Issue #7 - October 2014
Season 1, Episode 7
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Previous can be found here.
“Zero's Hour” by Eric Del Carlo
“When the Wind Blows on Tristan da Cunha” by Meryl Stenhouse
“Waterman High Speed Axials” by William R. D. Wood
“Time Enough” by Salena Casha
“Sympathy for the Download” by Matthew Lyons
“In the Space Between” by Jeff Stehman
“Shudder” by Manfred Gabriel
"A Vision of Paradise" by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
Just to give you a taste...
by Eric Del Carlo
"'mon, kiddo. Up and at 'em."
There's a lot of tired in that voice. It is the zero's first fully resonant thought, integrating memory, deductive capacities, even a hint of wit. He has been looking up at the ceiling, which seems to have fluctuated in height several times in the past few minutes. He isn't sure those have been minutes, actually. His eyes feel moist. As he sits up, obeying the man's command reflexively, he wipes at his eyes with a hand that feels big and blunt.
His obeying continues. He rises. The room doesn't whirl, but it threatens to. He puts out his hands for balance and wonders at the weakness in his legs. That doesn't jive with his emerging pattern of memory. He is a runner—six laps around the reservoir, that challenging forest trail switchbacking up the mountainside. He's done that, many times. His calves are hard as marble, flexible as an antelope's.
He is naked. No. He is naked under this suit, a single-piece rubbery thing encasing him from toes to throat. It is not molded to his body, and its shapeless hollows and bulges look clumsy.
The man in the room with him takes hold of one of his arms, grip strong but not rough. He snaps something into place over the zero's wrist. "That's counting down, kiddo. Let's make the most of it, okay?"
He looks back at the slab on which he was lying, at the sterile black walls, then steps out of the room with the man with the tired voice into a corridor of blue walls, grimy with age. His clumsy suit is a hideous lime green color with black numerals stenciled on one leg, and it screals and squorks as he moves. His steps are feeble, but he stays upright. He looks at his wrist. What's there is like the cheap electronic gewgaws that used to come with fast food meals when he was a kid. Kid. Kiddo.
The zero looks at the tired man he is following down the corridor. "Fifty-seven," he says to the man. Only, he has to try three times before he can make the words come out. Two of those times it feels like he is going to vomit, even though he is not sure there is anything in his stomach.
"Fifty-seven," the man repeats. He has an agreeable air about him. He is somewhat heavy, and moves heavily, like his center of gravity has been pressed permanently low. Clean-shaven, dressed in passable professional clothes. He wears a cap. "You're right out of the tank. You'll get the full benefit. I'm not one for that ten-minute assimilation. Who decided that? Well, engineers. But you're okay, right?” He glances back. Eyes twinkle under the brim of the cap.
"I'm okay," says the zero. He finds he likes walking with this man. It is companionable, like a stroll. He looks again at the display on his wrist. Fifty-six minutes now.
The corridor ends in a room that is bigger and far less sanitary than where he started. Not quite an office, he concludes. More of a den, with furniture and clutter, shared by many people. The zero is making aesthetic value judgments. He likes that.
"Okay," the tired man drops into a seat, waves to a chair vaguely opposite. The zero stands, looking around at the other people talking to each other and into collar pickups. Some are uniformed. "Just move that and sit. Okay?"
He breaks off his surveying, sees sheets of deadtree piled unevenly on the chair, and moves them aside. "Okay," he says. Okay. It is this man's word, and it feels like he has learned it for the first time. "Okay?” He pulls at facial muscles, trying to make a smile.
The man looks up from a pocket playback. His twinkly eyes have red squiggles. "Can you tell me your name? Just relax. You can lean back in that chair, close your eyes if you want to. Tell me your name, kiddo. If you can.” His upper teeth gently hook his lower lip, drawing it inward.
The zero doesn't close his eyes, which still feel wet. But he does deliberately sag back into the seat, even though the suit makes more horrible noises on the leather-like upholstery. "My name is Alfeo Jurado."
