Article Index

Chapter One

"¿Ocho pesos, Señor?" the young girl asked over the counter. Her face was deeply tanned and stark, with lips that were thin and outlined a mouth that had seen little variety of food over her eleven years. Her moist brown eyes, made larger than normal because of her lean face, looked longingly at a brightly decorated piñata. Made of tissue paper, it was red, yellow, green, blue, orange, white and purple. It had every color possible except brown. That it did not have even a trace of brown - the brown of dusty streets, stale bread crusts and leering eyes - only made it more desirable. Shaped like a llama, it seemed to be from a wondrous dream, a joyful fragment of unimagined happiness that hung from the cart's mesquite wood rafters, tantalizingly close, yet impossibly out of Juanita's grasp.

"Eight pesos, Señor?" Juanita repeated hopefully, offering a price far below the piñata's marked price of ninety pesos. She fidgeted nervously, knowing she had no right to offer such a laughable sum, but she was going to try. Clasped firmly in her delicate hand were twelve pesos. She needed at least three to purchase the day's meal for her and her mother, but the remaining nine were hers to spend.

The cart vendor, having finished his transaction with a tourist, turned toward Juanita, prepared to chase her away. She had badgered him with the same eight pesos for several days now and each day he had rudely cursed her, not even honoring such a poor amount with a counteroffer that would indicate bartering had begun. Eight pesos! Didn't this street imp know that she must at least try to offer a reasonable...

He looked down at Juanita, and his anger faded. She stood close to the counter that nearly came up to her painfully thin shoulders. She looked as she had every day he’d seen her. She had long, black hair, some of it tied back with a slice of faded orange ribbon, and wore a loose, oversized tan sack dress that came down to her knees. She had a rope tied around her skinny waist. She was barefoot, but a pair of sandals - worn out and used only when necessary - hung from her rope belt. Always emaciated, the child today seemed to have an extra measure of desperation. She held her petite, underdeveloped frame proudly, as she always did, but today it seemed as though a harsh word from him would shatter her. He was a hard bargainor, and he held off poverty for his own family only by shrewdly bartering with - some might say battering - those who could afford to be generous, or who knew nothing about challenging a price. But staring into the girl's large, hopeful eyes ruined his business acumen, and for this single transaction, the loving father in him took precedence.

"Eight pesos?!" he said loudly in poorly feigned shock. He gestured both hands at the piñata, as though presenting the rarest of earthly treasures. "How could you offer only eight pesos for such art?" He shook his head sadly. "I fear, child, that the sun has burned your brain away."

Juanita smiled slightly, and she felt her heart pound the smallest bit harder. Today, and maybe only today, she had a chance to possess this tiny morsel of paradise.

"But, sir! This has been hanging in your cart for weeks. I know, because I pass it every day on my way to the Square of Mercy." She cautiously opened her hand and stole a glance at the sweaty, warm coins, not allowing the vendor to see her wealth. She closed her hand again and looked up. "Eight pesos, Señor."

"Eight pesos! Again with the eight pesos!" he proclaimed, his pretended blustering losing what little bark it had. He found himself admiring her good trading technique of not raising her offer until he at least countered. He leaned forward and put his weight on the counter, causing it to creak in protest. A large man, he seemed twice again his size beside the slight Juanita, but she lifted her chin and stood her ground, though her legs were weaker than they had been a moment earlier. He considered her thoughtfully.

"Though my family will starve because of my foolishness, I will sell you this beautiful piñata, which my children slaved many hours to make, for only..." he paused, gauging his small customer, "fifteen pesos."

Fifteen! Juanita thought wildly, at once depressed and excited. The marked price was ninety! This was very generous, and she wished with desperation that she had the fifteen. But she didn't. She had twelve, and at least three was needed to purchase rice and beans - and perhaps bread - in Mercy Square.

She did not show any fear, though. Or tried not to. Instead, she set her mouth firmly, hoping he didn't see the tiny quiver in them.

"Fifteen pesos for so small a thing, sir?" she said in surprise and a hint of indignation. In truth, she was thrilled at having the rare chance to debate the price of something. "How grand you and your family must live! You make so much money with a toy that cost no more than a peso to make." She briefly thought about raising her offer, but knew she had little room for that option. "I will pay you eight pesos."

