Sergey LUKYANENKO
FROM FATE
 

 
He was afraid the office would resemble a hospital - with a vague smell of disinfectant, scrubbed walls, austere clothes, and stale cynicism in the eyes of the employees.
He also didn't want it to be a posh corporate headquarters: comfortably standard, with presumptious postmodern paintings of half-famous half-geniuses on the walls, soft rugs, leather furniture (with plastic underside seen where it wore through), saccharine friendliness of receptionists, and energetic young managers.
Most of all, he was afraid the place would be straining to "feel like home", God forbid - a-la Russe. Bookshelves tightly packed with books (as everybody knows, imported mock books are slightly more expensive than multivolume collected works of Russian classics), potted plants, overweight cat on a couch, tea from samovar, and TV set bubbling in the corner.
As a matter of fact, he didn't know what kind of setting he would like. A sombre witches' cave? An alchemist's cellar? A church?
How should a place where you can change your destiny, look?
Well, from the outside - it looked ordinary. An ordinary office door with a remote camera and lock, and a simple-looking sign. An old Moscow street, narrow with narrower sidewalk, hurrying pedestrians, and painfully slow traffic...
For him, there was only one way out - to come in. It wasn't much fun to stand on the street, in chilling February wind, at fifteen below. The cigarette was already burning his fingers. The remote camera was looking at him sarcastically. Do you have your little lamb... no, wrong song. Little donkey, are you afraid?
Oh yes. Sure I am...
He pressed the buzzer under the electronic eye. The door immediately clicked, unlocking. He paused, and entered.
Stairwell, the guard's desk. He didn't expect that the guard-receptionist wouldn't even pay attention to him. Instead, the man was immersed in a book, slowly letting go of the door control. The dim bluish monitor with a thrilling view of the winter Moscow street also didn't get much attention.
- Excuse me...
- Second floor, please, - said the guard, lifting eyes from the book. - Right there.
He climbed the stairs.
If the entrance suggested a corporate HQ setting, the second floor disappointed. More than anything, it resembled a shabby government-issue office space. Kind of bureau for design of self-propelled file cabinets. A long hallway, worn-out linoleum on the floor, brown walls with fake wood panels, on tightly spaced doors on either side, signs - "executive", "executive", "senior executive". He turned around:
- Excuse me...
- Second right door, - said the guard, putting away his book. - Go ahead.
- To the executive?
- Exactly.
At least, it didn't look like anything he expected. The second door to the right was invitingly half-open. Still, he knocked, and entered only after hearing "come in".
Inside, it resembled an underfunded government agency even more. An inexpensive desk, a cheap rotating chair, an old computer with a small monitor, and absolutely shameful dot-matrix printer, a phone... God, it was a rotary phone!
But the man in the office, young and rosy-cheeked, looked significantly more prosperous. The suit - not flashy, but probably bought in London, a fifty-dollar tie, a decent Swiss watch.
- Don't be surprised with how it looks, - said the man. - It's a tradition.
- What kind of tradition?
- Ours. You are Sors, right? You called this morning. Please sit down...
He nodded, and sat on a shaky chair. That's how he introduced himself this morning, no last name, just a suddenly remembered Latin word, even though he understood how thin was his anonimity when calling from his home phone... and still..
- My name is Ivan Ivanovich, said the young man. - I'm not kidding you! That's really my name, you want to look at my ID? Ivan Ivanovich, first and last name.
He put his ID on the desk, but Sors didn't dare to take it. He mumbled:
- I wouldn't want to tell you my name... Real name...
- Of corse, - Ivan Ivanovich readily agreed. - For me, you are Sors. What's the difference?
- I don't know... Maybe your accounts payable wouldn't like that... Ivanovich sternly pointed his finger at him.
- The accountants will not concern you in the least! The money isn't gonna change hands.
- But how...
- You know, I'm uncomfortable calling you by your name only, - suddenly said Ivan Ivanovich. - How should I call you then? Comrade Sors - too communist-y. Mister Sors - almost like the finacier... Can I call you Monsieur Sors?
The man whose name was now Monsieur Sors, nodded in agreement.
- So... - the young man put his chin on his hand, though for a moment. - How did you hear about us?
- From the free-ad paper...
- Yes, yes, you mentioned that on the phone... - Ivanovich absent-mindedly picked up his ID, put it into his jacket's inner pocket. - We work on the humanitarian basis. By our charter, we are a strictly nonprofit organization, "From fate".
