[*web: www.aghawk.com *]
wrote: A.G. Hawk
actually wrote: Attila Vass
readable edited: Anita Jakab
cover artwork: Nameless man
© A.G. Hawk 2016
© Attila Vass 2016
Copyright © Attila Vass. 2016
Hungarian edition © Attila Vass, 2016
All rights reserved – Minden jog fenntartva
Locked into Timelessness 10
My Kingdom Will Come 15
“I want to die.”
He spoke softly. The words were only meant for Zorar, but the moment he said them the canteen was enveloped in the silence of the universe as if by magic, and his confidentially whispered words filled the space among the walls like a loud shout. Aryar, the one who occasioned the uncomfortable instant, flushed red and wished the ground would swallow him up. His most treasured secret, the most sacred taboo of the group, had come to light.
The people of the space station, an abode exiled from the fabric of space and time, ever changing and existing on the borderlands of universes, assumed that those who made their home there were not alive. Life for them was a never-ending, unceasing process. They were in a peculiar position: unlike those living in the cosmos, they did not have to face passing and decay. At least not in the way death was interpreted by the life forms they observed. They had existed since forever and had seen countless universes born and disappear in the void of time. They had learned that for creatures existing in the space-time outside this context life was not finite: they kept reappearing at other points of the universe. The people of the station termed this state transformation.
They also endowed the idea of death with their own definition. In their case death was not the ceasing of the physical body and its mental part, but the disappearance of all action, thought, and objects created by it. When someone “died” at the station, these changes all became unmade. This bore a severe risk to their actions in the universe and themselves, the outcome of which none of them could comprehend.
Zorar intently stared at the contents of the glass in his hand. He shook it a little and tried to pretend he hadn’t heard the exclamation.
“How’s Kathy?” he asked.
Mentioning Aryar’s life partner failed to put derailed time back on its tracks. Silence grew big around them. His table companion did not reply.
“I think we should go…” he started but couldn’t finish, because Aryar stood.
Zorar kept on staring at his whiskey, then drank down the beverage, which had been diluted by the molten ice. He took his jacket from the back of the chair and skillfully slipped into it. On his way out he stopped by the bar for a moment. He fished out a crinkled hundred-bill from his pocket, and with a wink he placed it on the counter before the barmaid.
The woman with short black hair nodded silently. She kept her narrow eyes on the money, which included a beefy tip, and reached for it with a trembling hand. He only let go if it when she confidently held the bill between her fingers. She’s finally out of the rut, he thought to himself.
Aryar was waiting for him in the corridor outside the canteen, but Zorar took a last glance around. As he was leaving, the patrons in the canteen went back to their previously arrested activities, and their drinks and jokes soon chased away the words that frayed their tempers.
“Hypocrites,” Zorar mumbled as he exited.
“Did you say something?”
“No, Aryar, nothing of any importance.” He looked around the corridor. From both ends he was enticed by the sounds coming from the entertainment centers. He strode away to the right with a heavy sigh.
“Come on, I know a better place where we can talk.”
The boy resigned himself to follow him. From time to time he looked up at the back of his companion.
Zorar remembered the time when took the shy Ayrar under his protection and his protégé could hide behind his back. He could hide there from all sorts of danger, and the boy looked up to him like to a god. He was the one to thank for his position, for managing to leave behind the unending chain of humiliation and suffering. Aryar could always count on his protector’s help when he got stuck, just like now.
The boy trudging along behind his back didn’t notice he had stopped and simply bumped into him.
“Is everything alright, Aryar?”
“Y-y-yes. So-so-sorry, I was distracted.”
“Just like always.”
The man smiled at him, and the lines of fear disappeared from the boy’s face, the pressure of some unseen grip eased a bit in the heavily breathing breast. He put his arm around the Ayrar’s shoulder and led him into the room, which was now filled with strangely whining and distorted metallic noises.
The boy felt like escaping. The frequencies vibrated along his nervous system with a thumping pain. He pressed his hands on his ears, seeking to ease the anguish.
“Chi…out…You’ll…sed…to it!” Zorar leaned closer, shouting in his ear.
The boy shook his head signaling he didn’t understand, but the man just continued into the room. Not wanting to fall behind Aryar followed on the path cut by the broad shoulders. It was hard to keep the pace in the flashing lights. The quick succession of fragmented, vibrating images roughed up his optic nerves.
