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Jim Ausfahl


Tuesday, September 16, 2166

James Lemoyne made a point of being as inconspicuous as he could as he took his tray and looked for a table in the cafeteria in the Engineering building at Eletto Technical Institute. His area of focus was pure mathematics, and there was a somewhat less than friendly rivalry between the newly created pure science disciplines in the newest addition to the graduate school at the Institute, and the older, more established departments of applied science, particularly Engineering—the engineers accusing the mathematicians of being so theoretically oriented that they were no practical good, and the mathematicians accusing the engineers of being so pragmatic that they were practically no use. On the whole, Lemoyne thought both accusations were ridiculous, but that made no difference; if he were caught, he could expect to suffer some razzing that he didn’t care to face.

His presence at the Eletto Technical Institute had come as something of a surprise to him. The invitation to apply to the newly created Pure Sciences graduate department at Eletto Technical Institute had come earlier in the summer, and given the offer of significant scholarship funds, he had decided to submit an application; the thought of being able to be in on the ground floor appealed almost as much as the potential scholarship. The form had been filled out, duly sent in and forgotten. He and his parents, his father being a physics professor at Chambana University, had come back from a prolonged vacation with the Briggs family, people who were neighbors and good friends; Jack Lemoyne and Charlie Briggs were also colleagues at the university, both teaching physics. In the mountain of mail that had collected in their absence, there had been the invitation to enter the masters program in mathematics at Eletto Technical Institute; the date for reporting to campus had only been a few days in the future, and forced the Lemoyne family into a frenzy of preparation. Jim had not even had time to share the good news with his childhood friend, Dean Briggs. All there had been time for was a hasty goodbye. Once he had arrived at the Institute, James Lemoyne had been swept up into the graduate work he had to accomplish, never quite finding time to keep the promise he’d made Dean about keeping in contact. That, Lemoyne knew, had been a major error, and his foray into the engineering library that morning had been a glaring example of why he should have kept in touch. There had been something about the intensely practical, engineering-oriented mind Dean Briggs had matured into that seemed to stimulate Lemoyne’s theoretical modeling.

Letting the chain of thoughts run through his mind took less time than it took him to find an inconspicuous table with a chair that let him face a wall. The mathematics graduate student put his tray down, staring at it more than at the wall, his compuclipboard to his right. The morning’s efforts had produced scant results, but what little he had, he studied intensely, hoping to find the sort of inspiration that Dean had once provided. The static displays of graphs and tables and copied text just couldn’t replace the dynamic banter the two had shared.

From behind himself, he heard a voice declaring that his greatest fear had been realized; someone was coming behind, talking to him.

"Man, so much for the property values. Didn’t anyone tell you that we’re totally down to Earth around here, and don’t have the time for air-headed theory?"

Lemoyne took a deep breath, debating his alternatives. There was no question that whoever had spoken wasn’t going to be satisfied with being ignored; the only options were aggressively responding or rolling over and playing dead. Given the number of others in the cafeteria, he decided he’d rather play dead than be dead. "That’s what I figured, man. There isn’t anything a whole lot more practical than filling an empty stomach. Well, I don’t think so. Not a lot about air-headed theory that fills the belly. Go somewhere practical if you’re hungry, right?"

"Whaddya know? A mathematician that has a seriously practical side! Who would have thought it? This I gotta see."

The voice moved to where he and Lemoyne could see each other. Lemoyne looked up. "Tinker!"

"I wondered how long it’d take you to recognize me, you old slowcoach. It’s not like you wear a badge declaring your major, you know; I’m surprised that you didn’t guess it was me when I knew what you were studying." Dean Briggs planted himself in front of his friend. "So this is where you disappeared off to, eh Thinker?"

Smiling, Lemoyne poked himself a couple of times. "Yup, looks like I’m here. Maybe not all here, but hey, since when was I ever all here anyway? What’re you doing here, Tinker?"

"Same as you are; grabbing some lunch." He emphasized his remark by stuffing a forkful of salad into his mouth, then gesturing with his fork as he continued, talking around a mouth crammed full of lettuce. "I’d applied to the engineering grad school here earlier in the summer; been planning to be here for years. I’m willing to bet a slice of chocolate cake that you’ve spent the morning scrounging in the Engineering library, looking for inspiration on some theoretical problem or other. How’m I doing?"

"Too well, man, too well. I’m not touching that bet with a pole. I’ve been looking for the kind of mental trigger that you’ve always provided. Believe me, I’m totally glad to see your mug, man."

"No kidding. I’m glad to see your puss, too, Jim. So, how many three-cent stamps in a dozen?"

Lemoyne chuckled; that had been one of Briggs’ favorite trick questions. "A dozen stamps or a dozen cents, you old reprobate? Twelve or four, depending. And don’t try tying the tracking device to my shoelaces again."

"You have to admit, it did work, at least until your shoe came untied. It fulfilled the criteria for the challenge you set, anyway."

"Ah, that’s what I get for not being specific with you, you bum." Lemoyne bit off a piece of sandwich. "Look, since you’re here, how about letting me in on what the graduate thesis you’ve been assigned might be?"

"They’ve stuck me with field generator technologies, Thinker. They want me to—"

"Tinker with it, right?"

Briggs rolled his eyes. "Two points on your score card, stinker. You’re right on the money; they seem to be hoping that I can simplify the complicated mess for them. What’s yours, and why’s it got you here, of all places?"

"They’ve stuck me with building a bottom-up integrated mathematical model of exotic states of matter, Dean. My profs seem to be of the idea that what Engineering has been using so successfully for lo, these many decades is a huge kluge of excessively practical, but not altogether adequate, algebraic patches." Lemoyne shrugged. "Like I’m going to argue that the fact that it works well enough to let us build warp drives suggests pretty strongly that it’s pretty thoroughly adequate. Anyway, I was looking for some raw data on one of those exotic states, and found pretty nearly nothing."

Serious now, Briggs nodded, chewing meditatively. "Jimmy boy, don’t air this around, but your professors are perfectly right. We’re scraping hulls to get the heat dissipation low enough to do Warp five without cooking everyone in the starship. As it stands, we’re busting our chops trying to pump heat out the hull; you don’t even want to know how much energy that’s costing us. We need some major help on energy transformation." Another forkful of food disappeared into Briggs’ mouth. "Anyway, just don’t tell anyone I said the theory boys were right, okay?"

"Cross my heart and both my eyes, buddy." Lemoyne purposefully looked at his own nose, his eyes crossing. "Can I assume that you’re in this with me?"

"Just like old days, Thinker. Now what about some refined details? Don’t know if I can find what you need, but without some details, I’m never going to do you any good."

The compuclipboard suddenly moved between the two men. "Pretty simple, at first. Consider the simple occurrence of a high-energy gamma photon hitting something, say a neutrino or a muon or whatever, and splitting into a particle-antiparticle pair. There’s a brief instant, maybe a few yoctoseconds or so long, where the electromagnetic energy isn’t really a photon, but hasn’t yet become matter. It’s something, but no one knows what. I was trying to get some data on the reverse reaction—matter and antimatter into energy—to see if I could get a handle on what that looked like, but I couldn’t find a thing."

"So who cares, Thinker? I mean, other than theory boys like you and the other boffins in math or physics? Not that I’m not going to pitch in, mind you, but I’d love to have a good, practical point to doing it."

"Let me put it this way. What would happen if we could come up with a mathematical model that allowed you to tweak things so that the matter-antimatter reaction produced Basis Field energy directly, rather than electromagnetic energy that you had to absorb and convert to Basis Field? What would that do to the efficiency of your drives?"

Briggs’ eyes almost bugged out. "You can’t do that, can you?"

"I don’t know. Can I? I haven’t the vaguest idea; the data I was scrounging for might have answered that. Either way, if I could…"

"I guess if anyone could, you’d be the one that did, Thinker. Even the best of our systems have a thirty-five percent energy loss going from the hard gamma we get from mutual annihilation to Basis Field then to warp field. That’s why the heat dissipation’s such an obnoxious problem; most of what we lose turns into heat. Go straight to Basis Field energy, and that’d take the loss to, oh, maybe a third or less of what it is now." The engineering graduate student shook his head. "The possibilities boggle my mind, all four neurons worth. Consider me sold on your project."

"Thanks, Dean. I figured you’d understand when I made the potential clear. So, any idea where I need to go to find the data I need?"

For a moment, the Tinker looked around the cafeteria. A smile crossed his face. "You need to stay put, man." He put his thumb and middle finger into his mouth, whistling shrilly. "Hey, Taggerty! You got your compuclip with you?"

"Yeah, of course I do. Didn’t anyone tell you I sleep with it?"

"Whatever. Grab your grub, grab the compuclip, and grab yourself a chair over here. I think I just found you the mother lode for moving ahead on your little project." Briggs watched as his fellow engineering student complied with the request. "Pete, this is Jim Lemoyne, an old buddy of mine. Soul of an engineer, despite being in pure math. He can massage your data on his compuclipboard and tell you where the lumps are faster than you’re gonna manage using the full computational resources of Engineering. It’s instinct, I think. Just don’t squeal on us, eh? Don’t want anyone knowing we hobnob with the theory thumpers, y’know?"

Taggerty put his tray and compuclipboard on the table, pulling up a chair. "I didn’t know you math whizzbangs lowered yourself to visiting over here in the applied areas."

"Keep it down, will you?" Lemoyne looked around pretending to be afraid someone would hear. "You’re going to ruin my good name, and that’s a fact." He winked conspiratorially. "Now let me see your compuclipboard full of data. Any buddy of Briggs’ is a buddy of mine."

"Forget just looking, man. Let me transfer a copy. File’s a matrix, about a hundred by a hundred. You’ll go cross-eyed trying to look at it." Taggerty aligned his compuclipboard’s transmission bead with Lemoyne’s. "Let’s just do it compuclip to compuclip and ignore the wireless; no pranks that way. Here it comes."

There was a short pause while the data transferred, then a longer one as Lemoyne studied the data. Lemoyne nodded to himself, then began tapping rapidly on the control area. He paused, then tapped a little more, repeating the cycle a few more times, stuffing food in his face during the waits. Finally, he looked up, somewhat annoyed. "This is as good as I can do off the cuff, Pete. It’s not very good, I’m afraid, but I’d need a major math crunching computer to do any better in less than a couple of days."

"Drat." The engineering student was clearly disappointed. "Well, what have you found?"

For reasons neither of the others could understand, Briggs was having a hard time controlling his amusement.

"It turns out that the best approximation is a five dimensional needle rotating through a limited number of discrete positions." Lemoyne looked at his compuclipboard again. "I’ve only got it down to half a percent error, though, and I’m not happy about that. We’re not talking major precision, here."

Taggerty’s eyes threatened to bug out of his face. "Whoa, like a whole half a percent? I can truly live with that. Could you ship me your little model and the math that runs it?"

"No problem. Just a sec." He fiddled with the controls. "Let me ship the program back, compuclip to compuclip. Align yours with mine, will you?"

Taggerty obeyed. Transmitting the model took all of ten seconds. The engineer’s eyes widened even more. "That’s it?"

"Yup. I mean, it’s not exactly high precision, for space’s sake." The mathematics student shook his head. "Really, it’s terribly…"

Clutching his compuclipboard gleefully, like a child clutching a treasured new toy, Taggerty headed out of the cafeteria, clearly forgetting his tray, dessert and all. "Briggs, you and your buddy just got yourselves invited to the bash at my apartment Friday night."

"Sorry, Pete; can’t make it. Got caught being out of line by a professor, and I’m doing the military version of penance for a couple of Fridays." The attempted appearance of contrition Briggs tried to assume was hardly successful.

"I owe you both. Maybe we could do dinner, say in about two or three weeks? I’ll connect on the commnet. Jim, don’t forget that magical compuclip of yours!" Almost chortling with glee, Taggerty waltzed out the cafeteria.

Lemoyne watched him go, clearly puzzled. He turned to his childhood chum. "What’s with him? You’d have thought I’d handed him a starship of his own or something."

The chuckle Briggs had been suppressing finally bubbled over. "Thinker, you owe me one big slice of cheesecake. Look, here in Engineering, we’re just thrilled out of our gourd to get within five percent, and we usually are lucky to get within ten percent. The models we use to get there are often programs half a gigabyte long or longer, and it takes four of us to kluge ‘em together, over about a month. So, you get him ten, maybe twenty times closer than he thinks he’ll ever get, you do it all by yourself in five minutes, and the whole file is what, three megabytes?"

"Um, just less than half a meg, actually."

"You make me cringe. Read my lips: you gave him fist-sized diamonds in gold settings as far as he is concerned." Briggs grabbed the dessert off Taggerty’s tray, digging his fork into it. "He’ll never come back for the chocolate cake; we better not let it go to waste."

"I was going to get you that fat slice of cheesecake, Tinker. Am I suddenly off the hook?"

"Nah." Briggs shoveled another load of chocolate cake into his mouth. "You can deliver it Friday, man. If you’ll give me your BellComm address, I’ll call you. I really do have to do military penance, and I’ll probably need the cheesecake to keep me from going crazy."

Something about Briggs getting in trouble with a professor failed to surprise Lemoyne. "So, what’d you do? Put an electronic whoopee cushion in his desk or something?"

"Wish I had; it’d have been worth it with ol’ man Stratton. Runs the most absolutely boring engineering lab in the whole Institute, I swear he does. So does everyone else—including ol’ man Stratton."

"That completely fails to tell me what you did, Tinker."

"That’s just it—nothing, really. I just realized that my test bench was calibrated poorly, so I ripped the cover off the stupid thing, trying to get it to at least one percent precision."

"Aren’t you the guy that just said ten percent was acceptable, and five percent was wonderful?"

"I know, I know, but that’s for engineering models, not my test bench. I want my measurements precise. Let me get back to the story, okay? Stratton caught me, and took umbrage. Seems the old man had tuned the test bench circuits himself, and thought they were just grand. Grand my left great toe—eight percent error reeks to holy high heaven, if you ask me. Stratton pitched a fit, and allowed as how if I thought I was such a hotshot little engineering snot, I could spend my Friday nights bringing all fifty of the test benches in the lab to one percent precision. I bet him a hundred credits I could do it in a month—so you better believe I’m going to get it done as fast as I can."

"No kidding." The Thinker nodded, thinking. "Look, can you kluge together a gadget that will let my compuclipboard tell it to twist your setscrews and check the outputs? Twist them all at once, if I want, mind you."

"Shouldn’t be too hard. Hmmm… I could use piezoelectric driver to a gear that drives a shaft… Hey, how tight do you want to control this, anyway?"

"Either direction, to a precision of a tenth of a degree or less. Doable?"

"Yeah, I just have to do some reduction gearing for the fool things. I can do it, yeah. Tell you what, I’ll call you on where and when you can deliver my slice of cheesecake." Briggs grinned. "If I’m guessing what you’re thinking, Thinker, and it works, I’m gonna owe you a whole cheesecake. And a chocolate cake, to boot." He looked down at the compuclipboard. "Rats—gotta run. Class in five minutes." He snatched his compuclipboard and tray up, running for the door. "I’ll be in touch!"

Lemoyne shook his head, a lopsided grin on his face. Being in graduate school hadn’t changed Dean Briggs an iota, and he was glad, at least mostly so.

Friday, September 19, 2166

Friday at twenty hundred hours found Jim Lemoyne moving toward the engineering labs, two containers, each containing a generous slice of cheesecake, in the sack in one hand, and his compuclipboard under his arm. There was no question as to where he needed to head, though his friend had been explicit in his instructions about how to find the lab in question: only one set of windows showed light. Quietly but swiftly, he descended on the room in question, finding Briggs hunched over an open test station. Briggs looked up. "Man, am I glad to see you, Thinker. This is harder than I thought. I tweak one setscrew, it affects everything else. No wonder old man Stratton thought I’d never finish the project. These things are total junk."

"I’ve got the cheesecake, blueberry topping and all, just like you always liked it, old friend. Do you have the little gadget?" Lemoyne delivered the containers as he spoke.

The engineer unveiled an incredible object, sprouting gears and wires in an eye-straining combination of directions. "Here it is, Thinker! Briggs’ electronic screwdriver set, ready for your little compuclipboard to rescue me."

"Super. Just let me have that gamma connector, will you?" The cord was passed, and Lemoyne slid it into place on the side of his compuclipboard. "Now, if you’ll put it in place on your little gadget there?"

With some fussing and fuming, Briggs got every screwdriver bit placed to his satisfaction. When Briggs signaled that he was ready to go, Lemoyne nodded and tapped a control on his compuclipboard. He reached into the sack. "Here you go, Tinker. Eat hearty." He pulled out the containers, giving one to his friend and taking the other himself. "Might as well; it’ll be a little while before there’s anything else to do." As Lemoyne spoke, the gears on Briggs’ contraption started moving, stopping for a few moments, then moving again.

"What’s going on?"

The mathematics graduate student tilted his head to the side. "My compuclipboard is doing successive approximations of the ideal settings for that particular test bench, using a derivative free non-linear least squares best fit iteration scheme to estimate the adjustments needed; I’ve set the thing up to use the position of the screws as the parameters that we’re fitting. It’s simple, really. I tossed in a memory function to get an idea of the shape of the k-dimensional surface that represents the outputs as a function of the setscrew settings. Nothing fancy."

"If I didn’t know you better, Thinker, I’d accuse you of talking dirty." Briggs scooped up some cheesecake, being careful to keep the ample dollop of blueberry topping from dripping on his clothes. "As it is, I know you’re convinced you’re talking sense, no matter how much it sounds like gibberish to me."

Lemoyne winced. "Okay, maybe I over-explained that. Let’s put it this way: I’m making highly scientific, wild-eyed guesses at what the right answer really is, resetting the screws, and seeing how close I’ve got it. Based on the results of the first guess, I use the math to make a second scientific wild-eyed guess. Using the outputs of those two guess, I get a guess at what the third batch of settings needs to look like. After a dozen iterations or so, I should be pretty close. It’s sort of similar to Newton’s Bisection Method for estimating a square root, except that we’re working with a vector, and following the vector to a minimum of the summed squared deviation."

The gears continued their turn-and-stop behavior, Briggs’ eyes temporarily rolling in agony; the gears’ turns progressively became smaller and smaller over about fifteen or twenty minutes’ time. Finally, they stopped, and the compuclipboard chimed.

"Okay, let me see how close to perfect this little rascal is." Dean moved to the test bench, triggering a self test. He jotted a handful of outputs down on his own compuclipboard, then repeated the test a second and a third time, jotting down what he found each time. He looked up. "Not bad, man, not bad. Down to point one percent. I love it. Pity it takes so long; there’re forty nine more to do; toss in the time for setup and it’s going to be a half hour each—that’s nearly twenty five more hours."

"Wrong answer. This little subroutine is self-teaching. It’ll take maybe ten minutes on the next couple, maybe five minutes on the fourth and fifth, and only a couple or three minutes on each one after that. Well, that’s my estimate, anyway. It’s one of those little math tricks that we’ll probably find a use for again, some time. Either way, set the next one up, Tinker. I’ll clap the top on this one and run the screws in for you." He grabbed a screwdriver and moved to do as he threatened. "I may be a theory thug, but I can handle a screwdriver, you know. Save a little time. And if we start popping the tops of the next ones while the current one is going, we can save even more time."

"I don’t believe this." The engineer in training picked his contraption up, moving to the next test bench. "You realize this should be impossible. There’s nine screws that control the impedance of critical sections of the circuitry, and they produce severely interdependent results. What kind of magic are you doing with your little compuclip?"

For a few moments, Lemoyne focused on getting the covering on the test bench, meditating his answer. "Okay, here it is, cookies on the bottom shelf. Rather than just tweak one thing at a time, the program tweaks them all at once. That speeds things up a whole lot. I’m oversimplifying, you realize, but that’s pretty close. And by remembering what worked on the prior calibration sequences, it’s able to get to the target considerably more quickly."

The second test bench was set up for tuning by the time Lemoyne had the cover back on. As predicted, it took considerably less time—barely over eight minutes. The third one took just less than seven and a half; the fifth one took longer to set up to tune than it did to do the tuning. By the time the last test bench circuitry was being retuned, only about three and a half hours had passed. Briggs was grinning from ear to ear. "Stratton is going to absolutely choke. Thinker, can you save the learned part on this and ship me the compiled control code?"

"Not a sweat. Frankly, the way I figure it, what we want to do is clean up at Stratton’s expense. You can patent that little gimcrack of yours, and I’ll copyright my code. Well, maybe you’ll want to pretty up the gimcrack, too. Anyway, if we can get it out where it’s visible, we might turn a pocket full of coins with it. We might even be able to get out to eat a little more often, off campus."

"While I’m at it, I can probably reduce the size of the gizmo, too. Look, lab with Stratton is Monday morning; I’m willing to bet that he’s going to want to have some proof that you exist. What say you stand ready to be tapped about lunch hour?"

"Monday’s my easy day, Tinker; no problem. Jingle me on the BellComm if you need me." Lemoyne winked. "I’m looking forward to Stratton’s reaction."

Monday, September 22, 2166

Monday arrived, finding Briggs in the lab, making sure that the test bench electronics had remained in good calibration. It appeared that they had. Pleased, the engineering grad student settled himself in the chair at his assigned test bench. Only a moment or two passed before Doctor Stratton arrived.

"Up bright and early, eh? Have you come to beg mercy?"

"No sir." He stood. "I got started on Bench One and got as far as I could, Friday night. I was hoping that you’d check to see if I was up to grade on the ones that I had tuned. Sir."

"Really. Knowing what utter trash these test stations are, I’ll be amazed if you got below three percent precision." The professor produced an object from his pocket that he slid into the connector on the test station. "My own little toy; put it together myself, to give me continuous feedback as I try to tune these fool test stations. It’ll check this thing out to the nearest nitpick of notwhat." He had barely finished talking when it flashed. "Not bad, hotdog. Precision, 0.09% on the first bench. Let’s see how far you got." Disconnecting his test device, Stratton headed to the last bench where he slid it in place. It quickly moved to a reading. "0.078% precision. That’s not possible by hand, boy."

"It sticks in my craw, sir, that in your first lecture, you made it clear that an engineer should consider his tools and his engineering efforts an extension of himself." Briggs knew he was skating on thin ice, but it was better than trying to pass off an outright lie. "I built a gadget to twiddle the set-screws, sir."

"That might explain how you did all of the test stations in one evening. Let me guess: you got someone to help, right?"

"An old childhood chum that I ran into over lunch Tuesday of last week, sir." Stratton’s attitude was beginning to worry the engineering student. "It was in the same lecture that you said a good lead engineer should consider his team an extension of himself, sir. I took that seriously, and felt that I was within the limits of our little wager."

"Oh, that." Stratton took two fifty credit notes out of his wallet. "One fifty for you, one for your buddy, do you hear me? It’s worth twice that to have this junk actually tuned to useable levels. Took me nearly a week to get ‘em less than ten percent." The professor smiled, his face becoming animated for the first time in Briggs’ memory. "Let me guess—your childhood chum must have been from over in the math department; the iterative approximation routine you’d have to have used would have needed five engineers two months to get written, but a good math freak might have been able to do it in a handful of days if he was clever enough. I want both of you at my office at noon; we need to talk about this contraption of yours." He looked around, his face slipping back into its usual bland shape. "Now get to your test station. I need to try to bore the idiots out of Engineering, and get the clever ones like you tricked into getting into trouble, so I can challenge them."

Briggs eyes widened with comprehension of Stratton’s mode of teaching. Silently, he returned to his test bench, looking forward to the reaction of the other students when they saw their test bench results.


Noon found Lemoyne and Briggs in Stratton’s office, the professor looking at them across the desk, an uncomfortable silence stretching as he did. He finally broke the silence. "Briggs I know, young man. Just who would you be?"

"James Lemoyne, sir."

"And what would your field be, James Lemoyne?"

"Graduate level mathematics, sir."

Stratton nodded. "I figured that. Look, boys, that contraption of yours is patentable. Were you aware of that?"

Briggs took the lead. "The thought had crossed our minds, sir. And the software system might well be copyrightable, too. We had discussed looking into that, and perhaps seeing if we could turn a credit or two marketing it."

"Don’t know about that, one way or another, until I cast my eye on it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was." He looked at them both. "I hope you both realize that the units you were tuning were barely better than trash." The two nodded. "Good. You brought them to a precision my top flight station barely rivals. I have a proposition for you two, if you’re interested. I propose to give you two the resources you need for refining the design of your little toy, in return for you two using it to tune up a few test benches for me. You two get to grab all the credit you want, and whatever you earn; I just want to get my test bench as tuned as it can get, and the benches of a couple of colleagues. If I can find a place that’s interested, I’ll even negotiate the sale of the thing for you, if you want. The Institute hasn’t quite figured out that it needs to have rules for that sort of thing with cadets, and I’m thrilled to get a chance to annoy administration. That, and I’d expect a couple of the production models, when they come out. Game?"

Lemoyne looked at his companion, who nodded almost imperceptibly. "I think so, sir. Except for one little thing—I’d like access to some data your department might have, strictly on the hush, if possible."

"Of course on the hush, you young fool; can’t have it getting around that I’m collaborating with you theorists, now can I?" Stratton winked. "Wouldn’t want it getting around and ruining your reputation, either. Now, where’s that device of yours?"

"It’s hidden in the lab, actually, Doctor Stratton." Briggs stood. "Shall I go fetch it?"

"Yes, yes, young man, pretend you’re named Rover and go fetch." He grinned at Briggs, then turned on Lemoyne. "While your alter ego is getting the gimcrack, I’m willing to bet that your little compuclip there has the control programming on it. I’d like to look at what you’ve got."

Thursday, October 2, 2166

It was a Thursday, about two and a half weeks after their meeting in the engineering cafeteria, and Pete Taggerty had insisted that Dean Briggs come to an engineering dormitory’s common area, bringing Jim Lemoyne with him; both men were instructed to bring their compuclipboards with them, which was no surprise. The only surprise was that they were meeting somewhere other than the apartment Taggerty shared with Rusty Pulaski. Lemoyne guessed that the visit was payback for the model he had created for Taggerty. Although the pizza was no surprise when they arrived, the half dozen other engineering grad students were.

Taggerty had the decency to look slightly sheepish. "Hi, guys. Hope you don’t mind that I brought a couple of others here to join us. When I started making the sort of progress that model of yours made possible, a couple of buddies got curious and offered to chip in on food and drink. They’d love to pick your mutual brains, that is if you don’t mind too awfully."

Briggs stared at the ceiling. "All things in due order, folks. If you think either of us are able to concentrate with empty bellies, you’re stark, staring mad, especially with this room absolutely reeking of mouth-watering pizza. Let’s bust into the grub; once the appetite is starting to settle down, then we make sense." He emphasized his remark by opening a bag of chips and plunging his hand into it. "For a change, I mean. Don’t always make sense, you know."

"At least we know why the compuclipboards were part of our evening apparel, Tinker." Lemoyne helped himself to a steaming slice. "Look, Pete, as long as no one minds my keeping the data to get some insights I need, I’m easy, but you’re going to need some sort of display we can all see. The way I figure it, you’ve probably got something up your little engineering sleeve."

"Already arranged, man." The voice was unfamiliar, from one wall. "Well, it will be when I get it plugged in, anyway. There’s gotta be a power source somewhere around here that I can tap, for pity’s sake." Even as the voice was grumbling, its owner apparently found what he sought. A large display on one end of the room lit up, temporarily blank. "That’s got it. If you bums have scarfed all the pepperoni pizza, you’re all in dire trouble." A red head poked up from behind it. "Rusty Pulaski, Engineer Extraordinaire, at your service." He snapped off a mock salute.

"Pepperoni’s over there, Rusty." Briggs pointed with a half-eaten slice. "So who’s on first?"

"I’m going to be a quickie, so I get the first slot." It was Taggerty. "I’ve just got a little bit more data for you to massage; I’ve compared it to the model you already constructed, and I’m thinking that with a little more tweak, I’m going to be so good, I’ll almost glow in the dark. You still have the stuff I beamed you the other day?"

"Sure do; it’s been the source of useful insights for my own little project in theoretical stuff. Beam me the rest, let’s see what we can do." Lemoyne moved his compuclipboard into position. "Hey, Rusty—how do I get output to your little screen?"

"Local wireless connect’s the easiest way. You got one on your little compuclip?"

"It’s supposed to, but it’s been augmented a good deal, so I’m not promising it’s still there. I’ll check after Pete’s done beaming his data over." There was a brief pause. "Looks like it. Gimme a sec, let me play with the new data." After a few moments, the screen came alive with numbers. "This is the actual data in red, and the model’s prediction in blue. The stuff in green at the bottom is the model used to approximate it. Input?"

Briggs broke the silence. "You’re just using integers for the settings, right?"

"Well, of course; this is all down on the quantum realm, man. We have to stay with integers, right?"

Briggs rolled his eyes. "Gimme a sec." He fiddled with his compuclipboard for a minute. "Integers for multipliers, Thinker, but we can multiply anything we want by it. What about using an integer times some constant?"

"Never thought of that." Lemoyne fiddled a little with his compuclipboard. The display precision improved a little, then by several steps, even more. "Good thinking, Tinker. That number in yellow at the bottom of the screen is what I’m using as a constant that I’m multiplying by the integers."

From the back of the room, another voice made itself known. "Hey, I think I recognize that. Hold yourselves in patience for a sec." A number in black appeared below the yellow one, matching it almost perfectly, but extending several digits further. "See what you get with that; if it works, then I show you how I got it."

Obligingly, Lemoyne inserted it into his model; the deviation between the model and the data all but disappeared. "Hey, not bad at all, man. Where did that number of yours come from?"

"From here." A formula, all in black, involving pi and several other familiar constants popped onto the screen. "I’ve been fiddling with projections of multidimensional fields onto three space, and the formulas kept coming up with this ugly mess. When your guess was close to it, I figured, hey, maybe it was the way to go. Looks like I was right."

Taggerty stood up, slapping the man on the back. "You’re absolutely on the money. Jim, if you’ll beam the model and Charlie’s constant to my compuclipboard, we can tackle Charlie’s data next."

"Good thinking, Pete." Briggs cleared the display unit. "Let’s take that as a mode of operation; if you’ve got data, and you’ve made a contribution that makes whatever is on the display work a whale of a lot better, you’re next in line for the group analysis. That work for you guys?" There was a chorus of approval. "Good. Because as far as I can see, it’d be hard to find something more motivating to pay attention to the task at hand and put your whole wit to making things work wonderfully. Charlie, strut your stuff!"

"Here comes." Equations, graphs and data started filling the screen. "You already know that I’m working in the projection of multidimensional fields onto three space, so I don’t need to do a whole lot of explaining. Most of the equations are just kluged from lower dimensional stuff." A batch of relationships were suddenly highlighted in red. "These puppies are the ones that I did from sheer theory; you might recognize a constant here, Taggerty."

"Sure do, Ngorongo. Where’s your problem?" Taggerty walked to the large display, as if getting closer to the display would give him inspiration.

"His theory and his data don’t match, Pete." Briggs walked up to the screen, pointing. "Here’s why, Charlie. You have a minus here; you ought to have a plus, I think."

The sign obligingly changed; the fit between the data suddenly improved dramatically. Charlie Ngorongo’s jaw dropped almost to the floor. "It works, all right, but it’s got to be a minus sign, based on the derivation I did."

"I don’t mean to be rude, but the data totally disagrees with you, Charlie." Lemoyne pointed out. "Tinker, clear the screen would you? And if you would, Charlie, throw your derivation up there so I can stare at it."

While that was going on, the mathematics graduate student grabbed himself a couple of slices of pizza, quietly munching as he studied the derivation. It took until halfway through the second slice for him to see the point. "Here. You’ve got the square root of a rather messy relationship—and you take the positive root. Someone else check me, but the way I read this, if you don’t take the negative root, this particular part shifts out into the imaginary plane."

The redhead that had gotten the display running entered the discussion. "He’s right—unless you use the negative root, your sum on the energy in this section raises higher than what you start with. Use the negative root, and it’s equal. That’ll propagate all through, and should make things work fine."

"Good eye, guys! I missed that. Okay, Pulaski, your data next." Ngorongo cleared the screen.

Pulaski’s work replaced Ngorongo’s. "I’m working on trying to feed into a gamma ray laser with a matter-antimatter reaction, and I’m going spastic trying to get a fit on the data. Look at that mess, will you?"

