My life had suffered a major temblor, but among the ruins the flower of hope was pushing up its ever optimistic, smiling face. The morning had been a disaster, true, but it was not as bad as it had seemed while the ground still shook and the thunder still rumbled overhead. There were still dark clouds hovering about the horizon, but it looked promising that they would dissipate. Overall, as I left my conference with Jeremy, I felt that the odds of surviving this disaster were well in my favor. Giffen the great survivor of many fou-faw-raws and kerfuffles, the voice of experience personified, the great risk-taker himself, had rendered his judgment in my favor and I felt hopeful. There was still the detail of finding a bit of work to restore the old fortunes, but there was still time and as the saying goes, who knows what the tide will wash up, and it does it twice a day.
It was drawing on towards mid-day then, but still not quite close enough to contemplate lunch. Instead of taking the direct, efficient route back to my quarters I elected to do a bit of rambling. A bit of exercise might get the intellectual juices flowing. A nice contemplative walk would be just the activity during which I could conjure up a plan of action, chart a new course clear of the rocks.
So, at the next intersection I juggled the options and for absolutely no reason at all turned right. I continued in that direction for several blocks, then made another random change of direction. I continued this way for some time, idly strolling along residential streets and streets of small shops, many so specialized they had to be more the proprietors' hobbies than sources of serious income. I discovered a small, delightful park of which I had been unaware and paused there for a few minutes to rest the tired lower extremities. In the end it was an absolute waste of time as far as stirring up intellectual juices, but still a thing well worth doing now and then of and for itself.
Presently the pangs of hunger began to make themselves noticed. I have to admit it never takes much prodding to get me to notice them. It occurred to me that Sydne had mentioned taking a new job in an eatery of some sort and it also seemed to me that the neighborhood she mentioned was the very one that I was currently traversing. There was a public information kiosk handy at the next intersection and after calling up a list of dining facilities within a five block radius I found a name that seemed to ring a bell. It was but a few blocks away and in that direction I ambled along.
I found the place with no great difficulty. It was one of those unprepossessing little places, a small storefront with a few tables out front and more inside and a sign, in fancy lettering, naming the premises "Street Fare." The sign, menu posted in the window, decor all bespoke newness, though it probably occupied a location that had hosted similar small eateries since well before the Flood. Such small enterprises come and go so quickly it's amazing they don't meet themselves coming around the corner. Such places are sometimes superb and sometimes a crime against the culinary arts, but usually they managed a reasonably edible product, for a quick lunch at least. And I'd already spotted Sydne behind a counter inside and loyalty to old friends, along with increasing hunger, compelled me to let the establishment give it a shot.
Once inside and scanning the menu more thoroughly I understood the meaning of the restaurant's name. Their target clientele were obviously the casual lunch and between meal snack crowd. Their choice of cuisine was, as the name implied, the whole panoply of street foods, such as have evolved among handcarts and market stalls and hole-in-the wall food stands for untold generations. There were the usual and unusual members of the sandwich family; the heroes, po'boys, pan bagnats, muffuletas, gyros, rotis. Then there were the multi-faceted genre of turnovers and pasties, a testimony to the theory that good ideas are often independently conceived of in many places and times; the empanadas, samosas, knishes, calzones. To complete the line-up, they offered a variety of noodles, rolled things, bits and pieces of this and that roasted upon a stick and dunked in sauces. On first entering I hadn't expected much, but after a more lengthy consideration I had to admit that the kitchen staff had set themselves an impressive goal if they intended to do it all well.
Sydne's function in the establishment was to take orders, pass them back to the two fellows in the kitchen who performed the artistry, and see to the financial arrangements. The place wasn't very busy at the moment, so I took my time perusing the board and traded a bit of idle gossip with Sydne as well. After much juggling of options I made my selection, a couple of cheese knishes with a side of deep fried yam chips. Sydne passed the order back, then punched it up on the register. The amount appeared in the customer display. I tapped the accept key and placed my thumb on the veripad, one of those everyday motions we all do without even thinking. On an ordinary day the scanner in the veripad would have recorded an image of my thumb print, zipped the critical elements of that image off to a processor somewhere which would have shuffled through its files and said, "Oh, yes. Malvern, Dunstan, account such and such", and passed that bit of information on to whichever accounting service handled Street Fare's number fiddling. The appropriate negotiations between druidium arsenide brains would occur and within seconds a "Transaction Complete" would flash on the register terminal.
That's what would happen on a normal day. Today was obviously stoutly resisting any impulse to be normal. Instead of the "Transaction Completed" message a string of letters and numbers flashed briefly, one set following another. Then the rather frightening words "Transaction Cannot Be Completed" appeared. Not just appeared, but flashed on and off, on and off, just to drive home the point. From the look of confusion on Sydne's face I suspected that the display on her side of the terminal said the same, or possibly worse. She looked up at me, then back at the register, at me, at the register. She began to fall into synchronization with the flashing message.
