A Promising Start

June 19, 2017:

In which Agent Phil Coulson interrogates two recovered Icarus Dynamics pilots for any sort of useful intelligence, and finds a veritable mountain of valuable information.

New York City - The Triskelion

The Headquarters, Armory and Fortress of the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics division is, for the most part, an unassailable tower in the midst of the diplomatic sprawl that is Midtown East. The primary intelligence clearing houses and most of SHIELD's senior leadership are all housed hear, along with a veritable army of agents and staff to keep the place running, the world spinning and the weirdness at bay.


NPCs: Mikhail Nikolayevich Makarov, Viktoria Dmitrievna Ryakhina

Mentions: Isa Reichert

Mood Music: None.

Fade In…

No matter how advanced technology is, hospitals still manage to look the same the world over. Aside from the equipment in the action areas, things are pretty comfortingly normal even in SHIELD's medical facilities. That's a good thing, and sets at ease some people who might be otherwise put under strain by something different and foreign.

It might be why Mikhail Nikolayevich Makarov hasn't been freaking out as much as he probably could be. Then again, he's been miserable since Tony Stark turned custody of him and his fellow co-pilot, Viktoria Dmitrievna Ryakhina, over to SHIELD. They'd both been in various states of poisoned. Their systems had been riddled with long-term dosages of an addictive toxin that heightened performance, reflexes, and enabled the human body to endure more extreme environments – like piloting. It was also extremely addictive. He'd been further along in the program, it seems, and he'd been in much rougher shape. Stark had given him an estimate of one to three months to live without treatment and detox. The doctor that had been treating him since had given him one.

Mikhail had spent the night ashen-faced and miserable, caught in the throes of withdrawal, and for several days more he had been unable to answer any questions. Now, days after being dragged here by Stark, he looks a bit more human. He's still ashen-faced, but he has control of his facilities, and he's not raving like a lunatic – quite calm, actually, although he still obviously doesn't feel too well, to go by how haggard he looks.

Even in a hospital bed, with wires and tubes running every which way and the unflattering light of the fluorescents, Mikhail Nikolayevich Makarov is a handsome sort of fellow, with short blonde hair, mild blue eyes, and almost, but not quite, boyish features. He looks younger than the thirty-nine years on his chart, although at this specific moment, thanks to the effects of the Tchernobog's cocktail, perhaps a bit older.

He has a clipboard some nurse has helpfully provided him with, and he's working on an English crossword puzzle with the dogged determination of the stubborn. A glance at its contents would prove that he's not having a very good go of it. Either he's not as good with English as his wife is, or he's just not able to think straight yet. Maybe a little of both.

Still, the man's been nothing but quiet, passive, and completely cooperative with anyone who's taken the time to work with him, as long as he's had his wits about him. At least there's that. Whoever gets the fun task of interrogation duty might not have to threaten him with a sharp object to get answers. Hopefully.

Phil isn't really fond of the sharp objects method. It's against the Geneva Convention, and it provides crap in terms of real answers. He is, however, fond of the manipulation method, that makes people talk to him because they understand that talking to him is in their best interests. But he'd waited, and bided his time, because obviously Makarov required medical care. He does have a moment of nagging guilt…he'd almost written this fellow off. Someone unworthy of saving, someone who had really willfully turned. At the end of the day, though, the man was just trapped.

He has sent everyone away. He comes in and takes the chair next to the bed. He glances at the crossword puzzle. "Huh."

Pause. Beat.

"Not bad, but you spelled 'lead' correctly and misspelled 'zeppelin', so the whole puzzle's thrown. Try it again with L-E-D, Z-E-P-P-E-L-I-N. Might get better results."

Mikhail looks up from his puzzle, frowning as someone takes a seat. The man isn't familiar to him, at least not right away. The light of recognition flickers across his features a moment later. "<You. You are the agent from Barcelona,>" he says in Russian, and his expression turns apologetic. "<I think. I am sorry. I do not remember things so well, right now.>"

It's all a little bit fuzzy. His eyes tick down to the puzzle again, frowning as he works that answer out in his head. It takes him a few seconds.

Looking up again, Mikhail studies the other agent. The blonde pilot doesn't look too different from the last time he'd been spotted, except he looks even more haggard. His complexion is more ashen than normal; he's clearly still fighting his way through detox. Whatever Icarus is using, it must be pretty awful.