"Beam it to me, Rusty." Lemoyne aimed his compuclipboard at Pulaski. "I’d love to fiddle a little, here." Enthused at the opportunity, he shipped the data. The mathematics grad student worked with it, becoming increasingly frustrated. "Hey, Tinker, get yourself over here and put your face where you can see this. I need some input."

Briggs wandered over, beverage in hand, staring over Lemoyne’s shoulder. "Yeah, this stinks. Throw it on the display anyway; it’s a whole lot better than nothing." Lemoyne complied, filling the lower part of the screen. "Okay, gang, look at that ugly mess down there. Thinker’s not even within twenty percent, and that model he’s using is more complicated than talking your way out of getting caught red handed, and it’s totally unacceptable, at least to me. Let’s hear some chatter about the problem."

Of chatter, there was suddenly plenty, groups of two or three debating the issues at hand. Finally, one voice raised itself over the others. "Y’know, we’re wondering what you did in terms of electromagnetic shielding on this one, and maybe control on the field permeability of the environment."

"Did the whole thing in a lab that’s a giant Faraday cage, guys; EM fields are essentially zilch, other than what the equipment made, and that’s going to be totally stable, within about one percent or less. Not an issue. Field permeability of the environment, though, that might vary. Let me check the days I did the stuff, here."

"The days you did it?" Lemoyne was puzzled, and it showed. "What’s that got to do with anything?"

"The weather, man, the weather." Ngorongo looked up from where he sat. "The field permeability of the air changes a little with the weather, especially with fog, rain, thunderstorms and the like. That might make a lot of difference on the results."

"Does it ever!" It was Pulaski again. "The most anomalous results were on a couple of days when we were having fog thick enough to use to butter bread; the most civilized ones were on nice, sunny days when I wished I could be outside, at least as far as I can tell." He sighed. "Okay, it’s back to the drawing board, I guess. I’m going to have to repeat some of this stuff with careful measurements of the local field permeability. Drat."

"No, not drat." Briggs took a gulp from his beverage. "Three cheers, man. That hints that you might be able to influence the reaction and its output by fiddling around with the field permeability in the reaction environment. Think of the possibilities if you could control the reaction’s output a little bit, eh?"

"Sure, Dean, sure. Don’t hold your breath on that." Pulaski’s data disappeared. "Any chance we can meet again, when I’ve got more data on my data?"

"I’d love it. Particularly, I’d love the data you plan to collect, man. I could use some further insights. Pete’s stuff gave me a leg up on my project; yours probably will, too. I hope." The eagerness Lemoyne felt was hard to miss.

"Tinker, where on Earth did you find this Human anomaly? A math theorist that likes data is sort of like a contradiction, know what I mean? Sort of like a red hot ice cube." Pulaski turned to Lemoyne. "No offense intended, and hopefully none taken."

"None taken, Rusty. What you have to realize is that, at least from the historical perspective, you’re way wrong. Gauss was one of the premier mathematicians of all time, advancing the probability theory and number theory, and I forget what all else; he was also magnificent enough as a physicist to end up with a measure of magnetic field strength named after him. Isaac Newton, who founded modern optics and defined the basics of gravitation, developed calculus. I have to admit that his notation was so barbarically difficult that it was rejected for Leibnitz’ notation for calculus, which Liebnitz developed independently of Newton, but that doesn’t diminish Newton’s practical and theoretical skills. We’re just walking the same path Gauss did, only as a gang, not as an individual."

"That’s us, then, the Gaussian Gang." Briggs’ voice had a loud overtone of finality to it. "I vote that we meet every Thursday night; we can all chip in for next week’s goodies, and let someone get them for us. What say, ladies and gentlemen?"

There was a chorus of agreement, ending with one lady’s comment, "As long as you guys don’t expect me to cook it. I draw the line there!"

Ngorongo looked over, the whites of his widely opened eyes making a stark contrast against the chocolate color of his skin. "I’d draw the line there, too, Paula. I’ve heard rumors about your cooking."

A pillow flew in Ngorongo’s general direction, hitting no one.

"We’re not talking anyone cooking anyway, you two." Briggs shook his head in mock disgust. "I’m thinking picking up portable grub—sandwiches, pizza, egg rolls, other sorts of finger food. I figure, we get twice as much as we think we’ll need, and there might be enough, right?"

"Sounds good enough." Taggerty produced a Starfleet midshipman’s cap. "Chip in what you can; what we get next week depends on this week’s generosity. Now, let’s get back to our mutual interests—other than food. Paula, what’d you bring?"

The evening quickly lapsed into studying one problem after another. Many of them one or more of the individuals present were able to resolve with modest effort; on that score, Lemoyne and Briggs turned out to be major players. Others defied all present; most of the time, constructive suggestions about necessary data to push the effort forward were provided. All received some benefit from the scrutiny. It was almost eleven when the group broke up, needing to get back before Institute curfew, everyone glad they’d come, and Lemoyne carrying a treasure trove of useful data to draw on for insights.

Thursday, June 18, 2167

The Gaussian Gang began regular meetings; attendance was variable, of course, but Taggerty, Briggs and Lemoyne were invariably there. Between the wit of the three regulars and that of the others present, few problems were beyond someone’s insight. Taggerty and Pulaski, particularly, began to fire the interest of the others. It was the sixth or seventh time they’d gotten together, and Rusty Pulaski was displaying his data again.

"You wouldn’t believe this, gang. Look at the difference the field permeability undergoes, will you?" Pulaski pointed excitedly. "It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?"

"Wonder, schmonder, Pulaski. It gives me some real hope." Briggs started tapping furiously on his compuclipboard. "Just you guys give me a second, here. Thinker, you stinker, get yourself over here. I need a hand."

Lemoyne moved to comply, pretending to pout. "Hey, I showered today; I don’t stink." He looked over Briggs’ shoulder. "Outta my way, man, for a couple of seconds. I see what you’re up to." The Thinker tapped on the compuclipboard for a moment or two. "That look the part to you?"

"That’s the ticket. Okay, people, here it comes. What do you think of this?"

There was an almost pregnant silence as people stared at the display. Suddenly Paula Watanabe jumped up. "Straight to Basis Field energy from annihilation, you sly dog. Yes!" She started dancing wildly as she sang. "No more losses trying to capture the hard gamma, no more losses converting gamma to something we can use, no more losses converting that to Basis Field energy to set up warp fields. Whoopee!"

The significance of their achievement began to dawn on the rest of the gang gathered, and just short of mayhem broke out. Ultimately, Taggerty shouted over them all. "You knuckleheads want to get us busted for disturbing the peace, for Space’s sake? Quiet down, or the cops are gonna hang us for sure!"

With some difficulty, the crew controlled their enthusiasm. Briggs took what little control was possible. "Just because I’m able to set up a description doesn’t mean we can build it. We’re going to have to do some fancy dancing to get the stuff."

"Ah, that shouldn’t be too hard." Ngorongo was almost buried in his compuclipboard. "The only trouble is going to be getting thirty or forty grams of iridium lithiumide to work with so we can make a reaction chamber to charge up and test. Anyone got any ideas on getting that?" The silence was overwhelming. "I was afraid of that. We may have to go to one of our faculty advisors with this, to test it out."

"C’mon, Charlie, you know we’re going to have to do that to get the antimatter, anyway." Briggs shrugged. "It boils down to figuring out who’s the best one to tap, that’s all. We need to do a little scrounging on that, right?" There was a chorus of agreement. "Okay, then let’s table this until next week and go on to the next issue. Who’s got something?"

"For a change, I do, Tinker." All eyes were turned on Lemoyne, clearly figuring that he was trying to be funny. "No, really, I do. I need some practical eyes on what I’ve been working on, and, well, we all know where I come from, eh?"

There was a chorus of polite, but sincere laughter. "Okay, like we’re going to be any help, but lay it on us, man." Taggerty mimed putting on heavy glasses, pretending to be a superannuated member of the Institute faculty. "We will see what you have for us, young man. It had better be good, or we shall assign you to study the mathematics of latrines."

It was several minutes before the guffaws and snorts died down, during which Lemoyne covered the display in relationships, equations and functions. When things died down to where he could be heard, the man started with his explanation. "I’m supposed to be doing a pure theory approach to exotic states of matter, actually, but as you probably would guess, that also involves a description of the standard states, too. You guys and your data have really been a big help—don’t squeal on me, now, I’m not supposed to say things like that!—but I’ve hit a point where I’m starting to have some angst about what I’ve produced. So, here it is. Look at it for me, and let me know if anything jumps out and grabs you as being out in warp space, will you?"

From the back of the room, an unfamiliar voice chimed in. "I say, old boy, one thing does rather catch my attention. Quite odd, altogether. May I highlight it?"

Lemoyne nodded. "Please feel free. Don’t recognize you—what’s your name and field?"

"Oh, of course, I haven’t introduced myself. Most improper, do please accept my apology. I’m Brody Anthony, working on my Ph.D. over in Physics, focused on applied nuclear physics. This is my first visit to your illustrious group, after all, so you’ve hardly had a chance to get to know me." A section of the screen was highlighted. "This section here is phenomenally interesting. Do you realize the significance of your work, here?"

"I think I do; it’s the part that’s been giving me heartburn for days. I’d be interested in your take on it."

"Most kind of you." Brody Anthony’s light English accent hardly impaired understanding him. "Might I use the lower portion of your screen for a moment? I should like to do a few computations while I’m talking, and display the results."

"Help yourself, man." Lemoyne sounded hopeful. "I need all the help I can get on this section. It seems to predict utter nonsense."

"Oh, nothing of the sort, nothing of the sort, my good man." Brody looked up at the screen. "All that it predicts is the possibility that a nucleus could form, under the proper circumstances, and do so in two or more independent subsections. Not nonsense, sir, not at all; merely a thought that no one had ever contemplated. Most major discoveries do look like arrant nonsense on the first flush, at least to the casual, thoughtless observer." A set of spectral lines appeared on the bottom of the screen. "Ah, excellent. I say, would there be a materials engineering individual among our troupe tonight?"

"There sure would." Paula Watanabe’s voice came in from one side of the room. "And I happen to be working on the spectrum you’ve displayed, trying to figure out why dilithium produces a perverse broadening like you’ve got there. It’s weird stuff, dilithium; masses like carbon sixteen, has the proton and neutron count of carbon sixteen, but absorbs free baryons like two atoms of lithium eight and despite lithium eight having a half life of eight hundred something milliseconds and carbon sixteen having a half life of just under three quarters of a second, the stuff is stable as the rock of Gibraltar. What’re you doing with its spectrum, Brody?"

"I wasn’t completely sure that I had its spectrum, good lady." A hint of excitement entered the physics graduate student’s voice. "You wouldn’t happen to have the actual spectrum of dilithium about you, would you, Madam? So we could compare the two, I mean."

"You bet your eyes I do. Just a sec." The woman quickly displayed it below the theoretical spectrum on the screen. "There you go."

"Hot plasma on a barbecue grill!" Everyone turned to Charlie Ngorongo. "If that’s not within 1% or less, I’ll eat my shirt. Can you do the same with trititanium? I’d say use the titanium 51 isotope; it’s even shorter lived than lithium eight."

"Most happy to oblige, kind sir. Titanium’s a little larger, and Dysprosium 153 is large, too, and it’s got a bit longer half life, a tad short of six and a half hours." Anthony tapped rapidly on his compuclipboard. "Well, it will take a few minutes, don’t you know; three subnuclei, large mass and all that, it’s just going to take a little longer. I’m willing to wager that you might have the spectrum of trititanium on tap, eh, what?"

"Sure do, Brody, and despite the short half life of what it ought to look like, and what it’s presumed three components have, trititanium is rock stable, too. I’ll toss it on the screen." Charlie was almost drooling with excitement. The spectrum, widened lines and all, hit the screen. "See how you match that!"

Somewhat more slowly than the dilithium spectrum appeared, a spectrum appeared below it, very closely matching it, but not perfectly so. "It’s not nearly the match we had for dilithium." The nuclear physics major was clearly somewhat crestfallen.

"Glad to hear it. Try throwing in a bit of it with three titanium 55 nuclei, maybe, um, about twenty-two percent or so." Ngorongo was starting to smile, his bright white teeth forming a sharp contrast to his deep brown face. "That’s not going to be perfect, either, because I think there may be some trititanium at mass 168, too, but it should improve things a bit."

"I shall just put in a tad with three titanium 56 nuclei, just for the sake of completeness." There was more tapping. "I shall have to make the proportions adjustable, I think; I shall strive for the best fit I can get." Below the measured spectrum, the computed spectrum shifted, to be followed by several updated computed spectra, each being a little closer to the measured than the last one. Finally, apparently satisfied, Brody Anthony looked up. "Seventy-nine percent of the trititanium 153; nineteen of the 165 and two of the 168, I should say. Are you satisfied?"

"I’m totally ecstatic, and no mistake about it." Ngorongo’s grin widened to the point where it threatened to engulf his ears. "If you were looking for experimental confirmation of your theoretical structure, Jimmy boy, you just got it. It just doesn’t get any better than this!"

"Oh, yes it does." The voice was Briggs’. "Anthony, Lemoyne, Watanabe, Ngorongo, the four of you need to take this to your assorted faculty advisors, and propose that you jointly produce a paper with the preliminary findings, with the lot of you as authors, and the rest of us as collaborators. You all make dead sure you leave your calling cards, you hear?" There were nods all through the room. "Then, once you guys get the approval, we ask for a lump of iridium lithiumide to confirm some of our predictions, say fifty grams. Are we all on the same page?"

"We sing off the same sheet of music, Briggs!" It was Pulaski’s voice. "Then we cast what we need to test my little finding, and we’re all on Warp Street to a great future."

"I’m not singing with anybody! With my voice, they’d shoot first and ask questions later." Briggs chuckled. "They might not even ask questions, for that matter; they wouldn’t need to, anyway."

Lemoyne nodded. "Rusty, when you get your iridium lithiumide reaction chamber, I want to be working hand in glove with you and your team. There are a couple of things I’d like to check, and if what you’ve produced is any indication of what’s possible, I may be able to fine tune some of my theoretical work very nicely."

"Yeah, and maybe I can use your tuning to help with a point or two in the field generation stuff I’ve been working on." Dean Briggs turned to the team. "Any of you folks have something else to bring up?"

"I say, I’ve one little thing I’d like to offer you kind souls." It was Brody Anthony’s voice. "I mean, it’s all well and good to have a theory that recognizes what everyone already knows, but it’s quite another to predict what no one has found, and have it be discovered. With that in mind, does anyone recognize this spectrum?" As Anthony spoke, a new spectral display showed up.

"Looks a little like a candy cane I once ate." Pulaski tried to look serious.

"Typical, Rusty; you’re always thinking of food." Briggs chuckled. "I, for one, have never seen anything with absorption bands that bizarrely wide. Anyone else?"

The chorus of variations on "no" was almost deafening.

"Excellent, most definitely thoroughly excellent. Would you all kindly see if any of you can find a record of such an absorption band? If you can’t, perhaps using chemical extraction on a trititanium lode rather than the usual thermal extraction methods might yield a sample that would leave us with a bit of this material." The physics graduate student was clearly pleased.

"I can handle that." Bogdan Tsarski waved. "I’m a chemistry major, and I’m working on the chemistry of trititanium, anyway."

"Good. Brody, you’ve certainly earned the right to be the last problem of the evening. Have you something that you want to set before us?"

"As it happens, kind sir, I have; it is the whole point to my having visited your coterie, here. It is a project focused on warp physics. Not exactly what an applied nuclear physics major would be expected to do, under the circumstances, but one takes what one is given, and the department was desperate to get someone to take the problem, so I got volunteered."

"That’s fine. Throw your stuff on the screen." At a tap on a compuclipboard, Pulaski cleared the display.

"Oh, my, I’ve nothing to throw on your display, nothing at all." The physics major almost seemed apologetic. "Actually, I was rather hoping that you might offer me a suggestion or two as to how to collect data to process. If I might describe the problem I’m working on?"

"Fire away." Pulaski planted himself in a nearby chair.

"I’m sure you’re all aware that as a starship moves through warp space, it follows a pseudo-trajectory of small, but finite dimension, are you not?"

Watanabe nodded her head, answering Anthony for the others. "Yeah—it’s approximated as a simple parabola, because that’s acceptably close and computationally tractable, but the approximation isn’t as nice as we’d like."

"Quite so, my good lady, quite so. My task, as it has been assigned me, is to attempt to improve that approximation, if not develop a precise structure." The physics graduate student shook his head. "I find myself quite at a loss to know where to begin. Would any of you fine folks have an idea?"

Silence reigned as all in the room thought about it. It was Lemoyne that broke the silence. "Tinker, let me bounce something off you. Is there a way you can roughly measure the distance traveled in warp space?"

"That would be a definite maybe. The best thing to do would be to take a bubble of real space that contained a batch of some particles with a half life near to the estimated transit time and run it through into the warp field. Set up a detector where you anticipate the stuff arriving, then measure the proportion of the particle to its daughter particles; that gives you an estimation of the transit time. If you can guess the speed they’d be going, you can estimate the path length and you already know the chord across the curve. Get that across enough different settings, and I’ll bet you can guesstimate the shape of the curve."

"A most delightful thought, kind sir. I shall act on it." Even as he spoke, Anthony was making rapid notes on his compuclipboard. "I shall bring the data back to a future meeting, if I may."

"Wonderful. Then it’s time to celebrate, folks!" Briggs hoisted his glass of water. "To our first, and I hope not our last, innovation!"

Monday, August 3, 2167

Talking a faculty advisor into allocating the iridium lithiumide for the proposed reaction chamber turned out to be considerably easier than getting a supply of antimatter. In the end, it was Anthony that sweet-talked both out of the Physics department at the Institute—as stellar a physicist as he was, clearly he was even more remarkable as a salesman—and the Physics department was even convinced to insist that they shape the iridium lithiumide reaction chamber. Pulaski, with Briggs as his right hand assistant, had rapidly assembled the mechanics and electronics needed to run the preliminary test. Getting the apparatus ready to roll had consumed the talents and free time of essentially the entire Gaussian Gang for the whole month it had taken to complete the task. As the team assembled around the carefully shielded, shoe-box sized chamber that held the small iridium lithiumide reaction flask and its assorted sensors and shields, each at a bay of controls or readouts, the excitement and tension began to rise. Sharp at nine, as scheduled, the supply of neutrons and anti-neutrons in their field containment flasks arrived. With slow and cautious hand, Briggs linked them into the field guides. He straightened up. "We’re ready to roll when you are, Rusty."

Pulaski nodded. He looked around the room. "Paula, are your controls on the matter/antimatter supply lines reading correctly?"

"Couldn’t ask for better, Rusty."

"Jim, are you ready for analysis of the readouts?"

Lemoyne nodded. "My compuclipboard and I are ready and raring to go. Feed me data!"

Pulaski turned to Briggs. "How about you, Dean? Ready to generate the fields at whatever level needed?"

"You bet I am. I just wish this jury-rigged field generator was easier to control."

"Into every life, Tinker, a little rain must fall. This is your thunderstorm. Get an umbrella and be ready to roll." Pulaski’s grin gave the lie to his almost harsh sounding response. Briggs responded with a raspberry, which Pulaski ignored.

"You ready to drain out the iridium lithiumide crystal and measure the energy delivered, Charlie?"

Ngorongo nodded and grunted, obviously absorbed in his display. The team leader just rolled his eyes.

"Brody, how about you?"

"I am more than ready to keep track of the gamma generated, Rusty." The physicist nodded. "Quite ready for this noble effort."

Pulaski looked around the room one last time, trying to reassure himself that all was as he wanted it to be. Satisfied, he nodded to himself. "Paula, let’s interact about a thousand neutron/anti-neutron pairs."

"A thousand pairs coming; fifteen seconds on my mark…. Mark!"

Short though the delay was, it seemed to stretch endlessly. Finally, Anthony announced he had a gamma burst. Data flowed onto the display. Pulaski turned to Lemoyne. "How’s she look?"

"On the mark for the correct gamma output." Lemoyne looked up. "I’m itching to try this with the iridium lithiumide reaction chamber with the field charge we need to get nothing but Basis Field energy."

"Relax, Jim, relax. Let’s take this a step at a time. Dean, how about giving us twenty percent intensity on the field Lemoyne said would work?"

Briggs fiddled with a handful of controls, mumbling under his breath as if they could hear him speak and do as he bid them. Finally, he looked up. "Should be twenty percent intensity, ready to go. I hope."

"Paula, let’s run another thousand pairs."

"Okay." Watanabe tapped a control. "Fifteen seconds, on my mark. Mark!"


"Much less gamma, Rusty. Absolutely capital." Anthony looked up. "I think we can say things are going along as we’d hoped, old man."

"Thanks for the ‘old.’ Charlie, if you’d quit staring at Paula’s legs under the table, maybe you could dump the Basis Field energy as visible light?"

"Aw, I can’t help it if she’s cute." Ngorongo worked his control area. "Okay, there you are. That’s got it."

"Lemoyne?" Pulaski turned to the mathematician.

"A couple percent stronger than I’d have expected." The mathematics graduate student looked over at his childhood friend. "Any chance that field could be running a little hotter than the display indicates, Tinker?"

"Any chance there’s a vacuum in space?" Briggs snorted. "This may be the best field generation setup possible with current technology, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s in deep, dire need of improvement—which I’m expecting this experiment will let me manage."

"Okay, okay, Briggs, but that can wait for tomorrow. Run me up to fifty percent maximum field strength. Paula, when he gives me the nod that he’s there, let’s run a couple thousand pairs through."

"On your signal, Dean." Watanabe waited patiently as Briggs fiddled and fussed. He looked up, nodding. She smiled. "Two thousand pairs in fifteen seconds on my mark. Mark!"

Readings flowed onto the screen. Pulaski looked at Lemoyne, without saying anything.

"Given Dean’s griping about the imprecision of his control over the fields in question, we’re as close as I could ask for. I say let’s go for broke and give it full force. Game, Rusty?"

Ngorongo sniffed. "He’s closer to gamey, if you ask me, but I’m with you, Jim. Go for broke, Rusty!"

A chorus of agreement rose from around the table. Pulaski nodded. "Take her to full power, then, Briggs. And Paula, pump in five thousand pairs when Dean gives you the high sign. If we’re going to go for broke, let’s really go for broke."

Around the apparatus, the team waited as Briggs tuned the field to his satisfaction. On his signal, Paula Watanabe sent a burst of neutrons and anti-neutrons to meet and annihilate. Anthony stared at his display. "Absolutely no gamma energy detected, Rusty, none at all. Less than one thousandth of a percent of the energy of annihilation is being turned into electromagnetic radiation. The most we’re getting is a few extra tau neutrinos. Mister Pulaski, I think you have results suitable for your thesis. Congratulations!"

"Thanks, Brody. Charlie, let’s dump that charge and see if it fits expectation."

"Already on it, Rusty. Jim?"

"On the button. Rusty, you’ve got a winner here. Just the reduction in shielding necessary for the reaction to happen is going to be a major improvement in starship design, to say nothing of the reduction in heat generation. The engineers in starship engineering are going to go berserk." Lemoyne looked over at Watanabe. "Paula, any antimatter left?"

"Plenty, Jim. Why?"

"Rusty, are you satisfied with your data?"

"Sure am, Jim. This will get me where I want to be, and then some."

"Would you mind if I have Dean set up another field in the reaction chamber and test a few other thoughts I need some input on?"

Pulaski shook his head. "Not in the least. I owe you at least that. Team, are you in with us?" There was general agreement. "Okay, Lemoyne. You have control."

"Thank you. It will only take a little longer." There was short delay as Lemoyne tapped on his compuclipboard. "Dean, if you could set this up?"

Briggs’ eyebrows rose. "Whoa, Thinker, you don’t want much, do you? I’ll try."

"If he can do it, Paula, would you run in a slow stream of neutrons and anti-neutrons? I’ll give you a rate in a moment."

"Anything within reason. I don’t have a ton of antimatter left, you know."

"Okay, Jim, I think I’ve got it."

"Thanks, Dean. We won’t need much, Paula. Here’s the rate. Let her rip!" Lemoyne smiled. Watanabe tapped a few controls and nodded. An instant later, the image of a brightly glowing light bulb formed above the reaction chamber.

Wednesday, May 11, 2168

As expected, Rusty Pulaski’s approach to the matter-antimatter reaction chamber produced a major stir in several departments at the Institute, and, quite unexpectedly, triggered the formation of numerous other interdisciplinary grad student groups similar in concept to the Gaussian Gang, an event that at least the faculty hailed as being almost as great an improvement as Pulaski’s reaction chamber. Before long, however, things dropped back to as close to normal for the Gaussian Gang as circumstances permitted. The gatherings continued, of course, and remained well attended; mostly, the focus returned to trying to maintain a degree of mutual assistance on solving issues with graduate student projects. There was another brief flurry of excitement after Bogden Tsarski isolated the tritium-6 Anthony had predicted would exist in trititanium ore, but it lasted only a comparatively short time.

Pete Taggerty made his way into the modest apartment that he and Rusty Pulaski called home. To his surprise, the BellComm showed that there was a message waiting for him; normally, those only started flowing in on Wednesday and Thursday, to see if they were planning to have a get together at their apartment. Gatherings tended to be there; the pair had managed to snag a three bedroom apartment with an unusually large living room area, and no one else had nearly as much room to party as they did. Being off campus, because of a temporary shortage of rooms, they could enjoy themselves with a little less worry about the campus’ enforcers descending on them. He thumbed the contact.

"Pete, Jim Lemoyne here. I’ve got a rather odd request, so if you’d call me back? You already know my BellComm."

Curiosity overcoming the insistence of his empty stomach, Taggerty tapped out Lemoyne’s BellComm address, waiting patiently for it to connect.

"Lemoyne here. What’s up?"

"Hey, Jim, it’s Pete. You left a message hinting that you needed something."

"Well, yeah. When we first met, you said Dean and I were invited to your next bash, and we had to take a rain check. I was wondering if you had a gathering planned at your apartment, and if you did, if you’d mind if we came."

"After you and Tinker rocketed me to finishing my research in record time, Jimmy boy, you have a standing invitation to any shindig I throw, forever. Planning a gathering Friday; just bring something to share with the crowd in terms of food and beverage—enough for four or five folks, if you can manage it. Festivities start at around nineteen hundred hours. I’ll look forward to seeing you."

"Um, just one thing. Mind if we bring our compuclipboards and a gadget to screw into your light socket? You’ll be able to put your bulb into it. And we’ll take it back with us, too. Nothing permanent."

To have Lemoyne and Briggs want to come to a party was weird enough—the two were so wrapped up in their work that they were essentially socially non-existent. To have them want to screw some sort of gadget into his light socket was outrageously bizarre. "I can’t imagine either of you guys without your compuclips, so I’m not going to carp at that, but screwing something into my light socket? I gotta know what you two loonies are up to."

"You aren’t going to believe this, but it’s for my research project. I want to get some data on how particles interact—small numbers of particles, with unknown, varying interactions. I figure it this way—people moving around in a party are an excellent macroscopic model for that. The gizmo going into your light socket is a device the Tinker pasted together to help monitor how people are moving. It’s small enough that the resolution won’t allow us to identify individuals, just track ‘em and tell if they’re male or female." Lemoyne chuckled. "And let’s not kid ourselves, people interacting at parties and why they do what they do is totally unknown to me, right? The total, complete mystery, in fact."

"Okay, I have to hand that to you. Y’know, you’re the only people I’ve ever met that could turn a social gathering into a research project. Or who, for that matter, would want to. Friday, seven in the evening, Jim, here at our place." Taggerty disconnected the BellComm. Somehow, he had a funny feeling about it all; he just wasn’t sure why.

Friday, May 13, 2168

It was only a little after eighteen hundred hours on Friday when Lemoyne and Briggs arrived at the apartment, each carrying a significant sized bag. Rusty Pulaski opened the door, welcoming them in but eyeing the bags.

"I hope that those bags aren’t what you’re planning to stash in the lighting fixture, gentlemen, because if it is, you’re totally out of luck; it isn’t that big."

"Don’t worry, Rusty." Briggs reached into his bag, pulling out a large baking pan. "Most of this is chocolate cheesecake; a lot of the rest is forks and plates and stuff like that."

Pulaski sniffed, suspiciously at first then eagerly. "Man, that stuff smells magnificent. Where on Earth did you get it?"

Even as Pulaski was enthusing over the cheesecake, Lemoyne had pulled up a chair under the light and was removing the light emitter from its socket. "Do we tell him, Tinker?"

"I guess." Briggs shrugged. "You gotta promise not to laugh, Rusty."

"Word of honor."

"Baked them ourselves." Pulaski made choking noises as Lemoyne went on. "Oh, now it’s not as bad as all that. Doc Reardon over at Saint Martin’s in the Culinary Sciences department got a bee in his bonnet about trying to figure a way to get a single oven to emulate numerous kinds of ovens—ranging from a medieval baker’s oven to an open air fire with a Dutch oven sitting in it or hanging over it, to a gas or electric oven to a—oh, you get the picture. Just our luck, Reardon connected with Doctor Stratton over in Engineering. Guess who got tapped to do the design. Well, what with one thing and another, it sort of became necessary for the two of us to learn a little about baking to test out the oven designs, you see, and the programming—sort of see if what we did really worked as expected. Closest thing we had to a test bench for the thing, if that makes any sense to you."

"That, and old man Reardon figured that if a math geek and a gear head could mix up the ingredients and get the recipe to work, any idiot could do it." Briggs looked over at Lemoyne. "Of course, Reardon didn’t realize that most cooking is math and engineering anyway—proportions that scale in a not always linear fashion, and combining parts to make a coordinated whole. Baking a cheesecake is a whole lot easier than baking a ceramic, believe me."

"Gee—you weren’t saying that when we were trying to get that oven to emulate the pit cooking method used in Hawaii to cook hogs for a luau." Lemoyne got off the chair. "I seem to remember some comments about tuning an impulse drive blindfolded being an easier task."

"Go ahead, Thinker; rub it in. You had a few less than generous comments about it yourself." Briggs winked and turned back to Pulaski. "Anyway, we built three of the programmable ovens, and kept one to ourselves. Reardon, he has this whole bunch of things he wants to try out and see if folks will eat, and we let him talk us into helping him out on that." He looked at the ceiling as if to feign innocence. "He supplies the ingredients, the pans and all that stuff, gives us the recipe, and we make it using the fancy programmable oven. What with his being an adjunct prof at the Institute, and being faculty over at one of the civilian private universities, he’s got a lot more freedom of motion—to say nothing of fancy funding—than the professors at the Institute do, but he still can tap the folk here. Sweet deal, for all involved. Stratton gets kudos for what we do, Reardon gets some fancy engineering with prototypes, and Jim and I get to whip up the recipes."

"What Tinker is trying to say is that we’ve conned him into providing a modest amount of free eats." LeMoyne started putting the cheesecakes out on the table, setting plates and utensils out. "Hey, I didn’t bring a spatula; you guys got one?"

Taggerty was coming out of the kitchen area. "I’m bringing one, but I feel like an executioner, bringing a tool to serve food prepared by a couple of geeks."

"Hey, Pete, maybe we ought to, you know, be guinea pigs and test it out, make sure it’s edible. Think?" Pulaski was obviously not worried about the issue, using it as an excuse more than anything else.

"Oh, go ahead, tuck in." Briggs rolled his eyes. "It’s not as if we hadn’t done a little quality control on our end, anyway. What kind of knuckleheads do you take us for?"

"Tell you what, Tinker, maybe we should join them—you know, make sure the batch is up to par."

"Any excuse, eh?"

Pulaski and Taggerty were already serving themselves; Briggs and Lemoyne joined them. Taggerty looked up. "This stuff is wonderful, guys. If you can keep bringing grub like this, you have a standing invitation to any get together we have."

"Good." Briggs looked up from his rapidly emptying plate. "Reardon wants us to test the stuff out, sort of measure its popularity against the comparative known popularity of the other snacks folks bring. He has some sort of formula to figure out its real appeal based on how much faster this stuff goes than, say, the potato chips or the corn chips and salsa. He’s hoping we’ll get to a good number of these things to test out lots of his little concoctions." He shoved another forkful of cheesecake into his mouth, mumbling around it. "I figure it this way; we get data on a couple handfuls of these, maybe we can con him into throwing something a bit bigger bash, catering it at the Institute’s expense. Might even be able to talk him into doing more than just a fancy dessert or two, know what I mean?"

