The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness


5.15 pm, 11th July 1999

Kris pulls the small fire extinguisher from her bag as she runs awkwardly up the aisle. She has carried it ever since the accident. I couldn't save Charlie, but… flicks through her mind. Ignoring Vera for the moment, she sprays the white powder over Zukhov.

Vera looks down at the smouldering body of the priest. She cannot tell if he will live. His face and hands are surprisingly unscathed, but his hair and clothes are mostly burned. Vera assumes the skin under his vestments is probably a mess. She kneels down next to the priest, avoiding Kris's glare.

Katrina stands at the back of the church staring at Vera's back in horror, Hannah Dyson and the Russian soldiers similarly frozen at the terrible scene unfolding before their eyes.

Parents sold their souls to demons, uncle looses his thumbs to demons, she's half demon and apparently she's lost her mind to demons, thinks Katrina. Bollocks to this - she's a fucking liability, and I'm not waiting around for her to serve up my soul next Halloween. All traces of the scatty London clubber are gone, and Kat's face may as well be set in iron. Her hands reach into her pockets, pulling out the automatic and one of the grenades she purchased earlier. With a casual gesture she pulls the pin from the grenade with her teeth but keeps it dangling from her mouth. Her hand is rock steady on the handle, and with a smooth motion she extends her hand towards Hannah. The Russian turns a shade paler, realizing that should Katrina's hand slip they will probably all die. Then Katrina levels the gun at Vera, and squeezes the trigger. In her breast pocket the knife seems to vibrate and she can feel heat radiating through her blouse.

Up at the altar, where Vera is bent over Zukhov, something inside her tells her to move. She does not question it but rolls sideways instantly.

The first shot passes through where she was kneeling and strikes the priest in the head. Katrina follows Vera with the gun, firing twice more before she loses her behind the front pew. She is about to step further out into the aisle, her face still a mask of coldness, when Gino steps in front of her, placing his broad chest in front of the muzzle. 'No,' he says.

Katrina's mood snaps. 'That twisted fuck! She's no better than the enemies we're supposed to be fighting!'

Gino's hand darts out and closes over her own left hand, holding it and the grenade in it. 'Put the pin back in, Kat. This isn't the right way.'

Hannah Dyson barks an order, and soldiers start to file into the church.

As Vera picks herself up, Grace storms up the aisle towards her. Although the Kenyan woman rarely makes her presence felt, she is tall and can be very imposing when she puts her mind to it. 'You tortured that man to his death! No matter what he'd done, or what grudge you hold against the Trismegistus Club, there's no excuse for that. And how could you consort with that demon? It was obviously an ally of the Ylids - it said so itself!' She bends down to Zukhov, but he is dead.

Vera remains relatively insouciant in the face of this tirade.

'We're supposed to be working as a team, not acting individually - as raving lunatics!' snaps Kris. 'SITU'll be getting a report on this! And you can sure as hell believe you're not going to be part of any investigative team I'm on in the future.'

'Do you think that bothers me?' says Vera tiredly. She turns to Hannah Dyson, who has by now joined the group. 'Thanks for all your help,' she sneers.

Dyson regains her cool, and answers, 'Do you think all this is a good thing?'

Vera doesn't flinch. 'You don't know what I've won already,' she says. 'And I believe this whole group can do more if you assist us, rather than all but ignore us. Besides, it would appear we cannot rely on any supernatural help.' She fingers the ashes of the two books left to her by her parents, adding, none to convincingly, 'So, glad I never believed in any of that mumbo jumbo anyway.'

'Mumbo jumbo or not, those were valuable historical artefacts that might help all of us understand and combat the Ylids - and you, for purely personal reasons, made a pact with a demon to destroy them!' exclaims Grace in exasperation.

'Come on, let's get out of here,' mutters Stuart. The smell of burning is overpowering. He ushers Gino and Katrina towards the door, Katrina slowly replacing the pin in her grenade. 'We've got a chemical plant to raid, remember?'

'What's your interest, Major?' Vera asks. 'Who do you serve besides the security forces? The Ylids? The T-club? Your bank account?'

