Back | Next

11. Playing Hooky

Merola continued playing the charade of an orphan girl living with foster parents Emily and William Windlace and attending fourth-grade classes with Missus Gorage at Commodore Sloat Elementary School. It was the only way she could maintain her fictitious position in this society.

She needed that position because, as a minor child and without Berzher’s help, she had no means of support. If Berzher had access to the tools on a chassis, he might have helped her steal the means to survive. Vaults full of paper scrip were stored at vulnerable places called “banks,” and even more of this fragile “money” was available through the primitive computer network—but only if she had Berzher’s unique abilities at crawling, climbing, picking locks, and corrupting data. As it was, she had the resources of a nine-year-old girl, plus a stipend of $35 per week from Family & Children Services, payable to the Windlaces.

On this day, however, Merola was determined to avoid school and run an errand on her own. She considered it the last stage of her mission and her final duty to Berzher. She left the Windlace home in the morning as usual, but instead of going toward the school building she went in the other direction, to the corner where a large collective conveyance called a “bus” routinely stopped.

“Where’s your mommy?” asked the woman in a gray uniform, when the door opened for Merola. This woman obviously was charged with operating the bus—work that would normally be reserved for an intelligence. From the way her hands moved on the controls, she also opened and closed the doors.

“She’s at work,” Merola said. This was the truth.

“This bus goes downtown, honey, not to school.”

“I know. But I’m meeting her. … Downtown.”

This was not the truth. Merola knew that Emily Windlace was a “real estate agent,” a person who sold—rather than grew—residences, and she worked in an office in her own neighborhood. By using the computer at the house, Merola had found the internet page for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which published route maps and schedules for the benefit of potential passengers. By piecing together the bus-line information with what she could remember of the coordinates from her Search parameters, Merola knew that “downtown” was where she needed to go.

“All right,” the operator said. “You got your fare?”

Merola held up her lunch money. She had counted out the exact amount from studying the transit system fare structure. The operator showed her where to put it.

“Do you want a transfer, honey?”

“Yes, please.”

Merola took the slip, went to the back of the bus, and found an empty seat. She watched traffic, houses, and buildings go by outside the window. Once again she was struck by how many people were alive in this time. They all lived in dead structures, moved about in brain-dead—though surprisingly large and noisy—machines, and worked at dead-end jobs more suited for intelligences, like the bus operator’s. She found it all very depressing.

Through the bus window Merola counted the signs, conveniently place at the corners, that identified the streets she was passing. She tracked the route all the way to the place called “Union Square,” which was “downtown” and a short walk from her destination.

The scene of chaos on the street corner where the F.A.O. Schwarz store had been—broken glass, chunks of the faux-stone called “concrete,” broken toys, and broken people—had all been removed. In its place Merola found a gap in the line of buildings and, at street level, a fence made out of boards of dead wood. One section was a gate fashioned out of linked wires, and she approached that.

“You can’t come in here, little girl,” said one of two men standing inside the gate. Both wore dark uniforms with yellow, hard-shell hats.

“Yeah, toy store’s closed,” said the other.

Merola looked through the gate. The place where the store had been was now a hole, several levels deep, cut into the ground. She stood on tiptoe to look down into it. She could see broken pillars and fragments of concrete flooring still spread out across the hole’s bottom. But the mass of the building had disappeared.

“Where did it go?” she asked the men.

“The store went up to heaven,” one said.

The other man laughed.

“I mean the broken building materials, damaged toys, and dead body parts,” Merola clarified. “You don’t have transmutation, so they have to be somewhere. Where do you take these things?”

“Gee, I dunno. The dump?”

“Transmutation?” said the other.

“Where is this dump?” she asked.

“Beats the hell out of me.”

Merola decided that, even in an unimportant job like gate guardian, an intelligence would have been more helpful than these humans. Unless, of course, it was programmed for secrecy, in which case it would have informed her that the information was not available. These two men were not being secretive. They were simply ignorant.

“Thank you,” she said and turned away.

If Berzher’s chassis had survived the destruction in any usable form, it was now a crushed mass among a thousand other toys, discarded with the building’s cement and plaster in a “dump” somewhere far away and unknown to her.

She really was abandoned and alone.

Merola took out her transfer pass and walked up to Union Square, where another bus would take her back to her neighborhood.

The result of Merola’s unannounced excursion was a letter from the school principal, a visit from Mrs. Riccardi, her FCS case worker, and a tense interview with Bill and Emily Windlace. Merola coolly agreed that she would, in future, go to school every day.

Back | Next