Spoilers for Watergate
Set in Season 4
Stargate Sg-1 and its characters are the property of Stargate (II) Productions, Showtime/Viacom, The SciFi Channel, MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, and Gekko Productions. This story is written purely for my own entertainment, and that of anyone else who may happen to read it. No infringement of copyright is intended. It is not intended and should never be used for commercial purposes.
The original characters, situations and ideas contained within this work are the property of the author.
As a Russian Lieutenant General, Katerina Vukoticha is a two star General, of equivalent rank to Hammond, who is a (very model of a modern) Major General on the US scale. If Vukoticha was a Major General, she would only be equal to a US Brigadier General (one star), while a US Lieutenant General is equivalent to the Russian Colonel General (three stars). A Russian four star General is a General of the Army and the US equivalent is just called a General.
Gallium-nitride is a semiconductor compound used in blue lasers.
Russian names traditionally consist of three parts: a given name, a patronymic and a family name. The family name is inherited, and the same for all members of a family, except that the ending varies between male and female. For example Colonel Sokalov's sister would be called Sokalova; likewise, Dr Markov should really be Markova, although in the West this distinction is often dropped. Families immigrating to America are usually required to adopt a standardised name for all members, in the same manner that Icelandic families are required to use a fixed surname instead of a patronymic.
The Russian patronymic which has been abandoned by some modern Russian families is based on the father's name, naturally, with the ending changed, usually to ov for a man, or ovna for a woman, although there are several other suffixes. Use of ovich is complicated, usually indicating a family of the former Tsarist nobility or an archaic, upper class regional variation from Novgorod.
Among close friends a Russian is usually referred to by a diminutive. Alexander becomes Sasha, Alexei Alesha and Vladimir Volodya, for example, although there are numerous diminutive forms of most names. Colleagues may, as a term of respect, address a person by both their first name and their patronymic, if they have one, rather than their given name alone.
Please feel free to contact me if you know any of this to be hopelessly wrong.
The venerable AK-74M is the current standard issue weapon with the Russian military, the latest in a line that began with its even more venerable, higher-calibre cousin, the AK-47. These weapons are often accounted the world's favourite assault rifles, because they are cheap to manufacture, simple to maintain, and operate in pretty much any conditions in which a human user could be alive to fire them.
The AN-94 was intended to replace the AK-74M in general service, but despite several advances is basically too damn expensive for the impoverished Russian military establishment to afford. It also has its own problems, and lacks the nigh-invulnerable robustness of the older weapon.
The RMB-93 tactical shotgun is almost unique among pump-action shotguns in that it mounts the barrel below the magazine to reduce recoil.
Majestic is the mythical clearance level assigned to Area-51 and black projects.
The service numbers given are a fabrication, and may well not follow any Russian Army standard. On the other hand, they are for members of dodgy secret project commands.
The Russians say 'my God' a lot, because in Stargate the only swear word Russians use is 'Bozhe moi'.
Thanks to Tovarich Sho.
Dr Svetlana Markov and Colonel Maxim Sokalov sat in the observation booth, watching the young officer in the room in front of them write on a sheet of white paper. A researcher a rather serious young man in a white lab coat stood watching her. She had an expression of rapt concentration, but the focus of her attention was not the paper, but rather something that none of the watchers could see. On a monitor, the same woman was reading a page of text under the scrutiny of a different researcher, who looked exactly the way the first researcher would have looked had he been a woman.
"I have a great deal of data on similar tests," the woman standing in the shadows at the back of the booth offered. "It could save a lot of time if you simply studied them."
Dr Markov turned to face the woman. "I prefer to run my own tests in such situations, General Vukoticha" she replied. "Your division does, after all, have a vested interest in proving the abilities of your alleged 'talents' are real."
"As your program has a vested interest in finding tangible benefits to intergalactic travel," Lieutenant General Katerina Vukoticha riposted. As she spoke, the General stepped into the light. She was over sixty years of age when asked how far over she would joke that one of the privileges of her position as Special Director of Extrasensory Perception in Espionage and Counter-espionage was having a file so classified that no one would ever know but her hair still had streaks of gold among the silver. Her posture was erect, her face weathered and lined but her head unbowed, and the fierce resolve in her bright blue eyes made them burn like a pair of gallium-nitride lasers. "Faced with such a flagrant breach of the laws of physics you were taught at school, you still maintain that the psychic phenomena catalogued by my Special Directorate for are impossible."
"I am a scientist," Dr Markov replied, gravely.
The General smiled, benignly. "Healthy scepticism is one thing; denial is another."
"There is nothing objectively impossible about wormhole travel," Dr Markov insisted, beginning to be troubled by the other woman's gaze. "It merely requires psychical properties not found in any native terrestrial material."
"There is nothing objectively impossible about the abilities my talents display," the General replied.
"I think that she is done," Colonel Sokalov interrupted, cutting short the argument.
"I am," the young woman replied, speaking into a microphone on the desk.
Dr Markov sat bolt upright. "How...?" She began. "The test room is soundproofed."
"That is correct," the officer replied. "But the door behind you is not. I can not hear you; my sister can."
Dr Markov pressed an intercom button. "Lieutenant Felnakova; bring the second subject into the main room," she ordered.
On the screen, the woman stood and followed the researcher out, and a moment later they emerged into the booth. Dr Markov was struck once more by the absence of any obvious features that would distinguish one woman from the other: Lieutenant Vasilisa Rasputina, who sat at the desk in the main room, and Lieutenant Alexa Rasputina, her twin sister, who had been reading the page that Vasilisa was to transcribe. Both had the same dark hair, the same slight build, the same delicate, almost elfin features, the same dusky skin, and the same dark eyes. Both pairs of eyes shone with an indomitable will that reminded Markov of their commanding officer, General Vukoticha, and even had these tests produced no tangible results, she would have thought the sisters formidable enough.
There was a slight difference in their demeanours Alexa smiled more easily than Vasilisa but the only practical way to tell them apart was by their hair. Vasilisa's was cropped short; her sister's was very long. Unfortunately, to meet regulations Alexa's hair had to be tied up tightly under her cap, making that marker difficult to spot at best.
"The important thing is that we know," Alexa had explained to Dr Markov. "Otherwise, we might start to forget which of us was which. It happened once, when we were kids; to this day I'm haunted by the possibility that we got turned around and I'm really Vasilisa."
Gathered in the main room, Dr Markov examined the two pieces of paper. Later she would have them closely examined, but at first glance the content a paper she herself had written two years ago on theoretical wormhole physics appeared identical, although one was written in Vasilisa's flowing hand, the other was photocopied from a conference paper.
"There may be some mistakes, Sirs," Alexa admitted. "I didn't really understand the text, so I may have misread."
"Thank you, Lieutenant Rasputina; Lieutenant Rasputina," Colonel Sokalov said, nodding to each in turn. "You're dismissed."
"Yes, Sir." The two women spoke in unison, and saluted as one. The effect was decidedly creepy.
"General Vukoticha," Colonel Sokalov said. "Perhaps we should go to my office to discuss the results of the tests? Svetlana Alexandrovna, will you join us?"
"Naturally," Dr Markov replied, letting his habitual use of her familiar name slide. They were friends after all, however much the Colonel's refusal to treat anyone outside the military as a professional annoyed her, and at least he had not presumed to call her Svetocha in public.
"I think we're going to get shafted," said Vasilisa, who was not prescient, but was very clever, and besides tended to be rather gloomy.
Alexa frowned. "What makes you say that, Vasya?" She asked. Being of a sunnier disposition than Vasilisa, she had long ago accepted the fact that her older sister was better than her at almost everything. Stronger, smarter, quicker; although she did have less of a way with people. As Vasilisa herself put it, she might be the better dancer, but Alexa was still the one people asked to dance.
"Something about Sokalov's face," Vasilisa replied. "It made me suspect he was going to use us to get at the General."
"Bastard," Alexa muttered. She was not given to harsh judgements, but both sisters recognised that the process of screening, testing and study which had been their world for the past six years would have been a lot harder to bear under just about any other General in the Russian army. They looked on General Vukoticha as a kind of surrogate aunt, as well as a superior officer, and were as protective of her as she was of them. Moreover, they had watched her sink her efforts into the underfunded Directorate for almost five years now, and it was a personal blow to them each time her funding was slashed.
"Easy, Shura," Vasilisa warned. "These walls have ears." The sisters had repaired to the cramped and minimalist commissary of the Stargate facility, which stood out in their wide-ranging experience of Russian military eateries by being even more Spartan than the one at the Special Directorate's bunker. There was a joke among General Vukoticha's staff: 'What exactly is it that's special about the Directorate?' 'I don't know; but it isn't the food.'
"Sorry," Alexa replied. "I just..."
"I know," Vasilisa reminded her. "But this is Colonel Sokalov's territory. Besides, I don't think it's his idea. I seriously doubt he'd try to mess with the General for the hell of it."
Alexa's lips quirked into a smile as she caught the real thoughts behind Vasilisa's words: I don't think he's got the balls.
Hardly fair, she thought.
Vasilisa shrugged. Most people avoid going straight for the General though.
"You think someone higher up is pulling the strings on this one?" Alexa asked, switching back to spoken communication. Speaking directly between their two minds was a useful talent, but one that left her feeling enervated, and if overused tended to result in splitting migraines.
"I think we'll find out eventually," Vasilisa said. "I just hope both programmes don't end up getting canned because of it."
"Tell me about these two again?" Dr Markov asked.
General Vukoticha shrugged. "What do you want to know?"
"Vasilisa and Alexa Vasiliovna Rasputina," General Vukoticha replied. "Twin sisters, born in a rural collective near Irkutsk on April 12th 1978. The births were less than an hour apart after an initial twelve hour labour, and Vasilisa is the older of the two. Their father, Vasiliy Nicolaevich Rasputin, was a farmer and husbander of largely Mongolian lineage, despite his name, with a family tradition linking him to one of the children of Genghis Khan on his mother's side. Their mother, the former Valerie Pavlovna Volyova, was an officer in the Red Army. Her heritage was half-Slavic and half-Crimean Tatar."
"Any notable ancestors on the mother's side?" Colonel Sokalov asked, doubtfully.
"None," the General replied, without breaking stride. "She was pulled from trials of an experimental anti-fatigue drug when she learned that she was pregnant; the drug never entered general use, but the tests revealed no notable or hazardous side-effects. The father also has a history with unusual chemicals, specifically running opium and occasionally more exotic compounds with his two brothers. He was arrested at the Mongolian border by the then Lieutenant Volyova in 1971, served a reduced sentence in exchange for identifying his contacts within the Soviet Union, then sought out and married his arresting officer."
"How romantic," Dr Markov commented, tartly. "But I do not see what this has to do with anything."
"It doesn't," General Vukoticha replied. "But you asked for everything. I have very extensive files on all of my people."
"How about we skip ahead a little," Colonel Sokalov suggested.
"As you prefer," the General agreed. "The girls grew up on the farm where their father looked after horses. They could ride almost before they could walk, and they learned to fight as soon as they could keep their balance. They were inseparable, and from an early age they were finishing each other's sentences and holding fragmentary conversations that no-one else could understand. At age nine they began performing simple mind-reading tricks to entertain their family and friends, and when they entered the army at eighteen their abilities were brought to my attention by their mother.
"I knew their mother because Major Rasputina as she was by then had been screened for extrasensory potential, along with the rest of her unit. They were tested a year after their accidental exposure to radiation from an experimental power station; not unlike this one. One of the soldiers had begun to experience vivid hallucinations which showed initial signs of being extrasensory in nature, but in the end turned out to be the results of a malignant brain tumour which killed him in 1997. The rest of the unit tested negative for parapsychological abilities, but seven of the twelve developed cancer and have since died.
"It was not Mother Russia's finest hour," she noted. "The screenings took place in 1996. I had only just been appointed to head up the Special Directorate so the Major stuck in my mind. When she sent me a report mentioning her daughters I had them called for testing, and they were assigned to the Directorate straight out of basic training."
"Is that normal procedure?" Dr Markov asked.
General Vukoticha fixed the scientist with her blue laser stare, and Dr Markov felt a chill in the pit of her stomach. "Dr Markov," she said, calmly. "I respectfully suggest that you take a less high-handed tone with me. I know that you have been granted considerable latitude and authority within the bounds of the Stargate project, but I am accustomed to the respect due to my rank. You may find that I become cranky if I do not receive it."
"I apologise, General, but...May I speak frankly?"
"I believe that these tests are a waste of time," she told the General. "The results are quite compelling," she hastened to add. "Certainly the best I have ever seen, but as you yourself pointed out, you have conducted many similar tests already. Furthermore, even if the abilities you claim for these women are proven, I do not believe that they would have any practical application with the Stargate operation."
