Meltdown

by D. J. Burnham

part 1 of 3


La Rue des Fous was lined with crumbling buildings, some more than 400 years old, one of the only Parisian backstreets not to have been redeveloped in a fanfare of upmarket stylings. Apart from a couple of warehouses and an austere, neglected hotel (currently acting as temporary accommodation to the homeless) the road only had one permanent resident. Set in the centre of its decay was the darkest doorway in the city, once the entrance to an asylum, but now home to just one woman.

The building had suited its purpose perfectly, with a cavernous atrium leading off to myriad corridors, chambers and rooms. Its unfortunate residents had left several hundred years ago, but the stigma — associated with the abominable techniques that had been practised on fellow human beings — lingered. It had been left essentially unsalable when the last patients had been moved to modernised institutions, still suffering from organic psychological malaise, compounded by unspeakable cruelty in the search for cures, largely for the advancement of medical careers.

That had all been way back when, but with no investment and no foreseeable commercial viability, the local authorities had given up on the area long ago, disconnected the street lighting, taken it off the refuse collection route and allowed the primitive asphalt to crack and split, as weeds turned to trees in their painful, shadowed attempts at reclaiming the land.

She knew every hole, lifted slab, twisted kerb and bulge in the tarmac. Despite the potential treachery in the tenebrous passage, she strode confidently to her threshold. Collar turned up against the rain, she gripped a package beneath the fabric of her coat. Producing an old-fashioned, traditional key of gothic proportions, she felt for the lock, rattled it in and twisted it with a force that belied her years. The barrel rewarded her with a solid clunk and she leant against the weighty wooden door.

Begrudgingly it swung open sufficiently to permit access; she slipped inside and fell against it with her back, until it crashed shut once more. She slung the dripping coat over a nearby chair, held the package in her right hand and waved it in front of her, activating the sensors which illuminated her home and brought the heating on line. Not being a woman to waste time, she crossed the hallway and stomped up the marble staircase, ripping layers of wrapping off the parcel, discarding them in a trail of torn paper.

Practically breaking into a jog on the landing, she burst into her study, flinging the last layer behind her. She had revealed an ancient tome and set it down on an antique leather-topped writing desk. She landed heavily on the worn, but immensely comfortable swivel chair, pulled herself up to the desk, flicked on the table lamp, picked up a pair of simply-framed reading glasses and put them on with a theatrical flourish.

Nobody wore glasses these days, as all common eyesight problems could be cured by fast and efficient corrective laser surgery. Partly out of eccentricity, partly due to historical fascination and partly from downright affectation, she had opted never to allow the ophthalmologists anywhere near her; preferring instead to take up the offer of a colleague — similarly preoccupied with antiquity — who had fashioned her a pair of spectacles, Admittedly these did have some modern features, such as 200 times magnification, long and short distance use, colour enhancement and thermal imaging, but at least they looked the part.

Françoise Sellière had studied medicine, before going on to specialise at L'Institut Dermatalogique. At the age of 30 she had made a major breakthrough in epidermal chronostructuring and had had the foresight to patent her discovery.

She was lucky that she hadn’t fast-tracked her research with pharmaceutical sponsorship like most of her contemporaries but rather had funded her own laboratory by working late shifts in the casualty department at l'hôpital public. It wasn’t great money, but she could avoid agency contracting, or long-term theatre assignments. It gave her the freedom to work as and when she needed to, such that she could spend uninterrupted periods on her research, but still be able to run the laboratory and earn a small living. Consequently she gained a bit of a reputation as being a wild card, but her attitude was always professional at work and her record outstanding. L'hôpital public needed all the help it could get and was more than happy to bend the rules a little, if it meant securing her services.

Anti-aging creams had been around for a long time. They professed a variety of actions and properties, from skin tightening to enzymatic age reversal, or from hyper-elasticity to adiposal softening, but despite the claims of their manufacturers, none of them could truly turn back the superficial ravages of time, merely slow them down a bit. Sellière’s breakthrough had been the isolation of the gene responsible for epidermal replacement, the biochemistry of its action and the variation of its role in relation to different age groups; as well as an intimate understanding of the physiological processes of aging.

By the application of a series of specially produced and impregnated body wraps, the surface layers of the human body could be gradually altered. It meant that the subject had to be totally shaved of hair and as, on average, the process took just over a month to complete, there were some who felt unable to cope with the thought of wearing a wig. However, as the early pioneer patients of the treatment began to reenter society, aged 70 and over, with the skin of a teenager, and voice lifts to match, their friends and family were soon rushing to sign up. The foundation of La Clinique de la Jouvence, and Sellière’s directorship, meant that her days of financial hardship were at an end.

She devoted the next thirty years of her life to the equally elusive cure for baldness. She got close, but the biggest problem was seriously premature hair loss. The replacement technique relied on isolating the same factors relating to follicular activity that were naturally present in the skin. This could work well if the patient had suffered alopecia in their forties or fifties, as their genetic make-up meant that if they were taken back to the hair growth characteristics of their teens, then it could be another 30 years before the hair loss returned. This was an acceptable scenario for many people, as by the time it recurred they could have the process repeated one more time and it would, most likely, see them through to the end of their days; with life expectancy in the 22nd century at around 98 for men and 112 for women.