It elicits an immediate smile. The man is surprised and pleased. "Well, that's it. First try.” Looking around as if to flaunt a victory, he crows, "Ten minutes for assim my ass. We're on a budget here, people!” A few muttered comments are returned to him.
The zero smiles again, finding it easier to do this time.
Light from the playback shifts on the man's rounded features. "Okay. Great. And—just relax again, relax—tell me, if you can...who was it who killed you?"
He doesn't want to disappoint this man who he has just pleased. This man has been nice to him. He is tired, overworked, probably has been at this job a long time. He has had too many disappointments already.
The emptiness in the zero's stomach tightens. He says, "I don't know. Okay?"
He watches the fatigue roll back over the man, like a tide. Alfeo Jurado grew up near a seashore. He feels bad.
"Okay.” And the tired man nods. Heavily. He switches off the playback and pockets it.
The zero thinks to himself that it is all over; there is nothing more to come. He looks a little shyly at his wrist. Forty-nine minutes left. That seems like a lot of time to him.
The man stands. He seems to have to gather himself to do it, physically and mentally. The zero rises, not waiting for a command. "You up for a little ride, kiddo?"
He guides the vehicle off-GRID. "Privilege of the job," he says.
"What's your name?" asks the zero.
He widens the eyes beneath the cap's bill. "Emil Mekelburg.” He says it like he is sharing a secret.
The nighttime streets outside are slushy. Winters are like this, the zero knows. But the weather is more intense than it once was. He doesn't think he is remembering gentler winters; it is more like something he has been told.
"You have a girlfriend," Emil says. While the zero has been looking out at the frozen city, the man has unpocketed his playback again. He steers one-handed, which should be alarming, but it doesn't bother the zero. "Her name's Harriet. Harriet Johnstone."
"You've got a boyfriend too.” Emil's eyes flick down, then back up as he negotiates a turn.
"Morgan," the zero says.
"Right again.” Emil's thumb skips nimbly across the playback's face. "That's from your soash-net profile."
He remembers Harriet's dark hair. Morgan has blond. He wonders if they have been told yet, then stops wondering that as he makes another deductive leap. Emil Mekelburg has them in mind as suspects. The zero supposes it is possible. Both relationships, he recalls, are volatile. But he loves both of them.
They round another corner. Emil pulls up at the edge of an irregularly shaped pedestrian common. It is lit, but not for maximum visibility. Great cleaving shadows fall here and there over the odd corners. The zero peers out. He knows this place, a personal knowledge, not like what he knows about winters. He feels an immediacy. His flesh is throbbing under the lime suit. Sitting in this seat makes the shapeless garment balloon grotesquely around his middle, and it embarrasses him. He has always stayed so fit and trim.
"You recognize this?" Emil asks. His alert expression is broken up as a yawn distends his mouth.
Even before the zero has seen the red holo tape winking in the ill-lit night, he knows. He says, "I was killed here.” Wet thick flakes are spinning down through the swaths of light, disappearing into the shadows.
"That's right.” Emil grunts, but only to indicate that he is impressed. "Let's go out and have a look around. Okay, kiddo?"
The zero meets the tired man's red-squiggly eyes. "I want a hat."
"I want a hat. Like you've got."
Emil Mekelburg is surprised, not for the first time tonight. This time, though, it is like something is wrong, or at least a little off. He starts to say something, shakes his head, chuckles, and opens up the storage compartment between the vehicle's front seats. The hinge makes a tiny metallic whine.
He holds out the blue logoed cap, but doesn't let go as the zero reaches for it. In a solemn tone of voice, something new from him, Emil says, "My grandmother on my mom's side was the first woman player ever on the Cubs. She was a reliever. Anna Barth. Buzzkill Barth.” He almost says more, but stops himself, shaking his head in a self-deprecating way and letting the zero take the baseball cap, which he covers his head with. The digits on his wrist are now counting down from thirty-two. He steps out with Emil into the wintry night.
