We publish writers from all over the globe here at Futurismic, but this month I get to present a story by someone who lives damn near on my doorstep! Stephen Gaskell comes from Brighton here in the UK, but “Under an Arctic Sky” is as far from the faded Regency glamour of his seaside hometown as you could imagine. It’s a powerful story of dedication to a cause against the fiercest of oppression, and I hope you enjoy it as much as we did!
Under an Arctic Sky
by Stephen Gaskell
Ran as fast as he could. His icy breath speared the air. His footfalls made slapping sounds against the packed snow. The temperature must have been minus forty, but he didn’t feel the cold.
He didn’t look back.
Didn’t want to see the oil well derricks. Didn’t want to see the scarred black tundra. Didn’t want to see the line of nodding donkeys and their belches of fire.
Most of all, he didn’t want to see how close the snowmobiles were, buzzing behind him like angry bees.
In his mind’s eye he streaked ahead to the northerly reaches of the Kanin peninsula. Past herds of caribou, past the last encampments of the Nenets, past the odd polar bear loping away on the horizon.
The back of his neck felt stiff, as though somebody had kicked him there with a steel-capped boot. He stretched a gloved hand over his head to rub at the aching spot.
And stopped dead.
There was something embedded in his neck.
He dropped to his knees with a crunch, pulled off the gloves, and ran his fingers over the object.
The whine of the motors grew louder.
It felt like a coin – etched, cold. The main trunk of it lay beneath his skin the way the greater part of an iceberg lays beneath the waterline.
And then he couldn’t move.
He tried to move an arm.
Then his hand.
He tried with all his might to move just a single finger-
The nightmare ended.
Slava sat up in the bottom bunk, heart going like a jackhammer. The frayed blanket, typical prison-issue quality, had fallen from his chest and he was covered in a sheen of sweat. In the bunk above, Mikhail groaned and rolled over. A familiar fragrance pierced the smell of boiled cabbage and dirty linen.
“It’s okay,” whispered a female voice from the foot of the bed. “It’s just a dream.” The woman eased herself down the bed from the shadows.
Could it be?
“Lena! What are you doing here?”
“Shh.” She held his hand. “Baby, do you still have that kind, sweet, gentle smile for me?”
How long had it been since he’d been able to see her properly? Ten, eleven weeks? She looked thinner, her porcelain cheeks more prominent, the sockets of her eyes starker. But beneath the hardships that her face had faithfully logged, her big green eyes still shone brightly, and he could see it was the same Lena he’d fallen in love with all those years ago. He smiled.
She stroked his face, tenderly raked her fingernails over his scalp in her special way. Her touch kindled feelings that he’d kept dormant for long months. Seeing her without being able to hold her had been the hardest thing.
“How’d you get in?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
She sighed. “Sometimes I do favours for the guards and they let me watch you sleeping.”
“Don’t be jealous, my love. I do it for us.” Lena bit her lip and hung her head down. “It makes me sick to the stomach.”
Slava touched his forehead against hers. She smelt of something clinical, like disinfectant.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “the dream was so real and the wells were built and I was running so hard and-”
“Shhh.” She pressed a finger over his lips.
They remained nuzzling, the only sound the moans of other men’s troubled sleep. Slava rubbed the back of his neck. There was no object there.
“I dreamt they’d implanted me.”
Lena trembled. A moment later he felt her tears on his nose. He licked his tongue up her face, from her chin to left eye and then across to the right. Her tears tasted salty.
“It’s okay,” he said, “it was only a dream.” He moved his hand to cradle her head.
“Tadji-bei!” he gasped. The back of her head felt like the bristled hide of a wild-boar.
Tears pricked at his own eyes. Would he ever feel her velvet hair again? He moved his hand downwards, hoping they’d shaved her head for any reason but that.
She pulled his hand away.
“They put it in yesterday,” she said, squeezing his hand, “I go out at dawn.”
