Jesus is talking again. “Pull the trigger, Kate,” he says in that softly persuasive way of his. “Pull the trigger.”
Kate is out of options. She is over two months pregnant, courtesy of her grandmother, more precisely, thanks to Grandma Lulubird Twillinger’s crusty old lover, and now she has been held down and sexually assaulted again, this time by a brutal biker gang. The common opinion in those parts may be the bitch should be used to it by now, but the truth is, she isn’t.
The work shed spins around her. She has lost too much blood. She staggers back against the big red-painted gas tank. Granma Lu’s crew uses it to fill the tractors and the orange tree picker-crane. Kate doesn’t have the strength to crawl into town for help. And yes, Jesus, the man-the myth-the legend, is still standing right there. He is watching over her with his warmly encouraging smile and flowing robes, for all the good that does anybody. He cannot possibly mean actually pull the trigger, can he? What, shoot herself? What trigger?
But there is no gun. Then what does he mean? She puzzles it out. decides that the crazy fool Savior probably means do something, anything. She grimaces and pushes back against her pain. She picks up an empty beer bottle from the floor, and then another. She carefully fills them halfway with gasoline, wads dirty rags in the top. She gives each one a little shake, The cold liquid stings her fingers. The pickers store plenty of matches in the bathroom. Fuck Jesu Christi, she’s going to have to do this one by herself, just like always.
Charley Birch touched the cute little blond girl’s nose with the tip of his Rambo knife. He told himself he was not torturing her or anything like that; it was just to get a reaction. There was no response, of course, and he dutifully scribbled No Reaction on his note pad. No answer was an answer. It just was not the one he wanted. His mind was swarming with questions. He felt like a dull dunce in fifth grade. The girl had extraordinary pale skin and blue eyes. She was a porcelain doll, not really a human, at least not to him. Nothing made sense. The experiments were failures, all of them. Little dollie here was just one more example. Kill them all, the directive said, and he finally had to admit they were right. But if there was a way to kill them, he had yet to find it. The millisecond any of them realized they were in danger they went thin like this one. It wasn’t right or precise, but thin was the only way he could describe it.
In a sudden fit of exasperation he jammed the Rambo blade through her left eye. It easily slid in and exited from the back of her skull, shiny steel appearing abruptly between her golden hair. But there was no reaction, no death-jerk, and no blood. And when he pulled the knife out, her skin moved back to its unwounded wholeness like water in a pond. The girl was there, right there in her flesh in front of him, silent as a statue. He could see her, feel her, stab her. And yet she wasn’t there. The only way to explain it made no sense: Little dollie was half way in their dimension and half way somewhere else.
“I am in deep shit here,” Charley muttered. He was talking to himself a lot these days. “I don’t know how deep, but it is most certainly shit all the way.”
Standing to one side, a man in military fatigues shifted uneasily. Charley knew it had nothing to do with the girl, who was simply test subject #7641f, the ‘f’ standing for female. The fellow was recruited from Argentina, an ex-German technician who could be trusted, in fact was trusted with a Z clearance. That was the one that meant if you even look funny at us, we kill you. It was lunch time, and the fellow was hungry.
“Send her to the island,” Charley said. He gave a brief nod at the motionless blond doll. “Get her started on her way. Then you can head for the mess.”
Charley made his own way past the enlisted men’s mess hall to the executive’s dining room. The food was marginally better, and they piped in music. Ike’s man showed up for lunch as planned, eager to know where all their money was going. He wore a baggy blue suit and a pair of the thick tortoise shell plastic rim glasses, a bookish look that was the rage in DC because it hinted at intellectual pursuits, here’s a man who wore out his eyes reading weighty tomes. Charley wrapped an arm around the man’s thin shoulders and led him into the project projection room, where the unit cook had laid out a feast of ham-and-cheese sandwiches with crunchy pickles, a basket bicycled over from the local deli.
