© Author Leonid Kaganov, original russian text here, 2002
© Translated by Mikhail Bronstein, 2011
Some ants scurry around a tabletop. We cover them with a sheet of glass, taking care not to crush them. The ants stay put; only their legs are stirring. Lift the glass and they will continue on their way. Now imagine elementary particles in place of ants, and XXHF-field in place of glass...
At this point Professor’s feeble old hand would pat her plywood casing. She was a beauty all right, this marvel of engineering. She resembled a large freezer. And what a variety of junk went into this contraption—my God! Had Professor lived, say, in Chicago... But perhaps a higher justice was at work. How else do you explain the fact that the arresting effect of the XXHF-field was discovered here in Novosibirsk, with crooked titanium electrodes, in the dilapidated building of the Institute, its electric bill unpaid and the utility company constantly threatening to cut off the power? Professor would toss a potato into the chamber, hitting the red button at the same time, and the air inside would freeze into a solid glossy cylinder. The contraption buzzed. Then he would press the blue button. The potato reappeared, suspended in the air, and would then thud onto the scraps of cardboard covering the bottom.
Then we put Fluffy inside. We dared not demonstrate the machine on people—yet. Fluffy sat there stolidly, licking his forepaws. He was more than familiar with the clicking of buttons.
“The peak load is when you turn it on,” Professor explained to some inspecting officials. “The second peak is when you switch off the field. While the field is on, the unit draws very little power. The particles do move inside but billions times slower than usual. Should the machine lose power while the field is on, the contents will remain petrified forever, and we don’t know how to undo that effect.”
“That’s clear,” the official nodded. “But even the aircraft-building plant doesn’t consume this much power. Who’s going to pay the bill?”
Professor showed them our collection in the basement. It was piled high with glossy cylinders. Some were almost weightless, but one, the one with a power cord coming out of it, weighed fifteen pounds. A CRT display was stuck inside—a good one, made in Japan. I can’t remember what we had been working on then, but that was the first time they had cut power in broad daylight. I remember Professor had said, “Never mind, Tony, it’s just a monitor, not Fluffy. Or a human...”
So when, instead of our lab room, I saw a huge hall and a crowd wearing white smocks, my first thought was, “How much time has passed?” I didn’t know for certain but my gut answered, “A lot.” The second thought was, “I’m OK, but how did Professor and our guys feel? And my mother?” My third thought was interrupted. They neatly took me by the arms and pushed me into a small room. A girl was sitting inside.
“Hi, my name is Maria,” she said and nodded in the direction of an empty chair. “Take a deep breath! Look around and feel the freedom. You’re totally safe.”
“Hi, I’m Tony.” I sat down.
“I know,” she said simply. “We worked many years to decollapse you. You come from the twenty-first century, and now it is the thirty-second. It is a severe shock, I know, and my job is to help you. I’m a psychologist.”
“Oh...” That was all I could manage.
“Everyone you knew is gone.” She was reading my mind. “Later you can review the biographies of your family and friends. But you need to start your life over, and I’m here to help.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I’m not going to get hysterical or suicidal.”
Maria nodded her approval. “First of all,” she said, “you need to choose your Standard Configuration. Normally, a child will choose one on the day of maturity. Your case is unique. But President is offering you the opportunity to pick your Standard Configuration like everybody else so that you can become a full-fledged citizen.”
“A Standard Life Configuration is one’s lifestyle. It’s order and schedule. It’s access rights. Didn’t you have such a thing as a proof of identity in your time?”
“Yes, of course...” Mechanically, I reached into the rear pocket of my jeans.
“Don’t!” Maria waved it off. “The Standard Configuration is our proof of identity. It is a person’s record in President’s United Database. It is one’s ID card, and transportation pass, and financial credit. You can’t do a thing without it, not even a single port will open before you.”
“You called that a door in your time, didn’t you?”
“Doors won’t let me through?”
“No, for the time being they won’t. You can’t even exit my office on your own. Because it wouldn’t recognize your identity, the door would not know whether you have exit rights.”
“What should I do then?”
“Pick your Standard Configuration.” Maria smiled. “I’ll help you.”
She waved a hand. The opposite wall lit up and displayed a few dozen of cartoons: a couple in a flowering orchard; a smiling man with outstretched arms in a whirlwind of colorful blurs; a skier against a mountain backdrop... There was quite a variety.
