Tuesday Fiction: “A Hundred Thousand Armstrongs” by Zoltán László
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Zoltán László from Hungary. Zoltán László’s first short story was published in 1999. Since then two dozen further short stories have been published in Hungarian SF&F magazines, periodicals and anthologies (for example Galaktika, Átjáró, Roham, Csillagszálló). He has also written four novels in various sub-genres like a mix of cyberpunk and alternate history (Hiperballada [Hyperballad]), urban-fantasy (Nagate) and science fiction (A Keringés [The Circulation], Nulla pont [Zero Point]). In most of his short stories and novels he is interested in the social influences of new inventions, and he uses strong capitalism-critique.
A Hundred Thousand Armstrongs
That night—the third one after Raoul left—was a stuffy, autumnal night, the kind when mist descends on the streets of the city and the osmotically-shifting damp air stirs slimy scraps of paper and plastic bags under the walls, always at the edge of your field of vision. Annabelle pulled a cigarette from the pocket of her air-conditioned German jacket while the heels of her Italian leather shoes—clickety-click—counted her steps.
She’d left behind the bustling streets by the beaches of Rio, where the stream of youthful flesh was flowing endlessly; the smell of sweat, marijuana smoke and strange pheromones—strange at least for a European nose—floated over the crowd. After so long Rio still seemed too hectic, too strident—too young for Annabelle. The scores of faces in their teens or twenties filled her with some atavistic generational fear. This is what the elders of the tribe must have felt when their time was about to come and they were suddenly a burden on the shoulders of their younger companions.
Here, where coming from the 11 de Setembro and the Rua de Santos she started on the steep lanes leading to the hotel, silence hung onto the crumbling façades of the old office buildings, and all the hot air brought was salsa rhythms from a howling portable radio and the voice of a woman’s painfully high-pitched scolding from among the rooftops below. Further away, the sound of firecrackers or gunshots ricocheted off the steep rocks of the Sugarloaf mountain.
Pricking her ears, Annabelle guessed she wasn’t hearing the celebrations of the Dia das Astronautas yet—if she really could hear Kalashnikovs and not firecrackers. They were probably ordinary looters intercepted by a military patrol or by another gang of looters. The overpopulated alleys of Rio de Janeiro always supplied the gangs with reinforcements—more and more children seemed to arrive endlessly as if they’d been produced by the casting mould of some strange social instrument. Except, of course, for that fortunate or unfortunate one hundred thousand who were admitted to the programme before they were even born.
It was thirty-three minutes past midnight. Nobody was bothered by the curfew; even the soldiers guarding the country-sized city saw it as the hysterical decree of an outgoing home secretary. The parties in the Rio night were no less lively than any time before. Actually, they were only becoming more boisterous as Astronaut Day was coming and the country was getting ready to celebrate her one hundred thousand new space travellers…. All those improved Armstrongs and Tereshkovas.
After smoking three-quarters of it, she chucked the Vogue and under the neon tubes full of dancing insects crossed the street to the other side where a pool of light tainted the damp concrete of the pavement. It was an all-night grocery store with the obligatory Coke commercial flashing above the door. Annabelle pushed the doorbell. A buzzing sound.
It was half past midnight but Annabelle didn’t manage to find the slightest sign of drunkenness in herself, although the tang of the cognacs she’d drunk at the Danish commercial attaché’s party and the aroma of French cigarettes formed a sticky film on her palate. She shoved her hands back into her pockets and waited. In the distance the sound of police sirens made her sinus mountains leap high.
Electric locks clicked one after the other from top to bottom, and the blurred figure behind the opaque plastic opened the door. The bars stayed in place.
‘Senhora? What do you want?’ asked the dishevelled shopkeeper. Although he was relieved to see that his customer was a well-dressed woman in her forties, he was still glancing suspiciously at the hands hidden in her pockets. ‘I’d prefer seeing your hands.’
