The Liveforever Machine: Chapter 1
Any hotter and the whole city would go up in flames.
Eric pushed the hair back from his damp forehead, waiting for an opening in the traffic. Come on, come on. He looked across the road to the museum. Air-conditioned: he moved the word between his lips, drawn out long and soft, like a whisper of cool wind. Good thing they lived just across the road. This was the fifth day in a row now that he'd sought refuge in the city museum. It was a lot better than hanging around in some underground mall.
He darted out, dancing around car bumpers, shuffling back from the yellow line as a convertible slung by, then running all out across the final stretch of scalding asphalt. He paused on the other side to catch his breath. The heat was like a lead apron over his narrow shoulders and chest. He could even taste the heat-damp, tinged with the sharp chemical tang of car exhaust. This stuff was poisonous.
The smothering heatwave had slouched into the city a week ago, settling over the streets like a cantankerous cat. It warped Eric's paperback books, made the walls of his paper models sag, brought his posters curling off the walls. At night the heat padded stealthily through his open window and curled up on his chest as he slept. He woke every morning in a film of sweat.
During the day the heat pooled like water on the asphalt, sending up mirages. Eric had heard news reports of drivers who had swerved to avoid nonexistent stands of trees, herds of water buffalo, and, once, an oncoming freight train.
And all across the city, things had been happening. Like the traffic lights at the intersection all flashing green for an entire morning, or the city hall bells chiming noon at four in the morning. And just yesterday, walking back from the twenty-four-hour doughnut store, he'd seen a huge column of thick black smoke explode from a manhole cover in the middle of the road.
There were stranger things, too. He'd watched from his window as all the lights in a block of downtown highrises flickered, faded, and then flared up brighter than before. In the sky, the advertising blimps, usually so slow and careful, were darting erratically like agitated beetles. They skimmed past one another, diving so low over the high peaks of the city that Eric thought they were going to crash. A few days ago, during rush hour, he'd seen a car veer off the road and slam a fire hydrant over. But there wasn't any water, just a harsh sound of sucking air. He'd heard stories of men and women sprawled in the cracked basins of dried-up fountains, begging for rain in their sleep. The newspapers had carried front-page photos of a man who'd scaled the side of a skyscraper, hoping for a cool breeze that wasn't there.
"Heatwave city," Eric muttered. It sounded like the title of one of his father's stories.
The revolving door swung him into the sudden cool of the museum. He exhaled in relief. The quiet here in the entrance hallway seemed impossible after the roar of the street. The muffled sounds of footsteps and lowered voices dissolved within the enormous space, drawn upwards like currents of air towards the high ceiling. Eric felt as if he were in a church. Light glanced softly off the smooth surface of the floor, illuminating a large circular mosaic of the sun and planets in the centre of the hall. A broad staircase curved upwards to the next level and, on all sides, high corridors receded into the vastness of the museum. He breathed in the familiar smell-he'd never quite been able to nail it down. What was it? Light and dust and wood and polished stone. Did stone have a smell? It was all the smell of the past to him.
The sweat on his forehead and back cooled. He checked his pocket for the museum notebook. Every time he came, he wrote down two things that he wanted to remember. Then, during the following week, he'd memorize them. Two a visit, he'd found, was the limit-any more and he'd just forget. He'd had this particular notebook for almost three years.
He made his way towards the staircase, glancing in at the gift shop as he passed. As always, it was packed. There were probably more people in the shop than in the rest of the museum. He'd once seen a whole busload of people come through the main doors and head straight for the gift shop, buying postcards, key chains, bookmarks, placemats, coffee mugs, miniature replicas of statues they hadn't even seen. Then back they shuffled into the bus like a crowd of penguins. What was the point?
He moved through the museum, guided by the familiarity of years of visits with his father. He sometimes felt he'd grown up in the high, quiet galleries and long corridors. When he was younger, there had been trips to the zoo, the amusement park, and the library, as well, but the visits to the museum remained the strongest memories. And over the past five days, he'd spent so much time here that he'd started to dream about the museum, navigating maze-like corridors, wandering through immense galleries without ceilings, propping up sagging walls with his shoulders.
