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Zero Hour

Archived Parts: One, Two

Part Three


“I’d better go downstairs,” said Will. “Some of the other customers might be trying to get out.”

If they could even move after their “rushes.” Ernest listened as Will’s footsteps thudded down the stairs. He looked around the room. It felt huge. Terrifying. All of the books, the stacks and stacks of them, were no longer something he wanted to explore. Ernest pushed the fabric that covered him to the end of the sofa, swung his legs over the side, and crept to the door, down the stairs, and along the hall.

Will stood behind his counter, “chatting” with one of the VR customers. The woman. Her hair was black, streaked with iron gray. The skin at the corner of her eyes crinkled. How old was she? Thirty and five? Thirty and ten?

Ernest ducked down, and he ran.

He burst through the front door and onto the sidewalk. “Louise!”

Down the block, his POD snapped out of its dock, propelled itself to the magnetic strip that ran down the center of the street, and glided toward Ernest. He scurried along to meet it, casting furtive glances back over his shoulder.

“Hello, Ernest. How was your--?”

“Let me in,” he snapped.

A series of lights flashed on the POD’s front viscreen. “Ernest? You don’t look well.” There was a small click, and the POD swung open. Ernest  climbed in and L0U15E shut the POD.

“Take me out of this neighborhood. Somewhere far away that won’t use up too many credits.”

“Far away? How far?”

“I don’t know. Fifth street.”

What would L0U15E have done if he’d requested to go to Casablanca? Ernest wasn’t sure.

He felt some clicks as Louise relayed a destination to the track, and the gentle hum of the POD as it began to pick up speed. “Your cheeks are flushed,” she said. “We should do some blood work.”

“No. Not now.”

“Are you sure? I could take you to your health monitor.”

“It’s fine,” he said, forcing himself to smile. It wasn’t fine, but he didn’t want his health monitor to start restricting his activities. “It’s...great, in fact. I’d like to access all the free feeds you can get me on caffeine. And facial expressions, smiles in particular, if there’s a subfeed.”

L0U15E’s interior viscreen rippled with data that assembled itself into neat columns. “Let’s see,” said Ernest. “Add ‘psychology’ to the smile feed. And ‘smirk,’ too. And I’d like something with pictures. Diagrams, if you can find them.”

Ernest settled into the POD and pretended his heart wasn’t trying to hammer through his ribcage. L0U15E could read his body temperature, analyze his facial expression, but she couldn’t do any bloodwork until he shunted in. “Ah, here it is,” he said, pointing to the screen. “Caffeine raises the heart rate. That’s all it was, Louise. A physiological reaction.”

“I don’t think it’s safe to experiment with something like that.”

“What can it hurt? I’ve only got another twenty-eight days. Any sort of addiction I might form would be short-lived.”

“That’s morbid. Don’t say things like that.”

Ernest studied a diagram on facial expressions that had been developed for the treatment of autistic individuals. “Free feed on autistic,” he said, unfamiliar with the term. The diagram was good. Ernest could see the subtle nuances of each expression in the tilt of the eyebrows, the shape of the lower eyelid. “Do you think I’m autistic?” he asked L0U15E.

“Autism was bred out of homo sapiens in 2098. It’s never existed in homo consummatus.”

“Oh. Well, I like the diagram anyway. Tile and commit to background.”

The POD’s interior lit up with dozens upon dozens of small, almost-smiling faces. Amusement, read one with lazy-looking eyelids. Delight, read another, lips parted, eyes wide. Sardonic, read the face with quirked eyebrows and only one corner of the mouth turned up.

“Louise?”

“Yes, Ernest?”

“Can you put blond hair on that one? And make the cheekbones higher?”

One face out of every hundred sprouted a yellow-blond crew cut. “A little longer?” The hair grew. “There. That’s good.”

Ernest pondered “sardonic.” Now that it had spiked blond hair, it looked an awful lot like Will.

 

. . . . .

 

“Look what the cat dragged in.”

If Will was trying to confuse Ernest with idiom, it wasn’t going to work. Will had given himself a “crash course” on expressions (both verbal and facial), caffeine, handshakes, and the alimentary canal. He wasn’t normally able to pack in so much study, but after the shot of “espresso” he hadn’t slept for two days.

Ernest looked up at the menu and told himself that it was all right to splurge three or four credits, since he’d stayed in the POD for three days straight without spending anything except his most basic maintenance costs.

“Today,” said Ernest, “I’d like an IV.”

An expression fleeted across Will’s face, too subtle to match with one of the many diagrams Ernest had committed to memory. “It’s a piss-poor substitute for the real drink,” he said, his tone nonchalant.

“What about the book-shaped monitor?” asked Ernest. “What does that cost? That customer the other day, he was reading a book while he had his coffee. I want to do that.”

