Voyage to Eternity
When the first strong sunlight of May covered the tree-arched avenues of Center City with green, the riots started.
The people gathered in angry knots outside the city hall, met in the park and littered its walks with newspapers and magazines as they gobbled up editorial comment at a furious rate, slipped with dark of night through back alleys and planned things with furious futility. Center City’s finest knew when to make themselves scarce: their uniforms stood for everything objectionable at this time and they might be subjected to clubs, stones, taunts, threats, leers--and knives.
But Center City, like most communities in United North America, had survived the Riots before and would survive them again. On past performances, the damage could be estimated, too. Two-hundred fifty-seven plate glass windows would be broken, three-hundred twelve limbs fractured. Several thousand people would be treated for minor bruises and abrasions, Center City would receive half that many damage suits. The list had been drawn clearly and accurately; it hardly ever deviated.
And Center City would meet its quota. With a demonstration of reluctance, of course. The healthy approved way to get over social trauma once every seven-hundred eighty days.
“Shut it off, Kit. Kit, please.”
The telio blared in a cheaply feminine voice, “Oh, it’s a long way to nowhere, forever. And your honey’s not coming back, never, never, never...” A wailing trumpet represented flight.
“They’ll exploit anything, Kit.”
“It’s just a song.”
“Turn it off, please.”
Christopher Temple turned off the telio, smiling. “They’ll announce the names in ten minutes,” he said, and felt the corners of his mouth draw taut.
“Tell me again, Kit,” Stephanie pleaded. “How old are you?”
“You know I’m twenty-six.”
“Twenty-six. Yes, twenty-six, so if they don’t call you this time, you’ll be safe. Safe, I can hardly believe it.”
“Nine minutes,” said Temple in the darkness. Stephanie had drawn the blinds earlier, had dialed for sound-proofing. The screaming in the streets came to them as not the faintest whisper. But the song which became briefly, masochistically popular every two years and two months had spoiled their feeling of seclusion.
“Tell me again, Kit.”
“You know what.”
He let her come to him, let her hug him fiercely and whimper against his chest. He remained passive although it hurt, occasionally stroking her hair. He could not assert himself for another--he looked at his strap chrono--for another eight minutes. He might regret it, if he did, for a lifetime.
“Tell me, Kit.”
“I’ll marry you, Steffy. In eight minutes, less than eight minutes, I’ll go down and get the license. We’ll marry as soon as it’s legal.”
“This is the last time they have a chance for you. I mean, they won’t change the law?”
Temple shook his head. “They don’t have to. They meet their quota this way.”
“You and everyone else in North America, Steffy.”
She was trembling against him. “It’s cold for June.”
“It’s warm in here.” He kissed her moist eyes, her nose, her lips.
“Oh God, Kit. Five minutes.”
“Five minutes to freedom,” he said jauntily. He did not feel that way at all. Apprehension clutched at his chest with tight, painful fingers, almost making it difficult for him to breathe.
“Turn it on, Kit.”
He dialed the telio in time to see the announcer’s insincere smile. Smile seventeen, Kit thought wryly. Patriotic sacrifice.
“Every seven-hundred eighty days,” said the announcer, “two-hundred of Center City’s young men are selected to serve their country for an indeterminate period regulated rigidly by a rotation system.”
“Liar!” Stephanie cried. “No one ever comes back. It’s been thirty years since the first group and not one of them...”
“Shh,” Temple raised a finger to his lips.
“This is the thirteenth call since the inception of what is popularly referred to as the Nowhere Journey,” said the announcer. “Obviously, the two hundred young men from Center City and the thousands from all over this hemisphere do not in reality embark on a Journey to Nowhere. That is quite meaningless.”
“Hooray for him,” Temple laughed.
“I wish he’d get on with it.”
“No, ladies and gentlemen, we use the word Nowhere merely because we are not aware of the ultimate destination. Security reasons make it impossible to...”
“Yes, yes,” said Stephanie impatiently. “Go on.”
“ ... therefore, the Nowhere Journey. With a maximum security lid on the whole project, we don’t even know why our men are sent, or by what means. We know only that they go somewhere and not nowhere, bravely and not fearfully, for a purpose vital to the security of this nation and not to slake the thirst of a chessman of regiments and divisions.
“If Center City’s contribution helps keep our country strong, Center City is naturally obligated...”
“No one ever said it isn’t our duty,” Stephanie argued, as if the announcer could indeed hear her. “We only wish we knew something about it--and we wish it weren’t forever.”
“It isn’t forever,” Temple reminded her. “Not officially.”
“Officially, my foot. If they never return, they never return. If there’s a rotation system on paper, but it’s never used, that’s not a rotation system at all. Kit, it’s forever.”
