Archive for conspiracy

Bright Jackets

Posted in Alternative Energy, Lucerne Village, Unknown with tags , , , , , , on April 29, 2012 by javedbabar

Katie stood in the middle of the field. It was a beautiful field, with oat grass swaying around her in the breeze, and rippling and swirling further out. It felt as if she was the centre of this motion. Two helicopters hovered above like slim dark dragonflies. Police cars stretched along the side of the field bordering the road, with people and cows scattered along the other three sides. The bright green forests clothing the lower slopes of the Valley set off the orange jackets of the hundred men closing in around her.

Katie felt groggy. Her mind was confused and senses dazed. What had happened to her? Why was she here? The police cars, people, and cows weren’t getting any closer; they remained behind the wooden rail fence running around the field. The helicopters were wavering but mostly holding still. The men in orange jackets drew closer, pacing slowly forward, approaching her individually and together, tightening their bind. This wasn’t their first time, thought Katie. Their speed and spacing was so steady that she felt like giving them marks. If there were a prize for synchronized stalking they would be sure to win it.

Katie’s stomach cramped, and she felt like curling up and falling down. However her survival instinct made this impossible. How could she make herself more vulnerable than she already was? She had to stay up, facing the situation, whatever it was. These words seemed familiar, why?

The men in orange jackets were a hundred metres away. If only she could use a tape measure to check their distance. Maybe they would agree that anyone five metres over or under the norm was not performing up to standard and should be removed, and as they got closer these tolerances should be reduced, so by the time they were within ten metres, those remaining must be within fifty centimetres of their radial norm. If they were careless, many, maybe even all, would be eliminated before they reached her. But theoretically when it was down to the last orange jacketed man, he was the norm. What would she do then? She could always run.

Katie realized that these thoughts weren’t helpful. She was in the middle of a field of swaying oat grass with a hundred men in orange jackets closing in around her. Focus, Katie, she said to herself, focus.

She remembered being awarded a medal, not so long ago. During a ceremony in Lucerne Village a golden disc was pinned to her chest by the mayor, the provincial flag was raised, and everybody clapped and cheered. That was where those words had come from. The mayor said that she had, “stayed up, facing the situation, whatever it was.” Yes, she had, but what was the situation?

She remembered a long tunnel. She was stuck inside it. But she had entered of her own accord. Was it a cave, a subway, a conduit? Yes, it was a big pipe of some kind. All of a sudden she needed to go to the washroom. She needed to pee. Was there something in that? Need to pee? To pee? Pee – to pee? That’s it. It was P2P. The multi-resource pipeline being constructed from Canadia through America to Mexica. Lucerne was slated to be the province’s first multi-resource hub.

Katie felt the helicopters draw closer as the orange circle constricted. They were blowing her hair about. How annoying, she thought – how would she look on TV?

Why did she remember the P2P? Had she tried to save this tunnel? Yes she had. Not out of loyalty to The Authority, simply the desire to be a good citizen. Somebody was trying to destroy it and she had stopped them. But the blame had been pinned on her. It was a case of mistaken identity – or was it? Did a hundred men chase misidentified women – you know, usually? She’d been framed for sure.

Katie was a government agent with an enviable record. She had served with honour abroad and was now stationed at home. But her local investigations had found the tail of something sinister. She remembered explaining to people that she was trying to save the pipeline, not destroy it, but she had become the prime suspect. She had seen something that day. Something they had tried to make her forget. What was it?

The memory returned. She had seen plans for a pump house to power this stretch of pipeline.

It was only then she realized that she had a gun in her hand. How did that get there? It must have been there the whole time. She raised the gun without thinking, felt a sting, and then nothing.

The shot by a helicopter sniper was made to look as if it came from a farmhouse in the next field. The old farmer there was refusing to leave his fifth-generation Old Family home, whose site was needed for the pump house. If he’d shot Katie that proved he was dangerous and needed to be taken out. So he in turn was shot by the sniper in the second helicopter.

A hundred men in bright jackets met in the centre, around a corpse.

Ten-A-Day

Posted in Classic Sci-Fi, Organic Farming, Unknown with tags , , , , , , on April 10, 2012 by javedbabar

“Buck a bowl!” the trader called out. “Buck a bowl! Buck a bowl!” He held up coloured plastic bowls. People stopped to examine their contents, and if pleasing, proffered a cloth bag in which to pour them. Bowls were refilled immediately. Trade was brisk.

