THE ZULU PROJECT
David Bruce Bozarth
Copyright © 1975
ORDINARY DAY. Up at the usual time. Breakfast, such as it is, and out on the street where the city wakes to the clangor of too many people rubbing shoulders. Heading north, ducking under a scaffold pressed tight against a building in need of a face lift, my mind is preoccupied with motivating myself to look forward to another dreary day in the job place.
The faces around me all bear the same mark as the one which greeted me in the mirror: dull, lifeless, stamped to a pattern by an uncaring society. "Work" is the ethic. "Work to survive" is the reality. Dull, dreary people stoically plodding from birth to grave. Depressed? Yeah, you could say that. Where is the adventure? Where is the joy in living? It seems more unreachable the older I become.
At the street corner the light turns red. Cars impatiently surge forward with the green. I watch them pass at the corner as crowds of pedestrians bunch behind me. A shoulder thumps — an arm nudges — from the left an elbow is pressed. The pedestrians are as single minded to proceed to destinations unknown as the traffic racing past us.
There's a little old lady standing next to me, not more than four feet five inches tall. Her hair, a dirty gray, not pretty and white as most folks picture grandmothers, was compressed by a worn scarf that might have once been white, but certainly was dingy at this moment.
The people crowding and jostling affected the old woman more than me. She weighed perhaps 80 pounds and was over-balanced by a huge handbag that creaked on a worn leather strap. She looked up at me with quiet desperation, then turned away to rescue her coat-tail which had hooked on a businessman's briefcase. I felt something for her, ill-defined, but something nonetheless. Just as I was about to offer assistance, the crowd surged again and her foot went off the curb. Now completely unbalanced, the old woman began to fall into the path of on-coming traffic. Not a word escaped her mouth, not a cry or whimper, but her eyes touched mine and what I saw prompted me to do something incredibly foolish.
Leaping toward her prone body I waved my arms to alert the drivers. As tires squealed and brakes shrieked with panic, I bent down and grabbed granny by the front of her blouse and dragged the woman onto the sidewalk. Around us the crowd backed and pressed, some unnerved by the near tragedy, others eager to see something horrible.
"Back up," I growled, shoving at the too curious with my shoulder. Kneeling, I helped the old lady sit up. Her breathing was rapid, the color of her cheeks blanched like boiled onions. "Are you okay?" I asked.
"You're a dear," her voice shuddered. "Thank you."
"Let's get you out of here," I said. Her arm was thin in my grip and probably no stronger than a matchstick. "Give me the bag. Lean on me."
She hesitated a moment, then did as I asked. Seconds later I had her seated on a window ledge.
"Are you okay?" I asked. She nodded, and straightened out her rumpled clothes.
"Sorry about that — " I said.
"Don't give it another thought," she admonished with a weak smile. "You were very brave."
"Brave?" I chuckled. "We both could have been killed. Stupid is more like it."
With a soft whisper she said, "I shall not forget what you've done. You've shown me there are still good hearts in this world."
The light changed. Traffic stopped. The pedestrians, no longer interested, began to move across the pavement. I looked at my watch. I was going to be late to work, but somehow, after risking life and limb to save another life, getting to work on time didn't seem all that important.
I set her large purse down. "That's some handbag you got there. Weighs a ton."
"Everything I value is in that bag," she sighed looking across the street, but did not seem to view the physical reality. She seemed to be looking at another place and time.
Her bony finger tapped the purse. "What I once was, what I am, what I will become..."
Her voice was so desolate. I couldn't imagine anything emptier than that woman's wistful sigh. It was the sigh of all ancient women; women who have changed diapers, bandaged cuts and scrapes, cracked school books with children, married with hope, remained married through bitter disappointment, who buried husbands and children, who — at the end of their days — knew more about life than the most educated philosophers. That sigh HURT me.
"Hey," I attempted a laugh, "it can't be that bad!"
She stopped fiddling with her clothes and looked at me with a strange expression. "There's more than meets the eye."
"I'm sure there is!" I reassured her. "I meant no disrespect!"
