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AGAINST THE WALL Mark Howard Jones FIRST EDITION - 2008 Published by Screaming Dreams

Copyright Š Mark Howard Jones 2008 Mark Howard Jones asserts the moral rights to be identified as the author of this work

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to Actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Cover illustration Copyright Š Steve Upham 2008

No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without prior written Permission from the publisher


he girl's head bobbed up and down in the cross-hairs of my sight for a few seconds before dropping from view completely. The crack of my rifle shot echoed back to me from between the buildings. Pulling my gaze away from the sight, I looked to see where I had just fired. Even at this distance, I could make out a small cloud of dust rising as the girl's body slumped forward into the street, collapsing upon herself. One less Astrakh to worry about - not that I did worry, that wasn't my job. I stuck to being a sniper. What I was good at. My left breast began to itch intolerably. I loosened my uniform, reached inside and began to scratch furiously. Once I'd gained some temporary relief, I looked at it. The skin just below my nipple and round to my left side was red and inflamed. No doubt its appearance hadn't been helped by my animallike scratching. Underneath the skin, a series of small hard lumps had appeared. I'd have to make a mental note to go and see the doctor tomorrow - as if the itching by itself wasn't enough of a reminder. It would be my first leave in three months. I hoped the rash wasn't the first sign of some damned Astrakh secret weapon, designed to kill us all by stealth. It'd be just like them if it was. I took up my watch again, seeing everything through the telescopic sight that sits on top of my rifle. Trained on the gap between the ruins of two low buildings just behind the Astrakh front line, I got to see a lot of frightened civilians who were trapped once the fighting started but only a very few Astrakh troops. I shouldn't dignify them with the word 'troops' really; they're a raggedy bunch of fighters with poor equipment. Mind you, my rifle's not so new and my uniform is getting a bit tatty, too. The main thing the Astrakhs have on their side is that they can be tenacious bastards - once they're onto you they never give up. They're like dogs with the scent of a rat in their -1-

nostrils. Once they scented you, you may as well kill yourself to save everyone the bother. The floor was damp under me. It began to soak through my uniform. It was a distraction, to say the least. I had to stay focused. Once the relatives of the dead girl got to hear that she'd been shot, they'd try to recover the body. Then I'd get a crack at them, too. And bad news travels fast in this part of the world. After a wretched night squatting on the damp floor, I watched the milky grey that passed for the dawn in this part of the world creep over the top of the ruined buildings opposite. An hour later, my replacement arrived. Karenhe was so good at what she did that I didn't know she was there until she touched my arm. If it'd been one of the enemy I'd have been dead - but you can hear those lumbering idiots coming a mile off. "How is it, Natase? Quiet?" "Yes ... thankfully." Karenhe rummaged in one of her pockets and produced a small, halfeaten bar of chocolate. "Here. Want it?" I snatched it gratefully and stuffed it into my mouth, not thinking to offer her any. Seeing my enjoyment, she smiled. "This'll bring you back down to earth. I've got a message from Commander Marthe. She wants to see you before you go through the wall." She chuckled maliciously. The Commander had a reputation as a real bitch, hard-nosed and unimpressed by everything, but she'd always been very straight with me. She was an old friend of my father, before the war. One senior officer in our battalion had even hinted heavily that she was my mother. Total shit, of course. My mother had died in the first year of the war. And I'd know my own mother if she was standing in front of me, wouldn't I? I'd never bothered to contradict everyone else's view of her. People are happy with their prejudices. Why upset them? I glared at Karenhe, feigning disbelief. "It's true! Perhaps your leave is cancelled, eh? Perhaps Mad Marthe wants you for 'special duties'." I struggled up, leaning on my rifle and standing up sideways behind some cover. No point making myself a target. -2-

