“They are the lucky ones, to be living now, hey?” The Captain of the Letat’ Nefrita Yaschcheritsa said again when the last of the prisoners had been herded away from the maindeck and into the belly of the gondola. Kolya nodded, not because he agreed but because it was what one did when the Captain had had a bottle, and this was Chernenko’s second today.
“Lucky,” Chernenko muttered again darkly, and held the bottle up to see how much vodka was left. Below the dirigible the old trails spooled away over the frost-crisp ground and into the forests. From Bialystok to Minsk, and farther east where the mountains gave way to tundra and the air never unfrosted. In two days the airship would stop and refuel in Arkhangel’sk before stumbling on over the Gulf of Ob. From there its path finally curved south toward Nerchinsk and Yakutsk, barely missing Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude. Kolya shuddered to think of going afoot, wrapped in rags against the chill.
Kolya sighed, and scrubbed his mop harder over the floor of the Captain’s cabin. He never looked forward to the northern route, no matter how many times he was shown on the globe that it was shorter than the old ways, the ways the prisoners marched each with a birch log to serve as firewood or grave marker once the marchers reached the tundra. No-one had ever bothered to count the stubble that littered the ground there.
Kolya perked his ears, under his own wool cap, and dusted self-consciously at his jacket before standing his mop by the door and coming to stand at half-attention before the Captain’s chair. Chernenko coughed a wet laugh through his beard and poked at Kolya’s chest.
“Boy. We do our duty, hey?” Kolya nodded again, and waited to hear what his duty was. Below him the Yashcheritsa creaked and strained against the wind. In the prisoner-hold, men would be huddling together for warmth already. By Arkhangel’sk they would have had already to push out at least one body. Kolya multiplied it in his head for practice. Two trips a month times three bodies a trip before returning with the prisoner-hold full of coal for the great machines that had made revolution useless. The fine dust got into the prisoners’ uniforms, their boots and the ushankas tugged down over their ears. Even the cogs in the engine room where the prisoners never went creaked and coughed with black dust no matter how often they were scrubbed and puffed at by wool-gloved engineers.
“And are you? Do you, hey, do you study the duties of a soldier conscientiously?” The Captain glared at his bottle as though it were a personal insult that it should be empty.
“I do,” Kolya agreed, wishing his voice wouldn’t break so.
“Well, so.” The Captain coughed again. “Your duty now, your duty is to fetch for me a bottle.” He held up the ring of keys, large and small, and showed Kolya which one would fit the corner bureau. Like the rest of Kolya’s world, the bureau was gritty with dust over heavy wax. Inside, bottles rolled and clattered together, enough to reach Arkhangel’sk and maybe even farther.
“To duty,” Chernenko said, clinking his glass against Kolya’s thimble-full of vodka. It went down fast and burned like the engine-fires, a spot of warmth to hold in one’s belly against the thin frost on the decks. The warmth was still there at night in Kolya’s bunk, as he lay awake in the creaking dark thinking about the Captain and duty and about the cylinder of paper-barked log that had tapped against the bottles in the bureau when he looked inside.