"I agree," General Vukoticha replied, her gaze softening slightly. "But we all have our orders and despite or perhaps because of the high-level of opposition to both our programmes, our supporters are very keen to explore the possibilities of collaboration between the Stargate operation and the Directorate. When Russia can field a properly trained, equipped and motivated, modern combined arms fighting force again, such projects may once again be allowed to operate without jumping through hoops, but that time is not now.
"To answer your question, no it is not ordinary procedure, but the mother made a most compelling case, and from her screenings I knew that she was a woman with a great deal of common sense and a strong grasp on reality. Also, a great deal that I do in my work with the Special Directorate is not 'ordinary procedure', as no procedure has ever been established for this kind of study."
"Perhaps," Colonel Sokalov interjected. "You could explain more fully the extent of their powers. I understand that the trials we have run here today only scratch the surface."
"We prefer to call them abilities, rather than powers," General Vukoticha corrected him. "These are not supernatural gifts; they are merely natural, if highly unusual, capabilities which result from certain patterns of neuro-electrical activity.
"As to the Rasputinas, as you have seen they possess a powerful psychic connection, capable of carrying images, feelings and even telepathic communication between the two. Range seems to have little effect on the ability, and they have performed the same experiment that you saw here today over a distance of several thousand miles with no loss of accuracy."
"Impressive," Sokalov commented.
"They also possess a limited ability to read the thoughts and intentions of others, and a somewhat more developed ability to influence judgement and emotional responses."
"That can be achieved without recourse to extrasensory explanations," Dr Markov said.
"True," the General admitted. "They can also exercise a high degree of control of their body functions heart rate, respiration and so forth and Vasilisa, the stronger of the two, is able to induce minor fluctuations within electrical equipment."
"General Vukoticha, aside from their telepathic connection," Dr Markov said. "Would you classify any of the Rasputinas' abilities as being useful as anything more than parlour tricks?"
"Not currently; although I have some hope for their future potential." She smiled, wearily. "Perhaps I should bring them back in a few years time; assuming either programme is still running."
Dr Markov held up a hand. "Let's not be hasty," she said. "I said I saw no practical application, but I had not read about the distance tests. You say that range has shown no sign whatsoever of affecting their ability to communicate with one another?"
"None," General Vukoticha agreed.
"Colonel Sokalov," Dr Markov said. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
"I believe so," the Colonel replied. "These officers could be employed for silent field communications, immune from interception."
"No," Dr Markov interrupted. "Don't you see; if this ability could be verified and proven to work on an interstellar range, we could eliminate the need to time our return trips. At present there is a very real danger of a team being trapped offworld, pursued by enemy forces, unable to return home because their travel window is not due yet. If one of the sisters was with the team however, and the other here at the base, we would know exactly when to connect the dialling device to allow a return wormhole to reach our Gate."
"I disagree," Colonel Sokalov said. "There is too much risk. A miscommunication could send our team to the US facility, where they would impact upon the iris-shield and be killed."
"I believe that there is merit in Dr Markov's suggestion," General Vukoticha said. "However I will not allow my personnel to be used as field radios."
"I am sure that you would not," Colonel Sokalov agreed, with a slightly smug grin. "However, the Rasputinas are no longer your personnel."
"I beg your pardon," the General said, her voice soft and utterly devoid of humanity.
Colonel Sokalov's grin vanished as he squirmed in the grip of the General's death ray stare. "They are to be transferred to the Stargate operation, effective immediately," he explained, nervously. He held out a piece of paper, placing it between himself and those terrible eyes. Dr Markov half-expected the paper to burst into flames.
After a long moment, General Vukoticha took the paper and examined it. Dr Markov could not help peeking, and she saw that it was a copy of a transfer document for the Lieutenants Rasputina, signed by Colonel General Vladimir Pavlov, the Russian Stargate programme's highest-ranking supporter. From Vukoticha's reaction it was clear that there was no love lost between the two Generals.
"Bastard!" Vukoticha snarled. Her eyes flashed, and once again Dr Markov anticipated some deadly force emanating from them to strike Colonel Sokalov dead where he sat. "This is not over," she promised. She stood, and set the transfer paper on the desk. "Good day, Colonel; Doctor." She turned on her heel and left, while Dr Markov and Colonel Sokalov were still struggling to their feet.
General Vukoticha plainly still had a fair amount of spring left in her step, because she was out of sight by the time Dr Markov reached the door. It was easy enough to locate her however; all Dr Markov had to do was follow the swearing.
"General Vukoticha!" She called, running to catch up. For a woman of sixty some, the General had a long stride.
"Dr Markov," Vukoticha stopped and turned, composing herself and speaking quite cordially. She even smiled, slightly, when Dr Markov flinched. "I won't bite," she promised. "I like you. I liked your idea. I would have been happy to authorise the assistance of my officers in such an effort."
"Perhaps if I speak to Colonel Sokalov, or directly to General Pavlov...?"
Vukoticha shook her head. "This is personal," she assured the scientist. "General Pavlov and I go back a long way, and we have never been friends."
"The Colonel then. He is a fair man, and he trusts me; I can persuade him to at least test my theory and give it a fair go."
The General sighed. "I admire your loyalty," she admitted. "And I would be most grateful if you were to succeed, but I do not think that you will. I know Colonel Sokalov a little, and while I believe he is a good man, he is also one of General Pavlov's protιgιs. Do you know what we call them?" She asked, smiling again.
"Pavlov's Dogs," Vukoticha said. "And not just to be rude," she hastened to add, as Dr Markov's eyes flashed angrily. "The good Colonel General trains his dogs to bark on command, and if he says that Sokalov must do something, Sokalov will not question that; not for anyone. I'm sorry," she added.
General Vukoticha's smile became melancholy. "I am sorry that the Colonel will always answer to his General before you."
Dr Markov blushed and looked away. "For what it is worth, I am sorry," she said. "This is a waste of your personnel."
"I do not plan to let this lie," the General assured her. "I am sure that we shall meet again," she added, ominously.
"I'll try and persuade the Colonel," Dr Markov said again.
"Thank you," Vukoticha replied. "I suppose I'd better go and tell the Rasputinas."
"That was low, Max!" Dr Markov accused, practically spitting blood.
"It's a dirty business," Colonel Sokalov replied. "The government wants to stop funding on both of our programmes, so one of them has to go, and sooner rather than later. We have to make sure it is theirs. This is your project, Svetocha," he reminded her.
"I don't mean poaching the Rasputinas," Dr Markov snapped back. "I mean going behind my back, as well as overruling my plan for their use. General Vukoticha understands how the game is played, but this isn't it. If you just want to make sure we beat the Special Directorate out of the budget, we can still make better use of these women; a use that increases the economy and efficiency of this programme." She sat down, hard. "I'm so angry with you right now, Max. This is a pointless and wasteful exercise aimed purely at hurting a particular woman. I wouldn't approve of what you're doing even if that woman wasn't a General."
"Svetocha," Sokalov said, gently, standing and moving around the table.
"I think at the moment I'd rather you call me Dr Markov," she told him, frostily.
Sokalov sat on the edge of the table, facing Dr Markov. "This isn't about a General's feud," he promised her. "Not for me. This is about the programme. General Pavlov supports us, and we need the Special Directorate's money if Stargate operations are to continue. Come on, Sve...Dr Markov," he corrected himself in response to her glower. "You know how it is. We've explored four planets so far, and already the politicians are clamouring for us to be shut down because we haven't produced any tangible benefits. Four planets! The SGC got a year of full operations before anyone even started asking questions.
"The only things keeping us in operation are the fact that nobody trusts the Americans, and the support of General Pavlov. The former may not be about to change any time soon, but the General's favour can be...unreliable, believe me. I don't like having to misuse the talents these girls obviously have, but if that is what I have to do to keep the project your project running, then I'll do it."
"Then this has nothing to do with the fact that General Pavlov was your mentor? It's all about the programme?"
"Of course," Sokalov replied. "That's all there is, Svetocha. The programme...and us." He crouched by her chair, and they embraced, fondly. "She said something, didn't she? The General."
"It doesn't matter," Dr Markov assured him.
"Of course it doesn't," Sokalov agreed. "She's a player, Svetocha. You can't trust her any more than I can trust General Pavlov, but the difference is that she is a rival and Pavlov is an ally; so long as we keep him sweet." He stroked her hair, fondly. "You can't trust anyone in this life," he told her. "Apart from me."
Dr Markov shook her head, wearily. "And I thought that the backbiting in academia was bad."
Sokalov squeezed her tightly. "Same problems," he assured her. "Too many people competing for not enough funding, and projects like the Directorate and the Stargate are too far out to get delicate in the way they fight. It won't always be like that," he promised. "But for now we have to be ruthless, and we have to play the game by their rules."
Dr Markov kissed Sokalov tenderly. "Speaking of the game," she said. "I have to have another teleconference with Lieutenant Erin at the Kuybyshev logistics station regarding the refurbishment of the buildings, which will be another two hours of my life I'll never get back. He refuses to believe that the entire structure is in imminent danger of falling down," she explained. "I've sent him all the reports but he insists I should come to see him in person. He doesn't seem to realise that I just can't afford the time away from the base."
"Or maybe he does," Sokalov suggested. "Maybe you're being blocked so as to sabotage the programme? Try going over his head. I think Major Linska is head of logistics at Kuybyshev Airbase; I know her a little."
Dr Markov raised her eyebrow. "Really?"
Sokalov laughed. "Don't look at me like that," he said. "Anyway, probably the only reason Lieutenant Erin wants you to come to the base is because he finds you as irresistible as I do."
"Toad," she accused, but she offered no resistance when he pulled her close and kissed her again.
"If this Lieutenant just stonewalls you again, let me know; I'll put in a word with Major Linska," he offered.
"Thank you," Dr Markov smiled. "I have to go," she added, reluctantly.
"Hurry back," he said.
"Oh; I wish."
Sokalov waited until she was gone, then went to his desk, picked up the phone and dialled a number. "Get the next shipment ready," he said, adding after a pause: "We've got a two hour window. Erin will keep her busy."
Four days later
"Lieutenant?" Major Leonid Balkan said.
"Sir," Alexa replied.
"May I ask why you felt it necessary to paint a black X on your fatigues?"
"So you know who I am," she replied.
"I'm unlikely to forget," he assured her.
Alexa blushed at the compliment. Major Balkan was a slight, sensitive-looking young officer about ten years Alexa's senior and good-looking enough that Alexa would have given real money not to have been on his team. He seemed very serious, and Alexa guessed that he had not been a Major for more than a few weeks. This would be her first time serving with his unit, and her first time through the Stargate. She was the youngest member of the expeditionary patrol by five years, and acutely aware that the others had worked together before, even if Balkan had not been the commander then.
Her other comrades were Captain Natasha Fyodorovska who was slightly older than Balkan, but clearly less of a leader and Lieutenants Ilya Shiraev and Vladimir Tenchlov. Fyodorovska seemed to be prepared to give Alexa the benefit of the doubt, but the two lieutenants made no bones about the fact that they considered her likely to prove a liability in a combat situation. Their criticism made her more than usually aware of the unfamiliarity of the weapons she carried, especially the AK-74M. She had never fired an assault rifle outside of a training environment, and understood the team's concerns, but she had her orders, just as they did.
The Gateroom doors opened, and another team, fully armed and ready, joined Balkan's. Even if she had not known, their air of competent, professional menace marked them out as a spetsnaz team, rather than an expeditionary patrol. The newer AN-94 assault rifles this group carried spoke highly of their qualifications: In the current economic climate, the new weapons were issued only to elite forces deemed likely to bring them back intact. In addition their weapons had under-barrel grenade launchers, where Balkan's team had to make do with hand grenades.
The leader of the spetsnaz team was only a captain, but Anya Voskova was older than Balkan and even Fyodorovska and wore her combat experience like a mantle. A long scar on her cheek marred strong, handsome features, but even that seemed like a medal of honour on Voskova. She carried a heavy combat knife in place of a standard issue bayonet, wore an RMB-93 tactical shotgun across her back to supplement her other weapons and gave the impression that she could have killed everyone in the room just by glaring at them. Voskova was, without question, the most terrifying woman Alexa had ever seen, yet she felt comforted to know that the Captain would be with them.
Vasilisa was walking beside Voskova, listening intently to her CO's instructions and looking a little out of place among the hardened veterans, and effect not softened by the fact that she was the only member of he team with a darker complexion than the Captain's. She had spent the last four days training with Voskova's team in the Siberian wilderness, and so most of Balkan's crew had ever seen her before.
"My God," Tenchlov said to Fyodorovska. "You said they were identical, but..."
"Which is why you have the X," Balkan realised, noting that no such design decorated Vasilisa's uniform.
"That's right," Alexa replied. "Normally we wouldn't serve together in the field at all but..." She shrugged, helplessly.
The other two members of Captain Voskova's team followed: Senior Lieutenant Nikita Tzarev and Senior Sergeant Boris Berlioz. Behind them came Colonel Sokalov and a man Alexa did not know. His uniform bore no mark of rank, and his round face would have seemed almost vacuous if not for the calculating gleam in his eyes.
