5 June 2191
People are constantly trying to free themselves from one thing or another. It’s as if they believed some other -ism?any other -ism?would be better than the -ism they have. In their pursuit of liberty from this -ism people often enslave themselves to that -ism. That, my friends, is real-ism.
John Lee, ghetto battle disfigured and street-gang tattooed, stopped by the restaurant’s front door and slapped a large red button with his free hand. The other trembled under a wobbling stack of chipped and cracked plates dripping a dark brown, greasy fluid?the remains of what the menu said was Chow Mein. The locals knew the stuff as Lee’s Brown Death. The drops hit the floor and vanished on tiles colored to camouflage all but the worst spills.
"Okay everybody, you got twenty minute. Eat, drink, pay, then goodbye," he announced in a phony SinoSec singsong while a heavy steel grating, answering the command from the button, rattled its way down over the narrow, rectangular windows of wire reinforced two centimeter tempered plate in a disgusting display of people protecting themselves from people.
It was late afternoon, and the counter was empty except for one man seated near the windows. He was tall, too tall, so his knees pressed firmly into the underside of a counter designed to the corporate standard. Supported by splayed elbows planted firmly, his long torso hooked over the scratched and scuffed plastic surface and his head protruded almost into the serving aisle, giving him the look of a poorly dressed praying mantis ready to strike. Wearing the common, drab uniform of the down-and-out that was typical of the lower city, he fit in with the restaurant’s second-hand decor. John Lee, on his way to pass the dishes through to his brother, Danny, paused briefly in front of him.
He leaned forward until his shaved head, covered with a stylized dragon tattoo in black and red, its tail snaking down and wrapping around his neck, was close enough for him to speak in a loud whisper.
"Okay you stay, Pat-san. We got good game upstair tonight. Yessir. Got big sucker who part with money faster than fat of pig pass through duck."
The gaunt figure did not bother to look up and folded his hands tightly around his cup as if he were afraid he would lose it.
"Not tonight, John. Maybe next time, but thanks."
"You are not well, Pat-san?"
"I?ve been better."
"Hey, you at the counter. Your name Dalworthy?" a voice demanded from somewhere behind the man John Lee called Pat-san.
Dalworthy lifted his head slowly. It was obvious that his face had not been viewed in a holoprojector for several days. His skin, stretched plastic-wrap tight over a heavy, square foundation of chiseled bone, bore a dark stubble blanket. His piercing, cobalt eyes, set deep beneath a prominent brow, remained fixed on the dregs littering the bottom of a cup that had once been filled with what John Lee passed off as real coffee. Coffee, John Lee swore, that had been smuggled in at great expense from a place where it still grew, and that was what justified the inflated price. Grimacing at the last bits of ruddy light leaking through the grating, Dalworthy spread his knees for clearance and swiveled on the stool.
"Who’s asking?" Not that I give a damn.
"I am, bud. Over here by the vid. You Dalworthy?"
In a corner booth shielded from the shafts of dull orange light sat the nearest thing to a gorilla in a business suit Dalworthy had ever seen?hair and all.
Dalworthy, trying to avoid the dizziness and bright, swirling spots that accompanied any sudden, unplanned movement after a week of doing what he had been doing, edged himself off the stool with care. He tested the floor for movement.
"Because I have a job for you . . . if you?re Dalworthy."
"Yeah, I?m Dalworthy. Wait just one damned minute."
Dalworthy, one stabilizing hand on the stool, took an experimental step to ensure himself he had what it would take to make the distance, then shuffled uncertainly to the simian’s table.
"I said I have a job for . . ."
"I heard that part. What’s the job?"
"Are you sure you don?t want to sober up first?"
"What the hell for?"
"I doubt you?re conscious enough to understand what I?m saying to you, that’s what the hell for. Why don?t you sit down before you collapse?"
"I?ll stand for now, and I?m conscious enough to know that what you?ve said so far has been nothing but irrelevant grooming crap. Now, what’s the job?"
"All right, Dalworthy?all right. I want you to find someone for me."
"Uh-huh. What other reason would there be to hire a tracker? Why me? There are other trackers in town."
"I know, but they tell me you?re the best. They haven?t lied to me, have they?"
"No, they have it right. I?m the best damn tracker in the system. I?m good at a lot of things."
"They told me that, too?and they said you weren?t too hot in the humility department."
"They, whoever they are, talk too much. Who?"
"I promised them I wouldn?t say?"
"No, damn it. Who is it you want me to find?"
Dalworthy automatically tensed, his hand sliding easily into his coat pocket and landing on cold metal, as the hairy giant reached into his breast pocket and withdrew a holoplate. Dalworthy took it, pressed the button in its side and whistled softly as the image of a young woman grew out of its surface.
"Mmm?gorgeous. Does this titillating tidbit have a name?"
"I don?t know her full name. Pamela?Pamela’s all I know."
"What? You want me to track the delicious contents of this plate in a city of sixty-seven million people, most of them hiding from something or other, and you don?t have a full name? What about her gensheet, do you have that? A bit of clothing I can sniff? Something?anything for identification?"
"I?m afraid not. Besides, what difference would it make? She’s probably not using her name and she won?t be using her gencard anywhere. She has stolen something from us and we?I want it back."
"Okay, okay. Forget the ID stuff. If she’s a thief, why don?t you just go to the cops?"
"No cops, Dalworthy. Definitely no cops."
"Okay, no cops it is."
His answer came out in a sarcastic I?ve-heard-this-before voice. Whenever someone said they didn?t want the cops involved, it meant there was more to their story than what they were saying. It also meant his fee could go up-scale proportionately.
"Let’s go to my office and discuss this over a tall glass of medicine before I ruin my royal image and puke all over you. Where’s your car?"
Or do you swing from building to building on vines?
"Up top. Where’s your office?"
"I?ll tell you on the way."