Random Number

Story Title and Entry    Business Trip.
As soon as she stepped through the security screen, out of the Arrival Lounge into the public area of the terminal, she was swarmed by the hustlers.

 “Spare nanos Ms.?” from one side, and several voices calling, “Guide. Show you around.” competed for her attention.

A hand written sign that proclaimed. “Agency Certified Guide Service” actually got her attention for it’s sheer brazen improbability.

How could the Agency certify a Guide who didn’t even have the resources to print a sign, for Mandela’s sake?

She shook her head, ignored them all, and headed straight for the Agency Terminal.

They’d read her I.D. as she approached, and have a few suitable candidates lined up for her within a couple of minutes. If she’d been in a hurry she could have messaged them from the transport, or even from home, and saved herself a bit of time, but that would’ve spoiled the whole Retro thing.

There was a live attendant waiting with a smile and what smelt like some decent coffee, “Welcome to New York, Ms Mulaga. We shall do everything we can to make your visit as pleasant and fruitful as possible. Please be assured that the Visitor Agency is here to serve you. If you would take a look at our Guide Book, there are full details of our available accredited facilitators. There are several currently awaiting assignment over there, if you prefer to inspect them in the flesh.”

She sat and took her time looking over the candidates.

In the end she chose a youngish woman, Josephine Arnold. She wasn’t exactly plump, but had obviously been getting at least one meal a day, and she looked healthy. She didn’t have that grey pallor and lethargy of those plagued by major parasite infestations or chronic disease.

 “Well then, just call me Sephy, please, Josephine. Let’s not be too formal today, I’m just over to relax and pick up a few items for my new condo. Some of that good old plastic, maybe even some vinyl, you know, a nice set of chairs and a table to match would be really, you know, just the best.” That widened the smile on Josephine’s face.

Sephy could see she was thinking about one of her contacts, and the possibility of a juicy sale. If all went well, she stood to get a decent commission on top of her Guide fee.

Good, that meant Sephy was going to get to see some high-class gear, perhaps. As they walked out of the Agency, Sephy asked, “What‘s our destination code then?”

“Our D.C.? Well, actually Ms., we have to go off-grid for the deal I have in mind. I hope you don’t mind, but my cousin doesn’t live, you know, formally. He has a few items left by our great-grandmother which might be just what you’re looking for. She used to work for MacD's, in the old days.”

That was enough of a hint. All thought of protest just vanished. If there was a possibility of getting some of that iconic Resource - Burner memorabilia - Wow, she could just see the faces at her house-warming party.

Half an hour of tedious wandering later she was almost ready to settle for maybe just some interesting knick knacks, ashtrays or can openers say, and her feet hurt. “Are we there yet? This has taken as long as the whole journey from Brazzaville.”

“Not far now, just up there on the right, that grey building, the one with the corn plants in the loading bay.” They stepped through the unlocked door into the derelict industrial building, somewhere in Queens. They walked through a warehouse, lit only by a row of dusty windows high up. Along both sides of the aisle, down the middle of the building, were dusty wooden crates, stacked head high. At the far end they came to a wooden door, once painted industrial green, the colour of cooked cabbage, but now mostly peeled to the grey undercoat.

Josephine knocked firmly on the door and called, “Hey, wake up Ricky. It's me, Josie. We got a customer for the MacD. stuff.”

The door opened after a pause, and Josephine walked in. “Now just look at this here. I think you will agree this stuff is worth the trip to Queens.” Sure enough, there were tables with attached seats, in what seemed to be the right colours and materials to date from somewhere around the turn of the century.

Behind the piled up dining gear was a jumble of dull grey equipment, sinks and racks, and several rectangular shapes.

Ricky was a thinner, bearded version of Josephine, dressed in ragged dirty undyed wool, like everybody in this city. He polished a corner of what seemed to be an electric grill, then stepped aside to show her the gleam of real stainless steel.

“See how that shines?” he said. “Don't make that stuff no more.”

“Does that run on electricity?” asked Sephy. “Wow, that is going to eat up some Kilowatts!”

Of course she could just add a couple of turbines to her family Wind Harvest complex along the Atlantic coast, and double-cycle a few fuel cells whenever this stuff was fired up.

No need to mention that to these goofs though. “That could really get me in trouble. If it was hooked up to the grid it would take as much power as a whole town,” she said.

“But there’s everything you need for a complete Franchise here!” said Josephine. “Look, even styrofoam serving dishes. You know they used to close the food up in these. It’d stay warm, and they could take it away and eat it anywhere. Also real plastic cutlery, and genuine polyester clothes for the workers, look here!” As she spoke she was dancing around the room, opening dusty boxes to show their contents.

