Cornucopia, by Edward Ahern
So, anyway, Bobby records having sex with Cheryl on their play date and headlines it.
No way. Harry’s avatar image winced.
Oh yeah, Harry, he did. Here. Look at them. (Transfer lag: .5 seconds.)
Man, that’s tacky. His own wife. (Saved for repeat viewing.) Hang on Georgie, gotta take this.
You see the video, Harry, about the watcha call it- the coronal mass ejection? It’s really happening.
Coronal mass ejection. It’s like a solar flare but much worse. You need to use your interface for something other than porn, Harry. Here’s the factoid. (1.25 second delay.)
Steaming crap. They say this could temporarily knock out the interfaces. Harry involuntarily touched the interface on the back of his skull.
It’s for real, slug. I tried to advance order a week’s worth of Redi Meals and was told they’d been rationed. Same thing with water and booze.
But, Marty, our food is delivered daily. Nobody stores food, it’s so 20th century. If I don’t get a delivery, I go hungry tomorrow. Jesus Murphy!
You saw the video. the plasma mass hits us tonight. Once our interfaces Go dead We don’t see or hear each other. no food, no buying or banking. Oh yeah, and no electricity, heat, or running water.
Don’t get born again on me. They said that they had backup systems and that any interface downtime would just be a brief inconvenience.
Yeah, and they have our best interests at heart. Tighten your sphincter, Harry. I don’t think we live too far apart. If it gets fundamental we should try and help each other. Stay charged.
Harry thought the switch back. Georgie? Sorry for the dead time. You hear about a coronal mass ejection?
The smile on Georgie’s avatar evaporated. Yeah. Something about charged plasma smacking us with a magnetic field concussion. Wait. (.75 second delay while Georgie retrieved data.) Supposed to be even worse than the Carrington solar flare and CME in 1859. But they say the equipment’s shielded and the effects will be brief.
You think? I hope so. I haven’t physically vocalized in over a week. I lose my interface I’m bug brained.
Harry, I thought about trying to resurrect a cell phone or tablet, but they’d be fried as well.
Yeah, they don’t even use those relics in the projects. I’ll keep you zoned in through the sleep cycle.
Likewise. If the contact snaps we know we’re in trouble.
Harry ate his nutritionally balanced MacBurger Redi Meal and washed it down with extra virgin spring water. He showered without removing his Sheersupport romper suit and crawled into the sleep cylinder. The gel pillow contoured to accommodate the interface protrusion. His sleep patterns were recognized and 237 channels shut down for the night. Nine dream enhancing and nightmare suppressing channels activated.
The absence of imput jerked Harry awake. I’m blank screened! What time is it?
My interface! (reached back and touched it) Yes! Charged? Yes. Nothing. Nothing from Marty or Georgie. Harry crawled out from his dark cylinder into an equally dark cubicle. Nothing powered up. He tottered to the window and opened the light and sound blocking curtains. Looks like mid-morning. There are people walking around with actual clothes on. They’re talking to each other. Absolutely nobody talks to strangers.
Harry rasped his throat three times and spat out congealed yellow sputum.
“Hello? Hello? Audio level one, two, three” Well, that still works.
He sat for a moment, then paced over to the uniwater stall. Drink. Shower. Flush. Nothing. “Drink. Shower. Flush.” Nothing. After twenty minutes he found and manually turned the valves for shower, toilet and drinking spigots. The taps sputtered and hissed air. Harry relieved himself, but the urine lay puddled and unflushed on the floor of the stall.
He checked food service. Nothing arrived overnight. Sweet virgin whore I think I’m hungrier because there’s nothing to eat.
He looked down at the widely spaced mesh of his romper suit. I look like I’m on sex call. And I’m cold. He rummaged until he found trousers and a pullover, fusty from disuse. As he pulled off the rompers he glimpsed a backlit reflection of his unsupported self in the window. Jesus Murphy, my gut is the biggest part of me. My arms and legs look like phallic worms.
