Aladdin's Lamp

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

there's always a catch somewhere.

Submitted: May 19, 2018

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Submitted: May 19, 2018



Aladdin’s Lamp

“So, if you could have anything you wanted, Joao, what would it be?”

Joao and Rubens were sitting with their backs to the low seawall on Copacabana beach, holding a tattered blue plastic tarpaulin over their heads.  The last of the afternoon shower moved slowly offshore, the dying breeze twisting the gossamer veil dangling from the thunderhead.  Occasional flashes of lightning lit the cloud from inside, but it was now too far away for thunder to be heard.  Weak sunset light made a faint rainbow in the trailing skirts of rain, which faded as they watched. 

“You ever catch a dorado, Rubino?”  Joao held up his hand, palm ouwardt, fingers spread, lazily passed it across the scene.  “You pull him up and he dazzles your eyes, just like that rainbow. Gold and silver and every color of jewels you could think of.  Once he’s out of the water, though, he fades as you watch him gasp his life out.  In death, he becomes as colorless as the clouds.”  He turned his hand palm up, held it for a moment.  “I think the rain has stopped.”

Cautiously, Rubens poked his head out from under the tarp, turned his face up to the sky.  He closed his eyes, then opened them wide.  Then he stood up and folded the old tarp into a compact bundle.  It wasn’t every day that you found a perfectly useable tarp among the plastic trash that constantly washed ashore along the beach.  Then he seated himself on top of the seawall.  Joao stood and stretched, then joined him.

“So, what would you, Joao?”

Joao untied the red bandana from around his neck, used it to wipe his face, then draped it around his neck again.  “What would I what?”

“What would you wish for?”

“Ah.  Maybe a better boat.  One that didn’t leak so much you’re afraid you’re never going to make it back to shore.  Then I could catch another fish or three.  Perhaps another dorado.  But maybe I’d let him go if I did.  Too beautiful to eat or sell.  Or a house, how about a real house, Rubino, eh?  Not a shack of cardboard and plastic where the picture of the Virgin falls off the wall when your neighbor hits his wife.  Or maybe one of those castles on the slopes that the millionaires have, the ones where the beautiful women in the tiny swimsuits live who come down to the beach when the weather is fine, not like today.  As long as we’re wishing, Rubino, why not?  Today we’re the millionaires; look, we have the beach to ourselves.  What is this all about, anyway?”

“Have you seen this?”  Rubens reached into the back pocket of his dirty, patched dungarees, pulled out a handbill, unfolded it and held it up.

“No, I haven’t.  Even if I had, you know I don’t read very well.  What does it say?  You’re the educated man.  Read it to me.”

Eyebrows drawn together, nose close to the page, Rubens used his finger to trace the words.  He had had the advantage of attending for a few years the Catholic school run by Dominican sisters, until his mother could no longer afford the modest tuition fee.  Joao, orphaned at ten when his fisherman father had drowned in a storm, had never attended.  But Rubens had scant opportunity to practice his skills after leaving school, apart from reading gang slogans or posted signs which mostly forbade this or that activity in Vidigal, the favela where they both lived. In fact, the handbill had been read to him by an earnest young man, bespectacled and white shirted, who had given it to him from a bag he carried on his bicycle.  So he recited slowly, remembering rather than reading, something like the following:

“Citizens of Vidigal- greetings.  As a token of the affection felt for you by the Revolutionary Military Committee under the benevolent hand of General Braun, all citizens over the age of 21 are to be provided with a holoprinter and power source for the purpose of providing the basics of life which so many of you have lacked for so long.  During the week of 1 October, trucks will travel the streets distributing these machines to all eligible…”

Rubens rubbed the bridge of his nose.  “My eyes are tired,” he said.  “Too much sun.  There is more of the same sort of thing, including where to go for help with the machine if you need it.  But it’s supposed to be quite easy to use, child’s play really.”

“Sounds more like some scheme to round people up so they can get them to pay for the electricity and gas we’ve been stealing for years.”  Joao, deeply skeptical, had spent his entire life dodging the various arms of government that attempted to upset his precarious existence, always for his own good, of course.  “I’m surprised they’d dare to show their faces in the favela.  Why this?  Why now?”

“There isn’t a mention of needing any sort of ID or anything to prove you live there.  I suppose they figure no one is going to be in Vidigal who has a chance of being anywhere else.  That’s only a week away, Joao.  It’s exciting, don’t you think?  What would you use yours for first?”

“How about having it make me a job, Rubino.  Can it do that?  That’s what I really need.  A job and more to eat.  And a wife,” he added.  “No woman will even look at a fisherman who has no boat.”

“Of course it can't.  But the point is, you won’t need a job.  Everything you need you can make with this thing.”

“But how does it work?  How big is this thing?”

“There’s a picture of a guy holding one on the flier.”  Rubino held up the handbill and Joao inspected it.  It appeared to be slightly larger than the computer printer that Joao had seen in the ministry of fisheries where he had made the plea for help in fixing his damaged boat.  The man behind the desk had waved him away without even looking up.

“That’s it?  That little box?  What does it run on?  It’s ridiculous, Rubino, there’s no such thing.”

