Dystopia Chapter 29

From the Story Arc: Dystopia

Previous Story in the Arc: Dystopia Chapter 32 by Krasniy Zakat (Monday, September 04, 2006)

Next Story in the Arc: Dystopia Chapter 30 by Krasnaya Zarya (Friday, September 08, 2006)

(posted Wednesday, September 06, 2006)

Swinging the basket by its handles, Sofia enjoyed the sensation of straightening her aching shoulders from the burden of the rucksack, for the first time in many hours. Her back was all in knots, reminding her again that – like though she might to pretend otherwise – she was forty years old. The years when she could walk with a rucksack slung over her back, climb mountains and camp outside, have long since passed; sometimes she still craved the outdoors, but America simply wasn’t the same. Too much organized parking, permits to pitch tent, little flattened out grounds, worn down by more visitors than they could bear, and organized fishing ponds with little tables around them. Besides, in Rhode Island, with cities planted closer together than sardines, there was barely any ‘wilderness’ left. Sometimes, Sofia’s mind boggled at the willingness Americans displayed to acquire a fishing license and trek off to pretend to survive on their own – with only the nearest Wal-Mart for company.

Alex, too, was even more a couch-potato than he had been in his youth. His energy expenditures were immense, in accordance to their production, and when before he could overcome his lack of enthusiasm for hikes for the sake of making her pleased, as well as keeping company to their student-friends, now this was not the case. She’d made many sacrifices for his sake these years; oftentimes this one seemed merely the smallest of them all – sometimes, however, it irked, chafing like a small but inexorably grating pebble in one’s shoe.

She looked around; respectable neighbourhoods, elderly pensioners in cheap flowery dresses that made them look fatter than they truly were, little children coming back from school to be watched by their grandmothers. Some sort of Soviet bourgeois. They never go away, Sofia thought, they just change their colour and their guise, fit in. some signs, however, were discordant with the idyll; where, for example, were the older men? Sofia was used to seeing them, playing checkers or cards, smoking their poisonous fumes on a wooden table in the park, or walking somewhere, a bag of clinking, telltale glassware in their hands. Could it be that a war was desperate enough, bad enough, to draft even these elderly alcoholics?

The store was a low concrete thing, ugly as the usual norm of construction from the days of Glorious Leader Nikita Khrushchev. Equally homely things were plaguing the Russia and Eastern Europe of Sofia’s own universe. Different buildings, made for different purposes, with only one thing in common; the worst exterior and interior design on the planet. Before the store, as expected, trailed a queue worthy of an hour long wait. It trailed, first, next to a low window on the side, looping around some stands and makeshift tents where middle-aged and elderly ladies put out bags of potatoes, buckets full of blackberries and strings of mushrooms. Then the entire affair was swallowed by the glass doors into the store.

Sofia found her place in line, behind a woman in her mid-twenties with a small child held by the hand. She watched the line; mostly middle-aged and elderly women in large shapeless floral dresses with gaily coloured plastic baskets on one meaty arm and milk containers made of beaten aluminium on the other. Tired faces, tired eyes, tired people coming home from work… she thought back to the colourful, spacious supermarkets – which, granted, had no real food in them – and to the people, all wearing a smile, almost like a mask. Personally, Sofia only went to the supermarket for dry foods anyway. She couldn’t stand the vegetables sold there; they were tasteless and covered with a thin but traceable layer of wax. Perhaps their health food was a little bit of an issue… but it was better, certainly, than these tired, sunken eyes.

Snippets of dialogue reached her ears. People were talking about the usual things – the difficulty of getting good cold cuts, to serve with the tea, and the lack of fish, recently.

“In Moscow,” thoughtfully interjected the young woman standing in front of Sofia, “they have fish, my cousin says.”

“Well, Moscow…” sneered one frizzled woman, still in work attire, around Sofia’s age. Everybody laughed, even Sofia. Moscow had always been a different country, and the Omskaites know it. “They also say on the moon cheese abounds,” added the frizzled woman dryly, “but I have a cousin up in the colonies, and he says it’s just rock.”

