The atmosphere in Parker’s lab still bordered on icy several hours after Sam arrived. The reunion was far from heart warming due to some initial hesitation from both sides as a result of his long absence. This was exacerbated by Sam’s brisk military attitude, and he seemed to be intent on maintaining decorum. Along with his rigid behavior, he had also been dead set on providing a minimum of specifics to the rest of the people in the lab, and hadn’t yet wavered in spite of a barrage of questions. Beyond the actual work, he tried his best to stay away from his brother, sister and Edward if at all possible, scurrying away like a roach in the light and not maintaining eye contact with any of them even when saying the few things he did say. The work went on anyway because they all had factors beyond the familial connection that were driving them, one shared factor really, the General. Sam cleaned and prepped the new bone fragments that had arrived at Parker’s lab directly from the Shawnee Nation dig site, and the other three worked smoothly in tandem to get an initial but complete and even triplicate analysis of the samples as efficiently as possible.
In spite of Ella’s hopeful expectations before Sam arrived, she eventually gave up on her efforts to pull Sam back in. Along with Edward and George, she decided that if this was the way it was going to be, Sam needed to be on his way back to the Apache Nation as soon as possible. The years away had apparently damaged him beyond any hope of reconciliation with them. He had become just another Apache soldier in the Comanche Nation, present but elusive and extremely unsettling. The other two had hit it right on the nose in that regard.
Even with the bad atmosphere in the lab and in spite of their differences, the four all had the same driven quality to their work. They would push through the entire analysis without sleep if they could manage it, only stopping if fatigue started to take a potential toll on their results. As he continued to meticulously clean the fragments of evidence, Sam realized that with the new arrivals they now had seventy-nine perfect little squares of bone so superficially identical to each other that they could have been laser cut on an assembly line, and he was starting to be amazed by the consistent craftsmanship. He heard the others in the lab noting it as well even though he was trying his best to block out their irritating conversations. He had also come to a major revelation. The squares weren’t the only things so similar in the lab. George, Ella, and Edward were all still the same, he could feel it. Maybe they hadn’t set some elaborate trap for him, but it sure as hell wasn’t a warm and welcoming return to his beloved homeland. Not that he had the slightest expectation that it would be, but he now knew he had to get the hell away from them and stay away for good. His decisions all those years ago were warranted after all and there would be no more regrets. He didn’t belong with the three of them here and he never had. As painful as their statements used to be, maybe he actually had been switched at birth. The idea used to drive him so deep into himself on a regular basis that he thought he might implode. And seeing them together after all this time from the perspective of a full-grown adult, he obviously felt no different. Maybe being switched hadn’t been just another cruel jab at his frequently injured heart in those days. It seemed reasonable now even to him. This trip had settled many things for good. Now he would just have to learn to deal with it, and finally make a serious effort to move on.
After some time trying to sift through the SNIU’s computer records herself, the General decided their records were bordering on the work of an incompetent. Of course, that would be an insult to someone who actually was incompetent. Maybe the overwhelming extent of information and extreme ease of access her own Nation provided her at the push of a button had spoiled her. No, she decided, it was just pure incompetence. It probably still required an entire room for their system to store a gigabyte of data. Whatever its strengths, the Shawnee Nation was technologically backward. It was just another reason beyond the weather that she couldn’t live there, well that and the damn bugs.
“Agent Green, do you think you could help me with this?” She finally inquired, giving in to defeat at the hands of the Shawnee Nation’s primitive technology. Thirty years before in her own past, she could have flown through their current system. But that was thirty years of massive leaps in technology. The Apache Nation had outgrown the Shawnee system five minutes after it had been installed, and upgraded, upgraded at least a thousand times!
“General?” The agent said lifting his eyebrows and probably believing the system was too advanced for her instead of the extreme opposite.
“Never mind.” She said, deciding it wasn’t worth the effort she had already put into it, let alone more.
During the same amount of time, her com techs had gathered information from almost every other police system in the Nations. Rand needed a little advice in this area. Just because he was an ancient didn’t mean his whole Nation had to flounder in the Stone Age.
“General, we have an incoming link from the Comanche Nation.” One of her now unoccupied com techs said as the General continued kicking herself for having wasted so much time on the useless Shawnee system.
