* NEVADA, 1996, MAY
"This translation is... it's... I have no idea," said the archaeologist.
Across the room, people leaned back, leaned forward, shuffled their feet. Another washout. Major Benton glanced around furtively; nobody was quite allowing themselves to roll their eyes, but nobody was hiding their disgust very well either. Benton's gaze collided with Doctor Lee's, and they shared a moment of wordless pain.
When Bill Lee thought someone was a hopeless dork, it was time to give up and move on.
Doctor Tremont was not yet giving up. "Doctor" -- a bare moment of hesitation -- "Browne. I am told you are a luminary in ancient Egyptian linguistic evolution..."
"And this is not ancient Egyptian! I have no idea what you people have done to these verb modifiers. It's... it's bibble. Blah blah Ra Ra," added Browne, waving at the sun-motifs, "and nothing else. That cup is garbage. This staff can't be more than a decade old. That 'artifact' is what we archaeologists call 'a slab of granite'. As for this plaque, it's still bibble, and these other markings look more like dot-matrix Braille than writing. Where did you get this laughable excuse for a Rosetta Stone?"
Tremont regarded him coolly. "A recent dig, four miles southwest of Giza."
"Four mi... oh, good lord, the Langford stones."
"The expedition was funded by the Littlefield Foundation, yes."
"Well, Miss Tremont, the Littlefield Foundation has scammed you. These artifacts are jokes, you have wasted the cost of flying me out here to..." Browne stumbled briefly, "...to wherever 'here' is, and I would like to go home now."
"Thank you for your time." Tremont did not even blink at the "Miss", so Benton figured she had already written off Browne's good opinion, if not his entire existence. "Major, please escort the Doctor out. Give him some more NDAs to sign." She raised an eyebrow in his direction.
"Ma'am." Benton took Browne's arm. Life at Area 51 provided small pleasures, it was true.
"Maybe we should stop telling them where we found this stuff," groused Lee absently. He prodded at his favorite artifact again.
Benton repressed the thought that it looked like a slab of granite to him, too. "Why does it matter?"
His duty post, for all its top-secret un-braggable-about glitz, was museum watchman -- making sure the Air Force's oddity collection didn't disappear, explode, or fall over onto a visiting scientist. Mess-hall betting was split on whether Doctor Lee counted as a scientist or an oddity, but that didn't mean Benton disliked the man. Lee talked to himself when he worked, which relieved a watchman's tedium, and Benton was always up for snippets of cutting-edge science trivia.
"Oh, the Foundation is infamous. For -- you know -- woo-woo stuff." Lee made hand gestures, presumably signifying woo-woo stuff of the finest water. "I mean, not directly. They sponsor a lot of decent work, student digs and scholarships and so on. But they spent seventy years agitating to reopen the Langford site. Saying the stones couldn't have been all, right? And the Langford stones, well, you've seen all that new-age stuff."
"Mystery of the Stones?"
"Sure. Von Daniken, gurus and yogis, Heaven's Gate. 'Toynbee idea in Kubrick movie Stardisc resurrect dead on Planet Atlantis!' Dilute! Dilute! Okay!" Lee chortled.
"But they were right, right? They finally got their dig, they found that underchamber, and it's full of all this stuff." Benton waved around the untidily crowded lab. "Funny crystals, unknown languages. Cool shit."
"Sure," said Lee, "and what happens? We whisk it all away to Area 51. Big hush-hush. As far as the world is concerned, Littlefield is still crazy. We pull archaeologists in, show them around, all they can see is being set up as the new Paul Langford." He smirked and went back to arranging probes on the stone slab.
Benton let him get back to it. An explosion -- or even something falling over -- would have livened up the day. Doctor Tremont's list of experts was about dry, which put Area 51 back on its usual schedule of idle tinkering and Foosball. Which put Benton back on his usual duty of watching Lee and plotting out base defenses against imaginary terrorist invasions. Sometimes, for a change, imaginary zombies.
