Armstrong Story’s future wasn’t anything like he’d imagined it would be. It was grimy in the low places and shiny where only the elite could reach. In between it was still what might be considered ‘normal’ by seven generations of citizens. Jetpacks never caught on and flying cars were not the norm using magnet-based propulsion rather than fuel; theatre and cinema were low things appealing only to the great unwashed masses and unsupported by the wealthy. Art and literature were finally coming back into vogue following a long fallow period. Robots kept artificially dumb were used in manufacturing positions and employed by the rich despite advances dreamed of by so many. Some jobs still required human hands in the middle levels, and that was where Armstrong Story fit into society.
Armstrong Story worked for the largest courier and delivery service in the galaxy. InStelExPS was the company of choice across the known systems and handled everything from small but important documents to giant lightengines for the largest passenger cruisers. Armstrong Story’s job was to ensure that packages passing through his depot undamaged arrived at their next destination as quickly as possible in the same condition. He’d been in this job for the last ten terrestrial years and he was good at it. When his supervisors noticed his accuracy statistics he had been promoted to depot manager. His depot moved more packages more accurately with less damage while retaining more personnel than any other in the system. Armstrong Story was very proud of his achievements.
He rarely had visitors, let alone pretty female visitors, and so the day she came to see him in his office was one for the books. “You’re not supposed to come here,” he said. “No matter what, that’s what we agreed.” He took her by the elbow and led her into his small office.
“I don’t have a lot of time,” he said. “What’s up?”
She smiled at him and flipped her dark brown hair. “I need a favor, Armstrong.”
“I figured as much,” he said. He looked over his shoulder out onto the sorting floor. He hadn’t been missed yet.
She reached into her not-too-large shoulder bag and pulled out a small, paper-wrapped box. It was about eight inches square and lighter than he expected when she dropped it into his outstretched hands. “I need you to keep this for me,” she said. “I’m having to leave for a while. Not too long.”
“Do I need to know what it is? Or where it came from?”
Another smile: this one conspiratorial. “Only if you’re interested in teaming up, Armstrong.” She turned coy and drew her hand to the base of her neck. “I’d like that. Otherwise, it’s best if you don’t open it until I come back. There’ll be people looking for it.”
He failed to notice her interest in him. “What kind of people this time?”
She sat on the corner of his desk and folded her hands in her lap. “No one who’ll connect me to you, so don’t worry about it. You’re not on anyone’s radar.”
The shriek of a klaxon cut off Armstrong Story’s reply and he signed to her to stay, he’d be right back.
He left the office and found his majordomo, a squat Procyon with half a graying ringtail and a scar across his left eye. “Turn that thing off,” he shouted at another worker as Armstrong Story approached.
“What happened, Luyten?”
“Dunno yet, boss,” Luyten the Procyon said. “That was the clog alarm though. Hold on.” The furry supervisor put one long paw to his left temple, closed his eyes and his tail twitched back and forth. “Yeah,” he said out loud. “Thanks, Card.”
“Card? We’ve got a clog on thirty-seven?”
“No,” Luyten said. “Card was the nearest to the clog and he’s got it unstuck now. This was on forty-one at the end of its load out. A Lick box got turned wrong. Simple fix, everything’s up and running again.”
Armstrong Story sighed --- relieved it was a minor issue. “Thanks, Luyten,” he said. “Sorry I panicked.”
“No, it’s not. I should’ve been on the floor.”
Luyten looked up at his boss. “Hey,” he said. “Everyone needs a little time to themselves. Don’t worry about it.”
Armstrong Story put his hand in Luyten’s paw and shook it. “You’re one of the good ones, Luyten. Back in ten, okay?”
“No prob.” The Procyon walked back into the shift workers moving boxes onto conveyors. “All right you baggers,” he said, “there’s time to be made up, let’s go!”
Armstrong Story re-entered his office to find it empty but for a crumpled pink note on top of the trash bin. “Had to run. Bottom desk drawer. Please keep somewhere safe and close. Back in eight or nine days. Em.” She’d drawn a little heart around her signature. He smiled and tore the note into as many fine little pieces as he could then fed them to the shredder. The box she’d given him tucked under his arm, he rolled back out onto the floor. The rest of his shift passed without incident.
Leaving the docks of Interstellar Expedited Parcel Service, Armstrong Story made his way to the deteriorating commuter maglev that would eventually take him home. Lights as far as one could see in any direction, he preferred the city at night. Two hundred thirty-five standard years since the break up of the American Union and one hundred twelve since the dawn of new American CityStates, Armstrong Story lived in one of the oldest sections of the midwestern metropolis. An hour on the maglev would take him to Lawrence, an ancient suburb of the original city deep in the bowels of the residential ramparts that protected the city’s center.
The ground levels were dangerously unkempt but cheaper to use the bounce tubes upward from. Debris littered sidewalks and streets that no one drove any more, and walking any distance was generally safe as long as the police gangs were avoided. Armstrong Story made it through unnoticed, and stepped into the tube that would bounce him upwards at 37 feet per second, alighting gently at the next station that would take him home.
Home for Armstrong Story was a comfortable flat in the middle levels. The door closed behind him and he immediately undressed, heading for the Fresher.
Reinvigorated, he heated a plate of leftover NOLAbeans and rice and poured a glass of Washington wine. The dining room was lined from floor to ceiling with books on all sorts of subjects, and he selected a volume about Renaissance art. He’d discovered a soft spot for Titian, and really loved the colors and compositions of most of the work of the period. The idea of patronage, too, was intriguing.
Lost in the timelessness of ancient Venice (a city now completely under the Adriatic) Armstrong Story did not hear the soft chime of the doorbell until it rang for a fifth time. Gently startled back to himself, he noted the time and tightened the belt on his robe. He looked at the monitor next to the door and saw the Procyon, Luyten, waiting for an answer. Frowning, he pressed the button that unlatched and irised the door open.
“Luyten? Do you have any idea the time?”
The furry assistant burst into Armstrong Story’s apartment and waved his clawed hands wildly. “Of course I know the damned time, Story. We’ve been trying to call you for hours!”
Armstrong Story frowned as he closed the door. “Sorry,” he said touching his left jaw where it curved back to his ear. “I had my ‘tooth off. Didn’t expect anyone to call.”
“Yeah, well,” Luyten said, tapping his feet. “I didn’t expect to get yanked out of my comfy hovel to haul my ass over here to get you, either. Will you get dressed so we can go?”
It suddenly dawned on Armstrong Story that something was wrong at InStelExPS. He dashed past his assistant and quickly threw on pants, shirt and shoes. He grabbed his ID card, his wallet and went back to the living room. The Procyon was tapping his foot. “I’ll be back as soon as I get him to the warehouse,” Luyten said seemingly to empty air. “Yes, dear. I promise.” He looked up and saw his boss was dressed and ready. “I have to go now, dear. I’ll be home as soon as I can. Love you.”
Armstrong Story closed the door to the flat and they trotted down the hall to the bounce tube. “Not a word, human,” Luyten said, “not one word to anyone about that conversation.”
“Tell me what’s wrong,” Armstrong Story said.
“Boss told me to get you, that’s all I know.”
“Madder’n a Logan Bear,” Luyten said with a sneer. “Where did you get all those books, by the way?”
The bank of twelve bounce tubes were at the end of the hall. Armstrong Story stepped toward the down tube.
“No, no, no,” Luyten said, grabbing Story’s arm. “We’re going up.”
Armstrong Story looked worried and stepped into the other tube.
Luyten grimaced. “I hate bounce tubes,” he said and stepped in.
Thanks for reading Sender.
©2010 By Jason Arnett.
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