Chapter One: The Marketplace

She emerged, bare knees pumping, right hand gliding lightly upon the well worn metal stair rail, from the Market Square underground station just outside the heart of Historic Nohka. In the stiff wind which ever blew out of the ancient city’s deep sub surface transit tunnels, waves of her luxurious dark brown shoulder length hair streamed along the sides of her face and out in front of her, shining even in the fading light with copper highlights.

She cleared the top step and came to a halt. And immediately her eyes darted to the left, toward the closed west end of the square. They were alert, intelligent eyes so bright you didn’t notice just at first how deep they were, or the sorrow that lurked in their depths. She brought them to rest momentarily on a little fountain.

The fountain represented a scene from Onieodon, the classic epic poem by the celebrated ancient poet, Narraclimum. In it, Garagantum, the mythological sea monster, gleefully spouted water onto miniature wrecks of ships. Tiny shipwrecked seamen swam, mouths agape, eyes bulging, from the scene of their misadventure. One of the wrecked ships was Nachjtalis, the ship of the hero, Perculium, who was one of the swimmers.

Using the fountain as her starting point, the young woman scanned the market along a line which led back toward her own feet. Half way to them her eyes lit upon something, and off she set toward it at a purposeful glide across the brick pavement.

The red and yellow paving bricks alternated to create a dizzying pattern of broad zigzag stripes running at angles to the borders of the square. Anyone who stared at the pattern long enough with the heat rising from the bricks would begin to walk in zigzags herself. But the young woman made a straight line for her objective, cutting right through the untidy rows of open market stalls that stood in her way, ignoring the calls of vendors touting their wares to her.

She looked neither left nor right till she reached a market stall topped by a red and yellow striped awning. The broad vertical bands of the awning might once have been bright. But they’d faded in the tropical sun till they nearly matched the dull tones of the paving bricks. In the stall, the merchandise was piled carelessly upon tables of bare wood bristling with splinters. The young woman bypassed the first of these tables she came to. It was the second she bellied up to. She dug into the merchandise on it with both hands and began to rifle through it eagerly.

Around the stall, the market was coming to life again after the intolerable heat of the tropical day. It had been shut down for two decidays while the stall keepers had napped. But now the merchants were waking and shoppers were returning to shop. Other patrons of the market had arrived upon the same train the young woman had. As she began digging into the pile, they were just coming straggling up out of the stairwell behind her, having climbed the two steep flights of stairs from the underground more slowly than she. In Nohka the supposedly state of the art antigrav elevators in the underground stations never worked. They hadn’t from the time they’d been installed on a big Systemwide Government contract. They were missing parts, or improperly installed, or more than likely, both. It was the stairs or nothing.

Others patrons were lazily ambling in through the one other point of entry to the square, a big archway at the opposite end of the market from the fountain. Of these comers, two men stood out in the crowd. The shorter of the two was a head taller than anyone else in the market other than his companion. His companion was half a head taller than he. The two stopped just inside the archway. As soon as they stopped both bent over nearly double, sucking hard upon the heavy, oxygen rich, air.

“This gravity is killing me,” the shorter one said when he’d taken in sufficient breath to speak. “I don’t know why I let you talk me into leaving the hotel. I could be floating in the pool. I could be lying in bed. But you had to go exploring and you had to drag me along with you. I can’t get my breath. I’m sweating like a pig. I think I’m coming down with a full blown case of homecoming syndrome.”

“We didn’t come to Raja to spend all our time in the hotel,” the taller dismissed his complaint. “How are we supposed to meet the native women, which is the whole point of our being here, in case you’d forgotten, and how are we going to see the sights, if we spend all our time in the hotel floating in the pool and lying in bed?”

“Floating around the pool, and especially lying in bed, is exactly where I want to meet the native women and see the sights,” the shorter replied.

“The women in the hotel are pigs,” the taller scoffed.

“They’re better than anything I see around here,” the shorter said.

“You’re not gonna see anything like that in the hotel,” the taller, who’d been taking in the market while he’d been catching his breath, replied, straightening up a bit and pointing a finger into the square.

“Like what? Like the stupid market?” the shorter demanded. “I didn’t come here to see some stupid market full of junk. If that concierge told you you could find antiques here she sold you a bill of goods, which you were gullible enough to buy.”

“I’m not talking about junk. I’m talking about that,” the taller said, shaking his finger in the direction of whatever interested him so.

