"Try to keep up, old man. I'd like to be as far as possible from Site-7 when their part of the plan starts."
Spinella wheezed as he trotted, sweeping his flashlight in front of him and trying to avoid the bits of rubble and puddles lining the passage. The damp, moldering air of the forgotten catacombs felt like fire in his chest. He gripped the handle of the briefcase tightly.
"I'm…younger than you…asshole," he struggled between breaths. He played Nechayeva's directions over again in his head. It was about seventy meters until the passage split into three, at which point the two men were to take the tunnel to the right. It had been about eight or nine twists and turns deeper into the darkness of the tunnels. The walls of the passageway were lined with crude alcoves, some empty, some containing stone sarcophaguses, some just a resting place for handfuls of dust and a few bones.
"Are you? You don't look a day over seventy, my friend."
The Foundation neurosurgeon smiled in the darkness. Keep flinging shit, wiseguy.
The KGB operative had been well-prepared. She had extensive knowledge of the infrastructure of Krakow, especially the access tunnels and the old city around Site-7. Almost as though the entire chain of events had been designed for them to be down here. Spinella found it difficult to imagine a catacomb network this long to be hidden, unless it was concealed intentionally for other purposes. She may have had the wet-behind-the-ears operative from Lafourche's shop fooled, but he saw enough.
The two men came to the tunnel convergence, just as Nechayeva had indicated. They stopped, both taking a moment to catch their breath. Spinella took the cigarette from behind his ear and stuck it in his mouth.
Juhasz looked puzzled. "It's remarkable, your dedication to smoking."
Spinella looked at the three tunnels ahead. "Can't take all the credit. Can't stop smoking the fucking things. Not like it matters now."
"I suppose not."
Spinella reached into his coat, before hesitating. "Tell me again, how this makes any sort of sense. We turn this briefcase over to KGB at the end of this goddamn maze, and by their scout's honor, they'll escort us out and share the information with command?"
"All of that cutting into brains, and you don't think," said Juhasz. "What does it matter what they promised? It was either taking the woman's offer, or being shot by the patrols looking for us up there."
"Nothing stopping us from setting fire to this thing before we get shot. Doesn't matter if it's KGB bullets or army bullets when they find us."
"You think this world you're in, that it's nothing but betrayals and backstabbings. But things don't work like that." Juhasz glanced over his shoulder, growing steadily more impatient. "There's an order to things. Motives make certain people predictable, and reliable in their way."
"You ought to listen to yourself." Spinella pointed at Juhasz with his cigarette for emphasis. "Do you trust that metal mouthed bitch back there?"
Juhasz paused. "No. I've no reason to. But in our short acquaintance, she's told us the truth, and we definitely have an enemy in common. I trust her motives. I trust her self-interest."
"Is it in their interest to give us back the information that we use as a ticket out of here? If I were them, I'd just shoot us and take the briefcase."
"They only have a part of the picture. They're going to need our help to put it all together. And we're going to need theirs. Spinella, GRU-P has gone mad. What's in that briefcase is going to be worse than a few measly warheads if they get their hands on it."
Spinella shone his flashlight down at the briefcase, now resting at his feet. He shone it back at Juhasz, briefly flashing it at his eyes as he reached back into his coat. "Very convoluted. Lot of stuff that can go wrong. But you sound like you've got it figured out."
"Some of us want to live past next month, Spinella. You don't spend a lot of time questioning the lifeboat when you're fleeing the ship."
Spinella chuckled, stepping closer to Juhasz. "Next month. What an idea."
"We need to go now."
"Next month is an impossibility. All that matters is right now. Like you said, it's a sinking ship, right?"
Spinella shone the light directly in Juhasz's eyes.
"And right now, I am not turning over Foundation research to the goddamn Russians, you fucking traitor."
As Juhasz recoiled from the sudden glare, Spinella lunged forward and plunged the knife that had been in his hand deep into his left shoulder. Juhasz grunted at the sudden pain, instinctively swinging at Spinella's face. Spinella raised an arm, and Juhasz's fist struck his hand instead, sending the flashlight clattering off into the tombs.
The chamber was cast into total darkness. There were only sounds; two men bellowing in mortal rage, feet shuffling in the dirt and the dust, blows landing, blood spattering. The flashlight flickered briefly, forgotten now as it rolled underneath a stray sarcophagus lid, before guttering out.
SCP-1041 struggled against the iron grip of the guards marching her down the main hallway. Her hands had been bound behind her. She filled the hall with promises of slow, excruciating death for all present. No one responded as they inexorably made their way to the large double doors ahead. In her present incarnation, SCP-1041 was too murderously angry to notice the group of several lab-coated technicians following in her wake, nor did she consider the implications of the operating theater directly ahead. Had she been less consumed with thoughts of killing the son of a bitch who had struck her, she might have been cognizant of a faint, barely perceptible feeling of rising panic around the edges of her consciousness. The beginning of a realization, stuck without progressing into knowledge. She only need turn her head to see the shadow of death, but SCP-1041 had other things in mind.
