Temporal Mechanics

From the Story Arc: The Charge of the Labcoat Brigade

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

Next Story in the Arc: Gerontology by Krasnaya Zarya (Friday, March 23, 2007)

(posted Monday, March 19, 2007)

"He does that on purpose, doesn't he?"

"What?" Alex looked up from the readouts of his PDA to give a quizzical look at Victoria. He had been so involved in his analysis of the resident electromagnetic field - in order to get his teleportation system up and running - that he had missed the entire subject of the conversation.

"Leaving the android's eyes open like that," she helpfully explained, adding an indicative wave towards his alternate's robotic shell.

"What?" he repeated as he quickly went through his memories, recalling the decision for Aleksander to go on ahead and scout for the location of Tobias - and do some quick blasting if necessary. Sasha peered at the offending empty shell, staring into what, for all intents and purposes, was his own face. "Oh. He just forgets. He doesn't really remember what it means to be disturbed by the 'Uncanny Valley'," muttered the physicist, who had long since become accustomed to his duplicate's vanishing stints.

"The whats-it?" Sharpe asked.

"The Uncanny Valley." Sasha immediately went into instructor mode. "It developed as a robotics term coined by the Japanese, but really applies to a lot of general human perception. As you make more and more realistic and lifelike androids, the more people can empathize with them, until suddenly, when you get very close to a near duplicate of humanity, everybody is repulsed. The underlying idea is that so long as there are obvious differences between the fake and the real, the human brain can easily categorize; but once the fake is almost exactly the same, the brain tries to categorize it with the real and gets confused by the slight differences - which are usually so small that the brain can't really point them out without effort."

"In this case," he went on, "it's the fact that he looks perfectly human, but is completely immobile. The eyes in particular disturb because they lack the rapid and continuous movement that is required for the proper functioning of the eyeball, as well as the lack of any blinking. Obviously, these are never required for him, but he simulates it to fit in."

"Doesn't make it any less disturbing," his wife murmured, wavering back and forth from one foot to the other. "Look, the eyes seem to follow me wherever I go."

"One of these days," alternate Sofia said in an amused and conspiratorial tone, "when he does this, I'm just going to push him over." She mimed a nonchalant shove then made a whooshing noise.

They all laughed.

Including Aleksander.

The group froze, staring at him. Alternate Sofia grinned maliciously at her husband. "Well, it's true."

"What's true?" Aleksander looked back and forth across the group. "What did I miss?"

They all gave him incredulous stares.

"Nothing, just a joke," Alex answered dismissively. "Why were you laughing, then?"

"Hmm? Oh, right." Aleksander jerked his thumb in the direction of the town square. "I found that Tobias kid; wasn't hard, nobody else around here wears leather jackets. He looks a tad beaten and weary, but seems to be okay. Really infatuated with his wristwatch, though; he kept looking at it."

"I guess he's expecting something," Sharpe murmured.

"Then we'd better get there before it does." Sofia began walking down what constituted a main street, the rest of them quickly following. She glanced over her shoulder at Aleksander. "Did you see anything else of importance there? Any guards or some such?"

Alex's alternate self shook its head. "Just a bunch of people going about their business; it actually is some kind of market day over there. Tobias is just standing near the base of that ziggurat with a wide circle of empty space around him. Those people just ignore him."

"Those people" also ignored the group as the latter left the emptier outer streets and began to file through the crowd towards Tobias. Like with the guards at the gate, they were calmly and promptly ignored; the populace would walk around them, trying their best to avoid eye contact. The small children would stare and point - usually at the massive Steel Shrike - before being shushed and reprimanded by their parents. It was an all together unnerving experience for the sextet.

"English," one of the Sofias whispered to the other, just loud enough for the rest of them to hear. "Very heavily accented; some dialect that doesn't exist on our world."

"Yes, do you hear the way they roll their 'r's?" The other one replied. "Like Arabic. They've also got the Scottish 'ch'."

