"They call it "The Zone"'; a precisely circular, 1 mile wide area of land in the middle of England. It sits there, day in, day out, swathed in mist, and formed into a dome that never strays more than a few inches one way or another, that covers the area to a height of 304 feet exactly, precisely in the middle; we know, we've checked. More than once.
Well, when I say “never strays”, that is unless it's had one of it’s periodic and unpredictable expansions the Zone goes through every now and then. One moment it's still, gently roiling against what to all intents and purposes is an invisible wall. The next, it's swallowed up a meter, two meters, 50 meters, a kilometre... in the 5 years since the "Event", it's expanded 8 times, all differently, all at different speeds, all precisely centred on ground zero. And no-one knows why.
No-one knows why it happened in the first place either, or how, but the Event changed the world. A mile-wide dome of mist silently appeared literally overnight in a field in England and nothing was ever the same again.
The first people to approach it were driven mad; the first people to try to breach it died; the first people who tried to harness it made it grow. Now, 5 years later, it’s 20 miles wide from point to point and exactly the same height as it’s always been.
They tried to investigate it, obviously. As I said, in the 5 years since The Event happened, it’s swelled 8 times and breached it’s containment on 5 occasions. They just move the perimeter back, now; it’s all they can do.
They sent unmanned probes in, of course. Every one of them failed; they sent in special guinea pigs; every one of them died. Then they figured out why...
Technology goes bizarre crossing what we call The Boundary; anything that uses electricity of even the tiniest amount stops working if it goes from one side to the other without suitable protection. And that includes the human brain. One step inside that misty wall without an isolation suit, and your brain and central nervous system stop instantly as every microscopic electrically charged neuron or nerve signal immediately ceases; at least, that’s what they told us. A quick and painless way to die, for sure, but not one I would recommend to anyone.
It took 3 years of hard, painstakingly gathered evidence to come up with a solution. Along with over 95 million pounds and the lives of over 400 people, of course. And that was just the start...
And then they sent us in.
Beyond the Boundary is a misty realm, dotted with the ruins of the world it’s swallowed. 20 miles of gobbled up land, complete with roads, trees, houses and dead bodies. Weirdly, the animals that got sucked in survived, and no-one knows why that is, either.
The problem is, you push past 20 miles and you don’t come out the other side. The land just gets… stranger. Entire ruined settlements that look like they came out of either a sci-fi movie or a history documentary, or sometimes both, dotted around in almost logical places. Odd objects like monoliths that have never stood on Earth rise up through the mists. And freaky things that have never walked the land outside a horror story call this place “home”.
And that doesn't account for the reports of survivors that somehow didn't get "switched off" when they got swallowed by the Boundary. Or the other man-like figures that my fellow Pathfinders were always reluctant to put on official reports, for fear of the "scowl" and the inevitable hauling off to be psych-tested to make sure you weren't going to go completely postal at the next opportunity. Me? I've seen things in there I don't ever want to remember, and certainly aren't going to write down here; I have enough of a hard time trying to blot it out with Scotch and deliberately pretendng some of it never happened without putting it here to constantly remind me.
We’ve been looking for 5 years; looking for an answer; looking for “why”. Why did this happen? Some massive cosmic mistake? A completely random confluence of events? A directed attack? An attempt to contact mankind, or something else? No-one knows.
Oh, there are plenty of theories, of course; an overlap with a parallel world; a breach between dimensions where they all bleed into one. The result of an experiment gone wrong. And that’s just the 3 that get the most traction. I’m not counting the bizarro ones, the mad ones, the internet conspiracy ones, the religious ones.
All we know is it happened, and the Zone is here now, and doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon.
And pretty soon, I’ll have to go back into it again.
Who am I? Well, I suppose introductions are in order. The name’s Ramsey, Michael Ramsey. More properly, I suppose it’s “Corporal Mike Ramsey, D Squadron, 22 SAS”, if such things still mattered. They don’t, incidentally… I’ve not been a soldier now for 3 years at least, and it’s been 2 since I last drove through the gates to what the smart arses in R&B call “the Foyer”, the latest incarnation of the departure point into the Zone.
