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In which Niall goes to the emergency room, sets up housekeeping, and Jeeves gives advice.

Niall had spent the day with Brianna and the children. John had presented his paper on why a wealthy man might give up that wealth to become a payer. He had done some research on the Internet and had quotes from several Payers who had given up sizable fortunes (or given them away before joining the Payers). The arguments were simple and clear. The sentences were in paragraphs with topic sentences and everything. Spelling and grammar had no errors but Niall credited the computer software for that. Otherwise, he was favorably impressed and was able to enjoy his evening out with Tony and Brianna without a final dispute over the home-schooling issue.

Niall had allowed Brianna and Tony to select the restaurant since he obviously didn’t know the local dining out scene. The restaurant, located on a bluff overlooking the Potomac, offered a splendid view of the late afternoon sun glinting on the tops of the buildings in the District. They were shown to their table by the head waiter and were attended most solicitously by a series of gracious attendants. This time the menu had prices prominently displayed. Niall was asked if he wished to purchase each of the items ordered and after the main courses were eaten he was asked if they were satisfactory. Upon his assent, the small TV at the table told him that the amount of his purchases had been deducted from his account. It was during the dessert that things changed.

The TV addressed Brianna without being asked, telling her that a friend of hers, one Annette Jenkins, had been injured in a fall and was asking for her. The TV asked if she would go to Annette.

“Of course I’ll go,” Brianna said rising to her feet, delicious dessert forgotten, half-eaten.

“Seeking transportation. Please use the front entrance,” from the TV.

Tony and Niall were on their feet as well and followed Brianna toward the exit.

“Who do I pay for the dessert?” Niall asked Tony.

“There’ll be no charge. We didn’t get to finish it.”

No one tried to stop them as they approached the front of the dining room and passed into the small lobby. Brianna burst through the doors, which did not have time to get themselves out of her way, and started looking around the parking lot frantically. A large sedan pulled into the parking lot faster than one would have expected and approached them stopping abruptly nearby. The driver looked at Brianna and asked, “Are you Brianna?”

“Yes. Are you to take us?”

“Get in.”

“Who are you?” Niall asked.

“Daniel Horne. Now are you folks in a hurry or not?”

“Just get in, Dad. The computer system has arranged this.”

Niall, with a forceful push from Tony supplementing Brianna’s tugging on his arm, somewhat gracelessly plopped into the back seat with Tony and Brianna.

The car started away almost before the doors were closed.

“Who are you and where are you taking us?”

“Dad, he has offered to help us now be quiet and let him drive.”

The car was moving very fast now on the streets. All the lights were green, it seemed, and other traffic was moving out of the way well before the sedan approached. The driver hardly seemed to slow at all, even at blind corners. This scared Niall greatly. Later there were a couple of times the car braked abruptly at blind corners and each time while making the turn they went past pedestrians who looked at them curiously. Each group of pedestrians had at least one child. It was as if the driver had known what would be there even though Niall could see no indication before the car went round the corners.

Finally, after going seven or eight miles in a little over five minutes, the car pulled into the parking lot of a hospital and drove quickly to the front entrance. Brianna was out the door and headed into the building before Tony could get out more than a couple of sentences indicating immense gratitude to the driver.

Inside Brianna was met by a nurse and directed to the emergency room. She was practically running by the time they got there and another nurse directed her into a room to one side where several of the staff were working over a very pregnant woman who was lying quietly and appeared to be unconscious.

Brianna stopped and stared, her eyes huge with fear for her friend. Tony looked around for someone who could answer some questions and found an older woman whom Niall would have said was a payer, had he seen her on the streets.

Tony asked her, “Is she going to be all right?”

“I think so. They said her vital signs were good and the baby is old enough to survive outside the mother if it has to be delivered now.”

“Do you know what happened?”

“They said it was a fall but I don’t know. She was conscious when they brought her in but she wasn’t very coherent. She kept calling for someone named Brianna.”

“Oh yes, that’s me,” Brianna burst out. “She’s my dearest friend. I was going to help her with the baby. She was so looking forward to being a mother.”