Annabelle looked down at the barrel of the sawn-off shotgun pointing at her and slowly pulled her hands out of her pockets. She spoke in Portuguese. ‘All I want is a drink, man.’
‘Vodka, say. The most expensive brand. And I pay Euros.’
Just mentioning the name of the continental currency once used to grease the wheels of the commercial machine. Annabelle remembered those days. You were only a kid then—she was watching the shopkeeper’s face. The name of the EU had become meaningless in the third world. The introverted society of old fools. The ruins of bygone greatness. An open-air museum taken over by weeds.
‘That’ll be two-fifty, senhora. I only take cash. We’re living harsh times.’
Annabelle shrugged and—still slowly—counted the worn, old banknotes into the guy’s hand. He instantly checked them with a manual UV scanner, the Euro-stars faintly glowing in the purple flickering.
‘Um momento!’ And the shopkeeper was gone. Annabelle waited patiently outside the door. She looked around but the street was still yawning empty, only a gutter was slurping quietly but doggedly a bit further away. Suddenly, rattling and the shouting of children sounded from a distant crossroads. All the muscles tightened in Annabelle’s body but she managed to overcome the old reflexes. A rusty three-wheeler sped through the junction under the lights with four kids wearing pasteboard spacesuits. The laughter died away as the group was swallowed by the crossroads. Annabelle would have liked to smile.
The vodka came in a seven-decilitre plastic bottle. Maybe it was made in Mexico: the Smirnoff label meant nothing with the economy of the world lying in ruins. She sank the bottle in her pocket without a word.
Locks clicked behind her as she manoeuvred around the torn-off posters swelling in the puddles and started to ascend the slope. On the façade of the hotel blue LEDs were flickering. Her hand played with the plastic cap of the bottle in her pocket. Ceaselessly.
The desolate hotel lobby was a bubble in time—the furniture reflected the fashions of fifteen years before. Annabelle nodded towards reception, called the elevator, and on the sixth floor walked down carpets worn out in the middle. Earlier, she had programmed the room to recognize her fingerprints.
The laser glow of Christ the Redeemer on top of the Corcovado drew sharp contours around some of the furniture in the room. Annabelle said nothing to the lighting; she could have found anything, with her eyes closed, in a hotel room like this. The last thing she needed at the moment was light: in the depth of the night even the lights would seem grey, somehow reminding her of her own foul mood. With her coat still on, she sank to the floor and pulled out the vodka. The seal on the neck of the bottle let go with a soft hiss: a familiar sound. The first gulp burnt her throat but she could stand it.
She got up and took a box of tomato juice from the bar. She poured some into a glass, leaving room for the vodka and the sauce.
‘Letters and messages. Replay,’ she instructed the Sony module in the corner. The display came alive, and silvery electronic glamour surrounded Annabelle’s figure and everything around her. She was forced to squint; she didn’t like the idea of becoming a post-industrial icon.
A saint would surely not arrive in Rio for the same reason she had come here.
‘Rioting? Terrorist attacks? Hide away from all the trouble. Spend the weekend…’
‘Advertisements off,’ she grunted. The well-dressed guy disappeared in a flash and the picture turned much darker and lower definition—welcome to reality—though the face of her contact, Mr Paris, was still recognizable.
‘I only call you in case you aren’t aware of the fact that our friend’s programme on Astronaut Day has changed. Please, seek new information.’ Annabelle grinned, irritated. She was not new to this. She had known for a long time that Grenius was now to give his address in the foyer of Santa Cruz University at ten a.m. instead of ten-thirty, as he was supposed to have a working lunch in Brasilia in the Presidential Palace.
‘Delete,’ she told the Sony, then took a sip from the Bloody Mary. She had put too much salt in it, as always. ‘Next.’
Annabelle was petrified. The boy was exactly three days younger in the message and yet she could still not delete it.
‘Look, I called you because…I’m leaving. It’ll never work out, I’m sorry…. My mistake. I wanted you to know. And please, don’t try to find me.’
Darkness. The illuminated Jesus sneered at her through the window.
