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Off Beat

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Science and technology isn't Alex's usual beat. He's an investigative journalist for a reason—finds his purpose in pulling together patterns and rhythms, looking for the minute flaws that smell story to him—and there's nothing in the latest high tech gadgets or the industry's newest golden boys that draws him enough to make him want to cover it. But the news room has fallen victim to two things—the dreaded slow news day and a bout of really nasty flu—so Alex finds himself sitting at a table in a coffee shop a couple of blocks away from his desk. He sips on a slowly cooling cup of passable coffee and doodles on the cover of his notebook while he waits for whichever stuffed shirt scientist the Air Force wants him to write a puff piece on. Maria told him that the press office had spouted them some line about a brand new age of co-operation between the American and Russian scientific communities going forward, and Alex had scribbled down a couple of questions along those lines, figuring that the interviewee, who rejoices in the name of—

A finger jabs against his page, an emphatic punctuation that breaks up the line or two of scribbled background Alex has on the guy, and Alex looks up to see who is vaguely blond and blocky. The scrunched up expression on his face could mean that either he's a little myopic, or vaguely constipated, or both, but then the guy says, "Northwestern, not Northeastern, my surname is McKay, not Kay, and my god, no, not everyone who is pioneering advancements in astrophysics which are, dare I say it, ground-breaking is necessarily from the US, you have heard of Canada, right, that very very large country which sits atop yours and cows you with the force of our intellectual superiority despite our demographic inferiority?"

This is all delivered without pause for breath, and seemingly while the guy—McKay—continues to drink from a mug which is about three times the size of Alex's. If he had to make an educated guess, Alex would estimate it probably contains about ten times the caffeine, too. Alex blinks at him while McKay sits down; McKay's been juggling not only the coffee mug but also a messenger bag bulging with laptop and papers, a cell phone, a wallet, a paperback book by Richard Feynman, and an army-green jacket that clashes badly with his striped, purple, button-down shirt. Each of these items are deposited on the chair, the table or the floor as McKay seems fit, until finally his hands are empty, his coffee mug has been drained, and his attention is focused solely on Alex.
"So," McKay says, and if tone isn't quite snide, it's not wildly encouraging either, "I've been told I've got to sit here and let you ask me questions—education, career, hopes for the future"—and if Alex isn't very much mistaken, there's more than a trace of bitterness there—"though I'm warning you here and now that if you decide to start in on the psychoanalysing? I don't care what the General does to me, I am out of here, because I have just eaten a very delicious chocolate muffin and so do not want to spend any time contemplating the psychological significance of my father's penis."

Alex decides to discard the mental outline he'd drawn up for this interview; maybe he should just roll with it and see if his editor will print whatever comes out of this. "I promise not to ask you any questions about your father's penis," he says solemnly.

"Well. Good," McKay sniffs, chin tilting upwards a little as if he's being entirely reasonable, as if Alex isn't going to have the best 'how was your day' story to tell Claire when he gets home. "I always feel it's best to get my views on Freudianism out of the way, right at the beginning." McKay's hand cuts a clean line through the air for emphasis.

Alex raises an eyebrow. Maybe he should bring this guy down to Taggarty's; he'd probably end up friends for life with Trevor. Either that, or the force of their colliding egos would signal the end of life on Earth as Alex knows it. "They're seriously sending you to Russia, to, uh..." He looks back down at his notebook, finds the exact phrase. "'To foster a productive and positive working relationship between the two great nations of the United States of America and Russia'?"

"Siberia," McKay says mournfully, shoulders slumping, and the sudden, obvious force of his misery is enough to make him seem ten years younger, as if he's the wide-eyed college freshman Alex knows from his bio that McKay had never been. "You disagree with Sam Carter over one, uh... hypothetical thing which may or, and I believe this is important, may not, have had the potential to cause harm, and next thing you know the next two years of your life are stretching out in front of you, all borscht and tundra and women who have more facial hair than I do."

It's so very hard not to laugh. "Maybe," Alex says blandly, "you should get your views on Freudianism out of the way with the Russians, right at the beginning."

"You think?" McKay says, all disarming earnestness and big eyes and maybe just enough wryness to his tone that Alex is fairly certain McKay is messing with him a little. Alex ducks his head so that he can take a sip from his coffee, hide his smile, and thinks that maybe there's a value to be had in looking outside of the usual, after all.