The Dead Zone
Blue, white, gold, and black. In Siberia, the seasons are colors, though not the ones you’d expect in a land the imagination keeps buried under eternal ice and endless snows.
The sunless days of black winter yield to blue spring when the new shoots of larch, cedar, and pine emerge, their pale leaves the color of an arctic dawn. By July, Siberia steams under a sun that hardly sets before rising again. The sky hazes to humid alabaster, and from Novosibirsk to Magadan, white summer has begun.
Summer teeters on a knife edge in the far north, where it can snow any month of the year. The calendar might say August, but the hard frosts have already arrived in the arctic mining city of Mirny. In Mirny, summer is an incandescent flash of light and heat. In Mirny, the ground stays frozen to the depth of a kilometer. The people marooned there call the rest of Siberia The Earth. When the world hears Siberia’s name and conjures up a desolate, treeless hell of ice and barbed wire, it’s Mirny they’re imagining.
Alexei checked his watch. The crystal was covered with the same gray dust that covered everything in Mirny. It was shattered kimberlite, a soft volcanic rock in which diamond, the hardest of gems, was found. He licked his thumb and rubbed the face until the numerals appeared. Nearly three.
Alexei had a commanding view of the world from the cab of a Belaz 7530, an ore truck the size of a three-story house. From up here he could look over the motor pool’s barbed-wire fence, across the roofs of the old log cabin dormitories to the lip of the open pit mine and beyond, all the way to a sunset horizon fired deep ceramic red.
It was August nineteen, Alex’s twenty-first birthday. His mother had prepared a picnic lunch with good bread, cheese, and smoked fish. Even his father, a big boss at the company, had taken off work to join them. Alex had told him the truth and now it terrified him to think it had been a mistake. After all, Kristall owned everything in Mirny. Everything and everyone. He flicked his cigarette out the window. The third shift at the mine came up at three. Any minute.
A Belaz 7530 was more like a ship riding on giant wheels than a truck, and Mirny was more like an island than a city; a remote atoll of dirty, spalled concrete surrounded by a sea of tundra as dangerous as any ocean. It was an impassable mud bog in summer and absolutely lethal in winter when deep cold shattered rubber tires as though they were made of glass. No one would live here if it weren’t for the diamonds.
A quarter of the world’s supply came from the mines of Mirny. Not that the miners saw much in return. In Soviet times, Mirny had been a “chocolate city” where luxuries that were scarce even in Moscow could be found. There were no shortages, no black days when the central generating plant was shut down to save oil. Movies played in the theater. The clinic was well equipped. Best of all, miners’ pay was “double arctic.” Back then, a miner earned more than an army general. More than even a Moscow bureaucrat.
All of that ended when the Soviet Union died. The state diamond enterprise became a private company named Kristall, though the same men still ran it. Their faces were about the only thing that hadn’t changed.
First, fresh produce disappeared from the company stores. Then the theater was shuttered. Electricity became unreliable. The clinic ran out of antibiotics, out of everything except aspirin. Then aspirin became rare and even rubles fled, replaced by company scrip worth only what the company said it was worth, and only in Mirny. Meanwhile, diamonds were leaving by the ton.
Call it inertia. Call it stupidity. Call it hope. People stayed on. Mirny was stuffed with diamonds. If things seemed bad here, what must the rest of Russia look like? By the time they learned the truth, it was too late. The trap had snapped shut.
Alex watched the wind sweep across the waist-high reeds in hypnotic, shimmering waves of green and gold. The northwest wind promised a cold night of bright stars and bitter frost. He was about to check the time again when the portable radio on the seat beside him squealed, then a voice, spattered with static, said, “Chainik.”
Teapot. A slang expression used to describe someone new to the world of computers. Alex was no chainik. He’d played with computers for years. First because they were cool, then because they were an astonishing window to the outside world. “On the stove. ”He clicked off the radio, reached into the breast pocket of his denim shirt, pulled out a plastic identity card, and swiped it through a small scanner bolted to the ore truck’s dash. He’d altered the digital data file on the card to change his job description from safety supervisor to haul truck driver.
