Dystopia Chapter 52

From the Story Arc: Dystopia

Previous Story in the Arc: Dystopia Chapter 51 by Krasniy Zakat (Saturday, November 11, 2006)

Next Story in the Arc: Dystopia Chapter 53 by Krasniy Zakat (Sunday, November 26, 2006)

(posted Wednesday, November 22, 2006)

“I would wish to forebear from finding out much of anything about these people, if I can,” Sofia sighed wistfully as she turned about in the ‘shotgun’ seat, to finally get a decent look at Alex. He grinned at her, unconcerned, from her alter-ego’s knees. Grinning or not, she didn’t like the look of him. It would be better, far better, if they could simply repeat the escapade from the base – under the assumption that their current opponents had none of the sonic gear.

“Rippers…” Sofia-A shuddered fearfully, quickly following Sofia’s own thought patterns. “Quite. Perhaps, Sasha…” she glanced down at the Alexander in the back seat, to disambiguate, “could simply repeat his wand-trick.”

Having a duplicate, Sofia was coming to realize, was not the great fun it was rumoured to be. In fact, she was disconcerted to the extreme. And it did not help one bit to know that her alter-ego was quite similarly nonplussed. Granted, Sofia-A was considerably more focused than she had been when Sofia barged upon her in her little, darkened apartment, and there was a glint of steel in her watery eyes… Nevertheless, this seeming reduplication of her own personality with all its quirks and disadvantages made her feel as if she were seeing out of four eyes, or had grown – literally, yegods! – a second head. She wondered whether the Alexanders were similarly staggered.

Probably not. Alex, for example, was busy brandishing his favourite invention – no, wait, that was the toaster – in the air before his nose, and Aleksander was nodding amused approval. “All right,” Sofia ordered briskly. “Everybody out.”

Surveying the territory took no time; some trees between themselves and their opponents, the gravel road turning slightly, and their car, parked neatly on the side of the curb, not yet noticed, but ominously visible. From which – and the lack of fire – followed a simple deduction; all the guarding power of the soldiers present was directed inward, not outward. That was to be expected, but not necessarily welcome. While they had the element of surprise – at least for now – dodging through corridors and doorways did not appeal to Sofia at all. She knew, and knew very well, that house-to-house fighting was the nastiest in the world.

Alexander, leaning against the hood of the car, tapped his wand in preparation at the four of them clustered about. Then, with an uncomfortable frown, he tapped it again. Sofia bit gently on her tongue as he tilted his head one way, then the other and shook the wand several times. Then, with an expression of deep frustration, Alexander let his hand fall. “I’m sorry, boys and girls,” he confirmed what Sofia already suspected; “I’m toast. There’s no energy to power the Faraday cage emitter… there’s not going to be any energy for a fight, either. And, needless to say, no teleporter.”

Which meant that Alexander was depleted – stretched to the utmost limit of his tolerance, and his endurance. It meant that – soon, very soon – Sofia had to get him to the care of trained medical personnel, to good, specialized facilities, preferably with life support, and to elephant doses of his medications. Oh, God. In such a state, Alex must have been having headaches for days; the faint at the end of their Grand Stand – damn all forces that made them commit to such foolishness – was, perhaps, the very first, mild fit, one of a series of much more serious, frightening ones to follow.

Sofia bit her lip with even more worry. She alone, of them all, knew that their escape – even if they manage to get unscathed past this bit of rough terrain – was far from guaranteed. She imagined to herself, wincing mentally, the furor that was about to ensue when they faced, after all their toils, the dead portal. This was not a good moment to bring it up, though…

The men could fix anything couldn’t they?

They better have! Sofia had no wish in the world to fall into the hands of these... Rippers.

A disconcerting thought, in a very different way, that. Rippers… she shivered uncontrollably, imagining, trying to perceive, the terrible misery of having your entire personality – all that was in you that was truly yours – stripped away like a useless garment. How would one live – she thought in palpable terror – with this bare hole in their soul? Would one never even know, spending the remainder of one’s existence in a walking death, blissful and uncaring… she could not believe so. The notion gnawed at her, and it would not leave, that somewhere underneath the drugs, the destruction of one’s speech centers and the erasure of one’s memories the little part of a person’s… essence that was his intelligence was screaming and screaming and never ceasing to wail.

Sofia Rabinovich, who did not believe in an immortal soul, who would not touch telepathy with a ten-foot pole, fearing for the sanctity of another's mind, could not forgive – not for any reason – what was done to these people in the name of an extinct tyranny.

