Decision Theory

From the Story Arc: The Charge of the Labcoat Brigade

Previous Story in the Arc: Combat Medicine by Krasniy Zakat (Monday, February 19, 2007)

Next Story in the Arc: Basic Onomastics by Krasnaya Zarya (Friday, March 02, 2007)

(posted Monday, February 26, 2007)

((Co-authored by Vickie and Shrike))

Monday Evening

Everything was going to hell in a handbasket.

That was the term the Americans themselves used for it, and while Sofia tended to go look for the basket - as well as ask herself how a metaphor could get so badly out of hand - she applied it to this situation quite effectively. The image of marching baskets stayed in her head continually during the eternal, never-ending barrages of offense, spite and petty annoyances that were continually thrown at her and Alexander.

Perhaps the handbasket was there in order to collect the good intentions?

She found herself brooding about it; in her office, staring aimlessly at linguistics books that suddenly felt too heavy, out in the street, strolling along between the not-particularly-happy throngs of ordinary people, and, in this case, at home moving furniture. The reshuffling was necessary, as neither of the Sofias was particularly eager for their books - some of them not mere paperbacks, and quite a few of them signed by the author - to be damaged by anyone's spikes. Specifically, Sharpe's spikes. Yet, in a perhaps stubborn and narrow-minded manner, Sofia refused to back down on her principles even in such a simple matter of where they would hold the planning meeting scheduled for this evening. Her principles said that all her friends were welcome to her house, and, by God, if someone was her friend, then to her house he would come. She would not refuse anyone her hospitality based on spikes, height or other inconvenient factors.

At least Vickie could be trusted not to demolish her furniture, though she wasn't sure what else she could be trusted for. To get them out alive, probably; Vickie was not known as spiteful, certainly not to such a degree of criminal negligence. Sofia could assume that, despite the current row the Rabinoviches had with the CCCP, even assuming - as they now were - that they would step out, Vickie could be trusted not to purposefully feed them to a demon, even if she wanted to. Want they could deal with.

Alter-Sofia, who was slicing lemons for lemonade, stared out the kitchen window, "I see something big and looming walking down the street. Did you remember to jam a rock under the entrance door? If Sharpe loiters in front of the intercom, your neighbours might have a case of mass panic attack."

"They already do every day a Behemoth decides to munch on their grass," Sofia noted dryly while pushing one end of the kitchen table next to the wall. "Except Mrs. Keith, who gets murderous over her petunias and then wonders why she gets kidnapped by the Circle. But yes, I did remember."

"Good; we wouldn't want to pull Amanda out in fear for her flowers." Her alternate was, as usual, an annoying git, unable to take anything seriously.

Sofia just sighed.

Six people crowding the Rabinoviches' little kitchen filled it quite to the brim. It did not help that one of these people - or, to be more precise, two of these people - was so tall the top of his head scraped little flakes of paint off the ceiling, and he huddled in the corner rather uncomfortably, keeping away from the glass and porcelain in the kitchen cabinets. Nor did it help the feeling of spaciousness that four of the people sitting around the table stared at their guests from two identical sets of eyes.

Aleksander, no longer forced to play Alex, had gotten rid of his faux ponytail, and had returned to the somewhat shaggy haircut that he - and Alex as a younger man - had sported previously. With the little distraction of the hair gone, one could see that this Aleksander looked younger, and lacked his twin's little traces of severe chronic illness. The two Sofias, lacking makeup, sported the opposite trend. Put side by side the differences were there to be observed by the keen eye... but even so the two identical pairs - up to their very fingerprints and retinal scans - were quite confusing.

The tiny Vickie, who was now perched protectively close to the home-made lemonade and tea stuff, was not confused much. She had seen the four Rabinoviches together before and besides her moans of 'four of them, I can't do four of them', her demeanour was matter-of-fact enough to satisfy both the Sofias.

Sharpe, too, was surprisingly moderate. It was a little difficult to tell whether or not he was actually surprised, behind - or due to - the emotionless armour, but except for a brief headshake at the sight of the four gassembled Rabinoviches, there was no particular exclamations of surprise or terror. "Perspective thing I guess." Sharpe's echoing voice from the vocalizer, unusually loud in the small space, was his only remark on the duplication. "I thought Shrike was showing me some things out of order. Makes more sense now."