Zorar sensed that the younger man behind him imagined him to be a woodland beast. The boy turned hunter sometimes became a predator, watching his prey closely, the prey that wasn’t aware of the danger. At these times he imagined the bodies writhing all around to be an impenetrable wilderness, like a dense jungle, where the animals screeching in the trees told of an approaching predator but the unsuspecting quarry was too much preoccupied with making headway through the undergrowth. Zorar sensed Aryar getting ready for the pounce, the boy was watching his back and licking his lips. He prepared for the leap, but at that moment his older friend reached a door. The dim flashes were suddenly replaced by a blinding white light, and Aryar the visionary squeezed his hands over his eyes. The jungle disappeared, again the writhing bodies surrounded them, and his friend was standing next to the open door, waving to him to step inside.
They heard the door close behind them, and the numbness in their brains abated. Finally they could again hear their own breathing. Inside there was a small table, surrounded by armchairs and a sofa. The walls shone with bright white light. He motioned for the wiry boy to take a seat, but he just stood there hesitantly.
“Sit now,” he said to Aryar. “The drinks will be here in a minute.”
The boy found strength in the soothing words. He settled comfortably into the chair closest to him. His protector was sitting across from him.
They were looking at each other. The man, always easy and garrulous, now sat silently. He was overwhelmed by an uncomfortable feeling in the company of the young man, which was only alleviated by the waiter’s arrival. He placed a glass of tonic water before Aryar and brought him a brownish drink on the rocks. Whiskey again. It seemed the boy across from him badly needed one, too, so that he could finally say what was on his mind.
The weakling grabbed the glass. He turned it around and around, and watched the vapor gathering on the cool surface then running down in drops. This is how he imagined himself at that moment. Like mist, growing into a big ball, slowly collecting himself to finally expound his opinion like a drop of water, running down, breaking all barriers.
“Tell me about this death wish of yours,” Zorar said to help the boy voice his concerns. He sat back in the armchair. He took a sip of his whiskey and clicked his tongue at the excellent quality.
He waited for the boy nipping his tonic water to speak. He could see his troubled expression, but he wasn’t surprised. People with a death wish weren’t tolerated at the station.
“I’m fed up with this pointless life,” Aryar burst out.
The boy cast a timid glance at the glass coffee table. They surveyed each other’s face in the reflection. They saw each other, yet they didn’t raise their heads, both hiding behind their fake masks.
“We want to learn all forms of life,” the man started the litany well known to everyone at the station. He made an effort to give Aryar a comforting reply. “The people who created this station set the same goal for themselves as the ever-changing living ones. To explore the forces moving them, to seek answers to the whys. This is our purpose, too.”
“And what if there are no answers? If we’ll never find them?”
Aryar banged down his glass with agitation, and a thin crack ran along the glass surface of the table. In his explosiveness he didn’t take notice of his friend’s frightened face. He continued with his diatribe:
“If there’s no answer apart from timelessness and spacelessness? If, say, the answer is really when we finally decide to die, so that we may experience something at long last? What then?” Tears started streaming down his face. “This is what I’ve been pondering for ages. We have seen an endless number of universes created and destroyed. For us these are mere moments, but for the people living there billions of years passed, or moments, like for us, before having been recreated again. They never discovered continuity, because something barred information from being freely disseminated.”
Aryar took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his tear-glazed eyes. Only then did he notice the cracked glass. He passed the cloth over it, hoping perhaps to smooth away the damage. He looked at his friend, but the man sat wordless, watching the ice melting in his glass.
“There,” he carried on, his voice faltering with excitement. “Why are we not examining or preventing this? We could, couldn’t we? But we fear for our calm little island. No one knows how and why they got here. Or who made this place. And when.”
“Aryar,” the man leaned forward in his seat, putting his glass on the table lightly. “Most of us aren’t concerned by these questions. There are so many processes we don’t understand. Take timelessness and spacelessness, for example. None of us have made out how it can be induced. Those who created the technology are not with us anymore.”
“Of course, they aren’t! They are dead!” Aryar exclaimed.
“That’s nonsense. You know full well what happens when one of us dies.”
Zorar’s doubtful attitude fired up the ever-so-shy boy.
“They’re dead, get it?! You can’t exist in any other responsible way—they simply realized they existed.”
He rose, raging, and towered above his friend pressing him into the sanctuary of the armchair. Ayrar’s whole being was shaking with frenzy. His bulging eyes, spasming features, and wild rictus turned into a demonic mask. His whole self was transmuted, and the outpouring power washed away his supportive friend’s confidence. He was spouting angry words all over the coffee table.
“When we get to the stage where we can create things with only our minds, not only idle thoughts, fragments of space and time, but also complex existence, we ourselves become living, but without the possibility of renewal. When this happens, we are bound to make more mistakes than when we were not aware. Because awareness yields self-confidence, which betrays us, and we make one mistake after another. Then one day we realize: all that was good and brought us joy in this universe ruled over and controlled by us has been lost.”
