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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Meryan Meets Alice

Meryan slept fitfully her first night in the lounge and rose early the next morning. She gathered up her things and found a hole in the side of her duffle bag where someone must have begun to cut their way in with a knife. Perhaps her restless sleep had scared them off or one of the members of the gang running the protection racket here had stopped the thief. It would be difficult to mend the bag as it was fully packed, the clothes inside protecting her small wireless deck. The deck was a gift from the resistance, her pay for the last job she had performed. It had been a good trade; she would not have wanted to carry her larger heavier PC on this journey and had been able to barter the bulkier laptop to her former boss for some spare clothes, goodwill and a little cash. Her old boss’ goodwill would be the most valuable; he had been well connected and had given her the names of three people in Peoria whom she might be able to count on in a pinch.

While Meryan waited in line for her turn to use the lav she thought about what might have happened to her old friends in Peoria. Other than her sister and her goodwill contacts, Meryan did not think she had any friends remaining in Peoria. She hoped not.

Meryan had been far more involved with the resistance movement when she was younger. It was a kind of thrilling adventure then. Her first lover had been a full member of the ALF like her dad, and she had naturally been drawn into their circles of friends and had only avoided taking their membership pledge because she had been too young then.

Ten years ago the Bizgov had sent a group of Army engineers and conscripted laborers to Peoria to begin raising the domes. The domes were made of cheap prefabricated plasglas panels with steel rims that had interlocking teeth along the edges. The panels snapped together and pins or eyebolts were inserted at the interstices to secure the panels from slipping away from one another. The top of the dome was constructed on the ground around the base of a tall crane.

Cables through the eyebolts lifted the top of the dome so that the next pieces could be snapped into place. When the dome reached the size of the clearing in which the crane stood it was hoisted to the top of the crane and a series of cables suspended the workers below the skirts and lifted new panels up to them in a steady flow. The dome was then constructed from the top down to cover a large section of the city. Buildings along the perimeter where the dome would meet the ground were cleared away to lay a foundation and any buildings which were too tall to fit below the dome were either razed or cut down to a suitable size to fit.

In this manner the domes were quickly constructed. Concrete arches were built wherever two or three domes intersected following the interstitial arcs to allow the intersecting domes to rest firmly against one another.

Due to the swift pace of the job the work was very dangerous; laborers were maimed or killed on a daily basis. Anyone suspected of either membership in the resistance or any affiliation with the resistance was conscripted to replace the casualties among the original labor force. Meryan had lost most of her older friends to the pressers who came to drag them off to the labor pools.

Meryan’s older sister Pama had broken their mother’s heart then by going underground. Pama was old enough to be conscripted and had she stayed home the pressers would have come to snatch her. During her years in the underground Pama had carefully built a new identity for herself so that when the domes were done she would have an apparently legitimate identity and could remain safe from the pressers. Pama had paid for her new identity and her life in the underground with the only coin a young woman with few skills and no one to protect her had to offer, her body. Meryan had never wanted to know anymore details than that.

Meryan and her mom had managed their lives precariously from that point on, her dad was missing and presumed to be either dead or conscripted. It wasn’t safe to ask questions of anyone connected with the Bizgov who might be able to discover what had happened to her dad. None of her dad’s close friends in the ALF could be found and it was presumed his entire unit had either been wiped out or conscripted.

When Meryan’s mother finally admitted to herself that she was dying of heart failure she had sent Meryan to live with her brother in Westwood. Meryan reluctantly abandoned her mother and went to join her uncle’s enclave.

She knew in her heart when she had said her goodbyes to the last of her friends that she was the lucky one and that few if any of them would remain either free or alive much longer. They had few options. They could join a unit of the ALF working the countryside to disrupt Bizgov projects and raid for survival or they could try to go underground as Pama had done. But it was difficult to make contact with the underground and virtually a death sentence to join an ALF unit or cell. Either way you lost your freedom and were constantly at risk of being killed or conscripted by the pressers.

