2099 24 March
You might be tempted to throw this manuscript into the fire. But for your own sake, please continue to read. I don’t exaggerate when I say that your life depends upon it. As for me, my life will be over soon enough. Or maybe it will be worse than over.
As I type into the wall monitor before me, I leak blood onto the towel wrapped around my hand. The blood is so dark that it’s almost black. Four soaked towels lie by my left side, three clean ones at my right. The knife with which I will soon incise my brachial artery sits next to the clean towels. I feel no pain, only hunger. I drink tea; I smoke ceaselessly. Still, there is only so long I can hold out.
From the bedroom, a woman cries out. It pierces my heart.
I should hurry.
First understand, reader; I am sending this to you from the future. When you read this, I will be a month from being born and the year will be A.D. 2056. Oh, the blithe 50s, the innocent 50s. As I write this, I am forty-three and the air is blackening around me. The Parisian spring outside the window is unaware that it is undone. Time is a broken compass, leaking entropy in both directions.
Let me explain.
2098 12 December
I should first mention her, the woman in my office. It was December, very quiet. I had no clients scheduled. The news flashed before me on my desk: overpopulation, starvation, strange weather patterns, an earth at the edge of collapse, the mass death of millions of species. Then I saw a shadow through the pebbled glass door (my name and occupation etched thereupon: Dr. Paul Somerson, Anthroinvestigator, M.D.A.I.); it opened and she walked in with the self-assured indifference of the aristocrat. Her cheeks were pinked with cold. I recognized her, of course—it was a tabloid story when her husband committed suicide, right around the time I moved to Paris—but her photos didn’t do justice to her beauty.
She held out a hand across the desk. “Renée de Mahieu,” she said. Her voice had a little burr in it, a catch in the throat. A slight accent: Belgian?
Her good looks were due, in part, to her imperfections. Her nose bent at an angle. Her skin was smooth as glass, without much pigment. Her hair was brown mixed with red-gold, gathered into a sleek topknot. Her eyes were very green, and she held her shoulders erect, her back as straight as a tombstone. In photos of her, she’d seemed voluptuous, but here she was, petite, flat-chested, muscular. Her gaze was unflinching. She sat across the desk from me and tapped her fingers against the it: a musician’s idle habit, charming.
I was good at my job.
But I had a weakness: women.
This woman emanated the exact aura of sexual contradiction that most moved me. She removed her shoes, stretched her legs out along the floor in front of me. She watched my eyes travel down her legs to her feet. She had the gnarled toes and disfigured nails of a dancer. Did she know I was the kind of man who would find this flaw irresistible?
“Do you dance?” I asked. A little small talk puts a client at ease. Not that she seemed to need it.
She looked at her feet. “Oui, I used to dance. I was a violinist too. But there was an … accident. I ruined my legs. And hands. No more music.”
She twisted her ankle out, as though to show me evidence of the accident. I didn’t see anything.
“I’m sorry,” I said. A long moment stretched between us. I looked away first. I cleared my throat. “Can you tell me how I can help you, Madame de Mahieu?” I asked.
“I’m in a … bad situation,” she said.
“Your husband?” I asked, and then regretted it.
She lifted an eyebrow, smiling a vague little smile, “That was four years ago. Enough time to recover from that. That’s not why I’m here. It’s a different man. I’m afraid of him.”
“Go on,” I said, leaning forward.
“I … he accused me of stealing.”
“Non, a specific item. I didn’t steal it, I assure you, Monsieur Somerson, but he’s paranoid. He’s threatening me.”
She didn’t look frightened. I didn’t believe her story. But clients often lied. Wanted to be caught, even. Wanted to be seen through. To be seen, period.
“Madame de––” I began.
“Renée, please. Call me Renée.”
“So, Renée, what do you want? Do you want me to help you … divest yourself of him?”
“Oui, Monsieur Somerson. That’s all, for now. But I need to see if you are the right man.”
She stood and walked around the desk. She laid two cool, slim fingers against my left hand, pressing it to the surface of the desk. I was shocked into stillness. I let her do it. With her other hand she removed my cufflink and pulled my dress shirt up until it was bunched untidily on my upper arm. She turned my arm over so that its white underbelly was exposed.
With one finger she traced a light path from my thumb to my elbow, turning the arm toward the desk light. She smelled strongly of a recently fired gun, like metal or ozone. I went absolutely still.
“Mmm,” she said to herself, “it should be here.” She let me go and backed away from me. “No matter,” she said. “You’re the father.”
“You’re mistaken,” I stumbled. “I don’t have children.”
“But you’re the one I’m looking for.”
“Am I?” My voice was hoarse with alarm and, I admit it, desire. She was all sweetness and danger.
She stood, stared a moment, her eyes large and unblinking, then sat down again.
