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By Aedh
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I found Citizen Madour looking down at Jak like a diner who has unearthed a human tooth in her side of hummus, while my assistant, all courtesy to look at, returned her best spider impression. Then she rose and turned to me. “Citizen Madour,” she said, and I ushered the arrival into my sanctum sanctorum. Nedra Madour was an upright, athletic-looking woman who no longer spurned a touch of grey in her short but tasteful coif; tall, nearly my height in her loafers, wearing a tweed suit that would have cost her acquaintance Worker Lasseter two weeks’ salary.

Her face, in an old photo, would have been adorned with half-spectacles with a chain around the back of her neck; as it was, her hazel eyes didn’t need any help taking in the room and me along with it in one slow, easy glance. If she’d been shaken yesterday, she showed no sign of it now. She didn’t look like she’d ever been shaken. She decided to give me a flicker of a smile, and accepted a seat. I noticed an exquisite diamond set on her left ring finger; and the wrist above it was lacking the data band that every citizen usually wore.

“Citizen Slater,” she said. “Your office is fascinating. Even a deskpad and a stapler. Is all of it genuine pre-War?”

“Or as close as I could get,” I admitted. “I’m history-minded.”

“That is well,” she said, and then, as if picking up my previous thoughts, “Libria itself is becoming history.”

I waited. Though I thought about politics, I didn’t want to start discussing them just yet.

“You’ve talked to Worker Lasseter?”

“I’ve talked to Vonnie. Oh, I know him, too,” I added, as one eyebrow rose by a millimetre. “We can speak freely in here. One good thing about antiques is that they’re hard to bug.”

“And the blinds baffle pickups on the wall outside,” she said easily. “I was not mistaken about you, citizen.”

“You’ve heard something about Irina,” I said.

The eyebrow rose another notch. “I came to the right person,” she said. “Indeed, I have. But I wanted to tell you about it personally.” She reached into her jacket’s inside pocket and produced a magcard. Discreet. She hadn’t loaded it into her PDA where it could fall into the wrong hands if her bag were snatched. “This message came during the night.”

I accepted the magcard and put it down. “In a moment. First, I want to know what your husband knows.”

“Authier’s away, as you’re surely aware. Another conference at New Rio.”

“What was his attitude at first? Have you ‘netted to tell him anything?”

She gave the ghost of a shrug. “He left expecting her to return the next day. I ‘netted him over the weekend, but received no reply. He may have left instructions not to be disturbed, even by messages flagged ‘urgent.’ Physicians are always getting those.”

“But from you?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I tried his personal device, but tele to Amazonia is an uncertain proposition. I’m sure he’d be concerned. And he wouldn’t object at all to you being hired to look into it. I ‘netted him again about that this morning. He may simply have decided that I’m handling it as well as can be under the circumstances. He’ll be back tomorrow in any event.”

“Did he seem surprised when she didn’t return that evening? What was his reaction?”

“If Authier’s ever surprised by anything, no one would ever know. He just said, ‘’Net me when she returns.’ He may have thought that my message was just that. There was no question of cancelling his trip. He’s presenting a paper on ground substances—on the translocation of glucosaminoglycans and proteoglycans, I think. Very important. He’s a headliner at the conference. And he’s wrapping up a big project with the Rockland Institute. He’s a top consultant to them and their work on family sciences.”

“You seem well-informed about his work.”

She tapped a nail on my desk. “Citizen, are we going to talk about my daughter? I think you need to see that message.”

“Of course. Now. I just need to get things in a certain order so I can remember them. You,” I said, picking up the magcard and turning it over in my fingers meaningfully, “will appreciate that there are things better not stored in one’s PDA.”

“Of course,” she echoed. I turned the monitor so that we could both see it and popped the magcard into my vidphone’s reader.

The distortion on the picture didn’t quite conceal the girl’s attractiveness; long, very dark hair, strong features, something of her mother’s athletic carriage. Shadows flickered around and across her as she spoke. “Mother … I’m alright. But I can’t come home. Not right now. I’m … it’s all very complicated. Don’t try to find me. Don’t send ConSec. I won’t come home at all if you do that. I need … I need time. We need time. I’ll call again very soon.”

