QSFer Lindsey Black has a new MM sci fi book out:
The Barricade is all that separates the Northern Russian Empire from what remains of the world’s plague-decimated population. Snaking 8921 kilometres across Eurasia, the Barricade is crafted from the New World’s nanotechnologies. Breathing, thinking, constantly regenerating, it sustains those charged with defending its districts from those desperate to find refuge in the north.
Atop the battlements of District 666, Sasha Stepanova and his team ruthlessly suppress heavy insurgencies, but at a cost. With the loss of one of his men, Sasha feels isolated and adrift. The bitter snows are a harbinger of winter’s early arrival and the town on his southern perimeter is swelling with foreboding shadows.
Transferred from a black operations testing facility, Jett Ioane is not the replacement Sasha is expecting. He’s short, sheltered and untested in battle—a poor replacement for the friend Sasha has lost. But Sasha finds him impossibly alluring. A lifetime of alienation and scrutiny has hardened Jett to the friendship and camaraderie necessary for survival. Struggling to find his feet while Sasha sweeps them out from under him, Jett hesitates to entrust the team with his truth.
Will Jett’s secrets be the key to their salvation, or annihilation?
Not too long from now … thirty years ago.
Ice crusted the doorframe, sealing Sergei out. He briefly contemplated cracking it off with the handle of his knife but it would reform quickly in the biting rain spraying in from the north and he wasn’t that desperate for a hot cup of coffee. It would be cold in a matter of minutes anyway. Instead he shuffled along the top of the Barricade toward the lighthouse, feeling as if he were staggering across the top of the world. The hills below were lost to low-lying mist and fog caused by the icy rain striking warmer snow piled against the base of the Barricade below. The steamy mixture had been building for hours, growing thicker as the afternoon faded and gave way to eve. The wall slithered through the heavy cloud, its trail marked in the distance by the faint glowing arcs of light from the outpost lamps. Tiny winking stars above the abyss.
The lighthouse doorframe was in better shape than the main tower, protected from the rain mostly by the angle, but he’d also cracked what little ice had formed when he’d exited last, thinking a coffee had been a good idea. As if anything was a good idea in the midst of winter sleet.
The lighthouse wasn’t warm but it felt hot and stifling when the door slammed closed behind him. The silence in the wake of the wind was all consuming, highlighting his laboured breaths. Sergei kicked his heavy boots against the rack by the door to loosen the snow in an attempt not to drag melt through the building. He wasn’t sure why he bothered, ice encrusted everything by midwinter and there were months left before it would thaw. When the summer finally came they would mop up what they could but until then it was pointless. Habit, he supposed.
The lighthouse was a simple fixture, a rounded turret fixed a half kilometre from the nearest outpost tower with a small armoury on the first level and a second level that housed the lights that turned incessantly day and night to highlight surrounding movement. There wasn’t a lot of action at District Six-Seventy.
Sergei Dyogtin wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting when he first came to the Barricade but it wasn’t the reality he now lived. It had been four years and he’d seen a total of fifty-seven men in that time, if he included the supply truck guys. The rest were stationed at nearby outposts 667 through 672 and he’d only seen them because he’d needed to get away and his sergeant allowed him to run as far as he wanted provided he returned in time to sit out his watch post. Sergei didn’t include the infected in his count. It was easier that way.
Life on the Barricade was boring. He supposed he’d expected a great war, or to at least use the skills he’d mastered at the military academy. Instead he stood watch for hours every night, huddled under a blanket watching the lights turn, or he sat around a table with the same three men talking about absolutely nothing. Or he slept. Sometimes he read a book, or practised hand to hand combat with his Sergeant, but for the most part he was bored beyond belief. He hadn’t known it was possible to be so bored you forgot you were bored, until about the third year. That was when the reality of it all really settled in.
He was a citizen. Like everyone else he’d been led to believe that made him special somehow. He was born a son of the Northern Russian Empire. North of the Barricade there was no plague and he had a bright future. He received a free education from the Russian authorities and was happy to join the military, certain he would have joined even if it hadn’t been compulsory. He’d excelled and no one had been surprised when he had been permanently assigned a military occupation. When they spoke about the Barricade they regaled the populace with stories of the greatest feat of human engineering. The only reason Russia remained disease free while the rest of the world decayed and perished by the millions. Why would he not want to serve as a part of that?