The shorter man stopped gasping and complaining long enough to look in the direction his friend was pointing. “Where?” he asked.

“Under the faded red and yellow awning, going through the stuff on the table,” the taller directed his gaze.

And then the shorter man saw what his friend was pointing to and began to snap his fingers in appreciation.

Long waves of brown hair shining with copper highlights, a very slender waist by Raja standards, a shapely posterior, well tanned legs: the young woman who had come up from the underground, her back to the archway, was pawing very intently through the pile of goods on the table beneath the awning.

“C’mon baby, turn around and give us a look at what you’ve got in front,” the shorter man called out, panting.

The stall was a long shout across the noisy market from the archway. There was no chance of the woman hearing his plea.

“That’s an image I’ve got to capture,” the taller man declared. He reached up and flicked the viewfinder of his image capturer over his eye, gave it an instant to zoom into focus automatically on his target, and then blinked first once, and then twice, to record.

His friend oriented on the subject with his own identical equipment. The gear was the latest Arjulan technology to be approved by the Emperor for the Rajalan market. The men had purchased it specially for their visit to Mother Raja.

“That’s clothing on that table, and she’s going through it like…like it was…!” the shorter man exclaimed. “It’s dirty old repeated-wear clothing. It’s got to be five years out of style. Fates, some of it’s got to be ten years out of style. That’s so disgusting. Can you imagine wearing someone else’s old worn clothing? Why, some of it’s even undergarments!”

“So, whadda you expect? This is Raja. Three quarters of the population lives below the poverty line. They can’t afford anything better than cast offs,” his companion dismissed the shorter man’s sensibilities with a shrug.

The woman was moving around the table now, reaching deep into the other side of the pile of used garments, pulling some prize discovery out of it. She moved all the away around the table till the tourists got the frontal view of her the shorter man coveted. He began to snap his fingers again. And then he stopped snapping and flapped his mouth instead.

“Oh, the Fates,” he exclaimed. “Do you see who she is? It’s—I can’t remember her name. But you gotta recognize her. She’s that socialite who used to be a galaxy class athlete, the gymnast or diver or swimmer. What’s her name? It’s on the tip of my tongue. You used to see her all the time on the social sites with the candid images of celebrities.”

“Na Kheef,” the taller man provided.

“Yeah, her,” the shorter man said, shaking his head in the affirmative. “Na Kheef. What in the galaxy would a high class society broad like Na Kheef be doing here on Raja in this filthy little market, going through a disgusting pile of—”

“She wouldn’t be. It isn’t her,” the taller one said.

“But look at her, will you: her face, that body. It’s gotta be.”

“It’s not her,” the taller one insisted. “Na Kheef wouldn’t be caught dead in a filthy place like this, going through a pile of cast off clothing. And that’s exactly how you’d have to catch her to catch her anywhere this side of the thin membrane these last few years; you’d have to catch her dead. Why do you think you never see her in the tank anymore? It was three, four, maybe five years ago now. She was boating somewhere on the back side of Linguin.”

“She got in an accident and she drowned,” the shorter man did remember now that his friend had prompted his memory. “Except, no one believed it was really an accident. She was a galaxy class swimmer. There was no way she should have drowned. But she was hanging out with this filthy rich gib, getting really heavily into him. The guy’s father didn’t like her, thought she was a fortune hunter; he was probably right.”

The copper brunette with the bright eyes was holding up a women’s semiformal tunic now, visually measuring it for size. As the tourists’ image capturers captured her every move, she tucked it under the arm of the loose fitting, somewhat shape obscuring, disposable tunic she was wearing and plunged into the pile again. She began bringing fresh garments up from its depths.

“Frivollen Jeft was the rich playboy she was getting it on with,” the taller man provided, “the younger son of Daggen Jeft, the meanest son of an Emperor’s foot licker in the system. I saw them together once: Frivollen Jeft and Na, in the flesh, at Frogevik’s on Ijos. They were thoroughly levved up, both of them. They were dancing together. They were something wild.” He paused for a moment, looking thoughtful. “I’ve got to admit,” he allowed upon mental comparison of the woman he’d seen dancing in the nightclub with the woman there in front of him across the market, “that piece of a fair Fate’s ass going through those piles does look an awful lot like Na Kheef.”

He thought a moment longer. “You know, I seem to remember they never let the public view the body after she died,” he reflected aloud.

