Growing old was difficult for Howard Que. He was bothered by recurring nightmares. Waking up was worse. The buzz and glare from fluorescent tubes grabbed Howard’s brain and shook him awake. He was at his night job washing dishes by hand in the kitchen of the Devil’s End Restaurant. The End was a ramshackle establishment located in the bowels of the Red City. Better restaurants were all mechanized with robot dishwashers, waiters, and pre-programmed chefs. Real people were no longer acceptable in prestigious enterprises. Howard knew it was a phony setup … the really wealthy and powerful sought out back-alley dives where all work was done by living humans. Of course, a workingman or woman was paid less than minimal wage – it was a sign of the times. Strange times, indeed. Sometimes when a waiter forgot to show up, Howard was pressed into service and forced into that job as well. It was exhausting work and Howard, at fifty-six, was feeling his age. His day job was less taxing and more satisfying — he was a handyman — he fixed dead appliances, toasters and vacuum cleaners, antiques with no brains. Howard had a family to support, twin daughters and a wife who lived in a virtual world of extravagant wealth and privilege — a very costly dream. Howard had to make monthly payments on the Hyper-wave connections that kept the dream alive.
Howard was having sex with Margo, his wife. He worked hard to earn this luxurious Cruise on the Emperor-Queen, top of the line, one of the new floating cities devoted to entertainment and pleasure. His daughters, Imelda-X and Styrene, were in the next cabin. This was his time for unmitigated fun and sex. Margo was luscious. She never seemed to age. Her hair flowed like water jetting from a golden spigot. Her gasps and grunts were music to Howard’s ears. He’d waited a long time for this moment. Then the water broke. Power failed. Toilets overflowed. Pumps couldn’t suck up the flooding ocean.
Water was overflowing from the large double sinks. He’d been dreaming. The fluorescent lights scrambled his brain. He had to use the sprayer to clean food from the plates and put them in the soapy water. He wasn’t keeping up with the bus-boxes filled with dishes. There was no end. Alec called in sick and Howard was supposed to take over the waiter’s station. The manager said they were supposed to get a “dumb” machine to help with the dishes, but that was months ago. Howard changed his apron and started taking orders in the restaurant.
He took an order from a clandestine couple, no doubt spies, dressed in dark cloaks with new-style hoods. They ordered fish, a very iffy selection. Fish were filled with chemicals, tossed into the ocean from experimental labs working on genetic mutations. Howard thought the fish looked suspicious. When he set the plate on the table, the fish smiled. Smiling fish. Suspicious. Howard retreated to the kitchen where he was confronted by Imelda-X, his daughter. She wanted “New Goo” to enhance her image for maximum appeal in the Social Cloud. “What are you doing here,” Howard shouted, losing his cool. Imelda-X responded curtly, “I’m not here, you antiquarian — I’m a projection and I want my Goo.” Howard was stunned — as usual trying to avoid any confrontation with new technology. He, of course, assented to Imelda-X’s demands. She melted away. Howard returned to the fish — trying hard to be a considerate waiter. The clandestine couple dismissed him, but the fish demanded his attention. Howard stared down at the talking fish, entranced. The spies thought he suffered from a mild, paralyzing stroke — but, no, Howard was listening intently to the fish, “Something is amiss,” it said.
The ship was sinking. Everyone was gathered in the main salon. The ocean was rising. Margo Que sang like a bereft Nightingale to the nostalgic melodies played by the small orchestra. Howard always loved his wife’s warbling voice, especially in times of danger. The detective, Adamine Krator, was rounding up suspects. It was important to establish who was responsible for the current situation. It was rumored the Captain abandoned ship. The cloaked spies were hunched in a corner talking in code about a conspiracy to trigger mass destruction. “This is the end,” the fish said to Howard, but he refused to capitulate. Howard was plucky. He immediately went back to washing dishes which was considerably less dangerous.
In the morning, Howard awoke. Nothing changed, but he had gained some valuable information. He learned there was a real conspiracy under foot, hidden from the public. He discovered his life was not entirely his own. He contemplated moving forward & letting the apocalyptic events unfold; or… just staying put, retreating into a deep sleep like some dysfunctional Cinderella (AKA Sleeping Beauty).