Two guards ahead opened the double doors. The scene in front of them struck her, even through her red-minded hatred, as ludicrous. Soldiers in uniform scurrying about, trying to avoid stepping on cables lining the floor. A bedraggled scientist making last minute adjustments to a hastily assembled circuit box. Someone was setting up a movie camera and lights. Behind it all, a collection of seats surrounding the main operating area, all empty. If you only looked at the background, it would appear as though no one were here to witness all of the bustle.
The guards ahead moved aside, and the main event greeted her.
"At last. The star of our show. Dr. Geissler, let's begin."
Chernikov stood alone, in the center of the operating theater, in front of a tall, metal conduit, sticking up from a mound of cables and wiring. All of the electrical equipment brought into the room seemed to be wired up to this apparatus. Jutting from the side was what was clearly meant to be a anchoring point for restraining something. Svetlana Savchuk knew nothing of these things, but from somewhere beyond her immediate consciousness, it suddenly occurred to her that this reminded her of a stake, fastened amidst kindling, ready to turn into a pyre at any moment.
The guards led her to the technological stake. She fought back with renewed vigor, instinct informing her that she did not want to be in this place. Another guard joined the party, grabbing hold of her legs as they picked her up and carried her. Once at their destination, her arms were fastened to the stake, tightly behind her, while her feet nestled among the mass of cables and wires below.
Chernikov called out to the disheveled scientist that she spotted earlier. "Comrade, please go and check the men's handiwork. This is not their specialty, after all." She loathed his arrogant, unconcerned tone. She would bury a shiv in his eye the first chance she got.
The scientist came over, in his hands a strange metal bowl of some sort, wires trailing out. She noticed that as he looked at her, he had tears in his eyes. She scowled at him.
"Fucking pussy. Do whatever you're going to do and go weep somewhere else. Worthless lapdog."
Her words washed over him, no reaction. As though he'd expected them. He looked around to the back of the stake, looking at the restraints around her wrists. He leaned close to her ear, behind the stake, out of sight of the GRU-P delegation. Chernikov had ordered the camera rolling and had started speaking directly to it, saying something about the next advancement in the great Soviet scientific machine.
"You don't know who I am, but I know who you are," he said, not whispering, but quiet enough to be heard, his words clipped, moving his lips as little as possible. "Inside, beneath all of the other layers."
"Fuck you, little Russian servile."
Chernikov continued his introduction, informing his intended audience that for the first time, the human soul had been localized, through science.
"I've met the real part of you, the one inside all of the others. I know that you hear me somewhere in there. We've only met for a total of six days, but your contribution to the work has been invaluable in that time." Geissler inspected the wiring at the base of the stake. He affixed the metal bowl structure to the top of her head.
Chernikov spoke of the ability to manipulate identity, to take the essence of what made a human and do with it what was required. At this verbal cue, another group of guards wheeled a cage into the operating theater with her, containing a thin, bent man of thirty, starved into an appearance of fifty, hair fallen out in clumps. The man caught SCP-1041's eye as he was wheeled in. She scoffed. Weak political prisoner. The kind that lasted two days in Vladimirsky.
"That little part of you that lies at the center, I need to tell you. This is the extraction procedure that we had talked about before. The one that we had just finished designing the last time. They found out about it, and that's what they think they're doing. But they cannot be allowed."
SCP-1041 spat at the ground. "You going to grab something while I'm tied up? Go ahead, I'll tear off your hand."
Geissler began attaching the ends of the wires to a port at the top of the stake. He kept his eyes on his work as he spoke. Chernikov boasted to the camera of harnessing the most fundamental element in the universe.
"Our lives ended once GRU-P took Site-7. I know it must scare you to hear that. I wish it weren't true. But we can make sure that our work isn't used to harm anyone else."
A guard plugged a thick cable into the cage that had been wheeled into the theater. Chernikov was finishing his remarks. There wasn't much time left.
Geissler attached the last wire. "What you see here is not the extraction procedure. It's something else that I've designed. It's going to kill you, and if I've done this right, everyone else in this room. What's going to happen is monstrous. To apologize for this kind of betrayal is obscene, but I'll do it anyway."
The doctor made some adjustments to a panel on the side of the stake. SCP-1041 felt the stake shudder slightly as a lever was engaged. She heard a faint humming sound start, seeming to come from all around her. Geissler turned to walk away.
"I'm sorry. You deserved so much better than this. This is all I have to offer. This is the best I could manage. Please forgive me."
The doctor walked away. SCP-1041 tried shouting curses after the weak little collaborator. Something stopped her words in her throat. Her hatred was ebbing and flowing somehow; for the first time since she was a little girl, she felt fear creep in around her consuming wrath, only to be replaced in a wave with seething hate, stronger for having been pushed back. She growled, the desire to hurt all of those around her possessing her, pulsing within her, animal savagery coursing throughout her mind before draining away again. In these brief moments of the absence of hate, she saw that the camera was now trained directly on her, technicians surrounding it, Chernikov and the bitch in the glasses at his side, observing, he with a self-satisfied smile, she with no expression at all. The thought occurred to her, seemingly from nowhere, that this must be what wolves feel like as they sit in the trap, waiting for the last shot to come from the hunter.
As the renewed hatred flowed back into her, twice as strong as before, the last words Svetlana heard and understood were those of Chernikov.
"Dr. Geissler, please begin the procedure."