His brows furrow. "<I do not think you came here just to offer help with your American crossword puzzles.>" He smiles a wan smile. "<What can I do for you, Comrade Agent?>"

"<Huh. You must not remember the bomb you either planted in my apartment or allowed to have planted in my apartment then,>" Phil says mildly. "<That was pretty embarrassing. I mean whew.>"

But his mild mannered dorky commentary can't last long. He lays it out on the table.

"<Right now, you're in an interesting position. You've taken actions against SHIELD, which means we could take some action right back. But…we getting the impression there were mitigating circumstances.>"

He's doing, it might be noted, his Phil Random Agent act. Some middle of the road guy, if this guy doesn't recognize him. He has taken off his shirt jacket and sits there in his shirt sleeves; a light blue dress shirt that does even more to reinforce the idea that he's Nobody Special, making him even more immenently forgetable than usual.

"<I want you to tell me your side of the story. Start to finish, leaving nothing out, about how you came to be entangled with Icarus Dynamics, what you know of their operations, their Heliosphere, their people, their facilities…all of it. You do that, I'll see what sorts of arrangements I can make. Hold back on me, and I'm afraid I'll be forced to remand you to one of our black sites. After giving Agent Raisa Ivanovna about 5 unsupervised minutes with you.>"

Bomb? Mikhail frowns even more deeply. He can remember staying in the apartment, after he had arrived in the country. He could also remember being shadowed by someone, presumably Icarus, although it could have been a Russian or Hydra operative…

He doesn't say anything when Random Agent Phil tells him that he's in an interesting position. Going by how hangdog he's been with anybody who's needed to interact with him, he must expect to be in a much worse position than the one he's in.

Down to brass tacks, then. Mikhail's frown lessens just a little, but it stays there. One hand rises a bit to rub at the line of his jaw, thoughtfully, and it's enough to remind him that he needs a shave. A luxury he can enjoy. Later, though. Something more serious flickers across those blue eyes. Most of the time he looks like he's subtly amused at something, but right now he's all business.

The name garners a flicker of sorrow.

"<Let me have five minutes with Raisa Ivanovna, Comrade Agent,>" he says softly, folding his newspaper and putting it aside with his pen, "<and I will tell you anything and everything you need to know about Icarus Dynamics.>" His expression darkens, just a little. "<I have no loyalty to them at all.>"

This man and the man that had spoken over St. Petersburg are as night and day. Where over St. Petersburg he had been arrogant, overbearing, possessive of Raisa, he speaks much more cautiously now. He is diffident and respectful, polite; cooperative. He speaks of Raisa in a tone of pain and regret, like someone who knows they've gone past the point of no return.

"<I'm not sure she's not going to beat you within an inch of your life. You won't be able to tell me anything if she puts you in a coma, so I suggest you talk first, and then I will see what I can do.>"

Phil is gentle but uncompromising in this. He isn't budging. Raisa is one of the pieces of leverage he can hold over Makarov. He's going to hold it there. The part of him that isn't guilty still thinks Makrov isn't entirely innocent either. In the end, his judgments don't even matter. He has a job to do, and that job is to get the information as quickly as possible.

"<You went to them willingly,>" he says, a shot in the dark, but one that is said as a statement. "<Icarus Dynamics didn't stuff your head in a bag, pump you full of chemicals and force you to join their ranks. The chemicals and such came later.>"

Either the man will guiltily agree, or angrily deny and set the record straight. Either way, Phil gets this conversation rolling in the direction he wants. Unless, he supposes, Makarov clams right up, which is the third possibility as he sees it.

"<Oh, I know she's going to beat me within an inch of my life,>" Mikhail says, quietly, reasonably. "<But she has earned that right, and I would not hide and keep her from it. But I did not mean right now, Comrade Agent. You are here to talk to me now. But… eventually,>" he adds, wistfully. "<I would like to see her again.>"

Well, for a few seconds, before she puts him six feet under, anyway. It'd be nice. Apparently he has no qualms about owning up to the fact that she's going to damned well try to put him six feet under. It seems he wouldn't expect any less from her.

