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The Cusanus Game

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The Cusanus Game

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Author: Wolfgang Jeschke
Publisher: Tor, 2013
Original German publication, 2005

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Time Travel
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Biologist Domenica Ligrina fears her planet is dying. She might be right.

An atomic disaster near the French-German border has contaminated Northern Europe with radioactivity. Economic and political calamities are destroying the whole planet. Human DNA is mutating, plant species are going extinct, and scientists are feverishly working on possible solutions. It becomes increasingly apparent that the key to future salvation lies in the past. In 2052 a secret research facility in the Vatican is recruiting scientists for a mission to restore the flora of the irradiated territories. The institute claims to have time travel. When Domenica's sometime-lover tells her that he knows her future but that she must decide her own fate, she enlists despite his ambiguous warning.

The Middle Ages hold Domenica spellbound. She immerses herself in the mysteries, puzzles, and peculiarities of a culture foreign to her, though she risks changing the past with effects far more disastrous than radiation poisoning. Perhaps there is more than one Domenica, and more than one catastrophe

In the tradition of Stanislaw Lem and Philip K. Dick, Wolfgang Jeschke's The Cusanus Game is a novel of future disaster in Europe by the grand master of German science fiction.



If we begin to consider how many thousands of individual events were necessary to bring about our situation here and now, and how many thousands of individual events that did not occur could have prevented it, then the most certain thing we know, namely our situation here and now, takes on an extraordinary degree of improbability.

Alexander Demandt

The students of my generation prided themselves on being particularly sexually permissive and not getting into committed relationships--at most for a brief time. We followed our inclinations, moved in for a spell with this guy, for a spell with that girl, until another interesting relationship came along--but I had really fallen a bit in love with Bernd. He was a handsome fellow with his long, dark blond hair, which hung down to his shoulders; a lean, sinewy body, which was entrancing to touch; his light skin, which looked like bronze after a few days of sun and which I never got tired of stroking and caressing with my fingertips.

He looked like his sister Birgit, who was four years older than he was, just as tall and lean and athletic.

Yes, Birgit...

"You're sleeping with her," I accused him in a voice embittered by jealousy. "You're always going 'home' to her! You're always murmuring with her via Com! Are you enslaved to her, or what?! Your own sister?"

He stared at me in confusion--anxious like a cornered animal.

"At least admit it already! I don't care! Do you hear? I don't give a damn!"

I cared. I definitely cared.

"Are you crazy?" he shouted at me angrily. "You don't understand anything!"

No, I didn't understand anything. What did I know at the time about fixations? About the hardships of a small boy who had lost his father and mother? Who clung to his older sister, because she was his only refuge in an incomprehensible, hostile world? I knew only that Birgit was an extraordinarily beautiful woman. Every man desired her, but none could boast of having "won" her. The news would have spread like wildfire. And then there was the almost painful resemblance to Bernd...

No, I didn't understand anything.

They came from Wiesbaden and were on vacation with their parents on the Adriatic when the disaster happened. Vacationers from the worst-hit areas had been "advised" against returning until "things were under control." But cities like Wiesbaden, Worms, or Mainz would never be "under control" again, at least not in this century. How were 180 kilograms of plutonium-238 to be brought "under control," which, vaporized, had spread over thousands of square miles and had a half-life of 87 years? It could have been even worse, some scientists had the nerve to declare, for plutonium-239 takes 24,000 years before only half of it has decayed into uranium. But even in fractions of one millionth of a gram, both are highly radiotoxic and carcinogenic when inhaled. To say nothing of the radioactive strontium and caesium isotopes, which had also been released in the explosion and had been borne eastward by the wind, deep into Bohemian and Polish regions.

The people who were on vacation in Italy when it occurred had been housed in camps near Rimini and Livorno and left in the dark about the true magnitude of the catastrophe. Thus many of them had tried to return home on their own, intending to see for themselves what was going on and save at least a few valuables and important family property--papers, photos, bankbooks and other documents. Thus Bernd and Birgit's father too had set off one day. When he didn't return and no news arrived, their mother left the two children behind with friends and headed north in search of him. She was never heard from again. The military made short work of and no distinction between looters and former residents who illegally infiltrated restricted areas. Most of them were soon so contaminated by radiation that they were not even allowed to return to the "free" areas anymore. They were interned, received meager medical care, and wasted away. The death books of Osnabrück, Magdeburg, Bayreuth, and Würzburg listed far from everyone who lay in the mass graves of the "border towns" of Kassel, Heidelberg, Bad Neustadt, Schweinfurt, and Jena. For many, identification was impossible, and they had to be buried quickly.