“I know that look. That devious mind of yours is scheming again,” the shorter man said.

“It’s just a thought,” the taller man dismissed it. But he paused another moment. “But what if you knew the meanest son of an Emperor’s foot licker in the system hated your guts so badly he was out to get you if it was the last thing he ever did this side of the thin membrane?” he mused. “What if you got wind the bastard wanted you out of the way permanently and was getting ready to make it happen? What would you do if you were the one he was out to get?”

“I’d find a way to get myself locked away for a good long time some place where he couldn’t get at me, maybe in some Systemwide confinement facility,” the shorter man answered.

“You don’t think Daggen Jeft could get to you in a Systemwide confinement facility?” the taller man asked incredulously. “This is Daggen Jeft we’re talking about, Bret, probably the most powerful man in the entire system. I wouldn’t guess there’d be much of any place he couldn’t get at you if he knew where to find you. And if it was me I wouldn’t count on him not finding me even if I crawled into some hole and pulled a rock over it behind me to hide me.”

“Well, then, I’d…I don’t know what I’d do,” Bret admitted. “What would you do?”

“If it were me, and if I could figure out a way to pull it off, I’d stage my own death,” the taller man declared. “And then I’d make for some place I could hide where no one would ever believe I was me even if they saw me with their own eyes in the flesh and recognized me.

“C’mon,” he urged Bret. “I wanna get a good close look at this broad. I wanna ask her some questions. We could be onto a really big story here, the kind the celebrity watch services pay mega credit for. Even if it’s not her we might be able to sell some news service on the story that it is. And if the girl is really so Dirtside poor she gets all excited over dirty old rags imagine what she might do for us for, oh, say, twenty credits. Oblivion. I’d put out fifty credits in a microday for a piece of like that.”

Bret began breathing harder again. The two tourists started forward into the market. In spite of the lengthy rest they’d just taken in the archway both were gasping for oxygen again by their third steps across the zigzag red and yellow brick pavement in the direction of their quarry.

Their quarry, in the meantime, had found a second, and then a third, garment which interested her: a pair of puffy legged knee length breeches and a pair of bright yellow sleeveless coveralls. She was now speaking with the proprietor of the stall, showing the breeches to him. She appeared to be pointing out something about their waistband to him. He was shrugging. His mouth was a stubborn line. The local beauty made some further comment and the proprietor shrugged more exaggeratedly. His potential buyer hesitated for just a moment and then she thrust her wrist unit up to hold it to his reader. She was making her purchase.

“Hurry up, before she leaves the stall and we lose her,” the taller tourist urged on the shorter, who was already lagging behind him.

The tourists were by this time attracting considerable attention to themselves from the locals. Everyone could see at a glance at their fancy attire, at their weak low gravity world bodies, and at the pricy equipment they wore, that they were visitors from off world. Merchants and shoppers alike were taking notice of them, beginning to follow with suspicious eyes their cumbersome progress across the market. Intent on the woman, the men failed to notice all the eyes suddenly them. They were oblivious to the hostility they were arousing.

“What are they doing here?” a frumpy middle-aged woman buying dried beans from a little market stall asked its proprietor as she held her wrist unit to his reader to make her purchase. Unnecessarily, she indicated the off-worlders with her bony chin as she asked the question.

“I dun know,” the proprietor replied. “I can tell you what they don’t be doing. They don’t be buying nothing. Whadda ya wanna bet they come on one o’ them package tours all the off-worlders come on these days. They pay their off-world travel agency for everything in advance. Raja never sees a single millicredit of it. There’s nothing so damned useless as off-world tourists too Fate kissed cheap to put a little credit into Raja’s economy.”

“They should know better than to leave the tourist district. There are signs all over the hotels warning them to keep out of where they’re not welcome. It will serve them right if they get their heads bashed in and lose that fancy image capturing equipment of theirs,” the customer opined.

The young woman had completed her purchase. She gathered up her finds and stuffed them into the bag the merchant had provided her. Clutching the bag securely to her, she turned and made a direct line toward the deeply shadowed entrance to the underground. She didn’t even glance in the direction of any of the hawkers who cried out to her as she passed them by.

“I see what they’re up to. They’re after that girl, the one with the bag headed for the subway. They’re capturing her image,” a female stall attendant alerted everyone within hearing distance to the no good the interlopers were up to.

