Actions

Work Header

Standby (Chronological Version)

Chapter Text

Prologue: The Past

There are things Walter Bishop knows, things he doesn't, and things he knows but has forgotten. These states of information are fluid, not fixed. Walter's memory is a parasite that is only sometimes symbiotic.

  

The Rats of (D)ARPA

It's 1971 when ARPA calls Bell and Bishop out of the lab to investigate a body (if you could call it that: it's a ball of goo with hard parts inside). They dissect the corpse down to slivers of its odd bones, and though they don't inform the overlords, they privately agree that the thing (whatever it is) is not of this world.

 

1972 brings more bodies, all of them exactly as human as the first one (which is to say, not really), but they're starting to have identifiable legs and arms. There are other discrepancies, too, between the body from '71 and the several that show up by June of this year, and they have to admit that either the organism is evolving, or its build is being upgraded. Walter argues the latter, seeing as how the 'organism' bleeds liquid mercury.

In the fall, an event takes place at a power line junction in Utah. A pylon disappears (along with the power to 4 counties) and is replaced by a ring of upright metal rods, in the center of which lie another body. William Bell takes twenty-four minutes on site to solidify a theory of interdimensional visitation. Walter takes twenty-three to reach the same conclusions, but is distracted by a call from his wife and Belly takes all the credit for saying it first.

Government agents buzz about Klaatu and Pod People as they load the rods into a truck bound for the lab. Bell and Bishop let them steep in the alien ideology without mentioning their theories, because DARPA (not plain old ARPA anymore, having added the D "for the shit of it," according to Walter) won't be able to steer or smother the research they don't see coming.

  

1973 is a pressure cooker. Between Vietnam and oil fiascos, DARPA breathes down their necks about the mercury men problem: a problem, in that they keep appearing, and in that sooner or later some suburbanite is going to find one in their backyard. The War in Southeast Asia is a big enough PR issue without having to spin an ongoing alien invasion into something kinder and gentler.

But by April, Bell is the only one making progress. Walter is bogged down by DoD special requests, last-ditch efforts to save face in Vietnam: nerve regeneration, memory erasers, post-death interrogation; but Bell is a clever diplomat and plays up the alien paranoia to the right bureaucrats, keeping himself assigned to what he calls (privately, between Walter and himself) the Pattern. His approach consists mostly of reverse engineering, which is rough when he's never seen most of the component tech before.

The '72 rods taunt Bell until 1975 rolls around. Walter, finally cut loose from the DoD, returns to the lab from his latest appointment in Arlington and finds his friend sitting at a table, watching a ferrofluid wind its pointy way up one of the mystery rods.

"Walter," Bells says, "I've cracked it."

With the electromagnetic field of the interdimensional beacons spelled out for them, 1976 is fruitful. On New Year's Eve, the two men drink a cooler of Narragansetts and stare through a freshly minted window into another world.

"Go home," Bell says, twenty minutes to midnight. "Tell Elizabeth you're not going to be Gerald Ford's dog. We don't need anyone else anymore."

And Walter does go home. He does tell his wife exactly that, and Elizabeth starts feeling secure enough to consider starting that family they've been talking about.

 

1977 is a year of waiting. Bell works tirelessly to perfect his window. He's building something else, too: a window he'll be able to walk through.

Walter contracts himself out (at a premium, this time) to DARPA, but only to get his hands on the newest wave of mercury men. They look like people, and not just generic people, but specific people. Walter waits to see how they'll evolve. But mostly, Walter waits for his son to arrive.

 

In 1978, Walter sits in the hospital waiting room and chain-smokes his way through Peter's zeroeth birthday. After he sees Peter's red, squashed face for the first time and subsequently gets shooed from the room, he goes looking for Bell with two blue-wrapped cigars in hand. But William Bell is gone.

