The Ilyushkin 72 ascended through the kingdom of clouds like a steel dragon, powerful and proud. It roared up and away from the snowy private airstrip, leaving in its wake the black ribbon dividing the alpine snowfields of a classified mountain installation. Peklo. Peklo was a black spot on few official records, and as such it was hidden away high within the Ural mountain range of western Russia. Escape was an impossibility, but should divinity decide to intervene with a prisoner’s sentence, it would likely not be enough to assist them in the lethal environs which lay beyond the walls. Peklo, as its Slavic name suggested, was Hell. A specialist prison, where being a political and civil threat, was not enough to permit housing. To land on this guest list, the prisoners had to be something more, something… other. Something which demands additional safety measures beyond concrete, steel, high voltage and rifles. The Kremlin would conduct hushed conversations in private rooms about the worth of such prisoners, judiciously deeming their fitness before flinging them up tothe white rocky glaciers of a mountain where they could rot in obscurity.
The plane thundered upwards to cruising altitude, buffeted by the flesh- blackening cold and the razor shearing of wind-swept ice. Escaping the frothy confusion of clouds, the last of their snowflakes, large as white butterflies, were chewed up and spat out by the engines.
Inside, the belly of the beast was cold and anxious. A handful of Russian military police sat on the benches in their green uniforms with black piping, working hard to maintain their air of uncompromising toughness for the prisoner. Beyond appearances, they were surplus to this particular covert assignment, a mere formality extended from the Russian Ministry of Defence, and just as interested in seeing the safe return of their loaned aircraft as the disposal of prisoner 415. All necessary measures had been carried out to assure the awaiting United States airspace authority that the Ilyushkin 72 was a private liner and not military.
The American man in charge of this transportation knew the tough expressions of the military attachés were a sham, a brittle façade of composure, but he didn’t lose respect for them because of it, for he too was currently mired in a bout of unease. And he was paid handsomely by his employers to keep his nerve and oversee the safe arrival of their asset. The American’s name was Mr Collins. A slight, formal man by nature and occupation, with a nice liaison’s smile, soft hands, and well-manicured fingernails well suited to pen pushing. Preferring warmer climes, at most a chilly winter in New York, he was kitted out in the expensive snow gear left over from one old skiing/business trip to France, and hugging himself tight.
Collins was professional enough not to stare at prisoner 415 currently strapped in the middle of the cargo hold. He could imagine these guards were only too happy to rid their little mountain-top bunker of one more problem, and the other side of the Atlantic was surely as good a destination as any. He didn’t envy their jobs at Peklo, and he was a man who dealt with the extraordinary on a daily basis. Miracles and nightmares. It was inevitable with him holding membership to the Cairnwood Society.
The liaison continued to furtively read the impassive face of prisoner 415 shackled before him, a frightful man of borderline malnutrition physically, lost in grubby, red prison overalls. Over the prisoner uniform he wore some unique, eye-catching articles. Bronze gauntlets, heavy but manageable, and forged with bas-relief arcane runes. A crudely forged bronze breastplate, the lower half of which resembled prison bars, each bar embossed with time-lost scripture believed to originate from a forgotten Slavic tribe. Atop his shaggy grey beard was a strong nose and a pair of eyes which contained something unknowable behind their grey clouds, some ill intelligence scouring for something, but whether it be in this life or beyond, Mr Collins wasn’t certain. From what Collins had learned, the bronze armaments were not only of the prisoner’s own making but had become a necessity which must only be removed for limited periods of time. Apparently the warden and the staff at Peklo had learned this the hard way, but managed to survive the incident with their skin intact. Besides the peculiar armour, Peklo had outfitted the prisoner with some of their own precautions: a set of large iron shackles big enough in circumference to encompass his own gauntlets, but otherwise ordinary in their craft; a smaller set for his ankles which were also non-specific; but most importantly, an iron collar of gnostic orientation, engraved with a cultish codex used to control individuals with a knack for communing with the deceased. The prisoner was also doped up with a light sedative for compliance.
Mr Collins floated in the quiet, allowing the engine’s drone to softly carry him away in thought as he again reviewed prisoner 415’s heavily redacted file which lay open in his soft hands, trying to decide which definition suited him best: miracle, or nightmare. Konstantin Kozlov, or “Gulag” as he had been mirthlessly dubbed by the prison authorities at Peklo. An educated mind, once a driven patriot and officer in service of his country’s military intelligence, the KGB. Stationed in — REDACTED — he was an officer with a deep occult- honed interest of unverified origin, who turned his back on his country in search of something greater, being labelled a traitor and a criminal in the process after having violently assaulted his commanding officer, one — REDACTED
— and dropping off the grid before finally being located in the … another blacked out line. All in all, hardly a biographer’s dream project. Alas, it was the brief unofficial document which had been included in the file which interested Collins, the one which detailed Kozlov’s ability. Collins still remained on the fence as to his opinion of the skill. Personally, he thought it seemed like a burden. But if it was what Kozlov had been searching for then he’d certainly found it, Collins mused. And despite his subsequent incarceration, his talent had proved too useful to squander, and now here he was, still bound in mystical chains, but flying towards a second chance, 30,000 feet over a vast orogenic landmass of brilliant white and jagged rock. As a company representative low on the totem pole, Mr Collins frequently operated in general ignorance of his employers’ big pictures. All he really knew was that Kozlov was on his way to serve new masters now, whether he wanted to or not. And that was why Collins was here, to smooth the transition. The carrot, not the stick. The stick would come later if polite discourse was untenable.
