C H A P T E R 1
As the Esterel massif loomed in the distance, I closed my eyes and let the soft Mediterranean breeze play on my face, wondering how my brothers were, and how everything would be: the castle, the vineyard, the stables. When I looked again I saw the walls of Antipolis, we were almost there; I was back at last after an absence of 150 years.
I had decided to land at a private port in hopes that security would be minimal there. I had an ID, but I preferred not put its validity to the test. I glanced at the passport once again: Leonardo Michalak, Argentinean, 34 years old.
The ship switched off its main engines, which kept it just a few inches above the surface of the sea, and descended, rocking a little in contact with the water. At a reduced speed, we passed under an arch that said ‘Port Vauban, Antibes’... True, it hadn’t been called Antipolis for a long time.
As we edged closer to the quay, a crane took up position over the ship, and we were lifted out of the water and placed on a platform. On each side there were structures that held ships stacked above each other. One of the seamen approached and asked me to have my passport ready.
“Customs?” I asked.
“No, ESA, the European Security Agency,” he replied.
It was remarkable how difficult it had become to stay anonymous over these last years. It was said that the authorities had become stricter–paranoid I’d say–because of insecurity and terrorist threats, but it had really started with globalization at the beginning of the century: corporations had found a way to increase their power with the support of governments, and these, in turn, needed to control the population in order to serve the needs of transnational conglomerates; fear had become the most effective way of achieving this.
It used to be so simple; the first time I went to America, at the beginning of the twentieth century, anonymity was practically certain and I could change my identity every time I arrived in a different city. It was perfect. I imagine this can still be done in some places, but it will not be for long.
As I went down the steps, I saw two ESA agents in plain clothes waiting for me, escorted by two police officers. There were two more policemen at the entrance to the port, further away. I approached the nearest agent.
“Bonjour, documents s’il vous plait,” he said.
I handed him my passport, which he scanned with a kind of flashlight. Then he asked me to look directly into the device, and scanned my iris with a beam of green light. I had sought out the best passport forger to make the document for me: he went by the name of Livingstone, claimed to work for the government and said that he made only one passport a year. The ESA man looked up, scrutinized me for a few seconds, and then showed the passport to the other agent. Livingstone had warned me that I had to stay calm, ‘The police can gauge your heartbeat several meters away with their new systems,’ and I had no doubt it was being done at that very moment: if they noticed a sudden change in my pulse rate they might suspect I had something to hide; if they questioned the authenticity of my passport I had no other documents to show, and if they submitted me to a thorough search it would be my ruin.
So I began to use the meditation techniques I had learned from the Sanātana Dharma1, emptying my mind and concentrating on my breathing.
The second agent examined my passport and said, “Excuser nous, Monsieur Michalak,” handed it to me and added, “Welcome to France.”
As I walked away the ESA officers began to argue: my passport had turned out to be a new version that the first agent had never seen; Livingstone had lived up to his reputation after all.
When I left the port I was amazed at how little Antipolis had changed. It was as charming as ever despite the passage of time; there were flowers everywhere, in the public gardens, on apartment balconies: roses, carnations, gardenias, tulips... I would have liked to walk around the city and visit the places I remembered, but there would be time for that; my priority was to see Lucio.
Unlike me, Lucio always tried to stay in the same place; as far as I knew he had been in the area for the last five hundred years. I have no idea how he managed it: when you have lived so long the time comes when you need a purpose, an objective to drive you on. I had turned my efforts to helping humans, not from the material point of view, which was easy, but with their spiritual–or rather existential– problems. Making their problems mine distracted me and gave me a purpose, even if it was temporary. On the other hand, I had never been able to spend more than twenty years in one location without raising suspicion. This was one of the reasons for my return, I suppose: with modern technology and more stringent security controls, I needed a new way to remain anonymous, and Lucio could help me.
The Castle was a two-day walk away, but I did not want to waste any time. I went to an information booth and entered the data: Chateau Bèla-Iscla, Alpes Maritimes. The system asked me to choose a language: French, English, Spanish, Mandarin or Russian; I picked English.
“There are three means of transport to get to the castle; the cheapest, land-bus Nº 8002 covers the distance in two hours. The second, air-bus Nº302, takes 45 minutes, and the third transport, the air-taxi, takes 12 minutes. Which means of transport do you prefer?” the system asked.
I did not like air taxis; I was still wary of molecular intelligence, but it was the fastest way to get there.
“Air taxi,” I replied aloud.
The system indicated the nearest, which was about 50 meters away. Parked there, one would have taken it for a land vehicle; only the name on the sides gave it away: Azur Aero-taxi. I got in; opposite me there was a screen showing a female face and a voice inquired where I wanted to go. I provided the address, paid, and the vehicle rose into the air and began to move steadily away from the port.
