"I remember the attack on HQ, leaving to go somewhere else, and then this morning, I woke up at home. That's it."
It was a strange sensation, thought Moira, calmly watching her career twist and burn in the scornful gaze of all these men. It was stranger even than the feeling of Charles' mind in her own, gently smoothing away memories as if they were nothing more than wrinkles in a blanket. Some of that tranquillity was still with her, she was certain, or she'd be on her feet right now, shouting and beating her fists on the table, demanding to know what had happened to her. Something had been taken from her mind without her consent. Time had passed with no memory to support it. In the last month, she had been sunburned and wind-chapped: her skin was still peeling in the vee of her neckline. There was a powder burn on one wrist, scabby and half-healed: she'd fired a handgun. Her body ached dully, as if she were in recovery from a long hike. And this morning, when she woke in her home, she found a fading ring of bruises around her neck, as if she had been throttled. Someone had tried to strangle her, and all she could remember was sunlight and a kiss. She should be furious, but instead, she felt anaesthetised as she calmly recounted the few sensations left to her. The Agency big-wigs stared at her, appalled.
The explosion from downstairs was a relief, something visceral and sharply connected to the now. While the men milled about the room, blustering and bellowing into phones and radios, Moira sat down in her chair, closed her eyes and placed her feet flat on the floor. She tried to remember all the times Charles had ever touched her mind, the way it felt to reach for someone in darkness and the relief that came from brushing their hand. The explosion could only be to do with the prisoner, and that prisoner was a telepath.
*Well, this is a surprise.* Emma Frost's telepathic contact was cool in her mind, all precision and sharp edges, different to the sensory overflow of Charles' touch.
Moira chewed on her lip as she concentrated; this was much harder to do than with Charles, and she felt sure it was because Emma was letting her do all the legwork.
*I'm sorry, did you expect gentlemanly chivalry? You've got the wrong idea about telepathy, darling. And besides, it's so funny to watch you sweat with effort. There's so little down here to amuse me.*
*THEY'RE COMING FOR YOU.* The words came through much louder than Moira expected, and even she recoiled at the echoes in her mind.
*Oh, for heaven's sake.* Emma strengthened the link between them. To Moira it seemed that Emma had taken both her hands and pulled them close, despite the physical distance between them. This time when she spoke, it was soft but clear, the difference between a voice over a microphone and in person. *Who are they? They have Shaw's helmet, even though I can see from everyone's mind here that Shaw is dead.*
*I didn't know,* said Moira. *I only woke up in my apartment this morning. The last thing I remember is…*
*Yes, that's all very clear to me,* snapped Emma, and a trace of fear filtered through to Moira's mind. The explosions were getting closer to the cells. *Who is it most likely to be, then? Not your precious Xavier, he's really not one for explosions.*
Moira rifled through her own memories in frustration, and remembered soldiers rolling on a lawn in Russia, wrapped in barbed wire. *Lehnsherr. It has to be Lehnsherr.*
*Hmm,* said Emma, thoughtfully, and Moira could hear the calculations.
Moira thought quickly, using all the training she had been given to convince and reassure potential assets. *You don't have to go with the first powerful man who offers you freedom.*
*Yes,* drawled Emma. *Because what you have to offer is so much more attractive. No, I'm afraid I'm not in the mood to be cultivated like some shy under-secretary in the Kremlin.*
The explosions had stopped by now, and through the telepathic link, Moira could feel the low buzz of a conversation.
The room she sat in was empty; all the important people had flooded out to where the real fight was going on. Moira made her decision. *That's fair. I won't lie. Having a telepath on my side could save my career, so I want what you have to offer as much as he does. But remember this: I might not have as much power as him, right now, but I do see you as a person and not just an ability with legs. He can get you out of jail, though, and you should take that opportunity. If you change your mind later, you know where to find me.* She tried to imbue her thoughts with determination and integrity. Neither emotion was insincere: she desperately wanted to know what had happened to her, and she did have Emma's well-being at heart. The population of mutants in the world was small and much more cliquish than anyone understood. As one of the few women in the CIA, Moira knew that small and cliquish was an environment that could rapidly turned toxic.
There was a brief pause, as if Emma were weighing up the relative values of the offers in front of her. *I'll bear it in mind. Meanwhile, you might want to look up a friend of Shaw's. What was his name, again? Vasily, he called him. Karpov, I think, was the surname. Perhaps that will give your career that little boost.* Moira scrawled the name down on a notepad, and wished that Emma hadn't made it sound like she was giving away secret tips for bouncy, shiny hair.
Then there was a shout, and a hail of bullets from the cells. By the time the Agency big-wigs had returned to the conference room, Moira was gone, meekly returning to her desk with a pile of documents to sort and file. She was beneath notice, and nobody bothered her for the rest of the week. After Magneto's raid on the building, they had much better things to do.
The attack on the cells left HQ roiling, an anthill disturbed. Moira, being beneath contempt, was beneath blame, too, and spent some weeks happily researching declassified OSS files. A month later, while her fellow agents chased the newly formed Brotherhood of Mutants across the country, she worked at the Library of Congress, filtering through clippings from Pravda, mapping out Karpov's post-war life behind the Iron Curtain. She had friends in the typing pool at the FBI Building, and they slipped her confiscated financial records for Sebastian Shaw. Slowly, she started to draw connections between the two.
There were benefits to being persona non grata in the Agency. Today, for example, she could take her files and her clippings with her to lunch. Admittedly, lunch was a sandwich brought from home and a cheap cup of coffee, but nobody cared if she ate at her desk or in the park close to the FBI Building. Moira preferred sunlight and fresh air to stale air-conditioning and sour looks, so she sat on a concrete bench by a fountain to eat and read. All around her, caught up in their shady deals and information exchanges, men in trench coats lurked in the shadows.
Karpov was an interesting case. Moira was having trouble understanding why he would have allied with a former Nazi scientist; Karpov had fought the Nazis in WWII. He'd been an ally, and had worked with Captain America against the Red Skull. After that, his history was hazy, and far beyond Moira's security classification. There were some sketchy banking records, and one of them showed payments from an account known to be a shell company for Shaw, but what the transaction involved was unclear. The most recent picture clipped from Pravda showed him in the back row of a Soviet think tank for military technology. He was a solid man, with steel-grey hair and a piercing gaze.
The other facet of the puzzle, the one she returned to again and again, was the reason Emma had dropped the hint in the first place. Moira bit into her sandwich and thought. Emma must have some vested interest in alerting the CIA to Karpov's activities. It didn't take a telepath to see that her motivations were as far from philanthropic as possible
*So charitable, darling.* Emma's voice in her mind was cool and crisp, and it drew the heat from Moira's carefully sun-warmed skin. She rubbed her arms and looked around her as Emma walked down the paved path to the fountain, in a suit and pillbox hat, and very respectable gloves. None of the agents in the park even looked in her direction, even though Moira knew at least five of them were habitually wired to the teeth on caffeine and Dexedrine.
"Don't worry, I'm well aware that I'm on every watch list the CIA can get my photo plastered on. Everyone is going to remember you flirting outrageously with a tall, handsome man." Emma pointedly moved Moira's sandwich out of the way before she sat down on the concrete bench.
Moira snatched up her sandwich defensively. "As long as he doesn't look like a communist. My career can't take much more. And people are going to be suspicious if I flirt at all, let alone outrageously."
"Oh, that's up to you, darling." Emma crossed her legs and arranged her hair. "You'll have to supply the flirtation. I don't have a clue how the dowdy flirt."
Moira was about to defend herself – she wasn't dowdy! Not at all! – but the cut of Emma's coat and her chic little hat probably did make Moira's sensible skirt and blouse look a little plain.
Emma preened. "What did you dig up on Karpov?"
"Why do you want to know?" Moira bit into her sandwich, and thought hard about anything to divert attention from the few facts she had discovered: cross-stitch patterns, how to strip and clean a handgun, softball statistics.
"My God, the thighs on those girls," said Emma. "Karpov gave Shaw the helmet. The one Magneto is currently wearing. I swear to you, the man sleeps in that helmet. It does nothing for his hair."
"If he's that paranoid, why does he keep telepaths around, anyway?" Moira slotted this new piece of intelligence into position. If Karpov was an industrialist or an inventor, he could be high up in the Party.
"He wants telepaths around because he's that paranoid," said Emma. "And it's just singular, darling. Telepath. Me. Not Charles."
Moira frowned. The last she knew, Erik and Charles were allies.
Emma laughed, and touched a finger to Moira's forehead. "Here. Wouldn't want you to miss any of the gruesome details." *And you're no good to me half-cocked, so to speak.* There was a nasty twist to the words that unspooled in Moira's mind.
She swayed on her seat as memories crowded into her mind. They weren't her memories, they were Emma's, and it was a very odd sensation to view events from another person's point of view. She shook, as metal piping coiled around her throat. She clenched with rage as Charles chided Erik but did nothing effective to stop him choking Emma until her neck cracked and mazed.
Then came a series of confusing scenes: Emma standing at the rear of a hospital room while Erik blistered a tirade at a wan-looking Charles strapped into some kind of metal frame; another fight, this time in a lavishly appointed study – and this is where it got weird, because Moira saw herself standing behind Charles' wheelchair, one hand on his shoulder - while Erik demanded Charles come with them; more ranting, this time in a military bunker of some sort. Moira saw Angel and Raven sitting together on a bunk, Azazel standing beside them looking bored as he cleaned his nails with the end of his knife, and Erik, red in the face with fury as he declaimed something about their cause.
The sun had moved away by the time Moira opened her eyes. Her position on the concrete bench was now in shadow, and she shivered - maybe with cold, maybe with telepathic shock.
Emma folded the remains of Moira's sandwich up in the waxed paper, as if she could tell that Moira was, by now, too nauseous to finish her lunch. "As you can see, things are not exactly stable in my current place of employ. Actually, I'm not sure that I am employed, as such. There's never been a pay check, as far as I can tell."
Moira obviously looked appalled at the scenes she had experienced, because Emma patted her on the arm. "Don't worry, darling. I've worked for worse madmen than Magneto. The point of the matter, though, is that the man is obsessed, and I'm just not enough telepath for him."
Moira stretched her legs out; she'd been sitting in one position for far too long, and now she was stiff and cold. It didn't make sense. There was no way to relate this story to the choice piece of intelligence Emma had handed her at HQ. "How can I help you with that? I doubt Charles and Erik will be working together again, and I don't know any telepaths apart from you."
Emma sighed, and shifted on the bench until they were sitting very close together. "If I were Karpov - and there's a horrible thought for you - and I were building an anti-telepathic helmet, I'd want a telepath to test it on. He didn't test it on me, and I'm fairly sure that darling Charles wasn't involved, either. That means there's a telepath somewhere in the Soviet Union. I don't know much about politics - " Emma simpered in that way that certain men found attractive "- but I can imagine that telepath is probably having a worse time than I am right now."
Moira frowned. "You know plenty about politics, so don't waste your time pretending to be stupid."
Emma tossed her hair. "I have no idea what you're talking about, darling."
"So you're proposing a rescue mission, then?" Moira's head was beginning to throb, either with telepathic backlash, or as a side-effect of fencing with Emma.
"Don't sound so put out, there's plenty of meat on the bone for both of us. I get myself another telepath, you get to find out what else Karpov is manufacturing in the USSR."
"I'm cultivating an asset," said Moira, when she could finally get an appointment with her supervisor. "A contact inside Magneto's organisation."
