This has to do with Stargate. Despite appearances, there isn't any more of it.
Original Livejournal posts: part one, part two, part three.
"Toynbee idea in Kubrick movie Stardisc resurrect dead on Planet Atlantis!"
Across the room, people leaned back, leaned forward, shuffled their feet. Another washout. Major Benton glanced around furtively; nobody was quite allowing themselves to roll their eyes, but nobody was hiding their disgust very well either. Benton's gaze collided with Doctor Lee's, and they shared a moment of wordless pain.
When Bill Lee thought someone was a hopeless dork, it was time to give up and move on.
Doctor Tremont was not yet giving up. "Doctor" -- a bare moment of hesitation -- "Browne. I am told you are a luminary in ancient Egyptian linguistic evolution..."
"And this is not ancient Egyptian! I have no idea what you people have done to these verb modifiers. It's... it's bibble. Blah blah Ra Ra," added Browne, waving at the sun-motifs, "and nothing else. That cup is garbage. This staff can't be more than a decade old. That 'artifact' is what we archaeologists call 'a slab of granite'. As for this plaque, it's still bibble, and these other markings look more like dot-matrix Braille than writing. Where did you get this laughable excuse for a Rosetta Stone?"
Tremont regarded him coolly. "A recent dig, four miles southwest of Giza."
"Four mi... oh, good lord, the Langford stones."
"The expedition was funded by the Littlefield Foundation, yes."
"Well, Miss Tremont, the Littlefield Foundation has scammed you. These artifacts are jokes, you have wasted the cost of flying me out here to..." Browne stumbled briefly, "...to wherever 'here' is, and I would like to go home now."
"Thank you for your time." Tremont did not even blink at the "Miss", so Benton figured she had already written off Browne's good opinion, if not his entire existence. "Major, please escort the Doctor out. Give him some more NDAs to sign." She raised an eyebrow in his direction.
"Ma'am." Benton took Browne's arm. Life at Area 51 provided small pleasures, it was true.
Benton repressed the thought that it looked like a slab of granite to him, too. "Why does it matter?"
His duty post, for all its top-secret un-braggable-about glitz, was museum watchman -- making sure the Air Force's oddity collection didn't disappear, explode, or fall over onto a visiting scientist. Mess-hall betting was split on whether Doctor Lee counted as a scientist or an oddity, but that didn't mean Benton disliked the man. Lee talked to himself when he worked, which relieved a watchman's tedium, and Benton was always up for snippets of cutting-edge science trivia.
"Oh, the Foundation is infamous. For -- you know -- woo-woo stuff." Lee made hand gestures, presumably signifying woo-woo stuff of the finest water. "I mean, not directly. They sponsor a lot of decent work, student digs and scholarships and so on. But they spent seventy years agitating to reopen the Langford site. Saying the stones couldn't have been all, right? And the Langford stones, well, you've seen all that new-age stuff."
"Mystery of the Stones?"
"Sure. Von Daniken, gurus and yogis, Heaven's Gate. 'Toynbee idea in Kubrick movie Stardisc resurrect dead on Planet Atlantis!' Dilute! Dilute! Okay!" Lee chortled.
"But they were right, right? They finally got their dig, they found that underchamber, and it's full of all this stuff." Benton waved around the untidily crowded lab. "Funny crystals, unknown languages. Cool shit."
"Sure," said Lee, "and what happens? We whisk it all away to Area 51. Big hush-hush. As far as the world is concerned, Littlefield is still crazy. We pull archaeologists in, show them around, all they can see is being set up as the new Paul Langford." He smirked and went back to arranging probes on the stone slab.
Benton let him get back to it. An explosion -- or even something falling over -- would have livened up the day. Doctor Tremont's list of experts was about dry, which put Area 51 back on its usual schedule of idle tinkering and Foosball. Which put Benton back on his usual duty of watching Lee and plotting out base defenses against imaginary terrorist invasions. Sometimes, for a change, imaginary zombies.
Popular legend to the contrary, life here was not a rondelay of doomsday weapons and antigravity. Up until the Littlefield haul, the nation's collection of inexplicable oddities had amounted to several pieces of twisted alloy and a petrified nobody-knew-what. Now it was twisted alloy, petrified whatsis, and a whole lot of mostly-Egyptian junk.
Which triggered a thought. "Say, Doc. What makes that stone slab thing so interesting? I know hieroglyphics and sideways-dancing Pharaohs aren't your thing, but -- I mean, this crystal doohickey at least looks like an Atlantean artifact."
"That?" Lee asked, glancing at the elongated golden cluster. "Maintains a temperature zero-point-three degrees above its environment. That's all. Davidson thought it might be something nifty, but it's probably just radioactivity."
"Uh, what?" Benton said, abruptly much more alert.
"No, no. Nothing leaks out. Uranium in the glass, for color, right? Inside, I guess." Lee frowned. "Anyway. This stone artifact, now, I'm glad you asked about it." (He always was.) "It's just full of silicon microtubes, or maybe nanogaps would be a better term, and..."
Benton let him go on; an appetite for scientific tidbits did not mean coping with Doctor Lee in full babble. He stared at the slab instead. Upright, irregular, sandy stone with darker veins. A flat central area, painted black, surrounded by a heavy rim. Currently fringed with wires leading to Lee's computer terminal.
"...And that resonance is why I think there's some kind of control circuitry buried in there. Or at least something that's meant to respond to external signals," Lee concluded. "And I'd really like to pin down the frequency today, I'm sorry, Major, I should get back to work."
Benton nodded placatingly, and Lee turned back to his terminal. "Okay... no... Hm. Aha?" He typed again.
The slab burned fluorescent white for an instant.
Benton's weapon was in his hands. Lee looked around at the sound of the safety. "Um, Major? Why are you aiming at the... oh."
The two men stared at the slab. It was now irregular darkness within a stone rim. Not black, but dark, with depth, somehow. And a lighter marking at the bottom...
