Gerontology

From the Story Arc: The Charge of the Labcoat Brigade

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

Next Story in the Arc: Bound Morpheme by Krasniy Zakat (Friday, March 30, 2007)

(posted Friday, March 23, 2007)

It was, in many ways, fortunate that they were in a hurry. Sofia had quite a few things to say to the young man trailing them sullenly as they half-ran through long corridors. It wasn't his fault, Alex has been telling her, that the young kid was used as a sort of rock against which Garent had to bounce, but Sofia had her own opinions about both the children who chose to disappear without word or warning. Not to mention that Sofia hated mazes; space simply wasn't her strong suit. Alexander, with his mathematical head that saw shapes and fractals in everything seemed to do well - except for his tendency to look for shortcuts in places they did not exist - but Sofia got herself twisted around and quite lost.

This ziggurat was the bane of her dreams. The sextet - wait, septet now - turned yet another corner, taking a right this time, and faced yet another closed door. The ceiling was very low and the walls were very narrow and the place was very dark. Sofia was quite happy that she did not suffer from claustrophobia, and that she could see well in the dark. In fact, it was her alternate who trailed Aleksander - appropriately leading the way - and was just at that very moment pushing aside an invisible crate that rolled with a dull clutter.

"Where do they get all this wood from?" Vickie muttered under her breath. "I always thought wood was a rarity in the desert, regardless of the amount of oases you get. They aren't making these baskets out of cactuses, after all!"

"I have no idea," Tobias, well in the back, sounded amazed that such a question even came up. In a world where there were swords, mages and ancient weapons - as well as evil parents - these strange people were interested in wood?

"It's not just wood," Sharpe said his voice echoing hollowly along the corridor from his place of rear-guard. Sofia was not entirely certain how the tall form has fit into the narrow little corridor, but there was quite a lot, she was coming to realize, about the enigmatic pair that they didn't know. Aside from being a surprisingly sensible fellow for being a spiky robot with a ghost in it, he - they - occasionally pulled out of their nonexistent sleeves such tricks and observations… "It's also glass, and iron, and some other stuff that they probably shouldn't have."

Sofia was impressed, and comforted, that Sharpe, or Shrike had noticed what the four Rabinoviches had been puzzling over for the last hours.

"And rubber," said Aleksander quietly, confirming.

That was a puzzle, no doubt; rubber could not be produced in the desert, but the tattered remains of it could survive for quite a long time. Rubber had implications about the level of technology of a place… Sofia mused about it. It meant refining, and machinery, and factories. It meant replaceable parts and fit nicely in the chain of vehicles. Rubber required, and created, a whole can of worms of technology which they had seen no evidence for. Could it be, for instance, that there was some sort of technological centre, beyond the arid plains surrounding this ziggurat? Such technological disparity - even more, really - was entirely possible within the context of a world. That was how cargo cults arose…

"But what does that mean for us?"

"Could mean all sorts of things," all four Rabinoiches chorused together, which made them choke down laughter with their sleeves.

"Then again," alter-Sofia took up, "it could mean nothing. We might find ourselves facing gun barrels all of a sudden… or we could not. I've been musing about it for quite some time…"

"And didn't think to mention it before?" Vickie fumed.

"You were our control group, Vickie," Sofia tried to soothe the techno-mage. "Sometimes we feel sort of like a hive-mind-"

"Resistance is futile…" Sasha murmured.

"-and we were worried that we were getting delusional here." Sofia pointedly ignored him. "Since Sharpe noticed the same thing, and you did too, to a point we can actually speculate that the group mind wasn't completely off-track." The other three snickered, demonstrating her point occasionally, Sofia did indeed feel swallowed in the similarities between Alex and herself, Alex and Aleksander, herself and Sofia… they married mostly because of their unity of mind, but with four people instead of a couple, it got a little on the complicated side.

"Fine, so we saw rubber. So what?" Tobias groaned. "I didn't see any guns or anything like that. An' how's it gonna matter, anyway? We gotta save Garent, he said you can save 'em, and we're heroes."

