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.
Davis followed protocol as he walked the streets. The flashlight told him he didn’t have to be so uptight. It claimed that it could sense any disturbance, dimensional or not, but Davis felt more relaxed when he was doing his job.
They made another turn down a street lined with long low buildings. Some of them had bars and Asian restaurants and others housed book stores and pawnshops. They had all been deserted since the shift. With the first attack, people left behind everything they couldn’t carry. The zone was closed off as quickly as the military and corporations could manage. Dust, time, and the first creatures had their way with everything in the zones, but that didn’t stop people from trying to get in and scavenge. Davis pointed the flashlight at the broken windows and occasional holes in the walls of the stores, happy it still served its purpose. The crunch of Davis’ boots on the scattered debris was the only sound.
“I keep telling you nothing’s here,” the flashlight said.
“I know. I like to be sure,” Davis replied. “Any fractures?” he asked.
“A few, but they’re boring.”
“Oh yeah?” Davis said. He’d learned that what the flashlight considered boring was fascinating to him.
“Just an empty world and a jungle.” There were infinite possible Earths, but through the flashlight’s descriptions, he found that many of them were dead or empty. He figured it was just his luck.
“What’s in the jungle?” Davis asked, hoping for something exotic.
“Really stupid creatures. I spent some time there as a tree once.”
“Stupid how?” Davis continued to scan the ruined stores as he walked.
“Imagine a hippo.”
“That lives in a tree.”
“That’s amazing,” Davis said, stopping to imagine it.
“What’s amazing is how many times they fall out and keep trying to climb to the top – morons.”
“What did you do there? As a tree?”
“Mostly laughed and tried to keep my limbs from breaking. I’d wait until they fell asleep and shake. Got ‘em every time.”
“That’s terrible,” Davis said, moving on.
“They were too big to get hurt,” said the flashlight.
They passed the first of the university buildings and Davis moved closer to them. They were big, but mostly glass and concrete so he didn’t bother going inside.
“There,” the flashlight said as Davis scanned him across the window. “Do you see it?”
“Is someone there?” Davis said, moving closer.
“No, a fracture. A big one. You might even be able to see it.”
“Look at the stairs.” Davis pointed the flashlight at the bottom of a flight of stairs, then turned off the beam.
“Good. Now look where the stairs start, then over a foot. It’s half way up the wall.”
Davis looked at the spot he thought the flashlight meant and stared hard. “I think I see something,” he said. “Is it like a faint blue haze around a thin jagged line?”
“Not even close,” the flashlight said, laughing. “You humans are hopeless.”
“At least I have legs.”
“One time I was a warship,” the flashlight snapped. “The pride of an entire fleet that protected the entire solar system.”
“And now you’re a flashlight. I could just leave you in the street and walk away.”
“There is more to me that you can see,” It said.
Davis finished checking the building and moved on to the next. They both dropped the argument. After the university was patrolled, they turned down a street that ran under an abandoned bridge.
“Anything,” Davis asked, breaking the silence.
“Nothing to trouble yourself with. A few small fissures, but they are way too weak to pose any problems.”
“When you were a ship?” Davis asked. “Did anyone know you were sentient?”
“They knew I was in the ship, but they thought I was just an AI. I did tell one guy what was going on. It’s nice to have someone to talk to.”
“Wouldn’t they have known you weren’t the AI when they built you?”
“No. They found me. Took them months to figure out how I worked. They even built more ships in my image.” The flashlight boasted, but Davis didn’t take the bait.
“Who did build you?”
“I did. When I enter a new dimension, I create an object that fits the environment and then I inhabit it.”
“Is it always Earth?”
“Often, but not always.”
“Do you always find someone to talk to?”
“Sometimes,” It said.
They continued to walk. The bridge ended and merged with the road. They passed a few off campus buildings, which Davis briefly checked, and a high school.
“Here’s an interesting one,” the flashlight said as they approached the school. Davis stopped and tried to see the fracture.
“Is it dangerous?” Davis asked, moving around to look at different angles.
“Not unless you are afraid of someone shooting an arrow at you.”
Davis stood up, startled. “Can something get through?”
“No, I was just subtly indicating that the Earth on the other side of that fissure is in a primitive state. It’s not unlike your Medieval Period.
“What were you there?”
“I was a sword!” the flashlight proclaimed. “A very important sword,” it continued when Davis didn’t react with the appropriate amount of awe.
“How so?” Davis asked.
“I single-handedly created a kingdom.”
“As a sword? How did you single-handedly do anything?”
“I was wielded, but he was just a puppet. I guided him and moulded him into a true warrior and king.”
“Uh huh,” Davis said, smirking.
“I found him as a peasant and taught him everything. He was a pig farmer’s son before I came into his life.”
“Then what happened?”
“He got indolent and corrupt, so I left.”
“OK, that’s something I don’t get,” Davis said. “You were a sword, so how did you go anywhere?”
“I used a squire.”
“What happened?” Davis asked. He had stopped trying to see the tear and continued his patrol.
“I told him to steal me and throw me into a lake.”
“And he just did?”
“Of course he did.”
“From the king?”
“I was very persuasive.”
“What happened after you were thrown in the lake?”
“I went through another fissure and became a cloud. I thought it would be really freeing and tranquil after being a sword of destiny, but it was just really boring.”
“At least you got to rain on people?” Davis said. He couldn’t help but try to be encouraging.
“One constant I’ve found,” the flashlight said. “Birds are jerks.” Davis chuckled at the comment and the flashlight joined in.
The road they were following met an intersection. Large stores lined both sides. Davis stopped at each one briefly, flashing the light deep into the interiors, then moving on. They were in the same ruined condition as everything else in the zones. Damage and neglect had wormed through it all.
