The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
10.00 am, 11th July 1999
'We should search the room properly for any remaining clues!' exclaims Stuart.
Grace has other ideas, though, and sweeping all the loose papers together she is already heading for the door. 'Let's beat a hasty retreat, before the authorities turn up and we and the soldiers get into serious trouble,' she calls over her shoulder.
Kris, glancing around for something useful to take, snatches the singed bonsai tree.
Master Sergeant Palaev seems of Grace's mind - he has pulled a number of strings to be able to initiate this operation, but its results are now sufficiently obvious that more governmental entities, over whom he has less influence, are bound to become involved. He shakes his head despondently as he organizes his platoon to pick up Katrina and the various bodies.
'Follow to retrieve the body? And how would we do that?' Vera asks, glaring at Zhukov and ignoring everyone else. 'I know! You're going to sprout wings. Unfortunately, they'd probably be the wings of some depressed Russkie chicken! Besides, I have an idea. You believe in these things. You could use the books to get the body back. Abracadabra!' Vera shakes one of her late parents' books under the priest's nose.
Zukhov loses his temper with the young American. He utters some sort of expletive about the devil's mother and strikes Vera on the side of her head with his fist. 'You know what your uncle and your parents suffered from those accursed !'
While the blow has forced Vera to step back, she quickly rights herself and interrupts the priest. 'My parents were murdered by very human hands. No brimstone! No magic swans descending on them. They survived the book's vengeance for years. I'm living proof of that! You coward! Lenin's body and the people mean nothing to you. Russia means nothing to you. The Armageddon these monsters may unleash means nothing to you.'
The priest strikes Vera again. This time she does not stagger at all, but a little blood trickles from her lip. 'Bitch!' he yells. 'It was not so long ago that we burned people like you. No-one wants to die. Forgive me, if I choose not to risk my life for you.'
In one motion Vera brings the book around and slams it with both hands into the tall Russian's forehead. The blow sends him to the floor. She kneels with one knee on his chest and puts a hand around his throat, the book still gripped tightly under her free arm. She goes nose to nose with Zukhov, but speaks in a voice loud enough for all to hear. 'I'm here. Worry about me. My uncle was alone when he tried to use the books. You will have me and hopefully the rest of us with you to lend moral support, diffuse any negative karma and in my own case to kill you if you try to betray!'
Vera gets off the priest and begins to pace. Grace begins to say something, but Vera interrupts her. 'Unless you have a proven way to track a giant swan in flight across great distances, or if Herr Ulek can massively increase the range of his device this minute, then I suggest we all go back to my hotel, get the other book and take our chances with his life,' Vera says, glancing at Zukhov.
'I was just going to say that these plans,' Grace indicates them, 'of Mytishchi - that's where we were told that Dai-Mitsu had their agrochemical plant, to the north of the city. And the swan was heading north. So they might have gone there.'
'Ha, yes, very good,' says Stuart, who has been trying to find it on a map of the region.
Palaev kindly indicates it for him. 'We can be there by evening, in a personnel carrier, if that is where you think they have taken the Starost.'
Zukhov starts to get up, looking hopeful, but Vera stops him with a glance. 'Not so fast, Hermes-boy. There's still a heap of things we need to know, and you and those demons are going to find it out for us.'
Zukhov sighs. 'Vera, I know you want to punish me for what happened to your parents. Well, so be it, like Our Lord I know how to take the blame for the deeds of others. But with a little luck it will not come to that.'
Vera takes the paper swan out of her pocket and gives it to him. He stares at it for a moment and says, 'If I am going to make of myself a sacrifice, then I will at least do it on my own ground. At my church, Saint Vasiliev's.'
'Then you and I will go pick up my uncle and the other book,' Vera answers. 'Meet you others at the church?'
'Er, I guess so,' says Stuart, who has been rather baffled by this interplay, as indeed has everyone else in the room. Grace and Kris exchange a glance.
Stuart fills the time before the ritual gathering information. He ascertains from the hotel staff - slipping the concierge twenty dollars, as Palaev and his troops scurry out through the kitchens - that Mizoguchi is booked in for another two nights.
'There have been some sightings of the swan reported to the police,' says Alexey, who has been monitoring their waveband on Stuart's instruction. 'Heading north still, over the outskirts of the city. Then above the clouds, but still heading north.'
'Mytishchi it is, then,' says Stuart with satisfaction. 'Sergeant, who could have sabotaged that grenade? It would have to be someone who knew our target, but couldn't get a warning out before we attacked.'
'Someone at the barracks, then. In the arms locker perhaps, or someone who overheard our plans. But it would have to be someone in the regiment, I think, unless the government has us infiltrated.'
'I'm betting it was our friend Miss Dyson, or some Ylid agent,' says Kris mordantly. 'Or maybe she is an Ylid agent.'
