Johnson moved through his office with purpose. There weren’t a lot of people around to notice his long stride, but that wasn’t unusual. His office dealt with defending those who contested the Status violations they were accused of and given the almost airtight way people were tracked, wrongful arrests were few and far between. Hence the lack of need for a substantial staff.

He regularly received requests for help but the facts of the cases rarely were in the protester’s favor. They had gone somewhere they weren’t supposed to, had bought something they didn’t have access to. They had violated the tenets of Status, the measurable and accountable system that ruled the social hierarchy, in a manner that was clear and objective. That didn’t allow for a substantial amount of wiggle room he could use to the advantage of his clients.

One such unusual case was now in front of him. The woman who awaited him in his office down the hall had been arrested by the Status Police for unlawfully caring for the toddler of a family outside her Level. She was a 4th Leveler, the family a 2nd. The police maintained there was no reason for her to be interacting with the child or his family, she claimed there was an agreement between her and the family for her to babysit a couple times each week.

The reasons for this arrangement were unclear. There was, of course, no signed contract as anything involving parties from different Levels would have had to go through months of legal review. The woman, Florence Hanks, claimed the family told her good help at their own Level was impossible to find and so had been referred to her by another 2nd Leveler she’d worked for. The family in question, though, had gone silent. That wasn’t unusual. As in many such instances, they disavowed the entire situation, waving it away in an effort to salvage their own reputation.

When Johnson entered the room – he was a 1st Leveler but his position afforded him special dispensation to interact with others of lower Levels and protected them as well – he found Mrs. Hanks sitting proudly in a chair opposite his desk, her shoulders back proudly and her head raised high. She would not be bowed by this.

“Mrs. Hanks.”

“Mr. Johnson.”

“Is there anything you can tell me about what’s happened beyond what you’ve already provided in the statement you gave my associate?”

“No, sir. I wasn’t breaking any laws and had the family’s permission to watch little Adam.”

“I see. Just to be clear, this was an entirely verbal contract.”

“Yes, sir.”

Johnson scratched at the week’s stubble on his cheeks. “That doesn’t leave me a lot of room to work with, unfortunately. I believe you, but you’re falling into a gray area of the Status laws. Without the family’s corroboration, you were clearly breaking the law.”

“I was not.”

“Granted, but there’s no way for me to prove that.”

“I actually don’t care.”

He was shocked. “What do you mean?”

“I mean I don’t care what happens to me. I know I was right and that they’re lying, if not overtly then by omission by not backing me up.”

“So,” he started, finding himself on new and unsteady ground, “what exactly what is it you want me to do? What do you want to get out of working with me? I usually only defend clients who are invested in the outcome.”

“I want to humiliate them.”

Johnson had no reaction and stayed silent as a way to encourage her to go on.

“This happens all the time. These 1st or 2nd Level families find a 4th or 5th Leveler to care for their little one, claiming someone at their own Level is impossible to find or they have a tight deadline they need help with. They pay us half or less what they’d be able to pay someone of their own Level because they know we have no recourse, no one to complain to. We’re not slave labor, but we’re certainly taken advantage of.”

“How widespread would you say this practice is?”

“I know at least a dozen other women who have done it or are doing it now. All 4th Levelers helping those at the top.” The final words came out as an epitaph. She may as well have turned and spit on the carpet after she said them.

“I probably know the answer to this, but anyone willing to go on the record like yourself?”

“Not a chance and yes, you know that.”

“Hmmm, worth a shot.” He considered his options. “Mrs. Hanks, without a shred of proof of your arrangement I don’t have a lot of tools at my disposal.”

“Will moving forward in some way be covered in the press?”

He thought about that. “Likely yes, but you’re not going to look good. The 4th Level press will be officially discouraged from covering it at all and the 2nd Level press will make you out to be an opportunistic hanger-on to the wealthy and privileged.”

“That’s fine. Let’s do this thing.”

“To what end? Don’t you worry about the repercussions of that attitude?”

“Mr. Johnson, I have no family. I’m an old woman who was taken advantage of like many other people I know. I’ve been told I’m Less Than my entire life not just by other people but my own government. My only hope here is that a bit of press will give some other 1st or 2nd Level family a moment’s pause before they do likewise to another person who can’t fight back.”

“Mrs. Hanks, I’m not sure I’m comfortable being a tool in your crusade. It won’t do any long-term damage to anyone. You’re going to spend a year in jail at least, likely more if the family is well-connected to leadership and can influence your sentence as retribution.”

“Again, let’s do this thing.”

Johnson knew he wouldn’t face any consequences from proceeding, no matter how pointless and fruitless the quest might be. He was protected by not just his Status but also the special allowances granted him because of his role. His position was largely ceremonial – a PR tactic to make it seem as if those in the lower Levels had a legal mechanism available to them to right wrongs – but he tried to do some real good with it as much as possible. He wasn’t a crusader, but he didn’t fully buy into the inviolability of the Status system either.

“OK, Mrs. Hanks. Here’s what’s going to happen first…”