The mocking program by Alan Dean Foster

“Too soon to tell.” Cardenas felt no compunction about comforting her with a lie. “Maybe a gas line explosion. Maybe something volatile in the house.” He did his best to make it sound as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. “Happens all the time.”

“But you’re here.” She gestured past him. “There seem to be a lot of police.”

“Routine,” he confided casually. “Just depends on who happens to be in the area when the emergency happens. There was no one at home, so nobody got muertoed. You knew the Andersons?”

“Very casually. A ‘hello, good morning, how are you?’ kind of knowing. People here in Olmec value their privacy.” And pay for it, she didn’t have to add. “They seemed nice enough.”

“Did Ms. Anderson have a job?”

Showing signs of relaxation, the woman turned thoughtful. “If she did, it was in-house. I didn’t see her go out much. And she always seemed to be at home when her husband arrived. She drove the girl to soche, though. Every day. And brought her home. Not that I paid any attention, really.”

Cardenas nodded, conveying the impression that she had provided valuable information. “Any idea which soche the daughter attended?”

The neighbor shook her head and tugged the throwover tighter around her bare, wrinkled shoulders. “No. My own children are grown.” Glancing to her right, she pointed out a boy and girl standing in front of two younger citizens. All four were staring at the incomprehensible wreckage that had suddenly and explosively materialized in the middle of their quiet neighborhood. The parents said little, but their offspring were chattering away animatedly.

“You might ask the Martinez family. Their boy is about the same age as the Anderson child, and I seem to remember hearing that they went to the same soche.”

So they did, the boy confirmed to Cardenas, although he was in a younger soche group than Katla Anderson. Thanking them, Cardenas turned to leave, only to find himself confronted by a pair of vitwits. He stalled the chattering skeets until Morgan from Comrel could intervene, pattering the pair away despite their persistent efforts to challenge the Inspector. By the time they succeeded in breaking free of the flashman, Cardenas was tucked into a cruiser and humming swiftly away from the site. Have to mess the flashgal a gracias, he told himself as the scene of suburban devastation receded behind him. He was not comfortable dealing with the media, especially those who recognized or knew him as an intuit.

The cruiser’s spinner traced Hyaki’s ambulance and the obedient car conveyed the Inspector to Nogales Central, the Department’s hospital of choice for officers injured in the line of duty. The medico flashman who intercepted him in the fourteenth-floor hallway informed him that the sergeant was still in surgery. Cardenas did not press the earnest young man for details. His tone was sufficient to assure the Inspector that the big sergeant was going to be all right, because Cardenas could tell that the man was speaking the truth and not concocting a convenient professional lie. Nevertheless, he spent the rest of the afternoon there, staying on well into evening, until he was finally allowed a look into Recovery.

Eyes closed, facedown, Hyaki floated swathed in freshly adhering epispray. The pinkish, artificial epidermis was slowly blending with the sergeant’s own skin, sealing and healing the horrific charring that covered most of his broad, naked back. It was impossible to tell how much of his own epidermis remained. As with any severe burn victim, he drifted in suspension above the bed, hovering in a magnetic field designed to keep his severely damaged skin from coming in contact with any solid surface. Even the finest, softest bedsheets could multiply the trauma of an acute burn victim. The diamagnetic properties of the human body that allowed it to oppose the magnetic field applied by the hospital Perkins projector had only been properly and practically realized in the last thirty years.

Tubes ran from the sergeant’s nose and pelvis. Scanners focused on his torso monitored readings from nanosurges that had been inserted into his body at strategic points. Cardenas had spent enough time (too much time, he reflected calmly) in hospitals and seen enough apparatus in action to allow him to interpret many of the instrument readings. Overall, they were stable, if not cause for celebration.

