Lucky Numbers
– Frank Arion –
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A mile below ground level, the lights were powered by a plutonium field-generator – an irony which lingered in the thoughts of the Survivors’ Committee of Nuclear-Destroyed America. They ruled an inverted society, in which politicians and military commanders formed the lowest stratum. The radioactive devastation above was a monument to the failure of traditional leaders. Others had taken their place, confident that they could never do worse.
   “Next item on the agenda: a proposal that we do something about Technician Blake,” said the chairman of SCONDA, who had been a librarian with a teenage family in normal life.
   “Like what?” squawked his aide, abandoning her shorthand notes to pick at a stain on the sleeve of her olive green uniform. The name tag said MURGATROYD, G., but Marta Hellman had just sorted through the treasure house of the military stores until she had found something that was a good fit. Her original garments, along with everyone else’s, had been discarded in the decontamination chamber on the way down to the survival shelter.
   The chairman winced, recoiling from his aide’s strident East Coast accent. It conjured up all the lowest and most common parts of pre-destruction New York. He came from the city of brotherly love but he could not lament the end of New York.
   “Something must be done urgently,” asserted the director of supplies before the chairmen could gather his thoughts after the jar. Her name tag read CROSTAN, Y. because she had worked out how to use the embroidery machine and she had replaced the original name tag. “That bastard Blake is digging into the equipment stores as if the stuff was still rolling out of the factories. If we don’t stop him, and stop him fast, there won’t be a goddam thing left.”
   “Thank you, Mary,” said the chairman, who was plain Andy Lumm, and Lt.-Col. BOLSTED, V., according to his uniform. The young, black woman’s waspish attitude made him nervous. “But as Marta said, like what? We’re open to suggestions.” His eyes travelled round the plastic table from Hellman to Dr Strad, to Jai Bingham, who made fashion out of olive drab, to Crostan on his left.
   “Shove the son-of-a-bitch in the conditioner,” said Crostan patiently, stating the obvious. “Shake his brains around till the bastard loses whatever obsession he’s got.”
   “It’s a little more complex than that,” said Dr Strad, who could write a fair portion of the alphabet after his name. He had been a successful psychiatrist before the former leaders had robbed him of his practice. “The conditioner is experimental, intended to reduce hysteria and loss of perspective through catastrophe. It has to be used with delicacy. It’s not a mental rubber hose, you know.” He had been preaching calm and logic for thirty-six years, during which time his hair had become a distinguished grey and he had acquired a pair of half-moon spectacles.
   “Shove it, Doc,” said Crostan. “You know what I mean. Either you straighten him out or we try it. He’s consuming irreplaceable assets.”
   “Extreme action is not part of our remit,” said Jai Bingham, the legal advisor. She was a faded blonde in her late thirties, who was wearing a cool outfit made from naval tropical whites as a means of showing her independence.
   “Our remit,” Crostan sneered through the word, “is what we make it. This is a supply matter. Are you going to let us take care of it? The guy is a nut.”
   “Mr Blake is not ‘a nut’,” said Dr Strad in measured tones. “And it could be argued that he’s the most valuable member of our society. He merely has a mild obsession about the number thirteen. He isn’t dangerous, and as I understand it, he’s collecting equipment for which we have no use at the present time and are unlikely to need for some considerable time, if at all. The military packed this place with totally ridiculous quantities of irrelevant junk.”
   “And lined their pockets from cosy deals with defense contractors,” said Marta Hellman, the voice of youthful cynicism.
   “Before the world blew up, we had time to sit around on our butts, yapping,” groaned Crostan. “Now’s a time for action. Before that bastard Blake strips us clean of micro-servo-motors and other things we can’t replace because we don’t have the fabrication resources.”
   “Remind me,” said Lumm, “what equipment uses those motors?”
   “Nothing at the moment,” said Crostan patiently. “But they’re the sort of thing we’ll need in the future. Except we won’t have any if Blake keeps sneaking off with them.”
   “Legally, Blake is as entitled as any of us to take materials from the stores,” said Bingham. “More, in fact, because he’s our maintenance expert.”
   “As a taxpayer, he contributed as much as any of us to their cost.” Chairman Lumm completed the argument. “But there are channels. His clandestine predations are causing disharmony and if we don’t know what he’s taking, how do we know he’s only taking equipment we don’t use?”
