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By Aedh
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It started the way most bad things start: with a ‘vidphone call.

I let the chimes that announced the call finish their chimey thing, and finished my mid-morning syn-caf while I waited for the vidwindow on the phone to open. I switched off the ‘cast which had been droning in the background, something about protesters on the steps of the Council Chambers. I was office-assistant-less on Mondays.

“Slater Consulting Services,” announced the slightly-bored-but-totally-professional vox I’d bought for my screener. “Please listen closely to the following menu, as our options have changed. Press One if you are a new client; press Two if you are an existing client who wishes to make an appointment; press Three if you know the extension with which you’d like to speak; press Four if you already have a case number from the Bureau of Public Health; press Five for questions regarding your account; press Six to hear these menu options again.” The old Option Six had been for emergencies. I’d gotten rid of that. Everything had been an emergency. Even retirees soliciting for charity drives had used it.

The caller pressed One.

The vidwindow, as I expected, opened onto a canned background--tropical birds this time--but the voice was definitely not canned; it was female, middle-aged, slightly nervous, and utterly respectable. She wanted something personal to come through; the likelihood that this would be a private-pay case, rather than Bureau work, certainly did.

“My name is Citizen Nedra Madour,” the voice began. “Your services were mentioned to me by Worker Lasseter at the Health Bureau’s Family and Child Welfare Department.”

I pressed a button and the call was ‘forwarded;’ I let it buzz three times and picked it up.

“Slater here,” I said, as her vidwindow opened up what I knew would be a rather lighter, airier, and prettier version of my office. Her ‘paper was probably a statement of some kind, or a gesture of modesty; her face was not strange to the ‘netcasts. “Sorry, I was on another line. Now, what seems to be the matter?”

She repeated what she had said before, and continued: “It’s about my daughter, Irina. She’s been under treatment for tobacco smoking. Now she’s disappeared.”

I sat up. No wonder she had sounded nervous. Tobacco, of course, usually called ‘nick,’ was a highly controlled substance—totally illegal in Libria since the revolution, as it had been under Equilibrium before, except for a brief, experimental period in the first few years. It showed the depth of the woman’s concern that she was willing to even mention a nick problem over the phone.

“Private treatment, of course,” I ventured, watching a macaw preen itself on the branch of a giant mahogany tree.

“Naturally. We couldn’t afford to have her classified in public records with a tobacco problem. How would she be placed in the University, or ever get a decent job then?”

I murmured agreement; I had to. “Where did the FCWD come into it? I mean—she is, of course, registered, like every child has to be. They have to be protected,” I said, repeating the mantra we all heard a hundred times a day, and it was her turn to add some subvocal assent. “Lasseter was her Worker, then.”

“Yes. I know Vonnie Lasseter; we were at at school together. I didn’t pull any strings to get Irina assigned to him. It may have been pure chance that Irina’s case fell to him after her old worker retired, or perhaps Lasseter took care to make it happen. But so it turned out. He knew, naturally. A Worker can hardly not know. But he could see to it that as long as Irina’s treatment was completed normally, that the flags wouldn’t come up on the usual college and employment reviews.”

“Yes. When did you last see Irina?” The macaw had finished, and a toucan began working on a nut.

“About a week ago … it would have been three days before the kalends of March. She’d been acting up at home. We brought her up so well, and then she turned sixteen, and I don’t know what happened. Her grades plummeted. She began staying out, and was seen a couple of times over in Soho with her boyfriend at some of the protein bars there. Well, you know, citizen, Libria is not a very large place, and she had been out overnight before, but always came back in a day or two. Then the holiday, and then the weekend, and so I only got in to see Lasseter this morning. I called you straight away.”

“We’ll need an appointment. I … umm …” –here I sat back, pretending to check my PDA, personal digital assistant—“have a cancellation in the morning. Would ten-thirty be good?”

“And where is your office, citizen?”

“By surface, not transport?”

“Yes.” I could hear her little smile.

“Thirteen-hundred Sims, fourth floor. Take the X-way to the Willow exit, keep on straight by Fillmore Plaza, second right, three down. There’s validated parking across the street. In the meantime, can you ‘net me some information on Irina? A good picture, a voiceprint, some biodata? Just the essentials. I have a secure service.”

“She left her school ID here. The biodot on it has all that. Retinal patterns, too.” The screen panned out into a misty morning vista of a rainforest hillside.

“How can you ‘net that to me?”