A dark, quiet anger had been building in him ever since he had left the crime scene. The fact that the ordinary, unremarkable house in the inurbs had tried to kill him and his partner was reason enough for fury. That it had been indiscriminate in its murderous automaturgy only rendered the attempt that much more deserving of denunciation. That it had not been conceived to dissuade everyday crime such as burglary was self-evident. Not only was the system far too elaborate and expensive, it hardly succeeded in preserving the owner’s household goods. It was designed to welcome intruders—and then slaughter them, to the extent that the owner of the system was prepared to sacrifice the entire dwelling in the effort.

If not thieves, and in all likelihood not visiting federales, then who? Rage was the rationale for most home security systems. Fear was the foundation of the much more sophisticated setup that had nearly killed him and his partner. Who, or what, did an apparently ordinary inurban family like the Andersons have to fear to the extent that they were willing to turn their own residence into as elaborate a booby-trap as Cardenas had ever encountered? Of one thing he was already certain: it was tied to the reason the deceased George Anderson needed two identities.

The floating body in IC Recovery stirred ever so slightly. Cardenas’s expression did not change. He could not intuit the unconscious. He did not have to. The sight of his friend’s hovering torso was enough. Endorphin drip or not, Hyaki had to be suffering. It would worsen when the sergeant awoke and was once more able to feel. There was nothing Cardenas could do about that.

But he could damn well do something else. For a start, he very badly wanted to have a chat with the erstwhile Ms. George Anderson.

His fury at the indifferent instrumentation that had nearly robbed him of his friend and partner did not begin to ebb until that night, as he sat in his codo, overlooking the landscaped and artfully contoured channel of the Santa Rita River. Drip-watered vegetation softened the harsh terrain on either side of the waterway. A single nocturnal jogger, her shoes and cap suffused with glowing pale blue quantum dots, was all that moved beneath the half-moon. Her belt pulsed rhythmically, warning potential muggers that her outfit was fully charged and ready to stun any attacker foolish enough to make a grab for her.

Beyond the river stretched the lights of the Strip, running all the way to the Golfo California. The previous night’s downpour had cleansed the air, revealing stars that were wholly indifferent to the insignificant alternations mankind had wrought on the ancient Sonoran terrain. The tranquil vista helped to ease his troubled thoughts. So did the chilled Dos Equis in his hand.

Downing the last of it, he set the empty bottle down alongside its three empty siblings. Evacuated of beer, the disposable induction coil that was woven into the glass promptly shut down. The glass began to warm immediately. Swiveling in the chair, Cardenas muttered at his vit. The wall unit blinked to life and offered up a selection of suggested inanities for casual viewing. Sprawled in a chair, clad only in his underwear, he stared at the slowly scrolling readout without seeing it.

The medical portents were fine, but as long as he was stuck in IC, Hyaki could not be regarded as being out of danger. If the big fat slotho died…

Ignoring the proffered offerings of laughter and documentary, he opted for a snooze soother. As he had done on innumerable other nights, he fell asleep in the chair.

Tucked into a quiet cul-de-sac, the Mary Anson Carter Soche was a neat, self-contained complex designed to instruct children ages four to thirteen in all aspects of Real Life. Pre-university academics, of course, had not been taught in schools since the middle of the century. Those subjects were far better mastered in the peace and privacy of a child’s residence, with the aid of home boxes and away from the distractions of one’s age peers. At fourteen, a child entered into two years of analytical studies and advanced soche, and at sixteen, choices were made between higher education, vocational apprenticeship programs, public service, and a plethora of less-defining adult options such as the military.

In soche, a child learned about the psychology of male-female relationships, dating, the institution of marriage, sex, how to open and manage a bank account, how to perform simple household repairs, deal with credit, purchase a residence, handle lawyers, consult with doctors, plan a vacation, shop for goods and services, buy and cook food—all the critical components of everyday life that bumbling previous generations had somehow expected children to learn on their own, usually by utterly inadequate variations of social osmosis. In other words, all the really important things. Science and math, geography and language, history and literature, art and civics—all these were better studied at home, via a household box.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster