"That's the last time I am sitting on my ass here while you go out," My wife stated emphatically. "I am not some chicken shit bystander."
"Yeah, I hear you," I winced as the spray of bleach solution hit the goggles.
A fifty percent bleach solution was one of the last suggestions the CDC put out before the lid came down on everything, and for a change it had been a decent one. I hated the smell, and even though it couldn't reach my eyes through the goggles in the face mask of my armor, I always imagined I felt a burning sensation on the skin of my face. In it's way it was comforting. I again vowed I was going to come up with a safe way of getting out of my armor prior to the drive home from one of my look arounds. I always decontaminated as effectively as possible prior to getting in my vehicle but it was an imperfect solution, and a slight risk always existed that I would miss a spot, and drag contamination home with me.. Our disinfection routine had seemed excessive in the beginning, back when the young "slayers" had driven into the hot zones in street clothes and returned seemingly unaffected. Then the dying started.
Half a dozen houses along our road had been burned with their dead occupants inside, and more along the road to Romona, before by conversations shouted from drive ways through out the outpost had resulted in agreement that only trained people, using very careful protocols, would be allowed to leave the outpost and then return with "goodies" from the zones. The red flag posted on my lawn not only informed any passer by that I had returned from a trip within the last fort eight hours, but also that I would be puttering around inside my house with a chain around my neck for the next couple of days. In the mean time any sealed items I had brought back from the zones would be dipped in bleach solution and air dried at least three times before being certified as "cleaned". When the green flag replaced it people knew it was safe to visit.
Josie and I hadn't sought out the job of being the local "zoners". The system had simply evolved when the seniors along the the road had begun to run out of medicine. The youngsters had already gone, I suppose driven by their courage and the insatiable curiosity to find out what was left "out there." Pushing sixty I was nobody's spring chicken, and Josie, my wife, was a relative youngster not having yet seen forty, but the young people left were all trying to take care of children and work their small patches to keep the outpost supplied and guarded so in the end we had, by virtue of our preplague training, and process of elimination, been asked to take on the job.
Josie had seen multiple overseas deployments in her younger days as a refugee assistance expert with the International Red Cross, and I was just an old retired grunt, veteran of a few conflicts that had plagued the late twentieth century. For the ten years prior to Campion's appearance we had made do with my night job at a small hospital outside Bloomington, and our small farmstead. We had never considered ourselves part of the "prepper" movement that had gained momentum after the 9/11 attacks. Mostly the paycheck to paycheck existence of living in our rural setting had prepped us just fine. We used wood heat in winter, and grew a garden in summer, not because it was a political statement, but because staying warm and eating veggies had simply gotten too expensive otherwise. The increasing frequency of power outages from blown down, aging, power lines, had taught us the value of living "off the grid" before the grid had crashed completely in the early days of the virus. Everybody around here had been "preppers" long before it became cool. Nobody had the money not to be.
The system that had evolved was in no way planned. During the chaos that resulted from the general overall collapse of the old world as the virus burned through the cities there had been no plan or agreement of any kind. Nobody had known what to do, but from the limited information it became obvious that where ever people were packed together in large numbers, both the virus itself and the actions of the infected "runners" raged out of control. Small towns had quickly begun to seal themselves off from outside contact with refugees from the cities. Roads and bridges were blocked or destroyed, and a "shoot first" mentality had prevailed. Cities had become depopulated very quickly, as the infected preyed upon the uninfected, and finally burned out and expired. Most of the infected had simply died as sick savage beasts usually with forty eight hours of infection, the last half of it spent thrashing around in their own vomit and filth prior to the fever finishing them. The only saving grace seemed to be that the onset of symptoms was so rapid, and so hard hitting, that the runners couldn't travel far before the fever incapacitated and finally killed them. Some, the guesses ran from ten to twenty percent, had reanimated. The virus giving them back a strange half life, as it high jacked their lifeless bodies and used them to spread itself.
The "runners", savage, fast, and dangerous, had proved to be short lived. The walkers, were a different matter. There were widely differing opinions on how long they lasted, and on what they could do. As the smaller towns began to get hit, and the world became a no man's land, the remaining people had developed ways to stay alive. Some were unquestionably brutal, and prior to the collapse would have seemed inhumane in the extreme. Now they were just common sense. Every inhabited home had become its own fortress, the people within opening fire without hesitation on anyone who approached. People began to space themselves out, trusting only those they knew by sight to approach closer than rifle range, and never in significant numbers. Social distance, once approximately arms length, had pushed out to shouting distance. Any closer than that, and you were betting your life, and people conducted their affairs accordingly. Even the handing out of "goodies" and common trade, was conducted at a distance. Only family members touched each other. Of course notions of what was "family" had changed a lot. People had developed an adoption system which had its own rules concerning gradual approach and periods of public quarantine, but small enclaves such as ours were working it out and gradually using their "zoners" to reach out to other enclaves in the vicinity.
Things had become almost tribal. Enclaves such as ours had become known as outposts. With our backs to the white river, and Mill creek on one side and Salt creek on the other the two small rural road ways that comprised the Ramona outpost were made defensible by the blocking of the bridges and a couple of roadways. The only ways into the outpost that a walker could managed were under constant observation by volunteer snipers. Steady old guys who could pick which eye to shoot a deer in at two hundred meters. Walkers had gradually become fewer, and since the "zoners" system had become active neither ourselves not the outposts we kept in touch with had suffered a case of secondary infection in six months. The townies such as those at Gosport had not fared so well. Those brave but misguided souls who had tried to keep the old world and it's ways alive, convinced that a recovery of the old society was possible, were subject to disaster with every scavenger that returned to town. There were also walkers, that could infiltrate over the open roads and fields by night. What had touched off the flare up that had taken Gosport we would almost certainly never discover. Even across the time that had passed since the death of the cities the virus could still reach out to take the careless that had grouped together tightly enough to fuel and outbreak.
As I waited for my armor to air dry, allowing me to take it off, I thought over what to tell Josie about the trip. I wouldn't get so much as a hand shake for twenty four hours, but we could talk through the door.