Blind Control

The two of them left the hotel in silence, driving an old, manual Russian car. The city was like a spliced segment of film from future and past with old tram systems that still ran the streets, and tall, squat development blocks sitting between antiquated buildings. Occasionally, in the distance large cranes were erecting another apartment block or business high-rise.

“A lot of new development going on,” said Alan.

“Yes.” Dima geared down and stopped at the traffic lights. People in tired clothes mixed with business suits and labels crossed the road in front of them. “No thanks to the British.”

Alan shrugged and looked away out the car window. A line of people stood waiting for the tram in front of a partially built apartment block of glass and chrome balconies. “I was against the transformation myself.”

“Of course. You are a businessman. You understand the need for immigrants. Now, everyone suffers.”

“It wasn’t just us,” said Alan. “The EU played their part … and Russia.”

“Perhaps. I think the EU was too slow involving business. Global warming? Bah! That’s not a political problem. Innovation, technology, money – that is what works.”

The car rattled in the silence as it drove on the tarmac, past a few well-armed policemen in green trousers and jackets walking and talking amongst themselves, and a woman battling with a trolley across the cracked pavement. Dima glanced over sideways at him, curious.

“Tell me. Why did you refuse cyberization for your wife?”

Alan hesitated, unsure whether to answer. “I wanted her to stay human. That technology isn’t … right.”

“That is strange for the inventor of Interfaces, no?”

“I prefer to use machines, not the other way around. Replacing nature won’t save us. It’ll enslave us.”

“But you make money from it?”

“Is the seller of guns as evil as the buyer?”

Dima just shrugged, and turned the steering wheel as they drove through the Vilnius streets. “Evil has nothing to do with business.”

“I make Interfaces, and sell them. What people do with it is their business, just as I can decide not to use it. So can anyone else.”

Mouth open to reply, Dima’s face darkened and frowned, as he began muttering something in Russian. Alan turned to look out the front of the now slowing-down car. It came to a stop behind worm-like line of old, worn out vehicles that wound their way along the road ahead of them to what looked like a huge demonstration gathering in the streets. Green-uniformed policemen were everywhere, dressed in hi-tech riot gear; their black visors made them look like some type of insect.

“Blet!” This time, there was no doubt that Dima swore. Winding down his window, he called over to a policeman in what Alan thought must be Lithuanian, seemingly lighter than Dima’s harsh-sounding Russian. The young baby faced man answered curtly, and walked off into the distance to join a group of policemen that had gathered, talking animatedly amongst themselves.

“What’s happening?” asked Alan.

“A demonstration.” Dima swore again.

“Why?”

“They are moving the library.”

“They’re having a protest because the library is being moved?” Alan laughed. “I wish we had those problems.”

“For Lithuanians, it is very symbolic. It is an old building from the university. Under the Soviets, it was a very powerful symbol for Lithuanian culture. Now, it is being bought by a Russian to make it into a hotel. He donated another for the library, but it is not good enough for many Lithuanians.”

“Can we turn around?”

Dima shook his bowling-ball head. “There is no going back. We wait.”

The crowd, mostly students as far as Alan could make out, were relatively peaceful, singing what he took to be traditional songs, many waving placards with large unrecognisable characters printed on them. The police were not particularly hostile, and simply moved in, arms linked, batons at the ready, pushing the crowd back, clearing the road. Gradually, the cars moved forward again, slowly, a few of them sounding their horns support.

“Wish our protesters in England were as behaved as this,” said Alan.

“They are hoping for a repeat of the Soviet protests where they linked arms, but they know nothing will change. It will just make them feel better.”

Finally free from the crowds, Dima drove the car in silence through the city and out across an industrial district peppered with ugly, functional apartment buildings lit with splashes of colourful clothes hanging from each balcony. Then, the city gave way to open forests of tall pines that shielded the floor from the sun with their green branches. Wooden and weathered totem-like statues passed by at irregular intervals on the side of the road.

“What are those?” asked Alan.

Pillar shrines. People think God will answer their prayers for building them.” Dima snorted his violent laugh again, reminding Alan strongly of a crazed bull. “Stupid, no? It is like protesting for those students. It gives hope … but in the end? Nothing.”

“You shouldn’t judge people for having hope. Besides, they’re beautiful.”

“It is for idiots.”

Alan looked away out the window again, watching the trees blur past. “And the dying.”

“Only for those who can’t pay to live.” Dima looked at Alan sideways. “Tell me: is God saving your wife, or you?”

“My wife found comfort in her faith before she … was preserved.”

“So, why not let her die?” Dima’s flat nose gave its customary blast of derision. “Right up until death, people hope others will save them. They should turn to themselves. Like you do.”

The sound of tyres on the tarmac coloured-in the empty quiet.

“You know nothing about me,” said Alan. Dima said nothing.

There were not many other cars on the road, fuel a precious luxury not to be wasted on long distance trips; most of them were black, and sleek, with the occasional battered and dirty car passing by, often crammed with five or six people. Eventually, Dima pulled over and stopped on the gravel running alongside the road.

“It is close,” said Dima. “Come, we walk the rest of the way.”