‘Because it’s boring as fuck, that’s why,’ he grumbled to himself, shoving open the hatch and climbing up into the light tower. There was a blanket wedged into the bay between the lights so you could sit without being blinded. It was worn and scratchy and had more than a few holes but it was warm and dry and he huddled gratefully beneath to wile away another hour.
There was no way of knowing how much time had passed when the door below creaked open and slammed closed again, someone smashing their boots against the rack to knock the snow free. Sergei reached over and hauled the trapdoor open, a moan of pure bliss escaping him when the scent of coffee immediately wafted into the room. It was one thing to not bother going to get a cup, quite another to have it brought to you.
A hand reached through, holding out a steaming mug and he wrapped his frozen fingers around it, sipping the hot liquid as another man clambered through.
‘Thanks,’ he toasted the air with his steaming mug as Kollig Lebedev sat heavily beside him. It was a tight fit. Neither of them were small.
‘Sun’s going down.’
‘What sun?’ Sergei laughed, too focused on the heat flooding his belly to pay any attention to the subtle changes in the flickering light outside. The sun barely rose in winter, shining for only a few hours through the heavy white cover. The mornings and afternoons were marked by periods of pale shadows before the long nights plunged everything into an eerie darkness.
‘There’s a lot of movement in the town today,’ Kollig didn’t look in that direction, peering north instead at the trees poking through the fog. Stray fingers in a pale, still ocean.
‘They’re burning off the dead.’
It always stank and Sergei was suddenly glad he’d stayed indoors most of the day. South of the Barricade, the plague riddled the population. There was no cure and as the years ticked by the uninfected either ransomed their way north or disappeared. Sergei had never seen a healthy person south of the wall but the Sergeant insisted it hadn’t been that long since there was fighting breaking out frequently between the healthy and infected. Sergeant was old. Maybe he was forgetting a few years. Or decades.
‘It would suck to be down there trying to burn them in the rain,’ Sergei grumbled. They would have had to use fuel to get the fire started. As if they could afford to waste fuel on the dead. They would have been better off letting the bodies freeze, but there was no guarantee the plague wouldn’t spread if left to rot for a while. Burning was the best option.
Not that Sergei knew much about the plague. Virus. Whatever the hell it was. The first outbreak had been well over a century before he was born. Even the Barricade was getting old and it had been built as a response to the rapid spread of the disease, so … it was old. That was as much as Sergei knew about things. As much as they bothered to teach. Don’t get sick was pretty much the motto of soldiers. Don’t touch them, don’t mix blood, so he assumed that was how it spread. Wear a containment suit whenever you went south of the Barricade and burn the dead. Never trust the ‘healthy’; ask them simple questions and don’t hesitate to kill if the answer seemed odd. It did things to the brain, the virus, muddled their thinking. The simplest of questions became impossible to answer.
Sergei had seen a few infected over the years and he had to agree with the instructions. He’d asked a guy his name once and been given the recipe for a potato casserole in reply. The man had been dead within a day, and not from a bullet. It was a horrible way to go.
‘Do you think they’ll ever find a cure?’ He wasn’t sure anyone was still looking for one. They had a single communication line out, from the Barricade to Moscow. You couldn’t contact the other towers—Russia didn’t like you getting ideas, and those in charge gave different towers differing agendas. Short of running to the next district and asking in person it was impossible to know what they knew.
The communication line to Moscow ran both ways but limited information ever came back and they were never told anything of life south of the wall. Of life outside the Empire. It was as if nothing else existed, the world simply cut off by the slice of hulking structure that stretched from the Dutch Sea to the Sea of Japan. Someone had drawn a line across a map and the rest had fallen away leaving only the north. Only Russia and her allies. Only the Empire.
‘I don’t think it would make any difference now,’ Kollig rumbled, drinking the last of his coffee and letting the mug hang limp from his fingers. ‘If there was anyone left they’d have made their way north by now. Any poor bastard born south of here isn’t going to live long enough to know where to run. The whole world is Russia now.’