“ ... to thank the following sponsors for relinquishing their time...”
“No one would want to sponsor that,” Temple whispered cheerfully.
“Kit,” said Stephanie, “I--I suddenly have a hunch we have nothing to worry about. They missed you all along and they’ll miss you this time, too. The last time, and then you’ll be too old. That’s funny, too old at twenty-six. But we’ll be free, Kit. Free.”
“He’s starting,” Temple told her.
A large drum filled the entire telio screen. It rotated slowly, from bottom to top. In twenty seconds, the letter A appeared, followed by about a dozen names. Abercrombie, Harold. Abner, Eugene. Adams, Gerald. Sorrow in the Abercrombie household. Despair for the Abners. Black horror for Adams.
The drum rotated.
“They’re up to F, Kit.”
Fabian, Gregory G...
Names circled the drum slowly, like viscous alphabet soup. Meaningless, unless you happened to know them.
“Kit, I knew Thomas Mulvany.”
N, O, P...
“It’s hot in here.”
“I thought you were cold.”
“I’m suffocating now.”
“T!” Stephanie shrieked as the names began to float slowly up from the bottom of the drum.
Tabor, Tebbets, Teddley...
Temple’s mouth felt dry as a ball of cotton. Stephanie laughed nervously. Now--or never. Never?
Stephanie whimpered despairingly.
“Sorry I’m late, Mr. Jones.”
“Hardly, Mr. Smith. Hardly. Three minutes late.”
“I’ve come in response to your ad.”
“I know. You look old.”
“I am over twenty-six. Do you mind?”
“Not if you don’t, Mr. Smith. Let me look at you. Umm, you seem the right height, the right build.”
“I meet the specifications exactly.”
“Good, Mr. Smith. And your price.”
“No haggling,” said Smith. “I have a price which must be met.”
“Your price, Mr. Smith?”
“Ten million dollars.”
The man called Jones coughed nervously. “That’s high.”
“Very. Take it or leave it.”
“Definitely. Small unmarked bills.”
“You’d need a moving van!”
“Then I’ll get one.”
“Ten million dollars,” said Jones, “is quite a price. Admittedly, I haven’t dealt in this sort of traffic before, but--”
“But nothing. Were your name Jones, really and truly Jones, I might ask less.”
“You are Jones exactly as much as I am Smith.”
“Sir?” Jones gasped again.
Smith coughed discreetly. “But I have one advantage. I know you. You don’t know me, Mr. Arkalion.”
“Arkalion. The North American Carpet King. Right?”
“How did you know?” the man whose name was not Jones but Arkalion asked the man whose name was not Smith but might as well have been.
“When I saw your ad,” said not-Smith, “I said to myself, ‘now here must be a very rich, influential man.’ It only remained for me to study a series of photographs readily obtainable--I have a fine memory for that, Mr. Arkalion--and here you are; here is Arkalion the Carpet King.”
“What will you do with the ten million dollars?” demanded Arkalion, not minding the loss nearly so much as the ultimate disposition of his fortune.
“Why, what does anyone do with ten million dollars? Treasure it. Invest it. Spend it.”
“I mean, what will you do with it if you are going in place of my--” Arkalion bit his tongue.
“Your son, were you saying, Mr. Arkalion? Alaric Arkalion the Third. Did you know that I was able to boil my list of men down to thirty when I studied their family ties?”
“Brilliant, Mr. Smith. Alaric is so young--”
“Aren’t they all? Twenty-one to twenty-six. Who was it who once said something about the flower of our young manhood?”
“Shakespeare?” said Mr. Arkalion realizing that most quotes of lasting importance came from the bard.
“Sophocles,” said Smith. “But, no matter. I will take young Alaric’s place for ten million dollars.”
Motives always troubled Mr. Arkalion, and thus he pursued what might have been a dangerous conversation. “You’ll never get a chance to spend it on the Nowhere Journey.”
“Let me worry about that.”
“No one ever returns.”
“My worry, not yours.”
“It is forever--as if you dropped out of existence. Alaric is so young.”
“I have always gambled, Mr. Arkalion. If I do not return in five years, you are to put the money in a trust fund for certain designated individuals, said fund to be terminated the moment I return. If I come back within the five years, you are merely to give the money over to me. Is that clear?”
“I’ll want it in writing, of course.”
“Of course. A plastic surgeon is due here in about ten minutes, Mr. Smith, and we can get on with ... But if I don’t know your name, how can I put it in writing?”
Smith smiled. “I changed my name to Smith for the occasion. Perfectly legal. My name is John X. Smith--now.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” said Mr. Arkalion as the plastic surgeon entered. “Your name is Alaric Arkalion III--now.”
