Dystopia Chapter 41

From the Story Arc: Dystopia

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(posted Sunday, October 08, 2006)

Dawn painted the sky with fire.

Sofia squinted – bleary-eyed and nursing a foul taste in her mouth – at the ball of the red sun that slowly inched its way over the horizon. Bleakly cloudless sky spread over the fiery sphere, and – where she could see it through the dense growth of leaves and evergreen needles – seemed leaden. She shook her head at the vista, clearing the last clinging threads of sleep from a brain that could not afford to be foggy. Krasnaya Zarya - she thought to herself blearily - red dawn, dammit. Like cats scratching on the soul. If ever her mind could see an omen…

No, if she were to abandon a habit of years and the aptitude of a lifetime, instead bending her mind about to seek omens where they didn’t belong, she would now be asking herself the infinitely less productive question – good or bad? No, better to believe in the simple coincidences that everyday life so loved to spawn at the most inappropriate of times, and ignore as much as possible the alien notions that for some reason kept interfering in her old, serviceable worldview.

“What are you looking at, Sofia?” asked the prime specimen of such an attitude suddenly behind her back, startling her into motion again from her moment of impossible, treacherous contemplation.

“The scenery, Sasha,” she said, curbing the tautness that her voice was bound to involuntarily exhibit. Not being curt was difficult for her immediately before her fate – as well as that of her husband, and of her… his twin – was to be put in a considerable amount of danger. In a strange world, with its own strange rules, without the possibility of the cavalry galloping in (or flying in, or swimming in, or whatever her petrified mind dwelt on irrelevancies) and rescuing them.

“Oh,” Aleksander sounded a little disappointed, not really being one for emotional sunrises. “Is it nice?”

She turned away from the sunrise slowly, rubbing her painful, red eyes and contemplating the severe deprivation in sleep battling adrenaline in her body. Adrenaline was winning over, but the sleeplessness was putting up a brave fight. “Nice,” she said thoughtfully, “is in the eye of the beholder. I look out there, and all I can see is the sky, covered in blood.”

Aleksander and she stared at each other for a long moment, chasing uncomfortable thoughts. There was not much to say; the sun heralded battle, written clearly across the sky, and a battle was no less frightening for being fought b two people only. For Aleksander there was revenge, and perhaps – Sofia hoped – a measure of atonement for his initial betrayal. Though she could understand why he had done what he had done, including motivations and causes that may not have been clear even to his own mind, she did not have to approve – or pretend to like – the situation that emerged from his previous decision. As for herself, the motivations driving her were clear, and pathetically homey; she wanted to hurt the people who hurt her husband, and her alter-ego whose pain was almost like her own, and whose phobias only Sofia herself could properly appreciate. For a moment she stopped her steady trudge along the forest’s floor – almost entirely hidden from the eye in a thick cover of green rushes – and bent to shake a rock out of her inappropriate, city shoes.

“I can’t quite decide,” she said quietly, not certain whether she was speaking to Aleksander or to herself, “what a sky covered in blood could mean. The thought keeps intruding into my head that if there is blood to be seen today, then perhaps we’ve already lost.” Things were very quiet afterward, as the two Rabinoviches wound their slow way through the thicket of a Siberian forest.

According to Aleksander, they were not far from the dangerous, blocked off zone of the main regional army base. No signs showed. Sofia was not surprised. According to all literature she’d read about the subject, the Russian army had one of the most mobile and efficiently organized command-post structures. In these sources – and they should know – it was told that the entirety of the regional command could settle onto four or five jeeps, and melt, unnoticed, into the ranks of soldiers. That was not to say that storming a regional base – or sneaking in and out without coming to harm – would be easy. Good or bad? Good or bad, dammit? She couldn’t seem to decide. The sun was slowly inching upwards, turning yellow behind her back. The light on the pale skin of her exposed forearms no longer painted them in a bloody halo.

They stopped in a small streambed, winding its muddy path through a sunken ravine at the bottom of two low, flung out hills. In the middle of the greatest flatlands in the world, these two gentle rolls of slightly uplifted ground seemed grand and imposing, though they were nothing more than mounds of dirt. The earth underneath Sofia’s feet was soft and gave way easily. It was, she thought with wry humour, very much like the entirety of this world; imposing, perhaps, on the outside, but giving way easily when someone decided to stir the tings below the surface. Sofia only hoped that she stepped on rotten logs, and not on an anthill full of termites. Water trickled slowly amid low, muddy banks as she stepped into the streambed with a wince. She acknowledged the terrible pneumonia that wading in the frozen despite the heat of summer water was likely to earn her, and trudged behind the narrow shoulders and almost-magenta hair of her husband’s duplicate further under the canopy of foliage. At least it made the sun vanish almost entirely from view.

