Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Open All Hours

by Roderick D. Turner



"You've got to have it right now?" Reg moaned.

"Won't do me any good in the morning," Sandy replied. "We never should've stopped in at that coffee shop on the way home. I can't handle caffeine late at night."

"OK, OK. I'll call around and see what's open."

Reg rolled out of bed and thumped across the room to the multilink terminal. The screen came alive as he stepped up to it.

"How may I help you?"

Suddenly Reg's eyes were open. This was a new voice, and the face that went with it was enough to snap anyone's eyes wide.

"Wow," he said. "Some upgrade we got on this system, Sandy. Did you catch the new persona?"

"They installed some kind of sensor. It changes the image to suit the sex and mood of the user. I can only imagine what your grumpy male mug is calling up."

Reg took another hard look at the pleasant, gently quizzical face on the screen. He smiled.

"OK lady," he said. "I need to find a store that's still open, one that'll have caffeine antidote, stomach tablets..." he lowered his voice to a whisper, "...and some of those new banana flavored corn chips. I'm starved." For all of a sudden, now that he was really awake again, he did feel tremendously hungry.

"Marco's All-Nighter, on 27th Street at West Broadview. That's the closest store with all your requested items in stock."

"You sure it's open?" Reg said. "Make absolutely sure. I don't want to make the effort to go down there only to find out it's closed. I mean who would want to work an all-night shift on Christmas Eve?"

"The store is definitely open," the multilink voice said smoothly. "I have checked directly with the cash robot. All items requested are in stock. A transit tube departs from your stop in exactly four minutes and sixteen seconds, and will get you to the station nearest the store in five minutes and twenty-two seconds. You should leave now."

Reg grunted and turned reluctantly away. He stepped into his dressing closet, hit the release on his pyjamas, and watched them drop in a heap at his feet.

"Casual," he ordered. He held his arms out straight above his head as the one-piece outfit dropped into place. Then he ran his fingers across the auto-seal control on the right lapel, and felt the clothes pull tight to his body. He snatched his ID belt from its hook, checked that his credit voucher was in place, and moved across to the hallway door.

"Be careful, Reg," Sandy said as he passed. "You never know who's out and about at two in the morning. Probably some real weirdos."

"I'll be fine. This should only take about half an hour. Just enough time for you to order me a nice little meal. I'll be wide awake when I get back, so I won't be going to sleep for a while. See what you can put together."

"Sure. But be careful all the same."

Once outside in the hall Reg suddenly felt better. He still felt irritable, what with having to get up and go out in the middle of the night, but that session with the multilink had warmed his blood. He was on his own, with a bit of freedom, going on an adventure. After all, when had he ever gone out to a store in the dead of night? And who in their right mind would work all night, in today's technological age, on the eve of the biggest holiday of the year? There was a spring in his step as he strode down the hall.

He stepped into the drop tube and studied the holographic ads as he fell the thirty-four floors to the subway level. Nothing new and exciting there. They hadn't changed in at least two days. Modern advertising was getting pretty dull. Six steps from the drop tube exit he mounted the rapid-walk and sped quickly down to the transit tube platform. Thirty seconds later a car pulled up, and he got in.

The compartment was dim, deserted, and ominously silent. Even the holo ads had the sound shut down or turned off, as if to allow passengers to sleep while they travelled. He stated his destination and hummed quietly to himself. He hadn't realized how much he hated being alone.

After what seemed like hours the car slid smoothly to a halt and the entry hatch dissolved. Reg smelled it immediately. A vague, earthy odor, damp and dirty, that reminded him distantly of his childhood trips to the country. He wrinkled his nose in distaste. It had been a long time since he had taken a transport to anything but a major station. The smaller, older stations were clearly not maintained so well.

Slowly he made his way out of the car and walked onto the waiting escalator. It did not move.

"Shit," he muttered. The sound echoed eerily through the silent station, and he felt a chill run down his back. The transport car behind him hummed suddenly to life and disappeared. With a surge of near-panic, Reg darted up the stationary automatic stairs, his breath coming in short gasps. Then he half dove, half fell out the exit turnstile and landed in an undignified heap on the street walkway outside the station. It lit softly as he landed, buzzing quizzically at him.

He took a quick look round to make sure nobody was watching. About two blocks to his right the walkway lighting winked slowly on and off in sequence, moving away from him. Otherwise, nothing moved. Unless someone was taking a suicide stroll down the pitch dark of the street, he was alone.