The plastic surgeon skittered around Smith, examining him minutely with the casual expertness that comes with experience.
“Have to shorten the cheek bones.”
“For ten million dollars,” said Smith, “you can take the damned things out altogether and hang them on your wall.”
Sophia Androvna Petrovitch made her way downtown through the bustle of tired workers and the occasional sprinkling of Comrades. She crushed her ersatz cigarette underfoot at number 616 Stalin Avenue, paused for the space of five heartbeats at the door, went inside.
“What do you want?” The man at the desk was myopic but bull-necked.
Sophia showed her party card.
“Oh, Comrade. Still, you are a woman.”
“You’re terribly observant, Comrade,” said Sophia coldly. “I am here to volunteer.”
“But a woman.”
“There is nothing in the law which says a woman cannot volunteer.”
“We don’t make women volunteer.”
“I mean really volunteer, of her own free will.”
“Her--own--free will?” The bull-necked man removed his spectacles, scratched his balding head with the ear-pieces. “You mean volunteer without--”
“Without coercion. I want to volunteer. I am here to volunteer. I want to sign on for the next Stalintrek.”
“Stalintrek, a woman?”
“That is what I said.”
“We don’t force women to volunteer.” The man scratched some more.
“Oh, really,” said Sophia. “This is 1992, not mid-century, Comrade. Did not Premier Stalin say, ‘Woman was created to share the glorious destiny of Mother Russia with her mate?’” Sophia created the quote randomly.
“Yes, if Stalin said--”
“Still, I do not recall--”
“What?” Sophia cried. “Stalin dead these thirty-nine years and you don’t recall his speeches? What is your name, Comrade?”
“Please, Comrade. Now that you remind me, I remember.”
“What is your name.”
“Here, I will give you the volunteer papers to sign. If you pass the exams, you will embark on the next Stalintrek, though why a beautiful young woman like you--”
“Shut your mouth and hand me those papers.”
There, sitting behind that desk, was precisely why. Why should she, Sophia Androvna Petrovitch, wish to volunteer for the Stalintrek? Better to ask why a bird flies south in the winter, one day ahead of the first icy gale. Or why a lemming plunges recklessly into the sea with his multitudes of fellows, if, indeed, the venture were to turn out grimly.
But there, behind that desk, was part of the reason. The Comrade. The bright sharp Comrade, with his depth of reasoning, his fountain of gushing emotions, his worldliness. Pfooey!
It was as if she had been in a cocoon all her life, stifled, starved, the cottony inner lining choking her whenever she opened her mouth, the leathery outer covering restricting her when she tried to move. No one had ever returned from the Stalintrek. She then had to assume no one would. Including Sophia Androvna Petrovitch. But then, there was nothing she would miss, nothing to which she particularly wanted to return. Not the stark, foul streets of Stalingrad, not the workers with their vapid faces or the Comrades with their cautious, sweating, trembling, fearful non-decisions, not the higher echelon of Comrades, more frightened but showing it less, who would love the beauty of her breasts and loins but not herself for you never love anything but the Stalinimage and Mother Russia herself, not those terrified martinet-marionettes who would love the parts of her if she permitted but not her or any other person for that matter.
Wrong with the Stalintrek was its name alone, a name one associated with everything else in Russia for an obvious, post-Stalin reason. But everything else about the Stalintrek shrieked mystery and adventure. Where did you go? How did you get there? What did you do? Why?
A million questions which had kept her awake at night and, if she thought about them hard enough, satisfied her deep longing for something different. And then one day when stolid Mrs. Ivanovna-Rasnikov had said, “It is a joke, a terrible, terrible joke they are taking my husband Fyodor on the Stalintrek when he lacks sufficient imagination to go from here to Leningrad or even Tula. Can you picture Fyodor on the Stalintrek? Better they should have taken me. Better they should have taken his wife.” That day Sophia could hardly contain herself.
As a party member she had access to the law and she read it three times from start to finish (in her dingy flat by the light of a smoking, foul-smelling, soft-wax candle) but could find nothing barring women from the Stalintrek.
Had Fyodor Rasnikov volunteered? Naturally. Everyone volunteered, although when your name was called you had no choice. There had been no draft in Russia since the days of the Second War of the People’s Liberation. Volunteer? What, precisely, did the word mean?
She, Sophia Androvna Petrovitch would volunteer, without being told. Thus it was she found herself at 616 Stalin Avenue, and thus the balding, myopic, bull-necked Comrade thrust the papers across his desk at her.
She signed her name with such vehemence and ferocity that she almost tore through the paper.