Chips with everything
by E.Escher - 6th Feb 2017
'Mister Colin!' screeched the old woman in greeting, causing a few patrons to glance his way. Were they jealous that he was on first-name terms with the staff? Were they irritated, assuming he was going to get preferential treatment while they waited for their food? They were wrong if they did, and he found that today he didn't really care. As much as he'd always felt distant from the general mass of humanity the sensation was greatly magnified as he spared a glance around the waiting customers.
They didn't feel real, like they were just background actors in a movie, and he was the star, or at least one of the protagonists.
'You are here for chips, yes?' He realised now that she'd been speaking Chinese all along, for years, and he'd never noticed. It just made the whole scene feel all the more unreal.
'And is this your lady-friend?' she continued, 'Does she like chinese food?'
'I certainly do.' Carmen replied, smoothly. 'I was born and raised in Hangzhou.'
'Good, good! I am Xingjuan.'
'A pleasure to meet you. I am Carmen, and I will be happy to try whatever you recommend.'
This seemed to please the old woman greatly, and she set about barking orders at the younger staff.
He moved to stand out of the way, and Carmen joined him a moment later. She seemed inordinately pleased with herself, for some reason.
'What're you smiling at?' he whispered.
She blinked. 'Hm? Oh, her name. Xingjuan.'
'Means "lucky and beautiful". A good omen, I think.'
'So you care about omens, now? What happened to lucky coincidences?'
'They're the same thing. You just have to keep your eyes open.'
'I am doing, believe me. I don't want to stumble across Brian without knowing he's there. That's a surprise I could do without.'
She shrugged. 'I wouldn't worry. He was following us when we came in, but some guys picked him up in a big black car.'
'What?' He looked out the window, but it was dark outside and he could see nothing past the reflections. 'Why didn't you say something?'
'I just did,' she protested, mildly. 'Besides, what would you have done? Run out and had a fight?'
'He wouldn't be coming after us unless he thought he could do some damage. You shouldn't force the issue.'
'He might have just wanted to talk.'
'You have a phone.' she pointed out. 'No, I'm pretty sure he was planning something violent. Lucky for us somebody else had other plans. It's nice when things just work out.'
He narrowed his eyes. 'What do you mean when? I thought you said things always worked out for the best.'
She looked surprised, and took a half-step back. 'Not at all. I may have, to be fair, strongly implied that things generally worked out well for me, but that's just me. This is a very dangerous job, after all, or everybody would be doing it.' She reconsidered. 'Well, not everybody, obviously, since humans can't use the machine, but you get the idea. These are dangerous times. Look what happened to you.'
'I can't,' he replied, through gritted teeth. 'I don't remember what happened to me.'
'Which is actually why I'm here, but this isn't the time to explain that. We'll take the food and go back to my place.'
'You have a place?'
'Yes, of course. I'm renting a hotel room, it's quite nice. There's a double bed.'
He blushed scarlet, and opened his mouth to say something, but she held up a finger. 'Not now, the lottery numbers are on.'
Carmen watched the screen with interest, mouthing the numbers a second before the ball was drawn.
He leaned close to whisper 'You know the right numbers, in the order they were drawn?'
'Yes, but you don't win anything extra for that, naturally. I skipped the sixteen. Four times four, and four's an unlucky number. I kept the eight, of course, so I have five matches, aaaand the bonus ball is twenty-seven, there we go.'
She was right. Colin tapped her shoulder. 'If you already knew the results, why did you have to watch the draw?'
'Because sometimes things get changed. Also, you have to play along, give the timestream a fighting chance to adjust. I mean, suppose I used the machine to come back here this morning and push Brian under a bus? It would make the rest of the day a lot easier, but it makes a hell of a mess.'
'It'd be murder, for one thing.'
'Yeah, an unprovoked attack. I'd probably have you chasing after me to avenge your friend. Can you imagine that, knowing what you know now?'
'Not really.' and he couldn't. The world was a very different place all of a sudden, and he wasn't sure he liked it.
He looked around as his name was called. It was one of the english-speaking staff, a younger girl with pretty eyes.
'Your order is ready. One special tofu with black bean sauce, one portion of chips. Eight pound sixty.'
Colin pulled the handful of change from his pocket, and raised a brow at Carmen as he handed it over. She grinned in response, and gave him a thumbs-up.
The girl counted it out, and tilted her head. 'Oh. That's exactly right. How did you know?'
'Just a coincidence.' He took the bag, and followed Carmen as she hurried out through the door.
He called after her. 'Hey, I thought you wanted to use the phone.'
'Changed my mind,' she called back, flippantly. 'Is that a taxi over there? The yellow one? Or is that an american thing?'
He squinted, picked out the extra identification plate. 'Yeah, it is.'
'Cool! Come on, then.' She hurried away, long legs eating up the distance in spite of her impractical shoes. He found himself wondering what it was like to have a bionic foot as he chased after her. She reached the car and knocked on the window.
'Excuse me, sir, I don't suppose you're headed anywhere near the Travel Lodge?'
Colin didn't hear the driver's reply, but he heard the bleat of the radio as a call came through.
