The Sling Tightening

The operator thought he’d seen it all when he met Mr. Blue Zone. Then the dapper man showed up. When the knock came on the trailer door, the guard opened it immediately — he had clearly been informed of the approach on an earphone that the operator had never noticed before. A man came in carrying a fair amount of equipment in photography cases. The door stayed open. The guard’s attention was directed outside, and he saluted with that mixture of military rectitude and lanky strength that implied a civilian was on the other end. The operator watched in confusion. The dapper fellow came in with something like a salute — a gesture of disinterest and disdain. He was not military, not Pentagon.

The dapper man looked around the trailer as if he had seen it in pictures and needed to confirm his impressions. He looked at the operator and smiled, then went back to his mental inventory. The operator didn’t know what to make of the man, but he recognized immediately the smile that said, “Your butt is in my sling, and I would have no problem cutting loose both the sling and your butt.” He kept trying to read this unassuming individual, amid the rising and unsettling feeling that he was looking at the most dangerous man he had ever met.

After a few moments, the dapper man came over and offered his hand to the standing and ramrod straight operator. “Richard C. Walton.” The operator gave his name and appended: “Sir.” The dapper man waved it off: “We don’t need to be so formal. I’m not a military man, you see.” The operator didn’t fall into the trap of saying something like, I saw that already; the eyes were waiting for it. “I helped get this program off the ground,” the dapper man continued, “and I thought I would come by and see if there was anything I could do to help you all. It’s been pretty exciting the last few days?” The operator affirmed, although he could not suppress the thought that the only real excitement was the hope of getting out of the sling.

Some twenty minutes later, the operator was back at the controls of the drone and comparing the data coming from the mobile unit with the indications from the air. The grid work was, as so many times before, not producing any definitive results, but it did establish some irregularities that deserved a second look. The dapper man was following from a chair behind the operator’s shoulder.

The dapper man asked a few questions to show that he had an inkling about the technology but wasn’t up on methodology. Too high up to be concerned about that. “You do know,” he asked finally, “what this is all about?”

The operator didn’t understand the physics, but sure. He knew.

“You’ve met our professor,” the dapper man continued, with a sudden shift in tone, indicating the fact that the professor, too, was in a sling not of his own making. “He sometimes says he doubts that there is an intelligence on the other end. Sometimes he says it’s most likely us in a hundred years, calling back, imperfectly.” He waited for the operator to respond, but then went on. “That’s the funny thing about this. Because it’s quantum mechanics, we can’t say anything about where or when the signal originated. But I know it’s intelligent. And it’s seductive. Or it’s got agents here, among us. Every time a signal goes to ground, there’s someone out there communicating with an alien intelligence. Being brainwashed. Revealing weaknesses. Opening doors. There’s a name for that.”

“Treason, sir?”

He smiled a teacher’s smile. “There’s no denying it. That’s why there’s nothing more important than isolating these signals and finding what and where they’ve contaminated.”

The operator wanted to ask about the dapper man’s partner and his equipment, but he put the question into a glance at the camera boxes. “All that stuff? We use that to suss out source locations once they’ve been established.” The operator moved his head a bit in reflection — no location had been found — and the dapper man responded: “Oh, I know the mobile crew didn’t nail the location this time. But we have other means as well. You’ll recall that we took a trip to the dump? We turned up a radioactive signature that we were able to isolate to a particular condominium building, not far, incidentally, from where the mobile crew lost the source. Thank goodness for junk mail.” He chuckled, looking down into his mind, remembering their good fortune.

The operator had the itchy feeling that hearing all this wouldn’t help him escape the sling, but he could hardly put his hands over his ears.

“It turned out that the signal appeared in a middle-aged black woman’s apartment. Single mother, one child, a rather gifted middle schooler. The mother is divorced from the child’s father, a loser who ended up in prison a few years ago on drug charges. She’s squeaky clean, has worked 15 years at the same paint supply company, in the same job. Hardly the profile of a Mata Hare, is she? Well, the interesting thing is that we traced the signal right through her wall into an emergency stairwell and outside. Someone came and literally walked away with the signal.”

The operator looked at him with an unwillfully blank stare.

“Organized resistance.” The dapper man nodded at his own statement. “An underground. There is no telling what is out there. No telling until we get that signal again, and we dig up whatever is underground with it.”

And he felt the sling tightening.