“I was afraid of something like this, so I had someone I know scan and format it a few months ago. I can have it to you in ten minutes if you give me the link and codes.”

“I’ll ‘net them to you right away. I guess that’s all until tomorrow, citizen Madour.”

“I will be there. Good-day, citizen.”

I said my farewell and hit the end button.

Citizen Nedra Madour, whom I knew by reputation, had given me something to think about. Missing persons were rather rare in Libria these days. As she had said, it wasn’t a large place, and there were few others to go to unless you boarded a transport; and all persons were accounted for on a periodic basis. I had handled a fair number of MPs in the first few years after the fall of Equilibrium; that was probably why Lasseter, whom I also knew, had recommended me to Nedra. The girl’s disappearance smacked of planning. She had gone three days before a scheduled school break, which would last two weeks. That would give her eighteen days before she failed to turn up for school. If she failed to turn up.

One thing was certain; if Irina had meant to leave Libria, she would have done it already. Then it would be a Section Five matter and out of my hands. I stretched out; I was a bit sore from the morning at the gym. Some of the people working out around me were half my age, and it wouldn’t do to try to keep up with them all the time. Even some of the group of young women who did their own brand of calisthenics together looked like they could give me a hard few rounds with the gloves or sticks. I ‘netted my server info to Citizen Madour, and then dug some leftover tofu stir-fry out of my cooler for an early lunch.

It would soon be time to do a little research.

My first call was to an associate in the operations division of TranspoLibria. With Irina Madour’s data onscreen, I established that no one answering her description had tried to leave Libria in the last week. My second call was to another associate at ConSec, with which I was contracted, the prosperous firm which handled much of Libria’s ordinary security and law-enforcement administration. No one like Irina had been detained for any offenses. I thought as much; someone with Nedra Madour’s status would have been notified already. My third call, therefore, was to Worker Lasseter’s office at Family and Child Welfare.

The Health Bureau of the Social Affairs Ministry of Libria called them ‘workers.’ It was a better, more innocuous name than “officers,” which would have made them sound like police. Which is what they actually were. Every Librian citizen had one, myself included. Since the Council had made the MSA the sole official provider of all health-care services—free to all—the Ministry had assigned citizens, grouped according to age, occupation, and various other criteria, to ‘Workers’ who were, in theory, responsible only for maintaining all the paperwork; hence the title. Since nothing was available without the proper authorization, Workers effectively controlled everything to do with an individual’s health care. And with so many of its workers in chemical products of some sort, health care was a very very deep concern of the Ministry, and of the Council. In the first days after the fall of Equilibrium, everyone had gone off the hated ‘dose;’ most willingly, though some problem cases had had to be persuaded.

The results had been chaotic, accompanied by thousands of severe withdrawals, and the widespread occurrence of what old textbooks called ‘neurosis.’ The banning of Prozium had resulted in its replacement by a variety of therapies and treatments designed to help people cope with differing degrees of mental and emotional difficulty. Some were benign; many were useless; some were downright dangerous. The Council, with a crisis on its hands, had vested the MSA with the power to investigate and regulate these, and it wasn’t long before all other health care had come under its aegis. Worker Vonnie Lasseter had been there longer than most, for whom the job was simply a rung on the ladder—hopefully--to privileged jobs at the Ministry. He had always said he was happy where he was. But if Citizen Madour had been at school with him, she would know that he had once been a Sweeper for the Tetragrammaton, a good one. Some had spoken of him as missed Cleric material. As such, he was fortunate to have the mid-level job he held. Ex-Tetras—those not so powerful as to have carved themselves out privileged positions at the very first, like the once-sainted John Preston—were not in demand for government jobs in the new Libria. The few score of old Sweepers and handful of ex-Clerics left had mostly been pensioned off.

My Bureau contractor’s ID got me as far as I needed to get, which was the Department cafeteria. Worker Vonnie Lasseter, as befitted his rank, had a table to himself in the corner, while a few pairs and trios of younger clerks, programmers, DEPs, and receptionists chatted at the bigger tables here and there. Anyone higher than a Worker took breaks upstairs at the management lounge. A Worker of his seniority probably could, as well, but help like me wouldn’t be very welcome there. My presence would remind them that they, too, failed once in a while.

I made may way toward him, eliciting a few glances from the others, and he stood up to shake my hand, an undistinguished, balding man in brown with a short, neat, grey-flecked beard, without which he would have looked like nothing at all. “Citizen Max Slater,” he said. “And what brings you out of your accustomed orbit?”

