Directly across from Stillwell sat Juhasz in the green plastic chair. To his left was Coogan on the threadbare gray couch. Stillwell shifted in his flimsy wooden folding chair. Its creaking echoed far too deeply for the small room in which they waited. Motes of dust hung unmoving, fixed in space, illuminated by a sickly shaft of thin light coming down from a skylight with a view of nothing.
Coogan shifted his bulk, his huge hands flexing, cracking his knuckles yet again. He looked to the mission's commanding officer.
"We could have really used guns for this."
Stillwell frowned. "That's not a good idea in this place. The symbolism isn't something we want rattling around in here. It was hard enough to get the place into this condition."
Juhasz smiled, a flash of teeth underneath his bushy black mustache. "Amusing. And yet we stuff a killer, a traitor, and a thug in here. No second thoughts."
"There were plenty of second thoughts." Stillwell shook his head. "No reason to add more risk where it's not needed. Three fellas packing heat in a Kraków restricted zone would cause enough problems anyway."
Coogan sat up. "I thought getting through the restricted zone was the whole point of this place."
Stillwell checked his watch. "Never know when you might need to bail out."
The banging on the door in the room's shadowed foyer started again, growing more insistent and hurried than when they had first entered.
"And what is that?" said Coogan.
"Don't open the door," replied Stillwell.
Spinella was barely able to get the wheelchair he was pushing off of the plaza and into an alcove before he slumped his decreasing weight against the wall, doubling over as the wet, rough coughing wracked his body. By the time he was finished, his vision was blurred, tears forced from his eyes by the violent fit, his head throbbing. He looked at his handkerchief, studying the spots of blood that were there more often than not now.
The wheelchair's occupant, as ever, stared blankly forward. Even through the numerous layers of thick woolen clothing, it was easy to tell that the man in the chair was emaciated and little more than bones and weathered skin. Wiry gray hair poked out from all around his knit cap, the sunken and waxen cheeks impervious to the feeling of the cold. The rictus grin stuck on his face was not reflected at all in his blank, rheumy eyes. To the casual observer, the only indication that Spinella wasn't pushing a corpse around was the old man's constant, slow cackling. It was apparently a reflex reaction of some sort, a brain defect. The knowledge never made Spinella's mood any better.
Spinella wiped his mouth one more time on his handkerchief, then fished the leather case out of his coat pocket. He took out a cigarette, flicked open the metal lighter, lit it and drew. The smoke seared his lungs, while he felt a slow calmness settle back into his body. He reflected again on the mission. The Foundation's only neurologist sent to reconnoiter Site-7, now unresponsive for two weeks. Accompanying a poorly-understood, anomalous humanoid into an area controlled by Soviet military police. They had told him that he was to get the hell out of there as soon as he could. That was the only part that made even a little bit of sense to him.
Spinella dragged deeply on the cigarette, the pain bright and terrible in his chest. This sort of ridiculous operation was a perfect emblem of today's state of affairs. Unsuitable operatives doing stupid things because there was no other choice. And the evacuation from the Soviet territories wasn't even completed yet. The manner in how things were supposed to improve from here was well beyond his reckoning. He drew on the cigarette until the embers were close enough to burn his fingers. Then he cast the little stub into the gutter, and exhaled a slow, lazy stream of blue smoke into the frigid night air. He was now ready to resume. Just another couple of kilometers. Mindless cackling accompanied Spinella back into the plaza as he pushed the old man's wheelchair ever onward.
The young team leader leaned forward in his chair, and regarded Juhasz. "We never had the chance to debrief when you came back in," said Stillwell. "Lafourche said you had calculated that you were better off here than there. But why? They've already seized eight Sites. You could have finished off this whole thing if you wanted. Killed all of us."
Juhasz leaned back and sighed. He studied the man before him, the curiosity in the prodigal operative's face reminding Stillwell of a professor back at MIT. "It was a close call. The Russians could still win, and in short order. Your little play in the States was quite successful, you know."
"Please don't call that a success." Stillwell's stomach clenched at the memory, his hands suddenly clammy.
"Oh, but it was marvelous. When Zherdev heard what the Americans were doing, he looked like a gutted fish," Juhasz chuckled at the recollection. "You should have seen him. All of them. They thought Truman was coming to wipe them all out. But you, you scared the Yanks so thoroughly, all they have instead is their precious nuclear stockpile."
Stillwell swallowed back the excess saliva and took a couple of breaths. "So why return, if the Soviets have such an advantage? You're a smart man, why choose a losing side?"
Juhasz frowned, clicking his tongue a few times. "I saw what they're planning."
The statement hung in the air between the three men like the unmoving dust motes. The knocking on the foyer door had now turned to heavy thumping, more forceful than before. It rattled the whole room, the vibrations reaching in to Stillwell's bones and imbuing him with the sense that something was very, very angry.
Coogan broke the silence. "How do we know you're not still working for them?"
Juhasz replied softly, the note of concern in his voice surprising to Stillwell.
"Don't open the door."
"Why do you not speak Russian?"
Why? Because I'm supposed to be from Poland, you arrogant prick, thought Spinella. He forced out another line in fake broken English.
"I am not so good with the language, tovarishch. Please, to let my father through to the Institute."
The checkpoint guard looked lean and hungry, like the war had ended yesterday. He looked down at the wheelchair occupant, the grim set of his jaw unwavering as he handed the forged Polish passport and identification back to Spinella. "He looks to be dead soon regardless. You don't look so good yourself."