The young woman still took no notice of the off-worlders. With eyes intent on the subway entrance, she moved toward it with a graceful speed the bandy legged off-worlders could never hope to equal. But the two men were eager enough to try. The race which ensued really wasn’t any contest.

The woman reached the entrance and plunged down the stairs, her hair flowing out behind her as she now faced into the perpetual subterranian wind. The men, still many paces from the entrance, were intent on following her.

The natives put a stop to it. A merchant stepped out of his booth and made as though to cross their path. Just as the lead off-worlder rushed up the merchant suddenly stuck out one of his stout legs and planted it in front of the man. The off-worlder, staring into his image capturer, focused on the underground entrance, never saw the leg. He plowed into it full speed and went tumbling over it face first, letting out a lengthy cry of surprised anger in the time it took his towery form to topple. When he hit the ground the impact knocked further protest out of him completely.

“You did that on purpose!” the victim’s comrade protested, arresting his momentum narrowly in time to avoid tripping over his friend and piling on top of him. “You stuck your leg right out in front of him and you tripped him,” he accused the local.

“He walked right into me. He wasn’t watching where he was going,” the merchant contended. “It was his own Fate blasted fault.

“Tell him,” he appealed to the crowd which was gathering around.

“That’s right,” someone in the crowd called out.

“Clumsy off-worlder wasn’t looking where he was going,” others in the crowd spoke up to agree.

“Are you alright, Trevor?” the tourist still on his feet, Bret, inquired of his fallen comrade. Trevor had yet to disengage his nose from a weed choked crack between two paving bricks. He did so now and rolled over. His hand went to his left knee, which had partly absorbed the shock of his fall. Blood was beginning to seep from it through the scuffed but still intact leg of his expensive breeches.”

“You gibs have no business being here to begin with,” the merchant who had done the honor of tripping them up growled at the tourists. “This isn’t the tourist district. This is a local market. Outsiders aren’t welcome here, especially your kind.”

“There isn’t any law says we have to stay in the tourist district,” Bret retorted, straightening his back. He glared down at the shorter but more substantial native.

“They were stalking that girl, the one who just went down into the underground,” an onlooker called out. “They were capturing her image. That’s why they weren’t watching where they were going.”

“There’s laws against stalking on Raja. And we take off-worlders stalking our women very seriously,” the merchant directed to Bret and Trevor.

“We weren’t stalking anyone,” Bret denied the charge.

He would have issued further denials. But a man in the crowd chose that moment to interrupt. He jump out and snatch Bret’s image capturing equipment right off his face.

“Hey!” the tourist protested.

The thief didn’t even pause. In one continuous motion he bent over Trevor and snatched off his image capturing equipment as well, and then he dashed off into the crowd again, making a clean getaway with the recorded evidence of the off-worlders’ stalking transgression.

Two centidays removed from the incident in the market, the young woman with the intelligent eyes and the copper brunet hair emerged, still clutching her purchases tightly to her bosom, from the underground. She came up, some distance from the market square and the tourist district, in an outlying residential neighborhood of the city. She had no notion of what had transpired in the market in the wake of her departure from it.

(By this time public safety was on the scene in the market and officers were taking statements from witnesses, every one of whom was obstinately contradicting every detail of every complaint the off-worlders—whose identity chips revealed they were Trevor Cauthon, citzen’s ID number 000293-2947228, and Bret Stratton, citizen’s ID number 000295-9383662, both of Ijos—were making to the officers.)

The neighborhood into which the young woman emerged was more than two millennia newer than the market. It was a warren of crumbling synthstone highrise apartment buildings, all of which had been built within the decade. The buildings had been constructed with Systemwide Government funding, of substandard materials, by construction workers who had taken no pride in building them. The landscaping for the project had never been completed. The towers stuck up between mounds of dirt and leftover construction materials, all of which lay scattered about a hard packed, weed infested, construction lot.

From the underground exit, the young woman set off down a side street from the avenue the underground tunnel ran beneath. Several times in the three blocks she followed the street she greeted or was greeted by some sentient; tough looking young men, they were, all but for one older woman headed in the direction of the underground. It was mostly tough looking young men hanging out on the street corners and on the outside steps of the apartment towers all over the neighborhood. The young woman never once relaxed her hold on her bag.

