White Rabbit

by Domenika Marzione

29/July-October 2012

"No, I'm not being overly protective about this. I'm being reasonable. He's very sensitive about the whole issue and... I'm not saying it can't be avoided. I'm saying that making an issue of it in a room full of people who still haven't gotten used to the changes he's undergone is just asking for a crisis... Yes it is. You saw him at Dane's birthday party back in May... How about a nice quiet dinner out?... I don't know, Piotr, Bobby and Cecilia... No, I don't think Callisto would come... It's not a locale thing, it's a social thing... All right. Talk to Scott... Yeah, you, too."

Lily set the phone down and turned back to her monitor and sighed. The idea was too phenomenally stupid to be Jean's, but so far her sister-in-law was refusing to name the true culprits.

"Lily, you wanted to see me?"

She looked up. Alice was standing there, fiddling with her hatpin. In the summer, Alice wore a lightweight hat instead of the wig she wore in cooler weather. There had been some sort of Jewish holiday the day before and Lily had left an email for Alice to come see her the following day. Today.

"Yeah," Lily confirmed. "Grab your laptop and let's head to the tiny conference room."

If Alice was surprised that Lily wanted to go someplace so isolated, she didn't show it. Instead she nodded and disappeared into her neighboring cubicle, re-emerging with her laptop.

"I need you to go on a wild goose chase," Lily began as she closed the door behind them. The tiny conference room was really just a small room with a door, a place where any one or any group of people could go to get either privacy or quiet, and it was used often enough that there had been no surreptitious looks as they had crossed the office.

Alice gave her a skeptical look, but said nothing.

"Those filters we ran back in March, your Armageddon Test Drives," Lily continued, sitting down. "Something came up in one of them that made me a little... nervous."

"That's the one I never got back, right?" Alice asked, opening up her laptop and typing quickly.

"Yeah," she confirmed, leaning forward so that she could see what was coming up on Alice's screen. "I held on to that one. The equations it produced were sufficiently atypical that, well... Let me try this again. Back in the caveman days of chronography, before Akkaba even, when I was trying to convince myself that Nathan wasn't talking science fiction at me when he said that fluid dynamics could be used to predict things, I did some experimenting."

Alice sat back, looking both amused and intrigued. She had been one of Nathan's recruits, a network operative for five years before the preparations for Akkaba had even begun, and was one of the few people Lily felt guilty giving orders to.

"The trials I ran were really incredibly crude simulations, just me trying to draw a direct correlation between the data-recorders' timeline and any sort of fluids problem it could even vaguely resemble," Lily went on, shaking her head at the memories. Her Buck Rogers days. "They were mapping data sets that we'd now consider utterly unusable, that we've never even bothered to try to use because they are so substandard. But at the time, they were enough to convince me that the idea had merit and..."

Alice smiled. "And a few months later, you were losing your voice in thrice-daily screaming matches with Fakliatore."

"Yeah," Lily agreed wryly. She had met Alice two months before Akkaba. They hadn't worked closely then, but Lily remembered her for her practicality - a quality in short supply among that group - and her level-headedness. Too many members of Nathan's network treated him like a deity, like this was a holy cause instead of a temporal one (pun intended). But Alice had her own faith and didn't need a new god and that, coupled with her acerbic wit and good cheer, had made her one of Lily's first choices two years later when she and Nathan had been putting together the staff for the New Lands lab.

"So something in that missing filter made you think of those early test runs," Alice mused, swiveling back in her seat to face her laptop. Lily was sure that Alice remembered precisely what the scenario for that filter had been. "Which, of course, should be a cause for concern because those filters were set up to be boundaries. And if the boundaries we set up as impossible aren't so impossible - or at least resemble something that is possible..."

Lily handed her a flash drive and Alice plugged it in. There was one file on it and she watched Alice's face as she skimmed the graphs and text.

"Oh, my," Alice murmured. "Someone's been playing in Pandora's Box."