Instead of Bell, Walter finds the Gateway, glowing and alive. There are notes taped everywhere, in duplicate and triplicate: on the Gateway itself, on the numerous power cables, and on the three backup generators being vented through the basement windows. Every single one was some variation on a warning not to turn anything off.

There's a longer note on Walter's desk, though not much longer. "If I don't make it back," it reads optimistically, "you couldn't have saved me by being here."

  

When Bell comes back, he collapses just over the threshold of the Gateway. Walter drags him into the Electro-Magnetic Field Regulator and it's days before he's back up and at 'em.

"You wouldn't believe what they've got Over There," Bell says when he can speak again. He's brought back notebooks filled with diagrams and a suitcase packed with small electronics. Walter digs through them and doesn't recognize most of the brand names. Some of them, he can't recognize what they're for.

"You should go," Bell says. But Walter won't go through that Gateway. He has a son, now. He can't take risks.

"Our future is made of risks," Bell tells him.

"Yours, maybe," Walter says.

"No -- everyone's. If you want your son to grow up, you're going to want to start taking all the risks you can." It's cryptic and it's meant to be. Bell is gone again the next day, and Walter notices that a few pieces of lab equipment are gone with him. They don't come back when he does.

"They were the cost of my souvenirs," Bell explains, later. "A payment to balance the universe. An even exchange."

  

Bell appears at the Gateway like a swarm of hornets a day after he leaves on his third trip. "They're clones," he says, as he stumbles into the EMFR and latches the door behind him. As the magnets spin up, he mouths through the glass: "And I think we're at war."

Once he's out, he spreads a sheaf of stolen mimeographs out like pieces of a map on Walter's desk.

"How did you get these?" Walter asks. They must be important, but he doesn't know how.

"I drugged farmer Fitzgibbon's cat," Bell says, making Walter smile.

"I suppose, though," Walter says as he peers over the papers, "that we're more like the rats of DARPA."

"In that we became intelligent, and escaped?"

One of the purplish images shows a man with smoke coming out of his eyes. Despite the gratuitous use of deist symbolism, Walter finds it arresting. There's writing behind the face -- only four letters, repeated, which means there's only one thing it could be -- but the think tanks at Cambridge and Harvard have only just managed to sequence DNA, and Walter can't believe that the Other Side is capably of simply jotting down the recipe for a man.

"This," he says, lifting the sheet from the rest. "What is it?"

"Their future," Bell says, studying over Walter's shoulder. "Or so they believe."

 

Shapeshifters

"I want to deal," Bell says, after AlterBell shoots him full of a solution that seems to ameliorate his phase-sickness. The exit triangulation of Bell's gateway sits cozily in the AlterLab, but the possibility of an enemy incursion doesn't bother him: there's nothing (yet) that the Other Side needs from his own.

"I don't know how you can be me and still be unable to accept reality," AlterBell says. "This isn't an issue on which we can compromise. The risk to our universe is too great." He paused. "But you do understand our offer? We can bring you here: you, and Nina, Walter, Elizabeth, Peter..." AlterBell ticks off names on his fingers. "No one who matters to you needs to die."

The offer holds too many unsavory implications for Bell to find it comforting in any way. "All I want is what you know," Bell says. "Information. Maybe we can solve this thing for both sides."

"You don't want to know what I know. Trust me, I'm you."

Bell tries not to narrow his eyes. "I brought you something," he said, opening his fist. "A peace offering. Or a bribe, however you want to take it. It's a prototype."

"Of what?"

William Bell held up a box with a dangling three-pronged extension. "I can make your 'hardware' a little more versatile." It's a calculated move to buy time, to steer AlterBell's attacks in a direction they could see and detect, and he's sure his Alter will see that. But Bell hopes the leap from clones to shapeshifters will be too tempting to pass up.  

It is.

 

The next batch of mercury men shows up in Montauk looking like schoolteachers and bus drivers. Nobody even knows they aremercury men until they try to infiltrate Brookhaven National Lab on a school trip to the National Weather Service. Under detention they suffer seizures until silvery blood runs out of their ears.

