Dystopia Chapter 8

From the Story Arc: Dystopia

Previous Story in the Arc: Dystopia Chapter 12 by Krasniy Zakat (Tuesday, June 27, 2006)

Next Story in the Arc: Dystopia Chapter 9 by Krasnaya Zarya (Friday, June 30, 2006)

(posted Wednesday, June 28, 2006)

Sofia surveyed herself brusquely in the wardrobe mirror and smoothed down her grey flannel skirt. She patted her hair into place carefully, teasing it back into a ponytail. Her hair was hard to manage – it tended to go its own way when she’d let it, and run in long, wild strands. Like Medusa she sent an unexpected grin into the mirror. The expression made her look much younger than her forty-odd years, almost girlish, although it accented a set of fine wrinkles around her eyes. Well, perhaps that wasn't so bad. The snake-woman could kill with a gaze – she herself needed a little more time, but could be just as effective. Although, of course, the more appropriate Medusa would be Victoria herself. Turning people into stone, indeed!

Sofia could not help but feel nervous. This was not serious nervousness, like the kind she got before entering a battle – the nervousness that sent tremors down her spine and hands, that crackled as static in her hair. She’d lift her palms, then, and there would be a slight, so slight, shaking of the fingers as she held them up in the air before her, and the fingertips would be just the slightest bit red, surrounded by a haze, like a thin, shining nimbus in the air. No, this was not it. Rather, the feeling she had now was more akin to that of unease. She had still not become accustomed to thinking of herself and her abilities as anything extraordinary, perhaps excepting the realm of the mind. Her friends, what she had left of them, which was almost nothing at all, were mostly ordinary people with whom she talked about books, movies and music; never about how she could light on fire anything she set her mind to.

She had never made friends in the ‘hero community’. People she nodded to when she passed them in the corridor, yes. Battle comrades whose back she had covered, and who protected her, even, yes. Superiors and contacts, yes. Friends… not as such. She was simply not comfortable with the air of camaraderie that surrounded her. Not abject to it, certainly not! Yet she was not a part of, and quite apart from. Perhaps it was that she was so constantly and continuously focused on one man, and her focus was interpreted as unwillingness to create other social bonds. She sighed a little. It was difficult, to make people understand the difference. Difficult for everyone, but especially for her. She could not conceive of herself as a great social attraction, as it were. She was not especially pleasant, nor particularly enthralling. Most importantly, small talk was a torture, and crowds made her teeth stand on edge. Emotions were never quite clear, but she had not encountered a crowd which was serene and placid, and the feelings grated on her.

Beside the point. She recognized the truth of that, of course. Ultimately, she should be able to control herself, and keep her emotional needs at bay. And standing in front of the mirror for the rest of her life certainly was not promising to be a great help.

She walked into the kitchen and, out of sheer habit, stacked the books and papers to clear off the table. Schrödinger meowed pathetically at her and she turned towards him. The big ginger cat was sitting, despondent, in front of his empty food bowl. He looked rejected, sad, when he was no longer needed to serve as a blanket, or routinely teased with a string or a hand which he had to fight. She gave him food, and scratched his ears. He rubbed his head against her palm, but still looked forlorn. The cat, more than anything else, even more than her own self, told her how empty her house truly was.

On an impulse, she opened the fridge door, and grabbed from it an unopened box of chocolate-chip cookies, as a gift – the habit of bringing gifts as a guest was still strong. – and stuffed the box in her bag before she headed out the door.

Outside the air was dusty and stagnant – not a whiff of wind in the still atmosphere – and the light was grey. She stepped cautiously onto the slippery pavement, and wiped sudden sweat from her brow. She did not like driving these streets. Founder’s, to begin with, was not conducive to good driving conditions, much like Venice wouldn’t have been. There were snipers on the rooftops, who fired at random, and without much discrimination, at pedestrians and drivers alike. They aimed mostly at heroes, true, but who knew these days who was a hero and who was not? Violence was quick, random and quite merciless.

They had an old, 80’s made, beaten blue Ford. They bought it cheap, third hand, but the car was surprisingly sturdy and drove them around faithfully. It’s been all over the nooks and crannies of Paragon, going where no car had gone before, and no car would likely follow. There were scratches on the paint, mementos from Perez Park’s high grass, mud splotches, brought all the way from Faultline, and sooty stains that witnessed its visit to Boomtown. Her husband drove the car ruthlessly, yet spoke of it entirely in the feminine, and was spotted, after especially nasty treks, to pat it on the hood.

She glanced in distaste up to the Wall. It shone magnificent, majestic blue, lively green, and any imaginable shade in between. It was beautiful.

Sofia hated it with a passion few things in her world entitled.

It was Rikti-made – sufficient reason to hate it all in and of itself. It was a hazard and an annoyance. It blocked any decent view of the sky in an incredibly large radius all around it. It was, in addition to all these good reasons, a traffic hog and a disturbance to driving. The narrow tunnels connecting the zones were always, at each and every hour of the day, crowded and crawling. During rush hour, when every single car was out on the road, they were unbearable.

