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In a one-bedroom L.A. apartment, faint gray light, nearly exhausted from having traveled through thick smog, penetrated a window and illuminated a wall poster showing a South Seas island. The vivid blue water and the sparkling white beach, backdropped with an array of greens, would for some people have been almost enough to displace the sensations of thick air and gritty streets.
Next to the poster hung a framed quote. Lettered in the same mock-stitch style as folksy home-sweet-home signs, the words read, "Nostradufus: I have seen the future and it sucks."
The sound of a distant siren rose and fell like waves lapping against the shore, and the noise mingled with Nick Naught's relaxed breathing. A faint smile on his lips said he was dreaming he was on the island pictured near his bed, probably lying back in a comfortable beach chair and sifting the sparkling clean sand through his fingers.
From near Nick's bed came a soft click.
Ending the calm and untroubled atmosphere, the digital alarm clock began to play the only song it knew: reveille. Three surfaces of the alarm clock showed cracks from having fallen to the hard floor. Two segments of the display were out, so the eight looked like a three. The alarm droned on, its tone more like a kazoo than the bugle it had started life as.
Nick snorted and squeezed his already closed eyes even more tightly closed. For an instant, he wished he was some kind of mutant and could squeeze his ears closed.
He fumbled for the alarm. Almost immediately he knocked it onto the floor. The alarm bounced, and two final notes trailed off into silence, as if an arrow had taken the life of a very conscientious bugler.
Nick made a feeble attempt to rise. He imagined this was how it felt to be just coming out of open-heart surgery. He touched his chest, to see if he could feel any stitches or syntheskin. Nope.
After a deep breath, he hesitated, then grabbed for something beside the bed. His fingers made contact on the second try, and he pulled it up to his level.
A jumper cable.
Still mostly asleep, he bent forward and after a couple of tries managed to fasten the black cable to a band affixed around his ankle.
His fingers fumbled by the bed again and came up with a red jumper cable, which he fastened to a band around his wrist. His wrist flopped back onto the bed, and the cable swayed but kept its grip. The other end of the cable led to a large, heavy battery beside the bed. On the side of the battery was a colorful label saying, "Morning Jump Start."
Nick yawned and sighed. He fumbled again, near the head of the bed. His fingers found a large switch. He patted it the way a small child would pat a stuffed bear that had strayed too far from reach.
It was time. If he quit now, he'd be fast asleep in seconds. He summoned strength, and he flicked the switch that triggered a shrill electrical buzzing noise reminiscent of a failing neon sign. Nick was instantly galvanized. His eyes popped wide open, then promptly squeezed closed again. He screamed and writhed on the bed, like a snake with its tail caught in a mousetrap.
Barely able to muster a rational thought, he reached for the switch to turn the current off. Where was it? He fumbled for it. His fingers touched it! And he knocked it onto the floor. God, no, he must be wrong.
He groaned agonizingly, like a patient in electroshock. Still writhing under the pain and struggling madly, he reached for the floor and groped for the switch. Sweat stood out on his forehead. Where was that switch? This couldn't be happening. He searched to the left and searched to the right, and finally his fingers reached the switch housing. He maneuvered it so his fingers found the switch itself, and he finally managed to turn it off.
Instant silence. Nick fell back to the bed and resumed breathing. He rubbed his eyes and began to relax, feeling hardly more energetic than when he had first woke. After a long minute, he finally dragged himself into a sitting position, legs over the side of the bed and sighed. He blinked hard several times. Even the dim light seemed bright.
He said, to no one in particular, "Man, I hate Mondays."
Nick pulled the jumper cable off his ankle and let it drop to the floor. He pulled the cable off his wrist. He stared at the one from his wrist for a long second, then looked back at the switch. He moved the jumper cable toward his wrist and away again, and now that he could think clearly again, he realized he had not needed to look for the switch. He grimaced and got out of bed.
He managed to stub his toe on the way to the bathroom.
Squinting in the brighter light at the bathroom mirror, Nick sprayed a white foam into his hand. He spread it over his stubble, then rinsed his hands. He rested his hands on the sink until, moments later, he picked at the edge of the foam, which had turned hard, like a rubbery mask. With an abrupt, firm yank, he ripped the whole thing off his face, and he screamed. He inspected his smooth cheeks as he dropped the foam mask into the toilet and flushed. As the mask swirled in the water, it dissolved, leaving what was left of his stubble in the bubbling remains.
Nick was feeling a little more awake by the time the elevator reached his floor. Bing. The doors opened. As Nick entered the empty elevator, it said, "Good morning!" in a voice inhumanly cheerful for this time of day.
"Morning," Nick forced himself to say.
"What floor please?" The elevator's voice was copied from a nerdy, bow-tied comic actor of a decade past. Mixed in with the overdone cheerfulness was a nasal twang.
"One," Nick said softly.
"Thank you!" The elevator sounded as pleased as Pinocchio had been at becoming a real boy.
The door closed, and the elevator dropped two floors before it had to stop for another rider. The doors opened, and a frowning, burly guy got on with Nick. The man's coat sleeves were so short, his digital watch showed on the arm with the briefcase.
"Good morning!" said the cheerful elevator.
"Morning." The man's nod took in Nick. He turned around to face the door and assumed standard elevator posture, dutifully looking at the motionless floor indicator.
"What floor please?"
"Five," said the man. His voice seemed to be naturally loud thanks to the smooth walls all reflecting the sound so well.
The elevator hesitated. "What?"
The man spoke louder. "Five."
"What?" asked the elevator, using exactly the same intonation it had used the first time.
Nick grimaced. He tapped the man on the arm, about to say something, but the man ignored him.
"Five!" the man shouted.
Nick sighed and put a hand over his eyes. The high volume made his head hurt.
The man screamed, "Five!"
The man's face colored. He sucked a full load of air into his chest and moved toward the microphone grill.
Nick whispered quickly, "Five." Experience had told him the elevator's voice-sensitivity setting was out of whack.
"Thank you!" said the elevator.
The man, still with lungs bloated with air, looked at Nick, amazed, as the elevator doors finally closed. The two men dropped in silence four more floors, and the elevator admitted a woman wearing a green business suit. In one hand, she held a book-viewer that seemed to absorb most of her attention.
"Good morning!" said the elevator.
Apparently absorbed in her reading, the woman ignored it. The elevator doors stayed open.
The elevator said, "I said good morning."
The woman suddenly looked up from her display, and her eyes opened wide in surprise. "Morning."
"What floor please?" the elevator asked, sounding much happier.
The burly guy looked like he was hoping the elevator would give her a hard time, too, but the elevator merely said, "Thank you!"
The man looked disappointed as the elevator doors closed and the elevator started to drop.
It stopped at the sixth floor and the woman got off.
"Have a nice day!" said the elevator.
The elevator dropped to the fifth floor, where the burly guy scowled at the speaker grill and got off.
The elevator repeated its refrain. "Have a nice day!" As the doors began to close, the elevator voice added, more softly, "Dipstick."
The burly guy hesitated, still facing away from the elevator, probably trying to decide if his ears were playing tricks on him, or if Nick had said it. Before the guy could turn around, the elevator doors closed very quickly.
Copyright © 2000 by John E. Stith