Hovercars swished by on the street, hurrying their passengers to various destinations. The people passing on the moving sidewalk were like a stream of bright butterflies.
In front of the seascape stood a woman in a wrinkled khaki pantsuit. She stared at the peaceful scene, oblivious to the bustle and noise behind her. Beneath a grey cloth cap her black hair hung to her waist. In her arms she cradled a brown polished-leather handbag.
An elderly man passed on the edge of the sidewalk, his elbow lightly brushing the woman's back. It was enough to break her trance.
With a shiver Carole Symings looked around. Her delicate face pinked as she caught amused looks from amongst the passing crowd. Do they know why I'm here? she wondered. Do any of them understand what has brought me to this place? Have they ever been here, actually inside, and know what it's about? She turned back to the shop and reached out a slender right hand. The door swung open at her touch.
The shop's interior was dim. Three long aisles stretched out like beckoning fingers from the building's darkened rear. Old-fashioned light bulbs hung on cords from the high ceiling; each adorned with a white cap to help throw the light downwards.
Step by slow step Carole moved forward over the polished wood floor. A tang of citrus wood polish hung in the air. The shop reminded her of school history lessons about the way people lived in her great-great grandparents' day; where people drove in smelly vehicles to huge warehouses stocked floor to ceiling with food, furnishings, toys, or any other items required for daily living back then. This shop had the feeling of shelves full of produce, but there was nothing to be seen.
Instead the shelves were divided into square compartments, each fronted by a wooden door and labelled with unrecognizable symbols.
"Can I help you?"
"Oh!" Carole had not heard the man approach. "I was just looking," she explained with a nervous giggle.
"There's not much to see, is there?" He smiled, blue eyes twinkling below bushy eyebrows. "Is this your first time?"
She nodded. "How am I supposed to know what I want? I can't read any of the labels."
"It's all there, down to the tiniest detail." He flicked an invisible something from the right lapel of his jacket. "We like our customers to get their ingredients right the first time. It's important. It doesn't look good for us if the finished product is not what they expected. And," he added, "if they're not happy they won't come back." His black suit was as dated as the interior of the shop. He even wore a white shirt and black tie, such as Carole had seen in a portrait of her grandfather.
"These are merely where we keep our stocks," the man continued. "You don't need to worry about what's in these shelves. Just tell me what you want and I'll set it up for you."
"I haven't really decided," said Carole, fiddling with the buckle of her purse. "I thought I was too old, I've been on my own for so long, but then a friend told me of this place."
"Then maybe you'd like to look at our catalogue? Sometimes that's the easiest way, to have a look at the results of previous recipes."
He led her back to the front of the shop where, on the right-hand side, a book rested on a chest-high stand. The book was leather bound, and was larger than any book Carole had ever seen.
"Take your time," said the man. "We don't like to rush our customers. We feel that decisions made in haste bring regrets." He flicked over several pages, giving Carole a glimpse of the contents. "See if you can find something you like. We'll make adjustments to the basic ingredients to suit your own special requirements."
He left her then, as silently as he had approached.
Carole turned the pages. She gazed wide-eyed at pictures of other people's concoctions. Her breath came in excited gasps. The selection was huge.
"I don't know if I'm really ready for this," she murmured to herself. "There's too much to choose from. I can't make up my mind."
Then suddenly she found it; exactly what she wanted; and fluttered with anticipation. Immediately the man was at her side, as if he sensed a decision made.
"Ah, yes," he sighed, gazing at her choice. "It's one of our more simple recipes, but really quite effective. We've had many satisfied customers with that one."
"Do they all turn out the same?" Carole frowned at the thought. "I don't want one exactly like everyone else's."
"Of course not. I totally agree. There's absolutely no chance of that happening." He shook his head and a lock of hair draped into his left eye. He blinked rapidly and flicked the hair back into place.
"Environment effects certain changes, you know, resulting in an individual creation every time. And then, of course, there are the ingredients which only you can provide." He gently touched her left elbow, indicating that she follow him.
On the opposite side of the shop was a wooden table with a straight-backed wooden chair. Set into the wall behind was a computer and keyboard. It too looked old-fashioned - no talking computer here.
Carole sat in the chair, waiting with hands crossed over the purse in her lap while he keyed commands into the computer. He turned to face her and placed a blue felt pad on the table.
"Would you be so kind as to place your right hand here, please?"
She wiped her hand on her pants leg and placed it, palm down, on the blue pad.
He smiled and turned back to the computer. "Carole Symings? Is that your name?"
"Yes," she replied, surprised to discover the computer was actually more modern than she'd guessed.
"I knew your grandfather. Lovely man. George, his name was. We had some good times together. I was so sorry when he died. Haven't found a friend like him since."
"My grandfather died before I was born and I'm forty-three! How could you have known him, been his friend? You're not old enough." She returned her hand to her lap.
He chuckled. "Appearances can be deceptive, you know, and my occupation has certain advantages. Not least of which is the chance for research, and I make full use of it."
With a final touch on one key, he added, "There now. The computer knows all about you, even to what you had for breakfast. Eggs on toast, was it?"
Carole gasped and nodded.
"Right then. We'll just wait for everything to gel and you'll have your own personal recipe in no time. If you want anything different next time just come back and see me."
"Next time? I wasn't planning a next time. I thought I was almost too late this time."
He turned to gaze at her. "Well, yes," he sighed. "You did leave it almost too late. But it keeps you young; didn't you know that? But of course," he added, "that's not how I * keep young."
There was a buzz from the computer and a small green card appeared from a slot in the wall beneath. The man reached out, glanced at it, then slipped it into a second slot to the right of the first. Within seconds the card returned to his hand and a fist-sized panel opened beneath the second slot.
"Ah, here it is." He closed the panel and turned to Carole. "This is what you've come for. It doesn't look like much at this stage, does it?"
She stared at the finger-length vial in his hand. It was sealed with a red stopper and she could see nothing through the blue glass. He reached beneath the table and brought out a small red box, into which the vial fitted snugly, then he handed the box to Carole.
"This is the completed mixture," he said, smiling. "The instructions are on the inside of the box. Handle it with extreme care. You don't want to break it, and don't leave it longer than a day or the recipe won't work. And don't expose it to extreme changes of temperature," he added quickly.
Carole received the package and slipped it into her purse, her smile reflecting the bubble of excitement growing within.
"How much does it cost?"
He named a figure and Carole paid him, then he led her to the door.
Carole blushed at the curious glances of passers-by as she stepped into the sunshine. Clutching the purse in both hands, as if it were made of glass, she stepped onto the moving sidewalk. An old woman in a faded, tatty pantsuit glanced at the shop and nodded as if she understood. Carole stood straighter as the sidewalk moved her away from the shop.
The Future Emporium, Carole thought, the shop of the future. Very apt. This night is the beginning of a new future for me.
She smiled and clutched the purse to her chest. It now held her most precious possession, the genetic recipe that would become Carole Symings' first child.