The muddy slush of frozen earth soaked into Spinella's clothes as he writhed on the ground, gasping for air, spitting blood. From his back, he watched the old man's shadow on the ground beside him lengthen and darken. No. This was not the plan at all.
The two checkpoint guards did not notice the solidifying darkness cast onto the ground as they barked questions into the radio. Had they looked next to the prone figure of Spinella on the ground, they would have seen the black outline of the old man's shadow grow ever thicker, solidifying until it appeared to corrode the ground beneath it. The snow it touched instantly evaporated into thick vapor. Thin black lines, trailing at sharp angles and hanging in the air, inexplicably rose from the ground where the shadow had now formed a yawning hole, its depths impossible to see.
Spinella weakly gurgled his protests, wheezing and attempting to get to his hands and knees away from the forming darkness. Yuri wheeled on him as he saw movement from the corner of his eye, and then stopped dead as he saw what was rising from the old man's shadow.
The outline of a door had formed, translucent and black, fixed in midair like frozen smoke and hovering over the shadow-void cast by the old man. The chuckling of the wasted, wheelchair-bound husk was now manic and high-pitched, an obscene tittering. Inside the doorway was the same infinite blackness being cast on the ground. The roughly rectangular frame of the door grew more and more defined, its angles sharpening. As Yuri turned to alert his comrade, three men were suddenly thrown at great force through the otherworldly portal, smashing into him as they all piled onto the ground.
For a second, no one in the heap on the ground moved. The lean guard's eyes were wide with disbelief, moving from his comrade to the men who had suddenly materialized. The first to come to their senses was Juhasz, atop the pile. He quickly found leverage and pushed himself forward, lowering a shoulder into the stomach of the lean guard and tackling him to the ground.
A mad scramble ensued, Yuri now kicking and swinging his fists in all directions as he tried to free himself from the scrum. He caught Stillwell square in the chest, driving the wind out of him and leaving him gasping as the burly Russian soldier found his footing. Coogan squared to face him.
Behind Yuri, Juhasz had managed to pin the lean guard to the ground, allowing him a free hand to reach into his inner coat pocket. He drew a stout, thick-bladed service knife. The guard seized the split second of opportunity; one of his hands shot to Juhasz's neck in a flash, the other frantically reaching for the knife. The two men rolled sideways, struggling for the blade.
In the confusion, Yuri's gun had been knocked from his hands, about a meter away from him. He looked sidelong at it briefly, baiting Coogan into rushing him. Yuri tripped him as he moved forward, getting him onto the ground and quickly bringing a knee to Coogan's throat. Before he could crush the prone operative's larynx, Yuri saw Stillwell going for the rifle on the ground. He was on his feet again almost instantly, his brawny limbs belying the quickness and precision of his movements, moving as though he were made of springs and not muscle. A huge fist came barrelling straight for Stillwell's face. Stillwell snatched up the gun, and with the AK-47's stock deftly nudged the Russian's arm mid-swing, parrying the strike and letting the soldier's bone crushing force carry his momentum forward. Stillwell met that momentum, slamming his knee into the man's midsection as hard as he could. He could feel the telltale crack of a rib breaking as he struck. His foe bent over and incapacitated momentarily, Stillwell glanced over his shoulder.
He saw Juhasz and the lean guard, blood covering the two combatants as they grappled on the ground, the snow around them now a morass of brown, red and white. Juhasz had managed to get back on top, both hands on the handle of the knife as he pressed it towards the first guard's chest. The soldier was breathing hard, almost hyperventilating, as he tried with all his strength to push the knife away, his hands wrapped around his attacker's, desperately trying to move the blade. It edged closer over his heart. Juhasz was trembling with exertion, leaning down onto the pommel of the knife with all of his weight.
Adrenaline sped his thought process, and Stillwell acted, turning forward once more. He seized Yuri's lapels and crossed them over his throat, tightening them in his fists and pulling the collar into a noose. The guard's eyes bulged as his air was cut off, his face twisting with pain, hatred and fear. He reached for Stillwell's wrists and wrenched violently, trying to free himself from the choke hold. Stillwell could feel tendons and ligaments starting to give in his arms as the massive Russian squeezed and pulled, the pain slowing time to a standstill. Fifteen seconds and then he could help Juhasz. Hold out for fifteen seconds.