Her offer, improperly unchanged, all but shattered the man's heart. He knew that she dearly wanted the piñata, but had little or no money beyond the eight pesos. He nearly reached up and gave her the treasure for nothing, but couldn't. Her pride would force her to refuse it. He wanted her to have it now as much as she did, but had to do this the proper way.

"Is eight the only number you know? Ah!" he threw his hands up, then folded his arms and frowned at her menacingly. It was a frown that neither believed. "I shall teach you a new number today, girl! You ruin me, but I will sell it to you for twelve pesos."

Twelve! Now her prize became a thing of torture as well. Her insides twisted and churned, and had she any food in her stomach, she might have thrown up from eagerness and agony. She had twelve pesos! But she needed three, which left only nine.

She hurriedly tried to calculate how she might save some money at the Square. Mother could not earn any money. And while her mother had eaten yesterday, it had been very little, since Juanita had been detained overly long at the city gates by the Hidalgo police who were looking for a young thief about Juanita's size. They had forced her to take them to her mother, to prove she was not an orphan, and then wasted more time while they took her mother's finger and eye prints to verify she was properly listed with the Demented Persons Registry.

Finally satisfied, they left Juanita and her mother in peace, but the Square was closed by then, and Juanita could only afford food elsewhere if she used her precious eight pesos, which she had vowed to spend on herself. So she had fed her mother the little bread that had been tossed her during her impromptu dances that day. She herself went hungry. It was not an unusual event, so Juanita didn't concern herself with it. She was young and able to earn money. Her mother was addled and unable to work, so her mother had to come first.

She knew that she could not buy enough food for the both of them for less than three pesos. She must use the one extra peso that remained.

"You have insulted me, Señor!" Juanita snapped, stamping her foot on the dusty street, stirring a small cloud. "I know many numbers! I also know that the number twelve is not a good number for that piñata. If it were three piñatas, or perhaps one piñata as large as me, then twelve would be almost fair. But I only wish to purchase one small piñata. Very well then, Señor," she said, mustering as stately a voice as possible, "I shall crumble to your bullying by offering you nine pesos."

"Nine!" he stared at her in disbelief and horror. Inside, he was overjoyed that the child had the one extra peso to conclude the trading. He would sell it to her for nine. But it still wasn't quite time. Both child and man were very much excited and delighted with this exchange; a moment of happiness the child was basking in and the man was gladly giving her.

"Nine!" he repeated, putting a tone in his voice that sounded as the bells of doom might. "Why don't you steal a knife from me and rob me, girl? I see now that you are not a beautiful child but rather a glassmac man disguised as a lovely young woman. Nine! It is you who are bullying me!" He sighed heavily. Juanita's eyes were sparkling and her efforts to maintain a righteously indignant face were failing miserably as a smile forced her face to light up. "You leave me no choice, then. You have bested me, glassmac man. Ten pesos."

The instant he said it, he knew he had made a mistake. The child's face was rocked with fear and confusion. In his playful banter, he'd forgotten this young child was just that; a young child. Though wise in the sad ways that children should never have knowledge of, she was still very young and immature. As he saw the struggle in her face, he knew that the one thing he hoped for - that she would simply offer the nine pesos again - would not occur to her. Clearly, he had pushed her to the point of just over affordability. She must now either walk away, not having ten pesos, or she would accept the offer and pay for that lost peso by going hungry.

Unfortunately, there was nothing he could say now, for he had made his offer. She was not seeking pity; she was seeking dignity. He was saddened that while she would keep her dignity, she must surrender either her sustenance or her dream.

Juanita looked down again and peered into her barely opened hand. Ten pesos, and the piñata was hers. But that left only two pesos, and she had to have three.

Or did she? She made between one and four pesos each day, dancing at the city gate where the glassmac came into town. If she didn't eat today, then left early in the morning while it was still dark, she could dance until night and perhaps earn a fourth and even fifth peso. Her growling stomach reminded her she hadn't eaten in two days, but her excited heart told her that just one more day of hunger would allow her to purchase this glorious shard of a different life.

She looked up at the piñata once again. The brightly colored tassels hung down, casting spider-web shadows on the bland, expensive items sitting on the counter. A warm puff of desert breeze caressed the cart and the piñata swayed slightly, as though trembling with the hope that it would soon have an owner. Juanita decided. She would eat tomorrow, or maybe the day after. Today, she would have her present.

