We didn't have to travel to London to attend the auction. We could take part in the auction from the comfort of your own home, sitting on the sofa and being present as a ubiquitous hologram, as many of those who wished to participate in the auction did. See how many of shimmering, bluish shadows glow in the holographic area of the auction. We could have hired a broker. Yes, we could have, but for some reason we believed that only a personal presence at Christie's would bring us the long-awaited victory for which we had put our entire fortune on the line. Everything we had: the house in the Crimea, where they had lived for more than two hundred years, her husband's favorite paintings, which he had collected for four hundred years, and all the jewellery she had inherited over the past five hundred years. If we win, we will become paupers and we would have to live in a cheap and cramped flat somewhere in the midlands.
Well, that's fine. May money go to hell, along with the trappings of a well-fed life, if it doesn't bring happiness? As husband says: "Money is just paper and it can't replace a dream.
- He's right, - thought Maria, watching from afar as Alex filled out the auction papers and paid the deposit, - only when your dream comes true does one feel happy.
The husband got the number and moved towards her.
What number had he been given? Of course, it didn't matter at all, but in a case like this, whether you like it or not, you will become superstitious.
Alex sat down beside her and, as if sensing her impatience, showed her the sheet issued to him with the number 249 written on it. Mmm... ...that's not a bad number. Maybe they'll get lucky. If you add 2, 4 and 9, you get fifteen, not thirteen. That's right - they'll get lucky.
- Alex is very worried; - Maria remarked and smiled at her husband to cheer him up. - How could he not be worried when they had put so much effort into their dream? Blessed Virgin Mary help us!
She ran her eyes inquisitively around the hall and shuddered. They are here! It's them again!
- Those Englishmen are here, - she said to her husband with hatred in her voice, pointing with her eyes in the direction where the pair of Englishmen who had played against them in the last auction was seated. - Damn them to hell!
- Nothing, sweetheart, we'll see who's who, - Alex replied and, to kill the remaining few minutes before the start, began to read the list of lots up for sale.
- Bloody Englishmen! What's that to them? What are they missing in this life? On the other hand - pity them, they couldn't win last time either, and some Chinese bought the licence. Or a Japanese? Or a Filipino? Who can tell, they all look alike. No, I remember, the world news was talking about a Malaysian. That's right! His wife was glowing with happiness. I'd k-i-l-l her!
- Gentlemen! - The auctioneer, rising behind the podium, proclaimed, - Christie's monthly auction begins its work. There are two hundred lots for sale today. So, gentlemen, lot number one: a painting by the Hungarian artist Vasari "Nun with a Bible". Early twentieth century. Oil on canvas. It measures 78 by 38 centimeters. The starting price is 50 million units...
What if they lose their licence again? And while she pities the English, Germans, Chinese and everyone else on the planet, who will pity her? As her great-great-grandmother Elizabeth likes to say: - Own shirt is closer to your body.
After losing the last auction, she and Alex had almost lost their minds. Or maybe they really are as crazy as all their friends say.
- I don't understand, why would you want to do that? - Maria's best friend Natalie repeatedly said, or rather lectured, - you are saving money for twenty years! Twenty years you are denying yourself all the pleasures of life! Why on earth would you do that? To work and not allow yourself a couple of times a year to go on holiday to unwind and relax! For example, why don't you fly to Andromeda? The sunsets there are to die for. Maria, you haven't been anywhere in twenty years!
Well, what do you say to that? And if her friends don't understand her aspirations, what about the rest of the world? They're fools, you see, with her husband only because they want to live like everyone else and they don't dream of Andromeda. But no Andromeda, if you put it on the scales and add Jupiter in addition, will outweigh their bright dream. Why live without a dream?
- Sold! - The auctioneer's voice reached Maria, - 75 million units, number 58 in the seventh row... Lot number two...
The auctioneer's voice was no longer audible again; she only noted with a glance his moving lips and the movements of his hand towards the people raising the numbers...