The old woman had been looking at the medical team the whole time and when one of the staff looked up at her and shook his head she motioned for the others to follow her. Brianna came very slowly and reluctantly looking back almost the whole way.

They were shown into a waiting room which had several combinations of seating. Some combinations were clearly for individuals who did not want contact in that they were somewhat surrounded with plants. Others were clearly for small groups of people because they had several seats, close together, around a small, low table. There were several pairs of chairs, of course. The lighting was dim, though with some pools of brightness where reading lamps cast their sun-spectrum light on the reading material of the person using the lamp. The walls and furniture were of soothing colors and in one corner was a rather impressive collection of toys and a three-partitioned, toddler-confining, raised play area enclosed in netting. The two toddlers using it were able to play with the toys in their sections but could not get to each other.

The older woman led them to a cluster of chairs that was unoccupied and they were seated, Brianna using only the front couple of inches on her comfortable chair.

“I think they were about to take her to the operating room so they asked me to take care of you folks. From the looks of the doctor, I don’t think this one is life threatening.”

“How can you tell? She looked unconscious to me.” Brianna was squeezing her hands together and the skin of her hands was white and red from the pressures.

Tony put his arm around her and told her that Annette would be fine. “They got her to the hospital quickly and you could see that they weren’t giving her blood or anything. She must have been conscious when she arrived or they wouldn’t have known to call you. So try to relax a little. She’s going to need you to be calm and confident.”

Brianna seemed to come awake from a nightmare and turned into Tony’s arms for a long, lingering hug with lots of small pats on the back and gentle rubbing of her shoulders.

“I’m so glad you’re here for me, darling.” Brianna said quietly into his shoulder. The tears she had been too frightened to let out began to come and she sobbed a little, quietly, but she was beginning to get over the shock.

After about an hour, during which Niall was there and attentive but felt he shouldn’t say much, the older woman returned and asked Brianna to come with her to attend Annette as she would be coming out of the anesthetic soon.

Brianna was much more in control of herself now and hurried out without even looking back.

Tony used one of the screens to contact the babysitter, who was willing to keep the children late, especially since she also was a friend of Annette's.

“Do you feel up to answering some questions now?” Niall asked Tony.

“Oh, yes. It’ll take my mind off what’s happened to Annette,” Tony smiled rather grimly.

“Well first, why did they call us to come when we are only friends? I could understand it if we were family, maybe, but merely friends?”

“People do not deal with injury or illness well when they are under stress. Hospitals are very stressful places. You don’t know anybody there. There are lots of suffering people whose misery you don’t want to share. The surroundings are unfamiliar, which is stressful despite the attempts to make them soothing,” Tony gestured at the décor with a sour expression. “So when people are sick or injured they need the presence of someone or better yet several people who are familiar and reassuring.”

“Sure, but why the bother? Couldn’t they have just told Brianna to come in some time in the next couple of hours? Did they have to put her through all that traumatic hurrying?”

“When they called they didn’t know how bad the situation was nor when Annette would need Brianna to help her. It is better to hurry when you don’t need to than be too late to help when needed.”

“Okay, I guess I can accept that. But where did they get that nutcase who drove us here? I thought he was going to kill us all.”

“He was just someone in the area who had a fast car with enough room for our party. He was asked if he would and was willing. Naturally he’ll be paid for his trouble. Second, he was only doing a little of the driving. The computer was controlling most of it. That’s why the car braked sometimes at those blind corners and went around almost on two wheels at others. The computer knew what was around the corner. It was also overriding the car’s and the city’s speed controls so we could go that fast. It was clearing traffic and making sure we had only green lights. The people along our route were warned that we were coming and even told what lanes we would be driving in. You were probably about as safe in that car as you are in this waiting room.”

“My God!”

“Exactly. The computer is able to do some amazing things for us. It’s a marvelous tool.”

Niall thought, “Marvelous but dangerous. It sounds like it can take control of just about everything whenever.”

Just then a man came by pushing a rubber-wheeled cart which held canned and bottled drinks and a variety of packaged snack foods. He approached each of the waiting people in the room and offered them refreshment. He also had a couple of those generic books that Sam had shown Niall.

Niall and Tony weren’t hungry but they accepted beverages.

