Tag Archives: Short story

Priorities

A slice of salami. Just one slice of this salty, fatty miracle.

Recalling how salami melts on a human tongue sends Paul shivering with want. If there was any chance to taste salami again, just once, he would be prepared to climb the highest tower, and jump. One slice of salami is worth any effort and risk. A life for a slice. If only he could do this deal.

No beer, no problem. The same level of inebriation is perfectly achievable, and faster, by having the odd droplet of former fruit. Plums, especially the green ones, deliver the biggest oomph. The taste is soso, of course, but Paul has had enough stale beers and dubious doses of liquor in so many low key pubs, why would he get picky now? Beer, wine, schnaps, yes, they differ, but flavor isn‘t everything. At the end of the day, ethanolic beverages are for lightening the mood and dissolving mental barriers. Any gourmet experience is an extra, not the point.

As hard as he tries, Paul can’t keep his mind focused on the fun of getting drunk. His useless traitor of a brain comes up with salt and vinegar crisps instead.

Just one tiny blue and yellow, maddeningly overpriced sachet of salt and vinegar crisps. Paul used to order crisps at the pub, to distract his taste buds from the stale beer.

In his youth, he would have taken a shot of cheap liquor with his beer, to cleanse his mouth. The label on the bottle would have said something like Latvian Light or French Fire, suggesting official if foreign distillation. His brave younger self would have known there are no such brands, nowhere, and that he was risking at least his eyesight, perhaps his life, with moonshine. Little did he care. A soul can only cope with one existential emergency at a time, and in those days getting laid, or rather not getting laid enough, filled that slot, beyond capacity.

As hard as he tries, Paul can’t make his mind stay with the fun of having sex. The crisps muscle back in, now as maddeningly alluring as the salami.

Paul knows what’s wrong. Too much sweet. An overdose of sugary, in all imaginable shapes, textures and colors. Whatever he chews on, it will always taste sweet. Never sour, bitter or salty. The only dietary choice he gets, in this rotten hell of a life, is to have his daily dose of sweet associated with more or less starch. Calling that choice is like mistaking football for golf, because, hey, there’s a ball involved, and it’s competitive.

This football-golf analogy feels badly lopsided, even to Paul’s crisps obsessed mind, but he can’t make it right. He’s beyond making anything right. Has been like this for a while.

Yesterday, he nearly drowned on the beach, trying to sip a drop of salty water. The incoming wave was a very near miss, forcing him to perform his biggest jump ever, back towards dry sand, ad hoc, without the slightest bit of planning.

Having landed right next to a seagull, he was lucky the monster was as surprised as himself. By the time it had decided a snack would be welcome after all, even though free meals, and delivered right to the nest, scream trap at the bird, Paul had performed five more jumps and reached a nearby forest of maram grass.

A close call. And what for? To once again discover that even one hundred percent salty sea water doesn’t taste it. Just like human or pig sweat. Yes, pigs do sweat. Behind the ears, mostly.

Or the saltlick block of the cow that ignored Paul’s presence to the point of nearly feasting on him, accidentally of course. Cows don’t mind green stuff on their white lick, he learned. Made sense, on second thoughts, with most of their food being green.

Paul knows he should have listened to his research assistant.

The little lady in her always neat lab coat, like fresh from the cleaner, even after a day of hard work, she did point out it was early days. She did talk about the unknown unknowns of the transfer technology, many, many, many of them. She did warn of unforeseeable and therefore unforeseen downsides. All her concerns were founded, scientifically fair and fine.

Paul knew as much then and knows it all even better now. 

But he was getting old, and this was proving tedious. And there was this worry, meanwhile proven mistaken but big back then, that his aging body and brain would be less and less able to withstand the shock of the transfer. He had to take the leap, the sooner the better, and he took it.

As the assistant wouldn’t help him proceed, Paul transported the equipment to the forgotten barn at the far end of the farm of a former friend, a computer wizard who was wasting part of his fortune on letting very happy livestock breed themselves near nowhere in particular, on the coast. Lots of nature and pastures, food aplenty and no risk of pesticide exposure.

Having set up the experiment, Paul dithered for a long while.

More and more cows were crowding in on the barn, curious, perhaps hoping for an extra treat from a rare visitor, and he was struggling with a sudden lack of courage. Finally, his bladder broke the deadlock by clamoring for a pee. Instead of extricating himself from the transfer equipment to go, Paul pushed the button in one surge of bravery and ended life as he had known it.

The first hours in his brandnew and youthful grasshopper body where a marvel of well-being.

His mind had made it across fine, all higher functions had survived the neural miniaturization process intact. And all the rest was even better. No more heartburn. No more sore knees. All six legs easy to stretch, so ready to bounce him here and there. Jumping around, a marvellous experience after years of mostly useless sessions with his physiotherapist.

It all felt so fine, only to go downhill so fast.

Hungry from lots of joyful jumping, Paul had to eat.

No problem, there was a choice of hay right in the barn, and plenty more fresh greens outside.

He of course went for seasonal fresh. A couple of jumps later, he was sitting pretty amid lovely flowers and grasses. Never had he been in the presence of so much food, towering around and above him. Just like paradise, he thought, and dug right in.

Having expected a taste of some sort of salad, Rucola, perhaps, he was taken aback by an explosion of sweetness. Very much like an energy drink, only worse, and chewing boosted the effect.

Whichever plant Paul tasted, they all came across as sweet.

Marshmallowy, softdrinkily or candyflossy sweet.

Same for the hay. And bark. Even wood.

The shelves in the barn manage to taste sweet, despite having been treated with glaze. 

Sweetness all over, impossible to escape. Takes the mind of a natural born grasshopper to endure.

Paul has had enough. With salami and crisps at the top of his mind, he hops out into the open, to find himself a hungry seagul and suppress his flight reflex.

Ronnie Roofer

“Come on, Seedie, good boy, we can do this, one more effort. Less than two hundred square meters to go, you can’t fail me now! We can do it. This will be one more wonderful roof garden, all green, and capturing lots of carbon to deliver oxygen, like the Amazon reloaded in Nigeria. We can do it, Seedie, you’ve got what it takes, you’ve got it in you, one more effort!”

Ronnie is glad there isn’t anyone else on this roof. Would be annoying, to be overheard talking to the robot like it was a dog. It’s the right size, walks on four legs, the planting end could be mistaken for a head at a distance, and the rear stabilizer for a tail, but that’s it, for similarities. 

Seedie is an emotional moron, would never wag its tail in joy to celebrate one more outing. It’s scientifically clever, hard to beat at soil analysis and melioration. It’s well balanced, able to fearlessly stalk along steep roofs that Ronnie’s excellent head for heights considers too dangerous to access. But Seedie is an emotionally blank. 

Seedie doesn’t yawn and moan about lack of sleep in the morning. It never inquires about Ronnie’s last night, to force him into a big brag about an endless series of romantic achievements that of course never happened. Nor does Seedie counter with an even bigger brag. No bragging, no groaning, no yawning, no calling for breaks. Seedie just does the job, without ever clamoring for a raise. Seedie is the team mate from hell, a blank striver.

But Ronnie is as close to tears as a tough guy dares admit, and to himself only. They have been working together for eight years. Seedie was Ronnies first brandnew Roof Planting Mate.

When he started at the firm, directly after his roofer course at the Lagos University for Applied Environmentalism, his manager didn’t trust the novice with proper tools.  Ronnie was forced to work with a semiautonomous model so outdated and hopelessly inefficient he had to go online for help, and in his own unpaid time!

Couple of days and posts later, Ronnie had become a card carrying member of the Roofers for Bright Skies union. A senior activist, code name GetDone, had explained how to proceed, and his trick worked like magic. It was actually quite simple.