No Dr Markov, Alexa noted. I thought she was supposed to be involved with all offworld missions.
Maybe she's in the control room, Vasilisa thought back, although without much conviction.
The round-faced man studied the two sisters closely. Alexa was used to such scrutiny, and thought little of it, but Vasilisa was shocked. He knows we're talking, she realised. Moreover, he was closed to her in a way that few people ever had been in the past.
"These must be our new recruits," he said, his Russian very slightly accented; English or American, Alexa thought, although his Russian was excellent. "Was there something you wanted to share with the rest of the group?" He asked Vasilisa.
"No, Sir," she replied, truthfully.
"Thank you, Mr Maybourne," Colonel Sokalov said, stressing the salutation in a way that made Alexa certain that this Maybourne character had held and lost a military rank.
"My apologies, Colonel," Maybourne said. "Force of habit, I guess."
Sokalov all but ignored the man. "Alright," he said. "Unit commanders, you know your mission parameters. I remind you all that this is an Alfa-level mission, the details of which are under no circumstances to be revealed to any civilian personnel; present company excluded." He nodded condescendingly at Maybourne. He turned to the technicians. "Sergeants," he said.
One of the two sergeants threw the switch which connected the Gate to the dialling device, and the other entered the Gate address on the control panel. Alexa and Vasilisa had been taught how to dial Earth's address, but they had never seen the device hooked up before, let alone witness the spectacle of the Gate's activation.
Alexa gave a low whistle.
"Good luck," Maybourne said, standing at her shoulder.
"What's it like?" She asked.
He shook his head, sadly. "Wish I knew."
"Move out!" Balkan ordered, and Captain Voskova led her team up the ramp. The Stargate patrol followed, and as the junior member, Alexa was the last to step through the event horizon.
"What do you think?" Sokalov asked.
Maybourne shrugged. "I like them; the younger one especially."
Sokalov was surprised. "You could tell she was the younger one?" He asked. So far as he knew, Maybourne did not know which Rasputina had been assigned to which team, let alone which was the elder.
"Can't you?" Maybourne returned. "Anyway; I think they have potential." He turned away from the closing Gate. "And the sooner they manage to get themselves killed, the safer our little secret will be."
"I hope you're not suggesting..."
"That you kill your own people to cover up your dirty laundry?" Maybourne asked, sounding scandalised. "God forbid. I'm just saying we would be safer if they stayed very far away from these little jaunts we organise behind Dr Markov's back. They're very perceptive, and if you let them get close you might just find yourself on your way back to Moscow. On foot."
Alexa was almost hypnotised by the transit from one Gate to the other, her senses overwhelmed by the volume of information they were taking in. It was dazzling, and quite beautiful, but even as the stars rocketed by, she felt a sense of growing unease, rising to alarm and fear. As she emerged from the destination Gate she threw herself down, barely evading a staff blast.
She came up shooting, like in an exercise, but unlike an exercise the man in front of her was not a friend, and the cartridges in her weapon were not blanks. Instead, the man was a Jaffa, standing over Vasilisa, who had been knocked to the ground by a solid blow from the butt of his staff weapon, and the weapon was loaded with tungsten-carbide bullets, specifically designed to be effective against the metal-plate protection of the Jaffa, rather than terrestrial Kevlar body armour.
The Jaffa staggered back, and fell to the ground, his breastplate sparking as the bullets struck. Not letting herself start to think about what was going on yet, Alexa swung around, placing a tight group of shots at the centre of another warrior's chest. Behind her she heard a short rattle of fire, then another, and then all was quiet.
"Captain Voskova, secure the perimeter," Balkan ordered. He was breathing hard, and only when she noticed that did Alexa realise that she was doing the same.
Alexa looked around as Voskova's team, including Vasilisa, moved warily into the surrounding tree cover. They were in a forest of mixed deciduous trees and conifers, the firs and pines still green although the foliage had fallen from the broadleaves. There was a biting chill in the air, and Alexa was reminded of frosty summer mornings on the farm. In total, four Jaffa corpses lay around the Gate, and Sergeant Berlioz had apparently suffered a slight injury to his left arm, as he had a field dressing strapped around his bicep.
Alexa looked up at her CO, and realised that she was still crouched, weapon at the ready. "Sir," she said. She stood up and snapped on the AK-74's safety catch.
Balkan turned to the rest of the team. "Check your weapons and be ready to move," he ordered.
"We have to return to the base, Sir," Fyodorovska protested. "Mission protocols clearly state that patrols are not to press any engagement with hostile forces without specific orders."
"We have orders," Alexa said. She looked Balkan straight in the eyes. "Haven't we?"
"Captain Voskova and I were given very specific orders," Balkan confirmed. "But for reasons of security these could not be revealed in an open briefing. The patrol were not to be informed of the true mission until we arrived, although the combat team were briefed to expect resistance at the Gate. Also, the dialling device will have been disconnected by now; we can not return home until our window in two hours. Do you have a problem with this?"
"No, Sir," Fyodorovska replied. She moved to join the rest of the team. As she passed Alexa she stopped. "How did you know where they were?" She asked. "You seemed to come out of the Gate already firing."
"Vasilisa knew," Alexa replied.
"That's just creepy," Fyodorovska said, but she clapped a hand onto Alexa's shoulder and added: "Good work, soldier."
"I'll second that," Balkan agreed, with a warm smile. "I would have been dead if not for you."
"Any time," she assured him, blushing furiously.
Balkan's smile deepened for a moment, before he turned to address the whole team. "Patrol," he said. "Once the spetsnaz team secures the Gate area, we will head that way," he pointed. "Which our compasses will call north-north-west, and so we will also. Our target is a naquadah mine. It's three kilometres as the crow flies, but we'll be taking a round about route to avoid the Jaffa patrols around a Goa'uld stronghold between us and the target area."
Balkan knelt and spread out a map of the area, with the Gate, the mine and the stronghold clearly marked, along with patrol routes. "Once we reach the mine Captain Fyodorovska, Lieutenant Shiraev and Lieutenant Rasputina will secure a quantity of naquadah while Tenchlov and I provide cover. We will then withdraw to the Gate and leave on our window."
Fyodorovska frowned, clearly unhappy with the change in direction the mission had taken. "Sir; who did the reconnaissance on this? There have only been four offworld missions so far, and none of them to this planet."
"Actually," Balkan replied. "As you have all been given Alfa-level clearance to participate in this mission, I can tell you that this is the eighth mission undertaken by the programme, but of those eight four were Alfa missions."
"But none of the other Alfa missions came here, did it?" Alexa asked.
"Then how...?" Fyodorovska began, when Balkan nodded confirmation.
Alexa pointed to the corner of the map, where red lettering could just be made out through a concealing sticker:
PROPERTY OF USAF
MAJESTIC CLEARANCE ONLY
"This world was scouted by the US Stargate Programme," Alexa concluded. "And we have copies of the maps. Maybourne is a defector," she realised.
"Be careful, Lieutenant," Balkan cautioned, gravely. "You're very smart; but there are some kinds of smart that will get you killed." The rest of the patrol laughed, but something in his tone, something deadly serious, made Alexa's blood run cold. She met his gaze, and for all her empathic acuity she could not say whether he was warning or threatening her.
Balkan broke the contact between them, and drew everyone's attention to the map and the mission in hand. They waited nine minutes for the spetsnaz team to return, and then headed out. As they passed one another, Alexa and Vasilisa shared a meaningful look.
Be careful, Vasilisa thought.
You too, Alexa replied.
Shiraev took point as the team moved cautiously through the woods, with Fyodorovska following. Tenchlov brought up the rear, leaving Balkan and Alexa in the middle. The woods were peaceful, and very beautiful, and Alexa could have taken this for a pleasant stroll if not for the subtle air of menace that she discerned; an unmistakable sense that this was enemy ground. As if to remind them, after a while they passed the fortress, the Jaffa patrols visible on the wall.
"Lieutenant," Balkan said, quietly.
"Have you ever been to Moscow?" He asked.
"A few times," she replied. "The Special Directorate facility is not too far from there, but I was usually too busy to visit. Why?"
"There's a little cafι off Petrovka," Balkan explained. "A beautiful place. It's been more-or-less untouched by fire, war and politics for almost a century; no-one really knows why. My family have managed it all that time; my uncle runs it now. I know we're in the same chain of command at the moment," he added. "But some day maybe not."
"That sounds lovely," Alexa told him, sincerely.
Balkan smiled. "We're almost there," he added, moving with barely a transition from shy young man to professional soldier. He motioned for Alexa to move off to the left, and she obeyed, keeping low to the ground. Spread out in a line the five soldiers crept up to a ridge and looked down onto the Goa'uld mine.
Alexa almost gasped aloud at the sight. It was like every scene of a gulag that she had ever seen portrayed or heard described, rolled together and made a hundred times worse by the unforgiving immediacy. The mine was an open cast, with perhaps four hundred workers, and while the ridge was some half-a-kilometre from the mining face, Alexa could hear a steady drone of moaning and sighing from the miners. With binoculars, she could make see the Jaffa guards striking out with pronged sticks at anyone who did not seem to be working hard enough. Each time they made contact there was a flash of light, which seemed to issue from the mouth of the hapless victim.
Balkan crept over, with Fyodorovska and Shiraev following. "Alright," he said, and as he spoke he was fitting a suppressor to the barrel of his weapon. "Silencers on; subsonic ammo. We all move down to a second ridge about three hundred yards on so that Tenchlov and I are close enough to cover you. There is a stockpile on the far right, where the road to the stronghold comes into the mine; the naquadah is stacked there in small crates. You three head down that way, get close, take a crate each and get back to us. Don't be tempted to try and take more; a single crate will be heavy enough to lug back to the Gate."
"If we're spotted?" Shiraev asked.
"If you know they've made you, drop the crates and run like hell," Balkan advised. "The American gets his naquadah if and only if I don't have to leave anyone behind to get it. Get yourselves shot, and I'll be very upset. In all seriousness," he added. "If you think they haven't really seen you, go to ground and stay down. Tenchlov and I will deal if they get to close, but we all stand a better chance if we can get away without being spotted.
"Whatever the case, we will be observing radio silence," he warned them. "If we need the combat team to extract us, that's Rasputina's job."
"We'll try and keep you alive then," Fyodorovska assured Alexa.
"I appreciate that," Alexa replied, straight faced.
"That's enough," Balkan said, although he smiled as he said it. "From here on, it's all serious."
"Yes, Sir," Fyodorovska acknowledged.
Alexa finished fixing her silencer, and switched her magazine. In truth she felt a little under equipped now; unconvinced of the ability of the AK-74 to pierce Jaffa armour with a subsonic round. This was not really what the weapon was designed for, and a submachine gun would have been preferable; but then the Stargate operation probably did not have the budget to provide an alternate weapon for its field units, especially not after the investment in the tungsten-carbide ammunition.
"You know, I didn't expect my first field assignment to be clandestine ops," she admitted.
"Sorry to drop you in it," Balkan replied. "But we need at least three carrying, and Tenchlov's the best shot we have; I'm the second," he added, as though worried she might think he was staying because he was afraid.
"I'm counting on it," she assured him.
Alexa dropped to her belly and squirmed down the hillside to the row of boulders which provided the last cover before their objective. Fyodorovska was to her left and Shiraev to her right. Once they had a closer view of the land, they had decided that the best way to proceed was for one person to break for the stockpile while the other two covered. As the strongest of the three, Shiraev got to make the run, while the two women leaned around opposite sides of the largest boulder, watching for approaching Jaffa.
From the corner of her eye, Alexa watched Shiraev dash the short distance from the next boulder along to the stockpile and crouch behind it. Beyond, she saw the miners labouring mechanically, but no sign of the Jaffa. Carefully, Shiraev pulled three crates from the pile and hefted them in his arms. He looked up at Alexa, and after a moment she signalled for him to come ahead. Staggering under the weight of naquadah, he moved as quickly as he could towards the boulders, but just as he ducked behind his boulder a Jaffa appeared, and tilted his head as though he had seen something.
Alexa pulled back in alarm, and as Shiraev rounded his boulder she signed for him to keep down and still. Very, very carefully, she peeked back towards the mine, and saw the Jaffa, his staff weapon sweeping slowly up and down as he scanned the line of boulders. She ducked back once more and pressed herself against the stone, as though she could will herself to become a part of it.
Do you need us? Vasilisa's thought came to her.
Not yet, Alexa replied. Stay where you are.
On the ridge above them, Leonid Balkan's hand tightened on the pistol grip of his AK-74, trigger finger still lying alongside the guard. He watched as the Jaffa looked to-and-fro, knowing that if he fired, he would alert the other guards, but that if he did not then his people might be caught anyway. The thought of the Jaffa killing or capturing his patrol filled Balkan with anger. That anything might happen to Alexa Rasputina was almost more than he could bear to contemplate.