I cleared my throat. I forced myself to speak. “Well, as you know, anthroinvestigation employs many disciplines—psychology, philosophy, biology, genetics, anthropology, anthroethnography, and health sciences—to help form a holistic diagnosis of the client, and assist in the formulation of a solution, or ‘cure,’ as they used to call it. I’ll need a full psychiatric evaluation from the lab. Second floor. If you sign on with me, I’ll send your profile up and you can schedule the workup at your leisure. They will ask for a thorough family and personal history and you’ll be followed for at least a week. It might feel intrusive. Are you prepared?”
“And the lab will take a blood sample.”
She blanched and then composed herself. “All right,” she said.
“Well then, Renée, we can discuss the contract.”
She watched me as the paperwork flashed on the screen. She pressed her fingertip to the monitor without looking at it. The monitor accepted her personal information. On her arms was a network of veins that were almost black. My veins were like that, too. I had a rare medical condition: too much iron in the blood.
Did she have the same?
Renée got up to leave, and her metallic smell wafted over me. My arm began to tingle.
2098 13 December
A few years back I moved to Paris to consult with the Eurospace Agency. It was a temporary assignment. I was contracted to get the new team of Euronauts physically and psychologically fit for travel. The Mars Recolonization Project had just gotten underway. It was no easy task after the calamity of the original Mars Colonization Project of 2037, when over two hundred people died within sixteen days. Some kind of wasting illness, a virus, they thought, cause unknown. For fear of contamination, their bodies were left in the International Biosphere for fifty-nine years until an unmanned probe transported a few of them, sealed, back to Earth for autopsies. Their bodies were kept heavily quarantined, and once they were back on Earth, the story was locked down tight. No press. Whatever the E.A. discovered about the bodies, they kept secret. Needless to say, anxieties ran high among the Euronauts scheduled to man the new launch.
I met Marie Sébastien during my tenure at the E.A. She was a planetary specialist with short dark hair, a spatter of freckles across the nose, a chronic sniffle, and blunt fingers bitten at the knuckles. She was tall and almost cadaverously thin. Even after I left the Agency, she and I met every week for drinks. I was a little in love with her.
We lunched the day after my meeting with Madam de Mahieu, in one of those cafés with free coffee and pastries—but relentless advertisements projected on every wall. She was agitated, more than usual. She smoked one cigarette after another, odd unfiltered cigarettes without a brand name on them. Their smoke was pungent and opaque gray. “I hear a rumor, Paul,” she said. “I hear you’re getting yourself into something stupid.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“Be careful with de Mahieu.”
That rattled me. “You know her? How do you even know I saw her?”
“Word travels.” She blew smoke out of a corner of her mouth. “Don’t ask me how I know. I know, and I know that you should stay away.” Seeing my expression, she added, “I’m not supposed to reveal that I know. But I worry.”
Sure, our monitors spy. Our whole world spies on us; complex algorithms collect our data, looking for out-of-the-ordinary activity. But why would a planetary specialist be in the loop?
“How do you know her?” I repeated.
“I only know a bit about her. She will poison you as soon as look at you. You have no idea: keep away.”
Her short fingers brushed my hand, casually, on the table. They were hot and a little wet. I warmed at her touch. She returned the fingers to the wet end of the cigarette. Then she bit savagely into the knuckle of the other hand. I noticed for the first time that her eyes were greenish. I had been sure they were brown. Maybe it was the café lights; that ad depicting a cow in a green field of yesteryear (there are no green fields anymore—only factory farms).
“What do you know about her?” I asked.
“The grieving widow, the mistress of Count Milozs. They’re both involved with the launch, you know. Together they have a lot of money and a lot of pull. She’s a liar, Paul. She chose you for a reason, and it can’t be a benign one.”
“Chose me? Marie, you’re wrong. She came about a personal matter.”
Marie double-dragged on her cigarette. “I doubt it,” she said. She bit her knuckle again, peeling off a small piece of skin with her teeth. She took a deep breath. “My advice doesn’t mean much,” she said, reaching out to hold my hand again, “but keep away. I wish I could say more, but I’m bound by confidentiality.”
I thought of Renée’s words: You are the father. For the first time in my career, I wondered if I was in over my head. But that ozone smell, those brilliant green eyes. She was a mystery I had to solve.
An ad for hot chocolate filled my vision: a ski chalet with icicles on the eaves. Such buildings no longer existed. Not even much snow in the poles anymore.
I felt a chill.
2098 22 December
Renée came to my office ten days after our first meeting, as scheduled. Her hair was down. It was lustrous at the roots and windblown at the ends, about shoulder-length. She looked like she’d been crying, which didn’t flatter her, but made me want to touch her eyelids, her reddened cheekbones, her lips, a little cracked, without a trace of lipstick. Her nipples showed through her dress. She wore sandals, and her feet didn’t look so bad anymore. Women and their beauty regimens. Sadness did not affect her posture, which was perfect. Perfect posture does a lot of good for a small woman.