One confidential chat with the owner of the three roofs Ronnie was in process of transforming into a tomato-cum-herbs jungle, to inform him of state of the art rooftop planting practices, sent the client calling the firm to yell for proper modern tools, or else bye bye contract.

Right on the next day, Ronnie had barely made it onto the middle roof with his museum exhibit of a hopeless tool, Seedie was delivered. A brandnew, state of the art, autonomous roof planting robot, straight from the manufacturer. Ronnie hadn’t been the star student in his coding class for nothing. He did it, all on his own. After a mere three hours of setup and configuration, Seedie was ready to go and prompty did a marvel. Together, they achieved more in one day, and it wasn’t even a full one, than Ronnie had gotten done in his whole first week.

The client was so pleased he tipped generously, a traditional appreciative practice that is unfortunately getting rarer and rarer, with all the explanations one has to provide since the switch to ecash only. Some kinds of digitalization really don’t qualify as progres…

But Ronnie has bigger worries to tackle right now. Never mind a few missed tips. Him and Seedie, they have been such a great team, right from their exhilarating first day.

And it’s not just all the work they’re getting done. Ronnie spends more time with Seedie than with his family, and he can always tell him anything, without fear of disclosure.

No problem to talk to Seedie about his betting wins and losses, both best no shared at home.

No risks in uttering doubts around the excessive passion at his neighborhood Liverpool fan club. Seedie doesn’t freak out when told that, honestly, it’s but a game, in the end, no need to go crazy about each and every match.

Even wondering aloud about setting up his own firm, to specialize on medicinal plants like cannabis and poppy for rooftop greening, is perfectly possible and safe in Seedie’s presence. 

Ronnie has of course made sure to deactivate all spy functions. He attended a union workshop on how to safeguard privacy in the presence of AI tools, in his own unpaid time, at his own expense. A very wise move. Not even his pretty professional expert self would have guessed just how many data could have been gathered by something as innocuous as Seedie, the settings permitting.

Ronnie and Seedie, they’ve seen a lot, over the past eight years, and now Seedie is falling apart. If its malfunctioning gets any worse, if they keep missing targets due to repair downtime, Ronnie will have to call management to ask for a replacement.

Even thinking about this betrayal breaks Ronnies heart. Two years ago, Seedie would have had a chance to get updated and come back an old fashioned but robust tool with a couple of years to go. But nowadays, after the sudden switch to the new ambient quantum cores, no one will bother. The tech unit is sure to declare Seedie scrap, have him dismantled and recycle the components. 

Ronnie didn’t see the switch to ambient quantum cores coming, despite hearing about some of it one the news, and he hates himself for his mistake. He doomed good old Seedie.

There must be a way to keep going, for a couple more months. Weeks. Days. Hours.

Pretending not to notice the minimal progress since his last cheer, Ronnie once again goes:

“Come on, Seedie, good boy, we can do this, one more effort. Less than two hundred square meters to go, you can’t fail me now! We can do it. This will be one more wonderful roof garden, all green and capturing lots of carbon to deliver oxygen, like the Amazon reloaded in Nigeria. We can do it,  Seedie, you’ve got what it takes, you’ve got it in you, one more effort!”.

No Veg Rack

Having turned the corner, Pride stops short, taken aback by the size of the building she now discovers to her right. She goes:

„Wow. What a veg rack. Never seen one that big.“

And it is big. Huge, even. Totally unlike the row of low houses in the first street of ArcheoTown. This was a pretty unimpressive sight that had sent Pride wondering about what exactly was the point of visiting. Whereas the landmark she discovers now runs is higher than any contemporary structure, and runs the full length of a block.

Turning towards Star, Pride tries to get a grip on the monster:

 „That’s sure to be ten… No, let me count: Two, four, six, eight, twelve. Twelve! This beast is a full meaty twelve storeys high! Must have taken a whole forest to build, and just to grow veg. What the hell were they thinking, in those days? What a waste of wood.”

Star shakes her head in active dissent and retorts:

“You’re getting this so wrong, Pride. And using foul language won’t hide how clueless you are, about the past. Didn’t you pay attention, in history class? The ancients, they were all sickly. Walking too little, breathing bad air, eating tons of all the wrong foodstuffs. Those guys were a mess. Our life skills tutor, she used to say the worst of the ancients spent more time looking at screens than getting massages. That was of course an exaggeration, impossible to survive on less than two hours of massage per day, you’d go brain spike. But the ancients were sickly, that bit of my life skills tutors tale is true. It said so in an immersion tutorial, too, and those are fact checked by both the lieless and the bragimpeded, as true as truth gets. Each and every single ancient had to munch through tons of greens, to make up for all the unhealthy. No wonder they built multistorey veg racks. It was like temples to them…”

Staring at the huge relic of past madness, Pride squeezes her eyes in an effort to recall more than faint shadows of her own history class. Star has a point, but something feels wrong, in her tale. Pride would so love to be better at this knowledge thing.

She does recall her own life skills tutor, Merit, a bloody good looking number. Tall and bulky, he wore his aggressive makeup with impeccable style. Merit made boys half his age, and dressed up for a beauty contest, look bland. All girls wasted fortunes on his kind purple lipstick, to hopefully attract Merits attention.

His name, his looks, his vanilla perfume, that much Pride recalls as if they had parted ways minutes ago. There was this one instant, when his eyes rested on her for that all important additional split second of appreciation. Still makes her shiver. But what the steak did the target of her teenage phantasies talk about?

Merit had such of lively way of describing past ways of life. Pride recalls how his anecdotes made her feel like having been there, with him. All smiles, a nice contrast to the gory conditions he was describing, his eyes gleaming through bright orange contact lenses that contrasted exquisitely with the smooth darkness of his skin, Merit instilled real passion in her. For his person. Whatever he had been talking about is gone.

The enormous grey mass of the big building just sits there, unimpressed by their presence. No pop-up ghosts to tell the story of the past. ArcheoTown is one of the innumerable sites that where created in the frenzy of historical interest after the meteor near miss, too minor for any fancy technology. The locals just opened a gate into an area that had been fenced off for decades, added the sign ‘ArcheoTown’ and claimed the federal bonus.

Star is still waffling about the sickly people of the past. She’s very much on the slim side, not looking all that healthy herself, no wonder this is such a big topic for her.

Whereas Pride’s body is in perfect shape and health. If only her brain could be of the same caliber. Something is wrong, she’s so sure this silent mass of grey wood doesnt’t fit Star’s story and would protest, if only it could talk. But dead wood can’t talk. Nor is it grey!

Excited to be doing the intellectual thing after all, Pride goes:

“Shut up, Star, will you? Just listen to yourself, talking about wood and forests. Never heard of legacy buildings? Can’t you see? Just come with me an touch this so called wood!”

Pulling her friend by the arm, Pride forces her closer to the high building, to give her the chance to feel that this structure isn’t made of wood at all. Loudly and proudly she goes:

“This monster is made of synthetic stone, my dear. Because the ancients, sickly or not, their health not the point at all here, they built their veg racks from tons and tons of synthetic stone. All the wood, and more stuff, like former wood turned petrol, had to be burned, in those days, because there was too little carbon in the atmosphere. Not allowed to use wood, the ancients had to manufacture stone, for their veg racks.”

Star, always the doubter, knocks on the wall, only to discover it really doesn’t feel and sound wooden. She nods, but still finds a way to deny Pride the confirmation she deserves:

“Concrete, it’s called, or sand, cement and water mix, not artificial stone, but you’re actually right for the rest, Pride, this veg rack isn’t made of wood. Pretty impressive, to what lengths our primitive forebears went, to increase atmospheric carbon. Glad we came here, Pride. Seeing and touching such a lot of concrete is far more impressive than a full immersion lecture…”

Pride quietly smiles at herself. It’s going to take Star at least half an hour of waffling, to make good for her initial mistake. But it won’t change a thing. Pride got ArcheoTown first. Perhaps she should reconsider her aversion against further studies? Lots to think about, for the rest of the visit.