Sergei drank his coffee. He was finishing the last gulp when a shadow caught his eye, stark against the white landscape lit by the lights. He waited with all the patience in the world for the lights to turn that way again. If it were a deer or an animal it would likely have moved by the time it spun around again but when the time came the shadow had only stumbled a small ways forward.
‘Person,’ he realised, pointing down at the black speck below. Kollig rummaged at his side for the binoculars and stood to peer down through the windows at the struggling figure below.
‘I’d prefer not to.’ Sergei snatched the binoculars away and took a look, watching the man sink into a thigh-deep bank and claw his way forward.
‘He’s heading for the gates.’ They were already moving, climbing down the ladder and rushing out of the lighthouse, heading west toward their tower. It was little more than a smudge of shadow in the quickly darkening sky but at least the rain had eased off into a fine mist.
Ice littered the ground around the door where Kollig had smashed his way through and they charged inside. They didn’t bother to remove their coats, storming downstairs to where the sergeant sat at the kitchen table playing chess with Nikotaev.
‘There’s a man heading for the gates,’ Sergei explained but he didn’t slow down, continuing along the spiral stairs into the lower levels of the tower.
Ten stories down to where the massive iron gates sealed them off from both north and south. He peered through the southern grate but there was nothing to be seen. The sun had departed for the day, leaving a dark swell of wind-swept sleet obscuring the otherwise pale stretch of snow.
‘Suit up,’ the Sergeant demanded when he came down the stairs. ‘Nikotaev’s up top providing cover. The two of you go and see if he’s infected. If he is, shoot him and burn the body. If not, give him water and point him in the direction of the town. He won’t get any further tonight.’
Suiting up was always uncomfortable to Sergei. He was too large for the quarantine suit and Kollig was no better off. They grumbled as they dressed, helping each other with fastenings they couldn’t reach. It was a time consuming shuffle they didn’t appreciate and their only reward was having to move out into the dark and wet.
‘This dude better be infected,’ Kollig’s voice echoed through the communications speakers built into his suit.
‘That’s not very nice,’ Sergei chided, even though he felt the same way.
‘I hate wearing this crap. I should get to shoot something as a reward for coming out here and freezing my balls off in the middle of the night.’
‘It could be worse,’ Sergei reasoned. ‘Least it’s not a blizzard.’ And it was far from the middle of the night. Mid-afternoon at best, by Sergei’s rough estimation.
‘The guy would be dead in a blizzard and we wouldn’t have to come out here.’
‘True.’ Probably. There was a chance the sergeant would have sent them out anyway, but he was getting soft in his old age and they could usually convince him to let things slide. Things being people who were too stupid to know any better, or were likely infected and dead already.
It was a hard slog out to where they’d seen the man and a half hour passed before Sergei caught sight of the struggling figure when the lights did their turn over the snow nearby.
‘Hey!’ he bellowed, lifting his gun.
The man paused and peered over at them. He couldn’t be more than a few hundred meters away but it seemed miles in the cold and dark.
‘Are you okay?’
The man didn’t respond, just continued to crawl through the snowbank.
‘Sir! Are you alright?’ Kollig tried but there was still no verbal response, only the gradual meandering in the general direction of the Barricade.
‘Sir! We are going to need you to respond!’ Sergei suspected the man was not infected, mostly because a sick person would have answered by now. It would have been nonsense and garbled but infected minds felt compelled to respond. This man appeared compelled to reach the wall, which indicated a level of understanding of cause and effect usually lacking in the sick.
‘Sir, I am going to shoot you unless you respond!’ There was only so much Sergei was in the mood to tolerate. It was cold, wet and dark. He wasn’t going to stand there all night waiting for the idiot to decide talking to them was in his best interests. When there was still no response, Sergei followed through on his threat, firing into the snow directly in front of the man. It pulled him up, fast.
Rage filled eyes met his, dark as mud in a tan face chapped and wind scarred. The scarf wrapped around his throat and hair had done little to keep out the whips and whirls of the Ukrainian winter.
‘I’m looking for my wife.’