"And that's just the speculative part," Lily said, gesturing with her fingertip at the third graph. "This one, that's what got me nervous. The rate of flow there is in the magic range, the one that always gets us in trouble because it seems to be so easy to influence. And the function the sample produced... Pete said it exploded, but it didn't. Not like we usually mean it. That jump discontinuity right there, that is where I need you to start chasing down things that might not exist. Because the left side produces a lovely outcome and the right side..."

"Wouldn't look good if you dressed it up in a tuxedo," Alice finished with a sigh of understanding. They needed a basis for other outcomes, a basis that might not exist. "We're going up against probability theory and hoping to win."

"Pretty much," Lily confirmed. "But here's where it gets tricky: we need to do this on the side and on the sly. The timeline that we've all been busting our humps to work on is valid, I'm sure of it. Ever since we solved that problem with Switzerland and Jordan and focused on the Alsace, I've been convinced that it's going to be a huge part of whatever goes down. And we need to keep working on it, keep adding to it, and most importantly keep attention focused on it. Because if this," and here she paused to gesture to the screen, "gets out too far, we're looking not only at a panic, but also at a lot of corrupted data."

Alice nodded resolutely and highlighted the last sentence of the last paragraph. "Those three words will wreck everything HisDAs does surer than anything," she said. "Contamination isn't even the word. All right. So this stays with me and me alone. How are you going to get the rest of the work done?"

Lily smiled crookedly. "Divide and conquer," she replied. "The only ones who know what's going on will be you and me because I can't keep you clueless and still expect anything approaching reasonable historical data analysis. As for everyone else, I'm going to be assigning this out like any other top-level project, but without the support info and the expectation of absolute silence. We can't expect perfect discipline there, but everything will be too discrete for anyone to make any sort of connection. Tom's got most of the day-to-day with the timeline covered and he and Amy Dominguez can keep that train on track without a problem. Do you see a problem with shifting most of your current workload back to the rest of HisDAs?"

Alice narrowed her eyes in thought for a moment. "Short term, no. Sagerstein, that mental midget, will be thrilled to have all of the marbles to play with for a while. I've been working mostly with Eric Corrado on the timeline and I'm not worried about him getting herded by Sagerstein. After this is all over... We'll see. Possession being nine tenths of the law and all that, reestablishing the balance of power might be a problem, but that's not something I am going to worry about before then."

"All right, then," Lily said with a nod. "We're on."

Three hours later, she was returning from her abbreviated lunchtime stroll - July in midtown not being the most pleasant weather to be wandering about - and noticed that Alistair Ngeda, the XSE NCO currently assigned to the lab's reception area, was sitting up a little straighter than he normally did. And there was no magazine open in front of him.

"What happened, Al?" she asked as she cheekily showed her ID badge. "Someone stop by?"

Someone, of course, being an XSE commanding officer. Nobody else in the lab would have ever told Alistair that he couldn't read at his desk. Midday Sun was not a frequently visited office. Throw in the fact that Sergeant Ndega was wearing two firearms he knew how to use and was stationed at the mouth of a vestibule with no other exit and his due diligence was due enough.

Alistair looked a little... deflated. "Commander Guthrie's still here, ma'am," he replied.

"Sam barked at you for reading Sports Illustrated?" Lily was surprised. She'd have thought it was Scott or Logan or Kurt who would have said something. Sulven and Domino had no real reason to visit, but if they had they wouldn't have cared, and Nathan would have teleported straight inside.

"Said I didn't look like an authority figure all slouched as I was, ma'am," Alistair answered. "And he's right."

"Well, I won't argue matters of posture with Commander Guthrie, but as long as you're not dozing or reading skin magazines, you're free to do what you will at your station," she told him. "Now let me go see what the Commander wants from us civilians, eh?"

