Blue Zone Gone to Ground

In the few minutes before Gary’s system had begun shutting down, the operator’s was suddenly in shock. He had taken a few hours and come back on duty because he was the senior operator on hand and because the signals were rising. The moment was at hand. The mobile unit was in place. The bird was one hundred percent, and reporting the general area with absolute consistency. An incident was underway.

The sensor suddenly exploded, in a way that he had never seen before. Perhaps during one occurrence that was used in his training, but he couldn’t remember the details at the moment. “I’ve got something,” he said, and looked around. The smart number, unfortunately, had been replaced by a significantly less smart number, but nevertheless a young woman with a presence. She took even less guff and had called him on his insolence twice already. “A soldier is always a soldier,” she had said to him, “and your sloppy self-importance is a disgrace.” Fortunately, Dr. Blue Zone had not been on-hand when that exchange occurred. Perhaps he ought not have implied that she would get wet when the sensors pegged that night.

The good doctor was present now, resting with what seemed to be brandy in a paper cup, on a couch that was a remnant of some original design for this trailer. He was skeptical and not eager to show that his ears could perceive a private’s voice. His adjutant approached the screen and stared for what seemed like a minute. The operator recognized the stare: keep calculating the ways that you might be sticking your foot in the crap, until you find one or you run out of time. “That’s a hit, sir, a big one,” she said finally. “You ought to come over and see this.” Then she remembered to brush the operator’s shoulder to make himself scarce. The good doctor liked to look in peace.

He had not designed the equipment and his disparaging looks made clear that he thought the main tool too mickey-mouse to be of much use. But he understood very well what it measured, and respected its ability to provide that measure accurately. This hit surprised him — surprised him so much, in fact, he sat down and did his own extended stare.

The adjutant finally broke the spell: “Soldier, inform mobile.” The doctor came to life as well, looking a good deal younger than he had just a few minutes before. The operator figured: he is going to get laid tonight.

The excitement kept building, as the mobile unit approached the source, confirmed it many times over, and reported: “500 meters, triangulating.”

Three spots, thought the operator, three readings along the tangent and we’ve got them. Three spots and no more trailer, he thought, knowing just as well that that was wishful thinking. Three spots!

“Location beta, signal locked.” Two locations gives you a pretty tight search angle and limited depth, but the third location was necessary, by protocol and design, for vectoring and confirmation of distance. “Proceeding to location delta.”

“Roger that,” he said. But even as he finished the sentence he saw the unbelievable happen. The signal flared, dove, rose — and then fell straight to zero. The signal disappeared.

“What just happened?” asked the appalled professor, half demanding an explanation for this outrageous turn of fortune. The adjutant asked outright: “Soldier, what did you do?”

A few seconds later the momentary crackle and a tinny voice confirmed: “Signal’s lost here. We’re back in holding. Do you have a fix for us, nest?”

“No fix,” said the operator, cursing the crappy design that required absolute measurements. Government issue, for sure.

They waited for a few minutes, then the operator recalled something from a training incident. He thought it through while everyone else continued their waiting, pursuing their own thoughts, wondering how to get out of this awkward moment of disappointment, without revealing an overwhelming need to get out of this trailer and this life altogether. The guard at the door looked on as always: an unnecessary but constant reminder of the stakes of the information contained in that trailer, with the gun ready to snuff out the lives of everyone who came into contact with it. For those brief moments of despair, it even seemed that a bemused half-smile had fallen on the face.

The operator, feeling now that he had a chance to rise above the usual flow of shit moving in his direction, cleared his voice: “Sirs, I recall a similar incident in one of our training scenarios.” He described for them the scenario: when the signal plummeted to zero, the recruit decided to recalibrate on a wider angle. Before he could do so, he noticed a slight return of the signal, at a fraction of its former strength. At first, the recruit assumed it was an after-signal of some kind. However, its steadiness indicated a true source. He recalled the scenario description verbatim: “When a signal changes intensity in this fashion, it indicates status ‘blue zone gone to ground.’ This message is to be immediately transferred to Homing Pigeon.” He looked around. The less smart number was kicking herself in her head for not having come up with this first. The good doctor looked confused, and the operator realized he had no idea what this meant.

All eyes returned to the monitor.

The radio crackled and mobile’s operator-equivalent said: “Awaiting further instructions.”

“Be advised,” said the operator, “that we may be in scenario ‘blue zone gone to ground.'”

There was an extended silence before: “Roger that.”

Then, like clockwork, the signal came back into focus, one-twentieth its former strength, barely noticeable from the sensor on the drone. The operator almost crapped out of excitement. “Mobile, do you have it?”

“Roger, we’re continuing on to location delta.” Then after a few seconds: “Signal’s gone again. Do you have it?”

The operator didn’t like the sound of that — it wasn’t part of the scenario. “We still have it, same location. The signal is fluctuating.”

“Wait,” countered the mobile operator, “it’s back, but weaker. It’s jerking all over. We’re at delta.” Another long pause. Then suddenly, like a realization: “Christ, it’s moving. Nest, can you confirm?”

The operator didn’t have enough of a signal to tell anything. “Cannot confirm, mobile. Recommend another triangulation point.”

“Roger, moving on to location epsilon.”

As the seconds ticked off, the operator got out the phone and lifted the handset. He dialed the Langley number. After he heard the metallic voice say, “State your business after the tone,” and then an odd tone that reminded him of a modem screech, he quickly said: “Blue zone has gone to ground.” He replaced the handset and put the phone where it belonged. You don’t stay on the line with these people. A long pause ensued in the trailer, in general anticipation of further success from the mobile unit, and all the while the operator could not shake the feeling that somewhere that call had just unleashed the dogs of hell.