(Part 6 of a Series)
by P. Orin Zack
As the cab pulled to a stop in front of a boxy prefab in a cramped development on the site of the old Indiana Harbor Works, his ire refocused, and he rebuked himself for agreeing to run the errand in the first place. For one thing, the stuff was illegal. Well, maybe not actually illegal, but there was no way a home-made herbal salve was on the healthcare formulary, even if his father did swear by it. He'd told his mother that buying it could get him trouble, but she'd insisted, and work was no place to make a scene. It was, however, the perfect place to look at his situation dispassionately, and let logic dictate a solution: if he had to buy the crap, then the only way to do it safely was with cash, because he certainly didn't want a purchase like this sullying the credit score he'd spent ten years nurturing.
He confirmed the wait request that he'd logged when he ordered up the ride, got out, and took a quick look around. The neighborhood was pretty nondescript. Prefab developments usually were, but the Thandri's house stood out anyway, because it looked like it had been recently vandalized. A section of gutter had been wrenched from its mounting and was laying in the rock garden surrounding the building, along with some roofing debris. That rock garden was the other thing that set it apart. All the other units were surrounded by a strain of genmod grass that was designed to grow in the same company's home-store soils, a strain that was instantly recognizable by the signature green and blue striped blades. The ads were inescapable.
Approaching the house, Victor ticked off two more reasons to doubt the wisdom of this trip: there were blast marks on the door and on the adjacent siding that radiated out from the hinges, and the doorscreen was toast. Whoever had broken in wasn't too concerned about being noticed. His pace slowed precipitously as a wave of discomfort rose from his gut. He stood there, fighting the urge to run, and unsure of how to announce his presence without an electronic intermediary. Fortunately, he was saved from that embarrassment when the door opened slightly with a loud crack, and then swung wide on complaining hinges to reveal a South Asian man with a bemused scowl. He quickly revised the tally to four as he made eye contact, and prepared for the worst.
"Who are you?" the man asked suspiciously.
He said, "I'm Vic--," but then caught himself and started over. "Look, I was given this address for picking up a jar of Thandri salve. But I can see that you're busy, so I'll--."
The man's demeanor softened a bit. "Sorry," he said, "We got busted. There's no salve or much of anything else right now."
Memories of his mother inveighing against him for giving up too easily swam through Victor's mind. Weary of replaying that well-worn bit of melodrama, he decided to short-circuit the ploy. "When will you have some?" he asked hastily. "I could come back."
"The truth is, the police ripped out my irrigation system. I have no idea what we're going to do about it. Sorry for the inconvenience."
Victor sighed with relief. "No. It's okay. Really. We'll find something else."
As he was getting back into the autoCab, his mind turned to the next stop on this slow-motion train wreck: his parents' flat. Their address had already been laid in, so the nav worked out the most cost-effective route and timing, which left him with nothing to do but stew in the swamp of emotional turmoil he was about to step into.
His mother launched the first salvo before she'd even opened the door. "Show me the tin, Victor."
He glared at the generic butler avatar on the doorscreen while two neighbors eyed him suspiciously as they walked past on their way to the elevator. "They didn't have any, mom," he stage-whispered. "The guy who answered the door said they'd been raided by the cops. Judging from the blast marks on the door, it wasn't a friendly visit, either."
She threw the door open and pulled him inside. "No salve? Oh, my lord. Your father is in terrible pain, Victor. What are we going to do?"
"We?" he echoed, and then realized that the emotional ground was about fall out from under him.