Prologue: The Past
The Rats of (D)ARPA
It's 1971 when ARPA calls Bell and Bishop out of the lab to investigate a body (if you can call it that: it's a ball of goo with hard parts inside). They dissect the corpse down to slivers of its odd bones, and though they don't inform the overlords, they privately agree that the thing (whatever it is) is not of this world.
1972 brings more bodies, all of them exactly as human as the first one (which is to say, not really), but they start to have identifiable legs and arms. There are other discrepancies, too, between the body from '71 and the several that show up by June of '72, and they have to admit that either the organism is evolving, or its build is being upgraded. Walter argues the latter, seeing as how the 'organism' bleeds liquid mercury.
In the fall, an event occurs at a power line junction in Utah: a pylon disappears (along with the power to 4 counties) and is replaced by a ring of upright metal rods, in the center of which lies another body. William Bell takes twenty-four minutes on site to solidify a theory of interdimensional visitation. Walter takes twenty-eight to reach the same conclusion, having been distracted by a phone call from his wife.
Government agents buzz about Klaatu and Pod People as they load the rods into a truck bound for the lab. Bell and Bishop let them steep in their alien ideology without mentioning their theories, because DARPA (not plain old ARPA anymore, having added the D "for the shit of it," according to Walter) won't be able to steer or smother the research they don't see coming.
1973 starts out as a pressure cooker and just keeps rattling. Between Vietnam and the oil fiascos, DARPA won't stop breathing down their necks about the mercury men problem. They're a problem in that they keep appearing, and in that sooner or later some suburbanite is going to find one in their backyard. The War in Southeast Asia is a big enough PR issue without having to spin a potential alien invasion into something kinder and gentler.
But by April, Bell is the only one making progress. Walter is bogged down by DoD special requests for last-ditch efforts to save face in Vietnam: nerve regeneration, memory erasers, post-death interrogation. But Bell is a clever diplomat: he plays up the alien paranoia to the right bureaucrats and keeps himself assigned to what he calls (privately, between Walter and himself) the Pattern. His experimental approach consists mostly of reverse engineering, which is rough when he's never seen most of the component tech before.
The '72 rods taunt Bell until 1975 rolls around. Walter, finally cut loose from the DoD, returns to the lab from his latest appointment in Arlington and finds his friend sitting at a table, watching a ferrofluid wind its pointy way up one of the mystery rods.
"Walter," Bell says, "I've cracked it."
With the electromagnetic field of the interdimensional beacons mapped out for them, 1976 is fruitful for Bell and Bishop. On New Year's Eve, the two men drink a cooler of Narragansetts and stare through a freshly minted window into another world.
"Go home," Bell says, twenty minutes to midnight. "Tell Elizabeth you're not going to be Gerald Ford's dog anymore. We're branching out on our own."
And Walter does go home. He does tell his wife exactly that, and Elizabeth starts feeling secure enough to consider starting that family they've been talking about.
1977 is a year of waiting. Bell works tirelessly to perfect his window. He's building something else, too: a window he'll be able to walk through. A gateway to another world.
Walter, meanwhile, contracts himself out (at a premium, this time) to DARPA, but only to get his hands on the newest wave of mercury men. They look like people, now, and not just generic people: specific people. Walter waits to see how they'll evolve. But mostly, Walter waits for his son to arrive.
In 1978, Walter sits in the hospital waiting room and chain-smokes his way through Peter's zeroeth birthday. After he sees Peter's red, squashed face for the first time and is subsequently shooed from the delivery room, he goes looking for Bell with two blue-wrapped cigars in hand.
But William Bell is gone.
Instead of Bell, Walter finds Bell's Gateway, glowing and alive. There are notes taped everywhere, in duplicate and triplicate, on the Gateway itself, the numerous power cables and on the three backup generators being vented through the basement windows. Every single one is some variation on a warning not to turn anything off.
There's a longer note on Walter's desk, though not much longer. "If I don't make it back," it reads optimistically, "you couldn't have saved me by being here."
When Bell comes back, he collapses just over the threshold. Walter drags him into the Electro-Magnetic Field Regulator and it's days before Bell's back up and at 'em.
"You wouldn't believe what they've got Over There," Bell says when he can speak again. He's brought back notebooks filled with diagrams and a suitcase packed with small electronics. Walter digs through them and doesn't recognize most of the brand names. Some of them, he can't recognize what they're for.
"You should go," Bell says. But Walter won't go through that Gateway. He has a son, now. He can't take risks.
"Our future is made of risks," Bell tells him.
"Yours, maybe," Walter says.
"No — everyone's. If you want your son to grow up, you're going to want to start taking all the risks you can." It's cryptic and it's meant to be. Bell is gone again the next day, and Walter notices that a few pieces of lab equipment are gone with him. They don't come back when he does.
"They were the cost of my souvenirs," Bell explains, later. "A payment to balance the universe. An even exchange."
A day after Bell leaves on his third trip to the Other Side, he appears back at the Gateway buzzing like a swarm of hornets.
"They're clones," he says, as he stumbles into the EMFR and latches the door behind him. As the magnets spin up, he mouths through the glass at Walter: "And I think we're at war."
Once Bell gets out, he spreads a sheaf of stolen mimeographs out like pieces of a map on Walter's desk.
"How did you get these?" Walter asks. They must be important, but he's not sure why.
"I drugged farmer Fitzgibbon's cat," Bell says, making Walter smile.
"I suppose," he says, peering over the papers, "that makes us the rats of DARPA. In that we became intelligent, and escaped."
The images seem hand-drawn, though technical. One shows a man with smoke coming out of his eyes. Despite the gratuitous use of deist symbolism, Walter finds the man's face arresting. There's writing behind it: only four letters jumbled and repeated. Only one thing it could be, but the think tanks at Cambridge and Harvard have only just managed to sequence DNA, and Walter finds it difficult to believe that the Other Side might be capable of simply jotting down the recipe for a man.
"This," he says, lifting the sheet from the rest. "What is it?"
"Their future," Bell says, studying over Walter's shoulder. "Or so they believe."