Collins had been largely ignored by Kozlov since their introduction, but the man had been tractable, probably happy to leave the confines of Peklo, for anywhere would be a likely improvement. But Collins was friendly company during his working hours. He closed the file and looked up into the old, creased face of Kozlov.
‘Your ability, I can’t decide if it’s a freeing or a depressing experience. I suppose I’ll never know. Either way it’s fascinating.’
Kozlov was silent. Collins knew he could speak English fluently, and the drugged stupor shouldn’t be affecting him by now.
‘You’ll be taken good care of. My employer treats his guests very well, particularly those he wishes to work with. We’ll get you cleaned up, a hot meal, a comfortable bed. You’ll forget all about the squalor you’ve been used to in that place.’
The belly of the plane remained a quiet, metal tomb.
‘It’s a shame we couldn’t fly you commercial. You could have had a few in- flight movies and a strong drink.’
Collins eyed the contingent of armed, black-clad security he had arrived with. Capable-looking men in black thermal gear. These men were Cairnwood payroll. A cut above regular military personnel in terms of their knowledge and exposure to the scary things operating outside of humanity’s pitiful purview. Still, Collins looked at their cautious faces with a hint of unease. The Peklo MPs, for their part, continued their own diligent observation of prisoner 415, staring hard at the old iron collar about his pale neck as if expecting it to break, their hands close to their batons or loaded syringes should 415 decide to become unruly; they were less exotic methods of control, but tried and tested. 415, whatever else he had become, was first and foremost only a man.
Collins gave a thin-lipped smile and ceased in his efforts to engage in polite conversation and took his phone out to check his schedule instead. His work was never done. An urgent whisper scraped Collins’ ear like a cold blade, causing him to twitch sharply. He glanced up from his phone. Nobody else seemed to have reacted to the sound. Did they even hear it? Did he? He stared hard at Kozlov. The man’s jaw was clenched slightly, but otherwise he remained in his quiet and thoughtful disposition. Collins’ gaze skimmed across the dead symbolism along the bars of Kozlov’s torso, then tried to catch his eye again, but the man was a million miles away, paying scant attention to the doings of the men on this plane. Perhaps he was in contact with his spiritual tenants? Gulag, Collins thought. He had enough bother with his own thoughts, never mind those of an assorted collective. He was about to return his attention to the schedule on his phone, assuming the susurrus of tongue on teeth which had played against his ear lobe was simply his ear popping from pressure, when he noticed Kozlov’s mouth was bleeding. Only a little at first, then a dark crimson font leaked down his bushy chin. He had chewed a ragged gash along the inside of his cheek. Kozlov swilled his cheeks with the growing volume and spat a shower of viscous ruby droplets onto the blocky right fingers of his bronze gauntlet, quickly smearing his blood along the inhibiting characters ingrained into the iron band fitted about his neck. A sudden turbulence thrashed the plane, spilling Collins onto the cold floor, the dossier and his phone scattering. The MPs and the Cairnwood help were sent clattering about too, some pressed into the walls of the hold with great pressure, others managing to pick themselves up with urgent expressions and commands, converging on Kozlov.
It hadn’t been turbulence, at least not the traditional sort. The pocket of shifting air pressure had come from within the plane. Collins didn’t know how it was happening, and the damn dossier, all several useless pages of it, couldn’t disclose any answers. Was the letting of blood across the collar’s symbols enough to nullify their effect? Why had none of the warden’s idiot experts discovered this before discharging him into such meagre custody? They should have given him another dose before take-off.
A sharp music began to shimmer within the fuselage, a tremulous vibrato originating from the bars of Gulag’s breastplate. Devils spoke in mortal ears, and Collins witnessed ripples in the air, the cause of the visual trickery being a sudden rampage of spectral limbs, torsos and faces of the damned emerging from within Gulag. Judging from their monastic fashion, they appeared to share history with their keeper. Before security could pounce on Gulag, they were battered about up and down the cargo hold, tossed roughly from one escaped wraith to another, their sedative needles and guns slapped away before their bullets could be discharged at Kozlov, their innkeeper in death.