'Vera, we have had this conversation before. I told you the truth then, and I tell you it again now. I serve the government - one master is quite enough for me.' She prods Zukhov's body with her toe. 'And what are you supposed to have taught us here, Miss Goodchild? To paraphrase the scriptures, perhaps the priest should have taught you how to fish, to use the books yourself rather than simply give you the fish so you could eat today.'

Vera offers a small smile. She reaches out suddenly and touches the Russian officer on her cheek and says only, 'I'm cold.'

Dyson hesitates, then hands the American her officer's trench coat complete with insignia, adding, 'I don't think the badges will fool anyone, Miss Goodchild.'

Kris and Grace have been muttering together, glancing at Dyson, and Kris says caustically 'I'm glad you two are getting on so well together. Why don't you stick with Major Dyson, Vera, and the rest of us will get on with today's business?'

'Your attack on the Mytishchi installation, you mean?' asks Dyson. She smiles thinly. 'I am sure you did not think that you could work with regiment personnel on such a mission and not have me know about it. Master Sergeant Palaev does not take a breath without my hearing it, nor any of his platoon.'

Grace nods at Kris: this confirms her suspicions.

'But do not worry, I do not intend to stop you,' says the major. 'I do not know how you will do it, but you will recover the Starost for us. Russia cannot afford to lose him to these Japanese. And I have seen enough to know that my methods will not be sufficient. Find him, return him to us, and we can all go to bed happily, as we say here.'

'Major Dyson said "bogou miou", Grace - what language is that? Creole?' hazards Stuart.

'No, it's Russian,' says Grace. 'Colloquial. It means "My God!" - "Bog" is "God".'

Stuart turns to Ulek. 'SITU said that fire extinguishers would be effective against these origami creatures,' he says. 'Do you have any idea how that works?'

Ulek polishes his glasses rapidly. 'Er, we might guess that coating their surface prevents them functioning correctly? Or makes them too heavy to fly?' he says, without much conviction. 'I am sorry, this is a little out of my area of expertise…'

'Well, why don't you see if you can rig up a larger-scale weapon that has the same effect,' suggests Stuart. 'And perhaps another one of those detectors too.'

'I am not the head of Q Branch,' says Ulek rather huffily, but he sets to as instructed.

'Did you get all that on tape, Uncle?' asks Vera.

Ned makes a thumbs-up sign, only without the thumbs.

Using a tape to recall the demon might not work completely, but it only has to work a little, Vera reasons. Besides, she is convinced that whatever the creatures are that exist in the spiritual realm, they are at their core simple traders. Everything is an exchange with them, a deal. It's as if they are motivated by profit not prophets, so to speak. So why not ask them to make a sales call even if she is not interested in buying or selling right now? 'What could the Ylids be offering to our friends and enemies in the spirit world that is so appealing?' she asks.

'Power? Or maybe nothing. Maybe the demons are getting happy just as a side-effect of what the Ylids are doing to humans.'

'Hmm. Well, whatever Kris and Grace might think, I'm not going to miss out on going after Mizoguchi. If they don't want to cooperate with me, I'll get a ride off Hannah.'

'… burnt to ashes, right in front of us! And you know those books were irreplaceable,' expostulates Grace. 'We want her removed from the mission, Mr Blaize, and we want it now.'

Geoff Blaize, at the other end of the phone, sighs. 'It certainly sounds like things have got a little out of hand over there. I must say I was hoping that you and Operative MacDowell would be able to keep Operative Goodchild on side. You're our two most experienced field people, and I think of you as being cool heads under pressure. With her unique qualities, she's a tremendous asset for SITU if handled properly. Not that I'm saying you haven't handled her properly, of course,' he adds hastily.

Grace grits her teeth. 'With respect, I think that we've done the best we could under the circumstances.'

'Oh yes, I'm sure you have, of course. Well, listen, if you want her off the mission, then she's off - absolutely.'

'Oh! Erm, good.' Grace had not expected it to be that easy.

'The only problem is, we don't actually have any way of recalling her - she's not with you at the moment? - the number of the mobile phone Alexey Maximov issued to her doesn't seem to be responding.'

'What are you saying?'

