Invisible Hand – Chapter One: Coming Home

      Chapter 01 - Coming Home - Invisible Hand

In which our unlikely hero lands squarely in the middle of a culture he hasn’t seen in over a decade; we learn the reason why; he meets a cute lady and a not so cute computer, and among other things, learns that however much other things may have changed, he will still have to wait in airports.

There it was again: the soft crunch of straw under sandals. He cringed, and then wordlessly cursed, preparing himself for another round of the staccato questions, the slaps to the face, ice water dashed into his eyes – and this wasn’t even their definition of torture, though it sure as hell worked for him. Then as he scooted backwards along the floor of the small box, leaning against the back wall as far from his pisspot as possible, the door creaked open and a wedge of light fell across the floor of his box, a cleansing light revealing the pathetic result of trying to cover an Earthen floor with straw in an environment of extremes. There was a noise and then a person he hadn’t seen before stood profiled in black in front of the light. It was, no, it couldn’t be, but it looked like… “Bring your seat backs to the upright position and replace your tray tables.”

The steady drone of the SST-2’s wing engines rose an octave as the image of a flight attendant recited the standard landing announcements, just as a real one would have done years ago, before the Supersonic Transport-2 series had halved the transatlantic time of its historic prototype. The resulting cacophony of tray tables automatically being raised and clicked into place, briefcase laptops snapping shut, video screens retracting, and the infant in 23C bawling with the change in cabin air pressure all served to rouse 29A, a rumpled, late middle-aged man who had been sporadically napping since the London-Washington leg began and was now pulling himself into the moment, refolding his lanky frame into what would pass for a semi-upright position. As usual, the dream disappeared around the corner of his consciousness as he woke to the engine whines, and he again couldn’t remember who it was standing in the doorway.

Outside the window a crystal clear view of the Washington Monument slid smoothly by as he tried to push the sleep from his mind and the soreness from his neck muscles. The plane touched down and he had to start thinking of what he was going to do now that he was “home” again.

He appeared to be in his mid-50s (assuming reasonable living). He was dressed in what one might call “business casual” in an open-necked pink oxford cloth shirt and a medium grey suit. His shoes, though unpolished, were good quality soft black calf leather, not one of the newer chemically-derived leathers that never dulled. They were shoes that his aunt Bessie would have considered “sensible”, and for the most part, the man in them could also fit that description. His greying hair had once been auburn shading to chestnut brown, and the clean-shaven face was framed with a strong chin and broad forehead. And, if one looked behind the thin frames of the tortoise-shell sunglasses, looked closely, one might see in his steady brown eyes an unspoken hesitancy. He began the ritual of collecting his belongings while waiting for the wave of motion to reach his row so he could join the other deplaning passengers and get on with his day.

For Niall Campbell, however, this was a return to the home he left in 2011 for two years that had become 17 years, before the war, before his capture and eventual release and before his gradual reentry into what he now hoped he would appreciate more than ever as “polite society”. But it was and wasn’t his home, was and wasn’t the USA of his life before, just plain was and wasn’t. He had tried his best to prepare for shocks and frustration, but it had to happen in reality; no amount of discussion and Q&A would do it for him. He had been warned to expect a changed society. Changed just how much, he was about to find out.

17 years before, when he had left for the Middle East, his daughter Brianna had been just 11 years old, so Niall couldn’t actually say he now knew her. It was, in retrospect, just one piece of a weird puzzle that included his own divorce, a three-month pity party, three weeks of it gin-soaked, and to top it all off, a “why the hell not” agreement to the hellish posting in the panoramic zone of the Middle East, serving as a consultant to the parliament of what used to be the separate nations of Iran and Iraq. Para-Iranoia, as the region was informally known among the restoration contractors, had been formed, grudgingly on all sides, as a stabilizing factor, from the debris left of the second Iranian civil war and the pieces of Iraq, restructured after the Third Gulf War.

Niall was still surprised when he and the other four members of his educational and economic mission were kidnapped by Jihadists, smuggled into Pakghanistan, and held for what would become 15 years. Given the International protocols enacted since the Third Global Congress on Terrorist Acts, his country could not bargain for their release, as that would be seen as a successful end to the lawless act. Rather, they tried for a time through diplomacy backchannels and not-so-covert economic pressures to persuade the kidnappers to return the educators, but given the tumult in the United States at the time of the kidnapping, there was little time and even less ability to reach half-way round the world to effect the release of political prisoners, especially, it seemed, those on the “educator” level of the totem pole.

Niall had had very little information and none of it had been firsthand until today. His posting to Pakghanistan 17 years ago and his subsequent imprisonment had left him ignorant of everything that was not within sight of the valley in which he had lived as a prisoner. From what he had learned during his 60-plus day rehabilitation process in London prior to this homecoming, his release was fortunate indeed. “Damned strange ideas those folks have over there now about money,” his handler Derrin had told him when he arrived in England. “Said it was necessary and all, ’cause of the economic mess, you know. I still don’t quite think I understand how that new money of theirs is supposed to work. But it does, damn my eyes, it bloody well does.”

