Leaning on the counter, Nate selects five numbers from the sixty that are printed on the front of the slim polymer slip. The same five numbers he’s played every week for the last three years. Once his DNA and fingerprint are verified, his numbers are covered with an electric-blue cross and the Fortune slogan that spans the top of the ticket, ‘Only Winners Have Tickets’, animates to read ‘Two Credits To Play’.
“Fortune and a double caffeine,” he requests from the shop screen that covers the wall in front of him.
“Confirmation required. Age-restricted products. Insert Fortune ticket,” announces the screen. It displays his order in large, bold letters.
Nate feeds his ticket into the game slot below the screen and waits for his selected numbers and personal information to be verified. While waiting for the ticket to pop back out, he daydreams about what he’ll do with the winnings. He’ll quit his job, buy a larger apartment — one with enough rooms for the kids to stop over — and take a month-long vacation. Maybe even six months. He’ll find a beach as far away from this city (and his ex-wife) as he possibly can. He won’t even tell her he’s gone. He’ll send her an anonymous e-card with the message, “Glad you’re not here!”
He’s still smiling to himself when his ticket pops back out.
“Ticket verified. Good luck, Nate Foster,” announces the screen.
Nate takes a quick glance to ensure that his ticket now displays his chosen numbers, then stuffs it into his wallet and waves his watch over the payment reader.
“Age verified. Purchase accepted,” the screen responds as a can of coffee clunks into the collection tray.
By the time he’s made the short walk across the city to State Bank Tower, the can is empty and the caffeine is beginning to clear his head. It can’t help ease his annoyance at the number of people waiting to get through the reception, though. His shoulders slump and he skulks over to join the shortest line of workers shuffling towards the security barriers.
“Good morning, Nate,” the receptionist greets him when he reaches the barrier.
Nate doesn’t reply but uses this sliver of time, like he does every morning, to scan the receptionist’s features. It’s his daily attempt to unearth a facial twitch, a mistimed blink, or anything else that would mark her out as not being human. As usual, he finds nothing. There are rumours that all receptionists, security and cleaning staff at State Bank are substitute workers, or ‘subs’ as they are more commonly known — machines doing the work of humans — but he’s never actually uncovered one. He and his colleagues often joke that their line manager is a sub, because he has the personality shop screen. Nate’s known him for a few years now, and is aware that his awkward personality is down to poor social skills, rather than the possibility that he might actually be a machine.
Once his identity has been confirmed, the receptionist is authorised to allow Nate to pass through the barrier. She smiles at him as it opens.
“Have a productive day, Mr. Foster. The time is 42 past 8. You have less than 18 minutes to get to your workstation. State Bank advises that you undertake some light stretching to improve your posture before commencing your shift.”
* * *
The clock hanging on the office wall next to the TV screen displays 5 past 19. The TV is on but the sound has been turned down. The blinds that cover the adjacent wall of glass aren’t closed to block out any earlier evening sunlight; they are there to provide privacy. Three smartly dressed occupants — two women and a man — tap on terminal keyboards and tablets. None of them pay attention to the TV screen, until a tall man enters the room and turns up the volume. The typing stops and the three look up in unison.
“…week’s winning Fortune numbers. Good luck to everyone who took part. If you missed out, don’t forget you can play again next week and remember, ‘Only winners have tickets’. We’ll see you same time, same place, next week, but for now here are those winning numbers again…”
The screen freezes on the five numbers and, dropping the remote control onto the desk, the tall man turns his back to the screen and claps his hands together loudly.
“Okay. people. Who’s our winner this week?”
“Nate Foster. A 39-year-old divorcee,” replies one of the women.
“Details?” asks the tall man.
“He lives alone in a city-centre apartment. He has a menial desk job at State Bank with a below-average income and just over 10 thousand credits of debt.”
“The prize fund has been confirmed at 47 million,” adds the man.
“Good, good. Publicity?” asks the tall man.
“None. His ticket confirms that he’s declined publicity,” replies the woman.
“Okay. Perfect. Do we let this win go through?” asks the tall man.
“All information indicates that this win is ideal for retention,” replies the second woman.
“Excellent,” says the tall man. “Any objections?”
