Jonathan Kirski worked hard all day in sub-zero weather to mine the bodies—the source of the calcium extract—from his claim in the Siberian burial field.
The reality of the claim was very different from what was depicted in the training films.
In the films, there were no mouths frozen open, no severely discolored and ice-burned skin. There were no extra body parts stuck to the outside of the wrong body when the one next to it had been torn away. In the films it was all very neat.
But here—here was a naked woman, lying face up. And two children—they looked to be a boy and a girl, around three to five years old—lying atop her. The boy’s head was nestled beneath her jaw in the curve of her throat. The girl’s head and shoulders lay to the near side of the boy’s right leg.
The boy’s left leg was missing, torn away from the hip socket.
Probably it had been transported to a cooler, still frozen to whatever “source” had lain this side of it.
The girl was intact, save the left side of her skirt. No doubt it had accompanied her brother’s left leg to the acid as part of the other body.
But apparently there had been an inadvertent trade.
Just as the body that had lain to the near side of the children took part of them, so the body that had lain to the near side of the woman left a part behind.
Someone’s blackened bottom jaw, complete with the lower lip, the shriveled chin and most of the teeth, was frozen to the naked left hip of the woman. The skin and the viscera behind it—from where the bottom lip had originally met the top lip all the way back to where the jaw had come unhinged beneath the ears—was no longer thick and pliable but thin and dried out. And the top edge was ragged.
Thank god he hadn’t seen it torn when this was still a human being.
His breath ever before him in puffs and clouds, and with a chisel, mallet and prybar in hand, he took the girl. When she was in the sled, he took the boy, then the woman. Almost three hours passed in that endeavor.
He would have to speed the process along.
He shifted his attention to a different column.
An older gentleman in a grey tweed suit, still clutching his cane in his left hand.
Another, younger man, dressed more casually in a white button-down shirt and slacks that appeared to have been yellow at one time. They were faded to an off-white, at least along the outside of the right leg. The shoes were wingtips. The right one had three small cleats toward the outer toe. Golf shoes, maybe?
Another man dressed in only the remnants of an undershirt and long undershorts. He looked to be in his mid-thirties. Beneath him were two smaller people, obviously very young children. Both boys.
And beneath them, his hands bent at the wrists over the shoulders of the boys, a man he presumed to be their father.
He took the older man, then the one beneath him, then the children, one boy then the next. Then their father.
He took them, deposited them in the sled, and transported them back to his cabin for processing. Nine was enough for the first day.
He unloaded the sled, standing the sources unceremoniously in the storage bin in the corner of the cooler, then looked at them for a moment. Here they were.
Here he was.
Jonathan suddenly felt his overclothes were too bulky.
He walked back into the main part of the cabin and slipped them off. In his bedroom, he pulled on a coat that fit more snugly and would protect him from the worst of the cold. He also pulled on a pair of glove liners, and then a thinner pair of gloves.
He walked back into the cooler and forced himself to approach the bin. That’s where he would have to begin the procedure anyway. And he would perform the procedure, no matter how long it took him to start.
He gripped the top edge of the bin and stared, without focusing, at the chest of the source in the tweed coat.
Should he process the children first? Should he work on them first to get them out of the way? They were smaller so they should go more quickly than the larger ones.
But he didn’t want to practice on the children. He wanted to practice on someone else. One of the other sources.
He wanted to be practiced enough, relatively speaking, to know what he was doing before he attempted the children. Maybe it was irrational, but he wanted to treat them as gently and respectfully as he could.
Then again, all of today would be a learning process. Even if he processed all five adults, he wouldn’t know much more after the fifth one than he knew as he started the first. All nine sources would be practice. If there was any way they could know him, they would know he meant no disrespect to any of them.
But they couldn’t know him or even anyone like him. They couldn’t even know there had been a second purge of their people. They couldn’t know he’d been saved by that purge when his parents had given him away. They couldn’t know he was here to do penance.
Judging from their clothing, they had lived probably in the mid-to late twentieth century. Maybe the early twenty-first century.