At the time, Bernd was two years old and Birgit six. A rich German chose a dozen children whose parents were missing. Bernd and Birgit, who were very beautiful children, were among them; they grew up in a country house near Siena and received an education with the most up-to-date curricula.

Then something must have happened to Birgit to make her so aloof toward men, but neither of them ever said a word about it. Birgit ran away with her brother from the house of their "benefactor"--she must have been eleven or twelve at the time. They struggled along, lived for a few years in a commune of the "Acqua è Vita" movement, which destroyed lawn sprinklers on golf courses and cricket fields and cut through hoses at night. With the increasing water shortage, a few splinter groups of the AèV then grew more and more violent, and when the first millionaire families were found drowned in the swimming pools of their secure grounds, the antiterror units cracked down hard. They stormed the communes of the movement and liquidated them. Bernd and Birgit got lucky. They were not shot dead like many of the members, but landed in prison--for only a few weeks, as the state already had enough mouths to feed.

Finally they came to Rome, took their entrance exam at the university, and were accepted into the Facoltà di Scienza. Both chose biology with a focus on botanical ecotechnology.

That's where we met.

"Do you have an older sister?" she asked me.

"Not that I know of," I replied. "I don't have any siblings."

"Strange," said Birgit, clasping my chin and moving it back and forth.

"She wore her hair somewhat shorter, but the same face shape"--she ran her thumb over my cheek and chin--"exactly the same."

"Hey! What's the deal?" Indignantly, I shook off her hand. I didn't like to be touched so intimately--and especially not by her.

"Leave her alone, Birgit," said Bernd. "You heard her say she doesn't have a sister."

She whipped around to him. Her tightly woven braid lashed her shoulder, and her beautifully curved mouth sneered, but she said nothing. With a broad, expressive mouth like that, with its nimble lips and corners, some people can say everything without uttering a word. And the mouth said: "I won't do anything to her, your little pet," while her big blue-gray eyes looked him over with amusement.

Arrogant bitch!

Her long earrings made of red glass balls strung on thin silver chains, arranged according to size and hanging almost down to her shoulders, swung as she turned to me again. She raised her eyebrows at a steeper angle. "It was just a question. It's strange, isn't it? Ask the backpack. He was there."

She gestured with a nod to CarlAntonio, turned away, and left with those graceful, lithe movements characteristic of runners or high jumpers to devote her attention to other guests at her party.

Birgit was probably six feet tall, everything about her was large, but that didn't detract from her femininity in the slightest. Her figure was perfectly proportioned. Bernd and she could have been twins, but she was not only older than he was, she was also more mature. She had had her experiences early, had had no choice.

Men, as attracted as they were to her, feared her; they were afraid she might make disparaging remarks, for her sarcasm was scathing.

When she wore her hair loose, it framed her face in soft, dark blond waves. Then she seemed to be a different woman: more accessible, more sensual, more vulnerable. Perhaps she braided it tightly back from her face so that it accentuated her broad cheekbones, lent her a severe, unapproachable appearance. It was as if she had erected ramparts from which she looked down at us. Then the color of her eyes seemed changed too; a cool green mingled with the blue-gray of her gaze. Eyes like the sea northwest of St. Kilda, as Marcello claimed--Viking eyes.

"How do you actually know what the sea looks like near St. Kilda?" Renata had asked Marcello, who was passionately in love with Birgit at the time and had let himself be carried away to the point of making this rapturous comparison. He wrinkled his forehead with annoyance and looked at Renata appraisingly. But she had asked in all seriousness, with innocently raised eyebrows.

"None of you have ever read a Viking novel, or what?" He flashed his eyes at us angrily. Everyone was looking at him mockingly, which riled him even more. "No clue about Red Orm or Eric Brighteyes. About anything!"

"Ah, that's where you got it from," said Renata, nodding with understanding.

"You're all terrible philistines!" he shouted, throwing his hands up and shaking his black curls uncomprehendingly.