Atlas park neighbourhood was not, geographically speaking, very far. It was perhaps the second oldest neighbourhood in the city, yet from Founder’s Falls it was almost unreachable. She drove though the harlequin facades of founder’s, then through the majestic bridges of Talos Island. She could not help but smile to herself, an ironic smile, looking at the grandeur. Daughter to a nation that had a history of almost four thousand years, born in a land with its own almost two millennia of existence, she always regarded America as young, impertinent and, when it tried to enact Grecian splendor or antiquity, pretentious.

She stopped before the big apartment complex in Atlas Park, locked the car and climbed the stairs and knocked on the simple, wooden door.

Victoria Victrix wore a comfortable, loose pair of pants and a long sleeved house shirt. She looked, thought Sofia with a little bit of hastily suppressed relief, normal. Medium length blonde hair, and nothing else that could strike one as something a human should not, under ordinary circumstances, possess. Sofia had nothing in particular against blue skins, pointy ears and bushy tails… but they had always seemed to her halfway between comic and tragic. Although completely unjustified, it made her feel as if she were in the company of rebellious teenagers, all trying to act differently but all, ultimately, quite the same. Fancy getups, fancy names, fancy hairdos…

She was old fashioned and she knew it.

She pulled out the cookies from her bag, and offered them tentatively, together with a hand. “Evening. I don't think the two of us ever had an actual conversation before.” She smiled a little nervously at that, and thought how ridiculous this must look, a forty-year old not quite over her people-shyness… “I am Sofia Rabinovich. And I don't do hero names outside of the job.”

In fact, why I do them during the job is a mystery to me sometimes.

Victoria took the cookie box, and shook the outstretched hand, quite soberly. She seemed to do most of anything soberly, and Sofia liked that. “My hero name actually is my real name, Sofia,” she noted, as if Sofia hadn’t realized that before. That made her smile a little. “Come on in. I'm assuming you like samovar style tea?”

“Always. I tolerate Postman's tea, of course, but something a little more... authentic is great.” And she followed the other woman in with a slight sensation of relief.

“You'll find that for some reason magicians are great consumers of tea.” Vickie was saying in the meantime. “I have....well....lots. And my, ah, international connections kind of "force" me to learn about every sort there is.”

“All the necessary caffeine, I am sure.” Murmured Sofia in response. She didn’t know why magicians would want tea, aside from the tea leaves, of course. And for that packet tea just would not do. Did Victoria divine in tea leaves? Sofia sincerely hoped that this session won’t reveal her much of the future. She wasn’t certain she wanted to know.

There was a small samovar already heated up, full and waiting, on the kitchen counter. Steam was rising out of its crooked nuzzle and through the rim at the top. Vickie went to the kitchen cupboards, stood on tiptoe for a moment and pulled out two cups.

“Red's out, will be for the next few hours,” she said, referring to her fiancé. That was good news. Sofia was, as yet, completely uncertain of what to expect. She was, frankly, terrified. Not only of the social setting of the event, but also, mainly, of the things Vickie had to tell her. Wanting to ‘talk’ with the kind of urgency she’d heard in the other woman’s voice, and the strain she was feeling now, never boded well. It took all she had to maintain a calm façade in front of this new friend, who was still a stranger, and adding another person to the stew, no matter how well-wishing, was inadvisable at best.

“He’s helping out some new Alliance of Champions people, he says.” Vickie added as she set the cups in front of them and poured the tea. “So.... How to put this...”

Here it comes thought Sofia in near-panic and quenched it with a triviality. “These are chocolate chip cookies. I can't stand most of the Russian stuff, myself. Cakes, yes. Cookies, never.” She sat down carefully on the proffered chair and grasped the teacup. As ready as she can be, now. “So.”

“Russians think they're paranoid.” Vickie stated quietly, “I defined the word. Part of it is that my folks are both FBI agents. Part of it is some hard stuff I went through.” She looked at Sofia very thoughtfully, considering something. Somehow Sofia knew this moment was important. Some decision had to be made, about her, most likely. She smiled, “Nobody is more paranoid than Russian Jews. That's where the Jewish mothers truly hail from. But I am sure you do a respectable job of it.” She added quickly, hoping she managed to lighten the atmosphere some. Perhaps a vain hope, but it was the attempt that counted, wasn’t it?

Apparently not. Vickie took up a cookie and crumbed the edge a little. She clearly wasn’t thinking food, or tea, at the moment.

“When Thea was kidnapped back when,” she said thoughtfully, ”I kind of promised myself that I was never, ever going to lose track of anyone again. So...”

Vickie sighed and Sofia held back the thought the ominous So again… She truly did have a horrible sense of humour. Vickie seemed to finally have decided and she ploughed on determinedly.

“I have everyone's hospital transponder codes. And the overrides. I know where all of you are. All the time. And I track you. I'm not sure even the Commissars know how completely I track you.”

