Zero Hour

Click Here for Part One

Part Two

“Is it true that once you drink, you can never use your shunt again?”

Will made a flicking motion with his hand. He’d draped himself over his side of the coffee bar with a bend to his spine that made it look as if his POD’s posture-correcting function had been disabled long ago. “Nah. That’s just Deaconist propaganda they circulate to stop you from putting stuff in your mouth. Besides, what’ve you got to lose by trying? You’ve only got, what, how many days left?”

“Thirty. I mean...twenty nine. I guess. I’s my first day.”

“And you chose my humble little shop for your inaugural outing? I’m flattered.”

Ernest looked up at the LCD, tucked his hair behind his ear and tried to read the price list, but found he was too flustered to make anything of it. He stared, and he read, and he stared some more. Will wiped a perfectly clean spot on the corner with a spotless cloth, concentrating on it much harder than he needed to.

“You can tell?” Ernest blurted out.

Will looked up at Ernest. His eyebrows shot up.

“I mean, uh...I didn’t think I’d look retired quite so soon.” Ernest glanced over at the white-haired retiree with the book and the IV, wondering if maybe the old man had stopped breathing during their conversation.

“No, of course not. I figured you were probably somewhere in the first week.”

Ernest could see the gleam of the retired man’s scalp through his hair. How long had he been retired? Twenty-five days? Twenty?


“But you could definitely tell just by looking at me. That I’m retired, I mean.”

“Look. I read body language. That’s what I do. I’ve got a customer service job, and I interact with people all day long. You’ve got the look of someone fresh out of his POD. That’s all. Don’t go reading something into it that I didn’t say.”

Ernest focused on the sign. Its lettering looked like meaningless squiggles and marks.

“Really,” said Will. “You look great. The long hair’s spiffy on you. No grays yet. I would’ve taken you for a PODless worker...a mechanic or a Deacon or something...if you hadn’t been so psyched up about the coffee and the books.”

Ernest felt his adrenaline level ebb. He let his shoulders relax. “Really?”

“Sure. You don’t look a day over twenty-five. I swear on my Deacon’s electromagnetic field. So what’ll it be? I can unseal a pack of pure ground Colombian for you for just eighteen credits.”

Ernest’s adrenaline surged again. He’d be out of money in less than a week if he dropped eighteen credits on a unit of coffee, genuine or not. “Let’s, ah, let’s save that for one of my milestones. Tenth day of retirement, maybe twentieth.”

Will shrugged. “Whatever you say. I hear the taste buds die off pretty quickly. Shame to let yours go to waste without even taking them for a spin around the block.”

“I’ll think about it,” said Ernest. “Maybe tomorrow. For today, I think I’ll try....” he looked up at the menu and selected the second-cheapest item. He didn’t want to seem to obvious. “A decaf half-syringe.”

Will stared.

Ernest forced himself to meet Will’s eyes. “What?”

“Do you even know what ‘decaf’ means?”

“It’s...ah...something about ten. Ten flavors?”

“No. The root word’s not deca-. It’s de-, as in ‘no.’ No caffeine. Here you are, retired after thirty years’ faithful service, and you’re gonna waste your time on a decaffeinated syringe?”

Ernest blinked. “No?”

“No. Of course not. What you want is a double shot of espresso, black. I’ll throw some sugar in, too, so it doesn’t throw you into override.”

Ernest double checked the menu. The espresso syringe cost three and a half credits, double what he’d meant to spend. But Will was already at the cool-storage, rifling through the color-coded packets. Ernest could hardly change his mind now.

“Swipe your chip there,” said Will, and Ernest inserted his thumb into the slot. His balance flashed as the cost of the syringe was deducted, and Will withdrew his thumb, now warm at the nail bed from the laser scan.

Will peeled the wrapper from the syringe, staring hard into Ernest’s eyes and smiling. Probably smiling.

“Maybe you should sit down.”

Ernest thought it would be a good idea to take Will’s advice, even though his choice of coffee had cost Ernest and extra one point seven five credits.

Ernest turned toward the seating area. One of the people in the VR masks had collapsed over a table, limp, one arm dangling over the side. Another VR viewer, this one female, still twitched. The man with the wispy gray hair gazed down at his book-shaped monitor as if it contained all the secrets of the universe.