Walter finally takes Bell's dire warnings to heart. He starts to ponder ways of making soldiers.

 

Cortexiphan

DARPA refuses to host the human trials, officially, but they agree to fund then covertly as long as nothing can be traced back. Walter picks Worcester and Jacksonville: Worcester, because the lab is close; and Jacksonville, because the army is complicit and if Peter comes to visit Walter can take him to Disney World.

 

Bell leaves frequently during the trials to perform reconnaissance on the Other Side. He stays away for longer and longer periods of time. Alone with his data, Walter spends his time poring over records and charts and watching the kids turn into real live monsters. As they get smarter and stronger, Walter sees his subjects differently: less as children, and more as the soldiers he intends to make of them. The smartest ones seem to understand when he talks to them like adults, which makes things much easier and really cuts down on the cookie budget.

Gradually, Walter stops seeing their ages at all.

And then, one day, he's sitting in the basement of Jacksonville Family Daycare Center, surrounded by fundamentally-altered children, and William Bell (fresh off the plane from Harvard, but also fresh out of the Gateway from Over There) looks at him and says, "We're too late."

"What do you mean, too late?" Walter says. "My results are astounding; beyond even what I'd hoped. The soldiers are prepared." It's not what Bell is expecting him to say.

"What do you mean, 'prepared'?"

"You haven't been here," Walter says, "you haven't seen them at work. Their capabilities are-"

"You're talking about the kids?"

"They're not just childrenanymore." Walter's prideful smile is eerie. "The therapy has been extremely effective. They are our soldiers, Belly."

Bell rubs a hand over his mouth and tries to think of something to say. "Walter," he says. "I don't think you really mean-"

"I'll show you," Walter says, and he does: he shows Bell exactly what he's done, and it's so much more than what they'd agreed upon. Walter hasn't stopped at unlocking the potentialof the brain, he's gone ahead and tried to find out what exactly an unhindered brain could do.

There's a boy in a room with twenty rats -- some still alive -- and he sobs desperately in the corner, trying not to touch a single pink tail.

"We can't let him out until he figures out how not to steal their energy," Walter explains.

Then there's a pair of girls in a room that's mostly reduced to ash. They wear asbestos suits and oxygen masks.

"I wanted them to feel free to experiment. They couldn't do that when they had to worry about burns."

In the next room over, a boy and a girl crouch in the corner of another burned-out room, knees touching, whispering to each other. After a moment, both of them turn to stare through the supposedly one-way mirror.

"Don't let the char fool you," Walter says. "She's not just a run-of-the-mill pyrokinetic. These two are my finest work. They're going to win our war for us, if they aren't turned rogue by Sno Cones and cotton candy."

Walter chuckles to himself and Bell stops the tour there. He pivots away from the observation glass and leans against the cinderblock wall, feeling heavy and too light at the same time.

"I know what you're thinking, Belly," Walter entreats, "but you don't have to worry about liability: trazodone shuts down the dangerous ones when they go home. The others are boarded here long-term; we have plenty of time to fix them up."

"Walter, what..." Bell says. "These are children."

"Not anymore," Walter says again.

 

Bell beats Walter to the daycare the next day. If he hadn't, Walter might have kept all of his memories. But when Walter comes in, there's a little boy in the therapy chair with an IV in his arm and a sensory-dep mask on his face. He's young, about Peter's age. He has Peter's haircut. And he's wearing Peter's favorite shirt.

Walter freezes in place. It can't be Peter. Peter's not in Florida, not in this daycare, not in that chair. He's home in Massachusetts with Elizabeth. But that doesn't stop him from calling Peter's name. The boy's head tilts blindly toward him in response, and in a violent rise of panic Walter turns to William Bell and knocks him out cold.

  

When Bell comes to, Walter's hunched in the therapy chair, not hooked up to anything, just watching him. The boy is gone.