The Russian's face was draining of color as the blood supply was cut off. Panic made his movements less and less coordinated, and Stillwell was now able to force the man onto his knees. He took several punches to the ribs as his opponent flailed, the glancing blows still hard enough to make him flinch and loosen his grip. Finally, with what must have been his last reserves of strength, Yuri aimed a blow directly at Stillwell's right wrist. The Russian's fist caught him at a critical angle, and Stillwell felt a pop in his wrist as it broke. His hold on Yuri's left lapel was gone, and the soldier was now free.
Yuri seemed to require no time to collect himself. He prepared to hurl himself at the disabled Stillwell, when three whooshing cracks sounded in quick succession. The side of Yuri's head collapsed as bits of skull, hair and brains were ejected forcefully from the now-gaping hole where his right ear was an instant prior. He fell face forward into the snow, steam rising from the welter of blood pouring out of his head.
Stillwell took several seconds before he looked over from where the shots had been fired. Spinella had pulled himself to his feet and gotten to the guard's rifle. Coogan was starting to regain his footing. Juhasz. Stillwell cradled his broken wrist and moved to the other fight.
Juhasz had worked the tip of his blade into the lean guard's chest. Ragged grunts and shouts came from below him as the soldier struggled against the blade with an animal's ferocity, blood beginning to well up now from the wound. Spinella trained the rifle on the two combatants.
"Stop!" Stillwell shouted. "You're going to hit both of them!"
Spinella ignored him, lining up the iron sights, taking careful aim. His hands were trembling, slightly.
The shouts seemed to prick Juhasz's ears. With a spasm of effort, he slammed the knife downwards, through the Russian's death grip on the blade, burying it in his chest. The lean guard gurgled, then gasped, his hands suddenly falling away. Juhasz firmed up his grip on the handle, and with a ragged grunt of exertion twisted the knife with both hands, sending an arterial spray up from the man's chest, the sound of ripping flesh and tearing sinew audible to the men three meters away. The ground was sopping with blood, the scene resembling the end of some animal's hunt. The lean guard shuddered, and then stilled. Spinella lowered the rifle.
The four Foundation operatives looked to each other. No one spoke. Stillwell surveyed the carnage. The portal was now gone, the impossible gulf next to the old man disappeared, replaced by the wan shadow that nature demanded. Juhasz got to his feet, his suit soaked in blood, his mustache sticky and dripping with it. His expression was blank. Coogan looked like he was going to be sick. The old man chuckled from his wheelchair, untouched by the scene that had unfolded around him.
"Why didn't you just shoot the asshole while you had him stunned?" Spinella shouted at Stillwell.
"No gunfire. Those were the orders." Stillwell looked at his hand. The angle of his wrist was wrong. Broken for sure.
"Fuck orders! Does this look like the mission at this point?"
"We need to go." Juhasz interrupted as he picked up the lean guard's rifle, looking out beyond the checkpoint. "Now."
Stillwell nodded. His arm was beginning to throb.
"Where? We're out in the open, they're going to send patrols out any minute!" said Coogan.
Juhasz slung the rifle over his shoulder. He looked at the surrounding buildings, narrowing his eyes.
"That's the Cloth Hall beyond the gate here. I know a place that should be good enough to hide from the military police for a while. Come." Juhasz broke into a jog, hopping over the gate arm of the check point and heading for a low, pale building in the distance, surrounded by an arched walkway.
Stillwell turned to Coogan. "Get the skip."
Spinella coughed. "You can't be serious. Leave the fucker."
"We don't leave anything for the Soviets," replied Stillwell. He nodded to Coogan. Coogan nodded back and hoisted the old man out of the chair, gingerly settling him over one of his shoulders. The low chuckling continued unabated.
The three men followed after Juhasz. Behind them, two bodies surrounded by splashes of red snow lay, an empty wheelchair standing sentinel over the scene.
As the Foundation operatives disappeared into the distance, sirens began to wail.