Horla Fiction (December 2020)

 

RETURNING FROM THE SHADOWS

by GUIDO EEKHAUT

TODAY, the world is a strange and unfinished place, as it always was. Life is an extension of yesterday, and an intention for tomorrow. This we all felt deeply, while we were slowly traveling south on board of an almost empty Swedish cargo vessel. Most of us had embarked in Hamburg. We had seen the crumbling shores of England and were now descending upon Africa, a neocolonial Africa more or less fixed in the present. On board we played chess and a variety of card games, but never for money. There was no longer any point in playing for money. 

Across from dark Gibraltar we noticed storm clouds over the Atlantic, but they passed us by. Later on, north of the Canary Islands, we observed a weathered galleon flying a British naval flag, probably a fully armed three-decker, but with those engines of ours we easily outran it. Soon it was only a memory. Soon we would encounter more dangerous enemies.

Last year around this time I was staying at Lago Maggiore, in a luxury hotel across the lake from Stresa, in Palanza. The town had a harbor for the boats that went up and down the lake, connecting the main towns and the islands. The hotel had a small but pleasant garden and an indoor swimming pool. This was six months after The Incident.

The Incident, as it was called. We didn’t know what else to call it. It came unexpectedly, and still we should have been prepared. That’s what has been held against us, that we were never prepared. We could have known something like that was bound to happen. You don’t mess with fundamental forces of nature — and with fundamental particles — without expecting some backlash.

Without at least taking into account that something, somewhere, somehow, would definitively go wrong, and perhaps in a grand way. The people who exploded the first atom bomb back in New Mexico or wherever that was, expected the atmosphere to ignite.

Still they tested the thing. Which tells a lot about the mindset of scientists.

So the Incident happened, although nobody noticed anything strange or different right away. Things only started to change during the following weeks. Roman era soldiers, believed to be enactors at first, appeared around Ipswich. Nothing much happened except from some confusion and two cars colliding, and they left again. Then a fully equipped Viking dragon-boat was spotted from a container ship in the northern Atlantic. Things went bad after that. A Mongol war party raided a village in the north of China and left bodies of villagers pierced with ancient arrows.

Yesterday had come back to haunt us.

*

The small parking lot in front of the hotel in Palanza was full. Cars with Italian licence plates, almost no tourists. “There’s a wedding party going on in the restaurant,” the doorman said. “But it will not take long any more. We will take care of your car and drive it back here later this evening.”

My luggage was brought to my room, which overlooked the lake. A small sailing yacht was anchored twenty feet from the shore. Dark clouds covered the northern horizon, over Switzerland, where things were happening at CERN. Or not. Or no longer. Depending on your definition of things.

This side of the lake was supposed to be quiet. Fewer hotels, and only large, expensive ones. I had sold my considerable share of the company and would be able to life like this for the rest of my life. I could now afford this kind of hotels. But I needed something to be occupied with. Something useful to do. Life however had changed since The Incident. Perhaps people like me were no longer needed.

The restaurant was only half full, after the wedding party. This was May, and out of season. People staying at the hotel were mostly elderly tourists, or businessmen on expense accounts.

Re-enactors. That was how the invaders had been dismissed at first. Those somewhat bizarre but harmless history buffs who preferred to spend their weekends in another era. That did not explain the arrows sticking out of dead Chinese villagers. Some sort if terrorist attack? Making a point of wanting to go back to more simple times? Proving that arrows can kill as well as bombs?

*

That was before another war party drove into the town of Sedona, Arizona, and started killing and looting. Native Americans, on horses, armed with rifles, bows, tomahawks. Surviving witnesses told about some of the attackers walking into glass doors as if they had never seen glass before. Entering stores, but not knowing what to take, as if none of the products on display made any sense to them.

They left seven of their party behind, dead. All clad in clothes handmade from skins and woven grass. Three rifles recuperated on the scene were Winchesters of a model not manufactured after 1890. Used, but kept in decent condition and regularly fired. In al thirty-three good inhabitants of Sedona were killed.

None of the dead Indians belonged to the local native American community. None of them could be identified.

A week later two small sailing vessels of an ancient design embarked a score of wild, stinking and violent men on the beach of a village south of Dover. They raped and killed and maimed tourists and locals alike, before being driven back by a squad of hastily summoned armed police and a security detail from the local Navy base, but leaving none of their own behind. After that, the United Kingdom closed its borders.

Not all encounters were violent. But given humanity’s predilection for conflict, conquest and the disregard for human life, chances were high any incident would put people at risk.

If there was an enemy, it was us.

