Zero Hour

Part One

Ernest inhaled. The fresh air was bracing. (That’s what they said in old-time data feeds, wasn’t it? That the air was bracing? Ernest was fairly sure, though there was nobody there who could verify his impression that the air was, indeed, bracing.) “Louise,” he said. “Is the air bracing?”

“Now, I wouldn’t know about that, Ernest.”

That’s what L0U15E said every time Ernest asked her a question outside her parameters. She used to actually say, “That question is not within my parameters.” But Ernest had saved up his discretional income for nearly three months to pay for a personalized re-program of L0U15E’s reply.

Three months was a long time to work for one simple sentence. But every time he heard it, Ernest smiled. Even now. Ernest enjoyed rhetorical questions, so he got his money’s worth.

Ernest was in a part of town he’d never had any reason to visit before. The buildings were old and full of character, crafted from wood and stone and brick. They cracked here and bulged there, and some even had ivy growing up the side. Spectacular.

He gazed at a rustic crack that zig-zagged up between the bricks of a building’s foundation, and then turned. He could tell when L0U15E was staring at him. “Aren’t you going to go dock?”

“All the way over there?” An arrow appeared on the front viscreen of Ernest’s POD. “Public parking is way down at the other end of the block. Can’t we go someplace with its own POD docks?”

The “soft argue,” as it was called, was another add-on Ernest had purchased. Most people’s POD-minds didn’t talk back. They did what their operators told them to do unless the actions reached a certain threshold of potential harm for the owners, or for others. When L0U15E did the “soft argue,” it meant that Ernest’s action--in this case, entering a crumbling old building where L0U15E wasn’t docked into the computer system--had scored as moderately risky. The risk was probably mitigated by the fact that this was a public building, heavily monitored.

“Don’t worry,” said Ernest. He knew that AIs didn’t have emotions, but wasn’t assessing risk and broadcasting a warning as close to actual worry as a computer could get? “I’ll be careful.”

He could have commanded L0U15E to stop second-guessing him and go dock, but he let her sit there, parked right in the middle of the route, and watch him go inside his very first coffee shop. If L0U15E had emotions, maybe she’d be proud of Ernest finally striking off on his own.

The front door opened for Ernest, and the smell hit him. It was strange and divine, rich and somewhat burnt. The interior was cramped, but well lit, with philodendrons spilling from every surface. Ernest waited for the shop’s AI to tell him what to do. He figured it was on a time-delay to give him a chance to soak up the ambience.

The main room held five tiny, round tables with two chairs apiece. Mundane tables with no interface. Interesting. Someone could sit at one of those tables and do anything at all that came to his mind.

A tiny thrill fluttered in Ernest’s belly.

The handful of customers were packed into the corners or against the far wall, each in his or her own world. Three were hooked into portable VR units that obscured their eyes and most of their faces. Their arms and legs twitched and waved, but gave no indication as to what they were experiencing.

Another man had a hanging bag tubed into his arm-shunt. He bent over an object that it took Ernest a moment to recognize. Ernest blinked. A book! That man was reading a portable monitor shaped like a book while he had his coffee!

Ernest smiled wistfully. Coffee and a book. All that was missing was a cigarette. They’d been illegal ever since 2323, but undoubtedly someone, somewhere, could produce one--for a price.

The reading man probably had only a few more days left, judging by his parchment skin, the wispy gray of his hair and the way his head nodded along as he read. Maybe it would be worth draining the rest of his income to see what a cigarette was all about.

Or maybe a martini. Shaken, not stirred. Ernest hugged himself with glee. The coffee shop was everything he’d hoped it would be, and more.

“Can I help you?”

Ernest whirled around and looked at the counter. He’d expected an AI to guide him, give him a list of choices and prices, and possibly a recommendation based on a quick scan of his public domain personality profile, but instead he found...a man.

Staring at him.

How uncomfortable.

But wasn’t that the way of things in old-time data streams? “Here’s looking at you, kid,” from a time when people did, in fact, look. At each other, no less.

“Hello?” said Ernest.

The man rolled his eyes. “Yes, I’m real. No, I’m not a cyborg. Yes, this is an actual coffee shop and not a historical re-creation. And no, I can’t be bothered to parse the tedious characters of your public profile to determine what it is that you want. You’re going to have to tell me.”

Ernest looked back. He figured he might as well, since he was being scrutinized himself. The man behind the counter had to be third decade if he was in a job so public, probably closer to twenty-nine than nineteen. He was tall, blond and lanky, with sinews that showed in his jaw, neck and forearms. He looked as if his feed program needed some tweaking.

“I thought you just asked if you could help me,” said Ernest.

