The Problem of Induction

From the Story Arc: The Charge of the Labcoat Brigade

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

Next Story in the Arc: Temporal Mechanics by Krasniy Zakat (Monday, March 19, 2007)

(posted Monday, March 12, 2007)

The warm, dry wind beat harshly at their faces. It was a sunny sort of day - though from the look of the place, there wasn't any other kind - and the time, assuming the rotation of the planet was not vastly different, seemed to be sometime late morning; at the least, the sun had gotten higher in the sky during their short time there. The little floating probe robot, like a puppy, clung to Alex's hand as he used the antenna from his PDA to feed it commands. Its shadow, which stretched long and round in the photographs of the feedback they had watched in the lab, was slowly fading to a spot directly underneath it making the probe an almost perfect sundial.

Alex's carefully written program for the small drone would keep it, from then on, at a steady orbit around the microscopic space where the portal was. Invisible now, it and its unknown anchor were nonetheless very much there, felt by these who knew where to look for them. Aleksander could sense the energies of the portal behind his back, a slow stream of quantum states and turbulent, barely stabilized forces. Alex, too, should be able to feel the same, though dimly, by the same sensitivity they both shared. The little probe would sweep the portal area continuously keeping within a certain radius, landing only occasionally in order to conserve its energy. He and Alex cautiously plotted the precise allotment of energy, and route for the probe to take, arguing for long minutes over the photos that the probe provided.

The two Sofias - neither Aleksander nor Alex could, with any good conscience call the native Sofia by the moniker Zarya; it made them laugh, and promised considerable pain - were kneeling side by side, almost precise mirror images of each other, shading their eyes and staring towards the horizon. Sofia-Zarya extended a middle-range telescope, while Aleksander's Sofia was simply looking around blandly, eyes sweeping the terrain to gain a general impression of it. Sometimes Aleksander couldn't help but wonder whether each set of twins didn't have some sort of semi-conscious telepathy, allowing them to faster and better convey information which would otherwise take long hours of coordination and explanation. Each one of the pairs quickly and efficiently filled his or her specific role in the present context, sharing the burden of one mind amongst two sets of sensory input.

Sofia-Zarya used that precise moment to lower her telescope and turned, grimacing, to Victoria. The latter had been sitting cross-legged on the ground in front of where the portal was, fiddling with something esoteric that Aleksander didn't really want to know about. The fewer dealings he had with magic, the better, as far as he was concerned. So far, although it seemed that her magic worked in this bizarre and empty place, and she had said she could "borrow" the eyes of local critters; Victoria had been quit idle, as there were no critters to borrow, appropriate or otherwise exploit. Sofia swept up the large straw hat she had earlier deposited onto the ground, and tossed the 'scope to Victoria.

"Look in this, Vickie, over there," she pointed a long finger in the direction she had just been examining. "And tell me what you see." Vickie put the 'scope up to her eyes as soon as she could wrap her fingers around it.

"Ugh, I wouldn't want to walk this terrain," alter-Sofia announced, reporting in this succinct sentence the entirety of her generic survey. "Boulders, craters, random holes and crags. All sorts of dry and very wild grasses, and to top it all off, no ozone as far as I can tell. Look, the two of us are already beginning to smoulder around the edges." She raised her own hand in demonstration, the pale, fine skin slowly edging to pink around the wrist. The pale-skinned women had an identical tendency to start smoking almost as soon as they came out into the blistering, harsh sunlight. Semitic ancestry or not, some interfering Slav or another in their genealogy bequeathed them their blonde hair and their sunburn.

"Now ain't that fun," Vickie eyed Sofia's hand with visible displeasure for a moment before returning to her observations through the magnifying glass. "And I'm assuming you're talking about that brownish thing on the horizon, Zarya."

Native Sofia winced. "That's the one." Her voice, despite the blatant wince, was mild enough to satisfy the most scrupulous demands. Once giving her grudging permission to use the hated moniker as the designated reference, she would not back off or snap, Aleksander knew. "I was thinking, according to the way things seem, that it's a city… or at least a settlement of some sort. A place for us to start."

