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Countdown

by Bruno Vitiello

Last day of Pisces: 8:30 a.m.

Sagittarius is already up and causing a terrible commotion in the bathroom. I’m already awake, but I don’t dare get up. Yesterday evening, when I consulted Astrologer before going to bed, it warned me in no uncertain terms not to get out of bed before 8:55 a.m. Fortunately, that just keeps me from getting up, not waking up, which would have been more difficult to control. I would have preferred to sleep until the appointed hour, though. I hate lying in bed awake, inactive, like somebody that’s ill. But there’s nothing else to do before nine.

I stick my head under the pillow while the bath water roars next door. When you’re married, the worst annoyance is when horoscopes don’t mesh. People shouldn’t share the same apartment, period. In my view, every citizen of the Dome should have his or her own personal space. If Astrologer did not require us to live together, Sagittarius and I would be living on our own. I hear her when she gets out of the shower. She starts doing something in the kitchen.

I glance at the electronic alarm clock on the night table. It reads 8:50 a.m. Five minutes to go. I tense up like a spring, ready to leap out of bed. 8:55. Finally.

With a quick flick of my hand over the night table sensors, the dark curtains in the room disappear. The morning light immediately assaults my eyes and makes me wince. I have no time to acclimatise. I have only five minutes. Yesterday, Astrologer laid out a very precise program for me, as usual. I have to consult my morning horoscope at exactly nine. I seat myself at the terminal in the middle of the room.

REQUESTING HOROSCOPE FOR AQUARIUS WITH SCORPIO IN THE ASCENDANT, I enter on the keyboard. I furnish Astrologer with my basic vital statistics: place, date, and exact time of birth. REQUEST BEGINNING AT 9:00 ON THE LAST DAY OF PISCES 4491.

I watch the clock in the upper right-hand corner of the dark screen impatiently. It isn’t yet nine on the dot. The few remaining seconds whiz by…

There! Nine. Let’s see what the stars have in store for me today, on the last day in the astrological year-

YOU WILL DIE WITHIN 24 HOURS

Last day of Pisces: 11:00 a.m.

I have been roaming around in the botanical gardens on the seventh level of the Dome for two solid hours. I’m alone, my mind in turmoil. I don’t dare believe what popped up on the terminal screen. Could it be wrong? I just got up; I might have still been drowsy. It could be wrong about me. I haven’t even verified it. I haven’t even repeated the horoscope request. I turned off the terminal, dressed in a rush, and ran out without a word. Sagittarius didn’t even have time to notice my sudden agitation. My hasty departure from the apartment probably meant nothing to her; after all, it might just have been an order from Astrologer. In the Dome, we’re not accustomed to judging the behaviour of others. Astrologer directs everyone’s actions, which makes for security. Astrologer can’t be wrong.

Why then? Why did it predict something like that? All I did was request the morning’s horoscope. Why did Astrologer condemn me to death? That succinct phrase has left me unsure of how to act. But then, it doesn’t matter if I must die in twenty-two hours, or later – I’ll die someday, anyway. Better now than later, right?

No. That’s crazy. I was likely mistaken in reading my horoscope.

Last day of Pisces: 11:55 a.m.

Sagittarius isn’t at home. Her horoscope has probably ordered her to go out, who knows where. It’s better that way. I don’t want her around for my second try.

I feel a knot in my throat while I key in my data. REQUESTING HOROSCOPE FROM 12:00 ON THE LAST DAY OF PISCES 4491.

Come on, Astrologer. Tell me what to do. Don’t give up on me. Please, please…

YOU WILL DIE IN 22 HOURS.

Last day of Pisces: 3:00 p.m.

I tried and tried and tried, hundreds of times, sweat mixing with tears. It was always the same thing, an unvarying luminous epitaph kept popping up on the terminal’s dark screen. Astrologer can’t be mistaken.

Sagittarius has not come back yet. But when she does, she won’t find me around. There isn’t a connection between us any longer. I’m not Aquarius A any more, a Scorpio, citizen of the Dome. Now I’m nothing. I no longer exist. I’m merely waiting for my destiny.

In 18 hours.

Last day of Pisces: 10:00 p.m.

It’s a mockery that my sentence was pronounced today when everyone else is having a party, on this last day of Pisces.