"So, the lot of you," Vickie waved a generic hand to the Rabinoviches that seemed to be running this communal show, "what's the deal?"

"We are convinced that we have found our lost sheep." Sofia seemed quite sorry for lack of impressive tactical maps to spread on the table, or something. The dramatic announcement of the cunning detective, who had, for weeks, homed in on his prey, was not happening the way she had expected it. It seemed almost a matter of course that they should arrive with a solution in their outstretched hands, as if anything they'd ever done - from finding each other in the confusing reality of a dystopic universe to procuring a cure for the rampant virus - had been easy. The fact that they did not complain, didn't mean no efforts were involved. The Rabinoviches, by virtue of not being prophets, could scarcely pull miracles out of their hats, no matter how it looked.

"Really? And where is our little innocent lamb?" Vickie inquired sarcastically. Then, somewhat less sarcastically. "what precisely do we know?"

Sofia rose to her feet, and carefully closed the still open kitchen window. The air outside was mellow, and the presence of so many people in a tiny space, together with an oven and a humming fridge, was bound to make the entirety of the assembly except for the inorganic fellows quite uncomfortable. Secrecy, however, took clear precedence over comfort. The other Sofia took out a small object from the cabinet behind her back, and placed it squarely in the middle of the table. The little magical gadget, usually well out of sight, was one that Vickie would readily recognize; she was the one who gave it to the Rabinoviches as a means of ensuing that no magical listener could ever become an unwelcome partisan in the sensitive discussions their house tended to accommodate.

Alex - ponytail prominently displayed for identification purposes - flipped open his PDA, keying in to the more conventional defenses of the household. Somewhere in the ceiling and walls little custom-built sensors started doing their job, and Sofia - with her uncanny ears - could hear the low hum the walls now emitted. They were as secure as any place was likely to get, and ready to begin. Alex sat down again, and switched to lecture-mode.

"Well, a long time ago in a dimension far, far away, for reasons unknown to us, one Oran Ward left his home dimension and arrived here, claiming status as a dimensional refugee." Alex nodded to Victoria. She knew this part, but Shrike had not been filled in yet. "He got married to a woman named Lauren and had a son, our dear friend Garent. About twenty years ago, he up and vanished, returning to his home dimension; or so he tried. Somehow, he got separated from his body and wound up haunting his dear son, who inherited the strange magic powers that are common on his home dimension."

"Wow," Vickie blinked, caught off-guard by the aloof professor's ability to reference American pop-culture, "You talk normal when you lecture!"

The local Sofia, who unlike her counterpart had the opportunity to teach for several long years in university, smirked. "We may have gotten the scariest teacher award," she announced proudly, "but I will eat my nonexistent nice straw hat if a student tells me I am uninteresting. Continue, Sasha; do."

"Fast forward to the last year or so, when Garent has Mandragora craft him a little amulet to store his father's wayward soul, at which point, they start having long heart-to-essence father-son chats." He paused a moment to take a sip from his glass of lemonade. "A month ago, for reasons that are unknown to us - either due to longing for a home he never knew or to finish some unfinished business of his father's-"

"Or maybe both," one of the Sofias murmured.

"-he decided to take a trip courtesy of our good friends at Portal Corp."

Vickie groaned. "What is it with you people? You can't just stick around in this world, and I always get dragged along in the end."

"Hey," Sofia grinned, "at least we're telling you beforehand this time."

"If only Garent had given us the same courtesy…" Sharpe muttered from his corner.

"He did tell little old mom out in rural America, after a fashion," Alex corrected, "but that's it."

"So we're gearing up to visit Garent's home, then?" The Rabinoviches could already see Victoria plotting out the logistics of the trip. Sometime within the next half hour she'd already have the payload planned out for each of them.

"If only it was that straightforward," Aleksander replied. "He and the JTF kid, Tobias, were portal hopping at the same time and somehow smashed into each other, causing them to be drawn into a different universe than either of their intended locations. This was, apparently, caused by an unknown entity purposefully drawing the pair of them to its dimension."