Bell rolls onto his side and pushed himself up to sitting. He stares back at his lab partner, whose hands are clenched into wringing fists beneath his chin.

"Belly," Walter says quietly. "Is it really too late?"

"To grow supersoldiers? Yeah." Bell touches the skin under his left eye. It'll bruise, eventually. "I overheard. Whatever key They needed Over There, they found it, and I don't think we're going to have time for these kids to grow up. I'm not saying we can't win, but this isn't how we're going to do it."

Walter drops his fists to his knees and hangs his head. "Belly...I know that you believe that what I've done with those children is wrong," he says, after a protracted silence. "But I still don't believethat it was."

Bell opens his mouth but Walter is faster to speak.

"I understand what you tried to show me," Walter said. "But I don't regret what I've done, and the fact that I have selfish feelings of attachment to my own son is not a reason to invalidate this experimentation. The costs of safety will always be higher for some. I would like to continue the trials." He looks straight and unapologetically into Bell's aghast expression. "I can tell that this is...unacceptable, by your standards."

"Probably by human standards," Bell says, looking away. The floor is starting to feel very cold.

"Perhaps I've become less than human, then," Walter says lightly, like he's joking, and when Bell looks up again Walter's flat eyes haven't looked away. "What do you propose for that?”

To Walter’s surprise, Bell has an answer.

 

Proof

Eight days after Walter horrifies him in Jacksonville, Bells finds out (by accident) what the Other Side's key to victory really is. It shows him the kind of man Walternate is, which proves to him the kind of man Walter could become, without intervention. When Bell comes back, he phones Walter immediately.

"That thing you asked me for," he says. "I'll do it. We can start mapping your brain tomorrow." He grips the receiver much too hard because at first there's only silence on the other end. But the there's Walter's low voice.

"I realize," Walter says, "that I may be unable to continue to work, afterward. I may lack several of my more valuable mental faculties."

"I'm not going to go in there with a scalpel and no plan, Walter."

"I trust that you wouldn't. Regardless. There will be the possibility-"

"No. There won't."

"I may not have time to rehabilitate if something goes wrong."

"Time for what?"

"Time before the war is won, and not by us."

Bell almost laughs. Almost. He's either going to laugh, or cry, or get a heart attack from the stress of keeping what he's learned about the End Times from Walter. "Walter...Their plan, Over There...let's just say it's going to take longer than I thought," he says.

"Why? What's keep them?"

Who's keeping them, Bell wants to say, but he can't open that door. Walter's response could be catastrophic. "I don't know," he lies. "But I know now that Their master plan is long term. Very long term." As long as it'll take for Walternate's little boy to grow up.

"How can you be sure they aren't deceiving you? It's possible they're attempting to misdirect-"

"I've seen the proof." The proof is small and beautiful, dark-eyed and sweet-cheeked. He doesn't look like the picture of the smoke-eyed man just yet, but his DNA spills letters in exactly the right pattern. It's good, because it gives Bell the time he needs to keep working on a solution, but it's bad because Walter's Peter left a juice box in the lab the other day and Bell tested it and it turns our Walter's Peter is also a match. Bell doesn't know what to do about that. He doesn't want to think about what he mighthave to do about that, if the end of the world finds him without any other options.

"You should show me," Walter says, "before you cut out my critical reasoning skills."

"I'm not going to cut your critical-- Walter. Look. I promise I'll tell you all about it, but if I am going to operate, let me tell you afterwards. I don't want to have to go back and figure out what you remember and how you remember it." Bell hopes this is a convincing argument.

"No crossed wires," Walter says. "I see."

"No crossed wires."

Walter had breathes deeply. "All right."

"Tomorrow, then. I'll see you at the lab."

"Indeed."

