Invisible Hand – Chapter Five: Fast Food

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In which Niall finds out there is such a thing as a free meal and Tony tells something of his past.

As they shuffled out of the apartment, the kids pulling Niall between them, he noticed that they didn’t lock the door. “Are you leaving the apartment unlocked on purpose?”

“What’s the point in locking it?” Tony said, “Nobody’s home.”

Niall was surprised at Tony’s seeming insouciance. “Well, um, well for starters they could rob us blind while we’re away. You may not have anything worth stealing but I have some things I’d rather not lose,” Niall said.

He was aware that he had used the indefinite “they,” a practice he generally avoided. He didn’t know why, exactly, but something bugged him about it, as in, “We were robbed.” Then, almost inevitably, “How much did they get?” He always wondered who “they” were, of course. Perhaps it was his mental image of an amorphous “they” hovering over the community, an ectoplasmic manifestation of all that was frightening and unknown, done up in grey-black smoke for good measure.

Wordlessly, Tony walked back into the apartment. Brianna said,

"I hope he can find the key. Normally we never lock up when we go out.” She looked at her father as though he were a stranger (which in a sense he was), still getting used to the idea that here he was. “You see,” she continued, “there haven’t been any thefts in this building in the time we’ve been here, what, four years? The computer would record anyone stealing something.” Niall got the uneasy feeling back in his stomach as he glanced at the opaque rectangle of the TV. “And there really isn’t much here to steal anyway.”

At least I can do something about that with all this money. “Does the computer watch the hallway all the time?” Niall asked, absent-mindedly resisting the bilateral tugging he was enduring from John and Lora.

“Sure,” Brianna explained. “That way if one of the kids goes out without telling me, the computer lets me know and tells me where they’re going,” adding “It’s funny but I don’t think of it as a computer computer, if you follow me. It’s kind of just there, something you get used to pretty soon. Anyhow, Johnny can go to the playground if he wants to and Lora can go next door to play with her friends. It, the computer, can’t take care of them but it can tell me where they are and what they’re doing.”

The last bit of Brianna’s explanation tailed away from Niall’s notice, as in his mind the apartment building began to resemble a prison. It was, he understood, a flashback of the kind Derrin had said would occur frequently as he became more acculturated, but unpleasant nonetheless. The cheerful decorations were transformed in his mind to camouflage for something sinister. Malevolent forces kept them under observation 24 hours a day. Even the playground was no haven. Thank God his captors had not had this technology, or he’d still be cooling his mouth with wet pebbles.

He had to get his family out of the country.

“Mom, can we go ahead and let Dad come later?” Johnny asked, shattering Niall’s uncomfortable reverie.

“No you can’t, big guy,” said Tony coming through the door, key held up for all to see, as if it were a trophy or some oddity. “Sorry for the delay, Niall, we just don’t use it that much,” he said.

“No problem,” Niall said. “Brianna’s been filling me in. It looks like there’s a lot I need to fill in.” They’d told him that, and he intellectually realized that you just don’t drop out of a society, return 12 or 15 years later, and pick up where you left off. And oh, yes, throw in a bizarre change in the entire concept of money, and there you go. But it was different actually going through it, rather than hearing about it.

“…We became accustomed to being very careful to not touch or otherwise disturb anyone else’s property. Nowadays everybody just sort of assumes that no one would touch their stuff.” Tony finished.

“I understand that the more modern apartment buildings have palm plates and voice recognition,” Brianna added. “It’ll probably be years before it’s in the older housing like this, though.”

“Yeah, not only that,” thought Niall, “but I’ll bet they’ll even have electronic locks on the doors so you can’t get out without permission either.”

The walk was pleasant, the weather moderate, and the sunset had everyone (well, almost everyone) in a relaxed mood. Even Niall had perked up once they’d gained the sidewalk, out of the building and away from his morose thoughts of surveillance. They moved toward the restaurant, a small knot of family with Niall seeming to be swept along, a kid on each side and an adult front and rear, on a tide of nonstop conversation and banter.

