Net-Working

From the Story Arc: The Charge of the Labcoat Brigade

Previous Story in the Arc: Social Science 103 by Krasnaya Zarya (Monday, February 12, 2007)

Next Story in the Arc: Combat Medicine by Krasniy Zakat (Monday, February 19, 2007)

(posted Sunday, February 18, 2007)

((Cowrittwen with Victoria Victrix))

Wednesday Evening, Moscow Time

"Flight 305 from Tel Aviv arrival at Gate 24B," the heavy-accented voice chanted in English; Sofia winced at the thick butchered consonants and the flat vowels. "Flight 2727 from Vladivostok departs in ten minutes from Gate 21A…" Domodedovo airport had changed significantly since the last time - in this universe, that is - she had been there. That was over fourteen years ago, now, when a half-dead Sasha and a bone-tired Sofia ascended the plane to take them from Russia forever. Only seldom did she look back at that life, sometimes, when the noise and clutter became overwhelming, and the cultural clashes got too much to bear quietly - then Sofia found herself wishing she were elsewhere. But that was only seldom, and rarely, if ever, in conscious, deliberate thought. Fifteen years ago, Russia had been a bad place to live in; it still was, in many ways.

The young lady at the passport control confirmed her feeling of being an outsider when she scowled at the two grinning scientists and smacked the seal onto their passports with a little too much force. Russians did not much like their émigré brethren - the latter never fully assimilated within their environment and even in the second generation of their life-in-exile kept a vicarious watch over their cultural purity, while the former refused to forget that leaving the motherland was, in fact, an act of treachery. Russian émigré were among the most dislocated persons in the world; nobody quite took them in, nobody really wanted them back.

Alexander, whose face started looking a little grey with purple circles under the eyes, hefted the bag with electronics which he laboriously carried through customs. While Sofia was standing about examining the changes that took place in the airport, he was busily arguing with a customs agent whose face and demeanour said 'what can I get out of this rich little American before I let him pass?'

"Finally," Alex grumbled under his nose. "I almost thought I would have to slide a fifty or a hundred into the guy's pocket, before he fines us for all we're worth. 'How much money are you carrying on you, mister?' Like I can't take his meaning…"

"Well, it's over, and we're done," Sofia rubbed her aching neck and thought longingly of a long shower and a bed to sprawl in and sleep off the tiredness of the plane. Unlike Alexander, she could never sleep en route, and always arrived at their destination half-crazed with the boredom of the flight and tired as a dog. "Naumov should be waiting for us out front; I hope he has a ride." She grinned at the sight of Alex's disgusted face. "And there he is… be nice now!"

For herself, Sofia had last seen Naumov when he was staring at her pityingly, in a whole different universe. There he had never let up the hope of acquiring her as his esoteric trophy wife… he was ruddy-faced and large, in many ways handsomer than Alexander, and not completely unintelligent, but even as a professor of linguistics in the still-surviving Soviet Union he lacked the spark of brilliance necessary to be a genius - and Sofia would have come to loathe life with him soon, and passionately.

The local Naumov - who she last saw a few years ago, on a visit to Omsk - was still as ruddy-faced, though somewhat less large, his fat prudently curbed by exercise and a Mediterranean diet. He was also long since not a professor of linguistics. Naumov was a businessman; he bought something and sold something else… Sofia wasn't entirely certain what exactly, but he was a New Russian.

"Sophie!" he came to them, beaming and holding out his ahnds. Well, his manner changed not at all. "Ma cherie, look at you all grown, and still with that good-for-nothing pauper, long-pole Rabinovich!"

"Shocking isn't it?" Sofia stepped back warily from the man's overly-cordial embrace. "You haven't changed one bit, either, Boris Arkadih."

"Indeed, still the intellectual giant you were," said Alex dryly, "How's that scientific work going, again?"

"Racking in millions, Rabinovich. I've been busy measuring the dimensions of my own swimming pool on the beach in Malta. You make that much off of your gadgets, surely?" Naumov was no slouch. Sofia winced, looking out for the appropriate moment to curb the lashing tongue of the two males. The testosterone flying in the air was completely unbearable.

"We do well enough, Naumov," Alexander murmured docilely. A little too docilely. "Especially with the revenue Sofia got from that last book she sent to publish… Something about cognitive representations of logical conjunctions. But money isn't important."

"Lovely, ma cherie, lovely!" Naumov's face split into a genuine smile and Sofia cold not escape either his pumping hand, or Alex's smirk, which she felt the urge to wipe off his face by punching him in the jaw. "And how are you two otherwise? The family, the children?"

Sofia paled a little under the burning pink of her slight sunburn. "Still nonexistent, Boris Arkadich," As you well know. Bastard. The two male rivals grinned at each other, a grin that would not have shamed two lower primates left alone in one cage in a zoo. Alex caressed his bag of electronics absently for a few moments, a calculating glint in his devious eyes.

