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(A novel   – copyright Florence Vitel 2016-2020 for NaNoWriMo 2016)

Chapter One 

Trees. 

Trees, one after another stretching their height before my tired eyes and vanishing as quickly as they had appeared on the sides of the road. 

Trees, neatly aligned, regular pillars of civilization, perfect embodiment of man’s domination over nature. 

Trees that we fail to see if we are not observing them. I surprised myself and thought of how beautiful they were, like adornments on this long boring road.

The yellow and copper leaves, with their pinkish seams, bore an element of enchantment, as they swirled graciously in the cold breeze. From time to time, a drone passed by swiftly, discreet patrols appearing from nowhere supposedly to help with any accident or unusual incident. Everybody knew they were continuously on the watch and recording, and not just to report mechanical problems or environmental incidents.

The clouds over the flatland had become oppressive, with their woolly and leaden shapes. Scarce rays of light pierced the sky like an ancient god’s fingers, and reminded me of a particular painting by Turner, or maybe it was Johan Christian Dahl. Those trees at that moment, it occurred to my suddenly puzzled mind, were the exact expression of my own enslavement to said civilization and progress. How long has it been since I went in a forest for a walk or a hike? When was the last time I had wandered in open fields, let my senses harvest the beauty of nature, rolled my feet onto polished pebbles on a shore? Or watched the clouds passing above me with their tails of cotton ribbons coloured by a sunset, flat on my back in the grass?

Inadvertently I sighed. Arietta and Osten sitting in the front seats of the car did not hear me, for they were engulfed in an intense conversation on a subject I could not remember. I only noticed that Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony subtly filled the air. My thoughts drifted more. After a little break, in two weeks’ time, I would head to my parents’ country house, to celebrate our birthdays, my sister and I, as we did every year. We never often gathered, and we had chosen long ago to jointly celebrate our birthdays. And after that, well… After that, a new page could be written for me. 

I also reflected on the past days. We had just left, my two colleagues and I, a 5-day training course on Ocean Acidification near Viborg, or shall I say NewViborg, in NewDenmark, and just a few days before that, we had attended an international symposium on Isotope Hydrology in NewVienna. There we were, worker ants of a bigger colony, rambling from one place to another to learn things, to gather information, to exchange crucial data and like ants, working together to support the colony in an hostile environment, with only this narrow empty road in the middle of central Jutland to link us to our earthly nature. The landscape showed the glowing hues of a continental autumn despite the looming storm. We had chosen to spend three days together in NewCopenhagen before the flight back to NewVienna, to rest a bit, to visit the town and to detach ourselves from the sad reality of changing seawater chemistry, and its subsequent further endangerment of wildlife. As if there was not enough  to fear, along those lines. 

The Symposium in Vienna–I could never brought myself to call this city NewVienna, as I had been living there several years after I completed my phD, and I did see its change of name, but never fully acknowledged it ; for me Vienna will always be Vienna, New Ecoregional League or not, but I do not bother for the cities I have never lived in to call them by their new designation– had been as informative and also as much worry-inducing. For now, all I needed was a break. My work as a nuclear physicist kept me long hours confined in a lab, bent on my notes or plunged up to my neck in experimentation in a thick walled underground facility. Or attending symposia on subjects related closely or less closely to the world of nuclear physics and their numerous applications. 

So, trees, I did not see much of them in my everyday life and these leaves waving in a faded sunset brutally told me how disconnected I had become from this nature I used to study when at the Uni and lately only been scrutinizing under my quantic microscope. Focused all the time on the extremely tiny had brought me to forget the normal-sized rest of my world. 

I distractedly toyed several minutes the idea of quitting my job to become a beekeeper… a dream I had when I was a child. But now, bees were controlled and bred by the Ministry of Designed Wildlife ; old-school beekeepers were considered renegades and as such, publicly chastised and heavily fined. A die-hard rumor said that despite this rule, they had organized themselves in secret societies to bring back the bees in the country. 

