The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness


11.45 pm, 11th July 1999

Kat stares in exasperation at the giant toad as it rips another chunk of concrete from their rapidly dwindling protection, 'Oh, for Christ's sake, this is bloody ridiculous - right, give me that, you!' she yells, grabbing a smoke grenade from a cowering Soviet trooper.

Popping the pin, she turns to Grace who is struggling with the fire extinguisher gun. 'I'll distract it, you hose it - let's hope we've got a Steve McQueen blob vibe going on.' With a mad grin she flings the grenade in front of the toad, which is rapidly obscured by the smoke billowing forth.

Vera is creeping towards the control room when she finds herself briefly frozen at the sight of a gigantic toad knocking holes in a neighbouring building. Automatic weapons fire is being exchanged between the control room and the toad's choice for dinner. Vera realizes the rest of SITU's team is in mortal combat with a paper monstrosity.

'Well, we all have our crosses to bear,' Vera says to no one in particular. Clearly, Mizoguchi is likely to make a break for it while his toad keeps the team occupied. Vera is about to move around the opposite side of the group's stronghold in hopes of approaching the control room unobserved, when she sees her uncle skittering across the open area like a crazed crab. She grabs him and pulls him against a wall.

'I had hoped for a little more time, Uncle!' Vera says. 'The stench of that place is overwhelming.'

'It's more smoke than fire, Vera,' Ned responds. 'The wind is blowing the gas cloud out of the plant. Got any more brilliant ideas?'

Just then, they feel a crash as the origami toad rips another hole in the group's sanctuary. Vera turns back to Ned and says, 'The funny thing is, I think you'd be safer with the group.'

Ned looks at her in disbelief, 'You mean the ones about to be eaten by Kermit the Killer Toad? You are nuts!'

Vera answers Ned while watching the toad. 'In case you have forgotten, Katrina tried to kill me. She's not very good, and she will probably continue to shoot people and things near me without managing to hit me. That means you're safer with her than with me.'

'I agree, she'd probably hit a chicken between the eyes while it runs around a barn yard, before managing to shoot the barn door,' Ned says. 'But what about that knife of hers? I'd really like that knife.'

Vera pauses, wondering where her uncle's recent death wish has come from. 'I don't know what it is for sure,' she responds. 'But I've read about weapons that may be similar. Such weapons carry their users along for the ride while they try to drink souls from the living. But I suppose it could be something else entirely.'

Ned has to shout to be heard over the roaring of gunfire. 'Ah well, it's common knowledge that you are a soulless bitch so you're probably immune! Are you going to kill Katrina?' he adds with a smile.

Vera glares at her uncle. 'I'm not going to risk doing time in a Russian jail because some bimbo is confusing her pointy head with a moral compass. Besides, if someone like her is found dead from a heroin overdose in say, Soho or Amsterdam in a few weeks, no one would question it.'

Ned stares for a moment. 'I was kidding,' he says.

Vera deadpans her response. 'Oh, okay, so was I. Anyway, even if you succeeded in taking the knife, it would probably take your life, based on what we've seen so far.'

High above, Jeffrey peers curiously out of the aeroplane window. He has managed to persuade Jeremiah Fulk to drink himself into a stupor beside him. Below, black-orange fire is lighting up the dark forest, and Jeffrey momentarily wonders what it might be. But his thoughts return to the ecumenical exchange he has set up with the late Father Zukhov's church, St Vasiliev's. The new priest was a charming and helpful fellow, Father Chonkin. He was hoping to pay a visit to St Mungo's in the autumn, and bring with him some most interesting icons.

It is with some relief that Jeffrey turns his mind back to the mundane problems of his East End parish. There is wrestling with souls on a level he can understand, where the morality is clear. He has had enough of SITU and its shades of grey. He has had to do terrible things on its behalf, and his companions have done even worse ones, in some cases without blenching. And for what? They have been told that they are resisting evil, but can that be trusted? The SITU hierarchy does not exactly inspire confidence. Nor does the General Synod of the Church of England, or not always at least, to be fair; but at least the Church has the power of divine inspiration, and twenty centuries of faith, behind it.

No, his place is with his flock. There is the battle-line between good and evil, between the teachings of Christ and the weakness of sinning humanity. He has been too long away from it, questing after moral and intellectual satisfactions which have proved illusory. So back to St Mungo's it is. And as for Jeremiah, he will make a fine churchwarden one day.

Kat leaps out screaming, launching herself to the right of the warty monstrosity, firing from the hip in the hope of drawing the thing's attention. At the same time Ned comes scuttling around the corner of a silo into the killing-ground, heading for cover near the soldiers. The toad lumbers round to face Kat, as Grace sprays its flank with the device - this certainly seems to slow it down. Kat puts a hand to her dagger, but to her surprise it is cold and quiet. She holds it awkwardly, not knowing whether to trust to it.