‘Sounds pretty crazy to me,’ Kollig grunted, hefting his gun, ready to fire. But Sergei held up his hand, signalling to wait and frowned at the man. There were no visible signs of infection and while the words sounded crazy the man didn’t appear crazed. Resigned, certainly, and road weary, but not nuts.
‘There’re no women on the Barricade. Your wife isn’t there.’
‘Perhaps,’ the man shrugged. ‘But they took her north and if I want to follow then I have to get over it, right?’ He waved a hand in the direction of the monster casting its looming shadow over them.
‘Come on, Dyogtin. He’s lost it. Just shoot him and we can go get warm.’
‘Who took her north?’
‘I’m not crazy,’ the man called to them instead. ‘I get it, that you want to shoot me and go back to your tower and get dry and warm and feel good about yourselves, thinking you saved another poor soul from a drawn out death and prevented any further infection. But I’m not sick. I’m perfectly healthy and I’m sane. I just want my wife back. Your soldiers took her in Korea and I’ve been walking the length of your stupid wall ever since trying to find anyone who’ll let me cross. If it’s not going to be you, I’ll walk to the next tower and ask there. And if not them then the next.’
‘No-one is ever going to let you cross.’ Kollig was right about that.
‘Someone will shoot you,’ Sergei pointed out, still not convinced there wasn’t something wrong with the man. Maybe it wasn’t the Infection but there had to be something out of whack if he’d walked from Korea to the Ukraine looking for a way to cross the Barricade in the hopes he would somehow find his wife in the wilds of Russia with no idea who exactly had taken her or where. It wasn’t crazy, it was futile.
‘What else can I do?’
Kollig and Sergei shared a confused look and then stared back at the defeated man. His clothes were rags, his beard hagged and hair a knotted mass on his head and shoulders. His skin looked black and frost bitten where it was exposed and the bag across his back didn’t appear to have many months left in it.
‘She was my life,’ the man shrugged.
‘You could always try and start again …’ Kollig had never been great at putting himself in the shoes of others.
‘South? There is no life. Only death. And there’s no way north.’
No way forward. Sergei wondered, briefly, if shooting him wouldn’t be the kindest thing. Instead he lowered his weapon and walked away. Kollig swore behind him before falling into step at his side.
‘We’re not supposed to leave them.’
‘He’s not sick.’
‘He’s got plans to cross the wall.’
‘How’s he gonna do that?’
They didn’t bother discussing it further. Each knew there was no way north without a permit and the only permit Russia would offer that man was a conscription letter that would leave him stationed on the Barricade for life, just like the rest of them. He’d never find his wife. He’d probably never see another woman. He would live, but that didn’t seem enough.
‘What do you think we’re having for dinner?’
Sergei allowed himself to be distracted. They argued the pros and cons of taking another hunk of deer from the freezer versus putting up with one more week of vegetarian dishes. The winter was going to be long, they should ration the supplies, but they were both desperate for something more.
‘Maybe we can find some rabbits and make a stew or something?’ Kollig sounded so hopeful Sergei couldn’t help but smile.
‘We’ll check the north side wall and see if we can find any tracks.’
Looking back, the man was still trudging forward, heading for the ruins of the town a few kilometres west. He’d find shelter at least, and with any luck he would move on as he’d said he would. If not, well … Sergei was a pretty good sniper.
Lindsey lives in Darwin, Australia, where the weather report permanently reads ‘humidity at 100%, only going to get worse’ for ten months of the year and ‘monsoon at 4pm, for exactly fifteen minutes’ for the remaining two. She escapes this oppressive environment to bushwalk for weeks on end wherever the mobile phone reception has zero bars for as long as possible and the weather report reads something along the lines of ‘blizzard likely’, between teaching and studying full time. She enjoys martial arts, music and mayhem, which explains the untidy state of her home where she attempts to write between splitting minimal amounts of spare time between her incredulous husband, lazy Chinchilla cat and crazed Siberian husky. If you expect her to sit and have a chat it’s best to have a matcha green tea latte with almond milk on hand, and your hiking boots within reach. Oh, and be sure to bring a guitar for impromptu jam sessions.