The three people look at one another then shake their heads. The tall man claps his hand together again, cutting through the silence. “Good, good. We know what to do. Let’s prepare the penthouse and give Mr. Foster the news.”
* * *
“What?! No. You’re joking? No. Seriously?”
The tall man smiles as he brings a finger up to his lips, mouthing shhh. He glances up and down the corridor, and without waiting to be invited in, he steps inside Nate’s apartment. He places an arm around Nate’s shoulder and guides him into the living area. They’re closely followed by a woman in a suit.
“I can assure you this isn’t a joke,” says the tall man in a smooth, calm voice as he walks Nate to the sofa. “Why don’t you take a seat and Catherine will get us all a drink?” The tall man waves the woman into the kitchen area as Nate sits down. “Tea? Coffee?” he asks.
“Er, coffee,” Nate replies, and adds to the woman in the kitchen, “the top cupboard. The mugs are in the top cupboard. By the sink.”
“I’m sorry that we’ve had to wake you so early. We needed to be discreet. Our records show that you’ve declined publicity in the event of a win. That is correct, isn’t it?”
Nate nods. His brow is furrowed as he watches the woman open and close his kitchen cupboards.
The tall man claps his hands together.
“Okay, Mr. Foster. Before we go on, I’ll need to see that winning ticket. We need confirmation that you are in fact Nate Foster. I’m sure you understand.”
“Oh, yes. Of course. I mean, it’s in my wallet. I’ll go and get it.”
Nate is unsteady on his feet as he heads towards the bedroom to collect his wallet. He scrubs his face with his hands to clear away the grogginess, in the hope that he can make some sense of the situation. It’s 35 past 5 and he has two immaculately dressed people in his apartment. They’ve just explained that he’s won 47 million credits on the Fortune lottery. The tall man is casually wanders around as if he owns the place, while the woman makes coffee in Nate’s kitchen. This is all far too surreal. The alarm will wake him up any minute now, he’s sure of it.
His hand shakes as he picks up his wallet from the bedside table. He pulls out the ticket and across the front, in place of his chosen numbers, is the message: ‘Please contact Fortune immediately – 555-FORTUNE.’
“This is nuts,” he mutters as he hands over his ticket to the tall man. The man gives both sides a quick scan and, appearing to be satisfied, he hands it back.
“That all seems in order. Obviously, it will need to be verified.”
“Er… of course,” replies Nate glancing over the ticket.
“I know it’s a bit of a shock, but that’s perfectly normal,” says the tall man. “It can take weeks for it to really sink in. You’re actually handling it pretty well, considering. We’ve seen all sorts of reactions from winners over the years. One woman vomited so badly that…”
The tall man stops and reaches into his pocket. “I’m sorry, where are my manners?” He pulls out a white identity card. The title Direction of Fortune Assimilation is prominent next to the tall man’s photograph. He smiles as he hands the card over to Nate.
“I’m Isaac Stewart and I’m here to change your life.”
* * *
Nate picks up the champagne flute from the edge of the bath and takes a sip. He closes his eyes and holds the alcohol in his mouth for a few seconds, savouring it before swallowing.
He has been in this penthouse for the past two days. Isaac and Catherine had him driven straight here, wherever here was, after breaking the news to him about his Fortune win. He hadn’t taken much notice of his surrounds during the journey because of the barrage of questions and information that had been thrown at him, but having looked out at the view when he arrived, landmarks and buildings suggested that he was somewhere within the financial district.
Nate nudges the tap with his toe, adding a little more hot water to his bath. The warm surge creeps up his legs to caress his back and he takes another sip of champagne to counteract the warmth. This is the life.
During the tour of the apartment, Isaac explained that if there were anything that Nate needed, anything at all, he only needed to ask. In response, Nate blurted out that he wanted a roll-top bath. He hadn’t realised he wanted one until the words came tumbling out of his mouth. Before he’d had chance to backtrack, a Fortune representative had already begun making enquiries. The bath was plumbed in within the hour and it is doing wonders for his back right now.
Alongside the luxury came an almost endless number of formalities, all of which had to be completed before any winnings could be officially transferred. Nate was reminded that this was ‘all covered in the Terms and Conditions’, which Fortune were more than happy to provide a duplicate copy of, if required.