“Figure of speech. Sort of like, ‘How are you?’ or ‘I could eat a horse.’ And no, we don’t serve horses here.”

Ernest’s head spun. He wondered if he was giddy from the bracing air he’d just inhaled. It had probably been full of all kinds of unidentified compounds.

The clerk raised an eyebrow. “First time at a shop, ‘eh?”

Ernest nodded. “Never got out of my POD much.”

“Name’s Will,” said the clerk, holding out his hand. His pale eyebrows tilted up as if he expected something.

Ernest recalled the last few data streams he’d ordered until he realized what Will was waiting for. He grasped Will’s hand and pumped his arm up and down precisely three times. “I’m Ernest. Pleased to meet you.”

“First handshake?”

Ernest felt his face grow warm. “Was it that obvious?”

Will shrugged. “No, I guess not. Most virgins just stand there with their mouths hanging open and stare at my hand. At least you knew what to do. Helpful hint: don’t squeeze so tight.” He pointed at a series of screens behind the counter with lists of tiny characters and glyphs, prices beside them. “There’s the menu. I’m guessing that’s new to you, too?”

Ernest nodded.

“Take your time. I’ll parse whatever you don’t get.”

“Could we...could we try that handshake one more time? It’s just that...you really seem to know what you’re doing.”

Will shrugged. “Whatever trips your switch.”

Ernest led this time, presenting his hand boldly.

“Other hand.”

Ernest felt his cheeks heat up again. He ignored the sensation and concentrated on learning the handshake.

Will slid his hand into Ernest’s. He moved more deliberately than Ernest had, and Ernest felt the pads of Will’s fingertips slide along his palm. A thrill raced down his spine and the tiny hairs on the back of his neck stood on end.

“Harder than that,” said Will. “Otherwise you’ll come off as a wuss.”

Ernest deduced that being a “wuss” wasn’t good. Yet another bit of data to research later. He applied more pressure to Will’s hand. “Nice,” Will purred. “Now shake it like you’re not counting. And vary the height a little.”

Ernest did his best to be random. It was easier than he would have thought. He was so focused on the feel of Will’s hand inside his that he’d forgotten how to count as high as three.

“And there you go,” said Will. He let go of Ernest’s hand, which now felt completely foreign. “Just like something out of a paperback novel.”

“A what?”

“Never mind. I thought you’d parse the reference.”

“A novel? As in a book? On paper? Paper-back. Paperback. Yes. What’s the rest of it made from?”

Will leaned over the counter on both hands as if he were about to divulge a great secret. Ernest leaned forward and met him halfway. Will pressed his mouth to Ernest’s hair just beside his ear and whispered.

“Paper.”

Will straightened back up, disgusted. He hadn’t come to the coffee shop to be mocked. He’d come for coffee. “Very funny.”

“You don’t believe me? But it’s true. All the books upstairs are made from paper…and maybe a little glue and ink.”

Books. Actual books. Upstairs. Ernest had parsed feeds about bibliophiles cracking open the spine of a freshly bound book--which sounded incredibly violent, yet somehow satisfying--and breathing deep of the “new book smell.”

He supposed that Will’s books wouldn’t have that smell, not after centuries of...what did books do? They moldered. Not after centuries of moldering.

Unless they’d been sealed, preserved somehow.

“What do they smell like?”

Will’s eyebrows twisted up and he...what was that called? Smiled? Grinned? Smirked? “Not like anything your POD can synth up, that’s for sure.”

Ernest would have to access the feeds on facial expressions if he wanted to get through the next twenty-nine days with any comprehension whatsoever of what was going on around him. He felt a pang. It made no sense. It was several hours until his next meal was scheduled. So why the...longing?

“Same for the coffee,” said Will. That was probably a smirk, Ernest decided. “Some things just can’t be synthed. So, what’ll it be?”

“Can I see the books?”

Will’s eyebrows plunged low, forming a straight line over the top edge of his eyelids, with a vertical crease dead center. “Top floor’s for customers only. You understand. Gotta make a living.”

“Oh. Yes. Of course.” He’d need to order. That was what Ernest had come for anyway, wasn’t it? The coffee: mythic elixir, beverage of commoners and kings. He tore his gaze away from Will’s eyebrows and looked back at the LCD board, with its singles and doubles, mochas and lattes. Someone might as well have handed him a schematic and told him to build his own POD. “Um…Will…Not that I expect you to analyze my public profile, but based on your own experience, what would you recommend?”

“That depends on how much you wanna spend. We got hypos. We got IVs. Of course, if you’re really flush, I can set you up a brew.”

Ernest’s attention snapped back to Will. “Brew? You mean, to drink?”

Will waggled his eyebrows.

Ernest guessed that was a yes.

 

Part Two

 


 

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