I wander aimlessly through the streets and squares of the Dome. Everywhere I see people in bright costumes, happy and excited. Multicoloured lights brighten up the streets. I hear a muffled echo, amplified by the immense vault of the Dome. A sound punctuated with shouts and laughter comes from the amorphous crowd silhouetted against a thrilling backdrop of illuminated squares. To one side the sea of lights glows more brightly than elsewhere. It’s the Great Square on the fourth level. A number of people authorised by Astrologer will gather there tonight to dance, feast, and see off the old astrological year, with only the slightest hint of melancholy.

I lose myself in the crowed, and try to enjoy myself, but I can’t share in their happiness.

„Best wishes!“ people in gaudy clothes and weird masks shout at me.

I’m the only one wearing a simple tunic with my zodiac embroidered on the chest. When the astrological year draws to a close, we all lose our identity, and no one has to recognize anyone else. In this transitional time, in this grey area where everything is uncertain, even Astrologer seems to be silent and waiting.

The streets leading to the Great Square are getting crowded. Men, women and children pour in from all directions, bump into one another, are yelling, laughing. The crowd gobbles me up and carries me away in the press. That’s what I want. I want to lose myself in a formless mass of faceless individuals, happy partying people who think of tomorrow as a vague concept, not an appointment with death. But still, amongst them, I feel an absurd hope wash over me for a moment.

This is, after all, the night of the shadow, the transition, when even Astrologer falls silent and rests.

The impulse of hope gives rise to a thought: if I try to request my horoscope from one of the public terminals lining the street maybe…

As if by magic, the current of the crowd brings me near a familiar keyboard and dark screen. I elbow my way through the masses to reach it. No one pays me any attention as I frantically enter my data. REQUESTING HOROSCOPE BEGINNING 9:00 PM ON THE LAST DAY OF PISCES 4491.

Please, Astrologer. Tell me it was all a mistake. Change your prediction on this one single special evening. Show me that you can change your mind. I don’t want to die, Astrologer. Not so soon.

YOU WILL DIE IN 12 HOURS

Last day of Pisces: 10:00 pm

I keep wandering around under the huge structure of the Dome. Up and down large elevators, along moving sidewalks – I realize, though I’ve lived in this place all my life, I never came to know it at all. It would take more than a lifetime to explore the whole Dome, every corner, every street…

I walk through peaceful, silent squares where water, gushing from luminous crystal fountains, echoes golden in a still atmosphere. I walk amongst huge steel and crystal buildings with rounded domes, sharp pinnacles, immense spanning arches, grandiose entrances.

I pause in wonderful gardens irrigated by artificial streams. I drink from fountains with carved signs of the zodiac. I admire enormous statues representing stars and planets, and feel the need to engrave and imprint on my memory as many details as possible. I want to take in the whole Dome, everything I have set eyes on, heard, experienced in my 35 years.

An elevator whisks me up and up toward the highest panoramic tower on the 30th level.

I’m atop the Dome, at its summit. It’s only from here that I can admire the black sky enveloping the Dome like a shroud adorned with eternal luminous jewels. The big lens covering the terraced roof allows me to witness the universe in all its glory: the stars, the moon, the planets, all of them arranged in unchanging constellations. My destiny is bound up in those complicated patterns of celestial bodies, arrangements which only Astrologer knows how to interpret.

Thousands of feet below me, I can here the Dome’s inhabitants breathe as one entity, millions of people dancing, laughing, living – all of it will soon disappear into the darkness and silence, at least for me.

In less than eleven hours.

Last day of Pisces: 11:00 p.m.

Unbelievable. I have found a quiet, out-of-the-way place on the tenth level, an oasis of peace in tonight’s orgy of happiness.

I’m sitting on the bank of an artificial pond in a children’s game park. Normally it’s a very boisterous place, but tonight it’s deserted. I can feel free to toss pebbles into the pond’s emerald-green water, and be hypnotized by the concentric rings rippling across the calm surface. Calm. It’s the only thing I want at the moment. For the first time since this morning I’ve been able to clearly ponder my situation. Cautiously and clearly, I should say. The idea of dying in less than ten hours makes me anxious; it causes a lump to form in my throat and tightens my stomach. But it’s a reality I should get used to.

