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militsa

Absolute Zero

chapter 1.

"I can't draw it properly," Edward said, holding the pencil awkwardly in his left hand as he tried to render the design more accurately. "I want to get the curvature right—here," he said, biting his lip, a bit frustrated. "You know I can't draw detail for shit... here, you do it."

Alfons took the pencil and the pad of blank newsprint and studied the drawing. Yes, it was crap and would not do. He turned the page over and started afresh.

Edward described what he wanted. "Do a forty degree curve on the cap. I think that would work well, since we didn't have a lot of success with the fifty, but I think we were going in the right direction... also, maybe we should suggest that we go with a diameter of thirty centimeters, I think that proportion should make a nice model, small but we can scale it up if it works... let me see what you've got... "

Alfons Heiderich had never before shown Edward that he could draw portraits, but he had done a quick but serviceable sketch of Edward, catching, he thought, the light in his eyes and the correct curve of his nose, just so. The chin was tough, he always had trouble getting the right proportion with chins, but... Alfons kept peeking up at Edward while the other examined a blueprint. Edward was biting and sucking on his lower lip, eyes cast down at the drawing, and Alfons endeavored to capture the way his face looked. Intent. He didn't know exactly what he found so captivating, seeing Edward like this, but he couldn't stop looking. Finally, he was finished.

"Here."

Edward leaned forward and took the pad from him.

"You drew me?" He stared at the picture.

"What? You hate it." Alfons studied the drawing; his drawing skills—aside from rockets and plans—were pretty rusty, but he thought this was quite a good likeness.

"No... I just... I don't think anyone has ever drawn me before, you know?"

Edward seemed to turn a bit red, and turned his face away to start fussing with some papers that Alfons knew didn't need fussing with.

It wasn't until Alfons had gone out on his own that Ed took the time to really look at the picture he had drawn. Is that what I look like to him? he wondered, examing the pencil strokes that approximated his likeness. His eyes were half-closed, almost as if he were falling asleep, or just waking up. He held the pad at arm's length and narrowed his eyes. He felt strangely, pleasantly flattered that his roommate had drawn his picture like this, without asking.

He sat down with the pad on his lap and flipped the page over to a new sheet of newsprint. Taking up a pencil, he examined the tip, decided it was too dull, and took out his penknife to sharpen it. He felt like he was procrastinating. He wanted to draw Heiderich. It would be hard from memory, and even harder with his left hand. He had never been much for drawing, he had always focused on alchemy when he was younger, and when he had lost his natural hand, he had had to concentrate hard enough just to write with his left, let alone draw.

But, somehow, he felt an obligation, or a strong desire, to return the compliment.

Within moments, he realized it was stupid to try. If he could barely draw a simple rocket, how the hell was he going to draw a portrait, and from memory?

Memory. He painstakingly sketched the shape of the face, the eyes, the nose, the mouth. It took him ages to get each part even vaguely satisfactory. He concentrated hard on that face, every line of it, to try to get it right, to get it to look even remotely, remotely like the face he remembered.

He wanted to remember every part of it, every expression he made, how he looked when he spoke, when he smiled, when he was concentrating. It had been so long since he had seen him, he knew that he would look different now, but knew in his heart that... he was sure that...

He was drawing Al.

Immediately upon realizing this he tore the sheet from the pad and crumpled it up in his hand.

The University was like its own little city, its own little world, with microcosms within separated by all sorts of rules and castes and hierarchies that Ed could not begin to fathom. He had little interest in what was going on outside the physics department, although occasionally he would find himself pushing his way through a clot of students on campus, and if he paused to figure out what they were up to, it was usually a klatsch of communists watching someone standing beneath a flagpole issuing some rant or a group of feminists in ankle-high skirts demurely applauding some fiery female, likewise ranting. Once he even came across a bunch of graduate students demanding that they be paid a living wage for imparting their learning to their younger peers, asking in anguish whether it wasn't too much to ask that they earn enough to feed themselves one meal a day.

