From eight in the morning until noon, four days a week, children gathered in their local soche to learn what the tribe of mankind expected of them: how to be decent human beings and survive in a world that grew more complex not by the year, but by the day. Into this bubbling preadolescent brew had been enrolled one twelve-year-old named Katla Anderson, whom Angel Cardenas badly wanted to interview. The elderly neighborhood resident he had spoken with outside the devastated Anderson dwelling had told him that the girl’s mother always took her to soche and brought her home again. With that in mind, he found himself flashing his ident to the armed guard at the entrance.
“Como se happening?” he offered conversationally.
Automatic pistol protruding prominently from his hip holster, stun spray dangling from a chain attached to a vest pocket, the bored sentry strummed his beard and shrugged. “Nada much, homber. Who you here to arrest? Teacher or nin?” He perked up a little. “Hope it’s a teacher. This is a quiet soche and I like most of the nins.”
The Inspector stepped through the deactivated gate. As soon as he was through, the guard reactivated it. A soft, ominous hum indicated that a microwave barrier powerful enough to crisp an intruder had been reenergized in the visitor’s wake.
“Neither nada,” Cardenas explained. “I just need to talk to one of the students.”
Swiveling in his seat, the guard scanned the security bib. “This ain’t about the detonation of that ice cream truck last month, is it? That’s been resolved. Our nins had nothing to do with it.” He snorted disapprovingly. “Was a bunch of antisocs from Miranos urb.”
“I just need to ask a few quick questions.” Cardenas’s tone was as patient as it was intentionally unenlightening.
The guard gave up trying to mine information from the visitor. “Identity of student?” he asked officiously.
“Anderson, Katla.” Peering past the guard, the Inspector studied the security bib.
The sentry nodded to himself. “Yeah, I know the name. Got the attendance roster pretty well memorized. Don’t recall actually talking to the girl, though.” The brisk movements of his fingers on the keyboard belied his age. As a safety measure, the security bib was not designed to be operated by vorec.
More finger flicking. There were two hundred and sixty-three LEDs on the bib. Eighteen flashed red, the rest green. The guard tapped one of the red indicators. “She’s not here today.” He leaned back in his seat. “Out sick, maybe. But she’s not here.”
Cardenas was far less surprised by the news than the guard. “Could her monitor be defective? Or masked?”
The guard pushed out his lower lip. “Could have gone dead. Or if she’s working in lab, the signal could be masked, although we try not to put the nins in a situation where that’s possible. Sometimes happens en masse in cooking class, though. Radiation interference. It can get real bad when they’re doing holiday poultry.” He worked the board. “Go see Alicia Tavares; room eleven. She’s Anderson’s matriculator for the month.” Swiveling in the chair, he pointed. “Down the entry hall, second door on your left, other side of the wildlife preserve. She’s teaching Advanced Commuting right now.”
The Inspector gave his thanks and strode off in the indicated direction, passing rooms in which children were learning the social skills necessary to survive in a society more multifarious than most. Exiting the main building, he found himself wandering through a miniature version of the celebrated New Mexican Jornada del Muerto, complete to desert landscaping, waterhole, and reproductions of historic artifacts—all replicated in the middle of the urban, industrialized Strip to show its youngest citizens what life once was, and in places still was, beyond the induction tubes and malls and playwhirls.
Entering a subsidiary structure, he found his way to room eleven. His ident bracelet ran through several thousand municipal code combinations before settling in a few seconds on one that operated the classroom door, granting him entrance.
Inside, he found two dozen pairs of eyes regarding him intently.
The walls that were not windowed with shatterproof, polarized glass alloy were covered with drawings and motilites and artscapes depicting various modes of contemporary transportation. At the moment, the class was dissecting the interior of an intercontinental hypersonic transport, but not to study the aerodynamics of its design or the physics of its hydrogen-driven engines. For those who were interested, such technical details could be better analyzed at home. Instead, they were learning travel etiquette: how to order food, how to eat while onboard, how to use the bathroom, how to deal with troublesome other passengers—in brief, how to survive and get along in the world of modern air travel.
