Matryoshka: Part Five
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Nechayeva emerged from a utility panel in a frozen alleyway after a thirty minute trek through the underground service corridors. She recognized her surroundings as a nearby power substation. She was met by the sound of sirens in the distance. She kept her pistol in her hand, low and as out of sight as possible as she made her way to the edge of a nearby fence, taking care to step on the patches of bare ground between the small drifts of snow. She peeked around the corner, searching out the third utility pole on the left side of the street. She looked for the white chalk mark.

It wasn't there.

Her curse left her lips as a sharp trail of white steam in the cold winter air. The drop was compromised. Someone at command had made the call to abandon the other part of the operation to secure the GRU-P safe house. Were the sirens the aftermath of the operation's failure? In any event, there would be no extraction team. No place to leave the documents. Nobody waiting to take SCP-1041 and the fruits of three years of research out of Zherdev's hands.

A truck sped by, kicking up a trail of dirty slush as ten security officers, rifles at the ready, made their way to whatever had caused the disturbance. A disturbance that happened to be in the vicinity of the drop point, if the sirens were any indication. She thought back to the briefing in Novosibirsk. This sector of Kraków was a restricted area, under Red Army jurisdiction. Security protocols would mean that at least three other trucks would be en route to an alarm like that. Plans B and C looked to be shot as well.

Several steps back, she retreated into the service corridor. Possibilities and permutations of the likely situation shuffled through her mind. The planners back home had spun the various intel sources into a tapestry of diverging scenes, all with potential to occur during the mission. Chernikov and his GRU-P delegation would certainly be arriving in person at Site-7, but probably not until after her operation was completed. The probability of a direct encounter between herself and any hostiles was pegged at 15%. The mission would have been scrapped at 20%.

The Foundation was thought to be too busy cleaning up in America to mount any sort of offensive action in Eastern Europe. The likelihood of intervention on their part was projected at 25%, set higher than the planners ordinarily would because of the desperate tone of the intercepted cable from their assets in Warsaw. Rumors, however, persisted that GRU-P had a defector last month. A quick check-in with the field offices in Washington, London, Beijing and Cape Town turned up nothing. Zherdev's defector was likely imaginary. Or dead. But if he wasn't either of these, there was only one other place he could be. The planners, with much irritation, refused to rule out a Foundation mission in Kraków occurring in the same window of time as her operation.

Try as Petrov did to train the planning staff out of the habit, these assumptions were based on past mission histories, confirmed intelligence, state-of-the-art statistical models, game theory. Rationality. Nechayeva and the rest of the KGB field operatives that dealt with this sort of thing were well familiar with how fragile these assumptions could be.

Nechayeva stilled herself and listened to the tenor of the sirens of the distance, allowed the echoes of the trucks and the bullhorns to wash over her perception. The cold air, brisk without biting, caressed her face. She inhaled deeply, discerning a faint whiff of truck exhaust through the cloying, metallic layer of ozone emanating from the tightly wound steel coils of the nearby power station. Copper?

There was no point going back to the Site without an escape plan. At this point, even a bad plan would have to do. But she needed to know more. Only GRU-P or Foundation would be raising any sort of commotion right now. Which would it be; negotiations, or bullets? No other answers could come before this one.

She would have to go to the drop point, regardless.

She listened again to the sounds of the city blocks around her, empty now except for soldiers. Most of the activity headed away from her, but through the faraway clutter, one noise seemed to be coming nearer; a high-pitched revving and buzzing. A bike. By the sound of it a single one, likely looking for civilian stragglers. It was time to act.

Nechayeva ran to the access gate of the nearby substation. The fence surrounding the substation was solid enough, but the door was secured by only one deadbolted lock. The deadbolt looked solid, likely too much for the picks she had with her. So she counted off ten paces away from the gate, then one step to the side. She gently set down the briefcase, then drew her pistol, training her sights to the lock on the door. With steady hands, she exhaled, then squeezed the trigger.

A sharp report, followed almost instantaneously by a dull thud as the slug ricocheted and buried itself in the wall about three meters away. Head height. Picking up the briefcase again, she inspected the lock. Broken enough. She delivered a sharp kick to the door, flinging it open. The motorcycle had stopped in the distance at the sound of her pistol, and now the buzzing engine was headed directly for her position. About four blocks away, she reckoned. Quickly, she looked for the main control panel. The most prominent cluster of boxes and lights was next to a large, standing metal coil. The heat from the coil had melted a circle in the fallen snow, leaving a prominent, ring-shaped drift surrounding it. Nechayeva paused. Then she ripped off a length of fabric from her civilian's coat, wrapping it around her right hand, tightly clenching her pistol. The motorcycle was almost there. She moved quickly.

The soldier cut the bike's engine. He could barely hear the squelched and muted voices from his radio. The district commander would be furious when he found out that the perimeter had missed this substation. Maybe it had been nothing? His heart sank when he saw the broken lock and the footprints. It had been something. Best to resolve it quickly.

