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In which Niall reveals something in order to rent a house, insults Sam, and explores his own guilt.

Sam turned to Niall and said, “Don’t worry, there’s several more places. Will is just a little more particular than most.”

They walked back to the car.

“Why didn’t he want me to rent the house?” Niall asked as they got in.

Sam looked down at his hands on the steering wheel and said quietly,

“You don’t work, so you might be a slacker. You’ve been out of the country for a long time, so you might be one of those people who want the POM back. Finally, we came in my car and not yours so he has no evidence that you’re likely to earn money. In short, you have no reputation and what he knows about you isn’t promising.” Sam kind of looked at Niall out of the corner of his eye as he gave the last these several “defects.”

“First things first,” Niall said holding up one finger. “What’s a slacker?”

“A slacker is somebody who doesn’t do anything worthwhile, someone who wants to just live on standard without working. They don’t usually keep up the places where they live and they leave when the smell gets too bad for them. Nobody respects a slacker and I’ve known them to be refused food in a lot of places.”

“I’m no slacker. I’ve always worked since I became a man and I intend to keep on working.” Niall was letting a little of his anger show.

“I never doubted you, friend. Rose wouldn’t send me a slacker.”

“OK. So what’s this POM business?” Niall asked holding up a second finger.

“POM is short for physical object money. You know. Like currency, bills and coins.”

“What does that have to do with renting me his house?”

“That requires a little background. Back at the transition there were some people who were scared half to death at the idea of going over to the accounts. Some of them got pretty violent. Others left the country. But the worst ones were the ones who thought that without currency everything would fall into anarchy and they could just grab what they wanted by force. When the government over in DC started to fall apart, some gangs came out to the suburbs to loot. The police here stopped them cold. Bunch of us got together to help, too. Them as we didn’t kill we let the computer identify real good. It took their eye image, finger prints, even their smell. They were given a choice of working off a hefty fine or leaving the country. Most of them left in the end, I guess. Never gave us no more trouble anyway. So then the police and those of us who helped each got a pretty nice payment. That’s what I used to buy my house. Those guys were POMers. They were expecting to steal our stuff and sell it for currency.”

“Besides, we also get news way out here and we see what’s happening in those other countries in Europe. They done let their computers get way out of hand. They can’t turn around over there without they get the government’s permission. I'll be damned if I could live like that. Those folks up in Canada wised up and came in with us after a few years but Mexico, they still use POMs. Of course they don’t have the computers like Europe and Japan but they still use POMs. You can’t trust people who use POMs. They can’t even trust each other. It’s them POMs that does it to them. POMs will do it to anybody. So we don’t want nothing to do with those POM folks. Let the ITs deal with them. They know how to handle them.”

“OK, Sam, I get the picture. POMs are most definitely out.” Niall thought Sam was a little crazy but he seemed to know his real estate. “Now the last thing,” Niall said holding up the third finger, “is my reputation. What’s this about me not having a reputation?”

“Well now, friend, I gave you every chance back at the house to let me see your background but you didn’t say a thing about it. You even seemed to avoid looking at the TV. I ain’t one to pry when a man doesn’t want things known about him. It don’t seem friendly. But you’re asking a lot of a body when you ask to live in their house on their property and not let them know your background,” Sam finished soberly.

“I didn’t know about any of this. How do I let you know my background?” Niall was somewhat taken aback. He was used to people thinking well of him. He almost took the respect of others for granted.

Sam’s body relaxed a bit and he smiled at Niall saying, “We can use my TV if you like. You just tell the computer that it’s OK for it to tell me about you and I check a few things, and then I can recommend you.”

“You mean that I have to let you know everything about me?” Niall wasn’t sure he liked that idea.

“Oh no. Just some of your work history if you have one... and any Declarations about your previous living places. We call it a housing reputation. Of course, if you have a record with the police, that’ll be in there and any positive or negative general Declarations from folks who know you.”

“My God! You practically want my life history. You also want the name of all the girls I dated when I was in high school?” Niall was about ready to just walk away but Sam was still driving the car.

“Mister, calm down. This is ordinary stuff. You do know what a Declaration is, don’t you?”

“I thought I did but it sounds like I maybe don’t. Perhaps you’d better tell me.”

“A Declaration is a statement given to the accounts computer regarding something particularly good or bad about someone. The guy making the Declaration must identify himself and any facts in the Declaration must be verified or they’re dropped. You can turn in a Declaration that relates to anything about anybody. But if you lie or say only bad things in your Declarations, you get a reputation for that, since the Declarations are a part of your reputation as well as the reputation of the guy you’re saying things about. Most people don’t do many Declarations. But if, say, you let somebody use your property and they improve it, or if a slacker leaves your house a mess, then you’re obliged to put in a Declaration on them. If you don’t, you’re not warning the next owner about the slacker.”

“You mean that it’s against the law to not put in the Declaration in that case?” Niall asked.

“Oh, no. You can ignore it if you want to. But then the guy whom you didn’t warn is likely to put in a Declaration against you. Silence about a slacker or someone who doesn’t deal honestly is a kind of a lie, it seems to me. It’s like you become their accomplice. It’s like not warning somebody when the bridge is out. You can do that sort of thing but when people find out they aren’t going to trust you any more, either.”

“What if there’s something in my medical history or something about my family I don’t want you to find out about?”

“Your medical history is nobody else’s business unless you’re insane. I’ve never seen anything medical in a background. Your family is not you. A background only tells about you and what you’ve done. Your mother could be a serial killer and that wouldn’t appear in your background.”

“But you do get statements from my old bosses and things.”

