Zero Hour

Archived Parts: One, Two, Three, Four

Part Five

The next morning, Ernest parked his POD farther away from the coffee shop than he needed to. He told L0U15E that he wanted to walk. "I don't know why you'd want to do that, Ernest. It's not efficient. Let me drop you off."

He opened his POD and climbed out. "It's not about efficiency, Louise. I'd like to try a stroll." The lying got easier and easier with practice.

"All right. But I'll have to increase your calories, which means longer dialysis tomorrow."

"That'll be fine." Ernest tucked the monitor under his arm and made his way to the sidewalk. In old-time feeds, sidewalks were packed with men and women. They stood aside for each other as they passed, and tipped their hats and said, "How do you do?" The sidewalk Ernest navigated was empty as far as he could see, except for the tufts of weeds growing up between the cracks.

Ernest came around the corner and saw glowing red letters hovering in front of the coffee shop's door. A symbol of a tapping hammer appeared for a few seconds, and then the words closed for repair. He sank into an alcoved doorway across the street, and he stared. How could the coffee shop be closed? He knew how, of course, since he'd seen the security ops kick the old-time door to splinters. But how long would this closing last? He only had twenty-three more days.

Frustration? Ernest felt the lines of his own face. No. Not frustration. Anger.

He turned from the doorway and stomped back toward his POD. He was so focused on the sidewalk that the hand that snatched him from his route overbalanced him, and dragged him into the alleyway before he could protest at all.

"What're you doing coming here? Are you trying to get us killed?" Will's voice. Easy enough to recognize--one of the few non-AI voices that had ever said more than a sentence or two to Ernest.

"Killed...dead?"

Will dragged him farther into the alleyway, behind a concrete enclosure that had once housed recycling bins. Twentieth century Styrofoam edged the place where the enclosure met the ground like a grayish snowdrift. "What other kind of kill is there? Oh, never mind. You're giving me those damn doe-eyes again." Will sighed and slumped back against the concrete. "You weren't followed, right?"

Ernest shook his head solemnly.

"So what did you tell the Storm Troopers?"

Storm. Troopers. Some nickname for the men in white? That had to be it. It was the only definition that made sense. "Nothing. They hardly spoke to the customers at all."

"Tch. Retarded. Okay, so if you didn't say anything, and they didn't say anything, maybe I'm not in bad shape after all."

Ernest looked at Will's physique. Muscle and sinew stood out against his skin. Tendons shifted in his neck when he turned his head. The musculature of his chest formed a discernable concavity at his sternum. He was so muscled that he looked startlingly like the homo sapiens in the data feed. But of course homo sapiens evolved into homo consummatus. So it was probably best not to stare at Will's crotch and wonder what was beneath his trousers. The comment about Will's "shape" was probably rhetorical anyway. It seemed like the type of thing Ernest would say to L0U15E.

"I saved your reader," Ernest said, hoping to change the subject to something he understood. "But I think one of your VR sets was stolen."

Will waved the absent VR set away. "So that's what you're back for? More porn?"

"The porn was...interesting. But didn't you say you had some history? I think I might want to know more about that. What was Purged, and why? What was it really like before?"

Will sagged against the wall and let out a long, low sigh. "You want history."

Ernest glanced over his shoulder. No Storm Troopers. Good. "If the offer still stands."

"I can get you plenty of history."

Ernest had no doubt of that. Will worked in a brick and mortar building. He was surrounded by real coffee and actual books. The question was, how much did Will's information cost? "Of course, if it's too much trouble, I can access feeds."

"I can get you pre-Purge data."

Ernest combed his fingers through his hair. "I was only an information clerk. My salary was small. I don't have all that many credits saved." There. He'd said it. No doubt Will would be much less eager to help him now. But Ernest's reserves were low enough that he'd have to stop pretending soon, especially with all the credits he'd spent on the audio link.

"Credits make the world go ‘round, no doubt about that. But maybe you've got other things."