Popular legend to the contrary, life here was not a rondelay of doomsday weapons and antigravity. Up until the Littlefield haul, the nation's collection of inexplicable oddities had amounted to several pieces of twisted alloy and a petrified nobody-knew-what. Now it was twisted alloy, petrified whatsis, and a whole lot of mostly-Egyptian junk.
Which triggered a thought. "Say, Doc. What makes that stone slab thing so interesting? I know hieroglyphics and sideways-dancing Pharaohs aren't your thing, but -- I mean, this crystal doohickey at least looks like an Atlantean artifact."
"That?" Lee asked, glancing at the elongated golden cluster. "Maintains a temperature zero-point-three degrees above its environment. That's all. Davidson thought it might be something nifty, but it's probably just radioactivity."
"Uh, what?" Benton said, abruptly much more alert.
"No, no. Nothing leaks out. Uranium in the glass, for color, right? Inside, I guess." Lee frowned. "Anyway. This stone artifact, now, I'm glad you asked about it." (He always was.) "It's just full of silicon microtubes, or maybe nanogaps would be a better term, and..."
Benton let him go on; an appetite for scientific tidbits did not mean coping with Doctor Lee in full babble. He stared at the slab instead. Upright, irregular, sandy stone with darker veins. A flat central area, painted black, surrounded by a heavy rim. Currently fringed with wires leading to Lee's computer terminal.
"...And that resonance is why I think there's some kind of control circuitry buried in there. Or at least something that's meant to respond to external signals," Lee concluded. "And I'd really like to pin down the frequency today, I'm sorry, Major, I should get back to work."
Benton nodded placatingly, and Lee turned back to his terminal. "Okay... no... Hm. Aha?" He typed again.
The slab burned fluorescent white for an instant.
Benton's weapon was in his hands. Lee looked around at the sound of the safety. "Um, Major? Why are you aiming at the... oh."
The two men stared at the slab. It was now irregular darkness within a stone rim. Not black, but dark, with depth, somehow. And a lighter marking at the bottom...
Not a marking. Benton blinked his eyes into the focus that his brain was still rejecting. Light, from the lab, falling through the slab, into darkness on -- on the other side. Falling downward onto a floor of sand. Like looking through a window into a dark room.
"Oh, my. Oh, my," Lee was repeating. He drifted forward, apparently without volition.
"Doc? Maybe you shouldn't--"
Lee's hand brushed the window. There was a flash of light. Lee was gone.
Lee wasn't gone. He was on the other side of the window, standing on sand, one hand outstretched, staring back through at Benton. There was a whiff of something awful, moldering dust and rot. Lee's mouth was moving, but Benton could hear only silence.
Then Lee was clutching at his chest and sagging forward, gasping, still in silence. And, abruptly, audible -- as another flash of light flipped him back to the lab. Benton unfroze himself and yanked Lee hard away from the slab. They both sprawled backwards, Lee wheezing and choking, Benton cushioning his fall. On the other side of the window, two sneaker prints showed clearly in the sand.
Life at Area 51 got a lot more interesting after that.
* NEVADA, 1996, JUNE
The lab was crowded -- not with artifacts any more, but with people. Doctor Tremont had firmly vetoed moving the slab anywhere more convenient, on the theory that "We shall not mess with one unnecessary variable until we start to know what it is, yes, people? Everyone say yes; thank you." That meant clearing everything else out. Fortunately, Benton thought, even secret research facilities had sergeants.
Doctor Lee's wires and computer hardware were still attached to the slab -- for what they were worth, which was currently three weeks of abject failure to make the thing respond, react, or even deactivate. Lee was at the keyboard with his latest brilliant idea, and Benton gave him twenty minutes before he faded back into sulking.
Airmen stood around the walls, wearing their best "If giant lobsters come through, we're ready" faces. Scientists orbited the slab like awestruck moths. Tremont was planted directly in front of it, managing to convey her personal irritation at its ineffability.