It turned out that Sam was there to speak to Tom as Lily found the two of them sitting at the small table in Tom's cubicle. Sam had his back to her, but Tom saw her and if there had been anything she'd needed to know, he'd have waved her over. But he didn't, so Lily went back to her desk and settled in to her work.

"If I didn't know better, I'd say you enjoyed settin' everyone off like you do."

Lily jumped, startled by the sudden voice. Sam had one hand on the short cubicle wall and was leaning on it. He looked amused in that understated way he had.  His 'amused at grown-ups look' was how Alex put it, as opposed to the more open glee from taking care of his children.

"Come in, sit down, and tell me what I did this time," Lily told him, standing up to shake his hand. Sam only got a hug in his civvies, but the fact that she didn't bite his head off straightaway for trying to meddle was enough of a sign of affection. Sam was listened to precisely because he knew giving advice was a privilege, not a right.

"Whatever you said to Jean's got her upset at Scott who's takin' it out on me which is why I hand-delivered the files I could have had my aide email," Sam reported with a frown. "So what did you say and how soon is it goin' to blow over?"

Lily furrowed her brow. It was unlike Sam to either run and hide from the invariable bleed of personal and professional lives that happened when the XSE command was basically a family business or to gossip about it. Even to others who were caught trying to straddle the same blurry line. "You sure it's me?"

"I'm sure," Sam confirmed wryly. "Even if I hadn't been privy to the use of proper nouns, you are a repeat offender."

Genuinely confused, Lily shrugged. "I spoke to Jean earlier about her suggestion for having a surprise party for Alex, but she didn't sound that upset. If it's that, then I'm surprised. Anything else and I'm utterly mystified."

Sam looked thoughtful for a moment and then nodded. "Makes sense now."

Lily waited for him to elaborate, but he didn't.

"Has anyone told you this week that you are getting too much like Nathan for your own good?" she asked tartly. "Spill, Guthrie."

"I think we're both getting caught up in something that's bigger," he explained, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "It's to do with Alex, but... This party idea, it wasn't Jean's really. But she's stuck being the mouthpiece. I think everyone's been feelin' a little... guilty. For not makin' a bigger effort to be part of Alex's life - and yours and Dane's, too - now that he's back. Or at least for not understanding him better, understanding how he's changed. It's taken a while, but the fact that he's not the same old Alex has finally gone all the way through the grape vine."

This was precisely why she'd gotten so angry, but undoubtedly sensing that Lily was too peeved to say anything that she'd end up regretting, Sam held his hands up in a calming gesture.

"I know, I know. It's about damned time everyone noticed," Sam soothed. "Reflexes aren't the only things that slow with age. But give'm points for trying."


"Because it's new territory for everyone," he sighed. "Hear me out before you get all indignant. We used to be together all the time. And we had no outside lives to distract us and no time apart and it was like growin' up with a family - you don't notice the little changes 'cause you were there for the entire process. And then you go away for a little while and when you come back, everything's different. Everyone is different. That's just how it goes. But it didn't go that way for us for such a long time, like some weird arrested development."

Sam looked sad now and that kept Lily from snarling. "I'm not going to let Alex be part of their learning curve."

"He already is," Sam replied. "Everyone's feelin' guilty not because they've not been taking the new Alex as... seriously... as they should have. And they haven't and you're probably right. But they're feelin' guilty because they're realizing they didn't know the old Alex as well as they had thought. They're seeing that they don't understand the changes because they aren't as sure as they thought they were about where he started. And it's embarrassing to them 'cause they're supposed to be Alex's friends, the ones who knew him the longest and the best."


"Alex was always different from everyone," Sam cut her off, although that was what she had been meaning to say. "The first to quit the team, although apparently he and Alison Blair used to argue about that, and the one who always dreamed of just livin' a quiet life somewhere doing something that had nothing to do with being a mutant. When Akkaba came and went and suddenly we were all free to go be people as well as heroes, you and Alex were already there. You had your own friends, your own careers, your own home. You guys were ahead of us all. Still are, I guess."