The woman's eyes, though surrounded by convoluted wreaths of wrinkles, were bright and alert. "Do you have a few minutes to spare?" she asked. "I must talk to someone — and you are here."
"Listen, lady," I said, tapping my watch. "I have to get to work. I'm late as it is."
"I understand," she sighed — that soul searing sigh that got under my skin.
I spread hands helplessly. Did I stay and talk to the woman or hurry on to work before the boss fired me?
"Okay," I said. "A few more minutes won't hurt. Tell you what, there's a little coffee shop just down the street. You look like you could use one, and it's quieter."
The grateful smile she offered twisted my heart nearly as much as her sigh. She let me sling the bag over my shoulder. I linked her arm through mine. We didn't walk very fast, she had trouble with a banged knee. The coffee shop was near and a moment later she was quietly stirring a cup of black joe.
I didn't want to rush her, not after what she'd been through, but there was the matter of an irate superior in my near future which prompted me to start the conversation.
"It's good coffee," I said, sipping the too hot beverage. "What did you want to talk about?"
"You'll think I'm crazy."
"Nah," I promised. "Drink up."
She flinched slightly as the coffee touched her lips, but it seemed to have a beneficial effect in that when she put the cup down, she leaned forward.
"How old do you think I am?" she asked.
I replied with a shrug. "Seventies?"
She narrowed her eyes for an instant. Her mouth clamped down to a thin line.
"Hey," I grinned. "You asked."
She shook her head, brushing the comment aside. "What I am about to tell you will make you believe I am insane, or given to fits of imagination if your heart is kind."
She looked around. Though the place was packed we were alone; no one could overhear anything because of the noise. "I am 24 years old."
"Go on!" I laughed. "You're pulling my leg!"
"Really?" She stirred her coffee. "I wish I were. My name is Susan Delmont. I work for Trey Enterprises. Heard of them?"
"Who hasn't? Biggest employer in the city, best jobs, makes millions. So what do you do for them?"
"I'm a research chemist. Fresh out of college."
"Yeah, right! And I'm an astronaut!"
"Maybe this is a bad idea," she said, reaching for the purse.
Embarrassed at my rudeness, I touched her hand. "Sit down. I apologize. I said I would listen. Let me do that."
She looked at me, saw I was serious, and settled back into the chair. "As I said, 24 years old, out of college, and working on the biggest scientific secret since the Manhattan Project. I'm talking BIG." She checked to see if I was paying attention. When she saw I was, the rest came out in a rush.
"Those idiots didn't know what they were playing with. I got involved because Clark Henderson brought me a substance for analysis. 'Tell me what this is', he said, 'and no one knows until I clear it.'
"It was like nothing I've ever seen before. All the usual tests were useless. Acids wouldn't touch it. Impervious to heat or cold. Electrical charges, statics — you name it, nothing seemed to affect it. Tried scanning it with the electron microscope and that's when I made my discovery."
She stopped talking. This time there was real fear in her eyes, but more than that, there was a hint of madness. Susan Delmont rubbed her forehead with trembling fingers. "For a minute there I thought you were going to run out on me. I need someone to believe me."
"You have to admit it's pretty unbelievable — 24 years old and looking older than Grandma Moses. Let's say I accept what you've told me so far. What did you discover with that electron microscope?"
"Not here," she said, suddenly wary. "Is there someplace we can go?"
She was determined to make my life miserable. I paid the check and started to leave, but when I saw that desperation in her eyes, I couldn't do it. Defeated, I said: "Let me make a phone call. I'll tell my boss my mom became suddenly ill."
Of course Old Man Garrick chewed me out, but there was nothing he could do about it. I had invested this much time in Susan Delmont and, despite my disbelief, I was curious what else she had to say. I picked Delmont up at the table and led her back to my place.
As we walked she looked at everything with interest, like someone coming back to a familiar place after many years absence. The pedestrians had thinned somewhat. Those who wished to keep their jobs were at work; the ones who never intended to work were lounging around.
Fortunately, I lived on the first floor. Susan Delmont couldn't have climbed a flight of stairs. I sat her on the bed, it was lower to the floor, and I took the single chair.
