Book 2 of the Plagued States of America series
When Army Ranger Lieutenant Mason Jones arrives at the Rock Island Prison Defense Facility for his tour of duty, suspicion that he is from the Inspector General's Office leaves him isolated from his fellow soldiers in a place more hostile than any war zone he has ever seen. To survive, he must turn to the manager of the facility's secret scientific zombie research lab, the only person on the island with the power to get him out alive.
"Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission, though I be the lone survivor."
- From the Army Ranger Creed
It may as well have been a death sentence. Drawing a red card was bad enough. It meant eighteen months of service patrolling the safe side of the Moaning Coast, but to find a big letter D in the top right corner? Defensive duty. Holding the wall. Front lines. Fodder. Call it anything. Everyone who drew the card knew what it meant. Death just waiting to happen. Or worse, getting turned.
"So, we got ourselves another hero," Game Warden Mitchell said, not returning Mason's salute. Mitchell sat behind his elaborate cherry wood desk with its formal calendar mat and silver-embossed name plate, a spit-shined, silver pen holder sprouting only two pens, and a standard number two pencil, point up. The cigarette burned near its end on the lip of a plastic ashtray.
"No, sir," Lieutenant Mason Jones replied, still holding his rigid salute.
"Huh?" the warden asked quickly, glaring at Mason-a young man, not yet thirty. All muscle and no brains, that's what the warden was probably thinking. Typical Army. Well, not typical. Mason Jones had to have four things in his background to even be considered for this duty. He had to be a medic, he had to have seen combat duty, he had to be an expert in hand-to-hand combat, and he had to be a Ranger. The warden glanced over his file. Lieutenant Mason Jones was all that and more.
"No, sir, I'm not a hero," Lieutenant Mason Jones replied stoically. "I have not earned any such commendations."
"Oh, a funny guy, huh?" Warden Mitchell asked, picking up his dying cigarette to take one last drag. It was so quiet in the room Mason felt certain he could hear the crackling of the tobacco turning to embers.
"I did not intend-"
"Shut up and sit down, Jones," the warden interrupted, waving toward the chair. Mason looked at him, still holding his salute, unmoving. Warden Mitchell smashed out the cigarette and blew the smoke in the air toward Mason, then leaned back in his chair.
"At ease, soldier," Warden Mitchell said. The young man continued to stand rigidly, his hand at his eyebrow, holding it there and waiting. He'd wait until summer. "Jesus, Jones, you're not going to make too many friends around here like that," Mitchell said, waving his hand to his eyebrow in a nonchalant salute.
Mason nodded, withdrawing his salute and widening his legs to stand at ease, both hands behind his back.
"Sit down, lieutenant," the warden said, indicating a plush chair. Mason glanced at it, then back at the warden. "That's an order, actually," Mitchell told him flatly.
Mason nodded again and took the seat.
"Says here you've been transferred to me to fill my outgoing hardship," Mitchell said, holding up Mason's file. "Apparently Banks' wife is better at blowjobs than mine and got some Senator to sign his get-out-of-jail card. And lucky you, just coming off your second tour of duty in Hotter-than-hellistan, you pick up his remainder. Five months." Mitchell put down Mason's file, staring at the young lieutenant suspiciously.
Mason said nothing.
"I find it interesting that this just happens to coincide with the fiasco at Biter's Hill last month," the warden went on, staring intently at Mason for any sign or twitch or eye movement that would give him away. "A little too convenient our Big Brother sending you here to finally relieve someone who's been begging to get out since before he got here," Mitchell continued, still prodding. "Don't you agree?"
"Sir," Mason replied. It was put neither as a question nor affirmation. "Is it possible that I might file for a hardship discharge, too?"
"You are a fucking comedian, aren't you?" Warden Mitchell snapped.
"No, sir," Mason replied. "I'm just trying to serve my last six and go home."
"Well, this is your home now, Jones," Warden Mitchell said with disgust, plucking a pen from his jar and signing the orders in Mason's file. He closed the folder and shoved it across the desk, waving a hand over his eye as way of salute. "Dismissed, lieutenant."