"I'm not going to argue that, Sam, but I'm not going to feel sorry for anyone, either," Lily insisted, slouching in her chair. It was a childish expression of obstinacy, the way she'd slink down to make it harder for her father to come and pick her up and put her to bed.  "Ignorance, coping mechanism, delayed shock from finally having to pay their own utility bills, whatever it is I don't care if the cure for it is hurting Alex."

Sam made some sort of frustrated noise and ran his hands over his face and into his hair. But he looked more grim than anything else when he finally looked up at her. "You don't have to care, Lily. Hell, I've given up on everyone enough times that I feel a bit of a hypocrite being the one to tell you to be tolerant. But I'm still the one telling you to be tolerant. They're not being malicious, so you just gotta forgive them as best you're able to. It's part of being a family. And you and Alex may be the most precocious ones in the family, but you're still in the family."

A thousand different replies came to mind, but Lily honestly didn't have the heart to utter any of them. Not with Sam looking so pleadingly at her. So she closed her eyes. "Stop looking at me like that," she muttered. "You're impossible to snark at when you look at me like that."

"Why do you think everyone says I'm the nice one in the family?" Sam asked instead, sounding very amused. "I know how to work it."

This time she laughed, opening her eyes and laughing harder when Sam sat back and winked.

"Now," he went on, clapping his hands onto his knees and sobering slightly. "This birthday party business. I'm assuming the problem is that Alex's head and his body aren't exactly in sync with his birth certificate anymore."

Lily nodded, mentally smacking herself for not realizing that she had had an ally the entire time in Sam. "That's it in a nutshell."

Alex considered himself to be turning thirty-five and there was really no good argument against it - wherever his corporeal form had been hiding while he had been traipsing through realities, it hadn't been anywhere it could age. Alex's body was turning thirty-five. And he had spent so many years in so many realities, a mental age would put him in the hundreds or something. Lily still wasn't sure if Alex had any real estimate -- or if he knew to the day and he didn't want to say.

"I understand," Sam said simply. "I'll see what I can do about defusing the party idea. Everyone's kinda used to me not being too keen on celebrating birthdays anymore, either, so that should carry some weight. But you and I both know that the party was just the poorly designed conclusion to a problem that won't go away.  So how 'bout I make you a deal?"

"A deal?" Lily repeated warily.

"You guys make your damnedest effort to show up at the party Jean and Scott are going to throw for the anniversary of Akkaba and you make sure you guys are there for the twins' birthday party and I'll make everyone forget about Alex and birthday parties."

Lily smiled. "Of course we're going to be at the twins' birthday party. Colin and Ray are the nephews we actually like."

Sam, witness to many of Lily's battles of wills with Nathan, chuckled. "Both or nothing, though. Is it a deal?"

"It's a deal," she agreed, shaking the outstretched hand. "And thank you, Sam. Really and truly."

"It's what family does," he replied with an almost bashful shrug. "All right, now I better get back to the madhouse 'fore anything else goes wrong."

With that he left and Lily was eventually able to concentrate back on her work. She wasn't going to have time to talk to Alex about all of this until much later tonight or probably tomorrow as they were going out. Ji-Won and Kyung were in town - they were expecting their first child early next year and were getting in one last visit home (to Ji-Won's family in New York and Kyung's in Philadelphia) which in turn had prompted Sanjay and Adrian to move their vacation plans up to coordinate. Alex was excited about the evening - he had seen Sanjay and met Adrian on a trip to London after a British Geomorphological Research Group event he had attended back in April, but Lily herself had been the last person to see Ji-Won face-to-face back when she was living in the New Lands.

"I'm going to school. Why do you need a picture of me going to school?"

"It's your first day of kindergarten. I want to have something to remember the occasion."

"You didn't take a picture of me when I went to school last year."

"Dane, smile for the camera or your mother is never going to let us leave."

"How come you didn't take a picture of me last year?"