"Well, the terrain layout allows so much." Aleksander's wife contributed her general survey info to the discussion. "A nice, flat pane of nothing all the way; then suddenly a mountain. Convenient little fortress, isn't it just?" She pointed to a small, very distant island of green that tickled Aleksander's eyes, too. "And then there's this; in such a clime, trees grow where there is water. Presumably most cities would locate themselves close to a water source, especially if it is, indeed, a more primitive culture."

"Whatever the heck that means…" Alex grumbled as he snapped shut the PDA case and buried it firmly in his labcoat pocket. Of all four, he was the only one still wearing the white fabric, using the labcoat's internal and external pockets as an almost endless storage bin, as was his custom. Aleksander didn't much care, but the Sofias were clearly jealous of him; the white was both quite blinding and reflective, and of them all - except for himself and Shrike, who shrugged heat off - Alex was probably the most comfortable. The rest of them wore colours that would either blend in - tans and browns and greys - or ones that would evoke little notice in an urban environment.

That's assuming people here didn't have three arms, or something; in which case they would all stand out, the eyesores they truly were.

Aleksander was amused. At least his so-called siblings didn't make the sort of foolish assumptions that most everybody in their insane universe did, that everything would be essentially the same, just perhaps a little different. Sofia's was the first time he had heard anyone, anyone at all, even pose the probability that the language in whatever crazy dimension they proceeded to explore might not be colloquial American English. Oy. He did wonder what sort of world this was going to be; unlike his alternate, Aleksander wasn't bounding about on errands from Portal Corp, willy-nilly, quite yet. He'd seen the striking difference between his own universe and Alex's, of course, and so he was expecting nearly anything out of this new and unfamiliar one.

"We aren't walking that, not in this terrain," his Sofia reiterated. "That's several kilometers away-"

"Twelve-point-two," Alex immediately corrected, reading his PDA.

Sofia rolled her eyes. "Which is too far in this desert. Are we teleporting?"

"I'm hoping that we were serious about the flying carpet," Alex answered, shaking his head. He pointed up at the blazing sun. "The thin atmosphere on this Earth is allowing a great deal more radiation in, which is playing all kinds of hell on the magnetosphere. Since I piggyback on the Earth's electromagnetic field so that I can teleport without using the Paragon network, this is a bad thing." He snorted. "If there was so much as an errant sunspot Althea's parents might have arrived in a million pieces."

"So that's a 'no' then…" Sofia-Zarya murmured. "So what have you got, Vickie?"

"I wouldn't risk it, either." The technomage stood up from her work. "Give me a few days conjuring rabbits from a hat first. Besides," she handed the telescope back to Sofia and pointed down at her little ritual, "I haven't been able to get a lock on Garent or Tobias. It's not that my magic isn't working it's just, well, this entire world is used to a different magic. It is… sluggish. I'm like a mouse trying to wake Rip van Winkle."

"Looks like it is up to me," Sharpe piped up from the back, startling them. In his short experience with the mysterious dual-mind, Aleksander had noticed him to be of the strong and silent type, only adding his two cents after weighing it thoughtfully for several minutes. "To me, over there and over here are still just a step away."

Sofia-Zarya collapsed the telescope and slid it back into its case. "Lead on."

Sharpe's expression was the same as always - that is to say, quite unreadable behind the spikes, steel and machine-like unchangeability - but Aleksander was willing to bet that he caught an air of amusement. These things simply radiated for one that had a decent sense of humour all of his own. "Come along, then."

Sofia-Zarya was transparent as she eyed the spikes with deep suspicion then smirked and hefted her allotted share of baggage onto her shoulder. "I'd better go first." She waved at her twin magnanimously, "If I die, you can have my books and my husband," she stepped forward and grinned at them as Sharpe's immense metal paws encircled her waist.

"Beats walking."