A moment later Carmen clapped her hands, happily. 'You are? Excellent? We don't have any money, but my friend here has a steaming hot bag of chips, fresh from the Chinese over there. Untouched. They're all yours.'
Another moment, and Colin paused to catch his breath.
'It's a trade!' announced Carmen, pulling the door open and shoving Colin inside. 'Dig out those chips, Colin. Tim's going to give us a ride in exchange.'
'In exchange for chips?'
She slipped in alongside him, and the car set off. 'His boss is making him do an extra shift, and he's missed his meal break. You don't mind giving up your chips, do you? It's for a good cause.'
She didn't wait for an answer, and immediately began rummaging in the bag. 'These do smell good.'
Colin frowned, but bit back a complaint. He'd been looking forward to those. He didn't especially fancy whatever the other meal was. It sounded weird and foreign.
The trip didn't take long, and the driver seemed only too happy to accept Colin's bag of chips in place of payment. Carmen pulled him out of the car to make room for Tim's next fare, who stood waiting patiently outside the hotel.
'Is it even worth me commenting on how sickeningly lucky you are?'
'I'd hoped for a compliment about how well I handled the situation, but if that's the best you've got I'll take it.' She turned to go, but changed her mind and turned back. 'Besides, I can only push the probability this hard because you're here as well. One traveller distorts things, but it takes two to really bend the odds. Any more than that and you're into real "rain of frogs" territory, especially if one of you is scared of frogs.'
'Great. I'll bear that in mind.'
She led him past reception to the lift. 'I'm on the top floor,' she said, hitting the button.
Colin said nothing, and they rode in silence. He kept a careful eye out for trouble as Carmen blithely led the way to her hotel room, swinging the food bag in her hand and humming a complex little tune that he didn't recognise.
Of course you don't recognise it, idiot. It most likely won't be written for another three hundred years.
Three hundred years. It hadn't escaped his notice that Carmen had come from three hundred years in the future, while thanks to his memory loss and immortality Colin considered himself to have come from three hundred years in the past. It was exactly the kind of coincidence she'd talked about. In fact, he quietly bet himself that if he did the math he could guess the date that she'd stepped into the time machine, and it would be exactly the same number of days.
He decided he was starting to get the hang of how all this worked, and felt a little better about things.
Carmen swiped her keycard and pushed the door open. Automatic lights flickered to life in the hallway, and he let out a small gasp; her hotel room was a suite. 'Good god, how much is this costing you?'
She shrugged. 'I didn't check. I just asked for four nights and that used up the cache I had with me. It just kinda worked out.'
Colin rolled his eyes. 'I don't think I could get used to this life. You seem to just take a lot on faith, like, just use the force, Luke.'
'Luke Skywalker? Star Wars?'
She looked blank, shook her head. 'Sorry, doesn't ring a bell. I didn't think orbital combat was a thing yet.'
'It's a movie. Well, several movies.'
She gave him a look as she walked into the kitchenette. 'You know your movies are ancient history to me, right?'
He frowned. 'Don't they make you do research before dropping you into a strange new century?'
'Hey, I researched you guys plenty, you're just not very interesting, and it's hard to know what's going to be relevant.'
'That seems fair.'
She started unpacking her food, tipped the whole mess into a bowl and grabbed some cutlery. 'Have a seat,' she suggested, walking to a dining table.
He raised a brow and followed. 'Are you going to make me eat that stuff? I don't even know what tofu is, or what's so special about it.'
'Special means it's got all the some of everything with it, so there's pork, beef, prawn, chicken, egg. Whatever you like, it's in there.'
'And the tofu?'
'Bean curd.' She grinned. 'It's just a name. Actually it's soy milk that's been left to go hard.'
He pulled a face. 'Cubes of milk?'
'Just try it. Even if you don't like it, you won't hate it. Much.'
'Would you be offended if I just picked out the meat bits and ate those?'
She gave him a warm smile. 'Not at all. We don't really need to eat anything at all unless there's damage to repair. It's just a habit the mind doesn't want to let go of.'
'So why buy food?' he asked. 'Why spend all my change on food that we don't need?'
'Partly as a demonstration, and partly because we needed an excuse to visit the takeaway.'
'Because that's where Brian was going to meet us.'
'But we didn't.'
'I know. Weird, huh?' She pushed the cutlery across the table. 'Pick out whatever you want to try. Bonus points if you at least try the tofu.'
'Where're you going?'
'I'm gonna get out of these clothes.' she headed for the bedroom.
Colin called after her 'Uh, did you mean "and into something more comfortable"?'
'Coward. Eat up. I'm trying to expand your horizons.'
She sauntered away through the door, leaving it to swing tantalisingly not-quite-closed. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment and looked down at the food.
Tofu. It looked like it was made from pencil erasers. He tried a bit of meat, at random, unable to guess what it was beneath the dark sauce. It was... okay. The sauce was a bit tangy for his liking, sharp and salty and a bit strange.
But not bad. He found a prawn in the mix and tried that. It was acceptable, though on reflection he remembered he wasn't keen on prawns. Grimly, he speared a piece of the tofu. It was rubbery, and took several attempts to get with his fork. He smooshed it around in the sauce, making sure it was thoroughly covered, and then he hesitated. He really didn't fancy it. He lifted the fork and glared at the offending cube.