He paced up and down the room, the effect of his adrenaline rush receding only moments later. His friend, sipping his whiskey, waited for the moment to speak. He was hoping that after the intense state has abated his protégé wouldn’t have any more wind left to blow. The meager, simple boy who he had known had just transformed into a raving, fuming demon from the deepest recesses of his memories. He did not realize there was so much power hiding behind the innocent face, buried in the fragile body. He imagined what would have happened if the boy had released the fire gradually and expended the energy of his suppressed anger on the advancement of his soul and knowledge: this conversation would sound much different now. He shook his head and if unable to accept what he had heard.
“But how can someone or something exist when they die?”
“Death is an existence itself. Because if I can die, only I can give rise to my death.”
“How? Neither disease nor physical harm can lead to death here.”
“By my own will,” Aryar rapped on his skull with a stiff finger.
The index finger pointing at the space between the bulging eyes only occasioned a wry expression on Zorar’s face. Insane, he thought as he watched a new spasm slowly building and gripping the boy. He put in a swift question to arrest Ayrar, who was working himself up again.
“And how do we start existing?”
“By making ourselves permanent in the current of space and time. We will be there in all the small particles which yield the continually regenerating forms of the universe.”
“How can we achieve that?”
The man drank down the rest of the whiskey. He pressed the button laid in the glass surface of the table and repeated his order. For a brief moment he thought he would order something strong for Aryar, too, but finally he thought better of it. He couldn’t be sure of the reaction.
The fragile boy was standing before him motionless. He waited for something to happen, but his protégé remained that way. The door opened. The waiter passed Aryar and not even looking at him he put the glass on the table. Zorar wanted to apologize for the crack so that the person bringing the drink would not notice it himself, but when he turned to speak his eyes were fixed on the waiter, who in leaving passed through the body of the unmoving Aryar. The door closed.
“I don’t get it,” he said incredulously. He was looking forward to the formerly raging boy’s reply.
“The waiter didn’t sense me because for him I don’t exist anymore. He saw me for the first time in his life, thus it wasn’t difficult to clear all the impressions of me in him without a trace. Later, with more practice, I will be able to delete myself from all living things and never again come into existence here, because I will be in everything that exists. I will not become a part of consciousness, and they won’t be aware of my existence either. They will only be aware of their own existence.
Since the time at the canteen only now did any calm spread over the boy’s face. All fear and trembling were let off through the wide pores. Aryar took the whiskey from the table and he gulped it down grinning. His childlike innocence fell away, and there was a mature man standing in front of Zorar. He felt the truth of the boy’s words, but either because of the drinks or the overflowing new experience he had lost his control over reality.
He looked at the empty glass. He raised it to his nose and smelled the unmatched aroma of the thousand-year-old spirit produced from carefully ripened grain. He put it down on the immaculate glass of the table. He didn’t remember drinking the whiskey, and so he repeatedly placed his order.
The waiter brought the drink on the rocks soon enough.
“One moment please,” Zorar called after the man.
The waiter, waited for him to continue with a quizzical look on his face.
“Could you tell me how long I have been here and with whom?”
“You arrived about ten minutes ago, alone.”
He sat back as if in a haze. He couldn’t remember going out into the night alone, ever. He decided to drink this glassful and find the others.
Pest, Hungary, 2068
I entered the coffee house. Inside a thin cloud of smoke separated the tables from the textile-shade lamps hanging from above. A hand was extended towards me. I got out of my coat, handed it over, as well as my hat and scarf. Just then I heard Beautiful Tango being sung by the day’s hologuest of honor, Hindi Zahra.
The arriving waitress in her black sequin dress, slit up to her mid-thigh, easily blended into the gloom dominating the room. She showed me to my place.
I sat down at the table and I picked up the tablet lying there. I swiped my finger across it. That was enough for identification and I was taken to my editor’s account. I produced the imagireader from my inner jacket pocket and attached the cable to the designated data connector. The imagireader was the last remaining device that needed a direct connection between machines, everything else was wireless. I stuck the sensors to my forehead and leaned back comfortably in the chair. The first pages of my novel’s latest chapters immediately snapped into visibility from the editor’s database. Instantly the automated process peppered the quickly lengthening story with notes and ideas for revision. By the time I got to the end, the pint of cold ale had been waiting on the table.
