The helicopter approached the island after a tight turn over the bay.
The Tyrrhenian Sea rolled out its usual carpet of sun-crushed greens and
violets. It took Cayre’s practiced eye to make out the iridescent trace left by
a ship in the middle of the proliferating algae. Sighing in exasperation, he
took out his tablet and coded a short report.
“Stop that!” (Although the cockpit was soundproofed, the pilot had
spoken over the general communication system so that the intervention would be
recorded by the black boxes.) “No interference during landing.”
Cayre shrugged. There were no other passengers; flight security was the
least of his concerns.
“We’ll fly another circle over the seaweed strip. I want to plot the
pollution trace. Can you take photos?”
“We have fifteen minutes of fuel left. And we’re already behind
“It won’t take more than five minutes.”
“It’s your dime…”
The colorful blanket measured only two hundred meters long. Not a true
degassing, rather a fuel leak. What intrigued Cayre, though, was the course
chosen by the polluting boat. Right in the middle of the algae, where the long
stems threatened to wrap around the propellers. A smuggler? The Center’s
surveillance system would have spotted it. He scrawled his questions on the
tablet and set it to sleep mode.
With a grumble, the helicopter dove for the island.
Without waiting for the composite blades to come to a stop, Cayre
stepped out of the cockpit, back hunched. It was fine and all knowing that
there was no risk of decapitation; he still tucked his head down into his
shoulders out of reflex. He forced himself to stand straight and walked over to
the end of the concrete field where an electric cart with an immense sunshade
was waiting for him. The driver saluted and opened the door.
The Center’s buildings covered half the slope of a hill in the middle of
the Island. At the peak, windmills stretched their skeletal
silhouettes, waving their articulated arms, to make the most of the ocean breeze.
Plastic greenhouses, separated from the road by honeycombed brick walls, stood
in tight rows. As they drove farther from the sea, the few rare access points
were covered with kabalistic prohibitions and symbols that Cayre was unable to
decipher. Overwhelmed by an impulse, he motioned at the driver to stop, shaking
his digital tablet.
Grudgingly, the other man parked the vehicle on the dust shoulder. Cayre
climbed out and walked to the closest greenhouse to examine it. The heat stuck
to him like glue.
The plastic shutters were locked by a double security system: code and
handprint. The system remained inert under his fingers. Through a tiny slit
next to a support beam, he saw rows of plants supported by carbon stakes. No
way to determine what they were. He pretended to scribble on his tablet. Drops
of sweat trickled down between his shoulder plates as he walked back along the
short wall to the cart.
From the corner of his eye, he noticed a brown spot in the narrow tunnel
between two greenhouses. The driver glanced at him, exasperated. Grimacing,
Cayre climbed over the small wall and walked into the passageway.
He blinked in the heavy shadows that reigned there. After walking a few
meters, he saw a couple of naked children huddling together, their puny buttocks
facing him. No more than five years old, he thought as he came to a stop. He
coughed. The little girl turned halfway around and stared at him. Then she tore
a flower out of the ground and waved it at him like a talisman.
Cayre had never seen that type of plant before. The fleshy petals formed
an irregular corolla, with an unhealthy color: a mixture of chrome and flesh,
with iridescent streaks, like garbage oil that has been recycled too often. The
flower seemed to twist in the dirt-covered fingers that caressed it. Cayre
approached and the sweet odor of rot grabbed him by the throat. Just before he
turned, he saw the child tear off a piece of the corolla and chew it with an
earnest expression. Her pupils dilated and she turned her back to him, her body
The day was already well underway when Cayre entered the meeting room at
the Center. He kept the pleasantries to a minimum. (Yes, he’d eaten at the
previous stopover, no coffee thank you, yes he would greet the boss later.)
They had him wear oversized sterile overalls, and he submitted to the
decontamination ritual before entering a series of white-tiled laboratories.
The flat screens hanging on the wall displayed segments of genetic code or
single-cell colonies magnified thousands of times. However, the DNA sequencers
were resting, their control panels turned off. Cayre supposed that they had
interrupted all of the experiments in progress before his arrival. The usual
Close-ups of Caulerpa Taxifolia
were scattered about the desks, particularly the most recent mutations that
grew more than a meter per day and whose toxins attacked everything that moved.
The spectacle was familiar to him. At this very moment, hundreds of
laboratories around the world were working on cleaning up the planet’s
pollution and he, Cayre, was responsible for making sure that the taxpayer
money was spent wisely.
He listened to the spiel carefully prepared by the two team leads. The
Center had two specializations: treating oil derivatives—a remnant from the
time when oil was particularly inexpensive in Greece—and controlling the flora
in the Mediterranean depths. The situational analyses were detailed, obviously
based on data that was updated in real time. The results, on the other hand,
seemed fuzzy to him. And the medium-term research strategy could be summed up
in a handful of empty sentences, heard thousands of times elsewhere.