The next day Slava was out with a work gang, digging foundations for a new derrick. The shift was almost over, the light fading in the cold, clear skies. Towards the east, where night was making its first advances, the Aurora Borealis – faint curtains of jade and crimson – swept the upper atmosphere. The men, shackled in iron manacles chained to each other’s ankles, were quiet. The only sound came from the repetitive “tink-tink-tink” of their pickaxes against the frozen ground.
All Slava could think of was Lena. She was out there somewhere. A marionette with invisible strings, helpless to the whim of her operator. Slava stared at the tundra beneath his feet, numb.
Beside him, Mikhail said, “Slava, look.”
Slava followed the line of Mikhail’s arm. From the direction of one of the drills that was already up and running, a figure stumbled towards them. It was clearly a marionette. They always moved unnaturally – the operator’s impulses never being quite in harmony with the body that they controlled. The marionette was small and slight, probably a woman. Slava felt torn. He didn’t know what he wanted more: for the marionette to be Lena or someone else. He shivered, waiting.
At a dozen paces the marionette stopped. “Is there a Stanislav Yamalia here?” It was Lena. Except it wasn’t. The voice was hers, but the cadence of her speech was different. Impatient, rapid-fire. Slava leaned hard on his pickaxe, horrified.
Marionette-Lena asked the question again.
Slava raised a reluctant hand.
Marionette-Lena sauntered over in a gross parody of a catwalk model.
The “tink-tink-tink” sound stopped. Frightened, some of men mumbled charmed words. To the majority of the prisoners – Nenets like his mother and father who still lived a nomadic life on the tundra – the marionettes were abominations, evil spirits that had seized control of weak flesh.
“Lena’s a great ride,” Marionette-Lena said, two paces from Slava. The operator rubbed Lena’s hands up her inner thighs towards her sex. “But you already knew that, eh?”
“Stop it!” Slava raised up his pickaxe. The handle trembled in his hands.
Marionette-Lena opened her arms, inviting Slava to do it. It was then that he caught her eyes – and they really were her eyes – wide with horror.
He dropped the pickaxe, fell to his knees.
Beyond Marionette-Lena the aurora flared brightly, swathes of green and red dominating the dark sky. The next moment she was beside him.
“Slava, you c-c-can’t imagine.” She spoke in panicked breaths, stuttering. “I d-d-don’t know how long-”
“Shh.” He tore off his right glove and pressed his palm against her icy cheek. How she’d escaped the operator’s control he didn’t know. It didn’t matter. Her presence fortified him, gave him hope. “Be strong, Lena. We’ll get through this.”
“I l-l-love, I l-l-love-” Her words were suddenly cut off mid-sentence. The operator was back in control.
Marionette-Lena got up. “Sorry to break-up this touching reunion.”
As she turned away, Slava said, “I love you, Lena.”
She trudged into the gloom, the Aurora Borealis now faint in the sky.
That night Slava sat with Mikhail at mess.
He prodded a piece of cabbage in his thick soup, not feeling in the slightest bit hungry. Around him, between the scrape of plastic cutlery against plastic dishes, he heard whispered scraps of the Nenets’ tongue: another element of the culture that the authorities sought to eliminate.
“Do you remember that night at Puskas when it was minus thirty outside?” Mikhail asked with a wistful smile.
Slava nodded. Puskas, a decaying bar, was a hangout for student revolutionaries in Moscow. Slava and Mikhail had met there during Slava’s first year of his PhD at Moscow State. He knew Mikhail was only trying to cheer him up, take his mind off Lena, but it wasn’t helping.
Mikhail went on. “I stole the vodka and you stole the glasses. ‘Cept by the time we got to Kerzi Square to drink it the vodka had frozen. Ha ha, what fools!”
Slava remembered smashing the bottle in frustration, shards of glass and vodka splaying over the cracked stones.
“We argued afterwards,” he said.
“I threw the bottle away and you got angry.”
Mikhail scratched his chin. “Yes, you’re right.”
“That was the night we got serious. I stopped drinking.”
Mikhail nodded. A faraway look crossed his face.
Slava’s thoughts returned to Lena.
“How long do you think she’ll last?” he asked, after a while.
The marionettes, like children’s toys, were used until they broke. The idea being that the operator – the person with the expertise – was never directly exposed to the dangerous elements of the job and able to work indefinitely.