"Ten pesos, is a fair price, Señor," Juanita said firmly. "I accept it."

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“Yo! Gary!” Efwon’s voice carried clearly through the crystallized air of the puterverse. Gary Marks, concentrating deeply as he waded through the data pool, searching for the single thread needed to solidify his link, looked up in annoyance. Efwon was dropping steeply in free fall toward him. For an instant, he thought the burning green form would deliberately splash into the pool, ruining hours of trolling. He stopped less than a micron above the surface, however, and the pool didn’t even ripple.

“Geez, Mike! Do you really have to shout like that?” Gary turned back to his trolling. “What do you have to tell me that’s so important it couldn’t wait an extra few seconds while you came a little closer?”

Mike walked along the surface of the pool and stopped beside Gary. Putting his hands on his knees, Mike squatted down and peered into the pool, grinning.

“Geez, you’re a whiner! There’s nothing important going on, except your work.” Mike’s voice took on a tone of deep interest. His eyes glowed brighter as he inspected the threads making up the data pool. “So, have you found number twenty-three yet?”

Gary wanted to stay mad at him, but couldn’t. Mike - known by the entire puterverse world and its users as Efwon - was the Marks’ family mentor, tutor, guide and occasional nuisance. A being of unsurpassed power, he and Kiki were the oldest life forms in the puterverse. Gary had been honored and shocked when at the age of twenty, this unimaginably intelligent being had contacted him personally and told him it was his - Gary’s - five times great-grandmother Abigail Marks who had created Mike and Kiki and changed forever the face of the puterverse. Stunned that the nearly omnipotent Efwon was devoted to certain members of the Marks’ family line even after two centuries, Gary had eagerly snatched up Mike’s offer to teach him the puterverse. Now, at the age of fifty, Gary himself was considered one of its best users.

“I think so. Here, look at this.” Gary gently pulled away a data thread, revealing a second, pulsing one beneath it. “I’d say it was dated about June, 2442, wouldn’t you?”

“Nope. I’d say July 15th, 2442, 3:36 a.m. Terran,” Mike replied with a grin.

“Smartass,” Gary shot back. Carefully, he inserted his right hand and began easing aside the shimmering, crisscrossed layers of humming, glimmering data threads, baring the much sought after link. “Grab that, will ya’?”

Though he never got involved directly as Efwon - a brutal lesson he had learned a century earlier - with Gary he was just Mike. Showing no apparent regard for accuracy, Mike plunged his hand in and roughly snatched the thread. His carelessness was illusion only; upon touching the date pool, every thread snapped parallel to the surface, then spread apart to allow Mike unimpeded access. Gary marveled at the easy way Mike had with data. Less than a picon thick, the glowing data thread was more fragile than a teenager’s confidence with the opposite sex. Mike pulled the thread to the surface quickly and yanked it free of the data pool, causing no damage whatsoever. Gary pulled his hands free and shook loose a few errant data threads, which floated back to the pool, where they were reintegrated. He held out his left arm and Mike slapped the thread around Gary’s forearm, and the data whipped around, quickly changing color and shading until it matched the deep gold glow that coated Gary’s realistic body. Gary’s head tilted as he slipped into deep thought, analyzing the data. Then he suddenly smiled and gave a shout.

“Yes! Number twenty-three! Mike, we did it! Six months looking, but we’ve got number twenty-three!”

“Great!” Mike was clearly as excited as Gary, and the two shouted and laughed as Gary waded out of the pool. Gary completed thread duplication, then carefully unwrapped the data and dropped it back into the pool. Within nanoseconds, it had found its original location. The data pool returned to its undisturbed state.

“So,” Mike said with a quieter voice, filled with anticipation. “Is this it? Is this the one?”

“Hang on. I’m running the thread now.” Gary’s voice and face took on a thoughtful look again. He began mechanically rattling off the data as it processed.

“Ripe begins on July 15th, 2442, at 3:36 a.m. Terran time. Ripe is machine. It’s a... puterverse assistance terminal...”

“Damn!” Mike said vehemently, knowing what was coming.

“Operation time... one million, three hundred and sixty-one thousand, four hundred and two hours, seventeen minutes..”