Focus, Balkan chastised himself, and made a mental note to ask Colonel Sokalov to reassign Alexa if when they got back.
The Jaffa was moving forwards, closer to Alexa's hiding place. Balkan put his eye to the scope and drew the weapon in tighter to his shoulder.
Alexa heard the footsteps, and held her weapon at the ready. The sound stopped, and she held her breath, certain that the Jaffa would be able to detect her anyway, by the pounding of her heart. Opposite her, she saw Tenchlov do the same. Seconds stretched to hours, and then another footstep; one more pace towards her hiding place. Her heart was in her mouth as she let out a stealthy breath. She did not want to, but her vision was starting to swim.
Thwap, thwap, thwap!
Alexa almost jumped out of her skin at the sound; three loud thumps, like a hardback book being slammed, and after a moment a crash as the Jaffa fell to the ground.
"Move!" Fyodorovska hissed.
Alexa did not need to be told twice. She was up before the order was even finished, haring for the ridge as though the devil himself were at her heels.
Thwap, thwap, thwap!
A shiver of fear ran down Alexa's spine: They had been spotted.
"Kree!" The cry was echoed from further back; then again, and again. A horn sounded, low and ominous.
Vasya! Alexa thought, urgently. Now!
Balkan had seen the second Jaffa before he fired, but saw no alternative. Either way the patrol would be spotted and the mission a bust; the only thing now was to try and salvage the lives of his soldiers. He steadied the rifle for the second shot, but even though Tenchlov shaved him by a second, he was still too slow to stop the warrior calling out an alarm. As the cry ran around the mine, the Major popped the clip from his rifle and swapped his subsonic rounds for full-powered ammo; the two Jaffa has been dropped with carefully aimed headshots, and he did not want to chance a burst against armour if failure would kill his people.
"Leave it!" He called, as Shiraev struggled with the naquadah. The lieutenant obeyed, but too late, and a Jaffa rounded the boulder and shot him. At once, Balkan and Tenchlov shot the Jaffa down, but the damage was done.
Fyodorovska and Rasputina began to turn, but then they spun back and headed for the ridge at a flat sprint.
Alexa had been about to go back for Shiraev, but clearly the man believed that he was done for. He smiled up at her and at Fyodorovska as he reached to his belt. Two more Jaffa rounded the boulder into the teeth of the covering fire, but the two women were already running as Ilya Shiraev looped his fingers into the pin-rings of three of his hand grenades and pulled.
Alexa and Fyodorovska leaped over the ridge, staff blasts hissing past them, just as the grenades went off. Alexa felt a wave of heat across her back, and when she tried to roll into a crouch she felt a deep ache, as though she had been badly sunburned.
"My eyes!" Tenchlov cried.
"What the hell was that?" Balkan demanded, moving to the Lieutenant's side.
"Naquadah enhances the release of energy from conventional explosives," Fyodorovska explained. "There must have been enough impure naquadah in those crates to amplify the detonations of..." She broke off, clearly unhappy describing the death of a friend in technical terms.
"I can't see," Tenchlov said.
"Major; are you alright?" Alexa asked.
"I looked away just before the explosion," Balkan replied. "To see if you w...If you two were okay." He gathered his wits, quickly. "They're hanging back, but I doubt that will last. Fyodorovska, get up that ridge. Rasputina, you follow with Tenchlov, then cover me."
"Yes, Sir," Alexa replied. Fyodorovska was already away. Alexa waited until the Captain was over the ridge, and then a three-count more for her to get in place, then she took Tenchlov's arm and scrambled up the rise. Near the top, Tenchlov tripped, and the two of them tumbled over the ridge into a heap, Alexa scrambling to get free, but Tenchlov's attempts to help only served to hinder her.
At the lower ridge, Balkan turned and ran. He was acutely aware that the Jaffa had begun firing again, and there did not seem to be enough covering fire from above. He was just cresting the ridge, wondering if he should have given Alexa a longer count to get set up, when a flash of heat struck him in the back, and he fell.
Alexa pulled herself out from under the struggling Tenchlov, just as Major Balkan toppled to the ground in front of her. "Major!" She screamed, dragging herself over to him. The meat of his back had been pulverised then cooked, so that it smoked and smelled of burned pork. When she turned him over, Alexa saw blood on his chest.
Balkan groaned. "So much for Petrovka," he said, voice thick with blood.
"Don't talk," Alexa said. "I have to get a bandage on this or...or something, I..."
"Get out of here," the Major gasped. "Get everyone else home."
"Just go, Lieutenant. I..." He choked. "Goodbye, Alexa," he whispered.
Alexa leaned down and kissed his forehead, unable to bring herself to taste the blood he had coughed onto his lips. "Goodbye...Leonid," she said. When he did not reply, she gently closed his eyes and retrieved the tags from around his neck. She allowed herself only a moment to grieve, then joined Fyodorovska at the ridge. "Captain," she began. "The Major..."
"It's not your fault, Lieutenant," Fyodorovska replied, grimly. Staff blasts slapped against the ridge, throwing up gouts of earth and cinder. Alexa began to rise to a firing position, but the Captain pulled her down. "They made my position," she said. "They'll kill you if you stick your head up. Grenades." So-saying, she pulled a hand grenade from her belt. Alexa did the same, and they pulled the pins and threw as one.
Two percussive reports rang out, and in the quiet afterwards, Alexa could hear the cries of injured men below them.
"You lead Tenchlov," Fyodorovska ordered. "Let's get out of here."
Alexa nodded. Vasya, she thought. We're heading back towards you.
The remnants of the expeditionary team broke into the Gate clearing to find it deserted.
"Where is the spetsnaz unit?" Fyodorovska demanded.
"I don't know," Alexa replied. "It's hard to focus when I'm running so hard, I'll..." She stopped, momentarily frozen in panic.
"What?" Fyodorovska asked. "Lieutenant!"
Alexa shook off her fugue. "They're pinned down," she said. "That's why we got here so easily; they found the other unit and thought it was us. We have to go back!"
"There are only a few minutes to the window," Fyodorovska reminded her. "And Tenchlov is incapacitated."
"I'm okay," Tenchlov insisted, but there was no sign of his eyesight returning, and Alexa suspected he had suffered serious, perhaps permanent, retinal damage.
"It won't take much," Alexa pleaded. "If someone just distracts the Jaffa for a few moments."
Fyodorovska sighed. "The window opens in eight minutes," she said. "It closes in eleven. After ten, take Tenchlov..."
"Ma'am," Alexa interrupted. "I'm the one who can find them," she said, tapping her temple with a finger. "And it's my sister."
Fyodorovska paused a moment, then nodded. "Good luck, Lieutenant," she said. "I'll try to hold the door as long as I can."
"Thank you, Captain," Alexa began, but Fyodorovska cut her off.
Alexa nodded, and ran.
Vasilisa was beginning to worry, but she sensed her sister's approach, and knew when and how to capitalise on Alexa's distraction. Breaking out of the hollow where they had been forced to dig in was still a nasty grind, but cost them no more than a nasty wound to Tzarev's arm. Sadly, Berlioz was already dead; Voskova took his tags and left the body.
"I was worried you'd leave without us," Vasilisa chided Alexa as they jogged through the undergrowth.
"Never in a million years," Alexa assured her.
I'm sorry about Balkan, Vasilisa sent. With their connection, it would have been impossible for her not to realise that her sister had quickly developed strong feelings for the man.
"Pick up the pace," Voskova ordered. "We only have five minutes.
They ran hard, too hard for even mental communication, and as they burst into the clearing saw Fyodorovska standing by the open Gate.
"Quickly!" The Captain called, and almost at once turned to step through the Gate.
Alexa allowed herself a sigh of relief, but at that moment she felt a numbing pain wrack her body and she stumbled. She gathered herself to press on, thinking that the blast had hurt a lot less than she had been warned. She became aware of Vasilisa, continuing to fall, and realised that it was in fact her sister who had been struck by the zat'nik'tel blast. She stooped to help her, and that was when she was struck herself, and realised just how much more painful that was. She fell beside Vasilisa, and as her vision faded she saw at least one more person collapse in front of her.
Zat blasts followed Tzarev through the Stargate as the lieutenant stumbled and fell down the ramp.
"Shut it down!" The duty officer, Major Borodin, ordered. "Pull the damn plug."
"Wait!" Fyodorovska called, but she was outranked and the technicians threw the switch to disconnect the dialling device. Without power, the Gate deactivated, and the wormhole collapsed. "Reconnect!" Fyodorovska ordered. "Dial the planet; we have to take a team back."
"Strike that order," Borodin told the technicians. "There is a hostile force on the far side of that wormhole," he said. "Protocol demands..."
"There are as many as three of my people back there!" Fyodorovska insisted. "We have to go back for them."
"They should have taken their cyanide capsules if they were in danger of capture," Borodin replied. "If they were not, they can return at the next window."
"I heard zat'nik'tels," Fyodorovska argued. "You saw the blasts yourself. They may have been incapacitated and unable to commit suicide. They could have been captured, but we can save them if we make a sortie now."
"I'm sorry," Borodin said, although he did not particularly sound it. "I could not authorise such a strike, even if I believed it to be worthwhile."
"Then may I speak to Colonel Sokalov?"
"I am afraid the Colonel is busy at present," Borodin replied. "You will have to raise the matter at your debriefing at fifteen-hundred."
"That is three hours from now!" Fyodorovska protested. "They will be gone from the Gate area by then, and any rescue attempt would require an assault on the enemy stronghold."
"In which case I doubt that the Colonel will allow any such attempt," Borodin noted.
"We must go back now..."
"That will do, Captain," Borodin said, darkly.
Fyodorovska deflated, sensing defeat. "Yes, Major," she agreed.
"Get your men to the infirmary," Borodin ordered, in a gentler tone. "You debrief at fifteen hundred hours."
Alexa came to slowly, swimming up out of a dark dream, in which cold, black waters tried to suck her under while she clutched at Vasilisa's hand. "Vasya," she called, softly, when the darkness did not go away. Her back stung from the burns, and she had a splitting headache.
"I'm here," her sister called back, her voice sounding strange, muffled; as though the darkness were so thick that it muted sound. It sounded as though she was calling quite loudly, and Alexa was sure that Vasilisa must have heard her hail with her mind, not with her ears. "I think they caught Captain Voskova as well."
"They did," Voskova replied.
"Can you guys see anything?" Alexa asked.
"Nothing," Voskova assured her. "I think it is just dark, but my torch is gone, along with my other gear." She swore. "Including my cyanide capsule."
"Same here," Vasilisa confirmed. Although I'm not losing any sleep over the suicide pill, she admitted to her sister alone. There was a distant sound of movement. "I think we're in cells. About eight-foot square," she added, after a pause. "The door is metal. No openings, so it's thin enough to speak through, but it feels strong." Three sharp thumps sounded in the darkness. "Yep," she confirmed. "Strong."
Alexa rubbed her shoulder, which was aching in sympathy with her sister's.
"There're no handles of any kind on the inside. I guess all the fixtures are external."
"Our only chance of escape is to try and jump the guards when they come for us," Voskova suggested.
"If they come for us," Alexa replied. "This could be an oubliette. Also, if they just let one of us out, it could get futile rather quickly."
"We have to do something," Voskova told her.
"No argument," Alexa agreed. "I'm just not sure direct violence will do the trick; we may need to be a little smarter. If you try to stay near one of us, we can coordinate better," she added.
"The longer we leave it, the less chance we have," Voskova warned. "If my instincts haven't deserted me, then our captors will not be feeding us well, and will make every effort to discomfort us and wear us down. We shall not be stronger than we are now."
"Oh, I'm not dead set against violence," Alexa assured the Captain. "But we'll lose fighting trim much quicker with a broken arm, and..." She broke off at the sound of heavy footsteps.
As quickly as she could, Alexa located the door of her cell and positioned herself near to it, in case violence were to present itself as an obvious choice. The door hissed as it opened, but Alexa hardly noticed, being too busy reeling from the sudden glare of light that flooded her cell, raising her existing headache to epic proportions. The corridor outside was brilliantly lit, casting the two looming figures in the doorway into silhouette, and throwing sharp, huge shadows across the floor.
Alexa fought for balance, but the two figures advanced and seized hold of her, dragging her from the cell, their grip on her arms like steel clamps. Slowly, the white blur in her vision faded, and she was able to see that the two men Jaffa, blonde and pallid, clad in white armour and each bearing a yellow sunburst tattoo on his brow were hauling her along a wide, sunlit marble cloister. A cool breeze blew on her face, and as though its touch had released her from her daze, she began to struggle, but to no avail. She heard someone else struggling nearby, and as she knew inside her that Vasilisa was still in her cell, realised that only she and Voskova were being taken.
