The Buffer Zone
Maury glanced around at the four severe-looking men surrounding him. "You guys do this a lot, Lieutenant Colson?" Maury asked. He grimaced at his own voice, so loud in the small chamber.
"As little as possible," the big man with the lieutenant's insignia answered. "First time inside?" The young technician was sweating bullets, his breath noisy bursts through his nostrils.
"Yes sir," Maury said.
It'd been easier in the first years after Area 187 had been created, when Homeland Security and the Feds ran it all. That was before Homeland decided it was more cost-effective to farm out the maintenance tasks of the facilities and perimeters to private contractors. At least they'd listened to reason and had been convinced against privatizing the security forces.
Colson pulled a clipboard off the wall and scanned a few documents. "You've completed your perimeter training. Where's your checklist?" he asked, his eyes narrowing. Maury's grew wide for a moment before he patted a few pockets and came out with a folded piece of paper.
"I have it here, sir. Sorry." Colson snatched it from his fingers and looked it over.
"You sure you have everything?" he asked as he looked over the list. "I don't want to do this again cause you forgot pliers."
"The company has toolkits for each job. We're required to carry two when there's only one technician going out," Maury said. He looked at the other three men but they had already pulled their form-fitting hoods over their faces, making them unreadable.
"Okay then, let's review. No noise. Once we walk out you're a church mouse and keep your tool noise to a minimum. You work quietly and you work quickly. The time allowed for a sensor relay replacement and diagnostic for this sector is 38 minutes, minus travel. It will take us 12 minutes to reach the work site and 12 minutes back. I want to be back in this room in less than one hour, got it?"
Maury nodded, the full realization of the work ahead settling as comfortably as a rusty hacksaw. He was going into Area 187. This wasn't in the technical college's brochure. "What if we... what if they come around?"
"Contact isn't your job," Colson said with a hint of menace. "Focus on your job; we'll worry about everything else. The faster you do it, the less we'll have to worry about it. Just shut up, move when we move and you'll do just fine."
Maury nodded again and took a shuddering breath. Colson looked at him dubiously then slid his own hood into place. Sempertech was a union shop, the easy work of maintaining the facility buildings and equipment snatched up by seniority. That left the dangerous work of maintaining the sensor networks and physical defenses to men with the lowest seniority, consequently the men with the least experience not only in their jobs but in working within the Area's buffer zone.
"Communications check," Colson announced. Each man put a hand to the small control unit strapped to their tactical harness as the control room cycled through a series of tones. Each tone carried its own meaning, such as "stop", "go", "right", "left", "contact" and a host of other commands and information. Maury looked around slowly as the unfamiliar tones sounded in his own earpiece. Anyone going into the Area received extensive training and the signal tones were a big part of it. That was another problem with being forced to use the lowest seniority; just when you had a tech that had really absorbed the system he bid out to a better job.
"Test back-up voice," Colson said into the small microphone on his collar. Maury jerked as Colson's voice bit into his ear. Colson grimaced at him then reached down to Maury's radio and turned the volume down. "Voice is a last resort, kid."
"Yes, sir." He was trembling now, a fact that hadn't escaped Colson.
"Look, kid, I haven't lost a tech yet. You'll be fine. It's just another job." Colson spun Maury roughly and started tugging on his straps and equipment. After several adjustments, he spun him back. "Your straps were loose. Loose makes noise - and handles. Lock and load, gentlemen."
Maury had expected to hear the crack and snap of metal as the men charged their weapons. Instead the metallic sounds were softer than two dimes clinking together, the well-oiled, composite materials deadening most of the noise.
"Control," Colson said into the air, "ready for odor neutralization."
"Standby for odor neutralization," a woman's voice said into the room. Colson looked pointedly at Maury's head and nodded. Maury, confused, touched the top of his head then realized he was the only man in the room without his hood on. He pulled it out of his back pocket quickly and struggled it down over his ears, rolling it until the Kevlar-laced material completely covered his head and neck. Just as the young technician adjusted the hood for his eyes and mouth, small jets in the ceiling spewed a fine, powdery mist down onto them. Maury hacked and wheezed for several moments, eyes and nose running into the itchy, reinforced fabric of his hood.
"Guess I should have reminded you to hold your breath, huh?" Colson said, smiling. "You'll be okay in a second." The other men chuckled lowly as Maury tried to wipe the tears from his eyes.
"What the hell's in that stuff?" Maury asked, punctuating the question with a sneeze.