The picture fuzzed out.

“Well, citizen?” she said.

“That’s what I ask you,” I told her. “She’s your daughter. Is that how she talks? Is she acting natural?”

“She’s in trouble.”

“But you’ve seen her in trouble before. Is that the way she is when she’s in trouble? Is she speaking her own way, or does it sound like she’s being made to speak that way?”

“Made to … ? You think she’s being held against her will? An abduction?”

“I’m not ready to think about that,” I explained. “I want to know what you think first. What about the ‘we’ business?”

“’We need time,’” she repeated. “She certainly doesn’t lack for friends and acquaintances.”

“Causes?” I asked.

“Pardon me?”

“Does she belong to any causes, where she might say ‘we,’ meaning the cause? You know. Groups. The neo-Prozium crowd, RFAC, a religion, that sort of thing.”

“We’re involved in many activities. Nothing I can think of like that, though.”

I snapped my fingers. “You’re with LFF, right?”

“The Libria Family Foundation? Yes, I’ve chaired it a number of times. I don’t see what that’s got to do with this.”

“Everything helps, citizen.” I told her. “The LFF has taken some pretty strong stands on education, workplace regulation, and family subsidies. There are LFF advocates on the Council itself. Irina would be going to University, then job and marriage soon. Or maybe not? What did she think?”

Nedra Madour said slowly: “She didn’t seem to look forward to the idea.”

“Many humbler citizens’ children do look forward to it,” I told her. “They want to go up. It’s a natural instinct. But you, you and Authier ... you’re ‘up’ already. How does your child go up in society from where she is now?”

I let her think for a few moments. She’d come prepared for questions, but obviously not ones like this.

“Marriage and family. Scholarship,” she said at last. “Achievement. Working for the future.”

“And is that really what she dreamed of?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

I waited a few moments more. “I think we’re done for now. Can I copy this?” I asked, holding up the magcard. She gestured, and I reinserted it. She stood up.

“Do you really think the Foundation has anything to do with this? If you’ll excuse me, that sounds preposterous.”

“I’m the nosy type,” I said, handing the card back to her. “It comes with my profession. I do think that I have a job. My assistant will ‘net the usual information to you. But I also think that when we know what Irina did dream of, we’ll be halfway to getting her back. I’ll be in touch with you, citizen Madour.”

“Very well, then.” I showed her out, all the way out, and then shut the door.

“Are all your private clients like her?” Jak asked, glancing up from her vidscreen.

“No,” I said. “Most are shorter.”

“She could get you dead,” she said.

“Another one of your feelings?”

“Did you read her file?”

“All but.”

Jak sighed. “Get as much of your fee up front as you can, then.”

“Hold my calls,” I told her. Then I went in to finish reading about Nedra Madour.

After lunch I watched Irina’s message about eleven more times, running it through some
graphics programs to check out the picture more closely. As I had suspected, it had not been made from a bad phone, but doctored—quickly and rather carelessly—to look like it. The amateurishness of the job didn’t simplify matters. Anyone with the fairly basic vidware that came bundled with almost every computer nowadays could have done it; Irina herself, someone else, even Nedra. Though what motive Nedra would have wasn’t clear. True to her word, Nedra and her family were involved in about three dozen clubs, leagues, societies, committees, and foundations, even a symposium. But the biggest, and potentially most controversial, was the Libria Family Foundation.

Founded in the first days after the revolution as an organization to explore and finance methods to encourage a boost in the birthrate, the LFF had members of influence on the Council and in various ministries. Its mainline was greying, like much of Libria, and manoeuvred for funding and recognition for health, education, and employment issues. It had other members who engaged in more direct action such as boycotts, demonstrations, and ‘Net campaigns. Some had come full circle and were demanding the selective re-introduction of ‘doses,’ not of Prozium, but of fertility treatments; others were engaged in efforts to keep younger women out of the workplace, and fought for programs to raise the retirement age and bring in immigrants from other areas. Some were active on euthanization; a case involving a prominent citizen was in and out of the news these days. Some were even trying to re-introduce religion, not without some success. The ‘netcasts had been featuring that lately. Some called the new BCI routine religion of a sort. And a few, like the Earthlight Center, talked about what had once been called ‘eugenics.’

After my routine vidmeet with my liaison over at ConSec, and a talk with the lawyer, I thought for a few minutes. I must have been thinking hard, because I looked up to see Jak in the doorway.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

I looked down at my hands. “Rearranging my desk,” I said.

“As if you do any work on it,” she said tartly. “Getting ready to head out?”

“I have some friends to talk to back in the neighborhood,” I said. “If anything comes up, text me, don’t buzz me.”

“Yes, sir,” she said. “I’m doing another filedump right now. Another two weeks at this rate and we’ll be caught up. Then what’ll I do?”

“Do your nails,” I said. “Primp. Watch ‘netcasts. Take a call now and then. You know, the usual office assistant stuff.” I got up, shrugged on my overcoat, took my hat and gymbag. “See you Thursday.”

As I went past her, she put a hand on my arm, just above my ID band. “Why don’t you hire me full-time?” she blurted out.

I stopped. “Hire you away from the company? I can’t afford you full time,” I said. “You know the salary laws. If I could have you full-time instead of half-time, and get away with only paying you fifty percent more for it, I’d do it. I know you have to have two other part-time jobs on the outside, but that’s how it is.”

“Yeah,” she said with a tang in her voice. “It’s thanks to that my last divorce happened. He took up with a college student that he said he’d get to see face-to-face once in a while. He was at the protest with her yesterday. Or maybe another one. They all look alike to me.” Then she looked at me searchingly. I realized she was thinking about how I wasn’t married.

I said gently: “I know, kid. I know. See you Thursday.”

I went out.

I was not as well-situated as Nedra Madour; I had to walk, or tube around Libria along with the great unwashed. Bikes and scooters were popular, but I didn’t bother. I liked walking. I had real leather shoes to do it in—‘that’s, uhh, kinda sexy,’ an office assistant had said once--procured and maintained for me by an Arabi guy in the Soho neighborhood, which is where I happened to be headed now. He was one of the immigrants that the LFF had helped bring over from Arabistan, one of their success stories. He and his wife had five children, practically unheard-of by Librian standards, and made ends meet by supplying a bit of this and that to the better-off citizens. He had a few compatriots who did likewise. I was going to see one of them.

On the tube train, I scanned the vidscreens set into the inner walls above the windows. Ads for soap and noodles vied with music vids—with no sound, of course, but no one watched them for the sound, which made no sense to me when I could hear it. A newsvid caught my eye; something going on on the steps of the Council building again. I punched it up on my PDA and fumbled for my earbuds.

“…third day of protests by students calling themselves the Smith Brigade, demanding recognition of student employment rights.” A shot of a blonde girl, who said: “Employers should compete for student employees. We demand the right to choose our work, not be assigned to it like slaves.” A few other voices were raised in agreement. “They say we have privilege. We want choice!” The chant was taken up. “Now, to you, Reed, for reaction by Citizen Preston of the Council.” An interior shot of a Council Chamber, where a trim young woman in a dark suit, carefully made-up, not that she needed it, sat behind a desk like mine, only much bigger and sleeker. This was Citizen Lisa Preston, named to the Council the previous year to finish the term of her father John, who had had to step down for health reasons. So they said. At twenty-six, she was by far the youngest member of the current Council, almost the youngest ever, and with his Council seat had also inherited his Chair of Justice—not police powers, which were vested in the Council itself and delegated to ConSec by contract, but that Ministry which administered the court system--as well as holding certain other portfolios. As one of the nine Council Members she would also take the rotating Chair of the Council for a turn of one month. Though it wasn’t falling due for awhile yet, she would eventually be the youngest Chair of the Council in Libria’s history. If they had thought she’d dutifully continue her father’s positions, they’d been dead wrong.

