Theory of Relativity

From the Story Arc: The Charge of the Labcoat Brigade

Previous Story in the Arc: Artificial Intelligence by Krasniy Zakat (Thursday, February 08, 2007)

Next Story in the Arc: International Relations by Krasnaya Zarya (Saturday, February 10, 2007)

(posted Thursday, February 08, 2007)

Tuesday, early noon

Americans loved squares. They had an insane, almost compulsory passion for the rectangular shape, and it showed in everything; their houses, their cities and even - good God - the layout of their states. When looking at America from the height at which birds flew (assuming you were taking a low-flying plane and the sky wasn’t cloudy) it merged into a quilt.

Iowa was a prime example.

Vickie’s files told the Rabinoviches much; that Garent’s mother, presumed missing according to the Council files, was out and about, quietly living her life in rural America in quiet solitude. Where his father was, nobody knew for certain. Most thought he was dead. But there was one interesting fact about Garent’s elatives; the father was – had been – a legal refugee from another dimension. Presumably somewhere where Garent’s powers were, if not commonplace, then more common. The assumption to make when such information revealed itself was natural, and Alex and Sofia were on the phone to yet another airline – trying hard to find a date that would not overlap their intended trip to Russia – and flying over the square quilt that was the United States, into one of its squarest areas.

And now here they were.

Sofia rolled down the window to air out the car, and got a blast of freezing wind in her face. The car made a sharp turn just then, edging a square around a large field of something indeterminable. The wind angle changed ever so subtly, and it was now tickling Sofia under the high neck of her sweatshirt and sending icicles into her ears under the wide scarf. In summer, Sofia might have been able to tell what was grown there, assuming they stopped and... acquired some of the produce for a picnic, but at this time of year every single thing looked as brown as the next. They made their somewhat rickety way, the rental car being almost as old as the two people in the front seats, around yet another square, and Alexander sneezed.

"Sofia, for heaven's sake, I am freezing. Close that thing!"

Sofia sighed. How Alexander’s hands ever got cold, what with his energy manipulation capabilities, was completely beyond her, but even in the gloves he was beginning to shiver. She rolled up the window, and smirked. "It's America, Sasha. You told me just yesterday it doesn't get cold in America."

"Well... This is a relative cold, yes?"

"Do you ever admit you're wrong?" Sofia muttered as she rummaged under the seat for the next CD – they had gone through a whole stack of albums already, and she was at a loss what to stick into the player – in the big case under her feet. "What do you want to listen to?"

"Something I can sing with. And I wasn't wrong; I just miscalculated my clothing."

"Oh, yes..." Sofia grumbled, sticking a Tchaikovsky disc into the player for lack of anything more singable that she wasn’t tired of. "Sure you did."

Sasha started nodding to the beat of the ballet, periodically emphasizing it with a 'BUM!' or a 'DUN-DA!' He paused only to roll down his foggy window and peer at an intersection sign that whooshed past. He immediately rolled the window back up.

"Ah, city limits," he announced. "Where does the map say we turn?"

"Right. Turn. Three. Kilometers," his PDA chirped back in its pre-programmed lilt. Sasha snickered at Sofia's groan; the little GPS hook-up map annoyed her to no end. But getting lost annoyed him even more, so they dealt with it.

"Do you think we should have brought Aleksander, Sasha?" She asked for the thirtieth time that day. At least, it seemed that much to him. In reality, it was probably just the second.

"No, we'll be fine."

"I don't know... I think it will be helpful, if Garent's mother knows we're 'related' to another dimensional refugee who just so happens to be a ghost-"

"Energy-based lifeform," Sasha interrupted. "No such thing as ghosts."

"Whatever, dear." She rolled her eyes. "Semantics. Of the bad kind."

"Too late now," he pointed at a tall structure jutting out of the endless fields to their right. "That's the place, if she hasn't secretly moved since last Thursday."

"Vickie would have called us. Or brought the plane down. Or something."