“Not unless they put in a Declaration. Your work history is what you’ve been paid for and how much. That gives a guy a real good idea of what kind of person you are. So, really, I guess it’s more recommendations from all your Payers. Why should anyone care whether your bosses liked you or not? You’re being considered for a house, not as somebody to work with.”

By this time, they had gotten back to Sam’s place. Sam took Niall into the living room/office and said “Hal, Niall here wants to have a recommendation.”

The TV came on with a view of the computer from “2001: a Space Odyssey” and said in Hal’s voice from the movie, “Are you Niall Campbell?”

Niall said, “I am Niall D. Campbell.”

“Do you wish to give housing background information to Sam Witherspoon who stands before you?”

“May I see the information you would make available to Sam before I decide?”

“Of course, Mr. Campbell. Sam, if you will leave the room?”

Sam said with a grin, “It’ll be fine, friend. You’ll see.” Then he went into the back of the house and made noises in the kitchen.

As soon as Sam left, the TV screen showed a list of topics. “Work history” and “Account total” of course jumped out at Niall. But there was also a list of places where Niall had lived (one, his daughter’s place), a special needs topic which showed “none,” and under “Declarations” he saw there were three, all from people at the embassy from which he had worked. They were people whose names he didn’t recognize but he assumed they must have been Payers. He asked to see the Declarations and found they referred to specific incidents in his service. Fortunately, they all reflected credit on Niall and did seem to match Niall’s memory of the events concerned. He saw nothing from his private life at all. Everything mentioned concerned things he had done in public except the amount of money he had.

Niall had always thought of himself as being a pretty modern, twenty-first century kind of guy. He’d lived in several cultures that were quite different from that in which he grew up. But telling people how much money he had just felt wrong. He felt exposed. What business was it of anyone else?

“Do you have to show the account total?” Niall asked Hal.

“The total is quite respectable, sir, especially considering that you’ve been out of the country for some time.” The voice was that of Jeeves. “I don’t believe that anyone could take it amiss.”

Niall almost had a heart attack. “Jeeves? Is that you?”

“Why of course, sir. Were you expecting someone else, sir?”

“I was expecting Sam’s computer, Hal.”

“But sir, I am serving you now. It would be unseemly for Hal to serve you without your permission.”

The computer seemed almost smug and he was sure that if it had been a person it would have been aloof and superior in expression.

‘Damn!’ Niall thought. ‘What the hell is this computer doing? It’s like a science fiction horror story.’ Niall had a cold, hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach and his skin prickled quietly ‘like that time… no time for that now. How can I get away from the computer? Is it everywhere?’

“Does everyone let their account total be shown? Don’t they want to keep that private?” Niall asked.

“Well, sir, it’s been my experience that those who want it hidden are ashamed of its being a low total or zero or worse, frozen. For the last ten years or so those with high totals have wanted them known and seek opportunities to have them displayed. I think it would be unseemly for one in your position to hide an impressive total.”

“So you think it would be best for me to…” ‘Damn. Now I am asking the advice of a machine. What’s wrong with me?’

“Let it all hang out, sir? Yes sir.”

Niall took a deep breath and said, “OK, you may tell Sam my background.”

“Very good, sir. I will make available to Sam your background for purposes of housing. Will that be all, sir?”

“Yes, that will be all.” Niall was still a little in shock so he sat down rather abruptly.

“OK, Sam, you can come back now,” Hal said in a rather penetrating voice.

The noise in the kitchen stopped abruptly and Sam sauntered back into the room.

“Niall, it seems to me that maybe I was forgetting that you don’t know our ways. Would you like to watch while I look over your background? You can tell me which things you’d rather I didn’t see.”

“Sam, that’s very kind of you. I believe that would make me feel better.”

“You know, I was probably a lot like you about letting near strangers know things about me back when I was your age before the transition. I remember being mad when I kept getting ads in the mail from people that shouldn’t have known my address. It’s been so long that I forget these days what it was like back then. You had to figure that every stranger was out to get your money however they could. It was a dog-eat-dog world for everybody back then. Oh yeah, Hal, you got the menu ready?”

“Things are in order, Sam. Shall I start with the usual items?”

“Just the headers at first, Hal. Don’t show the contents until I tell you to.”

The first thing up was the housing history. Since Niall had only spent two nights in Brianna’s apartment, Niall figured there would be no problem there so he nodded a “Yes” to Sam’s raised eyebrow.

“Housing, Hal.”

The housing menu showed just the one location and the two day duration. It had a “No defects” under Damages and “Quiet” under Disturbances. Under attitude it had “Friendly.”

“Niall, work history?” Sam raised his eyebrow again.

“OK.”

This time there was a lot more. The history was all for his time in the Middle East. There was nothing before the transition. It seems that there actually had been Payers at the embassy, since there were payments recorded on several occasions, including one during the last week. Each payment was matched by a description of some benefit which was a result of something Niall had done. Most of the payments mentioned information Niall had given about local conditions and local politics and how that information had helped some trade or other or had made things safer for Americans in the area. Each of the three Declarations Niall had seen earlier were matched by three of the larger payments.

Sam seemed to just glance over the material but when he looked at Niall to inquire about seeing the next item he pursed his lips in a whistle. The next item was the three Declarations which Sam spent quite a bit of time over. Finally, Sam looked at Niall and said, “There’s no need for me to see your account total if you’d rather I didn’t know. The rest of what’s in here is plenty.”

“No. If I’m going to live in this country it looks like I’m going to have to get used to everybody knowing what I’m worth,” Niall said with some trepidation.

“OK, Hal, let’s see the total.”