“Thank you,” she said. “We of the Council maintain at all times the interest of Libria’s young people, one of whom I have the honor to be. We are all aware of the employment problem. Nothing is of greater concern, or is more earnestly discussed, than work reform measures. We have several proposals under consideration at this time, among which are the institution of trial employment periods for those just out of University or technical schools, terminable by mutual agreement; new tax credits for employers of those with families; and citizen information reforms designed to ease reporting requirements. However, these measures, if implemented, would have to be paid for, and there are two ways of doing it: revenue enhancement, or cuts in entitlements. Neither are thought to be practicable given the current state of the intercommunal markets upon which so many older citizens’ well-earned benefits rest. In short, Libria must be seen as, above all, a safe place to do business. Nearly everyone remembers the recession that followed the cessation of Equilibrium. No one wants a repeat of that.

“Our synthetics and pharmaceutical exports now lead the world. It has taken us twenty years to rebuild our reputation. It cannot now be put at risk to satisfy the demands of students. We are diligently—I repeat, diligently, searching for a better way. We of the Council are always listening--”ain’t that the truth, I thought, “--ready to take up the responsibilities of a new generation. To you, my sisters and brothers, I say: now is the time to prepare. The time for action is not yet. But it is coming.” The commentator’s voice added: “Citizen Lisa Preston of the Council. Coming up this hour, an interview with citizen Elaine Keegan of the Reproductive Freedom Action Committee; a debate over compensation for victims of Prozium-linced cancer, and a new manoeuvre in the Baker-Preston lawsuit. More news in a moment.” I muted it. My station was coming up. When the train stopped, I stepped through the platform, past the surveillance station, and up the steps into my old stamping grounds.

Not much remained of the former ‘Nethers’ except some suburban stretches. Over the last twenty years, the oldest area, with some buildings dating back over a century, had become a trendy neighborhood renamed ‘Parkside,’ with new money moving in and restoring some of the better buildings to their pre-War glory. Old Resistance members, now grown sleek and grey, dwelt here, surrounded by their beloved collections and the scent of impeccable upper-middle-class virtue. Much of the rest of the area had been deemed beyond repair, and converted to parks and mixed-use facilities. But the east end, which had once been let out to commercial use, was home to those who liked their pleasures a little … grittier. Gambling, booze, and no-tell hotels went cheek by jowl with pawnshops, theatres, and nightclubs, and it was from here that the garish glow of neon smeared the night sky of Libria; nearby stood import shops of various kinds, and providers of health services not approved by my colleagues at LibMed. The Council, whose members denounced it publicly and took its money privately, had re-named it “Soho” and said the hell with it. This was the neighborhood that Irina, according to her mother, had frequented during her little escapades. It was here you came if you wanted action—and quite a number of Librians wanted it on a more or less regular basis.

I passed a vendor with his cart of vegie and tofu kebabs. “Howdy, Harry,” I said.

“Cleric Slater,” said the little man. That’s what he always called me. He’d been a Resistance member years ago. “You’re back early today.”

“Still working,” I said. “You seen Allie today?”

“You know Allie. He’ll be at his place soon, I think, but not yet. He’s usually come by by this time. Running late, I guess.”

On a whim, I punched up a picture of Irina Madour, which I’d downloaded into my PDA from Nedra’s ‘netted file. “Say, Harry. You ever seen her?” I held out the screen toward him.

“I think I’d remember her,” he said. “A looker. I dunno, though. Not lately. Why?”

“Following up on some review facts,” I said. “Just routine.”

I wandered off to Albert’s Bar and Grill.

It was way past lunchtime, and the dinner crowd hadn’t begun to filter in yet. The joint was quiet, which suited me fine. The murky smell of cooked meat hit me as I walked in. It hung about the place like stun gas the day after a vice sweep. I didn’t mind it so much when the grill was going and it was fresh—I’d been known to have a rasher with my eggs sometimes--but now it was stale and slightly nauseating. Allie had a permit from the Bureau to serve it, of course, for which he paid through his hairy nose and submitted to rigorous monthly inspections. Like alcohol, coffee and chocolate, while the authorities didn’t smile on it, and doctors had long forbidden it to anyone who wanted to live past sixty, there was too much money in meat for the Council not to want a piece of the action for itself. I went through the restaurant and had a seat in the bar, where the filters took out some of the reek from the kitchen. There were a couple of other people at a table, one with a herb cigarette. Not all smoking was banned. Herb—called ‘marijuana’ in pre-War times—was popular. It was sold, in a very mild and highly processed form, under Council license, to qualified citizens. It wasn’t hard to qualify if you were twenty-one and had the requisite med-cert, which some doctors provided freely.

