Here is how the events unfolded: at the start of the second decade of the twentieth century, various small groups of people had seen the storm coming and had organised themselves in networks. The most striking thing about these networks was their diversity; they transcended all social divisions.
Comfortably seated in the great room of a beautiful bourgeois home in Berchem, a community bordering on Antwerp/Anvers, Major-General Mac Cauley and High Burgermeister Leuwen were negotiating in English. The late autumn of 2065 was harsh, as though the extinction of the Great Civilisation had brought back the old climate, from before global warming. A large blaze crackled in the hearth, diffusing its burning rays into the room, which was lit by oil lamps. They needed to economise on electrical production and keep it for essentials, mostly military and industrial activity.
As they did every month, the two highest officials of the Republic of Flanders were briefing each other on their situation. The same question came up at each meeting: had they found any scraps of civilisation which had survived the great collapse? Their main methods were regular air patrols and their surveillance of the short-wave radio waves — the ones with the largest range. A third man was present for the interview, the Director of Reconstruction: the engineer Lambert. To put it lightly, he did not look optimistic.
Mac Caulay made his report, first summing up what his interlocutors already knew: ‘Apparently, thanks to short-wave radio and our flyovers by what working F-22s and Rafales we do have left, we have discovered four centers of civilisation that are maintaining a modicum of technological sophistication, more or less similar to our own: the first is in California, in the San Francisco region; the second in Japan, in the south of the archipelago around Osaka; the third is in China, in the coastal band from Shanghai to Hong Kong; the fourth is in Canada, in the zone running from Quebec to Ottawa. In Europe, we’re alone.’
‘What about Africa? Or the Middle East, or Latin America?’
‘You’re joking, right?’
But the high officer had a new and important bit of news to report. He stirred the fire, poured himself another glass of scotch — the bottle, dated 2020, was taken from the last reserves of the Defense Ministry’s bunker, hidden in the Steen, an ancient castle that once served as a marine museum — and explained:
‘There are also extant some, let us say, pockets of . . . minimal civilisation, which exist at a level of comparable to that . . . ’
‘ . . . of the Early Middle Ages?’
‘For some of them, yes, but in general . . . worse than that. I would say more at the level of the late neolithic period. The main pockets we’ve spotted are in northern Italy, in the Urals, in Norway, in the Caucasus, and in Scotland. That’s about it. These communities are essentially rural and warrior-based. They are no longer familiar with firearms, and they get their raw materials by lifting them from the ruins of cities and ancient infrastructures. Like we do, really, but without having preserved any technological knowledge.’
‘The flyovers have revealed the existence of tribes and hordes. What used to be France is overrun, for example, with primitively armed nomads, most of them of north- or sub-Saharan African origin, or various mixtures thereof, and who consider themselves more or less to be Muslim. These are the descendants of various non-indigenous immigrants. They fight amongst themselves, but also with the sedentary rural communities, composed in the majority of indigenous French, whom they attack regularly in order to pillage them. But here’s the biggest news: two jets flew over what was once Russia and they were able to see, in the region of Ufa, a pitched battle between Muslim troupes come up from the Caucasus and some local tribes, the latter of which apparently were victorious. What was odd about it was that the pilots noticed that there was an old Russian vehicle armed with a machine gun involved in the battle, as well as . . . mammoths!’
‘What? A machine gun?!’ the high Burgermeister cried, jumping from his seat. ‘But . . . ’
‘Hang on . . . so a few days after the battle, our pilots found that this all-terrain armoured vehicle fled, and seemed to be heading west, taking secondary routes, or at any rate what remains of them. The driver must certainly have reserves of petrol on board.’
‘But we have to help him! Send an expedition!’ Leuwen exclaimed. ‘We can’t sit here picking our noses!’
‘What do you take me for, Burgermeister?’ (A barely-suppressed rivalry divided the two heads of the duumvirate that ran the Republic of Flanders.) ‘Frequent flyovers, covering the entire range of the F-22s, have informed us that the armoured car had succeeded in reaching the suburbs of the immense ruined city that was once Berlin. But — probably because it was out of petrol — it stopped. I made the decision to send a salvage commando aboard a Caracal, one of the three working helicopters we still have available.’
‘Yes, Burgermeister. You will be able to question the driver of the armoured car. The driver will be here in less than one half-hour. This interview will surprise you, gentlemen.’
At the moment of the great collapse, in 2025, the luck of history had allowed one tiny European territory to escape total catastrophe. Here is how the events unfolded: at the start of the second decade of the twentieth century, various small groups of people had seen the storm coming and had organised themselves in networks. The most striking thing about these networks was their diversity; they transcended all social divisions.
Under duress, their old ways of seeing things, the old political and ideological teams, dissolved, and everything reconfigured itself around a new logic, that of the concrete (the true politics), leaving behind the ideal (the illusory politics). These underlying networks were going full tilt when the Republic of Flanders was founded.
The mechanisms of the cataclysm were many, and had been working for a long time, but three main elements became clear: there was an enormous economic crisis, which destabilised a system that was too open and interdependent and too complicated; there were localised nuclear wars in Asia and the Middle East (which had more of a psychological and disorganising effect than a physically destructive effect); and a brutal revolt by the massive numbers of immigrants to Western Europe that devolved into a race war. This last factor proved to be the fatal one. What had been predicted by certain individuals at the dawn of the twenty-first century came about, and it was even worse than they had said. The principal trigger was the rapid collapse of the planetary techno-economic system, which had appeared to be solid but was in truth extremely fragile.
In a system founded on an absolute, planet-wide economic interdependence (‘globalisation’) and the fluidity of finance, speculating massively on a generalised worldwide debt — in an economy that looked like a Monopoly game, in other words — the collapse was very abrupt, like a row of dominoes falling or a house of cards caving in. The debt-sodden national states, the irresponsible populations who lived above their means, the belief in the all-powerful magic of the Providential State, combined with the explosion of the ethnic and religious civil war, guaranteed that the European Union would be the first part of the world to go down.
This in turn provoked, through its repercussions, the implosion of the worldwide techno-economy. In any case, it had already been undermined by a factor of which everyone was aware but no one could or would counter: the progressive exhaustion, and rise in the price, of fossil fuels. Add to that an overdependence on hyper-complex information networks (‘machine to machine’), which wobbled more and more dangerously at the slightest disruption, provoking repeated, paralysing embolisms. There was no room for the overly interdependent planetary system to fall back and recover. In less than a year, from Asia to America en route through Europe, the gigantic motor seized up and then stopped. And there was no starter to get it going again.