   “There’s so much junk down here,” said Hellman dismissively, “who cares that he takes?”
   “We’ll have to trap him,” said Crostan, ignoring the twenty-four-year-old, former waitress and part-time secretary. “Catch him in the act. Then Doc Strad can give him a quick jolt of aversion therapy to stop him coming back, Does that sound legal enough for you?”
   “Vote requested,” said Chairman Lumm, cutting across further debate. “In favour?”
   “If the alternative is more drastic action.” Dr Strad lifted a hand off the table to make a third vote. “We must remember that Mr Blake is an essential part of our survival.”
   “Carried.” Lumm lowered his hand. “Next item?”
   “Complaints about work details from our failed leaders,” said Marta Hellman with a grin.
   Lumm started the clock in front of him. “No more than five minutes. What are they moaning about now?”
   Still grinning, Hellman began to read rapidly from a long list. The shelter had a population of 582, of whom about half were former members of the executive class. They had rushed to shelter on receiving a warning. The others were civilians, who had been lucky enough to be visiting the complex at the time of crisis, and an army maintenance crew. A spontaneous revolution had disarmed less than thirty soldiers and drivers. The lowest level of the new society was good at writing complaints. Their new rulers enjoyed rejecting them.

For thirty-two years, Fred Blake had worked for a company which had danced to the Pentagon’s tune. He had become an expert on servo-mechanisms, the devices used to steer missiles in flight and unmanned rovers on other planets, and to operate and deploy the instruments of space probes. In his private life, he had been an inventor in a minor way, spending hours tinkering with his gadgets, striving for perfection when he had taken an idea to its limit.
   Blake was one of the most vital members of the complex’s closed society, and the most unassuming. He was happy roaming the four miles of interlinking passages deep beneath the earth, making sure that everything was working smoothly. An assistant towed his large tool-kit in a two-wheeled golf cart. Ryan Edwards had been one of the youngest blue-eyed, firm-jawed colonels in the United States Air Force. Mass devastation had made him redundant.
   Blake and Edwards were in one of the hydroponics caverns, looking at an irrigation pump, when Christine Walenski caught up with them. Edwards was smoking one of the diminishing stock of cigarettes and looking blankly at rows of tomato plants. The survivors’ diet was mainly vegetarian. Stocks of meat were held in freezers, but they were reserved for special occasions, The occasions were even less frequent for the former executive class, who were deemed to have had more than their fair share of the good things of life.
   Christine Walenski was a former secretary with mechanical leanings. She was in her middle thirties and she had lost her entire family. Her husband had taken their two children to the zoo while Mom and a party of neighbours had taken the tour of the deep shelter. She believed that Fred Blake had saved her sanity by letting her tackle small repair jobs to keep her busy in the early days. They had become friends, colleagues and conspirators.
   Blake had taken part of the waterproof shell from the pump and found a broken piston. He glanced at the replacement part, in a neat polythene bag with a label, then threw it over to his assistant. “No good, son.”
   Ryan Edwards gripped the filter with his teeth and snarled silently round his cigarette. He dug into a pocket of the golf cart. Blake’s obsession with the number thirteen meant that he would use only spare parts with the figures 1 and 3 in their serial number, numbers which were multiples of thirteen or numbers whose digits added up to thirteen.
   One of Edwards’ most boring duties included sorting acceptable parts out of the vast collections held in the stores and exchanging stock tags if he was unable to find sufficient materials for a job. Sometimes, a non-thirteen part got through the screen. Edwards took an acceptable part over to his boss and retired out of earshot.
   “Whet’s new, Doll?” drawled Blake as he worked the new piston into position.
   “A lucky break,” murmured Walenski. “I was fitting a new plug in Mary Crostan’s office this morning. She didn’t think I could see her VDU, but I had a mirror in my toolkit. She was checking some access codes. Including that store on Corridor Thirty-Nine you’ve been trying to get into.”
   “Did you get it?” said Blake urgently.
   “Four thirteen twenty-one,” grinned Walenski.
   “My girl, I think you’re ready for a soldier-boy to carry your tools.”
   “Make him a pretty one, Fred,” laughed Christine Walenski.

All firearms had been locked away, but the medical centre could provide a chemical cosh when necessary. When a figure in workman’s clothes appeared on her video monitor, Mary Crostan glanced down at the hypo-spray in her right hand. It was shaped like a revolver with a very short barrel. Only one of the six cylinders was loaded – with a capsule of tranquillizer. When the trigger was pulled, a measured dose would be forced through the patient’s skin at high pressure.
