Dystopia Chapter 36

From the Story Arc: Dystopia

Previous Story in the Arc: Dystopia Chapter 39 by Krasniy Zakat (Thursday, September 21, 2006)

Next Story in the Arc: Dystopia Chapter 39 - Cont. by Krasniy Zakat (Monday, September 25, 2006)

(posted Friday, September 22, 2006)

“Fish! Manna, the food of the Gods, and a complete hell to gut.” The declaration was made in a singsong tone by a high, female voice, immediately followed by a wet splash.

Sofia and Aleksander parked their shabby vehicle on a washed out dirt road on the outskirts of a sprawling, tangled up forest. They slid the car gently down the slope into the grassy ravine, and then maneuver it – Sofia standing outside and waving Aleksander this way and that – behind some clustered trees and bushes. In general, Sofia thought she was seeing a considerable amount of greenery. She rather expected a more… high-tech environment.

They strolled through at a pace which, considering the circumstances, was almost leisurely. Sofia regretted that her kerchief – which she had removed in the city – went the way of all (well, most) of her stuff, to be gathered by the agents of the ISB. Aleksander had been quite upset as he heard that latter bit of news while questioning her intently about the taking of Sofia-A. There was, she thought, a distinct relief in him when she told him that by no means did his disturbed wife go with the agents voluntarily.

It must have been hellish, Sofia estimated, to live as he did in this universe. Paranoia must have become something of one’s daily bread; after all, when one didn’t know what to make of one’s own existence, one certainly could trust little. Aleksander trusted Sofia – which included, apparently, her as well – yet the option that she might not be nearly as deserving of that trust as he may think was always in the back of his mind. She found that disturbing. All the more so since it occurred to her that if his inclination was to automatically trust every human being named Sofia Rabinovich perhaps she should be more wary of her own automatic trust in any human being – or whatever being – whose name was Aleksander.

I made a deal with the devil and it came back to haunt me. Hmm. Sofia’s fingers climbed automatically to the only item of jewelry – aside from the thin, silver wedding band – she ever wore. She twisted the pearl molecule shaped pendant thoughtfully.

It was Sofia, for obvious reasons, who stopped them when the light began dimming slowly into the white-gray of dusk. Dusk would still give them a considerable while; a time to look around, set up camp, prepare for the night and discuss strategies. Not long enough, unfortunately, to dash in and get their respective spouses out. They both agreed, and with due reasoning, that making the rescue in the dark would not be feasible. Not tonight. Not before Sofia, exhausted from a previous sleepless night and almost toppling over with caffeine-ensuing blood pressure, had a few hours of rest. In order not to lose the benefit of surprise, their target hour would be dawn.

According to Aleksander’s watch, it was seven in the afternoon when Sofia made her startling declaration concerning the nature of fish from her position on the bank of a slow, rather murky stream. Her organic mind was already thinking, rather wistfully, about dinner, and about the folded-up plastic fishing rod she lost, together with her laptop.

“Sasha, would you cut a long branch off for me?” she said absentmindedly, peering into the back of Aleksander’s truck, and into the many layers of junk strewn there. Somewhere amongst the bolts, screws and pieces of metal she was sure she could find some fishing line, it was too sturdy a wire, too handy an item, for her dear husba-, ah, damn it! There she was again! – for Aleksander not to have.

“Uh… what sort of branch are we looking for here?”

“Oh, good grief.” She raised her head, clutching a spool of fishing line in one hand, and tried hard not to roll her eyes. Aleksander – any of them – was sometimes exasperating. “A fishing rod one,” she said sweetly, trying very hard not to add a sarcastic ‘dear’. “Long and flexible. Like, say, this.” Willows were nice. A relatively thick willow branch would make an excellent fishing rd, unless it was dry. “Here, cut it off for me here,” and she tugged the branch at the point where it connected to the tree, stretching it out in preparation for Aleksander’s knife.

Aleksander didn’t move a finger. The branch fell off in her hand, sliced at the end to an almost glassy smoothness.

Sofia lost her balance, prepared as she was for a long struggle with the wood, and staggered a little backwards. “Alex can’t do that,” she muttered, examining the cut.

“Oh, he can’t?” Aleksander sounded bemused. “I’d assumed, somehow…”

“No,” she sat down and started clearing the leaves and twigs off in long swipes. “If he tried that, half the branch would be blown clear off in a blue glow. No finesse.” Mentioning Alex was easier now, the pangs of worry duller than they were. She knew why that was, of course. She was, after all, only human; it was easy to slide into a routine, as easy at it was for her to slide the fishing rod into the still water.

She dangled the rod and slowly relaxed into the rhythm. Another one of these little things she did not get to do nearly often enough, fishing. Who even knew, nowadays, that Sofia Rabinovich, PhD, would really rather spend her time on the bank of some river – preferably with a good book – than do almost anything else. Even when she was a two-year-old child, out for a night with her father, and the mosquitoes bit her almost bloody, she enjoyed the long, dreamy nights that grew dark late and the soft sound of the water. A child of a large city, she did not find herself in these early years stargazing often, and the forays to nature provided her the opportunity. She felt like an old woman, now.

“You know, Alex never told me much of anything about your universe,” Aleksander was standing over her. She nearly forgot that he was there, absorbed by the water.

“Really?” she murmured languidly, drawing the fishing rod slowly from side to side, feeling the weight of the hook. “Are you curious?”

“Guess,” her husband’s alter-ego noted dryly.

“Hehe. You’ll have to sit down for the story, though. Your shade is on the water, you’ll scare the fish. I need to ask you some questions too,” she added as an afterthought, “like whether or not you have a plan how to get our two prisoners out.”