The little rental banked hard right, off the last semblance of a civilized road and onto what was probably just a coincidentally placed gap in the fields. A rectangular gap. In between two square fields. Luckily, the Rabinoviches were used to driving off-road back in Siberia, when hunting mushrooms and the like, so the driver easily handled the thick mud. The car, not so much. A spray of it flew up and splattered ominously across the side, patterning the tires and grating inside the wheel cavities.

Sasha grumbled under his breath, muttering something suspiciously swear-like before declaring loudly while staring down his nose at the road. “If the company doesn’t give me my deposit back, I am not returning their car. I’ll use it for parts, or something.”

“Relax,” Sofia was busy rewrapping her scarf around more tightly. “This is Iowa. They are bound to have a mud clause in their agreement, or they’d be out of business. “

She eyed her surroundings; a rather bleak sort of flat plateau, with mostly brown mud, and a few short, stubbed trees. The sky overhead was lead-grey, not very pretty; it provided a rather gloomy background for the sort of pace where one would think a nature-loving, or even beauty-loving person wouldn’t really want to live. The entire place looked, well, relatively new, and yet at the same time as if it were built sometime in the 1950s. The house was, of course...

"Square," said Alex, shaking his head.

"And hangs in the air in exactly the way bricks don't." Sofia couldn't resist the urge. The house was not yellow, but the tone in which her husband said the single word 'square' was quite familiar.

"Yellow, thought Sofia?" Sasha replied, grinning. "This is tan. And blue." He pulled the car up to the end of the road and brought it to a stop. He was probably the only person left in Paragon City who then had to pull the Emergency Brake to keep the car in place. He drove a manual.

Sofia climbed out of the car slowly, and immediately stepped with one shoe into a mud puddle. The scene was so stereotypical that she hardly found it in herself to get upset; one smack of her fist on the side of their car satisfied her sufficiently to laugh back at Alexander's red-faced hilarity. He, of course, managed to avoid the unpleasant surprises the ground was putting up for them in the same way he managed to avoid being killed by her, all these years: adroitly.

"This is it." Sofia said the last somewhat nervously, making the switch to English in her head as she tucked the folder Vickie had handed her into her shoulder bag. The bag went onto her left shoulder, and immediately snagged on the felt of her coat. The tail of the coat, flailing as it was with the wind, caught onto the bag's corduroy and stayed there, leaving Sofia only the protection of her skirt and socks, clearly insufficient in this weather. "Shall we?"

Alex smoothed his ponytail, redid the hairband and tucked his hands into his pockets. "I suppose we shall."

A slightly overweight, brown haired woman stepped onto the porch and closed the front door behind her. She wore house shoes and a large, shapeless shirt under the coat she hastily put on for the short excursion outside. They could hear her fumbling for a moment when they rang the doorbell. For the mother of a rather garishly clad Garent she was really rather unprepossessing. She pulled her coat tighter around herself and greeted the two, "Hello there. Is there anything I can do to help you?"

"I hope so," Alex grinned, "or that long drive from Paragon would be for nothing."

"Can we go inside first?" Sofia implored. "My nose is going to fall off."

The woman looked them over for a second before responding, "Come right in, but be sure to wipe your feet first." She turned around and opened the front door. The scientists caught a whiff of anxiety from her, though, no matter how hard she would try to scan for revealing details in their appearance, she was highly unlikely to find any. Nothing but some mystical detector – which presumably existed, but had never been seen by anyone – and the medical network of Paragon could identify them as anything more than what they seemed. Two people in their forties, dressed well but casually, and – in Alexander’s case – sporting only a light trace of an accent. They would only reveal what they decided to tell – but obviously Alexander got straight to business.

Sofia wiped her shoe somewhat sordidly on the grate, and then the rug, in front of the door and followed in. Alex stepped right behind her, closing the door carefully in the face of the wind. The two lingered in the entrance, hesitantly looking around; they weren't sure what to expect, now that they were finally here. Nobody back home had any idea of what Garent's family was like.

"Come in, come in. Take a seat on the couch. Make yourselves at home." The middle aged woman – presumably Garent’s mother, unless the former had a housekeeper – ordered as she put her coat on a hanger in the closet.

