Dystopia Chapter 30

From the Story Arc: Dystopia

Previous Story in the Arc: Dystopia Chapter 29 by Krasnaya Zarya (Wednesday, September 06, 2006)

Next Story in the Arc: Dystopia Chapter 33 by Krasniy Zakat (Wednesday, September 13, 2006)

(posted Friday, September 08, 2006)

March, 1993

“Look how huge this place is.” Sofia rested a hand on her husband’s shoulder and stared out at the mound of concrete. It truly was immense. The thing sprawled for, it seemed to the woman, kilometers. Only, of course, here it was miles. This was all the way as immense as the famed GUM – the Government Universal Store – in Moscow, and people called this the local mall? Truly, the mind boggled. She simply had to show this to Aleksander; as unenthusiastic a shopper as he may be, even he would find the place… well, shocking, besides, he needed fresh air.

She snuck him out of the hospital on what promised to be a good day. At least, he was awake and lucid, which constituted a good day in his book. And she would have him for herself, the entire day. How long has it been that they had a day for themselves? Forever, she felt. And – precautions notwithstanding – this promised to be fun. For a change, for her as well. Aleksander was a brilliant conversationalist, when one managed to divert him from his one track of thought that involved cogs and wheels. Nobody in the world was better at that than she. That’s why she got the job of marrying the guy.

“It’s pretty big, yes. But if you want size, you need to see that circular supercollider CERN has, under the very
original name of Large Electron-Positron Collider. All the way from Geneva to France, and back, 27 kilometers in circumference” Aleksander grinned at her impudently, knowing very well how to outrage his wife. She smacked him, lightly. He merely laughed in return.

“I didn’t kidnap you out of the hospital so you’d lecture me about CERN, Sasha. Besides, it’s not the same thing at all, we also had all the money in the world for scientific and military applications but who builds a shopping centre to the scale of the National Institute?”

“Mm… that’s because
here no essential parts of the construction get sold on the black market. They have a lot of spares left over…” this time, both of them laughed. What could one say? America was the most law-abiding country in the world – worse even than Germany, in some ways – but sometimes it paid off. Like when constructing nuclear power plants, Sofia supposed.

“And here I thought,” she said, closing up on the concrete monster, “that you were going to tell me it’s about the
quality.” That evoked another wave of laughter.

“Quality, oh God,” Sasha wiped his eyes, “Listen, I told this doctor in the hospital something like that, and he began lecturing me in all seriousness about how true and valid my statement was. Unbelievable. I needed you there; my English is not enough to explain the joke.”

“No idea how to say ‘quantity always evolves into quality’?” Sofia snickered.

“Or was it the other way around?” wondered Sasha out loud, growing thoughtful. “I keep mixing them up.”

“Slacker,” admonished Sofia. “What would your teachers think? Your History of Communism professor would be appalled.”

Sasha smirked. “And the glory of it all is; I don’t have to study that nonsense anymore. And nobody cares.” He gazed around at the huge parking lot, and out into the generic vicinity of UC Berkeley – where no entrance exam demanded of him to know the names of, not only Russian, but even American presidents – with proprietary fondness.

They’d only been in America a few weeks, by which point they had managed to achieve several noble goals: get Sasha into a good hospital and somewhat stabilized after the flight, begin negotiations about jobs, and come to the unanimous conclusion that Americans were quite out of their collective minds. At which appropriate thought Sofia opened the glass doors into the mall itself, and the spouses dove headfirst into a river of air-conditioned breeze, noise and colour. This place half-cowed half-amused Sofia all over again. Americans did nothing on the medium-scale; everything was either huge, or, failing that, at least big. And what they could not do big, she thought with amusement, should not, in that collective thought, be done at all.

Aleksander was looking around with utter fascination, easily distracted. “Look at all this.
stuff,” Sofia leaned to mutter in his ear. “It’s got to be the biggest collection of useless objects that I’ve ever seen. No wonder everybody here has this sort of expression on their faces that says ‘candy! candy!’. Even the adults. I’m still trying to figure that one out. Should I act like the suave, experienced PhD, or should I also try for the ‘ooh! I want that too!’ expression?”

“Don’t you dare,” her husband gave her a cautioning look. “I’m having enough trouble pretending to be serious as it is.” He thought about it for a while. “All right, I’m done being adult. Can we go look at the electronics now?”

“Electronics, of course,” sighed Sofia and towed her husband along, “I knew that brain of yours just won’t relent. Well, so long as you’re not thinking about this stuff in bed…” Chuckling, the two shuffled off slowly.

On her bench in the park, Sofia shivered in recognition. Awakened by her visit to the local store, the sights and sounds of the place and people, this memory of her first visit to a very different place, at a very different time was not evolving into a pleasant one.

She recognized it, of course. Bittersweet, at this time and place, it merely proved to her what she had already partly understood in conversation with the alternate Sofia; every person has a breaking point, a line of strain that, when pressured, revealed their truly brittle nature. Sofia and she had a common line of strain, and though hers – unlike her double’s – were welded and seemingly gone, if she broke, it would be just along the same lines.

In the store Sasha immediately immersed himself in the inventory, going over the various arcana while Sofia stood and watched. All these prolonged months, sometimes years, when her husband was ensconced in hospitals she’d missed this endless curiosity and bright-eyed enthusiasm. It was almost as entertaining for her to watch him paw through bolts and plugs and batteries as it must have been for him to do so. She wandered off, after a while, to lean against the counter, where a young man, only a few years her junior was reshuffling boxes. They were so young, these Americans! At his age, she was already… ah, well. She was twenty-six now, and she felt fifty. The young man smiled at her. “And how are you doing?”

“Alive, thanks.”

