Zero Hour

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

Part Twelve

Sunlight glinted off Audrey’s metallic blue POD as it glided away, and it traveled much faster than Ernest had ever seen a POD move. Maybe he’d been wrong about the solar efficiency. Or maybe Audrey had discovered a way to make her POD faster.

And maybe, he thought, he should follow Audrey’s example and get out of there, fast.

He turned and gave L0U15E one last look. “How could you?” he whispered.

“Oh, Ernest….” The POD door clicked, and opened a few centimeters, inviting him to climb in and shunt, and drift off into a comfortable and climate-controlled slumber. “It’s not safe out there.”

Ernest had no illusions that it was ultimately safe inside the POD, either. He turned his back to L0U15E and scanned the public lot. He was exposed on both sides, so he ran to the nearest row of PODs, and slipped into a narrow space between two of them. The closest buildings were far enough away that he’d be seen running toward them, but if he could make it to the alleyways before the security ops arrived, he could evade them, he knew he could. They never thought to scan the alleys.

The magnetic strip hummed with intermittent POD travel. Ernest watched for a gap in traffic, then tucked himself low as he’d seen actors do in old-time action feeds, and ran.

A POD glided toward him, and stopped. It wobbled there in the center of the strip with sunlight glinting off its solar surface. And in the cross-streets, the traveling PODs stopped too, as if someone had turned off the city’s magnetic grid, and none of the POD-minds had switched to solar propulsion quickly enough to keep moving.

Ernest stopped running, and looked around in wonder. It must have been Will’s doing. He’d had some sort of covert access to the grid, he knew some secret way of halting traffic to stall the security ops while Ernest got away.

He took another step toward the alley, and something moved in his peripheral vision...something white. Ernest turned. Three security ops rounded the corner. They strode with confidence between the stopped PODs--confidence and menace. Ernest turned. Two more made they way toward him from the other side of the block. They were large men, young in their third decades. T-gloves hung loose at their sides. Ernest recalled the mandatory safety feeds. If one of those Tasers touched him, his consciousness would be like a free feed where the action had been Purged; one moment his assailant would be upon him. And then it would jump to an incongruous moment sometime in the future where a portion of the feed had been excised. Maybe Ernest would have a bandage on his head when he reappeared. Or maybe he would never reappear at all.

Ernest feinted one way, then the next, but there was nowhere to run, not with Storm Troopers closing in on two sides, and L0U15E hovering on the third. The head security op, the biggest one of the bunch, tapped the hardwired W3 link at his temple.

“Heretic at sector 58-C. Approaching.”

Ernest turned a full circle, looking at each of the five ops. The leader was talking about him. And here he’d always assumed “My blood ran cold” was just a colorful expression.

If Ernest was branded a heretic, his remaining few days were forfeit. Maybe his Deacon wouldn’t kill him outright. But like a health monitor, a Deacon could order enforced slumber until the shunt had done its work.

The security ops were all much taller than Ernest, and noticeably broader across the shoulders. They continued to converge, close enough now for him to scan their physiology. Their heads were all shaved, and they had broad, square features. One had eyes that were very blue. Another had a powdering of short, reddish whiskers along his jaw.

Whiskers?

A hand closed over Ernest’s arm. He could practically taste the Taser. “Where am I?” he said, as inspiration struck him as quickly as an electrical pulse. “I can’t find my POD. I think it’s been stolen.”

The op who had Ernest by the arm glanced at the leader, who scowled and tapped his link again. “Unconfirmed,” he told the W3. “Gathering data.”

Ernest widened his eyes and blinked. He chose the op with the most consistent eye contact and focused on him. Doe eyes. “You’ll help me find it, won’t you?”

One of the ops wrenched Ernest’s hand up and flashed a scanner over his chip. “Ernest-C754,” he said. “No priors. Who called in the heretic?”

The lead Storm Trooper tapped his link again, and angled his head for better reception. “Searching.”

“That chip is not up to date,” one of the other ops said. He spoke haltingly. “We can deep-scan at the Diaconate.”

“I’m not walking all the way back just because he doesn’t have a POD,” a third op said. “Let’s cut off his thumb and bring that.”

Ernest stared harder at the single security op who was willing to look him in the eye. The op swallowed. A knot of tissue rose and fell in his throat. Just like Will. Homo sapien? Or had Will been right, and they really were all the same?

Ernest mouthed the words, “Help me.”

The security op looked away.

The leader’s W3 link flashed. “He has a POD. It set the alert. We bring him in -- on foot.”

Three of the ops looked at Ernest’s thumb.

“All of him,” the leader said. “His POD could be defective. And even if it’s not, we won’t get as many credits for a thumb.” He nodded at two of the ops. “You, you. Walk him, and set his POD to follow. We ride.”