I did not think I could accept such a deadly prediction so easily, even though my lifelong education has pushed me in that direction. Until the age at which we begin to reason, we are all used to putting our greatest trust in Astrologer’s absolute, all-seeing power. I wonder how many others have received notices of their imminent deaths. It seems absurd to me that this privilege is reserved just for me. I see no reason for it. Everyone condemned in this way is most likely warned at the right time by Astrologer. Or not? I’ll never know. Consulting a horoscope is an intimate, personal matter. No one would dare look over someone’s shoulder as she accesses the information. Talking about one’s own horoscope is considered obscene. It’s all between you and Astrologer. Always.

The din from the party on the Great Square reaches me faintly. Distance has tempered it into a powerful murmur resounding throughout the Dome. I can almost make out Astrologer’s voice in it, the voice of the Great Magician calling me, wanting me… Suddenly, I conceive of an absurd notion to pre-empt the moment of my death. I look around. There’s nothing handy here for a suicide, but I could drown myself in the pond water. It’s deep enough in the middle…

No, I can’t. The allotted moment has not yet arrived. I shouldn’t even be thinking about it. My suicide is a mathematical impossibility, at least for now. What must happen will happen at the exact moment that has been predicted for me. Astrologer leaves nothing to chance. It knows.

I head toward the nearest terminal next to a flowerbed of synthetic plants. I desperately need to know what to do, how to spend my remaining time. Maybe Astrologer will speak, finally. I shouldn’t lose hope.

With trembling fingers, I punch up the nth horoscope request.

YOU WILL DIE IN 8 HOURS 40 MINUTES.

As I stare stupefied at the glowing letters, I start thinking about Sagittarius. Maybe she’s back home. I want to see her again. I have to see her again. I don’t believe Astrologer would object. Silence is tacit approval.

First day of Aries: 1:00 a.m.

It’s past midnight. The new astrological year of 4492 arrived an hour ago.

Sagittarius is sitting on the bed, wearing a multicoloured costume from the party when I enter the room. She stares at me silently, inquiringly. I return her gaze, unable to find words for her, or even the strength to talk myself.

„What’s happened to you?“ she finally asks. She’s irritated and nervous because I left her alone on the last day of the year. It never happened before, because Astrologer always advised us to spend it together.

Standing in the middle of the room, I keep my eyes on her. How can I tell her I’m going to die in eight hours?

„Well?“ she inquires, her arms crossed over her chest. „I’d like an explanation if you don’t mind.“

I wonder what her latest horoscope said. Evidently, Astrologer told her to wait for me at home, and forego the party in the Great Square. Who knows why? The designs of destiny are inscrutable to us marionettes.

„I’d rather not talk about it,“ I manage to mumble. I go over to the mobile bar and pour myself a strong drink, feeling as though I might faint in front of her.

„What do you mean?“ I hear her say behind me. „Did you think you’d get off lightly this way? I’ve been waiting for hours. I was afraid something might have happened to you.“

„No.” I replied. “Why should something happen to me? I’m fine.“ The laughter that escapes my lips has an edge to it.

„You’re looking weird, pale. Why did you leave without telling me? Where have you been?“

„It’s beyond my control.“ I take another long swig of whiskey. „I’ve been… around.“

„On Astrologer’s advice?“

„Not exactly. Let’s just say… yes, in a sense. It’s always Astrologer’s business, isn’t it?“

Sagittarius calmly gets up from the bed, the folds of her loose-fitting costume rustling, and comes up to me. She begins to tenderly stroke my sweaty hair. „What is it, Aquarius? What did Astrologer tell you?“

She seems unable to imagine what I have to tell her, or does she already know? She can’t.

I cup her face between my hands. I have to tell her, now, right away. I have so little time left.

„I’m going to die in a few hours.“

She looks at me perplexed as if she didn’t understand.

„Did you hear what I said? Astrologer predicted my death. My destiny will be fulfilled at nine on the dot, today.“

„What?“

„I’m going to die at nine o’clock. I’m sorry, Sagittarius, I had to tell you.“

Exhausted, I plop down on the bed. The stress I built up these last few hours has left me drained. Now that I revealed my secret and broke the taboo of sharing horoscopes, I feel relieved, even liberated.