Palaev frowns. 'It could perhaps have been her, yes. But it was a rather random sabotage. It could have destroyed Mizoguchi, or it could have destroyed the Starost, it was very unpredictable. You would think that Dyson, if she is for the government, would not risk the Starost like that.'
'Well, I think you should check over your other equipment, thoroughly,' says Stuart sensibly. Palaev nods. 'And can you issue me with a gun, for when we raid Mytishchi?'
'Kalashnikov? Or a handgun perhaps.'
Upon returning to the Savoy, Vera packs her new fur coat in its box, places a note inside, and then sends for the hotel's courier service to take it away. The coat is destined for Dyson. The note says. 'Dearest Hannah, I may have to fly a little more abruptly than I planned. If my departure does not cause a general conflagration, then perhaps this coat will keep you warm. Wear it well. Vera.'
Meanwhile, Ned has ordered about half the Savoy's room service menu and is merrily stabbing away at the plates piled with food using a fork gripped in his bandaged hands. He looks up just long enough to smile at her and say, 'I can still eat!'
'Then I'll cancel the rubber hose,' Vera responds. 'Uncle Ned, I need you to come with Zukhov and myself to meet the rest of the group at the church.'
'As long as I never see those books again,' he says.
Vera slides the second book out from between Ned's mattress and box spring. His eyes grow a little wider at the sight of the books. 'Actually uncle, we're going to use them again.'
Ned says nothing, but he looks a little pale.
While Kris and Grace, together with the excited Dr Ulek - he is displaying a gung-ho streak that no-one would have suspected - plan an assault on the plant, with Palaev, Stuart phones through to SITU in London.
Stuart describes the origami swan, and Geoff Blaize sucks air through his teeth. 'Yerss right, makes sense. Yes, we've seen this sort of thing before - a fellow named Yatsuo Shimaya, in Norway last year, had an origami dragon that came to life. We're pretty sure he was an agent of the Japanese Ylid Yashimoto, the man who runs Dai-Mitsu, the same as your man Mizoguchi is. We're planning a mission to Japan in a few weeks' time, to try and sort that Ylid out - with what you've reported, and the trouble he's already caused us, it's clear he's one of the most senior. If we can take him down their structure'll suffer a severe blow.'
'What can you tell us now that might help?'
'Well, the Norway one, the dragon, was taken down by a fire extinguisher, foam-based. They tried burning it first, because it was made of paper, but that didn't do any good at all. It wasn't very sturdy, but it had a seriously fiery breath weapon.'
'Righto,' says Stuart, making notes. 'The other abilities he showed, I guess they could all be put down to some sort of advanced ninja training, right?'
'Yes, that was true of Shimaya, certainly - superhuman quickness, toughness, jumping, unarmed combat, resistance to poisons - the whole James Bond thing.' Blaize gives a curt bark of a laugh. 'Wouldn't surprise me to learn that Yashimoto has his secret base inside a volcano! But the Japanese mission'll be finding that out. If you can terminate Mizoguchi and recover the Lenin corpse - or else destroy it, rather than let it fall into the hands of another Ylid or remain under Ylid influence - we'll count that as a victory.'
'Are you sure you want him along?' Stuart indicates Ulek.
'We'll need to use his detector to find the body - this chemical plant's a pretty big place,' says Grace. 'And it's too complicated for him to teach one of us how to use it.' She looks over at Ulek. 'Besides, he might enjoy it.'
'We must assume that the plant will be full of hostiles,' says Palaev. 'And we will be heavily outnumbered. Therefore we will need to make our own surprise.' He taps the plans of the plant, which are laid out alongside a list of its products which Kris has had faxed through from Imperial. The plant has only been in operation a year, and has an exemplary safety record. 'Here is a silo of phosphate, the base for making fertilizer. This is highly inflammable material - and the silo is fireproof, yes, but not bombproof. I suggest that we first establish a mortar position in the woods, here, above the site, and inside three shots - two minutes - we should be able to set this silo off. Then we lay down a screen of smoke, and storm the place - if Dr Ulek has been able to locate the Starost's whereabouts. One squad assaults here, by the ethylene pipeline. The other with the APC, here through the secondary site gates. We have to assume they will have aerial surveillance, which we will not, so we should wait until dark - the fire will disrupt their infra-red detection devices.'
'Will that be a big fire?' asks Kris, warily. She can almost see the tower of flame, twisting into the night sky.
'Yes, of course.' Palaev looks at her. 'Many people will be killed. This is the way of war, yes? We are fighting the enemies of Russia, and enemies of your people as well.