I too admired Birgit, even though she didn't like me. Perhaps I even loved her a little, but the sight of her hurt me in a strange way. And I was jealous, because I sensed from the beginning that Bernd would never be able to part from her.

For a long time, I didn't want to believe it.

"You really don't have a sister?" Carl asked, reaching back and tapping Antonio on the shoulder so that he stayed put. "What a shame."

"Now you're starting with that too!"

He scrutinized me with his lively dark brown eyes, clasped his narrow, triangular chin--which rested on his sternum--with thumb and forefinger, as if he could thereby wrench it out of its bony entrenchment, and pursed his lips thoughtfully. Antonio, patient as a mule, munched a sandwich. Mayonnaise and bits of egg were stuck to his chin.

"Really a shame," said Carl. "We would have liked to meet her. She really had an incredible resemblance to you. Perhaps not quite as pretty as you"--he eyed me appraisingly--"but just as stylishly dressed."

"Stop it, you old charmer."

He grinned. "Well, a bit older, in her early thirties or so, I'd guess. Let me tell you what happened. We were sitting in Emanuele on Santa Maria Maggiore. You know the place, of course. Birgit, Marcello, and us. Having coffee. We thought it was you when we saw 'you' from afar, and--strangely-- we all had the feeling that she knew us, was almost about to greet us but then changed her mind at the last moment. Oho, we thought, so our Domenica is picking up rich uncles." He laughed.

"There was an older man there, you see, in his late fifties or so. No longer quite so fresh, but a stylish fellow: dove-gray pants, dark blue jacket, straw hat, sunglasses. Made an impression, you couldn't deny it. Now she's embarrassed, we thought at first, she doesn't want to introduce him to us. Got dressed up and put on makeup to look older. But then we saw that it couldn't be you after all. The woman really was older than you. And her hair was shorter than yours, cut about medium length."

He shook his head. "It must have been her older sister, we told ourselves. She has been keeping her from us."

Antonio, who had silently consumed his sandwich, wanted to move on, but Carl reached back and poked him hard so that he stayed put.

"I just wanted to tell you, Domenica."

"I don't know anything about a sister, although... who knows? My father supposedly got around. He didn't miss any chances--so my mother claims anyway."

Carl grinned and shook his head appreciatively. "Is your mother actually still alive?" he asked.

"I hope so. Haven't heard anything from her for months. And I can't reach her, because she doesn't carry an ICom."

"Is that possible? It's compulsory."

I shrugged. "In Genoa they're apparently not too particular about it. You know, she's one of those people who are still living in the last millennium. Really. She keeps an eye out for mailmen. She wants nothing to do with e-mail. She doesn't understand anything about it, she says. You know, my mother writes me letters and probably sticks them in a mailbox that no one has emptied for years."

"It's not unheard-of," said Carl. "But there are still mailmen. Like us, for example. Antonio!" He snapped his fingers. Antonio, who had in the meantime gotten hold of some nuts or potato chips, stopped chewing and turned his head so I could see his coarse, bulbous-nosed profile. "Wipe your mouth and give Domenica her envelope."

With a strained frown, Antonio rummaged in his shabby brown shoulder bag, which he wore strapped over the misshapen poncho that served both of them as a shared article of clothing, and passed half a dozen identical envelopes over his shoulder. Carl took them impatiently from his hand and handed me one of them with a sigh. It bore the Vatican insignia.

Personal was written on it.

"Thanks," I said.

"They arrived today at the institute. A whole bundle. Direct from the Holy Father in Salzburg." He nodded.

"Well, at least from the Holy See. For everyone who applied last year to that Rinascita Project."

The contents of the envelope felt like a VidChip.

"Good luck," said Carl, drained his glass with a forceful jerk of his torso, ran the back of his hand over his lips, and handed the glass over his shoulder for Antonio to put down.

I knew that Carl drank vast quantities of red wine. He literally had to drink for two, while Antonio seemed to be more responsible for the nourishment of their shared body.

"We have to move on. Still have a few letters to deliver," he said with a smile, slapping Antonio on his bald head. Antonio pushed off, and Carl strained to peer forward over his shoulder past the thick, protruding ears in order to direct him.

