Les Loups de Prague (The Prague Wolfes)
In a world where States have vanished to the advantage of the cities, Prague, eight years after a military coup, has become a living town, which regenerates and defends itself like a human immune system. But "the Town has claws" and the Guild of Crime, a kind of underground mafia divided into animal clans, each one responsible for a criminal activity, is rife. Vaclav, a journalist and activist in a movement aiming to restore democracy, is forced to serve the Guild who does not want amateurs threatening its control over the Town...
One man's folly is concealed in this mystery. Miroslav Vlk, both prince and monster and chief of the Wolves - the clan of thieves -, finds it impossible to accept his daughter's death.
In this violent and sensual political fable, the reader is beaten and battered by the rhythm of the scenario but, as Philippe Curval wrote in Le Magazine littéraire in May 2003 about Olivier Paquet's previous book, "the reading enjoyment resides initially in the author's skill in deciphering the inexplicable".
The Wolves of Prague by Olivier Paquet
© L'Atalante, 2010
FROM ONE ACT, A THOUSAND OUTCOMES
Vaclav had to run hard to keep up with Janik and Antonin. The three men avoided the pools of light from the streetlamps and kept close to the sides of buildings as they ran. Dust swirled down the street and the budding leaves of the trees quivered in the fresh breeze.
They had met at the Flora subway station an hour earlier. They were not acquainted, so to recognize each other they were each to carry a chocolate rabbit, as Easter was approaching. Janik, with his massive, muscular form, looked by far the most ridiculous. He seemed embarrassed, as if he were debating with the thing and wondering how to hold it. Antonin did not show any such awkwardness. He possessed a natural elegance, even when carrying a brightly-coloured chocolate rabbit. The intelligence of his aspect reassured Vaclav. He hadn't liked the idea of his life reposing in the hands of a brute like Janik. Once united, they'd thrown away their chocolate rabbits in the nearest trash can and headed to Antonin's car.
They had parked about half a kilometer from their destination, then taken out their heavy sacks. Vaclav had started to worry when he saw Janik slip a pistol into his belt.
"Didn't you tell me the building was safe?" he'd asked.
"That doesn't mean it's deserted," Janik had grumbled. "Security is passive for the most part, except at night, when guards work in teams. We'll avoid them, but just in case..."
"Just in case, yeah. Only to defend ourselves."
For reply, the mercenary only put on a cap, then closed the trunk of the car. Then they had immediately set off.
As they approached the objective, Vaclav began to regret participating. He was on a two-day leave, and an excursion to his cháta, his cottage in the country, would have been more practical. With spring in the air, the garden needed work. Olga loved taking care of the interior and was ingenious at redecorating the living room every year. Since the birth of their son Pavel, she had become even more cheerful than usual. She had agreed to go by herself to the cottage, naturally, as Vaclav had promised her he would join her after finishing a bit of work. Kind and courageous Olga! A simple young woman, always bright and happy, whom he'd met when doing an article about the General Hospital. He had noticed her thanks to her smile and her personality. It hadn't been difficult to seduce her. And now, tonight, Vaclav was angry at himself for not being with her and for having lied to her. She would not have understood.
Who would have believed that Vaclav Matransky, star reporter for MT2*, was transformed into a terrorist at night? Who would have thought he belonged to the lone resistance movement opposing Commander Bláha? The old regime had been overthrown eight years earlier, but no one had managed to rid the nation of Bláha and his powerful army. His authoritarian system must and would end, and Vaclav and his group had sworn to fight it until democracy could take hold again.
* Mesto Televize
This evening, they would announce those coming changes with their first exploit. They had prepared long and meticulously, basing their action on a piece of information they all accepted as true: the security systems in public buildings seemed fragile. The Commander had so much confidence in his authority and his strength that for the last four years he had been reducing his security forces. This evening, that confidence would be shaken.