"We're alone now. What's the story?"
"Two weeks ago Clark Henderson came to me with an unknown substance. 'Analyze this,' he said, 'tell no one but me what results you find.' He's an important man who might help my career. I did as he asked."
Susan placed the purse on the bed and opened the flap. Reaching inside she retrieved a small black object, almost perfectly spherical, about four inches in diameter. It was either heavy as lead, or she was not very strong; it seemed to take all her strength to hold it in her lap. "This," she said, "is 'Talgar'."
"Talgar? It's been a long time since chemistry," I said, "but I don't recall any element of that name."
"It's not an element," Susan Delmont said with such sincerity as she could muster, "it's a world."
Until that moment I'd given the old woman the benefit of doubt, but that tore it. "I don't have time for this, lady. I almost regret saving your life. I do regret listening to this fairy tale and risking my job! Look, I'll give you some cash and call you a cab. Go home, or wherever you want. I have to get to work."
Her expression became sad. "As you wish. But before you leave I ask only one thing... Please," she begged when it appeared I would refuse.
I had humored Susan Delmont this far so I held out my hand. The old woman placed the sphere in my palm. Two things were instantly obvious; it weighed a ton and it was WARM. I used my other hand to steady the object — something else became apparent. It was music — at least it felt like music. It came from the sphere, through my hands, arms, and into my brain. It was a million voices raised in song that was not a song.
"What the hell?" I never curse, nor was this a curse — an ejaculation of incredulity.
"You hear them!" Susan Delmont sighed.
"I hear something," I admitted. "What is it, tactile resonance?"
She closed her eyes, a faint smile of memory touching her withered lips. "Four billion souls," she breathed. "Some are descended from my Talgar family; Jothan — my husband — our five children, seventeen grandchildren and fifty-two great grandchildren."
There was happiness in her voice, yet there was also great tragedy. "All dead these hundred years," she suddenly opened her eyes. "Dead and dust on that small ball you hold, a process continuing even as we speak."
A rage seized the crazy woman — for she must be crazy to expect me to believe her. Tears welled in her crinkled eyes. "Henderson did this! He did this," a gesture encompassing her withered body, "and he did that!"
"That" had to do with the sphere she called Talgar. The orb still warmed my hands, a lovely bittersweet song still touched my deepest emotions.
"What do you mean by 'that'?" I asked.
"Talgar was not always as you see it now. When the shuttle crew snatched it out of orbit as a curiosity it was a bright world, full of color and beauty. Henderson learned of NASA's Zulu Project, which was formed to study Talgar and he had it stolen."
"What's so important about this piece of rock?"
"That 'rock', as you call it, is a world populated with real people. To protect themselves from the NASA scientists they created a planetary force field. That's what Henderson wants: the force field."
Before I could say anything, there was a knock at my door. Susan Delmont jumped, looking as startled as any dog just hit by a passing car.
"Are you expecting anyone?" she whispered.
I gave her the orb, turning toward the door. "Don't look so scared."
"Don't answer it," the old woman pleaded.
I chuckled. "If it's the super he's got a pass key. Just sit down and I'll take care of it."
I didn't like the look of the three lantern-jawed men in the hallway. "Something I can do for you?"
The smallest man, who was a giant compared to most other men, flashed some kind of ID and asked, "Did you help an old woman a short while ago?"
"What if I did?"
"Some folks said you might help us locate her. She's very ill and in need of medical attention."
I had to decide. Should I give up the crazy woman or play dumb? "I took her to a coffee shop on Sixth and sat with her until she caught her breath. Last I looked, she was nursing a cup of joe. Is she in any kind of trouble?"
He didn't look happy. "We need to find her before something dreadful happens."
"Hey, if I see her, who should I call?"
"Thank you for your time," he said without answering.
They turned and left. I watched them exit the building then shut the door.
Susan Delmont gave me a look of relief. "Even though you do not believe me, thank you for not saying anything. I'll leave now and trouble you no more." She put Talgar back into the purse and rose.
