Chapter 4:

Chapter 4


Ren scampers over to him, bouncing with astounding energy. “C4 lives in our town too! We go to the same school! When we get home, we’re going to walk to school and back every day! She said S1-N said there’s a chance we could be rescued if the military hurries.”

It’s a marvel to Jun how Ren and C4 got more information from Sin than him. That is if Sin wasn’t lying out of pity to make a little kid feel better.

Ren tugs Jun’s shirt and looks him in the eye. “You know S1-N, right? Are you, his friend?”

“Not friends exactly,” Jun replies.

“Why not?” wonders Ren.

Jun does his best to explain, “Well, not everyone can be friends right away like you can. You’re younger so you make friends differently than me.”

“Uh-huh,” nods Ren. “You should try to be his friend. He looks lonely.”

Jun looks over to where Sin is standing at the window. His back is turned towards everyone else and he hasn’t made any more attempts at socializing. His eyes stare straight forward seeing something no one else can. Jun turns back to Ren. “I’m not sure he wants any friends.”

“Maybe he’s just pretending?” suggests Ren. “No one likes being lonely.”

“Of course not.” In order to shift the focus away from Sin, Jun asks, “So Ren, did you make a new friend?”

“Yeah.” answers Ren. His face becomes a little more serious and he whispers, “C4 won’t tell me her real name. It’s kind of weird. She said that S1-N said she can’t tell anyone, but that’s silly.” He juts out his lip in a slight pout. “I don’t want to call her a number like she’s some sort of AI.”

“Hm,” nods Jun. “I think calling people by their numbers instead of their names doesn’t make much sense either.”

His conversation with Sin flashes through his mind. It felt like the other boy had been trying to tell him something but wasn’t sure how to say it. Another possibility was that Sin was missing a few screws. Jun rubs the back of his ear, lost in thought, but instantly regrets his decision. His normally soft finger feels like a heavy block of sandpaper raking his skin raw. The tag can’t weigh more than a paperclip, but it feels like someone is tugging on his ear. Glancing up, he notices the trees are zooming by slower and slower, becoming solid and distinct. They’re nearing their destination. Sin still hasn’t budged from his spot.

When the train clatters to a stop, they are still in the forest. The only interruption in the never-ending sea of trees is a small train station. The train has come to a stop inside a tube-like shelter lined with soft red lights. Hints of sunlight from either ends of the tube shine on a simple platform marked only by a couple benches. The sleek minimalist design with large windows is different to the more traditional architectural styles Jun is used to at home. They must be far away from Zone A. Jun’s eyes land on a vertical plaque reading, “East Station, I-01-01.” I-01-01. That must mean they’ve moved out from the inner Zone A to one of the more outer zones, Zone I. There’s a large reddish-brown stain on the lower half of the plaque. Jun makes sure his back is blocking it so Ren can’t see.

SNS-404 zips into the compartment. “Alrighty! When I say it’s time, everyone will exit the train in an orderly fashion. Inside the station there is sustenance provided along with restroom access. Most of you haven’t drank anything in some time, so you probably haven’t needed to go. Or maybe you have.”

404 giggles with a hand over his mouth.

“Haha, don’t worry I won’t tell,” half-chuckles SNS-404. “After you’ve had time for a quick break, we’ll begin our process of determining what tasks each of you are best suited for along with a formal evaluation for expiration dates.”

It leans down close to L1-Z, its screen resting above his ear. The static becomes whispery, but in a way that everyone in the compartment can still hear.

“I’ll let you in on a secret. I’ve already done my own calculations for everyone in this compartment. I’m confident on my accuracy for this batch, so I’ve made some huge bets! If you guys disappoint me, I’ll lose to SNS-403 in the next train over. And for disappointing me I’ll put in the word to dock off some years from your expiration dates after they’ve been officially determined? Everyone got that?”

404 sniggers and tosses wads of cash around the oscillating yellow text. He draws a small finger across his neck in a line and flashes a mouthful of oversized teeth shaped like piano keys.

L1-Z clenches his fists and stares at his lap. The whole situation seems terribly unfair to Jun. How are they supposed to know what sort of score SNS-404 assigned them? And how are they supposed to know how to get that score in an assessment none of them have any background knowledge about?

