Basic Onomastics

From the Story Arc: The Charge of the Labcoat Brigade

Previous Story in the Arc: Decision Theory by Krasniy Zakat (Monday, February 26, 2007)

Next Story in the Arc: The Problem of Induction by Krasniy Zakat (Monday, March 12, 2007)

(posted Friday, March 02, 2007)

Tuesday Morning

The dawn had barely broken over the flat, grey rooftops of Founder’s Falls when Sofia dragged a sack of equipment from the trunk of her car into the underground laboratory her husband conveniently occupied. It was a grey and lonely day, the light was weak and struggling through bunches of clouds that threatened – and never delivered – pouring rain. When the pale, indifferent sun came out for a moment from among the obscuring curtain it hit a dry and dusty pavement and lit on fire little shards of glass someone had scattered about and forgot to clean the previous evening.

She parked her car with one side squarely on the pavement, and struggled down one of the narrow, Venetial alleys alongside the empty, sleepy canal. Then into an innocuous door of a regular office building, hidden behind a small front garden with a large, ugly statue of some goddess, or angel, or winged man-bird. The sculptor’s efforts clearly were ambitious, and, just as clearly, failed miserably. Sofia compassionately anointed the atrocity ‘Artist’s Hope’, and was contemplating putting up a plaque dedicated to ‘those who fell upon the altar of bad art’.

Behind the grey doors was a long corridor which – after her misadventure earlier in the year – Sofia still called the Styx. It was dark, and was specifically built in order to discourage impromptu visitors. Alexander and she never went to the effort of beautifying the place from its past intentional squalor precisely because of the same reason Crey kept it in such a dilapidated state in the first place; secrecy was above presentation. There was the sound of a trickle of water along one of the walls, and, when Sofia lit the dim light bulb she insisted Sasha put up by the entrance – for people not to break their ankles – she could see the motley grey spots of mould from the constant humidity. That was fine; it was all part of the image. Sofia found the only door out of the Styx corridor and pressed her palm to the handle.

The elevator whirred to life, and three seconds later Sofia stepped out onto the gleaming and immaculate floor of the underground lab.

To be welcomed by a sinister flash of purple and white that sent her reeling back towards the steel doors of the elevator, shielding her eyes. The inverted afterimage of the swirling patterns floated across her eyelids and a sharp pain in her left temple reminded her quite sharply that she was severely prone to migraines and that – unless she wanted to sit back and watch the rest of the group have their interdimensional fun – this was not a good time to catch one.

An Alexander was cursing in the background in the habitual Rabinovich fashion which involved long, flowery epithets that were quite fit to the ears of innocent children – but would put on edge the hairs of any adult. Unable, in the aftershock of pain and surprise, to tell which one of the men was doing all the cursing, Sofia put a hand out warily and slowly advanced, blind.

“Guys…” she called out hesitantly into the crackling, hissing background. “What’s going on?”

“The devilish portal snagged!” one of the men – Sofia still couldn’t tell which one, or whether the same one or not (the cursing having, for some reason, stopped abruptly) – grumbled. “Which one of you is this?”

That nabbed it. Aleksander. But she would bet her hand that it was Alex who was expressing himself creatively before, and was now searching for a good nook to hide in. “I’m the one your ersatz double sent for his random disassembled crap half an hour ago,” Sofia snapped, rubbing her eyes and finally peeling a lid open. “Which I’ve got. Whose fault was this?”

“His!” both Alexanders yelled at the same time. Then almost involuntarily laughed.

“Okay, I get the picture,” Sofia, more secure in the knowledge that her males while incautious in only each other’s company generally tended to be fairly considerate of the headaches of other people, finally opened the second eye and surveyed the results of the last photonic explosion. Alex, still rubbing his eyes with one hand, was already back at his knobby and buttony console, furiously typing away. Aleksander, ever unperturbed, was doing something with a screwdriver at the bottom of the still-crackling portal, disregarding any notion of safety. He was already muttering to himself softly, shifting the tiny piece of equipment this way and that. The robotic hands, while generally more than sufficient for any task, sometimes had trouble with the small, fine motor-control. Sofia abandoned her sack and went to kneel by Aleksander, carefully probing the air with her hand to ensure she wouldn’t get fried. “Where is everybody else? Here, let me help you with that.”

Aleksander gave over the screwdriver with a sigh of relief and pointed to the appropriate minuscule screw. “Sofia went out before the last attempt we made. We told her it might be sort of… noisy. No, unscrew it counterclockwise, please, and don’t apply too much pressure; we want that screw.” Aleksander put a hand on her shoulder and peered. He couldn’t simply let her do her job; he absolutely had to make her feel as though there were ants crawling down her back.

“Well, thanks…” Sofia sighed and pulled out the screw, moving on to the next one. “You could have put a warning up for me as well.” She deposited both screws in Aleksander’s open palm and peered suspiciously at the now quiescent portal. “Is the thing safe to go through?”

