©2006 Author Leonid Kaganov, original russian text here
©2007 Translated by Dmitri Fomin
Visit From Sirius
My comm rang at five in the morning and I didn't realize it was a phone call and then I couldn't find the communicator so the ringing went on and then stopped. Then I fell back into my deep dream but the comm came alive again just one minute later.
- Hrrr-allo! - I growled feeling my throat muscles bunching together and tying into knots.
- Alex! - the voice was familiar and the picture appeared almost immediately. - I am here, Alex! Imagine that! I just flew in!
- Jean? - with surprise I pulled up the sheets so as not to present my hairy chest to the communicator - Jeannie? Where are you?
- What do you mean, where? Near Moscow, in the galaport! Didn't you get my mentogramm?
- Of course not.
- Jeannie! You need a ride? - remains of the dream were gone by now, my brain finally kicked in and even the throat was working. - Let me think... If I raise the flyer and order galaport route, I will be there in just about an hour...
- No way! - she interrupted me. - No flyers! I can do it myself just fine. Is any transportation working here?
- Well, yeah... - I was taken aback. - Groundcars and flyers. As always.
- Is it safe to take a taxi at this hour?
- I don't know about taxi, they will probably charge you a fortune, but a regular aerobus shouldn't be any danger at all... why?
- But you have terrorists here, on Earth... - she audibly sighed.
- At this hour? They are all sleeping.
- When do they wake up? - she seemed absolutely serious, and without waiting for an answer, continued very businesslike. - Fine, I will try to get to your place myself. Same place in the boonies, right?
- Why boonies? The third ring is like twenty minutes from the downtown.
- And the same tiny apartment? Ok, get ready, I am coming... - she flashed a blinding smile and the screen went dark.
I jumped up, quickly washed myself up and ran to my local market to do some necessary shopping.
* * *
When the doorbell quacked and Jeannie's face appeared onscreen, I already had salads done and waiting; thermopress was quietly simmering with the meat and vegetable frosty inside. A few tulips were put in a vase - I managed to forget her tastes in flowers and bought them just in case.
- So, are you going to allow me inside? - she said in such a dry tone that I shivered.
- Of course, come in please...
Something hummed, and in crawled a standard Sirusian-issue track-bag followed by Jeannie. After six years she was almost the same - thin, with freckles around her turned-up nose, but the face was unexpectedly pale.
- Alex, this is just a nightmare - she started from the door, her voice trembling. - How can you live like that?
- What happened? - I was getting worried.
- Nothing special - she said, took off her shawl and tossed it back over her shoulder.
The shawl fell on the floor, buckles clanging, and Jeannie turned around startled by the sound.
- Oh - she said with disgust. - Your racks don't catch... how stupid of me to forget.
- But Jeannie, what happened? - I stepped closer.
- Oh nothing. Absolutely nothing. - she pressed her lips together and then suddenly blurted out. - First our cruiser lands on the orbital platform under those horrible counter-meteorite guns! I even thought the Earth was under martial law! Thought there might be a war going on! Thought that any second....
- Look but how could it be any different? That's for your own safety. You know, meteorites, so they...
- Safety? For my safety they lead Sirusian cruiser under the meteorite guns? And that super-long queue for the customs terminal, is that for my safety as well? Next to the police robots armed with blasters?
- Jeannie, but every transport station has its security... it's you they are protecting!
- What about all this pushy crowd in the boarding area? And this horrible lack of manners at the market?
- Manners? Market? You went...
- Yes, I went to the market to get some water! And got insulted right away!
- By whom?
- By a cleaning robot!
- What... but how... - I was getting confused.
- It said... it said... "if you are finished with your selection, please proceed to the checkout counter"! Can you imagine?
- Well, so what?
- So what? I am a citizen of Sirius, I am a higher primate! I carry a galaxy passport! How dare this mop-in-a-bucket to tell me what to do?
- Did you say that back to it?
- Naturally! Why is it its business whether I am done browsing or not? That's my private business!
- Come on, Jeannie, calm down...
- This is my right! I can hang out in that market till the stars die! And what is this command manner, the orders?
- Perhaps you were blocking its path and it needed to ride through?
- This is not my problem! It's a robot and I am a primate! What would happen to our civilization if every mop will tell you where to step? Where is the bathroom in this house, dammit?
- Same place as before... - I sighed, stepped back and pointed.
Jeannie disappeared behind the bathroom door, spent some time dealing with the latch, then started to splash in the water. Just once through the splashes I heard muffled exclamation of "and this is now called a bathroom?" I waited for her in the kitchen, quietly pulling soy sprouts out of the closest salad bowl.