And the children— They were not children, not really. Even had they lived full lives, they would have been dead and gone for well over a hundred years.
His wish had been granted, his hopes realized. He had been assigned a claim that was rich in much older deposits. He should be grateful for that.
At least he wouldn’t stumble across his parents or his friends.
The children in the bin, they were only ore deposits. Smaller than most, but still only ore deposits.
It would take him less time to process each of them than it would take to process any of the adul— any of the larger sources.
And he would learn as much processing one of them as he would learn processing the others.
They were ore.
Processing them was a job, nothing more.
And it was his job.
He took a deep breath, let it out, then took a long moment to run the processing procedure through his mind.
He moved over in front of the stainless steel sinks, then crouched slightly. He reached under the cabinet on the left. There he retrieved the sink stoppers and a box of the mild lye solution. He shook some of it into the bottom of the first sink, the larger one, then ran it full of hot water.
After he turned the water off, he stoppered the bottom of the small sink and ran it full of cold water.
Finally he opened the shallow drawer next to the smaller sink. He picked up a drying pad and a couple of small towels. He positioned the drying pad carefully, then lay the towels near the far end of it.
Then he went back to the storage bin.
He reached down into the bin and brought up one of the smaller sources. He turned it so it was facing away, then turned around and laid it on the initial slab.
It slid to the right and bumped its head— No. The top of the source bumped against the wall. It was only a source. No harm, no foul. Still, it annoyed him that he had allowed that to happen. Even if they were only the sources of the calcium extract, they should be treated with a modicum of dignity.
Again he thought about the procedure. First, if there were any garments and if they hadn’t become an integral part of the source, he was to remove them. If they had become part of the source, he could ignore them. The acid would do the rest.
Well, he could forget that. He was in Siberia. Any garments that were on the source had become an integral part of it. There was also no doubt in his mind that he wasn’t going to waste any further time checking.
He started to open the left drawer—the one that contained the knives and saws—then glanced at the source.
He closed the drawer. He wouldn’t have to cut this one up.
Instead he opened the bottom drawer and retrieved the larger set of tongs.
He would pick up the small source by one leg and dip it, top first, into the acid bath. Then he would grasp it with the tongs and lower it carefully so as not to splash the acid.
That should work fine.
He reached over gingerly with his left hand and picked up the small source. He moved it carefully to suspend it over the bath, then dipped it, top first.
Okay, so far, so—
And the stench hit him.
His instinctive reaction was to reel away backward, but he didn’t. If he dropped the source, the acid would claim the entire thing and the bones would be gone.
He fought through the revulsion and lifted the source from the acid, then laid what was left on the slab again. He quickly turned away, gagging, worked the latch on the door and ran outside.
The wind was howling and felt as if it were blowing through the center of a block of ice.
By the time he’d taken his second deep breath his lungs had begun to ache. Inside his gloves, his fingers felt stiff and fat almost immediately. Even through the jacket, his forearms and chest felt as if the skin was becoming brittle.
He turned around, opened the door again and all but fell back into the cooler.
He leaned back against the door to close it, then walked the length of the cooler and shoved the heavy plastic sheeting aside.
The main room of the cabin was almost hot in contrast.
He propped his right elbow on the mantel of the fireplace and shook his head. A long moment later, his breathing almost under control again, he muttered, “Damn, Jon. I think maybe you’d better not forget the mask again.”
He leaned down a bit to look into the fireplace and considered starting a fire. But no. He wanted to get through the first set of stiffs. Sources. Then he would reward himself with a night off. And food. He would find something to eat.
He moved the sheeting aside and strode into the cooler. At the far end, he opened the bottom drawer and took out a mask. He positioned it appropriately over his mouth and nose, then reached for the source again.
But it had moved.
Without thinking, he looked to his right.
The flash image was of a child, naked, lying face down.
There were two small legs, no larger than two inches in diameter. The right leg and hip were intact and perfect, albeit a ghostly, pallid white. The left leg was the same, but only halfway up the thigh.
