Chapter 1: Life's Little Quarks
"Ah. The magnificent Dr. Charles 'Speed Demon' Eppes returns from his triumphant conquest of friction and the supposed laws of gravity!" Larry Fleinhardt waved his broom at his visitor’s general direction. "To what does the Cal-Sci Physics department owe this honor?"
"Other than the Math department's unflagging gratitude?" Charlie hopped over one of the office's stack of books, ducked under the planetary mobile, and snagged a chilled bottle. All in the same motion. "Or the fact that your office has a mini-fridge and mine does not?"
"Other than that."
"I missed you." Not only because his friend's automotive experience had been a major part of the Cal-Sci team's victory.
"I was there for the race. As were, I might add, several photographers from the local press. And may I say that you should expect to be the cover boy for the Scion Sentinel?" Larry smiled over his shoulder but kept on sweeping. "What ever inspired you to wear... " Words failed, but his gesture finished the sentence.
Charles Eppes was still in his racing suit- or rather racing lack-of-suit. Between the sweat stained 'Extreme Gravity Challenge" tee shirt and a pair of well-worn track shoes, the legal requirements were covered (tightly) by what once might have been a pair of bike shorts but was now a web of lycra connecting a network of tiny holes.
"Other than today's hundred-plus heat wave? Minimizing mass - and thus drag. I actually got the idea from the Gossamer Albatross experiments.
"I'm sure albatrii every where are duly thankful."
Charles pulled off his tee-shirt, using it to mop at his curls. Snipping bits from his pants may have reduced weight, but it had not improved the inside of the mathematically meticulous metal coffin - code number 5350 - that before today Charlie would have sworn Larry cared about as much as the rest of the team. Making his attitude now all the stranger.
He considered just leaving. Letting things work themselves out. But...? This wasn't Larry. Wasn't anything like Larry's usual cheerful distraction. The man was distracted - yes. But those lines in Larry's forehead were deeper then Charlie could remember - stark grooves that looked painful.
"Problem?" Not the best line, but a step up from 'do you want to talk' on the girlyness meter. He hoped.
"Busy. As you can see."
Right. Because the piles of books that had lived long and productive lives on Larry's office floor needed to migrate to bookshelves right now.
Larry was acting like that - yes. But... Charlie was pretty sure that Larry was acting. Or something. Something non-Larry-like in the extreme.
Larry was his friend. His best (sometimes in the darker times Charlie might have added his only) friend. Larry had been the one person who had been there from Princeton on. In good times and... the very very not good times when Don dropped them into death and destruction a la law enforcement. Even during the dirty bomb case, when any physicist with a care for his own skin would have been consulting from somewhere on the far side of the San Bernadinos. So? Now? Whatever the cause, Charlie had to be here for him.
Charles sniffed his shirt. Pew! Not conducive to conversation. Unless you wanted to hear 'take a shower'.
Shrugging, he dropped it on a pile of last year's Physics Weekly and settled in to wait.
"Could you watch where you put that?" Larry clutched the magazines to his chest, flinging the trespassing rag back at his visitor.
"Sorry." He spun the offending garment towards the trashcan. It caught on the edge but... not on the floor. Charlie counted that as close enough. "I thought you'd be at the victory party. It was so much your design and..."
"I hated to miss the revel, but I got a call and... as you can see..." One hand indicated the rare square feet of now empty office floor.
"Someone called you and told you to clean your office? I heard the new administration was cracking down, but this seems..."
"Not from the Dean. Although I suspect she would like us to take over housekeeping duties. Anything to reduce expenses."
Larry had been going head-to-head with Administration over the new budget. Some of which might be the new... financial awareness ... that had landed on the professor in the wake of the Sin-Tel collapse. Not that Charlie had ever heard a word of complaint, but he was aware that the hours formerly spent on shared auto-restoration were now expended... elsewhere. On projects that did not include the math department. Not that Charlie was resentful but...
" I can't talk about details, but I am expecting a visitor who..." Larry paused, both hands full of crumpled papers. " I would prefer to present myself with a certain... gravitas. To which end a couch full of sleeping bag does not make a positive impression."
"Yes. I can see where... " Charlie picked at a cushion lump, fishing out a pair of plaid boxers.
"Bottom drawer." Larry directed - focused on relocating a desktop of clutter into a single drawer. With the expected results - given the laws of mass. "Damn. Full."
He spun the pages towards the trash can. The majority caught on Charlie's shirt and slid to the floor.
Larry buried his head in his hands. " It seems a professional office is a cosmological impossibility."
Charlie stood, collecting the underwear. "Perhaps you could convince them that you are experimenting...?"
"NOT a word to use in this context."
"Relax, will you?" Charlie tied a knot into the tee shirt neck, then used the body to bag up more desk litter. "Whoever this person is, they'll be here to see you. Not your office."
"It is all one. Rather like..."
"Socks?" Charlie held out a pair that had been tucked under the boxers.
"Thank you." Larry kicked off his shoes. "Which reminds me. Tie."
"Pluto." Where it had dangled since Larry had tossed it up the year before. An ex-fashion for an ex-planet.
Larry stood on the spare chair. It was just tall enough to let him pull down the tie.
"Shirt." Larry shed his usual Hawaiian model, dropping it into Charlie's makeshift trash bag. "I need a better shirt." He stopped rummaging though books, but only to start pawing though file boxes." Where did I put the white shirts?
Charlie moved a planet model in Styrofoam. "Here's one."
"Good - no - bad." Larry picked at the off-white spots spattered down the front. Remains of a pint of Vanilla Pecan. "Oh dear - these stains."
"Heat-transfer via ice-cream." Charlie smiled over the other man's shoulder. " One of your more inspired lectures." They had dressed up as classic Good Humor men to demonstrate the melting levels of various semisolids. Including, naturally, Ben and Jerry's.
"So it appeared at the time. Now it appears... oh dear. Charles. Look at the carpet!"
Several more of the white/clear blotches flattened the shag where the shirt had been.
Abandoning the shirt, Larry pointed at the couch. "Help me move this over so... "
The furniture would cover the marks. Understood. Charlie turned to help.
His heart was in the right place, as were his hands, but his feet landed on the slick nylon of the sleeping bag Larry had stuffed under the couch that morning. The sleeping bag went flying. Momentum insisted that Charlie follow. He landed on the couch. On his back.
The couch back hit Larry in the knees. On consideration of the fulcrum function, and also the laws of reaction, it was only logical that he also land on the couch.
"Sorry. Let me..." Larry tried to lever himself up. Not easy, given the way he had landed. Almost any place he pressed would be... uncomfortable. Given that he would inevitably be pressing on Charlie. Slick, sweaty, mostly naked Charlie.
"Sorry." Larry repeated. Apparently that was not a good place to press. Make that... evidently. "Although how one could get one's knee out from between some other one's thighs without pressing..."
"It's OK." Charlie grunted. From the weight. That was what was behind the rapid rise in heart rate. And other things. Larry on his chest was doing nothing for his lung expansion. Other expansions, however? Better to move quickly. Pain passed faster then embarrassment. "Just let me get a hand free and..." He crunched, wiggled, and slid. Closer. "Ooops!"
/ahem/ The sound came from the now-open door.
Both heads turned.
Framed in that door was a forty-young blonde in Air Force blue. She was looking spectacularly well tailored. She was also looking at Larry - wearing only jeans - and Charlie - wearing less than that.
She smiled. Politely, if not sincerely. "Is this a bad time?"
"Oh!.." Dr. Lawrence Fleinhardt , M.S., Ph.D.,Ph.D., slid to the floor. "Hello, Colonel Carter."
Chapter 2: Heisenberg, I’m Certain
"Larry?" Charlie's tone was tentative as he stuck his head into the Physics Department office. He hadn't heard anything since he had left his friend with that Carter woman. Not officially, at any rate. Not from Larry. But Larry not speaking was the sort of thing that spoke volumes. As did the clean spots on the other professor's desk. Spots that earlier had been cluttered with stacks of blue binders and now were... barren. Like some abandoned battlefield.
One positive note. Charlie consoled himself. Larry sounded wistful - but not angry.
Charlie slid though the door and perched on the edge of the couch. "I didn't know you were doing secret work." Which wasn't quite and apology but... OK. It was an apology. Charlie wasn't quite sure for what. The general perversity of the universe?
"Well the nature of classified does rather imply a certain reticence as to public disclosures..."
"That why you were working with Stromberg?" And not me, was the unspoken coda.
"In part." Larry fumbled with the remaining papers a few seconds more, then gave up and joined Charlie on the couch. "In a very large part. Large being in the sense of cosmological phenomena, if not quite to the value of the dark matter mass of the universe still..."
"I would have preferred you. You must know that."
"But you didn't want to impose. You told me." And I didn't believe you then, and I so much more don't believe you now, Charlie added mentally. On the other hand? He was willing to pretend to believe if Larry needed him to. If it helped his friend keep his dignity.
"That and... " Larry twisted in his seat. Uncomfortable. "It wasn't my decision."
Huh? Charlie didn't say anything. He didn't have to.
"Stromberg is the mathematician the Air Force brought in on this project. He's a friend of Carter's. At least - I think they're friends. At any rate, Stromberg collaborated with her on some earlier papers and when I told them I needed some formula help..."
"They sent him to you?"
"They sent me to him."
Larry starred upward, focused on the plastic star cutouts positioned meticulously on the ceiling. That -or perhaps he was seeing the actual dance of cosmic forces it represented.
"Do not mistake the power dynamics here. This project - whatever it is - belongs to Lt. Col. Carter, and Dr. Felger, and some man named Orlin who I've never heard of but is evidently the theorist." Larry's voice faded into mumbles behind his joined hands. "I only get the problem papers. I don't even - entirely - know what it is I'm working on. Just... very very exotic particles. In - apparently - a second 'island of stability' well above the currently projected heavy stable element zone."
"Element 118? They've found it?" Charlie turned, excited. "I thought that was a hoax but..."
"Sadly, my friend, that was a hoax. The stable known elements still end at 113. The unknown, however? That is a far far grander thing."
"863." Larry shook his head ruefully. "Or so the math..." His words again faded behind his hands. "I've never actually seen any proof that this 'N' substance has in actual fact a physical existence in this current observable universe, although from the way they speak of it? There is a certain ...pragmatism... that might lead one to suspect this endeavor is not entirely speculative at its foundation. Added to which, the Air Force? Well, they are not exactly a National Endowment for the Sciences. At least not in that meaning. So common sense - if not formal logic - might..."
"Larry" Charlie squeezed his friends shoulder - cutting off the monologue. "It's not a bomb, is it?"
"No!" Larry jerked back, shocked. "I would never..." He paused, thinking, then shook his head. Well, I don't think I am. I mean - what kind of bomb would you make with a stable isotope?"
"I wouldn't make one at all."
"No. I don't suppose you would. I rather hope I'm not either. Although?" Larry started for the chalkboard. "If you were to start with this, and then somehow go plus one on the... then this might... oh yes..." Quick notation covered the green slate. " Oh, no. Oh - that could be bad. Very bad."
Larry set down the chalk. "Maybe I should have turned them down. But they said this was important. Vital. And it is groundbreaking stuff."
"I can see that. In fact - that's about all I see. Which means this..." Charlie's finger followed a line of notation. "Is either utterly insane or entirely beyond anything that anyone has been doing - publicly - up 'til now."
"Well, I don't think the entire Air Force is insane."
"Project Blue Book?"
"I did say entire Air Force." He swept an eraser though the scrawl. "This part? I don't know. Like I said. I just work on what they give me."
"Dr. Fleinhardt." Charlie smiled at his own formality - and (thankfully) Larry smiled back. "If you won't consider your own erudite dignity, consider the stature of this noble institution of Cal-Sci, to which both you and I have..."
"Yes, yes. You are a wonderful cheerleader, Dr. Epps. If only you had the pom-poms and very short skirt."
"Sorry. I don't have the legs for a skirt."
"Not unless you shave."
"Legs or head? Because I might do the legs, but I'm thinking the hair?
"Would be a loss to humanity. Agreed."
"So? Better now?" Charlie wasn't quite sure if he was referring to the recent upset, or to his and Larry's friendship. Both, he supposed.
"Better for now." Larry sent one last backward glance. "Although I suppose I shall always wonder. Is there not always a certain incertitude as to that which might have been? The consequences of choosing another path? Although given multiverse theory, one could console oneself with the certainty that some Lawrence Fleinhardt somewhere did in fact..."
Charlie cut that off the direct way, with a smile and a slap on the back. "What I'm certain of is that a scientist of your stature should not have to take second place to an unpublished hack like Felger." Which was a bit prejudicial. Felger had been a bright star in general relativity before he had been somehow sucked into the wormhole of off-book secret research. But in this case Charlie was prejudiced - with a strong bias in favor of his friend. "Tell them that if they want your eleven dimensional super-gravitational constructs, they are going to have to take you with it. Project head."
"Yes. Well. We have a problem there." Larry ran one finger down his nose. "While the USAF might appreciate my cosmological insights, they are less than enthralled by my checkered past."
"Larry ? You?" Larry hadn't mentioned any... radical connections. Not back during the Weather Underground bombing case, and if there was any time to mention such details it was when the explosions were right outside your own lab so...?"
"Between the bankruptcy, the history of high stakes gambling, and my habits of dating men...?" Larry took a deep breath, then let it out. "I believe that is the security risk trifecta."
"You left out alcoholism. Which is, in fact, the most statistically common..."
"Yes. Yes. And again I fail of the statistical norm."
"But never in a bad way." Too smart, too outspoken, too cute. Being different might be uncomfortable sometimes, but that never meant that Larry should... Well, he should never be any different then he was right now. Fleinhardt should stay completely... Fleinhardt.
"Every man must have some virtues. Although I fear that the DIA sees very few of mine."
Charlie led his friend back to the couch. "The bankruptcy wasn't your fault. I don't see how they can hold that against you."
He went for two cups of coffee, poured, and brought one back for Larry.
"You might even have gotten some of your money back if you hadn't helped Don solve the Lucinda Shay murder. And you left the gambling behind. I know that. Don knows that too. And as for the... men?" Charlie stopped, his thoughts catching up with his speech. Or rather - circling around, going back, and reviewing a data track he had skipped over five thoughts back. "Did you say you dated men?"
"Sorry to disappoint, my young friend. But this intellectual icon of your youth had feet of clay. Not so much feet as... possibly other body parts... but..." Larry let the sentence die a painful unnatural death.
"Megan? What about Megan."
Charlie shook his hand. Splashing hot coffee was - well - hot. Which hurt. Coffee burns hurt a lot. Enough to make your voice crack.
"I thought you were dating her?"
Actually, he had worried that Larry had been getting serious about the FBI agent. Enough so that the other professor had been talking about buying a condo. Enough so that maybe he would do just that, and then Larry wouldn't be living here on campus where Charlie could drop in any time he had an idea to test out, and Larry wouldn't be eating dinner at Charlie's house four nights a week, and so he wouldn't be staying late to play chess with Charlie's dad, and so he wouldn't be staying overnight in Charlie's room while Charlie crashed out in the garage. Charlie would miss that because... well, he liked sleeping with his work. He could wake up in the middle of the night and add things as he dreamed them up, then he could review them over breakfast. He especially liked reviewing them over breakfast with Larry, because then he got this wonderful jump on the whole day and...
On second thought, maybe Larry dating someone who wasn't Megan could have its positive aspects.
"I was. I am. I think." Larry took a long sip of coffee. " Charles. I said I had dated men, not that I never dated women. Although I fear in my case bisexuality has merely doubled my opportunity for romantic failure.
Larry finished his cup, the contemplated the empty interior.
"It seems to have resulted in my security failure as well."
"Well. Um. I don't think I helped there." The scene on the couch had been comical, but only in hindsight.
Say - twenty years hindsight. Which meant that - unless they broke time/space mono-directional symmetry in ... oh... the next five minutes? It still stung.
"I fear that, attempting to make an impression on the good Colonel Carter, I made quite the impression indeed. Its fortunate they didn't take my Q-rating away entirely."
"But. We explained."
Well. Larry had explained. Charlie had babbled. And as Larry's explanations generally passed for babble among those not fluent in Fleinhardt?
"And so convincingly. " Which meant that Larry was less persuaded by the Colonel's insistence on her belief then she had been by their insistence of their utter innocence. Although she had been polite enough to turn her back while Charles had borrowed a fresh shirt and a pair of Larry's pants.
"The material world is the domain of chaos." Larry balanced the empty cup on top of his overstuffed trash can." There are some flaws in the equations of our lives that we simply must accept."
"I don't see why." Charlie balanced his empty cup on the other, creating a perfect - if unstable- truncated parallel cone. "It just isn't right."
Chapter 3: Spin
"Charlie - what the hell are you up to?"
"Don!" That was strange. His brother stopping by for dinner - not so strange. But that as an opening line? Don usually started with hello. Followed by 'what's for dinner' and 'can I borrow a shower'. Or a shirt, or a tie, or whatever excuse he had for not driving across town to his own apartment.
Don went home so rarely that Charlie had considered suggesting Larry as a roommate. That way they could both avoid the place and hang out here instead.
"Don." Alan Epps paused in the dining room archway, both hands full of whatever dinner tonight was. "Is that any way to talk to your baby brother?"
"You tell me." Don tossed his suit coat on the hall rack and himself into a chair. "I just had two MP's in my office - interviewing ME as to the (here Don made finger movements) 'political inclinations' of my baby brother."
" I hope you told them he voted Democrat."
"Dad. I've never voted in my life. The statistical effect of a single..."
"Charlie. It's not a question of effect. Its a question of duty." Alan set the dish down and went back for another place setting. Meaning that he had spotted Don eying the casserole and correctly calculated that there would be three for dinner. And Don thought math didn't run in the family.
" It wasn't a question of party. They don't ask questions like that." Don gave the same not-quite-eye-roll that Charlie was tempted to use every time he ended up with a class of liberal arts freshmen who balked at basic calculus. Blood was so thicker then water. "They wanted to know... " Don took a bite from a dinner roll. "Mostly they wanted to know who Charlie here was dating.”
Alan frowned at Don. Mostly over the dinner roll. "I hope you told them that Amita girl."
"I hope you told them none of their damn business," Charlie corrected.
"Well, I'm hoping you'll tell me what this is all about."