- You know, - said Sors honestly. - When I hear about humanitarian basis, and nonprofit operations, I grab my wallet and hold on to it. Ivan nodded, smiling sadly:
- Regrettably... so often the status is abused... Anyway, Mr Sors, all we can offer, is to exchange some of your fate to some amount of somebody else's fate. We don't charge either side.
- Then what's your interest?
- Philantropy.
Ivan was smiling. Ivan was happy to see a client.
- All right, - nodded Sors. - Let's say I buy it. Tell me what it meant, to exchange your destiny?
- Sure. Let's say, the fate has some nasty surpise for you in store - an icicle falling on your head. Or serious problems in your business... or grave illness... or a major fight with your beloved wife... or a son getting hooked up on drugs...
With each unpleasantness, Ianovich tapped knuckles on the desk, as if beating it into the plywood.
- You would be most concerned with family problems. For another, his health or commercial success would be most important. Someone else fears the loss of his football team the most. You cannot run from the fate, and something bad is bound to happen... but you can exchange that. So! You are afraid you wife will find out you're cheating on her. Somebody else couldn't care less. What he's afraid of, is a screw-up in negotiations. So what you do, is you exchange the _risk_.
He emphasized the last word so forcefully that Sors repeated after him: - The risk?
- Exactly. If what you fear hasn't happened yet, if you are just expecting it to happen - you come here and tell us: 'I'm afraid of such and such, which could happen at such and such time'. And we find you a compltetely different problem with the same probability. That's it.
- Can I choose that other problem? - asked Sors quickly.
- No. You are getting rid of your very certain fear, right? Instead, you will have a certain risk, but of a completely different nature.
- How do you do that?- asked Sors.
- You held on rather long. - smiled Ivanovich. - Many clients start with that... Tell me, do you know what exactly electric current is? Or how a TV set works?
- I'm not a physicist.
- But that doesn't prevent you from turning the light on, or watching the news, or using a fridge?
Sors shifted uneasily. He was half-expecting that.
- I undestand what you are trying to say. But I'd like to be sure...
- About what? Are you a churchgoer? You're afraid it's Satanism? - Ivan Ivanovich scoffed. - I can assure you...
- Than what's going on? Who are you guys? Some kind of secret research facility?
- Dear me, what kind of secrets? - Ivanovich shrugged. - Our ads are all over Moscow, in every major newspaper.
- Then...
- Please don't say anything about extraterrestrials! - sighed Ivan. - All right?
- Then you are crooks, - said Sors with conviction.
- We don't charge anything. You don't have to sign anything. You can check easily. Well.. you are afraid of something, right?
Sors nodded. This was all so ridiculous. The stupid ad which he laughingly read aloud to friends. And then this ridiculous fear... and the office he happened to pass.
- I have to fly to Europe. On business.
- Yes, - benevolently nodded Ivanovich.
- And I'm afraid.
- Business problems?
- I'm afraid to fly! - burst out Sors. - It's a phobia. It's not funny, it's a disease...
- I'm not laughing, - said Ivanovich. - You already got the tickets?
- Yes...
- When do you fly?
He said, the full itinerary.
- Do you have any enemies who can place a bomb in the plane? - inquired Ivanovich.
- Don't be ridiculous!
- Then your risk is indeed minimal. All right, we'll find someone who isn't afraid to fly, and will exchange his fate with you for three and a quarter hours... and then three and a half for return flight... six hours forty five minutes total... do you mind having an extra half-hour for each take-off and landing?
- Can you make it an hour? - mumbled Sors.
- No problem. So, extremely small risk, but of almost certain death, the total length being ten hours, forty five minutes... Ok, you'll fly now with no problems.
Sors shook his head skeptically.
- It's not a psychoterapy, - Ivanovich sounded offended. - That's it, nothing will happen to the plane. If there were going to be problems with your flight, now it would happen with your exchange partner.
- What would happen to him?
- How should I know? Food poisoning. Mad dog bite. There's a lot of fatal but rare risks. By the way, food poisoning is not that uncommon. And believe me, for every notion, everything, there is a phobia in its own right. Someone is afraid of the daylight - that's "fengo"phobia. Someone is afraid to eat - that's phagophobia. Someone is afraid of ideas - ideophobia, afraid of the number thirteen - terdecaphobia, of railroad travel - "ciderodromophobia"... - Ivan stopped for a breather, and then added menacingly: - The most interesting, I find, is ergophobia. That's fear of work.
Sors couldn't help but smile:
- Are you a psychiatrist?