“How much do I owe you?” Niall asked.

“Nothing,” replied the surprised young man. “These are all standard.”

“Well many thanks anyway. You are very kind,” Niall said and smiled gratefully at him. As he moved away he said to Tony, “I can’t get over how many things are free. In my day it would have cost you an arm and a leg to get almost anything in a hospital. Which reminds me, can Annette afford to pay for this? I got the impression that she’s a single mother.”

“Medical care is all free or standard as we say. It shouldn’t cost her a thing.”

“How can they do that? It costs a fortune to keep a place like this in operation.”

“The Payers don’t seem to have any problem with paying for all the medical care. Of course, since they are mostly old, they do have a vested interest in seeing to it that medical care is paid well to keep up the supply of doctors and nurses and so on.”

“How do they decide who to treat?”

“That’s up to the individual doctor or nurse. Providing good treatment will get them paid well, no matter who they treat, so long as the patient actually has a problem. But they can pick and choose how they will. Naturally the more benefit they generate the more they get paid. So if a child needs treatment the pay is likely to be high and last many years. If it’s an old person in a hostel the pay is quite a bit less. If the patient is rich and productive the pay is likely to be higher than if the patient is poor and a slacker. But it’s completely up to the nurse, doctor, or hospital. They aren’t forced to treat anybody.”

“You mean rich people get better treatment than poor people?”

“If the staff has to make a choice as to whom to treat then probably, yes, the money would make a difference, all other things being equal. Of course, that has always been true.”

“Is there a shortage of medical treatment? I mean, there’re lots more of us old people these days than there used to be. We need more medical care than you young sprouts. Back when I went abroad they were afraid there wouldn’t be enough money to pay for all the medical care that would be needed.”

“The average age of the Payers is somewhere around 67 years old. Do you really think they’d let there be a shortage of medicine or treatment for themselves? Hardly. I’ve only heard of shortages in the event of disasters and those get straightened out rather quickly.”

“What about drugs?”

“They’re part of the treatment. Do you take any prescription drugs?”

“Yes I do. I’m not running short or anything but I will need to get some more of an anxiety drug I’m taking and I have malaria, though it’s under control with drugs.”

“Well, you’ll need to visit a doctor to get those prescriptions confirmed, I guess. I don’t know if the local pharmacists will trust a foreign prescription or not.”

“You mean I could be turned down just because the druggist didn’t know my doctor?”

“Of course. He’s responsible for what happens to the people he gives drugs to. If you shouldn’t be taking the drug and he got fooled into giving it to you he could lose a lot of money if you were harmed by it.”

“But he could just refuse me medicine I need?”

“Well he could, but if you need the medicine, then he’d be losing money by doing so. He’d probably tell you to go to a doctor he knew to confirm the prescription. Doctors and druggists do work closely together.”

“What if Annette needs a brace or something?”

“That’s covered, too.”

“I talked to a man who was confined to a wheel chair and he showed me some really fancy insect-like things that could help injured people get around. He preferred the chair but could he have gotten one of those spider things free?”

“Sure. Those things really improve the lives of people whose legs don’t work any more. That’s a lot of benefit. There’s lots of Payers who use them, too, so they can keep working. I saw this feature about a payer who pays miners and he had this thing like a centipede that would take him down in the mines through all those narrow tunnels and such. It was amazing.”

Their conversation drifted off into technological marvels. Tony supplemented the conversation with information and video from the nearby monitor screen.

After an hour or so, Brianna reappeared with Annette and her new baby. Annette was using one of the spider things and looked radiantly happy holding her baby close. Brianna was walking beside her with a huge grin. “We can take her home now. They gave her a pack that will monitor her condition but they say that she should be fine. The operation went well. It was a combination of a cesarean first to keep the baby safe, and…”

“Isn’t he just the most precious thing you ever saw?” Annette interrupted.

“Yes, darling,” Brianna said grinning down at her. “And they also fixed the broken vertebra and they say the nerves will be regenerated in a few days so Annette will be able to walk again. They say it will take some practice at first but she’ll be good as new.”

