On a military test range in the Nevada desert stood an upright white box the size and shape of a port-a-john. Monitored by cameras, a mechanical crane lowered a heavy object, the size and shape of an American football, through a hole in its roof. Above the football, lowered on the same cable, was a thick multilayer circular plug, which fit into the hole. At distances of 100, 500, 1000, and 1500 yards were four pre-fab sheds. Inside each shed, monitored by cameras, were two human beings and a cage of white mice. All of the mice, and five of the eight people, now died.
Watching the monitors in the command center ten miles away, Dr. Jenkins smiled, and Dr. Hoss dropped his jaw in horror.
"It can't be," he muttered.
The General patted his shoulder. "You'll get used to it," he said. "I've seen a lot of dead people and--"
"What are you talking about?" Hoss said. "I was referring to the experiment itself." He glared at Jenkins. "You faked it!"
Jenkins, a small fox-like man, looked back smugly. "You observed the preparations yourself. How could I have faked it?"
"It could be anything. Poison gas. Microwave guns. Ultra-low-frequency sound. The radioactive material in the capsule could be stronger than you said it was. The point is," he turned to the General, "he had
to have faked it because the whole thing is based on a long-discredited pseudoscience."
"Define pseudoscience," Jenkins said.
"Wilhelm Reich was a crank. He believed in... orgasm rays. Orgonomy is in the same category as anti-gravity or," he snorted, "homeopathy."
The general fingered a vial of homeopathic medicine in his pocket that he took for arthritis, and wished he didn't have to work with these scientists from academia. But the innovative scientists were a commodity, jealously hoarded by established black budget projects.
Jenkins licked his lips and looked at the dead experimental subjects on the screens, suspected terrorist sympathizers flown in from Something-or-other-stan. Through reflexive muscle contractions, two of them gave the illusion of having hugged each other as they died. Funny how often that happened. He turned to Hoss and said "How, exactly, was orgonomy discredited?"
"Reich was sent to prison..."
"I mean scientifically."
"Scientifically," Hoss's voice rose, "it doesn't have to be disproven because it's scientifically fundamentally unsound."
"That's not how science works."
Hoss roared "You know damn well it's how science works!" He took a breath and said more quietly, right in Jenkins's face, "I'll show you how science works. I'm a scientist and I know scientists, and we're not going to work on anything until the Oranur Bomb project is scrapped, all records of it are destroyed, and you're a pissant doctor in some rat-infested detention facility."
Three months later, Jenkins heard the rats scurrying in the shadows as he moved among the buildings on what had been the field of Seattle's baseball stadium, and what was now a giant detention facility for plague victims.
Filling the center was a long, vast complex, all enclosed in clear plastic, like a giant digestive tract: At one end were the entry docks, where they brought the patients in, and then the processing building, and then a tube to the many hospital tents, laid out according to the various stages of illness. And at the end, the incinerator.
Off to both sides were the clean areas, where the doctors and workers lived, and where the recovered patients waited for further processing. The ones with connections on the outside were released, with warnings to keep quiet about "security details" -- meaning the poor conditions and low survival rate. The rest were shipped off somewhere else.
Jenkins clambered into his bulky white safe suit and entered the processing center. It was 11PM, and he'd been working 15 hours straight. Everything was edgy and dream-like. I should have taken a pill, he thought. Too late with the suit on.
He came into the main room and saw that there was a huge backlog, 35 or 40 of them, God knows how long they've been here. Many of them had pissed or shat themselves, and the anesthetic they'd been given -- or maybe it just paralyzed them, to keep them from getting up or making a disturbance -- was wearing off, and some of them were moving or looking around.
Am I the only one here, he thought, who's willing to do the dirty work? From a cabinet he got a handful of expediting tags, and he filled a big syringe with solution. Then he started examining the patients.
The hospital tents had a limited capacity. If they took in too many, the ones who had the best chance to live would lose much-needed resources to the ones who were probably going to die anyway. What Jenkins did now, moving from patient to patient, was save lives, by reclaiming future resources from the ones he judged unlikely to survive, or if they did survive, unlikely to contribute much to society. First he tagged the sickest, then the oldest, then the ones who seemed generally less healthy, or with less valuable skills. These were hard judgments to make with nothing to go on but a body on a table, but they had to be made. He didn't like it, having to expedite so many. After tagging each one, he injected it with the solution, and at the end he would buzz for some soldiers to come take the tagged ones to the incinerator.
Actually, he thought, I'll buzz them now, since it always takes them a few minutes. He went and hit the button and then came back to...
Where was I?
He had just tagged one and was going to inject it, but his sleep-deprived memory could not tell him what the body had looked like or even where it had been.
He looked around, paced, refilled the syringe. I should expedite three or four more, he thought. Maybe it will come back to me. I could re-inject them all, but we're short of the solution. If it runs out... he shuddered.
The soldiers came in, four of them, in their cheaper, dirtier safe suits. Don't let on! "All finished," he said, and sat down at a desk, facing the wall, as they wheeled away the first batch of bodies.