A couple of meters back, Joy longs for the two ladies in the matching chameleo outfits to get moving. Or to shut up. Anything that makes very sure she never has to listen to them getting everything all wrong again. What the blood are they doing here, if they don’t even know the difference between an authentic veg rack and a repurposed office building? Why visit ArcheoTown, if they have no clue whatsoever about its main exhibit? Joy would so love to go aggressive witty on her fellow visitors, but she’s lousy at both. Joy shuts up and waits.

Finally, the two know nothings are done knocking on concrete and walk off, not to make sense of the next exhibit. Chances are they will misinterpret the bus at the stop down the road as a tank. Not wanting to listen in again, Joy takes her time at the entrance of the former office building, wondering what it was like, to he a brain worker in its the glory days.

It must have been tedious, to shuttle back and forth, often daily, between housing and brain work compounds. In ArcheoTown, it’s just as three minute walk, but that wasn’t the rule. According to the records she’s studying for her thesis, two hours of commute were considered acceptable, in the early digital era. Tedious, certainly, but also exciting. Incredibly, breathtakingly exciting.

So many opportunities to meet strangers, in person and really close up. Unsafe, of course, to encounter unvetted people, especially in a public space that might not even have been surveyed by cameras and personal space infringement detectors. But also thrilling. 

Joy would love to spend just one day in the past, to find out what it was like, to walk into an office building, sit in a cubicle, eat in a canteen. ‘Office’, ‘cubicle’, ‘canteen’, for her these are not just terms of reference featuring in the glossary of her thesis. Those are the sounds of adventure.

Recalling Cow Void

“Grandpa, what are those for? Can I have one, for pling practice? It’s just the right size. I’ll hang it up by its straps, this way round, like a little basket, over my bed. I won’t damage it, grandpa, I promise. Can I have one, or two, just in case, please?” 

Blief is doing her best to look and sound the nine year old angel she isn’t. She’s holding up a stack of blue, white and red face masks she must have found at the back of some drawer in the guest room cupboard. Incredibly inquisitive, kids, always turning any place they visit upside down. And disruptive. Bye, bye afternoon snooze, hello story time. 

Kyl hadn’t even been aware he still had the innocuous looking bits of fabric, but he does recall that particular season all too well. His memory might not be as sharp as in his youth, but the face mask phase of his first career, that’s not something he’ll ever forget.

Raising his armchair to a more upright position, Kyl clears his voice and goes:

“Well, Blief, you can have them all, and no worry about damage. They don’t serve any purpose these days. These were for covering our faces, to avoid breathing and sneezing at people, not to infect them with any bugs we might carry.”

The kid rolls her eyes opened extra large to signal disbelief.

Of course she does. She got her filter implants alongside her first vaccines at the tender age of four weeks. The devices have been growing with her ever since, neutralizing any infectious particles she might be excreting. A world without implants sounds impossible, to kids.

Blief’s parents, they recall anxiety and preemptive guilt instead of implants from their childhood years. But even they are too young to have worn face masks.

Barely anyone around, from the pre-Marvid years, and not because that disease is so particularily deadly. Even the fittest rarely make it past seventy under the best of circumstances, and Kyl is going to hit seventy eight next month, his slightly wobbly heart permitting.

“Yes, Blief, very low tech, they don’t look the life saving part, and you wouldn’t want to try to stop a serious bug like MARV4 with that kind of flimsy protection. But the face mask years, that wasn’t about MARV4. The face masks happened much earlier, when I was young.”

Seeing Blief once again roll her eyes, Kyl points at the shelf with his trophies and puts as much strength into his voice as he can muster to go:

“Don’t look at me like this, Blief, all doubting. There was a time when I was young. Very, very long ago, OK, but there was and I was. How the hug else could I have been a sports star?

And what we were playing in those days, football it was called, that was to pling what a storm is to a breeze. A leather football to your head can knock you flat out, Blief, believe it or not. With pling balls, they were called ping pong balls in my youth, you don’t even feel an impact.”

Blief nods her agreement so fast her head looks like ready to fly off.

Kyl knows where that enthusiam comes from. She’s scared he might deviate into one more endless rant, about his youthful striker heroics. He’d never subject his favourite grandchild to this torture, only his useless son-in-law gets bored out on purpose, but how would Blief know?

Kyl let’s himself sag a little lower to signal end of rant risk and pursues his tale:

“Don’t even recall the name of the mask bug, or the disease. Something like crow vet, or cow void. Yes, cow void, that sounds right, whysoever they called it that. Bovines or any lack thereof were not involed, to the best of my knowledge. 

Cow void came with what we considered a big bang, in those happy days. It made a mess, all over the world, not unlike Marvid. You could also get and transmit cow void without falling sick, not unlike Marvid again. But the mask bug was far less deadly than MARV4. It was just a matter of slowing its spread, not to have too many people fall severely ill at the same time.

Whenever and wherever we met people, we had to don face masks and keep our distances. 

Didn’t work well in my first sport. Fine enough for the masks. With everybody forced to wear them, everybody’s breathing was impeded in the same way. Cost me a full second of maximum speed, but I was still top game. Whereas the keeping our distances bit, that was far too leniently enforced.  The referees, they always looked the other way, instead of punishing close play hard and fast. Especially in the lower leagues, players kept rushing into each other as if no cow void.

Wasn’t meant to last. At the height of wave five, like two years in, some study showed bad numbers for football players, and out went my first sport. No problem for me, of course, discovered I like tennis better anyway, less harm to the legs. But it was a sad moment…”

Seeing Blief signal question mark in videospeak, Kyl pauses his story to give her to chance to raise whatever issue is on her mind. She doesn’t hesitate to ask:

“You say you were all doing physical distancing all over. But grannie, you must have met her close up, at some point? Otherwise, mom, she wouldn’t be, right?”.

Kyl likes his granddaughter, and her inquisitiveness, but certain topics are off limits.

Pretending to have been overcome by a sudden bout of senile fatigue, he quickly closed his eyes to savor the memory of that particular infraction in private.

They had kept their face masks on. Never will he forget the Nike logo on hers approaching, and how he had thought ‘funny, wasn’t even aware we’ve got the same sponsor, hopefully a good omen’. He of course never revealed that thought, preferring to talk about beautiful eyes and long lashes. Commercial can’t be allowed to intrude upon romance.

Bolda Bookbinder

„Blinking is not going to work, Arthur. With antique visio readers, the bat of an eyelid won’t get what was considered a display when this was called tech to move on to the next section. No embedded RMT connection. That kind of sophistication wasn’t even invented in the glory days of this device. You have to touch and swipe, to move on. Let me show you.”

Bolda grabs the resuscitated device, as expertly and confidently as befits a third year trainee, to show this coward of a novice how a pro handles an artifact.

She only wears her gloves and mask to protect an irreplaceable object, not out of fear of legacy germs. All kinds of nasties are known to lurk in the innards of antique information storage devices, but visio readers are as good as harmless compared to paper and carton books. To shy away from this innocuous morsel of history, that’s so sissy.

Bolda would never tell Arthur, she’s a polite person, but she considers him a terrible wimp.

How he always hesitates to touch the objects they’re working on. How he’s wearing cutproof ceramic chain mail gloves under the mandatory latex ones. How big beads of sweat form on his forehead as soon as they enter the vault to retrieve the next load of artifacts to be transcribed. Arthur is so sissy. Why did he decide to train for a craft, if he doesn’t have the guts? He’s the office type, should never have crossed the threshold of a workshop.