"Indeed, some things are simply not meant to be." Sofia saw the setup coming a mile awhile. "And how's your wife doing in her - what was her degree in again?"

Enough was enough. Sofia sent her nails - Margarita-style - into her husband's ear behind Naumov's back. "Cease and desist," she muttered to him fiercely in English, "Or I will burn your ponytail. Kapisch?"

"Ow…" Alex whimpered under her fingernails. "Okay okay, let go…" Sofia released his ear, briefly rubbing off the nail marks, and adopted a bland, large smile. The three, all benevolent at first glance, and nonchalant to the casual eye, strolled over the air-conditioned, mall-filled space to the sliding glass doors that led them into Moscow's cold, grey afternoon. Broods of unsmiling well-dressed Moscovites and happy, ragged tourists - easily distinguishable by the far-inferior quality of their dress - rushed to and fro like schools of colourful fish in the water. Their erstwhile acquaintance, who they thought would lead them off to the parking garage, instead flicked out a cell-phone more loaded with electronics and sleek contours than Alex's trusty PDA, and rang.

In thirty seconds, a long, shiny black… thing, pulled in front of the openmouthed doctors.

"Pines and sticks and thick forests…" Sofia didn't normally use coarse language - which this was not, precisely. It was a good expression, though, rolling off and muttered in the same tone of voice one simply knew would be used to pronounce a long string of expletives by a less polite person. "Whom did you rob, Boris?"

"A little bit off of everyone, ma cherie!" Naumov, the big businessman, held open the car door for her and Alex, smiling jauntily. "I rob from the rich, and give to the poor. I was very poor at the time."

"Does that mean you rob from yourself, now, and give to the other poor?" Alex smirked.

"That would be charity and socialism." Naumov tsked. "We are a great capitalist nation now."

"Oh, yes, so great," Sofia murmured. Like in most situations, the Rabinoviches had let their opinion be known about the 'New Russia' and its 'New Russians'. It seemed a lot like the old Russia, but with less ostentatious officials and more mafia.

"Moscow is the second most expensive city in the world now, you know," Boris Naumov chuckled from the front seat. It looked that, all right. Everything was new and shiny and very, very reconstructed. No signs were left of the previous regime; the statues were melted to scrap metal, the flags and banners tossed aside, the Lenin mausoleum quickly disbanded and obscured and the construction proceeding at top speed on the capital's downtrodden churches. Was it better than it had been? Sofia didn't feel any sentiment towards the previous regime except contempt, but even she could not be certain to say that what she was seeing now could be called an improvement. Moscow was its own little country within a country… otherwise…

"Perhaps that's why nobody ever smiles," said Alex, looking out the window at two teenage girls, dressed like supermodels, strolling slowly and seriously down a street.

The big businessman grunted.

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

Thursday Late Morning, Moscow Time

"Careful!" Sofia ducked instinctively and grabbed the door handle passenger-side, "Good God, don't you rear-end him with somebody else's car!"

"I am more worried about hitting a more expensive car than our own…" Alex muttered as he braked wildly, and twisted the wheel. "Don't you know the current car-hierarchy? A Volga isn't all the rage anymore."

"Well, you just remember you're not driving in America, Sasha." A frightened Sofia usually meant an irritated Sofia, which usually meant a suffering Alexander. "So long as you don't fully succumb to the local custom and start purposefully hitting pedestrians, that is." The bag of electronics and gadgets on the back seat of the borrowed car slid precariously to one side, and something jingled in it. BUMP! The car hit yet another pothole, and the gentle apparatus squealed protest. Sofia leaned over and pulled the heavy bag onto her lap, to avoid discovering that some crucial part of equipment was banged into little and quite useless shreds.

Another aspect of Russia that seemed not only universal, but nigh onto multi-dimensional was the terrible state of the roads, and the complete lack of respect Russian drivers gave the rest of the world. That most assuredly did include people on the sidewalks, people crossing roads legally at a green light, and especially people hitchhiking. If you were anywhere in the vicinity of a stretch of asphalt - and you weren't driving - your life was by definition forfeit without repercussions.

Alexander Rabinovich hadn't driven in anything less tame than New York in several years.

Not to say that he was a slouch - Sofia grabbed onto the handle again as he ground to a stop at a red light - but one's senses could only stay so sharp, for so long, without constant exercise. And Russian drivers were, despite all rumours to the contrary, the worst in the world.

They should have just taken a bus to Althea's parents, honestly. But then it would have been a trifle hard to explain the electronics. People didn't normally carry around fragile silicon chips, homing devices and other arcana. Not that anybody was likely to look and see either the equipment, or two people vanishing in the blue haze of teleportation, but they did want it secret, and they did want a vanishing act… Hence the extreme privacy and the reason the two were driving out to the parents' tomato farm.

