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I gave the card back to him. It was a lot to take in, and I didn’t know where to begin, so I began by stating the nerdious: "I guess if you don’t have electricity, you don’t have any computers or mobile communications devices."

Bill was indignant. "Of course we have mobiles - look, here is my iTalky." He felt in his pocket of his coat and placed an object about the size of a snuffbox on the table in front of me. I picked it up. It was smooth and it glowed green, faintly.

"Radium glass," he said, proudly. "So you can read it at night."

I examined the object. "Read what? I can’t see anything."

"It runs on clockwork. I’m afraid it has wound down."

"Why don’t you wind it up again?"

He looked away. "Can’t do that. It’s sealed. Have to take it back to the shop. Only a Genius can wind it up, costs 53 guineas."

One recognised the feeling. I changed the subject: "So you use clockwork and coal as your power sources in this universe?"

"Not at all. Personal transport is mostly powered by nuclear fission these days, although you still see the odd steam-powered Moggy Minor on the roads."

"Same Moggy thing where I come from. But you really put uranium in your cars? Isn’t that really dangerous?" I asked.

Bill was defensive. "Nah, nothing to worry about. It is lead-free uranium."

The room was suddenly full of heavy silence, like a fallen cake. Bill said: "I see you have a Raymond Chandler in your universe. Mr Chandler makes exceedingly good similes."

I said: "Never mind about that. How come a Mesco Tetro contains an inter-universal gateway?"

"Distribution and stock control, of course."

"What?"

Bill sighed the sigh of one who is being tediously questioned by a not-very-bright child. "How do you think you get to enjoy crisp flavours like Eloi and Soylent Green?"

"Never heard of them."

"Well, you may know it as something different. The marketing boys try to be culturally sensitive. Probably labelled 'hand cooked' or something like that; they have found it works much better when selling to the more gullible universes. You’d think people would clue up. I mean, how the hell do you cook a crisp by hand? Do you plunge your pinkies into boiling fat to fish them out when they’re done?"

I said: "Let’s get this straight. You are telling me that Mesco has solved the most difficult questions in physics and uses the resulting technology to shift crisps?"

Bill sniffed. "Don’t you sneer. Logistics is a serious business. As is stock control. Mostly still done on paper, needless to say. It is a complete sod sustaining a Bluetooth link between universes. A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon rain forest 20,000 years ago and pouf! Your connection is toast."

"So Mesco is the first multi-versal multi-national?"

"The first? I don’t think so!" Bill was scornful. "It’s not even the first multi-versal supermarket. Where do you think Hejrose gets all its exotic fare from? Now if I were to tell you what went into its papaya and kumquat sorbet..."

"I don’t want to know," I said hastily. "In fact, all I want to do is go home. I don’t think I like it here. Besides, my prawn kurma is losing its chill."

"Prawn kurma indeed. You’ve got to hand it to them. Very well." Bill pushed back his chair. "I’ll escort you back to the gateway. Just one thing, before you go."

"Yes?"

"I like to ask my guests if there is a single stand-out technology that is key in their universe but underdeveloped in ours. You know," he winked at me confidentially, "so I can keep a weather eye out on the stock market."

I looked at Bill thoughtfully. To be honest, I hadn’t much taken to his manner, and felt no particular urge to improve his financial prospects.

"Just two words, Bill," I said. "Vulcanised asbestos."

Less is more

I stepped through the doorway, and the oil-lit dimness brightened to the eyeball-aching whiteness one associates with fluorescent lighting. It was a relief. One day I might look back on my adventure fondly, but right now it felt to good to get away from the late, late Victorians.

An outraged, male voice behind me called out: "Oi!"

I started to turn around. "What?"

"You can’t just barge in like that. This is the five-elves-or-less queue."

"Five elves or fewer," I said automatically, and then I said: "Oh." ®

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