„That’s not possible.“ She shakes her head.

„Check for yourself.“ I point at the terminal. „You already know my vital statistics.“

„That’s not possible“, she reiterates, like a chorus. Sagittarius rushes up to the terminal, and feverishly punches in the data on the keyboard. Her eyes are locked on the screen, mesmerized by the message.

YOU WILL DIE IN 7 HOURS, 30 MINUTES.

„Well?“ I pour myself another glass of whiskey. „Nothing can be done.“

A warm glow from the liquor is spreading through me. I decide to get seriously drunk. It seems the best decision to take at this point. Total anaesthesia while waiting for that finality.

She sits down next to me, tears welling up in her eyes. „It’s not true“, she mumbles flatly. “It can’t be true.”

„Astrologer-„

„Astrologer‘s nothing but a machine!” shrieks Sagittarius. “You shouldn’t let yourself be ruled by some perverse mechanism.“

I sit up, drunkenness suddenly dissipated. „What are you talking about? You sound like a -„

„A Decisionist.“ She finishes my sentence, as she defiantly wipes away tears with the back of her hand. „I believe in free will and self-determination.“

They say the Decisionist Church has many adherents among Dome citizens, and searches for wild answers to the uncertainties of its members’ lives, far away from Astrologer’s light. I would have never believed that Sagittarius was one of them. I didn’t have the slightest suspicion. This life is always full of surprises, I mused, even up to its very end.

I looked at her as if for the first time. „If you hadn’t owned up to it, I wouldn’t have known. How long have you been a … Decisionist?“

„A few months.“

„You’ve always behaved normally.“

„By force of will. We have to keep a low profile. Decisionism is considered an antisocial doctrine, as you very well know.“

„If it’s antisocial, there must be a reason.“

„It’s a doctrine that frees people. Dome inhabitants don’t want to be free.“

„Free from what?“

„Astrologer, for example.“

„Who’s been putting that stuff in your head, Sagittarius?“

She remains quiet and indecisive. She seems afraid of revealing her thoughts, of saying too much, then, „A very wise man. We call him father. He’s taught me a lot of things, like not to be afraid of Astrologer. He did this by showing me its true nature. He’s given me faith, serenity. I’d like you to talk to him. He might be able to help you.“

„You think so?“ I smile drunkenly, unable to believe what she is offering me.

„Please, let me take you to father. I’m risking a great deal here, but I’m doing this for you. I love you, Aquarius. I can’t bear to see you like this.“

„Okay,“ I cut her short. If I’m going to die in a short while, I might was well lower myself, and have a chat with a Decisionist. Maybe I’ll have a last laugh. I have nothing to lose. „Let’s go. Introduce me to this preacher.“

First day of Aries: 2:00 a.m.

Sagittarius took me to a small apartment on the second level. Alerted to our visit by videophone, father was waiting for us at the door.

„Welcome, my children,“ he mumbles in a very feeble voice as he carefully shuts the door behind us. „Be welcome.“ He leads the way through a gloomy hallway into a small room illuminated by plenty of azure lights. „Make yourselves at home, please.“ He points to a sofa. Taking his place behind a multifunction table, he crosses his hands on the dark plastic surface and stares at me in silence with a strange smile, as if he’s waiting for me to explain myself. This father is an elderly man with sparse white hair and piercing blue eyes, and is dressed in a simple tunic with Aries embroidered on the chest.

„You’re not afraid of sticking your neck out, father?“ I ask him outright. „I’m not a member of your sect. I could turn you in.“

Father Aries shrugs. „We have to run some risks, if we want to help our neighbours. I can see you need help, my son, and I’m willing to help in any way because you’re Sagittarius’ husband. She’s my most faithful lamb, you know. So out with it, Aquarius. What’s your problem?“

„I’m here because my wife insisted I come.“ I shoot a glance at Sagittarius, but she’s avoiding me. „Astrologer says I will die in-“ I consult my watch – „about seven hours. Personally, I only came here out of curiosity. I don’t really see how you can help me, father.“ I feel anxious, anguished, as if all the world is collapsing around me, but I try to appear calm and cold, invulnerable to this quack. I don’t want to give him the satisfaction, the pleasure, to see my weakness and the tears brimming under the surface. No one will know what I feel, including Sagittarius.