The security op who’d made eye contact turned away. Ernest suspected he was relieved that he wouldn’t have to endure Ernest’s pleading eyes all the way to the Diaconate. The leader continued to speak to his W3 link, even as he strode back to his POD.

“I can’t wait until he retires,” muttered one of the ops who’d been stuck with walking duty.

Ernest tried to engage the security ops in conversation on the long walk to the Diaconate, without success. Even so, he kept up his pretense of being a confused retiree who’d simply wandered away from his POD. And he found that he didn’t need to access his lying skills to convey a growing sense of panic.

Ernest had been to the Diaconate twice in his life. Once, according to his metadata, for his Baptism. And a second time for his Confirmation at ten years of age—the day he'd met L0U15E. He'd only expected one final visit, on the thirtieth day of his thirtieth year. Which was only twelve days away, in any case, but nonetheless this particular visit seemed devastatingly premature.

When Ernest was a boy, the Diaconate had loomed over him, tall and archaically ornate, an ancient building steeped in history, its bricks and tiles and marble lovingly patched with polymers so cunning you could hardly tell the difference. He'd always suspected that if he was actually conscious for his final, in-person trip to the Diaconate for his Last Rites, he would find it somewhat diminished in stature, tawdry where it had once seemed grand and ornate, shrunken and mundane where it had once dwarfed him.

He'd been wrong.

Ernest had never seen the disciplinary wing of the Diaconate, where the security ops reported for duty. The back entrance of the building was squat and forbidding, with none of the opulence and grace of the main entry. The automated doors sighed open on precisely maintained pneumatic hinges as Ernest and the guards on either side of him approached. Ernest thought he heard pity in the tiny exhalation, but he supposed he was just anthropomorphizing again. Because if AIs were capable of pity, then surely L0U15E would have found it in her electronic equivalent of a heart to give Ernest just the smallest of head starts before she called in the Storm Troopers.

The clerk behind the front desk had the same shorn hair as the security ops, but he was only a half-dozen years out of the natal center, thin and reedy with an overlong neck. And a knot of tissue at his throat that rose and fell as he swallowed, Ernest noted. He stared fixedly at the fleshy node as his chip was deep-scanned, and wondered what it meant. Maybe the answer was as simple as Will having been a security op once, long ago. He wasn't as broad-shouldered as the ops who'd taken Ernest in, but his muscles were nearly as well-developed. Maybe that's how careers were decided. The sorts of men who would grow into muscular adults were slated for a career track in security, while cerebral types with flairs for language and creativity, like Ernest and Audrey, were given jobs as data clerks and programmers.

It was an elegant solution. A system like that would circumvent all the fruitless searching Ernest witnessed in old-time feeds, with the harrowing job interviews and the pulpy newspapers with their rows of ink-circled “help wanted” ads.

And yet, what if Ernest had gotten the opportunity to do anything he'd wanted with his time? What would he have done with his thirty years? He supposed he'd never know.

The desk clerk swallowed again as he noticed Ernest staring at the front of his throat. A kaleidoscope of lasers danced over Ernest's thumbnail. Reports scrolled in the air, and Ernest read them in a glance. His medical records, his recent timetables.

The head security op strode into the room as Ernest's guards squinted at the reports and struggled to read them, and Ernest reminded himself that he'd been trying to look harmless. He widened his eyes and said, “Have you figured out what's wrong with my POD? There must have been some kind of...um. Mistake. Yes.” Ernest's gaze flickered to his timetables again. Had he really spent so much time outside his POD? He supposed he had. “My arm hurts,” he added. “Badly.”

The lead security op stared open-mouthed at the data as he attempted to parse it. “Get him a standard feedbag,” he ordered, and one of Ernest's guards hastened to do so. The I.V. wouldn't filter toxins from Ernest's blood like a two-way shunt, but it would at least supply him with enough nutrients to alleviate the dizzying waves of hunger. “Get an empty cell ready. Deacon George won't want to be disturbed any earlier than sixteen hundred hours over a first offense with hardly more than a week left.”

One of the dead-eyed ops led Ernest to a hatch in the wall, wiggled his fingers under the adjacent scanner, then stepped back as the hatch eased open. The inside of the cell was POD-like, but in a sterile and standardized way --without any customizable padding or lighting--which gave it the impression of being distinctly uncomfortable. Ernest felt a pang of yearning for L0U15E, and told himself not to be stupid. She was the one who'd alerted security to begin with.

“Get in.” The guard planted a hand between Ernest’s shoulder blades and gave him a shove. Ernest moved slowly, so he could scan for something, anything, he could use to escape. The guard must have taken his hesitancy for the deterioration of old age, rather than fear at the prospect being closed up in an unfamiliar hatch; he went about his business with hardly a glance at Ernest. He turned and keyed in another sequence that opened a small access hatch beside his head.