Everything seemed to be there, from cooking equipment and food storage freezers to cutlery and serviettes.

Sephy couldn't even begin to calculate the resources it must have taken to produce all this stuff. So gloriously wasteful! Exactly what she had been secretly hoping for. Back home, everyone was totally bored with Eco-friendly stuff. They would pay top Credits for the thrill of eating grease-dripping meat in white flour sandwiches, amongst the true ambience of hydrocarbon based plastics.

They would be able to imagine themselves as technocrats, alive in the height of the Twentieth Century. Seated on plastic bucket seats, feasting on wastefully raised beef out of non-reusable Styrofoam.

They would have the thrill of breaking so many of the current taboos, while in the security of her Gated Enclave. There wasn’t too much dickering, everyone knew the value of the artefacts, but also the limited market, and of course Sephronia could afford to pay from her CO2 Credits as a shareholder in the Congo Basin Co-op.

Beef would be great for the day to day menu, quite easy to buy vat product back home, even from real animals, with the right contacts.

But for an offering, that first special meal with her closest family and friends, to ensure prosperity and general goodwill, something more would be needed.

Once more in sight of the Terminal, in the embrace of the Port Authority grid and her Visitor status, she acted.

“Josephine, dear” she called. “come over here will you?”

There was a Shipping Agency, with a display of packaging options in the window. They could take care of all the messy details. A nice clean head shot, some directions to the Agency porters, and a little chopping and wrapping under her supervision. Neat bundles in an insulated chest with a Qwik-Freeze packet, and she was good to go. By mid afternoon she was on her way home with the stuff from the warehouse, a selection of condiments and so on from the street market, and the perishables, all safely stowed in a bonded container. It would follow by the next scheduled cargo dirigible.

 Delivery guaranteed by next Thursday, and no questions asked, so long as she paid Heritage Export Luxury Levy (HELL).

Random Number  SEVEN...7.


 When I was just a kid, a messenger from the dark world made my life hell. One night, behind closed lids, I saw a scruffy wolf, with a strange toothy wimpy smile. That might have been frightening to a ten-year-old under most circumstances, but I just lay there, giving him a jolly good looking over. I could see he was sad, and needed to share. You know, misery wants company, sort of face. So I held out my hand, and he lay down next to my bed, gently licking my palm. I thought he was going to spill his blues, but no.

He started to speak. “My friend, you will not do well on your math exam tomorrow.”

 I didn’t need that homeless hound to tell me that. I was pretty confident I could maintain my average and nail a solid ‘D+’. Actually, I received a ‘D-’, and I wondered whether the wolf’s unwelcome pessimism had caused me to under-perform. Maybe I was a bit gruff in my reaction to the news, because he moped off through the wall. I did call out “Sorry”, but he’d gone.

 I really was sorry, and the next night I scrunched my sleeping face into my best friendly look, and dangled my hand towards the floor in an effort to invite him back. I’d almost given up, and was about to summon naughty thoughts of a girl I liked, when I heard his nails scratching the floor. “Hey Dude,” I chirped. What’s up?”

He settled down and delivered another miserable headline. “My friend, you are going to lose your favourite girlfriend tomorrow evening.” I don’t know why he specified ‘favourite’. I considered myself lucky to have just the one, and I wasn’t really sure that that was actually our relationship. Girls are tough creatures to fathom. They stand looking at you with one leg cocked, toss their hair, let you carry their books, and walk ahead with that strange tippy-toe wiggle, you know how it goes. How can a guy figure it all? It had taken a long time, lots of candy, and even cheering at her volleyball games to win her attention. I wasn’t Valentino by a long shot, but I had managed to bribe my way into a few flimsy liaisons, as they say in Dad’s brown-cover magazines. That girl was special for me, because she sometimes actually returned my prized comic books which I always ‘lent’ her, in exchange for a little affection. So, that information was a shock.

I hid my glums this time, however. Some news is better than no news, and hearing it from Wolfie was easier than trying to find the simple words in the paper, or listening to talking TV heads. As Wolf said, she dumped me the next night for a sweaty football jock, two years older than us. Worse, she still had a load of my rare back issues. I didn’t think much about the wolf’s dream visits. He didn’t come every night, only when he had something unpleasant to tell me. To be honest, it was somewhat wearing, and I started to not look forward to our meetings. Sure, I was seeing the future, which is definitely cool, even if it is bad, but it didn’t smack of mental power or anything. In my comics, there are superhuman juveniles, and they aren’t much bigger or cleverer than I am, except they can leap over buildings and stuff, never lose a fight, and always get to fly around with a stunning chick hugging their thigh. Apart from those little perks, I simply reckoned I was one of them. How was I to know the differences between nightmares and real life. Are there any?

