Intention and Coincidence
In the midst of Vasilievsky Island, St. Petersburg State University stood as a magnificent example of eighteenth century Russian architecture. On the outside, the building looked cold and distant, like a sentinel built to watch over an age long past, but just within the front gate, the centre of the university opened into a massive central garden that was starting to emerge from its winter sleep, changing the impression into one of vibrancy and youth, in contrast with the age of the structures rising high above the wakening greenery. Students walked slowly across the wide lawn enjoying the outdoors and wearing as few layers as was formal. To the hardy Russians, four degrees Celsius felt like a summer breeze.
Mashka, like her younger brother, was also on her way to class, albeit at a more leisurely pace. Chill sunlight was just barely breaking through the clouds making the chance to feel the fresh air against her skin even less resistible. Taking an invigorating whiff of a crisp zephyr, she twirled once, looking up with her eyes to a small hole in the clouds, where clear blue peeked out of the white mantle.
As she turned, she noticed her friend Tanya on the other side of the frost-kissed green standing in one of the arched doorways. Glancing at her watch, Mashka decided that she still had time to stop for a short chat as she made a detour to greet her classmate. Mashka had met Tanya three years previous, just before the end of her second semester, and they had been studying together ever since.
At thirty metres away, Mashka’s ears suddenly picked up on Tanya’s whispered conversation with another woman who Mashka could not see from her angle.
“Maryja’s here,” Tanya sighed irritably. “Looks like I can't get out of this...”
“I thought you liked her?” Her audience seemed taken aback.
“I was her study partner so she could help me with the initial exams.” Tanya groaned. “But now that I am up to speed, I wish she would just leave me be. She’s such a stick in the mud.”
“I wouldn't say that, she is…” The other woman paused a moment, as if searching for a more delicate way of saying her next phrase, “motherly. But it's understandable, considering where she's coming from.”
At first, Mashka was stunned as she grasped what her friend had said. However, any feelings of hurt or anger were suddenly pushed to the back of her mind as pain ripped through her body as her already eerily sensitive hearing increased. Soon every muttered conversation, every step, and every heartbeat was detected and processed within her brain, and when someone laughed or shouted, it felt as if her skull would shatter.
Not again! She held her head in her hands as she slumped forward in pain, and she waited for the world around her to return to normalcy. These episodes would always pass within a few moments, but when they happened, they felt like an eternity.
After a few painful moments, the volume of the world lowered to a bearable level and the pain that raked over her body faded. She sighed in relief, and looked up to see a few students staring at her in curious concern. She nodded acknowledgement, muttered something about a migraine, and hastened away.
Entering the south wing of the university, she ploughed through the hall and stopped before climbing the stairs, pausing to rest against the wall, and waited for her pounding heart to calm down.
I should see a physician. I thought this was just night terrors, but this, this is happening during the day!
She clasped her hand over her heart, breathing evenly. Something wet trickled down her cheek, surprising her. She raised her hand to wipe it away and remembered Tanya’s words. Gritting her teeth, she hissed, and brushed aside her bruised heart.
This is nothing. I’ve been through much worse. Besides, after graduation, it’s not as though I would have kept in touch with such a pustyshka.
Brushing aside her downtrodden thoughts, she stood up straight. Her alone, with her brother, that was her life, and she was going to keep it that way. Her shoes clicked wrathfully as she turned around the corner to the stairs. But before she could ascend a single step, she slammed head on into a red tie and a bundle of papers collapsed between her and whoever the other person was. For a moment, she just stared dumbly at the scattered papers that plastered the floor, figuring out what had happened.
“Pr-prastite! I-I-” Mashka attempted to give an explanation, but none was forthcoming, so instead she dropped her book bag and bent down to clean up the papers, and doing her best to avoid eye contact and hide her red face as the man joined her in the clean-up. She only paused a moment to wipe her eyes dry with her sleeve.
By the time most of the papers had been returned to a reasonably neat stack, Mashka had built up just enough courage to hesitantly glance at the victim of her haste. Her embarrassment reached new heights when she saw the sleepy face of the new English professor.