These distractions were of passing interest to Ed and to Alfons, but they might stand and observe them for a few moments before moving on toward the library or the science labs. On one particular early spring day, however, the warmth of the weather led them to seek to stay outdoors longer than usual, and they wormed their way into a crowd to observe the one of the oddest spectacles Ed had yet seen in this world.

Two young men were standing facing one another, tied together by their waists with a length of rope about two meters long. One was fully dressed and ostentatiously swinging a pocket watch in his hand. The other was stripped to his worn, long underwear, with dramatic rips at the shoulders and knees, barefoot. The latter appeared to be tugging at the rope, while the former stood with his feet apart, swinging his watch and affecting an arrogant manner.

"No more will I be your slave, bourgeois beast!" ranted the one in his underwear. "I am an artist!"

"Submit to my rules, or you risk losing my patronage!" was the other's riposte.

"I will break these bonds!" declared the Artist. They watched as the Artist deployed a large knife from somewhere within his drawers, and proceeded to saw away at the rope.

It took such a long time for the man to break the rope with the knife that Alfons and Edward glanced at one another a few times, secret smirks, before the sturdy hemp gave up the ghost.

The audience clapped politely.

"What the hell was that supposed to be?" Ed asked loudly, causing several people around him to hiss and cluck.

"Performance art," supplied a girl standing next to Alfons. She had dark hair cut close to her chin, a severe short fringe cut across her arched brows. She gave both of them a disapproving look. "It's very serious," she informed them. "It's not nice of you to mock it."

Alfons was quick to blush and apologize, while Edward crossed his arms and watched the two young men take bows and wave their arms with great affected humility.

"You two are not in the art department," observed the girl. "Let me guess—mathematicians."

"We're with the physics department, actually," said Alfons.

"Of course," she conceded, dipping her chin. "Even though you are scientists, you should open your minds to art. Our circle has a gallery showing on Saturday. You should come." She produced a piece of card from somewhere that was stamped with a sort of abstract picture in red and black ink, and included information on date time and place.

Alfons took the proffered card and pretended to study it with interest, but Ed could not suppress a snorting noise.

"I'll have work on display," said the girl, and now she suddenly seemed earnest. "We'd just love to get as many people we can to come... really, you might be surprised. Broaden your horizons!" She smiled, small red mouth revealing tiny, even teeth. Ed noticed for the first time that she was wearing a very, very large velvet flower pinned to her jacket... no, it was more like a cabbage, he thought, and as big as her head, now that he looked at it.

She must have taken the smile on his face for friendliness because she exclaimed, "Oh, good! My name is Maria, by the way... and here comes Otto, you must meet him, he's the star of our department... "

She had drawn a young man with an imploring wave of her hand, and he eagerly approached them, rubbing his hands together awkwardly. He was tall but stoop-shouldered—Ed always wondered at how anyone with the good fortune to be tall wouldn't stand to their full height—and wore a worn velvet jacket with an equally faded peach-colored shirt underneath, and a pair of the most dismal brown trousers Ed had ever seen on someone not lying in the gutter.

Otto seemed friendly and eager, but a bit scattered as he shook both their hands and made introductions.

"We need a crowd at the gallery on Saturday... need to impress the department and the governors, you know, so they don't cut us off entirely... we're lucky we still get to use some space at the University, but they are cutting the art college loose... as many people as we can get... please come!"

His dark eyes were very imploring and earnest, as was his greasy, floppy hair. Otto finished his speech with raised eyebrows, hoping for the best, no doubt, and Alfons, with all the goodness in his heart, could not say no.

"Sure, we'll come," he said. Ed rolled his eyes.

"Good!" Otto clapped Alfons on the back. "Come have a drink with us. It looks like the performance has finished." He turned to Maria. "I think they really outdid themselves this time, don't you?"

The critique continued as they set off. "I don't know," said Maria, adjusting the shoulder strap of the large leather bag that bounced at her hip. "I didn't think Ernst had his heart in it this time." She glanced at Edward and Alfons. "He wasn't convincingly bourgeois, I didn't think. Did you?"

Not wishing to admit that he didn't quite comprehend what class of people "bourgeois" was meant to encompass, Ed just shrugged. From what little he knew, it would seem that anyone who went to university was bourgeois. But since that didn't seem like the right thing to say, he said nothing.