"Well, I've never seen that before!"
"Nor have I. What do we do now?"
"Maybe there's been a malfunction. I heard that there was a major disruption on the financial networks early this morning. A cascading failure that started about one in the morning here in Ilnestrom and spread all the way to Soucon. Maybe there are still some problems."
Her fingers worked on the other side of the terminal. The display cleared. Then the amount due reappeared.
"I've cancelled the previous transaction and re-entered. Try it again."
I tried it again. A second later the ominous message reappeared. Sydne fingered away on her side again. First a blank screen and then the amount appeared again. She nodded and with considerable hesitation I thumbed the veripad one more time. Same result. Sydne looked at me, her face showing even more puzzlement than before. Then she realized several more customers had come in and were beginning to look impatient. She made some hasty scribbling on a notepad, then cleared the display again.
"I hope this isn't going to become a regular thing, Duncie. I've made a note of the amount. Come back in later and we'll try again, once they've gotten their circuits straightened out."
She turned to the next customer. I took a seat by the window and waited for my order, though my appetite had not been improved by the mystery of the register failing. We've been doing things like this for generations on Hildred's Planet. The electronic routines of daily life virtually never fail. And so it's quite unnerving when they occasionally do. Rather like when the friendly, quiet earth disrupts your daily routine with an unexpected little shaker just strong enough to remind you that every once in a while a really big earthquake can come along.
When the knishes and their friends appeared, quite quickly, I picked them off the counter rather sheepishly, returned to my table as unobtrusively as possible and ate slowly. The flavors were quite excellent, I'm sure, but my taste buds had been put off by the mystery of the bogus message. Before departing we gave it one more try, with the same result, and Sydne waved me off with a "Remember to come back later."
The walk home in the warm, post-noon sunlight revived my spirits again and pleasantly full I returned to my apartment, anticipating a bit of a nap before beginning my job search. I approached my familiar threshold and placed my hand in the usual position on the handle, thumb positioned on the lock mechanism. The door handle refused to budge when I tried it. Perplexed I tried again. Same result, or rather lack of result. I stood there, quite bewildered for a minute or so and then began, I must admit somewhat frantically, thumbing the lock's veripad and trying the door handle. A sort of panic began to set in, the sort you feel in one of those anxiety induced nightmares where you find yourself naked in a nunnery and can't find the exit, or even a spare habit.
After a few deep breaths I calmed down. These little malfunctions are rare and so of course we're thrown off balance when they do occur, especially when it's twice in one afternoon. Some actions we perform so frequently that we cease to notice them, actions like placing one's thumb in the proper location to activate a lock mechanism. I removed my handkerchief and very carefully wiped off the veripad section of the door handle. Remarkable device that it is, I supposed that occasionally the build up of grease and grime could take its toll. Very carefully I placed my hand, taking particular care about thumb placement, and tried again. It budged not a millimeter. Perhaps there was something wrong with the thumb. I tried the left hand. The lock was programmed to accept either thumb, after all. Still nothing.
I stood there breathing deeply and deliberately, repressing an urge to panic. Then it struck me. The solution was simple. Just ring up the building superintendent and have the defective lock seen to. Which was what I proceeded to do. There was an intercom just for such purposes in the foyer.
"Ah, Mrs. Oldacre, I'm glad to see you're in," I said, when she answered the ring. "I have a bit of a..."
"Who is this?"
"This is Dunstan, Mrs. Oldacre."
"Dunstan Malvern. Apartment 212. My lock seems..."
"Just a moment, Mr. Malvern. I'll connect you with the head office."
"That shouldn't be necessary, Mrs. Oldacre. If you could just trip the lock and then have a repairman come around..."
"Just a moment, Mr. Malvern. The head office wants to talk to you."
Well, the way the day had been going, I didn't like the sound of that at all. An intense sense of foreboding seemed to be gathering in the foyer. Another voice came over the intercom.
"This is General Property Management Services of Ilnestrom. Is this Mister Dunstan Malvern."
The voice could easily have rivaled that of M. Beeson in a blood freezing contest. It had a sort of androgynous quality, such that I couldn't tell if the speaker was a male or female fiend. It might possibly have been synthesized.
"Ah, yes it is. I seem to have a problem with the lock..."
"Mr. Dunstan, you are now three months in arrears on your rent. We have sent numerous requests to you asking that you make the necessary fund transfers. You have not complied and therefore, pursuant to Title 12, Chapter 23, Section 5, of the Municipal Code of..."