„My ability to help depends on you.“

„My destiny is written in the stars; there’s nothing you or I can do which will change what is about to happen.“

„You think that Astrologer has power over you?“

„It’s true,“ I say, „Astrologer has no power over me, but it can calculate what is already written in the stars. It can’t change anything, nor can it stop it. It can only predict what will happen next.“

Father Aries appears absentminded. His blue eyes are fixed on some point as if his mind is riveted to some mysterious thoughts. „What do you know about Astrologer?“ he finally asks.

„What everyone knows. All the data necessary for perfect predictions, based on interpretations of celestial positions, are stored in its memory. It’s the sum total of all the knowledge accumulated in the past by thousands of astrologers. By now, no human being could compete with Astrologer’s precision and exactness.“

„Then human astrologers existed before it?“

„Of course. But their forecasts were imprecise, fragmentary, unorganised. They couldn’t have Astrologer’s universal eye.“

„How long do you think Astrologer has existed?“ His trite questions are beginning to choke me up. I’m fighting the urge to beat that arrogant, stupid preacher, while all the time feeling death’s breath on my neck. I should shout out my fears, I should cry, but in the presence of this man I can’t. I must preserve my self-control. I don’t want Sagittarius to see me sobbing like a child.

„That’s not a mystery, either, father. It was built along with the Dome by the survivors of the Great Catastrophe. Our ancestors came to understand that the catastrophe was caused by a disturbance in the universal harmony, due to their ignorance of astral laws. They understood that only by living in complete harmony with celestial movements did they have a chance of survival. That’s why Astrologer was created, and the Dome still exists. We’ve learned to trust in a force greater than us.“

“ I can poke some holes in that one, my son.“ Father Aries presses an index finger against the surface of his desk. A section of the tabletop opens up with a soft click, to reveal a secret compartment. The old man takes out a well-worn book with yellowed pages.

„It’s quite ancient,“ he smiles. „We have a few books; they are our church’s greatest treasure, handed down to us through generations. What I’m thumbing through, for example, is a historical text. It talks about Astrologer.“

„Libraries have them by the dozen, father.“ I’m beginning to realise this man really has nothing to offer me. I again glance at Sagittarius, but she’s hanging onto the old charlatan’s every word and doesn’t notice me.

„They certainly don’t have books like this.“ He reverentially turns the pages. „A different argument is supported within these covers. Read it for yourself. Here.“

He hands me the book, turned to the first page. I’m curious to know what falsehoods this book contains, even though I’m finding it difficult to concentrate. I pull the book closer and read.

In a structure like the Dome, where one individual’s slightest mistake could prove fatal to the collective, there was no longer a place for individualism and self-determination. A closed system, in which an individual wanted to manage his own existence according to personal choices, was destined to be self-destructive. It was therefore necessary for citizens of the Dome to become reliant on a superior entity, a being above factions, that could organize their lives according to a perfect, fixed, and unchanging order.

Sociologists studied this difficult problem, but there really was only one answer. The Great Catastrophe, which changed the course of human history, smashed every sense of certainty. In the collective imagination, the religiously faithful, materialism, all political doctrines and ideologies gave way to a deep, inescapable sense of destiny.

Old-fashioned astrology, popular with the masses before the catastrophe, re-emerged with a vengeance. Divination by the stars drew an increasing number of disciples and priests from the cosmopolitan population of the Dome. Sociologists did not want to leave such a great tool of control in the hands of a few charlatans, so they patiently created institutionalized astrology, state-controlled divination, in which every citizen could take part. It was a democratic astrology that would counsel everyone day by day, or so the argument went. The Astrological Computer for the Dome thus came into existence, and became popularly known as Astrologer. It is huge liquid-metal computer build underground, where millennia of astrological knowledge, from the Babylonians’ divination methods to the last human astrologer Scorpion A. Balance’s treatise, could be stored.

That was the purpose of the first astrological computer, at least officially. In reality, as soon as the system became operational, many scientists expressed doubts about its ability to make even the simplest predictions, and warned of the very real danger of unrestrained control exercised by Astrologer over the Dome’s populace.

