Yelena looked into her daughter's room, and threw her hands into the air, seeing the girl wearing the casual blouse and jeans of the sort her friends liked to wear. Yelena, though Irkhetnian by birth, had been a popular young actress in France before her marriage to Dimitri at nineteen. She saw the potential for a stellar career in modeling for her daughter -- Marya had the same dark beauty and grace of carriage, looked very much like her mother, in fact -- but Marya had never seemed interested in clothes or in modeling. "Marya, get dressed! We need to be ready to go in thirty minutes!"
Marya groaned. "Mom, I hate going to these things! The luncheon was bad enough, and now suddenly there's this dinner he never told us about at some ambassador's country home. There'll be nothing to do but look at a bunch of tired old diplomats and army officers, and watch the way they look back at me. I'm only there to look pretty. And you are too. You know that."
Yelena sighed. "I know, but you still have to go. You keep trying to tell me you're grown up. Well, that means doing things you don't want to do sometimes. Your father needs us there."
"Needs us so he can make some important foreign old fart think Daddy might offer us as a gift, you mean."
Yelena gasped in shock. "Marya! Don't be disgusting. And get dressed now." She made a twirling, get-up-and-start-moving gesture with her hand. "Being there is just a duty we have to perform. Never mind what dirty thoughts somebody might be thinking."
Marya reluctantly got up off the bed. "Okay, okay. Close the
door. At least I should get some privacy."
Marya shifted irritably in the cramped seat of the helicopter, trying to keep her gown from wrinkling. She felt sure her father had picked it out. What kind of father, she wondered, has his daughter show so much cleavage? The extra-thin panties, required because the dress hugged her hips so tightly, also made her self-conscious -- it was almost as though she wasn't wearing any. She disliked the high heels as well. Supposedly men liked women in heels because of the way it shaped their legs, but in this gown nobody could see her legs. She sighed. But heels also made a woman's ass look better, and that could be seen through the gown. Personally, Marya didn't think her legs or ass needed any help.
Marya was accustomed to seeing her mother show off her best assets -- and mother did look fantastic tonight, and at thirty-eight could probably pass for a woman ten years younger -- but the obligation for Marya to look fantastic herself was relatively recent, and unwelcome. Marya was proud of her body, but wanted to choose the audience to whom she would show it off. And her choice certainly wouldn't involve a bunch of horny old men she didn't even know. But she knew how angry her father would be if she didn't smile and make a charming impression. "Why do we have to go in the chopper?" She had to shout over the roar of the engines.
Her mother sighed. "It's much faster. Would you rather this night go on longer?"
"At least in the limo I can watch TV. Or listen to CDs. I can't even hear myself think in here." She took her compact out of her purse and examined her face in the small mirror. Though she didn't care for dressing up to make an impression, her mother had taught her to take care of her make-up so long ago that it was automatic now.
Yelena watched the mountain peaks passing below her. "We should be close. The ambassador's chalet is in the mountains."
Marya opened the small refrigerator in front of them and pulled out a can of Coca Cola -- she never got through a trip without a sugar fix, usually in soft drink form. She made an irritated face when pulling the tab on the can failed to produce a hiss of escaping vapor. "What'd they do, let it get stale? How long has this been in here?"
Yelena sighed. "I'm sure the dinner will make up for it."
Marya brightened for a moment. "Can I have some wine with dinner?"
Yelena's lips tightened. "You're not old enough."
"I would be if we lived in France."
Yelena groaned inwardly. Why does everything with a teenager have to be a battle? "Okay, maybe one glass."
Marya grinned at her. "Okay!" She sipped from the can. "Hmmm. Not too bad. Kind of extra sweet. Doesn't exactly taste like Coke, though." She licked her lips, deciding she liked the taste. "Let's let all our Coke go flat." She quickly drained the can.
Yelena watched in silence for a few minutes as the snow-capped peaks passed below the helicopter. Beside her, Marya yawned.
A minute later Yelena felt a poke in her side. She turned to see Marya's eyes half-lidded. Marya yawned again, and said, a little quietly so that it was hard to hear over the engine noise, "I think I must be getting airsick or something. Can I take a nap on your shoulder?" Before Yelena could reply, Marya unsnapped her shoulder harness and, rather than using her mother's shoulder, leaned over sideways to rest her head on Yelena's lap.
Yelena smiled. Dealing with her daughter seemed an endless tug-of-war, yet then there were moments like this, that reminded Yelena what a sweet child Marya had been. She stroked Marya's hair softly. She wanted to see Marya smile back, but it appeared the girl was already asleep.
About twenty minutes later, the engine sound suddenly dropped in pitch, and the chopper began settling in for a landing. Yelena sighed. She would have to wake up Marya soon, and this moment of closeness would be over.
Five minutes later the chopper touched down on a barren shelf adjacent to a steep mountainside. There was no chalet in sight.
Yelena, still stroking Marya's hair, tapped the pilot's shoulder in front of her. "Mikhail, this can't be right. Are you lost?"