What had originally been a brown and green smudge on the horizon was suddenly a massive and squat stone structure. A giant rock wall, seemingly carved entirely in one piece from a missing canyon, extended to the left and right of where the team stood before curving away from them. A huge gap was the only horizontal spot of entrance, with a towering wooden gate slung open. While Alex had been openly wondering where the indigenous population got so much wood, Sofia-Zarya had surmised, no doubt correctly, that the gate wasn't so much for keeping invaders out of the city beyond, but to protect against the inevitable sandstorms.

Sharpe was the first one to notice the guards standing watch, hidden in alcoves in the rock wall. They were neither large nor particularly dark-skinned, as Hollywood tended to portray indigenous "savages", but they did have the broad shoulders and missing necks that seemed to come with any profession where muscle was desired over brains. The guards didn't seem to be armed, and certainly wore nothing more than simple cloths.

Even more mysteriously, they didn't seem to notice their approach.

"You think they don't see us?" Sofia whispered, her hand, like the others', wavering over the small pistol that Vickie had given her. Just in case…

"They don't see a man in a blinding white jacket, three women, and a towering black, that is, tan monstrosity?" Alex shook his head, then added, in Shrike's direction, "No offense."

"Statement: unnecessary: apology."

"Quite," Sofia murmured, smiling faintly, "and despite the fact that the rest of us might look more or less normal, we still stand out like the literal white raven. Look at us; four peculiarly dressed strangers with weird hair. Especially the Alexanders. They're all of a type and look like Garent, which we clearly don't. I'd be incredibly suspicious, if it were me up there."

The two guards were no longer lounging, but their positions did not indicate a threat-level of any magnitude that the travelers could see. Their hands were still not on weapons, and while their eyes - as much as could be determined from such a distance - might have been on the party, they were not raising a clamour. As the literature would term it, curiouser and curiouser. Aleksander and Alex exchanged a quick, worried glance; where no obvious obstacles were to be seen, hidden ones existed by the boatload.

"Let's just keep walking," Vickie suggested, trying her best to look nonchalant, though her eyes kept flickering to the sword strapped to her small frame, as if reassuring herself it was still there. "If they don't stop us, then what does it matter?"

Except for the rather important issue of 'why not'…

"And if they do?" Aleksander asked, smirking slightly.

"Regardless," Alex continued, letting the ominous question hang and pass, "these people don't seem surprised to see us. So either they knew we were coming, or visitors who look like us are a normal occurrence."

"I'm just glad they're human," Sofia-Zarya murmured. She grimaced and gave Shrike a look. "No off-"

"Reiteration: statement: previous."

"Right."

The guards did, indeed, let them pass without as much as a glance of acknowledgement of their presence, much to their consternation, and once they had navigated the gate and wall, the group finally got an eyeful of the village.

There was a definite progression in building styles through the "village", which seemed to extend for kilometers: at the outskirts were tents of varying sizes and shapes, apparently made out of some kind of animal hide - what animals they had for such a thing was beyond them; after that were a series of flat square houses with slightly sloped walls; beyond that, taller structures of similar design - large flat rectangular bases with increasingly smaller floors stacked on top. In the middle, towering above it all, a massive ziggurat.

"Assyria," commented Aleksander's Sofia softly, eyes traveling up and down the looming tower appreciatively. There was obviously a mesh of corridors, rooms and halls in there. Just as obviously - as such places tended to be - it ought to be downright labyrinthine. Aleksander grimaced to himself, imagining a chase, or an especially risqué hide-and-seek… with the hiding party hardly knowing the place, and the seekers probably born and bred to find their way around mazes of this sort. The child, Garent, had clearly put them - if not himself - in a harsh predicament.

The large ziggurat laid smack dab in the centre of the somewhat ragged collection of tents, shacks and cubic constructions. The only structure of any colour but white; some of the shacks were a distinctly muddy white, where the buildings could be sandy-yellow or blindingly newly painted, but the ziggurat was aged, almost brown stone. With an occasional, incongruous steel beam, straight and almost unrusted, sticking out of the construction in places. Aleksander frowned and caught the steel beam image in his mind, for later reference.

