to rape her.
Luckily he came home just in time to kill one, wound another, and chase the third one out. Following this traumatic episode, Cynthia put in her request for asylum in an enclave, letting him believe it would be for the two of them, that he would accompany her. But when she received the favorable response, she chose a night when he'd left her alone to pack her bags and slip away ... Since then, deserted roads, empty houses or dark nights when the power was out provoked a knot of anxiety in the overwrought Italian's rounded belly.
Since Carmilla had no velectro, she'd had to walk with her all the way from the administrative center to her housing development behind the old train station of Davos-Dorfthen, talking non-stop to forget their fear. Then they gossiped a while at her doorstep, and finally Karin rode home, under an increasingly dark sky, for the storm with its flashes of light was moving away. She ended up arriving home even later than usual.
The huge chalet was plunged in shadow, like the entire city. How long was it going to last? The local authorities were not exactly reputed for transparency or communication, so you knew nothing until power was suddenly restored or, if the cause for it was serious, you might learn something by rumor ... The dome was dense with photovoltaic microcellules that were supposed to ensure centuries and centuries of energy autonomy for the enclave, but they were giving out bundle after bundle, and they could find no one to manufacture or repair them, at least not in Western Europe. Import them from Asia? The cost of transport and inherent risks were frankly dissuasive. So they had put the old nuclear plant back into service. It functioned for the moment, but combustible material would soon be lacking, and that was also reaching prohibitive prices. In short, energy was a constant source of worry and expense in Davos, even if, thanks to Darwin Alley's wish to keep up appearances, it seemed to flow in profusion.
While waiting for the electricity to come back on, Pradeesh had placed luminels all around, and they lent a romantic glow to the ancient parquet floors, evoking the candles of yesteryear. Karin found him on the couch in the upstairs salon under a bouquet of luminels, scrawling biochemical formulas with a pencil and notepad that looked like they dated from his student years. To Karin, it was a touching vision. Pradeesh's slightly balding, wide forehead shone under the golden light, his tousled, gray hair, his heavy, drooping eyelids and his expression of concentration filled Karin with a rush of love - and desire.
Pradeesh set his notepad and pencil on the coffee table and stood up to kiss his wife.
"Were you working?" she asked.
"More or less. It's been years since I did these," he said as he showed the page covered with symbols that for Karin would forever remain cabalistic.
"The most primitive communications interface of all. Basis of the first civilization. It feels good sometimes to go back to our sources."
She hugged him close, enlacing her arms around his neck.
"Speaking of primitive interfaces, I know of another..."
She felt him pull back.
"What is it, dear? Don't I appeal to you anymore?"
Karin was almost fifty, and still had a beautiful figure, a bit plump maybe, a classic Teutonic build, but her husband liked her that way. And her splendid shock of hair always created a sensation at parties. Pradeesh himself did not show his fifty-seven years of age, or rather his ‘mad-scientist' look made him ageless. He'd had the high, slightly balding forehead since college.
"It's not that," he replied. "It's just...I'm worried about Pandora. She keeps hanging around at Kellerman's son's house, and you know the reputation of those zozos..."
Karin frowned. Yes, she knew those zozos, as he called them. They were very bad influences on Pandora. How to get her away from them? Put her in a different school? There wasn't another school, and Davos was so small she would just hook up with them somewhere else, No, the only solution, a radical one, would be to leave the enclave... But they didn't dare consider that.
They talked about going to look for her, even if it meant humiliating her in front of her friends, and then dealing with the tantrum that was sure to follow (Pandora was very stubborn). But it was better to risk a major family argument than to find her in the hospital. They'd just decided to hazard the long walk in the dark to Yoakim Kellermann's, despite being tired after working all day, when they heard the front door slam downstairs, followed by the clicking sounds of a velectro being folded up. Karin and Pradeesh exchanged a knowing look.
"You go, or I?"
"I'll go," said Pradeesh. "This has been bothering me for far too long."
He headed off to the attack, armed with all his parental authority. But then Pandora's somber, depressed air, her tears just pearling, disconcerted him - he'd expected to face a stubborn grump. He called his wife to the rescue.