The $84,503.28 total was shown again just as it had been at the airport. Niall felt like he was taking his first trip to a nude beach but Sam was so casual about it that Niall didn’t think he actually blushed.

“OK, Niall, let’s hit the road. I think you’re going to like this next one.” Sam seemed quite cheerful now.

The next house was within sight of a bus stop and Niall could see the downtown business district was only a couple of blocks away. The yard was larger than the others had been and was already mowed. Inside the house were very neat, large closets, a bay window in the living room, and new kitchen appliances. Niall really liked it except that it had a TV in the living room. He really wanted to live without the computer. The thought of Jeeves listening to him sleep gave him the willies.

“Look, Sam, don’t you have a place with no TV. I’d really like to get away from it all a little more.”

“Oh, I can fix that. We just unplug the thing.” Sam lifted the TV off the wall and it came away with no problem. There was no wire connecting it to the wall. So what did that mean? It could have batteries in it which kept it listening and reporting on him whether it was on the wall or not. As Niall considered it, he realized that there was no way he would ever be sure that he was free of observers. There could be computers in almost anything in the house. That would be true of any house unless he built it himself from trees he grew himself. He mentally shrugged his shoulders and gave up.

“So do you want me to put it in the closet or something or take it back to the store?”

“No, Sam, I’ve changed my mind. Just leave it there on the wall. Who knows, maybe I’ll want to see some news of the Middle East one day.”

“Does that mean that you’ll take this house?”

“Yes, I guess it does. Do we see the owner next?”

“You’re seeing him now, friend. This is one of my houses.”

“Sam, you flatter me. That’s one of the nicest things anyone ever did for me.”

“I don’t think I’ll regret it. There’ll be a $25 per month luxury rent unless you find some way to use that extra room and the shed out back for your work.”

“Sounds OK to me. Where do I go to sign the papers?”

“We can use the TV here to do the trick. Hal, Niall wants this house. Still the $25 a month for a single person?”

The TV indicated (in Hal’s voice) that Sam was correct. Then Jeeves addressed Niall asking, “Do you, Niall Campbell choose to purchase the right to live in this house at ________ in Aldie, Virginia beginning now and ending on this date one month from now?”

“Yes,” said Niall.

“If you would be so good, sir, as to repeat the words as I have them on the screen. Your full voluntary consent is required for spending the money.”

“OK, Jeeves. I, Niall Campbell choose to purchase the right to live in this house at ________ in Aldie, Virginia beginning now and ending on this date one month from now. Does that do it, Jeeves?”

“Very good, sir. The purchase is complete. You now have $84,478.28 remaining in your account, sir.”

“So, Sam what are you going to do with that $25 a month?”

“What $25?”

“The $25 I’m paying in rent.”

“That was your money. Once you spent it, it ceased to exist. Your account was decreased in size by $25 but no one else’s account changed at all because of that, certainly not mine. Oh, and by the way, don’t imply to anyone else that you think they received money directly from you. They’d be insulted.”

“Sam, why? What’s insulting about paying you money?”

“First off, it makes you sound like one of those POM people. Second, it implies that I’m one of those POM people. Third, it says that I can’t be trusted. It says that you don’t trust me. Fourth, it says the only reason I rented you my house is that I was getting bribed to do so. If I did accept a bribe to let you live here, then I’d probably be cheating my suppliers out of some money. The guys who built this house, the people who have repaired it from time to time, the plumber, the electrician, the heating guy, the guy who brings the fuel oil, they all should be paid for their work and I’m reducing the chances they’ll be paid and lowering the amount they’ll be paid.” Sam sounded like he would keep going for a while so Niall was holding up his hand palm out and shaking his head.

“No, Sam. I never said or thought any of those things.”

“It’s what you’re saying by claiming that you’re giving me money for rent. Niall, the Payers pay me for letting you use my house. The Payers pay the other people who built it and who repaired it and who maintain it. If I were to allow someone in here who was going to tear it up or who was a slacker or whatever I’d be costing them money. There isn’t any reason for you to pay me a bribe unless I wouldn’t let you rent the house. If I had a reason to not let you rent the house then I shouldn’t let a bribe change my mind.”

“But Sam, if it’s your house why would anyone else get paid for my living here?”

“I don’t actually have title to this house. I think that’s still in the hands of old Mrs. Barker whose land this house is on. She lives up the street a few houses. The builder got her permission about 8 years ago to build here and got the materials from the lumber yard over in Gilberts Corner. He has a regular crew of guys who work with him on his projects and they came in here and put this place up real quick. Well, I have a pretty good reputation in this area for real estate so he gave it to me to rent out to anybody I chose. So old Mrs. Barker, the builder, all the guys on his crew, the guys over to the lumber yard who helped out, the guys who supplied them, the guys who gave the builder the tools he used, it just goes on and on, they all helped to get this house here for you to benefit from by living in it. Now, none of them paid any of the others. Not that lumberjack who cut the tree, not the guy who owned the forest, not the sawmill folks, not the secretaries in the trucking office who scheduled the delivery of supplies, not the guys who pushed the nails, not the glass makers, the appliance makers, not one of all us folks paid any of the others anything. Why? Because we knew the Payers would pay them. None of us had to worry about any of those payments. We didn’t have to pay taxes on what we have been paid, either. And when you’ve lived here a month, we’ll each get paid a bit more and we won’t have to pay attention to any of that, either. All of us get paid because we all deserve to be paid for what we did and what I’m doing. Now do you see?”

“OK. I think I see. You all get paid because what you did is good for me now. The Payers keep track of all that?”