- Me? Not at all! I'm a manager. Just worked with that long enough...
- What are you managing?
- Souls.
- You are con men, - said Sors. - Really, I just don't understand what's in it for you...
- Come back after your trip, - said Ivanovich quite friendly. - Maybe you'll want more of our service?
- If my flight will be fine... and that's how it's going to be, most likely!- Sors hurried to add, - it won't prove anything.
- It would. You'll see.
At that, they parted. Sors still shook the "manager's" hand, but it felt ridiculous to say "see you", and an overkill to say "farewell". Con men, no doubt... but what's the point?
Once in the hallway, he couldn't stop himself from walking all its length; there was a small well-kept bathroom in the end; on his way back he kept close to the office doors. All of them were closed, and there were quiet voices behind all of them. "From fate", the non-profit organization, had no shortage of clients.
On his way out, a woman was going up the stairs, with a tired, tearful look. She didn't even glance at him... what kind of trouble was she trying to avoid, he wondered. Was her child going for a surgery? Or her husband going to leave her?
It's only the fate you can't run away from.
Sheremetyevo airport looked slightly dirty, as usual. Thankfully, it was winter - so no need in air conditioning, sorely inadequate as in no other airport in the world, save for Africa.
Sors held his customs declaration, looking for a place to fill it out. Too crowded. Too noisy. Too dirty. And no one is afraid to fly... except for him alone...
- Sir, - someone said in a small voice from behind. - Do you have some spare change?
For a moment, Sors forgot his fears. What he saw was too bizarre: a very young girl, maybe eight, not more than ten, pretty haircut, dressed expensively in trendy clothes, with small gold earrings, - panhandling.
Well, no wonder. The security at Moscow's main interenational airport would swiftly remove a more typical panhandler. It's like "well-off God for well-off gentlemen". Only it's well-off hobos for the well-off.
- Why aren't you at school? - asked Sors and lookd in her eyes.
- It starts at nine.- the girl informed him, and, losing any interest for him, moved on. Sors looked at her back, both wanting to shame her, and feeling some squeamish pity for her, a young, not poor at all, but professional panhandler nonetheless.
That was the moment the world split in half.
He turned away from the girl. He found a surface and rapidly filled out the customs form... weapons.. illegal drugs... currency... books... antiques... computer media...
He was sitting in a darkened room, dusty curtains turned early morning into night. A phone was on a desk in front of him, an ordinary old phone, and he couldn't tear his gaze from it, because if it rings now... if it rings...
Sors went to the ticket counter, dived into beeping detector frame (of course, he forgot to get the keys out), sat on a gate bench.
Sors sat, touching the phone's white matte plastic. He stopped himself from picking the receiver to hear the dial tone, to make sure the line is working.
Sors was walking down the long intestines of the passenger bridge and into the plane.
Sors put his head on the desk and stared at the phone. Too bad there is no number written on it.
Who did he exchange the fate with? Who is waiting for the phone call, and why is it that scary?
Doesn't matter. Now the plane isn't going to fall down. He switched the fate with the phone call man. Swapped the risk of plane crash to the risk of the phone call... very small risk, if Ivanovich is to be believed...
He wasn't afraid of any phone calls. He hated when the phone was off. Sors wal watching the phone with curiosity and lazy expectation.
The man who swapped fate with him wasn't afraid to fly. As Sors looked at the receding buildings, the horizon moved as the plane turned, the trembling tip of the wing.
When flight attendants rolled out the carts with breakfast, he smiled, looking at the clouds out the window.

***

His second visit was much easier. Sors didn't hesitate at the entrance. He touched the buzzer, pulled the door that seemed to open in a friendly way.
- Come in, - greeted him the receptionist. He even seemed to recognize the visitor.
Sors didn't have to ask directions. The second door to the right was half open again. Ivanovich, the engineer of human souls, was at the window, looking out at the grey, partially melted snow.
- Yesterday, two people broke their legs right there, - said he. - Can you imagine that? Not drunk, or anything. Just like that... How are you doing, Mr. Sors?
- How are you.
He still didn't offer his hand to Ivanovich. It wouldn't feel right - as if he would accept defeat.
- How did it go? Were there any problems?
Ivan Ianovich wasn't being ironic. He gazed intently, curiously, as if hoping to hear complaints.
- No, - Sors shook his head. - No problems, everything really worked.
Ivanovich widely smiled, and nodded to a comfortable chair that replaced the old shaky one. The telephone on the desk was a shiny Panasonic. The company was obviously on a winning streak.