He walked quickly past display cases filled with shards of prehistoric pottery. His father would have stopped to inspect them carefully, reading every sign. If it was old, he wanted to know about it. But Eric never had the patience. He liked the big things: the Spanish galleon you could walk through, the Chinese tomb with its stone soldiers and camels, the recreated coal mine, the dinosaurs.
He paused in the corridor. His nostrils quivered. A strange, dark smell had passed through the air and he seemed to have caught the tail end of it. It wasn't a museum smell, but it wasn't unfamiliar either: it was the stale smell of oil and electricity that his father sometimes brought home with him after a long day working on the subway. Strange that it was here, though. He sniffed the air a few more times, but it was fading now, almost gone. He headed for the dinosaur gallery.
A woolly mammoth, tusks raised high in the air, stood at the entrance. He'd walked through the darkened dinosaur gallery countless times with his father: it had always been their favourite part. When Eric was younger, his father would read him the information about each dinosaur from the sign. He'd often make up a few details, though Eric hadn't known this until he got older and could read the signs for himself. "The Tyrannosaurus Rex," his father would tell him, "had such bad breath he was shunned by all the other dinosaurs and forced to live alone in the forest" or "The Brontosaurus' tail was so long that he was forever tripping over it, much to the amusement of the other dinosaurs."
The gallery was empty except for a man in black jeans and T-shirt who was just leaving. Eric reached across the railing and touched one of the dinosaur bones, encircling it with his hand: hard, varnished bone, cool to the touch. Doing this wasn't strictly allowed, but what did it matter? He was being careful. There should be more things to touch in the museum anyway; somehow things seem less real when they're on the other side of a glass panel. But he knew the displays had to be protected. He could still see the initials someone had carved into the ribs of the Triceratops, and there were sometimes cigarette butts in the foliage.
He remembered his father, a few years back, wrapping his fingers around one of the dinosaur bones, and smiling, saying, "This is the way you should hold onto the past. With all your strength."
Dad was like that a lot, talking like one of the characters in his stories-and they were pretty damn hard to figure out. With all your strength. All right. He could understand that, maybe, if it meant trying to protect old things from getting carved up by some idiot with a jackknife. But it was never that simple with his father.
Upstairs, he stepped through the archway into the medieval gallery. On either side of the broad, dimly lit passage were magnificent displays of soldiers from the Middle Ages, some in armour, some on horseback with lances, others on foot, carrying swords or bows. Behind the railings, the displays seemed to stretch back forever across a rocky plain, into deep shadow.
He walked slowly to the end of the gallery, then started back again. He had pulled the notebook from his jeans pocket and begun to write down a description of the soldiers' armour when someone brushed past him, jostling his pencil.
"Idiot," Eric muttered, looking up.
It was the man he'd seen in the dinosaur gallery, the one dressed all in black. He was walking quickly, his shoes making a staccato click against the polished floor. And there it was again, that odour, stronger now in the man's wake. Oil and electricity. At the far end of the corridor, he stopped abruptly, silhouetted in the high archway.
Eric squinted. A second man had appeared, as if from the display, amid the horses and soldiers. Funny, he hadn't noticed anyone there when he passed a few minutes ago. The new arrival was tall and slightly stooped, dressed in coveralls. Eric caught a glimpse of silver hair and an aged, aquiline profile. The figure moved towards the archway until the two men were quite close, blackened against the light, facing each other, stock-still.
Eric watched them from the corner of his eye. There was something strange about all this. Who were these two guys? The one in coveralls looked as if he worked here. But somehow this didn't look like just a casual meeting. They stared at each other for a long time, and then the taller one took a small step forward. For a second, Eric thought he was going to embrace the one in black-long-lost friends, brothers? Instead, they began to speak, fragments of their conversation diffusing through the long corridor.
"... took me a while to catch up with you, Alexander." Who was that? Eric peered at their faces: it was the man in the black jeans talking. So the other guy, the tall guy, was Alexander.