“That’s wonderful,” Tony said. Then he won Annette’s heart by asking, somewhat boyishly if he could hold the baby for a minute. As a veteran dad he had no trouble demonstrating the proper technique and never even hinted at not supporting the head, nor did he rouse the sleeping baby.

So what had, at first, appeared to be a major tragedy in the making for Annette came out about as well as could have been hoped.

-----------------------

Niall departed after breakfast. He had gone upstairs to Annette’s apartment where Brianna had spent the night. He intended to part quickly, but was required to admire the sleeping baby for at least half an hour. He asked Jeeves (in Annette’s apartment) when the next bus would come and, by that device, was able to beat a retreat from the thrill of new motherhood and the several other friends of Brianna and Annette's who were in attendance.

The bus ride didn’t seem very long at all and he promised himself that he would not let himself become a stranger to his grandchildren. When he arrived in Aldie, he got off the bus and walked quickly the two short blocks to his new home. It was then he remembered that he hadn’t been given a key. He was on the point of going back to find Sam when he noticed that there was a key in the lock. The door opened easily after he unlocked it. But first he locked it, thinking it was locked already and that he was unlocking it. After struggling with that for a moment he realized what he had done and set things right.

Nothing seemed to have been disturbed in his absence, even though anyone could have come in. He checked the back door and that was unlocked, too. The front door key also fit the back door. He dumped his suitcases in the bedroom and thought of John earning his Euros. Then he thought of lunch and went to the kitchen to see what was in the refrigerator. It was completely empty, though cold. He looked in the cabinets. They had the same kind of sturdy, serviceable dishes and glasses that had been in use at Brianna’s place. But there was no food. If they delivered in the morning, he was going to have a long wait for his next meal unless he could find a cafe down town.

Leaving the doors locked and pocketing the key, he strolled the two blocks to the center of town and looked both ways. There were three places to eat. He chose the one that looked least like a chain establishment and walked in. The smell of food cooking was enough to make him hungry if he wasn’t before. He sat at the counter a couple of seats from the nearest other patron and looked at the menu. This was made of stiff paper laminated in plastic. A couple of items had been crossed off with a grease pencil and a couple of other items had been written in. It was all simple country food: meat, potatoes, a few vegetables, and salad.

A waitress who appeared to be in her 20s put a glass of water down in front of him and said, “What can I get for you?”

“I’ll have the fried chicken and a tossed salad with thousand island dressing.”

“Vegetables with that? The menu is right about that for once. Any two or three from that list there.”

“Green beans, mashed potatoes, and fried okra.”

“You want white or dark meat on that chicken?”

“Dark I think this time.”

“Did you get all that, Darla?” the waitress hollered to the back.

“Sure did. It’ll be in the window by the time you get him his black coffee.”

The waitress poured a cup of coffee, left it black, and brought it back to Niall. Before she could turn away, Niall asked quickly, “How did she know I wanted coffee and black coffee at that?” He was expecting to hear about the computer again.

“Oh, Sam was in here for dinner last night and told us you might be coming by.”

‘I guess people and gossip were invented before computers ,’ Niall thought wryly to himself.

The waitress returned immediately with a plate of food still gently steaming and placed it in front of him with an extra napkin, presumably so he could eat the fried chicken with his fingers.

Niall thanked her and asked if everybody got their food this quickly. She said that when the orders weren’t coming too fast or the place too noisy they did, while she and Darla were working. She couldn’t speak for the others who worked there.

Since the waitress stayed relatively close to where Niall was eating, he felt bold enough to ask a delicate question in a quiet voice.

“Did Sam happen to tell you anything about me besides how I like my coffee?”

“Well he did let drop a few things. Sam never was one of those tight-lipped fellows.”

“Did he say that I was out of the country for a long time and I still don’t really know my way around much?”

“I’ll allow as how that was the impression we got, yes.”

“Well if I had been served like this twenty years ago I would have left a pretty good tip. But now I don’t quite know what to do to show how much I appreciate your prompt and helpful service.”

“Mister, if that’s a pickup line you came to the wrong place,” her face showing a little color and with a frown.

“No, really, I just want to do the right thing. I’m not trying to be insulting or anything. Please help a poor old fool who’s new to all this to find his way.”