“Put it through.” She said without a second thought. Daniels and the new sets of samples all had to be there by now, and she could seriously use a non-caffeinated boost.
Turning to the largest wall monitor, the image that took up the screen wasn’t Daniels or even Parker. It was a woman who when the General observed her carefully seemed to resemble Daniels in several ways.
“General.” She said as she backed away from her own link camera, and the General was able to see the rest of the lab behind the woman. Back in the distance, and now moving quickly towards the camera, she recognized Daniels. There was no mistaking the resemblance between Daniels and the woman now.
“Captain Daniels.” She said as the man came up to stand beside the woman on the screen.
The woman said, “He’s here” looking behind her into the lab as she said it. The General stared in disbelief and her immediate thought was that the woman on the other end, whoever she was, could only have a brain cell or two bouncing around in her skull. Daniels was standing right beside her!
As the General continued her impromptu eyeball IQ test of the woman, two other men entered the field of view from opposite directions. General Cochise was sure that they all noticed her double take at that point. It had nearly given her whiplash, but then just as quickly cleared up a few questions still floating around in her own head about Daniels’s outlandish decision to contact the enemy Comanche Nation. He unexpectedly appeared to have an identical twin brother!
“Captain?” She questioned, having been thrown off guard for the umpteenth time that day and now fearing a few more Daniels’ would pop onto the screen like a sick cloning experiment gone berserk.
“Yes, General.” The new arrival said loudly, stopping as far away from the other three as he could while still showing up in her monitor’s field of view. He appeared tense as hell and only looked directly ahead in a stiff manner like his neck was in a cervical collar. It didn’t take her gut to tell her there were some serious issues causing that gap.
“What have you gotten so far?” She asked, having difficulty not comparing the three people on the screen who weren’t Council member Parker. Damn, this had certainly never occurred to her, she thought. But then how could she have known about anything as unexpected as she now saw on her monitor? Still angry about the time she had wasted, she thought well, she could have looked up Daniels’s records. They now clearly had extensive biographical data on each and every one of the people on the monitor due to the Apache’s careful assessment of every person in their own Nation. Parker, as a Council member, was also well researched with the information readily available to her. She had just never made this connection or anything even relatively close to it. Still kicking herself and near the point of calling herself a dumbass, she was sure the minute details of her own life hadn’t similarly slipped under Parker’s radar, sure in her gut at least.
“Well, first, General and Council member Cochise” Parker started, “I suspect you’ve been seriously underutilizing Sam’s abilities.”
The statement brought Captain Daniels’s head turning abruptly in Parker’s direction stiff neck and all, his mouth dropping open at the same time in shock and utter disbelief.
“What do you mean Council member Parker?” The General asked, her gut still churning up reflexive assessments of the now bizarre and ugly situation on the screen.
“You’re Captain is nothing short of a genius.” Parker smoothly went on in his politician’s voice as if not noticing Captain Daniels’s intense reaction to his words.
The General stood for a minute still trying to get a grasp on the smoldering intensity in the image on her monitor. Eventually back to comparing the twins at the other end of the link, she decided that captain Daniels wasn’t aging nearly as well as his otherwise identical twin brother. Stress could probably do that, she surmised. Just based on his move to the Apache Nation Daniels was undoubtedly the black sheep in his family. By visually comparing the two over the link, she could tell that Daniels’s status in his family had greatly impacted his life, stealing his confidence and impairing his eventual outcome. It was sad really, but none of her business.
“Well…” She finally said, not exactly sure how to proceed after Parker’s little genius bombshell.
“If you can’t find a better use for him, I’m sure the Comanche Nation could.” Parker continued as smooth as glass and still outwardly not acknowledging the captain’s impossible to ignore responses.
Again she couldn’t quite figure out what to say, and the loss of control was starting to tweak her out of her self-reproach. Parker was apparently trying to rebuild a bridge of some kind to Daniels, and she didn’t know if she had anything to contribute, or if she should even try.
At that point, the woman spoke up, bringing the General’s focus back to the center of the screen. “General, my name is Dr. Ella Grant, and this is my brother Dr. George Daniels. It is an honor to speak to you. We have received your samples, and have begun the analysis.” She said, not changing the focus of her gaze.