*

I had ravioli with spinach and a main course of fish with sweet potatoes in garlic butter sauce. I drank only water. Going up to my room I noticed the two armed guards outside. They seemed relaxed enough. But they carried automatic weapons nevertheless.

Now, a year later, I still clearly remember noticing the woman down the corridor, struggling with her keys. She was alone, in her early fifties, slender. She looked familiar. I might have seen her picture somewhere, maybe in a museum. Some of them try to fit in. Some of them know they are the lost ones, and look for a place in our time. It is not easy. Not then, when there were only few of them.

If it didn’t happen at CERN, it might have happened elsewhere. There’s enough going on in the world, enough fundamental research happening, enough weird experimentation, that at some point reality might become disturbed. We don’t even know if that is what happened. We don’t even know if anything happened. And nobody seems to know how to put things right again.

At breakfast the woman sat at one of the tables when I entered the restaurant. I was given a place with a view over the lake. I ordered coffee. It was creamy and black and very strong. While sitting there, eating eggs and bacon and looking at the trees and the lake and the sky, I tried to ignore the woman. I could not get involved. I would be staying for a couple of days, and then move on. Probably to Milan.

*

I wanted to see Milan, and walk on the roof of the Duomo. That was the sort of thing you were supposed to do. The Duomo would be heavily guarded, since it was of historical importance. Threats agains the Catholic Church had been made for the last few months.

Afterwards I took my laptop to the bar. Two elderly couples occupied the deep, comfortable couches in the corner, talking and having tea. I had had enough coffee so I ordered sparkling water, which came with a bowl of nuts and another of olives. I had recently installed software which allowed me to write complex mathematical formulas. I copied them from my notebook, where I had written them down two days before, in another hotel, another country. A man, in clerical black, had shown interest in either me or the formulas, but I had avoided him. There are not many places one can hide anymore.

The number of people from the past largely exceeds the ones from the present. I keep that in mind all the time.

*

And now, on our cargo vessel, we are attempting again to find a safe place, hopeful but concerned. CERN is closed, as are most research centers in Europe and the United States.

The captain is Danish, and he has been at sea for over twenty years. He never tells about the time his ship was almost captured by pirates in the Indian Ocean. He lost two crew members then, his second mate whispered to us.

“It is imperative,” professor Urquart informs us, on the fourth evening, “that we remain isolated as much as possible. The ship must take on supplies and fuel, but this does not concern us. We shall remain in our cabins until we’re at sea again. We must not be seen by locals. News spreads as fast as ever.”

“There is the matter of communication with Houston,” miss Brunner says. She is a software engineer and used to be part of Google’s Terraforming Unit a while ago. This gives her intimate knowledge of some of the more discreet facets of digital metasystems. “We need to file reports with them, or they may disconnect us.”

“We have nothing to report as yet,” Brian Aldiss, the aging writer of speculative fiction says. He is here because of his reputation. We accept anybody with the right mindset.

“Brian, things are not that easy,” I remind him. “It is not a matter of what we report. They don’t expect anything yet. But they need to know if we still exist.”

“Miss Brunner will take care of communications,” Urquart intervenes. “This is been arranged before we left. There’s a role for anyone of us.”

The two other members of the group remained silent. We had picked them up in Antwerp, both scientists from the European Center for Pollution and Disease Control. That gives them specific insight in the way contagions spread.

As if, well, The Incident is the source of a contagion. It is not.

But then again, where do you find specialists?

The two young men usually are busy with their laptops and satellite phones and other equipment. Both are in their early thirties. Soon they will have known only this world. A world consisting only of shadows of the past.

We hardly ever see anyone from the crew. We only dine with the captain and his three officers. We are being kept separate from the others. They know we are here. They speculate. They gossip. Occasionally they notice us, from a distance. We are the subject of myths. We are probably feared as much as we are hated.

*

We have been betrayed by science. Now we hope to reach salvation again, by science. This may sound confusing. This may sound contradictory. The problem, however, is that science is a human invention. It is incomplete, and full of riddles. Mostly it is failed. But it still is the only means by which to save ourselves.

*

The woman in the hotel lay stretched out on one of the beds in the garden, sunning herself. She wore a small bikini. Which goes to show she adapted well to this era. Her eyes were closed, she didn’t notice me. I kept my distance and took another bed, close to the trees. I didn’t want to lie in the sun for hours. I needed to do some reading. Fundamentals of Quantum Entanglement. There’s an answer somewhere. There’s an explanation for whatever is happening. We might discover it by chance.

The blonde girl from the bar came to see what I wanted to drink. I ordered a large bottle of sparkling water and a glass with ice cubes and lime. This was brought at once. Excellent service. I would pay the bill with the company’s credit card. They still owed me. They kept me on as a sort of external specialist. For old times’ sake.