Will stared. He was thinking--Ernest could tell as much because his eyes flicked side to side as he did so, and one of the psychology feeds Ernest had recently read said that people did that when they were accessing their temporal lobe--and then he shrugged. “It’s a good approximation of authenticity.”

Ernest waited for the qualifier. But. But it’s not exactly like drinking with your mouth. But it’s not exactly like a book made from paper and glue. But it’s not at all like going upstairs and sitting on that dusty couch that felt somehow shameful in a way Ernest didn’t quite parse.

But.

The qualifier didn’t come.

Will turned and looked up at the monitors. “What about French Roast? That’ll give you a long, slow buzz you can sit with for hours.”

Ernest felt his face settle into grim lines. He tried to match it to something he’d seen on his viscreen. Disgusted? Depressed? It seemed to have less to do with sorrow and more to do with...he didn’t know.

“How about Colombian?” said Will. “A little sour, to my taste, but then again you won’t really be drinking it. You’ll just have the nanos tickling your brain.”

Disappointed. There it was. He’d wanted Will to lure him up to that mysterious room again. He should have stayed when he’d had the chance. Now? Now he was just another customer. Ernest found the cheapest drip, and then the second-cheapest. “How’s the house blend?”

Will shrugged. “Bland.”

“I think...I think I’ll try that. I started a little too strong last time.”

“Suit yourself.” Will opened a cabinet and selected an IV bag. Ernest scanned his chip. His remaining credits flashed on the screen. He could make them last for twenty-four more days if he was very careful about where he went, what he bought. From now on, he’d only order free feeds. He’d visit the coffee shop no more than every other day. And maybe, if he was very careful, on day twenty-nine he could try drinking some actual brewed coffee.

“Go ahead,” said Will, “pick a seat. I’ll bring the bag out to you.”

“Don’t forget the book. The book-shaped monitor, I mean.” Ernest turned and looked at the tables. Only two were occupied today, both of them with VR-helmeted customers. One had been there last time, judging by the outfit, body type and position. The other wore the uniform of a second-decade tech--someone on a vaca-day.

The tech snickered at something in his VR. It wasn’t merely a laugh. Ernest had recently played and analyzed enough laugh files to know; there was something condescending about the way it sounded. Ernest took an instant dislike to him, and chose a seat as far away as possible.

Will came around the counter. His pants hung low on his hips. He was definitely too thin. Didn’t his POD-mind care? Not that A.I.s could actually care, but it was certainly against their programs to let their charges waste away. Maybe Will’s job was just too physical, and his interface needed to be tweaked.

Will cleared his throat. Ernest blinked and looked up from Will’s hips.

“Here.” Will dropped the monitor on the table. It clattered. He snapped the IV bag onto an overhead hook and unkinked the tubing. “Shunt.”

“Wait...uh....” Ernest searched for something to say. Wasn’t Will supposed to chat with him? He was a customer. He’d just paid. There was a fine line between Will’s eyebrows. Ernest couldn’t match it with an emotion; it wasn’t enough of a clue to go on. “How to I hook into a feed?”

“You don’t. This is a freestanding monitor. It’s not on the W3.”

“Wow. I mean, I’ve never....”

“I’ll load some feeds for you,” he said, gazing out the window at the street where pods did their stop-and-start creep down the magnetic strip. “I got all kinds of wild stuff. What’re you in the mood for?”

Ernest had no idea. Psychology, perhaps? It had seemed like interesting enough company when he’d been unable to sleep.

“How about porn? The W3 was practically made of porn before the big Purge.”

“Sure,” said Ernest. “That sounds fine.” If he couldn’t parse what the feed was supposed to be about, he’d just have L0U15E help him look it up later. The exact feeds wouldn’t be available to him, of course, if they’d been Purged. But he could at least gain some historical context.

Will put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a thin case. “Your first time off the grid?”

“Well...I suppose.”

Will raised an eyebrow. “If you had your own port-a-player, I could copy you some feeds that’d really curl your toes. And not just porn. Politics. Religion. History. You’d be surprised at all the things that’ve been kept from you.” He snapped a datachip into the book-shaped monitor. “Here ya go. Hetero pairs, homo pairs, group and solo. It’s all in the menu.”

Ernest nodded, scrambling to parse. He’d understood the word “menu.” That would need to be enough.

Will rolled up Ernest’s sleeve, bit the tip off the IV needle, spat the tip on the floor and shunted in. “I’ll set it for a slow drip. You won’t get a nice rush like last time, but you’ll last longer.”

Ernest watched the clear fluid drip into the tube. Shunting had always been routine for him, but the workings were hidden inside his POD. He felt his pulse begin to race after the first dozen drips. The room seemed brighter. He felt...good. Invincible. “Yes,” he whispered.

Will looked at him for a moment, squinted, and made a smallish smile that didn’t match any of the ones Ernest had studied. “Okay, then. If you need anything, just yell. That’s a figure of speech. A wave’ll do.”