"Darling! I don't know what's wrong with her. She won't tell me anything."
Karin took her daughter into the kitchen to have a girl-to-girl, and managed to find out she'd broken up with Yoakim. This news made Karin happy, although she didn't let that show. She tried to get her to talk more, but Pandora retreated to her room, under the pretext that she needed to "think it all over."
"You don't want to have some dinner? Your father and I haven't eaten."
"No, thanks. I'm not hungry."
She disappeared. But at least she was alive. And she didn't seem sick. A tiff, that was all... At her age, that quickly passed.
Feeling reassured, her parents set the table for a romantic dinner, candlelit (or rather luminel-lit), as a prelude to a night of love-making... This agreeable perspective was shattered by loud knocking at the front door, just as Karin was bringing out the hors-d'oeuvres.
"If it's that Kellermann boy, I'm going to give him a piece of my mind," Pradeesh said. It was not Yoakim. It was two young men with crew-cuts and civilian clothes worn with such military allure they didn't even need to show their cards - which they did anyway - to prove they were militia.
"What do you want with her?"
"To ask her a few questions."
"Are you her father?"
"They concern a death by intoxication, of which she was a witness. Can you call her please?"
Pradeesh could not speak. A death by intoxication? What did that signify? Pandora hadn't said anything...
They now got the story from her own mouth, for the two militiamen cleverly manipulated her to make her spit it out, haltingly, constantly breaking down as she did so. The victim was Cynthia Kessel, the daughter of "Mister Nuclear" Konrad Kessel of Davos, an eminent member of Darwin Alley.
Her source for the deadly drug was none other than Holger Ulrich. He was well-known by the militia but, regrettably, well-protected by his mother, Eva Petrovna, courtesan and permanent fixture of Darwin Alley - she knew too many secrets from pillow talk and the boudoir.
And it was Pandora who had discovered the body.
"Very well," concluded one of the militiamen as he stopped the recording with a flick of his eyelids. "For the moment, your daughter is accused of nothing. But this affair must not be spread around, absolutely not. Mum is the word. You understand?"
Pandora nodded. Pradeesh waited for him to go one, wrinkling his eyebrows.
"There's a lot at stake here, important people whose children are implicated," his partner continued. "None are guilty, evidently. But if word gets out, if public opinion gets at it..."
"If that happens, we'll need a guilty party. Now, neither you nor your family are part of Darwin Alley, Mr. Gorayan. What's more, your... dissident opinions are known to us. Do you understand me?"
"Very well," Pradeesh said gruffly. He wished he could punch them, kick their asses out of his house, and spit in their faces all he thought of their shitty Darwin Alley. "We know how to keep our mouths shut, my wife and I. So does my daughter. Don't you, Pandora?"
She nodded her head again, sniffing. Karin blinked, her eyes wide, shocked at what she'd just heard.
The two men marched back to the entry, right-left, right-left, saluted them, hands to their foreheads, and vanished into the silent, dark night.
GUARDIANS OF THE CITY
Paula Rossi arrived in Milan by the eastern road, weighed down, harassed, sweating and dusty. She was flanked by her two sons, Silvio, eight, who she held by the hand, and Romano, eleven, who walked ahead trying to look proud. He bravely carried all the possessions of his childhood in a backpack whose worn straps sawed into his bony shoulders. Silvio carried nothing, aside from the weight of his fatigue and an illness that was eating away at his lungs, making him pant and cough at the slightest effort.
They'd hitched a ride from some godforsaken village in the desert with a man whose car was held together with tape and tinkering. He had just dropped them off at the edge of a road that passed through the middle of a half-troglodyte camp. It was precariously sheltered under the bridges and in the caved-in tunnels of what was left of a freeway overpass. A sterile, empty plain circled it, sprinkled with the vestiges of once-dense settlement: skeletons of factories, buildings in ruins, traces of gardens. Relics of the war, too: bomb craters, piles of rubble, blackened stretches of wall. Just in front of the cloverleaf, the road crossed a small ravine where sparse vegetation grew, watered by a thin trickle of water snaking between the rocks. Thus the camp, established next to this resource, as precious as it was unpredictable.
