Zero Hour

Archived Parts: One, Two, Three, Four, Five

Part Six

Ernest watched lights flicker over L0U15E’s interior viscreen. “I can’t imagine why you’d want to go anywhere with your blood sugar so low,” she said.

“You haven’t taken my blood sugar level. You don’t know that it’s low.”

“Because you haven’t shunted in! What’s the matter, Ernest? Pretty soon I’ll be able to detect ketones in your breath, and then I’ll go into override and bring you straight to the health monitor. Why do you want it to come to that?” Images of skeletal men appeared on the screen. Ernest noted they all just happened to have dark eyes and shoulder-length brown hair like he did. AIs didn’t understand subtlety very well. “Look at what can happen.”

“How long?”

“How long...what?”

“How long did it take them to starve? Access free public feed on starvation, please.”

“Oh, Ernest....”

The data streamed down the screen, overlaying the images of starved men. Ernest’s eyes flicked over the characters. “The body doesn’t even enter starvation mode for three weeks. Three weeks! I’ve only got twenty-two days left; it doesn’t matter if I ever shunt in again.”

“You’ll dehydrate.”

“I’m tired of arguing. Open the door.”

LEDs flashed. L0U15E’s sensors hummed. And just as Ernest was about to repeat his request, the door slid open.

Ernest climbed out and squinted. A light rain was falling, but the clouds in the sky looked bright white after his interment in his dimly lit POD. He strode down the block, doing his best to ignore the lightheadedness that undoubtedly did mean he was dehydrated, if not starving to death, and rounded the corner to the coffee house.

The glowing red letters were gone. A warm light shone out through the shop window.

Ernest suddenly understood what old-time text feeds meant when they said someone’s heart leapt. He jogged across the street, causing a pod to swerve off the magnetic track as he did so, and ran the rest of the way to the front door. He stopped and waited, holding his breath. The door opened. Ernest stepped inside.

The shop smelled wrong.

There was something plastic about the air, as if a new filter had been installed and hadn’t quite finished outgassing yet. Ernest looked at the counter, which was unmanned, and then at the mundane tables. Four customers lingered there, one in VR, the others enjoying their IVs with eyes closed.

Something flashed in Ernest’s peripheral vision. He looked down. Above a large red button set into the counter, the words “Ring Bell For Service” flashed in holo-letters, alternating with a pictograph of someone ringing the bell and being greeted by a smiling face.

Ernest pushed the button.

After several long seconds, a door opened behind the counter, and a short, dark man with disheveled hair came out. He was early in his third decade, certainly no older than twenty-five years, and he lacked Will’s strangely developed musculature. He must have been new at the job. “What do you want?” he asked.

Wasn’t that supposed to be, “How can I help you?” Ernest backed up a step. He almost asked where Will was--in fact, it was on the “tip of his tongue”--but then he remembered that he wasn’t supposed to say anything about Will. “I, uh.... The other day there was a raid while I was here.”

“So?”

“And so I wasn’t done with my IV when the security ops forced me to leave. It was mostly full, in fact.”

The dark little clerk’s lips moved while Ernest talked, as if he had difficulty parsing spoken communication. After an awkward pause, he said, “Not my problem.”

Ernest wanted to turn and leave. If Will wasn’t there, there was no reason for him to stay. And yet it seemed as if the other clerk expected him to argue. “But I didn’t even get my flavor chip. I want my flavor chip, at least.”

The clerk sighed and rolled his eyes. “What flavor?”

“House blend.”

“Black? Cream? Sugar?”

“Sugar.”

The clerk turned, scratched his hair, and jerked open the door to the cold storage unit. He grabbed a syringe from the back, peeled the chip off its wrapper, and threw the syringe down the recycle chute. “Here. Go away.”

Ernest held the flavor chip between his thumb and forefinger and stared at the recycle chute flap as it swung back and forth a couple of times, then settled itself shut. The clerk turned and walked back through the door he’d come from.

Ernest was left staring at the empty counter, the ridiculous pictograph of that smiling face. He tried to smack the letters with the back of his hand, but his fingers passed through them, and they re-formed themselves as if Ernest had never been there.

The sight of the shop without Will in it gave Ernest a sick pang somewhere in his alimentary canal. He pressed his hand into his diaphragm and exited the shop. He looked down one side of the street, then the other, but saw nothing other than clusters of rounded PODs gliding down the magnetic strip in the center.

Of course Will wouldn't be standing there in the street waiting for Ernest. He'd be somewhere unmonitored. Like the alley.

Ernest waited for a break in POD traffic this time, and darted across the street while there was a significant gap to fit himself through. He chose an alleyway--not the one where the styrofoam chest was located, because that would be too obvious--and he snuck inside. He followed it to the end, then turned back toward his destination, counted out the buildings, and headed over to the spot where Will had promised to leave him some feeds.

Sweat prickled Ernest's forehead and back, and his respiratory rate was elevated. He could feel his heart beating. He darted into the concrete enclosure.

It was empty.