Not a marking. Benton blinked his eyes into the focus that his brain was still rejecting. Light, from the lab, falling through the slab, into darkness on -- on the other side. Falling downward onto a floor of sand. Like looking through a window into a dark room.
"Oh, my. Oh, my," Lee was repeating. He drifted forward, apparently without volition.
"Doc? Maybe you shouldn't--"
Lee's hand brushed the window. There was a flash of light. Lee was gone.
Lee wasn't gone. He was on the other side of the window, standing on sand, one hand outstretched, staring back through at Benton. There was a whiff of something awful, moldering dust and rot. Lee's mouth was moving, but Benton could hear only silence.
Then Lee was clutching at his chest and sagging forward, gasping, still in silence. And, abruptly, audible -- as another flash of light flipped him back to the lab. Benton unfroze himself and yanked Lee hard away from the slab. They both sprawled backwards, Lee wheezing and choking, Benton cushioning his fall. On the other side of the window, two sneaker prints showed clearly in the sand.
Life at Area 51 got a lot more interesting after that.
The lab was crowded -- not with artifacts any more, but with people. Doctor Tremont had firmly vetoed moving the slab anywhere more convenient, on the theory that "We shall not mess with one unnecessary variable until we start to know what it is, yes, people? Everyone say yes; thank you." That meant clearing everything else out. Fortunately, Benton thought, even secret research facilities had sergeants.
Doctor Lee's wires and computer hardware were still attached to the slab -- for what they were worth, which was currently three weeks of abject failure to make the thing respond, react, or even deactivate. Lee was at the keyboard with his latest brilliant idea, and Benton gave him twenty minutes before he faded back into sulking.
Airmen stood around the walls, wearing their best "If giant lobsters come through, we're ready" faces. Scientists orbited the slab like awestruck moths. Tremont was planted directly in front of it, managing to convey her personal irritation at its ineffability.
A portable spotlight sat at Tremont's feet, shining through the window to illuminate the chamber beyond. Benton edged forward for yet another peek. It hadn't changed: a sealed stone box, drifted with sand, painted with hieroglyphs and piled with familiar-looking artifacts.
The technicians by the window were flipping through stacks of photographs, trying to determine how familiar. "Okay, everything checks," one said at last. "Everything found at the Giza dig is there -- at least, everything which we can see, but the window is up against the wall, so that's most of it. The arrangement is exactly the same. I mean, mirror-reversed. No sign of modern entry."
"Hieroglyphs all match, as far as I can tell," said the other.
"Except for the mirror-reversal. Right then," said Tremont. "That's a good twenty days' wait to verify what we were pretty sure of. Good job everyone. Send my regards to the Foundation and their notably efficient document filing practices." Everyone murmured disapproval, given a safe target, and Tremont waved irritably. "Never mind. Having no other bright ideas before me, I vote for the manned mission. General?"
General Baxter did not conduct votes and everyone knew it. "Major, you're on."
"Yes, sir," Benton replied. He heaved the SCBA tank up, pulled on the breathing mask, grabbed the video camera, and stepped forward.
Since Doctor Lee, nothing had gone through the window except a dozen superballs (scattered in the sand in front of him) and a paper airplane ("THGIR" and "TFEL" scrawled on the wings in mirror-writing). Now it was his turn. Okay.
Lee had done it without catching fire or sprouting extra limbs. He had nearly suffocated in ancient tomb air, but that was what the mask was for. If Lee was dying of anything, they were all infected by now -- three weeks of rigid base-wide quarantine said that Tremont was taking that possibility very seriously. Benton shoved the thought aside and stared through the window. A step into the dead past. Or into a parallel universe, depending on where you laid your money.
"Major? Radio check," came Tremont's voice -- simultaneously muffled through his mask, and tinny in his right ear.
Benton took the verbal nudge with gratitude and gathered his thoughts. "Radio check aye," he said, twisting awkwardly to see Tremont.
She waved her walkie and nodded. "Straight in, film a nice 360 sweep, straight out. Don't touch anything. Have a nice trip."
"Not touching anything, nice trip, aye ma'am." Benton turned back to the slab, reached out -- wished irrationally, momentarily, for gloves -- and poked it with his finger.
It felt like cool glass. The room dissolved in a blinding flash. His ears popped.
The white glare didn't go away. Benton couldn't see, couldn't see -- oh, right. He was facing the window, and a spotlight was shining smack in his face. He blinked and stepped far enough aside to be able to see the lab. It was full of wide-eyed people staring back at him. Benton waved. Everyone waved back, in nervous unison.
All the wrong people? No, all standing in the wrong places, because the lab was mirror-reversed. Yes, every nametape and ID badge was wrong-side and backwards. Benton started to look down at his own chest to make sure his own name was spelled right, wondered whether he could even tell if it wasn't, and then gave up thinking about it. He'd ask Lee later.
Tremont (or "TNOMERT") was talking into her radio. Benton didn't hear anything. "Hello?" he said, then caught himself. "Benton here. Doctor, come in." Tremont shook her radio and said something forceful at it.
Benton tapped his ear in the universal sign for "My radio is dead, unless I can fix it by tapping it, maybe? Nope." Tremont shrugged theatrically and then waved her hand in a circle.
Nice 360 video sweep, aye. Benton turned away from the window, stepped over the paper airplane ("LEFT" and "RIGHT"), and moved to the center of the chamber. Camera on. Hieroglyphs, artifacts, artifacts, hieroglyphs. A superball yielded under his boot. The brightly-lit window. Artifacts... wait.
Something was balanced on top of the slab, and Benton didn't recognize it from the Giza stash. He stretched up to see: semicircular, the size of his spread hand, but bulkier. Should he grab it? His imagination presented Tremont explaining the meaning of "Don't touch anything" in hours-long linguistic detail. Film it, there's a good airman, film it from lots of angles.