There was one set of footprints in the snow, leading into the substation's interior. It had definitely been a gunshot. But only one person? It might have been one of the men of the platoon, screwing around after having too much to drink. In that case, it would be whoever he brought in that got the Commissar's rage, and not him for missing a civilian in the security cordon. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.

He warily followed the footprints into the substation. They looked small to him. So much the better; the last thing he wanted was to try and wrestle some drunk, hulking oaf back to the base. His radio, muted by his coat draped over the speaker, angrily demanded something. He thought he heard "perimeter" in the tirade somewhere. Shit. He hurried along, following the tracks.

The soldier felt a radiating heat on his face as he went further in, small twinges of metal creaking and groaning amid the tangle of cables and wires, the tiny hairs on his neck raising as though the current of the substation were leaking into the air around him. He came to a melted circle in the snow, bare ground marking a control console. The footprints ended.

"God damn it! Quit messing around! We have to get back!" He yelled to no one in particular. Every minute he was out looking, the Commissar would get angrier and angrier. They would both get skinned if he was out here looking around all day. He scanned his surroundings in increasing desperation. His eye caught.

A briefcase. Lying against the edge of the snow-circle, propped against a drift, about five meters away. It was the only clue to a mystery that he needed to solve before the radio burned a hole in his hip with its rage. He gingerly approached, each step measured and careful as he crouched low, old habits learned on Mamayev Kurgan kicking in now as he moved as quickly as he could without disturbing a single pebble or dirt clod. He kept a few paces of distance as he smoothly and quietly unsheathed his combat knife, scanning the ground in front of him for any hints of wires or suspicious patches of fresh dirt.

When he was satisfied that the ground around the briefcase was clear, he laid his rifle gently on the earth beside him, and lowered himself into a prone position. He crawled the last meter to the briefcase, carefully, delicately. He tilted his head, examining the tiny sliver of daylight between the bottom of the case and the snowbank. Nothing. Almost clear.

He took several deep breaths to steady his nerves. Plaintively, he brought his knife forward in his left hand, not ideal but better suited to the position his body was in. Gently, ever so gently, he began to work the tip of the blade between the case and the snowbank, listening for the slightest noise of any springs, bearings, or god knows what rolling around in the briefcase. He twisted his wrist slightly, and started to work the knife as a lever, moving the briefcase slightly.

Something right next to him burst out of the snowbank, sending piles of gray slush flying through the air, and for a moment he thought he was dead, but the briefcase was still intact. Then he felt a weight slam into the middle of his back, the shock causing him to release the hold on his knife. He turned his neck to find a woman, covered in snow, her hands wrapped in rags, pointing a pistol in his face as she drove her knee into his back.

"How…ho-how…" he stammered, still not convinced that he had not been blown up.

"The keys. To your bike."

He nodded back to the entrance. "In the ignition, I left them. What is this?"

The woman stood up and kicked the soldier's rifle away, gun still trained between his eyes. Nechayeva did not answer. She picked up the briefcase once more, her hands freezing but not too numb to keep a finger on the trigger. She started to back away, out of the substation. The soldier's eyes were still wide with shock at the ambush. He started at the fresh round of profanity blasting from the radio at his side.

"What did you tell them?"

He shook his head. "Nothing, just that I was checking out a gunshot, establishing the perimeter."

"What's caused the lockdown?"

"No one knows, they don't tell us shit. And who are you, anyway? What are you doing here?"

She motioned with her pistol for the soldier to stand up. Hesitantly, wearily, knowing what was coming, he obliged. He slowly put his hands behind his head.

"We're on the same side, comrade," said Nechayeva.

She lowered the pistol and discharged two rounds, one into each of the soldier's knees. He screamed and dropped to the ground, writhing in pain, blood seeping through his fingers where he clutched at his wounds.

"Now no one can tell you that you didn't do your duty," she said as she holstered her pistol. "Tell your commanding officer the truth. They'll sort it all out eventually. My apologies."

She turned and walked out of the substation, the soldier's curses trailing after her. She spotted his bike at the entrance. She stowed the briefcase in one of the saddlebags, mounted the bike, and with a kick started the small engine. In moments, she was speeding away from the scene.

She made her way through several back streets and alleys, looking for an access point to a concrete drainage ditch that passed behind the rendezvous point. After a few blocks, following a corrugated storm pipe from a nearby factory, she found it. Twisting the throttle, she zipped onto the service road, ducking her head to avoid a tree branch growing around the disused gate. She immediately raced north down the concrete ditch, swerving to avoid the clumps of mud or debris that dotted it. Alerting the local authorities was less than ideal, but if KGB had an advantage over GRU-P anywhere, it was dealing openly with the rest of the military. Hopefully, this all would prove more disruptive to Zherdev than KGB.

That was a problem for later. For now, she was headed to the drop point.

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