“Poékhali!” bellowed Taras Demochev, Guard No. 114 of Corrective Labor Camp No. 479. He pushed through the men in the tunnel as he walked beside a mining car carrying a load of blasting powder. “Why aren’t we moving?”
For nine days, prisoners had struggled with faulty pneumatic jackhammers and pickaxes to widen the last fifty yards of the tunnel so that a newly arrived boring machine could gnaw through a stubborn layer of dolomite. Tethered by straining cables a hundred yards up the grade behind Taras, the borer steamed like a locomotive on wide-gauge rails.
Taras barely regarded the half-starved prisoners clogging the tunnel ahead, casting them aside like scarecrows as he bulled forward. The wretched convicts, even the ones in their twenties, were already dokhodyaga, “goners,” buying their last hours of life by digging their own graves. “Move your asses!” Taras yelled. “Out of my way!”
A young subordinate guard rushed to meet him.
“What’s the holdup, Yvgeny?”
“Some zeks fell out of the airshaft.”
As the men parted before him, Taras saw five men sprawled on the ground under a hole in the ceiling twenty yards ahead. He had sent the men up that morning to continue drilling the ventilation shaft. Their heavy pneumatic drills had battered and mangled them on the way down, and the men lay tangled under the heavy equipment and hoses in a pitiful heap. Taras strode forward and fired his revolver into the groaning pile, shocking the younger guard. Many of the prisoners doubled over at the earsplitting gunshot, though most could not hear.
Since they had come under Taras’s command, none of these men officially existed anymore. Once they were sent to Corrective Labor Camp No. 479, their lives were erased. Sixty thousand ghosts labored in this ancient salt mine near the village of Gursk in the Kaziristani highlands. Criminals and lawyers, rapists and poets, murderers and doctors, all were now zeks to the guards. Like ants, they worked until they died and were carried away.
On the mountainside above, the zeks slept in rough wooden barracks slapped together with timber from the foothills of Mount Kazar. Each of their dormitories was the size of a double-wide trailer and housed 120 men by day and 120 by night. Hundreds of the ramshackle dormitories dotted the mountain slopes around the salt mine that, until now, had provided the nearby town’s sustenance for seven centuries. Since their new rulers confiscated the mine four years ago, the villagers of Gursk called the mine that once fed them, “Stalin’s Mouth.”
Over twenty thousand men had been swallowed by the mine. Convicts continuously arrived, but the camp’s population never grew. The townspeople rarely saw salt harvested these days. Instead, an endless stream of mining cars and conveyors disgorged a miniature mountain range of pulverized rock at the foot of the mountain.
More bewildering to the villagers was what they saw going into the mine. Endless shipments arrived by train and were taken by truck and mining car into the mountain—cement and ceiling fans, bricks and marble bathtubs, Persian rugs, alabaster pillars, terra-cotta tiles, bronze streetlamps, bicycles, beds, even baby carriages. Some whispered that they had seen crates of French champagne, beluga caviar, even ZIS-115 limousines straight from Automotive Factory No. 2 in Moscow, all fed into the mine’s mouth.
Taras fired another round at the hesitating prisoners, this time dropping one with a gut shot. “Get going!” he shouted at the rest. He had outlived 61 guards who came before him and 122 guards after. He knew he would be executed along with any convicts who tried to escape on his watch. This had never become a problem for him, since most of Taras’s zeks were dead after only a few weeks. His superiors did not complain about this. In fact, they began deliberately assigning certain prisoners to his detail, which Taras Demochev took as a compliment.
Taras waved away the smoke of his pistol, questioning his eyes: instead of running away from the bullets, this time the zeks were running toward him. A terror rehearsed in his dreams gripped him. He backed away, but as he turned to run, he noticed blue and green sparks gushing out of the unfinished ventilation shaft. An oval of light oozed from the hole and glided like a flashlight beam over the ceiling. Then it peeled from the roof and landed on the back of a screaming convict.
Taras decided to hold his ground. He fired his gun, and two men fell as the rest retreated. But one of the zeks leaped like a gazelle over his comrades’ heads, shrieking and soaring with superhuman force. He landed on all fours at Taras’s feet, his back covered by a glowing mass. The convict jackknifed upright, and as he recognized Taras, an expression of relief came over his face. Taras was horrified, having never provoked that response in a zek before.
The convict reached forward and clutched Taras’s arm. Two white ovals glided down the prisoner’s wrist, over Taras’s gun, and under the guard’s sleeve.
“Shit!” Taras yelled. He felt tongues fringed with needles sliding up his arm. Leeches! he thought. With urgent strength, the zek jerked the barrel of Taras’s pistol to his own forehead with pleading eyes. Taras obliged him, squeezing the trigger and blasting his head apart. Then he pulled himself away as the prisoner dropped like a marionette whose strings had been cut.
Half a dozen glowing ovals were now sliding over the tunnel’s ceiling toward him. Hundreds of glowing red and yellow goblinlike creatures poured from the ventilation shaft onto the men. Taras turned and ran as the tunnel was filled with shrieks. “Let the Grinder go!” he screamed at the men in the tunnel up ahead.
Rising on all fours behind him, the dead zek leaped into the air.
Taras did not look back as he made it to the narrow-gauge rails beside the tunnel borer and shouted, “Cut it loose!”
As the dead zek landed on all fours in front of the hissing machine, Taras reached the far side and the convicts there uncoupled the cables, unleashing the machine’s two hundred tons of mass, which gathered a terrible momentum as it rumbled down the tracks.
Taras scratched at his chest as he charged up the tunnel, past laborers who were plastering and tiling the walls. “Out of my way!” Taras snarled, kicking them aside.
The boring machine accelerated as it mowed over miners and smashed into the mining cart that carried the blasting powder. Driving the cart like a warhead through a forest of flesh and bone, it finally crashed into the dolomite dead end of the tunnel and detonated its payload, rupturing the tunnel like a backfiring cannon.
When the first inspection team arrived, the only human remains visible at the edge of the rubble were Taras Demochev’s hand, disembodied, still clutching his Tokarev pistol.
It was soon determined that it was more practical to cement over this tunnel and memorialize the loss of men with a plaque, and then try drilling in a different direction.
Guard No. 321 took the undamaged gun and pushed some gravel over Guard No. 114’s hand with his boot.
Copyright © 2013 by Warren Fahy