'Just that, she's out there somewhere in Moscow presumably, and we don't have any way of getting to her - I'm afraid you're going to have to tell her yourself, when you see her.'

'Right then,' says Stuart, satisfied. 'That's all the equipment checked?'

Palaev nods.

'Then let's get this show on the road!' Stuart slaps his gloved hands together. He glances over to where Katrina is sitting morosely hunched up in a corner. 'Er, are you coming too?'

'As long as that psycho bitch queen isn't with us, I guess so,' says Katrina unenthusiastically. She is beginning to realize that this is far from the distracting little vacation chasing imaginary ghosts she had hoped for. She doesn't know what an ylid is, but it sounds bad, very bad. Still, this ninja guy with the crazy origami is not likely to take being stabbed lightly, so it's in her own interests to see he is eliminated.

And at least, by calling one of her London contacts, she has managed to arrange a safe route out of Russia: she will be met at the Finnish border if she phones through the appropriate signal.

'Are you sad to be away from your friends, Verushka?' asks Hannah Dyson sympathetically. 'At least your so-brave uncle is with you.'

'Oh, I think I'll survive without them,' says Vera. She and Ned are in Dyson's office, watching out of the window as men of Shem Palaev's platoon ready an armoured personnel carrier in the yard below. Palaev looks around guiltily as he signals the soldiers into the carrier, then climbs into the driver's seat himself: but he does not look upwards.

'We shall be travelling by staff car,' says Dyson. 'Much more comfortable.'

And not ten minutes after the APC pulls out of the vehicle pool, in swings a large black limousine.

'Very nice,' comments Vera. 'Is that what majors in the infantry get driven around in, in Russia?'

'No, this sort of vehicle is more appropriate for colonels in the security forces,' says Dyson. She looks sideways at Vera. 'Verushka, would we still be friends, if it happened that I had not always been completely honest with you? I have a small confession to make…'

'Objective one: recapture Lenin's body. Killing Mizoguchi, or capturing him if we can, is objective two,' says Stuart decisively.

Palaev nods, and translates into Russian for the benefit of his troopers. They are on a lookout point in the trees above the Mytishchi plant, which at night is a highly spectacular sight: a huge complex, brilliantly illuminated, great towers, pipes and storage silos all with lights all over them, looking rather like a flat, misshapen Christmas tree. There is no trace apparent of the site's former use as a trade union's conference centre. The whole thing looks highly incongruous, in the middle of a hilly forest.

'There is the ethylene pipeline,' says Palaev, pointing. 'And that large vessel over there is the storage of ammonia. This is better to hit with our mortar, I am thinking. Yuri here,' he indicates one of the soldiers, 'tells me that phosphate will not burn well. He is a farm boy from the Ukraine, of course. So we hit the ammonia instead. It is under great pressure in this vessel. It will not burn, but breaching the wall will make an explosive release of gas.'

'You're the expert,' says Gino cheerfully. He has changed into camouflage fatigues rather than kneel in the mud in his Versace suit.

'Two squads, and half of us operatives with each squad,' continues Stuart. 'Dr Ulek with one group, me with the other, now he's shown me vaguely how to work the other machine. Then we just try to locate the body as quickly as possible, and radio and meet up as soon as we do. If we come up against Mizoguchi, we'll need all our force.'

'Make sure you've all got your fire extinguishers,' warns Stuart.

The soldiers divide up, two staying with the mortar, eight - together with Stuart, Gino and Katrina - moving down through the trees towards the ethylene pipeline position. Palaev, Grace, Kris and Ulek clamber into the APC, together with the other seven soldiers.

'… so, do you think you could love a spy? Not many people do, I can tell you. Especially not an internal security spy, a spycatcher. It is not so glamorous. In your James Bond films, we are the enemy, yes? But all we are doing is trying to defend our country.'

Hannah Dyson, or rather Valentina Gruzhkin as we must now learn to call her, is not wearing the fur coat, instead being now clad in the dark grey uniform of an FSK colonel. It is rather less severe than the infantry uniform. Vera is still not sure why Gruzhkin revealed her true identity to her. And she was still insisting that she served only the government. How could that be true?