From 2025 to 2028, the collapse of the enormous edifice of the World Civilisation was the most spectacular cataclysm that humanity had ever lived through. A vertiginous fall, a regression back into the mists of the centuries. In Europe, the nosedive was terrifying, like a city hit by a cyclone. Pillaging, massive destruction, and the disappearance of every political or state authority; it was every man for himself. The unthinkable occurred: they tumbled into the abyss.
The adjustment variable was human demographics, which sank, not so much due to the victims of war and destruction — such as the nuclear strikes — but because of the brutal cut-off of the science of medicine, which caused an explosion in infant mortality and pandemics — and, very simply, through famine. Food and potable water, whose availability had come to depend on complex infrastructures and sophisticated exchanges, now destroyed or out of service, were cruelly scarce. In three years the Earth lost three billion people, Europe alone 150 million. And the great descent continued. The density of humans was speeding toward a level that corresponded, depending on where you were, to something between the Pre-Neolithic and the Early Middle Ages.
In Europe, the resistance movement was a party in Belgian Flanders, but they had been hemmed in there. Among the triggers were the ethnic attacks against the autochthonous populations by the foreign immigrants and their descendants. A confrontation that must honestly be called racial and religious — or para-religious — took on, in this zone that included France, Belgium, parts of the Netherlands, of Germany, and Great Britain, a considerable intensity. The autochthonous European populations, anaesthetised by a soft urban lifestyle and guilt-mongering ideologies, were incapable of resistance, especially after the utter disappearance of the State.
But, as often happens in history, the unexpected happened. Under a charismatic leader, recently emerged from a nationalist and independentist Flemish party, an epicentre of organised resistance was born in the north of what had been Belgium — whose king had committed suicide. There was a great exodus and gathering of ‘whites’ who had the will to resist, coming from as far as the south of France and Great Britain; they converged upon a territory that included Belgian Flanders, parts of the Netherlands, and Wallonie, as well as the north of France, with Anvers at the centre. A ‘Republic of Flanders’ was proclaimed on 21 April, 2030. The territory of the resistance, with all the refugees who flooded there on foot or by bicycle in fear for their lives (all automated transit having died at once), ended up housing 20 to 25 million people, in the worst conditions. Everywhere, particularly in the regions of Lille and Brussels, terrible battles took place, and they weren’t shy of atrocities. They ended in what, in the old days, was called an ‘ethnic cleansing.’ All those who were not of European extraction were run off, leaving their dead behind them: it was either the suitcase or the coffin. No Court of the Rights of Man, no tribunal existed to make people respect an ideology and morality that had been swept away by the facts.
In the weeks of total chaos that followed the Great Collapse, aside from elements of the Belgian army, police, and gendarmerie, the Republic of Flanders was joined by a chunk of American UN troops who were trapped on the continent, along with disparate forces from the French Army, the Bundeswehr, and the armies of the Netherlands and Britain. They brought a sprinkling of marine and aviation equipment.
One thing now seemed clear and evident — the new Republic must not accept any allochthonous person of non-European extraction, and Islam must be totally eliminated. The Republic proclaimed its principal objective: to re-establish Civilisation on a new footing. A vast undertaking.
The French nuclear arsenal as well as the nuclear power plants were useless. No one knew any longer what to do with such sophisticated equipment. Like an armored door whose code they had lost.
The rest of Europe sank into barbarism with unbelievable speed, as though the population, softened and anesthetised by decades of artificial life, were incapable of picking themselves up and stopping the fall.
To help protect the Republic from incursions by bands of people who had returned to savagery — but also from the pressure of refugees who were running from all corners of Europe because they’d heard a rumor that civilisation continued in Flanders (the new State could not take them all in without collapsing and so it must, alas, push them back pitilessly) — its borders had to be more or less natural barriers. To the west, the border was the old French coast on the Channel, up to the mouth of the Somme; the Ardennes formed the southern border; the eastern border was the Rhine. Using the Roman technique of limes (borders), rediscovered twenty-one centuries later, small forts defended the frontier, facing a plain or a waterway, with armed detachments stationed in the rear, ready to repulse any incursions.
The operation of the Republic had come together at random. First and foremost, it needed to get a supply of energy, to keep up and preserve the factories and elements of infrastructure that were still working. They no longer manufactured elaborate technological objects; they kept up, repaired, and maintained what was indispensable. And always with the help of scavenged materials; Europe’s fields of ruins, for a radius of a thousand kilometres around Anvers, served as gigantic mines.
Never-ending convoys of lorries, protected from the neo-barbarian bands by special militia squadrons, crept along the ruined highways of Holland, Germany, and France, in an incessant dance of to-and-fro, to salvage what they could, wherever possible: petrol and oil from refineries that still had intact stocks, from Hamburg to Marseille; supplies of chemicals and medicines; household appliances, replacement parts of all kinds, metal panels, fabric, paper, even garbage… the list comprised thousands of resources, products, raw materials, all converging every day on the Republic, to be recycled.
As you might expect, no one had any use for computers anymore — unless it was to recuperate metals from their circuit boards. Once, the information fairy had been queen, but now she had simply evaporated. One of Lambert’s adjuncts, at the end of 2064, had calculated that this little game could go on another ten years or so, but no more. His report — snidely titled ‘A Republic of Railkeepers’ — had been kept classified.
The question that was central, crucial, was that of how to keep procuring food and drinking water. An involuntarily autarkic system of agriculture and livestock-raising had been put in place, employing more than 30 per cent of the working population of both sexes. They were organised into large plantations, run in an authoritarian style by the central power, no longer able to use the old mechanised farming nor chemical pesticides and fertilisers. To this they added fishing, using trawlers that had reverted to a mix of motorised and sail power to conserve the fuel supplies. Obviously, consuming coffee or bananas was out of the question; on the other hand, their distilleries furnished plant liquors, and the vineyards in what had been Pas-de-Calais began once more to produce. Water was drawn from groundwater stores and from the streams and rivers. Too bad about the pollution; they didn’t have a choice. And in any case, the filth in the Rhine, the Meuse, and the Escaut had diminished mechanically and progressively since the end of the Great Civilisation. They were trying to rebuild a stock of horses so they could have reliable horsepower for agricultural work and local travel. In short, an autarkic economy, severely circumscribed, had somehow succeeded in getting back off the ground, at a level of technology that vacillated between the seventeenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.