Fire erupts from the control room, but smoke fairly thoroughly covers Kat, and also Ned as he scurries towards the operatives. Kat tosses the knife from one hand to the other, trying to distract the toad, but it lurches forward and its tongue shoots out, wrapping around her waist. The effect is quite horrible, simultaneously rubbery, rough and papery.

'Bugger!' exclaims Stuart. He lobs two ordinary-sized fire extinguishers towards the toad, then follows them up with a grenade.

There is a mighty explosion, and everyone in the area is showered with choking white dust. Katrina is fortunate that the bulk of the toad protected her from the blast, but even so she is slammed backwards into the wall.

Shem Palaev shouts an order, and as one the infantrymen charge forward, breaking cover to assault the control room.

The next few minutes are a chaos of gunfire, explosion, screams and blood, which the terrified SITU operatives do well to leave to the professionals. 'Let the nice big soldiers go first,' mutters Kris.

From what Vera can see as she approaches, the devastation in the control room has been quite thorough. Fires are burning, and bodies are everywhere, Russian soldiers and Dai-Mitsu goons alike.

There is no sign of either Mizoguchi or the body of Lenin, though: he must have slipped out somehow. Two of the operatives are also missing.

'Where's Knife-Girl and Stuart?' she asks, leaning against one side of the gaping doorway.

'They went out after Mizoguchi,' answers Gino, who is busily binding soldiers' wounds. He seems to have some familiarity with the effects of gunshot.

Kris turns away from where she and Grace are going through some documentation. She stares coldly at Vera. 'You're off this team.'

Vera sighs. 'Have it your way. You know, if any of you had bothered asking me about this demon shit, or about the books, instead of trying to kill me, I'd have told you.'

'What about the books?' asks Grace, her attention caught by one of her favourite words.

'There was no way to use them without the users suffering: lost souls, thumbs, or being burnt alive. Trust me on this! What do you think happened to my parents? Anyway, those books were mine, not SITU's. I inherited them. If I want to destroy them, that's up to me.'

'What did happen to your parents?' asks Gino politely, as Grace snorts exasperately.

'They were working for people who misled them. The Trismegistus Club, of whom your dear friend Father Zukhov was one. The people who try to get whatever power they can, no matter what it costs other people. Sound familiar? My parents made a bargain with one of the demons, to get me. And they paid for it with their souls.'

'So are you part demon, then?'

'Of course not! I'm just a little bit sharper than ordinary folks. But I guess you'd noticed that. Anyway, I've sorted it all out now: my parents are at peace.' She folds her arms across her chest.

'Well, that's all very nice for you,' says Kris dryly. 'But it might have been even nicer for us, and for the world in general, if you'd actually helped out on this mission, instead of following your own agenda.'

Vera shrugs. 'Anyway, there's something I don't understand. The demon said the Ylids are working hard to foster belief in them, in these old "myths". But it also said the Ylids are more powerful, here on earth than the demons. Do we have an explanation for this riddle?'

'That seems clear enough,' says Grace. 'There's some sort of spiritual linkage between this world and the demon realm. The demons are stuck in their world - usually - but the Ylids are here in the physical world. Belief power generated here strengthens the link, which strengthens the demons, which in turn strengthens belief - it's a virtuous circle, as far as the demons are concerned. Some operatives have theorized that Ylids draw strength from belief levels in general, so they profit from the virtuous circle as well.'

There is a stutter of gunfire from outside, and Vera jerks to alertness. 'Sounds like trouble.' Quicker than it can be said, she has disappeared from the doorway, leaving Grace and Kris to exchange glances.

Stuart ducks back behind the corner, broken concrete spraying in his face as the bullets rip it away. Mizoguchi is across on the next gantry, clinging with one arm, Lenin's body fireman-hoisted over his shoulder, firing his AK-47 from the hip with the other hand. He whoops, and mockingly salutes Stuart.

'You stay here, keep him pinned down,' says Katrina. 'I'm going to see if I can round behind him.' She is pale and her ribs are hurting - one or two must be broken - but her fury at Mizoguchi is keeping her going. She really isn't interested in Lenin's body, and she has only survived in the underworld this long by showing her opponents she means business.

'We've got to kill him,' says Stuart, through gritted teeth, wiping the dust and blood from his forehead.

Katrina taps him on the shoulder, and runs off along a walkway.

'Mr Winters!' It is Mizoguchi's voice. 'You and your friends might as well give up.'

'What do you mean? It looks to me like it's us who've got you pinned down now!' yells Stuart.

Mizoguchi chuckles, an inexpressibly sinister sound. 'I still have a trick or two up my sleeve, as you say in England. And even if you were to win this battle, you would still lose the war. Those who we serve are far more powerful than you can even dream of.'

