Zero Hour

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

Part Thirteen

"No," Ernest whispered, watching with dismay as his arm shunt bent under the pressure of prying open the hatch, and he hoped the I.V. fluid he'd dripped into the doorframe was enough to keep the tattle-strip quiet. He pried until the sound of his blood roared in his ears, and he thought he would black out from the pain.

And then the gap widened.

Only a few centimeters, but enough for him to slip his fingers in. The pain of the shunt-flange bending was nothing compared to the sensation of the bone screw that tore free when he released his shunt arm to catch the door with his opposite hand. An agonized sound escaped him, and his stomach heaved. Saliva, and something else, pungent and sour, frothed from the corners of his lips. But still, he held fast to the door. He pressed it open.

Time passed, an indeterminate amount, as Ernest hugged his arm to his chest and waited for the hallway to stop spinning. Blood oozed from the shunt's anterior coupling. Ernest had never seen actual blood, only images of it in the depictions of surgery or accidents from pre-Purge feeds. He hadn't realized it would be so startlingly red.

He'd never felt such pain, either.

How much blood was in the homo consummatis body? Ernest had scanned the number when he was searching for information on autism. Somewhere "in the neighborhood" of three liters. Less than that.

Ernest lifted his hand from the shunt coupling and looked. A few ccs, perhaps, had oozed out. Or more. It was difficult to determine, since the blood flowed so much more quickly the moment he took pressure off the wound.

Ernest estimated he would need to bleed significantly faster to bleed to death. But leaving a blood trail--that was of greater concern. Hopefully the bleeding would slow if he moved cautiously, kept his arm elevated, and did his best to keep his pulse and blood pressure even.

Two choices presented themselves to Ernest. He could go back the way he'd come, or he could go in the opposite direction. Backtracking would take Ernest to the rear entrance of the Deaconate, but he couldn't imagine how he would talk his way past the security ops. Especially with a bleeding arm. The other way, then.

Ernest proceeded.

The passage curved, which put at least one more barrier between Ernest and the guards, who might or might not be checking on him...and had he even shut the hatch door? He couldn't recall, not anything but the sight of his own blood welling out of the coupling. He passed a few hatches, larger than the hatch in which the op had interred him, the hatch from which he'd just escaped. Deep male voices, perhaps three, spoke haltingly beyond the portal. Ernest kept moving.

The hall ended in a doorway that was standing half-open, despite the fact that it had a W3 lock and a chip reader. The guards' laziness may have nearly cost Ernest his thumb, but at least, he surmised, he was able to get farther than the hatch hall.

The hallway on the other side of that door was markedly different from anywhere else in the Deaconate, dim and strange. The walls, floors and ceilings were at ninety degree angles, like the coffee shop, like the other buildings in the historic sector of the city. The walls seemed to be made of wood--not rough-hewn, like Will's attic. Smooth, and polished. And.... Ernest's blood dribbled through his fingers and spattered the floor, where a brightly patterned, cloth-like covering absorbed it. He breathed deeply and did his best to ignore the ringing in his ears.

He rounded another corner and flinched away from a person--a very still person--who he then realized was not a person at all, but a…the word eluded him. A decorative carving. Will would know what they were called. He knew about old-time things like that.

A series of alcoves flanked this hall, not unlike the series of detainee hatches in the hall from which Ernest had fled. Each alcove held one still, pale resident, each one draped in meters and meters of carved fabric. Except the unfortunate effigy spread upon the cross. That one wore only a small slip of fabric that covered his groin.

And he had a beard. Homo sapien, then. Of course, given the age of this hidden part of the Diaconate. But the security ops had whiskers too….

Ernest's head throbbed. He was definitely dehydrated. Especially now that he was bleeding.

Ernest pressed on. If he had learned anything from his time with Will, it was that an old-time building was nothing like a POD, with one hatch and one chamber. A building had a front and a back door. And an attic and a basement, and a smattering of other rooms in which a cautious person might lose himself.

If he didn't lose consciousness first.

It was a large structure, much larger than the downtown shops, and Ernest trudged down the strange hallways that twisted and turned and doubled back upon themselves until he was sure that he would round the next corner and come upon the prison hatches again.

But instead, eventually, he found a door. An old-time door with wooden panels, like the coffee shop door that the ops had stomped into a pile of debris. Only this door was open, and beyond it, a room.

A still figure sat in the room, and while it was still, it was certainly no….

"Statue," Ernest whispered.

The figure's head jerked up. It was backlit in the window, and perhaps that was for the best. The silhouette was gnarled and bent, and the top of the head formed a smooth, ovoid dome, surrounded by short wisps of hair.

It looked like Matthew. More accurately, like Matthew had looked on that final day when he was thirty and thirty, and the only thing left for him to do was turn in his POD at recall--which was in this very building, Ernest realized--and be demagnetized.

"Who is that?" the wizened figure demanded.