Raoul appeared again, his short, wavy hair hidden under a knitted cap. He looked sad and that was some consolation for her, if there was to be any consolation at all.
It was Annabelle who had given him that cap. Also the bag he had packed his things in.
‘Hello. I’m Raoul,’ he said as fate shepherded them together between the guest rooms and the almost industrial-size kitchen.
Annabelle stared at him. ‘Nice to meet you. Valeria Luskowka.’
Someone at the Swedish embassy was throwing the party and a bunch of local celebrities were also invited, though Annabelle didn’t know any of them. Earlier, she had talked to some Europeans her own age. ‘Horrible,’ one of them said, a man wearing Louis Vuitton glasses. ‘These urchins on the street. Many of them won’t even live to be eighteen, but over there they’d be great pillars of the retirement funds.’
Some of Annabelle’s friends worked for companies that were trying—without much success—to lure labourers to Europe. ‘They’re useful here,’ she commented, before thinking about what she was going to say. ‘This demographic power stretched the third world until they got to Mars. And they’ll settle there, too.’
‘But they’re hardly human,’ shuddered a woman who Annabelle thought might be an Italian talk-show hostess. ‘Those genetic manipulations to make them capable of long space flights….’
‘I don’t give a damn about space,’ the man retorted. ‘I’ve paid what I had for retirement funds in my life but who’s going to support me?’
Annabelle shrugged, then apologized and moved on. The house proved to be enormous. And then she came across Raoul.
Almost-black hair, suntanned skin, straight eyebrows, warm brown eyes. The boy didn’t look more than twenty-five. He was eyeing the bustle of the party with a benevolent but enigmatic grin: Mona Lisa’s smile dipped in beta-phenylethylamine. Annabelle looked down on the now lukewarm South African beer in her hand. ‘You want some? I’m bored with it.’
‘No.’ He shook his head warily. Annabelle noted that he was delicately shaking. ‘What I’ve taken doesn’t mix with alcohol. You can’t have them both at the same time,’ he explained, as if he was talking about some special medical treatment.
She just nodded. ‘And is it any good?’
Raoul frowned. ‘Can’t you tell?’
‘I can…’ Annabelle was drunk; she was fed up with the party; she was fed up with everyone. ‘I can tell that it’s all the same. It’s quite obvious that you just want to get laid. Anyone will do, the more expensive the better. But you know what?’ She leaned closer to the boy. ‘If not today, you’ll feel it tomorrow.’
He caught up with her at the elevator. He grabbed the closing door; his arms were muscular, covered with fine hair. The lines on his skin exposed him: a fallen angel. The door clicked and opened wide. Irritated, Annabelle struck the button for the foyer again. This was the last thing she needed.
‘What do you know about me, hm?’ He followed her into the elevator, his face a pale, hysterical mask. Despite herself, Annabelle considered the ways she could deal with this guy with bare hands. She wasn’t afraid.
‘What the hell do you know about me?’ Raoul was raging. ‘We were the dress rehearsal, see? These tiny astronauts with their ability to hibernate and cope with cold wouldn’t be here, there’d be no one to celebrate, if it wasn’t for us. But we were simply used, Grenius and the rest of the scientists just created us and then swept us aside.’ The pitch of his voice got higher, yet Annabelle didn’t look at him.
‘I’m talking to you, can’t you hear me?’ He punched the metal wall of the elevator with his fist. Annabelle had had enough: she reached out and two quick movements were enough to force the violent youth onto the floor. He seemed to get even more furious, and for a moment even attempted to fight back. Then his muscles went slack and suddenly he burst out laughing.
The bitterness in his voice made Annabelle shiver. ‘I’ll never get up there. We’re never going to space even if we were born to do that,’ he whispered tiredly. ‘The new ones took that away from us.’
Annabelle didn’t look at him; she was only shaking her head slowly like a wise, old man, then she said, ‘You’re not the only ones’ without having a clue which floor they were on.
Bull’s eye, she thought. Raoul, the fallen angel, had no answer.
