Social Science 101

From the Story Arc: The Charge of the Labcoat Brigade

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

Next Story in the Arc: Social Science 102 by Krasniy Zakat (Monday, February 12, 2007)

(posted Sunday, February 11, 2007)

Social Science 101

Tuesday Night

Flashing lights, rhythmic yet melodically uninspired music, exotic mixed drinks, uncontrolled dancers…

This was the tavern-cum-dance club known as Pocket D, taking its name from its bizarre existence – a whim of musician with Godlike creative superpowers. This same super-powered deejay, known simply as DJ Zero, was also a whimsical humanitarian, having created this dimension as something of a social experiment; could the vigilante superheroes of Paragon City survive peacefully with their less scrupulous counterparts in the Rogue Isles, in a universe where it was literally impossible to fight?

This same peace-enforced experiment had worked, to an extant, and the Pocket D had become one of the few places where it was possible to sit and share a cup of tea with someone from across the sea, knowing that the very next day – in fact, even the day before - you and that same person had traded dangerous blasts of gunfire and energy, with intent to kill.

Aleksander kept expecting to find a small lake and ducks, waiting for breadcrumbs from men meeting in dark trench coats and old duster hats. At the least, he was expecting to meet these Yogi or Horatio people that his alternate had instructed him to find. So far, several people had already arrived for the usual hobnob and socializing, but the two goals of his and Sofia’s search had remained unfulfilled.

He turned to his wife and gave her a shrug, but noticed that she was already in conversation with a villain known as Apobiosis – Alex’s notes listed him as a person of interest: a microbiologist of some sort with what the Sofias had mutually come to call ‘Mad Scientist Disease’. This made him a possible inventor – or collaborator – in creation of the virus, besides Doctor Horatio Foxglove; Alex and his Sofia had ruled out Horatio from their list by saying that it “wasn’t his style”, but Aleksander wasn’t so sure.

Aleksander left an “ear” open by tweaking the recorders inside his robotic head to tune specifically to their voice patterns and moved on, hoping to find the real targets.

A small light bulb went off when he saw a tall woman that he recognized from the same notes, the hero Mandragora. Alex hadn’t known much about her: she was a strong mystic type – Aleksander couldn’t get over the concept of magic working in this dimension – and was, in fact, one of the two main people that every person in the RPC took their magical worries to. The other, Victoria, he had met several times by now; the first time he saw her, she was wielding a rather large rocket launcher, and certainly didn’t seem like a sorceress.

The thought caused Aleksander to look around the oddly lit room quickly; if someone well acquainted with him like her showed up, his cover would be blown. Nobody beyond Althea, Aleksander, Alex, and the two Sofias knew that the dimensionally native Rabinoviches were actually in Moscow this very moment, and that the two “intruder” Rabinoviches were taking their place while they were gone. As such, he and Sofia had to pretend that they were the “real” Alex and Sofia.

Luckily, Alex said that he had never met Mandragora, except perhaps in passing. She wouldn’t know any better... He hoped.

“Ah, Mandragora!” He shouted across the din, trying to mimic his other self’s English. Luckily, in the many months since they arrived in this dimension, they had spent a great deal of time with their other selves and could pass for each other upon any cursory inspection. “When you have a few moments, I need to speak with you in private.”

“Alexander, is it?” The tall woman tilted her head to one side. For a brief moment, Aleksander worried that she noticed the deception, but that passed as she continued. “I have nothing going on at the moment, if you do want to talk.” The pair took a step to one side.

“It is a small thing I wish to discuss with you: Garent.” Does Sasha always talk so bluntly and using sentence structures normally reserved for writing? He thought to himself. In his experience, this had always been true, but for some reason, he couldn’t help but doubt himself now.

“A small thing, you say. What do you wish to know?”

“In a word? Everything.” He gave her one of Alex’s smirks. It felt odd, giving it, instead of wanting to smack it off. “I have been on his trail for a few weeks now and I'm getting close, but there is still a thing or two missing. I'm at the point where I can guess what the puzzle is supposed to look like, but I can't finish it.”

“I can offer some observations,” she replied, “but Garent and I never truly worked together for any length of time. I'm sure you're aware of Garent's affinity for water - that he had a kind of hyper-awareness linked to it.”

“Quite aware.” Was it supposed to be this easy? Just ask a question and everyone tells you what you want to know? “Apparently, everybody in the dimension his father is from has the same powers.”

“At one point,” she continued, not seeming to pay attention to his interjection, “Rory Hartlan, Tobias, Garent and I were in a discussion. Garent was in need of an object to ‘protect his soul’, and I provided that object. This was several months ago, most assuredly prior to Garent's loss of his ability with water.”

