Senior Lieutenant Krupin stared blankly at the bare, grey patch of painted steel just above Private Sokolov’s close-shaved scalp. Krupin had done this more times than he could count – just sat, waiting, waiting for orders that never came, letting his mind drift aimlessly. The stained metal blurred and became that sleepy town on Lake Ladoga, sunlight slipping through green leaves to cascade between rotting beams in the derelict church, old Aleksander polishing glasses or singing his dreary Soviet folk songs in the Pivnaya, Marya arranging dried summer flowers in a cracked ceramic vase, her rough hands sweeping fallen petals from the scared wooden table. He would be back there soon, he told himself. A few more non-events like this or, better yet, a decent action bonus – that would see him comfortably through to his twilight years.
A loud buzzing from the boat’s cockpit dissolved his daydream in an instant, Captain Kostya’s voice followed a moment later, thick and irritable. “Commander, the Admiral is on the horn. It looks like this little outing might not be just a waste of good drinking time after all.”
Krupin ducked into the narrow control room and answered the radio, listening intently for a moment while his single eye scanned a local street map. “Da. Understood, we will place ourselves at Miss Lavrova’s command. Over and out.”
He replaced the microphone handset and turned to Kostya, “Seems you were right; I’m taking the boys for a walk.”
“Okay, just pick me up a bottle of something while you’re out,” Kostya’s tone was bored. “Will you be long?”
“No, just some spook needing a big, strong man to come hold her hand. Probably afraid of the dark.”
Kostya grunted and slouched back into his seat, closing his eyes. “I’ll keep the engine running,” he mumbled through a yawn.
Krupin turned back through the hatchway, pleased to see Lieutenant Yakovlev snapping to attention. “Arseniy, get the men ready, we’re heading out in five.”
“Yes, sir!” Excitement lit Yakovlev’s features as he made his way to the back of the speedboat, shaking Sokolov awake and calling out to the other three Privates – Ivanov, Pavlov and Volkov – who at that moment seemed deeply engrossed in a card game.
The speed at which their cards heaped on the table and the game was abandoned, however, betrayed their true state of readiness. A small grin switched the corners of Krupin’s moustache as he turned pulled an AKS-74U assault rifle from the rack.
His empty eye socket suddenly itched, just as it always did before going into a mission. It was probably just coincidence – it also itched when it was hot, when it was cold, when it was windy and when it was calm – but Krupin liked to think it was a sub-conscious reminder of the fight that had taken the eye, his lost organ telling him to keep his wits about him, that you could never tell when a routine mission could turn to chaos.
Ten minutes later, Krupin’s squad dog-trotted toward their coordinates; team one led by Krupin, with Volkov and Pavlov in tow. On the opposite pavement, Yakovlev, shadowed by Sokolov and Ivanov, moved in parallel with their commanding officer, weapons drawn but held low, ready to be concealed if necessary.
As they reached the designated street corner, a shabbily dressed woman emerged from the shadows. “Miss Lavrova?” asked Krupin, sceptically.
“Please, call me Katya,” she replied smoothly. “The admiral explained the situation, I hope?”
“I have been given an overview, but it would help to hear it in your own words,” Krupin answered.
She nodded. “Twenty minutes ago, two of my team covertly entered that warehouse,” Katya gestured to a dimly lit industrial unit up the street. “They informed me that they would be no longer than fifteen. Ten minutes after they contacted me, a further enemy force arrived and followed my men inside. When I last had eyes on, there were two patrol guards and two covering from the rooftops, and a further six to eight have entered. That’s when I called you.”
“Thank you for your assessment, Miss Katya, my men and I are at your disposal,” Krupin said formally. “Let’s go and see whether the situation has changed.”
When they arrived at the warehouse, it was clear that something unusual was going on inside. The two guards had abandoned their patrol and joined a couple of other men staring stupidly towards the warehouse door. However, the two on the roofs were visible and alert, and they could raise an alarm if they spotted to approaching soldiers.
Krupin waved Yakovlev to his side. “Lieutenant, team two will eliminate the men nearest the door. Team one will neutralise eliminate this roof guard,” Krupin ordered. The younger man saluted smartly and signalled to his men.
Katya hung back as the six men glided into position, their movements well rehearsed and fluid. It was oddly balletic, she mused idly. A pair of grenades arched toward the huddle of Litsky Bratva goons. With a dull whump-whump, the grenades exploded, a ragged flash of crimson just visible before a plume of dirt masked the ugly sight. At the same time, Krupin’s team neutralised one roof guard, while Yakovelv felled the second.
A single shot rang out from the smoking chaos, following a scream in broken Russian. Yakovlev calmly switched aim from the roof to the broken man and silenced him with a short, tight burst of automatic fire.
Krupin strode across to the warehouse door, re-adjusting his eye patch, nodding to Yakovlev in approval. “Smartly done, Lieutenant. Team one on me, we are moving into the warehouse,” he ordered and stepped up to the door, pulling the pin on his own grenade.
