A wave crashed over the bow, straining the deck lines and shattering the wheelhouse glass. Icy pray washed across Yegor’s face, bringing fresh torrents of snot down over his lips. Spitting on the floor, he squinted his eyes and wrenched the wheel hard as the little vessel was knocked backward in the dark.
Hours now since he’d lost the trail the icebreaker carved through this frozen hell. The featureless white plains of snow had long since been decimated by the storm, and whipped into a shapeless bowl of slush that went on forever. Nothing to see but the frosted caps of murderous waves, nothing to give but the meagre strength of an ancient wooden boat. This black unfeeling sky wouldn’t even favor him with a direction to flee his impending doom. Yegor was alone. And here in the vast arctic stretches of the Russian North, the safety of daylight was impossibly far away.
It’ll be easy. That’s what the stoney-eyed fool had said, grinding the tip of a crack pipe between his teeth and clapping his shoulder. There’s no ice in the shipping lanes.
The memory ended in a scream, as a truck-sized mass of ice was hefted up out of the depths. “Shluha vokzal’naja!” The collision knocked him off his feet, wrenching his thumb from its socket as he held fast to the wheel. Ice shards spilled into every crevice of the deck as a chunk of wooden hull disappeared into the ocean.
Clawing at a drum full of diesel, Yegor hoisted himself upright again, glaring vacantly outside. The gash was above the waterline, by some small grace, but that wouldn’t save him. Already the pathetic deck lights flickered as salt water and rain poured in, playing at the electricals and filling the bilges. Her frozen deck laden with cargo, this worthless old bitch was going to capsize and take him straight to the bottom. Nothing could stop that now.
Will fading, the wheel spun away under his hands while his knees sagged beneath him. “Gott hilf mir…” he whimpered. He clenched his eyes shut against the horror and leaned into the splintering wall. The storm seized its opportunity, flinging the hapless ship from one swell into the next in an effort to bash it to pieces before the broken man recovered.
And then there was a lighthouse.
“Kah-koy…” Yegor rose again, steadying himself on the rolling deck. It was nothing but a flash passing over closed eyes, but it was unmistakable. He strained his vision, and sure enough the flash came again. Out there on the horizon, a light swept about in a never-ending circle, piercing the storm with its welcoming glow. To Yegor it appeared as the most beautiful sight he’d ever seen.
“HAHAHA!”. Bile surged in the back of his throat and a great glob of mucous sprang free of his nose, but by God it was a joyous sound he made. Not a soul for a thousand miles, and yet here stood his salvation! How could it be here? It didn’t matter. With a pounding heart he steered toward it. The boat wallowed in place like a toddler with a load in its pants, bogging down more every minute, but finally it did yield and follow his direction.
With mounting good cheer, Yegor forged ahead, now undeterred by the churning abyss that terrified him moments ago. Each moment brought him a brighter light, as the lighthouse drew closer and closer again. In no time at all, he could see it clearly. A darkened concrete spire, rising up from a wave-torn island just a few hundred feet from the shore. In its shadow was the faintest glimmer of a cove hidden amongst sheltering cliffs. The perfect place to weather in safety, complete with a lighted path to guide him.
The wind outside shifted, silencing the cold breezes that hissed through the wheelhouse walls, and for the first time in what seemed like hours he sensed the warmth of the engines rising up from below. His clenched hands began to feel. The scaley ice that clung to his oilskins cracked and crumbled into gritty puddles on the floor. Chancing to raise a hand, he wiped a soaking wet sleeve over his unshaven face and smiled at the pleasantness of it. I’m going to make it he thought. The waves lashed ineffectually against the hull, but he was too close now to fail. The shore felt close enough to touch, and the friendly lighthouse shone brighter than the Sun.
He’d been a fool to attempt this journey; that much was certain. The northern coast was a barren place where the winter night lasted months on end. Its shores were dark and forbidden places that were home to no one, witness only to the icebreakers and the cargo ships that they served. And then there was the lone, disposable Yegor, witlessly maneuvered into this incomprehensible danger for the profit of someone else.
He gazed across the watery stretches at his savior, as his smile, and the novelty of his survival, faded. The sweetness of salvation quickly rotted and turned bitter, leaving him empty once more. His shining eyes turned cold and hungry. The lighthouse keeper was just as alone as he was. Tending a single cursed lamp in the middle of a storm, at the center of frozen oblivion. Biding his time until relief came. Beyond any help.