“Hey, Lou,” I said. “I’ll have a brew. Make it a SteinLite draft. with a twist.”

“Coming up,” said the barkeep. She was a big lady with a bigger heart, and an even bigger loaded baton behind the bar which she could use with a speed that would have shamed a lot of the newer ConSec officers. I’d once seen her take out three guys who’d tried to get away with lighting up some nick-laced herb sticks in a back booth quicker than you could say Tetragrammaton. She was on a Council pension, having raised three children—she’d been wise enough to marry the father of the last one, so as to qualify—and now citizen Albert Hamoud employed her here, where she kept a parental eye on a lot of the University students who liked to hang out here in the evening.

She set down the brew on a coaster. “What brings you by, citizen Slater?” she asked. “The usual, I guess. Another fact-finding mission.”

“Waiting for Allie,” I told her.

“He’ll be by,” she said. “He had to take care of some business earlier. Some sort of employee grievance thing.”

I grunted. Those were endemic in Libria these days. A private employee—unlike the LibMed pool people who came to work for me, who could be simply ‘reassigned’--practically had to murder someone on the job in order to earn dismissal. I pulled out my PDA and showed her Irina’s pic. “Say, Lou, recognize her?”

She squinted at the screen. “Nice girl. Yeah, she’s been by the grill a few times. She liked to wear red. Always something red on.”

“Really,” I said. Red was a color preferred by some student activists. “With anyone?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Didn’t really notice who she was with. One or two guys, that’s all I can tell you. One of the waitstaff out in the grill could probably tell you more.”

“The waitstaff doesn’t include anyone with a mother’s eye,” I said. “Do you remember how she acted?”

She thought. “Kind of uncomfortable. Looking around a lot, like something was on her mind. Like she was looking for someone else who hadn’t come. That struck me. That’s about all, though. She in trouble?”

“Maybe,” I said. “That’s one of the things I’m looking into. Thanks, Lou.”

“No problem, citizen,” she said. “I always cooperate with the authorities.”

“’Authorities?’” I said. “I’m not ConSec.”

“The hell you’re not,” she said offhandedly. “I seen that badge you carry in there.”

“I work with ‘em. Not for ‘em,” I told her. “I’m a health services provider.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she said, starting to polish a glass. “Don’t try that bushwah with a mom.”

“I don’t tell them everything,” I said.

“And they sure as hell don’t tell you everything,” she returned. “’Sure and you don’t forget that, citizen.”

I chuckled. “Oh, no, Lou. No, no.”

I get her get about her business, preparing for the evening. Half a brew later, I heard a familiar, irritable voice out in the grill.

“Here comes trouble,” I said.

“Never in my bar,” said Lou. “But I’ll say there’s some as ‘ud still do with the old dose now and then.”

I went to talk to Allie.

He was bawling out the salad chef, something about the cheese topping on one of the salads. I waited, not wanting to disturb his favourite pastime. When he’d done, he turned and saw me. “Fudge!” he said with his Arabi accent. “It is the law again. You cannot get away from ‘em for an hour.”

“Hello to you, too, citizen,” I said.

“Let us go upstairs,” he said.

Up in Allie’s office, a little place for a little man, lined top to bottom with signed pictures of lacrosse, football, and track stars—Libria’s favourite sports—he gestured me to a seat beside his workstation. The place would certainly be wired, if not by ConSec, then by Allie himself for his own protection. “So what is it this time, citizen Slater? We scan every wristband before we serve, every fudging one of them. I had to fire somebody last week for that.”

I whistled.