"It's hardly an organisation, now, is it?" Her supervisor looked dubious; clearly he didn't believe she could have done anything so useful, and even if she had, he didn't want to give her credit for it. "Well, then, proceed. Bring them in, we'll do a value assessment."
Moira nodded. "I know that's the next step, sir, but I wasn't sure if it was secure." She leaned forward over the desk. "It's the telepath, sir. There's a lot of information she could access here - you only have to be thinking about the wrong thing at the wrong time and she'll have it."
It was satisfying to watch him backpedal so fast that his chair actually scooted to the wall. His hand hovered over the phone. "Yeah, maybe we should take this to Stryker."
Moira gave a carefully calculated double take. She didn't want him so scared that he bumped this up the ladder. "I suppose, sir. I'm not sure if it's worth interrupting his work right now. I'm not even sure if she's coming over to our side yet." She opened her eyes wide. If she were a telepath, she would feed thoughts directly into his brain, feelings that made him see himself as a mentor, of Moira's asset as a diamond in the rough for which he can claim credit, and of Moira's utter innocuousness.
Maybe she had picked up a few things from Emma, or maybe it was all in the posture. Her supervisor tapped his fingers on the phone once, then withdrew his hand. "What do you need?"
Moira made a list in her mind.
Moira booked them two tickets to Paris together. Normally one would stay as separate from one's asset as possible, but it was much less conspicuous for two women to be travelling together than alone. When Emma arrived at the airport, towing behind her a neat white valise on wheels, Moira wondered if the woman knew the meaning of inconspicuous.
"I don't do inconspicuous, it's so drab." Emma took the ticket folder from Moira's hands, flipped it open and clicked her tongue in disapproval. "Let me fix this for you, darling." She smoothed down her skirt, adjusted her hat and fixed a dazzling smile on her face before sauntering towards the ticket counter. While she beamed at the man behind the counter, she sent a thought to Moira. *Well, what do you know? I don't even need the mind control for this one.*
Moira sighed, and gathered her bags together for the move to the First Class lounge.
The lounge was spacious, and hummed with excess, in that minimalist, futuristic way that made it perfectly clear that the spindly stool on which you perched was both expensive and artistic. The windows towered above them: a great wall of glass through which you could watch the jets alight on the runway, or lift improbably into the air.
Emma clinked the ice around in her glass. "What will we do when we get to Paris?"
Moira took a leaflet out of her purse. "It hasn't been announced, but the USSR is sending a delegation of scientists to the World Science and Technology Fair. Karpov is going to be there. He's part of a Soviet think tank. He's touting himself as an expert in something they're calling robotics."
"Those machines they use in factories? Or giant shiny spacemen?" Emma frowned. "I don't see what that has to do with Shaw's helmet."
"Nobody at the Agency does," said Moira. "The helmet is enough of a mystery. I talked to boffins all over the country about it. First of all, nobody knows quite how you'd use electronics to block mind waves. I mean, this isn't the space race, where the USSR is a little more advanced than we are. Shaw's helmet is either made of material that's never been analysed - a new element, or an alloy of some kind that's never been tried before, or it's a technology that doesn't exist. The only person I could find who even managed to sketch something out for me couldn't get the design any smaller than a truck. And secondly, people really get upset when you start talking weapons and robotics and Russia."
Emma sipped her drink. "Shaw never said anything about robotics. To be quite honest, I doubt he knew how the helmet worked at all. Stupid, really, putting your trust into something you don't understand."
"We're about to get inside a metal tube and fly across the Atlantic," said Moira. "I can't say I have more than a basic understanding of how that works."
Emma smiled and tapped her temple. "Don't worry, darling. With me at your side, and a pilot somewhere close by, you could fly the plane yourself."
Moira grimaced. "Not a very comforting thought. Not when there's at least one helmet on this planet that can stop you from doing that." She watched another jet lumber into the sky.
"I do believe you're a nervous flier! Not the best trait for a CIA agent." Emma seemed charmed by the idea, and Moira remembered her climbing neatly from the tiny helicopter outside the house in Russia.
A bell chimed, elegant and low, to indicate their flight was boarding. Emma gathered her purse, straightened her hair, and walked calmly to the gate.
"It's not nerves," said Moira, scrabbling to follow her. "It's practicality."
"They're still there, you know. The memories Charles took, I mean," Emma said, conversationally as she sipped champagne and watched the Atlantic pass beneath them. "It's much more difficult to excise memory than it is to cover it up. More my style than Charles. I'm a surgeon when it comes to telepathy, he just covers things with bandages."
Moira suppressed a shudder. "This is my mind you're talking about. It's the place where I exist. It's horrible to imagine people walking through and rearranging the furniture." She curled her legs up beneath her on the wide, comfortable seat and wished she had a blanket. She jumped, sensing movement beside her, but it was just the unctuous steward. Unasked, he unfolded a blanket and draped it over her lap, then placed a tiny tray of chocolates and a cup of coffee on the table in front of her with a smile.
Emma smirked. "It's not always eavesdropping and mind wiping, you know. There has to be some compensation for knowing every dirty little secret on this plane, and it may as well be good service. Also, you're tetchy when you're under-caffeinated."
"Why would you want to know all that stuff?" Moira spooned sugar into the coffee and stirred it. "Or does it just wash in there like flotsam and jetsam?"
Emma broke off a corner of one chocolate and nibbled on it thoughtfully. "It used to be that way, when I was younger - this flood of thoughts and images. My teenage years were very confusing. I was such a timid little mouse." She licked the ends of her fingers where the chocolate had melted on her skin. "Pathetic."
"Now?" Emma inclined her head. "Now I've learned that the nastiest minds have the tastiest tidbits in them. The more ambitious you are and the more you identify yourself by the pile of bodies you've left behind, the easier you are to manipulate. Shaw was that way. Magneto, not so much."
Moira shook her head. "Then why go with him at all? Why not find some wealthy, easily manipulated business man - or, hell, a prince or a duke or something - and live the good life till the end of your days?"
"That was my mother's life, darling, and I would die before I turn myself into someone's broodmare, whittling away at my children's self-confidence while my skin caves in and my hips get wide." Emma pushed the tray of chocolates towards Moira as though they had offended her. "Shaw was power-mad, it's true, but he had a vision. Magneto, too. It's possible to want a better world. I just haven't found the right model for it yet."
Moira popped a chocolate into her mouth. "Hence the rescue mission. I was wrong: you do have a philanthropic side."
"We all do, sweetie. Don't get excited; I only show mine to the especially harmless." Emma reached for her tiny purse and pulled out a white velvet sleeping mask. "Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to get some sleep, or I'll be all puffy when we arrive in Paris."
"What a disaster that would be," said Moira, drily. She pulled out her book, and finished the rest of the chocolates by herself.
Later, when the stewardess turned the lights down in the cabin, Moira folded the corner over on her page and watched Emma sleeping. There was no reason to believe anything she said. There was no reason to trust Moira's own motivations for helping Emma, either, since Emma freely admitted she had no qualms about affecting people's minds. Moira knew that the best possible outcome of this mission, for her, personally, was to learn more about telepathy and mutants in general. This was a chance to improve her country's security, and perhaps at the same time rebuild her career, but she knew that she could just as easily be left with nothing, as had happened with Charles.
Somehow, though, while Emma's face had softened in sleep, Moira found it easier to remember the frank words, Emma's concern for Karpov's telepath, her wish for a better world. She didn't want to trust Emma, but so far, Emma had been nothing but honest. And right now, it was good to be part of a team.
The Centre for Science and Technology was a sleek silver dome built inside the Parc de la Villette. Tonight, it was lit up for the grand opening, and inside it teemed with people - mostly men, mostly clad in expensive suits. The central hall was set up as a trade fair of sorts, with aisles of tables where corporations offered information about their upcoming projects. On a central dais, a futuristic car rotated under spotlights, while women dressed in space-aged tunics made from silver foil and white PVC draped themselves lovingly over the hood.
*I do hope we're not all wearing vinyl in the future. It's very sweaty.* Emma perched on a stool at the bar on the floor above the central hall, looking down at the milling crowds with a scornful expression. *There's so much self-congratulating going on down there, I think I'm going to be sick. They'd get a lot more done if they just went home and did some actual work.*
"None of them are scientists," said Moira, under her voice. She had already learned that projecting her thoughts so that Emma could read them took a lot of energy, and it was much easier for her to vocalise softly instead. Emma said that it gave her less of a headache, too. The only problem was that it looked as though Moira was talking to herself, and it drew a few curious glances. Now that they had the plan of the convention centre memorised, though, it was easy enough for her to stand in one of the many phone booths - all futuristic domed plastic, very easy to watch the crowd through - and place a receiver to her ear. That left one hand free to hold her miniaturised camera, and the other to draw her gun if needed. Moira felt very secure.
"Have you picked anything up from Karpov yet? Is he even here?"
Emma spoke like an air hostess, gesturing neatly with her martini glass. *If you'll turn your attention to the thick-set men in black suits, you'll see Karpov is coming in through the door beside the extremely phallic sculpture.*
Moira followed her gaze: there were seven men entering the hall, all bulky with weapons under their too-tight suit jackets. They had the rigid posture and bristling hair of former military men, and with the precision of dancers, they formed an arrowhead of protection around an older man, sleekly dressed in a three piece suit. Karpov walked with assurance and a genial smile on his face, speaking over his shoulder while he walked. Behind him, his secretary nodded as she scrawled everything down in her notepad. Karpov stopped to talk to a chosen few in the crowd, then vanished as quickly as he had appeared, into the main auditorium.
From her balcony, Emma frowned as she watched the group move across the floor.
"Did you get anything?" Moira spoke softly into the phone once Karpov had passed her by.
*Oh, darling, your faith in my abilities is touching, but this room is full of half-drunk people speaking twenty different languages. I can tell you that was Karpov, that his primary language is Russian and that he's very focused on lists of numbers that mean absolutely nothing to me. Ask me to dig any deeper, and I'll slide right off this barstool. I doubt that's what you meant by stay low-profile.*
Moira nodded. It was reassuring that spy work wasn't going to be completely superseded by telepathy. "Try and find out where he's staying. If we can get you close enough in a quiet environment, you should be able to find out more about the helmet and his relationship with Shaw."
Emma brushed off another approach by a drunken businessman with a wave of her hand and, presumably, a little telepathic encouragement. He turned away, blinking, and headed for the door. *Two pretty girls wandering the corridors of a hotel in Paris at night? Sugar, every door will open for us.*
Emma easily lifted the details from Karpov's security detail: he was staying at the Ritz.
"Very obliging of the Central Committee to foot the bill for a suite," said Moira, as they took a taxi through the evening traffic to Place Vendôme.
Emma leaned back against the seat, as if Paris filled her with ennui. "Communists are so tiresome. All 'Do as I say, not as I do.' Ooh, you're thinking about a lipstick camera! Do you have one? How wonderful. I knew there was a reason you wear that horrible colour; trust the CIA to make a lipstick camera in nude beige."
"It's not a functioning lipstick, actually." Moira had always been told that nude tones were more professional.
"Ah," said Emma. "I see. I apologise: the CIA is absolutely not to blame for your ill-informed cosmetic choices."
"We can't all be beauty queens, Emma. Can you do that thing to get us past Reception?" Moira wiggled her fingers.
Emma rolled her eyes. "How do I get anywhere, darling?"
"Your considerable charms?" said Moira, with a smile, as the taxi pulled up and a well-dressed doorman leapt to open the door.
