Dmitri stamped his foot. It was useless. Seven layers and a wool coat, leather gloves, rabbit fur hat, it was all useless. The vicious Siberian wind bit at his face mercilessly and rattled in the rusty gutters on the sides of the concrete prison block that he was guarding.
It was nearly 1am. Yevgeny was late. Yevgeny was always late, but Dmitri had less patience tonight than most nights. Most nights you lost track of the minutes and hours standing there in the burning cold and so someone being late was of little consequence. But tonight was different and they had planned things too well to ruin it all by poor timing. Everything was in place, and now it was time to act and hope that absolutely nothing went wrong. There was no margin for error tonight.
Part of his mind kept a lookout for his tardy comrade, and another wandered back over the hours and days of the last two weeks. Much like the minutes of the night watch, the days of a prison guard’s existence tended to merge into one long, boring film. You might remember an incident here or there. But those incidents were usually bad and you wanted to forget them, and with enough vodka and mental suffocation you could.
But the last two weeks had been so very different. The last two weeks had been alight with planning and thoughts and schemes, jotted notes and clandestine conversations, and the images of those fourteen days had imprinted themselves on his brain with such sharpness and gravity that he felt as though he remembered every minute. The long, off-duty nights were he, Yevgeny and Aleksandr drew up plan after plan and threw away each one as they found its flaws. The way the candlelight danced upon those bottles of vodka that stood untouched in the corner of their barracks room, the dusty shot glasses upturned upon the corks that stuck out at careless angles from the bottlenecks. That vodka had been their only comfort against the greyness of their daily duties, the endless cold, and most of all against the things they saw in that prison, the things they had done, the things they had ignored. It was the glue that had held together a rapidly fragmenting system of life.
But on those nights there was no time for vodka. He remembered the way Aleksandr’s hawklike eyes narrowed as he carefully drew the plans, the way Yevgeny laughed at such a volume that it was a wonder their supervisors or some guards more dedicated to Soviet ideals had not heard them. Laughter did not happen in that camp, and he smiled a little as he wondered anew how Yevgeny’s howls and the excited chatter had not betrayed the whole thing. Those nights they had been alive, filled with some fire that they had never experienced but that they recognized like their own names.
Soon enough the soft trudge of feet on the side of the building around the corner awakened Dmitri from his reminiscing. He didn’t turn.
“You ready?” said Yevgeny.
“Yes, but if you talk that loud you’ll make dog food of us both. Come on.”
The two of them went about five steps to their left, near the main entrance to the prison block in which fifty prisoners were kept in ten cells. Dmitri looked up and diagonally, up towards the watchtower and its ever searching spotlight. He looked beyond it, to an administrative building a little ways in the distance. He saw a tiny flash in the window. That was enough.
“Alright, Aleks is ready.” Dmitri took a set of heavy keys out of his pocket and unlocked the windowless, ironclad door of the prison block, the hinges crying out and shattering the well-kept stillness of that frosty, early spring night. He closed the door behind himself and Yevgeny, and they walked straight down the center aisle of the prison. Most prisoners were asleep or at least very quiet. Most were not interested in what was going on. Perhaps they had some kind of hope left that someone would come for them, but Dmitri had a dark feeling that hope had little to do with it. Some of them simply did not care anymore, and that was a lethal concession. He knew those ones were as good as dead.
Yevgeny went a little ahead and entered a room on the left by himself. Dmitri heard the great clack clack as he pulled the breaker switch and ensured that all the lights on the inside and outside of the block would remain dark until they were long gone.
Dmitri turned right and unlocked the very last cell before the far exit. There were five of them in there, five out of fifty, and he felt a slight twist of hesitation as he looked at them. The chances of a prisoner surviving inside a Soviet prison were almost zero, and the chances of one surviving outside it were in the negative numbers. The prisoners were an average of thirty to thirty-five pounds underweight, and their shabby prison clothes were going to be no match against the night wind. He wondered if he was doing the right thing or leading them to their deaths, and wondered why he was thinking about that now.
He motioned silently for them to exit. Yevgeny had unlocked the back door and was holding it open. A few prisoners from other cells lifted their heads and watched the happenings. Dmitri hoped at least a few more would risk it, and he found himself quickly walking up one row of cells and down the other, motioning for more to come, whispering loudly in a language only a few of them understood that it was not too late, that they could come, that they could try. He knew they had not planned on a large convoy, and that the seconds he was spending on this final roll call were precious. But he couldn’t help it. There was something alive in him that had been dead before, and it was hard to silence it. He hoped fiercely that a few more would come. But none did. They just put their heads back down and went to sleep. They had given up.