“As soon as I am done with it, yes,” Alex observed from his position of Master and Commander by the formidable computers. “It was just a matter of mass calibration. I set the portal to activate, now, to the approximate mass we are going to be carrying to estimate the amount of energy necessary. Nu, and since there was no mass going through the portal, it simply compensated by turning all that extra energy into light.” He looked down at one of the monitors, looking a little pained. “I might have overestimated the mass a little,” he admitted grudgingly.

Aleksander had yet another suspicious fit of respiratory problems. All the more astonishing because he did not, normally, breathe.

“Well, maybe more than a little…” Alex admitted, even more reluctantly. “Regardless, it should work now.”

“I told Vickie explicitly not to bring a rocket launcher,” Sofia spread salt on the wounds. “Weren’t you listening?”

Her husband grunted, and started humming – rather pointedly, Sofia thought – something moderately Hassidic. His mind wasn’t at it, though, and he even strolled off-key once or twice, on the higher notes. Aleksander, who repossessed his screwdriver during the exchange, was now fiddling with something inside an open side-panel, sticking a PDA extension into it and taking readouts. Sofia got up brushed the dust off her knees and towed the results of her hunt over to Alex. “Ah, excellent!” Now that she was no longer chiding him, Alex was all beaming favour, and – in the absence of foreigners – even pecked her on the top of her head. “All we need; the big, bad, best boomstick of them all!” He announced in English, pouring the contents of the mystery sack onto the floor and getting immediately to the assembly. “Vickie will be happy.”

“Speaking of; where are Vickie and Sharpe? I thought we had military discipline. D-Day, S-hour, H-bomb…”

“I am like a jinni,” Vickie’s merry voice announced from the entrance. “Call my name and I shall appear. Besides, we had to wait for Sofia to open the door for us. Someone forgot to key the palm lock.”

“We’ll have to do something about that,” Sofia’s alternate, who stepped into the room immediately behind Sharpe’s bulky, spiky form, commented. “I am not staying behind to be the doorstop for Mandragora, whatever you superpowered freaks think.”

“I am suitably stabbed.” Sofia was unimpressed at her alternate’s sarcasm. “I shall have to fall out of the nonexistent window now.” She arched an eyebrow at the other Sofia eloquently. “You missed a big purple flash. Where have you been, traitor?”

“Went to get these of us who feed breakfast, actually.” As a demonstration, the Alter thrust forward Sofia’s own large blue grocery basket, and a heavy-looking thermos. The basket smelled of coffee – which Sofia could only assume resided in yet another thermos, unless her alternate went completely insane and gave up their own morning tea – and food. She had a point. Like Sofia herself, the Alter probably was either not awake enough, or too overdosed on adrenaline, to actually be hungry. But both women were ready to assume the worst in regards to their next meal. People had to eat sometime; only in rather badly-written books did the hero go weeks on end without a meal in between. It would be better for everyone to have breakfast before they set out… just in case.

“Mmm…” Vickie and Alex confirmed the assumption by instantly abandoning whatever they were doing and lunging for the basket. “Thanks, Sofia.” Vickie mumbled, fishing for the coffee-smell. Then a concerned frown appeared, preceded by a concerning thought which made her abandon her quest. “Wait a minute… My brain at this time isn’t so great; which one of you is the real one?”

“We’re both real ones,” said the Alter, who was tired to death of hearing the same question over and over again. “But if you mean to ask who is the native, then that’s her.”

“Well, at least you admit it…” Vickie possessed the thermos, and what looked like a still-warm croissant, and was nibbling for all she was worth. “But you know that is going to be a problem; how do we tell you two apart, and, perhaps more importantly, what if I shout a warning, and the wrong Sofia ducks?”

“The distinguishing will be easy,” the Sofias said at the same time. “Because,” Sofia continued, grinning, “while I remain speaking as I had for the last fifteen years…”

“… I will, if you don’t mind, relapse back into this.” Concluded the other Sofia on cue, dropping her still-forced accent for the much more distinct, British one. “But as for the other, it is bound to be something of a problem.”

“Oh, come on…” Sofia covered her face with both hands, suspecting gravely where the conversation was going. She didn’t like it one bit. There was a principle here; it wasn’t quite as bad as being called Sonya, in some ways… worse, in others. Especially considering the pains she took. And her traitor twin knew it, too! One day Sofia will have her revenge, and the Alter, too, will have to contend with people constantly referring to her after a joke.

“You only have one choice…” intoned the alternate. Spitefully, Sofia thought; finally and conclusively getting her revenge for the pair of fish. It wasn’t even Sofia’s fault. She’d tried to stop the two Aleksanders. Somewhat feebly, as she was busy laughing her head off… but she did try. This was just unfair.

