“... and then you push the shovel down with your foot nicely into the snow, lift and throw,” said Dmitry, illustrating the steps involved in digging a grave in the snow.
Aisha shuddered as she glanced at the motionless body fifty feet away. She wondered whether it belonged to a man or a woman, old or young. It was hard to tell with the many layers of winter clothing, the gloves and the cap.
“Let me dig for a little while,” she said to avoid thinking about the task she was involved in.
“Okay, here you go.”
Dmitry handed the shovel to Aisha and sat down on the snow nearby, breathing heavily.
“The man’s a Kazakh — in case you were wondering,” he said, lighting a cigarette.
Aisha exhaled sharply. “How can you tell?”
Dmitry put his hand into his pocket and extracted a passport and some currency notes. “I emptied his pockets while you were dilly-dallying. Not much cash here.”
“I wasn’t dilly-dallying,” said Aisha, digging the shovel forcefully into the snow. “I couldn’t find the headstone inside the tent.”
Although it was called a ‘headstone’, it was just a piece of wood used to identify the spots where the graves were located.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that,” said Dmitry, blowing smoke. “I know this must be hard for you. To witness a shooting on your first day...”
Aisha paused, resting her arm on the snow shovel. “No. It’s not hard at all. I’m Russian now. And these people,” she paused for a breath, “these people cannot be allowed to enter. It doesn’t matter to me whether he’s come from Kazakhstan or China or any other country. All I care about is keeping these intruders out. And I will do whatever it takes.”
Even though Aisha could not see Dmitry’s blue eyes behind the snow goggles, she realized that the answer pleased him.
Never — and I repeat never — let them doubt your loyalty. You know the punishment for traitors.
Aisha recalled her father’s words as she kept shovelling the snow.
Aisha’s family was one of the last families to be allowed past the Ural Mountains and settle in Russia. That was five years ago, in 2080. By then, the land area of northern Russia was already filled to capacity by the millions who had travelled northwards to escape the rapidly rising temperatures across the equatorial and temperate regions.
Three hours later, sitting outside their tent, Aisha poured two cups of coffee from the thermos as Dmitry tore the packet of biscuits with his teeth.
“It’s great that these gloves are padded otherwise we’d have blisters on our hands by now,” said Dmitry, stuffing a biscuit into his mouth.
“So, is Sofia’s wedding date fixed?” asked Aisha to change the topic.
“Yeah, didn’t I tell you? It’s next month,” said Dmitry, sipping his coffee. “Man, I’m the next in line after her. My father would want me married in the next six months.”
“At least you’ll get to live in the city with your family,” said Aisha.
“Yeah, I think I’m done with my time in the Border Security. How old are you?” he said, suddenly looking at Aisha with interest.
“Um... twenty-two,” she said. “These biscuits are tasty. My mother bakes these oatmeal raisin cookies. Baked. Back when everything was easily available.”
“You mean when you lived in Kazakhstan?” he said.
“More coffee?” said Aisha, filling his cup again.
Dmitry stared at her for a long moment. “You know it’s really hard to find a nice girl to marry these days. My mother wants me to marry a proper Russian girl, but the city is swarming with so many people — most of them are foreigners and only some of them speak Russian — I find it hard to even spot a Russian girl. Sometimes, I wish the government had closed doors to outsiders earlier. At least we’d have some breathing space in our cities,” he said, emptying his cup.
Aisha refrained from pointing out that she could be the one getting shot if the government had closed its doors on outsiders five years ago. And where could these people go if not towards the Arctic and the Antarctic regions? Global sea levels had risen considerably over the past several decades, shrinking the land area on earth. Hurricanes had increasingly become more potent and frequent, killing millions of people. Most of the earth’s land area had become uninhabitable due to the awfully high temperatures and the extreme weather conditions.
Even in the Polar Regions, the snow cover was rapidly shrinking. The thawing of the permafrost (the soil that remains frozen year-round and locks up organic material like dead plants) was causing the organic material to decompose, releasing carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide (all greenhouse gases), and leading to landslides and sudden land collapses. Many incidents of thawing permafrost releasing long-buried microbes had been reported in northern Europe, as in 2079 when a cache of buried deer carcasses thawed and caused an outbreak of anthrax.
In short, the world was going to hell.
Aisha realized she was amongst the lucky ones who had made it safely to the Arctic Circle while the Russians were still allowing foreigners to enter and stay.
“Let’s finish the task?” she said, rising.
With the icy wind freezing their faces, Dmitry and Aisha slid down the snow slope to the barbed wire fence where the body lay.