The woman sat up now. She was looking at me. Maybe she tried to remember if she had seen me before. They usually do that, but at that time we didn’t realize it yet. They were still new to us. We welcomed the non-violent ones. Or at least we ignored them.

She had a book with her. Colorful cover, a paperback. Would probably seem strange to her, as she was used to leather-bound books. Or so I presumed. I presumed a lot.

At that point we knew almost nothing about them. Contact was always difficult. They were human, so from our point of view we were not going to experiment on them. Not capture a couple of them and slice them open to see what made them tick. They are human, after a fashion.

She stood up and walked over to me. “Is it possible to visit the Borromean Islands?” she inquired.

Her hair was naturally blonde, her skin already a bit tanned. “There’s a boat service from Palanza, I’ve been told, like a bus, that brings you to a number of destinations around the lake.” I had this from a tourist guide. “Which island do you want to visit?”

“All of them,” she said. “They are important to me. But especially Isola Bella. The palace. I want to see the palace. Will you accompany me? I don’t know if I’m supposed to go there unaccompanied.”

There’s this thing. They are hesitant about our conventions. They bring with them outdated knowledge. They have trouble adapting. That much we learned in the year and a half since The Incident. But then, the whole thing being new at that time, I didn’t know what exactly she meant. I assumed nothing, however. In a way I was flattered that she chose me for protection. “I can take you there,” I said, hoping that my phrase would not be misunderstood.

She pondered my reply for a moment. Then, she said: “When are you free?”

“This afternoon? I’ll check the departure times.”“Maybe we can go there and have a meal locally?”“Why not?” She probably meant lunch. “Unless this inconveniences you?”

“Not at all.” I got up. “Shall I ask the concierge for the departure times right away?”“You are very forthcoming,” she said, smiling.

Less than half an hour later we waited at the dock in Palanza, for the boat that would take us to Isola Bella.

*

In the months following The Incident, social structures came under stress. Political structures as well, since it became clear that politicians had very little interest in scientific experiments, the nature of which they did not understand. The general public felt that these experiments had run their own course, led by unscrupulous scientists who only had their self-interest and career in mind. Politics had let them down.

This was an oversimplification, but in the general melee subtleties and correct insight into the way the international scientific community worked, were often overlooked. Populists felt the mood of the people and stoked the fire. Laws restricting fundamental research in a number of areas were voted and accepted in a Western countries, but not in China of Russia. The implications of this decisions became clear in due time. By then it was too late. Scientists go where they are allowed to do research.

As we follow the African shore, just outside territorial Moroccan waters, we pick up radio signals from a diversity of sources. We can not be sure of their value, but it seems several Asian countries are now studying the research done by CERN and other European institutes, just prior to The Incident. It is unclear as yet what their intentions are. Will they consider instigating an Anti-Incident? Will they want to put things right again? This seems farfetched.

“It seems very farfetched,” Urquart comments. “We don’t know what exactly caused The Incident. There simply are no indications what went wrong, if anything went wrong. We have no idea of causes. How could anybody dream of rectifying the event? This is bogus science.”The officers we meet three times a day never inquire about our work. Occasionally they notice us on deck, trying to catch up with the satellites. They know we are occupied with recent events, but probably the captain has forbidden them to raise the matter with us.

Personally I would have preferred if they asked us for our opinions.

*

We had lunch in a small restaurant by the waterfront on Isola Bella. She drank only water. We had hardly exchanged words on the boat. The trip over water had been short, ten minutes perhaps, from Palanza to the island. I knew her name, which was Isobella, and I had given her mine. My real name. Not the one I had used the week before. I wanted to ask where she came from, but that would probably be a faux pas. A question like that could be interpreted almost infinitely. Timelines are all the more fluid than geographies, these days.

“I’ve been here before,” she suddenly said, as if she had decided to trust me with some very personal information. “From your point of view, a long time ago.”

“It probably was as beautiful as it is now,” I said. Mentally keeping my distance. “Perhaps with less tourists?”

She looked around here, at the couples, the old people, the men in shorts and sandals, and the women in shorts and sandals. If anything was strange to her, it would be the casual way people dressed. I didn’t want to ask the obvious question. When were you here.

Already then I felt what later on became a sort of general taboo. They tell you when they come from, or they don’t. You don’t got to ask.

“You will call it old history,” she said. Her accent was continental, but she probably had ben spending a lot of time in England and perhaps even in Scotland.

“Even our present time will soon be history,” I said. And realizing this was probably not the wisest remark. Maybe history had actually ended at the moment of The Incident.