“They sure do. I don’t know how they do it but they do. You can look in my work record and if you go down far enough you can see things like $0.42 for telling the handy man that a window was broken on a house. Of course that’s just a one time payment for me. But the handy man’ll get paid so long as people use the house and that window is doing its job.”

“So I guess to say you accepted money directly from me would be like saying that you were saying that none of those other people had anything to do with the house. That you built it all yourself of materials that you produced for yourself and whose raw materials you owned and using tools that you made yourself. I guess it would be saying that you weren’t a part of the community of people that you cooperated with. It’s like you were rejecting all of them and denying their existence.” Niall was not even noticing Sam now, lost in a reverie. He had never in his life looked at things that way and the experience was strange indeed.

“I think you understand. We’re all cooperating to make things better for all of us. If you have money in your account that means that you’re cooperating, too. It means that you can be trusted. Niall, the size of your account would get almost any ordinary person to cooperate with you. It says all sorts of good things about you.”

So Niall got a house to live in and a new way of looking at buying things. The next day he moved in with his suitcases. He didn’t need the services of a mover whom Sam had suggested. Rose asked him what he thought about Sam and Niall was able to say he was impressed without even trying to be polite.

On the way back to Brianna’s, Niall thought of shopping for some gifts for Brianna, Tony, and the children.

“Driver, I need to do some shopping for gifts for my adult daughter and her family. Is there some place we’ll go by that would be good for that?”

“Sure. We go past a shopping mall in about half a mile. You must have seen it on the way out.”

“Nah, I was kind of distracted on the way out.”

When the bus stopped several blocks later the driver said,” Here we are, Frobisher Mall.”

“That’s it? But it’s so small.”

“It’s got over 150 stores. Besides, it’s bigger than it looks. Wait until you get inside.”

“I’ll show you, mister. I’m doing some shopping myself. Just come along with me.”

Niall turned and was smiled at by a dark-haired woman who looked to be in her forties. She was dressed informally yet attractively, but none of her clothing was white. To Niall this meant that she was probably pretty well-off. But if she was well off, why was she riding a bus?

Niall smiled back at her,

“Thanks. My name’s Niall Campbell and I’m rather new here and don’t know my way around very well yet.” Niall slicked his hair back on the left side a little nervously, thinking he must look a mess.

“Right this way, Niall” she said cheerily and stepped lightly off the bus onto the sidewalk. “You can call me ‘Nita’, as in Juanita.”

The vista that greeted Niall as he left the bus reminded him of a small orchard full of parked cars. The leaves on the trees were still relatively new and had a light green cast. Many were in the late stages of flowering, and fallen petals littered the ground and dusted those cars parked under them. Niall and his guide followed a slightly curving path made of stone around and through the trees toward the façade of the mall which Niall had seen from the bus.

As they neared the mall, it was clear that it was larger than Niall had thought because it was only one story tall and most of that was obscured by the trees.

“I heard you say that you are shopping for your daughter’s family. What did you have in mind to get? Perhaps I can tell you which stores to go to first.”

“That would be very helpful. I hadn’t really thought about what to get yet.”

“What’s she like, your daughter? What are her hobbies and interests?”

“She is an artist.”

“What kind? Painting, sculpture, quilts?”

“Oh, she paints and stuff.”

“Well, that’s out, then. She gets all her painting gear for free unless she is just doing it as a hobby and you wouldn’t want to get the wrong thing. I gather that you aren’t a painter yourself.”

“No. I hardly know one end of a paint brush from another and once you get past canvas, easel, and paint I don’t know what an artist even needs.”

As they approached the building, Niall saw quite a few other people entering and leaving through the dozen or so automatic doors. A few of those leaving were being followed by what looked like small all-terrain vehicles which, rather than handlebars and seats, had large baskets on top, which held nondescript boxes and sacks. The wheels were large and appeared to be quite soft. Some of the vehicles had children riding on them as well on what appeared to be merry-go-round horses or other animals. Each vehicle was following a particular individual. There were other such vehicles, empty, which were returning to the mall on their own. It appeared that they were intelligent.

The building itself was faced with brick and had no windows and no store names or signs other than a large metal (brass?) plate to the right of the doors which proclaimed this to be Frobisher Mall. Passing through the second set of doors that comprised the inner side of the airlock, Niall could see that there were a few of the vehicles outside most of the larger stores. He could also see that there were escalators going down to lower levels of the mall. There seemed to be several of the below-ground levels. The mall really was quite a bit larger than it appeared from outside.

“What else does she do for fun?”

“She used to like to go hiking and camping out. I don’t know if she still does that or not.”

“You don’t seem to know her very well.”

Niall brushed the hair back on the left again and confessed that he had been out of the country for over 15 years and hadn’t seen her in all that time.

“Looks like you’re going to have a real job on your hands picking a gift for her, Niall. Well, this is where I’m going. I’d try to help you think of something but my appointment was for 5 minutes ago and Andre hates to be kept waiting. It was nice meeting you. Best of luck on your gift hunt.”

“Thanks. You’ve been a big help already,” Niall said and waved goodbye to her as she turned to enter a hair styling salon. "Looks like I’m on my own. Okay, let’s see what we have here."

The shoppers came and went, some carrying packages. Occasionally one would walk by followed by one of the self-directed baskets with one or more items aboard. The stores had samples of their wares displayed in brightly-lighted windows. The lighting seemed to simulate sunlight which Niall appreciated. Most of the stores were specialty shops. The diversity was remarkable to Niall, especially after the life he had been living in captivity.