The trio passed under an arched walkway, its atmosphere suffocating, silent and dismal. The City slept, bathed in the light of streetlamps that made the paving stones shine with orange-yellow reflections. When the road started abruptly to climb, they cut over to a flight of steps and accelerated their pace. Their objective came into view: a new building, its façade of dull glass. Wedged in the angle of an intersection, it stood out like a crystal cliff among the neighbouring buildings' blank stone walls. The anonymity of its ground floor belied its real significance. The entire steel-shuttered jewellery store just next door was not worth even one square metre of this building. Twelve stories of precious, efficient technology. A vital point.
The control centre of the civil-satellite.
The three men took cover under a wooden arcade topped with stone lions, jaws open wide and menacing. Vaclav looked up into the dark sky, searching for the civil-satellite's blinking flash, but the City's ambient light was too strong. He saw only the spider web of air renewal circuits stretching from ground to sky. The massive structure of this pulsing network spread out over the City and its periphery, sectioning the sky. He could hear the gentle respiration of its turbines swallowing the air polluted by factories and cars and spitting out fresher, cleaner air. Vaclav caught a fugitive glimpse of light in the canals, but figured it must be the reflection of a star. He tightened his belt and followed Janik and Antonin as they moved on.
They hurried toward the building, hugging close to the walls to screen themselves. Antonin crouched before the double doors of the front entry and placed a black box against the lock. Ten seconds later, he pulled open one of the doors and motioned to the other two men to enter. The marble-squared floor of the foyer shone with orange light from the streetlamps. Tall obsidian columns formed temporary shelters for the three intruders as they made their way across the silent hall. Each of them had a role to play: Antonin was to deactivate cameras and detectors, Janik was to defend the group, and Vaclav was supposed to show the way. He'd already had occasion to enter the civil-satellite centre for his job. He was familiar with only some parts of it, but to serve as their guide that sufficed.
This building existed to house the Data Collection Room, where the City revealed itself as a flood of data streaming across monitors. Most of this uninterrupted flow of numbers and images pouring in were analysed by computers to form a tapestry of daily life, the background image of the City. This murmur of information, constantly recycled and reworked, held no interest in itself. The old lady walking her dog and the businessman hurrying to an appointment, the blind beggar and the young couple embracing -- all of it was regarded objectively and held without value, without contrast or colour, forgotten as soon as it was recorded by the satellites and surveillance cameras at intersections. But with this magma of constants and variables, the computers drew up a minute-by-minute ‘State of the City' report. The slightest displacement, the slightest anomaly in the routine would be detected by artificial intelligences, and they would sound an alert. An abnormal number, a curve outside of the authorised levels could indicate a developing epidemic or discontented citizens or more frequent traffic accidents - all these things were detected and transmitted to the authorities.
In turn, their reactions had to be rapid, before any clear threat appeared. This secured the stability of the military regime, and it had worked for the last eight years. Prevention without repression. The system also created a powerful form of anaesthesia, for it healed any symptoms so quickly that no one tried to comprehend the origin of the sickness. No one worried about the universal apathy, about the absence of a free press and the gradual closing up of the City upon itself. No one saw, or wanted to see, that behind appearances a great lie existed: No one had chosen Bláha and no one knew what he was doing. He was accountable to no one but himself for his actions. Where was the army? You never saw uniforms in town, or tanks on its fringes. Those thousands of soldiers under the orders of Seidl, the Commander's right hand man, weren't just twiddling their thumbs; they must have some kind of occupation. But what? Why did everything remain hidden?
It was because of these questions and many others that Vaclav had decided to enter the Resistance. A journalist of his calibre could not accept this black veil over the army and the leaders of the City. Raiding the control centre was the perfect opportunity to upset the system and oblige the Commander to react and put his cards on the table.
"Something's not right," Antonin murmured. "The security systems are in sleep-mode."
"Someone unplugged them?" Janik asked.
"No, not at all, they're working. I said they were in sleep-mode, not disconnected. The cameras are functioning but in slow motion, and the ultrasound and infrared sensitivity levels have been considerably reduced. I could just cut the wires, no problem. It's as if the building is sleeping."