“Something will come up,” Mikhail said.
“I don’t know. Something.”
“It’s going to kill her,” Slava said, shaking his head.
From across the table, Mikhail grabbed Slava’s wrist. “Nyet! Enough of that talk!”
The veins that riddled the Muscovite’s slab-like face seemed even more pronounced than usual. Slava wondered about the man’s intensity. An intellectual from the capital, Mikhail had no ties to the land or the people. A fierce allegiance to an implacable moral code was what had led Mikhail to this place. Or so he said.
“That’s easy for you to say.” Slava shrugged off Mikhail’s hand.
“You think I don’t care?”
“What is this really about for you, Mikhail?” Slava asked, feeling vicious. “Another noble cause you can pin your banner to? Another thrilling adventure that you can write up in Komsomolskaia Pravda?”
“Fuck you.” The men at the next table looked over. “You think you have a monopoly on this because you have Nenet blood? Because you were taken from your family at ten? You think people like me can’t care because we haven’t been through what you have?” He stood up, stacked his tray ready to leave. He was tall for a Russian – much taller than the Nenets – and his physical stature only cemented his air of leadership.
All Slava could think of was Lena lying broken on the tundra – one moment of carelessness by an operator would be all it would take.
“Well?” Mikhail asked. He picked up his tray.
A man at the next table broke the silence. “Are our leaders in disagreement?” he asked mockingly. The rallying of the Nenets people against Sibgaz – the energy conglomerate that threatened to obliterate their land and destroy their lives – had been spearheaded by Slava and Mikhail. Many of the men were only here because they’d fought the compulsory land purchases after listening to the duo. Resentment simmered.
Slava felt suddenly guilty for attacking Mikhail. Solidarity was everything. “Not at all,” he said. He planted a hand on Mikhail’s shoulder, well-muscled from months of forced labour. “A small difference on tactics. We’re still very much united on fighting the enemy.”
The man sneered.
“Direct your anger at someone deserving of it,” Slava said. He nodded at the other side of the mess hall. Beyond a wall of bars sat the facility staff: guards, petrologists, and engineers. His gaze caught the eyes of a broad, olive-skinned man with silky black hair tied in a ponytail. Was that Lena’s operator? Was that the man who’d taunted him earlier in the day? The man seemed to nod, before returning his attention to his food.
More taunting? Or a sign of camaraderie?
The Nenet man turned back to his table.
Mikhail sat down. “Eat,” he said. “you need your strength.”
“I’m sorry, Mikhail.”
Mikhail dismissed the apology with a swat of his hand. “It’s nothing,” he said. “Let’s talk about something useful. I’ve been thinking about our encounter with Lena earlier today.”
“Did you notice anything unusual about the short while she was free?”
Slava couldn’t think of anything – his attention had focused so much in those moments he had no recollection of anything but Lena. He shook his head.
He pictured Lena. Her distress. The halo of light in the skies beyond…
“Exactly! Electrical interference disrupted the signal.”
Slava took a spoonful of the cold soup, thinking.
For the next few nights Slava couldn’t sleep. He would lie on his side staring at the small handkerchief sized window in the dormitory door. Sometimes his mind played tricks on him and he would convince himself there was a chink of light and the door was about to open.
It never did.
One night he tiptoed over to the door and rapped quietly on the thick glass. The smell of piss wafted up from the men’s toilet pail as he waited. He rapped again. After a time a bleary-eyed guard peered in. Slava dangled his shark-tooth necklet in front of the glass; it was three generations old, fashioned by his great-grandfather after a legendary hunt in which the clan had killed a lost angel shark. The guard motioned for him to step back.
“What do you want?” the guard said after he’d unlocked the door and stepped in. He examined the bleached white teeth with a sneer.
“I need to see Yelena.”
The guard thrust the necklet back into Slava’s chest. Slava felt the teeth through his vest, blunt and useless.
“Lena offers much better goods,” the guard said, laughing. He shoved Slava to the cold floor.