Ernest touched the plastic link that curved around his ear, hidden by his hair. He'd have no use for it by the end of the month. Will might as well keep it. "Maybe."

"What model is your POD?"

Ernest cut his eyes toward the distant lot where he'd left it. "L0U15E. Why? There's nothing to strip."

Will shrugged and looked away, as if the opposite wall of the alley had suddenly become fascinating.

"At least, I don't think so. And besides, I need her for trade in."

"Do you?"

Ernest struggled to figure out what Will meant by that question. "Why wouldn't I?"

"If you're dead, what do you care one way or the other?"

Ernest's Deacon never used the word "dead." It clicked in with a cold, sharp finality that felt horribly right. "Well I...I don't know. Deacon says that Reclaim won't demagnetize you without a trade-in. They just...toss your body aside. Bury it in a ditch. Burn it." And the electrons and quarks, the electromagnetic bits that made up the human soul, would be trapped there, slowly dissipating as the body rotted away, or scattering as flames consumed it. Death could hardly be avoided. But Will was asking him to risk oblivion for a few newsfeeds.

"You really think they'd do that? Just because you showed up at Reclaim without your POD?"

"I...guess. If they didn't, everyone would sell off their PODs at the end, splurge on something before their final days."

"Maybe nobody realizes their PODs could be worth something to anyone else. Maybe they never met an interested buyer."

"You were trying to buy that old man's POD, weren't you? The one from the shop. Matthew."

Will stared hard at the opposite wall, still as if he was frozen. "Matthew was my friend."

"Was. What happened to him?"

Will flung his arms in the air, startling Ernest.

"What do you think?" Will wrapped his arms around himself, squeezing tight. The sinews in his neck stood out in stark relief. "He was old. He was slow. He had all that crap running through his system that his POD was pumping through him."

"Was his POD defective?"

Will turned to Ernest. He looked at him hard. "You really don't know, do you?"

Ernest looked back. It was difficult to keep from dropping his gaze.

"Why do you think," asked Will, "that nanosecond you turn thirty, you start to die?"

Because you did. Because that's what happens. Because the Deacon said so. Ernest didn't know how to answer.

Rhetorical. It didn't seem that Will expected him to. "It's not your body. Your body doesn't say, well, now I'm thirty. I'd better start shutting down. People used to have jobs when they were thirty. They would get married, have kids, get divorced, get married again. They would ride the space shuttle, and climb Mount Everest. They didn't just lay down and die."

"But that was then..."

"Do you think we're so different now? Nothing evolves that fast. Your body has a little help shutting down." Will grabbed Ernest by the shoulders. then swung him around. Ernest felt his back hit the cool concrete. Will loomed in front of him, backlit. Ernest couldn't read his face, could only make out the shape of his spiked hair. "Look at you." Will pressed a thumb into Ernest's cheekbone, dragged it up to the corner of his eye. "Crow's feet."

Ernest's heart was pounding in his throat. He wanted to pull his face away, but there was nowhere to move.

"I met you five days ago. Your face was smooth as a baby's."

Anger gave Ernest the strength to shake Will free. "Yes, I have wrinkles. I'm thirty and five."

"Five days. You got crow's feet in five days?"

"You make that sound surprising."

"You act as if it's not."

Ernest slid around Will, anxious to put some space between him and the recycling enclosure. Will grabbed Ernest's arm again and pulled him close. "Don't shunt in."

"What?"

"You heard me. When you get into your POD tonight, don't shunt in."

Ernest gave Will a hard look. "Why? So I leave more resources for you to scavenge?"

Will's eyes went wide. Surprise, or something like it. "You're a smart boy, Ernest. Think about it. Something's aging you all of sudden, and it's happening quick. Keep your shunt to yourself and go without your biofuel for a night, and see if you can feel the difference."

"I'll starve."

"Nobody starves overnight. And besides. There's always food."

 Ernest turned and began walking toward the end of the alley. Whatever Will knew, finding it out wasn't worth being mocked.