A new currency had been established (and resumed the old name of ‘Euro,’ which had disappeared during the agonies, around 2017), with no metal pieces; the bills were printed in a workshop in Gand, situated in the ancient castle of the Counts of Flanders, and carefully guarded. The amount of money in circulation was decreed by the Head Treasurer. Bank accounts had disappeared — temporarily, they thought.
Electricity was exclusively reserved for the army, the government, for workshops and factories (just like motorised vehicles). There was no more domestic use, no more public illumination. It was furnished by generator sets that were furnished with petrol, and by two power plants that had been patched up and fed with heating wood which the convoys of armed lorries went to seek in the woods of the Ardenne, France, and Germany. Wind turbines and solar panels were out of the question.
The new elite tried to keep up the education of the young, but the absolute, pragmatic priority concerned the transmission of trades and the fundamental knowledge of matters technical, medical, and artisanal. Survival and urgency obliged. The ‘cultured’ no longer had their place. Nonetheless, despite the volume of the pillaging and frenetic destruction that began in 2025 (the non-native rioters had shown a particular talent for arson), they tried to preserve a tiny sliver of the European cultural patrimony — for the future. Expeditions under military guard ventured out to recuperate what they could in the museums, libraries, and archival centres of every kind, from northern France to the centre of Germany. Alas, Italy, Spain, Great Britain, etc., were too distant or inaccessible.
The principal metro areas — apart from Anvers — were those that had fared the least badly in the ethnic civil war of 2025–2028. Brussels, for example, was nothing but a field of ruins, as was the area of Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing. They would think about rebuilding them later. On the other hand, life had begun again in the mid-size towns of the Republic: Dunkerque, Tournai, Liege, Gand, Bruges, etc.; so, too, in the little artisanal towns and rural villages. Obviously the urban landscape no longer remotely resembled what it had been in the time of the Golden Age, as the old called it.
Republican power no longer corresponded with the word ‘demo-cracy,’ which no longer had a concrete meaning. It was very authoritarian, and an historian would have said it vaguely resembled the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century, with their aristocratic republic. In any case, it was a state ruled by law which rejected the arbitrary, even if the rules they played by were harsh.
The regime had only just stabilised in 2040. A Committee of Wise Men, elected by universal suffrage of those over thirty, appointed the government, which was called the Committee, every four years. It was headed by the civil-military duumvirate of a High Burgermeister and a Major General.
The linguistic problem was a bit difficult, due to the presence of populations (half of which were refugees native to parts of Europe outside of old Belgium) who spoke French, Dutch, German, and English. It was decided that all four languages would be ‘official,’ in order to vex no one, which made things more complicated on a pragmatic level but simplified them in the emotional sense, as it avoided useless and dangerous linguistic quarrels. The Committee decided in 2045 that all young citizens must master, if not speak fluently, all four idioms. But a spontaneous phenomenon emerged from the generation that was born around 2040: a sort of spoken pidgin emerged, which the francophones called le Flandrien.
As its official flag and coat of arms, the Republic adopted a completely new symbol, in order to draw together and not offend any old loyalties: a white boar stylised on a red field, to symbolise tenacity, stubbornness, and pugnacity.
To avoid a catastrophic return to oral culture, the leaders got about ten very strictly controlled printing presses up and running (with a return to the techniques of the nineteenth century) to disseminate books and brochures to the libraries, along with the only media outlet that was authorised, The Official Republican, which appeared every week in four languages. Of course, everything that used to be called ‘audio-visual,’ including the cinema, was swept away, relegated to the store of happy memories. All that remained were purely technical radio communications, of a governmental and military nature. The new generations no longer even knew what the word ‘Internet’ meant. All of that was dissolved in the fog of the past, of which only some old people had a vague memory, which dated from their childhood.
Demography: the entire population of the Republic of Flanders, at the moment of its creation in 2030, was, due to the influx of European refugees from neighbouring countries, around twenty-five million people. Which was far too many, much more than its territory and reduced productive capacity could handle. But nature knows what it’s doing: because of the sharp jump in overall mortality, provoked by the rapid shrinking of the medical system, in 2065 the Republic numbered no more than ten million inhabitants, and there the number stabilised. All were of European stock. Here was the troubling thing: the birth rate, though it jumped at first, seemed insufficient to replace the old generation, if you factored in the very high infant mortality, which had returned to the rates of the end of the eighteenth century. But there was also a sort of torpor, a rampant pessimism that dissuaded young couples from making lots of children. As though they lived in fear that the little Republic-bunker would collapse.
Certainly, in tune with the ancestral human ethology that has always defied any ideological dreams propagandists have tried to apply, a hierarchy of social classes, largely based on wealth and the diversity of individual capacities, had reappeared. The social solidarity trumpeted by the semi-autocratic elite was ineffectual. But profound poverty did not exist. The feeling of threat from the outside world was fed by stories from soldiers coming back from expeditionary convoys; they described what was once Europe as a cauldron of bronze barbarians ready to pounce on the fortress of the Republic of Flanders; it brought about a natural feeling of solidarity and therefore a political and social cohesion.
What struck the most intellectual amongst them, and the eldest — who had been in contact, through their parents in particular, with the ideological delirium of the old civilisation as it died — was to see how strongly the archaic values reemerged naturally, freed from the gangrene of dogma. The Zeitgeist, the feeling in the air, changed as quickly as the weather. In less than ten years, social reflexes and ancestral comportments, which had been progressively forgotten or parenthesised for the past fifty years made a resounding reappearance. Aside from the hyper-authoritarian organisation of the government itself, education, justice, social comportment, and morals had been re-established upon very strict criteria. Obviously homosexuality and abortion were out of the question. As for contraception, aside from the fact that it would have been catastrophic in a situation of such extreme demographic fragility, it simply was no longer technically possible.