“Good of you to come down for me, citizen,” I said. “I know you’ve got to be busy with all the shake-ups going on. I didn’t think Citizen Macrae was the type to push all that through.”

“Aah, he’s the Chair of Social Affairs on the Council. He represents the Ministry, he’s ultimately responsible for it, and he nominates the Bureau Secretary. But you know as well as I do that Secretaries are ones who really run things. It all rolls downhill from there. But you didn’t come about that.”

“No. It’s about Nedra Madour.”

“You mean Irina Madour? Nedra didn’t waste her time.”

“People who can still afford to drive these days seldom do,” I observed. “And, no, I don’t mean Irina. I mean Nedra.”

“You want some tea?”

“I’ll take some syn-caf,” I told him. He grimaced. Coffee had not been actually outlawed, but the Ministry, still concerned with its effects on citizens, had taken care to highly regulate its sale, including laying a tax on it that took it safely out of the hands of most. The masses had to make do with a grain-and-bean concoction that resembled the real thing about as much as aspirin had resembled Prozium.

He set down the brown plastic mug and napkin. “I know very few people that drink this stuff other than to try to impress their superiors,” he said. “And none,” he added, as I raised the beverage, “that take it straight but you.”

“So, to business. You are familiar with Irina Madour’s records and history. You know what was going on with her.”

“I do.” The tone in his voice was plain.

“That’s why I came to talk about Nedra,” I told him. “You’re Irina’s Worker. Even under the colour of official business, you can’t tell me anything about her I don’t already know from her mother. But you know Nedra. She said you two were at school together.”

He looked down at the plastic tabletop. “So to speak. But we belonged to different groups. Her parents were solid citizens, well-connected meds in the Prozium business, and she was the privileged wild child. Mine were drones. You know my story.” I did. His father had worked in a warehouse and his mother had been an automat attendant, and both had been arrested for sense-offences. His mother had been treated and released. His father’s treatment had failed. Everyone knew what that meant. Vonnie had joined up after that, to compensate for his parents or something. I’d once cleared up an official matter for his fiancee, now his wife of eleven years.

“So Irina’s like her mother was,” I ventured. “What makes you think she won’t show up safe and sound in a couple of days, and play the—“ I reached for a word I’d once read in a religion book—“the penitent, and cry and make up, and everything’s all good again?”

“Because Nedra was a little wild,” he said, accenting the ‘little.’ “Nedra carried on a bit but she basically had her act together. Irina’s skated on the edge--parties, protests, running around, you know--but she’s not really bright enough to always see where the edge is.”

“And you think she went over it in a big way. What about her father?”

“Authier Madour?”

“Doctor Authier Madour,” I gently added. “Assistant director of biomechanical research at the University Hospital.”

“He’s in New Rio for a conference,” said Lasseter, after a sip of tea. “Presenting a paper about something. Left on Wednesday.”

“With his daughter gone missing?”

“With his daughter gone overnight, and likely to show up on the morrow as she had done before,” he said. “I’m sure Nedra’s handling that side of it. He’ll be back in a couple of days.”

“And in the meantime?”

“Nedra’s well and truly shaken,” he said. “There’s more to this than she’s told me, a lot more. There’s things she and I can’t talk about with me having to do my job. You’re different. You don’t have the disclosure regs that I have.”

“Because they can just take away my license, void my contract, and hang me anytime they like,” I said, putting down the mug. “That’s the risk I take for the privilege of quietly taking care of the unofficial stuff. The dirty stuff.”

“I was a Sweeper once,” said Vonnie Lasseter distantly. “The old days at the Tetra … you remember, citizen. Now I shuffle files. You take care of the dirt. You sweep, I clean.”

At ten-oh-two the next morning, my thrice-a-week pool girl from LibMed, the public health insurance entity, was in the outer room behind her desk, to add a whiff of … something to my office; the latest brand of artificial guaranteed hypo-allergenic scent that the vidstar of the moment was endorsing. Formally, I myself was a retired LibMed employee, a claims adjuster bought out under a reorg scheme a few years back, and then hired back as a consultant, with outside contracts with ConSec and the Bureau of Health. Unlike most of her predecessors, this one, a redhead—well, red/purplehead--whose name was Jakklyn, or however they were spelling it these days, kept up with her work.