Keep him talking. Kat must be getting close. 'That's the word, isn't it - "serve"? You're their slaves! We're fighting for the freedom of humanity!'

This time Mizoguchi laughs out loud. 'Is that what you truly believe? You fool! You are more a slave than I am! You do not even know who your masters are! Renegades, traitors…'

At that point Kat's voice cuts across him like a whip. 'Put the gun down, Jap. I've got you covered.' She is about ten yards further along the gantry.

Mizoguchi glances quickly from her to Stuart, weighing up the options. 'If you shoot me, I will drop this body, into that -' he points downwards into the boiling mass of sulphuric acid over which the walkway runs '- and you will never recover its secrets!'

'Do you think I give a toss about that?' snaps Katrina impatiently.

'As long as you don't end up with it, we're not bothered,' says Stuart confidently, although he is by no means certain of what SITU may be missing out on if the body is lost.

'I do not think so,' says a new voice - Hannah Dyson. She is slightly below the three, and to one side, covering Stuart, Kat and Mizoguchi with a sweep of her gun. In her grey FSK colonel's uniform she is quite a menacing figure. 'We will not be destroying the Starost, I think. You will place him down carefully at your feet, Mr Mizoguchi. Then you will put your hands up and surrender yourself.'

Mizoguchi spits contemptuously down at her. 'So that you can kill me afterwards? I do not think so. I will be walking out of here with your precious body, and you will be providing me with transport, I think.'

'Don't give in to him!' yells Stuart desperately. 'If you let him take it away, it'll never come back to Russia!'

'And I suppose you would let it remain here, if I let you take it?' snarls Dyson. 'I do not know what it is between your people and his people, and I do not care. You are both as bad as the other. You both want to come here and rip out the heart of Russia. Well, I have the gun here, and I say that none of you will have him, for here is where he belongs.'

'I'm sorry, Hannah, but that's not good enough,' says Vera, coming up behind her. The gun in her hand is steady, and pointing directly at Dyson's back. 'The only way to be sure for all time is to destroy it.'

Katrina's breath explodes out of her, and she swings her gun round to Vera - but just as quickly, Dyson turns her own gun towards Kat, and says quietly 'No.' Over her shoulder, she adds 'Are you betraying me, Verushka?'

The three women are so locked in their Mexican stand-off that it is only Stuart who sees Mizoguchi tensing himself to spring for freedom. 'Stop!' he yells out, and lets loose a burst of fire.

Mizoguchi leaps with incredible grace, scarcely burdened by the body, and turns a full somersault in the air, but at least one of Stuart's bullets catches him, twisting him round, and he lands awkwardly on the lip of the silo, clutching with one arm, dropping his gun and the body, which starts to slide down towards the boiling acid below. He reaches up weakly towards Katrina, who is nearest to him.

'Fuck that,' says Kat. She jumps across to him, wincing as she lands, and stamps down hard on his fingers, the knife coming almost of its own volition into her hand and stabbing downwards. Mizoguchi cries terribly, as the knife glows a blazing red.

'That girl has a serious attitude problem,' comments Vera calmly.

Hannah Dyson is all but in tears. 'Save the body, Vera! You can do it, surely.'

'What are you so bothered about? Can't you just make another one out of wax?' The body finishes sliding into the acid, and is consumed utterly, just a foul-smelling puff of black smoke to signify its passing.

It is shortly followed by the dried husk of Mizoguchi, from whom all the life has been sucked. Katrina totters and sways as the dark power courses through her, and Stuart runs across just in time to prevent her from toppling after her victim, as she collapses in a faint.

'I'd like to know a little more about that knife,' says Vera.

'She's the only one who knows, and I don't suppose she'll want to tell you,' says Stuart, as he carries Katrina's unconscious form down towards them. The knife is calm now, and back in its sheath. There is a smell of foulness about it.

'Everyone OK?' asks Gino, approaching the scene, accompanied by the others. 'That could have been a lot worse.'

Hannah Dyson salutes, very formally, then turns to walk back towards her staff car. Seeing her dejected shoulders depart, Vera thinks about blowing her a kiss, but decides better of it.

Up in the forest, tension releases. Mahmoud seems a little sad. 'I thought you were going to terrify them with your dread awe, to preserve the Starost for Russia, great mother,' he says, almost reproachfully.

The great wrinkled face looks down lovingly on him. 'No, child, no. I would only have appeared if they had not destroyed it themselves. The time for those things is past now, and here these humans have hastened its passing. We will leave these stale symbols now, and we will return to the old days for Russia. We will bring back the fear of the forest, the fear of witches, wolves, bears and goblins. A century of reason is enough now - a lifetime for them, a blink for me.'

'Truly you are all-wise,' says Mahmoud respectfully.