You could kill him.
The warmth of the engines seemed suddenly absent. So did the storm and the ominous wound in the hull. There was only the lighthouse, and a picture in his mind of the man who lived there. A solitary man who had no one to call on. Nowhere to run to. No blessed sympathy from the one who approached. He had only Yegor.
His hands twisted on the wooden wheel as he considered. He’ll have provisions. Yes, of course he will. Food certainly. Diesel fuel, probably. Clothes…medicine…furniture…the very scraps and steel that made up the lighthouse, all of it was worth something. The deck was full, but he could make room! He’d have time enough to take it all at his leisure, and be gone for weeks before anyone even discovered his crime. It was perfect.
He set his jaw with a thoughtful click. Yes. The lighthouse keeper would die. It was only practical.
The lighthouse continued to turn, silent in the maelstrom, guiding him in. As it lit the wheelhouse again, Yegor grasped the cracked wooden club that rolled about at his feet. Rapped it hard on the deck, testing its strength. It hadn’t broken when he bashed in the skull of that meddling dockyard policeman. It would do.
Yegor was born in Rostov, to the south. What little of his youth was not misspent found him plying the Black Sea in rotten little trawlers like this one. It was how he came to be here. The clients needed someone capable of handling a boat, but more than that, they needed someone ignorant of these waters. No one local was fool enough to take this ship and cargo to Alaska via the northern shore. Truthfully, Yegor didn’t even know how much money four tons of heroin was worth. They found him useable.
Forsaking the sheltered cove, he instead brought the boat ashore on a smattering of sand next to the lighthouse. Brandishing his club, he stepped out of the wheelhouse and crossed the deck. The set-in bloodstain was still visible under a layer of ice. With a resolute grunt, he jumped the rail and stalked towards the lighthouse, the howling gale covering his approach. The tiny portholes were dark; he’d probably find the keeper fast asleep in his bed.
A bolt of lightning crossed the sky, showing him clearly the heavy metal door. With a final look up at the revolving lamp, he tried the latch and found it pleasingly unlocked. In a fluid motion he wrenched it open, spun into the darkness inside, and pulled it closed behind him.
It was quiet.
No one stirred. He took a step. Then another. The air inside was warm and humid. The keeper must be snoring away on the upper level, oblivious. If he could only find the stairs without using a light…
Something crunched loudly beneath his boot, wrenching his heart to a standstill. Hard bits of whatever it was slid across the smooth concrete, whipping his legs into a split, and almost toppling him over. He bit down on his tongue to keep from crying out.
Damn! Another piece of his icy shell slid off onto the floor, with a timid little crash that rang titanic in his ears. Yegor froze in place and listened. A minute went by. The wind and thunder sang together outside, but otherwise no one answered his unwitting challenge. He breathed again.
What the hell!? He gently shifted his foot from the little pile of brittle shards, and felt about in the dark for solid purchase. What was it, a clay pot? A cautious step to the left made no noise, nor did the next. Better. He shifted grips on the club before it could slide from his wet hand, briefly considering whether or not he was in any condition to do this right now. Such thoughts were quickly pushed away. It was warm in here after all. The blood already quickened in his veins. The deed would take but a moment, and then he’d warm his hands over the stove as he put on coffee. Chores always came first.
Thunder rumbled outside, and a minor spark of lightning flicked through the room, glinting off something metallic in the back. Yegor squinted, trying to make out the shape. Was that the stove or the staircase? Moving toward it, he got all of two feet before stumbling over something soft and lumpy that clattered as he dragged it forward. “Piz`da!!” The word sputtered past his lips before he could stop it, and once more he stopped in his tracks, dripping ice and sweat while he awaited the inevitable cry, or the clicking of a gun.
Cursing his own clumsiness, he untangled his foot from whatever this new obstacle was. It almost felt like a duffle bag. The storm had to be covering the sound of his bumbling, or the lighthouse keeper would surely be on him by now. Perhaps he was a drunkard, paralyzed by vodka, dreaming of faraway places and big-breasted girls. All the better. Yegor would have that stash from him as well.
Hand out, now inching along with the most excruciating care, he felt his way round the duffel. Only to come upon another.