They got out the car, one of the dark wooden shrines looking down at them. Eight carved figures, two on each side, stood holding hands around one of the pagoda-looking platforms. The closed-eyed shapes were wrinkled with the marks of carving and some dead tree’s life-rings, staring blindly down as the two of them walked past.

The gravel crunched underfoot until they entered the forest, quiet and mottled with patches of smudged sunlight. In the distant darkness, Alan could make out shapes moving silently.

“Who are they?”

“You will see.”

After a few minutes of walking, the edge of the clearing came upon them suddenly, as did the stench of rot and filth. The cawing of a giant cloud of black, raven-like birds flew into the air as Alan stepped out from the edge of the trees into the sunlight, squinting at the hundreds of hunched figures that scrabbled their way over the mounds of garbage meandering across the clearing for easily more than a kilometre. Old and young picked through their decaying treasure, occasionally dropping something into the bags they all carried. A few of them stood up, backs still slouched and curved, and stared at Alan and Dima with hard eyes buried in leathered and tanned faces.

Dima shouted out something, and the figures in mismatched clothing looked at one another in seemingly blank comprehension. An old, hunch-backed woman with a floral scarf tied around her head eventually pointed with curled hands at a shack from an old billboard and corrugated metal sheets that stood a few hundred meters away. Without saying a word she and the others hunched down once more and carried on sifting through the muck.

They’re homeless,” said Alan, his nose wrinkling in disgust at the smell. “Why the hell have we come here? I was expecting someone –”

“A bit more like you?” Dima smirked.

“Healthier.”

“Don’t worry; they are healthy enough.”

Dima began to walk across the garbage, broken glass and metal crunching and twanging beneath his feet. He looked back over his shoulder.

“Coming?”

He followed Dima through the trash in a type of stop motion, picking out a path that seemed less squishy than the rest, until eventually they were both standing outside the shack’s rough-hewn door. Dima’s meaty hands thumped on the wood, and he called out. A deep, harsh voice replied; Dima push the door open, and stepped inside. Alan followed into the dark. The room was small, but surprisingly neat compared with the chaos outside. Swept and tidy, it was sparse with only a few pieces of furniture: a small table with a chair, a cupboard with pots and pans behind each glass window.

The only light came from a solitary candle burning atop an old bedside table. Sitting on the cot next to it sat a young, lean man, drawing smoke from a glowing cigarette.

“He’s so … young,” said Alan.

“Thought he would be older?”

Alan stood frozen, silent, as the man gazed at him from beneath a shortly-shaven head, face gaunt from lack of food and too much hard living. Keeping eye contact, he asked Dima something, exhaling the smoke as he did.

“He wants to know why you are staring at him like that,” said Dima.

“What’s his name?” asked Alan.

“Saulius.”

“Ask him why he’s agreed to do it.”

Saulius tapped the cigarette on the side of a tin ashtray next to the candle as he listened to Dima’s translation. He shrugged and said something curtly in reply.

“Money,” said Dima, “for his family.”

“I will take care of his family for the rest of their lives. I want him to know that.”

“That is the arrangement.” Dima walked over, and sat down on a small wooden chair that Alan half-suspected would break under his bulk, speaking rapidly with Saulius in Lithuanian.

Frustrated, unable to understand, all Alan could do was stand, and wait. Every so often one of them would glance up at him sideways, Saulius with his penetrating gaze, Dima with what looked like a bored expression.

“What are you talking about?” Alan interrupted, folding his arms.

“He wants payment now,” said Dima.

“That’s not what we agreed. His family get payment on success, as do you.”

“Your word is nothing to him. He will be dead. He has no guarantees.” Dima smiled apologetically.

“My word was to you. You are his guarantee.”

Dima translated it to Saulius, who sat there, lighting another cigarette. The hazy room quietened. Finally, Saulius stood up and took a piece of paper from his worn jeans pocket, and held it out to Alan, saying something sombrely to Dima as he did.

“He says this is the bank account number. No money, no deal. It seems he does not trust me, either.”

For the first time, a shock of indecision flooded through Alan, as a small infection of doubt spread. He had no idea what they had been talking about, no idea at all that this Saulius wasn’t part of some elaborate scam of Dima’s to get money without delivering.

“Look,” said Dima. “You only have to pay me after, so you still have your guarantee.”

“Do I?”

Dima just shrugged. “I thought we had worked out the matter of trust.”

“Then why not trust me?”

“I am not the one selling you my life.”

Alan chewed his lip, nervously. “Fine, but you don’t get a cent until the operation is done, and he’s dead.”

Dima nodded calmly, unfazed. “Don’t worry. You will get what you want, and so will I.”

Punching in numbers and words onto his mobile, it linked up to the bank, verifying Alan’s ID chip. He leaned over and showed Dima the transaction, who nodded towards Saulius. “Taip.”

Saulius stubbed out his cigarette as he stood up, and reached out his hand. Alan took it in his, hesitantly, and shook it.

“It is time to leave,” said Dima, and he walked out the door, the slightly washed out light brightening the room.

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June 30, 2008