After one unwise late night orgy of ice cream, I found myself twisting and turning in a frenzy of scary images. Sure enough, the wolf emerged from the woods and walked firmly towards me. This was not going to be good. “My friend, your uncle is going to die,” the wolf said soberly. Uncle was the same age as Dad, and they both seemed pretty healthy. Perhaps it was a wolf’s idea of a joke. His open mouth and lolling tongue could have been his attempt to grin. I have to confess, the prospect of having one less uncle didn’t depress me anywhere near as much as losing the girlfriend and my comics. It ranked down there somewhere below the business of the math exam, and I think you know how much time I spend thinking about that. I couldn’t bring myself to share the passing-uncle revelation immediately with anyone else in the family.

Telling them would require some kind of face twisting into one of those adult expressions of ‘the end of life as we know it’. I figured I’d sleep on it, and conjure some fantasies with my ex-girl. The next morning, Mum was crying, and Dad was pinching the corner of one eye. “Mum’s brother has been in a bad car accident,” Dad whispered with appropriate concern, although he was still sipping from his coffee mug, and glancing at a sports page article.

“Bad!? He’s with his maker,” Mum choked. I joined in the grief by not crunching my shredded wheat. If anything, the odd silence, except for Mum’s snuffles, was quite spirit lifting.

 Certainly better than the daily rubbish they gabbed to each other, and the endless annoying questions they pounded at me. “Did you see the clean socks I put on your bed? Where’s your tie?” You’d think I was naked and comatose. “Come on lad. I’ve seen snails faster.” Within half an hour, Dad returned to his usual self, although this morning his grumbling was about the cost of flowers and suit dry-cleaning, and how hard it was going to be to find the hours necessary for hanging out at the stuffy ceremony and the sandwich munching at the wake. “All that standing. My back’ll give me hell. And lord knows how much we’ll have to chip in for everything. You know they never saved a penny.” He shut up. Mum was giving him the evil eye.

 Dad was a travelling salesman, gone for weeks on the road somewhere in the country, and a right misery when he came home. The only time he brightened was a couple of days before he took off again. I was grinning into my cereal, waiting for his repeated cheery chorus of anticipation. “Well, back to the grind. Mustn’t let the grass grow under my feet.” As he sang them out, I muttered the identical words along with him behind the bowl being slurped at my face. Dad left that Monday, and Mum had only the gardener to comfort her. He’d been around since I was a babe in arms, hired supposedly to piddle around with the lawns and bushes, but seemed to spend most of his time doing odd jobs in the house. During all the years of growing up, I can’t remember how many afternoons I’d come home from school and he’d be sitting at the kitchen table in his undershirt nursing a lemonade. “Mr. Leonard has been fixing that stupid drip under the basin again,” Mum would tell me, as if I couldn’t guess. “You poor man,” she’d add with a consoling tap on his shoulder. The sink taps were at least a monthly battle, and apparently tough fighters, regularly dousing them both judging by the missing shirt, shoes, and sometimes even Mum’s skirt.

The linoleum was lifting, the refrigerator acting up, her bedroom closet had insects. Strange they never came to munch on my sweaty socks. There was no end to the repairs. “Cripes,” I’d think to myself, “maybe I should have a go at the lino. When I paste down torn comic pages, they stay that way.”

Anyway, at this particular time, with Leonard on hugging duty with slumped Mum, it was a relief to have her out of my hair in that miserable state. For the next goodness knows how many days, the gardener had a special house chore, apart from drinking his tea or juice. It was listening to her sobs long enough for her to keep my meals coming. He was there when I came down for breakfast, and when I came home. I’d burst into the house, ready to organize some comic trades I’d arranged at school, and see her splashy eyes and messed up hair and clothes, as she looked up and reached out her arms. “Oh, Sweetie, come here and give me a hug.” Sometimes Leonard would get there first. Stupid twit. What? Did he think she was calling him ‘sweetie’? Anyway, first or second, he’d join in. Pinned under his armpit, I reckoned cutting grass and bushes must be a much stinkier job than I had thought. Mum always said the same thing after those three-way cuddles.