"Can't pronounce it, I just know it works. Your scent will be deadened for about an hour, as long as you don't start sweating like a whore in church," Colson advised.
"What happens if I do?" Maury asked when his breath finally coming back.
"The more you sweat, the harder you breathe and the more likely we are to make contact. And what's the first rule of Area 187?" he asked.
"Don't make contact," Maury said robotically. That rule had been drilled into him every day for the last two weeks during his training.
"Well, at least you made it to class that day," Colson said. "Control, final sit-rep?" he asked into his mike.
"All quiet on the southern front, Lieutenant. We haven't had a sensor hit all night. Current time is 01:45, current temperature is 48 degrees. Skies are clear and the moon is full. Satellite reports show no major activity in your area of operation, video surveillance negative. Sensor report for grid location 36 at 30 and 2 is still a blank page. We're hoping you can fix that for us. Video surveillance unaffected, we should have visual on you for the duration. We are ready and waiting for your mark."
Colson took a quick glance at his team, his gaze lingering for a moment longer on Maury. "Don't fuck this up." He waited for Maury's uncertain nod then brought up his HK and flicked off the safety. "Mark."
A moment later the large door before them slid soundlessly into the wall, giving Maury his first look at the mile-and-a-half buffer zone behind the wall that separated Area 187 from the rest of the world.
Arc sodium lights turned the night to day as far out as he could see. The zone had been deforested as much as was possible, the monthly chemical drops ensuring nothing green could sprout to provide concealment. Vast networks of pressure plates, sensors, video cameras and other electronic monitoring systems had been deployed in the zone over the years. More than three thousand men had lost their lives in the 18 months it had taken in the initial push to establish the monitoring network and fortification lines that walled the plague off from the rest of humanity. Even today the zone could be counted on to kill at least a dozen or so a year, by official numbers, from work groups like this one tasked with maintaining it.
They moved at a fast walk over the gray-green stubble. Running reduced the ability to fight and think to near zero, and considering their enemy couldn't move faster than a walk themselves it was practically unnecessary in all but a swarm situation or to get to a better firing position. Union rules forbid Maury from going into the Area armed, though few technicians ventured out without at least a personal firearm. Maury had decided not to arm himself though. He had no experience and worried that he would be found with the weapon and disciplined; best to leave the guns to the soldiers. He kept his eyes locked squarely on Colson's thick neck ahead of him as the group made their way smoothly and silently across the day-lit sparseness.
They made the steel pole at just over the ten minute mark. A high-pitched tone sounded through their ear pieces as Colson brought the group to a halt. Using hand signals, he positioned his men at the compass points around the base of the pole and took the northern point himself, facing into the great unknown of Area 187. Without looking behind him, Colson tripped the "go" tone to Maury's earpiece. The technician hesitated for a moment, swallowed hard then threw his climbing belt around the pole.
Maury scaled the tower, his childhood fear of heights falling to the onslaught of adrenalin. He'd been a high school kid in Palisades, California when the outbreak hit, making jokes about redneck zombies roaming the hills of West Virginia eating their cousins instead of having sex with them. Now, he hung twenty-five feet over that very ground suspended by only a strip of ballistic nylon.
Maury rolled up his hood, pulled the cover off the sensor relay module and turned on the small penlight attached to the band around his head. He poked around the masses of thin wires with a rubber-coated screwdriver then moved his face closer to peer at a particular clump of wires bound with electrical tape; the thick, red power wire had a charred spot just beyond the tape causing a short to the sensor relay and denying it reports from its clusters for a half-mile around. Someone had thrown this non-regulation repair together, obviously some time ago by the faded appearance of the tape.
He prodded a bit more and found the long-ago tech had wired the sensor relay directly into the main power line that fed the powerful light a few feet above him. The amperage coming through the pole's electrical service had been far too strong for the delicate wire, causing it to burn like a candle wick. Further probing showed the reason for the jury-rigged repair; a crispy, blackened spot on the relay's motherboard where the live wire should have been soldered. He pulled his radio and stared at the multi-colored buttons.
Each was assigned a tone. Pressing two or more at the same time produced a combined tone, further widening the menu of commands and responses. The problem was remembering them all. Maury pulled the hard plastic card from his coveralls and read through the options, trying to find the proper code for a scrub. He found it and pushed the orange, red and black buttons together. The result was an uncomfortable tone of medium pitch, like three dogs barking in unison. Almost immediately he heard another tone. A quick check of the card and watching for which colors lit up on his radio found he was being asked for a status report.