I opened my eyes and reached for the drink. I took a deep draught of the foaming, cold ale. This was exactly what I liked about the place: they went out of their way to help writers perform to the best of their abilities. They provided access to the electronic publishing page and supplied refreshing beverages after every finished chapter, all free of charge. The only price fledgling writers had to pay for this little extra was to publish their writings through them. These incentives, however, were already superfluous, because the promise of immediate publication was the utmost desire of every storyteller, even if it didn’t offer the archaic printed form. All would-be writers joining e-PUB trusted their own genius and that the easy form of publication would pave the way to world fame.
The electrodes along my forehead started shaking softly. I looked at the tablet. A warning message lit up on the screen telling me I was being distracted and should be working on my novel. There goes my next free beer, I thought.
I waved. Although in the gloom I could not see any waitresses looking for orders, I knew they had seen my hand. While I was waiting for the drink, I pensively peered at nothing in particular, pondering the next chapter. In my mind I traced the main plot lines, but I shouldn’t have. I became a bit hesitant about the chapter: would it serve its purpose in the manuscript? The e-PUB editor app highlighted a plethora of errors concerning grammar, style, plot or feeding information to readers, yet it was not able to conduct any corrections more complex than that. I leaned back in the comfortable gamer chair and folded my hands under my head. If I had smoked, this would have been the perfect moment to light a Gitanes.
The bland play of thoughts running around in my brain was cut in half by the soft clink of the jug placed on my table. I inadvertently smiled seeing the waitress’ shy face. If I complained about her clumsiness, with which she had interrupted my creative activity, she would quickly find herself without a job. Of course, my day wouldn’t get any better; hers, however, would definitely get much worse. Such an expression of power over others was not my cup of tea, which is why a lot of people considered me weak or strange. That was also why I was never invited to secret authors’ parties.
The waitress was still standing there. I smiled and dismissed her with a flick of the wrist. I didn’t hear the relieved sigh, I only saw her relaxing body after anxiety had slipped off her heart with a loud thump like a great stone.
The noise retriggered the movie in my head. The app started beeping and signaling that I was supposed to be working on something else, but I didn’t care. I lay aside the novel, and the scenes of my new short story came alive. After the first passage the title appeared on the periphery of my inner world: Land of Imagination. The pages started filling up, and after getting halfway the editor stopped rattling and went on doing its routine task, so I could go on creating in total immersion at last.
I was just cleaning up the final lines of the story, where a sage says to the main character, who has reached the confines of their real world and is preparing to enter a writer’s mind, “Entry is free of charge, but you never know if you can leave here.”
I reviewed the editor’s suggestions with a laugh—the app was unable to break out of the preprogrammed templates—and ignored most of them. Instead I sent the story to a dear friend. I trusted his judgment better. Usually without cutting the story or changing the writer’s style, he produced an end result, which was a more refined version of the original. This one ultimately didn’t reach the standard of stories ready for printing, but for the few readers who regularly followed my publications it offered some happy diversion.
Satisfied, I took my eyes off the table. On the platform they called a stage Hindi Zahra was singing At the Same Time in her hypnotic voice.
I slowly reached towards my temples, but before I had time to disconnect, a message appeared on the screen. What do you want to do with your imagiwork? Save – discard – save and publish. I chose the last option. The electrodes stuck to my skin and would not easily let go. I wrapped the wire around my fingers, and put the small bundle back into my inner pocket. I logged out of the system—Hindi began to sing another song: Stand Up—I got up, and started for the door. There I let the android help me with my coat. Taking my hat and scarf, too, I stepped out into the street.
While I had been inside, the weather generator had run the summer rain program scheduled for the day. Several androids were hurrying toward their unknown destinations: work, home, to do some shopping, or have fun.
I breathed in the wet and warm air deeply. The buzz in my skull caused by the past three hours of writing started to abate. A few more deep breaths, and I departed for home with a clear head. The artificial humans around me evaded me respectfully as soon as they had realized where I had been. However small my fame—my face wasn’t known—they were instinctively awed by the fact that I was one of the living people who created dreams for their superintelligent AIs for the regeneration cycle.
Instinct was still a strange word to describe them. The artificial humans created from a mélange of different polymers, metal alloys, and organic materials had some primitive instinct which even the engineers and scientists who had designed them could not explain. These instincts in turn had to be mitigated by imaginary worlds created by a handful of remaining human writers. Artificial humans experienced these as dreams. In this way, they never raised questions superficial and uncomfortable to humans like who are we? what is the reason for our existence? and what if we become unsuitable for repair?
Due to efficient energy management efforts androids, who consumed normal food, had to rest. Just like people, who they were modeled upon.