The arms, torso, neck and head were skeletal, though small bits of viscera clung here and there.
He had seen photos in the Academy, but—
What he had seen in the photos were not his doing.
He stared, unable to turn away, certain he would hear an audible pop any second as his mind snapped. He strived to reason with himself. He had to set his mind right.
Is this how he was to spend the balance of his life? Was this his penance for not being good enough? Tom had spoken about the horror of the faces, but could that be any worse? If they were, he couldn’t allow himself to see them. He had reached his limit.
While trying to process the first source of his first dig on his first day, he had reached his limit. Had he reached his limit?
As part of his mind addressed the horror, another part registered that the bones were unscathed.
The acid had taken the flesh, but only the flesh. What in the few bits of flesh that remained kept them from being consumed by the acid?
Did they talk about this at the Academy? He couldn’t remember. And even if they had, did it matter?
Well, he had signed on.
He had taken the tests, applied and was accepted at the Academy. He had endured two long years there, and through it all he had sensed he would end up here. Not only in Siberia, but here at this counter in this cabin with a child—a small source—his first victim.
No, that wasn’t right. He wouldn’t accept responsibility for what had brought this child—this source—to be in his cabin at this moment. It was someone else’s victim. It was humanity’s victim. It was his livelihood until he said it wasn’t anymore.
So should it be his livelihood? Was he right for this job? Or for this place?
He was on probation. He could catch any drone anytime during the first six months and fly out. He could request any assignment in any field anywhere and never have to see a face. Or another frozen, pallid bit of flesh again.
As if in a daze, he continued to work through whether he could or even should continue. And if he chose to continue, where? And in what capacity?
But his left arm moved, seemingly of its own volition.
He didn’t even have to be a miner. With his class standing, probably he could wrangle something else.
Without conscious direction from his mind, his arm stretched in the direction of the tongs.
He could take off the rest of the week and catch the next drone. There was one every week. No questions asked.
The thumb and fingers on his left hand closed around the tongs, lifted them.
He could simply walk past Tom and Rolf and nod. He didn’t even have to speak to them. Just get on the drone and fly out. Just leave. There would be plenty of penance elsewhere.
His left arm guided the end of the tongs to the bare left hip of the source.
Did he even really have to do penance? If he did, maybe he’d done enough.
The tongs closed.
A lot of people had done a lot less penance for a lot worse crimes than simply not being good enough.
The arm raised and Jonathan felt the weight.
He looked around just as the source, caught in the grip of the tongs and not resisting at all, lifted off the slab.
He frowned. What was he doing? And why?
He watched as the source passively allowed itself to be moved, positioned over the acid.
Why didn’t it resist? Why would it allow me to—
The arm lowered. And the source slipped effortlessly into the acid.
He watched as the arm raised, brought the tongs out of the acid.
The source was bare. Nothing but bones.
Nothing but the source of the calcium extract.
His mind back on the task at hand, he took over again. As he stepped to the left, he manipulated the tongs, twisting them so the source curled almost into a ball. Then he dipped it into the larger of the two stainless steel sinks.
He moved it back and forth gently and watched as most of the bits of flesh separated from the skeleton. Amazing. The stuff really worked.
Still, could he do this? And hidden or not, he was a Jew. So should he do it? Before he came here, he was so certain. He was still a young man. Would he be throwing away that much if he negated the last two years and went in another direction?
After all, it would be no trouble at all to just pack it in. He could catch the next drone out.
He lifted the source from the lye water, dipped it in the clear rinse water, and laid it on the drying pad. It covered less than half of it.
He reached for a towel and started to lay the tongs down.
But while this source was drying, he could run the next one. That would give him plenty of time to decide what he wanted to do next.
He turned and walked back to the end of the counter.
* * *
The second small source went more easily.
He lowered it whole into the acid, then opened the tongs. A long moment later, he found purchase on what was left—he came to think of what he withdrew from the acid as “pure source”—and pulled it out.
