Title: Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology, Part 1/3
Author: Quasar (quasar273)
Summary: Years ago, John recruited a famous wizard for a project that went bad. Now he's asking for Rodney's help again.
Author's Notes: Written for the Away Team in mcshep_match, to the prompt "Call of Duty." Special thanks to argosy for story advice and beta, and to my beloved spouse for discussing this story with me week after week!
Montreal, QC, July 2004
The courtyard of the Jardin Nelson restaurant was vaulted with late sunlight, lined with trees and flowering plants, filled with mellow jazz. As a single, English-speaking diner, John got a spot in the corner where he couldn't really see the jutting balcony that held the trio of musicians. He could hear them, though, the piano tinkling out over the bass foundation and the hum of conversation. He nodded at the maître-d' and settled to squint at the menu.
He took his time with the meal, despite the waiter pointedly checking every few minutes. The sky had gone dark and he was on his third coffee by the time the music wound down. He emptied his cup, tucked the receipt into his jeans, and ambled toward the restrooms. His timing was perfect; they actually bumped into each other in the hall.
"Hey, Rodney," John drawled. "Nice suit."
Rodney glanced down at his dark jacket and then back up, gaping. "J-John?"
"In the flesh. I'm here to offer you a job."
And wasn't that a blast from the past?
Princeton, NJ, March 1992
Classrooms at the Department of Thaumaturgy were numbered according to some bizarre system, so John found the place a little late and his dress blues stood out like a sore thumb when he slipped into the lecture in progress. Dr. McKay glared at him over the heads of a couple dozen students, most of them turned to gape at the man in uniform. John crept into a desk at the back, trying to be inconspicuous but not really succeeding.
Certainly the students didn't look like the types to spend much time in or around uniforms. The woman just in front of him was wearing layered skirts and scarves in earth tones. Her bracelets jangled as she doodled giant eyes in the margin of her notebook. A meditation crystal was prominently placed on the desk in front of her, and John could smell the incense from where he sat -- jasmine and patchouli. The guy three seats over in the back row wasn't bothering to take notes, and the lingering smoke that clung to his clothes definitely wasn't from incense. Those two described the range of most of the students, typical Thaum majors except for a couple of earnest nerds in the front row taking notes carefully from the blackboard.
The stuff on the board wasn't much like what John remembered from magic club back in school or the low-level Thaumaturgy classes he'd taken in college. There were no spirals or mantras or doggerel spells, but instead a bunch of equations. Newton's law of gravity -- okay, yeah, John had learned about the link between telekinesis and gravitation in college. But the simple F = GMm/r2 had a big X through it and a series of other equations written below. John squinted at the writing, vague memories tickling his brain. Was that the weird tensor notation Einstein used to combine four equations into one expression? Over there were Maxwell's Equations for the behavior of electric and magnetic fields. And wait, were those Feynman diagrams? Was this guy talking about magic or physics, here?
Both, apparently. John had read the dossier, so he knew the man standing at the front of the class -- just a couple of years older than the upperclassmen he was haranguing -- actually had two PhDs, in Thaumaturgy and Physics. Dr. McKay (should it be Dr. Dr. McKay?) had been one of those prodigies as a child, showing amazing early abilities in the three M's -- Math, Music, and Magic. He'd won every award in Canada and more than a few in the States. His education was fast-tracked, all his professors predicted a glowing future for him (at least, when they weren't predicting he would be strangled by his colleagues), and now here he was, talking at a bunch of bored undergraduates who clearly didn't understand or care what he said.
John had been chosen for this job because he supposedly knew the basics, but the stuff on the blackboard was beyond him and coming to the lecture ten minutes late hadn't helped. Even the nerds in the front row seemed more confused than enlightened. Bracelet Girl jingled as she turned a page in her notebook and started drawing an elaborate mandala.
McKay ran a hand through his wavy hair (revealing the first signs of a receding hairline, and no, John wasn't smug about that at all) and set down his chalk, trying a new approach. "Okay, look. You all learned in school how to light and extinguish candles, right?"
A woman who could be Bracelet Girl's soul sister snorted. "Before school, more like."
