He took the Number 23 bus to get there. It had left the bus depot half an hour ago, as it did every thirty minutes, stuttering its way out to the spread of warehouses and factories on the edge of the city.
The bus pulled up outside the rusty gates of a long abandoned building. The doors hissed open and the customer stepped down, brushing his coat down with one hand. The other held a plastic shopping bag filled with things.
The bus paused for a moment before leaving, the driver staring at the customer in curiosity. This was not a usual stop for anyone and the bus only came through this industrial estate because it was a short cut to more important parts of the city.
The customer opened the small shopping bag he carried and made sure that the things within were all still there, still accounted for. He mentally checked items off a list that had been memorized years ago, a list that was more significant to him than his birthday, or the name of his mother.
He had given up both those memories to get one of the items.
The rusty gates had a padlock and chain wrapped between them, though the padlock was just for show. The customer unwrapped the chain and pulled one gate open. He stepped through, closed the gate behind him, and re-tangled the chain between the gates.
The building had once been a slaughterhouse, killing cows and calves and pigs and sheep and anything else that was brought here to the knives and hammers. It had been ending lives for decades, slowly upgrading its tools to more humane methods. It had closed perhaps five years ago, the man wasn’t sure. The building itself looked innocent enough, even boring. That had been the point, of course. The building did not want to remind on-lookers and passers-by of its purpose. No one wanted to be reminded from where their steaks or sausages came. The animals had been brought in quietly, killed quietly and shipped off quietly.
The customer didn’t care, either way. He wasn’t here because this place had once been what it was. He was here because that’s where he’d been told to bring the things in the bag.
He walked around the building, vaguely impressed with the high windows and sound-proofed walls. He found a door hanging off hinges and pushed his way through.
Inside, there was no stench of blood or death, as he might have expected. It was dusty, abandoned. Anything valuable was long gone, sold or stolen. Pens and gates, fences and slipways remained, all designed to move the product through the process. The walls had been painted a soothing blue color, though the paint was scuffed and peeling.
After a few minutes, the customer found steps down to a basement. He had memorized the route through the building just as he’d memorized the list of things, so he knew he was heading in the right direction. He walked down the steps and opened a door at the bottom. A breath of colder, damper air moved past him, filled with the smell of rust and age.
The smell turned his stomach slightly, more so than the thought of where he was. The rusty metallic stench reminded him more of death than anything he’d experienced so far.
Beyond the door was a web of metal catwalks, high above dark damp machinery. Water dripped everywhere, the sound echoing like rainfall in a cavern. The customer stepped through and onto the metal walkway, wincing slightly as it strained and creaked for a moment.
He followed the path in his head. First left, third right, second left. The walls were lost in the gloom of the large chamber, the air as stagnant as the water dripping from the ceiling. His final turn brought him to stairs leading down to the floor of the machine room. He took the stairs carefully, each step a hollow clatter that echoed back to him.
At the far end of the chamber was a door, the word “Maintenance” stenciled upon it in large white letters. The customer walked up to the door. He paused, suddenly nervous. This was it, after all, the culmination of over a decade’s work. He had given up everything, everyone that had ever mattered. Because this mattered more.
He knocked the door three times.
From behind the door, there came a scrape of metal chair against concrete and a voice.
“Come in,” it said. The customer opened the door and walked inside.
This room was warm, lit by spluttering oil lamps that gave off no small amount of heat. The light flickered off the walls and ceiling, casting trembling shadows from the tools hanging from hooks. There was a single chair and a small card table. Upon the table sat a dirty mug. The smell of sour strong coffee was overwhelming. Also on the table was a book of crossword puzzles. The man glanced at it, noticed that the current page had all the answers filled in.
The owner of the book was also the owner of the voice. He was standing, wearing dirty overalls and boots. There was a nametag on the overalls, but oil and dirt obscured the owner’s identity. He looked like someone’s father. Not tall, not particularly young and with just a bit of a paunch, earned by age and hard work.