Since the passing of the 2012 Local Food Laws, every Village in the Province, and every area in the City, had a dedicated Vegetable and Fruit Market (VFM). It operated daily and was always packed as people tried desperately to meet their ten-a-day requirement. The Authority was not severe on those who tried but didn’t make it, but was unforgiving of those who didn’t bother. The VFM operated year round. Its roof was rolled back in summer months, and in winter it provided vital cover. It also lived up to the impression created by its acronym VFM – Value For Money – with its prices being half those of the grocery store.

The market was a huge gazebo designed to optimize light and ventilation. Sunlight slipping in didn’t hit produce directly but made it glow. Customers walked around in the slanting sunshine, swinging their hemp bags in alternate bands of warmth and shade.

Shannon liked to shop daily to ensure the freshest produce possible. She may as well extract maximum benefit from her ten-a-day. “Same as usual, love?” said the flat-capped, thick spectacled guy from Jolly Good Farms. She didn’t know his name but referred to him as the Jolly Good Fellow.

“What’s my usual?” said Shannon, smiling. This guy was always flirting with her. She didn’t fancy him but didn’t mind. “Come on I’ll test you!”

“You’ll want one portion of red apples – preferring small ones, one portion of firm green pears, one portion plantains, two portions medium local bananas, two portions baby purple carrots, one portion sprouting broccoli, one portion German Butter potatoes, one portion Russian garlic. How did I do?”

“Pretty good,” said Shannon. “How did you know? Have you been spying on me again? I thought those bug-eyes staring through binoculars looked familiar.”

“The Authority helps us small farmers,” he said. “They know this is a challenging business. We attend special marketing classes. I chose to specialize in servicing pretty, young ladies.”

“You’re sounding a bit pervy now. I thought you were a Jolly Good Fellow. Don’t ruin the image. I may have to take my business elsewhere.”

“Oh, Miss Lululemon, please don’t do that.” Shannon wasn’t sure why but she became self-conscious. Her brand of clothing was obvious to anyone, but his comment felt intrusive. “I’ll give you an extra portion. How about some local pomegranate?”

Shannon nodded. “Ok Mr. Fellow.” As he filled up her bag, she decided to shop elsewhere in future. This guy usually had the best selection though, and her spiritual teacher, OM – short for Ozwald Melchizedek – recommended Jolly Good Farms. He said their produce held more prana. OM approved of The Authority’s ten-a-day requirement, and recommended eating five of the fruits and veggies before midday, and the other five between twelve and six. He said, “That is the way to be lean and mean. Lean because you consume food as you need it and nothing gets stored unnecessarily, and mean because you are always slightly undernourished and on edge. Lean and mean.”

Shannon looked around the market. It was true, everybody was looking leaner than ever. The VFM had made them health conscious, and was a real step forward in provincial wellbeing. But how did they sell things so cheaply? A buck a bowl was unbelievable. Even the tropical fruits grown in local hothouses were a dollar. She searched online and asked around but people were tight-lipped, only mentioning “efficient production models” and “modern technologies”. The Local Food Laws made it impossible to visit farms, which were deemed “Fundamental Framework” installations for Future Food Security. You couldn’t get anywhere near one and all workers signed confidentiality contracts.

The sun was especially bright today. It dazzled her momentarily and she lost her footing. She would have fallen if not for a fellow shopper who grabbed and held her up. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m not sure what happened to me.”

“I know exactly what happened to you,” said the woman, who wore strange golden glasses. “Do you want to know?”

Shannon found this woman intimidating, but was intrigued. “Go on then, tell me.”

“Come with me,” she said, leading Shannon to the edge of the VFM. “Try these.” She handed her the golden glasses. As soon as Shannon put them on, all the produce disappeared. The stalls were empty. There was nothing there.

“Oh my god!” she said. “What’s happened? Where are the fruit and veg?” She removed the glasses and saw the produce reappear.

The intimidating woman said, “These glasses perform nutritional screening. They screen out everything unnatural, showing only vitamins and minerals. This food is all junk. Ten-a-day is a fraud.”

