Dystopia Chapter 42

From the Story Arc: Dystopia

Previous Story in the Arc: Dystopia Chapter 41 by Krasnaya Zarya (Sunday, October 08, 2006)

Next Story in the Arc: Dystopia Chapter 43 by Krasniy Zakat (Tuesday, October 17, 2006)

(posted Tuesday, October 10, 2006)

Forest still stretched on either side of them. By the time Sofia reached Aleksander, waiting for her with their small arsenal of metallic possessions, her hair was so completely filled with twigs, leaves and dust that she didn’t bother with it, beyond clipping it back again. It grated unpleasantly, and Sofia grimaced at her obviously filthy looks; presentable was not a word that applied to her now. Aleksander was no better, though his short haircut still displayed all signs of belonging somewhere in civilization, rather than looking like a wild animal that crawled out of the zoo, and entrenched itself on his head.

Inside the perimeter of the base’s electromagnetic field the forest was – at first glance – unchanged, nonetheless, with attention enough, one could notice the little telltale signs that one was approaching a place where there were humans. Somehow, even though the field was invisible, harmless and not intended to keep them out, the animals knew. It must have been birds’ speculated sensitivity to the magnetic field of the earth itself, but the twits, twirls and chirps that had accompanied the two people all the way here had suddenly ceased. There was, of course, nothing truly sinister about it; nevertheless, the silence was an effective catalyst for her mood and Sofia was strongly reminded of a scene from a bad movie where the soundtrack suddenly stops, and changes to a slow – but rapidly escalating – heartbeat.

That was not, as it happened, a problem for them. Aleksander, of course, had no pulse to worry about, but – surprisingly enough – Sofia’s own heartbeat was slow and steady, not hammering in her ears as she would have expected it to. Climbing breathlessly onto the slope of a surprisingly steep, though short incline, the only thing that quickened her circulation was the exertion, and the rapid pumping of oxygen as she gulped for air. Otherwise, she was surprisingly… mellow was the word, she decided. Mellow and astonishingly unafraid. The symptoms she now exhibited must have been similar to those of a surgeon; all fear banished completely in the bright lights of the operation theatre, even if before then he was sweating blood.

Yes, she acknowledged the same odd numbness that allowed her to function as a skilled EMT under pressure. Welcome back. Her mind went blissfully blank before the onslaught of pressure, emptying her emotional circuitry – or whatever was in her brain – and allowing her to think. It was almost as if, she mused, something had redirected neurons in her brain to help with the analysis. That was fine by her, though… Now, to do something about that mountain.

“I could use a hand, Sasha,” she puffed in annoyance after her inconsiderate companion, who had overtaken her by quite a margin, and was making his merry, indifferent way up. Aleksander decided to be confused. “A hand up,” she elaborated stoically. He came back for her, sheepish, and she grasped his arm for the rest of the trek up. It was the first time she touched him, all this time, and it seemed to her that she leapt some invisible barrier, without even realizing it at first. It left her wide-eyed with surprise, and a little astonished at her surprise, too. A rather confused state; she proceeded not to think about it.

Sofia hoped that the base’s surveillance – clearly a necessity in such a place – was not extended to cover every tree and bush in the thick forest about them. If it had, well, neither she nor Aleksander had any experience in sneaking through such ardent growth, nr the equipment for it. She was dressed, still, for a hike in the city; low-heeled open shoes that were now caked with mud and squelched with water, and buttoned-up blouse that presented a gash on one of the sleeves, and dirt and fish-slime from last night’s dinner, and light summer pants that had sticky and poky little green plants clinging to them. She was a sight, but by no means that of a camouflaged soldier. Aleksander looked not much worse; an indication more of the state he was in earlier, not of how careful he had been in this rough terrain, Sofia thought. Oh well, if everything went right, nobody would give them a second glance. If not… it won’t matter.

“Here it is,” Aleksander stopped abruptly, carefully edging her away from something unclear in their path. Sofia squinted and saw the delicate network of electrified wire, distinguishing, also, the elusive pattern of the barbs on top.