He pushed his gold-rimmed glasses back in place and smiled kindly, which only succeeded in making her feel even worse. “Bis prabl’em. Vse na meste?” he asked in honest wonder at her distress.
Mashka saw his gaze drift to just below her eyes. She hoped that her face was not already tear-stained. All she could do was nod, and wish that the tile beneath her would dissolve into quicksand.
“Well, it is a pleasure to meet you, even in this... unorthodox circumstance.” He chuckled slightly in good humour.
Even though Mashka knew his laughter was supposed to put her at ease, it only succeeded in irritating her. She handed him his papers.
“Spasibo,” he nodded, then stood, and offered his hand to help her up.
Once back on her feet, Mashka apologised again, “Prastite, Professor Chekhov. I was not looking where I was going.”
“Relax, life gets boring without a few surprises. Were you late for class?”
“Nyet, English should be…” She glanced at her watch. “in about ten minutes, so I-, uh, we should both get going.”
“Ah, that is why you knew me. I’ve seen you in class, but as far as names go, I am at a disadvantage.”
“Maryja Yakovna Sharova.”
“Pleased to meet you, Maryja. To class, agreed?”
“Da,” she nodded.
They walked towards the English classroom and Mashka hoped that their conversation would end there, thus slightly alleviating her discomfort. Unfortunately, Chekhov looked down from his towering height of two metres and examined her face again. “Are you sure nothing is wrong?”
She realized her eyes must still be damp, and worse yet, probably red. She wiped them with her sleeve and assured him it was the cold weather.
His face had returned to his quiet smirk. She wondered if it was stuck that way.
“Again, prastite for throwing your papers everywhere.”
He glanced at the folder under his arm, which had papers sticking out at odd angles. He looked back up and smiled. “Relax, they are more organised now than they’ve ever been.”
Mashka was about to mentally call him out on the lie but when she noticed his off-centre tie, the part-shaved face, his dishevelled hair, and wrinkled shirt, and she was tempted to believe him.
Both of them entered the classroom; Mashka to her desk, Chekhov to the front. As she sat, her mind was going over what had just happened. Everything about that man, she found instantly unsettling; particularly, how he smiled far too much for a normal person.
Class progressed without incident until near the end, when she coughed loud. Prof. Chekhov looked towards her. She mouthed an apology, and tried to hold her nose discretely.
Some horrible scent had entered the room. She glanced over to a window where one of the students was sitting. The breeze was bringing in the scent of spoiled meat, most likely from a skip, but no one else seemed to be affected. She glanced at the clock in desperation. Ten more minutes. Something was wrong with her.
Aleksei sat eagerly at his desk. History was his favourite subject and Irina Petrovna was an excellent teacher. He sat intently, listening to her lecture on Tsar Ivan IV.
The teacher‘s voice rode smoothly as she read from a large textbook, “...though he brought Russia to its trans-continental grandeur and became the first real tsar of what we now see as Russia on the map. Ivan Vasiliyevich was considered insane and suffered from incredible paranoia. It is unknown how this came about. Some think it was his neglected and abusive childhood, following the death of his mother, or it could have been from the many potential attempts to assassinate him. Despite his insanity, he was a cunning and deceptive man, outsmarting all his opponents up until he was believed to be assassinated by mercury poisoning, since his skeletal remains contained very high amounts of the substance. Overseas, he is mainly remembered for his atrocities. However, we will first be learning about his great deeds so we can place a better context on his less noble actions, and truly see how important he was in our history...”
Aleksei moved his foot to sit more comfortably as he listened, but his comfort was short lived, as he was surprised by water dripping onto his shoe and rapidly soaking his stockings. His heartbeat stuttered as he froze in surprise. On his desk, a puddle of water was radiating out from his resting hand, at an alarming rate, overflowing onto the floor. He glanced about him. Everyone else was looking at their book or at the teacher, so he took his sweater sleeve and dried up as much water as possible, from his desk. Raising his hand to inspect, he visibly shook in revulsion, and his eyes widened in shock, as water droplets formed all over his fingers and palm, as if every pore of his skin was a tiny tap.
