The old man was propped up in the corner, some surplus Red Army blankets hastily bunched up to provide both warmth and stability for the frail humanoid. He peered out from beneath his hat with unseeing eyes, ever-present smile lurking among the shadows of the cellar they all huddled in now. In the corner, for the first time since arriving in Poland, he was quiet. Thick, black mucous slowly began to well out of his tear ducts. Two filament-thin lines of viscous, dark liquid trailed upwards, through his wispy eyebrows and up over his forehead. Slowly.
Juhasz continued to dab at his shirt with a rag. The blood had come out of his mustache, at least. Spinella cinched his belt around Stillwell's shoulder, the makeshift sling holding up his bandaged wrist. Stillwell grimaced, the dull pain setting in as the adrenaline wore off. He warily eyed the steel door.
"I feel like we're back where we started." Coogan was pacing the small confines of the room.
"Nonsense. Now Spinella is in the tight, confined room with us." Juhasz tossed the rag away. Most of the blood was off him, anyhow. "Four is better than three."
"And I really appreciate that, by the way. So now that we've bandaged ourselves up, what's the plan?" The doctor fished his cigarette case out of his coat.
"We're not going anywhere for a while, that's for sure," said Stillwell. "Then again, this is a GRU-P safehouse. Or safe room, anyway. An operative could show up at any moment. So sheltering in place isn't a good idea, either."
Spinella exhaled a stream of blue smoke. "We're at least safe from the Red Army in here, right? Tell me that much at least."
"Oh, yes. GRU-P operates independently now from the Red Army central command. That's a fierce rivalry, that one. They say that Zhukov tried to have Zherdev arrested, back in '37." Juhasz was opening cabinets now as he spoke. "How they got Stalin to change his mind about allowing it, well. No one talked about that."
"Why are we still listening to him? For all we know he could be holding us here until GRU-P arrives to collect us." Coogan's pacing grew quicker, his frustration building.
Juhasz's attention remained in the supply cabinet as he rummaged. "Go ahead then, walk on out. I'll even let you take the rifle."
"He's just as screwed as we are if they show up, Coogan." Stillwell put his good hand on Coogan's shoulder. "We're in this together now, like it or not."
"I sure as hell don't like it." Spinella stubbed out his cigarette.
"That doesn't matter," said Stillwell. "Gripe about it when we get back."
"When we get back. Pretty optimistic, if you ask-"
Spinella was cut off by the sound of the vision slit in the iron door abruptly sliding open. A pair of pale blue eyes quickly scanned the room, and then the slit closed again.
"Shit!" Stillwell quickly barked out orders. "Coogan, Juhasz, grab whoever that was!"
The two men sprang for the door. Before they could reach it, the interloper calmly addressed them.
"I'm armed. I'll shoot anyone who opens that door. Just as you'll shoot me if I open it." The voice was a woman's, her English flawless. "We need to talk."
Juhasz and Coogan looked to Stillwell; he held up a hand to them. Cautiously, he stepped closer to the door, between the two men. "So let's talk. Who are you?"
Stillwell thought he heard the unseen woman move closer to the door herself. "I'm someone who knows where this room is. I'm someone who knows that you're not GRU-P operatives. And you know I'm not GRU-P either, since you're still alive."
Stillwell thought the response over. Coogan looked to him for what came next. Juhasz appeared to be searching his memory. Whoever she was, she had a point. If they had been found out by GRU-P, the last thing they would have seen would have been the door being blown.
"Suppose we know what GRU-P is." Stillwell edged closer still to the door, eyeing the handle. "Who says you're any better? Maybe you just want to lure us out."
"That may be," the woman responded. "But I've come from Site-7." She let the sentence hang for a moment. "And you're never going to get there without my help."
More sounds of shuffling from the other side of the door. She continued. "I'm putting my gun away. Now, if you open the porthole, you will see me with both my hands up, empty. Every moment I am out here, we all risk being discovered. Let me inside, and we can talk further."
Stillwell considered. He looked at Coogan; he was shaking his head. He looked at Juhasz; he merely looked back. Stillwell reached for the vision slit.
"No," Coogan whispered.
He was undeterred. Stillwell slid the vision slit open. He saw a woman in a winter coat, blond, hair pulled back. His age, possibly younger, her face inscrutable, the blue eyes meeting his unflinchingly. Her hands were in front of her, palms out, as promised.
They held each other's gaze, each taking the measure of the other. She could be any number of things, leading them into a trap, for God knows what reason or on whose behalf. He thought one more time about how they were going to get to Site-7. He scanned her face one more time.
"I'm going to open this door now. No one is going to make any sudden movements. You're going to walk inside, slowly. Whoever else is out there, if this is a trick, we'll make sure to take you with us."
Coogan's eyes went wide. He resumed shaking his head, furiously.
"I understand. Open the door when you're ready." The woman kept her hands visible. As she spoke, Stillwell noticed her teeth were made entirely out of steel.
Coogan had picked up the rifle as Stillwell had been talking. Stillwell signaled him now with a glance, and Coogan trained the gun on the door. He reached for the handle, and felt the heavy iron bolts in the door frame give way as he turned it. No turning back now. He slowly opened the door, the unoiled hinges squealing loudly.
