Drawing the Line

In  by November 3, 2023

Yevgeny cursed under his breath.

Philippa smiled. “Things not going to plan?” the elderly woman asked.

“Things never go to plan.” He held up a mangled piece of aluminum alloy. “I’ll need to take this back to the shop and try to use it as a pattern to machine a new one.” He held it higher, trying to see how the light went through compound curves of the tube. “I don’t think it’s going to be easy.”

“I trust you,” Philippa said.

He knew she did. That was why he’d find a way, some way, any way of getting it done.

They sat in silence for a few minutes. The morning sun wasn’t as harsh as it would be at noontime, and he could bask in it, even with his pale skin.

Then, disaster. Siti walked past, smiled and nodded, her red shuka tightly wrapped around her, her head erect, the inevitable walking stick, as thin and straight as she was, held in one hand.

He sighed as Siti disappeared around a corner.

“You should tell her how you feel,” Philippa said. “You might be surprised.”

Yevgeny groaned. Was it that obvious to everyone? “Of course. The woman changing the face of Africa, creating technologies that are pushing back the effects of global warming, must just be dying to hear all about how the mechanic has a crush on her.”

“So you’re afraid, then.”

“Shouldn’t I be? She’s a great visionary. I’m fixing your blender so you can drink margaritas.”

“And yet, you don’t seem afraid of me. Or of Oscar. He told me you fixed his shower last week.”

“I ...”

“Have you forgotten who we are?”

“No. Of course not. No one on Earth will ever forget you.” He realized that sounded as if they were about to die. “I mean ...”

“I know what you mean. I was young once, too.” She put a finger on his mouth to keep him from speaking. “You say that she is changing the world. That’s true. But I already have, and you don’t have any problems talking to me. Oscar ... Oscar has probably saved more lives than anyone alive. His seed stock broke the corporate monopoly ... and he was the person who finally negotiated the completion of the Great Green Wall. He is as important as Siti could ever hope to be.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“Do you know what Oscar says about you? He says he wished you were his son.”

It was true. The octogenarian scientist had said it to Yevgeny himself more than once.

“That’s just because I do him favours sometimes.”

“No. If you only did him favours, he wouldn’t have said anything. It’s because you do everyone favours. My blender. The gardener’s pinball machine. None of these things are what you’re being paid for. We all know that. And yet you take the time necessary to do them for us.”

“Yeah. I guess. Maybe my problem is that the director doesn’t need any favours.”

• • •

The sun was now straight overhead. Yevgeny—though it made him feel that he was too delicate for Africa—wore a cowboy hat. It felt ridiculous to be wearing it within a stone’s throw of the Sahara desert in Chad, but somehow a British pith helmet would have seemed monstrously colonial. Nothing else he’d tried worked for him; killing heat was never something he’d worried about in Petrozavodsk. Back home, you wore hats to keep your ears from freezing.

Despite the broiling air, he pedalled hard. The motor he’d had to repair—an irrigation pump—had taken much longer than anticipated, and lunch would be served in fifteen minutes. He’d already lost any chance of washing up, and lunch was the one meal that no one would ever dare to miss, or one would face the director’s wrath.

Fortunately, the road had just been paved with a kind of biodegradable rubber that, compared to the old dirt track, made him feel like he was moving at a million miles an hour.

He skidded to a halt in front of the gleaming reflective glass of the administration building, dropped the bike on the ground and checked his watch. He was late, but not terminally so.

He turned to run towards the Shady Vale, the grassy depression surrounded by trees that served as a communal cafeteria, when he noticed Jennifer Ward exiting the building carrying a pair of folders under her arm. When she saw him she looked as flustered as he felt. But that was understandable: his own tardiness would be forgiven due to distance and complexity; hers would cause comment.

He gave her an encouraging smile. “Come on. Maybe if we both walk in together, she’ll go easy on us.”

Jennifer laughed, a nervous sound, and put the folders in her backpack. “I hope you’re right.”