"Hold on there," I said. "Let's not be in such a hurry to leave. You nearly get killed and then show me a singing rock and I lie to three burly men who can probably have me jailed... you're not leaving until you tell me what this is all about."
"You won't believe me."
"We've covered that territory. I believe you're a strange old bird, that's for sure. How can I believe you're 24 and claim to have umpteen dead children and grandchildren and that NASA yanked a world out of space, which you carry around in a purse? You might be a looney on the lam for all I know, but I will hear you out. Give me one good reason to believe you."
"Not here," she said. "They know about you. They will be back. If I'm here, you are in danger."
She actually scared me. Susan Delmont WAS terrified by the men who had been at my door.
Like most urban city parks it barely served the purpose of putting grass under your feet with a few overly ignored trees drooping from the engine exhausts, but it was out of the way, and had a rickety gazebo which concealed us from the traffic.
"Show me what you got," I tried to be patient.
Susan reached into her purse again. If she had pulled a gun, I would have been less surprised. It was a cube, about three inches square, and every surface had an image. She gave it to me.
Like Talgar, the cube had sonics, pleasant, warmth-inducing harmonics. The first image was that of a beautiful girl, long brunette hair flowing in a breeze — actually moving, it appeared to be a tiny television — and she was walking hand in hand with a handsome man through a forest. Unusual looking trees, I thought, then turned the cube.
Here the same woman, laughing (I heard the laughter!) as she held two tiny babies in a room with curiously shaped furniture. The man was dancing to make the babies giggle. I smiled, I couldn't help it.
In the next image the woman, more mature, still beautiful, was surrounded by several generations of people who bore a striking resemblance to her. A family portrait, I assumed, complete with the requisite squirmer and idiot face makers.
Looking at the other images, all done with a life-like clarity and full motion animation the like of which I had never seen, the pictures became increasingly grim. I recognized mountains from the previous view but the forest was denuded. The majority of the men and women, including the few children compared to the other pictures, showed signs of disfigurement and deformity. Cemeteries appeared in the last two images and the woman, now ancient — and looking like Susan Delmont! — stood weeping by fresh graves. The pain in the "music" was too much. I returned to the first image, the happy, carefree girl with her lover, the sensuous, pleasant sounds.
"It's you," I finally admitted.
"Yes." That wistful sigh, the one that lead me to this point, seemed to fill the gazebo. "Look at them again," she suggested, "you missed something."
At first I didn't understand, then, in the image of the hand-holding couple in the forest, I saw what she meant. My heart sped up, my palms grew sweaty. Swiftly turning the cube, I confirmed it.
She nodded. "Six fingers and other oddities, but most human where it counts." Susan's hand rested over her heart.
She looked so happy for that moment of memories I nearly hated to ask, "What happened? It looks as if the world ended."
"It very nearly did, and I had a part in that." She did cry, silently, painfully. "Henderson sucked me in with his story of opening a dialogue with alien beings...you see, my electron microscope confirmed what he already knew, that he did indeed have the world NASA plucked from space. 'How wonderful to be the first', he said. 'How wonderful to meet strangers from another world!' I bought it.
"He brought in a linguist, probably someone who defected from NASA because it almost seemed magical that we could converse with the people of Talgar after only two days. I wanted to believe the two worlds were so similar that I deluded myself.
"Anyway, Henderson eventually revealed what he wanted: the technology for the force field and the internal planetary matrix. With the shield in place and their gravity internally controlled, Talgar could ignore the greater cosmos.
"'Think of it, Susan,' he said to me, 'this technology could make Earth the garden of Eden God intended. You must help me.' And God forgive me, I did. Now, I must undo what I may, to give these people freedom before we destroy them utterly. I cannot do it alone. I need help."
It was a touching story, and I half believed her because the pain, the bitterness in her voice, was not feigned. "What kind of help do you need?"
"I may need to kill someone."
Susan Delmont did not blink an eye. From the set of her chin I knew she was serious. I began to think it was time to bail.
"Murder is pretty strong stuff," I said.
"I prefer to think of it as vermin control. Will you help me?"
"Is there no other way?"