"Yeah, thanks, Kar. I love you, too." Shuffling round to leave my former hideaway free, I started to head down the shattered stairs. "It's all yours, sweetie. Mind out for the floor, it's damp ... makes you think you've pissed yourself." Karenhe's laughter followed me down the stairs until I reached the cellar, where it mingled with the sound of the debris crunching under my boots. I went as far as I could towards brigade headquarters using the ruined cellars. Some of them formed a network of makeshift tunnels, connected up where previous attacks had blown holes in the walls. But after several hundred yards of good progress, I was forced above ground. I hated this part. It wasn't because of the threat of snipers - it was well behind our own lines - but simply the buildings. The old buildings. Some burnt, some bombed out but all familiar from my childhood. And all watching me. It felt as if I was being watched by every brick, every shattered window frame, every door frame, every tile. The buildings followed my progress with malevolent interest and seemed to be blaming me for their current state, as if the war was my idea and I was responsible for its progress, solely relied upon for its successful outcome. At least the mingled stink of dust and death wasn't so thick here. After nearly a block-length of progress in the open, I dodged into the shell of an old bookshop to have a quiet cigarette. A hesitant tune of gunfire and the occasional burst of a mortar shell in the distance accompanied my hearty puffs. My nicotine break was brought to a premature end by a bullet whistling past me from the street. I was sure I wasn't the target - I was too far back in the darkness of the shop and I'd covered my cigarette with my hands - but I ducked behind some cover just to be sure. Who was firing this far behind our lines? Surely the Astrakhs couldn't have broken through this far? I decided to try and make my way to HQ using the buildings as cover. It'd take me longer but it might save my skin for my own personal use - instead of simply as a trophy for some Astrakh scum. A good vantage point was what I needed, so I scrambled through the rubble at the back of the shop. Over the demolished back wall lay a narrow alley that led to a building that had once been the city's finest department stores. And its most expensive; whatever you wanted could be bought there but not cheaply. My father had taken me there for my sixteenth birthday and -3-

told me to choose whatever I'd wanted from the dress section. I'd felt too timid to choose the expensive dress that I really wanted. Instead I left with a drab frock that I had never worn. And now probably never would. It was the building's height that interested me now. On the top floor, I sank down onto my belly and edged along until I could see from the highest window. The broken teeth of smaller buildings gazed up at me. Occasionally a foolhardy Astrakh dashed across the space between two ruined walls. An easy opportunity that I chose not to take. I pulled out my binoculars from my belt and put them to my eyes. There it was, nearly two miles away. The wall. It towered over everything, casting its shadow a lot further than seemed right. There was a misty haze that always seemed to rise from its top. Even on clear days it was nearly impossible to make out many details of the city beyond. Maybe it was a phenomenon of the machinery that kept it in place. Perhaps it created its own weather system or perhaps it was part of the wall's defence mechanism. I peered closely through the haze, trying to spot familiar landmarks beyond the wall. Soon my eyes began to sting and itch and I abandoned my fruitless task. When I finally reached headquarters a burly staff sergeant looked at me suspiciously. "What took you so long, soldier? You were sent for nearly two hours ago." "Sniper trouble, sir." He glared at me. "Sniper trouble? You're the sniper - you're supposed to give THEM trouble. Where was this? I'd better see it's reported." I told him the location and he looked at me with even more suspicion. "All right, get in there. The Commander's waiting for you." The Commander's office was a bit makeshift but she'd managed to accumulate enough little luxuries to make it stand out in contrast to our far shabbier billets. She was standing hunched over her desk studying maps and bulletins. She looked up, saw me and did up the top three buttons of her tunic. "Soldier. Come in. Sit," she said, formally. I sat opposite her as she took her place behind the large desk. She leaned forward and smiled. "Natase, how are you? I haven't seen you for ...?" "Three months." "Yes, a long time. Things have changed a lot in three months. The war has -4-

spread, you know. It now covers 10 blocks of the city and threatens to spread into the suburbs of Bruthente. I can't allow that. The museum and the cultural plaza are under threat. And you know that we must protect our culture from those Astrakh scum at all costs. God knows what would happen to our heritage if ..." I was shocked and didn't try to hide it. "Are ... are we losing the war? It only covered eight blocks the last time I was here ... and what about the wall?" "No, no. We're not losing, of course not." She reached for a cigarette and held the pack out to me. I refused. I didn't think it was a good idea to smoke in front of my superiors. "In fact, things have been going quite well. That's why the war has spread, really. And don't worry, the wall has grown too," said Commander Marthe, smiling slightly. She looked older than when I'd seen her last; not just tired but physically aged. "But these bloody Astrakhs are so tenacious. They just hang on and on ... don't know when they're beaten. They're like animals. My main trouble is that our intelligence is worthless. I've no idea what they're planning next. And I'm under pressure from above ..." She stopped talking and took a few long drags on her cigarette, holding the smoke in her lungs for a few seconds before blowing it across the map in front of her. It gave the impression of fog rolling quickly across a flattened landscape. "That's why I want you to go and see Semet." She saw the look of dismay on my face, which I found impossible to hide. "I know you're due two weeks leave, soldier," she said as she became more brusque. "Well, I'll extend it to three weeks in recognition of your ... sacrifice." "Yes, sir." It wasn't just a day's lost leave that bothered me. I was scared of the old seer and felt drained of energy for days after visiting her. Even so, Semet had helped us in the past. She'd anticipated a major Astrakh attack, allowing us to repulse it with fewer casualties than could normally be expected. But the fact that Marthe wanted to rely on the old woman's advice again worried me. Had she lied to me about how well the war wasgoing? Marthe stood and walked around her desk. "She'll talk to you. She trusts you. I've sent others to her and they've come back with nothing." She stood over me. "Natase, why don't you leave the fighting? I promised your father I'd look after you and I feel responsible. Being a sniper is a -5-

