Zero Hour

Archived Parts: One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine

Part Ten

It seemed like Ernest couldn’t do anything other than breathe for a very, very long time. Will fit his body against Ernest’s side and lay his head on Ernest’s shoulder. Ernest hung between wakefulness and sleep for a long while. He floated in a hypnogogic trance with Will beside him.

He slept eventually, even though it seemed that the whole time he was aware of being uncomfortably horizontal, and his shunt wasn’t plugged into anything, and the cushion he lay on was lumpy and hard.

He must have slept, because one moment he was floating in the cool lantern-lit dimness, and the next there was sunlight slanting in through cracks in the boards that covered old windows set high up in the walls, and a bird was chirping from a mass of straw up in the rafters.

Ernest turned his head. Will slept deeply, one arm thrown over Ernest’s chest. Ernest studied Will’s face. There were fine lines at the corners of his eyes, and one vertical crease between his eyebrows that was almost invisible now, but would sharpen when he scowled. His skin was darker than Ernest’s, and lightly freckled. Sun exposure. Hard to discern his age. Thirty? It seemed possible. Unless homo sapiens aged differently.

If Will even was a homo sapien.

Ernest turned the evidence over in his mind: the things Will had told him, which no doubt were full of conveniently omitted facts. The mutilated data feeds he’d devoured since he’d gotten his very own POD twenty years ago, that he’d had to interpret as much by what was missing, as what was shown. And his “gut” feeling, as it was idiomatically referred to, even though he technically didn’t use his gut any more than he did his appendix.

Until yesterday. When he’d consumed water.

Ernest strained to look without actually moving. He rolled his eyeballs down, and frowned in concentration. Ernest’s trousers and shoes were beside them on the floor. Will was still dressed, though his fly was open. The outline of the scanner was visible in his pocket.

If Ernest had thought he was moving slowly when he’d crept out of the abandoned building under the Storm Trooper’s nose, he was practically a glacier now. He made sure that even his breathing didn’t jar Will into wakefulness. He eased away, millimeter by millimeter, until Will’s arm slid from his chest and settled onto the cushion.

Ernest slid the scanner from Will’s pocket. Will didn’t stir.

The controls were rudimentary. Ernest turned off the audio alert that had allowed Will to scan in the dark. He aimed the scanner at the book shaped monitor, and a wav sign pulsed on the tiny readout screen. He leaned toward the solar lantern and did the same. Another ripple. He scanned his own thumb.

His chip, even with its minuscule battery, sent a tremor through the readout.

Ernest waved the scanner over Will’s left thumb, and the readout rippled again. Will had a chip. Ernest wasn’t sure if that proved, or disproved, anything. He could have had it inserted at the natal center, as Ernest had. Or, if he was actually a homo sapien, he could have found someone to do it for him later.

Ernest turned his focus to his “gut” to try and determine what Will was, but all he knew for sure was that he really didn’t feel well.

He slipped the monitor back into Will’s pocket, let his breath out slowly, and buried his face in his hands.

He ached, sore all over. Sleeping horizontally was responsible for much of his discomfort, but it was also well past time to shunt in. He was hungry, and waste was building up in his bloodstream.

Shunting in seemed like the only logical thing to do. But Will claimed that the POD had changed his biofuel. Or...that L0U15E had. The POD couldn’t do much by itself. It was L0U15E who controlled the mix. Ernest had also promised that he wouldn’t shunt in, and promises seemed terribly important in old-time feeds. The main actor was always so concerned about being a “man of his word” that he’d endure anything to ensure that he kept his promises. Even the ache of needing to shunt in. Badly.

Ernest pulled his knees against his chest, propped his arms on them and pressed his face into his sleeve. The posture seemed to work for actors in old-time feeds when they didn’t know which way to turn. Despair.

The contraction of his stomach muscles, the bunching of his body into such an unnatural posture, only made Ernest’s groin ache.

“What’re you doing?”

Ernest flinched. He hoped Will had actually been asleep while he’d been scanning.

Will pushed up and knelt behind him. He wrapped his arms around Ernest’s chest. “You keep sighing. Don’t tell me you’re having cold feet.”

“My feet are fine. But the rest of me hurts.”

“Yeah, I know. I remember.”

Did he? Or was sleeping on his back second nature to him? “I know you think I shouldn’t shunt in, but....”

“I don’t think so. I know so.”

“Will, I’m aching.”

“Maybe they’re hunger pangs. How about a protein bar?”

Ernest tried to fit the words protein and bar together and parsed nothing. “A what?”

“Protein bar. Breakfast. You know, food?”

Ernest shook his head.

“I thought you said you drank water.”

“I did. But that’s not the same as...as chewing on solid masses of....” Ernest shuddered.

“But you did drink.”

Ernest nodded.