Meryan’s turn to use a lav arrived and she slipped down the hall to a reeking stall. She placed a hook over the edge of one wall near the back and hung her belongings there. She placed a second hook below the edge of the stall wall and then cinched her duffel down. No one could now reach over and steal it while she was indisposed.

She finished with the toilet and then stripped down to wash and change her clothes. The tiny sink over the toilet did not provide more than a thin trickle of water but with a washcloth and towel she was soon feeling refreshed and more relaxed as she changed into clean clothes.

The fresh taste of toothpaste in her mouth helped to reduce the reek of the lav stalls. Next time she would start brushing her teeth while waiting in line as she had seen some of the other people in line doing. Stowing her damp towel and washcloth in their outer mesh pockets Meryan recovered her belongings and set out to look for breakfast.

There were a number of different eateries to choose from and while all would have the same bland ingredients to work with, their specialty cooking styles promised to make her meal a reasonably tasty one. She selected an Indian eatery and chose a bowl of congee, a sweet spicy porridge made with rice and eggs. She was surprised to see small bits of genuine cinnamon sticks crumbled on top of her congee. The eatery was fortunate to be able to use fresh spices.

Meryan decided that she would have to try some of their other fare. She thought about her aunt and uncle as she ate her congee. Her uncle Jim was her mother’s older brother. He had married his high school sweetheart Suchhaya before being drafted into the Bizgov Corporate Army of America. Meryan had called Suchhaya Aunt Sushi for as long as she could remember. Uncle Jim and Aunt Sushi had no children and Meryan had always thought this had often made her Aunt Sushi seem sad. Sushi’s face would always light up with joy when Meryan and Pama came to visit. Aunt Sushi was a reformed Hindu and cooked everything in the traditional Indian styles. By choosing congee for breakfast Meryan had made herself feel a little bit at home in her strange surroundings. The warm congee settled comfortably in her stomach the flavors of honey and spices lingering on her palate reminded her of the years she had spent living with her aunt and uncle.

Meryan missed her aunt terribly; Sushi had become her surrogate mother and always treated her with great respect and love. But Sushi had been murdered last year by an angry bigot who mistook her for a Muslim. Meryan could never understand how someone who hated with so much passion could know so little about the people he hated that he did not even know the difference between a Hindu and a Muslim. The murderer’s connections within Bizgov allowed him to escape justice and her Uncle Jim had then taken the matter into his own hands by arranging an opportunity for the bigot’s car to break down on a lonely stretch of highway where Uncle Jim was quickly able to find and murder him.

Bizgov looked the other way. Uncle Jim was a war hero who was well respected among the local Bizgov soldiers who understood the need for justice and approved of their fellow soldier’s dutiful vengeance.

Now the soldiers were gone from Westwood. Bizgov had withdrawn them in response to unpaid taxes. Westwood lay nearly defenseless against the marauders, with only the ALF remaining to protect them. Protection money paid to the ALF was cheaper than taxes, but the town would soon be unable to pay even that pittance for protection and then there would be no one to hold off the marauders.

The last of her congee licked away, Meryan considered her next move, she had nearly two hours to report to work and considered finding a public storage locker for her duffel bag and her other articles. The block captain had shown her the stairs to a basement where the public lockers could be found and Meryan headed off to investigate.

As Meryan descended toward the ground floor she paid attention to those she met, particularly what they were carrying. Many people were laden with what might be all of their worldly goods and she surmised that the fees for storage would be steep or that too may people were too poor to be able to afford storage even at reasonable prices. Meryan wondered which would turn out to be the true case as she found the steps and descended into the basement.

The light at the landing was out and the light from the hall behind her was inadequate to see clearly. Meryan hugged the outer wall as she cautiously made the turn around the landing. She heard whispers and a slap and turned back.

Meryan's intuition told her that a gang of at least three people were laying in wait for anyone who might come along with anything worth stealing. Meryan and her friends had waylaid Bizgov workers and supporters in a similar way in dark alleys using a bait and beat operation. She and her friends had taken turns coming on to Bizgov loyalists to tease them into dark alleys with promises of sexual favors in trade for money. Anyone who witlessly followed one of their gang into a trap had triply deserved their beatings for being stupid perverted loyalists.