dangerous job. I need staff officers. I could promote you. It's so hard to find good staff officers, you know." She reached down and ran her fingers across my dirty cheek. "Besides, you stink like a soldier. I like that. I'd like to have you around." I moved my head slightly, just enough to take my cheek from under her hand. "I'm a good sniper. I volunteered for the job. It's what I want to do, sir. I don't want a transfer." Marthe sighed. "Very well. I'm not going to order you, Natase. We canalways use good snipers." She finished with a note of frustration in her voice. She then handed me a letter that would get me through the checkpoints on the way to the Pesep district, which was heavily guarded because of its proximity to the arms factories. "Good luck, soldier." Marthe's voice had resumed its brusque professionalism. "It's signed by Commander Marthe." "I can see that," said the guard slowly, through clenched teeth. I waited while he scrutinised the letter of authority further. "It's very urgent," I complained. "What can be so urgent about going to see that old witch?" He spat the last words. "She's not a witch. And I'm under strict orders ..." "Yes, yes, all right. Thank you. You can go on your way now. But be careful, we've had a lot of trouble around the Pesep area lately." I headed off down one of the narrow, vile-smelling streets off the main avenue and wondered what sort of trouble the guard referred to. After all, Pesep was crawling with our troops. After getting lost once in the identical cramped streets of half-ruined houses and hastily-erected shacks, I eventually found the street I needed. As usual, it was packed with human detritus waiting to see old Semet. The smell of something cooking made the air almost unbreathable. "Make way. Make way there! Military business." Looks and grumbles were aimed at me from every inch of the street. A middle-aged woman pretended to fall against me, pushing something into my hand. I looked down to see a propaganda leaflet headed "Stop the fighting! Let us go!" in thick red letters. -6-

I flung the crumpled paper on the floor and looked around quickly. Dozens of resentful faces stared back at me but none of them were hers. I didn't have time to search for her. I simply pressed on. So that was the trouble the guard spoke of. Defeatist cretins. Eventually I reached the right door and thumped on it. "Open up. Military!" The door slid open slowly a little way. A plump man's face appeared. "Wh - what is it?" "I need to see Semet. At once." "But you can't ..." the man began to protest. I pushed against the door with all my weight and roared: "Let me in!" The man staggered back into a narrow entrance hall. "You don't understand, soldier girl. She's in seclusion. No-one must disturb her now," he gabbled. I calmed down a little then. "OK. I'll wait." The podgy little man made an odd face. "It could be hours yet." As he spoke a large man pushed his way into the hall from behind a curtain. He looked first from the small man to me and then said: "What's the trouble, Arn?" He smelled very bad. The little man answered him: "She wants to see Semet." The big one stared at me and I pulled Marthe's letter out of my tunic and pushed it at him. "Here." After reading it, he pulled aside the curtain with one hand and handed me the letter back with the other. "You can wait in here." I went through into a sunken room with one badly damaged wall that looked like it could cave in on you at any moment. An assortment of rattylooking furniture filled the tiny space. It smelled of the big man. "Thanks," I said, as he followed me in. I took my rifle off my shoulder and laid it down across a table. "I'll bring tea," said the man, doing his best to be hospitable. "No thanks," I said and tapped my canteen. I was suspicious of their water supply. I attempted to smile at him but he left. I took out a cigarette and settled down to wait. Two hours later I was awoken from a doze by the sound of a door creaking open and an urgent voice. "Fech, Fech. Quick, help me." I heard heavy footsteps and a sleepy voice: "Alright, alright. Don't worry, Arn. It'll be OK." -7-

