Copyright ©Hans Olsson
"This booth is not made for four people," he grunted, pushing an elbow away from his face.
"I agree. This is stupid. I don't know how you talked me into this," a woman with short black hair and a flat nose snorted.
"I didn't talk you into it. You volunteered as soon you heard about my idea. This is so much more than the fifteen seconds of fame that you might get outside. And the monologue booths are powerful channels."
"Yeah, yeah," she said and waved a hand.
"Good. So let's introduce ourselves. I'm Albert "Aces" Charles, number 8,993."
"My name is dutchess Senna Dijkstra, number 9."
"Just say your name," she sighed.
"Fine. I'm Molly Green, number 7,778."
"And yours?" Albert asked.
"Dick "Numbers" Goldberg, number 432."
"So, we all have great things to share. After all, that's why we're crammed into this booth. The world since the Portugal Drought Incident has created very interesting solutions to various global problems. Perhaps you can begin by telling your story, Senna?"
Senna hesitated and looked around nervously. Albert smiled encouraging and the others just silently waited to see what was going to come out of his mouth. Senna sighed and started to tell her tale.
"I live in Lotila, a town north of Helsinki. It's very nice during the summers, quaint. East of that lies Kolava and they were hit hard by the irregularity of the food supplies. As they grew hungry they first went to the neighbouring cities for support, but they were chased away soon enough as the food supply grew short. There are stories of Kolava residents trying to ambush food trucks, but many were gunned down by the armed guards. Anyway, as they grew more and more desperate the situation really got out of control."
"That's not uncommon," Molly interrupted. "Why don't they live off the land, hunting deer and fish and whatever. That's the fallback now."
"Sure," Senna said slowly and leant backwards. "The first part is nothing unusual, but the fact that they resorted to cannibalism is."
The monologue booth fell silent while they contemplated this.
"Have you tasted?" Albert asked.
"I'm not that desperate," she said, bored.
"But you have to be curious. What if it's really good? Like chicken, maybe? Or cod?"
"The point is," Senna continues, "if it happened near my home, it can happen anywhere. I don't want to get kidnapped and eaten. Just fix the damn food truck flow before this eating disorder spreads!"
The four people nodded solemnly.
"How do you top that, Albert?"
"I don't need to top it," Albert said, stroking his nose with his fingers. "I just want to share an alternate reality that is possible, if your community or country or whatever wants it enough."
"I'm from Poland. I won't say exactly where from because it's not important. Anyway, I live in a community of twenty thousand people. We used to be five cities, but now we´re one community. And everyone below twenty-five who wants to have two children are free to reproduce."
"How?" Molly asked in a stiff voice.
"Well, here's the trick to circumvent the one-child policy: for each extra child born, another person has to leave. All people over age fifty-five are subject to be selected for elimination in place of a new-born baby. Like a lottery. The one who's selected is executed. It's always done silently in a patch of forest somewhere. Sometimes you hear the weak thud from a rifle in the mornings, but that's it. And during that day a black flag is always raised to honor the sacrifice. One in, one out. It works well for us. The beautiful part of it is that They accept this. We can have more babies as long as we keep the food quota about the same for our region. This could work for you too, out there. Think about it."
"I like it," Molly said. "That's how it should work. Besides, what are you going do with your life after turning forty? You just sit there, molding."
"Your turn, Molly," Senna said, pointing at her.
"I'm an artist," she started. "The world is in great turmoil right now and my gift to the generations to come is to capture the essence of it in paintings."
"That's not unique," Albert said with a snort. "Everyone can do a painting that describes the day-to-day life of the current world. Just look out of the window."
"It's not that easy. To picture the world as it is you have to cast prejudice and even yourself aside. You can't interpret what you see through your window. You have to capture it, enhance it and bring it to life. That's what separates a great artist from a mediocre one. My gift is perfectly captured images of the world as it is today packaged in a treasure hunt."