“All right, Sasha,” she sighed with resignation, pushing hair out of her eyes and wiping her grimy forehead. “Stay in the back with Sofia; I and Aleksander will just have to take care of this.” He grimaced horribly at her, and she quirked her lip in wry sullenness. The two of them were no ‘one man army’, Sofia especially was not – either by the nature of her mindset or by the nature of her powers – suited for combat. Her pyrokinesis used to be, at one point in time, quite erratic, not controllable and only surfacing under great duress; this was no longer the case, but she could never set flame to anything instantaneously, or regardless of structure. Fire could not melt concrete, could not cause spontaneous combustion of the human body without considerable stress or preparation… even boiling water took several seconds. In these seconds, she could already be dead.

Under normal – well, as normal as it ever got, lately – circumstances, she would now be taking her time to create, and maintain, several fireballs. Fire was always easier to hold and use than to make, and so Sofia learned to utilize her strengths, compensating for lack of sheer force. This was not a possibility here. She did not think that it would prove a good idea for the soldiers to see her coming at them with three fireballs orbiting her in the air. The momentary uproar the scene might cause would immediately be outdone by the wariness they would award every combatant figure. So long as she looked innocent and weak, her body language carefully modified, she would almost subconsciously put them at their ease – and maybe make them hesitate.

So, leaving the outright, blunt fighting – as was bound to happen now – to her, was like putting inside the gladiator ring, instead of a lion, a domestic cat; more cunning, perhaps, and a better predator by sheer statistics… but somewhat undersized, in comparison.

Alexander sighed, and stepped back.

The four of them turned the corner and Sofia lobbed a fireball, bowling style, into the front of Aleksander’s bunker, the very middle of he three guards poised by the entrance. The energy impacted, and dirt flew up, mixed in with sparks of fire, in a little circle around the new crater. Three rifles turned their muzzles on Sofia, but she didn’t even see them. She was in the fire; she was the fire. Sofia snapped her fingers, and a tall column of smoke wound its way up, covering the air in thick grayness. It flattened itself out, and plastered around the three guards’ faces. Hands fell from triggers as the acrid smoke penetrated their lungs, and they started coughing helplessly.

A blue flash of light, and the three were toppling down, blood spurting from their nostrils, dead.

Sofia sighed darkly and nudged the rather hastily put-together door open with her toe. Happily, it did not creak. She stood back, allowing Aleksander and his superior senses to be the first to take a peek at what was expecting them; he tiptoed – actually tiptoed, though his balance was rather precarious – inside, and froze by the doorway. Alex shrugged his shoulders in discomfort, as a reaction to his double’s incorporeal presence. As Aleksander, presumably, floated away, and the three of them remained standing as quietly as possible by the entrance, looking at each other.

“What’s worse than blowing things up?” muttered Sofia.

“Waiting for things to blow up,” Alex responded, a known and well-worn mantra.

The sound of small, contained explosions followed suit; almost immediately afterwards Aleksander stirred to life again. “Electromagnetic Pulse weapons, as well as two or three other oddities.” He said conversationally, cocking his head to listen to two more explosions reverberating down the corridor. “Were.”

“Were?”

“Oh, yes.” Aleksander brushed imaginary dust off his palms. “Their backpacks are highly volatile; plenty of delicate connections, wires, the works…”

“The works,” murmured Alex with what – Sofia thought – was terrible, green envy. “Shall we?”

Most of the rest made Sofia think, rather with astonishing clarity, to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Between the acting of a dreadful thing / And the first motion, all the interim is / Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream… This was not even a fight, the quick elimination of another dozen soldiers; this was nigh onto slaughter, and the observer in Sofia’s mind – refusing to take part in this, perhaps necessary, yet unsavoury bit of life – clumped down upon her analytical brain, leaving her only reactions no higher than the spinal cord. This was enough – supplying her with the quick defensive reflexes to kill before being killed.

And suddenly her spinal cord was telling her that it was very, very scared.

Sofia frowned. Fear was something she bottled up and hid in the back of her mind… Yet here it was, building up within.

Behind her, Sofia-A whimpered suddenly, and slowly, agonizingly, stepped back, raising her hands to her face. Alex growled; Sofia half-turned and saw his fists clench and unclench powerlessly. Only Aleksander, still in the front of the fray, seemed oblivious. Then reason fled and fear became an overwhelming, palpable thing, as nightmares long-suppressed in the bowels of her subconscious rushed to the fore. Sofia groaned but she could barely hear her own voice; she could not quite see anything, her vision clouding away behind the images: the slaughtering of men, women and children during the Rikti War; Cossacks and fascists marching through homes and synagogues; and, above all, her husband’s close brushes with death.

And there was something else – a voice, clashing with the images. The images soon had sound of their own, a terrible symphony trying to drown out all thought.

But the voice… Somebody was speaking – a familiar voice, but she couldn’t place it – and Sofia clawed through the terror and impending madness upwards, to where detachment could become her shield, flogging herself with mockery. That was the moment when – for just a split second – sanity returned.

