Stillwell resisted the urge to scratch beneath the cast on his arm. Cigarette smoke had never been something he was fond of, but in the close room, with the interviewing officer exhaling it constantly like a bellows, it was distracting. It reminded him too much of Spinella.
DIRECTOR WALTERS: Can you confirm the status of Doctor Frank Spinella and Agent Laszlo Juhasz?
AGENT STILLWELL: The last contact I had with them was at the GRU-P safehouse. I can't speak to where they are now.
DIRECTOR WALTERS: That was after you turned over Dr. Geissler's research to Dr. Spinella, with instructions to give it to KGB?
AGENT STILLWELL: That's right.
DIRECTOR WALTERS: You realize what you're admitting to? Passing classified information to an entity we're at war with?
AGENT STILLWELL: We're not at war with KGB. It's all in the report.
DIRECTOR WALTERS: That's not to mention responsibility for two MIA personnel.
The soldier's flashlight shone down the darkness of the tunnel. He held a handkerchief to his face. The stench of new death was present alongside the musty odor of ancient death. He must be close. For a moment, the terror at not being able to fulfill the commissar's orders subsided. The briefcase, or at least clues to where the briefcase must be, were close. But the scent of death was freezing him. Something about it spoke of a deeper decay. He was no stranger to carnage; GRU-P afforded many opportunities to acquaint oneself. But he shivered.
He proceeded further into the catacomb.
It wasn't long before the source presented itself. His flashlight fell upon a body, splayed on the ground. A man in a rumpled coat, middle-aged if he didn't miss his guess. Pretty sickly looking. There was a knife protruding from his heart. No briefcase in sight.
The soldier cursed, holding the handkerchief closer to his face as he knelt down to inspect the body. If the Major survived, he would likely skin all of them if the briefcase was not recovered. He prayed to a God he no longer believed in that there would be something here to lead him to the missing research.
He rifled through the dead man's pockets. A wallet yielded a Polish identification card; fake, but expensive fake. He checked the name against the details in his memory; the man who had been stopped at the checkpoint. This must be one of the Foundation operatives. Something to go on, anyway.
As he examined the identification card closer, a small drop of black sludge dripped onto the dead man's photograph. His face was rapidly eaten away as the sludge dissolved the card before the soldier's eyes. Quickly, like something burning, he tossed it aside.
He trained his flashlight at the ceiling of the tunnel, just over his head. It was covered in dark, viscous slurry, that seemed to shimmer iridescently as his light traveled across it. In the middle of the sludge covered ceiling, a grinning, dead-eyed face looked back at him, as thin black tendrils began to reach down from around above.
In moments, screams filled the catacombs.
DIRECTOR WALTERS: And the matter of Agent Patrick Coogan. You've sent him on a subsequent detail, from which he has yet to return.
AGENT STILLWELL: That's right. I think he'll be busy with that for a while.
DIRECTOR WALTERS: You mean absconding with a designated SCP object. A humanoid, at that.
AGENT STILLWELL: Absconding? No. Just part of the evacuation. Agent Coogan is maintaining control of SCP-1041.
The feeling of frigid air on her face woke her from a deep, dreamless sleep. She was in a man's arms, being carried like a child. Her first impulse was to flail out of his grasp, but when she tried to move, her muscles resisted, her body racked with aches and profound, crippling fatigue as she returned to consciousness. She shifted barely in his grasp.
"Where…where am I?" SCP-1041's words came out weakly, barely audible over the wind.
The man carrying her responded. "Ma'am, I don't have a whole lot of time to explain, but you're in the care of an organization that I'm not at liberty to talk about right now. We're on our way out of here."
She was confused. Who was she? She struggled to remember. The man's voice was hurried, but kind. "I wasn't sure you were going to wake up. Thank God for that."
SCP-1041 opened her eyes a little more. It was dark, streetlights blurring her vision, the cold wind bringing tears to her eyes. "Where are we going?"
"I have orders to bring you to safe haven, ma'am. I'd explain more, but I really don't know a whole lot right now. Sorry."
The man stopped at an intersection. The streets were deserted at this time of night. He appeared to be looking for something.
"What's your name?"
He continued searching the night. "Coogan, ma'am."
She paused. "I don't know mine, or I'd give it to you."
"That's okay. Stillwell tells me that'll probably change tomorrow."
From the direction Coogan was looking, a black car came speeding down the street. Snow kicked up behind its tires, the back end fishtailing slightly as it rounded a corner, but still under the driver's apparently expert control. The sound of brakes squealing, and the car came skidding to rest in front of them. Without hesitation, Coogan opened the rear passenger door, gently placed SCP-1041 in one seat, and sat in the other. His door had barely closed before they lurched back into motion, tearing down the empty streets of industrial Krakow.