The rubbery suit is repulsive, but he doesn't feel the cold anywhere but on his face. His movements seem a little less frail to him. He feels a loosening inside himself, or a quickening.
They cross the plaza. No one else is on the scene. The overlooking buildings are anonymous slabs. He is careful with his footing.
"You want the tape off?" Emil asks.
Ahead, the waist-high triangle of red blinks into darkness. It has cordoned off an area of shadow, plenty of room for a body.
"Do you know how you were killed?"
The zero knows the method isn't being investigated. "A knife..."
"Are you asking or telling?” Emil is grunting again, but it is from exertion. His squelching footfalls sound more labored than the zero's.
"Stabbing is the number one way people get murdered," the zero says, "now that they don't have guns anymore."
Emil slips, catches himself, and they continue on. "Yeah. And how did you get killed?"
"I was stabbed.” The zero halts at the edge of where the red holo was a moment ago. His nose is getting numb, but the cap keeps the snow out of his hair.
Emil, breathing out long plumes, stops alongside him. The zero feels the intensity of his gaze as he steps forward, by himself now, solemnly, like when Emil talked about his grandmother. The energetic feeling is still growing in him.
He walks back and forth over the area. He doesn't, after a moment, need to remember how the red triangle marked it off. He knows this plaza, though he doesn't always use it. It depends which rail transit station he is coming from or going to. Harriet means one, Morgan the other. Then, of course, there's work. Shoes. He designs shoes, and a whole host of memories emerge with that revelation. He is not wearing shoes now. His feet are encased in the same suit that envelops the rest of him.
His apartment is near here.
"Coming home," he says. His breath steams, just like Emil's.
"Yeah?” The tired voice is gone. This is what the man has been saving up his energy for.
"Coming from—there.” The zero points to one of the pedestrian accesses to the common. Probably Emil knows which station that suggests he got off at, and the significance of that. "Crossing—here.” He stands over a dark patch of ground. Maybe the daylight would show a stain; maybe not.
He turns, turns again. He takes three lurching steps. He lets the memory emerge. It is difficult to get to, dulled by trauma. The blade opened him up. He was by now already sinking into shock. The light, of course, was bad.
But it comes.
He straightens. Emil Mekelburg's hands open and close at his sides. The zero gives his description of the assailant, everything there is. It doesn't sound like much to him, but Emil's eyes twinkle. Maybe it is enough. A yellow light shows on Emil's collar. This information is being relayed. It will be acted on.
The zero lets out a pluming breath. He stands again over the place where Alfeo Jurado's life ended earlier tonight. The zero knows the final thoughts that were in the man's head, which of his two lovers he thought of last.
Emil talks into his collar pickup, terse sentences, pauses, then more staccato words.
The zero blinks. His eyes feel wet again. His earlobes are so cold they burn. When Emil's final pause becomes a silence, the zero asks, "Was it a robbery?"
Emil has his playback in hand again. The holo tape springs back to life. "He was robbed, yeah. If that's all there was about it—" shoulders heave, like he is fighting his low center of gravity, "—we don't know. Yet. But I think we'll find out.” He smiles. "Okay? That's a good thing."
The zero knows it is. But it is not, he discovers, the most important thing. The anxious vitality he feels is suddenly overflowing, overwhelming him. He smiles back at Emil, and it becomes a grin, big and ferocious.
An uncertain look comes to Emil's face. He starts to take a step forward. "Hey, kiddo..."
He likes that this man has called him that from the start. He likes that he hasn't said the word zero. A term, for some reason, he imagines the man's colleagues wouldn't hesitate to use. On his wrist eleven minutes are dwindling. He turns away and runs off into the snowy dark.
The lime suit's dimensions were embarrassing before. Now, he knows, he must look downright comical, a wobbly, ungraceful, green mass blobbing across the ground. Ice crunches underfoot. His eyes stream. But that vigor he feels lends him strength. He is moving fast. He has left the plaza behind.
He doesn't make for his apartment, though he knows how to get there from here. He could complete the journey Alfeo Jurado set out on earlier this evening.