As they filed between the tables, every eye followed them. There was no way around it, but maybe he could draw the fire himself and allow Jennifer to find her place unnoticed. He stopped in front of the director’s table and addressed Siti. “I’m sorry I’m late. The pump took longer than I expected.”

To his relief, she nodded her approval. “But it’s working now?”

“Yes. And it should stay that way.”

“Good. That pump is critical for the Line.”

The Line. Everyone else in the world called it the Great Green Wall of Africa, a barrier of trees several kilometres wide just south of the Sahara. It had been credited for holding back the expansion of the desert through the worst spasms of the Climate Crises. The people who’d worked there in the past fifty years, heroes like Philippa and Oscar, had called it the Front Line ... and the name, at least the “Line” part of it, had stuck. Now, the complex, once a central administrative node for the tree-planting project, was working on a completely different kind of climate change technology, but they were still on the bleeding edge.

“I know.”

“Thanks for taking care of it.”

“It was my pleasure.” He turned to find his seat. It would have been randomly assigned, so he might have to search for it.

“Yevgeny?”

“Yes?” he turned back.

“Why don’t you take a buggy for yourself? They’re all solar, so they don’t pollute, you know.”

She was teasing him, of course. He was the one who kept the complex’s cars running. “I’m fine with the bicycle. It keeps me in shape, and it’s not as if it ever rains around here.”

Now he was teasing her, and the faces around the table registered surprise. First he was late, and now this.

But Siti took the barb in stride. “For now,” she replied.

• • •

“Yes,” Yevgeny told Adjo impatiently. “I know it’s supposed to be in stock. I can read an inventory just as well as you can. But it’s not there.”

“What did you use it for?”

“I didn’t use it. Someone else must have taken it.”

“That’s silly. You’re the only one who needs those.”

The piece of flat glass he needed was not something he’d have forgotten he used. It was the smallest high-efficiency photovoltaic variably transparent piece of glass in the world, created in the lab across the path by the only people who knew how to build it. But more importantly, it was a circle thirty centimetres across that only fit onto the skylight at the top of the office area, to shine light straight onto the director’s desk. The climb up to that particular point of the roof was a nightmare, and he’d put off attempting it until Siti really got on his case.

And when she did, the niche holding the replacement part was empty.

“I think someone stole it,” Yevgeny said.

That shocked the other man. “Who would do such a thing?”

“How should I know? Maybe someone who wants to reverse-engineer one of the most advanced pieces of technology on the planet?”

“Look. If you lost it, just say so. I’m sure the lab will build you another one. They like to show off.”

“I’m telling you, I didn’t lose it, I didn’t break it, and I most certainly am not going to let this one pass. If we have a thief in the colony, or someone working for one of the corporations, we need to find out who it is.”

Adjo still seemed unconcerned. “It’s just a piece of glass.”

Yevgeny sighed. “I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it’s the key to a lot of things. If one of the corporations gets ahead of our research cycle, it could undo years of good. Now kick this one up the ladder, will you?”

Adjo nodded. “All right. I still think it’s a waste of time, but if you feel it’s important, I’ll take it up with the director. But don’t blame me if she ignores it.”

“Thank you.” His supervisor could often be slow about technological issues, but once he gave his word, it was as good as gold. He would take it up, and make the case for an investigation as best he could.

Yevgeny walked back to his workshop, cursing the paper-white skin that kept him under cover unless he was slathered in sunscreen. He’d made the mistake, just a couple weeks before, of believing that he’d been in Africa long enough that he could work without a shirt. The resulting blistering and lobster-coloured skin had been painful, but not as much as the condescending kindness of the men and women around him. Even the other non-Africans seemed to do better in the sun than Yevgeny, but the response that hurt the most was Siti’s understanding smile and assurances that he’d get used to the sun eventually, but that he should probably work up to that point, using ever-lower SPF factors until he found the one that worked for him.

