Chapter 8

Porkchops Versus Drumsticks

        Jose Sandoval is the administrator of Strunck R&D. Not a true scientist, though he has a working knowledge of everything from quantum mechanics to bioengineering to all the new fields. Teleportation, regenerative medicine, the works. He’s the uber spread sheet man, a magnum bean counter, and Papa Bear for any number of projects underway at the Labs. His office is tucked into a curve in the Strunck Collider, a 25-mile doughnut of double tubing, out in alligator country on the western side of the peninsula.

The collider’s concentric tubes, fat cylinders curving away to the north and west on steel stilts, like a big city sewer main, sometimes give off eerie whistling sounds during office hours. There’s a soupy, high-temperature brew of quarks and glouons seething around in there, maybe a miniaturization of the Big Bang as bits of gold and titanium collide at hyperspeeds, blasting millions of particles into honeycombed fly catchers.

It’s not a comfortable feeling, I think, scrambling out of the sunlight in the parking lot. I wait for a uniformed guard to check my Strunck pass, then duck under the collider structure. What happens if a string of explosions suddenly tears a hole in our galactic fabric? Could we all get sucked into a black hole like strands of linguine? If it happened right now, I’d be the first to go, I think, heading into Jose’s office.

        One of the unenviable tasks of Jose and his staff is to keep all of Strunck’s Hansels and Gretels on track toward achievable goals, maybe even aiming toward commercial products that can change the world.

Jose’s burden is the casual visitor’s source of entertainment. Strunck vassals plead, demand, conspire or pull strings to witness Jose doing battle with his unruly charges. The lab complex is a razzling theme park of all the hair-raising technological innovations that will transform the world – or at least Strunck & Co.’s little corner of it – much the way it has in the past 50 years. Call it Futurelandia, Atomic City, a fun park for amateur futurists. For an outsider, the ravel of labs and testing sites is either global technology’s visionary vanguard or a monument to human folly, with pathetic space shots to nowhere and blundering forays into the subatomic unknowable.

        A young man in shorts and a Strunck T-shirt leads me into the office, a circular room with walls of simmering monitor screens and muttering hard drives, all keeping track of a few dozen ongoing projects.

“Is it true you guys are smashing porkchops against drumsticks up here?” I say to Jose, pointing at the curving tubes above us.

“Not a bad idea,” he says. “Ike, see if we can set that one up.”

“Right on it,” the young man says.

“So what’s new?” I ask.

Jose, bulgy and hairless, with one of those smooth tan, bald pates that bar girls and chorus line golddiggers supposedly love to kiss, sits behind a broad, curved desk, like the control board of a superliner. A short, unimposing man when he’s away from his post – I’ve seen him on a beach, pensively dipping a gnarly big toe into the Atlantic, his legs thin and knock-kneed when they’re exposed to the sun – he assumes undeniable gravity behind the desk. There are silver data disks in front of him, a steaming hot cup, a built-in keyboard, and the vague scent of ozone in the air. A grapefruit-sized model of Earth hovers, gravity-immune, above the desk, spinning slowly.

“Well, I could give you a four-hour lecture, with mind-crushing graphs and video segments,” Jose says. “Or I could give you the visiting science attaché tour.”

“Oh, let’s do it that way.”

“Yeah, we have more serious business to take care of, eh?”

From his vantage point in the control room, Jose has access to the entire sprawl of interconnected labs and conference rooms and staging areas that stretch away from the office hub. He can do a visual check on any of them by galloping through the screens in front of him, running his finger over some keys embedded in the desk.

He lights up the broad-screen monitor on the wall in front of him and riffles through the lab scenes like a pack of cards. From somewhere deep below us a muffled musical sound, a series of rumbling chords, accompanies the visual display.

We see white-coated lab personnel fiddling with electronic modules or recording temperature and Ph readings or just shooting the bull over coffee. Some monitors show bits of equipment performing arcane functions, like the roomful of 40-foot tall nuclear centrifuges lined up in rows, brass-plated cigarettes, churning out fuel-ready isotopes. Another just keeps tabs on a dozing 15-foot `gator at the edge of a clearing where the complex meets the swamp.

Jose stops at a tableau of lab technicians trying to peer into the mouth of a man in a reclining chair.

“You’re doing dentistry out here now?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Jose says. “The guy in the chair had nothing but a set of wobbly dentures when he walked in last month. Now he’s got a full set of choppers. That’s the re-gen lab.”

“He doesn’t look happy,” I said.

“When you’ve gotten used to going toothless for a few years,” Ike says, “it’s going to feel a little crowded in there.”

Jose turns on the sound in the lab and zeroes in on the little scene. One of a pair of techs pushes a device into the patient’s mouth and the man recoils, pulling his head back and making unintelligible gurgling noises. The tech talks to him reassuringly, and he opens his mouth again. A tiny camera moves around in the subject’s mouth, and an image appears on the side of a box next to the chair. Teeth in close-up, rooted in gum tissue. Crystalline drops of saliva. A Jericho wall of unblemished white enamel.