“Seems we know someone in common,” I said as I looked over her reports.
“Yes, I know,” she said. She waved dismissively. “Marie something.”
“So, you don’t know her well.”
“I know her not at all. Remind me, though. What color are her eyes?”
Fear uncoiled inside my belly. Fear and desire, difficult to tell apart. I could not speak for a moment. “Brown,” I said finally.
A small, secret smile crept across her mouth. She raised her head in a sudden, darting, bird-like motion. For a moment, the light made her eyes appear multifaceted, like the eyes of an insect. I rubbed my arms. I picked up a smoky gray paperweight with a magnified lunar rock at its center (a parting gift from the Agency). I tossed it in the air and caught it again. I placed it on top of the desk monitor with her file on it. Renée, unblinking, still stared at me.
“Your … relationship,” I said at last, “tell me about it. What is the item that Count—that he thinks you stole?”
“Oh that,” she waved her hand impatiently, “that is over. He found it. Well, he did not, but he no longer blames me, so I assume that he suspects someone else. I have no interest in his metallurgical—in all that incompetent … alchemy, for want of a better word. But I am still in trouble. I still want out. Can you help me?”
“I’ll help you.”
“Something has changed with Ferdinand. He is strange and cruel. And you needn’t evade his name: Ferdinand Milozs. You know it from my evaluation.”
“I apologize, then. Back to Count Milozs.”
“What do we do now?” she said.
“I have an associate tailing you and one tailing Milozs. You and I meet again in two weeks.”
“A waste of time, but I will do as you suggest.” She stood suddenly and paced. Then she paused, mid-stride. “Perhaps you would permit me to see your arm, one more time?”
“No, I’m sorry. This process has nothing to do—”
“Well, never mind.” She continued to pace, this petite woman, this dancer who suddenly appeared larger, curvier and much, much taller. Could I have been that much in error at our first meeting? Usually I had a head for details, especially a beautiful woman’s details. She walked over and stood looking down at me. She smelled like molten iron. I felt a spasm of lust.
“How tall are you?” I asked.
“One hundred seventy-seven centimeters.”
“That’s very tall for a dancer. For some reason I thought you were petite.”
She waved a hand. “Many people think that. I was too tall to be a great dancer.”
The lie, the oddness, wrapped around my heart and squeezed. This woman, who was undoubtedly the same woman, had grown. Modern surgery could explain such a thing, of course, but the recovery took months. Much to my horror, the acute desire I felt for her was growing, and was unlike anything I had felt before. I wanted her—I wanted something—so much my head was swollen with it, my hands shaking. It was a hunger that went beyond lust. And believe me, reader, I have felt many types of desire, some very urgent, but none quite like this.
“You can look at my arm,” I said in a strained voice, removing my jacket, my cufflink. My license would be revoked. It was worth it, to be inside that metallic smell for one moment. I was sour, polluted with lust.
“Non, that is not necessary.” She moved away from me, tapped her fingers against the desk.
With great effort, I reigned in my thoughts. “You’re here, Renée, because there’s one problem with your blood work,” I said. “I’m sorry, but the lab has made an error with your sample. You will have to go back. Speak with Jacques this time; he is very good, very thorough.”
2099 5 January
“We’ve done it,” said Marie, drinking, smiling.
She was jittery with pleasure or fear, I couldn’t tell which. She drank two glasses of cognac, one after the other, dropping a gray tablet into each and swirling the liquid until the tablets dissolved and the liquor became milky and opaque. Her cheeks were flushed, her freckles standing out against her nose. Her hair was unbrushed and the sun was behind it, creating a halo of light against its darkness. I was moved, looking at her. I would sit at that café table as long as she would let me, watching her glow. This was a pay-café, no ads. Her eyes glittered with an erotic, belladonna shine.
“What have you done?”
“It will save millions, possibly billions. I tried to block it, but it is ‘too good a chance to pass up.’ So they say.”
“What will save billions?” I said. “Billions of what?”
“Euros. We have found a possible way to circumvent the Mars C.P. disaster. We’ve been experimenting with time. I think we have found a rudimentary way of sending certain very new, very difficult-to-manufacture metal alloys back in time. Ironically enough, the parent metal was found on our last exploratory Mars mission. The alloys were created in a lab. In my lab. In fact, I get to name the alloy. As it turns out, our previous attempt at colonization might not fail after all, so long as the original Euronauts get our message. Do you have anything you would like to send back in time? A memento mori? Ha ha.”
“But I thought we were decades away from that technology.”
