Chapter Four: Missing Sentients

School had just ended for the day. Jenken and Hazda Mizlek were on their way home from the public-private school they attended in Linguin’s Urban Core. They’d just boarded the main north-south conveyance promenade at the station nearest their school, just about at the promenade’s midpoint, close to the geographic center of the Core.

They’d barely found places for themselves when the promenade began to stutter. It slowed suddenly to a crawl, even the express belt, throwing passengers about. Jenken threw an arm about his sister’s waist to anchor her. The promenade stuttered again just one more time. And then it simply stopped altogether.

A chorus of moans, groans, growls and curses went up around the two homeward bound students, followed by the cries of indignation of riders being shoved aside by others impatient to get off from the stilled southbound belt.

Just ahead of Jenken and Hazda, a shoving match flared to life. A burly adolescent boy was sent staggering back into Hazda by an equally burly adult who had taken exception to the young fellow planting an elbow in his ribs. Hazda, whom Jenken had just released, was in turn sent sprawling. She fetched up against a middle-aged woman toting a shopping basket full of food. Hazda bounced off the woman and went down. The woman absorbed Hazda’s momentum, teetered, appeared to regain her balance, and then lost it completely. She sat heavily down upon the deck. As she went down her arms involuntarily flailed. She released her hold upon the basket. It flew through the air, landed upside down, and bounced away. Fruit rolled in every direction. It quickly fell juicy, pulpy, victim to the trampling feet of the milling throng.

Hazda picked herself up and began apologizing profusely to the woman, who responded to her apologies by screaming and cursing at her. She screamed at Hazda until her invective was cut off by a violent fit of coughing. A spray of phlegm and blood, symptomatic of the latter stages of drowning disease, shot from her mouth onto Hazda’s lower legs and feet, splattering her leggings and shoes. Seeing the woman was sick, sentients in every direction couldn’t get away fast enough.

Hazda stumbled back, giving out a small cry of alarm. She looked for her brother’s help. But Jenken, against his frantic efforts, had already been carried away in the stampede to get clear of the sick woman. Hazda was too short to see over the crowd. She couldn’t find him. In a panic, she ran into the crowd in the direction she thought he might have gone. After a few millidays of futile searching for him she gave him up for lost. The crowd was just too thick. She couldn’t see more than two or three steps in any direction.

Swallowing her panic, Hazda used her head. She decided the best thing she could do would be to head for home on her own. She knew the way. She just needed to follow the conveyance promenade south to where she and Jenken transferred to a cross Core line, and then follow that line right to the edge of her own familiar neighborhood.

She set off with all the other stranded riders who were now walking south. From time to time as she walked along someone would spot the blood and phlegm on her leggings and shoes. The way through the crowd would part very quickly for her then. At other times she was forced to come to a complete halt because the pedestrian traffic around her was gridlocked. But she pushed forward again as soon as she could move.

She did eventually reach home, still frightened, spent from the sustained adrenaline rush of her passage through the chaos without her brother to take care of her. Her father had just installed a new access control system on the house. It was a complex system. Hazda had never operated it by herself; her brother always got them in when they got home. She fumbled through the access protocol.

But it just wouldn’t work for her. She signaled for admittance. But there was no one home to let her in. Her brother hadn’t arrived home before her. Both her parents were still at work. So she just sat on the front steps and cried. That was how her mother found her when she arrived home from work several centidays later.

Jenken Mizlek, when he was swept away from his sister, was carried completely off the conveyance promenade before he could reverse his course against the tide of bodies and return to where he’d last seen her. By the time he got back to the clearing about the coughing woman, where she still sat, his sister was nowhere to be seen. On inspiration born of the heart stopping thrill of alarm anyone who’s ever lost track of a child in one’s care in a crowd is all too familiar with, he shot up a nearby roof support column. With his legs wrapped around the column at head height and his head above the crowd, he obtained an excellent vantage point from which to look down on the surrounding area.

Jenken hastily divided the scene into quadrants and began to scan one quadrant after another, frantically but systematically looking for his sister’s bright orange beret. She would be easy to spot anywhere in the area, he told himself, as long as she still had her beret on. Please, Fates, let her still have her beret on.

Faces stared back at him as he looked outward and downward from the column into the crowd.

“Who, or what, are you looking for, son?” called out a nearby kind-faced woman. Many of the faces which were staring up at him wore kind expressions, Jenken noted, even though everyone was frustrated by the shutdown. Even in his state of panic over losing Hazda, or perhaps as a psychological defense against it, the stray thought occurred to Jenken that the settlers who had founded Linguin, avid social reformers whose principles he admired, would have been pleased to see how most of its citizens were responding to the health crisis.

“My little sister. She has an orange beret and a green school pack,” he shouted down to the inquiring woman. “Have you seen her? I got separated from her in the shoving match.”