Ridiculous! What sort of a home was the keeper tending? This time he managed to keep quiet. The fabric-covered mass skidded lightly across the floor, as though it carried tent poles or some such. He got a few more steps, wondering vainly if he’d been turned around somewhere in the middle, waving his hand in a pathetic effort to find the railing.
A feathery touch whisked across his face, and he reflexively swatted his own nose. Damn spiders. He cut a swath through the air ahead and pushed on. The likelihood of spiders on an arctic island didn’t enter his thoughts.
One second turned into ten, each one bringing another misstep. Unseen baubles danced under his feet, bidding him to fall. Shadowy edges bruised his sides, infuriating him, even as more cobwebs blew into his eyes and mouth. Still no sign of a staircase, nor had he tripped over the keeper’s bed. Damn him to hell for making this harder than it had to be. Dying in his sleep was too merciful a fate. If he awoke to find Yegor standing over his bed then so be it; he’d gasp his last breath with Yegor’s cold hands wrapped around his throat. And then he’d turn on the fucking lights.
It really was warm. The outside cold blinded him to just how much. But the phantom chill that dwelled in his bones was fading away fast, succumbing to the surprising heat within the lighthouse. With a final wretched blast of mucous, Yegor’s nose cleared itself. And a curious thing happened when it did.
He gasped in the midst of his vengeful fantasies, doubling over and dropping the wooden club with a clatter. The breath seized in his throat and ripped back out as a coughing fit, ruining any lingering notions of stealth. The smell that invaded his nostrils was a hideous foulness that tore its way deep into his chest, and twisted his insides. If his stomach had held any food, it wouldn’t any longer.
Tossing his head, desperately trying to banish the stench, Yegor clawed back his wits once more. Running a hand over his face, he quickly snapped his eyes to attention and glared hard into the gloom.
Fuck, he definitely knows I’m here now. No way he couldn’t. His hand subconsciously opened and closed, searching for his lost club. “GIBRID!” he screamed to the room, savagely kicking the invisible bundles into the wall. Cobwebs swirled around his face as he lashed out at the shadows, weaving a drunken path through the room, knocking things every which way, and grinding the broken pieces beneath his feet. “AAAAAHHH!”
His fists didn’t find any noses. He wasn’t under attack. Silence swept over the room the moment he was still. Still no one stirred.
Yegor panted, edging just slightly into panic. It was only human nature. Fight or flight. The fight was cursedly absent, and the door, he knew, was tantalizingly close. He’d botched this thing all to hell already, and now his body strained to retreat. His foot crept sideways of its own accord, even though he had no sense of direction. Yet another spider’s thread caressed his cheek.
He can’t see me either he thought. Damnit, he won’t chance a fight like this, he’s hiding. That’s what he’s doing. It’s alright, he’s blind just like I’m blind-
Lightening lit the sky in one enormous flash, forcing its way through tiny windows and obliging Yegor with a look at his audience. The image stayed burned into his mind after the light flickered and went.
Scattered about the circular room were a dozen other men. Men of all shapes and sizes, in every leisurely pose imaginable, united in ghastly fraternity. Those with eyes, and those without, all regarded him mirthfully from whatever corner they found themselves in. Grinning the grins of those whose time in this world has long since ended. Their skin taut, torn, and shriveled beneath the hoods of raincoats much like his own, they sat on a putrid carpet of human hair, strands of which danced through the air before him.
Yegor screamed. His murderous aims forgotten, he screamed long into the thunder that drove through the walls, whimpering to the silent listeners that adorned the room in the dark. His feet took flight toward the door, only to slip on the wooden club he’d brought from the boat. His knee smacked the concrete floor and cracked, sending waves of paralyzing agony up though his being. As he fell upon his hands, the gleeful storm arced lightning across the heavens once more, showing him the gaping mouth of the corpse he now embraced. The sight made him roll frantically to the right, over disheveled piles of death, spasming each time he contacted their faces and outstretched hands. Tufts of hair fluttered up at his touch, choking the air with vile fluff, infecting his throat and nasal passages with their horrifying flavor. Thunder bellowed yet again, and the brilliant blue flash that followed illuminated the mass of metal that lay rusting a few feet away. Its cooling fins were pried back and torn, like some terrible unearthly flower. A twisted crowbar still protruded from the crack in its ruptured casing. And dangling from its last lingering bolt was the crumpled, yellow remains of a radioactive warning sign.