Maria laughed and as they walked, she reached out and tugged gently on his ponytail. "And what's this? Such long hair on a boy! Is this normal where you come from, foreigner?"

Alfons chuckled at this, and, Ed noted with disapproval, was suddenly far too comfortable with the art students.

"What are we doing here?" Ed moaned quietly to Alfons as they sat squashed into a large oak booth in the dark beerhall, surrounded by about fifteen art students.

"They're sporting the beer," Alfons noted. "And we're broke. Besides, they're kind of ... "

"Strange?" supplied Ed.

"I was going to say interesting," said Alfons.

The art students had quickly adopted the habit of addressing both Edward and Alfons as "Scientist" or, in Ed's case, sometimes "Foreigner."

Most of them smoked cigarettes that they rolled on the table before lighting them with matches. One of the crowd, a scowling dark-haired young fellow called "Wolf", had an interesting silver lighter that was passed around several times. Ed accepted a cigarette but ended up smoking it down too far, singeing the fingers of his white glove and forcing him to swear.

"Why are you wearing those gloves indoors anyway?" asked Maria, leaning across the table.

It didn't take Ed long to choose a lie from his repertoire. "Chemistry experiment, I burned my hands with acid... nasty scars," he said. Usually that led people to shut their mouths and look embarrassed for asking, but Maria's lips parted with interest.

"Ooh," she said, perking up. "Can I see?"

As if the wounds had suddenly become real, Ed crossed his arms and shoved his hands tightly into his armpits.

"No."

"Shy about it?" she asked challengingly.

"Not really, it's just that some people find it disturbing."

"Disturbing?" she said, eyes brightening. "Then you should let Oskar photograph them. His latest work—you'll see it at the gallery show—is all photographs of scars and burns and things." She tapped the ash off her cigarette onto the table. "It's fascinating stuff."

It obviously wasn't fascinating enough for her to press any further; as she had been doing all afternoon, she quickly turned back to Heiderich and began asking him questions, about his work, where he was from, what sort of music he liked. It finally dawned on Ed that she was flirting with him. Alfons seemed oblivious, answering her questions as straightforwardly as he could, not watching her hands fluttering close to his on the table, or at her throat as she nervously toyed with a jet bead necklace. Ed watched with mounting annoyance as she leaned closer and closer to Alfons, and their conversation contracted to encompass only the two of them.

Eventually he stopped making a fool of himself by trying to take part in the conversation and turned away in annoyance. He tried to find something in the room to stare at.

"Foreigner, you're interesting." It was Otto who finally decided to pay him attention. "I would like to draw you. May I? Sometime?" and he cocked his head to the side, looking innocent and imploring, what a favor Ed would be doing for him.

But Ed was suspicious. "Interesting how?" he asked, eyes narrowed.

"Your hair, the color of your eyes, so unusual" said Otto, and he bit his chapped lower lip. Alfons indicated that he had overheard by digging his sharp elbow into Ed's ribs.

A moment later when the others' eyes were off them Alfons leaned toward him, whispering smugly so that Ed wanted to punch him in the head: "Can't I talk to a girl without you getting all tied up in knots?"

"I don't," Ed said casually, pushing his empty beer glass toward the center of the table. "Stop flattering yourself."

They were crammed together on the narrow, worn setee in their flat. The pattern on the coarse fabric—a faded, melancholy maize-yellow brocade with some giant flowers embossed in its threads—was making its imprint on Ed's cheek as he lay it against the threadbare arm of the sofa. He was on his side, and Heiderich was behind him, in a similar position, but his long legs were bent and his knees were jammed not entirely comfortably behind his own.

"He wants to draw you because he thinks you're a freak." Occasionally Alfons teased Ed in a way that was shocking; he didn't seem capable of such sharpness.

"You know, you can be really fucking mean when you want to. "

Alfons smiled.

"Are you proud of that?"

"No," he said, smiling still.

"I can be interesting, can't I?" Ed asked, fishing for a compliment, less because he wanted one than to see if Alfons would respond as he liked. He didn't like to feel that he didn't have the upper hand, or at least that they were on equal footing.