Susan Delmont caressed the purse which contained the family image cube and the dark orb she called Talgar. "Perhaps — I have seen more death than a body can bear. You are right, murder is out of the question. But Henderson must be stopped."
"He wants the rock...er, Talgar, right? What if we hide it where it can never be found?"
"That might have worked as short as two days ago, but too much has happened. Talgar must be returned to space, or everything on this dear, dear world," her hand touched the worn grain of the over-large purse, "will perish completely."
"You must have a plan of some kind."
"I have a friend who works at a private launch facility on the Gulf Coast. If we can deliver Talgar there, he will launch it."
"Okay, we mail it to him."
"NO!" Susan exclaimed. "Henderson knows about him. He'll be watching."
"I suppose delivery service is out of the question. Okay, it's only a few hours. What the hell."
"You'll go with me?"
I couldn't forget the image of Susan Delmont weeping beside the graves. "Sure, why not? Might take in a little sun on the beach after this is over."
Getting out of the city wasn't too hard, I prevailed on a friend to drive us to the commuter airport. After a short argument with Susan, who feared Henderson's men would be watching, she boarded the plane. It was a smelly, uncomfortable flight and Susan talked non-stop, telling me things about her friend, Henderson, and the joy and sadness of her time on Talgar.
She told me she'd been miniaturized, though she called it something different, collapsed, I believe, and how she had been welcomed by the six fingered aliens. It was on Talgar she realized Henderson's true ambitions. Susan Delmont chose to disappear with a man she eventually married. Over the years, for they were years to her consciousness and her body, her family grew, brought her joy, then sorrow. Henderson, during the collapsing process, introduced several bacteria and virii into Susan's body which were normally harmless or mere discomforts, but mutated and caused havoc on Talgar.
"I should kill him for that," she said, leaning her weary head on my shoulder. "All my children, most of my grandchildren, died because of him."
"With all their technology, why didn't the Talgarians make a serum or something?"
"On a world without illness," she replied, "what need is there for doctors? I eventually re-established contact with Henderson. That was three years ago, or just a few hours before dawn your time, to beg medical assistance. 'Certainly,' he laughed — the bastard! — 'as soon as I have the blue prints for the force shield and gravitron matrix.'"
We left the airport on foot, to avoid leaving a trail. Susan continued her story, drawing me deeper into her madness, it seemed impossible to believe.
"Henderson gave in, sending some medical help through. I sent him enough of the gravitron matrix to show him I had the goods, but not enough to complete it. 'Bring me back', I told him. 'There's nothing here for me.'" Susan gestured toward a nearby motor inn. "We can't see Bill before ten o'clock. We need to rest — I need to rest."
There was a cafe across the street. "Here, give me the bag. I'll get us something to eat. I'll meet you there in a few minutes."
Susan clutched the bag tightly, fearful to have it leave her possession. Then, with a look of trust that pierced straight into my brain, she handed it to me. Rubbing her shoulder where the strap had cut deeply, the old woman smiled, seeming relaxed for the first time. "It's good to have someone I can trust again. Reminds me of Jothan and Merilyn and Shena..." She walked off, naming her children, their children and those which followed. I could never betray that trust.
The hamburgers were greasy, as were the fries, and the two cans of soft drinks made the package unwieldy. I walked over to the unit I had seen Susan enter, but before I got there, I caught a glimpse of one of the men who'd been outside my apartment. A big, black limousine was idling and, with the back doors open, an ambulance was parked in front of the unit. Apparently the jig was up.
Stretcher bearers came out of the room, but as I looked on Susan Delmont's face, my heart froze. She was dead. I don't know how I knew that, but that old woman, the one I had saved from a speeding car, was dead in a run down motor court near Corpus Christi, Texas.
The big man did not seem broken up about it. I fought tears. Crazy as Susan Delmont seemed she was genuine, a loving person. I missed her already.
Another man, a man I recognized from Susan's descriptions — dark skinned, heavy brows, balding, mid-fifties — got out of the limo. I was behind a clump of oleander. I could see through the leaves, but was concealed from their view. I could also hear what Henderson said to his strong arm man.
"Did you find the object?"