Ernest considered running--because certainly, the creature couldn't be very fast--but the increase in his heart rate set his pulse pounding, and blood loss increased so rapidly that he could hear the patter of the falling droplets. And besides, the very old…man, Ernest supposed it was…had a W3 linked panel under his tremulous hand. Though he hadn't keyed anything in. Yet.

"Eliza? Is that you? Lazy whore."

Ernest crept forward.

"Take that stinking slop away. It was soy. I could tell it was soy. Maybe I am full of synthesized parts, but my tongue still works."

"Tongues are made for talking," Ernest replied automatically. And he blushed, because Will had been using his for something else entirely. On Ernest's body.

"Who is that? Come in here you…you…what's your name?"


"Ernest. Call me Zach." What an odd name. Ernest didn't recall ever hearing it in a pre-Purge cinema feed. "Come on, don't hover there in the doorway like a moron. Step into the light so I can see you."

"No, I can't. I have an errand."

"Errand? Here? In this part of the church? If they haven't sent you to whip that stupid trollop of a caretaker into shape, then you took yourself a mighty long detour."

Zach's sentence structure was bizarre. And fascinating. "Detour. Yes. Ah, I'm lost. Yes…lost."

"Another imbecile who has more fingers and toes than words in his vocabulary. Just my luck."


"What was that?"

"I'm not an imbecile. Mental retardation was bred from homo sapens in 2098, along with autism. I scanned the health feed quite recently. I remember."

Zach raised his head, and Ernest saw, with horror, that one of his eye sockets was empty. The flesh of his eyelid wrinkled and sagged, as if there was no eyeball behind to support it. An LED sparkled at his temple, beside it. "Oh, so you can speak, after all. Fluidly, too. Come on, then. This sensor shows me your contour, but it's not the same as getting a look you with my eye."

He jabbed a finger into the air in front of him to indicate the position he wished Ernest to assume.

"What happened to your other eye?"

"Gone. Used up. Rotted away. I imagine the good one will follow suit any time now. Macular degeneration's narrowed the field of vision down to the size of a walnut--not that I'd expect you to know what that is--and the vitreous humor's practically concrete."

Ernest took a few more steps in, and Zach gestured vigorously. "You're a nurse or something, then, right? Or a health worker…whatever it is they're calling it these days."

"Health monitor," Ernest supplied.

"Macular degeneration. Scan that condition before your next visit." He held his hand up before his face and formed a circle with his forefinger and thumb. His arm trembled. "I can see this much. Everything else? Gray. Black. Unless you count that electronic static the sensor's feeding my brain. Now stop tormenting me by lurking around outside my field of real vision and let me get a look at you."

Ernest tucked his bleeding arm behind his back and stepped up to the old man, just as curious about him as he seemed to be about Ernest.

Zach didn't look as old as Matthew at thirty and thirty; he looked older. The papery skin of his forehead was mottled with dark blotches and the area around his nose and eyes was covered in spidery red veins. His fingernails were chipped and yellow, and some of them, Ernest saw, were black.

"Holy Mother of God, take a look at you!" cried Zach, and Ernest flinched. "Which vat were you cloned from?"


"Is that some new strain? You look like you were bred for something a lot less technical than medicine. But what's that streak in your hair?"

Ernest backed away a step, but Zach's apparatus, a wheeled machine, surged forward in response to a mere twitch of his finger.

"Decorative?" he said. "Looked like gray for a minute there."

"Yes. Decorative."

"But your cheekbones. Your mouth." He gave a long, rattling sigh. "If I'd met you eighty years ago, while the plumbing still worked, I would've had you reassigned in a heartbeat. You'd make a great comfort aide. But I bet you hear that all the time."


"No?" Whatever Zach was going on about, he was obviously shocked. "With a face like that?" He sighed, and sagged back into his mechanized chair. "Your I.Q. must've put you out of the running. What is it?"

"One eighty nine."

The old man wiggled his fingers, and the chair jolted forward until its wheel bumped against Ernest's boot. "That high? Well, no wonder. Comfort aides top out at one-ten." He squinted his single eye, and considered Ernest very thoroughly. Ernest turned so that his gray streak was less visible. "I'm surprised they didn't make you a data clerk at one eighty nine. Takes the smart ones to keep all those digits in order and keep the grid from collapsing."

"Oh. I wouldn't know about that."

"Hell of a fucking life, though. Use you up and throw you away. So how did you land this assignment? They hadn't even told me the last one quit…though I can't say I care. Filling me with this soy, this gruel, this pap…."

"What was the question?"

"The job. Is it a promotion, or a punishment?"

"How could employment be used as a punishment? Our hands were made to work, to labor toward the sublime reward of…retirement."

The chair backed away and whirled, until Zach faced a portal in his wall with daylight shining through. A window. "Yes, yes, you parrot scripture just fine. But don't bother going through the motions for me. I was there when the Council wrote that bunk to stop the economy from collapsing. Tell me in your own words. How did you wind up changing bedpans for the world's oldest man?"




Go to part 14



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