"How sweet of you!" Emma hooked her arm through Moira's, and they walked together through the wrought iron gates and up the red carpet. At the desk, the attendant was all too happy to give them a duplicate key to M. Karpov's room, and there was no guard on Karpov's floor, so Moira and Emma strode down the wide corridors with ease.
"When we get there, you scan the room for occupants," said Moira. "Then we can search it for…" She hadn't really formulated a plan beyond finding Karpov.
"Blueprints," said Emma. "These scientific kinds, they always have blueprints."
"I'm not sure Karpov is a scientist." Moira cleared the next corridor, and led Emma down towards the golden double doors of Karpov's suite. "I've spent the last week or so with scientists, and Karpov is different. He's got a military bearing, he's security conscious. We should be very careful."
Emma shrugged her arm free. "The room is empty, I think you'll be safe."
"Well, stay behind me, anyway. Telepathy is great, but it isn't everything." Moira slipped the key into the lock and pushed the door open.
"Oh, my," said Emma. "The Tsars live again." The reception room was ornate enough, with inlayed velvet wallpaper and gilded plaster mouldings. The room opened out into a salon of sorts, through which Moira could see a canopied bed. Everything was elegance and luxury, with waterfalls of drapes and gilt-legged chairs and thick carpet that absorbed sound.
Emma's hand hovered over the well-appointed fruit bowl on the side table; she selected a strawberry the size of a small plum, and bit into it. Moira, on the other hand, went straight for the desk. The lock was simple enough, and she rolled the top open to examine Karpov's papers.
Emma poured herself a glass of champagne, and wandered into the bedroom with glass and strawberry in hand. "Maybe the answers are in his drawers," she said, and Moira felt the tickle of laughter in the back of her mind.
"Don't giggle on mission," she said absently, flicking through papers with her camera in hand. The diplomatic passes, identity papers and letters of introduction she left alone. Tucked into a textbook on electronics, she found a schematic for a device she didn't recognise; a cuff or bracelet with links made of cylinders of some sort. It reminded Moira a little of a bandolier. "Is it ammunition?" she mused to herself as she took photo after photo.
*!* The communication was wordless: surprise and fear in the form of thought.
Moira whipped around, drawing her gun. A woman held Emma in a headlock, one hand clenched into a fist with the knuckles against Emma's temple. She wore motorcycle leathers, and red hair curled out from under a glossy black helmet. Suddenly Moira understood why the room had appeared empty.
Around the woman's wrist was the bracelet device Moira had just photographed. The tips of the canisters were pointed at Emma's head. The woman flipped up the faceplate: it was Karpov's secretary, and with the barest trace of an accent she spoke.
"Your little friend keeps her mind very still, you understand? The trigger is very quick, I promise you." Her eyes were very clear and very blue and she did not blink. Moira had no doubt that she would do as she promised.
She nodded. "She understands, and so do I. There's no need to panic." She looked at Emma, and willed her to be listening in on her thoughts. *Don't answer me, she might be a mutant too, she might be able to tell. But when I give you a signal, I want you to change. Whatever that weapon is, it can't hurt you in diamond form.*
Emma's face was completely blank. Held close to the woman's body, she didn't move a muscle. Moira had to look closely to make sure that she was still breathing.
"Now, you will stand down," the woman continued. "Put your gun on the ground, and kick it towards me, and we can talk about why Americans are violating the privacy of a Soviet hero."
Moira opened her hands, spread her fingers wide but did not let go of the gun, not yet. "We didn't mean any harm." To Emma, she sent *When the gun hits the ground, okay? And don't answer me.*
"Drop the gun!" The woman pulled Emma closer, forcing her to bend her knees so she could better angle the weapon against her skull.
Moira nodded, and let the gun slip from her hands. In the second before it hit the thick pile of the carpet, she readied her muscles, balancing her weight ready to move. The Russian woman responded in kind; she obviously had the kind of hand-to-hand training that allows the body to act before the mind has completely processed what is happening.
The gun hit the carpet with a dull thump, and instantly, with a soft chime, Emma became diamond in the woman's arms.
Startled, the woman leapt back from Emma, though, to her credit, her arm swung around to cover Moira as she moved. Moira was ready, though, and in two steps was close enough to push the woman's arm upwards. An electric bolt shot from the woman's wrist and arced towards the chandelier. The array of lights began to spark and an acrid smell filled the room.
Emma finished the struggle by swinging an elaborate golden chair hard at the woman's head, and the red-head fell to the ground, stunned. "We need to run!" Emma shouted. Above them, the expensive plaster mouldings were beginning to smoke.
Moira nodded, and the two of them pelted for the elevator. By the time it opened on the ground floor, she and Emma were composed again. Arm in arm, they calmly walked towards the parking garage, just as the fire crew thundered into the lobby.
Moira hauled hard on the wheel of the tiny stolen Mercedes, and it cut across three lanes of traffic. All around them, horns blared in outrage and drivers shook their fists out with Gallic fury.
"'Spying is better with telepathy,' you said." Moira kept one eye on the single headlight of the motorcycle as it darted between cars behind them. "'I'll just read his mind,' you said."
There was a crack - gunshot! The rear window shattered and Emma shimmered into diamond form. "What can I say? You're the spy here, you're the one with all the espionage skills. I'm just the one with the handy conjuring trick."
Moira slumped down in the seat as far as she could, and still see over the dashboard. "How can she steer that thing and shoot straight enough to take out the window? I don't suppose you can affect her, telepathically? That would be too easy." She had to shout over the air rushing through the broken window.
Emma hollered up at her. "You know I can't read her in this form, and I'm not changing. Not while there are bullets flying, thank you very much."
"Oh, don't worry. If I get shot I'll try and make a gentle landing," said Moira, as another bullet zinged past. She clipped a corner, bounced over the kerb and knocked over a newspaper stand, then pulled the car back into traffic. A cascade of horns followed in their wake. In the mirror, Moira saw the motorcycle zip down the sidewalk, darting around the pedestrians. The rider slowed long enough to take aim again, steering with her knees as she levelled the hand gun.
"Emma, just do something!" Moira juggled the wheel as she wove through the cars, ducking down in the seat, even though she knew the leather and padding would do little to stop a bullet.
"Fine." Emma shifted form and frowned, deep in concentration, despite sitting almost under the dash. "No, I'm sorry. She's completely blocked from my mind. That's definitely a helmet like Shaw's."
"Damn it!" Moira gunned the engine, and pushed the car through a red light. People didn't seem so outraged by this show of audacity, and some of them even gave the tiny red car a cheer as it screamed past. Unfortunately, the motorcycle crept easily between the congested lanes of traffic, and as soon as the flow of traffic across the intersection eased, she would be after them again.
"Take a left now," said Emma, brow still furrowed. "I'm reading the mind of a delivery van driver."
Moira looked for an intersection, but there was nothing, just rows of apartments. "Where?"
"Here!" shouted Emma, and grabbed the wheel. The tiny car slewed into an alley way, poorly lit and practically invisible against the dark stone walls. The tyres screamed and sparks flew where the car scraped the narrow walls as Moira struggled to gain control of it again.
Emma sat up straight again, and brushed her hair flat with her palms. "This opens out into a mews, and you can get onto Rue Cardinet from there," she said. "I don't think she saw where we turned, either."
Moira nodded, and slowed the car to a crawl. "We'd better change vehicles while we can." She scoped out the cars parked in higgledy-piggledy rows in the darkness of the mews.
"Oh, do get the Citroën," said Emma, pointing at a sleek-nosed dark-green cabriolet. "It's the car to have this year."
"This isn't a shopping expedition," said Moira, but pulled the battered Mercedes over, anyway. If the Citroën was a fashionable car, there'd be plenty of them on the road, and they'd have a better chance of getting out of the city.
"I agree," said Emma. She slipped from the passenger seat with all the elegance of a movie star on the red carpet, even if there was nobody to see it.
"You agree this isn't a shopping expedition?" Moira circled the Citroën, she wasn't up to date with the specifications of this model, but Citroën used a standard ignition system. It should be easy to hotwire.
"I agree, we need to get out of the city." Emma reached up along the bricks on the wall, feeling over each one with long, white fingers.
"Stop reading my mind," snapped Moira. She dug in her purse - at least she hadn't left that behind at the hotel - looking for her lock picks.
Emma pulled a loose brick from the wall and took a key from the space behind it. "The owner lives in that apartment, there," she gestured to a window on the fourth floor. "And he keeps a spare key here, because he's often so drunk he can't find his own. We'll be doing this poor car, and the population of Paris at large, a great favour by stealing it."
Movement caught Moira's eye. She pushed Emma into the shadows and covered her mouth.
*When someone presses me against a wall, I expect them to have plied me with fine wines first.* Emma's telepathic voice was icy.
Moira shook her head and pointed upwards. The Russian woman crouched low on the rooftop, scanning the ground below for the two of them. From this angle, in her black motorcycle leathers, she was a silhouette against the starry sky.
*Why hasn't she shot us?* asked Emma.
Moira leaned her head close to Emma. *Because she can't see us. Yet.* She felt Emma's body start to shift, and she gave her a little shake. *Don't! You can't affect her, but you can affect others. Make a ruckus of some kind, draw her attention.*
Emma took a deep breath, and frowned in concentration. *There's a gendarme around the corner,* she said with a gasp.
Suddenly, there was a shrill whistle, and the mews was flooded with light. Moira hissed, and pulled Emma to the ground beside the Citroën. "Not what I intended, Emma."
*I wasn't aware there would be floodlights! But he's bringing back-up.*
The gendarme and his cohorts clattered into the open space and searched the rooftops, shouting and pointing at the figure in black leather. Windows opened, and faces peered into the mews, people shouted in outrage at the disturbance, and some threw shoes down onto the cobblestones. The next time Moira chanced a peek at the skyline, the Russian woman was gone.
"Okay, better." She hauled Emma to her feet. "Are you hurt?"
Emma brushed fussily at her nylons, which were laddered into tatters. "Wonderful. Now I look like a whore."
Moira wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "Come on, let's get you out of here." She opened the door of the Citroën and ushered her inside.
The gendarme guarding the entrance to the mews tipped his hat at the pretty ladies, and gestured for them to move along.
The Citroën was an easy drive, and Moira relaxed a little as she guided the car through the early morning traffic. There had been no further sign of the Russian agent. When they stopped for gas, Moira picked up a cheap road map and plotted a course to Reims while she sipped her coffee from a paper cup.
Emma bought new nylons, a pair of sunglasses and a newspaper, then disappeared into the Ladies. When she emerged, she was somehow elegantly made up again, loftily hidden behind the dark lenses. She threw the morning paper onto the hood of the Citroën. "Look! Not many people can claim arson of a major hotel." Her expression was disturbingly smug.
The headline proclaimed Fire at Hôtel Ritz! and the photo showed smoke pouring from the window of Karpov's suite. Moira made a face. This wouldn't go down well with her supervisors.
"Oh, don't worry," said Emma. "They'll never connect you with it. There are some benefits to being completely forgettable. I doubt they'll even remember you were working this case." She briefly clutched at Moira's shoulders in enthusiasm. "Anyway, we were amazing! You were amazing: the fight, and the car chase - you have to teach me to drive like that - and then we got away from her, and, oh! I've never had so much fun, not with Magneto, not with Shaw. Espionage is definitely the career for me."
"Hm," said Moira, doubtfully. She folded the map up. "I think we're done with Paris: we can't go near Karpov again, not with his secretary or bodyguard onto us. I'm going to get us to Reims; there's a safehouse there where we can develop the film. Hopefully I photographed something useful, something we can follow up."