She still looked a little suspicious but relented enough to say, “You just tell that payer over there (she pointed at an elderly woman in whites sitting in a booth reading a book) what you said about the service.”

“Yes ma’am, I’ll certainly do that.” Boy, money matters were dangerous. A person could be insulting without even trying.

Thinking he was shifting to a safer topic he asked, “Who do I tell what food I want delivered to the house?”

“Delivered to the house? What are you talking about?” She was becoming suspicious again.

“When I was staying with my daughter in her apartment, this guy brought an insulated box full of food and various necessaries to the apartment door each morning. Don’t they do something like that around here?”

“No. Why should they? You need some food to take home, you go over to the grocery and see what they’ll give you. From what Sam says about you I guess they’d trust you with a week’s worth. If you turn out to be dependable, they might even go two weeks next winter.”

So things were definitely different in this small town. There had been no prices on the menu so Niall figured it was standard fare. The food was good and filling but not exciting. It didn’t match the food that he had in the Good-n-Quick.

Having finished his meal, Niall went over to the payer and expressed his appreciation for the service Darla and the waitress had provided. Next he went out to the street to locate the grocery. Nobody followed him hollering about paying for his meal so he guessed that it was standard as he had thought. The grocery was about a block and a half down the street to his right.

He sauntered toward the grocery, looking at the stores as he passed. None of them had any signs about sales. There was really nothing remarkable about them so far as he could see. A couple of them had their doors open since the spring air was only cool rather than cold.

The grocery store parking lot had a number of pickups as one would expect in a semi-rural area but it also had several cars that looked altogether out of place in a farm town. The splash marks on most of them indicated that they were being driven on country roads or perhaps even off-road.

He walked in the front door and right away noticed that the layout was wrong, or at least different than any grocery he had ever seen. For one thing the dairy case was near the cash register as was the bread and disposable diapers. It was as if it was intended to be convenient to pick up a few things without having to go to the back of the store. There was also a clear separation between what Niall thought of at first as specialty foods and regular foods. The specialty area had a separate meat case which also showed fish. There was a deli and a bakery as well. The smell of ground coffee and the bakery were making his mouth water even though he’d just eaten.

There were shopping carts near the door and Niall picked one out and started going around the store. It was only a few minutes before he realized that all the specialty items had prices marked and the standard food did not. Since Niall was no gourmet, he confined himself to the standard goods until the coffee smell drew him over to the specialty side. He found several bags of coffee beans next to the grinder and a woman wearing an apron came over to ask if she could help him. He asked if she could recommend a good coffee, since all he knew was that it sure smelled good. She asked several questions about what kind of flavors he liked and what kind of food he intended to eat it with and then specified a particular coffee. He asked for one pound of the type she had suggested and she measured out the pound of beans and poured them into the grinder. It did its job, with a resulting slightly different but still delicious aroma bursting out around Niall. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly.

“That will be $4.75,” the woman said handing him the bag.

He thanked her and pushed his cart to the front of the store where two men were putting items from their carts into paper bags and chatting. Niall waited behind one of them for his chance at the bags. When they’d finished, he pushed the cart forward and took a bag off the shelf below the counter. He was just starting to put his things in the bag when an older man wearing an apron came up to him and inquired politely if his name might happen to be Mr. Campbell.

“Yes I am. I’m the new guy in town. I live about two blocks due North of here,” Niall smiled at him.

“I am Mr. Seawright, Jonas Seawright, the owner of this grocery. Mr. Campbell, I don’t want to seem picky but it looks to me as if you have a bit more than a week’s worth of food there.”

“Well the house didn’t have a bit of food in it when I was just there so I thought I had better stock up.”

“Mr. Witherspoon mentioned that you might drop in on us. He said he thought well of you. So I’ll let you have a week’s worth of food this time. You can just leave about a third of this stuff on the counter and I’ll see that it’s put away. When you get that sacked up, you can come over to the computer there and buy the coffee.”

“Yes sir, I’ll be right there.” This was more complicated than he’d expected. The other two guys did have only a single sack of food each. Soon he’d made his decisions about what meals he’d have and how often he’d eat out and packed the food into two sacks. He carried it all over to the computer screen he saw at the counter near the specialty, no that should be luxury foods. He put the coffee on the counter and Mr. Seawright ran a scanner over it and said “One pound of ____ Coffee, store ground at the price of $4.75 per pound.”