Even though he saw Will coming, Ernest still jumped when Will’s hand came down on his shoulder. Ernest did his best not to flinch; people slapped and clapped each other all the time on old-time feeds. He didn’t want Will to know that no one ever touched him but his health monitor.

Will shoved Ernest’s shoulder until Ernest turned to face him. Will leaned in close. He smelled exotic, earthy and burned, like the shop, only headier. “I said the upstairs was for customers only. Now you’re a customer. Come on.”

Will wriggled his fingers beneath a keyscan and Ernest heard the lock on the exterior door click. “Just in case a caffeine junkie on the street gets any funny ideas,” he said.

Ernest had absolutely no idea what that meant, but it sounded terribly thrilling.

Will marched down a dark, narrow hallway, gesturing distractedly for Ernest to follow. He pulled out a key, an actual metal key, and unlocked an ill-fitting wooden door set in the terminus of the hallway.

Ernest’s heart pounded in his throat. All these exotic things--the key, the door, the coffee--they were straight out of old-time data feeds. Will handled them all as if they were the actual components of his life, not artifacts or curiosities.

The door opened onto a tiny hall with a back door on the far wall, a closet to the right and a stairwell to the left. Will turned left and took a couple of steps up, and then turned and looked down on Ernest. A tiny window at the top of the stairs backlit him, and he looked like a Grand Deacon about to deliver a sermon about obligation and duty.

“You do know how to use the stairs, don’t you?”

Ernest’s cheeks went hot. “Yes. Of course.”

“Okay, just checking.”

Will turned and bounded up the stairs two at a time. Ernest watched him pass the small window with the light streaming through it, turn the corner of a landing and disappear.

He’d thought he was supposed to step on each riser. He felt terribly ignorant, relieved that Will wasn’t there to see him use the stairway. Staircase. Stairs. Ernest followed, placing his feet exactly in Will’s footsteps.

A narrow hallway stretched deep into the old building at the top of the stairs, and along that hallway, one door was open. An arc of yellow light spilled out over the worn floorboards. Ernest wove toward the light on unsteady feet. He felt as if he’d gone to sleep and woken up in an old-time feed. His heart hammered against his ribcage. His hands shook. We wiped the sweat from them and stuffed them in his pockets.

Ernest stood in the doorway and simply looked. There was so much to take in. Furniture made of fabric and wood, and maybe even leather (which was actually just a fancy name for animal hides). And stacked everywhere, on shelves, on tables, on the windowsill and even the floor…were books. Hundreds? Ernest scanned. No, thousands.

He took a deep breath, and sputtered.

“Yeah, sorry,” said Will. “It gets a little dusty up here from all the cellulose fibers.”

Ernest flinched. He’d forgotten about Will, distracted by the stacks and stacks of precious antique books.

“Have a seat.” Will took Ernest by the elbow and guided him to a sofa. There was a wad of fabric at one end, a cushion on the other.

“Do you…sleep here?” said Ernest.

“No, no. Of course not. I sleep in my POD. That’s just there for historical reference. Sharp eye you got there.”

Ernest’s cheeks grew warm again. There must have been something wrong with the temperature monitor in the shop. “I watch a lot of feeds.”

“Sit, enjoy the brocade. That’s velvet, circa 1932.”

Ernest sat. He touched the arm of the sofa.

“Well, roll up your sleeve and I’ll inject you. Though it really is a shame you didn’t go for the drinkable coffee. The syringe isn’t historically accurate.”

Ernest stared at the room in a daze. If he’d known he could have his coffee like this--on a sofa, surrounded by actual books--well, maybe he would have gone ahead and purchased it, madly expensive or not.

“Do you think I could hold a book while you do it?”

“Sure, why not?” Will took the top book from a pile and placed it in Ernest’s hands. Ernest read the title. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He didn’t parse either ‘Zen’ or ‘Motorcycle’, but it fascinated him nonetheless.

“I can give you a cup to hold, if you’re really after the most authentic experience you can have. With a syringe, anyway.”

“Yes, please.”