Will checked the IV bags on the VR customers, glanced out the window again, then went back behind the counter and began fingering sequences into the scanner. He kept his eyes on the door as he worked.

The less objectionable VR customer murmured something softly and curled onto her side in the chair. The tech tapped his foot. Ernest looked down at his book-shaped monitor. There was the menu. He figured he should just start at the beginning. “Hetero Pairs,” he told it. It did nothing. He repeated himself. “Hetero pairs.”

“It’s a touchscreen,” called Will from behind the counter. “Old-time, I know, but think about the privacy factor.”

Ernest had never considered it. He’d never watched a feed outside his POD before.

He touched the menu item and a submenu fanned out. Missionary. Oral. Anal. Kink.

Missionary was first on the list, but it seemed too religious for the occasion of Ernest’s first successful coffee-and-book excursion. Oral. That seemed appropriate, given that old-time coffee was taken by mouth.

Ernest was first struck by the fact that the people in the feed had no clothing on. And then, by the bizarre, distended penis of the man. It was huge, and stiff. There was a woman with him, in a plain room, crouched on a bed. The angle of the feed changed without Ernest’s input, zooming tight on the woman’s face. “Zoom out,” he said, but the feed stayed trained on her mouth.

Maybe the feed couldn’t zoom. It must have been ancient. Maybe the man and woman were homo sapiens, though none of the sapiens in Ernest’s studies had ever looked quite like them. Especially that penis. Ernest wondered how the man could even walk.

The woman ran her tongue down the man’s stomach, and Ernest blushed. Tongues are for talking, as his Deacon always said. Was there even a word for what she was doing? There must have been, once.

The man seemed to enjoy it. He sank his fingers into her hair and pulled her closer, prodding her face with his gigantic, stiff penis.

The feed zoomed out by itself again. Disconcerting. Ernest felt the room sway--acutely, since his senses had all been sharpened by the caffeine. The man’s expression was strange. It looked like pain, initially. But the rest of the scene wouldn’t make sense if that were the case. His hips thrust up, burying his penis deep inside the woman’s mouth. (How could she stand it?) Ernest could barely resist the urge to slide a finger into his own mouth, see what it felt like inside. Of course, he’d never do something so disgraceful, not even with Will completely focused on  the doorway and the other two customers lost in their VR.

Unless he went outside, somewhere between the buildings. Cameras were scarce in this part of town.

Ernest stood, and then remembered that he was shunted in. He’d get Will to remove the shunt. As raised his hand to get Will’s attention, the front door burst open and a man scrambled in.

He was ancient and stooped, and mostly bald. Familiar, and yet, not. Why would he be familiar? It wasn’t as if Ernest had ever met many.... Ernest suddenly recognized him from his last visit. In fact, the old man had been at the very table Ernest was now sitting at and contemplating putting something in his mouth. He might have even been reading from the very same book-shaped monitor.

Will sprang to his feet. “Matthew. You changed your mind?”

“I’m not ready,” said Matthew, and his voice was loud and strong, which confused Ernest. The men who looked like that in old-time feeds had querulous, small voices. “Help me.”

“Okay, quiet down.” Will dashed out from behind the counter and pointed at Ernest. “Keep your mouth shut about this and I’ll buy you a brew.”

Ernest nodded, baffled. The woman in the VR helmet rocked herself gently. The tech in the VR helmet crossed his arms and smirked to himself.

Will turned back to Matthew. “You’re sweating bullets. Did you shunt into your POD again? How stupid are you?”

“Did I shunt? No, no, the POD’s gone. I ran here.”

Will went pale. He looked exactly like the diagram of ‘dismayed.’ “From where?” he said quietly.

Matthew wiped his brow on his sleeve, panting. “Reclaim.”

“You...led them here...from Reclaim.”

Ernest felt himself begin to shake. His drip was probably too fast.

“It’s okay.” Matthew hunched over with his hands on his knees, heaving great gasps as he struggled to breathe. Ernest heard his lungs whistle from across the room. “No one followed me. I already turned in the POD, but I’ve got some credits left. Your friends can use them. Everyone can use more credits. You’ll talk to them for me, get them to take my credits, join me up....”

Ernest’s shaking continued, even intensified, at the thought of Reclaim. He told himself to stop thinking about it. He wouldn’t need to go there for another twenty-four days.

“Credits won’t do jack shit for us,” Will snapped. “I need a POD. You knew that. We went over it a million times.”

Shadows flickered over the book-shaped monitor. Ernest craned his neck and looked out the window behind him. Men in white jumpsuits, too many of them to count, filled the sidewalk outside the shop.

“Damn it,” said Will, his eyes on the window. “I am totally screwed.” He grabbed Matthew by the arm. “Come on. Hurry.”

 

 


Go to Part 4

 

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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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