A beeping sound filled the hold, a bladder-clenching sound for Collins, and near the plane’s cargo ramp the red light turned green. Some of the spirits had already screeched into the cockpit, raising merry hell amongst the pilots and their instrument panel. Collins watched with abject terror as the cargo door began to lower, its opening forcefully speeded up by the sheer might of several paroled spirits.
‘The hell are you doing?’ Collins screamed at Gulag over the suction of the wind, his voice tiny and childlike. ‘We’re here to help you!’
Gulag watched the door drop with the malignant interest of one who is ready to die. A Cairnwood employee went screaming past, carried through the air by one of the ghostly antagonists, and flown straight out of the back of the aircraft into the cottony mass of clouds. Discarding the screaming man into the freezing ether, the ghost sailed through the clouds, leaping and diving through the foamy heads like an exuberant dolphin proud of its freedom.
Collins was still kneeling, gripping the bench seat tight and dumbfounded in the presence of this heart-stopping mayhem. The plane rocked and bucked, everybody on board fighting for balance and losing repeatedly. Collins was trying not to think about what would happen if the pilots were dead, about the cargo plane nose diving, when a syringe rolled past his leg. The idea of being jettisoned into the troposphere willed him into action.
Knowing it was the only way to subdue the restless carnage of Gulag’s captives, Collins snatched up the syringe, and with a wide, awkward stance striving for balance, threw himself at the sorcerer, almost breaking the needle on his armoured shoulder before jabbing it into his neck and sinking his thumb down on the plunger. The effect was almost instantaneous. Kozlov shuddered, experiencing his own personal spiritual earthquake. The loose wraiths bellowed their fury but were powerless in the face of grand chemical design. One by one they were dragged back into their respective prison cells of Kozlov’s honeycomb gulag. The spirit within the cockpit passed through the door, allowing the pilots to correct the plane’s erratic path. Kozlov’s riot was short- lived, but he was still a former career KGB officer, his discipline a harnessed ball of steel; and Mr Collins was only a low-level bureaucrat.
Struggling against the undertow of sedatives coursing through him, Kozlov managed to keep one of his serfs on parole. White wisps of hoary arms, dancing like white fire, extended out from between the bars of the breastplate. One set of strong, sharp fingers slapped onto the soft windpipe of Collins. Collins’ eyes bulged in panic, and then watery pain as his larynx was crushed like paper. He felt the whole structure collapse in a wet, choking compression. Gagging and spitting, he was helpless as the dead man’s hand held him firm. With a look of personal affront, Kozlov yanked the needle out of his neck, gave it one look of contempt and hurled it out of the back of the plane. Collins’ efforts to fight back were feeble and brief, and he quickly showed his belly just to get it over with. His one silent plea was that he didn’t become another inmate in Gulag’s service. He’d rather just let go and allow eternity to claim him.
A dark shape rushed into his blurry vision. The butt of a service pistol, cracking into the back of Kozlov’s skull. Possibly fatal, but those were the chances that now had to be taken. The chilly fingers of death loosened around Collins’ throat, vanishing back into the hold behind the bronze chest piece, but the terrible pressure remained on Collins’ throat, the damage done, only permitting him a silent scream. Weak, slumped on his knees with a throat that felt broken and engorged with its own jagged pieces, Collins watched Kozlov collapse to his gauntlets and knees. Standing over them both was one of the Cairnwood men; shaken-up but smart enough not to rest on his laurels, he quickly procured another syringe from the proffered hand of an MP and shot the second tranquilizer dose into Kozlov’s neck.
The man in black floated over Collins like a dark angel, flick knife in hand. Collins was on the verge of unconsciousness, suffocation softening his fearful experience like layers of gauze. Nothing seemed to matter anymore. Not his oft- neglected personal ambitions, not the demands of his employers, not even his bountiful regrets. The thin stiletto blade expertly pierced Collins’ throat, slipping beneath the blockage of crushed larynx to ventilate the windpipe, keeping him on this side of the veil. Though he wasn’t out of the woods yet. The battlefield stent was only enough to keep him breathing. Collins’ mouth worked poorly, briefly rendered confused and redundant as the oxygen was sucked straight through the bloody channel in his throat and not through his nose or mouth. Lying prone, staring at a point over the shoulder of his genteel saviour at the plane’s ceiling, he was aware of noise and hasty activity, hearing the surviving men hurry about to rectify the situation. A pair of boots stomped past, belonging to one of the surviving MPs, hurrying over to the cargo door’s ramp controls and punching the close button. Collins existed in a cocoon of shock for the remaining duration of the flight, partially aware of the emergency medical treatment being performed on his gushing oesophagus. Any thoughts Collins might have had of Konstantin “Gulag” Kozlov had become so much white noise.
The Ilyushkin 72 maintained its course for Westchester, New York.