“You’ll need to urinate.” Will let go of Ernest, stretched out on his side, and pulled the small case of datachips from his pocket. “I’ve got a pre-Purge training feed on here. It’s geared toward kids fresh out of the natal center, but I think it parses pretty well. It helped me figure it all out, anyway. C’mon out back. I’ll show you.”

* * *

Urinating didn’t feel nearly as good as the orgasm, but it did seem to take some pressure off Ernest’s groin. “How did homo sapiens ever get anything done if they had to urinate all the time?” he said. He’d cleared a place inside the basement to sit, but the rusted metal surface kept pulling at his trousers.

“It goes faster once you get the hang of it. You won’t have to stand there and think about it for an hour while you’re watching feeds of waterfalls.” Will unwrapped a protein bar and tore off a hunk with his teeth. Ernest stared. Will’s cheek bulged like a porn-feed actor with a mouth full of cock. “You sure you don’t want some? I’ll share.”

Ernest pressed his tongue into the backs of his teeth. He couldn’t imagine anything in his mouth other than Will’s tongue, and the idea of biting down on that made his throat flutter nauseatingly. “No.”

“Two, three days without calories, and you’re going to start slowing us down.”

“What do you mean? I wasn’t aware we were hurrying.”

Will swallowed. The bulge at the front of his throat rose and fell. “You promised me you’d stay with me.”

So. Will didn’t take promises lightly either. “And?”

“You don’t think I want to live here forever, do you?”

Ernest looked at the basement. It was spacious. They could clean it up. “Where else would we live?”

Will stared at Ernest’s eyes. His expression wasn’t much like any of the ones on the wallpaper of Ernest’s POD. Ernest stared back and tried to deduce what it might be. Serious? Concentration.

“We can get out of here. Me and you. And be together.”

“But we are together.”

“And any second a security op could wander in and haul us off to the Deacons. I mean we could go somewhere else. Somewhere new. Where we could start a whole new life. A real life.”

Ernest watched Will’s eyes as he spoke. There was a quality about what he was saying that seemed too much like old-time feeds to be the sentiment of a real person. Maybe Will was just saying what he thought Ernest wanted to hear. Or maybe he’d rehearsed it until it sounded scripted.

Or maybe he’d actually said it before.

“Is that what you told Matthew?”

Will’s expression shifted again. It was really too much to keep up with. “Ernest…”

“It was.” Ernest stood and walked toward one of the filthy, squat windows set high in the wall, as if turning his face in the direction of the sun might help lift his mood.

Will came and pressed himself into Ernest’s back, his hands, touching, always touching, running up and down Ernest’s arms. “He didn’t listen to me. And now he’s dead.”

“It was his time.”

“He was thirty,” Will snapped. “How old do you think I am?”

Ernest half-turned and pretended to study Will from the corner of his eye. There wasn’t much to see in the dim light that would give Ernest any ideas, but the image of Will sleeping came up in Ernest’s mind’s eye as if his brain were a viscreen. “You’re going to tell me you’re older.”

“Because I am. I’m almost thirty-four.”

Ernest snorted.

“Go ahead and laugh. Your aging’s practically at a standstill as long as you don’t shunt in. We can wait a week--and then you’d be, what? Thirty and twenty?”

“Thirty and twenty-two.”

“So I haven’t got much time to convince you. Okay, look. I can score some I.V. feedbags. We’ll find someone who’s the same age as you, and then we’ll look them up in a week, see how much they’ve aged while you’ve stayed the same. Then will you be satisfied?” Will slid his hands under Ernest’s arms and ran his palms over Ernest’s chest. Ernest recognized the move from several porn feeds. It usually preceded kissing.

The rest of Ernest’s body ached almost as much as his hungry arm, but it wanted Will’s touch--his fingers, his mouth--rather than a shunt. But still. “There could be a preservative in the I.V. bag. It wouldn’t prove anything.”

Will pressed his forehead into the back of Ernest’s head. Ernest felt Will’s sigh, warm and slightly moist, against the back of his neck, where it seemed to settle in his hair and linger. “Tell me it’s just thirty years of indoctrination that’s got you so spooked,” he said.

Ernest watched a spider creep across the cloudy glass as he parsed Will’s words. Indoctrination. That would suggest that the things which he knew to be fact were merely belief. He supposed it was possible, given that he’d used his tongue for something far different than talking, and it hadn’t fallen out of his head quite yet.

But what Will was asking of him, to give up his POD and allow his soul to spend eternity in his rotting corpse, was too big a price to pay for any amount of pleasure.

“I just need some time to think,” said Ernest.

Will nudged Ernest’s hair aside and pressed his hot mouth against the nape of Ernest’s neck. “You’ve got time. More than you realize.”

 

Click Here for Part 11

 

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Zero Hour: a dystopian adventureThe final version of Zero Hour is now in ebook, including 6 interior illustrations by Jordan and a gorgeous cover by PL Nunn. Buy Zero Hour at JCP Books


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