Colonies on the moon! Oh, this world does have a lot to offer… thought Sofia with an almost unwilling admiration.

From the corner of her ear she heard someone murmur ‘radioactive currents, and no wonder’, but the voice was rapidly shushed. Another person nonetheless found enough courage to object, and mutter, sotto voce, that the matter was not America, but China. “Chemicals, damn the bastards…”

“Sssh! We already won, the news say. Only yesterday, I saw on television…” and the topic quickly and expertly shifted elsewhere.

Sofia had seen a Fallout pattern map, once, when Alex was still working with atomics, rather than theoretics, but she could not remember, for the life of her, where and how the patterns went. She wondered just how much of the world truly was devastated; certainly more than was claimed, as per usual.

The line dragged on. Someone was loudly berated for being pushy, and behind her back, where a new throng joined, a brawl was quenched quickly by the onlookers.

A surly clerk in a white coat, her hair tucked away under an equally white kerchief frowned at her from behind the empty counter. She accepted the ration cards from Sofia without saying a word; Sofia in her turn accepted without emotion the wrapped up packages. Rationed out food was new; even in the communism of old, food was bought for money, in unlimited quantities, though many foodstuffs simply were not to be had. Technically, of course, there’s never been a ‘communism’ of old. Not even Russia herself made that claim. There was hardcore socialism, thought Sofia to herself with irony, but communism was yet to be found. Every year they were this close – oh, yes! On our way to communism, if only you recycle all your scrap metal – but communism was like the speed of light: the faster you chase, the further it is.

So what did these cards herald? Nuclear winter fast approaching, perhaps already devastating crops? Was it due to the nasty, everlasting war with China? Sofia could not see the marks of war on the countryside, but the abandoned buildings were mute testimony that Omsk was no longer the provincial little centre it had been. The same testimony, though presenting its more positive side, was given by the Omsk university; from a provincial school, notable for nothing much, it turned into a lively, bustling institution.

For that matter, she thought as she packed away her designated 1000 grams of meat, what was that little war all about? China and Russia were, officially at least, allies. No longer in her world, where rampant capitalism consumed the latter and rampant oligarchy the former but here… they should have been. So then, what was wrong with the histories, and why had the two remaining great powers – the two allies – gone to war?

Dividing the spoils of what was left of the world? That seemed nothing like the logical path to take. Which meant one thing only; somewhere, the official history had omitted an important factor. And Sofia had noone to ask.

She chuckled to herself quietly, thinking, how much like a bad novel this entire adventure was. But she was not a good protagonist for a dystopia story. She was not playing by the rules authors set their characters; she was too quick, too well-informed, too commonsensical to make this mythical novel be worth someone’s read. She was not running around saying the exactly wrong words at the wrong time, asking foolish questions that would incriminate her, neither did she expect random bystanders to serve as her personal exposition. She was certain that to the innocent questions of ‘where is all the food?’ the only response she was truly likely to get was ‘that’s a bad joke, lady’, and a rabid glare.

The fact was, dystopias did not need the author’s exposition to be terrible. They simply were, and, like death itself, needed no explanations.

Some of these questions, she hoped, she could ask Sofia. Obviously, her alternate self was something of a recluse, but, surely, an informed recluse? But satisfying her curiousity was secondary; completing her self-appointed rescue was primary. Then, if it were the case that they would have to stay in this dimension forever – somewhere in Alaska, no doubt – she could find out all she wanted about it in order to fit in.

Packing up her basket and hanging it on an arm again, she left the store without a backward glance, thinking to herself how pleased her alternate self was bound to be, seeing the huge American supermarkets for the first time. The delight she herself felt at the sight, immediately after the devastated Russia of ’92. She soon discovered that the food was inedible, but the place fascinated her for months afterward, like a child in a store full of toys…

The street was strangely quiet; the chattering pensioners were nowhere to be seen, and the few children playing were, quite obviously, snatched up by their parents and taken home. Sofia, swinging her basket of foodstuffs nonchalantly, alone in the middle of this quiet, frowned with deep unease. Where had all the people gone? As if a giant hand brushed along the streets, sweeping them all away. Sofia’s skin prickled with a tremendous sense of danger.