He looks human, Annabelle warned herself, but he isn’t exactly that. Deep inside, within her cells, a bunch of things worked in a different way.
They were on the bottom floor now, but Annabelle sat down beside him and offered him a cigarette.
The Sony was humming quietly; on the display Raoul’s face, in the message, had paused just before the final word, his hazel eyes motionless, unfathomable.
‘Off, for heaven’s sake!’ At last Annabelle had managed to overcome the curiosity that made her try to work out what was hidden in those eyes at the moment of the final good-bye. Defiance. Most likely. They always find self-awareness, she knew well. Suddenly, they realize they’ve become lapdogs, the toy of a woman twenty years their senior. They want to behave like men, though they’re not needed as men. Well, not only as men.
Above the bathroom mirror, a bluish halogen light was shimmering. Around it a languid mosquito was circling, after having somehow squeezed through the ultra-sound curtains. Annabelle turned on the tap and washed her face in the lukewarm water welling from the filter unit. She looked into the mirror, struggling to get a detached impression. Forty-three years. Recently, she’d often wondered what it would be like if she’d had children, if, like others in her generation, she hadn’t found everything else much more important.
Thoughts like this might be definite signs of aging. And men like Raoul. How could it feel to be born to populate a new world, to be literally created to do that and nothing else?
The drops of water formed tiny rivulets on her face-bones and the porcelain of the sink felt cool and relaxing under her palms.
Raoul, shaving. Turning back, laughing, the water washing down black-dotted foam from the disposable Gillette. Small eddy over the chrome of the drain.
Annabelle closed her eyes and swiftly turned to the toilet. She swayed back and forth as spasms twitched her stomach rhythmically.
‘Look at them, Raoul.’ Annabelle pointed through the taxi window.
At the foot of the grandiose statue made for Astronaut Day a white monster, an armoured police truck, reversed slowly on the pavement with its blue lights flashing jerkily.
‘The Marslanders?’ The figures of the statue raised Brazilian, Chinese and Indian flags in the shape of a cone towards the spot where Annabelle thought the Red Planet might be in the sky. Pousados em Marte. When she was a kid, it would have been strange if a new expression didn’t spread in English. Or at least Russian. But lots of things had changed since then.
‘No, the people.’ The troop-carrier beeped while reversing, then it jerked to a halt. Its blunt steel nose still blocked part of the road, forcing the traffic to a pathetic crawl.
‘What about them?’ Raoul asked, sleepily. He lost his interest in the cops’ vehicle even though it started to pour forth men with helmets and shields who instantly swept aside the small group of protesters from the statue. The whole affair didn’t last more than three minutes.
‘Those people were protesting against the space programme. Don’t you think they deserve better?’
Raoul stared at a student in a yellow raincoat lying on the pavement. ‘Those people are harmful,’ he commented lightly. ‘And stupid.’
Annabelle was watching the boy’s face. ‘Are they stupid because they don’t share your views? Because they don’t think that instead of eliminating social differences police states like this ought to spend most of their GDP on their space programme?’
Maybe she was too harsh on him. But earlier they had driven through the favellas south of the Sugarloaf mountain where children burnt tires by the side of the sewerless streets to melt copper from old electric circuit panels. The copper would probably be needed for those giant, sluggish spacecraft. Which these kids would never get close to: those craft belonged to the New People, the hundred thousand identical, strange and cold Tereshkovas and Armstrongs.
‘And we’re at it again,’ Raoul murmured bitingly.
‘Why? Don’t you think I’m right? You can see the poverty even here, in the city. The starving children. What do you mean we’re at it again?’
‘That’s European rubbish you’re talking. You Westerners forced poverty on us with your globalism, leaving us no other way out than space. And now, with not enough workers to support the millions of European and American pensioners, you’re trying to hold us back.’ Sensing the fierce outburst, the concerned driver turned round on his side of the armour. Raoul didn’t care. ‘Can you really believe we don’t know that you’re only worried because of your labourers? Because if the overflow of people from the third world chooses space there’ll be no one left for you?’