During the two months Niall had been in London, Derrin had damned his eyes over everything from the food on a given day to the weather, so Niall really didn’t have a firm hold on what he was being told. “Just be cool and take it easy,” had been the refrain, “it’s still the good ole USA.” But after all was said and undone (to the best of their abilities), it was still just 60 days to make up for 15 years – a bad trade by anyone’s book.

Niall was trusting his daughter that there was room in her apartment for him. Having someone drop in to live with her without more than a couple of days warning would have made his wife crazy. Of course, she wasn’t really his wife any more. That was something else the middle-east war had cost him, 17 years and his family. He hoped it was worth it.

He’d tried to explain to his wife that he could hardly come home in the middle of a war. She might have accepted that but when other men rotated back and he still didn’t come she’d said it was the last straw. But that was 17 years ago. At least the government of the province he had been in was now stable.

Okay, now to get through Security and Customs and find Brianna. Niall checked that he still had his carry-on, his book, and his passport. That should do it.

The huge lobby looked about the same, except for some moving sidewalk-things and the overhead tram shuttle bubbles, which Niall thought looked pretty cool. They didn’t have those in London, and he wondered what other differences he would find in his old hometown. What he did note was the stylistic, proscenium-arch structures framing each major entrance into the airport proper. He knew these to be the latest in scanning technology, capable of accuracy far better than the standards of the primitive devices of the late 20th century.

As Niall followed a young woman with a tight, rhythmic bottom in a navy business suit, he noticed as they approached that the Customs section looked pretty much the way he remembered it. The swaying suit stopped so suddenly that he narrowly averted an embarrassing introduction, but he managed it as they formed the end of the line of their fellow passengers from flight TA-636 into the “returning citizen” queue. Niall cleared his throat, and looking past the blonde hair in front of him, said

“Excuse me, but is there a separate line for customs, or do we stay in this one?”

The suit pivoted to show a better than average looking woman in her twenties, wearing a ruffled white silk blouse, confirming his conclusion about the business suit.

“This is one and then they move us into another somewhere, I think. I’ve never been to this airport before,” she responded, only slightly looking at him, more or less at a space above and a half-inch to her right of his left ear.

“Well, I declare,” he said, hoping the corny joke might crack the ice that was quickly surrounding them in the climate-controlled terminal.

“Uh?” the young woman managed to get out through her obvious indifference to him.

“You know. Customs? Well, ‘I declare’. it’s an expression,” he continued, the laugh dissolving as suddenly as he wished he could. “Get back in with people,” they had drilled that message into him from the first day he had arrived at the London Centre. “You’ve got a lot to relearn, just being around people, for starters. Hell, man, you’ve barely heard any English for a dozen years, and seen nobody from home in at least that long. You’ll have to relearn a lot of things, but the most important is your social intercourse.” They really said that. Niall imagined the USA he had left, where someone looks at another person, a virtual stranger, and suggests some “social intercourse”.

There’ll always be an England.

“Oh, Customs.” she slowly repeated. “Customs.” If she had been any colder she would have been on a slab in the morgue. And the look that came with it told Niall that he was about one half-assed comment away from… from what, he wondered? Looking around he saw only the usual sleepy guards hanging around the scanning area, but then decided that this venture “back in” to socializing had reached its end.

“Thanks,” he said, and instantly wondered why in the hell he had said that? But when he looked up she was gone, through the scans and walking-in perfect 2/4 time-to the women’s lounge. No doubt to describe the creep she had just met on-line to whoever might listen.

He got to the Customs desk and they had him run his carry-on through the machine.

The woman behind the counter was an attractive brunette, although to be honest, they were all attractive to him, as they would be to any sighted individual, after so many years of burkhas and yaks. She wore a tailored burgundy wool suit, fitting in all the right places, as Lew Archer might say. A patch with an unfamiliar logo, some type of crossed parabolas in red and yellow, and the metallic nameplate reading “Arden: How May I Assist YOU?” over her heart, finished the ensemble.

“I’ve only got one bottle of scotch.” Niall said as he put his carryon on the counter between them.

“That’s fine, sir, I’m sure,” said Arden, “but would you please step over on this mat?” There was a spongy looking greenish mat about three feet square off to his right, and Niall got behind the man who had preceded him through the scanner, someone he remembered as walking up and down the aisle during much of the time Niall had not been napping on the plane.

“What is that for, um…? Arden?” Niall asked, bloodied but unbowed from his recent feeble flirtation. She actually was attractive once the second look got you past the institutional anonymity these costumes inspire.

“The mat…?” she began.

“Yes. What does it do? I mean didn’t the scanner…”

“It doesn’t get everything,” she said, finishing the sentence. “With this, we can scan for various contagious materials and chemical substances not allowed in this country,” she told him, adding “and not detectable by magnetic image,” with a look that as much as said “which rock have you been living under?” Had he noticed, she might have been surprised that he could have told her just which rock he had literally been living under, or in, if you count a cave as a big rock, or how he was “unaccustomed” to being here. Ha Ha. He thought to himself, “You’re a riot, Campbell, a regular laugh-riot,” as his old TV buddy Ralph Kramden would have said.

With Niall standing on the mat, Arden ran what looked like a vintage vacuum cleaner attachment around his waist and looked at a display screen off to her right.

“That’s fine, sir. Welcome to Washington,” she said, peremptorily resheathing the wand in a slot in the counter beside her.