  

Bell doesn't cut, so much as he confuses. He pokes and buries and misdirects neurons until he's confident he's burned the maps he came for. He destroys exactly what he told Walter he would, and a little more than that, too: enough that, when Walter wakes up, Bell is able to rewrite a swath of history. It's the first time he destroys a piece of his partner's brain, but it won't be the last.

When Walter recovers, he seems lighter for his ignorance, but Bell can't shake off the weight of the future.

 

 

And then Peter starts dying. 

 

Peter

Walter begs Bell to bring something back from the Other Side that can save his son, and drops a week's worth of acid in two days when he learns his alternate is begging for the same thing.

Walter tries everything, and everything fails. Peter dies. And Walter is fine with letting the world end, for a while.

But then Bell leaves the Window out by accident, and Walter looks over, and sees his son on a table in Their lab.

  

Walter has never seen, and will never see, William Bell in a such a panic as when he sees the Other Peter in the EMFR, recovering from the trip.

"Goddamn it, Walter," Bell says, furious. “Jesus, just...why?"

"I saved him," Walter says.

"They're going to come for him...for us, too, as soon as they figure out how," Bell says. He rips the power supply out of the Gateway.

"I plan to return him," Walter says, and Bell only gets angrier.

"You can't just return him," he says. He stares into the EMFR. He has to remind himself this isn't right; that this isn't the same Peter for whom he'd made a remote-control helicopter on his last birthday. It would be so easy to pretend otherwise.

"You can explain," Walter says. “They trust you.”

"No," Bell says. "Peter's too important to Them. No matter what I say, They'll think we did this on purpose."

"Of course I did it on purpose; he's my son," Walter hisses.

"He's Their world," Bell counters. "Their salvation. Their only hope for survival."

"Based on what, Belly? A few sheets of paper that They don't even know you know about?"

"Oh, They'll figure it out, now. Why else would we have taken him?" Bell paces. He kicks a garbage can hard enough to bounce it off a wall. Walter puts a protective hand to the wall of the EMFR, but Peter doesn't stir. "What were you thinking."

"I was thinking of Peter," Walter says.

“For Christ's sake, be a scientist!” Bell explodes, and Walter takes personal offense.

“I am a scientist,” he says, butting Bell against the cool metal of the Gateway, holding him there by the collar. “But I am also a father.”

“You knew better,” Bell snarls.

“No,” Walter says. “Perhaps there was a time when I knew differently, but that came from a place of ignorance--”

“Bullshit--”

“--and such arrogance, that you excised bits of my brain to change me.” He released Bell's collar. “If I had been capable of deciding Peter's fate without compassion, then I would still be that cold, arrogant man, and our efforts would have been in vain. But you helped make me better, and whatever reasons you had for it then, those reasons should stand now, more than ever.”

Bell puts hands through his own hair, pulls hard and mutters, “What are we going to do?” before turning his back on Walter and retreating to a dark corner of the lab.

  

Walter can't move Peter from the EMFR until he stabilizes, which means Peter's still in there when their lab assistant comes in on Monday. 'Surprise' would be an understatement, considering she'd been an onlooker at Peter's funeral.

Carla's angry, Walter can tell, but aside from a brief moral debate, she agrees to stays quiet. She asks to see Walter's notebooks, his carefully kept records, and Walter doesn't see how it could hurt to let her. But early Tuesday morning, he comes in to find 226.17g of blond hair in the sharps disposal, Carla unconscious on the floor, and slow flames licking the frame of the Gateway, its metal skin curling like shaved chocolate.

  

Bell speeds to the lab when he hears. He tiger-circles between the smoking Gateway and his morose, shorn lab assistant while Walter tapes up the bullet graze over her ear.

“So,” Bell interrogates, “not only did you try to cross, but you lit my tech on fire?”

“I didn't want anything to come back,” she says, keeping her head still. “Including myself.”

Bell snorts. “And yet, here you are.”

“Barely,” adds Walter, laying cotton down over her wound.

“I had no idea They'd be waiting there,” Carla says. “It only made sense to turn back when I saw They intended to kill me.”