Emma nodded, and took a big swig of Moira's nasty roadside coffee. "Sounds great. Can I drive?"
Moira disliked handing over control, but she was rapidly running out of adrenaline. She knew nothing about Emma's driving skills, but she was probably the safer driver right now.
Emma gave her another quick hug and took the keys. "I'll be fine. You need to sleep." She whipped a headscarf out of her purse, tied it around her beautifully coiffed hair, and slid into the driver's seat with disturbing enthusiasm.
Despite her concern, Moira dropped off to sleep in the passenger seat, and when she woke again, Emma was capably negotiating l'autoroute de l'Est and the French countryside whipped past on both sides. The sun was climbing into the sky, beating against the windshield, deliciously warm on Moira's skin.
"Any problems?" She stretched as best she could in the tight space - the Citroën may be fashionable, but she'd take American cars for leg room any time.
Emma shook her head. "There was a tollbooth a little way back, but you slept right through it." She smiled. "So did the tollbooth operator."
Moira turned on her side and watched Emma driving for a little while. She seemed to enjoy it, changing gears with skill when the road became hilly, overtaking slow vehicles with assurance that was heart-stopping until you remembered she was a telepath.
*It's not all that reliable on the roads, to be honest.* Emma pulled out on the left and swept past a slow moving van, then slotted the Citroën neatly in again. *I can't telepathically detect things with no mind. I won't see an overturned car or a big hole in the road.*
Moira was becoming disturbingly comfortable with the way that Emma switched from verbal to telepathic communication. It wasn't that she feared for her own privacy - her life was not so remarkable that she had great secrets to hide - but it was odd to have no control over the way people strolled into her mind.
She sat up in her seat. "Can you teach me how to block telepaths? I mean, not that I want to keep you out of my head, as such - everything you've done has been so helpful - but I worry about the next telepath I meet."
*Or the next time you run into Charles and he scrambles your memory? I can understand why you'd worry - were those your own feelings for him, or his way of manipulating you? Did he use a little gentle encouragement, or just push you hard in that direction?*
Moira winced. Maybe there were some things she'd rather Emma wasn't picking over right now. "If I was ever in love with him, I'm not now. How could I ever trust someone who would do that to my mind?"
"I can tell you one thing." Emma switched to verbal speech, and Moira relaxed a little. "Dubious ethics or not, Charles is no rapist. I wish I could say it was impossible for a telepath but I'm afraid there are plenty of people who would, if they could. Not Charles, though. He is as much in love with the idea of falling love as he is with the people he loves. He's horrifyingly open about his own emotions. Revolting." She shuddered.
"It was still wrong, what he took from me," Moira said, staunchly. She wanted to talk about this, she did.
"Oh, I agree, it was a loathsome thing to do. And crude: you don't amputate a leg to cure a hangnail." Emma smoothed her headscarf down. "Well, apparently you do, if you're Charles."
Moira didn't understand why, but her insides clenched with panic, and tears welled. She bent over, hid her face with her hair and tried not to gasp.
Emma looked at her, startled. She pulled the car off the highway and onto a rest stop, then came around to open the passenger door. She crouched down in the gravel and rubbed Moira's back. "Shhh, it's okay. It's not happening now. You're all right."
The kindness broke Moira's reserve, and she leaned into Emma's arms, sobbing.
Emma kept her arms around Moira. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be flip about what happened to you."
Moira scrabbled for her handkerchief. "What happened to me? What did I do in that month? Why did he do that to me?"
"It was clumsy and stupid," said Emma. "He didn't consider the consequences, and I'm sorry."
"Someone tried to choke me. I think I shot someone. But there's nothing but holes in my mind." Moira said between gasps. "You don't understand what it's like, to wake up and not remember."
"It's true that I'm a telepath, but telepathy isn't the only way to make someone forget," said Emma. "You can drug a telepath. Those memories - whatever Shaw had me do then - I'm never going to get them back. Bastard."
Moira blew her nose and sat up. "Wait, when did this happen?" She looked at Emma, suddenly suspicious. "This is why we're working together, isn't it? You're the telepath we're looking for, aren't you? The one who had to test the helmet?"
Emma rocked back on her heels and shook her head. "Maybe? The very few memories I have of that time are - well, I mean, they're psychedelic at the very least. I saw a lot of things that don't make any sense. I honestly don't know. Sometimes, when the memories return, I think it's me. Sometimes, it seems like someone I knew very well." She rolled a lip between her teeth, suddenly nervous. "I was afraid you wouldn't take the mission unless there was someone to rescue. And I mean, there might be someone. There really might, and if there is, I'll be damned if I'll leave them in Karpov's care. So, be angry if you want, but this is the right thing to do. I have to know, either way. "
Moira shrugged her shoulders, shaking herself together again. "I'm not angry. You're a phenomenal liar, but I can tell when something you say is absolutely true. I can see this is really important." And it's not going to hurt my career, she added.
*Let's face it, darling, you haven't got far to fall,* said Emma, but Moira had enough practice by now to hear the gratitude and relief behind the acid comment.
They sat for a while in the car, watching butterflies hover over the tufts of grass sprouting through the gravel of the rest stop.
"If you had something to do with Karpov's helmet, that Russian agent might have recognised you at the convention and followed us to the Ritz," said Moira.
Emma shrugged. "I suppose. I honestly can't tell you; with the drugs Shaw gave me, I could have seen Elvis at this place and not recognised him."
"What do you mean?" Emma seemed confused.
"You said 'this place'," said Moira. "What place?"
Emma shook her head. "That's how it is with drugs - things drift in. I hadn't even realised there was a place until just now." She leaned against the head rest and closed her eyes. "It's a white place - white walls, white tables. Computers, scientific equipment. A lab, I suppose." She opened her eyes, and looked at her hands, clenched tight on the wheel. "I don't want to talk about it anymore. Not right now, if that's okay."
"Okay," said Moira. "Let's get to the safehouse. We need to pool our data, analyse the photos. And sift through the details you have tucked away in there." She leaned across Emma's lap and opened the driver's door. "Get out, I'm driving. You look worse than I feel."
"So very flattering, darling," said Emma, but she slipped out and around the Citroën while Moira scooted across to the driver's side.
The safehouse at Reims was a cottage tucked away behind a vineyard. Moira pulled the Citroën into the small shed where it would be hidden away from sight, and took the key from under a coffee can on the workbench.
"Wonderful security," said Emma. "So very high tech."
Moira shook her head. "It's the kind of place where things are better hidden in plain sight. But there's a dark room here, and there will be food and money."
"Oh, money. Good. Everything will be fine with money." Emma obviously still felt rattled by the conversation by the side of the road. Moira understood completely.
In the neat little kitchen, Moira chivvied Emma into making tea while she took stock of the food situation. To Emma's horror, she took out a can of corned beef, and a handful of rubbery potatoes.
She gave Emma a paring knife and a can opener, and took her own cup of tea. "Get those on the boil, and I'll go down to the cellar, get this film processed."
Emma looked at the can opener as if it were going to bite her. Moira laughed, and opened the trapdoor to the cellar.
"Call me if you need help. And don't come down here unless I call you - film is light sensitive, we could lose the images."
There was a soothing rhythm to the process of developing film, something Moira could do in her sleep if she had to, and it gave her time to sort through the things Emma had told her. The way Emma's memories were drifting up again very much reminded her of the interrogation techniques they were taught at the Agency. Moira had never taken part in an interrogation as female agents were generally expected to acquire intelligence in more persuasive ways, of course. She'd shared an office for a while with an old ex-OSS officer, the two of them shunted away downstairs where they'd be no bother. He'd told her plenty of stories about interrogating Nazis and double agents, some of whom were drugged. She was sure that if they sat down quietly, Emma would surprise herself with the details she could recall. She wondered if her own mind would start repairing itself with time. She should ask Emma about that, too.
Once the negatives were developed, she ducked upstairs. Emma was standing next to a pot of boiling water, watching it suspiciously. "Do I just throw them in?" she asked, pointing to the plate of peeled potatoes.
"I can do it," said Moira. She salted the water and turfed in the potatoes, stirring them briskly.
Emma watched, dubious. "I can't possibly eat that starchy kind of food. It's bad for my skin."
"Don't worry." Moira was blithe as she opened the tin of beef. "After all the energy you've burned, you won't care what you're eating."
"That's not very comforting," said Emma. "Why is the meat gelatinous?"
Moira cut the beef into thick slices and slid them into the frying pan. "To make it more delicious. Listen, can we talk about what happened with Shaw and the helmet? The more we follow this lead, the more you're going to remember anyway, and it may as well be here, where it's calm and safe."
Emma sat sideways on a wooden kitchen chair, and rested her chin on her hands. "I'd rather work on undoing Charles' hatchet-job in your mind, to be honest. It's starting to irritate me, looking at that mess."
"Is that a good idea? I mean, are there risks?" Moira flipped the slices of beef in the pan. "It sounds crazy - I should want those memories as soon as possible - but I'm worried. What if I did something I hate? What if something happened that changed me, and I didn't like the person I would have been if I remembered?"
Emma frowned. "You really think about these things too much. And we need booze. We drove through plenty of vineyards, surely there's a bottle of wine around here somewhere. Champagne, I suppose. That's what they make here, I think." She smiled nervously. "Champagne. Now, that's real food."
"Food first," said Moira, firmly. She mashed the potatoes with a fork and served them up with the beef, despite Emma's doubtful expression.
She printed the negatives after dinner, enlarging them enough so that the text was clear and easy to read. When she emerged from the cellar with the prints and a couple of dusty bottles of Pommery, she found Emma in the tiny bedroom. She had lit the fire in there, and covered the mantelpiece with candles.
"It's too cold in this house - the stone sucks the heat right out of me," she complained. She sat on the end of the bed, warming her hands by the fireplace.
Moira took a blanket from the closet, and draped it over Emma's shoulders. "We don't have to talk about it. There's some great images here - I've got plenty to follow up."
Emma shook her head. "No, it's important. And it's stupid to ignore a source of information that could save lives just because I'm feeling cowardly."
"I don't think you're cowardly," said Moira. She sat beside her on the end of the bed, and gave her a hug. "I think you're tough as balls."
"What a revolting expression," said Emma, though she leaned against Moira as she said it. Her eyes lit on the bottles by the door. "First, champagne."
Emma could drink Moira under the table, as it turned out. One bottle down, and she still sat neatly on the edge of the bed with her legs crossed. Moira, on the other hand, lay flat on her back with her arms splayed out, watching the ceiling swim above her.
"I'm drunk," she announced, unnecessarily.
Emma regarded her with fond exasperation. "You're a terrible lightweight. If I were actually a spy, I'd be getting all sorts of details out of you right now. You're very lucky that I like you."
Moira propped herself up on an elbow. "Ha, ha, you like me." It seemed ridiculously hilarious, in that high-school way. "Wait, did you get me drunk on purpose? This is not good."
Emma stroked Moira's hair, fanning it out over the pillow. "Now, why would I get you drunk on purpose?"
"Because you need me to be vulnerable, if you're going to tell me something that frightens you," said Moira, promptly, as if it were a pop-quiz at school. "Wait, did I say that? Or think it?"
"Does it matter?" asked Emma. Her face suddenly had that careful, detached expression, the one that Moira had seen at the Hellfire Club, and again in the cell at the CIA.
She reached out to touch Emma's cheek, half-expecting to feel cold diamond, but there was warmth under her fingertips. "Don't be scared. I won't tell anyone that you care. It's just us here, you're safe, I promise."