"Got you." Pulaski shook his head. "I should have figured that the pair of you would be the guys that could turn a party into a couple of research projects."

Taggerty shrugged. "That’s the only way you could get this pair to a party anyway—turn it into some sort of mathematical or engineering challenge."

"Or both." Briggs gestured with his temporarily empty fork. "That’s what we’ve done here. Look, Thinker and I have to double check the connection between our compuclipboards and the gadget in the light. I don’t mean to be more antisocial than I usually am, but business is business, eh?"

"Understood." Pulaski looked over at his apartment mate. "I get this strong feeling that this pair would be totally appreciative if we kept track of what went where, too. I mean, to keep Reardon happy. The happier we keep him, the more likely our next get together is going to show some totally glorious grub. Like this." The last forkful of his chunk of cheesecake disappeared, emphasizing his comment. "What’re you guys going to do, just sit around and soak up the ambience?"

"That, and munch on some grub and maybe swill some coffee or something." LeMoyne looked over at his friend. "We do need to do a little eyeball observation to correlate with the data in the compuclips, after all. We’ll make it look like we’re up to something boring, so no one notices us much. We’ve got a cover all worked out, and may even pester a couple of the engineering or math students for a hand. Don’t worry—we’re trying hard not to pollute the data by just sitting around trying to be ornamental."

"You two, ornamental? Rusty, I think that man has totally lost it." Taggerty winked. "Only ornamental at a monster’s meeting, that’s how I figure it."

Briggs and Lemoyne ignored them both, focusing on the task before them. Before long, folks began arriving, and the gathering was in full swing. The astonishment of Lemoyne and Briggs being present only lasted a short period of time, disappearing in the wave of socialization that inevitably dominates such events. It was closing in on curfew when the last of the visitors left. Briggs nodded. "Some good data, here Thinker."

"No kidding. It’ll take some time to process it all, even with my over-eager compuclip." He stood, stretching his legs a little. "That cheesecake sure didn’t last long, did it?"

"I can’t believe how fast it went." Taggerty was clearing the remaining food, of which there was but little, off the table. "That cheesecake ran out before anything else."

"Wonder if that has anything to do with the fact you had three pretty good sized pieces, Pete?" Pulaski shook his head in mock distress. "You’re either going to have to put in a ton of extra hours in the gym, or buy bigger clothes."

"Either that, or he’s going to have to skip breakfast for a month, Rusty." Lemoyne chuckled. "Tell you what, let us get that widget out of the light fixture and head home. What do you want us to try to talk Reardon into testing out next week? He’s hot to try some sort of main dish, really. Think that would be okay? I mean, if we rig up some sort of chafing dish to keep it at serving temperature?"

"Just be sure you bring enough, Thinker. Half the folk missed the cheesecake, you know. Biases the sample badly, right?" Pulaski grinned. "Reardon wouldn’t want that, now would he?"

"We get the picture, already, Rusty, we get the picture." Briggs got off the chair, his monitoring device in one hand. "When’s the next soiree?"

"Two weeks, gentlemen." Taggerty yawned. "I suppose that you’ll be early, like you were this time?"

"I figure we will, yes." Briggs threw his coat on, tossing Lemoyne’s coat to him. "Let’s head out, Thinker. This is ‘way past my bedtime, and pushing the daylights out of curfew. Time to hustle."

Friday, July 22, 2168

The next gathering, Briggs and Lemoyne brought a meatball concoction that only went over moderately well; with the subsequent one, it was what looked like a dish full of candy bars made out of compressed jellies covered in chocolate, which disappeared with amazing speed. With every gathering, Briggs and Lemoyne gathered data on movement of the people at the party, and on how well Reardon’s latest test dish went in comparison to other offerings brought. Slowly, the two men were gathering data to use as a springboard for Lemoyne’s theoretical work, looking for whatever predictable patterns that might emerge. Lemoyne finally looked up from the data. "Tinker, I need to double check a point with you on that sensor gimmick of yours."

"Fire away, Jim."

"Any chance that it might create reflected images in itself? You know, sort of making it think you and I were on both sides of the room at once?"

"No way, Thinker. It’s just not happening. It might lose track of objects that didn’t move much, but not a chance that it’d create false images. What’s up?"

"Maybe a glitch you didn’t anticipate, Tinker. Look at this." The mathematician threw a set of displays, one after another, on the compuclipboard display. "I rigged it to find anything that was almost motionless for the entire evening. Every time, almost exactly across from where we sit pretending to play clip games, there are two individuals as motionless and minimally interactive as we are. I was thinking it was just a glitch."

"Buddy, you need to get out more, that’s all I can say." Briggs rolled his eyes in agony. "Since you obviously failed to notice the fact, those wallflowers are females. Girls. You know, feminine woman type persons of the opposite sex and the skirt and dress wearing persuasion."

"Oh." Lemoyne was clearly nonplussed by the oversight. "Okay, so I’m blind, dense and dumb as a brick. Either way, I was trying to tune you and I out, and things like furniture. They’re data, and I don’t want to tune them out. What do you think?"

"I tinker, man, I tinker; you’re the thinker, not me."

"Smart aleck." The mathematics graduate student leaned back, sipping coffee briefly. "Okay, this means we have to come to grips with what’s happening here. I mean, what on Earth would move a couple of ladies to keep coming to parties if they’re pretty nearly totally ignored the whole time?"

"Hello, tune in to reality, man. In case you had missed this point—and I thought it was patently obvious—I happen to be a male." He slapped his forehead. "It’s not like I understand women, for pity’s sake. I’m much better with warp drives and such. Trust me on this, will you?"

"Good point; I asked a dumb question. What say one of us asks them what they’re up to? Rusty and Pete are throwing another shindig tonight, so maybe we can ask. Sound good, Tinker?"

"Only if neither Pete nor Rusty have any insights." Briggs consulted his watch. "Look, we’d better get our act together here. We need to whip up Reardon’s latest recipe, and it’s going to have to spend a while in the oven."

"What is it this time? Another main course?"

"Yep. Some sort of rice, chicken and gravy thing, and it takes a while to bake, like I said. We better get to throwing the ingredients together, Tinker."


It was only a few hours later that Lemoyne and Briggs arrived at Pulaski and Taggerty’s place, chafing dish and food in tow. While Briggs set up the chafing dish, Lemoyne installed the monitoring device again. As he climbed off the chair, he turned to the masters of ceremony. "Pete, Rusty, got a question for you. You ever notice a couple of ladies that come to the party, and pretty much keep to themselves?"

Taggerty and Pulaski looked at each other for a moment, eyes rolling. Taggerty answered for both. "Yeah, that’d be the Icicle Twins, I guess. Pair of identical twins, which they emphasize by dressing alike. Don’t know which section of the Institute they’re in, but it isn’t math or science or engineering. They come, usually a while after everyone else is here, then they leave a bit before the rest start to disappear. Neither of them say much, though they bring decent enough stuff with them; they don’t eat much, either, but I guess that’s their way of maintaining their feminine figures or something. Why?"

Briggs placed the chicken mixture in the chafing dish next to the one with the rice in it. "They just turned up in the data; Thinker here was wondering if they were some sort of reflection of us, just sitting and watching. ‘Course, I knew it wasn’t—we don’t wear skirts, man."

"So, what’re they doing here, Pete?"

"Taking up space, and soaking up a non-alcoholic beverage or two, as near as I can make it—though they tucked into the beef and noodles thing you guys did last month."

"That was a stroganoff, if you don’t mind, Taggerty." Lemoyne pretended to be offended. "Beef stroganoff, to be precise, and it is a gourmet treat." He chuckled. "Either of you guys have any idea why they keep coming?"

"Dunno. Maybe it’s to have a chance to rebuff anyone that acts interested, think?" Pulaski did a bad job of pretending to be serious over the remark.

"It sounds like you’re as clueless as we are, Rusty." The mathematics student turned to his friend. "I’ll flip you to see which of us asks ‘em what they’re up to, Tinker."

"Heads I do it; tails you do." Briggs fished a coin out of his pocket, expertly flipping it. He caught it and displayed the results. "Tails, Thinker. Better think fast—you’re going to have to do the talking."

"Right. There isn’t enough time left for me to think fast enough for this one, Tinker." Lemoyne looked like he was going to his execution.

"Oh, relax, will you? Just treat them like a cross between another one of the guys and your mother, and you’ll be fine." Pulaski rolled his eyes. "As long as you don’t call them something stupid, like ‘Mom’ or do anything equally dumb. You’re bright enough; I’m sure you’ll think of something. Not like it matters; they didn’t get nicknamed the Icicle Twins because they were so open to socializing, you know."

"Thanks for the encouragement." Lemoyne sighed deeply. "Is the sensor communicating properly with the compuclips, Dean?"

"Sure is." Briggs grinned happily. "I’ll make sure you know when they’re here and reasonably well settled in. Let’s make ourselves comfortable and wait."

Silently, Lemoyne took his chair, Briggs grabbing one next to him, starting up the compuclip game they used as cover. People began to filter in, and the party started rolling. Perhaps as a compassionate gesture, like a last meal to a condemned man, Briggs made sure that Lemoyne’s glass of punch stayed fairly full. It wasn’t long before Briggs elbowed Lemoyne. "They’re here, Thinker. Go turn on your romantic charm and see what you can learn."

Favoring Briggs with a look that almost could kill, Lemoyne moved across the room, not at all reassured by what he remembered of Pulaski’s advice. Somehow, there just hadn’t been time to get interested in members of the other gender, which left him feeling quite adrift. What made his assignment even more difficult was the clear fact that at least one of the ladies was clearly watching his approach. Rather than take his friend’s advice exactly as given, he decided to model his approach on how he had seen his father interact with his mother. Trying to appear uncowed by the fact that he had been watched closely as he crossed the room, he took his position in front of one of the two Icicle Twins, bowing slightly. "Good evening, ladies. May I offer you a glass of punch, or perhaps something sweet from the table of food?"

The lady, who had watched him cross the room, looked up at him. "I’ll construe your question as an offer. Punch for two would be nice, for three if you’re thirsty, and some of those chocolate chip cookies if there are any left."

Obligingly, Lemoyne brought the punch and cookies. Since there was nowhere to sit near the twins, he placed the cookies and two of the three cups of punch on the small table in front of the ladies. There was no doubt as to why they were called twins; they were almost perfectly identical copies of each other, with rich chestnut hair flowing down to their shoulders, and quick, deep blue eyes that seemed to catch each and every movement in the room. On each of their laps, they had a small compuclipboard on which there were extensive notes. The mathematics student smiled. It was clear, from what he could read, that they were doing very nearly the same thing at the party that he and Briggs were doing. Deciding to feign ignorance, he waited until the first twin put her cup of punch down. "I was wondering what you and what I presume to be your twin sister might be doing here. My friend Dean and I have been watching the ebb and flow of people at several parties lately, and have noticed that you two are almost always here, and almost never interacting with anyone else. The curiosity is, frankly, killing us."

The one twin looked at the other. "Well, we know one of their names, now: Dean."

"Wonder if this one is clever enough to give us his own name. Think so?"

"I’m not taking bets on it at one of Pulaski’s parties. May be clever enough, but probably not willing enough."

"I can take a hint, ladies. The name is Jim Lemoyne, nicknamed the Thinker by my childhood chum and fellow student at the Institute, Dean Briggs." He tilted his head to the side. "Perhaps you would be kind enough to return the favor of the names?"

"I’m Karyl Culp." She extended her hand. "Nice to meet you, Jim." She shook hands with Lemoyne briefly, then let go.

"Karyn Culp, and the younger of the two of us." As had her sister, she shook hands briefly. "By all of half an hour, but believe me I make the most of it."

"Well, Karyl and Karyn Culp, I’m most pleased to know you as something other than the Icicle Twins. I’m still curious about what you’re doing." He made a point of looking at their compuclipboards, this time. "Seems to me you might be gathering data."

"We’ve been busted, sister." Karyn pretended to look aghast at the idea. She looked back up at Lemoyne. "Now, don’t you squeal on us, please. You’ll bias the data something awfully."

"I wouldn’t dream of it. Sounds like you’re more or less up to tricks like what Dean and I are." Lemoyne furrowed his forehead. "If so, perhaps we should discuss the issue later, where there aren’t ears in every direction, know what I mean?"

"I suspect that I do. Where and when?"

"Depends on where’s convenient. Which department of the Institute are you in?"

Karyl began to look rather embarrassed. "Oh, we’re not. We’re getting our degrees from Saint Martin’s College, down the road a bit. Daddy is in the administrative staff at the Institute, and he heard about the parties here, so he arranged that we were made welcome when it was clear that we needed the data it represented. We can explain it all later, okay?"

Lemoyne nodded. "How about meeting tomorrow, then, for breakfast? Stromboli’s should work—it’s about half way between the Institute and Saint Martin’s. Game?"

"No agreement until you define the time." Karyn winked. "We have to be sure we get our beauty sleep, you know."

"Well, maybe it’d better be a late breakfast then; you two look like you get lots of beauty sleep. How about nine thirty?"

"Flatterer." Karyl smiled, which lit her face up magnificently. "Nine thirty should do fine."

"Good enough. I’ll make sure Tinker washes behind his ears, and we’ll both bring our compuclips, so we can make an effort at pooling our data." Lemoyne nodded. "Come hungry. Breakfast is on us, okay?"

"How totally gallant of you." Karyn smiled, too, her face lighting up just as her sister’s had. "I just hope your companion is ready for that. But for now, we both are gathering data, it seems. Back to work for us all."

"It’s been a pleasure ladies." The mathematics graduate student bowed slightly and made his way back to his chair, sitting down without comment.

Driven by curiosity, Briggs finally elbowed his comrade. "Enough with the smug look, already. What did you learn?"

"Their names, and the fact that they’re from Saint Martins, down the road." Lemoyne shrugged. "Not much else, really, other than that they’re collecting data for some project or other that they’re involved with, and it’s data they need to be at a party to gather."

"Fat lot of help that is." The engineering grad student turned back to his compuclip. "You could have at least managed to find out what they needed the data for, and whether or not it was worth melding with what we’re collecting, you know."

"I left that for tomorrow. We meet at Stromboli’s at nine thirty sharp, and I promised that you’d wash behind your ears." Lemoyne donned a mock stern face. "Don’t make a liar out of me, mister."

All the color drained from Briggs’ face. "I don’t believe I heard you. You’ve managed to hitch us up with the Icicle Twins for a breakfast date tomorrow? What am I supposed to do and say?"

Lemoyne chuckled. "It’s a breakfast meeting, and you’re supposed to bring your compuclipboard, swill coffee and maybe munch on some pastries, and talk about the data and our mutual projects. Trust me, this isn’t a case of romance."

"Well, that’s a relief, anyway." Briggs’ face returned to a more normal color. "A bit of mutual data wrangling, I think I can handle. Romance? No."

Saturday, July 23, 2168

Stromboli’s was one of those places that looked unassuming from the outside; it was little more than a store front, with a large window and a door. Behind it, there were tables in the middle of the open area with booths along the sides and back wall, the only exception to that being the small area near the door where patrons paid as they left or stood as they waited to be seated, and the area where the table servers transitioned to and from the kitchen. Food there was excellent, at least if you liked Italian cuisine, and the coffee bordered on legendary, perhaps because the beans were roasted on site and freshly ground before brewing. The ambience wasn’t much to talk about, but no one seemed to mind; most of the individuals meeting at Stromboli’s were either intent on discussing a project or busy gazing into each other’s eyes. By far the commonest was working on a project, which was reflected in the fact that establishment was equipped high speed wireless communication for the use of the patrons.

Briggs and Lemoyne, as was their habit, arrived a little earlier than the planned time, settling into a booth and ordering coffee, looking over their data from the night before, leaving Briggs able to watch for the incoming ladies. Promptly at the assigned moment, they arrived, more easily recognizable by their being essentially identical than by their looking like they had the night before. Their once loose hair was pulled tightly back into pony tails, and their dress had gone from chic to functional, and both of them were carrying compuclipboards. They looked considerably more serious, and ready for in depth analysis. The engineer stood, waving to catch their attention; they slid into the booth, both of them facing the two men.

"Before we get down to serious business, how about some coffee?" Lemoyne caught the table server’s eye as he spoke. "And if you’re interested, some breakfast?"

Both ladies smiled. "Definitely coffee, straight up and strong," Karyl said. "As for breakfast, we’ve not eaten; have you?"

"Not really; just a tide-me-over. Why don’t we all get breakfast ordered and get down to business while it’s coming." The math student accepted menus from the server, passing them out. "It’s on me, today, so eat hearty."

"He’s trying to fatten us up for the kill, older sister." Karyn tried to look worried. "Be careful."

"It’ll take more than one meal to do that, worry wart." Karyl rolled her eyes. "I’ll have Centaurian coffee, strong and black, and an apple danish, thank you." She returned the menu.

"I’ll do the same on the coffee, but I’ll do a blueberry muffin, cream cheese on the side."

Briggs nodded, taking his turn. "Couple of English muffins and a couple sausage links. Centaurian, strong and black for me, too."

"I guess I’ll make that four on the coffee." Lemoyne studied the menu for a moment. "The apple Danish actually sounds good. Is wireless communications up?"

The server nodded, retrieving the last of the menus. "Yeah; they actually never shut down. Boss says it’s too much trouble to turn it off and on, considering how little power it takes. Coffee’ll be up in a couple of minutes." He whisked off to the back.

"Curiosity is eating me up, ladies. What are the projects you’re working on?" Briggs’ interest was clearly real.

"Different ones for each of us." Karyl had taken the lead. "I’m actually in the College of Literature at Saint Martin’s, majoring in romantic literature." Briggs and Stratton looked at each other, feigning panic. "Oh, don’t get in a sweat. It’s not at all as simplistic as you two goons obviously think. Look, have you ever done any reading of fiction, or do you two read nothing but textbooks?"

"We read handbooks and operations manuals, too, you know." Karyl favored the math student with a look that should have maimed him, if not killed him outright. "Just having a little fun, there. Of course we’ve read fiction for pleasure; still do when we have time. I’m into science fiction; ol’ Tinker here is into classic fantasy—Lord of the Rings, that sort of thing. Go on."

Karyl nodded. "I wasn’t sure, what with the rumors I hear about you Institute types—all business, no play."

"Well, not completely no play, old woman. I understand there’s one area they get very playful, in fact altogether too playful for our preferences; we’ve no time for that." Karyn winked. "That’s why they’re so good for your study."

"That’s totally not what I meant, picky woman, and you know it." It was clear that the banter between Karyl and Karyn was sharp but friendly. Karyl nodded. "She’s right, though, but it’ll take some getting back to. If you’ve never noticed this, there’s a lot that fiction leaves out: the really realistic, good stuff leaves a lot of reality out—and does it in a way that you don’t really notice."

"Dead right, it’s not noticeable; I’d never noticed that the stuff got left out." Briggs forehead furrowed. "But now that you mention it, unless it’s a tool used to advance the dialogue, or it’s essential to the plot or character development or something like that, you never see some things. Meals, for instance." He emphasized his point by taking a swig of his coffee. "Or dressing, or going to the john, or little annoyances like a rock in the shoe—every day things that we take for granted, deal with, and get on with life. Is that what you’re talking about?"

"For not being a lit major, you’re remarkably astute. That’s exactly what I’m talking about—the little things we all know about, but that only rarely get mentioned." Karyl tapped the table with a finger, emphasizing the point she was making. "If you threw all that junk in, and threw in all the intermediate days that exist, but don’t have anything to do with the plot line, you’d end up with a monumentally long, totally boring story. No one in their right mind would read it unless they had to."

"As a case in point," Karyn interjected, "Karyl loaned me a book a couple of hundred pages long that just talked about the protagonist getting up and going to the kitchen for breakfast one morning; I think it was called Awakening or something like that. I don’t think the time covered was upwards of an hour out of the man’s life. If it hadn’t been for some flashbacks the fellow had, remembering times that he’d experienced and found very significant, the book would have been totally unreadable."

"The point exactly, sister mine." Karyl picked up the thread again. "What I’m doing is watching the interactions at Rusty and Pete’s parties, trying to get a handle on the stuff the romantic writers don’t include in their stories, and how the events in the stories really compare to how real people function."

"Somehow, I miss the point here. I mean, there’s gotta be more to this than counting meteors as they fall." Briggs scratched his chin, thinking hard. "I can’t quite see it, but I know it’s there. If that makes any sense, that is."

"Perfect sense." Karyl powered up her compuclipboard. "What you haven’t thought through is the fact that for any sentient species with a fictional literature, the same forces are going to apply—certain things are just not going to make it to the story, others will. The things that aren’t going to make it are also exactly the same sorts of things that you’d probably never think to ask another species about, and that they’d never think to mention to you. Now, if I can get a hard handle on the special case of Human literature, and how it relates to reality, and if an Andorian does the same for Andorian literature, and a Tellarite for Tellarite literature…"

Lemoyne started nodding vigorously. "I get it; do it for Humans, Andorians, Vulcans, Tellarites and whomever else that we know pretty well, and you can start to extract invariants, and maybe even extract some species specific things that you can back-correlate to unique aspects of the species involved. Given the relationships developed, you can take the literature of a species we hardly know at all and use it to garner insights into their culture, their unthought habits, the little things that they do without thinking that we could trip over. Brilliant."

Karyl flushed slightly. "Thank you. You’ve caught the point exactly. I’m focusing on romantic literature at the moment, but once I’ve got my masters, I’m hoping to go to the broader context for my Ph.D. May I share my data with you?"

To his surprise, Lemoyne found that he was both pleased and slightly embarrassed by Karyl’s response. "I’d like that; we probably could pool our data, and make life easier for each other. Tinker and I have been making anonymous recordings of how people cluster and un-cluster at the same parties, mostly to give me some raw data to use for a project modeling exotic and standard states of matter from a purely theoretical level; you might find the data useful, and if you identified specific individuals out of the records, maybe it’d help me make sense of things."

"Swapping data. I like that. I’ll beam you mine; you beam me yours, okay? Compuclip to compuclip, so we can avoid the wireless delay."

Feeling that action was easier than words, Lemoyne put his compuclipboard where the data transfer bead was aligned with Karyl’s. Data began transmitting both ways.

Karyn looked over at Briggs. "Since that pair are getting data shot to and fro, you might as well tell me what you’re up to at the parties. Other, I mean, than keeping your buddy out of trouble, helping him collect his data, and bringing some pretty good eats."

"You’re not going to believe this."

"Don’t take bets on it. Remember, I’m the one that has a sister who managed to find a master’s thesis that let her read slushy romance novels by the ton and get credit for it." Karyn rolled her eyes, clearly less impressed by her sister’s thesis than Lemoyne had been. "If I can believe a professor fell for that, I can believe almost anything."

"This may strain you, even at that." Briggs pretended to become conspiratorial. "I’m using the data we collect to measure how well the grub we bring goes over." He paused for a moment, letting that sink in. "Even more bizarre, we’re cooking the stuff up ourselves. Doc Reardon wants to know how his latest recipes stack up, especially when they’re prepared by inept cooks like Jim and me."

"You win. I don’t believe it."

"Honest." Briggs looked, and to his surprise felt, somewhat pained by her lack of belief. "The guy’s trying to develop appetizing but easily prepared recipes for use on starships. Stratton, one of my engineering professors, got him hooked up with us."

"Ah, now it makes sense. So, are you two the pair that cobbled together the programmable oven?"

"That’s us, Karyn. That oven can emulate almost any kind of oven or oven-like cooking arrangement you’ve ever heard of, and we can make it emulate anything you want." Puzzlement was written across Briggs’ face, now. "How’d you hear about that, anyway? We’ve only made three of them; one for ourselves, and two for Reardon."

"Nathaniel Reardon is a sneak." Karyn looked over at her sister. "Did you hear that, Karyl?"

She looked up from the data flowing across her compuclipboard. "I overheard it, sister mine. He’s an old fraud, too. Here you thought he’d cobbled that gadget together himself."

"I guess he never claimed he did. He’s still a bum." The look on Karyn’s face hardly matched the tone of her voice and words. She turned back to Briggs. "Reardon’s got me on essentially the same project, Dean. Karyl and I are watching what folks eat, too, using the preferences they show at the parties to get an idea of what direction to go in developing new recipes. Reardon’s only part time with Eletto Technical Institute; the rest of the time, he’s at the culinary school at Saint Martin’s. He’s got this bee in his bonnet that there has to be a way of using modern technology to automate a lot of the food preparation in institutions and such, and maybe even redesign foods served to be richer in quality nutrition, without sacrificing taste and mouth feel and all. Seems to me like you and I need to do some data trading, too, mister." Karyn pointedly moved her compuclipboard to where Briggs’ compuclipboard could communicate. "Let ‘er rip."

"So you’re majoring in Culinary Engineering, Karyn?"

"Not a chance. I’m in the lit department, too—my area of focus is the poetry of the 20th and 21st century. You should read some of the poetry by Kipling and Stevenson, for instance, and Masefield." She shook her head. "Poe, you can have; I study him because I have to, not because I like him."

Briggs nodded. "You just work with Reardon for fun, then?"

Karyn rolled her eyes. "Try this on for size: I work there for a paycheck. A little income helps to pay for the apartment, you know. Karyl puts in some time in Culinary with Reardon, too."

"Then that’s how you got warped into the observation thing." Briggs smiled, glad that he had made some semblance of sense out of the situation. "Looks like the data’s transferred." He put his compuclipboard down, running his eye over the data.

The foursome quickly became embroiled in discussing their data, using their melded observations to rapidly refine their knowledge on their respective projects. Coffee disappeared quickly, to be replaced by the server. It was Briggs who finally looked at the clock on his compuclipboard. "Ladies, I hate to break up what has turned into a most profitable effort, but has anyone looked at the time? It’s moving toward noon. I don’t know about the rest of you guys, but I have to be at a lab I’m the Teacher’s Assistant for in about half an hour."

Karyl and Karyn looked at their compuclips. "Good heavens, will you look at the time? Where on Earth did the morning go, sister mine?"

Karyn shook her head. "I can’t believe it’s that late, but we’ve been pouring ourselves into the data, so I’m not surprised, and you shouldn’t be either. If you’ve made half the progress I have, you should be well on the way to finishing the data analysis you need for your thesis."

"I am, sister mine, I am." Karyl winked at her twin. "I had no idea mathematics buffs were this useful for data analysis."

"I’ll take that as a compliment." Lemoyne waved at the table server. "And as a hint that it’s time to settle the tab. I just hope they don’t charge by the liter for the coffee; the amount of Centaurian Mountain we’ve absorbed will keep us wired for ages. Tell you what, Pete and Rusty will be having another get together in about two weeks; what say we meet here again, and move the data analysis forward?"

"You’re on." Karyn, for a change, was the one replying for both.

The server arrived at the table. "All done, folks?"

"Yep. We’ve all got to be elsewhere pretty soon." Lemoyne got his debit chip out. "How much do we owe you? I’ve got the tab."

"The boss says it’s on the house." He hooked his thumb behind him. "Says he knows you guys, and at least one of the ladies here, and he figures he owes you an occasional breakfast."

Following the direction the server was pointing, all four looked to see the source of the largesse. To their joint surprise, Doctor Reardon was standing at the cash register, looking thoroughly amused. "I’ll expect a detailed report on what your collaboration is finding, folks."

Briggs shook his head. "You run this place?"

"Yes I do. I own it lock, stock and barrel. Why do you think you built me two of those fancy programmable ovens? One of them is here, cooking fancy stuff I never could have served before." Reardon pretended to whisper behind his hand. "Think it through, man. What people will pay for is another, very precise measure of their relative preferences. Strictly research, of course, strictly research."

"And if we believe that," Lemoyne responded, "I’ll bet you have a solid gold asteroid to sell us." They all chuckled, Reardon included. Briggs and Lemoyne stood. "After you, ladies?"

Friday, August 5, 2168

Friday night found Lemoyne and Briggs at Pulaski and Taggerty’s apartment, preparing to put the monitoring device in under the lighting in the apartment ceiling. To their surprise, the Icicle Twins came through the door. Karyl looked up at Briggs. "Before you put that gizmo in there, we’d both love to take a look at it. If it’s not going to reveal any deep, dark, classified secrets, that is."

"It isn’t." Briggs hopped off the stepstool, handing Karyl the object. It was surprisingly small; the oval housing was only about eight centimeters across at the widest, and barely three in the other direction. All in all, except for where it entered the power supply for the lighting, it was less than a centimeter thick.

Karyl turned it over in her hands a time or two, then passed it to her sister. "I’m amazed that it can track people as well as it can, sister mine. We’re not talking a wide base for doing any parallax, after all."

"And it’s too small to contain the computational power to do what it has to, too, or that’s the appearance." Karyn handed it back to Briggs. "I’m impressed."

"Don’t be." It was Lemoyne. "It’s just the sensor; it beams the information to our compuclipboards, and the compuclips do the real data crunching. Dean had to tinker with them a little, augmenting their memories and computational power to get the job done fast enough to keep from losing any data."

"Oh, I’m still impressed anyway. You guys conceal your activities amazingly well." Karyn turned to her sister. "Better than we do, anyway. I think you’re right, though, Karyl. Getting here early will provide useful data, like who goes for what first. Or for whom." She looked back at all four of the men. "Do you think that our being here earlier than usual is going to significantly distort the behavior of the people that come?"

"Nah." Pulaski shook his head vigorously as he answered. "Anymore they hardly notice any of you four, actually. They’ve gotten so used to you that you hardly exist as far as they’re concerned."

Karyl Culp nodded. "Good. That means we don’t have to go run and hide for an hour or two before returning."

"Still on for tomorrow morning?" Briggs was clearly hoping things were still as planned two weeks prior.

"Of course. It’s not like our little compuclips have the power to handle analysis of the data from that gizmo you should be putting in place, Mister Briggs." Karyn looked almost puzzled that he should have doubted the stability of the plans, but her voice carried more of a hint of facetiousness than anything else. "We’ll be more than happy to wait for the digested version in the morning. Keeping up with the arrivals and departures and the interactions with the food and with each other will be all we can manage, thank you."

Taking the somewhat less than subtle hint, Briggs installed the sensor and put the light back in place, concealing it. He climbed down. "Either of you want something to drink?"

"Why don’t we all meet at the table, and see what’s available first?" Karyl took her own advice, heading in that direction. "If you’ve a mind to serve beverages or something, we’ll be more than happy to let you."

With only the six of them there, the spread was comparatively bare, but Lemoyne and Briggs managed to supply the Culp twins with beverages, and let them take care of the rest themselves. With a respectful nod, the two men retired to their usual haunt, compuclipboards in hand, letting the Icicle Twins make themselves comfortable across the room. As had been the case for the last several gatherings, people quickly began to arrive, leaving their contribution to the food and beverages on the table, finding others with whom to mingle and flirt. Briggs leaned over to Lemoyne, speaking softly. "I have to admit, those two are one sharp pair of people."

"Go figure. Identical twins, as far as I can see, so if one’s bright, you’d expect both to be. Karyl seems to follow some of what I’m doing on my project, and her project seems reasonably sensible to me, too. Your move, Tinker."

Briggs studied the layout of the board on his display, deciding on his own move. "Take that, Thinker." He looked up. "How goes your project, anyway? Now that I think of it, I’ve been so wrapped up in collecting and processing the data with you and for Reardon that I’d half way forgotten that you’re trying to get a feel for small group interactions for your great and grand unifying theory."

"It’s going fairly well, Tinker." Lemoyne looked at his display, not at all pleased with what the move had done. "You are one totally sly dog. I should have seen that one coming, and I sure didn’t." The seconds on the move timer started dwindling. "Ah, gotcha. Bet you didn’t think of this one!" The mathematics major keyed his response. "Anyway, I’m figuring two, maybe three more times observing here at Rusty and Pete’s and it’ll be time to go to something bigger. I’m just about there on this level."

"Drat—I didn’t think you’d see that. Oh, well, time for some damage control." Making his move, the engineer looked up. "How big do you think the next level will need to be? We’ve usually got twenty or so here."

"A couple at fifty, if the functions hold up, then one with a hundred or so." The countermove took less time to make than the response. "You’re on the run, Tinker. Ready to surrender?"

"Not a chance. Eat this, Jimmy boy!"

One of Lemoyne’s eyebrows raised for an instant, then dropped back. "Not even a good mouthful, Tinker." He chuckled. "I hope you think it’s a good day to die, Tinker, because you just did."