He completed his camera sweep, and tried to think of a reason to stay in Wonderland. Nope. History had been made. Benton touched the window again; another flash, and he was standing in the lab, feeling distinctly anticlimactic.
When he turned and pulled his mask off, all the scientists burst into startling applause. All except Tremont, of course. But she smiled wryly, and didn't shush them.
The artifact on the slab was clearly technological, with a glass screen and a manufactured-looking form. It was also clearly broken; one corner smashed in, the screen cracked. Behind the screen might have been microcircuitry, or sand, or both. Doctor Lee begged and begged to let Benton fetch it for study. Doctor Tremont said she'd think about it.
There was no triangle in the wall of the Giza chamber. Lee was smug. Tremont brought up diverging quantum realities and chronological protection conjectures. Benton lost the thread of the argument after forty seconds.
"Oh, Major. I'm glad you asked." (Naturally.) "I'm fixing your radio problem."
"It's not that much of a--"
"The window Faradays out everything past about a thousand nanometers. Uh, that means microwaves and radio waves. But visible light passes through fine, right?" Lee grabbed his precious executive-toy laser-pointer, pointed it at the window, and waved a red spark across the spotlit stone wall opposite. "So I just have to stick this radio relay onto a laser diode modulator..."
"Sounds great. Why? I've never been on the other side long enough to need radio contact."
"Don't you want to explore? Major Benton, interdimensional adventurer!" Lee could say these things un-selfconsciously.
"Good luck getting that past Tremont. She won't even let you drill a peephole in the roof. Besides, explore where -- a place that's probably identical to Giza? I've been there, it's a tourist trap."
"Arabic!" they all said immediately. "Egyptian Arabic." Everyone nodded.
Twenty minutes later, "It's not a time machine," one anthropologist said mordantly.
Lee huffed. "What? How do you know?"
"They're talking about the Olympics. The Atlanta Olympics."
With Tremont's inquisitive gaze drilling into him, Lee was able to reactivate the window in just six fumbles and ten minutes. Tremont smiled, then, and congratulated him.
"I'm glad you asked. It's because of the eleven-dimensional nature of space, plus one for -- well, basically, you need to start with a unitary vector basis and so --"
"Doc. Doc. You had me at the eleven-dimensional nature of space."
"No. The point is, you think you can tune the window to different different realities."
"Yes, yes I do. Not an uncountable number, because the control interface quantizes the twelve-vector for some reason -- in base Fibonacci, which limits us even more because I can only tune so many transition levels per --"
"Lots of different universes, Major Benton. Lots and lots."
"All right. Good news first: the quarantine is lifted." She outwaited the cheer. "We've cultured nothing from the other side that isn't commonplace here, or at least common in Egypt, so we appear to have not doomed humanity this time. Thanks to Doctors Takashi and Kent, and the med staff, for following that up." Applause this time. Three months' confinement to base had worn all nerves thin.
"Now the better news. As you know, General Baxter and I have been recommending a full-scale research program into the window and its alternate realities. As of today, we have the President's signature. Project Porthole is on."
That cheer went on much longer.
"And now the ambivalent news," Tremont continued. "Project Porthole will not be conducted here in Nevada. It's moving to Colorado -- we're getting Cheyenne Mountain, where NORAD's supposed to be." (Widespread chuckles.) "It's bigger, it's easier to secure, and you can order decent pizza from town." (Louder chuckles.)
"However, Area 51 is not shutting down. That means we're splitting the research staff. This base will continue to be archiving, R&D, and investigation into anything interesting that comes back through the window. Cheyenne will be front-line work on the window itself, reconnaissance through it, and -- well, whatever turns up." Tremont was talking more loudly now, pushing over the rising chatter. "I've got the assignment lists here, and no they are not negotiable. I've -- folks! The Air Force is staying tight in the loop on this one; I've been pounding out the details with Baxter for the past week. I didn't have enough fun to want to do it all over."
The room settled, slowly, once each scientist was sure that his or her wounded dignity had been properly appreciated by all.
Tremont sorted her notes, with discomfort that Benton thought was well-hidden. "I will be heading up Cheyenne; Shannon Guiry will take over here. Principal investigators at Cheyenne will be Bill Lee, Xiaolin Yang, ..."
Afterward, the crowd slowly filtered from the room, trailing a thick haze of congratulation, speculation, and (only somewhat smug) condolence. Benton was following them out when Tremont waved him over. "Yes, ma'am?" he asked.
"I've been neck-deep with Baxter about the list of lab rats, but we haven't really discussed the military side. Are you interested in transferring to Cheyenne?"
"Well, you are Major Benton, Interdimensional Adventurer." Benton winced; Tremont's tone gave him all Lee's capital letters and more. "Seriously, though. I know you think you haven't done anything more exciting than put on a mask and walk across a room. But it's a start. And you know me. And you can hang out with Bill without wanting to strangle him."
"Much. Anyway, you think about it. If you're interested, let me know, and I'll put in a word with Baxter." She nodded briskly, and turned to go.
Benton's reply caught her halfway to the door. "Doctor Tremont?" She swung slowly around, with an eyebrow up. "I have considered your offer, and I would be honored to undertake Interdimensional Adventure with your team."
She beamed with entire satisfaction. "Excellent news, Major."
"Which gives you a list of lab rats plus one guinea pig, right?"
"This is so cool," someone said.
The chamber was long, high, chilly, and concrete. Benton had been over the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center blueprints -- the real ones -- and knew that this had once been the bottom of a missile silo. Now it was the room where everything would happen.
At one end, high up, a control room looked down through a broad observation port. The slab stood at the other end, upright but somewhat dwarfed by its environment. Facing the slab, a couple of meters back, was a pylon rigged with equipment: floodlights, cameras, lasers, recording devices, whatever the science team thought they might want to aim through the window. Benton had spotted an unobtrusive tube that looked suspiciously like a superball cannon.
