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“Government cannot make man richer, but it can make him poorer.”

—Ludwig Von Mises

Pacelli Information Associates

Earth Culturalists

Consultants Specialty North America

36651-96908 Jefferson

Kendra stared at the cards. She had an ad on her phone, another in the public nets and these cards to hand out to strangers. She squeezed it again to see the animation flash across the surface.

It was a new concept, again. Her business. She’d worried about the publicity of her name, with a search still on for her. “Just use your last name. They won’t make the connection,” Rob had insisted. “You’re thinking a massive bureaucracy is efficient and can think. Won’t happen.”

Nervously, she’d agreed. Marta and Rob had helped her set up, with surprisingly little money. No fees, licenses, taxes or background checks. No certification or insurance. Print up advertising and go. They had advised her on the rate she should charge, which seemed outrageous, but they insisted she should demand it.

“You won’t be taken seriously if you are too cheap,” Marta had explained. “And the people who need your service will pay without a twitch. You can haggle slightly if someone is desperate or just needs a quick question.”

“What about long-term deals? Should I offer a discount?” She couldn’t imagine a long-term contract happening, but thought she’d better ask.

“Depends. If they want you to go to their site, demand more.”

She’d agreed, even though she didn’t entirely understand.

Only a few days later, she arrived home from work to find a message waiting. “Line Two. Line Two. Line Two . . .”

That was her business line, Kendra realized after a moment. She reached for a shirt.

“Answer phone Pacelli,” she ordered.

“Returning call,” the machine advised. “Dialing. Connecting.”

“Yes, I’m Kenneth Chinran,” the caller said as he came on screen. “I’d like some information on a consultancy.” He was dressed very conservatively, very Commerce Boulevard.

“Okay,” she agreed, smiling politely while her mind raced. She decided to stall. “Tell me what you’re looking for.”

“My company is preparing to send a group to North America and we’d like them to be familiar enough with customs that they can get immediately to the job at hand with few distractions. We’d like them to interact smoothly.”

“I see. Where would we be meeting?”

“We would fly you here, to Marrou. We would like to have your services for three days, long divs.”

“How long?” she asked.

“Three point five per day.”

She nodded while quietly taking a deep breath and said, “My fee is two hundred creds per div. And I’ll need transport and lodging.”

Chinran nodded back, “Very well. How soon are you available?”

“I can come this weekend if your schedule is tight.” Two grand! For three days of lecturing!

“It is. We also will require an oath of confidentiality.”

“All my clients have confidentiality,” she replied smoothly. Since you’re all of them.

“Very well. We’ll have a ticket waiting for you on Eastern Shuttle Service at six on Berday,” Chinran advised.

“I need to know how many people and exactly what type of information you want.”

“Nineteen people and myself. We’d like background on customs, slang, shopping, dress and accents. Mostly, we simply need to talk at length. We will ask some specific questions and you’ll need to fill in whatever you think we may have missed. We’ll trans a print for you.”

“Sounds good. Berday then.”

“Berday. Bye. Off.”

“Off,” she ordered.

She packed a bag for the weekend trip and commed to confirm her ticket. Rob had agreed to drive her to the ’port and waited almost too late: he was working on something for Freehold Rapid Courier and seemed distracted. He drove fast, and she gripped the seat in fear at some of his maneuvers. Other drivers didn’t seem bothered so she tried to relax.

At the airport, the procedure was strange to her. There was no search of her or her luggage, she didn’t need fingerprints or retina pics to prove who she was and they had a procedure for weapons safety. She’d forgotten she was wearing her sidearm, as she now wore it out of habit.

“Please clear your weapon, Ms Pacelli,” an attendant asked. She blushed and complied, stuffing the magazine and spare round into her pouch. “We’d prefer that you store it in your pouch and in the underseat stowage. You’ll still be able to reach it quickly in an emergency, but it eliminates the chance of an accident.”

She nodded in response. It made sense. Given the obsession with personal freedom here coupled with the need to avoid accidents, it made sense. A historical scan she’d done the week before indicated there’d never been a successful act of piracy, questionable commandeering or hijacking aboard any Freehold aircraft, transport or registered vessel. Ever. She couldn’t conceive of any UN nation ever considering allowing personal weapons, however. It was an alien concept.

She was still nervous as she boarded the ballistic shuttle. The concept of atmospheric flight with the local lack of central control bothered her. The trip was short, at moderate gees by her new standards, which was still fairly brisk. She was glad they had complimentary drinks for the long descent; it had been a rough week. She had three and was cheerfully mellow when they landed.

A cab ride took her to the hotel, which was midrange and quite decent. It had a good café and she grabbed a bite before retiring. She decided to go to review her notes and go to sleep early, since she had a long weekend ahead of her. She was nervous about the presentation.