He looks guarded as Phil takes a shot in the dark. It finds its mark. Mikhail's expression falls a little, and he exhales, leaning his head back. "<No. That is, yes. They did not need to stuff my head into a bag. But going to them, it was a mistake.>" He looks away from Phil; the avoidance of a guilty conscience. "<I thought I could secure our future. Raisa Ivanovna and I. We knew we could not fly forever. They made me an offer I would have been insane to refuse. Instead,>" he says, mildly, self-depreciatingly, "<I was insane to take it.>"

"<Yes, the chemicals came later, but not by much. When they learned I had objections to what they were doing, they threatened my wife. When I knew they did not have her in their care, they knew there was not much they could threaten me with.>" His eyes open; he stares, unfocused, at the ceiling. Why do hospitals always have the same kind of ceiling? "<This was five years ago,>" he adds, tilting his head to eye Phil. "<The beginning of February, I think.>"

"<It was not so bad at first. Routine work, flights and logged hours. The test flights came later, and it was not until I began working directly with prototypes that I understood the magnitude of the nightmare.>"

"<Go on,>" Phil says. He has a notion about Makarov. He has a sense that once he has primed the pump all he really needs to do is be someone who will listen. This seems like a man ready to tell his story, ready to spill it out for him to hear. If he interrupts, Makarov might well get off track, which is the last thing he wants. This man may be the single best source of information that he has. He just needs to keep him from getting overwrought, really, and ensure that he is as thorough as possible, question inconsistencies, go over everything. For now, though, he's content to just listen to the narrative as told.

His posture is relaxed, sympathetic. He mirrors, ever so subtely, the man's body language, a thing that helps to build a nonverbal sense of rapport. It takes a lot of time and training to learn how to do it when the other person is in a different position – say, lying down versus sitting up – how to do it, as well, without making it obvious, or making it into a mockery of the other person. Phil, of course, has had decades to practice this, and now he doubts anyone but another spy of equal skill could ever pick up on the subtle cues.

"<At first they said the chemicals were boosters, to fight the physiological effects of G-force. Stimulants, to keep the mind sharp and focused in flight. If you are even a fraction of a second faster than your enemy… you are the one still in the sky after they have been shot down. If you can turn harder, faster; it is you on your enemy's tail.>" Mikhail's mouth preses into a thin, unhappy line. "<We were told the drugs were for that, because even the first prototypes were so far ahead of their contemporaries.>"

"<Then they stopped telling us anything,>" he says, quietly. "<By then it was too late. By the time they gave us a choice, we did not refuse. We had already been addicted, we unlucky few chosen to pilot the Heliosphere.>"

"<That was how they controlled us. It did what they said it would do, at first. It sharpened the mind. Enhanced the reflexes. Our perceptions were running fast enough that it seemed it was the world that was slow,>" Mikhail explains, still in that soft tone of voice, as though he were hesitant to speak too loudly. "<That was wonderful, for the few hours you were in the air. But the body was never meant to handle such stresses, even with such chemicals.>"

"<What they did not tell us was that our bodies were beginning to break down from them, after only a few years of constant exposure. We were never meant to last. Icarus is not interested in recruiting loyal pilots because they have found out how to get around loyalty,>" he adds, in a tone of voice equal parts horror and disgust.

"<Comrade Agent, it is the stuff of nightmares, once you realise what you have gotten yourself into. Because there is no way out. The thing they have created is invariably lethal to the pilot who stops taking it.>" Those mild blue eyes settle on Phil, brow furrowed. "<The only reason that Viktoria Dmitrievna and I are not in the throes of withdrawal is because you are extending help to us… for which I must thank you.>"

"<I had already been taken off the pilot roster for nearly a week,>" he explains. "<I suppose I must have irritated someone in the corporate hierarchy somehow. Anyway, I was already feeling quite sick by the time I reached Murmansk. By the time your man Comrade Tony fished me from the region, I was beginning to lose my battle against the effects. By the time we reached New York City, I was praying for a swift death, maybe. The nausea is not the worst, but it makes everything so much more… unpleasant.>"

He clears his throat, lying back and looking at the ceiling again, which has not made itself any more interesting in the interim. "<Never mind the mental effects. Comrade Agent, you are not the same man when the Heliosphere's control substance is in your veins. You cannot think clearly. Details are not clear. You even become delusional.>"