It took him several tries to thread the I.V. line through to the inside of the cell. While his attention was diverted, Ernest licked his forefinger and swiped his saliva over the glassy black sensor in the door latch. He hoped the guard got the line in place before the saliva evaporated, but with such blunt, thick fingers, who knew how long the process would take?

“Here,” Ernest said. He reached around the edge of the portal and eased the I.V. line into place. “Sorry. The pain--I’m eager to shunt.”

The guard grunted, then tugged the end of the line the rest of the way through.

“I can shunt in myself,” Ernest said, wide-eyed and helpful. The thought of those clumsy fingers closing over his shunt made his abdominal muscles clench. Luckily, the guard didn’t seem swift enough to be offended by Ernest’s insistence on doing things himself. Ernest figured he had a W3 game that desperately needed playing.

“Arms in,” said the guard, even though Ernest’s arms were well on the other side of the portal, and he keyed in the sequence to shut the hatch.

Ernest pressed his ear against the door, but it was too well-insulated to hear through. He counted hypothetical footsteps instead, doing his best to recall how long it had taken the two of them to navigate the hall. The guard would undoubtedly be walking faster than he had been with Ernest in tow, and the saliva was probably drying even as he counted, but still Ernest waited another ten digits.

He pressed his fingers against the seam in the door.

The seal fit together so seamlessy that he couldn’t pry it open, not with his bare fingertips. He spread his fingers wide and tried to drag the door open, but even though his fingertips dragged against the smooth surface of the hatch door, it was too heavy to move.

And possibly locked, he reminded himself. If his saliva had evaporated. If it had even overridden the locking mechanism at all.

Audrey had used a special tool to pry open L0U15E’s exterior panel, a slender strip of metal. Ernest cast about the cell for a makeshift tool. The cell was empty, other than he, himself, and the end of the I.V. that dangled through a small opening. Ernest angled his arm in the close, awkwardly designed space so he could cup the needle at the tip of the I.V. line.  His arm throbbed. He supposed he was in the early stages of starvation, and probably dehydrated, too, since he hadn’t drunk water all day. But could he really trust that “standard feedbag” wasn’t some sort of code for a soporific blend that would send him into another week of forced slumber?

Ernest guided the needle to the seam in the doorway. His heart leapt as it slipped into the crack. He applied pressure to the needle to pry the door open.

The needle snapped off.

Ernest kicked the door--which wasn’t effective either, especially since he had so little room in which to swing his leg--and banged his elbow on the side of the cramped compartment. He’d never owned anything strong and slender enough to pry open a hatch. His clothes had no tabs or buckles, and his earpiece was too delicate. He probed the edge of his teeth with his tongue. Perhaps, if he wrenched one from his mouth, he could force it into the seam like a wedge. But it was slippery and small. Even if he could pull it loose, it was probably too tiny to pry the door open far enough to get his fingertips inside the crack.

Fluid dribbled from the I.V. line and wet the side of Ernest’s pantleg. It would have been easier to simply shunt in. Now, with the needle broken, he couldn’t even do that.

But he could keep the sensor wet while he figured out how to get the latch open.

Ernest held the line against the door and let the fluid seep into the crack. His shunted arm really did ache as much as he’d told the guard. He closed his eyes and imagined one of those cool metal flasks of water--saw himself touching it to his mouth, pouring the water in, swallowing.

He needed to get out.

His arm gave another hollow throb.

Ernest glanced down at it, expecting to see the skin around it red and swollen, infected with some pathogen he’d picked up from the old cushion he’d slept on the night before. But his forearm looked just like it always did, slim and pale, and slightly bluish where the shunt passed under his skin.

His shunt was metal. Surgical steel. Its notched edge was slender, where it was meant to lock in to L0U15E’s port. And it just might be long enough to provide some leverage.

If Ernest didn’t tear it loose from his arm while he tried to pry the door open.

He dropped the I.V. line, folded his arm against his chest, and rotated it awkwardly with the back of his hand pressed into the hollow of his throat, so the slim protuberance where he’d linked up with his POD, so many days and so many nights, taking sustenance and excreting waste--that slender metal edge pointed toward the door.

He pushed. The edge slipped into the crack.

Since his arm already ached with a low, dull throb, it didn’t particularly hurt. Not until he began to pry the door open, at any rate, and then pain tore through him that was so excruciating his eyes watered, and his throat fluttered, and his visual field went gray around the edges.

Ernest wedged his opposite hand between himself and the hatch door and squeezed his shunt tightly, in hopes of stabilizing it enough to keep the bone screws from stripping out of their sockets in his ulna.

He pried the door again, and again his vision went black around the edges. He clenched his jaw and breathed deeply, and braced his feet against the walls on either side of him. He pried harder. The hairline gap where the hatch door fit in its opening widened. Sweat dampened Ernest’s hairline and upper lip, and still, he pried.

There was motion. Elation swept him. Nearly free.

Until the edge of his shunt began to bend.

 

 


Go to Part 13

 

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