As if reading his thoughts, Sin slips over to Jun. Glancing side to side he leans close and whispers, “It’s not lying. SNS-404 is known for its poor wagering habits just so it has an excuse to cut our expiration dates. There’s not really anything we can do about it except hope we get lucky.”

Before Jun has a chance to reply or fully process what Sin said, he is interrupted by SNS-404’s blaring announcement. “Looks like it’s time! Would everyone please exit under the designated exit signs? I know you’re all excited, but please no pushing.”

The solemn procession begins their shuffling out of the train car, feet dragging across the thin gray-patterned carpet. Much to SNS-404’s buzzing chagrin, no one is pushing. Through the windows, other groups entering the station are visible. Other AI hover around, herding the children through the circular station entrance. The other kids seem just as ragged and confused as Jun’s group. They too bear tags hanging down from their ears. Similar to SNS-404, the other AI have a sleek, shiny body with a horribly box-shaped head on top. However, all their screen displays appear to be different. On some the text is simple, black, and a default font. But others are in full color without a trace of static, much different than SNS-404’s four neon colors. Not a single one has an avatar. As soon as they stagger out of the train and onto the platform, 404 waves a hasty goodbye and vanishes from SNS-404’s screen. The text stays yellow, but shifts back to a default font.

A soft breeze blows in from one end of the tunnel and Jun feels goosebumps rise up across his skin. Rubbing his arms, he continues following the group. Jun glances around to make sure Ren is nearby. He is relieved to find that Ren is hovering close to his side. Based on his face, it doesn’t seem like he’s going to run off anywhere. The whispering voices of kids blend together into a low murmuring that echoes around the tube. It’s eerie how much it sounds like ocean waves gently lapping against the shore.

The automatic doors leading inside the station have been locked into an open position to accommodate the sea of children being crammed through. A rush of cold air hits Jun as he stumbles in. The murmuring grows even louder, the sound of unintelligible crashing of rough waves on a windy day. Inside they’re immediately rotated in shifts with the other groups through the restrooms then sent off once again with their corresponding managing AI. Strangely enough there weren’t any mirrors in the bathrooms, only marks on the walls where they once would’ve hung.

SNS-404 begins to march them down a long hallway with bright overhead lights. Glass sections in the ceiling reveal blue skies and punctuate the floor with shadows from the rolling clouds above. Old advertisements line the walls, some torn and faded past the point of recognition. Jun recognizes a movie poster from at least ten years ago and does a double take. Zone I was supposed to still have been safe the day of the attack. A few hours before the AI invaded Jun’s town, the daily broadcast had shown that Zone I was still under humanity’s control. He hadn’t paid it much attention at the time, but now the hazy memory rushes back to him. His overstimulated mind struggles to grasp at the full implications, but there’s too much he doesn’t know to make a conclusion. He settles on simply acknowledging the fact that everything he’s known his entire life might possibly be a lie. It’s quite disconcerting, but Jun can’t dwell on it with the way his world keeps moving. If he doesn’t pay attention he could get swept up in another group. Jun staggers to keep up as SNS-404 makes a sharp turn at a chain convenience store that has its shutters down and lights off.

Jun finds the hallway opens up into a large atrium. Sunlight pours down in beams from a wall of windows, illuminating spinning dust motes. The opposite end of the atrium leads out into multiple hallways. Faint chattering spills down from one of them. The other halls are dark and quiet. There was probably some sort of rest area with charging stations and vending machines in the atrium at one time. All that has been replaced by a large table covered in a pyramid of flat boxes about the thickness of a small notebook with the words “AllFood” on them.

“One ration per person,” SNS-404 orders. “No sneaking extras. There’s plenty of moisture inside each bar, but if you want more water, go use a water fountain at the end of the hall.” A burst of excited static cuts in with yellow text. “Don’t get too relaxed. The examination will begin shortly!”

Sunlight winks off the shiny television head like a smile and the next words leave a heavy feeling in Jun’s stomach.

“Don’t forget I betted on every single one of you. I can’t wait to see how the dates turn out!”