The rest of the room -- and there was a lot of room -- was empty. Benton looked around uncomfortably. "Couldn't we get some of those computers from upstairs? Just to make the place looked lived in? Maybe a sofa?"
Lee looked up from the slab, where he was re-re-rechecking the cable plugged into its edge. "Ooh, good idea. Projection TV."
Benton gave it up; even Lee's intentional jokes were half funny-by-accident. "You done? I think Tremont is getting impatient."
"Tremont understands the value of a job... well... done," said Lee distractedly, giving a connector two final taps. "It's General West who's impatient. Come on, let's go."
They walked up the room and out the side door, which hissed solidly shut behind them. (The transit room would be sealed and kept at slight negative pressure during operation. Everyone had had quite enough of quarantine procedure.) Up the stairs and into the control room, where Lee said, "All ready."
Air Force General Wallace Owen West, universally called Wally-O by anyone safely in another county, said, "Thank you, Doctor. Activate the device."
Lee sat down at a ferociously complicated control console, tapped three keys, and said "Done."
There was a pause. Benton looked at West, who looked at Tremont, who continued gazing peacefully down into the transit room. Lee coughed, hit three more keys, typed a hasty sequence of commands, and repeated, "Done." At the far end of the room, light washed over the slab.
Everyone involuntarily leaned forward, except Tremont, who snapped "Monitors." The lights on the pylon came on, and then the monitors which hung above the control console. Benton saw a closeup of the familiar Giza chamber -- bereft of superballs, as everything foreign to the other side had been retrieved, but with his footprints clear in the sand. Giza Prime, as they'd come to call it.
"All right, Doctor," continued Tremont. "Begin your scan."
"Right, right," muttered Lee. He hit a key.
The window flashed. The monitors showed the Giza chamber, unchanged... no. Changed. "No footprints," Benton whispered, and then shut himself up. But even General West was intent on the display.
Lee tapped another key. The window flashed, and turned a blank grey. "What is that?" the General asked sharply.
"Looks like... metal?" Lee said.
"Could be," said Tremont, considering. "A metal barrier set in front of the slab. Pity we can't get sonar or radar through. Try another one."
The next one was the Giza chamber, but arranged differently, and seen from a different side.
The next was an empty stone cell, much smaller. Then another metal wall. Another. A wall of rough wooden planks, a bit farther away.
Then, startlingly, a very mundane-looking storage room. Plastic bins and sheet-shrouded machinery were stacked on metal shelving. "Is that... that's military storage." said West.
"Looks like it, sir," said Tremont. "Yes, look, there's stock numbers. Air Force. If we could see a wall tag, we might be able to tell what base it is. Benton, want to go take a look?"
"No thanks. Look down." Benton gestured at the monitor, which Lee helpfully zoomed in. Threads of red light were clearly visible. "Laser alarms."
"Mmm," said the General. "Keep going."
The next view through the window was darkness. Nothing was visible, not even a floor. The floodlight beam was a faint glow into the distance, as if illuminating a thin atmospheric haze, but that was all.
"Now what could that be... yii!" Tremont jerked back. Something pale and sinuous had swept across their view. Then another, more slowly, a fat shape with fins... "Fish. The window is underwater."
"This is so cool," someone said.
"Why are the windows jumping around?" Benton asked curiously. "I'd have thought we'd get a bunch of Gizas, then maybe a bunch of other places in Egypt, and so on."
Tremont and Lee tried to answer at once, and went down in a verbal tangle of "We don't know." "This is a twelve-dimensional space, like I said," added Lee, "and I'm really not going through it in a straight line anyhow. There are blank spots."
"We'll have to plot a lot more before we get our bearings," said Tremont. "I suspect it's a quantization of a fractal eleven-manifold." Lee tried to disagree with that, but the General aimed a get-on-with-it glare around the room and he wilted.
The next flash turned into a beige veil that hissed down the length of the slab and scattered across the floor. Sand. The monitors showed a shallow sandy cavity beyond the window.
"Huh. The window must be buried in sand, face-down," said Lee. "The sand in contact with the surface jumped across, and then fell."
Benton considered. "When we were underwater, why didn't the water come flooding through?" Lee looked suddenly, retroactively worried.
Tremont shrugged. "Maybe the window is designed to ignore liquids. It ignores gasses -- we measured a pressure difference between Nevada and Giza, and it didn't cause a draft."
West looked like he was ginning up another glare, so Lee said, "Next reality," and tapped his key.
In the next reality, the window was buried face-up in sand. But Lee managed to switch it off before more than a few tons of the stuff had poured across.
"Tell us your thought," said Benton ritually. Lee emitted four matching syllables around his dosa.
"It's about the intersection rule," said Tremont. All nodded.
The window would not transfer you if your target position intersected a solid object on the other side. If you did go, then so did everything you were touching, and everything that touched that, and so on -- until the intersection rule broke the chain. (Which was why your clothing transferred, but not the floor beneath your feet. The whole thing had been hammered out between Tremont and Lee in an early, rapid-fire conversation that began and ended with "Benton's pants". Benton had put forth all his will, followed by unspecified threats of violence, to prevent the notion from being called "the Benton's Pants Rule" in progress debriefs.)
"Imagine," continued Tremont, "that we put a solid object right in front of the window. Not touching, but just a micrometer away."
Lee frowned. "Then... we couldn't touch the window?"
Benton stared into his curry. "Yeah, and... you mean, nothing could transfer from the other side."
"Right," said Tremont. "Anything that touched the window would, by definition, be intersecting the barrier on this side. So it wouldn't transfer. Not a grain of sand, not a hair. We can lock the window."
"That'll make West happy. He's been sweating for weeks about a fish invasion --"
But Lee was waving his spoon and shouting "The metal wall worlds!"
Tremont grinned her rare, pointy grin. "Exactly. Those weren't coincidences. They've already got my idea in place. I bet a samosa that if we checked with a laser interferometer, we'd find that each barrier was placed microscopically close to the window."