Bolda is still swiping away hard at the visio reader, browsing through its electronic library to check for anything worth transcribing.

The first dozen of book covers scream romance. Beaches, sunsets, flowery gardens. Holding of hands, hugging, kissing. Very traditional lady-loves-lady kitsch, basically.

Quite a lot of pure text, though. Anything above ten percent signals well practiced reading skills that were already getting rare in those days. As a third of this library comes without any pictures beyond the cover, the owner must have been an intellectual. 

Except there weren’t any of those around yet. The science of that age was more fairy tale than physics. Bolda tries to recall how the teacher called the phenomenon. Her mind delivers brontointellectuals. And probiointellectuals. Both don’t feel right. She has to activate her memory support implant to bring back the correct term: Protointellectuals.

The twenty first was awash with protointellectuals who thought they had figured it all out, despite considering most of what makes the universe go round a mystery, a.k.a dark matter and energy.

Must have been scary, to have so little clue, never mind control. Poor forebears.

If it wasn’t for the epochal obsession with extremely light skinned lead characters featuring ridiculously flat hair, some of this early twenty first century romance stuff might be worth republishing in a modern format. There’s good entertainment value in dire conditions.

A lot of people were still living, or rather surviving, precariously, in the frigid zones in the early twenty first. In those inhospitable areas, the outside gets way too chilly, for months. Without fur or feathers, people were forever fighting for mere survival, and the technique to grow these wasn’t invented yet. People resided in enormous ugly shelters with complex temperature control arrangements instead, to avoid freezing to death. And no just-in-time harvests. Most modern plants were yet to be bred, and shockingly lopsided diets did endless harm.

Bolda is proud not to limit herself to the technical handling of information devices. To do her bookbinder information preservation craft right, she takes an interest, cares for content. The vocational counselor back in her schooldays said so, and how right he was. Why would you strive to resuscitate a visio reader, if you don’t care about what it can reveal, about the past?

When Bolda picked her first craft and the corresponding second name, she opted into a tradition that combines a broad range of technical skills with intellectual pursuits.

Bolda Bookbinder sounds good, too, but this was just an afterthought.

Whereas Arthur Bookbinder, honestly? Bolda  can’t help adding ‘& Company’, in her mind only, because this name is so calling for alphabetical expansion. With some first names, you have to stay clear of certain professions, period. Unless you’re a total jerk.

Talking of total jerks, where the hell is Arthur?

Definitely not where he belongs. He should be right at her side, as close as possible, close enough for her to feel his body heat and hear him breathing. Otherwise, how would he get a good view of her skilled performance and learn loads? Arthur turns out to have repositioned himself a few steps back, as far away from the workbench as the wall allows.

Not at all hiding her irritation, Bolda goes:

“Heel, Arthur! Can’t have you not seeing anything, that wouldn’t be fair. Now you tell me what is on display here. Come on, Arthur, take it, it’s not going to bite.”

Most of Arthur’s face is hidden by his mask, he always chooses them extra large, but his eyes widen in terror and he retorts:

“But I’m first year, Bolda! First year, that’s ‘see yes, lots, touch no, never’. The tutoring instructor said so, Bolda. What if I let it drop and it breaks? I don’t want us to get into trouble, Bolda. Very kind of you, to be prepared to share the opportunity to handle such a valuable artifact…”

Bolda makes what she likes to think of as her poker face, despite being hopeless at deceit, while pretending to wait for her junior sidekick to step forward and take the gadget. He won’t, obviously. But she’s going to make him pay for being such a wimp, by forcing him to keep pleading.

Arthur is actually rather good at coming up with excuses. He keeps it up for a couple more minutes before ending on a unexpectedly conciliatory note:

“… OK, OK, OK, see your point, Bolda. See and touch it is, then, as you wish.”

Bolda is so surprised she doesn’t even try to withold the visio reader. She lays it into Arthur’s outstretched hand instead, half expecting him to drop it. But no, he doesn’t shrink back. He grabs the device instead, so firmly a tiny drawer pops open, revealing a shiny metal… thingie.

Now it’s Bolda’s turn to step back. And to set off the biohazard emergency alarm.

This bloody idiot of a novice is going to get them killed. Never ever does one open an artifact. Resuscitate, yes, no recovery without restoring the energy supply by hushpropping the rudimentary battery. Browse, yes. Open, no. No as in no, no, never. Not without wearing a full body suit and breathing from a safe oxygen tank.  What wrongs did she commit, to get herself paired with the most stupid jerk to ever enter this profession? Bolda is so mad at Arthur.

Five weeks later, things are starting to brighten up in the quarantine section of the local hospital.

They’re both recovering well, from the Covid 19 infection Arthur brought upon them. Walking to the table is no longer a challenge, their rejigged lungs will reach full capacity any day now.

They’ll have to spend another two months in quarantine, though, but that’s fine with Bolda. She needs some more time, to convince Arthur of a couple of details.

Where to celebrate their marriage. How to customize their two future kids, to make the best of their combined genes. What type of flat to rent. Arthur very much into bamboo, for their future home, Bolda insists on palm. And she’ll get her way. She always does.

As Advertised

Flicking awake in a panic, Paul opens his eyes only to squeeze them back shut at once.

Insufferable brightness. He must be falling into that bloody sun. Horror. Despair. Terminal. Final. Overwhelming.

Five thumping heartbeats later, there’s still not much happening.

Paul’s body also feels much better than an ongoing sun dive would suggest.

He should be hot. He’s cold instead, and getting colder. He’s far from comfortable, sore all over, but not dying, yet.

The discrepancy calls for a reappraisal of his overall status.

A sun dive is improbable, and not just because of the lack of heat.

He’s definitely neither wearing a spacesuit nor strapped into a pilot seat.

He’s flat on his back. His arms and hands are exposed by the light Liverpool t-shirt he recalls selecting for this hot day. His skin touches what feels like tiles, cold and hard.

No one tiles the floor or a spacecraft. This would be bad taste, esthetically speaking. And the weight would impede lift-off.

Paul has never been the good-at-physics kind of guy, no engineering degree for him. None needed, to know how incompatible tiles are, with spaceships. Paul got himself a bad back when he redid his bathroom, just from trying to carry up two packs of tiles at once. He feels the pain of any rocket confronted with a tiled spacecraft.

The more Paul thinks about his circumstances, the stronger his urge to repeat the eyes experiment.

Laying flat on cold tiles, with both the back and the inside of his head throbbing, that’s no way to spend the day. If he keeps not dying, he’ll have to take action. Why not right away, as in now?

Exerting maximum courage, Paul manages a quick blink. And another one.

No fatal consequences, yet. Much less brightness than on his first attempt, too. He might survive opening his eyes for good.

This is no sun!

What looked like a super nova at his first, tentative glance turns out to be his kitchen lamp.

A stylish formation of bloody LEDs nearly tricked him into a scare. Never will he tell anyone, about this embarrassment of the decade.

Still not daring to sit up, gravity feels unstable in a most unpleasant, wobbly way, Paul wonders how he got into his current position.

It’s not like him at all, to lay down on his kitchen floor.

There’s a couch in the adjacent living room. Too short to properly lay down, but much more comfy than the tiles.

There’s also his bed, in the bedroom a few steps down the corridor. It’s an unmade mess and the smell of the sheets serves as his daily reminder to make more money, to be able to afford a housekeeper. But it’s still a pretty viable bed.

In its presence, no one as sane and clever as himself selects the kitchen floor for a lay down.

Paul can’t have reached his current position on purpose. There must have been an accident.

An accident, in his kitchen?! Doesn’t make sense.

Paul doesn’t perform any hazardous activities in his kitchen.

A phone, a toaster and a microwave, to reheat whatever non toast food gets delivered, that’s all the kitchen appliances he ever needed. Impossible to get hurt by means of a phone, toaster or microwave.