After he deposited the second small source into the lye bath, he left the tongs and used the towels to pat dry the first source.
Then he got a second pad from the drawer and laid it next to the first.
He moved the first source to the second pad to await polishing while he went back to retrieve and rinse the second. He laid that one on the first drying pad.
While it was drying, he decided to work on the first again.
The bones had to be separated. It was the most arduous part of the process after the initial shock of the stench from the acid tank almost an hour earlier.
After he had separated the bones of the first source and grouped them roughly according to size, he had an idea. He wrapped them in two of the clean hand towels and set them in the corner at the back of the cabinet.
He could polish them later. Even in the cabin, perhaps, while he was doing other things. After all, polishing wouldn’t require all his attention.
He draped another hand towel—the same one he had used to pat down the first source—over the second, then turned to go back to the storage bin.
On his way by, he stopped at the acid bath.
It was still all right. Probably fine to process one large source. He would have to change the acid with every second or third large source, but he knew what to watch for. It was like watching the weather.
Clear was good. Partly cloudy was all right. But when it was cloudy to the point that he couldn’t see through it hardly at all, it had to be drained and changed.
He turned to the bin. He would take the man in the underwear next. Just in case he had been the father of these chil— these sources.
He lifted his first large source from the storage bin and laid it face down on the preparation slab, with the top toward the back door. The first order of business would be to separate the small appendage from his lower back. From the lower back of the source.
The official reason, if anyone had asked, was so he wouldn’t inadvertently lose the bones in that hand, wrist and partial forearm in the bottom of the acid bath.
He did that with the fine-toothed bone saw.
Then he used the tongs to lower the little appendage to the bottom of the acid tank.
He released the tongs for a moment, waited, then retrieved the appendage and looked it over. It would require another moment. He lay in on the slab, re-gripped it with the tongs around the bit of protruding ulna, and dipped it again.
He left it submerged for only a few seconds before withdrawing it and carrying it to the lye bath. Then he rinsed it and reunited it with its original owner on the drying mat.
He looked at the small, curled phalanges for a moment—almost too long—then turned back to attend to the larger source.
When he got back to the far end of the counter, he laid the tongs on the slab. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out his time piece. He noted the time, then slipped it back into his pocket. He opened the drawer on the left and picked up the bone saw with the coarser blade. He also took out a long, slender knife. He laid it to one side.
Jonathan glanced at the acid bath again.
The tank was four-feet wide. This particular source was perhaps five and a half feet long. Like probably ninety-plus percent of the sources, this one was thin too, even on the verge of emaciation. It would fit easily into the acid bath in only two pieces.
However, the lye tank was only three feet by three feet.
This one would have to go legs together, arms together, torso and head. So four pieces.
Jonathan picked up his saw and bent to the task, cutting at an angle from above the left hip to the center of the pelvis.
With the right side, he knew more about what he was doing, what to watch and feel for through the saw blade, and in about fifteen minutes the source was in two pieces.
He couldn’t use the tongs. The lower section of the source was too heavy.
So he took that section by its lower extremities with his gloved hands and carefully lowered it into the acid bath, large end first. When most of it was beneath the surface, he let go. Of course, it had gone into the tank in one piece, but it might come out in two. That was all right. It was only something of which he needed to be mindful.
There was a quiet clunk as it hit the bottom of the tank.
Jonathan turned back to take the upper extremities.
Those came off much more easily and quickly, and again he used his gloved hands to lower each into the acid. He positioned them so they would lean against the back corners of the vat.
He turned back to the source for a moment. It was still lying face down. A quick approximation of the remaining length told him he had misjudged this one. The head and torso could go in as one piece.
He would prefer to send the top in first, but he decided the bottom should go first as it was the wider, more stable part. He would be very careful not to allow himself to see the face.
For the time being, though, the final bit would have to wait. He picked up the tongs and moved to the acid vat. There he reached into the back corner, made contact, and withdrew one extremity. It was clean.