At least the workshop was a beautiful place to spend one’s working day. Open to the breeze on three sides—although the glass doors could be closed when needed—the structure appeared to have been built out of gossamer and spiderwebs. Thin metal tracings, interwoven with the surrounding trees, supported a solar roof array that powered all his equipment. For delicate jobs that required a dust-proof environment, a paint and work cabin was tucked behind the workbenches, which, themselves, had been built of wood from the Green Wall.

Troubled by the loss of the panel, Yevgeny went back into the storage area—basically just a big closet behind the paint cabin—with a datapad on whose screen the inventory list was displayed. He spent his afternoon checking every single cubbyhole. His stock of screws and minor parts was way off, but that was his own fault. He never remembered to update the inventory when he used those—he was always in a hurry, and who would worry about a couple of bolts here or a T-bracket there?

The rest of the inventory looked OK, even the expensive drone parts, except ... there was a solar supercooler missing that he didn’t recall having fitted onto anything. This was a part about the size of a datapad whose function was to turn the energy of the ever-present sunlight into electricity that ran a powerful compact cooling system. It was eminently portable, but also obsolete—Siti’s drones had begun to carry a new version, lighter and more powerful, when they went up and, since none of those had broken yet, he hadn’t asked the lab for replacement parts.

Then he smacked his head. “Yevgeny,” he reminded himself. “You are an idiot. That is why you will always only be a mechanic.”

The supercooler was only obsolete there, in that small village of less than five hundred people who worked and lived in the complex. The lab—run by twenty material scientists, complete with teams of assistants, who’d come from all over the world to work under Oscar and Philippa, and who now reported to Siti—held some of the most advanced manufacturing equipment anywhere. But more importantly than that, the researchers within knew what to do with their machines. Anywhere else on the planet, the missing part would be the most advanced compact cooling device anyone had ever seen.

Even Yevgeny was hesitant to take apart components delivered from the lab. Of course, after he grew familiar with how they functioned, he would usually attempt a dissection ... but semiconductors and superconducters were not something he could fix with a wrench, even if he understood how they worked in conjunction with the rest of the electronics around them.

Well, at least he would become obsolete with his eyes open.

In the meantime, he needed to think. The supercooler was likely long gone, mailed out of the complex through their community courier service, but he wanted to try to figure out who’d had the opportunity to take the missing parts before he went to Adjo again. He thought best while either working or on his bike ... and it wasn’t time for his ride just yet.

There were only a couple of jobs left to do. The first was to replace the nav chip on one of the buggies. That, due to some boneheaded design or a misguided belief that nav chips would never fail, was an arduous task that involved removing a good chunk of the forward bulkhead.

Yevgeny whistled a tune and began dismantling the car. He tried to understand who might have a reason to take things from the complex. Most thefts, he knew from having spent his early childhood during Russia’s Transition, came from a lack of money. That, of course, might still be a good motive, but in the complex—and in Chad itself, and in the rest of the Wall Treaty Nations—money was no longer used. He believed that the nearest place that still used any kind of currency was Senegal, but he couldn’t be sure. Then what? Nationalism? That was still alive and well, even after the Consolidation ... but everyone was vetted thoroughly before they were allowed to remain.

He had a hard time coming to any conclusion and before he knew it, an hour had passed and he was done with the chip. He looked up at the wall display ...

Time for his ride.

The complex was a melting pot of several religions. The Christians went to church—a long and dusty ride—every Sunday, and the Muslim majority had several prayer halts each day. Yevgeny had only one sacred ritual: every evening, at exactly six in the evening, he’d drop everything and take a one-hour bike ride along the paths and roads around the complex and the airfield. It was the one period of the day when his comm was off, and he wouldn’t do anyone any favours. The cool predusk wind, humid and, if not quite brisk at least less hot, represented glorious relief from the oppressive heat.

And he left at six o’clock precisely even if that meant, as it did on that day, that Philippa would only get her blender working again tomorrow.