Will pulled a cup off one of the crowded shelves and set it on top of the book that Ernest was holding with both hands. “You put your fingers through the handle,” he said.

“I know. I’ve told you: I watch lots of feeds.” Ernest curled his fingers through the ceramic loop. The cup felt heavy and strange. He couldn’t imagine the concentration it would take to keep from spilling if it were full of hot liquid. Old-time homo sapiens must have been more dexterous than he’d always thought. That notion bordered on heresy, though. Ernest quickly searched for something else to focus on.

Will obliged him by sitting so close to him on the sofa that their thighs touched. And not just a passing brush, either. Will’s thigh pressed into Ernest’s so firmly that Ernest actually needed to move over. Even that didn’t seem to help. Will just pressed himself closer.

“You might want to hold onto something,” said Well. “It can be pretty intense.”

Ernest squeezed the cup more tightly. “I’m ready,”

Will put the protective cap that covered the tip of the syringe between his teeth and yanked. Not sanitary, thought Ernest. Will spit the cap onto the floor. “Brace yourself.”

Ernest grit his teeth.

There were no nerve endings in Ernest’s shunt, of course, but he swore he could feel the needle anyway as the tip of the syringe pierced the self-healing membrane. Will looked at him, smiled, and pressed the plunger. Probably smiled.

Ernest almost reminded himself to look up the feed on facial expressions. But not quite. Because the caffeine hit his system, and Ernest forgot everything. Where he was. Who he was.

Ernest pitched forward, face between his knees. The room spun, and spun, and spun. All Ernest could do was breathe. Or at least try to.

Ernest didn’t know how long he’d been out. He came to stretched out on the sofa, the cushion under his head, and the length of fabric covering his body.

“Oh, are you with us again?”


“What did you do to me?” Ernest tried to sit up. The room spun some more. He pressed has hand into the sofa and forced himself upright. He shivered. There was definitely something wrong with the temperature-control.

“I told you to brace yourself.”

“That wasn’t coffee. It was something else--a drug.”

“What do you think caffeine is? A food group?”

“I think I need to see my health monitor.”

Will grabbed Ernest by the chin and made sure Ernest was focused on him. “Sure, I can load you into your POD, send you rocketing off toward your health monitor. No problem. But, see, then you can’t come back here.”

“No, no, it’s not like that. I’m not trying to get you in trouble. I think I’m really sick. Maybe there was something wrong with the coffee. Maybe it was tainted. Maybe it was old.”

Will took Ernest by the shoulder, both shoulders, and leaned over him so they were face to face. He had the most fascinating hazel eyes.

“It’s not up to me. If coffee doesn’t agree with you, they’re not gonna let you keep sampling it, retirement or not. Listen, pal. That’s what it’s like the first time. It’s called a rush. It’s an acquired taste.”

“But I didn’t taste anything,” said Ernest in a quiet voice.

“Yeah, well, you would have, if you’d just taken it by mouth.” Will peeled a small foil square off the syringe’s wrapper. “Here, give me your chip.”

Ernest held up his trembling hand.

Will pressed the square onto Ernest’s thumbnail. A taste exploded in Ernest’s senses that was a lot like the smell that had first hit him as he opened the shop door. It was similar the shop, but not quite the same. Sweet. Burnt. Earthy. Terribly bitter. But something was definitely missing. It was nowhere near as complex as the scent of the store, or even the smell of Will himself.

“Sorry,” said Will. “I forgot. I don’t get into the shots, myself. I guess the synth-taste makes it go down easier.”

“Is that really what coffee tastes like?”

Will shrugged. “Kinda sorta. You know how it is with synths.”

Ernest assumed he knew how it was. Everything he’d ever tasted had been synthetic, a surge of carefully programmed nanos that tickled the taste center of his brain and then died, coursing through his bloodstream to his lungs, where he’d exhale their spent carcasses within the next three breaths.

That’s how it was with synths? Ernest had no idea how it was without them.

Part Three




Zero Hour: a dystopian adventureThe final version of Zero Hour is now in ebook, including 6 interior illustrations by Jordan and a gorgeous cover by PL Nunn. Buy Zero Hour at JCP Books

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