There was a sudden snapshot of the world around her, which her brain clung onto and analyzed immediately: her husband and her alternate self, frozen like her, only their agonized expressions revealing the torment within; Aleksander, screaming something at the three of them as he felled the last of the soldiers; and four humanoid shapes at the end of the hallway, in strange clothing and helmets, unarmed, yet ominous.

Everything clicked and she shrieked in outrage: “Someone is doing this to us!”

As the fog resettled in her brain Sofia dimly saw Aleksander’s glowing hands – so like her husband’s – shatter the delicate, fragile bones of someone’s skull… and the fear eased, just a little. Sofia stared down at the machines of their destruction – she could not call these empty shells people. She felt nothing from them, and there was barely any sentience in their eyes – which clustered inanely along the wall of the corridor, their faces almost completely hidden behind the large, heavy helmets.

She watched as Aleksander leapt across the hallway from the fresh corpse to the next Ripper. The creature turned its hollow gaze to its attacker, trying to find some leverage – some foothold – within Aleksander’s mind with which to paralyze him. Disturbingly enough, there was no look of surprise or fear as robot ended its life.

And the fear reduced a little more. Not much…

But enough.

Shrieking again, this time in outrage at the breach of her most private, most sacred place, she plucked one of her pre-made fireballs out of the air and hurled it – uncaring of the harm, for a change – at their tormentors. Alex, too, finally mustered… something… and a blue arc flew past her, wavering and twisting, but eventually reaching its goal. The goal screamed in a voice too high pitched to be human – certainly to be a man – and the death cry echoed right inside Sofia’s head.

Sofia wielded her hatred and disgust like a knife, parting the tormented wail in her mind; it gave as if she were actually tackling the gelatinous substance of the brain with a scalpel – malleable but surprisingly resistant. She clawed her way up; Sofia-A was doubled in horrible, fixed pain by the wall – she herself looked like this only a moment ago – and Alexander was holding his head in both hands, his face screwed up in pain. She cast a quick, frightened – her own fear now, not imposed – at Aleksander, who stared at her expressionlessly; she knew he was furious.

“Crazy conspiracy, eh?” muttered Sofia as she prowled the length of the corridor and seized the last of the four combat Rippers, slamming her hand into his windpipe as he was occupied with coughing himself hoarse on another puff of smoke which - no matter how he twisted – refused to trail off. He… it… crumpled to the floor, and Sofia nudged him off with her boot.

“The crazier conspiracies also say that you can’t resist the combat-Rippers,” said Aleksander dryly, striding over to Sofia-A and helping her up. Her head-wound had reopened, and she was moaning gently, her eyes crossed. Sofia fiddled about, looking in her pockets for a cloth to staunch the bleeding – her first aid bag, with some of the nicer, more thorough medications, was now hidden away in Agent Viy’s bottomless bowels, together with most of her rucksack excepting, thank goodness, the laptop. Aleksander coughed, and offered her a folded and rather torn looking lab coat.

“I want to see the person who tells me what I can or cannot do, much less the conspiracy theory.” Sofia barked it out in a reflexive, studied anger. She had Sofia-A tilt her head sideways, carefully wrapping the torn up white strips and then tying them up.

“That’s my coat!” said Alex suddenly, glaring at Aleksander angrily. “What have you done to my lab coat?!”

“Viy put a hole in it – and me – last time we met,” Aleksander stated in what Sofia thought was rather too flippant a tone, offering the rest of said cloth to Sofia in lieu of a bandage. She pressed it to Sofia-A’s head; the bleeding was not pleasant – the woman was growing rather pale, losing blood and looking nauseated, almost falling over with vertigo. They were a ragged bunch, the four of them, two were nearly incapacitated, the third was close to exhausted – oh, yes, she could feel her exhaustion creeping on her, together with leaping blood pressure and black-outs – and even the resources of the fourth were surely not endless.

My lab coat,” muttered Alex darkly, finally letting go of his temples.

“Hoo boy,” Sofia laughed at the absurdity. “Can’t hurt the poor lab coat. It’s all right, Sasha, we’ll get you a new one when we get back home. Which,” she gulped fearfully, “might not be as easy as you think… Now that we’re done plowing through bodies.”

“What… Sofia?” Alexander’s eyes widened. “What are you saying?”

“Uh… the… portal.” She waved her hand hesitantly towards their aspired destination; the blown-out door at the end of the short corridor. “I think I did something wrong – left it running in full force, or maybe didn’t set it right – but it was… not there, when I left. It turned itself off.”

What??” both Alexanders exclaimed at the same time, moving in eerie simultaneity towards the door. Every difference between them – short hair, lack of corporeality – was erased at that moment with an identical shock. Sofia sprinted after them, to peer through the door of the lab.

“But… you can fix it, can’t you?” she said, in a small, imploring voice, feeling true terror clutch at her stomach for the first time.

“Not from this side,” said Alexander in a too-even voice. “Not like this, and not alone.”

Sofia stuffed her fist in her mouth, and finally burst into tears.