Z-Hour

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.

“Morning Justin”

“Darren.”

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.

“Two minutes”

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?”

“Uh-huh.”

“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

Guess Who’s Coming to eat you for dinner?

“It’s a pleasure to meet you Henry!”

“And you Mrs Williams.”

Katy’s mother extended her hand.  She flinched as soon as I clasped it.  That’s just the way the living are.

“…oooh…you have a firm grip Henry!”

Katy was still holding my other hand as her mother quickly let go and turned on her heel to lead us into the sitting room where Katy had warned me her father would be glued to the television.

She was not wrong and as we entered, he barely looked up from the football match that dominated the screen.

“George!  Tear your eyes away from that for a second please!  We have a guest.”

“Yes, the dead man Katy’s been so keen to get us to meet.”

I was prepared for this – Katy had warned me.  So I deliberately let go of her hand and walked around to block his view of the television.

“Good evening Mr Williams.  It’s a pleasure to meet you finally.”

He looked up at my hand extended and then at my face.

“Are you sure he’s a Walker?  He doesn’t look dead to me.”

“George!”

The embarrassment in Mrs Williams’ voice rippled through the room.

I was used to it and let out a small chuckle.

“Contrary to the old war propaganda Mr Williams, we ‘Walkers’, do not have rotten flesh.  Nor do we eat the living for dinner.  Well….” I paused dramatically, “…unless we’re really hungry.”

“You’re funny.  I didn’t realise dead people could be funny.”

I maintained my smile.  Mr Williams did not return it, so I lowered my hand and waited to see what would happen next.  Katy’s mother carefully broke the silence.

“So…dinner will be ready in about five minutes.  Katy, why don’t you show your friend into the dining room?  George, you can help me in the kitchen.”

Mr Williams didn’t appear to hear her.  He just kept staring at me.  I looked over at Katy whose eyes were pleading me to go with her into the dining room.  I’ve never been one for confrontation so I went with her.

She burst into tears the moment the dining room door closed behind us.

“This is a huge mistake!  I don’t know why I’ve done this to you.  I’m sorry.  I am so so sorry!”

“I’m used to it.  I’m sure your Dad will come round.”

She raised her face to mine and I could see fear in her eyes.  I tried to give her a reassuring smile, but it must have come out wrong as she buried her face in her hands and began sobbing even more violently.

“Look, we both know this wasn’t going to be easy.  There is still a lot of…baggage between our peoples.  You can’t blame your parents for reacting the way they are, especially after everything that happened.”

“I’m not worried about that,” Katy said from somewhere under her hands.  “I’m worried about what will happen when the baby’s born.”

If I had breath, it would have been knocked out of me.  Instead everything went very still.

Before I could gather my wits to respond, the dining room door opened and her mother walked in with a foul expression on her face carrying a steaming pot of something for dinner.   Mr Williams walked in right after looking very much like he’d just lost an argument.

“Do sit down kids,” her mother said brightly.

We looked at each other; I could tell Katy was waiting for me to react, but for the first time in a long time, I didn’t know what to do.

So I sat down.

Katy slipped sadly onto the chair next to me a few moments later and Mr Williams took the seat opposite mine holding a stumpy dark bottle.

“Do you drink Scotch?”

“Sorry, what?”

“Scotch?  Do-you-drink-it?”

He was trying to get a rise out of me.  Were it any other day and I had not just learnt that I was to become a father, I would have let the jibe pass.  But now my brain was alive with a million questions.

Is it even possible for me to be a father?  What will our baby look like?  Will it be living or dead or both?  Will it be accepted by either race?

Looking at the contempt Mr Williams had in his face toward me, made me upset and for the first time in my life I was frightened.  Not for myself.  But for Katy and the child she carried.

“Yes Mr Williams.  I do drink Scotch.  I also drink wine, beer and sometimes when the mood takes me, blood.”

“Stew?” Katy’s mother interrupted before Mr Williams could respond.

“That sounds lovely Mrs Williams, thank you.”

Katy’s hand closed around my own under the table and I could feel the quiet command for me to remain calm through her skin.

Once dinner had been served – vegetable stew; very diplomatic I thought – we all ate in silence with only the occasional attempts at platitudes from Katy’s mother breaking the silence.

It was as dessert was being dished up – strawberry ice cream; interesting choice – that Katy told them.

“Mum, Dad, I’m having a baby.  You’re going to be grandparents.  I thought you might want to know.”

“What?  With the dead boy here?” Mr Williams said breaking any expectation of shock I had envisaged.

“Yes Mr Williams,” I replied, emboldened by Katy’s bravery and to reassure her that I would be there for her and our child.  “Your daughter and I are going to have a baby and we’d very much like you to be a part of YOUR grandchild’s life”

I did not expect Katy to burst into tears again.

“Oh Henry!  I’m so so sorry!”  she snuffled a few moments later.

I was confused.  I thought she would be pleased with my support.  Then she said it.

“It’s not your baby.”

I finally understood what the living meant by a broken heart.

 

 

© John Allen 2013

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