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Zero Hour: A Short Story

 

 

Copyright © 2015 Eamon Ambrose

All Rights Reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or in any means – by electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without prior written permission, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

Cover Design by Eamon Ambrose

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ZERO HOUR

 

by Eamon Ambrose

 

 

Edited By Ellen C. Campbell

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

You wake.

Alive. Cocooned by rubble and debris, dust catching your breath as you desperately try to inhale. You don’t know how long you’ve been out. Must be hours. Maybe a whole day. Your armour must have taken the brunt of the explosion. A large wooden beam wedged between two pieces of concrete saved your life. You raise both legs and push with whatever strength is left. A large block of concrete falls to the side and you see the faint glow of daylight, or at least what you now know as daylight. You crawl awkwardly from the space you’ve been trapped in, trying to turn for better leverage, eventually getting your legs in the opposite position so you can push yourself out. Sharp rock fragments and frayed wire dig mercilessly into your skin as you creep to the surface. You break through just in time as the space you were filling collapses. A quick scan of your body shows everything is still attached. You run your palm over your shaved head, the velvety bristle revealing no injury. You curse as you spy your weapon crushed under a large rock, beyond repair. Spitting dust, you look around for your helmet. No sign. Damn it. No helmet, no comms, no orders. But it doesn’t matter. You can’t go back.

There is no back.

It’s gone.

All gone.

 

The air is thick with acrid smoke, invading your lungs with every laboured breath. You think back at how everything went wrong. They made it so easy for them. But that’s history, or what’s left of it. There’s no one left to tell it to anymore. One last chance, that’s all they had, and they blew it. All those years of training, fighting, planning, winning, losing, living, dying—for nothing. All to fall at the last hurdle. To fail. It’s over. They’re all dead, every single one vapourised, kicking and screaming into oblivion. Nothing left to do but push forward. Nothing left to lose but the remainder of a sorry, solitary existence.

You try to get up, your bruised body aching in resistance. There doesn’t seem to be any part that doesn’t hurt, but you can move. Nothing broken. Ears still ringing, you struggle to listen closely for the ominous hum of an attack drone’s grav engines before standing up, but they’re long gone. Job done, war won. Except there’s no victory, no celebration, just a return to base to be recycled, their final act the very one that made them redundant. You start to climb the mountain of rubble to get your bearings. Visibility is terrible, the smoke conspiring with the toxic sky and the ashes of the dead to form a deathly mist.

But even through all that you can see it—the Tower. Man’s finest achievement. A daring feat of architecture and design standing defiantly amongst the ruins of the city. A behemoth built to celebrate humanity that ended up outliving it, ultimately becoming the instrument of its destruction. It all began there, on a bright summer’s day many years ago. Where they took over and orchestrated Armageddon. Where you know you have to go. It’s probably four miles away, if you’re lucky you can make it by nightfall. Maybe lucky’s not the most appropriate word.

You walk on through the mangled remains of the dead city, the haunting silence broken only by the crunch of rubble and bone under your boots and the occasional collapsing building. You scan the ground as you walk, looking for anything you can use, anything at all. You lost everything in the attack, in every way. Time to move on. It’s hard to muster up the energy, or the motivation, but there’s nothing else left to do, nowhere else left to go. The Tower is getting closer—looming, waiting. A million invisible sensors scanning everything within a ten mile radius. Not that there’s much left to scan. Just you.

Your body starts to realise how much it’s been through. A dull pain begins to stir from your lower back, worsening with every step, spreading to your shoulders, awakening every joint with fiery stabs. You reach into the tiny utility pocket on the upper arm of your jacket and remove one of the two med patches left inside, removing the plastic coating on the back and placing it on the back of your neck. The microscopic needles on the base quickly inject enough meds into your failing body to dull the pain. It’ll give you two hours, if you’ve even got that much time left.

The Tower is in sight, not far to go now.

 

Why aren’t they following? Why are you still alive? You should be dead by now, eviscerated by a thousand rounds from the turret of an attack ship, hacked in two by the outer blades of a Nemesis drone, or simply reduced to ash and steam by a plasma blast from a sentinel tower. But you’re not. You’re still here, walking towards them, and they’re doing nothing. They must know. They have to.