After what seemed a very long time, Alexa's escorts dragged her through a massive doorway, and hurled her down. The light was still dazzling, and as Voskova struck the floor beside her, Alexa realised why. Almost everything in the room was white marble: The flagstones were marble, the walls were clad in marble. The great table in front of her was marble, the throne behind it was marble, and the two great statues of crows, standing, looming on either side of the high seat were marble.
Even the figures surrounding the throne in a static tableau seemed to be carved from marble. There were two warriors in white armour, heads covered by cruel-beaked helmets with piercing black eyes, flanking the throne. A pale woman stood beside them in a white dress, a white crow perched on the back of the throne, and on that high seat itself sat a man of potent, regal bearing. His hair was white, his skin was white, and his eyes were pink like rose marble. His tunic and pants were white cloth, his boots and bracers white leather and his cloak white fur.
These five were quite still, and only the woman betrayed the impression that they were statues, for her eyes were ice blue and her hair, although extraordinarily pale, had just a touch of yellow that seemed as golden as ripe corn against the monochrome background. As Alexa noted this, the crow gave a raucous cry, and the inside of its mouth showed as a bright red slash. She was suddenly and uncomfortably aware of how much she and Voskova must stand out, dressed in green fatigues, with their dark hair and eyes, and even her skin so much darker than anything else in the room.
The pale woman stepped forward. "Where do you come from?" She asked, in a dispassionate tone.
Alexa exchanged a glance with Voskova, and they both stood. The giant albino started up.
"Kneel," the woman said, calmly. When they refused, the giant waved his hand, angrily, and one of their escort struck Voskova in the back of her knees, forcing her to drop. Alexa winced at the sound of kneecap-on-marble.
"Rasputina," Voskova ordered, softly, and Alexa knelt.
"Who are you?" The pale woman asked.
"Anya Mikhailevna Voskova. Captain, Russian Army Special Forces. Service number V18-2568E."
"Alexa Vasiliovna Rasputina. Lieutenant, Russian Army," Alexa added. "Service number X23-1124B. And who might you be?"
"I am Byelobog," the woman replied.
"The White God?" Alexa asked. She had heard the name in Moscow; one of the other Special Directorate officers was a shaman who attributed his abilities in part to this deity.
"Ah, no," Alexa assured her.
Again, the giant signalled, and an armoured hand caught Alexa around the back of the head, hard enough to make her fall forward.
"So are you in charge, or is he?" Voskova asked the woman.
"I rule here," the woman replied. "I am Byelobog, the immortal and invincible. I can not be destroyed. Many System Lords have tried to kill me, but always I rise again. The woman speaks for me. You will tell me where you come from."
"I am from Moscow," Voskova replied.
"This weapon," the woman said. One of the Jaffa stepped forward and held up Voskova's AN-94, the casing a stark, black shape against the white armour. "It is similar to those used by the people of the Tau'ri. Are the people of Moscow allied with them?"
"No," Voskova assured Byelobog, truthfully.
"What are the coordinates to connect the Chapp'ai to Moscow?"
Voskova stood silent. If he tried to Gate to Earth outside of a pre-arranged window, he would be flattened against the American iris, but if he knew that Moscow was on Earth as he would from the coordinates then he might have no more use for them.
Byelobog waved his pale hand. The Jaffa raised the AN-94 and fired. Alexa turned, and saw a splash of blood explode from Voskova's leg. The Captain stifled a cry, emitting only a small gasp of pain. Byelobog appeared displeased, and at a sign from the giant his Jaffa grabbed hold of Voskova and dragged her over, lifting her and throwing her down onto the table.
"Are you also from Moscow?" The woman asked Alexa.
"No," she replied. "I am from Siberia."
"What are the coordinates for Siberia?"
Alexa uttered a particularly foul Mongol curse. The giant smiled, viciously. He leaned forward and dug a finger into the bullet hole in Voskova's leg, moving it around. The Captain gritted her teeth, trying to fight the pain, but in the end it overwhelmed her self-control, and she screamed and writhed in agony. Tears of sympathy welled up in Alexa's eyes as she watched the woman's suffering, forcing herself not to look away.
After a long time, Byelobog withdrew his finger. Blood had splashed up and over most of his hand, and once more Alexa was struck by the vivid contrast. It hardly seemed possible that the albino giant had blood flowing in his own veins, so ashen was his skin.
A red pool was spreading across the table, and Voskova's struggles were growing weaker. Byelobog held out his left hand, wrapped in a hand device of white gold, set with diamonds and pearls. The energy ribbon flickered, delving into Voskova's wound, and she screamed again. Smoke curled from the leg, and a smell of burned pork wafted towards Alexa, making her feel sick to her stomach.
"It is not yet time for her to die," Byelobog's speaking woman said. "That comes only at my whim. Her lot will be easier if you tell me what I wish to know."
Alexa's next words would have shocked even her father, a man notorious for his loose tongue. Alexa was not sure if Byelobog understood Mongol, but he seemed to get the message.
"Your anger is a delight to behold," the woman said. Her emotionless tone, combined with the cruel leer on Byelobog's face, chilled Alexa to the bone. The bloodstained white hand slid up Voskova's thigh, twitching with suppressed excitement and arousal. Alexa tried to maintain her calm, but failed. She doubled over and retched, thankful that she had not eaten in some time.
I am here, Shura, Vasilisa's thoughts whispered in her mind, and the knowledge of it gave Alexa strength.
"I want to know where you come from," the woman said. "And you will tell me, or your friend will suffer. You will give me the coordinates of your world, the means to disable its defences, and an account of what gains might be had from its conquest. If what you tell me pleases, I might honour you with my blessing."
Alexa shivered uncontrollably, certain that she knew what form his 'blessing' would take. She wished the giant would speak for himself; to hear such words from a woman unnerved her more than the words themselves.
The hand device flared again, this time over Voskova's heart, and the Captain began to twitch and shudder violently, as though in the grip of a seizure.
"This is nothing," the woman assured Alexa. "The pain that I can inflict has no upper bound. Tell me the coordinates of your home planet."
"Don't..." Voskova gasped. Alexa was astonished that the woman could speak through the pain, and Byelobog looked enraged to see it happen. The albino's brow furrowed in concentration, and Voskova arched in agony, a sobbing cry forcing itself from her throat.
"Very well," the girl said, still displaying no emotional response to anything around her. "This one withstands her own pain well. Let us see how she withstands yours."
Alexa took a step backwards, but her Jaffa escorts were there to catch her arms and drag her forward. She tried to put on a brave face, but inside she was screaming for help.
I'm here, Shura, Vasilisa's thoughts whispered again.
Oh God, I wish you weren't, Alexa replied, as Byelobog moved around the table to stand over her. He really was a huge man, she realised, easily seven feet tall, and powerfully built; hardly the normal stature for an albino. I don't want you to share this.
Alexa felt Vasilisa's spirit wrap around her. It was the first thing that they had ever learned to do with their abilities; even before they could speak they had learned to comfort each other this way. Alexa felt the soothing warmth of Vasilisa's presence, but then Byelobog raised his hand, and the ribbon beam sliced through that warmth like an ice scalpel.
Alexa screamed, light burning behind her eyes, her brain feeling as though it was about to explode out of her skull. She could feel Vasilisa's rising panic, and her sister's pain as the agony transferred itself in part to her.
The pain stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and Alexa sagged between the two Jaffa, suspended by her arms.
The woman stood by the table. "What are the coordinates of your home world?"
"Go to hell," Voskova whispered.
"What about you?" The woman asked Alexa. "Do you wish to speak now?"
Alexa croaked something inaudible through her ravaged throat.
"What was that?"
Alexa croaked again. Byelobog bent down to listen, and she spat in his face. She was rather alarmed to see that her spittle was red with blood.
With a hiss of rage the first sound she had heard him make Byelobog leaped back, and the white crow flew past him at Alexa's face. She shrieked, and tried to ward it off, but her arms were held. Her vision was filled with white feathers and wickedly sharp claws, then the bird was flying away, its wings stained with blood. Slowly, a tingle became an ache became a pain, where the birds claws had cut a bloody track down her face.
"You will show respect for your god," the woman told her.
"I always do," Alexa replied, breathing hard.
Byelobog gestured, and a Jaffa brought him an ivory rod, some thirty inches long and three-quarters of an inch in diameter, with a thickened handle and a pronged tip.
"You will learn," the girl told her, and Byelobog thrust the prongs against the skin above her collar.
Alexa roared in agony, and tried to twist away from the pain giver, but to no avail; she was held too securely, and the tip was pressed too firmly into the hollow of her throat. Although she could not see, she was certain that golden light must be pouring from her mouth and eyes, as it had done with the slaves in the mines. When the pain was at last gone, she groped for the reassurance of Vasilisa's mind, only to find her sister reaching back, just as desperate for the comfort neither of them could give.
The pale woman turned away from Alexa, who was too drained to so much as turn her head to look at the man who had just entered. Byelobog just kept gazing at Alexa with a predatory expression.
"What is it?" The woman asked.
"The other prisoner, My Lord," the man replied. "Something is happening to her."
"Bring her," the woman ordered.
"No," Alexa slurred.
Byelobog responded with an idle, backhand slap.
"It seems a shame to damage such beauty," his mouthpiece told her. "But you leave me no alternative."
"Bastard," she mumbled.
The albino giant seized her face in a rough grip, and drew it close to his own, the Jaffa lifting her to accommodate. He rubbed his skin against hers, as smooth and cold as the marble of his hall and to Alexa's horror the woman came close enough to whisper in her ear: "In time you will come to love me as Your God," she told Alexa, blandly. "In time I shall be your world. You can fight this, but you will lose; I have seen it ten thousand times."
Byelobog released her, and the Jaffa spun her around to face the door. Two more Jaffa stood there, holding a weakened Vasilisa by the arms.
"Twins," the voice of Byelobog observed.
"More than that," one of the Jaffa holding Vasilisa said. "Alone in her cell, this one began to thrash and cry out, as though in pain."
"Is that so?"
Vasilisa saw it coming, and so Alexa had time to brace herself, but it was not enough. The pain giver jabbed into her spine and she screamed again. Her back arched and her legs kicked wildly, like a hanged man's jig. When the albino took the pain giver away, her whole body felt numb; heavy and sluggish, tingling with pins and needles. Alexa moaned, and heard Vasilisa do the same.
"Fascinating," the pale woman said.
"I know the layout of the land now," Captain Fyodorovska argued. "I've seen their forces and I know the way they fight. A well-armed team could take the fortress, I'm sure of it."
"Not without losses," Borodin reposted. "They are three; if we take an assault force, we will lose more than that, I guarantee it, on top of the three already killed on this mission."
"Colonel," Fyodorovska appealed to Sokalov. "I was the most experienced officer in my team, and after Major Balkan was killed, it was my duty to get them out. I can not leave them."
Sokalov sighed. "I am sorry, Captain," he said, sincerely. "But Major Borodin is correct. I do not like the idea of leaving people behind, but I do not see a realistic means of carrying out a rescue within the operating limitations of this command. These losses account for fully half of my field personnel, including the most senior of my spetsnaz officers; I simply don't have the manpower for such an assault, and if I did I believe that we would still lose more people than we would be rescuing."
Fyodorovska hung her head. "Thank you, Sir. For listening." She looked up, towards Borodin. "But had I been allowed to take a unit through the Stargate immediately after my return..."
"That will do, Captain," Sokalov said, his tone soft, but very, very final. "This is a closed book now. All existing windows have been recalculated: Captain Voskova and the Lieutenants Rasputina are to be considered casualties. I understand how hard this is for you," he added. "So I am sending you to Kuybyshev for psychiatric evaluation before I allow you to return to field duty."
"This is not open for debate," Sokalov told her. "Major Borodin will take command of the new Stargate patrol pending your return, but if you are found fit then you will take over. Rank notwithstanding, you are our most experienced offworld operative now, and I need Major Borodin on this side of the Gate."
"I...Thank you, Sir."
"Dismissed." Sokalov waited until the two officers had left, then gave a heavy sigh. "I suppose you are happy," he said.
"Why would I be happy?" Maybourne asked, stepping out of the shadows where he had been lurking. "I told you I liked those girls. I believe that there may be limited positive aspects to the outcome of this mission," he admitted. "But you lost the better part of two good teams, and I didn't get my naquadah, so I'd say that everyone loses really."
"A situation that I am getting all too familiar with," Sokalov snarled. "In fact, I feel that your organisation's demands are becoming altogether too costly, and showing far too little return. I have therefore decided that this command will concentrate for now on its own goals, as established by Dr Markov's analysis."
"You can't do that," Maybourne said.
"Yes, I can," Sokalov replied.
"I think General Pavlov might have something to say about it," Maybourne suggested.
Sokalov smiled. "He did," he assured the American. "He said: 'And about time too'. I spoke to him this morning."
"We had a deal," Maybourne insisted.