"... most miraculous," he heard Alexander say in a low, hoarse voice. "Your hair, the colour and length of it: that is the sole difference. Otherwise, not a single alteration ... don't know why it ought to surprise me, and yet it always does. How many years ..." His voice trailed off.
Eric strained to catch the words, but they faded out like a ghost radio signal. He was too far away. He took a deep breath and stepped across the railing and into the shadows of the display. Gravel and packed dirt whispered beneath his feet. Slowly, carefully, he began moving deeper into the display, towards the two men at the far end of the gallery. The thick smell of oil made his nostrils tingle. Harsh laughter shimmered down the hallway.
"By the way, that's not my name anymore ... I've got a brand new one now." It was the man in black again. What did he mean? Eric wondered. He's changed his name? Is that it? The man said something else, but it was only an inaudible, serpentine whisper.
"... made an apt choice," Alexander replied. And then he coughed-a dry, rasping cough that jerked him forward a little.
"... not still sick, are you?" The man in black. There was a mean edge to his voice, as if he were some snickering, smart-ass kid. "Just can't shake it, can you?"
Still moving through the display, Eric bumped against one of the soldiers. He froze, holding his breath. It was all right; no one had heard. He crouched down, balanced on the balls of his feet. His jeans tightened uncomfortably around his knees. Through the legs of horses and soldiers, he watched the two men.
"You reek of machinery," Alexander said disdainfully. There was something strange about his voice, Eric noticed. Not really an accent-or not one Eric could put his finger on, anyway. Still, it was somehow foreign, maybe like a whole bunch of accents laid one on top of another.
"You got it," said the other man. "I've been busy. You look old, Alexander, very old. Aren't you getting tired of it all?"
Eric still couldn't make out his face. Turn around a little so I can see you, Mr. Dressed-in-Black.
"It was scarcely a surprise, of course," Alexander was saying. "I was certain it was you. You proclaim your presence in unmistakable fashion: the belligerent and odious bellowing of a vandal."
Eric shook his head. This was getting very weird. He hadn't ever heard anyone talk like that, except his father when he was reading from an old book. Who were these guys?
"It was so easy, these last two," said the man in the black jeans as he began walking deeper into the gallery, with Alexander following a few steps behind. "Flames are best for old things, aren't they? They burn so easily. They didn't have what I was looking for, so ..."
Eric pivoted slowly on his heels, keeping the two men in view. He caught a good glimpse of the one in black. Pretty ordinary, he thought: nondescript features and short, dark hair, cropped close at the sides. Nothing special. Could have been anyone.
"... maybe you're next, Alexander. Thought about it?"
Alexander said something that Eric didn't understand. He'd never heard anything like it, a harsh clashing of consonants.
"Stop!" the man in black said harshly, and Eric thought there was panic in his voice. Then, more calmly, he said, "In English now, old man."
"Have you forgotten the others so soon?" Alexander inquired with a hint of mockery.
"There's nothing to forget."
"All of them, then. It is unthinkable to me. Even Latin?"
Latin? No one spoke Latin.
The other man said nothing. His face, Eric noticed, had the hardened, sculpted look of a mask.
"Why do you insist on returning?" Alexander asked tiredly. "Is there no remorse in you for the irreparable damage you've done over the years?"
What the hell were they talking about? Eric raged silently. He waited impatiently for them to say more, but a small cluster of visitors had come into the gallery and the two men fell silent. The visitors took a perfunctory look around, and one of them shot off what sounded like a whole roll of film without stopping. In a few minutes they were gone.
Eric fanned his hands out on the gravel to keep himself from tipping over. His long, skinny legs were beginning to ache and the right knee of his jeans had finally ripped open. Stupid pointy knees, he thought.
The two men had stopped almost directly in front of Eric. The one in black looked around as if noticing the display for the first time.
"This is very nice," he commented. "You've been working hard."
He stepped over the railing on the opposite side of the passageway and walked lazily to a soldier in chain-link armour who stood with sword and shield raised for combat.