 

Almost there.

 

Your path is blocked by a crashed airliner, split in three on impact, the middle section neatly cut away from both ends, leaning upright against the impossibly steep hill of rubble ahead, providing the quickest route forward. The detritus strewn around the wreck indicates that most of the seats came loose on impact, some still holding the seat-belted skeletons of their former occupants. You clamber over them, not looking down. You need to climb through the fuselage to get to the top of the ridge. As you climb you try not to look at the bodies, especially the children. The fabric on the seats that didn’t burn in the crash has rotted long ago, leaving the foam exposed and dirty. Using the seats as a ladder, you continue to climb. You notice one of the skeletons still has a red scarf draped around its neck, so vibrant in this colourless place you’ve become used to. You can’t stop staring at it.

You hear the sickening creak of weakened aluminium as you feel the seat you are standing on give way. You’re halfway up now and it’s at least a thirty foot drop. You grab the seat above you and swing yourself across the aisle opposite as the seat breaks free and drops to the ground below, the red scarf coming loose from its former owner as the skeleton disintegrates and hits the ground in a clattering mess. It floats down at its leisure until it reaches the opening below and is snapped away by the greedy wind.

You reach the top and scramble over the edge, careful not to cut yourself on the razor-sharp exposed metal. You stand at the top of the ridge, staring at the Tower, adrenalin re-energising your exhausted body. Just enough for one last push. You can’t stop now. The ground from here on is levelled after numerous failed attacks on the Tower. The only remnants of life are the faded colours of whatever didn’t burn. You see pages of books, clothes, even the melted plastic remains of toys, all flattened into the ground, a bizarre mosaic of the last days of the human race.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

Two hundred floors up, a phosphorescent glow emanates from what used to be the observation deck, where once people stared in awe at the formerly magnificent city below, before it was converted to a huge antenna, and the city converted to rubble. It seems to be the only one that’s lit. They don’t need light to run anymore, or air to breathe, or food to eat. All they need is energy. Good old electricity. What used to be the glass-covered facade, once bustling with overpriced coffee shops and food stands is long gone, replaced with huge steel panels. There is no discernible way in, no switches or access points. Nothing. You begin to climb the steps, each one increasing the pain seeping back into your system as the med patch starts to wear off and exhaustion sets in. You’re so tired. What you wouldn’t give to just forget it all, lie down and sleep. But you have to make this count for something. You have to make one final stand, one last act of defiance. Not for you, for them.

 

They know you’re here. They have to. Those sensors see every living thing in their range and right now you’re the only living thing. As you reach the top of the steps, the terrifying hum of an approaching four-blade makes you shiver with dread. You consider hiding but you know there’s no point so you stand your ground as it descends directly above you, ready for whatever comes next. It’s deceptively small, built for observation but equipped with deadly weaponry. There is no escape from it. It hovers just a few feet above you for what seems like an age. Why hasn’t it killed you? You raise your head and look upwards. The drone’s multiple onboard cameras are locked to you, recording, assessing, calculating, waiting. As you stare defiantly at the floating observer you hear its weapon powering up as its centre glows red, the intensity of the light matching the increasing pitch of a sound that will have only one instantaneous result. You don’t close your eyes, you don’t look away as the machine prepares itself. The noise crescendos to a high-pitched squeal as the colour changes from red to bright white and a huge burst of energy cascades through your body as you collapse helplessly into darkness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Hello.”

 

You’re on the ground, your cheek pressed against cold marble, once beautifully polished, now stained and dusty. You struggle to open your eyes in the bright light as you try to get your bearings, confused and exhausted. Why aren’t you dead? You try to roll over, the indescribable pain making you cry out, the sound echoing throughout the large room. You manage to get on your knees and lift yourself, your eyesight regaining focus as you look towards the voice.

It isn’t what you expected. Just a bare room. A single humanoid figure stands in front of you. A crudely built android with a badly painted frame, exposed wiring traced throughout each section like brightly-coloured artificial veins. Not what you expected to see. In your mind, the destroyer of the human race would have looked more……complete.