"Thank you." Sofia pulled off her own coat, and breathed on her gloveless hands to warm them up before plunging into the couch. She dumped the coat - which was freezing, but not wet - onto the arm beside her, and dropped her bag to the floor. "Let us introduce ourselves. I'm Sofia Rabinovich, and this is Alexander. I own him."

"I'm sure it goes both ways," Alex grumbled. "Regardless..."

Garent's mother laughed, "I take that to mean you're married to him. I'm Lauren Ward. Are you two looking for directions or did you come to see me?" A good, though somewhat artificial, opening line. No, we’re only here asking how to get to Des Moines – about half a day ride – and we wanted us to let you in so we can steal your teaspoons. But, as Alex pointed out, regardless… Besides, it was Sofia who suggested that their usual amounts of sarcasm might prove a little over the top. So she kept her peace, smiling blandly.

"Oh, we're definitely here to see you." Alex cleared his throat, quickly trying to think of the best way to put this. "We're friends of your son."

Lauren shot a look at Sasha that pinned him to the wall like a butterfly, "Do you know what happened to him?"

"We... were rather hoping to have you help us find that out," Sofia murmured. Which they were. That his mother did not know was unexpected, and saddening… though if they read the FBI files right, and could read Garent well enough, they might be able to gain some insight despite that fact. “To make a somewhat long story short, Garent vanished, as of a couple weeks ago. Perhaps we are not the most interested party, but we are... let us say, in a position to correlate information. So we are looking for him, and now we are here."

"That is, we know people who know people, and we listen," Alex shrugged. "That puts us in the most likely spot to find out where - and why - he vanished. He was acting strangely the few weeks before he disappeared, and some people have reason to believe this is tied to his powers. Sadly, he has never been open with us - or anyone - about those." He gave Miss Ward a pointed glance.

She stared at the table in-between them, unconsciously wringing her hands. "His father disappeared in the same way over twenty years ago. He just left and then I realized how little I really knew about him. Garent sent back all of the Christmas presents I gave him and I got this strange e-mail… I wasn't sure then, but when I heard you say you were from Paragon... I knew." Lauren turned her gaze upwards at their faces, "I'll help you however I can. I don't want this to happen a second time."

That rather called for a rethinking of assumptions. When they came here, they were assuming that Garent’s mother was an accomplice – at least passively – to any folly he put himself into. That called for a ruthless mindset, which the Rabinoviches had, and the ability to be unpleasant if necessary, which they also had. The case, however, appeared to be quite different. Sofia, never a mother herself, could nonetheless appreciate how difficult it must be for miss - or Mrs., if it comes to that - Ward to cope with the loss of a family member. Only recently she’d been through the same thing, in more ways than one. Slowly she slid her hand from the handle of her bag, where the FBI files lay, ready, and bent her mind to help, rather than hinder. Which still called for some ruthlessness.

"The email," said Sofia resolutely.

"Right, I'll go get it," Lauren stood up and walked over to the computer in the corner of the room. She picked up a piece of printer paper and brought it back to them. Alex took it from her and read it aloud:

"Dear Mother,

I'm sorry to tell you this, but I'm sending back the packages you sent me. They're unopened, so you should be able to return them without any problems. It's hard for me to explain, but dad and I are going somewhere. I feel like we were never meant to be here, and I'll be fixing a mistake the universe by putting things back to the way they were. I'm sorry I can't explain it better. I hope you'll understand someday.

Garent."

Father and I are going somewhere… That clinched it. They both had speculated, discussing the state of affairs in which Garent was involved. Perhaps in days past they would not have made that particular assumption, but it was enough for Sofia to cast a single look at Aleksander in order to come up with the quite obvious, and rather startling, idea. Garent’s father wasn’t nearly as dead as everybody thought. He might be disembodied, sure, but so was – in his natural state – her husband’s twin. That didn’t stop him from fiddling with her TV set when she wanted to watch the news, for instance. And in the same manner …

"We just can't stay out of Portal business, can we, Alexander?" Sofia noted dryly as he put the page down on the coffee table in front of the couch.