From the air the hues of the Mediterranean could be seen in all their splendor, a soft turquoise that gradually changed to sky blue, then to a deep blue. But this was only near the shore: out to sea the water was dark grey, almost black. The color of the coastal waters was obtained by continuous water treatment and the use of laser filters; the depths of the Mediterranean were contaminated, and mostly lifeless. It was something I had never been able to understand about mortals, they were capable of isolating themselves in an artificial world and making believe that everything was as it should be. I suppose that as their life was so ephemeral they did not care about long-term consequences. It was a pity, over the last hundred years the human race had brought the planet more severe negative changes than during the whole previous millennium, and yet humans did not learn their lesson: in their eagerness to have more they had not cared about destroying what they already had.
At any rate it was a great day for flying, and there was no traffic in the cloudless sky. As I looked down at the city I realized that it had changed more than I thought; the green belt had almost disappeared and woodlands had been replaced by enormous residential complexes. The screen began to flicker, indicating that we were almost there. At a distance the castle looked like a small city, as it always had, with its towers, bridges and hundreds of windows. There was an artificial lake with ducks and wild swans, against the backdrop of the French Provence mountains. The sight brought a smile to my face and I felt a current of warmth sweep through me at the thought of seeing my brother again.
The taxi left me at the main entrance. There was a three-meter-high wall almost covered with climbing plants, and also a couple of security cameras.
I approached the door and a screen lit up. A woman’s voice spoke:
“Bienvenue au Château Bèla-Iscla,” she said.
“Bonjour Madame, je m'appelle Asael, Je voudrais...”
“Entrée s'il vous plaît,” she interposed.
It was as if they had been expecting me, but that seemed unlikely. There was an electronic sound and the door swung open, so I set off up the long path. On the way I had the impression that an insect was buzzing after me, but when I inspected it more closely I realized it was a small flying device, a kind of miniature helicopter. I looked around and saw that there were several of them patrolling the estate.
I had always enjoyed entering the castle using this path, especially at this time of the year: the cicadas filled the olive trees with their music and the fragrance of lavender filled the air. There was a housekeeper waiting for me at the door; she welcomed me, escorted me to the waiting room, and said the master would soon be there.
In the center of the room there was a television set with a holographic screen and a leather couch that looked like a tridimensional jigsaw puzzle. The most interesting feature was the interior decoration: the place resembled a museum of modern art, with photosensitive abstract sculptures that changed their shape according to the quantity of light they received, and neo-contemporary paintings.
I heard footsteps but they were not Lucio’s; a young man came in; he was about twenty-five, with fair shoulder- length hair, a turned-up nose and wore black pants with a wine-red silk shirt that contrasted with the color of his disheveled hair. Holding out his hand he said:
“Good morning, my name is Loïc. My father will be here in a few minutes.”
“Pleased to meet you… Do you mean Lucio?”
“That’s right, please sit down.”
For an instant I thought he might be adopted, but his looks led me to believe otherwise. I could not believe Lucio had become a father once more. The seven of us had sworn never to have children again for two reasons: firstly, our offspring did not inherit our immortality, they were ordinary humans, and burying our own children was an unbearable experience—no matter how carefully we prepared ourselves for that day, it left a scar on our soul that would never heal; the second reason was a moral dilemma—the possibility existed that at some point through the millennia we might find love partners that would turn out to be related to us. It seemed Lucio had changed his mind on this.
Loïc went on:
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Asael; my father has told me so much about you.”
Something was wrong, I could understand up to a point that Lucio might have decided to have a son, but what was totally unexpected was that he should have spoken to him about me. Just then I heard the sound of a door followed by footsteps, which I recognized this time.
Lucio was dressed just as I always remembered him: loose-fitting black pants and a white jacket that looked like a kimono; we all had a favorite time in our past and Lucio had been a great samurai in the old Japanese empire.
When he came close he looked into my eyes, and I could see that he was suffering. “Asael,” he said and embraced me; I returned the embrace and felt his anguish.
Loïc excused himself and left, and Lucio asked me into his office. The whole room was a library, walls crammed with books; on one side there were two armchairs and a little corner table, and in the middle near the window there was an old-fashioned cedar-wood desk with two chairs.
I stayed by the door while he went to the window. We gazed at each other for a few seconds without saying a word, analyzing gestures and expressions. When you have known someone for so long you learn to understand many things without the need for speech.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“You don’t know, do you?”
“Don’t know what?”
"What?!” A shudder ran down my spine. “Dead?!”