The complete eradication of Islam and its believers from the territory of the Republic hadn’t given rise to any new Christian fervour. Rome, civitas mater, was nothing but ruins. The tragedy of the fifth century had been repeated, only worse. The last pope, Peter the Second, who had in 2016 succeeded Benoist XVI, had simply disappeared in the course of the great collapse of 2025, probably trying to flee Rome, which a famine had befallen all at once. Where had he gone? His trace had been lost. One legend had it that he had been devoured by the wolves of Abruzzo. In any case, the prophecy of Malachus had come to pass: Petrus Romanus had in fact been the last pope. The enormous body of the Catholic Church thus failed to escape the fate of the other worldwide institutions. Without her body, she exploded.
The bishop of Malines, a crank, named himself the ‘new Pope,’ under the name Jean-Paul III — to the complete indifference of the authorities, who had other fish to fry. Christian religious sentiment looked unlikely to take, or retake. Perhaps because the Catholic Church as well as the other Protestant Christian cults had become too laicised, too compromised by the masochistic, humanistic, charitable ideologies that had opened the doors to the forefathers of those to whom the popular idiom now referred as ‘barbarians.’ On the other hand, a strange phenomenon had occurred: the birth of a new religion that was syncretic and fervent, which is to say visionary, amongst the younger generations; it was based on superstition, magic, a burning sacrality, and fusional ceremonies. As is always the case during painful times. The sacred is most of all a need for consolation and mobilisation when the times are tough. When the honey flows, man forgets the divine. When it flows no more, he reinvents numinosity, calls it to help him. The new cult was incoherent and henotheistic, centred around the goddess Gaia, the Earth, with a host of other, secondary deities, borrowed from different religions or invented and re-created from whole cloth.
You could call it ‘paganism.’ But the word didn’t exist anymore. The new religion had no name, didn’t qualify itself — like all juvenile forces. Superstition and the taste for mysteries and initiations mixed themselves with promises of eternal health in a sketchy and ardent syncretism. Because of their architecture and their magnificence, the Catholic cult’s old places of worship had been reoccupied by the new religion — which still had no more than an embryonic clergy — and there it held its ceremonies, and the celebrations of its mysteries, certain of which, without the practitioners realizing it, included sexual rites that were very similar to those of
The Committee, for the moment, tolerated all that. The religion seemed to it to be a secondary subject, since it concerned the fervour of the populace and did not spill over into political territory — that is, into concrete decisions regarding their survival. Only the Cathedral of Anvers was off limits to the cult. It was in its nave that the Assembly of Notables met, each month, to hear the decisions of the Committee and to express, with deference, questions and prudent remonstrances. The centralised republican power couldn’t permit itself to be excessively tolerant toward divergent opinions or an excess of ‘debates.’ The permanent precariousness and urgency presupposed a necessary speed in implementing decrees and the rejection of dialogues and endless arguing that would slow them down. The necessity of cohesion and unanimity in the face of adversity could not be gainsaid. Of course, this didn’t all go smoothly or without excesses. Since 2030, the date of the Republic’s foundation, a number of opposition members, the seditious, thinkers, reasoners, dialecticians, and beautiful, moralizing souls had been condemned for subversion by the Procurator, who directed the judiciary administration, or mainly the execution of the law — since the penal code was only thirty pages long. There was no prison or death penalty for the condemned — except for criminals under common law; there was only ostracism, banishment: they were expelled beyond the borders, sent to the barbaric zones, where their chance of survival was barely better than that of a trout in seawater.
Throughout the social body, disciplinary principles had been spontaneously re-established, from justice to education, and passing through the professional world. A grave crisis had shaken the Republic of Flanders in 2051: one of the members of the Committee, of Anglo-Saxon origin, named Johnny South (he was the son of one of the American UN generals from the Mons centre who had been trapped at the moment of the Great Collapse of 2025) had simply proposed, in order to jump-start the economy and technological civilisation, the re-establishment of slavery. He was the Head Treasurer, entrusted with finance and the direction of the economy. His theory, which was not entirely lacking in intellectual pertinence, was this: via raids into the barbarian zones of what had been France, why not pick up a million or so slaves? This unpaid help would permit an enormous financial economy. His theory snowballed and collected cohorts of partisans, certain of which fantasised about acquiring personal slaves for unspeakable ends, while others dreamed of a nice, juicy slave trade.
Happily, at the end of a terrible year of political crises in which the Republic itself was shaken, the anti-slavery proponents won out. They did so in the name of a simple argument that garnered pubic assent: a good proportion of these slaves, who would have to come from the bands that had returned to savagery, would not be of European ancestral origin. And therefore they would pose a great problem sooner or later. The ideas of ethnic homogeneity and universal citizenship prevailed. The ideas of Aristotle won the day, even if only a few old wise men were still aware of the existence and writings of the man from Stagira, tutor to Alexander the Great.
While awaiting the arrival of the armoured lorry and its driver, the three men pursued their conversation about the future. Their techniques of predation and scavenging, which recalled the ‘re-use’ of the ruins of the Roman Empire by the communities of the Early Middle Ages, worried the engineer Lambert greatly. The sentiments he expressed darkened the two directors’ mood. He kept repeating, in a tired voice: ‘The problem is, we aren’t creating anything.’
The Major-General cut him off: ‘So do you want to tell us exactly where you’re going with this?’
‘It’s very simple: we use and patch up the vehicles, the airplanes, and all of the technological materials that remain to us. Steel, plastic, and all our raw materials come from salvage. The electricity we produce, which is the blood of our Republic, either comes from generators burning petrol that we siphoned out of something, or from old thermal plants near Dunkerque or Maastricht. We have to jury-rig the boilers to burn the wood we bring from the Ardennes and the forests of Burgundy in risky convoys. Look at us: already, our supply of medicine is running out, and our expeditions find less and less of it in the ruins of the Paris area and the towns of Germany. Already, mortality is steadily climbing. This joke can’t go on forever.’
‘And why not?’ The High Burgermeister Leuwen seemed furiously angry, as though Lambert had pointed out a fact which he suspected perfectly well, but secretly. ‘Why on Earth couldn’t we relaunch the Great Civilisation?’
‘Because the one we had, for a number of centuries, rested on international exchanges. We, on the other hand, live in autarky, in a territory that is far too small. So we’re buggered. We’re watching over the last fires. And it will be up to us to reinvent the Early Middle Ages.’
‘So why don’t we start trading again with the bits of the world that are still standing?’ said Mac Caulay.
‘Have at it then, be my guest! We don’t even know how to make a cargo boat. We can only make bicycles and sailboats, or patch up old radios and airplanes. We’re puttering around with leftovers. We’re living off a cadaver, like carrion birds. To rebuild a technological civilisation, we must start from the ground up. We have to go back ten centuries. And things will start over, naturally. But not for a thousand years.’
