“- but if it’s the pressure differentiations causing the warping, then I’ll have to recalibrate the whole-”
“Um,” says Darcy.
“- damned machine, and we just don’t have the time for that, because the alignment only lasts for forty three hours, which means-”
“I think we maybe made a wrong turn,” says Darcy carefully.
“- I only have two very small windows to - wait, what?” Jane asks.
“We made a wrong turn,” Darcy says, more certain this time. They’re definitely supposed to be driving away from Tunis, not towards it. It’s one of the few signs that offers translations.
“How wrong?” Jane asks, eyes flickering between the road and her gently beeping atmospheric sensor.
Betty snores from the back seat.
“Jane, it’s this ramp.”
Darcy sticks her nose back into the map that sprawls over the dash, tilting a section of it to the left. The map remains stubbornly in Arabic. She looks up as Jane smacks her palm over the atmospheric sensor. “Jane!” she barks.
“I said it’s this ramp!”
There’s a squeal of brakes and a series of furious honks behind them. Sand flies up from the partition that they really shouldn’t be driving on, racketing against the truck’s paneling. Jane does make it to the ramp, though, so Darcy counts a win.
There’s a hollow clatter as the poster-tubes in the back seat are displaced. Betty blinks, pale and wide-eyed. She’s not been dealing with the jetlag well. “Are we okay?” she asks, voice high.
“We’re fine!” Jane says curtly.
“Do you need me to drive?” Darcy asks again. “Because-”
“You’re joking,” Jane says seriously. “I have no idea how to read that map.” In the review, Betty makes a me neither face.
Frankly, neither does Darcy, but an attendant at their last fillup had spoken beautiful butterfly Spanish; a trilling and speedy cadence that reminded Darcy of a beloved college professor. She’d pointed out the research station and traced heavily-ringed fingers over the roadways, twisted like arteries, that they’d need to get there. Darcy had marked with a bright pen the most important exits and turns, but it was still a challenge to match the map to the dusty reality. She watches the signs fly by, trying to sound the names out in her head.
“I thought you were good at languages,” Betty asks.
“I’m good at learning languages,” Darcy defends.
“I thought you were learning Arabic,” Jane asks.
Darcy cuts her a look. “I started the alphabet two days before you announced we had to get to the Med.”
“Oh,” Jane says, eyes drifting from the road back to the gizmo on the dash. “Well, your Spanish was great,” she adds. “I’m glad you’re here, ‘cause it’s all Greek to me.”
"To be fair," says Betty, "most of your math is in Greek."
"Not this kind of Greek," Jane argues.
Darcy decides not to point out that they’re no longer in Greece at all. “Take the exit after this one. And not like last time.”
Jane huffs, but she doesn’t let her eyes wander from the road, and their post-apocalyptic Land Rover barely sways with the turn. Darcy peers over her shoulder; Betty is slowly blinking back into sleep.
“Does that map have gas stations on it?”
“Can we make it…” Darcy measures with her fingers against the map’s miniscule scale, “...another five kilometres?” It’s the last major interchange before the roads go truly rural. At least, that’s what the attendant had said.
“Sure,” says Jane, confidently.
The truck’s fuel meter pings.
“How far is five kilometres,” says Jane quietly.
“It’s less than five miles,” Betty says with authority, surprisingly awake. “Also, I need to pee.”
The station is shockingly dusty and shockingly new under all the dust. Betty is first out of the truck, dashing inside. Jane fills up, and Darcy snags their shared, extra-large travel wallet from the glovebox, heading inside to pay, map in hand. She’s learned to take advantage of every opportunity to ask, now that their phones are long out of service and subsequently turned off. There’s a kindly-looking old man behind the register, reading. A small television runs a quiet, fuzzy picture with lots of scrolling text along the bottom, and Darcy thinks it might be the news, the speech coming over smooth and even. A much younger man is sweeping. They both turn to look when she comes in, the chimes inside the door tinkling pleasantly. Darcy starts with the universal language: a small smile and a little wave.
“Hi,” she says. “Um, hal tatakalim bil-inglizeeah?”
She’s met with two beaming smiles, the older man pointing at the younger.