"You've been drinking too much," Janik replied abruptly. "A security system is working or not working. It can't be in ‘sleep-mode.' Hurry up and do your job."
There was a noise about ten meters away. Vaclav realized the guards were making their rounds. He motioned to the others to turn left and get some distance, so they followed him into a corridor. Two doors down, they came to a staircase and started to climb up.
They stopped at the floor they wanted, and the three men adopted a new formation. Janik took command. Vaclav wasn't happy about it, but he didn't have enough authority to handle a thug like Janik, and besides, Antonin respected Janik more than he did the journalist. So Vaclav had to content himself with following them and indicating, from time to time, the path to the data collection room. The ease of the operation surprised him. He thought strategic buildings would be better guarded. Undoubtedly habit and confidence had overcome the malicious paranoia of the military. In the absence of any terrorist actions, security measures must have been reduced. The fruit had ripened and Vaclav was going to harvest it. Their operations would get more complicated in the following months, of course, when the army had recognized the extent of the threat that VIRUS* represented. It would soon fear their organization and hunt down its members.
* Vojácí o intenzívní revoluci pro uzdravení spole.cnost: Combatants of the Extreme Revolution for the Healing of Society.
The mishap arrived in the form of two guards sitting in front of the data collection room. They both had entertainment electrodes fixed on their necks, and they weren't moving. The electrodes transmitted programs onto the edge of their fields of vision, while still allowing them to consecrate their focus on the door. These guards acted like mobile and armed cameras -- a barrier impossible to breach. Before Vaclav could say a word, Antonin and Janik had brought out their knives. The journalist looked around for traps. At the end of the corridor they'd just entered was a staircase opening onto a platform. If necessary, they could escape that way, even if it involved having to go back downstairs. At each side of the data collection room, potted ficus plants were eking out a life without sunshine. The barren, cold décor offered absolutely no place to hide. The affair was starting to look sketchy.
Antonin and Janik took their time gearing up before advancing. Antonin was persuaded that, like the rest of the building, the guards were under the effects of anaesthesia. Despite the foolish, risky character of his hypothesis, he argued it so convincingly that Janik acquiesced. Still, he flicked off his gun's safety catch before following his colleague. Vaclav stayed behind. The two men crawled along the floor quickly and gracefully. Without a sound, they approached the guards and passed behind them. Janik's arm seemed to wrap itself around his victim's neck. Vaclav distinctly saw the flash of the knives' blades, but when the blood welled up and spilled down them he squeezed his eyes shut. He heard only a strangled breath, and when he looked again, Janik was motioning to him to approach.
The guards seemed to be sleeping, still upright on their chairs, but their blood was spreading in puddles on the carpet. Vaclav headed toward the door of the data collection room. Suddenly, noises erupted from the direction of the staircase. The three men stopped in their tracks, weapons in hand. At the sight of a man dressed in black, moving stealthily, Janik raised his pistol. The man slowed his pace when he saw Vaclav and his companions, but continued silently up to the two stabbed bodies. The trio stood paralyzed by this apparition. The hall lights illuminating the area were just strong enough that they could make out deep, irregular scars on the man's arms, lines crossing and re-crossing, forming cabalistic signs on his dark skin. They also noticed a metallic mass planted on the stranger's shoulders. The man finally turned to Janik and told him in a cold, hard voice, "You shouldn't have killed them - you've put yourself in danger without needing to. We had already put these men to sleep. There was no chance they'd have seen you."
"How were we to know? And just who are you?"
"My name wouldn't mean anything to you. I advise you to put away your weapons - we don't have time to be killing each other."
His voice was so powerful, so calm, that Janik hesitated, terrorized. The nameless man went back up the stairs, where they heard him speak to someone else.
"Did you see that?" Antonin exclaimed. "The armour on his shoulders?"
"That was armour? That hunk of metal?"