‘That’s the same bamboozle your president—’
‘Who are you to call it bamboozle? We, Brazilians, Hindus and I don’t know who else, believe in it. And Jesus be my witness, we’ll do it.’ The lines on the boy’s hand—the stigmata of prenatal gene therapy—turned black.
‘Raoul, for God’s sake, what have beliefs got to do with it? I only said there were problems these people wanted to draw attention to. They should have the right to express what they think of the space programme or anything.’ Annabelle carefully retained the calm tone of her voice, though it made her feel as if she were trying to hush a distraught child. The unsteadiness of Raoul’s nerves was the result of gene therapy; they claimed to have sorted that out for the new generation.
‘Oh, your relentless and effusive liberalism.’ Malice sparkled in Raoul’s beautiful eyes. ‘You know, that’s what did you in. That good-for-nothing relativism. When the imams of the mosques in Berlin and Paris openly called for the destruction of the West, you were still babbling on about multiculturalism and tolerance. The bombs and everything were the results of your own mistakes.’
Annabelle pressed her lips together. ‘Raoul, that’s not fair. Many people died those days. If you count the radiation, more than ten thousand only in Warsaw, where I was born—’
‘And why? For no reason at all. For a failing culture that was not able to stand up for its own ideals any longer. Your feeling of guilt for what had happened in the twentieth century ruined your twenty-first century. But it’s our turn now, up there!’
‘Raoul, that’s not as simple as that. And I don’t think, it’ll be you that—’
‘Merda,’ he said, with a strangely distorted expression. ‘Why? Why can’t I understand? Because I’m too young?’ He felt for the door sensor. ‘Stop!’ he yelled at the driver. The man cursed but braked abruptly, causing the plastic readers and Virgin Mary statuettes hanging on the inside mirror to clank into the windscreen.
‘And what if you old people lost your clear view of the world? If we are the ones who see it the right way?’ Raoul leaned back into the car for a moment but he didn’t wait for an answer that never came anyway.
As he stormed away, his white shirt kept popping up among the crowd staring at the police operation.
Annabelle mixed herself another Bloody Mary; the ice clinked into the glass from the slot in the bar. With her drink in her hand, she stood in front of the window watching the statue of Christ the Redeemer extending his arms on the mountain. At first, it had protected the city there on top of the Corcovado, but the new laser technology had painted a new expression on its face: it was watching the sky, the frontier of space, which was to be broken through by the children of this city…. This made the widespread arms look like a gesture of offering. Annabelle contemplated Raoul’s words. Maybe it really was the end for them, Westerners. What remained was moralizing, trying to appreciate everyone even when it was time to act.
If it was so, she was simply a criminal.
On the outside, the suitcase seemed a simple burgundy-red Samsonite. Most businesswomen had one exactly like it and in the world of the Rio consulate parties she was definitely considered one. The hidden drawer slid out from between the small wheels when she stroked the artificial leather covering in the right spots. The vial shone coldly, transparently, in Jesus’s light.
She wondered if she was doing it because she had never had children.
Raoul’s phone rang. There was no picture, but the boy answered her call. He may have remembered the number of the hotel. Or he may have been curious who the unfamiliar number belonged to.
‘Raoul? I only call you because I want to tell you something.’
The boy’s voice was distant and icy. ‘Look, Valeria, I think it’d be better for both of us if—’
‘Oh, you innocent, silly kid. I don’t want to talk about the two of us. Remember what you said in the taxi? About the ideals.’
‘You said we weren’t capable of action any longer. We old Westerners. All I wanted to say is that you were wrong. You’ll see. Good night.’
At ten to ten, along with the teeming crowd of visitors, Annabelle got into the cool foyer of Santa Cruz University, where, fastened to the stucco of the ceiling, old-fashioned ventilators were revolving. She had to queue at the main entrance and started to worry that she’d miss the speech.
