Happy 23rd Birthday Nich! Always your friend, Ferne.
Nich Duke was flicking through the job seekers section of the Central Coast Herald with a green highlighter at the ready when he came across his future. Between an advert for a dental assistant and a RSA training course was a little yellow box with the words “Deliverer- No experience required. Call Nich Duke.” No number or email. Just his name underlined twice.
“Humph, how odd,” Nich murmured, tapping the page with the pen when his phone gave a soft trill.
With anticipation light on his tongue, he answered.
“Greetings, Nich Duke speaking,” said a richly gravelled voice that set the hairs on his arms at attention.
“Umm…hi. I mean hello Mr Duke,” Nich said, automatically straightening his back as he put on his interview voice. “I was just reading your ad in the paper about a delivery position?” Nich’s saving grace was the long repeated spiel that leapt to his aid, smooth as caramel, despite his mind in a flurry of confusion about how this man had called him.
“Ah yes, excellent. I have a few questions before we can begin. Just technicalities really. Do you dislike heights, dogs or the sound of female mosquitoes?”
“Can’t say that they particularly bother me…” began Nich hesitantly before the older gentleman interrupted him.
“Good, good, and are you bothered by sudden stops, deja vu or the sense of time running out?”
“The job’s yours then. You start tomorrow at 26 Wells Drive. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you young Nich.” The dial tone was loud in Nich’s ear, leaving him slightly out of breath and more baffled then a giraffe in a submarine. That was the oddest phone interview that he’d ever had and despite the rush of satisfaction at finding a job, he had no idea what he’d actually agreed to. His phone jingled and he swiped it on, flicking through his emails to find a new message from Nich Duke.
“Young Nich,” it read. It irked him that the old man seemed intent on calling him young, but decided that as they shared a name then it would be less confusing in the long run.
“Attached are directions to the Post Office. Mr Toshiro will meet you promptly at 0400 to run you through what is required. We have been looking forward to working with you. Sincerely, Nich Duke.”
Nich grimaced, never having been a morning person, but was pleased nonetheless. He had a job delivering packages and despite the oddity that his new boss not only knew his name, as he could’ve sworn he hadn’t told the man nor given him his email address for that matter, but somehow had gotten his phone number too. His stomach rumbled and with a shrug he order pizza.
Nich’s phone alarm rang with a cheerfulness that could penetrate lead and bring about the destruction of all mankind. It was only 3am.
“Argh…” Nich swatted at it and blessed silence slipped across the room, thick as a blanket. But Nich was now awake and having unfortunately inherited his grand uncle’s bizarre sleeping patterns, he knew he would not get back to sleep. Sighing heavily, he swung his feet over the side of the bed and rubbed his eyes. It was still dark out and by the light of his phone he grumbled his way into the bathroom and flicked the switch. Shards of light stabbed into his skull, forcing him to squint as he took in his appearance in the bathroom mirror.
He’d shaved the night before, his neck smooth to the edge of his chin where his carefully manicured beard reached his bottom lip, across his cheeks and into dark side burns. Dark purple marks beneath his eyes complemented the blues of his irises quite nicely, he thought, and you could barely notice the blood-shot whites. This new job had left him excited and wrung out and it showed. Dressing in shorts and dark tee that he’d prepared the night before, (he was determined to be on time for once) he switched off the light and followed the hallway out into the kitchen. He still had ages but he wasn’t particularly hungry. His backpack was rechecked and a second water bottle and an apple added, then he pulled out his phone and played Grenade until it was time to go. His phone beeped an alarm.
“Well, then. Onwards and upwards!”
Nich drove past the Post Office twice before realising the single green metal door had the words POST OFFICE in faded white across the front. A tiny window painted black had graffiti scratched into it and a pale kind of light crept from under the door like buttermilk. Nich was having serious second thoughts as pre-dawn light cast grey shadows of abominable orcs across the pavement and a high pitched squealing set the hairs on the back of his neck a quivering.
He raised a fist to the door but before he could knock it swung open to reveal the scariest looking man Nich had ever seen in his life. At least seven feet tall and as wide as the door frame, his face was cast in shadow beneath his thick eyebrows and his bald head rippled with tattoos, snaking down his neck and under a white set of overalls, unstained and almost too bright to look at. Nich took a hesitant step backwards as the man snapped out his right hand.
“You must be young Nich,” his voice was gruff and his hand calloused as Nich shook it. “I’m Desmond Jones but you can call me Des.”
“It’s nice to, err, meet you Des.”
“Come on in. The boss’s waiting for you.” The monster of a man stepped inside and Nich carefully followed him. The thick door thumped shut behind him. They’d entered a small anti-chamber, empty besides a camera that blinked from the ceiling, and lit by a naked bulb that shook slightly from its hanging. Des pulled out an odd looking key that resembled a two pronged fork and pressed it into the door, giving it a firm twist before the door hissed open. Reshouldering his bag, Nich staggered as a wave of heat slammed into him making him blink rapidly. He felt as if he’d just stepped out into a hot summer’s day. A globe the size of a beach ball hung from the ceiling two stories up and emitted a deep orange glow that cast the warehouse in sunset colours. There were other workers bustling about dressed in similar overalls that looked creamy in the light, paying no mind to Des or himself as the big man led him across the space to what appeared to be a truck sized coffee machine.