"Right, right, there's a reason why putting out fires is part of a kindergarten curriculum. Fire is the first magic most children learn, often without being deliberately taught. And the fire comes from which of these fundamental forces?" McKay waved at the other side of the board, where large letters declaimed 'Electro/Magnetic, Gravitational, Weak Nuclear, Strong Nuclear' down the board.
No one answered.
"Come on, this is basic stuff!" McKay exclaimed. "Fire is caused by...?"
"An exothermic chemical reaction?" ventured one of the front-row nerds.
"Yes yes, ignited by simple heat. Heat!" McKay waved at the list of forces again.
Everyone looked confused. John thought he saw where this was going, but McKay had skipped several steps that the students just weren't getting.
"Heat is... the agitation of atoms and molecules?" Front-Row tried again.
"But agitated by energy from what?" McKay's voice was rising. "Okay, okay, look, maybe fire isn't the simplest example. What other magic do children learn early?"
The students stirred and muttered. "Warm up the blankets," said one, at the same moment Bracelet Girl offered, "I used to cool down my soup."
"Right, more heat transport. What else?"
The students just weren't picking up McKay's lead, so John took it. "Night lights," he said, his voice making heads turn. "I always liked the finger flashlight," he added with a wink and a pointed index finger at Bracelet Girl.
McKay scowled at the intruder, but took the offered thread anyway. "Light! And light is..." Another emphatic wave at the list of forces.
"Electro-magnetic radiation!" said the front-row kid, relieved.
"Exactly." McKay underlined Electro/Magnetic. "Which, at infrared or certain microwave frequencies, can easily translate into molecular agitation, i.e. heat. The electromagnetic force is the first one we all learn to manipulate by magic. Candles, fire suppression, warming and cooling, night lights... leading up to the kind of light shows and illusions done in high school magic clubs or stage performances, fancy fireworks -- all of that magic is based upon electromagnetic forces. This is why, in the nineteenth century, early experimenters with electricity believed it actually was magic, until... well, you've covered that in other classes. My point here is that magic can also manipulate the other fundamental forces, but it doesn't come quite as easily."
McKay pointed a chalky hand at the crossed-out equation for Newton's law of gravity. "Historically, it wasn't until the time of Isaac Newton -- or, for each of us as modern individuals, at the high school or college level -- that we learned how to manipulate gravity reliably, therefore producing the effects of levitation, telekinesis, anything that affects objects with mass."
John had heard this part before, but the students murmured uneasily. The marijuana smoker in the back row objected, "But telekinesis goes back to Aristotle."
"Further than that!" said Bracelet Girl. "The ancient Egyptians recorded cases --"
"Yes yes, I'm sure that's all very exciting," scoffed McKay, "but it wasn't reliable. Each court magician would have one or two parlor tricks in his repertoire to please the Pharaoh or Emperor or whoever, but it was hard to pass the knowledge on. The magician's guilds knew a few more spells, but even they couldn't readily adapt to new circumstances. Newton's comprehension and mathematical description of the behavior of gravity provided a foundation that allowed multiple people to manipulate massive objects in a reliable, repeatable way according to simple, sensible rules."
The nerds were nodding and scribbling in their notes, but the more stereotypical Thaumaturgy students looked rebellious.
"Listen to me," said McKay intensely. "If you're going to pursue a career or just a degree in Thaumaturgy, this is the single most important thing for you to understand. Write it down. Underline it. Sleep with it under your pillow at night."
Scowling, Bracelet Girl flipped to a fresh page of her notebook and waited with pen poised skeptically.
"Magic works by manipulating fundamental physical forces," said McKay with emphatic stabs of his chalk at the board. "And magic comes from here -- " He pointed a finger just above his ear, in the direction of the tiny brain organ associated with magic use. "So it follows that understanding the underlying physics will help you get your brain into the right configuration to produce the desired magic."
Students stirred, and McKay held up a hand at them. "I know what you're going to say! Yes, you can do magic without understanding exactly how it works. Children do it every day. Adults did it for thousands of years before Newton, before Einstein. There are cantrips and meditations and visualization exercises and whatnot, all to achieve the same effect: to put your brain into the right state. But I guarantee you -- I guarantee! -- your mastery of magic will be faster, and easier, and more reliable, and stronger if you take the time to learn the physics behind it. Case in point. How many here can levitate objects?" McKay held up his left hand in demonstration.