“It’s very hush-hush. There is a press release scheduled for Monday, in which the product and its name will be revealed. I have still to think up the name, but I have an idea. We can’t send people back—far too hazardous—just materials. Our thought was to send them directly to the site of the first landing, the International Biosphere, with instructions, very explicit instructions, about how to use the metals to shelter the occupants in the I.B. from the atmospheric toxins that killed them. But the capsule cannot be sent anywhere inhabited. There are dangers if we corrupt the time continuum. The Mars Recolonization Project is almost entirely out of my hands now. There are others working on the M.R.P. who have a lot more influence than me.” She smoked thoughtfully for a moment. “I am serious,” she said, “about your sending something along. A small trophy, small digital file or whatnot. You’re good at putting these things in words.”
“So what killed those people? How can this metal prevent the deaths?”
“I can’t tell you,” she said. “I’m sorry.” Her voice contained a cipher, a warning. She was telling me something I didn’t understand. She smoked and sipped her cognac. I waited for her to say more, but she just sat, smoking and staring stonily.
“Marie,” I said, “your eyes are definitely green.”
She looked at me oddly. Her eyes were just this side of hazel, a sort of sulfur green, deeper around the irises, more yellow toward the whites.
“If you say so, Paul.”
“They are. In this light, they are.”
“Your eyes are tricking you,” she said. She finished her cognac and signaled for more. She went on in a hard voice: “It’s this Renée de Mahieu.
She has green eyes, doesn’t she? She’ll be a Countess soon. You’re still ‘helping’ her, I suppose?” I didn’t answer. But then her look softened. She grew a little shy. “Paul, I’m sorry. My eyes are green: there. I like it when you notice things about me.”
Outside the window, figures hurried through the cold. Pigeons fanned out into the air and resettled. The sidewalks rolled along, with their passengers lined in a row. The closer planets were beginning to appear in the sky.
“I noticed something about you, too,” said Marie. “I never knew you had a scar.”
“The one on your arm. There. Where did you get it?”
“I don’t have a—” But I did, a faint scar running from my thumb to my elbow. “I don’t know.” I couldn’t remember how I had gotten it.
“It looks like it’s from childhood,” she said.
I shook myself. The warm café had become momentarily cold. My arm tingled. Marie lit a cigarette. The smoke hung perfectly still in the air above her head.
2099 18 February
My associate Christophe sat in my office, jiggling his knee. He was charged with tailing de Mahieu and Count Milozs. Beside him sat Jacques, rotund and regal, legs crossed, my lab man. They had requested this meeting.
“There is something wrong with de Mahieu’s story,” said Christophe. “First, look at the photos.”
I looked. Renée and Milozs on the street, at the cinema, going to a fancy-dress party, in front of the Agency.
“Then look at these,” he said. “I made this connection by accident. I was looking through film archives about the Mars project, and I came across these photos. Disconcerting, no?”
It was definitely a different woman, but she looked so like Renée that they could have been sisters. This woman was petite and brown-haired, with the physique and carriage of a dancer. The photo was glossy, like an actor’s head shot, though it showed her entire body. She was dressed in the slim-fitting suits of the original Euronauts. The thought occurred to me that it had been two different women who visited my office, this one the first time and Renée the second.
Christophe said, “This is Frédérique Van Kerckhove. She was one of the first Mars colonists, one of the ones that died; they sent some artists, you know, as well as the scientists and academics. She was a famous Belgian ballet dancer, and they had some grandiose ideas about gravity and its effects on dance. She looks very much like de Mahieu, non? I don’t know the connection yet, or if there is one, but I thought you’d want to see it.” Christophe paused, his eyes darting, his legs jiggling. “Madame de Mahieu passed the digital polygraph, her family history checked, her entire story checked. She is old money, the last surviving heiress of a real old-world fortune. Married her cousin, a wealth-consolidation marriage, it looks like, and then four years ago he jumps off a bridge in Germany. She got everything, the family’s whole fortune. She said that there were problems between her and the Count, but I couldn’t find anything to support that. They are intimate; they go out; they never fight. Something doesn’t ring true in her story. And there is something odd about this other girl, Frédérique. Now look at this. I know she is younger here, but all the same…”
It was a photo of Renée, young, orange-haired. Her face was smiling disarmingly at the camera. Renée in the photograph was different from the Renée I knew. This Renée had wider shoulders, fuller lips, a hardness about the face, something. Though her posture was perfect, she appeared taller and fuller, strong-boned, perhaps even big-boned.
“You’ve watched Renée at home?” I asked. “You’ve followed them everywhere?”
“Oui. Of course, like always. There are no signs of discord. They eat together, talk affectionately, make love. He is a mild man, not violent at all. Just one strange thing: sometimes people go into the house, but I don’t see them leave. They must have another exit somewhere that we’ve not located. And on occasion I’ve lost them. They shake my tail.”
