Nobody feels pain in the center of their head. That’s what the neurologists had told Miguel several times. But there it was again, that buzzing, like a constant electric pinching somewhere inside his head. His father wasn’t a neurologist, but he was one of the best doctors in Seville: Dr. Benoît Le Fablec, a Frenchman who was almost entirely Sevillian. There was always a queue outside his clinic. Miguel could remember very clearly the busy waiting room of his father’s clinic, where as a boy, he would stick his face through ladies’ legs “so I can see my dad.” And every time, he left the clinic with the same diagnosis: “The center of your head doesn’t feel pain, Miguel.” For many years after, the best specialists in France and Spain – friends of his father – would say to him, with their white coats and upturned noses, “Ce n’est pas possible,” or, “Young man, this wouldn’t be another excuse to skip class, now would it?”
But Miguel really was in pain. Now, after so many years, as he leaned on the bar in the university café, he thought his head was in more pain than it had ever been before. He imagined it must have been because of the preparations for his trip – saying goodbye, all of that – or perhaps it was because he hadn’t eaten breakfast.
Miguel ordered a coffee. The students had packed out the engineering school’s canteen. My students always talk too much, he thought. But the ruckus didn’t seem to aggravate his headache. Deep down, he had to admit he liked his unique, impossible headache, and the noise of the canteen.
“Your coffee,” said the waiter, placing a cup in front of Miguel. “With warm milk, just like always. I heard you’re leaving us.”
“The United States. I’m going to try it out there for a few years. Here, for the coffee.”
“They really have it down over there, in America. You know, the money. If they don’t pay well here, then you’ve got to go somewhere else. It’s the brain drain.”
My brain isn’t going to do me much good if it continues hurting this much, Miguel told himself as the waiter turned around to the cash register. Miguel stood there watching him. It wasn’t worth the effort to try and convince him he wasn’t going to earn much more in California than in his current position at the University of Granada. Miguel was leaving because he wanted to go back to aerospace research, return to his specialty. Well, that, and to live somewhere new. Different streets, different voices. It would be a little adventure in his routine-heavy life as a university professor – an adventure he would have embarked on many years before had it not been for Ana. He took a sip, the steam from the coffee entering his nostrils before fading away into his headache.
It was then that he saw her enter the cafeteria. Ana.
Miguel swallowed. Coughing, he turned around to set the cup down, and looked at her again. How on earth…? But it really was her. The pain pinched his head again. Miguel let his eyelids fall shut to try and mitigate the pain, but it remained.
No one gets this kind of headache, and this kind of thing doesn’t happen to anyone, he told himself.
Ana was dressed exactly the way he remembered. Living with her for three years gave him an introduction to her entire wardrobe, he thought. But she was exactly the way he had imagined, down to the last detail. Her tight white jeans matched her white sweater, designer, also tight over a pink shirt. Her straight black hair fell loose, just the way he liked. Even underneath her expensive makeup, he could see her beautiful, impeccable skin, like glossy paper. It seemed Ana had dressed herself up in a way she knew he’d like. It was an image of her he had imagined and re-imagined many times since she left him a little over a month ago – Ana begging him to take her back, and Miguel rejecting her in an act of public triumph.
Ana spotted him and walked straight toward him, crossing the cafeteria at a diagonal. She walked with a confident gait, as though her body had made its decision to move and would overcome anything in her way. She smiled.
There’s nothing to smile about, Miguel thought, picking up his cup again.
The scent of Chanel announced Ana’s arrival to the bar. She smiled wider as she came to a stop in front of him and spoke. “Your second coffee of the morning? Third? We really don’t change, do we?”
“I was just leaving.”
“You look good…”
“I’m in a hurry.”
Ana’s smile disappeared like a puff of smoke. “I’ll join you,” she said. “I want to talk to you.” Her voice was almost inaudible.
Miguel thought that if his fantasy was to come true, they would have to talk then and there, surrounded by dishevelled, noisy college students.
“I’m in a hurry,” he repeated.
Ana pressed her lips together. She looked back towards the door, as if she were thinking of leaving, before exhaling deeply. Miguel watched her chest move. Her white sweater and pink shirt did not show much, but he could just make out the gap between her breasts as well as a subtle hint of their roundness.
Yes, just the way I like, Miguel thought.
Ana turned to him once more and lowered her head. “Don’t go to America,” she whispered. “Stay.” She swallowed. “I want to get back together. I… I love you.”
Miguel felt another pinch in the center of his brain. Great. Here come the waterworks. “No,” he said.
Ana’s expensive make-up began to run as tears left black, watery tracks on her cheeks. She looked exactly the way she did in his fantasies – tears staining her face like watered-down ink. Miguel reminded himself that it wasn’t right to relish seeing those black tearstains, but he felt so good watching his dream become reality that he couldn’t help himself.