A portable spotlight sat at Tremont's feet, shining through the window to illuminate the chamber beyond. Benton edged forward for yet another peek. It hadn't changed: a sealed stone box, drifted with sand, painted with hieroglyphs and piled with familiar-looking artifacts.
The technicians by the window were flipping through stacks of photographs, trying to determine how familiar. "Okay, everything checks," one said at last. "Everything found at the Giza dig is there -- at least, everything which we can see, but the window is up against the wall, so that's most of it. The arrangement is exactly the same. I mean, mirror-reversed. No sign of modern entry."
"Hieroglyphs all match, as far as I can tell," said the other.
"Except for the mirror-reversal. Right then," said Tremont. "That's a good twenty days' wait to verify what we were pretty sure of. Good job everyone. Send my regards to the Foundation and their notably efficient document filing practices." Everyone murmured disapproval, given a safe target, and Tremont waved irritably. "Never mind. Having no other bright ideas before me, I vote for the manned mission. General?"
General Baxter did not conduct votes and everyone knew it. "Major, you're on."
"Yes, sir," Benton replied. He heaved the SCBA tank up, pulled on the breathing mask, grabbed the video camera, and stepped forward.
Since Doctor Lee, nothing had gone through the window except a dozen superballs (scattered in the sand in front of him) and a paper airplane ("THGIR" and "TFEL" scrawled on the wings in mirror-writing). Now it was his turn. Okay.
Lee had done it without catching fire or sprouting extra limbs. He had nearly suffocated in ancient tomb air, but that was what the mask was for. If Lee was dying of anything, they were all infected by now -- three weeks of rigid base-wide quarantine said that Tremont was taking that possibility very seriously. Benton shoved the thought aside and stared through the window. A step into the dead past. Or into a parallel universe, depending on where you laid your money.
"Major? Radio check," came Tremont's voice -- simultaneously muffled through his mask, and tinny in his right ear.
Benton took the verbal nudge with gratitude and gathered his thoughts. "Radio check aye," he said, twisting awkwardly to see Tremont.
She waved her walkie and nodded. "Straight in, film a nice 360 sweep, straight out. Don't touch anything. Have a nice trip."
"Not touching anything, nice trip, aye ma'am." Benton turned back to the slab, reached out -- wished irrationally, momentarily, for gloves -- and poked it with his finger.
It felt like cool glass. The room dissolved in a blinding flash. His ears popped.
The white glare didn't go away. Benton couldn't see, couldn't see -- oh, right. He was facing the window, and a spotlight was shining smack in his face. He blinked and stepped far enough aside to be able to see the lab. It was full of wide-eyed people staring back at him. Benton waved. Everyone waved back, in nervous unison.
All the wrong people? No, all standing in the wrong places, because the lab was mirror-reversed. Yes, every nametape and ID badge was wrong-side and backwards. Benton started to look down at his own chest to make sure his own name was spelled right, wondered whether he could even tell if it wasn't, and then gave up thinking about it. He'd ask Lee later.
Tremont (or "TNOMERT") was talking into her radio. Benton didn't hear anything. "Hello?" he said, then caught himself. "Benton here. Doctor, come in." Tremont shook her radio and said something forceful at it.
Benton tapped his ear in the universal sign for "My radio is dead, unless I can fix it by tapping it, maybe? Nope." Tremont shrugged theatrically and then waved her hand in a circle.
Nice 360 video sweep, aye. Benton turned away from the window, stepped over the paper airplane ("LEFT" and "RIGHT"), and moved to the center of the chamber. Camera on. Hieroglyphs, artifacts, artifacts, hieroglyphs. A superball yielded under his boot. The brightly-lit window. Artifacts... wait.
