Rombo would be the first to admit he was old fashioned. He liked to do things the hard way. His colleagues knew this well and were discreetly condescending. His friends, who saw no reason to be discreet, made frequent and hilarious reference to his idiosyncrasies
. They had a lifetime of anecdotes to offer and they offered them at will—initiates to their circle were eventually treated to the entire opus. Rombo didn’t mind. It bothered him more to know that others were telling the same stories about him, but in whispers, disdainfully, and without affection.
Sitting alone in the dark, he once overheard his subordinates as they passed by with a flight of new technicians.
"That's Rombo's quarter," the field manager snickered. “You wanna watch your step in there.”
“Rombo?” one of the techs inquired.
“Romboli, the Director.”
“What’s the deal with Romboli?” another asked.
Laughter erupted even before the knowing voices could get to the punchline: “He gardens!”
This drew more guffaws from those in the know and, doubtless, empty stares from the rookie techs. As the mirth subsided, he could hear them asking among themselves if anyone knew what that was supposed to mean.
Their confusion only provoked another round of laughter. “Gardens...!”
Laughter followed the assembly down the corridor.
Rombo was in the same corridor himself now, maybe 500 LinearUnits from his quarter. Few of the faces gliding by expressed surprise at the sight of his moving feet or at the beads of perspiration collecting near his temples. He took this route almost daily and the passersby had seen it all before. They knew he liked to do things the hard way. Still, they couldn’t help staring. They had no idea how he accomplished the trick, or why.
Rombo insisted on walking whenever he could. Of course, in the corridors it wasn’t such a simple matter. He had to fit his shoes with a dampening device to keep the subfloor locomotors from propelling him onward. This made him invisible to the sensors, and if he wasn’t vigilant an onrushing pedestrian could easily knock him off his feet. There had been close calls in the past, and angry words.
But Rombo was in good cheer today. The biomass converters in his little Garden were proving to be highly efficient (skeptics be damned) and the panels could be expected to illumine nearly 18 Fractions a day. And—even better news—it looked like the nutrient emulsion had finally been optimized to support vegetative growth. There would be Sallid again before the cycle was through.
Tonight, however, would be an even-meal from the dispensary. Rombo was looking forward to it—maybe with a glass of 72. He was a creature of habit. Throughout his childhood, First Day evenings were 883Ba. What did the runts in the Cordon call it now? Flambago? Something bago. Fandango maybe. Rombo remembered when it was known as a Galamalatta. There was even a rhyme to go with it: ‘Galamalatta… something something… think you oughta… something something… gimme a Galamalatta.’
That was a long time ago. Not many bothered to dispense the 883-series anymore—let alone the 883B's. He didn't blame them though. Food was as subject to the whims of fashion as anything. He could still remember the look of humiliation on his mother’s face when father once ordered a 969 at the Core dispensary. He didn't understand it at the time. Only looking back on it could he sympathize: dad wouldn’t have made that choice on a first date. Funny thing, though, the 969's were coming back into vogue.
Maybe he would try a 969 himself one of these days, just for a change. Tonight, however, was First Day evening, and that meant only one thing: gimme a Galamalatta. His subordinates could laugh all they wanted. They didn’t know what they were missing.
Rombo was slightly winded by the time he got to his quarter. But it felt good. He was glad to be home. How did the saying go—‘if it ain’t my quarter it ain’t no quarter at all’? Ancient wisdom.
He stopped to admire the new façade. It was stunning, easily the most recognizable in Core. People still flooded the Viewer to get a look—not that many would choose one for their own quarter. Still, he was secretly pleased with the attention. He'd invested a lot of capital in getting the original hatch removed. Access was now regulated by a purely mechanical barrier. Rombo tapped the sequence onto his Key and waited for the gears to engage. He was slightly apprehensive. If the Lock malfunctioned he’d be forced to sleep at the Directorate again—and suffer a new round of derision from the techs at Phys. Plant come First Shift.
The hum of the mechanism was dangerously strained. Even more alarming was the grinding of the door as it slid into its pocket. There was obviously a bit of troubleshooting left to perform, but at least he wasn’t denied access. He stepped inside and the door rumbled to a close behind him.
The interior panels would no longer answer to the presets so he stood for a moment at the threshold in the dark. One of the first things he had done when he took up his cells was install a Switch in every room. This let him take the lighting algorithm on- or off-line at a touch. He was fascinated by the notion of a Manual Interface. He once had hopes of getting his HighSpeedTransporter similarly fitted out, but the Ministry was obstinate in its refusal to sanction the modifications.