“But I…” Ana trailed off, lifting her head and looking into Miguel’s eyes.
Some of the students were staring at her. Some frowned while others smiled, and some even nudged their friends who hadn’t yet noticed. Ana must have felt their eyes on her, Miguel supposed, as she hung her head. She patted her face with a handkerchief, which immediately became smudged. Dressed all in white and pink, immaculate, Ana fidgeted slightly with the blackened handkerchief, her face still damp. The students murmured among themselves, entertained. Perhaps this was too public. Miguel knew it would be wrong to do it then and there – too humiliating – but that was how he had fantasized about it. He could still feel a residual triumph. The ache in his head was constant now, a soft vibration inside his skull, so pleasant, so sweet. He suddenly remembered how he had wanted his final gesture to be: symbolic and dramatic.
“Ana.” Miguel caught her attention, his tone serious and steady.
She looked up at him without moving her head, just enough to be able to see him. Miguel focused on her running mascara while he pushed back the hair that had fallen in front of his eyes. He took another sip of coffee without looking away from her and repeated himself. “No.” A horizontal cutting motion with his right hand accompanied the word. A gesture fit for a Roman emperor administering justice.
Ana’s lips trembled. Then, she lowered her gaze completely. She turned around and left faster than she had come in with short, quick steps, keeping her gaze firmly on the floor. She bumped into the students like they had all become obstacles in her path.
In just a few seconds, Ana’s slim figure – black tearstains and all – disappeared. And so too did the headache. All that remained was a slight dizziness, like always. Nothing more. A little vertigo and a feeling of victory.
When he turned to place his cup down on the bar, he saw a boy quickly avert his eyes. It was one of his students. He must have seen Miguel get rid of Ana, reject her, make that cutting gesture with his hand. He lowered his eyes to his cup and gulped down his coffee. Maybe he had gone overboard. It would be useless to get back together with Ana. He just couldn’t do it. She had never treated him right, ever. Maybe she deserved to be taught a lesson. But the sight of her ruined makeup smudged over her cheeks… No, he wasn’t like that.
Miguel started walking towards the exit. He could feel himself being watched, and he quickened his pace. Something about what happened just now, he thought, there was something strange about it. Or perhaps he was just imagining it. He wouldn’t blame himself. No, he had a… how to explain it? A supernatural hunch? Everything had happened exactly as Miguel had imagined it. Ana had followed the script of his fantasy to the letter. And Ana just wasn’t like that. She had much more pride. Ana should have turned on her heel and marched out of the cafeteria with her head held high and a mist of Chanel following her when Miguel had told her that they couldn’t talk in private. What she had actually done made no sense at all.
At that moment, Miguel left the cafeteria and the stares of his students before stopping in the hallway. He had no reason to feel proud of what had happened, but neither was he to blame for imagining it in the first place. The imagination was fanciful like that. And that… Look, it had simply been a twist of luck that reality had so closely coincided with his fantasy. That was it.
A Midas can make their imagination become reality, thought Vladimir Gorlov.
Seated at his desk, he unscrewed a plastic pen, disassembled it and then reassembled it slowly, carefully, like he was studying how it worked.
They could create storms, lightning, tidal waves… He placed the spring back inside the pen. Stop a butterfly mid-flight, remove a planet from its orbit, turn seawater sweet, resurrect armies, turn honey blue, destroy the universe… Turn anything into gold. A Midas.
Midas, Gorlov repeated to himself. He placed the now-reassembled pen beside his notebook. A Midas could turn all the cows in the world green and yellow for a day. And make them fly.
He took up his pen again, as if anxious to take it apart once more. The stupid cow example was the best one that came to mind when he tried to explain what a Midas was. A god—that was the best way to explain it. But Gorlov was on the verge of proving that a Midas wasn’t all-powerful. There was one thing they couldn’t do.
They can’t destroy their own ability, he thought. The Midas Paradox. The Midas subject can do anything they can possibly imagine, but they can’t destroy their own ability.
But how to describe it? Gorlov had to write about it using technical terms, but they wouldn’t come to him. Or perhaps, deep down, he didn’t want to find them. He stared at his bony hand lying top of the graph paper. His hands, now withered with age, had recorded more than fifty years of investigative research, but now it was like they resisted it. He began to move the pen with a strained, slow script.
Note 1067: The Midas Paradox.
The system of equations to maximize the Midas Effect could lack a solution. This could imply that, if the Midas subject existed, they would not be able to eliminate their power once used…
Gorlov filled a page and a half trying to clarify the implications of the paradox. Once he finished writing, he stopped and read over his final conclusion.