“Dmitri.” Dmitri jumped slightly at Yevgeny’s voice. “Dmitri, look.” Yevgeny motioned outside. The searchlight of the far tower was out, as it was supposed to be. The electrical room for that area of the camp was located on the ground floor of the building whence Aleks had signaled them, and he had put out the light by snipping a couple of critical wires. He was one of the smart ones, and therefore was often employed in administrative roles and had access to most of the buildings in the camp. But what concerned his two friends was the repair crew that had been dispatched with alarming speed to address the issue with the searchlight.
“That has to be the fastest response time in the history of the Union,” Dmitri said bitterly. There were no two ways about it. They had to move.
He gave a more urgent signal for the prisoners to follow. All exited, and Yevgeny locked the door. And they all trotted off down a pitch black lane of dirt, into the underbrush, out of sight, Dmitri leading, then Yevgeny, then the five prisoners, as quiet as cats, all in a row.
They came out the other side of the patch of brush in a few minutes and trudged through the snow to the outer wall. Dmitri took one look back towards the darkened spotlight and the building behind it.
“Come on, Aleks, get out of there,” he said in a harsh whisper.
Yevgeny looked back too, and all of them stood there for an agonizing three seconds, searching the dead spotlight and the administrative building and everything they could see, hoping desperately that Aleksandr would appear. But he did not. This was the part of the plan that had been the most difficult to agree on. Aleks had told them to go if he did not appear within five minutes of the light signal. He had made them agree to it. And time was up.
“He is smart,” Dmitri said. “He will find a way.”
But the rest of them had to keep going. The search light being “broken” meant that no one had a hope of spotting them, the crystal clear skies provided just enough light to illuminate their way but not enough for them to be seen, and the cruel winter wind was raising a fair enough howl to cover their sound. If there was ever a perfect night for a death race, this was it.
Dmitri was grateful that this particular prison had made the error of using the same locks for all the outside doors, and he used his prison keys to open the door leading through the wall. When all were on the other side, he locked it again, and they moved in a silent herd across a small field, and up a hill, to a knoll that afforded a view of what was next. What was next was the part that he feared. The part that might kill them all, especially the prisoners. The part that might prove him a complete and utter fool, an inglorious footnote in the annals of the Red Army, if anyone ever found the bodies, which was unlikely considering it was March and there was almost certainly more snow ahead.
He looked out on the vast emptiness ahead. The snow was untouched, drifting in great white dunes across the immeasurable expanse of the Siberian plains. No animal or human was daft enough to try it. He knew he would be shot if he went back, so he had to risk it. The prisoners might have a chance if they returned and begged for mercy. Maybe.
One of the prisoners stepped alongside Dmitri. He did not seem over-bothered by the cold.
“It’s really pretty,” he said. His words were a jumble to Dmitri. It was English, he thought, or at least that’s what it sounded like. But he looked at the prisoner’s face and if anything could be read from it, fear was not there. He was smiling slightly, and took a deep breath, such a breath as would have put a knife in your lungs, but the prisoner laughed. Dmitri realized it was probably the first clean air he had breathed in a little while.
The spotlight was working again. Yevgeny motioned with this head that they needed to make tracks. Dmitri looked at the prisoner.
“You can go back,” he said, gesturing pathetically to the prison camp behind them with a wave of his hand. “You can go back.” He knew the prisoner didn’t speak Russian but he seemed to understand enough.
“Nyet,” the prisoner said emphatically. He strode out, straightening his oversized hat, his hole-ridden shoes catching the glint of the moonlight, his threadbare jacket a joke in these temperatures. He looked back at Dmitri.
“I’m a boy scout,” he said in his odd way of talking. “All those cold Wisconsin nights are gonna finally come in handy.”
And he waded out into the snow. Dmitri didn’t know what he was on about, but he, Yevgeny and the other prisoners leapt into the snow after him and disappeared into the darkness.
They had gone only a few steps when a rustle behind a nearby tree caused Yevgeny and Dmitri to raise their rifles with lightning speed. They herded the prisoners behind them and took a step forward.
“Friendly,” said Aleksandr, appearing in the moonlight bearing a cargo of woolen coats and pilfered fur hats and wearing a smile that put that fire in all their hearts, the fire that had lit the way through those two weeks of secret plans. “Forgive the delay.”