Dystopia Chapter 17

From the Story Arc: Dystopia

Previous Story in the Arc: Dystopia Chapter 16 by Krasnaya Zarya (Wednesday, August 02, 2006)

Next Story in the Arc: Dystopia Chapter 21 by Krasniy Zakat (Monday, August 07, 2006)

(posted Saturday, August 05, 2006)

The road twisted around a bend, and curved slightly. A hideously grey industrial block, its chimneys smoking adroitly, the clouds carried off with the wind, reared suddenly to the side of the shaking van, and filled it with the odor of burning plastic. On the opposite side of the road, sliding gently into a ravine with treetops peeking over its edge, and the notorious hum of insects almost clearly audible in the air were little one story houses, their plots of land surrounding them. A lone tractor was slowly circling along its axis in a mud trench, and somewhere further in the distance a construction hammer was beating away, its rhythmic pounding faint and ringing.

The van bounced, crossing rails, and Sofia’s head hit the back of her seat painfully. She hardly noticed, staring out the window at the incredibly familiar rows of ugly, grey buildings, their balconies lines up with cardboard. She wrapped her fingers about the door handle and leaned out, to better see.

All things considered, the city had not changed that much; it still boasted the same bridges, the same two slow, polluted rivers with their waters dark and obscure, and the same abundance of puddles that never dried. Testimony to the last was a spray of dirty water in her face as the van waddled across one of the aforementioned puddles, conveniently spread right in the middle of the road. Apparently, it had rained only recently, though Sofia couldn’t possibly ask even that. Questions about the local weather from one who had supposedly just come from this very city would be… befuddling.

On the other hand… Sofia watched the little discrepancies with interest, though she knew she was not, most likely, noticing them all. She and Alexander grew up here, true, but they had both been reassigned quite young. They had returned, after, at least for a while, to pick up the pieces of a shattered life, but that had proven impossible. So first they moved to Novosibirsk… then to Moscow… then, when the situation was a little more stable, back here. And then they left, never to return. And so there must have been discrepancies that she could not see simply from lack of close familiarity. Perhaps the degradation of the roads was worse, here, and perhaps it had always been so, but she simply had not remembered. There seemed to be less of the fancy, post-Soviet era constructions – no snow-white buildings with large balconies that tried to pretend to have come straight out of central Europe.

The milk van puffed to a tired halt in front of its appropriate grey rectangle, the iron gates firmly bolted. Sofia and the driver exchanged quick, casual thankyous and goodbyes, cautioning warnings and assurances, and the van was off. She found herself standing alone in the middle of the sidewalk, the rucksack tossed at her feet, watching the back of the friendly stranger with suddenly constricted throat.

She seemed to be rather moving in circles – finishing where she had started, standing at random spots with that blasted, heavy backpack at her feet without a real change of scenery or options. Her predicament was, in fact, worse now than it had been before. No money, no documents, no contact phones… smack dab in the middle of this squalid city.

And surprisingly squalid it was. Omsk that Sofia had remembered may have been poor, but it was never run down, half abandoned and emitting a feeling of what could only be described as despair. That was the main thing; the puffing chimneys, as much as they tried, could not hide the degradation of half the buildings in the street. Every other structure displayed missing glass panes in its windows, weeds growing rampant among the concrete of the sidewalks and busted open gates; they screamed ’abandoned’ for anyone to see and tell.

Once again Sofia regretted her low, open shoes. Walking along the edge of the sidewalk she felt the dust cling to her soles, slowly seep inside and clump between her toes. Just a woman walking along, with nobody the wiser that they had just seen a guest from another universe… she chuckled, thinking that Alex would have been incredibly amused. He loved making fun of cheap movies and bad literature that involved invaders from space – or time – or any other clichéd location.

Wistfully, Sofia regarded the passing vehicles. Mostly Russian, mostly old, half of them recoloured and house-fixed… but they had wheels, and moved much faster than she. An ancient bus slouched past and disappeared behind the curb. There were no tram tracks, or electric wires for the wheeled trolleys – these would come too, Sofia knew, closer to the centre. The best idea, she thought, would be to follow the bus stops, slowly tracing the route until she gets somewhere with the amenities of civilization. Unless she dies of tiredness first, she thought with rather morbid anticipation of the several hours’ long trek. She was neither young, nor spry. Had never been spry… sometimes it felt as though she’d never been young, either.

She trudged slowly, turning into the shade of an alley, winding between two factories. The grass there was rampant, and the sidewalk disappeared completely, turning into gravel, then into beaten down earth. The roofs’ shadows lay, ragged and twisted, on the ground beside her as she walked, and the shadow of her head peeked over the jagged edge.

As well as the shadows of several other heads.

They floated suddenly from among the shadows, carefully merging with the sides of the buildings and stepping too softly to be just workers on a break. Sofia quickened her step automatically, and the bobbing shadows stepped in tempo.

But it is daylight! groaned Sofia with resentment. Crime was certainly not unheard of, but so plainly, in the shade of factories, and in plain sight? That was new and unwelcome.

She backed, and fund herself clinging to the wall. Then came a rapid shuffling, and both her escape routes were cut off long before she could possibly make a dash. Three of them; a pot-bellied man with a sparse growth of beard, a tall skinny fellow with a Beretta – muzzle quite thoroughly on Sofia’s chest – and a short ash-blonde, looking like she’d just grubbed in her dacha. Robbers, thought Sofia sourly, the Gentlemen of Fate. And ladies too, it seems.

“What…” she stammered. “What do you want from me?”

The woman, leader that she apparently was, laughed – an ugly, harassed sound. “Everything. The nice clothes, the backpack… we’ll take it all.”