All but two of the students raised their hands. John, with a smile tugging at his lips, put his hand up as well.
"Can you levitate more than ten pounds?"
A couple of hands went down.
"More than thirty? More than one hundred?"
Most of the hands were down now. John lowered his own to half-mast. Once, just once, he had levitated himself -- and it was very cool, for a couple of minutes. But afterward he was panting and headachy, and his muscles were trembling as if they'd done the work instead of his brain. It was more exhausting than chin-ups for pretty much the same effect -- and a lot more exhausting than stair-climbing, which lifted his body far higher. That was about the point where John decided magic wasn't worth the effort, and he changed his concentration.
McKay nodded. "So that's what a few hours of meditation will get you. Here's what a thorough understanding of General Relativity gets me."
A couple of students exclaimed in surprise, on opposite ends of the room. A big muscular jock on the left and a less-than-svelte woman on the right clutched at their desks as they rose several feet in the air, notebooks and backpacks and all. While most of the students were craning around to one side or the other, John noticed that Dr. McKay, in the front of the room, was floating on a comfortable cushion of air himself with arms crossed and a triumphant smirk. He had a little frown of concentration between his brows, but no visible sign of great effort.
John leaned forward for a closer look. He was pretty sure that one of the front-row nerds was between McKay and the jock, or had been before the jock's chair rose up. So the dossier was correct and McKay really could get around the famous Line of Sight Rule; he could exert a magical effect on something (or someone) without also affecting everything along the path between himself and his subject. It was a simple but impressive demonstration, more so for anyone who knew a little about magic and its limitations.
The two students and their desks settled down with hardly a sound, and then there was another series of murmurs as the students finally noticed that McKay himself was levitating. He stepped down as if from an invisible floating cushion and summoned a glass of water from his desk to his hand. John could just see a faint sheen of sweat on the man's forehead, but it still wasn't much given the amount of mass McKay had just lifted.
"Go ahead, practice meditation so you can control your emotions," McKay said. "But if you really want to get better at magic, study physics. Now, I'm going summarize the kinds of physics you need to learn."
From there, the lecture got into some esoteric stuff that flew well above John's head and he suspected completely beyond most of the students. Grand Unified Theories, thaumons turning into photons and gravitons and bosons and gluons, the many unverified reports of alchemy as possible manipulations of the nuclear forces -- John's attention was piqued at that, but the discussion quickly devolved into whether any of the historical alchemists did what they claimed, or even understood what they claimed. None of the rest of the lecture was really important to John; he had the answer to his question, so he just sat there and enjoyed the show. McKay was an energetic speaker, waving his hands around and sometimes shouting, and when he turned and lifted the chalk to the blackboard, his loose shirt rose up to give John a view of a shapely ass caressed by soft khaki fabric.
No homework was assigned, since this talk was a one-off in a lecture series rather than a regular class. McKay did pass around a list of suggested readings, which interested John, but there were exactly enough printouts for the students and none for the unannounced visitor. The marijuana smoker in the back row gave John a grin and flipped the last copy across the intervening desks at him.
When the lecture was done, John waited politely while the two front-row nerds, Bracelet Girl's soul sister, and the levitated woman paused at the front to ask McKay some questions. Only when the students had all left did John stroll down the side aisle to meet his assignment in person.
McKay snapped his shiny new briefcase closed and faced John with his chin raised in challenge. "Well?"
"Dr. McKay, I'm Lieutenant John Sheppard with the NID. I'm here to --"
"NID? That's an Air Force uniform."
Point to McKay. John had expected the guy to be one of those clueless foreign geeks who didn't know anything about the American military. "Yes, I'm an Air Force lieutenant, but I'm assigned to the NID just now. I'm here to --"
"Yes, I know, offer me a job, what else is new?" McKay circled a hand impatiently. "The CIA has been trying to recruit me since grade six."
"Since you built an atomic bomb for the science fair."
"A model of a bomb, yes. I said no to them then, and I said no to the FBI, CSIS, RCMP, and the rest of the alphabet soup. This isn't even my country. Why should I be interested in what you have to say?"
