Zero Hour

Archived Parts: One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten

Part Eleven


Ernest stared toward the ceiling, which he couldn't see, because it was dark. If he said to the room, "Increase light, 45%," nothing would happen. That was quite thrilling.

He was also horizontal, which was unusual, too. Thrilling, he supposed. But also uncomfortable.

Ernest couldn't sleep. His options were pitifully few. He could lie there in excruciating pain until he died of starvation. He could give L0U15E to Will, which would condemn his immortal soul to perpetual suffering. Or he could go back to the city, be shuttled to his health monitor, and be sealed into his POD to await his final interment.

There had to be another way.

Ernest calculated the sum of he remaining credits. It was a modest amount, but still, spent all at once, it might be enough.

Will was still asleep when Ernest jotted down a careful note written in large, clear letters, then set off to visit the company that, for a cost, had modified L0U15E's standardized responses. No doubt someone there could modify the POD-mind much more than that. It was simply a matter of persuading that person.

Once L0U15E was no longer bound by the parameters the Deacons had set, Ernest could take her anywhere. They could travel together, Ernest, Will and L0U15E. They'd move at a moderate pace, and stop often to solar charge. And since Will obviously had no POD of his own, Ernest would be perfectly willing to share, and L0U15E, with her new autonomous mind, would have no reason to object. It would be a tight fit, the two of them together in the POD, bathed in the lambent glow of the interior lights.

And the thought of being pressed up against Will like that was rather thrilling, too.

Without Will there to talk to, the journey back to the city seemed longer than the exodus. And while the city itself was clearly visible, and perhaps Ernest would be able to locate a few landmarks like the old bus station or the coffee shop, he realized that he had no idea how to find the POD-mods. L0U15E had always transported him there before.

Ernest climbed a jumble of discarded cinderblock and his hair blew over his eyes. He gathered it and caught it at the nape of his neck, and squinted out over the terrain of the city. Without access to the W3, even the free feeds, he was at a loss as to where to begin searching.

Will would have known what to do. Ernest felt foolish for leaving him behind. But Ernest needed to prove that POD-minds were not the enemy. Once L0U15E had her autonomy, and Will actually spoke with her, he'd understand.

Ernest decided that if he had no way of accessing the location of the POD-mods himself, he'd simply need to convince someone else to locate it for him. All he had to do was find someone with a W3 link, and convince that person to gather the information on his behalf. He'd need to find someone who parsed spoken language well enough, he supposed. And he'd have to fabricate a convincing lie.

The wind ruffled Ernest's hair when he released it, and he allowed the strands to drift across his forehead, cheek and lips. Through the webwork of his hair, Ernest scanned the city. His plan was solid. He'd become very good at the lost art of lying.

The path to the city was long, and strewn with the bones of animals and occasional drifts of Styrofoam. But Ernest was able to backtrack the way they'd come, even though the first time he'd taken that path, he'd been giddy with excitement and captivated by the wild look in Will's eyes.

Ernest returned to the shop in which he'd purchased the audio interface, and gathered directions to the POD-mods from a rather bewildered, but ultimately helpful, shop clerk. He sent a message to the POD-mod with a whopping offer of 112 credits, and then he went to the abandoned restroom to await the response, since his agitated behavior was making the young shopkeep glance up from her game every few seconds to assess where he'd paced, and the sounds her W3 game emitted suggested her score was suffering.

Ernest pressed his back into the wall and wrapped his arms around his middle. His shunted arm ached with a continual, hollow need, and he had to urinate yet again. His legs trembled, from lack of nutrients or from exhaustion, or both, and his whole body felt tacky with perspiration.

It would be so easy to simply shunt in.

But he couldn't. Not if he didn't want to wake up a week later at his health monitor's station. Besides, he'd promised Will he would not shunt.

"I think this call is for you! I think this call is for you! You! Other person in the, er, store. Yes."

Ernest darted out of the restroom and tilted his head so he could see the clerk's W3 feed. He leaned across the counter, held his fingers under the scanner, and flicked them under the light. His entry was blindingly fast after twenty years of data clerking.