“President is prepared to offer you thirty-three possible Standard Configurations for your life!” Maria announced with a solemn air. “I’m going to tell you about each one. Here is the Alpha.” She pointed to the couple in the orchard. “Quiet family life in a suburban cottage. Nature walks, parties with friends, and gardening are all provided to take up the leisure time.”
“Yes, I like digging in the garden. Back at the summerhouse—”
“By the way, what kind of occupation would you like? That is, if you prefer to work at all?”
“Well...” (I almost said, ‘In my past life.’) “I was in field theory. Worked on my MS. But I’m sure your physics has made such a leap that I’d rather...”
“Work in theoretic science is compatible with Configuration Alpha. Also, the basic package does include a wife. A modest and thrifty one.”
“A live one?” I asked cautiously.
“Why, certainly!” Maria looked surprised. “The wife also belongs to Standard Configuration Alpha. She is selected for you automatically, in accordance with the common traits the both of you share.”
“What?” Now it was me who was surprised. “Somebody picks a wife for me?”
“You’re not an expert in family psychology, are you? So how could you possibly choose a wife on your own?”
“In my time, people chose their spouses themselves.”
“And what good came of that?” Maria paused meaningfully. “In ancient times, people used to cook their own food, sew their own clothes, rear their own children. All by themselves, unprofessionally. Then came the division between professionals and users. From what I know of your time, even in your century some professionals built houses, others created machines, still others raised children...”
“We raised our children ourselves.”
“Are you sure you’re not mistaken? Didn’t you have such a profession as teacher?”
I couldn’t find an answer to that.
“You’re a physicist,” Maria continued, “an expert in your field, making you a professional in that world. In all other fields, you are a user. A physicist cannot make his own shoes and build his own home. You lack the time, knowledge, tools, and experience necessary for that. Moreover, a home and a pair of shoes are not sufficient for a quality life. One needs a cozy interior design, good family relations, comfortable daily schedule... in other words, one needs professional help.”
“Your daily schedule is also planned?”
“Certainly. We receive it every morning. There’s also an option to review it ahead of time and apply for changes.”
“So... I’m not allowed to plan my day myself?”
“Why would you need to? You can make a mistake, while a professional will do a quick and superior job of mapping out your day. But we are getting carried away. The next Configuration is Beta-Extreme,” she pointed at the skier. “It is the Standard Configuration for someone leading an active lifestyle. A number of hobbies are presumed: athletics, outdoors, gambling...”
“An athletic wife?” I tried to joke.
“The active lifestyle presumes frequent changes of partners. President will select suitable candidates from the United Database and work out the best possible relationship schedule for your whole life.”
“But if I want a garden and a wife?”
“Standard Configuration Alpha.”
“How about both?”
“We also have Epsilon-Plus. City life, dancing halls, rollerblading until thirty-seven. Followed by a successful career, a wife, a house, and three kids.”
“I don’t like Rollerblading. I like gardening and skiing!”
Maria sighed. “Tony, you need to make up your mind. The Standard Configuration is selected once and for all.”
“And I can’t change it?”
“Yes you can. We are a totally free society, so it is possible to change one’s Standard Configuration. But that would be a lot of hassle. You would need to obtain a medical certificate, one that states that your current Standard Configuration does not match your psychotype. You’d need consents from every single person—friends and family—whose lives are interconnected with yours. The process of change itself takes from six to ten years. It is a stressful, traumatic experience, to be employed as a last resort only. Rushing between different Configurations would make nobody happy, not you, not our society, not our President.
“But why the hell can’t gardener go alpine skiing?”
“A Standard Configuration like that, with such combination of activities, is not specified.” Maria shrugged. “You can contact the designers with your suggestion.”
“But I love mountains!”
“For an Alpha, traveling to mountain and marine regions is not part of the package at all. Each Configuration has its own access rights for moving, socializing, nutrition—”
“But that’s wrong!”
“Tony,” she said with reproach, “why are you criticizing? After all, you’re free to become a professional designer of Standard Configurations if that’s what you want. You can design a new one and have it approved by the Council of Professionals and President.”
“How long does it take?”
“The design of a new Standard Configuration is the work of millions of psychologists who take hundreds of years to complete the project. All elements get optimized on electronic models, then it is tested on volunteers, and only after that is the Configuration launched into production.”
“Why is that? I don’t understand...”
