Endgame

From the Story Arc: There's No Place Like Home

Previous Story in the Arc: Strategy by Althea Nagy (Thursday, June 09, 2005)

Next Story in the Arc: Sleep Well by Red Saviour (Friday, June 10, 2005)

(posted Friday, June 10, 2005)

You have been without water too long, Althea.

The steady trickle of healing energy did not make up for the fact that she had not had so much as a sip of water since landing in Silver Lake. She could feel her mind slipping---

And the halucinations started.

She didn't realize they were halucinations at first. She heard voices, saw the door starting to burn, wavered to her feet, and there was Alexei---except that when she reached for him, he faded away.

Or she woke from a fevered half-sleep to see the Commissar standing over her---

Or it was that good man, John Murdock, eyes strangely gentle above the scarf he always wore about his face.

She stopped believing in them after that. Stopped hoping.

I will endure and then I will die.

Even that seemed remote now, shrouded in a vague sadness. She would fade like a dying blossom, then. She accepted that.

Fei Li came and stood over her, demanding that she resume her exercises. She wobbled to her feet again and begain the walk. But she lurched like a drunk, and the General did not have to push her to send her tumbling off balance before People's Blade, too, faded away.

She lay on the floor, cheek pressed against the cool stone, roused from her stupor by a crackle of static followed by voices. She thought at first it was the guards, but then she heard a dear, familiar voice, made unfamiliar and hard by rage.

"That is ok. I will do enough for both of us."

Alexei?

"Then knock them unconscious and I will finish job." The Commissar. Her hand reached to her belt for her comm. Incredibly, it was still there. She rolled over onto her side and stared at it as it crackled with voices.

"I'm not killin' anyone either."

"BAh! What kind of flame bombs are you?"

"They will drop before you hear my gun sound off."

"You want us or not?"

"I'm a hero RS, look it up."

The dreams had not included the comm before. Idly, she thumbed the talk button. It crackled. Clearly the long drop and immersion in the lake had done it no good. "Is anyone there?" she asked carefully.

The voices went on, oblivious. "If they were villians, it would be different. They are animals."

"But if Thea dies...I am taking revenge on them."

If? She was already dead.

"Quiet!"

"ALTHEA!"

She sighed. "You are not here," she told the voices on the comm. "I am knowing this."

The comm crackled some more, obliterating whatever the dream voices were saying. It was a pity. It might have been interesting.

"No chance is anyone listening," she said to the comm, with remote sorrow.

The Commissar again, shouting. "WE ARE COMING FOR YOU THEA."

That alone told it was a dream. The comm fell from her hand and she could not muster the strength to pick it up. She drifted a moment longer, listening to the crackle of static and the voices, until one came that was not coming from the little box

John Murdock: it sounded as if he was on the other side of the door. "Thea! You here?"

She lurched to her feet before she thought. Stupid. You have just wasted energy you don't have. But she answered the voice anyway. "John?"

She stared at the door, blinking. It was burning. And a moment later, it exploded into hot dust and through the dust---

John Murdock, and Shen---

And Alexei.

A clamor of voices. Too much to sort out, overwhelming. "Alexei?" she faltered, blinking. "John?"

She swayed and put her hand to her head. The faces were blurring, figures wavering and vanishing, then reappearing. "I---I thought I saw Alexei. I think I see John---" she shook her head. Her thoughts were going straight to her mouth and coming out as words, but that hardly mattered. This was another halucination, of course. "I think I am having---no. No one has come for me, is a dream again." Someone she vaguely remembered seeing with Bella and Vickie, a flaming man, reached for her as she swayed back. But of course, he could not touch her. He was a dream too. She sighed with remote sorrow. "Is all a dream. I will die and no one will care." Each time she repeated it, somehow, it became a little easier to accept. "Maybe I am already dead," she added, wonderingly.

The others protested, but of course, they had protested before. Before, when they faded like mist in the sun. She swayed, and for a moment, blacked out.