"<I came to New York at first because I wanted to get away from Icarus, and the only way I could see how to do that was to talk to SHIELD. But I was being followed. Icarus is a jealous organisation, and there is no leaving them, not unless you are in a coffin.>" He drums his fingers against the sheet, frowning. "<I was found after I left your apartment. Not very long, either. Less than three hours.>"

Mikhail looks to Phil, worried. "<You say that I left a bomb, there, but I do not remember doing that, Comrade Agent. Why would I? You were trying to help me, and I was too frightened to stay in one place, so I left. The only thing I can imagine is that whoever was tasked to recapture me – I was drugged again, so I'm sorry to say that I do not remember much – must have left it behind. Unless I am hallucinating knowing how to build one. I am a pilot, and at best a passable one; not an explosives expert. I would not know how to go about starting.>"

He leans back, closing his eyes. "<What else do you want to know? And have you spoken yet to Viktoria Dmitrievna? She is another test pilot, too. We do not get along. But I do not doubt that she has different information. I suspect that Icarus must compartmentalise aspects of their projects, so it is possible that she knows things about it that I do not; just as I know things about it that I am certain she does not.>"

He glances back over. "<What else can I tell you?>"

"<Yes, you should not have left the apartment,>" Phil says severely. "<They never would have found it or you had you simply stayed put. But yes. I believe you on that score. We know who built it.>"

He listens to the rest, then says, "<I will be speaking to both of you.>"

That's all the information he's willing to give. He's not going to let Makarov know who he is seeing first, for one thing. If anything contradicts, he wants Makarov guessing what the other pilot would have told him.

"<Names, facility locations,>" he says calmly. "<Let's start there.>"

He remains the sympathetic listener. He has his watch set to record the whole conversation, just so he won't have to remember everything.

"<Dammit. Yes, I know that now.>" Despite his mild oath, the pilot seems more aggravated at himself than anything else, rubbing his face with a hand. "<I wasn't thinking clearly. I am amazed I was as lucid as I was at that time. Not enough, I suppose; they found me, eventually.>"

"<Outside these walls, there is no cure for this toxin, to cleanse it from the system. Its makers didn't trouble themselves to create one because they didn't have a need for one.>" Mikhail jabs a finger at the IV equipment next to his hospital bed. "<If I were not on that, Comrade Agent, it would be tearing my body apart even now.>"

Mikhail settles; glancing toward the agent and listening. Names, facility locations. He seems to consider the answer for a moment.

"<Yes, I can give you names. Unfortunately that is all I really know in some cases. Shall we begin, Comrade Agent?>" It seems a rhetorical question. Mikhail's already continuing forward. "<Here are some of the people with whom I worked directly. You already know Viktoria Dmitrievna Ryakhina, and I am sorry in advance if you have not spoken with her yet. It may not be a, hmm, pleasant experience.>" His smile is crooked, somewhat self-depreciating. "<She has something of a temper. I think she is nervous because her career is dead in the water.>"

Mikhail reaches for a glass of water he'd had at his bedside table, sipping slowly as he considers. "<Anton Tarasovich Zharkov. He is their chief fabricator. He is the one who is in charge of working directly with the Heliosphere and its construction, but he also must work with the engineers, and also we test pilots. Anton Tarasovich is a good man, I think, put into a bad situation. I am not sure why he is there, but I was always under the impression that he did not want to be there. He knew more than any of us what a monster he had created in the Heliosphere.>"

"<Pyotr Yakovich Koshelev. He is the chief engineer of the Heliosphere Project. I think he is nervous and frightened, so I do not think he works willingly for Icarus, either. The design decisions are ultimately his responsibility. I do not think I ever saw him without his chief subordinate, either; her name is Ekaterina Tikhonovna Kozlovskaya. She is the real power behind the engineering department. I have heard she is a brilliant AI specialist, but I do not know for certain.>"

He frowns, then, considering. "<Aleksei Rotislavovich Loskutnikov. Chief of security. That is a man I would not mind if ground ordinance happened to accidentally drop onto. I do not like how he does his job. There are no people, to him; only cogs in a machine. Parts to be used and replace when there is a problem. Lives matter nothing to him. It is his duty to guard the woman who holds the reins of Icarus Dynamics.>"