- Do I owe anything to you? - asked Sors before sitting down.
- Not at all. We are humanitarian non-profit project.
Sors sat down. Ivanovich got to his post behind the desk.
- It can't be, - said Sors. - I don't understand how you do it... I don't even understand what is it exactly you are doing! But there is no free cheese. Anyway, just maintaining your office...
- Monsieur Sors, - said Ivanovich disapprovingly. - Please, don't offer us any money or services. Otherwise, we would have to terminate all our dealings with you.
- What dealings?
- Future ones. You came here to swap you fate again, right?
There was no point in lying. The prepared speech ("I don't really need that, but I'd like to feel again what and how you are doing") felt incredibly false.
- Yes. I'd like to swap my risk.
- Flying again?
- No. - Sors stumbled. - That would sound silly, I guess...
- Love? - quietly asked Ivanovich. - Not at all, Mr. Sors. Love is the most wonderful of human emotions. So beautiful and so tragic, so much is intertwined. Divine purity and mean intrigue, saintly sacrifice and disgusting treachery. Very, very often we see people who come here to save their love... What are the chances?
- What? - there was too abrupt a change from high style to accounting. - Chances of what?
- That you would be rejected.
- I don't know.
- Tell me everything, Mr.Sors.
Thing like that are told either to close friends or to total strangers. But Sors started to talk. Sparing no detail. At some point he found himself pulling a picture from the wallet, while Ivanovich pats his back, nods, and says something to pep him up.
The story was old as world. Banal as world. A year ago, he divorced. It was an amiable divorce. He left his wife apartment and car, called on holidays, and sent flowers on her birthday. Sors was lucky - he was generally lucky. Their love died before he fell in love again. They had no children. There were no financial worries - he was making a bunch. There was only one problem - the woman for whom he left his beautiful, smart, andall-around great wife wasn't that eager to marry him.
Did he see things, or did Ivanovich's eyes twinkle?
Finally, he said. - I would estimate your chaces as twenty-twenty-two per cent. The women of this type... Oh, I'm not trying to imply anything... but they are not very attracted to married life. She should really love you.
- That's what I want!
- Not an affair but marriage, - nodded Ivanovich. - That's really great, Mr.Sors. You don't find that often nowadays! So - you got one shot out of five. Are you ready to swap you fate on these conditions?
There was something not quite right here.
- What kind of risk am I getting?
- Let's see what happens if you're rejected. - Ivanovich started his explanation unexpectedly eagerly. - You are not going to commit suicide, if she says no. You're not going to become an alcoholic, or become a hermit in the woods. You would just suffer - a year, maybe year and a half. So you risk is moral suffering for a year and a half... or what the heck: for a year.
- Why would I suffer?
Ivanovich shrugged.
- Ii shouldn't be an illness, - Sors gueassed aloud. - Not a death in family... I wouldn't forgive myself if my happiness would cost somebody that.
- Of course, - rapidly agreed Ivanovich. - Me don't touch other people. It's your choice and your risk.
- She is going to be with me? - Sors wanted to make sure.
- Yes, - rapidly said Ivanovich. - Yes.
- I agree.
This time, everything was different. They met in a restaurant near Taganka, a decent if somewhat noisy place. From the first glance, Sors understood - she knows. She realizes why they came here, where they first met (two years ago but feels like yesterday; when he was younger he didn't believe this was a literal phrase). Women often sense beforehand when they are about to hear love confessed, and marriage proposal almost never catches them by surprize.
They each drank a glass of wine, Sors was saying inconsequential things, she answered... and clearer and clearer he saw what her answer would be to his as yet unasked question.
And there still was no feeling of doubling. Maybe this time there wasn't supposed to be any, since Sors didn't specify time?
- Would you marry me? - asked Sors.
She looked him in the eyes for a long time. What are you waiting for, - Sors wanted to scream. Your parents want us to marry more than anything in the world. You girlfriends are mad of envy. All your clothes are bought on my money. You are a student of a second-rate college, and I'm not old yet, I'm well-off, I love, I adore you...
She slowly shook her head.
Mobile phone rang in Sors's coat pocket. He grasped at the phone to delay her answer a little bit. The said word becomes a fact, but while it's not yet uttered - anything is possible.
- We got a problem, - his partner said, not even bothering with hello. His voice was such that it was clear - a problem, indeed. - Our train was stopped at customs.. there are some problems with declaration.
He knew what the problem was, as did Sors. But you don't discuss that over the phone.
