Well, we met up with DuQuesne, saw his childhood sucked, and heard unidentified voices discussing these events as though it were some kind of amusing experiment...
"Mister DuQuesne," the older man said, pronouncing Marc's name deliberately as "Doo-kweznee", with a marked sneer, "If you believe you know so much more about this subject than I, praytell why am I the instructor?"
"Damned if I know," Marc answered before he could stop himself.
Professor Bryson's eyes narrowed below his graying brows. "Then you're welcome to leave and contemplate until you can answer the question, Mister DuQuesne. And while you are at it you can look up Harkness, Smith, and Jones on the finer points of the subject. I want a five page summary on the physics of the nuclei of trans-uranic elements, and in particular the reasons for their instability with implications for why you can expect no reasonably stable elements on the table past those currently known." As DuQuesne hesitated, Bryson snapped, "You may go, sir."
Fuming, DuQuesne strode out, ignoring both suppressed snickers and sympathetic glances. There were more of the former than the latter, something he'd gotten used to over the years. Partly my fault, he admitted. He never had learned the art of just getting along with people – Father had seen to that.
Oh, Maria and the others from the USRS – United States Reconstruction Service, the people who'd stormed the compound and, really, rescued him from his father's paranoia – they'd done a good job, helping him unlearn most of what he'd been taught, getting him into schools, giving him a life… but they couldn't change everything drilled into a boy for fourteen years.
And nothing would've made me willing to put up with that pompous, self-important, blinkered, overbearing little pipsqueak of a professor! It's right in front of him but because it's not in his blasted books …!
He realized he'd reached the library and stopped, pausing, letting himself breathe. The great marble-faced building seemed as solid and certain as the history of humanity, even though he knew it had been built only twenty years before, part of the second surge of reconstruction. Poor Father, he thought for the hundredth… no, thousandth or more… time. I never realized how long it had been. It wasn't Father's generation, or his father's, but his grandfather's, that was caught in the war. Two generations of paranoia and loss, ending when some of your traps killed an innocent hunter and they came looking.
Melancholy was better than boiling anger, but not much. DuQuesne snorted, shoved the maudlin emotions back where they belonged, and banged his way through the door. The librarians jumped, and he tried to look properly apologetic and, he suspected, only half-succeeding. When you were more than six feet six, black of hair and black of eye with olive-dark skin, looking threatening wasn't even an effort; looking harmless, now, that was difficult.
He made his way upstairs, to the second level and followed the classification numbers to physics, nuclear physics… Yeah, that's the one, Harkness, Smith, Jones: Nuclear physics, third edition.
He took the thick, red leather-bound tome down and carried it to one of the nearby tables and began to work. As was his wont, once he began to focus, he could almost entirely ignore the comings and goings around him. Five pages? I'll give him ten, five showing why there can't be elements stable past one-oh-five, and five more showing that there can!
An hour later, however, something did penetrate his self-induced focus: someone cursing, not far away, in a voice whose tones would normally have been deep and pleasant, but were now strained with anger.
"That son of a… That weasel-faced, ossified, over-tenured, under-qualified, sneaky little…"
DuQuesne looked up to find the source; his eyebrows rose slightly as he realized that the complaints were coming from a young man about his own age and – startlingly – his own height and build. The other man continued, "… sent me to write a paper with a book that he knew wasn't here. I'll bet he's sitting on it in his office right now, that unprintable, unmentionable …"
It dawned on DuQuesne suddenly. He's standing right in front of the same shelf…
The other started, then turned, already with an apologetic look on his face. His hair was gold and eyes were a blue-gray, and where DuQuesne's face – even to himself in a mirror – looked hard and forbidding, his was an open and friendly countenance. "Oh, sorry, fella – I was running pretty hot there, wasn't I? But if you knew what I was –"
He cut off suddenly as DuQuesne, with a wry grin, held up Nuclear Physics, Third Edition, by Harkness, Smith, and Jones. The fair face went crimson in embarrassment and the young man shook his head and chuckled. "Well, okay, I really made a monkey out of myself there! But what are you – aw, no, it can't be. Bryson?"
"The learned professor Bryson, yes."
"He threw you out too? No wonder he was in a royal snit this period." The other glanced down at the scattered notes. "What'd you get him riled up over?"
"Nuclear stability past one-ought-five," DuQuesne said, reluctantly. What's the chance he'd even understand?