"No, you're boring," said Alfons, pretending to stifle a yawn.

He knew that Alfons was waiting for him to say something banter-y in response to that last teasing remark but he kept silent. A hand fell against his side, casually, as if by accident, long-fingered and warm. It lingered there. Ed's favorite part of any day was when they lay on the sofa tangled together. Ed felt the fingertips dig gently into his back, then brush back and forth before climbing up to his neck and resting there. Then Alfons did that thing—kissed the back of his neck and then the edge of his ear—the thing that made him shudder from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. Ed twisted his head back and parted his lips for a kiss.

In a moment Ed had moved onto his back and Alfons had shifted on top of him. Ed felt that feeling coming on, the thing that had confused him so thoroughly only weeks before, making him think he must be going out of his mind. Heiderich—awkward, cheerful, self-conscious Heiderich—made him feel things he had never even thought of before. Now his knee was pressing hard into his crotch, almost painfully so, and all Ed wanted to do was rip off his clothes and climb all over him. They breathed together, huffing and gasping as they scrambled to remove layers of clothing. Heiderich's silly suspenders got tangled in Ed's hair and they laughed almost manically as they struggled to release the hair that had gotten wound around a button.

"I swear I am going to forbid you to wear those stupid things, they're a menace," Ed grumbled, as Alfons finally slid them off his shoulders.

There was a procedure, on the sofa, necessitated by the limits imposed by space. First their shirts, then Ed would torment Alfons by ghosting his teeth across his nipples. Today, however, Alfons gave one deep gasp, then collapsed over Ed's shoulder, breathing hard. Ed felt his heart beating hard against his own chest.

"What's the matter?"

Alfons took a shallow breath and swallowed hard. "Nothing. I'm just... more tired than I thought I was."

"Do you want to stop?" Ed asked, tentatively. This had never happened before. He didn't think he himself could ever be too tired for something so exciting, he always managed to find the energy, in fact, it seemed to grow within him as things progressed, and any fatigue he felt would be easily forgotten.

But Alfons sighed and said yes, he was too tired, and drew himself up, clearing his throat and still breathing quick and shallow.

"I'll just lie next to you if that's all right," Alfons said, stretching out on his side again.

Ed said, "Sure," but he was still surprised by the sudden cease in the action. He wasn't sure what to do with himself.

"You can carry on by yourself, I don't mind," Alfons said drowsily. His eyes were already closing when Ed turned his head to look at his face. "Sorry, we shouldn't have started... "

"You started it by calling me boring," Ed reminded, turning away to face the room, while pulling Alfons's hand over his shoulder and lacing the fingers of his left hand with Alfons's right, so that their tangled fingers rested against Ed's chest.

"I was just joking," offered Alfons, gently enough to make Ed feel as if he were being condescended to.

"I'm not boring," Ed snapped. He thought of Maria's attentions toward Alfons and became even more annoyed. "Those art losers are boring. We're not actually going on Saturday, are we?"

"I think we should. We said we would. Just imagine if we had to turn out that kind of crowd to keep our projects going, wouldn't you want people to keep their word to come? Besides, they bought us beer."

While he considered himself fair-minded, Ed found that Alfons was even more so. And earnest.

"All right," Ed conceded. "For the beer."

Sometimes they fell asleep like that, on the sofa, and Ed would wake up either on the floor or cramped with pain for sleeping in his prosthetics in that static position, but still, he looked forward to it happening, again and agin.

This was hard, and lonely; he didn't like this. This was, in fact, one of the least favorite things he'd ever done. Alone, he sat on the steel examination table, bare except for a thin, cotton shift, open in the back. A lattice of chill spread red webs across the skin of his arms and he shivered in the cold, bare room, which seemed far bigger than it needed to be for what it held; a medicine cabinet, a white-painted counter against the wall. A ceramic basin half-filled with water sat on a small, square table, with a narrow ribbon of flannel draped across it.

Alfons Heiderich sat indian-style, his elbows on his knees. Sitting here practically naked, with his gangly legs and long arms exposed, he felt ungainly and weird. He waited, holding the book he had brought with him in his hand, unopened, too jittery to read. A clock on the wall ticked and ticked.