Below Meryan the waiting gang heard her footsteps turn back and quickly rushed to attack her but Meryan charged up the stairs ahead of them and won her way to the relative safety among the throng of people in the corridor above. Perhaps all her ruminations had been wrong and people carried their belongings with them because there was no safe alternative. As Meryan turned to find an exit to the street she noticed a group of people sitting along the wall near the stairs. She instinctively knew they were waiting to gather enough people together to brave the stairs to the storage lockers as a group. Meryan joined them and after a few minutes a tough appeared and accepted a small fee to accompany the group down the stairs.

As they made their way past the four people lurking below the landing one of these addressed the tough calling him George. George appeared to be well known and despised by the gang for they spit at him and feinted attacks towards him, but were careful to keep their distance. George appeared to be a tough customer indeed.

In the dingy basement Meryan followed those in her group who seemed most familiar with the place to where a small kiosk stood locked away behind a steel security mesh. The party queued up and exchanged credits for keys to access their belongings. Some had only come to pay another week or two of storage fees, and apparently had not left anything in their locker that they might need today.

Meryan sorted out her belongings, choosing her backpack to keep two sets of fresh clothes, her toiletries, a towel and her light blanket. When she received her cardkey to a locker she was admonished to return the cardkey when she was done and was gruffly informed that the cardkey would do her no good if she kept it was programmed as a one time only access card to make it useless to thieves.

Right! Meryan had thought; the thieves were behind the grill charging for every access anyone made to their stored belongings on top of the steep weekly fees. But paying for storage was just one more way to live more safely. The fewer things you carried on your person the less attractive a target you made for potential muggers and thieves.

Meryan allowed her articles to pass through a scanning conveyor belt to allow the operator to search for weapons or bombs. Meryan had no weapons and her new her deck would not be harmed. The scanner made a permanent record of her belongings which would safeguard them from being stolen by any employees of the locker company. A copy of her scan was downloaded to her PDA.

Meryan selected a locker from among several which were empty and waived her access card by the lock sensor next to the wire mesh door. She had chosen the smallest locker that would fit her duffel and two hand bags and crammed them in tightly before pressing the door home. When she felt the distinctive click of the lock engage she released the door and breathed a sigh of relief. Her day would now be far easier with less to carry or to worry about.

Meryan headed to the party of people who were waiting for George to escort them back upstairs. A young woman in the group, softly spoken introduced herself as Alice.

Alice and Meryan talked awhile trading stories of their memories of Peoria before the domes and the events in their lives since then. Meryan remembered Alice from the lounge where she had spent the previous night. Alice too had been alone and had been frequently molested by strangers who sensed her timidity and tried to take advantage. In spite of her fears Alice had driven them off and wanted to learn from Meryan how she maintained the calm disdaining attitude with which Meryan seemed to ward off any trouble.

As George escorted them back to the ground floor Meryan and Alice agreed to meet for dinner and team up for mutual protection. Meryan was delighted to have made her new friend’s acquaintance and looked forward to a more pleasant evening than last night had been.

It was now twenty minutes to eight and Meryan had to hustle to be on time for her orientation interview with her new boss, E. Edwards. In spite of many changes to the city since Meryan had last seen it she had no trouble finding her way to work. The building was only five blocks away from her dorm; her dorm had been assigned to her with this convenience in mind.

She arrived in time to fill her water bottle from the office dispenser before going in for her interview. She was feeling very good about herself as she walked through the door.

Her new boss was a woman. Meryan had assumed E. Edwards would be a man and was slightly taken aback but recovered quickly enough to give her new boss a warm greeting. Her new boss’s name was Evalina and it was quickly clear that Evie, as everyone was to call her informally, would be a reasonably easy person to work for. Meryan’s new duties would require data mining and analysis. A breeze! Meryan thought, she was a natural at such simple chores.