" I'm sorta hoping I won't have to." Charlie pulled up a chair. "Look - its just one of those security things. You know. Like you do all the time. It's just that this time it's... me."
"Exactly. It's you. You're my brother. I worry."
"Don't. It's just a... it's like a job interview. For some... math thing I might be doing."
"So." Alan gave up policing the rolls and settled in his own place. "They want you to work for who? NSA? CIA? BATF?" He stopped, spoon suspended over the main dish. "Don't tell me you'd work with the BATF. My own flesh and blood and..."
"It's not the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, dad. Not the Texas Ranges. Not the Parks Department. Not the Bureau of Land Management. Not anyone who's going to bust your friend Stan for growing in his basement."
"Who told you...?"
"Stan did. He wanted help with the wiring."
"Yeh. Well." Alan busied himself with the bread basket. "Don't tell your brother. His boss doesn't like that sort of thing."
Charlie grinned at Don. "I won't."
"So, Charlie." Don helped himself to salad, then passed it on. "I thought you already had security ratings up your wazoo - what with Commander Havercamp going on about that 'clearance at the highest level' thing. Not to mention your friend good old Mike over at Homeland Security. "
"This is a new thing. It's defense related, it's very secure..." Charlie intercepted the look along with the ranch dressing. "No dad, it's not a bomb. And ..." And if it was, he still didn't want to get into that sort of discussion at the dinner table. Don had his opinions. Their dad had his. Neither one of them were going to listen to Charlie about something they considered as 'real world down to earth' as politics. So. "I really don't want to talk about it. You understand. Right?"
"Sure, Charlie." Alan couldn't resist adding. "As long as you know what you're getting into."
Which meant, of course, that his dad thought he didn't.
"Bro?" Don reached across the table. "Whatever it is? I'm proud of you."
* * *
After dinner Charlie biked back to campus.
He expected to see head of the Computer Lab. Maybe finesse a little more processing time, given that his last allotment had gone to helping Don. Most of the cyber staff were suckers for the old 'innocent lives may depend on you alone' routine that was - yes - starting to get routine. Charles had considered finding a new excuse, but? This one was still working, and as long as the input generated effective results? Why mess with the formula?
He didn't expect to run into Amita. Literally.
Oops. She sounded pissed, and not just from having to jump into the gladiolas.
"Charles Edward Epps! What the h... " She took a deep breath, brushing the stray leaves from her beaded shirt. "What have you been up to?"
Charlie kicked down the bike stand. "Don't tell me."
"Do you know that the FBI went and talked to my parent?"
"I thought you liked David and Colby and Megan." Charlie decided to try looking innocent. It generally worked better than when he tried to look as if he knew what was going only. Even when - more frequently than not - he did in fact know what was going on and was therefore far from innocent. Case in point? Now.
"I like them just fine when they're... I don't know... hunting killers. I don't like them when they are asking my parents questions about my sex life."
Right. Parents who were convinced their daughter was a virgin, never dated, and never left the math lab without elderly Professor Epps as a chaperone. At least, they were convinced of that yesterday. If the agents had said anything, anything at all, to change that opinion? He was so screwed. In the not-a-good-way.
"Sorry. Its just a ... work thing. A new consultation prospect."
"Like what you already do with Don?"
"Something like that. No big deal."
"It was a big deal to my parents." Amita was still looking annoyed, but not at Charlie. " What's with this anyway? I've already passed a background check. So have you. Otherwise we couldn't work with the FBI."
"Exactly. And if - when - I want to consult for someone else? They run the whole process all over again."
"All of it?"
"Your tax dollars at work."
Amita shrugged. Bending down, she reclaimed her back pack. "Well, whatever this is, please keep me out of it."
"No problem. I will." Because while Amita might be helpful this was Larry's project, and as Larry's best friend Charlie owed it to him to do everything in his power to see that Larry got his due credit.
" Now. Since you're here." Charlie started waking his bike. "Did you get Dr. Kepler to run those equations I asked about?"
* * *
"Charles." Larry greeted him as he stepped into his own office. "I just got off the phone with a Major Paul Davis. It seems that a certain Deputy Secretary Hammond had just directed him to review my security profile in light of new information."
"Good news." For Larry, at any rate. Although way that Larry was flipping that paper tesseract?
"It also seems that a certain Epps had something to do with this new state of affairs."
"Hey. Don's always believed in you." And Don was fifteen miles and thirty minutes away. Out of the range of fraternal retribution, but well within the scope of hiding-behind-big-brother. Charlie hadn't been home enough to take advantage of the privilege in high school. He figured Don still owed him a few.
"Charles." Larry pressed his outstretched fingers to forehead and chin - the classic signal of Fleinhardt deduction. "Valiant and virtuous as Agent Epps may undoubtedly be, I doubt he is particularly close to the powers-that-be in Military Intelligence."
"That's because you haven't been watching. Every visitor that comes in, from another department or another agency, they're all somehow friends of Don."
"You mean every female visitor. I have indeed observed that phenomena, inexplicable as it is." Larry countered. "There are many days I would pay well for that man's power over women. Oh well, I suppose we should at least be grateful that he is using his super powers for good."
"It's the baseball thing. Don got used to groupies and now... he's still got groupies. Just now they're smart, tough, law enforcement groupies."
"Interesting - but hardly to the point." Larry flicked the shape. It spun briefly, then skittered to a stop at Charlie's feet. "No, this is not a problem set which yields to the Epps charm. Had it been Condoleezza Rice ? I would be forced to concede the possibility. But Congressman Thompson? Not Don's type."
Charlie picked up the model and set it gently on his desk. "Maybe Don's his type."
"I would not have enough data to speculate. As to his fondness for one Charles Epps, on the other hand?" It was a question only by inflection.
Larry gave him the look. The one between the fingers.
"OK. I called Mike up. I told him... told him you weren't really homeless."
"Right. I'm sleeping in my office for fun."
Charlie nodded. "Isn't that what you told me?"
"Charles. I may have said as much, but we are both too intelligent to allow me to delude myself that I convinced you."
"Point taken." Charlie settled on the arm of Larry's chair. Close, but not touching. "What I told him was ... that you'd be living at my place if you wanted. I mentioned I'd just bought the house and it was big enough for my parents and they had had two kids so for two theoreticians?" Charlie made the crossed hands gesture. "No problem."
Larry raised an eyebrow. "And he said..."
"He said not to worry he understood completely."
"Which clearly means he entirely MISunderstood." Larry slumped, running both hands over his forehead. "Charles. Charles. One does not lie to armed governmental agencies. Trust me on this. It never works out well."
Charlie leaned closer, resting one arm on his friends back. "What lie? It is my house, and you're welcome to join me there any time."
Chapter 4: The Weak Force
"So? Good?" Charlie parked his bike and joined Larry Fleinhardt on the bench overlooking the turtle pond. "Seeing as how I just heard the rumor about four army guys leaving your office."
Actually one of the undergrads had seem them, and had come running to Professor Epps with the tale that 'cops or something' were harassing Professor Fleinhardt. Proving that , for all of Larry's apprehensions, his students did love him. Also proving that some of those students were utter twits. About the only thing LAPD uniforms shared with the USAF was that they both fell into the general category of blue. And - for a third theory - proving that the physicist indeed had a reputation for harmlessness Ridiculous. He was at most 'mostly harmless'.
"Four. Three. Two. Pi to the seventh power. Whatever. You had visitors."
"It's an open campus."
"No offense, you're a little old to be enlisting in the infantry."
"Again with the age jokes, Dr. Epps." Larry plunked a pebble at the pond. "You were misinformed. They were Air Force."
"Which makes all the difference, because, with your flawless vision."
"Go ahead." He dropped another stone. "Mock an old man."
"Larry. Larry." Charlie closed his fingers over Larry's hand, stopping the toss. "You know I adore you - and you also know I'm dying to find out what is going on."
"Again, the intellectual incursion of the masterful Dr. Charles Edward Epps."
"Please. "Charlie laughed. "I haven't been a Master since I was seventeen."
"I stand corrected."
"Again with the insights."
Charlie grabbed both hands, turning the other man towards him. "Spill!"
"The Master Sergeant and his associate were here to... invite us... to a briefing."
Freeing his hands, Larry bent down to pluck a stray weed from under the bench leg. He twirled the stalk between his fingers. "You. Me. Us."
"Are invited to a briefing. About this... big... whatever it is."
"Exactly. The really really big whatever."
From his tone, in Larry's mind it really was still a whatever. Meaning information-wise the Master Sergeant had come with a date and time and not much more.
Larry raised the weed, his eyes glazed in close inspection. "The Artifact Management Task Force of the Southwest Regional Command Deep Space Telemetry IOC Applications Project has reviewed my work, and finding it relevant to the ongoing goals of the Department of Cosmological Support and Utilization has asked me to take on an unspecified project in collaboration with everyone's favorite mathematician - one Dr. Charles Edward Epps. To quote. And now you know as much as I do. Any questions?"
"Did they really call me everyone's favorite mathematician?"
"Not exactly. That bit I may have interpolated. But the meaning was there."
"So." Charlie leaned back, apparently resting on air. The transplanted bamboo was green, the filtered water was sparkly, and neither was any more convincing then Larry Fleinhardt's Oscar-losing portrait of casual cheer. "What kind of project do they have in mind?"
"I have said what they said."
"And that's all they said?"
"Governmental writing. So many adjectives. So few verbs. But somewhere in the linguistic maze? Well. It's probably none of it technically false. Merely... opaque."
"So." He rocked his shoulder against Larry's. "You plan to do this?”
"Even though you have absolutely no idea what it is they are asking you to do?"
"That's what we find out at the briefing. Tomorrow afternoon."
"Great." Charlie laughed and, after a minute, stood. "I'll be here."
"Unlikely , as they are not doing it here." Larry also stood." Apparently there's already been enough 'doing' here, thank you very much. We're going to Nevada."
"By tomorrow?" Charlie frowned, one hand already going for his PDA. He had classes and office hours and, oh yes, that meeting with Winton. He had no idea which airline flew to Nevada, or even which airport they'd be flying out of. Or too. Or if the Air Force was covering this, and if they were did he needed to file a request for a travel voucher or go thought the university and..." Crap. “The departmental secretary is going to..."
"...do nothing." Larry steered the bike out of the bushes, setting it and Charlie on the path back to the Maths Building. "Just be here by nine. They're sending a car to take us to the airport, and then on to..." Larry's waving hand added the 'wherever'.
"A private plane?"
"Unless you know of a Janet Airlines."
"Wow. Better then first class. Dr. Fleinhardt hits the big time." He started to straddle his bike, but then looked back. "This is what you want, right? Because from the look of you?" Charlie imitated the bent posture, the hunched shoulders. Not exactly the body language of a man on the cusp of triumph.
"This is so what I want that... I can’t trust my wanting it. I fear that like fairy gold it will vanish before I touch it and leave me heartbroken."
Charlie dropped the bike and reached for his friend instead. "No bad fairies."
"That's what you think," Larry snorted. "You realize... No." Larry blinked. " You don't realize. Charles/" Larry stepped back. Not all the way, but far enough that he could scan Charlie's face. "These people. They only trust me because they trust you and they think I'm your... for lack of a more dignified word... boyfriend."
"You? And... me?... Like...?" Charlie hoped he didn't look as stunned as he... well... looked. Which made no sense, but what else did and...
"Exactly like that."
And Larry wasn't joking.
"You are telling me that because they think we... you know... they are going to let both of us... well... know. You know."
"Yes." Larry nodded solemnly. “I do know. As I know that, once we remove their misconception, they will in turn remove my security clearance. Faster than a pulsing quasar."
“So? If it means that much to them, why not be my boyfriend?" Charlie did that little head duck he did when he was nervous, but beyond that he was smiling. "You may be long past boyhood , but you are my friend. My best friend."
"So." Larry grinned back. "You want to go steady?"
"Why not." Charlie straightened the fallen bike, and this time set his feet on the pedals. "It will guarantee me a lab date on Saturday night."
"Yeh ." Larry gave him a push to start him on his way. "Because otherwise you'd have to stay home and wash that mop of yours."
Charlie laughed. "Just for that? See if I give you a goodnight kiss."
Chapter 5: Strange
Nevada was hot.
At least, Charlie assumed they were in Nevada. Of the heat he had evidence. Hot enough to fry eggs on the nonexistent pavement making up the there-is-no runway at the other end of the flimsy-looking extendable stairs. The plane was stopped. The door was open. So unless he had just experienced the optimal zero point on the universal bell curve of plane crashes?
Clearly, they had landed.
Which meant they were here - wherever here was - and that here was where they were in fact intended to be. Which logic lead inexorably (unless one wanted to posit that the Air Force had undertaken the overly elaborate elimination of random mathematicians) to the conclusion that therefore someone must be here to meet them.
He leaned out, blinking into the harsh desert sunlight. Nothing. Make that - nothing much. Just past the wing he could see a dust-faded Jeep Cherokee. There was no apparent driver.
Larry joined him in the doorway. "Hello? Hello! Anybody out there?"
"I certainly hope not." The voice came from behind them.
Charlie recognized her. The smart lady officer from that first disastrous couch catastrophe. Lt. Col. Dr. Samantha Carter. Or was that Col.? PhD. Polymath. Pilot too, evidently.
She was every bit as perky as he remembered. Blonde hair. Blue eyes. Barbie in dress blues. Only this time she was wearing... Charlie wasn't sure. Loose pants, black tee, unbuttoned blue shirt with rolled sleeves. It looked almost like beach clothes, or something an under grad would wear. Except that - well - a student wouldn't have those little silver pins on the collar.
"Colonel Carter. " How g..." Charlie held his hand out. Except? The palm was black from the edge of the door. He rubbed it clean on his jacket sleeve and tried again. " Um...yeh... to see you again."
"Gentlemen." Carter reached past them, locking the stairs in place. "Enjoy your flight?"
"I supposed I should say it was wonderful - what with you flying and seeing as how my life is in your hands..." Larry fumbled with his words. And luggage.
It was all in the overhead because... one, there hadn't exactly been bellcaps at the back end of Palmdale where the first Air Force driver had dropped them off, and two, they hadn't packed all that much anyway. Except for computers, and who would let a laptop out of their sight?
"Oh. You felt that downdraft, did you?" Carter's perpetual poster girl smile actually edged a bit towards embarrassed. "Sorry. Guess that's the sign of too much time spent flying a desk?"
"Really, it was great." Larry's blush was very real, and very evident. "And I promise you I stayed entirely in my own seat the entire time."
Hoisting his case, he headed to the truck.
"And you, Dr. Epps?" Carter swung down one of the briefcases that had slid forward. " Not that I'm asking about your seating choices but...?"
"The flight? Well, clearly you are an extremely skilled pilot." As other wise she might have earned those pretty leaves on her shoulder, but she wouldn't have picked up the crayola-colored ribbons that he'd seen on her chest. Charlie had spent enough stakeout time chatting with Colby Granger to have a pretty clear idea of what it took to earn those. Gave the phrase doctoral /defense/ a whole new meaning."Beyond that? Different. Impressive. " Charlie considered his backpack (heavy), the stairs (flimsy) and the ground (hard). Better to do this the cautious way. Resting the pack on the top riser, he took a step over it, then swung the pack to the step below his feet. Not the fastest way, but guaranteed not to leave a hiker at the foot of a cliff. Or a staircase. " I've been on a few private jets, but this is the first time I've had my own commercial airplane."
He hadn't been particularly confounded to see the 737 sitting on the CA runway. It was bigger then the Lear Jets and prop planes that made up most of the civil aviation fleet, but unheard of. Lots of the oil and heavy construction companies liked to move their tools along with their crews, and the retired Boeing's gave good value in terms of dollars per pound/mile. Having it all to themselves, on the other hand? The empty crew cabin had been like something out of the twilight zone.
Carter hooked her own bag to the stair rail. One shove, and it slid lightly to the ground.
"Unorthodox, but it makes for great cover." As Carter left the plane, the stairs rolled up behind her. "Civilians tend to notice an F-117, but a passenger jet? We took the flight colors over when Western Air went bankrupt. Keeps the planes looking vaguely familiar. Even to the airport pros. Probably only half a dozen people who could swear on oath that that company isn't still in business somewhere - and three of them would be wrong. So think of it as America’s smallest regularly unscheduled airline."
"Everything but the stewardess with the miniature drink bottles."
Pulling a key from her pocket, she unlocked the truck. "Normally the SGC keeps things less extravagant, but we don't have that many other civilians coming out from California."
"Really?" Larry set his bags on the back seat. " I should think that between Edwards and China Lake..."
Charlie took the other side.
"Oh, there are plenty of aerospace engineers out there. But that's out there, and this is... well, you'll see."
Charlie wasn't sure what she thought they'd see, other then sand and rocks and cactus and... yes... more sand. Plus rocks. Plus cactus. But apparently Carter could see something, because she bounced across the packed sand until they joined with a dirt track. That lead to what might once have been a paved road.
Fifteen minutes down that, she pulled up at a wood plank shack with a padlocked door holding a faded metal sign. 'Groom Lake Mine. Private Property. Danger. No admittance.'
Carter honked twice, then drove the car right into the patched back wall which... now that was a surprise... slid up to let them in. In to what, he wasn't sure. From the inside, the shack still looked like... well... a shack. Dirty, splintered. Old feed sacking glued to the tin roof where the rust had cut though. The type of place where only a snake could feel at home.
"So - is this the infamous Area 51?
"Actually ?" She pointed at the desert expanse they had just left. "That is area 51. This? Her other hand pointed down. "This is area 52."
"The difference being?" Larry asked.
In the side mirrors, Charlie could see the mud stained shaft walls grow dimmer and dimmer.
Carter grinned as the car - and floor - started slowly and silently downward. " No one has ever heard of 52."
* * *
By the time they hit bottom, the shaft was wide, and bright, and clean with that acrylic gloss that only military labor could impose on unpainted concrete. At the bumper ends were two marines wearing tan camo, accessorised with large guns and very unfriendly expressions. At the passenger door? The young lady waiting there shared the fashion sense, but topped her ensemble with a face from Cosmo and brown eyes that would have worked for Bambi. As for arms? Other than shapely? And tan? Well, Charlie asked himself, how much harm could she do with a clip board?
"Sergeant. You have them?"
Carter was out of the car, swapping car keys for a white plastic badge.
"Confidentially agreements." The young lady - now identified a sergeant - held out a pen. "Sign at the bottom."