Cayre forced himself to listen to the presentations until the very end,
without interrupting the speakers. He asked a few routine questions and
requested the budget evolution graphs and the hiring curve for each team. The
Center was operating at full capacity; the researchers—with impressive
pedigrees—seemed both motivated and conscientious. But nothing was coming out
of their labs. No revolutionary articles, no original technical solutions.
Barely more than a few routine announcements on scientific sites. That was what
had caught Cayre’s attention and convinced him to come and inspect the island.
He leaned back in the articulated chair in the conference room and
opened his tablet with a flick. Despite the air conditioning, he felt damp.
Opposite him, the two team leads sat shoulder to shoulder, flanked by a handful
of scientists who had joined them.
“Before I forget,” Cayre said, “I flew over the alga carpet surrounding
the island on my way in and I saw something curious.”
A reedy but perfectly audible whistle rose from the group of
researchers. One of the leaders turned around, frowning, and silence fell.
Cayre allowed the discomfort to grow, then added, “There were traces of
oil in the water. A polluting trail that the satellites should have detected.”
“No doubt from a fishing boat. The area isn’t really off limits even if
we try to discourage the curious.”
“I understand. However… (Cayre smiled ironically) the wake was heading
straight for the algae. I believe that the invasive strains of Taxifolia produce toxins that prevent
them from being nibbled at by the submarine fauna. Not exactly the kind of
place where one would expect to find miraculous catches. More likely a place
people would avoid, if they don’t want to twist a propeller. Am I mistaken?”
The oldest scientist shrugged ostensibly and said, “There are always a
few imbeciles who go places they shouldn’t. If that’s all you saw, I’ll send a
report to the surveillance department.”
“That’s all I saw in fact. But I plan to spend a few days on the island
and glance here and there. It is possible that I may complete your report with
my own observations.”
Cayre was assigned a tiny studio apartment in the housing complex next
to the Center. In principle, he should have left the same evening, as no
arrangements had been made for his stay. The bed was barely large enough for
him. But the view from the balcony redeemed everything: beyond the greenhouse
zone, the sea sparkled. The water looked unusually clean, as blue and
transparent as during the time of Ulysses, despite the presence of algae.
Cayre considered asking them to loan him a swimsuit, then thought better
of it. He’d wait for the night to swim. He knew he was a good swimmer, even
though he wasn’t used to saltwater. In France, the pools and certain mountain
lakes were the last places people could paddle about without fearing skin
Overhead, a jet streaked the sky with twin furrows. The effect was
disturbing. Cayre recalled what his father said to him shortly before his
death, “We constantly draw the lines of our own destruction and no one knows
how to read them!”
He pulled on a T-shirt with the Center’s logo and set out to explore the
Behind the wheel of a mini-cart, he turned to the landing zone. A narrow
road circled the island, bordered on one side by the sea and on the other by
the greenhouses. From time to time, an olive tree stood out on the horizon.
Cayre was starting to feel hungry. He had seen no one outside the Center. The
island was inhabited only by the scientists and the few rare seasonal workers
who took turns at harvest time. For a long time, European agriculture had been
so mechanized that the peasants had been replaced by agricultural machine
programmers or by artificial intelligences that analyzed the satellite data to
adjust watering sessions in real time. But most of the arable land of the old
continent had been polluted by industrial waste that overflowed in wild
discharges, impossible to treat. For the time being, the oceans served as
garbage cans for the entire world.
Cayre noticed a cloud of dust above the greenhouses, on the other side
of the promontory he drove along. Instinctively, he slowed. The sun was low on
the horizon; work must have stopped. As soon as he could, he parked on the
Behind the greenhouses, there was an enormous compost hole filled with
dry algae, sand, and dirt. A small mechanical shovel buzzed all around it,
biting into the soil and spitting out enormous mouthfuls. A man, bare-chested,
mouth hidden beneath an enormous mustache, operated the machine by remote
control from on top of the rock where he was seated. Another rolled a large can
toward the hole, using a motorized dolly. Then, to Cayre’s surprise, he simply
removed the plug and allowed a thick, black, oily liquid, which smelled all too
familiar, to trickle onto the compost.
“What are you doing? Are you crazy?” Cayre sprung out into the light
without thinking. The two men looked up at him and watched him approach,
gesticulating, without interrupting their work.
“That’s oil! You’re polluting the entire zone.”
The man operating the machine glanced at him, eyes questioning, and
uttered a long sentence in Greek. Cayre shook his head. The man shrugged,
placed the remote control on the ground at his feet and pulled a folded piece
of paper with the Center’s logo on it from the back pocket of his jeans. It was
a list of instructions, in Greek and English. One sentence caught Cayre’s eye: spraying on Zone 4, oil and garbage waste,
Tanks 1 to 6. The current date.