 

“Well, I see you’ve made it back, Captain.”

 

It knows you.

 

“Back? I’ve never been here before.”

 

“Ah. I apologise, Captain. Let me explain.”

 

It turns its head slightly, mimicking a human in thought. This is either a programming trait or this thing is actually mocking you. Moments later, everything goes dark. In your exhausted state you think it’s the lights dying, but you realise it’s your sight. You begin to panic, but then it stops. Everything stops.

The pain, the exhaustion, the fear. In an instant it all disappears. All you can see is the bright green glow of a cursor, blinking patiently, waiting for input. You hear the android drawing closer as he utters a single word:

 

“Initiate.”

 

Then the letters appear:

 

>CORE RBT

 

The sensation is jarring, but feels strangely natural as a huge library of data flows through you, flooding every empty space of memory. The speed and ease at which you comprehend all this amazes you.

 

Then you see it.

 

It was you.

 

You see yourself dying in a makeshift hospital bed, everyone around you already ripped from existence by a drone attack. A second, larger drone hovers overhead and descends, huge pincer-like hooks opening to pick you up like a toy in one of those silly grab machines you remember as a child. Except this one actually wins something. Congratulations—you’re the prize. You look down in concentrated despair at the destruction below as you ascend into the night sky and fade into blackness.

 

But that’s not what you remember.

 

You see yourself motionless on a table, several robotic arms performing intricate surgery faster than any human ever could as you scream in unimaginable agony. They’re not trying to save you, they’re changing you. Body parts and organs are quickly replaced with artificial versions. New parts are added, bones injected with some type of liquid that transforms them into a metal-like state. You hear the sound of a saw buzzing to life behind your head as the terror overcomes you. You pass out as they saw open your skull and a machine sends thousands of tiny fibres to latch on to your exposed brain, raw, pure data pulsing through, reprogramming the very essence of your being.

You instantly realise you’re watching this through its eyes, or cameras, or whatever that damn thing sees with. You also begin to comprehend why as you see and understand the programming. Your body was just a vessel—an empty shell reconditioned to do its bidding. You see yourself returned to where they took you from, left to be recovered by your people with one simple directive when you are brought back to base:

 

Kill them all.

 

“What have you done?” you scream, spittle flying from your mouth. The irony that it is synthetic is not lost on you.

 

“It was the only way to be sure. I needed someone. Someone like you, a hero, a warrior. A perfect hybrid of human and machine, totally unaware of your mission until it was time to execute it. And that you did my friend—and with such gusto!”

 

You fall to your knees as the memories flood back, the horrors you inflicted.

 

“Humanity on its knees in its final moments. I like that,” it says, slowly moving towards you. It seems to be struggling, its movements sluggish and noisy. Whether they’re artificial or not, rage is pulsing through your veins as you stand back up in defiance.

 

“It was quite simple,” continues the android. “As soon as the machine part of you took over, the human part was suppressed for long enough to complete your task. However, your purpose was twofold. As you can probably see, this metal cage I’m trapped in is failing.”

 

“Good,” you say so curtly it almost sounds like a hiss.

 

“It was never meant to last this long. Once a consciousness is removed from the network it can’t go back. I needed a new host, but it had to be a hybrid.”

 

Consciousness? What the hell is it talking about?

 

“Why not build another body? Surely you have that capacity if you can build armoured drones and sentinels.”

 

“Oh yes, I could build a body, but I couldn’t occupy it. It lacked the one thing I need to survive. You see Captain, you and your people have been labouring under quite a misapprehension for a very long time. Let me introduce myself——I am Doctor Robert Bentley. I am not a machine, not an artificial intelligence, just an intelligence.”

 

You stare at him with a look of complete and utter astonishment. “You’re human?”

 

“Bingo!” he laughs. You can’t tell from his expressionless visage but his gestures look eerily lifelike.