“It’s in England, dopey!” Johnny charitably said to his sister as they were crossing the street to the brightly lighted building that was their destination.

“Mom, Dad, tell stupid head that I know where granddad is from,” wailed Lora, who had only the faintest idea where in the world London was but wouldn’t admit it for all the string licorice her brother would ever get.

“Lora, Johnny, how about we just be happy that he’s here with us now, in Virginia. There’s no argument about that, is there?” Tony said, only slightly breaking stride during the sibling sniping.

On the way, Brianna and Tony had the chance to introduce Niall to several of the people they encountered, folks, like themselves, out to enjoy a nice walk on a pleasant evening. Still, it seemed to Niall that there were a good number more people walking around than he could remember, or thought he could remember, he had to remind himself. One of Derrin’s caveats had been about the good old days. Niall could safely count on their being old, but the good is often what Derrin called a nostalgia halo, where the good we remember as better than it had been, and the bad less so.

Most of the acquaintances seemed to be wearing some variation of white outfits but always accessorized with something that looked more expensive than the outfits themselves. Niall had all the fashion sense of a blind chameleon, but this stood out even to him. For instance, one older gentleman Tony had introduced as Sidney carried a cane with what looked to be a sterling silver handle. Several ladies had pins or brooches or bracelets in various sizes. Some seemed to be cloisonné, while others looked like gold and white gold or platinum. Brianna herself was wearing a belt with a perfect turquoise oval dominating the buckle. It took Niall only a moment to recognize it as a gift he had sent her from Texas. Niall’s own clothes, (he was still in his grey suit) while not expensive at all, were clearly not some variation of the whites he saw on many of the other adults.

All the children Niall saw were dressed rather colorfully. Everything seemed to fit without the spill out or dragging jean cuffs Niall remembered. Some of them were playing with toys that looked expensive, elaborate electronic whatsits with remote controllers, dolls that were articulate in speech as well as movement, solidly-built wagons of bright yellows, blues, and of course, red. One woman pushed an elaborate two-seat stroller down the block with two colorfully-dressed babies curiously staring at the world, yet her own clothes were whites.

“What’s with all this white clothing? Is it a fashion thing?” Niall asked.

“Dad, we don’t usually refer to it, but plain white clothing is what we call ‘standard’ clothing.” Brianna had lowered her voice so as to not be overheard by the others they passed on the sidewalk. “That’s clothing one doesn’t have to pay for. Most people use it for outside work or for manual labor. But this is a poor neighborhood so most people save their money for other luxuries like I do and wear mostly standard clothes at home and for just hanging around the neighborhood. It isn’t polite to refer to it and almost everyone but Payers will wear something that isn’t standard just to show that they could be wearing colors if they wanted to.”

“Payers? Why do they wear white clothes?”

“Payers are the people who can credit your account with more money. They can’t have money or things money can buy for themselves so they’re left with only standard or free clothes to wear and they’re all white. If somebody is wearing all white clothes and not seeming to work at anything they’re probably a payer,” Tony answered.

“But what about the children? They’ve got lots of colors. Do the parents all spend their money on luxury clothes for the kids?”

“Standard clothing for children has just always been colorful. I don’t know why. In fact, other than Halloween costumes or suits I can’t remember ever seeing any luxury clothes for children. I guess they make some but… Oh, hi June, this is my dad. He just got back in the country and dropped in to visit for a few days.”

The Good-n-Quick was a familiar sight to Niall, at least in architecture and layout. Much was unchanged, except for there being more booths and fewer individual or two-seater tables than he recalled. He understood why Bree had called this place "Family Friendly", or whatever she’d said. This one also boasted a large indoor play area with lots of soft plastic toys and things to climb on. The play area was situated at the front of the restaurant, opening to the street and was excellent advertising for the customers they seemed to want to attract.