I toss the book on the table without any regard for its presumed antiquity. „What do you want to convince me for with this garbage? As far as I know, some lunatic might’ve scribbled these lines, or else it’s plain fiction. “My anger is growing as time passes and brings me closer to death. There’s a wild fury inside me. I’m afraid I could kill Father Aries with my hands, but no, I can only release my rage through words. I feel I can’t kill him now. “Astrologer legends are a waste of my time. They can all be true as far as I’m concerned, but they don’t change the course of events. The computer has been guiding our lives for centuries with infallible predictions. That’s a fact. No one can deny it.“

„It can be denied if it’s an ingenious scheme to disguise the controlling effect that machine has over our lives. Have you ever wondered about that?“

„Impossible. There are millions of us. No artificial brain, even the most infallible, could order our existence to such an extent. It would be much too complicated. There are too many variables.“

Sagittarius finally turns to look at me. „How can you go on living like that?“ she asks me in a broken voice. „Didn’t you ever want to be free, make your own decisions?“

„Don’t be stupid, please. Free will doesn’t exist. Freedom doesn’t exist. They’re all empty words.“

„We do have free will, my son“, intervenes Father Aries. „We can act in our own best interests.“

His imperturbable calm drives me crazy. It’s easy for him to talk so quietly – he didn’t receive Astrologer’s sentence. But I want to be quiet, too. I want to be stronger than this charlatan. I don’t want to lose my self-control. I must think this over. How can I embarrass him, using his dialectic against him?

„My response to that is a question, father,” I say. “Some guy is working as a technician at a farming facility. One day he falls into a hydroponic tank, drowns, and dies. Who made that decision? How would you interpret his death? Was it destined or was it random?“

„I’d say it was random.“

„Very good. Now answer me this. Has chance determined only the death of this individual, or has it affected his entire life?“

„Only his death,” Father Aries says. “We are free beings. We can decide our own life.“

„Wonderful! That man could decide his own life, but not his death. But remember, death is the only certainty he had. He couldn’t have known what the future had in store for him. Only death was certain on that one day. Now, if the only certainty in his life was beyond his control, what does that tell me about all the rest? If chance drowns me in a hydroponic tank, I have to be a technician at the farming facility in the first place. For that I first had to complete the required studies. Will I have chosen the studies and career that leads me to my death? Are these random variables, too? Can’t you see that chance is closely connected to determinism?”

“Don’t talk to me about free will, father. Freedom is merely an illusion.“

Sagittarius sobs.

“What is it, dear?” I say. “Does this upset you?“ She is a stupid little fool. „What’s with you?“

“Oh, Aquarius! Can’t you see that the machine could be wrong about you, that society might be wrong? You’re talking about destiny and death as if you have everything down pat, as if you can read the mysteries of the universe.“

„I don’t need to. Astrologer does it for me. I’m much more certain about death. I know the exact date and time of it. Now, if you’ll excuse me… “ I get up from the sofa. Time is going by. Fear grasps at my throat and stomach, but I want to exit elegantly. The last dignity I preserve.

Father Aries also rises, and steps forward to put a hand on my shoulder.

„Come back again tomorrow,“ he whispers to me. „When you learn the truth, we’ll be here to welcome you into our fold.“

„That won’t be necessary. I’ll be dead by then.“

First day of Aries: 4:00 a.m.

I’m on the 13th level. At the far end of Prediction Boulevard, Astrologer’s Temple rises into the sky, beckoning me to come cleanse my mind of the anxiety and confusion my conversation with that crazy old coot has left me with. Sagittarius’ sect has certainly weaselled its way into my mind, without me realizing it. I had no idea that those lies would upset me so.

I start down the boulevard, toward the imposing temple, glittering with strange hews in the light. Its four great doors are adorned with animal figures, sculpted with the finest craftsmanship: an eagle over the eastern door, a bull on the west, a lion on the south side, a dog on the north. Astral forces are imprisoned in those sculptures. No one can enter the Temple without their permission. A huge glowing globe sits atop the building’s central tower, which changes colour every day of the week to reflect the hue of the appropriate planet. Today, Tuesday, the globe gives off an intense reddish glow and the Temple walls burn with the red flames of Mars.