The man makes noises in his throat and the tech removes the camera device.

“I said, it feels like I’m going to throw up,” the man in the chair says.

“Smile for the camera,” the tech says.

The man flashes an uncertain lopsided grin. Curling his lips back to show the gleam of new teeth.

“You’re lookin’ like a million dollars,” the tech says.

In another work space, lab workers are injecting fat little mice one at a time with lethal-looking hypodermics and turning them loose in a cage. There are treadmills in the cage and climbing structures and a bathing pond with stepping stones -- a tabletop amusement park for mice. A dozen of them frolic through the amenities.

“Neorapamycin,” Jose says. “The wonder drug. If everything works out, we all live to 250. They’ve already got mice down there older than 30.”

“Well, that’s a worthwhile project.”

Jose makes a face. “You want an extra 150 years of this?”

Next, the collider crowd. In worn denims and Hawaiian shirts, some of them with bandannas on their heads or bright scarves at their necks, they look like a crew of ersatz pirates. At the moment, they’re kicking back, their feet up on a polished wood conference table.

“The true scientists of the lab,” Jose says. “Or at least that’s what they profess to be. They’ve been deconstructing the Big Bang now for decades. So far, they’re a few hundred thousand years into it. It’s all about the ropes and ladders that hooked up to form a universe.”

“Ah. And before the Bang, what?”



“Absolutely nothing.”

Never really thought about it that way. Another dull hammer blow somewhere in the depths of my mind. Nothingness, blind, mute, dimensionless. This does not conjure a picture, though my mind gropes for one. No, it just can’t be. Don’t go there, I signal to myself.

“So how do you get started? I mean, when there’s nothing… how do you organize a Bang?”

Jose looks at me with indulgent eyes, the old hand who’s all too familiar with rookie mistakes.

“It’s not worth even thinking about, man,” he says. “You just start at zero.”

 Jose flips on the volume. The collider scientists are talking about their favorite doughnuts.

“Jose!” a young scientist shouts toward the monitor. “How you like toasted panka on French vanilla?”

“Argh, you know how to make a man sick,” Jose says. “You guys doing anything serious today?”

“Taking it trillionth of a second at a time,” says a hunched elderly man in a zebra-striped lab coat and glasses as big as headlights, from the back of the room. “And no, John, there’s no cute little placque dissolvers or razor blade sharpeners coming out of this. It’s just science.”

The rest of the crew erupts with exaggerated huzzahs and here-heres.

“Just what I expect, Pal,” John says. “You provide the science and my boys in Manifest will come up with the razor blade sharpeners.”

“Who’s that with you?” asks one of the younger scientists.

“This is Mike Brooks,” Jose says. “From Strunck’s office.”

“Ah, so Irwin wants to know what his collider crew is spending his money on.”

More huzzahs from the crowd.

“Well, yes, but no,” I say. “I’m just here for a drop-by.”

“Come on over for a visit, Mike,” the oldster says. “We’ll run it all down for you.”

The rest of the group defer to the old guy, watching him respectfully.

“It’s all true what you’ve heard. Worm holes. Wrinkles in space. Entities separated by light years instantaneously mimicking each other. The whole shebang ready to go up in smoke and fire. All true. Come down to the lab and we’ll show you. Maybe we’ll send you way back to the surface of last scattering, that magical moment when microwave photons broke free of the clouds of cosmic soup. The universe was a gay young whippersnapper of about 400,000.”

“Do I get to come back?”

“You’ll come back,” the old man says.

“I’m going to take you up on that,” I say. “Next time the boss lets me out.”

“Bring Jose along. We’ll find him a new foolproof kind of shaving cream in the cosmic brew. Or a one-step vacuum cleaner. Sucks the dust out of the whole house in 10 seconds flat. For an extra buck we throw in a hundred vacuum bags.”

Jose turns off the sound and flips away from the collider crowd.

“A bunch of rogue purists,” Jose says. “Don’t ask them about practical applications. It’s pure science they’re supposed to be doing. Though, of course, it was the same guys who discovered the algorithm that powered your boys Golovin and Brown out to the edge of nowhere. That was Palladio Peterson in the zebra stripes.”

“They just stumbled onto it?”

“Them and some guys over at teleport. For Peterson and his acolytes, the discovery was just a spooky phenomenon, of no earthly use. A delightful development in the interaction between energy and mass. But you didn’t come out here to visit the corpse-strewn battlefield of Jose Sandoval.”

He spins through his deck of lab views until he settles on a quiet scene in a brightly lit room.

“Here’s our gal,” Jose says.

A stocky woman in a white coat sits motionlessly before a desktop computer. There are cages stacked against the walls around her, with rats and monkeys and a dog or two, prowling and glaring.

“I know you’re there, Jose,” the woman says without looking up. “I’ve been expecting you. Give me a minute.”

“Gotcha, Margaret."

Next Chapter: Chapter 12