Raw daylight cut across his cubicle, shrinking his mental image of its size. Sleep cylinder, clothing chest, wall mounted food service valet, uniwater stall, recycle chute, ergonochair now powerless and lumpy. Harry felt confined and went back over to the window. People milled around in the weed-overgrown courtyard.
How long has this lasted? Half a sleep period maybe? It’ll be colder tonight. They better get this fixed before then. If I walk down fifteen floors to the courtyard I’ve got to walk it back up. Not sure I can make it. No, I could stop every few floors and get my breath back. What will they know? Nothing, probably.
Harry sat in his ergonochair. Its pliance gone, the chair poked at him with unretracted massage heads. Unable to call up interface images and contacts, his thoughts churned in muddy swirls. He put on slippers and started down the emergency stairs, afraid to try the up-down person chute.
The sunlight hurt his eyes. Harry squinted at his unacquainted neighbors. Ebola me, but they’re ugly. He cleared his throat and spit again, sloppily. “Intrusion apologies, but have you learned when the interfaces will be up again?”
The man was bodaciously fat. He coughed without covering his mouth. “No. Do you have any food? Maybe some alcohol?”
“No. Regrets. Is there some place to credit buy meals?”
“No, nowhere I’ve heard. Do you have any extra virgin carafes?”
Harry thought. He did have three carafes of water left in the food cubby. But he had never friended this blobby stranger. “No, regrets. Nothing left at all.”
They drifted apart. Harry listened as strangers approached each other, asking differing questions but always receiving the same answers. “No.” “Nothing.” “Never.” He climbed back up to his cubicle in increasingly ragged stages- first four stories, then three each time before resting, then two, before reaching his level.
There were seven cubicles at Harry’s level, six of them the same size as Harry’s and one corner unit that was perhaps three times bigger. He stood in silence, listening for sounds of activity, but the doors and walls were sound proofed to prevent the presence of others from being intrusive.
It was cold inside Harry’s unit, and he left his clothes on. He crawled back into the sleep cylinder, but without the posturepower supports and heating it was hard and cold. He slept briefly, but his sleep was unassisted and unstructured. He woke in amorphous fear.
Harry drank a little stale water and walked back over to the window. There was no one left in the courtyard, the unmet needs accentuating the repugnance of strangers. He turned back into his cubicle and inventoried his belongs.
Extra virgin: three carafes, maybe two days’ worth. Leftovers: none, all chuted the night before. Clothes: rompers- three; undertunics-two. One dress formal. Harry tried to put on the formal overalls, but they were too tight around the mid section.
He prided himself on a virtual, minimally environmentally intrusive life, but had left himself with nothing, not even a knife with which he could slit open the overalls at the belly. I need help. There must be other people living on my level.
Harry stepped outside his cubicle and knocked on the reinforced entry hatches to the other units. There were no responses. He sat cross legged on the floor next to his cubicle hatch, ready to dart inside if threatened. After a few hours the daylight that trickled through two small portholes began to dwindle. He sat in shadow.
The hatch to the largest unit slowly opened and an old woman sidled out, holding a kitchen knife and an enameled basin in her hands. Unlike Harry and the others who’d been in the courtyard, she had no pronounced belly. She also had no interface on the back of her head.
Harry watched in silence as she carefully took the basin over to the emergency stairwell and pitched its liquid contents down the stairs. Harry smelled urine.
“You’re contaminating your fellow cubiclers! How can you be so intrusive!”
The woman dropped the metal basin and spun toward Harry, She clutched the knife with the blade back along the forearm, in what he guessed was a good defensive position. “Who the hell are you! Get up and I’ll cut you.”
Harry sat. “We cohabitate this level. Your threat violated my social space and will be reported.”
“Screw you. Back into your rat hole, fatty.” She edged toward him, sensing that he was unable to move quickly or eptly. When she was able to see his face she cringed. “What’s your name, tubs.”