Metal glinted and tiny particles of dust danced around in little eddies across the skin of the Machine as it emitted a high pitched whistling. The same noise he’d heard from outside. The ground quivered beneath his feet.
“Hey Boss, young Nich’s here,” Des bellowed, massive fists resting on his waist and Nich twisted to look past the ogre of a man to see who he was talking to. “Young Nich, this is Mr Toshiro.”
Mr Toshiro resembled a cod fish. His lips were wide and grey, his eyes blinked behind thick rimmed goggles and orange and black patches covered his skin like oddly shaped band aids with no apparent rhyme or reason. Unlike Des, Mr Toshiro barely reached Nich’s shoulders, yet Nich felt as if he was looking up at him.
“Ah yes. Let’s get started.” He sounded like a little girl or a dosed up chipmunk, his hands fluttering around as he spoke making him instantly smaller in Nich’s mind. “You don’t need to eat?”
“Ummm, no?” Nich replied, bewildered by the sudden topic change.
“Good, good, would you get him his uniform, Desmond?”
“Sure thing boss,” Des said as he threw Nich a grin before lumbering off. Mr Toshiro pulled a spanner from his overalls and proceeded to wallop the funny looking machine with quite a bit of pleasure until the high pitched noise seemed to change key. Nich watched on confused.
“Alright! Load her up!” Mr Toshiro shouted and the white overall workers swarmed the Machine like bugs. Nich still couldn’t work out for the life of him what they were actually trying to accomplish. “Okay, young Nich, follow me.” The man didn’t wait for him.
“Could you tell me why I’m here?” he called out as he hurried after him.
“Hmmm, that’s a tricky one. Should ask your folks,” Mr Toshiro shouted as the Machine began to emit a deep throbbing pulse that resonated deep within Nich’s chest. The ground shook and Nich stumbled. The other man didn’t even pause. Pushing open a glass front door initialled with Mr T, he ushered Nich in and gestured to a chair. Closing the door after them, silence reigned and Nich shifted nervously as the smaller man settled into a creaky leather chair.
“Welcome to the Post Office,” Mr Toshiro gestured, arms wide and then pressed his fingers together before his lips, just watching.
“Umm…” Nich began, triggering Mr Toshiro into a flurry of movement. A drawer snapped open and he dug through piles of paper until he pulled out a thick manuscript, held together with string. Scissors snapped the bindings open and pages flicked before Nich’s eyes before Mr Toshiro slammed the bundle down in front of Nich, tapping a black line with a pen.
“Now hang on. What am I signing?” Nich frowned, sitting up straight as he pulled the pages closer. He glanced briefly at the nearest paragraph and looked baffled. Technical terms lined the page. Flicking through the rest, it was much more of the same. Finally, on the third page was a paragraph in English.
The Postman will deliver pre-approved packages in a promptly manner whilst upholding the Post Office’s moral and ethical standings.
Someone banged against the glass door and Desmond hurried in, letting in the screeching sound of the Machine briefly before they were encased in silence again. He carried a black canvas carry-all that had Nich Duke printed across the side.
“These are yours. Better hurry up and change. The team’s almost ready to ship out,” Des grumbled and tossed the bag at him. Nich grunted as the bag smacked him in the chest.
“But I haven’t agreed to anything yet!” Nich argued, clutching the bag tightly with trembling fingers.
“Just sign here and we’ll get underway,” Mr Toshiro soothed and pressed a heavy pen into his hand, flipping to the last page of the contract and tapping a space above his name printed in ink. Nich bit his lip. What did he really have to lose? Onwards and upwards, he always did say. With a flourish his name was signed and suddenly the tension that had been humming seemingly unnoticed in the room disappeared.
“Change room this way,” Des patted Nich on the shoulder, making him wince but the big man’s smile was genuine. Nich stood obediently and Mr Toshiro shook his hand.
“Quickly now. I will explain everything soon.” The man ushered Nich out and Nich hurried after Des, catching the glimpse of the Machine waiting impatiently. His tongue began to itch and excitement welled up. It was hard to imagine it was only 4:30am.
The change room was pretty standard. Showers, loos, a large bench down the middle and lockers with names across one side. Again his name was already stencilled in place and hesitantly he reached out to open it.
“It’s locked,” he turned to Des and the big man laughed.
“Don’t ask me. It’s your pin number. You’ve got five minutes. Change and meet me out front.” Des paused and chuckled in amusement, throwing Nich an odd look. “It’s nice to meet you again, young Nich.” And then Nich was alone.
Starring after the man, Nich finally shook his head and dumped his backpack and the assigned bag on the bench and turned to his locker. The lock was a simple pin pad and, unsure, Nich entered his mobile pin and to his surprise, and horror, the door popped open. It was empty except for a mirror on the back of the door.