His mind worried the problem of the missing parts, but he couldn’t come to any conclusion. He knew everyone involved in the project and he couldn’t imagine anyone betraying it. There were all sorts of people at the complex: friendly, taciturn, engaging, shy, sullen, even a few who were openly aggressive and disliked the decision to allow a Russian into the project—and took that out on Yevgeny himself. But even though he didn’t get along with all of them, he couldn’t imagine one being a traitor.

He arrived tired, sweaty and no closer to finding an answer than when he’d set out, to find Siti leaning against one of his workbenches. She’d abandoned her usual Maasai attire for a dark business suit which, if possible, made her look even more fabulous.

“I’m sorry you had to wait,” he said. “I always take a ride at this time.”

She smiled, perfect white teeth contrasting brilliantly with her skin. “I know. And it’s always exactly one hour. I only just arrived a minute ago.”

“Oh,” he didn’t know whether he should be worried or honoured that the director knew his habits. “Can I help you?”

“I have a couple of questions about the missing glass. I’ll make it quick, because I know you like to clean the workshop and shower before dinner.”

“Don’t rush on my account. It’s pretty clean.” He told her about the missing glass, and also about the cooling element.

She listened grimly. “Too much coincidence.”

“That’s what I thought, too.”

“All right. We’ll have to look into it, but that’s not the reason I came here. Can you set up a charging station for the drones? I want to be able to charge all sixteen of them simultaneously and solar-only charge is taking too long.”

He thought about it for a moment. The drones could charge in an hour using the sunlight that hit them, but could be back up in minutes using the current generated by the much larger solar arrays of the complex. “I think so. Do you want to test them all at once?”

“We’re past that. I want to send them up with the grid.”

The supercooled netting that made up the grid was meant to catch and condense moisture in the air.

“You’re going to try to make it rain?”

There had been other efforts. Cloud seeding, static condensers. None of them had been successful on a large scale. The seeding, in fact, had failed completely, despite working perfectly in laboratory conditions. The lack of artificial rain, and their continued reliance on irrigation from groundwater was a running joke in the complex.

“Not yet. We need to test the full flight for a few weeks to see if they can hold the grid steady before we try to cool the grid.” Her half smile told him that there was something she wasn’t saying, but before he could ask, she went on. “How long do you think the charging station would take?”

“I suppose you want it somewhere without trees.”

The smile widened. “That would probably be for the best, yes.”

“I’ll get to work on it tomorrow. I’ll need to get some parts in from N’Djamena. I think probably ...” He did some calculations in his head. “Three days.”

• • •

Yevgeny forgot all about the missing parts as the sudden rush of work enveloped him. First, he set out the wiring he would need for the charging station—he’d selected a flat, dusty stretch about four hundred metres from the complex—and, despite the irony of it, he made sure the cables were well waterproofed. He set up sixteen posts, well separated from one another. The only thing missing were the special cables that would plug into each of the drones—those were the parts he’d ordered.

The drive to the capital required—to his chagrin—that he borrow one of the buggies. He hated them because he didn’t trust them ... it was spooky to think that the solar panels could power the vehicle with no fuel, no external power whatsoever. Even after the Transition, rural Russians trusted diesel with their lives ... solar was for city folk who weren’t at risk of being stranded in the snow a hundred kilometres from anything.

So he put off borrowing the car. Instead, he spent a much longer time than he should have machining the part for Philippa’s blender. But there was only so much he could do to a curved tube half the size of his pinkie finger, and he was soon driving along the dusty road.

The surface was sealed with biodegradable oils, ideal for the lightweight, well-sprung buggies, but the trip still took a long time and brought back memories that Yevgeny preferred to suppress. He was a different person when he’d first arrived from Russia, via N’Djamena, along that same road. Then, his head had been full of misconceptions, even if his heart was in the right place.