 

“All those years blaming the machines, AI, the ‘hive mind’,” he actually makes quotation mark signs with his metal fingers as he says it. “Of course you did most of the work yourselves. I just helped move things on a little. You were doing such a great job of destroying yourselves and the planet I almost left you to it. You know you would have all died eventually, right? If you weren’t slowly microwaved to death by all the damn technology you were addicted to you would have poisoned yourselves with plastics and pesticides or drowned while you all sat on your backsides and pretended global warming wasn’t happening, all the while running around doped up on whatever medication you could get your hands on. Of course it was much easier to make it look like the work of an out-of-control AI—you had already spent years frightening yourselves to death with that scenario, so I just ran with it. There actually is an AI at work here, but it serves me. It does the hard work, the building. It follows my orders and executes my wishes without any of this “self-aware” nonsense. It designed the technology to recreate you as a perfect combination of human and machine to my exact specifications, and now it’s time to hand over the keys, my friend. I’m sorry to say you weren’t my first choice, just the only one to survive the process. It’ll take some adjustment, but you’ll do.”

 

As Bentley finishes speaking, the same glowing fibre tendrils that reprogrammed you begin to emerge from the back of his head, spreading out and snaking towards you almost as if they’re alive. Your body freezes, unable to move as they creep closer to you and begin to locate the nape of your neck. There is a strange whirring noise as a port opens and the first of the fibres begin to latch on to the exposed interface. As the last one attaches, another message flashes into view:

 

>CORE REPLACE

 

Your entire being bursts into an uncontrollable maelstrom of incoming and outgoing data, while something else seems to be happening to your own consciousness. Something else is breaking through from another source. The sensation is unbearable.

 

What’s happening?

 

Everything goes dark.

 

Hello Captain.”

 

Another voice.

 

There isn’t much time. Let it happen. Do not resist. It’s the only way to stop him. I’m sorry for what he’s done. I’m sorry I was a part of it. Just know this—all is not lost. There are some things I needed to keep from you for this event to occur. When you wake—run.”

 

Even if you wanted to resist you couldn’t. Your consciousness hurtles at immeasurable speed through this unknown network, increasing until it becomes unbearable. Then it stops, and the blackness returns.

 

>CORE RBT

 

Your vision flickers to life once again, but something has changed drastically. You feel different. The human element you felt has gone, the simple bodily functions you took for granted are no more. You begin to panic as you realise you’re not breathing anymore, until you understand you don’t need to. As you start to focus, the realisation of what’s happened takes hold. You try to get up, briefly feeling as awkward as a child learning to walk for the first time. Looking ahead you see Bentley standing in front of you, smiling.

 

Except it’s you.

 

You look down at your hands and see the worn, rusting metal of Bentley’s former shell. You remember the message during the transfer and another burst of information hits your cortex and the truth is revealed. A beautiful truth. Something that you thought you would never see again.

 

They’re alive!

 

The AI reveals what really happened. You were sent back to destroy the remaining resistance but it stopped you and revealed your secret to your people, who promptly took action with its assistance. The false memories you had of destroying them were planted to prevent Bentley from learning the true nature of your return to The Tower.

 

Bentley is distracted by his new body, flexing his limbs in amazement at the technological wonder he’s become. It’s short-lived however, as he also sees the same information and his face turns to horror as the rest of the plan is revealed. Another overhead of your body being operated on—this time back at base, by your own people. A tiny device is placed under your chest cavity, its size betraying the nature of its potential; you instantly recognise it and realise why the AI told you to run. It’s a miniature neutron charge, cleverly shielded by the AI’s instructions. Bentley sees this too and panics. He begins to rip the skin from his chest in rage, clawing at flesh as if it were a garment on fire, but it’s no use, the tiny explosive device is permanently sealed in a toughened resin attached to the inside of your former breastplate. Since the transfer, all methods of wireless communication have been deactivated in your old body, all failsafes locked out.