“Why? Your martyr complex doesn't extend to alternate universes?”

“It's not just about a matter-for-matter exchange. I was supposed to be an ongoing energy offset for Peter, to balance his life here. Dying wouldn't have helped anything.”

“Ugh,” Bell sighs. “Ongoing energy offset? Really? What is it with you post-docs? You walk into an extremely complex situation and think that your unreasonably simplistic solution is the answer.”

Carla scowls. “Unreasonably simplistic?” she says. “Walter steals someone's child, you condone it, and I'm the one who's unreasonable? You both know the consequences of what you've done. If we don't balance the scales--”

“Don't lecture me about consequences,” Bell says. “Not after They've trampled string theory with their Shapeshifters for years.”

“At least They've been careful,” she says. “They've only ever sent what They could take back in trade: like I said, matter for matter. You're the one who sent life.”

“It was inevitable,” Bell says.

“Even so; you went Over There, walked, talked and metabolized, and infused energy into a system without taking any back. The Other You might have paved the way for this, but you're the one who disrupted space-time. And now you've got an entire person -– a potential lifetime of energy -- on the wrong side, and you and Walter are just sitting here cooling your heels when you should be terrified of the result.

“And you're right. Fixing it isn't going to be as 'unreasonably simplistic' as an equal and opposite reaction. The bioenergetic continuums in play are impossible to quantify. Even if my exchange had gone as planned, it wouldn't have stopped the chain reaction you've started; at best it would have slowed it down. But mark my words, the universe will make a trade, and as long as Peter’s still living, it’ll never be precise enough. There'll be more and more trades, and each one will open up a new rift between our universes, and eventually it'll be like you put wool in the dryer. You'll have to theorize about how that kind of superdense time-space looks because you won't survive to see it.”

Walter smooths tape along Carla's temple and pulls his hand away. “I'll take Peter back, regardless of the consequences,” he resolves, "as soon as we get the Gate up again."

“Too late," Bell says. "They've militarized against us. Look at Carla; they're guarding my damn Gateway. Nobody's getting through.”

“I'll make them understand that only I am responsible for this,” Walter says.

“You can't,” Bell says. “Don't you get it? Even once They have Peter back, They can't be sure we don't know Their plan for the future, or that we haven't used him -- or a sample of his blood, or even a single one of his cells -- to develop a counter-offense. Their end times prophecy is winner-takes-all; They have to assume that we stand to wipe them out. They'll come after us until we're gone, and when we are, This Side will be defenseless. Waiting to be obliterated by Their machine.”

As soon as he stops talking, Bell remembers that he's never told Walter that Peter is Their lynchpin. He also remembers whyhe's never told Walter: because suddenly, as Walter puts two and two together, his face turns downright Satanic.

"What would one of Peter's cells have to do with it?" he says, voice as soft as the whistle of a dropping bomb.

It takes another surgery to make Walter forget again. This one is involuntary.

 

The first thing Bell does (after fixing Walter for the second time) is ensure that Peter stays put. Now that there's only one of him, Bell realizes it'll only be a matter of time before his Alter-Self figures out how to cross over and steal Peter back. There's only one airtight solution he can think of: in 1986, he places three harmonic beacons around his Monte Carlo. He watches his alternate self through the window, sets the arrival coordinates carefully, and causes a fatal and fully intentional accident.

The second thing Bell does is begin an offensive. Luckily, he'd already stolen the plans for the Other Side's doomsday machine: they'd come along with the rest of the prophecy. He lays the plans out in the lab, tells Walter it's some kind of time machine (and maybe it is, for all Bell can tell), and starts accumulating hardware. As the build progresses, Walter watches Bell enter strings and strings of DNA, base pair by base pair, from his mysterious blueprints into the tech.

  

In 1991, the machine gets finished and there's another fire in the lab. By the end of it, the next 17 years of Walter's life are spoken for.