“Yes, this I was also aware of.” Also aware of? Aleksander cursed mentally to himself. He never could get a handle on English’s dislike of repeating words. “Do you know anything about that, though? From what I witnessed, this loss had to do with the mystic, Yogi.” First name only. Yogi. That’s what Alex always calls him.

“I do not know the exact manner in which Yogi accomplished it,” she answered immediately, quelling any hopes on that front of the War of the Mystery of Garent, “but from my observations he did either copy or steal Garent's hyper-sense. Garent suspected as much, and asked for my assistance. I told him the best way for me to do it was for him to bring me some of Yogi’s blood - that being the most effective link to the man.”

Aleksander nodded without thinking, caught himself, then continued nodding after deciding that it was the appropriate thing to do. “Explains Garent's insistence on fighting Yogi in the Arena.”

“Magic operates under certain rules.” Aleksander scoffed inwardly at this. If there were strict rules, then it would not be magic, but science. “In this case, the Law of Contagion was the best option. Ask Vickie for the details, but essentially a thing that has been in contact with another thing remains in contact with it. I performed a ritual to break whatever spell Yogi used to take Garent's hyper-awareness. Shortly after that, Garent disappeared. Or at least, I lost track of him.”

“I already have spoken with her about it.” He replied, amused. Technically, the other Alex had spoken with her, but that was just semantics. They were practically one mind on most matters and kept each other fully informed. So far, Mandragora had not really given him anything new… But that didn’t mean there wasn’t something more. It just took some subtle prompting: “Really, there isn't much you've said that I didn't already hear from other sources;” – he winced inwardly; Subtle, Aleksander! Subtle! - “but hearing another perspective is helpful in confirmation and clarity. I'm hoping that some minor detail I'm missing will appear and break the case, so to speak.”

She paused a moment, obviously in thought. Either looking for something important, or deciding whether it was safe to tell him or no, he surmised. Once again, his worries over being found out returned.

“I believe the object I retrieved for Garent was intended to hold the essence of his father,” she said, eventually.

“That hypothesis is correct,” he replied automatically, instantly regretting the phrase. Way too robotic, and might clue a suspicious someone into checking to see that he was not, actually, an organic being. He quickly recovered: “To put a long story short, I believe that your work with Garent created some kind of connection between the two of you, and I'm hoping that you can help me with the missing piece of this puzzle.”

Was it Victoria that had actually suggested that, or was it Shrike? Aleksander wondered. He doubted that Alex would have such a grasp of magic, Tolkien aside.

“Hmmm...” She furrowed her brow. “Has anyone briefed you on my more esoteric abilities?”

“No. Actually, I know next to nothing about you.” Oy.

“As you said, long story short.” Good, thought Aleksander, the less talking, the less room for error. “I am the Avatar of an ancient Dragon, a merger between part of Her essence and a human being.”

“Another two-in-one?” He muttered aloud. In his dimension, he had been the only one – an energy being trapped in a robotic shell – but in this universe… On the other hand, he was the only occupant in his body – he wasn’t sharing. He shook his head, putting his mental train back on the right track. “Sorry, go on, go on.”

“One of the benefits of the merger,” she continued, “is that I have an extra sense - I perceive the world around me in the form of a tremendous Symphony. Everyone and everything has a unique sound, a portion of that Symphony.”

“Slightly disturbing,” came another automatic reply. Aleksander’s photonic neurons blazed as they tried to figure out what Alex would say to something like that. Given a record of Alex’s meetings with Victoria and his thoughts thereon, Aleksander decided there was only one choice: rationalize and play-along.

“But makes sense,” he hastily added. “The interconnectedness of all things is an undisputed part of physics.” He mentally wiped the nonexistent sweat off his brow and pressed on. “So could you use this to either find Garent, or tell me where he has been moments before he vanished? I have reason to believe he tried to go dimension hopping, and sadly, I have similar reason to think he left via magical means. Hence, beyond my analysis.”

“I can try...” She gave him a worried look. “But I won't guarantee anything. I will be back shortly.”

And just like that, she had gone.

He wasn’t expecting it to go so well, or so fast, and certainly not to end so abruptly. He liked people who were professional like that – not wasting time on pleasantries. He found more and more of that here in this dimension’s America; quite unlike the overwhelming bootlicking and politicking of the Internationale’s Russia, back in his old home. Hopefully, Mandragora would return quickly with the information.

But he still couldn’t get over the whole “magic actually works in this dimension” thing.