“Let’s turn him over. It will be easy to drag him,” said Dmitry and turned over the body without waiting for an answer.
“I’ll get the legs,” Aisha said quickly, wanting to be away from the man’s face. Because to look at his face would make him human and her actions abhorrent.
They dragged the body towards the freshly dug grave, passing by several other graves and leaving a trail of red on white.
“You shoot the next one,” said Dmitry as they dropped the body into the grave.
Aisha nodded. Denying a direct command from a senior officer was not an option.
“Have you thought about marriage?” Dmitry asked casually as he began shovelling the snow into the grave.
“No, not really,” said Aisha. With the passage of time, lying had become easier for her.
The longing for a cherished dream tugged at her heartstrings. How many times had she envisioned herself in a red and gold wedding dress with the gem-studded sukele — the conical-shaped hat studded with gold and silver coins, pearls, corals, feathers and tassels — over her head and Alikhan lifting her veil to the tunes of the dombra.
When she was ascending the Ural Mountains with her family, Aisha was almost hoping that they’d be denied entry into Russia and would have to return home, back to Alikhan, her childhood friend and the love of her life.
One of the reasons Aisha had opted for a job with Border Security was she was hopeful that maybe, just maybe, one day Alikhan and his family would arrive at the barbed wire fence. Oh, the sweet joy of seeing him again! She would run into his arms and cling to him and tell him she loved him. The thought was irresistibly delicious.
“Why are you smiling?” said Dmitry, handing her the shovel.
“Nothing,” she said.
“What were you thinking about?” he pressed.
“We finally got electricity last week. It’s just two hours a day, but it’s better than nothing,” she said.
With most of the world’s surviving population cramped in just 8% of the land area on earth, basic amenities like water and electricity had become scarce. Aisha and her family of five lived in a small 800 square feet apartment in a building that housed hundreds of other families who had arrived from Kazakhstan, China, India, Pakistan and other Asian countries over the past decade.
Most of the surviving European population had found new homes in the Scandinavian countries that had initially been more charitable in welcoming foreigners but had recently shut their doors to outsiders. Those who were unfortunate to be stuck in the temperate regions had nowhere to go. Life in the equatorial regions had died several years ago, killing one-third of the animal species and half of the plant species on earth.
Dmitry puffed on his cigarette. “Have you considered how much your life would improve if you married a Russian man? And not just yours, your family’s too.”
Aisha did not like where this conversation was going. “Uh, frankly I haven’t thought about marriage. I need to keep working to support my family,” she said shovelling snow on the dead man’s face.
“The best thing you can do to support your family is marrying a Russian man,” said Dmitry. “You realize you and your family will be recognized as Russian citizens. Better housing, amenities. Your father will no longer have to work in the fields. He’ll get a desk job. My father will see to it.”
Aisha froze. She turned to Dmitry slowly.
He was already standing close to her, uncomfortably close. He took the shovel from her hands and dropped it on the snow. Holding her hand, he said, “Aisha Sultanov, I have loved you since the first day I saw you. You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever met. You’re a little weird, I admit, but I can live with it,” he said with a chuckle. “Will you marry me?”
“I’m literally standing over the dead body of a man you killed,” Aisha blurted out.
“It means that you’ll be marrying a real man who can kill, who can kill for you. I wanted to surprise you so I just sprung the question at the least romantic moment. So, tell me,” he said, squeezing her hands.
Aisha closed her eyes. Rejecting a Russian man’s proposal was as good as inviting death to your family table. Society would see it as a tremendous insult.
How dare she refuse to marry a Russian man when it’s the Russians who gave her family a new home?
But how could she marry a man she barely knew, whom she hardly liked? Dmitry could be charming and caring when he wanted something, but he was a hard man who was no stranger to violence and cruelty. How could she spend her life with him when the idea disgusted her?
If she rejected his proposal or even asked for some time to think, which would also be seen as an insult, Aisha was sure Dmitry would exact revenge on her family. Would she have been better off living in her own county where she’d have at least some free will of her own? For the past two years, her mother had been badgering her to marry a man from their community before a Russian man took a liking to her. But how could she marry anyone other than Alikhan?
Aisha opened her eyes. She gulped. “Yes.”
The squeal of joy could be heard from a distance as Dmitry lifted his bride-to-be in his arms and spun her round and round.
Three Months Later
Aisha gulped the last of her coffee and peered through her night vision binoculars at the barbed wire fence for any sign of intruders. It was ten minutes past one and too early to make a move. She’d have to wait at least another forty-five minutes before she could risk going into the tent and fetching the rucksack concealed in her sleeping bag. The canned beans, the dried fruits and nuts and the water bottles would only last her only a few days, during which, Aisha hoped she’d reach the nearest village.