The Midas is damned by their own power.
Too melodramatic, he said to himself, crossing out the sentence with a thick, black line.
He removed his aviators, the only glasses with which he knew he could see well, the ones that had been with him since his years in Leningrad. Taking out a handkerchief, he wiped the lenses and the black plastic frames before placing them back on their specially-reserved spot on his nose. He re-read the crossed-out note. Damned by their own power.
Scientific notes shouldn’t use such sensationalist language. But that was how he felt, deep down – sensationalist. Or, at the very least, restless, full of excitement, like a bright but unkempt college student presenting his final thesis. All that came to mind were stupid things like that final note and the example of green and yellow cows, lines that ran amok in his mind like giddy children.
Anyone would feel excited if they had finally found what they had spent their whole life searching for, he told himself. They were just about to capture a Midas, of course. It seemed, at least, that they had finally found one. Only once before had they ever been so close. But that candidate…, she had failed.
Gorlov didn’t want to imagine what another failure would mean. He, in all probability, wouldn’t live long enough to find another candidate. Looking away from the graph paper on the desk, he leaned back against the broad back of his chair. He watched the sunbeams, early risers like himself, crossing his study. Oblique bands of light on ochre walls. California had taken him in, had let him almost finish his investigation, the one he had started in the old Soviet Union. It was true that he missed his homeland – like anyone else in their right mind, he supposed – but he despised the cold. The Russian cold would freeze his knuckles, even when he wore gloves. He shivered thinking of it. But there, in his office located in NASA’s south wing building, it was always warm.
But duty was cold. Duty.
Gorlov had his years in the KGB to thank for his Soviet sense of discipline, military in nature, and he managed to return his gaze to his notes. He exchanged his black pen for a blue one. Blue ink for mathematical notations, he reminded himself, writing out a system of equations, still incomplete, that tried to provide some meaning to the paradox. Once the formulae were finished, he noted the date. His movements stilled for a moment, observing the date with a serious look. April first.
Almost a year since we found him.
He remembered that the very same day he had started working on the equations, Eugene Barrett had appeared in his office with his mousy smile and announced that he had located a supposed Midas. In Spain. Eugene the hero, as ill-timed as his smile.
Gorlov eyed the blue equations of the paradox between his fingers, which were too slim to cover the formulae. The paradox was a problem that could not be avoided. He had even considered postponing the capture. A Midas was too dangerous, wielded too much power for one human being. And now Gorlov’s blue formulae said something more – they began to show that activating a Midas was an irreversible process.
He closed the notebook. Nothing more to explain. His gaze returned to one of the diagonal sunbeams on the wall; one of them now touched the glass framing the periodic table of elements he had brought from Russia. For the sake of practicality, he had only brought with him his notebooks and that table. Irina, his memories, his past – everything else had been left in the cold. The sunlight left a glint on the edge of the glass that obscured his vision. The Midas dazzled him, drew him in, but wouldn’t let him open his eyes fully. That very same sunlight had entered through his window and shone on the nape of his neck. A small, pleasant shiver ran through him. What he was doing had to be right, it had to. If not, it would mean he had sacrificed his whole life for…
The phone on his desk started ringing. The trilling sound woke Gorlov from his thoughts, from the Californian sun, and gracelessly dumped him back in his cold, damp office in Leningrad. The screen showed that it was one of his secretaries calling him. He picked up the phone. “Karen?”
“Professor Gorlov,” replied Karen’s soft voice, “Dr. Barrett is waiting for you in the basement. He asked me to remind you.”
“Thank you, Karen.” Hanging up, Gorlov placed his notebook in his briefcase. He would have to visit the high-security floors. That was where the notebook needed to be, where neither his notes nor the documents scattered across his desk must be allowed to leave. He gathered them all together, almost sweeping with them. Americans, it was said, were very lax with security protocols. But Gorlov was grateful for that. He was too old to work all day locked away in an underground laboratory, as technical and conditioned as he was.
If old Karen knew what the “basement” really was, she’d never let me down there again, he thought as he shuffled through his papers.
One brown file didn’t quite fit in the briefcase. It was the report on the pursuit of the supposed Midas. The rough folder represented the subject, represented everything they knew about him, and the plans for his capture.
Looking at the clock on his desk told him it was nearly sunrise in Spain. The first meeting with the subject would soon be taking place. That was the plan. Monica and Walter Castillo had followed him from Granada, and she would intercept him before he left for San Francisco.
Gorlov read the name of the subject written in black on the brown file. It was a half-Spanish, half-French name. Miguel Le Fablec. Then, he shut his briefcase and left the Californian sun.