“That makes it a ripe of one hundred and fifty-five and a half years.” Mike said with a nod, “Ripe termination date would work out to December 12, 2597.” His earlier anger was mollified somewhat by the relief that it didn’t reach 2681, the year when he, Kiki, and Abigail had destroyed the original, corrupted puterverse.

Gary nodded. “Ripe persona termination date confirmed. Soulner continuation...” he paused a long moment - which seemed an eternity to Mike - then let out a deep sigh of relief. “Soulner continuation verified. Looks like it’s on to number twenty-four, Mike. Either that or keep working back.”

“Hey, Gary, I know you’re up to it.” Mike gripped Gary’s shoulder firmly. “There’s no one better.” He cracked a grin and his green eyes sparked. “Except me, of course.”

“I know. I’m not frustrated. Just a little - I don’t know - anxious that I’ll never find the beginning or end. That I’ll never be able to bring the last soulner home.”

“You’ll get it,” Mike said with conviction. “You’ve found twenty-three consecutive ripes since the first thread was discovered eight years ago. There can’t be many more. It’s up to you to find where the soulner started and where he or she is now.” He smiled at some private thought. “And I know you’ll find both ends. After all, you wouldn’t want to find out what I’m like if I discover I’ve been wasting my time with some loser.”

“I imagine you’d be some put out,” Gary ventured with a laugh.

“You imagine correctly. Well,” Mike stepped back and jumped lightly into the air. Sharp, metallic wing sprang from his back; wings he’d “inherited” from Abigail Marks. “I’m off. Some egghead on Killian Four needs my help. Take care, Gary!” There was a soft explosion and Mike was shooting through the puterverse atmosphere toward his next project.

“You too, Mike!” He called out after Mike’s quickly fading form. Shaking his head after the enigmatic character, Gary turned inward again to begin gleaning the clues that would point to ripe number twenty-four.

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The coins changed hands, and the vendor was surprised at how decisive she had become. His earlier sadness at having pushed her too far faded when he handed over the piñata into Juanita's trembling hands.

"Gracias, Señor!" Juanita said with a deep curtsy, slightly off balance from the piñata firmly gripped under her right arm. She beamed at him, and for a moment the life she was living was gone, and the man saw a child without worries or fears. He had a sudden inspiration. The moment could not last, but perhaps he could help it linger.

"Please wait, Señorita," he said sternly, reaching under the counter. He pulled out a tabinal and activated it. "Our business is not concluded. For such a major purchase, I must register your name as a recognized consumer."

The flicker of fear that had crossed Juanita's face vanished and her face lit up. Though a standard practice among those with money, being a recognized consumer was an unheard of honor for the poor. Registration had no impact on a person's life other than one could say they were registered. The vendor saw the look of awe on her face as he handed her the tabinal. He fervently hoped she could read.

She could. Holding the tabinal like it was made of pure gold, Juanita carefully input what little information there was about herself. Her fingers were shaking with excitement, and she felt almost dizzy with giddiness from this unexpected chance at status. Just wait until she told her pastor and her mother!

Her hands were still shaking so badly when she handed back the tabinal that the vendor needed to reach out and take it from her. He placed the tabinal back under the counter, then smiled at Juanita.

"There! Now our business is concluded, Señorita."

Juanita's eyes were now tear-filled. She carefully placed the piñata at her feet, then gave the man a slow, gracious curtsy.

"Gracias, Señor," she said in a quiet voice, "Mucho gracious! Vaya con Dios!" Picking up the piñata, Juanita turned and moved away unsteadily, as though not used to walking on air. She headed toward Mercy Square, her most precious earthly possession held tightly to her chest.

"Vaya con Dios, Peppita," he murmured after her tiny form. "Vaya con Dios."

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Gary rolled over onto his back, trying to get to sleep. Beside him, his wife moaned slightly and raised her head, looking at him with sleepy eyes. Seeing his staring gaze in the near darkness, she whispered a soft word and shifted her hands, creating a soft blue ball of light over their heads, the lulling sound of a steady rainstorm pouring from it.

"What's wrong, Gary?" she yawned. "Still bothered by number twenty-four?"

"I'm sorry I woke you, Cathy." He kissed her on the forehead. "Yeah, I am. I can't seem to find the one thread that will point me to twenty-five. I know it's the last one. I'm certain of it!"