Then she saw the car.

It was sleek and black and modern. It was frightening. It was the same vehicle she glimpsed from the bus window earlier this morning, only, now that she knew what this world was, and what this regime was, its meaning was that much clearer, and that much more sinister. She’d thought, at the time, that it was reminiscent of the Black Ravens that the KGB used to gather up their new prisoners; the dreaded omen of doom of the Stalinist period, the signal that a person’s – a family’s – life had stopped, crossing paths with this carrion bird.

It was.

And it stood next to Sofia’s house, right under her stairwell.

Drat. Sofia never cursed. It was for people who couldn’t sufficiently express themselves by more conventional means. Sofia, a linguist, could vent her feelings in at least a dozen languages, but just this once the sentiment just wasn’t right. Sofia searched frantically for a place to hide.

The houses around this neighbourhood featured each a small, bordered up enclosure where trees and flowers were planted by the loving hands of the neighbours. Before the trees and bushes, benches lined up in the shade on which said neighbours could loiter. The gardens were sacrosanct, the old ladies that lived on the first floor, and whose baby this garden was, would be devastated. Sofia swung over the fence without hesitation, burrowing into the wide foliage and clinging to the tree trunk.

She crouched down, and slowly raised her head to watch the action. Under no circumstances must she approach, now. The chances were entirely too good that she was the target of this ambush. And if not she, then her alternate-self. She could not with clean conscience jump out at the police, and attempt anything that might cause her to break cover so conspicuously, dooming her rescue mission. Perhaps, too, they didn’t come here for any business of her own… she was reluctant to kill.

For a little while, there was nothing, and she almost began to hope that one of the agents simply stopped home for lunch. The driver was leaning idly against the side of the car, and looked relaxed, but Sofia saw the fully automatic submachine gun slung idly on his waist, and thought she could guess the safety was off. Another man, also in uniform, was riding shotgun, already beside the door to the stairwell. Sofia could bet that there were at least two more people with her alternate self – if that was their target – upstairs.

And Sofia-the-local would be helpless.

Not that the oh-so-super Sofia herself could do much against two – at least! – submachine guns. She would be dead in an instant. Dead, and her mission forfeited. She could… theoretically, she could do many things. Practically? Not so much. Not if she wanted to keep her presence here secret; that and what she could do. Plans formed slowly, and were discarded as too slow, or too risky. A glimmer of an idea fired up in Sofia’s brain, and she peeked higher, glaring at the black, slick car.

Then her alternate self appeared in the doorway of the apartment building, face drawn and two red marks on her cheeks, between two burly bullies. Sofia’s breath ran out in a hiss of anger and annoyance, both. She could not very well execute her newly thought-of plan – ignite a spark in the car’s gas tank, with all the appalling consequences thereof – when her own double was standing near enough to be damaged. If the point was to save Sofia-A’s skin, and secure her help, killing her in a massive explosion was not the way to go.

She watched with sympathy as her twin’s head was pushed down harshly, and heard the muffled, painful exclamation when it forcibly hit the edge of the car door. Then, when she thought the worst had already happened, she saw her bag of electronics carried out and tossed inside. She bit down on a scream; if they got their hands on Sofia’s laptop and gadgetry, they either knew she was there, or would very soon. Which meant two things: it was, indeed, the government that had Alex, and: she must not go back inside now. The house was bound to be under surveillance, at least for the next few hours, and the last thing she needed was to be caught herself.

I’m sorry, Sofia… she thought with deep regret, watching her lifeline, and her best chance to secure her husband vanish, unable to follow.

As soon as the car started moving, Sofia scrambled out of the buildingside garden. She turned the corner of the building, and scurried into the park that encompassed several blocks’ worth of territory behind the windows of Sofia’s new empty apartment. Indecisively, she camped on a bench in one of the smaller walkways, and set her useless basket by her feet, to wait.

Where could she go now? What could she do, now that her initial plans were doomed? She knew, at least, that Alexander was not in the hands of some unknown mafia group, but that did not make things any easier.

Things must get better soon. They could not possibly be any worse.