"It's only a matter of time, old man, and time, as they say, is on my side, yes it is ..." He moved his hand carelessly over the intricate tracery on the shield, then flicked it disdainfully with his fingernail. "Very nice." He tapped the soldier's plaster face with his knuckles.
Who did this guy think he was? To just walk into the display and start poking at old, valuable things as if they were junk.
Without looking at Alexander, the man in black said, "Why don't you just give it to me?"
"No." Alexander stepped over the railing now as well.
The younger man pushed almost playfully against the soldier with his hand. It rocked slightly. Eric could feel his heart quickening in anger. Why wasn't the other guy doing anything to stop him? Why didn't he call for one of the security guards?
"I'll make you an offer you can't refuse, Alexander." Pushing against the soldier, rocking it back and forth.
The soldier teetered over and went crashing to the ground. Eric almost cried out, but bottled it up before he gave himself away. His heart clattered in his chest. A huge crack had opened in the soldier's neck, and the sword and shield had been wrenched out of his broken fingers.
The man in the dark outfit turned to face Alexander. Eric couldn't look away. He felt as if he were watching some kind of hypnotic shadow play. Then, with a suddenness that made his breath snag in his throat, the two men came crashing together, arms lashing out, each one's hands straining for the other's throat. They were locked together for three, four, five seconds before they broke, moving apart, dark shapes heaving for air. Then they were back in their fighters' embrace, fighting almost silently except for the shuffle of their shoes against the floor and the whisper of clothing against clothing.
Something quite small fell out of Alexander's pocket, and Eric could have sworn he heard it land-as if every other noise in the room had been blocked out, leaving only the single, amplified sound of the object hitting the gravel. And then his eyes were pulled back to the two men. Alexander doesn't have a chance, he thought.
But then they pushed away from each other and stood at arm's length, panting.
"... forgotten how much I hated you," the younger man whispered in contempt, his breath ragged with exertion.
"Of course you did." Alexander snapped bitterly. "This is not surprising to me in the least. You forget everything."
The man in the black jeans suddenly whirled around and seized the sword from beside the toppled soldier.
Eric began to rise. This guy was crazy! But Alexander was standing still-wasn't he even afraid? What was wrong with him? Run! Eric wanted to shout.
"Useless," snapped the tall, stooped man. "Have you forgotten that too? In any event, you doubtless do not recollect how to use it." He coughed again, a violent rattling deep in his chest. One hand went out to the railing for support.
"It's here somewhere," the other man whispered viciously. "Any hiding place, I'll find. And, Alexander, there are machines-real machines that have to be seen to be believed. You can't imagine the power of them. They're beautiful. When I walked out of the Louvre that day, everything else ... before ... all a dark dream. These machines are the power and the glory, the way of the future, Alexander. You can't stop them. This is my time. Yours is over."
"Go, go," said Alexander, his voice a tired croak.
The man in black threw the sword to the ground and turned.
"The way of the future," he said again. Without looking back, he stepped over the railing and walked out of the gallery.
Eric watched as Alexander stooped over the toppled soldier and tried to stand it upright. But it was apparently too heavy and he lowered it gently to the ground. He picked up the sword and shield and examined them carefully. Then he stood up, looking around the armoury. He seemed alert, as if he were listening.
Eric pressed his hands hard against the ground and tried to remain absolutely motionless. A trickle of sweat ran down over his ribs. Whatever that was, he told himself, you were not supposed to see it.
Alexander stood a moment longer, his head tilted attentively. Then, holding the sword and the shield, he turned and moved deeper in the display, further and further back. Eric squinted after him. Where was he going? The shadows closed around him and he was soon just a dark outline, and then, nothing at all. He'd disappeared. Must be a door back there somewhere.
Eric let out a deep breath. All he wanted to do was get out, fast, but he made himself wait a few more seconds before painfully pushing himself out of his crouch. He walked quickly to the railing and hopped over onto the tiled floor. Then he hesitated. There. It was still there, just at the edge of the display.
He took one quick look around the gallery and then bent down and reached out his hand. His fingers closed around it.
Copyright 1990 Kenneth Oppel