As he moved from the mat to make room for the woman behind him – he couldn’t place her from the plane – Niall asked Arden “The scotch. How much do I owe?”

“There’s no duty, sir,” she responded, smiling in a sincere way even as she looked slightly past him to the next person.

“Thanks,” he said. Realizing he had nothing but the fat roll of Euro currency in his pocket he added, “Could you tell me where I can change some money?”

“Change some money, sir?” she queried.

“Yes. I have some Euros I’d like to convert to dollars. I need pocket money to get around in town. I’m afraid I don’t have a penny of American money on me.”

“You don’t have an account, sir?” her eyebrows rising. His answer had for one reason or another arrested her attention enough for her to look from the woman behind him and back to Niall, settling on him. Hmmm. What was that look for?

“An account?” He said. “What kind? Look, I’ve been, uh, away for some time, and I don’t know from bank numbers,” he responded with more swagger than he felt.

Why was she asking about accounts? He wondered how this had slipped by his ReIntel team. Or maybe he should have read that brochure on the new money they had given him. He thought back through his memory. Finances: Brianna has power of attorney and that’s all with her, so just what is this?

For the first time since leaving what had become his comfortable surroundings outside London, Niall had the fleeting discomfort of not knowing. Not knowing about this account business, not knowing about the lack of duty on Scotch, no currency exchange. What else? He was sure that he was looking, as well as feeling, on edge, so he glanced up at the nearest ARRIVAL/DEPARTURE monitor, hoping to catch his breath, a little time, and maybe a clue. Before he pulled his eyes back to the person, he noticed that whatever those things up there were, they weren’t ARR/DEP monitors. If he had been within ten feet of a restroom he would have gone in for a much-needed splash in the face. No such luck. All he could come up with was Derrin’s all-purpose admonition, and he played it for what he hoped would be cool. “Why, uh, are you with a bank?” he added, with what he thought was a wink-wink tone, if a vocal tone could have a physical characteristic.

“No. No, Sir. You don’t understand,” she said, her broad smile barely concealing a laugh that came through anyway in her voice. Niall had the sudden sensation that he was the diversion of the hour, a bobbleheaded doll with a goofy face. “Money is always in an account. You have to have an account to have money, Sir. There’s no other way.”

“Oh,” he said relieved that he understood, even though on second thought he wouldn’t give three to five that he did. “What kind of account? I really don’t want to convert much, a thousand Euros or so.”

No sooner had Niall said this when he wondered why he had added that bit about the amount of money. Years of cells and locked rooms with nothing but a straw pallet on a stone (or Earthen) floor and a pot tend to make one non-communicative. She – Arden – wasn’t the enemy, but hey, habits are habits. Maybe he was assimilating faster than he thought. They had told him the drugs they had given him would stop the unreasoning fears and sudden anger and persistent paranoia after a time, in addition to blocking most of the memories better forgotten. He was no longer waking up in a panic every night, just some nights. He no longer hoarded food he didn’t need. Perhaps they knew what they were talking about. “Must send Derrin a message of congratulations for his cerebral douches”, as he had called them, to the disdain of the men and women who had worked so hard to make the drugs work for him, easing his transition. But they understood. He was a corny jokester, and it was a good sign that he cared enough to joke about stuff like that.

Speaking of which, Niall wondered if the smile he was feeling inside showed. After, how long? His face and demeanor spoke more to gravity than easy humor. His 50’s had so far been kind to him, no doubt due to his status as an unwilling guest of the Pakafghani warlord. He had avoided the middle-age paunch, that not being a problem in a life of constant half-starvation. Give thanks for small favors. People knew how to handle obesity now, as opposed to the turn of the century, when the USA was a land of “the larded gentry”, as one of his friends in the service had commented upon reading a pictorial history of the time. The three-tined fork (unfortunate image) of reasonable diet, the rediscovery of exercise, and the resulting social sanctioning of obesity as a sign of misplaced attention joined certain pharmacological compounds to make the affliction much less of a threat to the population than it had been.

Well-toned at 5′ 11″ and back up to 155 pounds now, he was not hard to look at. His ex-wife Katherine had once had told him that his ultimate appeal was based roughly 60% on his looks and the remaining 40% or so on what she had discovered about him after they met and thus his look/discover ratio had been 60:40. That wasn’t too bad, according to her. But then, Niall had never heard anyone, ever, make a reference of that kind to someone, so he had to take her at her word. In fact, he would not have been surprised if she alone had been the only one to have such a system, which would mean that he was the best ever, and the worst as well, as she would emphasize a few years into their marriage.

“I’m sorry,” Arden was continuing. “I didn’t make myself clear, uh, Mr…” she looked down at her manifest display.

“Campbell comma Niall” he said, “TA-636 from London, that would be.”

“Yes, I see. Thank you, Mr. Campbell,” Arden continued in a sweet, clear voice. “As I was saying, I don’t think you understood what I meant just now by your account.” Saying this, she caught the eye of a grey-suited fellow team member and inclined her head slightly in the universal “come on over”.

“Susan, would you help me out here for a moment while I assist this gentleman?”