A red light on the scanner winked yellow. A computer was deciding whether or not Alex belonged here. If the answer was no, an alarm would go off and that would be the end of everything.
The yellow light turned green.
Alex smiled, savoring the last few moments of silence and peace. The setting sun was still warm on his bare arm. It had been the kind of day to spend with friends and family, enjoying the end of good weather, not a thousand meters underground, ripping into the eternal ice for the even colder glint of diamonds. And for what? Nothing. But that was going to change.
Alex pushed the big red start button. A powerful jet of compressed air turned the 7530’s engine over. Slowly at first, then faster, until the five thousand horsepower monster rumbled awake. He revved the engine until the ragged idle smoothed. The fuel gauge showed half. A Belaz would drink diesel fuel anywhere but Mirny, where the deep cold of winter turned fuel oil to stone. This truck’s tank held two thousand liters of arctic-blend gasoline.
Time was the enemy. He’d fooled the computer once. But there was no way to keep it from reporting the truck’s movement when he passed a security gate. Then it would be a race. He jammed his boot down on the clutch, selected first gear, and with a roar, the Belaz began to roll.
The gates were open. He saw the red laser light of the scanner twinkle and flash. A report was about to pop onto a screen at Security. Maybe the duty officer was asleep. Maybe he was reaching for the alarm button even now. Either way, the race was on.
The Belaz rumbled out onto a wide, dusty street. The center of Mirny was to the left. Alex swung the giant ore truck to the right.
The concrete buildings gave way to tundra, the paved road to gravel. Other than mounds of mine tailings, the landscape was flat, the road empty. The ore trucks weren’t needed much anymore, and there were few cars in Mirny. Where would you drive? There were no roads out, no way off this arctic island at all except by river barge or plane, and like the Belaz, like the mine, they were all owned by Kristall.
He shifted up and accelerated. There was nothing in the side-view mirror but a cloud of ore dust raised by his wheels. Directly ahead, a tall black tower rose ten stories against the dimming sky. Slender as a modern office building, but windowless. Inside were ore lifts, elevators, fans. Radio masts spiked its roof. The black tower stood over the throat of a kimberlite ore pipe, an ancient volcano with deep roots and impossibly rich with diamonds.
Just how rich was a closely held secret, even from the miners, though everyone knew something of the truth. Most diamond miners never saw a diamond outside a jewelry store. They didn’t come like raisins in a bun. Back when the open pit was in production, a Belaz would carry one hundred tons of kimberlite, and in all that blasted rock there would be a single carat of diamond, half the size of a pencil eraser. The deep mine should have changed everything. Mirny was never going to be heaven. But there was no good reason for it to be hell.
A double row of fencing surrounded the black tower, both topped with dense coils of razor wire. He pulled over to the side and stopped. The dust cloud enveloped him, then drifted over the third-shift miners waiting between the inner and outer security fences: a kind of purgatory dividing the underworld from the surface known as the Dead Zone.
The inner gate would open to allow the miners through. It would close and only then could the outer gate open. A security measure, though Alex thought, Why? Leave the mine with your pockets filled with gems and what would you do? Selling them meant leaving Mirny, and leaving was not easy. For most people here, it wasn’t even possible.
Alex heard the tinny bleat of a horn. He looked in the side mirror. The crew bus was flashing its lights, its driver probably wondering what the devil a Belaz was doing here.
Alex rested his finger on the hard black knob of the ore truck’s horn. The outer gate began to open.
Now. Alex leaned on the horn. An ocean liner’s blast froze all movement. The silence lingered, ripened, broke.
A miner pulled the cover off a green metal rubbish bin chained to the fence and reached in. Out came a fat, tightly rolled sheet of white fabric. The banner unfurled as it was passed hand to hand down the line of miners. It took ten men to keep it off the ground, and on it a single word written in letters tall as they were:
The word came from the Italian basta, for enough. A subtle complaint. In Russian, it was simpler: STRIKE!
The miners began throwing slips of paper into the metal trash bin. They looked like confetti, but they were veskels, official company IOUs that promised that sometime, somehow, the bearer would be paid something. What Kristall had been handing out to its miners while the company stole billions. When the bin was filled, Alex trumpeted the horn again.