“Harry. Harry. Too young.” She kept staring at him. “You eat anything today?”
“My food service was interrupted.”
“I bet the hell it was. Get off your ass. I can give you a little bit to eat. If you need to, piss down the stairwell before you come in.”
Harry’s stomach had been gnawing at itself for several hours. I guess this is hunger. “I don’t want to perpetrate an intrusion. Appreciations for your bringing a Redi Meal out to me.”
The old woman snorted. “I’d tell you to go fuck yourself but you’re probably already doing that. You don’t come in you don’t eat.”
Harry’s legs had gone to sleep, and he tottered as he rose. “Your knife is ebola intimidating. Please leave it on the landing.”
“In a pig’s ass I will. You have my word I won’t stick you. Grow some balls and come in.”
Anger and fear surged alternatively through him. After several seconds hunger overwhelmed both emotions. “Jesus Murphy! All right. I’ll be minimally invasive.”
She waved for him to precede her into the cubicle. Harry lurched to a stop two steps inside. The overly large room was crammed, walls and floor, with things- so many things jammed together that Harry was sure she hadn’t seen or used many of them for months. Actual printed reading and viewing material was strewed over tables and chairs. Dishes and cups, longhand writing materials, congealed oil pictures on the walls, open shelves full of food containers, decorative but dysfunctional curtains on the windows, empty vases, and twenty or thirty printed, frozen images of people in frames of wood and plastic.
Harry turned on her. “You must know how environmentally destructive this wanton excess is.”
“You smug prig, what do you know about these things? They carry memories I can hold.”
Harry couldn’t quite shut his mouth, even though he hadn’t been fed. “You’re old. You don’t know the consequences of what you’ve done.”
“Shut up Philip, ah, Harry, before I regret my decision.”
She stirred flat cereal grains together with unlabeled water and heated the gruel over a small can of burning wax. As it cooked she added in yellow fat. “Need to use up the butter before it goes bad.” She handed him a steaming bowl and a glass of water.
Harry studied the water suspiciously. “This is virgin? Extra virgin?”
She laughed. “Neither. It’s eau de tap. A few microbes won’t hurt you.”
After a few nibbles, Harry ceded control to his stomach and bolted down the entire bowlful. Sated and less anxious, he began to look around the cubicle more closely. There were several pictures of a young man that looked a lot like a leaner version of himself.
He pointed at one of them. “Pardon for the intrusion. Is this a relative? Given all these images you must have deeply friended him.”
“It’s my son, the bastard. He deserted me years ago. Screw him.”
Harry couldn’t say anything that wouldn’t be further intrusive, so he remained silent.
They sat together without speaking for ten minutes.
“Do you have a real bed in your cubicle?”
“My ebola sleep cylinder is inactive and hard.”
“And of course you have no blankets.”
“Blankets? Ah, thick body coverings. No, none.”
“You’ll freeze in that cocoon of yours. There’s a floor mat in the closet, along with blankets. Take them out and spread them next to the table you’re sitting at. You piss and shit in the stairwell.”
The food churned in Harry’s stomach. He had not, since group childhood, spent a night in the same cubicle with another human or animal. “Grotty incest! Your suggestion rapes my space. Appreciation for the feeding, but I must leave.”
When Harry reentered his cubicle he smelled the urine souring on the floor of the uniwater stall. I can’t add to that. He edged his way back out of the cubicle and over to the stairwell. Harry carefully aimed his urine through the railing and directly down to the ground floor fifteen stories below. Easier to clean up later.
The next five hours were spent moving from sleep cylinder to ergonochair and back, rolling and shifting position so that different parts of his body became sore. The temperature dropped unrelentingly. The unheated gel in the pillow was a rock that poked his interface back into his head. He constantly shivered, and was able to see that a frozen rime was forming on the liquid in the uniwater stall. I actually won’t survive this. The ebola hag was right.