How the hell could he explain that the last guy that shimmied up this pole had thrown a band aid on a major sensor relay and a new wiring harness and motherboard was needed to make it all better? What combination of buttons was that? Maury scanned the card again and found the code for "repair beyond tool/part capability" and punched it in. He was rewarded with a thin, piercing tone. You didn't need special training to know that wasn't good regardless of the circumstances. Moments later, Colson's whispered voice came over his earpiece.
"What the fuck is the problem up there?" Colson hissed through the radio.
"The last guy up here fixed a problem with chewing gum and it's failed. I need parts I don't have to fix it right," he responded softly. There was a long pause, then Colson's voice again.
"Can you fix it wrong until we can get another detail out here in the morning? That sensor you're playing with is blinding Control for half a square mile."
Maury poked around the box, considering his options. "I'll need to bring down the pole to do it. All the electrical in a given sector junctions off from the main pole; it's just our luck that's the one I'm hanging off of right now. Every pressure plate, infra-red sensor, camera and light array for this sector will be down while I re-link the power supply to the relay. Why the hell did they schedule this at night?"
"Just fucking do it," Colson interrupted. "Control, do you copy?"
"Copy, lieutenant," a soft feminine voice answered in their ears. "Technician, please advise."
"Shut down main power to..." he looked around the pole for a moment before he found the brass identification tag."...unit 127 at 36 and 30, all services will be affected."
"Estimated time to complete repair?" Control asked.
"Just as quickly as I can get it done, ma'am," Maury replied.
"Power to unit 127 at 36 and 30 will be shut down in ten seconds, mark. Detail, we will attempt to keep visual for the duration of the lights-out from other surveillance points in neighboring sectors. Use extreme caution; we will have limited monitoring capacity until the unit is powered up. Resume radio silence. Control out."
Maury froze when the small hum from the large torch above him faded away along with its light. They still had some illumination from other poles spaced fifty yards to either side, just enough to make out the tree line ahead. That light did little to help Maury at this height. He pulled another flashlight from his belt and hung it from his harness, pointing the light into the control box to add to his penlight's feeble illumination. Maury pulled a tool roll from his belt, hung it from a hook on the pole, selected a pair of pliers and started his work.
Colson could sense the tension from his men. They'd been in worse spots, but that hadn't been for a few years now. So far, so good, he thought. He kept his eyes moving over the line of trees ahead that marked the true start of Area 187, watching and listening for any motion or sound.
Those things out there weren't smart; their intellect was lower than that of most animals. But they could tell when something changed, when something moved or stopped moving - or when light that had been there suddenly wasn't. If there were any of them within sight of the zone that had been looking this way when the light was powered down the sudden change in the environment could give them cause to investigate.
Colson cocked his head towards the wood line, his ear a better early warning than his eyes in the now-gloom of their little part of the buffer zone.
Maury snipped several wires then put a screwdriver to the brackets that held the offending gadgetry in place. While his conscious mind was on its assigned task his subconscious couldn't help but have great fun mulling over the myriad dangers of his current predicament. He paused to wipe away the sweat threatening his eyes with his free hand as his subconscious treated him to a vision of dozens of moaning zombies swarming around the base of his pole, glazed eyes staring up at him.
He'd never seen one of them personally, but he'd seen enough television reports from the early days before the news blackout went into effect for his mind to come up with vivid images to lend authenticity to the thought. He fought to keep his hands from shaking and stay focused on the job while the belly of his mind toyed with the idea of jagged, broken teeth tearing into his flesh.
"I can't believe they expect me to work like this," he mumbled. Colson's head swiveled up to him just then, catching his attention. Maury's cheeks reddened at his Area faux pas and he turned back to his work just as a low buzzing sound caught his ear. He tapped on his ear piece, thinking that the speaker was malfunctioning or picking up interference. That's when he saw the dull yellow and black spots coming from behind an inspection plate. In moments a small cloud of hornets filled the air around him, registering their distaste for his intrusions. He swatted at them and nearly lost his grip as several of the winged warriors landed on his exposed hands and cheeks, burying their venom deep in his skin.
Pain shot through him as he struggled to keep his body against the pole. He reached for his transmitter and frantically punched the buttons as the hornets continued their assault, not caring what combination of tones he made. The men reacted instantly to the cacophony in their ears. Three of them shifted to a pyramid formation around the base of the pole while Colson fell back and turned his eyes skyward to the whimpering technician. Maury's whimpers turned to hoarse screams as his tools and flashlight fell from his lofty perch, pelting the men below as his cries rang through their ears from his microphone.