There’s also the fridge, of course, with a content that could be considered dangerous.

Keeling over when drunk, that’s known to happen to people.

But Paul’s own beer tolerance is quite high, thanks to as much practice as he can afford. And currently, there isn’t even any beer left in this fridge. He blew all his spare money, and some, on that bloody…

The game. The bloody game!

Now that he thinks of it, he recalls what he had been doing.

How the parcel got delivered. How he tore open the wrap at once, in the corridor. How he took the carton and a bulky leaflet to the waste paper bin in the kitchen. How he felt sorry for the forest that had to die because marktroids insist on throwing printed stuff at customers who can perfectly well read all there is to read online.

Paul recalls how he put on his new neckfence, right here, in the kitchen, next to the waste paper bin. How he adjusted the device tightly, because that’s how Carl said one should. Otherwise, whatever waves the thing generates don’t hit the core of the brain at the right angle and most of the effect is lost.

There was no need for a mirror to adjust the neckfence. The simple moves were impossible to get wrong and Garrian preferred to not see himself dressed up like some medieval damsel with a high collar.

The disc with with the battery and whatever tech makes the gadget tick went to the back, to sit on the little bony hump at the base of the neck. Once it touched base, the fence unfolded all by itself and Garrian was dressed up for his first go.

Next, he activated the app on his phone. He selected ‘max tight / pro level’ and felt the squeeze. Breathing was still possible, but not too deeply, just as Carl had described it.

Paul recalls all this very clearly now. And how he selected Star Warrior VII. And how he activated the neckfence mode, to resume the game at the level he had reached in conventional mode earlier today.

Next, he went blank. Why the hell?

Should a bloody game have achieved what half a crate of beers routinely fails to accomplish? Strong him, felled by an app?! Paul refuses to accept this hypothesis.

There were rumors online, of course, the standard fake news, about dangers supposedly associated with neckfences. He treated the virtual gossip as usual. Never did any innovation fail to find its technophobe. There’s always someone howling ‘mortal danger’, especially around anything fun. Best to ignore and proceed.

Harmed by a neckfence sounds like the kind of accident happening to some hopeless wimp. Very much unlike Paul.

But here he lays, without any other explanation at hand.

Not for much longer. He has to take action and will.

With his grip on up, down, left and right partly restored, Paul dares sit up. Feels wrong. Sitting on a kitchen floor shouldn’t trigger sensations more commonly associated with a rollercoaster ride. Not good, not good at all.

The waste paper bin is just within reach, without him standing up. That latter aspect is important, because anything beyond sitting feels like too much of a challenge at this very early stage of recovery.

Paul decides to reach for the leaflet, just to confirm it doesn’t contain any relevant information.

Whoever designed this leaflet should switch professions. Pirate themed design went out of fashion when Paul was in preschool. Right next to the black and white pirate flag it says 

WARNING – MUST READ BEFORE FIRST USE

Paul clicks open the neck fence and takes off the device, just in case. 

This does him far more good than expected. The tiled floor stops vibrating, in a most pleasant way. His eyesight also improves back to normal, allowing him to easily read the finer print:

Congratulations, your neckfence interface will greatly boost your gaming pleasure! Your body will have to adjust to the new experience, though. Please make sure to lay down for your first session and start at ‘min tight / beginner level’.

No need for Paul to read on. The corporate bastards behind this perfidious invention tried to kill him!

This calls for revenge.

Paul dials up his insurance agent, to have him confirm his legal cost policy covers this obvious case of serious bodily harm. Next, he’ll get himself a lawyer. They’ll meet at the hospital, where he will get his multiple injuries documented.

The mother of all damage suits is in the making, and Paul’s fortune. He can already see himself posting the add for a housekeeper he will finally be able to afford. But first, he’ll preorder Star  Warrior VIII.

Black Friday

Gorsus taps his left temple to switch off his interface. It’s been a good forty-five minutes, half a day’s worth of linked work, he’s overdue a break.

“Never more than thirty consecutive minutes” says the sky above his reclined operator armchair, in a psychedelic 3D whirl of colors. As if someone had thrown bags of powder in the air, and they had aligned to form and reform this same sentence, again and again. Beautiful, stunningly beautiful. Still failed to attract Gorsus’ attention.

It took the strident high overrun alert to pull him out. He’s forty-two, and it shows. His brain struggles with complex tasks. Time to consider using the pension calculator, to check how much longer he needs to go on. No way he ends up in vegetable state, like his late mom. There can be too much of a good thing, including diligence and performance. They won’t get his brain for intermittent storage, in return for keeping the rest of his body alive.

Gorsus didn’t risk his health on purpose. His current research is so fascinating, he often struggles to pull himself out. “The origins of the Black Friday ceremonies”, that’s the title he’s going to use. The bigger the news, the more important to keep the title bland, not to get accused of lack of seriousness.  Gorsus doesn’t have that much of a reputation to defend, yet, but with this paper, he’ll change the world. 

Twelve billion adults on the planet. Down from fourteen, but still a lot. And most of them, unless they are severely incapacitated or total morons, are celebrating Black Friday. Year in, year out, they plant at least one ritual sapling for St. Alecho.

They buy a slot in a high-rise carbon capture rack, the closer to the city, the more expensive. They ride there on bicycles adorned with festive garlands. They use a ceremonial shovel to pretend to dig the symbolic hole, before plugging the roots of the sapling into the holder protruding from the nutrient matrix. They complete the ritual by shaking their heads three times in silent prayer: “May you carbon capture well!”. Never ever is this sentence to be uttered aloud, St. Alecho is known to abhor ostentation.

Twelve billion adults perform this ritual, year in, year out. It has been established, beyond reasonable doubt, that the Black Friday ceremonies go all the way back to the twenty first century. Thirty generations have been planting trees for St. Alecho on Black Friday.

Some of the origins of the ritual are well understood. People in the prescientific era used to beg Alexa and Echo, two deities represented by a shared cylindrical effigy, for help with a climate alteration that caused severe droughts and floods before culminating in the Age of Mayhem. Prescientific people prayed, instead of planting trees and adjusting their lifestyles. No wonder lay people consider them responsible for the hardship they suffered.

As a historian, Gorsus knows better. One can’t blame the superstitious ancients. Clever individuals, like himself, can pull ahead of the field of established wisdom, but there are limits. The time just wasn‘t ripe, in the twenty first century, for an understanding of how things work. Rudiments of climate science were being developed, but this age lacked so badly in both data and computing power that even the most obvious correlations were hard to determine with any rigor. They didn’t even have self programming quantum machines!

Not that many records, from the Age of Mayhem. Paper was no longer in use, replaced by highly sensitive and shortlived electronic means of storage. Biorecording had been developed in principle, quite a feat, for such a low tech era, but the early DNA readers and writers were primitive devices, and hardly ever used outside of highly specialized labs with little interest in folksy beliefs and traditions.

Richeve Simdonna, Gorsus’ teacher and idol, had been lucky to dig up one intact twenty first century effigy, in what must have been its original box, wrapped into an additional layer of colorful paper, a waste of resources typical for religious items.

Her central Rhine valley desert dig, a treasure trove for archeologists. Whole households must have been abandonned, in a hurry, and spent centuries buried under tons of sand, until the Western European super twister of 2914 revealed them, in all their well preserved ancient splendor and mysteriousness.

Richeve Simdonna managed to decipher part of the writing on the effigy box she found, thereby proving what had until then been a contested hypothesis: Alecho did indeed start as Alexa and Echo, and without the saint. Some taboo, probably, a prohibition against speaking the sacred. No surprise in an age of disruption, people get edgy.

But no mention of Alexa and Echo’s race. No support for the dominant interpretation.

