It had been supposed to be a simple job, done while the adults waited inside the house. Great-Aunt Charley's papers were up in the storage space above the garage in the rooms that had once been the groom's accommodation. That, of course, had been back in the days before cars and when the house had belonged to someone who had the money for domestic staff. These days the rooms were accessed by pull-down stairs, and that had been the only thing that had gone right. Once they'd gotten up to the door, unlocked it and gone inside, they hadn't been able to find the light switch. Michael had pulled out his phone and used the torch function, and although the light had seemed dimmer than usual it had let them find the pullcord hanging from the ceiling that operated the light switch. The first room, one of three, had been a kitchen - Great-Aunt Charley had once suggested that the rooms were meant for a married couple because they were more like a small apartment than old servants’ quarters. It was well lit between the electric light and the closed glass windows, but their father had been quite clear that all their great-aunts' papers, and their grandmother's, were right at the back in the third room. Cousin Angela, who was one of the reasons the documents were needed, had asked why he didn't get them himself and he had just looked at his plastered leg and then looked at her again.
The second room of the corridor down the long side of the building was a bathroom - small and pokey with a gas water heater over the end of the bath. Alison asked, "Is the gas even still connected to this building?"
Just as Michael was about to open the door to the third room Judy replied, "Was it ever connected? The stove was gas too - they might have had bottles."
Beyond the open door across the end of the corridor, the room was dark. Michael tried using his phone again, but the torch app wouldn't turn on. A little feeling around and waving of hands later he found the pullcord that operated the room's light. The glow was very dim, and they all wondered if it would survive being turned off again. No bed was visible, a long stack of boxes dividing the room hid where it might sit. The three of them rounded the corner of the boxes and the two girls ran into the back of their older brother who had stopped suddenly.
Peering around him, they could see a large pair of eyes at his head height glowing in the dark mist that filled what should have been the bedroom. A large, finely detailed forked tongue flickered out at them, and then disappeared back into the dark mist again. "Thisss iss unfffortunate." The voice sounded like it came from something large. "I'm afffraid I will havvve to put you three out offf the way until I am fffinished here. Three isss sssuch an interesssting number, don't you fffind?"
A large, dark mottled snake head shot out of the mist at shin level, the cowl on its neck extended so that it hit all three of them, forcing them to their knees on its back. Then the snake threw its head up, and they were sliding down its back, following its thick dark length further than it should have taken them to get to the ground from where they'd started. They kept sliding downwards, scaled snake still underneath them, long enough to become disoriented, then suddenly they were rolling across a hard floor in bright light.
Michael, Alison, and Judy sat up to find themselves on a vinyl-covered floor in a brightly lit office, between a bank of chairs arranged in rows and a counter with four service windows. Three of the windows were manned by people wearing an aqua and white uniform, and the fourth had a printed sign across it saying, "At Lunch." While Judy pulled her skirt down so that the hem wasn't around her waist and Michael tried to get a signal on his phone, another woman in aqua and white bustled over to them. Close up the siblings could see that her buttons and earrings were gold.
"Welcome to the General Office," she chirped brightly as her sharp eyes took in all their details. "As you've come in through that entrance, you're obviously from out of town. If I could just have your names, we'll get you your local identification and your initial cash. Now, you are?" She stood poised with her pen over her clipboard.
Michael looked at his sisters and then said, "Michael Peabody. "
"And I'm Alison Peabody." Alison smiled and wished she had a comb because her hair seemed to be going everywhere. "I don't have any money to change, I'm sorry."
"You aren't exchanging currency, Miss Peabody," the woman smiled. "This is Universal Credit. We find it much easier if everyone has local funds and the means to access local accommodation and services. If you get a job here, then you will earn more and that will give you access to more expensive services." She looked at them and added, "Not necessarily services that are better suited to your needs but more expensive services - you might want to remember that. Also, every time you complete the Circuit," she pointed at a brightly coloured poster on the wall that appeared to show a map, “you are entitled to another two hundred dollars in Universal Credit. The time passed since your last payment doesn't matter but completing the Circuit does. The General Office has two doors, plus the entrance you came through. One door is an exit and the other is an entrance, neither will open the wrong way, and the General Office is the only connection between the two streets."
"Excuse me." Judy hastily added, "Ma'am. How do we get home again?"
The woman hesitated then said, " I really don't know. Because it's a matter of travel, perhaps someone at one of the Railway Stations can help you? There are four on the Circuit." She smiled and went on, "Now, let's get you your identification and then we can get you started."
The identification turned out to be a plastic card like a driver's licence from back home. A photo of the owner sat next to their name, a numerical code that apparently meant something, and an icon silhouette. Michael’s had a hat, Judy’s had a small dog, and Angela's looked like a spoked steering wheel.
"What are these?" It was Michael who asked the question.
"They're traditional marks," explained the woman with the clipboard. "They indicate your voting tranche. When an election is called, each tranche can elect a set number of representatives to the Community and Bank Board."
The man behind the counter who'd just handed them their newly cards added dispassionately, "There hasn't been an election called for some time."
"Which reminds me," said the woman with the clipboard quickly, "there are people going around riding in or on large copies of the marks. You might not see any of them, and they probably won't notice you, but they are no-one's friend but their own. They're each trying to buy up the town, bankrupt each other, and put their opponents in prison. They seem to have no concern that the rest of us are getting caught up in their tactics too - they may even consider it desirable."
The man behind the counter added drily, "There are only rumours that the Bank Board are going to implement mandatory labour sentences for bankruptcy convictions, after all."
"Yes." The woman nodded at him in acknowledgment, "Also, if you're called into the Taxation Office, any Taxation Office, you're almost certainly better off choosing the ten percent option rather than the two hundred dollar option because each Universal Credit payment is two hundred dollars. If you get a job and you haven't spent anything, then you might owe more than that, but that's not going to be the case for a while at least."
"Pay attention to her," advised the man behind the counter, "because once you get your Universal Credit payment, you have to leave the office."
"If all you've got is what you're standing up in, then the Community Chest one street along will be able to help you with basics," the woman went on. "Tell them that you're from out of town and they'll tell you what you need. The Taxation Office is two streets along, and they probably won't pull you in on any given pass around the Circuit. Probably. Then there's the railway station, and you probably don't want to go into Chance's Casino."
"Madam Supervisor is back from lunch," commented the man as another woman came out of back room and took down the sign from the unmanned counter window. "The available instruction period is finished. You need to take them to the telling window and get them their money before she starts going on about flowthrough stats."
A few minutes later the Peabodys were out on the street, each of them with a wad of bright, single coloured notes in a pocket. Fortunately, this meant that they were at the dead end of the street and there was no way to go but forward because, as promised, the door they had taken out of the General Office did not open from the outside. At the end of the street, framed by the buildings on the corner, they could see a building made of red brick which bore a bold blue sign that read 'Community Chest.'
"I suppose we go this way then," said Michael. "Then another street, pass the Taxation Office, and then we get to the railway station where we can start finding out how to get home."
"Maybe. She said that they might know," pointed out Judy. "We should stop at this Community Chest place on the way. I don't know what else they'll think we need, but I want a wallet."
"There are side streets," pointed out Angela as she indicated a small intersection just ahead of them. "Should we look down those too, or just stick to this Circuit route? If they'd chosen a background colour for the signs other than that purplish brown or put the lettering in white, we might be able to read the street names from here." She shook her head and said, "You know, something about all of this is feeling very familiar."
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