The Angel of Chicago: Part 3

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The Angel of Chicago

Part Two: Fact Finding

by

Rodford Edmiston

Melody Gundersen scowled as her boss, Carl Gadding, entered. She wasn't hung over, thanks to the marvels of modern medicine, but she was short on sleep and caffeine was contraindicated for the hangover cure she'd taken. She was actually out of it enough she needed a moment to realize he was carrying an old-fashioned print book; what they called a hardback, she remembered, after a moment more.

"Did you catch the awards show on the 3V last night?"

"Uh, no," she said, wondering what awards show he meant. "You know I don't watch those things."

"The Empowered Reality Television Awards," he said, helpfully. She had worked for him quite a while. Long enough for Mr. Gadding to know that and a great deal more about her.

"Ugh, no," said Melody, now not bothering to hide her revulsion. "I really don't watch those."

"Well, supposedly, Malak and Mannequin and a few of the show's participants got into a knockdown, drag out. The biggest name involved being Crunch."

"And...?" she said, knowing he wasn't here just to gossip.

He leaned over he desk, smiling in a predatory fashion as he continued more quietly.

"There are no arrest reports. There are injury reports, but they're all in Crunch's name and he's been severely fined for being careless. No details. However, what happened to Malak and Mannequin is unknown. There are rumors that the former is back at his little cult village and the latter is in a rehab clinic. I want you to confirm yes or no for both but that's not your main assignment - I have other reporters working on that. I want you to do what you do best: background."

Melody nodded, as what her boss was saying sank in.

"Yeah. A supposed big brawl between empowered with few injuries and no arrests? Especially with Mannequin and Malak involved? Something's going on. I'll get right on it."

"This might give you a head start," said Mr. Gadding, handing her the book.

"'My Father Has Wings' by Arielle Labelle," she read on the cover.

"The daughter of Malak," her boss explained.

"Hang on; I thought empowered couldn't have kids."

"A myth. Some of their kids are even empowered without being activated. You could include some info on that, too."

"Okay," said Melody, in a thoughtful tone.

She started work even as he left her office. Her boss knew how to motivate her. Melody had a curious mind and loved to share what she learned. For now she put the book aside and used something more modern. The CRT terminal on her desk had a fine texture display suitable for viewing images and an outside connection, which included access to several libraries. A perquisite of working at a major newspaper.

She connected to the New York Public Library system and made a carefully worded request for general information on empowered. After a few moments, the system offered a suggested catalog. She selected a document to view, a college-level text. At her request, automated systems at the archives of the Library set to work. The specific roll of microfilm was found, moved to a reader and loaded. The image was then presented to a fine texture video camera, and it relayed that to her screen. The whole process took less than ten minutes from request to the first image appearing. While waiting she started jotting down her initial thoughts on what would be in her article. Or articles...

Melody skimmed through the roll, selected a few pages - mostly tables and graphs - and requested they be printed and delivered to her office. The photostats should be there by the next afternoon. All payments for those services were made through her account at the paper.

Next, she went back to the general catalog and entered a more detailed request. She hoped this would find what she was looking for without her having to manually search through the catalog and sample multiple rolls. As she had expected, though, the search algorithms stumbled repeatedly. Not least because so much of what was available was not fully or even accurately cataloged. Skilled archivists were rare and expensive, and volunteers and graduate students could only do so much. Still, Melody found enough material - including from a few microfilmed recent periodicals - to fill her work day without having to access the physical books in the archives. That would have been much slower, and more expensive, given the persistent problems still plaguing the selsyns which handled the physical documents. Those devices sometimes even damaged what they were handling. That was why each microfilm roll, microfiche card and aperture card in the accessible archives was a copy of a master. So, forget about trying to view actual newspapers or unprocessed periodicals and textbooks this way. It would actually be quicker - and cheaper - to go to the library herself. Or send a flunky to pick up something she reserved.

Newspapers were almost universally copied to microfilm these days, usually at the printer. Magazines were only slightly less routinely photographed. Textbooks were generally only copied if they were thought to have some popular demand. Fiction books and magazines were almost entirely available only through chips. Unfortunately, the immediate and extensive coverage of nonfiction materials had only begun about twenty years previously; finding accessible microfilm of anything older was more problematic. Of course, the New York Glory - where she worked - besides its own incomplete microfilm archives had an extensive morgue of actual, physical papers going back over a century, but only for her company's publications and those of its predecessors. She would check that resource another day. Melody already had plenty to start her work.

For example, it turned out Malak was older than she had thought. He was, in fact, a member of the first large group of empowered to be well documented. While there might have been some empowered people before the event which caused that batch, those were all officially "unverified."

There were also more empowered in the world than she had thought. In the US, as expected, they were divided into registered and rogue, with most of the extras she hadn't known about actually being rogues. Melody was astounded to learn that more empowered refused to register than complied! Yet almost none of them were ever prosecuted.

This left her wondering about something not explicitly stated in any of the official records or approved analyses of same. How many empowered were out there who were not only unregistered but unknown to the government?

* * *

Melody had planned to just skim her boss' book during her solitary supper that evening. However, she found it interesting enough she finished it that night before bed. Fortunately it wasn't very long. She actually got to bed a little early. She liked the book well enough, in fact, that before leaving for work the next morning she placed a phone order for a chip of the text, to be delivered to her office. Only to be told it was not available. From what she could learn over the phone, there had only been the one edition.