Alex started laughing, finally catching up to the hidden nuance. Aleksander joined him, burying his face in his hands, still clutching the screwdriver. The men howled jointly, making Sofia spit and hiss furiously. Vickie turned her head from one spluttering, choking Rabinovich to the next, her eyes more and more bewildered. “If you guys had your fun, will you let us in on the family joke?”

“Sure, sure…” Alex waved a hand for her to pause a few moments while he dealt with his coughing fit. “This is rich; this time, the joke is on Sofia’s account. It will cause her eternal shame for all time. But you know, Sofia, it really is necessary. So I will give you the pleasure of telling Vickie the current drill, while I go and get that probe we wanted to send in ready to go.” He pelted to his feet with an agility that belied his generally leisurely tendencies, and fled, still chuckling.

“Oh, yes…” Aleksander was hot on his heels. “I’ll go help, or else we never know what sort of mayhem he’ll be up to…”

“Traitors.” The original Sofia, finally regaining her voice from the paroxysm of hurt muteness grumbled. “They’re right, of course; there’s only one way out of our predicament of ducking and double-naming. Just for this once, just for this once,” she raised her voice significantly, glaring at the remaining amused magician, and the rather large Sharpe who did his best to imitate a pillar in one of the corners, wearing an aura of the same sort that a relatively new guest would during a major, internal family quarrel, “just for the duration of this fiasco, and no other time…”

“Just tell them…”

Sofia took a large gulp of air and pelted. “Just call me Zarya for now.”

She threw her hands up in despair and fled, requisitioning with her the tea thermos, as alter-Sofia’s hilarity at her duplicate’s acute embarrassment renewed in full voice. After a second, Vickie joined her with long, incredulous peals.

***************************************************

The assembly reconvened a few minutes later, when the tormentors calmed down, and the tormented Sofia washed her flaming face with a prodigious amount of cold water. Alex - or Aleksander, it was a little hard to tell from the other room - declared that breakfast was set out on the compu... that is, the table, and that they might as well see what the probe had to tell them while they were eating up.

"I am being extra careful with this probe," Alex was saying to a skeptical Vickie as Sofia entered the room, "as you noticed when I sent it through, we didn't see the other side of the portal. This was because I did not even want to allow a single photon to pass from that dimension to ours. This is the same reason that we are not receiving any information from the probe yet; I have to allow it to send data here."

"Yes, well, get on with it," Aleksander grumbled. Being one of the not-eaters, he and Shrike were standing around looking vaguely impatient.

Alex rolled his eyes and keyed some commands into the large computer beside him. A screen attached to the top flickered on into white static before displaying a foggy tan image. He grumbled to himself as he fiddled with the controls, forcing the image to come into focus. Alex always grumbled to himself at little annoyances, inconvenient moments and inconsiderate circumstances. Sofia found it amusing, actually; he tended to be relatively placid at the great events caused by force marjoram, but spat and snarled if a driver cut in front of him from another lane.

"What are you doing?" The robotic counterpart demanded of his flesh-and-bone clone. "Stop messing around." He reached out to the control panel; Alex edged nervously away. The screen blurred into blueness for a second as the two men fought over the keyboard - obviously displaying sky - but Alex repossessed his precious knobs again, and the sideways blur stabilized on 'mostly tan' again.

"Curious. Probe. Damaged?" Shrike - not Sharpe, apparently - asked.

"Oh no..." Vickie held her head in hands, groaning. "I just knew it; no portal excursion with you folks could work out as planned. Do we at least get some data from the probe, telling us what destroyed it?"

Aleksander made no comment. He had that distant look about him which told Sofia that he was not quite there. Instead, as far as she knew, he was now hurtling along the cables and little data chips, diagnosing the problem from his own unique angle.

"Ha ha. Very funny," droned Alex, not looking up from his work. "Get out of there, Aleksander. I can tell what you're doing, and I can do my own diagnostics." He frowned, took a step back, and kicked the bottom of the computer. Hard. "Like so." The whir of the machine's fan changed timbre suddenly from a low, steady hum to the rumbling of an upset bee.

The screen flickered to life finally as the little probe sent back its beacon. The place was... uniform. The portal had, apparently, opened up to the outdoors, and not as they feared to the inside of some cunningly reinforced trap in which Garent and Tobias were pining away, half-dead and tormented. It wasn't a particularly different world from some of the Earth places Sofia has seen; a cross between desert and low-grassed, rarely populated savannah. In fact, it rather reminded her of the eastern belt of Israel's Jordan valley, with low hills slumping one on top of the other tiredly, and yellow dust floating in midair, obscuring the camera within moments. Everything looked deserted; the probe circled slowly this way, then that, in an ever widening range, but the effects barely changed.

"I hope you packed a flying carpet, Vickie," Sofia commented, her voice bland as her mind was elsewhere, gauging the terrain. "Looks like a long trek ahead of us."