Dystopia Chapter 44

From the Story Arc: Dystopia

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

Next Story in the Arc: Dystopia Chapter 45 by Krasniy Zakat (Sunday, October 22, 2006)

(posted Thursday, October 19, 2006)

“What in the world?” Sofia stared at the travesty – albeit beneficial one – of mangled wires and torn cables. Her hand reached out involuntarily to track the jagged edges of it. Aleksander seized it just in time, hissing ‘security camera!’ in her ear. She yanked her fingers back but remained fixed on the jumble of destruction, fascinated and revolted both.

What could have done something like that? She had no idea. Something with diamond teeth, evidently, as it had no problems going through fine copper and thick nickel alike. The vent bars themselves were intact, thankfully, but – now that she looked carefully – Sofia thought she could see bite marks on them. So God help her, bite marks on steel bars. Sofia’s panicked mind envisioned experiments; chill laboratories with dead-eyed technicians and the slow, excruciating torture in the name of science. She knew how that worked, oh, yes. This world, too, had a Holocaust and in this world, too, the horror stories of the survivors had leaked out, bits by bits at first, then in a great torrent. All in all, having only recently split from their own universe, many similarities could be assumed, as well as accounted for.

In this instance, however, the two decades of alternate history were enough. Enough for what, though? Sofia was only beginning to get an estimate. Now, with only a few seconds of contemplation and a few obscure facts, her estimates magnified, intensified, creating a picture of reality quite a bit different than the one she came in with. She’d wondered if Aleksander knew, or whether the implications were hitting him as much as they were her…

“Look Sofia,” the aforementioned’s voice came behind her back, a little – if the term could be applied here at all – breathless. Aleksander was pointing a long finger at the ground. Following the tip of it, Sofia bit down her exclamation – a feat that would have surely doomed them to face security in force, and would have forced them to kill – instead emitting a soft ‘ugh’ of revulsion.

This was, quite clearly, an electrocuted lab-rat. Electrocuted, her brain registered, because of the blackened tips of nose and crisped tail, as well as the sizzled, burnt hair on the sides. Lab rat because… well, Sofia’s mind decided to go down in humour, instantly terming the creature a Rodent of Unusual Size. All right, so it was not the Princess Brideian ROUS, but the allegation and the analogy to the American classic surely stood. For another thing, it seemed as if the poor thing really had diamonds for teeth. Implanted, surely, not genetically modified. At least the open mouth did not exhibit the – under the circumstances – chilling glow of gemstones, but rather the dull grey and occasional glitter of a razor-sharp edge. Sofia shivered

She wavered between clobbering something, and ignoring the little – not so little – twisted corpse. She decided on the second approach. Except… “Did you know about these… experiments?”

The query was obvious, it seemed to her. Surely no moral person could strike a deal, in any sort of good conscience, with people who mistreated things – and presumably, other people, eventually – in this manner, the idea was repugnant to Sofia. She was not necessarily averse to killing – there were moral grounds and then there were moral grounds – nor was she a pacifist. Occasionally she was even willing to grant that an end did, indeed, justify some unsavoury means, but she put her limit at torture, thankyouverymuch. Torture was… offensive to any shred of human dignity in a way that murder, even, could not be.

Then again, morality required… a sort of emotional attachment, on the abstract, perhaps, and not necessarily on the concrete level, but could Aleksander – devoid of certain mechanisms that enforced some of the moral standards known to humanity on a purely emotional level – be considered culpable for a failing of judgment? It was, Sofia reckoned, a question of whether a fully logical being could comprehend ethical statures; much fought over as it may be, hiding from security cameras and trying not to get caught in a dystopic rendition of her youthful nightmares certainly wasn’t the time for advanced philosophical reverie.

Still, she wanted rather badly to know…

“I… had some guesses, actually,” Aleksander was blunt. Always blunt. He could dissemble, he could run circles around a statement though he – or at least his otherworldly counterpart, her husband – seldom lied. But never with her. Aleksander, she sensed, would be worse, in some ways. The idea of dissembling to spare her feelings clearly did not occur to him. So much the better. “For one, there were always rumours. For another, much of this” – he poked a finger in his chest, implying robot and all – “is manufactured synthetics. The population, and especially the army, needs them, what with the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust and several wars and all. But no, I didn’t know for certain.”

