Breakfast was lumpy hot cereal of various types mixed together and set out on a buffet table for everyone to serve themselves. A guard stood watch, writing names on a clipboard so there would be no second helpings.
True to his promise, Mundo had ordered a library expedition, so while Leila checked the duty roster for her day’s assignment, Cassie gulped her food and then hurried to the lobby to meet her group. Doc was already waiting and greeted her with enthusiasm. “I’ve been trying to get permission for a library trip for a month,” he said. “It’s great to have you here. You’re like a catalyst.”
“I’m not trying to be,” Cassie said, noting the embroidered name “Brody” on Doc’s lab coat.
Doc saw where she was looking. “My dad was a biomedical researcher. I like to wear his coats. Mom had them embroidered special.”
Cassie nodded, wondering with a sudden pang if it had been a mistake not to bring her father’s heavy down parka. She had left it behind because the shuttle had been nearly full and she didn’t want to take anything she wouldn’t need now that it was spring. But what about next winter? She would miss the warm thick comfort that had reminded her of her father’s arms as she lay alone in her dark room or sat up late with Leila, whispering her fears for the future.
“I think everyone’s here,” Doc said, breaking into her thoughts.
Cassie looked at the assembled group. She had learned a few names the night before, but many still eluded her. “Looks like a pretty big group just to go to the library. It’s only a few blocks away, right?”
“You need a group to protect your barter items,” Doc explained. “You never know what you’ll run into out there.”
“Two girls got attacked by wild dogs last winter,” said Julilla, a rangy high school basketball star. “But don’t worry. I think most of the dogs have become someone’s dinner by now. It’s the other groups you have to watch out for.”
“And loners,” another guard said. “The ones without a group are sometimes worse, especially if they’ve been bartering with the Pharms.”
“Who are these Pharms I keep hearing about?” Cassie asked.
“Don’t you have them in the suburbs? I thought they were everywhere,” Doc said. “They took over the drug stores and their plan is to get control over the entire city. They’ve got a big network and you can get just about anything pharmaceutical from them, if you can pay their price.”
“They keep slaves,” someone added. “They get kids hooked on drugs, then make them work for their fix.”
“If one of them is ever after you,” Julilla said, “Plan on killing him. They’re usually high on something and do crazy stuff.”
“There’s no reasoning with a Pharm,” Doc agreed.
This information made Cassie rest a nervous hand on the pistol she had been given. It wasn’t a weapon she was comfortable with, but she was glad to have it. She had also been given a blue suede gauntlet, made from material cut from a lobby chair. Knowing she was an official group member helped allay her anxiety about wandering the city streets on foot. With Doc, two young boys carrying their barter items, and six guards, they headed out.
Cassie hadn’t paid much attention to the immediate area the day before, having been too upset by the shooting at the roadblock. Now she looked at the streets disfigured with dirt and blowing trash. Sewers had backed up, disgorging muck into the gutters. Intersections were bare of traffic lights and street signs, which had fallen during winter storms or been pulled down by bored and angry teenagers. Dead electrical lines dangled from poles and snaked across the road, ready to trip the unwary. It seemed nearly every window at street level had been broken, and the stench of rotting bodies wafted out of some of the buildings.
“The last grownups,” Doc said. “And the kids who’ve died since. Suicide, food poisoning, infections, accidents…things like that.”
Cassie didn’t need to be told all the ways young people could die. It hadn’t been unusual in the suburbs to break into a house and find infants dead of dehydration, or a teenager who couldn’t bear the devastation rotting in a homemade noose. “Why hasn’t anyone buried them?”
“Who should do it? And where? Some of us tried at first, but the cemeteries are full and it got to be too time-consuming to dig graves in the parks. Then winter came and we had other problems, like trying to survive.”
“Besides,” said a tall blond boy named Zach, “dead bodies keep the strays fed. Fat dogs and cats go good in the soup pot.”
He watched Cassie’s face for a reaction. Getting none, turned his attention to other matters and was soon deep in flirtation with Julilla.
They arrived at the library without incident and Cassie admired, as she often had in earlier times, the grand stone building with its stately columns. In the sea of glass skyscrapers twisting their modern shapes toward the clouds, the old library represented permanency, something transcendent that linked the present to the past.
The aura of timelessness was ruined by the guard contingent that met the Regents at the door. Several minutes of negotiations followed, culminating in the Regents being allowed up the steps while one of the library guards ran inside, returning with a tall, serious girl in a plain blue dress and glasses, her hair neatly coiled at the nape of her neck. She sat behind a table and examined the Regents’ trade offerings. “These will get you about five fiction, maybe three non-fiction. The actual books you choose will determine the final cost.”
Doc nodded. “I’m familiar with the procedure. Do we still get to keep them for one week? And can we choose which items you’ll give back when we return them?”
The librarian gave him a stern look over the tops of her glasses. “Did you have a preference?”
“The cans of green beans.”
One of the Regents guards opened her mouth to protest, but Doc waved a hand and she remained silent.
“We’ll see,” said the librarian. “Pick some books and then we’ll decide.”
They were allowed to take one guard with them, so Doc selected Julilla. After being informed that they weren’t to speak above a whisper, they were taken to the stacks where other people were browsing, each led by a girl in stern librarian garb carrying a flashlight aloft through the dark rooms. Cassie soon found herself among the plant and wilderness books with a girl of ten shining her flashlight on the spines and glaring up at her from time to time through thick glasses that distorted her eyes, making them look as big as dinner plates. Cassie was disappointed with the selection, but she finally found a book that would suit the group’s needs and went in search of Doc.
She found him examining medical texts. “She won’t let me check out the Merck Manual,” he whispered in outraged tones. Before he could say more, his guide frowned and hushed him. With a sigh, he handed Cassie a book, indicating with hand signals that he wanted her opinion. It was an illustrated guide to home remedies for such ailments as colds, coughs and sore throats. Cassie nodded in approval.
Upon returning to the lobby, they handed their books to a girl whose badge identified her as a circulation clerk. She made some notes, consulted a chart and conferred with one of the older librarians. It was decided that Doc could have back his cans of green beans if he returned the books within seven days. The other goods they would keep as their fee.
“That’s some operation they run,” Cassie said as they walked back to the hotel.
“They’re efficient, I’ll give them that. Smart move, setting themselves up as guardians of knowledge in exchange for food and protection. But I hear the university has a library with better science resources.”
“We should go there sometime.”
“I keep telling Mundo, but he says it’s too far away. He doesn’t like wasting guards and trade goods on this sort of thing. He only authorized this mission to see what you’d come up with.”