“Splendid,” Sofia murmured with heartfelt irony. “Marvelous. And no way around, or under.”

“We could climb on top…” Aleksander eyed the trees around the fence suggestively. On the other side of it the forest ended abruptly in clear, scorched ground. Sofia thought, shuddering, about the drop from this ominous climb, and then envisioned, with an even more profound shudder, their bodies flung away from the fence with the force of all that discharging voltage, unrecognizable in that growth of forest, lying forever with Alexander dying from radiation sickness inside…. Ugh.

“It would fry us to a crisp, Sasha,” Sofia found herself engaged in a staring match with him. “Even you. Do you want to render yourself unfunctional? Sautéed Scientist,” Sofia grinned ruefully, “is a dish I enjoy, but only metaphorically, for heaven’s sake. Granted, I could tell you of the fascinating sautéed nun filets Alex and I were enjoying back home- “ she reminisced about the arguments with Joanna, John and several of her university colleagues fondly “-but that, too, was only a figure of speech. No,” she asserted firmly, finally staring Aleksander down, “we go through the gate.”

“How?”

The wheels in Sofia’s brain were turning frantically. “We make a diversion. I am good at diversions, come on.”

A little before the gate they slowed from a walk to a slow, careful slink. After perhaps ten minutes, they were both lying on their bellies in a trench overlooking the road approaching the gate, the roadblock spread neatly across it and the soldiers leaning on the red-and-white arm languidly, eyeing the road in obvious boredom.

Sofia looked them over and shook her head. Children; they were eighteen-year-old children. Ye gods, she could not kill these boys just because it was their bad luck to be caught in the middle. She could have a child that age herself, had life gone differently, and in Russia – even in her home world Russia – army service was compulsory for everyone. She had an aversion to killing anyway – she felt, not a moral inhibition, but rather a sense of profound waste. In its own way, it was harder to overcome than moral scruples; the moralists had as a shield the ability to postulate a higher morality and ethics, she herself was stuck trying to measure the objective cost of a life against… other, lesser things. Yes, God save us from moralists. If she ever were to be caught by anyone, she hoped profoundly that it would be a cynic to get a hold of her, and not an idealist.

So… not kill the children. What would make them leave the gate for the little while it took her and Aleksander to run for it? Not a forest fire, Sofia decided – somewhat reluctantly – that would inhibit them too much on their way back, and would endanger too many people, in the process. No, she needed something more localized. Let’s see… Jeep, trees, bushes, roadblock made of very hard iron, unboilable except under a nuclear assault asphalt, jeep… Jeep! Aha! “Let’s crawl a little ways forward,” she whispered to Aleksander, “and then be ready to run when I say.”

They slithered through the grass, keeping a careful eye out on the young soldiers at the gate; the kids were oblivious, apparently they thought that that the survey car – its team now a little ways off wit assorted equipment – would be sufficient to keep intruders out. “Have you thought of a diversion yet?” murmured Aleksander to her sarcastically.

“Actually, yes. It is rather… spectacular. Watch.” And she pointed a cautious finger to the car, off in the distance. After a moment a thin tendril of smoke wound its way up from the car’s front hood. Nobody’s seen or smelled it yet, but Sofia knew it was there. She could sense it, in her bones, the trickle of rapidly moving heat. She felt the pressure of quickly moving molecules in the car’s gas tank… after another breath, the liquid, susceptible gasoline flared up. A fireball worthy of Hollywood erupted from the jeep, going off with a loud bang as it consumed oxygen, expanded and settled into sizzling, crackling flames. The soldiers at the gate turned abruptly, all four together, their weapons raised. Sofia heard them shout in surprise, and saw them take off in the direction of the burning vehicle, grabbing for the fire-extinguisher as they went.

Thank God for fear and shock, she touched Aleksander’s arm abruptly. “Go for it, Sasha!”

