Uncle Heinie's lab

Milo broke into a run along the sidewalks past the still snow-covered lawns toward the Fermi Institute. He was late. He ran past the front doors to the side of the building, then turned down a walk toward a narrow slit of light spilling across the path. As he neared the bright line, the fire exit door eased ajar, revealing Alphonse's sidelit face and shoulder, warm yellow light spilling from behind him.

This was the second time today Milo had slid through this door. Much earlier, he and a dozen other post-grad interns had spent hours in the Kevatron lab, recording the instrument's dial readouts for some experiment in progress. Things had gotten hectic and his 'lunch' had stayed undrunk in his thermos, which he'd parked and forgotten, rather too near a copper tube that coiled from one of the big machine's sensors.

"You're twelve minutes late," said Alphonse, testily. "I was getting ready to give up and go home. Where were you?"

"At the reading room. I couldn't find the folder right away. It was weird..."

Together they hurried down the corridor, through a heavy fireproof metal door with a small imbedded-mesh window, down a set of expanded steel steps. They clattered into an echoing painted-concrete hallway washed spottily by the cold blue of bare fluorescent fixtures. Doors lined both sides. The third on the left was unmarked, and could easily have been a broom closet. But Alphonse had a key ready, and after a habitual glance up and down the hall to ensure they were unseen, they swept through it into Heinrich Kannenberg's abandoned lab.

Milo flicked on the light and hurried to a long lab bench piled high with random tools, what looked like plumbing parts, and near the middle, a complex-looking little structure of shiny stainless steel pipes, copper wires, and vacuum tubes, in an aluminum chassis the size of a breadbox. He snapped open the briefcase and held the red folder up like a trophy.

Alphonse gazed approvingly at Milo, then the folder, then nodded and grinned.

"Incredible! This is going to be so good! Who knows, maybe we'll end up with a Nobel Prize." Alphonse's eyes trailed to the briefcase and registered the thermos. He regarded it for a couple of seconds, then picked it up. Milo had already fallen to work, poring first over a paper from the folder, then the breadbox on the bench.

"What's this?"

Milo glanced up briefly. "Huh? Oh, my lunch. Didn't have time to eat."

Alphonse removed the nickel-plated cup, unscrewed the stopper and sniffed. "Smells awful. What the hell is it?"

"Jello water."

"That's all?"

Milo stopped. "It's lunch," he repeated. "Not liquor. Lime jello powder and water. It's the only thing I could find this morning to eat, except for ballpark mustard and teabags. Gimme a break!"

Alphonse wrinkled his sizeable nose.

"Give me a break! I would've lent you enough for something decent! I was around all day."

Milo ignored this, eyed a schematic, then stared off into middle distance for a moment, considering.

"Hand me the Phillips screw driver with the yellow handle."

He'd already forgotten the thermos again, prodding the almost-complete apparatus on the bench, leafing through diagrams in the folder, then nimbly, confidently bolting on a new part here, minutely adjusting another, there.

Alphonse passed Milo the screwdriver, saying, "This is a one-man job. I don't even know what I'm doing here."

"You've got security clearance, and it's easier for one person to come through the front door after hours. Two of us would attract attention."

"So I'm the fuckin' door man. Shit!"