The big slabby buildings surrounding the oddly shaped common give way to residential structures, some of them old and cheaply retrofitted. There are still no other pedestrians out, but up ahead he sees vehicular traffic, all of it on-GRID and neatly spaced, throwing light along the street. The zero runs toward this. He needs to get across that street.
Emil Mekelburg must be pursuing him. All of this is quite out of order. Zeroes, the zero knows, are not supposed to behave like this.
He runs toward the lights. He moves fast enough that the generated wind takes the cap's bill and lifts it off his head. Cold rushes over his scalp. He is sorry to have lost the hat, though he isn't sure if it actually belonged to Emil's grandmother or not. Still, he can't pause to pick it up. He races into the street. Flakes twirl in the dazzling spears of light. Big metaplastic shapes move at speeds that could seriously damage him if he stumbled. He wonders what the vehicles' occupants think, seeing him go bouncing across. He realizes he is still grinning, which must make the sight all the more bizarre.
There is only one more block to go. Fatigue suddenly grabs him, and his steps get heavy, then heavier. Despite the cold, he feels clammy. His body continues to throb. The vitality is still coursing through him, but it is as though it is extending beyond himself, spilling off the edges of his being, dissipating into a void.
He pants huge foggy plumes. His damp eyes slide out of focus, and he must strain to bring them back, to see his way to the end of the silent, dead-end street. There is a fence across the end, but it is old and there are gaps, and even with the bulgy suit he squeezes through one.
The scrubby greenery on the other side is weighted with snow. Branches, as he disturbs them, drop slush on his shoulders. The trail is short. It opens onto the concrete embankment. He walks up it a little ways, where there are worn, smoothed steps leading down to the canal's water.
That water isn't flowing now. Most months it does, a big pulsing artery of water, sometimes black, sometimes blue, but always vital and strong. Right now it is frozen over, of course. But he sees the shine of the surface, the ambient city glow revealing the long, iced over canal.
His exhaustion is serious. It is something more profound than fatigue. But he steps carefully down the stairs. There are just a few. He stops and sits down. Again the suit balloons around him, like a beach ball, but for the first time he appreciates its simple design, its utility. When he created shoes, he made them to be functional above all other considerations. This lime monstrosity isn't a garment; it is a body bag. It has a sure and real purpose.
As he lifts his arm, he turns and sees over the lip of the small stairwell. Back down the embankment, Emil stands at the foot of the little trail. He is breathing hard and his clothing looks wet, which means he didn't go back and retrieve his vehicle for the pursuit. Though he doesn't know why, the zero is deeply moved by this fact.
Emil Mekelburg doesn't come any closer. At his side he holds his Cubs cap, and the zero is very glad he got it back.
Struggling against his disappearing strength, he removes the cheap countdown display from his wrist. It shows under two minutes now. He sets it on a step behind him, out of his sight. He looks down on the dark unmoving water. It is still water, just in another form. He knows this. Like how he knows about the harsh winters, but also in the way that he knew the plaza, and the color of Harriet's hair, and Morgan's. And like how he knows the way he makes shoes.
He knows the frozen over canal is just beyond the gated bottom of these steps, but he can't see it anymore. His eyes have unfocused, in an absolute kind of way this time. His body feels like it is quivering, but he isn't sure he is moving at all. Some vestige of the smile, however, still tugs at his face. He is sure it does.
This city is landlocked. The nearest decently sized lake is ninety miles away, the ocean several hundred. Alfeo Jurado grew up by a seashore. He came to this spot to remember what a mighty moving body of water looks like, how beautiful it is, how humbling it can be.
Now he pays it his final visit. The ocean breathes hugely upon him, as the tide comes in.
Eric Del Carlo's fiction has appeared in Asimov's, Strange Horizons, Shimmer and many other publications. Look for his latest novel, an urban fantasy tale written with his father Vic Del Carlo entitled The Golden Gate Is Empty, coming soon from White Cat Publications.