“Sure,” said Susan, who would never see the day when she challenged Arden in the looks department, Niall thought to himself. Ratio 20:80, maybe. God. Now she’s got me doing it. The mental movies you replay during stressful times.

“…account is not what I meant,” Arden was finishing as Niall rejoined her from his reverie.

“I’m sorry,” he said, brushing his hair back from his forehead with his left hand before continuing. “Didn’t catch all of that.” He sure wasn’t making it easy for her to help him. And the hell of it was that he liked her, and not just as the first attractive woman to take anything near an interest in him in the past, well… years? Good God, he was glad he hadn’t thought overmuch along those lines, the ease of depression being what it was. He jerked back to reality before he lost track again and made himself look even dumber than he must look at this moment. He smiled and nodded.

“That’s okay,” she was continuing. “The account I’m talking about is different from what you referred to. It’s not a bank account, I mean. I was talking about your money account, your luxury account?” She glanced at him; half fearing he would return an expression registering zero comprehension. She wasn’t disappointed.

“Please step this way for a moment.”

“I have quite a lot of money,” he said following her. “I got my severance pay in Euros just last week.”

“That won’t do you much good here,” she said. “Not many people will accept it outside the airport. If you want to spend money it’ll be a lot easier if you put it in your account.”

“OK.” he said grinning. “Where do I sign?”

“Oh, you don’t have to sign anything.” She turned into a small, rather austere room with a TV screen on one wall. “Just step over here to the ID station and we will get you set in a jiffy.” She turned to her left and pointed to what looked like an eye examination device from an optometrist’s office sitting on a small table with what looked sort of like a coffeemaker’s hotplate below the TV screen. There was no chair to sit in so Niall walked in the direction she pointed but was looking at her rather than the blank TV.

“First tell the computer that you want an account.”

“I want an account,” Niall said to the eye machine. The TV sprang to life, and an avatar appeared.

“What is your full name?” the TV avatar asked.

Niall only twitched a little, then to the TV said “N. D. Campbell.”

“I need to have your full name, not just initials,” the avatar said. “I’ll be looking over your records and it will be easier and quicker if I have your full name. When I address you in public I’ll use whatever name you like.”

He noticed that Arden had left the room. Oh, well.

“All right. My full name is Niall Davitt Campbell. I was born in Minot, North Dakota in 1970, January 6th.”

“Is that Niall spelled with an ‘IA’?” the avatar asked.

“Yes it is. Will that do?” Niall replied beginning to wonder what he was getting into.

“Oh yes, that does quite nicely. Then you do want to be your previous self and don’t want to adopt a new identity” it said.

“Why would I want to be anyone other than myself?” he asked incredulously. “What kind of runaround are you giving me?” Niall was getting a little angry. The avatar wasn’t acting like any bank official he had ever dealt with. In fact it was treating him like he was opening a secret numbered account in Switzerland or something.

“I am giving you your freedom, sir,” it said. “You are free to have whatever name you like and present yourself as anyone you like. But you must be known to me for your account to work. I must be able to identify you from among almost 400 million people. I must know you regardless of your name or your appearance. I must be able to positively identify you or you won’t be able to use the account. Also, once you begin using the account, you won’t be able to adopt a different identity with a different account. You get only the one account.”

“Who are you, really?” Niall said beginning to feel like the victim in some candid camera stunt.

“I am the computer that keeps track of the money accounts and other things.”

“Other things?”

“Certainly. I keep track of where you are and what you own as well as everything connected with the money you earn.”

“Wait,” Niall said. “What kind of account is this? Is it a savings account, a checking account, a certificate of deposit?”

“It’s just an account, sir. There’s only one kind of account. It’s the record of all the money you have and how you earned it,” said the smiling avatar on the screen.

“But what about this currency I have,” he asked.

“That’s not money here any more, Mr. Campbell. That’s just paper and metal disks. Money now exists only in these accounts sir, though you may be able to trade that currency for money if you like. Once we set up your account I can ask someone from the traders to accept your paper and coins.”

He could almost hear the italics when it said the word “currency.”

“Wait a minute,” he protested. “What if I don’t want to convert these Euros into your money?”

“That’s your choice, sir. They are your property. You can always say ‘I won’t’,” it said.

“Damn right I can. I can say a lot more than that.”

“If you wish, sir. Now if you will just look through the eyepiece for a few seconds, sir.”

“What the hell for?” He almost shouted. He was really beginning to get mad. He could feel the all too familiar reactions to his anxiety and paranoia kicking in.

“Sir, I already know your voice, your face and body shape, and your manner of movement. Now I need to get your retina patterns, your hand prints, and your scent.”

“My scent?! What kind of crazy setup is this anyway? Are you insane?” He must have been a little crazy himself to say that to a computer, but he wasn’t at his best what with the jet lag and the changes he’d been through in the last two months.

“Sir, you don’t want to limit yourself to only one form of identification, do you? Besides, this will make any large purchases you make much easier and quicker. It will be exceedingly difficult for anyone to present themselves as you with all these forms of identification.”

It was trying to sound persuasive and comforting. He had to admit that the technicians who programmed that thing were damn good.

“It also means that no matter where I go you can pick me out of a crowd. Everywhere you have a sensor or a camera you’ll be able to know it’s me. You’ll know everything I do.”