Briggs eyes bugged. "That’s one I didn’t see coming, and no mistake about it. Want to do it again, or do something else?"

"Something else; I can’t count on your being distracted enough the next time. I’ll clutch my victory and run." He turned to his friend. "D’you think we can talk Reardon into fronting up the cost for a handful of larger gatherings?"

"Don’t know, frankly, but we’ve probably got some cash coming in over that gimcrack we built to tune the test bench stuff; if he’s not into funding it, we could tap that." The engineer shrugged. "There’s got to be a way. The tricky bit will be getting a hall large enough, and building enough sensors to monitor what’s going on with sufficient precision, don’t you think?"

It was the math student’s turn to shrug. "I’m not sure; I think we could probably swing a hall easily enough, if we did it on a Friday evening, frankly; if Reardon doesn’t fund it, we could do it like we do here at Rusty & Pete’s—bring food or beverage when you come. The more I think about it, the fifty and hundred person gatherings wouldn’t be all that much tougher than the smaller ones here. It’d probably scale sub-linearly, if you see what I mean."

"I see where you’re going." Briggs tapped on his compuclip. "How about plain old two dimensional chess, Thinker? Up for a game of that?"

"It’ll fill the time, anyway." Lemoyne made his first move. "Either way, we need to do a little advance thought on this before we spring it on Reardon, anyway."

Briggs made his response, playing his usual center control game. "Want to broach it tomorrow, or wait until later?"

"Later, Tinker." He made an unorthodox reply, hoping to disrupt Briggs’ usually sharp game. "I think I need to put some thought on it first. A week or two would be nice."

Saying nothing, the engineering student made his response, pulling his childhood chum into the game. Quickly, the two became absorbed in their game, conversation forgotten. As the party drew to a close, Briggs and Lemoyne were surprised to see that the Icicle Twins were still there, too; the foursome left together, planning to meet again in the morning for data analysis.

Saturday, October 28, 2168

It was around two months later when the pattern changed. Karyl and Karen had just joined the men for their post-party debriefing when Reardon appeared out of nowhere, pulling a chair up to the table. "My apologies for the interruption of your usual routine, folks, but I need to do a little change in things."

Briggs acted as the spokesman. "Sounds good to us, Doc; we were thinking that we needed to vary things a little, too."

"Good." Reardon shrugged. "Why don’t the four of you connect into the system here, and download the file I’ve got ready." The professor brought his compuclipboard into alignment. "Ready?"

There was a brief chorus of agreement, and the file transfer began. It wasn’t a large file; all four began reading it as they received it.

"Ambitious, aren’t we, Doctor Reardon?" It was Karyn’s voice. "We’d been thinking along the lines of fifty or a hundred people, and you’re talking easily twice that. You’re up to something."

"I am, Karyn. Thanks to you four, I’ve got some pretty solid data on the preferences of graduate students where food is concerned. What I want to do is get some idea for the other folks—Starfleet cadets, active crew, brass, that sort of thing, and to be able to get that in a way that I can calibrate it against the preferences of the cadets that I know well. Having a larger scale shindig, with everyone from the brass through the faculty through any crew to the cadets and all seemed to be the best bet. You guys game?"

"Game enough to get details, anyway." Briggs’ forehead furrowed. "With a mob that large, it’ll take more than just the four of us to handle things, you know."

"Don’t I just! But the staffing is my problem, frankly—mine and Engineering’s problem." The professor winked. "Specifically, Stratton’s."

Lemoyne rolled his eyes. "You are now officially blown to oblivion. If you’re counting on him to supply people to bus tables and run around with trays of food, you just do not know the undergrad and grad students in Engineering."

Reardon chuckled. "Believe me, I know them, Jim; I know them only too well. Stratton’s contribution is technology. I’ve thought up a wrinkle on food preparation—a way to super automate it, building off the programmable oven you guys built for me. The gizmo is big, but it can handle about anything reasonable, as long as you keep it stocked with ingredients. Paul Stratton’s got it up, tested and running to my specifications, and apparently yours, too, from the way you look like you’re enjoying your pastries."

"This is from an automated system?" Briggs’ eyes widened. "This is good stuff, man."

"It should be, Dean, for what the prototype has cost." The professor highlighted an area of the document. "Here’s where I want you guys to be in on the picture—the monitoring system is pretty automated, as far as I can tell, but I want you guys to be keeping an eye on the automated chef, particularly maintaining the supplies of whatever is needed, and I want you two ladies helping them with keeping things full, but mainly supervising the output and making sure that what’s needed gets produced."

Karyn looked up. "Menu driven, right?"

"It is, and the time to readiness is on the menu, so that you can have some idea how far in advance you have to start things, if you’re trying to anticipate, or how long the lag’s going to be if you’re just reacting to needs." Reardon turned to Karyl. "I don’t suppose you or Lemoyne are going to be able to predict the needs, are you?"

She looked across the table, nodding to Lemoyne; he picked up the conversation. "Not with any great precision, but I can get a rough idea, based on what’s moving and what isn’t. That’s better than nothing, and I suppose I can automate it."

"Good." The professor looked at the foursome. "How are your personal projects doing, kids?"

Karyn looked at Briggs, then at Reardon. "For our part, our project was your project; you can answer that for us." She turned on her sister. "How about you, kid?"

"I’ve had enough data for three, maybe four weeks, really. How about you?" She looked across the table again.

"I’ve extracted all the use I’m going to get out of smaller sized gatherings, to be honest." He shuffled his feet, apparently embarrassed. "I was there six, maybe eight weeks ago. I was keeping things going because I thought you might need the data."

Reardon shook his head, a knowing smile on his face. "Lemoyne, you may be a brilliant mathematical mind, but you’re a total troll otherwise, did you know that?" He stood up. "I presume I can count on you four to keep my automated chef in line and up to grade?"

Briggs nodded. "As for me, you bet. Karyn?"

"This I have to see. I’m in."

Karyl tilted her head to one side. "I’ll be happy to help, but I’m dying of curiosity. What’s the point to your computerized cook?"

"Good question, Karyl. I’m on board, too, but I have a hard time believing that you’re developing this for the purpose of making life easier here at Stromboli’s. Why an autochef?"

"Hey, good name—mind if I steal it?"

"It’s all yours, if you explain yourself, Doc."

"Starship cafeteria, man. You’ve never been out on one of those things, or you’d never have asked. A lot of the starships, especially the smaller ones, rely on crew whose primary duty is something other than culinary to do the cooking." Reardon pulled a wry face. "Take it from me, the results aren’t always, um, restaurant grade. Even the frozen, prepackaged meals leave a lot to be desired, from what I hear, though I’m thinking that may have a lot to do with the ineptness of the people thawing and serving them. Now, if you had a functional automated chef—an autochef, if you please—all the folks would have to do is make sure it had what it needed to crank out the meal of the day. A little further effort, and you could have it tell you what it needed based on what you planned to serve. See the point?"

"Talk about a boon to interstellar travel, eh, Thinker?"

"Or to those who do the interstellar bit on Starfleet vessels, Tinker." Lemoyne smiled. "I’m up for doing my part, Doctor Reardon. I’ll see if I can adapt something to make educated guesses on what more will be needed of what; that’ll be worth the time, I guess."

"Good. Then I’m gone. I’ll be in touch." The professor left.

For a moment, the four sat, staring at each other uncomfortably. Finally, Lemoyne broke the uneasy silence. "You know, Pete and Rusty have another gathering in about two weeks, Karyl. Perhaps you’d be willing to come with me as a participant, rather than as an observer? You might get some useful information for your work, that way, maybe the occasional interesting insight. You might even enjoy yourself. I’m sure I would."

Karyl flushed slightly. "I do believe you’re asking me out on a date."

"I do believe you’re correct, Karyl."

"I’m most flattered, especially since I’m not dressed in the most attractive of garb. I’ll be glad to join you, Jim."

"It’s a date, then." To his surprise, Lemoyne felt unaccountably warmed inside when she accepted. He noticed a funny look on Karyn’s face as she looked at his childhood friend. Surreptitiously, or at least he hoped surreptitiously, he elbowed Briggs in the ribs.

Briggs looked up from his compuclipboard, seeing Karyn. "Would you be free for Rusty and Pete’s next shindig, Karyn? If you are, I’d be mighty pleased to escort you there."

"I thought you’d never ask. Let me check my calendar." Karyn pretended to check the date book on her compuclipboard. "How fortunate! I’ve nothing planned, and it appears that I would have been alone in our apartment. I accept your offer!" It was obvious that Karyn was as pleased as Karyl had been.

"Since we don’t have to fool around with the data gathering system, perhaps we could pick you ladies up?" It was clear that his friend was somewhat flustered by the situation, so Lemoyne decided to bail them both out. "Would 1830 hours be too early?"

"It’s fine." Karyl looked down at the timepiece on her compuclipboard. "We’ll be looking forward to seeing you. For now, I’ve really got to run. I’ve got to oversee a lab practical back at Saint Martin’s. It’ll last until about three, I’m afraid, and what with getting the results collated and everything, it’ll be almost four before I’m free."

It was Briggs’ turn to deliver an elbow to the ribs. "Hey, Thinker, use your remaining three working neurons and get the hint." He turned to Karyn. "Tell you what, if ol’ dense as lead over there isn’t going to do anything with your sister, maybe you’d be willing to meet at the Institute Park, by the shrubbery near the entrance? Maybe we could take a quiet walk along the shore, have a quiet cup of coffee and dessert somewhere?’

"I’d rather do dinner, but not here; it’s too crowded on Saturday night." Lemoyne realized what he was getting swept into, and at the moment, didn’t seem to mind. "If you have the nerve, how about the four of us for a picnic supper? Nothing fancy, but I’m sure Tinker and I can figure something portable and edible."

"And potable, too." Briggs was starting to warm up to the idea. "At this point, I think we probably know your preferences in coffee, at least. Would you make it a foursome?"

"A delightful idea, gentlemen." Karyl smiled slightly. "I’ll wear walking shoes."

"Better make it running shoes, old woman." Karyn seemed equally pleased with the turn of events. "Just in case we have to make an escape." She stood. "Karyl really does have to oversee a lab practical, and I probably should get some studying under my belt, since this evening might be fairly full. This afternoon, by the entrance?"

"Agreed." Both men stood as the women got up to leave. As they disappeared out the door, Briggs turned to his friend. "Man, I hope you know what you’ve gotten us into."

He shrugged. "Tinker, I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing, but odd as it sounds, it feels so delightful that I couldn’t care less what I’m stepping into. Does that make sense?"

"No." He smiled. "But you know what, Thinker? I feel the same way. You planning to get picnic food prepared?"

"I’ve got a backpack I can stash food in, and I’ve a couple of thoughts. You get a couple of insulated beverage containers; fill one with coffee, and the other with whatever you fancy. Meet you there fifteen minutes early?"

"Done deal, Thinker. You have the tab?"

"It’s my turn, Tinker. Skedaddle, and let me get ready."

The two men went their separate ways, too.


Later the same afternoon, on the northern end of Eletto Technical Institute Park near what most people considered the main or official entrance, there was a short walkway flanked by flowering shrubs. Lemoyne stood, studying his flowers, waiting for his friend. He shifted one strap of the backpack slightly. Out of the corner of one eye, he saw Briggs sneaking around a nondescript bush, clearly hoping to pull of a surprise appearance. "Don’t even think about it, Dean. I’ve got you spotted."

"Curses, foiled again." The engineering graduate student came out of semi-concealment and strode over, a pair of large insulated flasks peeking out of a canvas tote he had hanging from one arm. "I’ve got my compuclipboard with me, too, just in case we get technical."

"Mine’s in the backpack; never know when it’ll come in useful. I’ve got an alarm set for twenty-one hundred, just in case."

"Like we’ll find something to fill that much time, Thinker." He shook his head. "I figure we’ll be on our way back to our digs by nineteen thirty, give or take."

"No doubt, no doubt, but just in case we get rolling on something technical—you know how we do go on. Speaking of which, what’s new on your field generation thing? I haven’t heard a thing about it lately."

"Oh, it hasn’t gone away, really. Since you asked and since the ladies aren’t due here for a few minutes, I’d love you to eyeball some stuff I brought along—just let me get the compuclipboard here." Briggs rummaged in the canvas bag. "Here, look at this for a second, will you? I’m trying to use some of the stuff you guys put together to get the direct conversion to Basis Field energy from the matter-antimatter reaction to control the generation of fields from the Basis field. Now, here’s where I’m at, and I’m a bit stuck." He pointed to a series of transforms. "How about a hand, eh?"

Lemoyne moved to where he could see the relationships clearly. "You’re doing this the hard way. Look, how about trying this: I’ll use a finite dimensional Fourier series representation, and then convert the transform appropriately. Now, let’s see what drops out." As the compuclipboard did its work, Karyl and Karen arrived on the scene, seeing that the two were engrossed. Mischief flashed across both faces. Almost as if they had read each other’s minds, they began to tiptoe behind the two men. Lemoyne nodded, oblivious to his environment. "Not as much as I’d hoped, but here—let me do a quick rotation of the axes. There—that’s a load more tractable. I hope you’ve got this turkey storing what I’m doing."

"With you, I always have that feature going; it’s not like I can keep up with you on the math, Thinker. But this is looking good, really good."

"You’re looking pretty good yourself, Mister Briggs." It was Karyn’s voice interrupting. The ladies were treated to seeing both men almost jump out of their skin.

"Mercy, will you at least make more noise next time?" Lemoyne was clearly more amused than annoyed. "I think you scared three years of growth out of me."

"Good." It was Karyl this time. "You’re plenty tall enough, thank you. I like you the size you are. Hopefully you’re all done with growing at your age."

Briggs poked Lemoyne’s belly. "Well, he’s probably done with vertical growth, anyway—but I’m not sure he’s done growing."

"Cut it out, Tinker; you’re not exactly skinny either." Before his friend could answer, he turned toward the Culp twins. "If you ladies would be willing to take a bit of a stroll, maybe we could find somewhere quiet for a bite to eat. I think I know a nice spot—a table near the water’s edge, some trees around it, away from the beaten path. Maybe you could share a little bit of what your research is showing."

"Definitely good we wore running shoes, sister mine." Karyl winked at her twin. "You’re in charge of keeping an eye on our route in, just in case we have to make an escape."

"Great collapsing novas, Jim! I think they’re afraid we’re going to bore them to tears over supper." Briggs shook his head. "I hadn’t planned on doing that until after I’d eaten." Both women rolled their eyes at the engineering student’s remark. "C’mon. Don’t know about the rest of you folks, but I’m hungry. Thinker, take the lead."

Obligingly, Lemoyne began moving along a path that led between a pair of statues, off toward the lake. Only a matter of moments were needed to get to the place Lemoyne had chosen. The picnic table itself was only about four or five meters from the lake, partially sheltered by a cluster of large weeping willows. With what he hoped looked like practiced ease, the mathematics student slipped the backpack off his shoulders and began pulling things out of it, spreading a cloth across the table and laying out dishes to eat off and out of across it. Taking his cue from Lemoyne, Briggs retrieved his two flasks of beverage. "Coffee, Centaurian Mountain AA, in this one; in the other, I’ve got some iced tea—raspberry tea, which I believe you both enjoy. If you would be kind enough to take a seat while the Thinker and I finish setting up the meal?"

Karyl and Karyn gave each other a knowing look, then sat across from each other at the table. Neither of the men had expected that; their experience at Stromboli’s had led them to expect the two to sit next to each other. Somewhat confused, they finished their culinary task and took their place next to one of the ladies. Briggs looked at Karyn, who was next to him. "Ladies first; help yourselves. Tea or coffee?"

"Tea, definitely tea." Karyn started digging into the salad. "It’s warm enough that I’d probably get all sweaty if I did the coffee. Karyl, how about some salad?"

"Load it up, sister mine."

"Tea for you too, Karyl?" It was Lemoyne. "Or coffee? I’m having the Centaurian, myself."

"I’ll have the coffee, too. It’s a little cool for me." Karyl extended her cup. "How goes the particles project, numbers boy?"

"Surprisingly well." He poured coffee for Karyl, then himself. "I’m thinking that after the end of this semester, I should have the course work I need wrapped up, and be ready to start writing and defending my thesis."

"Like anyone would dare attack your math, Thinker." Briggs loaded salad onto his plate. "Not after what happened with Taggerty and going straight to Basis Field, Anthony with trititanium, dilithium and all that, and Tsarski chemically isolating the tritium-6 Anthony predicted." He snorted. "You’re probably a shoo-in."

"Yesterday’s achievements aren’t going to help me defend tomorrow’s theories, Tinker." Lemoyne shook his head, grabbing a sandwich and offering the remaining ones to their companions. "I hope you like the whole wheat; I prefer it myself, and it’s what I had. There’s more in my backpack, so don’t be shy."

"More bread or more sandwiches?" Karyn winked. "We prefer the wheat, too. Lots more fiber."

"And flavor, lots more flavor." The younger twin nabbed a sandwich between forkfuls of salad. "For an ivory tower toff, you’re not bad in the kitchen, Mister Lemoyne." She giggled. "I didn’t know you were involved in those bits of research."

"Did a little math that paved the way, anyway." He hooked his thumb at Briggs. "He did a lot of the engineering set up for Taggerty’s work, actually. Hey, Tinker, did he manage to finish his thesis?"

"He did. He’ll be defending it next month actually, and he’ll probably have his Ph.D. this semester. He’ll be the first one of the Gaussian Gang to graduate on us. I’m hoping he’ll stick around a while; he’s talking about some post-doc work here for a year or two, following up on the tritium-6 thing." He looked over at Karyn. "’Gaussian Gang’ is the nickname we gave the discussion group that sort of formed around Lemoyne and his math skills. He’s understating his case on how pivotal his work was. When you two sneaked up on us, he’d just simplified a batch of highfalutin’ math for me; if it’s as good as his stuff usually is, I may be on the way to finishing my Masters’ and be moving on to my Ph.D. this year. How about you?"

Karyn shrugged. "I’m not really sure; I think I may have things together for a year from now. I guess it all depends on how things work out at the big gathering Nate Reardon was talking about." She took a bite of sandwich and chewed pensively. "A lot of that automated chef is my work, actually, though as the coordinator of the project, Reardon gets, and really deserves, the credit. He’s been the driving force behind it, both at Saint Martins and at the Institute. If it goes well enough, I think I’ll just have to develop a system for adapting recipes to the machine’s capability."

"You know, you could use your feminine wiles to persuade your young engineering acquaintance to give you some input on it." Karyl tilted her head slightly. "I’ll bet he could give you a hand with understanding the tricks of that sort of thing, couldn’t you?"

"I’m willing to look at the problem, but you’ll need to ship me the originals and the adapted versions for a dozen or two recipes. Data helps, right, Thinker?"

"It’s the core of it all, man; it’s the core." He turned to his left. "Karyl, how goes the analysis on your lit project? You know, we’ve swapped data and processed data without once discussing your project."

"It’s about done, but I have a ways to go on the paper, Jim. I mean the party stuff is all analyzed to a nicety, but the stuff I’ve garnered from the books…"

"From the slushy romances, you mean." Karyn grinned as she interrupted.

"…From the books I’ve gone through still needs some analysis." Karyl batted her eyes at Lemoyne. "Shall I turn on the feminine wiles thing and try to persuade you?"

"No need. I’m already persuaded. You’ll just have to give me some insight into how the data is structured, that’s all." Lemoyne was surprised to hear himself making the offer; between working on his own thesis and trying to keep abreast of the projects the Gaussians were moving ahead with, to say nothing of his other responsibilities at school, he’d barely had time to work with his childhood chum. Adding to his load was the last thing he needed to do, but somehow it seemed the one thing he wanted to do more than anything else. "Well, that and what information you want, too, I guess. It shouldn’t be too hard."

"Good. I’ll get it to you, then." Karyl looked over at her sister. "At least someone takes my work seriously." She stuck out her tongue briefly. Karyn just rolled her eyes.

"Anything that involves amassing large amounts of data over a prolonged period of time is worth taking seriously." Briggs winked. "Never know; at the least, it could be a sign of mental instability."

"Oh, knock it off, Tinker. Let me look at the data before anyone concludes it’s silly." It was Lemoyne’s turn to roll his eyes. "I’ll look forward to the data, no matter what those two say."

Discussion rapidly shifted to inconsequentials—weather, sports, mutual acquaintances and the like—then shifted to personal thoughts, feelings and aspirations. What little remained of the picnic was stowed in the backpack, and the foursome walked and talked as they wandered along the edge of the small lake. The sun made its way below the horizon, the four still talking as they walked. Without warning, a raucous noise invaded their conversation. Lemoyne whisked his backpack off, foraging inside it.

"What on Earth?" Karyn was curious more than anything else.

"Nine o’clock, I’m afraid." The man finally found his compuclipboard, tripping a contact and silencing the noise. "I set an alarm to be sure we didn’t stay out excessively late. Tinker over there didn’t think we’d be able to fill the time until this late. Nor did I, honestly, but I guess we did."

"It did go by awfully quickly, didn’t it? I had no idea it was so late. Are you sure your compuclipboard is set to the right time?"

The engineering grad student eyed the sky. "That’s the Pole Star there, Karyn. Now, look at the position of Ursa Major, the Big Bear or the Big Dipper. There’s a trick for figuring the time, based on the month of the year and where the Big Dipper’s ladle is, as if the Pole Star were the middle of the clock."

"You’re kidding, right?" Doubt was all over Karyn’s face.

"Nope; picked it up from my dad when he was teaching an astronomy course, years ago. Look, sight on the stars that make the far part of the ladle of the Big Dipper. The one at the bottom of the cup is Merak; the one at the lip is Dubhe. Draw a line from Merak to Dubhe; it’s going to hit a bright star, Polaris. So far, so good?"

"Got it. Now what?"

"Imagine that line as the hour hand on a counter-clockwise clock, and read off the time in hours and fractions of an hour."

"Hmm… I’d make it about eleven thirty, or so."

"Me too. Double that, and subtract two hours for every month past March first. It’s early October, so we’re at about seven months out."

"Hey, that comes to nine!" Karyn was clearly pleased with herself.

"It looks like about nine in the evening to me, too, using that trick." He shrugged. "I just don’t know where the time went, either. Morning comes early, ladies, and it’s getting late. May my friend and I escort you home?"

Karyn offered Briggs her arm. "Since you offer so kindly, yes."

Karyl extended an arm to Lemoyne. "If you’re offering, I’m accepting." Lemoyne took the hint. Karyl turned to her twin. "Of course, this is just a clever ploy to find out where our apartment is so they can pick us up for the party in a couple of weeks, sister mine, but I think we can put up with their little trick, don’t you?"

"I suppose." She winked at Karyl. "For now, anyway."

The trek back to the twins’ apartment was surprisingly short, or at least it seemed so. The building they lived in was two or three decades old, and relatively tall. Lemoyne looked up. "There’s got to be twenty-five or more floors to this thing. Which floor do you ladies live on?"

"Twenty-seven floors, and we’re on the nineteenth." Karyl craned her neck a little. "See that window there, the fourth one from the left corner? That’s my bedroom window. Karyn’s is right next to it."

"Air must be pretty thin up there." Briggs turned to Karyn. "Do they have oxygen masks that drop down when the atmospheric pressure drops?"

She elbowed him. "No, silly. That’s only the twenty-second floor and higher." She fished in her purse, finding her entry ID card. "Keep in touch, okay?" She swept the card across the door’s electronic lock mechanism, opening it. "The evening was delightful, Dean. I’ll send the data to you in the morning."

Karyl turned to her companion. "I agree. I don’t remember when I’ve had as much fun just talking. I promise I’ll get the file to you tomorrow, too. Good night."

Before the men could react, the two women had disappeared into the building. They stood, staring at the now closed security door. It was the mathematics student who reacted first. "I guess it’s time to head back to our rooms, Tinker. Let me have a copy of those relationships you were working with, will you? I’m not at all tired, and I’d kind of like to fiddle with them a little more."

"I’m up for that, Thinker." He started to lead the way back to the Institute. "What I want to figure a way of doing is to specify what I want the field to look like, and then work back from there to generate it. I’m figuring the data’s all there in what Rusty used to build his little gadget, and all we need to do is see it."

"Ah, I get it. Let me fool with it this evening, then, and see what I can figure." Lemoyne had his compuclipboard out, ready for Briggs’ to communicate. "Just don’t expect me to resolve it totally. Come to think of it, the Gaussian Gang meets this coming Thursday. How about bringing it along? Rusty and Brody will be there; they were wanting to pick my brain on something, and I’m thinking they may have some useful input, too."

"Here comes the file, Thinker." Briggs tripped a contact. "You’re right, of course. If you’ll give me a leg up on getting it ready for the gang, I think I’ll do that."


Karyl and Karen stepped through the front door of their apartment into the sparsely furnished area they used for a living room. The younger of the two shut the door, letting it autolock. "They certainly are interesting, aren’t they, Karyn?"

"I have to admit, I’ve never seen the like of them. Absent minded professors, that’s what I think they are—or maybe I should say that’s what they’re going to end up being. Clever enough, though; I felt like we were talking with the brothers we never had. You’d almost get the impression they understood what we were talking about."

"Perhaps, sister mine, but after the first little bit, we were talking about each other and ourselves more than about our assorted projects." One eyebrow raised slightly. "You really are going to have to watch yourself more closely, old woman. There were a couple of times I thought you were going to spill the beans on a couple of the embarrassing situations from our childhood that I, for one, would rather forget."

"I will have to watch myself, young lady." Karyn winked. "I’ll flip you for first use of the shower."

"Oh, you go ahead. I have to get all of those data files I’ve been building organized enough to ship to that numbers cruncher to see if he can make any sense of it all. I’ll be at it for a couple of hours or more." She planted herself in front of a terminal. "At least one of us can enjoy it."

Thursday, October 13, 2168

Thursday found Lemoyne and Briggs at the meeting of the Gaussian Gang, eagerly awaiting a chance at the display. It wasn’t long before the chance came, and Briggs filled the screen with functions, relationships and equations. "Okay, now that I’ve buried everyone alive, here’s what I’ve got in mind. I want to be able to build a circuit that can take a specified field description and set the values on different parts of itself to generate the field I want. The tricky bit is to figure out what the settings need to look like to get what I need. This is how it looks right now."

"Hey, Lemoyne, have you fiddled with this?" It was Taggerty.

"Briefly, but I’m not satisfied. I’m convinced I’m missing something, but I’m clueless beyond that."

"Clearly, my friend, clearly; you’ve missed the simplest of tricks." It was Brody Anthony, the physics major. "You realize that you’re trying to find a backward solution to set some mechanical settings. Forgive my pointing this out, but you’re absolutely doing it the hard way, don’t you think? Start with anything reasonable on the field generator, and modify it progressively to go where you want. Think of it as a mathematical progression, if you like. A little experimentation with an assortment of starting points, don’t you know, and then use the results to map a strategy for using the fields generated to produce the field you want. Is that all nice and foggy?"

"Gotcha." Lemoyne was already working feverishly on his compuclipboard. "And rather than treat it as a discrete progression, I can treat this as a set of functions that solve a set of simultaneous partial differential equations. Gimme a second." As they had often done before, the group waited patiently while Lemoyne crunched functions. Finally, the man looked up. "Here it comes, folks. Tell me what you think about this."

Faces turned to the display, staring at it. Briggs got almost close enough to touch it. "Hey, I recognize a lot of this—it’s a mathematical version of that gimcrack we put together to tune the electronics on the test bench, a couple years ago." His compuclipboard almost jumped into his hand, and he began setting up circuits. "Anyone here into electronics? I want a second opinion on the controls, here—mainly how their operating characteristics are going to match the gobble-de-gook Thinker’s sprayed on the screen."

"Let me look over your shoulder, Briggs." It was Paula Watanabe. "In materials science, I’ve had to get pretty sharp on that sort of thing." There was a pause. "Yeah, it’ll work, but you’re only going to get a limited number of possibilities out of this thing, you know."

"Not so, Paula." It was Lemoyne. "If Tinker is doing what I think he is, he’s building circuits to actualize each of the independent solutions of this mess. By mixing them in appropriate proportions, we can generate absolutely anything we want; it’s just trying a few combinations and seeing what they do. Well, that’s the thought anyway, right, Tinker?"

Briggs looked up from the compuclipboard. "Yup, that’s the plan; get the basic stuff done and tinker with it until I have what I want the way I want and all that jazz." He went nose down into the compuclipboard again. "I’m thinking that you’re going to have to do a little data tweaking, but hey, that’s your bag anyway, right?"

"So far, it’s been the drift. I’m the thinker, and you’re the tinker." Lemoyne chuckled. "But if this works, it’ll be our biggest trick yet."

"I say, I’m not sure how you figure that." Anthony scratched his head. "Care to fill me in?"

"Straight from basis field to whatever you need, man." The engineering graduate student didn’t even look up to answer. "You want artificial gravity quick and easy? No problem! And you can even set the intensity. A field to handle incoming particles or energy? I’m thinking a field of some sort around the ship might be the way to go. Or would you rather build a widget that generates high energy laser energy directly from your Basis Field? No more worrying about pumping your gamma ray laser with matter-antimatter reactions and all that mess; just ship in power, and let it rip, any color, any intensity, any frequency, any field, any anything. If this does what I hope it does, all of that’s possible, and more."

"Oh, quite." Anthony was clearly impressed. "The energy savings would be quite impressive, too. I’m quite astounded that I didn’t see that."

"Me, too." Briggs looked up. "I’ve got the essentials I need done. It’s time to go on to the next problem. For my part, I’m going to assault the chips and dip; all that thinking makes a fellow hungry."

"Excellent." It was Anthony, still. "I’ve got some data, using the approach you and Mister Lemoyne recommended. I was wondering if you could give me a little input here. Shall I share the data?"

"Let me at it." Lemoyne’s compuclipboard shifted to receive. "I’m dying to look at it."

There was a brief pause as the data transferred, then a longer one as Lemoyne looked at it. He fiddled with his compuclipboard, then stared at it. He tweaked it again, then a third time. Suddenly, the screen was filled with the data and his approximation. "I should have guessed it at the start, Brody. Here’s your best fit shape: a loaded catenary, in ten dimensions. The agreement’s not what I’d like, but it’s as much as I’d expect it to be given the imprecision of our measurements. Play with it; see what you think."

Anthony let Lemoyne beam the model to him, then disappeared into a corner, looking at it and mumbling to himself. Discussion shifted to another problem, then another as the night went on, Briggs spending less time on the problems, most of which were theoretical issues that were more Lemoyne’s area of expertise anyway, than he spent on his field generation design. Finally, Brody Anthony sat up, bolt upright. "Most marvelous. Do you know if I reparameterize the warp field mathematics properly, it actually forms a trajectory that is a loaded catenary? It’s not exactly perfectly planar—there’s a bit of multi-dimensional warp in the surface it’s in—but if I allow for a perfectly appropriate warped surface, the fit is quite excellent. Here’s the theoretical version of it all." The physics major threw data on the screen, matching his prediction to the real data and Lemoyne’s empiric approximation. With the adjustments Anthony had made, the fit was almost perfect.

"Amazing." Charlie Ngorongo looked from the data to Anthony. "If the match got any better, I’d accuse you of doctoring your data, and I know better than that. Folks, I think this wraps a good night’s work." Stretching his toweringly tall form, he yawned, triggering a like response from others. "I’d say it’s time to break. If Lemoyne yawns any wider, he’s going to swallow both his ears—and I just might, too."

As the group was breaking up, Briggs zeroed in on his old friend. "Hey, Thinker—I’m going to ship you a preliminary analysis on the field generator. You know more than you let on about this sort of thing, and I want your input. Can do?"

"Come tomorrow, I can." Lemoyne yawned. "Someone must have brewed decaf coffee or some equally cruel trick. I’m about to collapse from tiredness. Ship it, and I’ll see what I see after a good night’s sleep and my morning classes. Last one ends at ten; I’ll have something to you by noon or one."

"Good enough." The budding engineer looked Lemoyne over. "I never saw you poop out after one of these sessions before, though. They usually energize you. What’s up, man? Are you all right?"

He held up his left hand. "Hardly; which hand am I holding up?"

"Cut it out. You look lousy."

"I’ve felt better, Dean, but it’s nothing a good night’s sleep won’t fix." He shook his head. "Probably ate too much, too; those chips were too salty for me. Hey, in the morning."