“You don’t need anything else.  It’s completely self-contained.”

"That makes no sense, Rubino.  I don’t care if it has a forever battery or whatever you said.  You have to make things out of something else.  You can’t just create them out of thin air.  I suppose you have to feed it pocketfuls of coins, or something.”

“I don’t say I know how it works, Joao.”  Rubens said stubbornly.  “I just know what I was told.  It’s supposed to use whatever you put into it.”

“Like dirt, I suppose.  Or garbage.  Or shit.”

“Yes, dirt.  Anything.  And you tell it what you want to make and it does it.”

“Can it make food?”

Rubens looked uncertain.  “I’m not sure.  Well, maybe.  Plants make food out of dirt, right?  It says you can make anything you want.  Even if it can’t make food, you could make things to sell to the tourists and then buy food.  You can start your own business.”

Joao shrugged.  “I don’t want to sell things to tourists.  I have a business; I’m a fisherman.  Can the machine make me a boat?  It’s not very big.”  He looked more closely at the handbill picture.

“I don’t see why not.  At least you could make all the pieces of the boat and then make glue to glue them together or something.  You’re asking the wrong guy, Joao.  Why don’t we just show up and get one and find out for ourselves?  What have we got to lose?  We’re poor enough; it can’t make us any poorer.”

“Why are they doing this, Rubino?  All my life I’ve done my best to just stay out of their sight.  Nothing ever comes from the government except trouble.”

“Maybe the food riots are scaring them enough this time to actually do something.  I heard that one of the fancy beach hotels had to replace some of the windows that face the hills because they’d been hit by gunfire.  Tourists don’t like that.  Or the rich people in the big houses.  I don’t suppose they’re going to be getting holoprinters; they have everything they need now.  If the machines are cheap enough, and don’t need anything once they’re handed out, it’s an easy way for the government to pacify us poor people.”

“Make it out of anything, eh?” Joao mused.  He raised the long-billed sword fisherman’s cap, scratched his bald spot, then settled the once-white article on his head more firmly.  It never left his head except when he slept or during his infrequent visits to the church on feast days.  “Well, look around you, Rubino.  All the anything you could possibly ever use, right here in front of us.  I could make a thousand boats. No, a million.”

The setting sun had finally dipped low enough to escape the last of the clouds and the long expanse of Copacabana beach was turned to mellow gold.  The darkling waves whispered along the fringe of the sand, alternately pushing and pulling on the billions upon billions of individual sand particles, limitless riches to be used for bettering the lives of poor favela dwellers used to looking down from their hovels in the hills on the idle rich on the beach.

A few meters down the promenade, a waiter clad in immaculate whites and a black bow tie came out of the marble and brass facade of the nearest hotel, looked up at the sky, then used a snowy towel to wipe the rain water off the chairs and tables in front of the hotel.  A laughing group of women and men wearing the latest vacation fashions came out of the hotel behind him.  The waiter bowed and with a flourish, pulled chairs out for the ladies.  Seeing Joao and Rubens, he glared and motioned them away with his hand.

A hundred meters in the opposite direction, a cop in his paramilitary uniform stepped out of a cafe and started down the promenade in their direction.  Joao and Rubens ducked down behind the seawall.

“I know that cop, Rubino.  That stick he carries isn’t just for show.  We’d better get going.  We don’t have any claim to the beach just yet.”


Laughing, excited, giddy with possibility, Joao and Rubens got off the bus at the stop nearest the eastern end of Copacabana beach, each with a brand new holoprinter tucked under his arm.

“You were right, Joao.   Sand is the best bet.  The guy who was handing these out said that the more consistent the raw material is, the better the result.  And what is more consistent than beach sand?  What are you going to make first?  Will you start on your boat right away?”

Joao laughed.  “No, I don’t think so.  I want to be a man of leisure for a little while.  I think I’ll make me a beach chair, one of those folding ones like a hammock, and a fine white Panama hat, if I can figure out how.  This old cap is not something a wealthy man ought to be wearing.”

They were not the only people with holoprinters that day.  Nor were they the first to arrive at the beach with the same idea.  A crowd of favela dwellers, some of whom were known to Joao and Rubens, some not, were there before them.  But the access to the beach had been blocked with a makeshift orange plastic fence.  People were crowded around a notice attached to the fence.  Someone looked around, saw Rubens, motioned him forward.  “Here, here’s Rubens now.  He’ll be able to read what it says.”

Rubens and Joao made their way through the crowd, which opened to let them through, then closed up again.  Rubens got to the fence, looked around.  On the other side of the fence, tourists on a patio in front of the first hotel were staring at the crowd. One of them got up and moved his chair farther away from the fence.  Frowning, Rubens slowly read the notice, his lips moving silently.

“Well, what is it, Rubino?  What does it say?” Joao asked impatiently.

Rubens turned to Joao, tears in his eyes.  “It says there will be no boat, Joao, or anything else.  Someone has bought the rights to the beach.  And they’re going to start charging for the sand.”




© Copyright 2018 Norman Donald Bloom. All rights reserved.

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