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

Thursday, Very Early Morning, Rhode Island Time

The light had barely dawned when the phone ring woke up Sofia Rabinovich.

Nobody called the Rabinoviches - neither the locals nor the guests - at such an unholy hour, unless these were the other Rabinoviches. Sofia plucked up the receiver next to the bed and mumbled something incoherent into it that she assumed the person on the other end of the line will take as 'bugger off'.

"It's me," came her own voice from the other end of the receiver. "And if you don't wake up, I'll make you pay the phone bill." Of course it's me, Sofia ranted to herself, and for that me it's already afternoon!

"Cruel and unusual," She mumbled while sliding out of her warm blanket and groping in the dark for her alternate's wool socks. "Whatcha want, monster?"

"It's time," her twin told her calmly, while something beeped in the background. "Get Althea and get ready. Get Aleksander and have him set up the equipment, then go to the CCCP base and be ready to jump them to Sanctuary as soon as they come through. Get a headset; I am your relay."

Right. This was it. After their alternates come back, they can ditch the act, and simply work together as themselves. That was a positive thing, Sofia tried to convince herself as she brewed tea, and dragged her sleepless Aleksander out of Alex's lab, where he was busy doing God-knew-what. She yanked out her alternate's laptop and poked at it carefully; she hadn't gotten the hang of these 'computer' things yet. Aleksander's learning curve was pretty much straight up; her own, being a little more in the realm of human, inched to the side… and she had a lot to learn, lately. But running a simple enough program was definitely within her capacity. Where was that headset the alters left her…?

Althea, still groggy from sleep, was found in the CCCPs soup-kitchen about an hour later. The time was six-thirty in the morning, and inching towards evening out in Moscow. The Rabinoviches had a flight departing back to America early morning, Moscow-time, on the next day… which meant that by Friday noon, one way or another, they would be ready for the next task on Sofia's long to-do list. And, in the meantime, as in a good mystery novel, two elderly people will simply disappear from their small house and garden out in the Moscow countryside, leaving behind signed sale documents and a new owner, bequeathing them most of their furniture, books, dishes and fancy carpets.

"Althea," Sofia said quietly behind the girl's back, making her jump.

"Sofia! You're back! Are they here?"

Sofia grinned, waving her hand. "I am not the Sofia you are looking for." It was bad of her, but she could simply not resist. "I'm the other one. However, I just had a phone call, and I need you to come with me." Eyeing Althea's poised soup-ladle Sofia added a little less flippantly. "Now."

Althea scurried.

In the CCCP base, which Sofia entered warily, but successfully, they headed into the back room, and set the laptop on a table beside the still-flourishing pine. "We'll have them 'ported here... Aleksander is on the relays back in the lab, and Sasha and Sofia will give the initial boost from Moscow. Our job, obviously, is to grab them as soon as they appear, and yank them to Sanctuary. Save your hugs for later, yes?"

Althea nodded, then frowned. "I thought we were porting them to Sanctuary to begin with..."

"Yes, but we have realized something quite important. You see, Sanctuary is moving." Althea's mouth fell open and Sofia nodded. "Yes... It's a ship, it isn't stable enough. The last thing we want is for your parents to wind up in the ocean, or in the middle of the engine propellers, God forbid."

She slipped on her headset and flipped open the microphone. "That's why we do it from here."

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

Thea had Americanized enough to need coffee, not tea, in the morning. Lots of coffee. CCCP coffee, which meant strong enough to melt the spoon. Espresso would be jealous of this pitch-black liquid, which she made tolerable with roughly half a cup of sugar. Five minutes later she felt her eyelids roll up into the top of her head like window shades. "Blin," she said. "That is better. Now my brain cells are firing." She looked at Sofia--the other Sofia, she reminded herself. Of course. This one was just a touch uncertain, a tiny bit hesitant. She wondered how long it would take "her" Sofia to get this one trained.

Not long, probably.

"So, what is it I am doing?" she asked.

"Well," Sofia poured herself some liquid poison and gulped it down, holding her nose, "you don't need to do much, except be ready to grab an arm, and port for Sanctuary. You have your card here, right?"

"I never take it off except to bathe. And then it is where I can see it." Ever since the debacle with Anomie being snatched out of JTF HQ, everyone in CCCP had become more paranoid about their portal keys. "So, Mama and Poppa arrive here, I take them both and we all three port to Sanctuary. Assuming they are not accidentally left in Paris. Da?"

Sofia clapped her hand on the cacophony that was slowly gaining acceleration in her headphones. "I am assured that this won't happen." she murmured. "Correct, Alexander? Whichever one of you is listening... Ah, see? They say it's all under control. Which means that all we'll miss, in the worst scenario, is a hand or a foot." She grinned.

