The Sign

"The nine is smoke."

That's what I thought my grandfather said. To this day, it remains a mystery. I was a frightened twelve-year-old, and he was in recovery after a nasty surgery to remove his left eye. He'd lost the right one the year before; it was also peppered with melanomas. Neither of us were in heathy, high-functioning modes. In fact, his functions were about to end. My whole family were there in the ICU—my mom, who was his daughter, plus my dad and brothers.

His name was José Días, but he was always 'Granddad' to me—not 'Abuelo', my grandmother was Italian-American and never spoke Spanish. I was holding his thick, calloused fingers and he turned towards me when he said the words. He was really weak so they didn't come out clearly at all. It was more like, "Da nine nis moke."

He said it three times. I remember asking, "The nine is smoke? You mean your mind is broke? Time is broke?"

My mother Bonnie, short for Bonita, shushed me. So I went quiet. We all sank into silence. Then the alert went off. His blood pressure was plummeting. We backed away to make room for the nurses and doctors. In moments, their frantic activity swept us out into the visitors area. Dad told me to take my brothers to the soda machines.

I was happy to get away. I shepherded the boys through the labyrinth of pasty-lit passageways to the giant glowing blocks with their holographic cartoon signs. A rainbow of bright-colored, faceless musclemen battled for the supremacy of their flavor overlords. A line of text, the letters inflating and bursting, then reforming from fragments, read, "Maxx Countdown to the Millennium…335 hrs: 58 mins: 53 secs!" The blue dude, 'Maxx Razzaberry', punched the yellow warrior, 'Maxx Lemonheadz', in the face. But it wasn't a knock-out. Lemon flavor fans only had to watch the sequence a second longer to see their 'hero' recover and land a kick to Razzaberry's chest.

Leo and Oscar, my younger brothers, made their choices, probably argued about which flavor was mightier, I don't remember. I think I was jaded about marketing even then. The doctors were with my parents by the time we got back. Mom was crying, and I knew Granddad was dead.

I'm a rich girl because of him. Everything I have I feel I owe to him. I should say 'woman' not girl. I'm thirty-two now. When he was thirty-two he married my grandmother, Connie, short for Constantia. She was a rich girl, educated, and beautiful; in every sense a catch for José.

He started, as they say, with nothing. Not even a name. 'No documents' was how they put it. He was illegal, an extra man contractors and farm managers would pick up for a day's or week's physical labor.

He crossed the borderlands during the The Terrors with nothing more than his twenty-five-year-old body, his willingness to work his fucking ass off, and his quiet cleverness. It was considered a pretty crazy thing to do, especially going through 'the shoulder' of the Big Bend. The military conducted experiments there. The details weren't available to the public when I was a kid (I eventually learned a lot about it though). Nonetheless, there were reports of human bodies cut in half—an abdomen with legs in desert camo, or a head, shoulders and chest with nothing below the waist. Some people said it was traffickers taking care of unpaid bills. But there were animals too, coyotes mostly.

José proved himself invaluable to Emilio Vital, my great-grandfather, who inherited his fields and vineyards from an illegal immigrant ancestor. But that guy was from Southern Europe, not El Central. The West Coast was drying up and crumbling away at the time. José somehow understood the situation, and used his understanding to prove himself to Emilio, and win his daughter, the lovely Connie.

My mom claims Granddad knew the future. He suggested Emilio buy up the coastal property everyone else was selling. Then he told him to let the land revert back into salt marshes. The next step was planting mangroves. After a time, José presented his grandest scheme, a new type of desalination plant. That advice, those innovations, saved my great-grandfather's fortune. Emilio Vital was one of the few patron to survive those bleak days with more than the shirt on his back.

Granddad's influence went beyond the money that got me through college and grad school. He is the reason I'm the highly paid, prima donna, particle designer I am today. My parents were always busy—my father trying to live up to his Wharton credentials, ignoring old José's advice, making one crap investment after another, my mother trying to be the ideal upper class wife, devoting herself to one fashionable charity guaranteed to change the world and then another. I would spent long summer nights lying out in the fields, staring at the stars with Granddad. He would say, "They're all suns, just like our sun, each one of them. Do you think there's planets like Earth spinning around them?"

"They have found a few planets out there that might be like Earth." I would answer in my know-it-all, ten-year-old voice.

"Our solar system spins around the heart of our galaxy, just like the Earth spins around the sun, you know that?"

"Yes. Our galaxy has an orbit too, theoretically, but the universe isn't old enough to tell for sure."

Even after he died, I would still talk to him.

Eddington Strategies recruited me from Stanford before I completed my PhD. I may still go back and finish though. I started working at the Big Bend site in the old borderlands five years ago. I moved up quickly. My area of expertise was of great interest to the Operational Abilities department, in other words, the crazy sci-fi weapon guys.