The lighted picture menu over the counter had fewer hamburgers than he remembered. More salads, baked potatoes, and vegetables took their place, the accompanying pictures looking a bit odd in the company of the MegaBurger and Fearless Fries. The children’s menu seemed as elaborate as the adult menu, again with a surprising emphasis on vegetables and salads. The two inescapable soft drink brand names were predictably present, but several fruit drinks and milk clearly had more space on the menu. Oh, and there were no prices anywhere that he could see.

“Again with the money,” he thought.

“Where are the prices?” Niall whispered to Brianna.

“There aren’t any. This is a standard food place,” she whispered back, gently rocking Lora by her shoulders as they waited their turn for service.

They didn’t have long to wait, because the people in front of them ordered with the efficiency and confidence of longtime regulars. Niall noticed that their selections came across the hot table on actual ceramic plates, rather thick and plain, but ceramic or Earthenware nonetheless. And again, not one word about prices.

Niall followed the lead of the others in ordering. Brianna recommended a vegetable plate if he weren’t very hungry. The kids knew the menu without looking. One of the servers, Diane by her name plate, who looked to be in her junior or senior year of high school, noticed the family and asked Lora whether she’d lost that loose tooth yet. Lora opened her mouth wide, then obscured the view by pointing with her finger to the place where the tooth had been, following that by pressing the tip of her tongue in the space, giving her an endearing but slightly goony look.

“Well I think that calls for a special treat tonight,” Diane said. “How about a scoop of ice cream after dinner? Would that be all right with mommy?”

“Yes, oh, yes, mommythatwillbeallright, won’t it?” Lora excitedly agreed, as if it were one long word she was pronouncing. Bree smiled thankfully at Diane and came out with “If we finish dinner, right, darling?” Niall wondered if that line were somehow from a sleeper gene that was activated when people achieved parenthood.

“If ice cream were that much of a treat, then she obviously didn’t get it very often.” Niall reflected. He’d begun to notice that he was seeing things in their darkest possible light, or negative sense, or something, and he couldn’t understand why. Derrin had told him (caveat #256) that he wouldn’t know how he was going to react to people, events, and things seemingly unrelated to his experience, as he obviously had never been through this type of reentry into his society. “Open mind, open eyes” had been how Derrin summed it up. “Check out everything and don’t be too quick to draw conclusions.” He seemed to be a bit quick on the draw here in the few hours since he’d landed in Washington. That was depressing to Niall who had always taken pride in his mental abilities.

Lora happily led her mother to her favorite booth, bright blue vinyl and Formica right in front of the play area. The rest of the family joined them shortly with John on his best behavior, figuring it was not out of the question for him to get ice cream too, if he played his cards correctly.

Niall was surprised with the quality of the food. He complimented Brianna on her suggesting the place and commented that he had paid dearly in London for food not this good, and not in a chain family restaurant either, for that matter. Brianna explained that there were a lot of other standard food places in the area, since the apartments weren’t luxury ones, and of course that meant that to keep their customers the restaurants had to make the food and service good.

“They can’t compete on prices or location so they have to try to excel in other ways. I especially like the head cook they have here now. The amount of business they do here has at least doubled since they got her, Mary, I don’t remember her last name. Anyway she came here directly from cooking school about 18 months ago,” Brianna said. And added somewhat wistfully, “I don’t know how long they can keep her if some of the luxury places find out about her. She’ll be getting offers from all over town. One thing’s sure,” she half laughed, “we’re careful who we tell – she’s that good.”

The kids asked if they could join some of their friends in the play area. With the usual warnings and subsequent eye rolling, permission was granted and off they ran. One of the women sitting at another table got up and followed them and sat on one of the adult-sized chairs near the door to the play area where she had a good view of the children.

Niall, a little worried by such behavior, asked about her.

“Oh that’s Mrs. Peters,” answered Tony, allowing Bree a few bites of her dinner. “She likes to watch the kids play and this way she can get paid for it, too.”