Emma made a soft noise of frustration, but she leaned into Moira's hand. "How do you always engage my conscience? I've hoodwinked people much more complicated than you."
"Maybe you don't want to hoodwink me," said Moira. Her fingers stroked the skin at the nape of Emma's neck. "Who says that, anyway? Hoodwink? This is not a Boy's Own adventure story."
Emma bent her head, so that her hair slipped, a pale curtain around the two of them. "I certainly hope not."
Moira tilted her head up and closed the distance between them by pressing her lips to Emma's. Then, for a long time, she didn't move. If she did, it felt as if the candle flames would jump, and this Emma, the fierce and passionate Emma that she had only rarely glimpsed, would vanish with the light.
Emma's kisses were sometimes sly and sometimes ferocious. She curled her fingers in Moira's hair to better reach her neck and collar bone with her mouth, and soon Moira forgot all about staying still.
Later, Moira's head was still spinning, so she rested it in Emma's lap. Emma looked down on her, half shrugged out of her clothes. It was strange but lovely to see her face without make up. Most of that make up was probably all over Moira's face, she reasoned.
Emma traced Moira's lips with a fingertip. "Can I show you something?"
"Okay," said Moira, eyes wide. The alcoholic mist was clearing a little, and her skin crawled. The candle flames leapt, and their shadows danced across the bed spread.
Emma touched a finger to Moira's forehead, and she fell away into a place where her footsteps clattered on a metal floor, and her legs felt buttery soft.
Someone was holding her up by the armpits, hoisting her along even when her feet stumbled. The metal corridor seemed to go on for years as the two of them walked. Moira understood that she wasn't actually here, that she was sitting in a warm room on a soft bed with Emma close by, but trapped in this memory, she felt Emma's fear and disorientation and it terrified her.
Things blurred and swam before her eyes, and there was a sense of time loss. Emma's eyelids were heavy and sandy, and it was such hard work to open them, but fear and sense of survival drove her onwards. The drugs in her system distorted her vision, and everything around her flashed into negative, whites became black, greys inverted, and everything was wrong. Was that her face? She was looking in a mirror, she thought. A strange helmet sat on her head, wires trailing down all around her like snakes. The image strobed: black/white/black/white until she couldn't remember if she was the White Queen or the Black. There was something in her mind, shifting connections, testing contact points. Horrified at the intrusion, she struggled under the helmet. Slowly, sluggishly, the reflection moved too, but differently. It was all wrong, it was all distorted. The image blurred, her eyelids closed without her control, and the image ended.
Moira bolted for the lavatory, and threw up corned beef and vintage champagne.
Emma stood half in and half out of the room. "I'm sorry." The blanket was still wrapped around her shoulders.
"Don't be," said Moira, from the floor. "Must have been worse for you to actually go through it." She took a cautious breath. Her stomach seemed to have finished rebelling. Emma held out her hand, and Moira hauled herself upright.
"I am still sorry. I can't explain it," said Emma. "I don't understand half of what I saw there, myself." She was shivering, under the blanket. Moira patted her hand.
"Come on, let's make tea and look at these photos. A bit of real life work, that's what we need."
In the kitchen, while the kettle whistled merrily and Emma spooned tea into the pot, Moira spread the photos across the table and took out her magnifying glass. She bent over the schematics for the wristband they had seen on the Russian agent.
"There's a stamp on this, some kind of logo," she said. "Might give us a way to track down the place where it was manufactured."
Emma put a mug on the table beside her, and looked at the tiny mark. "Cyrillic? So it's Russian? I speak it better than I read it – the legacy of learning by telepathy, I'm afraid."
"It's an imprint: all the plans out of this engineering office will have it." Moira pointed to a line of text that would have been embossed in the original document. "This is an abbreviated address, I think, but the local phone directory should have it listed. They keep all sorts of things here." She opened cupboards until she found the relevant stack of books.
"As opposed to, say, reasonable food?" Emma clearly still bore a grudge about the corned beef.
Moira ran her finger down the line of text until she found the code. "It's an industrial park in Domodedovo - oh, that's where they're building that new airport. Don't worry, Emma. You'll be eating caviar in a couple of days. We're going to Moscow."
"This is much more civilised," said Emma, as the train rocked and hummed beneath them. She curled into the comfortable seats of their sleeper car, with a blanket over her knee, and held out her glass for more champagne.
Moira pulled the bottle from the ice bucket, shifting her maps away from the dripping bottle. The train was moving through East Germany, though they could see little of it through the tall fences that lined the tracks. Still, there were no stops until Berlin, so Moira felt safe enough with her papers spread over the fold-out table. Once they changed in Berlin, though, they'd have to be more stringent about their undercover identities. Emma would make things a lot easier - Moira's German, though fluent, would never pass for native - but there was only so much one telepath could do against the might of East German bureaucracy. Moira had cleared the safehouse out of cash. They'd need it for bribes.
"We'll be coming up on the border soon," said Moira. "That's when the fun will really get started."
Emma waved a hand loftily. "Really, it will be fine. You have those fantastic fake papers, and I can smooth over the difference."
Moira watched the line of barbed wire blur past. On the other side, she sometimes saw green fields, or the packed streets of a metropolis. The transit train did not stop, and could not deviate from the thin channel of the West that funnelled them towards Berlin. Even though she knew the name of each city they passed through, it was strange that people were living their lives so close and still be so very far distant.
"Help me get my memories back," she said, suddenly. "Now. We've got time, haven't we?"
Emma sipped her champagne with a neutral expression. "Why now? I mean, what if something goes wrong, and you leave me alone on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain."
Moira raised her eyebrows. "As opposed to, say, flying to a Russian General's dacha on your own? And your concern for me is touching, by the way."
"It's not that I want anything awful to happen," Emma said. "But you're very ambivalent about the whole thing. One minute you're desperate to know what happened, the next you're full of dread. I don't think you're ready. And we're getting along so well. Why destabilise things now, just as we're heading into enemy territory?"
"I'm tired of living with part of myself locked away." Moira nudged her maps into a neater pile. "Did they ever do that thing at your school, where they get you to write a letter to yourself in the future?"
"Sorry, no," Emma swirled her champagne. "My school focused more on snaring a rich husband. I practically had to teach myself to read."
"Well, it's like that," said Moira. "I don't remember that part of me, but it was me. I want to trust that I did the right things, made the right choices. Or, if I didn't, I want to learn from that so I don't make the same mistakes again."
"You're very hard on yourself," said Emma. "I mean, does everything have to be a moral lesson or a personal failure?"
"Is this something you don't want to do?" asked Moira, before her nerve ran out. "Some kind of territorial thing, where you don't touch another telepath's work?"
Emma laughed. "You're goading me, how adorable." She patted the seat beside her. "Come over here. I'll be very gentle, I promise."
Moira took a breath, then scooted across the compartment. Emma sat behind her, as if she were going to style her hair, pulled Moira towards her until she was pressed against Emma's body.
"I don't remember Charles ever doing this," said Moira, suspiciously, but she was smiling nonetheless.
"Oh, Charles is handsier than me, I promise." Emma smoothed Moira's hair down, and wrapped her arms around her shoulders. "I'm going to show you how to shield better, like you said in Reims. You have a huge emotional reaction whenever you talk about what Charles did to you; you'll feel a lot better with some defences against that kind of behaviour. Let's call it a step towards recovering those memories."
"Okay," said Moira, slowly. "That makes sense."
Emma kneaded her shoulders a little. "See? You're already less tense. Now, shields are all about visualisation. It's a cliché, yes, but I want you to picture a wall."
For all the flirtation, Emma was an incredible task-master, thought Moira. It was some hours later by the time they stopped, and that was only because Moira apparently gave Emma a pounding headache.
"Because I have a pounding headache," said Moira, reaching for the aspirin. She stopped, with her eyes on the door. In the tiny gap between the carpet and the door, she saw a pair of feet walk past, hesitate at their door, and move on. "Did you see that?" she whispered to Emma.
Emma massaged her own temples with her fingertips. "Darling, all I see right now is stars. But your shields are holding. I have to say I'm proud."
"You don't sense anyone out there?" said Moira. Her hand moved towards her coat on the hook, where her gun was hidden in a pocket.
Emma sat up straight with a start. "Nobody. The corridor is empty."
The door burst in just as Moira drew her weapon. It was the Russian agent - or presumably it was, since she wore the motorcycle helmet with the darkened faceplate. Moira swung her handgun up, aiming to get the muzzle pressed against the faceplate. The Russian woman had the advantage - of height, of surprise, and of momentum - and she used that to pull Moira past her, and out into the corridor.
In the few seconds that Moira was outside the compartment, she heard a hissing puff of air and a shriek, then the glass-on-glass sound of Emma's transformation. When she turned, she saw the Russian's arm outstretched, and a canister on the bracelet open. Emma had shifted to diamond, but lodged in her skin and consequently protruding through the diamond, was a small red-tipped dart. Emma's body slumped in the corner of the seat, though her eyes were wide and alert.
The Russian agent had her own wrist weapon calmly trained on Moira by now, and Moira held up her hands. The woman nodded towards Moira's gun.
"Slowly this time, please." Her voice was muffled by the helmet.
Moira bent slowly to place the gun on the floor. "What did you do to her?"
The woman pulled the helmet off and tucked it under her arm. "Anaesthetic and muscle relaxant. Place the gun on the carpet, slowly."
"Will it hurt her?" Moira let her body bend down slowly. While the woman was talking, she wasn't shooting. Moira didn't want to think what would happen if she and Emma both ended up unconscious and paralysed in the middle of Eastern Germany.
"Don't worry. We very much do not want Miss Frost harmed," said the woman. "Women with her talents are rare, and rare means valuable. In terms of her contribution to the further glory of the Soviet Union, of course."
"Naturally," said Moira. She placed the gun on the thin railway carpet and left her hands open as she stood up straight. "What will happen to her?"
"Not my concern." The Russian woman kicked the gun behind her, and threw Moira a pair of steel hand cuffs. "Put them on, please." While Moira opened the hasps, she stepped across to Emma and pulled her forward, leaning Emma's supine torso against a hip. She slipped the helmet over Emma's head, and gently settled her against the seat. "There, now. No clever tricks from you."
"Not from her," said Moira, and pitched the handcuffs hard at the woman's head. They struck the woman in the temple with a jangle. She cried out and raised her hand, fist clenched, to aim the wrist weapon.
Moira went low, and reached for the gun. She came up aiming, and squeezed the trigger just as the agent leaned forward into a roll. The gun barked and the window exploded outward into the rushing dark. Then her shoulder met the woman's, and the two of them were grappling while glass crunched underfoot.
She was fast, this Russian woman, thought Moira as she pulled herself closer to avoid a sweeping leg striking out for her feet. Every movement connected to the next effortlessly, while Moira scrabbled to keep herself out of the way of the unfamiliar wrist weapons. Her gun was no use at this distance: she'd be as likely to shoot herself as the Russian. And damn, she was better than Moira. Moira had training at hand to hand combat, but this woman also had skill and practice. Still, she probably hadn't been a forward on the under-sixteen field hockey team. Moira stomped her foot down mercilessly hard and heel first, catching the woman's shin and sliding down the length of her calf.