   All around Crostan were shelves full of olive green boxes of various sizes, all stamped with code numbers in white. She could see plenty of thirteens. Blake would spirit them away, either to attempt to make something out of the components or just for the twisted pleasure of having them in his possession.
   He had no thought for the future and none for storage under the proper conditions. His obsession drove him to fill his hideouts with thirteens. Only his position of great practical importance to the survival of the subterranean society had made the SCONDA put off and put off the decision to restrict his behaviour.
   Fred Blake’s undisciplined grey thatch stopped at the door to the store room. Mary Crostan watched him start to prod out a number on the security panel as part of a programme of educated guesses – Blake was too smart to use the right number straight off – then she rushed to her prepared hiding place. A case the size of a locker, without a ‘thirteen’ number, had been placed beside the door. Crostan felt slightly constricted, but she would be able to open the door soon enough; when Blake had his back to her.
   The store-room door whispered open, then closed. Blake walked into Crostan’s field of view through a spyhole. He was wearing his usual grubby, dark blue overall. Shortened sleeves exposed pale arms with curls of thick, black hair. He was towing a two-wheeled golf cart and he had lost his assistant. A wall of thirteens stopped him dead. Each of the small boxes had a serial number in the thirteen hundreds.
   While Blake was taking in the glorious sight, Crostan took her opportunity to slip silently out of her hiding place. The hypo-spray hissed softly, forcing tranquillizer solution into a bare arm. Crostan stepped back quickly and waited. To her surprise, Blake came out of his trance and began to load olive green boxes into his golf cart. Crostan wondered whether to risk another dose of the drug, then she returned to her hiding place before Blake noticed her presence.
   His golf cart filled with random loot, Fred Blake left the store room. Mary Crostan gave him a five-minute start then hurried to the medical centre. Angrily, she complained to Dr Strad about his ineffective drug. Strad took the hypo-spray from her, fired a sample into a glass vial and placed it in the auto-analyzer. Within minutes, the print-out gave details of the formula of the drug and its concentration.
   “As I agreed, I believe?” said Dr Strad patiently. “A dose sufficient for rapid incapacitation.”
   “I don’t understand.” Crostan began to lose the momentum of her anger. “I gave him a dose in the arm.”
   “And that did Mr Blake do?”
   “Do? He just carried on filling that golf cart of his with boxes.”
   “Allow me to give you a demonstration.” Dr Strad placed a capsule in the cylinder of the hypo-spray. “This is just sterile saline. Roll up your sleeve.”
   Crostan obeyed. The doctor placed the spray-gun against her upper arm and pulled the trigger. “What did you feel?”
   “A sharp prod.” Crostan resisted the urge to rub her arm.
   “And that was a dose administered by an expert. Are you sure you pulled the trigger then you tried to inject Blake?”
   “Of course, I am!”
   “Then why didn’t he feel the injection?”
   “I don’t know,” frowned Crostan.
   “Perhaps I’d better handle the next one. I assume he’ll return to the store room?”
   “Oh, yes. He has hundreds of thirteens to sneak away,” said Crostan.

The system of surveillance cameras in corridors and public areas had been declared an undemocratic invasion of privacy. It could be used only in the event of a catastrophe, such as a fire, to assist in rescue work and to ensure public safety. Fred Blake had taken the precaution of carrying out a routine check of the system. Some ‘accidental’ cross-circuiting had cut off the input from the camera on Corridor 39 and substituted a view of Corridor 58, a rarely-used passage at the edge of the complex.
   Mary Crostan had discovered the sabotage while carrying out last-minute checks before her ambush. A network of human detectors, using the public telephone system, had been thrown around the area to give an early warning of Blake’s approach. There had been some confusion initially because one of the watchers had reported Blake’s entry into a service crawlway off Corridor 5, on the other side of the complex, and the presence of his ex-colonel assistant and the tool-kit at the access hatch.
   Crostan had not worked out how Blake had managed to reappear in the area of Corridor 39, the plans showed no line of communication available to a human, but she knew that she was up against a very clever man.