‘It is true,’ growled the Burgermeister, refilling his glass with whisky, ‘that our attempts to use short-wave radio to contact the zones where a bit of civilisation has been maintained, particularly in North America, haven’t come to much… it’s hard, in these conditions, to restart international commerce and to re-create synergy with the areas that have partially escaped the great collapse of 2025…’
A bit drunk already and eyes afire, the military officer reacted testily. ‘For fourteen years now, those lovely gentlemen of the civil authority have been rejecting the solution that would re-start the economy, though the Anglo-Saxon community keeps suggesting it: we should gather up massive numbers of slaves from outside our borders. Well, fine! Then I suggest, or rather, I order that we send an expedition to North America, so that…’
This idea was interrupted by a knock at the door.
It was a non-commissioned officer of the Militia. He saluted and addressed the Major General: ‘The person whom you have asked to be brought to you has arrived, my General.’
‘Good, let them enter. Good sirs, prepare for a surprise.’
A young woman of incontestable beauty, looking drawn, was suddenly framed in the doorway. She wore a rather ugly uniform. She introduced herself: Battista del Ponte. ‘Here is the chauffeur — or rather, the charming chauffeuse — of the Russian tank,’ murmured the Burgermeister, taken by her charm. ‘You’re Italian, aren’t you? I guessed it by your accent. May I offer you a whisky? Sit down, my dear, and tell us of your prodigious adventures.’
Before the three stupefied men, in shaky French, she recounted everything. Her departure from Milan to Russia in 2023, the experiment in the speed tunnel enclosed in the Einstein module, her reawakening in 2065, having only aged by two and a half years; the Vorgoï, and her escape on the day of her marriage to the ‘Tsar,’ because she saw the two planes in the sky. She explained that she had run out of gas outside of Berlin, or rather the immense ruin of Berlin. And then her salvation: the helicopter that came down to save her, then brought her here, to Civilisation. She thanked them profusely. As she spoke, the expressions on the three men’s faces had slowly frozen. They didn’t believe what they were hearing. Was she a madwoman? A schemer? A manipulative spy? Or . . . could she be telling the truth?
It was a dizzying thought that, thanks to the Einstein experiment, she was biologically much younger than they were, but chronologically much older. She belonged to the generation prior to the catastrophe, and she had thoroughly known the old world, which was by now mythical. They had never known real civilisation (save for certain very old people, who had known it as children): the world of air travel, vacations in the Seychelles, text messages, 3D films, Facebook, and the rest. In 2025, the year of the Great Collapse, Burgermeister Leuwen had been only five years old, the Major-General Mac Cauley was a babe of six months, and Master Engineer Lambert a year old.
The latter, who had retained the most ancestral scientific knowledge of anyone, and who had heard the theory of relativity spoken of, confirmed the probable veracity of her story. For additional proof that she spoke the truth, Battista showed them her passport from the Repubblica Italiana, Unione Europea, which she had kept on her person through it all; she had gotten it in 2018. A strange document, emerged from the sunken past.
‘When I saw your planes, in the middle of that marriage ceremony with the Vorgoï tsar, it was like a deliverance for me…’
Tears shone in her eyes. With a vague gesture, Burgermeister Leuwen set his hand — which was decorated with a large signet ring to show his importance — on one of the young woman’s knees. ‘Don’t worry anymore, dear Battista. Here you won’t be forced to get married to a barbarian. Here you’ve returned to civilisation’s rebirth. Indeed, thanks to your magnificent courage, you may find relief.’
Relief? That remained to be seen. Battista indeed felt an enormous relief to have succeeded in fleeing that oppressive, sinister, depressing (well, for her it was depressing; not so for the joyful Vorgoï around her) new medieval age, and to have once again found ‘civilisation.’ But she was only half-satisfied. Because she had realised, since her arrival here, that it was possible that she had only moved from one prison into another. Certainly, this good Republic of Flanders tried to maintain the essential elements of the Great Civilisation — as she would call it from now on — but she had the uncomfortable feeling that it was only a fragile simulacrum. Sure, it had its backfiring military trucks, a few jets and a couple of helicopters that could still fly, a bit of electrical energy. But she also saw all the ruins, the horse-drawn carts filled with potatoes, and the people dressed in secondhand clothes.
Though they had lodged her in a pretty neoclassical home by Berchem, where she was protected like a living treasure by a squad of militiamen, there was no telly, no radio; the heat came from a stove worthy of the nineteenth century, the light came from a single electric bulb, supplemented by oil lamps, and a yellowish, lukewarm trickle of water came from the sputtering old shower. In one day, she had enough time to judge. But she said nothing. At least she was no longer with the Vorgoï — with the primitives — and they spoke languages that were somewhat familiar to her; and they had preserved the memory of the Great Civilisation.
The next morning — after a night of bad dreams, of seeing herself back in her apartment on the Via Montenapoleone, with her white cat, Pussy Cat, on her lap while she messaged her friends — Battista was taken under escort to the general Government seat, which had been set in the centre of Anvers, in what had been the city hall. She was considered a living goddess. Precisely as she had been by the Vorgoï.
She was brought into a salon, dripping with typical Flemish decorations, that was heated by a huge hearth. The Burgermeister Leuwen, who was wearing a strange black costume that was apparently supposed to look solemn, devoured her with his eyes as he presided at the back of the room. Present were the Major-General Mac Caulay, Engineer Lambert, and a handful of military officers and civil counsellors. She was the only woman. Gender parity had been quite forgotten.
She repeated her story once more before the silent and admiring audience. Everyone knew her past and wanted to measure the extent of her scientific knowledge. For them, she was a precious mummy, issued intact from the world that had been swallowed up a half-century ago. Many had convinced themselves that she was going to help them ‘restart the great machine,’ as the Major-General put it. She explained, without really believing it:
‘If we want to relaunch the beginnings of a civilisation and avoid the collapse that is menacing our autarkic and overly isolated Republic, it is imperative that we enter into synergy with other areas in the world that have kept up a certain level of technology. That is, if we want to re-establish commercial exchanges, especially in raw materials, and begin exchanges of technical knowledge that has been preserved. Let’s see… what contacts do you have?’