Antonio and his "backpack" Carl. After the disaster, there had been countless cases of mutations, but the pair of twins was definitely the most gruesome of all the monsters--while also the most likable. Many deformed children--people spoke vaguely of "tens of thousands"--who were born after the catastrophe of 2028 had quietly been registered as "stillbirths." Premature birth had been induced and the fetuses removed to save the lives of the mothers. CarlAntonio's deformation, however, was unique, so grotesque and so scientifically interesting that it was preferable to sacrifice the life of the mother to save the object of medical interest for study. In any case, the doctors at the Brothers of Mercy Hospital of the University of Regensburg regarded this as the right decision, and because it was a good Catholic university, the monster was even baptized: The Siamese twins received the names Karl and Anton. Their mother came from Offenbach, which, like Frankfurt, was directly at the edge of the death corridor; she had lived in one of the large refugee camps of the southern Upper Palatinate.

The deformation was indeed grotesque. Both brothers had a fully developed head and upper body, but merged under the shoulder blades and were conjoined at the spine from the sacrum to the coccyx. While Antonio had a fully formed body--exceptionally formed, some women claimed--Carl's chest was narrow and bulged steeply. His head sat neckless on the torso; the lower jaw was fused with the sternum, which lent his posture a servile and simultaneously rebellious quality and his voice a strained, asthmatic timbre. His small pelvis stuck out at a right angle over Antonio's backside and formed a baggy hollow of skin that was closed by the rudimentary little legs and oversized feet, which were reminiscent of the flippers of seals, when he bent them in an embryo-like fashion. Behind it the surgeons had created an artificial passage where Carl's only half-formed digestive tract now ran into that of Antonio. Only in that way could the twin survive. On the other hand, despite state-of-the-art medical technology, the "backpack" could not simply be removed from Antonio, because the nerve pathways of both bodies intersected in the lower area--which resulted in strange physical as well as psychic reactions.

On top of that, they needed each other in yet another way. What would the melancholy, clumsy, somewhat retarded Antonio have done without his "backpack" full of intelligence, wit, spirit, and imagination? What would Carl be without Antonio, who sustained him with his healthy appetite and his robust body, which he battened on and lived off like an exotic epiphyte?

There were women who were sexually attracted to the monstrous physique, but it required some skillfulness--and Carl's help getting the shared body to the necessary blood alcohol level--to bring Antonio out of his apathy, stimulate him, and arouse his dull libido. While Antonio ultimately toiled away silently and unflaggingly, so the stories went, Carl on his back screamed like an excited chimpanzee; he threw his head back and forth so violently that the saliva sprayed from his lips, and writhed as if he wanted to break free from his twin. And when Antonio, grunting, finally climaxed, Carl's lower body had turned into a swollen mass that looked like the butt of a baboon, and a shape the length of a finger, purple and thin, jutted from his loins.

CarlAntonio lived above all off being a monster; some dottori at the Policlinico on Piazza Sassari lived off it as well--and probably better. On the side, the two brothers ran errands for the botanical institute of the university.

CarlAntonio. Back then they were still alive. They had just turned twenty, if I remember correctly. But shortly thereafter, it happened. The Hobbits ambushed them, those racists in their gray loden jackets and lederhosen and pointy felt hats on which they stuck feathers of dead birds, those self-proclaimed guardians of the genetic inheritance and preservers of the purity of the Aryan race.

Carl was still alive when they were found--for he had his own heart and his own lungs. They had used a knife. Hobbits always use knives, hunting knives or butcher knives, which they grandiosely call "swords." They had slit open Antonio's belly and had not forgotten to mutilate him; they had blinded him and hacked his face to pieces, as they always do, because they cannot tolerate a subhuman--a nonhuman--having a human face.

Carl made a detailed statement, but the police wouldn't do anything, we were all sure about that. You could tell by the officers' faces; they were no different from the Hobbits, sympathizers from the bottom of their hearts-- their uniforms couldn't fool us. Carl had not seen much, had only felt the terrible pain. His voice was weak and toneless. It was as if his brother's mind had escaped into him at the moment of horror, seeking refuge in his head, with all its dullness and lethargy. And gradually, death too came creeping over and nested in his breast and grew into a suffocating, dark weight. But it took hours before it crushed him. The end came with a desperate rearing up, as if he still wanted to break free of his brother's cooling body after all, and with rattling breath, he flailed around.