Briggs watched as the man walked away; he decided that he’d been over-reacting. It looked like he was just a little tired, after all. Feeling foolish, he turned toward his own dorm room.

Friday, October 14, 2168

It was mid afternoon when the dormitory supervisor for the Cochrane Building at Eletto Technical Institute heard someone pounding on his door. Taking the impassioned pounding with patience bred of years of dealing with student’s crises, he made his way from the bench on which he was repairing a malfunctioning thermostat to the door. Swinging the door open, he saw an unfamiliar face. "Don’t think I know you, son. What’s the problem?"

"This isn’t the dorm I stay in; I’m over in the Eletto building. I’m Dean Briggs. You’ve got to let me into Jim Lemoyne’s room."

"Do I now? Why?" He’d heard that a hundred times or more; invariably, it was one of the upperclassmen trying to play some sort of ridiculous prank on another student. "I have to point out that I don’t usually provide that service to students."

"Look, it’s an emergency. Something is direly wrong."

"I’m sure it is. I just need a little more information from you." He shrugged. "You know how it is; if I go barging into a student’s room, I’d better have pretty good justification for it."

"He’s not answering his BellComm, and he’s not responded to the commnet message I sent this morning, and he skipped all his classes this morning, too. Last night, after the get together, he looked terrible, and now he’s not answering." The engineering student shook his head. "I’ve known him forever, mister, and that’s just not him. Something’s wrong, and I have to get to him."

"Just idle your impulse engines, son. Did it ever occur to you he might just be studying?"

"Trust me. You’ve got no idea what all has occurred to me. I’ve got to get in there." Briggs’ face registered sincere desperation. "He’s the best friend I’ve ever had, and probably the sharpest mathematical mind here, maybe in the whole Federation. Please, let me in."

There was something about Briggs’ demeanor that worried the dormitory security man, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. "No disrespect intended, young man, but I really need more than that. From what I’ve seen of you fellows dragging in after one of your bashes, you all look pretty bad, and drunk as they come. It’s not that I doubt you, but I just need more."

A change came over Briggs’ face. The man pulled an object out of his pocket. "This is the only other thing I’ve got."

"You expect me to be moved by a ridiculous metal rod just because you’ve painted it red? Really, I’d have expected something cleverer from a graduate student. I’ve got a circuit to repair. Why don’t you just go away and annoy someone else?"

"Mister, I’m in Field Generation Engineering. This little microwave welding unit is one that I’ve modified a good deal; its maximum output will cut through six inch thick stainless steel like a knife through soft butter. You can let me into Jim’s room, or I promise you, I’ll cut through the door with this thing."

The older man sighed. "Son, if you think I believe you could modify a tool like that to make it a deadly weapon, you’d be dumber than I’d be for believing it. But if you’re willing to put your career here on the line with an idiotic ploy like that, then you’re deadly serious and you honestly believe you have reason to be. Just hold on a second, let me get the universal entry key, will you?" He turned, picking up a small object lying on the bench. "I hope you know which room is his."

Briggs didn’t bother answering; he took the lead, his the red wand still in his hand. Moments later, the turbolift opened into a corridor. Briggs hurried down a few doors and pointed. "In here."

Calmly, the building superintendent used his entry key to trigger the door mechanism. As the door slid aside, it revealed Lemoyne sprawled on the floor, unconscious, his face showing large, purplish blotches and his neck extended almost as far as it could stretch. Briggs started to move into the room, only to be stopped by his companion. "Stay out, kid. What he’s probably got, you don’t want."

"He’s my friend. I have to help him."

"You can’t. We just had an informational session on this stuff. There’ve been half a dozen or more cases of Centaurian meningo-encephalitis in the schools near here, and he looks just like the pictures they showed of it. See that rash? What they tell me is that it almost makes the diagnosis. It’s as contagious as a good laugh." The man flipped his pocket communicator open. "Emergency medical response, Cochrane Building. Looks like a possible Centaurian meningo-encephalitis case; full protection." He turned back to Briggs. "Son, you did good. There’s a one chance in four that you’ve saved his life."

"Then three out of four survive without treatment?"

The older man looked back into the room, where Lemoyne was starting to stiffen up. "No. What they told me is that one out of four die, even if they’re treated. The remaining two in four survive, but they range from slightly impaired to total vegetables." Without warning, the stiffness turned into flailing of arms and legs, the unconscious student almost seeming to bounce on the floor. "Great; he’s having a seizure. Where is that emergency team?"

Out of the turbolift door, a team of four individuals in full biohazard garb came running. Briggs pointed into Lemoyne’s room, saying nothing. One of the team, a woman, pulled a syringe out of her kit and stabbed the business end into Lemoyne’s arm, pushing as hard as she could to deliver its contents. Slowly, the seizures stopped. As quickly as they could, the four slid a carrier under the now limp frame. One, clearly the leader of the group looked up at the other two. "You’re coming with us. If it’s what it looks like, you’re going to need appropriate prophylaxis." He turned to face Briggs. "You know this fellow?"

"Yes." As Briggs answered, Lemoyne began vomiting almost explosively.

The man turned to see the mess on the floor. "Just what we needed; that stuff is thoroughly infectious, and we don’t have a cleanup kit for it."

"I’ll take care of it." Briggs lifted the welding wand he was still holding, making a small adjustment, turning a control to nearly the zero point. "If you’ll get Jim and the rest of your folks out of the way?"

The medical response team leader looked at the pistol in Brigg’s hand with disdain as the response crew cleared the area. "It’s going to take more than just that toy to handle it, kid. You’re going to need to carbonize the…"

Briggs tripped the actuator. Energy spat at the area on the floor, searing the vomitus and the flooring under it, exposing the duracrete below, leaving nothing but char and ashes behind. The building superintendent’s eyes widened. "You weren’t kidding about cutting through the door, were you, kid?"

"No, sir, I wasn’t. The only lower setting on this thing is off." He finished clearing the stained area of flooring. "I told you he was my best friend."

"Good." Even as he spoke, the EMT in charge was hustling the whole group into the turbolift. "We’re going to need to know who he’s been around for about the last two weeks, especially the last forty eight hours. Every last one of them is going to need medication to prevent ending up where this poor kid is." He turned to one of his team. "You stay behind; this building is under quarantine until Medical gives clearance. We’ll probably have to treat a large proportion of the people here, too. I’ll get backup on the way as soon as I can. You and dorm security keep things tight until then." The turbolift doors opened; the medical team hurried out, all but one moving to the ambulance waiting by the door. Lemoyne, litter and all, was loaded on board, the others following. The rear door had hardly closed before the ambulance was lifting and accelerating toward the medical center. "Rescue K15A to main hospital. Probable Centaurian meningo-encephalitis coming in; sensor data coming now. Two contacts; one coming along for the ride."

"Thank you K15A. We’ll be waiting for you at Isolation Nine."

"Isolation Nine; right. ETA eighty seconds."

"Roger, K15A."

Swiftly, the transport descended, landing and allowing the team to open the back of the vehicle. A dozen or more individuals in protective gear began moving the twitching form of James Lemoyne into the treatment area; others began moving into the vehicle with decontamination equipment. One motioned to the other passenger. "If you’ll come with me, please? We’ll need some information."

For Briggs, time began to blur. There were people questioning him about everything he knew about his friend, others asking who he recalled his being around, the classes that he was in, and a thousand other things. In among the questions about Lemoyne, there were questions about his own medical status, allergies to medications, and he had been hustled off to an area where he’d stripped and showered thoroughly, receiving his clothes back still warm from being laundered. How long he had been the center of a benign interrogation, he had no clear idea. Finally, an older man wearing a stethoscope came into the room. "You are Dean Briggs?"

"What’s left of him, yes sir."

"I’m Doctor Stanley Jenson. You were with James Lemoyne?"

"I was, yes, sir. May I see him, please?"

"Shortly, Mister Briggs, I promise, if you want to. You realize you probably saved his life, don’t you?" Jenson’s face was deadly serious. "He’s still unconscious, and we’ll be keeping him that way for at least another twelve hours, but there’s a good chance he’ll make it. A few more hours delay in getting here, and he might well have been dead."

"That might be better than his ending up a vegetable, Doc; I understand that there is a real risk of that. What’s his chances of coming out of this unharmed?" Concern was written deeply in Briggs’ face.

"It’s too early to tell, but I have hope that in a week, he’ll be the same as ever—just a little tired. How much have you been around him?"

"We’re very good friends—have been as long as I can remember. We were out on sort of a double date Saturday, and spent a lot of time working together on a project."

Jenson nodded. "That’s the impression I’ve gotten from the staff. You’re probably incubating the same thing your friend has, Mister Briggs. I would very strongly recommend that you take an appropriate course of antibiotics to be sure you don’t end up like he is. The hospital’s got people tracking down everyone that’s been around him for the last several days, making sure they’re treated, too. That was quite a listing of folks, son; it’s going to take some time. What do you want to do about the recommended prophylactic treatment?" Jenson extended his hand, a container of tablets in it.

"It’s a recommendation I’ll take." He took the container of medication offered him. "Thank you, sir. Can I see Jim now?"

"He’s in isolation; you’ll only be able to see him through a clear wall, but yes. There are a couple of other individuals that would like to see him; maybe you’d be willing to let them go with you?" Looking at Doctor Jenson, it was hard to tell whether the physician was hoping Briggs would be a source of strength for the others, or that he would find strength in their presence.

"That’s fine." He stood. "I’ll probably need the company. Where are they?" Jenson beckoned, opening a door. In the corridor, Briggs saw the Culp twins, both of them clearly red-eyed from crying, each of them clutching a container identical to the one he had just pocketed. He tried to smile. "Hi, Karyn. Hi Karyl. Good to see you; I just wish it were under other circumstances."

The women just nodded, clearly too distraught to speak.

"If you’ll follow me?" The physician led them along a short path through connecting corridors to a room with an opacified window. "He’s on the other side of this window. I need to warn you that he’s on life support. We’ve paralyzed him to control the seizures, so there’s a machine doing his breathing for him. Do you still feel you can handle seeing him?"

Silently, the engineering graduate student nodded, his face frozen in a stoic expression. Karyl and Karyn looked at each other, then nodded. Jenson moved to a contact and triggered it, rendering the window transparent. On the other side, Lemoyne lay in a monitor bed, connected to a respirator. The rash on his face was almost gone; his arms, lying on top of the light sheet over all but his shoulders, showed discolorations that clearly said the rash had covered them as well. Other than the monitoring and support devices attached to him, he looked like he was deeply asleep. For several moments, Jenson let them look at him before he spoke. "He looks asleep because he is, folks. It’ll be tomorrow before we consider risking wakening him. Maybe you could come back then."

"If it’s possible, I’d rather stay here with him, Doctor." He kept his eyes fixed on his childhood friend, not even turning to look at the man when he spoke. "Have you talked to his mom and dad?"

"They’re on the way here, Mister Briggs; I expect they’ll be here in an hour or two." The physician looked through the glass at his patient, lying peacefully in the isolation chamber, wishing he was as certain of the outcome as the people around him wanted him to be. "I’ll need to talk to them first, but if you know them, maybe you can be here and make it easier for them."

"We were neighbors growing up, Doctor. I’ll do what I can; I owe them that much." He kept his eyes fixed on Lemoyne, as if his sheer determination would bring his friend back to a normal state of health. "I owe him that much, and more." Tearing his eyes away from the almost motionless form he looked at the physician. "Would it be okay for the ladies to stay here, too? I mean, I can probably be enough for Jack, his father, but Helen might be better off with another lady comforting her, if you ladies don’t mind."

"We’d rather stay," Karyl offered. "If we can comfort his mother, all the better."

Jenson nodded. "Good; I think you’ll be greatly appreciated; this isn’t easy for parents, believe me. Now, if you’ll excuse me…" The physician made his way out the door, leaving the three together.

After a moment or two, Briggs touched the control surface, letting the window go opaque again. "I don’t suppose there’s much point in just staring at him; for now, I guess we sit and wait."

Somehow, speech was scant during the next hour or two, mostly comments about trivialities, or remembrances of events they had shared with Lemoyne. The door to the chamber swung open, and a group of older individuals entered. The engineering student jumped to his feet. "Dad?"

"Hi, Dean. You don’t think I’d let Jack and Helen face this alone, do you?" Charlie Briggs entered, his wife Mary following, getting a heartfelt hug from her son. Jack and Helen Lemoyne came in after them.

The younger Briggs hugged them both. "Hi, Mom Helen. Hi, Papa Jack. Let me introduce you to the ladies—Karyl and Karyn Culp."

Helen Lemoyne walked over to them. "Jim has mentioned you ladies, and thinks very highly of you both, especially whichever of you is Karyl." Karyl raised her hand to identify herself. "Ah, you’re the one working on the literature project. Later, you must tell me all about it, my dear."

The elder Lemoyne looked at the younger Briggs. "How bad is it, son? Doctor Jenson gave us the bare bones, but he’s a doctor, if you know what I mean."

"Not nearly as bad as you’d think, unless something has changed in the last couple of hours." The engineering student’s forehead furrowed. "They’ve got him out in la-la land; he looks like he’s really asleep, which Doctor Jenson assured me he is. Tomorrow, they wake him up and see what they see."

"We’d like to see him, Dean, whatever his condition." It was Jim’s mother.

"Of course." He moved to the contact, noticing as he did that there was a thumbnail that gave him a view of what was going on in the room. A nurse was finishing some activity on the younger Lemoyne’s behalf. He made a pretense of looking for the contact as his surrogate parents and his own parents moved to the screen. Once the nurse left, he tripped the contact, watching the elder Lemoynes carefully. He could see the knuckles on Mrs. Lemoyne’s fists whiten as she saw her son; her husband maintained a stoic appearance, but even to the younger Briggs’ eye, it was obvious that he was struggling to maintain his composure.

He caught his father’s eye, gesturing toward the contact. Charlie Briggs nodded, speaking as his son opacified the window. "Not a lot to see or say, Jack. Why don’t you and Helen let Mary and me take you to the cafeteria for some coffee and a bite to eat? We can bring Dean and the ladies a bite when we come back. They’ll call us if anything happens, won’t you, Dean?"

"Hey, no problem, Dad, unless you guys have changed your comm. numbers. I promise. The instant anything happens worth telling you about, I’ll call."

"Thanks, son."

Charlie Lemoyne moved toward the engineering student, his face serious. "I’ve talked to the man at Jim’s dorm, Dean. He told me about your little interaction. If I read things right from Doctor Jenson, you saved my son’s life by forcing the issue. Thanks, Son." He wrapped Briggs in a bear-hug that bid fair to crack a rib.

He returned the hug. "Didn’t have a choice, Papa Jack. Friends take care of friends, right? And he’s the best friend a man could ever want."

"Still and all, you did it, and Helen and I are grateful."

The older adults made their way down the hall, returning laden with food and drink for all. Other than an occasional look through the window, most of the time was filled with talk, most of which was about everything and anything other than the individual on the other side of the window. Intermittently, through the night, one or more of them would doze for an hour or two. None of them seemed inclined to seek more comfortable quarters. Morning found them, slightly disheveled and tired, but hopeful. Doctor Jenson came through the door.

Helen Lemoyne looked up. "How is he?"

The physician nodded, a soft smile playing on his face. "His readings look good, very good. The cerebral edema is already gone, and although we’ll be pumping in paracycline and koromycin by vein for a day or two more before he’s ready to head home, he’s pretty much out of the woods. He’ll be waking up in a few moments."

"Is it possible for his mother and me to be there when he wakens, Doctor?"

"He’s no longer contagious, Doctor Lemoyne. You can take two others with you." He turned to Dean Briggs. "From what I hear, you’re probably going to want to be there."

"Yes, sir." Dean Briggs’ voice was controlled, but his face was a combination of enthusiasm and concern. "If I might suggest it, perhaps you might like to be the fourth, Karyl?"

The twin in question flushed slightly. "Perhaps he’d prefer Doctor Briggs or his wife."

Helen Lemoyne shook her head, smiling slightly. She reached out a hand to Karyl. "I don’t think so, my dear. Please join us."

"Sounds like it’s decided, then. The rest of you are welcome to watch through the window." Doctor Jenson moved toward the door. "If you’ll follow me?"

The foursome followed as instructed. Doctor Jenson opened a door; Jim Lemoyne was lying on his back on the bed visible through it. "Go on in, folks. Once you’re in, I’ll start the process of waking him up. Don’t expect much of him, though; he’s been out for the count for a while, and he’s likely to be a little groggy."

"And you’re not sure how much, if any, brain damage has occurred, either, am I correct, Doctor?" Charlie Lemoyne looked down at his son.

"You are correct. We’ll know more when we see how he does when he wakes. He’s comparatively young and I’m sure quite resilient; I am hopeful that there has been little or none." The physician moved to a set of controls at the side of the bed. He tapped on a couple of control surfaces, then stood back, watching and waiting.

Two minutes passed, then three. Suddenly, Jim Lemoyne’s eyes opened, his eyes roving around the room briefly, then fixing on his mother’s face. "Mom? Dad? What are you doing here? What happened?"

The elder woman gently stroked her son’s cheek. "We’re here watching over you, silly son, like we’ve done all your life."

"How are you feeling, son?"

"A little tired, Dad. What happened?"

"Maybe you should ask him." Charlie Lemoyne pointed to the other side of the bed, where Briggs stood. "He’s the one in the know."

Obediently, he looked off to his right, seeing his friend. "Hey, Tinker. Hi, Karyl. What happened?"

"You remember the last meeting of the Gaussians?"

"Yeah; I ate something that disagreed with me, as I recall it. Not sure what."

"Think again, Thinker. You had Centaurian meningo-encephalitis. You’re in the Institute medical center." He shuffled his feet a little bit, like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "I, um, did some damage to your room before it was all over. Hopefully they’ll have fixed the carpet before you’re back there."

"They’ve repaired it already; the room went through a complete decontamination, and the rug’s fixed." It was Doctor Jenson’s voice. "Your building’s dormitory security officer called earlier, concerned about you; he wanted you to know your room was back to where it was, or better. He needed treated prophylactically, too, like a lot of other people you’ve been around." He turned to Briggs. "He’s worried about you, too, young man, but for other reasons. It’s not everyone that can push the power of a microwave welding rod to the power you managed."

The younger Lemoyne rolled his eyes. "I told you that you’d get in trouble if you didn’t dismantle that thing, Tinker." He turned to face Jenson. "Is it permissible for me to sit up, Doctor?"

"Gently, but yes. You get in too big of a hurry, you’re going to black out."

Cautiously, Lemoyne sat up, looking around himself, seeing Dean’s parents and Karyn looking through the observation window. "How long have I been out?"

"Not even a full twenty-four hours, son." Charlie Lemoyne’s brow furrowed. "What’s the square root of 1024?"

"Thirty-two, Dad. And before you ask, pi is 3.141592653589793, and then some. You really are worried about me, aren’t you?"

"Yes, son." The elder Lemoyne put his hand on his son’s shoulder. "You were flirting with the Grim Reaper, the way Doctor Jenson tells it. This infection you had is known to cause significant brain damage in an obnoxiously large proportion of the survivors. I just wanted to see if the math was still there."

"I see." The younger man’s eyes closed for a moment, then opened. "I don’t suppose I could use my compuclipboard in here, even if I had it; probably would generate signals that would panic the sensors and control systems. Anyone have a pencil and a stack of paper?"

Out of his shirt pocket, Briggs produced a pencil; Jenson obliged with paper from somewhere no one quite noticed. Lemoyne began writing furiously on the blank sheet in front of him, symbols and relationships appearing rapidly. As he filled one sheet, he passed it to Briggs, and started another. "However long I was out, I was having nightmares, interspersed with bursts of dreams about some of the stuff we’ve been working on." He continued writing as he spoke, his parents looking over his shoulder. Another sheet was filled and passed on; Briggs passed the first one to the elder Lemoyne. "Dad, I’d like you and Papa Chuck to look this over, too, but I think I may have solved the theoretical end of what Dean’s been working with for the last year or so here." Another sheet was passed on. "Either that, or I’m worse off than I thought."

A final sheet was tendered. The other two men in the room continued studying them, at least the younger starting to show signs of excitement. The recuperating mathematics student turned to Karyl. "Thank you for coming. Seeing you here was, um, really special. Maybe later, when everyone else is elsewhere, we can talk."

"I’d like that. I think I’d like it very much, Jim." She moved toward the side of the monitored bed. "You realize that Dean saved your life, don’t you? If he hadn’t bullied the building superintendent into letting him into your dorm room, you’d probably have died before anyone knew you were sick."

His eyes widened. "Hey, Dean—this woman is telling stories on you. She says you saved my life."

"Ah, not a chance. Doc Jenson and the antibiotics did that. I just got the ambulance to get your grubby body here." He turned back to the papers. "Papa Jack, are you seeing what I think I’m seeing in this math?"

"I’m still fighting with it, but it looks like it’s the description of a really general field generation system, using pseudo-circuitry written in Basis Field energy." He picked up another sheet. "If he hadn’t come so close to dying of it, I’d recommend getting this disease more often; this is amazing stuff. Let me look at that sheet you’re hogging, Son."

The younger Lemoyne looked up at Karyl, then at his mother. "I guess I owe Tinker one."

"I don’t think he sees it that way, judging by how he and your father are pouring over those papers you gave them." She smoothed her son’s hair gently. "Doctor Jenson said that two or three more hours, and we’d have been having your funeral, son. I don’t think he was exaggerating. We’re all glad you’re still here with us."

The younger Lemoyne looked up at Karyl. "I’m glad I’m still here, too. I’d miss me if I wasn’t."

"Folks, I don’t mean to disturb this reunion, but this young man needs some rest, some just plain old natural sleep." Doctor Jenson looked at the readings in front of him. "As I read things here, he’s not going to suffer a whole lot from this. Just let me check a thing or two, will you?"

Obligingly, the foursome moved away from the bed as Doctor Jenson moved to it. "Okay, Jim, I’ve seen your arms move; let’s see that left leg lift up." The leg lifted without problem. "That’s good; put it back. Now, get that right one up." The right leg straightened, but his ankle didn’t quite follow. "Try to get that right ankle to a right angle, now."

"Sorry, Doc; it’s just not happening."

"Relax. I’m going to cover your right eye, now; I want to know how many fingers I’m holding up."

"That’s a thumb, Doc. Tinker, you’ve corrupted this man."

"I’ve been pulling that one for years." Jenson dropped his hand. "Let’s cover that left eye, now; tell me how many fingers." He held up two.

"I can barely see out of my right eye. One?" The younger Lemoyne was squinting hard, still uncertain.

"Two, Jim. Don’t worry yet; we’ll get appropriate medication going and see if we can get that foot moving properly, and the eye back to grade. None of you have permission to worry until I tell you to." Jenson winked. "Compared to the seven others with this I’ve seen, he’s doing magnificently. There’s probably just a little local inflammation left in a couple of areas of his brain, that’s all." He turned to his control console, tapping quickly. "I’ll check in with you tomorrow, about this time, Jim." Jenson turned to the others. "We’ll be moving him in about an hour, to a regular medical ward. I’ve got Dean Briggs’ BellComm; I’ll have the staff give him a call to tell you where he’ll be. The lot of you look like you could use some sleep. If you talk to the lady at the desk, she can help you folks find accommodations, if you need them."

"I can put my folks up at my room," the younger Briggs offered.

"Let us take the moms, Dean," Karyl offered. "You take the dads. We’ve the room, and it looks like the ladies know each other well enough to be comfy with that."

"Why, thank you, Karyl, but don’t you think you ought to ask Karyn first?"

"I already did, Helen, while you and Mary were sleeping. She thought it was the best bet, and we’ve plenty of room."

"If Charlie and Mary don’t mind, then, we’ll take you up on that." Jack Lemoyne looked at the papers he was clutching. "He’ll want to look at this stuff, too; I’m willing to bet he’s packed his compuclipboard, and I know I brought mine. We’ll go over this with Dean."

"You’re utterly incorrigible, John Lemoyne." It was Helen Lemoyne again, the small smile on her face telling the twins that she really didn’t mind as much as it sounded as thought she did. "Your son possibly on his death bed, and you bring your compuclipboard. Men!"

"Can’t live with us, Helen, and you can’t live without us." The elder Lemoyne smiled back. "I’m glad to know you feel the same way about men that we do about you ladies." He turned to his son. "Jim, we’ll be back in a bit; I just hope Dean’s got a shower I can use. I could do with a scrub." Gently, he moved to his son and hugged him. "Until later, son." Mrs. Lemoyne pecked her son on the cheek and walked off with her husband.

Dean Briggs stood near Jim Lemoyne, unsure what to do. The mathematics graduate student solved the problem by giving the man a hug. "Thanks for busting in, Tinker."

"You’d have done the same for me, Thinker. I’m just glad you’re okay." He was clearly uncomfortable with being the apparent hero of the situation.

"You get your rest, Mister Lemoyne." Karyl patted his hand. "You promised me a long talk when you’re better, and I plan to collect on that."

"Me, too." Lemoyne lay back, putting his head on the pillow. "I have to confess, I’m awfully tired, considering how long you folks say I’ve been out. I’ll look forward to seeing you all when you get back." Almost as soon as he was done saying it, his head rolled to one side in sleep. The younger Briggs moved to catch up with his friend’s parents. Karyl lingered a moment longer, gently planting a kiss on the sleeping man’s forehead before she left.


By the time Karyl reached the observation room, Jack Lemoyne and Charlie Briggs were deeply involved in the relationships Jack’s son had inscribed on the papers. Karyn stood, the mothers at her side, looking like she didn’t know whether to be amazed, amused or annoyed by their focus. Mary Briggs looked at her, a twinkle in one eye. "Karyn, it’s just the way those men are. If our other son weren’t dead asleep, he’d be wrangling with the others." Affectionately, she looked at her son, husband, and close friend. "There isn’t a male that’s worth his salt that, deep in his heart of hearts, is a day over nine years old, honey. This is what keeps them more or less young, and it’s definitely what keeps them interesting."

Mary Lemoyne looked over, nodding. "Of course, there isn’t a woman worth her salt that’s a day over sweet sixteen in her heart of hearts, either. You two young ladies should know that; you’re both literature majors."

Charlie Briggs suddenly looked up. "Ah, the last of the team is here. Good. I need a shower, breakfast, and a compuclipboard. Let’s go." He started moving toward the exit. "Dean, Jack agrees that this shouldn’t be too hard to actualize, circuit-wise. Have you had any ideas on it yourself?" The three men disappeared out the door, deep in conversation.

Mrs. Briggs looked over at the Culp twins, then back at her long term friend. "Shower, breakfast and compuclipboard, but not necessarily in that order. What do you want to bet they go for the compuclip first?"

"That’s a guarantee; the men stashed the luggage somewhere near the entrance of the hospital, in one of those little pay-for-a-day storage cubicles." She rolled her eyes. "If we hurry, we’ve got a fighting chance of catching up with them before they get the compuclipboards out."

Karyn and Karyl looked at each other, and at the older ladies, half amazed. Karyl took the lead. "Well, we’d better hurry then. Come on. Our apartment is within easy walking distance. Maybe we can talk Dean into helping move you ladies’ luggage for us."

Monday, October 24, 2168

It was several days before Doctor Jenson declared Jim Lemoyne fit to leave the Institute medical center and head back to the dormitory. Even then, he wasn’t allowed to return to class or laboratory activity for a further week. With his parents having to return to the Midwest, he had found Dean Briggs a frequent visitor; the dorm’s security man had become a common sight as well. As much as the attention was appreciated, however, the enforced idleness had begun to grate on him—more than he would have expected it to do. When the door chime actuated, he was uncharacteristically glad of the interruption. "Come on in."

Briggs entered. "Hey, Thinker, what’ve you been up to?"

"Thinking." He waved at his compuclipboard. "It’s all anyone will let me do, lately. Man, you’d think I still was diseased and pestilential."

"In that case, I am here to make your day. Get your shoes on your feet, we’re going for a walk." He looked at Lemoyne’s outfit. "Um, socks wouldn’t hurt you either, come to think of it. And unless you plan to hike around in the park wearing your bathrobe, maybe you ought to try jeans and a shirt or some such."

He chuckled. "Good point, Tinker; give me a sec, and I’ll be with you." Lemoyne started rummaging in his clothes closet.

"Seriously, what have you been working on, Thinker? I’m assuming your research project, but considering to whom I speak, I’m never sure."

Lemoyne’s head popped out of his t-shirt. "Wrapped that up yesterday, I think; I’m going to let it go cold for a couple of days and look at it again. Finished out Karyl’s data, too; I need to talk to her about a point or two; I’ll probably call her in a day or so."

"Whatever. Looked at my stuff?"

"Long since; you need to check your BellComm, Tinker; everything’s there." He finished tying his shoes. "You’ve been overdoing the nursemaid thing, that’s your problem. Let’s go. I’m dying for some fresh air."

"The weather’s grand, man, and I’m going to make you get some. You’re going to be back to classes next week, and you need to be getting back to getting up and around." He tried to look sheepish. "I have that on good authority; Doctor Jenson said so when I called to check in on what he wanted you doing."


"That would be me, the sneak. Just don’t overdo it, Thinker. He said you weren’t going to be at a hundred percent for a while." It was clear that Briggs was seriously concerned about his friend. "Not that you’ve ever been a hundred percent, mind you, but that’s not what he meant."

Lemoyne stood near the door, letting it slide out of the way. "First you sneak behind my back, now you insult me. Dean Briggs, you haven’t changed since we were kids. Out! And if you run me to exhaustion, you get to help me stagger back."

He made his way out the door, letting his recuperating friend follow. "I get the point. Jenson rubbed my face in it too, much more politely than you did. I just figured a stroll in the park, maybe to a park bench or a picnic table, where we can rest and gab to let you get rested if you need it."

"Someone primed you but good, Tinker." The mathematics student pointedly let his friend catch up with him and get into reach. "Let’s go."

Briggs set a tolerable pace, being careful to be sure that Lemoyne was keeping up and not having too hard of a time with the task. After several minutes, the pair found themselves at a picnic table. "Time for a rest, Thinker. You’re starting to slow down, and I’m not at all interested in having to carry you back to your apartment. Plant yourself, pal."

Obligingly, Lemoyne put himself on the bench of the picnic table, looking out over the small lake in the park. "I wasn’t noticing that I was slowing down, Tinker. I’m not sure where you’re getting your ideas. Have you been in the joy juice again, boy? I thought you swore off the stuff years ago."

"Nope, haven’t been in the joy juice." Briggs looked around, as if expecting something. "But that right foot of yours was starting to droop, Jim. That says tired to me. How’s your eye?"

"If I close my left eye, I still can see; it’s just a little fuzzy. It’s getting better every day, though. I’m hoping that it’ll be back to normal soon." He rubbed his eyes a little. "There’s a little numbness on the upper lid, too, but that’s disappearing, too. I’m just glad it wasn’t the vittles at the Gaussian Gang meeting giving me a case of food poisoning. Will they be meeting this week?"

"Without our star data cruncher? I don’t think so! Next week will have to do, and we’re going to make good and sure no one’s spreading anything there. Having the meeting at the infirmary, getting drugs for all around, was quite enough, thank you." The man plopped himself next to his friend. "I just wish I’d had the wit to bring some coffee and grub, man. I should have had you pack up that backpack of yours, you know it?"

"Should have thought of that myself, Tinker, and made you carry it." He shrugged. "That’s life, I suppose. Y’know, Stromboli’s isn’t all that far—not even a half kilometer from here. I think I could manage the distance. A cup of coffee and a sandwich would taste just fine right about now."

"Comin’ up, diseased one!" From a partially concealed path, Karyl and Karyn Culp popped into view, one carrying a bag and the other a handful of disposable cups. "Fresh from the Reardon Kitchen, and hopefully still hot. He said these cups were well insulated."

The recuperating student tried to jump to his feet, an action rendered impossible by the table. "Ladies, please pardon my lack of manners! I seem to be, um, about half stuck, here."

Karyl and Karyn tittered at his predicament. "Half stuck," Karyl offered, "and totally amusing. Sit down before you break your legs." She started laying out what she had in the bag while Karyn distributed the beverages.

"Sorry we were a little late, Dean; the coffee took longer than we thought."

"Now you’re a schemer, too. What other new talents are you hiding, Tinker?" There was no question that Lemoyne was pleased to see the new addition to the gathering.

"Didn’t know I was hiding anything, Thinker; I’ve been scheming mayhem for years, and you know it." Briggs took a long pull off his coffee cup. "Karyl put me up to this, anyway, so I claim total innocence."