"A treasure hunt?"
"Yes. Regardless of the outcome in here, my pictures are well hidden and protected from the masses. Some day they'll emerge from the dust of ages and tell the true story of the Portugal Drought Incident and what it did to mankind. My part in this small booth is to give you all the first clue as to where the first painting is located. When you find that, you'll find another clue to the next painting, and so on."
"They have to be pretty fucking spectacular paintings for people to care," Albert burst out. "What's the difference between your art and a regular photo? Or the art of countless other artists? Or why should I care when everything is a struggle?"
"Trust me, they are spectacular. And not everybody lives in poverty, remember that. That gives my art an edge to survive the ages." Molly smiled. Her confident aura seeped through the camera lens. She leaned forward.
"The clue is: An unfair battle, a slaughter, ended an era and shattered my cap. You'll find the first painting in the library. Good luck."
"Heavy shit," Senna said. "Well, if I get out of here alive I'll hire some brains to figure it out."
Molly smiled and fell silent.
"What did you have to share, Dick?" Albert asked.
Dick was silent for a moment, as if unsure how to tell his story.
"I know Cid Andrew," he said.
The monologue booth went eerily silent, so much so that a crackling sound could be heard through the ether.
"No you don't," Albert finally said. "If you do, why the hell are you here? You could be sitting in his suite right now, looking at the poor souls participating in the tournament."
"I met him at a party once. My dad's involved in the shipping business, you see. He's the captain of a small cargo ship called Borealis. One time, about fifteen years ago, he got a really strange order to pick up a large shipment from an Icelandic harbour and deliver it to Stockholm. It was weird because the regular contract assignments he took were exclusively in the southern region of Europe. But this one was worth a lot of money, and also a months supply of various canned foods.
"When the goods were delivered, he was invited to a party in a secluded mansion north of Stockholm. He could bring a guest, so he brought me. Lo and behold, the mysterious buyer was Cid Andrew. It turned out that the cargo he ordered was a big shipment of rare fish. Some even thought they were to be extinct. Cid never said why he invited my dad, but we discussed it a lot and the only reasonable explanation is that even Cid needs to keep a network of reliable suppliers who can move merchandise and keep his supply chain going. He wanted to keep my dad happy, I guess."
"As far as you know," said Albert.
"Yeah. Anyway. I thought it was exciting to be there. It was something completely different from the mundane life we had. And then Cid Andrew fixed me with his piercing gaze. He came forward, looked me in the eye and wanted to know my name.
"'Kid,' he said. 'I'm going to give you a great gift. If you ever find yourself in a cul-de-sac, King's Hope will always welcome you. I never forget a name or a face, and if you apply to the tournament I'll make sure that you'll be one of the contestants. There's no guarantee that you'll win, but if you're smart you should value this option.'
"And that was it. He turned around and left me there, flabbergasted."
"Apparently you took his offer," Albert said. "Why?"
Dick looked into the camera lense, through it."I'm not entirely sure."
"You're not sure?"
"Don't give me that look. I'm just having difficulty putting it in words. I think ... One reason is that I wanted to know if he would hold true to his word."
"A man of honour."
"Indeed. And my main reason to be here is because he was right. King's Hope is a great opportunity to change your life. Provided you get your hands on the cash you get when you make it to the top hundred. But for me the risk is worth it. At least it seemed to be when I was on the outside, now I'm not so sure. The fishing business died out, literally, after a few years. After that me and my family had difficulty putting food on the table. This is my way out of the constant monotony and drudgery just to make a living nowadays. I have an opportunity to be wealthy that others will never have. At a high risk, of course," he added with a faint smile.
"True." They all nodded.
"Well," Albert said eventually. "Thanks for sharing. It's twelve minutes until the next round starts. I'm off to find a table. Good luck, everyone. Maybe we'll see each other in the final."
"Good luck," they echoed.
And then they were off, leaving the monologue booth empty.