Just when we all believed that the worst was over, he asked for a mirror so that he could see his twin's face one more time. The ward doctor fulfilled his request. He had two mirrors brought over and positioned in such a way that his wish was granted. Carl wept when he saw the maimed face of his brother. Fifteen minutes later he too was dead.

I unfolded my battered flexomon, smoothed it out and pressed it to the wall, then inserted the TV modem into my ICom until it clicked into place. Luigi's input tongue darted out, I put the papal chip on it, and Luigi swallowed it like a frog swallowing a fly. The golden keys on a blue background appeared on the flexomon.

"You are Domenica Ligrina," said a pleasant male voice. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Bertolino Falcotti from the Istituto Pontificale della Rinascita della Creazione di Dio, San Francesco. Please wait a moment."

The signal on the monitor switched into IA-mode.

"Would you like visual contact?"

"Yes, please," I replied. "One moment."

I pinned the camera to the middle of the flexomon. A red dot appeared on the upper edge of the monitor, immediately followed by another. The papal emblem disappeared, and I was looking into a study, saw a desk with piles of books and periodicals, between them a thick, burning candle.

"I'm glad that you are still interested in working together, Signorina Ligrina."

The man sitting behind the desk nodded amiably to me. He was dressed casually, wore a black button-down shirt, the sleeves rolled up above the elbows. In his early forties, by my estimation, though the slightly graying hair on the sides made him appear older. His glasses flashed. Dimples formed in his cheeks when he smiled. That lent him a certain charm. He could have been an assistant at the university. In any case, he did not look like the clergymen I'd dealt with previously. Behind him, on the whitewashed wall, I spotted an icon, its gold shining out of the gloom.

"First, if you permit me, I would like to ask you a few personal questions." He was quiet and well spoken. "Beforehand, I must alert you to the fact that this conversation is being recorded. Do you agree nonetheless to answer questions about yourself?"

I shrugged. "To whom will the recording be made accessible, Signore Falcotti?"

"Only the committee that decides on your application." "And who are they?"

"Unfortunately, I cannot answer that question."

"You are not permitted to answer it."

He raised his hands in a conciliatory fashion. "For me there's no difference."

"All right, I agree."

He nodded and brushed back his short-cropped hair with his fingertips; fleetingly he touched a slight unevenness at his left temple. An implant? He had a thin, well-proportioned, almost boyishly handsome face. The glasses gave him an aloof quality, and perhaps he wore them for that very reason.

"I don't need to tell you that, at the end of our conversation, both interactive data carriers are ROM. That gives them the character of a document that is not accessible to unauthorized individuals without your express approval."

"With the exception of the committee."

"You have already agreed to that."

"That's correct."

"But enough with the formalities." He opened a file. A window popped up on my flexomon, and the image of my father appeared. The picture must have been taken years before his death. A dark blue shirt, a white single-breasted jacket. His eyes flashed boldly from under the brim of his panama hat.

"Authorized material from the registration authorities," explained Falcotti. I suddenly realized that I was smiling at the photo on the monitor, and I immediately pulled myself together.

"Your father's name is Giacomo?"

"No--his name was Jacopo! He is no longer alive."

Falcotti looked up and scrutinized me. Had there been too much inten-

sity in my voice? Or grief? Why should I have concealed it? Even if it was more than ten years earlier. I had loved him from the time I was a small child. And later I could not be angry with him when I heard that he had had frequent affairs. He was often on the go and as a textile sales representative constantly came into contact with beautiful women--models, owners of boutiques. On the contrary, I had been proud of him. He was... a man of the world. Good-looking, always elegantly dressed. He had to be. And he always made jokes that Mother either didn't get or didn't want to get, because she was much too sober and humorless to appreciate our silliness. I was always delighted when he winked at me conspiratorially from under the brim of his panama hat, and I would double up with laughter. I enjoyed when he took me out, to the holos, to eat ice cream or visit a museum. Then I felt like one of his "hussies," as Mother called them with a venomous look and a shrill voice, although I had no idea what she meant by that. Women liked him, and he liked them. I could not grasp why Mama wept so often.

"He died in an accident?"

"He died in the attack on the Naples-Rome express near Mondragone in September 2039, which took so many lives."