C H A P T E R 2
Lucio had stayed by the window, gazing into space. It was odd how he had always been like a father to us; he seemed older than the rest and I suppose that is what prompted us to treat him with greater respect. We remained together for several decades, but as time passed and we realized that we were growing no older and had all the time in the world ahead of us, we began to gradually disperse. I suppose that is the reason he decided to stay in one place in order to be the point of contact between us all; despite the distance and the passage of time, thanks to him we had always been able to keep in touch.
“How?” I managed to utter.
Lucio sighed deeply and said:
“You’d better sit down…” I sat on one of the chairs at his desk and he continued, “It all started thirty years ago, Uzen-Seera turned up at the castle one day and asked me to help him; he said he had made a great mistake and couldn’t face up to the consequences. The mistake proved to be a son; the boy was fifteen when he brought him here—his mother had died and he didn’t feel capable of raising him. I asked him to stay and said we’d bring the child up together, but he told me he just couldn’t, he couldn’t bear to see him die—how ironic. The boy’s name is Etan.
Uzen-seera left but promised to write to his son, and did so every month for several years; one day the letters stopped arriving, I didn’t attach much importance to the fact but Etan asked me if we could go and find his father. His anguish was such that I consented; he came with me and it took us a couple of months to find his trail. We heard that he was in a small village in the north of Thailand, near Chiang Mai. But by the time we got to the place it was too late…”
Lucio paused for a while, sat down at his desk, and continued:
“When we entered the house he was supposed to be living in all we found was his motionless body lying on a bed. I tried to wake him but he had no pulse and wasn’t breathing; he was dead…but unlike the bodies of mortals his did not decompose, so we couldn’t be certain when he had died. We stayed there for a few days, investigating his death and trying to decide what to do with his corpse, until one day it disappeared, leaving dust in its place. The dust was in the same place and position of the body. It was as if his remains had been etched in dust, as if he had burned to cinders right there.”
I listened to Lucio’s words in silence, but my mind was a maelstrom of colliding thoughts and words; none of this made any sense. Why would any of us die after thousands of years?
Lucio continued: “As soon as we got back to the castle I began the process of trying to contact you all; I sent messages to all the usual places, temples, churches, I even used the net. At this very moment Etan is in Kenya searching for Caleb, who we think might have news of Seth, as they often travel together. A couple of years ago Nikanur came to see us and he decided to go to Chiang Mai to see if he could discover anything else about what had happened, but I found it impossible to contact either Mikhal or you.”
And how could he! I had disconnected myself from the world several years before, I decided to help an indigenous tribe in the south of South America, and I had to live with them and like them in order to gain their trust. This had meant being isolated from the rest of the world.
“I moved heaven and earth to find you; I knew you were in America so I sent people there to search for you; you have no idea how happy I was when I heard you had arrived,” Lucio said.
“You sent people?”
“I’ve put together a small team of loyal employees. It’s true that we haven’t been able to trust mortals in the past, but this time I had no choice.”
“How many have you told about us?”
“I know we promised to say nothing after what happened in Rome, but I believe the circumstances warrant it. How else can we find out what happened to Uzen?” Lucio asked.
Rome, how to forget… We used to be more open about our secret; in the first century AD, in Rome, Lucio, Nikanur and I had a small select group of disciples to whom we confessed the truth; one of them decided to sell the information to the highest bidder, who turned out to be Nero. The Emperor decided to eliminate us; he could not accept the existence of anyone more powerful than he was. He took refuge in his seaside house in Antium, and sent a group of soldiers to attack us in the meantime; they decided the most effective method of destruction would be to burn us alive. We managed to escape, but one third of Rome went up in flames that night. From that day on we decided to conceal our immortality and, instead of referring to ourselves as immortals, we decided on a less revealing name, The Chosen.
“And are you sure you can trust them?” I asked.
“Most of them have been recruited through Etan, Loïc or Scarlet…besides, Loïc and Scarlet are my children,” Lucio said.
He looked at the expression on my face and guessed my thoughts.
“We need help, Asael; we need mortals so that we can take advantage of the new technologies and so they can travel around and investigate without raising suspicion. In contrast with the mortals of antiquity, our distinguishing attribute doesn’t frighten them, quite the opposite…”
Lucio sat back, rested his elbows on the armrests of his chair, and looked down. He was clearly seeking my approval: he wanted my help in this investigation and it was true… we needed the mortals.
I was still trying to digest all the information when someone tapped at the door.
“Sorry for interrupting, but I have Etan on the line,” said Loïc.
“Put the call through to the office,” Lucio told him.
He beckoned me to sit next to him, pressed a button on the desk and a screen slid out of a slot. A man of about forty-five appeared on the screen, fair skinned with short black hair; the distinctive expression lines on his face gave him a forceful masculine appearance, and he had the demeanor of a leader.
“Hello Lucio,” said Etan.
“Hello, son. Is there any news?”
Etan looked at me and asked, “Is it safe to talk?”