"She didn't have it with her."
"Damn. She can't tell us now. Any sign of her companion?"
"We're still looking. Can't be far."
"Find that person immediately. I must have that package."
"We'll find both," the big man said. "What are your orders?"
"You know what they are. No witnesses. No loose ends. Bring me the object."
I backed away, fading across the side street and down another before breaking into a run that left me winded. Susan Delmont may have been crazy as a loon with that fantastic story of tiny aliens living on the lump of rock in the bag I carried, but there was no doubt she was correct as far as Henderson was concerned.
I had two choices. I could give up myself and the orb, or try to deliver Talgar to Delmont's friend. I hadn't come this far, or let that old lady get under my skin so deep that I could back away now. I would take Talgar to Bill, but I decided it would be best to change Susan Delmont's plan a little.
I ate the burgers, both of them. I wasn't really hungry, but it passed the time and helped get the sight of that pitiful old woman's body on the white sheets of the stretcher out of my mind.
I stayed in motion, particularly when the locals became curious about the stranger loitering near service stations and convenience stores. I had read a few wall maps, I knew where Bill lived. I had his phone number in my pocket.
After the sun went down, it was easier to move about. I had drifted toward Bill's place all afternoon, and it was just around the corner of the quiet residential area. A pay phone was nearby. I put a quarter in the slot and dialed.
A man answered the phone. Like most professionals, he was in the habit of answering with his name, rather than "Hello." I had to believe I had the right party.
"You slime!" I screamed. "You got my sister pregnant and I'm going to kill you!"
"What are you talking about?"
"Have you forgotten already? The brunette with the laughing eyes? You're worse than scum!"
There was a slight pause, then he said, voice hushed slightly. "I'm married. I can't take a scandal. What would make your sister happy?"
"That's better," I said. "Be at El Camino and West Beach in twenty minutes or I'll start by ruining your life."
"I'll be there. I'll take care of everything, let's just keep this quiet."
"I may be able to convince her of that if you're prompt." I hung up the phone.
I stood a few yards back from the corner, out of the street light, watching the house. The address I gave Bill would cause him to take this direction. I saw a man leave a house about half way down the block. A moment later automobile lights snapped on and swung in an arc in my direction. As the car slowed to make the corner, I ran forward, opened the passenger door and, heart pounding, jumped in.
"Keep going," I gasped. "You are Bill, right?"
He was thirty-ish, athletic, wearing wire rimmed glasses. "Who are you?"
"What? When? How?" Bill asked.
"A few hours ago. Henderson might have had her killed, but she was so old it might have been natural causes. We'd had a rough day."
"Susan is 24 years old."
"When you talked to her did she sound 24? It's crazy — the story she told me but, damn it, I believe her."
"Who are you?" he asked.
"A friend. That's all that matters. What do you know about Project Zulu?" I had his attention.
"Was Susan involved with that?" Bill shook his head. "Huge stink...a missing meteor specimen..."
"Do you really have access to a launch vehicle?" I used words Susan Delmont had drilled into me. She told me so much in such a short time.
"Suppose I do?"
It all came out in a rush. "Don't be evasive, Bill. I'm tired and probably marked for death. I have to do something for Susan Delmont or everything she ever loved, everything she ever believed, will be down the tubes and a man like Clark Henderson will steal what's left."
We drove in silence. I sat on pins and needles. My hand rested on the door handle. Should I trust this man the way Susan did or bail out at the next street corner?
"There's two sites," Bill finally said. "How much trouble is following you?"
"If you know this Henderson fellow, you figure that out."
"The Matagorda Bay site is out, then. He'll know about it. Look, Susan didn't tell me much, only that she needed to see me and that she might have a special payload. What the hell is so important?"
"Do you know what the guys at Project Zulu were working on? It wasn't a 'meteor', Bill, it's a world. A world with advanced technology Clark Henderson wants for himself, probably to make a great deal of money with."
I told Susan's story, embellishing nothing, for I could conceive of no way to embellish the fantastic. Bill drove quietly, watching the rear view mirror, asking a few questions, then sat in silence for a long time after I finished. When he spoke, I knew I'd made the right choice.