The first store he tried was a jewelry store. The glass counters and their sparkling display looked just as he would have expected. Each item had its own price tag. But what should he get for Brianna? She already had a wedding ring and he had no idea what kind of ring she would like. Perhaps a brooch or pin or earrings would be best. Wait, does Bree wear earrings? Does she have any clothes that would go well with a brooch? Perhaps a necklace? No. On second thought that would be just a symbolic present. It wouldn’t really improve her life. Jewelry looks good but how would that make her life better?

Niall turned and went back into the concourse. Clothing? How can I pick something for her to wear? I don’t even know her sizes. Some kind of hat or gloves or… How about boots, hiking boots? Surely she still likes nature and the outdoors.

But what size boots would she wear? If you’re going to walk all day in a pair of shoes they’d better fit really well. No, boots are out.

“Where’s a gift shop when you need one?” Niall said in frustration.

“Almost any store that sells luxuries can be a gift shop, sir,” Jeeves said.” You can buy a luxury and give it to whomever you like so long as that person is not a payer, of course.”

“Jeeves! Is that you? Where are you?”

“I am speaking to you from the speaker to your left. It’s built into the decorations on the wall.”

“Okay, as long as you’re up, what should I get Brianna as a gift?” Niall asked, his voice dripping sarcasm.

“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say, sir. That would violate Brianna’s privacy.”

“You mean you know what she needs and you won’t tell me what it is?”

“Oh, no, sir. If she needed something, of course I could tell others that she had that need. It’s just that I cannot tell you what she would like to receive as a present. A present is a luxury and therefore she doesn’t really need it.”

“Well I need to pick out a present for her and for her husband and children.”

“Then perhaps, sir, you should consult the staff of one or more of the stores in this shopping mall.”

“They don’t know Brianna. How can they help?”

“I couldn’t say, sir, but their job is to help you find what will please you. Perhaps they have some experience with solving problems like yours.”

Niall sighed. “Perhaps they do.”

Picking a shop almost at random, Niall wandered in and looked around for a sales clerk. A small dark brown woman with a red spot in the center of her forehead and wearing a sari glided smoothly toward him from the back of the dimly-lighted store. She bowed slightly to Niall and asked, with a pleasing, almost liquid accent, if she could serve him in any way. Niall looked around him more closely and saw that the store had what appeared, to his uneducated eye, to be Hindu religious artifacts.

Blushing slightly, Niall stammered out something about having chosen the wrong store, apologized, and hurried out.

“Keep your wits about yourself,” he admonished himself sternly. Then he chose more carefully; a more brightly-lighted little store that appeared, for all the world, to be a bookstore. One of the best things about it was that there was only one person he could see in the store. There were a number of books on a variety of topics in the display window that fronted on the concourse. Niall could see through the open doorway racks and display cases of what looked like books. Upon entry, he was greeted by the store’s lone occupant, a small, quite elderly man in a wheelchair.

“May I help you?” he smiled showing what appeared to be perfect and very white teeth.

Niall glanced around. The number of bookcases was quite limited and seemed to have only one copy of each of the books they displayed, or what looked like books, anyway. They were all thin and they all had plain covers with no titles showing. Some appeared to be leather-bound and some were shiny as if plastic-covered. There were three large glass-topped display cases like one would expect to see in a jewelry store which contained what obviously were real books since they were of varying thicknesses and sizes. Some were obviously old as well.

“Yes, I’m looking for a gift for my adult daughter and I thought you might be able to help me decide what to give her.”

“I think I may be able to do something for you. My name is Stan,” he said, extending his right hand toward Niall.

“I’m Niall,” Niall said figuring Stan would spell it wrong but not really caring as he shook the man’s surprisingly strong hand.

“First, does she collect books?” Stan said shifting his seating slightly in the chair and making a sweeping gesture around the room. The large mirrors on every wall all gestured as well.

“Ah, not that I know of,” Niall said brushing his hair back with his left hand and the Nialls around the room likewise straightened their hair, some using their right hand and some their left.

“That’s OK. If she has an interest in almost any subject there’ll probably be quite a number of books that will deal with it in a variety of ways.”

“I wasn’t actually… that is…” Niall thought, ‘what a mess. Here I am in a bookstore and I almost told him I didn’t intend to buy her a book.’ Despite the pleasant temperature of the room Niall began to sweat a little. “Well, I know she is interested in Art. She paints. She’s even shown a few paintings, I think. But, the problem there is that I know practically nothing about art. I don’t think I could judge what kind of art book she’d like. You see I’ve been out of the country for over 15 years and I’ve kind of lost touch with her and I just got back in the country a few days ago and, well, I’d like to get her something but…”

“It won’t really help, you know.”

“What won’t help?” Niall’s eyebrows went up in surprise.

“Buying her a gift won’t make up at all for your being away from her for such a long time. Nothing can make up for that.” Niall started to interrupt but the old man held up his palm toward Niall and continued, “It doesn’t matter why you weren’t with her. Her feelings are quite irrational. Even if you were kidnapped and held captive for those 15 years she’d still feel hurt that you weren’t with her and there’s nothing you can do about that at all.” He paused for dramatic effect. “But you can show her that you love her now,” he said pointing and jabbing his finger into the palm of his other hand, “and now you are with her again.”

Niall felt a prickle down his spine at the mention of being kidnapped. ‘Surely the old man couldn’t have known… The computer could have told him. No, Jeeves wouldn’t tell me about Brianna and I’m her father… unless it’s a plot. Maybe this is all some kind of setup. Maybe…’

“Niall? Hello?” the old man was peering intently at Niall’s face as Niall appeared to him to be in a trance.

“Oh. Sorry. I sort of zoned out there. Probably the medicine I’m taking. I’m all right.”

‘I really am taking those damn pills they gave me in London,’ Niall thought in justification for his lie. ‘Of course I can’t really blame them for my getting spooked.’