As the guard turned away, he reached for his hand-held radio strapped to his belt, no doubt eager to share the joke.
In other circumstances, Slava’s mind might’ve dwelt on the pain in his elbow where he’d struck the floor, or the anger that the guard’s humiliating words had stirred. This time all he could think about was the radio. It was a transmitter as well as a receiver.
One week later, Slava was attending his monthly medical examination with Dr. Zelenchev – a warm, principled man who carried a genuine concern for the inmates’ health.
“You know they made Lena a marionette, don’t you?” Slava said.
“Open your mouth,” Zelenchev said, thermometer ready in hand.
Slava complied, closed his mouth around the instrument. He wondered if the thermometer held enough mercury to kill a man. The information might be useful one day.
Zelenchev studied the liquid creeping up the capillary. “She came in for treatment yesterday.”
Slava wrenched the instrument from his mouth. “What? What for?”
“Nothing serious.” The doctor checked the thermometer, shrugged, and scribbled a note in his digi-scroll. “She broke a couple of fingers climbing some rigging. Came in for splints.”
Slava rubbed his fingers. “Which ones?”
“Which ones? Which fingers did she break?”
The doctor placed his digi-scroll on his desk, back to Slava. “You want some frank advice? Forget about her. She’s off marionette duty now, but when her fingers heal she’ll be back out there. And who knows what’ll happen.”
“Forget about her?” Slava almost bit his tongue in his anger.
The doctor faced Slava. “Just for the time being. Don’t torture yourself.”
“Can’t you do anything?”
The doctor shook his head. “Take off your clothes now.”
Slava undressed in silence.
As Zelenchev was about to begin the physical examination, a familiar man entered the room.
Olive-skinned, broad, shiny black hair tied in a ponytail. Where had Slava seen him?
He was clearly not a prisoner. He didn’t say anything, just paced about the room and kept clenching his hands as Dr. Zelenchev peeled off his surgical gloves and washed his hands.
“Are we finished, doctor?” Slava said. He felt no shame that the unknown man was seeing his skinny buttocks and his flaccid skin and his shrivelled manhood.
The doctor dried his hands and hurried out the room.
“I’m sorry I have to intrude on your privacy like this, Dr. Alenska,” the man said in an American accent.
For a moment Slava thought the man had confused him for someone else. It had been so long since anybody had addressed him as a doctor.
“Who are you?” Slava slipped on a dirty grey dressing gown.
“It’s better if you don’t know.”
Slava suddenly remembered where he’d seen the man. “You nodded at me across the mess hall.” He eyed the surgical instruments in a Plexiglas cupboard. Sharp, deadly.
The man followed the line of Slava’s gaze. “I’m your friend, not your enemy. I’ve followed your work since your time at Minsk. Your paper on the glacimarine environment and atmospheric phosphate levels was a work of art.”
Slava thought of his days in academia with a sour taste in the mouth. Men and women more concerned with citations in the journals than the land and the people. And he’d been as unctuous as any of them.
“That was a long time ago.”
“Yes, of course.” The man fidgeted with his hands. “I just wanted to say… I wanted to say… ”
“What?” Slava snapped.
“I wanted to say I never thought any less of you when you gave up your post to join that group.”
“Don’t pussyfoot around with niceties. Say it.”
“I respected you when you joined the Arctic Liberation Front.”
The name had been deliberately chosen to arouse passion. What had Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund achieved with car stickers and pin badges?
“Thanks for the encouragement.” Slava offered his hand. He felt like a pop-star signing autographs. He hated it and wanted the man out.
The man didn’t shake. Static crackled from the speaker above the door. Ten minutes to the next shift.
“I don’t have much time,” he said, “I believe in the ALF’s aims. And their methods. And I can no longer sit back knowing what I know.”
The man knew a lot.
Sibgaz had been busy. Although they’d done it subtly, acting through intermediate companies, there was a clear line of evidence linking the company and illegal operations on the Arctic continent proper.
Drilling had started. Partial pipelines built. The work had been covered-up, right up to the highest levels of government.
“You can prove all this?” Slava said.