Which quickly led him to more observations that the others missed; a very straight and shiny windowpane in the house to his left; a large expanse of tin spread on the ground for some unknown purpose; a cluster of what seemed like rubber car tires, tattered and old, a little further on.

"Not quite Assyria," he muttered under his nose, touching Sofia's shoulder and pointing her thus in the right direction. "Something a little more esoteric." His wife frowned and quietly prodded her alternate in the back, covering her pointing finger from everybody else. That was, perhaps, wise. For one, the little finds could start a sort of anxiety that they did not, at the moment, want… and for another, Vickie and Sharpe would serve as a control group; unbiased observers. If the Rabinoviches' imagination was getting away with them, all four were likely to fall prey to the same bug, where the two independent, and more distinct, members of their party should be able to maintain a decent amount of difference of opinion.

The town was relatively empty, surprisingly so, given the number of houses.

"Probably staying out of the heat," Sofia-Zarya muttered, sparing a glance at the noonday sun. "Staying in home where it's nice and cool." She moved automatically into the shadow of one of the squat buildings as an unconscious echo of her own words.

"Nice and cool?" Vickie fanned herself with her hand. "I don't think they have air conditioning."

"It's the stone," Sofia replied, pointing at the houses ahead of them, then significantly patting a nearby wall. "It keeps the heat out, mostly. That's what they used - still use - in the Middle East." She stared at the dark, shadowed interiors of the houses longingly. "I don't suppose we'd better go in."

"What about employment?" Alex chimed in from his position near the front. He still had his PDA out, taking measurements of everything he could. "Not everybody can work from home."

"Alex is right." Aleksander cocked his head to one side and opened his robotic eyes wider. Unlike humans, who would find the increased light gain to be damaging, it only helped his distance vision. "But from what I can see, there's a crowd at that temple." There was; throngs of people milling about in the central area of the town, doing something uncertain and indeterminable. Dark patches of clothing against the bright sandstone and the muted brown of the ziggurat. Aleksander shook his head one way, then the other, examining. Crowds were one thing to detect against such light; what they did was a different thing altogether.

"A market day, perhaps?" Sofia-Zarya asked. "Like in ancient Israel: twice a week everybody goes into the center of town to buy their food and conduct religious services. They did Torah readings on market days."

"I don't think they're Jewish." Alex grinned and pointed at one of the tents. "No mezuzah. So maybe it's for Catholic mass, or some Buddhist mediation, or Mayan human sacrifice."

They all paused and stared at each other, suddenly very nervous.

"Vickie?" Sofia-Zarya asked softly. "Care to try your scrying again?"

Vickie nodded and began her little rituals anew. She slunk away into the sheltering anonymous darkness of a small nook, and the Rabinoviches almost automatically moved to cover her from the sight of the street, lounging with fake nonchalance against the walls, talking quietly about the possible routes in and - more importantly - out of the prodigiously fortified place, as well as what the remnants of a higher, or, in any event, more littering, culture might mean. Aleksander was tempted to leave his robot body and fly there on his own to see what was going on, but that would only help them rule out whether or not Garent was there - it wouldn't help them find out if Garent was somewhere else.

Sharpe and his odd companion simply stood, deep in their own contemplation.

The sun edged another notch up, and the Sofias pressed themselves against the walls in search of shadow. Alex mopped his brow and drank long and thirstily from one of their water bottles.

Aleksander floated around, seeking out piles of high-tech rubbish.

A starving cat - at the least, it looked like a feral street cat - darted across the alley; Alex and Sofia both 'tsked' for it, but it didn't stop, merely giving them a jittery look.

A cloud drifted, lonely and tiny, across the sun.

Vickie stepped up to their backs quietly, a rather limp and scrawny mouse held up in the palm of her hand. The animal's tail drooped, and it squeaked uneasily, but didn't bolt. A magical mouse, no doubt. She was frowning, and glancing at the direction of the crowds repeatedly. "Let's hope they're not Mayan…" she said, and Aleksander noticed that her other hand was on the pommel of her sword. "Tobias is over there."