"Decline," said Benton, and snatched the last samosa to enforce it. "Hm. Okay, how's this for a thought. The barrier doesn't have to be strong, does it? I mean, a sheet of paper counts for intersection, just as much as a sheet of metal. It'll still keep everything out."
"Yes, so?" asked Lee.
"So, use a sheet of glass. A regular window in front of the slab window. Then we can see the other side, while still being protected."
"Except from lasers. They'd kill you through the glass."
"Thank you, Bill, except from lasers. I like it, Major."
The window now rested on a low platform of metal grate; Tremont had insisted that the next flood of sand, or water, should have at least a little space to drain away, rather than piling up around the slab. A long ramp led up to the platform.
The slab was also now surrounded by a heavy metal framework. It looked like a sliding door built by military contractors; which, in simplest fact, it was. "Position one," ordered Benton, and a thick pane of optically clear glass slid across the surface of the window. "Position two." The barrier slid farther, replacing the glass with heavy armor plate.
The barrier didn't have to be strong, but the unspoken agreement was that strong couldn't hurt.
"I think we're good to go. Doctor Lee, back to position one, and you may continue the mapping procedure."
Flash. "Okay, that's creepy," said Lee.
The window had become a mirror. Beyond it was a platform of metal grate, a ramp leading down, an equipment pylon, a long chamber. All the lights were off in the other-side transit room, and the control room observation port at the far end was covered by a metal blast shield. But aside from those differences, the cameras could have been seeing their own reflection.
"I wonder where they all are," Tremont said eventually.
"Huh," said Lee, "there's some glare, let me check... yeah, look. We're locked out. There's a glass barrier on the other side."
"Same as ours?" asked Benton. "Great minds think alike."
"Maybe it was you that thought of it there, too."
"Okay," said Benton, "that's creepy."
They were looking at another storage room, but the architecture was stone, angular and blocky. "I don't recognize any of those devices," said Tremont. "I don't even recognize any of the, the design idioms. Do you see a power cable? Anything like that?"
"No..." Lee replied, scanning the monitors back and forth. "...Damn."
"What?" asked Benton sharply.
"Oh, nothing. I was hoping to see another remote control, a working one. But nothing there looks, uh, remotely related."
"Pun level zero-point-five, Doctor, not up to Air Force standards. Catalog the place and let's move on."
Flash. A dark grey wasteland, stones and dust, beneath a night sky.
They stared into the monitors, nobody quite willing to say it. Finally, Tremont did. "Is that... the Moon?"
"...Not our moon. Iapetus, maybe." Lee's voice was uncharacteristically small. Benton tried to ask him what he meant; then he saw the ghostly, braided ring system sliding into view.
After a while, the ringed planet became visible. It was indigo, with luminescent bands of peach and salmon cloud. The shrunken red star beyond it could not possibly have been the Sun.
"Benton! Check this out!"
It was Jay Fagen shouting. He and several of the other white-coats were gathered around the control console. Benton checked the overhead monitors, and found they had one of the deep-ocean realities tuned in. "Yeah?"
Grinning, Fagen hit a key. Down in the transit room, an orange superball popped out of the pylon and hit the window.
The superball turned into an equal volume of seawater, which immediately burst into a shower of droplets. "The countervolume comes in highly pressurized, see?" said one of the marine biologists. "And the superball is smacked with all that pressure at once, so..."
Benton leaned forward. On the other side, the superball had shattered into irregular orange scraps, which were drifting slowly down. The muddy surface at the window's foot was littered with brightly colored fragments of rubber. A few white crab-spider-things were prodding at them, trying to decide if they were food.
"What if one of those critters touches the window?" Benton said, after a moment.
Fagen tilted his head. "I guess..."
A crab-spider appeared on the platform, and instantly exploded like messy crab popcorn.
"You're cleaning that up," said Benton.
Tremont congratulated her, and then ordered the slab temporarily cranked an additional six inches above the platform. "That will put your feet below ground level on the other side, so intersection will prevent you from crossing over."
Tremont paused and surveyed the gathered science team. "This does not constitute a license to be careless. Lose any clothing to the other side, or any equipment that was in your hands, and I will take pleasure in writing 'virtually killed in the line of duty' in your personnel record."
Benton raised a hand. "Doctor, may I clarify?" Tremont nodded, and Benton stood up.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we are not fucking around here. The Special Archives Command has many posts more congenial to the careless and inattentive. Such as the Hudson Bay Magnetic Anomaly... North Monitoring Station."
He sat down amid a thoughtful silence.
Tremont frowned. "The mapping work is important. We've barely started to sketch out the range of realities -- an eleven-manifold means lots of room to get lost."
Benton shook his head. "And we should keep doing that. But it can go on in the background, especially with that visual categorizer that Lee and Choi came up with. Peeping through the window isn't telling us what we're dealing with."
"You think it's time for an exploratory mission."
"Yes, I do. Plus, it'll give the crew something to dig into. Besides handball and seeing what happens to a peanut butter sandwich dropped in eight thousand PSI of sea pressure."
"We've mapped only the smallest fraction of the realities that we can select," said Doctor Tremont, "and that's only a fraction of the realities that we think the window can reach. This," as she clicked up a slide, "is a rough categorization of what we've seen."
She pointed at the diagram of colored rings. "Many of the worlds near us in twelve-space are similar to us as well. The window is in storage at Area 51, or here at the Mountain, or some other military base or laboratory." She clicked rapidly through several photos of dull storerooms. "Or a Russian or Chinese laboratory, or so on. Basically, the slab has been found and noted as anomalous. We call this Zone Blue. It also includes a lot of locked windows." A picture of a metal wall appeared.
Lee interrupted, "We assume those are military bases because that's what we do with the window when it's not in use. Of course that's only an assumption. Zone Blue isn't a nice neat circle..."