I looked again at the photos of them together. Milozs looked gentle. He was overweight and elderly, but spry, with a neat little goatee and impeccably tailored clothes. “Looks can be deceiving,” I said.
“In this case, looks are not deceiving.” He paused for a long moment, looking at me directly in the eye. “Did you know,” he began slowly, “that Count Milozs is on the board of the Eurospace Agency? Where you used to work. Where your friend works, Marie. Milozs is working on the metals, the ones recovered from Mars. He is working gratis. In fact, he recently gave a significant donation to the Project. Significant. Strange thing: he was in government before he and Madame de Mahieu began their affair. He never had anything to do with science. Suddenly he joins the E.A., quits politics, and with his connections gets himself on the board. Have you …” his eyes squinted down, “have you seen today’s paper? Your friend at the E.A. must really like you.”
Jacques, who had been silent for the entire conversation, cleared his throat. He said, “There is something wrong with her blood sample, very wrong. Your blood is strange, Paul, but hers…well, I can’t understand it. That blood she has, there is no way she could be alive. She is either very ill or there is something wrong with my equipment. I need another sample: I know, I know, this will be my third. I’ll run the tests one more time to make sure.” He uncrossed his legs and then crossed them the other way.
“What’s wrong with the blood?”
“It’s not possible. Her blood is full of metal. I mean full. A fatal amount. And we need a better lab. The metal is nothing I recognize.”
Christophe and Jacques exchanged a look.
2099 18 February
I saw Renée on the moving sidewalks. I do not tail my clients, but after meeting with Christophe and Jacques, I rode the sidewalks in the neighborhood around the office. It seemed that everyone I encountered had green eyes, from the flower seller to the street sweeper to the businessmen streaming by. For the first time I wondered if I was mad. as I saw a bun of apricot hair on a slim erect figure disappearing into the crowd. I ducked into the flow of people, following the bun. I realized she was heading for my office.
The lobby was warm and I rolled up my sleeves. I stopped short. The scar on my arm had gotten thicker. Or maybe it was the light. I could see details I hadn’t noticed before, a ragged semicircle at the crux of my thumb and forefinger and a white, raised line extending to my elbow. I touched it. Hard, definitely scar tissue. My heart began to beat fast.
She was seated, waiting for me, her legs crossed, her hands flat on my desk. I was sure I’d locked the doors. Her green eyes glassy and wide. Her white dress gauzy enough for me to see through it. No shoes. Her feet were perfect now, the feet of a Countess, each tiny toenail painted like an opal.
“You lied,” I said in a hysterical tone.
“Yes,” she replied coolly. She stood. She was taller than she had been. She shook her hair out of the bun and it curled about her head like a twentieth-century pinup. There was something wrong with her, or rather something too right. Everything that made her interesting was gone, replaced with a doll-like perfection.
“You don’t have problems with Milozs.”
“No, but he has something I want. I need. I need you to help me get it.”
“What’s happening to me?” My voice was whiny, like a child’s.
“Good things, my darling, my source.” She took a step toward me. I backed away.
“You’re dangerous,” I said.
She smiled. Her teeth reflected the ambient light. I didn’t see her move her arms, but her dress fell away all at once, as though someone had cleanly cut the shoulders. It fell so softly to the floor, so slowly, that my eyes fell slowly with it, trailing down the long length of her body. Naked, her physical wrongness was amplified. Her face was too symmetrical, her breasts too even, rising and falling with her breath. Her shoulders were straight and looked waxy. Her pubic hair matched her hair perfectly and was almost completely straight. She walked toward me, took my arm, and turned it over. What had been scar tissue was now a pink welt. She raised my arm to her mouth and ran her little red tongue from elbow to hand, along the scar. When she reached the crux of my thumb, she bit the tender flesh, gently at first, then stronger, until she drew a little blood. It felt neither good nor bad, but I felt a hit of what I can only describe as corruption enter my bloodstream, a strange, sexual quickening.
“Now we complete it,” she said. Her voice sounded like two voices, perfectly synchronized. “Now is the time. We must do it. I am the mother; you are the father.”
“What? How…how do you…?”
She smiled. “You’ve noticed the green eyes? It’s for us. For you. You are the source.” She ran her hands down her body. “This,” she said, caressing herself, “this is for you. Don’t you like it?”
I stuttered, “The source? What about … the Count. You … of course I—”
“I can wait. I have time, now I know who you are. You’ll come to me.”
I ran. Fled. At the door I looked back, my heart throbbing, my arm searing. She was still smiling. Her lips looked bloody.
“Meet me at our house, mine and Milozs’s. Whenever you can. I will wait for you.”