A man, not clearly visible in the dark, addressed them from the front passenger seat, not bothering to turn around.
"You must forgive my man, here. He drives very fast. But then, we need to go very fast." His voice was warm, a slight German accent to her ears.
Coogan took off his coat, and laid it across SCP-1041. "Thank you, sir. I wasn't sure that we'd make it out."
"No trouble. We look out for our men. And our women." The man in the front seat rolled down his window slightly as he lit a cigarette. "I hope you don't mind. It's important to remember that we're not out yet. We have several countries to go before we're past the Iron Curtain."
"So where am I headed, sir?"
The man in the front seat exhaled, his smoke taken quickly outside by the rushing night air. "With any luck, to a friend's house," replied O5-8.
DIRECTOR WALTERS: You spent fifteen hours in KGB custody. What information did you reveal to them?
AGENT STILLWELL: Beyond pleasantries and what they already knew from Dr. Geissler, nothing.
DIRECTOR WALTERS: So you weren't interrogated?
AGENT STILLWELL: No. I was treated quite well, actually. As they promised.
The train car rattled, the wind whistled, the straw on the ground and the rickety wooden slats of the boxcar scant protection from the cold. Stillwell had had meetings in strange places, but this was one the more unusual offices he had been in.
The man called Petrov held a piece of gauze in place over the wound in Nechayeva's leg as another operative wound tape around it. He offered a flask to her; she waved it off. To Stillwell, with his long, white beard and bald head, Petrov looked grandfatherly as he cared for his wounded operative. He was tempted to think of Tolstoy, but paused to consider that one didn't grow old and get to be in charge of a KGB Directorate by being grandfatherly.
Petrov took the flask from his man and doused the gauze with some of its clear contents. "Once again, the planners were wrong. They never listen. These are new times, I told them. Things in play that weren't there before. They play chess in the middle of a prison brawl. Ah, well."
"Any word from your contacts?" said Stillwell.
Petrov shook his head. "No one present at the meeting point. Our sources haven't alerted us to anyone new in GRU-P custody. It's possible that they escaped elsewhere into the city."
"You don't need to soften it. We all knew what we were getting into here." Stillwell's good hand crept to his stomach.
"Mm. No one can know that. I didn't think I would be escorting a Foundation operative to safety yesterday." Petrov tightened the wrappings around Nechayeva's wound. She muttered curses in Russian. "If that's what I'm doing."
"I think we have bigger problems than pointing guns at each other right now."
Nechayeva braced herself as she planted her feet on the ground. She grunted as she struggled to stand on her bandaged leg, biting her lip with steel teeth. Stillwell extended his good hand. She grabbed onto his wrist, hoisting herself upright.
"There, good as new," said Petrov, laughing.
"December is a problem for all of us," said Nechayeva, catching her breath. "We didn't do much with the research that Geissler shared with us. It was mostly to be able to sabotage GRU-P's project."
Nechayeva nodded at the owner of the flask. He fished around in his pocket, retrieving a small canister. He offered it to Stillwell. The Foundation operative accepted.
"That microfilm has everything that we know," said Nechayeva. "It looks like we both have an idea what's going on, though."
"What about the rest of our sites?," replied Stillwell. "We're pulling out of the Soviet Union. Are you going to stop us?"
Petrov frowned. "This is nasty business. None of us can deal with the holes in reality by ourselves. I think even in different times we all understood that."
The old man motioned for the flask again. He took a pull. "Our first order of business is Zherdev. Then we can get back to shooting at each other. You'll receive no interference from KGB."
"And my men?"
"Safe passage, same as yourself. We'll need every person we can get for this fight."
Stillwell nodded. Rationally, they would have shot him long beforehand if there was a problem. But the thought had never really entered his mind. The thought of guns reminded him, however. He reached into his coat, and took out Nechayeva's pistol. He offered it to her.
"Thought you should have this back," he said.
She took the flask from Petrov. She shook her head.
"No need. It's out of bullets." Nechayeva smiled, briefly, a glint of reflected moonlight. She took a pull from the flask. She offered it to Stillwell. He took it.
"To new friends," Stillwell said as he raised the flask. "May we live long enough to be enemies again."
DIRECTOR WALTERS: How would you characterize a mission in which four men and a provisional SCP object are sent out, and only the mission leader returns?
AGENT STILLWELL: Given this mission? I'd call that a success.
DIRECTOR WALTERS: If this were a normal time, we would hang you out to fucking dry, Stillwell. This was a goddamn disaster. What do you have to say for yourself?
AGENT STILLWELL: These aren't normal times, sir.
