Shopping in The Hero Zone

Nightfall happens fast in the Hero Zone; darkness bringing with it all the ancient reminders and stark realities of poverty and hunger. The worst is listening to your stomach growl, twisting and writhing at the smell of food drifting over the Wall, or snaking upwind from the pleasure yachts which line the waterfront.

Envy those immense glowing vessels full of healthy passengers, with all their shots and paperwork in order. Clean, white teeth collide with spotless silverware shoveling nutritious foods into gaping maws. Groaning tables stacked high with succulent meats and vegetables, steaming loaves of oven fresh bread, pies, cakes, bowls of fruit. Expensive crystal pitchers of clear, safe drinking water.

Strain your ears for the sounds of ice cubes tinkling, and the soft buzz of pleasant dinner conversation. Listen harder and you’ll hear other sounds; the screams of the starving who can stand no more. Wading into polluted water, cutting themselves on unseen threats and discarded refuse floating just below the surface, the gurgled cries of drowning men bob in the wake of yachts; hungry men swim close enough to beg for morsels for themselves, their starving families, their hungry children. Sometimes they make it on board. More often than not, they’re shot by the security detail assigned to preserve the ‘purity of the experience’, guarding the line between filthy rich and filthy poor.

Sometimes the people on the boats pretend they’ve tossed something in the water and point off after it, laughing like a man playing catch with his dumb dog.

Fat chance of getting a bite to eat around here. The Wall dividing the Hero Zone from the rest of the world encloses 133 blocks. It’s 20-feet high, and lined with broken glass. You could try knocking on the hood of the burned out car at the end of the block. Sometimes the lady who lives in the trunk will have an extra chunk of old bread on hand, or a half-gnawed rat to offer. Vets and retired government workers get what’s called a Card of Gratitude, entitling them to three hots and a cot in a heavily fortified part of the Zone, a tiny apartment complete with electricity, running water and a used toothbrush.

Tonight, things are different. I’ve got an ace up my sleeve and I’m headed toward the edge of town to play it. Monday morning, as I was digging through one of the unlocked dumpsters behind the Cheney Boulevard Val-Mart looking for a container to drink out of, I saw something far more valuable on the ground. Even though it was covered in grime, I knew what it was the instant I looked at it: a Pink Dot! You know, one of those plastic gizmos with circuits and whatnot inside of ’em? You break one in half, and it sends out a signal to the nearest Pink Dot franchise. If you’ve got the credits, they’ve got whatever you want. Food! Cigarettes! Bottled water! Rolls of clean toilet paper! And I just happen to have the credits.

I worked my ass off this week, peddling cardboard boxes, aluminum cans, broken radios, anything I could get my hands on. My reward was 43 credits, three slightly-used phone cards, and a brand-new pack of AA batteries still in the blister pack.

I reached a vacant lot at the edge of the city and looked around. This was unoccupied turf; nothing here to fight over but dirt and more dirt. I put my back to the wall of a crumbled building, pulled out the Dot and snapped it in half. It started flashing immediately. They’ll home in on this signal and be here any minute. My mouth began to water. I was going to eat!

Presently, I could hear the whine and roar of powerful jet engines. And then I saw it, a giant gunship, gliding over the treetops. Twin searchlights cut the fog, looking for a safe place to land, looking for the flashing Dot I clutched in my hands.

It kicked up a fierce wind but I held the Dot up high, identifying myself as the potential customer to the hovering war bird. The pilot was probably checking the nearby buildings with millimeter radar, looking for any signs of a trap. The minute the pilot touched tires to dirt, he was putting the crew at risk. It wouldn’t take much to bring the bird down…

As soon as the craft touched dirt, they hauled me in and lifted off again. You gotta buy everything while you’re in the air, because they can’t risk getting overrun on the ground. Besides, if you try anything funny, they just shove you out the door. It’s their ‘no muss, no fuss’ customer service policy.

I spent my money on one packs of smokes, two rolls of TP, three self-cooking MREs and a big bottle of water with the seal still on it. They keep all this stuff sealed in giant ammo cans, lashed to the deck.

I filled my bag with my purchases and waited at the door. The tires bounced once on hard-packed earth and the door gunner hollered, “Go!” I jumped off the skid and ran like hell toward a dark alley, taking lefts and rights and lefts until I thought I might get lost. More than likely, the whole damn city had seen the lights which meant I needed to find a place to hide my stash. I could eat some of it tonight, and bury the rest in a box for Sunday.

That’s the Lord’s Day, you know.

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