   Digging into records and memories, Crostan discovered that Blake had done a lot of work on the surveillance system. She assumed that he had been substituting a view of Corridor 58 every time he raided a store room. Edwards, his assistant, was a fairly regular customer at an automatic coffee shop on Corridor 5. Crostan was in possession of just too few pieces to solve the puzzle.
   Crostan alerted her watchers and telephoned Dr Strad the next time that Blake’s shadow reported that the maintenance team was heading for Corridor 5. A quarter of an hour later, when Blake had been spotted heading for Corridor 39 with a golf cart, one of the team shouted into the access hatch on Corridor 5 to report a defective light panel in neighbouring Corridor 4. Blake’s voice told her that it would be attended to next.
   Refusing to ask themselves how the technician could be in two places simultaneously, Dr Strad and Mary Crostan crushed into their respective olive green storage-case hides. A grey-haired figure in grubby, short-sleeved overalls towed a golf cart into the store room. Dr Strad fired a dose of tranquillizer into a bare arm while the man was admiring another collection of thirteens. When the drug had no effect, he fired another dose into the man’s neck.
   Mary Crostan watched in amazement as the doctor ran a finger up and down the skin at the back of Blake’s neck. Dr Strad took hold of the grey hair and pulled a wig came off, revealing a bald dome with a greyish cast. Dr Strad stepped back. He waved a summons to Crostan, then cleared his throat noisily. The bald figure jerked guiltily, then turned round.
   “I never knew he was bald,” said Crostan, staring in fascination at the greyish scalp.
   “The real Mr Blake isn’t,” said Dr Strad. “Allow me to introduce you to the ultimate conceit. He’s built himself an android in his own image.”

Two hours later, the Survivors’ Committee of Nuclear Destroyed America assembled to view the android and its control mechanism, which had been removed from a hidden room at the end of the crawlway off Corridor 5. Fred Blake climbed into a spacesuit-like garment in an open framework of steel rods. When he closed the visor of the helmet, cables attached to the shoulders lifted the suit twenty centimetres into the air.
   “I have reactive sensors in the control suit,” said the android, those wig had been restored. “Which means that all movements I make are transmitted to the explorer module, and resistances to movement are returned to me. So I can walk and change direction.”
   The android began a circuit of the conference table.
   “And I can judge how much pressure to exert to pick an object up.”
   The android raised an empty water glass to its mouth.
   “When the development work on the explorer module is completed,” continued Blake, “the next step will be to develop a relay system for the video, sound and sensor signals. Suitably miniaturized and with several channels, so that when more than one module is in service, they will be able to repair each other in the field. There’ll come a time when we run out of the parts necessary to repair existing mechanisms and build new ones...”
   “You mean with a thirteen in the serial number?” said Andy Lumm, the chairman.
   “Parts we can use.” Blake refused to acknowledge his obsession.
   “Hey, we can use the gadget to take a walk on the surface,” squealed Marta Hellman, putting a look of pain on the chairman’s long face. “Get away from this dump for a while.”
   “We can also use it to monitor external radiation levels,” said Dr Strad. “Or some simpler form of rover.”
   “And contact other groups of survivors,” said Jai Bingham.
   “Hold it!” said Mary Crostan as the enthusiasm seemed to be getting out of control. “We called this meeting to put a stop to Blake digging in my stores. When are we going to carry out the decision of the last meeting?”
   “I think that decision has become irrelevant now,” said Andy Lumm gravely. “Mr Blake has demonstfated that he’s made sensible use of the parts he’s been taking from the stores; and opened up a possible route to replacing them from outside. Our only complaint can be his lack of consultation, in all fairness.”
   “You mean he’s going to get away with it?” demanded Crostan.
   “In these desperate times, we have to make full use of all our resources, no matter how unlikely,” said Lumm. “Mr Blake’s obsession is fairly harmless, and it can be positively beneficial. No matter how much it may pain Mary, I think we’ll just have to let him work outside the system to a certain extent.”
   “Or change the system,” muttered Mary Crostan, wondering whether she had the resources to rewrite computer records and change packages to eliminate thirteens from the code numbering system, thus forcing Fred Blake to look elsewhere for parts to use in his personal projects. Conserving stores for the nebulous future was her obsession, but she would never admit that she, too, was tainted with Blake’s condition. ■

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to top of pageCreated for Romiley Literary Circle by HTSP Web Division, 10 SK6 4EG, Romiley, G.B.
The original story © Frank Arion, 1986. This version © Frank Arion 2011