Aware of time getting away from him, he unzipped the duffle bag and emptied its contents onto the bench. Quickly he changed into the khaki green trousers, the fabric somewhat stretchy and full of pockets both buttoned and zippered, and the black vest that was little too tight for his liking. He shrugged on the same khaki green jacket with dark illuminating stripes across the back and was surprised to find a pair of sturdy boots, steel-capped, in his size. In fact they seemed to have already been worn in and fitted perfectly. Dressed, he examined the remaining objects: a compass, a stopwatch, some sort of phone and a pair of black ski goggles. Why on earth would he need these delivering packages? He shoved them all into his pockets and locked his backpack in his locker before heading out to find Des. He almost ran into the man who waited, arms crossed, just outside the door.
“Good, you’re done. Hurry now.” Des led Nich towards the main warehouse with one hand firmly on his shoulder as if he thought Nich would bolt. Nich was beginning to question his own sanity for getting this far. “Now the first trip’s always the roughest but you’ll get the hang of it soon enough,” Des encouraged as they approached the Machine and the waiting group made up of three others dressed identically to Nich. Mr Toshiro was swinging his spanner at the Machine again, which had quietened down somewhat or else Nich had grown used to it, but the man stopped when he saw Nich.
“Ah yes. Good, good,” he gestured Nich closer. “Nich Duke meet Patrick Masters,” Mr Toshiro gestured to a hulking man, not as tall as Des but just as muscular with a short buzz of red hair and a warm smile. Patrick stepped forward with hand outstretched. “Call me Pat. I’m security.” His grip wasn’t crushing which was encouraging.
“I’m Ivy. Communications,” the young woman beside Pat introduced herself. Almost as tall as Pat, she was fit, her eyes dark and hair in a short bob tucked under a cap. “And this is Benja Barsand, our tech support. He’s wicked with anything that has a battery.” Benja was tall and lean, a mop of brown hair flopping across his forehead with a cheeky grin that made Nich smile in return.
”‘Bout time we finally met you,” Benja said before glancing down at his watch. “Ah, tick tock tick tock. Time’s a wastin’. We good to go Doc?” Benja called out to Mr Toshiro as he scrambled up the side of the Machine like a monkey and lifted up a hatch to peer inside. Mr Toshiro nodded, giving the Machine one more cheerful wack before putting his spanner away.
“Coordinates are set. Take it nice and slow as young Nich learns the ropes,” the man said, taking a step back as something Benja did made the Machine whine. Benja slammed the hatch shut and slid down, landing lightly on his feet and tugging up a pair of goggles from around his neck all in one practised motion.
“Umm…” Nich began worriedly as Pat took Des’ place and grasped him firmly by the arm. The guard already had his goggles on and Nich hastily put his own on, sending the world into shades of blue.
“Well onwards and upwards you do say!” Pat hailed and propelled Nich into a side door. The inside of the Machine was small. He couldn’t stand upright and, besides four chairs sitting around what looked like some sort of console, he couldn’t even begin to recognise the gadgets and monitors that covered the walls in gleaming bronze. He was pushed into a chair, form fitting and covered in straps and buckles that sent Nich’s head spinning. Suddenly he was certain he was about to die.
“Hey there,” Ivy said as she settled herself next to him. “Don’t forget to breathe. Nothing’s going to happen to you.” She leant forward and began strapping him in. “Soon enough you’ll know what goes where. Just takes practise.” Sure enough, within moments Nich was firmly locked in place.
“But I have no idea what’s going on! I’m meant to be delivering packages!” Nich said, clutching the chair arms so tightly his knuckles bleached white. Pat and Benja swung themselves into the Machine and with one more shout from Mr Toshiro, the door hissed shut and suddenly Nich was trapped.
“Okay dokay lemon chokay! Let’s get this hunk of tin moving!” Benja sung out as he flipped and switched a myriad of buttons and switches, tapped a few screens and then settled himself into his chair with a satisfied smile. “Initiating starting sequence.”
Ivy slipped on an ear pod and tapped it to activate it. “The Office is giving us the green. Coordinates checked. 24th April 1988.” She flashed Benja a grin and he reached above his head to pull down a lever that looked suspiciously like a hand brake. Nich jumped in fright as a joystick lurched towards him as the lights dimmed. “Okay Nich, the rest is all yours,” Pat called from his own seat and Nich desperately glanced at him as he grasped the control. Was this some kind of elaborate joke? As soon as his fingertips touched the skin warm joystick, lights lit up across the control panel and bells chimed out in an oddly hypnotic tune. Nich found himself relaxing despite himself.
“Slow and steady,” Pat encouraged. “You’ll know what to do.”
And surprisingly Nich did. Without really knowing why or how, Nich gently rotated the control and the tune of the Machine changed. Another twist and it reached an even higher pitch. A few slow motions and then…there! The exact tone he was after and the Machine began to pitch and shake.
“To easy!” Ivy laughed and Nich was swamped with the sense of deja vu.
A handful of seconds later and the Machine landed.
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT YEAR…