At the end of the three blocks she turned into a walkway. In the packed dirt alongside it a crowd of animated young male spectators looked on while two of their fellows engaged in a contest played with throwing knives. Known as ‘split the difference’, or sometimes as ‘show me the blood’, the contest involved taking turns throwing the knives into the ground between one’s fellow contestant’s legs until someone flinched or someone’s throw went wide or drew blood. The game was extremely popular in the projects. Often it was played for extremely high stakes, which the participants and spectators put up in the form of goods rather than credit, usually stolen goods, often contraband.

The woman gave the game a wide berth, knowing the danger the knives posed to innocent passers-by. A scar on her thigh located where only she saw it when she got undressed for bed at night or used the blaster-cleanser was her reminder of what could happen if you got too close to a game of show me the blood. She’d incurred the scar as a schoolgirl. And of course neither her parents nor she had ever been able to afford the inexpensive procedure to have it removed.

Safely past the game, she climbed the uneven steps to the front door of one of the towers. She held her open hand to the security scanner to gain admittance to the building and then passed through the door into its lobby. The building’s elevators were as uselessly out of commission as the elevators in the underground. She automatically turned left to the emergency stairs and began the four flight climb to the apartment she shared, in name, with her father. In reality it was an increasingly infrequent occasion when her father even showed his face in the place.

Still breathing easily and still clutching her purchases tightly, she arrived on the third floor landing only to find her way to the next flight of stairs blocked. Placed deliberately on the next to bottom step so as to block her passage sat the building superintendent. Something in the way he looked at her told the young woman he was waiting there expressly for her. Something in the way he was sitting told her he’d been waiting for her a long time.

“Hello, Swee,” he greeted her.

She hated it when he called her Swee. Her name was Swenna. Only her immediate family had ever called her Swee. He had no right to take that liberty.

“Hello, Mr. Mockten,” she returned his greeting.

“I was hoping I might catch up to you sometime today,” Knoll Mockten confirmed her suspicion she’d been the specific target of his lying in wait. “I wanted to check with you about the rent,” he said. “It’s three deciyears overdue, you know. If it’s not paid in full by the end of the deciyear you’ll be evicted, you and your father.”

“That’s something you’ll have to take up with my father. The lease is in his name. He pays the rent. I don’t know anything about it. Except that it should be deducted straight out of his insufficient employment compensation benefit. If that’s not happening he’s the one who will have to straighten it out.”

“I haven’t seen your father in days,” Mr. Mockten said. “I’d appreciate it if you’d let him know I need to talk with him,” he said. “But I wanted to talk with you, too, Swee. I wanted you to know about the eviction, in case your father hadn’t told you about it. And I wanted to talk to you before, if you did know about it, you worried about being kicked out on the street or went and did something rash because of it. I wanted to let you know that we can work something out if you want to.”

“The rent is my father’s business. I don’t know anything about it. He doesn’t tell me a thing. Anything you may be able to work out, you’ll have to work out with my father. If you haven’t seen him lately join the club. I haven’t seen much of him either. The best way to get hold of him would be to call his wrist unit and leave him a message.”

“I was talking about working something out with you, Swee. I don’t care if your father gets evicted. He can take care of himself. It’s you I’m worried about. But I’m sure we can work something out. I have the codes to the security system, you know. I have to have them to do the maintenance on the system, and in case things get fouled up and someone has trouble getting into their own flat because their print doesn’t work. It will be deciyears after your father is evicted before a new tenant is assigned. I could arrange it so you’d still have access to the flat. I’m sure we could work out an arrangement for that to happen.

“This isn’t the first time eviction proceedings have been started against your family, you know,” Mr. Mockten said. “It used to happen every now and again back when you were a little girl, back when you lived on Parchjmig Circle and I was the super there. Your father and mother would sell a few pieces of their art in the same fifth of the fiscal year. And some artificial intelligence unit somewhere on the other side of the world that monitors the citizen welfare benefit system would decide they had too much income to qualify for their subsidy.

“And then the Fate kissed machine brains wouldn’t put them back on again when they didn’t sell anything in the next fifth of the year and their income for that period went to zip. It would take deciyears to convince the machine it had made a mistake and get it to straighten out the mess. That’s what’s probably led to the eviction proceedings now.”

Mr. Mockten shrugged his shoulders.

“Back then,” he said, “the Fate kissed system would schedule you for eviction before your parents even knew the rent hadn’t been paid. But I never let you get evicted. Your mother and I were friends, you know. We were real good friends. We always came to an arrangement and I’d make sure you still had access to the flat until everything got straightened out again.