I heard two sets of feet pattering down stone steps and decided to follow them. They didn't seem to notice as I descended a few steps behind them. In the close air of the cellar, Arn was dancing from foot to foot. "You see," he said to his large companion. The large man approached a mound of freshly dug earth and looked at a metal pipe that was sticking out of it. The pipe was vibrating slightly. "Mmmm. Better get her out of there," he said. He must have heard me then because he turned suddenly. When he saw it was me, the anger in his eyes subsided. "You stay back," he said as he lifted a finger to point at me. I stepped back up onto the last of the stone steps. I'd never seen the seer coming out of one of her seclusion trances before and felt a slight sense of panic at being there. I almost turned and fled the cellar. The two men had picked up some short spades and were piling the earth hurriedly to one side of the cellar. Their sweat in the small space smelled disgusting, particularly that of the big man, Fech. Finally the top of a large trunk-like object was uncovered. It had a metal tube protruding from the top. The trunk rocked slightly. "Open it, quick," squeaked Arn. Fech reached down, flipped a large catch and the lid flew up. Semet knelt up quickly, gasping for breath, drenched in sweat. Arn passed the old woman a beaker of water which she drank down in one go. Both Arn and Fech extended their arms to help Semet ease her considerable bulk from her temporary coffin. She was naked but for a large black silk wrap that clung to her with sweat. "Thank you. Thank you. Such good friends to me, both of you." Arn nodded and Fech said: "Pleasure." After sitting on the ground with her feet extended out into the trunk for a few moments, Semet caught sight of me. "Ah, a young one ... and a fighter. I know your face. We have spoken before, haven't we?" As the old woman's dark eyes settled on me, I felt an involuntary shudder run through me. "Yes, seer, we have." She nodded and attempted to stand, only to fall back down on her ample buttocks. A concerned-looking Fech stepped forward and helped her to her feet. She waddled closer to me, the sour stink of her sweat preceding her. -8-

"You want to know something, of course. But what is it?" I had to struggle not to pull away as her damp hand reached up to stroke my right cheek. "C-Commander Marthe sent me," I managed. "Yes, yes, Marthe ... of course, Marthe. But ...?" She leaned her head close to me, peering at me as if she was scrutinising something in a cage. She opened her mouth in what she obviously thought was a kindly smile. Her brown teeth, twisted and uneven, failed to stop her stinking breath from escaping. I took an involuntary step backwards. Then I caught myself. I couldn't afford to offend the old woman; she was my mission. Shuffling, I looked at the two men behind her. "She needs your advice," I said and tried to imply we should speak in private. Much as I did not relish being alone with this woman, I realised it was necessary. Semet nodded and pointed upward as she ushered me forward. Once we were alone she asked: "So what is it little Marthe wants to know?" I explained to her about the Commander's worries over the enemy's next move. As soon as she heard what I'd said, Semet turned down the corners of her mouth. "I can't help her. I'm afraid I can no longer see that far back." I was puzzled. "Back ...?" "Marthe will understand. Tell her what I said. She'll know." She nodded. Then I saw my chance to find out what I really wanted to know. About the wall. "Please, Semet, can you tell me if the wall will ever shrink in size again? The Commander says it has grown to contain the fighting in another two blocks of the city - can it be true?" Again the old seer nodded. "I know you are anxious ... but the wall is there for the good of everyone in Bruthente. It protects the rest of the city from the war so that life outside can go on as normal. You're a soldier; you've been outside, haven't you?" "Yes. I'm going out again ... soon." She nodded yet again. "So. There you are. I cannot tell you how the wall works. I can only advise on spiritual matters, not scientific ones." "But will it ever shrink again? Have you seen?" "No, I cannot. But perhaps it is best if it does not." I let her last comment go unchallenged as a dizzy sensation gripped me. This had happened in her presence before and I began to feel anxious. I had to report back to Commander Marthe and used that as my excuse to leave. -9-

I had stumbled three streets or more away from Semet's house before my head cleared properly. A broken water pipe poured its precious contents out into the filthy street near what had once been a hospital. I stopped and splashed it gratefully on my face. When I reached headquarters the guards seemed reluctant to let me pass until I mentioned Marthe's name. I entered the outer office, which was usually filled with a few secretaries and the staff sergeant. It was deserted. I thought that strange. I knocked on Commander Marthe's door but there was no reply. It was unlocked so I went in, intending to leave a message for her. Once inside, I could hear a curious sound. It was almost like somebody in pain and came from behind a door that had always been closed on my previous visits. I eased over to it and peered in through the crack. I saw Marthe standing in front of a large bed. A thick-set soldier stood half-naked before her, her heavy breasts exposed. She appeared to be in her forties and her simian face was impassive as Marthe licked her all over, a strange sound issuing from her throat. I remember thinking that Marthe must like that soldier's 'stink' even more than she liked mine. I had a slight feeling of revulsion in the pit of my stomach as I crept away from the door. I looked over Marthe's crowded desk, trying to find a blank piece of paper to write on. I intended to make it look as though I'd slipped the paper under the door of her office and never actually entered. Then I saw my three-week pass sitting on top of a pile of despatches. Marthe had been true to her word. I grabbed it and made for the door, abandoning my plan and not caring about any of the consequences. In the corridor I ran into Marthe's staff sergeant and relayed my message to him. He seemed displeased to see me but said he'd tell the Commander. Then I headed for the wall. It took me nearly half an hour to reach the control point. After checking in my weapon, I stowed my uniform in my locker and changed into a simple green dress, flat shoes and a small triangular hat. As soon as I reached the official's desk I thumped the leave pass down in front of her. She looked up with distaste, stamped it and said: "Innoculation." This happened every time. After the medical orderly had pulled the needle inexpertly from my arm, I asked him what the jab was meant to protect me from. "Common infections," he said in a bored voice. - 10 -