Initially, their budding reason had led to a great number of problems, until the establishment had realized so and implemented an age-old plan: they exchanged the random and rambling ideas for experiences. Arts in their prime—literature, cinema, TV shows—bombarded the awakening AIs of the androids with strong impulses and distracted their thoughts with endless cycles of tasks in the places of entertainment specially designed for them. Of the arts the most prominent were the Dream Works set up by human writers, operating in specialized coffee houses. Stories cranked out by the dozens quieted the androids’ storming instincts, and their AIs performed their infinite task cycles in complete satisfaction.
This is the fan the shit normally hits when I don’t follow preformulated design. When I lead the thoughts of artificial humans in a direction where they may find answers to their questions. Reaching the underground station on Kossuth Square I was still pondering this, when an android stepped up to me, a young model, a genuine archaic punk barely seventeen years of age. He belonged to a group that had been revolting against widely accepted norms and, following the instructions of their more developed AIs, continuously on the lookout for opportunities to break out of the ordinary and end the infinite rat race. He lifted his arm noiselessly thanks to second-generation servo mechanisms, an impulse gun in his grip. He pressed it against my temple.
“The time has come, mongrel. My Kingdom Come,” he quoted the title of one of my novels grinning, one which I wrote about the triumph of free will. The weapon buzzed to life, then with a sharp flash it let go of its accumulated energy. The Genie is Out of the Bottle, I remembered the title of another novel of mine, where the oppressed masses find self-consciousness.
A loud bang, then the punk’s shriek of laughter. He and his buddies ran past me, before some vigilant cops could arrive and send them to a reinstallation center for carrying forbidden firearms. It would have suited them well, too, since they displayed a conduct largely deviating from the programmed norms.
Relieved, I looked up at the Buda towers. The three buildings rose from the ground a kilometer high and shouted the conquest of nature-copying technologies at the clouds, which billowed around the structures covered in sun panels and sun collectors. The churning, humid whipped cream condensed at one o’clock every day to cool the overheated asphalt, assisting cool air to enter the building’s vents at ground level, which, after finishing its several kilometers of journey, rising upwards and slowly heating up in the winding air shafts, in their course powering the intermittent wind turbines and assisting hot water supply, would finally shoot out through the roof. The termite structures rising above the hills looked out on the plains of Pest just across the Danube like sentinels, bringing an awareness of inferiority and infinite suffering to the people living in the jungle of ruined buildings of the Gehenna. Further away in the distance, the faded walls preserved along the ridges and hilltops marked out the residential areas of the old suburbs like an ancient memento. Their place had long been taken by sparse woods and malformed scrub, in which a new kind of epidemic was spreading. Tumble-down, patched buildings were germinating everywhere, covering reawakened nature like toxic boils. Hoveltown was being constructed here, home to those who were fleeing the law.
On the left bank of the Danube, above the once bustling city, a permanent gray fog closed off sunlight from people in the streets, and a thick slime was continuously pouring down the decrepit walls of buildings. The vapor ate into the houses at an easy pace, consuming them as well as human bodies. Wherever it worked its way in, it started its process of destruction, slowly digesting anything in its way like a gourmet enjoying the taste of the food in their mouth before swallowing it. The process was more observable on buildings and objects than on people. Live tissue did not show the traces of the change for a long time, which remained hidden from all medical apparatus until the time the heart infused with poison stopped beating. All tests proved the same: the bones had disappeared, together with the network of veins. As if the toxin had been gathering its strength to snuff out the spark of life in a fast, final attack when the victory was certain.
Despite all the hardships and misery several people stayed in Pest to meet the governmental requirement. Their monotonous lives amounted to ceaseless toil in the nearby factories so that they could get their meager pay with which to pay for the food rations reduced to a minimum and to power their homes. They weren’t at all different from the androids manufactured to substitute them, the production of which they diligently assisted. In the streets of the workers’ quarter you could see less and less flesh-and-bone people year by year, their places taken by artificial humans with new generations of AI. Their life patterns, though, were identical to the people who had made them.
I diverted my eye from the towers and descended the stairs leading to the underground station. The train hovered in soundlessly.
I glanced at my left wrist. The analog watch on my skin lit up and gave me the time in a vivid orange color. I preferred it to the kind projected onto the retina; I was afraid that with unwanted images in my field of sight I couldn’t see my environment properly.
Rolling with the crowd I drifted into the carriage. There were no seats left, so I leaned against a door. I skimmed through the e-paper of the passenger next to me.
There had been recent outbreaks of violence in remote areas of the world, while the great powers were making new agreements to recover the economy. Murders, assassinations, and disasters, as if day after day had been the same, albeit with different stage sets.