"Because I wasn't feeling silly and emotional and your father wasn't here to make fun of me. Now stop making a face. And hold up your lunchbox."

"Don't blame this on me! I accept no blame for you getting all gooey and sentimental."

"It was your idea to send a picture to our parents."

"Mommy, can I please go to the bus now?"

"You're serious?"

Joe Perotelli looked at Lily over his glasses, eyebrows raised in disbelief. They were sitting on a bench eating pizza during a break between the grad seminar he had taught and she had sat in on and the talk she was giving later on that afternoon where he would return the favor. It was a warm day for Boston in October and the campus was alive with students and faculty alike enjoying the last gasp before the New England winter set in for real.

"Yeah," she confirmed, wiping her mouth with one grease-stained napkin. "I'm serious. Would I have a chance if I applied?"

Perotelli snorted as he sipped at his straw. "Yeah, although I'm telling you now that you'd face the same questions Yenette did when we hired him the last time you applied: why in heaven's name would you leave a cushy lab job to teach? I mean, Yenette was running from a scandal, but you, you're in a custom-made spot in a field you're mostly responsible for its existing at all."

The job opening had been mentioned casually; Ilya Simonov was retiring and one of the two fluids experts was taking a job in British Columbia and the department wasn't ready to offer a tenure-track position to the other one.

"Because my cushy lab job isn't cushy," she retorted after swallowing. Santarpio's pizza was definitely on the short list of things she missed about Boston. "Because I hate working eighty-hour weeks when most of that time is spent being a bureaucrat. I don't get to do a lot of research anymore and I'm running out of time where that can be my primary focus. I want to write an article on something I am interested in instead of writing summaries for projects that others need done."

Perotelli nodded sympathetically, but his brow was still furrowed. "Is this your frustration talking or are you seriously interested?"

Lily didn't pause. "I'm serious. Alex and I have been talking about it. Not about here in particular but returning to teaching in general."

It was an oversimplified answer, but Lily wasn't at liberty to say more. At least with respect to work. The rest was just personal. She and Alex had spent a lot of time in the last month discussing changes - jobs, children, ambitions, everything. Alex would be back a year next month and it was time to start planning and get away from merely adjusting. Dane was starting school and Alex had been deemed one article away from being employable (he was currently on a one-year post-doc) and it was an opportunity to make significant changes without too much scarring.

More immediately, Lily was more sure than ever that she wanted to leave the lab - the pressure that was building up both within the chronography groups and within the XSE was getting too much to bear. She was furious that she was often stuck in the middle of arguments that had nothing to do with her for no other reason than because she was party to Nathan's chronal secrets. She'd already told Nathan that she was quitting after things quieted down.

"We're formally announcing the opening at the beginning of next week," Perotelli said with a shrug of his shoulders as he reached for another piece of pizza. "Interviews will probably be around Thanksgiving, depending on who we get. It's an endowed chair, so..."

Lily nodded. Extra hoops to jump through.

Four hours later, Lily was standing on the bottom step of the dais in the lecture hall chosen for the event, answering questions and trying to sound witty and knowledgeable without giving away specific details of what she was working on. The time stream was sensitive like that - mention the right bit of information to the wrong person and you'd come back to work to find all of your projections changed.

"Doctor Summers," a loud voice rang out from behind the group gathered around her. The step she was standing on gave her a chance to see over people's heads who was calling for her and it was all she could do not to groan.

Harvard's Poppy Mercer was one of the most controversial faculty members at the fortress across the Charles. And she was standing on a chair with a do-damage look in her eyes.

Mercer was technically an American historian, but what she had to say had very little to do with history. Only a few years older than Lily, Mercer was one of the more egregious examples of how far academic activism could go if unchecked by anything approaching reality. Her cause was reparations - what America owed the world - and she had made her career calculating the cost of each slight perpetuated by the US upon helpless victim nations. The Monroe Doctrine, according to the one article Lily had read, was the biggest item on the list because it was the root of all of the poverty and disease in Latin America. There were separate tabs for almost every nation - America owed the former Soviet Union, for example, because had they not kept escalating the Cold War, the Politburo might have fed its starving masses or built up its infrastructure instead of funding the army.  