“How can that be?” said Shannon.

“Yes it’s all produced locally – but it is structured using holographic, nature-identical, seedless, hydroponic, container-ripened, genetically modified, and other industrial methods. Everybody is eating nothing. Don’t you wonder why people are so lean? They are emaciated nutritionally.”

“Who are you?” Shannon said to the woman.

“I have given my life to the Slow Food Action Front. I believe in fighting for good food.” Then her eyes opened wide. “Shit! That guy over there is an agent.” She indicated the Jolly Good Fellow. “If he recognizes me, he’s sure to do something. Let’s get out of here.”

Shannon still wore the golden glasses. She saw that some of his fruits appeared again, glowing brightly. He had injected his apples and mangoes with a nightshade-derived neurological virus. He beckoned them both over, smiling in a jolly good way.

 

Green Power

Posted in Alternative Energy, Classic Sci-Fi, Unknown with tags , , , , on February 10, 2012 by javedbabar

They had all lived in hope; a belief that things would soon get better. But the world had continued to fall apart, and BC was no exception. The roads became rutted, power was erratic, water became polluted, and food – when available – was often spoiled. It was a joke among South Asian immigrants that it was becoming “more like home”. Everything was heading downward, but there was the belief, particularly among South Asians – whose religions foretold this dark age – that it was part of a greater cycle, where everything would fall, but then arise.

However, the arrival of grid dismantling teams surprised even them. In units of ten trucks, they took down a whole kilometre of power lines at a time. They used eight-axle logging trucks; the first unit loaded with hydro poles, and the second one with wire spools. The residents of Valley Road were given no warning. One day they had erratic electricity, and the next day it was gone.

A leaflet was delivered to Ashok’s house, titled “Lucerne Valley Energy Independence Pilot Project”. The Authority stated that the world had changed immeasurably in our lifetimes, with the System bearing many new stresses and strains. The “opportunity of our generation” was that of self-reliance. There was no longer a need to be tethered to global, national, or even regional infrastructures. We should become independent in every way possible, and return to living in small, self-sufficient communities. A first step in this process was dismantling rural areas’ electricity grids.

The leaflet said that “The Authority is following the philosophy of the 3 R’s”. They would Reduce electricity usage by downsizing the system. They would Reuse the raw materials – primarily wood and metal. They would Recycle any subsidiary materials. There was basic information on generating your own power – via solar-electric, solar hot water heating, wind turbines, geothermal fields, and biogas. And in the short term, using gas generators or burning wood. There was also advice that the best route to efficiency was not producing more energy, but reducing your usage. It said, “With wise materials choices, earlier rising, and extra sweaters, you can cut your power usage by 90%”. And they had decided to begin with the Lucerne Valley, “an isolated community with a proud history of self-reliance.”

When residents saw the grid coming down along Valley Road, they sprang into action. A century of tax payments had paid for its installation and maintenance – so in truth it belonged to them. Those able to work quickly stayed ahead of the eight-axle logging trucks, and took some spoils for themselves.

Ashok claimed two large spools of wire and two small transformers. His workshop was full, so he loaded the items into his truck and drove to his cabin. It was two hundred metres off the road, and pretty well hidden. That would be a good place to store them.

The grid dismantling work was completed in two weeks. Some people struggled without grid power, but most were coping, at least for now. They’d pulled out their old oil and propane lamps, and used woodstoves more often. The Authority provided cheap golf cart batteries to store energy. That way your generator didn’t need to be running constantly; just two hours daily to charge them up.

“Have you heard about the break-ins?” said Ashok’s neighbour. “It’s pretty strange; houses all along the Valley Road, but nothing stolen. And they’ve ransacked sheds and workshops. Nothing much taken from those either. Only things missing are grid components. I guess some people got greedy and wanted them all.”

“Have the police caught anyone yet?” said Ashok.

“No-one’s reported the thefts to the police, you dummy. What do they say: ‘Officer, I stole some cables and cans, and now I’ve lost them; what should I do?’ It’s opportunists, maybe not from the Village; probably some City crew.”

Ashok went to check his cabin. The bastards had better not have broken into there. He was pleased to see they hadn’t, but he was nervous now and considered returning the grid components. What would he do with them anyway? He could leave them at the side of the road. No-one would know he had taken them.