Paula studied it suspiciously, asking herself what kind of people she'd have to deal with here. Should they risk crossing the camp, or detour around it among the ruins? They could be migrants like herself, in transit, drawn by the last waterhole before the city, or they could be guarding the waterhole or the intersection, and would charge for right of access; or again, the camp could be a pirate or Pyro hideout. Up until now Paula had had good luck, but the worst was always possible.
The campers had seen her, too, and heard the backfire of the contraption she'd arrived in. They must be asking the same kind of questions, though with her big bag and two kids she hardly looked dangerous. By shielding her eyes against the implacable sun and squinting, she could make out figures in the shade of the sagging bridges and heaps of rubble. They hadn't yet attacked, which was already a good sign...
"Ok, boys, let's go."
"We're going to walk right through the middle of all those people?" Romano asked with a frown.
"Do you think they'll give us something to eat?" Silvio said, lifting up his dirty, weary little face.
"That would surprise me. But maybe some water..."
"I'm hungry, mama."
"I know. We're almost there."
Their last meal had been the evening before, in that pitiful desert village - a few tough, stringy vegetables with some bits of unrecognizable meat (perhaps rat), and some water with a strong stagnant smell. Naturally, Silvio got diarrhea. To pay for the dinner, she'd had to sleep with the driver of the car, whose name she'd already forgotten. The boys did not know, although Romano had his suspicions.
She adjusted her heavy backpack to relieve her aching shoulders, checked that her knife - a derisory weapon - was still at her belt, then grabbed Silvio's hand and headed toward the camp, with a step she hoped appeared confident.
Some men came out from their rickety shelters to block her passage. Emaciated, hunched, with gray hair and beards, they appeared more pathetic than menacing. From the corner of her eyes, Paula noticed several women in the shadow of the rubble, scrutinizing the children with astonishment. Good, at least the risk of being raped was slight.
"Can I pass? We're just crossing..."
"Are you alone?" asked a tall, skinny man with a stringy beard and grizzled skull, no doubt their patriarch.
"Yes. Just me and my kids."
Paula drew Silvio close and put a protective hand on Romano's shoulder.
"And the person who brought you here, where is he?"
"I don't know. Off on his own business...I don't know him."
"Where are you coming from?" asked another man, who seemed to be in pain.
Exchange of surprised looks.
"Venice still exists?"
"You crossed the whole desert? With your kids?"
"I was lucky."
"It's shameful to have kids in these times," grumbled one of the women, from the entrance to her lair. "It's criminal even."
"The little one is sweet," remarked another. She stood up and approached them. She was as ragged as the others. "Can I touch him?"
Silvio pressed tighter against his mother, with a dubious glance at the old, toothless hag.
"He's sick," Paula warned.
The woman shrugged. "Oh, we're all sick, aren't we? I've reached the point where I'm not afraid of anything."
With the tips of her knotted fingers, she caressed Silvio's greasy hair, as if he were a pet. "How old are you, my boy? What's your name?"
"Silvio," he said. "I'm eight. Do you have anything to eat?"
"Not really, no," she said as she retracted her hand.
"What sickness does he have?" the patriarch enquired.
"I don't know. Something with his lungs. His father died of it."
"Is it contagious?" asked the sickly man.
"I don't know," Paula repeated. "Neither Romano nor I have it. I'm going to see a doctor, in Milan... Maybe you've heard of him. Doctor Pozzi?"
Questioning looks around and shakes of the head, no.
"He lives in the enclave," Paula added.
"The enclave? Which enclave?"
"There's no enclave in Milan."
"No enclave?" Paula fell from her cloud. "But someone told me..."
"They bullshitted you," said a man with a scarlet face, snickering.
"Six months ago, Milan was attacked by a horde of Pyros," the patriarch explained. "Half the city burned down. If there was an enclave, the fire destroyed it."