The world was changing much too slowly owing to old customs, which were difficult to shrug off. Apart from the energy crisis, the shortage of daily amounts of food and drinking water had become a serious problem in many parts of the world, just like here. The gradually collapsing global climate had caused provisioning difficulties sooner than scientists expected. The human factor is always an ever-changing item in such equations, and it does not always comply with rules set up by researchers. Mathematical models had all failed in this respect.
Rations, water quotas, recycling. The measures had to be taken by leaps and bounds, and the necessary industrial environment had to be developed and manufactured. This was only hindered by the worldwide war that had broken out in the early twenty-first century and, of course, the lack of money. Countries that were denied industrial prowess and capital quickly sank to the standard of third-world countries, desperately holding on to their traditional ways of living. I didn’t understand this clinging, as it drew away more resources than those needed for mitigation.
Due to the changes, two thirds of the country’s people were starving, had no water, and sometimes had to do without energy. There was enough energy available, of course, but not everyone got an equal share of it. The government divided the entire country into energetic sectors, and power, food, and drinking water were all accessible in accordance with the value of work performed for the community. As a white-collar author I lived in one of the prioritized buildings in Buda, even though until my graduation I had been living in Pest with my parents, in the outskirts.
The engineers performing the maintenance of the energetic systems also lived in important cities. Society could not go without their professional skills. When on rare occasions they were commissioned to do jobs out of town, they had to put up with attacks by uptowners. Despite the governmental police patrols, the desperate masses assaulted anyone coming from high-priority, strategically important towns. The bourgeoisie amounted to a mere three million humans of the country’s twelve million citizens. The remaining nine million humans and androids were viewed by the government as a necessary evil, producing food and manufacturing equipment designed by engineers. That is, they toiled from dawn till dusk so that at the end of the day they would go to bed with the calming thought that even though they were being used as boot-wipe they at least had a job. As long as they had that, they also had something to eat, had somewhere to live, and had something to heat their abode with throughout the short but freezing winters. So this is where we were in 2068.
I got off at Batthyány Square. The system at the exit points checked people entering building II. Only those with the tower designated as a place of residence, work, or dinner party destination in their PID chip were let through. In all other cases the access control doors remained shut, and the system intervened. This usually happened when an android claimed to be lost. They were forbidden to enter places inhabited by civilians, and the government took this so seriously that ultimately only humans could acquire jobs in Buda.
I went to the elevator. The elevators always carried greater crowds down than up. Only people working there were allowed to access the upper stories, and sometimes the residents’ loafing kids, who had visited places of entertainment on the lower floors for a little excitement. But we were all created equal up to floor twenty-three, thanks to efficient energy management.
When I reached my door the security system sensed the signal sent by my PID chip, and I only had to place my hand on the handle to open the door easily. Inside there was nobody waiting for me. I took a can of beer with my name on it from the fridge. The sensor built into the beer can also controlled my daily ration according to the PID. Since drinks on the house consumed in the e-PUB did not count, the system allowed me to consume my second portion for the day and unlocked the pull tab.
I heavily sat down on my bed. Sipping the cool drink I relaxed, and my breathing became calmer and calmer. Finally my ringing phone pulled me back from the verge of dreams.
Alarmed I sat up and spilled half of the beer on my shirt. I looked at the tabletop: it was my publisher.
“Hello,” Sound control had taken the call.
“Hello, Zolthan. How’s it hanging?”
The table screen displayed the youthful face of my agent. In the background I could see the walls of his office and a little slice of the world outside his window. He had a real panorama, like everyone above the two hundredth floor.
“Thanks, Ferkó, it’s hanging alright,” I replied.
“I saw your text today. It’s not bad, but you should be working on the novel, shouldn’t you?”
“Sure, sure. It’s just that the voices inside somehow don’t want to do small talk.”
“Writer’s block, huh?”
“No, not at all. It’s just that now… How shall I put it?”
“Please don’t give me your excuses. Anyway this is not why I called.”
He stopped for a short pause. Perhaps he waited for me to gather interest in the reason why he called me. His grin spread from ear to ear. As he started, I took a long pull on the beer.
“The management offered you a sabbatical.”
There was another pause, and another gulp. This one was not so long as before, and I put the empty can on Ferkó’s head.
“Hey, that’s not nice!” he protested. “The bringer of good news is never assaulted!”
“Good news?” I raised my brows.
“Yes, Zolthan. One month in fabulous Kecskemét, more specifically at the Turquoise Hotel.”
I pulled the can away. I wanted to see whether he was playing games with me or talking seriously. Yep, the same old self-complacent grin. He was being serious. I let out a big sigh and leaned back.