“I’m sorry. I haven’t seen her,” the woman shouted back up to him.

Several sentients who had heard the exchange between Jenken and the woman called up to Jenken to tell him they hadn’t seen a girl in an orange beret either. That got the attention of still more sentients. In moments almost everyone in the crowd in the area of the column was trying to recall having seen what had become of a girl in an orange beret carrying a green school pack.

As the word was spreading through the crowd, Jenken felt the column he was clinging to begin to vibrate with a series of minor shocks. He looked down at its base, from whence a banging sound accompanied the shocks, to discover their cause. A small boy was banging the column with a can from the sick woman’s basket.

“I want my mommy. I want my mommy,” the boy’s trembling voice waffled up to Jenken out of a contorted face.

Jenken’s first fleeting impulse was to ignore the distraction; let someone else help the boy. Surely some one of the kind strangers around the post would step up and help a young child. He had his own lost and probably frightened child, a child for whom he was responsible, to find. But the boy was so young and looked so scared. And no one else was stepping up to help, not even the woman with the kind face who had been willing to help Jenken. And what would the founders of Linguin have said of someone who failed to respond to the entreaties of a young child in distress. Jenken didn’t have it in him to leave such a helpless child to fend for himself. His native compassion and his sense of social duty wouldn’t suffer him be so calloused. Maybe it would only take a moment to find the boy’s mother and then he could immediately get back to his search for his sister before her trail grew cold.

“What’s your name?” he called down at the frightened face which was now gazing up at him silently but pleadingly.

“Darden,” the boy answered him plainly enough that Jenken could hear and understand the name above the babbling of voices around them.

“What’s your last name, Darden?” he asked the boy.

“Shwitri.”

Jenken thought that was what the boy said. He didn’t say the family name as distinctly as he had his familiar name. But Jenken thought he could make do with Shwitri.

“And what’s your mommy’s name, Darden?”

“Ajteha is my mommy. I want my mommy!”

Jenken yelled out as loudly as he could into the crowd. “There’s a very little boy here named Darden Shwitri. He’s become separated from his mother, Ajteha. He’s right here at the base of this column and he’s very frightened. Can you all pass the word, everyone who can hear my voice, and help me find her for him? And I still need to find my sister, in her orange beret, with her green school bag. Please pass the word.”

Only the nearest members of the crowd could hear him above the complaints of their fellow travelers. But most of those who heard him did pass the message on into the surrounding crowd as Jenken had requested. Jenken could see the turning faces as the message progressed in an uneven wave, away from him in every direction. Even had he gotten the name wrong, or had it gotten twisted in the passing from sentient to sentient, he reasoned, any mother who was missing a child would be alerted by the story of a small child at the base of the column. He expected at any moment to see a woman come rushing forward to claim her child.

But it didn’t happen. No one came forward. The boy began to bang on the column again.

“I want my mommy!” the boy wailed.

“Just a milliday, Darden. I’m sure she’ll come in just a milliday,” Jenken called down to him.

“I want my mommy!”

“I know you do. So do I, Darden. I want her to come right now. But we’re both going to have to wait just a milliday to give her time to find us.”

This was of no consolation whatsoever to the boy, who was now on the verge of tears.

By this time the crowd was dispersing quickly, its currents carrying it off along walkways leading along and away from the conveyance promenade right of way. The swiftest currents ran parallel to the promenade on either side. No one was approaching the column. The alert Jenken had sent out was no longer being passed. Nor was there an orange beret anywhere in sight. Jenken realized he’d thrown away his chance to search the area in a timely manner for Hazda and now there were two lost children in the crowd, neither of whom was likely to be found by their responsible adult in the chaos. Succor for each of them would have to come from some other source.

He looked down to the boy. Catching his eye, the child burst into the inevitable tears.

It was no use staying up the column. Jenken slid down, twisting around at the bottom to avoid landing on the boy. He started to tell Darden not to cry. Upon reconsideration he decided the boy had every right to cry.

He also realized he was now stuck with the responsibility for the boy. He hoped someone else would take responsibility for his sister. At least she was older than the boy. She could find her way home on her own if she had to. It just frightened him to think of her on her own in a crowd some members of which were in such an ugly mood, and in such a bad neighborhood. This part of the Core was gang territory.

“Come on, Darden. I’ll take you to someone who can find your mommy for you,” he said to the boy as soothingly as he could. It was hard not to let his anxiety for his sister express itself in his tone of voice.

Hoisting the unresisting child into his arms, Jenken set off in search of a public safety officer. Darden buried his face in Jenken’s shoulder. He stopped crying. Jenken felt mildly flattered by the confidence the boy showed in him by this gesture. He also felt guilty that he was giving his help only grudgingly to someone so helpless. And he couldn’t stop worrying over Hazda all the while he was taking Darden in charge.