"Yes, but what ....?" "Move along, it's ready," said an impatient guard as he ushered me towards the inner gate. Coming out of the low building, the gigantic face of the wall loomed above me, black and shining in the late afternoon light. It always made me feel a little scared. It looked like a huge animal that was preparing to crush me, wiping me out without a second thought. I was ushered along a broad walkway. I was alone. I must have been the only one going out. Another guard held open a large metal door set into a protruding section of the wall. I entered and it was closed behind me with a loud thud. Then I began walking forward. The lighting inside was weak and, as always, I felt a falling sensation and a wave of nausea come over me. Machinery whirred softly somewhere above and below me. Nearly four minutes later, a second door was pulled open in front of me and I staggered gratefully into the daylight. The guard peered at me with disgust as I fell to my knees on the walkway and threw up into a drain. I apologised to him and shuffled off towards the outer gate, waving my pass at the official there. I could never understand why passing through the wall made me feel so ill. I had asked anyone who would listen until I was blue in the face. Nobody had an answer. Outside in the street, I felt as though I had stepped onto another world. Back behind the wall there had been a chill on the air but out here it felt like spring. The buildings were mostly of white stone and the air was clear and clean, free of the stink of battle. There was little traffic. I walked slowly towards the Soldier's Hotel, enjoying the afternoon light and the absence of a need for vigilance, of a constant tension and alertness. I felt like a deflating balloon; it wasn't entirely unpleasant. Once I had checked into the hotel, I had a shower to wash away the grime of violence and death. Afterwards, I felt I had been given a new skin - it fitted perfectly but it wasn't perfect. I examined the rash on my breast and remembered I had an appointment with the doctor first thing in the morning. Then I went to bed and slept for nearly 11 hours as the city whirred by outside. The doctor sat back after examining me. He pushed his glasses back up his nose and scratched the side of his neck, as if prompted by seeing the inflamed - 11 -

skin on my breast. Maybe it was catching. "It's simply a minor skin infection, that's all. Nothing to worry about. I'll give you some ointment," he said, scribbling away as he spoke. He ripped the sheet off his prescription pad and handed it to me. "Simply take this to the pharmacy. They'll sort you out." He smiled a curious smile before continuing: "You know, this sort of infection is all down to personal hygiene. What sort of work do you do?" I began to stand up. "I'm a soldier." The doctor looked surprised. "Oh, you're in the war?" "Yes." He turned away and rummaged in the top drawer of his desk for a few moments. " ... this war?" he asked. I took the thin news-sheet off him. It looked quite old. The paper was of very poor quality but an attempt had been made to disguise the fact by giving it a glossy appearance. I read the first few paragraphs of a report that outlined an attack by the Peshod Volunteer Brigades. I remembered taking part in it. Or rather I recalled with pride how I had followed behind it, moving swiftly from building to ruined building picking off any Astrakh stragglers stupid enough to show themselves in the streets. "Yes ... of course. What other war is there?" I laughed. The doctor looked at me, then shifted his gaze to the middle distance. He shook his head vaguely, seeming puzzled. Finally, he seemed to shake himself out of it and said: "Well, goodbye. I don't get to see many soldiers, you know. Remember what I said about personal hygiene. I know it must be difficult but ..." I smiled in reply. I left his office and headed down the corridor towards the pharmacy. I wondered what had been on his mind. I spent the morning wandering the streets of Bruthente's shopping district. I hadn't noticed on the previous day that everyone seemed to wear such strange clothes. But then I had been tired and tense; barely aware of my own name. I window shopped in bewilderment. I didn't like any of the fashions they all looked so gaudy and skimpy, lacking in style. I wondered what had happened to people's sense of taste. By mid-morning my feet began to hurt so I stopped off at my favourite coffee shop. It was good to smell fresh coffee, even though the place had been - 12 -

