For Carlos Betancur Jaramillo
When he awoke, the man did not know where he was. He did not remember anything, not even who he was. When he searched through his scant belongings, he found no sign of his identity, not even a scrap of paper or a notebook with his name on it. A slight headache confirmed that he was at least alive.
He remained sitting on the edge of the bed, trying to clear his mind, but it was useless. As much as he pondered, he found no answer. Perhaps this would pass quickly, a result of lingering intoxication from a night of excess, and all he could do was wait.
The man found himself in an apartment whose view opened onto a hill and a disorderly, bustling city where nothing looked familiar. He wanted to swear, but the words either didn’t come or came with difficulty, as if he had also forgotten how to speak.
He was gripped by the idea that he had suffered some brain injury, but he could move his hands and walk and he displayed no sign of facial paralysis. He knew he should not lose his composure. He was alive, that was what mattered, at some point he would find a way out of this bad dream. He lay back on the bed and let time pass, as only time could bring some resolution to his situation.
The man looked like he had stepped off the cover of a sports magazine, matching that ideal of masculine beauty to which the media often pays tribute for commercial purposes. Besides for his eyes, brown and inquisitive, which revealed a tense inner being, his appearance was very attractive, but artificial. This was the first impression of Lena, his neighbour, when she passed by him in the hallway and, as if she didn’t exist or were invisible, he continued walking toward the elevators with no response to her greeting. An impolite attitude that could have inspired indifference but that, in the Chief Biologist of the Center of State Investigations, awoke an even greater interest in this nonetheless beautiful character. Minutes later, visibly confused, the man returned from the street.
At twilight – as if a chip had suddenly been activated – a name came to his mind: Danton. He was Danton, the cyborg, and along with this information that referred him to a catalogue and a serial number, words began to flow spontaneously through his mind, making the nearby reality suddenly familiar, and it was as if he finally saw his own face in that recovered language. Then he knew that he was there, on that foreign world, to kill a man.
The Adamantine Agency had delivered him there, unconscious, programming the reanimation mechanism for two hours later so as to give his body and brain time to adapt to the environment, but for some unexpected reason they had activated early, causing a moment of inner disarray that affected his functioning.
His memory was not rich in data or information about the place he came from, the colony to which he belonged or the figure in whose name he acted. The facts he did possess were conveniently altered or false and could easily be the same as those of any other individual. In this way, his handlers eliminated the risk that, in the case of detection, he or the actions he committed there would compromise the Agency; or, in the worst possible case–as happened with Argenius–that Danton would end up acting of his own accord and become a traitor.
Things evolved quickly with Lena. At first he considered her an annoyance, but soon he established something like a friendship with her, and the least little incident became a motive and then an excuse to see her again. They behaved, for the moment, like friendly neighbors, exchanging small services to avoid everyday difficulties. Danton recognized that their connection, always pleasant, was growing ever closer, leaving him a little perplexed, as he could think of no way to categorize the situation, never having experienced anything like it. In his rather precarious catalogue of emotions, what was happening to him escaped all comprehension.
Argenius, the deserter, belonged to the latest generation of robots, in whom science and genetics had surpassed all previous results, even providing them with mimetic abilities. They shifted forms at will like chameleons, thereby avoiding any interference in their actions. They were the pride of the biogenetic research laboratories, their most sophisticated product, and they were ranked as even more useful than humans, which can be so irrational in many regards. According to his orders, Danton was required to destroy Argenius without leaving a trace, such that no element, system, material, or information circuit could be exploited by the enemy. To complete this mission, he was provided with a new weapon: the Sl42, a gamma ray pistol, easily concealed and always lethal. Using his tracking system, he would be able to locate Argenius’s lair and attack him before he could change forms and escape; three seconds before, to be precise.
For all that precision, Danton had more trust in his murderous instinct, already proven on special missions that had elevated his status among the members of the squadron assigned to bring traitors to justice wherever they were found, no matter how distant or remote.