At a loss, Paula held tight to the bits of information she possessed. "But someone told me...Place du Dôme... the Vittorio-Emanuele II Gallery... that's where the enclave is, where the doctor lives..."
"They bullshitted you," repeated the red-faced man.
A man wearing outdated, broken glasses spoke up. "Those places still exist, I would think. You can always go see. But I wouldn't risk it if I were you. Especially with two kids."
The sickly man spoke again. "We never go into the city. There's nothing good there."
"It's nice and quiet here," concluded the patriarch, with a sad air that contradicted his words. "We hardly ever see anyone."
"And we have water!" added the toothless woman.
Paula turned to her. "I was just going to ask about that. Could we have some for our empty bottles? I don't know if we'll find any in Milan..."
"Help yourself." The patriarch said, waving his arm at the stream in a ravine a few dozen yards away. "Take advantage of it while it's still flowing."
"Thank you! Romano, will you go?"
The older boy, who had not yet spoken a word, unhooked the gourds from their bags and went down to fill them in the stream. Meanwhile, a third woman - a mere bag of bones with long bristly hair - limped over to Silvio, holding out a piece of coarse bread. "Here, little one. You'll need some nourishment."
"Emilia!" protested the patriarch. "You have nothing else to eat!"
"It's my share and I'll do what I want with it. Here."
Silvio grabbed the morsel and bit into it voraciously. As it was dry, it crumbled and he began to suffocate and cough. Paula took the bread out of his hand.
"In a bit, Silvio. You can eat it with the water."
"Thank you, ma'am," she said to the skeletal old woman, who had retired back into the shade.
"Emilia just wants to die," complained the old man. "But her share could have benefited the others."
Paula made as if to hand it back, but he pushed her hand away. "It's okay, keep it. Your children are hungry."
Romano came back just then, carrying the two dripping bottles and contorting his face with pain.
"There are lots of bugs at the stream," he declared. "One of them stung me."
He showed his mother the red spot blossoming on his scrawny arm.
"If it's a mosquito, he risks catching palu," warned the afflicted man - who probably had it himself he was so feverish.
"Or dengue, or bilharzias," added the man with the broken glasses.
"You have to rub it with three different plants right away," advised the old hag, taking Romano's arm to examine it.
"Three different plants? Where can I find them?" Paula asked.
"By the stream. I'll go get them for you."
The old woman climbed down the ravine and brought back a handful of withered, spotted leaves, then vigorously rubbed them on the increasingly red, swelling area on Romano's arm.
"Does that feel better?"
"Yes, a little," the boy admitted.
She gave him the crushed herbs.
"Keep rubbing it until there's no juice left."
Paula and the two boys started off among the rubble and ruins that blocked the road. As the group of campers moved aside to make room for them to pass, she thanked them for all their help.
"The city center is straight ahead, you can't go wrong," said the man with the sunglasses.
The toothless woman added, "Good luck, and take care of your kids!"
"Oh, they'll soon be eaten," predicted the man, in a low voice. "The city is infested with Flesheaters."
Those vagabonds at the interchange surely must be telling stories, Paula thought. The enclave must exist, and Doctor Pozzi too - especially Doctor Pozzi.
She hadn't come all this way from Venice for nothing.
They had confronted deserts, storms of sand and dust, road pirates, Padua's ultra-religious fanatics, Verona's refugee camp, the Pyro threat (luckily they had not met any). They had endured heat, hunger and thirst.
Paula had fought against chronic fatigue, ignored the vile skin cancers that marbled her skin, given her body in exchange for water or food or a safe ride, and promised a world of marvels to Silvio and Romano once they'd arrived in Milan. No, she hadn't accomplished all that in vain. She'd been lucky up until now, and her luck would remain. After all, she could have just let herself waste away and die after Felipe's death - the putrid miasma of Venice's lagoons would have taken care of that quickly enough, as it had most of the residents of that marooned city - or she could have killed her children and then herself.
But someone had talked to her about this Doctor Pozzi of Milan, specialist in tropical diseases. They'd told her he had medicines, that he could've treated Felipe, and could heal her son and perhaps herself t