Sure of her power over these men, Battista’s tone rang with authority. After a nod from the Major-General Mac Caulay, a young soldier stood up. He introduced himself: Captain Christopher Gerard, director for Missions of Observation into the Outside World.
‘We have, thanks to our broadcasts and observations via shortwave radio, come across and located several zones where civilisation has maintained itself at a level that is technologically acceptable. In North America and in Asia: apparently, California, Quebec, Southern Japan, and the southeast maritime region of China. Alas, our messages have received no response. The four F-22s and the three Rafales that remain in workable order have a limited range of action and they cannot fly over these regions to evaluate what’s really happening. In short, we have not been able to establish contact.’
‘Well, I know how to establish contact!’ Battista said. Burgermeister Leuwen, captivated, signalled for her to continue. ‘I think you have some ships left, don’t you?’ There was a murmur of assent. ‘So, I propose we send a maritime expedition to the closest zone, which is, it appears, what used to be Quebec, in order to establish this initial contact.’
No one had yet thought of this simple idea, not just because good sense is the least evenly distributed thing in the world, but also because, obsessed by the land defence of their autarky, the directors had forgotten — except for fishing off the coasts — that there is a fundamental maritime dimension to all offensives, and to every renaissance. Apparently, the Franco-Wallo-Germanic mental tendencies of one section of the directing class had dominated the Britannic-Flemish mentality. But Battista was obsessed with one idea: to leave, to leave again, to get out of this Republic of Flanders, sclerotic to her eyes, and discover something else. The call of the wide blue skies, to compensate for her awful nostalgia for the lost world. That is why she stood up and proposed:
‘Sirs, organise this maritime expedition, in a well-armed ship. I must participate as well! Several of your best scientists must embark, under my direction. We will reach the Quebecois shore, and there, we shall re-establish contact, so we may re-launch Civilisation!’
Applause, a clamour of approbation. The assembly decided to align itself to Battista’s opinion. She had won. She was taken by her kind escorts to her Berchem residence. But that very evening, a porter delivered to her this secret note, written by the Burgermeister Van Leuwen:
I will not hide the fact that I love you. When you return from the expedition to Quebec — bearing, I’m sure of it, good news for the relaunch of Civilisation — I will have eliminated that stupid, big-shot crank Mac Cauley and that pretentious old Lambert. I plan to establish a true hereditary monarchy and found the Kingdom of Flanders. You shall be my spouse, you shall be the Queen. I am preparing a civil war, which I shall certainly win. Yours Sincerely…
She tore up the note with a profound disgust. Men are all the same… hopelessly vain. It was like the pseudo-Tsar Leonid all over again. This sort of conflict wasn’t horribly grave in a civilisation that was on its way up, but in a little autarkic republic that wanted to restore the past, it would be mortal. Add that to the energy crisis, and the fate of the Republic of Flanders seemed to be sealed: dissolution was imminent. It wasn’t their people that they cared about, these little operetta conductors, but their infantile ambition. She cocooned herself in her blankets as the cold crept back into the room, undefeated by the dying embers in the fireplace.
She wanted to cry, but her tears no longer came. She ground her teeth as she fell asleep. She sank into rest and dreamed of the Ocean. The Atlantic.
At autumn’s end, the Atlantic starts to rage again. The water grows cold, the colour of verdigris; she froths with snowy foam under a sky full of grey or black masses, flying through at speed. The waves break on the prow with a long rustling snicker. The strident cries of cartwheeling gulls respond to the howl of the wind. The swells from the west, impelled by the northwest wind, fill the bellies of the waves that break, indifferent, on the big, black, menacing rocks that lie at the feet of the touching ruins of little black-and-white Breton houses from the old times, lined up like abandoned tombs.
Under its tall sails, jostled by the sharp peaks, the Prairial, coming from Anvers, was passing the Point Saint Mathieu — once known to the Bretons as Lok Mazé — which marks the exit from the English Channel and the entrance to the Ocean. Direction: America, the mouth of the Saint-Laurent, Quebec. Gripping the front rail with both hands, Battista, happy at last, savoured the iodised air that whipped her face; she was splashed by the sea spray, shaken by the bucking ship. Weather forecasts no longer existed. They were finished, those prophecies from satellites that used to warn us of the humours of Neptune and those of Aeolus. The crew had no idea whether the passage would go well or ill. But the danger was not to come from the caprices of nature . . .
Battista’s suggestions were taken as orders. In three weeks, the expedition was completely ready. They hastily modified an old French escort frigate, the Prairial, lightened and stripped of all its armor, now useless, and turned it into a makeshift sailboat. With three thirty-metre masts and a few triangular sails, it could hit ten knots in a good wind. As short as they were on precious fuel, there was no mention of using the diesels — which, to lighten the load, had been jettisoned anyhow. The fuel was used to fire an old Toyota motor, to make sure the water desalinater worked, and to supply electricity. A 22mm rapid-fire Mauser gun — mechanical — and two machine guns were kept aboard (you never know). Some scientific demo equipment and loads of food had been embarked. A shortwave radio kept them in touch with Anvers. On the stern deck pole, the standard of the Republic of Flanders flew, cracking in the wind: the white wild boar on a red field.
The Ocean grew more clement over the course of the crossing, straight west, navigating upwind, into the headwind. Not a boat in sight. The era of lines of cargo boats following one after another across the Atlantic was long gone. There was no GPS or radio compass to help one orient oneself. Good old eighteenth-century sextants, of brilliant copper, taken from the maritime museum in Anvers, did the trick. The crossing took more than a month. The Prairial, due to the approximating nature of the sextant’s measures — particularly when the sky was overcast — intersected the continent too far south, at the mouth of the Hudson River; so they began sailing back up the northeast coast of America, towards the mouth of the Saint Lawrence. In the distance appeared the ruins of New York City, ragged skyscrapers burnt to ash, perhaps more beautiful and tragic than they were when they were intact.
Elbows propped on the rope rail of the forecastle, Battista remembered nostalgically that less than a year before, in her psychological time, or a half-century in real time, she had been in almost the exact same spot, off the coast of New York, on a yacht called the Sheherazade. Just like now, leaning on the rail, she had looked out over the skyline, intact, and dominated by the new World Trade Center, rebuilt in 2019. A man stood behind her — her host — a young Argentine billionaire whom she’d met in a discotheque in Manhattan and who had become, over the course of one stunning weekend, her lover. In fact, just before her departure for Moscow, she had treated herself to a few days’ enjoyment in New York. It was the last time she had made love. And she had quite a mind to do it again.