John blinked. He was supposed to string the target along, butter him up a little, get him feeling good about himself and the job before even mentioning an offer. But clearly that wasn't going to work now, so John decided to cut to the chase. "One: you get to save the world. Two: opening offer is three times what you're making right now. Three: no students."
McKay successfully maintained his bored expression until the third point in the list. He glanced around the slightly shabby lecture room, and John knew this wasn't what the man had envisioned when he won all those awards as a kid and started MIT at the age of fourteen. "Well. You might have a point there."
John brought out his best friendly grin. Now it was time for the buttering up. "Shall we talk over lunch? My dime."
McKay's stomach growled. "It had better be more than a dime. Magic uses energy, you know, and I'm hypoglycemic."
John knew the bait was taken before the appetizers arrived.
Montreal, QC, July 2004
Rodney just stared.
"You're on break now, right?" John pressed. "We can talk?"
"You -- you're dead!" Rodney gasped. "I thought you were dead!"
John grimaced. "Yeah, um, sorry about that."
"Sorry?!" Rodney's voice was rising, turning heads in the front hall of the restaurant. "You knew -- you knew -- and you let me go on thinking..."
John had been prepared for a negative reaction, but not this early in the game. "Look, uh, maybe we should take this somewhere more private." He reached for Rodney's elbow to guide him to the door.
Rodney pulled free sharply, and when John turned to look at him a fist appeared out of nowhere, staggering John into the wall.
"M'sieur McKay!" thundered the maître-d', hurrying toward them. "Qu'est-ce que vous faîtes? C'est un client!"
Rodney, shaking out his fist, looked as surprised as John. "Uh, sorry -- désolé -- I just --"
"It's okay," John said quickly, bringing his hand down from his face. "I'm fine, it's just a misunderstanding."
The maître-d' wasn't pacified. "Allez!" he snapped at Rodney. "Out, get out! Don't come back."
Rodney blinked. "Wait, I have -- my bag, my music --"
"We'll send it."
"No, no, I need it! I need --" Rodney shot John a weird look, almost... frightened? "My, my wallet is in there. I can't leave without it."
John frowned; he thought he'd seen a wallet when Rodney's jacket flapped open during that punch. He'd noticed because looking for a weapon was an automatic reflex these days.
Rodney tried to push past the maître-d', but the man held him back and snapped out a torrent of rapid French, pointing at a busboy who ran off.
"Look," said John reasonably, "it really isn't a big deal. It was just a little love tap." Okay, that wasn't what he'd meant to say at all.
Rodney shot him a poisonous glare, and the maître-d' looked unconvinced. Then the busboy came panting back with Rodney's bag and pushed it into his chest.
"There is your bag," said the maître-d'. "Now, go. Go! Or I call the police." He crossed his arms and glared as John dragged Rodney out the door.
Washington, DC, April 1992
Lieutenant Colonel Maybourne smiled across the conference table in that way that always made John feel like he needed a shower. "It's good to meet you, Dr. McKay. I understand you're a very accomplished wizard. Is that the right term?"
"Yes yes, wizard, mage, sorcerer, whatever." McKay's chin was high, his lips tight.
"We can use whichever you prefer." Maybourne was trying to look friendly, and it creeped John out since he knew the guy didn't really give a shit.
But the act seemed to be working to relax McKay, at least. His chin came down and he said, "Wizard is fine with me."
"I always thought those were like different ranks or something," said John. "Like, a wizard can do more than a sorcerer, and a mage knows more than a wizard, and all that."
McKay huffed. "Ranks are for stage performers. The rest of us prefer to be defined by our real accomplishments."
"Yes, and speaking of those," said Maybourne. "I understand you claim to be able to manipulate all four fundamental forces -- even at a quantum level -- in addition to more common forms of magic."
"That's right. It takes a very fine control and understanding of the processes involved, which --" he smirked "-- most wizards lack. I'm not the first to explore this area, although it wouldn't be boasting to say I'm probably the best in the world right now."
Yes, McKay, it is boasting, thought John, but with Maybourne present he resisted to the urge to needle.
"And what does that imply?" Maybourne led him along. "What can you do with those skills?"