Eventually the doctor swanned into the room, smiling pink lips surrounded by a trim, blond beard, small steel-rimmed half-moon spectacles; a young man trying to look older. He looked at the file he held in his hand.

"Mister Heiderich!" he said, and held out his other. He shook vigorously, friendly. His hand was warm. Alfons began to relax. "Now let's have a look at you."

It was the x-ray that had caused young Herr Doktor Ries to lose some of that jolly demeanor. It wasn't until then that Alfons had real reason to worry. But Ries held the x-ray up to the window and frowned and blanched a little.

"You see these?" he said, pointing to two slightly darker gray spots that resided in the field of grey that represented his lungs. "This is the problem."

Ries made him sit on the examination table again and called a nurse in to take his temperature. As he sat with the glass thermometer under his tongue, Ries held his wrist to take his pulse. He suddenly felt fragile, being ministered to by two people in a cold room, naked except for a cotton shift, and without anyone to treat him as anything but a patient.

He was allowed to dress afterwards, then Ries returned, looking grim.

"I'd like to admit you to hospital as soon as possible; there's a treatment I'd like to try with you. Can you come back Tuesday? I'll make sure there's a bed for you."

Alfons felt his heart nearly skip a beat and shudder. Since when was this about being admitted to hospital? He couldn't adjust to the idea.

"What? What do you mean? For how long? I can take a day, two days, maybe... but I'm in the middle of a project ... "

Ries stared at him. "You do realize that you're very ill? That's why you came here, isn't it?"

No, he had come here to be told that it wasn't anything serious, and not to worry, and to go back home and drink some fluids and get some rest, and then get on with his life.

"You've been spitting blood," said Ries. "You say it hurts when you breathe. You don't even appear to have an infection, so this is very serious."

"Oh." Alfons blinked. Blindsided. His mind felt blank.

"I'd like to try a therapy with you that may help improve your breathing and decrease the pain, at least for a while. There has been some success with the use of inhalant steam; it's been used to treat tuberculosis and I see no reason that it wouldn't work with you. The least we can do is try." Ries began to sound chirpy and upbeat again. As he spoke he hugged the clipboard he was holding to his chest. "I think we could see some improvement... you're so young, and quite strong, I think, to have lived with this for so many months. Whatever exposure caused this did its work very quickly, but perhaps we can arrest its progress, if just for a while."

"You keep saying 'just for a while'," Alfons said, zeroing in on that phrase. "That doesn't sound like a cure."

Ries cleared his throat. "It's not a cure, Mr. Heiderich. It's a palliative."

"A what?"

The doctor looked uncomfortable. "Something to make you feel better, maybe slow down the progress of the disease. To make it easier."

Alfons looked at the nurse. She had a white paper crown pinned to her hair, and a long, starchy-looking apron over her grey dress. When he caught her eyes, she looked away, busying herself with collecting and cleaning the thermometer. He felt a hand on his arm, warm against his chilled skin.

"I'm sorry, you've obviously been caught off guard." Ries spoke gently, keeping his hand on his arm. He suddenly recognized the gravity of the situation; the doctor's tone of voice, so gentle and indulgent, suggested terrible things were going to happen. "But the best place for you right now is in hospital. We can treat your pain and who knows, maybe see some improvement. Are your parents around? A friend? Someone to bring with you when you come back?"

Alfons closed his eyes and didn't reply. Before taking his leave, the doctor squeezed his arm again.

He took the longest possible route to the university. He was expected at the laboratory, and he wasn't going to let anyone down—the team, Edward, himself. He would pretend that nothing in particular had happened that morning, that he hadn't just learned what he had, that nothing had changed, even though everything was suddenly different. Now, holding this new and terrible knowledge, he found himself walking slowly to conserve his abbreviated stamina; now that he knew that it was all real and serious he saw himself as fragile. Suddenly, he wasn't like everyone else. Now he was set apart, special.