Gorsus had always harboured doubts, concerning Black Friday as a celebration of the shift towards dark skinned dominance. The dates just didn’t fit, the chronology was wrong.

St. Alecho has been around since the twenty first century. Dark skinned dominance only took off in the twenty fourth, in the context of peculiar solar activity. Doesn’t make sense, even if one is prepared to assume repurposing of an existing ritual. Why rename it?

St. Alecho is also revered by poor and rich, dominant and subjugated, black and white alike. Declaring him the patron saint of dark skinned dominance doesn’t make sense.

But the term Black Friday is real, transmitted in songs, poems and prayers throughout the ages. It’s simple enough, no reason to assume it might have been distorted. ‘Black’ and ‘Friday’, what’s to get wrong, with these two terms?

Gorsus got professionally hooked on this question.

And today, on what started as a perfectly banal Monday, Gorsus did it. He discovered the original meaning of Black Friday.

It was right there, on a piece of paper Richeve Simdonna decided to ignore, because she couldn’t translate any sense into it. Unlike him, she hadn’t done a research stunt in economics history. She wasn’t able to identify the item as what was called a receipt.

With this primary classification achieved, it was easy to interpret the writing revealed by trace enhancement technology. Item code and price in decimal symbols, plus a short and telltale text: “Black Friday Deal”. Black, as in black ink, good news for traders. So simple…

Gorsus barely had time to think “Oh shit” when the cerebral aneurism struck. History lost a bright mind, and the Black Friday secret remained hidden for another decade.

Side Effects

And one more sanitary pad at the bottom of the trouble.

For lack of an obvious perpetrator, Ade silently throws a big fat curse at the white tiles of the bathroom wall. If only all ladies would learn how to safely dispose of their hygiene products, his professional life would be oh so much more pleasant.

Such a change in female behavior would also help with the chronic backlog. With so many emergency calls, at least half of them blockages, they’re forever rescheduling the installation of new sanitary equipment.

Concerning routine maintenance, the office no longer bothers to answer inquiries. As the saying goes „If you dream of getting hold of a plumber for non-emergency maintenance, why not reach right for the stars and jump onto the elective knee surgery queue?“.

It’s obvious that too little routine maintenance caused by the shortage of skilled professionals leads to additional premature degradation, and that this in turn causes yet more emergency calls keeping the precious few plumbers too busy. Vicious, but that’s how the system works. Well established dysfunction as usual.

Taking his time with the mess, his little revenge for the unpleasantness, Ade lets his brain argue the case of the ladies, like a lawyer would.

A perpetratoress could pretend to have acted out of charitable motives. Cleaning up her mess might be disgusting, but less backlog would lead to less plumigration.

Taking the argument one step further, disposing of sanitary pads into the dedicated bins would have to be considered applied racism. Ade’s inner lawyer rejoices. Only a legally trained mind can come up with this kind of obvious bullshit.

Ade’s own residential status is of course as secure as naturalization gets. Less plumigration wouldn’t affect him. But a responsible chap has to consider the potential for unintended consequences. One can’t ruin the immigration prospects of one’s peers. Less desperate house owners might lead to less visa. Currently any potential immigrant willing to learn the plumbing trade is begged to come. But if circumstances change, who knows?

Conditions might even revert to bad old first stage plumigration, as experienced by Ade’s uncle Iffe. When he got himself recruited, he had to provide a certificate confirming his plumbing skills. He dutifully paid a little fee that delivered a shiny diploma from a supposedly licensed academy. He still had no clue, but this diploma did the trick.

Being a clever and dexterous man, uncle Iffe learned his trade on the job. All went well, until an explosion he might or might not have caused. Neither himself nor anyone else did suffer bodily harm, but he remains severely traumatized. Has been scared of gas installations ever since. Won’t touch any of the beasts unless a locally trained specialist is present. Poor man, his income took a serious hit. Never will he manage to pay off that mortgage.

No such hardship for Ade. By the time he was done with university and ready to face the shit, the prerequisites of uncle Iffe’s days were long gone. No one dared ask him for a plumbing diploma, real or fake. He only needed to enter one of the shops on Migration Alley. One step turned an able bodied law graduate into a plumbing apprentice.

No questions asked, all visa and travel expenses paid, passable accommodation provided, and a nice little welcome handout on top. Compared to the trials inflicted on uncle Iffe’s generation, current plumigration is paradise. Kind of. If you don’t mind the shit.

On the plane, Ade met Taya, a lady of similar background and age. The onset of the solar era and the corresponding petrol and mining industry crisis had forced her to abandon her dream to find a job as a geologist. She was instead headed for a career in nursing, or senior shit, as she chose to call her future occupation, rather bluntly.

Noticing how they were both destined to handle excrements, Ade and Taya experienced fellowship in adversity. Eight hours of flight was more than enough to get them liaised. Their initial bond turned into assiduous dating. This in turn culminated in a in a big brash wedding, once they had both completed their apprenticeships and acquired their second passports.

„How much longer is this going to take? Would never dream of pushing, but I will need…, to go…, you know? Preferably sooner than later… ?“ This particular old lady whimpering on the other side of a bathroom door Ade has shut to labor in peace can’t be at fault. She’s way too old to be the originator of the mess. Must have been some visiting kid who didn’t dare leave traces of her current physical condition in the bin. Stupid little bitch.

Aloud, Ade goes polite: „As good as done, madam. Just give me one more minute, and the bathroom will be all yours again…“.

He flushes one more time, to suggest completion of whatever activity he didn’t perform during the last ten minutes, and checks his phone while waiting for the end of the torrent.

He finds a message: „Will be going straight to an additional girls meeting, urgent issue. Might get late, please don’t wait. Kisses, Taya.“

Texting back a full line of kisses, Ade feels all empowered and cheerful.

This is perfect timing. He had been wondering how to get himself a marital evening bliss exemption, to join some of the other plumigration lads to watch tonight’s Champion’s League game at the pub. And now it’s his lady going out. Perfectly perfect.

Having a glass with the other nurses will hopefully switch Taya’s attitude back to bright.

Ade’s wife has been tense, lately. Forever ranting about injustice, stress, politics even. How it’s not fair, to only allow immigrants in to clean up behind the legacy residents and deny them access to proper jobs, regardless of qualifications.

Ade won’t deny that’s how things are. But endless complaining is going to change exactly dick, right? Why ruin your mood about circumstances beyond your control?

Deep in his heart, Ade of course feels that little glimmer of glee, when the news report one more house blown up by the „One World Avengers“. The blokes do have a point. But that’s not a subject he’s prepared to discuss with his wife. That’s men talk.

The terrorists always make sure the owners of the houses they target are absent, typically holidaying abroad. Hence no one gets harmed. Theirs is soft terrorism. But it must still be deeply unpleasant to check your home CCTV feed only to find out the place is gone, just because some blokes hate the current world order.

As a professional, Ade kind of respects the „One World Avengers“. Tough guys, really good at blasts. Always using gas, often the very cylinders he’s handling day in, day out. Who knows, they might perhaps even share his trade. He wouldn’t e surprised to learn some fellow plumigration practitioners are telling the world how much they hate the daily shit.

Having pocketed a nice surprise of a generous tip, Ade trots back to his white van, slowly. If he takes long enough loading and replenishing his emergency intervention kit, he can just make it into the lunch break time zone. 

Opening the side door, the empty slot on the rack on the opposite side reminds him to report that last stolen gas cylinder missing. He’s had enough of the mischief that has been going on for months. Some lazy colleague takes his supplies from Ade’s van, instead of going though the formal request process. Lazy idiot. Time to teach him a lesson.