2099 19 March
I was sure she was following me. The streets were all sinister in that way they are in Paris when one is afraid, the old buildings with the modern buildings insinuated in between, the moving sidewalks, the hovering cars on top of the rotting art nouveau touches like scabs. I ducked into alleys, into bars, into vapor-bus stops. I wandered in and out of the warrens of the metro. It was after midnight when I thought to visit Marie Sébastien’s flat in the Sixth. Thank goodness I remembered where she lived. I had never been to her house before,t took me almost an hour to find it. I was staggering, drunk with some kind of hunger, desire, hunger, desire, terror. The pain in my arm was excruciating. I knocked at her door. She answered in a threadbare dressing gown. She looked opiated, but when she saw me her eyes opened wide. There was something different about them; were they greener? Quickly I stepped inside. Without a word, Marie made some coffee, placed two demi-cups in front of us. I looked at the liquid. It was thick and looked like mercury, not like coffee at all.
“The scar,” Marie said, looking at my arm on the table. “It’s getting worse. So, it is you. I hoped it wasn’t. Drink the coffee, it will help.”
“The name of the metal,” I said, “I read in the newspaper: Somernium. What made you choose that name?”
“You are the source,” she said without irony. Her voice was bitter.
I stared at her. “What did you say?”
Her eyes lowered. “You’ll choose her, but you might as well know that I’m in love with you,” she sighed, sounding pained. “But what difference does it make?” She placed her knuckle into her mouth, lifted a cigarette from a pack on the table. “There are things that have not yet happened, but we are all pulled along; we have no choice. It is like gravity now, incontrovertible.”
“What’s going on? What is going on?”
“Time is working…differently. Since we started this experiment. Drink your coffee.”
“Well, your scar. It did not exist, correct? And then it did, and now it is a fresh wound. We never should have investigated time travel. It is eating us alive, like a chimera in the programming.”
I picked up the coffee and looked at it, swirled it. It was thick and refracted light. It moved hypnotically. I raised it to my lips. Marie watched me. I drank it. It tasted like nothing else, like poison, living venom, hot metal, but it was what I needed. It went down my throat smooth and easy. Immediately I felt better.
“Time is working differently? How?” I asked.
“Some things will move backward, we have torn the fabric, created a rent. Or something. We don’t really know. Toying with the movement backward in time—it’s disastrous, Paul. Your scar, for instance—we think it will move backward until the time it was originally formed. Will be formed. She acts like she’s an oracle. She knows certain events in advance. I have never believed in such nonsense, but now—what choice have we? Everything she has said has come true.” She smoked furiously. “That woman, the one with whom you are so obsessed. Her name is…was, Frédérique Van Kerckhove. She was one of the survivors.”
“Not all of them died. A few were alive up there, in the Biosphere.”
“I know—the public knows nothing. They showed no signs of life, or of decay for that matter, when the probe landed and brought them back. But four of them were alive. Or…re-animated, what have you. Looked the same after sixty years. We thought we had discovered the secret to extended life. Oh, we were so happy. But then three subjects died within a week. They couldn’t eat; they never slept. They behaved after a few days as though they could not breathe. But she lived. We think she was drinking their blood and that it kept her alive.”
“You mean Frédérique?”
“She was Frédérique then, as young as when the mission started. She had a pocketful of stones, ordinary Martian stones, or so we thought. And she would place them into her mouth until they dissolved, sometimes weeks later. She didn’t eat. She sucked the rocks. We tested them. They are the rocks from which we have derived this metal alloy, Somernium. It dissolves in water. When the others were dead, she requested that Count Milozs come to see her, though they’d never met. He reluctantly agreed, and within a few hours, he had pulled strings. He gave the E.A. a huge donation and they allowed him to take her with him, to release her into the world. Many of us fought against this, but his influence is very great and we were ignored. As you know, the Count and Madame de Mahieu had been carrying on an affair for the last six years; there was the speculation about their alleged involvement in her husband’s death. Murder: doesn’t it seem an ordinary transgression now? Anyway, against all evidence, he believed that Frédérique was de Mahieu, even though two days after her release the body of the true Madame de Mahieu was extracted from the Seine. It was mutilated almost beyond recognition, and a positive I.D. couldn’t really be made. The Count didn’t believe it was her, or didn’t care. The thing is, Frédérique began to look like Madame de Mahieu, a little more every day. We cannot explain it.”
“This coffee—is something wrong with it?”
“You don’t like it?”
“No, I like it too much.”
