By Warren Fahy
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2013 Warren Fahy
All rights reserved.
"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.
Toughened and tanned by salt spray and sun, the mummified corpse of Thatcher Redmond resembled beef jerky. His formerly red hair and beard were now snow white. The remains of the zoologist had meandered across the open sea in a partially deflated raft for 134 days.
As though conveyed by a series of belts, the sagging Zodiac had drifted on Pacific currents for thirty-five thousand miles. Sucked east into the Peru–Chile Current, the raft was slung around the South Pacific gyre to the west along the top of the South Equatorial Current, where it was sloughed by the remnants of a storm into the North Equatorial Current. Now it glided on an eddy of the Kuroshio Current, passing the spray of volcanic islands north of Japan.
As it wandered too close to a rocky islet, a large wave caught the Zodiac and pushed it out of the sea, depositing it high up a pebble beach on a colorful tide line of trash.
The first sand flies from the island arrived. As they scribbled the air around the beached raft, a wasplike creature with five wings like a whirlybird emerged from the mummy's mouth. Its five quivering legs gripped the man's chin as it basked in the sun to warm its copper blood. Its five upper legs opened and snapped like praying mantis claws, methodically snatching sand flies two at a time out of the air and feeding them like popcorn into a mouth at the end of its distended abdomen. From each of the corpse's eye sockets two more of these bugs emerged, emulating the first as they stood on each of his cheekbones.
Beach fleas and crabs began invading the Zodiac.
Like a sand dollar fringed by a centipede, a disk the size of a dime rolled on its edge out of the zoologist's ear. ...
Drawn by a scent signal from the scout, a few dozen more of the rolling bugs emerged from the watertight corpse, which had been hollowed out like a leather flask by the creatures that had sought refuge inside it.
Like discuses, the bugs launched at the advancing sea roaches, sand flies, and crabs. Generations of juveniles unloaded from the backs of the disk-shaped bugs and gnawed through the joints of the island's native arthropods, consuming them from the inside, and recycling them into more of themselves, each one of them an assembly line.
The zoologist's bony hands clutched a jar on his chest. A breeze moaned in the jar's mouth as a winged creature with three legs and wings took flight from the jar, drawn by the smell of land. A single green scale of what appeared to be lichen clung to one of its three legs.
Out of every thousand juveniles clinging to the sides of the rolling bugs, one dropped off and extended legs on one side like mangrove roots. Then their disk-shaped bodies expanded into tiny cylinders as their upper legs morphed into fronds. Multicolored egg clusters formed like coconuts under the fronds. Within each color of egg, a different species of "tree" began to incubate. ...
Clouds colored the sea gray like the shore except for a spill of vivid hues on the rocky coast of a tiny island Captain Tezuka was studying with his binoculars. His crab boat, the Kirishima, had been poaching the contested waters north of Japan when his crew drew his attention to the strange sight on the shore. It looked like a melted circus growing out of the island. He rubbed his eyes and smoothed back the white stubble on his shaved scalp, stumped.
This fragment of the Khabomai Rocks was one of a hundred islets dotting a political limbo claimed by both Russia and Japan. With both countries' navies asserting their authority over them, it was effectively a no-man's-land, where a fortune in snow and king crab could be harvested for a gambler like Tezuka.
"Captain, we shouldn't stay here any longer," his first mate implored.
Captain Tezuka knew he was right, but in all his travels, he had never seen what he was looking at now. "Send three men in for a closer look, Hiro. Have them bring back some of that stuff," he ordered. Tezuka had a gut feeling this might be a lot more valuable than crabs, to the right buyer. And he knew the right buyer. Telling the authorities was out of the question, of course. After all, it was illegal for him to be here in the first place. "Tell them to use your camera case!"
Hiro sighed. In that camera case was his new video camera, which he was hoping to use to make a reality show pilot of their crab-fishing adventures and sell it to one of Japan's television networks.
"Empty the case and give it to them," Tezuka ordered.
Hiro sadly removed his camera and the foam forms inside, placing them inside an empty ice chest. Tezuka threw the empty aluminum case down to three men in the inflatable launch, who gunned the outboard engine and whipped a creamy curve across the sea toward the eruption on the shore of the island.