“Sibgaz’s been sloppy with its network security in its rush for oil. I’ve cached everything they’ve had access to. Presidential memos. Satellite photographs. Even reports on projected species extinctions and ecological damage from pipeline seepage.”
Slava couldn’t help but smile. “This could be it. This could be enough.”
“Don’t celebrate just yet. Getting the information out is the tricky bit.”
“Nothing leaves this place electronically. Communication is handled five miles offsite. Everything comes in and out the old-fashioned way.”
“And you want me to be the courier?”
“You might laugh, but here you’ve got more freedom than me. I can’t even take a smoke outside. You spend half the day out there. You’ve got a chance of escape.”
“Maybe you didn’t hear. This isn’t a progressive place. We’re shackled in irons.”
Another message crackled from above the door. “Dr. Navara, report to control.”
The man gulped and talked even faster.
“Everything I’ve talked about is on here,” he said. He unzipped his breast pocket and passed Slava a thumbnail-sized disc. He opened his mouth to say something, then thought the better of it.
Before the man got out the room, Slava spoke. “Why are you doing this?”
The man glanced back. “The Nenets aren’t the only race to have faced annihilation.”
One swing of his ponytail later he was gone.
Volunteering to be a marionette was unheard of.
The men, simple herders for the most part, knew nothing about advances in neurophysiology. They believed the tech was a form of witchcraft. Good men possessed by evil spirits and veiled in glittering plastic masks for decoration. If he volunteered the officials would suspect he was up to something.
Slava’s temper grew shorter like the days. The few hours of daylight meant more time inside. Card games and talk of old Nenets’ legends made him grouchy.
How, though? How do I become a puppet? The question mocked him like the work gang bosses.
“What are you waiting for?” the Nenets man next to him asked one time when they were queuing at mess.
Slava was holding up the line. He was thinking about the disc sewn into the lining of his mattress.
“Christmas,” he said.
“Damn idiot’ll lose us all our slop.”
Something snapped in Slava. The man had no idea the fate of his clan, his people, lay in Slava’s hands.
He punched the man hard on the side of the jaw. The blow made a sound like masonry falling onto snow. His knuckles hurt. He already regretted it, but the man was on to him, bundling him down to the ground. The man’s face was desperate, dirty and gaunt, but his breath was just a cold, lifeless air.
“We’re here because of you,” spat the man.
“Okay, cut it out.” A guard placed the end of his electric baton between their faces. “Bad men will become tools of the Devil if they’re not careful.”
Slava had his answer.
He began by complaining about the work. Just little things to begin with: blisters on the palm of his hand from holding the pick axe; cracked lips making eating painful; the stink of the filthy fleeces they were given to wear.
One morning in the prison showers, picking at a welt on the sole of his foot, he whispered to himself, “Maybe we were wrong to fight them.”
The man next to him stopped soaping himself.
The jets of water hissed like snakes, the ice cold droplets raining on his back a thousand of their bites.
“What did you just say?”
Slava turned to the man.
“I said maybe we were wrong to fight them.”
The man let the water cleanse himself and then thrust the tiny cake of soap into Slava’s chest.
“Keep ideas like that to yourself,” he said and stepped away.
The soap left a red mark just over his heart.
Over the months he chipped away at his reputation as a champion of the Nenets’ way of life. With the rubble he rebuilt himself as an appeaser, or even a supporter, of Sibgaz and its oil plans.
The Nenets must learn to adapt. The Nenets were fools to get nothing from the black gold buried under their homes. The Nenets were the enemies of civilisation and shamed the entire nation. Sibgaz would bring prosperity. Sibgaz was the future.
Each of these false words carried a piece of his soul until he was left with little except self-loathing.
The men began to turn against him, cursing his name. He became more friendly with the guards, grassing on other inmates’ misdemeanours. Rat droppings started to appear in his slop; a shard of glass hidden in a cake of soap sliced opened his hand. One night in the dormitory he was held down under his blankets while every man – even Mikhail, especially Mikhail – filed past, striking and damning him as they went.
In the morning he could barely dress. His body was so bruised his skin was coloured like a slick of oil in water.
