Project Zeppelin

I didn’t write a Dorn this week, I got caught up in a short story I had literally dreamed up several months ago.  It came to me fully formed and I woke up freaking out.  I hope you enjoy it!

“It doesn’t look at all like I remember,” said Marie into the quiet.  Her husband had refused to come on this therapeutic visit.  A pancake of a building, the facility lay low in the slight divot its construction had made on a plain just outside her old home town.  Marie pushed away from her car, and took step after step toward the past.

Everything had been different then.  Noises, atmosphere, even colors.  She squeezed the bottom of her sleeves, her fingers hard from the last two years’ work.  A simple sign above the building, covered in dirt and neglect read, “PROJECT ZEPPELIN.”

Marie remembered the speech, “We in the government assure you that our efforts will be like an airship, lifting you away from these troubling times.”

The plastic glass of the doors hadn’t shattered, but the hinges only held them aloft.  Familiar with the decay, Marie stood to one side as she tugged on the handle, not bothering to jump as it crashed down and cracked.  Sharp, silver lines cut into her memories.  They had all filed in.

“It is in the best interest of every citizen to check in at the reporting stations.  Your health will be assessed by our Professionals.”

She wound her way through the posts and ropes, stricken faces looking back at her from every corner.  Green.  Green fog covered those memories, but her physical presence brought it all back.

“John, do you think we’ll be okay?” she had asked.  He refused to hear any more of her worrying, and left Marie to listen to the chaos around them.  People packed like cattle into the reporting station, driven into these lines by uniformed workers.  The family in front of Marie’s had five children to her two.  The mother and father could barely keep them all calm enough to stand in line as the children absorbed the panic and fear of the adults.  Finally, it became their turn to sit at the partitioned counter, separated only for courtesy since everyone could hear the conversation anyway.  Marie listened harder so that she might be prepared to answer on her turn.

“State your names,” said the Professional.

“Cal and Lucy Barnhart,” said the father, a long drawl in his voice.

Lucy started, “And the kids are—“

“That’s not important,” said the Professional.  Lucy blinked, but did not argue.

“What are your occupations?”

“I’m a farm hand at Johnson’s.  My wife stays at home.”

“Highest level of education?”

“High school, for both of us,” said Cal.  The children squirmed and the youngest began crying.  Lucy patted the little girl’s back and hushed her.  The Professional hid his annoyance.

“Please fill these forms out, if you would,” he said.  Cal slid the paper over in front of him.

“What does math problems have to do with all this?”

“Surely you’ve seen the news, Mr. Barnhart?  You’re aware of the zombie outbreak, and that it affects the cognitive abilities of the host?”

“Cognitive abilities?” asked Lucy.

“Just trust me, and fill out the form.  I don’t really have time to answer your questions,” said the Professional.

“Next!”  Marie fidgeted as she and John led their children to the counter next to the Barnharts.  Their Professional asked the same questions.

“John and Marie Fitzpatrick.  I have a bachelor’s in business, and Marie is an RN.”  Their Professional made notes and signed some sheet of paper.  Their children sat still as stone, taking heart from the pep talk Marie had given them beforehand.

“Everything looks good here, you may leave on the next bus to the safe zone.”  As they stood, Marie caught sight of the other Professional shaking his head.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to be taken further into Project Zeppelin for testing, just to be sure.  Please, go through that door.”  Lucy and Cal gathered their family and went through the double doors.

Marie had looked for them by name since, and had never found them.  She stood at the counters.  Some of the partitions had fallen over, creating a line of office dominoes.  Behind the counter, she found stacks of cognitive tests and the initial form filled out for every logged citizen.

“What am I even looking for?” she asked herself.  This was the last Project Zeppelin building standing, and very few people knew about it.  All others had been burned to the ground or casualties of bombings gone awry.  Only Marie had cared to come back in the two years since.  No one else wanted or needed to remember.  The Barnharts had haunted her, if she were being completely truthful.  The sweet faces of their kids as the double doors swung back and forth, the love and support between Lucy and Cal despite the world crashing down on their heads, visited her in unguarded moments.