When Jeannie came out she was visibly calmer and with some color on her cheeks. She entered the kitchen and sat herself down.
- I came for five days only - Jeannie said confidingly. - Nobody met me. Not you, not Lizzy, not Hans! Nobody from our college!
- Hans is in Greenland right now - I mumbled. - They are shooting right now. And Lizzy works a lot, she's now...
- Yes, I know, Hans wrote me - dismissed that Jeannie. - But general impression is setting in.
- Are you hungry? - I moved the salad bowl closer.
- You eat this? - Jeannie looked at the salad shavings with disgust.
- These are real vegetables - I explained. - And then we'll have some meat.
- Meat? From Earth animals? - she pursed her lips. - No, thank you.
I looked down. Jeannie fell silent and then encouragingly slapped me on the wrist.
- It's ok, really - she said in her regular voice. - But I brought you real yosso for a cocktail! You don't have that!
- Why not? - I turned to the fridge. - That's oxygen jello, right?
- No! - she shook her head. - that's Sirusian oxygen jello! You'll see the difference once you tasted it.
- Thanks - I said. - Well, let's not talk about food! How is your life there? How did you get here?
- I will tell you everything, no need to rush - Jeannie smiled. - what's with this terran hurry? On Sirius, we have this rule: once every six years the social hive gives a female a vasso to visit ... native bury-site?
- How do you call that? A family crypt with the honeycomb of the frozen remains of your ancestors...
- Cemetery, you mean?
- Yes, cemetery. And this is a sacred right of every citizen of Sirius, regardless of where the bury-site is located. So I got free round-trip tickets to Earth and back - can you imagine the amount of money? Half of my life earnings. So I am here!
- This is super! - I exclaimed. - I was missing you guys! Tell me what you do, how you live? What about Paul? You have kids already?
- Well... - Jeannie moved her salad with a fork, looking thoughtful. - We are still studying. So the dwelling and the food basket are paid for by the expat community fund. So we haven't got the children license yet, of course. This you have to earn.
- But you are not working?
- I just told you, we are studying.
- All six years?
- What did you think? - Jeannie raised her eyebrows. - Some take twenty years to finish their studies! In this place you do that primitively but there it's at the highest level, you know? High technology. Take just the language, that's such a powerful thing...
- You are fluent, right? - I inquired.
- Well... fluent is too general a term. To be completely fluent you have to be a Sirusian. You know that humans cannot master the magnetic or light modality, we lack the organs. So it's just the sound modality. At least, Sirusians understand me when I talk.
- And you them?
- Only in writing.
- I see. So... you are not working yet.
- No. But we have this daily labor load, we get credits for that. But this is not our specialty, not the work. This is.... how do I explain that... like a learning duty. This is called "social workload course". You come to your workplace and you work on your social workload.
- I am sorry...?
- Your workload. Some work. This is not so easy to explain. Sirusian technologies are too complicated and multi-purposed. Imagine that you have a wet cloth and you need to dust the bannisters and the windows...
- This is your workload? - I was stunned.
- No, no! - Jeannie stomped her feet, annoyed. - Don't interrupt! Just imagine it in your head, ok? Now imagine this has to be done not with dust but with information.
- How is that?
- I told you you wouldn't understand. There we don't have any dirty or manual labor as you are used to here, all that is done by robots. But there is a lot of things to do with infodata at the terminals. Wet cloth and windows is a very good analogy, they teach us that in the first adaptation course. After the course you start your studies. And to get a real job is really hard, you need to learn the language and the entire system of Taay.
- Eight thousand rules of Taay? I have read about that.
- Eight thousand three hundred and two. Not counting the combinations!
- So Paul doesn't work either? He's got a Master of Cyber-biology, after all...
- This means nothing on Sirius, all these terran degrees. They have entirely different cyberbiology. And Paul is a male. Sirusian laws dictate he should not work or leave the family dwelling.
- Ever? - I opened my mouth in amazement.
- Well, not literally. Of course, it's a civilized society, we leave the house quite often. We go to the terran diaspora club, to the concerts, to see friends, some trips. But walking in the streets by himself, especially without a female - that's not done.
- Why? - I still didn't understand. - He can get raped? Or jailed?
- Alex, you are a barbarian. I didn't say it's prohibited. I didn't say it's dangerous. I said it's not proper, it's not done.
- What is the difference?