Sunlight poured down from leaden skies and people had put all kinds of creams on their skin where it was left uncovered by their Sunday best, which made them look like the participants in some sort of voodoo ceremony. Reaching the top of the broad flight of stairs, Annabelle flashed the VIP card she had been issued in her capacity as a commercial delegate, and the sweating police personnel in their scanner goggles instantly stood aside.
She guessed Grenius would talk for some twenty minutes. After a bit more than half of that time had passed, she stood up and walked to the toilet.
Inside, the smell of sewage-water mingled with the oversweet odour of some industrial cleansing agent. Annabelle opened the door of the first box but, seeing that the toilet hadn’t been flushed, she turned around. She chose the farthest box, sat down on the seat and took out her tools.
The flesh-coloured glove was made of a polymer as thin as a veil; if it was worn carefully you had to be real close to notice it at all. Its molecules were arranged so tightly that no poison could get through. Annabelle cracked the top of the vial and dripped its contents onto her gloved hand.
Outside, Dr. Grenius was about to conclude his speech. The tiled walls of the room echoed his voice. ‘…Nobody believed we would be able to do it. After the ideological struggle of the cold war it became clear that investors did not see enough business potential in space travel to finance the costly developments instead of the great powers.’
Annabelle raised her fingers in front of her eyes. On the palm and fingertips of the glove soft pads were formed in order to suck in the poison that would have evaporated quickly otherwise. All she had to do now was implant it into the doctor’s body, and it would take its course from then on: the substance, adjusted for his immune system, would start reproducing and Grenius would be infected in a week’s time. As Annabelle had been told, the doctor preferred to examine his young creations himself. The infection should then swiftly spread through their ranks.
Fallen angels like Raoul, those from the early stages of the experiment, might remain unaffected. Annabelle wasn’t sure but she didn’t care, either. She had never had a child and Raoul had left her. This thing was not about them or about their sick relationship.
‘We are the ones who refuted that,’ Grenius went on outside, defiantly, like a rebel, ‘when we decided to give a new future to our children after we could no longer cherish the illusion that one day they would live a life similar to that of European or American people: a car on the driveway, an automated kitchen, middle-class consumption…. This planet cannot provide all these for everyone. However, we can provide our children with something else: a new future, their own financial life which will be created out there in space. And they’ll be the first to get there, not the Americans, not the Europeans!’
She stood up, slid the bolt aside on the door and stepped out.
And there was Raoul standing in front of her.
Annabelle moved swiftly, but she was too late. He grabbed her, almost as if he was trying to embrace her, and she just felt a hard knock in her belly. Surprised, she looked up at the man’s immaculate young angel face. She didn’t feel the pain yet, though she knew it would arrive eventually.
‘Annabelle….’ Raoul used her real name. She held up her gloved hand to touch his face but he caught her arm and held it against the cold tiles. For a moment, he stared at the glove, then he smiled. ‘Clever….’
Burning, acrid pain started to grow inside her. Raoul’s knife twisted in her stomach, tormenting her. She felt her own hot blood running down onto her stockings.
‘Many fear a genetically redesigned generation,’ Grenius recited outside. ‘The new people who will be able to spend months in deep sleep like the hibernating animals from which the relevant gene sequences originate. Tomorrow, on Astronaut Day, they will all be parading before your very eyes. A hundred-thousand new children, the first settlers on Mars.’
‘We knew you’d try,’ Raoul said. ‘That you’d be late as always but you’d try.’
‘You still don’t understand what…?’ Annabelle moaned and felt her heels slip on the floor. Raoul held her tight, though. ‘The ideals. We stand by them…. We really do.’
The boy answered, but Annabelle didn’t hear him. Everything had a strange echo now. And as Raoul’s face slowly disappeared in the gloom creeping in from the edge of her sight, Annabelle saw nothing but the astronauts, the hundred-thousand marching Armstrongs and Tereshkovas parading across the world under the extended arms of Jesus Christ.
First published in Galaktika 204., in March 2007.
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