The three men rushed forward through the aperture, the rest streaming through in their wake. Katya waited a few moments more for another ringing blast and a fresh torrent of gunfire, then coolly stepped inside. Cordite smoke hung in the air, while bullets had torn chunks of wood from pallets and packing crates. Bodies were strewn across the floor. All of the soldiers were still intact and, despite the fireworks out front, had still caught the rest of the thugs largely unaware. Katya raised an eyebrow at a ruined red mass that was even now hanging uncomfortably from a forkilft truck.
Krupin approached, slipping a fresh magazine into his rifle. “Miss Katya, the room is clear – no sign of your friends though.”
“Thank you, commander,” she answered, quickly studying the array of Cyrillic, Arabic and Latin script adorning various crates. “They mentioned some kind of trap door or hatch, please prepare your men – I will be with you in a moment.”
Katya grabbed the nearest crate and forced the lid open. It did not contain weapons, as she’d expected, but books of some kind. There wasn’t time to study the titles, as the soldiers were already taking formation around a spot on the warehouse’s floor.
As Volkov pulled the trapdoor open, Krupin stalked down the narrow ramp into the chamber below. Down here, modern architecture gave way to something older, crumbling brickwork disappearing into pitch-dark passageways. There were three passages leading away from the warehouse cellar, and it was clear this area was used only as an access point for the labyrinth of tunnels. Krupin had heard rumours about Odessa’s catacomb network, but had no idea it spread so wide.
A faint staccato of gunfire echoed out of one of the side tunnels, along with shouts and the sound of heavy boots on stone. “Team one, take point,” Krupin whispered. “We’ll keep as quiet as we can from here and hopefully retain some element of surprise.”
The passages weren’t wide enough for more than three people to stand abreast, so Yakovlev, Ivanov and Sokolov followed Krupin’s team while Katya brought up the rear. The party followed the winding passages away into the dark, leaving the cellar access far behind them.
Suddenly, a group of soldiers rounded a corner ahead of Krupin’s team. They weren’t expecting to find an armed squad in their path and were slow to raise their weapons. Krupin quickly flung a grenade into the pack while Pavolv and Volkov opened fire. In the confined space, the sound of the detonation was like a physical force, punching at the team’s body armour, but its affect on the enemy patrol was devastating and those that survived the initial explosion were cut down by the controlled bursts of fire that followed. But from the corner of his good eye, Krupin saw a solitary figure fleeing back around the corner. “Volkov, runner!” he barked and the Private darted immediately through the smoke in pursuit. Another short rattle of automatic fire followed and Volkov remerged, obviously trying, but failing, to prevent a smug grin from creasing his Slavic features.
“Target eliminated, commander,” he said, stepping back into formation.
As they proceeded, narrow side-passages appeared here and there, each as dark as the main passage. It was now becoming increasingly hard to tell where the distant sounds of fighting were coming from and Krupin was in serious doubt about their chances of ever finding the other agents. His team were tiring, ammo was dwindling and conditions down here were considerably less than ideal.
Just then the passage opened up into a wide chamber, littered with yet more crates. A team of armed men stood waiting, apparently well aware that similarly armed intruders were approaching. Abandoning any pretence of stealth, Krupin shouted a new order, “Contacts ahead! Follow me, fan out and engage.”
The six men dashed forward, throwing themselves behind what cover they could, sending two more grenades sailing into the enemy line. Shots tore the air, splinters from pallets and crates were sent wheeling into the gloom. An enemy fighter cried out, coughing blood, bullets lodged in his guts. Another dropped like a puppet with its strings cut, his life snatched away in an instant as a lead slug gouged through his skull.
With only four of their number still standing, the enemy returned fire, bullets stencilling the walls behind the Russian soldiers. Krupin bellowed in defiance as a round grazed his heavy military body armour. Pavlov and Volkov were crouched beside him, snatching shots at their opponents.
Meanwhile, Katya lingered in the darkness of the passageway. Muzzle flashes lit up the old brickwork in microsecond instants. At that moment, some primordial sense set the nape of her neck tingling and she spun around, instinct pulling her into a firing stance, pistol raised. Even so, she wasn’t ready from the nightmare figure before her, creeping from the shadows. Its skin had the white pallor of death and a dried crimson froth flaked it pale lips. Its very movement exuded wrongness: half insect-like scuttle, half purposeful movement of a bestial predator. It stalked toward her with a primal menace.
Peculiarly, she recognised the creature’s – for it could in no way be described as human – tattered uniform. It belonged to a Spetsnaz solder; completely out of place on that grotesque form even as it raised a battered assault rifle. Katya’s training instantly took over even as her mind reeled in shock, but although she squeezed the shots with mechanical precision, somehow between the strobe flashes coming from the chamber and the wild shadows of the catacombs, her attacker was never quite where it seemed.