- All the difference! Look, you can wrap yourself in gauze and run around downtown Moscow like a mummy, right? Nobody will jail you for that but everybody will look at you as if you were sick and they will step back, you understand?
- I do. - I agreed. My appetite for meat was gone by now.
- Oh, I almost forgot - started Jeannie. - I will show you something.
She went back to her bag, spend some time there and finally fished out a big old-fashioned looking compucase.
- I brought some pictures - she said, turning the case on. It was slowly warming up and the pictures were appearing gradually. First I saw something resembling Egyptian pyramid whose peak was going high into the clouds. Then it turned out that the pyramid consisted of many small squares and was surrounded by a colossal net of stairs.
- This is our house. - she said triumphantly and looked me in the face inquiringly.
- It's beautiful - I approved dutifully.
- You bet! - she smiled and pointed to the farther side of the pyramid. - These two combcells are ours.
- How they call it here... decks? Balconies? No, windows... or windo-balconies. Anyway, this is just the first one. Look...
Jeannie pressed the button and the picture changed to the one showing a room made of porous cement with sloped floor similar to a cup with the circular opening at the bottom. There were four shiny tubes coming from the wall, each of them ending with a little box resembling an alarm clock. There was a towel hanging over each tube.
- This is our cleaning unit - she explained. - Hot water, cold water, warm and technical.
- So is this a lavatory or a bathroom?
- This is a cleaning unit, - Jeannie repeated with emphasis. - In the entire inhabited universe only terrans place toilet and bath in separate rooms.
- What is this? - I tapped on the alarm clocks with interest.
- Water counters, of course. The price of water depends on stock market, time of the day, season of the year, phases of the moons...
- Wow, that's interesting! Can you zoom in?
- Not on this compucase - she waved me off. - What's the difference? It will get better, look! This is our autocar, we use it for trips to the megapolis. Do you see how wide the tracks are? We specifically wanted the widest. It's a bit more expensive but the wear on the garage floor is less so the rent is less. All in all, it saves us a bit.
When we were done with the photos, the first rays of sunshine were already slowly getting through the blinds. Jeannie carefully put the compucase inside a transparent cover and then into the bag.
- How strange! - she said, stepping over to the window and yawning. - Only one sun. Is it really enough for you?
* * *
She decided to take a stroll through downtown Moscow. Frankly, I am not sure why that would be interesting for somebody who was born and grew up in the city. Perhaps after six years on Sirius you would want to do exactly that. Then she needed a music store and a pharmacy - she had a long list of errands from friends. I wanted to raise my flyer but she shook her hand in horror and categorically declined to fly. So we took subway to the Unimarket and then simply walked. Jeannie looked around with some amazement.
- Quite a lot you built here over the six years! - she admitted finally.
- Where? - I turned around absentmindedly.
- Well, for instance, what is this golden ball over the sidewalk? A holo?
- Oh, this! No this is just an automatic one-table cafe. See that green light? Means it's empty. Want some coffee?
- Entire cafe for just one table? - Jeannie squinted suspiciously - They won't let us in. Or is your terran society status that high?
- Oh they'll let us in, no worries - I smiled and raised my hand flicking my fingers invitingly.
- This is probably too expensive? - said Jeannie with doubt.
- No it's a normal regular cafe. My treat, of course.
- No, no, I'll pay! - said Jeannie defensively.
The golden ball slowly lowered itself to the sidewalk and extended the ramp. We walked up inside, sat down and made our coffee selections. The ball went up, slowly turning around in the observation mode. Hypnotized, Jeannie stared at the city below us through the black spherical glass.
- So, has Mike Zaddy released anything new? - finally asked she, moving her surprised eyes to the sugar dispenser.
- I am sorry, who?
- Mike Zaddy.
- Sounds familiar... - I scratched my nose. - Is that the guy from a reality-show?
-Are you mad? - Jeannie took her eyes away from the dispenser buttons and stared at me. - He is this famous singer. Remember in college we listened to him? Danced, remember? "I am a dolphin! I am swim-i-i-in'...!"
- Oh, yeah! Mike Zaddy, right! "I am swimmin'"... yeah, he also sang something about the sun...
- I have all his records! So he didn't issue anything new?
- Honestly, I haven't heard anything much about him on the radio, or on the channels. We can search on the net, he has to be doing something... Careful, you'll spill the sugar!
- That's strange, he's singing at our Adaptation Center every month... - she mumbled quietly, putting the dispenser away with some apprehension. - So what are you listening to nowadays?
- You'd better ask Hans about that - I said - he is our designated meloman... me, I am almost tone deaf, you know...