"Yes, sir," Mason replied, standing abruptly with a rigid and proper salute. He took his file from the warden's desk and went for the door. The warden glared suspiciously at the young lieutenant as he left.
Lieutenant Mason Jones taped the red card to the inside of his locker alongside the small mirror. At least this wasn't barracks living. He had a room, even if he was sharing it with another lieutenant. A second lieutenant named Thompson, who wasn't here. He was on duty somewhere on the wall or in the prison itself. Maybe patrolling the market, who knew? Mason only knew he was not only assigned a "D" red card, but that he was also put on the graveyard shift. Graves. In a zombie prison.
Newbies always got the worst duty. Mason had been around long enough to know that rule. He had to cut his teeth, prove his worth, and prove his allegiance. He thought it funny that in every new situation they considered torture a method of solidarity. That was fine. He could take a little torture.
"You ready?" Sergeant Chavez asked while knocking on the open door. He looked at Mason's duffle bag, how it was only half full. Mason hadn't brought anything with him except uniforms. Personal items were inspected coming over the bridge, so he left them all behind rather than have any taken.
"Yeah," Mason replied distantly. He picked up the duffle bag from the bed and shoved it into his locker. He could unpack later. He still had orientation to sit through.
"You officers have it nice here," Chavez said as he led Mason down the hall. He pointed out the day room and the big screen television. "The nearest chow hall is across the street, and it's a good one. Don't miss breakfast."
"You mean dinner?" Mason asked.
Chavez only grinned.
Outside, Chavez hopped into a Jeep and turned the engine over. Mason fell into the passenger seat and Chavez lurched forward, taking a wide U-turn as Mason buckled himself in.
"That's the south wall there again," Chavez pointed out as he cruised east. "It used to be Beck Street or something, but the water level has everything past it five feet under. It's all motion sensor and video surveilled. Officers don't pull tower duty, but so you know, anyone caught climbing the walls gets shot a hundred times before they'll stop to ask questions." Chavez followed the sharply curving wall northward. He accelerated to an intersection, slammed on the brakes, and pointed east past a guard shack and wooden gate stretching across the road. The guard shack reminded Mason of the check points he manned from time to time in Egypt during his tours there, except there were no cars coming or going. Just one bored soldier kicking at the wall of the shack to keep from going crazy.
"The Meat Market is down there where the country club used to be. Lucky bastards. This is Rodman Road. We truck the biters in and out of the market along this route. Civilian traffic goes through check points all up and down East Avenue. This is East Avenue, by the way, sir. They blew the Rodman Bridge along with every other bridge up and down the river, so the only way off the island to either side is at the prison. You came through the Rurals access bridge coming in this morning. I'm going to take you to see the other bridge."
Mason didn't like hearing it said like that. The other bridge. The one leading to the Plague States, biter territory, or just plain hell. That same uneasy feeling he had his first day in Egypt crept up on him, an emptiness that came with disorientation to a world unlike any he'd known or experienced before. Just as then, Mason did the only thing he could. He let someone else lead the way. Chavez lurched the jeep ahead again, turning west hard. Mason held the door frame to keep from spilling out.
"These are all the barracks," Chavez said. "I live in that one," he added, pointing to the third on the right. "It's nice enough." He shrugged. "We've got chairs on the roof. In the summer you can look out over the river and almost believe you're home, you know?"
Mason only looked at his driver and guide. He couldn't imagine thinking home looked anything like this. But then again, he hadn't been here six months either.
Chavez, Rudy. Sergeant. Nine months into his tour of duty in Egypt, his team was ambushed during a routine convoy. All were killed except him. His life was spared due to being thrown from the vehicle into an abandoned shanty. Chavez dressed his own wound, and held his position against rebel opposition with only an M-9 for protection until helicopters arrived. They sent him here as reward.
The Game Warden was not much different than Chavez in that regard.