“I understand what you’re saying, Stan, about not being able to make up for my time away. I’m not really trying to erase past sins. I just want to do something nice for her, to make her life more pleasant. And I’m having an awful time thinking of what to get her.”

“Then let’s start with the books. We can always use them as a springboard to some other item if a book doesn’t seem like the thing. We have everything here from comic books to rare Bibles. We have books for reading and books for investment. We have books of pictures and books of equations. Let’s explore.” He grinned up at Niall in appreciation of his own joke about exploring the small shop.

He turned his chair with a practiced movement of his arms, spinning it as if it were almost friction free and directed Niall toward the nearest display case.

“You’re really good with that chair, but I would have expected something electric.” Niall commented, trying to delay the inevitable need to make a decision.

“I’ve had lots of practice with chairs like this. They tried to get me to use one of those motorized numbers but I need the exercise and I don’t want to get stuck with all that weight if something goes wrong or it runs out of juice.”

“Couldn’t you have the hand rails on the chair even if it was electric?”

“Sure. But it’s so damn heavy from the batteries and electric motor and all that it’s like driving a truck. No, I’ll stick with my primitive apparatus here. Let the youngsters have those new spiders and centipedes.”

“Insects?”

“That’s what I call the new devices, Niall. Here, I’ll show you. Minerva! Put some of those new mobility devices on the screen.”

Niall jumped when the mirror in front of him ceased being a mirror and revealed itself to be a display screen. He felt, once again, the prickling of the hair on his neck and the sick uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. Clearly, he wasn’t alone with the old man despite the lack of other customers in the store and clearly the computer was very much watching and listening.

The “mirror” showed a man in a chair-like device that had six flexible appendages radiating out from the central seat. They supported the seat and moved the man up stairs and over, under, and around other obstacles. When the going was narrow they scrunched up under the seat and when turning a corner at a running speed they spread wide and tilted the seat so that the rider, (Niall could hardly think of him as merely sitting in a chair), did not have to shift his weight at all. The seat also was able to open doors using a doorknob or other handle and even opened a barbed wire fence gate and closed it without getting entangled in the wire. When it approached a water hazard, it probed for the depth and footing before moving forward each step and lifted both the seat and the occupant’s legs and feet above the level of the water.

“That’s for folks who still have use of their arms,” the elderly man said, glancing at Niall out of the corner of his eye. He must have seen Niall’s reaction to the mirror. “For those who are even less able,” and the view-screen now showed a device with what must have been ten appendages, “they have this monstrosity. Doesn’t that look like a centipede to you?”

The passenger was prone in this model but otherwise the device behaved in a fashion quite similar to the six legged seat. However, it was able to keep the occupant level when going up stairs and also able to tilt the occupant to the side for tight corners so the person could be bent at the waist. It was even able to hold the person upright with supports that wrapped around the occupant and supported the head. In that posture, the four appendages near the feet were the only ones in contact with the floor or ground. A parade scene was shown with the person being held vertically high enough to see over the members of the crowd.

“It does look rather like a big bug,” Niall said.” That’s amazing! I had no idea they could do such things.”

“You’ve been out of the country. It must have been pretty primitive for you not to have heard of things like these.”

“Yeah. Dirt floors and all that. But about that gift…” Niall didn’t feel comfortable talking with a stranger about his captivity. He felt almost ashamed of it now. So deciding about the gift became the lesser conversational evil.

“Does she like antiques, or was there some children’s book that she was very fond of when growing up?”

“There were lots of books she liked but I can’t remember any one book that was dominant, nothing that she carried around with her all the time or anything like that.”

“Then we should probably skip the rare books and old books gifts,” he said with a sigh.

“What’s wrong with just a regular book that isn’t rare or old?”

“I’ll show you what’s wrong. Grab any of those books off that rack over there. Your choice.”

Niall obediently selected a book with a dark blue simulation of leather for its cover and turned back to the clerk. He looked at the binding but there was no title. He opened the book but though there were about 150 pages there was nothing printed on any of them.

“It’s blank.”

“Yeah, they’re all like that.”

“But what good are they? You can’t read blank pages.”

“Minerva, make it Tom Sawyer,” the clerk said.

Niall glanced down at the book again; and now it had a picture on the front of a boy standing before a partially white-washed fence, wearing a straw hat and gesturing with a paint brush toward the work in progress and smiling at another boy, somewhat better dressed, who was holding an apple. Niall opened the book and it was filled with print. He riffled through the pages and saw that some even had pictures.

“Would you like a different font or type size? You can have more or less pictures. You can have an index. You can have definitions of any of the words or phrases you don’t understand. You can have what the critics said about the book at the time or in later periods. You can get descriptions of parallels between Samuel Clemens’ actual life and what is depicted in the book. They can even change the texture of the so called paper that makes up the pages.”

“My God. How do they do that?”

“It’s all in the computer and you’re really holding a kind of display screen. The computer just tells the book’s chip what to display. The chip even controls the plastic of the pages to show the text or pictures in color or not. There are some that come with speakers but those require more power so they’re heavier. These can work off the normal light in the room like a solar powered wrist watch so they don’t need batteries.”

“So I can have whatever book I want displayed here?”

“Sure. What do you want to read?”

“How about War and Peace?”

“Look at the book.”

The book was still only about 150 pages and the first few pages showed the first chapter. He riffled through the pages to the end and the last pages read like he remembered the ending of the book. He opened the book to the middle and it seemed to be from the middle of the work.

“How does it do that?” Niall asked feeling like he was in Alice’s Wonderland.