Sofia stepped into the D with great apprehension. Unlike her alternate, she was not a… superhero – she grimaced at the thought, fully understanding her twin’s distaste – and she could not be certain that this trait would not be somehow monitored for. At least Aleksander, slinking next to the wall at her side, could demonstrate if necessary. However, when she entered the club door, tugging at Sofia’s somewhat unfamiliar coat and high-necked sweatshirt, nobody tried to stop her, or otherwise hail her. In fact, from the back of the club someone had actually waved to her benevolently, and shouted her name.

Sofia had given her clear instructions of what to do or not to do: keep Aleksander in line, do not get drunk – as if any one of them would – act as you think I would act and for heaven’s sake, don’t get involved with Nazis! Sofia frowned at that, wondering which Nazis her twin had managed to find, here in the almost overly-tolerant U.S., but if she said to stay away from them, stay away from them Sofia would. Her twin went for a half hour longer, while the two newcomers drove their relatives to the airport belabouring the obvious and fretting. Sofia herself didn’t fret like that. Sofia also instructed her counterpart specifically to look for some people, whom they could only encounter in this one self-contained universe; seek them out, and see what they had to say. It was not Sofia’s job to play interrogator, just to listen. People, Sofia told her - yes yes, we got the point! - spilled an amazing amount of information just by being listened to.

She decided that people liked to be listened to by someone who was drinking, at least nominally, just as they did, and proceeded to rather awkwardly order tea at the bar. She cursed the awkwardness; Sofia did this every week, surely she would be used to it by now.

“Good evening, Sofia.” Oh, God, oh God… Somebody is already saying hi, and Sofia forgot to mention this lady… Sofia flinched inwardly as she tried to pin a name down to the slight dark-haired woman in a well-tailored government suit. Flinching, Sofia went for the terribly un-Sofiaish course of not recognizing her – as Aleksander was already immersed in something and, typically to both him and Alex – paying zero attention to a wife in trouble.

“Good evening, miss...?” she smiled, hoping that the smile said ‘I am very friendly, your name just slipped my mind for a second’. Luckily, forgetting a name was not really that odd a feat – thank God the small woman didn’t realize how odd it was for a Sofia - and rather than suspecting, she was embarrassed.

“Oh dear,” she murmured, leaning on the bar, “have we actually not been introduced? I feel awful for the presumption, then. Genevieve. Genevieve Martin.” The light dawned; just recently the other Sofia showed her an email, the content of which included a rather detailed file about some person named Young Victory – whom, her alternate said she would ‘tell Sofia about in great detail later, but stay away from her, too!’ – and it came from a government ISP, from this very name. Sofia’s smile became considerably more genuine.

“I’m afraid not,” she sighed, affecting nonchalance. “I know you, of course,” - Well, now I do - “but not your name. Pardon the awkwardness.” Argh! Sofia’s English was Americanized by now. Surely she wasn’t using language that sounded as if it came out of medieval Oxford, or, at the very best, Victorian Oxford. “Pleased to meet you, Genevieve.” Wince.

“Well, I will forgive the awkwardness, and you will forgive the familiarity, and all will be well,” smiled the small woman – smaller than Sofia even, a rarity, that. Americans were a tall people… It came from the hormones in the milk, or something – and Sofia relaxed, momentarily hiding her face behind the teacup to ease the tension.

It availed her nothing. Her ear caught immediately a fragment of conversation her husband was having with some other, unknown to her fellow, querying him about his “real” self.

“The hero is the Alter-Ego.” Aleksander was saying that with a slight smile. Sofia almost dived from his throat. “As in, when we go to sleep and in our thoughts, Sofia and I just think of ourselves as the Rabinoviches. Krasniy Zakat and Krasnaya Zarya are names we only use in extreme circumstances.” Oy!! The man was playing with fire. And that was, obviously, other Sofia’s purview. No joke, extreme circumstances… Sofia’s thoughts tried to focus on something a little more concrete, like, how to cause her non-corporeal husband a mass of pain when they left the place, but the other guy took it literally… well, figuratively, missing the double-innuendo entirely.

“I see, professor,” he murmured.

Sofia grinned at Genevieve in sheer relief. “Absolutely.” She said, willing to forgive the woman anything, so long as she took her at face value, “Did you already get a drink or are you still pondering?”

“Well, I had ordered some wine, but our erstwhile bartender has decided to dance instead of doing her job.” She tapped the bar loudly, calling the man’s attention. “So apparently not.” Sofia used the opportunity too look around again. The place was filing up considerably. Oddly shaped gigantic robots found a perch together with tiny, ethereal creatures, and some things... people… Sofia hesitated, then decided to adopt her alter’s attitude and simply take anything sentient as a ‘people’… Some people even had wings.

And look for any person in a lab coat. Highly developed Mad Science symptoms, a little bit of psychology and flattery, and they will tell you anything you want to know. Sofia had instructed her.