"So?" Charlie tried to speed read down the nine point type. "We talk and we go to jail?"
"More like," Larry accepted his own stack of waivers, "we talk and they find parts of us under the jail."
"Oh, no sir." The cheerful young sergeant sounded offended. "We're much better than that." She gave Charlie a Hollywood smile. "No one would ever find the body."
* * *
The rest of the trip blurred together. Elevator, moving sidewalk, elevator, staircase, elevator, and after one last set of palm scans a seat in a perfectly innocuous straight-from-Ikea waiting room with a pretty airman industriously typing away behind her government gray desk. Except this room had suddenly spun, leaving them looking at another desk in another room with a receptionist just as photogenic and just as busy, and if Charlie hasn't spotted the shift in the carpet weave he might not have been certain they had moved at all. A simple trick, except usually the moving bodies would have experienced resistance from inertia and as he hadn't? A very very impressive trick indeed.
"That was an E ticket ride. What's next?"
Carter pointed them too the door. One identical to the one they had just entered.
"Well, since we're talking Disneyland? We start with the movie."
* * *
The next twenty seven minutes was a cross between the History Channel and Mys3k Theater. Aliens and explosions as narrated by the bastard intellectual offspring of Cecil B DeMille and Erich von Däniken. It would have been laughable, except that... the Colonel wasn't. When the last of the flag-wrapped closing credits rolled by, there was even the suspicious hint of a tear.
"Wow." Larry rubbed his eyes as the lights came back up. "That was incredible."
"An exact word for it." Because by Industrial Light and Magic standards? And didn't Lucas live in the southwest somewhere?
Carter apparently heard what Charlie hadn't said. "I assure you, the only photoshop was the opening credits. Everything else you saw was... far too real. " She rubbed the ring on her left hand. "Janet Frasier was a friend of mine."
* * *
"Wear these badges at all time." Pulling out a Sharpie marker, Carter carefully block printed their names on two white plastic squares. "You can take them off in the shower, but even then? I'd leave them beside the sink. Just in case."
"Security is by biometrics tracking." She pointed out the palm pads set at each corridor junction here are "Hall sweeps run on a random schedule. MP's may ask to see your card at any time."
"Computers note every time you go though a door." She demonstrated how to slide the card while pressing her palm to the glass plate. The metal doors slid open. "To navigate, keep your eye on the floor."
Charlie looked down. Underfoot, the concrete was a rainbow of painted lines.
"Green lines lead to public areas. Base shop, library, temporary housing. There's a map in your binders. Red leads to operational areas. Only go there if you have specific clearance, and only ask for that if you really need it."
She broke off as several Marines rumbled past, pushing what looked like a cart full of rocks. A nervous. older man in a lab coat hurried behind them. Either he was one hell of a dedicated geologist or? A lot more then placer gold was coming out of this 'abandoned' mine.
"Blue is security." Carter pulled them back on track. "Follow those if you get lost. You'll find someone who is out trying to find you."
"And the black lines?" Larry asked.
"X-section. Do NOT follow those. You don't want to end up where they do."
"Because if I do, you have to shoot me?"
"Don't worry about us shooting you, Dr. Fleinhardt. Just hope we can shoot what's at the end of the line before it eats you."
Chapter 6: Ring Mechanics & Circular Motion
"So uh... Colonel." Charlie broke the uneasy silence. "Shouldn't we, um... get right to work?"
"Right!" Carter sounded 'kiss-me' grateful for the escape. "Most of what we do is that way." Grabbing Larry's hand, she took off the opposite way though the maze of corridors. She stopped in front of a thick metal door, one of a dozen or so spaced along the concrete tunnel. There was the usual lock complexities before the door slid open.
Inside was... Well, frankly? Inside was a disappointment. Four concrete walls - spaced maybe twenty by forty - and a slab floor stacked with odd sized crates. Whatever surface wasn't shrouded with black plastic sheets served as ad hoc shelving for bits and bobs of mechanical debris. The one folding chair - tucked in a corner - held last month’s newspaper (sports section open on top), a stained coffee mug, and two power bar wrappers. From the track lights above to the freight dollies leaning against the far wall, it could have passed for any FedEx lost-package storeroom.
"What we'd like you to look at is..."
Carter twitched off the plastic.
This? Charlie took in the object before them. It was... He wasn't sure what. A wire wrapped donut? An eight foot bicycle tire made from plumbing copper and duck taped with bits of a garden trellis?
"Well " Carter struck a Vanna White pose. "What do you think?"
Charlie kept his mouth shut. He didn't think she wanted his honest answer. Only when the silence got too... silent... did he ask. "What is it?
"It's some sort of jump transformer?" Larry leaned forward, scratching at a flake of corrosion. "One could expect the alternation of copper and... is that steel?... coils to amplify power but.. I don't expect...?" He tapped a bit of grill. It crumbled.
Carter smirked "No chance you'll find this like anything you expect."
Well, no, Charlie's mental snark answered. They had been expecting an advanced xeno-tech lab. A decent graduate-student gear up, at the very least. So no, the U-Store section of the seventh circle of hell had been... call it a trip to the low rent low end of projected probability. Even without Rube Goldberg's personal hula hoop.
Fortunately for congeniality - the voice in Charlie's head stayed in his head.
The result was another long, painful, silence:
Finally. Larry stepped up to the ring. He ran one finger down the silvered coils. "It looks like someone's high school science fair project."
"If they went to high school in another galaxy." Carter dropped the pose and pulled out a binder. "Don't let the duck tape fool you. This is - for all its terrestrial fabrication - a genuine artifact of alien technology."
Pulling his tie free, Larry tossed his jacket over a crate and rolled up his sleeves.
Charlie got the hint, and did the same. He only had one good suit, and if he started moving furniture? Or whatever this was? It wouldn't be much good for much longer.
"This was built in outer space?"
"No. This was built in my basement." Carter's voice was heading to that not-yet-migrane edge. The place where most people would make a left tern towards aspirin and a double gin. "But it was built by an alien intelligence."
Larry and Charlie exchanged looks. The sort best translated as 'are-we-crazy-or-is-it-them'.
"You keep aliens in your basement?" Larry asked, cautiously untwisting a two inch snip of twist tie from the base cluster.
"Of course I don't keep... Look!" Carter slammed her laptop on a table. Two hits of the keyboard and the a collage of NID surveillance tapes began to play. A blond man,naked on the pavement. Carter, surprised in the shower. Strange long shapes in stranger configurations. It was red-tinted and shadowed - about what you'd expect from optical point photography by natural moonlight - but that made the screaming blue-white lightning flash and boil of the gate surge all the more dramatic.
She glared at them. "This is the ring. This is the ring in action. Any questions?"
Larry had one. "Does the Air Force know you make amateur porn about aliens in your basement?"
"This is not porn. This is a covert NID surveillance tape. Which, I admit, I did know not they were making at the time or I absolutely would never have... Never mind." She slammed the laptop shut again. "We are not here to discuss anyone's personal life, are we now?"
That was a solid flat 100 no.
"Look guys - I know it's crude - but simple constructions often demonstrate principles at their simplest. We were hoping you could study this and report on the underlying theory.
"This is a Stargate?" Charlie knelt, trying to peer behind the black and orange extension cords that threaded the base. They were macraméd into alternating squares by more twist times, and inside was something... He wasn't sure. Maybe it was a fluid lubricant. Maybe the coils were just damp from being stored underground.
"We saw it work."
"Then... why...?" Larry later insisted to Charlie - and others - that his sentence would have been 'why didn't you ask the people at the other end how it works' - but they both knew he was covering. It was why. Just why. And as instinctive as... well... as the questions of any truly brilliant cosmological intellect.
Although? Carter was brilliant as well, and she seemed to think that was the question.
"Why we know." Carter rushed on, desperate to keep the reigns on the unshackled equine that was Fleinhardt in mental flight. "That's ..."
"Classified?" Charlie suggested.
Charlie made a note to himself that classified was not therefore specifically excluded. Big deal - not. Around here the breakfast menu was probably stamped 'burn before eating'. Which was... so all not that unique to the military. He'd known a number of mathematicians who would have shared their drugs or their wives before they would part with so much as a glimpse of their unproofed formulas. He'd managed to work with them. He could manage to work here. Although this particular installation had taken paranoia to a level that would make Ethan Burdick pass for Linus Torvalds. He'd think about that later. Right now?
Charlie counted off the spots from the lowest grade-bulge to the cord cluster. They were brownish and slightly sticky. Perhaps mold? Or could it be...? The patches increased in both surface and congestion until the merged just beyond the scorch line on the floor. Interesting.
Carter had turned to Larry. "The question we need you to focus on is ... how."
"Actually "Charlie peered under the second tarp that draped the back half of the platform." I think you might want to start with when. And who."
Chapter 7: The Effects of Gravity
"Security to 24-A." Carter had opened her radio with one hand as she shoved Charlie away from the circle with the other. " We have an intruder. At least." His last view of the room was of her looking back. "Most of one."
That had been three exciting seconds - and the opening of as many boring hours.
Base security apparently operated on FBI time. FBI procedurals as well. Carter and her two 'visitors' had been separately 'sent to detention' (meaning another boring IKEA-decked office - not a jail cell) while the site had been dusted and taped, not to mention photographed, on every level and over every inch. That wasn't so bad - although the coffee was. Bad. Charlie had of course missed having someone to talk with. Preferably Larry, but Carter would have done. A project director. The base cat. Heck, a spare airman would have been better then nothing.
At least the base magazine had been amusing. Back issues of Scientific American (with the second word cross out - and 'Canadian' printed above in red ) and Modern Astronomy. Not that the articles were all that interesting. Popular writing was three years behind and ten layers below anything anyone he knew was working on. The giggle factor in these came from the marginalia. Sketches of ray guns, little aliens with 'zap' lines aimed their way, and the occasional 'sez you!' - complete with :-p face - beside the names of the more inaccurate statements.
Charlie amused himself by re correcting the math - and adding his own little DUZ SO! to those few disagreements which he in turn disagreed with. Plus the occasional WORD! or U-ROK! to bits where the objections were so right-on. It passed the time, and he figured it would add even more amusement value to the next unfortunate reader.
That lasted until an airman came and took his statement. Which took another hour.
Then the mean-looking guys in camo brought them all back to the lab.
The body had been bagged and sent to...well... one of the airmen said to the base infirmary. (Reasonable, Charlie considered. You didn't build an air base with the expectation that you would need a forensics morgue.) NCO's with lists had descended, triple checking every bit of property. Those that belonged stayed where they were. Those that didn't? (And that meant everything not listed in inventory - including the newspaper and the coffee cup.) Those got bagged and tagged and put on a whole new list. Evidence.
Charlie and Larry and Carter all pointed out where they had stood and what they had touched and in what order. All very standard stuff. (And Charlie was beginning to worry. Not about this incident, but about his life. Because really, should this sort of stuff be 'standard'? )
Then? After hurricane Air Force had blown all things into order?
The whole mess landed in the General's conference room.
People, pictures, everything.
Including, by the by, Charlie and Larry. They - after all - were witnesses. (From the Generals expression, Charlie got the impression that they should bear silent witness.)
The General (Barnes, as they learned) did the nod and name thing that passed as Air Force introductions. Charlie was reminded of kindergarten. 'Now children, tell us who you are and something about yourself'. Except here it was last names, and the 'something' was post and rank.
Turned out, by the way, that the base did have a coroner. At least, they had a pathologist. Captain Breaux. Slim black woman with the eyes of an eagle. Not your happy Marcus Welby bedside angel. You got the impression that if she wanted you to live, you damn well better hop to it. And if she didn't? She could take care of that too.
Compared to the Director of Base Operations? She was a pussy cat. Colonel Raznick looked like he'd been dropped from the cast of a James Bond film because the director wanted to avoid stereotyping. If Don had brought this guy into the office, the whole crew would have headed for an interrogation room. This guy was born be a villain. (By Larry logic, that meant that he therefore worked for Animal Rescue and fed the homeless on his weekends off. The Fleinhardt universe tended to work like that.)
"OK people." The General started. " What do we know - and what do we need to know."
"As Dr. Eppes suggested at the time." Carter glanced down the table. "Who?"
"White, male, healthy." Excluding the whole 'dead' thing, was the unspoken coda. "Hair brown with gray, eye color undetermined. Possibly mid-forties. No signs of organic disease or injury." Again, there was the 'except for mangled and dead' pause. Dropping the sheet, the general looked down the table. "Not enough, people."
The screen behind them lit up. Center frame was a shot of part of a uniform shoulder, with its silver leaf dead center. "Our... decedent..." the doctor picked her words carefully." would appear to be Lieutenant Colonel... whoever."
"Can't be one of ours." The general's half-question was aimed at Raznick. "Among other things -we'd know if we had one missing. Right?"
"Sir. Everyone on base has been accounted for. I've having my people work with Major Davis to check the ... out of base... teams as we speak."
"The dog tags ... if the decedent was wearing any... would have been on the anterior of the torso."
The screen shot pulled back, showing less detail and a lot more... anterior of the body. Interior, rather. Oops. Charlie realized. The front of the body mostly wasn't there.
"Neither, sir." Colonel Raznick zoomed the shot in on a hand. Most of a hand. "However, the officer - apparent officer - was wearing a wedding ring. Engraving on the part that survived appears to be J-D and the word 'AEternas'.
Larry smiled at the bad Latin. "I would have thought Semper Fi."
"That's... is for Marines." The doctor was frowning. " And we don't use it for spouses. Generally."
"So." The general got them back on course. "Unless he was unnaturally fond of mid-market whiskey, one of those initials should belong to our corpse."
"I can have them run against Air Force personnel records. Combined with the blood type, hair color, general body morphology? That should narrow it down to a.,..well, it will probably still leave us with a few thousand people. But it's a place to start."
"He isn't in the Air Force." Charlie knew they didn't want his opinion but, this was so blatant in in his face that...
"Dr. Epps?" Carter. Sounding surprised.
"The uniform. It's a fake."
"What?" That was Colonel Raznick. Sounding also surprised, but more in the 'ambushed' definition of the word.
"At least." Charlie backtracked. Just slightly. Not because he was intimidated but... because he couldn't vouch for every air force of every country on the planet. Charlie was a mathematician. Mathematicians are precise. "It's not the same as that of the guards I saw upstairs. That's not your camo pattern. The colors match, but the fractal equation is different." He held out his hand, and the doctor passed over her screen controller. He zoomed in on a flat clean patch by the dead man's knee." Look here."
"Close but..." Raznick was out of his chair - squinting at the screen. "The man is right. This is not from an issued uniform."
"If he wasn't Air Force, how did he get here?" Carter pointed down - to the lower lever. "There."
"Good question." Raznick's expression indicated that his next activity would be breaking arms - until someone gave up the good answer to match. "When you entered?"
"Sir. The room was secured."
"Not ... securely enough." The doctor let the 'duh' insert itself. "There were... signs of habitation."
Meaning the coffee cup and newspaper. Which of course shouldn't have been there, but this was a base not a Gulag and if people were working late? You could only enforce regulations so far before they snapped. Even - make that especially - in a super-secret base kept in total black-site isolation.
"if... personnel... were using it as a... social place..."
"I pity your boyfriend. Human sex does not end with the male’s head being devoured."
"The lock was set. The door light was red." Carter cut in. "I heard the bolts let go."
"Recap. Someone - who shouldn't have - got in. Somehow - which also shouldn't have happened - he didn't get out again. You can't tell me who, or when, or how, or even why - but you are telling me my base has been violated. That the bottom line?"
Both Raznick and Breaux slumped back. "Yes, sir."
"So. This is not an incident where one of the scientists accidentally set off some alien technology, with unfortunate but anticipatable results." General Barnes stood. Which meant everyone else followed. "We're not just looking at a really tragic but ultimately explainable accident - we're looking at a crime."
"Yes,sir." Colonel Raznick pulled himself to attention. "One at least."
Because? Charlie counted. Trespassing. Breaking and entering. Espionage? (Did it sill count if you didn't get the information out?) And maybe - just maybe - murder.
"As of now, this base is locked down." One button pressed brought the general's aide. "Set Lt. Colonel Carter and the doctors up in guest quarters."
"Sorry, Dr. Fleinhardt, Dr. Eppes." Which was clearly only a nominal apology. "Normally we shuttle our 'earth people' to Vegas. Better hotels. But under the security considerations?"
Larry nodded his understanding. "You're keeping us under security."
Chapter 8: Charm
The General hurried by them on the way out.
Larry caught his sleeve. "I have a class."
"Sorry, Doctor Fleinhardt." Dr. Breaux steered him away. "You heard the General. This base is in level Q lock down until – well?" she shrugged "Until."
Larry looked stricken. "Can we at least call the school? Let them know to cover my - our - lectures?"
"Sorry." Colonel Raznick answered, sounding not at all so. "This is a black site. No communication with uncleared civilians."
Which would explain why the nice Airman had taken their cell phones before they had even stepped on the plane.
"Wait... what about my brother" " Charlie pushed forward. "Don Eppes. He's with the FBI. Assistant Director - Los Angeles Office."
The title got the man’s attention.
"That's your own government." Larry added. "Surely you know you can trust them."
The Colonel's face answered that he so did not.
"Dr. Fleinhardt has a point." Lt. Colonel Carter stepped in. Mediator between the 'military' and the 'intelligence' was something she was used to - seeing as how so often she was the only officer who represented both. In her earlier years, it had made her an irritant. Danny had helped her work on her semantics and now? She'd never have his magic touch, but on occasion she could soothe the savage - and suspicious - senior officer. "Sir. We do have to consider that lack of contact could raise suspicions. Suspicions that could be allayed by a simple message to the appropriate quarters."
Raznick frowned, but Carter could see that he could see her point. "I don't want a permanent record anywhere."
Even Charlie could spot that concession. "I could call my brother and he could call Amita." Before the Colonel could voice his question, Charlie rushed on. "Amita Ramanujan. She used to be my graduate assistant, and now she... anyway. She's given my class lectures before when I was working with Don. She has my notes. She knows where Larry - Dr. Fleinhardt - keeps his notes. She could just take care of things. Nothing official."
"And this Ramanujan woman?"
"We've cleared her, sir."
Raznick handed Charlie a pen. "Give me your brother's number. I can't let you call him - directly - but I'll make the request to General O'Neill." He gave Carter that 'mission accomplished' chin-jerk. She smiled back. "Maybe we can pass a message along."