"<Yevgenia Grigorievna Sakharova,>" he finishes, expression darkening. "<She is the one to whom all of these people answer. I only met with her twice. She is small, but she is not delicate, like velvet over a fist of steel. She is quiet and professional, and also angry and bitter. I do not know why she does the things she does, but I think she will do them, and say to hell with anyone or anything in her way.>" Mikhail's gaze slides to Phil. "<I am not a coward, Comrade Agent, but that woman frightens me. When you look at her eyes, there is nothing in them. Nothing at all.>"

Mentally, Phil moves these names all around, prioritizing them, trying to decide who will need to be found, extracted, turned into an asset, blackmailed, or paid off. But he'll go through them and make those decisions later. For now, he just listens.

"<I see,>" he says, sympathetically, to the matter of the frightening woman.

And then he simply asks, "<Is there anything else you want to tell me, Makarov? Anything at all you think I should know? You say you don't know where any locations are, but I somehow doubt that. You were on a supply run for one of those facilities when Stark took you. That means you know at least one. And if you were often on supply runs, you know others. Dig deep; everything you give me matters.>"

He has more questions still. He hasn't even stirred, hasn't made a move like he thinks to go elsewhere.

"<No. I know a few. I am sorry, Comrade Agent. My head, it is still…>" Mikhail gestures, as though to illustrate scattered thoughts. "<It is hard to think clearly. A moment, please.>"

He lies back, eyes drifting to the far corner of the room as he considers. There were a number of locations he was taken to, but a few of them stick out in recent memory as important.

"<Murmansk,>" he says, decisively. "<Comrade Tony can tell you exactly where that one is. It's about forty minutes up the road, northwest from the city, along the coast. The weather is terrible even in summer. I believe that is where they are fine-tuning the AI systems. There was the facility outside of St. Petersburg, but I thought I heard Aleksei Rotislavovich mention that it was destroyed. I do not know.>"

"<Then there is a facility on Novaya Zemlya. Or perhaps it was under it. There is another facility, too, where the fabricators and the metallurgist and the engineers build the prototypes. I have not been to that one; I did not have enough security clearance.>" Mikhail manages a crooked half-smile. "<But I heard Anton Tarasovich mention it, when perhaps he was not supposed to. He is there, most times, but he will come inspect prototypes personally.>"

He considers. "<I could not imagine such a large corporation could operate under the government's nose. It would not surprise me, Comrade Agent, if there were other facilities in other countries. I thought I heard Norway mentioned, or maybe it was Denmark. But I am not sure if that is true.>"

"If it is," Phil says in English, "we will find out."

He rises. He has one more pilot to talk to, after all. He taps out a message on his watch, letting one of his agents know that Raisa may be informed where her husband is, and may be allowed to visit, but is to be counseled against physical violence and should be removed if she engages in it. The man's in no shape for a beating. She'll just have to settle for one of her infamous verbal harrangues.

"I'll be in touch," he promises, not making any other promise at the moment simply because he's not ready to make decisions yet. He's not inclined to lock the man up and throw away the key, especially with his cooperation, but this is no time for rash decisions, speculations, brainstorming about next steps, or anything other than information gathering and careful next steps.

And so, he seeks out Viktoria Dmitrievna Ryakhina.

It takes the man a few seconds to parse the words spoken to him in English. The lack of recognition in his eyes speaks volumes; his grasp of English is much less sound than Raisa's.

"<Wait. Comrade Agent.>" Mikhail's voice is soft. "<When may I see Raisa Ivanovna? That is…>" He looks a bit contrite. "<I do not want to sound impatient, but I have been waiting to see her for over five years. I will cooperate with you. I am too sick to leave.>" He gestures to indicate himself in the hospital bed; his ashen complexion. "<I know I do not have any right to ask it, but… please.>"

"<I've already sent her your way. With instructions to avoid beating you bloody,>" Phil says mildly.

He pauses at the door, looking over his shoulder.