As he pondered the best course of action, the end of a wire spool caught his eye. He was no electrician, but that definitely wasn’t copper or aluminium; it seemed like fibre-optic cable. Why would they use that in power lines? What a strange thing to do. He studied the transformer can for clues. There was something about that too; but he couldn’t say what. Hey, was that a USB hub near the bottom? It seemed to be. That was curious. And the can was really light; was there anything in there at all? There were only six screws to undo, which he managed in a minute. The can was filled with computer components. Is that the inside of a transformer, thought Ashok? Just like a PC. He plugged a USB cable from his computer into the transformer. No security code was needed; a series of folders appeared. It made no sense. Files on a transformer.

He thought a search may be fruitful, so typed in his address. A related file appeared. When he opened the file, it had nothing to do with stepping down voltage for transmission to his home. It was a series of snapshots and notes about him. The photos were taken from outside his house – recording his comings and goings. There was a prominent note – an e-sticky – on the file that read: “Grid Systems Analysis: This individual is by nature suspicious. Post-deregulation, he is likely to be disruptive. In the event of his becoming aware of Valley-Wide Surveillance, he would add significant risk to T/T (Telecomms/Telepathy Projects). We recommend elimination.”

Ashok heard the floor creak behind him, but turned too late to see. An elite Hydro Service bullet went right through his head, and hit the transformer. Like a gong marking the end of a great cycle, it clanged too loudly.

Call Me

Posted in Lucerne Village, Unknown with tags , , , on January 26, 2012 by javedbabar

John never felt the same in town. In the bush he felt free and open, but in town he felt confused and fictitious. He was not himself.

As a result of this he avoided going out. Not just going into town, but going anywhere. The best place for him was his cabin, where he stayed as much as possible. His dad used to say “An Englishman’s home was his castle”. The same held true for a Canadian’s cabin. He could build a glass room onto it, or kick it down; fill it with Swiss cheese, or start a sci-fi book club; butcher a goat and eat its raw heart, or make sweet love to a tattooed girl and then play Naked Twister. He was King here.

But the moment that he stepped out of the door, he felt different. It was subtle to begin with but strengthened quickly. And it depended on his direction of travel. Going up the Valley he felt no difference – still free and easy. But heading into town, the dread set in, and stayed with him until he got home, taking all night to dissipate.

One day John felt the dread still there in the morning. It made him panic – though the panic may have also been part of the dread. He went outside and called his friend Sham. There were five bars on his cellphone instead of the usual one. Wow, upgraded service! Despite this technological advance, Sham didn’t answer, so he left a message on his landline. He didn’t know Sham’s cell number. Then he did the stupidest thing imaginable. Fumbling with the ebony toilet seat, he dropped his phone in the bowl. It sank among turds. Fishing it out was a shitty business. It was dead alright.

Next morning John was out cutting firewood, and returned to find a package at the cabin. The phone company had sent a new phone. How did they know? He hadn’t told anyone. Maybe Sham, somehow? John decided not to open it yet, as additional charges were surely involved. His current phone may come back to life. Stranger things had happened in the Upper Valley.

John kept a good stock of oats, rice, and beans; he had meat in the freezer, plus a vegetable garden, but who can live without some processed junk? Driving into town that day for groceries, he felt free and easy. It was the strangest thing; no dread. The forests were shining; the river seemed miraculous; mountains gleamed with every colour, and pulled down the sky playfully; which replied with “Tag!”

Today, for the first time he could remember, John felt like King of the Village too, or at least a member of its Royal Family. But there was a problem – other Royals didn’t care for him much. They ignored him in the street, barged past him in store aisles, snarled at him at checkouts, and cursed him on the road.

He spotted Sham entering the deli. John parked the truck and followed him in. Sham sat among a group of sparkling faces, people he recognized – Upper Valley farmers. “Hey Johnny!”Sham called out. “King of Naked Twister! How goes it?” The farmers all laughed.

How could he! thought John. That wasn’t for public consumption. Some friend! But then he saw that people were laughing with him, not at him. They loved the thought of his playing Naked Twister. They may even try it themselves. They celebrated his sense of fun.