According to the aide, the rooms weren't ready. Rooms, or whatever the military put people up in. His knowledge of army life mostly came from Colby Granger, who tended to talk about tents (or occasionally about times of not having tents) or from old black-and-white movies watched on DVD while waiting for results on the college mainframe. Charlie was hoping for something like an apartment, and praying it wasn't bunks. He didn't object to sharing with Larry. (Actually, he rather liked the thought of sharing with Larry.) Sharing space with some strange army grunt? Well, Charlie had tried the roommate thing: just after his mother went back to LA and before he was old enough for landlords to take him seriously . He's ended up splitting a eight by ten room with an Education major who lived on Raman and vodka. In a word? It had sucked.
Since they couldn't go 'home' - even for a temporary value of home - a helpful Sergeant suggested they try the cafeteria.
Amazingly, once they got there Charlie was hungry. "You'd think I would have lost my appetite."
"So one might anticipate, but the body has it's own needs. However the wider world might frown on those."
Which was true. Plus Charlie wasn't sure about the disapproval thing. Don dealt with dead bodies all the time, and he never missed a meal. Not a dad-cooked meal, at any rate. Those few nights where it had been Charlie in the kitchen? Don had developed a sudden yen for take-out. Which was fine - and mostly the reason that Charlie threatened to cook. (He wasn't the genius Eppes brother for nothing.)
The cafeterias food was? Well, a lifetime on campus had inured both professors to the terrors of the heat lamp.
Charlie got a taco salad. Just to see what the army cooks could do to southwestern. (Don regularly swore that his brother’s curiosity would one day be the death of him. From the looks of the salsa, this might be that day.)
Larry picked up potato salad, tapioca pudding, and tuna on white bread. Meaning he was more upset than he was letting show. Lately, between Megan's gentle teasing and Alan Eppes' excellent cooking, Larry had started to eat a few more colorful dishes - but only when someone else was serving and only when he felt truly safe.
Apparently 'safe' was not quite fungible with 'secure'.
They both avoided the spaghetti casserole. * shudder * Meat loaf wasn't a big seller either. Charlie might be getting a little tougher since Don - and Don's work - came back into his life, but some things were just... no.
There was a cashier at the end of the line, but she took their plastic ID tags instead of money. Which was good. Charlie hadn't bothered to hit the ATM the night before. One, because once he got to Vegas he could find a machine on every corner. Two, because once he got to Vegas with Larry, the money would be moving the other direction. There was a benefit to having friends in low places.
Trays full, they picked a table near the door. It was uncomfortably noisy but it was empty. Neither of them felt like chatting with the locals. Plus, they weren't sure they were allowed to talk about why they were here even if they wanted to.
"Well? Charlie forked up a bit of cheese. Plastic looking stuff. "What now? Wait here for the project to start back up?"
"Do you believe we should? Or that it will?" Larry rested his cheek on his hand.
"The general sounded sort of uncertain. I don't know what to believe."
"Thus we dwell in a universe of uncertainly. What can we truly believe. Take this." Larry raised his lunch.
"We believe it to be a sandwich."
"You may." Charlie smiled, comforted by the Larry-ism. "Colby warned me about commissary food."
Larry shook his head slowly. "That is merely a lack of flavor." He held the sandwich to the light, as if inspecting a photon image. "But consider if you will prospect... just the possibility mind you... of the the lack of charm."
Charlie looked around the beige concrete room with its gray metal tables. "Colby warned me about that too."
"Thus on some level, all matter may be illusion. Capable of changing merely because we change how we perceive it."
"I'm hoping that works on a salad." Charlie took a bite. The salsa tasted like tomato paste, and the beans were on the hard side but... he shrugged. "Not bad. Not what I was hoping for but..."
"No." Larry was still lost in contemplation. "I suppose no one ever hopes for cafeteria food. At least, not unless they are starving. It is one of those things that makes up the perigee of our lives , never the apogee."
"I was hoping this would be a high point for you."
"At a certain level, it is." He bit at the sandwich, washing down chunks with milk. " I mean, just to be invited to examine an alien artifact."
"Even one made in Colorado?
"Which, I grant, must make it the least of xeno of the xeno- tech" Sandwich gone, Larry turned his focus to the potato salad. "But still. The discoveries in underlying paradimensional wormhole structure alone would be..." He paused. "You also seem less than thrilled."
"I am thrilled." Charlie answered - in a tone that too evidently wasn't.
"Well, I would be if we were working on ...our work. Which doesn't seem likely just now."
"So I had conceded."
"And beyond that? Well. I had hoped ...since they mentioned that we'd be spending out nights in Las Vegas?"
"The Venetian is beautiful."
"So it is." Larry agreed. "And thus - not on the Air Force budget."
"I." Charlie shifted on the plastic chair. "I had it comped."
"Charles?" Larry's eyes widened. "I had not taken you for a high roller."
"Not like that." Charlie dropped his head, trying not to blush. Blushing was so wrong in a n adult. A full professor. It was just that... "You know those students we helped Don catch? The ones with the black jack scam?"
"Ah yes, Dr. Leonard Philbrick's unfortunate protégées."
Larry tried to pass it off lightly, as he had pretended at the time, but Charlie knew how much the deaths - and his former friends arrest - had hurt the man. His kind heart had wanted to forgive the other professor, even though his 'mentoring' had led to the deaths of two boys and a life behind bars for another.
"Well, the Las Vegas Casino Managers Association asked me to give a seminar on breaking the shuffler algorithm. Because if one group of kids can think up a scam..."
"...then so eventually will another..." Larry picked up the sentence.
"...and they could be losing millions - tens of millions - and not even know it."
"Very. Have you ever seen a grown accountant cry?" Which one had, when the numbers had proved that at least three successful card counters had moved though his tables in the past quarter.
"So they considered it the better bet to 'pay out' in your direction."
"Actually, there was no direct cash involved." Even one day of conversation had made it very clear that the gentlemen of the gaming world had had a low threshold of financial pain - however brutal their physical aspect. Thus their joy when Charlie had made them an offer they... so to speak ... couldn't refuse.
"Charlie!" Larry dropped his spoon. "You are worth much much more then just a few nights - however deluxe the suite."
"And I thank you for that endorsement, Dr. Fleinhardt."
Larry bowed back. "Deeply felt, Dr. Eppes."
"No, the deal was the suite, meals, drinks... the usual..."
"And? Because I'm sensing an and?"
Charlie's grin let his friend know how pleased he was at the other man's perception. There was indeed an 'and'.
"And Dr. Fleinhardt , with assistant," Charlie waved his fork towards his own chest, "gets four hours a night at the blackjack tables. Plus starter chips. You get to collect my 'honorarium' as it were."
"I thought it would be fun." He busied himself with his salad, not risking the other man's eyes. "A chance to relax your mind between sessions. Sort of a distraction from all the cloak and dagger."
"All the better for you that we are stuck here, my friend. Because if I had you in Vegas?" Larry chuckled, almost silently. "Alluring as the green baize may be, it might not equal other... distractions."
"Oh ! General Barnes. Over here!" Charlie spotted the man in a group off officers. They were going out. The general was coming in.
"Dr. Eppes," the general acknowledged. It wasn't exactly 'hello and how was your day' , but Charlie would take it.
"About the body?"
Now the man looked seriously uncomfortable, Also uncomfortably serious. "I regret you had to..."
"Not that." Charlie waved off the whole trauma thing. Mostly because? It was no longer that traumatic. "I was wondering if I could help?"
"I appreciate your work ethic, but the micro-gate program is on hold so..."
"No." Charlie had learned to get right to the point. "I mean.. help. With the mystery."
"Charles has quite the track record with the FBI." Larry, at his back, backed him up.
"Your brother's office." So either the general had been listening when Charlie talked to Colonel Raznick, or Colonel Raznick had talked with the general. Either way,it showed that the man had taken an interest.
"They are very impressed with him, sir." Colonel Carter stepped in.
Larry was delighted. "Then you did talk to Don!"
Carter smiled. "General Barnes told him you would be staying on, and that General O'Neill gave him permission to contact your friend."
"Thank you." Which was sincere and heart felt. Not only because Larry was naturally nice enough not to want his friends to worry, but also because ... well.. just right now he seriously needed his teaching job. More so if the 'alien consulting gig' fell though. As seemed overly probable just now. Homeless and sleeping in one's office was one thing. Homeless with no office to sleep in was another. Homeless without reserved secure parking in the faculty structure? Having one's classic car cast out to take it's chances on the mean streets of LA? That fate was beyond enduring.
"General O'Neill is flying in, and as soon as I... we... talk to him in person?" Carter turned to Charlie. "Things should get moving."
"So hopefully soon you'll be again helping us with the gate project." General Barnes gave Carter a glance that said he didn't share her enthusiasm, but did accept her conclusions. Evidently she was a lot more confident of the incoming general - or of his command abilities - then was Barnes. "The task we brought you in for." The look said 'the task Carter brought them in for'. Apparently there was a little turf struggle going on.
"Beyond that, Dr. Eppes? You're a mathematician, not a murderer." The general gave them a 'its a joke' smile. It didn't look as good on him as on Carter. Maybe because you got the idea he didn't mean it. "I don't see where this is a math problem."
"Sir?" Colonel Raznick stepped up, surprising everybody. "Dr. Eppes was the one who noticed the bad camo pattern. And we do use some advanced math applications in structuring our security protocols."
Looking at Charlie he asked. "You have something in mind?"
Now Charlie was on familiar ground. "You have a body you can't identify. What about running the DNA?"
"We've sent it to be matched but..."
"Not just matched." Pulling out his laptop, he set it on the nearest table. "Amita wrote this program for a case we had in LA. It allowed us to reconstruct the general characteristics of a suspect from their genetic material. Use the computer generated feature probability to create a rough police sketch."
Raznick got the point immediately. "Here we can use it to draw our victim instead."
Chapter 9: Bottom
"No TV" Charlie looked around the room. "No radio."
"Computer?" Larry could go only so long without 'Space Invaders'. He had his laptop, but preferred the big screen.
"Notebook dock - but no cable" Charlie read down the instruction list posted over the desk in the windowless room. "No wi-fi. No outside internet connection. Phone in the room goes only to the switchboard." Which might explain why it was the old fashioned center-dial model, in this case sans dial. He hoped so, as the other explanation involved time travel that would leave then stuck in some RKO two-reeler - and Charlie just wasn't up to fighting smog monsters just now.
"They mean this isolation thing."
Not that Charlie hadn't gotten a clue five minutes earlier, when the airman had guided them though six security checkpoints to get to the base 'guest quarters'. Their shared guest quarters.
"So... cell sweet cell."
"Not a cell. Quite." Charlie took in the standard sized mattress, topped with a just-as-standard striped spread. Two under stuffed chairs, one desk, and a single lamp on the three-drawer press board dresser. Brown carpet, white walls. The minimalist bathroom to one side had a shower, but no bath. IKEA had given way to Wal-Mart. It wasn't an improvement. "Not exactly the honeymoon suite at the Bellagio but..."
"I thought you had booked the Stratosphere." Larry shook off his suit coat. It had been a long and eventful day, and he was obviously tired. Well, not so much physically tired and mentally exhausted. Not just from the shock.
Charlie had spent the rest of the evening getting the program downloaded from Quantico. (They had purchased a copy from Amita after the BATF / Treasury heist case. The license fee was going a long way towards paying for her second doctorate. Adjunct professors gained in depth and experience - but they didn't collect much cash.) Normally he just would have sent it up over Don's signature, but for some reason the lab staff got very very quiet when he mentioned the phrase 'human DNA'. Enough to make him wonder if some of those saucer-crash little-green-alien-autopsy crazy stories were maybe not so entirely crazy after all.
Larry had divided his time between helping with input (not that this was normally his job, but you couldn't be a physicist if you were actually bad at math) and putting polite pressure on Lt. Colonel Carter as to just when the mini-gate project would be reopened.
It had been tense. It had been painstaking. It had been uncertain.
End result, two men - wired and fried.
"I get that they're probably full, what with needing to put up all the employees that would normally have gone home, but still." Charlie plopped onto the desk chair. "You think they could have at least added a couch. Cot. Something."
Larry flipped open his suitcase, which had been set against the far wall., and after bit of a search pulled out his bathrobe. The heavy red and mustard brocade had doubled his luggage requirement, but it was comforting. "I suspect they think we won't want one. You have to remember, the whole reason they invited us - us as a pair - and - that they cleared me at all - is that.."
"They think we are doing it like bunnies?"
"Middle aged, slightly over intellectualizing bunnies but... yes." Grabbing his tooth brush, he headed for the bathroom. "Although? Given the general military homophobia? I suspect their visualization of my sex life is far more exotic than my sex life." There was brushing, then sink sounds. When Larry came out again he was in his bathrobe. "It would be difficult otherwise to account for the organizational paranoia on the topic, unless they imagine I'm somehow ravishing every good looking man I'm left with unchaperoned."
"They expect us to have sex?" Charlie slid over to the narrow bed. "Here?"
"I'm sure we don't actually have to." Larry headed back to his suitcase. "Not specifically here. Umm... us. Ummm... now. . I mean." He took a deep breath. "I'm sure they would not invade our privacy to such a degree as to check ..."
"Because? You know? " Charlie wrapped his arms around one knee, ignoring his show on the bedspread. "I might not mind... I mean... If you wanted to."
"If I want to?" Larry nearly dropped his shaving kit.
"Sorry." Charlie's head vanished into the nest of his arms. " I suppose that was inappropriate.
Professionally, I mean. A...and... friend-wise..."
"Charles!" Larry was standing in front of him. "Do you never look in a mirror?"
"So. You want to?"
Larry's palm came to rest on Charlie's cheek. "I desperately want to."
"Good. Because I was sort of hoping..." Charlie looked up, the rest of the message shining in his eyes.
"Are you sure?" Larry ran his hand down the to the other man's tie, fingers resting on the knot they itched to undo. "You never said anything?"
Charlie leaned back, letting his suit jacket slide from his shoulders. It caught in his arms, keeping him still. He found he rather liked the sensation. "I didn't know what to say. You never even... hinted..."
Larry was taking every hint now. Pulling the tie free, he started on the button below it. " I never wanted to damage our flawless intellectual friendship with the inexplicable complexities of the physical."
"Because I'm not... physical?" Charlie questioned. "Was that what you meant when you called the math department the least libidinous place on campus?"
"I never. Very well, so I did but..."
"It's OK." Charlie kicked off his shoes. "I mean, I know Don's always been the family stud. The big sports athletic macho gun guy but... I thought... there was still..."
"Charles, Charles." Larry eased to his knees. "You are exceptionally ... delightfully... physical. Enough to inspire an exceptionally physical - and blatantly obvious - response."
Charles looked down - saw the open bathrobe - and decided to go with empirical evidence.
"That means? That you want to? You actually want too!" With a single motion he pushed off trousers and briefs.
"Yes. Very much." Larry's breath rushed hot over the rising scarlet head. "But only if..."
"If?" Charlie quivered.
"Setting aside the disconsensual aspects? The forced propinquity of the circumstances? I would never pressure you but... "
"Go on." Charlie couldn't have sworn if he meant go on speaking, or get on with other things. Because what was nearly happening was nearly unbearable - and he meant that in the best way.
Resting his palm half an inch from Charlie's shaft, Larry whispered. "You might like it."
Falling back, Charlie opened himself to his friend. "I might like it - a lot."
Chapter 10: Top
Secret ‘shout out’ in this chapter. Extra cookies to the first reader to spot it and identify the writer so honored. **BEG**
"Charlie?" Larry's voice was soft, but even so the bare walls distorted it - echoes covering the wistfulness with a ghostly tone. "Why are you...?" Sitting there, was one obvious ending to the question. Not in bed was another. On some level, they were the same question, and the wistfulness was fear of the same answer.
Charlie was perched on the desk chair. His body was arched back, his eyes on the blankness of the slab ceiling.
"Just thinking." One hand moved, easing up the desk light.
"Mostly? About the body."
"Yes." Larry sat, arms wrapped around his knees. "I suppose that would linger in your thoughts."
"Is it just me or...?" Charlie's feet hit the bare floor, a sudden thud in the night. "Do we meet a lot of dead people?"
"Technically, when we meet them they are generally not yet dead, and those who have departed are not generally introduced, but that aside I do follow the line of your inquiry."
"And I would have to say, while acknowledging the occurrence of cluster nodes within pure random events, that there does seem to be a statistical bias in our disfavor."
"That's what I thought."
"Though may I say that - even if there is foundational incident for this general mortality? Staring at plaster is unlikely to affect the root cause." Larry smiled. "So if that is your only worry? Might I suggest it be addressed in the morning, and that for now you come back to bed?”
"It's not just that." Charlie shook his head. "I've also been thinking about the ring thing."
"Charles! I'm flattered of course, but this isn't even our first date!"
"Lawrence Fleinhardt!" Charlie spun the notebook, Frisbee style, at his friend’s head.
Larry's pillow blocked it.
"Oh. Not matrimony. And here I was prepared to be swept off my feet."
Charlie made a face. "I meant the Stargate - as you well know."
"Very well. Are we talking cosmologically or forensically?”
"A bit of both." Charlie stood, pacing the four feet of floor between desk and door. "I mean... doesn't a giant ring of plumbing tube strike you as an… unorthodox murder weapon?"
"Far be it from me to wish to be struck with any murder weapon. But I do see your point." Leaning back, Larry laced his fingers behind his head. "If one's goal was manslaughter, there surely must be some location preferable to a secure warehouse in a secure wing of the most secure military facility in the country. Not to mention any number of more conventional and compliant weapons with which to carry out the crime."
"Guns, knives, blunt objects, dirty bombs." In one case or another, Larry and he had dealt ( fortunately only theoretically ) with all of these. Plus more.
"If, on the other hand, one's goal was theft - or espionage?” Larry picked up the thread, finishing the thought as Charlie so often finished his. “Why add a body rather then taking something away. If it were the remains of a soldier, one might assume that the perpetrator was caught en flagrante delecto, and acted to preserve their anonymity, but to leave a strange corpse? That can only increase the hazard of exposition."
"Precisely." Charlie dropped beside Larry. The bed was narrow, but sufficient as long as one didn't object to bumping shoulders - which Charlie did not. "I wish Don were here."