Their instructor was a slim young woman with dark hair and a narrow face whose work attire was presently masked by the uniform of a United Varig flight attendant. United Varig, of course, paid for the privilege of having its corporate logo so prominently displayed in an institute of learning. The nins didn’t seem to mind. They were too busy trying out recommended travel phrases on one another.
“Keep practicing those short conversational routines,” Alicia Tavares ordered them. “There’ll be an oral quiz tomorrow.” Groans rose from the well-dressed junior citizens. This was not a poor school district, Cardenas reflected. In the urb where he grew up, schools had no money for such frivolities as clothing masks.
“Can I help you?” She caught the flash of his ident. “Oh dear, I hope no one’s in trouble. That business with the ice cream truck—”
“Has nothing to do with my visit here today,” he finished for her. When he smiled, the tips of his drooping mustache rose half a centimeter. The action invariably brought a grin to the lips of anyone near enough to note the phenomenon, and Tavares was no exception.
“I’m relieved to hear it. What can I do for you”—she eyed the ident one more time—”Inspector?”
“This month you’re supervising a student named Katla Anderson.”
Tavares nodded, and her expression changed to one of concern.
“She’s not in any trouble, is she?”
“We don’t know yet. If she is, it’s not of her doing.” He looked past the teacher, to the busy class of well-fed children. “She’s not here today.”
“You don’t seem surprised.”
She eyed him inquisitively. “You’re very perceptive, Inspector. Katla’s quite a bright girl. In some respects, brilliant. But she has a real problem keeping up her attendance. It’s not her parents’ fault, as near as I can tell. But there are days when she just doesn’t show up. Her parents protest, and claim to have spoken to her about the problem, but it persists. Really a shame. Such a clever girl.”
“Her parents didn’t call in to say she’d be held out today?”
Tavares shook her head. “As far as I know, there’s been no communication. These unexcused absences are random, so I don’t think Katla’s skipping to partake of some scheduled outside activity.”
Cardenas nodded. “How does she get along with her fellow nins?”
“Well enough.” Having replied reflexively, the teacher proceeded to qualify her response. “Although when not engaged in programmed activities, I have noticed that she does tend to keep to herself. Why don’t you ask some of her sochemates?” Turning, she addressed two girls who were exploring trays of simulated food. “Malaga, Rose— could you come here a minute, please?”
Cardenas found himself looking down at two twelve-year-olds, one the color of coffee, the other of sand. He smiled, and his mustache danced. Eyeing him curiously, the lighter-colored of the pair glanced up at her teacher. “This isn’t something that’s going to be on the quiz, is it?”
“No,” Cardenas assured her. “I just want to ask you about a friend of yours—Katla Anderson.”
The other girl replied first. “You mean the goofac?” She giggled.
“That’s what we call her. Because she sucks up everything around her, but when you ask her a question, half the time all you get back is this weird smile, like she knows the answer but isn’t sure how to tell it to you.”
“That’s right,” added the first girl quickly, her words threatening to stumble over one another in the style of speaking common to twelve-year-olds. “Katla, si, she’s muy cerebro, but she’s still a weird. Cabeza vareza, you verdad?”
Tavares made a face. “Malaga, mind your manners.”
The girl looked up petulantly. “Hoy, the fedoco asked!”
“I don’t care.” The sandy-skinned girl was nearly as tall as he. “Katla’s not here today.”
“Noho,” her friend agreed indifferently. “Shunted, you sabe?”
“You know where she might be?” Cardenas asked easily.
The girls glanced at one another before the taller one responded. “Nobody knows where the west wind goes. That’s Katla.”
He smiled softly, his words gentle. “You’re lying to me, Malaga.”
She looked at him sharply. “No I’m not. Some days, Katla just doesn’t image-in.”
“That’s not what I asked.” He leaned a little closer, his eyes boring into hers. “You know what I asked. And you know that I know that you’re lying. Por favor, don’t lie to me again, Malaga.”