The Greek held out his hand for the paper. Dumbfounded, Cayre folded it
back up and returned it. The mechanical shovel went back to work as a second
tank was emptied over the hole, its contents mixed with the dirt. The stench of
oil and crushed algae rose from the compost but the laborers seemed
When Cayre headed back to his vehicle, the Greek saluted him
nonchalantly. As he opened the door, the investigator saw his reflection in the
rearview mirror. The logo on his T-shirt identified him as a Center scientist.
That made him a big enchilada on the island.
His mind filled with questions, he headed back toward the sea.
He had to leave the car under a pine tree at the end of a road that was
barely passable. After ten minutes on foot, he reached a tiny beach enclosed by
two rocky outcroppings covered with algae. The water was incredibly clear,
barely hemmed by foam. He undressed, placed a stone on his clothing to keep it
from blowing away, and raced over the burning sand to the fringe of the waves.
All too soon, the water irritated his feet and calves, which were
covered with reddish blisters. Swearing, he covered them with sand to relieve
the pain. He heard the echo of laughter behind him. A half dozen children, as
naked as he was, were pointing at him from the end of the promontory. One after
another, they jumped into the water and raced toward the open sea, shrieking in
excitement. When they reached the edge of the algae fields, they dove together,
disappearing under the surface, their brown bodies wrapped in filaments like
Cayre dressed quickly before limping over to the rocks. Caulerpa runners, dried by the sun,
cracked under his shoes. He knelt to examine them, taking care not to touch
Most were covered with teeth marks.
He wrapped a few specimens in his T-shirt and headed back to his car.
Lying on the balcony, his legs coated with a fishy-smelling cream the
Center’s nurse had prescribed, Cayre finished reading the most recent
scientific articles published by the island researchers. He had long realized
that the convoluted phrases of the official reports were hiding more
information than they provided. Laboratories around the world were fighting a
fierce war, through espionage and sophisticated data mining techniques. Each
patent was a victory, each publication a potential breach that the enemy could
exploit. To a certain extent, he understood the phenomena, even though he wasn’t
sure he approved of it. But the Center’s publications were decidedly empty of
useful content, as if anything that could provide a trail had been
painstakingly peeled away.
Cayre smiled inside. His specialty was filling in the missing zones in
the reports, based on clues as tenuous as the absence of a crucial reference in
a bibliographic list. When that wasn’t enough, he investigated, guided solely
by his intuition. And he never gave up without obtaining results.
An iced coffee and the Taxifolia
runners he picked up on the beach stood on the plastic table next to him. He
hastily scribbled on his tablet and shook his head. All of the elements he had
gathered were organized in keeping with the missing zones, like a cloud of
stars orbiting black holes.
He glanced at his watch. It was getting late, but the Center operated on
Greek time. No doubt the researchers were staying behind in the labs. It would
cost nothing to check.
The research block was locked. The retinal scanner ignored all of Cayre’s
attempts to be recognized. He settled for banging on the wall until someone
came to open up for him.
Once he was decontaminated, a guard took him directly to the meeting
room. He was not surprised to find the two team leads who had met with him in
the late morning there. With a nod, he took a seat in the first free chair and
turned his tablet on with a flick.
“Let’s save a little time,” he started. “My purpose in coming here is to
understand what the enormous budget that has been allocated to you is really
being used for. (He raised his hand to forestall any interruptions.) I also
suspect that additional funding has been given to you by various industries.
What we give you is not enough for you to obtain your results. I’m talking,
among other things, about new the varieties of Caulerpa that you’ve developed, while your mission was specifically
to find a means to eradicate those algae.”
“You don’t understand…” said the youngest of the team leaders.
“I’m all ears. A word of warning, however, I know enough to be able to
tell when you’re trying to lie to me.”
“You’ve only been here since this morning and you think you understand
everything that’s going on here?”
“I have a few ideas. I’ve seen your greenhouses and your compost pit. I’ve
picked up various unusual specimens here and there. In short, I have more than
enough evidence to bring a battalion of experts here. If that’s what you want,
The hostility in the researcher’s voice was so strong that Cayre felt
like throwing out a figure, just to watch his reaction.
“Sorry, you’re off track. All of the information contained in my tablet
is transmitted to my department in real time. I’m under surveillance as well.”
“Show him the bins, Franz,” murmured the older of the two men. “As soon
as you’ve signed a confidentiality agreement, we’ll give you the owner’s tour.
That should convince our patrons that the money they’re sending us is being put
to good use. You’ll leave your tablet in this room.”
A half dozen scientists in rumpled overalls were gathered in front of
their workstations or their microscopes. They never even looked up as the group
walked past. For the first time since arriving, Cayre felt that the Center was
something more than a fake window for visitors. Whatever research work was
going on here, those taking part in it considered it crucial.