After just a few days of working with the man, John could easily see that McKay was torn between deriding Maybourne as an idiot and playing up to the man's admiration. Of course, the admiration was just a show, but McKay apparently hadn't figured that out yet.
Chest puffing a little, McKay explained, "Well, manipulation of quantum electrodynamic interactions enables me to alter molecular chemistry, restructure crystals and solids, change the reflection spectra of most substances, and induce phase changes without adding or removing as much heat as would otherwise be required. It does require an extensive understanding of molecular chemistry and solid state physics, which aren't my particular specialties, but I've picked up a few things over the years."
Maybourne considered all that. "Could you give us an example?"
"Or a demonstration?" John suggested, knowing McKay enjoyed that sort of thing.
"I just did," said McKay smugly, pointing at Maybourne's coffee cup.
John could only see part of it from where he sat, but apparently Maybourne's dark blue mug had acquired a Canadian flag on the side of it. Maybourne picked it up for a better look. "Impressive," he said mildly.
"You'll notice I also froze the coffee."
Maybourne tilted the mug and tried to restrain a frown as the coffee failed to slosh.
John slouched in his chair and drawled, "Gotta hand it to you, McKay, you're a real whiz of a wiz."
McKay glared at him. "Except that I'm the real thing, not a fake behind a curtain. I thought people in your line of work weren't supposed to, ah, quote show tunes?"
John suppressed a grin. "Well... not in public, anyway."
Maybourne gave John a cold look (he slouched harder in response) and returned to the topic. "I notice that this flag --" he rotated the cup to face the other side of the table "-- appeared on my side of the cup. Out of your line of sight."
"That's right. Of course, I had to assume that the cup was the same color all over -- otherwise, my adjustments would have come out differently. But since the other mugs are all solid-colored, I thought it was a safe assumption." McKay pointed at the little coffee service tray at the end of the table, and the mug right in front of him.
"I see. So you're not restricted by the Line of Sight rule?"
Rodney scoffed. "That so-called 'rule' is not as absolute as people believe. The movies get it all wrong -- emotions are a much bigger impediment to magic than the line of sight. All you need is the right mental state." McKay waved at his head. "If you can't see it, you have to be able to picture it very accurately. If the picture is wrong, the magic won't work."
They were getting close to the important stuff, and John knew Maybourne would be choosing his words carefully.
Maybourne led in slowly. "It really is impressive what you can do on a quantum level -- and I noticed you did it while you were talking, too. What can you do with the other fundamental forces? Say, the strong and weak nuclear forces."
McKay blinked, as if it was obvious. "Well, elemental transmutation, of course."
McKay snorted. "If you want to use an ignorant and outdated word for it."
"So, let me just make sure I have this right. You can cause nuclear fusion and fission?"
"Exactly." McKay beamed. "The strong force for nuclear fusion and the weak force for fission. That's an extreme oversimplification, of course. The processes are incredibly complex, and --"
"What? No, of course there has to be radiation. Both particle radiation and electromagnetic. These are natural forces I'm working with, after all. The reaction equation has to balance."
Maybourne frowned. John's hands clenched into fists under the table.
McKay looked between the two others in bewilderment, sensing the change in mood but not understanding it. "However, I can induce forms of fusion and fission which wouldn't occur naturally. Energy- and particle-absorbing reactions instead of energy-releasing ones. Low-energy X-rays instead of gamma rays. That sort of thing."
Maybourne glanced questioningly at John. John raised an eyebrow and shrugged, though he doubted the colonel really cared about his opinion one way or the other.
McKay continued, "You see, I'm essentially changing the laws of physics -- in a specific way, in a small volume of space -- to make the reaction I want more likely, where it would be extremely unlikely to happen by itself. Changing the rules is easier than brute force, but there's still a price to pay. The more radical the changes I make, the more energy it takes. And by the laws of thermodynamics, most of that energy has to come from me."
Maybourne nodded. "I think you can help us, Dr. McKay."
McKay's lips thinned. "So now we come to it. What asinine task did you have in mind for me?"
"Not asinine at all, I promise you. Unless you consider saving the world from potential nuclear cataclysm to be beneath you?"
McKay's eyes darted between the two of them as if waiting for a punchline. "That's a pretty hard sell, Colonel. Maybe you haven't heard, but the Cold War is over now. The Berlin Wall is gone."