"Our deal has not been all you promised," Sokalov replied. "Not by a long way. You start showing us tangible results and benefits from your 'special missions' benefits that apply to Russia, and that do not cost me half-a-dozen of my best people each time out and we shall consider returning to your schedule."
Maybourne frowned. "You still need us to access the SGC records for your travel windows," he said.
"And you still need us to have any access to a Stargate."
"Very well," Maybourne replied, after a moment's thought. "You win this one. I'll let this slide, but on one condition. I want one window to send my own team offworld; no return trip needed."
"Setting up another offworld base?" Sokalov asked.
"That's not your concern."
"Of course it is," Sokalov scoffed. "Very well, but I have my own condition. Anything we return through this Gate for your people to study, we get to study first."
"If you insist," Maybourne agreed, testily.
"A pleasure doing business with you," Sokalov said. "When will you want to send your team?"
Maybourne shrugged. "As soon as I get them out of jail."
Three days later
"Vathilitha Vathiliovna Rathputina," Vasilisa mumbled around her swollen tongue, having bitten it the last time Byelobog struck Alexa. He kept them facing the same way now, hands chained high above their heads, with his Ghost as Alexa had dubbed his handmaiden in front of them, while he walked behind them, lashing out every now and then, with hand, ribbon device or pain giver. "Lieutenant, Ruthian Army. Service number X23-1124A."
"Yes, yes," The Ghost said, her words impatient but her voice as flat as ever. "That has become such a boring sound to me. I am losing interest in where you come from however; I doubt that there is anyone there as fascinating as the two of you."
The white giant moved around in front of Alexa and caressed her scarred face. He seemed to have sensed the deeper strength in Vasilisa, and so directed the bulk of his attentions to her sister, and of course that hurt Vasilisa more deeply than anything he could do to her body. In particular, he delighted in this twisted parody of seduction, knowing how much it upset Alexa, even if he did not realise that it was the death of Leonid Balkan that had left her heart so raw and vulnerable.
"Especially you," The Ghost told Alexa, as calmly as though she were discussing the weather.
Byelobog sniffed Alexa's hair, and forced a hungry kiss on her mouth, although he made no attempt to press his tongue past her lips. He had learned that lesson the hard way, and learned it well. The memory of Alexa's exultation as she shook her head to-and-fro, drawing muffled cries from Byelobog until at last he pulled free, was one of the few things that kept them going. Alexa had spat the tip of the albino's tongue a pale gobbet of seemingly bloodless flesh onto the ground at his feet. Her defiance had earned another attack by the crow and another scar on her face, but she bore it with equanimity.
Byelobog stepped away. "I grow tired of these games," The Ghost announced. The albino snapped his fingers, and three Jaffa entered; one carried an AK-74, the other two escorted Captain Voskova.
The spetsnaz soldier walked unaided, but Alexa had no idea how. Whatever they had suffered, Alexa immediately saw that it was nothing to what Byelobog had inflicted on Voskova. The woman was almost unrecognisable for the mass of bruises on her face. She walked with a pronounced limp, but she still managed to hold herself with something approaching dignity. Alexa marvelled at her strength, knowing that she herself would probably be unable to walk at all after such punishment.
"Like you, she has said nothing," The Ghost explained, as Byelobog took the assault rifle from his warrior. "Except her name, rank and service number. I grow tired of this."
The AK-74 roared, the noise filling the small torture chamber before rolling up towards the high roof. Voskova stumbled, fresh blood erupting from her torso as the bullets struck home. She made no sound until her body struck the floor with a wet thump. The Ghost flinched, the first sign of real animation Vasilisa had seen from her.
"No!" Alexa cried out.
Byelobog turned the weapon towards her. "These weapons of yours are intriguing," The Ghost said. "Powerful, but they have such limited capacity." The albino pulled the trigger.
Alexa's body shook, then swung in declining circles on her chains.
Vasilisa screamed in wordless grief as the warm, bright light that had always burned in the corner of her mind went suddenly dark.
Alexa woke once more to darkness, fear and panic flooding her mind. She began to struggle, and found walls closed around her. She pounded on the inside of the tiny cell. Not a cell, she realised. A coffin.
"Help!" She cried, unable to restrain herself. "Let me out. Let me..." With a sharp hiss, the lid of the coffin split apart and swung outwards. She sat up, blinking against the sudden light and looking out onto one of Byelobog's marble chambers.
Alexa followed the voice, and the insistent tug in her mind, and saw Vasilisa, her eyes crimson from tears. "Vasya?"
"Oh God, you're alive." Vasilisa stumbled up and towards Alexa, and Alexa almost fell from the coffin in the rush to embrace her sister, so overwhelmed was she by the waves of relief and joy radiating from her. "You were gone," Vasilisa sobbed. "They took you away and I couldn't find you."
Alexa's eyes widened in horror, as she caught a momentary glimpse of what her sister had felt; the sudden extinguishing of her presence in Vasilisa's mind. "My God," she whispered. "Oh, Vasya, I can't imagine..."
"Do not worry."
Alexa looked up in sudden fear, and saw The Ghost standing over them.
"You will not have to imagine. I am interested to see if your sister's death will have the same effect on you. But first..." She looked up, and when they followed her gaze they saw two Jaffa loading Voskova into the coffin. Byelobog stood by, watching them, with the white crow perched on his shoulder.
"Oh, God," Alexa murmured. "No..."
"Yes," The Ghost assured her. "I am not finished with her yet; not by a long way. As for you two..." Byelobog smiled at them. "We have only just begun."
Seven days later
Alexa writhed and moaned, fighting with every fibre of her will and Vasilisa's against the sensations that squirmed along her spine. Apparently tiring for now of pain, Byelobog had affixed a device to her temple that was stimulating the pleasure centres of her brain, and Alexa was longing for the torture. Torture was easy. Torture was pain that she wanted to stop, and it was easy to remember that the one causing it was the enemy.
Pleasure was different. In her mind she wanted it to stop, but her body craved it. She fought it, willing her hormone levels to recede, but with limited success. Ordinarily she could control the function of her body more-or-less at will, but Byelobog had used the device on her five times now, she had slept very little, and each time she went through the sarcophagus her will to resist became a little weaker. She had so far experienced six cycles of death and revival in the sarcophagus four for her and two for Vasilisa. Now, the mere sight of the button-sized machine made her go weak at the knees. Before long, she knew that the sight of Byelobog himself would do the same to her.
This was the seduction he had threatened, carried out with cold, scientific rigour, narrated by the bland and dulcet tones of The Ghost, and it was working. Soon she would surrender to him, and her violation would be complete.
Vasilisa did her best to help, but although the bulk of Byelobog's attentions still went to Alexa, she too was weakening. While the sarcophagus might be chipping away at Alexa's soul, each time she died drove Vasilisa deeper into a dark place inside herself, from which it was harder and harder to emerge. Moreover, the pleasure transferred, just as the pain did, and that was the worst thing: that Byelobog's machines could corrupt and abuse even that most private and sacred bond.
Voskova had it worse, if that were possible. While the Rasputinas were the White God's pet project, Voskova was just business, and he had methodically and efficiently tortured, killed and revived her until she had told him everything. Once that was done, Alexa had dared to hope that Byelobog might put the woman out of her misery, but he was not finished with her still. Instead he carried on with his torments, and in less than a week she had become his willing slave. Her strength and dignity had left her, faded to nothingness along with the scar on her cheek. Anya Voskova's face was unmarked now, and she was beautiful, but the power had gone from her eyes.
Vasilisa was horrified that a valiant warrior had been reduced to a sexual plaything, but for once Alexa saw deeper than her sister, to the true horror. Voskova was nothing to Byelobog but an object lesson; an example. When he brought her with him to his torture sessions he was saying: 'This is what you shall become, and worse, because for you I will take my time'.
With a sudden jolt, Alexa felt her sister's pain as Byelobog thrust the pain giver into her back, but still the device at her temple made her squirm in ecstasy. He had done this before, in his attempt to instil in her a Pavlovian response a feeling of pleasure at her sister's suffering but so far without success. The bond between the sisters was too strong, for the time being.
At long last, Byelobog's thick, powerful fingers ripped the stimulator from Alexa's skin, leaving only a throbbing ache. "You are beginning to enjoy these little games, are you not?" The Ghost asked. "That is good. Soon you will worship me, and beg for my blessing."
"Never," Alexa whispered, although her heart was not in it. She knew he was right; that her ultimate failure could not be far off now.
Byelobog kissed her. "Until the next time, my sweet," The Ghost said.
The white giant turned and strode out, the crow flapping to his shoulder and The Ghost walking at his heels, like a shadow. The Jaffa guards stepped forward and released the two women from their chains, then followed their lord from the chamber and locked the door behind them.
Alexa slumped despondently onto her narrow cot. Vasilisa limped over and sat beside her.
"I'm so sorry," Alexa whispered.
"None of this is your fault," her sister replied.
Alexa started to cry. "I can't keep doing this," she said. "I'm almost done. Before long, I'm going to end up like Voskova, and I'm just sorry I couldn't be as strong as you."
Vasilisa shook her head. "Don't talk like that," she said. "I've had it easy compared to you, and neither one of us is done for yet. We're still alive, and that means there's still a chance."
Alexa's tears became sobs, and Vasilisa held her tightly as she wept. "You don't understand," she insisted, her voice choked. "I want to break. It's all I can do not to just give in and make the pain stop, and it's only because of you that I'm holding on."
Vasilisa shushed her, fighting back her own tears. "And you're all that's keeping me going, Shura," she promised. "If you weren't here...But I'd never fall down like that where you could see me, and you can always see me."
"I always thought we were so strong, Vasya."
"We are," Vasilisa assured her. "God knows, Shura; who else do you think could stand this? The only reason either one of us is still going is that we have each other."
"What if we didn't?" Alexa asked. "What if he...took you away for good?"
Vasilisa shook her head. "He won't," she promised. "He can't. If he does that, then we've beaten him. Listen to me," she said, taking Alexa's tear-streaked face in her hands. "This isn't about what we know, because he got all that from Voskova. It's about power. It's about him having the power to break us: Not you and me, but us. He has to break us both, as a pair, and you know we'll never let that happen."
"But what if...?"
"Never," Vasilisa insisted. "I know how near the edge I am, but I won't fall, because if I fall, he gets you. If it was just me, maybe, but I will never let him have you. You are my sister, and I will die a thousand times before I give up on you. Do you understand?"
Alexa nodded. "Yes," she said.
"And are you about to give up on me?"
"Invincible," Vasilisa said, holding up her hand.
It was a childhood pledge that they had used, and Alexa responded, clasping her sister's hand as though they were arm wrestling. "Indestructible," she replied.
"And don't ever forget it."
Three days later
Natasha Fyodorovska almost turned around when she saw Maybourne coming towards her along the corridor, but instead she gritted her teeth and nodded politely as she passed.
"I understand congratulations are in order," Maybourne said.
"Not really," Fyodorovska replied.
"Come now: A clean bill of mental health, you take charge of the expeditionary patrols from Monday, and I hear there's even talk of promotion."
Fyodorovska sighed. "Mr Maybourne," she said. "I lost six good people on my last mission; I really don't feel like celebrating. They say that I have to work with you, to a certain extent, but I am not required to socialise with you, or even to like you very much, which is lucky for me." She turned to walk away.
"How would you like to make that rescue mission after all?"
"What?" Fyodorovska turned as she spoke.
"Interested?" Maybourne asked.
"You know I am," she admitted.
"Well." Maybourne gave a superior smile. "It just so happens that I'm in a position to make that happen."
"That's none of your concern," the American replied. "Unless you decide to accept my offer."
Fyodorovska narrowed her eyes, shrewdly. "What do you want?" She asked.
"That's why I like you," Maybourne said. "You don't pretend to be naοve. All I want is what I'm supposed to have anyway," he told her. "Complete access to expeditionary patrol reports and findings. Colonel Sokalov is trying to play hardball by only giving me edited summaries, but you can give me the real deal. Straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak."
Fyodorovska rolled her eyes. "I'm flattered."
"Yes or no, Captain?"
"Yes," she replied, without hesitation.
Maybourne smiled again. "I have an offworld team who require induction by an experienced officer. It's an Alfa-level operation of course."
Maybourne nodded. "Be in the Gateroom at twenty-three hundred, geared up and ready to go."
Alexa sat, glassy-eyed, and pretended to be listening as Voskova told her how wonderful life as Byelobog's slave was. This was another of the White God's tactics; sending their broken comrade to explain why they should give in and join her in the happy-happy world of brainwashed. Sometimes she would speak to them both, at other times such as now Byelobog would take one of them away and torture her while Voskova spoke to the other. It was a trick that might well have worked, had not Vasilisa made a discovery.
