Dystopia Chapter 27

From the Story Arc: Dystopia

Previous Story in the Arc: Dystopia Chapter 23 by Krasniy Zakat (Tuesday, August 29, 2006)

Next Story in the Arc: Dystopia Chapter 31 by Krasniy Zakat (Saturday, September 02, 2006)

(posted Thursday, August 31, 2006)

Sofia-A – for Alternate – as Sofia-the-guest silently dubbed her in order not to go insane at the double-name, sat limply on the living room couch, her teacup held precariously between shaking hands. Sofia felt a momentary urge to wrap her own palms around the shaking, old ones of this familiar yet completely strange, so helpless woman, but resisted. She was feeling, she realized with amazement, almost maternal; the realization made her teeter with nervous laughter.

She was not about to call the other woman Sonya, no matter how aggrieved with her she might be. It was a crime against humanity that such a decent name as Sofia inherited somehow the affectionate pseudonym ‘sleepy’ as its designated pet-name. At least, she reckoned, it was a crime against that part of humanity which was named for the Greek aspect of wisdom. In grade school, she was sent off to the principle’s office and stood in the corner for an hour for busting open the forehead of the first and only boy who dared call her ‘sleepy Sonya’ to her face. The incident was never repeated. So Sofia-A the woman will be.

Perched on the very edge of a chair, she regarded the pitiful Sofia-A thoughtfully. “Oy, where do I even begin?”

“How do I know you are… who you say you are? Me, that is,” challenged Sofia-A gloomily. Despite her tone of voice, which reminded Sofia of nothing so much as Mervin the Android, the woman had not, apparently, lost all her wits and the use of them.

Sofia switched to English, calling forth her original, Oxfordian accent. She had specifically suppressed it while in the U.S., for purposes of merging better with the local populace, but when she was excited it still surfaced. Now she reverted to it completely. “Ask me. You’ll know.”

A long-buried light flickered in Sofia-A’s eyes. “Et si je te poserai une question sans une réponse?” she asked sweetly.

“Gam az ani eda,” noted Sofia coolly, without missing a beat, and countering her double’s attempts immediately continued, switching languages again. “Vilstu pobirn meine latin, oykh? Or,“ she returned to her Oxfordian English,” shall we dispense with this charade. I must warn you, by the way that I have the advantage of you in English. I have spent the last fourteen years in the United States. You, I assume, have not so been lucky.”

It was almost sad, Sofia thought to herself as the rapid dialogue was over, to see how quickly and easily defeated Sofia-A was, and how rapidly she retreated within herself again. Not even the terrible fear of this unknown bizarre presence drew her out for long, and she sank back again into indifferent melancholy, slumping down. “All right,” she whispered, ”you know as much as I do, at least. Explain. Not,” she added, almost to herself, “that it really matters.”

Apathetic, Sofia-A stared at her feet while Sofia struggled to find the appropriate words.

“You know how Alex… Aleksander… was poking around that slightly insane theory while in hospital? Ninety I think it was. At least,” she added pensively, “my Aleksander did.” Seeing the other woman nod painfully Sofia continued, encouraged. “Well, it’s not so nuts after all. Where I come from, they made that stuff work. Very neat. You run a huge generator, poke a few buttons and – voila! – even amateurs can jump around the multiverse. It’s fascinating, really,” she said dreamily, “every second a new world is born. You, me, everyone has an infinity of lives, one way or another. Don’t ask me the scientific details, of course,” she added soberly, “but here I am. And here you are. I’m a trespasser, and you are me, only you belong here.”

“Alternate universe…” whispered Sofia-A, awed. “I’ll be… well, boiled for a potato.” They stared at each other, sharing enough common memories to catch the reference and chuckle.

“I hope,” said Sofia, “that you and I share enough similarities to work together. That we both have adhered to the principle of never allowing our doctrines to dictate our view of facts…” Sofia-A was no longer looking like a madwoman. Now that Sofia had set her double’s brain – its frontal lobes, anyway – to work full-time, she was alert and sharper by the minute. Not everything was dead yet, under that thick shell of apathy and irrationality. Sofia chided herself for being sidetracked; she was not here for the purpose of playing therapist to her disturbed duplicate, she was here for Alex.