“That is quite true, sir. But then, that’s true whether you have an account or not.”

Niall felt a chill and the hairs on the back of his neck began to stand up. He’d read too much science fiction as a kid not to recognize a technological big brother when he came face to face with one. And not to mention, thank you very much, that he had just ended over a decade of having his every move watched. Jeez.

What could he do now? His daughter and his grandchildren were in this hellish situation. Perhaps he could get them out. He didn’t really want to take them back to Europe because the depression there was getting pretty bad. And he could hardly expect them to live in a Muslim country as outsiders. He really didn’t know of any place else. Maybe they could escape to Canada.

“Sir? Sir?” it said in a surprisingly worried tone. “Are you all right, sir?”

He came partway out of his near-panic and looked reflexively around, as if he had been caught in a communion line with his fly open.

“Yeah, yeah” he said. “I’m just peachy. I think I’ll just convert half of my Euros.”

“Oh that’s none of my business,” the avatar told him. “You can take that up with the trader. Now if you’ll just place each hand on this plate.”

He felt a sudden draft of air over each hand as it rested for a moment on the “hotplate.”

There was a knock at the door and Arden opened the door a crack and said, “Should I bring the trader in now?”

“I’m done,” the avatar said, and the TV screen faded to black again.

“Yeah, that’s OK.” Niall said.

She opened the door the rest of the way, beckoned, and two guys came into the room. One was dressed in a really sharp suit. He had a gold colored band on his left wrist and, of all things, a flower in his lapel. The other guy was older and dressed in a plain off-white suit with no tie, plain black shoes, and a thin turtleneck sweater under the coat.

The sharp-dressed guy introduced himself,

“I’m Norman Salvatore and I have over $120,000” then he turned to the computer and said “Please verify.”

The avatar reappeared and said, “He is Norman Salvatore and he does have over $120,000 in his account.”

Niall about dropped his teeth on the floor. That stupid computer had told him how much money Norman had. Norman didn’t turn a hair. He just asked Niall how many Euros he had to convert.

“Did you know that the computer was going to tell me how much money you had in your account?” Niall asked as he counted out about half his roll of bills.

“Sure,” Norman said. “How else could you be sure you could trust me? You just arrived in the country and probably don’t know whom to trust yet. This way you know I’ll get you all the money possible for your currency.”

When Niall stopped counting out bills and started to put the rest away Norman said,

“Is that all? What about the rest? Those Euros are really going to drop in value if the government over there goes ahead with its stimulus plans. You’ll really do better to convert it all. If you go back to Europe you can always buy more Euros.”

“No, I’ll just convert this. I think I can get by with that much in my account.”

“Hell, you can get by with nothing in your account. But who wants to live like a payer when you don’t have to?” Then he glanced at the other man and said “Nothin’ personal.”

The other guy gave a little wave and said, “It’s OK. I don’t mind.”

Norman, having counted the money for himself and riffled the bills in front of the TV screen said, “I have accepted from N. D. Campbell 4200 Euros.”

Then he looked at Niall and said, “How soon do you want to start getting paid.”

“Getting paid?” Niall said.

“Getting paid for giving him the Euros,” the other man, presumably a payer, said. “What else?”

“I want it right now! When the hell did you think I wanted it?”

“Cool down,” Norman said. “Some people want to get more for their currency and are willing to wait. It doesn’t matter to him which way you want it.”

Then looking at Niall he said into his carnation,

“Jeb, I got 4200 Euros, do we have an outbound that can use it.”

Then after a pause, he said,

“OK, I’ll be there in a minute.”

“OK, fellow, if Herbie here is on the ball you should have your pay in about 10 minutes.”

“What ‘pay’? I’m converting those Euros to dollars.” he said.

Herbie, the payer guy, said,”I pay you for providing the Euros that Norman will sell to someone who wants Euros. That benefits whoever that is and therefore I pay you.”

“You will pay me now?”

“I’ll pay you in a few minutes if what Jeb said is true,” Herbie said turning away and starting for the door following Norman.

“Well somebody had better pay me and damn soon. I’m coming with you. You aren’t getting out of my sight until I’m paid,” and Niall hustled to catch up with Herbie.

Neither guy looked like much of an athlete. Herbie especially looked like he was about 65 and Norman was rather thin as the slick suit made clear and only about five foot six. So Niall figured if they tried something he could always just take his money back.

But they only went about 50 feet and turned into another office where there was a woman dithering at the counter while the man behind the counter made soothing noises.

“The Euros are right here, Jeb,” Norman said and the woman turned with an expression of vast relief.

“Oh, thank goodness,” she sighed.

Norman counted them out on the counter on a built-in scanner and said “What’s your name ma’am?” to the woman.

“Millicent Marie Schwartz,” she said firmly.

“Millicent Marie Schwartz, I have here four thousand, two hundred Euros in currency. Do you wish to buy this currency at a price of three thousand six hundred twenty-three dollars and forty cents?” recited Norman.

“Yes I do,” said Millicent.

“Millicent, you now own the currency which has been scanned in the amount of 4200 Euros. I have deducted $3,623.40 from your account,” said the computer in the same voice he had heard in the other room.

“Do you really think only 9500 Euros will be enough?” Millicent asked Jeb.