I stop at the enormous eastern door. The sculpted eagle stares down at me with white-hot eyes, filled with mysterious energy. I’m alone; the streets are deserted. Excited, I go up to the keyboard placed in the door between the eagle’s talons and punch in my data, never before having felt the need to consult Astrologer on its home ground. I just hope it will listen to me, before the hour of nine arrives.

The eagle’s eyes glow brighter, then the big doors slip aside noiselessly. It seems Astrologer has agreed to talk with me.

First day of Aries: 5:00 a.m.

I slowly make my way into massive deserted hall.

The exquisite mosaics on the floor represent the symbols of the planets, the stars, and esoteric astrological concepts like the sextile and trigon. I hesitate briefly when I spot a black cross representing death, in amongst all the other signs, and wonder whether I’m just wasting my precious time, or whether there is some meaning I can discover before I die. In the middle of the room is a terminal. I make my way towards it and enter my first question.

DOES FREEDOM EXIST?

On the immense dark screen that takes up the entire back wall of the temple, Astrologer’s answer appears.

FREEDOM IS AN ABSTRACT CONCEPT. IF YOU WANT TO KNOW CERTAIN REALITY, LOOK UP AT THE SUN, THE COURSE OF THE MOON, THE ORDER OF THE STARS.

I enter another question.

WHO DECIDED MY FATE?

THE POSITIONS OF THE STARS. EVERY FORCE RADIATING DOWN FROM THE SKY ON HUMANKIND IS CONTROLLED BY STAR SQUARES: CHRONOS AND TEARS, ZEUS AND GENERATION, HERMES AND THE WORD, ARIES AND ANGER, THE MOON AND SLEEP. THERE IS APHRODITE AND DESIRE, THE SUN AND LAUGHTER. THE FATE OF MAN IS DECIDED BY THE POSITIONS OF THESE CELESTIAL BODIES, AS THE SUM TOTAL OF THEIR ENERGIES IS UNLOADED ON NEWBORN BEINGS, AND FOREVER INFLUENCES THE COURSE OF THEIR LIVES.

Suddenly, the old man’s ancient book comes to my mind.

DOES THE DOME HAVE A HISTORY?

HISTORY DOES NOT EXIST. THE DOME IS A WONDERFUL WHOLE THAT WILL REMAIN UNCHANGED IN PERPETUITY. BECOMING DOES NOT WEIGH HEAVILY ON BEING. CYCLICAL CHANGES ARE PERIODS ALWAYS EQUAL TO AN ETERNAL RETURN. PERIODS OF TIME ALWAYS GIVE RISE, IN FIXED ERAS, TO IDENTICAL LIVES AND IDENTICAL ACTIONS. NOTHING TRULY NEW EVER HAPPENS. NOTHING HAPPENS THAT HAS NOT ALREADY OCCURRED AND WILL NOT AGAIN BE SEEN IN THE FUTURE.

First day of Aries: 7:55 a.m.

I’m waiting for death, stretched out on the synthetic grass in a park on the tenth level. Two hours ago, the Dome’s automated lights simulated dawn spreading across it in a pale, blue glow.

I sense someone behind me. Turning around, I find Sagittarius gazing down at me. She’s still wearing the same party costume.

„I’ve been looking for you all over the place“, she mumbles.

„That was time wasted“, I roll over onto my stomach. „I’ll be dead in an hour.“

„I don’t believe it. „

„It’ll happen to you, too, one day. I think it happens to everybody, sooner or later. You’ll wake up one morning, and Astrologer will predict your demise. You’ll believe it, then.“ I get up and calmly approach the nearby public terminal. I punch in my data for the last time.

YOU WILL DIE WITHIN THE HOUR.

Ghost-like, the glowing letters inexorably appear on the dark screen. Who knows why, but when I entered my horoscope request, I still hoped that Astrologer would deny my impending death. I am still attached to life, it seems, in spite of it all.

„You see?“ I ask Sagittarius as I pull her towards the terminal.

„I don’t see anything,“ she protests and yanks herself free.