* * *

"I'm surprised they told you that much," said Mr. Gadding, when Melody returned his book the next day. "I have a feeling the authorities would rather it had never have been published at all. It humanizes some of the empowered too much for official tastes."

"It certainly gave me a different viewpoint on some of them," said Melody. "Though I'm not sure we could call Malak completely human, at least these days. Even his daughter seems... a bit strange."

"Growing up with a father like that might explain her odd perceptions on life," said Mr. Gadding, nodding. "Moving on, do you have an angle for the article, yet?"

"Maybe enough for more than one," said Melody. "Despite all the warnings about how empowered need to be strictly regulated, the majority are simply people wanting to live their lives. In fact, most of the troublemakers seem to be registered. They're mainly among those used for entertainment."

"That's a good angle," said her boss, nodding. "You can pursue that. However, I want you to put your main focus on those involved in that altercation."

"Roger," said Melody, with a smile and mock salute. "I found out just this morning that Arielle Labelle will be actually in town in a few days, working a job. I'm trying to arrange a meeting for an interview."

"If she'll give it," said Mr. Gadding, sounding doubtful. "After a brief spurt of publicity following the publication of her book she generally keeps a low profile. I don't even know what she does for a living."

"She's a contractor," said Melody, surprising him. "She gets hired to troubleshoot problems of a wide variety. Apparently, she's some sort of super genius with a photographic memory. Give her a few days and she can study a problem and usually come up with a good solution. She describes her work as 'knowing where to apply the hammer.'"

"Well, maybe if you get an interview she can provide some insights into the matter at the awards show."

* * *

Melody got her interview, just a few days later. The only condition was that she meet Arielle Labelle at a particular restaurant for lunch. The same afternoon that the empowered woman finally replied to the reporter's queries. Which meant Melody had to rush to get ready. Among other preparations, she arranged to take an aircab, since the restaurant was well over half an hour away by traditional cab.

She reached the curb just as her ride was landing. She was relieved to see that at least the aircab was a late-model StrattoMaster, and not something a quarter of a century old. The flying cabs were so expensive that they were usually updated rather than replaced. Only they still were old aircabs. The door opened as she approached, and the car spoke as she entered.

"Good after noon, Dr. Gundersen," said the cab, in its stilted voice.

"Not Doctor, and it's still morning," said Melody, as she made sure to securely fasten the safety harness. "Wait a minute; who do you think I am?"

"You are Doctor Li Song Gundersen."

"No! I am Melody Gundersen, reporter!"

"That identification does not correspond with any in my memory. Please provide your National Identification Number."

Melody suppressed a snarl, and carefully recited her NIN.

"Welcome, Miss Gundersen. Where do you wish to go?"

She gave the name of the restaurant where Arielle Labelle had agreed to meet her, made the cab recite it back, then gave it the go-ahead. It waited for a gap in traffic, then lurched abruptly into the air.

As she rearranged herself and her clothing, Melody wished - not for the first time - that these things had real drivers. However, after a few drastic accidents had convinced the powers that be that ordinary people could not safely control flying cars Congress had mandated that they all be automated. No human was allowed to control one, not even someone with a pilot's license. Of course, there were loopholes for politicians and the wealthy. Their flying limousines were all piloted. Naturally, they had proved safer than the automated flying cars.

Minutes later Melody's ride settled onto the heliport landing pad with a thump. She paid and quickly exited. At least the automated cabbies didn't get a tip. One hurried trip to the elevator and short, leisurely ride down to the rotating restaurant later, and she was at the reception desk. She told the man who she was there to meet; he nodded and motioned a waiter over. He, in turn, motioned for her to follow him. Neither man said anything beyond a perfunctory greeting. Melody and her escort went to an upper level, on the outer ring, where there was a magnificent view of the city. However, the city wasn't the only magnificent thing on view.

Labelle was impossible to miss. Like her father, she looked far younger than her age. Something which Melody had been surprised to learn was not uncommon with empowered. Also like her father, she was striking, and not just because of her appearance. She exuded charisma like an exotic perfume. Her appearance was quite different from her father's, primarily due to not having wings. Instead, she was a tall, striking woman with bronze skin and a leonine mane of hair.

Female lions don't have manes, Melody reminded herself firmly. She thanked the waiter and completed the last bit of the journey on her own. She had the feeling the waiter was glad for that.

Melody wasn't surprised she was impressed by Labelle; her reading had warned her that the woman shared her father's force of personality. However, this expected sensation was accompanied by an unaccustomed flush of arousal. Melody was distracted enough by this that she forgot to watch out for a robot busboy, and it nearly ran over her foot.

Scowling at the machine, Melody backed away enough to give it clear passage. When she resumed her course she noticed Arielle watching her. Smiling just a bit. Now even more flustered, Melody gritted her teeth, took a deep breath and walked boldly to the table. She extended her hand.

"Miss Labelle? I'm Melody Gundersen, with the New York Glory."

"Of course you are," said the woman, returning her grip with an amused smile. Her voice was deep and resonant, and exquisitely feminine. "Please, call me Arielle."

"I am very pleased you could meet me," said Melody, as she sat, placing her large handbag on the chair beside her. "If you don't mind, could I get some background information before we order?"

"Considering how slowly the waiters here move, you should have plenty of time," said Arielle, dryly. "Go ahead."

Melody pulled several things out of her purse to get to her notepad and pen, leaving them on the table. One of those was her electronic document reader. It was already set to record sound, and she surreptitiously activated that function as she maneuvered the items.

"All right," she said, smiling, as she opened the notepad and readied her pen. "Let's begin."



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