When she opened her eyes again, not a great deal had changed, except that now she was on the floor again. The floor was good, not so far away from her head, now. Though why she was kneeling rather than laying on it---

They helped her to her feet. This was new. The dreams had never been able to touch her before---

Ah. Not halucinations, a real dream, a fever-dream. She let them lead her out, a few staggering steps at a time. Shen and John---

A glimpse of the burning man.

Voices clamouring, echoing, rattling around in her thoughts. Explosions and gunfire. Screams.

"I---" this was her dream, why was Alexei not in it? Her knees gave again, and she dropped to the floor. "---Alexei?"

Ah. There he was. Good. And the Commissar Bestial Boy, who peered at her with concern through his dark-magic cloud, so very like her own. "Hey there Thea...you're looking a bit...pale."

She sighed. "Is dream," she told both of them.

Alexei reached for her. "Nyet belochka, is real!"

Belochka. Now you know it is a dream, Althea. She shook her head. "No---is dream," she replied to him. "Is dream and I am dead."

One or the other, Althea, surely one does not dream when dead! Or are dreams all that the dead have?

"No one comes for me." She closed her eyes and opened them again, willing the dream to go away. She was tired of hoping. She didn't want to hope anymore.

They were talking, talking, and there was too much noise, and all she wanted to do was fade, like a dying orchid.

"Hold her," said the burning man to Alexei. "Talk to her man!"

Alexei put his arms around her. She could have cried, if she had had tears left, it felt so real, and she knew it was not. "Thea. Thea, my beloved. We are here."

If only he was---

"I am so tired--so tired---" she sighed, and closed her eyes.

He stroked her hair, and she opened them again. It was so noisy. It sounded like a war. "Your friends are here," he said. "Just Like I told you."

Something was pushed into her hand. She stared at it without recognition. Something told her she should know this object, but she couldn't identify it.

Well, it was her dream. She could say what she pleased. "Alexei?"

"Da?" his arms felt so good. "I am here. Here with you."

"If you are dream, is no matter---I can say what I please---"

He rocked her gently. So many voices---so much noise. Explosions, gunfire---it echoed in her head and made it ache. That was not fair. Her head should not ache in a dream.

Unless this was the last dream she would ever have.

Yes....

Words came from her mouth she had not even thought to say. "Alexei, dream, I do not know if---I think I am in love with you, dream."

The dream-Alexei was laughing and crying at the same time. Yes, definitely a dream.

Voices on the comm. The burning man was screaming with rage. "Dammit Khrush... they're down! You don't have to murder the unconcious!"

Oh yes, the last surreal dream of her life. It could be nothing else. Alexei holding her and crying, and people being slaughtered like chickens around her. "I think---I have never been in love." She let go. Let it happen. No point in holding on anymore. "And I will die now."

But Alexie took the thing in her hand, and uncapped it, and urged it to her lips. "Nyet my love. No dying. Not now. Not ever."

Water. It was a water-flask. She sipped in surprise, stared at it, sipped again.

"No one is dying today!" exclaimed Bestial Boy.

If this was a dream---at least the water was good. And it felt as if with each sip, a little more of her self was coming back.

She blinked.

Alexei's voice breathed in her ear. "Remember, my cousin Sergei? The one who sent me newspapers?"

On the comm, John Murdock and Red Djinni were swearing. Yes, she knew the burning man's name now; Red Djinni. She blinked and sipped, blinked and sipped.

"He is headed in his truck for Moscow," Alexei told her. "He is going to get your mama and papa and get them out of city."

The flask was nearly empty, and it felt as if bits of her brain were coming back to life, like lightbulbs coming on, one by one, in a darkened house. She raised her head. If this was a dream---

"Is using many favors to find them," Alexei said, as Shen shoved another flask into her hand.

"Is---real?" she said, still unable to truly believe it.