He manipulated the tongs so the thing folded at the elbow, and carried it to the lye bath. After he deposited it there, he returned to the acid bath and retrieved the second piece. He placed it in the lye bath and removed the first one, then remembered he hadn’t laid out a new drying mat. He put the first arm in the rinse water, then put down the tongs.
He pushed the other drying mat to the left, and laid a new one in its place. Then he withdrew the rinsed source and laid in on the mat. He moved the second one from the lye bath to the rinse and then to the mat.
Then he went back to the acid bath.
Removing the legs from the vat was almost routine. He handled both of them the same way he had handled the arms. He carefully lifted one, then very carefully manipulated the tongs so the leg would fold at the knee without splashing him with acid.
He carried the first to the lye bath and immersed it. Then he moved the drying mat with the arm bones on it to the left and laid out a clean drying mat. He moved the folded leg to the rinse tank, then went back for the other leg and repeated the process.
When both legs were on the drying mat, he went back to the preparation slab.
He reached for the shoulders of the source and started to lift it.
But his left hand slipped.
The source rolled over.
It looked at him.
Jonathan caught his breath. He jerked his right hand away and stepped back, expecting the man to scream. A chill shuddered up along his spine and he shoved both hands into his coat pockets. He squeezed them into tight fists and looked at the floor for a moment, unsure what to do.
“I’m sorry,” he yelled. “God, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
But it did no good to apologize to the floor. He hadn’t treated the floor with disrespect. He wasn’t disturbing the final resting place—inadequate and inappropriate as it was—of the floor. His father had taught him always to look the other person in the eyes. Enemy or friend. One who insulted him or one whom he insulted.
He raised his head, looked at the left eye. It was open wide. It would give the man away if—
If he started to move? But he couldn’t move.
The man couldn’t move, but Jonathan continued to watch. “I’m sorry,” he said again, more calmly. I’m so very sorry.”
Suddenly the cooler was very large and very dark, and vengeful spirits were waiting in every corner.
He glanced quickly over his right shoulder at the bin.
All of them—all of the sources—were where he left them.
He jerked his head around.
But the man still lay there.
No. The source. The source still lay there.
Right where he dropped it.
And of course. Where else would it be?
It just slipped, that’s all.
No, it didn’t do anything. He allowed it to slip.
He lost his grip and the thing slipped free for a moment.
Jonathan stepped closer, the fear past.
“All right,” he said. “All right.”
And for an instant, quietly as the echo of a thought, he could’ve sworn he heard, “All right.”
He looked at the man again. At the source. He looked at the source again.
He thought of escaping gasses, the sounds those could make. But all the gasses had escaped this man—this source—probably a hundred years ago.
He looked at the lips. They were stiff. They couldn’t move. And the tongue and the vocal cords. They were all stiff. None of them could move. None of them could create sound.
Curiosity took over. What was the big thing about the faces? As long as you remember it’s only a source, what resembled a human face wasn’t really a face, except in the broadest sense. It was one facet of the source, that’s all. The back of the top part also was a facet.
Which part was the face at the moment depended completely on your angle of view. Nothing more.
He leaned forward a bit, his hands still in his coat pockets.
The man’s left eye was open wide, though a bit sunken. The right upper eyelid was partially closed.
Jonathan shifted to one side.
The eyes didn’t follow him.
But he had known they wouldn’t. There was no life in them.
There was no accusation.
As it should be.
And this was only a source.
He looked more closely.
The nose was aquiline, the eyebrows full but light brown, despite the much darker full head of hair.
The ears were fine and lay close to the sides of the head. The chin and jawline might have been chiseled out of granite. There was a few days’ growth of whiskers. The lips were pressed tightly together, as if holding back something he really wanted to say.
It. Something it really wanted to say.
It hadn’t been a man for probably a hundred years. Maybe longer.
Suddenly feeling foolish, Jonathan reached for the shoulders again and picked up the source. He turned it so it was facing him, and he watched the eyes as he lowered it into the acid bath.