“Hi,” he says. “Are you lost?”
“Great!” Betty exclaims, appearing from behind a stack of brightly-wrapped… cookies, maybe, Darcy thinks. “Please,” she says, foisting the snacks into Darcy’s arms, “may I use the washroom?”
The younger man says something short to the older man, who fishes out a key from beneath the register. He hands it to Betty with a small gesture of it’s that way.
Jane joins them after a few minutes, and Darcy and the young man continue to talk, map held between them. Jane and Betty argue about standardised margins of error across disciplines. The old man listens politely.
As they leave the little interior, Darcy pokes Jane’s side. “Say thank you,” she hisses, waving.
“Thank you!” Jane calls over her shoulder.
“No, I taught you, in Arabic.”
“Oh,” says Jane. “Shookran!” she calls a little louder, pronunciation angular and garbled.
“Close enough,” mutters Darcy. Jane doesn’t hear her, but Betty laughs so hard to clutch her sides and run back to the bathroom. Jane, oblivious, blinks when Betty doesn’t immediately hop into the back seat.
Darcy handwaves dismissively. “Jetlag.”
An hour later, there are multilingual signs for the research station, and Darcy can finally fold the map away. Jane immediately shoves two more gizmos into her empty lap.
“Good,” she says, “now you can tell me what’s changed. Also, can you find out what the weather will be like tonight? Will it be clear?”
Betty snores terrifically.
“Oh, my God,” complains Darcy.
The commissionaire at the gate looks relieved to see them. “Thank goodness!” she exclaims. “We were expecting you hours ago.”
Jane has the decency to look sheepish.
Two days later, Betty and Darcy are back at that little fuel station, specifically for a kind of cookie that Betty and Jane have fallen for. Darcy has never liked figs much. When they step inside, it seems the entire family is both present and excited, crowded around the television behind the register.
“Look!” shouts the familiar young man, “They’re back!”
“Oh no,” mumbles Betty.
There’s a roar from the older members of the family, and lots of shoulder-shaking and gesticulating. “Come look,” says the young man, “the Avengers are looking for your friend.”
“Oh no,” says Darcy.
“There is a satellite phone at the research station,” says a young female relative, “but the newscast says the Avengers do not know where you are.”
Jane’s picture fills the gritty screen.
“It says they think she will be able to help,” the young man translates. “I thought you said she was an astrophysicist?”
“She is,” Betty assures him. “We’re -”
“- going to go get Jane right now,” interrupts Darcy, tugging on her sleeve.
Betty’s mouth closes with a clack of teeth.
“Get your crap, we’re leaving!”
Darcy's met with outrage. “What?”
“Avengers Assemble!” shouts Betty, with gusto.
“... And scientists scatter,” mutters Darcy. “Hey, Bets, will you find that phone?”
“Pepper!” Betty says brightly.
“Oh, thank God,” says Pepper. Her voice has a thin, tinny quality. “Dr. Ross, where on Earth are you? And please say you’ve got Foster and Lewis, too.”
“We’re on the coast of Tunisia,” says Betty. “What on Earth is happening in New York?”
“What’s the closest airport?” Pepper ploughs on, “I’ll get you a Starkjet to South Africa. And please, please don’t turn on your phones.”
“How come?” Betty asks nervously.
“Because then the evil robots will know where you are. Your disappearing act has, to this point, been a blessing in disguise.”
“Oh,” says Betty, “okay.”
The three women pack only their essentials and throw themselves back into the truck. As a matter of course, they stop at the fuel station.
Jane stares, slack-jaw, at the screen for the duration of its entire loop.
“Why does this happen every damn time, I swear to-”
Jane’s indignation mounts as the drive continues. “You would think that Stark has enough experience coding his damned bots -”
“It’s this ramp,” says Darcy.
“- avoid megalomaniacal genius wherever I can, but nooo-”
“Jane!” Darcy shouts.
“I said, it’s this ramp!”
“Ohmigod,” shrieks Betty, waking up as the truck rocks and skids over the sandy partition they really shouldn’t be driving on. Gravel bangs up against the vehicle’s paneling, but they make the exit, so Darcy counts a win through clenched teeth.