When I arrived at Ed Town, deep in 'the shoulder', I was a little put off by the remoteness. We're sixty-five clicks from the tiny airfield at Fort Horn, and a hundred and sixty from any place with amenities like cocktails or human prepared food. I was curious about the horror stories of severed, jumbled corpses, so I delved into my briefing documents the moment I got to my quarters. A small part of the story was revealed there, in obfuscated language. I learned the majority over time from the guys I work with, mostly after hours, accompanied by shots of Cuervo or Custis Kentucky bourbon.

Eighty years ago, during The Terrors, Eddington Industries ran a clandestine military research operation called Project Polyphemus for the Defense Department. The experiments they did were outrageous by our standards. But then again, our standards are changing by the day.

Because of the asymmetrical aspect of the conflict—secret cells in the midst of densely populated cities—DoD wanted to drop spec ops units within meters of a target. 'Drop' isn't the right word. They wanted kick ass commandoes to simply appear from nowhere, emerge from the night air. No transport plane, no vehicles, the guys were supposed to pop up like magic. Particle entanglement projection was the tech that was supposed to make this military fantasy come true.

The initial trials were promising. Test objects were transported faster than the speed of light from one patch of sand and scrub to another. Then they moved on to animals. Coyotes were convenient. They were considered a menace and all you had to do to get one was leave out a trap. No paperwork, no acquisition forms and approvals necessary. The overpopulation in the desert with shrinking numbers of people and their trash created a lot of hungry creatures.

So the scientists started beaming coyotes around like electrons in a circuit and the problems started. Parts would be missing or jumbled. The poor things would reintegrate with their snouts coming out their lungs, and other messy mistakes. Despite these errors, Eddington and DoD demanded progress, and human testing began. The subjects were convicts or deserters, extra men no one would miss. Not a single man was transported successfully. The number of unsuccessful attempts is officially sixteen. But I haven't talked to anybody who believes it was that low. Who knows how many would have been sacrificed if the leaders of the Revolutionary Brotherhood hadn't been captured and the end of conflict declared.

The project was summarily cancelled and swept under official rugs. The area was cordoned off, labeled contaminated. It had to be. There were portals they never managed to close. Some had opened in unexpected places, others duplicated. No one knew for certain where they all were, and since you had to be within two meters to detect one, the mapping alone was a life-risking venture.

I realized almost immediately that I had been hired to resurrect Polyphemus, but corporate calls it Balor. I was originally told that we were only pursuing civilian applications—advances that will change the world (for real, unlike my mom's fleeting petitions and trendy causes). They said this technology will allow people to travel from one part of the globe to another instantly, using far more limited resources than current systems. Those in need of transplants will receive donations from anywhere in the world, the second they're removed.

We've accomplished some amazing things, but the atmosphere is changing. Over the past year, corporate has turned up the burners. It's the Pacific conflicts, we all know it. It's getting hot in the South China Sea and Uncle Sam needs Eddington Strategies to provide the next quantum jump. Two months ago my team was told, somewhat indirectly, that we had six months to zap a man from base camp to a target area a hundred clicks away—a man, not a coyote.

Our test subjects are being selected. We're not taking any spec ops dudes or anything yet. We're looking for 'extra men'. Young guys, no families, who are interested in furthering science and technology, in return for ten thousand, or citizenship.

I interviewed the guy I think will be our first subject today. He looked familiar, which is weird, because I don't see how I could have ever met him. He's from just south of the borderlands. His name is Santiago Huerta. His face has a softness to it, with a broad forehead and nose. The rest of him is hard, though there isn't that much, he's not very tall or built. His hands are calloused. I guess he's had to work with them a lot. He's an infantry vet, but doesn't want to serve the remaining two tours required for documented status. He says he'd rather be one of our 'coyotes' (he's heard the stories from way back when).

It was an interesting interview. He asked me about my name, "I saw Lonnie and I thought you'd be a man."

"It's short for Leonora. It's a thing with my family. My mother is Bonnie, short for Bonita, My grandmother was called Connie, though her real name was Constantia. Hey, I thought I was doing the interviewing."

He said another funny thing when I was walking him out. We stopped by the ancient soda machines. Relics of some old contract with Maxx Beverages I guess. I got a Lemonheadz and he chose a Razzaberry.

He laughed at the hologram fighters and the exploding text. "The sign is broke."

"Yup." I said. "No one services the holo sign, they just load the sodas."

"It says one hundred and sixty hours to the millennium? The millennium is past."

"Yeah, twenty years past. I guess there was a glitch. Nobody looks at this thing. I never even noticed it before honestly."

"There's this extra guy. See in the corner?"

At the edge of the display I saw a ghostly double of the Lemonheadz character, doing the same moves, but with no opponent. It's like he's in between time and space, fighting the invisible.

© 2016 m. b. whitlock

All Rights Reserved

This is an entry for the Review Game's January 2016 WCC. Prompt:

"Solving the following riddle will reveal the awful secret behind the universe, assuming you do not go utterly mad in the attempt."*

David Wong in John Dies at the End

* Please note: Prompts need not be taken literally, they are merely are aimed to inspire.