Evie’s department was affiliated with security and Meryan would be looking for anomalous network activity that may represent potential security breeches which may require investigation. Meryan began to suspect that her old boss had pulled a few strings for her here because the job fit her to a tee and put her in exactly the position she needed to be in if she chose to continue to help the resistance. Wheels within wheels Meryan thought as her new boss introduced her around and showed her the facilities.

Toward the end of the tour they wandered through the break room to a rear area where there were showers! Evie noticed the delight that lit up Meryan’s face and gave her twenty minutes to take advantage of the refresher. A schedule was posted on the wall in half hour slots and Meryan signed up for a vacant early morning slot. She could avoid much of the unpleasantness of the dorm’s lavs thanks to this helpful benefit. She wondered how she would feel about herself now that she was joining a Bizgov management team and working with the very people that had once been her father’s avowed enemies.

She brushed the thought aside, knowing it would return to haunt her. She had made her choices for her survival; she could deal with her loyalties later.

That evening she met up with Alice and invited her to the Indian eatery where she had eaten breakfast. Alice had never tried Indian food and was clearly somewhat prejudiced but was game to try it at her new friend’s insistence. They walked past the serving line where a buffet offered many tasty dishes to select from and Meryan chose Alice’s dishes for her as they passed down the line carrying their trays. The servers notice the experience and delight with which Meryan made their selections and offered advice on house specialties or warned her off from dishes they considered to be inferior that night, serving the two young women generously and joyfully. Meryan selected chapattis and rotis from the breads at the end of the line to complete their meals and the girls were given small servings of cardamom sweets.

They paid with chits from their coupon books and then sat together in a narrow booth meant for only two people. Alice and Meryan shared their food and Alice seemed delighted with the wide variety of new flavors which had been heaped upon their plates. The girls lingered a long time over their meal enjoying the shelter of the eatery with its sweet spicy atmosphere and carried on swapping stories where they had left off earlier that morning.

Alice was also an orphan. She had lost her mother to lung disease four years ago and her father had died the year before of complications related to pancreatic cancer. She had no relatives to stay with and was taken in by an elderly neighbor who needed someone to help care for her in her declining health. Alice had accepted this role easily it reminded her of the years she had cared for her mother before her mom had finally passed away, and she had felt somehow closer to her mom by caring for her elderly neighbor. Her neighbor had secured her a good job in a university library and her career as a librarian was a happy one. Her neighbor had finally passed last week and Alice was forced to leave the tiny apartment they had shared. Her neighbor had been living on a reverse mortgage and the property had defaulted to the credit union upon her death. The remaining equity had been left to Alice but it was not enough to allow her to repurchase the apartment or even to be able to afford a rental on her own for very long. Alice had decided to apply to the public dormitories to allow herself to save money until she could find a more suitable arrangement.

This gave Meryan an idea. Meryan explained her own situation and what was going on with her sister. If her sister could be trusted to quit her business dealing drugs the three of them might be able to find a small apartment together. It would be safer than the dorms.

Alice agreed and they decided they would look up Pama this weekend and feel her out about inviting her to share an apartment with them.

Meryan and Alice returned to the lounge with plenty of time to find a good place on the floor behind a group of computer kiosks. They settled in and made themselves comfortable and continued to talk into the night until Alice drifted off to sleep. Meryan said a silent prayer of thanks for the gift of finding this new friend and then smiled as Alice snuggled up to her in her sleep. She held Alice closer to her and fell into sleep gently full of contentment.

In the morning they woke together in each other’s arms and the peace and joy they found in one another’s eyes was enough to assure them that everything was going to be ok. Meryan wondered whether she and Alice would be lovers and decided it didn’t matter, either way she would be happy.

Meryan and Alice spent their morning together looking up apartment rentals online and trying to work out a budget. Meryan also looked up her sister’s dorm address and discovered it may be too far away for them to be able to share an apartment with her; it would depend on how Pama felt about commuting as well as whether she could be convinced to quite dealing drugs.

