By Lavie Tidhar
Can dreams come true? They can if you win the lottery, which promises to provide what your heart desires. For a humble shopkeeper in Yiwu, it’s a living, selling lottery tickets. Until a winning ticket opens up mysteries he’d never imagined.
In all his time working for the lottery, Eshamuddin had only ever sold three winning tickets but, as a consequence, he had seen three miraculous things.
The first purchaser, years before, was one of his first ever customers. She was a young, dark-haired girl with a look of intense concentration on her face as she handed over the cash money, and she retained one coin—a Martian shekel with the Golda Meir simulacrum’s head on– to scratch the card, which she did with a slow seesawing motion, gently blowing the cheap dust of silver foil as she searched for her luck.
Then her face changed. Not open disappointment, or stoic acceptance, of the sort that people always wore, nor the greedy desperation that meant they would ask for another ticket, and then another, until their money ran out.
But neither was it amazement, or shock, or any reaction of the sort he’d have expected were someone to get lucky. For someone to win.
It was more like she had found something that she had always half-suspected was there. That she was merely, at last, able to confirm a thing she’d always, instinctively, known.
And then she smiled.
And then she turned into a black-headed ibis and flew away into the sky.
The second one was a couple of years later and it was a much more ordinary affair. The winner this time was a middle-aged man from Guangzhou, with a comb-over and bottle-top glasses and a nice smile; he had the sort of face that smiled easily, and sometimes ruefully, at the world’s foibles. It was the third card he’d bought and he was chatting to Esham all this while, a running commentary about the day’s weather (it was humid), the cost per unit of elastic hair bands (he had recently found a new manufacturer who could make them a point cheaper, saving him thousands), and his daughter’s new boyfriend (a no-good know-it-all, but what were you going to do? Kids today and all that). Then the silver foil all came off and the man’s face slackened and his lips stopped moving and he rocked in place as though he’d been struck, and Esham said, “Sir? Sir? Are you all right?” and the man just nodded, over and over, and finally gave him a goofy grin.
“Look,” he said. “Would you look at that.”
A car appeared ’round the corner and came to a stop beside Esham’s lottery stall. It was a long black limousine, with darkened windows. The doors opened and two men in dark suits and dark sunglasses stepped out. They both had short cropped hair and were very trim and fit. One held the door of the limousine open. The other said, “Congratulations, sir. Please, come with us.”
“But where are we going?” the man said.
“It’s only a short ride to the airport, sir.”
“To get to the Singapore beanstalk, sir. It isn’t a long flight, sir.”
“Singapore? I have never been to Singapore.”
“It will only be a short stop, sir. A pod on the beanstalk is already reserved for you. Here, sir. Your ticket.”
“For your onward journey.”
The man stared at the ticket. He looked, almost pleadingly, at Eshamuddin.
“So it’s really true?” he said. “I won? I won the lottery?”
“I’ve always wanted to see Mars,” the man said. “Olympus Mons and Tong Yun City and the Valles Marineris kibbutzim…”
“Whatever your true heart’s desire, sir,” the man said. It was the same legend that was etched—in now dusty letters—above Esham’s lottery stall. The same legend that was on every lottery stall, anywhere. That was on every ticket.
Whatever your true heart’s desire.
“But my daughter, my job, I can’t just… elastic hair bands,” he said, desperately.
The car waited. Esham waited. The two men in their short cropped hair and smart black suits and ties waited. The man mopped his brow. “I suppose…” he said.
He meekly let them lead him to the car. He folded into the cool interior and the doors shut and the two men disappeared inside and the car started up and drove away and the man was gone.
To Mars, Esham supposed.
“Mars!” said Mrs Li. She pushed her way to the booth and leered at Esham. “Who in their right mind would want to go to Mars, boy?” She shoved a handful of coins across the counter. “Give me a ticket.”
Esham took the money and gave her a ticket. You could count on Mrs Li to buy a few at a time. He wondered what her true heart’s desire was.
“That’s none of your damn business, boy!” Mrs Li said.
She scratched the card with maniacal glee.
The third time he witnessed a miracle it wasn’t anything like that.
It was a foreigner, a trader on a purchasing trip to Yiwu from one of the coastal African states. He was with a couple of colleagues, and he bore an amused smile as he paid for the ticket. It was just something to do, a local custom, something to pass the time, he seemed to suggest. He scratched the card and looked at it with that same tolerant smile, and he began to say, in bad Mandarin, “What does this mean–” when it happened.
It was like a curtain swished behind the man. The man half-turned, looked, and there was an expression on his face that Esham couldn’t read. The man reached out one hand and touched the curtain. He prodded it with his fingers. He took a half step, and then another. There was nothing there, and yet there was. He half-turned back and smiled at Esham. Then he stepped through into the whatever-it-was and just… disappeared.