"Control! Control! The operation's a scrub!" Colson said into his mike. "The kid's freaking out - get an extraction team ready."
A sudden tone, high and piercing, drowned out his words. Any soldier in the buffer knew that tone: Contact had been made. Colson turned to his former point and watched over one of his men's shoulders as several distinct forms shambled from the dark trees.
"Control," Colson said into the air, his voice still low and modulated, "Contact confirmed. Get that extraction team out here."
"Fall back," the woman's voice came to the team.
"Negative, Control. We still have a man up the pole." Colson looked up at Maury. He'd stopped his frantic movements but continued moaning and wailing, a beacon in the dark for the dead. "Maury!" Colson said. "Report! Damn it kid!"
"Technician's communications have been terminated," the voice said. "Fall back."
Colson turned back and saw the six figures had become a dozen, their moans adding to Maury's pained bleating as they stumbled and limped towards his men. The moaning would bring more of them, the dire, maddening sound a precursor to swarming. Anything dead within a mile would come to investigate like farmhands to a dinner bell. They were closing now, the leaders of the pack now less than ten yards away. "Control, power up the light!" Colson said. He could feel his men tense, the muzzles of their silenced weapons already drawing beads on their targets.
"Negative. Tech disabled it. Combat team ready to deploy in two minutes, lieutenant. Get your team out of there. Do not fire; repeat, do not fire. Fall back."
Colson cursed under his breath, glanced once more up the pole then trained his weapon on the growing horde ahead of them. "You heard Gladys, boys, fall back. Port arms, go to batons."
The men reacted immediately to his order and let their small submachine guns rest against their chests as they pulled back from the pole. Almost as one they deployed their thick steel batons, the polished, blackened and heavily-oiled steel strong enough to crack a skull or shatter vertebrae with a single strike.
The crowd had reached the pole now. A few of them turned their heads to look up at Maury's dangling body, his own soft moaning crowding them around the pole.
"Control, we've got a tail," Colson said as a half dozen of them continued plodding after them, the slow-speed chase almost comical. "Scratch the team, that'll just work them up more. We need a diversion, get these guys to stop thinking about us long enough to get back inside." Colson sighed out loud, his finger itching to touch off a burst from his weapon into the advancing zombies. "Control, drop the bait on my mark," he said as put his baton away and raised his machine gun.
Maury managed to open his swollen eyes to slits. He'd been horribly allergic to most stinging insects throughout his childhood. It had been so long since he'd been stung he didn't even carry an epinephrine pen anymore. With the volume of stings he'd acquired though, the little spring-loaded syringe would have been like pissing on a forest fire. The venom had swelled more than his eyes. His throat had constricted to a wheezing moan and his fingers had swollen to the size of sausages. He felt his weight supported solely by the safety belt, his hands useless now for holding onto the pole. He was dangling, helpless, with a chorus of moans pulsing up to him.
Maury's mind was too far gone from the pain to register panic, but not far enough to ignore the predicament. All he had to do was stay calm and hold out until they came back to get him. Just stay calm, keep himself from swinging on his lifeline and wait for someone to get him down. If it wasn't for the ringing in his ears, he may have heard the hiss of the silenced report from Colson's weapon, a soft sound that would have carried easily in the deathly stillness of the buffer zone. The next sound he heard was the bullet smashing through his skull, the guarantee he wouldn't rise again. The last thing Maury heard just after the shot was a small explosion like a pistol being fired next to his head as Control detonated the tiny charge rigged into the safety latch of his belt. Maury was dead before he hit the ground, the ghouls falling upon the fresh meat like slow-motion sharks.
"Hit the e-lights," Colson said as he lowered his weapon and pulled out a thick pair of black-lens goggles. "Put your blinders on, boys." The men in his fire team copied their leader and pulled on their own goggles just as several brilliant shafts of light bathed the buffer zone from the powerful halogen searchlights that ran the length of the battlement some half-mile behind them. The light pierced the decaying eyes of the zombies, stopping them in their tracks and forcing them to turn away. Their heads turned from Colson's fire team, they now saw their brethren feasting on the body of the dead technician behind them. Almost as one they crept back the way they'd come, the scent of fresh blood from the human carrion drawing them to join the rest.