“Nyet!!!” he cried, scrambling backward in terror. “Nyet! Nyet!” His hand plunged into the brittle chest of the man beside him as he thrust to his feet. Sharp, stabbing pain erupted from his injured knee, but he careened forward, limping and stumbling over an arm, a backpack, and an empty welding rig before falling head-first into the door.
Awash with gratitude, Yegor clawed at the metal, dislodging a shower of rust flakes but finding no handle. Where in the fuck was it?! Where? Shards of half-eaten metal cut through his gloves and tasted his blood, but nothing gave purchase until…YES.
His hand closed round a stubby length of handle, no more than an inch long, and sharp at its broken end. Easily missed in the dark. He gave it a twist.
The latch spun uselessly in its hole, grinding away and bleeding a trickle of saltwater as it did. Ten turns before reality sank in, and Yegor began to pound his fists on the unyielding door, foolishly thrusting his bad knee into its rigid metal.
Reason strained to break through his rising madness. The stairs. He’d seen them. They’d lead to the lamp room and salvation. He’d find a way down when he got there.
Yegor spun about and ran back through the haunted blackness again. The taste of blood now mixed with the hair in his lips, and he dimly realized he’d bitten his own tongue. His hand clasped the spiral staircase railing on the first try, and he heaved himself to the third step in a single bound, only to collapse when his weight came crashing down on his knee. Writhing in pain, he crept upward on all fours, gasping in anguish with each step he ascended.
Thieves and scavengers. That’s what they’d been. Thieves and scavengers like himself, all come here to feast upon the carcass of the lighthouse. To rip it down to its rivets like ungodly fucking termites, but the first fool couldn’t read a simple warning sign and died laughably for lack of a door handle. They set the stage for the next ones and and the next…oh god…
The smell of decay doubled itself, growing stronger with each level he climbed through. Second. Third. Fourth. Room after room that he dared not enter, he clung to the staircase and kept going, scaling the tower’s dizzying heights. When he came across a stinking, fabric-covered bundle sprawled over the steps in front of him, he tossed it clumsily over the side, ignoring the sickening smack he heard below. Too high to escape from, and some depth of him knew it, but he pressed upward anyway. At long last his head butted against the metal hatch at the top.
Yegor rammed his shoulders forcefully into the door, only to find it gave way all too easily. His head burst into the lamp room in time for the rotating lens to cast a godlike glow into his ashen face, searing his eyes in their sockets. Crying out and blinded yet again, he thought he spied the policeman for an instant before floundering helplessly on the floor, hands clasped over his burning eyes. As the lens kept dutifully spinning round, it dragged a ragged and hapless corpse into his face, over his head, and across his back in a never-ending patrol that soon repeated, again and a third time before he could manage to drag himself to the side, quivering with fear and exhaustion.
Shapeless forms danced before his eyes while he huddled there, desperately shielding himself from the reach of the light. Minutes passed before he could see the color of his palms again, and reluctantly lowered his hands. When he did, he saw that the body before him no longer had a head. It didn’t even have a back. Fabric and flesh had worn down to nothing, leaving a loose collection of bones in a frayed rubber coat being dragged around by the leg, inexplicably snagged on the rotating assembly.
The moment he bowed his head for the oncoming light, he vomited up his insides into the grated floor. Everything he’d ever eaten, it seemed. The lamp room’s unwitting custodian promptly ran through it, erasing the stain and spreading its acrid essence around in a circle.
He pulled himself to his feet, leaning heavily on the glass wall as water and snow pelted the outside surface. A door. There’d be a door. The pain in his leg was maddening, and he felt weak. So weak he could scarcely raise his chin. His left hand felt along the wall while he shielded his face with the other. When the thing he sought didn’t appear next to him, he forced his head upright to look. The glass hatchway to the catwalk was on the opposite side.
Though his stomach was empty, it still strained at his insides, threatening to invert his bowels with every step. Yegor staggered across, barely dodging the dead man’s carousel that threatened to trip him with every turn of the lens. He fell against the door and lay hands on its rust-free handle. He twisted. It didn’t budge.
“Bozhe moi” he grunted, planting his good leg and torquing the handle again. He put his bad leg into it too, biting back the pain that followed, but the stubborn latch wouldn’t turn. Decrepit hands flailed at his boots every few seconds, chasing nightmares up his spine, but the door didn’t make so much as a creak. Lightning sparked outside, in unison with the blinding light spilling over his shoulders. The hell it unleashed in his eyes made him yearn for the darkness of the towering crypt below him.