Two beeps signaled the receipt of data packages. Ferkó didn’t wait for my reply, he sent the permission codes of the trip to my OS. I leaned back towards the screen and held my wrist above the table. The system automatically compared my PID particulars, and the dates blinked up.
Train departs at 6:30; arrival is at 6:58. A suite on the three-hundred-and-twenty-first floor. If this hadn’t been enough, on top of all I got a VIP suite. This meant that I had time to work on my writing, and if I was hungry or thirsty I would just stand outside the door and could be sure that whatever I needed was waiting there for me.
“Only a suite?” I asked.
“Don’t push your luck, Zolthan!” he laughed. “You’re going on a sabbatical, not a casino tour.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of girls.” I picked up a new packet of snacks.
“Whatever you do for recreation is your business. We are only interested in having the novel ready when you leave the place,” he said still grinning, then he hung up.
Next morning, after some hasty dressing—pulling on my jeans, T-shirt, and leather jacket—I set off running to get to the elevators. I still had two minutes until the next one would arrive, heading downstairs, when I realized I had forgotten my typewriter. I was off again. Never had I made the distance so quickly. When I got back, huffing, I gave thanks for the fact that so few people were leaving their home at this early hour. I fished in my inner pocket for my sunglasses, put them on, and stepped inside the elevator.
I took the underground to the Southern Station. Those that had the code necessary for the trip and those that would still request it had separate gates to go through. There were long lines of people waiting for the code generating automata. Nervous citizens were standing and fidgeting, hoping they would get a seat that day.
Cars had become luxury articles due to the environmental tax levied on them despite the fuel cells, and thus the populace were forced to use public transport. The solar-generator railroad system crisscrossing the country made redundant all other alternatives. No coaches traveled any longer, and other vehicles—motorbikes and bicycles, for instance—could not carry enough people.
As I was passing through the gate, a personal escort showed me to my train, which was called Swallow. She pointed out my business-class seat. It was a comfortable little booth, with a lockable door, a bed, a chair and table, ComTV, a shower and restroom.
I took a good look around, which my escort misunderstood. She started apologizing that due to the short deadline they could not provide a compartment with an own food and drinks vending machine. I thanked her for her help and asked the directions to the buffet car. She gave them and I said goodbye.
In the two minutes until departure I made myself comfortable. I closed my eyes and waited for the carriage to start moving.
I don’t know how long I was sitting like that. I only noticed that the light was changing. Only then did I realize that there was a real window in my compartment and not a solar panel which they usually projected the image of the scenery on. I opened my eyes, and looked through the glass. We had left the station. I glanced at my watch. Six thirty-three.
“Well, time to get breakfast.”
I got up and took a good look at myself in the mirror. Jacket, sunglasses, jeans, all set. I tousled my hair. I almost managed to make a hairdo out of the unkempt haystack.
I stepped out of the booth, walked past two other compartments in the same carriage, and entered the dining car through the door at the end. The tables were on one side only, of exactly the same number as there were compartments on the train. Most of them were empty. One table had two people having a chat, while the rest of the passengers in the car were talking on their headphones. In the farthest corner of the dining car a white-haired gentleman was reading the e-paper, right next to my table.
Waiters moved up and down the tables and took the orders. The quota devices integrated in their trays assessed the orders, then approved the quantity and composition of the food to have. The chips only allowed portions strictly adjusted to the daily rations.
When I passed the tables unbelieving eyes peered at me, including the waiters’. Only a woman’s face was different: it reflected some interest without disdain. I sat down at my table facing the woman.
The waiter came up to me, and his bouncing facial muscles revealed that he was considering me a hobo or a freeloader. The first time in my life, a grin not unlike Ferkó’s spread across my face.
Yes, I thought to myself, now I am travelling business class, too.
I lifted my PID to his tray, verifying the lawfulness of my stay.
He took my order, which, due to the nutrient-rich but calorie-free base materials produced for the rich, became rather substantial. His facial expressions and patronizing look revealed that he was a human. Artificial humans were constructed to be fully able to control their features. This was the only thing left to distinguish them by.
Intoxicated with victory, I looked around. While waiting for my meal, I noticed the woman glancing at me several times. She did not see me looking at her; my poker face didn’t give me away. She was finishing her meal when I caught a faint smile, followed by a quick dropping of the eyes. I returned the smile, then silently toasted her with my empty water glass. She nodded slightly.
I stood—several passengers grunted loudly, expressing their distaste—and I walked up to her.
“Excuse me, would you mind perfecting my illusion?”
She frowned, and the lines running along her brow deepened. She swallowed the rest of her donut and wanted to speak, but I intervened:
“The illusion that I’m having breakfast in company. In the company of a lady, to be precise.”