It was unsettling, certainly, but he also felt strangely euphoric. He also had the sense that this would wear off, that soon something heavier and frightening and more oppressive was going to descend upon him, but right now... this was interesting. In a way, he felt lighter. Vindicated. He had known, he realized. He should write to his mother.

His biggest worry was that Edward would notice something different about him, and how difficult it would be to tell him... and then, when he thought about it some more, he realized that his biggest worry was that Edward wouldn't notice at all, which made him laugh at himself.

"Here he is," said Kanter, the moment Alfons pushed open the door to the laboratory. "We were just talking about you."

"You were?" Alfons was forever amazed that he existed in spaces where he wasn't present. Where did that self-effacement come from? Edward could always be counted upon to roll his eyes at this knee-jerk modesty, and when Alfons glanced at him, there it was. Edward's mouth was twisted to the side as if he had been in mid-sentence and had had to stop himself. "What?"

"Nothing," said Edward, waving his hand.

"It's not nothing!" breathed Kanter, leaning forward onto the counter in front of him, littered with tools and pieces of metal. He had a pair of goggles on top of his head, and a protective glove on his hand—he'd been welding wires. He was the resident electrical engineer, an eager graduate student with enthusiasm to spare when he and Edward entered the realm of discouragement. "A couple of guys from a contracting company are coming this afternoon to recruit for a project team. I've heard that they're offering salaries, can you imagine, getting paid well? And they've got resources, we wouldn't have to requisition every wire and piece of scrap we use—"

Edward gave Alfons a meaningful look. A look meaning he had no interest in these visitors.

"Yeah, but we'd have to do what they want," said Alfons to Kanter. "What about our project?"

Kanter looked guiltily at the jumble of wires on the worktable in front of him.

"I don't know about you guys, but I could sure use some real money," he said. "I have a wife and a baby on the way. Elric's just been ranting about scientific integrity and how he's not going to be bought off—"

"Hey, you don't need to justify yourself to me," said Alfons, shrugging out of his jacket. "I hope they take you, if that's what you want."

"We need you here," said Edward. "We don't have another electrical engineer who knows the project."

Kanter sighed and pulled the goggles back over his face, pretending to be intent on his wires. Alfons edged over to Edward and leaned over the design that he had been studying. Edward had made some barely legible marks and notes along the edges.

"This is so frustrating," said Edward, running a finger along the sketch of the rocket's cap. "The prototype worked in the first test but not on the second... Oberth's going to kill us for destroying the model when he gets back from Berlin, but should we really be wasting our time re-building it when it failed?"

Alfons felt tired; his brain wanted time to rest, he couldn't think. He leaned over the worktable, wanted to lay his chest and head down and sleep. He closed his eyes and sighed.

"What's the matter?" Edward asked. "Are you all right? Where've you been all morning, anyway?"

Alfons Heiderich made himself stand up, blinking to stay awake.

"I'm fine. So, when are these people supposed to turn up?"

Edward narrowed his eyes. "Why? Are you interested?"

"No... it's just that, if Kanter is, and probably some of the other guys are too, we should put on a good show for them, don't you think?"

"Whatever," said Edward, turning back to the plans. "It's none of my business."

By two o'clock a number of people had gathered in the laboratory, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the esteemed guests with lots of money to offer around. Kanter, Peters and Bergmann had all oiled their hair and put on new collars and neckties over lunch. They kept adjusting their lab coats to make sure they looked spiffy and asking each other if their new neck wear was straight and visible. There was much chattering over whether Oberth had already been in touch with these people—now referred to as "the company"—and whether he had recommended any of his lab team.

"You don't think they're interested in the wunderkinder over there, are you?" asked Peters, nervously straightening his collar again.

"No, of course they'd want more seasoned professionals," said Bergmann. "Those two don't even have their first degrees yet."

"I'm not sure degrees are what they're after," said Peters. "From what I've heard, they just want raw talent. I have a copy of my dissertation proposal... "

"I have mine too," said Kanter. "And my article... .damn, where did I put that, I thought I had it right here... ." He started frantically looking around for it.