Nothing. As it should be.
He muttered, “Well, two birds with one stone, Jon.”
The source was only a source, nothing more.
And the faces would be no big deal.
He allowed the source to settle gently on the bottom of the vat. This one would take awhile.
He moved to the other end of the counter, patted dry the other bones there, and separated them. He sorted them according to size and wrapped them in towels.
Then he realized what the shelves were for. Or at least how he was going to use them.
It would be impractical to process one source completely from dismembering to dipping to cleaning, rinsing, drying, separating and polishing. Doing so would add a great deal of time to the overall process.
Yet the way he was doing it now, he was rapidly running out of counter space.
He carefully picked up each bundle of bones and placed it beneath the counter on the top shelf. That would work.
Then he went back to the acid bath to check on the latest source. There had been considerably more mass to that one than any he had done before. Considerably more viscera. It would make sense that the acid would take longer to dissolve it.
He picked up the tongs and soon found a grip on the upper part of the spine. He slowly lifted the source so as not to splash himself.
The eyes were gone.
The face. The face was gone. The skull was clean.
He lifted the source farther up. There was very little non-bone material left on it. Not enough to leave it longer in the acid.
He put both hands on the tongs and carried the source to the lye bath.
It fit almost perfectly for width.
But it was close.
He looked at the rinse sink.
It would fit, but only barely. Probably only because the ribs would squeeze in a bit. And he might have to turn the head sideways. If it rocked back or forward, it would catch.
Another lesson. From now on, for sources that were full sized, he would separate the top from the torso.
After he finished rinsing the source, he stayed to pat the bones dry, then separate them, gathered them and folded them in towels.
It was a way to rest without wasting the time completely.
But when he was through, again he went to the storage bin to begin processing the next source.
* * *
A little over four hours later, he patted the bones dry from the last bit of the last source for the day. He separated them, sorted them, wrapped each group in a towel, and stored them beneath the counter to await polishing.
Then he stepped back and took it all in.
And made another decision.
Initially, he had expected to clear six bits of source during a two-hour stint at the claim.
He had cleared seven—but two of those were small—in eight hours.
He thought transport to and from the claim would take one hour per day. That would encompass two round trips.
But the average trip took twenty minutes. So one trip per day would cost him two-thirds of an hour. Two would cost him an hour and a third.
He had expected processing each deposit would take about one hour. It had taken him seven hours to process seven deposits, albeit two of those were small ones.
Probably that time would hold true, at least until repeated practice enabled him to streamline his procedure. But even if not, one hour seemed about right. He just had to remember that didn’t include the final step of the process, polishing.
He realized too, that he would need more than three hours of sleep per night, at least until he worked into a routine. As it turned out, the overall experience was tiring, both physically and emotionally. And he would have to eat too. If nothing else, eating was necessary to keeping his energy up.
So he made a rational decision.
Until he got used to things, he would make only one trip per day to the claim.
Tom said he could work into a routine.
He would eat something first thing every morning.
Then he would go to the claim. He would clear six to eight sources from the ice, depending on how easily they came.
So six to eight hours at the claim.
Then he would transport them back to the cabin and store them in the bin.
Then he would take a break. Maybe eat something.
Then he would spend six to eight hours in the cooler, processing them.
So if he rounded his transport time up to one hour, that totaled thirteen to seventeen hours per day mining, transporting and processing. If he had time at the end of the day, he would polish some of the product. But he thought that probably wouldn’t happen.
And if it didn’t that was okay.
He had already decided to take one day off each week. During that day he would polish the product until he felt he had done enough. The rest of the day he would devote to learning about the camp, inventorying and ordering supplies and so on.
Satisfied, he turned, pushed the plastic sheeting aside, and walked into the main cabin.
He looked at the fireplace as he stripped off his coat and gloves.
He walked to the wood box and stood there for a moment, trying to remember what he had planned to do. Then he turned around, walked into his bedroom, stripped off his clothing and went to bed.
He was asleep almost immediately.
* * * * * * *