After a jolly lunch together, John thought he should clear things with the phone company. He asked to borrow Sham’s cell. “My friend, I beg your apology unreservedly,” said Sham with great exaggeration. “But, alas! I am not in possession of a mobile telegraph.” John looked at him confounded. “But I shall entreat our compatriots on your behalf. Sirs, in his time of greatest need, are you willing to loan Master John, Naked Twister, your mobile telegraphs?”

“No Siree!” said a farmer. “I am without telegraph.”

“Me neither,” said another. “I’m still awaitin’ on that Wichita Linesman.”

“Accept my apology, said a third. “But I can shout real loud, and so can my cousin in Strattus, and my brother-in-law in Squashy – though my sister shouts louder – whose voice may just reach the New City.”

“I’ll check the Sky Train times,” said a fourth. “If we can get his voice in before the doors shut – those commuters will repeat anything, and will carry it to The Phone Company, Inc. offices.”

They continued in this manner for many minutes, without “liking” or “sharing” anything, only a sense of fun, as if they had all the time in the world. John noticed that no one was rushing. No one was interrupting. No one was snarling or cursing. And what did these people have in common? They lived in the Upper Valley, true. But more importantly, they didn’t have cell phones.

This thought fired a synapse. After lunch he went to the library and asked for a good book on the brain. The librarian said, “It’s kind of crazy, but I liked this one.” She gave him “The Origins of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.”

Its hypothesis was that long ago, humans’ left and right brains were separate organs. The left brain was concerned with daily tasks. The right brain received divine inspiration – manifesting as prophecy, dreams, music, dance, and art. About 5,000 years ago, the two halves became networked and we became self-conscious. Our divine connection came to an end, and was, John realized, ultimately replaced by a connection costing $100+ a month, which also controlled our thoughts, and filled them instead with “news”, ads, offers, posts, updates, tweets, sound bites, comments, likes and dislikes, followers and “friends”.

John decided to return the package to the phone company, plus throw away the shitty cell. But before he reached home, the new cell tower – that had been switched on that morning, boosting his reception – managed to activate his new phone – still in the box –with countless new and enhanced features. His preference algorithms created a filter bubble. This ensured that it was impossible for his present impulsive self to resist opening that box.

Triangles

Posted in Classic Sci-Fi, Lucerne Village with tags , , on January 24, 2012 by javedbabar

Bruce was feeling sick this morning; he should have left that old takeaway in the fridge. It had something growing on it, but he’d eaten it anyway; it wasn’t even good to begin with.

The trucks annoyed him more than usual; there was always one on the road. They weren’t local drivers so didn’t know their way too well; they over-sped on Charlie’s Straight Stretch, and then pumped their brakes on Hutchins’ Curve. Bruce didn’t touch his brakes for thirty kilometres, all the way from Lucerne to the Golden turn-off. And these out-of-town truckers hogged the middle of the highway as if Knights of the Road, their reflective orange triangles heraldic signs.

Where were they going anyway? At first he’d thought they were hauling gravel. There was a truck every ten minutes, like a well-run road-building operation. But when a truck’s tarp came loose at the corner, he saw it was spuds. He didn’t recognize the variety; they were like Peruvian Purples but bright blue, looking like Space Spuds.

Why the hell were they hauling spuds up the Valley? They should be hauling them down the Valley, into the City, and across the border. He asked some people, but no one knew.

One day out hunting, he sighted a buck and was taking aim, when a truck’s grinding caused it to bound. Bruce was furious, and felt like shooting out the truck’s tires. As he was preparing to leave, another truck went by. Instead of heading home, Bruce followed it. That bright orange triangle would sure make a good target at night, he thought.

Just before the Golden turn-off, there was roadwork. The truck driver made it through, but Ben’s Frontier was stopped suddenly by the Traffic Control Person. He was annoyed but kept calm. “What are you doing here?” he asked her.

“Oh, just fixing up the road.”

“Why didn’t you let me through?” he said. “Wouldn’t it have been easier?”

“I’m just following orders. One in, one out.”

After five minutes, Ben was allowed to go. No one else appeared. “Where’s the ‘one out’?” he asked her. She shook her head and waved him on. He watched her in his mirror. On her back was a reflective orange triangle.

The next time Ben saw a truck, he followed it again. Once more there was the same charade. The Traffic Control Person stopped him suddenly, for no reason.

