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The Multiplex Man
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The flashing signs on both sides of I-94 south into Minneapolis read: POLICE CHECK AHEAD. PREPARE TO STOP. Farther on, past a disused overpass, the morning traffic was slowing to a crawl as barriers with winking red lights funneled it into a tailback along the inner two lanes. A line of delinquents stood pulled over on the shoulder. Jarrow was glad that Larry had picked him up earlier than usual. It would all clog up quickly, even though traffic these days wasn’t heavy as the moving nose-to-tail jams of times gone by. He was due to see Valdheim at 8:45, and the thought of being late for doctors’ appointments was one of the things that made him anxious.

"They do it on purpose," Larry muttered as they eased into line. "This time of morning everyone’s in a hurry and snarly, and they just want you to give them a hard time. You talk back, and then they hit you with the works. Their scores go into their records. The meanest ones get the promotions."

Larry liked to think of himself as a man who believed in saying what he thought, with the result that no topic escaped without receiving the imprint of his opinion. Jarrow saw it more as an inability to refrain from airing views that most people would have considered better left unsaid. That would have been careless at best on anyone’s part, and bordering on foolhardy for a halfway-prudent professional---which in itself would have been enough to make Jarrow uncomfortable. But for a teacher at junior high school, charged with a responsibility for the shaping of young minds, it crossed the line into recklessness and invited suspicions of subversive designs. And that made Jarrow positively nervous.

"Get a load of this guy coming up behind," Larry said, nodding at the rearview mirror. Jarrow moved his head to see in the side mirror mounted on the door. The vehicles following them were squeezing over to make way for a limousine impatiently flashing an official blue-and-yellow light. From the silver badge on the front, Jarrow guessed it to be from one of the international regulatory agencies. Larry stayed in the center of the lane, pretending not to see the irate wavings of the state trooper marching forward from among the uniformed figures ahead.

|A two-note siren blast came from behind, and then a voice cut in over the pop jazz playing from the vehicle’s sound system. "Pull over, ahead. You’re obstructing official business."

"Now, there’s what I call creature comfort," Larry said, contemplating the lines of the limo, now thrusting up close behind them like a motor yacht trying to nudge past a tugboat. It was large and majestic, probably capable of cruising at 150 on smooth-burning hydrocarbon synthetic. By contrast, the electric getabout that he and Jarrow were riding was stark and utilitarian, and could putter along at fifty with up to four people, at a squeeze, and hundred-mile hops between cell changes.

"For God’s sake; let it through," Jarrow grated, rubbing his moist palms together. He had an inborn dread of confrontations, and more than suspected that Larry was doing this deliberately to rattle him. Larry had a strange sense of humor that way.

Larry spread his hands briefly. "That’s our money they’re driving around in, isn’t it? Why should we be kicked out of the way like trash on the street?"

The siren sounded again, insistently. Larry stayed put for several more agonizing seconds until Jarrow really thought that he was about to get them a ticket, or worse, and then pulled over at the last moment. The limousine swept by disdainfully and was waved on past the barrier.

Jarrow wiped his hands on his knees. "If you want to complain about the system, there are proper channels," he said tightly.

"Right. And they’ll get you the same place as the other tubes too." Larry opened the window and turned on an innocent expression as the trooper hove to, purple-faced, outside.

"Is something the matter with you, mister? You deaf as well as blind? Maybe you shouldn’t be out on the street."

"We were talking. I guess I got absorbed."

"Well, that’s not good enough. If you’re in charge of a vehicle, you’re supposed to know what’s going on. Okay? Let me see your papers."

The traffic check was nominally to catch cars with even-date-only tax stickers being driven on an odd day of the month---the enforced ride-sharing that this imposed was the only reason for Larry and Jarrow to be traveling together---but no cop was going to let a chance go by of grubbing for other morsels too. Larry passed out the wallet containing his operator’s license, owner’s registration, road-tax receipt, insurance certificates, vehicle-inspection certificate, environmental-compliance certificate, metropolitan area usage permit, medical statement detailing blood type, drug allergies, and current treatments, and whistled silently to himself while the trooper scrutinized them. From Larry’s other side, Jarrow watched the blue-chinned mouth framed by the window, bunching in a grim, down-turned line and snorting as each document failed to show a fault. Larry glanced across and winked confidently.

The trooper fished a compad from one of his tunic pockets and punched in the registration, but he was already scowling in anticipation of the clear of violations response that appeared on its screen a moment later. He backed off a couple of paces and stood, fists clenched on hips, surveying the vehicle from end to end.