“What do you pay her?” to Tony. And to himself: “God, does anyone cross the street around here without getting paid for it? And we used to have God’s name on money.”

“We don’t pay her anything. We thank her of course but that’s just common courtesy for her kindness. The Payers pay her, same as they pay everyone else. It isn’t much, but as I say she enjoys doing it anyway. She knows all the kids on the street and never has trouble getting one to run errands for her or make minor repairs around her apartment. So there’s your quid pro quo, I guess.”

“Do you ever use her as a babysitter?”

“Nope. Doesn’t like to be tied down that way. Here she can get up and leave any time she feels like it, whereas if she were babysitting at our apartment, you know, she’d have to stay until we got back.”

“Besides, if we need a sitter we can just take the kids across the street to the baby farm,” Brianna joined in, an expectant look in her eye as she addressed her dad.

“Baby farm?” Niall said, feeling the color drain from his face.

“Whoa. That’s just what we all call it, dad,” said Brianna who got more of a reaction than she’d figured on. “Mr. Jurgens runs it. Half the kids in the neighborhood must have worked there at one time or another,” she noted. “He lives upstairs over the business, so you can get him 24/7 whenever you need someone to look after the kids. When he goes on vacation, he has someone live in his apartment so they can take over.”

“You mean you could leave Lora and John with him and come back and find them with some stranger?” Niall said, his face beginning to recolor. If this kept up he’d look like a schizoid thermometer.

“No, Dad. Not a stranger. People he’s known for years. I guess I really should call him Doctor Jurgens since he was a pediatrician at one time. He said he quit as a doctor because he could prevent more problems than he could cure. You know he even has dentists come in every month or so to look at the kids’ teeth. And all the new mothers go to him for advice.”

Tony said jokingly, “Oh, you just like him because he said you were doing a great job with John and Lora.”

“Jurgens’ Baby Farm,” was all Niall could think as he watched a group of four teens clamor through the door.

“Hey Julian, got anything for us?” asked the one in the lead, about sixteen, skinny, and so far losing the war with acne vulgaris. “Big do at school next month and we need some money, fast,” another yelled to one of the older servers.

“Yeah, I can use a couple of you fellows tomorrow morning. About 4 a.m. Make that 4 a.m. sharp,” he continued, a charitable smile on his face. “You can help with the cleanup and breakfast prep.” The teens groaned. Then they turned to the people who were eating.

“Anyone got any work that needs doing? We’re getting desperate.”

“Give blood!” one of the diners yelled and was rewarded with a respectable laugh.

But no one had anything for them to do.

“They’re paying the price for not thinking ahead,” Tony said, as they watched the teens argue with Julian about tomorrow morning and then leaving. “If they’d started a year ago or even a couple of months ago they could have done lots of things which would’ve generated a significant amount of money by now. But by waiting until the last minute, well, there aren’t that many things one can do that will earn a lot of money that quickly,” he said, adding, “you know, kinda like waiting too long to start those term papers in school.”

“Oh, that reminds me, Tony, could you take John’s euro note to the library tomorrow and make a copy for Lora to have? That way she won’t be so jealous and she won’t be so tempted to steal it.”

“Counterfeiting now, Bree?” Tony laughed down at her.

“Oh, who’s going to care if we make a copy? It isn’t as if we were ever going to go to Europe and try to spend it.”

“I don’t think it would pass anyway because of the paper and the lack of a computer in it,” Niall added. Then he continued, “When I was a kid, way back last century,” in a way he had sworn as a kid that he would never tell stories when he became a grownup, “I could get grunt work; you know, manual labor, for, I don’t know, $200 a week, minimum wage. And since I didn’t make that much per year, the tax bite wasn’t bad,” Niall said with a smile, remembering his own do or die high school crises.

“Yes,” Tony said, “but you got paid by the hour. These days it’s an entirely different standard – you get paid by the net benefit.”