“One in, one out again?” he asked her. She nodded. “Listen, where are these trucks going?”

“How should I know?” she said. “I just wave them on. I’m not paid to ask.”

Again no “one out” appeared, and she waved Bruce on. In his mirror, he saw her speak into her radio urgently, and turn to face his receding vehicle, squinting. Was she trying to read his licence plate? When he exited the other end of the construction zone, the man there also spoke into his radio, and squinted at the Frontier. Bruce had noticed that there wasn’t much work going on at this roadwork. In fact there was none at all. What was going on then?

Now Bruce wasn’t a conspiracy theorist in the traditional sense – meaning alien contact, shadowy elites, mass brainwashing, etc. – but he was a conspiracy theorist. A conspiracy was simply a decision made in secret by people with something to hide. No doubt there were plenty of those. And something smelled fishy here. Were they putting in a secret hydro project, or a geothermal installation? Avoiding all the bureaucracy and public consultations. Or maybe an oil well; could it be a mine? The price of metals had rocketed; it could be silver, copper, or even gold.

Bruce followed the next truck he saw. Again the same charade. But this time he drove ever so slowly. If he crawled along, he thought, the truck behind would surely catch him. Then he could see where it went.

As he crept along, he spotted an orange triangle nailed to a tree at the side of the road. He was surprised that he hadn’t seen it before. Up close, he saw a little letter at each corner: A-B-C. But there were no tracks leading off from here, only dense bush on both sides. He pulled his truck off the road a little further up, and walked back to the triangle. The vegetation was strange – so flat that it seemed more like a landscaped hedge than wild bush. He heard a truck behind and took cover.

He watched as the truck simply drove through the bush! He realized that the bush there was a kind of projection; overlapping greens – some light, some dark – blending substantially. He walked right through it, and followed a sharp-rocked forestry road. He hid whenever a truck passed. He reached a rocky entrance, marked by another orange triangle. He considered walking in but felt vulnerable. He awaited the next truck, and when the driver stopped at the entrance to turn and reverse, Bruce jumped between the truck and trailer.

He was taken 500 metres down a dimly-lit tunnel, and into a vast cavern. It smelled very cold and dusty; a bit mouldy. The truck tipped its load of spuds. Bruce jumped out and hid in the lumpy blue pile. Was this a strategic food reserve for the City, he wondered? In case of natural or man-made disaster, people could eat for weeks. Farmers had told him that potatoes required little water to grow, matured quickly, and stored for a year. And they were as close as you could get to a complete food, containing dense energy, proteins, fats, vitamins, and fibre. Everything you needed to survive for extended periods. They were an excellent choice for a regional food store.

Something moved beneath him; then something to his right, and his left. Strong sinewy arms embraced him, his sharp breath only helping the arms to grip tighter. Other finer arms then crept up his body. These knobbly sprouts held budded points. They made their way to his body orifices – the accessible ones: nostrils, ears, mouth, and anus – and ones that required a push – genital, navel, and eye sockets. As the sprouts entered his body, their alkaloids altered his nerve impulses: a-solanine stimulating their firing, and a-chaconine retarding it, until they reached a perfect balance.

The orange triangles Bruce had seen were symbols of Project A-B-C, high-priority research to establish self-nourishing, super-organisms. They must be capable of surviving Armageddon on earth, or existing on inhospitable planets. Bruce was the latest human being the super-organism had absorbed. Its potato base ensured it had plenty of Calories: C; and substantial Body: B. It just needed to boost its A: Awareness.

Black Towel

Posted in Lucerne Village, Unknown with tags , , , on January 9, 2012 by javedbabar

Jamie loved the shower. He would spend all day in there if he could, but usually took a short shower of only five minutes because he had to get to work. But even in that time, the hot water, pulsating jets, and steam clouds turned his bathroom into a dreamy somewhere else. It was like being inside a piece of music. Dance music, melodic but also trancey. In the shower you could just let go of every part of yourself, and have no cares in the world. He felt so light, floating free.

He opened the shower door, stepped out, and pulled his towel off the rail. Now the dread began. As lovely as the shower had been, coming out still felt terrible. He couldn’t say why. He had a sudden fear and loathing of the world. What a stupid way to feel. Like everyone else, he better just get to work.