“It’s just adjusting to how you are looking at the book. When you go directly to the end it figures you want to see the end of the story. When you open in the middle it figures you want the middle. If you read straight through, whenever you close the book it readjusts to put where you were at the bookmark there in the middle of the book, unless you were near enough to the beginning or end to make that adjustment unnecessary. That way it can put a thousand page novel on only about 150 pages just by shifting around which pages are being shown.”

“So if I buy this book I’m really buying a display terminal that can display any book at all?”

“Probably not any book at all but durn near it. Of course you have to be where the computer can communicate with the terminal but that’s most places these days.”

“But why are you unhappy with this? It seems like… well, like a miracle.”

“Smell it.”

Niall held it to his nose but there was no discernable odor.

“Nothing.”

“Now look at the dust on it. See any?”

“No. There’s no dust on it at all. You’ve kept it quite clean.”

“I didn’t do that. They repel dust. You could leave it on a shelf for years and it would never have any dust on it. Now fold the corner of one of the pages down and close the book on it.”

Niall dog-eared one of the pages and closed the book.

“Now open it to that page again.”

Niall did so and the page flipped back flat just as if he had never folded it at all.

“Now use this pencil and write in the margin of one of the pages.”

Niall tried but the pencil wouldn’t leave a mark no matter how hard he pressed.

“You also can’t tear out the pages or burn them with a match flame. If you drop jelly on a page is rinses right off without leaving a mark. That book will look just like it does now for hundreds of years. It won’t take on any of the character of its readers. It’s just about immune to people. It has no soul. It can be a book of pornography one minute and the Holy Bible or the Qur'an the next. It isn’t something people would put their hand on to swear they were telling the truth. It isn’t something one would illuminate or decorate or have reverence for. It isn’t something a child would have affection for any more than they have affection for a TV screen.”

“You used to be able to tell a learned man by his library. Now all the libraries are just one book. You learn nothing about a person by seeing that they have a book because it could be anything or nothing. You can’t tell whether they have read it or not. There are no notes in the margin to tell you whether they have thought about what they read.”

“I think I see what you mean,” Niall said. The book had lost some of its wonder for him. It was still a technological triumph but it was no longer a work of art. It was just a chunk of smart plastic. He replaced the book in the rack.

“So why do people buy a book like that?”

“These books are luxuries. Anyone can get a plain book that does just about everything this book can do, but it won’t have the cover graphics and texture changing features of these. Any ordinary standard book will provide the text and pictures but the pages won’t feel like paper of any quality you like and the cover won’t look and feel like leather or whatever. People buy these to show off. They just want to impress their friends.”

“I really don’t think my daughter or her husband care about such things.”

“And unless she likes antiques or wants to invest in rare books she wouldn’t appreciate any of the paper books I have to sell.”

“I guess you’re right. Sorry I bothered you.”

“Hold on. I didn’t say you bothered me. It was nice to meet someone who could understand why I don’t really like these new books. You’re old-fashioned enough that I rather enjoyed your company. It gets lonely in here sometimes. There aren’t that many who collect books these days.”

“You think people don’t read as much any more?”

“No. From what I see in the news, people are reading more than ever. It’s just books, real paper books that are in decline. They don’t even make the newspapers in paper any more. I don’t know what people use to wrap fish these days,” he chuckled.

“With your attitude I don’t see how you sell many books at all.”

“When I sell a book it’s because the person I sell it to really wants a book. Nobody walks out of here unsure of whether they bought the right thing. How else do you think I would rate such a prime location in such an expensive new mall?”

“I guess I hadn’t thought about it. I didn’t know the mall was new.”

“How many malls have you seen that are mostly underground, Niall?”

“Now that you mention it, this is the only one. Why is most of it buried?”

“There are lots of reasons. Probably the main one is it’s just about immune to storms. What with the global warming and all, the hurricanes we have are getting stronger and the number of tornados is increasing it seems like almost every year. They had a class four tornado up in Baltimore that went right through a shopping mall about ten years ago. It killed over 300 people when the building collapsed on them. The above ground part of this place is built like a bunker. I guess that was the first reason they wanted to go down rather than up. Then they started figuring costs of maintenance and discovered they could heat and cool this place for very little and they never have to paint the part below ground. They put a TDP plant in the basement so the trash gets recycled without leaving the building and that provides the energy we need for lighting, heating, and cooling. The place in many ways is like a space ship embedded in the ground. It’s almost self sufficient.”

“What about ground water and Earthquakes and stuff like that and what about the cost of digging the hole?”

“They say the longer life of the building will more than make up for the resources used in construction. I know they used the material from the hole to expand the airport downtown in D.C. You can ask the computer.”

“Has the computer hurt your sales?”

“Niall, you do understand, don’t you, that I help people buy things but I don’t sell them things? I have these books,” Stan said with a sweep of his arm toward the cases, “and, in a sense, I own them. But really, they kind of belong to everybody and nobody until someone buys them.”

“Stan, that doesn’t make any sense at all to me.”

“Well, look at it this way, then. These old books were given by their owners to be sold as luxuries. They were placed in my possession and the owners told the computer that the books were to be made available for sale. When the books get sold, the former owners will get some money from the Payers. I will probably get some money too if I’m helpful in bringing the right books to the attention of the right buyers. But I can do whatever I want with the books. I could even destroy them. But of course I wouldn’t get paid anything for doing that and I doubt anyone would ever again trust me with any of their luxuries.”

“Wouldn’t you go to jail?”

“No. Why should I? That wouldn’t bring the books back. The former owners have already given up their ownership of the books and I have possession of them. I come as near to owning them as anyone does. So I wouldn’t have harmed anyone else.”