Mitchell, Robert A. Staff Sergeant, retired. Served two tours before retiring from the Navy Seals. He went to work for Blackline as a high ranking consultant, and wound up being an enlisted man telling generals what to do in the Middle East. He pissed off the wrong people, though. He was later transferred to corrections for two years at Leavenworth, and then sent here. Still, Mitchell was in charge of this place, as bad as it was, and that earned him some kind of respect.
Chavez pointed northward as they cruised along the road. Mason glanced at the long Quonset huts, row after row of them.
"We guard those too," Chavez said only loud enough for Mason to hear. Mason thought it odd the way Chavez said it, as if he was worried others might hear. Chavez glanced between Mason and the road a few times.
"Munitions?" Mason asked.
"And then some," Chavez said while shaking his head. "You've been briefed on the rule, right sir?"
The Rule: In the event of a breach of containment, after all other measures to arrest the advancement or escape of detainees are exhausted, and at the orders of the base commander or from a higher command outside of the facility, the use of Tactical Defensive Explosives shall be implemented to prevent further spread of the contagion.
"I know it," Mason said.
Chavez pulled up to the main gate of the prison, the one they called the Inside Passage-a man-trap with six-inch thick iron doors on both ends of the containment zone. Chavez honked his horn several times.
"Rudy, can't you just buzz us like everyone else?" a voice asked from a call box beside them.
"Open the door. I have fresh meat!"
The door lurched with a creak of protest, grinding aside to reveal a dark passageway that could fit an entire bus. Chavez drove inside and slammed on the brakes as he killed the engine. The door behind them stopped, and then began to roll shut. Blacklights glowed over every white surface, even the edges of Chavez's eyes. Mason figured his own eyes and teeth would probably glow white too.
"Kind of spooky, huh?" Chavez asked. "Try coming through with some biters sometime. Their eyes light up."
Chavez's teeth glowed as he smiled. A loud buzz announced the next gate was opening. Light from outside washed away the shadows and eerie glow of his guide's teeth and eyes. Chavez turned the engine on again and drove through the second gate straight toward one of three lone doors on the concrete building beyond.
Chavez killed the engine and hopped out of the Jeep, tossing the keys on the front seat.
"Aren't you worried someone will take it?"
"Where would they go with it?" Chavez asked with a shrug. "Welcome to the prison complex," Chavez went on. "We keep all the biters in here, from pre-registration through post-quarantine. The non-infectious ones we ferry back and forth to the country club through that roll up gate and loading dock."
Mason looked up at the concrete prison complex, a menacing structure that reminded him of the high school he attended, a similarly huge concrete building in the middle of a concrete jungle, and as a teenager he hated getting out of his car every morning once he arrived. He always felt watched. Judged.
"Don't forget your ID anywhere. I like these arm badge holders." Chavez turned the plastic armband over to display his ID on his upper arm, over his sleeve. "If you're caught without ID, they'll hold you for hours just to mess with you, to make sure you don't forget it again. Sometimes they put you in a cell down with the biters if you piss them off."
At the door marked three, Chavez rubbed his armband over a black sensor embedded in the wall. It beeped and the door latch clicked. He tugged the door open and motioned for Mason to enter. It was another man-trap, but this one was white and well lit.
"Try yours," Chavez said, pointing to the next door. A sensor blinked quietly next to the door handle. Mason pulled his ID card out from a cargo pocket and swiped it. The door unlatched and let them pass.
"May as well keep it out, sir," Chavez told him, pointing down the hallway. "You're going to need it a couple more times." There were several closed doors lining the hall with one large one at the end. Beside the door was a shielded glass wall with a counter. Above the door a sign read CHECK WEAPONS BEYOND THIS POINT.
"I don't have a weapon," Mason said as they marched down the hallway.
"Oh, no, sir. This is where they give you one. It's your responsibility to check that you have one if you're going in. Don't ever go in without a sidearm."
"Should I sleep with one?"
"I do," Chavez replied.