He raised his hand and yelled, “Gzha. Petrovna!” He winced as he felt the cool water trickle down his arm.
The woman was startled. “Da, Aleksei?”
“I am feeling ill. May I be excused for a few minutes?” He mustered up the most earnest and pathetic expression, hoping his seldom-used deception would somehow succeed.
Petrovna was well aware that this was Aleksei’s favourite class, so she dismissed him knowing it must be urgent.
After calmly departing the classroom, Aleksei went as fast as was permissible in the halls. Glancing behind him, he noticed two wet trails of drips; now his right hand was matching his left. What’s going on?! A tight vice-like grip of fear welled up in his chest.
When he made it to the bathroom, he was almost in a full run. He pushed open the door and hurried to the hand-dryer. At first, the warm air appeared to help the situation but upon removal of his hands, water once again trickled off the tips of his fingers. Adrenaline pumped through his system and his heart pounded in his ears. Finally, he shook his head, put on as much resolve as he could muster, grabbed a dozen paper towels, and concealed them in his sweater. Then he walked back to class, his hands slowly soaking his pants from within the pockets.
The janitor pushed his wheeled bucket down the hall. He looked curiously at the odd trail of drips that ran along the tile. He shrugged, and pulled out his mop to dry up the peculiar mess. However, just before he proceeded in his task, he pulled out his cellular and dialled. He toed the floor impatiently as he awaited an answer.
“Allo, subject two is emerging… da… understood.”
After class, Prof. Chekhov opened the door to the staff lounge upstairs. He glanced down the hall to make sure no one was coming, and made a call.
“Ah! Chekhov, what is the latest news on our young gaspazha?” spoke the charming voice of the older gentleman.
“As you suspected, she is displaying unique behaviour,” the ‘professor’ answered. "She noticed the scent of the skip.”
“Excellent! Our investment in her was not wasted,” the Administrator sounded pleased. “You need to hurry up the process though. We have a deadline to meet.”
Chekhov almost coughed, in surprise. “What do you mean ‘deadline’? We had months to work on this!”
“We have had complications. Our western friends are closing in.”
The professor felt his neck tingle in worry, before replying, “Yes sir, but how exactly should I proceed?”
“Try to trigger her. We need to observe her while manifesting, so we can confirm that she is what we need for the task.”
“What do you suggest?”
“We are out of time for such passive things as the skip. We will put her in a situation which might trigger her to act in self-defence, as we usually push such matters.”
“Yes sir, but could I have a little more time to gain her trust?” Chekhov spoke without any pleading tone. It was a simple request.
“You are going soft Chekhov. Should I be concerned about this?” The Administrator asked.
“Nyet, sir, I just want the operation to be as discrete as possible,” Chekhov responded. “I would rather she came willingly after the ‘test’, and we wouldn’t need to cause a ruckus.”
“Atlichna!” The Administrator sounded satisfied. “I did always like how you enjoy efficiency. That intuition of yours has saved me a lot of money in the past. Remember though, she is not what she seems. Do not feel compassion or pity. They are an experiment, nothing more. I give you a week. After that we use more, direct methods.”
“Yes, sir, I will report back then.” Chekhov waited for The Administrator to hang up then put his phone back in his breast pocket. He stared wearily at the wall before him. Something was missing, that drive that was always with him in his younger years, where did it go? He felt no excitement or eagerness, just numb responsibility. He was going to continue with the mission, but somehow, a feeling of reluctance was creeping up on him like a wraith.
He was an associate under the Administrator, and there was no way to back out, despite ill feelings. Somehow, he needed to persuade Maryja to talk to him, and open the opportunity to recruit her.
For what was left of his break, he sat and ruminated about his next actions, especially with the impending deadline.
Our rivals are pushing the boundaries this time, he thought, whilst lightly biting his thumb in concentration.
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Episode 4 is on Wednesday!