Alter-Sofia scoffed. "Zarya told me that the lot of you were arrogant beyond belief, but I thought she was merely prejudiced. Do you think that, if a bullet hits you in the heart, here, you will find yourself in hospital with a pretty nurse standing over you? If their level of technology is not as low as it seems, Vickie's sword becomes redundant, for one." She stared Tobias up and down pointedly. "Death here is real death, young man. And Garent said nothing about the lot of us surviving, did he?"

Aleksander stopped and lounged on the wall. Alex took up a mirroring position across the corridor from his duplicate. The group stopped, boggled down by the argument. Tobias hopped impatiently from one foot to the other, eager to go and beat someone up, rescuing his best friend. Sofia hated dealing with teenagers; in America, the age of sulky angst and unreasonable rebelliousness lasted until a man was thirty. Both of the boys they had come after were exactly at that uncomfortable stage where in most of the known world they would have been counted as adults, expected to begin settling down and getting a grip. Since the U.S. was not most of the world, they thought of themselves as these adults, but acted and thought like children.

"And if," Alex said calmly, "they do not actually hide a superior level of technology behind the next door, where do the incongruities come in?"

"And what for?" Vickie murmured.

"Just so…"

"Fine, so there's stuff." Tobias glared at Alter-Sofia, then at the rest of them in turn. "Maybe some people from other worlds brought a car, or something. Honestly after seeing what these people are capable of, watching them pull out guns would be a relief. Can we just go now?"

Sofia shrugged, admitting temporary defeat. Sharpe shrugged too. "I suppose it makes no difference right now," he granted, looking around carefully. "We want to go that way, towards the centre."

"Do you have a compass with a Garent-needle?" Alex grumbled. "And if so, why do you pull it out only so often?" Sofia smirked and prodded him in the ribs, admonishing him in a long-established habit to behave himself. All people had private affairs they didn't want brought out into public knowledge. She had her own speculations about the dual-entity that was their friend, but so long as no life-threatening events occurred, she was not about to press. Garent, they could surely find by merely asking. Someone most obviously wanted them to reach their goal unimpeded.

"Can you at least tell us how far we are?" Aleksander sighed, having apparently gotten the same treatment from his Sofia well in advance.

"Estimate. Destination. Near."

"Yeah, we're close." Tobias added.

Vickie breathed relief. "Well, thank God for small favours."

The torches on the wall ran out; the darkness was thick and silent and very devoid of people, whatever that meant. The floors were slick stone, and slippery, and after a while Sofia's foot slipped on a barely noticeable irregularity in the face of the slippery stone. Vickie caught her under an elbow and muttered something about making a mage-light. Alex, a little further down in the darkness laughed and suggested a flashlight. A brief fumbling through the pockets of his labcoat later one such was extracted, and the beam of yellow light began bouncing across the stone. Sofia wondered what sort of people lived in such a gloomy place, and decided that the genetics necessary to survive in such environments yielded Garent at his worst.

"So what are we supposed to do when we finally get there?" Vickie mused out loud. Less of a question, more of an opening for conversation to reestablish itself again.

"The way traps usually work," alter-Sofia said dryly, "walking in is not a problem. It's the getting out that perplexes. Whoever it is, has just caught himself a nice fish on the Garent-bait he's hooked on the line for us. Whoever said person is…"

"'s Garent's evil dad." Tobias contributed helpfully.

"… be it the King of Denmark himself," alter-Sofia waved the comment off, "we will face an opposition on the way back. I hope you gentlemen remember what the way back is by the way. I am not Gretel; I didn't bring breadcrumbs."

"Yes, dear…" Aleksander sighed in an all-too-familiar tone. Alex sniggered. Then stopped abruptly when two identical female glares stabbed him in the chest.

Light flickered. Not torches; a white and brilliant glow that sent a fist into Sofia's eyes, which by then had become accustomed to the dark. From somewhere, they were coming out into an inner courtyard - or an equivalent - in the middle of the closed structure. They were not at the very top of the ziggurat, from which she figured that the place, despite its look of a layered cake, had something of a hole in the middle. Beyond the doorway Sofia could see nothing; just light. A perfect, completely innocuous trap.

"Guys," she said softly into Alex's back, "we want to stop here."