“But their former owners are expecting to get some money from your selling them.”

“You mean from my helping find people who want to buy them?”

“Okay, Stan, word it however you like.”

“Sure they’ll be pissed off at me. But they made what we would have called a business decision in the old days. They decided that I would be the best person to find buyers for their books. They trusted me. If I go crazy and destroy their investment, that’s just their tough luck. If they have another luxury to sell next time they’ll have to be more careful.”

“Sounds to me like that’s being pretty hard on the former owners.”

“No more so than buying stock in a corporation in the old days. You gave them your money and if they wasted it you were just out of luck when the stock went down.”

“Why would they give their books to you rather than to some organization that would compensate them for the loss of their property?”

“First off, if they gave their books to an organization, the organization couldn’t pay them for the books regardless of what happened to the books. Second, who would be responsible for the books in the organization?”

“The whole organization would be responsible.”

“Come on, Niall, you know better than that. Each person in that organization would blame somebody else if something happened. If they give their books to me they know exactly who to blame if the books are damaged. You don’t get that kind of responsibility in an organization.”

“True. You got me there. But why would people buy books that you help them with rather than from some other book dealer?”

“Because they trust me to know the book and to tell the truth about it. They trust my judgment and knowledge of the book as to whether it’s authentic or a cheap copy. I sure can’t sell it to them for less money.”

“Now that you're pointing it out, I wasn’t aware of it before... but there aren’t any sale signs or money off or discounts being advertised. The mall is more like a park than a store.”

“When you can’t compete on price you have to compete on service and quality.”

“It’s getting late and I still don’t know what to give my daughter. But thanks for your time anyway.”

“Give her what she wants. Give her yourself. Give her the loving father she’s wanted all these years.”

“It would be a lot cheaper to buy her a rare book.”

“What would you pay for a daughter’s love?”

“I just hope I have that much.” Niall said.

“Niall, if you deserve her love you’ll have more than enough. If you don’t deserve her love you’ll never have enough. Now let’s see if we can think of some way to show her that she has her father’s love. That’s what you want to gain from a gift, isn’t it?”

“I guess it is. You look pretty deep into a fellow. Did you get that from reading books?”

“No, unfortunately, I got it from making a lot of mistakes in my life.”

“In that case she’s in her late twenties, married, two young children, she home-schools, and she likes art and camping.”

“Now tell me the important part. Tell me why you think she might doubt your love.”

Niall knew exactly what Stan meant. He wouldn’t be concerned so much about showing he loved her if he was sure she knew that he loved her.

“You made some pretty serious mistakes, didn’t you Stan?” Niall nodded with a somber expression on his face.

“I’m not in this chair for nuthin’, mister. I got all the guilt I can rightly handle. This chair only makes up for a little of it. My daughters know I’m in this chair and I figure that helps them just a little to tolerate my being alive. Yes, one of the reasons I use this chair instead of one of those spider things is because of my guilt. I’ll never be able to regain the love of my daughters but I’ve spent years trying to imagine what I could do to deserve their love. So maybe I can help you out a little along those lines.”

“Well I sure don’t want to live in a wheelchair,” Niall said trying to brighten the tone of what had become a rather depressing conversation.

“It wouldn’t help if you did. What you need to do is show your daughter that you love her. Show her in some way that is unmistakable. But it has to say love to her. What will do that for one person won’t necessarily do it for someone else. Do you know your daughter well enough to know what you could do that will mean love to her?”

“Of course I do… Sure… Okay, how does anybody know that about someone else?”

“Get to know them really well. That means you have to actually pay attention to them. You have to notice their body language, the overtones in their voices, the times they look you in the eyes and the times they evade your eyes. You must be quite sensitive to them and accept the truth about them even when it hurts. In your case, since you’ve been so long away from your daughter, I doubt you can do it. Do you think her mother…?” Stan raised questioning eyebrows up at Niall.

“I don’t think her mother will help me in this matter. She would be more likely to say ‘I told you so’ than give me such intimate information about our daughter.”

“Then you can’t know what to do, you can only guess. But I can tell you this much, if you really love her you won’t be able to hide it. It will be there for her to see if only she can let herself see it. On the other hand... if you only tell yourself you love, and you really don’t; then that, too, will be obvious to her. I guess what I’m telling you is don’t worry about it. Relax. Do what feels right to you at the moment. Trust your instincts. Don’t be ashamed to let your feelings show. Eventually, if she can forgive you she will.”

“Has that worked for you?”

“No. But it’s only been twenty years. I still have hope. And in case I don’t live much longer, I’m keeping a diary. It’s in proper paper books with good leather bindings. I think at least one of them may read from them and learn something of how I feel. It isn’t much but it seems right somehow.”

“You know Stan, I’m really glad it was your shop I wandered into. I didn’t realize what I was feeling until I saw it in you. But one thing still puzzles me. Why didn’t you try to sell me a book?”

“You didn’t really want a book. It wouldn’t have made you happy. You’d have been wasting your money. That would have done you no good. I get paid for helping people, not talking them into wasting their money on things they don’t really want.”

“I’ll see if I can’t find some way to give her myself.”

“You might try taking her out to eat. Most mothers really like not having to cook and clean up.”

“I’ll think about it.”

They shook hands again and Niall turned and left the little shop.

“What do you think, Minerva? Do you think he loves his daughter?”

“We go through this every time, Stan,” the young woman’s voice said. “You know that isn’t something I can give you information about.”

Stan sat alone in his shop of books and things that looked like books and stared painfully at his hands in his lap.

Previous: Chapter 14
Next: Chapter 16