Commotion, swirling of people too fast for her to take in. Alexei gone, Bestial Boy dropping a brightly coloed box beside her, people talking about food---food she had lost interest in---some time ago. But water---

More shouting, more explosions. The sound of things smashing.

"Oh for god's sake...." exclaimed the burning man, Red Djinni, on the comm.

"Silence, Djinni. This is war!" the Commissar snapped.

"Break what you want RS," the burning man sighed. "I'm headed back to the others to help Thea out."

"Fine...we evacuate. But destroy things on way out."

Shen shoved a packet of rice into her hand, and she stared at it, and begin to smile. "No--no Shen!" she said, feeling as if she was waking up from a long, terrible nightmare. "You must be real!"

Shen's broad smile telegraphed relief "Dui!"

"Evacuate!" the Commissar called over the comm.

The burning man was back. "Shen, can you lead her out? I've got your back."

"Only a real Shen would offer me horrible old rice!" she said.

The burning man sniggered and helped her to her feet.

On the long, stumbling way out of the caves, she began to revive. More water, much more water, was passed to her. She felt as if she could never get enough water. Like a desert, she absorbed it. Every gulp made more of her brain come alive.

And then they were out, out into the open air, and sun, and grass. And no matter that there were horrible Destroying Earth walking the hill above, Althea took a huge, deep breath of air that was clean and did not stink of caves, or diesel fumes, or sewer. Free air. She was free.

She looked about at them, wonderingly. John Murdock, Red Djinni, Shen, Bestial Boy, that strange robot-man Krushchev---

Alexei---

The Commissar, Red Saviour.

The Commissar was shouting into the comm. "FEI LI...WE HAVE EXTRACTION. TARGET IS SAFE."

The target? She was the target? "You came for me---" she said with wonder.

"Of course we did!" Shen exclaimed, as Alexei took both her hands in his.

"BREAK OFF ATTACK WHEN YOU CAN. WE RENDEVOUS AT HQ." Red Saviour shouted.

"You all came for me--" she repeated, and her face fell as the import of that struck her. These people, not all of them even comrades! All of them important, so much more important than she. "Oh! What have I done?"

Alexei still held to both her hands as her throat closed in dismay. "I told you we all are your friends."

"I have---oh!" she whispered, feeling the weight of a terrible load of debt and responsibility crush her.

Red Saviour frowned.

Alexei looked at her with puzzlement in his beautiful eyes. "Shto?"

"Give her space," the Commissar ordered.

Distress welled up in her over what she had caused. Fei Li---was the General running some sort of distraction attack? If that was true---"I have made me even more of a nuiscance!" she whispered.

And John Murdock looked ill, terribly ill. He was coughing and wheezing like an old man. Even Bestial Boy noticed. "You okay John?" the Americanski said, as Red Saviour glared at John, then offered him vodka.

Red Djinni was talking into his comm now. "Red Djinni to all Congress in Comm range. Stand down. I repeat, Stand down. Althea Nagy has been rescued."

Oh no---oh no---

Red Saviour urged the flask at Murdock. "Drink this," she ordered.

Murdock looked up blearily. "Huh? Ya, ya...fine."

Thea backed up until she was pressed against the rock, the knuckles of one hand pushed against her lips. "No--no---look---All of you--for me---I am nothing---"

"Step back." Red Saviour ordered. "Althea, hold still." The Commissar removed her glasses, checked her eyes, then took her pulse. "I check you for injury. Were you wounded? Govno...they are beasts." Thea closed her eyes; cracked ribs, places where she had fallen and struck some part of herself, or where an irritable guard had punched her, these hardly mattered in light of what had been brought to bear to rescue her. And for what! A fraud, a viper in their heart.

"I---Commissar, I am sorry---" she pleaded.

Red Saviour waved it off. "Nyet, is hardly your fault."

She hung her head. "I did not mean to be such a burden," she whispered.

Shen immediately protested. Shen still thought she was---good.

"This can happen to any of us," Red Saviour said, "But, in your case..."

She shook her head. "Alexei was right."