The latch handle broke loose from its frame, ricocheting off the window into the gaping maw of the stairwell. It dinged sweetly off the metalwork as it fell all the way down to the bottom.
“AhhhhhheeAAAAHHHHHH!” Yegor’s fists drove ineffectually into the door, the surrounding windows, even the ceiling, but the wave-hardened structure shrugged off his assault and kept beaming its light without interruption. The unfortunate headless corpse skittered over his feet, waving its hands in jubilation as it made pass after pass, urging him to take in this magnificent view. Just when he raised his arms to rip the lens from its mounts and cast it down into the dark, he saw them. The searing red burns erupting on the backs of his hands, spreading down his fingers and up his sleeves. Even as he looked, he knew they were creeping across his face, shedding flakes of skin into his hood. A single hair fell from his forehead, whisking across his nose.
“Nyeettt!” In the time it took a tear to reach his cheek, the lamp room’s prisoner knocked his legs from under him, sending Yegor tumbling head-first into the stairwell. The first step dislocated his shoulder. The second, his leg. Merciful death at the bottom of the shaft might have followed if his foot hadn’t snagged in the crook of the staircase, arresting his fall halfway and leaving him dangling upside down in the dark. A frantic scream ripped from his mouth as tendons strained and tore apart inside his hip, suspending him in tormented agony. The storm swirled about the concrete walls like some unknowable laughing demon, chiding his demise. The lighthouse echoed with his unanswerable pleas, onward and onward into a night that seldom ended. Eventually falling silent.
Outside, Yegor’s woeful vessel chafed against the rocks until the angry sea finally bashed it to pieces. Its cargo torn asunder, its hull scattered in chunks, destined to rest uneasily on distant, unnamable shores. The iron chunks that were its engines tumbled along the rocky bottom into the dark chasm of the northern deep, amongst all the others that came before.
Forever undaunted, the lighthouse cast its welcoming glow into the Russian night.
Colonel Sokolov downed another swallow from the half-empty bottle, grimacing at its inferior quality. The one that preceded it lay in shattered ruin on the other side of the room, painfully short of the basket. The last clinging drops of vodka had already soaked the bottom of the adjacent box, adding flavor to his worthless mementos. Mundane little keepsakes from years gone past, back when he occupied an office with a window. Paper evidence of his once greatness spilled from the tops of filing cabinets, hiding walls that were every bit as yellow. Depressing.
Two piles of thick, misshapen file folders adorned the desk in front of him. Every one of them evidence that he should have shot himself in the head on the day the Soviet Union fell. Pictures of grand warships rusting at the dockside, if not sunken in the middle of their harbors, dying for just a little of his attention. And money, of which he had precious little to give.
He hunched forward and coughed bitterly into his desk. He was out of cigarettes. The better for his health that he leave them be, but he’d buy another box the moment he got paid. Anything to make this life pass quicker.
The folder with the ships shuffled left, joining the pile that held such things as decrepit bases still straining to function, and wrecked submarines leaking contaminants into the sea. Fish for dinner, five nights this week.
Another coughing fit came and went. He wiped his chin before taking the next folder. His eyes winced in recognition when he saw the picture of a lighthouse, standing vigil on a lonely cliff.
Like so many things that were once monuments to Russian ingenuity, these were now a thorn in his side. One more problem that needed fixing. More than a hundred were built along the northern shore in the prideful glory days. Facilitating shipping during the long polar night, the lighthouses were autonomous and nuclear powered. They had to be, for only the foolish ventured into the vast unpopulated stretches where they dwelled.
He growled under his breath. That was then. What few of them still operated had gone without maintenance for years. Some of the more accessible had even fallen victim to scavengers and common vandals. Just another mess needing attention. Add to it that no one still alive even knew where all the infernal things were.
Sokolov glared intently at the grainy picture of a distant annoyance. A comforting ritual he’d fallen into, where he convinced himself that thinking about it was the same as doing something. But the money he could spend on such things was needed by far too many others.
He sighed. Upended the bottle in his mouth. One more look at the picture for good luck and the folder fell shut. Shuffling left with all the others.
The lighthouses would wait another year.