"I'll bet she was the best mother and grandmother. What's the package like?"
I pulled the orb out of the purse, thrilling to the harmonics which ran through my body. This time I thought I could hear words, but that was probably imagination brought on by stress, fatigue, and too much fear.
"This is Talgar," I said.
Bill glanced over, "Size is okay. How much does it weigh?"
"More than it looks." I let him hold it.
"Heavy!" Bill said. "Warm — radioactive?"
"Susan didn't say, probably not or she'd have warned me." At least I hoped she would have! "Notice anything else?"
Bill gave Talgar back. "Rough texture, though slippery. Was I supposed to notice anything else?"
"It sings. I guess only some people can hear it. Susan touched it often. I hear it."
"Could be a telepathic overlay," Bill surmised. He narrowed his eyes toward a road sign which passed quickly. "Another ten minutes."
After a while a high fence appeared paralleling the right side of the road. I couldn't make out the sign at the turn off, but notice the words Restricted Launch Area. There was a solitary guard at the gate.
"Evenin', Bill," the guard said. "Out kinda late. Everyone's gone home."
"I know, Charlie. I won't be long."
Charlie bent down and looked at me. "Showing a visitor around?" he asked.
"Yeah," Bill said, "that's it."
Charlie had his hand on his holster, and I didn't like the way he looked at me. "You know, Bill, we've had some trouble lately..."
Bill looked nervous. "More kids parking on the launch pad?"
"Tad more serious than that," the guard replied. "Had a call about an hour ago there might be more trouble tonight."
What Charlie didn't know was that I had my hand on something I'd found in Susan's bag, and I pulled it out with my finger wrapped around the trigger.
"It looks like you found it," I said. "The only question was whether I let you live or not. Stand right where you are, Charlie. Bill, get his gun and handcuffs, and for godsake don't get between me and your friend."
Bill did as I asked. I got out of the car and motioned the two men to walk in front of me. We went about a hundred yards down the fence line. I had Bill hand cuff the guard to a post in the chain link.
For Charlie's benefit I said, "Keep cooperating, Bill, and you might get out of this healthy. Now move back to the car."
As we drove to the control shack, Bill said, "Use it, or lose it."
"The gun, you still have it pointed at me."
"Oh! Sorry!" I put the weapon back into the bag. I hadn't paid attention simply because something had changed with Talgar. I still had it in my hand, had carried it down the fence and back, and during that time the "song" had become coherent after a fashion.
"We must hurry, Bill. A half dozen years has passed on Talgar and their world is dying."
"Accelerated time," Bill recalled Susan's story as told by me. "What's the nature of the problem?"
"Best I can tell — it's not crystal clear — is the shield has never been in place this long before, more than a hundred fifty years their time. The gravitron needs...something or other...and they can only get it in deep space. Something about solar radiation... I dunno. I'm no scientist, but whatever it is the ecology is collapsing and millions are dying."
The control shack wasn't much more than that. A metal building with bare comforts to keep the electronics in crude racks in a stable environment. The overhead lights were harsh, almost painful after being in the dark so long. I was in the dark in other ways. I knew nothing about rockets. I thought the needle nosed vehicle in the hanger looked a little small. It was twenty feet long, with four stubby tail fins, and was mounted on a six wheeled self-propelled launcher.
Bill fiddled with some hoses at the back and I smelled something a bit noxious as the connections snapped tight. The pumps began fueling the rocket. Bill opened an access hatch a few feet back from the nose then held out his hand.
"Give it to me."
I was confused. The discordant harmonies from Talgar penetrated deep within my consciousness, I almost didn't hear Bill's words. The man stepped down from the launcher and gripped my shoulder.
"What's the matter? I'm ready for the orb."
I had tears in my eyes as I gave Talgar to Bill. "They know what we are doing. They appreciate the help. They need to reach at least the same altitude as when they were taken. I don't understand their measurement...do you know what that altitude is?"
"One-hundred ten miles or so. Anything else?"
"Can they get out of the rocket? I mean, will it open for them?"