When they hit the shore, one man dragged the launch above the surf onto the gray pebble beach as the other two men trotted toward the lurid garden growing on the rocky shelf above.
At the base of the ledge, they found the remains of a large Zodiac, half-buried in seaweed. Oddly, no swarms of flies rose as they approached to inspect it. Inside the raft was a corpse wearing a bleached cargo vest, jeans, and shriveled Nikes. The mummy's bearded face was frozen in a scream and its eye sockets followed them as they passed.
The younger man took the aluminum camera case and lunged up footholds in the escarpment to the ledge. He reached out to a purple coral-like growth and broke off a branch, throwing it into the open case. Reaching down with his other hand, he scooped handfuls of some kind of flat-leafed square-edged moss into the open case, along with what looked like two hard brown dates and some skittering white bugs that suddenly appeared all around him, crawling over the rock.
Transparent blue flower petals popped out on the branches of the coral tree next to his face, startling him. The heel of his hand burned suddenly, and pain scorched the skin on his legs. The three-petaled flowers shot out of the purple branches, revealing insect bodies hanging under three beating wings, hovering a few inches in front of his face, like whirligigs. Before the young man could react, two inch-long bugs had bitten into his neck.
A five-winged creature dived into his cheek and bounced off into the case as he slammed it shut. The case banged down the ledge as he dropped it, where his shipmate caught it and saw the young man collapse, blood spraying from his neck. His mate was about to climb up to help when an angry swarm of strange bugs appeared and instantly covered the young man's body as he screamed.
His older crewmate turned and ran, embracing the suitcase. Thousands of tiny disks rolled, bounced, and hurled after him like miniature Frisbees. They caught up to the veteran crabber, who had come ashore barefoot with pants rolled up above his knees.
Seven of the pale disks stuck like Chinese throwing stars into his calves, and he ran twenty more steps before falling in crippling agony, dropping the case. It slid down the pebbled beach toward the water as he shrieked and the bones of his calves were exposed as his flesh melted off his legs before his eyes. Attracted by his screams, two flying bugs shot down his throat, silencing him.
The third shipmate, who had stayed with the launch, heard his muffled scream as a wave embraced the camera case and sucked it into the surf. A number of large flying bugs headed toward him, buzzing loudly as he shoved the launch into the water, leaping in. He saw the case floating near the boat and pulled it aboard, throttling the launch toward the Kirishima.
The flying bugs turned away, heading back to shore.
Through his binoculars, Captain Tezuka saw the body of his crew chief rolling in the surf. "Kuso!" he cursed.
"We must report this, Captain," said Hiro.
Tezuka scoffed. "And get ourselves arrested?" The captain rubbed his head. "Rikio is coming."
They saw the weeping man in the raft, holding the aluminum case over his head.
"He got it!" Tezuko shouted.
5:27 A.M. CENTRAL EUROPEAN TIME
Otto Inman heard the e-mail beep while he was typing his notes. He had been up all night, working on a book about his experiences on Henders Island.
Several of his colleagues had made a bundle off book deals and product endorsements since the species they discovered on the island had added an entire branch to the tree of Earth's evolution. All the creatures that had evolved on that isolated, crumbling fragment of an ancient supercontinent had been sterilized with a nuclear weapon — except for the incredibly alien and astonishingly sentient "hendros," who were now kept in an undisclosed location.
Though virtually imprisoned since their public debut on the reality TV show that had first encountered them, the five surviving hendros had become world famous. Even in their seclusion, they had each made a fortune in sponsorship deals, their likenesses appearing in comic books, movies, trading cards, action figures, board games, children's cartoons, and commercials for hundreds of brands around the world.
Otto was one of the first scientists to encounter life on Henders Island, and was instrumental in designing the doomed NASA mobile lab the navy had flown in to investigate the island, yet he was having trouble spinning his story into gold, as so many others had. He did appreciate, and accept, a lucrative fellowship at the University of Berlin to study the legacy of Henders Island and the vast array of animals from its now extinct ecosystem, but he knew he was letting a golden opportunity pass.
Bored with his ideas, Otto welcomed the distracting e-mail. At first, it seemed like an offer to help an African prince withdraw money from a frozen bank account: (Continues...)
Excerpted from Pandemonium by Warren Fahy. Copyright © 2013 Warren Fahy. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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