“Do you ever hear from your mother, Swee, or from your sister?” he asked. He always asked Swenna this, every time he cornered her. As if he thought he was going to get a different answer from her than he did any other time.

“No. Never,” she answered. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Mr. Mockten…”

“It’s a shame about your mother, that she had to leave—not that I blame her, of course,” the super continued as though she hadn’t even spoken. “She and I were such good friends, you know. We had a very special relationship, your mother and I did.” He shook his head and his eyes rolled up, as though in remembrance of something he’d lost. “You grow more and more like your mother every day, Swee,” he said, looking straight at her again. “I look at you and I could be looking at your mother; you look that much like her.”

“I’m not my mother. I’m nothing like my mother,” Swenna said. “And I’d prefer that you didn’t call me Swee.”

“Why don’t you come down and have dinner with me tonight in my flat,” Mr. Mockten suggested. “We can talk about old times and we can come up with an arrangement about your staying on even if your father gets evicted. If you don’t want to stay in your present flat, we could work it out for you to move in with me. In fact, that would be much the better solution in the long term.”

He made the suggestion in just the tone a strange man might use to offer candy to a little girl on the street.

“It’s good of you to warn me about the eviction, Mr. Mockten,” Swenna said. “But you needn’t worry about me. I wasn’t planning to stay on in the flat much longer anyway. I expect word any day now about a program I’ve applied to. I’m sure by the end of the deciyear I’ll be living somewhere else. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go make preparations for that to happen.”

The stairs were narrow. They hadn’t been built for use as a main stairway. Sitting on the second step above the landing with his legs and elbows spread, Mr. Mockten had the entire stairway effectively barricaded. He didn’t appear the least bit inclined to move to let Swenna by. “I had no idea you were planning to leave, Swee,” he said to her. “Tell me about this program you’ve applied to.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Mockten. But I just don’t have time right now,” Swenna said. “I really need to get on by you up to the flat.”

For a moment the super just sat there blocking her way and Swenna didn’t know what to do. Then he said, “You can tell me all about it over dinner.” He got up off the steps and stepped down onto the landing. Swenna saw a crack of space between him and the railing and didn’t miss her chance. She darted past him, turning to slip sideways to make it between him and the rail post, and then darted up the steps. It wasn’t until she reached the landing between floors that she turned back to him.

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to make it for dinner,” she called down to him. “But thank you just the same.” And then she fled on upward, this time without looking back.

In her flat, Swenna closed the door behind her and locked it with both chain and deadbolt. She took her bag into her room and set it down upon her bed. Then she sat upon the bed beside it, far more shaken by Mr. Mockten’s news than she’d been willing for him to see. Had he been telling her the truth? Would she and her father really be evicted by the end of the deciyear? Or had his story just been a ploy to lure her to his flat?

Swenna hadn’t seen her father in days. She had no idea where he was or how to reach him. He never answered his wrist unit; half the time he didn’t even have service to it because he hadn’t paid the bill. And he never checked his messages, either those sent to his wrist unit or those sent to the communications tank there in the flat. There was a real possibility she wouldn’t even speak with him before—if Mr. Mockten was telling the truth—the marshals came and tossed them from the flat.

As for her plans she’d mentioned to Mr. Mockten, they were nowhere near as settled as she’d led him to believe.

Swenna had been taking care of her father for years, ever since her mother had taken Swenna’s younger sister, Machja, and up and deserted both him and Swenna, leaving behind only an auditory message for Swenna, then in her mid general school years, asking her to take care of her father because he would need her, saying nothing more.

Her mother had been right. Swenna’s father had needed Swenna badly. He’d been angry. He’d been frustrated. He’d been sad. There’d been times when he had ranted against Swenna’s mother. There’d been times when, prostrate upon the floor, he’d buried his face in Swenna’s lap and cried for centidays while Swenna had sat there dry eyed, comforting him. She hadn’t dared to visibly mourn her own loss. It would only have fueled her father’s anger, or his sadness.

Yes, Swenna and her father had been very close through the first few years after her mother had deserted them. But that had been a long time ago. Things had changed between them. They’d begun to change as Swenna had entered her adolescent years. And then as Swee, his little girl, had turned gradually into Swenna, the grown woman, her father had become ever more and more distant from her, until Swenna had become convinced he despised her as much as he despised the memory of her mother. Sometimes Swenna felt the very sight of her caused her father pain.