“Good.” The General said, interrupting Parker before he could get his next statement out.
Looking across the screen towards Daniels at last, Parker asked, “Could you possibly tell us what this is all about, General? Sam’s being tight lipped on this end.”
Feeling she at least had a partial grasp on the drama playing out in Parker’s lab now, she responded, “Captain Daniels is at liberty to discuss this with you in full detail. It’s too complicated for me to give you a thumbnail sketch over the link, Council member Parker.”
“Very well then” Parker said, “Sam can catch us up, and we’ll contact you again when we have some solid data.” The link was abruptly terminated and the General was briefly lost in both her thoughts and in the black void of the monitor’s blank screen.
As the link terminated, Ella and George turning around to see exactly what had literally been happening behind their backs. Ella had never considered that Edward would have a different opinion about how things were going with Sam in the lab. She had assumed Edward had the same feelings on the matter that she and George did. That was the way things generally went with them, they all usually thought alike.
What greeted George and Ella when they turned around was strange, if nothing else. Sam was still staring at Edward with his mouth gaping open, and Edward had just started walking over towards him.
Seeing the other two turn around, Edward said “Come on guys, let’s get him into a chair or something. He’s been like this for several minutes. I think he’s in shock.”
In concern, they all reached him at the same time and grabbed his arms to hold him up in case he started to drop out. He did manage to close his mouth, but the wide-eyed stare didn’t change a bit. With a little effort, they got him to a cushioned chair along the wall, and were able to get him to sit down.
“Sam.. Sam.. are you all right?” Ella said softly as she cupped his face in both of her hands. It was going to take more than a whisper to rattle him back in to the real world.
Edward walked to a chemical storage cabinet and dabbed a cotton tipped swab into a bottle of ammonia, quickly returning with a serious look on his face. After passing the swab under Sam’s nose a few times, he came out of his trance and shook his head side to side several times primarily just shaking off Ella’s hands.
Sam stared in disbelief at the three people standing around him with concerned looks on their faces. It took a minute for the situation to register, but it didn’t matter because he was still confused.
“What happened? Where am I?” Spilled out of his mouth quickly and then he was quiet again.
“Just calm down, Sam.” George said from behind Ella. “Everything is all right.” But by the time he got the words out, they didn’t matter anymore.
It took a while for Sam’s confusion to resolve from that point, and he continued to mostly stare up at the three of them the whole time like they were freaky aliens from another planet. After being absorbed in his unwavering stare for a short time, they moved him to a couch back in the living quarters, thinking he might feel better if he could lie down. They got him to the couch, but he continued to sit up stiffly and look around the room. After supporting his wobbling body on the chair, at least they didn’t have to hold him onto the couch. They all took seats around him and waited for him to recover from whatever had just happened to him. It took over an hour, but he finally began to react to his environment again. An hour after that, he had become verbal and could even respond to their questions.
The others’ serious concern for Sam then shifted quickly to relief that he seemed to be O.K. The incident had broken the ice for George and Ella like crises tend to do in families everywhere. Edward had apparently already left them in the dust in this regard, having deliberately caused the crisis in the first place. It had clearly bloomed exponentially out of his control, but Sam had always been extremely unpredictable. Edward had understood this decades before whereas his true brother and sister had been unable to see him beyond their familial difficulties regardless of their intelligence. Sometimes it took an outsider to see the truth. In spite of George and Ella’s unexplainable youthful treatment of their brother, Edward knew that they had loved him just as intensely as they effectively alienated him. There was really no reason to it that Edward could see. Families could be extremely irrational from what he had observed over the years. But there was still hope for the triplets in his mind. After all, Sam’s call had miraculously opened the way for him to connect with the Apache Nation and Council member Cochise. Miraculous really wasn’t a strong enough word when he considered that the Comanche and Apache had never ever been allies throughout their entire shared history in the Americas.
“I don’t know if you caught this part or not Sam, but General Cochise gave you permission to fill us all in on this analysis we’re doing.” Edward said after the four of them had settled into a more comfortable frame of mind.
“No, I guess I didn’t.” Sam replied, a look of confusion briefly returning to his face.
“It’s O.K. Sam.” Edward told him, a little concern returning to the room.