"But doesn't twenty-four terminate in 2690? That's over two hundred years as a ripe, Gary."

"I know. But all unregistered riping stopped after 2703, when Mike, Kiki and my great-grandmother Abigail completed integration of the puterverse, and every ripe performed after 2703 has been located and cued. For this last one to have survived this long, it has to come from a time when it was still possible to perform a ripe, then bury the evidence."

"Well, how about the other end, then? You haven't worked on that for a few months." Cathy yawned again and slumped her head on the pillow. "Maybe the soulner is a homicidal maniac, and you really couldn't bring him back anyway."

"I've thought of that. I'm positive that's not true, though. The most number of ripes a deranged mind has ever successfully undergone is fifteen. Some can’t even handle one for very long. After fifteen, an unbalanced mind can't support the psychic barriers and dissolution sets in.

"This one's gone at least twenty-six, counting the soulner and the last ripe. That's the third largest known number a mind has been riped. Only the Milcorp Complex and Potolofsky soulners - each at forty-one - were larger. And the Potolofsky soulner had eighteen sealant ripes. So far, this one’s only had eight." Gary sighed and rolled on his side, facing his wife and putting an arm around her.

"I know this will prove to be a valid candidate for cueing. It will also probably be the final cueing, because this is the only unresolved soulner to be discovered in over eighty years."

"If that's true," Cathy said in a sleepy voice, cuddling up to her husband, "You'll be out of a job when it's done."

"That's a problem I'll be happy to have, Cathy. Mankind has an eight hundred year mar against it. I just want to make amends for the crime we've committed against ourselves and against all the soulners who were ever riped. I just want to bring this last soulner home."

Cathy snuggled up against him and he felt better. He pulled his left arm tighter around her, drawing her close, while with his right hand he cast a spell of cancellation. The blue light popped silently and the room faded into gentle silence and cozy darkness.

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"Pastor!" Juanita called out as she stepped into the narthex of the small chapel. In her hands she now carried the small sack of beans she had purchased from Mercy Square. Under her arm, having never left the safety of its owner, was the piñata.

"Pastor?" she called again, looking into his office. It was empty, so she walked to the doors that led to the sanctuary and peered through the cracked but clean window. She could see Pastor Montoya kneeling at the communion rail, deep in prayer. She didn't know how long he would be, but decided to wait. Walking over to the ancient wooden bench in the narthex, worn smooth by the decades and hundreds of parishioners, she sat down quietly and waited. Now that she had purchased the food for the day, it was nearly an hour until dark, so Juanita had some time.

She looked around the familiar narthex and tried to find if anything was different. She visited the mission twice daily, once in the morning on her way to the city gates, and again on her way home in the evening. Except for Pastor Montoya - who had been there nearly forty years - Juanita was the most established fixture in the small but faithful Lutheran mission.

Nothing had changed. She'd read all the notices on the board, and the bulletin from the previous Sunday was already memorized - greedily soaked up by Juanita who had learned to read here and had a voracious appetite for anything written.

The poor box was also unchanged, but Juanita looked at it anyway. She felt a small tingle of guilt with the piñata sitting beside her, but chased the feeling away as a false guilt. She had already given the first two pesos of the filthy ten she'd had, and Pastor Montoya had encouraged her to spend the remaining eight as she saw fit.

Her memory flashed back briefly to the encounter. Two weeks earlier, she had been dancing at the gates in the heat of the day when she'd been accosted by a loud, drunken foreigner. Although Juanita was always careful to dance with graceful movements that were intended only to show beauty of motion, this man took it to mean something entirely different.

He had propositioned her and she had refused. Many girls - and more than a few boys - her age and younger made great sums in pleasing whomever had the twenty, thirty or forty pesos needed to secure their services, but Juanita was not among them. It was sinful money, and she would have nothing to do with it.

He had continued pressuring her and she had abruptly stopped and gathered her few crusts and two coins, willing to go hungry rather than continue with him watching. He grabbed her, and she struggled. Other beggars, including several men looking for work, noticed and came to help. Seeing that he would be in trouble if he stayed, he roughly kissed Juanita on the mouth then ran off, tossing ten pesos on the ground in front of her and thanking her for her services.