It was time.
Slava finished his slop, swallowing the spoonful of boiled cabbage with a painful gulp. He sat alone at a six-seated metal table, chairs bolted to the floor. The tiny incision in his lower right calf where he’d fed through the disc still stung. Around the mess stood three pairs of guards, half revolted and half hungered by the anaemic smell of the food.
He hoped six guards was enough.
He eased himself up from his seat, picked up the bowl in his left hand and the spoon in his right, and rapped for the inmates’ attention.
While the chatter died down, he studied the audience. Virtually all were of Nenets descent. Men of short, stocky stature and swarthy skin. Broad, flat faces topped with thick, black hair, and graced with short, protruding noses. Epicanthic folds hid the inner angles of their eyes, giving them a gentle aspect. To Slava they looked like family.
“Men of Nenets, listen to me.”
A chorus of insults flew at him before settling to a low grumble. Somebody threw a spoon which sailed inches past Slava’s ear. One of the guards held back the guard next to him.
“Your way of life is over. Your land has been ripped from your hands. Your reindeer are heading south for new pastures. Your children are dying while you rot here. And what do you do?”
Slava could feel the air thickening. The gazes of a hundred pairs of eyes bored into him. His mouth felt cracked and dry, words of the betrayer choking his throat.
“We fight!” said Ilya, a man with flecks of food tangled in his thick beard.
“You fight? What with, Ilya? Your spoon? You can’t even use that to eat properly!”
There were a few snorts of laughter. Ilya stormed towards Slava, brushing his beard as he came. It took four men to stop him. Slava’s stomach was hard and tight like one of the drill ball bearings. He felt nauseous.
“Every man must make a choice. Will he let his name die in the lifeless tundra or will he change and live? Will he cling to his childlike beliefs of spirits or will he outgrow them?”
The muttering grew louder.
“Will he take the branch of peace offered by Sibgaz to flay his own back or will he use it build a new life? Will he be with his wife, or, like Tavghi and Yurak, let her lay with his oppressor and bear bastard offspring?”
A melee of fighting broke out as men tried to restrain the named.
Slava raised his voice. “Will he provide for his mother, or, like Mator or Beltir, watch happily as she whores herself out to avoid starvation?”
Something struck Slava on the temple. He touched the spot and his hand came away smeared with blood. He thought he might faint.
“Will he… will he be there to raise his children or, like all of you, remain in chains because of his own stupidity!”
This time they came at him, raining down blows in any way they could. Just before he blacked out, lying on the cold floor, he saw the polished sheen of a guard’s boot.
Everything depended on Mikhail now.
The white landscape acted as a cooling salve for the memory of the operation that burnt Slava’s mind like hot coals. His whole body had been aflame, his mind interpreting the stimulation of his spinal cord from the surgeon’s micro-scalpel as real pain from toe to fingertip.
The base of his neck felt as if it had been mauled by a walrus.
One night’s rest and then straight into action.
This is what a paralysed man must feel, he thought, as an alien presence moved him over the tundra.
Or a schizophrenic.
The overriding sensation, once he’d learnt to relax and not try to fight it, was the utter weirdness of it all. He may have given up his body to the operator, but the operator was giving away something even more valuable.
Observing body language was one thing, but acting out somebody else’s was on a whole different level. Slava felt how the operator carried himself. Saw how he looked at the world.
With every footstep Slava learnt something about his operator: his pride for the wells as Slava’s borrowed eyes lingered on the completed rigs; his desire for flesh as his gaze lingered on Lena who crunched through the hard-packed snow in her suit scant yards ahead; his analytical mind as he scanned complex schematics much faster than Slava could decipher.
And then there was speech.
Another’s words tumbling from your own lips!
Slava could see how this work could cleave a man in two if his own self-identity wasn’t strong enough. He shivered – an involuntary reflex that wasn’t nullified at the implant.