“No, it’s not O.K. I don’t know what happened to me.” Sam said, the confusion now mixing with worry.
“What did happen, Edward?” George asked as he shared a quick glance with Ella.
Standing up and walking back towards the lab, he said over his shoulder “We’ll talk about it later. Right now we have work to do.”
Sam’s confusion vanished in a second, and he was the next person through the door behind Edward. Worry and confusion were meaningless in comparison to his sense of duty. He was working directly for the General and that had become something even beyond his sense of duty. With the exception of having been the person who punched him in the groin, she had been kind and maybe even friendly. At least kind and friendly in comparison to the way most other soldiers treated him. Of course, no one else had ever punched him so hard in the groin that he crumpled to the floor. Maybe it was just his sense of duty.
Casting another look at Ella, George followed the other two back into the lab and Ella returned there herself shortly later. Edward was right, they did have a considerable ways to go and they had now lost quite a few hours while they tended to Sam. Her curiosity about both Edward and Sam’s behavior was probably as intense as George’s, but she would wait for Edward’s explanation, if he really even had one. Thinking about her own progress to that point, she decided that it was a good thing they had contacted General Cochise at a break point in the analysis. They would have all lost considerably more time if they had needed to start over from the beginning. Everything took time and she never appreciated that fact as much as when she had to repeat something because of an error.
When Ella returned to the lab she realized that Sam had fortunately already finished his prep work, and neither George nor Edward would let him do more than watch them after his catatonic episode. She understood their feelings and agreed with them. It went beyond their concern for Sam even though he was having trouble accepting their other reasons. Each of them worked in their own rhythm and were used to working alone. As much as he wanted to help, there was nothing Sam could really do that wouldn’t disrupt their usual routines and possibly throw off their results. Repeating a botched experiment was painful, very painful.
As George, Ella, and Edward all recaptured their stride almost effortlessly, Sam drifted around the lab watching them work. His usual work in the Apache Nation wasn’t as sophisticated, but he understood and appreciated the process. Although each of them had advanced magnitudes beyond anything he had ever done in molecular biology, the basics were unchanged. Had he stayed in the Comanche Nation, he might be near their level of expertise by now. But he hadn’t and he wasn’t and his earlier decision that he had no regrets was again starting to slip. George and Ella were his brother and sister after all, and it went beyond that to them being a set of triplets. He didn’t know what had happened to make them so different from him and he might never know. It would never make any sense anyway. He and George were identical, and that usually resulted in a tighter than normal bond. Ella was the fraternal sibling of the triplets, but George had an unusually tight bond with her even beyond the intensity that identical twins often had. Sam had lived his entire life with a virtually nonexistent connection to either of them. When they were little and Edward had come into the picture, things had only gone down hill for Sam. By some bizarre twist of fate, Edward had essentially become the third bonded triplet. The arrangement had been unwavering to that day and at their age was undoubtedly carved in stone.
Time flew by and they eventually reached a staggered several hour wait for gel runs. All extremely hungry by this time, they retreated to the living quarters to eat and wait out the electrophoresis of the samples. Even with three full kitchens in the living quarters and a large stock of supplies, fast and easy won out so they ordered food. The wait was short and they were soon full and lounging back in Edward’s living room to wait out the remainder of the gel runs.
With the decades long gap between them now narrowing, Ella sat down next to Sam on the couch and held onto his hand with both of hers. Although slightly taken aback, he didn’t resist and they were all soon chattering about their progress. With over two hundred gels now running, the lab looked like a factory more than anything else. There were probably few labs in the Nations with as much capacity and far fewer with people adept enough to manage so much at one time. They didn’t usually run this high of a volume, but they had in the not too distant past and the sight was impressive to anyone who knew any better, Sam included.
“We’re glad you’re here, Sam.” Edward said after the lab chatter settled down.
Sam looked around at the other three people in the room and both George and Ella nodded in agreement.
“Speaking of that, Edward, what happened earlier?” George asked with a shift to a more serious look.
“Well..” Edward began, “I’ve been thinking a lot lately.” But he was cut off immediately by George saying, “Wow, you’ve been thinking?”
Before Edward could call George a smartass for the six billionth time in their lives, Sam was laughing so hard that the rest of them couldn’t do anything but laugh with him. It took a little while before they all settled back down and then everyone quietly looked at each other with smiles on their faces.