As the only woman on board, she could feel the eyes boring into her; particularly the eyes of the captain, a well-spoken, well-dressed young officer who took very good care of his person and gave her the look on a regular basis. But to succumb to this temptation would have destroyed her aura and hampered her authority. After five days of navigation, headed north, the Prairial entered the roiling narrows that separate Terre-Neuve from Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon and overlooks the mouth of the Saint Lawrence. On the fore bridge, she examined the coast through her binoculars. It wasn’t easy to hold them steady, as the boat lurched in the increasingly choppy water. Suddenly . . .
She had just seen, at the top of a rocky crest, a sort of flying object, and it was getting bigger. It certainly wasn’t a cormorant. The captain looked and shouted: ‘An airplane! It’s an airplane! It’s seen us, it’s coming towards us!’
It was a miracle: a little single-engine machine, its wings printed with a maple leaf and a yellow fleur-de-lys on a blue background, made several passes above the Prairial, then disappeared back towards the coast. On the ship, there was an explosion of joy. The captain got on the transmitter and sent a message in Morse to the maritime command at Anvers, dictated by Battista: ‘This is the Prairial. Entering mouth of Saint Lawrence, have been flown over by single-engine airplane, with Quebecois insignia. Very probably machine belongs to Republic similar to ours. Following route to establish contact. Turning toward probable port of Quebec.’
A few minutes later, Anvers replied: ‘Bravo. But remain prudent and on your toes. Possibility of hostile reception.’ It was the last message that would be exchanged with the ship. The young captain shrugged his shoulders: ‘Hostile reception? What a bunch of idiots!’
Battista’s intuitions were confirmed. Civilisation was indeed still alive, there in the old francophone province of Canada. It was wonderful news. Walking on air, she already imagined herself debarking the next day in the port of Quebec, to the sound of cheering. ‘Maybe they’ve managed to keep up their standards much higher than the Republic of Flanders, with telly, telephones, cars . . . if that’s the case, I’ll stay here; it will be from Quebec that I shall organise the relaunch of the Great Civilisation.
The young captain, to celebrate the occasion, had them open a few bottles of whisky, to drink a toast to the success of their mission. Each member of the team got half a glass. No one imagined they were counting their chickens before they’d hatched. In the mouth of the river, the waters calmed. ‘In less than 24 hours, we’ll come ashore among our brothers!’ Battista cried. Euphoric and already drunk after claiming a second glass, the captain murmured in the young woman’s ear that they could continue the party in private in his cabin. Batting her eyes, she accepted, throwing her resolutions out the window, a sweet warmth invading her belly. There was nothing more agreeable than making love, buoyed by the waves.
‘Look! There’s another airplane coming towards us!’ shouted the helmsman.
‘No . . . this time there are three!’ the captain joyously replied.
‘Hurray!’ Battista and the captain cried together, hand in hand, lifting their glasses toward the lifesaving machines, which, after an elegant arabesque, seemed to plunge towards the ship like seabirds toward fish glistening near the surface.
Battista, at the moment when she lifted the golden liquor to her mouth, was the first of the entire team to realise that something was wrong.
Two hours earlier, just after landing at the military airport of Chicoutimi, the Atlantic forward operations base of the Kingdom of New France, the pilot of the Cessna 153 made his report, which was transmitted via telegraph to the Royal Palace of Chateau Frontenac in Quebec: ‘Military sail ship, armed, coming from East entering Saint Lawrence. Flies strange red flag w/white boar.’ King Henri V was immediately notified and gave his orders.
In the great meltdown of 2025, for mysterious and random reasons, the part of Quebec that bordered the Saint Lawrence had managed to escape the cyclone, and maintained a certain level of autarkic civilisation. It was exactly like what had occurred in Europe with the Republic of Flanders. Except that here it was the Québecois separatists who had taken power. Anglophone Canada and the USA, that enormous dinosaur, were dissolving into barbarism. Quebec declared itself the ‘Republic of New France’ and a clever military man had taken things in hand. In 2027, he had himself crowned King of New France and of Labrador by the Arch-Bishop of Montreal, in the Basilica-Cathedral Marie-Reine-du-Monde, under the name of Louis XXI, successor before God to the Kings of Ancient France. His grandson now ruled, at the helm of an absolutist regime, using the name Henri V. The Kingdom in 2065 numbered about eight million inhabitants, with a standard of living roughly equivalent to the mid-nineteenth century.
A bit like Flanders of the same period, a severe ethnic cleansing had taken place through expulsions, directed at all populations which didn’t seem to be ‘of genuine Quebecois origin.’ Around 100,000 ethnic French from around the world joined the new little kingdom as best they could, usually by sea, between 2025 and 2030. Just as in the Republic of Flanders, a certain degree of technological prowess had been propped up by a State organised on authoritarian principles and an economy based on scavenging the immense ruins of North America.
King Henry V ignored those among his councillors who begged him to regain contact with the zones where civilisation seemed to have been maintained, notably in Flanders and California, as what they found on the short-wave radio indicated. He was obsessed by the possibility of an attack. One of his ministers tried in vain to tell him: ‘But they’re white, like us!’; the order was given anyway to never respond to any radio emissions. When he found that an armed ship was approaching, coming up the Saint Lawrence — and what’s more its insignia was a white boar! — he was terrified, never imagining for a second that the crew could have peaceful intentions. Obviously it was a military unit from that Republic of Flanders, which must certainly have welcomed some Englanders into her bosom . . . well, they would see what they would see.
Contrary to the Republic of Flanders, which had attempted the upkeep of some of the old military jets with their complex technology, the Kingdom of New France had chosen to reuse and maintain — or even reconstruct and copy — single-engine prop planes, originally meant to carry tourists; they were rustic and easy to pilot. Armed with an axial machine gun, the hundred or so machines of the Royal Air Force had ravaged those sections of the population of the former USA that bordered the Kingdom to the south and who had tried to enter. The neo-primitive tribes — white and anglophonic, creole or coloured — that inhabited the former American and Canadian states spoke of the Kingdom and its ‘iron eagles’ with terror.