The green fog formed before her eyes, creating ghostly footprints leading deeper into the building.  Marie stared at the doors until her heart seemed to stop on every downbeat.

“A cure will be found.  Your cooperation is essential.”

“It’s just a bunch of examination rooms,” she whispered.  Then why did her whole body shake at the thought of seeing where the Barnharts went?  The fog whipped through the gap in the doors until at last one of them creaked, as if the urgency became so strong it actually manifested and beckoned Marie forward.  She couldn’t leave without being a witness to what had happened; the questions would still keep her up at night.  Even though they hadn’t been used recently, the doors gave no resistance.  The rooms were open and sterile, as she had imagined.

Inside each, she found more forms with questions like, “Does the subject seem aware of themselves?  Do they appear intelligent?  Have they developed any outstanding skill in an area?  Which area, if applicable?”

Confusion hung on her shoulders like a cloak, but Marie didn’t stop.  She left no room without a satisfactory search of its contents, but she found nothing, save the blank forms.  An elevator at the end of the hall caught her eye.  It wouldn’t work without power, but to the left another door waited in a recession.  A small window allowed Marie to see stairs beyond.  An electronic lock barred her way, so she took out her pistol, which she had designed herself, and targeted weak points until the seal broke.  She heaved and pried until it came free.

The green fog slipped down into the darkness, flowing over the railing.  Marie turned her flashlight on.  She’d never heard of the Project Zeppelin buildings having more than one floor, but looking down the stairwell, she could see it had many.

The first few floors had tables with holes cut out of them, designed to accommodate a person laying facedown.  Marie noticed immediately that no precautions had been taken to prevent procedural infection.  No sterile gloves, not a sign of any disinfectant, no biohazard bins.  Chemicals she couldn’t identify spoiled in their containers.  Bullet holes dotted the walls.

“What the hell?” she breathed.  Then she spotted it.  It turned her stomach, sickened her heart, and bled straight into her soul.  A binder left on the floor with the emblem Z. E. P. emblazoned on the front.

Zombie Eugenics Project.  An airship crowded the words.

Marie dropped to the ground, bruising her knees, and tore the binder open.  Records of successful administration of the chemicals.  Shipments of specimens to New York, and D.C.  No names, just numbers.  Marie dry heaved on the tile as she realized that the airship the government had promised was by invitation only.  The Barnharts were dead, had probably died in the very rooms she now viewed.

“Project Zeppelin will ensure the survival of our country.  We will not be defeated by the zombie threat,” the speech continued on in her head.

Though she hated to, Marie descended to the last level, more cavernous than the rest.  It was like stepping from a lab into a cold rock mine.  Obvious sections had their own closed doors, and the main cavern had a giant opening that led up and out.  Marie guessed that was how they shipped the “specimens,” and tire tracks confirmed her suspicions.  She shivered.

She thought she knew what she would see through the small windows to the other sections, some sort of morgue or storage.  On her tiptoes, Marie saw a mummified scalp, and behind that a cascade of bodies, all leaning toward the door.  Each one had a bulging, bluish brain stem–the first mark of a zombie.

Marie screamed, and screamed until her mind could comprehend just what Project Zeppelin had been.  She crumpled into a ball and grabbed her temples, the sound of her own horror too loud to endure.  When her throat was raw, she cried, and when her tears dried up, she stared.  Hours passed.

When Marie could drag herself to stand, she trudged back up the stairs, through the labs, past the counters where everyone’s fate had been decided by one pretentious bastard, and to her car.  As she drove away, a grim satisfaction pulled the corners of her mouth up into a smile like that of a murderer taking pleasure in the kill.

The government had been overthrown, by the people it had deigned to save.

~ by Rachel Francis on May 15, 2013.

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