Something was balanced on top of the slab, and Benton didn't recognize it from the Giza stash. He stretched up to see: semicircular, the size of his spread hand, but bulkier. Should he grab it? His imagination presented Tremont explaining the meaning of "Don't touch anything" in hours-long linguistic detail. Film it, there's a good airman, film it from lots of angles.
He completed his camera sweep, and tried to think of a reason to stay in Wonderland. Nope. History had been made. Benton touched the window again; another flash, and he was standing in the lab, feeling distinctly anticlimactic.
When he turned and pulled his mask off, all the scientists burst into startling applause. All except Tremont, of course. But she smiled wryly, and didn't shush them.
* NEVADA, 1996, JULY-AUGUST
The artifact on the slab was clearly technological, with a glass screen and a manufactured-looking form. It was also clearly broken; one corner smashed in, the screen cracked. Behind the screen might have been microcircuitry, or sand, or both. Doctor Lee begged and begged to let Benton fetch it for study. Doctor Tremont said she'd think about it.
A team flew out to Egypt, to check the Giza chamber -- the real one -- the first one -- people got headaches talking about it -- to check the opened Giza chamber for petrified superballs. They found none, so Lee insisted the window wasn't a time machine. Tremont insisted that they were going to clean up all the superballs before they were done, and the paper airplane too, so it proved nothing. Lee insisted on making some change to resolve the question. Benton wound up jumping through and scratching a very small triangle in a stone wall, high up. (His suggestion of "For a good time call..." followed by the Area 51 external switchboard number was firmly ignored.)
There was no triangle in the wall of the Giza chamber. Lee was smug. Tremont brought up diverging quantum realities and chronological protection conjectures. Benton lost the thread of the argument after forty seconds.
"What now, Doc?" Benton peered at Lee's mess of breadboards and electronic bits.
"Oh, Major. I'm glad you asked." (Naturally.) "I'm fixing your radio problem."
"It's not that much of a--"
"The window Faradays out everything past about a thousand nanometers. Uh, that means microwaves and radio waves. But visible light passes through fine, right?" Lee grabbed his precious executive-toy laser-pointer, pointed it at the window, and waved a red spark across the spotlit stone wall opposite. "So I just have to stick this radio relay onto a laser diode modulator..."
"Sounds great. Why? I've never been on the other side long enough to need radio contact."
"Don't you want to explore? Major Benton, interdimensional adventurer!" Lee could say these things un-selfconsciously.
"Good luck getting that past Tremont. She won't even let you drill a peephole in the roof. Besides, explore where -- a place that's probably identical to Giza? I've been there, it's a tourist trap."
Lee won the argument about the broken artifact. Benton decided that Tremont had been lusting after it, too. Fetching it was his shortest Away Mission yet -- nine seconds on the other side -- and then a parade of white-coated vultures plucked the device from his hands and marched it away.
Benton carried across a ludicrously sensitive radio receiver, coils of antenna wire, and Lee's laser relay. The relay went in front of the window; the receiver went on a handy altar; the wire went everywhere. When it was all strung together and the laser was glowing a cheery red, Benton managed to tune in a radio station from the other side's surface world. He jumped back to the lab, where a crowd of sociologists were already listening in via the laser link.
"Arabic!" they all said immediately. "Egyptian Arabic." Everyone nodded.
Twenty minutes later, "It's not a time machine," one anthropologist said mordantly.
Lee huffed. "What? How do you know?"
"They're talking about the Olympics. The Atlanta Olympics."
Lee decided that the broken artifact was a remote control for the window. He got nowhere trying to fix it.
Other-Side Syria took a gold medal in the Women's Heptathlon, instead of a silver. Tremont went on an irate rampage, telling everyone who would listen how ridiculous it was that the differences between quantum realities would be interesting on the human scale. By the time she was done haranguing them, Bill Lee and six other physicists were burning chalk to prove that Tremont was wrong wrong wrong. When Tremont finally stomped out of the lab, Benton tipped her a wink. She winked back.