She'd gone to her pastor, crying and shamed. He'd helped her through her terror and guilt by reading from the Bible the comforting passages of forgiveness and love by her Savior. When they discussed what to do with the money - the equivalent of four days working wages - Juanita wanted nothing to do with it and offered to give it to the church. Pastor Montoya had quietly counseled that while she had had this money forced upon her, it nonetheless was now her money, and she should manage it carefully. He suggested that she take what was bad and make good out of it. She had promptly stood up and put two pesos into the poor box, saving the rest for the proper time.

It was three days later that she saw the piñata.

A wonderful, joyous, colorful thing that glowed in a drab world of poverty and hunger, the piñata looked to Juanita like a bright beacon of sunlight slicing through an impenetrable darkness. She began dreaming of it, seeing it sitting on the small windowsill of the abandoned, tumbled down adobe she and her mother lived in, the sunlight illuminating it and the rays breaking into many beams of colored light as it bounced off the hundreds of tassels. Even better, she would hang it by a string from the top of the sill, and let the wind play with it, swinging and turning the piñata, entertaining others with its beauty and movement in the way Juanita danced for others.

As much for herself, Juanita also knew her mother would love it. She took her mother for walks on occasion, and saw the woman's dull eyes brighten at the sight of radiant, moving color. How she would love the piñata!

So Juanita had begun pestering the man, knowing she could never afford the gift for her and her mother, but holding out hope and praying each night for a miracle. And today her prayers had been answered.

It had been a half hour since her arrival, and Pastor Montoya was still praying. He probably hadn't heard her come in and didn't know she was there. She thought about calling for him again, but didn't want to disturb him. Besides, the sun was setting and she wanted to be home while it was still up, so she could show her mother their new present. She would talk to pastor tomorrow. Picking up her small sack of beans and her piñata, Juanita left the chapel, closing the outer door with a quiet hand.

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"I did it."

Gary stared at the thread. It pulsed and glowed in his hand, a rainbow spark of power cutting through it occasionally as the ancient data sputtered and struggled to maintain its existence. Seeing how fragile it was, Gary began a slow, careful, reconstruction, gently filling the fragment with his own energy. He wanted to cast a sustenance spell on the thread, but of course Pentrinsic code couldn’t exist in the puterverse, a place where trinary code was indigenous. Still staring intently at the eight hundred year old thread, Gary called for Mike, who instantly appeared. Though he may have been dozens of light years away from a physical world perspective, this was the puterverse, and Mike was a part of this world, not Gary's. He traveled where he wanted, when he wanted.

"Hey, Gary! How's.." Mike's loud, cheerful greeting broke off when he saw the data fragment. He came forward slowly, as though fearful too hard a step would snap the thread.

"You did it," he said in awed whisper.

"Uh-huh. It'll take awhile to decode and rebuild - the data storage matrix is early 22nd century - but I think I've finally located the identity of the soulner. I've found where he or she started. All that remains is finding the other end, finding where the soulner is today."

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Mother wasn't there. Standing in the doorway, stunned, Juanita looked again at the small one room adobe ruin she called home. She was alone. Her mother was nowhere to be seen.

Juanita shook her head, confused and slightly scared. Her mother belonged here, in this room. Either here or at Juanita's side, her arm lovingly yet firmly held by Juanita. Alone and away from this room, her mother was helpless. Helpless because she was not in this world, but lived in a world of her own; a world filled with demons and angels but no people. If the police found her unattended and matched her to the Demented Persons Registry, her mother could be seized and riped.

Now genuinely frightened, Juanita set the beans and piñata down and raced across the open desert area to another adobe similar to hers. Though it was still late afternoon and the sun had not set, Juanita saw a light coming from the crumbling window in the mud wall.

"Pedro!" Juanita called, still running to the adobe. There was movement in the home and a small man, less than two meters in height, stepped into the doorway. His wife, a woman of thirty years age but aged fifty years, peered out from behind him. Juanita stopped in front of them, trying hard to hold back tears.

"Have you seen my mother? She's not home!" At Pedro's downcast look, Juanita's heart was struck cold. "Where?" she asked, tears coming up and trickling down her cheeks, her voice the soul of anguish. "Where is she?"

"I'm sorry, Juanita," Pedro's own voice was heavy with sorrow and the guilt that came with helplessness. "But they came for her today. I was not here, but my wife saw." At Juanita's baleful look, the woman turned her head away and covered her face. She looked even older. Older and weaker. Juanita looked back at Pedro.

