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The Three-Body Problem

Chapter Text

     The tunnels dug through the stone under Brilliankromb gave way to metal train tracks glinting in the light of Agatha's torch. "And I think we take a right here?" she asked her two men, who were bickering behind her over who got to hold the map. It certainly would've been easier to find the local University going overground, but better to arrive a little late and a little confused than on time but perforated by Tarvek's cousin's latest defenses systems. Agatha wasn't even sure which cousin they were sneaking past, or whether they'd be shooting at her, Tarvek, or Gil, but in the end it didn't matter. Anybody who targeted one of them would be firing at all three.

     Both men of course, called back, "I think it's left," but they were wrong.

     Agatha pointed at the paper pasted to the wall that said, "Visiting Professors This Way," with an arrow pointing right. "Are you sure you don't have the map upside down? That last turn was pretty sharp. Anyway, this looks like the direction they want us to go."

     Rolling his eyes, Tarvek folded up the map. "You'd think I'd be used to skulking around in caves after all this time. Oh, hey, is this tunnel tiled? And look at the train tracks... I hope there won't be a train coming while we're down here."

     "Relax," Gil scoffed. "This is the Brilliankromb particle accelerator. They use the tracks to attach guides for magnetized piping and optic lenses, not run trains. We're safe."

     And safe they were when they finally reached the ladder up to a manhole where a blond lady wearing an unmistakeable Dean's hat was waiting with a clipboard. "Oh, thank goodness! You're here! We were starting to worry we might have to send the dogs out after you, and goodness knows what we would've done if the dogs found one of the Tunnel Monks instead of the three of you. But here you are..."

     "Here we are!" Agatha answered. "Ready to shape the minds of tomorrow! I'm Agatha Heterodyne, and this is--"

     "Oh goodness, I know you three! I've seen all the plays!" She helped them out one at a time, naming them in turn. "Science's own femme fatale, Agatha Heterodyne, the ferocious Gilgamesh Wulfenbach -- and thank you so much for avoiding the full moon, since our modest establishment isn't equipped for werewolf transformations..." (Something none of them bothered explaining wasn't true, since the ship on that myth had well and truly sailed.) "... and the brooding anti-hero genius, Tarvek Sturmvoraus. I do hope you didn't run into any trouble finding your way here?"

     "Some trouble," Tarvek assured her, "But no armies. Really, that's all we can ask for."

     "Excellent!"

     Once Agatha's eyes adjusted to the brighter lights, she saw that it was quite a modest building, with plaster walls and slate floors, and not nearly as loud or... well... explosive as most of the universities she'd been in during her life. Where were they hiding the clanks? The chemical laboratories? The biological engineering labs? Were these walls even reinforced with steel to prevent runaway experiments from tearing through them? They didn't look like it.

     "Right this way," the University Dean told them. Agatha couldn't quite remember her name from the introduction letters. Thomas? Thompson? Oh, well. Surely Gil or Tarvek would remember who she was if that turned out to be important. They were both pretty devious, which went hand in hand with being good at remembering names. "You know, Professor Feynstrom has been simply giddy about getting all three of you in to do a guest lecture! Obviously, our little school is proud to host any one of you, let alone the Lady Heterodyne, Baron-Presumptive Wulfenbach, and Tarvek Sturmvoraus together!"

     Tarvek scowled at the floor and scuffed his toes in the cutest way. "Not acknowledging everybody's titles, I see..."

     "Hush, dear," Agatha murmured, ruffling his hair.

     True, it was standard practice these days to call whichever Sturmvoraus was standing closest to you The Storm King, but they couldn't count on that when one of Tarvek's cousins was nominally in power in this city - not that they could ever acknowledge that power as being real. Admitting any power that wasn't nominal was usually a bad idea, since Gil still got allergies when people who weren't him were described as being "in power" despite all the Hubris Pollen being eradicated from the Castle. Also, sometimes he came down with telepathy, so she didn't even want to think about someone else's power being real. And yet, facts were facts. They'd had to sneak in through the particle collider tunnels just to keep Tarvek from getting hunted by his cousin's Smoke Knights before they got to the protected sanctuary of the Brilliankromb University, and if the local Sturmvoraus's spies (assumed to be present everywhere) told their mistress about someone else getting called The Storm King, she would be pissed. None of them could guarantee that the University would be respected as neutral ground when you had a Sturmvoraus family squabble on the table.

     Off to her other side, Gil cleared his throat with that wounded-puppy pout she could never resist, so she ruffled his hair, too.

     "You're both so high-maintenance! How do I put up with you?!" she asked, squishing a duplicitous mad scientist against each of her sides.

     "Because cowering minions are a dime a dozen," Gil reminded her.