"You, innocent?" Lemoyne rolled his eyes. "I’m not buying that solid gold asteroid, buddy, but I definitely do appreciate the company. I just wish I’d brought my compuclip; I have all your data processed, Karyl, nine ways from nowhere."

"Sweet boy! I’m dying to see the results." Karyl batted her eyes. "You’ll have me graduating with honors, I’m sure."

The mathematics student suddenly got serious. "Perhaps so, but you’re the one doing all the work, though I think you may be doing this the hard way. Could we talk business a little bit?"

Karyn sighed. "Believe me, you two can talk business; we’ve learned that." Her sister favored her with a glare of annoyance.

"Oh, give it up, sister mine. Jim, ignore the child; she thinks anything without rhyme and meter is irrelevant. What were you thinking?"

"Well, that you were unnecessarily limiting yourself. It’d be a whole lot easier if I had my compuclipboard, of course, but as I went through the data—it was a good thing you labeled data as being from a protagonist or a villain, and whether the book was avant garde, counter culture or mainstream—what came out was that the heroes and heroines showed particular patterns, and the villains tended to show mirror patterns, at least if you allowed for the avant garde and counter culture stuff being somewhat different than mainstream."

"You need to clarify that a bit, I’m afraid."

"I get it, Thinker: the protagonists display the culturally approved behaviors, more often than not, and the bad guys tend to show the mirror image. When the protagonist does something bad, there is surprise and in the protagonist, contrition or regret." Briggs was clearly surprised that he was following the thought. "Study the good guys and the bad guys, and learn what the cultures feel are good or bad behaviors."

"Or what the ideal they want to move toward, yes." Lemoyne was warming to his thesis. "Now, the selection process would focus on the ideals on interpersonal relationships between people of opposite genders—perhaps courting, perhaps not; the ones that were clearly courting seem to stick out a little and show other, specific patterns. Anyway, I was thinking that if you wanted to generalize this sort of thing, you needed to go to another source altogether: children’s stories, fantasies, fairy tales and that sort of thing."

Karyl perked up. "I never thought of that. That’s where I’d learn the most about the culture anyway: in the children’s stories."

"Have you lost your mind, old woman?" The younger twin was clearly doubtful of her sister’s sanity. "I thought struggling with cultural ideals was something that the more sophisticated adult literature did—like poetry, you know?"

The budding engineer rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Y’know, I’d have thought that myself until just now, Karyn, but now that he mentions it, I think he’s right. Oh, I’m not saying that the children’s stuff is wrestling with cultural ideals is there, but think about it. Children are supposed to be learning the cultural ideals, right? So what better way is there than to engrain them by displaying them in the stories they are read or told or whatever? It’s so obvious that it’s almost frightening that no one has really looked at it before."

"They probably have, Tinker, but if it was back in, say, the twentieth or twenty-first centuries, the whole study wouldn’t have been very interesting. We pretty much know what Human cultural ideals are." Lemoyne gestured with what remained of his sandwich. "Where it will get interesting is looking at the same stuff in other cultures."

"Sounds like you’ve got yourself a good Ph.D. thesis, old woman." Karyn was obviously slightly envious.

"Let’s not get ahead of things, sister mine. I have a master’s thesis to write first." She turned back to Lemoyne again. "How are you doing, anyway? I mean, Reardon’s big bash is three weeks from Saturday. Will there be any problem with your being able to help?"

Lemoyne shook his head and immediately regretted it; the motion triggered a wave of dizziness. He grabbed onto the table to keep his balance, and almost as swiftly, felt Briggs’ hand grabbing his shoulder. "Whoa, Thinker, that’ll be enough of that. I think it might be better if you talked rather than used head movements. I looked up koromycin and it can cause this sort of thing."

The wave of vertigo settled down after only a moment or two. "Thanks for warning me, Tinker." He opened his eyes, then released the table. "You can let blood flow back into my arm, now. I think I’m good until I do something stupid again. How long is this going to last?"

"Do I look like a doctor? According to the textbook on drugs, probably two or three days after your last dose."

"That means I might be suffering with this for up to another week." He looked down at his sandwich; it was not as appetizing as it had been, but hunger won the argument. "Either way, I’ll get the stuff to you, Karyl. I hope you’ll be able to use what I’m shipping you."

"If I have any problems making sense out of it, I can always call." Her eyebrows moved toward each other. "You need to focus on getting better; I can’t have my mathematics hero falling out from under me."

"Despite the little bout of vertigo, this is the best I’ve felt since I’ve left the hospital." To his surprise, Lemoyne realized it was true, and that he had started feeling that way as soon as he had seen Karyl appear. Something tugged at the back of his mind about that, but he chose to ignore it for the minute, finishing his sandwich. "Which reminds me, Dean, have you heard anything from our dads lately?"

"They’re both of the opinion that I should have my programmable field generation tool operational in a month or so, unless there are some snags they didn’t predict." Briggs toyed with his nearly empty cup, then looked up at his old friend. "Frankly, since you produced the math that has made this all come together, I’m feeling a little foolish using it to get my degree, Thinker."

"Think of it as my thanks for getting me to the hospital, Dean, if that makes you feel better." He drained his cup. "Enough of business! Karyl, Karyn, one of you has to have something on your mind that’s not business focused. Bail me out!"

Conversation shifted to mutual acquaintances and shared experiences, and the time passed pleasantly. There was still nearly an hour of light left when Briggs stood. "Ladies, as delightful as this has been, I think Jim’s starting to flag."

"Am not." Despite the brave words, he was starting to hunch forward with exhaustion.

"You are, too; if you lean any further forward, you’re going to have your nose on the table, or maybe your chin. It’s time for you to get some rest, buster." Even Briggs was surprised at how much his friend relied on assistance to get up. "And I’m sure these fine ladies would like to find their way home in the light; you’re in no shape to be escorting them home after dark."

"Don’t worry! We’ll keep in touch." Karyl smiled. "I’ll probably need a little input on those files you promised you’d send me."

"I’ll get them out tonight, if Dean doesn’t take my compuclipboard away from me." He tried to hide his difficulty getting up, but it was clear to all that he was still weak from his illness. "I need to get out more, to build my strength up. Maybe I can make it out again tomorrow. Game, Tinker?"

"That, we discuss tomorrow, Thinker. Come on, you." He turned, looking at the twins. "I hope you aren’t offended by our failing to escort you to your doorstep."

Karyn snorted. "It looks like we should be escorting you two to your doorsteps. I doubt either of us are offended by that, under the circumstances. Get that poor boy back to his couch or bed or whatever before he collapses again."

Both men smiled. Briggs threw Lemoyne’s arm over his shoulders, moving back toward the dorms. Lemoyne waved with his free arm.

Once they were out of eyeshot, Karyl looked over at her twin. "Sister mine, there is something wrong with that pair, did you notice it?"

"If you mean that they’re treating us like another one of the guys, believe me, it’s not unique to them. You ought to talk to Paula Watanabe. Charlie Ngorongo may talk like he’s ogling her, but she swears he’s in love with his compuclipboard."

"Whether or not it’s unique isn’t the point. I did everything short of climb up onto his lap to get him to realize I was a woman, and he seemed totally oblivious." She pursed her lips in frustration. "And that engineering fellow of yours is no better."

"C’mon, old woman. Let’s head home." Karyn took the lead. "I mean, they’re both totally aware that we’re female, but for some reason it’s all still an intellectual thing for them. We’re good friends, and they really like talking to us and being with us, but that’s about as far as it gets. The subtle stuff just isn’t working."

"Tell me news next time, young lady." Karyl picked up the leftovers from their supper, disposed of them and followed her sister. "I guess I need to figure out how to get him where I can be that blatant. Him sitting at a picnic table just isn’t conducive to climbing on his lap. We’re just going to have to figure something or somewhere better than that."

"You’re the specialist in romantic literature, old woman. What would the women in those slushy romance novels of yours do?"

"The only thing that always worked is out of the question, young lady!" Karyl winked. "For the moment, anyway; I’m not sure they’re even alert enough to be interested in that yet."

Karyn slid her card through the entry mechanism. "Then we’ve really got our work cut out for us, don’t we?"

Friday, October 28, 2168

Reardon’s grand gala came all too swiftly. In the hall that the professor had reserved for the affair, Lemoyne and Briggs were still adjusting the prototype autochef to their exacting specifications. Around them, the hall had been decorated appropriately, with tables and chairs set and decorated, but the serving table had been left untouched. When the Culp twins arrived to assist with the setup, they immediately moved to the table and began setting things up to handle what they expected to be a large-scale flow of people. Briggs looked up. "Afternoon, ladies! As soon as you get that table set to rights, and we get this last sticky valve fixed, we’re going to need to get the sensors installed."

"Half a dozen of them, right?" Karyl didn’t even look up from the table she was working on. "How high up do they have to go?"

"Almost to the ceiling, I’m afraid. We’ve got a couple of ladders to use." He closed a panel. "There’s that done. You ladies set up and ready to go?"

"Not until you boys quit playing with your toy and get it rolling some finger food out." It was Karyn this time. "Why don’t you fellows get ingredients loaded and get some stuff cooking, then we’ll get those sensors in place. How are they going to be mounted?"

"Adhesive patches; peel and stick. And the autochef is already loaded and ready for bear. You pick what you want it to produce, and give it a time frame when you want it by and, as long as you’re not being irrational about it, you’ll have it out the business end." Briggs was setting up a ladder as he talked.

Karyn moved over to where Briggs was; Karyl moved to Lemoyne. "And I’ll climb the ladder, numbers boy; you can hold it. With the dizziness you’ve been having, you stay on the floor. I don’t need you breaking something, mister. You need to be able to hold up your end this evening."

Lemoyne chuckled. "Okay, okay, Mother Hen, I’ll hold the ladder." He set up the ladder near one corner of the hall. "Here’s a sensor; up you go."

Obligingly, Karyl climbed the ladder, sensor in hand. She reached up with the sensor. "High enough?"

"A bit higher, and to your left, if you can. See how close you can get it to the corner."

Karyl strained, stretching away from the ladder. Not satisfied with where the sensor was, she put one hand on the wall and stretched a little further. With a shriek, she lost her balance, sending the sensor flying. Abandoning the ladder he had been holding, Lemoyne placed himself in her path, catching her as she fell. Gently, without releasing her totally, he let her feet drop to the ground. She looked up, seeing an almost confused expression on his face as he looked down at hers. "Are you feeling okay, number cruncher? You don’t look quite yourself."

Instead of answering, he bent forward, gently but firmly planting his lips on hers, wrapping his free arm around her as well. Turning slightly, Karyl responded, throwing her arms around his neck, pulling his face tightly against hers. Gently disengaging himself, he smiled lopsidedly. "I don’t think I’ve ever felt this good before, Karyl."

She returned the smile, pulling him back to her. "Is that so? Well, maybe we should administer a second dose anyway, just to make sure the therapy is adequate."

With the shriek on the other side of the gym, Briggs and his co-worker turned, the engineering student seeing the impending crisis and jumping off the ladder. Before either could do more than turn, events were in motion that made it clear no help was needed. Karyn’s face shifted to a look tinged with envy, a fact that was not lost on the young man next to her. Briggs reached forward, turning the younger twin to face him. "Do I have to fall off the ladder, too, Karyn?"

"No." She turned her face upward, meeting his moving down, muffling any other response.

Unnoticed, Reardon entered through a side door. One minute passed, then two. Finally, he moved back to the door, closing it rather more noisily than necessary. All four of the others jumped, moving apart. The culinary expert smiled benignly, remembering back to his own youth. "All things considered, if you folks could bookmark this and pick up here later, I’d appreciate it. The guests will be arriving in just over eighty minutes, and I’m hoping to have a bang up buffet ready for them when they arrive. Here’s the menu I’ve got in mind, at least for starters."

Slightly embarrassed, they resumed planting the sensors, this time without further mishap. True to its design, the autochef began delivering pastries and canapés, which were rapidly whisked to the table and set out for all to enjoy. A pair of large bowls of punch, one brilliant red the other a deep green, took the ends of the table. Karyn looked over at Reardon. "Hey, what’s with this menu? There isn’t any coffee anywhere on it. With Starfleet personnel, not having coffee is potentially lethal."

"We’ll have coffee; I’m just having some of the folks from the restaurant bring over a couple of large coffee makers. Don’t worry; I’ll have my staff taking care of that; you guys just focus on the punch and the food. You’re going to have all you can handle managing that, I’m willing to bet." Reardon picked up a small pastry. "Time for some quality control, here."

The twins rolled their eyes, and went back to work.


Before long, cadets, brass and an assortment of other Starfleet personnel began arriving, putting the table to the test. Within half an hour, the area was packed, and it was all the foursome could do to keep the table filled with comestibles. Episodically, Reardon would come back to the table area, to check on how things were going or to suggest replacing something with a different offering. By the time Reardon chased the last of the folks out of the hall he’d rented, it was nearing nine in the evening. Staff from Stromboli’s were clearing things up as he descended on Lemoyne and Briggs. "So, how did the data collection go, gentlemen?"

"I’m just glad I brought a high-powered box to process the inputs, Doc." Briggs stood up from the computer he’d been squatting near. "It’s still crunching data, but we’ve got it all logged and ready for detailed analysis. You’ll have some good quality data in, oh, two or three days."

"Karyn, Karyl, how did the autochef perform?"

"We could have handled twice as many people easily, Nate." Karyn wiped her forehead. "Well, the machine could have; we’d have needed a couple more folks tending the table. I had no idea how much provender a crowd could go through in that short a period of time. Talk about a bunch of mobile appetites, let me tell you."

"Look, you four were marvelous. Why don’t you get out of here and let my restaurant staff finish the cleanup? They’re getting paid well enough for it, and you guys were doing this essentially volunteer." The professor stared at the ceiling. "Anyway, I think you guys have some unfinished business to tend to, don’t you? Things that might be better handled without a crowd."

All four went a little red in the face, Lemoyne speaking for them all. "Thanks, Doc. I think maybe we do need to be moving on." He turned. "Care to keep me company, Karyl?"

"With pleasure, Jim." She took the offered arm and allowed herself to be guided out of the building, Briggs and her sister coming along behind. They walked in silence for a while, finding themselves alone in front of the twin’s apartment building.

Lemoyne stopped, turning to Karyl. "About earlier, I hope you don’t think I was being pushy, or taking advantage of you, then. I, uh…" He started to stammer a little.

"You were certainly being pushy and taking advantage of things, Mister Lemoyne. But I’ll forgive you if you kiss me again." Karyl lifted her chin just slightly, her lips parting almost imperceptibly. Lemoyne obliged, noticing that the other two were already at the same business. Almost reluctantly, the pairs moved apart. She looked up. "I’m all sweaty and smelly. Tomorrow’s Saturday; maybe we could discuss the data somewhere quiet?"

"I’d like that. Where do you want to meet? Or shall I come to your doorstep?"

"We can meet here at the apartment. I’ll bet Karyn’s got the same idea with Dean; we twins can almost read each other’s minds." She gently leaned against Lemoyne, enjoying it thoroughly. "We can refine the details then. Maybe lunch?"

"Lunch, then, and maybe even dinner." The mathematics graduate student seemed as pleased at the thought as Karyl was. "Until then?"

She nodded. Out of the corner of her eye, Karyl saw Karyn triggering the door mechanism. "I’ll dream of what happened tonight until then." Reluctantly, she disappeared into the door with her twin.

Briggs looked over, trying to tame the coal black hair Karyn had been running her hands through. "Man, Thinker, look what you’ve got us into, will you?"

"Yeah." The man smiled. "Ain’t it grand?"


Karyn and Karyl hurried into their apartment, Karyl throwing herself onto a chair. Karyn looked her in the eye. "Old woman that was the best job of acting I’ve ever seen you do, and that’s saying something. Arranging to have that man catch you when you pretended to fall was a master stroke."

Karyl kicked her shoes off, putting her feet under herself. "Sister mine, that was no act; I really did fall. Would that I could claim I planned it. The results were, to say the least, wonderful." She hugged a pillow to herself. "At least for me. You looked like you weren’t exactly disappointed, either."

"Mmmmm… No, I can’t claim to be disappointed." Karyn plopped herself on a corner of the couch. "Hopefully, I’ll stay that way."

"Well, if nothing else, tonight cleared up something for me in my literature research."

"Such as?"

"I finally understand what it means to fall in love, and it’s every bit as wonderful as the novels make it out to be, and better." She hugged the pillow a little tighter. "If you’re as head over heels as I am, we’re going to have to watch ourselves with those two. The hackneyed plot line of an innocent woman falling is starting to make some real sense to me."

"Me, too, Karyl. For the first time in my life, I’m really tempted by it. Isn’t that totally primitive?" Karyn sighed. "It’s a blissful agony, just like the poets say. Double dates for us for sure, and we’ll have to watch out for each other, so we don’t succumb to temptation."

"Tempted; that’s me, too, sister mine." She got up. "It’s time for a shower and dreamland."

Saturday, October 29, 2168

To the mathematics student’s surprise, it was barely after eight the next morning when Briggs showed up at Lemoyne’s dorm room. "What’s up, Tinker? We’re not meeting the ladies until a bit before noon."

"Yeah, I know. Look, are you up to a trip to the lab? I’ve got a prototype of my programmable field generation tool going, but I’d like some math-crunching help. I mean, it should work, but I need your assistance in getting things rolling." He shrugged. "What it boils down to is that I’m insecure enough in the math that I could assume the problem was my calculations, rather than my machine. You’re good enough; you should be able to catch problems with the machine, know what I mean?"

"Plenty well. Just let me get a coat on; it looks like there may be some rain, and I’m not taking any chances here." A windbreaker came out of the closet went over his arm. "Lead on, Tinker, and fill me in on what you want to do."

"I want to watch you pick up your compuclipboard and carry it with you, oh forgetful person." Briggs rolled his eyes. "Man, you are one distracted hunk of Humanity, do you know that?"

"To forget my compuclip going to your lab, I must be totally out of contact with reality, and no mistake about it." He retrieved the compuclipboard from a table and moved with his friend. "I guess I’m still reeling from last night."

"Whoa, Thinker, I thought you were actually enjoying that. It sure looked like you were having the time of your life."

"Yeah, like you could tell, the way you were concentrating." Lemoyne chuckled briefly, then became serious. "Seriously, though, Dean, we’re both moving to our mid-twenties, the time when most folks are starting to think about settling down, having a career and a family. We’ve pretty much been so wrapped up in our studies and our number crunching and gear heading that we haven’t really given that much thought."

"Not until you caught Karyl last night, anyway, Thinker; I’ve got to admit, I’m beginning to think along the same lines." He opened the door for his companion, letting the man enter the engineering lab building. "We always used to wish we were brothers, remember? Maybe this is how we manage it, you think?"

"That’s me; I think while you tinker. Just you be sure you set some sort of alarm so we don’t get so wrapped up in what we’re doing that we forget to meet the ladies. I was thinking maybe a light lunch, and a serious dinner somewhere—other than Stromboli’s. I don’t need Reardon razzing us."

"I’ll set it for eleven hundred, then; that way we can pick up something on the way to pick up Karyn and Karyl. We can work out the details for our supper with them." Briggs fiddled with some equipment, then pointed to a box on the bench with a large cable leading to it, and a slimmer one connecting it to a computer nearby. "Here’s the programmable field generator, Thinker. It supposedly runs, but I’m just not getting any good sense on my readings from what I’m doing."

"Like that helps me. You’re doing what?"

"See that scale over there? The one on the small platform?" He pointed to a scale with a large chunk of iron on it. "What I’m doing is idiot simple: I’m creating a field under the platform that absorbs the gravitational field to a variable degree. As I do, the weight of that fifty kilo block of iron should drop. It just flat out doesn’t."

Lemoyne yawned. "And you’re surprised out the eyes that it doesn’t, aren’t you?"

"Hello! Less gravity, less weight, remember?"

"Yeah, yeah, I know all that." Lemoyne shook his head. "Did it dawn on you that you’re using a balance beam scale, man? The weight is calculated from how far down a lever arm you have to move a fixed weight. What you’re really measuring is their relative masses—because your fixed weight is having gravity shielded from it exactly as much as the block of iron."

Briggs slapped himself on the forehead. "I’m an idiot. I should have seen that."

"How about you rig something that crosses the area—maybe a steel I-beam—that extends to either side of where your field is, and rig a way to measure the weight based on some change in the rod caused by the load?"

"Great idea. Just a sec." He began rummaging around the laboratory, producing a steel beam. "This ought to do. I-beam’s flat on two sides, so we’ve got a stable surface to put the weight on. We can measure the deformity caused by the load. I’ve got a handful of calibration weights, and we can take it from there." The budding engineer produced a couple of sawhorses. "Here, take one of these, and let’s get the bar across it. Then I can fix a milliwatt powered laser to run up and down the wall with the deformation. Put a couple meter sticks on the wall, then feed the measurement into the computer for mass estimates. Hmmmm…"

"Y’know, Tinker, it really doesn’t matter what the exact mass is—what matters is the change being about what we’d expect."

"Good point. Let’s get moving!"

The two men rigged the apparatus, moving the block of iron onto the I-beam, letting it gently bend under the load. On the wall of the lab, the point of light jumped up the wall. Briggs nodded, moving to the controls at the bench. "Ready, Jim?"

"Ready, Tinker. I’ve got rough estimates of how much that that point should move for several different percentages of blockage of gravity. Turn it on and let’s see how it works. Give me, oh, fifteen percent absorption."

Silently, he worked a control. Obligingly, the light moved down the wall, its resting place carefully recorded. "Right where I expected it. Run it up to thirty percent."

The point of light moved again, as expected. At fifty and seventy five percent, the light moved to where Lemoyne anticipated. "Okay, Tinker, let’s run it up to total absorption."

"I don’t think so." Briggs put his hand over the box he’d built. "This thing’s perilously close to overheating as it is, and the power needed to absorb the gravitation seems to be scaling on an exponential. To run the field up enough to block all gravitation would take more power than I can pump in, for the moment. Blocking gravity takes a whale of a lot more power than generating it."

"Oh, well—near infinite power would be a little hard to manage. We’d probably raise a few eyebrows at the Institute, wouldn’t we? ‘Yes, well, I realize we were using more power than the entire North American continent, but we wanted to see if we could get to ninety eight percent absorption of gravity.’ I don’t think we’re going to get by with that, Tinker." The point of light on the wall slowly returned to where it had started as Briggs allowed the field to collapse. "Either way, Tinker, I’d say you’ve scored a big success here. I’m impressed. I need one of these built into my backpack. Think of the amount I could carry!"

"Forget it, Thinker. You’d have to have a gargantuan extension cord to do it." A chime sounded from somewhere. "Whoops, that’s our alarm, telling us to make tracks to the visit the Culp twins. Let me just get this all shut down, and we can hike off."

Leaving the steel beam setup as it was, Briggs shut his programmable field generation tool down, shooing Lemoyne out of the lab and carefully locking the door. "I can hardly wait until I show this to the engineering professors."

"Let’s not get into a big hurry, man. Maybe we could come up with a couple of other things to dazzle them with before you do." He furrowed his brow. "Not that I can think of anything off hand, other than maybe generating gravity or something. Maybe Karyl and Karyn will have an idea, think?"

"Maybe so." The twosome moved out of the elevator and out the building. "It’ll give us something to gab about over lunch, anyway. They’re pretty creative, you know it?"

"I had noticed. For that matter, they’re just pretty." Lemoyne smiled a little. "I wish I thought a pair of beauties like that would be willing to settle down with a couple of oddballs like you and me."

"Yeah, no kidding. We can but dream. What we end up marrying will probably be more of a nightmare, I guess." Briggs shrugged. "Such is life. Hey, maybe we should take the ladies for lunch somewhere. That’d be easier than trying to guess what sounds good to them."

"You’re on."

Before them, the building the Culp twins lived in loomed. "There’s got to be some sort of signaling thing, here. When we’ve come for them before, they were at the door waiting; we’re awfully early." Briggs studied the area. He thumbed a contact, leaning forward to be near a speaker grille. "Jim Lemoyne and Dean Briggs here to meet the Culp twins."

"Hi, Dean!" The door buzzed next to him. "Apartment 1927; come on up. Karyn’s having a bad hair day, and it’ll be a few more minutes. She’s threatening to have me shave her bald in frustration."

"We’ll be right up, Karyl." Lemoyne grabbed the door opening it, ushering his friend in before him. The two elevators opened off either side of the foyer, with the foyer opening into a corridor leading to an assortment of first floor apartments. Silently, the two summoned the elevator, riding it to the nineteenth floor; the apartment was several doors off to one side. Briggs gently rapped on the door, to have Karyl usher them in.

"Karyn says it’ll be ten or fifteen minutes. You boys are early. Find a place to sit, and do try to stay out of trouble." Karyl waved to the chairs. "Either of you want something to drink? Water, milk, perhaps some orange juice?"

"Thanks, but I’m okay. Dean and I thought we’d see if you two would like to grab some lunch somewhere, maybe sit and talk for a while. Game?" He was surprised to see that Karyl was wearing a simple dress rather than the slacks she and her sister usually wore.

"Game." Karyl sat on the couch, tucking her feet under herself. "Just not Stromboli’s, today; I’m more in the mood for Greek. Katsina’s isn’t far."

"Sounds good; a gyro would hit the spot—no onions, I promise."

"Good. I’d hate to have to hold my breath the rest of the afternoon."

The engineer winked. "Karyn might be in deep trouble, then." As he spoke, she entered the room, wearing an identical outfit, but her hair in a tail rather than loose.

"Either that, or you’re going to be in even worse trouble, Mister." Karyn wore a mock frown, briefly. "Did I hear Katsina’s?"

"The thought had come up, sister mine."

"Well, I’m starved. Let’s go, before someone starts rumors about us entertaining two men in our apartment." Karyn opened the door. "After you, gentlemen."

A little over an hour later, the four were lingering over their coffee and the remains of some baklava. Karyn looked over at Briggs. "So, enough small talk. How’s that programmable thingumabob of yours coming along?"

"Did the first successful test on it this morning, actually." He sipped the last of his coffee. "Constructed a field that absorbed the Earth’s gravity a bit—made a fifty kilo block of iron drop to about twelve and a half kilos weight before the power demands got too high to tolerate."

Her eyes opening widely, Karyl leaned forward. "You mean to say this gadget will make someone weigh less?"

"Well, yes; your actual intertial mass won’t change, but the weight can be dropped in the area above the field." The engineering student’s brow furrowed. "You’re interested in this?"

"In our greatest competitor for your attention? You have to be one of the last of the gentle innocents!" Karyl leaned over to her sister. "What do you think? Want to see it working?"

"I’d love to see this work." Karyn nodded vigorously. "Is it big enough for one of us to sit over? I really want to stress this gadget."

"It’s big enough for the pair of you to stand on," Lemoyne offered. "We used a two and a half meter long steel I-beam across the area, and measured the changes in the weight by the minute changes in how the beam deformed under the load. Sitting on it might be a little uncomfortable."

"So we stand. Let’s go!"

Briggs got up. "Tell you what, I’ll settle the tab for lunch, Jim, and if the ladies will let us take them to supper before they head home, you can pick up the tab then. Or we can divvy it up later."

"Good enough, Tinker." He stood. "It’s over at Dean’s lab at the Institute. It’ll take a little while to power up, and all. You sure you don’t want to change into something more practical?"

The twins looked at each other, then shook their heads. "I don’t think we’ll need to do that," Karyl offered. "It’s not like we’re planning calisthenics or anything."

"Up to you. Come on, let’s see if we can catch Dean." Lemoyne pulled Karyl’s, then Karyn’s, chair out for them. "He moves awfully quickly when he’s got a chance to show off one of his little gizmos."


Moments later, the foursome found their way into Briggs’ lab area. While he got the programmable field generation tool started, Lemoyne helped the twins onto the I-beam. "You two are sure you want to do this? I thought you two were just kidding."

"Kidding nothing, numbers boy." Karyl slowly walked to nearly the middle of the beam. "You obviously have absolutely no inkling about ladies our age and our attitude about stomping on our competition."

Karyn nodded. "They’re the last of the sweet innocents, I’m telling you, old woman. They have clearly been living with their nose in a textbook too much." She sidled to where she was just within reach of her twin. "Where’s the readout on this thing?"

"That little red dot over there on the wall." Briggs pointed. "We haven’t actually calibrated it to give an approximation of your actual weight."

"Good!" The twins’ response came in emphatic unison.

Briggs just rolled his eyes. "All set over there, Thinker?"

"Looks like it, Tinker. Run it up to about twenty percent. You ladies watch the red dot fall, okay?"

Obligingly, the budding engineer complied. The twins giggled with glee as the red dot dropped. "Look at that, sister mine. This gadget really works!" Karyl turned to Briggs. "Is that the highest setting you can run it to?"

"I can go a good deal higher; nearly three times that."

"This I have to see. Crank it up!"

Lemoyne’s brow furrowed. "Look, are you guys sure about that? This is only the second time we’ve run this thing, and there may be effects we haven’t anticipated." He wasn’t sure what it was, but something was bothering him.

"Ignore the worry wart, Mister Briggs! Take it as high as the thing will go." Karyn stared at the red dot. "This little gadget is incredible. Think how much less my feet could hurt at the end of a long day if I had one of these things."

Briggs adjusted a setting on the machine before him. As he did, the red dot slowly lowered; simultaneously, the hems of the ladies’ dresses first began to dance, then to move upward. Before anyone could react, a breeze had formed, almost flipping the twins’ hemlines over their face. Squealing, the women tried to push the disobedient hemline back where it belonged, with only modest success. Briggs cut the power, the women’s clothing drifting back where it belonged.

"Okay, that wasn’t anticipated." Lemoyne’s forehead furrowed. "Obviously, we forgot that dropping the gravitational pull on the column of air dropped its pressure—allowing the air on either side to flow in, then upward." He had the decency to look embarrassed. "Iron blocks don’t usually move in the wind much."

Karyn hopped off the bar, helping Karyl follow. "I guess that’s what we get for not wearing slacks." She shrugged. "Either way, that gizmo of yours works. I’m impressed."

"Does it do anything else?" Karyl brushed her hair back with one hand. "Ah, read that anything else, as long as it isn’t going to embarrass us?"

"I’m sure it can; we just haven’t tried doing anything else. Thinker? Ideas?"

"Give me a second to think." Lemoyne looked up at the ceiling for a moment, deep in thought. "Tinker, does the computer here tap into the commnet?"

"Sure. Why?"

"Never mind. Let me at it a moment, will you?" He began tapping controls on his compuclipboard. "I’ve got a thought, but I’m not sure it’ll work worth a hoot. I just hope you’ve got a good power supply going here; this might be a real power hog." He tapped a little longer. "Okay. Tinker, give me a hand moving that stuff out of the way. This should make amends for our little faux pas. Then, if you ladies would stand on the little platform for us?"

Quickly, the men moved the I-beam and the sawhorses out of the way. Lemoyne made a couple of adjustments. "Bring the field up to about ten percent power, Dean." Ghostly forms appeared near the ladies. "Okay, if you two would just shift a little, so that you’re actually in the projections?" The twins obliged, somewhat cautiously. "Karyl, just a little more to the left, please? Good. Give me a second, here. Is there a mirror around here?"

"Yeah, in the john, Thinker. Not in the lab."

"Rats. okay, I’ll program something like that in, too." He tapped a little more. "That ought to do it. Tinker, run the power up; you’ll know when to stop, if you’re paying attention."

As the power increased, the ghostly images around the women slowly took a more solid form, a semi-transparent mirror forming in front of them. What appeared was a pair of medieval gowns, fit for royalty, with what looked like a tiara just above their heads. Lemoyne tapped on the control gently, and the tiaras seated on them. Both women gasped at their reflection.

"These are beautiful." Karyn’s hand went to her mouth, leaving the sleeve behind. "Where, how, I mean…" She sputtered into silence, allowing her arm to go back into the projected sleeve.

"I pulled the images off an archive site for ancient clothes." Pleased with the results, Lemoyne looked at his compuclipboard, then back at the ladies. "I thought you might like the outfits. I had to guess a little at the sizes involved; that’s why the tiara was a little high, for instance. Anyway, I’ve got the computer over there programmed to create the image of whatever I feed it, in as close to your size as I could estimate. I think I did pretty well. You could put on anything you can find on the commnet, if the three dimensional picture is good enough."