"So we could be going to an immediately hostile dimension," Shrike chimed in, then tilted its head to one side a moment. "Curious, Tobias, Target?"

All four Rabinoviches quieted, staring at him incredulously. Not because of the odd talking style - Alex got a kick out of mimicking it and Sofia was working on finding a decent translator. "Um…" The alter-Sofia said timidly, "we didn't really think of that."

"Regardless," Alex shook his head, "it doesn't really matter whether the trap was for Garent or for Tobias - Garent was caught and that has led us here. The fact that Tobias was also caught simply gives us more reason to interfere and rescue the lot of them - assuming they need rescuing, of course."

Victoria nodded. "So it's just the lot of us, then?"

"On this team, yes," Alex replied, grinning at their response to the emphasized word. "Mandragora has been let in on the whole plan and is in-charge of heading a team to rescue us if it all goes bad. She is the only other person we've told; I can't be certain she's the only other one who knows…"

"'A secret among three people is not a secret'," Aleksander quoted. "Misguided by religion they may have been, the Rabbis of two thousand years ago were hardly unwise."

"Exactly." Alex had been thinking the exact same thing. Uncanny, how similar the duplicates could be. "I'd prefer to keep this as quiet as possible, regardless; since Garent left of his own volition and did not tell anyone, I suspect he would like this kept quiet. Mandragora will be taking Murdock with her on the rescue team, but beyond that, I don't know who else."

Including Murdock had been something of a contentious issue amongst the planning. Recent butting of heads between them and the Commissar nearly excluded him from the rescue, too, but they were not so foolish as to let their feelings get in the way of efficiency; they still want Murdock involved in the backup team, but couldn't risk having him involved in the planning phases. There was too much involved for things to get halted because the Commissar had delusions of leadership.

Mandragora had agreed to inform Murdock instead of them and Alex was quite happy that he wouldn't have to deal with him directly in this. After Garent was rescued, he could afford the argument. Not before.

"Mandragora's orders are simple." Alex smirked. He'd been waiting for an opportunity to brag over his latest invention. "After my last misadventures in portal hopping, I've been working on a nice little 'ping' setup. With a large apparatus attached to the portal, I can send regular signals and small messages back. Given the massive energy requirements, it must be very small - a couple characters. So I figure I'll just send back an 'OK' every day or so. A week without somebody returning, or three days without an 'OK', and she moves in." He grinned at Vickie. "I never make the same mistake twice."

“You just make entertaining new ones,” his Sofia murmured very quietly from her corner.

"In addition," Aleksander chimed in, seeing that Victoria wasn't satisfied with the safeguard, "we've sealed up all our notes and plans in a file, which will be readily available once we've left. That should make absolutely certain that anybody wanting to track us down will be able to do so."

Sofia snorted. "So long as they actually bother to look."

"So that's where we're at," Alex concluded, clearing his throat. "We pop into the dimension, rescue Garent, and leave. Hopefully the safeguards I've put in place will be enough to get Mandragora and Murdock's team enough info to come to our own rescue, if we need it."

"And hopefully," Sofia sighed, reaching for some more lemonade, "Garent doesn't need actual rescuing. For which instance I'm bringing this."

"What is that?" Aleksander peered, confused, at the package Sofia had in her lap.

"It's the equivalent of Vickie's rocket launcher," the Other Sofia explained blandly, "It's called a dictionary."

The community sat quiet and confused.

"I think a demonstration is due," one Sofia muttered to the other under her breath. She snared the book out of the other woman's lap, and promptly hit her over the head with it, hard.

"Ow!" Sofia ducked, blinking off unexpected tears of sudden sharp pain. "What the-!"

"That, my dear sister," the other woman smirked, "is for the carp. Everybody gets the idea now?" The populace, especially the two husbands, nodded warily. Sofia put aside the dictionary and the other Sofia - bruised but hardly beaten - gauging the territory safe again by some invisible signs in her duplicate's demeanour returned to her almost painfully erect seat besides her twin. Eyebrows in the audience, especially the unenlightened Vickie and Sharpe, were quirked questioningly, but none of the Rabinoviches explained, for some reason. Perhaps if Vickie were smart enough to ask a suddenly-family-possessing Thea about what precisely went on between the four doctors and herself, she would hear the tale… but not from them. That was family business.