“Yah. Luckily, failure to check IDs is a criminal infraction, so I do not have to go through all the fudging brou-ha-ha of a regular dismissal. He filed a grievance, naturally, but he does not have a leg to stand on. If that is what you are here about, it has all been taken care of. Is that it? Time is money.”

“Nope.” I showed him Irina. “You know her?”

“Yah, I’ve seen her. Star.”


“Star. That is her name. At least, that is what her ‘band said, Star Bright, and what her buddies called her,” he added, picking up on my reaction. “She has been coming in once a week or so for a few months. Not this week, though. What, she has got a fake ‘band?”

I nodded and said: “She’s been missing from her place for a few days. I’m looking into it. That’s all.” Keep it simple, Slater, I thought.

“Why you and not ConSec officers?” he demanded. “This ain’t, if I may say, your line, citizen. There is more to it. I don’t ask you, though. Just don’t bring ‘em down on me again. Fudging sweeps,” he said.

“Who’d she come in with?”

“Some different guys. I don’t know ‘em all, but one. Citizen Sami Petanko. He works part-time for Commo as a programmer. Smart young guy. Up to a point.” ‘Commo’ was a nickname for TeleLibria, preferred by those who disliked it particularly.

“You’re sure that’s his name?” I asked, tapping my ‘band.

“Yah. He has been here with buddies, but never a girl but her.”

“I can find him. Now about her. You got a download on the wristband data?” I asked.

“You have got a warrant?” he shot back.

“You want me to arrange one?” I countered. “MPs are serious business, Allie. And she is one as of today. Officially. You have to maintain downloads from the staff’s scanners for six months. All I want is a look. No copies.”

“Go to hell,” he muttered, ran a hand through what was left of his hair, and began punching buttons. After a couple of minutes, he put his hand on the screen to turn toward me. But first, he jerked both thumbs toward himself, then making a palms-down spreading motion with his forearms with a slight headshake. I hadn’t gotten this data from him.

I held up my right hand, displaying my own band, giving him the Libria Youth salute. Honor bright.

He said something under his breath that had ‘fudge’ in it, and turned the screen to me.

Star Bright, I read with interest, was a twenty-one-year-old University student with an East End address, type O negative blood, an iodine allergy, and a short list of fairly common prescriptions, which had all been on her school ID, except for one which I didn’t recognize, and which didn’t have a trademarked name. Something experimental, I guessed, and very likely recreational; a gray-market eros-enhancement med, most likely, acquired from a legitimate subject. The picture matched Irina Madour fairly well. It would. The bands were made out of a strong but ultra-light synthmat that was not at all uncomfortable. You could take them off if you wanted to—not all Council members liked that—but it was discouraged; without them you couldn’t enter many public buildings and some private ones, and couldn’t engage in a wide variety of transactions, such as ordering licensed products in Allie’s place and others like it. You could be given an incovenient hour at the nearest ConSec center if you were caught without yours, but being detected with a false one was potentially a much more serious matter involving a year of Libria Service and a couple more years of probation.

Nevertheless, false bands weren’t rare. Officers had no way of recognizing a fake as long as nothing about you contradicted what it said, or unless they happened to know you. And many winked at the practice as long as you were a citizen out on the town, rather than a serious lawbreaker. After all, there were few citizens comfortable with the thought of a drink too many, an evening of gaming, or a night of recreational eros going into their files for a few decades, and they were considered a necessity for a women desiring to terminate a pregnancy for reasons unapproved by the Ministry of Social Affairs. Making them locally would be beyond the capability of any home devices and most commercial ones; I figured offhandedly that they were done under the table at CSD where the real ones were made. That Nedra Madour had walked into my office without hers on had been designed to impress me; a status statement with some of the well-to-do. But Allie could have been hit with a serious fine for this.

“If there is anything else, then?” he said.

“I thank you, citizen,” I said. “For what it’s worth.” He laid his finger next to his sizeable nose, and I gave a slight nod.

As I started to go out, Allie said out to me, most probably for the record: “Heya, citizen Slater. You keep out of trouble, alright?”

“’Be seeing you, Allie,” I said.

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