The other's jaw dropped. "You're kidding." He looked at DuQuesne's face. "You're not kidding."
The newcomer threw back his head and laughed. "Oh, now I needed that laugh! Shake, partner – I argued with him on the exact same thing, and that's why he turned about seven shades of purple and threw me out without so much as a how-de-do!"
DuQuesne found himself gripping the other's hand as the blonde man continued, "I'm Richard Seaton, and pleased to meet you…?"
"DuQuesne," he answered, and felt an answering grin slowly spreading on his face. "Marc C. DuQuesne."
DuQuesne looked up, feeling a crick in his neck, and it slowly penetrated that it was pitch black outside. On the opposite side of the table – now piled high with scratch paper on both sides – Seaton was sitting with his head in both hands, fingers digging into his hair as though trying to pull thoughts out by main force.
"I think I owe old Bryson a little apology," Seaton muttered at last. "He's still wrong – that I'm sure of, by ninety-seven rows of little apple trees…"
DuQuesne found himself giggling. It was a completely incongruous sound, and one he found embarrassing, but for a moment he couldn't stop it, and his new friend glanced up with a slightly hurt expression. "What?"
Marc finally managed to convert the giggle into a chortle. "… by ninety-seven rows of little apple trees!" he repeated, and found himself laughing.
Seaton went pink again, but a moment later joined in. "Yeah, I guess it does sound kinda silly. My dad had all kinds of expressions like that, and what with me, him, and my mom being mostly alone when I was a kid, I pretty much learned to talk just like him. When you live in the woods a hundred miles from anywhere else, that's what you do."
Damnation. We're like light and dark mirrors. DuQuesne stopped laughing. "Sorry. Yes, it was funny, but I shouldn't have laughed at you."
"Don't worry about it. If I can't laugh at myself, I'm taking things way too seriously."
"So what do you mean about Bryson?"
Seaton gestured to the table. "I guess it all seems obvious to us, but it looks like we're having a hell of a time proving that it's possible to have real stability out past element one-oh-five. He may be a close-minded stagnated old bird, but he does know his stuff, and he wasn't all that far off; Harkness, Smith and Jones make it all sound open-and-shut."
DuQuesne nodded unwillingly. "Yeah… Yeah, I guess you're right. Well, we've both got our five pages of the conventional wisdom and about fifty pages of stuff that doesn't quite overturn it. And now that we've come up for air, I suddenly have discovered I'm hungry. I think we need to let this problem sit." He started gathering his notes and packing them methodically away.
"You know, I'm about hungry enough to eat a bear without salt. Want to join me?"
DuQuesne started. It suddenly dawned on him that this was the first time someone else had asked him to join them in a … well, a social context. To his chagrin and confusion, he realized there was some level of actual… well, not fear maybe, but nervousness, tension. It's just going to get dinner, for Crissake!
And that was true, as far as it went, but for him he realized there was more. And it was incredibly hard to respond.
But he also knew he needed to respond – for his own sake. "Well… sure, why not?" The answer sounded lukewarm in his own ears, but Seaton didn't appear to notice.
"Great! Hey, I transferred in just last week, so I'm hoping you actually know a place a guy can get a decent steak…"
Actually… "I think I know just the place… by about ninety-seven rows of little apple trees!"
Richard Seaton gave a delighted snort. "Then set the course, Captain!"
It occurred to him that he didn't know how well Seaton was set for cash. "Well, that is, if your wallet isn't too thin."
"Fat enough for now. I'll worry about it getting skinny later. Then lead on, MacDuff!"
As the two made their way across Washington Campus, the strange tension finally began to make sense to DuQuesne. Vulnerability was always frightening, always a worry for one trained to constant alertness.
And there was no vulnerability quite like having a friend.
"Balanced Stimuli begun. Competitive –Cooperative matrices well within established parameters."
"Didn't even need an adjustment in that part of the scenario. You've done wonders."
"Praise accepted. Seaton and DuQuesne match perfectly as complements – equivalent capabilities, personalities playing off each other; they can be highly competitive – and will be – but should remain friends throughout."
"Excellent. This was one of the first major changes; it seems to be working well. Complete this phase, then we can prepare for the next."
"Balanced Stimuli to be completed, followed by Adjustment and First Denouement. Engaging."