That consisted, mostly, of monitoring routine computer reviews of citizen mental fitness evaluations conducted by employers covered by LibMed, which is to say all employers. We looked for profiles that suggested problems that officially didn’t exist any more, but which everyone—right up to the Council level—knew still cropped up from time to time. Child abuse topped the list, followed by sexual predation, self-mutilation, suicidal tendencies, and a variety of other matters that Libria, for one reason and another, couldn’t solve with either its doctors or its cops, but which couldn’t be afforded the dignity of being formally outlawed. When my office located possible examples, it flagged them and sent them on to LibMed for consideration by a panel, and possible referral to appropriate authorities. That constituted my day job. Once in a while a case potentially problematic because of ConSec’s disclosure requirements would be referred back to me. For the record, I dealt with them by counselling, and I was indeed a licensed counselor. Usually, that was was all it took. It sometimes took methods that couldn’t go on the record. It had, on occasion, involved a bullet in the gut for the really hard-core cases who couldn’t be persuaded any other way and turned violent. The authorities both at ConSec and the Bureau had procedures available for taking care of a body now and then, and LibMed was spared some high liabilities.

Jak’s predecessors hadn’t lasted because—whatever the excuses they gave, and they were many and varied—most of her generation couldn’t live day in and day out with the notion that such atavisms, which they were carefully taught in school had been stamped out by the health authorities long ago, still stalked the streets once in a while. There were a couple of others like me. Sometimes I wondered what the MSA would do when the last one retired. I doubted they’d bring back Prozium. In a way, though, we were still living with it. Librian expertise in pharmacology and chemistry, acquired for Equilibrium, had been applied since then to a variety of fields, from synthetic fabrics to eros-enhancement meds, whose export paid the bills. At least so far.

I walked in the door with my gym bag over my shoulder—I’d started training at five-thirty—and set down one of Jak’s favorites on her workstation: a corn muffin with real, actual chocolate chips baked into it, not the carob syn-choc that had passed for the real thing since about the time she’d entered school. Training at the Ministry gym had its privileges. “Honey, I’m home,” I bantered. “Any messages?”

She smiled up at me, a nice smile even though it made her lip rings spread apart like the palps of a spider rearing back for a bite. “Hi, Dad,” she bantered back. “You have a vidmeet at one-fifteen with Officer Roy Roy from ConSec’s Substances Division, and a call from Mister Douglas about a review.” ‘Mister’ was the title now accorded to what used to be called lawyers. She had risen from her seat, her broomstick skirt swishing while her old Sweeper’s combat boots clunked incongruously on the floor, and turned and handed me the mug of syn-caf. “Here’s your, er, beverage,” she said. ‘Er, beverage’ was what she’d decided to call it. A whole month on the job with me, with her sense of humour intact. I liked that. “Here you spend the morning at the gym, come out with a glow on, and then you down a cup of that stuff.” She shook her head slowly in mock bafflement.

“It keeps me humble,” I said. “That and the sticks with Jonesy. The day will come when I can’t go ten rounds with him anymore.”

She picked up a scanning wand and prodded me in the midriff. “The hair down there may be going grey, but it still covers a six-pack.”

“Which is used to take two hours a day to maintain. Not anymore. Some of those girls could probably take me down. Fortunately for me they stick to their own routine, that BCI or whatever it is.”

“Biocardial integration,” she said. “They pick it up at the University. There’s men that do it, too. Not for me. There’s meditation and everything that goes with it. I didn’t have the time.”

“Speaking of time. Any visitors?”

“She’s not here yet,” said Jak. “But she hasn’t called to say she’d be late. I have a small batch of reviews for you to look at while you wait. Nothing really set off a profile flag, but I just had a … a feeling about them.” I smiled a bit myself. That word, even now, carried some freight in Libria. “I transferred them to your private inbox. Plus one.”

“Thanks, Jak.”

“Just doing my job, citizen,” she said, seated at her workstation again.

I went in to my office, hung my felt hat on the hat rack, dumped the gym bag in the corner, and sat down at my desk, a genuine pre-War desk made out of oak, with drawers and everything. on top of which my ‘net terminal sat, suiting it about as well as a gas mask on a ballerina, with its ungainly wiring tied in a bundle, sprawling to the floor. It had been made by ‘Standard Furniture, Scranton, Penna.’ I adjusted my blinds—yes, blinds, not UV-polarized tinted filmscreen like every other window in Libria had—and switched on the terminal. The usual ‘netmail garbage had to be cleared out, a few routine things I could have Jak take care of, and then opened up the casefiles she had flagged for me.