"Of course he was! He was following my orders."

She had to make them understand. "I---Commissar, I am fraud," she said, bringing her chin up and trying to be brave. It had to be said. It had to.

Bestial Boy gaped at her. "Fraud?"

"Fraud." She gritted her teeth and regretted it when pain shot along her jaw-line.

"I know, sestra," the Commissar said calmly, and took a letter out of her jacket. "This is yours." She handed it to Thea who took it with shaking hands. "I always knew...but I didn't believe my gut instinct. Until I read this."

It was her father's handwriting. The words hit worse than any of the blows the Council soldiers had given her. You can never come home. The letter fell from her nerveless fingers.

Stricken she looked at Murdock, kneeling, resting, in far worse case than she was. "John? You okay?" Red Djinni was asking.

Murdock waved him off, coughing. "Yeah...fine. See to Thea....we'll talk later..."

Red Saviour regarded her steadily. "I have already been making calls to Russia. Your family will come to no harm."

Murdock's coughing was getting worse, and even the Commissar was glancing at him, worried.

"I a---please, Commissar, you do not know what you have harboured---" she said desperately, and turned to Murdock. "John---"

John Murdock turned his head a little to look at her. "Yeah, kiddo?"

"You are ill---" Ill because of me, she meant to say, but Alexei interrupted.

"Belochka, zamalche. You are not to blame, and I will not hear you to be blaming self anymore!"

"Krushchev---" she continued, turning to the strange robot-man who had so frightened her the day she saw him. "I am sorry"

The Commissar was busy ordering John Murdock to see a doctor. Better she finally pay some attention to someone who was not a lie. "Understood, comrade Murdock?"

Murdock was still trying to make believe that it was she who was important. Worth risking anything for. "I'm alright...I'm fine. Understand? We need to get her to HQ."

She raised her voice; it sounded shrill. "I am sorry, all of you. I do not deserve to be here."

Red Saviour again waved her off. "Bah. We have rescued you...and five others."

She would make them listen. They must understand. "Moscow told me to pretend to be more than I was---"

Finally, she had their attention. "They...told you this?" said the Commissar.

"Why?" asked the robot, and "Who?" barked Red Saviour.

She raised her chin and faced them all. "I am a fraud and I have put you all in danger---"

The Commissar's eyes flashed. "I want names!"

Too bad she had none to give. She shrugged helplessly. "Nameless men in bad suits---"

"Govno." Red Saviour looked ready to spit someone. "They threatened family..."

Red Djinni interrupted coldly. "Excuse me Red, you still need me here? I would like to leave."

Red Saviour II hardly seemed to notice. "Spasibo for your help, comrade Djinni," she said, as he looked at John Murdock and mouthed the words, "We'll talk"

He looked to Thea, and his eyes softened a little. "Glad to have ya back, darlin'."

"Mister Djinni!" she cried, desperate now. "Please---forgive---"

He looked surprised. "For what?"

"For---being a lie," she pled. "For risking you---"

Red Saviour snorted. "what risk? He wouldn't even kill anyone?"

Red Djinni ignored her. "Do me a favour, talk to Bella and Amb... Vickie as soon as possible," he said to her. "They worried."

Two more from whom she must beg forgiveness. No. It was too much. "I---I will resign CCCP," she said in despair.

Again, she finally got their attention. "SHTO?" the Commissar said, startled. "Nyet. Is out of question. That is for me to decide."

Still they were not listening to her. "I have no right to be here! I only endangered you---"

And finally, the voice of reason from the robot. "How can you trust her now ---after what she has told you?"

John Murdock coughed, and tried to coddle her with words. "Thea...forget it. We're always in danger. Otherwise what we do wouldn't matter."

Red Djinni nodded. "Aye."

Why would they not listen" "I---you cannot trust me! You cannot know that I am not still a lie!"

"Hmmm...this is true, actually," Red Saviour said, and Thea closed her eyes for a moment, glad that her back was to stone, or she might have fallen.