Impressed, Briggs looked up. "We’re talking playing paper dolls with real Humans, eh? You ladies feel like playing dressing up with electronic dresses?"

"I’m impressed." Karyn looked at her twin. "There’re a couple things we could try on, aren’t there, older sister?"

"Given the glint in that evil left eye of yours, sister mine, I have the feeling I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing what you’re thinking." Karyl pulled a wry face. "Okay, read that almost wearing what you’re thinking. Naughty child! They’ve already seen more of us than they need to."

"Oh, act your advanced age, woman. They’re projecting an image; they won’t see under what we’ve got on."

"That would look silly—a skimpy bikini over a dress, sister mine."

Lemoyne had been tapping on his compuclipboard. "Now you know why I picked something with puffy sleeves and a ballooning skirt. Of course, it could have been worse. Here comes trouble!" He tapped a final control, and the image around the women shifted from that of a gorgeous gown to the image of a muscle-bound weight lifter. "How’s that?"

"Good heavens, that body is male. Get rid of that one!" Karyn looked scandalized by it.

"Hey, why don’t you let the Thinker and I trade places with you? That might be more fun." Dean looked at the images. "Game, Thinker?"

"Just let me make a little adjustment or two; I’ve got about a couple centimeters on you in height." The adjustment made, Lemoyne moved to displace Karyl; Briggs followed after him.

"Oooh, don’t they look muscular?" Karyn giggled, turning to the computer’s keyboard. "Hey, what happens if I poke this little back arrow button?"

The weight lifters were replaced by the gowns and tiaras, making the men look singularly silly. Karyl’s upper lip twitched in amusement. "They just look amazing in those things, don’t they?"

Briggs looked at his friend. "Hey, I never realized how cute you really are, Thinker. We ought to do this more often. How’s about a smooch?"

"When a white dwarf freezes over, Tinker." Lemoyne moved out of the projection. "This definitely looked better on the women. Let me have that compuclipboard, will you?"

"Oh, no, not a chance." Karyn pretended to hold it out of reach. "I’m having far too much fun."

"I’ll show you fun." The mathematics student managed to grab the compuclipboard. "Watch this." He tapped briefly, then hustled back to the image, which shifted from medieval gown to armor. "How do we look as knights in shining armor, eh?"

The twins looked at each other, then broke out laughing. "You look wonderful, but somehow it just doesn’t work out as being nearly as much fun as the gowns were on you two, right sister mine?"

"Careful, older sister, or you’ll end up wearing a witch outfit." Karyn winked. "Not that you wouldn’t deserve it at this point."

It was the men’s turn to chuckle. "Enough. Maybe we’ll think of something later, but for now, how about a walk in the woods?"

"I can do that!" Lemoyne tapped on the compuclipboard; suddenly, the two were surrounded by trees and small, stationary creatures staring at them. "Not very impressive, but at least it’s a three dimensional projection."

Karyl rolled her eyes. "That would be real woods, not still life images."

"You didn’t specify." He tapped his compuclipboard a time or two, clearing the image. "But I knew that’s what you meant." Lemoyne chuckled. "Maybe Tinker and I can come up with something more interesting, somewhere along the line. Game, Tinker?"

"More or less—you’re going to have to convince me it’s safe to do what you’re planning." His brow furrowed. "The faux pas we started with makes a major point, folks; there could be, and probably will be, unanticipated consequences to anything that we do with the programmable field generation tool." Briggs finished the powering down sequence. "I need to take this to my graduate advisor, anyway, before I get a load older. If it’s half what I hope it is, I may just have completed my graduate work." He opened the door to the lab. "After you, ladies and math freak." As they exited, Briggs locking his laboratory door behind them, the engineering student saw Karyl slide her hand into Lemoyne’s. Without thinking, Lemoyne’s hand engulfed hers, gently squeezing it. Catching up with Karyn, he took the initiative, getting a pleased smile in reward of his efforts.

Saturday, December 9, 2169

Hours turned into days, and days to weeks and months. Lemoyne’s mathematics thesis was shaped up enough to submit to his faculty advisor; equally, Briggs’ work was committed to paper and submitted as well. The programmable field generation tool had become both the delight and the bane of their associates. There had been a few memorable pranks pulled on other students with it, to say nothing of things done with the Culp twins, and considerable serious work, much of it driven by members of the Gaussian Gang developing applications during the meetings. In between meetings of the Gaussian Gang, classes and class work and massaging their papers, the two men managed to spend considerable time with the Culp twins, particularly their evenings. The pair stepped out of the elevator, heading back to their shared apartment. "Sister mine, where do you think we’re headed, here?"

Karyn shrugged. "I have enough trouble remembering the past and understanding the present, older sister. I refuse to predict the future." She opened the door to their shared apartment. "I must admit, though, that I have hopes. There is a distinct potential for transparent carbon on our fingers in the not too distant future, don’t you think?"

"Well, we did spend a lot of time at jewelry stores this evening, looking at diamond rings, didn’t we?" Karyl kicked her shoes off, picking them up. "If that’s any omen, then we may be having to make wedding plans before long. Being the older, of course, I shall be the first one married."

"Oh, yeah? Says you! I think Dean’s going to pop the question first, and you’re going to have to take second seat for a change." Chuckling, Karyn kicked her shoes off too. "Well, maybe not. He usually seems to follow the lead with your man, old woman."

"This is so unromantic, you know it?" Pursing her lips pensively, Karyl plopped down in a chair. "Hey, I’ve got an idea—what about setting them some sort of contest. Winner gets his bride first, and the other one gets married a month later."

"Oooooh, you are absolutely scintillating, girl. Nothing like having our men competing for us; it’s straight out of the romantic ballads. I’ve got just the idea. Give them three months—if Jim can come up with something that Dean can’t do on his bench with that field tool of his, you get married first; if not, we do. Sound good?"


Monday, January 22, 2170

The BellComm chime almost made Briggs jump out of his skin. He had been concentrating on improving the design of the programmable field generation tool—popularly known as the Briggs Field Generator, to his annoyance—to the point that he had almost forgotten the existence of a world outside of his bench. He tapped a contact on the device.

"Dean, I think we are deep in asteroids at light speed."

"Hello to you, too, Thinker. I presume you have something to support that idea."

"Look, Tinker, you need to check your mail on the commnet. I’m not kidding. We are lasered and ionized, big time." There was no mistaking the worry in Lemoyne’s voice.

Obligingly, but skeptically, Briggs flipped through the notes. One caught his eye; he opened it, and his jaw dropped. "Oh, man, Thinker, you weren’t kidding, an official communication from Dean William Culp. Look, Culp isn’t that rare of a name. Maybe the twins aren’t related to Dean Culp. I mean, maybe there’s another reason why we’re being summoned to the office of academic affairs at the Institute. It’s got to be a weird coincidence."

"Dream on, Tinker. We’re from different departments of the school, and we’re both summoned to arrive at the same time, at the office of a bigwig in administration whose last name just happens to be the same as the one the girls we’re dating, whose dad just happens to work at the Institute. Convince me that the odds of that happening by chance aren’t too small to be worth my time. Please."

"Okay, maybe it’s weird, but I still don’t think it’s got anything to do with Karyn and Karyl. We’ve been perfect gentlemen." Briggs shrugged, completely forgetting that his friend couldn’t see the gesture. "Well, almost, anyway. Either way, the way I read this, I’ve got forty-five minutes to clean up and be presentable. Meet you at Admin in thirty minutes."

"You’re on. But just in case, I’d suggest that you make sure your last will and testament is up to date. I’ve already updated mine. See you there." The connection ended, Briggs scurrying to shut things down and clean himself up.


Looking like a pair of condemned men making their way to imprisonment, Briggs and Lemoyne made their way into the antechamber before Dean’s office. A young lady at a desk looked up. "May I help you, gentlemen?"

"Mister Lemoyne and I have been asked to report to talk with Dean Culp, Ma’am."

She looked down at a display. "Ah, Briggs and Lemoyne. Excellent. The dean is waiting for you; he gave explicit instructions to have you go directly in to his office as soon as you arrived." She waved them to the door behind her. "Go on in."

Nervously, Lemoyne took the lead, Briggs not far behind. Behind the desk revealed by the opened door, there was a middle-aged man, dark of hair but light of skin, working on some document or other. He looked up as they entered, standing. "Welcome, welcome. Please be seated."

Briggs looked over the man’s shoulder, seeing the photographs behind him. He caught Lemoyne’s eye, nodding towards them. One of the pictures showed the man with Karyl and Karyn. Briggs swallowed, hard. "Um, look, I, uh, I mean…"

Seeing the sudden change in both men’s expressions, the man looked behind himself, then back at the two men. "I see you’ve noticed the picture of my daughters and me. From the panic on your faces, I’ll assume that you’re the two Institute students they’ve been babbling about for the last several months." He chuckled. "Knowing that I’m in Administration, gentlemen, they have been most cautious about not revealing your identity. Your presence here has absolutely nothing to do with them. Karyl and Karyn are both adults; I try to stay out of their personal affairs."

Relief flooded over both men’s faces. "Dean and I are both relieved to hear that, Dean Culp. You have to understand that your urgent summons and the coincidence of the names was, to say the least, somewhat worrisome."

"Look, if the girls had told me who you were, you would have been summoned much differently. I just hope you two know what you’re doing; the twins are dangerously intelligent." He shook his head in frustration. "I suppose if their mother had still been alive, they might have confided in her, but under the circumstances, well, they probably were afraid I would interfere. Either way, please accept my apologies for the unanticipated angst."

"No problem, sir." Lemoyne looked over at Briggs, then back again. "What did you have in mind?"

Culp sat down behind his desk, bringing up a file on his inset readout. "Two things, gentlemen: First of all, I have been approached by Doctor Paul Stratton about a device the two of you were responsible for building some time ago. There has been some income generated by the device, a large portion of which Doctor Stratton says you are due. That, Paul could have handled easily enough. What complicates the matter is that a firm specializing in producing scientific instruments has approached Doctor Stratton, unaware of the fact that you gentlemen hold the patent and copyright. As it stands, the Institute has no formal policy on the handling such things, especially ones that you developed on your own time. One will be developed, over this: Paul Stratton delights in finding little things like this, and setting us up. Be that as it may, on the table, there is a very generous offer for the rights to produce and market the device; Doctor Stratton feels that he has negotiated the best price possible. Let me show you the offer."

A pair of papers appeared, seemingly from nowhere; Culp handed one to each of the men. "I would presume you both would prefer to look the details over at a later date; I assure you, as a party totally disinterested in the whole issue, the contract is quite standard, and the offer is generous."

"I already don’t like it, sir." Briggs looked up. "Stratton doesn’t get anything."

"Dean’s right. Doctor Stratton deserves something for doing the negotiating, at least." Lemoyne looked down at the paper before him, then back at Culp. "This is more than my dad makes in five years, Dean."

"Paul Stratton felt that the contract should be between the company and the two of you; he was willing to trust your sense of fair play. That’s another thing the policy had better address." The dean sat back down, making a notation on the blotter in front of him, almost looking nervous. "Listening to you, I think he was perfectly reasonable in his decision."

"Thinker, give me an opinion."

"I’m in, Tinker, if you’re comfortable. How well do you trust Stratton?"

"Well enough. We can discuss how much to cut him in on this later, I guess." Briggs looked back at the man on the other side of the desk. "This isn’t going to keep either of us from developing new stuff, is it sir? We just have to let them have first refusal on any design that does automated tuning of test equipment, right?"

"You are most perceptive, Mister Briggs." He nodded. "You will also have noticed that they will be paying you at a mutually satisfactory rate for anything along those lines you develop."

"I’m willing to hazard a guess that you can produce copies of the contract fairly quickly, sir." The mathematics graduate student allowed himself to sit more comfortably in the chair. "You said there were a couple of issues. I’m curious what else needs brought to the table."

Culp nodded. "Good. Gentlemen, I’m sure you are both aware that you can anticipate receiving your master’s degrees soon."

"There is the whole issue of defending our theses." Lemoyne rubbed his chin. "I don’t know about how things are over in Engineering, Dean, but I can’t count on anything until my master’s thesis has been through that."

"I have already talked to Doctor Spitznagel, your faculty advisor; he is most impressed with your work. At my request, he has shared your thesis with the others in the Mathematics department. I’ve done the equivalent for you, Mister Briggs, with your programmable field generation tool. You are both guaranteed your degrees this spring, gentlemen."

"That’s a major relief to hear, sir, but I can’t see you calling us here to tell us that." Lemoyne scratched his head. "I guess I need to be thinking about looking for somewhere to get my doctorate."

Culp leaned forward, somewhat more intent. "That is part of the reason you are here. I have been approached by the deans of several areas in the Institute and asked to approach you two about completing your doctoral level work here. You will of course be shirttail faculty until your doctoral work is done, and if you continue to mature as you have been doing, I think I can say with confidence that you will be offered full faculty positions in your respective departments. Both the immediate contract and the long term one will, I am sure, be most generous. Particularly the pure science department at the Institute is hungry for individuals to improve its credibility, right now."

"Just a minute, I’m not sure I’m getting this, Dean." Briggs shook his head, as if clearing it. "If I’m hearing you right, you’re guaranteeing us a job as junior faculty to follow, entry into the Institute Ph.D. program, and a top notch shot at becoming faculty when we’re done."

"Approximately, yes. I have been empowered to offer you both full scholarships for your Ph.D. work, too."

"Right." Lemoyne looked at Briggs, then back at Culp. "What’s the catch, sir? Slave labor or something?"

"Hopefully not quite slave labor, Jim, or at least that’s not the intent." Culp sat back in his chair. "Do I have to list off the spin-offs of what you two have done? Do I have to speculate on the protean possibilities of the programmable field generation tool, if you two are allowed to collaborate for a few more years? If you two did nothing but pedantically elaborate on the work embodied in your graduate theses, you would be major assets to this institution. The Institute is being utterly selfish with this, gentlemen. We do not wish to get into a bidding war for you, risking losing one or both of you. It is very important to the Institute to have you both, to take advantage of the remarkable interaction between you."

"Well, it’d have to be us both or neither, sir." Briggs shrugged. "Frankly, neither of us is a whole lot to talk about without the other one."

"Several members of the faculty would definitely choose to debate you on that." The Dean leaned forward, putting his hands on the table. "Look, my superiors asked me to negotiate the best deal with you I could, up to a given limit. I’m willing to go directly to my limit with you, if you’re interested, and you promise to act hard to get for a week or so. Are you willing to think about it, to give Eletto Technical Institute serious consideration?"

"Whaddya think, Tinker?"

"Hey, Thinker, you’re the thinker, not me. Do we think about it?"

"For my part, space no." He furrowed his forehead. "Do we grovel, beg or whine?"

"Gentlemen, I’m willing to stipulate that you groveled and begged and whined and anything else, if you like, as long as you’re willing to consider our offer."

Briggs turned toward Culp. "Could you show us the paper, so we know what we’re considering, sir?"

A few taps on a control surface produced a display on the readout. "This is the best the Institute feels it can afford." The Dean let the men read through the document for a few moments. "There is, however, one other thing that is not included in the contract."

Slumping in his chair, the mathematics student looked up at the Institute administrator. "I knew it. Here’s the rock in my shoe. What is it, Dean?"

"Oh, it’s nothing quite so bad as you seem to think." There was a twinkle in Culp’s eye as he responded. "I’ve been approached by the Eletto Foundation. For tax reasons, the Foundation needs to make a rather significant annual donation to a not-for-profit organization over the next several years. I hope you two don’t mind, but I sold your mutual skills and the fruits of your collaboration to them rather thoroughly. The representatives were impressed enough to agree to fund a new building, focused on collaborative research, on the assumption that the two of you might be using it together. You are both highly intelligent men; I’m sure you realize that this makes the Institute doubly eager to keep you, and to have you continue doing as you have been."

"So, Tinker, I guess it’s time to think about this really hard."

"Yep, I think so."

Both men furrowed their foreheads for several minutes, staring at the screen. Almost in perfect unison, they looked up. Briggs spoke first. "Enough thinking. Time to act. You in, Thinker?"

"Am I in? He’s offering us a free ride, a good income, and the chance to pick on each other for years while staying at what’s bound to become one of the most prestigious schools on Earth. I’d have to be an idiot to turn him down. I’m in if you’re in, Tinker."

"I’m totally in, man." He turned to Culp. "How long will it take to draw up the final contracts on this, sir?"

He touched a contact on his desk. The lady from the antechamber came in with a large manila envelope in each hand. Culp gestured toward the two men. She delivered the packets and left. "In those envelopes, gentlemen, you will find the contracts we have discussed. The smaller one is the contract for the tuning device; the larger, the contract with the Institute. If you are comfortable signing the one for the tuning device, I will be happy to have you do so; I would prefer to have you both read through the contract with the Institute in more detail, and discuss it between yourselves before signing it. You understand I cannot have you discussing the details of the contract with anyone other than those of us in the room, at the moment. That would include," he rolled his eyes, "my daughters."

Lemoyne ran his eye over the smaller contract. "This thing needs to be notarized; if your secretary can do it, I’ll sign now."

"I’m with Jim on this one," Briggs offered.

"Cindy’s a notary; she’ll be happy to take care of the formalities." Culp touched a contact again; the woman stepped in. "Cindy, if you could bring your notary’s stamp?"

"Of course, Dean." She disappeared, returning quickly. The smaller contracts were signed, witnessed and notarized quickly, a copy staying with each of the two students.

Culp stood up. "Gentlemen, it has been a pleasure doing business with you." A pair of envelopes appeared out of his desk. "The corporation which will be marketing the device has given me these envelopes to give you, to induce you to sign the contract today, which you did without having to be induced. My guess is that the envelopes contain a signing bonus. I trust you will find use for the contents." Each man took the offered envelope, shaking hands with Doctor Culp as he did so. "Now, go away and read the contracts. I hope you will think favorably of the Institute when you’re done."

"Thank you, sir." Lemoyne put the envelope in a pocket. "We’ll sit down somewhere private and quiet and talk it over for a few days. Will a week be soon enough?"

"A week will be fine. Mister Briggs?"

"Works for me, Dean." Briggs turned to his friend. "I guess it’s time to go, Jim. Coffee?"

"Thank you, Dean Culp." Lemoyne nodded. "Yeah, coffee. Somewhere quiet."

Culp stood, moving to the office door. "Cindy, if you will log an appointment for one o’clock for these gentlemen in exactly one week?"

"Of course, Doctor Culp." She tapped on her console. "Will you two want a reminder on the commnet?"

"Better remind us both." Briggs winked. "Especially my friend, here. Gets a little absent minded when he buries himself in his work."

"Just like you do, Tinker." Lemoyne chuckled. "One week, sir. Until then, goodbye." He grabbed Briggs by the arm, hustling him out of the building. "Man, talk about landing on our feet, Tinker."

Briggs opened his envelope, his eyes widening. "Uh, Thinker, you have no idea how totally on our feet we just landed. You need to look at the contents of the envelope."

Obediently, the man opened the envelope, looking at the credit chit inside. "Whoa, Tinker, that’s not chump change." He looked at the soon to graduate engineer. "We need to go somewhere really alone, man, and talk like we haven’t talked in years."

"Yeah. If we go for this, we have our future guaranteed, and it looks like a really bright future, too, Thinker. There’s just one thing we need to tie down first, to be sure it’s all complete."

"No question about it. We need to lay plans, some very long term plans, and maybe even buy some transparent carbon." Lemoyne looked into the envelope again. "With this, we can buy a reasonably large hunk of it, and still have change."

"What do you think about the Institute’s offer, Thinker? Straight up, this time, no jokes."

He nodded pensively. "Frankly, Tinker, as I read it, it’s surprisingly generous for a pair of raw talents like you and me. You have to believe I’ll want to read it, and compare it with other, similar contracts if I can find them, just to look for oversights or booby-traps, but somehow I don’t think I’ll find any. My preliminary scan of it didn’t reveal any, anyway. I’m thinking we could look a long time, and not find anything substantially better."

"What I was able to read confirms what you’re saying. I think we need to go for this, Jim."

"Tinker, you are so right, but we need to let Culp sweat a little before we charge forward on it." The mathematics aficionado shook his head. "I don’t want to look like a pushover, you know."

Thursday, February 21, 2170

Against their better judgment, Karyl and Karyn Culp had allowed themselves to be chivvied into joining Lemoyne and Briggs at the Thursday evening meeting of the Gaussian Gang. From what they had heard of the gatherings, it seemed to them that the meetings would be, except for perhaps the food and beverage, dolorously boring. Actually experiencing the meeting did nothing to dispel their expectations, a situation not at all improved by the fact that on the particular night in question, Paula Watanabe was the only other lady present, and she seemed to be totally wrapped up in the proceedings. The discussion had focused on Briggs’ field tool, looking at possible applications and their actualization. As nice as the people had been, the totally technical focus was so far out of their field of interest and knowledge that they felt completely out of place. Both women were thoroughly relieved to hear Brody Anthony make it clear that there was only time for one further issue that evening.

"Dean and I need to get something on the screen, Brody. May I?"

Something in Lemoyne’s face convinced the physicist that there was more afoot than the surface indications implied. "Sure. Go for it, Jim."

"It’s a pretty simple question, actually." Briggs began moving as Lemoyne spoke. "Just let me get the compuclipboard properly aligned. It actually might be more in Karyl and Karyn’s area of expertise than ours, but I’m not sure." Oddly, Lemoyne triggered his clipboard and set it down, moving toward the twins as he did so.

Somewhat perplexed, the Culp twins shifted their attention to the screen, not quite sure what to expect. After blanking for a moment or two, the screen filled with huge letters, in a fancy script font:

Karyl, Karyn

Will You Marry Us?

Paula Watanabe was the first to react, squealing in surprise. The Culp twins saw the screen and suddenly realized that Briggs and Lemoyne were just to one side of them, kneeling and extending a box. In virtual unison, the twins answered, with an enthusiastic, "Yes!" Almost as if they’d practiced doing it, in unison, the men removed the rings from the boxes, sliding it onto the fingers of their respective lady. The whole room erupted in cheers, everyone crowding around to ogle the ring or to congratulate the couples.

"So who’ll get married first?" It was Charlie Ngorongo, oddly enough, who asked it.

"Like we’ve had time to figure that one out!" Karyl admired the ring on her hand. "What about it, sister mine? Oldest and wisest first?"

"Depends; oldest isn’t always wisest." Karyn winked. "I propose a contest to decide that."

"Does that mean I have to arm wrestle you, Thinker?" Briggs rolled his eyes in mock agony. "I’m the more muscular, but you’ve the advantage of a slightly longer arm. It’ll be an even match."

"Oh, nothing like that! We’ll set a limit of three months—if Jim can come up with something you can’t do on your bench top, with that little field thingie of yours, he and I marry first; if three months elapse and you’ve managed it all, you and Karyn get married first." Karyl managed to appear as if she and Karyn hadn’t figured it out ahead of time. "What say you, sister mine?"

"If they think they can handle it, I’m all for it. How romantic: two men in contest over us!" There was no mistaking her enthusiasm over the idea. "It’ll be just like the romantic poetry and all."

"Hold on a moment, ladies." It was Lemoyne. "I’m not adverse to this, but we need to get a little bit of refinement. To be specific, we need someone to judge whether my scheme is fair—I can win this in a second by cheating, say by requiring a field that makes two plus two equal fifteen—and whether Dean’s actualization really fulfils the criteria set. That, and I want to make sure we all understand the contest."

"Tell you what, old chap, what say we let the Gaussian Gang be judge and jury on that?" Anthony nodded, half to himself. "All things considered, it will probably be the most challenging task that we’ve ever tackled. Would that do for you?"

"Works for me; you can be the judge, Brody, and the rest of the crowd can be the jury. Work for you, Tinker?"

"I guess. Wanna concede now?" The confidence on Briggs’ face was clear.

"Good heavens, no, Tinker. We haven’t even refined our contest to that point. Give me a little breathing room before we declare me defeated." The mathematics student rolled his eyes. "Let’s face it, I know the math behind the machine well enough to know I’m going to be hard pressed to win this one. Brody, why don’t you, Charlie, Pete and Rusty get your heads together and refine this contest?"

"I’m game!" It was Ngorongo again.

"That’s gamey, Charlie." Clearly, Watanabe couldn’t resist the jibe; her voice hinted that she was just a little jealous of Karyl and Karyn’s status.

"Hey, Tinker—maybe I should make the first project we tackle deodorizing Charlie."

"Okay, that’s pushing the envelope." The engineering student shook his head in mock sadness. "Suddenly, I’m fearful that I may have to concede before the contest even starts." Everyone, including Charlie Ngorongo, was amused. He, Anthony, Pulaski and Taggerty disappeared off in a corner, talking furiously.

Paula Watanabe sidled up to Karyn and Karyl while the others were returning to the food and beverage. "What did you two do to get that pair to pop the question?"

"Beats us," Karyl answered. "It’s not like we expected they’d propose tonight." She giggled. "We were hoping they’d do it soon, but we certainly didn’t expect it tonight."

"Phooey. I was hoping that you’d tell me, so I could work the same magic on Charlie." Watanabe pouted. "Now I have to figure it out on my own."

"I can tell you the magic, Paula." She turned, seeing Briggs. "It was our getting and accepting a job offer that’ll carry us for several years—long enough to get used to being married before we have to think about doing any serious job hunting." Briggs turned his head slightly, pretending to be conspiratorial. "We’d thought about it before, but figured it wouldn’t be fair to ask without having something pretty sure in our future in terms of a means to support a wife, and maybe even a family."

Watanabe’s forehead furrowed. "I never thought of that. Maybe I should help him fill out job applications, then. He’s going to graduate before long." She walked away, pensively.

Karyn moved closer, putting her arm around Briggs’ waist. "I’m just hoping that you can outsmart that ol’ numbers cruncher, Deanie."

"We still have to set a couple of dates—one for the winner, the other for the loser." The ever practical engineer in Briggs’ soul clearly had replaced the romantic. "I was wondering if you ladies would be willing to use the Institute chapel for the ceremony."

"Perfect!" Karyl turned to her sister. "What about four and five months from now? I think we can swing that, don’t you, sister mine?"

"That should be possible. And if I don’t miss my guess too badly, Reardon will be easily enough talked into catering for the receptions. All we’d have to do is get outfits and flowers and things." She turned to her fiancée. "If, of course, that is suitable to you, husband to be."

"Four months, hmmm…. That’ll be a couple of weeks after graduation, so I’m for it. Hey, Thinker! Get your brain over here!"

Just as the newly engaged couples began planning the weddings, Brody Anthony’s voice interrupted proceedings. "If I may have your attention for a moment, please?"

All involved turned to the physicist.

"Excellent. Here is the refined contest. Mister Lemoyne will submit a proposed field description in mathematical form. Mister Ngorongo, Mister Pulaski, Mister Taggerty and I will look it over carefully, to be sure it is realistic, and then let Mister Briggs try to actualize it. We four will also decide whether the actualization fulfils the proposed field scheme submitted. It will be required that the field description be something that can be realized with the bench top programmable field generation tool, as it exists or as it is reasonably modified, in Mister Briggs’ laboratory. Gentlemen, do you agree to the rules of the contest?"

"We do." They answered in unison.

"Then let the games begin!" It was Pulaski’s voice. "I can hardly wait to see what you two whackos come up with."

The two friends shook hands. "May the cleverer loonie win!" Lemoyne smiled. "Good luck, Dean. Just don’t try tying anything to my shoelaces."

Briggs chuckled. "Then you better wear slip on shoes, Jim. I might just do it for laughs."

Monday, March 5, 2170

With the contest begun, the two men began working in earnest, Briggs to improve the power and flexibility of the field generator, and Lemoyne to come up with an assortment of things to do with it. Anthony, Pulaski, Ngorongo and Taggerty rapidly found themselves reviewing proposed field tricks from Lemoyne, most of which were passed on without comment and rapidly realized.

One caught Brody Anthony’s eye. He tapped on the commnet. "Yes, Mister Lemoyne? I say, I’ve just reviewed your latest proposal. I’ve run it past the other three, and we’re agreed it’s reasonably possible. However, there are a few issues we’re unclear about on this particular proposal. You do realize that all you’re asking is the generation of a standard forcefield in a most unusual shape."

"Oh, I know it’s the standard field, Brody, and I know that a rotated cycloid of three cusps is a little bizarre of a shape, but I think it’s achievable. The math says it can be done, anyway."

"I find myself a little concerned about the power demands." Despite the connection being strictly audio, the man allowed his forehead to wrinkle considerably. "I am not comfortable with declaring a project unachievable, and thus a victory, because there is no way to provide an adequate power supply to the bench. I would consider that a most unsportsmanlike way of trying to win your little wager."

"To put it street level, that’d be cheating." Lemoyne’s voice carried no sign of being annoyed by the comment.

"If you wish to put it that way, yes."

"I was worried about that too, Brody, but I don’t think it’ll take all that much more energy than standard sphere. Now, I’m making no promises here, but I think it might take a little less total energy to do. That’s one of the things I want to find out, to be honest." Lemoyne sighed. "The point is, I really want to see what this does, and if it works, I want to try out a few ideas with it."

"Oh, excellent, quite sporting, then. I shall pass it along. With the earlier tests, you have been absent; will you want to be present for this one?"

"You bet, Brody, because depending on what I see, I’ll probably want to fiddle with things a bit." A hint of enthusiasm entered the mathematics major’s voice. "Assuming it can be done, there are a couple of applications that seem possible, based on the modified approach to generating the field for the shield."

"Very well, I shall pass it along, and we will arrange for you to be there. Goodbye for now." The connection broke. After staring at the field generation description for a few moments more, Anthony tapped Briggs’ code into the BellComm.

Thursday, March 8, 2170

Lemoyne found himself in Briggs’ graduate lab, staring at the test area for the programmable field generation tool. Anthony, Taggerty, Pulaski and Ngorongo stood, watching intently. Briggs looked over. "Want to double check the maths in this monster, Thinker? I’m not sure I want to take a chance on having missed a decimal point or something."

"That would be a first. Let me run my eyeball over it." He did. "Looks on the money to me, Tinker. Ready to fire it up?"

"Ready." Briggs tapped a contact. It looked like nothing had happened. "Hey, Pete, you want to turn off the lights for a minute?"

Taggerty complied. On the bench, a faintly glowing shape, much like a slightly squat golf tee, had formed on the bench.

Brody nodded. "Excellent. A high-strength force field. Rusty, Pete, would you two mind finding some rather heavy object to place on top of the field?"

"Yeah, and turn the lights on first, Pete; we don’t want anyone tripping."

Taggerty complied, then helped Pulaski move a large block onto the field. "It’s about fifty kilos. How about watching the change in the power draw when we put this mass on the field?"

"Guaranteed, man. I don’t want to overload things, you know?" Briggs shifted to a console near his field tool. "Lower that thing gently, now, will you? If the power draw goes too high, there’s a cutout that’ll shut the field down. You might end up with a rude surprise."

"I’m betting not." It was Lemoyne. "I’m guessing it’ll be on the order of twenty to twenty-five percent more than the gravitational force would generate, and I think it’ll be about half that. That’s not going to overload the power supply, is it?"

"Not even close. Bring it on, boys." Briggs watched a readout as Pulaski and Taggerty slowly lowered the block of iron. "Energy demands at 122.4% of gravitationally expected. Good estimate!"

"Yeah, thanks. Hold on a sec." Lemoyne buried his nose in the compuclipboard for a moment. "Guys, how about taking that block off the field for me?" The two men complied. "Dean, do you still have that souped-up microwave welding wand you used on my carpet?"

"Um, right. What do you have in mind?" One of Briggs’ eyebrows lifted. "Assassination to win the contest isn’t permitted, you know."

"I want to see what this field does when you zap it, of course."

Briggs rummaged in a cabinet. "Of course, should have guessed that. Got it. Shall I give it a shot?"

"I ought to shoot you for the pun." Taggerty shook his head. "Start at the lowest power setting, okay?"

"Hey, not yet." Lemoyne tapped for a few moments on his compuclipboard. "Give Brody the wand, will you please, Dean? I want this emendation made to the generation program."

The engineer handed the laser pistol to the physicist, then looked at the math. "You are a dog, James Lemoyne, a low down, dirty, sly and sleazy dog. I love this." Briggs rapidly transferred the relationships to his machine. "Let ‘er rip, Brody!"