"Unfortunately, that brings in a whole new category of threat." Maybourne leaned forward, hands clasped on the table to display his urgency. "With the Soviet Union dissolved, nuclear missiles which were once under the control of one umbrella government -- admittedly a hostile one -- are now distributed under the authority of a dozen different nations, most of them too poor to support the full costs of decommissioning. Poor enough, in fact, to be tempted to sell their assets to a different country, or to leave security lax so that terrorists might come in and steal fissile material for their own uses."
McKay blinked slowly. "Okay, I'll grant that's an important problem. I don't see how I can do anything to change it, though."
"Alone, you can't. Working together, we can make a difference." Maybourne pulled some papers from his briefcase, setting a page of notes in front of him and pushing a map across to McKay. "Nearly half the Soviet nukes were actually located in Ukraine. The new Ukrainian government agreed to send most of those back to Russia for decommissioning, but just last month they had a falling out and stopped shipping their tactical nukes across the border. Of course, what we're really worried about isn't the small fry, but the ICBMs. Stiletto missiles with up to six warheads each, Scalpels with ten apiece -- and each warhead has a half-megaton yield."
McKay looked at the number of missiles targeted against North America, and swallowed hard.
"The transport and decommissioning is proceeding too slowly, especially for the larger Scalpel missiles. We're concerned that politics or economics could interrupt the process before it's complete."
"Still not seeing a job for me, here," said McKay.
"The UN is sending a team of diplomats and scientists to Ukraine to review the process, offer advice and support and so on. They will be visiting a large number of these missile sites, including some which are not currently on the schedule for decommissioning. We want you to accompany them."
"And do what?"
"A little unilateral decommissioning of our own. With your abilities, Dr. McKay, you could convert the fuel in those warheads to something harmless, and no one would ever suspect what you were doing."
"I... I don't know if I can do that. I've never tried anything like it."
Maybourne nodded. "Fair enough. Let's find out. Lieutenant?"
John stood and went to the side of the room, picking up a metal box that waited on the table there. It wasn't much bigger than a couple of stacked paperbacks, but it weighed nearly twenty pounds. He stretched carefully to put it in the center of the conference table between Maybourne and McKay.
"In this box," said the colonel, "is a hundred grams of weapons-grade Plutonium-239."
"What?" McKay pushed his chair back sharply, staring at the box as if it would bite him.
"Relax, it's perfectly safe. There's plenty of lead shielding there, and a hundred grams is nowhere near a critical mass."
"You could have told me this was sitting over there the whole time!" McKay objected.
"Why? Sheppard and I knew it was there, and we weren't worried."
"That says more about your intelligence than your containment protocols!"
"All right." Maybourne reached into his briefcase again and pulled out a box with a long nozzle on it. "Here's a Geiger counter; see for yourself. I assure you it hasn't been tampered with."
Still looking doubtful, McKay took the instrument, fussed over the settings, and pointed it at himself, John, and the table before finally aiming for the lead box. The rate of clicks definitely increased, but not all that much.
"See?" said John. "If that was popcorn, I'd almost be getting ready to open the microwave door."
"Fine." McKay set the Geiger counter down, although John noticed he didn't turn it off. "So the Plutonium is adequately shielded. What do you expect me to do about it?"
"Well, you're not restricted by the Line of Sight rule, and I understand the shielding won't affect your ability to do magic inside the box?"
"No, unconverted thaumons have a cross section almost as low as neutrinos." McKay looked at the two of them. "That means shielding isn't a problem."
"I understand the concept of cross section, Dr. McKay," Maybourne said blandly. He glanced down at his notes. "In fact, what I want you to do is simply to increase the neutron-capture cross section of the Plutonium so it will pick up lower-energy neutrons from the environment. Convert ten percent of the Plutonium-239 to Plutonium-240 and it will no longer be weapons grade, but just reactor grade."
McKay's jaw dropped. "That's a terrible idea!"
It had sounded pretty good when it was first explained to John. "What's terrible about it? If it works, it could be excused as errors in the purification process. Nobody would suspect tampering."