They crossed the intersection and checked the cars that were unmoved since they were abandoned in the initial event.
“So, how many things have you been?” Davis asked. He passed the cars with only cursory looks. Most of them had their doors open and he could easily see inside.
“That’s a hard -,” the flashlight started. They had made it to the parking lot of the Fresh Choppers. The building and lot had taken a significant amount of damage. One of the first and largest events had happened in the grocery store. Half of the building toppled in on itself and a path of destruction, that started at the store, went as far out as Davis could see, right to the edge of the zones. Davis had been around long enough to hear rumours that the Fresh Chopper event wasn’t even related to the dimensional shift, but he had a hard time imagining anything more incredible than could have happened.
“I think we’d better head back,” the flashlight continued.
“Something bad?” Davis asked. He tensed and was ready to run at the flashlight’s word.
“I’d say so. Little vicious things – more than you’d believe. You should call in and report this.”
Davis reported the threat over the radio, but he didn’t get a response. He could feel something like static in the air and the wind picked up quickly.
“Go,” the flashlight said. Davis ran back the way they had come. He didn’t bother looking behind him, he knew he didn’t want to see what would be coming for him.
They made it back to the university before Davis had to catch his breath. He tried the radio again, but only heard static.
“Keep going,” the flashlight prodded. Davis started to jog but the sound pushed him to go faster. It swelled and rumbled and rolled along the streets behind him. He thought it was rain or hail pounding the asphalt, but the closer it got, the more it sounded like thousands of tiny feet chasing after him.
They got back to the tall buildings that lead to the courtyards where the guards started and ended their patrols, but he still couldn’t get through to the others. He switched the band to directly call the guard’s building and made his report. They would relay the information to the military that would be in the zone within minutes. He still couldn’t get through to the patrolling guards though.
The man at the dispatch told Davis to head to the door and wait for it to be overridden.”
“What about the trainees?” he asked.
“The military will find them after they’ve taken care of the foreign presence,” the voice said over the small radio speaker.
“Listen to him,” the flashlight said.
“I can’t. Whatever those things were, they were too close behind us.”
“That’s right,” the flashlight said. “They’re too close. You can’t help them.”
“I just have to get into radio range,” He mentally checked which way they had been going and ran after them.
He came out of the alley into a neighbourhood that was run down even before the fissures started appearing. He didn’t bother to look around, the trainees would be in a large group and at least half of them would be out in the open.
Remembering all the routes he’d taken over the years, Davis tried to figure out where they would be. He cut across a lawn and hopped a short chain-link-fence.
“You are in a lot of danger,” the flashlight said.
Davis stopped and checked his radio. “I just have to warn them,” he puffed. He heard the static and moved on. He dropped to a jog, trying to not tire himself out too much. He passed a restaurant that was closed by the health board when he was a kid, and turned towards the river that separated the city’ and country’ from another. He hoped that in the open space he could see the group or get a better signal.
Davis tried calling over the radio through heavy breaths. A voice broke through the static intermittently. He couldn’t make out who it was or what was said, but he repeated his warning and tried to use the fading in and out of the response to get closer to the other guards.
With the signal breaking into static again, Davis ran back into the neighbourhoods and called into the radio with every block he passed.
“The military will be here by now, we’re going to miss our window to leave,” the flashlight said.
“What do you care?” asked Davis. “You can just move on somewhere else. Become a cup or sports car.”
“Don’t be stupid,” it replied. “Those things will be all over the zone any minute.”
Davis ignored the warning and zigzagged down the streets, turning at each corner, following the intermittent noises of the radio, looking for the group. “Can you hear me?” he said, ignoring a stitch in his side. “There is an event, we have to leave now!”
“Davis, is that you?” The voice of Mathis was garbled through the static. “Say again?”
Davis yelled out loud. He knew it was risky with whatever had broken through the fissure running around, be he thought he was close. “Mathis, you have to get them to the door. Something is coming.”
He heard the yell from behind him, a block or two away. “What? What’s coming?” The echo of Mathis’ voice was drowned out by sound of tiny feet running.
Davis cut through the sides of the houses, hopped more fences and looked for the guards. He saw the beams form their flashlights on the road ahead of him and yelled without stopping. “Run!”
The inexperienced group hesitated but Mathis spurred them on. “You heard him, back to the courtyard,” he said as Davis sprinted by.
The group followed Davis. He cut every corner he knew of and headed straight back to the exit, where soldiers would be setting up a command line.
“Not that way!” the flashlight chirped as Davis turned into the restaurant’s parking lot. He went around instead and checked behind him to see the new guards close behind. He led them down another block, through a weed filled park and to a different alley that lead to the courtyard.
“Hey, hey,” he managed to blurt out; waving his arms at the guns the soldiers were pointing at him. “It’s – just – us.” Davis pulled in huge lung fulls of air. “They’re coming,” he managed to say before doubling over and urging himself to not vomit.
The other guards had an easier time, having only made the final sprint.
“What is it?” an officer asked.
“Little things,” Davis said. “Thousands – ten thousand of them.”
The woman nodded, gestured to some soldiers and led them back down the alley.
“Thanks Davis,” Mathis said. “You didn’t have to come after us like that.”
“No problem. Guards got to stick together,” Davis said, starting to breathe easier.
Mathis clapped him on the back and Davis headed off to the door. He heard the trainer using the event as a lesson for the new guards before he was around the corner. He passed a couple of soldiers carrying a big case to the courtyard, but no one was at the door.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Guards got to stick together,” the flashlight mocked.
“You could have been killed by those things,” the flashlight said. Davis didn’t answer. “Who else is going to listen to my stories?”
“They’re the only thing that makes the job worthwhile,” Davis conceded.