"I'll make the payment immediately. If you'll just let me back into my apartment so I can get to the discom..."
"...we have secured the apartment in question in due accordance with all applicable provisions of the relevant civil codes, including but not limited to the above specified title, chapter and section. Any attempt to reoccupy the said apartment before mutually acceptable and agreed upon arrangements have been made to settle the aforementioned debt will constitute a further violation of the above mentioned title, chapter, and section as well as pertinent sections of the criminal code and will be punished in accordance with the relevant..."
"But all my things are in that apartment. My clothes. Everything. You can't just lock me out like this."
"... and in accordance with sub-section 18B of the above cited reference lien has been filed against all financial accounts and real property belonging to you, such lien not to be released until settlement of the aforementioned debt. And I might add, Mr. Malvern, that our routine check of your financial status reveals a most disturbing situation. We have found a singular lack of uncommitted resources; it would appear somewhat less than that required to clear your back rent. We have the interests of our investors to safeguard, Mr. Malvern. We sincerely hope that you will attend to this matter in a timely fashion, or we will be forced to resort to the full range of remedies provided by the law to effect recovery. Have a pleasant afternoon."
That certainly explained a few things. The door refusing to open, of course. And the failure of the register at the restaurant. They'd had a busy morning, putting a lock on my ready money account and what little else I had left. I had a strong suspicion that it was not mere coincidence that they'd chosen today to act, though whether it was Uncle Grump or M. Beeson who'd given them a friendly word of advice about checking up on their tenant's finances was an open question. Perhaps it was both. Either way, I was now, in the ancient usage, penniless. And homeless. At least they hadn't sent a hired muscle around to physically boot me out of the building. Not yet, at least. I was quite literally floored by this development. Just absolutely stunned. In a daze I took a seat on the tiny, really meant to be only decorative, bench in the foyer. There had to be something I could do, but my disaster shocked brain could think of nothing.
Then I heard the outer door whoosh open. A smallish, unobtrusive automaton came wheeling into the foyer. It was a fairly generic sort of machine, a blockish power unit mounted on wheels and topped by what could pass for an antique garbage can with a dome shaped lid. A variety of actuator arms and sensor pods festooned the thing. Lumped together under the term servot, thousands of such machines were cranked out by the autofacs every year and went about doing mundane housekeeping and janitorial tasks. I should have guessed this one meant trouble. The black and white paint job backgrounding the city crest and the letters "Municipal Courts" should have been a tip off.
I sat extremely still when I realized the contraption was a mechanical bureaucrat. Somehow its presence seemed ominous in the extreme. It rolled past me. I could see the lens of the optical scanner sweeping steadily back and forth across its path. For a moment I thought it would continue on its way. But it stopped and then reversed direction. The scanner now seemed to be focusing on me. A mechanical sounding voice issued from its internal speaker.
"Are you Malvern, Dunstan Ulrick, resident at apartment 212, 459 Arenander Street, Ilnestrom?"
I hesitated to answer, of course. The way the day had gone so far I was certain nothing good was going to come of speaking to this thing.
"You are reminded," it said with a deeper, quicker tone, "that the prior request for information is being issued by an official apparatus of the Municipal Courts of the Judicial District of Greater Ilnestrom. Failure to comply will result..."
"Yes, I am," I said hastily, before it could start reciting the dire consequences. This was new, the humiliation of being brow-beaten by a machine.
"Please verify your identity."
An actuator arm unfolded from the left side of the machine and extended towards me. Mounted on the end of the arm was a veripad. I humbly placed my thumb on the opaque surface. A second later the arm withdrew and resumed its folded state.
"Malvern, Dunstan Ulrick, you are hereby informed and advised that a common interest complaint of inability to maintain self-support has been lodged against you in the Municipal Courts of the Judicial District of Greater Ilnestrom. You are hereby charged with and required to appear before an inquiry to be convened at the aforesaid court on the coming Tuesday, the 20th day of the current month to answer the aforesaid accusation. Detailed instructions are provided on the hardcopy which will now be produced."
There was a whirring noise deep inside the machine's mechanical guts and an official looking paper came scrolling out through a narrow slot below the city crest. I took the paper, ripping it off against the serrated edge of the slot. It was an official looking summons, replete with long words essentially conveying the same message the machine had just delivered, but also including explicit date and time and location instructions. My hands involuntarily jerked away from the flimsy sheet of paper as if it had been on fire. Then, realizing that the synthetic snoop still had its lens focused on me and dropping an official communication from the courts was probably an offense in and of itself, I snatched it out of mid-air and stuffed it in a pocket.
"On behalf of the civic courts," the speaker sounded in a smoother, more mellifluous and obviously standardized synthetic voice, "may you have a pleasant afternoon."
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