“This is one of the rods,” Aleksander pointed out and, indeed, there it was. It looked very innocuous; a rod standing in the middle of the streambed, doing nothing, round and long and black. Sofia stared at it suspiciously. All right, so she wasn’t a great tech genius like one of the Aleksanders, it was not her fault she couldn’t quite grasp the problem.

“What is the deal with this, again?”

“An electromagnetic field, Sofia, would set off an alarm every time anything metal approaches. I am assuming that this was their idea to prevent their guards from being disturbed by every little rabbit that passes around here. You could approach it – assuming you have no metal on your person – but for me things are a little more complicated.”

“Ah,” Sofia said and eyed the rod with new speculation. It still looked innocuous, but now that she was reminded of the possibly deadly consequences of underestimating it, there was some ominous darkness in the rod’s black colour, standing out in the greens of the leaves, grays of ground and rocks, and yellows of last year’s leaves. And it helped her not at all, to know that this struggle of symbolism was entirely in her head; this universe put her on edge in a way that few things in her own world had. A world bent on self-destruction; rationality failed, and it was slowly seeping away from her in a trickle. There was something nagging at the back of her brain… “Wait, if this is a field, shouldn’t it extend between any two rods at a direct line from one another, regardless of whether we disable one, or not? It won’t help us, then,” she finished, despairing.

“I thought about this, as it happens,” Aleksander smiled smugly in a good imitation of a satiated cat. Sofia groaned, awaiting the clever but oh-so-annoying lecture that was bound to follow. “You see over there-“ Aleksander pointed one way, then the other “-are two other rods. On the hill, in line of sight. When you disable this rod, the field will go over there, leaving this place free for me to stand in. and then,” Aleksander beamed at her, making her sigh in exasperation, “you fix the rod back up again, with me inside!”

Oh, dear. Sofia quickly thought over the ‘no metal’ statement, reviewing her appearance carefully, from the presumably metalless soles of her shoes on to her hairclip. The latter she unfastened and handed over to Aleksander for safekeeping. Then, already moving towards the ominous pole, she stopped abruptly, realizing two things at once. The first was the little chain dangling from her neck; the second was that she had no idea how to disable the rod without using, at least a metal screwdriver. Always, before, Alexander took care of the technical parts of their endeavours, where now he stood back; this curious disability perturbed her in a way that few other things in Aleksander had done. Suddenly there was a visible indication of the clear difference between her husband and this man – who was not – and the dreadful loneliness that she had been keeping at bay for the last day or so reared an ugly, voracious head. “How do we do this?” she asked the theoretical tech expert on this rescue team, raising her hands and twisting to get underneath her long mane of hair at the clasp of her necklace.

“You want to pry open that panel,” Aleksander pointed out to her the slight bulge to one side of the rod, pinned to place with a latch and narrowly hammered into the metal, “then pluck some wires. Carefully. We don’t want to actually destroy their perimeter defenses, or there’s bound to be an alarm. I suspect that they wanted to make these things portable, so they equipped them with power sources, like batteries. If we can unplug the power, it’s done.”

“All right,” Sofia acknowledged the infallible logic of making as small a mess as possible. “Hold this for me.”

Aleksander took the necklace from her outstretched hang, and immediately frowned at it. Sofia was not surprised that he had picked up on the weight difference – it being heavier than the average jewelry had any decent right to be, as she was constantly reminded when the weight chafed on her neck – as well as the unfamiliarity of the object that Sofia-the-alternate did not possess. All that, not to mention the sixth sense her dear husband – and his twin – had for electronics of all sorts. “What is that?” Sofia grinned.

“Here you go, dear,” Alex held out a wrapped and beribboned box to her, together with a batch of flowers. She stared at the paraphernalia with utter fascination. Granted, her husband seldom forgot the
truly important dates; her birthday, their anniversary (mostly) and holidays, but he had a tendency to… improvise. Getting a standard bouquet from him made her momentarily wonder whether he wanted to confess to her he had been having an affair.

“Thank you, Sasha,” she murmured, smiling, and watched the grin spread over his face like some metaphorical light-bulb flashing up. “What is this?”