"As do I. Well - not here here, you understand." Larry patted the mattress for emphasis. "But for the general value of here, he is a useful person when faced with the unplanned addition of strange corpses."
"And then of course... " Charlie glanced shyly over his shoulder. " I was thinking about the sex."
"Ah. Now we come to the esoterica of the matter. Gratified to see it made the list."
Larry fake-yawned, ending with his arm behind his friend. The move was very fake - but he was teasing rather then sly . Charlie was no more a sixteen year old high school girl than Larry was. Not that either of them had been in high school at sixteen, Larry added mentally, but the meaning held.
Charlie snuggled in.
"Well, it was less of a source of disquietude than the others. Although not entirely ..."
Larry turned. "Charlie - you've done this before? Right?"
"This?" Charlie's vague wave indicated, the room. Or maybe the universe around it. "Not exactly.
"Charles!" Larry's face was suddenly a lot more serious. "Have you - answer me now - been with a man? Before tonight?"
Charlie smiled, eyebrows raised, "Um... yes?
"Yes as in...?" Larry pushed. "Because I'm beginning to feel like the ravisher of virgin innocence here, and while slightly enticing in an atavistic way, there is the more civilized overlay of cultural expectation that..."
Charlie cut that off with a kiss. "Yes as in yes. Remember that story I told you? The one about my first paper and the lady professor from Berkley?"
"The one who invited you for a wild weekend at a B&B - and your mother had to break the bad news about you being severely underage?" Larry chuckled. " How could I forget?"
"Well - I might have fudged a few details."
"She wasn't from Berkley?"
Charlie said nothing.
"She wasn't a Professor?" Larry tried again.
Again - nothing.
"She didn't love your paper? She didn't talk to your mother?" Larry leaned closer. "Oh Charles, you were fourteen! Don't tell me that she did actually..."
Because fourteen was ... much too young... and he should be disgusted at the very thought of the possibility… but he remembered that some people in the math community had no ethics and he also remembered what a fourteen year old Charlie Eppes had looked like and...
"She wasn't a she."
"OOH!" Larry gave a huge breath of relief.
"Not that my mother told me at the time." Charlie explained. "I only found out at a conference on nonlinear progression dynamics. I referenced my own paper, and one of the other presenters?" Charlie shrugged, "He had the strangest expression."
Larry pulled him closer. "I bet."
"Afterwards? Well, I had thought I recognized the name, but I hadn't been sure so... I didn't want to say anything. Especially as - even if it was..."
"Your not-so-secret admirer?"
Charlie pressed on. "... I am aware of my general lack of... well... call it an effective equation for human response. Individual humans, that is. So I didn't know if he would ...well... want to be remembered.
Larry patted Charlie's arm, a silent encouragement.
"I introduced myself, and apologized for any past embarrassments. Because it truly wasn't his fault, and I hadn't been offended - just... illegal. "
"He apologized for... he called it is 'premature aspirations."
Beneath his breath, Larry mutters "I'd bet that's what he suffers from."
Charlie ignored that. "I asked him if he still was... impressed... with the paper."
"To which he said?"
"He said he was definitely impressed by something.
"He thought so."
"I'd bet he did." More under the breath commentary from Larry, again ignored.
"So then he asked if I still was interested in the B&B."
"And you said?"
"I said a lot of things. You know how I can talk. But after dinner and ...well... I said yes. We spent the rest of the conference there." Charlie ducked his head into Larry's shoulder. " It was... fun. Exciting and... educational. Maybe not like the conference sponsors intended, but I like to think I learned a lot."
"Do you Dr. Epps?"
Charlie leaned closer, lips brushing lips. "I do indeed, Dr. Fleinhardt."
"Very nice! Is that one of the things you learned at this 'educational' conference'?" Larry slid his hand down Charlie's back, pulling him closer.
"Certainly a subject I worked on."
"And what else did you learn, professor?”
"I learned that I top." Charlie's hands burrowed under the sheets, coming to rest on the curve of the other man's hips. "Is that a problem?"
"Only to the formulaic definition. I think here my history as a pushy bottom is very inclined to proof." He allowed himself to be guided back, legs spreading under the gentle pressure. "Shall we recreate the experiment?"
"Not that I can offer a coastal B&B, but ignoring the uninspiring surrounding..."
"Oh " Larry rolled back, eyes locked on Charlie's rising hardness. "What I see inspires me very much indeed. And I rather think I'd like to surround it."
"So you've also done this before? Because I wasn't expecting..." Charlie didn't define just what. The evening. The location. The minor detail of murder and virtual house arrest. NO matter. Larry got the message.
" Not as much as I'd like to but... Check the shaving kit."
"Already done." Charlie held up a tube of lotion. "I promise to take it slow."
"Slow is good." Larry gasped as one finger located his entrance. " Oh. But... fast could be better."
Chapter 11: Multi-System Dynamics
"Dr. Epps." Lt. Col. Carter stopped by their table. "General O'Neill."
It was breakfast time in the commissary. At least, that was what the airman had said when she knocked on their door. In Charlie's opinion? The time was evident. Evidently early. The breakfast part? One could consider the cook fantastic - for certain values of childhood fantasy. Charlie had at last been served green eggs and ham.
He did not like it.
He did not like it bending his fork. He did not think it was actually pork. He did not like green eggs and ham.
The coffee was pretty bad too, but that he drank anyway. It had caffeine.
Carter was the lead wake of a wave of officers, each of which seemed focused on the tall man in the middle. He, in turn, was focused on... maybe the air. Maybe voices in his head. From his expression (utterly blank) it could be either how to tie his shoes or how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Most of his Cal-Sci colleagues would have voted for the first, but Charlie had consulted at the Pentagon enough to... well... he knew first hand how scary-smart 'army types' could be. Plus a general officer meant an advanced degree. (Usually a doctorate in something 'fuzzy' like Management or Political Science, but still...)
"Honored." Charlie stood, shaking hands. "This is Dr Fleinhardt."
"Oh yeh - Carter's new pet." O'Neill short the second professor a suspicious look. "Red head. You're not from Canada, are you?"
"No." Larry dropped his unbuttered white toast. "Cal Sci."
"Good. We've got to many McKay's already."
Carter smiled. That got the big man's attention. "Dr. Eppes is the one who gave us that gene mapping program."
"The one Danny was so hyped about? How's that going anyway."
"It's... still going... sir." Colonel Raznick had the expression of a man who really didn't want to be answering questions. At least - not answering them with anything other than - of ‘That? That's taken are of already, sir'.
"So." O'Neill rocked back on his heals. "You're gonna find Carter's mystery killer for us? Good deal."
Not exactly what Charlie remembered promising but... "I'll do what I can, General." Past dealing had taught him that was a safe answer.
Apparently General Barnes was a slower learner. "General O'Neill - what does a mathematician - even an FBI mathematician - know about murder?"
Not a question. Larry answered it anyway. "As much as an FBI agent would know about Stargates."
Raznick jumped for the lifeline. "And at least we can let Dr. Epps in on the theoretical existence of murder."
"OK. You guys get together, you figure it all out. Think you can do that by lunch?" O'Neill wasn't quite looking at Raznick. Raznick ducked anyway. "Cause I really want to get some time in Colorado on this hop."
This time Charlie decided to toss the lifeline. " I don't know about by lunchtime, but I do have a few ideas."
"Such as?" General Barnes asked. Not much of an invitation, unless you counted the invitation to put up or shut up.
Charlie took it. " I've noticed the security here - the doors, the transportation, everything – it’s all electronically controlled."
Colonel Raznick nodded, a mix of 'yes' and 'go on'.
"Anyone interfering with them would also interrupt the power flow. Not much, but it has to happen. Electric demand responds in milliseconds.”
"So?" General Barnes meant 'so what', but in the background Charlie could see Raznick and Carter looking very interested.
"Well, a trespasser - one skilled enough to get deep into your base undetected - would take pains to cover up their interference with the security. They would mask their presence from the computer systems, cameras, such like. But it's unlikely they would think about the electrical power itself. So if you have the power flow data..."
"This base runs on it's own Naquada generators." From Charter, this was information, not an objection.
"Still electrical, right?"
"In function? Yes."
Audience - relevant audience - attentive, Charlie continued.
"Normally, the small changes would disappear into the 'background noise' of the larger grid, but since you are entirely independent? Even small unexpected changes may be able to be isolated, giving us a clue as to when and where the system was compromised."
"By comparing the voltage draw at the main stations, and the computer record of equipment usage, we could theoretically..." Carter was practically bouncing.
"Great." O'Neill's grin was a mix of 'good puppy' and 'down puppy' "You guys get on that."
"General - if I may suggest?" Charlie addressed O'Neill, who was clearly the man (even without the plan.) "While I work on the math? Dr. Fleinhardt's field is wormhole physics. I'd suggest he investigate the... well... murder weapon. The homemade stargate."
"This is a crime scene, son." General Barnes eased forward. "As such should be sealed until the proper experts can arrive."
"Yes, sir." Colonel Raznick answered.
"Sure. Ya. But in this case?" O'Neill pointed at the two civilians. "These guys are the experts - and they're here."
* * *
"Charles. Was that wise?" Larry pulled him aside in an empty hallway just beyond the lunchroom.
Charlie shrugged. Taking on Generals was never easy, but O'Neill had seemed like a reasonable man. Carter - who was no one’s fool - clearly adored him. Plus compared to a thesis defense in front of ego-threatened math profs? Or compared to asking for university tenure when you don't even have your driver's license? The worst a general could do was ...what? Shoot him? Someone had already done that, and the only downside to that was a pissed off father and three days of eggplant casserole so..?
"You didn't want to get another look at that... creation?"
"I was not referring to my day's activities. For which I do thank you. I was referring to your own."
"Larry?" Because, OK, so he had come here to help with the math, and he was blowing it off again to go hunt criminals, and yes he had done that to Larry a few times lately, and he had promised to be more considerate but still - dead guys in your own lab space had to count as an exception.
"Surrounded are were are by the wonders of alien technology." Larry's hands waved. "Facing as we may be the most stupendous challenge - the most dazzling opportunity - the human race has ever confronted. Is murder the most productive use of your intellectual curiosity?"
"Maybe not." It was a question Charlie had asked himself before. Mostly every time his brother Don walked into his office. His answer to himself now was the same as all those times before. "We won't know if it is, Larry. Until we find out who was murdered, and why."
"I suppose you do have a point there." They started down the hall.
"I won't have any output variables for you anyway. Not unless we can get some functionality from the ring."
"Hey. I have faith in you."
"In the mean time? I'm sort of... gratified... to do this . I mean - I'd still rather be working on the math but..."
"Charles. Is academia losing it's brightest mind to the tantalizing lure of criminality?"
"Is that so inconceivable?"
Larry said nothing. At least - not verbally. His face, however?
"You too? Why does everyone see me as some sort of... girl? Is it the hair? The height?"
"Charles, I assure you that I am most aware of your masculinity. Especially given the poor padding of air force chairs. But I fail to see how this connects with your predilection for violence. Second hand violence, which I supposed is preferable to your developing a sudden yen to rob banks yourself, but still."
"I suppose it's my teen geek thing." Charlie sighed as a squad of MP's jogged past. "Math majors aren't very macho - and you know how liberal my dad is? Mom was? I don't want to say worse – I’m not making a value judgment - but she was more so. So the one time I mentioned just maybe going and talking to the recruiter..."
"She freaked." Larry sounded like he not only approved, he was contemplating freaking himself. Even post hoc.
"I never really considered it.' Charlie paused, sliding his pass card though the door reader. "Other than thinking it might be cool to work with NASA."
Which was still true, somewhat, although the NASA variable in the coolness equation had had dropped towards single digit integers since yesterday’s intro film. Not that Jupiter fly-by via satellite camera was in any way uncool, but compared to low-Jupiter-orbit in a two-man space ship? The ratio of wow was one over damn-near-infinity.
"I mean - when I was looking for a profession, I was too young. Then when I was eighteen I was too... employed already. So it was never a serious thought. Just one of those old-movie-late-night things. But... I talk to guys like Colby and..."
Larry slid his own card, but his hand wasn't all that steady. "You envy them."
"Of course not. Not... in that sense." Charlie claimed a lab bench, plugging in his laptop and starting it up. "I mean, I don't want to be in Afghanistan. Heck - they don't want to be in Afghanistan. But I do sometimes miss that sort of... manly accomplishment."
"You think being target practice is a manly accomplishment?"
"No. Of course not." Charlie hunched over his computer, giving out 'working' vibes for all he was worth.
"Good." Ignoring the 'go away' body language, Larry rested his hands on the other mans shoulders. "Because I can think of a thousand better uses for your ass then getting it shot off."
"Sexual harassment. Fleinhardt."
"Only if unwelcome, my virile young colleague." Larry leaned closer, Not touching, but letting the shared body heat track his presence. "Surely you can understand the many reasons I would like to keep you to myself. So to speak."
"I share many of them." Charlie relented, relaxing back. "But can't you understand my reasons too? I might not do what Carter does." From the little they seen in the movie, she not only dissected alien tech and built bombs and flew fighters, but she also went off world and kicked alien butt one-on-one, at a rate that would make GI Joe beg for nap time. " Or even what Don does. But I want to do what I can do."
"That's one reason I wanted this so much. I mean - in addition to you deserve this and it will make you happy - which I do mean and it's major to me but..." He twisted on his stool, freeing Larry's hands to take in his own. "Our whole planet is under threat from these aliens. If I crack this mystery? Maybe I'm not exactly yee-haw jump-from-spaceships right stuff - but at least I'm serving. At least I'm doing my part."
Chapter 12: Occam's Razorburn
"Oh my..." Larry Fleinhardt was - as at every time for the last few hours - derriere deep in the coils of the homemade gate.
The local powers-that-administrate had moved it to a new lab - just in case some unearthly and unanticipated risk had remained in the old location. One unexplained corpse was enough. No one wanted to have to explain two more - especially not to the Los Angeles FBI.
Charlie had set up shop on the lab table. Partly because it was as good a place to work as any. Mostly for the company. Not that Larry had been paying much attention to anything with less than six existential dimensions, but his occasional background comments were comforting. A bit of CalSci normality in the abnormal alien world - and whether extraterrestrial or merely military, this was indeed an alien space.
"This is... actually quite astounding."
Charlie looked up. Only two legs were visible over the arc of metal. Carter's by the size - and by high heels. Even in dress blues, the woman could resist alien technology only-so-long. That had to mean the other physicist was even deeper into the construct.
"Not merely that one could create a means to generate an artificial wormhole," Larry's voice continued, "but that one could create the device from the meager resources a suburban split-level. I am in awe. Less of the engineering, I grant, then the sheer bloody dog-robbing.Would that my graduate days have been so inspired." One hand emerged, fingers wrapped around a blackened sphere. "Lavender bath salts?"
"Those are mine." Carter's hand snatched them back, although from Charlie's perspective? He wouldn't have risked using the carbonized remains for road salt.
"So I should suppose. You did say it was built in your basement."
"A crystalline structure is required to modulate zero-point power." Carter sounded just slightly defensive.
Why, Charlie had no idea.
"Ah yes." Larry emerged from the depths. "Plus lavender makes a delightful exfolient."
Charlie should have looked up when the door opened, but it was only Airman Schwartz - the young man who had been fetching coffee and stacks of computer disks all morning.
" I mean," the young man snapped to attention. "Colonel Carter sir. Ma'am... Doctors."
"More files?" Charlie pressed save. "Or if General Barnes is asking? No. I'm not done yet."
The general had stopped by earlier to stare and sniff. General O'Neill had been by as well, but since his contribution had consisted of donuts, Simpson jokes, and a new stack of sports pages left by the door? Charlie had no objections. He even sympathized with the older man's desire to flirt with Carter rather then argue with Barnes. Proof that the man gained his rank via some very well honed tactical judgment.
Airman Schwartz didn't relax. "General's regards, and you are wanted in the briefing room. All of you."
* * *
"Does that look like..."
All seven of them were back in the generals briefing room, and all of them were staring at the computer generated face on the monitor screen with varying degrees of horror.
Well, O'Neill was horrified. Dr. Captain Breaux was clearly intrigued, in a Torquamada-does-Tuscon sort of way. Barnes and Raznick were staying diplomatically blank. Carter was amused as hell.
Charlie wasn't sure what he was feeling.
Larry must have caught that. He leaned over and whispered. "There are those days when success is clearly a two edged sword."
Right. And O'Neill was the type of guy who could make the metaphor... more than metaphorical. Maybe, Charlie thought, he should be glad this wasn't a Marine base. Weren't they the ones who wore swords with their uniforms?
"Sam!" O'Neill turned to Carter. "Tell me that doesn't look like what... that looks like."
"I will if you make it an order, sir, but otherwise? General O'Neill." Carter tossed a salute at the familiar face on the screen. "Meet not-a-general O'Neill."
* * *
Forty minutes and six cups of coffee later, the general was still in shock - but he was running with it.
"I'm thinking plastic surgery. NID."
"On a genetic level?" Captain Breaux was frowning at the idea. “Can we do that?” The doctor sounded… mostly curious. Maybe a bit like Christmas might just be early this year.
Charlie was whimpering at the improbability. Fortunately, only internally.
"You start with someone close enough? Looks wise - they'd want to do that anyway. So there are lots of Irish in the States."
"More than in Ireland." Larry agreed. "Seven times as many."
"What he said." General O'Neill settled in his chair, arms and chin on the backrest. "Dr. Eppes. You said your program only does sort of a generic genetics... thing."
"Yes, General, but the odds..." Captain Breaux began.
"Don't tell me about odds." O'Neill cut her off. "My team?" His glance included Lt. Col. Carter, who Charlie noted wasn't objecting. "We specialize in odd."
Chapter 13: Practical Math
"Since we're all here."
Which they were - but only technically. Barnes was already one step out the door. O'Neill's words pulled him back like twenty pound line on exhausted trout.
Charlie stepped out of the rush, even though he wasn’t the man O'Neill was talking to.
"Still no hint as to how whoever-he-is - and he's not me - got in?”
"Sorry, General." And Charlie was. He'd pushed, and while O'Neill had given him a lot of credit for past work... the way things were going he was going to be severely overdrawn in the brain bank.
"I've run all the door records and... no luck." Charlie took Barne's old seat at the top of the table. "I started with a simple pairing algorithm. It’s a microeconomics process. We would need very precise measurements to parse out the individual passages but - at the basic level it has to be one in/one out. So! If we allow for the current number of authorized bodies on base..."