There had been an article in the New York Times the other month about how a small-but-growing segment of Harvard's alumni benefactors were pushing for Mercer's dismissal. Down in the New Lands, Roger Marlowe kept a file on Mercer - she had already been cited seven times in the manifestos of prominent terrorist organizations. Lily had seen a few of the items in the file and at first had been incredulous that such wild claims could be taken seriously. But Mercer's books were best sellers and she made a fortune on the lecture circuit, not to mention the prestigious award she had received two years ago from the International Court of Justice.

"Doctor Summers," Mercer called out again, her loud voice carrying easily in the suddenly quiet hall. Lily could almost taste the anticipation of conflict in the people standing around her. Like sharks smelling blood in the water. "Is it not true that what you are here propagandizing is basically a twenty-first century version of the Manhattan Project? Is not Chronography the new A-bomb? You said, and I quote, 'Chronography could provide us with a mathematically precise prescience.' Isn't that just a nice way of saying that it's a powerful tool that could enable anyone with an understanding of it to force a future that serves their own needs? Aren't you just handing over the treasure chest to the dictators and warmongers and other forces of evil?"

Lily fought back her own irritation at her words - and chronography itself - being so blatantly misrepresented. This is how Mercer operated, by comparing apples and oranges and shouting down anyone who dared point out that the units were incommensurable.

Out of the corner of her eye, Lily could see Arnaud Maldouf standing next to Perotelli. They both looked cautious and concerned, but not worried enough to break in.

"First off," Lily began, raising her voice to be heard but trying her best to keep it level and calm. "You left out the important part of the sentence you quoted. I said that eventually chronography could provide us with a mathematically precise prescience. Not now, not in the immediate future, but eventually. To imply, as you did, that such a thing is possible now is either putting too much faith in current research or blatant misrepresentation. Eventually is a long time and many things could happen between now and then."

"But what about..."

"Let me finish, Professor Mercer," Lily interrupted, using the strength of voice she had inherited from both her father, who could make himself heard across the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, and her grandfather, one of Fort Campbell's most infamous drill instructors. Mercer stopped short and Lily swore she heard a titter of laughter from the growing throng of witnesses.

"You asked several questions and I would answer them all," she went on in a more normal tone. "The connection you drew between the Manhattan Project and the study of Chronography is a false one, but we can still salvage it. Nuclear energy gave us the atomic weapon, but to say that it's solely a bad thing is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Microwave ovens. The irradiated milk that can be stored without refrigeration and be used by aid organizations to help ease hunger and malnutrition throughout the world. The advances in medicine that come from X-rays and the survival of cancer patients receiving radiation treatments. The benefits to the environment from clean nuclear energy instead of fossil fuels. There are a ton of examples of the good things nuclear energy has brought us that the world has decided far outweigh the danger posed by atomic weapons that haven't been used in sixty-five years."

She paused for a moment to reach over to the podium and retrieve her water glass, smiling self-effacingly at the crowd watching the impromptu debate. Poppy Mercer merely looked belligerent and impatient.

"We research and improve upon countless ideas that could - and sometimes do - have a negative aspect," Lily began again after sipping at her water. "We live with them every day - without cars, there would be far fewer fatal accidents, right? Could chronography be dangerous in the wrong hands? Once it is advanced enough to be reliable in any real situation, of course it could be. But it could also save lives we've never been able to save. Imagine knowing in advance about a flood or an earthquake or a drought. Imagine being able to prepare for a natural disaster on that scale the way we do for a hurricane. Would you not see that benefit as outweighing a possible misuse? Chronography requires intensive manpower and a broad spectrum of specialized knowledge - it's not a gun. It can't be used to cause damage by anyone who can pick it up."