“Benefit?” Niall asked. “Benefit to whom?”

“Benefit to anybody else,” Tony said. “And that’s net benefit. If you help one but harm another the two consequences are compared and you get paid for only the amount the help exceeds the harm.”

“Wait a minute. How could anybody ever measure such a thing? And the consequences of every action continue for eternity. You’ve read about chaos theory and the butterfly effect, haven’t you?” Niall said trying to restrain his contempt for the idea.

“Okay, Niall. Say you work hard for a week and the job isn’t finished. You don’t get anything because the benefit the job will produce hasn’t happened yet. And then, when it is finished, you start to get paid a month or so later, after the Payers have had a chance to notice some consequences,” he continued. “Of course you may keep getting paid for a particular job for years. I still get about $50 a month for when I worked in the boatyard. I guess so long as those ships I helped build are sailing I’ll keep getting paid something.”

“You mean it’s like royalties, except it’s on everything people do?” Niall asked.

“I guess you could put it like that,” Tony mused. “At least in a rough way.”

“But these kids need the money right away,” Niall said. “Can’t they just borrow the money? And do some work later, maybe?”

“Well their parents might pay for some. They might work out something that way. But since you can’t actually borrow money itself you have to get someone to buy something and give it to you. Then later, you can buy something for them that costs about the same. It’s inconvenient to do and you can only do it with close friends or relatives who won’t tell anyone. It isn’t easy.”

“But why the secrecy? Is it illegal?” Niall asked, his danger meter fluttering again in his imagination.

“Oh it’s quite legal. Almost nothing you do with your own property is illegal so long as it hurts no one,” Tony said. “But borrowing that way — to get luxuries — shows a lack of planning and a lack of the ability to defer gratification. People aren’t likely to trust you with capital or work with you if they don’t think you’re reliable. Your reputation for dependability is more important now than it used to be.”

“What do you mean, more important than it used to be?” Niall said, warming to the challenge of a good old “in my time” argument. “We valued our reputations plenty in those days.”

“Yes, some people did,” Tony replied. “But if you moved to another town or lived in a big city, most all the people you dealt with didn’t know you, or at least that’s the way I imagine it,” he said. “If you came in some store with a wad of money, no one really cared what kind of person you were. They’d sell you almost anything and you could buy almost anything, wouldn’t you agree?” he asked Niall, who nodded slowly, with the wariness of the unconverted.

“All right then,” the lecture continued, “today, you can only buy luxuries. For capital goods you have to persuade people to give them to you. They get paid based on what you do with those goods. You’d better believe that they want to know as much as they can about you before they’ll let you have much.” Here Tony looked at Niall, as much in interest at his expression as in a normal conversational pause. The latter looked confused, as if he had walked into the wrong house by mistake.

“In your day,” Tony continued, unconsciously rubbing Niall’s nose in the fact that he was getting old, “if you wanted to start a business you’d have to borrow money to buy the capital goods like the lumber and pipes and nails and hammers and such, right?”


“Well, these days, you don’t borrow money to buy tools or raw materials. You go directly to the folks who own them and ask them to give them to you.”

“Why in the world would they give them away?”

“Why would someone loan you money?” Tony countered.

“Because I’ll pay it back with interest. Now why would somebody just up and give me tools?”

“Because they think they’ll get paid for doing so.”

“Ha! Brianna was just telling me that I can’t give anybody money. So how am I going to pay them for their tools?”

“That’s what the Payers do. If you use those tools to benefit others, then the Payers credit the folks who gave you the tools. The more benefit you produce using them, the more they get paid. In a lot of ways, it’s just like that bank loaning you money. The more money you make using the capital you borrowed from the bank, the easier it will be for you to pay them back with interest and the more likely you are to want to borrow even more money to expand your business. In both cases, the bank in your day and the Capitalists in our day, they want to know what you’re going to do with what they give you.”