Ed was minutes away from bolting from the laboratory completely, to leave the three of them to it. He and Heiderich were immersed in revising the plans for a new rocket prototype to replace the model they had destoyed in last week's test, but they could just as well do that at home without all these distractions and the preening grad students. Maybe, though, part of him was curious. Not that he wanted the job, but he was interested in seeing who these people were and what they wanted. It reminded him of his father and the Thule Society, something that he had been forced to stay away from, but that all the same intrigued him. He was thoroughly mistrustful of any group that attempted to use scientists for questionable means—and that went for anything, including alchemy—and he wondered how forward these recruiters were going to be with the hopefuls. He had no interest himself in becoming part of a project that had any goal beside his own. He was already uneasy about the fact that he had lost touch with his father, wondering where he had gone and in service of what organization. He had his suspicions, but he was afraid to indulge them. In this world, he didn't have the power to control much of anything, and he knew it.

Meanwhile, Heiderich was looking secretive himself, and a little wilted, as he sleepily went through the motions of reviewing statistical records of past rocket tests. He was off his game today, distracted, and Ed had an uneasy feeling about it. He watched him as closely as he could while trying to concentrate on his work, but the distractions of the day were getting the better of him too. He felt frustrated, and was practically relieved when the visitors finally arrived.

Two men, wearing well-tailored suits and almost identical mustaches—although one was tall and robust while the other was small and thin—entered the laboratory with their hats in their hands, amiably announced themselves as Strauss and Ostermann, and shook hands all around. Ed demurred, refusing to take notice or shake hands, taking the opportunity to appear as surly as possible to keep them from paying him any attention. He hunched over his diagrams, gripping a pencil in his left hand, only looking up occasionally to take in the repulsive fawning of his colleagues. Only Heiderich hung back, hovering over the worktable, also pretending to work.

However, despite his best efforts, the two men quickly extracted themselves from the graduate students and descended over the worktable where Ed and Alfons were sitting.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mister Elric, Mister Heiderich," said the big one—Ostermann—extending his hand first to Ed. Ed looked up, squinting at the light right behind the man's head. "We've heard a lot about Oberth's project team, and we were particularly interested in meeting the two of you."

Being rude hadn't helped so Ed tried plan B, which usually worked even better, although he hated to pull it out. If they'd heard of his working in this lab, they may have heard other things too. He stood up, trying to demonstrate that this was a difficult maneuver for him, and making a point of showing that his right arm was useless, he looked embarrassed, only partly faking, and dropped his pencil on the floor, exaggerating his handicaps and looked apologetic for wasting the gentlemen's valuable time for being such an inconvenient person.

They seemed undeterred. Ostermann withdrew his hand from Ed and offered it to Alfons instead, who shook it halfheartedly.

"Mister Elric," said Ostermann. He had a smooth voice, deep and confident, the voice of a man who was in charge and used to getting what he wanted. "Our benefactor—the leader of our company—is very interested in your talents. Yours too, Mister Heiderich. You've worked closely with Oberth, who is a visionary and a genius—we believe this!—so we know the two of you understand thinking outside the normal parameters of what is possible. We'd like to have you come work with us."

Not giving up on his chosen deterrence strategy, Ed leaned heavily against the worktable.

"Why haven't you asked Oberth, then?" he asked.

Strauss smiled. His mouth was a thin line, his skin taught and papery. He was much older than Ostermann. "We have invited Oberth. He prefers to work on his own, and he declined. Men like him are not really team players. But you two are less experienced; our company would be an excellent opportunity for you. We're offering a good salary. You could send money to your family, save up for university." Here he looked pointedly at Heiderich.

"What are you working on?" asked Heiderich, appearing excited. "Is it rocketry?"

"Not exactly," said Strauss. "It's even more ambitious, something entirely new that combines physics, engineering, chemistry... just like your project, but on a bigger scale, with bigger ramifications, bigger stakes, bigger funding, bigger everything. We believe in this project, and our benefactor has unlimited resources. We will see it through to success. It will change the world. You could be part of that."

"Could you be a little more specific?" Ed said impatiently.

"No," said Ostermann, and his eyes twinkled like he was trying to lure a couple of kids with promises of candy. "But I can assure you, this project is even more important than the one you're working on—it goes far beyond what you've ever imagined."