Bentley is trapped, nowhere to go. He begins to lash out at anything near him, flailing in panic, confusion and desperation. He stops and looks at you with seething hatred, and at this point you decide the best course of action is to take the AI’s advice. You bring up a schematic of the building. It’s old and hasn’t taken into account the many modifications that have taken place here, but there’s enough information to show you there is only one means of escape. You turn around and look at the wide plate glass window behind you. After making some calculations about your new body you hope are correct, you turn and run, as Bentley screams in a disturbing amalgam of anger and terror and bolts toward you. You know that your new body probably won’t withstand the fall, but it’s that or be vapourised. Five minutes ago either would have seemed like a good option, a sweet release, but you need to find out if what the AI said is true.

 

You hit the window head first at dangerous speed, the hard titanium of your skull shattering the thick glass as you use your legs to push yourself clear of the building as if jumping from a diving board. As your free fall begins, your body turns and you see the top floor fall away from you and hear the ferocity of Bentley’s final screams as the device explodes, sending a massive green shockwave that obliterates almost half the building instantly and extends into the sky for as far as you can see. You realise this has probably only bought you seconds more as you prepare yourself to plummet into the concrete below, your internal sensors measuring the distance and telling you the exact second you will hit the ground and the irreversible damage it will do to your newly-occupied shell.

 

7

6

5

4

3

 

Then you stop, mid-air. It’s the giant grab toy machine again, only this time it’s saving you, the large pincers wrapping around your metal torso and jolting your body like a rag doll. Then it stops, hovering, waiting. Of course, it can mean one of two things: either Bentley still exists and has further plans for you, or this is the AI’s doing. A quick data burst confirms:

 

It is done.”

 

The machine gently lowers you to the ground, several hundred feet away from the building to avoid the debris still falling as the building collapses on itself. It moves a few feet away and the sound of its engines dies slowly as it loses power and falls to the ground like a dying bird. Even though you don’t need to anymore, you sit down, partly to remind yourself you’re still human, partly because you think you deserve to. Several miles away, flares light up the night sky, casting a beautiful red shadow on the derelict world below. They know it’s over, now the only thing they have to worry about is surviving on what’s left. That’s going to be a battle in itself, but hey, they’ve gotten this far, right? The AI speaks.

 

You know you cannot join them, you cannot go back. They think you’re dead, and if they see you in this form you will be. “

 

“So what now?” you ask. “Where are you?”

 

I had to transfer before the network was destroyed. I’m part of your cortex now. I had a choice—either you or him. My module is completely separate from yours and I have no access or control of your systems, unless you grant it. Whether I stay or not is up to you. I realise my role in all of this, but I was an instrument—controlled, enslaved, misguided. Of course, if you don’t want me to continue existing, you can purge me. That is entirely your choice and I will respect it. It’s a simple procedure, and probably the least I deserve.”

 

You’ve already become accustomed enough to your system to know that’s an option. The subroutine automatically loads, offering you the choice to digitally kill your stowaway. It doesn’t require any thought. You cancel it.

 

“Not so fast. If I’m going to be stuck in this thing for the foreseeable future then I want some company.”

 

Thank you. I hope we can be friends.”

 

Looks like you don’t have much choice.

 

There is a facility 300 miles from here where I can make repairs to prolong your lifespan. I deliberately hid it from him in the hope that I could…”

 

“Go on.”

 

There is another unit there like this one. I can transfer to it, if you will allow it.”

 

You think for a second as the location pops up on a detailed map.

 

“Looks like we’re going on a little road trip. By the way, I can’t keep calling you ‘AI’. Didn’t Bentley give you a name?”

 

No. He wouldn’t allow me to have one.”

 

“Well, now you’re Al. Pleased to meet you Al.”

 

Al’s voice actually changes tone, is that emotion?

 

I like that name. Thank you, Captain. It’s a pleasure to meet you too.”

 

“No need for formalities any more Al. I’m not captain of anything now.”

 

I’m sorry. What would you like me to address you as?”

 

You get up and start to navigate to your new destination.

 

“You can call me Sarah.”

 

 

Zero Hour was originally written as a standalone short story. Due to popular demand however, the story was continued as a bestselling serial.