He instructed the POD-mod to meet him at his POD, and he attached a map to the public lot where he'd left L0U15E. The POD-mod replied immediately and said she was on her way.

Ernest recognized the POD-mod's POD immediately as it pulled into the lot. Its shell was a deep, metallic blue, rather than the standard solar grayish-black. The colorization probably effected the POD's solar efficiency, but it was so beautiful, it hardly mattered.

The POD eased open and a thin girl of about fifteen stepped out. She'd modified much more than just her POD. "Your hair is fuchsia," Ernest said.

She broke into a wide smile. "You speak well! The last customer who saw me in person called it red-red." She rolled her eyes. "Some people are so slow, you'd swear they never watched a feed. My name is Audrey."

Ernest held out his hand. Audrey stared at it for a moment, and then tentatively placed her hand in his. She pumped Ernest's arm up and down precisely four times. "I'm Ernest. I hear handshakes are more authentic when you vary the height and number of repetitions."

"Thanks for the tip." Audrey looked up into Ernest's eyes and her smile faltered. "Oh. You're retired."

Ernest nodded.

"That's too bad. I mean, it would have been interesting to do some radical mods for you. But mods take time."

"I'm not looking for physical mods. I was hoping you knew something about programming."

"The POD-mind? Of course I do. But there's not really much you can make them do. They're too limited to hack into the paid W3 sites, even if you bypass the security protocols."

Ernest pointed to L0U15E, and he and Audrey began walking--no, strolling--in her general direction. It would never have occurred to Ernest to even try to get free access to paid feeds. "She's already got a few mods. I've had her standardized response reprogrammed and her soft argue bumped up."

"Oh, now I get it. You're looking for more satisfying AI conversation. Makes sense, given your talk-skills. I might be able to download some new phrases from the shop."

"No, that's not what I'm looking for…not exactly." After all, why should Ernest struggle to carry on a conversation with L0U15E when he could talk to Will? "What I wondered was…can you tweak the shunt mix?"

Audrey's fine eyebrows drew down. Puzzled. "I could. But why? You want to mod your body weight? I don't know if you have enough time to make a significant change without modding the heck out of your calorie blend. About the only think I could do that would give you a quick mod would be to increase the vitamin A enough to turn you orange."

Ernest stopped and indicated his POD with an affectionate pat on the side panel. "It's just a theory, really. An old man's whim. Will you try?"

Audrey glanced from Ernest, to L0U15E, to Ernest again. "I'll take a look." She unhooked a small case from her cargo belt and selected a slender tool. "Tell your POD to rotate horizontally so that I can reach its upper access panels."

"I probably shouldn't."

Audrey eyed Ernest again. "This is your POD, isn't it? You can tell me--I like practical jokes as much as the next girl…."

"Practical" jokes? Puzzling. "Of course it's my POD." Ernest steered Audrey by the shoulder a few steps away, then positioned her opposite the POD's audio interface. He whispered, "It's just that I didn't shunt in last night, and the last time I was late she put me into enforced slumber."

Audrey's head jerked up, and her fuchsia hair whirled as she stole a quick look at the POD.

"Quick," she said, "give me a leg up."

Ernest looked at Audrey's leg, then his own. Audrey hooked her hand over his shoulder and pressed down. "Kneel."

Ernest knelt.

"Intertwine your fingers to make a place for me to step."

She'd said it so forcefully, even with her high, girlish voice, that Ernest didn't even consider disobeying her. She placed her boot in Ernest's hands and stretched up to reach Access 1.

Ernest wondered if she was unfamiliar with a L0U15E-model POD. "That'll only open to health monitors and Deacons," he said.

Audrey forced her tool into the seam and pried the panel open. She put her finger to her mouth and licked it. Then she wiped the saliva over a glassy black sensor.

Ernest gaped.

"It's the fastest way to disable a tattle-box," she said. "It should stop the POD-mind from sirening as long as I keep it wet." She unplugged a handful of wires and peered inside. "Uh-oh."

Audrey was so delightfully old fashioned. She must have watched dozens of pre-purge feeds. "I've heard that phrase before. What does it mean?"

"It means that the second you touched your POD, your POD-mind sent a giant pulse to the nearest security ops."

 

Click here for part 12

 

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