Fifty yards to the right a work gang hauled metal stanchions from the back of a shabby truck. The dark green, canvas sides of the vehicle flapped in the chilly breeze, and the gang’s guard detail – two men – huddled together out of the wind, smoking cigarettes and stamping their feet. As the operator gazed in the work gang’s direction, Slava studied the gang carefully. Eight men. At one end a rakishly tall man, the rest of a similar short, stocky build. It had to be his old group. Mikhail’s group.
He recognised Mikhail, but would Mikhail recognise him?
He couldn’t leave it to chance.
He summoned his will, pictured it being compressed smaller and smaller and smaller into a ball of furious energy. Then he waited for Mikhail to turn-
Slava’s right arm punched the air.
His agency was short-lived.
“Do that again,” the operator said from Slava’s own lips in a quiet toneless voice, “and I’ll make sure this is your last as well as your first outing.” To underline his words, the operator made Slava bend back one of his own fingers until it was on the verge of snapping. Slava pushed the pain from his mind, instead concentrating on Mikhail and the work gang. The Muscovite had seen Slava’s signal and was now directing the attention of his fellow workers towards Slava. Mikhail pointed with slashing motions, and Slava could almost hear his words of incitation. There’s the man who spits in your faces. There’s the man who ridicules your culture. There’s your betrayer.
It didn’t take long. Soon the line of shackled men had dropped the stanchions where they stood, and begun trotting towards Slava as best they could. Mikhail hung back as best he could. Behind them the guards reacted slowly, pulling up the collars of their jackets and flicking their unfinished cigarettes to the ground. They knew that eight shackled men never got very far.
When the operator noticed the onrushing gang closing on his marionette he panicked. Not used to Slava’s physique yet, he attempted to turn and run at the same time and only ended up leaving Slava sprawled on the tundra.
“Ah, shit,” Slava heard the operator say. “Doesn’t look like your day.”
The men were upon him swiftly, kicking the tender bruises that they’d put there two days before. The operator didn’t even bother to make Slava curl up, divorced from the pain. This time they would kill him.
And then someone was hauling them away. Mikhail. He crouched down and used his long arms to shield Slava. An ugly burn ran across his cheek, the skin blistering in tiny bubbles. He spoke in snatched breaths. “Here, take this.” He held out a two-way radio, thumb pressed hard over a corner control.
Tentatively, Slava made to reach out, scared that he might still be under the operator’s spell.
He wasn’t. Mikhail had done it! Mikhail had got the frequencies!
Now free, his first thought was for Lena. He looked around. She was nowhere to be seen.
“Take it.” Mikhail shook the device like a rattle, annoyed.
This time Slava took the radio.
Mikhail said, “Careful. Never let go.”
Slava nodded, his eyes drawn to the wound across his friend’s face.
“It’s nothing.” He glanced back at the other men, cowing them. “You should go.”
“The other radio?” Slava asked, even though he already knew the answer. His jaw felt funny now that it was no longer under someone else’s power. The plan had been for Mikhail to wrest both of the guard’s two-ways from them. One for Slava, one for Lena. Each marionette worked on a different frequency. One radio could only jam one marionette’s signal.
Mikhail shook his head.
“Give me her frequency.”
“Give it to me!”
They hadn’t talked about this. They hadn’t discussed what would happen if Mikhail didn’t manage to get two radios. They’d both known their own positions were entrenched, immovable. For Mikhail, the disc was the most important thing. For Slava, Lena.
“You risk everything-”
“We’re wasting time.” Far beyond Mikhail, in the gloom towards the guard’s barracks, Slava could already see movement. The high-pitched whine of snowmobile starter motors pierced the thin air.
“Channel fifteen. Six eight seven megahertz.”
Slava caressed the unburnt side of Mikhail’s cheek, looked deep into the Muscovite’s brown eyes. It might be the last time he saw that face. He didn’t wait for a response, just twisted to his feet, and scrambled away.
He hadn’t got far, descending a shallow incline not a hundred yards from where he’d left the work gang, when he heard the first of their screams. He flinched with each cry, picturing the electric batons striking their arms as they shielded their heads. He didn’t stop. He had to get a radio. Then find Lena. Fast. He headed toward a supplies hut that sat near the bottom of the slope. Maybe he’d get lucky.