Mixing with the urban crowds, at first he set about (literally) sniffing out his prey, but he had not anticipated that the cloying smell of humans, which permeated everything, would render his task more difficult. He would return to the apartment nauseous, with a sense of unease that he was eventually able to overcome through painkillers and sleep. That was the first barrier he came up against in his pursuit of Argenius, who seemed to have disappeared off the face of the planet: the smell of humans. That stale musk of an evolving species repulsed him; it was unlike anything he knew and it swiftly became an obstacle separating him from his victim. He could find no way to get any closer to him.
Danton temporarily put his pursuit on hold and stayed in bed trying to shuffle between openings and impossibilities that neither he nor the Adamantine Agency had considered. Meanwhile, as astute as he was, Argenius was surely taking the opportunity to further multiply the twists and turns of the labyrinth that guaranteed his safety from the Agency’s vengeance, and this knowledge tormented Danton. But his headache intensified, almost keeping him from opening his eyes, and then he realized that he needed to turn to Lena, whose attention and helpful services, potions and massages, would bring him relief. To keep the light from entering and creating a gloomy half-light in his apartment, he accepted her suggestion of closing the doors and windows.
Lena was always ready to attend to him, although Danton only turned to her in moments of crisis. He was grateful for his good luck. And so the first week passed; the next week, Lena had to travel to the Arctic to investigate a fungus that was killing the cod. On Tuesday, Danton felt that his unease had disappeared and he dared to venture out onto the street, confirming that his physiology now accepted proximity to humans with far less difficulty. It was not that the smell had disappeared, but that he withstood it better, as if he were walking alongside a sewer without looking into it.
He immediately began pursuing Argenius again, throwing himself into that bustling, dense Babel where every creature seemed to hide another similar creature, multiplying infinitely. But within him, in his blood, was the urgency and joy of the predator who plays out his strategy and toys with the fear of his prey, and that confused reality did not discourage him.
Instead of an orderly, severe plan, surveying the suburbs in their entirety and, after searching them, checking them off the list one by one, Danton preferred to let fate guide him. Random chance, which was surely off limits to Argenius – an individual given to calculations and probabilities due to his android condition – would be his weapon. He had all the time he needed, and in the end he had been created with this sole objective. One day, the web of circumstances created by his target’s presence would close in around him, and then, without a hint of mercy, he would kill him.
For the first few days, the effort was in vain. The city almost overwhelmed him, but Danton acted with patience, not giving off even the slightest signal that might put the traitor on guard. Mingling with the crowd, he came and went through neighborhoods, parks, shopping malls, and alleyways, always hoping – to put it in old-fashioned terms – that the hare would leave its hole. But none of them had the face of Argenius; no scent or trait gave him away among that sea of beings condemned to any old fate. Perhaps his shape-shifting abilities, placing him a step ahead of his pursuer, would deflect all of Danton’s efforts.
Two weeks later, his tracking techniques still failed to produce any results, except on two or three occasions when Danton thought he was close. But something always happened, a bad calculation, a distraction or a slip-up, that ultimately allowed Argenius to escape.
The first had been in the street market, in the animal sector, where his nose had detected an unusual odor of manure. Then, in the form of a monkey, Argenius escaped across the rooftops. Later, when he was with Lena while she told him about the polar outpost she had recently visited, he chose not to act so as not to reveal himself to her, in spite of his certainty that the albino Jew donning his phylacteries at the entrance of the synagogue was him. And so on.
Nonetheless, on his way through the city during Lena’s absence, something happened that he still found incomprehensible: he thought of her. At first it was fleeting, like thinking of some temporary thing that still has no place in our lives. But later the thoughts grew more persistent, even when she was nowhere near him. It was as if a little hole had opened in his side, threatening to expand over his entire body, causing a pain that was sweet and delicate all at once, and difficult to contain. Danton, who did not understand what was happening to him, simply let it continue, also ignorant of his lack of weapons to oppose it. He thought of Lena and felt that he needed her and that the singular objective of pursuing Argenius was no longer enough to sustain his existence: now, his thick artificial cladding was inhabited by the biologist’s ghost.
He could not refer to his interest in the woman as love, because love was unknown to him, but he was certain that this was something very different from any other emotion or feeling that emerged from his condition as a replicant.
