The morning had set in, warm, loaded with the heat of the night and no promise of a cool change. Janice could feel the heat of the buzzing electrical billboards stinging her face as she parked her bicycle outside the cafe. The fourth 50-degree day in a row couldn’t depress her though. Her friend Mel approached with an attitude like the black scorch marks of stickers ripped from the back of road signs, smeared in carbon and impossible to remove.
Janice and Mel played a game whenever they met because Mel hated small talk, even with her friends. So, they devised a good question for each other to kick off.
“What’s the worse question in the world someone could ask you,” asked Janice.
“Have you seen our toothbrush, ya know the one that looks like yours?” replied Mel.
Janice took a second to process. “jeez, the more I think about that, the worse it gets.”
“Uh-huh,” Mel adjusted her glasses over her Melbourne library facemask. “I still hate these things,” she looked down her nose at her mask.
The queue moved forward, and the friends stepped into a red cross painted on the café floor. A converted paper factory, bare brick walls, an elevator carriage converted into a dining nook. Melbourne.
“So,” Janice said slowly, “I got the approval.”
“The Library,” Janice’s eyes widened. “I can’t believe it. Three years of work and finally the library of Ashurbanipal is coming on loan from the British Museum.”
“That’s great. Remind me, who is he again? Is he the ancient Egyptian?” Mel eyed the blueberry almond muffin.
“No, he’s Babylonian. First clay library in the world. It’s the intact slabs of cuneiform script from 7th century BC. I wanted 50% of the collection, they settled on 10%. It’s still almost a thousand pieces. So exciting!” Janice flapped her hands around like an excited pre-schooler
“Old bits of clay with marks on them, I mean, I’m glad it floats your boat,” Mel playfully pushed her friend’s shoulder.
“It’s the most beautiful library book in the world. I’ve wanted to read it, to really read it for a long time. Now it’s coming here, under my care, I can be absorbed in it for six months.”
“Give me a custom job on a motorbike any day. I guess they didn’t have any motorbikes in 7th century BC.”
“HA!” laughed Janice. “They must have had some sexy wooden carts, you could put a stone muzzle on one, flaming paint job?”
“So does this mean you might come out of your little work cave?”
“Well, now the real work begins.”
The queue moved forward again.
Janice flinched. A red flashing light beamed out a split second before the lockdown siren began. Their eyes darted to the front door. A man managed to duck out before the metal shutter came down.
Mel tutted. “Damn it.”
Then the PA system crackled into life.
“This is a department of health announcement. This location is now in lockdown. Food, water and a team of specialists will be with you in…”
This was the worst part. The pause before the only sentence they all cared about. The artificial intelligence algorithms churning away, calculating the number of available resources, travel distances, Priority levels, amount of infected. The hiss of static hiccupped before the delivery. Usually, the timeline was between two to eight hours.
Even though everyone had their mandatory masks on, Janice could feel collective jaws hit the floor.
Janice and Mel turned to each other.
Mel rolled her eyes. “Ya know as a kid I used to look forward to the future. Now we are here, it sucks.”
“I miss music. Remember when everything you heard mattered?” answered Janice.
“I miss queueing for CD’s, instead of hand sanitiser,” said Mel.
Eventually, all eyes turned to the café workers. A skinny guy, with a tattoo on his wrist of a hummingbird, in his twenties and a dark-haired lady in an oversized jumper and a black lives matter face mask.
“Are you the owner or manager?” asked a middle-aged guy with a receding salt and pepper hairline in a Star Wars t-shirt.
“Erm, no, I just make coffee,” said the skinny guy.
The middle-aged guy nodded. Then ambled up to the counter, picked up a slice of banana bread.
“Hey, that’s four bucks.”
“37 hours until food and water kid. You got a lot of work to do to make sure we don’t have a Lord of the Flies scenario in here. Hot tip…” the man paused and took off his mask. “Water first.” He was about to take a bite of the banana bread when Mel slapped it out of his hand.
He puffed out his chest and beer gut.
“Wanna hit me big boy?” said Mel. “Cameras everywhere. Witnesses everyone. Police time for you in 37 hours.”
He went to talk when Janice slipped in between them. “So, did you know that the king Ashurbanipal invited Egypt twice? The first time to quell a threat to his empire as Egypt was a hot mess. He won, left them alone and then had to invade again. When he beat them again he handpicked a Pharaoh that time. Can you imagine the weight of responsibility picking a Pharaoh? All we have to do is hang out for a day and a half, no kingdoms to invade, no Pharaohs to pick that would have a huge impact for years to come. We’ve got it real easy.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“She’s got a PhD in history,” said Mel.
“It’s a masters, I’m not a doctor, but history is amazing. It gives you context. Do you want to hear about my favourite book?”
“You own me a banana bread.” The man pointed.
“What’s your name? asked Janice.
“Hey screw you, I’m Janice.”
“We still need to figure out water and food and the shitter.”
“Yeah, any good siege has to have that figured out,” said Janice. “And you know who knows the most about all of that right now?” Janice turned to the two café workers. “They do. They’ll get government expenses keeping us all alive and sane and they know exactly what they’ve got on the shop floor and in the storeroom. Divide that by the number of people in her and mix a little personal responsibility and the only issue we really have is boredom. And even that isn’t too bad because I’ve got so many amazing stories, I could tell you about…”
Mel put her hand on Janice’s shoulder. “Quit while you are ahead my friend.”
The man sat down.
The two workers did a headcount. Twenty-three people. Two pre-school kids but no babies.
“Thank god there’s no babies,” whispered Mel. “And thank god you are a book worm.”