Tremont smoothly interrupted him back. "As Doctor Lee says, the 'borders' between zones are very grainy and irregular -- fractal, in fact." Lee contented himself with a nod.
"Now, the next group -- Zone Green -- are worlds where the window has not been singled out for study. Either it's still buried somewhere" (a photo of Giza Prime, another of sand) "or, if it's been found, it's in a museum attic. Or dumped in a rock pile."
"You're showing me deserted storerooms and tombs," said the General. "Have you found any inhabited worlds?"
"Obviously they're inhabited, shelves don't build themselves, heh heh..." began Lee nervously.
"We believe," said Tremont quickly, "that probabilities are biased against human activity near the window. If it is thought to be a chunk of granite, it will be in unattended storage. If its properties are known, the owners are likely to invent the barrier, and then keep the window locked most of the time -- as we do. No doubt there are people moving beyond those metal walls; but we have not watched any one long enough to catch them looking back."
"But if there are an infinite number of possible worlds, some of them must have people nearby?"
"Certainly. But the window only lets us sample twelve-space."
"Like channel-surfing," said Lee. "You can only click up and down in steps. You can't see the possibilities between the channels." (Benton, from his corner of the table, nodded minutely. Good explanation-for-Generals. Lee smiled back and, even more admirably, stopped talking.)
Tremont returned to her thread. "Beyond Green Zone we have Yellow, which are cultures that appear to have no direct parallel in our own world." The slide showed the angular storage room. "There are a great many variants of this design, and then a sprinkling of others." Metal rooms, weirdly Art Deco rooms, one that seemed to have been poured out of liquid stone. "We don't know what to make of those. Then Orange, which are other planets -- such as Doctor Berlioni's vacation spot. And finally Zone Red, in which the window is either falling in free space, or in some environment we cannot even start to categorize." She clicked past a shot of starry black sky, to a dizzying image of grey and white tubules, apparently coiled and knotted in infinite profusion.
General West tapped his stack of papers. "And then there are the war worlds."
Tremont returned to the circular diagram, and then added a purple slash across its blue center. "Yes. What we call Zone Violet." The slide changed again.
It was an Air Force storage room -- devastated. Scorch marks showed along one wall, and scars that Benton still thought looked like the work of explosive bullets. The nearest shelves were overturned, their contents clearly rifled.
West gazed into, or through, the catastrophe. "We don't know who did this?"
"Not a hint," said Benton quietly.
"You've convinced me, Doctor Tremont," said West. "We need intel."
"Not a war zone, not a desert, no weird-ass science fiction crap."
"Listen up," said Benton. Kawalsky, Ferretti, Freeman, and Brown stood at attention and listened.
"We're hitting Zone Blue. Not a war zone, not a desert, no weird-ass science fiction crap. Tremont is pretty sure it's an alternate Cheyenne Mountain, so that gives us a leg up on knowing the territory -- if she's right and if it's not too different. Consider this mission to be covert recon in allied territory. The locals haven't done anything to piss us off, but they'll be pissed off if they spot us, right?"
Benton looked over the team's gear. "We might pass as base personnel, but we might not -- Tremont can't promise that uniforms or protocol match between realities. Plus," he smiled dryly, "if you run into yourself, it might look a little suspicious. So let's not give them anything to spot."
He caught Kawalsky's eye. "Major, I hear you ask, how we are going to wander through an active military base without being spotted." Kawalsky did not move, of course, but Benton saw an eyebrow went up. He clicked the slide remote. "Here's our target. If it's what it looks like, it's a south-side storeroom on level five to ten. And, as you see, the power is out." The room on the screen was dim, illuminated only by an emergency light in the corner. "Maybe the base is on standby, maybe they've had some kind of mechanical trouble. Either way, empty or out of sorts, we have good odds to stay unnoticed.
"We go in, we take lots of pictures, we get out. We do not engage locals under any circumstances. If we walk into a crowd, we turn around and walk away -- or run away if necessary. This is not a bug hunt." That got some smirks.
"Final item. Doctor Tremont will be joining us for this excursion. If you've got a problem with that, talk to the General. She knows as much as anybody about the window and alternate realities, so if it hits the fan, she will be the one getting our asses out of the shit. Please keep in mind that it was her or Doctor Lee. Permission granted to be grateful that it's her.
"Gonna keep up okay?" Ferretti asked Tremont in a casual tone.
Benton looked over sharply, but Tremont was smiling. "What, I haven't invited you on one of my mountain hikes?" she asked.
"When she gets to the top, she wrestles bears," Benton added. "Eyes front, folks."
"ID cross-check," came Doctor Lee's voice over the PA.
Everyone fumbled with the wrist devices that Tremont had passed out. A green indicator lit on each: mutual recognition of the base transmitter. Benton didn't want to think about the window deactivating or losing tuning during the mission -- but if it did, the ID bands would ensure that they were coming home to the right reality.
(So Tremont said. Lee had started talking about quantum worlds branching after the cryptographic keys were generated and exchanged, but Tremont said the realities weren't that close together... she was pretty sure.)
Lee's voice echoed again. "Opening the blinds." The metal panel at the top of the ramp slid aside, giving way to glass, with the slab now visible behind. It had been lowered back level with the platform, ready for use.
The window flashed and showed... military-green drapery. "Now what?" asked Kawalsky.
"Looks like someone threw a tarp over the window," said Benton. "Can we get through?"
Tremont was up the ramp, peering at the slab's edges. "It's not a microscopic seal like ours is. We might be able to position a probe between two folds, touch the slab that way..."
"Forget it," said Benton, "we're not going in blind. Lee! Can you find another world with the power out?"
"Oh, ah... maybe?"
The window began flashing again: metal barrier, metal barrier, lit storeroom, a concrete wall. Then a darkened storeroom, and several voices called "Stop!"
"Looks the same to me," said Tremont after a moment. "Same layout. Emergency lights only, no laser tripwires."
"I say we go for it," said Benton. "General?"
