HIGHWAY TO THE INDETERMINATE DANGER ZONE
by Chris R. Morgan
SCENE: An empty road at the edge of a desolate forest, a man is hammering a large sign in place. Another man enters carrying a fire extinguisher.
Man 1: Hello.
Man 2: Oh dear, hello! You startled me.
Man 1: Sorry. May I ask what you’re doing?
Man 2: Oh, of course. I’m just putting the finishing touches on this sign. How does it look?
Man 1: It looks like a sign.
Man 2: Well I know that but does it serve its purpose? Is it clear? Here … let me step back and have you read it.
Man 1: “DANGER!! … Entry beyond this point may put you at risk of exposure to any or all of the following: Skinwalkers, Amazon Queens, the Children’s Crusade, or variations of Chimera. Please consult your most recent edition of the Contingency Map for the nearest point of safety.”
Man 2: I was worried that the double exclamation point would be rhetorically excessive.
Man 1: I would change “point of safety” to “safe area.”
Man 2: You would?
Man 1: It’s more efficient, I think.
Man 2: Oh … yes, of course. I agree.
Man 1: I have questions about all this stuff here.
Man 2: Oh … such as?
Man 1: Like, what is it?
Man 2: Perhaps I should explain.
Man 1: Please.
Man 2: You know when, in the early days of the catastrophe, the Contingency Committee saw it fit to color-code the terrain?
Man 1: Yeah.
Man 2: Green for an area that was safe, red for an area of precise danger, and orange for an area of indeterminate danger. There were no problems with the first two. Green, red; pretty clear-cut. But orange was more ambiguous. Some people didn’t know if it was the same as red, other people thought it was basically okay, and went in none the wiser with little good coming of it. And since the Contingency Committee is more or less in dispose, I took it upon myself to clarify the matter.
Man 1: So you’ve been going in and letting people know of the danger?
Man 2: I haven’t been going in exactly.
Man 1: So how do you know about any of this?
Man 2: Well … I don’t, technically.
Man 1: You made this stuff up?
Man 2: Not so much as “made up” as “deduced through a painstaking qualitative analytical process.” No one knows what’s behind this sign. So, given the various events since the initial catastrophe, I sat down and thought of what could possibly exist within these territories, and gave them names that I thought had really good branding potential. You know, stuff that really sticks in the memory.
Man 1: Okay, so what are they?
Man 2: Ah, very glad you asked! Let me just get out my notebook here. Ah! So … Skinwalkers. Skinwalkers are roving gangs who set traps in the woods hoping for a poor sap to wander in and ensnare him or her for their sustenance.
Man 1: Cannibals?
Man 2: Yes! And not only for digestive but also for aesthetic sustenance, replacing conventional textile adornments with the hides of their kill.
Man 1: And who are the Amazon Queens?
Man 2: Ah, yes. The Amazon Queens are an all- or predominantly female offshoot of the Skinwalkers.
Man 1: Roving female cannibals who eat only men?
Man 2: Not at all! They are a vegetarian group who use men in elaborate rituals to assure bountiful harvests. They also take certain trophies, so to speak, as tokens of good fortune. But as the soil is infertile and no one has any fortune, they do, much to their considerable regret, resort to cannibalism.
Man 1: And the Children’s Crusaders are also cannibals? But children?
Man 2: Gah! Get your head out of the gutter. Of course not. They are a puckish cohort predisposed to capers and schemes, which largely entail the fleecing of green zone rations. But they cannot, or will not, be held down by the strictures of green zone protocols.
Man 1: Sounds kind of charming.
Man 2: I mean, yes, if you cross them they will use your head as a rugby ball.
Man 1: Rugby?
Man 2: Very impromptu and idiosyncratically guided rugby, but still!
Man 1: Ah ha. And dare I even ask about the Chimeras?
Man 2: Mutant beast hybrids! Very imposing and powerful.
Man 1: Why can’t the cannibals just hunt them?
Man 2: Are you crazy? The Chimeras rule the night, come in unpredictable combinations, and are more than novice at camouflage.
Man 1: My mistake.
Man 2: I excuse you of that error. It’s a very complicated ecosystem I’ve devised.
Man 1: And they all live right over there?
Man 2: I can’t say for certain, nor will anyone else be able to, because even before revisions this is the perfect deterrent.
Man 1: Is there something wrong.
Man 2: It’s weird, you haven’t disappeared.
Man 1: Pardon?
Man 2: You are a parabolic figment of my imagination, right? Sent to tell me that this is all going to work out?
Man 1: No, my name is Kurt.
Man 2: Oh. Well, I’m sorry I won’t be able to help you with your car trouble then.
Man 1: Oh I don’t have any car trouble.
Man 2: Then what’s that fire extinguisher for?
Man 1: This is not a fire extinguisher.
Man 2: What the hell is it?
Man 1: It is an eraser!
Man 2: What?
Man 1: I am Kurt of the Eraser Brigade. You see, like you, we had the same concern that the coding system was flawed, and also like you we took it upon ourselves to correct it. But unlike you we decided to just turn the orange zones into red ones, spreading the Pestilence to whatever the hell dwells within them. It’s more efficient, I think. Frankly I’m disappointed you hadn’t also “deduced” us. Ah well, maybe the element of surprise is better.
Man 2: Probably yeah.
Man 1: Well, I do appreciate you saving me the trouble of having to go further in than usual. You’re right that that’s some scary shit. So I’m going to need you to move back for me.
Man 2: Back?
Man 1: Yeah, a little scooch.
Man 2: Like this?
Man 1: A liiiiitle more. A little bit more. No, like, behind the sign.
Man 2: Behind the sign? But—
Man 1: Yes, exactly. Now let me just … [straps on gas mask] … There we go. Alright. [pulls pin and sprays diseased solution]
Man 2: Hey, what fu— [hacks and chokes]
Man 1: Very good! Now walk in that direction if it’s not too much trouble.
Man 2: I feel kind of fuzzy all over.
Man 1: That won’t last.
Man 1 packs up his things as Man 2 stumbles into the forest. Standing before the sign, he takes out a marker, and writes “
point of safety safe area.”