When her curiosity peaked again, Ella said, “Really now Edward, tell us what happened back in the lab.”
“It’s not that I planned for it to go that way,” Edward started again, “but I wanted Sam to feel welcome, and expressing it to General Cochise seemed like a way to do it. Things were tense before that, but I never expected it to push him into shock.”
George and Ella looked at Edward for a while, and then turned to see Sam staring at the floor, tears returning to his eyes, but this time not due to laughter.
Looking back to Edward, Sam asked, “Did you mean what you said?”
Now looking back at the other three very seriously, Edward answered. “It’s horrible that things have gotten so bad that you even have to ask that Sam, but yes...absolutely.”
Tilting his head to stare at the floor again, Sam’s tears flowed freely and Ella let go of his hand to give him a big hug. She was crying now too.
“Is that all it was?” George asked Edward.
Still serious, Edward answered, “I guess so. I was trying not to look at him when I started off. The General was on the screen you know.”
George said softly, “Was she, I didn’t catch that part.” And they all started laughing again. The decades of separation had melted away at last, and when the laughter stopped again, Ella felt very comfortable in asking Sam about the work they were doing.
“I don’t know a whole lot,” he started, “but I’ll tell you what I know. It all started for me after they found the sergeant’s body in the desert.”
“Ah, the reason for the emergency Council meeting,” Edward said calmly, “I sort of suspected that.”
“Yes, from what I understand.”
“But what could those tiny squares of bone have to do with a murder?” Ella asked, mentally trying to assess the few facts she now had to work with.
“That’s still one of the major questions. Have you told George and Ella about the sergeant?” Sam asked Edward now, trying to see how far back he needed to start.
“Some of the major points.” He started. “Primarily that she was murdered, scalped and left in a burial ground.”
“The bone fragments were found under her body and buried just below the surface.” Sam then said.
“O.K., so they found pieces of bone in a burial ground. That’s like finding water in the ocean.” George commented, receiving a smirk from Ella for his effort.
“That’s what I would have thought, and I might still think that except for a few significant things.” Sam said, not offended by George at all. “The first thing that pulled my thinking away from them being random grave remnants was the shape. They have all been perfect squares to this point and identical in size to the micron.”
“Well, that makes them unusual I guess,” Edward said, “but they are still pieces of bone from a burial ground.”
“I know, but I can’t see why anyone would take the time to craft them. They have definitely been crafted by my observations.” Sam replied.
“But people do stupid, pointless things every day, Sam. It’s not like they’re moon rocks. They’re still little pieces of bone from a graveyard.” George stated, this time without receiving any dirty looks from Ella.
“Yeh, I know. And again that could carry over to them all being buried edge up and at the same depth in the soil, but only below the body. None of those facts are overtly bizarre.”
“Precise placement could just be expected from a person who would go to the trouble of making them in the first place.” Ella said now.
“Those are all just details really,” Sam returned, “and they are interesting points that developed in the first find. They become much more significant when the identical setup is found in another Nation, also under a scalped dead body.”
The room became very quiet with Sam’s last statement. He saw the other three sitting unmoving and knew that each of them was racing through the implications.
“To make it easier, the bone chips have now been found below several other bodies in the Shawnee Nation. You’ve seen them. They’re exactly the same in every set.”
“That’s why they were boxed separately?” George asked, knowing the answer even before he asked.
“Precisely!” Sam said as he watched them fly to the appropriate conclusions in seconds.
“A serial killer..” Ella said, letting out a long breath she had apparently been holding as she thought.
With her last words, the first timer went off in the lab and a second one followed it quickly. All four of them jumped up and went back into the lab. The electrophoresis was terminated in each gel as the timers went off and the gels were placed in individual stain trays to soak. There would be another wait when the gels were all soaking up stain, but they all had more to think and talk about while they waited.
When they were all sitting back in Edward’s living room for the next wait, the questions began to fly. They weren’t just directed at Sam now, but to anyone else with any thoughts down the same line. The conversation went on excitedly for the entire staining period, in fact they prolonged the staining time to accommodate their brainstorming. They still didn’t know what to expect from the analysis or how the results would even be helpful.