Shelf Life

 James Zahardis

StoryInside a low-rent apartment a wall-pocket hums, then illuminates. An aerosolized admixture of stimulants and bio-stabilizers wafts toward Alron Chattobee’s face, awakening him:
“Tatti! Forty days down the drain!” he thinks, reaching for the red button above his chest.
The shatterproof window opens and the shelf of the wall-pocket slides into the bedroom void. Alron slowly sits up; the room around him is still and dark.
“Lights…Lights!”
The room remains dark. Alron turns toward the wall-pocket; it is dimmer than usual.
“No Power! Running on batteries–if they died I–we–could’ve…” he thinks, recalling his five-year-old daughter, Darlx, shelved in her room. Alron struggles off the shelf; his legs buckle as he stands. He wishes he could afford infusions of anti-atrophy nanobots.
Alron reaches Darlx’s bedroom and sighs seeing the glow of her wall-pocket, seeing the puff of aerosol. She awakens, groggily, presses the red button, and slides out.
“Daddy, why’s it dark?”
“Don’t know, honey. Let’s look outside.”
Alron draws the blinds to the bedroom window and looks out at Iowa City on a midsummer day. The upscale towers on the horizon, with their spires and balustrades, normally teeming and fulgent with perm-Animates–elite who can afford the surfeit of remaining unshelved–are dull, lifeless. And the grimy streets outside the window are dull and lifeless as well.
“I need to see what’s going on.”
“I’m hungry.”
“Just a sec,” Alron says, walking to the kitchen.
“Mumbai Mallows and a pop!” he says, returning with a box of cereal and a soft drink.
Darlx beams.
“Now wait here,” Alron says, starting to the front door. “Janeq will find this funny when she’s unshelved–first time I get Darlx since our divorce and this…” he thinks.
The streets are barren except for several worker-automatons, their alloy limbs frozen in portentous poses. Alron walks a score of blocks then hears a cough.
A man sits on the patio of a second story apartment.
“Hey pal, what the hell’s goin’ on?!” Alron asks.
A haggard man leans over the railing.
“Haven’t you heard?”
“Just unshelved…”
“Shiva’s coming!”
“Don’t take Upanishads too literally, pal!”
“No! Shiva the wandering planetoid–shot around the sun last week–scientists said it would miss. THEY WERE WRONG!!”
“Why don’t they stop it?!”
“They tried! Launched nukes–something with its atmosphere–they incinerated before impact! Then they tried that old movie trick–drill, bury nukes–it worked…sort of–”
“–Sort of?!”
“Now the fragments are coming at us! Most perms launched for Mars–every ship’s gone! Everyone else is hiding in subbasements or wherever–Doesn’t matter! Each fragment’s a planet-killer! And there are fourteen! FOURTEEN!!’
“How long?”
“An hour–tops…”
“I’ve gotta get back to my daughter,” Alron says weakly.
“Hold up!” cries the haggard man, “I’ve got enough–catch!” He tosses a plastic bottle to Alron.
“What’s this?”
“Nocturnoqyll. My wife works–worked–at Memorial. Listen: one for sleep; three for coma; five–well, you know…works fast…”
Alron runs, like he’s running in a nightmare, as if caught between the poles of a powerful magnet. A boom reverberates high above. He looks up. A blackbird flies overhead, upside down.
He reaches his apartment. “Minutes–less…” he thinks.
Darlx eats cereal out of the box. “What was that boom, Daddy?”
“Faraway thunder, honey.”
Alron gets on his knees before his daughter, uncaps the pill bottle, pours its contents, five tablets, into his palm. He hands Darlx her soft drink off the floor.
“What’s that?”
“Vitamins. They’re good for you.”

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