The sight of an umbrella thorn acacia brought that day back to him in vivid detail. It hadn’t even been that long ago. He’d hired a driver to bring him to the complex and, a few kilometres out, he’d seen an African woman walking steadily along the road.

He’d told the man to stop beside her and offered her a lift in tortured French. She’d declined with a smile, in English much better than his French—and also much better than his own English. Then he’d offered her food. She was tall and thin, and he thought she might be underfed. All he’d had was the remains of a hamburger from the McDonald’s at the airport.

This had been rejected with a laugh and the explanation that people in Chad tended to eat a much healthier diet ... and preferred real meat in their burgers. She’d walked away, leaving him bemused.

He’d been even more bemused when the woman he’d seen walking was introduced to him a few hours later as Dr. Siti Gisemba, the Kenyan Director of the complex ... and a legendary figure in her own right, despite being in her early thirties.

Talk about getting off on the wrong foot. The only good of it was that he knew he would never have a chance with her, so he didn’t spend too much time dreaming.

Five hours later, Yevgeny returned to the complex. The parts had been waiting for him in the office building that the Green Wall project had in N’Djamena’s modern downtown.

He would be able to finish constructing the charging station the following morning, and now he had a few minutes to spare before bicycle time came around. He headed straight for the small compound where retired members of the community lived in airy, beautiful houses surrounded by the living wall itself.

“I’m sorry this took so long,” he told Philippa.

The woman just smiled. “I hear you’ve been busy.”

He took the part he’d built and placed it in the open space left by the original. It was a nearly perfect match, but he wasn’t satisfied. Philippa watched him fondly while he filed the part until it was a precise match.

“You know,” she said, “I never thought you would fit in here. You looked too young, too eager to change things. I thought the rigid structure would get to you and you’d leave after a few months. But you’re here to stay, aren’t you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Not every young man from ... your background ... can live with the rules.”

“You mean sitting down to lunch at exactly the same time?”

“Of course. That and the fact that you exchange all your working hours for nothing other than room and board. Everyone here would be extremely well paid on the open market.”

He shrugged. “I’ve been on the open market. There’s nothing you can buy that compares to living here. I was scared it might not be all that was promised. My main worry was that Africa might be like the old movies. But this ... this is paradise.”

“If Siti has her way, the whole world will be like this someday. Most of Africa already is, as well as South America and Australia.”

He smiled. “Russia ... may take a while.”

“Maybe less than you think. There are a lot of initiatives already in place. Most of the big cities are getting there. We’re actually much more worried about Western Europe and North America.”

“They seem to do all right.”

“Perhaps, but by keeping up a monetary economy, they are actually slowing their pace of development and falling behind. Their people are doing well, but they’re still missing out.” She shook her head. “Part of that is the fact that they’re afraid to change, of course. But another part is that the environmental groups have grown too radicalized. You don’t get harmony like this by beating people over the head and blowing up banks. You don’t get it by using unlicensed technology to replace what communities are already using—and causing accidents that kill the very people you’re trying to convert. Harmony comes naturally from showing everyone how nice it is ... and by being together. That’s the real reason Siti forces us all to be punctual for lunch and dinner.” Philippa’s eyes twinkled. “She used to really, really hate being tied down for two hours. If it was up to her, she’d work all day without stopping.”

“So she does it for us.”

“Of course. And we do it for us, as well. And so do you. I’ve seen you pedalling furiously from miles away to arrive in time to wash before eating. You belong here because you understand ... and even if you didn’t understand the reasons behind the insistence until now, you never had to be reminded about the rule, and you never acted as if it was stupid.”

He finished adjusting the part and pressed the outer casing back in place. Then he tested the blender and was satisfied to hear a strong, steady whirring.

“That’s it. As good as new,” he said.

Philippa thanked him and he went off on his ride. After the long, nervous drive in the solar car, he needed to work the kinks out of his system.

But his mind refused to cooperate. There was something, something he’d seen or something he’d heard at Philippa’s that had made him uneasy, a feeling that he was missing something important.