“I see. And would you have made this deal with Viy, had you known?”

“Perhaps,” Aleksander shifted around in clear discomfort. “The price seemed worthwhile at the time. All things considered.”

“I… see,” Sofia murmured again, very softly. She was surprised herself to hear the silky, sarcastic menace in her voice. She was not, generally, a menacing woman. She pinned Aleksander with a rather icy, prolonged stare. “Does it seem to be worth the price now?”

“Not… now. It doesn’t.” Aleksander conceded. Sofia sighed with a sort of odd, relieved finality. Aleksander – hers, or not hers – was known to make foolish judgment calls from time to time – but never the same foolish call twice. She was surely grateful enough for that tidbit of mercy to satisfy any deity with a perverse sense of humour out there.

“Well, what now?” she plopped down onto the dirt – not like it made any difference at all to the way she looked – and looped her hands loosely about her knees, dangling her palms in the air. It seemed to aid circulation, in any case, and the tingling, aching digits spasmed for a moment with crams that came from sheer release. Only then did Sofia realize that – for the last while – her nails were almost constantly digging into her palms.

“Well,” Aleksander stated rather dryly, “it only stands to reason that this rat found its way out of some place inside. And inside is where we want to be. Consequently, I would suggest – as scientist of course,” he smiled thinly, “that we crawl through that vent. And fast. That little… breakfast was bound to raise an alarm.”

Sofia eyed the square opening, surrounded by flashing, spark-firing wires. The shaft was barely wide enough to allow Aleksander’s shoulder’s through – very narrowly, edging sideways – and sloped downwards at a sinister 45 degree angle. In its dark, inscrutable depths lurked an unfriendly echo. She wondered for a moment why the shaft was even passable by humans; certainly it would do better for security to leave only small, impassable vents. Then it occurred to her that, movies and joked about them notwithstanding, most ventilation shafts were big enough for people to crawl through. It had to do, she supposed, with the lack of oxygen if an obstruction at a shaft occurred being a greater and deadlier security risk that the hypothetical Mad Scientist on a rescue mission. She grimaced.

“Oh, what fun,” she said morbidly.

Aleksander was tinkering with the camera. Sofia couldn’t see it, at first; he was merely standing quite still, one hand carefully resting on the back of it, just at the right angle to be out of sight. Then her tired brain caught up, and she recognized the posture. Alex, to, had a knack with electricity. In his better moments he could make sparks leap inadvertently from open wiring, or trace current directions with his eyes closed. He would point to the battery, and let his finger trace the circuit. Then he would open his eyes, and be pointing directly to the ‘minus’ side of a battery. Unerringly. Always. Aleksander, apparently, had much more fine-tuned control. The camera, whirring softly on its axis up until now, suddenly froze in place. Pointing away from the grate. Sofia made as if to rise, but was motioned to sit back, rather forcibly. Aleksander crouched and came over, muttering.

“I can stop the camera from moving,” he looked visibly upset, “but it will register. And that’s not what we want either. Not to mention the laser security system on the grate itself. A rat may have been lucky to slip through, but we are certainly too big.”

That was a problem. Sofia stuck a hand in her pocket, in a vain attempt to prevent it from hitting something. The wall, the earth, anything at all. It encountered the smooth, metal and plastic surface of an object she should not have forgotten so quickly. She pulled out her husband’s PDA and flpped it over in her palm. “Maybe I can help with that.”

Alex and she were no amateurs. Within the realm of vigilantedom they were intelligent, cautious and, frankly, with all the pushovers around, learned to loathe overt strength. That was why – in a paroxysm of unusual helpfulness – Alexander had created and refined a nifty little program to let them bypass certain less pleasant aspects of the deal. ‘Where force fails,’ he used to say ‘brains will have to suffice.’ That worked well for the unathletic Sofia; she fiddled intently with her little square charge, pulling up the right login screens, the right security procedures and let the small antenna emit a high-pitched, interrupting whine.