They sat on uncomfortable metal chairs pulled up to a folding metal table. Charley snapped his fingers and a young fellow wearing a short crew cut, summer fatigues and the rank of a corporal clicked the lights off and started a short silent film. It was crude black-and-white 35 millimeter footage. The projector clacked and an image of a heavily bearded man appeared on the screen. He was wearing nothing but a pair of white army white briefs and he ]was standing motionless as a statue. They had other footage of women, young boys and cute little girls, but Charley had thought this out carefully. Better to stay on point.
“That a real person?” Ike’s man asked with a note of disbelief. “That’s a manikin, right?”
“No. That is a real person.”
“He isn’t moving.”
That’s test subject #3228. They’re all like that when they get in their state.”
“What state is that?”
“Like that,” Charley said, pointing at the screen. He did not want to have to say he didn’t know.
The footage pulled back to reveal two soldiers with M-1 rifles. They pointed the rifles at the fellow wearing the white shorts. Ike’s man gasped, but before he could protest, the soldiers fired point blank at the man.
“NO!” But nothing happened. Ike’s man blew out a breath of relief. “Looks like they missed.”
“No, they didn’t miss,” Charley said. “Watch now. We had a Mitchell Hi-Speed running at the same time.
The next footage was a close-up of the man’s abdomen. The frame just showed the top of the white briefs he was wearing. Two bullets moved in slow motion toward fragile skin. They penetrated the man’s body. The flesh made way and closed up behind the smoking projectiles like pale peach jello, a moment later making their exit from his back.
“What the hell just happened there?”
“Nothing. Bullets can’t kill them. Or grenades. Or bayonets.”
“In-CRED-ible! Our dream of the unstoppable warrior! The President must see this!”
Under ordinary circumstances, the reaction would have delighted Charley, but had other problems.
“I don’t think we’re ready for that.
“What?! This is fabulous! We’ve got Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia ready to tumble like dominos, and the Chi Coms have a million soldiers ready to take over the Philippines…and after that Hawaii and next thing you know, the California Coast.”
“I know the urgency.”
“Well then, what’s the problem here?”
“We don’t know exactly how this works…”
Charley let his words trail off into silence. He did not how to get past the fact that nobody on the project could explain what was happening – the test subjects had other characteristics that made them anything but ideal soldiers. If they did not want to do anything, they simply ignored the command. Give them a direct order they did not want to follow and they turned dumb as rocks. You could yell, curse, whip them, and the reaction was all the same.
Someone other than this bureaucratic pencil-pusher from DC might have been alerted by Charley’s response. But Ike’s man was an appointee, not a man of science.
“Nonsense! We’ve made our big breakthrough!”
Charley nodded, going along with the flow. Feed the fool his treats, take the funding and run with it. Maybe they could fix things, claw their way out of the shit pit. He ran the footage again.
“I call them ‘zoomins’ I don’t think we can really look at them as ordinary human people any more. They look like humans, but they really are something else.”
“And nobody can kill them?”
Charley nodded. He stared at the ice cubes floating in his tea glass.
“They are nearly impossible to kill. We hope to get one or two in at Ground Zero out in Nevada, but I’m pretty sure even that won’t affect them.”
Ike’s man proved to be smarter than he looked.
“Well…a couple of them have died. We’re researching that.”
Actually, hundreds of zoomins had gone missing, but their disappearances were random. And, as none of them had shown up, it was assumed they were dead.
“You’re not sure why?”
“That’s right,” Charley said. “We’re not sure why.”
Of the eight thousand and some few hundred unsuspecting subjects from all over the world who had been quietly culled from the herd and folded into the project, only a few hundred had survived. Of these, several dozen were physically and mentally warped into something vaguely prehistoric. Ninety percent of the rest were like the blond dolly girl and the man in the white shorts, unkillable but also unreachable. It was as if they were floating in a dreamlike state in never-never land. They were no longer of this world, not in this dimension, not really.
“Regardless, your progress is outstanding! The Russians are outclassing us in the Cold War. We need this! How soon can we arrange a meeting with the White House?”
“Well, let’s go to my office and look over the calendar.”
They set up a firm date, and Charley would have had to do a big dog-and-pony show but the thin man in the baggy blue suit and the tortoise shell glasses’s was driving his rented two-tone DeSoto sedan to the Orlando airport when it was struck by a garbage truck.