His eagerness for her to return from her research grew more intense. Lena had told him that she would only be gone for fifteen days, but twenty days passed, and that thing that he didn’t know what to call enveloped him like a cold flame.
On one especially fruitless day in his search for the traitor, when he exited the Metro and paused to watch a group of boys dancing hip hop, he felt someone press a revolver against his back. There were three assailants, and they ordered him to go with them into an empty lot nearby. His reaction was swift and lethal.
He killed two of them with his ray pistol, and the other fled, slipping away among the crowd that departed from the public transport. His disproportionate reaction had been a mistake, but he only thought that afterwards when he realized that the terrible deaths he had delivered to the pair of criminals, whose bodies were practically skinned, would be mentioned in the press. This would alert both the police and Argenius, whom they would surely protect. What’s more, there was the third man, an eyewitness who could report what had happened at any moment. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. For the first time, Danton saw human blood, and it turned his stomach. A crushing migraine forced him to return home, and there, blinded by the pain, to wait for Lena to come back and extend her generous hands.
When he had given up hope, Lena returned.
Then and after, they spent their time seeing and loving each other. When he discovered the perfection of those instants that carnal impulse transformed into a strategy, a sundered offering, a submissive combustion, the link became burning devotion. Then he understood exactly what had been kept from him in order to distinguish and separate him from humanity and, for the first time, he felt within himself the heartbeat of nonconformity.
He knew he was transgressing his limits and putting the pursuit and punishment of Argenius at risk by accepting the unacceptable, an interaction with a human, but he could not extricate himself from that delicate magma, as much as he tried to tear himself away.
Consequently, one day he thought no longer of Argenius or his need to destroy him, and he went to live with Lena.
With time, Danton confessed to Lena the nature of the things that had been brewing in his mind before she appeared in his life, and he told her he no longer felt obligated to complete his mission. It was as if, thanks to her, he had jettisoned some imperfect piece of himself that was constraining his existence. And so he revealed the name of Argenius, his prey, in an apparently casual way while still covering himself: wherever Argenius might be, he now had nothing to fear, since they now shared the same fortune. They were both deserters, and they needed to move with all the necessary precautions in order to avoid detection by the hunters sent after them.
They were in a motel in the outskirts of the city. They had decided to spend the afternoon there because they wanted to add a new ingredient – a little cheap perfume, Lena said – to their love story. They talked and told secrets, deepening that moment before pleasure, such that neither precaution nor distrust could have any place there.
Danton, satisfied, made his story all the more long-winded until he noticed in his companion some reservation, a slight unease that, at first, he did not know how to interpret, unfamiliar as he was with emotion.
Lena stood up from the bed and went to lean out the window. She was absorbed, looking down at the landscape of sandy slopes and reverberating distances that were part of her home in that world in dire need of protection.
Against the light, her upper body gave off an iridescent aura, as if her head and back were surrounded by a cold, bluish flame, accentuating the darkness of the rest of her body and dividing it in two. She suddenly turned, and her previous pleasant and delicate appearance, under the effect of that raw light, was now more like that of a mythological creature. Danton thought he was hallucinating. The woman, in her perfect nakedness, as miraculous as a flower, then began to transform into another entity, full of strength and power, and a hidden being quite unlike herself emerged from its vessel and leapt at him without warning, snatching him in its metallic talons.
Taken by surprise, Danton barely managed to react. In horror, unsure how to defend himself, he felt the claws cut through his skin and tear his body apart, causing inconceivable pain. His robotic components were scattered on the floor, his systems went into collapse, and in the midst of the cerebral haze that began to overwhelm his senses he recalled or invented a fable that told of a legion of women who protected that speck of dust lost in the galaxy – their planet – from any intrusion or alien presence.
Another idea flashed through his mind, making him doubt all his previous actions: perhaps the same thing had happened to Argenius. For that reason he had not returned, thereby betraying his mission.
The final kiss, as if Lena felt a moment’s sympathy for what she had lost, was burning and prolonged. Then came darkness.
Translated by Arthur Dixon