“You’ll see…” the grin widened into the exuberancy Sofia learned to associate with frightened cats, singed walls in the kitchen and disappearing radios, computer parts and wiring. It was truly sweet, though… She rolled her eyes – inwardly – at her own quirks and oddities. Like all Jewish women, she admitted to herself ruefully, she would bear almost anything to marry a scholar.

Uh oh. Sofia pulled off the ribbon and paper wrap, to discover a jewelry box. That was, in and of itself, extraordinary. Alexander never bought her jewelry on his own. Usually he went for the safe gambit of giving her books, with the occasional caveats of bits and pieces of electronics that were – ahem! – like toys, or candy, in his eyes. All the more surprising, since the silver necklace she pulled out was actually quite pretty; a cluster of pearls. “It’s like a molecule!” she said delighted.

“But that’s not all!” her husband proceeded to reassure her with an expression that said louder than words ‘do you think I am going to give my wife just a
necklace? Of course not. “This little trinket is an EMP. You can trigger it by raising the temperature of the little blob,” Alex sounded inordinately proud of himself, “and it just goes ‘bang’. Nice, right?”

“Yes, dear…” sighed Sofia with a mixture of exasperation and pleasure that was preeminent in the relationship between Alexander and herself. She slid the little bomb under her ponytail and fastened the clasp. Anything to marry a scholar…

“It’s not important, Sasha,” she told her husband’s alter-ego now. “It’s just a trinket.”

She poked at the latch on the rod’s panel, shifting it this way and that. It didn’t give, and she could not slide her fingernails underneath the metal. That, not to mention that she would probably have simply broken her nails, and failed to pry the panel loose. What she needed was a knife… but knives were metallic, and that would, once again, trigger the alarm they so wanted to avoid. “You don’t have a ceramic knife, do you?” she inquired through gritted teeth, pulling at the panel again.

“Sorry, but no.”

“Well, how do you propose for us to get in there!” exasperation poured out. It was not enough that they were all in this fix because of his notions of preferable personal gain, but he couldn’t even think up a way to get them past the perimeter security! She could… she would… Sofia trailed off. She would what? Kill him? She sighed heavily; of course not. Aleksander Rabinovich – even more so than her own Sasha – had been punished enough for all sins imaginable and more, half-living in his own private hell.

“You’re angry..?” Aleksander half-asked, half-stated miserably. He looked at the soles of his muddy shoes pitifully. “You should be angry. I don’t know why you’re not even angrier… I thought I remembered… well, I thought you would be, uh, murderous.”

“No,” Sofia shook her head sadly. The experience of seeing Aleksander lose confidence like that, in a familiar, painful manner, made her eyes sting and her heart clench. She was torn between embarrassment, and the overwhelming urge to drop everything and comfort him. She settled on the middle course of explaining. “Blaming you would be like blaming a drowning man; he is clutching at straws, and who can fault him if he grabs the wrong one? It is the same thing, really.” It was, and – unwilling to bow to unnecessary absolutes – Sofia knew it. She bent her mind once again to the practical question of how to overcome a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Inspiration struck as her mind’s eye pulled forth the image of a smooth, glittering cut on the edge of a branch used as fishing rod. “Make a knife.” When Aleksander stared at her in confusion, she picked up a rock and tossed it to him. “Cut it. I doubt it’d be much different than cutting off that branch.”

Light flashed while Aleksander – or rather, his body – stood very still, and then he extended his hand to her, holding a thin, sharp stone knife. Sofia grunted with effort, sliding the knife underneath the panel, then wrenching it loose. Inside was a jumble of wires and bits and pieces of machinery, all held together by a net of fine metallic wiring that – while not pretty or sleek – fixed the pieces efficiently to the innards of the hollow pillar. At least the device looked like something people would actually make, quite unlike the sleek, disconcerting machinery of her own world that sometimes made her think it was first handed off to designers of movie sets. The battery was quite obvious, even to her untrained eyes; big lump wrapped around with isolation tape with red caps on the edges. There was, of course, no red wire to pull and pray. At night, Sofia snickered inwardly all wires are grey.

“Pull the right one,” Aleksander notified her from a few steps back, she plucked the wire carefully from where it connected to the battery, and let it go hastily. Nothing happened.

Or so she thought, until Aleksander smiled grimly and started quickly walking down the streambed, towards where the electromagnetic field would now be extending, connecting the two nearest rods in a straight line. Sofia watched until he stopped abruptly, and waved at her to reactivate the rod. She plugged the wire back in carefully, and set the panel in place, tossing away the now useless caveman’s blade. Without much fanfare, or ado, they were in and on their way.