The front moved every night and with it moved the war. Shimmering and impenetrable, the front advanced and receded at eleven o’clock, sharp. Without care and concern it crossed birch forest and rivers alike, and split homes where it stopped. Once it froze a deer in its tracks, one side friendly, one with the enemy. Glued to the ground for the day, the deer grazed a thawed spot on the forest floor until nightfall came and the front moved again, freeing the restless animal.
Without any reason or explanation, the front appeared soon after the war began. But that was decades ago. Long enough for children to grow into adults that knew of the front’s fickle nature. Long enough, for no one to question its presence. Yet, there were still whispers on both sides. Rumours had it that an especially warm summer melted the tundra, releasing some ancient evil from the depths of the permafrost. Others figured it was a gift from the heavens, to ensure they won the war. Others still blamed aliens.
It’s a cruel, cruel joke, is what it is, Anatoly thought, perched high in the watchtower. The front was deaf to prayer, he knew this, he had prayed to it every night, many of those nights deep within enemy lines. Favouring neither side, the front carved the landscape as far as a pair of binoculars could reach, yielding to no one and to nothing. No projectile had yet to pierce it, no grenade had cracked its glistening exterior.
Anatoly wrapped the stiff wool scarf tight around his mouth and nose. Above him, the night sky lay open with all its lonely glory. A full moon pierced the darkness. He never managed to catch it, despite his better efforts, that moment when the front moved. He’d blink and it would pass, and the night would be still again. Then, in the morning, reports of the front sightings would come in and both sides would reorganize their maps to claim and relinquish territory as the front had seen fit. There was collateral, as in any war, wounded soldiers trapped behind enemy lines, unable to reach the nearest medical post, entire units cut off from their home bases.
One such jump, Anatoly’s squad got trapped behind the front for nearly a week while the front moved leisurely, never moving far enough for them to return home. For nearly a week they hid out in the forest, silent during the day in makeshift burrows in the frozen ground. Enemy boots marched above them, so close that snow would break from overhead branches and tumble in heaps. Now, it was Pyotr’s squad behind the front, trapped nearly five days. They lost half their men already. The front was sluggish again, moving mere centimeters every night, teasing and mocking.
Anatoly spotted the familiar flash of Pyotr’s rifle scope. With flashes of light they sent messages back and forth until at the stroke of eleven. Then the front would move, and they would abandon hope until the next night. Four nights now they had the same exchange.
Are you cold? Pyotr’s scope would flicker.
Are you hungry? Anatoly would flicker right back. By now, a rehearsed movement.
How many dead today?
Anatoly paused. He knew the numbers, night after night he kept them to himself. Their side was falling back and taking losses. They were losing. The front jumps weren’t helping anymore. Don’t worry, he flickered back with his scope, don’t worry about that, just get back. Nuzzling deeper into his scarf, Anatoly checked the time. Ten to eleven.
They were a mere eight-hundred meters apart. Despite the snow, either could run the distance in two minutes. Two minutes and five seconds with a rifle. Two minutes and ten seconds with a rucksack.
When the moonlight hit the front at just the right angle, the entire wall ignited with a cold fire. As far as Anatoly could see, both North and South, from the snow-covered ground to the barren sky; ablaze.
Get close to it. So close you can touch it. Come alone. Anatoly flickered his message. He had five minutes now. Five minutes to climb down from the watchtower and evade the guards. He didn’t have time for annoying explanations like, why he was abandoning his post. The war would go on regardless of whether he was at the watchtower or not. It had begun long before he was born and would rage on long after his death.
I’m coming. Anatoly flickered his last message and swung his rifle over his shoulder. He climbed down the ladder from the watchtower, two rungs at a time. Carefully sidestepping the guard on the ground, he dove into the darkness of the brush. Anatoly could make the run in two minutes and five seconds. He ran. He needed the front to move. He prayed for it to move, just enough. Just a meter.
The frigid winter air burned his lungs, echoing the fire in his legs. Anatoly came to a stop and craned his neck up. The shimmering wall reached high into the night. Please, he thought, a prayer he’d repeated a thousand times at least, please move. A single meter, that’s all I ask. On the other side of the front, a shadow approached, limping to its left side, an outline of a rifle across the shoulder. Anatoly met Pyotr’s tired gaze. He nodded. Neither said a word. Anatoly glanced down at his watch, one minute. He took a step towards the front, close enough for the shimmer to cast light along his pale face. Pyotr did the same, the glow flickered against his grey eyes.
Anatoly shut his eyes, and it turned eleven.
The front moved and with it moved the war.
A single meter. Anatoly didn’t know which way, nor did he care. Wrapped tightly in Pyotr’s arms, he didn’t care that he missed the front move again either.
A. D. Sui writes science fiction in British Columbia, Canada. She is a first-generation immigrant from Ukraine, and a queer, disabled writer. When she’s not writing, she’s busy finishing her Ph.D. at the University of Western Ontario (any day now) and getting distracted by her two dogs.
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