“Ma’am, they should be plenty and you can always buy more at the airport or any American Embassy.”

“But I can’t trust those people. They might steal my money.”

“Ma’am, you can deposit it in a bank right there at the airport and carry a card that will let you pay for things from that bank account very much like you do here.”

“But they might steal the card.”

“Ma’am, they require identification before they accept the card. You’ll be just fine. If all our tourists were robbed when they got to London you’d have heard of it on the news. That would be a very valuable thing to know, wouldn’t it?”

Norman contributed,

“You just watch what the other tourists and business travelers do. Most of them are old hands at this. They wouldn’t keep going back if there were anything to worry about, now would they?”

Reassured, Millicent went on her way.

While this exchange had been going on, the payer had been talking to a handheld device about the size of a cigarette package in a quiet voice. He motioned Niall over.

“Are you N. D. Campbell who gave 4200 Euros to Norman Salvatore?” he said in a formal tone of voice holding the computer between himself and Niall.

“Well who the hell do you think I am? I haven’t left your side since I gave Norman that money.”

“Sir, this is for the computer. It likes to verify everything to be sure that the right person is getting credit. I’d have to testify that I knew you to credit your account without your affirmation on the record.”

“Oh. OK. I’m N. D. Campbell and I gave 4200 Euros to Norman Salvatore.”

The avatar appeared on the device’s screen and spoke up.

“Mr. Campbell you now have $84,503.28 in your account.”

“I have what?” It just sort of burst out of him.

“You have $84,503.28 in your account,” the avatar obligingly repeated.

“Where did that come from?” he said.

“Some of your assets were in stocks and bank accounts at the transition and you had some insurance policies. Also, since the divorce took place after the transition, you were credited with half the pay for the equity you had in your house when your wife turned it in. You’ve been getting about $150 per month since then.” The avatar seemed to be enjoying itself. How did they program personality into a computer?

“You mean that I’m getting rent on a house I don’t own any more? I thought that went to my wife in the settlement,” Niall said.

“The settlement which you signed, if you don’t remember it now, was just a statement of what was to be done with the assets you owned jointly.”

Actually he had never read the thing. He was so bummed out that he didn’t care any more. That was part of why he hadn’t tried harder to come home before he’d been kidnapped. So he had just signed the papers on the lines with the little “X” and sent them back.

“So if I already had all that money, why did you say I didn’t have an account?”

“Sir, you didn’t have an account until you requested an account. No one is required to have an account. You don’t have to use money unless you want to. It’s your choice. But just because you don’t have an account doesn’t mean that we forget what you’ve done for others. Once I confirmed your identity I was able to use the records of payments to your credit to calculate how much you had been paid over the years.”

“What if I had never come back?” he asked.

“Then the records would eventually have been archived and no one could have spent the money.” the avatar smiled.

“What if someone else had claimed to be N. D. Campbell and asked for an account?”

“First I would have checked their personal characteristics as I did with you. Then I would have searched the records for someone else with those characteristics. Since each person is unique, I could have rejected the claim if I found another account for a person with those characteristics.”

The last part seemed to be parenthetical, scripted, Niall thought, before he was able to catch it. “The whole damn thing is scripted”, he reflected, “or at least a huge part. Must be.”

The avatar continued; Niall found it creepy and disconcerting.

“Then I would have tried to get other indications of identity. In your case there are DNA records for your wife and daughter and with those I could have demonstrated conclusively that the imposter could not be you. In an extreme case I would have asked for the cooperation of people who knew the real N. D. Campbell before you left the country. I would have requested that they assist me to identify you. Their memories of you with confirmation from records about your activities would make it quite difficult for an imposter. There are some other ways which I can use but I’d rather not go into them now.”

“Another thing,” Niall said with just an edge in the tone of aggressiveness, “what are you doing telling everyone how much money I have in my account?”

“Oh, they couldn’t understand that part of what I said. It was sort of a mumble to them. Like this.”

Niall heard a mumble of what sounded like speech but it refused to resolve into understandable words. But Herbie laughed aloud.

“I just told Mr. Severbock a new joke that’s going around. But I focused the sounds so that only he could understand the words. That way I can talk to you without others being able to understand. It’s quite a useful facility.”

Niall had also been warned during Re-acculturation that the society had taken leaps of great magnitude toward a computer control of essential factors, the economic charting and bookkeeping not excluded. As they flew over Newfoundland, he had begun to get that feeling he had always had around computers for as long as he could remember: wonderful adding machines and fast organizers, but a threat if we’re not careful. He was only a casual reader of science fiction, but of those he had read so long ago, the ones with dark, gloomy prophecies stuck with him the most. Sort of a cyber-Frankenstein type of thing. The best example came from near the middle of the last century, in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the computer controlling the space ship actually has a personality, goes nuts, and becomes a rogue operative, willing to do anything to avoid its personal destruction. Just like a human being.