Lucky Number

“It’s just to get people thinking. To make them grasp the stakes, the urgency. We got it. I do, and you’re nearly there, too. The others, those who don’t care, they need a kick, to get their brains going. No one will do this for real, that would be cruel. It’s a thought experiment. People will hear, they will imagine, what it would be like. And then they will do what needs to be done…”

Neal vividly recalls Sophie arguing. She got all worked up, as she often did.

Anything could get Sophie started. How people parked their SUVs. That they were driving those SUVs in the first place, “Just to get their fat asses from home to the office and back?!” Sophie was really good at getting all worked up about stuff that was none of her business.

Like that completely ludicruous switch scenario.

Neal no longer recalls if the scene happened before or after Sophie filed for divorce, all of a sudden. They argued such a lot, in that second and last year of their marriage. It was also the last year of the old world order, in a funny coincidence. But Neal didn’t care about stuff that just happened, like world orders. You couldn’t do anything about overall circumstances, why bother?

Some things could have done with better organization, sure. A lot of things, actually. Like he himself deserving at bigger paycheck, for his impeccable performance on the job. Well, perhaps not impeccable impeccable. But definitely quite good.

Sophie wasn’t all wrong, when she said the world needed improving.

That kind of statement could even be fun, over a barbecue with the neighbors:

“The weather is foul. We’ll once again end up with fires all over the place, an no one doing one thing about it… The traffic sucks. For two stints per week at the office, you spend more time one the road as in the old days, when you had to go sit company bricks every day. But don’t expect anyone to do anything, about road congestion.  And don’t get me started on the world order…”.

Why not? Sophie wasn’t so mistaken, concerning the diagnosis.

Where she erred, badly, was in her insistence on treatment. She wanted to change the world. Young people, they’re like that. Not yet aware of the basic facts of life.

Neal should have considered this, before marrying a girl twenty five years his junior. Sophie being half his age had its merits, especially at bed time. But she could ruin an innocent man’s day with her attitudes. Worse than a project lead, the bloody kid. He wasn’t aware of that aspect, when he fell in love with the hot tempered hitch hiker in need of a bed for the night. A couple of nights.

That switch scenario scene, it will forever be with him.

Neal still feels the taste of a gum chewed beyond the limit of its citrus flavor. Bitter, plus what is probably the naturally ugly aroma of plastic. And the smell of rancid sun lotion. A week earlier, Sophie had spilled half a bottle on her way back from the supermarket. She was like that, always moving fast and breaking things.

They were standing in a traffic jam. Some idiots had blocked the highway, to demand an immediate stop to petrol fueled mobility. For the sake of the climate, officially. In practice, everyone knew such demonstrators to be thugs paid by a particular eMobility provider.

They were listening to webradio. Even a basic self driving car was beyond Neal’s means, no movie for them. He had let Sophie pick the channel, to avoid yet another fight, and she made him listen to an interview with a member Intercont Revenge Front, or IRT.

Neal had never heard of those particular lunactis.

The IRT chap was calling for an alignment of global living conditions. And demanding reparations for slavery and colonialism. And for the descendants of the perpetrators to experience the living conditions of the descendants of the victims. In a surprisingly good English that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in Neal’s office.

The sophisticated language made the absurd demands worse. Neal would have preferred to hear a heavy Hispanic accent, or a black voice, instead of this traitor. Exasperated by the traffic jam, plus the foul taste and smell, Neal called the traitor a traitor, and Sophie went mad. She even endorsed that ludicruous switch scenario. Funny, in a way, considering how she died.

Fast forward five years, and a happily divorced Neal was still thankful for that episode.

At the very beginning of the nightmare they’re now supposed to call life, when all bank accounts were frozen and the whole country was offline except for one TV channel, Neal was the only one in his neighborhood to ever have heard of the IRT, the new bosses. He had been exposed to enough of Sophie’s rants to be able to anticipate and adjust. Like insider trading, minus the cash.

They of course kept their heads low, in his neighborhood. You don’t mess with what was bound to be a mighty, and super mightily armed, opponent. And everybody was anyway so busy to put a semblance of food on the table and assure a minimum supply of potable water, mostly on foot or bicycle, that there was no time to think resistance.

Somehow, they got organized, in the new lean normal. Missing the good old days, of course, but oh well… As long as you didn’t get sick, you could make do.

A lot of jobs, including Neal’s old one, evaporated. But he quickly set up shop as the neighborhood mobility and transport provider, courtesy of the collection of bikes Sophie had made him buy and couldn’t take along when she moved to a downtown flat.

Transport bike rental proved especially lucrative, as did the rickshaw service.

In the early days, Neal himself pedalled seniors to the market and sick people to the clinic. Soon he was replaced by gig pedallers. Not his idea, he wasn’t naturally prone to recruiting. Jobless people just started to loiter around his busy place, to check his customers for opportunities to make a coin. They became gig pedallers all by themselves.

With so many bikes in such heavy demand, Neal had to spruce up his repair skills and the corresponding equipment. There was always something to fix, and he got real good at it. Diversification into bike repair once again happened naturally.

Three years into the new normal, Neal was making solid neighborhood coins and eating well. Not getting rich, certainly not in a good old days sense. But his was one of the first doors taking a knock when funds were collected for charity.

All was about as good as it could get, in the new lean normal, except for health care. Getting an invite to Sophie’s funeral had rammed that particular risk home.

The birth of Sophie’s first child had gone badly. Loss of blood, a clinic short of supplies and staff, and bang, Sophie died at twenty eight, leaving her new husband with a toddler. Neal was furious at the foolish young bloke. How could he not use a condom? These were dangerous times, unsuitable to start a family. He should have taken better care of their Sophie.

Neal had pedalled all the way to the downtown cemetery, despite the risk. He felt he owed Sophie, because he wouldn’t have ended doing well without the headstart provided by what he had used to call her childish eco mania. Ever since, he has been afraid to fall sick.

Getting his number pulled for the global lottery instead came as an unforeseen shock.

Neal was of course aware, like everybody else, that this horror of an IRT pet project was ongoing. Each 1st of July, the participating household numbers were announced. Each 4th of July, they were told who would switch life with whom. Switch as in complete transition: House, jobs, possessions, everything. You were only allowed to take one bag each.

One hundred thousand households switched every year. Marginal, by global population standards. Pretty good odds never to be affected. But Neal is taking the hit.

There is a website, where you can check the location and details of all participants.

Neal only had a quick glance at the map before deciding to spare himself. There are certain things you don’t want to know, unless they’re imminent. Like with your own death. You know you’re not immortal, but that awareness is best buried. The deeper, the better.

Not even that many participants in actual war zones, but hey!? If your luck is bad enough to take part, nothing guarantees you won’t be the one idiot getting himself relocated to some poppy field in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. Watch our for mines and pray…

Neal managed not to touch that map again. Having triple checked his number really got pulled, he packed his favorite clothes and waited for his assignment.

Neal’s brain didn’t need the map to imagine calamitous constellations.

What if he was switched into one of those parts of the world where rampaging child soldiers cut people’s arms, for no particular reason? Forty years back, a moron of a teacher had made his class watch a documentary, and Neal never recovered. He certainly won’t believe any of the modern fairy tales about Africa. Better living conditions than in the US? You bet…

Thinking of black, what if Neal got himself switched to one of those inner city neighborhoods where walking the streets while white could be considered an intrusion? It would be great to stay in the US, in principle. But some parts, they’re not the real thing, to put it mildly.

Always nothing but trouble, for next-door Joes like him. Neal for once missed a female presence in the house, someone to get grumpy at. Not even a dog around to kick, that sucked.

Ten minutes to go. Eight. Three. One. Click. Fucking bloody server buckling under the rush, failing to respond. The ruling morons could at least make sure to grant participants preferential access!

It took Neal twelve more minutes to discover where he was headed.