Reg untangled his arms and legs and got to his feet. He glared back at the station entry as he waited for his clothing to straighten itself. Then he set off at a brisk pace in the direction of the receding lights, glancing furtively over his shoulder as he went. The walkway responded to his movement, slid into rapid motion beneath him. Within seconds the darkened station doors had faded into the deeper blackness behind him.

The lighting system along the walkway kept pace, illuminating only the section of path within three meters of him. A droning hum broke the stillness ahead, growing rapidly louder. Reg instinctively looked away from the road, clapped his hands over his ears as the ground car whizzed by. The bright flash of roadway lighting flared briefly and was gone.

In spite of his precautions, his eyes were momentarily dazzled. He stopped walking and shook his fist in the direction of the retreating car. "Some system we have for encouraging pedestrian traffic," he shouted. "Who in their right mind would set foot on a street walkway with maniacs like you on the road?"

His own words made him think. What was he doing out here alone at such a ghastly hour? All of a sudden he felt like a fish in a fish bowl, blinded and deafened, and lit up with a spotlight with a huge sign across his forehead that said 'TARGET.' Anyone lurking in the shadows of an alley or doorway could see him from blocks away, and have plenty of time to plan an effective assault. He should have listened to his friends at the packaging plant and taken that self-defense course.

Cautiously, he went on his way again. The gentle whir of the walkway under his feet restored some of his confidence. Nobody jumped him. Three minutes later, he could see the lights of the shop up ahead.

MARCO'S ALL NIGHTER: Service With a Smile, Every Day, All Day!

He walked through the entry tunnel, blinked at the dazzling lights. The place was garish with ceiling-hung, bright-colored neon signs announcing product areas. The shelves that rose a full two meters above his head were heavily-laden, sporting winking ten centimeter high labels that identified their contents. Product ads on nearby aisles assaulted his senses with eye-catching holograms of contented customers, extolling the merits of their particular brand. After the serenity of the street, it was like walking into a madhouse.

"Hey, Jack. Need some help? You look like I felt after my car exploded on the expressway."

Reg turned towards the voice. The woman was tall and slender, shapely, dressed in evening wear. The tight skirt hugged her hips, clung appealingly to well-toned thighs. He had a difficult time keeping his eyes on her face.

"I -- uh, sorry, but I'm a bit overwhelmed," he said. "I guess it's been a long time since I visited a service store. Usually my wi -- " Something made him stop short. He couldn't think what it might be.

"I know what you mean. First time I hit this place at night, kind of put me in shock too," she said. "And don't think you're out of date either. This place is the newest in commercialism. Most of the stores are still running more-or-less on the old system." She looked round at the screaming holos, then shrugged at him. "Nobody said just because it's newer it has to be better."

"You got that right," Reg said. "I'm glad I ran into you. I think I could use a guide in here."

"Hey, no problem," the woman replied. She extended her hand, slap-style, and they linked palms. "The name's Gwen. I'll show you around. Always fun to show the sights to the uninitiated."

"Reg Rogers," Reg said. He saw her hover cart for the first time. It was about half-full, at least twenty items. "I'm here on a pretty mundane assignment I'm afraid. Only need a couple of things."

"I got time," she said. "Come on, let me show you the freezer section. People usually get a kick out of that."

She led him past several of the aisles towards a huge sign in the far back corner that glowed faint aqua blue through a white fog. The words 'ARCTIC OASIS' glistened wetly under garish overhead lights. As they approached there was a sharp hiss of escaping gas and a small door slid open just beneath the sign. Reg could see nothing beyond the entrance, since the fog now engulfed them both. He put a hand on Gwen's shoulder and she laughed.

"Don't get the chills, Reg," she said. "It's just progressive consumerism. They like you to experience what your food goes through while it's waiting for you to take it home."

The hairs on Reg's arms and legs stood up, and he shivered in spite of himself. They walked forward and the fog suddenly ended, as if they had passed through a physical barrier. They were on a huge open expanse of ice and snow, with signs protruding from various snowbanks indicating the nature of what was housed within. A service robot approached from behind a nearby glacier.

"How may I help you?" it asked cheerfully.

"Take a hike, slot face," Gwen answered. "We're just looking."

"As you wish, madam," the machine replied. "Sir." It turned and slid smoothly off to its icy home.

"What do you think?"

Reg found that he was not as cold as he had expected to be. But then, he didn't really know what to expect: he had never even seen real snow before until now. He reached down and scooped up a handful of the white stuff. Hardly had he done so when the frigid cold of its touch forced him to throw it back. He moaned and rubbed his aching hand on his pants. Gwen laughed.