'You don't have to eat it if you don't want to.'
He looked up as Carmen walked back in, wearing a fluffy white robe and nothing else, as far as he could see. The silver ankle-band glittered against her skin, and he found himself accidentally looking her up and down as he hastily resumed eye contact. She smiled, apparently pleased by the reaction.
'I'm not going to force you into anything you're not ready for.'
He raised a brow. 'Actually, those bonus points you mentioned are looking quite attractive right about now.'
She placed her hands on the robe's belt, suggestively. 'Go on then.'
He looked down at his fork. Was he really going to do this, just to flirt with a beautiful woman? On the other hand, was one cube of tofu such a big deal? Trying not to grimace, he raised the fork to his mouth and ate the tofu.
It was chewy, a bit soft, a little bit rubbery, but the taste was... mostly sauce. He'd certainly endured worse. He gave it a last chew and swallowed.
'Well?' she enquired, hands on hips. 'How was it? Do you want the rest?'
'Of the tofu?'
She laughed. 'Yes, the tofu.'
'Uh, no. Thanks.' He bit back his disappointment. Was she flirting, or just teasing him? 'Say, you got changed pretty quickly.'
'I just threw it all on a chair and put this on instead.'
He gulped. 'Threw it all on a chair?'
She walked past him, to the window. 'Are you asking if I'm wearing anything under this robe?'
'I suppose I am. You've aroused my curiosity.'
'Hnn.' She found the cord and pulled the curtains closed.
'Well?' he prompted. 'Are you?'
'Why would I? Sorry if I sound a little dense, but do people do that? If I had underwear on, I wouldn't need the robe.'
'You could be wearing it for warmth.'
'Ambient temperature doesn't bother me much. Or you, I expect. Also, modesty is a whole different concept in the future. It took a lot of time, money and research but we've more or less eliminated congenital ugliness. I know I'm fairly attractive, especially by twenty-first century standards. I'm at least a seven, wouldn't you say?'
'I'd guess an eight, but I'd know more if I had more data.'
She rolled her eyes. 'Oh, come on, just say it. Don't be shy. What is it you want?'
'I'd like to see what you've got under that robe.'
She sighed with mock regret. 'Aww, so close.'
'Afraid so. Now you're gonna have to buy it off me.'
'Buy it...? You spent all my money on food.'
'You're going to have to trade, then.' She grinned. 'What've you got to offer?'
He started checking his pockets, before he noticed her amused expression. 'You don't mean the stuff in my pockets, do you?'
'I'm pretty sure I don't. Think a little harder.'
'So when you say trade, do you in fact mean something along the lines of "Show me yours and I'll show you mine"?'
She chuckled. 'I like how that sounds, but let's switch it up a little. Show me yours first. I'm already showing quite a lot of mine.'
He smirked. 'But that means I'm taking off a whole of garments, and you're only removing one. Doesn't seem fair, somehow.'
'Okay. You drive a hard bargain. How about this: bare your chest, and I'll lose the robe.'
Hot damn. Almost before he thought about it the bomber jacket was off, folded and on the table. His T-shirt came straight off and he flung that down as well.
Carmen took a step closer, beckoning with her right hand. His eyes were drawn to the other hand, still at her belt, the silver rings catching the light.
He stood up, and she crossed the distance in a few fast, confident steps. She stopped and put her hands on his chest. 'Very nice,' she murmured. 'Well, here I am. Untie my belt for me?'
He did so, fumbling a little with the knots before it came loose. Alert for any trickiness, he quickly reached around and pulled it free of the loops so she couldn't just tie it back up again.
That wasn't her plan, though. With a languid shrug she pulled the robe off one shoulder, then the other. It slid down, and she swung her arms out of the sleeves one at a time. Colin sensed rather than saw it drop to the ground - she was pressed so close up against him that he couldn't see much, and her dark eyes smouldered into his with such intensity that he couldn't look away to study his prize.
'Well, that's me naked, Mister Campbell. Are you really planning to stand around out here with your pants on?'
He wasn't. That wasn't the plan at all.
The curious tale of Colin CampbellPart One - How did it come to this?, Chapter 1, Earlier that dayChapter 2, Earlier stillChapter 3, Making a withdrawalChapter 4, August 18th, 2362Chapter 5, Angel of DeathChapter 6, Welcome to 2016.Chapter 7, Denmark, July 2358Chapter 8, After the crashChapter 9, Music of the SpheresChapter 10, Denmark, July 2358Chapter 11, Harbinger FMChapter 12, Denmark, July 2358Chapter 13, Excuses and liesPart Two - So here we are, Chapter 14Chapter 15, Quite a rideChapter 16, Talking the talkChapter 17, Leisurely pursuitChapter 18, Dinner Date with DestinyChapter 19, Chips with everythingChapter 20, HarbingerChapter 21, Time to leaveChapter 22, ManchesterChapter 23, Colin's HouseChapter 24, On the roadChapter 25, Chateau HarbingerChapter 26, ShowdownEpilogue, Debriefing