As usual, Bestial Boy tried to make a joke. "If overstating your abilities were a crime, I'd have been in jail a LONG time ago...."

"But letter proves that you had nyet choice," the Commissar observed dispassionately. "In which case, you are victim. And is my responsibility to protect you. Best way to do so is to teach you to protect yourself, as Fei Li has been doing."

"I have no right to be called comrade," she said, with quiet despair. "Not after all the lies."

Red Saviour sighed. "Sestra.... dissembling is part of Russian way, I am afraid."

Very well. She would take it out of their hands. The one creature in all this group that did not know her, did not like her, and would not coddle her. She pushed away from the rock, and with shaky footsteps, turned to the robot man, Krushchev.

"YOU decide!" she said, adamantly.

If a robot could show surprise, this one did. "Me."

"You do not know me," she said. "You do not care."

It looked at her. She looked back up at it, without fear, now. "It is not my decision to make."

"Have I the right?" she persisted.

"What logic is this? We know her best!" Shen protested.

"You only think you know," she replied, her eyes never leaving the robot.

"I would have left you there--luckily you have the Commissar to protect you. Understand a machines priorities."

Finally. She hung her head to accept the judgment. "There it is. The truth."

"But Khruschy would have left his own momma there...er....if there was one," Bestial Boy said feebly.

Now even Red Saviour sounded---uncertain. "Althea...you haven't chosen best judge for this. Khrush is...unique. Besides, I am in charge. So, if I decide you have right to be in CCCP, then you do. Face me."

For the first time, she disobeyed her Commissar. "Very well. If you are machine, look through the records. See if I am worthy."

The lenses regarded her coldly. "Until you can divuldge the whole truth I see you as a lie. While your record is exmplary does anyone truly know what you are?"

John Murdock protested again. "Thea....gawdamnit, Khrush. Thea, we've known 'bout ya for awhile. If we wanted you gone, if we didn't want you here, we would've kicked you already."

"This is foolishness---" the Commissar began.

Althea turned to face them all. "I am Althea Petrovsky," she said, feeling the weight of lies lifting from her with every word. I am botany student Before I come here, I have no magic. Men in bad suits from Moscow tell me to pretend to be upyr hunter."

The Commissar hesitated. "You have no relation to Nagy family?"

"I was BORN Althea Nagy," she added. "I was sealed to family magic at birth but never had it until Ivanova awake it in me."

"And you're still all of that," said Murdock. "Now, you're a hero in addition to that. We're all of the people we've ever been, Thea."

Shen bobbed his head in agreement. "Dui! Comrade Murdock is right, sister!"

She spread her hands. "This is all the truth I know," she said, and then, groped for words of her own. "But what I feel---I have learned hard. I have fought with you as best I can. I----"

"You have supplied me with Soul Food!" exclaimed Bestial Boy.

It wasn't enough. She let out her breath in a sigh, and felt every ache and pain of her beatings. "I still do not deserve to be called comrade."

The robot hesitated, then---"Perhaps I have misjudged you---as hard as it is to believe even I make mistakes from time to time---but I do not understand the emotional part of your situation. Perhaps it is better left to the others and not me."

"You have said enough," the Commissar said crisply. "Now, stand at attention."

She obeyed.

Red Saviour regarded her dispassionately. Finally. She felt the last of her burdens leave her. The weight of lies was gone. Now the truth would be weighed, and she would be judged accordingly. "Althea Petrovsky, you have joined my organization under false pretenses, and jeopardized the lives of comrades. You question whether you have earned the right to be CCCP. I say this is good question."

She waited in silence. As did Alexei---but the look in his eyes told her that, if nothing else, she still had his care. And she could count on the Commissar to protect her family at least.

Perhaps I can get job as cook, and be hero after hours. Mama said good cook will never lack for job.

Red Saviour gave her a long look, "I cannot consider you official CCCP member, because of subterfuge."

