Balzac's War: A Tale of Veniss Underground

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Auteur: Jeff VanderMeer

Balzac's War: A Tale of Veniss Underground
BALZAC’S WAR

    I
    “Time held me green and dying
    Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”
    —Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill”
    Balzac and Jamie stumbled upon the flesh dog on a day when the sky, seared white as bleached bone, split open the world and allowed any possibility. Sixteen and free of the crèche, two as one, they ran across the desert floor to the ruined city of Balthakazar. Balzac sucked air as he tried to match her long strides, his tunic and trousers billowing in the wind as if he were a human sail. Just ahead of him he could see Jamie’s tangles of black hair snarling out behind her, her burnished mahogany thighs pumping beneath the flurry of white dress plaited at the knee and drawn up between her legs. Within hours his older brother and self-proclaimed guardian, Jeffer, would track them down and, returning them to the crèche, force them to complete their lesson with the boring old water dowser, Con Fegman. No doubt Con Fegman was, at that very moment, recounting for the thousandth time how he had discovered the oasis lakes with a mere twitch-twitch of his fingers.
    Ahead, the ruins shimmered in the heat, the dark metallic glints of edges and curves beginning to resolve into cracked causeways, broken-down battlements, and crooked buildings fifty stories high. The city had in its demeanor, the sand ever in motion across its metal and concrete carapace, a sense of watchfulness, a restlessness.
    At the fringe, where buildings slept like bald and eyeless old men, they found an ancient highway; it shook itself free from the sand as if from a dream of drowning. Once, it might have been eighteen lanes wide, but now, choking on sand, it could fit only four abreast.
    Breathing hard, Balzac slowed to a walk. Sweat dripped down his face. A delicious nervousness pierced his stomach.
    Jamie, hardly winded, turned her face out of the sun.
    “Why did you stop?”
    “Because,” Balzac wheezed, “this is the city . . . ”
    Husks and shells, as dead as the hollowed-out, mummified corpses of tortoises and jackals after a drought: the idea of “city” stripped down to its most fundamental elements, the superfluous flourishes of paint, writing, road signs, windows, scoured away in an effort to reveal the unadorned and beautifully harsh truth. Gutted weapons embankments pointed toward the sky, but could not defend the city from the true enemy.
    Jamie interrupted his reverie. “Don’t just stand there – we’ve got to hurry. Your brother will find us soon.”
    He held out his hand.
    She stared at it for a moment, then took it. Her palm felt flushed and warm.
    “I’ll deal with Jeffer,” he said with newfound confidence, although as he led her forward he didn’t dare to see if she was impressed or just amused.
    Straight to the city’s heart they went, the buildings encroaching on the highway, while beneath their feet four-o’clocks, cactus blossoms, and sedge weeds thrust up through cracks in the highway pavement. Scuttling

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