"I remember. It was terrible."

All the travelers from the Mezzogiorno who resided south of the GaetaTermoli line and had no special permission to travel north had been refused tickets and reservations in Naples and had been forcibly prevented from getting to the platforms where the trains to Rome departed. The city was seething with unrest, and the Stazione Centrale resembled a besieged fortress. Special police units cracked down hard on the demonstrators and hermetically sealed off the train station. The Neapolitans were outraged at being equated with the Moros. Under strict security measures, the Naples- Rome express finally rolled out of the station. Half an hour later, shortly after Falciano-Mondragone, an explosive charge was detonated in the first car of the fully occupied high-speed train as it entered a tunnel. It was never possible to determine how many people died in the inferno, for despite all the security there had been many passengers on board who had no reservation. The official statements put the number of dead at 412, but according to estimates, more than 500 people must have lost their lives in the attack. No corpses were found, only a compressed mass of steel, aluminum, charred plastic, and protein that had agglomerated into a hard plug in the tunnel tube. It took weeks of work to gouge it out. That same year the terror bombings began against authorities and politicians in Rome, but the regime remained firm. It stuck to a plan envisaging a sort of tiered system of dams against immigration from the south to the north to stem the tide of people from the Mezzogiorno. Meanwhile the rivers of refugees had long flowed past it along the coasts.

"What was your father's occupation?"

"He was a sales representative for textiles. In the end, mainly for holotextiles produced by a Korean company, which were really in fashion in those days."

Falcotti smiled to himself. So he was familiar with those garish, lewd, glitter miniskirts with the sewed-in chips, which came out in the early thirties and were an absolute hit: shameless HoloClips, which could be activated with a skilled twitch of the hip, which conjured away the material for seconds and were programmed with all manner of intimate scenes, from the harmless groping of a soft-core porno about fellatio to hard-core penetration--and that in bright metallic and vivid colors.

Mother made sure that Father never took them out of his sample cases at home, because she loathed that "disgusting stuff" from the depths of her soul. "We live off it," Father had replied, shrugging. "It's not simple today, believe me."

"Your mother is still alive?" asked Falcotti.

An image of my mother appeared. A pretty woman, who had probably been really sexy in her youth before grief and disappointment had consumed her charm. A pale face that had become a bit doughy with time. The pallor was accentuated by her curly black hair, which she wore pinned up in the back in an old-fashioned way and from which one or two corkscrew curls always hung down on the side. Oh yes, her slightly receding chin, the constantly mournful pursed lips, the sad, always somewhat reproachful look, the tiny bite of bitterness in the left corner of her mouth, which had deepened with the years... Would I look like that one day, I wondered involuntarily. The resemblance was unmistakable, but I had my father's eyes--and his chin too!

Falcotti observed me. I wrinkled my forehead and sighed. "Yes. She moved to Genoa a few years ago, to live with her mother when my grandfather died."

Grandfather! How distant were the times when I got to spend my vacation with him? He had been such a lovable man, who had kept his sense of humor despite everything. Back then he seemed ancient to me, although he was not yet sixty, and he walked laboriously on crutches. A few thugs from the Mafia had mauled him when he still had his café on Piazza Caricamento near the Palazzo San Giorgio on the harbor. He had refused to pay them protection money, because he already had a contract with the Moros. The Mafiosi were going all out at the time--the south was increasingly slipping away from them, and so they were attempting to gain the upper hand in the north by force. A hopeless undertaking, at least in Genoa, for the city had been firmly under the control of the Africans for more than sixty years.

The Moros were generous: They compensated him for the injuries and paid for the operations. I did not grasp at the time what getting shot in the knees meant. My grandfather never uttered a word about the pain inflicted on him by this barbaric injury and he would not have tolerated any pity, but he enjoyed my affection. I loved him--most of all his big fleshy ears, which I touched with a mixture of shyness and admiration when he let me. And I loved going grocery shopping with him. I sat on his lap and we whirred in the wheelchair down the road and across the big parking lot to the supermarket.

With that memory, my nose filled with the scent of freshly brewed coffee that emanated from his clothes because he sat behind the counter all day operating the espresso machine, removing the steaming metal filter, knocking it out on the edge of an old coffee-soaked wooden drawer, and filling it carefully with freshly ground coffee.

