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"Well, Govan, if we must die, let us die like men."
Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne
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PostPosted:     Post subject: Nothing to see here, move along Reply with quote

The rays of afternoon sun were warm on his skin. An old, thin man lay still, enjoying the
quiet. His aching muscles needed the rest. He felt drowsy but resolved to stay awake
awhile longer. In the tundra, warm and sunny weather did not come often, and this
February thaw would not last past the sunset.

Sparse, wiry greens poked from under the snow. He reached out for a frozen cranberry
and chewed slowly. Somewhere in the distance a dog started to bark. The man felt in his
bag and extracted a crushed sandwich, a ragged slice of ham on dry crumbling bread. It
was the first decent food he has seen in a while, but he was no longer hungry. For the first
time in his adult life he did not feel rushed. Toli's myopic eyes could not see much past
the pale moss under his outstretched hand. Past the soft lines of the moss was a blur. He
tried to remember what happened to his glasses. His left cheek still bore a scar from the
fist that broke the lens and sent the wire frame flying into the fluffy snow.

When he got picked up late one night, a mad dash away from the three men was his first
thought. A Nagant barrel shoved painfully into his back dissuaded him from trying. He
still had not quite comprehended what happened until after a train bearing him and some
hundred sixty others pulled up to a tiny cement platform in the middle of nowhere.
He knew one of the people that grabbed him off the street. It was his own neighbor,
Lieutenant Klin. Earlier that month, Toli heard somebody scraping on the door and stuck
his head into the hallway. Klin must have been leaning on the door, as he pitched
backwards and barely kept his balance. Toli's face almost slammed into Lieutenant's
leather-clad back. It was the hefty wooden holster hanging on the belt over the leather
jacket that made the scraping noise.

Further on the same floor, the other door was open, another man wearing a leather jacket
in it. A third one was ushering the two residents out. The white-haired couple stumbled
over their suitcases and the soldier motivated them along with a nasty-looking cruciform
bayonet. He did not see much else, as the Lieutenant, having recovered his balance,
ordered him to get inside.

"Look what I found in their desk," he heard from behind the locked door. "here's one for
you, too."

The next day, he found a black car blocking the sidewalk with its long louvered hood. A
moving van stood next to it, and several burly men were bringing furniture up the stairs.
Klin was back, too. He gave Toli a fishy look, but greeted him pleasantly enough. He was
not nearly as pleasant two short weeks later, when he and his crew got Toli as he walked
home from the evening school...

At the station, he tried to ask where they were going, and a tired-looking guard hit him in
the face, just like that. There was no malice in it, just an impersonal and efficient
termination of small-talk. It was lucky that the other newcomers were as demoralized as
he was: no one kicked him while he groped fruitlessly for the lost glasses. Upon arrival
some two days later, the guard that hit him herded everybody into a damp windowless
barrack and locked them in.

During the months that followed, he learned just how to keep moving for another day on
nothing more than a small piece of crumbling half-baked bread and a cup of hot water,
sometimes called soup. A full day of hard, pointless work was required to merit such
lavish fare. Prisoners in the barrack next to them ate one of the guard dogs and were all
shot the same day. That time, the guards had an excuse. Most of the time, they merely
killed on a whim. Their flock of starved, depressed victims came to view the executions
as an acceptable way out of the nightmare. Sometime during the long, dark winter
months, the guards figured that out and would merely maim a man and throw him back
into the barrack.

In a camp of some two thousand , the thirty or so vokhri, armed camp guards, had
somehow found time to mistreat everyone of them. By spring at least a third of them
would probably be dead. Toli himself was even thinner than he normally was, the tightly
drawn skin giving him the look of an old man. He was twenty-six.

Toli has learned early on that he could not escape the beatings and tried to survive them
the best he could. Ironically, while the loss of his glasses made him more vulnerable, it
kept the guards from singling him out. The brutes equated glasses with education, and
that they hated passionately. A blow that would be shrugged off by a healthy man would
knock down any of the prisoners. However, with no fat or muscle left on their bones, they
bruised easily and their tormentors were usually content with that.