She lowered her eyes. “It is quite addictive. Someone—we think Milozs—has been disseminating it in various forms: pills, coffee, tea, cigarettes; it is marketed as a cure, an all-natural supplement. It is quite easy to obtain nowadays; it can be found in most bodegas and druggists. I have heard that it is being marketed globally; I suspect it is being added to snack foods, sodas and alcoholic beverages. Milozs had considerable import-export interests. I find that I cannot stop taking it. It’s that woman…that thing. I could see in your eyes that you needed some. The eyes go dull. The one side effect, besides the inability to stop using it, is that it turns the eyes green, but they go gray from want. I couldn’t tell you before. I wanted to protect you, in case none of this involved you. Too late now.”
“But why would I need it? I haven’t ever taken it before.”
“But you will. As I said, time is moving strangely.”
“Obviously I am involved in this. How? I haven’t done anything.”
“Not yet. But you will do something. As I said, time is moving in strange directions. All signs lead to you. You are the source.”
She lifted her eyes sharply. “What do you mean, the father?”
“She said that.”
Marie poured us two more cups of the thick liquid. I drank mine greedily. It was like Easter; it was like mother’s milk; it tasted like a lover’s kiss. Suddenly a gross and tainted feeling overtook me, coalescing into a terrible need, and my insides were full of decay.
Marie looked at me. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, at that moment. My bones suddenly yearned for her. “You must send something back,” she said in a low, urgent tone. “It is vital. Write something, anything. This whole thing must be stopped. I have made arrangements for you to send something back. You write it; I’ll etch it into the metal. Just do it. Everything will be lost, anyway. But we must try.”
“Why can’t you send something back?”
“Because they will remove it. They don’t trust me. They know I am against the project. But they believe you to be some kind of messiah—the ‘father,’ as you say, or the ‘source,’ I don’t know the nomenclature. They will send whatever you give them. They trust you to help them.”
I was so frightened I leapt from my chair. “I have to go!” I almost yelled.
“No,” pleaded Marie, “we need you…you are in terrible danger. You don’t understand, you are safe nowhere. You need to stay with me! Write!
I have the coffee, the tea, the cigarettes, I have pills; you will be all right!”
I ran again, this time with purpose.
“I love you!” she shouted after me.
2099 16 March
I found Milozs’ grand apartment in the 16th arrondissement. The door was open. Terrified, I let myself inside. All was silent.
“Madame?” I shouted. My voice created an echo.
“In here,” said two voices in unison. My heart beat wildly.
I crossed several well-appointed rooms before reaching the bedroom. Count Milozs was lying across the bed. His head was over the edge, his neck broken and bent so far backward that his spine showed between the ligaments of his neck. Renée knelt naked at his side, her face bloody. “You will want some of this,” she said to me, unsurprised that I was there. “He has been taking the metal. You will need it soon.”
My body was wracked with strange lusts. As though propelled by some sinister centripetal force, I staggered in a semicircle around the room, toward her, and put my face to the Count’s warm neck. His blood entered my mouth. I sucked at it, and my hunger slowly abated. Not enough.
“The artery, here,” directed Renée, biting into his arm. She offered me the arm, and I clamped my mouth against it and felt the flush of blood in my mouth, and I sucked and sucked until nothing was left.
“Now the legs.”
We repeated the same process, sucking every drop of blood from every major artery of Milozs’ body, until she was limp and waxen.
“See,” said Renée, “not enough, but enough for now. It is the blood that is best, after the stone. The blood is mixed with a synthetic element, but it suffices. We cannot get the stone here, but once up there we can. They are everywhere; the whole planet is made for us. For now, we drink the blood, after it has been mixed with the element. It contains iron, which we also need. Then—everlasting life; we will live together forever, in the Biosphere, outside. It doesn’t matter. We are immune to everything.”
Renée’s face and body were bloody. Sated, desperate with desire, I seized her and lifted her across Milozs’ inert body. I rolled onto the bed next to her, breathing with difficulty, already hungry again. The hunger was so intermixed with lust that I had no idea which was the stronger force, or if they were indeed distinguishable. I could not remember my life before the endless, torturous ache of want, which stretched before me like tundra. I scrambled out of my clothes, twisted my hands in Renée’s hair and took her savagely, Milozs beneath us. She let out a loud, two-voiced roar, more of triumph than pleasure. She twisted her slippery body under mine. Everything was wet and smelled like ozone. I dragged it out, stopping and starting in perfect ecstasy, an obliterating, murderous pleasure like nothing I had ever felt. I knew, somehow, that it would take root, and that I would be the father. Of what?
“We can live forever up there,” she whispered afterward, in an incantatory cadence. “In the Biosphere, outside. Our children will live forever, as many as we want. Choose other women if you desire, as many as you like, as long as they have the right chemistry. Your Marie, perhaps? It is beautiful up there. In the Biosphere, outside.” Her voice was beguiling.
“How will we get there?”