“No,” granted her Sofia-A, “but in order for this to happen, my facts need to be quite a bit more solid than this. The government,” she added, her eyes shifting around the room quickly, covertly, “has means to pursue interesting avenues of sabotage.”

“They’ve always been experts,” Sofia agreed dryly. “Unpleasant little world you have here, by the way. The proof I can provide, for lack of a demonstrable portal – which is quite a bit too big to carry around – is circumstantial only.”

“Let’s see it.”

Sofia pulled open the zipper holding her backpack together, talking all the while. “I went into the library and checked; history is different for us, aside from a few apparently concurrent events – Chernobyl, for instance – since ‘84” she twitched an ironic eyebrow. “We ran close enough for the first while. Sufficiently close that the lives of backwater fish like us would not be disturbed. Married the same guy, I suppose, went through similar private hells…” she was tugging electronics out of the shabby rucksack, setting it in neat rows on the carpet and proceeding to pull out some more. “Then things began diverging. The kind of electronics I carry in my backpack alone would have your government out for my hide in no time, I suspect. But I’ve seen some of your math papers while in the library, and my mind boggled. So this is all I have to offer; a different rendition of history, and this equipment.”

“That is hardly enough,” said Sofia-A sulkily. “You think we’ve got no technology, but the people know better. Somewhere on the military bases the future none of us got to see came and went already. You could be from the government. You could be after me.” There was another shifty obscure look around, Sofia-A licked her lips cat-like but refused to give in.

“Well,” said Sofia slowly, “I suppose there is one other thing…” Reluctantly, she held her hand palm outward, and snapped her fingers. A tiny thread of smoke began to climb from the air atop her extended bare hand, curling innocently. Two sets of identical eyes started at it; one with habitual indifference, one with uncomprehending fascination.

“What…” started Sofia-A.

“Sh… Watch…” Murmured Sofia, holding her gaze upon the smoke. Then she curled her fingers, balling them into a fist, and spread them out again. Above the hand there danced and flickered a bright orange flame. She stared down at the slowly burning air and smiled slightly. Somehow, she was certain that this ability could not be artificially reproduced by the government Sofia-A – for whatever paranoid reason – feared so much. She blew, and the flames were snuffed out, as if they’d never been.

Both women sat in nearly identical postures; hands limply in lap, eyes staring fixedly ahead, both of them wearing slightly glazed looks. For a long time, neither one of them moved. Then, almost at the same time, both women emitted almost identical explosive sighs.

“I think,” said Sofia-A slowly, “that this is… fairly convincing evidence. Of something, anyway. What… what is it?”

“I am – and by extension you are – pyrokinetic. Don’t go trying to set afire the Kremlin,” Sofia-the-guest warned prudently, “realize that these abilities of mine were triggered in stress, and I have no idea how to force them on you. With a gun to you head, maybe, but with your current knowledge, maybe not then. You’ll be trying too hard. It never works when you try too hard,” she added as an afterthought.

“Just as well,” noted Sofia-A with something of a familiar crispness, “I don’t want to be looking at a career as a canteen cook. All this doesn’t explain why you are here, though.”

“Alex… ah, Aleksander. We switched to a slightly more Americanized version of his name, for comfort’s sake. Anyway, he… vanished.” She found herself gulping audibly, reminded once again of the magnitude of disaster. The other Sofia’s reaction was interesting, also. Her alert face clouded suddenly, as if a veil drew over it and her gaze grew apathetic. Retreating into this odd shell of semi-madness, she eyed her guest with renewed paranoia.

“I have nothing to do with Aleksander! He is… he is dead.” The latter was a sob.