John Murdock looked over at Red Saviour, face pale and grim. Shen looked as if someone had beaten him. Even Bestial Boy was silent. Even Alexei was almost as white as Thea herself was.

"However---" Red Saviour looked around to make sure no one was likely to interrupt her. "Based on observations, I would like to request that you consider joining CCCP as provisionary member. After you have proven yourself, you may join organization as full fledged member."

Bestial Boy cheered. "Does this mean we still get to come over for dinner?"

Alexei seized her hand; now she let him take it.

"Meanwhile," the Commissar added, "we will make sure your adoptive parents are safe from Moscow's clutches."

Some of the tension drained from John Murdock's face. Well she knew how he felt. Weak in the knees as the nerves that had been keeping her upright suddenly let go.

"Who will be training her during this provisional period?" the robot asked.

"Oh, it will be Fei Li, of course," the Commissar said, with a conspiratorial wink at Althea. "Althea is my fellow student."

Thea tensed again. "There is another problem, Commissar," she admitted.

"Shto?" Red Saviour said, fidgeting with a cigarette."

She steeled herself. "I am---I am involved with Comrade October Star. Fei Li does not approve. I have said there will be no more lies."

"Oh. What a surprise. That was sarcasm, by the way," the Commissar said. "Oh, ha! That is your concern? Just invite her to Hello Kitty shop as double date. Fei Li is pushover. But to push her over...you have to show her strength of character."

Khrushchev sounded puzzled. "Is that the last of them?---lies that is?"

"It is more serious than that, Commissar," she said slowly, allowing her eyes to meet Alexei's for a moment. "Shen Xue has threatened to break all my bones. And I do not care of Shen Xue breaks all my bones. I will not give him up."

The Commissar lit the cigarrette she had been playing with. "You want boyfriend? You have to convince both Generals. I have learned not to interfere with her. So, do you want to join my team or nyet?"

"Da---" she said, uncertainly, looking at all of them. "But only if all agree---"

"I agree. That is enough. What do you think, this is democracy?"

"This is decision of all comrades---" she replied.

Red Saviour sniffed. "Very noble, sestra, but this is my decision. If you want their trust, earn it."

"Thea...we are Soviets," Alexei whispered. "If Leader say so, it is so."

Shen cheered.

And John Murdock grinned. "It's not a question, Thea. I want you with us, if only for Alexei's sake."

She snapped a salute. "Althea Nagy Petrovsky formally requests entry into CCCP."

Alexei chuckled and looked back at John, sharing something she couldn't read.

Red Saviour stamped out her cigarette.

"Granted," she said, "But you are out of uniform. Here..."

She took off her cape. "Take this, and get proper uniform from decadent tailor."

Red Saviour gave Thea her own cape; hardly able to believe it, Thea took it with hands that shook like birch leaves in the wind. "If anyone questions you," the Commissar said, "show them this."

Khrushchev stood silent in disbelief.

Red Saviour looked them all over benignly. "That's it, comrades, you can make noise now," she said. "Oh, and Zach wants dinner. In fact, darlink has dinner waiting for me. I promised him quick raid. Now, I suggest we return to HQ, patch up Striga raiders, get borscht, and rest. I am famishing."

John Murdock nodded. "Agreed." He smiled slightly at Thea. "Welcome back, kiddo."

She felt her knees going weak "Thank you, Commissar," she said, managing not to stammer. "Requesting permission to return to duty.

"Granted!" said Red Saviour at the same time that Alexei protested "Nyet!" "And stop requesting permission. And you will nyet be fixing dinner, you will eat what is prepared for you. And you will rest. Davay davay!"

"Da, Commissar!" she said, the burden of cloth in her hand feeling light as a feather, but not so light as her heart.

One by one, 'porting, flying, running, they left, until only she and Alexei stood beside the hidden door.

And finally, she was able to turn to him, let him hold her, and lean into his embrace. No more lies. No more guilt. "Alexi," she said, quietly. "Let's go home."