With the compensation from the Moros he had been able to buy a small terrace café overlooking the city, along with the house attached to it. It was on a quiet street, which had lost its significance due to the construction of the highway. My mother moved there after Father's death, because it had become too dangerous in Frascati for a single mother with an adolescent daughter. Actually, that gave her a pretext to help her mother with the household chores and Grandfather in the café, for they could no longer manage on their own.

The summers became more overpowering with each year. Day after day you saw the hopeless deployment of fire-extinguishing planes, of fire brigades and volunteers. Burning forests on Sardinia, Corsica, and Corfu. Seas of flames on the Peloponnese and the Balkans, ash-clouded sky and people fleeing. Helicopters with food and drinking water in areas surrounded by fires.

The hills above Genoa were magnificent. Most mornings, a breeze wafted up from the sea and alleviated the heat, while it took your breath away in the city below. In the late afternoon, the wind from the hills stirred, filling the evening with the fragrance of herbs and cool pine needles. We all had our hands full. Most of the time, the terrace was already full of guests at ten in the morning--excursionists from the cities on the coast-- and after sunset all those craving a breath of air and a cool drink. Business was good.

When the last guests had left and the weather permitted it, I pushed Grandfather out onto the terrace in his wheelchair and he showed me the stars.

"You have to come visit us sometime over Christmas vacation, Domenica, then we could look into the galaxy. The Sagittarius Arm is visible then, brimming with stars. Now, in summer, only a few neighbors can be seen, which belong to the Orion Arm like us: Vega, Deneb, Antares, Altair, Arcturus, and Spica, and the brightest over there in the Perseus Arm. Beyond that begins the great void," he told me enthusiastically.

He knew all the strange-sounding names of the stars, which the Arabs had given them: Sirah, Algorab, Algenib, Shedir, Albireo, Achernar, Alamak, Sadalmelik, Merak, Alcyone, Dubhe, Zubeneschamali, Zubenelgenubi, Zubenelakrab, Ras Alhague, Aldebaran, Alderamin, Hadar, Enif, Furud, Sulafat, Sadalsuud--names as smooth and sparkling as polished gemstones.

"Those people lived under a close sky," Grandfather explained. "They needed only to look up when they camped at night in the desert."

And I pictured a caravan camp on a moonless night. The snorting of the camels somewhere in the darkness, the last tea, heavily sweetened and with a few sprigs of fresh mint in the glass, had long since been finished, the embers of the fire had been consumed, the sand was cool, the sky had spread out its treasures.

Yes, I owed the sky to Grandfather. He had made it accessible to me, and my interest in it had never died. On starry nights I could sit outside for hours and go on journeys with my eyes, tens of thousands of light-years away through the depths of the universe, which remain closed to most, because no one handed them the key to this treasure chest.

Vacation in Genoa. All that was now fifteen years in the past. Grandfather was long dead. What might it look like there today?

"Are you in contact with her?" asked Falcotti.


"With your mother?"

"I haven't heard from her for about three months. I've called her from time to time, when I could get through, but... well, we never had too much to say to each other."

She spoke on the telephone only rarely. "I'll write to you," she said. -- "What are you going to write to me? In Rome there hasn't been regular postal delivery for a long time." -- "What nonsense. Letters are still delivered everywhere." -- "Mother, believe me, not here." -- "I'll write to you," she said, and hung up.

Sometimes I thought she was no longer in her right mind. Perhaps it was all a bit too much for her. She could no longer keep up.

"Do you love her?"

"She always made it really hard for me. When you ask me so directly--I like her, but love... hm, actually no."

He made a note on his computer. "You have siblings?"


"Any other relatives? Uncles, aunts?"


"Your paternal grandparents?"


"Friends with whom you are particularly close?"

"Friends, yes. Fellow students. But no committed relationships."

I didn't mention Bernd. At that point we had slept together just three or four times. I had no idea how our relationship would develop.

Falcotti nodded. "You seem to be someone who manages well alone. That's important."


"Our project involves missions that must sometimes be performed by individuals operating completely on their own. Possibly without outside help."


"Yes, something like that."

That was unusual.

"But fieldwork is usually conducted by teams," I asserted.