Afterwards we visited the Palace. If she had visited it before, she must have lived somewhere after 1632, when construction was started by Carlo of the House of Borromeo. Most probably even later, since the building was only finished a couple of decades after that. It was Gilberto Borromeo who made the most use of these premises, and he lived from 1751 to 1837. Before that it was only visited by family and close friends. But then, she might have been intimate friends with any of the Borromeans. “Bonaparte was here,” she said, at some point. We were strolling through some of the salons, and the bedrooms, looking at the furniture and the paintings. “But he stayed just one night. He was accompanied by his wive, Josephine de Beauharnais. She was very unpleasant to the staff. She was a very unpleasant woma.”

As if she had known her personally.

I was not going to ask.

*

Several smaller cities in countries like Hungary and Greece have been taken over entirely. The inhabitants were made to leave, taking only the stuff they could carry. The governments did not intervene. They found themselves powerless, although there was little violence.

The same happened at some places in Wales and Scotland. It seemed that larger, more modern cities, would be spared. For the time being. They wanted to live quietly, in small communities, awaiting newcomers and slowly growing in numbers.

They. We still have no name for them. O, they were called a lot of things in the newspapers, but soon the newspapers ceased publication and they never officially got a collective designation. It was simply they.

*

After a fortnight she decided to move on. “It was nice,” she told me, in bed. We either shared our or my room. Both had a double bed. “This is the best thing that has happened to me in a long time.” Which, in her case, had a special meaning. “But I cannot live with you. I cannot share a life with you. Things are strange. Things will always be strange. We are strangers amongst you.”

That much I had come to understand all too well during the past two weeks. Even the way she had to dress made her uneasy. She liked lying in the sun, with only the bikini. It was, she told me, a new form of freedom she had never known.

She left the morning after, taking with her only a small suitcase. The car that came for her was an old, black Mercedes. I could not see the face of the driver, but I had the impression it was a young woman.

*

We finally get off board in Conakry, where the docks are mostly silent. We notice several burned-out warehouses, some other damaged by what looks like heavy artillery rounds. Things seem quiet now. As we had requested, two all-terrain vehicles wait for us.

“We should take all of the equipment with us,” Miss Brunner remarks. “We can’t leave anything by the docks.”

“It’s just a couple of crates and boxes,” professor Urquart reminds her. “It will fit into the vehicles easily enough.”

We have a military escort as well. A dozen heavily armed soldiers in neatly pressed uniforms, as if we are important foreign dignitaries. Order and civility seem restored. The major in charge of the escort confirms this. There had been fights with rebel forces two weeks ago, but since then things are calm. The revolt was led by two hill tribes who wanted to get rid of the colonial forces. They didn’t seem to realize these forces have left the country nearly seventy years ago.

We are housed in a building formerly belonging to some institute of tropical disease. This seems ironic. We are fighting not some disease, but a general condition of the universe. I cannot help but think of Isobella, whose name echoes that of the island we visited. This is all in the past. I would want to go back there, to Palanza and Isobella, but I know I can’t. At least not at the moment. Later on, many things might become possible, once we understand the nature of The Incident. If there is one thing we learned during the last year and a half, it is that history can be retrieved.

Across the road is a Chinese mission, heavily guarded by their own soldiers in black uniform. Lots of aerials and satellite disks, and other stuff like inverted corkscrews. From behind their darkened windows they must surely be observing us. They will find out who we are soon enough.

Our enemies may find us yet. We leave traces all around. Our satellite phones can be tracked, for one thing. We know that at some point all resistance will become futile. When that happens, the past will have won over the future. But not yet. Not yet. We have retreated to a place where that past is hated and the future must yet find its place. We live in hope.

 

 

***

Guido Eekhaut lives in Brussels and is a prolific writer of crime and suspense novels, fantastic and speculative fiction and books for young adults. 

He came to genre literature after discovering the work of Jack Vance at the age of fifteen, and that of Ursula Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, M. John Harrison, J. G. Ballard, Thomas Disch and many others. Later he enjoyed Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, Angela Carter, Haruki Murakami, John Hawkes and Jonathan Lethem.

He started writing short stories in the Eighties, winning several literary awards. A number of his stories have been published internationally. He has written widely for magazines and newspapers.

His first novel, a post-apocalyptic tale The Circle Years, received the Literary Award of the City of Brussels.

After winning the Hercule Poirot Award in 2009 with his first crime book, Absinthe, he published nearly a score of books, some regular and traditional crime, others diverging from the genre into the more literary, psychological and speculative fields. He has been shortlisted twice for the Dutch Golden Noose crime awards.

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Title image credit – Annie Spratt via Unsplash

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