"Like I said, this is what the food has to go through. They use some kind of special ice, really cold. Best not to touch it."

Reg nodded slowly. The pain was beginning to subside. He looked round more carefully now, noticed that the snow piles were perfectly shaped and clearly untouched by human hands. Maintained and accessed only by robots.

"I -- guess it's pretty impressive," he said. "What do they do in the other sections?"

Gwen turned him about and they walked back to the entrance. "Well, dairy products have live cows and chickens. That's kind of fun, except it's a bit messy when it's busy. And it smells pretty bad. The fresh meat department -- I guess you can imagine what they do there. Baking goods has a walk-in oven so you can see what the bread has to put up with when it's cooking. I like the canning department best. You can really get into it. Only a demonstration, mind you, but a lot of fun." As they left the freezer, there was a chime from the digital wall display. It was three o'clock.

"Shit," he said. "Sorry, Gwen. I don't know how the time's gone so fast. I have to get back. Listen, thanks a lot for the primer. This place is really wild."

"Come back again sometime," she said. "I'm here every Wednesday night. I'll give you the real tourist tour. And maybe even some of my tips on shopping cheap."

"It's a date," Reg said. "Two AM next Wednesday. I'll be here."

Gwen whizzed off down the aisle towards the checkout, and Reg rushed over to a service robot to give his order. The robot dashed into action, but not so fast that Reg couldn't keep up. As he was passing a rack of de-alcoholized beer, he picked up a six pack. He was sure he'd be up for a long time when he got home. A few beers might help to calm him.

He got to the checkout tunnel just as Gwen was moving up to the cash with a full cart. There was a complex scanning rig set up over the narrow walkway, designed to allow both shopper and cart to move underneath. A service robot sat in a tiny alcove beside the scanner. It smiled brightly as Gwen approached.

"May I help you with your purchases this evening, Madam?" the robot said sweetly.

"That's OK, sugar," Gwen replied. "I'm not getting anything this time. I'll pick something up on my next visit."

She pushed the cart under the scanner and headed for the exit passage. She stopped just inside the door and began to load her groceries into bags she'd been carrying in her purse.

Reg stared after her incredulously. Nobody else seemed to have taken any notice of the event. The two people in front of him had single items. They each paid with credit vouchers, then left. He approached the automated cashier and it smiled helpfully.

"I -- " Reg began. He couldn't bring himself to say anything about the theft. But Gwen had simply walked through the scanner and out the tunnel. Was it just a matter of convincing bluff? He looked out toward the exit, where Gwen was just bagging the last of her acquisitions. He decided to gamble. Her spirit and enthusiasm had sparked his dormant spontaneity. Now was his chance to do something really daring.

"May I help you with -- "

"No, not this evening. I couldn't find what I wanted. I guess I'll try again another time."

The robot smiled knowingly. Reg forged ahead under the scanner. He felt his body suddenly stiffen as a massive jolt of pain shot through him from head to toe. For a moment, he blacked out. When he opened his eyes again, he saw the service robot standing over him, its smile replaced by a sad frown. Beside it stood Gwen, her bags slung over her shoulder. She sighed sympathetically.

"I guess you should have opted for the next lesson right away, Reg," she said. "You didn't give me a chance to tell you the tricks of modern budget shopping. Don't worry. You'll only have to pay a couple of thousand credits fine. And I'm sure the doctors will have you back to normal in a few weeks. Maybe we can go over the rules then?"

She shot him a knowing smile and headed for the exit. The robot resumed its place at the register terminal, activating a conveyer that slid Reg through a hatch into a small empty room. 'Anti-theft waiting area' glowed in large red neon letters across the ceiling. Reg lay on the floor, rigid with pain. Three minutes later, he heard the distant scream of sirens as the ambulance came to take him away. "Next time," he muttered bitterly, "I won't try to skip ahead in the course."

THE END


© 2010 Roderick D. Turner

Bio: Roderick D. Turner says "I like writing stories, and am particularly pleased when I find I enjoy what I have written. That is the best part of writing - you are after all most often your only audience. Better like it, or why bother? Second best is when you start writing about a character and they take over the story, almost literally writing the story themselves. It's a rush." Several of Mr. Turner's stories have appeared in Aphelion, most recently Seconds Lost..., December 2010 / January 2011.

E-mail: Roderick D. Turner

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