I read through about nine of them. File Number One, actually file number L39985/39N, was typical. He was a thirty-three-year-old male named citizen Conrad Kemp, employed at Premier Industries as an account technician. His review had been on the occasion of recommendation for promotion to team chief, having completed his required certifications. I scrolled down … he’d been a good worker but had some absenteeism on his record, which he’d ascribed to family reasons. Losing weight recently, but his physicals checked out; latest one six months ago, signed off by Doctor Jared Wasson of LibMed; his Worker was D. Cannon—must be a new one. Blood pressure a bit low, proteins normal, certain enzymes elevated, UA results showed cannabinoid count which exceeded permitted norms. Retest scheduled. Married nine years, one child … a possible nick abuser as well. I set him aside.

There were more. Citizen Madison Walters, a medtech at Campus Three, the cancer section, of Libria General, the central hospital, treated for theobromine addiction. That was common enough; there were several organizations devoted solely to that field. Citizen Richard Kane, a recently demoted ConSec officer, suspected abuse of steroids. Citizen Isaac Turner, once treated for caffeine problems, a transpo pilot--pilots had exhaustive files. I skipped a bit, and then scrolled back up. Citizen Keef Herzog, security officer for TeleLibria, the communications monopoly that everyone loved to hate, reviewed for promotion and turned down. Unmarried; living alone. That was unusual. Had been unemployed for almost a year previous to being hired. That was also unusual. Positions were usually guaranteed for every graduate.

This was so because Libria was a greying society. From the introduction of Equilibrium—well before my time—Libria’s birthrate, flat or worse since its founding in early post-cat days, had started a definite decline. At first, no one worried much; it was assumed that the ending of violence and war would compensate for that as the deathrate fell. Nobody had bought the idea that deathrates never really fall, because time ultimately kills everyone, and people don’t have babies when they get to a certain age. And the compulsory ‘dose’ had led to even further problems; passion for war and destruction was not the only passion it had banked down. Women began to lose touch with their cycles, and menopause started occurring at an earlier age, sometimes as young as the early thirties. The availability of artificial means had not helped, because most people simply didn’t want it. Sense-offenders tended to have more children, but since families of more than two were a good way to identify sense-offenders, many people who were willing and glad to be parents had gone to the Hall of Destruction, sometimes with their children. And the invitation of immigrants was not really an option; the few willing to make the long relocate from other surviving societies such as Amazonia, Arabistan, or Koguryo either had to go on the ‘dose’ themselves, or became sense-offenders, with the usual results.

The end of Equilibrium came too late to halt the trend. The average citizen at that time was already over thirty, and with the revolution, many of them had more immediate agendas than starting families for the sake of dear Libria. Young people were strongly encouraged to marry and have large families; subsidies and free this and that were promised, but you know how young people are, and those who took up the deal found that, on the one hand, the goodies didn’t always stretch as far as planned—especially when they were cut due to deficit problems—and that, on the other, the amount of work required in order to keep up with the taxes that financed the older generations’ needs greatly reduced time available for family. The average Librian was now about thirty-five, and citizens were retiring in greater numbers every year. Students in school, therefore, were carefully evaluated and channelled into predetermined career tracks well before they graduated. Jakklyn, for example, had known she was going to ‘grow up to be an office assistant’ since she was twelve. She was in her mid-twenties, and already twice-divorced. And that was the final problem, the one nobody talked about. There were few, if any, people who even knew anything about family life and how to manage it. She had nothing to pass on. Her children, in their turn, would know no more about parenting than so many laboratory mice. Keef Herzog here certainly didn’t show it. But why, in this labour-starved society, had he been unemployed for ten months? That, too, was something to think about.

I read three or four more—retired citizens with past theobromine problems, on routine reviews for pension benefit adjustments. There were a lot of those these days. And a female citizen whose profile suggested she’d had an illegal termination, meaning termination of pregnancy, within the past month; that practice was highly regulated by the birthrate-conscious authorities. The last file belonged to a fifty-three-year-old female named Citizen … Nedra Madour.

The buzzer, as buzzers do, went off at that point. “Citizen Slater, your ten-thirty is here,” said Jak’s voice.

“On the way,” I said, hit what I’d once heard called the ‘boss button,’ and went out to meet my new client.

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