"You know, I am beginning to feel about Portals the way Indiana Jones feels about snakes," Vickie sighed. "Right. Garent's magic doesn't work like mine. This means mine might not work in this dimension or parallel world, or whatever the hell it is. It should, since his works here, but in case it doesn't, I become a standard medic and bullet-tosser. Will that suffice?"

"We seem to have an abundance of those," alter-Sofia noted dryly, examining the palms of her not-fire-scorched hands. "I'm pretty certain you won't get an objection from either of me."

"Nor from us," both Sashas said simultaneously. Alex continued, "To be honest, we are wanting you with us more on the hopes that your magic will work... But even if it doesn't, you know enough about magic in general that you can help us with any other mystic garbage we encounter there."

"That's true. The theory is generally the same even if the mechanism is different..."

Two identical light eyebrows arched simultaneously. "That sounds suspiciously like physics..." and one of the Sofias - most people could no longer keep them apart, but presumably the local - continued "You're slipping, Vickie. A good mage is not supposed to make sense."

Vickie got very quiet for a moment, swirling her lemonade glass thoughtfully with one hand, making it stand in arches that formed weird, fancy patterns when she wasn't paying attention. "Gunpowder might not work either. I know, I know," she waved a hand as four pairs of eyes stabbed her on the bridge of the nose, "it sounds illogical but there are places out there, rare, but they exist, where it doesn't. So who besides me can swing a sword?" She looked around. "Anyone?"

"We can do a relatively good impression of a sword." Sharpe said very hesitantly from his corner. "Or a suit of armor… Both, really."

"OK." Vickie's mouth quirked at that very just remark, "If the fit hits the shan, Sharpe, you be the meat-shield and I'll be the sticky-poker." She smiled suddenly, a very bright and even happy smile. "Haven't been allowed to do that in way, way too long. Not that I want it but... let's just say that's what my very first training was and I kinda miss it." She shook her head and moved on to the actual tactics phase of the planning session. "After the crossing, step one should be to gather Intel." Vickie looked around the table. "We got plans for that? If my magic works, there are a couple things I can do. I can do something called 'scrying,' and it's possible I can 'borrow' the eyes and ears of a native critter to go do my snooping for me." She raised an eyebrow at Sasha, as if to say And there's your clue, Brainiac. That's how I keep an eye on you people.

"Unlike Granny Weatherwax here," Alex rolled his eyes, absolutely forcing a spot to reference his favourite magic - in fact, his only condoned magic - that of fantasy novels, "we have to do things the hard way. By actually walking around."

"Ahem," said Aleksander sourly.

Alex ignored him and continued: "Luckily, the coordinates I got from Mandragora should put us near Garent. Or, at least, at his known spot of arrival." He sighed. "I'm fairly certain that somebody on that world operated something like Aleksander's portal anchor to pull him there. If it pulled him, why not us?"

"Ahem..." Aleksander had an unusual coughing fit.

"Where Garent had gone from there," Sofia shrugged, automatically smacking the absolutely unconcerned Aleksander on the back, "is a little hard to say. I wound up in a mere few kilometers' radius. Someone else might easily have crossed the continents, depending on how good their transportation is."

"If Garent had been like a normal person and left bits of himself behind, I could trace him once we were on the other side," grumbled Vickie. "He didn't leave so much as a dandruff flake."

"Yes, that whole connection business..." Aleksander furrowed his brows demonstratively. "Mandragora was able to find him because that necklace she had made for him created such a connection between them. Is it possible for her to share that connection with you in some way?"

"Worth a shot. Hmm. Something else is worth a shot too. Get a sample from his mother and I might be able to work through that. That gives us two possible ways to find him."

"Or we find the alternate version of his mother," Sofia grinned. "And perhaps the alternates will even be helpful, for a change." Sofia glanced around the table where two sets of very familiar eyes glared balefully at her in return. She smirked at Aleksander and edged away from the dictionary-wielding alternate self murmuring innocently, "On second thought, maybe it is not such a good idea after all..." immediately proceeding to demonstrate her point by fleeing from the heavy dictionary to the other side of the kitchen "Anybody want dinner?"