"<I'm not an expert in long-term relationships,>" he says at last. "<But I suspect it's not at all like being the SO of a team of raw recruits. The next time you choose to make a decision that's going to impact both your lives and the life of the woman you have decided to make your wife…maybe you talk to her about it first, instead of springing your shiny new job offer on her as an 'oh by the way.' It might have saved you both some trouble and heartache, had you discussed your grand plans to sweep her away to the good life before you signed on the dotted line.>"

Of course, there's always the chance they simply both would have been hooked up to drugs and SHIELD would never have known a thing. But that doesn't mean that actual communication wouldn't be wiser in the future.

That seems to stop Mikhail Nikolayevich short, blinking in surprise. He had already arranged to have Raisa informed? She's here? Or will be here, shortly? That's a great deal faster. He'd been expecting next week, at the earliest.

"<Oh,>" Mikhail says, somewhat nonplussed. "<Thank you.>"

The advice, however, earns little more than a weary sigh. "<I know. It was never intended to be like this. What I signed on the dotted line for was not what I was given, and it spiralled out of my control. I was given an offer: Fly for Icarus, and they would ensure that I and my wife were taken care of for the rest of our days.>" His eyes are troubled when he looks to Phil. "<Yes, you are right. I was worried, and I allowed that to guide me.>"

A good reason not to do that in the future! At least he seems to understand pretty well the mess he's gotten himself into, and what not to do in the future.

"<Thank you, Comrade Agent,>" he finally says, sighing and shutting his eyes. "<I will help you in any way I can.>"

The door closes.

A short distance down the hall is the door to Viktoria Dmitrievna Ryakhina's ward room. It's open just a crack.

Inside, he'll find a petite blonde woman. Very petite, actually. She can't be more than five feet and five inches, and maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet. She looks better suited to a ballerina than a fighter pilot. Her short hair is bright blonde, the colour of wheat, and her eyes are the blue of a summer sky. She looks to be in considerably better health than her fellow pilot; less chalky in complexion, and more clear-eyed.

Right now she's boredly dealing cards on her lap, playing a round of solitaire, with the air of someone who hit 'bored out of their mind' a few days ago.

"<Viktoria Dmitrievna Ryakhina? I'm Agent Phillip Coulson.>"

She is about to be less bored.

Unlike Makarov, Ryakhina is an unknown quantity. Phil has very little to work with other than the fact that she's grouchy and she thinks her career might be in the toilet. She may or may not have been snared as Makarov was, though she's certainly been with the program for a far shorter length of time, judging by the state of her health.

But boredom is good. Bored people talk. Especially when others don't. So after that cursory introduction, Phil shuts his mouth.

Shuts it, and waits to see what might come spilling out.

With that same bored air, Ryakhina looks up as her fruitless hand of solitaire is interrupted. It doesn't seem to bother her very much. She wasn't winning anyway.

A casual sweep of her hand collects all the cards, with enough finesse to suggest she fiddles with them a lot when she's bored. The pack is set aside on her lap, and she looks up at the intruding agent, one brow slowly arching.

"<Your Russian is good,>" she comments, as though mildly surprised by this. "<I can still tell you're an American, though. To what do I owe the pleasure? Believe me, it's a pleasure; anything would be at this point. I'm bored out of my goddamned mind.>"

She studies him a moment, a little more shrewd than her foggy-headed cohort. "<I'm guessing you're here to collect some information. I figured someone would be along sooner or later. Well, sit down, I guess.>" Seems she'd already resigned herself to this chat, although she hadn't known who would be giving it. "<I'll tell you whatever you want to know. Anything to rub that bitch Zhenya's nose in it,>" she says, with way more cheer than a statement like that deserves.

Phillip Coulson sits down. He had not, in fact, tried to use his flawless Russian. Like Raisa, he downplays his Russian most of the time like she downplays her English, though the times when they choose to slip into the perfect version are different. Raisa when she trusts. Phil, when his life depends on impersonating a real Russian.

This woman is going to talk a lot. That's just fine. "<No fan of Zhenya's, then, I take it,>" he prompts. With Makarov, he was focused. Here? He wants to see how this goes. He wants to get the measure of this woman. He smiles a sympathetic smile and then holds out his hands for the cards, as if offering to shuffle them for her. Maybe even to deal her into a game of some sort. He can play Gin Rummy and conduct an interrogation at the same time.