Sort of. Niall thought for a moment and couldn’t remember if the computer in the movie – Hal?- had a real personality, but that hardly mattered now, 50 years later. This humanoid wonder speaking through the TV screens probably has more personality than Arden’s co-worker, he thought with less charity than he would have liked, but what were its motives? He just had to watch it. His overly fertile imagination along with the paranoia he had acquired over the past 15 years and his predilection to think the worst of computers if he thought of them at all – were a dangerous combination in what this country apparently had become. He might start thinking a computer was out to get him. He reflected with some hope that he actually had not even left the airport yet, so this might be just a weird exception, but even as he formed the thought in his mind, he was doubting it.

It was in this fog of uncertainty that Niall said goodbye to Norman, Herbie, and Jeb and went to retrieve his luggage. It was waiting for him in the baggage claim area in a small pile under a sign with his name flashing on it.

As he bent to pick it up a boy of about 10 ran up and said peremptorily, “What’s your name, sir?”

Caught a bit off guard by the hedged, less than friendly greeting, Niall shot back “What’s it to you, kid?”

“These bags belong to N. D. Camp Bell,” he said separating Niall’s last name into two words “and if you are not N. D. Camp Bell you can’t have them.”

“Well, good for you” Niall said, reaching for the larger bag, a leather job that had seen its best days many years previous. He got his second surprise in as many minutes as the kid leaned in and sort of thrust himself between Niall and the bag, not assaulting him or grabbing the bag, just making the three of them look like a bizarre pieta, or two contestants interrupted in the middle of “Twister”, a drinking game from Niall’s college days.

“Well, are you Camp Bell or not?” the kid persisted; his head turned almost 90 degrees. Niall could see that he had a trace of something brown at the far corner of his mouth. Peanut butter? He was not the waif that would run up to carry your bags for baksheesh; he was dressed modestly in clean blue jeans (Niall knew before he had even left the country way back when that he marked himself as an archaic by continuing the modifier ‘blue’ before jeans.) He had a thin sort of zip jacket, an off-red deal with a small hood, underneath which he had on a yellow shirt with a button down collar. Niall noticed that more quickly than he would have otherwise had he not been in England and noticed their sartorial preference for widespread “English” collars, no buttons of course. For a kid who was nearly five feet tall and all of 100 pounds, he was one hell of an obstacle to the current mission.

“It’s pronounced ‘Cambull’, kid.” He said. “You don’t pronounce the ‘p’ because it’s silent.

“Well, are you Campbell or not?” the youth persisted.

“I am Campbell and these are my bags,” he said. “If it’s any business of yours.”

Wordlessly the kid pointed at the sign where his name had previously been flashing and the screen now read, “identity confirmed.”

Relaxing against the counter the kid said,

“They are your bags, sir and you’re not taking someone else’s bags by mistake. If you’d been picking up the wrong bags I could’ve gotten paid for preventing the error. So you see sir, it is a business of mine.”

Damn smart mouth kid Niall thought.

“I just hate it when they show me up that way… It takes all the fun out of being a grouchy old man.”

But Niall noted that the jacket, though in good shape, might have been a hand-me-down, as it hung a bit loosely on the kid’s shoulders when he stood straight upright. Almost like a second wave the sense of the kid’s response washed over him. Maybe the kid really needed the money.

Niall started to pick up his bags before moving toward the exit and the kid pipes up again.

“May I help you carry your bags, Mr. Campbell, sir?”

Now that he had his bags he relaxed. He surprised himself at how clingy and possessive he had been about “things” since his return to the real world. But that, too, was supposed to mitigate as he re-entered his old world. Or what’s left of it, he mused, thinking of the computer.

“You really do this as a business?”

“Sure. Lots of people are strangers here and don’t know their way around. I get paid to help them.”

“Then you can help me. What do you think you can carry?”

“Oh, I can carry that big bag sir, I think.”

So Niall handed him the big bag and the boy struggled a little but managed to carry the bag all the way out to the line of taxicabs waiting at the curb.

“OK kid I guess you earned your tip. Do you take Euros?”

“Euros, sir? What would I want with Euros?” he said.

“Well I’m sorry,” Niall began, trying not to sound as defensive as he felt. “But that’s the only money I have on me just now.” Damn, he reflected, is everything complicated now? “You know, baksheesh,” he said.

“You’re going to give me something?” he said, rather surprised. “What for?”

“For carrying my bag. Why did you think?” Niall looked more closely at the kid. He had looked normal before, but maybe there was something in his eyes or something. No, he had nice brown eyes, didn’t walk like he was wired on anything, no shudders, twitches or twinges. Still an odd damn question, Niall thought.

“Well there’s a payer right over there. I was expecting him to pay me,” the boy said pointing.

There was another of those old guys in a white outfit wearing a cool weather jacket sitting on a bench watching them with a grin on his face.

“He pays you? What for?”

“Because I helped you, of course. Don’t you know anything?” Then he clapped his hand over his mouth and blushed and said “I’m sorry sir, I didn’t mean to insult you. It’s just that everybody knows that Payers will pay you if you do something good for someone else. You kind of startled me, sir.”

Niall laughed for the first time in several days and said,

“Well kid I guess I really don’t know as much as I should so I guess you only told the truth. Can you also get paid for helping me get a cab?”

“I guess so sir but it’s really very easy. All you do is get in and tell the driver where you want to go.”

“What if I don’t know where it is I want to go?”