The blast brought the miners out of the Dead Zone at a run. They ignored the bus, making straight for the Belaz. They clambered up the ladder mounted to the front grille. It was twenty rungs up to the broad balcony mounted over the engine compartment. The men fastened the banner to its railing.
Alex didn’t need to count heads. If it wasn’t the entire third shift, it might as well be. He saw the bus driver shake his fist, shouting something. He could guess what. Are you crazy?
There had never been a successful strike in Mirny. The company always learned about it in time to break it. This strike would be different. It wasn’t just the miners. It was the militia, the police, the women at the ore separation plant, even some of the headquarters staff. They were all going to stop work. They were all going to meet in the city’s main square, under the giant black bust of Lenin right next to Kristall’s main building. They would speak with their own voices, and the word they would say was Zabastovka!
A miner leaned into the cab and yelled, “Zabastovka!‰Û?
Alex gave him the thumbs-up sign, checked in his side mirror, then threw the gearshift into reverse and backed away, spinning the steering wheel, turning the monster’s blunt prow in the direction of Fabrika 3, the ore separation plant. Nothing could stop them now. He mashed the accelerator to the floor.
The Belaz began to roll, sailing over the undulating gravel road like a freighter plowing through low seas. Geared to haul a hundred tons up a thirty-percent grade, an empty Belaz could really move on the flats. The black headworks tower receded.
Alex could hear the big gears whine. Seventh in the high range. Beneath his boots was an engine with eighteen pistons the size of basketballs. With no ore in back, the 7530 ran light on its wheels, floating, almost flying above the gravel. It gave him a feeling of invincibility. A miner leaned into the cab’s open window and yelled, “Alyosha!‰Û?
Alex grinned and shouted back, “Zabastovka!”
Where the road split in a broad Y, Alex turned right, away from Mirny and toward a vast steel building standing off by itself, surrounded by empty marsh, guarded by more security fences and even more coils of razor wire.
It was Fabrika 3, the ore plant where women in pocketless gowns, surgical masks, and latex gloves sifted processed ore for diamonds. Bright, unpainted steel, blocky, angular as a crystal and big as a city block. The biggest building in Mirny, and its gates stood wide open.
The crowd there was twice the size of the third-shift crew. The Belaz rolled through the gates and rumbled up to the entrance. The air brakes whooshed. The women of the ore plant hurried up the truck’s boarding ladder, gathering their skirts for the long step up to the first rung.
The miners squatted on the catwalk balcony, making room for the new arrivals, sharing bottles and cigarettes. Someone produced an accordion. It was a company picnic, not a strike.
A girl paused at the top of the ladder. There was no place left for her to stand. Someone offered a hand. She took it, and the next thing she knew, she was being passed across the miners’ heads, settling on someone’s shoulders. She wrapped her legs around his neck, skirt flapping in the wind, raised her fist and screamed, “Zabastovka!”Fifty fists rose in answer:
Alex was about to shift into reverse when he saw a man crouch down by the front left wheel. He had a stick in his hand.
It was Anton, one of the “Twelve Apostles.”A dozen men with special status, special privileges, who worked for the mine director. Alex laughed. One Apostle with a stick was all they could send to stop them? He cupped his hands to his mouth and leaned out the window. “Hey! Secksot!” It meant “secret worker, ”and in Mirny, as everywhere in Russia, it was a curse. “Are you joining us?”
Anton paid no attention. He had the stick in both hands now. He was twisting the top of it as though trying to strangle a goose.
Not a stick, a . . .
A flare, a big one, and it erupted with the hot white brilliance of a welder’s torch. He flipped open the cap on the Belaz’s fuel tank, dropped the flare, and ran to a door in the building’s side.
One second. Two. Alex’s scream was still inside his throat when a hot yellow gust sucked the sound from his mouth, the glass from the windshield, the air from his lungs. The blast rose into the indigo sky, roped and knotted with turbulent black eddies, a hungry furnace that consumed everything, flesh, hope, the world, and turned them all to ash.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Ice Curtain by Robin White. Copyright © 2002 by Robin White. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.