They pelted for the gate, and Sofia ducked under the roadblock, without slowing. She bit her lips painfully to keep herself from breathing hard, and making enough sound to overcome the crackling, hissing fire. They had perhaps thirty seconds before at least one of the surprised boys would remember his duty and turn back to the gate. Turn back and see two running figures. Oh, no… she bolted as fast as her legs would allow for the bend of the hills and out of line of sight. Something was tearing painfully at her liver, her knees, the tendons of her ankles… she clenched her teeth, bit her lip and kept at it.

The earth chose that very moment to disappear from under her soles. Quenching a half-sob, half-squeal, Sofia felt herself fall. A hand clasped her upper arm, wrenching it painfully up, up and along, as Aleksander snagged her from the disastrous fall and towed her – almost throwing her up on his shoulder – away and out of sight.

Within a minute, it was all over. They – well, she, Aleksander just stood there dispassionately – collapsed breathlessly on the ground, and stuffed her fists in her mouth to stop the painful wheezing. Aleksander gazed at her with a new kind of respect. “That was, indeed, spectacular.” He said mildly, but under that there was a current of a sort of quizzical wariness; that was a whole new different animal from his rather timid, broken wife. Sofia only shook her head, not having quite regained her breath enough to say anything. Two obstacles down, an infinite number to go. She felt herself grinning maniacally.

“Now…what?”

“There has to be a way inside, somehow…” Aleksander thought out loud, confirming Sofia’s deepest fear that he was – as he was so often wont to do – improvising. She hated improvising, she didn’t especially like Alexander improvising; it left singed spots on her walls and furniture. “…perhaps a vent? Ah, yes. A big enough vent would allow us to get in.”

Sofia eyed the hill dubiously. Quite evidently, the base was inside the mountain, with probably many more layers underneath. “And how do we find said fortuitous vent?” she inquired, a trifle acidly. Aleksander trudged away, looking about. Sofia was content to simply let her aching body rest, for the moment, and practice not being seen. Unwanted, a chuckle escaped; she imagined herself sitting in a cluster of bushes, with decoys exploding all around her.

“Sofia!”

Aleksander’s urgent whisper popped open her eyes. No rest for the weary, she thought with a sigh as she made her way – crouching in a quite painful manner – to the source of the sound. On one side of her head was the secure comfort of the mound of rock and dirt, concealing her; on the other side was the open, threatening sensation of rushing air. She cast a wary eye that way – they had better make it into somewhere safer than this, soon; before the patrol vehicles would see them.

Her escort was just around the bend of the hill, staring expressionlessly into thin air. Sofia shivered, realizing that Aleksander must be at his search routine; his body was a mere shell, now, and the thing that was truly him was hovering around, conducting a much faster search than she – or even he in his android form – possibly could provide. Sofia wondered what the world was like, thought the proverbial eyes of an energy being; not even the Kheldians she knew, back home, were quite so detached from the material as Aleksander. Not to mention that they all had a strange – and annoying, she thought grimly – tendency to keep all information to themselves. As if sharing knowledge was a plague that humanity may all die, if contracted.

It always made her growl. If she was a believer in anything at all, it was information, and the value of knowledge. What use, keeping one’s knowledge to oneself only, hoarding it like a greedy child? Did it give people the sensation of superiority? Or was it perhaps a slight towards everyone else – an attitude of overpowering, negligent condescendence. Sofia had long since grasped that knowledge and ideas were these rare, almost not to be found things that, when one shared them, one lost nothing of one’s own. Rather like love, actually, now she thought about it…

Aleksander chose precisely that moment to interrupt her thoughts by returning to his body. He looked excited, albeit a little worried. “Look over there, here’s the thing I wanted you to see.”

Sofia looked.

Not five meters from her, behind a rock outcrop was the steel embrasure of a ventilation shaft, bolted into place with great, gnarled screws. Next to it a security camera whirred softly – Sofia ducked and flattened herself to the ground – and the blinking lights of some security system.

The cable from the camera, as well as some additional wires that lay across the shaft itself, was chewed through, as if some animal, with teeth of diamond, found the electronics to the satisfaction of its palate, in lieu of a satiating dinner.