"But once it's being misused, it's not as relatively harmless as a gun, which is only dangerous while you have bullets," Mercer insisted, sounding confident as if she had tricked Lily into saying something she shouldn't have. "Chronography could be used to assure a permanent dominion. A dictator for eternity."

Lily was very glad that Poppy Mercer had no access to the details of the rise of En Sabah Nur.

"It's still dangerous," Mercer reiterated, a slight smile of victory on her face.

"So is standing on a chair in heels without holding on to anything," Lily retorted. "But you're doing it anyway because you believe the reward outweighs the risk."

The assembled crowd laughed and Mercer paused to let them quiet down before she said anything else. But she never got the chance.

"And on that note of impasse," Perotelli announced in a loud voice, "Let us adjourn to the reception area for some much needed refreshment. Thank you to Doctor Summers and to our esteemed visitor from enemy territory."

A round of applause followed and Lily smiled to well-wishers as she made her way towards the door. Mercer was obviously staying behind; perhaps to avoid a more direct confrontation but Lily didn't really care. She headed towards the ladies room and then on to the reception area set up in a large classroom emptied of chairs. As she crossed the room towards the tables set up with hors d'oeuvres and wine, she could hear the murmur of conversation and it was all on the topic of Mercer's appearance. Three different people stopped her to congratulate her on surviving the experience, Lily was pleased to note.

"Well that was something I didn't expect," Perotelli sighed when Lily found him. He handed her a glass of wine and made a face. "The Great Poppy Mercer deigns to cross the Charles to rain havoc upon the poor Mechanical Engineering department. I suppose you should feel flattered she took time off from demanding we raise taxes to pay off our 'moral debt' to Cuba."

"Flattery like that I can live without," Lily grumbled, sipping the wine. Especially as it meant she'd have to call Roger and have him update all of their files on her. Chronography didn't have many enemies just yet, but it looked like Mercer would be an early one.

"Just think," Perotelli mused with a grin. "If you come up and teach here, you'd be in her constant line of fire. She's working hard to entrench herself as Boston's most important public intellectual."

"Is it working?"

"Only with the undergrads," he replied, waving at someone Lily didn't see. "The old New England bluebloods aren't about to take her seriously."

"Ah, Lily," Arnaud Maldouf called as he approached from behind her. Lily turned to see him smiling warmly and accepted a peck on the cheek as he clasped her hand in both of his. "Would that our hospitality included screening our visitors."

"What's life without a little excitement?" she asked in return, smiling. "It's a change of pace. Instead of someone yelling at me why I haven't done something yet, I have someone wanting to know why I have."

Poppy Mercer was probably no easier to argue with than Nathan, anyway, Lily thought to herself and then frowned, realizing that she'd have to talk to him as well about this.

Maldouf smiled wanly. "That woman is a scourge," he muttered. "The very idea of her crossing over into the sciences to pick her next fight..."

"She's a bully," Perotelli said, reaching behind him to snag a carrot stick off of the vegetable tray. "She only goes after those who can't or won't fight back and the self-important mental midgets who everyone thinks deserve to be publicly humiliated anyway. It's mostly politicians and junior faculty. And the public eats it up because its entertainment. Diana calls her Harvard's Huey Long."

Lily and Maldouf laughed. Diana was Joe's wife, an economics professor at Smith. Lily had met her a few times over the years - the Perotellis lived in Northampton, by Smith, and Joe kept an apartment in Cambridge for the part of the week he was on campus.

The conversation drifted off into other matters, periodically getting dragged back to Mercer by the stream of people who stopped by to greet Lily, before the event ended. Lily had to turn down dinner - she was tired and wanted to get back to New York before it was too late. On the train home, she checked her email to see what had been happening at the lab during the day and composed a quick note to both Nathan and Roger detailing the ambush by Poppy Mercer, but she was still able to close her eyes and doze by the time the train left Hartford.

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