redecorated and changed management. I was shocked at how pricey it was. When the waitress brought me my cup I put my hand on her arm and asked quietly: "Why is it so expensive?" She looked at me as if I were mad and sidled away quickly. A look of relief passed over her face when I left. I found a phone booth in a crowded arcade and tried to ring my father. He lived some distance away in Rasedem and hadn't approved of me joining the army. But he wouldn't refuse a visit from his only daughter, I knew that much. The phone rang and rang. I tried ringing him three more times that day to no avail. I supposed he must have gone away to attend another conference. Again. Maybe it was abroad. And maybe it was the servant's day off. I decided to go and see Loueta instead. We had been friends since we were very small and she was always keen to hear my news. She might even know where my father was. I wondered if she was still seeing that boy from the bank district. Loueta had backed up my father when I told her I had decided to volunteer. "But you could be killed!" she'd screeched. "Yes, but anything else would be cowardly," I'd replied. I realised seconds later that this must have hurt her and, later that day, I'd bought her candies while we were out shopping together. Her boyfriend was suspicious of me and that only deepened his unease. What did he know? I took a bus to the park at the corner of Loueta's street and then walked through it to the building where she lived. Her apartment was on the second floor. I remembered it being quite large as her father did something important at a large hospital across town. Climbing to the second floor, I pushed the buzzer. I could hear voices inside and began to grow excited that I would see Loueta again. After a short while the door clicked open and a small girl of about four or five looked up at me. I stared at her dumbly; Loueta's only sister was at least sixteen. Maybe this was a relative. "Hello." I smiled at the child. " Is Loueta in?" The girl stared at me for a few seconds before running off without saying a word. The door swung half-closed behind her. I peeped inside; the decor of the apartment had changed since my last visit. I could hear the child's voice faintly. "... funny woman ..." Her mother answered: "Don't be rude, Etti. I'll come and see." Seconds later the mother - 13 -

appeared at the door, still wiping her hands on a towel. "Yes? Can I help?" Again I smiled, hoping to prove that I was not 'funny'. "Hello. Yes, I was looking for Loueta. Are you a relative?" "I'm sorry, I don't know any Loueta. She doesn't live here." The woman frowned. "Oh, she used to. Do you perhaps know when her family moved?" The woman shook her head slowly. "It must have been quite a while ago. We've lived here for over three years." She looked me up and down before asking: "Are you an actress?" The child's face bobbed into view behind her mother's legs. "No, no," I said, irritably. "Look, Loueta and her family lived here up until at least six months ago. I know that for sure. I visited them here." The woman bristled. " I don't know who you are but I do know how long I've lived in my own home. You'd better leave." She began to close the door. "You've obviously got the wrong apartment." "Loueta Asparne. Please, you must have at least heard of her?" The door was almost completely closed now. "No. Just go away. Please. I can't help you." I could easily have kicked the door open again but somehow it seemed futile: I wasn't behind the wall now. I stared at the number on the closed door, then went outside and looked at the name on the building. They were both correct. But where had Loueta and her family gone? I knocked on the door of a friend of hers - a boy I had never liked - who lived in the same building and had an equally futile conversation with the old man who now lived there. Everyone had moved away, it seemed. I was going round in circles. The street seemed very quiet, almost deserted, as I stood at the corner and decided I didn't have time to trace Loueta if I was to have time to eat. Someone must have a record of where she'd moved to. Maybe next leave. This one was proving too short. As the afternoon grew longer I headed towards my favourite bar and restaurant in the slightly disreputable Habiten district. I felt comfortable at The Sphinx and the staff knew me. I had studied near there before the war. And there were strong rumours that the upstairs floors housed a brothel. That thought gave me an odd thrill of excitement. When I got there I hardly recognised the place. Whereas once it had been effortlessly comfortable and well decorated, now it looked harsh and stark. - 14 -

So did the clientele. I was prepared to take a chance that the food was still as good and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was. But none of the staff I had known were still there and the present staff didn't know any of the names I mentioned. A new crowd seemed to take over as the light faded and the volume got louder. I wandered into the bar area after my meal and sat at a table near the window. I watched the sleek buses flash by outside as the lights came on and the streets emptied. I was four drinks in when a loud, gaudy couple came in and sat at the next table. As soon as they'd sat down, the girl started glancing in my direction from time to time, trying to stifle her giggles. Her male companion remonstrated with her in whispers. I let it go on for a few minutes before leaning across to her. "OK. Tell me what the problem is?" She looked at me earnestly. "Why, it's just that ... well, your dress ... are you going to a fancy dress party?" Then she burst out laughing. "Oh, Silka!" hissed her friend. She stopped laughing when she heard the legs of my chair scrape across the floor. I tottered forward a step. "What's wrong with it?" "Well, it's so old-fashioned." I looked down at it. "But I only bought it three months ago - on my last leave." The girl looked genuinely shocked. "What is it you do?" she asked quietly. I swayed slightly as the drink began to affect me. "I'm a soldier." She seemed genuinely delighted. "Then you're in the war! We like that, don't we Bovat?" Her companion nodded, relieved that the situation seemed to have been defused. "Sit with us and have a drink," she said, motioning to a waiter. I sat down heavily next to the man. The girl, Silka, was ordering: "I'll have a Gin Ambience and my friend will have a Wilful Whisky and can we also have a ..." "Vodka," I said, making a face at the names of the drinks they'd ordered. I'd never heard of them. Thankfully. Silka leaned towards me confidentially: "Yes, we're big fans of the war. We follow it closely." She rummaged in her bag and brought out a palm-top computer. I was fascinated. I'd never seen one before. Lights danced across its keypad as she - 15 -