"I see where you're going here." Carter sat down by Charlie, but she was looking at O'Neill. "It's actually more a logic than a math process. Like deciding how many tennis balls are required for a match. The old method would have used a series of repeated reductions - sort of a pyramid progression - but Dr. Levitt decided to go at it differently. Not how many games would be played - but how many would be lost.
"And this means...?" Nothing, clearly, to the gray haired man. But just as clearly he trusted that Charter could make it mean something.
He settled comfortably at the farther side, signaling all the other officers that they too should sit.
"Well, sir." Carter continued. "Each contestant may play many games, provided they win and so advance to the next round, but they can only lose once. Every game must have only one loser. And everyone except the final champion will at some point lose a game. So the total number of tennis balls required will be equal to the total number of players - minus one."
"You assume that they did use the doors?" Col. Raznick was less defensive then curious.
"Wouldn't they prefer too?" Larry Fleinhardt claimed the seat at Charlie's' other side.
"This base is extremely secure." Which was true, but Charlie also saw no reason not to be diplomatic. "Not some garage or warehouse where they could just... jimmy the locks."
"Of course not" Raznick was openly offended at the thought. " The main computer records every door opening. If one was opened without an authorized ID, my security duty officer would send a squad to check."
"That's what I thought, Colonel. So the first thing looked for was that extra door. Someone who went in and did not come out."
"Didn't come out because he's dead - and still here." For the first time, General Barnes smiled. That made sense to him.
"Exactly." Charlie clicked the power point control, posting his computer monitor up on the wall. "Except - as you can see - the numbers match up. Minus, of course, the population still on base."
The three base officers nodded at that. Obviously you wouldn't have exit reading on people who were still here.
"I honestly didn't expect that to work. It would be too easy."
"Yeah well." O'Neill rolled his eyes - most at Carter. "How come we never get the easy?"
"Just our luck, sir?"
"So." Charlie clicked to his next set of equations. "Since they mystery visitor did not register on the door count? It became evident that they had to override - somehow circumvent - the electronics. Possibly using their own electronic device to capture and return the access code short of the main computer."
"They can do that?"
"I could do that." Col. Raznick didn't sound particularly ashamed, Or even particularly proud. "Half the high school drop outs who build their own computers could do that. We have cameras on the halls to make sure that they don't do that - at least without being seen."
"Let me guess. No one staring on Candid Camera."
"No suspicious acts, no suspicious 'empty loops', no suspicious dead camera's. Other than the two instances of peculiar lens failure outside of General O'Neill's quarters last night." Raznick lifted an eyebrow in the senior officer's direction. "Which may I assume was not the General sneaking out for any nefarious reason."
"No." General O'Neill didn't even bother looking embarrassed. Unless cat-with-canary can be considered a sign of embarrassment. "No out involved."
"And it was the wrong time frame anyway." Raznick was also unembarrassed. "Because I did check."
"So son." General Barnes seemed to want the conversation headed away from the night visitors of visiting bigwigs. "What I'm hearing here is that all your math leaves us with no clue."
"Not exactly." Charlie sent up a third screen. This was advanced math lecture time. He was in his element. "The door machines still use electricity. Electricity doesn't stop and wait - it always flows. Thus any diversion would effect the flow elsewhere in the system."
"I see where you're going here." General Barnes even managed to sound like he did.
"We checked the power demands at the line..." Raznick began.
"That's where it's very helpful that the base has it's own Naquada generators." Carter finished.
"Now you can see." Which meant that Charlie could, and maybe Fleinhardt and Carter, and everyone else was looking at squiggles and lines. "Because the generators are so powerful - but so carefully engineered - the reactor room has a much more precise record of power consumption. Plus we don't have to adjust for the 'noise' cause by any other users in the system."
"Dr. Fleinhardt was kind enough to test the entry door."
Charlie smiled at this friend - and at the memory. It was not a difficult task, even distracted as Larry had been by the lure of the large ring. It was a matter of a few seconds and a voltmeter borrowed from a passing engineer to give the needed numbers. Then, since they were alone? Charlie had given Larry a quick kiss. Much more effective then all of 'Dean Millie's" memos at assuring interdepartmental collaboration.
"Once we knew the exact volt draw to look for? It should have been possible to isolate the point when that exact extra amount of electric usage was unaccounted for."
General O'Neill held out both hands, palms up. "So?"
"So it didn't work."
Colonel Raznick added his own data to the screen. "No one activated any doors at any time in the last week without also sending an ID to the security system."
"We also checked for any unexplained heavy draws of power." Carter reassured her leader. "Such as might be used if someone hooked up... oh... transport rings or the beam used by... certain allies."
"Do not tell me Loki's been here. I swear, I am so gonna kick his scrawny gray butt..."
"Glad to do it General, but... no Loki."
"Only my bruised ego, sir."
"So?" O'Neill was still looking at Carter.
"So. What?" General Barnes was focused on Charlie - and looking a lot less impressed. "All this special stuff you ask for? You've got squat?"
"Not exactly, General." Just the comprehension of squat. Charlie was sure the information was in there somewhere. It only required some mental shift to see it. Unfortunately, Charlie had an (accurate) impression that Barnes wasn't the type of officer who took much time to make those distinctions - or who gave much time to the type of people who did.
Unfortunately, pulling bullshit speeches out of his ass was not one of Charlie's strong skills.
Fortunately, pulling strangeness out of math was.
"I did not find any power drops" he started carefully, " but I did find some anomalies."
Two computer commands condensed the week’s data, erasing much of the 'normal' middle ground.
"Sir!" Charter jumped up. "Look here." Her finger hovered inches from the screen.
"Very observant, Col. Carter." Charlie zoomed in on that image. "Here we have the unexplainable appearance of six very sharp spikes. Sudden additions of large amounts of power into the base grid."
"What would put power into a grid? I mean, isn't stuff supposed to use power?"
"Utilize it, sir."
"Whatever. Power goes into the machines, right? McKay's always going on about needing more? Power, that is?"
"Yes, sir. But in this case, it would seem to go the other way. That could indicate that something was attached to the system."
Charlie used the power-point pointer to mark the anomalous points. "These surges were recorded on the night before Dr. Fleinhardt and I arrived, starting 0:300 hours. These first five were 1.63 seconds apart."
The doctor, Captain Breaux, was suddenly interested. "That would put it in the timeframe the body lividly says we should be looking at."
"One and a half seconds. Awfully short duration." O'Neill had his eyes closed, standing behind his chair as if mentally pacing out a room. "Enough to get one man though a door but..." He asked Radick. "Doors are locked. Could you get though a lock in..."
"Point one-seven seconds." Larry Fleinhardt had timed that too.
"No." Radick countered. "Not by hand. They had to be using some sort of electronic dialer or..." He stood, easing Carter aside to peer at the chart. "Maybe those were the 'misses'. Here's a longer drop."
General Barnes also joined the group." 2.04 seconds. Six steps at an easy walk. Definitely long enough to get though a door."
"The lab door?"
"This is electrical voltage. We can't know what door."
"OK" O'Neill started pacing in earnest. "That gets him though one lock. Now we need to explain the other eight checkpoints he'd have to pass."
Barnes shook his head. "Seems like you're just spinning your wheels, Doctor. No offense, but I don't see where this means anything." He tapped the LED screen, sending the numbers vanishing in a rainbow whirl. "We got too little power, we got too much. Some schmuck is running round-a-bouts around base security and..."
"Rings." Larry corrected the quote unthinkingly.
"That's it!" Charlie jumped up, grabbing his laptop with both arms. "Larry - you did it!"
"Well. Technically, I guess..." Charlie pointed at the General. "He did it."
"I did what?" O'Neill turned to Carter. "What did I do?"
"General O'Neill. General Barnes." Charlie turned off his laptop and gently closed the lid. "We have to consider that maybe - just maybe - what you think of as the only door into the room isn't - technically - the only door in the room."
"You mean?" Carter was staring at them both, wide eyed.
“Charles. I believe I do follow you. The door to the room is locked because there is a door locked inside the room – a door which someone may go out – and thus by logic a door which might be entered as well.”
O’Neill squinted. “Can I get that in English?”
"Someone made your gate work," Charlie answered, "it just wasn't me. It wasn't Dr. Fleinhardt. It was..." he pointed at the senior general. "You."
Chapter 14: Base State and Variables
"What?" Both of general O'Neill's hands hit the table - palms down. The resulting echo was gunshot-loud in the sudden silence. "You're saying that someone managed to sneak though the Stargate..."
"There is no indication of an outgoing wormhole and..."
"We don't have a DHD."
"Unless the Russians are..."
Several voices overlapped one another.
"How much power...?" Charlie was mousing though subprograms. What algorithm would he want and...
"OK!" O'Neill was half shouting. "SOMEHOW this dead guy got off planet. Stargate, starship. Lucky Stars for breakfast. Whatever." He glared at Carter. "'Cause you gotta be off planet to dial in planet, right?"
The answer was yes, but he wasn't waiting for her to give it.
"Just to turn RIGHT back around and wormhole back to earth?" This time the glare went at Colonel Raznick. " I mean - ignoring the NO FUCKING WAY aspect - what the hell for?"
Charlie typed each phrase into a new file. You had to give the general credit. He might not do the math, but the man had a remarkable way of identifying the variables.
"Perhaps, sir? " Raznick was on the defensive. "Given that the traveler was a General O'Neill look-alike? They intended to subvert the Colorado base." In which case it wasn't his case, and so wasn't his career.
"Which would work so well - NOT." O'Neill rode roughshod over the suggestion. "I mean - even ignoring the whole not-a-general thing... which I sorta think Landry would have ta kinda notice?"
"They did come here." Dr. Breaux had the expression of a base secretary in a firefight. She knew it was her duty to back up her fellow officer, but this was so not what she had signed up for. "Perhaps the plan was to take advantage of the... lesser familiarity."
"Barnes isn't any stupider than Landry." O'Neill nodded at the other general. " No offense."
"I'll try not to take any."
"Besides." O'Neill pointed at Larry Fleinhardt. "You know a way to dial a specific gate? I mean - on the same planet specific?"
"No sir." Carter answered for the stunned professor. "Two gates within a few hundred million miles or so are... effectively in the same place. At least in terms of deep space telemetry."
"So!" O'Neill spun on this heal, prowling the narrow aisle like a hungry tiger. "You're telling me we've got someone smart enough to know the who and where and what of Stargate Command - but too dumb to read the promotion lists. They set up this huge honking scheme to get a fake O'Neill into the Mountain - but they don't bother dropping by the BX and picking up a set of camo."
Charlie kept typing. Where had he filed Roger Penrose and his formula for spin networks? Or should he use the classic Prussian formula for extreme low probability outcomes?
"Risk of being seen?" It was a suggestion, but not one she had faith in. The base doctor was whispering.
"You can order on line." Carter muttered back.
O'Neill spoke on , ignoring the background chatter. "These brilliant idiots figure a way to bop around the universe to find an unguarded Stargate so no one notices them jumping out - but on the way back? They miss the turnoff. Then Colonel Moron down there caps it all by blowing his face off... but he does so by some super-science method that none this bases sensors - and none of our high priced hired brains - can detect."
O'Neill froze, hands on hips. "That it? Did I miss any holes in the idea?"
"Only the large one down in lab twenty-three." No one else heard that. Carter was prepared to snark right back - but only under her breath.
"Put that way sir?" Raznick was far less inclined to argue. "It is improbable."
"But it's still the least impossible scenario we've got." Charlie had been listening, and typing rapidly as he did so. According to his calculations? 1030. Well, that was still a value on this side of zero. Very very small numbers but...? "Er... Mr. O'Neill? I mean... General?" Perhaps the best thing would be for Dr. Fleinhardt and myself to get back to work on the mini-Gate? Maybe ... something there can..." Charlie was about to say 'be a clue', but that sounded stupid even to him.
Apparently not, however, to Colonel Carter. "We should. If it has been activated recently, there is a chance that the dialing address will remain in the buffer!"
"You sure you can find that info in the buffer?" He didn't know the details of DHD operation, but Jack O'Neill did remember the problems Sam Carter had had when Teal'c had been trapped in the damaged gate. They'd had to bring in that annoying Canadian to work on the DHD, and even he hadn't been able to get it to cough up information without a huge hassle of last-minute-being-brilliant from the Genius Twins.
"Ja..." Carter caught herself. "General O'Neill. This isn’t a gate – it’s a lawn sprinkler system with delusions of physics. I'm not even sure I can find the on switch." She squared her shoulders, giving them her best I'm-a-soldier-and-I'm-brave posture. "But it's the best shot we've got. So unless and until someone has a better suggestion?"
"OK." O'Neill lost about two inches off his image as the anger and the breath left in a single gush. " Carter. Docs? Do your thing."
Chapter 15: Cosmic Particulars
The minute they were out of the officer's line of sight, Larry Fleinhardt pulled his friend into a side tunnel. "Charles! What could you possibly have been thinking. When it comes to my program participation, the higher ups are already extremely uncertain ..."
"And once you get the wormhole machine working, they will be extremely certain. Certain that the space program can not get along without one Dr. Lawrence Fleinhardt."
"If I get the Stargate working. IF being a very preeminent and operative term here, seeing how - according to their little home movie - they had an entire team working on the larger one for two years with no result. It only works now because they imported an archeologist to read the dialing instructions. And seeing as how this homemade model evidently didn't come with the IKEA illustrated how-too guide..."
"Larry!" Charlie's hands were on the sides of his friends face, calming the man and holding his attention. "Larry, I have faith in you."
"Unfortunately, you are not an Air Force general. Nor am I."
"No." Charlie grinned. "But I bet you'd look great in the fancy blue suit. Maybe some camo. We could go hiking up the paint ball range and..."
"Charles, while I appreciate your efforts at levity..."
"Larry. Dr. Fleinhardt." There were people passing by in the main tunnel. None of them were paying any particular attention to the civilian pair, but just in case?.. Charlie dropped his voice to a whisper. "What happened to your passion. Your drive? You desire?"
"Those I could demonstrate gladly, if you'd care to shift our destination to the guest quarters rather then the lab." Larry turned, offering his arm. "Then we might relieve at least one form of frustration, if not the intellectual."
"Frustration is motivation. Didn't you once tell me that ? " Charlie gripped Larry's lapels with both hands, drawing him onto a firm kiss. "Now, think happy thoughts and focus that Fleinhardt fire on your favorite sort of hole."
"That, I could gladly do, Charles." Larry sighed deeply. "But thanks to your promises, I regrettable must conclude that today I have to work on science, and not sex."
* * *
"Are you sure this … mélange…ever worked?"
Four hours later they were back in the lab. On the slab. Larry had abandoned jacket, tie, and ... at some point in the jump-though-hoops (literally, in this case ) lost one shoe.
"Orin went though it." Carter, who apparently had either better foresight or just better connections with the supply people, was looking far less mussed. Mostly because she had changed into one of those blue jumpsuit things that the fetch-and-carry guys wore.
"Where?" Charlie's question was automatic.
"P-what?" Her words were muffled by the layers of plastic and cable, but even if he had heard her correctly? It didn't seem that he knew any more than before she answered.
"Orlin's home planet"
"Which the native's call ... that?"
"Which we call that." Carter lifted herself out - partly to talk to Charlie and partly to grab another tool. "Every gate address is a geometric co-symbolic formula generated by ..." Carter cut off, shocked by the two men's interested expression. That was different. But it was also a winding mental path leading to a waste of their already limited lab time. "Never mind the where. Where doesn't matter."
"But he - this Orin guy - went there though this - this ..." Charlie wasn't quite sure what to call it. Stargate sounded overly grand for what still looked like a failing science fair project, but calling it 'that ring thing' sounded unprofessional. As if he were the failing freshman. So... "The device that the alien visitor made out of your toaster."
"Not just her toaster." Larry corrected. Carter's file had yielded the remains of a Visa bill, which the two men had read with varying stages of shudder and shock - plus a sincere appreciation for the generous salaries that Cal Sci paid the tenured. Charlie sincerely hoped that someone up in the Federal Government food chain had forgone a few five-thousand-dollar toilet seats and covered this charge instead.
"This." Carter patted the ring familiarly. "Was built from one hundred pounds of pure raw titanium, two hundred feet of fiber -optic cable, all the copper from my lawn sprinkler system, and seven 100,000 watt capacitors. Those, by the way, are currently burned out."
Charlie rubbed the top wire. His finger came back black. Charcoal. Scorched metal. Yes. Whatever this was when it was at home, it had been a highly charged whatever-it-was.
"Also," Carter winced at the admission. "A toaster. Four slot with bagel and pastry warmer."
"You have a pastry warmer?" Larry sounded fascinated.
"Had a pastry warmer. " She sounded aggrieved. "And there are parts from my microwave. I think." Carter frowned - debating with herself. "No. Definitely. Maybe. I mean he could have taken it apart just for fun but..."
"You think he put your microwave in that?" Charlie peered though the loops, trying to envision where those parts might go. A microwave made as much sense as the toaster. Or the lawn sprinkler. Which was to say - not much. "Wouldn't a radio or a television have made more sense? I mean, if you're trying to send out a wave or some type?"
"You might be able to create a pulse signature with the magnetron. Given interactive wave ratios. Maybe." Larry didn't sound convinced. No shock. Carter wasn't even convincing herself.
"Pity he didn't use your cell phone. Then you could call and ask how it works. You know." Charlie raised his finger in air quotes. "ET hit redial."
"Dr. Eppes! That's brilliant!"
* * *
"So, gentlemen." Because neither Charlie nor Larry were sure what your called a plurality of generals. " While we can't extract the information from the gate buffer assembly. ..."
Mostly because - despite several hours of frantic searching - neither Fleinhardt nor Carter could find anything that looked like it might be a gate buffer assembly.
"... we know that all gates retain the... shall we call it molecular memory?"
Which term was totally inaccurate, of course, but since neither general would have been able to make greater sense out an accurate term, the only thing that would have changed is the number of words used and the amount of wasted time during which the generals could have grown even more inpatient. Thus - molecular memory was as good a phrase as any.
'... of the last connected location."
O'Neill was nodding. Mostly because Carter was nodding, and he knew that she knew even if he didn't know… so as long as he knew that he was in the know... ya know.