The operatives regroup at the church of St Vasiliev, where Father Zukhov is deep in prayer in front of the altar. Vera motions them to join her in a rear pew. She regards the still rather pale Katrina curiously. 'Care to tell us anything about your knife, Katrina? Like how you came by it?'
'I was wondering that too,' says Grace gently.
Katrina shrugs. She is not at all sure what she wants any of the others to know about how she came by the sinister dagger. She is still not sure she believes it herself.
Stuart comes into the church, shaking rain from his jacket. 'I've arranged that we'll meet Palaev at his barracks at six pm. Gino'll be there, too - he's seeing some of his family's contacts first.'
At last Zukhov straightens up. He looks more serious than the operatives have hitherto seen him, and clad in his ornately gilded vestments he is an impressive figure. On the altar in front of him are the two leather-bound books.
Eventually, Zukhov begins working. 'I do not know if I can bring Lenin to us, but I will see.' He seems exhilarated, his eyes bright and his movements febrile. 'Before now this is all theory to me, you understand. I have never summoned a demon before. Or wanted to. Only a very rash person would.'
'Do you think we're safe here?' asks Stuart nervously.
Vera looks at him. 'Probably not.'
The smell of incense hangs heavy in the still air of the little church, six blocks of it smouldering away around the altar. Lights pick out the icon of the Saviour that stands on what in an English church would be the east wall, its gilt glimmering. The altar is due underneath the round onion dome, the inner surface of which is painted with an extravagant host of angels and golden stars leading the eye upwards to the underneath of the lantern.
Father Zukhov starts to sing, in a deep, mellow voice, in archaic Russian, answering himself in antiphony. The clear, vibrant tones rise up to fill the dome, spilling back in reverberation, commanding the space effortlessly. The light of the icons seems to brighten, calm-faced saints and Madonnas gazing coolly back at their votary.
After only ten minutes, Zukhov's voice changes, and he starts singing in what Grace has postulated is the dead language of Mu, the language in which the Master's books are written. To the others, the sounds have no meaning, but their power is apparent, each syllable seeming to carry a freight of worth far beyond what pale modern languages are capable of.
There is a gust of wind, and three candles on the menorah on the alter-table gutter and expire. Zukhov ignores them and continues to sing. Grace translates mentally ' come forth, I command thee, blood of blood, fire of fire, down the spaces I command thee '
The smell quite suddenly changes, from the sweet, spicy incense to a reek of rot. The level of light drops considerably, far more than can be explained by the extinction of two more candles on the menorah. Kris can smell burning. Burning flesh.
A shaft of flickering red light strikes down from the dome, pinning Zukhov like a spotlight. The inner dome of light and angels has gone, now all that is there is fire, playing downwards. The priest drops to his knees as though poleaxed, his face contorted. His voice falters, and he cries out in pain.
Vera leaps to her feet, striding into the aisle. 'Demon! Answer to me!'
There is no response, just a scratchy sussurrus. The flames continue to lick downwards, while Zukhov writes impotently under them, his vestments starting to singe and blacken.
Vera moves forward, cautious but calm, towards the altar. 'This man has called you at my behest, and now you must answer to me!'
A pause, then at last a voice, a bubbling, oily voice, like boiling fat. 'I answer to you, little sister, but because I choose, not because this fool has bound me. His power is in no wise great enough.'
'What is your name?' The demon just laughs, an inexpressibly repellent sound. 'Well, I ask you to bring us Mizoguchi, and the body of Lenin he stole.'
'That lies beyond my power. The powerful ones of this realm have him in their strong place.'
'Where is that place?'
'Not far from here. Northwards, in the forest.'
There is a terrible cry from Zukhov, whose clothes are now flaming. Vera ignores him. 'Will you give us a weapon against the Ylids? You need us for your strength, don't you? - you demons? If we people stop believing in you, then the supernatural will die?'
The demon laughs again. 'You understand little, sister. We would be stronger if the ones you call Ylids were rulers once more. They work hard to foster belief in us. You lesser humans try to stifle it.'
Zukhov screams in agony, his hair now burning, and Kris can stand it no longer - the pain of the memory in her breaks her out of the fascination the demon has exerted. 'Stop! He'll die!' She barges out into the aisle.
Vera ignores her too. 'One last thing, then, if you truly think of me as your sister, you should help me on this. My parents - one of your kind has their souls. I want them free. In return you can have these books - which contain the knowledge Ylids and humans have used to bind and demand service from demons.'
'An interesting suggestion,' says the demon. There is a breath's pause.
The door at the back of the church bursts open, and in steps Hannah Dyson, in uniform, an assault rifle slung, two troopers with her. 'Vera! What are you bogou miou!' She stops, horrorstruck at the sight.
'I accept,' says the demon, and the two books on the altar instantly burst into flame, just as Kris reaches Vera, while Zukhov continues to writhe in agony.