Although Vasilisa was no more able to read minds than Alexa was, they both possessed some ability to read people, at a level beyond normal human perception. Perhaps spurred on by her morale-boosting speech to Alexa, she had bent her will to probing Voskova during a particularly unconvincing polemic, and underneath the layers of subservience and worship, she had found the iron core of the spetsnaz captain who had led her to this planet. It was a small thing, barely a candle flame in the darkness of Voskova's corrupted soul, but it was there; the remnants of her humanity and will.
From then on, both sisters had turned their efforts, and their ability to influence the emotions of others to fanning that spark. Alexa was doing so now, despite the awareness of Vasilisa's pain, and each time she reached Voskova, and the fire inside her grew fractionally brighter, both Alexa and Vasilisa found their torment a little easier to bear.
Come on, Captain, Alexa thought, willing the older woman to fight.
"If you submit, you will be free to walk these halls at will," Voskova was saying. "You shall be given clean clothes" Voskova now wore a white dress, nearly identical to The Ghost's "and good food. Whatever hardships you suffer in this cell, it is only because you..." She shivered. "Because you..."
"Lieutenant, I..." For a moment, Voskova's dark grey eyes glittered like frozen steel, but then there was only confusion. "Where was I?" She asked.
"Captain Voskova," Alexa said, gently. "You were almost there, Captain. Just a little more and..."
"Lieutenant Rasputina. What..." Panic flashed across her face. "What is happening to me?"
Alexa seized her by the shoulders. "You were brainwashed," she said. "But you can fight it."
"Fight...yes," she whispered. Then she looked up into Alexa's eyes, her gaze flashing with triumph. "Yes," she said, firmly, grasping Alexa's arms.
Alexa was exultant, but she could feel that Voskova's resolve was still fragile. "We thought you were gone," she admitted.
"Not yet," Voskova replied. "Although I feel...strange."
"You're going to be okay," Alexa promised. "So long as Byelobog doesn't realise that you're..." Now it was her turn to shiver uncontrollably, as a fear unlike any she had ever know washed over her.
"What's wrong?" Voskova asked.
"It's..." Alexa gasped. "Vasilisa. She's terrified of something. Of..." She stood bolt upright, eyes wide with horror. "Oh...no. Not that! Anything but..."
"Lieutenant!" Voskova leaped up, catching Alexa as she began to fall, thrashing wildly and clutching at the back of her neck.
"Oh God! Get it off! Get it off!" She pleaded. Braving the maddened flailing of her limbs, Voskova laid Alexa on her cot, then backed away, shrinking back into herself at what appeared to her to be manifest proof of Byelobog's power.
"Please help me!" Alexa cried out. "Please, somebody..." She broke off as her body spasmed, her back arched like a bow. As she crashed back to the bed, a low, keening wail emerged from her throat, and she began to weep hysterically. "God, no," she whimpered. "My mind. Stay out of my mind." She rolled onto the floor, landing hard on her hands and knees and vomiting until long after her stomach was emptied.
"Are...are you alright?" Voskova asked.
Alexa looked up at her, eyes filled with anger. "Of course not!" She snarled, her voice low and rough. "Do I look alright?"
"I...you should not have angered Byelobog. If you would only surrender yourself to..." She broke off in surprise and alarm as Alexa began to laugh. It was a hoarse, deep, ugly sound.
"Superstitious fool," Alexa said, gazing at Voskova in contempt. "To think that he can strike at a distance in this way. Pure chance, like so many Goa'uld miracles. I should..." She broke off, coughing and shuddering. The arrogance disappeared from her eyes, leaving only fear. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "It's here. It's..." Her eyes rolled back in her head, and she collapsed, face down on the floor.
"Vasya?" Alexa slowly opened her eyes. She seemed to be surrounded by pure, white light, with Vasilisa's dark face looming over her.
"I am so glad that you are alright," Vasilisa said.
"Oh God," Alexa whispered. "Vasya; I thought I felt..." She stopped, a queasy feeling turning her gut. She reached out for her sister and touched her mind. Vasilisa felt lost, confused; and she was not alone. "What are you?" Alexa demanded.
"You know that," Vasilisa told her. Her eyes flashed, and her voice took on a sonorous quality. "Or you should do."
Alexa moaned, piteously.
"Shh," the Goa'uld comforted her, stroking her hair, just like Vasilisa might have done. "I will not hurt you."
"She is...well, it would be futile to tell you she was not here, but I am in control now. But do not be afraid," she added. "I shall look after you."
"Stop that," Alexa said.
"Acting like her. Stop being kind to me; you killed my sister." Alexa sat up and looked around. She was in a different chamber, by appearances in one of the towers of Byelobog's stronghold. It was certainly nicer than her previous quarters, and the bed was a huge improvement on the little cot. She realised at the same time that she had been changed out of her filthy, now vomit-stained fatigues. She was now dressed in a clean white robe, and Vasilisa or her body at least wore an ivory silk gown, accessorised with a white-gold ribbon device.
The Goa'uld smiled, sweetly. "You know that I did not. You can still feel her, within me."
"Who are you?"
"I am Danica," the Goa'uld replied. "Daughter of Byelobog. Rest now; your body underwent a great strain when I took your sister. I shall have my handmaiden bring you refreshments when you have slept."
"Anya Voskova," Danica replied. "She seems more convinced than ever that we are gods," she added. "Thanks to you; and to providence."
"God," Alexa whispered.
"Come now; you know better."
Alexa stared blankly at her sister's face.
"My apologies," the Goa'uld said. "I was attempting a joke; it seems that your race has a very different sense of humour than mine."
"Go to hell," Alexa hissed.
Danica sighed. "Do not be that way," she begged.
"Let her be, Danica." The Goa'uld looked up at The Ghost's voice, and the albino moved close, eclipsing the light. Perhaps she was still dazed, but Alexa was certain that even his shadow seemed pale.
"Excellent," The Ghost said. "It seems that the experiment was a success." Byelobog crouched by Alexa's bed, and caressed her cheek. "When you have recovered your strength, my sweet Shura, then you shall know my greatest blessing."
Alexa gave a small cry. Oh God, she thought. Anything but that.
"She must rest now," Danica cautioned.
"Of course," The Ghost replied.
Alexa lay on her bed, too shocked to move. Her sister was gone, had become a Goa'uld, and soon she would follow. Would they remain aware? Trapped behind the eyes of this father and daughter, would they be forced to watch, helpless, as their bodies slaughtered innocents on the whim of a mad god? Or would they pass on? Was it only her presence that kept Vasilisa in the world at all?
"Please, God," she whispered. "Don't let this happen. Not that. Not him."
"Vasya?" Alexa called into the silence. She sat up, but there was no-one else in the room. She was alone.
Alexa lay back, told herself that the voice she had heard was real, that Vasilisa was with her still, and tried to sleep.
Fyodorovska passed through the Stargate with a shipment of weapons, emerging into a dense mist. She could only see for about thirty feet; not that there was much to see beyond scrubby mounds amid pools of green, weedy water and swamp grass. The foetid odour of stagnant water assailed her nose, and the only sound to be heard was the quiet chirruping of frogs and the occasional splosh of something large moving in the water. Away in the fog a light gleamed, and Fyodorovska raised her weapon.
"It's just swamp gas."
Fyodorovska spun around, rifle shouldered, but the man who had addressed her held no weapons, and merely stood idly as she levelled the AK-74.
"I'm Newman," the man said. "Welcome to Dagoba."
Fyodorovska lowered her weapon. "Dagoba?"
Newman shrugged. "What we call it," he explained. He gave a shrill whistle, and several other figures appeared from the mist. Like Newman, they wore very dark green fatigues, which blended well with the landscape and made them indistinguishable from the dotted hillocks at even a short distance. Their gear was clearly Russian surplus stock, each carrying an AK-74 or an RMB shotgun. They looked rough, but worked quickly and efficiently as they unloaded the wagons, taking a crate of weapons between two.
"So what now?" Fyodorovska asked. "Maybourne said you'd brief me."
Newman nodded. "Come back to camp. I'll give you the low-down over a plate of roast swamp lizard while the others sort the gear and get things ready."
"Oh yeah," Newman replied, without enthusiasm. "We know how to live on Dagoba."
In the morning, Voskova did indeed bring Alexa food. She looked as downtrodden and despondent as she had ever been, and Alexa knew exactly how she felt. Not long after she had finished eating, Danica came to visit her. During the night she had clearly been working on important matters specifically her outfit. To the plain gown she had added a maroon leather belt, tooled in gold and studded with jewels, and a full-length, hooded cloak in crimson, lined with black satin.
"What do you think?" Danica asked. "Father's tastes are so bland, do you not think?"
"There's a certain classic elegance to that dress," Alexa replied, refusing to admit to the Goa'uld that Vasilisa had never looked as good as she did. "But he overdoes the white. You're a monster."
Danica looked down. "Too much colour?"
Alexa sighed. "Not the clothes."
"Why do you hate me so?" Danica demanded. "Do you imagine I would ever let my father harm my host again? By entering your sister's body, I saved her."
Alexa gave a short, high, mirthless laugh. "You're insane."
Danica looked wounded. "I just did what I had to do," she said. "To survive. Call me a monster if you want to, but I assure you I am in complete control of my faculties." The Goa'uld came over and sat in front of Alexa. "However, I am not in complete control of Vasilisa's."
"My heart bleeds for you."
"It could be arranged," Danica said, matter-of-factly. "By why make things unpleasant."
"What do you want?" Alexa demanded.
"I want your help," Danica admitted. "I want you to show me how to see into Anya's mind, the way you do."
"That's easy," Alexa replied. "Just look."
Alexa shrugged. "I don't know; I just do it."
"Then why can I not? Your sister could."
"But you are not my sister," Alexa pointed out. "You have her body, but you're not her." She sighed. "You want to know why you can't look into Captain Voskova's mind? Maybe it's because you don't care about her. I look into people's hearts because they interest me; because I care what is inside. You just want a trick to impress your father, and that could well be why you can't do it."
"Interesting," Danica said. "Of course, it may simply be that Vasilisa is too strong at present. She is a remarkable individual."
"I know," Alexa replied, frostily. "She's my sister."
Danica looked at her, pensively. "Would you like to take a bath?"
"What?" Alexa asked, incredulously.
"I just...I sense that you like to feel clean. Father has not let you bathe since your arrival, and I thought that you might like a chance to do so. Besides, you would look so much prettier clean."
Alexa opened her mouth, but found herself quite lost for words.
"Anya; please prepare a bath for my sister."
Alexa looked up in anger. "Don't call me your sister," she hissed.
"I am sorry," Danica said. "Anya; prepare a bath for Lieutenant Rasputina." She reached out and touched Alexa's hair, running it across her fingers. "Such pretty hair," she said. "I think I shall grow mine long."
Alexa could not help herself. Sitting in her gilded cage while a Goa'uld tapped her for fashion tips was too much, and she just had to sit back and laugh out loud at the lunacy of it all.
Newman led his team out of the Gate, closely followed by Fyodorovska. Once more the Gate was defended, and once more the guards fell quickly and cleanly.
"Don't these people learn?" Fyodorovska wondered aloud.
"Apparently not," Newman replied. "Alright; now you're sure that six will be enough people for your strike team?"
"Positive," Fyodorovska replied. "If your diversion works, they'll be pouring everyone they have into the mines; if not, we all die."
Newman nodded. "Good luck then," he said. "Maintain radio silence except to order the fallback, and we'll see you back in the swamp."
"You too," Fyodorovska replied. She watched as Newman led his squad, nine-strong, towards the naquadah mines. As Maybourne had observed, she was not naοve, and she knew that the main purpose of this mission was for the 'decoy' squad to seize the naquadah samples her team had failed to retrieve. That did not matter anymore; she had a chance to save Captain Voskova and the Rasputinas, and she had to take it, however slight.
"Feeling up to this?" She asked one of her team.
"Not really," the man replied, honestly, but he hefted his M4 carbine just the same. "Ladies first."
Another of the group, a woman, laughed. "Oh, how gallant."
"Well, I wasn't talking about you, Tobias," he assured her.
"Alright," Vasilisa told them. "Stay focused. This assault is quite possible, if we stay focused."
"We know the drill," Tobias assured her. "Jaffa are creatures of habit and routine. Hit the patrol routes hard and all together and you're halfway there. Relax, Tovarich; we're on it."
"Good," Fyodorovska said. "And don't call me Tovarich; Communism is dead."
Although she bore the memories of her ancestors, Danica was fundamentally new to the world, and she seemed to possess a child's fascination with the world; a sociopathic child, perhaps, but a child nonetheless, and in her crooked way an innocent.
"Did you know that The Ghost cries at night?" She asked Alexa, apropos of nothing. "She did so last night, I should say. I do not know if she always does it. Anya; you have the room next to hers?"
"Yes, Mistress," Voskova acknowledged. "She does cry every night. Sometimes I do not think she sleeps."
"Why would she do that?" Danica wondered aloud, directing her question towards Alexa.