I looked at my radio-control watch. In roughly twenty minutes from now, we should arrive at NewArhus, the port where we would get a ferry to cross the Kattegat, the sound between Sweden and NewDenmark, to reach NewCopenhagen via route 21. 

Discreetly, I unlocked a secret compartment lodged on the back of my watch and checked its content. The ultraslim flash drive was securely tucked in, sealed in a tiny waterproof pouch made of noctonium and lined with palladium. 

Undetectable. 

I smiled. This flash drive contained data I intended to exchange for an unlimited wealth and liberty of choice. This amount of data was the fruit of years of research, mine and analysis I did about the works of others, who failed to see the connections stemming from our various works, yet closely related somehow. But I had been the one connecting the dots, for I had compiled those informations, experiments, research results and data during after hours work, following an intuition I was close to prove right. The analytics were too precious to be wasted, misused, discarded or wrongly credited to someone else and I did not want to hand them to the owner of my lab.  You see, my doubts about my lab not being entirely free of “foreign and dubious” influence had been recently confirmed, and although I am not big on politics and feel mostly unconcerned by that, I still have ethics and a moral sense of values. 

The lab I willingly slaved away my youth for and devoted my best neuronal activity to was on the verge of being  phagocytized by a bigger consortium I had found out to be quite corrupted and which showed an excessive willingness to serve an ultra-radicalised groupuscule of the government (in opposition, but powerful still) I did not want to acknowledge as legitimate, nor as a just, honest, or eager to do the right thing institution. 

This little flash drive was the sesame to my freedom. I would pursue my research elsewhere, which was my only real worry, and if I could work without having to question my consciousness, then all the better. It’s not that I have particularly iron-clad views on politics, or supremely high moral standards, but my basic needs to be met. And radicalisation, racist or totalitarian ideologies are not compatible with my threshold of indifference. Besides, alongside the growing disgust I felt for my current lab, and the disappearance of a colleague of good repute, and a rampant atmosphere of defiance, it has been easy to take the leap. I knew that with my profile, the field I was in, my eagerness to achieve and my impeccable records, it would never be a difficulty for me to find a new sponsor. My decision was to set sail for another future, brighter, during this very trip, and let myself board that ferry and never to disembark from said ferry. Maybe I should have warned my parents that I would probably not be able to join them for the birthday party… The wind rustled in the copper leaves, my thoughts twirled under the clouds like those lonely leaves did in this fading afternoon.

The half-track car, the newest PaxTrakx model of TrakxFast Company, with its pads and caterpillar chain-tracks seemed to float above the Teflon-coated asphalt, like eagles on a hot current of air. 

The last colours of the day absorbed by darker clouds, Mozart still powerful in my ears, I felt somewhat melancholic and at some point heard myself scream : “Stop!” 

The driver slammed on the brakes, and even though the half-track car came noiselessly to a halt thanks to the electromagnetic system, we all jolted towards the windshield, held by our seat belts. 

Osten glanced sulkily at me but his irritated voice managed to stay calm  : “Something the matter?” 

Arietta stared at me shyly. Osten and Arietta were old colleagues of mine, we had worked together and in separate teams during our careers, occasionally reunited when projects brought us on the same subject, or because we had convergent interests. Arietta had specialized in nuclear fission. I had met her during a master’s degree I did on the topic, thirteen years ago. Osten is the ultimate specialist, in my opinion, of nuclear fusion by magnetic confinement of plasma utilizing the Stellerator design. Yet I did not understand why they were both so keen on having me enrolled in a conference about Ocean acidification and another one about Hydrology. I did not see any connection to our field of research. But then again, they had convinced me that I might benefit sooner or later, in my work, from these scientific presentations, as I had grown heavily interested in finding new ways, particularly in water, to source deuterium and tritium, those atomic elements of hydrogen necessary to achieve nuclear fusion. 

I stared at them blankly, a little confused, because it had just become clear that these training sessions could simply not be related to my work. Or theirs. 