Lafourche laughed uproariously, jabbing his thick finger at the transcript in his hand. "Holy shit, you really said that to him?"
Stillwell smiled. "Yes indeed, sir."
The Subdirector continued laughing as he read, pausing occasionally to spit a stream of tobacco juice into a disposable paper cup in his other hand. When he finished, he tossed the document into a wastebasket in the corner of his office. He leaned back in his chair to recover from his hilarity.
"Make an Agent of you yet, kid. Hot damn." Lafourche spat again. "You know Dean, I'll be straight with you. I didn't expect to see you back here again. I mean, I'm glad. But that mission was a goddamn suicide run. I told chain of command that."
Stillwell nodded. "Yeah. Guess that made it easy to face being drummed out in Walters' office."
Lafourche spat derisively. "Ahhh, Walters is an asshole, but he's not a dummy. You ain't gonna get canned, even if we weren't hiding out in a rented office in Mexico City. You did good out there. I ain't gonna forget it, and even ol' Walters won't either."
The young Agent sat. A great feeling of desolation came over him at the prompting of Lafourche's praise. An emptiness that sat in his chest, making him feel lighter, insubstantial. The distant sound of twisting metal and gibbering voices rang in his ears. For an instant, he closed his eyes. A single light in the darkness went out. He willed the feeling away, breathing deeply. After three breaths, it left. He was getting better at this.
Lafourche had the professional courtesy to not notice. "So kid, I've gotten a buzz in my ear from the higher-ups. What've you got cooked up for Coogan and that skip that he's bodyguarding?"
Stillwell, calm and steady. "I have some thoughts on that."
Colonel Ruslan Zherdev, Hero of the Soviet Union and commander of Fourth Department Abnormal Occurrences Commission, also known as GRU-P, took his seat in the balcony of the People's Auditorium, as his organization had arranged, and looked down at the stage and all of the other functionaries attending this planning committee tonight. Rumor had it (rumors that he had started) that Stalin himself was to congratulate the committee on the successful preparations for the 19th Congress. As it happened, he knew those rumors to be correct. He had arranged Stalin's presence here personally.
The General Secretary emerged onto the stage, to thunderous applause, exactly as he had anticipated. As Stalin spoke, it was difficult to hear his words from as high up as Colonel Zherdev was, but it didn't matter. He had read a copy of the speech weeks ago, as his adjutant was drafting it. It was committed to memory.
The Colonel looked at his watch. Two minutes into Stalin's speech. He would have given the signal to his men right about now.
Zherdev watched the second hand on his gold Blancpain watch sweep by. Twenty-five seconds after his signal, all essential personnel would have cleared out of the building. Ten seconds after that, the doors to all of the balcony seats would have been locked and armed guards posted. He still had the personnel in place to do just that. Such a waste.
Stalin's speech was full of party approved rhetoric and empty congratulations to men and women who had lived in mortal terror of him just several years before. Zherdev had some reservations about his plan, initially. It took him several hours, in fact, to convince himself to go through with it. He did not entertain any regrets since then. At the first mention of the new five year plan, the front section of the audience would have stood up, simultaneously.
Five minutes into Comrade Stalin's speech, it would have been too late to turn back. The first five rows of the party attendees would have been on the stage. Zherdev had relished the idea of watching the look on Stalin's face, as the tide approached. In the next minute, possibly minute and a half, the crowd down below, possessed of murderous, white-hot hatred not of their own making, would have torn Stalin limb from limb as the rising stars of the Communist Party looked on. Zherdev had specified to his scientists that those not complicit in the act must be made to feel approving of it. They had been close.
Colonel Zherdev watched the entire speech, superimposing what could have been onto the banal, unproductive events down below. When Comrade Stalin had finished, the crowd rose to its feet, a lusty ovation for their triumphant leader, all Party members showing the proper enthusiasm for the General Secretary.
Zherdev rose to his feet as well, clapping for the expected minutes of praise that were due to Stalin. He looked down at the scene before him. Anyone looking back up would have seen a reflection of the scene that Zherdev had tried and failed to orchestrate, thwarted by what his men told him was a combined Foundation-KGB operation. Anyone looking up would have seen Zherdev in a rare moment of dropping his impassive mask, his true face radiating the hatred and fury that he had sought to transplant into his would-be accomplices through otherworldly means.
Zherdev had expected to proclaim a national tragedy this evening, along with a message to the nation to find the courage to forge a new course in the face of American provocation. Instead he was one of a thousand obedient lapdogs, clapping for favor, capering for Koba's good graces.
The Colonel continued clapping as Stalin basked in the adulation from the audience below. Someone was going to pay dearly for this.