"Yes," explained Janik, who was still disturbed, as if he'd seen the devil in person. "Most everyone who wore armour like that was killed during Bláha's coup d'état. Are there still any Wolves alive? I think I remember hearing about them..."
"The Wolves?" Vaclav demanded, incredulous.
Antonin was about to respond when a dozen men dressed in black crowded into the hall. With their hands on the hilts of their knives, they surrounded the trio and stared at them menacingly. They seemed to be awaiting a command, and evidently the one who could give that command was on his way down the stairs. No one prevented Vaclav from pushing forward to see him better.
The man was well into his thirties. He looked tired, with hollow cheeks and drawn features. His ragged jeans were thin from years of wear, and his muscular body was enveloped in a baggy black jacket. A leather cap hid his hair. His steps resonated on the stairs like the strokes of a hammer, but his movements were supple and revealed his perfect confidence. His hands were long and fine, and as if wrought of claw-like steel. Every curve of his profile expressed the same ambiguity, a blend of splendour and darkness that fascinated Vaclav. His very presence created a mesmerizing, troubling atmosphere, both repulsive and attractive, like perfume detected behind a heap of trash. An essence that disappeared as soon as you focused on it, as soon as you searched for it with a gaze. He emitted powerful energy; he was a black hole descending the stairs, impalpable and unreachable. He approached in the dim light. Did he accompany the shadows or were they obeying him? His eyes were two obscure wells and simultaneously two incandescent lights, two crows killing each other and two emeralds. By this first glimpse alone, Vaclav knew this man was blood, storm and tempest but also tenderness and passion, a man who could incite the madness of an adventurous moth but never genuine love. From such a paradox was born a great unrest; and from such horror sprang prestige.
The man with the scars, who had remained standing by the guards, addressed the newcomer. "The soldiers were linked to the nerves of the Pariszsky Center, Miro. The system response will arrive in four minutes and thirty-two seconds."
Vaclav kept his eyes on the man in the black jacket. He had never met a person exuding such an impression of power and lassitude. The journalist didn't try to make out what the other meant by ‘system response.' The scene felt so unreal to him that everything was submerged in a strange magma.
"Only the men with knives killed the guards. The other is harmless," continued the man with the scars. (Vaclav didn't realize they were talking about him.) "Kniže, we have to make a decision."
The man in the black jacket nodded. He pulled an odd-looking weapon with a large barrel out of a holster. Vaclav could not help but notice how superb its lines were. His finger on the trigger, the man stared at the journalist. He spoke with a beautiful, clear voice.
"You have ten seconds to convince me not to kill you, no more."
Vaclav jumped and started to stutter, his thoughts a jumble of disconnected words. "I...I have...I am... I belong to a resistance movement against the government, I wanted to destroy the civil-satellite, we must end this dictatorship, I'm a journalist, I'm scared, I have a family, I don't want to die and my son Pavel needs me..."
"I only needed one reason," the man commented solemnly.
Vaclav was shocked by this betrayal. He could have prostrated himself before this man; why would he kill him? The journalist collapsed, cursing his destiny, and plunged into a black abyss of incomprehension.
Janik scowled indignantly and made as if to pull out his knife. Immediately, other weapons were pulled from their holsters and the mercenary had to give up. The man wearing the jacket sniffed as he looked at the body of the journalist. With disdain, he addressed the other two members of the trio:
"In any case, you haven't much time left alive. You shouldn't have attacked this building. You're not up to it. Do you think a centre as strategic as this one would be protected by just a few guards and some electronics? If we hadn't been here, you wouldn't have made it ten metres inside. I'm sure we could follow your tracks from here all the way back to the intersection out front. Imprudent, poorly prepared - what a team! This building punishes vandals and assassins like you."
The two men, shaken by his words, looked at each other. Janik rubbed his forehead, filled with a sudden throbbing. Antonin seemed just as perturbed, but he asked: "Are you
going to kill us? Who are you? You're thieves, right?"
"My name is Miroslav Vlk. I belong to the Wolves clan and I act on behalf of the Crime Guild. We are taking back power and I will annihilate your resistance movement if it threatens the City!"