"<You know of her? That's surprising. Either your intelligence is better than I thought it was, or Zhenya's getting lazy in her old age.>" Vika studies her deck of cards boredly, picking up about half of them and flipping them from hand to hand deftly enough to do a card shark proud. "<But I doubt that.>"

She looks up again, eyeing him. "<How's Mikhail Nikolayevich? That spineless puppy was looking pretty green around the gills when we got here. But I guess if they had their hooks in me that long I'd be looking about the same,>" she concedes, somewhat grudgingly. The question is no more than a formality, by her tone of voice, and she doesn't really like him very much. His name and patronymic are delivered in a tone a few degrees warm from 'subarctic.' "<I still don't understand what they saw in him that they didn't see in me. Look, just because I don't have a military background like that clown…>"

"<Well.>" The cards flip from one hand to the other with a fluttery, papery sound. "<I guess this is the part where you ask me questions, and I say, 'Oh no,' and then pretend to be reluctant while I spill my guts, because I'm supposed to be afraid for my life, or something. Sorry. I'm not really very afraid right now. If you're the frying pan, Icarus was the fire. They can all go to hell and I'm glad to be out of it.>"

"<Sounds as though Icarus Dynamics never valued your true talent,>" Phil says. It's a prompt to say more, with neither threats nor promises. This woman feels slighted though. She feels like she's never gotten what she deserves, never gotten what she wants.

Phil's going to use that. She may be willing to tell her story, and she may not be. She may need to feel important by drawing it out this way, or she may be trying to hedge her bets, hide omissions. But the good news is, she's talking and talking away, letting all sorts of bits of information fly. She makes assumptions, too, and that's all to the good. He can just drop all sorts of things and see what shakes out of her.

And, if it's worth doing, maybe he can even make use of her, later.

But one thing at a time.

"<Damned straight they didn't. Just because I came from the civil sector doesn't mean I couldn't damned well fly,>" Viktoria points out irritably. "<Instead, they gave all the best assignments to Mikhail Nikolayevich and the others. I don't know their names.>"

"<We test pilots didn't talk too much; they liked to keep the test pilots more or less separate, most of the time. Murmansk is terminally understaffed, so for the most part they had Mikhail Nikolayevich picking up food from the city, when they didn't have him up in the air. Sometimes I made the trips myself just to get out of there and see people again.>" The petite blonde gestures, carelessly. "<I guess they trusted me that much.>"

Turning one hand over, she pinches her cards, bouncing them into the air before catching them neatly in her other hand. "<I don't think they really care about true talent, though. I think they care about having a warm body in their cockpits. As long as there's some rudimentary skill, there, that's all they seem to want. There's another test pilot. I don't know what his name is. But that goddamned greenhorn can barely land a plane, and they took him in, too.>"

"<Of course, that's where they get you. Blind you with dreams of riches beyond your wildest imagining, and compared to what most people get, it's pretty blinding. I jumped at it like an idiot, because who wouldn't want to better their station like that?>" Vika shrugs a shoulder, carelessly. "<The pay was pretty phenomenal, at first. I guess that's probably gone, too, up in smoke.>" She sighs in resignation. "<Oh well. It was a nice dream while it lasted.>"

Way too selfish to use, Phil decides.

"<I need locations,>" he says simply. "<Everything you know about their operations.>" He decides he'd better move this out of the zone where she's griping and flipping cards, and into the zone where he's getting some actions. He just lays that out there, a test of just how willing she really is to spill her guts, to show she's cooperative. His face gives away nothing, his eyes are steady as he watches the movement of cards against blankets. It's his first salvo at actually directing the conversation.

He settles back to see how it will go.

"<I don't see why not.>" Viktoria shrugs. "<You already know about the one in Murmansk, although if they're smart they've already wiped it off the map. That happens a lot, so even we don't always know about where we're going. Sometimes the only person who knows where we're going is the one doing the driving.>"

She finally shuffles her cards into the deck together, setting it aside. "<I also know they've got an operation in Novaya Zemlya. It's near Rogachevo, but you won't find it on the satellites. They've hidden it pretty handily. Even the locals don't know it's there, and they assume anything weird they see is coming out of Rogachevo. Even the government doesn't know about it.>"

"<Icarus is paranoid. They don't want the government finding out about what they're doing, so they hide everything. Every installation is under lock and key and buried so far under red tape and sometimes, uh, literally buried… that unless you know it's there, you're not going to find it. By the way, speaking of buried, they've got another one in Severnaya Zemlya. That one's even more tricky, because that one is underground. We get our aircraft in and out by way of hydraulic elevators.>"