General West's voice echoed from the control room. "You are go." And the glass barrier slid away.
Benton and the others joined Tremont on the platform. "Like we drilled," he murmured to the scientist. She nodded quickly and faced the window. The others moved into their formation around her; two lines of three, back to back, shoulders pressed together. "Hit it, Doctor."
Tremont raised her right hand and hit it. Brilliance flashed across their world.
"Everyone okay?" Benton asked, more to get them moving than anything else.
"All present and wearing pants," Kawalsky fired back.
Okay then. "Relay," Benton said, as Ferretti and Brown moved to watch the door. Kawalsky pulled out the laser relay, positioned it on the shelf opposite the window, and snapped the switch.
A red light flashed once and went out; Lee had modified his design to use an IR beam, invisible in operation. Benton clicked his comm. "Base, Whiskey Tango Niner. You read?"
West's voice was overlaid by a crackling whine, but clear. "We read, Whiskey Tango Niner. Some interference."
Benton frowned -- he was standing just a few steps from the relay. "Same here. Looks clear here; we're about to take a look outside."
"Acknowledge. Locking up. Keep the line open."
"Roger," said Benton, and watched the glass slide over the far side of the window.
He nodded at Ferretti, who eased the storeroom door open an inch, peered out for several seconds, then signalled clear. "It's Cheyenne all right," he added, "big level-nine painted on the wall. Emergency lighting, no main power."
"Okay," said Benton. "Kawalsky, Freeman, Tremont: science labs. Ferretti, Brown, with me -- all the way down."
"Yes, yes," muttered Tremont, but the men were already sliding out the door, with the tight just-doing-my-job casualness of cover in perhaps-hostile territory. Tremont didn't match it, but she was quiet and quick, which was good enough for Benton. The corridor outside was utterly familiar. They moved down it towards the downside elevator.
Two intersections on, something exploded behind them.
Benton found himself in a side junction, squashed beside tense bodies, with Tremont yanked behind him. The source of the sound had not been visible, but it had been bizarre -- a whoosh and a crash. It came again. It couldn't possibly be good news.
"Major--" whispered Kawalsky. Benton flung his hand up. Bad news for somebody -- that was MP-5 return fire now, familiar, tightening his stomach. Behind that, shouting. Not all in English.
A pitched battle was going on, between them and the storeroom.
It was getting closer. Three airmen sprinted across the next intersection, pursued by a squad of -- of --
"Fuck me asswise," whispered Tremont. "It's the Violets."
Benton grabbed for his radio. "Base, Niner. We're in the middle of a firefight. Air Force and a bunch of freaks in armor. They've got quarterstaffs that shoot fire."
The squeal that came in response made him twist the volume down, but underneath it was definitely Bill Lee's voice, half intrigued and half offended: "They're what with what?"
General West interrupted him, shouting over the interference. "Pull out, Niner."
No shit, Benton didn't say. "Negative, we're cut off." He sorted assets in his head. The storeroom door was closed; even if someone opened it, they'd just see a dark room...
A dark room with light shining in. "Base, kill all lights in the transit room. Repeat, blackout the transit room. We're going to--" Kawalsky was gesturing urgently down their side hallway, and Benton registered the sound of tromping boots. Metal boots. Getting louder. "We gotta move. Out." He signalled at the safest-sounding corridor and got everyone moving. No way in hell they were splitting up now.
They hadn't seen any friendlies who weren't dead, or pinned down and about to become so. Whoever the armored men were, they wanted no escapees, and they didn't seem interested in prisoners either.
Benton tried his radio again, and got nothing but the same crackling whistle. "That's gotta be jamming," Ferretti said.
"Of course it is," said Tremont with sudden bitterness. "A sliding broadband -- shit. I'm sorry, Major, I should have recognized it the moment I heard."
"No escaping the smell when it decides to rain crap, Doctor," said Kawalsky. "So what now?"
Benton shrugged. "Keep moving, or wait for the hostiles to drive us out. Not much of a choice. Eventually we'll find a hole in their perimeter and get back upstairs."
Tremont raised a finger. "We should go all the way down. Check out the transit room."
"Why?" asked Ferretti from his post at the door. "The window is on level nine."
"Exactly," said Tremont, and damn (Benton thought) if her grin wasn't back. "In a disused storeroom. Which means whatever's down in the big room on 28 is better. And think about it. Those guys in armor, they're not from around here."
"Aliens?" asked Kawalsky, half-serious.
"No, no," -- entirely serious -- "aliens my butt. If they were walking lizards, they might be aliens. Those people have fingernails and earlobes. They're humans. But their garb and tattoos and technology don't look like anything we know, so..."
Benton interrupted, caught up despite himself. "They invaded through a window!"
"Gold star," said Tremont. "And it's got to be in the transit chamber. That's where we put ours, right?"
That didn't entirely follow, but Benton had bigger worries. "It'll be guarded."
"You said we couldn't stay here, right? It's something to aim for, and it's our best shot to learn what's going on."
Benton stared at the door and gamed options. "Right. Let's do it. Try to stay ahead of, I mean below, the patrols. But if we get a chance to slip upstairs, we take it."
"No objection," said Tremont.
"No shit," said Kawalsky, "let's move."
Six figures lay in rubble, BDUs streaked with soot and dust. They'd dropped flat in a briefing room, behind a half-collapsed wall -- C4 or those damn staves, Benton couldn't tell. Nobody was searching this hallway, yet, but the sweep patrols would reach this level in minutes and then they'd be flushed.
Benton sorted maps and moves and there wasn't a damn thing except a full-on charge into massed fire. If they could draw fire around a split corridor, Tremont might sneak past and out, shit odds but --
The stairwell door at the end of the corridor banged open.