That revelation was an unpleasant shock. True, Sofia was not an American. She didn’t credit rights of privacy nearly as much as some of her native friends did. She knew, firstly, that there was a benefit to others’ knowledge of your life. Testimony were small towns and villages, where nobody in trouble would remain without help for very long, whether he wished for the help or not. True, they had paid their price in gossip and rumours, but, being as alone as she was in the big city, all the great and small woes of being piled onto her sometimes too narrow shoulders, Sofia could appreciate the wish for someone to take the burden off. Nevertheless, there was something deeply disturbing in the knowledge that someone right there, sitting in front of her, someone who knew her personally was the one doing the tracking.

“Wonderful” she grimaced almost despite her will. “I do hope you are, at least, discreet.”

Vickie sighed resignedly, expecting a similar reaction. “Word of the kid of FBI agents?”

To a Russian? Sofia thought with amazement, and quite a bit of amusement. But after only a second’s reflection she understood that, in its won way, it was a point. Perhaps more than Vickie realized. FBI were known for their discretion… and beyond that, this particular promise, made unthinkingly perhaps was the most valid for it. You take an oath by what matters to you when it is a matter of a split-second’s decision. I think I see.

“I think I understand, though I doubt I can accept completely,” murmured Sofia delicately. “I will trust you, if only because there are times... well, like this one, when such tracking seems to be a valuable asset.”

Vickie stepped away from the table to a computer console. It was what her husband might call a ‘comic computer’ – bulky and oversize, even though not nearly as grotesque as the big refrigerators some of the less savoury citizens of the area seemed to favour. Their own house computers were built by Alex from regular parts, bought in a regular store – for a good discount – and housed in plain cases. They also had a laptop and two PDAs; Sasha did programming jobs on the side. Vickie was punching in codes. Double and triple encryptions. Sofia was not a great savant of computers, but she had used them enough, and could discern easily just how secure this little interface was made to be. In addition to all Vickie pressed a finger for a thumbprint, and only then did the program proceed with a simple, black and white table – names and numbers.

She leaned forward to watch with interest. “So what is that?”

“First thing up will be his current location, as long as his transponder isn’t being blocked.” The city map came on screen, in contour, flashing rapidly from zone to zone. “You know they can be blocked. Council and Circle of Thorns do it all the time “

The map was a stark, unrelieved black and white.

“Crap,” muttered Vickie while going over the map again, “No ping.”

Crap, indeed.

“So,” murmured Sofia in concentration. “Something is blocking his ping. Maybe.” It wasn’t certain, after all. She frowned slightly and thought quickly. “But I don’t know of anyone in specific who would want him. The Council should be out of the equation, surely. And the Circle of Thorns… he doesn’t even believe they are real.”

“Then we’ll backtrack. See when his ping showed up last, and try and figure things out from there.” Sofia nodded. The timer ticked. And ticked. And ticked.

A bright red dot pulsed at the corner of the screen, once, twice. Vickie slapped the keyboard. “There!”

Sofia’s forehead was suddenly covered with perspiration. She stared intently as the map zoomed in, and in again, to form a disturbingly familiar pattern.

“This is Founder’s,” whispered she in something almost like awe. So close, it was so close… “it must be, with these little Venetian canals.”

Finally the zoom stopped, leaving on the screen only the vague contours of a wall and a pulsing dot. The printer whirred softly and began printing out a map. Sofia reached for it and took it into her hands, as if handling a live coal. It felt as if it burned her fingers.

“Now one more thing…” muttered Vickie, typing several commands in quickly. “I’m asking the program for a backtrack to see whether he’d been sent there, specifically.” She told Sofia over her shoulder. She turned away, not seeing Sofia’s quick, negative headshake.

“Huh. Not.”

“He wouldn't have gone without me,” Sofia shook her head again, this time for Vickie to see. “He never does… And he’d been missing from the house much, lately.”

“Just out of curiousity…” Vickie messed around again, and the building filled with red traces, like little fireflies. “He’s been there a lot, lately.”

Sofia tapped the tabletop in a nervous habit. She couldn’t think! She had to think! She didn’t understand! She pressed fingers to her temples, trying to clear her mind, resume some semblance of rationality. Only so could she hope to follow the scientist in her husband – as she knew she must do now; the mathematics was, after all, beyond her.

The computer screen was blinking, changing. Old screens were closing, new ones opened. Sofia tore her eyes away from the computer and glanced again at the map in her hands. There were no apartment divisions. Big, wide rooms and large corridors, over a fairly large space… but no apartment divisions. This was not a private apartment.

“I’m doing a checkup on the address”, said Vickie “owner-query, to see who all present, and some past owners were.”

“It’s not a private apartment” noted Sofia. “It looks like an office building. But what would Alex look for in an office building. He’s got no use for them. Unless…” and she fell silent, as if simply avoiding speaking the name would prevent it from being true. Because if it were true, something had gone horrifically wrong. Something dangerous, of which she was not supposed to have known took place, and went wrong. Because…

“Crey,” said Vickie, reading off the Paragon Planning Public Database.

“…because,” whispered Sofia, continuing her dreaded train of thought, “it’s not an office. It’s a lab.”