Mikhail gulped, looking nervous, a shock to Yelena, who had never seen him that way. "I'm sorry, Madame Gerova. This is where I was told to bring you."
Yelena looked around again in amazement. "It can't be! We're in the middle of nowhere!"
Her attention was caught by the sight of a man emerging from what appeared to be a cave. He waved towards the chopper and signaled for Mikhail to open the door.
The blades were slowing, but a gust of wind whipped into the compartment as the door opened. Yelena hunched with her arms across her chest against the cold. She shook Marya's shoulder. "Wake up, darling. We're here." Marya didn't stir.
Yelena frowned, suddenly worried about Marya. She waved her arm towards the approaching man, shouting despite the sudden quiet, "I think my daughter is sick. Could you please get a doctor?"
The man turned and signaled back towards the cave entrance. Within seconds, two more men emerged, carrying a stretcher between them. Yelena, her mind focused on her concern for Marya, didn't stop to wonder how they had managed to respond to Marya's need so quickly. She wanted them to respond quickly.
Minutes later, Yelena, hugging herself and trying to keep her teeth from chattering in the cold, followed the men with the stretcher into the cave.
Inside, after passing through very solid-looking doors, Yelena blinked at the sight of an intersection of very ordinary-looking corridors. She began following the men carrying Marya, but a uniformed man stopped her. "Come this way, please, Madame Gerova."
Yelena shook her head briefly. "I need to go with my daughter."
"She'll be quite well taken care of. It's important that the general speak to you right away."
Yelena hesitated. If there was a general in charge of this facility, he might be able to explain why Yelena and Marya were in a frozen mountain cave rather than the chalet Yelena had been expecting. And it was evident that there was an adequate medical facility here. They could do more for Marya than Yelena could, if indeed Marya was sick. She took a deep breath, and decided to follow the man down the corridor that intersected the one down which Marya had been taken.
The warmth inside the cave -- or building, as she now saw that it was, constructed somehow inside the mountain -- was a welcome sensation after the blustery freezing winds. Yelena's feet, though, were tiring a little in her high heels, from one of her favorite shops in Paris.
After a few turns, the uniformed man ushered her through an office and into another behind it, where another man in military uniform rose from behind a desk to greet them. Based on his insignia of rank, this must, indeed, be the general.
Four enormously muscular uniformed officers stood along the side wall of the room, their arms folded across their chests. If Yelena had not been able to see them breathing, she would almost have taken them for statues, both for their motionlessness and their blank stares.
The officer behind the desk said, "I am General Karozki, Madame Gerova. I am pleased beyond words to have you here with us. And your lovely daughter Marya as well. I am quite sorry she has taken ill." He beamed at Yelena.
Yelena took his hand uncertainly. "I am glad to meet you as well, general. But..." She looked around the room. "This isn't at all what I was told to prepare for. There was to be a diplomatic reception at a chalet."
"Ah." The general smiled. "Perhaps the purpose of this meeting was not stated clearly. I have something that will help resolve the confusion. If you will allow me just a moment..."
He turned to a television mounted on the wall behind him, and turned on the power. As it warmed up, he inserted a video disk into the proper receptacle.
Yelena looked back and forth between the general and the television in profound perplexity. Suddenly the picture on the screen began to clear. The general said, "It should start in just a moment... Ah, here it is."
Yelena blinked in astonishment at the image on the screen, a familiar man seated at an ornate desk, looking somberly at the camera. To her left, General Karozki snapped to attention, despite the fact that the man on the television screen could not, of course, see him. It was simply a habit on seeing Yelena's husband, Dimitri Alexandrovich Gerov, president of Irkhetnia.
Yelena had never seen Dimitri looking quite so sad, but she was frightened badly by the current of anger she could see pulsing just below the surface sorrow. "My dearest Yelena," began the man on the screen, "I trust your trip to the mountains was pleasant and uneventful. I am glad you have arrived safely."
Why, Yelena wondered, was he addressing only her? She was sure he knew Marya would be with her.
On the screen, Dimitri's scowl deepened. "I was hoping it would not come to this. I have known a long time about your affair with Colonel Blasinski..."
Yelena gasped, her hands flying to her mouth. She felt faint.
"...but I had hoped you would come to your senses, in time. I have come to realize that my hopes were unrealistic."
Yelena's stomach twisted in knots. Unconsciously, barely audibly, she moaned.
The voice from the screen went on, "Perhaps I always knew you were too headstrong, too independent, to give your love to just one man. I understand you, but I cannot allow you to bring dishonor to my good family name, nor to make a mockery of the uprightness by which I have tried to lead my people."
More audibly, she groaned. Is everything wrecked now? she wondered miserably.
The president went on, the sadness yet more pronounced, and the anger bubbling closer to the surface. "But then to find out, from my Secret Police, that my own daughter, the fruit of my own loins, has been in league with the very demons who are out to destroy everything I have worked for..."
Yelena's jaw dropped. What on Earth is he talking about now?