The woman hissed, and swung Moira around, slamming her body against the doorframe. She pushed Moira upwards with her arm under Moira's chin, a leather-clad arm crushing her throat. Breathing suddenly became a precious commodity. The woman's face never changed expression, Moira thought, muzzily. It would be easy to believe she would have the same detached, slightly quizzical frown if she were a secretary or a nurse. Moira clawed at the leather cuff on the woman's wrist, hoping she could discharge one of the cylinders. Her vision was turning grey and filmy when the train lurched over a siding, and the two of them slammed to the other side of the compartment, and through the flimsy wardrobe door, which helpfully fell in on them.
In close quarters, under the ruined door, Moira's face was pressed up hard against the woman's neck, as the two of them struggled to get control of the situation. Neither of them dared fire, not in the tight space they were in. Moira could smell soap and sweat on the woman's skin and her mouth was full of hair. The woman did something with her hand and Moira's arm; there was a flash of red behind Moira's eyelids and her gun hand went numb to the elbow. The woman finally smiled, and put her wrist weapon to Moira's forehead. "Good fight but I win." Then she froze, a rigidity that was eerie and familiar at the same time.
Moira knelt there for a moment, shocked, listening to the air rushing past the broken window.
*Succinct, these Russians, aren't they?* Emma's mental voice was slurred - a very odd thing to feel in one's head - and she wobbled a little as she stood above them, but she held the helmet in one hand and the tiny red-tipped dart in the other. Her body was no longer in diamond form.
"Emma?" said Moira, somewhat hysterically. "You're okay?"
She nodded, and pulled down her collar to show Moira a tiny circular bruise on her collar bone. "I trapped the dart when I transformed; I think I only got a little of the dose." She put the helmet on the table and pushed it away from her with an expression of distaste. "Wearing that was by far the more unpleasant experience. The whole world was gone; it was just me." Then she swayed and clutched at the overhead rail of the bunk.
Moira eased her way around the spy's body awkwardly, then brushed broken glass off the banquette seat and helped Emma sit down. She rubbed her arm as she looked at the Russian woman still crouching in place half in and half out of the wardrobe, then she took in the ruined compartment. "This is going to be tricky to explain, even with telepathy."
"Shh," Emma said, irritably. "I'm concentrating."
"Okay," said Moira, with her eyebrows raised. She bent down to the agent, and carefully unbuckled the wrist weapons, then patted the woman down for other weapons. A gun in an ankle holster, a knife in each boot, a garrotte in her belt - this woman was a walking arsenal. Moira gathered the hardware together, then jumped when the woman moved.
"Ah!" said the Russian woman - more of an exhalation than a word. She collapsed to her knees, then slumped to the floor. She lay still after that, but her chest heaved with deep, desperate breaths.
Moira turned on Emma. "What the hell did you do to her?"
"She's… not all right," said Emma, with some difficulty. She sat with her legs neatly crossed and her hair carefully straightened from where the helmet had disturbed it.
"I can see that!" Moira crouched beside the Russian agent and tried to straighten her arms and legs out and do some basic first aid. The agent may have tried to kill Moira and abduct Emma, but she was just doing her job. Whatever the dubious ethics the CIA might endorse, Moira wasn't prepared to torture a prisoner.
"I didn't do that," said Emma, distantly. "That's a defence mechanism. I said that she's not all right. She's been - oh, what's the word for it? Brainwashed. Programmed." She massaged her temples with her fingertips. "I wonder if that's how she controls the helmet? Or if it controls her…" she trailed off, distracted by something in the Russian woman's mind.
"Nyet!" The woman shrieked and flailed on the floor, and Moira jumped in alarm. In that second, the woman leapt upwards, and dived for the open window.
"Natasha! Stop! We don't want to hurt you!" Emma shouted.
Moira reached out for the woman, and even snagged the edge of her leather jacket, but Natasha was too quick. She scrambled over the glass-covered table and through the window, climbing nimbly up the side of the train.
Emma wheeled on Moira, eyes furious. "We have to help her! She's been to that place - the white room, the lab, whatever you call it! She's not all right, she's been hurt in there. You go after her, now!"
Moira looked through the open window; there was an access ladder running up the side of the carriage. It was dark now, and a brisk wind whistled past the opening. The wire fence was a faint silver line beside the train, all the barbed wire blurred together. She was wearing a pencil skirt and nylons. This was not going to end well for anyone.
"Go!" Emma stood and pointed imperiously to the window.
"This is worse than that time in Vegas," Moira muttered to herself. She kicked off her shoes and peeled down her stockings. She'd have better grip without them, and they could patch her feet up when Natasha was safe. She propped herself on the window sill, checked ahead for bridges, and heaved herself out onto the ladder. Thank God for Langley's obstacle course. And the Girl Scouts.
The first thing she learned about riding the roof of a train was that you had to keep low: at the speed of an express, the wind was appalling. The second thing she discovered was that there were many handholds. The third was that some of them were electrified - insulated, of course, but Moira wouldn't trust her life to East German manufacturing standards. The few couplings she brushed against hummed and sparked alarmingly.
*You're doing very well. She's two carriages ahead,* Emma said, conversationally. *I didn't realise you came to the club in Vegas. I didn't see you, not once. How clever of you, just shedding your clothes and joining the crowd.*
*Instead of reminiscing, could you perhaps slow her down? Or convince her to listen to us?* Moira pulled herself along hand over hand on the roof of the train. She hooked her hands over the rail at the end of their carriage, and swung for the next one as if this were the jungle gym in training. For a moment, her legs dangled over empty space, and she felt a stone kick up from the tracks below and strike her ankle. She yelped, and clambered onto the next carriage.
*Don't you think I would have tried that before you climbed out the window?* Emma's tone was scathing.
"Can't say for sure, you're the self-proclaimed amateur," Moira said out loud, grumpily.
*She's been telepathically programmed,* Emma said slowly, as if explaining to an idiot. *You don't punch a person with a head injury, and you don't telepathically interfere with someone in mental trauma. I may be an amateur spy, but I'm no amateur at telepathy.*
Moira moved more quickly over the roof of the carriage. She could dimly see a shadowy figure on the carriage ahead, something close to the base of the electric transmission pole. As she drew closer, a series of lights flashed passed, and she saw Natasha, crouched low with her arms outstretched. It looked almost as if she were …
"Damn it!" Moira flung herself flat to the roof of the carriage, as a bullet zipped through the air where her body had been. An electric coupling exploded in a shower of sparks that rained down on Moira's hair. "Damn it! I disarmed you, where did you get that from?"
*She probably has them stashed all over the train,* said Emma. *Brainwashing makes one so paranoid.*
*You're not helpful,* Moira snapped. She slithered closer to the edge of the carriage, felt her jacket snag on something, and cursed. Natasha obviously couldn't see well enough to chance another shot. Good training, Moira noted. If she could get close enough, she could perhaps talk the woman down.
*She's afraid. And confused. She's very patriotic, and very torn about the things she's seen. I think you have a chance.* Emma paused for a moment, then added, cheerfully, *I have every belief in your abilities.* With the thought came a wash of sensory detail: astringent, sugary, hot.
*You're drinking tea,* said Moira, in outrage. *I'm risking my life in several different ways, and you're having a nice cup of tea.*
*Don't be bitter, darling. It will only give you crow's feet,* Emma was blithe as she sipped her tea. *I'm working things out with the conductor. Alois here has been most obliging; he's found us a new compartment, and he's brought us something hot for when you bring Natasha in.*
Everything went dark as the train shot through a tunnel. Moira kept her body as flat as possible, and prayed for nothing low-hanging. Every mouthful of air tasted of soot: a legacy of the steam age.
When the train burst out into the night again, Natasha was right there in front of her. She leapt on top of Moira's body, straddling her and holding her down on the top of the carriage.
Moira didn't have time to ask how she had moved along a speeding train while it passed through a tunnel. She held up a hand - she'd hold both up, but then she'd fall to her death. "I don't want to hurt you!" she shouted in Russian. "I want to help you!"
Natasha shoved the gun under Moira's chin. "Tell me your mission. Tell me what the telepath did to me." Her eyes were wild, her hair whipped about her face and she didn't seem to notice.
*Nothing,* said Emma, softly. *I did nothing but look. Everything she's feeling was done to her in Russia.*
Moira tapped her temple. "They did it to you, your people! Karpov! Karpov did this, with his helmet!" She wasn't sure that was true, exactly, but it was the fastest way to get the details across while she had a gun at her jaw. "We need to know what happened - to my friend, to you. This isn't right," she pleaded. "We should be able to do our jobs, serve our countries, without being hobbled. You need to know, you need to be able to trust yourself."
Natasha hesitated, but did not move the gun. A pylon loomed out of the dark, moving fast and low.
"Duck!" Moira shouted, and despite the gun, despite the fact that it meant letting go of her handhold, she grabbed for Natasha's body and pulled her down hard. There was an instant - less than a second, just time for a blink, really - when the Russian woman's hand tensed. Then her face showed understanding, and she pressed flat against Moira, anchoring them both while the pylon arm whistled overhead, a great blade of metal.
When there was nothing but empty air above them, Natasha brushed her hair out of her eyes and grinned a little nervously. "So, American. Where is this duck you are shouting about?"
On the tiny platform between the carriages where the couplings connected, they were enough shielded from the wind to negotiate.
"This is no official alliance," said Natasha, with her mouth pressed against Moira's ear.
Moira turned her face towards Natasha's neck. "Doesn't have to be. I'm not exactly working on the books myself."
"We share information pertinent to the… procedures. Only that. And I will personally see you out of the USSR when we are done."
Moira opened her mouth to say 'Both of us', since it was clear that Natasha's superiors had already expressed an interest in Emma and her abilities. Before she could shape the words, though, Emma reached through her mind and moved her lips and tongue with an alarming amount of control.
"We're here to rescue a hostage. You'll see all of us out when the time comes. Agree to that, and we have a deal." It wasn't her syntax, or her accent. Moira pulled away from Natasha's body and clapped her hand over her mouth in horror, before Emma made any more promises out of the blue.
Natasha raised an eyebrow. "I see it is interesting to work with a telepath. But, yes, I agree. You and Miss Frost, and one hostage." She threw her shoulder at the interconnecting door, and pulled them both into the quiet of the corridor.
Moira's jacket and skirt were a ruin - blackened with soot, shredded by bellying along the roof of the train. Moira braced herself for an altercation with the conductor, but Natasha showed him an ID card, and his face paled.
"We will require the secure carriage," said Natasha, as calmly as if directing the man to bring her a fresh cup of tea. "Bring the luggage for these guests. No further disturbances, please." She turned to Moira and spoke in English. "You have clean clothes? Should I organise this, too?"
Moira shook her head. "I'm fine, I've got what I need."
"I like her." Emma emerged from the conductor's room and whispered in Moira's ear. "She gets to the point."
"And I don't?" said Moira, in mild outrage. Her arms and legs ached, and a dozen or so small lacerations were beginning to sting.
*You are wonderful,* said Emma. *Stupidly brave and incredibly filthy, but wonderful.*
The secure carriage was some relic of steam-age travel: a small and elegant apartment on rails. There were separate bedrooms, an old-fashioned dressing room, a compact sitting room with velvet covered seats. And, of all things, a claw footed bath fixed to the floor of the tiny bathroom.
Emma eyed it covetously as it filled with scalding water from a copper tank in the corner of the room. "I should really go first. I mean, it will be useless to anyone else once you've put a toe in the water and filled it with mud." Steam wreathed her shoulders, and she looked positively infernal.
Moira turned her around by the shoulders. "If you go near my bath, I'll kill you." She pushed Emma out into the sitting room, where Natasha sat, scanning through their files with an intent expression. "Stay here, keep an eye on the Russian spy."