The senior officers had been invited down to observe the last stages of the great experiment. Earlier, they would only have been in the way, as the three scientists and several dozen tech support airmen had polished and repaired as much as they could of the micro-rings burnt out parts and reconnected the severed power links. They had also set up every observation and recording device the computer could accept. This was a one-shot experiment at best. Any data they were going to get they would have to get on the first try.
"We've replaced the seven 100,000 watt capacitors."
"Bet that was a trick." O'Neill was smiling.
General Barnes didn't get the joke. "Fortunately Chief Anderson had some in stores."
"Yep. Never know when those cap-maker things are gonna come in handy, do ya."
"We've connected three of the base generators to an improvised stack transformer." Larry pointed out the connections. Mostly to make sure that none of the military personnel accidentally stepped on them. The only three people in the room who understood the connection process were the three that had set it up, and so clearly they didn't need an explanation. "That should give enough power to bypass the charge-up process that would normally be required."
"That would be the 'chevrons locked' part." Carter added.
"The 'lock' process is when the new molecular logic is created. Without it, the sub-dimentional formulation - the 'phone number' so to speak - should stay unaltered." Larry moved behind the control board. "Once we throw the switch, the gate should redial the last connected address."
"And what? You go though?" General Barnes frowned at Carter, who despite her uniform change was not 'dressed out' for the field.
"No sir." She didn't quite make that last word sound like it translated to 'you moron' in some minor Jaffa dialect, but you got the impression that only years of dealing with Jack O'Neill's I-channel-Homer-Simpson persona had given her the practice in finding intelligent answers to blatantly stupid questions. You also got the impression that - while on Jack the stupid act was part of his charm - in Barnes she wasn't entirely convinced it was an act. "Not me, and not now. The wormhole will last microseconds at most. What we hope is that our telemetry tracking program will follow the establishing space-path long enough for us to get a read on the other gate-point."
"Even if we don't have time to establish the entire address, the follow telemetry should greatly reduce the number of possible origin gates." Charlie stepped in. "I will compare what we get here to Dr. Fleinhardt's cosmic wave analysis and Dr. Carter's list of active and inactive known gate locations to establish zones of address probabilities."
"Once we narrow down the address range, Stargate Command in Colorado can run a search patterns on possible gate addresses." Carter tightened a few final wires before moving back to her own station. "Find out which addresses will 'lock in' when dialed."
"And then you go though?" Col. Razdick leaned forward, a shark at an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet.
"And then we go though." Carter had the happy homicidal look of someone who had finally gotten her Hells-Angel Biker Barbie with Leather-boi Ken.
"But first." Larry broke up the happy couple. "It would be best if all unexpendable personnel - which for the moment would have to include even the excessively macho and military gentlemen…" He was making go back hand motions at the Colonel, but they all responded. "If you would move behind the blast shielding? Just in case the metal doesn't quite hold up under this charge level?"
O'Neill rocked back on his heels. "This isn't going to blow out the Nevada power grid, is it?"
"No sir!" Carter was on the edge of unbearably perky. " We are grid independent. At most, this will blow out the circuits for this base. Oh - and maybe Area 51. At worst."
"Leaving us in the dark in a tunnel a quarter mile underground."
"There is that, sir." She shouted over the rising whine of the power stack." But at least there will be no risk of public inconvenience."
"A great comfort, I'm sure."
"Well." Larry reached for the main switch. Arc electricity was racing ever faster over the ridges of the capacitor as the charge rose to the maximum level. "Here goes nothing."
He pulled the switch.
The huge stack discharged its load in one loud bang.
Lights arched around the rings, moving faster and faster as windings on the main coil lit and vanished. There was a huge shudder, as if the metal itself was going to split and then...
"That was..." O'Neill looked at the blank ring.
Larry frowned. "Nothing."
"Not nothing. It can't be nothing. " Carter rushed to his station. "We have the virtual dialing program connected, and even if it was a micro-burst that should tell us..."
"Literally nothing." Larry pointed to the display. "According to the buffer - the last signal came from... here."
"Could it have read the other end? " Charlie walked slowly over, peering at the now-blackened interior of the rings. "Although? Wasn't it in Colorado last time?"
"That's where the other gate is." Carter was staring into the computer screen. "But they are on stand down for us. Unless?" She turned to one of the airmen techs. "Call SGC and see if this linked though."
"No, ma'am." The airman clearly wasn't refusing the order so... "Chief Davis reports main gate is still locked down. No incoming signal, no gate activation."
"Funny." O'Neill was also staring at the screen, but his showed the visuals from the high-speed micro camera. And that showed a long metal ramp leading down into a concrete bunker. Charlie had never seen the other gate, or the secret gate room, but the conclusion was obvious. Even before General O'Neill said "Sure looks like it went there."
Chapter 16: Experimental Methodology
Written RIGHT after watching Numb3rs 3x10. It could not have been more slashy. Not if they had titled it Charlie *heart* Larry
Do NOT tell me that any writer who thinks THAT is a great 'over the break' cliffhanger does not also think they are SO doing it! I mean – Larry announces ( not saying – spoiler) and Charlie suddenly is inspired to ( again – not saying) for the first time in …. ever…? and there is not some major emotion here? NOT believable. NOT!
"Carter?" General O'Neill had picked up a stray bit of wire, and was twisting it into a lumpy shamrock. Or possibly an alien marital aid. "We in direct danger of immediate alien invasion? Say from those invisible repo guys?
"Retoo, sir." Which he knew, and she knew he knew, but she couldn't stop correcting his Jack-ism's. Which she knew he knew she knew. But she also knew that he found it endearing. Which she found sweet. Which made one or both of them at least slightly strange. Which was a topic for some time other then when one was faced with two generals and a failed experiment. Oh - and a dead ring. A dead ring which had somehow generated a dead body. Which could lead to a dead career if...
"Carter." O'Neill's voice pulled her back from the mental panic.
"No, sir. NO invasion.” That she knew of. And if there was one she didn't know of... oh god she hoped there wasn't one she didn't know of because they had so done the invisible-alien-unknown- invader secret-sneaky-foothold dead-from-behind thing already and...
"Then let's everyone call it a day." He pitched the bit of wire toward the used coffee cup. It hit the rim, tipping the dregs onto the crumple of sports pages. "At least - I will." His smile at the other general telegraphed 'you're own your own' in more ways then one. "Let the geeks down in photologistics shake out the visuals. See if they can get us something solid." Or something something. A gate address. A star chart. A freeking zip code. Right now he'd settle for a page number to the Thomas Guide of the Galaxy. Even the Hitchhiker’s Guide too the Galaxy. Whatever. "Get a running start. Start fresh in the morning. That sh... ummm... stuff."
"Agreed, General O'Neill. There doesn't seem much more that our (the way his eyes went from Charlie to Larry to Carter translated that word to her) guest experts can offer us." Catching Carters not-a-glare (because she wouldn't do that to a superior officer - would she?) he added " At the moment." Which could leave open the 'or ever', but also kept on the diplomatic side of Mad Jack O'Neill. "In the mean time?" Barnes shifted into the posture of a man who wants you to see that he is extremely busy. " Colonel Raznick. Take the base off of alert." He smiled over his shoulder. "If the Major General has no objection?
"Nah. General Barnes." O'Neill gave him a half-wave/ half salute. "Let the kids go home. Much longer and someone's gonna end up on the back of a milk carton."
Great! Charlie thought, grabbing his friend by the arm and heading out. If they forgot packing and caught the first flight out? They could buy new shirts and boxers. Hit an ATM - or let Larry hit the blackjack tables. Either way, pick up enough cash for the buffets. He could call the hotel as soon as one of their cell phones were working... get the Visitor's Bureau to find them a room at whichever of the ‘donor’ hotels still had a suite open. Send out a taxi. With a bit of luck they could be showered and in evening suits in time for the first shows.
"Not you two." His words caught Larry and Charlie as they were halfway out the door. "You stay. Play nice with Carter."
Which could mean they were getting another chance - or that they had no chance. Barnes was ... pretty disgruntled... but Carter seemed happy enough. In a not-happy-right-now sort of way. (Not happy with the failed experiment, since who was happy with that, but still happy with one Dr. Lawrence Fleinhardt. That was a state of mind Charlie often experienced. ) O'Neill couldn't be that unreasonable, could he? Even if General Barnes acted like he was playing host to a pinless hand grenade. But really, what was the worst that could happen? Homeworld Security couldn't actually keep them prisoner, or shoot them, or something - just because they couldn't get some broken alien thing to be not-broken. Well, they couldn't, could they? Charlie was starting to realize that 'military' was one formula for which he hadn't been taught a solution.
"And Sam?" O'Neill plucked the blackberry out of Carter's hands. "I want you horizontal before midnight. Nouh un!" He stuck her files under the coffee cup. "No argument. Or General J does bed check. Whatda ya say?"
Carter gave up, allowing him to herd her towards the door. "I guess that would be a sir yes sir."
O'Neill grinned. "Gotta love the way the Air Force trains em right."
* * *
"Tired?" Charlie asked.
"Never too tired. Ohh. And that is downright invigorating." Larry Fleinhardt was slumped into the single hard chair, eyes unfocused towards the blank bit of wall behind the narrow plank of desk in their barren base room.
Charlie's fingers dug deeper, seeking and destroying the knots in the other man's neck and shoulders. "Then I'm either not doing it well, or doing it very well indeed."
"I would favor the second hypothesis."
Larry eased the computer closed. He had started it up on their return, but instead of working he had found his mind as blank as the new document screen, and his emotions as chaotic as the dimensional graph generator behind it.
Larry only sighed. He could neither focus on the zero point equations nor, despite the lure of his friends clever fingers, could he quite set them aside in favor of more immediate - and physical - concerns.
"Thinking." Trying to, at any rate.
Larry turned, resting his hand on Charlie's shoulder. "Last night."
"I was hoping that's not the best it gets."
Charlie stepped back. The hand slid from his shoulder. "You didn't..." Charlie couldn't bring himself to finish the sentence. Or even think how it might finish. Like it? Want it? Want me? Like me?
"Oh no..." Larry looked up, teeth worrying his bottom lip. "It was... it was wonderful. I've never felt... anything.. quite so.. completely... " His hands fluttered, filling in where vocabulary could not. " Which is the source and nature and indeed the definition of my quandary."
Charlie moved back in.
Larry leaned forward to meet him. "I'm hoping that it was not a peak experience."
Right. Charlie smiled as the logic connected itself. "Because a peak event is by definition not repeatable."
Larry nodded. Relived at the understanding. "And I think I'd like to repeat those events. Often."
* * *
"So, Dr. Fleinhardt. " Charlie fluffed up the skimpy pillows, making what backrest he could between it and the wall. "You have your answer."
"I do?" Larry's reply was muffled by sheets.
"Absolutely." Charlie let his hand glide down his thigh to Larry's head. His fingers twisted themselves into the strawberry curls. "Last night could not have been a peak event. Because this time was even better."
Chapter 17: Shallow End of the Gene Pool
"Gentlemen?" The airman was knocking on the door. A bit more enthusiastically than anyone should be doing anything, given that it was four in the morning. Or o-four-hundred in military parlance. Or oh-too-freaking-early in real-human parlance. "Colonel Raznick's complements, and he requests you fall in at the General's conference room."
Some complement, Charlie thought. Complements were chocolates and offices with windows and university-paid trips to conferences in Caribbean resort cities with plush hotels. Plus? Fall in? The only thing Charlie wanted to fall into was bed. Back into bed.
"Analysis had some results the Colonel thinks you'll want to see," the man continued.
See what? Sunrise? The only time Charlie wanted to see sunrise was on his way to bed - when he had stayed up the night before working at his greenboards. Not that it was even sunrise yet. Even that was later in the day - night - whatever - then this literal middle-of-the-night summons.
The airman stood back, as if the two men inside were about to rush the door. Which Charlie might have done - if only to strangle the cheerful idiot. Except that... soldiers were like FBI agents. Armed. Which meant that you could snark at them, but physical violence was suicidal. Not to mention - didn't work.
* * *
The lights in the long room were low. Possibly to enhance the big screen on the far wall. Possibly because no one wanted to face bright lights after midnight. Possibly - and this was the one Charlie would vote for - because red blurry eyes didn't go with the crisp starched Air Force attitude. Both the red eyes and the attitude were present in full force.
Colonel Raznick stood at the front of the room with the unmistakable slump of a man who could no longer remember quite what his pillow looked like. Lt. Col. Carter was with him, damp haired and distracted. Clearly her perk had pooped. Both of their uniforms were far fresher then the officers in them. Charlie figured that O'Neill hadn't managed to enforce bedtime after all.
Grabbing two cups of coffee from the sideboard, he slid into an empty seat, and motioned for Larry to sit beside him. Larry grabbed two bearclaws on the way down.
General Barnes was looking... was the opposite of disgruntled. 'Gruntled'? Pleased in some martial not-at-all-happy sort of way that probably only could be managed by those who got shot at for a living. He looked like a man who had made it to bed for just long enough to get comfortable enough that getting out again actively hurt.
O'Neill was up and looking - damn the man - perky. Either he had learned to live without sleep or mortal peril brought out the best in him.
Dr. Breaux was looking... well , mostly she was looking at a huge stack of printouts topped by a navy-blue binder. "We have the results of the DNA analysis."
That might have been a greeting to the two scientists - or just a statement. Obviously the meeting had started without them, since except for the two colonels everyone had taken their seat at the big table.
"Excellent." Barnes was doing his best to sound enthusiastic. What he managed was to sound like a man desperately glad for any chance to have this ... whatever it was... over with and out of his base. And life.
"The lab is to be commended." His lab (you could hear the unspoken addition ) and not anything that the O'Neill or other outsiders might have brought with them.
Dr. Breaux passed papers around the table. "The gene results came back and..."
"Lemmie guess... it's alien." O'Neill waved off the papers. "It's always alien."
"No sir." Dr. Breaux swallowed hard. "It's you."
As O'Neill's glared, she added. "According to the DNA - our intruder is... you, sir."
General O'Neill's eyes snapped to Carter. "Jon!"
"Who?" Larry asked.
"The General's... cousin. (From her hesitation, Charlie translated that into 'bastard son'. As did - he suspected - everyone in the room. Except for Carter, who apparently knew the... individual in question.)
"He would be too young... wouldn't he?" Dr. Breaux had opened another file.
"We've checked." Carter ignored the doctor, answering Jack O'Neill. "Jon's fine. He sends his regards."
Well, actually? Raznick smiled as he remembered the his Sergeant's very... colloquial... report. When the MP's had knocked on his dorm door, Jon had told them to 'fuck off and fuck the the snake that sent you' - but given his age and the fact that it was four hours post-hocky-victory and five minutes pre-cheerleader-victory, they had translated that into 'fine - busy here - let's chat later'. More to the point he had opened the door and all allowed the fingerprint and eye scans that confirmed he was who he was, where he was, and under no more stress than a six-pack of Molson's and datus-interuptus would reasonably generate. All of which condensed onto his report to Colonel Carter that the young man was 'just fine'.
"So. Somebody got Loki on speed dial?" O'Neill rocked back in his chair. "Cause I'm thinking he's been back at the xerox machine. ET clone home.
"Clone?" Larry was edging closer to Charlie with every question.
"The... decedent... was not an Asgard clone." Dr. Breaux dove back into her file pile. "We would know from the marker."
"No marker?" O'Neill leaned forward, chin on hands.
"Sure? Because we've done this before and..."
The doctor slapped her hands down. "No marker. No clone." She sounded like a woman who was trying to sound patient, but was falling two hours of sleep short of success.
"It was a good idea, sir." Carter passed him a donut.
O'Neill frowned at it. "What about...? That ... snake. Nessi..."
"Niritti." Carter corrected.
"Yeh. Nelli. Wasn't she all into..."
"No." Carter caught herself. "No, sir."
"The Goual'd Neritti was experimenting to create new and advanced genetic lines - not to recreate ..."
O'Neill leaned over to Carter. "She saying I'm not advanced?"
Carter whispered back. "You suggesting you're not human?"
"Oh. No." O'Neill took a bite of donut. "What about the robot guys?"
"Don't bleed." Carter was firm.
Right. His pastry was suddenly cardboard in Charlie's throat. Whoever the intruder was, he had had with plenty of blood. At least before most of it ended up soaked into concrete and box packing.
"Those chest-patch things?" O'Neill's hopeful was starting to drift towards hope-less.
"Only make people look like other people. It wouldn't hold up to an autopsy." Colonel Raznick apparently knew what the general was referring to. Which made... Charlie wasn't sure of the actual integer, but it was a value for the total population of the room minus at least one. Make that two. He and Larry.
"Not to mention the aliens wore them on the front of the chest. They device would have been destroyed in the... accident." The doctor still hadn't settled on the right terminology.
Destroyed - as most of the torso had been. Charlie set down the bearclaw. He wasn't hungry any more.
"So?" The general scratched his chin. "Luck?"
Charlie suspected this was one of those ideal opportunities to shut up Don' was always talking about, but he just couldn't. "The chances of a natural duplication are one in 20.5 million."
"And? So? Therefore?" O'Neill asked - although what the question was Charlie couldn't guess. "And the chance of Earth being hit by a meteor?"
"One in 250, 000." Which related to this question how? But since both he and Larry knew the answer?
Charlie shrugged at his friend, who shrugged back. "You are far more likely ..."
"I know. We've been hit by meteors. And kidnapped by aliens. And cloned. And... adroidized."
Was that even a word, Charlie wondered? And if it was, was it a word he wanted to hear used in conjunction with anyone who was in close conjunction with him? And did he want to work anywhere near the sort of places where any of those things happened to anyone ...ever? Because however improbably the risk ratio calculated out there always was and inevitably would be that hypothetical one person in a trillion to which wildly improbable things happened. And he suspected that somehow he was now sitting in a room full of spectacularly hypothetical people.
Carter's tone was... almost fond... as she continued. "And time-shifted. And replicated. Plus there was that time on..."
"Enough already." O'Neill was half-shouting, not not angry. More amused and bemused. "I get that these are the things it's not. So fire up that big brain and tell me the thing it is."
"Actually, General." Colonel Raznick picked up the screen controls. "Your body isn't the only thing that 's been duplicated. So to speak."
"So?" O'Neill waved his hands. "Speak!"
Carter did. "While the wormhole transition is a one-way process - as you know..."