It’s a square mile of concrete, muddy field, gravel and tarmac… which keeps being moved every time the bloody thing swells. I know it’s moved since I was last there, as I’ve seen the news reports; it grew again 3 weeks ago and another 5 miles of England’s Green and Pleasant Lands are now gone into that foggy hole where nothing ever comes back from.
Apart from the Pathfinders, of course.
That’s what we were called; Pathfinders. A good enough name for what we did. Trailblazers was considered a little too outre, and Guinea Pigs was frowned upon as too negative, even though that’s what most of us were.
20 of us to begin with, fresh faced, eager and from different backgrounds; scientists, doctors, soldiers, engineers; of those original 20, there ain’t many of us left. 2 died of some weird infection that they contracted on the other side; 4 died as a result of complications from injuries caused by accidents, 1 died in a scuba diving accident, 1 was a victim of a hit and run and another was murdered by his wife when she found out about the affair he was having with her best friend.
10 of us died fighting the things that crawl, flap and skitter on the other side. Occupational hazard, they call it, and it is, really. Not that it makes it any easier, of course.
I guess that leaves me and Ian Parker; he got injured rescuing a load of civilians who got caught in the Boundary when it last swelled; he still walks with a limp, but he managed to save 3 of them before the rest of the coach party crossed the Boundary and just “stopped”, as most things do. He’s project director, now; riding a desk and not a trail quad or armoured car.
And me? Well, I retired. More correctly, I was retired, mainly because of the way I drank, I guess.
Or maybe it was the way I woke up screaming in the night and couldn’t remember why.
Or the 3 times I nearly killed my camp mates in my sleep without even waking up.
My wife left me before then, thank christ; the last thing I wanted was to wake up and find me standing over her bloody corpse. I can’t say I blame her, to be honest; if I was shacked up with some borderline psychopathic loon who could kill a man with a toothbrush, I’d have fucked off pretty damn quickly, too.
So, I was psych-evaluated, poked, prodded, tested, considered “safe” to be let go, plied with enough secrecy documents to sink a battleship and quietly shipped off to my “retirement”, with the obligatory warnings not to talk about what I’d seen, or done, or I’d spend eternity rotting in a dark cell somewhere where I’d never see the light of day again. Either that or, depending on what I blabbed or wrote about and who to, end up meeting with a dodgy looking bloke at some ungodly hour with a sharpened umbrella or a silenced 9mm.
I wasn’t interested in either of those, naturally. I just wanted to be left alone to drink myself slowly to death, preferrably somewhere nice and warm and not damp and cold. That feeling brought back too many memories of fumbled, mad scrambling in the dark, running firefights and warm, sticky blood on my hands.
They replaced us as we “dropped out”, naturally; fresh meat for the grinder, all fresh faced and young, eager to please their superiors or governmental leash holders. Promises of fortune and glory, enough cash to sleep comfortably for the rest of your life, fame and celebrity always makes sure there’s a line of hopefuls from all over the world ten miles long, champing at the bit to step up and be the hero. I know; I was one of them when I started. That soon wore off, tnough, and I can’t say I was sorry when I drove out of those gates for the last time, hoping… dreading I’d never, ever have to go back.
Of course, I never expected to get a call from Parker. Hell, I never expected what happened to prompt that call, either. But, as one of my dead colleagues always used to say “once the Zone has it’s hooks in you, you’ll always end up going back, whether you want to or not”.
And I sure as hell didn’t want to. But I wasn’t given a lot of choice… and,to be honest, I think a part of me needed to go back, one last time. Just to… I dunno. Say goodbye, maybe?
Weird, I know. I don’t expect anyone who’s never been in there to understand what I mean, but there’s this niggling voice at the back of my mind that still, even now, whispers in the quiet of the night “but what does it all mean?”
I guess that voice is happy it’s got another shot at trying to find out. And, strangely, so am I..."
An idea I'm toying with... more to come as it trickles into my brain... or out of my ears