“None of you should have been there”  repeated the little voice in my head. There was something else, “something is not right”, the voice subsided again. Besides, Osten had displayed signs of nervousness all day long, which is unusual for him, as he is a tower of self-control most of the time. Little mouse uncomfortable at the moment, glancing in my direction from time to time, for whatever reason, Arietta had shrunk on her seat.

Osten asked again why I screamed. I had no reasonable answer to offer, so I clumsily pleaded an urgent need to make a “technical pause”, virtually impossible to resist, and the absence in the car (and I am sorry to say things as prosaic and trivial as this) of a Travel Pissotière, this device one can buy at any port, airport, or carport. A travel pissotière is a box capped with a tube (for men), or a cone (for women) or an oval ball (for unspecified gender), that is lined with a sponge full of chemicals, which releases a scent of eucalyptus once used, and that can be cleaned, dried and reuse almost ad vitam aeternam for the traveler, very discreetly. Hence the name.  

Osten slowly pulled over and I got out of the PaxTrakx. 

The field on this side of the road was open and wide, lined with thorny edges and glowing wind turbines. A drone approached, circling for a minute or so around us. I knew it was scanning our faces and pattern of movements to identify a potential road incident. Osten pushed a button near the steering wheel to signal that everything was ok, so the little drone resumed its patrolling. 

I put  rubber pads on (every vehicle of this kind carries four pairs of pads like these), secured them on my shoes with straps, in order not to fall on the slippery Teflon. 

In the past decade, every road in NewEurope had been coated with this polymer, in order to ease the transition from fossil fueled vehicles to new bio-masse or alternative energy propelled ones, combined with the adequate gliding material. Yet, some proto-countries had chosen to not transition to this new technology, like Sweden or some federative states of the Great Phocean Combinate in the Mediterranean Region, due to their geography or their environmentalist policy. But I am not here to explore the  geopolitics or ideology thereof…

I gingerly crossed the road to get to the other side, where I would enjoy a little more privacy, and disappeared behind a bush. But instead of stopping to do what I was supposed to do, I continued to walk. 

Predictably, the air was cold and salty, I spotted the distant fire of an automated lighthouse, uneven yellow strips of light on the clouds. I took off the pads, my shoes and my socks, despite the cooler temperature. A tickle ran along my legs as my bare feet touched the cold ground. A thin dew had lined the blades of grass, and the sphagnums full of water made an unmistakable sound as I stepped on them, the long-forgotten but yet still somewhat familiar “sploosh” as the water was expunged. 

In the distance, I saw the vehicle and its TFC logo shine in the last rays of the daylight. I spotted another drone patrolling near Osten and Arietta.  

There I stood, barefoot and ankle-deep in the watery marsh, shivering, my lungs filled with as much fresh air as possible, faintly light-headed with each inhalation I took, a little dizzy too by an overflow of irrepressible yet inexplicable joy. I laughed gently, unable to control this wave of well-being that had arisen in me. The scent of the approaching night burst in my nostrils, a mix of humid hay, freshly turned soil, iodine and this strange thing, the cool particles constituent of the nocturnal air, which is different from the air full of light we breathe during the day. I laughed more loudly, blissfully. 

It’s always felt like a respite to me, this kind of air. When I leave my lab, or any place I might find myself in, if I can, I like to breathe deeply at night in my lungs. Maybe because I work until too late so often, it’s like a breath of freedom after a long day. It felt no different that night. My old companion the night, always eager to catch me before I get home, winter or summer, day in, day out. Married to my work, like many of my colleagues and unlike my parents, instead of a loving or at least a matching-enough partner ; reluctant to leave my world of science to dwell into the world of humans, burying myself in the former probably to escape the latter. I had just made a plan to change that and enable myself to be free to do whatever I wanted. 

Lost in my thoughts, I forgot the marsh, the cold water, the night falling on me. 

I was happy to stand in the middle of this countryside, reconnecting with my earthly nature, my mind filled with all the opportunities that lay before me. Nuke science, of course. But on my terms. 

Yet something was slightly different, and not everything was about to go according to said plan, for it was the last time I would breathe this air.

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copyrighted work all rights reserved Florence Vitel 2016-2020