And there one was! Right beside Sofia, his face a shining example of self satisfied benevolence lounged a labcoated fellow whose face she couldn’t quite recognize. She turned to Aleksander beseechingly; the situation was ironic. Before his… disintegration, Sofia was the one of them to have a nigh onto eidetic memory for information that Aleksander always let slip out of his mind… Obviously, the situation with the other Rabinoviches was still the same. But her Aleksander could no longer forget, and so he now inevitably took up her own former role of ‘remind me, please’.

“Apobiosis.” Murmured Aleksander’s whisper in her tiny receiver, “Watch out for, and try to make talkative.”

Well, Sofia couldn’t precisely offer for the man to go feed the ducks with her – for lack of ducks, which her alternate pitied too; they would be quite domesticated – but she could strike up a conversation. She appropriated herself a cup of tea and smiled over at the man. Immediately, she realized she had no idea whether or not Sofia knew his first name… the smile slipped a little, then readjusted itself. She turned around and smiled at the man. “Hello there.” Instead of a response, Apobiosis gave her a smarmy smirk.

Sofia’s sensors were on instant guard. Mad Scientist disease was, in part, a matter of arrogance, she and Sofia concluded long since. When Alexander – or Aleksander – looked like that, the Sofias knew they had to run for their lives, because yet another kitchen appliance had just gained an AI. Or a rift in space-time was about to destroy the universe – completely by accident. In any case, that smirk required examination. Sofia arched an eyebrow and tilted her head, getting ready to play cat and mouse – or fish and fishing rod – with the fellow. “You look awfully smug today. Something new come up among your lab rats?”

Aleksander, in the meantime, left her side to talk to a tall woman about something. “Ah, Madragora!” he called through the hubbub and the awfully music in the room. Sofia recollected the name and shook her head – she couldn’t get over the ‘magic works in this dimension’ thing… The two stepped aside quietly, but Sofia could still see Aleksander’s face. In no more than five minutes, he was smirking broadly, irritating Sofia no end. Here is that smirk again she sighed. They both do it! All the time! And I doubt they even notice the splinter in their own eye, while seeing the stumps in the eye of the other.

She would bet that he was using sentences that sounded as if they were written, too!

Apobiosis – whose first name, David, she finally managed to scrape from the folds of her aching, overworked memory – was still lounging at her side, looking intensely bored. Sofia decided to poke a little further. “You’ve been awfully quiet this evening, David.”

“Meh,” the scientist waved a hand negligently, “all the women in this place I either already had a shot at, or I can tell just by looking that it wouldn’t work.”

Have a shot at? Sofia frowned. She thought that by the end of nearly half a year, she would be well-adjusted to the American slang, and quite capable of coping with anything that it decided to try her with… Sadly, that was not the case. This one, for example, eluded her. She decided to take the expression at face value, and run with it, hoping to god Sofia would have done the same. Let’s play Free Associations. “Is your mere presence that infectious, then?”

“Hm?” David blinked, “Infectious? That's an interesting choice of words.” He looked deeply concerned, and considered something for a long while. “You're hinting as something aren't you? Is something wrong in the city?”

“Not at all,” Sofia noted, trying to alleviate his suspicions while not losing track of the conversation’s direction, and grinned at her own pun, “I was just needling you.”

“As you wish…” the man smirked again, and Sofia’s already alert sensors pinged again. It was tine to let Aleksander take over for her… especially since several people were already chatting about the spreading virus. Which was bound to snag the microbiologist’s attention. “A virus!” he exclaimed - Bingo! thought Sofia with amusement – “Sofia, you told me nothing was going on!”

In fact, she told him she was not hinting at anything, but his attention had already wandered off somewhere to the conversations dealing with, and pertaining to, said virus. Conveniently Aleksander materialized next to her at that very moment. She caught his eye and cast a glance at David, subvocalizing ‘snag him’, knowing that Aleksander’s fine-tuned robot ears would catch the phrase as soon as it was spoken, and that he was probably following their conversation to one extent or another in the first place. ‘How did it go with Mandragora?’

“I told her I know next to nothing about her,” Aleksandr muttered in a low voice, pained.

“The two of you are so subtle and charming…” Sofia whispered in response. Aleksander’s brows climbed up.

“Soon you’ll tell me I also smirk in that annoying way…”

Sofia buried her face in her hands. “Just go talk to our Mad Microbiologist. He’s bursting with a secret, and with curiosity. Satisfy him and get what he needs. Besides, the less you talk with one person at a time, the better.”

“Oh, yes,” murmured Aleksander fervently. “Oh, yes…”