     "And also," Tarvek added, "you haven't yet been able to create a machine that can duplicate or exceed our combined sexual prowess."

     "Yet!" Agatha promised them both.

     Oh, would that be a beautiful day! Not because she'd dispose of the gentlemen whom the Castle still insisted on calling her harem, since she was sure they'd up their game after being outperformed by a machine (also, she was fond of them), but because she couldn't wait to turn the machines in question loose on them for proper human experimentation. Her own observational objectivity would be critical for ensuring optimal results!

     The Dean gave a little cough, at which point all three sparks realized they were standing still in front of a classroom, just the same as every other classroom in the hallway with its quaint little oak door in the plaster walls, marked with a brass number above the lintel. The only thing that set this apart from any other door is that this was where the Dean was trying to draw their attention to a diminutive bald man with glasses.

     "May I present Professor Feynstrom, the chair of our Theoretical Mathematics Department."

     "Theoretical Mathematics?" Gil asked. "There must be some mistake. We're all primarily experts in Engineering! Well, and chemicals. One can hardly forget those."

     Tarvek scoffed, "Speak for yourself! I have a perfectly respectable Masters in Political Science, and a Doctorate in Early Italian Poetry!"

     Agatha and Gil both blinked at him. First she'd heard of it. "Really? When did you get that?"

     "Remember that week I was stuck in Florence with the flu?"

     They nodded. It was hard to forget. She and Gil had had to fight off a horde of Revenants in Vienna with little more than a pack of matches and the contents of an abandoned clock factory because Tarvek's convoy got derailed.

     "Apparently I wrote and defended a dissertation in my sleep. I read it when I got better, and I'm glad to say, I was brilliant."

     Everyone present shrugged. Stranger things had happened. The point stood that their work was anything but theoretical.

     Professor Feynstrom patted some sweat off his pate with a violently plaid handkerchief. "Oh goodness! I hope that doesn't mean you'll be cancelling the presentation! I... I mean, I did mention the subject of the class in my letter, I hope?"

     Agatha turned to her partners in crime. "I remember seeing that we'd been asked to guest lecture. I was sure that one of you had checked the topic."

     "I just remember the line where we were being asked here as experts in the field," Gil said, frowning. "I assumed it was something we actually were experts in, since... you know... We're experts in quite a bit. I never expected to be asked about something we don't know."

     "We forgot the first rule of being a long-lived super-genius," Tarvek growled, and they all recited the words together.

     "Always get a minion to read the mail first!"

     In the classroom doorway, the Professor was getting more panicked by the second. "But I don't understand! When I was lamenting my difficulties with my curriculum, Dr. Hamburg, from Paris, assured me himself that you three were among the world's top experts on the Three-Body Problem! He was quite clear! Usually my students all skip this class, but--" He got down on his knees, crying. Agatha had been wondering how long that would take, since he was clearly the minion type. "Please, at least try! My students are so excited to learn from actual sparks!"

     Agatha shrugged at the men on either side of her. "There's no harm in trying. We've got a few minutes before the class starts to brush up on the material."

     "I agree," said Tarvek. "Between us, we've conquered at least half the world. How hard can one math problem be?"

     "You mean I've conquered half the world," Gil corrected him. "Agatha gets credit for conquering Mechanicsburg, twice, since that's a real challenge, but what have you brought to this world conquering party?"

     Tarvek shook his head. "I'm afraid I can't tell you that. You still think you're in charge in most of the places I control, and I want to keep it that way."

     Slamming a fist into his forehead, Gil groaned, "How many times to I have to explain, I eradicated that infestation of Hubris blossoms and inoculated myself against the remaining pollen! I won't sneeze if you lay claim to a city or two!"

     "No, I mean you really do still think you run those towns -- well, counties, really -- and I'm not telling you about them," Tarvek laughed. "I want to see how long it takes you to figure it out. Also, Siberia is completely under my control."

     Gil let loose a thunderous sneeze, protesting as he pulled out his hanky that it was just dust in the air. "Damn math departments and their chalk dust!"

     "Our chalk is certified dustless..." Feynstrom protested. "But my Lady! Good sirs!"

     Agatha pulled each of her men in by the shoulders, making them look at the Professor. "We're here. We'll do it. Now, point us at the books."

     After all, trying to back out now would mean either claiming that they weren't experts in something that someone said they were experts on (unacceptable), or explaining that Dr. Hamburg had been joking about the time he walked in on the three of them in the throes of passion in a Paris stellar observatory, and the "three-body problem" they were indeed expert in solving had nothing whatsoever to do with heavenly bodies or their gravities (although Gil and Tarvek's bodies were both, in their own ways, stellar). Doing a quick read-through on a math problem would be infinitely simpler, she was certain.