"Indeed,” Sasha replied, exchanging a prolonged look with her. He, too, had his theories, and they more than matched Sofia’s. He focused on Lauren, furrowing his brows and narrowing his eyes in the same way he did when lecturing in front of a class, “It also confirms my suspicion that Oran isn't dead. In fact, I think he's been with Garent for, well, for some time, at the least."

Lauren nodded, "Have you noticed the necklace that Garent wears? His father's spirit is in there. Garent visited me a few months ago and I spoke with him then. He said that he was trapped in one of the Circle of Thorn's soul gems and Garent got him out. Whoever wears the necklace can speak with him."

"I see..." Alex frowned and turned to Sofia. "After the fight with Yogi, the scanner distinctly picked up two spirits flying away. Could that have freed Oran and gotten them started on this crazy scheme?"

"I wouldn't know for sure, but that certainly seems to make sense. How much easier things are when your own energy-being relative is a rational sort of fellow..." Sofia couldn't resist winking, then turned back to Lauren. "The two of us have some experience dealing with this sort of thing; as an amusing coincidence, it is perhaps lucky that we are here, and not anybody else. If the two had gone - either as energy beings, or as flesh, into the father's dimension... We need to know where he came from in order to track them down."

Lauren breathed in and steadied herself, "I wish I knew. Before a few months ago I didn't even know my husband was from out of town."

Sofia and Sasha sighed simultaneously. "A dead end, there. We now know where he went - and confirmed that he went there of his own volition - but don't know where that is. The multiverse is a very big place." Alex knuckled his forehead. "I guess that leaves Yogi. Or perhaps Mandragora."

"Oy."

"He said he was following the spirits before..." He shrugged. "If he didn't find them then, he might be able to now that they're no longer wandering."

Sofia shook her head. "Still oy."

"Isn't Portal Corp supposed to help out with things like this?" Lauren suggested. Sofia waited for the explosion; her husband’s opinion of the research corporation went from bad to worse, the more he interacted with them. It came, perhaps, from an innate reluctance of the company to employ… well… unreliable foreigners, but they treated Alexander as though he had no brains, and little ability, all of which lay in getting clear, very simple instructions. He could not help but resent that. If they had dealings with Portal Corps, it would have to be either herself, or Aleksander, to initiate them.

"Bah!" Sasha exclaimed. "Those bureaucrats!? You're better off without them. For one, they either explore randomly, or follow known coordinates, so they don't really have a way to search for someone; for two, well, we have our own working portal system. With a search algorithm."

"The Physicist hath spoken," Sofia chuckled. Sasha glared.

"Regardless..." Sasha sighed. "Without any known facts about his dimension, I have nothing to look for." In the case of their own notable excursion, he had help from the other side, as well as a specific point set in time.

"Garent told me that everyone in his father's dimension can use magic like he can.” Lauren carefully folded the email, and gently put it away, “He went there once before, but I don't know how."

"His magic is unique, as far as anybody who understands these things can tell us or knows. Most of the mystics we deal with don't even register Garent as having any magical abilities whatsoever." He grumbled. "I hate magic."

"Quite." Sofia sighed. "And we are, essentially, back to where we started. Albeit with more information confirmed. Which is a good thing, as much as these things go. I suppose if Yogi can find Garent, we can sic Aleksander after him..." Sofia looked the haggard, worried face of Lauren Ward over carefully and made a mental note to curb Alex's jokes. "I can't really promise much," she said thoughtfully, "but we'll do our best. If we're lucky, and can talk to the right people, we will find him for you. I will, personally, beat him over the head with a stick."

"She's not kidding." Alex rubbed the top of his head.

Lauren smiled at them as best she could, "Thanks. Really, thank you."

"Are we quite done here, Alexander?"

"I think so, yes." Alex reached into the pocket of his jacket and fished out a small object, placing it on the table. "My card, as they say here. If you think of anything else, just give us a call. We'll keep you updated if we find anything more."