There was, of course, never a public safety officer around when one needed one. That axiom had been doubly true since epidemic spawned personnel shortages had begun to affect every workforce in the Core. Jenken walked the for three centidays without turning up so much as a rumor of anyone in a blue and green public safety uniform. He could have called for assistance from a public communications kiosk. But it would have taken a near eternity for a responding officer to arrive. That didn’t strike Jenken as a practical solution to either of his lost child problems.

“You know what, Darden. I bet your mommy is waiting for someone to bring you home. Can you tell me where you and your mommy live?” he asked Darden instead.

Darden nuzzled against his shoulder in what might have been an affirmative nod.

“Can you tell me the name of the street you live on?”

Again Darden answered with what Jenken interpreted as an affirmative gesture of the head.

“What’s its name? Tell me the name of your street.”

This time he got a verbal response. It was garbled. It sounded a little like Wedgefruit.

There was, Jenken knew, a Wedgefruit Avenue running north and south the entire length of the Urban Core. There was also a Wedge Street, which ran along the southeastern edge of Jenken’s own neighborhood. But it was primarily a commercial street. Then there was Webbed Street, down on the lower west end, across the river from the old abandoned spaceport.

“Wedgefruit? Is that the name of your street, Darden?” he tried again.

Again Darden gave the nuzzle Jenken was interpreting as an affirmative nod.

“Do you know the number? Tell me the number if you know it.”

“One-Two-Three-Four-Five-Six-Seven-Eight-Nine-Ten-Eleven-Twelve!”

“That’s very good, Darden. You can count all the way to twelve. Does your house have any numbers on the door, or numbers any place on the front of the house?”

Another affirmative nuzzle.

“What are those numbers on your house?”

A shrug was all he managed to elicit from the boy.

“If you can think real hard and remember those numbers on your house it will really help me find your house so I can take you home to your mommy. I’m going to walk over to Wedgefruit Avenue and walk along it while you think. If you see your house, or any place you recognize, you tell me. OK, Darden?”

With any luck, Jenken thought, he would come upon a public safety officer somewhere along Wedgefruit Avenue. Or maybe if he got really lucky someone would recognize Darden. If he made it all the way to the end of Wedgefruit nearest his own neighborhood and still hadn’t had any luck finding the boy’s mother he could continue home and call the public safety office from there. And hopefully Hazda would already be home safely by the time he got there. Please, the Fates, let her be safely home by the time he got there!

Jenken followed this strategy all the way to its ultimate destination. He arrived home, a sleeping Darden in his aching arms, a couple of centidays after his mother had arrived home to find the weeping Hazda waiting on the steps for someone to come home and let her in. His hands occupied by the sleeping boy and stiff from lack of circulation, he could hardly perform the access procedure to get in, himself.

“Jenken! Where have you been? Oh! What are you doing carrying a little boy?” his mother greeted him when he finally got the door open.

Jenken signaled her to silence. Hazda caught the sign as she burst through into the room, no doubt to complain to him of the hardships she’d endured after he had, as she probably saw it, abandoned her in her time of need.

“His name is Darden Shwitri. It is if I understood him right. He got separated from his mother about the same time you and I got separated, Hazda,” Jenken explained his sleeping burden. “While I was trying to find you he attached himself to me. I had no better luck finding his mother than I had finding you. I’m awfully glad to see you made it home alright.

“I carried him all the way. My arms and shoulders and back are numb with pain. He’s awfully heavy for such a little boy.”

“Here. Put him right down here on the cushions. His mother must be worried sick about him. You should have reported him to the public safety office and let them take care of him, Jenken,” Khisza Mizlek took charge.

“I’ve been looking for a public safety officer all the way home, Mom,” Jenken said. “I couldn’t find a single one. If I’d stopped to call I might still be out there waiting for an officer to respond to my call. I needed to get home to find out if Hazda had made it home safely.

“Besides, Darden told me he lived on Wedgefruit Avenue. I followed it all the way down-Core from where I found him, hoping he might recognize his house, or that someone might recognize him and tell me where he lives.”

“You would have done better to call public safety and ask where the nearest neighborhood office was, and then to take him there, and to report to them you’d gotten separated from your sister,” his mother said. “That would have been the sensible thing to do.

“But what’s done is done. He’s here now. We’ll have to take care of it from here. I’ll see if there’s any listing for a Shwitri on Wedgefruit Avenue. If there is maybe we can reach his mother to let her know where he is without bothering public safety over it. If not we can call them in. Let’s just hope no one gets the idea you kidnapped him and presses charges against you.”