 "Ernest." Will's voice was quiet. Ernest turned. Will prodded an old Styrofoam cooler-box on the ground with the toe of his boot. "If I'm not at work tomorrow, I'll leave your feeds in here. "

Ernest looked at the box, and then turned toward the parking lot.

"And Ernest?" Ernest looked back over his shoulder. "If I'm not there, don't mention me to anybody. Okay?"

Ernest turned toward L0U15E's dock point, thrust his head forward, jammed his hands in his pockets and walked. If Will wasn't there, it wasn't as if anyone else would likely speak to him.

*
Ernest accessed the free feed on "bus station," and scanned it in one quick glance. It was an old-time POD dock, back when PODs had burned fossil fuels and ran on wheels instead of magnetic strips. These particular PODs transported multiple passengers at the same time. Ernest couldn't imagine how they handled the close proximity to one another. Then again, homo sapiens touched all the time, and they seemed to enjoy it, too--if the pre-Purge porn was anything to go by.

"Is this building being used for anything, Louise?"

"Now, I wouldn't know about that, Ernest."

Probably not.

"Stop."

"Here? There's nowhere to dock."

"Then just pull off to the side and solar charge."

Ernest felt L0U15E's sensors hum. "Asbestos. Lead. E.coli. C. tetani and Geravium tetani. Mus musculus, R. norvegicus, Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis." The viscreen lit up with columns of diagrams and formulae, and a particularly horrible hologram of a rotting limb. "Tell me you're not thinking of going in there."

Ernest sighed. "It's fine, Louise. I'll be careful."

Ten more holos stacked themselves across Ernest's line of sight. Rat bites. Snake bites. Homo Sapiens in the throes of lockjaw. Microscopic close-ups of vermin burrowing under human flesh.

"I said I'll be careful."

"You're probably hungry. Why don't you shunt in first? And then we go to the VR Palace. There's a new feed playing about a data clerk. Wouldn't that be interesting? You qualify for the senior discount, too. Only three credits."

"Open door."

A few LEDs flashed, and after a pause, the door whispered open. Ernest climbed from the POD and squinted against the pale burn of the sun. The weed-choked lot was scattered with bits of broken asphalt. A row of interconnected plastic chairs lay on its side, sun-faded, but otherwise whole. The building's windows all gaped, jagged glass hanging from the frames like icicles in old-time Christmas feeds. Ernest picked his way through the weeds and stepped over the windowsill with great care. He didn't want to spend his final days fending off flesh-eating bacteria or ringworm.

Although L0U15E had warned him about the vermin living inside, except for a sparrow chirping in the rafters, nothing in the old bus station moved. It was peaceful, in a vast and dusty way. Ernest stepped over a scattering of broken syringes and made his way deeper, past the large rectangles of sunlight splayed across the crumbling floor, and into the shadows. He found a plastic chair that was reasonably level and plumb, he blew off a coat of dust, and he sat.

The shop where he'd purchased the earpiece had offered a selection of datachips that fit the book-shaped monitor. They were antique, but they'd been fairly inexpensive, just a credit or two apiece. Even though none of them were likely to contain any information that would "curl his toes" as Will had put it, Ernest had bought five chips anyway. The subject matter might be extraneous, but Ernest was filled with the overwhelming need to understand.

Daddy is a Contractor was bizarre for its context rather than its content. The homo sapiens in the feed designed and built a gigantic, inefficient structure with the help of archaic computers and clumsy robots. But the word Daddy, and the implication that the audience of the feed was the product of the meshing of genitalia, the stiff, wet, gaping and flushed genitalia from the porn feeds, left Ernest's mind spinning.

Ernest finished the contractor feed, and another one on great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) that was full of bloody, gaping maws. When the last watery image of the feed faded, Ernest hid the monitor under an old recycling bin and sat back in the chair, no longer caring if he ended up covered in dust and spores. He stared up at the ceiling, and he tried to figure out why he no longer seemed to fit inside his own skin.

 

 

Go to Part 6

 

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