 “Do your homework in your room till teatime. And don’t come out before. I mean it!” Her voice was still a bit trembly, but the mourning tears had stopped and she looked fairly cheerful. So I did. Of course. What was she thinking, that I wanted to hang around in the kitchen with her and the gardener? I could have done without Leonard’s regular comment. “Won’t get nowhere with no edicashun.” Silly sod. I didn’t care. Those evenings, meals were ruined by overdoses of Mum’s mumbled sorrow and the gardener saying “there, there”, giving her bottom a pat for the hundredth time as she moped past his chair. Yeah, he ate with us, too. How anyone would feel comforted by a flick on the bum, I don’t know.

After a long gap, the wolf had another report from hell. “My friend, your father is going to die tomorrow.”

“Shut up!” I didn’t want to hear it. This was serious. And the ‘my friend’ stuff was beginning to wear thin. You can understand how worried I was when he said that. I mean, Dad’s the one who brought home my pocket money, not to mention what he proudly slapped on the table for my mother. There would be no end to Mum’s moaning about that ‘bacon’, as they called it, if the old man were to drop out of the picture. Dad had just returned home after several weeks. He looked content, boasting loudly about his successful trip, and how he couldn’t wait to return to that part of the country. Mum was always a good sport and encouraged him. The gloom of the recent bereavement was gone, thank goodness, but I was surprised she was able to put aside her loneliness and support his eager intention to bugger off again, before he’d even been home an hour.

“That’s it, dear. You go on back down there and get some more bacon.” What was wrong with the corner butcher?

Dad ate heartily and drank beers as if they were illegal. He certainly was cheerful, or sloshed. I couldn’t picture him stone cold under the ground. I wasn’t sure whether I should say anything to him. All the wolf’s words so far had been true. My birthday was three days away, and I didn’t want Dad dying before handing over the new bike he’d promised. Perhaps if I told him, he might somehow be able to delay for a while whatever it was the wolf was saying would happen that day. I decided I’d blurt it all out, and I did, spraying cornflakes. I started by telling them the dream about the math test. No point in mentioning my Hades messenger. “Say, Pop. You know, I had a bad dream about botching my math test. And sure enough, I did.” I omitted the actual grade. I certainly knew there wouldn’t be any sympathy, and there wasn’t, and I waved my spoon to ward off their attacks about my school work, and hurried onwards into the girlfriend story. “And, few nights later, had another horrible dream about my girlfriend dumping me. And she did!” I stressed the coincidence. Dad seemed genuinely disappointed. He always told me to invite her over more often. When we climbed the stairs to my room and comics, he would stand at the bottom smiling up at us.

Bloody Mum had the nerve to clap with pleasure. She never failed to sneer at the girl’s short skirts. “I always thought that girl was a….” “Trollop, I know Mum. Let me finish.” I wasn’t interested in their opinions. Anyway, I wasn’t convinced she had broken with me completely. Her sweaty boyfriend was graduating and rushing off to bash heads at some football college. I was just feeling my way along to the main announcement, first the trivial stuff to soften them up ready for the Uncle premonition and then the big bomb about Dad. I gabbled on, slurping juice by now. “Right after that was a third dream, I mean nightmare. About Uncle Jim going off to be with his mates, or somewhere. And…” I coughed on the orange, but they thought I was fighting back tears or regret. “He did,” whispered Mum, with perfect timing and emotion. She gathered our dishes. Dad looked at her drooped head, probably checking to see if he should change his grinning about the girl into a sad grimace, because that’s what he immediately did.

 They were ready. I took a deep swallow of juice. The cough had obviously been effective. “And last night, I dreamt something bad was going to happen to you, Dad. (cough) And you wouldn’t be able to buy me that...” I was making a mess of it. The bike was supposed to be a secret. He turned a kind of gruel grey, and flopped in his armchair and never moved, just looking up as if something might drop from the ceiling and strike him down. Mum washing plates, was humming. I looked out at my pal Tony riding his new five-speed. For appearances, Dad called over to me. “Cheer up, son. They’re just dreams. Dreams and coincidences. I’ll be all right.” How could a kid with only a beat-up three-speed be cheerful? Early that evening, word came that Leonard the gardener had died. Sliced an artery with his chainsaw and bled to death in some bushes. Not our shrubbery, thank heavens, so Dad and I insisted dinner not be interrupted, though it was Mum’s turn to have the porridge face, and she blamed her pouring eyes on chopping onions. Anyway, Dad was still there next morning, so naturally I ran out to make a deal with Tony about letting him ride my new bike soon in exchange for a look at a great rare comic he’d been hoarding. 






    Comments welcome.