- I'm busy right now, - said Sors.
- Are you out of you mind? - shouted his partner, seizing the opportunity to go from depression to anger. - Do you understand what happened?
Sors turned the phone off. Looked at the girl again. And said:
- Seems like my business is over with. Underestimated the risk. Anyway. Will you marry me?
- Are you serious?
- Yes.
- About your company?
Sors nodded. Ans saw her eyes becoming warm al last.
- Than what are you doing here? It's not a time to play with toys.
- You never were a toy for me, - said Sors. And realized - suddenly, amaized, that she really didn't see what was obvious to him. She was not a toy for trips to tropic islands and night spots. For him, she is all the world. All life.
She took his hand in hers, and whispered:
- If you go to prison, I'll divorce you. I'm young and hot thing.

* * *

Sors didn't go to prison.
It was a close call. The company alomost crashed, the chief accountant lived on heart medication. Sors was called for questioning several times a week. Later, he had to promise to stay in town - right before the wedding. It wasn't a very merry wedding - the relatives were shell shocked, most business contacts ignored the invitation, the partner rapidly and expertly got drunk. Later, the chief accountant was arrested and then released. The partner disapperaed from Moscow, together with whatever cash was left. The investigator, young and energetic, either new and honest, or successfully pretending, said to him:"I would bet ten to one you would go to jail. Not for long, for a year - year and a half.Almost for sure.
But Sors didn't go to jail.
Exiting a door with a modest ofiice sign, he slipped on a remaining almost melted snow (who knows how it survived till April), and ended up with a complicated fracture. The pain was horrible, he fainted. He underwent surgery, the broken pelvis bones were connected, the hip head was put on a titanium bolt. He spent almost half a year in a hospital; the hospital was expensive, but still - half a year of bed rest. His wife visited every day, right after classes, foolish girl who so unreasonably married a bankrupt businessman. She brought fruits, soup, burned cookies. Expertly performed oral sex - for a while Sors was incapable af anything else. Started him on reading Hesse and Wodehouse. Complained how lonly and sad she is in their big apartment, told him "news from the frontline".
The young investigator lost any interst to Sors. His partner, who signed the illegal contracts, was declared wanted by Interpol. The accountant quit. But the company survived, barely, and even made a small profit, and after the hospital, Sors's young wife sat late in the office, trying to restore trust, and link the severed ties.
Sors sat in bed, watched TV and remembered Ivanovich. "Do you agree to swap the fate based on eight percent of luck? You aren't going to jail, I promise."
Betting ten to one.
Eight per cent.
Sors was smiling.
October was warm, unusually warm for Moscow. Sors left the car two blocks from the office, near the metro station; it would be difficult to park closer, and anyway his doctors recommended to walk more. He nodded to the receptionist and limped up the stairs to the second floor.
The engineer of the human souls Ivanovich (stress on the second syllable) met him at the door. Shook his hand, even tried to help him sat in the chair.
- Don't, - said Sors.
Ivanovich nodded. Said sadly:
- You were an interesting client. You came to say good-bye, right? Sors nodded. Then asked:
- Is everyone done after third time?
- Differs, - deflected Ivanovich. - Well, tell me, Mr.Sors, why everybody is so upset by these two percent? It's not a big commission. Services like ours would be so expensive in monetary terms... I;m afraid, most people wouldn't be able to afford that. And here we collect just two percent!
- I don't really know, - answered Sors. - What is your cut?
- Half a percent from each client, - admitted Ivanovich. - The rest goes up. You understand. How often the rich and famous die in accidents, get fatally ill, lose their dear, get caught in scandals?
- Well, it happens, - retorted Sors.
- You just don't know what should be happening, - Ivanovich whispered conspiratorially. - Well... Have a happy life.
- Thank you, - Sors heavily climbed out of the chair. - Have a happy fate yourself.
The shook hand, quite friendly.
At the doors, Sors stopped and asked anyway:
- Tell me, Ivanovich, do happy people come to you? To swap happiness they don't need to the one they need?
- Oh no, Mr. Sors! - Ivanovich raised his hands. - Is there such a thing as unnecessary happiness? In this case, it's salled suffering. Mr. Sors, anyway, sooner or later...
- No, - Sors shook his head.
- You cannot get away from fate, - reminded Ivanovich.
- You are not the fate, - Sors made a step to the door, but still added: - You are just two percent of fate.
 

Sergey LUKYANENKO
FROM FATE
 
 
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