“Or else?” said Sofia, blinking rapidly, trying to affect an air of fright which pretended to be bravery – pretence over pretence.

The woman’s smile grew ugly, and she pulled out a syringe. Waving it in front of her at a safe distance, she advanced a step towards Sofia. “Know what this is?”

Sofia nodded, her throat constricting with real fear for the first time. Yes, she knew what this was. She’d heard about the syringe, and of things like it, in the Russia and Europe of her own world. Dirty needles from God knows where, or, worse yet, and probably the case here, blood from HIV positive patients. Just one scratch… and no matter how long she lives, she will surely regret not dying.

“Well, rich pimp,” noted the woman dryly, “hand everything over, or…”

Sofia knelt rapidly by her backpack, and, keeping her hands in plain sight, began opening it. She glanced about her, eyes shifting rapidly from one robber to another. What could they possibly want, not knowing about the precious electronics in her bag? “I just went to the forest…“ she mumbled, watching the woman.

“We’ll take the food,” snarled the female, “and the clothes… Nice clothes…”

Then she saw it. It wasn’t just animosity, nor was it merely hatred. It was despair, and the sunken eyes now looked hungry, more than baleful. Like that, is it? Sofia noted silently, But why? Why?

The woman stepped closer, and Sofia sprang into action. The grass about her feet burst into high, unnatural flames, rearing, leaping and encircling Sofia with their orange glow. They puffed into the faces of the three attackers, hitting them with a heat wave, searing their eyes and hair. In the middle of the improbably, unnatural mayhem, Sofia knelt almost complacently, firmly pulling closed the zipper of her backpack, having delved into it and extracted a shirt and a pair of pants.

The next moment, the clothes and hair of the man aiming the gun were on fire, too. Sofia could not, conceivably, smelt the weapon in such short a time – or ever, for that matter – but she could, and would, break his concentration. She sprang up, and while the female robber tried to step away from the acrid smoke, coughing and rubbing her eyes, Sofia punched her in the gut, and expertly snared the syringe. Then she put the fire out, and stood there, staring at the man rolling on the ground in pain, and at the cowering man and woman icily.

“Strip,” she tossed the woman curtly.

Shaking, the would-be robber, now victim, began unbuttoning her shirt, fingers clumsy on the drawstring, then the buttons and the threadbare loops. When the clothes were discarded next to her in a pitiful pile, Sofia approached her, holding up the syringe.

“What do you think is going to happen now, eh?” she asked in a casual voice. “I would not even have to bother to find a vein, though I can do so, for your knowledge. I could merely,” she inched the dreadful needle closer, almost touching the semi-naked woman’s chest, “scratch you. Or prick you, just once.” She stood there thoughtfully, watching the grotesque panel. “Have you ever done this? Killed someone slowly, in pieces, over years of suffering, just to get a hold of their food, their clothes, their shoes?”

The woman whimpered, and Sofia’s mouth curled in disgust. “You are such a worm… Hand me your money. Wallet, cash, the works.” The man who was still standing rapidly pulled out a leather wallet and tossed it at her feet. She squatted slowly and picked it up, stuffing it in her pocket. Then she held the syringe in front of her face, and melted down the thin needle, sealing the vial. The eyes of the watchers widened even more. She flipped the glass tube, and proceeded to stare at the thick plastic press, dripping boiling plastic over the glass walls, the top opening and Sofia’s burned fingertips.

Then she tossed it, and the clothes she pulled out of her bag, at the criminal woman’s feet.

“Realize,” she said acidly, “That you’ve bitten off quite a bit more than you can chew. If you ever intend to make anyone suffer on behalf of their shoe brand again, remember this – and me.”

She knelt for a moment before the man on the ground, now immobile, and sought a pulse. She found it, weak and hammering, beating like a dying bird in his throat. She squeezed his collarbone skin expertly and, getting no reaction, proceeded to rapidly massage his sunken chest. EMT ethics took over, and she extended herself a little on his behalf, pursuing a rapid descent into where the shock hid.

“And get him to a hospital,” she added disdainfully.

She rose to her feet and strode away, clothes bundled in one hand, rucksack carried on shoulder, not turning her head.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sofia leaned on the wall again, shaking with reaction – relief and anger and fear all at once. For a second she buried her face in her hands, then shook her head to clear it off, and reached in her pocket for the wallet. Dubiously, she eyed the thick wad of bills, wishing she had the time to examine it more closely; but she did not. Who knew? Perhaps her erstwhile robbers were about to decide she was not as dangerous as she seemed after all.

She stared with a disgusted expression at the rather grubby shirt and pants in her arms. Absolutely revolting. Nonetheless, she eyed the street, looking for a nook where she could quickly change her exterior appearance to something a little more suitable for this world – or at least this part of town. When she was out of the woods, she would purchase something the mainstream market woman wore, she resolved. Something that would make anybody looking at her think she was an idiot, something innocuous, which her own brown linen skirt and fine blouse were not – innocuous though they may be in her own world and time.

Tugging closed the drawstrings of the other woman’s blouse, leaving more of a neckline than she may have wanted – the woman was more endowed in the chest, less in the hips, Sofia noted sourly – she trod on, in the presumed direction of the nearest bus stop. Still in her own shoes. She was not insane to exchange them for the trash the other woman must have worn. She felt both worse and better at the same time. Better for the ability to blend in, worse for some mysterious taint that clung to her throughout, material and immaterial both.

What sort of world was it, in which crime was rampant for so little, in broad daylight? What means did she have to track down her alternate self? What bus route did she even need?

Too many questions, too few answers.