“The Count arranged everything. His chemistry was wrong, so he couldn’t come with us. As long as we’re on Earth we can stay alive by using the blood. Milozs marketed his tea and cigarettes, and anyone who has been taking them can be drained. We have a crew whose blood we can use. It’s a big crew. There will be enough blood for the journey. After that, we obliterate the human race. It’s a necessary loss: they can only harm us. We will send down the virus. Without the stones it will kill them. The synthetics are not enough. This, unfortunately, cannot be prevented: they will only interfere. I cannot tell you how beautiful it is up there, in the Biosphere, outside.” The blood, the cadence of her voice, the sex, lulled me. I could not think or see, only listen.
“Our children will be perfect; they are the future, a new species. We will love them together. We thought the virus had killed us, most of us dead, but the rocks, licking those rocks, brought our bodies—not only back from the dead—but to perfection. My breast cancer—which I did not know I had until I took the stone and knew my own body, everything about it—its future, its past; I was cured of every suffering of the body, of the mind. My soul was clean and white. No more pointless human weakness. My mind is stronger than the human senses—I can take any form, whatever pleases you. It is the virus, and the stone. I cannot explain. You’ll see. Up there I was happy, but I knew there was someone out there for me. My senses led me to you. You were made for our new world. You are beautiful and perfect in the new world. Everything I do, I do for you. I live for you now. We must evolve, Somerson; now you can be anyone, anything, and so can I, and your other lovers, and our children. You have no idea the beauty, perfect health, the Biosphere, outside in the cold, cold dusk, the red sky so perfect, the wind, the canals, the dry oceans, the acid soil, the ice caps, the troughs where water ran, and will run again, the peak of the volcano, long dead like a relic of such perfection …” Her voice grew far away and she was a mother, and I her child, falling asleep to lilting voice.
I awoke stuck to Milozs’ body. His blood had caked and dried. Renée was gone. She had left a note beside the bed: Go get her. I’ll take care of the body. I stared a long time at the Count. He was stiff and withered and wrinkled. He looked ancient. His head was snapped all the way back, tendons dangling from the dry bones at his throat. His eyes were glazed-green cataracts and his bloodless lips opened in a little O of surprise.
Emotions staggered through me: regret, sadness, horror, confusion, longing, and a monstrous excitement and anticipation. But they were fleeting, and soon replaced with dry thirst, so strong I could feel nothing else. I roamed the house, noting the artful floral arrangements, explosions of dogwood, early cherry blossoms floating in round, glass bowls, fine waterfalls of hothouse love-lies-bleeding spilling from a wall vase. All species that had died out save for in labs. They would die here. They would not be replaced.
I found his stash of pills in the bathroom, took four. Rummaged until I found his cigarettes, smoking every one. In ten minutes the thirst abated, but not enough. I showered, darting through the bedroom with my eyes down, dressed swiftly. In the kitchen I contemplated what to do next. Another victim? How would I go about it? Without Renée, I didn’t know enough about murder. But I was thirsty. I sat for some time in the silence before leaving Milozs’ mutilated body and the arrondissement. On my arm, the wound was fresh, festering, the skin puffed up where I had been bitten. Blood was seeping out of it. I tried not to look at it.
Do I go get her, or try to stop it?
2099 25 March
Now I sit at Marie’s computer, staring at the wall monitor. I feel the dawn yawn open, showing its evil teeth. My hands shake so that I can barely type; my arm bleeds. Marie staggers into the room.
“Are you finished? Say you’re finished,” she says. We have been holed up for two days, smoking, drinking coffee and tea, consuming everything but one another, though I long to touch her. Her body is sweaty and filthy. It looks like an oasis. It is still human. She trembles. Her eyes will not meet mine. If they did, would she break down, grab me, have me, join me, if only for the relief of the moment? Look at me, I think. She doesn’t.
“I am. Almost.”
“Well, etch it. I’m so weak. I don’t know if I can make it to the lab. I will put it in the capsule. Everything else in there is propaganda. They’ll let me put yours in. Then I’ll die. We can’t go.”
“Close your eyes,” I say.
Dutifully, she closes them. I press my fingertips against her eyelids. Only with great reluctance I remove my hands from her skin.
“Just give me a few moments more,” I say. Then I say, “Marie?”
I whisper: “If you fail, come back to me.”
She shakes her head no, but then whispers, “I will.”
Whether or not the knife will seal the wound or kill me, I do not know, but I have my suspicions. I can imagine the incision, the wound cauterizing under the knife, undone. Is it inevitable? Is it fate? Perhaps I will even learn to like it, the red sky, the loneliness, all that death. If you are reading this now, reader, friend, you can change the fate of the world. Perhaps you will laugh at this manuscript, throw it away, or publish it as the ravings of a madman.
But I beg you, reader, blow up the sphere; kill the survivors. Mark my words, reader—save us.