“We think we’ve made a fundamental breakthrough,” echoed the oldest of
the researchers, pressing his eye against the security scanner. “We came at the
problem from the other side, with a new look.”
“The pollution of the planet, and particularly the oceans.” (The wall
slid open with a well-oiled hiss.) “The Caulerpa
is a means, not a problem. You’ll see.”
In the middle of a room lit by horticultural neons stood a transparent
bin, measuring several cubic meters, filled with water. A mass of algae with
clearly recognizable fronds grew on the sandy bottom. The stems were a
disgusting color; they shone as if coated in grease.
“Our latest baby,” the scientist murmured proudly. “Created through
bio-engineering in seventeen months, despite insane specifications. It’s still
growing a little too slowly, but we should be able to solve that problem soon.
After all, the original strain grows several meters per day, when the
conditions are favorable.”
Cayre walked over to the bin. The network of clues he had gathered
pointed in that direction, but he still found it hard to believe. He could not
imagine what had driven an entire team to develop an improved version of the
As if reading his thoughts, the young scientist opened a metal locker,
revealing a row of flasks.
“Choose your poison.” (He picked up a bottle randomly and looked at the
label.) “Mercury sludge. We also have crude oil, concentrated manure, motor
oil… Everything that has been poisoning our planet for decades.”
He climbed a step ladder and tilted the flask over the surface of the
“Are you timing this, Georges?”
As Cayre watched, dumbfounded, the scientist poured the content of the
flask into the bin. A brown cloud spread over the algae. The water grew so
murky that it was almost opaque. An unpleasant odor swept over the room.
“We have about ten minutes to wait. Would you like a coffee? There’s a
distributer in the lab.”
“Black, no sugar.” (Cayre had replied automatically.) “But I’ll wait
until this is over.”
He walked over to the transparent wall and looked through it. The dirty
water was gradually clearing. He looked for a pump or some sort of filtering
device, but found nothing.
“It’s the Caulerpa that do the
work. This strain feeds off all the substances we consider pollutants. It
proliferates in the most affected sites and restores the purity of the water in
a few months. We’ve conducted full scale tests around the island. The results
“The trail of oil I noticed when I arrived,” murmured Cayre.
“An hour later and you wouldn’t have been able to locate it.”
The water in the tank was almost clear. Seized by an impulse, Cayre
climbed the ladder and bent over the surface.
“Be careful! The Caulerpa
gives off rather aggressive toxins,” warned Georges. “Don’t dip your fingers in
The sludge had disappeared, gobbled up by the reddish fronds. The sand
at the bottom was once again visible.
“Franz has created another variety of garbage plants, as we call them.
These one are for on land. A poppy mutation, halfway between the common poppy
and the Afghan variety. It grows without any problem on public landfills or
along highways. In the long run, it will cover all abandoned industrial zones.
“I think I’ve seen a specimen. It looks rather repulsive.”
“To us perhaps. But our descendants will get used to it without any
problems. Do you want us to show you how the Caulerpa processes the oil slicks?
“I’ve seen enough, thank you. I suppose everything you have here is
protected by patents?”
“Not yet. Our experts have drafted the applications but we’re waiting
for the green light from our other sponsors to submit them.” The scientist
shrugged. “Personally, I don’t really care. We’re working for all of humanity,
to clean up the mess our species has left behind itself. Thanks to what we’ve
done, pollution will soon be nothing but a bad memory.”
Franz and Georges accompanied Cayre back to his room, after making a
detour to the cafeteria which served frozen dishes sprinkled with Retzina. Now
that the veil of silence had been lifted, the two researchers seemed to be
delighted to talk about their results. The three men settled on the balcony
with a bottle of wine and plastic glasses. Under the star-studded sky, the sea
was as calm as a bed sheet.
“I’ll leave at dawn tomorrow,” Cayre said. “What you’ve accomplished
here will change the world.”
As he put his glass down on the plastic table, he felt the Caulerpa runners he had picked up
crumble under his fingers. The image of the chewed stems, teeth marks clearly
visible, leaped into his mind.
In a voice that barely changed, he asked, “Your creations, these garbage
plants as you call them… It would surprise me if they were a good mix for the
human species. Apart from the fact that they’re hideous, they must also be
toxic for current herbivores. How do you plan to get rid of them, or at least
limit their proliferation?”
There was a heavy silence and then Georges cleared his throat. “We’ve
already solved that problem. I think you know that.”
Cayre recalled the little girl’s look, eyes dilated as she chewed the
petals of the obscene flower, the color of used oil. Once again he heard the
joyful cries of the flock of naked children setting out to graze the algae
fields along the coast.
“I guessed it, in fact,” he said while pouring another glass of wine.