Harry stepped back out into the lightless landing. He dropped onto all fours and worked his way along the wall to what he thought was the woman’s cubicle. He realized he didn’t know her name. He knocked loudly on the portal and waited what might have been two minutes. With no response he knocked again, more loudly.
“Bother me, fucker, and you die!”
“It’s Harry your level associate. You fed me earlier. I’m freezing and need assistance.”
“Now, isn’t that tough shit.”
There was silence for several seconds and the portal opened.
“Get your ass in here.”
Two candles burned inside the cubicle. Without another word the old woman laid out a floor mat, two blankets and a pillow that smelled of old sweat.
“Apologies for the repeated intrusion and appreciation for the physical assistance. May I know your avatar name?””
“My what? Call me Janet, it’s the name I was given. Get under the blankets before you shake apart.”
Harry slept until sunlight and the smell of food penetrated his senses.
“What is that delicious smell?”
“Cured bacon lasts a long time before going bad.”
“But what is it?”
“Ah. The belly of a pig.”
They talked while eating. Without the usual prompts from his interface Harry rambled, but came to understand that Janet had lived in this cubicle for over forty years, going out only to collect food from black market stalls and for life extension treatments from the impaired existence center for indigents. After the demise of television, radio and computer internet she had refused to interface, and was reduced to visual imputs from antique sheets produced from wood and textile fibers.
“Nothing new worth watching anyway.”
With nothing to do and nowhere to go they spent the day circling each other with words, trying to understand the strange animal in their mutual zoo. Janet examined Harry with intensity, asking about health, and education and partnership with any significant others. Harry was more bemused, for Janet lived beyond his known universe.
As the sunlight began to dwindle, Harry left the cubicle to relieve himself, and almost ran back in. A portly, gargoylish man sat on the floor of the landing, rasping hoarsely. He was still in a romper suit, but wrapped by old clothes like shawls. Harry paused in his flight. He thought he recognized the squatter.
“Harry! Harry, is that you? You look so- different from your avatar.”
“Likewise. How the hell did you find me, Georgie?”
“I looked you up before my interface went dead. People are violating privacy out there Harry, looking for food and water. It’s an unchanneled nightmare.”
“But you made it up here.”
“Barely. Do you have water? Food?”
“I don’t, but I can get you some. Come over here.”
Harry took Georgie’s arm and helped him over to Janet’s cubicle portal, then knocked. When Janet cracked open the portal and spotted Georgie she grabbed the kitchen knife.
“Back off, motherfucker!”
“Janet, it’s okay. This is Georgie, he’s an avatar mate.”
“I don’t care if he’s Jesus Christ, he’s not coming in.”
“He’s hungry, Janet.”
“The whole world is hungry right now. There’s barely enough for me, even less with you coming back. None at all for a stranger who’ll eat us into starvation. Tell him to fuck off.”
“You can’t be so ebola heartless. He’ll die.”
“Not only can I live with that, I’ll be able to live by doing that. You have to make another choice, Philip, starve with him or survive a few more days with me.”
They stood in tableau for several seconds, Harry sighed and released his hold on Georgie’s arm. “At least give him something to eat before he leaves.”
“No. What he eats now is what we can’t eat tomorrow.” Janet turned the butcher blade toward Georgie. “I cut you bad enough, we’ve got a whole lot to eat. Walk away while you can.”
“Harry, we’ve interface bonded, you can’t do this to me.”
Harry felt slack and powerless. “It’s not me, Georgie, she’s got the knife.”
“Ebola you, Harry. If I get out of this I’ll get a knife of my own.” Georgie turned and shuffled toward the stairwell.
Janet and Harry ate in silence that night, Janet opening a tin of sardines and laying them on slices of home-made bread that were beginning to show green on the edges. The next morning, Harry went back to his cubicle to verify that the utility power was still off. His interface held power for two more days of shelf life, but remained inert.