Sofia shifted uncomfortably. No! Not yet. Not yet. What could she say? “I’m sorry…” she managed, rather stiffly. She was more than sorry, actually. She was horrified and repelled and twisted into a knot of misery all at the same time just from sheer compassion. The terrible anxiety; that fear that she, too, will find herself consigned to life alone for all eternity, added another layer. She, more than anyone, understood how this wretch sitting in front of her on the dusty unused couch felt. Life was a bleak wilderness that way. But saying it, it was impossible, unthinkable and pathetic. She knew that the deepest of feelings would turn into rubble once they left her mouth, and she’d bet the other woman – so similar, although so different – would know that too.

“Look,” Sofia ploughed on desperately, “My Alexander – the one from my universe – is not dead. At least he is not dead yet. He was searching for… for something, and he wound up here, perhaps by mistake, perhaps not. The place he went to, it was ruined, completely destroyed!” Sofia-A turned white as paper at the latter and began blinking rapidly, shaking her head in denial. “Please, you know how much this means to me; I am like you, no, I am you. You have to help me. You must.”

Sofia-A was licking dry lips, just as Sofia herself would have done. She recognized the signs; the woman was teetering on the brink, choosing between two evils, still unsure of her course of action but at the least – oh, thank you, Sofia! – at the least seriously pondering the problem. And nervous. She was very nervous, and frightened, but beneath the fear there lurked something new; perhaps it was bravery that Sofia detected in her otherworldly double now.

“Why me?” was the question that finally came out. Rather unexpected.

“Because you are me, of course, who else have I to turn to? I am lost here; I am not sure how, in the last… five hours, I had not committed a truly fatal mistake. I told some truck driver that I had lived in America,” Sofia-A laughed hollowly in disbelief. “You see? I think I understand his reaction better now, but not fully, not everything!”

She was almost wailing in despair, and she knew it. So much hinged on convincing this woman, and who would have thought she would be so terribly, grotesquely different? Who would have thought convincing her own self would be so damnably hard? “Listen to me! I don’t know what happened to you, to all your intellect and determination, to all your reserve, but surely you still notice linguistics. I don’t even sound right, Sofia. It would take me days to establish the local dialect right. You’re my only chance here – my only hope.”

She didn’t believe her own ears. She was pleading, and she never pled. Ever. Pleading was for … for desperate people. For childish attempts to reverse the irreversible, or for those people not intelligent enough to act. But not for her, not ever for her. There was, she remembered again, a brink at which anyone could be broken.

Sofia-A cackled – a sound that sent shivers down Sofia’s spine – and stared at her double with eyes that were more than a touch mad.

“Such a heroine, coming after your husband into mortal danger, aren’t you? You are so smug, so full of yourself. You have no idea, no idea at all of what it’s like; this damned place, these damned people that never leave you alone. And Aleksander – the sum of all our hopes, isn’t he, Sofia? Your knight in shining armour. Well, this is different. Dead… just dead… if only he were just dead! I would slit my wrists and follow him. But what do you do, my strong, proud counterpart, when you can no longer follow him. What?!” she lurched to her feet, and seized the astounded Sofia by the collar of her blouse.

“Just imagine. Imagine he went somewhere where you Can. Not. Follow. You’d be like me then; can’t go, can’t stay. Can’t finish this, can’t just trudge on. You will be running around in circles tearing your hair out! Yes! How long have you been together? More than I got! Smug little…” she let go of Sofia’s shirt and plunged back into the couch, all anger gone out of her like hot air from a balloon. The madness too. Only deep melancholy remained.

“I’ll do it. I’ll help you,” she said, voice still breathless from the exertion and the emotional upheaval, “if you help me in return. There will be a price.”

“If I can help you in return,” Sofia said cautiously, “I will. You are still me. Enough me. I pay my debts, you should know that.”

A calculating look was on Sofia-A’s face. “All right. I… there is no food in the house,” she coughed with embarrassment, “I will give you food ration coupons. Explain to you how to get to the store. In the mean time, I will make a phone call and…” she cast a glance about the room, “clean up.”

“Deal,” said Sofia, and solemnly shook ‘her own’ hand.