Disappointment. He didn't suppose he'd actually expected Will to be there, but there was always a sliver of hope.

Ernest raked his damp hair into a bundle at the back of his neck and held it there while he squatted down by the styrofoam cooler. He opened the lid, and stared.

He'd expected data chips. Instead, there was an old-time key.

Ernest wondered why his heart felt like it was pounding in his throat. He placed his fingertips against the hollow at the base of his neck and felt some blood vessel throbbing there. The heart couldn't move around inside the body, could it? He wished he'd studied more anatomy. Now it would probably remain a mystery. He only had twenty-two days left.

Ernest picked up the key, ran his thumb over the cool metal. There was no explanation, just the key itself. Ernest closed his eyes as he held it, and he thought. The coffee shop seemed as logical a place to start testing the key as any.

Ernest picked his way back across the street and waited for the front door to admit him. He rehearsed a lie in his head about how he thought he deserved the rest of his IV since he'd paid for it and all, but the counter was still empty except for the blinking letters and stupid pictogram. There were only three customers at the tables now, all of them in VR. Pretending to shop, in case a feed monitor happened to be watching the coffee shop's feed at that very moment, Ernest eased along the wall, meandered gradually toward the back hallway.

The old-time wooden door was gone, probably nothing more than a bundle of splinters now, thanks to the Storm Troopers. An unbreakable plastic door with a W3 link flashing at its latch was in its place. Ernest turned and left. Disgusted.

He stood in front of the shop, close enough to the front door that every time he moved, whether to cross or uncross his arms or toss his hair out of his eyes, the door whispered open a few centimeters, as if it couldn’t determine whether or not Ernest was going to come in. Ernest suspected it was none too healthy to enjoy taunting an automatic door. But that didn’t stop him from smiling just a little each time it opened a bit, and then closed. Or maybe it was more of a smirk.

Twenty years as a data clerk had left Ernest with a fairly active mind, and so the door soon failed to hold his attention. He had an old-time key in his hand. One key, one lock. Will wouldn’t have left him a key to a lock that no longer existed. Therefore, it was simply a matter of finding the lock.

The coffee shop’s front door opened and one of the VR customers, an early second-decade girl no older than thirteen, staggered onto the sidewalk and called out, “Ten Fifty-six!” A pod detached from a docking station down the block and glided over to pick her up. Its door opened and she stepped inside. It closed, and she glided away.

Doors. They were practically everywhere. Ernest swallowed a momentary surge of panic. He only had twenty-two days. He couldn’t very well try every door in the city. He clutched the key hard, until the toothy edge bit into his palm. He’d only need to try the old-time doors, he reminded himself. He shut his eyes, breathed deep, and sighed.

He figured he might as well get started. He didn’t have much time to spare.

Ernest went into the building next door. It was abandoned, doors either hanging open or broken down. In the building beside that, a data-recovery service, he told the clerk at the front desk he was a W3 Maintenance Tech and he needed to take some readings. If the clerk noticed his lack of a W3 uplink, he’d planned to pass off the audio link to his book-shaped monitor as some sort of external W3 device. He needn’t have bothered. The clerk didn’t even glance at him, just waved him into the building. Had it always been this easy to lie?

The clerk in the next building and the one after that were much the same. One played a W3 game and another was busy watching holos. They waved Ernest through without even looking at him. While it was heartening to realize that he’d somehow acquired the skill of subterfuge, by nightfall the absence of a lock to fit his key grew discouraging.

Ernest was dizzy. Most definitely dehydrated. It was tiring, this feeling of depletion he’d never had to experience before. Ernest stood at the back door of the last building on the block. He was about to try his key, but then he realized that it only led to the back alley.

The back alley.

Ernest tried the door. It was unlocked. He darted through it and slammed it behind him. The alleyway was empty, of living things, at least. Broken glass, weeds and the ubiquitous styrofoam were piled so high they formed drifts. Ernest looked in the direction of the coffee shop and counted the buildings.

He’d never seen the shop from the back, but he ran his fingertips over the bricks with their mossy, damp mortar and decided that it was indeed the same building. The front of the shop was sealed from the back by a modern W3-linked door. But the alleyway was still connected to the building by an old-time door, with an old-time lock.

 Ernest closed his eyes and waited for a wave of dizziness to pass, then he fit the key into a lock. He attempted to turn it to his left. It didn’t move. He turned it to his right. There was resistance, and then...movement.

The key turned.

Ernest slipped inside the back door of the coffee shop. The only light that reached the portion of the hall that had been blocked off by the new plastic door came from the alley, but Ernest could have navigated the back end of that hall in pure darkness. There was the end of the banister he’d held, following Will up those stairs. There was the first step.

Ernest eased the door shut and went upstairs.

Go to part 7

 

 

COPYRIGHT 2010 JORDAN CASTILLO PRICE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. UNAUTHORIZED USE, DUPLICATION AND/OR DISTRIBUTION OF THIS MATERIAL WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION FROM JORDAN CASTILLO PRICE IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.

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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