“It’s gone now,” Aleksander blinked, and gave the PDA in her hands a look Sofia recognized as ‘if only I had time, how much could I do…’ Then the grate itself was sliced away, with laser precision, at the very bottom. It was, Sofia saw, neat enough not to be visible at all from further away than a few meters.

Aleksander grinned, and swung up the grate to admit them. “Ladies first.”

Sofia quirked her mouth in distaste, staring into the deep, impenetrable darkness. “The first shall be last,” she pointed Aleksander to the tunnel, and firmly took the grate’s considerable weight into her own hands. “Be my guest.”

They crawled in the darkness. The way was excruciating – all the more so, because the sloped-down shaft was cold and a little slippery, all the classic paraphernalia of a horror film gone bad – and they progressed into the darkness slithering on their bellies inch after painstaking inch. Sofia lost track of time after a few minutes of that and, as she dragged her hand forward for the millionth time, then hoisted herself and pushed off with her toes – it seemed to her that she must have been in that endless dark forever, crawling endlessly. Her breath quickened, and claustrophobia blossomed like a red and poisonous bloom.

She was beginning to give way to panic when light flared dimply beyond the contour of Aleksander’s body. All Sofia could see, silhouetted in the flare, were the soles of his shoes. They were sturdy army issue, she noted absently, and probably stolen, to boot. Or, as it were, to sneaker. The rest of her companion was enigmatically obscured by these two prominent soles from her field of vision. The width of the tunnel – barely enough for Aleksander to squeeze through, chest drawn in – certainly would not let them converse with any comfort, nonetheless Sofia reached and tugged at a shoe.

“What’s going on, Sasha?” she tried to pitch her voice very low, but the echoes of her whisper still made her wince.

“Corridors.” He was a master for stating the blatantly obvious. “I think I should go ahead and scout around a little, don’t you?”

“Yes… but, if possible, not here.” Sofia managed to squeeze out.

“Why not?”

“I am not precisely comfortable, squeezed in and short of breath like that, Sasha.”

“Ah.” The shoes moved, inched forward, then suddenly dropped out of sight, followed by a heavy thud. A rectangle of neon light made Sofia squeeze her eyes shut in pain while her hands sensed for the surface before her. She felt the floor drop abruptly, and felt around blindly. Aleksander’s hand caught her own and tugged insistently. She pushed her body out further into the light, exhaled and opened her eyes. Aleksander had a finger to his lips – again, stating the obvious – and was looking around the still empty corridor; lucky, they were plain lucky. He grabbed her other hand and hoisted her to the floor where she remained, swaying from sudden lack of blood to the head and pain in her feet and legs. Clutching at Aleksander’s arm for support, she looked around while they moved quickly – or as quickly as she could, biting down on groans of pain – away from their exposed position.

The base on this level looked like any office complex Sofia had ever seen, up to and including a shabby green carpet, as well as a sickly potted plant ensconced in a flowerpot in the corner. Recalling that she was in Russia brought to mid the absence of wallpaper in favour of rather stark concrete, but otherwise there was nothing military about the place. The doors around her were as wooden, and as shabby, as these of the Omsk University, except that all, without fail, had what she identified vaguely as electronic card reader locks. Typical Soviet; trust nobody further than you can throw them, and even that only so long as they guard nothing valuable of yours.

“You know Al- Sasha, I think we’re taking the wrong approach here,” she muttered from the corner of her mouth, casting another quick, covert gaze around – and thus proving her own point.

“How’s that?”

“This looks like an office floor. Somewhere where people walk. Now, the two of us don’t quite look like clerks, but I bet if we just strolled around, as if we knew where we were going… so long as the base is not on alert, we would be invisible.”

“You just might be right.” Aleksander straightened his slightly hunched shoulders, and offered her an arm – this time for the sake of very covert, rather than obvious support. Sofia herself brushed quickly the most obvious leaves and twigs out of first her own hair, then his, and straightened the collar of her blouse. Then the two of them slowly strolled away down the corridor, looking as if nothing in particular had happened.