The last of her resolve was failing; it was all she could do to hold the sword aloft.
“I know, because I know you, Alicia Donadio. I know your secret heart. Don’t you see? That’s why you’ve come to me. I’m the only one who does.”
“Please,” she begged. “Please stop talking.”
“Tell me. What did you name her?”
She was undone; she had nothing left. Whoever she’d been, or wanted to be, she felt that person leaving her.
“Tell me, Lish. Tell me your daughter’s name.”
“Rose.” The word came out with a choking sound. “I named her Rose.”
She had begun to sob. At some uncharted distance, the sword fell clattering to the floor. The man had risen and put his arms around her, drawing her into a warm embrace. She made no resistance, having none to offer. She cried and cried. Her little girl. Her Rose.
“That’s why you came here, isn’t it?” His voice was soft, close to her ear. “That’s what this place is for. You came to speak your daughter’s name.”
She nodded against him. She heard herself say, “Yes.”
“Oh, my Alicia. My Lish. Do you know where you are? All your journeys are ended. What is home but a place where you are truly known? Say it with me. ‘I’ve come home.’ ”
A flicker of resistance; then she let it go. “I’ve come home.”
“ ‘And I am never leaving here.’ ”
How easy it suddenly was. “And I am never leaving here.”
A moment passed; he stepped away. Through her tears, she looked at his kind face, so full of understanding. He pulled a chair from the table.
“Now, sit with me,” he said. “We have all the time in the world. Sit with me, and I will tell you everything.”
* * *
Behind every great hatred is a love story.
For I am a man who has known and tasted love. I say “a man” because that is how I know myself. Look at me, and what do you see? Do I not take the form of a man? Do I not feel as you do, suffer as you do, love as you do, mourn as you do? What is the essence of a man, if not these things? In life I was a scientist, called Fanning. Fanning, Timothy J., holder of the Eloise Armstrong Distinguished Chair in Biochemical Sciences, Columbia University. I was known and respected, a figure of my times. My opinions were sought on many subjects; I walked the hallways of my profession with my head held high. I was a man of connections. I shook hands, kissed cheeks, made friends, took lovers. Fortune and treasure flowed my way; I supped at the flower of the modern world. City apartments, country houses, sleek automobiles, good wine: all of these were things I had. I dined in fine restaurants, slept in upscale hotels; my passport was fat with visas. Thrice I wooed and thrice I wed, and although these unions came to naught, each was, in its final measure, no matter of regret. I worked and rested, danced and wept, hoped and remembered—even, from time to time, prayed. I lived, in sum, a life.
Then, in a jungle in Bolivia, I died.
You will know me as Zero. Such is the name that history has bestowed upon me. Zero the Destroyer, Great Devourer of the World. That this history shall never be written is a circumstance of ontological debate. What becomes of the past when there is no man to record it? I died and then was brought to life, the oldest tale there is. I arose from the dead, and what did I behold? I was in a room of the bluest light—pure blue, cerulean blue, the blue the sky would be if it were married to the sea. My arms, legs, even my head were bound; I was a captive in that place. Scattered images lit my mind, flashes of light and color that refused to gather into meaning. My body was humming. That is the only word. I was to learn that I had just emerged from the final stages of my transformation. I had yet to see my body, being inside it.
Tim, can you hear me?
A voice, coming from everywhere and nowhere. Was I dead? Was this the voice of God, addressing me? Perhaps the life I’d lived had been not so worthy, and things had gone the other way.
Tim, if you can hear me, lift a hand.
This did not seem too much for God, any god, to ask.
That’s it. Now the other one. Excellent. Well done, Tim.
You know this voice, I said to myself. You are not dead; it is the voice of a human being, like you. A man who calls you by name, who says “well done.”
That’s it. Just breathe. You’re doing fine.
The nature of the situation was becoming clear. I had been ill in some manner. Perhaps I had suffered seizures; that would explain the restraints. I could not yet recall the circumstances, how I had come to be in this place. The voice was the key. If I could identify its owner, all would be revealed.
I’m going to undo the straps now, okay?
I felt a release of pressure; triggered by some remote mechanism, my bindings had surrendered their hold.
Can you sit up, Tim? Can you do that for me?
It was also true that, whatever my ailment was, the worst had passed. I did not feel ill—quite the contrary. The humming sensation, which originated in my chest, had enlarged to an orchestral, whole-body vibrato, as if all the molecules of my anatomy were playing a single note. The sensation was deeply, almost sexually pleasurable. My loins, the tips of my toes, even the roots of my hair—never had I experienced anything so exquisite.
A second voice, deeper than the first: Dr. Fanning, I’m Colonel Sykes.
Sykes. Did I know a man named Sykes?
Can you hear us? Do you know where you are?
A hole had opened inside me. Not a hole: a maw. I was hungry. Deeply, madly hungry. Mine was the appetite not of a human being but of an animal. A hunger of claws and teeth, of burrowing in, of soft flesh beneath the jaws and hot juices exploding upon the palate.