However, those who started to lose their hair in their 20’s had to have the procedure repeated much more regularly, as genetic follicular development and activity was found to be locked into their chromosomes, so the technique could only take them back to late teens (just as with skin rejuvenation). Any further back than that and the hair which developed was either as fine and wispy as a toddler’s, or else the scalp growth itself entered the equation, which resulted in a couple of cases of unsightly flaps of excess skin hanging down around the calvarium; creating an alarming and totally unaesthetic result, which had to be corrected with reductive surgery.

The years of research into the process of aging had brought Françoise into contact with a huge range of literature and publications, and after retirement she found that she loathed to be separated from her library. Having been ‘married’ to her work she had grown used to her own company, and despite having done so much to help them, she felt dissociated from the vanities of her fellow humans (characteristically eschewing even the remotest possibility of having her own skin rejuvenated).

So it was that she set about trying to locate a suitable place to end her days, where she could store her immense collection of books, periodicals, papers and manuscripts and be able to establish a group of modest laboratories to enable her to continue to explore her interests. When the old asylum came to her attention she instantly knew, upon entering it, that it would be the perfect location for her needs. She gave instructions to the commercial property agents that no-one was to know who had purchased the building, that the title deeds were to be retained by her alone, and that all non-essential associated paperwork should be destroyed, following the transaction, with anything else being handed over to her, along with the magnificent set of black keys. So it was that Françoise Sellière effectively disappeared from the world.

Aside from her monthly periodicals and journals, which she arranged to be delivered to a box number (as the postman never called at La Rue des Fous) under a false name — having paid for a lifetime’s subscription — she also started to look at myths, legends, hearsay and stories from ancient literature. A series of coincidences had led her to gather together a small group of tatty manuscripts dating from the 18th century, all of which hinted at the work of a Mademoiselle Éternité, but she could find no reference to her work in any other literature at her disposal.

One day, during her weekly visit to Les archives du patrimoine historique, she came across the name of a bygone volume which might just contain an explanation. A period of lengthy negotiation with the curator of the vaults paid off, and she was soon running her finger along dusty spines, nestling undisturbed for years on the shelves around her.

In a dark, insignificant corner, she found what she’d been searching for. The text was faded, the paper patchy and stained, and the language, although unmistakably French, was a little hard to follow. The library was due to close shortly, but she was impatient to decipher the contents, so she tugged a batch of notes from her pocket and set about wrapping the slim book. Putting on her thick coat, she slipped the parcel under her arm and set off, back up the creaky steps, away from the dust and cobwebs. She thanked the curator for his assistance and asked if she could return the next afternoon. Françoise knew full well that it would be closed for the public holiday from Saturday lunchtime, but it was a cunning tactic to create the impression of a sweet and dotty old lady; certainly not someone who would even conceive of an act of theft. She feigned disappointment at the reply and said that she would be back on Tuesday, which indeed she had every intention of so doing, in order to return the illicit treasure which she had clasped against her side.

She sat at her writing desk and excitedly reopened the book, back at the page which she had been trying to read earlier on. It was early morning by the time she had both read, and understood, the relevant chapter, but the story she had been piecing together was irresistibly exciting.

* * *

Mathilde had been a highly respected member of popular French society, with many influential friends and an adoring husband who had recently been awarded a good position in the Court of King Louis-Philippe. The ‘Citizen King’ had found power through the Chamber of Deputies and this was a honeymoon period, support coming from the wealthy middle class (such as Mathilde’s husband), so at that time it looked like they were on a winning side; although an economic crisis was brewing.

Her twin sisters had died young, her mother had died whilst giving birth to Mathilde’s brother, her father had died falling from his horse on a hunt, and her brother had been killed in a duel at he age of 26. As a result, at the age of 25, she was the sole survivor of her family line, as yet with no children of her own, and since the loss of her brother she had begun to develop a morbid fear of her own demise. So convinced, was she, that this would come soon, that she was said to have made an extraordinary decision.

She predicted that life in the future would be infinitely safer than in her own time and that she must make herself temporarily immortal, in order that she might bear children in an era when their longevity was assured. This would guarantee her lineage, and she felt compelled to risk everything for the sake of the memory of her hapless family. Her furtive enquiries had led her to learn about the ambitions of Mademoiselle Éternité and the strange (but to Mathilde, promising) rumours that surrounded her attempt to cheat death, almost 100 years before.

On returning from a trip to Calais, her husband found the household eerily quiet. He sought out the servants, whom he found cowering in their quarters, in a state of profound distress, choking back tears. It transpired that the lady of the house had gone out soon after her husband had set off for Calais, returning late that same evening with a small wooden packing crate. This had been accompanied by a stocky gentleman, attired entirely in black, who, along with a swiftly dismissed accomplice, had puffed and panted their way into the drawing room and placed the crate on the central table.


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2005 by D. J. Burnham

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