His ticket is currently being scrutinised for signs of tampering or counterfeiting and it will be returned to him as soon as it had been cleared. Apparently, most winners like to frame their tickets as a memento of their win.
Nate had lost count of the amount of times his signature has been provided for verification; he’s written it with a pen, without a pen, and even blindfolded. He’s also taken part in numerous informal interviews. Every conceivable piece of personal information has been requested. And has been supplied. He’s confirmed his date of birth, his first school, the names of his childhood sweethearts, and parents’ places of birth. All of this information will be collated to verify his identity. Isaac and his team have taken photographs of Nate from numerous angles and checked these against his passport, driver’s license, and CCTV footage.
The Fortune team apologised for the inconvenience but explained that there had been numerous instances of people masquerading as winners. They explained that there had been hundreds of attempts by criminals to get their hands on the winnings.
As Nate had declined publicity, his whereabouts would remain a secret for the time being. He was advised not to contact anyone while everything was being prepared for his new life. The press could be very intrusive and were always hungry for a Fortune exclusive, so it was better to be safe than sorry.
Although the continuous questioning and exile within this hotel room have been inconvenient, Fortune has been extremely helpful and always on hand to answer questions or concerns. They’ve kept him updated every few hours, right up until about an hour ago, when they confirmed that the flights for his holiday had been booked. He is set to fly out tomorrow morning.
Nate had often wondered how winners managed to remain hidden from the public eye, and it turned out that it was due to the meticulous planning of the Assimilation Team at Fortune. Along with taking care of his day-to-day needs and concerns, their job was to provide a cover story for the first few days after his win. They contacted his employer the morning they’d arrived at his apartment and explained that there had been an unexpected death in the family. This, they said, would give him a few days of freedom and time to plan what he wanted to do next. Nate has no intention of going back to work, but at least he now has a few days grace and, more importantly, he isn’t drawing attention to himself by not being at work. The team will contact State Bank at the end of the week to officially hand in Nate’s notice due to stress. The team has reassured him that they deal with HR departments on an almost weekly basis and Nate has nothing to worry about.
Nate’s fingers and toes start to wrinkle, so he reluctantly climbs out of the bath and wraps himself in a bathrobe. Strolling through into the bedroom, he feels oddly at home in his surroundings. He turns on the TV to add background noise to the stillness of the penthouse, but immediately turns it back off. The noise is jarring. He realises that he needs this peace and quiet.
It is early evening outside — 45 past 8 — and almost curfew. Nate watches the lights flick on within city apartments while the street-level lights begin to diminish as the sun sets. He realises this is the last time he’ll see this sun setting. From now on, every day will end with a sunset free of pollution, drones, and skyscrapers.
Moving back across the room, the plush carpet pushing up between his toes, Nate sits down on the edge of the bed. The effects of the hot bath and alcohol nudge him towards sleep. He’ll dream of breathing in sea mist that rolled in across an unspoilt beach, as water laps at his feet.
* * *
The blinds are open to reveal the penthouse bedroom through the wall of one-way glass. Isaac and his team watch the bathroom door open and Nate walk into the room wrapped in a bathrobe.
Isaac looks at the tablet in his hand and swipes through several pages before asking, “Do we have any issues to report with the sub?”
“All the information suggests it has been absorbed and it is behaving perfectly. There was one minor hiccup initially. But the cover story held; his colleagues put the odd behaviour down to the bereavement,” replies the man. “There are no other problems, and it is integrating perfectly. Work productivity has been set at the same, pre-swap-out levels.”
“All transactions regarding Fortune games have been removed from Nate’s bank account and his ticket has been erased,” adds one of the women.
“Good, good. Before we do this, does anyone have any concerns?” Isaac turns to look across the faces of his team.
No one speaks.
Isaac turns back and watches Nate for a moment longer before tapping the tablet. He stands unmoved for the time it takes the room to fill with gas and leave Nate slumped on the bed.
“Vitals?” he asks over his shoulder.
“I have confirmed flatlines,” replies one of the women.
“Good, good. Let’s take a break and start the clean up when we get back.” Isaac turns his back to the windows and taps the tablet to close the blinds, hiding the penthouse from view. On the way out of the office, he picks up Nate’s ticket from his desk, which is blank apart from the Fortune slogan across the top: ‘Only winners have tickets’.
Image via Pixabay