Four watchmen on rotation – 2 on, 2 off. That’s the way it worked when Z-Hour hit.
That morning it was Darren and myself. We had both pulled a double shift the previous week, but had been assured it would not happen again. Good thing too – last week was a close call. Were it not for the fact that I had had an extra stash of suppressants on me, we both would have turned before our shift was up.
I had none this time. Just a wrist watch and a clear idea of when we had to clock off and lock ourselves up. That’s the way it works on rotation. We’re there to make sure the world stays safe.
That was the extent of working pleasantries. No ‘how are the wife and kids?’, or ‘weather’s been bad lately hasn’t it?”. No time for that on Z-Hour.
Darren sat himself in the seat opposite mine.
We both stared out at the city around us and the other watchtowers in the distance. Tall needles with thin spheres at the top. One tower for every square mile of the city. Practical and lethally efficient to anyone caught breaking curfew.
“Three minutes,” Darren spoke mechanically.
There was no need. We both knew the exact time and the digital clocks surrounding us, coolly ticking down the seconds, would never allow us to forget.
It was Wednesday. Shopping day for Sally and idly I wondered if she had gotten to the butchers in time.
I sighed and pulled my chair into position. The rifle secured on the rail allowing me to sight 360 degrees around the tower if I wished to. It always shocked me at how light it felt whenever I gripped it.
I looked down at the calendar on the panel beside me. 29 days marked with a black cross. 29 days served on rotation. 29 days with no need for me to use the rifle. 29 days closer to being back with Sally and the kids.
“One minute,” Justin murmured but there was no need as the warning klaxons throughout the city sounded and the automated message began playing.
“T-Minus one minute to Z-Hour. All citizens have 60 seconds to reach secured enclosure. Any citizens not secured within their enclosure will be subject to immediate extermination.”
Both Darren and I leaned in and began sighting through our rifles. I covered the northern perimeter, he covered the south. The streets were empty as they always were before Z-Hour. Everyone knew the rules by now and there had not been a reported extermination for nearly a year.
Before I knew it the klaxons shrieked one more piercing sound before falling silent. Z-Hour was here and for the next 60 minutes, Justin and I along with the other 54 watchtowers would be the only people alive in the city.
It was quite peaceful actually.
And then I saw her.
“Nonliving, 100 metres north west, approaching fast”
“You got it?”
Justin’s voice sounded deliberately calm but I could hear the relief too – neither of us had yet to perform an extermination.
“I got it.” I replied equally calm and nervous at the same time.
They trained us to feel nothing when on rotation. Emotions jeopardised all. Despite us being alive 23 hours out of 24, anyone who wasn’t secure during Z-Hour posed a serious threat and risk to all if allowed to roam freely. They knew the rules and the penalty. We couldn’t allow ourselves to think of them as people.
“Target, 60 metres and closing. Aligning my sights now.”
“Take your time,” Justin said but I could hear the tension in his voice.
I breathed deeply as I had been taught. Breathe in, hold and breathe out as you squeeze the trigger.
My sights found her face. A face that was immediately familiar to me.
She was only halfway through the transformation and tears of panic were falling down her cheeks even as her body convulsed and shuddered as she ran. She must have been late for the butchers and was even now trying to make it back to secure enclosure.
She was too late.
Even if I did let her go, she would never survive the hour. Another watchtower would pick her off when she inevitably wandered into their sector.
I breathed deeply, I held my breath, my sights followed as she ran closer and closer the transformation becoming more and more acute. And she looked right up at me her face streaming with pain…and she smiled sadly.
I breathed out.
* * *
“You got her?”
“Well…congratulations. Not anyone you knew then?”
“No” I lied still looking through my sights at the crumpled body.
“Well…something to tell the wife and kids in a few days eh?” Justin said.
“Yeah,” I replied dully, “something to tell.”
© John Allen 2013