"The problem is that Plutonium-240 is unstable. They're planning to transport and disassemble these warheads eventually, right? Enough contamination with Plutonium-240 and you could get fizzles -- small explosions during handling." He scowled at the box as if worried it would react badly to handling, as well.
Maybourne just shrugged. "Maybe terrorists would think twice about trying to steal it, then."
McKay gave him a withering look. "Terrorists are crazy. It's the responsible people we have to think about. You blow up one crane operator, and you could derail the decommissioning process entirely. You already think it's going too slowly -- why bring it to a screeching halt?"
John worked to keep his expression neutral while he thought about that.
Maybourne's eyes narrowed. "How would you propose to render this Plutonium harmless, then?"
McKay snorted. "Harmless? Not going to happen. Less explosive, maybe. Hmmm..." He snapped his fingers. "I need something to write with."
John pushed over his own notepad. There were only a few doodles of F-16s and one sketch of Maybourne (probably not recognizable) with horns and a pitchfork cluttering the paper so far. McKay glanced at the pictures, then at John, then started scribbling chemical transformations on the page.
"I have to figure out the energy profile that would be required," he said as he continued to write, "but I think I can... yes! I can convert the Plutonium to Uranium-238."
"Another radioactive material? How's that going to help?" John asked.
"There aren't very many elements at that end of the periodic table that aren't radioactive in one way or another. U-238 occurs naturally, has a higher critical mass, and decays very slowly so it produces less radiation -- that's good enough for me. Also, if the conversion is incomplete, the Uranium could absorb neutrons instead of emitting them, preventing a critical chain reaction in the remaining Plutonium. So no half-megaton explosion even if the warhead is detonated."
Maybourne was frowning. "I'm no expert in this stuff, but doesn't U-238 get turned into Plutonium in breeder reactors? Can you really reverse that process?"
McKay grinned exuberantly, and something squeezed in John's chest. "Of course! It only has to emit one positron and one proton. The proton will be absorbed by the lead shielding. The tricky part is preventing the positron from annihilating to produce high-energy gamma rays. But all I have to do is change the speed of light, and we get lower energy X-rays that will be stopped by the shielding. No problem."
"Change the speed of light..." John said slowly.
"In a small volume of space, yes. All I have to do is adjust the emissivity and resistivity of free space -- simple!"
John shrugged. "Okay, so I can see why we need a real physicist for this."
But Maybourne was shaking his head. "The problem with this plan is that it couldn't be concealed as mistakes in quality control," he pointed out. "It's an impossible reaction under normal circumstances. They would figure out there had been tampering."
"Make up your mind," McKay snapped. "Do you want the Plutonium neutralized, or not? Making it impossible to detonate the warhead sounds pretty effective to me."
Maybourne's mouth tightened at the scientist's tone, but he only said mildly, "See if you can do it in a controlled environment, first."
McKay glanced at the lead box. "I need to know exactly where the Plutonium is in there."
Maybourne pushed a schematic across the table, then picked up the Geiger counter. "Warn me before you start the conversion."
"You realize the change in radioactivity will be slight? I'm not converting the entire sample."
"Convert half of it -- one third, even -- and we should be able to tell the difference. We'll send it out for a more thorough analysis later. Just do it, already!"
McKay licked his lips nervously, glanced over his calculations one last time, then glared at the box and said, "Here goes. I'm -- I'm starting now."
Within about a minute, the sputtering from the Geiger counter had slowed noticeably. John felt his eyebrows climbing. "Time to open the microwave," he commented.
McKay startled. "What? No, don't open it!"
"We're not going to." Maybourne reached out to push the box aside, then grunted as it took more effort than he'd anticipated. "The lab will check it out. If it worked as you predicted --"
"Of course it did!"
"Then this plan is feasible."
McKay wiped sweat from his forehead. "You really want to send me to Ukraine? This --" he waved at the box "-- was nothing. But I can't convert hundreds -- thousands! -- of nuclear warheads. Is it really going to make a difference, in the end?"
"It's a start," said Maybourne. "Think of it as a proof of concept. You make this work, and others could be trained to do the same thing."
McKay looked offended. "Not as well as I do. Not without being very, very obvious about it."