'But I cannot let my brother Terrik Laen go unpunished,' she muses, almost to herself. 'Here he has tried to steal from under my nose. It was nothing I would miss, but the principle is a poor one. He must respect my realm. There will be reparations, I think.' She pauses, while the hut stretches its legs. 'Go now, back to the city, child. Make all ready for their departure.'

The flight home is a subdued one, everyone preoccupied with their own thoughts, Stuart in particular turning over what Mizoguchi said to him. Next to him, Katrina slumbers uncomfortably, her ribs splinted, troubled dreams of blood chasing through her mind.

Vera is by herself in First Class, her uncle back in Economy, trapped between two cheery, sweaty doctors. One of them notices his thumbs at once. 'There are remarkable things being done with prosthetics now, you know, old chap. I've been working on a rather interesting technique myself. You grow the cartilage and sinew on mice, then you attach them to a matrix of bone taken from the femur. Inside a couple of months we could have you playing the guitar just like old times!'

'As long as you don't try and stroke a cat afterwards!' puts in the other. They both guffaw heartily, showering the quivering Ned with half-chewed biscuit crumbs from their open mouths.

'I'm not sure what more I can do now,' says Grace quietly. 'I've learnt all I can from the documents we have. But really I need more material. If I publish, that might help other scholars identify more sources - perhaps among documents that have up till now been unplaceable. But I'm not sure that would be very good for my health…'

'I only agreed to meet with you face-to-face because of the unusual circumstances of your last mission, Operative Goodchild. This is a serious breach in security - I hope you realize that.'

'Maybe I wanted to see you for real - make sure you weren't just a voice on a machine,' says Vera, eyeing him up and down. So this is the famous Geoff Blaize. A big man, and strong. Hearty, red face, blond hair. Mid-40s. Very much a military air.

They are in a hotel room in Knightsbridge. 'I'm not sure what to do with you next. You seem to have thoroughly alienated our most senior and trusted operatives.'

'I thought I showed remarkable restraint, personally. I didn't put a bullet in the skull of a priest or try to kill any team members. I am assuming you know Katrina tried to kill me, and she had at least passive support from some other team members? Your mobster Gino was the only one who apparently knew right from wrong. I want to know if she acted with your blessing? If not, I would like to continue working. But, pull that cow's fangs or I swear I will.'

'Of course it wasn't with our blessing,' sighs Blaize. 'You operatives are all very special people, and some of you are a bit… sensitive. We really need everyone to try and respect each other's differences and rub along. You have to be prepared to go that extra mile… give that extra inch.'

'Don't you have anything to say other than platitudes?'

Blaize's expression hardens. 'I'm not going to try and sweet-talk you into staying with us, Goodchild. You're a big girl now. Think about it - you're known to be one of us, now. How long do you think you'll survive outside? The Trismegistus Club are after you: and, more importantly, the Ylids are, now. You killed Yashimoto's right-hand man, you and your colleagues, and set back his plans a long way. He's not going to rest until he's wiped you out. And if you walk out of SITU, we can't protect you any more.' His smile returns. 'So let's try and keep the boat steady, eh?



From: G M Blaize

To: Operatives: Katrina Darken, Jeffrey Fanlight, Gino Ferrocco, Vera Goodchild, Kristina Macdowell, Grace Ndofir, Ned Numenor, Stuart Winters

Subject: N-Rays at Lenin's mausoleum

Code: D/49/29/9c

Congratulations on foiling the potentially extremely dangerous Ylid plot to steal Lenin's body. We still do now know quite why Yashimoto wanted the body, but clearly it was for some purpose opposed to the good of humanity. Recovering the body to SITU would have been the ideal outcome, but in the circumstances jettisoning and destroying it was far preferable to allowing even a chance that the Ylid could recover it.

We suspect the involvement of another Ylid, possibly a local Russian one, in this affair. Quite what his or her role is remains unclear. But it seems likely that either Colonel Dyson or the driver Mahmoud are their agent, possibly both. Presumably, if so, this is a 'rogue' Ylid not allied to Yashimoto's group; like the Norwegian Krillikhesh.

Your collaboration with Dr Ulek has thrown up a great deal of useful information regarding N-rays. It seems likely that N-ray detectors could be used to trace and track the 'lines of power' which the Ylids use to maintain their strength. Now all we need is a corresponding device to interrupt or divert these lines of power. Retaining friendly contact with Dr Ulek is strongly advised.

Be aware that all of you are in considerable personal danger from this point on. You will now have Yashimoto's inveterate enmity, and that of his allies. He has been known to send highly-skilled 'ninja' assassins. If any of you wish to enter secure accommodation, we can readily provide it, and we can of course cover for you with employers, etc.

Over the coming months a succession of missions are being launched aimed at breaking the power of individual Ylids at their home bases: once this wave of attacks is over, we will be ready for the final conflict between their kind and ours. I know that you will be standing alongside me.

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