“He told me his mother’s name. I can’t remember it now. But it started with an A. I’d recognize it if someone said it,” Jenken said. It hadn’t even occurred to him that someone might think he’d kidnapped Darden. He didn’t even want to think about that possibility. “I have witnesses. I put out the word in the crowd right away to ask for help finding his mother. I wouldn’t have done that if I’d been trying to kidnap him. I’m sure there would be sentients who would remember that and come forward if anyone had questions about it,” he said.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. I don’t think it will, especially if we can find his mother right away and get him home to her. I’m sure she’ll be extremely grateful,” Khisza said. “His mother’s full name would help. Try to think of it, Jenken.”

She went to the tank to access the public services directory while Jenken tried to settle his burden onto the cushions without awakening it. Darden was clinging to him in his sleep. He wasn’t easy to pry loose. He moaned and clutched more tightly when Jenken’s arms about him loosened. But Jenken managed to put him down without waking him fully.

“Your sister had a very bad experience after the two of you got separated,” Khisza informed Jenken as she checked the directory.

“It was awful,” Hazda said.

“I’m so sorry, Hazda. I got pushed away from you by the whole crowd trying to get away from the woman and off the promenade. By the time I fought my way back to where you’d been when we got separated, you were gone. I shinnied up a column so I could see over the crowd to spot your beret. I figured I couldn’t miss that. But I couldn’t spot it anywhere. I called out for you as loudly as I could. I even asked the sentients who were close enough to the column to hear me to help me find you. I did everything I could think of to find you again. I’m really sorry I couldn’t.”

“A sick woman coughed up blood and phlegm all over her. She couldn’t find you. She had to walk all the way home alone. And when she got home she couldn’t get in. She had to sit and wait for me to get home. I was late because both Mildrouzeem and Gilda were out today. I had to take some of their cases as well as my own,” Khisza Mizlek finished the story for her daughter. “It wasn’t your fault, Jenken. I’m sure you did your best not to get separated from your sister. I know you did your best to find her once you did get separated from her. It was just a situation your father and I should never have chanced your ending up in.

“I won’t let it happen again. I’m taking you both out of school immediately, whether your father agrees or not.”

Jenken wanted to protest that there was no reason to take him out of school. But he decided it wasn’t the right time argue with his mother about it. “Are you alright now, Hazda?” he inquired of his sister.

“I guess so. It was really awful. The sick woman was so mean. Then sentients were treating me like I was sick when they saw the blood and gunk on me she coughed up all over me.”

There were half a dozen listings for the name, Shwitri, on Wedgefruit Avenue. No A. Shwitri was among them. In fact, there was no A. Shwitri in the entire directory. Khisza called all the Shwitri residences which were listed for Wedgefruit Avenue, one by one.

Four of her calls found someone home. No one she reached had ever heard of Darden, or knew of any A. Shwitri who would be the mother of a little boy.

One call Khisza placed took her to an answering service message showing a frame of the family. Its members looked nothing like Darden.

Her sixth call to a Shwitri, who was listed with no designated familiar name or initial, reached an audio message which indicated the service to that number had been temporarily discontinued. No reason was given for the suspension of service.

“So much for finding the mother on our own. I’ll have to put it in the hands of public safety,” Khisza concluded.

Getting through to public safety proved much more difficult in deed than it had been in theory. The public safety call-in system was jammed with calls. It wouldn’t even accept Khisza’s call at first. When she did get into the system her call was listed as the three hundredth on wait.

While the number in the lower, right hand, front, corner of the Mizlek tank, the number which indicated her place in the waiting order, slowly counted down, Jetten, Jenken’s father, a medical technician who worked at the Linguin Global Research Hospital, arrived home from work and got a full accounting of the events which had befallen his family that day. His dismay when he heard the story of Hazda’s ordeal was visible. He decreed that Hazda would go with him to the hospital the next day to get a thorough checkup.

He also made it clear, though he never said so in as many words, that he was unhappy with Jenken that Jenken had brought Darden home with him. All he actually said was that the epidemic diseases were making more and more children orphans and that only the state could hope to assess their situations and provide adequate care for them.

While Darden continued to sleep, perhaps as a primitive defense against the stress of being separated from his mother, the Mizlek family partook of an evening meal of Yarrek steaks and vichjini. Only when they’d finished eating did the tank alarm sound to inform them Khisza’s call to public safety would be the next one answered.

An artificial intelligence took her call. It offered Khisza access to any number of possible complaint forms, report forms, or informational messages. She filled out a missing sentient located report and then queried the missing sentients files. She found no listing for Darden there. She left a request for an officer to get back to her. Then she terminated the call.

“I get the feeling it may be days before someone gets back to me,” she admitted. “And social services can’t do anything without a public safety report authorizing it. Unless we manage to locate his mother ourselves that poor child has become our responsibility for the immediate future.”

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