The staff car glides to a halt at a vantage point overlooking the Mytishchi plant. Below, Vera can see the APC snaking its way round to the secondary entrance. The plant shows no signs of life, apart from the lights blazing all over it.

'We walk from here,' says Gruzhkin, ushering Vera and Ned out of the car. Ned looks around him, startled to be removed from the warm cocoon it represented. He flaps fretfully at his baseball cap: the air is very cold, and very still.

The cough of the mortar is inaudible from the forward positions, but the flash and thud of its landing is unmistakable. Gino tenses, but Palaev puts a restraining hand on his shoulder. 'After three, we go.'

Three are not required: the second round is spot on. With a tearing crack the anhydrous ammonia vessel ruptures, and a thick white cloud of vapour jets out through the breach - within a second there is a terrific flat crunching noise as the expanding vapour blasts the vessel asunder.

At once the night is filled with sirens, klaxons and flashing lights, as emergency systems come into action, and Palaev leaps up, calling the squad forward. Two troopers fire smoke grenades ahead of them into the complex, and Gino, Stuart and Katrina are swept up in the forward motion.

At the other side of the plant, Palaev's corporal guns the APC's engine and drives straight at the gate. Grace is powerfully reminded of the assault on Castle Cnoiff: there, a diesel truck simply bounced off the castle doors. Here it is rather different: the powerful APC ploughs through the steel gates as though they were cardboard. More alarms go off, and Palaev sends the vehicle bucketing forwards down the straight main concourse.

'Ich habe es!' cries Ulek in triumph, clutching his nexus detector. 'Da!' He points forward and left.

As the APC eases forward, there is a spatter of automatic fire against its metal sides.

Palaev curses, and one of the soldiers leans through a port to return the fire, although it is not at all clear where it is coming from.

'Hold on… still trying to get this bloody thing to…' Ulek's jerry-built detector is bad enough, but the copy he made up for Stuart out of found materials is a complete joke. 'It's… I think I've… yes! There!' Stuart looks up from the controls to find that the squad have gone ahead without him, under the thick smoke cover. 'Hey! Wait!'

'All very quiet, hm?' comments Gruzhkin as she, Vera and Ned walk through the remains of the secondary gate.

Quiet is not the description that would have occurred to Vera: the sirens and klaxons are still sounding, and there is the rattle of small-arms fire mixed with the occasional cough of smoke grenades.

Ned gives a little cackle as he finds a sign with a site map. He traces it with his finger, then rushes off into the nearest building entrance.

'Where is he going?' wonders Gruzhkin.

'On a little errand,' explains Vera. 'Now then - if you were Mizoguchi, where would you be holed up?'

'In the control room, of course,' says Gruzhkin. She points to a stunted, blocky structure pretty much in the middle of the complex.

There is only one way into the control room, which is as well protected as a bunker. And it commands a useful field of fire, as Stuart's squad find out when they run out into it. There is a brief exchange of fire, and they fall back to a nearby blockhouse, two injured.

'I think there are no more than six or eight in there,' says the corporal. He radios Palaev, who is just the other side of the control room, still in the APC. Five minutes later, the operatives and the bulk of the platoon have met up in the blockhouse, leaving a handful of soldiers only with the APC.

'Lenin's in there, all right,' says Stuart grimly, indicating his and Ulek's detector machines. 'And Mizoguchi, I expect. But how do we get in?'

'We can storm it,' says Palaev. 'But… many casualties.'

'Surely Mizoguchi isn't going to want to be pinned down in there,' says Kris. She is greatly relieved that the tower of flame Palaev promised has not yet materialized.

'That's what I'm worried about,' says Gino. 'He'll most probably try and get rid of us first…'

Ned scuttles through the empty hallways with a wild look in his eyes, desperately trying to read the Russian signs on doorways. A constant stream of mumbled imprecations stumble across his dry, chapped lips.

'G'damn Vera. Zhukov that bastur… heh, heh, too bad, Alnes, you won't be here to watch this baby go boom! Heh, heh. Next time, okay? Boom-boom, baby… Uncle Jake was right.'