“I, Niall Campbell, agree to purchase one pound of ____ Coffee for $4.75,” and raised his eyebrows in a questioning look at Mr. Seawright who nodded. The computer, in Jeeves’ voice, repeated,”Mr. Niall Campbell has purchased one pound of ____ Coffee, store ground at the store of Mr. Jonas Seawright. Would you like to hear your remaining account balance?”

“Yes, Jeeves, I believe I would.” ‘When in Rome,’ Niall thought.

“Your remaining balance is $84,473.53.”

Mr. Seawright’s eyebrows went up and his face subtly adjusted itself to a look of respect. “We are most happy to serve you, Mr. Campbell. Since I see you didn’t arrive in a car, may I suggest that you let one of the boys carry the bags for you?” He gestured to several boys of varying ages who were attempting to repair, or perhaps just take apart, a bicycle that had seen better days.

Niall nodded with a smile and said,” I guess I forgot that I was going to have to carry everything I got. I wouldn’t have picked up so much in the first place if I’d remembered.”

“Front!” Mr. Seawright said in a loud voice. The boys looked up and one said, “That’s me. What have you got for me, Mr. Seawright?”

“Carry this gentleman’s bags to his house. It’s a couple of blocks north.”

“Thanks, Mr. Seawright.” The boy ran forward, and picked up one of the bags and scooted out the door. Niall picked up the other and started for the door but had hardly gotten that far when the boy was back, empty-handed, took the second bag out of his arms, and whisked out the door.

Niall thanked Mr. Seawright and headed for the door to catch the boy. When he got outside he saw that the boy had made a wagon out of scrap wood and four old bicycle wheels. He had the groceries strapped in under a sheet of plastic.

“Did you build that wagon yourself?”

“Yes, sir. It wasn’t hard. They have plenty of stuff down at the recycling plant. That where we got the parts for that bicycle we’re building.”

“Do you have a regular job at the store?”

“It’s no job.” The boy said scornfully. “Mr. Seawright tells us when there are things we can do to help. I made over $10 last week. It really helps to have this wagon ‘cause I can carry lots more stuff.” The boy seemed to enjoy talking and Niall figured that maybe he could take advantage of it.

“Why wouldn’t Mr. Seawright let me take more food?”

“‘Cause he doesn’t want you wasting any. See, he gets the food mostly from the farmers ‘round here. What they don’t give to him they take to the shippers or the elevator. They get paid more, usually, for the food folks eat here ‘cause they don’t have to share the pay with the shippers. But if Mr. Seawright just gives it to people who waste it, then they don’t get paid much. So Mr. Seawright has to be sure the people he gives food to actually eat it. Most folks can only get a couple days’ food when they first come by. Mr. Seawright must think you’re pretty good.”

“I’m surprised that the farmers around here produce so much ready to eat food. I mean, what I remember about farming from 20 years ago, most farms were specializing in cash crops. They’d grow cotton or corn or raise hogs. But they wouldn’t have all these vegetables. Some of these sure don’t look like they’re in season. Are you sure they come from around here?”

“Most of the farmers have greenhouses. Sometimes when the weather’s nice I go to some of the farms and work on cleaning the windows. They grow all sorts of stuff out there.”

“How come they don’t just bring the food in from a warmer part of the country like California or Florida?”

“It’s ‘cause of that gas shortage after the transition. Farmers figured that they couldn’t use their heavy equipment in the fields without gas so they started growing crops that only took a little gas. Greenhouses were cheap to build and you don’t have to use insecticides so much and you do your farming in a much smaller area. Besides, that way they could sell here and in DC and save the cost of shipping. It took several years for the TDP plants to end the gas shortage and by then the farmers were making enough money doing it this way so they didn’t bother to change back in most cases.”

“How do you know so much about farming and the transition? When I was your age I wouldn’t have been able to tell half so much about the farms around where I lived.”

“My dad made me write papers on it. He said if I was going to run our farm when I grew up, I was going to have to understand the economics of farming.”