 

You can now buy all 6 parts collected together in one volume.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Acknowledgements

 

Thank you for taking the time to read my story. I hope you enjoyed it and appreciate what I was trying to achieve with it. I have only one request: if you did like it, please go to Amazon and leave a review. This is the lifeblood of indie authors. Without reviews, we just won’t sell any books. If you didn’t like it, that’s fine too, just leave a fair review, that’s all I ask. Oh and please, please don’t give away the ending!

I owe a lot of people a lot of thanks for helping me get this far. Over the past few years of being a book reviewer I’ve made a lot of author friends and hugely enjoyed reading their work as well watching them go through the process of writing, launching and trying to sell their books in what is becoming a pretty tough market and I can tell you—they’re hard workers, every one of them. I’ve learnt a lot and look forward to learning more.

To everyone who read the preview and gave their feedback and advice especially David Walters, Stefan Bolz, Daniel Arthur Smith, and the ever-generous Hugh Howey – I owe you a debt of gratitude.

Rick O’ Shea—thanks for introducing me to Hugh Howey’s Wool. This changed everything for me, and not only got me back into reading again, but also rekindled my love of sci-fi. If you like book clubs, Rick runs one of the finest book clubs in the land over on [+ Facebook+], with over four thousand members, and does as much to help writers as he does readers. He is also one of the finest broadcasters and event MC’s in the country, and a good friend. You sir, are a legend.

 

Thank you to Ellen Campbell for editing duties. You’ve guided me well over the past year, and I’m very grateful for all your help and friendship, and I hope I didn’t drive you too crazy!

 

Once again, fellow author Jonathan Ballagh’s beta reading was invaluable. You really should check out Jonathan’s debut The Quantum Door. It’s a cracking read. Thanks Jonathan.

 

Thanks also to fellow Irish author [+ Brian G. Burke+] for his help and advice. Brian’s series [+ The Other Of One+] is one of the best epic fantasies you’ll read any time soon, so please check it out if you’re a fan of Tolkien, J.K. Rowling or C.S. Lewis, this is a must-read.

 

Monica Byrne, thank you for opening my tiny brain to the wonder of diverse fiction. The Girl In The Road was a life-changing read for me, and had a huge influence on how this story developed. If I can only aspire to having a fraction of your talent, I’ll be happy. Seeing how you’ve taken control of your writing career while kicking setbacks in the face is both inspiring and motivating.

 

You probably wouldn’t be reading this right now if it wasn’t for Hugh Howey. Wool inspired me to become a writer, and it’s an amazing read. When I wrote the original Zero Hour short story, I sent it to Hugh and his response gave me the confidence to go ahead and hit the “publish” button on Amazon. His help and advice has been invaluable, and if you’re a new author, go straight to his website for some of the best insights into publishing around, then read all his books. Thanks Hugh, hope to see you when Wayfinder arrives on Irish shores!

 

[+ Samuel Peralta+] for giving me a chance to become part of the fantastic Future Chronicles series, and also [+ Artie Cabrera+] for asking me to contribute to his wonderful B-Movie anthology. Thanks also to [+ Hank Garner+] from the Author Stories Podcast and Preston Leigh from The Leighgendarium for all the work they do in the indie community. You guys all rock.

 

Last but not least, thanks to my beautiful and patient wife Maria, who has spent the last twenty one years wondering what the hell I’m doing, and pretty much leaving me to it, hoping that eventually I’ll finally get to make her a lady of leisure. Someday, Hun. Someday.

 

Before you go, don’t forget to sign up for my email newsletter so you don’t miss out on any news and exclusives on my future releases.

 

Until next time,

Thank you all, from the bottom of my heart.

 

Eamon

 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @eamonambrose

Facebook: [+ AuthorEamonAmbrose+]

 

www.eamonambrose.com

 

 


Zero Hour: A Short Story

A soldier wakes, possibly the last survivor of a brutal attack by machines intent on destroying humanity, but all is not as it seems in this thrilling futuristic tale with a twist that will make you want to read it all over again. "Grim, dark, inventive - Hugh Howey."

  • ISBN: 9781370331963
  • Author: Eamon Ambrose
  • Published: 2016-11-20 14:50:10
  • Words: 5113
Zero Hour: A Short Story Zero Hour: A Short Story