Behind him the remaining ones were making more noise, and he realized with a shock that he had just said "finished," implying that he had done something to the bodies, violating the required pretense that the dead ones had been found and brought in dead. It was a serious blunder. Had the soldiers guessed? Did they care?
He went with the syringe to quiet the noisy ones and remembered at the last moment that he wasn't holding the anesthetic but the expediter. He paused and considered. Yes, he thought, it would definitely be a breach of medical ethics to kill a patient just to shut her up -- even if she was likely to die anyway, even if silence would improve operation of... Did I just think "kill"?
"What are you doing?" The clear strong voice came from behind him. He turned and one of the patients was sitting up, glaring at him. It was a middle-aged white guy, clearly educated and in excellent health, a keeper.
"I saw what you did," the guy said. "You were killing those people."
Jenkins groped for a response and then "It's true!" shot a voice from right next to him, a black woman, looking at him like she could see right through his soul. "You did!" she said, and her eyes held his and he couldn't look away. He slid to one side, angling for the buzzer. Then something caught him and he fell...
"Did you notice that?" the young blond soldier said, as the four of them wheeled the bodies down the expediting corridor. "He said he was finished."
The others didn't say anything.
"Finished means he was doing something to the bodies. I don't think they come in dead, like they say."
They all still ignored him.
"Check it out. They're still warm."
His buddy glared at him. "Shut. Up." Ahead of them the Lieutenant pretended not to hear.
Thinking he was changing the subject, he went on: "Have you guys noticed that only white soldiers get picked for burn duty, when less than half of us in the camp are--"
"Medical facility," said his buddy, quietly.
"Call it a medical facility, not a camp."
The Lieutenant snapped, "Both of you shut up."
They came into the incineration room and lined up the bodies. The handle of the furnace was poorly insulated and would melt right through the cheap plastic of their safe suits, so the Lieutenant opened it with a piece of cloth, which smoked and turned a little more brown. Soon they'd have to get a new piece of cloth from the clothing of one of the dead people.
The young soldier put his hands under the first body, a pretty young hispanic woman, preparing to lift her in. He felt sad -- she didn't look sick enough to be dead, but...
Her eyes popped open.
He jumped back. "Shit!"
"What are you doing?" said the Lieutenant.
"She's dead." He pushed her eyelids back down. "All the bodies that we incinerate are dead. Those are your orders."
Her eyes popped back open and her arm trembled.
The Lieutenant hesitated. It was clear now that she was alive, but he had already said she was dead, and if he openly changed his mind, if he admitted having been wrong in an argument with a lower-ranking soldier, he would lose his authority.
"Lingering electrical impulses in the muscles," he said. "Typical for dead bodies. Now let's put her--"
"She's alive." The speaker was the fourth soldier, and they all turned to look at him because he seldom spoke. He was a giant, well over six feet with a massive chest and forearms as big as the Lieutenant's calves, and he moved like a cat. He was older than the other grunts, ate alone, kept his hair longer than regulation, and never bathed. It was on record that he had killed an ungodly number of Iraqis, and rumored that he had killed more than one of his own officers. They called him the Troll.
None of the others had ever killed anyone. Sweating, the Lieutenant opened the flap on his safe suit that allowed him to access his sidearm, and drew it out, but didn't point it. "Are you going to obey my orders?"
"You haven't given one," the Troll rumbled.
"This girl is dead."
"That's not an order."
The Lieutanant looked at his gun, at the girl, at the Troll, while the Troll's gaze bored into his eyes. He took a ragged breath. "Put her in the incinerator."
The Troll stared him down for a few more seconds, then went and picked up the 110-pound woman as if she was no heavier than a couple sofa cushions, and slid her gently into the furnace.
"Now the three of you," the Lieutenant said, "put in the next body."
The next body weighed at least 300 pounds. They took positions around it and hefted it off its cart. It was hard to find a grip. They staggered sideways and one of the two young soldiers stepped in some kind of bodily fluid on the floor and lost his footing, and both of them and the body fell sprawling to the floor. The woman in the furnace began to scream.
Echoing and amplified by the metal enclosure, the screams were deafening and unearthly and grew louder. The young blond soldier, who had been raised a good Christian, suddenly realized that he was in Hell, and wondered how long he had been here, and how he had come. He stood up and grabbed the feet of the burning woman, and though the Lieutenant was aiming a gun at his head and commanding him not to, he pulled her out of the furnace.
Her body was on fire, and her hands were burned down to the bones, but were still moving. Her burning skeletal arms and hands tore at him, at the thin plastic of his safe suit, melted and tore through it, and the blood and fire and charred flesh were on his skin, fragrant like barbecued meat but sweeter and mixed with the stench of burning hair. She was still screaming, and burning, and the young soldier's safe suit caught fire and now he was screaming, rolling, trying to put it out. His friend tried to put it out and his suit too caught fire. The Lieutenant was huddled against a wall sobbing like a baby.