“Write papers on it. You wouldn’t be home-schooled would you?” Niall had a sinking feeling.

“Sure. Most of us farm kids are. That way we can work on the farm and still get educated. Dad said he wasted half his life riding the bus when he was a kid. When they stopped enforcing the law that made you go to school, Dad and Mom decided that they’d keep us kids home. My brother plays baseball for the high school, though.”

They were approaching Niall’s front door now so Niall figured he’d better let the boy get back to work. But he couldn’t resist asking one more question.

“Does anybody lock their doors around here? I found my door unlocked when I got here this morning.”

“What would you lock the door on a house like this for? It’s standard and there’s nothing in it worth stealing. Anything in there you can get free elsewhere, so why bother stealing it?”

“What about vandals? What if someone came in and wrecked the place?” Niall persisted.

“If they were going to do that they could easily break in first. The lock wouldn’t keep them out. Besides, how could they get away with it? They’d be almost sure to be recognized.”

“So there isn’t any stealing and vandalism?” Niall said with a wry smile.

“Not much. I can’t remember anything being stolen around here. One of the high school kids got so mad at another guy that he smashed the guy’s windshield on his new car. That was big news for a while.”

“I guess I don’t need these keys after all,” Niall said laughing. “At least I won’t have to worry about locking myself out of the house.”

They each were carrying one bag and Niall let them into the house. The boy put the bag down on the counter, and thanked Niall for letting him help.

Interesting. No crime. That bespoke a Police State of considerable proportions. But where were the police? He’d walked over much of downtown and hadn’t seen any police. Could they all be plain-clothes? Could the computer be doing the enforcement all by itself?

No. Nothing fit. The people certainly didn’t look like they were living in a Police State. Children in Police States learn very early to avoid strangers and to guard their tongues. The children he had met, the boy in the airport, John, this kid with the groceries, none of them seemed afraid of strangers. Their parents didn’t seem to mind that they talked to strangers.

Whatever was going on was unlike any tyranny he’d ever seen or read about. But those computers. The information they had on everybody. That had to be part of some controlling system. How could powerful people resist the opportunities for control that those instruments offered? It was like a beautiful woman. A man couldn’t help but notice. Powerful people had to notice what those computers could do. It was impossible for them not to. They just had to use them.

But so far nobody had told him to do anything. Everything had been presented to him as an option. Of course, in some cases, the alternative to the option was pretty unpalatable but there was never any kind of threat of jail or being shot or whatever. If someone was trying to control him, they were being very subtle about it.

Maybe the control would be more obvious if he got a job. Perhaps it was only those who were working that were under control. It didn’t seem likely but he was beginning to wonder if he had any idea at all what was going on. The more he learned the more confusing it got.

“Jeeves.”

“You rang, sir?” Why had he known he would not have to flip a switch to get the computer?

“I want to look for a job. Where is the nearest employment office?”

“I really couldn’t say, sir.”

“Why can’t you say, Jeeves? I thought you knew everything.”

“Not everything, sir. It is just that it’s hard to say who in this area may be running an employment office.”

“You mean they aren’t official?”

“Official, sir?”

“You know, authorized, assigned, hired to do the job, having the imprimatur of the State. Surely one can’t just set up shop as an employment office without even so much as a 'by your leave'.”

“Actually, sir, one can do just that. Why would one need permission to help someone else find work they like?”

“But don’t you have to get listed so you can find out who has jobs to offer?”

“Anyone who wants to have others to work with puts it on the Internet.”

“Want ads. It takes forever to look for a good job in the want ads.”

“Well, sir, the listings are categorized. One can search by quite a number of aspects of the work.”

“Then why do you need an employment office? You can just do the thing for your self.”

“Yes, sir you can. But people seem to prefer going to the employment offices.”

“OK, OK. Far be it from me to go against the way other people do things. Where is an employment office that I can get to without having to take the bus? Something within a mile or two.”

“Yes, sir. There is an office right downtown. Shall I tell them to expect you sir?”

“Yes, I’ll walk right over. Show me where it is… OK. That will be all Jeeves.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

Previous: Chapter 16
Next: Chapter 18