- Hans is in Greenland - she reminded me with some emotion. - And I am interested in your esp here.
- In my what?
- Your esp. How is it called here? Hobby? Fad? Fashion... No, your taste! I am interested to know your taste.
- Well, I don't know really... well, so... I rather came to like rum-jazz lately...
- Who plays that?
- There are plenty of the groups... that's a style like... well they have these computerized stereo-harmonicas and they designed them so they resonate in your earlobes, I'll give you something to listen. It's like the sound is born inside your ear, and it tickles you there. Funny, anyway. Chillout.
- Is it something like Bon Li?
- He's this Chinese guy, Bon Li. Paul's brother emigrated four years ago, he only listens to Bon Li. "Mioaw-do, mioaw-do, oyy-lee, mioaw-do..."
- I think I remember something like that... Mioaw-do - I nodded. - Yeah, this was a hit about four years ago, like best song of the year. You say his name was Bon Li, right? I didn't know he had anything else but that one. But this is not even close to rum-jazz.
- Bon Li also comes to our community center all the time - said Jeannie with pride. - I can send you his discs!
The machine clicked and two cups of coffee with a little bowl of chips slowly descended on the table.
- And how do you like Sirusian music? - I asked carefully.
- Far out - answered Jeannie. - This is the richest music in the universe; 'cause they have all three modalities, you know.
- Hold on. How do you listen to it, then?
- Just the sound modality, naturally.
- I couldn't get into it, honestly - I confessed. - Downloaded some from the net but it's just bunch of clicks.
- Of course you wouldn't - chuckled Jeannie. - They are not simple clicks. They are very precisely timed. Each one exactly in its own place. But to get it you have to live there, not here. You plan to move already?
- Where? To Sirius? No, thanks... Lenka is here, my work, and...
- That's a pity - shook her head Jeannie. - There are no prospects here, it's not healthy. You got terrorism, your ecology is in the dumps.
- Don't exaggerate - I took offense. - Are you saying you don't have terrorism on Sirius? You have this shaur clan or what's their name...
- Shovers. But we don't have it out of control like you do. - she said firmly. - It's all very well thought through. And what about your horrible flyer accidents? I never ever would get into a flyer here on Earth!
- What accidents? - I waved my hand in amazement at the transparent wall behind which thousands of airborne balls were passing us. - Look, here they are, flying like... - I was about to mention that we were actually inside a flyer but stopped myself in time; it seemed that Jeannie didn't realize that our automatic cafe was in fact a flyer and I didn't want to disabuse her of that notion. So I continued. - Flyers have fully automatic navigation, computerized routes so there are no collisions.
- But computer glitches?
- Impossible. You know, this is my field of expertise. At the today's standard of navigation we get one in a billion chance for an accident and only if a passenger did something stupid breaking the safety rules... turned off the door lock, for instance, or...
- You'd say that - interrupted me Jeannie - so why then almost every week we have flyer accidents on the news? Every week!
- But this is over the entire planet! - I smiled. - We have billions of them!
- What does it change? - stopped me Jeannie with a stern expression.
- Our attitude, that's what - I laughed. - I am surrounded by a billion of properly functioning flyers and you look at the selected feed of accident statistic.
- You are either a fool or pretend to be one - replied Jeannie. - Or maybe they brainwashed you all.
* * *
We were sitting in a park and Jeannie kept looking at the screen of my communicator. It was still dark. I sneaked a peek at the wristwatch - it was absolutely crucial for me to at least pop in to the office today.
- This is really an oush - Jeannie finally said giving me back the comm.
- Sorry, what?
- Oush - she flicked her fingers. - How do I say that? Oh, a face slap, boorishness! Bad manners, not to answer my call like this!
- He might be shooting right now... also he doesn't know it's you calling because it's from my comm...
- Oush, oush! - Jeannie repeated angrily. - Really oush! I flew half a galaxy! Eight light years, three parsecs! And he cannot come to Moscow for just one lousy day from this... this stupid Greenland!
I fell silent. To mention my trip to the office would be impossible now. Oh well, I'll manage it somehow.
- And Lizzie? - Jeannie flapped her arms. - She's in Moscow, after all! I am here for more than a day already and she couldn't find time to meet me!
- She's at work from ten to ten - I reminded her. - She's now a line director.
- Ok, what about Slavik? Karina? Is she a line director as well? And Monya? And what about that one... remember her, a blonde one, she was with Slavik at all the classes?
- Monya will come tonight - I reminded her. - And on Friday we are driving to Lizzie's.