Janík looked up and stared at Antonín. "I remember. I know now why I recognized them. I've recovered my true identity."
"What do you mean?"
"We belong to..."
Janík was about to continue when a large sucking sound erupted behind him. The mercenary leaped forward, rolled on the ground and turned around. He was riveted by the apparition. Two spongy masses more than two meters wide had emerged, apparently right out of the floor. The one behind Antonín curled up to enclose him. The man had just enough time to see the bluish surface of the thing rising above his head. Pseudopodia arose and grew out from its dark slimy tissue, then it suddenly pierced him with hundreds of metal darts.
The steely explosion was so rapid he did not even have time to scream. His blood flowed onto the floor and spread in shining puddles, and his body sunk into the viscous conglomerate. The mass of tissue folded over the body and extended over the floor with a noise of cracking bones. Janik, terrorized by the death of his partner, knew that his time, too, was running out. The thieves from the Guild looked on without emotion. They were awaiting his execution. The mercenary knew they would not let him break the Wolves circle, that he had to face the second monster alone. The latter had not moved but his pseudopodia were waving rhythmically, oscillating in an imaginary wind. What was it? It was like no kind of self-defence machinery he'd ever seen; it resembled neither a robot nor a military vehicle. It was a biological monster, and a terribly dangerous one.
"Miro!" shouted Janík. "If I die, you lose the perfect opportunity to defeat your enemy. You're acting too late!"
Janik grabbed his gun and aimed for the monster. He had spotted a red light in the middle of the gelatinous mass. Could that be its vital core? For an instant, the mercenary regretted not having loaded armour-piercing bullets. His ordinary 9mms seemed inadequate. He turned the thumb wheel to increase propulsion speed and then decided he had to get just a little closer. His opponent, motionless, merely observed him. Janík moved toward it and fired. Detonations exploded in the room. The gun's recoil paralysed the mercenary's arms, but he kept firing. However, the bullets were instantly absorbed, digested by the sponge-like organism, and not one shot penetrated its nucleus.
He had to reload his gun, and the monster chose that moment to strike; its pseudopodia grew and started to crawl in his direction. Panicked and enraged, Janik took aim and shot, ignoring the tentacles encircling his legs and clutching his waist, and their sticky touch on his neck. The pulsating bright red centre of the monster hypnotized him. He did not resist even when it started dragging him forward. The bullets accumulated in his opponent's body, but not one wounded it. Janík screamed in rage, his anger increasing tenfold from the feeling of injustice. The other men were just standing there letting him die. They were simply spectators. Did they enjoy this? At least the monster had the excuse that it was fulfilling its function: to protect the building.
But what was their excuse?
These thugs seemed to be invisible to the glue-like, deadly sentinel. Drunk with rage, swearing at them, Janík was pierced by the hundreds of metal needles. Concentrating on uttering a curse to damn his merciless audience, he felt no pain, just the smell of his blood flowing over his body. Death came to him as a single red veil.
The pseudopodia closed around their prey and the vast defence organism spread out on the ground, erupting in brown patches. One of the thieves, a colossus with pale eyes, shuddered at the sound of cracking bones.
"What filth this project Gaia is!"
Miro smiled bitterly. His men were admitting their debt to him, their Kniže. The pack had never more clearly assured its own protection. He shrugged.
"Svetlana, time for you to act. Hurry up!"
A young woman emerged from the shadows and came up to the data collection room, keeping her distance from the two black piles.
"Don't worry, Miro. The building will still be anesthetized for a quarter of an hour. I have plenty of time to recover the initialization sequence and the filter entry code."
She pushed her glasses higher on her nose and smiled, aware of her importance. She knew the
Guild needed her for its survival. She also felt that certain of Miro's men did not like her presence: a woman and clan chief. Never before had this position fallen to a woman. But the times had changed, and Miro had taken that into account. She was an indispensable link, and her name was Svetlana Orel.
Translated by Galatea Maman