He was back in the complex, riding past the habitation module when it hit him.

Of course.

He stopped suddenly, left his bike where it fell and entered the coral-like building. He rushed through the veins of stone that made up the interior of the apartment structure and stopped at the directory. The rooms he was looking for were located on the third floor.

Too impatient to wait for the elevator, Yevgeny sprinted up the steps three at a time. As soon as he located the door, he pounded on it, not bothering to locate the buzzer.

Jennifer answered. Her surprise at finding him looking like he’d just biked for an hour in the heat and then run up the stairs quickly faded, to be replaced by an expression of alarm.

She stepped back, turned towards the kitchen and took three steps forward. She tore open a drawer and reached inside.

“Don’t,” he said.

She stopped and looked back at him.

“Unless you have a gun stashed in there, you won’t be able to get rid of me. I grew up in Russia in the Transition. The first thing we learned as kids was how to defend ourselves against someone with a knife. I don’t want to have to break your arm.”

Jennifer glared at him.

“Besides,” he continued. “What are you hoping to gain? A couple of hours? Someone will notice I’m missing. Someone will remember me coming in here. They’ll find you soon enough. It’s over.”

And then she broke down, sat cross-legged on the floor still clutching the knife, and cried.

• • •

The two pieces of technology were, as Yevgeny had expected, long gone, but a couple of folders in the apartment turned up blueprints of things still in the works. They were things that Jennifer should never have had access to. Things that she must have taken off the director’s desk.

Siti sat down facing her.

“You have no right to violate my privacy this way,” Jennifer said, pretending anger. It was obvious, however, that she was actually scared and frightened.

“The folders were on the table. We haven’t even searched for anything else. You should let go of the knife.”

Jennifer looked at it as if she’d forgotten it was in her hand. She dropped it onto the floor and pushed it away.

“Thank you.” Siti gave her a hard look. “Do you want to tell me who you were working for?”

“Would it make any difference?”

“Not really. I won’t let you stay no matter who it was.”

Jennifer’s tears exploded from her once again. Yevgeny’s heart broke. He knew the woman had been there for years. Even though she’d been caught red-handed, he was sure the emotion was genuine.

“Is it a corporation?”

Jennifer’s sadness disappeared, to be replaced by rage, but it passed quickly. Defeat was the only thing she had left. “What do you take me for?”

“I took you for a loyal member of the community. Now ... you tell me.”

“I’m going to miss this place. You. Everything. I really do believe. But so many people don’t.”

“Oh.” Siti sounded sad.

It suddenly became clear to Yevgeny that Jennifer must be part of one of the many fringe groups determined to force their lifestyle on people who weren’t ready for it, or even particularly interested.

“I’ll just pack, then,” Jennifer said.

“Yes.” Siti turned to go, but stopped. “Wait. Before you go, I have a message for your ... people.”

“What?” There was defiance in Jennifer’s features now. She knew that no one would hurt her. No one would keep her from leaving. That wasn’t the way they did things there.

“Tell them that I’m willing to share everything we’re doing here. Both what’s already been done and what we’re developing. I’ll give them as much as the lab can produce. But I have one condition. They have to live here for a year, and see if they can’t learn from our methods as well. Maybe if they learn how to teach instead of how to dictate, people will listen to them. Tell them to send an emissary. Two or even ten if they want. You know we can feed as many as they can send.” Siti’s features hardened. “We’ll accept anyone but you.”

Now Siti did walk out. Yevgeny followed her; there wasn’t really anything for him to do in Jennifer’s apartment. He’d already done enough damage.

Out on the path, Siti allowed him to catch up. The woman’s stride was much too long for him, and he wasn’t going to run after her.

“How did you know?” she said.

“The day we were late for lunch ... she pretended she’d been working late. I knew you’d never let that happen. But I only realized it today.”