„But it’s written there! Can’t you read?“

She cups my face in her hands. „All I see is a stupid machine, a stupid guy who trusts his life to it.“

„Astrologer can’t be wrong. Remember how it predicted our first meeting? I remember it, as if it all happened yesterday. That evening the horoscope advised me to show up at Panorama bar on the twentieth level. It predicted an interesting encounter for me, told me that, while entering the bar towards closing time, I would meet the woman of my life, that I will find the jewel I‘ve been searching for so long. And there you were, sitting at a table in the back of the deserted place. I just knew you were the one. Your horoscope predicted the same thing, I’m sure, since you were in that bar. Now you’re telling me-„

„Yes, it’s true.“

„You see? It was our destiny, Sagittarius. Decisionism had nothing to do with it. If you deny Astrologer, you’ll be denying me, too.“

„I used to believe that. Now I’ve changed.“

„You used to be in love with me.“

„I still am, of my own free will. Is it so hard for you to understand that?“

„You’re fooling yourself. Only Astrologer knows-„

„Astrologer!“ she abruptly kicks the terminal. “ You’ve been denying your own horoscope for the last twenty-three hours, and acting on your own, without orders from Astrologer. You can do it, don’t you see?“

I shake my head. „How can you be so sure that I’ve been acting on my own these past twenty-three hours? If I haven’t received my new horoscope it doesn’t mean that I’ve been acting on my own; rather, it proves that I’m going to die, because the machine knows any new information would be superfluous.“

„Defy it!“

„What?“

„Defy it, I said. Stay here with me, in the garden. Nothing will happen, trust me.“

„Don’t you understand? I have to die at nine to maintain the equilibrium. If I’m still alive after my time comes, it’ll be much worse than death! To you, it would be a triumph for Decisionism, for me, it would be the end of everything I believe in! I couldn’t go on living without any certainty! I must follow my destiny, even though I love life and you. Let me go, Sagittarius.“

„Go… where?“ She hugs me roughly.

„To the Panoramic Tower,“ I don’t return the embrace. „There’s a fantastic view up there.“

„No!“ She holds on tighter. She’s irritating me now. Who is she to interfere with my destiny?

„Let go of me, Sagittarius.“

„No!“

„Let go!“ I shove her away. She stumbles across the soft grass.

I run for the elevators without looking back, but she does not follow me. Doors close behind me with a soft swish, leaving me utterly alone.

First day of Aries: 8:50 a.m.

I’m sure that Sagittarius will again appear any second now.

I took the fastest elevator to the Panoramic Tower on the 30th level, to find a view that is spectacular. No other high-rise in the Dome can compare with the splendour of this tower. The view includes the transparent divisions of levels throughout the structure, and the vast expanse of open space over the rooftops of the buildings on this last of thirty floors. From here you can even see the stars at night, those same celestial bodies which have condemned me to death, as they follow their mysterious paths. I consult my watch. A few minutes left. Then what must happen will happen. Astrologer has never made a mistake.

I climb up onto the low wall. Thousands of feet below me, little dark dots crowd the streets; they are citizens of the dome returning to their daily activities. A cry from behind me distracts me. I turn around.

First day of Aries: 8:59 a.m.

Sagittarius’ thin figure hurtles toward me, her arms waving as she shouts something I can’t make out. She won’t be able to stop me, or destiny. No one can do that.

I’m standing on the very edge of my world. I feel as though I’m embracing the entire Dome. I never knew how great and wonderful this place was. My eyes meet Sagittarius’. I don’t like leaving her, but my time is almost up. I glance at my watch one last time.

As I plunge backward into the void, I wonder how many seconds my fall will last. I’m sure I’ll hit the bottom at nine sharp.

Astrologer can’t be wrong.

Translated by Joe F. Randolph

Original title: “Conto alla rovescia”
First published in
A lucca, mai!, edited by
Ugo Malaguti and Mario Tucci, Bologna 1996
Copyright © 1996 by Bruno Vitiello

Bruno Vitiello was born in Naples in 1966. He graduated in Italian and Latin languages and literatures at the University of Naples in 1990. In 1984 he earned his Ph.D. in Modern History for a study on Michelangelo Buonarotti and the Renaissance. Currently he lives, teaches and writes in Latin, a small town near Rome. He published his first sf story in 1983 and published about a dozen stories since then, some of which have been translated into French, Spanish and English, also the novel Progotto Michelangelo.

© . .

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