Matryoshka: Part Nine
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Stillwell poked his head up, slowly, peering through the grimy window pane down at the surgical theater below their perch in the mezzanine. He sank back down. Coogan was busy tying the sheets they had raided from the supply closet into knots. Nechayeva was cleaning the scavenged AK-47 from the Foundation crew's misadventure earlier in the day. Two weapons, the contents of a laundry room, nine rounds of ammunition remaining. And no plan.

"That was definitely Geissler down there. I can't be certain what he's doing, but it sure looks like assisting with whatever they're doing to 1041. I think we need to move now."

Nechayeva frowned at the disassembled parts spread out before her. She picked up the bolt and carefully dabbed at some unseen grit with a rag. "How did he look?"

"Pretty bruised up."

She returned the bolt to a larger assembly, picking it up and turning it over to inspect it. "So he resisted. That's good news for us."

"I don't think whatever he's doing down there is going to be good news."

"He thought of 1041 as a colleague. That was one of the reasons he kept so much of what we were doing from your command. He wouldn't willingly participate in Chernikov's experiment. No, he's planning something."

Stillwell crept up again for another look at the scene below. "You seem awfully certain of that."

Nechayeva slid the bolt carrier assembly back into place, the rifle's assembled parts clicking and sliding cleanly. "There is no certainty. But there's probability. That's why we're here together, no?"

Stillwell conceded the point silently.

Nechayeva continued. "Sometimes things aren't scientific. You have to look in a man's heart and make the best guess. What do you see, when you look at Herr Doktor Geissler?"

He lowered himself back down below the window ledge. "I see a Nazi war criminal whose expertise we happened to need in 1945," said Stillwell.

Nechayeva continued re-assembling the rifle. "No, you're letting emotion cloud your thinking. Look deeper."

Coogan looked up from his knot-tying. "Geissler's a Nazi?"

Stillwell thought, working to tamp down his initial revulsion. He thought of the scene in front of him, and added the facts. It didn't make sense. But then much of what he had seen didn't, either. "He's driven. He wouldn't have agreed to sever all ties and come work for us if he didn't have something to continue working on. He would have just went with the guys from Paperclip."

The young KGB operative nodded. "He's tied to the work. He sees nothing else. That is his loyalty."

"GRU-P has a purpose in mind for his work. He just wants it to exist. But what can he do to stop them?"

Nechayeva had finished assembling the rifle. "You are aware of what SCP-1041 does. But not who she is. And the answer to that is that she is the vessel for the souls of dozens of people. She's a living laboratory for Dr. Geissler's work. It was in that laboratory that he learned how to isolate and manipulate a human soul."

Coogan had stopped tying sheets together, entranced now in the conversation.

Stillwell was watching the scene below again. "So what is Chernikov doing down there?"

"He is extracting one of those souls. One that he's identified specifically for his needs."

"December," responded Stillwell.

Nechayeva nodded. "Dr. Geissler is the only one who fully understands the process, and it's too complex to just torture out of someone and hand off. But there is no way he will willingly do what Chernikov is asking. By now, he would have had half a dozen opportunities to kill himself with the equipment down there, and no one could have stopped him. Something is coming."

Stillwell kept his eyes on Geissler. He was affixing something to SCP-1041's head. "And so we wait."

Nechayeva slammed home the magazine into the reassembled rifle. "And so we wait," she replied. "You have combat experience?"

Stillwell nodded. "From Tarawa to Okinawa."

She considered his answer. She concluded her thoughts by reaching into her coat, and retrieving her pistol. She offered it to Stillwell, the grip facing him. Stillwell took it, opening it to take a look.

"Three bullets," he said. "Thank you." His voice was sincere.

Nechayeva nodded at his sling. "That arm's not of much use to you. I'll take the rifle."

Coogan checked his handiwork. He cracked his knuckles.

She can only stand by as the energy courses through her. For the first time, her movement in this place is not her own. She feels pulled, away from the procession of the others. The entirety of this place, its rules never clear to begin with, was being thrown into disorder. Snippets of other lives so brief as to be snapshots flutter past, no sense or context to any of the memories being scattered aloft into an endless sky. A birthday cake. Three men in an alley. A dog jumping into a river. The scent of aftershave. Bombers over a village.

A dull, red beacon in the darkness. It looks like a person. She floats, or runs, or swims or scrabbles to it, and it isn't long before it is clear that it's one of her. The one that Chernikov wants. The one that should not be let out.