She shrugs. "<I don't know what kind of funding they're getting, but it must be absolutely absurd to be able to do the topographical modifications they've been able to do. It's insane.>"

"<As far as their operations go… well, I guess I should start at the top. You know the Queen Bitch, apparently, but she has a few lackeys that you might want o keep your eye on. Well, 'you,' as in SHIELD, anyway. Aleksei Rotislavovich Loskutnikov. He's a mean son of a bitch. Zhenya's right-hand man. Probably sleeping with her,>" she adds, blandly. "<Pretty much everyone is scared shitless of him, and they should be. There's something wrong with him; he gives me the creeps in the worst way.>"

Gathering up her cards, she starts dealing herself another hand of solitaire. "<I think good old Alyosha is as much a mover and shaker as Zhenya herself. When he speaks, people fall all over themselves to make it happen. Mostly because they know he'll skin them alive if they don't. I'm pretty sure they weren't exaggerating much, either. He has stupid amounts of authority because of that, and he's basically there as Zhenya's mouthpiece when she's not with him. And she's always with him. He's her meatshield, from what I gather, and he's a lot of meatshield. He's built like my goddamn truck.>"

"<What else do you want, Comrade Agent?>" Viktoria smiles, thinly. "<You've been awfully quiet over there. Don't you have any questions? It's not like I have much else to do, right now. It'll be a while before they even let me out of bed… well, at least I don't have it as bad off as Mikhail Nikolayevich, the sorry son of a bitch. I guess it's a good thing they didn't think of me as one of the better pilots. I'd be a vegetable right now.>" She tosses a card onto the discard pile. "<I guess I should tell you about the bird itself.>"

Phil could almost smile. She says he's being quiet, wonders if he has questions. Meanwhile, she's a literal faucet of information. A fire hose. It's going to take him time to figure out how best to exploit these. "<Later I'm going to have you pick out these facilities on a map,>" he says, mildly. "<But for now, yes. I'd like to know about the bird itself.>"

He just sort of sits there, giving her his full attention, letting her rant and rave and grumble about the people she worked for all she wants. He could do this all day, and walk out with a mountain of actionable intel by so doing. This woman likes the sound of her own voice. She likes it a lot.

His favorite kind of interview subject, really.

"<I could make a few guesses for you, but unless I've taken off from those places, I won't know their exact coordinates,>" the petite blonde warns. "<Icarus has a lot to hide, so they're protective of their assets and locations. We pilots are only given locations on a need-to-know basis, but I'll do my best.>"

Viktoria reaches up with the arm that isn't full of tubes and wires, resting her head on the crook of her elbow and looking at the ceiling again. "<The bird. It's not really a bird so much as a monster. I've never seen anything like it. Even the Air Force doesn't have any toys like that one.>"

"<I know it's running some kind of AI, but that one I can't figure. I wasn't under the needles as long as Mikhail Nikolayevich. You'll have to ask him for specifics, honestly. All I can give you is the broad-strokes picture, and tell you that it does things no aircraft should be able to do.>"

"<The Heliosphere does things that no human pilot should be able to survive. It's running some kind of AI that gives me the creeps as much as Alyosha does. You hear it. You… feel it. It's got life support. It's got enough engine power to put even your American spy planes to shame. It's armoured. It's got agility like a goddamn helicopter.>"

She closes her eye, sighing. "<But right now… that's all I have. Maybe if you give me some time, I can think it over more; see if there are any details I'm missing. If you want more information on the bird itself, though, talk to Mikhail Nikolayevich. He's been working with it a lot longer than I have… but you might want to give him a few more days. He's probably right in the middle of Heliosphere hangover hour. Poor bastard's going to have a rough week in front of him, heh heh.>"

And then Viktoria Dmitrievna Ryakhina shuts her eyes, as though confident that once she's dismissed the forgettable agent, she can go back to boring herself enough to sleep off the detox protocol.

Well, at least her information might have been useful, and at least she gave him something else to work with – that Mikhail is the authority, at least among the contacts SHIELD has now, on what the Heliosphere is and can do.

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