switched it on. Her fingers twitched across its surface and an image appeared of a familiar scene - the Astrakh front line. She turned it so I could see it better. "Let's vote on casualty numbers, shall we?" I looked at her dumbfounded. It didn't seem possible. "You can vote on the number of casualties there'll be?" She laughed as if I'd made a quaint joke. "Well, we do live in a democracy, don't we?" she said as her fingers skated lightly across the keyboard. "Those are my friends you're killing, you bitch! This ends now!" Silka looked at me seriously for a second then, as if suddenly understanding a very good joke, burst into a trill of laughter. Bovat saw what was going to happen and tried to push me away as I launched myself at Silka over the table. I screamed with fury at the girl. I was too strong for Bovat and my fingers sunk into the flesh of Silka's face. She gave out a shrill scream and within what seemed like seconds I had been grabbed by two of the waiters. I yelled and rammed my fist into the face of one as I tried to land a kick in the other's groin. But within minutes I was out on the pavement, listening to the manager yell at me about assaulting his customers. I spat in his direction before heading off to another bar. Suddenly vodka seemed to be the perfect way to digest what Silka had said, to understand what exactly what was going on. Yet another of my old haunts seemed to have had a complete change of clothes. This time at least the bar staff seemed friendly, though it could just have been my money that they were smiling at. When my third vodka came around I collared one of the tenders, a plump-faced girl with short brown hair and honest enough eyes. She gazed at me levelly. "What's happening ... with the war? How come ... How can people vote about it, huh?" "War? What war?" She seemed genuinely puzzled. I jabbed my thumb back over my shoulder in the rough direction of the walled-off section of the city. "The waar! The waaahr!" Her face dropped. "Oh, that. Look, I don't know anything about that. I don't understand politics and such like. I really don't," she said, backing away to a small knot of gesturing customers further down the bar. I gave her up as a bad job and downed my vodka. - 16 -

Later that night, I decided Commander Marthe owed me an explanation. Nothing seemed to add up as I walked the tilting streets back towards the wall. The buildings seemed to push against me, telling me I wasn't welcome there anyway. I obviously belonged back behind the wall. I was out of place, despite what my nine vodkas had told me. What I wanted to know was why. It was quiet as I approached the wall again. The sound of the fighting could never be heard from out here. There wasn't even any vibration from the heavy mortars, which was normally enough to shake your bones loose from your flesh. I didn't know how the wall worked but I guessed the complete lack of noise escaping must be something to do with its mysterious mechanisms. The sky above the wall seemed to swallow the stars as I walked unsteadily up to it and leant against the cold surface, edging my way towards the entrance. Following a 10-minute argument with the official at the gate, I was allowed back through after signing a paper forfeiting my three weeks' leave. I didn't care. As soon as I was through the wall, I spent some minutes emptying my stomach of its vodka-soaked contents. Then, back in my grimy uniform, I went looking for Marthe. Her office was empty again. So was her bedroom. I took advantage of her absence to search her desk for answers. I found one in the shape of a map, spread out on her desk under some papers. It showed the city - a streetplan. As I watched, the thick black line showing the position of the wall moved. It moved towards the building where I now stood. Despite what Marthe had told me yesterday, the wall was shrinking. Was the war going against us? The click of the door closing told me I'd been discovered. "Hello Natase," said Marthe warily. I stared at her. "You lied to me, didn't you? The wall hasn't grown - it's shrinking!" The Commander sighed heavily. "Yes, you're right. I admit that. Our scientists don't know why. I had hoped Semet could help. You'd have found out off her. I should have told you." I walked towards her. "Why are we even fighting this war? I've been out there - those bastards vote on how many of us should die. Most of them don't even seem to know we're here - fighting for THEM. What sort of a war is that?" Marthe sighed again. "I know, I know. It's a way for the Government to maintain public support for the war ... giving people the chance to think - 17 -