“You’re smarter than you look. Are you sure you don’t want to go to work in the lab? The offer is still open, you know. I know Hermes says he can use you. And I’m sure you can optimize the drone electronics if they give you access to the codes. I’ve been having trouble keeping them as steady as I’d like.”

“No thanks. I’m all right,” he replied.

• • •

Two days later, he took a day off. The drone recharging field had been a harder job than he imagined. There’d been a short-circuit somewhere, and it had taken him hours to track it to a cracked cable casing inside the complex itself. But it was done, and drones had been taking off and landing all day. He’d even seen the cooling mesh grid—the element that would, in theory, condense the water in the air—fly at one point. It was as big as a football field, but light enough that the drones could lift it and maneuver.

He chuckled. Siti was doing excellent work, but her obsession for controlling the weather would lead nowhere. Oscar and Philippa, two of the great minds of humanity, had beaten their heads against the problem for forty years and never gotten around it. Siti’s approach was a bit different, but it depended on too many variables to work. He just hoped the obsession didn’t distract her from more fruitful pursuits.

Of course, he could never tell her that directly. The closest he could ever come was to joke with her about it and hope she took the hint.

Even on his days off, the bike ride was sacred. He mounted at exactly six. There was still an hour left until sundown, and he saw that his hopes of Siti relaxing her urge to control the rain were in vain. She was still at it.

The drones, complete with condenser grid, lifted from the charging field as soon as he rode out of the complex.

The formation appeared tight enough, with each drone holding its position. Hermes must have rewritten the algorithms.

He watched until the individual drones were almost invisible in the sky, then set his eyes back to the road.

Fifteen minutes into his ride, a drop fell on his head. Then another.

Yevgeny looked around. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

Incredible ... Siti’s rig was working.

But that couldn’t be. She’d said she needed weeks of testing before she would turn it on.

And yet, another look into the sky confirmed it was the only possible explanation. Not one cloud. And now it was raining steadily enough to be annoying.

Well, at least he’d ride out of it in a hundred metres or so. The net wasn’t all that big.

Forty-five minutes later, he came to a stop in front of his workshop, soaked to the skin. It had rained on him the entire way.

Siti was waiting for him, her face expressionless.

“You made it rain on me all the way,” he said.

“Yes,” she replied.

“That was ...”

Siti finally couldn’t control herself any longer and burst out laughing. “It was what you deserved. That was what it was. You never believed.”

He was about to retort, but caught himself and lowered his eyes. “No. I didn’t.”

“Do you believe now?”

“Do I have any choice? The impossible can happen.”

“Yes. It can.”

Was that an opening? No. It couldn’t be.

But if it was, he would never forgive himself. “You owe me dinner for this,” he said.

“No. Not dinner. Dinner is a communal affair. You know that.” His heart sank. Just like that, in a second, she’d shot him down.

 She let the silence continue for another two heartbeats, and then she smiled. “But if you can get your hands on a bottle of something, I’d be up for a few drinks on the lab terrace afterwards.”

“I thought the lab closed after dark.”

Her smile broadened. “I have a key.”

He watched her walk off, admiring, as he always did, her perfectly straight posture. Then he snapped out of it. Dinner was in twenty minutes. He needed to change out of the wet clothes ... and where in the world was he going to get a bottle of anything good on such short notice?

Yevgeny sprang into motion.

Copyright © 2020 Gustavo Bondoni. Originally published in Italian in the anthology Solarpunk: Come ho imparato ad amare il futuro (Future Fiction Vol. 80)

Feature image credit:

Depositphotos

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Gustavo Bondoni

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer with over four hundred stories published in fifteen countries, in seven languages.  He is a member of Codex and a Full Member of SFWA. He has published six science fiction novels including one trilogy, four monster books, a dark military fantasy and a thriller. His short fiction is collected in Pale Reflection (2020), Off the Beaten Path (2019), Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011).

In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award.  He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest.

His website is at www.gustavobondoni.com.

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