"The police?" the Juanita asked, not wanting to but having no choice.

"No. No, it wasn't the police," Pedro said, letting a sob out. His eyes were red and tear-filled as well. He ran a hand across them and hung his head as though it was too heavy to hold up. With great effort, he lifted it up to look at the now crying girl.

"The Registry took her, Juanita. They took her away to ripe her."

Juanita made no sound. She stared at Pedro and his wife, her mouth trembling as it released a silent scream. Then her strength failed her and she slumped to the ground.

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"Gary?" Cathy's light blue bathed puterverse form - a very close approximation to her physical body, but with some definition softened by the energy sheathe covering her torso - peeked in from behind a red scented wall that contained the entire history of the Terran/Martian Wars. "Gary? It's time for dinner. Why don't you put that off for a little bit and join us?"

"Huh?" Gary slipped out of his daze and stared at his wife before grinning sheepishly. "I'm sorry, honey. You're right. Our lost soulner has waited 785 years. She can wait a little longer."

"She?"

"Yep. I don't have a name, yet, but I do have a gender and date.” He glanced down at the pulsing thread, double-checking his information for the four hundredth time in two weeks. “The soulner is female, and was riped for the first time by the Demented Persons Registry on June 8th, 2116.”

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“Welcome to the DPR regional office. Today is June 8th, 2116.” The machine’s cold voice sounded vaguely female, but without the warmth of human speech. Juanita wondered if it had ever been human. “Please state the nature of your visit.”

“You... you brought my mother here last night. It was a mistake and...”

“Please state the nature of your business,” the nearly human voice repeated.

“Uh... my mother was taken by some of your people yesterday, and I needed...”

“Please state the nature of your business,” it repeated, slightly harsher this time. Then, perhaps concluding the girl needed help in selection, the voice continued. “You may enter for reasons of surrender, employment or complaint.”

Juanita thought through her options, then said, “Complaint,” in a small, intimidated voice. It was enough for the voice, however, for the heavy metal door made a loud bang, causing Juanita to jump back, then opened slowly. Hurriedly, lest she lose her chance, Juanita took her shoes off her belt and put them on. She wanted to look her best. Clutching the piñata tightly - brought along to comfort her mother - Juanita tentatively entered.

Inside, the room was large and busy. With no windows and so many people, it seemed the room should be quite hot and the air very stale. But it was cool and refreshing, as if magically cleansed by winter mountain air. Juanita had heard of buildings having air like this, but she’d never experienced it before.

Walking across the marble floor - stared at by everyone who passed by - Juanita slowly advanced toward a desk behind which a stern looking woman was seated. At her approach, accentuated by the bang of the outside door closing behind her, the woman looked up and locked her gaze onto the girl.

“Name?” she barked.

“Juanita Alvarez, Señora. I am here to..”

“Nature of the complaint?” The woman interrupted. She was dressed in a heavy, tight uniform. Perhaps her clothing contributed to her meanness, Juanita thought.

“My mother was taken last night, but she wasn’t...”

“Name?” the woman repeated, reaching for a tabinal.

“I told you,” Juanita said, feeling the faintest embers of anger stirring. “My name is Juanita Alva...”

“The name of your mother, idiot!”

Taken aback by such rudeness, Juanita could only stare, forcing the woman to again repeat the question.

“Ro.. Rosita Alvarez,” Juanita stammered out.

The woman looked over her tabinal, then nodded curtly.

“Yes, I have her now. She was listed on the Registry as a demented person with no means of support. She was riped last night and is now a useful member of society.”

Juanita’s thoughts started whirling and she felt dizzy and sick. She began squeezing the piñata, crushing the tassels.

“That can’t be! I am her means of support! There’s been a mistake!” her trembling voice began raising in pitch, “Please! Let me see her! She’s my mother!”

The majority of people were now staring at her. The woman looked at her, hating her for being disruptive.

“Stop it! I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do.” Her eyes narrowed suddenly. “Don’t you have a father?”

Juanita shook her head dumbly, tears streaming down her cheeks as they had the night before - the first night in her life she’d been alone - hoping the truth of her emptiness would reach the woman. She was left with only the mercy of the people who had taken her mother away.