"So long as Mama and Poppa do not arrive with the heads of flies..." Thea whispered back, but she was smiling. "Or literally two-made-one, like in that Trek Star movie."

"They tell me I need to watch those," Sofia commented absently, and turned her attention to the headphones for a moment.

'Now, you must hold these tags in your pockets, or carry them in the hand, or at the least have them in your suitcase,' other-Sofia was saying in her most lecturing tone to two unknown presences on the other end of the radio connection. 'They work within a certain radius.'

In between the words, she could hear Aleksander muttering to himself something about sunspots interfering with the magnetic field of the Earth and having to redo his calculations. What sunspots have to do with the teleporting Sofia had no clue, but presumably the men knew what they were up to.

"How long have we got, Sofia?" she interjected her alternate's safety-procedures lecture in the middle. "She says ten minutes." Sofia pulled her - well, their - tag out of her pocket and slid it on top of her laptop.

Thea took a long, deep breath, reminded herself that this was no worse than the portal trips to alternate dimensions she herself had taken already, and probably a lot safer, given who was in charge. Portal Corporation techs were always losing scientists and beacons. Sasha had managed to track down his alternate self and leave enough clues behind that the resourceful Sofia had found him. And on top of all that, there was baked sturgeon and herring salad riding on this. Even if she didn't trust Sasha, she knew Sofia--both Sofias--would take the ears off the Sashas if they botched this and ruined the promised meals-to-come.

"All right, young lady," Sofia smirked at her broadly. "We have a go for launch. The weather is cooperating, and they should be arriving... just about... now."

The air suddenly grew thick and heavy, the ends of Sofia and Thea's hair standing on end from the generated electromagnetic field. Barely audible crackling, as if from a power generator station, teased their eardrums. Finally, a large purple and blue flash filled the room, temporarily blinding the two waiting women. It faded away revealing the newly arriving couple.

"Wha-?" Sofia gasped, staring at a pair of fish - carp, actually. Still flopping.

'Did you catch them?' she heard Aleksander ask over the comm.

Thea's heart stopped. She grabbed for the edge of the console in a panic.

"SASHA!" Sofia squealed indignantly, pressing a hand over a suddenly fluttering heart. "We've got FISH!"

'What kind of fish?' A choked and quickly smothered male snicker clued her in.

"I'll murder you, Aleksander Rabinovich! Both of you! I will tie your collective ponytails into a knot and bundle you onto somebody's jet plane! I'll disassemble every single one of your PDAs into little shred!" Sofia shrieked incoherently into the headphones while checking on a suddenly pale Althea.

Thea heard the snicker and panic dropped away. She gritted her teeth. Men! She had never had brothers but... she had, as a child, been the butt of more than one prank by the brothers of her friends. But rather than threaten, she walked to the pad and picked up the floundering fish. "You are knowing," she said into the comm, "That you are violating nearly a hundred Agriculture Department regulations, da? Is bringing no live animals into US without quarantine."

'I thought there was something fishy about those settings...' Alex mumbled into the comm. Aleksander quickly chimed in, 'I guess we needed better bait?' 'Perhaps a bigger hook.' 'And we got the fish from the store just down the street in King's Row. By all the Circle of Thorns.'

Thea retrieved the fish and hustled them straight into the refridgerator where they could die peacefully. Already she had a plan. One went into a bucket of clean water to purge itself of river muck. The other did not. Sofia would get baked carp, nicely prepared and properly cleaned. Sasha, however, would get the one that she had not cleaned the mud out of...

"Are we ready to actually get serious now?" Sofia demanded crossly into her microphone. "And you, you traitor -" that was for her female counterpart in Moscow "-what were you thinking?"

"What!" Other Sofia was howling with laughter. "For once the joke is not on me."

Correction. This Sofia would get nice baked carp. The other one could share the... unfortunate one... with Sasha.

'Yes, yes, we're ready,' Alex announced. 'At your leisure, Aleksander.'

"What leisure?" Sofia and Aleksander muttered at the same time. "It's early over here. Go, go... the relays are all set. No fishy tricks this time."

The room was once again at the crux of various electromagnetic fields, causing havoc on Sofia's ponytail. Another bright flash bombarded their eyeballs, threatening to give a migraine to the chronically plagued Rabinovich, and faded away to reveal two astonished and amused middle-aged Russians.

"Grab and go!" Sofia yelled as she snatched the woman's arm in one hand, the laptop and card barely in another and stepped on a suitcase so as not to lose it. On the other side, Althea was doing something similar, and the world swirled past in yet another obnoxious purple haze. She'd have to make the Aleksanders devise a teleportation without the visual effects, as a way to make up for that... fishing incident.

"Govno," Thea coughed, at nearly the same time as her adoptive father said the same. They looked into each others' eyes, laughed, and belongings were forgotten as they caught each other up in a three-way embrace.

Sofia stepped carefully away as the family went wild.