I can't wait for our lot. It's a long way to number 12! And Alex is so tense, his jaw clenched like a wolfhound on the enemy's neck. But that's all right, he's always like that at a crucial moment: focused and determined. Well done! Just don't get nervous! The main thing now is not to pester him with talks and questions - he will send her to hell in a fever, and then he will be tormented with conscience and look guilty in her eyes.
- Lot number 7," she heard the auctioneer's voice say, "a long-range space yacht. Made in Russia. The starting price is 350 million units, gentlemen.
- Look, the Russians scored the famous Boeing. Well done, Russians! And even though it is a small thing, it is nice and kind of a good sign that they will be lucky today.
Alex is a good husband after all. How much he's done for their dreams! Bloody money! They saved up for two years for the deposit only. And the other twenty years? Day by day, dollar for dollar, like a hen by the little grain for the little grain. Isn't that what the old great-great-great-grandmother proverb says? The only thing I wonder: who is the hen? Probably is a good hostess?
...Will the licence be out of their hands again? Would I have the strength not to burst into tears? I did last time. But when we got home, the tears flowed from their eyes like little waterfalls. Alex didn't even try to comfort her. Either he knew it was useless, or he deliberately gave her a chance to cry and thus defuse herself, or he was afraid to approach her, feeling guilty.
Was it his fault that the stakes had gone too far? Alex simply couldn't go any higher; he knew they didn't have that amount at the time. So she didn't blame her husband for anything. Fate, apparently.
- Lot number 11 is a hotel complex on Saturn. The starting price is only 700 million gentlemen. Who will give more?
- The next one is ours! God help us! How much is it going to cost today? A lot! Every year the Earth government sells fewer and fewer licences and the prices get higher and higher. Last year, for the entire population of Earth, including the Mars colony, only nine were sold.
What were they thinking before? A hundred years ago, they were giving away licenses for nothing compared to today's prices. They were stupid. But many, many years ago, they say, there were no licences at all. It is simply impossible to imagine such a thing! You decide for yourself whether you want it or not. There were no bans!
Yes, everything has changed on earth since people conquered old age and gained immortality.
- Lot number 12, gentlemen, - the auctioneer announced, - a licence from the Earth Government, which has been traditionally sold only from our auction for over four hundred years. The starting price is one billion units, gentlemen.
No, she is absolutely not allowed to play at auctions! Everything swam before her eyes. She glanced at her husband and was amazed at his change.
His cheekbones were drawn up, his eyes aloof, his face rigid, even angry. She hadn't known him like this at all. Frightened by his emotions, she stopped thinking altogether. As if in a dream she saw Alex's hand coming up time after time, the Englishman's hand, the other hands (oooh bastards).
- Three billion six hundred million units are, gentlemen. Who is higher? - The auctioneer cheerfully announced, seeing that the bidding had stalled at that figure, - Courage, gentlemen, courage, for this may be the last Earth Government licence in the history of mankind.
The last one?! In history? Jesus, we have to take it for whatever it's worth. Why doesn't Alex raise the number...? Whose bet is it? Alex's...? God, who made that last bet? Who? Alex...? It wasn't him? They're going to start counting. My God, they're going to start counting, and this is the last license! There's no more hope. A-l-e-x! Do something!
- Three billion six hundred million units - one, - the auctioneer shouted warningly to Maria's horror.
She wrapped her arms around her head, squeezed her eyes shut, and with a low howl, "My mommy," she slid off the chair onto the floor.
- Three billion six hundred million units - two, - the auctioneer announced loudly and, as it seemed to Maria, ominously. He looked around the room carefully, hesitated for a few seconds in the hope that someone would raise the price, and, gaining some air, finished the lot: - three billion six hundred million units - sold! So, gentlemen, the Earth Government's birth baby license has been sold! I congratulate number two hundred and forty-nine in the fourth row!
Just minutes later, all the world's news channels were showing Maria burying her nose in Alex's lap, profusely watering his trousers with tears.