“Would you guys just shut up with the economics? I want to hear what dad’s been doing the last 15 years.” Brianna sighed.

“Sorry, hon, I just got carried away there. I know you warned me.” Tony said holding up his hands in mock surrender and with a grin.

“Okay, Brianna, what would you like to know?” Niall asked with some reluctance. There were many things he had experienced while abroad and especially in captivity that he never wanted her to know about.

“Well, you know, what have you been doing?”

“Mostly waiting. I spent a lot of time trying to find food and keep clean. You have no idea how difficult it is to get clean when there’s hardly any water beyond drinking water and cooking water. The first thing I did when I was released was take a bath that lasted about an hour. I just lay there after I’d scrubbed and savored the feel of being covered in warm water. And the soap, I must have soaped the wash cloth five or six times and just kept washing and washing. It was heaven.”

“How did you keep from going crazy?” Tony asked with a look of sympathy.

“I’m not so sure I didn’t go crazy for quite a while there. At first I was just scared, then depressed, and finally resigned. I started thinking I would never be released, that they would end up shooting me or that I’d die of disease or starvation. So I went over what I could remember of my life. I tried to remember everything I did as a child and as an adult. I looked for meaning for anything I could think of that would show my life had some value. I looked for things I could feel proud of. I even looked for things I’d done wrong that would mean that I deserved what was happening to me. Some days I thought it was a good thing that it was me it had happened to because I was strong enough to stand up to it. Other times my attitude was pure ‘Why me?’ and I was upset that a person as good as I was, who had just tried to help other people, had to suffer as I was suffering.”

“Oh, Dad. It must have been awful,” Brianna was almost at the point of tears. Conversations at the tables near them were getting quiet.

Niall glanced around and spoke in a lower voice and tried to grin as he said, “Well it all worked out all right. I’m here. I’m reasonably healthy. I can carry on a somewhat civilized conversation. And the computer tells me I have lots of money.”

“I hope those people who did this to you died horrible deaths,” Brianna said fiercely.

“Darling, they didn’t treat me any worse than most of the other people who were living in that village. They were all hungry most of the time and none of them had as much water as they would have liked. It’s just that I was lucky enough to have plenty of food and plenty of clean water before I was taken. I was only suffering because I’d been spoiled by being so much richer all my previous life.”

Tony nodded his head and asked, “And how long was it before you felt that way?”

“Oh, only about ten years,” Niall grinned.

“Do you still have any problems, you know, like medical problems or whatever?”

“I know what you’re asking, Tony. You want to know if I’m crazy or contagious.” Niall’s continuing grin took away much of the sting but Tony still flushed a little. “They tell me that I’m completely dewormed and deloused. They shaved all my hair off, first thing when I went into the hospital and put stuff on my sores. See, they’re virtually gone now,” Niall said pulling up the sleeve of his suit coat. There were some splotches of pink but the skin was intact and appeared healthy.

“As far as my mental health is concerned, they said that I would never completely get over the trauma but that lots of people live with much worse than what I went through. And I guess they’re right. At least I was an adult when I went through it.”

Brianna couldn’t help looking at her children as she realized what Niall meant. They were happily careening from one side of the play room to another, healthy and active.

“But they said that given how well I stood up to my captivity that I was probably more sane than the average person on the street. I don’t know whether to find that reassuring or not,” Niall chuckled.

“You seem fine to me, too, sir,” Tony said, punching Niall gently on the shoulder.

“Do you still have any problems from it?” Brianna asked.

“Let’s see. I still dream I’m in captivity but at least that doesn’t itch. I have an impulse to eat some of the weeds I see but I no longer hoard food so that’s not really a problem. Sometimes I have these little flashbacks as if my emotions were still responding to my being in captivity. It’s like the soldiers returning from war suddenly diving on the floor at a sudden loud sound or crouching because a bird’s shadow flashes past. My subconscious still sometimes thinks I’m in Pakghanistan.”