No one knew where they where. The lax security certainly indicated lack of any
populated areas nearby. While the six perimeter towers and two rows of wire kept the
camp itself tight, the work details were only slightly supervised. A team of thirty or so
prisoners, weak and without hope, was handled by two men. They knew that their herd
had no place to run and the few who tried to walk off into the tundra had been shot at
leisure. The flat ground for miles around offered neither cover nor shelter.

In hindsight, Toli thought absently, he should have made a run for it at the start. These
days, always cold and hungry, and limping from a dog bite, he could not hope to get far.
He has long since resigned to the idea of dying, but refused to commit suicide by
climbing on the wire or mouthing off to a guard. His barrack was populated mostly by
people like him, intellectuals torn from their comfy lives. They were mostly interested in
the same thing he was, keeping low and staying alive.

This morning, the bitter cold that held every since he was taken in eased up. The two
sleepy guards brought Toli's detail out the underbrush where the road ended. Today they
would add twenty meters of hard, packed dirt to it. With temperatures above freezing, life
seemed almost tolerable for a change. The thin, bent figures with dull, heavy shovels
spread out and went through the motions. They did not know or care where the road was
going. They traded painfully inefficient labor for a starvation ration and another day of

Amazingly, Toli had no dreams of his former life. Nothing in the bleak, cold and
hopeless nightmare could even remind him of Mila or his son, Alex. He had no illusions
about getting out. There was no trial, no evidence, the masters did not bother with
formalities anymore. While before he had faintly suspected that the small typewritten
note on his late neighbors' door was not true, now he was sure of it. He knew that his wife
was sure of it, the way she looked at him when he read the condemning words aloud.
Toli worked at the end of the line, with one of the guards leaning on one of the few trees
in that land. Around noon, the man stood straight and started walking into the brush,
tugging at his belt as he went. His rifle remained leaning against the tree trunk. He had no
reason to worry: the starved, cowered zombies working behind him had never defied him
or any other vokhr.

Toli did not think about his actions. He picked up the rifle and racked the bolt the way he
has seen the guards do. A shiny brass cartridge arched out of the breech and another went
in its place as the bolt returned home. He did not know enough to check the safety, but he
got lucky. The long, awkward gun rested unsteadily in his arms when he saw the
returning vokhr. Seeing a pale, scruffy prisoner with his rifle, the guard walked straight at
him, one hand stretched out to seize the weapon.

Toli raised the gun to his shoulder and tugged on the trigger. The muzzle jerked up and
the stock hammered savagely on the bony shoulder. Only the weight of the rifle kept
Toli, deafened and stunned by the recoil from falling over backwards. He lowered the
barrel and stared in front of him.

However ignorant of musketry, even he could not miss at two paces. The guard lay face
down and a black stain on his padded jacket indicated where the bullet tore its way out.
Amazingly, the other prisoners kept working, not even looking up. A gunshot usually
meant a dead prisoner, an event unremarkable to survivors and other guards alike.
Toli thought of walking off into the undergrowth and trying to get lost. Deep down, he
knew that would not work. The camp dogs were too good at tracking those few fugitives
that managed to slip away from the guards and out of the range of the menacing
perimeter towers. He turned and walked down the road, past the people working, toward
the second guard.

While the shot failed to rouse the vokhr, the sight of a gangly, scruffy prisoner with a
rifle did. Toli had not reloaded, but the guard declined to stick around long enough to
learn that. He tried to undo the strap of his holster, then bolted, heading for the camp
gate. Toli's poor eyesight had not picked out the guard till he started moving. He was
surprised to see his adversary flee, as it did not even occur to him to shoot again. Without
eyeglasses, that would have been an unprofitable exercise.