The woman finally got over her shock, and seized the initiative.
“On a train?”
I waited for her to continue or ask another question, but she only reached for her glass, so I went on.
“I have not really left home in the past few years. Now I am heading to Kecskemét for a business meeting, and my therapist suggested I should speak to strangers, say something personal about myself. He encouraged me making contact.” I watched her at length, silently imploring her to interrupt me. I didn’t receive the grace. “And since I saw you dining alone, and apparently you were not waiting for anyone, I took the liberty to disturb.”
“What if you simply had a meal?” she pointed to the waiter confused and looking for me, who finally took notice of me and brought the breakfast I had ordered.
I didn’t feel hurt at the woman’s cold words. With deliberate movements I reached for the cabbage strudel as carefully as I could so as not to get my fingers greasy.
The woman quietly watched me down the three-course breakfast.
I was towards the end of my meal when the waiter came up to the table.
“Coffee?” he asked us.
“Yes, please. With sugar,” I said.
“One for me too, with sugar,” the woman joined in.
Before the waiter poured the drinks, he took a good look at the scraps on the plates, then queried our daily quota through his implant. Since I had consumed enough sugary food, I got my coffee without any sugar.
“Has anyone ever cheated the system?” I asked with a wry smile after the first gulp.
“No, sir,” the waiter replied drily. “Personalized quotas are recorded in the system by the chip in the plate, and as soon as anyone else touches the food, it sends a warning signal to the Health Center, where the person’s file is collated with the type of food they have had, the diseases that can cause, and accordingly all health damages under the given diseases are ruled out from the scope of state-financed health care.
“Wow! That is really something! No blood lipids, high cholesterol levels, excess weight,” I said as if intoning some voodoo spell, and to reinforce it I wiggled the fingers of my raised hand.
The waiter didn’t say anything, just left with a bored face. The woman was watching the smudged scenery outside and conspicuously avoided further conversation, visibly struggling to find a way to get rid of me.
“Sorry for the mumbo jumbo so far. In reality I am a writer.”
“Are you now?” the woman replied coldly.
“Yes, and I think I have finally managed to register now. With my new novel,” I clarified, seeing the questioning look. “I earned a vacation in the Turquoise.”
She was not impressed. By sitting here I went too far. She sternly said goodbye and left. Watching her retreating figure I wondered why she had stayed so long.
I sipped my cooling coffee and contemplated the world outside. There was desert everywhere I looked. The plains, where wheat fields would turn golden every summer, had given way to the similarly golden sea of sand, which simply laughed at the locust groves planted to tame it. The slowly crawling silicon ocean had wedged into the country’s body and had torn it into three like the Ottoman Empire had done in the sixteenth century. The sizzling summers in between the warm springs and falls had sucked the land dry. The rivers had dried out or had been exploited by countries in whose territories they took their source, and the intensive extraction of groundwater had speeded up the process. There was nothing left to irrigate the lands. Weather generators had proved useless in the open country; in towns it was only possible to make some rain because the air escaping the houses was full of the excretions of people and factories.
Near Kecskemét the two riverbeds were only a faint reminder of the water that used to flow there half a century ago. In the past few decades the agricultural town had been wholly transformed into a Hungarian Las Vegas of sorts. The nearly two-kilometer-high termite hills closely embraced an oasis thickly planted with date palms. The greatest ornament of the couple of square kilometers’ area was the ten-meter-deep, one-hundred-meter-wide freshwater lake.
This turquoise gem wedged among the six gigantic buildings were not available to just anybody. Of the VIP guests, only the most prominent were allowed to set foot in this tiny Garden of Eden.
But even fewer people could enter the mosque a few kilometers from the town, the most important center of European Muslims, which was a high priority site not only because of the imam, but also because of the library hidden beneath the building. Few people knew about it, even among the most fanatic defenders the faith. I, being one of them, knew because Lars Bjørgson, the leader of the Northern European Islamic community was an old friend of my father’s, and he helped me get in when I was researching my historical novel.
As the train was approaching the station, the speedometer read 100 km/h, and the temperature outside had apparently reached 51.1 degrees centigrade. The train stopped at the AC-fitted platform. Here, just like in Buda, business-class passengers were led by an escort to the entrance of the hotel. There the personnel waiting for us took everyone to the receptions of their appropriate accommodation in small electric passenger vehicles—the spitting images of golf carts from the old times. This was the last time I saw the woman. When she caught me watching her, she turned her head away.
A few hours later I was standing in the window of a room on floor three hundred and twenty-one, sipping my beer, and watching the lake below. An uncomfortable thought somehow wiggled itself into my head: it’s time I finally wrote something.