The man held out his hand, the one not holding the bag. The maintenance man, who was also the seller, stared at it for a moment, before cleaning his hands on his overalls. He returned the handshake.
“Did you bring it?” asked the seller.
The customer held out the bag, his hand shaking. The seller took it and sat back in his chair. He shook the contents of the bag onto the card table, on top of the crossword puzzle.
The seller examined the objects. There were small stones, a pair of dice, a glass eye. He held this up and looked into it for a moment. Then he placed it back on the table. He lifted a folded piece of paper, opened it and read the words written upon it. He smiled then, a warm genuine smile.
“Very good,” he commented, re-folding the paper. He put it back on the table and continued to look through the items. He examined an old finger bone, a fragment of glass and a movie ticket stub. He picked up a small mirror, no bigger than the palm of his hand, and looked at it. Then something else attracted his attention.
“Your first kiss?” he asked, holding up a small blue gemstone, no larger than a marble. The customer nodded silently in reply. The seller nodded and popped the gem into his mouth. He smiled as he tasted the memory and then swallowed.
“This all appears to be in order,” said the seller. He sat up straighter in his chair. “Now. What would you like to know?” he asked.
“Everything,” whispered the customer. He said it again, louder. “Everything.”
The seller sat back in his chair, the legs creaking. He folded his hands across his belly, regarding his visitor with a calm serenity. “Really? Are you sure?”
The customer nodded eagerly. “Yes. I’m sure.”
The seller sighed. He sat forward in his chair, picked up his mug and sipped at the coffee. He was silent for a moment.
“Alright,” he said, “When you leave here, you will know everything.”
The customer frowned, suddenly suspicious. “Just like that?” he asked. “That’s all there is to it?”
The seller nodded, placing his cup back on the table and picking up his pencil. He turned the page in the crossword book, revealing a fresh, empty puzzle. “Yes, that’s it. Goodbye.”
The customer stood for a few moments more, uncertain. The seller ignored him. After several seconds, the customer walked backwards out of the room. The seller looked up then, just for a moment, and pointed at the door. The customer closed it.
As he walked back up the stairs to the catwalk, the customer’s mind was racing. Had this all been a trick? A ruse? Had he wasted the last ten years, traveled across the world and given up so many important things, just for nothing? His fear turned to anger as he walked back onto t
he main killing floor of the slaughterhouse, his pace turning to a jog, then a run.
He emerged into the daylight and then he knew everything. Every truth, every fact. Every whispered promise, every broken heart. He staggered towards the gates, knowing the exact molecular makeup of the metal and the chain and the padlock. He touched them, unwinding the chain, and knew where it had been made, and when. He saw the men who forged the chains, knew their hopes and fears. He knew who their great-grandparents were and how they had died.
He threw the gates open and stared up at the sun. He knew how it burned hydrogen into helium, knew how to replicate that here on Earth, for endless free and clean energy. He knew every secret, every government conspiracy and every paranoid thought that had ever crossed anyone’s mind. He fell to his knees as the knowledge rushed through his mind. The name of every human who ever lived was his now, with every hope that had ever filled their hearts.
He stood, tears streaming down his face and tried to walk, blinded by the rush of information. Nearly falling as he stepped down onto the road, he heard noises, loud and insistent. They sounded like a trumpet fanfare, like people shouting, but he couldn’t process them, because he now knew the truth of God (the real, actual truth, not the rumors and fiction) and mankind’s ultimate fate. He looked up, calm and at peace, despite the screeching of brakes, the blare of horns. He smiled.
And he knew, even as the Number 23 bus tried to stop, that the impact would kill him.
[Author's note: I wrote this story, or a version of it, back in 1993 or 1994. I can't remember why I wrote it, but I remember letting some people read it. I have no idea what happened to it, so I rewrote it from memory. It's 16 or 17 years later, so obviously this version is different, but I'd love to compare it to the original. In addition, the final line has gone through several edits since i posted this. I think it's done now, though.]