While the two linguists began picking apart all the sounds from the conversations around them, the group effortlessly approached the ziggurat. It was only now that they could get a real idea of just how big the structure was - it was built with sharp angles and larger than normal stairs on the ramp in the middle, making it appear closer and smaller than it actually was. With the obscuring dust in the air fading, it was also only now that they were able to make out the multitude of symbols and engravings in the dark stone, all of them worn and faded, giving an impression of great age. Alex tried to make out what the symbols were, but found his eye constantly slipping away.

"Magical protection of some kind," Victoria explained. "It tricks the mind and creates an optical illusion that isn't actually there. Hence why we can't really figure out how big it is." She smiled softly. "With our eyes, at least. I figure it is atleast twice as big as it appears from the outside."

"Lovely," Alex groaned, muttering: "Did I tell you how much I hate magic?"

"Not a week goes by-" Victoria replied, grinning.

"We're almost there," Aleksander interrupted the little exchange, pointing ahead at the obvious gap in the crowd. They stepped through the last ring of people and into the oddly quiet and very empty circle around Tobias.

The young man in question stared at the lot wide-eyed, apparently in some kind of shock. He pulled back the sleeve of his leather jacket and stared at his wristwatch, shaking his head and cursing under his breath. "I don't believe it."

"Better believe it, Tobias." Alex smirked. "We're here to bring you home."

"I know." He grunted. "Garent told me."

"I- what?" The rest of the group joined in with Alex, even Shrike seeming to be surprised by this turn of events. "Care to explain?"

"Long story." Tobias sighed. "Garent told me to wait here for people from home to show up. He even told me when." He tapped his watch. "Off by five minutes."

"Actually," Aleksander gave a small curious smile, "I was here five minutes ago. Just… incorporeal."

Tobias cursed again.

"Stop that, young man," Sofia commanded. "You will not swear in my presence."

Tobias gave a look of defiance, which met Sofia's 'Please give me an excuse' gaze, and withered away to his usual dour and tormented demeanor. He put his hands into the pockets of his jacket and looked over his shoulder at the ziggurat. "We gonna save Garent now?"

"So he does need saving, then?" Victoria once again touched the hilt of her sword. "Where is he?"

"Up there, of course." Tobias pointed with his thumb at the top of the ziggurat. "But it ain't gonna be easy. This is, like, some Praetorian version of Garent's home; same magic, same people, but a whole lot more eviller. And all the people runnin' the show are tough, real tough." He glanced down at his clothes which, except for the jacket, were beaten, ripped, and caked with what was probably blood. "Garent went with 'em willingly, sayin' everythin' will be okay."

"You didn't agree, I take it?" Sofia asked.

Tobias nodded. "I tried to save him. Got my ass kicked."

"That's not hard," Alex murmured teasingly. When Sofia gave him a glance, he reminded her of the little bouts in the arena several weeks prior, where Alex beat Tobias without breaking a sweat. Tobias grumbled at the reminder.

"Garent seems to know what's going on," Victoria began, "and knew we'd come. I doubt he'd let himself get killed if he knew we were showing up, he gave up to stall for time and save his energy for when the backup arrived." She gave Tobias a look. "Did he say what we were supposed to do when we showed up?"

"Nah." Tobias shook his head. "Just said you'd know what to do."

They looked at each other once again. Alex shrugged and suggested, "The only thing I can think of is climbing this ziggurat and rescuing Garent."

"Sounds good to me." Sharpe turned to the offending structure and gave it a look over. "There's an entrance inside of it about two-thirds of the way up. The protective field around it is blocking any scrying attempts and bending space-time around itself. I wouldn't suggest we try flying or teleporting in, just walking."

They gave him a quizzical look, but no explanation from him was forthcoming. Sharpe/Shrike seemed to enjoy being enigmatic.

"You heard the man." Victoria began walking towards the entrance ramp of the ziggurat. "Let's head up."