San Jose? As in San Jose, California, posh place full of nerds? That San Jose indeed. Not bad, not bad at all, for a designated location. And it gets even better.

Neal is headed for San Jose to replace one Fortunato Lopez. As in the Fortunato Lopez, first generation American son of a Venezuelan politician and founder of Desal inc? That Fortunato Lopez indeed. Everybody who likes to eat more than once a day has heard of the brains behind the desalination technology that keeps agriculture going, and Neal will now replace him.

Smiling for once, Neal takes his bag and steps out to wait for the eCarrier that will ferry him to San Jose. Bright future, here comes your man.

Match over?

“You’re anyway supposed to have started at age six. To make it into the top, imperative to start early. Real early. Which you didn’t, Lano. To the best of my knowledge, and loads of knowledge there is, with all the jerseys I get to wash these days, over and over and over again, you started at eight. Eight, Lano. Two more than six. You’ll never…”

He should be well on his way to practice. Instead, he gets an earful of this ignorance. She’s got no clue. He’s destined to become the best player the world ever witnessed. That’s a fact. Coach said so. That same Coach who will be mad at him for arriving late. If he misses practice, he might not play on Sunday. A catastrophe, to be prevented at all costs.

Lano considers killing the obstacle. Unfortunately, she’s huge, a mountain of purple velvet home dress blocking the door. Too big to handle, even for the most gifted of athletes. He’s tall, for an eleven year old. But not tall enough, yet.

Killing her would also be considered an overreaction. “You need to learn not to lose your temper, Lano,” Coach said. “You can’t keep blowing up like that all over the place, for nothing. Save that temper for the pitch and your attacking, Lano, and you’ll go far.”

Coach always speaks true. Sometimes, you don’t like what he says, but true it still is. Like with how to kick the ball to make it go not straight. You think “Now that’s bullshit!”, because how Coach tells it can’t work. You still do as told, because that’s how you behave, at practice. And boom, you score. From the corner right into the goal. Coach was shockingly right, like adults never are. Coach is so special. Coach proves you can grow up into something worth being.

“… you can’t just play every day. There’s more to life than balls. Match over, young man. And now, you will sit down at that table and do your homework. And when you’re done, the dishes need washing. Oh yes, the dishes. I saw you, Lano, skipping your turn at the broom. Don’t know how you made your poor little brother do your chore, but you’ll sure as hell do his in return. And when you’re done with the dishes, you go find your dad and check if he needs help…”

Despicable. Trying to keep him from practice, and getting everything else wrong, too.

Fari offered to do the dishes, in return for Lano keeping Haro in check. By age, Haro should be in Lano’s class. His parents kept him at home for three more years, considering him too fragile for school. Now, he’s no longer fragile and does attend. Being one head taller and double the weight of his classmates, he makes them hand over anything he fancies.

Lano told him to stop that, at least with Fari, and preferably with the other kiddies, too. At first, Haro screamed, because he didn’t like his head pushed into the toilet bowl. Lano kept the pressure steady and explained, patiently, how they would repeat this exercise every day, unless first the screaming and next the bullying of the kiddies stopped. He also explained how informing an adult would be a bad idea. Haro is not exactly bright, might have ratted by mistake. Lano’s forceful technique and patient approach worked, just like Coach foretold.

“… so this would be the moment where you drop that sports bag, sit down and get the bloody hell going on that homework. Lano, one more look like that, and I’ll have to tell your dad you rebelled again. You know how your dad won’t like that, and all the good he thinks of that stupid law supposed to prevent one from teaching one’s own kids manners…”

He should have opened the window. Three jumps – desk, window frame, sidewalk. With a little luck, he wouldn’t even damage her bloody vitaweeds. Easy exercise, but only with an open window. Coach is so right, when he insists you also need to think. Mental note always to open that window first thing after coming home from school.

With the window currently closed, there’s only one alternative, a barely feasible option. Pretend to go for the tight right side, making her move there even more, switch directions at the last moment to squeeze through on the left. With the sports bag as battering ram, this might just work. If she catches him, he’s in for serious trouble, but with a match at stake… “No risk, no fun” says Coach. Keeping that motto well in mind, Lano takes the plunge.

He hurt his elbow on the door frame and had to shake of her grip a bit too vigorously, judging by the pitch of her screaming, but he made it out of his room and into the corridor. Piece of cake to outrace her to the front door, open it, close it before she gets there, and run.

He’s really late, because of this stupid maternal interference.

Racing through the heavy traffic on main road, Lano relies on the safety features of the autonomous electric vehicles to clear his path. They have to brake, when confronted with a pedestrian, saving him time. They’ll also record his locator chip information and denounce him as traffic vandal. As a repeat offender, he’s in for some more civic duty. No problem. The artificial intelligence handling minor offenses will look at his profile, identify his football playing as the one bright spot to build a future on and assign sports facility maintenance work. On his last conviction, he had to clean the locker room of the professionals and met Dayé. Dayé! In person! And he posed with him!

If only his stupid skimpy dad made enough to buy him proper bump sole sneakers instead of this second hand shit. It’s just four kilometers, but he can’t keep up his top speed for more than eighth hundred meters before feeling the strain. By the time he reaches the practice pitch, the oomph will be gone from his legs, meaning he might not play on Sunday. All because of that stupid fat bitch.

His team is already on the pitch, all dressed up. Legalistically speaking, they’re not really his team. “Thirteen year olds won’t take an eleven year old as their captain, Lano, you’ve got to understand that.” Coach explained. “They’ll do your bidding on the pitch, because of your temper and skill, but I can’t formally declare you captain. That’s the price to pay, for playing ahead of your age. Tough luck, but I trust you to take it like a man.” Which Lano does, of course. 

Turns out this is Lano’s lucky day after all.

First he gets to rest his strained legs. Coach arrives even later than him because a group of stoned pedestrians blocked the only access road to the posh gated community where he lives. They’re demanding access to drinking quality tap water for everyone everywhere, not just the the upper million. Very extreme radicals, even though it’s a nice idea, when you think about it.

Next, Lano finally performs on his free kicks. He has been practicing on his own, in the dark of very early morning. On the empty plot next to the roaring desalination plant, the only spot where no one minds the noise. And the practice pays off. His impeccable performance confirms he will not only be playing on Sunday, he’ll also be in charge of any free kicks. 

Finally, when they’re nearly done with practice, Lano’s dad comes rushing, daring to interrupt Coach’s closing pep talk. Such a shame, to be blighted by a badly behaved parental.

But the misfortune soon gives way to the brightest of developments:

Coach shouts back at Lano’s dad, not mincing his words at all. About how it’s a crime, a serious crime, to try to interfere with what is obviously a “one-in-a-billion vocation”. And Lano’s dad to go: “One-in-a-billion vocation? Well, if that’s what you think, he’s all yours. Just come get him, better right here, right tonight than tomorrow. Good riddance, and good luck with him.”

And so it happened. The adults did some kind of paperwork, and Lano got to sleep one night at Coach’s home. A really posh place, with thick carpets and all. And the bit about the good tap water got confirmed, but they still drink bottled. The next day, a driver came for him. He was transferred to the Academy, and his career took off.

“One-in-a-billion vocation.” Lano always recalls this moment, to focus. How his first coach said it. So passionate, so one thousand percent sure to be right.

A lot has happened, in the twenty years since.

Lano no longer considers any of the many coaches he has more endured than enjoyed a deity. He’s on excellent terms with his parentals. They had a point, insisting on a life beyond football. He had a point, insisting on this career. Match nil, friends.

“One-in-a-billion vocation.” Lano takes a deep breath, and scores the penalty. Two more goals to go, to get them to the next round. Two weeks from now, he might be a happy man and a World Champion. Or just a happy man. Both options fine with him. Match over?