- Tons of thanks for that! - Jeannie threw her hands in the air and moved her fingers as if she were an angry Sirusian flailing her tentacles. - Monya will give me a half hour of his precious time! What an honor! If any one of you guys came to us for a couple of days, do you think I would go to work? I would take an all day en-vasso waiver from my studies! I would drive you all around, would show you all the sights, from vasso-center to the Great Castle of The Queen, may her Sweet Golden Wings be glorious forever! And it's not just me! When somebody comes to us from Earth, all the human diaspora meets them and spends entire days with them, just everybody... whether they know them or not!
- Jeannie... - I tried to take her hand but she jerked her wrist out of my grasp.
- Don't you Jeannie me! You all just spit on me! You, egotistical self-centered terrans! Race of savages and boors you are! I am choking here in your atmosphere, from all this aggression and spite! I feel humiliated here, deprived of my rights!
- Yes! Yes! You are used to this! You don't understand that you can live differently! You are sitting here in your stinky hole, with your poverty and misery and cheap stuff with your toxic air and low gravitation! Going about your stupid business! Your racks are not even catching my clothes! Any robot can insult you! Your passport control is like a prison camp with blasters! I flew to the Motherland! I was missing you all these years so much! I was tormenting myself thinking whether Paul and I did the right thing when we decided to move! When we decided to abandon everything for our children's future, to leave this planet that rushes into the crisis, into destruction, civil war, into famine! And here I am again! And what? What do I see? Dust! Lack of culture! Inhumanity!
- Calm down, calm down, Jeannie - I squeezed her elbow assuringly. - You know, just around the corner we could go and see this new interactive three-dim, this episode about...
- I am not allowed to watch interactives - Jeannie said curtly. - I didn't get my license yet.
- What are talking about? This is just a controlled movie!
- Thank you, I know.
- Ok, well then, how about a trip to the Bobruisk Zoo? Largest in the galaxy...
- Largest in the galaxy is on Sirius. Forty thousand creatures.
- The one in Bobruisk has two hundred thousands.
- That's a lie! They lied to you.
- Ok, fine! Let's go to a yosso-bar, then? You like yosso, right?
- Too expensive - she shook her head.
- Not really, come on! Ok, if you want to, we can fly to Hans in Greenland! After all, I can order the route right now... my flyer is not the fastest one but in about four hours we...
- Take my to the galaport - said Jeannie quietly.
- Come again?
- Take me to the galaport, Alex - she whispered. - Get my bag, then galaport. I am tired. I can't take it anymore, Alex! I can't!! - she started to bang at my chest with her little fists. - I can't, it's enough!! I will exchange my ticket for today.
- But... - I was at a loss for words. - What about Lizzie? And the cemetery?
- I won't get the proper hive form anyway.
- What does that mean?
- That's an official confirmation that you have indeed spent five days filled with sadness in the ancestors' crypt, not just gallivanted around all this time... Without the form, the social hive of Sirius will never issue me another vasso for a bury-site visit.
- Hold on... - I did a double-take. - That's nothing! Let's go and talk to the cryptkeepers, they'll give us some official looking paper... just pay them a fee...
- Phooey! You are so corrupted and bureaucratized here! - said Jeannie with disgust. - anyway on Sirius none of the terran forms are valid, if you didn't know that before.
* * *
Jeannie was standing at the galaport divider, and all around her I could see other women like her, with identical Sirusian track-bags. Further to the side there was a fussing couple of husband and wife with large immigration bags.
- Too bad about the circumstances - I raised my arms apologetically.
- It's not you - Jeannie answered. - No blame on you.
- Really? Thank god!
- Glory to the Queen and her Sweet Wings - corrected me Jeannie. - We all say that.
- I see. Well... give my very best to Paul!
- Alex! - she suddenly grabbed my sleeve and a few glittering tears appeared in her eyes. - Alex, listen to me, this planet is doomed, there is no future here, believe me! Take Lenka and move to Sirius!
- We'll come visit you, guys! - I promised. - Absolutely. We'll save a little and we will come on a vacation. And you can come here again...
Jeannie shook her head silently, hugged me and I heard a quick sob. A customs robot in yellow-black uniform quietly approached us, hung back indecisively and then finally saluted.
- The guests are requested to leave the boarding hall - it announced without any emotion. - Boarding is about to commence.
- No! - Jeannie stepped back, firmly shook her head, and her cheekbones trembled with indignation. - This place won't see me again! Never!
© Autor Leonid Kaganov, original russian text here
© Translated by Dmitri Fomin