“I’ll try to explain.” She sighed again. “Imagine that you need to get from point A to point B out in the country, OK?”
“You don’t know your way. You don’t know what you would need out there. Now, there’s a special... woodsman? land expert—?”
“A country landscape professional. He has devoted his life to studying various ways from A to B and has come up with thirty-three optimized standard routes. He offers them to the users. One route crosses a river, so you’re supplied with a boat. There’s a route over a swamp, and the basic set of equipment includes waders. The route over a mountain comes with climbing gear and companions. Naturally, the climber is not allowed to access the swamp—for his own safety.”
“What if I like to break my own trail?”
“Then you should become a professional woodsman and study this problem.”
“But why can’t I just go over the swamp without any advice?”
“That’s absurd. You’d drown.”
“But that’s my private business!”
“On this one you’re wrong, Tony. It’s everybody’s business. A society cannot allow its members to drown in a swamp. Moreover, spontaneous life outside of Standard Configurations, or even just deviations from the daily schedule, constitute a threat to one’s associates.”
“Tony,” Maria said gently, “if I’m not mistaken, in your time you had some speedy gasoline-powered vehicles and a sophisticated traffic system, did you not? Now imagine a savage on horseback who has arrived from the past and was about to gallop on your freeways to wherever he pleases.”
“What does that have to do with—?”
“Same thing,” she said firmly. “When the rules of Standard Configuration are violated, it creates hazards for others. Any extraordinary situation such as unplanned actions, movements, or personal contacts will mess up the schedules of others and ultimately the whole system. It conflicts with the ideology of President, our society, and—”
“All right!” Finally, it dawned on me. “Ideology of President! And who is our President these days? Who is that person?”
“A person?” She was genuinely surprised. “Oh, sorry, you’re not aware... Back in 2041, an electronic mind created by Microsoft Corporation was elected President of the planet and all IT resources. Under its guidance, life has become stable and happy. Aided by the United Database of objects, subjects, and events, it has been prudently and reliably directing all world processes for over a thousand years.”
The word ouch escaped me. “All…world…processes?”
“Literally so. From every single payroll to every single HVAC. And so... would you like to talk to President?”
“Anyone may have an appointment with President. A teleport will instantly transfer you into the virtual meeting-room subspace.”
She waved a hand, and the wall with cartoons vanished. Beyond it was a small, empty, brightly lit room.
“Here you go,” Maria said. “When your conversation is over, please ask to be returned to Room 415, xenopsychologist Maria Parasuk. I’ll be waiting! Don’t forget: 415, Maria Parasuk.”
I stepped into the other room, and the wall silently closed behind me. I was alone. It felt somewhat eerie. “Hey, Maria!” I said.
“PRESIDENT IS LISTENING TO YOU!” The sound suddenly boomed from all directions. Then immediately, the voice added, “YOUR IDENTITY IS NOT RECOGNIZED! PLEASE EXIT THE ROOM AND ENTER AGAIN!”
I patted the wall, but it was not responding. “Room 415, Maria Parasuk?” I said.
“PRESIDENT IS LISTENING TO YOU!” the roar came again. “YOUR IDENTITY IS NOT RECOGNIZED! PLEASE EXIT THE ROOM AND ENTER AGAIN!”
I broke out in a cold sweat. “I HAVEN’T BEEN ASSIGNED A STANDARD CONFIGURATION YET!” I yelled in despair.
“PLEASE WAIT...” President answered in a surprised tone of voice. “CURRENTLY SCANNING THE DATABASE...”
It was silent for a long time. Finally, it announced: “PERSONAL RECORD IS NOT FOUND. CREATING A NEW PERSONAL RECORD. PLEASE TELL YOUR DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH.”
“Novosibirsk, March first, nineteen seventy-eight.”
“WHAT YEAR?” President sounded astonished.
It was silent again for what felt like ages.
“AN ERROR,” President said at last. “A NEGATIVE AGE HAS BEEN CALCULATED... UNITED DATABASE IS MISSING OR CORRUPTED... ATTEMPTING TO RESTORE UNITED DATABASE... UNITED DATABASE IS NOT FOUND... PROGRAM PRESIDENT HAS PERFORMED AN ILLEGAL...”
The light in the room slowly dimmed out.
© Autor Leonid Kaganov, original russian text here
© Translated by Mikhail Bronstein
© Leonid Kaganov: [email protected]
Official Site: http://lleo.aha.ru/e