Lee gave up trying to fix the artifact, and began trying to analyze its remains in enough detail to build a new one. After several days of electron microscopy and coffee, he typed a long string of numbers into his terminal and the window returned to unremarkable opacity.
With Tremont's inquisitive gaze drilling into him, Lee was able to reactivate the window in just six fumbles and ten minutes. Tremont smiled, then, and congratulated him.
"Okay, why twelve axises? Axes?"
"I'm glad you asked. It's because of the eleven-dimensional nature of space, plus one for -- well, basically, you need to start with a unitary vector basis and so --"
"Doc. Doc. You had me at the eleven-dimensional nature of space."
"No. The point is, you think you can tune the window to different different realities."
"Yes, yes I do. Not an uncountable number, because the control interface quantizes the twelve-vector for some reason -- in base Fibonacci, which limits us even more because I can only tune so many transition levels per --"
"Lots of different universes, Major Benton. Lots and lots."
"Attention, people," Doctor Tremont said, "-- people!" The expectant chatter faded slowly; nearly all of Area 51's personnel were crowded into the base's largest lecture hall.
"All right. Good news first: the quarantine is lifted." She outwaited the cheer. "We've cultured nothing from the other side that isn't commonplace here, or at least common in Egypt, so we appear to have not doomed humanity this time. Thanks to Doctors Takashi and Kent, and the med staff, for following that up." Applause this time. Three months' confinement to base had worn all nerves thin.
"Now the better news. As you know, General Baxter and I have been recommending a full-scale research program into the window and its alternate realities. As of today, we have the President's signature. Project Porthole is on."
That cheer went on much longer.
"And now the ambivalent news," Tremont continued. "Project Porthole will not be conducted here in Nevada. It's moving to Colorado -- we're getting Cheyenne Mountain, where NORAD's supposed to be." (Widespread chuckles.) "It's bigger, it's easier to secure, and you can order decent pizza from town." (Louder chuckles.)
"However, Area 51 is not shutting down. That means we're splitting the research staff. This base will continue to be archiving, R&D, and investigation into anything interesting that comes back through the window. Cheyenne will be front-line work on the window itself, reconnaissance through it, and -- well, whatever turns up." Tremont was talking more loudly now, pushing over the rising chatter. "I've got the assignment lists here, and no they are not negotiable. I've -- folks! The Air Force is staying tight in the loop on this one; I've been pounding out the details with Baxter for the past week. I didn't have enough fun to want to do it all over."
The room settled, slowly, once each scientist was sure that his or her wounded dignity had been properly appreciated by all.
Tremont sorted her notes, with discomfort that Benton thought was well-hidden. "I will be heading up Cheyenne; Shannon Guiry will take over here. Principal investigators at Cheyenne will be Bill Lee, Xiaolin Yang, ..."
Afterward, the crowd slowly filtered from the room, trailing a thick haze of congratulation, speculation, and (only somewhat smug) condolence. Benton was following them out when Tremont waved him over. "Yes, ma'am?" he asked.
"I've been neck-deep with Baxter about the list of lab rats, but we haven't really discussed the military side. Are you interested in transferring to Cheyenne?"
"Well, you are Major Benton, Interdimensional Adventurer." Benton winced; Tremont's tone gave him all Lee's capital letters and more. "Seriously, though. I know you think you haven't done anything more exciting than put on a mask and walk across a room. But it's a start. And you know me. And you can hang out with Bill without wanting to strangle him."
"Much. Anyway, you think about it. If you're interested, let me know, and I'll put in a word with Baxter." She nodded briskly, and turned to go.
Benton's reply caught her halfway to the door. "Doctor Tremont?" She swung slowly around, with an eyebrow up. "I have considered your offer, and I would be honored to undertake Interdimensional Adventure with your team."
She beamed with entire satisfaction. "Excellent news, Major."
"Which gives you a list of lab rats plus one guinea pig, right?"