The hostiles that tromped out weren't searching. They were pushing a handful of airmen, officers, disarmed and wounded. So they took prisoners after all. Kawalsky twitched and Freeman made something that wanted to be a growl, if they dared make a sound, but more hostiles were bringing up the rear and they would look into the side rooms in a minute --
A voice boomed out, harsh syllables through some kind of PA, must have been. Every armored goon in sight stiffened and drew up against the walls. Ten-hut, Benton's brain filled in, clear as day.
A woman rounded the far corner. Benton blinked and craned his head, trying to make sense of it.
She wore Air Force kit, not armor; field gear no different from his own. An officer, double bar. But she wore a heavy gold bracer on one wrist, not Air Force at all -- clear cousin to the heavy sweeping collars of the soldiers. But she didn't resemble them at all; she was blonde and short, utterly unlike the broad, dark countenances of the men she commanded.
She did command them, no mistaking that. They stared rigidly at the air above her head. Fear, awe, devotion to any word she might give. Benton revised his take from "General" to "Generalissimo". Who the hell was she? She walked like cruel thoughtless death. But without the bracer, without the rings she seemed to be wearing on her other hand, she could have walked through the base like any American.
Perhaps she had. The prisoners were shoved harshly to their knees, and Benton saw their faces: horror, despair, revulsion. They knew this woman. They were dying inside of what she was doing.
A choked noise came from behind him. Benton looked back, and Tremont had the exact same look on her face. Her eyes were fixed on the enemy commander like a starving woman facing rat poison.
Benton was aware of being very, very glad he had not found any alternate-reality version of himself.
The woman strolled up to the prisoners, studied them like insects. From their knees, they studied her back, with a weary contempt that was sincere and still fooled no one.
Without a word, she raised her ring-decked left hand. Something burned in her palm, and the officer before her arched back and spasmed.
Fuck this noise.
Benton had his MP-5 up before -- no, he knew exactly what he was doing, he was taking this creature down. Five yards, point-blank. Except she spun -- fuck she was fast -- holding that bracer up between them, and Benton's fire spanged off some kind of halo that shimmered around her.
He held his aim, full auto. She must have some weapon that could reduce them to paste. She wasn't using it, and pinning her down might be why. Kawalsky was up and firing into the troops, good man, you know they can bleed; the rest of the team was a breath behind him. Covering fire, above the heads of the prisoners.
...The prisoners. One slumped, free of the torture-device but dazed. The other two were rolling aside, sweeping goons from their feet, and then rolling to their feet -- with staves levelled. Go go go. The hallway erupted into a firestorm.
"Go go go!" Benton screamed, still firing. Not our fight, he thought, as Tremont and then Brown and Freeman bailed for the stairway behind him. Not our men. Fire burst against the walls; he and Ferretti backpedalled, alternating covering fire. Not my men. Not my Air Force. The thought tasted like burned flesh. Where was Kawalsky? Down, no, staggering up, clutching his shoulder. Into the stairwell. Benton followed.
Eighteen floors up, bullets and fireballs crashing off the walls, and all Benton could see was a tall iron-faced colonel standing in that corridor, holding off chaos with one fire-staff, like he meant to win his war alone. Benton kept on running away.
Jam-up at the window, that's what. "Tremont, go! Past the window, don't stop, clear it! Go go! Kawalsky, go!" Tremont was slapping the slab from a full-out sprint, good, and she vanished in a flash (window was unlocked, one more potential cockup vanished from Benton's head). "Past the window, asshole!" Kawalsky heaved himself the last step, and fell, flashed gone. Tremont will pull him clear. "Freeman, Brown, go!"
He and Ferretti hosed the doorway as two gleaming shapes dove in -- hardcore bastards, but balls didn't stand up to full-auto MP-5 fire. Freeman and Brown were out. What now? Targets holed up in a dead-end storeroom, armed but outnumbered: grenades. But not grenades stat. They had a beat of maneuvering room, so, "Ferretti, go!" And Benton turned without waiting and chased Ferretti down the aisle, punched the window going past, and slammed straight into Ferretti's ass as Ferretti slammed into the transit platform side railing.
Behind him, the window went dead. Kawalsky was laid out on the ramp, but medics were rushing in. Benton blinked, and tried to remember what else could go wrong, and was worried because he couldn't.
...I positively identified the woman as Samantha Carter, formerly -- in our reality -- a student of mine, and currently pursuing postdoctoral studies in astrophysics at UCLA.
Dr. Carter's appearance in Violet 1-267 presents us a challenge. I can easily imagine her serving in uniform. She once gave me to understand that her choice of academia over the Air Force was the most difficult decision she had ever taken, and remained a source of friction between her and her family.
Captain Samantha Carter is within the realm of possibility; a traitorous Samantha Carter is not. I cannot conceive any such woman as I knew, having entered military service, then giving hostile forces access to her post -- much less giving them her loyalty.
At the same time, I do not believe that a reality so divergent as to spawn those invaders -- unfamiliar in technology, language, cultural signifiers, and physical heritage -- could have produced such a precise replica of someone in our world...
...Dr. Tremont therefore posits invaders from at least two realities foreign to Violet 1-267. The Violets, as Major Benton's team have dubbed them them, must be considered a coalition of powers with quantum-travel technology. A coalition of unknown reach and resources; a coalition willing and able to mount hostile actions across realities.
Dr. Tremont cannot assert that Benton's extraction from 267 was untraceable. I will not declare that our defenses are adequate.
The blocking shield is the most obvious safeguard against window ingress. If 267 followed Blue 1-412 -- and ourselves -- in placing their primary window in the transit chamber, they likely had a shield as well. Nonetheless, whether through subterfuge or through an unknown countermeasure, the Violets were able to compromise and reduce 267.
It is therefore imperative that we begin searching the greater quantum neighborhood for knowledge, technology, and -- if God is with us -- allies, to resist the Violet threat. Cheyenne Mountain, if uprated and fortified, may serve as our forward base and first line of defense. Mr. President, I recommend that we form nine reconnaissance teams, to be designated Window Teams One through Nine...