The next morning, she was picked up by a young driver. He said, “I’m here for Chinran, Ms Pacelli,” and showed her to a car. That was the extent of the conversation, other than very few pleasantries. She decided reticence was not a social skill she would cultivate. He led her inside another hotel to a small conference room and she was introduced to Kenneth Chinran.

“Here is our contract,” Chinran said, handing her a sheet. She was still getting used to single-page legal documents. “You agree to answer our questions in detail, make no recordings and make no investigations as to our ID. There are some other points, but those are key.”

She read the sheet, noted that basically the meeting was not taking place and signed.

Chinran handed her a copy and led her down a hall to another conference room. Once inside, the door was locked and antieavesdropping equipment activated. A young man, boy really, ran a wand around her, nodded and sat down.

There were twenty people in the room. All young, six of them women. In Earth terms, they ranged from probably sixteen to thirty. They were dressed impeccably, in business style, with no tattoos or jewelry. All had an intense look to them and were in even better physical shape than most Freeholders.

Scanning them, she nodded curtly. Walking over to the front row, she offered her hand. “Ah’m Kendra, who ur you?”

The kid reached for her hand with both of his.

She snatched back, snapping, “Doan be grabbin, minor. Shake with one hand, doan like to take ma arm. You lookin fer handout? Fuggoff, ya liddle drop.” There were a few giggles.

She continued, “Streeter talk ain’ educated idiom, but it common to the cities, ’specially to anyone under thirty—that’s Earth years—and affected by tough business persons. Ya will need clodes more like mahn, und not quite so neat. Look a little worn.”

As she continued, the group made notes. Questions were asked and she answered them, sometimes in a different direction than they expected. She would elucidate on things that were not apparent to them, but obvious to her.

“Doan be so dam helpful,” she warned, “und doan smile much. You happy, you draw scopes. You help someone, they sue you for innerference.”

As the session progressed, she noticed that their accents were changing rapidly, getting closer to her Great Lakes drawl. Apparently, they had been chosen because they were quick studies. At the end of the div, they took a break.

Chinran approached. “Excellent presentation,” he observed. “Text only goes so far, und then ya need practice.” He was picking it up, too.

He suggested some topics and they resumed again a few segs later.

She began, “You gurls need to look less likely. You get dragged fer a rape if ya look bright und wide. Hunch a liddle. Be suspicious. Flick yer eyes a bit. Better.”

At the end of three divs, she was exhausted. She wound up in the hotel’s plunge with a strong drink, letting the steam relax her. She dried, pulled on briefs and went to one of the nearby restaurants for dinner. She had another drink.

By the time she returned to her room, she’d declined advances from three men and a woman. She refused partly out of tiredness, partly because she regarded her relationship with Rob and Marta as complex enough. She had no idea why she was considered so attractive, but was beginning to enjoy the attention.

The second day, the difference between her accent and theirs had all but disappeared. The discussion was mostly on shopping.

“Doan carry things around ya doan need to. Ask for delivery. It’s cheap. When in a store, doan pull things off the rack. Ya’ll alarm and get hassled by rentas. Don’t flash cash, in fac’, doan carry cash. You won’t find veggies of the quality you do here and the server will selec’ them for ya, usually from the bottom. Food isn’ nearly as spicy . . .”

She answered numerous questions:

“What’s the point behind the repetitive double crash in so many schrack songs?”

“How do you handle traffic if you have to cross in the middle of a block? You say they won’t stop for you?”

“What recourse do you have if the landlord won’t make good on maintenance?”

Almost ten hours of disconnected factoids was incredibly wearing.

On day three, she was blindsided. Thirty segs into the discussion, someone asked, “How hard is it to find false ID chips in North America?”

“I wouldn’t know,” she replied. “Why?”

“I’d just like to know,” the speaker replied.

The group asked detailed questions which she answered, finding within herself answers to questions she’d never considered. The sudden shift in attitude was scary. These people weren’t planning “business,” she was sure. There was something creepy, predatory about them.

“When could a landlord enter commercial premises without permission from the tenants?”

“How many times can you pay a bill with cash before it gets reported to UNRS?”

“What would be the best way to avoid random vehicle checks on North America Route Ninety-Five?”

“Can you describe a typical Bureau of Industry inspection?” That one she could answer, as her parents’ shop underwent them regularly.

She was exhausted by the end, accepted her cash payment, and fell asleep on the shuttle. She realized as she drifted off that she had probably just assisted espionage. Now she had a legitimate reason to leave Earth. A sickly grin crossed her face before unconsciousness hit her. An attendant woke her as they opened the hatches.

Walking through the terminal, she was bemused by irony; here she was, walking through the ’port with a wad of cash and a gun. Three months ago she would have—had—freaked out at that concept.

Marta was waiting for her, in Rob’s car. She delivered a brief but steamy kiss as Kendra strapped in. “How was it?” Marta asked, whipping into traffic.

“Tiring. Very, very tiring,” Kendra replied. She explained a little of the business of her schedule, careful not to mention topics of conversation.

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