"I doubt it," Ed said drily. At that, Ostermann and Strauss exchanged a glance. Suddenly, Strauss was digging in the pocket of his waistcoat, pulled out a small calling card, and held it out to Ed.

"We know who your father is, which is why we came looking for you. We think that you—and he—could add a lot to our work. If you could convince him... "

"So, that's what you're after," said Ed, looking at the card still being held forth by Strauss. "You want me to get my father to work for you."

"We'd contact him ourselves, though we haven't been able to track him down," said Ostermann.

"Well tell me if you find him, because I don't know where he is either," Ed said, more bitterly than he intended to. He had meant to sound cool, but as he said it, his eyes began to burn and he had to look down at the table. He didn't want to look up again, to see what he knew was another meaningful look between Ostermann and Strauss. He had sounded pathetic just then, he knew. Well, he hoped he had made a bad enough impression on the men that they would leave him alone.

"Mister Elric," came Ostermann's voice, and when he looked up, the man had an almost pleading expression on his face. "It's not just your father we wanted. We've heard about your genius in chemistry, and we'd like to have you join us. And Mister Heiderich too, for your expertise in physics. Please think about coming to see us. Now take the card."

Ed gave in and reached for the card. It said nothing but "J. Strauss" and a Munich address in the business district.

They withdrew, thanking everyone for their time, and leaving three very disappointed graduate students in their wake.

At their flat, later that evening, Ed took the card out of his pocket and tossed it on the kitchen table, home to piles of discarded papers, books, spilled ink and dirty plates. He wouldn't call them; the fact that they were after Hohenheim sealed the deal. He wanted nothing to do with it.

"But aren't you curious? About their project, I mean," said Alfons, chewing on a slice of burnt toast. Toast and beans again for supper. Ed's stomach growled at the very sight of the subsistence rations. Working for the mystery project could mean plenty of money, they could eat properly...

"Well, sure, yeah, but there's no way I can trust them. Besides, what we're doing is important. Who knows what they're really up to? We don't have time for that."

"No... we don't." Alfons put down his toast and took a swig of cold tea. He started into the gaslamp flickering on the table. He seemed distracted again. And here they had this fascinating, mysterious topic to speculate on, and Alfons was strangely quiet. He cleared his throat and looked at Ed. His eyes appeared unusually large and shiny. In the dim light, their color was indeterminate, and Ed found himself looking at his brother for a moment. He had to blink to make this illusion pass.

"I have to tell you something."

"All right." Ed had already cleared his plate and pushed it forward. "What is it?"

Heiderich looked down at his plate. His voice was shaking as he began to speak. "I went to the hospital today, that's where I was this morning. I went for—you know, my chest, you know how I cough a lot and lose breath, and I've been getting tired... you know, I've had two chest infections in the past year... so I kept on worrying about it... so I went to see a specialist."

Ed just listened. He wasn't sure what he expected to hear. He hadn't really thought much about those frequent illnesses, he'd only assumed Heiderich's constitution wasn't as strong as it could be, he had never imagined anything more, even during the times when he'd nursed him a bit. He remembered thinking that Heiderich seemed pretty damned sick for a few days once, which made him feel instantly guilty that he hadn't given it more thought. He'd just been happy to see him get better. But was there something he'd missed?

"So... what did he say?" Ed prompted hesitantly, because Heiderich had come to a stop, still looking down at his plate.

Heiderich shook his head, then looked up. He had a small smile on his face. "Well, he said I need to look after myself, take it easy...but it's nothing that serious, though, I should be all right. He said maybe I'm getting too much exposure to that rocket fuel and other chemicals, so I should ease off, you know? Be more careful."

Ed nodded, entirely relieved. He didn't realize that he had been holding his breath, and exhaled, heart pounding in his head. "Yeah, of course. We'll make sure you don't get exposure, take it easy. So, that's good news, then, right?" He gave what he hoped was a hopeful smile.

"I suppose," said Heiderich. The small tight-lipped smile he offered in return was not entirely reassuring, but Ed was determined to take this agreement at face value, and tried to enjoy the rest of his supper.