Meryan decided to call Pama this evening and just see where things went from there. Meryan and Alice could consider looking for an alternative candidate for their plans if Pama was not interested.

Meryan walked partway to work with Alice and they parted company with plans to meet for dinner. Meryan then ran the remaining 3 blocks to work and up the stairs to the third floor where her offices were located. She was plenty early to use the shower and no one else was waiting so she went ahead and refreshed herself before work.

Yesterday Meryan had gotten her gear setup in her cubicle and received her authorization IDs, passwords and codes. She had hr fingerprint scanner learn all ten of her fingerprints and had set to work to writing new codes to execute depending on which finger she used. It was a simple security measure but most people never thought about it. If she was forced by anyone to access her PC she could protect her data and codes or even destroy them at a single touch. Whoever was strong arming her to provide access might never know how they were tricked.

Today she would setup false work files to substitute for any real work she was doing to camouflage the real data she may someday need to protect from prying eyes. In her line of work you could never take enough precautions. She would keep the dummy files fresh, working on them daily and they would appear to be directly related to her job and would be able to pass a reasonably close scrutiny but not a full audit. She would have to find other means to fool department auditors should the need arise.

Meryan began by collecting data on Bizgov army units stationed in Peoria. Perfectly fine perfectly legit, her boss would need to know about hackers trying to access this data and she would have to write code to sniff out their activities or fabricate them if the need arose. No problem there, and with a little luck she could put together a complete picture of whatever illegal activities were taking place with the units and among their commanders.

You never knew who might be vulnerable to blackmail or might be available to assist in a shady operation. By gathering the data to incriminate some seriously bent soldiers she was building a potential spy network that may also serve as a safety net to bail her out of a jam.

Meryan whistled while she worked, she loved her new job!

When her first legitimate assignment popped up in Meryan’s work queue she was surprised to discover that she had already put together nearly all the data she would need to complete the request. Either her boss was thinking along the same lines as she was, or there was someone who perceived the illicit activities of the soldiers as a security threat. She would have to watch her step until she uncovered the motive for her new assignment.

She glanced down at the delivery date and smiled. The saps had no idea just how good she was, she had a week to make her report. She would take the full week and she would do it right, but it would take less than a day to put together a seamless report that hid her best potential assets while delivering some of the lower grade assets to whomever was looking for them. She would spend the remaining time looking for new assets and feeling out the motive behind this request. Identifying the source would be the first step and she could go to Evie directly and ask her, justifying the need to know to better profile her search filter parameters.

Evie produced her own work log and downloaded the file on Meryan’s work request to her secure workstation. Evie advised Meryan to read quickly and take no notes; the file had a snoop to detect Meryan’s keyboard input; and it would self destruct taking the file and any suspected notes with it. The file would automatically wipe itself clean in two hours permanently destroying all traces of the data it had held.

Smart! Meryan thought as she returned to her cube to read the file. Meryan considered taking notes on her PDA but her PDA was not secure and she suspected she was being kaizaned. She had not seen any work monitors or security cameras but she knew they must be there. She could not search for them directly without raising suspicion but she would slowly infiltrate the security routines on her workstation and prepare to deflect any snoopers should she need to do anything they might raise a flag on.

Kaizaning had been imported from Japan and used methods of monitoring employees work practices to ensure they applied all their time diligently to their tasks rather than using work hours for personal business of any sort. The practice was now used by all the global scale corporations and applied to any non work related activities such as napping or calling family. Some management systems flaunted the practice and rubbed it in their employees faces on a daily basis, but Meryan knew Evie instinctively disdained the practice and would use only the most subtle methods to ensure her staff would not notice it enough to resent it.

As Meryan read and reread the file detailing the scope of work her boss had received she noticed it came from an Army colonel. Interesting! Meryan discovered the scope was really designed to be a CYA action disguised as an attempt to winkle out potential subversives. The poor colonel had too many irons in the fire, all of them hot enough to burn him to the ground if he were caught. He was grade ‘A’ resource material.