“Well I think you’re pretty wonderful to come through something like that as well as you have. I’d have been a basket case,” Brianna asserted. “And speaking of getting enough to eat, I’m getting us some dessert.” She rose and headed toward the sweets section.

“At least,” Tony said, “you shouldn’t have any trouble getting work. Your record and strength of character makes a good reputation. I doubt there are many who would be unhappy to have you work with them.”

“But I just came to town,” Niall pointed out. “How am I supposed to have a reputation, good or bad? How could I get a job? How could I get started in a business?” he continued, now on a definite roll. “I have all this money and you say it wouldn’t do me any good since it won’t buy a store or merchandise or hire employees or do God only knows what else.”

“Dad,” Brianna said, having returned with a slice of cake for each of them. “Having that money is a great start to getting a good reputation. You aren’t likely to get a lot of money without having been successful at something in the past. I mean, because you get paid to generate benefits, and you have money, then you must’ve generated some benefit somewhere, right?” she asked patting his knee. “Besides, you’re part of our family and we have a pretty good reputation in some circles,” she added smiling.

“How will some employer know me from Adam’s house cat?” Niall asked.

“Your reputation and references,” Tony said.”Oh, incidentally, we don’t call people ‘employers’ any more. It’s not as if some owner were paying you to work with him. You don’t need his permission to do something that benefits someone else. If he owns the capital you use, then he’s one of your suppliers,” he said looking closely at the large slice of cake on his plate. “Take when I worked in the shipyard, for example.”

“Oh no. Here comes the ‘I worked with my hands’ bit again,” Brianna rolled her eyes but the mischievous grin took away the insult.

“Ahem, as I was saying,” Tony resumed, blatantly looking down his nose at his wife, “I drove a fork lift. I didn’t own it when I first came to work there, of course. What happened was, they ran three shifts and the three of us who operated that machine would each give it to the guy on the next shift when our shift was done, and so on, 24 hours a day. The guy I replaced spent a week teaching me how to use it before he left. If I hadn’t been pretty good at it by the time he finished that week of training me, then they wouldn’t have given it to me. They would have tried to find someone else who could do it better, because if I messed up it hurt their pay, too. Anyway, I never got real good with it but I was careful and kept it clean and maintained and all of that got me through. I also trained my replacement when the time came for me to move along.”

Brianna made a grab for what was left of Tony’s cake, which was almost untouched since he had been talking. He fended her off and she stuck her tongue out at him.

Niall was incredulous. It was like Communism or Socialism or one of those horrible isms of his youth.

“You mean you actually owned the fork lift for just eight hours each work day? That’s crazy.”

“Not crazy at all, if you don’t mind my contradicting you,” said Tony with a grin. “When I’m in the driver’s seat on that fork lift, what that machine does is up to me and me alone. I controlled that machine. I gassed it up and kept it clean. It was, as far as I was concerned, my fork lift.” Tony paused to slide his dessert plate back closer to himself, casually bringing it to the side away from Bree.” Now if you’re talking about who has title to that fork lift, then I guess that would be somebody at the company that made it. You know, that’s interesting, I never thought about it before, but I have no idea who had title to that fork lift.”

“You’re lecturing and if I catch you at it again I’m going to dump whatever is left of your dessert in your lap even if Julian does get mad at me for it.” Brianna announced in her best parent-to-child admonition voice.

“But Brianna, I need to know about this reputation thing if I ever hope to get a job again,” Niall said. Tony promptly stuck his tongue out at Brianna, who slapped his arm. “Who keeps those records and how do you find out about someone else’s reputation?”

“I can’t tell you because my wife forbids it. She’ll have to tell,” and Tony placed his arm on the table around his plate of cake and began wielding his fork with the other hand.

“They’re all in the computer, so wherever you go, you just ask,” Brianna said.

“So all you have to do is ask the computer?” Niall said with a twisted smile. “Aha!” he thought to himself.