He began to dry himself. Halfway through, he stopped. Was this his towel, he wondered? It was white. Didn’t he have a black one before? He wondered if it was his housemate, Eddy’s. He couldn’t ever remember buying a white towel. Never mind, it got him dry.

As Jamie was dressing, he noticed that the towel was quite grubby. It had dark stains. Like most single guys, he didn’t change his towel as often as he should. He knew that. His logic was that these stains were from water: the same stuff that would be used to wash it. Water is water – what difference does it make if it’s from his shower or from the laundry? Still, maybe its time to give it a wash. He threw it into the laundry basket, and took the basket with him to work.

Community Services seemed to get busier each day. He stayed late to finish a chart showing the effects of income inequality. The rich-poor gap was getting bigger – not just financially, but also in terms of physical and psychological health. On his way home Jamie went to the laundry. He heard voices in the back room. He loaded the machine, but as he filled the dispenser, the manager came running out.

“Oh, I didn’t hear you come in,” he said. “What are you washing?”

“Just my usual stuff.” Jamie wondered why he was bothering him.

“But is there something I can help you with?” The manager seemed eager.

“Not really. It’s just my jeans, shirts, underwear, and, er… towel.”

“Towel!” The manager’s eyes lit up. “Towel!”

“Yes,” said Jamie, about to push the start button.

The manager stopped him. “Oh, towels are hard to clean properly. Let me do it for you.” He was sweating slightly.

“That’s very kind of you,” said Jamie. “But I don’t want to pay the extra. I’ll do it myself.”

“Oh, no extra! Just good service!” The manager opened the machine door and pulled out Jamie’s stuff. He held up the towel. “See those dark stains? You won’t get them out. Let me wash this for you.”

Jamie was flummoxed. “Em… ok, thanks.” When the machine started hissing, he went for a drink and came back 34 minutes later. He knew that’s how long the wash took. The manager was waiting for Jamie. “Oh, you’re back. Super. Your wash is done. And here’s your towel.” He held out a neatly pressed white towel, the sort you get at hotels. Wow, thought Jamie. Good job.

“Excuse me,” said the manager. “I have some business to take care of.”

As Jamie waited for his laundry to dry, he wondered how the manager had washed and dried the towel so quickly. He was about to step into the back room to ask him, but saw through the doorway that he was busy. He was putting stained white towels into a bag, while a pile of fresh ones sat next to them. Jamie decided not to bother, and left. In his car mirror, Jamie saw a dark van emerging from the laundry’s rear.

A few weeks later, a black towel appeared in the bathroom. It must be Eddy’s, thought Jamie. They never really saw each other, as both were busy working multiple jobs. There was always less money, and more bills to pay. It was getting harder to survive these days. They were friends but fought often, and were both in bad moods. Jamie caught Eddy one morning, and asked if that was his black towel.

“Why? Do you want to use it?” he said.

“No, I was just curious. I don’t remember seeing it before.”

“I got it from the laundry. Someone left it in a machine. The manager said it was a good towel, and told me to take it. But it’s pretty low grade – the colour’s coming off. It’s going grey.”

Two weeks later, the black towel was gone. This was unusual, as towels stayed in the bathroom for months. Jamie asked Eddy about it. “Oh, it turned into a white towel,” he said. “But it still had dark stains. So I took it back to the laundry. The manager washed it for me. It turned out great.”

Eddy felt that something wasn’t right. Black towels shouldn’t become white towels. He went to the laundry to ask the manager about it. While he was finding a car space, he saw a dark van parked at the rear. The same one that had pulled out behind him last time. As he approached the back of the laundry, he overheard the manager’s voice. “That was twenty this week.”

Another voice said, “All black to white?”

“Yep,” said the manager. “One hundred percent cleaned.”

“Ok, good job. Here’s $2,000. Do you think you can handle more?”

“Maybe five more. But that’s it. I can’t push a black towel onto every customer.”

“But you may have to. The powerful people who blacken these towels need to stay powerful. They use witchcraft to bypass karma, and transfer their stress and sins through these dark spell cloths. They have accumulated more stress and sin than ever, so we must expand the operation. Soon we’ll give you your own special towel.”