they're contributing to the outcome ... it doesn't really determine anything on the ground. Believe me." "I don't believe you. I'm going to tell everyone in my battalion. Why should we fight for them when they treat us like that? I think we should all just walk away from this war!" Marthe stiffened into her professional self: "That's desertion, soldier!" "Well, perhaps those fighting this war should have a say in its outcome. Not just those shits outside the wall!" Marthe's face dropped. "We can't walk away from the fighting. We can't! If we did the war would engulf our city, our country. We're not alone in this - it's not just Bruthente. There's a war going on in every major city of Exopotamia. In exactly the same way - contained behind the Walls" "That's insane! I thought this WAS the war!" Marthe shook her head slowly. "Good God, no. This is just one struggle in a country-wide conflict. It was the best solution our scientists could come up with - sacrifice small sections of our cities in controlled conflicts surrounding the enemy - so that the rest of society can carry on as normal. It's worked well for the past 40 years." "Forty ....?" I remembered the war starting just five years ago. I refused to believe what Marthe had said. I wasn't 65, for God's sake! I knew now there was nothing for me outside the wall but ... this? It just wasn't possible that time was racing by outside while I was frozen in this pocket of destruction. The look on Marthe's face showed that she realised what she had done. She began to slide open her desk drawer quickly. "I have a letter from your father," she said quietly. I shook my head and backed out of the door: "No. No." I ran out into the night, the sounds of sporadic gunfire greeting me as the doors swung closed behind me. This was worse than insane but it was where I belonged. I didn't know what to believe any longer. But I still believed that a sniper's bullet could kill an enemy soldier. That was good enough for now. When I got back to my sniper's nest, I found Karenhe slumped forward over her rifle. I tipped her back, pulled her down. There was a bullet hole in her forehead, neat and clean. Another sniper. I wondered if anyone had voted for her death. I dragged her body down to the building's cellar. I piled some stones over her as best I could and and left her there. Poor little bitch. Then I huddled down into my sniper's position and let the dark and what - 18 -

was left of the vodka lull me into a bad, bad sleep. The dawn is a sickly, old shade of grey this morning; an uncomfortable colour, one not meant for skies. The growing light struggles to sweep it away. I was awoken a few minutes ago by something that was half a sound and half a feeling. Nothing since. I peer over the edge of the window against which my rifle rests. Nothing out of the ordinary in sight. Wait! Voices. Maybe a couple of dozen. I scramble into position, then I see them running towards me. Civilians and soldiers, Astrakhs and Peshods together. But what are they running from? The sound becomes more distinct. A slurring grind that fills the air with a huge vibration, setting my teeth on edge. Small chunks of rubble start to rattle down around me. I grab my helmet and cram it firmly on my head; I hate it because it gets in the way when I'm using my rifle. Still, I don't want to get brained. I need to keep my wits about me. Towards the brightening horizon, back behind the Astrakh front line, I see it. The dark line of the wall. It wasn't there last night. It's too close; it shouldn't be there. Not this close. Now I see more clearly. It's closing in. The black shape is drawing closer. That's what they're all running from. My hair is standing on end, my body shivers. I feel an urgent need to piss. I laugh. Good. I hope it drags the rest of the white, soulless city and its pointless people with it. I hope it pulls and distorts it and warps and pushes the buildings aside, crushing them into dust. And I hope the dust chokes all the bastards out there beyond the wall. All those ignorant scum. The shattered buildings across the way from me seem to leer with broken grins, their skulls smashed in long ago. Now they are having their revenge. All their years of recrimination and resentment haven't been for nothing, after all. We knew it was all your fault, they seem to say, and now finally you will pay. A huge cloud of dust and ashes rises from the Astrakh front line as the old railway station falls in, hammered down hard by the advance of the gargantuan wall. The cloud blocks out the struggling sun as it rolls towards me. I try not to think about what is happening behind me. I just concentrate on seeing the world - what's left of it - through my sniper's scope. The arms - 19 -

factories are probably gone. Semet's house crushed, too. Maybe she's entered her final seclusion trance. What had been a trickle of refugees now becomes a flood. A panic. As they run towards where I'm hiding, I raise my rifle. I don't even need to aim now. As a choking sensation fills my throat, I just raise the rifle and fire, dust falling heavy on my lids, closing my eyes. And I keep firing blindly as I wait for the wall to tighten around me like a noose of black stone.

- 20 -

About The Author Mark Howard Jones lives in Cardiff. He has had work published in magazines, books and on the web on both sides of the Atlantic. His novella The Garden of Doubt on the Island of Shadows is available from ISMs Press.

Against The Wall by Mark Howard Jones  

Free eBook

Against The Wall by Mark Howard Jones  

Free eBook