“Sure, sure.” Aleksander sat down on the thin grass next to her, drawing his knees up and resting his hands on them. Sofia leaned onto his shoulder in a movement so automatic it was no longer really conscious. She stopped herself just in time, propping herself on an elbow instead, with her eyes still on the colourful blob of floating Styrofoam in the water.

“They are in an army base, you see,” Aleksander started thoughtfully. “At least, I am fairly certain that is where Aleksander is, and very likely Sofia, too. For all I can see of you, she could be used as a lever on him. From a distance, anyway. She looks…”

“Like she has ten years on me.” Noted Sofia uncharitably.

“Yes, well… You realize that since I am not quite… corporeal-“ Sofia chuckles half in amusement and half in bewilderment at that “-I can have a look around. There is a field around the base, however that I can’t penetrate, for the same reason. Outside of my body it might kill me. Inside, it will debilitate me, and send off the alarms. I was going to have Sofia – not you, the other one – disable one of the emitting rods for me.”

“And that, too, I can do. If you give me the instructions. In fact, considering my later-life career as a vigilante, I am probably better at it,”

“A vigilante?” It was Aleksander’s turn to be surprised. “I didn’t expect that from either of you.”

“I go to keep Alex out of trouble. He goes because he has to,” muttered Sofia darkly. “Mainly because the same problem that plagued you is an issue with him, too. Everything just happens… slower. Which means exactly what you think it does,” she added drolly when he opened his mouth to say something. “The sad story of the local Rabinoviches may yet repeat in another dimension. But in order for it to happen, I have to get my husband out of the clutches of this… Viy.”

She stood up slowly and jerked the fishing rod erect with a quick twist of her arms, swiveling it around and backing away from the water. A silvery strike hit the ground and Aleksander pounced it with reflexes that wouldn’t have shamed a marksman. Sofia smacked the carp expertly on its head and sat back down, adrenaline pumping. “There’s half a soup,” she said with tremendous satisfaction.

“So it is. Isn’t it my turn to ask questions, though?” Aleksander inquired wistfully.

“What do you want to know?” Sofia slid a piece of bread onto her makeshift hook, and lowered the rod into the stream, this time letting it drift in the opposite direction.

“Everything?”

“Oh, everything?” Sofia laughed. “It’s long and bloody. I guess it’s not so bad, over there. We’ve had some nasty wars – in which we actually fought – some economic spikes and hollows… Many of the countries that are still around as sub-republics in your world actually collapsed in mine, after the fall of Communism. Russia is rampantly capitalist back home, now…” she smiled wryly at his astonishment. “We’re not a dystopia or anything of the sort; sometimes, though, I think perhaps we’re not the best of all possible options. Too much... weirdness…”

“What’s America like? Neither one of us ranged very far afield in this world, not even before there was no more America to see, even.”

“America? It’s all right, I suppose,” said Sofia thoughtfully, gazing out onto the once-more still water. The same question, asked a few days ago, would have evoked a ‘better than anywhere else in the world’ response. Now, after a sojourn of a day back in the ‘old country’, even closer to what she remembered – with obvious alterations – than the Russia that was consuming itself in her world, it was a different story. She’d never really gotten used to it, and she would have admitted it even to herself, only a few days ago. No accent, no oddities, no real difference between her and the next woman, yet she was a stranger there, and now she knew it.

”They are odd people. All their culture, their notions, they are almost the direct opposite of everything in our background, both the Russian and the Jewish,” she smiled humourlessly. “Sometimes I am still shocked to find how, what we consider hypocrisy is viewed as confidence, and what we consider as upholding ideals sometimes is interpreted as hypocrisy. That doesn’t make them worse; actually, maybe they are better people than we are – they are certainly better people than Alexander and myself – but that doesn’t make things easier.”

“I would think, after fourteen years it wouldn’t matter so much anymore,” mused Aleksander out loud. “Many things change in over a decade.”

Sofia glanced at him sharply, realizing that he was not, necessarily, talking about her. She thought about it for a long time, very carefully. Ten years floating around in near emptiness, that was beyond her grasp. No real emotions to speak of, she realized with a start. Alexander had always been a contained, rational man; he didn’t burst out in emotional fervour, he didn’t feel the need. She herself, of a very similar mindset, never prodded deep into the emotional undertones of people’s conversations herself. That was why she didn’t notice anything subtly different about Aleksander for so long a time.

The interesting part, though, that even when she called to mind her rudimentary empathy what she felt was not a void, or an emptiness like she would with robots; what she felt was flatter, somehow, a memory of emotions, but not everywhere. Which, she thought smugly, proved her point about love, and probably about a sense of humour, too.

“Let’s put it this way,” she said candidly, “certainly some things are different. When we arrived, I couldn’t stand their music… it made no sense, was just noise, and the words were so shallow it wasn’t even worth trying to listen to them past the music. It changed now; you know music was always a big thing for me… it’s a valid indicator.” He nodded. “Well, so you see? I found the better music, for one; for another, I got used to it, I suppose.”

She neatly snared a second carp, without even bothering to rise. The fish was lean and not very big, starving for the bread Sofia speared onto the fishhook, and it was not wary. She tossed it neatly to where the other fish already lay, waiting for her knife and the soup kettle. Then she turned around and, wiping her hands on the tails of her already grimy shirt, looked at Aleksander.

“So you see? Things change. It’s nice, and it’s tolerable, and I can sing to it… sometimes I even prefer it…” she said somewhat sadly, “but – unlike music from back home – it never makes me want to cry.”