Inside he found only tools and boxes of rivets and bolts.
He stepped back outside, hearing the drone of the snowmobile engine too late. The driver, face clad in thick, honeycombed goggles like the eyes of a fly, saw him. The snowmobile veered towards Slava.
Slava turned, closed and latched the hut door in slow deliberate movements. He concealed the radio — thumb still pressed over the transmitter control — as best as he could along the line of his forearm.
“Identify yourself,” the driver barked, over the idling sound of the engine. Petrol fumes crowded the air.
“Navara,” Slava said and slowly turned round. He ambled towards the driver in the best impression of a marionette he could muster. “Something the matter?”
A buzz of chatter came from the driver’s radio that poked from the breast pocket of his thick jacket. “Don’t step any closer,” he said when Slava was still five yards away. He pulled out the radio.
“Ops, this is Kazakov. Over.”
The driver stayed motionless, waiting.
“Go ahead, Kazakov. Over.”
Slava edged a little closer.
“I’ve got a marionette here under the control of Navara. Can you confirm? Over.”
Slava watched the guard’s shoulders sag a fraction as he spoke, a sign of wavering concentration. Big mistake. Slava didn’t wait for a second chance. He covered the remaining few yards between himself and the snowmobile in a blur, then launched himself over the vehicle’s fat beam of white light. The driver only had time to raise an arm before Slava’s hand, loaded with the dense block of angled plastic and metal that was the radio, came down hard. He’d aimed for the middle of the man’s forehead and he’d almost hit his spot, the raised arm merely deflecting the blow a few inches to the left.
The driver’s radio bounced once on the snowmobile’s carriage before falling to the snow-packed ground. When they landed, Slava found himself on top. The man wheezed, winded by the brutal touchdown. His goggles sat askew his face and a drop of blood ran from temple to ear. The violent combination seemed to have stunned him inert. Slava twisted his arm about as if he were about to throw a frisbee, made sure his grip on the transmitter control was still firm, then unleashed a terrific whipping blow.
The man went out cold.
Slava slumped forward, breathing hard-
“Target is not Navara-” Slava flipped up like a jack-in-the-box, adrenaline surging again “-Repeat. Target is not Navara. Over.”
Relief flooded him as he realised the voice came from the radio a few feet away. He crawled over to it, took a deep breath. He had to get this right, buy himself time.
“Copy that,” he said, using the collar of his jacket to muffle his voice. “Target is secured. I’m bringing him in. Over.”
“Kazakov,” the operator at the other end said, laughing, “Bringing him in? What are you, Clint Eastwood? I’ll ready interrogation. Ops out.”
“Yeah, I’m the fucking hero. Kazakov out.”
Slava twisted the radio, studied the narrow raft of dials and switches along its top edge. Automatically, he adjusted the channel to fifteen, then set the transmitting frequency to read six eight seven. His calf twitched, the disc still an invading body under his skin. What would Clint do?
He climbed onto the snowmobile, twisted the throttle. The engine responded with a healthy roar. To the north the first hints of the aurora flickered emerald and pink. He knew the land underneath. Knew the trails he’d walked as child, knew the forests he’d played in, knew the movement of the ‘bergs — the passes and the cul-de-sacs. They wouldn’t catch him.
He thought of Mikhail. He’d be tortured. Undoubtedly. Perhaps they’d get to Navara as well.
“Lena,” he whispered. “I will come back. I swear it.”
He said a prayer to Nentsi’ Gods then gunned the snowmobile north.
Stephen Gaskell lives in Brighton–a pebbly-beached English seaside town complete with pier–where he spends his days writing in coffee shops, getting injured playing football, and resenting the day job. He studied rocket science at University College, Oxford and artificial intelligence at the University of Sussex, but thinks his most beneficial graduation came from Clarion East at Michigan State Uni. He’s been published in Nature, Writers of the Future, Vol. XXIII, and Cosmos Magazine, amongst other places, but won’t be happy until he cracks one of the “big three”. He’s currently single, and encourages beautiful, brilliant, millionairesses to contact him through his website at www.stephengaskell.com.