He smiled at her, thrown a little off by the dryness of her tone. She gave a half-smile, twisting her mouth into an ironic grimace that did nothing to soften the impression. The boy shifted about in discomfort. “Well, good. Uh, do you need help, uh, ma’am?”

“No, thank you. I’m waiting on my husband to conclude his business,” she answered, her Oxfordian accent precise and very obvious. She’d spent time carefully listening to people, in the last few weeks, but the imitation would need some work. The boy glanced at her with renewed interest, and started asking where she was from. His question, and her response – which she relished giving simply due to the surprise effect it had on people – were cut off when her husband cried out ‘Sofia!’ from the isle. There was an urgent note in it which she recognized and, murmuring a quick ‘pardon’, she bolted.

He was clutching the shelf with fingers that seemed more desperate by the minute. The eyes were getting a glazed, fixed look in them that told Sofia all she needed to know about his consciousness, and where it was going. She had her arms around him in almost no time at all, breaking his fall. She couldn’t hold her husband up, instead she allowed him to slide down, taking the impact. She knelt next to him, and took his hand, discovering that he was burning with a sudden fever; this was going to be a bad one…

“Sasha, Sasha,” she muttered darkly, “what is this? Come on… you were doing so well… That is no way to behave in a public place.”

She’d learned, very early on along the way, to never panic while still in Aleksander’s presence. She learned to joke and make flippant conversation while he was racked with pain, or sliding – like now – into a serious seizure.
Distract him from what is going on, the doctors told her, keep him focused, but thinking of something else. If he loses his grip on himself, things get much worse. Now, almost seven years later, she had the nerves and reactions of a trained ward-nurse. The training, too.

She pulled her bag open in one hand, and took out of it the syringe she, or Sasha, if she wasn’t with him, always carried when outside the hospital. With a motion that had become almost automatic she slid the subcutaneous needle expertly into Sasha’s arm, giving him the full doze of adrenaline, plus whatever other craziness the doctors prescribed him.

Aleksander was shivering now. She barely had time to grab for his head, to keep it from bumping onto the faux-marble floor before the shaking was serious enough. Sofia settled his head on her knees, and held on. The store clerk turned the corner of the isle, looking resigned and very reluctant.

“Ma’am? Is everything all right?”

Good God! Why were people asking nonsensical questions at the worst of times when the answer was self-evident?
Of course!, she wanted to snap at him, my husband is on the floor because we decided for trysting in the middle of your store. Lout. And, obviously he is shaking from glee.“Evidently not,” she snarled out between clenched teeth instead. “Please call an ambulance. Tell them to bring life-support equipment; by the time they get here they are likely to need it. And tell them that we have an epilepsy-like seizure, but that they’d better have an ICU ready for us, or I shall have their heads.”

The kid bolted for the phone. She slid an arm under Sasha’s head and propped him up, to help him breathe.

“Come on, Sasha,” she coaxed her husband, “don’t do anything foolish; this is a shopping centre, you can’t die on me here, there’s children around.” She tried for a flippantly admonishing tone. “Children are the flowers of life, Sasha, and your dead body would make a terrible fertilizer for the flowerpot.”

He grinned weakly and managed through clattering teeth, “Like Socrates… Corrupter of the Youth…”

There was a sudden, pathetic lump in her throat. “Yes…” she struggled against it, swallowing what must not, under any circumstances, be tears. “Just like that… so just keep breathing.”

Time seemed to stretch into unrecognizable infinity as she sat there with her sick husband, listening to his strained breathing. Where were the blasted medics? What could possibly take them so long? She was nauseous with fear, and her arm grew tired and painful from the strain of holding him up. She didn’t dare let go, though, for fear that if she did, he’d drown. He was slipping away, anyway. Even with the stimulant. His eyes rolled back as he lost consciousness completely, and his pulse, when she felt for it, was almost nonexistent; rapid, erratic and very weak.

Then two EMTs with a stretcher burst in through the door, a doctor in tow. Sofia had to marshal her coherency, through tiredness and strain, and explain, quickly and accurately, what, precisely, was going on. The medical crew stared at her, a little stunned at her apparent coolness, and perhaps even a little appalled. She didn’t care, concentrating all her efforts on not allowing them to simply push her out of their way. She’d long since won the prerogative, when her husband’s condition worsened, of dealing with the unpleasantsies as they came. At least the waiting in endless corridors and pacing for hours behind closed doors was spared her, in view of her experience.

Throughout the entire frantic, eternal ride to the hospital – siren wailing over her head and shattering her sensitive eardrums, while the three people toiled together with her to keep her husband alive – Sofia wore a mask of composure. She felt as if there was another face – another personality altogether – glued firmly on top of the real Sofia, made of wax or of cement. Regardless of how much the Sofia underneath kicked or screamed in panic, no outsider would see her real face. All they would see is a mask. It no longer even required an effort from her to put it on. Most of the time, the mask
was all she felt. Today was simply a little too sudden.

Sofia watched steadily as her husband was finally rushed away to an intensive-care unit. Only then did she allow herself some reaction, squeezing aching temples and rubbing eyes that, for some reason incomprehensible to her, seemed puffy and stung.

“Excuse me, what time is it?”

Sofia blinked, shaken and a little lost, as the question rudely brought her out of her reverie. But the person asking the question was not a soldier, a policeman or even a possible secret KGB agent, unless they began recruiting girls that could not be older than ten.

“I… don’t have a watch, actually,” she said, for some reason slightly embarrassed. “Sorry, kid.”

“Oh,” the girl looked disappointed. She swung a braid with a large bow ribbon and started biting on the ends, eyeing Sofia inquisitively. “So what are you waiting here for?”

“My husband, I guess,” said Sofia sadly. “But he won’t come.”

She bit her lip almost bloody, watching the child hop away down the empty lane.