A stream of gunfire erupted from the blasphemous creature’s weapon, shredding part of Katya’s ballistic armour even as she wheeled back along the tunnel. Then the thing was lurching up the corridor with the speed of striking serpent. Terrified, she managed to squeeze another shot at its terrible white face, the bullet burrowing into the creature’s neck, and then it was on her, grabbing her and throwing her backward with nauseating speed. She felt the air rushing past her and the ground falling away.
Senior Lieutenant Krupin turned in amazement as the woman’s body crashed down into the centre of the chamber, right in the middle of the fight. Bullets were still buzzing past his head and slapping the edges of his team’s scant cover. Krupin’s mind instantly picked a new course of action “Team one,” he shouted. “Enemies from the flank, about turn!”
Volkov and Pavlov turned their weapons back down the tunnel, but for an instant they froze in horror as the monster stepped out into the chamber, a large, ugly combat knife held in its pale hand.
“Open fire!” Krupin shouted, breaking the spell. Yet even here in the open the thing was wickedly fast, lunging forward faster than the soldiers could track it with their weapons> Their shots only smashed splinters of ancient masonry in its wake.
The uniformed beast leapt on top of Private Volkov, crushing him to the ground. As it landed, it began slashing at him with both fists, tearing away his armour with a terrible strength. Before either of Volkov’s companions could react, the combat knife reappeared in its hand and it plunged it down into the young man’s chest.
Pavlov could only stare in mute terror, his weapon wavering as his stunned brain failed to direct his trigger finger. Then Krupin leapt forward, his rifle slung and his own combat knife drawn and he threw himself on the creature’s back, slashing at its throat, trying to sever its evil head. Where the blade should have killed any normal adversary, the creature hardly seemed to notice. It knocked Krupin away carelessly and plunged its knife into its victim once more.
Volkov’s eyes widened and he gasped. Then he exhaled, a slow breath that became a wet burble as he died. His body convulsed sharply, back arching, then lay still. The thing on top of him began to rise even as Krupin raised his gun again. The commanding officer was satisfied to see Volkov’s knife hilt protruding from between the beast’s mishapen legs. He had died fighting at least, for all the good it had done. Krupin fired again, but again it was too fast, its jerky movements sending it instantly out of the bullet’s path.
The pale eyes turned towards Krupin and he braced himself for the creature’s charge. Just then, he heard a dull metal clunk and spotted a small green orb land between the thing’s feet. “GRENA—,” Krupin’s scream was cut off by the blast and he was hurled backwards into the chamber wall.
Lights danced in Krupin’s eyes and his lower torso seemed to be alight with pain. Yakovlev was standing over him, shouting something. “Where is it?” Krupin asked. He spat blood. “It’s gone, sir, the blast caught it, then it ran,” Yakovlev replied.
Just then, Katya stepped into the circle of soldiers, battered and dishevelled, but apparently intact. “Commander, there are more troops coming down the opposite passage!”
Krupin allowed himself to be hauled to his feet, mentally clamping down on the hot rush of agony it caused. He lent an arm to Pavlov, who was swaying, eyes wild. “Miss Katya,” he said. “I regret to inform you that I do not believe we will be able to extract your associates. I advise that we exfiltrate now.”
“I agree, " Katya responded. “And quickly; they are almost on top of us.” She started back up the tunnel, followed by Yakovlev, Ivanov and Krupin, carrying Pavlov. The Senior Lieiutenant turned, “Private Sokolov, what are you doing?”
“Buying you some time,” the soldier replied. “Just go.” He dipped his shaven head to his commanding officer. Krupin nodded and turned away. There was no time to argue. “Give them hell,” he called back as he and Pavlov limped away into the darkness.
Fresh shouts clamoured from the adjoining passages as the stumbling party fled back toward the cellar entrance. Behind them, the all too familiar percussion of small arms fire began anew. Shouted orders and screams of pain soon followed.
Krupin felt his wounded legs giving way beneath each step, then he and Pavlov were tumbling to the rough stone floor. Ivanov was at his side a second later, helping the pair into a small recess. Katya and Yakovlev came sprinting back.
“Commander, please, we must hurry,” she pleaded, voice trailing off as she saw the reality of the situation. Krupin tried to smile, but it was more of a grimace, “Don’t worry about us, we’ll catch up in a minute. You just get to the surface and call us a taxi, eh.”
The recent gunfire had gone suddenly still. Krupin nodded to his lieutenant, who gave him a short glance, quickly saluted and hurried the female agent away into the dark.
Krupin suddenly felt very tired. All he could do now was hold their pursuers back long enough for the pair to make their escape. He grabbed Ivanov’s arm and pulled himself back on to his feet each mangled limb screaming its protest in blazing bolts of pain. Then he bent and grasped Pavlov’s arm.
“Come on, Valentin, it’s time to stand up. We have to fight. We have to… come on, for Eduard. And Nikolai.” Pavlov’s eyes swam languidly into focus. " Nikolai… Yes, sir." Pulling Pavlov to his feet, Krupin unslung his rifle and pushed his final magazine into the chamber. Running figures rounded the corner ahead and Krupin’s empty eye socket itched again. He laughed.