Late in the afternoon, three bimotor replicas of the Pilatus (an old Swiss business plane) took off from the Quebec airport, headed east; each plane was loaded with a 150-kilogramme gravity bomb with a blasting cap on the warhead. Target: a hostile sailship going up the Saint Lawrence with a cannon mounted on the prow. The first bomb fell in the water, shooting up a geyser. The second hit the forecastle; the third opened a breach in the hull, splitting it vertically from the rudder. The three masts collapsed, blown over in the explosion. The ship immediately caught fire in a chorus of screaming men, while the back end of the vessel began to sink.
It was every man for himself. In Battista’s mind, all joy, all hope melted in an instant. She understood too late. She was spattered by the hot blood spraying from the gashed thigh of a young sailor who died howling. The Prairial had become a furnace, but just as soon it began to be put out bit by bit by the water rushing in everywhere. And the three airplanes turned in the sky, like vultures, around the scene of their crime. Without knowing how, she found herself in an inflatable dinghy, miraculously unharmed, pressed against the young captain, prey to an interminable fit of nervous tears. She was hopeless, all her dreams blackened coal. Pushed by the current, freezing, at nightfall they bumped up against a little cove closed in by boulders. They passed out asleep, huddled up against each other, rolled up in a tarp. In the morning they crawled up the rocks, thirsty and staggering, and found themselves on a windswept moor. Hand in hand, they walked for a good hour along the coast, stumbling through ruins: a disintegrating lighthouse, invaded by brush; the remains of a coastal village; the rusted carcasses of automobiles from the old days. They were on the south bank of the Saint Lawrence, in a zone abandoned by the Quebecois. The ocean laughed, stretched out below their feet, playing on the rocks, indifferent to their misery. Without knowing it, they were moving further and further from the territory controlled by New France and plunging into the barbarian lands to the south.
Suddenly, at the end of a path, appearing from behind a juniper stand, three horsemen appeared, then froze. They wore wide hats with a rigid brim. Dressed in leather, they carried small bows which they now armed, arrow to the ground, ready to fire. They were white. One of them, one-eyed and huge, with long blond hair, shouted a harsh order. She thought the word sounded something like American English.
‘Well, that’s it! The nightmare begins again,’ Battista murmured. ‘Here are the Vorgoï, US version. But this time I haven’t got a machine gun or a pistol. Get ready to become a slave or die, Arnold.’
She dissolved into tears, on her knees on the ground, her hands imploring the sky. One of the horsemen got down from his horse and advanced calmly towards them, holding out a knot of cords and chains while a fine, icy rain began to fall. She thought of her beautiful Dior umbrella, midnight blue and gold, of waterproofed silk; she had bought it in New York during her last weekend of happiness, in a hyper chic boutique, ‘So French,’ on Fifth Avenue. The barbarian tethered her wrists, forcing her to stand, and did the same to the captain. They were thrown belly-down across two of the horses, in front of the riders. The latter laughed and shouted, remarking upon their booty. She understood roughly what they were saying, as Anglo-American seemed to have evolved very little over 42 years. (1)
‘Who were the French going after, with their iron birds, setting the big boat on fire? Not us, at least. Where did this guy and this hot girl with their weird clothes come from?’
‘That, Jimmy, is for the sheriff to ask them.’
Battista, who expected to be raped by these savages the minute they returned to their encampment (or their village?) reminded herself that she had perhaps a tiny chance of survival: in the bottom of her pocket there was a sailor’s lighter, with a fuel reservoir, a flint stone, and wick.
The authorities of the Republic of Flanders never heard from the expedition of the Prairial again. Things had turned for the worse and other problems, difficult to resolve, came to the fore. Power struggles were cracking the fragile edifice. In 2070, for want of energy resources, the Republic faltered in her turn, a tiny replica of the earthquake which, forty-five years before, had ended the Great Civilisation. Bands, hordes, and tribes, overrunning the fragile frontiers, swept away what remained of the old world. In 2120, Anvers was a swampy field of deserted ruins, where the beautiful houses were inhabited only by crows.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the Kingdom of New France found a similar fate. It imploded in 2073, after the assassination of Henri V by General Luc Lelievre, who wanted to establish a ‘communist republic’; this triggered a civil war that destabilised the fragile state and then killed it. The embers which had smouldered for a time in the far east and California, like exhausted fireflies, blinked out in turn. A fire never springs up again in the same hearth, and old firebrands always die. A new fire must be kindled. But that takes time . . . a great deal of time.
The long night of the centuries settled in. The planet Earth caught its breath. The rainforests grew slowly back. The endangered species regenerated and returned to abundant life. The acid levels in the oceans fell, along with the carbon dioxide and ozone in the air. The climate cooled. Glaciers and ice fields re-formed, and billions of fish reproduced in peace once more.
As hard as it had been for Gaia to endure, the Anthropocene Period appeared to be over. The human race that had made the eternal snows melt had melted away in turn, a victim of itself. It was quickly approaching the low-water mark of a hundred million individuals — the population level of Antiquity. The Gods sat back and relaxed: they had, if not destroyed, at least contained this predatory, destructive species, with its overdeveloped brain — which had been, when you come down to it, their mortal enemy. The Gods feasted joyously. They had definitively beaten the Titans, those allies of Man. The Titans, who had given him fire, breaking the cosmic oath. Civilisation with all its evils seemed to be crushed and extinguished. The Gods laughed, watching the moribund Beast that crawled upon the ground: Humanity. And yet, deep down, they were sad. They had bet everything on Man, their favorite little species.
The people were no more than sparse aggregations of tribes who more or less fumbled along, having forgotten that great danger known as knowledge, most especially science and technology. Happily, myth had replaced the reason, the logos, that leads to reflection, and thus to calculation, and finally to destruction. The Gods, in their lack of foresight, thought the Titans dead, or lost forever in the immense web of galaxies — gone to find new victims, new intelligent species.
The Titans, however, have a long memory. They never admit defeat. Patience is their strength and their virtue. And when they return, the jealous and manipulative Gods know they must recommence the eternal combat. Prometheus watched and waited. He had to wait quite a few centuries before Civilisation finally reasserted itself, before a new hearth produced the ember of will and madness. Close your eyes… centuries and centuries passed. Gaia barely had time to catch her breath before the fire returned.
1) Nevertheless, in the absence of rational transmission via schooling and written communication, a language will evolve and deform much faster when it’s communicated purely orally, particularly when the objects to which many words correspond disappear.