"So that's why we want you to go first and prove it can be done. Among other sites, the advisory group will be visiting a number of Scalpel silos that aren't scheduled for decommissioning at all. Neutralize those and I assure you, you will be making a very real difference to the security of this country. This continent."
McKay ran a hand through his hair, disarranging the golden-brown waves. But he wasn't saying no.
"If you were American, I would use the line about 'your country needs you.' But the truth is, Dr. McKay, this is bigger than countries. This is about making the whole world safer from the specter of nuclear terror."
"I..." McKay swallowed. "I suppose I can try."
Maybourne pulled out a sheaf of stapled papers. "Here's the itinerary, and a list of others on the team. Due to your youth --" He gave what he probably imagined was a kindly smile, but it just made John shudder. "You will appear to be a very junior member of the group. Only you and Lieutenant Sheppard will know that you're actually the most important one in the party."
John stiffened and gave the colonel a sharp look. He pursed his lips slightly and shook his head. John subsided with a grimace.
McKay reached up to wipe his forehead again, and John realized his hands were shaking.
"Are you all right?"
"I need food. And water -- ice water. Elevated body temperature is a common effect of magical work."
"There's some water right here." John poured a glass from the sweating pitcher on the sideboard. McKay gulped at it thirstily.
Maybourne stood up and smiled again. "Think about our proposal. You can give Sheppard your answer over lunch."
"Just a moment, sir," said John as Maybourne was about to leave. "Could I have a word?"
Maybourne's face tightened as he nodded towards the door. The hall beyond was deserted, but John knew enough to keep his voice down.
"You're sending me with him?"
"You'll be his bodyguard, ostensibly. In addition to making sure he comes to no harm, you're going to ensure that he doesn't step out of line. McKay isn't committed to our objectives; you are. Make sure he doesn't ruin everything."
John shook his head in bewilderment. "You said if I got this job done --"
"That I would make sure you got back to active flight status. And I will. But 'this job' means more than just persuading one reluctant scientist to accept our offer. You need to make sure he follows through, all the way."
John was angry -- not just at Maybourne for the bait and switch, but at himself for falling for it. He should have known the man would demand more, more, more. It was taking all his willpower to keep from saying something that could get him in big trouble. Bigger trouble.
Maybourne put on his 'reasonable' voice. "Come on, Lieutenant, surely you didn't think reading a few files and making a quick trip up to New Jersey would be enough to get you off the top brass's shit list? You buzzed a no-fly zone and caused an international diplomatic incident, just for the sake of a bet."
"It wasn't a bet!" John protested. "I mean, there was a bet but I didn't take it. I saw a bogey -- it was hot pursuit." He still didn't know what the thing was that he'd seen, but no one believed him anyway. He wasn't stupid enough to claim it was an alien spaceship even if he was thinking that; he just said he hadn't seen it clearly.
"It was a no-fly zone and you ignored a direct order to return to base. That means a few more months of boot-licking to go before you can even think about getting back in a cockpit again. Do a good job on this mission, and you'll be in the air again soonest. Mess it up, and you can kiss your wings goodbye. Am I being clear, Lieutenant?"
John gulped. "Yes, sir."
Maybourne eyed him sharply. "Can I rely on you, John?"
"Yes, sir." It was the only answer possible.
McKay stuck his head out from the conference room. "Is it time for lunch now?"
"Of course, Dr. McKay," said the colonel smoothly. "Lieutenant Sheppard will take good care of you. Lieutenant." He nodded, waited for John's salute, and headed away down the hall.
"Got your bag?" asked John, and led off in the other direction when he saw McKay was ready. "How do you feel about Mexican? Big meals, hearty fare, no questions asked."
"Right, and lime in the most unexpected dishes."
"Uh... Italian, then?"
"Lemon, in pretty much everything."
John's head was whirling. "Okay, there's an English pub just down the street. Cold wet country, not known for their citrus groves?"
"They're called Limeys for a reason!"
John laughed. "Just avoid the fish and chips, and you'll be safe."
"All right, all right," McKay grumbled. "Whatever, just so long as the service is fast."
"I guess it's a dangerous world for you, McKay."
The wizard glanced across at him. "Call me Rodney."
John felt a smile stretching his face. "Rodney. I'm John."