Taking great care to be sure that the welding wand was set at its lowest setting, the man aimed at the forcefield and fired. Other than a small area of brightness on the place the beam from the welding wand hit, essentially nothing happened.

"Crank it up, man. More power!" Lemoyne stared, almost entranced.

Slowly, almost tentatively, Brody Anthony complied. The bright spot grew, eventually engulfing the entire field. Still not at full power, Anthony continued to turn the control. Without warning, there was a loud snap and a flash from the field generator, and the field collapsed. Reacting almost immediately, the physicist released the trigger on the wand—despite which, a small piece of scrap metal on the other side of the field melted under the applied energy.

"What happened, man?" Curious, Lemoyne leaned over the generator, only to be roughly shoved back.

"Back. All of you. Now." There was a degree of urgency in Briggs’ voice. "What Jim did made the field absorb the energy you hit it with. The fuse blew, but that capacitor is probably charged ‘way too much." Briggs started backing off, too. "The problem is, I hope, obvious. We could have an ugly energy release—as in kaboom."

"So, what do we do?" Lemoyne joined the others, backing away from the test bench.

"Off hand, my good man, the idea of getting out of range and seeing if we can figure a way to discharge the capacitor before something unpleasant happens rather appeals to me." Anthony looked over at Briggs. "I’m most confident that you might have an insulated something you can use to put a bit of wire there to do the job."

"I think so, but I’m not taking any chances." Without taking his eyes off the apparatus on his bench, he rummaged in some scrap metal next to a cabinet. "We’re talking a lot of juice here. Pete, there’s a wooden pole just behind you. I’m going to need it."

Taggerty retrieved the pole in question; Briggs took a bit of aluminum bar that he bent into a large U and affixed it to the end of the wooden pole. Gently, he maneuvered the aluminum into place across the capacitor, discharging it, leaving the aluminum hot but not quite glowing red. Briggs exhaled noisily. "Okay, that’s that. I can see I’m going to have to rig this thing to be able to tap this capacitor for power, at least for the force field, which is exactly what I figure you had in mind, Thinker."

"Whoa, man, do you think that’s possible? To tap the incoming directed energy weaponry to help power your shields?" Ngorongo’s eyes were almost bugging out of his head.

"The principle has already been proven, Charlie, exactly as I had hoped. Rigging the electronics to tap energy from the capacitor is trivial by comparison, I would guess." Lemoyne looked over at Briggs. "Think you can crank out about nine shield generators rigged to produce this field?"

"Not solo, at least not in any reasonable period of time, Thinker. Why?"

"There are a few interesting points to test on this—mainly how they’ll interact when the fields start to overlap. I think we’ll get field reinforcement." Lemoyne winked at Briggs. "I take it you see the significance?"

"Yeah—this’ll save a ton of energy. Instead of having to throw the sphere around the whole ship, you can have the shields up in the area you need ‘em and not where you don’t." The engineering graduate student nodded to himself. "That, and it’s a double layer of field protecting you. Better efficiency for less intense field strength."

"Look, I think that Engineering would be interested enough in this to run up a handful of them, Dean." It was Ngorongo again. "I’ll talk to a couple of people, see what I can do. You need to have the design together in a week or so."

"I’ll have it tomorrow. It’ll just be a few adaptations, really, particularly seeing about getting the field generator to run off absorbed energy." There was no question that the man didn’t feel challenged by the design. "I’ll ship it to you. I take it this is a success?"

"I should say so, Mister Briggs." It was Brody Anthony, this time. "Mister Lemoyne, I think you’re going to have to be somewhat cleverer to win this little contest."

The mathematics student chuckled. "Oh, with this panning out, I’ll be cranking out some interesting things here in the next little bit. Brody, you’re going to be earning your keep. Tinker, brace yourself, and get some refractory tiles to toss on your bench." He headed for the door. "I’ve got to run, folks! I have mayhem to commit." He ducked out the door.

Taggerty looked over at Pulaski. "I’m beginning to think we may be in over our heads, Rusty."

"Like that’s news." He looked out the door. "I just wonder what that lunatic will think up next."

Tuesday, March 20, 2170

It took something longer than a week to get the programmable field generation tool back running up to Briggs’ exacting demands. In that length of time, Charlie Ngorongo had managed to talk Doctor Kim, his faculty advisor, into building nine of them. Once he understood the issues at hand, Kim set his entire team on the project. As Lemoyne had predicted, once they were positioned to allow overlap on the fields, there was field reinforcement at the overlap. With the modification Briggs had introduced, allowing the field generator to tap off energy absorbed and convert it into a power supply, the shield the forcefield generators produced was able to handle the full force of the most powerful laser the Institute could boast: it had taken two lasers at nearly full power to overwhelm the massed shield generators, straining the power supply of the Institute to its limits to do it. Although Kim and the other engineers were impressed and delighted at the result, it was of little more than academic interest to Lemoyne, who had been hard at work with other issues. He, Anthony, Ngorongo, Pulaski and Taggerty arrived at Briggs’ graduate lab shortly after the test, the ever-present compuclipboard clutched tightly in Lemoyne’s hands.

"Mister Briggs, if you could spare us a moment or two, Mister Lemoyne has a proposed field he would like to see if you could generate." As always, Anthony’s gentle English accent and politeness made him eminently recognizable.

"Just let me clear my bench, and I’ll be on it."

"Tinker, do you have any tiles or bricks or something that can handle high temperatures?" There was definite concern on the mathematics student’s face. "I’m thinking that the output might be hot, and I’m sure not interested in setting anything on fire here in the lab."

"I’m with Jim on that." It was Pulaski chiming in, looking at some of the materials available in a nearby bin. "I think these should do; looks like a refractory ceramic."

"Sure is. Jim warned me I might need ‘em so I laid in a handful. Looks like their time has come." He cleared off the last of the material on the bench. "What’s this one supposed to do? Play Boy Scout and rub sticks together to start a fire?"

Lemoyne chuckled. "Oh, cut it out. You know I’m more into the bow-and-drill trick, Tinker. I’m just a little insecure about the results on this one, so I’m hoping to keep it under my hat for a little longer."

"Whatever. Rusty, Pete, give me a hand with those tiles, will you?"

Obligingly the others helped put the tiles where Lemoyne suggested they go. He looked over at Briggs. "Ready for the stuff?"

"I guess. Let it rip, Thinker."

Aligning the transmission bead, Lemoyne shipped the data over. Briggs looked at it. "No go, gang. Power demands are too high. They wouldn’t normally be, of course, but some bunch of whackos were playing with high-powered lasers and the power grid’s suffered direly. Thinker, can you scale this down to about twenty-five percent of what you’ve got?"

"Doable. Gimme a sec, will you? All you’ll have to change is a couple of constants, really, and we’ll have to scale down the input a bit." He began tapping on the compuclipboard. "You’ll have to reload these manually; redoing the setup would take a while otherwise."

"No sweat." Briggs accepted the compuclipboard from his friend, loading the figures in, then returning it. "That should do it. Ready?"

"Quite, and eminently curious as to what this is supposed to do. Mister Lemoyne, you mentioned inputs?" Anthony turned to the mathematics student.

"Yep. How about a plain aluminum rod, maybe a centimeter or less in diameter and about a meter or so long?"

Pulaski pulled a piece out of a storage area. "Will this one do?"

"Should do fine. We’re ready when you are, Tinker."

Briggs triggered the programmable field generation tool. Above the bench, two bright dots of light, one green and the other red, formed in either end of a slightly hazy area. Lemoyne picked up the plain aluminum rod, putting it into the field just under the green area, only to have it snatched out of his hand and hurled into the wall across the room, into which it embedded itself. From around the area where wall met aluminum, there was a tiny curl of smoke rising. Without hesitation, Pulaski grabbed a fire extinguisher and played it on the wall.

"What in space were you thinking, Lemoyne?" Briggs was clearly shaken. "If I had been in that path, I’d have been a shish-ka-bob."

"It seems to me that there has been a significant error, here." Anthony walked over to Lemoyne, the room’s first aid kit in hand. "It would appear that Mister Lemoyne has suffered in the effort."

Lemoyne suddenly was aware of a warm, wet feeling and a burning pain across the palm of his left hand. He lifted it, seeing a wound stretching diagonally across it. Before he could react, Brody Anthony was inspecting and dressing it. "Do be a good chap and fold those fingers into a fist, won’t you?" Anthony nodded appreciatively as the wounded student obeyed. "Excellent. No numb spots on the fingers and palm, then?"

"None. Hey, I thought you were into physics, Brody?"

"Oh, I am now. Started out in Medical, but switched over; nuclear physics just was so fascinating to me that I decided it was where I belonged." Anthony put the finishing touch on the dressing. "I still remember a thing or two, though. You’ll need to head to the infirmary to get that wound properly treated, you know."

"I guess. There must have been a burr on the end of the rod Rusty grabbed." Lemoyne’s forehead furrowed. "What bothers me is that it happened at all. It should have been moving at, oh, a hundredth that speed or less, I’d guess."

"In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice; in practice, Thinker, there definitely is. Let me have that compuclip, will you?" Briggs reached for it. With his good hand, Lemoyne extended it. It was only a matter of moments before Briggs’ voice sputtered. "My fault; it’s right here, Jim. The sign on this exponent is positive; it should be negative. It’s fixed. Want to try it again?"

"In a minute. Would one of you guys check that aluminum rod for me?"

Taggerty walked over. "I’ll be zapped with a laser. This turkey is transparent. Would you believe that? And in zilch time flat. Can you do that with aluminum sheeting?"

"What say we give it a try?" Taggerty was foraging in the scrap aluminum bin. "I think we could probably run this through."

"You run it through, Pete. And watch out for sharp corners." Lemoyne backed away from the field. "I’ve already had a run in with this monster. And all of you keep away from the output end."

Somewhat gingerly, Taggerty fed the sheet of aluminum into the field; this time, it moved much more slowly, finally extruding under the red-lit end of the field, transparent and hot.

"Wait’ll Paula Watanabe hears about this." Pulaski shook his head in amazement. "The current process takes nine and a half hours to do the same trick this field did in about ninety-five seconds. Hey, Jim, can you make this work with anything else? Like maybe carbon?"

"That’s what I was planning to do initially, Rusty." It was Lemoyne’s turn to shake his head. "Unfortunately, the field is still permeable to the atmosphere. The temperature would go high enough to ignite the carbon. Sorry; no quick and cheap diamonds here. Well, not yet, anyway, not until I figure out how to exclude the atmosphere from the working area."

"Still, it’s a good job and no mistaking it." Anthony looked at the strip of transparent aluminum. "This looks perfectly clear; I see no distortion of the brick, here. I do believe this may be a more isotropic conversion process than the current one, too. Flawless transparent aluminum bars and sheets: absolutely magnificent. May I take this sample for more detailed analysis?"

"Fine by me, if Jim doesn’t care."

"I’d actually appreciate it, Brody." Lemoyne looked down at his left hand. "You folks are welcome to play with this thing; I need to get this mitt of mine fixed." He picked up his clip board. "That, and I need to see if I can play Stump the Field Generator a little more aggressively. I’ll give it to you, Tinker; you’re a good bet to win this one, more’s the pity from my standpoint."

Anthony picked up the strip of transparent aluminum sheet as Lemoyne left. "Amazing, absolutely amazing."

Briggs looked at the door. "And very nearly lethal, too. I wonder if it really was an error on my part?"

No one else present noticed the remark, being too busy looking at the output of the field generator.

Saturday, April 7, 2170

Karyl and Karyn stepped into the elevator, riding up to their apartment. The younger looked over. "That pair were really sniping at each other, tonight, Karyl."

"Tell me something that I don’t know. It’s been two, maybe two and a half weeks since they’ve really been civil when we’ve been out together." Karyl’s brow knit. "And it’s been years since you’ve called me by my first name, too, at least until lately."

"Okay, okay, old woman. I get your point. We’ve been being a little catty with each other, too."

"A little catty? Sister mine, we haven’t had our relationship this strained since we discovered we both had a crush on the same teacher in grade school." The elder twin looked down at her feet for a moment then looked up. "It’s been since they did that field thingie with the aluminum, hasn’t it? They’ve been at odds with each other, and that’s set us at odds with each other. Little sister, we’ve been through too much together as a team to let this happen. I know it was my idea, but I’m beginning to wish I’d never thought of this stupid contest."

"Me, too. We’ve done almost everything together our whole lives." The elevator door opened; Karyn held it to let her older sister out first. "What we should have done was gone for a double ceremony, not two separate weddings."

Karyl opened the apartment, ushering her sister in. "We just weren’t thinking. Who would have thought this would happen? Those two men were the best of friends until we made a mess of it."

Karyn pulled the door shut, sitting across from her older sister. "Oh, we’ve both seen it in the romantic literature we’ve studied, you know—you, the prose and me the poetry, but it’s still there for all to see. The question is how we’re going to undo the damage we’ve done."

"I’m not so sure we can, sister mine." Karyl pouted slightly. "It’s become a pride thing with them, you know? Look how close that pair came to blowing up tonight. What do you think our chances are of finding a way to solve this without wounding their little male egos?"

"Two: slim and none. Look, are you game for a double ceremony if one of us can find a way to put an end to all this?"

The pout disappeared. "Oh, yes, very much so, if we can find a way."

Karyn nodded. "If."

Thursday, April 26, 2170

It was Thursday, and the Gaussian Gang had gathered, looking at what problems came to hand. The meeting had been unusually tense; through it all, the undercurrent of tension between Briggs and Lemoyne had been boiling, threatening at any point to erupt into conflict. The others present almost felt like they were walking on eggshells around the pair. Finally, the inevitable happened. Lemoyne had thrown a proposal on the screen for all to view. Charlie Ngorongo responded first. "No go, Lemoyne. The power requirements are way beyond what the lab can generate. What in space is this supposed to do, anyway? Make air dizzy? All you’re doing is running it around a doughnut. You shouldn’t need anything like the power you’re drawing."

"Most of the power is being sucked up trying to compress this to a size that’ll fit on the bench. If I made the path longer, it’d take less power, but I’m not sure it’d fit." The math student moved to the screen, pointing. "Look here, if you please; the toroidal forcefield is in packets, compressing for a while, then re-expanding. What’s going on is simple once you realize that. It’ll get hot enough to radiate, here, and then when the field re-expands over here, it’ll cool things. It’s basically a force-field refrigerator."

Briggs looked at it. "Yeah, but if the field intensity gets down to a level I can power on that bench, it’s going to be a lot more than a half, maybe three quarters of a meter in diameter; it’s going to be over a kilometer long path. There’s no way this’ll fit on my bench, and the compression end’s going to get pretty hot."

"Around 450C, I should guess." Brody Anthony had been staring at the screen. "Putting that over the refractory tiles we had a couple of weeks ago might be prudent, but otherwise tolerable. As for expanding the path length, though, it would look like a path length on the order of three kilometers, indeed."

"Not a fair project; it won’t fit on the bench, and that’s cheating." Briggs donned an almost obnoxious air of superiority. "Looks like you lose again, and the bet’s done in a week."

"Actually, not necessarily. You’re not thinking straight; it can be made to fit if…" Lemoyne’s response, none to charitable in tone, was interrupted by Briggs springing out of his chair and lunging toward Lemoyne, who moved toward Briggs with fury on his face.

Before the two could meet, Charlie Ngorongo was between them, his oversized hands balled up into fists, holding the two men by the front of their shirts. "That will be enough out of you two."

"Get out of the way, Charlie, and put me down. I’ve had it with Lemoyne and…" Briggs’ remark was choked off as Ngorongo twisted his shirt, causing its neck to tighten around Briggs’ throat, partially cutting the man’s air off.

Ngorongo lifted Briggs by his shirt, turning to face him. "Look, pipsqueak, let me give you some advice from the street. Don’t be disrespectful of someone that bench presses more than you weigh when he’s got his your shirt in his fist, especially when he’s about three quarters torched at you. Breathing could get a whole lot harder." He looked over at Pulaski and Taggerty. "Rusty, Pete, I want each of you to escort one of these hotheads out different doors. If either of ‘em give you any grief about it, I’ll explain to them very clearly why they don’t want to be giving you any grief, and I guarantee when the fool regains consciousness, he’ll remember his lesson." He turned back to the men he was holding. "If that’s not to your tastes, clowns, I’m going to do some research on bioacoustics: I’m going to find out what it sounds like when I knock your heads together good and hard. You got my point?"

Lemoyne and Briggs nodded without comment.

"Good. You two go cool off somewhere, and be back in an hour. You both have some major apologizing to do, to each other and to the Gaussian Gang for the behavior you’ve shown tonight, and the last few meetings. Now get out of here."

Lemoyne acted as if he was going to argue. Ngorongo gave him a glare that would have scoured the ceramic off a starship hull. Taggerty and Pulaski moved in, each taking an individual from Ngorongo’s grip, giving them their compuclipboards and escorting them, none too gently, out separate doors. When they were out of the room, he sat down, breathing heavily.

Brody Anthony looked around the room. "Ladies and gentlemen, I trust that none of us would consider reporting this dolorous incident. Under the circumstances, it seems to me that Mister Ngorongo intervened to prevent fisticuffs, and thus has done us all a service, eh?"

There was a general chorus of agreement.

Paula Watanabe came over to Ngorongo. "You surprise me, Charlie. I never realized you were that tough."

He looked up, a lone tear streaking his cheek. "Sweet, gentle Paula, there’s a lot about this boy you don’t know. I grew up fighting to survive in a ghetto in Nairobi, living on the streets by my wits because my parents didn’t care enough to raise me." He sighed deeply. "If a kindly teacher hadn’t sent my records to the Kenyan National University for me, and wrangled me a full scholarship, I’d probably be running some street gang, now, dodging the law. Seeing those two guys go from a friendship like I’ll probably never know to what looked like outright enmity was just too much for me to take."

"A pity one of us didn’t rein them in earlier, isn’t it?" It was Anthony.

"Even if it was a bit on the late side, I still think you were magnificent, Charlie." Paula bent over and gave him a peck on the cheek.

"I was brutal; I was overbearing; and I was needlessly violent, Paula." The engineer hung his head in shame. "I was back to being an ugly street fighter, something I promised myself I’d never be again." He looked up. "Woman, you ought to ditch me, and find someone better. You deserve someone more civilized than what I really am."

While Ngorongo was talking, Taggerty came back in, Pulaski at his heels. "You? Uncivilized? Charlie, you’ve got to be one of the most civilized, peaceful folks I know. Aren’t you the guy that introduced me to Fudd’s Fourth Law? ‘Beat on anything hard enough and long enough, and it’ll probably break.’ That pair just beat on you hard and long enough. I think all of us wish we’d had the nerve to do what you just did. I know I do."

"Pete’s right, Charlie. Up until now, you’ve been the gentlest man I’ve ever known." Watanabe sat next to him on the arm of the chair he was overwhelming. "And as far as I’m concerned, you still are. You should have knocked their stupid heads together; maybe it would have knocked some sense into their fool heads. I still love you."

He looked up. "Do you really mean that?"

"Yes, I do."

He fished a box out of his pocket. "I love you too, Paula. Do you think you could spend the rest of your life with a half-way reformed street fighter?" With his thumb, he flipped the box open, revealing a modest diamond ring. "Cochrane Manufacturing just offered me a job designing starships for them. It’s time I settled down, and I’d like it to be with you."

Watanabe hugged his head. "Of course I could, and I will, and I do."

Forgetting the recent chaos, everyone around began congratulating them both.


Dean Briggs sat on the gravel beach beside the large pond in the middle of the Institute park, his back to the park bench where he, his one time friend and the Culp twins had spent so many joyful times, talking and laughing. Between his slumped posture and the look on his face, it would have been clear to anyone present that the man was far from happy. Briggs picked up a modest-sized pebble, staring at it in the failing light, deep in thought. With a sudden flick of his arm, he threw the pebble as far as he could across the pond, as if he were trying to throw the embarrassment and shame of his behavior into the pond with it. From behind him, he heard the creak of someone sitting on the picnic table. For a few moments, he tried ignoring the intruder, finally realizing that whoever it was seemed to be disinclined to leave. Standing, he turned to face the person.

"I was wondering how long it would take for your curiosity to get the better of you, Tinker."

"Thinker! What are you doing here?" Briggs’ face had gone from glum to surprised.

"First thing I want to do is to apologize, old friend." Lemoyne sighed. "I’ve been a louse for the last two, maybe three weeks, and tonight’s antics were the peak of it. This competition has come between us, Dean, and I don’t like that."

"Me neither. Look, I’ve been a jerk, too." He looked down. "At least you didn’t try to slug me one. If Charlie hadn’t intervened, I’d have decked you, or at least tried to." Briggs planted himself next to his friend.

"What we need to do, Tinker, is to find a way to declare this a draw, and go for a double ceremony."

"Yeah, right. Do you really think you can do that? I mean, Brody’s either going to declare it doable or not, and if he says it’s potentially doable, I either can or cannot do it. It’s not like he’s going to let you by with a four kilometer long path, like you needed tonight."

Lemoyne chuckled. "You let your adrenals get in the way of your brain on that one, man. You could have coiled the path around a toroid; not only would it have fit on your bench, but it would have been more efficient that way. But I think I’ve got a way. What if I were to produce a field you clearly could do on the bench without trouble, but that you wouldn’t, and no one in their right mind would let you do? Would that be a draw?"

Briggs snorted. "I’d call it one, but I’m hung in a vacuum if I can figure something that would fill that bizarre bill. If Brody didn’t declare it unfair and unreasonable, I’d do it."

From what seemed nowhere, Lemoyne produced his compuclipboard. "Not this one, Tinker. By all the criteria they’ve used, it passes muster—but I don’t feature you doing it, and I don’t think the Gaussians will let you do this under the conditions in your lab."

The engineering student ran his eye over the densely packed display, looking at the mathematical description on it. When he was done, he shrugged. "I don’t see what’s so off the wall about this thing. It comes in as atmospheric gas; it leaves as atmospheric gas."

"It’s subtle, Dean; it’s very, very subtle. Double check the particle charges."

Looking like he felt he was wasting his time, he did. Suddenly he began muttering under his breath, repeating calculations on his own compuclipboard as if he were unsure that Lemoyne’s was working right. Finally, he looked up. "Do you realize what you’re doing with this field?"

Lemoyne let a cautious smile cross his face. "Thoroughly, and I’m doing it with a field I still haven’t figured out how to make impervious to the atmosphere. Are you still willing to do this on your bench?"

"Space, no." Briggs stood up, sticking out his hand. "James Lemoyne, you are a sly, sleazy, sneaky, low-down dog, and a genius to boot. I can hardly wait to see the gang’s faces when you put this on the screen. C’mon, Thinker! Time is wasting!"

As Briggs and Lemoyne made their way back into the room where the Gaussian Gang was meeting, the people inside were still too busy helping Watanabe and Ngorongo celebrate their engagement to notice the return of the two men. Briggs coughed loudly, hoping to get their attention; the ploy worked. Charlie Ngorongo was the first on his feet. "Look, guys, let me apologize for getting rough with you. I…"

"You should be apologizing for not having done it two weeks ago, Charlie. Dean and I should be apologizing to the lot of you for our behavior, not the other way around. Getting blunt with us made us realize what we were doing, and we’ve cleared the air."

"That, and I think we’ve come to the conclusion of the contest. Jim, strut your stuff on the screen, will you? If you folks would check it out, I think we can call this a draw: I could do it, easily, but I wouldn’t and you wouldn’t let me, if you realized what we were doing." There was a large grin on the engineering student’s face as he spoke.

The display on the far end of the room filled with mathematics, as it had so many times before. There was a brief period of silence as everyone studied the screen. Pulaski reacted first, his jaw almost hitting the floor in amazement.

"This monster is essentially swapping the charges on the particles. Do you realize what this means?"

"It’s not just the charge that’s inverted, old chap." Anthony stared, astounded. "It’s just the obvious change. This field is taking air in one end and transforming it into antimatter as it sends it out the other. Limitless energy, with only modest effort. Charlie, old chap, you’re going to have to totally revise starship design over this."

"Can Jim and I declare this a draw?"

"No. I shall declare it a draw, gentlemen." Anthony turned. "Or a stalemate, if you prefer. I suppose you and your fiancées will have to decide how to handle the ceremonies some other way."

"I guess so. If you kind folks will excuse us, we need to discuss the idea of a double ceremony with them. Mister Briggs, if you’ll come along?"

"I shall be most pleased to do so, Mister Lemoyne!"

The twosome left, clearly intent on business.

"The question remains, how do we test this thing?" The newly engaged engineer stared at the screen, his fiancée at his side. "And I’d like to do this quickly, before I graduate and move off. I want in on this event, no mistake about it."

"Oh, I should think it is most elementary, Charlie." Anthony sat down, looking up at his friend. "This will have to be done in orbit; input a solid, or a stream of ions, and use a magnetic field to contain it all. As long as it’s all in a vacuum, or very nearly in a vacuum, there shouldn’t be a problem. Things leak into this field, but not out of it, as I read it—well, other than at the output. Do you think there is any likelihood that there will be difficulty convincing some department to authorize the test?"

The room was filled with a dozen or more variations on "No way!"


"Tinker, we need to be bringing a peace offering to the ladies. I’d bet we’ve been acting like lowlifes around them, too. Do you think flowers’d do?"

"I suppose. So, do you know any all night florists?" It wasn’t that Briggs disagreed; it was just that he was uncertain how to manage it.

"I guess not, now that you mention it. Got another idea?"

"I’d say candy, but they’re so weight conscious that’d probably get us in worse trouble, or else we’d have to eat it all, Thinker. Not that I’m adverse to eating it all, mind you, but, well, you know what I mean."

"Yeah. Maybe the peace offering’s not so hot an idea. What about asking them for a late night cup of coffee? Ah, no, come to think of it, it’s late enough that coffee’s out of the question. Some other beverage, maybe?"

"Or a snack, I guess, something non-fattening." The engineering student looked up; their feet had taken them to the building the Culp twins inhabited. "Here goes nothing, I guess." He thumbed the now-familiar contact. "Briggs and Lemoyne, for the Culp twins; Karyn, Karyl, do you hear us?"

"We hear you. What’s up?" Although it was clearly one of them, neither man could tell which.

"Can you come with us and talk? It’s about the contest and all. Please?" There was almost a wheedling tone in Briggs’ voice.

"Do you have any idea how late it is?"

"Late. That’s why we were thinking it might not be so hot of an idea to be going up there." It was Lemoyne’s voice this time. "The last thing we need is scurrilous rumors."

"Well, at least that’s thoughtful of you. Give a girl a couple of minutes, will you?"

"We’ll wait." It was Briggs again. "You’re worth it."

"Sweet of you to say so. Five minutes, okay?" The connection went dead.

"So where’s open at this time of night, Tinker? All I know is that little doughnut shop around the corner. I don’t picture Karyl and Karyn wanting doughnuts; decaffeinated coffee, maybe, but doughnuts? Not a chance."

"Best bet I know, Thinker. Maybe if we let them make the call? Might be a load safer."

He thought for a moment or so. "Guess you’re on the money on that one. I…"

He was interrupted by the twins arriving earlier than they promised. One, Karyl, was carrying a stainless steel thermos; the other, a handful of cups and napkins. Both were in jeans and bulky sweatshirts, looking like they’d thrown on the first thing that came to hand. Karyl looked at Jim. "Under the circumstances, we thought we’d bring something to sip while we talked. Come on. We need somewhere quiet. Follow along, there’s a couple of good boys." Having said her piece, she and Karyn took off walking, Briggs and Lemoyne tagging along behind. Only a block or two from the apartment building, there was a small city park, with a handful of places to sit. The ladies took one bench, waving the men to one across from them. Karyl poured a steaming beverage into the cups, Karyn delivering them.

"Look, Dean and I want to start with an apology."

"Yeah. We’ve realized that we’ve been kind of hard to be around lately."

"No joke, Deanie. You two have been at each other’s throat the last couple of weeks." Karyn sipped her cocoa. "It’s the stupid contest. It sounded like a great idea when we cooked it up, but it’s really gone sour."

"The contest is now officially over." Lemoyne said. "It has been declared a draw."

"There’s an outcome neither of us expected, sister mine." Karyl shook her head. "I don’t see how that could happen."

"Does it matter?" Briggs looked at Lemoyne, then at Karyn. "It did, and that’s what we have to deal with. Jim and I were talking it over…"

"And you decided that a double ceremony would be the better choice, right?" Karyn smiled as she interrupted her man. "We agree. What say we opt for the nearer of the two dates? We could have everything together easily enough; you two just have to get fitted for your tuxes, and invitations sent out on the commnet. I don’t see any real obstacles."

"We could even honeymoon as a foursome." Karyl winked at her sister. "Separate rooms, though, sister mine."

"If you insist." Lemoyne tried to look serious. "But I hadn’t really planned to bunk with Tinker on my honeymoon…"

Karyl swung at him playfully, totally failing to connect. All four dissolved into relieved laughter.

Monday, May 28, 2170

Tearing his eyes away from the silhouette of Earth, James Lemoyne turned back to the team that had come with him to the orbital platform. "Ready to go, Tinker?"

"I’ll have the field in place on command, Thinker. I’ve got a fifty gram packet of iron filings ready to run through when you’re ready."

"Perfect. Charlie, Brody, you two ready to monitor things?"

"Ready as we’ll ever be. And we’ve a packet of iron filings to react with the output, to prove our point." Charlie Ngorongo looked at the cobbled-together control panel in front of him.

"Indeed. And we’ll be getting it as Basis Field energy, so none of us need worry about our progeny looking less than delightful." Anthony chuckled to himself. "As I recall it, some of us present are something around a week short of their wedding day. Radiation burns are hardly compatible with a tuxedo, don’t you know."

"Enough commentary, already. Tinker, get that field going."

"Aye, Captain. Arr, mates; she’s ready to roll." Briggs did his best to do a pirate imitation; it was not exactly successful.

"Run the iron through, Bluebeard Briggs." Lemoyne stared up at the ceiling as he spoke.

Briggs tripped a contact. All watched as the iron moved through the essentially invisible field, seeming to be unchanged as it came out the other end. Ngorongo and Anthony played their controls, moving the output of the transforming field to a containment field, then from there, to the reaction chamber in small amounts at a time. Anthony nodded, watching the readings as the processed iron reacted with regular iron. "Gentlemen, congratulations. Your little experiment is a rousing success; the iron and anti-iron has produced just short of nine petajoules of Basis field energy, almost exactly as predicted. We can, it would seem, manufacture endless volumes of antimatter, quickly and easily. Welcome to a world of virtually limitless energy."

Saturday, June 2, 2170

For Briggs and Lemoyne, the days between the orbital test and their wedding flew past with almost blinding speed; there was the endless flurry of last minute details and decisions that preparing for weddings almost inevitably involved, topped off by Anthony deciding that he had an urgent need for a handful of programmable field generation tools for some project or other. Rather than argue, Briggs managed to turn them out quickly, giving the man the basics of how to program it to do whatever was needed and then returned to the preparation for the wedding.

Saturday dawned clear, and although the weather was warm, it was not excessively so. Long before the ceremony began, the Eletto Technical Institute chapel had been abuzz with activity, and the nearby recreation area had become the center of preparations for a gala reception, courtesy of Nathaniel Reardon who had even forgone having the reception recorded for his research. By the time that the wedding was about to commence, the chapel was packed: the entire Gaussian Gang was in presence, as well as a large proportion of the faculty of the Institute and Saint Martin’s University. Once the grooms were in place, Karyl and Karyn came down the aisle together, the only visible difference between them being that Karyl’s wedding dress was suspended from her right shoulder, and Karyn’s from her left. As the brides and grooms recited their vows—the men in unison with each other, as also the brides, only the names changing as suited the couple—there was a short flurry of activity in the back of the chapel, but none of the wedding party seemed at all bothered by it; they were so focused on each other that nothing would have diverted them.

Finally, the minister officiating had the couples turn to face their crowd of witnesses. "Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to introduce to you, for the first time, Mister and Mrs. James Lemoyne, and Mister and Mrs. Dean Briggs." As he spoke, Brody Anthony gestured to someone outside the building; there was a brief hum. To the eye, the floor suddenly disappeared, being replaced by the appearance of clouds. Tentatively, Karyn looked down, smiling coyly, testing the ground in front of her with one foot; despite what her eyes said, her toes clearly found firm flooring. To the applause of all present, the couples made their way down the aisle, not only feeling like they were walking on air, but looking the part as well.

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