“Three days,” Janet finally said.
“Three days. That’s when the hunger and thirst become unbearable and people break down. Don’t go down into the courtyard again. We’re hard enough to climb to that most of them won’t try.”
“Nobody could get through that reinforced portal of yours.”
Janet snorted. “Marketing tricks. The plated door is surrounded by drywall and sound baffling. Even you could break through the wall in less than a minute.”
The day crawled into evening and night. The two candles threw flickers onto their faces, one a wrinkled version of the other. Sensory deprivation forced them to talk to each other- what they ate, how rarely Harry had left his cubicle, Janet’s family, which, except for a missing son were all dead. They stared at the exhibits in each other’s emotional museums.
The following morning they ate boiled rice and drank canned peach juice. Harry stood looking out Janet’s porthole for an hour. He watched as four tiny men overtook a fifth, beat him and stripped him naked. He turned to Janet. “It’s starting.”
“It’ll get worse.”
Harry spent the afternoon trying to read from cardboard encased, printed sheets, but it was cumbersome and soon hurt his wrists to hold up. Their evening routine had been established. After eating whatever Janet took from a box or a can they rolled up in their blankets for warmth and talked for about an hour before falling asleep.
The next morning Harry looked out of the porthole to see that smoke was furling out of the shattered windows of several buildings, and that the trees and shrubs in the courtyard had been hacked off at the base, presumably for firewood.
Interface alert. Interface alert. Your interface communication has been restored. Repeat, your communication has been restored. (15.7 seconds of images tumbling into Harry’s awareness.)
There is still no land line power or utility service. Note: No food or water will be available for at least 48 more hours. Remain calm. Food service will be resumed to individual cubicles and not distributed to groups to minimize the risk of violent personal intrusions. Remain calm.
Janet, the interface is back on! O, ebola me. “Janet, my interface is working! Things are getting back to normal.”
The room had remained dark. Janet walked over to her uniwater stall and turned on a tap. Nothing happened. “Not yet they’re not.”
“No, but there’ll be food deliveries in two days to individual cubicles.”
“That’s two more days of food riots.”
“Oh. Jesus Murphy, maybe.”
Their lunch was canned peas and canned corn, served cold. As Harry was finishing Georgie’s avatar came on the interface. The image snarled.
I’m coming back, Harry.
Georgie, I’m so interpersonally mortified, but we still can’t feed you.
I’m with friends now Harry, real friends who help each other to get food. We’re coming for yours, Harry. I just wanted you to know. One of my friends has a gun, Harry, a real gun. Tell that ebola bitch that she drops first.
Georgie, listen… (Connection broken.)
Janet had been watching the expressions writhe across Harry’s face during the interface. “What?” she asked.
“Georgie and some other people are coming here to take your food. They may have a gun.”
“Damn.” She sat quietly for several minutes. “Okay, here’s what you’re going to do. You have to get the hell out of this building and away from anywhere they’re marauding. They’ll stay close to their cubicles, because that’s where the food will be coming. I’ll bundle up some food for you to take along. Try to make it to the abandoned slums, they should be empty.”
“But there’s almost no food left.”
“They won’t believe that.”
“But once they break in and can’t find food they’ll commit a personal space atrocity.”
Janet nodded. “But maybe they’ll just beat me up a little. I’ve already survived that with Philip. Take the knife, you’ll need it.” A half sour expression crossed her face. “Remember to use the pointy end to stab someone.
“Oh yeah, and leave that mind leech of yours off until you come back, otherwise you’ll be babbling about what you’re eating.”
“It’s an indictable violation to take your food.”
Janet smiled wryly. “Harry, I wanted you to be Philip, but it’s good that you’re not. My Philip would’ve just stolen all the food and snuck off. Go. But when you return to your cubicle, bring me one of those God awful Redi Meals. It would be nice to know you’re still alive.”
Edward Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He is still on his original wife, but after 45 years they are both out of warranty.
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