Falcotti placed his fingertips together. "Unfortunately, that will not be possible in this case."

"Will this work be abroad? I mean, outside Italy?"

"Yes. Mainly. But I ask you to understand, Signorina Ligrina, that I cannot disclose any details to you before it has been decided whether you will be among the final candidates."

"Sounds mysterious, Signore Falcotti."

He shrugged meaningfully.

"Will this potentially be a permanent job?"

"It will potentially be a permanent job."

Should I get my hopes up? It would be premature--the disappointment would then be all the more intense.

"That will be all for today, Signorina Ligrina. Thank you for answering my questions so openly. I appreciate your cooperation, especially as I am prohibited from giving you further information about the nature of our project. Should the preselection committee choose you, we will arrange a personal interview. In the meantime we would like to ask you to submit to a thorough medical examination at the polyclinic on Piazza Sassari. Ask for Professor Pietro Dalmatini and make an appointment. The examination is, of course, free of charge. The expenses will be paid by the institute."

I was not granted the privilege of meeting Professor Dalmatini personally. I had to content myself with a young assistant doctor named Dolfredi, who had a thin, overhanging mustache and had eyes only for his equipment. An old nurse, who lavished her motherliness on me, patted me incessantly. I had to lie down naked in a body-shaped tub lined with white plastic. The doctor then gave me an injection in the back of my hand. The last thing I knew I was sliding through a gleaming chrome portal into the maw of a machine; then I was suddenly knocked out. When I came to after two hours of unconsciousness, I was lying safely and cozily in a recovery room on a rolling bed. My clothes were next to me on a chair. Someone had taken care to cover me with a quilted blanket. Doctor Dolfredi? I flung the blanket off me and got dressed.

He actually knocked before he came in.

"Yes?" I asked gruffly.

Doctor Dolfredi looked at me with surprise, then gazed questioningly at the computer screen on his wrist.

"Oh, this will take a few hours," he said, holding up a chip. "They want to know a lot about you."


He examined thoroughly the label on the plastic-wrapped chip. "Istituto Pontificale della Rinascita della Creazione di Dio, San Francesco," he read aloud. "The Pope himself!"

His mustache rose as he smiled, revealing a thick mouth with soft, pink, saliva-moistened lips, which I could never stand on men. He bared his buckteeth, between which the mashed remains of a tramezzino were stuck.

"If he even knows about this Istituto," he added.

I glowered at him. His revolting smile disappeared.

After that I heard nothing for several months. It was impossible to avoid the impression that the whole Rinascita Project had been abandoned.

To my knowledge, the initiative for it had originally come from John XXIV, who had displayed a strong commitment to environmental issues. His successor Paul VII certainly did not have much interest in the Creazione di Dio when he wore the tiara that he had bought back from an impoverished sheik in exile with donation funds. Instead, he set to work developing Castel Gandolfo into an impregnable fortress, had deep underground galleries driven into the mountain walls surrounding the lake, in which he planned to store the treasures of the Vatican Museums in order to protect them from the dangers of the new mass migration and preserve them for posterity. His building zeal was too great for his weak heart.

Finally, Paul VIII did not attach particularly great importance to the Creatio or the art treasures; he was much more concerned with his personal security. Soon after assuming office, he moved his residence to Mantua, only to relocate shortly thereafter to Salzburg. As a Hungarian, he probably felt more at home there. In Austria jubilation burst out; South Tyrol, Friuli, and Slovenia had been annexed to the state territory, and now the Holy Father was residing in Salzburg. For the Romans, however, the Pope was from that point on as dead as his predecessors, and some Italian cardinals demanded his deposition. The little people called him Papa Coniglio, Papa Coward.

Perhaps he had decided to abandon the Rinascita Project. And Falcotti was entrusted with other tasks.

I spoke to fellow students who had applied too. No one had heard anything more about it, and all inquiries regarding a Vatican institute of that name came to nothing. Nothing could be found on the Net either. It seemed no longer to exist, had disappeared without a trace--and with it Bertolino Falcotti.

"A papal miracle," Birgit commented mockingly.

I no longer had high hopes, but somehow I could not entirely believe that Signore Falcotti had taken leave of us in this impolite way. Had something happened to him? Was he traveling?

Copyright © 2005 by Wolfgang Jeschke


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