The young man sat down on the moss by the side of the half-finished road. He let the rifle
fall away and reached into the guard's khaki knapsack. He was idly curious about
possessions of someone who, for months, has had absolute power over him. The first
item was prosaic enough, a crusty ham sandwich wrapped in wax paper. Then out came
two heavy metal tins, unpleasantly oily to the touch. It was not until his eyes traversed to
the submachine gun abandoned by the vokhr that he understood what these drums were.
Toli stuffed everything back into the knapsack and got up, barely able to support the
weight of his trophy. Then a siren started off at the camp. He started slowly into the
tundra. For now the gray bare branches and low evergreens offered some cover, but soon
he would have to walk in the open. Behind him, prisoners never stopped poking at the
frozen ground.

"Alex must be in an orphanage now," he thought irrelevantly. "They probably got Mila
the same day."

Suddenly, it seemed pointless to even try to get back, had it even been possible. The
winded barking was getting closer. Toli sat awkwardly into the snow. He could see faint
shapes behind the branches, could hear the dogs and the angry men hunting him. Most
clearly, with his eyes perpetually focused up close, he could see the dark metal of the gun
he had dragged along. He pulled the bolt handle back as he had with the rifle. It stayed
back and would not budge. He tried pulling the trigger, with the muzzle poking into
scrawny weeds. Something snapped under his right hand and a loud report issued from
the gun. The recoil was so slight that he was not, at first, aware of having fired. Startled,
he let go of the trigger. Four dull steel shell casings landed noiselessly into the folds of
the moss around him.

The few runaways who were not shot at once died slowly. He did not want to die that
way, but when Toli tried to get up, he could not. What little strength he had was all used
up. He rested the drum on his knees, pointing in the general direction of the camp, and
waited, sunlight warming his pallid skin. Somewhere in the back of his mind was a timid
regret that he would not enjoy this for long.

The party of five followed their dog to his hideout. When they saw their prey, mere ten
paces separated the prisoner and his pursuers. Toli straightened up without rising,
shouldering his weapon with difficulty. Though the greenish uniforms were fuzzy, he
found that the front sight was sharp and that was enough to aim accurately.
One of the pursuers fell, the rest dashed for cover. The German Shepherd tried to rush
him but dropped a few steps shy of its goal, as he tracked it deliberately with the
vibrating muzzle. It was ridiculously easy to adjust aim by watching the green and gray
puffs of moss and dirt thrown up by the bullets. In the brush ahead a revolver barked. He
pointed at the sound and squeezed the trigger, seeing empty cases move rapidly up and to
the right, branches in front gently falling. His ears were ringing, but he could still sense
receding footsteps. The gun in his hands kept shaking a second longer and then stopped.

He let go of it and heard the hiss of the snow vaporizing against the barrel jacket.
Another attempt to walk came to naught, as his knees were now weak with fear. Before
he could wonder why he no longer felt resigned, one of the guard towers opened up
blindly, long rays of tracers stabbing into the bleak landscape. A little less loud and
faster, submachine guns joined in from closer range. They could not see him but did have
ammunition to spare. Sharp pain in his side showed that the approach worked. Warmth
spread immediately, followed by feeling of weakness, worse than anything before. This is
where he would have to die, in a shallow depression in the snow, like a shot-up hare.
The short day was coming to an end. In the waning light, Toli tried to make his gun work
again. He figured out how to change the drum just as the guards advanced again, a thin
skittish line of people used to bullying but not to combat. The warm stain on his side had
long since grown cold and even more painful than before. No, he was not going

Just as he had thought, they did not expect him to stick around. The search party planned
to form a skirmish line later, when they caught up with the fugitive. The possibility of
ambush had not worried them, for they had strength and numbers and the arrogance
which comes from life-long bullying of the defenseless. The heavy boots stomped
urgently, the men rushing ahead with their kits banging against the guns and hoarse,
panting shouts announcing their excitement.

This time he emptied an entire drum without stopping, feeling the pleasant warmth
spreading from the metal. When darkness fell, the land was awash in flashes, soldiers
shooting blindly while Toli , drifting in and out of consciousness, was saving his last

They did not come for him that night. The next day, which was bitterly cold, the tower
fired long, aimless bursts at the tundra and fell quiet again. The drifting snow covered up
the footprints and spent brass, as if nothing had happened.

Oleg Volk
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