"It's just a small cough. Too bad, I bought two cartons of cigarettes, here in my satchel, they'll go to waste." Spinella coyly touched the pack hanging from his side. "Oh well. We are just checking in, won't be very long."
"I should say not." The lean soldier permitted himself a slight smile. "Yuri, idi syuda!" He motioned another guard to come over, indicating with a glance Spinella's pack. The second guard, small-eyed and hulking, roughly upended the pack onto a nearby table, shuffling and picking through the contents while the lean guard kept his eyes locked on Spinella, calmly drumming his fingers on the stock of the Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. Yuri sifted through Spinella's pack for what felt like an eternity, the seconds passing like hours. He abruptly stopped his search, tapping his comrade on the arm. The two soldiers conferred over the contents of the pack now, backs to Spinella.
Please just be the cigarettes. Just take the bribe and move on. Spinella's thoughts raced to what else they might be looking at. What other suspicions might be raised.
"What is the meaning of this, now?" The first guard turned back toward Spinella. The second guard was holding a bottle of duty-free vodka, plumbed from the depths of the satchel. Spinella grimaced as he wheezed an exhalation of relief from his chest. The dance continued, just as planned.
"Something to keep me warm on my visit, tovarishch. You know how these things go."
The lean guard smiled once more, tucking the bottle into his coat as Yuri removed the cartons of smokes from the contents arrayed on the table. "We shall inspect these goods further. Lots of smugglers, that sort of thing coming through this crossing. You may take the rest of your belongings and proceed."
The vise that had tightened around Spinella's heart and stomach relaxed its grip. He tried not to let the relief that overtook him show on his face. "Many thanks. We'll be on our way." He moved to push the wheelchair through the checkpoint, when the old man started to cackle. Wheezing, low chuckling completely devoid of anything human, that could have come from a faulty bellows or a distant air vent if Spinella weren't watching it come from his traveling companion. Their passage came to a halt.
Yuri stopped them. "What is so funny, old man?" He stood directly in front of the wheelchair, crouching down to be able to look into the man's lifeless, watery eyes.
Oh fuck. Oh fuck. "Please, he is old man, senile, you know?"
The old man continued his reflexive chuckling. Yuri's expression darkened. He looked now to Spinella, accusingly. "Why does he do that?"
"It's reflexive. Please, don't look at him, it upsets him." Spinella hurriedly tried to deflect. Jesus Christ, don't look him in the eyes.
"Traitor in our midst" the old man wheezed out. "Treachery inside. Treachery." He resumed the obscene, mirthless laughter. "I can see it in me, oh yes."
The two guards looked at each other. The lean guard brought his weapon round, his trigger finger sweeping down over the safety lever in a fluid motion as he readied the rifle.
"Do you know what Command put out this morning? They said to watch for anything unusual today at the checkpoints."
He looked at Spinella. The smile was still there, but all traces of amusement were gone.
"You must agree, this situation. It's unusual."
Yuri silently moved behind Spinella. The lean guard continued.
"What sort of man are you bringing in here? What are you playing at?"
The Foundation neurosurgeon was dumbstruck. In all the time they had studied this creature, it had never spoken. But now, this…thing, had picked this moment for the first time to say something. The whole goddamn thing was about to come apart.
There was only one option left now. He would die on his own terms.
Spinella suddenly turned around and drove a fist into Yuri's groin, striking as hard as he could. The soldier cursed, wide-eyed with shock as he sank to his knees. Spinella tried to make a run for it with his wheelchair-bound abomination. As he started, his foot slipped on a patch of ice, and he fell to the ground. Not even a chance to start running, he thought, struggling uselessly to get up. His thoughts were interrupted by a blow to the back of the head that sent him to the ground. The lean guard stood over Spinella, barely visible through his blinding pain, the rifle now pointed at him.
The old man's eyes remained blank the whole time, the stretched translucent skin of his face pulled taut into its ever present skeletal grin, expression unchanging as he inexplicably spoke.
"They'll kill us all. Every single one." The ragged chuckling resumed as the checkpoint gate closed.
The three men were all standing now. The door rattled in its hinges, somehow staying intact through the terrific force on the other side slamming into it. Stillwell's teeth rattled each time whatever it was barreled into the increasingly unstable barrier.
"The room is shrinking" remarked Juhasz.
It was true. If Stillwell jumped, he could now touch the skylight. Something was very wrong.
Coogan clenched his fists. "How is that-"
The three men were knocked from their feet as another blow struck the door frame. The unknown force had knocked a hole through the middle of the door, splinters of wood traveling through the air like mist, unnaturally slow. Only darkness was visible on the other side.
The room had suddenly shrunk again. The ceiling was now just an inch or so over their heads.
"The key" said Stillwell. "We need it now."
Coogan hurriedly unbuttoned his coat and his shirt collar, looking down. "It's not here, it's supposed to be here!"
"It's supposed to be around your neck," shot back Juhasz, "how can it not be there?"
"He has to put it there from outside! I don't have it! What is he doing?"
The two other men looked at Stillwell. They were now hunched together, constricted by the bounds of the room. The chairs were pressed against them and the walls touched their shoulders. They were face-to-face with the door.
Stillwell buttoned his thick, long coat. "Get ready."
Juhasz arched an eyebrow. "For what?"
"I don't know."
Coogan began to pray. A blow of pulverizing force suddenly shattered the door to pieces. The room was no more.