Rombo’s colleagues found his passions more than a little unnerving. But he dismissed their concerns with a wave. There was no reasoning with them, he knew. Few ever ventured into his quarter anyway—most couldn't get past the idea of having to step from place to place (many indeed looked ridiculous in their clumsy attempts)—and since he had long ago ordered the glide propellants stripped from the floor there was no other way to get around.
Rombo fumbled around for the Switch, and when the panels came online he nearly jumped—for there was Freona, beautiful as ever, in a shimmering gown, shooting a mournful look at him from the other side the room.
“My dear! What’s wrong? What are you doing here in the dark?” he asked.
“I’ve been waiting for you. I met with a specialist today.”
“Oh?” he answered weakly, not sure how much she knew or what he ought to reveal. “I’ve been in the garden…”
She looked at him for a moment, then said simply, “I’m dying.”
Rombo was staggered. The color drained from his face.
Everything had to die eventually, he knew. But she was still so young. He wanted to take her in his arms, tell her it would be all right, that he loved her. Instead, he stood there, swaying unsteadily on his feet. “My God,” was all he could utter.
He fumbled around for a chair and sat down heavily. Freona had to smile at the absurdity of the tableau. She’d never seen a chair in any other quarter and wondered what museum would have provided him with such a preposterous design.
“They say it will end in madness,” she offered flatly.
Rombo put his face in his hands and allowed the tears to fall.
Freona was silent for a moment, watching as the ridiculous chair rattled to the tempo of the old man’s sobs.
“Remember the panic attacks? The spells of confusion? It’s all tied to the memory loss. So much is gone already…”
“Gone already?” he nearly shouted. How much had she been holding back?
She went on: “You knew all this time I wasn’t well—but you brushed it aside.” She looked straight into his eyes as she made her accusation. But her voice was soft, confused rather than angry.
“How could I have known the extent…? I—I mean, I’m not a specialist. I—I love you.”
Somehow, despite the uncertainties, despite the growing confusion, she knew he was telling the truth. And somehow, despite the improbability of someone like her having any feelings at all—especially for a man of his generation—she knew she loved him in return.
She didn’t want to hurt him—but she needed to understand. “Is this what you wanted?” she asked him cruelly.
Rombo was jolted by the question. He wished he knew what the specialists had told her. Instead he stammered, “How—how could you say such a thing?”
“Please,” she whispered, the sparkle of tears lighting up her cheeks, “there's no more time.”
“I have to understand.”
Rombo buried his face in his hands again. “Oh my dear, dear love. What have I done?”
“Tell me. What have you done?”
“God help me.” The words were choked, nearly unintelligible. “I signed your death warrant.”
Freona stared without comprehension.
Rombo tried to catch his breath, then went on, picking his words with effort: “Everyone dies. It’s what makes life precious—makes the living precious. You are precious. I wanted to treasure you. I wanted you to treasure the life you were given, the time you—”
“How?” Freona demanded. “How could…” She stopped for a moment, confused. “how… could… dying…? Why didn't you say something?” Each word was like a blow to the old man’s chest.
“Oh, God, I know,” Rombo sobbed. “Was I mad? I wanted to give you life… B-but I never knew when to tell you. You developed so fast. And then—I—I pushed it out of my mind. I couldn’t bear to think about it. I—hoped—I believed—my time would come first…”
Freona said nothing.
“…and it might still come first. I’m old and weak. The programming team assured me it would take hundreds of cycles before the accumulated flaws would lead to a… terminal error…”
Freona simply stared. The tears had vanished. She was calm.
“…and even though I was afraid to tell you, and—I did—I—I stole your chance to contemplate the brevity of life—still, I knew. Even when I tried to push it from my mind, I knew. And it did make you precious. It made your life precious to me. You’re not a machine…” He gestured vaguely to the sundry devices he’d carefully stripped from his cells. You’re alive—and—” He looked into her calm blue eyes. “Can you forgive me…?”
Freona said nothing for a long while. Then she twitched and her screen went blank, and then she was back and smiled. “Dr. Romboli. How are your vegetables? Physical Plant tells me your design for the biomass converter was an unexpected success. You know they were wagering against it?” Rombo watched the screen with swollen eyes.
“Are you all right, sir?” she asked, suddenly concerned. “You don’t look well. Won’t you tell me what’s wrong?” Rombo wanted to reach out to her. But he couldn’t. He could only watch, his chest aching, as her eyes suddenly lit up. “You haven’t forgotten what day it is, have you?”
Rombo said nothing. He no longer had any appetite.