The Troll looked at them all with disgust and walked past the fire extinguisher on the wall, back up the corridor to the processing room.
As he got closer he began to hear Dr. Jenkins screaming for help, but he didn't hurry. At last he came into the room and found Jenkins under a pile of plague victims, his safe suit in shreds, the urine-stinking sore-encrusted people tearing and scratching him bloody.
The Troll waded in and flung the people aside like rags. Jenkins looked up at him and gasped, "Thank God."
The Troll drew his gun. "No God," he said, and aimed the barrel an inch away from the spot between Jenkins's eyebrows. "Why?"
Jenkins pretended not to understand the question, but the others did. "He was poisoning us," they cried. "He killed those people!"
The Troll looked at them and back at Jenkins, the gun as steady as if it was held in a vise. Jenkins was silent.
"How?" the Troll said, and as Jenkins began to answer, cut him off. "Where?"
Jenkins staggered to his feet and limped over to the cabinet that held the expediting solution in dozens of small glass bottles. The Troll got a big garbage bag from under the sink and swept them in. Then he opened the other cabinets, which were also full of bottles, the anesthetics, paralyzers, knockout drugs, antidepressants, and so on.
"What do these do?"
Jenkins hesitated, and one of the patients stepped forward, the educated white guy. "I'm a pharmacist," he said. "I can read them."
The Troll put his hand up and continued looking at Jenkins. "You say."
"They..." Jenkins choked, "they make the patients easier to deal with."
"Kill him!" the patients cried. The Troll got two more garbage bags and swept up all the other bottles, ignoring the patients closing in again on Jenkins.
"I was only obeying orders," he said, and immediately felt ashamed to speak such a cliche.
But the Troll and the pharmacist turned to him and said at once, "Orders from who?"
Jenkins knew he couldn't prove anything. Only now did he fully understand how the system was set up to make him the patsy. The higher-ups would say, we just asked him to optimize operation of the facility -- we had no idea he would kill people! They almost believed it themselves, he thought, and the public would fully believe it -- even the liberals, or especially the liberals, would continue to believe the story that atrocities are done by renegades and madmen, that if I didn't originate the killing, it was some particular madman above me, and if we can just surgically remove that person, all the children of the world will sing together in peace and harmony. Because they cannot stand to accept the alternative, that the orders to kill are everywhere and nowhere, that their trusted institutions are death factories. All I did was notice it, notice the whole murderous game and play along for personal benefit, in accordance with every message of my culture, and my reward is to be made the scapegoat for the moralistic dumbshits who want to continue to play the game in ignorance.
"It's complicated," Jenkins said. "If you get me out of here, I'll tell you everything I know."
A few minutes later, the Troll, Jenkins, and five or six patients crept out a side door onto the dark streets shiny with rainwater. The Troll took off the last of his safe suit and stuffed it in one of the three garbage bags that he carried over his shoulder.
"Are you going to save those as evidence?" said the pharmacist patient, tagging along. "We can expose this. I have access to video equipment, and a place you can stay. I can treat the plague. You're both going to get it now."
"No pharmaceuticals are effective against the pox," Jenkins said.
"Oh, I'm not really a pharmacist. I was bluffing." He grinned. "My name's John Sanderson. You can call me Freejohn. I'm a natural healer. I've got herbal treatments, gemstones, homeopathics, and three gallons of highest quality homemade colloidal silver. That's how I'm not sick."
"Colloidal silver! I suspected that would work."
Freejohn looked indignant. "Then why didn't you use it?"
"Don't be stupid."
"I mean, I know there's some inertia in the medical system..."
Jenkins, despite his painful injuries and the likelihood he would die soon, broke out laughing.
"But," Freejohn continued, "couldn't you just bring some in, say as an experimental trial, and when the other doctors saw that it worked... What? I know a few people might put their incomes and their egos above saving lives, but surely most of them..."
Jenkins kept breaking out in little chuckles. Now he said, "You don't know the half if it. They'll even put their egos above destroying lives."
They followed the Troll to a dumpster, in which he tossed the garbage bags. He turned to Freejohn. "Where do you live?"
None of them had enough cash for a taxi, so they caught the last Metro bus to West Seattle. As it drove back past the stadium they could hear alarms ringing.
In the morning, Freejohn was up first and made them all a big batch of hot brown rice cereal with dates and pecans. He said, "I can go pick up the video equipment and you can both tell your stories, and then--"
"Did they get your ID?" the Troll said.
Freejohn didn't understand, but Jenkins did. "When they picked you up," he said, "did they record your information? If so, they'll come here looking for us."
"Of course." Freejohn looked down at his cereal. "I've got a car. We can stop at the thrift store, get you both some different clothing, and go..." Where?
"No car," the Troll said. "Too easy to find. Do you know anyone?"
"Someone local," Jenkins said, "who would be able to help us, who they wouldn't trace from looking through your records."
Freejohn thought only a moment. "Yes."