The woman stared briefly at her, then made an entry on the tabinal. Looking up, she smiled at Juanita. It was an empty, cold, smile, but a smile nonetheless.

“All right. Your mother is in an observation room. I can have someone take you back to her.” She motioned an arm and a tall, muscular soldier appeared. The woman looked up at him.

“Private, take this young lady back to see her mother. Cell 74D.”

“Very good, ma’am. Come with me, girl.” He took Juanita’s hand and pulled her toward the back of the room where another large metal door awaited. Juanita felt the stirrings of fear, but was eager to see her mother. She eased her grip on the piñata, hoping she had not damaged it too much.

They went through the door and entered into a large hallway with doors on either side. As they walked, their footsteps sounded as lonely as her heart, and the echoes mirrored the emptiness of her soul. Juanita smelled something like tequila, or strong wine. The doors were marked with numbers, and although they had small windows in them, they were higher than Juanita, and she could see only the brightly lit ceilings of each room. Finally, they stopped in front of a door marked 74D. The guard pressed his palm against a red square and the door opened. None too gently, he put a hand against Juanita’s back and firmly pushed her in. The door closed behind her.

Facing her was a woman in her mid thirties, looking at her curiously. With black hair and black eyes, she was of average height. She was clean and had been dressed in a simple white dress that covered her from neck to ankles. It was her mother.

Relieved beyond words, Juanita sobbed and ran into her mother’s arms, the piñata dropped to the floor, momentarily forgotten. Her mother held her close, patting her back awkwardly. Still crying, she felt her mother pry her carefully away and look into Juanita’s eyes.

“Are you all right? Are you hurt?” she asked, genuine concern in her voice. “What can I do to make you feel better?” Her mother reached out a hand and brushed back a strand of Juanita’s hair.

Stunned at her articulate speech, Juanita gasped. Was it true?

“Mother! You.. you are all right!” Juanita’s joy exploded through her, making her want to jump and laugh and cry. “They’ve cured you! Oh, Mother!”

She fell into her mother’s grasp again, but was held off.

“I was sick,” her mother said, keeping Juanita at arm’s length, “and they did cure me. But I’m not your mother. How could I be? My name is Theresa Nuñez and I’ve never been married, let alone had any children. I just came down here for a quick mental treatment before shipping out to my new post on Mars as mine inspector for Harting Enterprises.”

Stunned, and overwhelmed by nameless dread, Juanita drew back in horror. She now saw her mother for the first time. She had the look of intelligence, even of compassion. But Juanita could tell this woman was her mother no longer.

Unable to move, or even cry, and so drained and shocked that all she could do was stare at the woman who had been her mother, Juanita didn’t hear the door open and the guard enter. She was startled by his touch, and felt a stab of pain go through her, then disappear as her grief engulfed it. She looked up at the guard, who looked down at her impassively.

“We told you, girl. She’s not your mother. She never will be your mother. And since you have no father, you are now legally an orphan. I’m sorry. Come on, it’s time to go.”

Juanita, as though snarled hopelessly in an endless nightmare, nodded slowly and turned, picking up the piñata and holding it close. She looked back toward her mother, but she was already studying a tabinal and making modifications to what she saw, her fingers flying expertly over the smooth surface.

Juanita turned away and stepped through the door into the hall. She was very tired. She stumbled against the guard, then felt him gently pull the piñata from her suddenly weak arms.

“Here. I’ll take care of that for you.”

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It was well past midnight when Gary ended access and went to bed, first creating a partial haven that painted the room with the dancing shadows of a campfire, the pops and crackles of the flame adding to the soothing nature of the spell. Cathy was sleeping, but awoke when she felt her husband lay beside her and hug her long and hard. She knew what it meant. He always clung to her when upset or hurt.

“You found the name, didn’t you Gary?” she whispered.

He didn’t say anything for a long minute, but just held her. Finally, he stirred and spoke. His voice was soft and cracked with emotion.

“I traced her to a tabinal entry made the day before her riping. It had nothing to do with her selection, but it verified her identity, which I had gotten from the archives, under the Orphan Rights Negation Act of 2099. Her name is Juanita Alvarez. She’s an eleven year old girl, Cathy. They riped her mother, and then, since that legally made Juanita an orphan, they riped her.”