Dimitri continued. "You, Yelena, have betrayed me, which I can understand but not condone nor forgive. But my precious daughter Marya..." There were tears coming from his eyes now, and his hands were clenched in fists, "She has betrayed our country, our people. She is actively participating in an organization that seeks my overthrow. The proof is not disputable." He seemed to be grinding his teeth. "It is not for me to forgive such an act. Our people would speak as one and say such an act must be punished."
Yelena suddenly recalled Marya's recent furtiveness, her unexplained absences. Could it be true?
Given how much Marya detested her father, never bothering to hide it in private conversation with her mother... Oh, dear Lord. Yelena thought. It is true.
She could hear the man on the screen sigh heavily. "It is better if our people remain ignorant of both betrayals. These are dangerous times, and it is not good for our nation's leadership to appear weakened. Tomorrow, it will be announced that the president's beloved wife and daughter have been killed in an unfortunate helicopter crash."
Yelena choked and looked at the general, whose affable demeanor had dissolved into a grim look of steel. Oh my God, thought Yelena, he's going to kill us!
Yelena continued watching the screen for some sign, any indication, that there might be mercy in the end. Her hope faded. Dimitri was now shaking with fury, speaking in a voice hoarse with emotion. "I have asked General Karozki to deal with you appropriately, both you and... the girl." It was as though he was too angry even to say her name. "I have given him orders that you are not to be killed..." Her hope returned briefly, "...but that instead both of you be treated as the worst of all criminals, without dignity or mercy. And that both of you should feel the torment and pain that I am myself feeling right now! Emotional pain. Pain in your very souls!"
Yelena closed her eyes. All hope was gone.
"Goodbye, my beloved wife. I will not see you again, nor my daughter." The last word was spat from his mouth. "I will remember you as the joyful presences in my life that you once were, rather than the hateful bitches you became." He signaled to the camera operator, and his image vanished from the screen.
Yelena struggled to remain standing without fainting. She turned slightly to look at General Karozki. "Wh-what are you going to do with my daughter? If you could... Whatever you have planned, could you do it to me alone? Please... PLEASE... spare my daughter." Perhaps the general was a father himself. He must understand.
The general's smile, originally friendly, was clearly evil now. "Perhaps I should more fully introduce myself. I am the commandant of Trevachevski Women's Prison, in which you and your daughter now find yourselves."
Yelena cringed. "I've... I've heard of that. There are rumors... That's where..." Her jaw dropped as horror washed over her. "No!" She swallowed convulsively. "Y-you are going to treat us as... as political criminals? P-put us with the... the..." She gestured vaguely.
The general, still smiling, shook his head briefly. "With the rest of the prison population? No, we have other plans. The president would like us to treat you as the... unique prizes that you are. Following his wishes, my staff and I have been... the Americans have a nice word for it, 'brainstorming' -- I believe that is it -- to find special torments that go beyond mere physical pain and rape... though those will be included."
Yelena gasped, her whole body trembling. Then she straightened, seeking for strength within herself. Marya needs me to be strong, she told herself. "Please... you can do that to me. But not Marya. I will... I take responsibility for myself, and for Marya. I am at fault for the actions of both of us."
The general shook his head again. "I have no intention, nor inclination, to disregard the president's orders. You and your daughter are my prisoners, and will be dealt with in exactly the way the president has required."
Yelena looked into his eyes, and saw no heart. No feeling. No hope.
In sudden panic, she turned to run from the room. To find Marya. To get both of them away from here, somehow.
The burly men waiting by the wall converged on her, two of them quickly taking hold of Yelena from either side, the other two taking a position in front of the door.
Yelena screamed and tried to fight them, but each had her by the shoulder and arm in a vise-like grip. For a moment she had an arm free, and struck one of the men on the side of the head before he regained control of her. A small dribble of blood ran from his nose. Good! Yelena thought. First I have to get out of this room. I can worry about where to go next after that.
As if from miles away, the voice of the general broke through to her conscious mind. "Madame, you must control yourself! Your daughter's fate depends on it!"
Yelena stopped resisting, so unexpectedly to the men holding her that one of them nearly fell. Through gritted teeth, she hissed at the general, "What do you mean? My husband told you you must not kill her."
The general nodded in agreement. "And so we will not. But you also heard him say that both of you must be made to suffer. I'm sure that if in any way you could reduce your daughter's torment, you would do what is required."
Yelena, completely still now, felt the men holding her release their grip, tentatively, and back away, remaining near enough to recover control of her if necessary. Icily, she demanded, "And what is... required?"
"We will require your voluntary cooperation."
Yelena's jaw dropped. "Cooperation?? You must be mad!"
The general shrugged. "By some standards, you may be right. But let me tell you some details. First..."
As he described what would be required of Yelena, she began shaking her head, at first numbly, and gradually with increasing vehemence. "This is sick, very sick. You can't imagine I would do that to my daughter."
"I don't think you will choose the alternative."
Yelena, nauseated at what the general had just outlined, trembling with rage, said coldly. "Tell me the alternative, then."
The general rose. "Better than that, I will show you."