This story is taken from ‘6000 miliard. Sci-fi povídky’ by Jan Váchal, published by Nakladatelství Penrous in 2009. The translation is by Andrew Oakland.
“Hi, sweetheart. I applied for a route change from BT458 to BX208, but I didn’t get the authorization. I wanted to come and meet you. But now we won’t get to see each other until sixteen hundred hours.”
“That doesn’t matter at all, my love. At least you were able to call me.”
“I have a surprise for you.”
“I absolutely adore surprises!”
“I love you, Ellis.“
“I love you, too. Take care, my sweet.”
I flicked my outer ear to switch off the communicator and continued to look out of the window, although there was hardly anything to look at. Our train was moving along the thirteenth line of a twenty-eight-stream corridor in the fourteenth sublevel. I just wasn’t in the mood to look at the people around me.
Ellis and I had married a year ago and been given a room in a building a way out of the centre. Since then I’d had to commute, but this was something I could put up with. The main thing was, we were together. And we’d been very fortunate: the two newly-wed couples who were our room partners were both great. On an eight-hour cycle, Ivy and Leo slept before us and Mark and Lucy after. I know from my workmates how bad it can get when people who don’t hit it off are awkward about the changeover. When that happens, you don’t get a lot of sleep.
This was a big day. My Ellis’s birthday. Traffic Control had reserved for us two hours at the Bella Vista restaurant, and I had a big surprise in store for her. I was hoping we’d enjoy the day to the full. And good food wasn’t all I was looking forward to; there was also the nook, our own special place. In the next street, hard by moving sidewalk L745, there was a building with a small recess in its front. Sometime in the past this had contained an air-conditioning vent right up to the roof. Although the vent had been removed, the local Office for Construction Completion had somehow forgotten about the recess. So when we make our carefully timed jump from the sidewalk and squeeze ourselves into the nook, we have the place to ourselves and don’t even bother the traffic. And how wonderful it is to have something to yourself!
I really don’t know what I did to deserve such a fine woman. Remembering how we met, I realize I was advanced a sizeable portion of good luck.
I reached my end station and a loudspeaker clicked on. “Passengers should alight cars 82 to 196 without delay. All passengers in odd-numbered cars should use S2 escalators. All passengers in even-numbered cars should use R4 escalators. Thank you.”
Obediently I departed by R4. On reaching the QQW12 elevators I placed myself at the end of a queue.
“O, Ellis, my Ellis,” I daydreamed. She’d been standing in the second row. The third from the end. If either she or I had entered the Introductions Bureau just one minute later, we would never have met. Fate in action. I can still see myself standing at the touch bubble filling in the Introductions Questionnaire before I was directed to the Introductions Hall. On both sides of the hall there were steps that ascended in groups of five. Each step had space for ten applicants. Men on the left, women on the right. So at one moment fifty women stood facing fifty men in five ascending rows. Everyone had a perfect view of his/her potential counterpart. My gaze never reached the marriage candidates in the third, fourth and fifth rows. I glanced at the first row and moved on to the second before my gaze snagged on the third girl from the end. I was enchanted by her immediately – probably because she was like a deer caught in the headlights. A small, adorable deer that was seeing the world for the first time, or what it could make out of it in the glare of the headlights. She had enormous, wide-open eyes and looked divine. Straight away I entered her code in the communicator and she confirmed it. Later when I asked her why she had done this, she claimed to be impressed by men who could make quick decisions. But I know that we were meant for each other.
At last I squeezed myself into the elevator. I rode it to the eightieth floor. There at the end of the gallery was the Bella Vista restaurant, and in front of this my Ellis was waiting for me. I’m sure she would have run to me if the gallery hadn’t been one-way. She had to make do with a wave.
At sixteen hundred hours the turnstile beeped and the automatic sorter conveyed us to our table.
“Happy birthday, honey.”
“Thanks, Petie,” she smiled at me.
“That surprise – do you want it now or after dinner?”
Her response was unequivocal. “I want it now. I’m burning with curiosity.”
“Close your eyes, then.”
She was seventy-five per cent obedient: she closed the left and narrowed the right.
This was fun. Carefully I took from my pocket an envelope and a small card. I placed the card in front of her.
“Can I open my eyes yet?”
She squealed with delight. “Peter! An entry ticket to the garden!”
I smiled back her, gratified.
“And it’s for a full half-hour!” This was more wonderful still. “How on earth did you get it?”
“I ordered it back in April.”
“Really? This is a big surprise. There aren’t many men who would think of their wife’s birthday nine months in advance. Thanks so much!”