That wheel’s wearing low. There’s vibration at the rear end. Get your bearings looked at."

"Yep, reckon I’ll just do that."

"On your way."

"You have a nice day too." They moved on through, speeding up and staying to the right to continue south, skirting the downtown area of Minneapolis. Larry waved to indicate the direction ahead, in which the limousine had disappeared. "You know, there was a time when everyone who had the money could own a machine like that. Now you have to convince some bureaucrat that you’ve got the need. Why the hell should it be someone else’s business?"

Jarrow sighed. "Oh, come on. You know how it was with those gasoline burners." Everyone knew how it had been. Why did Larry have to ask pointless questions all the time?

"Well, I’m not so sure about that, Dick," Larry said. "I know a guy who used to be an engineer in the business. He says that ten percent dirty cars caused fifty percent of the problem. All they needed was a tune-up. It could have been fixed for peanuts compared to what they spent tearing thee industry apart. So maybe it wasn’t the way everyone gets told, either."

They were passing Loring Park. An exit sign ahead indicated Groveland. Jarrow leaned forward in his seat and pointed, glad of the chance to drop the subject. "That’s it. This one coming up now. Stay over on the inside. We need to go right at the first intersection."

"There at the light?"

"That’s it."

The light changed to red as they approached. Larry grunted and eased to a halt. He drummed his fingers on the wheel, humming tunelessly to himself, then glanced across at Jarrow while they waited. Jarrow stared ahead, waiting for him to pick up the theme again, but Larry read his mood and decided for once to leave it at that. For him simply to remain silent, however, was too much to hope for. "What is it that you need to see this doc for---just a checkup or something? If it’s not personal."

"No that’s okay. . . . It’s a neural thing. Not anything wrong, really. More just something they’re curious about---some kind of irregularity in the brainwave pattern, to do with the sleep rhythms." Jarrow shook his head. "I don’t really understand it myself."

"Is it anything to worry about?"

"They’re not sure. Apparently, it’s a new area they’re just getting into. There’s a theory that it could trigger unconscious stress patterns and affect all kinds of other things. That’s why they’re interested."

Larry grinned as the light changed, and they moved off again. "You see, Dick. It’s what I’ve been telling you all along: You take life too seriously. Try easing up a little."

"So now it’s medical advice, as well, eh? You’re an M.D. as well, all of a sudden?" Jarrow hadn’t meant to sound that sarcastic. Really, he was reproaching himself for being more forthcoming with detail than was called for, as if he needed to justify himself.

But if Larry noticed, it didn’t show. "Just a detached but perspicacious observer of life. . . . Anyhow, it didn’t cost you a nickel. Where do we go now?"

"Straight on past the trees. . . . It’s one of the houses now, the green one with the laurel. . . Okay, this’ll do fine."

The car pulled up in the service lane, separated from the road by a strip of grass. Its two occupants made a contrasting pair: Larry younger by at least ten years, easygoing and relaxed with his collar-length yellow hair, and dressed casually in a fleece-lined jacket and wool sweater against Minnesota’s April cold; Jarrow in a black overcoat with collar and tie, trimmed mustache, hair graying at the temples. Jarrow felt that working for the State was to represent the State, with a duty to project an appropriate image. Larry’s kind didn’t worry about things like that.

"Need a ride into the school later?" Larry asked as Jarrow was getting out. "I have to go into town at lunchtime on an errand. I could detour this way if you like."

"It’s okay. I can catch the Mono."

"Wouldn’t be any trouble."

"No, I’ll be fine. Besides, I’m not really sure how long it’s likely to take. . . Er, thanks."

"Okay. See you around later, then. Oh, and I’ll catch you later this afternoon sometime for that book."

"Book? Oh, yes, sure." Jarrow had promised to let Larry have a book that he still had out from the staff library.

The car pulled away, and Jarrow turned toward the house. Larry was young and headstrong, but really not so bad inside, he told himself. He had been wondering if a quiet word with Irwin Shafer, the principal of Linden Junior High, about some of Larry’s indiscretions wouldn’t be out of place. But on reflection, as he came to the end of the path and stopped at the door, he decided against it. It was something that could keep until another day. He extended a finger and pressed the bell push beside the engraved brass plate reading: DR. M.R. VALSHEIM, M.D., PH.D., M.A.P.A., M.I.P.N. CONSULTANT NEUROPHYSIOLOGIST.

 
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