Meryan whistled louder as she composed a favorable report that would help the colonel turn a couple of nasty punks who were hellbenders maliciously abusing their authority to rob or rape whomever they pleased. Sweet!

Meryan left work a half hour late to help establish a reputation as a dedicated employee and was practically singing as she took the stairs to the ground floor and exited her office building.

For dinner Alice and Meryan tried a Thai eatery and were satisfied with their meal but thought it did not compare very favorably to their Indian eatery in either quality or service. Tomorrow they agreed to try a Mexican eatery.

Meryan tried to call her sister but Pama’s voice mail message answered. Meryan left a brief greeting and promised to call Pama back again tomorrow night.

As they settled in for the night Alice began telling Meryan about her current boyfriend whom she was going to dump. Meryan was sad to hear Alice’s story, it seemed Alice’s fellow whom she believed she deeply loved was beginning to turn abusive and had revealed a scary streak of violence that now had Alice frightened for her safety. On their last date they had been accosted by a panhandler.

Mark had beaten the poor man nearly to death.

When Alice tried to pull Mark off the bum he turned on her and she had fled.

Today Mark had turned up at her library all smiles and asked her for another date as if nothing had happened. Alice had been afraid he would make a scene if she turned him down at work and that she might lose her job if he did, so she had agreed to see him again Friday night even though she now did not want to see him again ever.

Meryan comforted Alice and they held each other close. Meryan was at first reluctant to respond to Alice’s advances as she was clearly in great turmoil, but in the end she relented and they loved each other tenderly ignoring the people around them whom they might be entertaining. They fell asleep in one another’s arms and the last thoughts Meryan had were of her own blissful contentment and joy in discovering a friend she could love so easily.

In her dreams that night Meryan found herself singing a lullaby and wandering through strange dorms seeking a special door she knew she would find. In the end she found the door partly blocked off by a couple wrapped up in many blankets who seemed to recognize Meryan and gracefully move aside to let her enter the room behind them.

The door was locked and at first Meryan did not think she had the key, but when she reached into the pocket of her jeans she found a keycard which unlocked the door for her.

It was dark in the room and there was a familiar scent to the air a warm smell of fresh urine and baby powder. She entered the room carefully and as she progressed a light slowly came on to one side and Meryan saw a small bed centered in the light which held a baby girl.

The baby smiled at her and looked into Meryan’s eyes and spoke to Meryan in her mind to say her name was Lisa.

Meryan reached for Lisa to help her with her diapers and woke up.

Meryan smelled a slightly sour odor in her friend’s hair and considered her friend carefully. The baby dream had been a precognitive dream; of this she was absolutely certain. She had had such dreams in thee past and there was always a strong element of truth about them, she would one day meet Lisa for real and love and care for her. But Lisa could not be her own baby. Nor had Lisa appeared to be Pama’s baby, so almost certainly Alice was pregnant and Lisa would be their baby together.

Meryan cried with joy and fell asleep holding her friend close to her heart. Lisa would be a very special baby, of that she was certain. Lisa could already talk to her and could be barely six weeks old. Lisa knew about her mother’s turmoil. Lisa had incited her father to his act of rage to drive her mother away from him before he could become a permanent and harmful influence in their lives.

Meryan listened carefully to the baby’s story and vowed to protect her and to love her and Alice at all costs. Meryan never questioned how she could talk to the infant, she had had enough experiences with PSI powers in her life to frighten her into learning more about them and this had led her upon a path toward personal freedom and self empowerment. This was the secret she had not yet shared with Alice concerning her special attitude towards life.

Lisa explained to Meryan that she had called for Meryan to come and meet her mother and rescue her from her father. Meryan accepted this too. It was her destiny. She would soon be a mother to a wonderful baby girl. Lisa then pardoned herself and said she would sleep awhile, they might speak together again soon, and she would be in touch if there was need.

As the new surrogate mother and her prenatal daughter fell asleep together the two mothers seemed to glow with a radiance that others might have witnessed had anyone been paying close attention.