"Because she hates herself for what Byelobog makes her do," Alexa replied, impatiently. "You have my sister's memories and thoughts, have you not? Don't they tell you these things?"
Danica looked embarrassed. "Much of your sister's mind remains hidden from me," she admitted. "Truly, her strength is remarkable."
"How does he control her?" Alexa asked. "The Ghost I mean. How does Byelobog control her?"
"Nanites," Danica replied. "Psychoreactive nano-machines which crudely mimic the powers that you and your sister wield so easily."
"That's why he's interested in us," Alexa realised. "That's why he wants to take me as a host; so that he will possess my powers. And you..."
"I was an experiment," Danica agreed. "He was not sure if blending with a being who was already so intimately connected to another would be harmful for a Goa'uld."
"So he used his own daughter as a guinea pig?"
Danica shrugged. "Remember; he has many daughters. I am nothing special or I was not until I became one with your sister."
"You are not one with her," Alexa insisted. "You are nothing but a parasite in her skin."
Danica waved her hand, airily. "As you will," she said. "You will soon experience the blending first hand, anyway; when my father..." She broke off, sounding uncomfortable with the prospect. Before Alexa could ask her why, she heard a distant commotion; a clamour of shouts and hunting horns. Danica's head rose; she frowned, and Alexa could feel her deep consternation.
"Anya," the Goa'uld ordered. Voskova gave a short bow and went out.
"Trouble?" Alexa asked, not daring to hope that it might be a rescue.
"Perhaps," Danica agreed. "We'll soon..."
A volley of explosions sounded from outside the window, startling both women. A moment later, Voskova crashed back into the room.
"Mistress," she panted. "The fortress has been attacked by an American team. Your father is coming." She turned and looked at Alexa, an expression of horror in her eyes. "He's coming for you."
"My God," Alexa whispered, desperate hope giving way to total terror.
"Shura..." Danica began, but she had no time to continue before the door burst open a second time, and Byelobog strode into the room, the white crow swooping through the doorway behind him and The Ghost struggling to keep up.
Without a moment's pause, Byelobog strode over to Alexa and seized her roughly by the arms. She struggled, but he was strong.
"Your time is up," The Ghost said. She was short of breath, but Alexa was certain that she detected a hint of disgust in her voice.
"No!" Voskova jumped forward and hauled at Byelobog's arm, dragging him away from Alexa.
The crow cawed angrily, and the white giant slammed a fist into Voskova's face, knocking her sprawling. The Ghost was silent, her master apparently too enraged for words.
Byelobog began to turn back to Alexa, but a slim hand gripped his wrist. He looked around, furious.
"She said 'no'," Danica told her father, and with a shrug of her shoulders, tossed the massive albino aside. Alexa was impressed. Vasilisa had been no weakling, but Byelobog was an honest-to-God giant, and if she had grown stronger for being infested, surely he must have the same advantage.
There was another raucous cry, and the crow launched itself toward Danica, while the albino surged to his feet. Alexa looked around for a weapon and came up blank, but then Vasilisa's voice spoke in her head.
Without a moment's hesitation, Alexa followed her sister's lead, as she had always done. She grabbed the heavy blanket from the bed, and flung it over the bird as it stooped for Danica's eyes. The Ghost gasped in alarm, and a look of panic and desperation flashed across the albino's face. He threw himself forwards, but Danica raised her hand, and a ribbon wave hurled him to the ground. He struggled to rise again, but a second wave rolled out; the albino's body was slammed into the ground, and with a brutal crack something inside him broke. A trickle of blood red blood, Alexa was almost surprised to see ran from his mouth.
Eyes flashing with triumph, Danica fell on the blanket, reached inside, and drew out the struggling crow. The bird fought hard, but had nowhere near the strength to break away from her determined grasp.
Danica looked up at Alexa. "I said that I would look after you," she reminded her. Then, with a swift twist of her wrists, she tore off the crow's head. Blood spurted over her hands, mixed with a pale, almost phosphorescent blue fluid. Danica cast the head aside, raised the body to her mouth and sucked at the stump of the neck.
"My God." Alexa reeled in disgust.
Danica threw away the body. "He was not," she said. Although he wished to be so."
Alexa swallowed bile. "Byelobog?" She asked.
"The secret of his invulnerability," Danica confirmed. "The albino was his puppet, as was The Ghost."
"I...I kind of feel bad for the albino now," Alexa admitted.
"Do not," Danica advised. "Believe me when I say that he enjoyed his work. If Byelobog had allowed him his way with you..." She left the sentence unfinished, the image to Alexa's imagination.
"I would not have let him touch you," Danica promised. "Your sister's spirit is strong in me. Besides, we are joined now; you are a part of me."
"I am not," Alexa said. "I am joined to Vasilisa; not to you."
"I could have let him take you," Danica reminded her. "Why would I risk everything to save you if we were not connected." She smiled, kindly. "Come now. He was in a great hurry, which means that there must be real danger."
"No," Alexa replied. "These are my people; I'm going back with them."
"I saved your life," Danica said. "Your life is mine; to protect and to dispose of."
"Bugger that," Alexa replied. "Are you fit to travel, Captain Voskova?" She looked to the corner where Voskova had fallen, to see the older woman being tended by The Ghost.
"I can't go back," Voskova replied. "Not after...I could not face the people I know. I would not belong there anymore."
"Fear not, Anya," Danica said. "You shall always have a place with me."
"No!" Alexa said. "You can not have her. She's a soldier, not a slave."
Danica smiled, benevolently. "I know that," she said. "I was intending to make her the Prime of the forces I can muster from my father's fall." She walked over, and offered her hand to Voskova. "And it is her choice, of course. Anya?"
Voskova looked up for a long, pregnant moment, then took the proffered hand.
"Captain?" Alexa asked.
"Good servants are hard to find," Danica told The Ghost, ignoring Alexa for the moment.
The Ghost looked across at the albino. She spat hard on the corpse, then looked up at his killer with gratitude. "I am yours," she said.
Danica turned back to Alexa. "Come with me," she urged. "I know that you fear a life without your sister. Come with me, and I shall be your sister. I shall guide you and care for you, just as Vasilisa did."
"You will never be her," Alexa replied, although she was tempted to accept; to follow, as she had always done. "I think now is as good a time as any to take charge of my life."
Danica's gaze grew hard. "I can not let you do that," she said. "You need her; you need me. I will not let you go." She drew a zat'nik'tel and levelled it at Alexa. "You will thank me, I promise."
Alexa closed her eyes, but no pain came. She could sense a violent struggle within Danica's mind, and when she opened her eyes again, she saw that her hand was wavering, and her eyes brimming with tears.
"Anya," the Goa'uld said, in a voice thick with emotion. "Take the albino's weapon. It is quite simple to use and I want you armed."
"I thought..." Alexa began.
"That only Goa'uld could use the hand device?" Danica finished. She sounded perturbed, but more petulant than angry. "Ordinarily it is so, but this was made for my father's decoy, and can be used by anyone. I am leaving now," she said. "I give you one last chance to come with me."
"No," Alexa said again. "But...thank you."
"Then stay here, and damn your pride!" Danica spat. "You will never know the splendours I could have shown you, my sister. I can not kill you, nor can I force you, for we are one soul now you and Vasilisa and I but I take comfort in knowing that you will sense a shadow of what you have rejected through that bond, and you shall come to regret your decision. When that happens I shall know it, and I will laugh to know that it is a suffering you have brought on yourself."
"Yeah," Alexa replied, aware at this moment of how much of a child Danica was. "You take care as well."
Danica's anger evaporated as swiftly as it had risen. "Goodbye, dear sister," she said, catching Alexa in a fond hug and kissing her cheek.
Tears welled up in Alexa's eyes. Goodbye, Vasya, she thought. "Farewell, Danica."
Fyodorovska kicked in the door and stepped quickly through, turning to cover the corners before returning to face the woman standing in the centre of the tower room.
"Lieutenant Rasputina," she said, with palpable relief. "Where are the others."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Lieutenant," Fyodorovska said. "Truly. But if you're sure, then we had best leave. Are you fit to travel?"
"I am," Alexa assured her.
Fyodorovska nodded, then spoke into her radio. "Team One, fall back to the rendezvous; Team Two, this is Team One; we are pulling back."
"Roger that, Team One; we'll meet you back home."
"Affirmative." Fyodorovska drew her sidearm and handed it to Alexa. "Come on, Lieutenant; we're taking you home."
"Home," Alexa echoed, flatly. "Right."
Two days later
Colonel Sokalov was feeling distinctly put-upon. It was hard to call who wanted him dead the most: General Vukoticha for losing Vasilisa Rasputina and endangering her sister, or Dr Markov for lying to her about the deal with the Americans and his relationship with General Pavlov. He realised in retrospect that he had only thrown fuel on the fire by trying to insist that the surviving Lieutenant Rasputina remain a part of his operation.
"The lieutenant is barely in a fit state to serve in any capacity," the General insisted, as Sokalov withered beneath her gaze. "Let alone in the same role in which she lost her sister. I will be taking her back to the Special Directorate facilities for psychological examination and rescreening as soon as this meeting is over, and if you ask very nicely I might forward you a summary of her debriefing report."
"General Vukoticha," Dr Markov said, in a conciliatory tone. "I understand your anger; believe me, I understand it very well. Perhaps, however, a compromise could be reached? Lieutenant Rasputina's testimony will be of vital importance to the ongoing investigation of improprieties in the management of the Stargate project." She glowered at Sokalov, and at Maybourne, seated beside him. "Perhaps you would allow me, as a representative of the project, to participate in the briefing?"
Sokalov squirmed in his seat, aware that the web of lies he had worked so hard to maintain was coming loose, and rolling into a ball of sticky spider silk at his feet. "I am not sure that we can spare Dr Markov..." he began.
"That will be satisfactory," General Rasputina agreed. "I should also like Captain Fyodorovska to return to Moscow for the debriefing," she added.
"That is unacceptable," Sokalov insisted. "The Captain is the leader of our expeditionary patrol, without her we will have to suspend the programme."
"Then do it," Markov told him. "If I recall correctly, our regulations state that all offworld missions are to be conducted under the direct supervision of the base commander and the chief scientist. The exploratory programme will have to be suspended until my return, so it can't hurt for Captain Fyodorovska to come with us."
"Of course," Sokalov agreed. "Very well then."
"Thank you, Colonel," Vukoticha replied. "If that is settled, then I will take my leave of you. Good day, Colonel. Dr Markov, I will expect you on the airfield in thirty minutes."
"Yes, General," Dr Markov agreed.
The General saluted. Sokalov returned the gesture, and then she left.
"Don't ever call me that again," Dr Markov told him, coldly. "You lied to me. You corrupted the project I created, and if I can't talk her out of it, General Vukoticha will see us shut down because of your stupidity. In the best case scenario, General Pavlov will have to feel you're worth an extraordinary effort, or I wouldn't be surprised to see you replaced by the end of the week." She sighed. "And even if you stay, then we're through, Maxim Yuriev." She rose and stormed out.
"Heaven hath not a rage, like love to hatred turned," Maybourne commented.
"Oh, shut up."
"Nor Hell a fury like a woman scorned. I told you those girls would be trouble."
"And I told you to shut up."
"I know you did," Maybourne replied. "I'm ignoring you, like you ignored me. You know that General Pavlov will throw you to the wolves on this one?"
Sokalov frowned. "Yes; I know. My only hope is that this sample Major Borodin brought back from the last survey is enough to convince the rest of the committee that I'm doing my job right."
"Well, add that to half a shipment of raw naquadah, a Goa'uld hand device and a captive Jaffa, and who could doubt you. And you've only lost...how many people?"
"Too many," Sokalov replied. "But if the water is everything Svetlana Alexandrovna thinks it is..."
"It won't matter," Maybourne told him. "She won't get a chance to examine it until she gets back."
Sokalov smiled. "Unless we unravel its secrets in her absence."
"There is that," Maybourne allowed.
Alexa made her way towards the airfield exit, her kit bag slung over her shoulder. It was heavier than when she had arrived, now loaded with Vasilisa's personal effects as well as her own.
Alexa stopped at the call, but did not turn. "Go to hell," she said.
"I'm sorry," Captain Fyodorovska said.
"So am I," Alexa replied. "I should have said, go to hell, Ma'am." She stalked away around the corner, leaving Fyodorovska standing alone in the corridor.
"Get a move on, Captain," General Vukoticha said, coming up behind her.
"She hates me."
"I imagine she does."
"She should do," Fyodorovska said. "This is all my fault."
"Give her time," Vukoticha advised. "Loss is hard, and I doubt you or I will ever be as close to another person as she was to her sister, but she will come to terms with Vasilisa's death."
Around the corner, Alexa stood, listening. God, she thought. If only it were that simple. But she said nothing. How could she?
How could she ever tell anyone that she shared her thoughts and her soul with an enemy of humanity?