The strung-out group stopped abruptly, and bunched up. Sofia rubbed her eyes forcefully, blinking as fast as she could to adjust them to the light as fast as possible. An image resolved itself across her retina, like a photograph, or an x-ray underneath the developer. White, brilliant cobblestones, darker walls, square and tall and seamless. Over them, rows of seats under light, cloth shades. The cloth, too was white, and shed only enough shade to curb the tremendous discomfort sitting out in the noonday sun must have been, without blocking much in the way of light. The audience seats were empty. Above, a patch of blue sky shone brilliantly in defiance of all the whiteness. Garent in his green and brown stood in a patch of darkness on the far side of the… arena?

"Hoo boy," Vickie muttered, unclasping and unsheafing her sword. "Assyria meets Rome. Where're the lions?"

The group hung back in tense silence for a long moment, peering into the silent and untenanted - except for Garent, who didn't even look up - ring. Only one - at most two - more ways in, all narrow and twisting and equally impossible to navigate, with the inhabitants of the hostile ziggurat surrounding them now on all sides. If they were trapped in there, they would have no other choice but to fight. Vickie already crouched by the doorway, sword drawn.

"And, most importantly," Aleksander said in a nervous voice Sofia immediately recognized as a complete pretence, "will they require us to fight naked."

"I don't know…" Alex was quick on his heels, "Sofia…"

The sound of a loud slap preceded the howl of protest emitted by the rest of their group, and the tension eased. Aleksander moved back from the doorway, and Sharpe's/Shrike's large, metal form edged carefully around him, stepping slowly into the glare. Tobias was quick on his heels, until Sofia snared him by the collar of his beloved leather jacket and twisted, pinning him to his place. The boy struggled for a moment, then froze, realizing he must either comply, or endanger the beloved piece of clothing irreparably. If Aleksander moved, he must have already scanned the perimeters, at least superficially, ascertaining the absence of arrows and slits for them, magical six-legged beasts and even more prosaic rifles. Nonetheless, taking a chance was stupid. He would follow Sharpe, as his body was, mostly, undamageable, and easily enough repaired. Vickie would go after the two men and only then would Tobias, Sofia, Zarya and Alex follow. Discretion was, in the Rabinoviches' book, the better part of valor.

Sofia retreived her straw hat from the backpack into which she partially crammed it, and slapped it onto her head before stepping out.

Garent casually walked towards the group with a surprisingly pleasant expression on his face. "Hi everyone, glad you're here. Sorry it was so dark. Most of us don't see with light." He looked over the expressions of those present, paying close attention to Sofia's. "I suppose I should explain what's going on."

"I suppose you should," Sofia murmured, slightly amused. "Before I decide why we should bother saving you, instead of skinning you."

"I'll start from the beginning. I was born on Primal Earth, but my father is from another dimension. I tried to visit this dimension, but at the same time I made the jump," Garent nodded to Victoria and Tobias, "Tobias tried to make a jump as well to someplace completely different with Vickie's help. Somehow this was timed just right and we bounced off eachother, ending up here."

"Skip to the part where we learn something we don't already know." Alex waved his hand through the air. He had a thing for killing the dramatic moment.

"In that case I'll go straight to the important details. This world's version of my father doesn't want me to leave."

"That," Alter-Sofia chimed in, catching Garent's eye and raising an eyebrow in invitation for him to freak out at the sight of two identical pairs of almost-middle-aged professors, "rather follows from the definition of a trap."

"Traps work both ways, though. This will save us the time of having to seek him out." Garent looked back and forth between Aleksander and the two Sofias. "I don't think I've been introduced to... at least two of you. Which of you is the real Sofia?" Garent asked.

Both women provided him with identical glares. "Why do they never ask," one complained, "about who is the real Alexander?"

"There are two Alexanders?"

Alex and Aleksander stared at each other a few moments, then turned to Garent, simultaneously saying, "You could say that."

"And the disadvantages of not using the visible spectrum to see become... apparent." Sofia murmured under her nose. The alternate winced painfully, and stepped on her foot. Sofia prodded her in the ribs. Then, realizing how their behaviour would look to an objective observer, the two women grinned with equal embarrassment.

"Regardless," Sasha continued, "Aleksander and Sofia are from a different dimension than Primal Earth, and have been living in our world for a few months now."

"I see. Sorry to be so direct, but what can they do in a fight?"