“What’s more, we have a stroke of luck. Just for this week Gromski the millionaire philanthropist has lent the garden his parrot.”
“A real live parrot?”
I nodded. “Happy birthday again, my love.”
“Thank you so, so much. Unfortunately my news isn’t so good.”
“Out with it. I take my bad news before a meal as a matter of principle.”
“We can get just a week’s holiday by the pool. For the second week, the only places they’ve got left are on the roof.”
“But that’s no problem is it? The main thing is, we’ll be together.”
In the meantime the pneumatic waiter had delivered our meals. Seaweed rolls, jelly with extract of poultry, pulses au gratin, and a protein cocktail with a straw and little umbrellas in it.
On the way home we visited our nook. We squeezed ourselves in, her body against mine, and we had a lovely time.
“Yesterday I dropped by the second zone,” she said.
“And what was it like there?”
“Quite nice. The rooms for marrieds are the same as here. The nursery is at the end of the corridor and shared by everyone on that floor. The playground is on the third sublevel, the school on the sixteenth.”
“Are you trying to tell me you’re feeling broody?”
“Do you think that’s immodest of me?”
I buried my face in her hair to stifle my laughter.
“I think I am. In fact I’m sure I am. I would like a baby.”
“So ask me, then.”
“Please, please, pretty please.” The begging was just for show and accompanied by a lovely smile.
“Very well, then. Is there anything I wouldn’t do for you?”
We were silent after that, until my planner beeped. It was time for us to get some sleep.
“I’ve changed the bedding and disinfected the bed,” announced Ivy.
“You didn’t have to do that. It would have been no problem for me to do it.”
“Think nothing of it, Ellis. Sweet dreams to the both of you.”
“That’s really sweet of her, isn’t it? I’ll try and ask her if they’re planning a family too. If they are, we might be able to move to the second zone together. I don’t fancy getting used to new room partners.”
“Yes, you should ask her.”
We lay down.
“People used to talk to each other before they went to sleep, you know.” I said.
She just sighed.
“Go to sleep, my love. And dream of our lovely baby.”
“Our lovely baby. Lovely like its father, Petie.”
“What’s up, Pete?” Ellis was rubbing her eyes. “What are you doing there?”
I was standing at the window, looking out. “I can’t sleep.”
She sat up in the bed. “Something bothering you?”
I sighed. “They’ve cleaned the sky and just imagine, you can see three stars.”
Quietly she got up and came to me.
“There. See them?”
“Yes, I do. Aren’t they lovely and sparkly?”
I said nothing.
“You didn’t answer me. Is there something bothering you?”
“You know what, Ellis, I’m not sure I like this life.”
“This life with me, you mean”
“Of course not.” I turned from the window and put an arm around her shoulders. “I mean this life here on Earth.”
Now it was her turn to say nothing.
“I don’t know that I’d want a child of ours to live in this. I didn’t give it much thought before. I didn’t have any reason to. Now it seems my sense of responsibility has caught up with me.”
“Whatever you choose, Pete, I’ll stand by you. You know I will.”
“We’d have to make the decision together. For richer or for poorer.”
“So confide in me. What’s going on in your head?”
I took my time over my answer. Like a seed falling upon a stone is a word spoken in haste. She felt this too and didn’t rush me.
“I’m thinking of the Pioneer programme.”
“You mean those flights that take emigrants to distant galaxies?”
I turned back to the window and looked at the stars. “That’s right. Pack up our goods and chattels and hope that somewhere out there there’s a place for us, a place we might at last call home.”
She rested both her hands on my shoulders, and together we watched the stars above our heads. Then she pointed at one and whispered, “I think I’d like that one there.”
Three times more the star mission orbited the Earth: we said our last goodbyes as we picked up speed. Then the sails were unfurled and we headed for the infinity of space.
“Know how I feel?” said Ellis, who was snuggling up against me.
“Like one of those prospectors of olden times who conquered the Wild West. They loaded everything they had in rickety horse-pulled carts and set off in pursuit of their dream.”
“I just hope there aren’t any Indians out there.”
“There aren’t. At least I hope there aren’t.” She laughed. “And what are you thinking about, Pete?”
“What it’s going to be like. Do you know what I wish for? To build a house so big that our kids can ride bicycles around it. Surrounded by a spacious garden, with our nearest neighbours a brisk ten-minute walk away.”
“It’s a lovely dream, but I’m afraid the reality will be a little tougher. There’s not a great deal we can be sure about, is there?”
“But you know what, Ellis? I’ve no regrets about our decision. It’s some kind of future, after all. It can’t be any worse than life on Earth, with its six trillion inhabitants.”
|© Jan Váchal