The memory-images intensify here. A giant man looming overhead, fists on their way to crashing down. A forgotten cell, open to the winds of a blizzard. Bloodstained 500 rubles notes spilling from a briefcase. A man having stars tattooed on his knees. Guns. Knives. Fire. She steps closer, trembling from the feelings of hate pulsating from the red apparition, sickening her to her core. The images all start to coalesce into the same scene. Frozen earth. Craters. Twisted corpses, burned-out tanks. Columns of smoke on the horizon, a city block pounded into rubble, the tallest stack three meters high. She's close enough to see that she's screaming.

Of all the connections in this place, this may be the one she wished to be rid of before. But that is dwarfed into nothingness by the suffusion of terror that she is now feeling, watching herself be ripped forcibly from the unknown into the unknowable. The energy that is reordering everything is focused on the red woman before her, inside her. She is being called elsewhere. She feels like she is being held upside down over a cliff. She watches herself, the only thing more fearsome than what is happening being the thought of touching the faint red specter, radiating its fear-enhanced rage.

Her chest is hammering, watching the scene. She feels faint. She feels as though as she is going to pass out, but reptile impulses fight the feeling of consciousness slipping away. She dare not let her eyes close, must keep her awareness before it's stolen away forever into the dark. She is on her knees, her hands over her ears to block out the silent screaming from her identical sister as she is plucked away, the darkness swimming before her eyes, feeling drawn up to the same place but rooted to the spot that she is in at the same time.

On the most basic level that living beings can know, she knows that this is dying. It is not peaceful.

The red woman ascends, or descends, or dissipates, and her terror at contact evaporates as she claws at the apparition, desperate to keep it in place, afraid of the hole that will be left inside her. Her hands pass through nothing, the cheerful voice of the hateful man echoing now as something in her realm is breached, an opening tearing asunder, silent thunder that would shake the hills to pieces if it ever struck in the real world. Searing light floods her world, light that was never meant to shine here, the light of an alien star stripping its worlds of the sky and the ground and everything in between. The piece of her that has been chosen expands suddenly, her fury turned to a background radiation burning the entirety of this interior universe, consuming everything but not killing it, inexplicably. If there were any sense to this world her flesh would have been blasted away by the energy sustaining this hatred, but here she is, watching her own annihilation, and just when all other concepts and ideas and anything is overwhelmed by singular, burning animus to everything that has ever lived and ever will live, the red woman is gone. The world is back.

She has died. This is the first time one of her has died. She cannot comprehend it. All she is able to do is hold her hands to her face, her eyes squeezed shut so hard that she does not want to open them to see if her palms are covered in tears or blood. All she can speak is a hitching, stifled screech when she finds her breath, somewhere between a sob and a scream.

A thought, supplied by one of the others here, the first to recover their wits.

God help whoever is out there.












I am showered in human blood. The whole theater is painted red by the intended recipient. He was an unsuitable vessel for the experiment. Or Geissler sabotaged the experiment. Impossible for me to find out now. I don't need to reach into him to know that he's dead. The ring of bodies around the Foundation's freak is assurance of that.

The Major needs my protection. He is still alive. That I did need to confirm. Not sure what I would have done. Terrible thoughts. Suppress them.

I am a political officer of the people of the Soviet Union. I must protect the people who would protect them from themselves. I must endure if we are to endure.

Better. There is a flap of skin stuck to my boot. I will remove it.

I am holding the Major. I cannot carry him the way he carried me out, but I can move him away from this. Consequences of this failure are terrible thoughts. Zherdev will be angry. Suppress them.

The Major must survive. That is my duty. I will allow these thoughts because they help me to do my duty. Several people in the back are still alive. They are in great distress. Screaming. Attacking each other. Bleeding. They have given their lives to the people, one way or another. I will honor them later. I must get the Major out.

He is not heavy like the dead are heavy. I am grateful for that as I drag him to the exit.

Glass is breaking. An entire window is breaking. Two…no, three people. Guns. Scaling ropes. They mean harm. The Major will not be harmed. I will harm them. I will do my-

Coogan hit the ground, letting go of the improvised ropes made of tied bed sheets. His shoes crunched on broken glass. He did not remember how he got here.

"What the hell was that? Who's the Major, why am I-"

"Stay close! Stay focused!" Stillwell barked to make himself heard over the horrific din. The people who had survived were shrieking, or screaming, or growling like animals as they tore at each other with their bare hands. A man missing his eyes was making ungodly noises that stood out above the fray.

"Right, right! Yes sir!" Coogan moved closer to Stillwell, Nechayeva on his other side, guns in their hands.

"Remember! Keep the mission in your head! What's your job?"

"Grab 1041!"

"Even if?"

"Even if I don't remember why! Even if I'm somebody else!"

Nechayeva barked now. "Until we're out of here, there aren't any boundaries between minds! We have to concentrate!"