"Food and mages go together like tea and mages. We're always hungry. Except since I can't cook, I'm always hungry and always eating take-away." Vickie looked hopeful.

"So what'll it be," Alex snickered, "baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, fried potatoes... Probably with some kind of tuna salad on the side..." This was a long joke between them; Sofia always tried to get out of the hard cooking work by making something easy. Usually potatoes. However, even Alex had to admit that Sofia tended to overextend herself for the benefit of guests.

"We were thinking fish," the Sofia still at table smirked back, "but somebody lost us two carp. So we have potato latkes, instead." The other Sofia was desperately reaching into a cupboard, standing precariously on her toes. The Rabinoviches, being something of a small family, kept half their dishes at the top of the higher kitchen cupboards, in a space that would, under normal circumstances, be wasted. By virtue of having guests, most of whom would and could eat, they suddenly discovered themselves at a loss for plates, cups and platters. The short Sofia was struggling all day, with Alex and Aleksander conveniently away in their lab, and out of reach of the women's tendency to call upon their long arms.

Vickie looked blissful. "Comfort food. I should have been born Jewish."

"Does weird things to your magic," the original Sofia returned carrying a large plate stocked with potato latkes and a dish of sour cream. Her fingers bristled with forks. Setting the entire assembly on the table in front of the ravenous gang – those of them who were actually organic, anyway – and distributing utensils. "So I take it our plan is, basically, go there and then improvise? Alex?"

"Pretty much." He used his fork to grab a glob of sour cream from the container and plop it on his plate for dipping. "The whole point of this team is that it is full of people who are very good at improvising." Sofia looked mildly doubtful.

"Oh I would modify that." Vickie waited with relative politeness before helping herself. "Go there, figure out what works, then start gathering information. In the absence of information there's not much we can actually plan for. And... oh dear god, Sofia, these are good... once we know what works we'll know the best way to start gathering information."

"You know what would be hilarious?" Sofia sighed, scratching absently at her slowly disintegrating ponytail. "We go there, and they all speak some crazy language we have no clue what to make out of. We keep assuming that they all speak English. Or Russian. Or French. Or Hebrew. Or Germ..." she stopped at a painful jab on her ankle from a sharp-nosed feminine shoe and coughed with embarrassment, "you get the point."

"Ah, now I have a trick for that assuming the magic works. Mind you it requires that someone in the group be a linguist..." Vickie dipped a bite in sour cream. "...and be willing to have a transfer spell cast on her."

"Which means?" Alternate Sofia frowned.

"Which means that if you ever teach her a course," Sofia grumbled, "she will cheat, and there's no university law you can call her in on! I will take you up on that, consumer of latkes... But why a linguist? You'd think you'd just need a person. Any person."

"For an earth language using earth logic yes. Even then it can be tricky. For instance, if I were to cast a transfer spell, English to German on a German, inverted his word order would be, and talking like Yoda he would."

The Sofias cast one glance at each other, then dived together for a napkin, mopping tears of hilarity and malicious glee from their eyes.

"A linguist has the brain wiring to make sense of different patterns of speech, you're already familiar with a fair number of them. Plus, by listening, within a few hours you'll have your pattern set and not have to think about it. If it is a really insane sort of language it might take you a while to sort it out, but it would drive the rest of us mad before we could. I'd say for something quite out of the realm of anything I know of, maybe a day or two."

"Confusion, linguistic, understandable," Shrike chimed in from his corner.

The two Sofias covered their faces again, shaking in the spasm of ever louder howls.

"As amusing as this all is," Aleksander cut in, "we need to finish this up. I don't want to arrive to find out Garent just died or something."

"Good point." Vickie wiped the plate clean of sour cream with the last bite of latke and popped it into her mouth. "When can we go?"

"I suggest we take the night to assemble equipment, and have Aleksander start working on the portal setup. Tomorrow early morning," Sofia grimaced with distaste, "we'll be on our way."

"Gimme a weight limit, Sasha, and assume I am taking care of arming all of us." Vickie eyed them all speculatively, obviously gauging how many kilograms of lead, gunpowder and firepower each could potentially carry. Alex snickered inwardly.

Half an hour…