Chapter One – Part one
It was the last day. The lecture hall was full. The students weren’t dying to say a final goodbye to their teacher. He hadn’t left them much choice. He had demanded a farewell gift in the form of a few sheets of scribbled paper.
In a few minutes, their time was going to be up. They would soon be free for a few months. The quickest ones were already leaving.
Three hours in, the large auditorium had acquired a subtle student smell. It was quite warm too — no air conditioning in these old buildings. The teacher was a bit drowsy. He always was when he had to proctor an exam. Yet, nobody ever cheated under his watch. He had a certain reputation. There were talks of a secret technique that he had developed for keeping a close eye on would-be cheaters. It involved displaying a blatant lack of care for what was happening. Some thought that he was staging the whole thing – even the dozing – in order to trick them. It was an ambush. A predator who was waiting for the second of inattention from its prey and then pounced.
Indeed, he would sometimes come out of his torpor, always at the exact moment when a courageous (or reckless) student tried to sneak a cheat sheet out. He wouldn’t say a word. He would only stare at the student with a blank face. And the wannabe scoundrel would put the small piece of paper back where it came from.
These little episodes reinforced the ambush theory. The truth was a bit different. Every single time he noticed suspicious behavior, it was pure luck. It never ceased to surprise him. Of course, he never deemed it necessary to dispel the conspiracy theories running around campus about him. He had come to like this reputation of stealth hunter that the student body had given him over the years.
This teacher is… Me… Guillaume Trabarel, 48 years old, associate professor of contemporary literature at the Sorbonne. You may also know me for my bestselling novels, and I’m not exactly sure why I started talking about myself in the third person.
The chime rang. About time, I was starting to actually fall asleep. Most students barely acknowledged me as they handed in their essays. A few wished me the most wonderful things in the world. Not unusual this time of the year, when I’m about to decide their final grades. A handful actually meant these nice words. Yes, sometimes it happens.
I started to pack when I noticed one final student in the room. I didn’t remember seeing her before. And I pride myself on knowing my students’ faces. Yes, even the ones who only grace me with their presence a few times a semester.
She walked down the stairs in my direction, not in any sort of rush. As she came closer, I noticed, not the purple ends of her dark hair, but her chest. Uh. Sorry, it didn’t come out right. I meant the small badge on the lapel of her jacket. Round, black, with no inscription on it whatsoever. I was still looking at it when she put her exam on the desk. She then walked through the door, but not before a wink and a smile.
Spring was coming to an end, and the sun was finally here. In the Luxembourg Gardens, flowers were blooming, children returning from school were running after one another, lovers were cuddling on public benches, and the birds were singing. They almost made you forget the crowded and loud city that spread all around the park. Back home, rue de Fleurus, I left my things on the kitchen counter, poured some orange juice, and opened the mail. My publisher confirmed that A Long Rest, my upcoming novel, would be released in September. He also informed me of the sales figures of The End, the previous book, which just came out in paperback. My bank statement confirmed his words.
Marie would soon return with the kids. If I wanted to take a look at the exams in a calm environment, the apartment was not going to be the best location. I swore to spend the entire weekend with them to make up for this escapade.
Down the street, I ran into an old British rock star. He was quite famous in the ’90s before leaving the limelight and moving to the neighborhood. We met at a party at Fred’s. Unfortunately, we never became more than vague acquaintances. We nodded at each other and went our merry ways without starting a conversation. I’d like to get to know him better one of these days. I was a bit of a fan back then.
At the Café de Flore, I ordered an espresso and opened the newspaper. A minute later, François, my favorite waiter, brought the coffee along with some chocolate.
“Anything important? I haven’t had the time to read it yet,” he asked.
“Nothing new, it’s all about the presidential election.”
“Do you think Schmidt is going to be reelected?”
“Do you have any doubts about this?”
“No, not really. I got my nice raise three months ago as promised. He’s getting my vote. You’d have to be insane not wanting to keep him in power. Have things ever been better? I wasn’t even born the last time nobody had to worry about unemployment in Europe!”
“You’re right, I don’t remember such a time either. I wouldn’t be surprised if he won without a runoff. Even most of Britain is ready to vote for him and not Taylor.”
“What a crazy, that one! Building his whole political career on pushing his country to secede from the Union, and then running for President of the Union? What is that nonsense?”
“Well, you know, the election is always a good occasion for some fringe idiot to get more visibility.”
“Right. Anything in international news?”
“Hmm… Let’s see… – I flipped through a few pages. – China has signed the reform allowing several political parties and greater regional autonomy into law. Some people are starting to talk about a ‘Great Leap Forward to Democracy’.”
“In the US?”
“Nothing special. President Ramos has announced that her second term will focus on greater cooperation with the international community. She was even talking about reparations to many of the countries that America has wronged in the past.”
“Does it sound realistic to you?”
“Could be. She’s already fixed a lot of her country’s structural problems during her first term. And Republicans are caught in so much infighting that they’ve basically been neutered.”
“Who would have thought that the US could still surprise us, eh? OK, I gotta go, some new customers arrived.”
I sometimes wondered if I was the only one not completely used to only hearing good news these days. I doubted it. Nobody complained.
Once the newspaper was read and closed, it was time to start looking at these exams. I wasn’t going to actually grade them before a few days. I like to peek at their content first when the ink was barely dry. Not sure why. It was a way to prepare myself for this vastly unpleasant endeavor that final essay grading is.
The paper of the girl with the purple hair was on top of the stack. It was written in purple ink. There was no name and no student number. Usually, those get graded separately for administrative reasons, but I was curious to know who she was, or at least what she had to say.
The first page blew me away. Her phrasing! Her argumentation! Her style! She even included sources, in an in-class essay! She was one of the best students I have ever had! Well, I still wasn’t sure if she actually was my student.
On the second page, one big single sentence ran across the sheet of paper:
I AM BECOME DEATH
THE DESTROYER OF WORLDS
I sat up in my chair and put the sheet of paper down on the pile. A shiver ran through my entire body.
How long had it been? Fifteen years? Twenty? More? No idea.
I never thought I’d see this sentence again.
I had done everything I could to make sure I never saw it again.
Something must have really screwed up somewhere.
Frenchman, exiled on the other side of the planet, DavidB writes. It's not always very good, but who cares, the goal is to write. Sometimes, he also does other things.
MetaStructure is one of his longest-running projects. It was started in the early 2000s. Stopped many times. Started over a few times. Let's hope this time is the right one.