His two colleagues did a lot of shouting and Esham did a lot of hand waving and shouting back and finally some of the market police came along and they did a little shouting too and then, after a while, everyone left.
Esham stayed, of course. But business was slow and after another hour he closed the stall for the day. It had been a strange one. He wondered where the man went, and what he saw, and whether he was happy there.
He ate a bowl of crossing-the-bridge noodles at a Yunnanese stall, then had sweetened mint tea at a Lebanese café near the Zone 7 mosque, and then he walked slowly back. Two blind musicians played the guqin outside Pig Sty Alley, and the air was perfumed with wisteria. The smell was manufactured in the factories of Zone 10, at a very reasonable per unit cost, and consequently sold all across the world.
That night, Esham drew the walls of his stall-home down and sat inside. He tuned in to the latest episode of his favourite soap, Chains of Assembly, which broadcast across the hub network of the Conversation in near space, all the way from Mars. In the air before him, The Beautiful Maharani argued with Johnny Novum inside her domed palace, as ice meteorites fell onto the red sands far in the distance. Esham ate shaved ice with lychee syrup. It had been a strange day, he thought.
Esham was born in Yiwu but he wasn’t Chinese. Many native-born residents of Yiwu weren’t. His father had been a small-goods trader from the Ecclesiastical Confederacy of Iran, and his mother was an interpreter for a mining company based in the Belt, which purchased mass-market goods for the asteroid longhouses. A space Dayak, she often complained of discomfort in Earth’s gravity, not because she was not used to it but because, unlike on the longhouses, there was simply no escaping it, even for a time. In the Up and Out, she’d told the young Esham, one could simply kick off into a free-fall zone, where you could fly: where you could be free.
He didn’t know what his mother’s true heart’s desire would have been. He remembered them both as loving parents—which is not to say they did not sometimes shout at him, in frustration, or that they did not fight, which they did—but when he thought of them, what he remembered first was love. His father was away a lot, a train man, as they called them, forever riding the rails along the Silk Road, from Yiwu to Tehran. He’d come back bearing gifts for Esham’s mother—saffron and dried apricots, tiny pickled cucumbers, rose water and golpar—and for Esham he’d bring back little hand-made curios, wood and wire intertwined with wildtech components, toys that existed in both the virtual and the real.
They died in a simple transport capsule accident on a visit to the underwater cities of Hainan. The new cities were the jewels of the South China Sea, glittering biospheres abundant in offshore aquaculture, home to millions of people who lived and breathed under water. It was just a stupid accident, the sort that never even made the news. He was still only a boy when it happened. After that the state took him in. For a long time he’d had the dream of buying lottery tickets until he’d found a winning one and then the lottery would bring his parents back to life. Even though he knew it was just a dream. Even the lottery could not bring back the dead.
The lottery really began as just another roadside tradition, around the time they rebuilt Yiwu from scratch into the lotus flower shape it had now. Each petal a zone, each zone a market to rival all other markets. There was nothing, it was said, that you couldn’t buy in Yiwu. But mostly it was the small stuff, the domestic stuff, still, then and now: key rings and bath mats, mugs and toothbrushes, artificial flowers, ladies’ handbags, raincoats and mascaras, pens and watches, clocks and toys and festive decorations… the factories in the outer zones beyond the city never slept, the market traders in their petal-sections of the market-city only ever slept in shifts, and the trains never stopped coming and going with the giant containers on their backs.
The first lottery was on the same scale. It really was just a community sort of thing. People coming together to make your life a little easier, a little better. When people would get together and buy tickets and each would win something they needed—help with repairs on their house, or delivery assistance for groceries, or someone to bring you food while you were sick, if you didn’t have family to care for you.
At least, that was the story.
On how the lottery really came to be, there were as many stories as there were fish in the fish market or toys in the toy market or pens in the pen stalls or fake snow in the Christmas pavilion. They said the lottery used Shenzhen ghost market tech and was overseen by the Others, those mysterious digital intelligences that first evolved in Jerusalem’s Breeding Grounds and now lived in impenetrable Cores guarded over by the mercenaries of Clan Ayodhya. Others said it was run by the Kunming Toads under Boss Gui, whose labs in the Golden Triangle churned out verboten technology and traded in illicit info-weapons and employed Strigoi assassins for all that they were banned on Earth. Others still said it was wild hagiratech from Jettisoned, that farthest outpost of humanity on the moon called Charon, from where the sun appeared as little more than a baleful raven’s eye in the sky, and that the lottery was run from off-world, and you know what people in the Up and Out were like.
Esham didn’t know. He didn’t even think to ask. The lottery just was, and it gave a few people every year something impossible and precious: their true heart’s desire. And it gave him, Esham, a job.