The word "concentrate" started to echo in Coogan's mind. A ruined church appeared in his mind. He was a little girl now, an older man, someone he trusted, yelling the word "concentrate" at him, over and over. The memory passed to Stillwell, who recognized the church. The Cathedral of Saints Boris and Gleb, destroyed in the Siege of Leningrad. The memory kindled fear in him, a kind he had not felt in a long time. He tried to keep the images from coming back.

Nechayeva clapped Coogan on the back as the signal to go. She saw Stillwell hesitate. She nudged him gently. Even in the midst of death she knew what he had just remembered; she was sympathetic. He stirred, refocused, and advanced. She moved aside and covered the other line of site. The commissar was dragging Chernikov away. Perfect. She lined up her rifle and took aim.

Suddenly she was in the jungle. The cold instantly replaced by sweltering, crushing heat, creatures buzzing and hissing in the trees. Her sights were a scope now. A man's head, facing away, dead in her sights. What was she waiting for?

Couldn't do it. Not in the back of the head. The act was treacherous enough, she needed to see his face. He was her commanding officer. It was what she owed him. The man turned around, talking to someone unseen. The bars on his collar identified him as an American lieutenant. She could tell that independently of the memory holder. She caught herself again as she felt the memory squeeze the trigger, and she was back in the present.

Suddenly she was aiming at nothing. Out of the corner of her vision she saw that Coogan had freed 1041, who was not conscious. Please let her not be dead. The large Foundation operative had hoisted her over his shoulder and making his way out. She could not see where Stillwell went. She looked over-

Pain. White-hot lancing pain as a piece of metal lanced into her thigh, making her crumple reflexively, screaming despite herself as she fell to the ground. She glanced downward and saw a crooked piece of thick wiring protruding from her leg, snapped off from an assembly somewhere in the explosion that ended the man in the cage. She scanned her surroundings quickly, grunting in pain with every movement as she struggled to sit upright. Movement focused her eyes as a woman stepped into view, impassively surveying her. A wreath of twisted metal shards and lethal flechettes of discarded wiring circled in the air over her head, eddying and swirling like a small dust devil. She looked down at Nechayeva. Another piece of wiring flew from the mass over her head, headed for her face.

Nechayeva rolled over in a quick spasm of movement, the piece of wiring burying itself in the tiled floor right next to her head. She brought the rifle to bear at her adversary's heart, no time at all to think. She squeezed the trigger. The gun clicked uselessly.

Cursing, she tried to throw the gun aside, only to have it shoot out of her hands, drawn to the infernal commissar that stood over her now as though she had had it on a string the whole time. Calmly, the metal detritus still circling overhead, Commissar Rosenstein looked curiously at the rifle, before detaching the magazine, looking at it, and putting it back in.

"Very easy to jam these," the commissar said. "Just a machine. Like everything else."

The commissar aimed the rifle at Nechayeva. The sights now on her heart. She scrabbled behind her for anything that might be a weapon. There were three shots.

Red splashes bloomed on the front of the commissar's uniform, in the midsection. Small droplets of blood as she reflexively coughed, falling to the ground. Stillwell rushing from behind as shards of ruined metal rained down on the three of them from the air. He bent down to Nechayeva, wrapping his functional arm around her, helping her to her feet. Her leg was afire with agony every time she tried to put weight on it. Through the pain, she focused on Stillwell's words.

"Let's go! Coogan is out with 1041! Let's move!"

He dropped the gun, now useless with its ammunition expended, and moved to help her support her weight on her left side. They hurried to the exit, her hobbling as fast she could, trailing blood behind her, not bothering to check the moaning from behind her. If the commissar could gather any sort of self-awareness through her wounds, they would be instantly dead. No point in looking back.

Thoughts flashed involuntarily between the two operatives as they shuffled hurriedly to the site exit. Jungles. Ruins. Artillery fire, mortar rounds. Survival. Treachery. As they raced for survival, defining memories for both came involuntarily, other acquaintances with death. Two lives briefly shared. She knew from Leningrad that one could never truly be prepared for death, but she had made as much peace as she could. That didn't stop her from desperately hoping that the extraction team had answered her emergency signal. If things had gone well, they would be met by Petrov's men, as well as Spinella and Juhasz. If not, the exit did not truly matter.

Sweat beaded on her forehead. She decided that she would not throw up, no matter the circumstances. Every step was a new threshold of pain. They had reached the main entrance.

"Keep going," she told Stillwell.

He nodded his assent. Screams, moaning and suffering were the sounds from behind them. In front of them, Coogan waited, the unconscious SCP-1041 in his arms.

Reunited, the group of operatives opened the blast doors of the entrance. They stepped out into the cold.

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