The woman stood in the doorway. A briefcase was on the ground beside her. The hallway beyond her was empty. Stillwell waved his good hand at her, motioning for her to come inside. She slowly picked up the briefcase, and obliged, her steps measured as she moved to the corner of the room next to the door. Stillwell shut it quickly, then told Coogan to lower the rifle. After a few seconds of grudging acknowledgement, he obliged.
"Now we can have a real talk. Who are you?" Stillwell stood directly opposite her, about two paces away.
Juhasz moved next to Stillwell. "Judging by physical characteristics and what she knows, this must be Sergeant Ekaterina Nechayeva, of the KGB. Assigned to the Eleventh Directorate, that's the one that handles our sort of business, Sergeant?"
"Directorate K." Nechayeva looked over Juhasz. "And it looks like the rumors of a defection in Zherdev's ranks are true after all. I'm amazed the Foundation didn't execute you when you came back."
Juhasz smiled. "They likely will when they don't need me anymore. A better fate than the one that awaits all of us if GRU-P has their way."
"Wait. If she's KGB, what's keeping her from just telling GRU-P that we're here?" Coogan's rifle raised a little as he spoke.
"There's a war within the Soviet government right now," replied Juhasz. "The KGB is the only thing standing in the way of Stalin succeeding where Truman has failed. Something I'm sure you're not too keen on Koba finding out, Sergeant."
Nechayeva's eyes flashed momentarily, a ripple across her composed face, passing almost instantly. "Comrade Stalin has seen the results of our research. In time, the Politburo will remember why it has needed the Foundation in the past, once we have subdued GRU-P's madness."
Stillwell interjected. "Our research? So Site-7 has been compromised."
"Your research director, Dr. Geissler, had an arrangement with us. We have provided resources and shared data with the Foundation. The woman you know as SCP-1041 has assisted, when she's been able. The results, you should see for yourself."
Nechayeva lifted the briefcase. She offered it to Stillwell.
"You open it." Spinella eyed the briefcase warily.
"Of course," said Nechayeva. She pushed in the latches of the briefcase, opening it slowly, in full view of the room. Assorted documents were inside. Stillwell accepted the now-opened briefcase, quickly rifling through the information. He paused at several, reading over a lab report here and a schematic there. He closed the briefcase.
"I'd heard about research like this. The things that could be done with it." Stillwell handed the case to Spinella.
"This is what we could grab in the little time that we had," said Nechayeva. "I was supposed to extract SCP-1041. But your group showed up."
"That we did." Stillwell shrugged. "Where were you planning on taking her?"
"Somewhere safe," Nechayeva replied.
Stillwell paused. "If what's in these notes is true…"
"We can have faith that the research is legitimate," Juhasz interjected. "GRU-P would have liquidated the site entirely by now if there was nothing to it."
Stillwell nodded in agreement. "We need to get to the bottom of this. We've got to talk to 1041."
"That means getting her out of Site-7 alive," said Nechayeva. "A change of plans, I imagine."
"That's right." Stillwell acknowledged without hesitation. "Any ideas?"
The conversation was interrupted by Spinella suddenly cursing, shaking something off of his pant leg. The corner in which the old man had lay quietly, unnoticed in the commotion, was now enveloped in a spreading pool of thin, black sludge, flowing up walls and over the ceiling in direct defiance of gravity. It had just reached beyond the shadows, the black sheen encroaching on the room's scant lighting.
Spinella jerked away from the spreading black ooze, a hole burned through the leg of his trousers where the liquid had made contact. They could hear drywall crumbling and support beams groaning behind the old man now.
"What the hell is it doing?" Coogan pointed the rifle at the old man. The old man gazed back at the rifle with dead eyes, rictus grin plastered on its face, shining through the black liquid that was beginning to cover him.
"What these specimens always do, with enough time." Nechayeva calmly but firmly put a hand on Coogan's shoulder and pushed him aside. She reached into her coat and drew her pistol.
Stillwell's first instinct was to knock the gun from her hand. Something deeper than instinct stayed his good hand. He watched as she raised her weapon.
Nechayeva shot the old man through his left eye. The report of the pistol was deafening in the confines of the room; Stillwell felt like a hammer had been brought down right next to his ear. A thick gobbet of black sludge splattered against the wall directly behind the old man's head. He leaned forward slightly, coming to rest from the impact of the bullet in his skull. The shot left a wide, yawning, dark hole where his eye once was, framed by the unchanging grin. The flow of the liquid across the ceiling and the walls seemed to stop. The sounds of the walls continuing to give way did not.
Spinella was first to speak. "Finally, someone does something fucking sensible at last." He tucked a cigarette behind his ear.
Stillwell looked to Nechayeva. "Do you know how to get us into Site-7?"
She nodded, putting the pistol back in her coat.
"We can plan on the way there. Let's get out of here."
The team gathered up the stolen rifle and some meager stores of food and ammunition that had been left in the safe room. As they filed out, Stillwell took one last look into the corner. The black substance had not encroached any further. But he could no longer see the old man. There was no time to consider the implications. He closed the door behind him.