Emma frowned and leaned close, conspiratorially. "Is she safe, though?"
Natasha smiled as she read. "Don't worry, Miss Frost. I do not bite."
"I really hope that's not a metaphor," Emma closed the bathroom door. Moira locked the door then slipped into the steaming water, and let her muscles relax.
She must have dozed off, because the sound of breaking glass awoke her. She pushed up out of the bath, sloshing water all over the old, cracked tiles. An argument had broken out in the sitting room: Emma and Natasha shouting in Russian and English, with rising tones of anger. Moira snatched up a towel, and threw open the door.
Emma had Moira's gun trained on Natasha, though her attention wavered and her aim with it: she'd obviously had little experience with handguns. The pearlescent lampshade was smashed, and the exposed light globe danced crazily on the end of the cable.
Natasha stood by the carriage door with her hands outstretched, calm, though her body was tense. Moira had no doubt that she could dodge out of shot or even disarm Emma before a shot was fired, but she chose to stand very still.
"Your friend has misunderstood me," she said. "I'm sorry, I have not had a chance to explain the situation."
"We can't trust her," Emma kept the gun pointed in Natasha's direction. "What she's not telling you is that she has been telepathically compelled to bring me to Moscow. Those are her orders, and she cannot fail to carry them out."
Moira wrapped the towel around her more securely. She stepped up behind Emma, and reached around her for the gun. Natasha's breath was coming faster now, and she watched every move Moira made.
Moira's hands were warm against Emma's white knuckles. "Let me. Emma, you can stand down, I've got it." Moira gently peeled her fingers away and Emma shuddered.
"I'm not going back there," she said softly to Moira. "Never, ever again."
"I know," said Moira. She pushed down on Emma's arms, so the gun was pointed to the floor. "Let me cover her. Let me do it. You can trust me, remember?"
Emma took a shaky breath and loosened her grip on the gun. "Look at us," she said. She laughed, slightly hysterical. "We've all got minds full of holes. None of us are reliable."
"That's why we're doing this," said Moira, taking the gun. "We're going to make sure that they can't do this to anyone else. Now, I'm going to get dressed, and Natasha can explain what's going on."
Natasha carefully kept her hands free - a smart move, considering Emma's expression. The gun may be safely in Moira's hands, but nobody was weaponless in this carriage. Natasha sat down slowly.
"It is new, this process. My orders - whatever they are, lately - I cannot disobey them." Natasha's face was bitter. "As if I would not carry them out to the best of my ability. As if they cannot trust me." She hung her head, looked at her interlaced fingers. "I didn't even realise for a few months, you know? Because I am loyal. Because I trust my superior officers."
While she spoke, Moira struggled into a change of clothing. "How did you figure it out?" She tried to straighten her shirt, but it clung to her damp skin. Emma silently reached out and pulled the seams straight, tugged at the sleeves until they lined up along Moira's arms.
"Sometimes things don't follow the plan. Sometimes I want to turn left instead of right, to get to the same point. Small things, things that are better for the mission over all. But if it varies from the directive, I cannot do it." She thumped the heel of her hand against her chest. "I feel panicked, clenched up, even when I think about altering my actions. And if I actually try to step from the planned path of events, I black out. I don't know happens in that time but I wake up at the starting point."
Moira could tell that, despite herself, Emma was interested in the retelling. "Is that what you saw, Emma? In the sleeper compartment, when you looked in Natasha's mind."
"It could be," said Emma. She fussed primly with the cuff of Moira's shirt. "Not the specifics, but yes. There are lines in her mind, like telegraph wires, and they're impossible to cut or cross."
"What are your orders, Natasha? If you're able to tell us, I mean," said Moira.
Natasha gave a wry smile. "They did not tell me to keep my mission secret, foolishly. This is what I was told to do, after you made your appearance in Paris," she tilted her head, as if listening to a recording, "Subdue and transport the telepath, Emma Frost, to headquarters. Do not engage the attention of her CIA bodyguard. Meet resistance with lethal force." She turned to Moira. "This is why I shot at you, I am sorry. The more I am agitated, the less able I am to avoid engaging the commands. I'm afraid that having Miss Frost rummage in my mind was not the most calming sensation."
"Apology accepted," said Moira. "I don't find it very comfortable, myself."
Emma pouted, but she seemed more relaxed now, standing at Moira's shoulder. "How do they do it? Get the commands inside your head, I mean."
"There is a room," said Natasha. "A white room."
"I go in the room. There are doctors there, men in white coats. They tell me to put on a helmet. Not this one," Natasha pointed to the motorcycle helmet. "It sounds stupid, but the best comparison I can think of is at the salon. The hairdryer in the chair? Is there an English word for that?"
"And then what happens?" said Moira. She took Emma's hand in hers, behind her, where Natasha couldn't see the small gesture of comfort.
Natasha closed her eyes, remembering. "There is a buzzing noise, fairly soft. I hear a voice, reading the orders out to me. And then a strange feeling, a pressure in my head, like going up in an elevator."
"That's the telepathic component," said Emma. "They read the orders, then they press them into her mind, like fingers in pastry." Her face was grey. Moira pushed her gently towards a seat.
Natasha made a face. "So many horrible metaphors."
"Go on," said Moira. "We need to understand the whole procedure."
"The doctors tell me to visualise carrying out the orders when I hear the bell ring. We do this exercise three or four times."
Emma laughed, bitterly. "How Pavlovian of them. They're probably checking the circuitry, reinforcing the commands."
"And that is all." Natasha looked down at her hands. "For a while, I convinced myself it was just another motivational technique, you know? The kind of thing they tell the gymnasts, to give them a winning attitude. But I know now that it's something much more invasive. I hope I'm the first they've used it on. I don't want them to do it to others like me."
"Are there others like you?" Moira asked, suddenly curious.
Natasha nodded. "I was in a program, as a child. Like the gymnasts, we choose our spies early." She set her jaw. "I am a patriot, don't think for a moment I am disloyal. But to force loyalty? To distrust it so much that you must compel it? That's no way to build a nation."
"Don't worry," said Moira. "As soon as we've taken this project down, we can be enemies again."
The first argument didn't come until they were in a car depot outside of Moscow.
"I'll drive," said Moira, walking around the armoured sedan with a calculating eye. "It's one thing for you to pretend to be taking us in as prisoners, but there's no way for us to tell if and when the telepathic programming is going to take over. I don't want to suddenly be your prisoner for real."
"There's no way we can fool all of the security checks with you at the wheel," Natasha protested. "Your Russian is good - for a tourist. And besides, they will recognise me."
Emma held out her hands, wrists crossed. "Cuff me, and sit in the back to keep me secure," she said. "I'm the one who is supposed to be your prisoner. Put Moira in a uniform or one of those incredibly ugly suits your women wear. You look down your nose at her with that wonderful supercilious expression you use so often, and everyone will defer to you. She'll never even need to open her mouth. And I can monitor you telepathically, as well as keeping us all in communication."
Moira grinned at Natasha's conflicted expression, and opened the driver's door. Emma had a real knack for subterfuge.
*Comes with the territory, darling,* said Emma. *I'm used to seeing the deviousness that goes on behind kind smiles.* She held out her hands while Natasha put the cuffs on.
Domodedovo was a series of industrial estates, row after row of pre-fabricated concrete warehouses and factories. Natasha directed them effortlessly to a low, long building surrounded by high fences topped with razor wire. The security guards took her papers, checked in with their radios, then waved them through the gate.
Moira put the car into gear and moved it slowly over the grill. "That was less gruelling than I expected."
"Nobody asks too many questions around here," said Natasha as she unlocked Emma's cuffs. "As long as they've done their duty, it's best not to look too deeply." She left the cuffs on, but the hasps open.
"I'd be horrified if it wasn't just as bad at home." Moira followed the yellow line painted on the narrow road as it led them to a set of large glass doors. She parked the car and leaned over the seat to confer with her team.
Emma's face was grim as she looked around. "I've definitely been here before. I think I remember… it was after a party in Moscow with Shaw. That bastard must have put something in my drink because it gets very weird after that."
"Shouldn't someone be coming to meet us?" Moira had left the headlights on, and they shone right into the central lobby of the building. The lights were down in the lobby though upper floors were well lit. There were no guards at the door.
Natasha swore softly. "Something is wrong."
"I don't care, I want answers." Emma pushed her door open, and flung the cuffs to the ground. She shifted to her diamond form. "Let's see them hurt me now."
Moira and Natasha looked at each other for a moment, then scrambled after her, guns drawn and low. Before she left the car, though, Moira hooked the anti-telepathic helmet through the visor. If the Russians were delivering orders telepathically, it wouldn't hurt to have a little extra protection.
The doors sat an inch open. The security camera over the door was turned to face the sky, diligently recording the clouds and not the people passing beneath it.
Emma's diamond surface flickered briefly as she let it slide for a moment. "I've scanned the building; it's empty. There's something - animals, I think? - up on the third floor. Lots of animals, small things."
"A lab?" said Moira. A lab was promising. Scientists kept records. Records were concrete, something she could carry home to the States.
Emma shrugged and moved to slip between the doors. Natasha caught her by the elbow. "Let me." With a glance in Moira's direction, she took the lead. Moira gave Emma a little push, then followed, bringing up the rear.
Moira and Natasha worked well together: Natasha checked and cleared each turn in the corridor while Moira ran defence and made sure they weren't ambushed from behind. They took the stairs, moving quickly and silently to the third floor. Emma stayed in the middle of their protective detail, with an expression of determination as they climbed.
Every camera they passed was turned away, and every door they tried was unlocked. It was eerily easy to move to the third floor, and by the time that Natasha pushed the door to the labs open, Moira's skin was crawling. The smell of straw and animals was oddly organic after the clinical, dust-free corridors. The room was lined with stacks of cages, and inside, rabbits and mice scuttled and rustled amongst the bedding.
As Natasha crossed the threshold and down the first aisle of cages, the room fell silent, as you'd expect from startled animals. It took Moira a few seconds to understand what was actually happening: as they passed each cage, the rabbits, rats and mice stood perfectly still, staring with calm, unblinking eyes at the intruders.
Emma tapped at a cage, and the rabbit inside launched itself at her finger, hurling its body against the wire as it snarled. Natasha's gun swung around automatically to cover the animal, but Emma blocked her with a diamond arm. She slipped back to her natural form.
"It's telepathically controlled," she said. "Natasha, I think it would be prudent for you to give up the gun now." She held out her hand.
Natasha glared at her. "I do not give up my weapon for anyone."
"She's right, Natasha." Moira holstered her gun and held up her own hands to show this wasn't an attack, but a compromise. "Look, you have telepathically implanted commands. I know how you'd feel if they used that control to make you hurt one of us."
Natasha rubbed a hand across her forehead, then handed her gun to Emma. "What should I look out for, if they are asserting their control?"
"There will have to be a command of some sort," said Emma, as they walked on. "Obviously if you hear any voices in your head - besides mine, of course - you should tell me. Otherwise, look out for feelings of dissociation, a sense that things aren't real."
Moira watched a pair of rats stand on their hind legs to look at them as they passed. "I'm kind of having that feeling right now, to be honest."
"No, darling. That's plain old paranoia."
Natasha laughed. "I believe that it's not paranoia if they really are out to get you." With that, the atmosphere in the room eased a little. Emma gingerly flicked on the safety on Natasha's gun, and tucked it into her purse, and they moved closer to the end of the room.
Ahead there was a heavy steel door with a small observation window, through which they could see that the walls were painted white. Natasha set her chin, and advanced on the door, one hand twitching towards her empty holster. As she reached for the handle, though, a light above the door blinked into life. It pulsed and strobed with an odd rhythm that made Moira's head ache. Morse was a signal, she remembered suddenly. Signals could be delivered in flashing lights.
"Don't look at the light!" she shouted, and pushed Natasha aside. The two of them stumbled into the wall beside the door, and Natasha cried out as her head struck the bricks. Moira lay on top of her body for a moment, waiting for her to struggle or resist, but there was no movement.
"Natasha?" Moira reached down to shake her shoulder, wondering if the impact had knocked her out. "Are you okay?"
"I am fine," said Natasha, slowly, wriggling out from beneath her. "I don't feel anything strange, though. No compulsion to do anything. Maybe the signal isn't working?"
Something cold brushed against Moira's neck, something round and metallic and horribly familiar. There was a moment of realisation: of course Emma was as vulnerable as Natasha here, how had they not seen it?
Emma pressed the gun in closer. She had shed the diamond form, and there was an expression of concentration on her face. "The signal is working just fine, I'm afraid. There's someone weaselling into my mind and I won't be able to hold her off for long. I think, if you're at all able, you should probably run. Whoever it is has had me call for backup." From the other end of the room, Moira could hear the orderly tramp of boots, as armed guards filed into the room.
"Down!" It was the only command Natasha had time to fire out before she swept Emma's legs out from under her and barrelled her to the ground. Moira leapt sideways, and took cover under a row of cages. Above her, rats screamed in outrage as Emma's body flew into a wall of cages, freeing panicked animals to scamper over the floor.
Behind them, the guards opened fire. Bullets bounced off equipment, while Emma stood calm amongst the ricochets. Moira scrambled away with her head down, praying for good luck. When she came to rest behind a bank of sinks, she found Natasha there, wrapping a towel around her bleeding arm with businesslike efficiency. Between her knees, she held her gun - at least Emma was unarmed.
*I am never unarmed.* The mental contact ripped into Moira's mind, and she realised suddenly how much Emma modulated her telepathic contact, because this was not Emma speaking. This touch blistered with the quick burn of electricity, and the words were crisp and metropolitan Russian. Beside Moira, Natasha gave a low moan and pressed her fingers to her temples.
"Remember, she can't use her powers if she's in diamond form," Moira whispered, and pushed the anti-telepathic helmet in Natasha's direction. "If she's not in diamond form, then she's physically vulnerable. Try to knock her out."
*Why whisper? I can hear everything you're thinking. Stupid woman.* Emma's boots clicked over the concrete floor, and the guards followed her in an arrowhead formation, the vee of a flock of birds.
Moira rallied everything Emma had taught her about shielding. "Well, come and get it, then." She dangled tantalising thoughts, things she'd want to know if she were a Russian spymaster or whoever was controlling Emma right now. Codes - out of date, probably, but never mind - the layout of the Pentagon, the location of three safehouses in North Dakota.
Natasha pushed the helmet over her head and disappeared, scurrying as silently as the rats suddenly freed from their cages.
*Where is Agent Romanov?* Emma's voice roared through Moira's mind, ignoring everything else. *What have you done?*
Moira concentrated on building up the mental shields - a wall, a brick wall, a double brick wall with lead between each layer - and let Emma roam over memories. She seemed most fascinated with images of herself: Emma crouching down low in the footwell of the stolen Mercedes in Paris, Emma kissing her in a candlelit room, Emma smoothing Moira's hair down on the train to Berlin, Emma lounging on the moth-eaten velvet sofa of the special car to Moscow.
*You think about her too much. She doesn't care about you.* The voice was oddly petulant. It suddenly occurred to Moira that a spymaster wouldn't have turned off the surveillance cameras. A spymaster wouldn't need to control guards like so many tin soldiers.
"I could think about Emma more, if you're so interested," said Moira. "I mean, who am I to judge how you get your kicks?" She thought hard about the way Emma's skirt brushed against the white hose she loved to wear, or the fastidious way she applied lipstick, slow and with loving care. The way that lipstick felt, pressed against her own mouth.
Emma stepped in front of her, arms crossed and eyes burning. *No. It's time for you to stop."
Moira felt her head throb, as if all the hangovers in all the world were suddenly coming home to roost. Her carefully constructed shields tore, as easily as tissue paper, and the pressure brought blackness.
Emma was in the white room, and there were no doors. Her dress was cotton lawn trimmed with lace, a child's dress. The skirt flared as she spun, looking for an exit.
*Very nice,* she said. *You've constructed a very nice little prison for me. As square and white as Wonder Bread. Well done. You win a gold star.* Somewhere, out where her body was someone's puppet, her friends were in trouble. The frustration made her seethe.
A soft noise came from somewhere, a scratching rustle. The layers of her memory rippled and bulged, pages in a book infested with silverfish. Emma laughed and flexed her mind, slamming the book shut.
*Naughty little girls should ask before they go poking around where they're not wanted.* She paused. *I'm prepared to negotiate, you know. Why don't you ask me a question? Maybe I can find the answers for you. Consider me a librarian. The sexy kind, though. No dumpy woollen stockings for me.*
There was a moment of silence, then thought rushed through her. *WHERE IS IT? WHERE IS YOUR KEY?* Anger hung in the air, and a horrified kind of panic. The walls, so crisp and white before, sagged in the corners.
*Haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about, darling.* Emma aimed her foot at a weak spot, and poked experimentally. The telepathic construct of the wall stretched under the impact, and through the gap there was darkness, dust and solitude. *Let's see what's really out here, shall we?* She grabbed a corner of the barrier and pulled; it tore like a mouldy shower curtain.
Somewhere in the darkness, someone screamed. Emma stepped out into nothing and went in search of answers.
Moira woke with the taste of metal in her mouth, and scrubbed at the blood drying on her upper lip. She was propped against the painted wall of the laboratory. In front of her, Natasha stood guard, gun trained on the immobile bodies of the guards.
"Are you all right?" Natasha spoke loud enough that Moira could hear through the visor of the helmet. "You had a seizure. Everyone except me had a seizure. I am waiting to see if anyone else wakes up."
There wasn't even a tremor in her voice, thought Moira. Moira didn't know if she would be so calm, if she was the only person standing in this room. She scrambled to her feet, and leaned against the wall for a moment as her vision swam. "Where's Emma?"
Natasha shook her head. "I don't know. I lost contact with her in the fire fight." She nodded towards the heavy metal door, which now stood ajar. "That seems the most likely place."
"Right," said Moira. Her head was pounding, and she wasn't sure her nose had finished bleeding. "Rescue mission, then?"
Natasha gave one of the unconscious soldiers an exploratory kick to the stomach. He didn't flinch or move. She holstered her gun, and turned to Moira. "Let's go."
The odd thing, Emma thought as she walked, wasn't that she was much less afraid of this place than she expected. The oddness came from the familiarity of it, the way that being here in this textureless, soundless darkness felt like home.
*It is your home,* said the voice. The words hung in the airless void in front of Emma, a brief blaze of light that faded quickly.
Emma threw out telepathic tendrils in an attempt to find the location of this other mind that had trapped her, but the darkness was directionless, and the voice was everywhere. Ah, well. Engaging with the intelligence was the only option.
*Why do you say it's my home?* Emma cast the thought outwards as a net. *You've picked through my memories; you've seen my home.*
A locus of thought coalesced before her, a young woman, slender and wrapped in the simple white of a hospital gown. Through her long black hair wove cables and wires which slipped under the skin at her temples. Numbers scrolled down the dark of her eyes. *It must be your home. You locked me in here long ago.* She shook her head, a very human gesture. Emma was reassured that this was a living avatar, not some otherworldly hallucination.
She spoke Russian, this woman, though they were beyond the point where language posed any sort of barrier. Identity is concrete, though, and Emma reached out to touch that part of the woman that remembered dressing for school, kissing Mama goodbye, and the day that the men came for the best of the students.
*Five years,* said Emma. *Five years since they took you from your class. Sad, and perhaps a reflection of your country's policies, but nothing to do with me.*
The woman laughed, a dry huffing noise that had little to do with vocalisation. *A year since you closed the world around me.*
Emma counted the months since Moscow, and in reflection, the memories spooled backwards all around them. A year ago, she had been on Shaw's arm at a cocktail party in Moscow. She stepped into the memory, watched as Shaw swirled something into a glass of champagne and handed it to her past self with a knowing smile.
*Weasel,* she said with scorn, though she was angrier at herself for not skimming the intention from the surface of his mind in the first place. She shut the memory down with a snap. *Well, that answers the question, doesn't it? They brought us both here, made us build our own prisons. Yes, this is my telepathic construct, but they made you use it to program my mind.* She sighed. *It's pathetic, the lengths to which warmongers will go to get themselves off. They could have saved millions just by asking us to make out.*
*I don't understand.* The poor woman was right to be confused.
She patted the woman's arm, and let the cables snake around her wrist. *You don't need the key to escape, my dear. You are the key.*
*Oh! I see it!* The woman opened her eyes very wide, and the cables flew outwards, forming a starburst behind her.
All around them, the darkness folded in on itself. She was standing in a white room, but this time, Moira's hands were on her shoulders while Natasha stood guard at the door. On a purpose-built table, wired into a wall of computers, the woman with dark hair blinked herself awake.
Emma resisted the urge to preen. Dignity was everything, after all.
Her name was Sage, or so Emma said. Natasha sniffed, and said it was a poor translation, but it would suffice. Moira was just glad to see that complex falling away in the rear vision mirror. The billowing smoke and flames were just icing on the cake, though Emma seemed to enjoy the lesson in demolitions.
Destroying the complex was very nearly the last thing they did as a team. Natasha was adamant that this kind of program could not continue in her country anymore. Without Sage to function as the human lynchpin, it seemed unlikely that Karpov would be able to rebuild.
"But if I hear of anything that would indicate other such measures are being investigated, I will make contact." Natasha stood in the train compartment while passengers moved up and down the corridors outside, securing their luggage and saying goodbye to family.
"It cannot be done, not this way," said Sage. "The data is corrupt; I made sure of it." She turned to Emma on the seat. "They had little understanding of my capabilities. I was able to program the Black Widow to find you and bring you here, and they suspected nothing."
"Underestimating us is a common problem, you'll find." Emma examined her nails in the watery Moscow sunlight streaming in through the railcar window. "Easy enough to turn that flaw to our advantage." She patted Sage on the leg in an encouraging manner. "But you figured that out all by yourself."
Sage sat on the seat, leaning against the glass of the window. She was still weak, physically, after a year of confinement to a hospital bed, and if her long hair wasn't falling forward across her face, the places where the electrodes had been drilled into her skull would be clearly visible. She was healing, though. They were all healing.
Natasha put a hand on the door, and Moira stood to join her.
"Thank you for everything you've done," she said.
Natasha smiled, a wide, feral grin. "Thank you for the opportunity to infiltrate capitalist intelligence. I've got a lot to report on. Karpov will lose his career for this failure. What Sage has given me will keep me safe, I think."
Moira shrugged. "There's always defection," she said, slyly, then laughed at Natasha's expression of mock outrage. She held out her hand to shake that of her Russian counterpart.
Natasha ignored the hand, and threw her arms around Moira's shoulders, squeezing her hard. She planted a kiss on Moira's lips. "I am glad that we can work together - we'll build a better world, despite the men in charge."
*The men who think they're in charge,* said Emma, from her seat next to Sage.
Moira looked at her team and smiled. The future seemed very bright from where she was standing.