She retrieved the hand-written note from her pocket and read it for the tenth time.
My dearest Dmitry,
Please forgive me for going away in the middle of the night. It hurts me so much that as your future wife I have nothing to offer your family. When my family left Kazakhstan, we left in a hurry and most of my family’s savings were left behind. I want to repay your kindness and generosity and the only way to do it is by letting you go so that you can marry a Russian girl. My family does not know about my decision. I wish you a happy and prosperous life ahead.
Will it be enough, she wondered? Is there any chance Dmitry could have sensed her repulsion for him over the past three months? No, definitely not. She was a good actor but she couldn’t pretend to love him anymore. Since their engagement, her life had become a living hell and she couldn’t live this way forever. No. She would leave tonight.
As she replaced the note in her pocket, her fingers brushed against the MP-443 Grach Pistol, which she intended to carry with her.
Out of habit, Aisha picked up the night vision binoculars and gazed through them.
An intruder. A man. A tall man dressed in a black coat with snow boots.
Aisha recognized the boots. The man was a Kazakh.
“Raise your head, show your face,” she murmured.
The man continued walking towards the barbed wire fence with his head lowered. His gait indicated exhaustion. Aisha wondered how long the man had been walking for as she adjusted the AN-94 Nikonov Assault Rifle. A surprise for Dmitry when he wakes up. At least he’ll know she did her job until the last minute. Maybe that would take the edge off his anger.
Over the past three months, Aisha had shot and killed twenty-eight people, among them five women and two children. She preferred not to think about the morality of it. They were just the unlucky ones and she had no choice in the matter.
Aisha looked through the night vision binoculars once again. The man paused for a breath and raised his head, wiping the sweat on his face.
The deep-set brown eyes, the thick black eyebrows and the angular face gave him away.
The man she had been waiting for had come to her. Breathing heavily, Aisha continued gazing at him as he resumed walking towards the barbed wire fence.
What perfect timing! All she had to do was leave with him. She’d have to leave her rucksack behind. It was not worth the risk of waking up Dmitry. If Dmitry realized the actual reason she was leaving, he would follow them and hunt them down...
“Is that someone you know?”
Aisha froze on hearing Dmitry’s voice. He had woken up and silently emerged from the tent.
She turned around slowly. “Of course not. Why aren’t you sleeping? I’ll... I’ll handle it. Don’t worry.”
In the dark, it was hard to see the expression on Dmitry’s face, but Aisha could tell it wasn’t a pleasant one.
“Do it then. Now,” he said.
Aisha’s mind was racing and yet, she could not articulate a single coherent sentence.
“What’s wrong?” demanded Dmitry.
Aisha could only stare at Dmitry while struggling to breathe. She couldn’t let Alikhan die.
Before she could respond, Dmitry lunged forward and pushed her aside. He grabbed the AN-94 Nikonov Assault Rifle and took aim.
Aisha’s hand flew into her pocket. She retrieved the pistol and shot Dmitry in the head.
As his lifeless body slumped onto the white snow, smearing it with red, Aisha broke down into vehement sobs. She drew her knees close to her body and lowered her head.
They would surely punish her and her entire family for killing Dmitry. They’d all be lined up and executed by the firing squad, even her little brothers. How could she have been so selfish? How could she have endangered her family for her own happiness? Why couldn’t she have just married Dmitry?
Aisha imagined the look of horror in the eyes of her mother when she realized what her daughter had done. Aisha’s father would maintain a stony silence and retreat into his shell. Her little brothers, those innocent children, they’d have to die for no fault of their own. How could she have let it happen?
She looked up to see Alikhan. He was standing barely ten feet away and yet she felt no joy.
“Aisha, is it you?” He stumbled forward, a shadow of his former self.
Aisha stood up shakily, the pistol still in her hand.
“My darling, I’ve missed you so much.” Alikhan stopped as his gaze fell on Dmitry’s bloody body.
Aisha’s whole world was spinning and through the haze, she could see a way, the only way, to save her family’s life.
“I love you so much,” said Aisha with tears in her eyes.
As she lifted the pistol and aimed it at Alikhan, she saw the terror in his eyes.
Alikhan stumbled backwards and fell down.
“No!” he cried.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
As she pulled the trigger, Aisha realized this was only half her punishment for murdering twenty-eight innocent people. The other half would be pretending all her life to be mourning the wrong man.