Welcome to Vladikavkaz
Beslan Airport, Vladikavkaz, Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic
Sunday, 25 December 1988, 1200 hours local time
Harper stepped off the Soviet Yakovlev Yak-42 passenger jet expecting to walk to carry his bag to customs at the one-runway airport's tiny terminal building. He did not expect to find himself face-to-face with a group of very angry Soviet Airborne soldiers training assault rifles on him. A stern-faced captain with a thick mustache glared at him.
"Он - американский шпион! Арестуйте его немедленно!" shouted the captain. "He is an American spy! Arrest him immediately!" Harper realized the smartest thing to do was say nothing - the Foundation would find out soon enough and get him out of this mess. Two burly soldiers seized Harper's arms while a bag was thrust over his head. His wrists were handcuffed behind his back, and he was marched to a truck.
The ride took about half an hour over some very bumpy dirt roads. Harper was pulled from the truck and half marched, half dragged into a building. He was placed in a rough wooden chair, and the bag was whipped off his head. The room was part of a wooden shack, dark and damp with a dirt floor. The smell of manure drifted in from outside. The mustached captain stood before him.
"My apologies, Mr. Harper. The subterfuge was necessary to preserve appearances for my men, most of whom are conscripts who know nothing of the Foundation. Furthermore, O5 gave me strict orders that I have never heard of you, and you were never here," said the captain in flawless English. "I am Captain Ivan Petrovich Gagarin. Welcome to Vladikavkaz." He looked behind Harper at a very young lieutenant standing guard. "Снимите кандалы." "Remove the shackles." The guard reached down and undid the handcuffs.
"Glad to be here," Harper replied, massaging his wrists. "What's the plan now?"
"I am interrogating the dangerous American spy along with an expert from the GRU," Captain Gagarin explained, pulling out a set of Soviet civilian clothes appropriate for a GRU staff officer and handing them to Harper. "Once we have finished, I will execute the cowardly capitalist pig and have my men bury him out back." He pointed at a misshapen bag about the dimensions of a grown man lying in the corner of the room. "Junior Lieutenant Strelnikov here will then take you, the GRU interrogation expert, back to the airport, by way of wherever you need to go." The lieutenant nodded silently.
Harper nodded and started changing into the offered clothing. He asked, "Captain, do you have my bag somewhere?" The lieutenant left the room briefly and returned with it. As Harper buttoned his Soviet overcoat with one hand, he pulled a file from the bag and thumbed through. Finding the picture he was looking for, he asked, "Captain, this is SCP-1440. I need to speak with him."
"Ah, yes, Старик из ниоткуда, the Old Man from Nowhere," Gagarin said. "He's one of several entities running around the Caucasus right now. You're in luck, Mr. Harper. He was last sighted a few days ago on the southeastern slopes of Mount Kazbek, just north of Kanobi. It is less than an hour drive from here."
"Perfect," Harper said.
Gagarin turned to Strelnikov and spoke briefly in hushed and rapid-fire Russian, handing over the photograph. The lieutenant nodded. Gagarin turned and pulled out his pistol. He fired two quick shots followed by a third into the floor. "I have just executed the American," he explained. "Товарищ мла́дший лейтена́нт , сопроводите наших гостей до аэропорта!" He barked loudly for the benefit of the soldiers outside. "Escort our guest to the airport, Comrade Junior Lieutenant!"
Strelinikov hustled Harper outside to a waiting jeep. He tossed the counterintelligence investigator's bag in the back seat and they sped off southward.
Though paved, the Georgian Military Road along which they traveled was in dire need of maintenance. Racing along at well over a hundred kilometers per hour, Harper hoped their trip wouldn't end ignominiously in a fiery crash after hitting a pothole. The lieutenant's driving was only marginally better than that of the infamous Dr. Gerald.
"You Foundation official?" asked Strelinikov in broken English.
"Yes," Harper replied, also in English. "I'm Harper. I supposed you'd call me Timofey Ivanovich, since my dad's name was John."
"I Dmitri Arkadeyevich," said the soldier. "My English well? I learning in my time free."
"Uh, yes, very," Harper lied. Switching to Russian, he asked, "Do you mind if we speak in Russian? I would like to practice."
Swerving to avoid a goat which had wandered into the middle of the road, Strelinikov nodded, "Very well. Your Russian is most literate."
"Thank you," Harper replied. "So, you are a Foundation agent?"
"Not yet," Strelinikov said. He paused to shout obscenities in mat at a farmer leading a donkey down the road. "I am proud to be serving the Motherland. Perhaps I will join the Foundation when I am old and infirm."
Which probably means sometime around your thirtieth birthday, Harper thought to himself. He remembered his brief period in the American army in the early sixties. The false sense of immortality and the bravado that came with it, so common in soldiers everywhere before they were exposed to the true horrors of war.
"In any case," the Russian continued, "Captain Gagarin needs soldiers he can trust."
Harper asked, "Do you know anything about the Old Man from Nowhere?"
"Only that we are supposed to keep track of his location, and otherwise avoid him at all costs," Strelinikov said. "What do you want with him?"
"That's classified," the American replied. The Russian grunted in annoyance, but said nothing. Truth be told, Harper wasn't sure himself. SCP-1440 was dangerous to any man-made object or human who remained in extended close contact with it, according to the Foundation's file.
Half an hour later, the jeep came to a stop at the end of a dirt road halfway up the mountain. "This is as far as I am allowed to take you," Strelinikov said. He pointed at a ridge a half kilometer away. "The Old Man should be up there. I will remain here with the jeep until sundown." By Harper's estimate, that gave him about four and a half hours before he had to be back. He set off up the mountainside.
Foundation Command-02, Washington, D.C.
Sunday, 25 December 1988, 0630 hours local time
Monica prodded Muir awake. He'd fallen asleep at his desk, looking over the finances of the assistant clerk for O5-2. "Coffee?" asked the intern, offering a mug.
"Thanks," Muir grunted.
"Merry Christmas," Monica said.
Muir nodded, "Back at you. Any word on Tim?"
Monica nodded, "The watch office in the basement got word from Agent Gagarin. He's safe and sound. Looks like it was just a sandstorm disrupting communications."
"Yeah," yawned Muir. "Figured. I did a tour in Yemen a while back - sandstorms aren't fun. Back to work, then." He picked up another file, this one on O5-6's primary bodyguard, and started to read.
Foundation Observation Post 3-02, [LOCATION REDACTED]
Sunday, 25 December 1988, 1130 hours GMT
The red light was still blinking. Johnson walked over to the meteorology console and called up Oman. The storm had cleared out several hours before. "Uh, Agent Marcus? Research Site-29 is still off the grid," he called.
"Did the sandstorm clear yet? Those things can—" started Marcus.
"Yes, sir, I just checked. It cleared up about three hours ago," Johnson said.
Marcus swore, "And you're only telling me this now? Please tell me you've been checking every hour." Johnson's face fell. "You haven't. Dammit Probie! Get on the horn and scramble the nearest MTF."