“Etan, this is Asael.”
“Asael, it’s so good you’ve come! Have you called back the team that’s in America?” Etan asked his father.
“Loïc is going to do it. How’s Caleb? Is he with you?”
“He’s nearby; we found him in a rather remote place, living alone in some caves. We’ve spent several hours trying to persuade him.”
“What do you mean?” Lucio asked.
“He won’t speak! He just sits in the cave and watches us without turning a hair. We told him he had to come with us but he acted as if he couldn’t hear us, and when he finally decided to speak he just said ‘No’!”
“Put him on the phone,” Lucio ordered.
The image began to sway, all you could see was the brown floor of the cave. Then everything went dark.
“Etan, we can’t see anything,” Lucio said.
“I know, I’m in the cave; I don’t think there’s enough light for you to see us, but I’ll switch on the speaker so Caleb can hear you. Ready!”
“Caleb, can you hear me? This is Lucio speaking.”
“He raised his face,” said Etan.
“Caleb, it’s Asael. Can you hear me?”
“Lucio, Asael?” Caleb’s voice was a little deeper than usual.
“We can’t tell you the details over the phone, Caleb, but we need to get together. Etan will bring you to the castle and we’ll talk here,” said Lucio.
“He nodded!” Etan said. “We should be arriving tonight; we’ll land in Cannes airport around eleven, and get home around midnight.”
“Ok, see you soon.”
Lucio hung up.
“What was all that about?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said Lucio.
“Do you think Caleb has lost his mind?”
“Let’s wait till he gets here and explains it himself.”
Lucio spoke to Loïc, who was waiting by the door.
“Please, son, take Asael to his room.” He turned to me, “Loïc will show you to your room, we’ll continue with the conversation later.”
There were a lot of questions I wanted to ask, but a little time to assimilate what I’d heard wasn’t a bad idea. I left the room with Loïc showing me the way. We went through the waiting room and back towards the entrance hall, then up the marble staircase to the second storey. The stairs were carpeted in red, one of the few things in which the castle retained its original appearance. All the way up there were photos and portraits on the wall, people I didn’t recognize, except for a photo of Etan and one of Loïc.
Once upstairs we continued to the end of the west corridor. Loïc opened the door of a room for me.
“This will be your bedroom. There are clothes in the closet and you’ll find everything you need in the bathroom. As you can imagine, we’ve been expecting you for a long time: well, it’s been long for us at least.”
I found it strange to hear a mortal talking—even joking—about my immortality. Loïc went to the bedside table and picked up a bracelet made of silver and black leather.
“This bracelet has an integrated chip, which means we can always know what part of the property you’re in.” He then opened the drawer and took out a telephone.
“I know none of you make use of phones, so that’s why I got this particular model: it has no advanced functions, all you need are these two buttons, the green one to answer a call or make one, and the red one to hang up. They’re already set up to communicate with the other phones by means of a voice command; if you need to make a call just press the green button and say the name of the person you want to speak to. For the moment the list includes my father, Nikanur, Etan, Scarlet and I, and now of course you. If there’s an urgent situation just say the word ‘emergency’ and you’ll be put through to Arielle.”
“Yes, our central molecular intelligence system, which handles communications and manages the castle.”
“Thank you, Loïc.”
Loïc nodded and left the room, closing the door behind him.
In fact, what Lucio had said was true: we would never have learned to make use of all these technological devices from one day to the next; we were too accustomed to doing things the old way.
The room, like the rest of the house, was a mélange of medieval architecture and modern furnishings. There was a holographic television set, smaller than the one I’d seen in the waiting room, and next to the bed there was a piece of furniture that contained a fridge filled with beverages and some fruit; I sat on the bed and it began to move—it caught me unawares at first, but I had come across vibrating massage beds before.
The room had a view of the heliport, so I’d witness Caleb’s arrival. How long was it since I last saw him? 150, 160 years…? About the same time I’d last seen Uzen-seera, I thought, except that I would never see him again… I could still remember the last time all seven of us had been together: we were still in the Middle East, not far from the place where we had appeared. We had always been close, but at the same time had such a different view of life that it was unavoidable that each one of us would tread our own paths sooner or later.
Lucio had always wanted us to stay together, or at least nearby, but the rest of us saw things in a different manner. As soon as I understood that we were not going to die, I decided to travel all over the world, see new places—see every place—and now, thinking back, I believe I accomplished this: there was not a country in the world I had not visited, or a language I had not heard; if truth be told, there were few experiences I had not undergone.
I find it hard to believe that there will never again be a meeting of the seven. Uzen-seera is dead…dead! I cannot just sit around doing nothing: I must take a shower and then see what else I can find out.
The novel is available in paperback and electronic version in the following links: