Title: Vera
Author: Laras_Dice
E-mail: laras_dice@yahoo.com
Website URL: http://www.geocities.com/laras_dice
Feedback: Absolutely. Feedback and constructive criticism are always welcome.
Distribution: CD always, otherwise please let me know.
Disclaimer: I own nothing and love Alias. So don't sue me! Alias is owned by ABC and was created by JJ Abrams and Bad Robot, not Lara. Sigh.
Summary: The return of a former lover changes Vaughn's perspective.
Rating: Most chapters R, one NC-17. I will warn you when I get there.
Classification: Drama/Angst/Action
Author's Notes: These are general notes. More specific chapter-based notes and other miscellaneous stuff can be found at the end of the fic, and that file will be updated as the chapters are. Vera means "trust" in Russian. The story takes place after the events of ATY, in a pretty alternate summer universe. Massive huge thanks to Thorne, for talking me off the ledge time and time again, the occasional much-needed smacking, and for her Russian consultant and mad beta skills. Thanks also to Robin for her wonderful beta. A big shout out to the AIM gang: Celli, Diana, Jenai, Jess, and everyone else who's helped me out through this monster. This would not have been written without all of your support and encouragement, so thanks. :-)

[— Prologue —]

A Shift in Priorities

"SD-6 discourages fraternization among agents."

"So does the CIA."

———

It was called "Red Balloon" by the few that knew the name.

There is a slight possibility that whoever named the project had a sick sense of humor. It began in 1987, three years after the German band Nena had a hit with the nuclear protest song, "99 Luftballoons (99 Red Balloons)." It is more likely that the name is a coincidence, conjured by a scientist with no time for — or access to — Western pop music.

In the days of the Soviet Union, the name did not grace American ears. Occasionally, a rare intelligence report would float the possibility that the Russians were working on a weapon of mass destruction, something that would make the atom bomb look like the puny kid that always got picked last for kickball. The sources of the reports never lived long beyond that.

The Central Intelligence Agency learned of the name when the Soviet Union splintered, spilling secrets from its cracks, to reveal a more vulnerable Russia. The feared KGB became the FSB — not so feared, not so impenetrable.

They emerged shortly after capitalism took root, willing to talk for the right kind of compensation. Agents who got the new Russian economy and — unlike the rest of their countrymen — had something valuable to sell. By their accounts, Red Balloon was nothing more than a glorified nuclear bomb, something to be feared, but nothing to upset that age-old equation that factored down to MAD.

MAD was Mutual Assured Destruction. It was about overkill — two countries with enough nuclear weapons to reduce each other to radioactive dust. MAD was the foundation of the Cold War, and it made it unwinnable.

It also kept it from escalating.

———

Dimitry knew nothing about Red Balloon, and he had never heard the song. They paid him to pace along a barbed wire fence with a rifle slung over his shoulder every day, and he considered himself lucky for that, given the state of his country. This was his second year in the Russian army, and he had learned during his first that you were rewarded for doing what you were told and not asking any questions.

Inside the barbed wire fence was a small concrete bunker. Once white, it had chipped and chunked away under the duress of Siberian winters until it was a steel gray, pocked with remnants of its original color. There was some sort of underground structure below the bunker, Dimitry knew, because once a month a large group of men came here — too many to fit comfortably in the tiny mottled lump, but somehow they always did.

It was not that time of month — that had been last week — and today for Dimitry was to be just another day of pacing the fence. His shift started at six in the morning, an hour before the regular crew arrived — a team of four, three wearing thick-lensed, dark-framed glasses, all crammed into a jeep.

He longed for new boots. They had run out of his size in the last shipment, shoved a smaller pair in his arms and let the mass of of other soldiers push him along the line, toward the socks. The leather had stretched somewhat, but his toes still protested, every step sore.

There were four like him, each covering one side of a large square fence, brandishing rifles they had not fired in months, aging equipment they cleaned when they weren't too exhausted. Twelve hours on — pace, pace, pace — twelve off. They stopped for food twice during the day, at precise times, and ate under the cover of a cluster of pine trees. One always stayed on guard, rifle ready, but their orders were strict: stay beneath the trees unless there was an eminent threat.

Around seven, the crew passed him, forcing clouds of dust from the dirt road that ran along his fence. As usual, they did not acknowledge his presence. The fence gate jingled open and they followed the road over a small hill, parking in another cluster of trees. These provided protection from the satellites that had never crossed Dimitry's mind.

He continued pacing until the shots rang out. Two guards, on either side of the bunker doors, guns pointed at the jeep, spouting yellow starbursts until there were four bodies on the ground. Dimitry shifted the rifle on his shoulder, readied it, commanded his trigger finger to stop shaking, and contemplated his next move.

He was supposed to pace the fence, not make split-second decisions on who the enemy was. The guards had looked no different than usual, standing black-clad on either side of the bunker's door in their futile attempt to surreptitiously guard the place. But the team in the jeep drove past him every day. Every day, the same four men, now all dead.

Dimitry was probably dead now, too, unless he started running. His feet were too sore for that, and they had instilled some sense of responsibility — pride of country, perhaps — in him during his first year. Instead, he aimed his rifle at the guards. His aim was off, and they were too far away, over the hill and protected by the pines. Beyond the fence gate that had locked behind the jeep.

He was supposed to pace the fence. This was not supposed to happen.

———

World history in the twentieth century boils down to counting the mushroom clouds. On August 16, 1945, the United States dropped a bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. A mushroom cloud from that. On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb. Another mushroom cloud.

After the first mushroom cloud, it became the express purpose of the Office of Strategic Services, and then its predecessor — the Central Intelligence Agency — to see how far away the second was. After the second, it became the understated purpose of the CIA to keep a mushroom cloud from appearing over American soil. It was the underlying threat. It was Why They Were There, as agents were told during training.

Nobody at the CIA was sure if Red Balloon would make a mushroom cloud.

Word came first through back channels. A site in Siberia they had considered hot for years. Nothing visible during the satellite passes — the Russians were still too good for that — but too many tire tracks in the dirt road leading to the old bunker for it to merely be an old bunker.

One of their operatives in Russia reported that the site was under fire, confirmed later by satellite. A few in Analysis raised the possibility that this was a research site.

This was confirmed later, diplomatically. The Russians would not identify the exact nature of the research, and didn't have any conjectures as to who had infiltrated it. Said nuclear material was missing, and left it at that.

Someone in Analysis mentioned Red Balloon.

Everyone panicked, regardless.

———

No country would dare nuke America. You don't mess with MAD, shake the equation out of balance.

No country would fly planes into American skyscrapers. MAD assumes traditional warfare. MAD assumes rationality. MAD assumes there is another country to mutually destroy.

People had flown planes into skyscrapers. Set new precedents, changed the rules. MAD was brushed aside like old friends when a new lover comes into the picture.

There were priorities, and then there were Priorities. This was the latter. Things got shifted down the ladder quickly.

Milo Rambaldi? Reclassified as centuries-old bullshit.

SD-6? Moved to a skeleton crew.

They were not priorities. They were not Why They Were There.

———

This is how what was once a powerhouse becomes strangely irrelevant.

There are 12 members in the Alliance of Twelve again. The newest is Arvin Sloane. Since the death of his wife, he is even more quiet, determined. His eyes have become cold prisms, focusing the whole of his organization on one project: Milo Rambaldi.

SD-6 learned of the Circumference two weeks after the CIA reclassified it and filed it away. Three weeks after the CIA nearly lost two agents (and SD-6, unwittingly, one) to the Rambaldi project that once was the finish line in a global intelligence race.

Most of the runners have now dropped out.

[— End Prologue —]