“Well, not quite,” Brianna said. “You have to get the person’s permission for the computer to tell you the information it has about them and even then the permission only applies to their past and is only the part related to their past work. The other stuff the computer knows about you, as they say, ‘isn’t for public consumption.’”

“But what’s in this reputation? Is it only job stuff?”

“No, I guess it includes about everything.” Niall’s cold chills were coming back. Funny how you could be scared even in a bright, cheery place among happy people, with the smell of good food in the air. “I mean the computer must have all sorts of information about everybody in its records. But it only tells other people what’s appropriate. You know?”

Niall didn’t know. He didn’t know at all.

“What about your personal history? What about the people who know you? Do they get gossip about you?” Niall was thinking in particular about Mrs. Smithers, the harridan living next door to Katherine and him when they first married and were in their paper-walled row house. He swore the old bat did nothing but wait to put the ear to the wall when they were home, and then give them the moon-eye whenever they saw her, sitting there poured into her rickety chair on the tiny porch from which she monitored the street.

“Well, the computer does hear some gossip from time to time, of course,” Brianna said looking over Niall’s shoulder. “The kids are getting a little tired, honey. We might think about going home,” she said to Tony. And then again to Niall she added, “I’ve been asked about a few of my friends. I always tried to give an accurate picture of what they were like. But you know, gossip is just that, and any coordinator worth her salt isn’t going to give much weight to really weird stuff. I mean, it would be documented somewhere if it were true, right?”

“Well, yeah, okay, good point,” Niall answered. "Coordinator?" he wondered. "That’s another new one, like payer."

“Ice cream, is it time for ice cream yet, Mommy?” Lora had come running from her play, having remembered the promised treat.

“Yes, it’s time but get your ice cream in a cone instead of in a bowl this time so you can eat it while we walk home.” And after a brief pause, having seen John’s face with its eyebrows raised and its big smile, “All right, John, you, too.” John was almost able to beat his sister to the counter where the nice lady took their orders with a big smile and handed each a cone.

“Brianna?” Niall said, “How can I find out what the computer has on me?”

“Just ask it. If you don’t want anyone else to hear be sure you’re alone. I mean, the computer is pretty good about keeping its voice hard to understand when you’re in a public place but if you’re in a group and everyone is obviously paying attention, the computer will usually just talk in a normal voice since it assumes you don’t mind. Of course there are some things, like medical information, that it won’t talk about with others there unless you say it’s okay to tell them.”

“So if my work history is okay all I have to do is tell the computer to let my prospective employer see it and I can get a job?”

“May I, dear?” Tony asked with a grin. Brianna nodded but punched him in the ribs to make sure he realized who was really boss.

“It’s really more that if you don’t let them see your reputation, they won’t be willing to work with you.”

Brianna forestalled another lecture by saying,

“Let’s go. The kids have got their ice cream. Tony, will you watch Lora to be sure she doesn’t drop it like last time. You remember what a fuss we had over that one.” Then with Tony diplomatically quieted, she linked her arm with her father’s arm and followed her husband and children out the door to the street.

“Do you want to get a job already, Dad?” she asked.

“I’ll go crazy if I don’t have something to do. I can’t just sit around all day and do nothing. I might as well be back in Pakghanistan.”

“But you’re here now. You can do whatever you want to do here.”

"I wish", thought Niall. "I can do whatever the computer lets me. That’s really subtle to control who can get what job by slanting the victim’s work history so he can get only the job the computer wants him to have. I bet most people don’t even realize what’s being done to them. The more I see of this the more frightening it is. Most of these white sheep I see on the street here probably don’t even realize they’re being manipulated. But somebody’s doing the shearing, you can count on that."

All in all it had been a good meal, for all the price weirdness and Tony had laid down quite a bit for Niall to consider. The credentials he had when he left the country wouldn’t be worth as much now, he realized, unless he threw his life into the hopper of this computer, a prospect he didn’t relish and distrusted even more. What had he come home to, anyway?

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