O'Neill mouthed I know? and made pointed gestures to his own chest.
"... there is a multiphasic subparticulate waveform back flow ...
At O'Neill eye-roll she added '"The way the MALP's can radio back."
Oh, yeh. O'Neill mouthed. Silent, but understandable.
"That waveform can be micro-analyzed with our ultra speed lens to provide a photonic image."
"That means you can take a picture. Of what's on the other side. Right?"
"Exactly, sir." Carter nodded energetically.
"So?" O'Neill leaned forward. "What's on the other side?"
Raznick clicked the screen mouse. "This."
Charlie didn't understand why everyone else in the room (except Larry) gasped. The picture was just a blurry circle of concrete wall, with a wedge of metal grid at the bottom and the lower frame of an inside window at the top. A cluster of cables ran to a switch box on the right, and that might be the impression of a blast door on the left. Other than the few bits of color from stencils letters and numbers that doubtless mean something but not to him?
Still, like even the simplest algebra, the integers are not required for the equation to be effective. Charlie personally might not know the values to enter. The others clearly do.
"OUR gate?" O'Neill nearly fell out of his chair from squinting at the scene.
Carter was wide eyed. (Charlie is beginning to theorize about botox.) "Actually, not our gate, sir."
"That's why I asked Dr. Eppes and Dr. Fleinhardt to attend."
Raznick is smiling at Carter who is smiling at O'Neill... who is ignoring the civilians just mentioned and smiling back at Carter. That 'you're so cute when you think you're smart' smile. Charlie recognizes it because he sees it so often on Don. Mostly after Charlie cracks some case for his brother by coming up with some solution that no one in the FBI want's to admit they don't understand so they just grin and go with it anyway. He also recognizes that it is a danger sign.
"On Dr. Eppes suggestion, we ran it through some visual recognition software."
"The same one I used to identify art provenance, I.T. can make out details that the actual eye would not process."
"Like invisible?" O'Neill mutters into his coffee. "I was invisible once."
"As in variances too mathematically complex for the human eye to access and assign values." Larry remembers the case well. He was something of an art snob - although his collecting passion is antique cars. They had discussed modifying the program to catch car-part forgers - but had never gotten around to it. One of a thousand intriguing projects sacrificed for others.
"Sight is actually quite limited, spectrumly speaking." Raznick has switched the main screen to showing bits of side-by-side detail from the recent 'gate' photo and another that Charlie assumes must be the 'real' gate. "While the two images appear to be identical." With each click, red circles draw themselves around bits of architectural detail. At this enlargement, many changes are visible even to the casual viewer. "You can see that there are actually serious differences."
Hardly serious, Charlie thinks. The discrepancies are in such things as the shades of paint in the stenciled letters and the patterns of bolts in the bit of window framing. Nothing world shaking. Unless, of course, you are supposed to be looking at two shots of the same place. Two shots of the same, singular, unique, hyper-secret never-to-be-revealed-or-duplicated place. In that case? Your world might quiver a little.
"So" General Barnes cuts to the chase. "Someone's set up not only a second O'Neill - but a second gate room. One hell of a scam, but what the hell are they after? I mean - if they can build their own gate - what do they want with... anything here?"
Darn good question, Charlie agreed. And he had another damned good question. "I thought it was one gate per planet?
"One active gate." O'Neill breaks character by answering a science question. (Even if it isn't exactly rocket science - so to speak. After all the years the man's been in the SGC, it's probably like answering 'where did you leave the garage door opener'.)
"If two 'live' gates are located 'on top' of each other - galactically speaking - they share the same spacial address."
"Same address - same zip code. So to speak." O'Neill again, Confirming that he really does think of this ... this cosmos-spaning science ... as some sort of downtown-from-the-burbs commute. "DHD can't tell them apart. So." The general does the hands in the air 'whadda ya know' gesture. "Dial in and you never know where you're doing to pop out."
"We had in incident with a second gate in Antarctica." Carter is looking at Larry. Also looking a lot more serious. "That's why we've always assumed that you can't gate from Chappa'i to Chappa'i on the same planet."
"Although?" O'Neill is looking thoughtful. Also looking like thoughtful hurts. "Those Russians got back home all right. At least for a while. Maybe there's something... I don't know...?"
"The Russians returned to their own gate because early in the program we were both operating during the day - and our day is opposite to theirs." Carter is also thinking - but you can see she enjoys it. "SGC runs three shifts now."
"Even so?" Raznick had joined the thinking party. "Is the main gate in constant use?"
"We try to limit gate openings to fourteen minutes." At Larry's raised eyebrow, she explains. "I know, that's less than half the maximum of a stable wormhole, but a longer time starts to stress the control structure."
It's almost an apology, especially as she adds. "Those parts are Tauri, you know."
"Allowing ten minutes to cool the ramp, then a few more to check for incoming IDC and MALP." Raznick is counting on his fingers. “And then you have to allow time for locking the new chevrons."
Charlie had been counting too - and not on his fingers. "This gate device is in use less than half the time."
O'Neill is looking like his Danish is lemon. Sour lemon. "If they timed it carefully enough - or got lucky."
Charlie has never liked luck. It defied math. Fortunately, luck has always liked Charlie. He is getting the feeling that today is going to be one more of those uneasy days in his relationship with probability.
Carter sits down. "Gate passage itself takes only a few seconds."
"Which is mathematically fascinating, but a second still magnitudes longer than we and this particular gate device could manage to create a wormhole for." Larry gathered up his own section of note binders.
"Charles. Loath though I am to elevate the mechanical above the mortal. Because, I assure you, I do feel for the unfortunate gentlemen in the storeroom. But I remind you that we are here to unlock mysteries of science, and we do have a rather limited window of opportunity so...".
"That's it!" And... it was! Charlie jumped to his feet, on the way up managing to envelop his colleague in a huge hug. "Larry - you did it!"
Larry's notebooks hit the floor. "I did?"
Chapter 18: Thesis Defense
"I did what?"
Larry's question was left behind in the hollow corridors as Charlie pulled him along.
"What did I do?" The concrete tunnels lend the words a hollow echo, as if Larry had somehow offended but had no idea where or why or what the punishment might be. Other then the whole dragged-by-the-arm bit, which was also reminiscent of childhood likely contributed to the overall effect.
"You!" And Charlie didn't mean Larry, because now they were through one of the security doors and Charlie was pointing at some tech-type in headset and blue jumpsuit. Enlisted, Larry supposed, although his studies had never included 'colors and markings of the domesticated 'avis' native to the USAF'. Which - he was coming to realize - was an unanticipated educational shortcoming of the UCal system. "Rerun the current-draw data. I need full numbers on the last weeks power use - not just the peak usage."
Evidently Charlie had suffered less from the absence of ROTC. At any rate, he had the command-voice thing nailed. The blue-jumpsuit guys were jumping, and not even inquiring as to terminal elevation.
"You." Charlie's finger - and voice - nailed a young woman in... well... the shirt-and-skirt that Larry had come to think of as 'secretary uniform'. " Call Colorado. Get a list of gate activation times - down to the fractional second."
Released, Larry slumped into the chair she vacated.
"And... who does geology?" A man at the back stood up. Charlie didn't wait for more. "I need local seismic data for the last two weeks. Here and at Cheyenne mountain. Pull out any time that here shook and correlate it with her list of gate openings, and then run it in reverse. Get me any Colorado shakes that match when the gate was not active."
"You said window of opportunity - but what we really need to know is... when was there an opportunity for a window?"
* * *
"Gentlemen. You're wondering why I called you here?" Charlie glanced around the table. So, OK, technically two of the people seated there were ladies. So what. He had always wanted to use that line, but Don was constantly rushing in and out and it was hard enough to get him to pause in mid-stride and glance at the evidence. Which Charlie didn't complain about because... Don was his brother after all, and Megan was Larry's friend, and ... well... the probabilities of getting away with movie quotes were geometrically increased by distance from home.
"Not really." O'Neill looked like the man who had seen the movie - in rerun - and still wasn't getting the joke. "It had better be to tell us how Jumpin' Jack down there got into the ring-thing."
"Not exactly." At the general's frown, Charlie quickly backpedalled to... " Not entirely."
O'Neill's glare hardened.
Charlie fired up the wall projector. "Why and how remain a ... point of theoretical conjecture.
(Aka -O'Neill translated - Eppes wasn't gonna be talking and Carter was probably bullshitting when she was. Jack was no linguist, but ten years of the geek brigade had taught him that foreign language. Hey! That made five. English, spanish, farsi, latin and geek. Time to have have a word with Davis. He outta be gettin' the language bonus. )
What I can tell you is when." Ignoring the general mutter of 'when what?' Charlie aimed his best 'you are such a god' grin down the table - and he wasn't aiming it at anyone in blue. "Dr. Fleinhardt's insightful remarks at the last meting pointed me in the right direction. If we take as given what he did - he being out mysterious and deceased visitor - we can then sieve the evidence to uncover when." A grid chart appeared with the first slide. Bar graphs laid out in stripes showed the last four days, marked off in minute (and minute) increments. "Gate function, as my distinguished colleague has pointed out, has a limited vector of opportunity."
Cater leaned over to O'Neill. "He means there are twenty-four hours in a day."
"Yeah? I know that."
"Of that period a significant fraction is 'blocked' - for want of a better term - by the 'main' ring." Charlie aimed the laser pointer at the display. Where the light landed, squares shifted to red. "When we use data from the Colorado records to exclude any time period for which they had established an outgoing wormhole you can see..."
And they did. Even O'Neill nodded in comprehension. Much of the grid space was still dark, but at least a third of the spaces were filled in.
"We can also confidently exclude MALP periods and any time when someone outside successfully established an incoming link." More squares were filled in, this time in pale or bright orange.
This time O'Neill bent towards Carter. 'Cause dead-guy is here, and not over in Colorado, and if someone was going there, we can figure they would have arrived there." Hey! He knew how the gate worked. He ran the damn thing. Sorta.
Charlie ignored the flirting. Other than to file a mental note that, really, the normal people were almost as hopeless as the smart people. Which statistically benefited the genetic future of the human race.
"Excluding also those few seconds were the gate was activated for test purposes, we are left with..." The bright colors faded as the unused areas filled in brilliant green.
"Unless we chose to rewrite the laws of physics..."
"Please, Charles." Larry held up his hand. "Not before breakfast."
"...we must assume that the 'lesser' gate opening occurred at one of these times."
General Barnes rose, squinting at the display. "Still a lot of time there."
"True." Charlie herded him back with the pointer. "So the next exclusionary function was to check the seismic vibrations."
"He means earthquakes." Colonel Raznick explained. Being smarter then the average bear, he was careful to keep his eyes on the screen and give no hint as to who he thought he was explaining too.
"I knew that too. The gate does the..." General O'Neill made a wobble gesture with his hand.
"The data was complicated. There is a great deal on mining locally. Not to mention the occasional unreported explosion." Charlie directed that comment back at Raznick. "But it did greatly reduce the possibilities. You can see where this seismic location records a series of minor shakes."
Blue lines took out more of the green screen.
"Wouldn't someone have... noticed?"
Raznick knew that by would the general meant should, and that by someone the general meant him and by noticed he meant reported. "This facility is spring supported - much like NORAD. Six inches of lateral compression and twelve vertical." Which meant they wouldn't feel anything below five Richter or ten milli-tonnes. Which was an explanation, but no excuse. As Raznick also knew.
"As a last step?" Charlie flashed the pointer, pulling all eyes back to the topic. "I rechecked the base electrical records." Part of the screen yielded space to a black and white display.
"I thought those were... nuttin' . No power drains."
"Correct, General O'Neill." Charlie grinned. "There were no drains. But you recall that there was a power surge. Look here. Then here. 03:12 on the morning before our arrival. More power is registered by the base transformers than was created by the generators."
"And this happened because?" O'Neill reached for his coffee.
"When the gate opens, a huge amount of energy is involved. Energy that is put into the system on the dialing end."
"Right. Ya gotta have power to dial out."
"On the receiving gate?" Charlie smiled like a man about to pull a rabbit out of a boonie rag.
Larry Fleinhardt smiled back. "All energy must, by thermodynamic law, go somewhere. In this case? Atmospheric ionization leading to static discharge. Like a giant Faraday cage, the discharge of the event horizon was absorbed into the very wiring of the base itself." With Charlie's last gesture, the numeric display faded behind a cut away diagram of the base, where bright yellow balls of energy pulsed down lines representing the bases electrical wires.
“The smaller ‘bumps’ mark the chevron input – the last and largest the gate connection itself.”
"Bottom line?" O'Neill sounded like a man in free fall - who suspected hitting that bottom was gonna hurt.
Charlie used the pointer to snag the pastry tray. "Think of the micro gate as this donut. It's... open in the middle. The main gate is like this Danish. The same thing, bigger, but..." One finger taps the strawberry jam. "Not always open. At the moment of dial in there was an iris lock on the main gate, so..."
"The gate signal bounces off the cheese filing." O'Neill was so getting this. "It takes a bite from the little donut instead."
"Thus." Carter had taken over the floor. "Lieutenant Colonel ..."
O'Neill waved his own cruller. "Do you have to smirk when you say that?"
"Sir." Her expression was innocent. Too innocent to be entirely innocent.
"I can hear it in her voice. He got busted. I get it." O'Neill dropped the donut, and waggled a finger instead.
"I figure you were probably responsible."
Captain Breaux cleared her throat - and raised her voice. Not enough to be rude but... "The alternative O'Neill comes though the gate. Recently. Given Dr. Epps.."
"Fleinhardt." Charlie cleared his throat.
"... work and the lack of... decomposition."
"Got that too... move on."
"As I see it," Colonel Raznick takes over. "He clears the event horizon. Then he turns - possibly to aid other team members who would have been coming through."
"Unfortunately, at 1.367 seconds after the Nevada wormhole forms, the bridge gate contacts Colorado with a valid GDO code." Unfortunate meaning unfortunate for the guy here. Fortunate for the bridge gate guys, as without the GDO the iris would have stayed locked and they would have been bugs on the cosmic windshield. "The Colorado gate unlocked to accept the code and...pop."
Not a technical term, but her hand motion made the meaning clear enough.
"Normally this would be impossible. One active gate locks out all others. But without the naquada frame this... microgate is so much smaller and less stable."
And compared to the main gate... it was a Chihuahua in an Irish Wolfhound dogfight.
"As Colonel Carter mentioned, establishing the wormhole takes only micro seconds. Gate transit, fractionl seconds. Unfortunately human movement is several magnitudes less efficient." With a few click, Raznick displaced the cluster of technical specs. In it's place was ... well, Charlie wasn't sure what. It looked like out-of-synch animation for a pirate copy of Tomb Raider, except without the backgrounds, or the soundtrack, or the adventure. Or - for that matter - the tits. A blueish and supposedly male figure moved by awkward jerks in front of a slightly sketched circle that might have resembled the mini gate. Or maybe a five dollar pizza without any pepperoni. Something roundish, at least.
Colonel Raznick has the pointer. Thus the floor. "On this computer model my staff has developed- you can see the individual in question stepping though the gate. He turns here - keeping his balance - the rim being several inches above the floor surface. "Regrettably" - the 'for him' was unspoken "at this point the other - the MAIN gate - was also activated."
Carter snatched the screen control back, and this time set it down on the other side.
Not good tactics, because it just put the mouse where Charlie could grab it. The video yields to the time bars. "We have the record of what the Sergeant on duty described as a 'gate stutter'. The main gate dialed in but was blocked by the smaller device here. The signal attempted to 'jump' - as has been previously observed - but unlike the previous situation the 'mini gate' here could not absorb that much feed. It shorted out..."
"And it foreshortened our visitor." O'Neill cut off the explication. Pretty much as sharply.
"Well. Yes." Carter gave up on the pointer, and just grabbed O'Neill. "In the gate collapse whatever parts were still near the event horizon were... you know , sir. Like the shoes."
"Oh. Ouch. Yeh. Shoes."
Which statement didn't make much sense to the others in the room, but from the expression both Carter and the general had very vivid memories of whatever shoes they were talking about. Charlie decided he didn't need to know, and that - whatever happened to the shoes in question - he was glad he wasn't in them.
Captain Breaux surfaced from her pile of papers. "His center of gravity was off." Along with the arm, which the doctor did not actually say. No need to be morbid here. "He fell behind the crate. - where Dr. Epps found him.
"So that explains the how. Someone wanna pitch the how come? Explain why the visitor is ersatz O'Neill." General Barnes sounded like a man trying hard not to sound like he was as brassed off as he actually was, but still letting you know that one visiting General was an imposition but two O'Neill's ramped it up to above and beyond the call of duty.
"I have no idea." Charlie pushed the mouse away. "That would be biology. Or maybe just... I don't know... personnel management?"
He had a hard enough time keeping track of the who and where and doing what of the department secretaries, and those existed in the singular. Well, personal singular. Sometimes there was more than one, if the budget stretched, but with the way educational funding was now days it was generally the absolute singular and sometimes the null, and Charlie suspected that only the law of integers kept the support staff in the range of positive whole numbers.
"That was our final clue, sir." Carter had the pointer again. And the floor. We believe that this O'Neill's stargate crew found a way to dial cross-dimensionally."
"I thought that was mirrors. The square...ish...sorta..." O'Neill snapped off the curves from a cinnamon swirl. " The gate's justa 'bout time, just about space, just about two men in the strangest place..." he tapered off. "Gates do the alternative quantum fuzzy-us thing now?"
"If we accept Dr. McKay speculations..."
Larry perked up. Uniforms discussing dead people was about as interesting as...well... uniforms discussing dead people. He'd long since gone to designing mental suduko and calculating the relative molecular energy of his cheese danish. But this? "Dr. Miller-McKay? Oh yes. I read her work. You mean she..."
"He" Carter's voice lent a tinge of regret on that pronoun. "Dr. Rodney McKay. But yes... his sister as well."
"Rodney's our dial-out guy. He wires up the key-in-the-ignition address book part of the gate system... thingey." O'Neill's palms sliced an air outline of cartoon-phalic proportions. "His sister is more the funny-numbers know-how-you-get-there stuff-on-paper type."
"They've both... contributed." If Carter gave that last word a tinge of 'ran over my kitten'? Both Charlie and Larry identified that as 'killed a favorite speculation'.
General O'Neill leaned back, raising his coffee mug in mock toast. "And Kinsey says we don't have family values."