Bill showed me the compartment where Talgar was placed. There were various mechanisms which meant nothing to me, but I placed my hand on Talgar and somehow knew they could see what I saw, and the tone of the song was less dire.
"They understand," I told him. "We must hurry."
Just as I was about to withdraw my hand, a flood of images burst into my brain with real words, with real sensations of touch, sight, smell and taste. Susan Delmont was the subject, from her arrival to the time of her leaving, the great joy with which the Talgarians both loved and forgave her — and then the song ended. There was a single, final note to let me know that the break was intended.
"How can I help?" I asked, wiping a hand under my runny nose. Bill knew something had happened, but he remained focused on the task.
"Think you can drive this thing?"
"I suppose I have to — "
Bill gave me brief instructions, cautioning me to maintain a straight line to keep the control wires from tangling. I put the launcher in place. Bill had warmed up the equipment in the control shack and was running through preliminaries when I returned. He worked fast, but it seemed to take forever.
"We're ready," Bill said. "Nothing fancy, just straight out as high as this bird can fly."
"Do it," I begged as Bill's finger hovered over the firing button — who knew how many millions had died as we worked to save Talgar?
We were both startled by the control room door slamming open behind us. Henderson and his three goons entered, one of them holding a gun which was pointed directly at Bill. "I wouldn't do that," Henderson growled menacingly. "Move away from the console, if you value your life."
As Bill, white as a sheet, did as ordered, I wondered if I could reach the button and press it before someone killed me. I had to try. The memory of the Talgarian song still saturated my being. I could no more deny it than I could ignore breathing. Henderson barked an order to the gun-toting goon as I dove for the console. At the same instant that my finger stabbed the firing button, the sharp crack of a discharged weapon crashed against the shack's metal walls with a deafening sound.
Something hot whizzed past my face. My finger slammed against the back lit button and it clicked into place. An instant later I heard the click of a hammer being drawn back — and the more distant ignition of the rocket blasting toward the heavens outside the building.
"Damn!" Henderson cried.
I turned my head. Henderson had forced the gunman's hand down, his attention centered on the glass window protected by a thick metal mesh. A brilliant light quickly faded as the rocket left the launcher, arcing upwards into the night sky.
Henderson scowled at me. I leaned against the console, heart pounding, and glared back. Without another word, Henderson motioned for his men to follow him. After the door closed, I turned to Bill.
"I guess it's over," I said.
Bill, shaken and unnerved, looked at the bullet hole in the side of the control shack and said, "I sincerely hope so!"
The equipment was shut down. The light was turned out and the door locked. At the gate — having seen no sign of Henderson — we stopped and freed Charlie.
"Not a word," Bill admonished the guard as we drove off.
Bill took me to the airport. We sat in the lounge and drank coffee, waiting for my flight back home. Nothing was said — there was nothing to say. As we parted at the gate Bill extended his hand.
"Take care. Thanks for helping Susan."
* * * * * * * *
The night was nearly gone when I got home. My eyes itched from lack of sleep and my skin was gritty from sweat and dirt. I felt better after taking a hot shower. Wrapped in a towel, I looked out the bathroom window where dawn streamers streaked the sky. The stars were fading, much like the immediacy of my adventure with Susan Delmont was fading, but out there, in the heavens, was a world which meant more than life to that old woman — and had come to mean something to me as well.
I did not feel like the savior of a world, but then again, who am I to argue with the facts?
Though new to Tangor's Pastiche and Fan Fiction, The Zulu Project is not "new. I wrote this 6,900 word short in just a under one hour on an IBM Selectric. A bit of Fantastic Fifties film, a mix of Twilight Zone, a touch of the instant December/May romance. I liked the story when I wrote it. Still like it...yet it always seemed too "pulp-ish", quick, and incomplete. Over the years I've looked at expanding Zulu to novelette or novel length. There's much which could be expanded — the back story for Susan Delmont, the back story for the narrator, exploring the machinations of Henderson, the connection with Bill. Every time I sat down to do such revisions I ended up in the same place: Sometimes more is just more, and that is not necessarily a good thing.