The time had finally come, just a deciyear ago, after her father had refused even to speak to her one morning she’d found him there in the flat after an absence from it of centiyears, that Swenna had come to an agonizing decision. She could stand his loathing no longer. She had no more of herself left to give him. She’d given till her heart was empty. She had to get away from him, to build a life of her own. It tore her up inside to do it. She was about to abandon her father just as her mother had. But for her own salvation she had to go. She simply couldn’t take any more.

That morning, feeling every step of the way like a traitor, she’d gone down to the local Worldwide Government Employment Office, where she’d waited in line almost all day to see a career counselor face to face and in the flesh.

“What I need is a job, a career, that will give me a steady income, enough credit to support myself, enough to pay for a flat of my own,” Swenna told the counselor when she finally got to see one.

“There are some tests you’ll need to take to find out what you have an aptitude for,” the counselor, a thin woman not much older than Swenna, who had introduced herself to Swenna as Greta Fallon, had explained.

She’d administered Swenna a battery of standardized skills evaluation and vocational placement tests. After Swenna had completed the tests and after looking over the results of them, the counselor had suggested to her, “You’ll need vocational training to get a job you can rely upon to support you. With scores like these there’s no reason you can’t get into any vocational training program we offer that appeals to you.”

They’d proceeded to pour together over a list of professions for which qualified applicants were currently being urgently sought. The counselor had told Swenna there were fully government sponsored training programs which could prepare her for the jobs on the list. Because of the need, the government would pay for her room and board and training and other expenses while she trained.

Swenna had found several on the list she liked the sound of; the counselor had reiterated that she should have no trouble getting a placement in any of them, given her test scores. Swenna had sat right there in the counselor’s office and filled out and submitted applications to five different schools, and for the government assistance to pay for the training at whichever of them she got into.

It had been in anticipation of going to school that Swenna had gone shopping for the repeated wear garments she’d just purchased at the market. If she was going to school she didn’t want to have to wear the same set of disposable, made to wear just once, clothing to class four or five days in a row before she could afford to replace them, the way she’d been stretching her use of disposable outfits for as long as she could remember. So she’d put herself on half rations and stretched each outfit she bought to serve her six or seven days instead of five until she’d put together just enough credit from her government individual allowance to afford a second or third or fourth hand outfit or two if she could find something on the cheap which would fit her.

A neighbor had told her about the stall in the market. “It sells good repeated wear clothing for a very reasonable price,” she’d said. “It has piles of it. I get all my clothing there.”

Swenna had worried the stall in the market wouldn’t have anything in her size; she was a difficult fit with her average to slightly above average height but very slender build. She’d been so elated when she’d found two outfits in her price range which would fit her, and both with wear left in them.

And then she’d come home to the news that she and her father were about to be evicted! And she had yet to hear whether she’d been accepted either for a training program or for the government subsidy she needed to pay for it. It occurred to her now in her anxiety that perhaps Ms. Fallon had been overly optimistic about her chances for either.

For a few terrifying millidays Swenna sat and considered her alternatives if the threatened eviction should come to pass, if no government sponsored training program should materialize, if her father didn’t show in time to stop the eviction, or if he showed but couldn’t or wouldn’t provide her shelter any longer. She considered the unthinkable possibility of being reduced to living and sleeping on the street, of scavenging for scraps of food in the waste bins behind hotels and restaurants in the tourist district, the possibility of being reduced to selling herself to tourists on the street for the price of a meal and a place to sleep for the night and for the use of the blaster-cleanser in the morning. She considered the unspeakably humiliating prospect of coming to an accommodation with Mr. Mockten of the sort her mother would have come to with the man. She considered what it would cost her in pride and dignity and swallowing her feelings to track down her mother and sister to ask them for help. She considered the alternative of turning to a life of crime: stealing enough to live on until she got caught and sentenced to live out her life in the shelter of some confinement facility at the expense of the state.

For just a few terrifying millidays she considered all these horrible possibilities. And then she shot up off from the bed and ran out into the common room to the communications tank, accessing in her wrist unit the contact number for the counselor at the employment office as she ran. She entered the number into the tank and steeled herself to do battle with the artificial intelligence call screening system she would have to negotiate to get through to the one sentient being who might be able to save her from the fates she had momentarily contemplated calling down upon herself.

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