“If you just got here perhaps you’d like to go to a hotel?” the boy said after a minute. “There are lots of hotels. You can see a listing of them over there.” he said pointing to a kiosk with several display screens. When they had passed it before, Niall had assumed that they were ARR/DEP monitors. Second time for that mistake, but damn it, they had to have those things somewhere!

“I really want to go to my daughter’s house. Can you help me find where that is?”

“Sure. Just tell the computer who you are it will tell you where she is,” he said confidently.

“Don’t you mean it will tell me where she lives?”

“No, sir. It can tell me where my mother is whenever I ask because it knows where her phone is. Since she always has the phone it knows where she is, and can easily contact her if I need her.”

“I guess I should phone my daughter to tell her I arrived safely. Can I do that somewhere around here?”

“Don’t you have a phone, sir?” he asked, surprised.

“No, son. I just got here from a long way away where almost nobody has a phone.”

“How do they talk to their friends when they want to?”

“Well usually they just holler and their friends are close enough to hear them. But anyway let’s go try that kiosk phone.”

So the boy escorted Niall over to the kiosk. There were several of those TV screens separated by short partitions. The boy gestured for Niall to stand in front of one of the screens

“Hello, Mr. Campbell.” The now familiar avatar greeted him from the screen. “How may I assist you?”

“I want to talk to my daughter.” Niall stated.

The avatar smiled warmly. “That would be Brianna P. Miller? Hold on, sir.”

In a few seconds Brianna’s image was looking back at him from the screen. Her face was narrow, hair shoulder length and dark brown with sun bleached streaks, her brown eyes framed by nicely arched brows and the nose looked a little sunburned as well. His daughter had grown up quite nicely he thought.

“Hello, Dad?”

“Hello, Brianna.”

“Dad! Why didn’t you tell me you were coming in today? We would have met you at the airport.”

“Well Brianna, I didn’t want to put you to all that trouble.

“Oh, poo. It would’ve been a wonderful excursion for the kids. They’ve never been to the airport. They’d love to see the planes take off and land.”

“Anyway, I’m here now and about to take a cab. What address should I give the driver?”

“Just tell the computer you want to go to your daughter’s house. It will guide the taxi.”

Niall was taken aback. “Does the computer know everything?”

“Well you have to pay for the cab and since you have an account the computer knows who you are, just like it knew who your daughter was.” And then, with her voice dropping an octave, she added with the slightest concern, “Goodness dad, isn’t it obvious? I mean, you’re kidding, right?”

Hardly in the country for an hour and already two smart mouth kids were giving him a hard time. But at least this time it was Brianna so it was easy to take. As if reminded, Niall looked down and sure enough, the five-foot gadfly was still there, looking up and no doubt listening.

“Okay, honey. Yeah, I guess I’m kidding. Just the flight and all; I’m kind of all in. Look, I’ll see you as soon as I can get there, okay?”

“Sure, Dad,” she responded. “And Dad?”

“Yes honey?”

“It’s really great to hear your voice. I can’t wait to see you.”

A weird lump appeared in Niall’s throat as Brianna said this, and he could barely get out,

“I can’t either. Love you, sweetpea,” he said, his childhood nickname for her springing out of nowhere.

“Me, too. Bye.” And she rang off.

Niall shook hands with the boy, said goodbye and thanks. The boy was all smiles. Niall thought he must have been thinking about how much money he would get for helping that poor old man who didn’t know the most obvious things. The boy was running toward the payer even before Niall got the bags into the taxi. He suddenly wondered why it never occurred to him to ask the boy what he was doing all alone at the airport. Then Niall thought “He probably would have asked me what I was doing all alone at the airport since I was the one who didn’t know how to do anything. Smart mouth kid.”

The cab driver seemed to think Niall knew what to do so Niall tried to maintain the illusion.

“I’m N. D. Campbell and I want to go to my daughter’s house,” Niall said. The avatar appeared on the dashboard screen, and said “that will be $14.22.” Niall said “OK”. Since he was getting used to the computer screens being everywhere it was no surprise to see a screen on the dash of the cab. After his acceptance, the route to Brianna’s house appeared on the screen.

The cab pulled away from the curb and into traffic. They’d gone almost halfway to Brianna’s house when he realized that there were no potholes. It isn’t something that he would have normally paid attention to when he lived here but he had just returned from a place where paving, even with potholes, is considered a modern wonder. Once he noticed how smooth the ride was he remembered how there had always seemed to be potholes every now and then. By the time he was almost there he couldn’t stifle his curiosity any further.

“Say friend, last time I was here there were potholes. How come I don’t see any on this trip? Do they keep them all in some other part of town now?” he said using his best comedic delivery.

“Potholes? Man it’s been years since we have had many potholes. If they made the roads so they got potholes easily it’d cut their pay quite a bit. Every time somebody fixed a pothole in a road they’d made, that other person would start getting some of the pay that would otherwise have gone to the original builder. And that’s not even counting the penalty for loss of use while the potholes were fixed. You wouldn’t believe how careful they are now.”

Well at least something was better. Of course they said the trains ran on time for Hitler, too, so it didn’t mean much to Niall. His thoughts were rather grim as he got out of the cab and reached futilely for the tip that the cabby didn’t wait for and he couldn’t give anyway. “Why did they have to mess up the money?” he growled to himself.

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