By Ben V
A red light mounted on the wall flashed as an announcement warned the guards that the door would be opening in fifteen minutes. It reminded them to double check their gear before the nightly orientation.
The room was simple. A large door took up an entire wall and separated the bureau, and the outside world, from zone five. Two rows of benches lined up facing the door where the guards sat and waited for their shift to start. A single door led off to the locker rooms. It was the only way into the staging area and the huge blast door was the only way into the fifth zone. The afternoon shift was ending and the night guards were preparing to take over, some of them for the first time. Six guards sat quietly waiting for the trainer to give the final announcement.
He came in from the side and checked his clipboard before standing in front of the big door and addressing the group.
“As you all know, I’m trainer Mathis,” he said. “Five of you are going out for the first time and it’s my job to keep an eye on you and make sure that you are ready to become Zone Guards.” He looked down the rows and stopped at the guard sitting at the end of the first bench. “Davis, you’ll of course be going out on your own. You have your sector assignment,” the trainer said. The guard nodded distractedly and went back to checking his oversized flashlight. “Do you have any words for the new guards?” Mathis asked.
Davis looked up as if he had just noticed that anyone else was in the room. “Uh, stay in contact,” he muttered.
“Wonderful,” Mathis said. “The longest serving guard suggests that the new recruits stay in contact.” One of the guards-in-training chuckled prompting the others to join in. “He’s right,” Mathis snapped. “The only time we’ve ever had any incidents in zone five was when people lost contact. If you are ever out of contact with your partner or the captain you should fall back to the door and wait for instructions.” He eyed the guards for a moment to make sure his point was made.
“Alright,” Mathis said. “You trainees will go out with me and I’ll provide tasks for you. Check that your radios and flashlights are working.” The room briefly filled with buzz and static as they checked the radios, then the new guards took out their identical Maglights.
“Why does he have a different one?” one of the new guards asked, pointing to Davis’ unmarked flashlight. It was as twice the size as the trainee’s flashlights and seemed to have no features at all.
“What is this, kindergarten?” Mathis said. “When you’re six years into the job, you can use whatever flashlight you want. History dictates that none of you will last more than a year – and before you ask, there hasn’t been an incident for months. The last hostile we encountered was more than three years ago, so don’t worry about it.”
One of the new guards raised her hand. “Why do people only last a year?”
The trainer let out a long sigh. “Because the job is boring,” he said. He moved on to having them check their vests and to make sure their boots were properly tied as an announcement told them the door would be opening in five minutes. “Everyone line up and when the door opens tap your card against the sensor as you head in.”
They nervously formed a line on the left of the big door. Davis followed the new guards and took up position at the end of the line.
“The guards we’re taking over for will come in on the right. They will wait for you to exit then they will tap their cards on the sensor at that side of the room. Make your way to the courtyard at the end of the path and wait for me. Do not, under any circumstance, head off on your own. Zone five is over twenty-five hectares of the old city. Until you’ve logged enough time to have mapped the entire grid, you will stay in teams,” Mathis said facing the line of guards. “The most important thing to remember is to report on anything out of the ordinary – no matter how insignificant. And, for crying out loud, don’t pick up anything that comes out of the fissures.”
The next few minutes passed in silence. The new guards were too nervous and excited to speak and Davis was back to focusing on his flashlight. He had it up to his ear as if he were trying to listen to it. He suppressed a snicker as the sirens warned that the door was opening.
“Make sure you are back at the door in time for the changeover, or you’ll be stuck out there for the entirety of the next shift. You won’t have to worry about it this time, since you’re with me, but keep it in mind. The door holds back the zone from the city and it won’t just open for little old you,” Mathis yelled over the sound of the door creeping open. It took two minutes for it to raise completely into place. When it was half open Mathis ducked under it and ushered the others through. The door opened into an alleyway between two tall buildings. It was wide enough for both groups to pass each other without having to squeeze.
Davis followed, tagging his card like the rest. Once out, the previous shift’s crew hurried in before the door started to descend. The head guard stopped to talk to Mathis and the new guards continued to the courtyard. The courtyard was an open area of concrete and stone. The buildings surrounding it were once the headquarters for a company that was important before the shift. Besides the alleyway that led to the door, there were openings in each direction that led to different sectors in the zone.
When they had made it to the courtyard, the new guards clustered and chattered about the night ahead of them. Davis made his way directly to the exit that led to his assigned sector and waited. To the other guards it looked like he was talking to himself. One of them guessed it was from spending so much time alone in the zone. Another said it was because he was weird. Mathis entered the courtyard and the new guards stopped taking and turned to face him.
“Alright,” he said. “We are locked in for the night, so we better get moving.”
“Davis,” he called. Davis looked up, surprised anyone was there. “You’re free to head out. Stay in contact. We’ll see you back here.” He addressed the rest of the guards. “You’re with me, let’s go.”
Davis didn’t hesitate. He headed to his sector at a brisk pace, happy to be away from the others. “You’re going to get me into trouble,” he said as soon as he was free from the courtyard.
“It was funny, I couldn’t help myself,” his flashlight said.
“Yeah, but they already think I’m a weirdo.”
“So, who cares?” The flashlight said. “You are weird – big deal.”
Davis turned at the next corner. He knew the zone by heart. Five nights a week for the last six years, Davis had patrolled the area. He had found the flashlight on his first solo outing. He had been considering quitting, the job was dull, but being alone was what was getting to him. Most guards wouldn’t admit it, but the zone was scary. The shift that opened the tears in different dimensions was a cataclysmic event and the rips were especially unstable in the early days. All kinds of dangerous creatures, microscopic organisms, and reality bending forces broke their way through. It became more rare for anything to find a way into our world through the slight cracks that would appear and vanish almost randomly in the zones.
The night was warm and still. If it weren’t for the flashlight, Davis would have been dreading the patrol. The tension of working in the zones made even the calm seem foreboding.
“See anything?” Davis asked the animate object.
“No, there’s nothing here,” it said. “It’s a heavy night though.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I can feel it. I can always feel when there is something in the air.”
“You’re full of it.”
“Full of knowledge – full of wisdom. Don’t question me man, I’m interdimensional royalty.”
“You’re a flashlight,” Davis said holding the cylindrical object up to eye level. He turned to the open street and followed the route he’d memorized. His section was always bigger when there were trainees and he had a lot of places to secure before the shift was over. He’d thought about complaining, but the nights tended to give him the most time alone where he could chat with the flashlight without fear of anyone hearing.
“Which way are we going tonight?” the flashlight asked.
“Down past the school, then around the Fresh Choppers.”
“Oh,” the flashlight said with as much excitement as a flashlight could convey. “There’s a lot of great fractures down that way!”
“Anything we should call in?” Davis asked.
“No, nothing dangerous. Just interesting. It’s going to be a walk down memory lane,” the flashlight said, co-opting the phrase.
Davis enjoyed the flashlights stories. Half the time he thought they were made up, but true or not, they were windows into other worlds and Davis found them fascinating.