He's working on only sketchy directions, but finally locates his goal by the following the signs with the chemical formula in Roman script. Once there, he pulls out a remote control device from his bag and painstakingly connects it to the tape recorder, cursing all the time and regretting the loss of his thumbs. 'Damn, I could use some cookies right now.'

Ned places the recorder as carefully as he can, under the centre of the largest reactor vessel, and steps back. 'Here you go, Celebaby, come toast your toes like a good boy.' He scans the setup once more, then turns and walks quickly out the door.

Almost out of this part of the complex, he finds a kitchen obviously used as an employee break room. He hesitates briefly, looking towards the exit and back towards where he placed the recorder. 'Heh, just a quick looksee. No sense letting anything go to waste.'

He opens the refrigerator and paws through the boxes, looking for something edible. 'Oh, my, looky here! A huge slice of cake with my name written on it!' With glee, he grabs it quickly with one hand and bolts out the door.

Ned is quite a sight as he runs out of the sulphuric acid plant, with his wild eyes and odd scuttle, madly shovelling cake into his mouth.

'Well, do we go in, or what?' Vera asks Gruzhkin.

The FSK colonel leans back against a wall, her arms folded. 'No, of course not, Vera. We are only two. We allow our brave Red Army to go in and do the fighting. Then we take what is left.'

'That's not enough for me,' Vera says stonily, her dramatic borrowed trench coat sweeping about her feet, holding onto her mace-like umbrella with both hands. She feels the same hatred she experienced back in Oxford driving her now, but this time it is less focused. She hates herself for what has happened to her uncle. She hates her parents for what she had to do to set them free. And she hates SITU and the T-Club for getting caught up in the minutia of secrecy and hidden agendas. She wants to take it all out on someone.

Gruzhkin glances at her. 'Well, what do you want? There is the door. And there inside, overlooking it, are men with guns. Maybe these men with guns will not hit you. But maybe they will. And what sort of a revenge would that be for you?'

Without slowing down, Ned activates the remote control device. Deep inside the factory, the recorder begins replaying the taped ritual.

'So let me get this straight. You're confident we can use grenades to blow the doors in and charge in there, but it'll mean people getting killed,' says Stuart.

Palaev nods. 'It is our job to risk our lives for Russia. But if you can think of any other way, that would be better of course. The decision is with you.'

'Hey - we've got company.' Katrina points. From one of the window-slits of the control room flutters a scrap of white, twirling in the brilliant arc light. It unfolds swiftly as it flutters to the ground, and somehow from it emerges the shape of a giant toad, about three feet high at the shoulder and extremely warty. The effect is more laughable than frightening, until the toad flicks out its tongue at the corner of the building in which the team are hiding, and pulls away a large chunk of masonry. Kris stumbles backwards as gunfire is directed from the control room into the hole thus made.

'Get it!' shouts Stuart, unslinging his Kalashnikov and loosing an inexpert burst at the toad. Bullets ricochet off its warty hide in all directions, and the monstrous amphibian does not seem to be at all discommoded. It flicks out its tongue again, and pulls away another section of the building.

Gottfried Ulek hands his makeshift fire-extinguisher-gun - it looks a bit like a flamethrower, and you wear it on your back like a pack - to Grace, in the absence of anyone else looking keen to grab it.

Just at that point there is a muffled explosion from some way behind the control room, shaking the ground, and within seconds flames can be seen in the distance. Some other part of the complex has caught fire, it seems, although quite how is not at all apparent. The smoke drifts across, making everybody choke and weep - it is extremely acrid and sulphurous. 'What the hell was that?' exclaims Gino.

Up at the vantage point, overlooking the plant, a battered Lada taxi draws up. There is a rustling in the trees, and Mahmoud looks across to see them part and reveal the person he has been summoned to meet. Together, they gaze down at the fire now spreading rapidly from the sulphuric acid plant.

'Now?' he asks.

An answering nod, and Mahmoud gets out of the car, and clambers up alongside his boss. He reveres her, and respects her choice of vehicle, but all the same he always feels a little ridiculous at this point. It is somehow not kulturny. Perhaps it is the scaly legs.

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