"Sorry to be so direct," Alter-Sofia snapped back instantly, "but what can you do outside of one?"

"Not much, I'm pretty one dimensional when it comes to that." Garent stated.

"So far I've seen you in two dimensions..." Alex grinned.

"Excuse me here," Sharpe interjected from his post, "but if we're already speaking about traps and fights, I think we are about to get one."

Garent turned and looked toward one of the entrances as a man joined the group in the arena. So this was Garent's father; at least, this was the man Garent's father would have been, had he not been a dimensional refugee, moralist, and dead. He was, Sofia supposed, quite imposing. She did feel a momentary pity that the effect would be thoroughly wasted on their little group. The Rabinoviches, as a whole, shared a marked tendency to ignore physical appearances, as well as never assume their 'proper' place in society's hierarchy. Sharpe, by the very nature of what he was, probably laughed inside… as for Vickie, although Sofia had no way to know, she was quite confident the tiny mage was never afraid of anyone.

This local Oran Ward was taller than his son, and elderly, and reminded Sofia strongly of the ISB agent Pavel Viy in terms of sheer physical stamina. She gauged him instantly; the arrogant stance and fanciful clothing, the knowledge of his own worth… smiling thinly, he stared down his nose at the eight, bunched up warily in the corner. He knew he had the upper hand, and he was merely out to prove it to these barbarians that had decided to interfere with his plans.

Sofia was an expert in putting sticks in the psychological wheels of such arrogance. She smiled and stepped forward, assuming her most innocent face. Sweeping her straw hat off her head, she favoured the bemused tyrant with a courtly bow, theatre-style and murmured in the closest approximation to the local godawful phonology she could manage. "Why Mr. Ward, what an expected pleasure… the tree, I see, did not grow far from the apple." The r's, interjected as they often were between high vowels, cost her a toothache… but the bemusement on the man's face was worth it.

"Introducing ourselves is pointless. It has already been decided that we will fight each other now." Oran proselytized.

"What, only allowed to be beaten up by people you don't know?" Alex smirked.

"No, no," Sofia held up a pointed finger, "Heroes always follow the rules; if he gets to know us, he might like us." she chuckled indulgently, receiving her share of the glare the man had first directed at her husband.

"Sofia, now isn't the time. This man can see the future, and he's already resigned himself to following what he's seen." Garent interjected.

"But, my dear Garent, I am here to show you the enlightened truth!" Sofia exclaimed, unable to stop herself. Nervousness turned into an outpour of unstoppable sarcasm in the hot glare. "There is no spoon!" Alex howled, and she waved him off, with a slightly more serious expression. "There is no future; it hasn't been made yet. It must be horrible to live like this, in a world of inescapable determinism."

Garent and his alternate father could think of no better reaction than to stare.

"See?" Alter-Sofia smiled at Garent, thinly, "confusion among the enemy has already been achieved. They didn't see that coming."

"I have the same ability he does, but you don't see me preaching it like that." The Rabinovich's diffusion of the situation's dramatics spreading even to Garent. Tobias was mortified. He had spent the last week building up this cataclysmic fight in his mind and now even Garent, the most fatalistic, serious person he knew, was shrugging it off.

"What would be the appropriate epithet here?" Vickie muttered, eyeing the Rabinoviches with a ferocious scowl.

"My name is Inigo Montoya…" Alex intoned shamelessly.

"No, no," Sharpe interjected, in an especially booming, hollow voice. "You Russians; you don't understand the power of clichés." There were no facial expressions, but somewhere deep down he was - Sofia could feel - grinning maniacally. "Luke," he rasped, "I am your father…"

Death threat or no, eyes spitting anger under graying hair or no, outraged Garent or no, the other six newcomers emitted a chorused shriek of anguish and protest. Then communally doubled over with laughter.

"Wait a minute..." Alex muttered, cutting his laughter off. "Do you guys feel that?" He held his hands out to the side, as if balancing on some precarious edge somewhere. A faint rumbling went from below the range of their hearing and up to a full roar. The group span around to the source of the sound - the edge of the arena behind them - and came face to face with a rising wall of water.

"I think we are under attack," Sharpe stated, shifting his feet to brace himself against the coming tsunami.

Alex sighed. "Everybody's a critic."