Bourbon Penn 12

The Front

by Daniel Ausema

It was a simple enough order: find the general or commander or someone in charge and deliver the encoded chip. Corporal Tullis ducked out of the command tent into a night filled with the tracer fire of anti-aircraft guns and the scream of surface-to-air missiles. He held his hand over the pocket containing the chip and ran toward the north. He didn’t know where to find a general, but north was the road that led along the front. Surely he would find someone who knew something.

An idle tank, useless since the fuel supplies had stopped arriving, loomed beside the dirt road. Soldiers leaned against it, their faces lit by the burning tips of their cigarettes. Tullis approached them.

“I need someone to accompany me along the front. I have a message that needs extra protection.”

“Not us, man,” one answered. “We got a job here.”

Yeah, Tullis thought, to kill as many of the others as they could before dying themselves. That had been his job once. He could have tried pulling rank, demanded someone take him, but discipline wasn’t exactly tight here, and he didn’t want to make a fool of himself. He could protect the message without help. It had been given to him after all.

He left without answering, and the tank disappeared behind him.

His eyes scanned the roadside, and his fingers clenched his .45, but his thoughts wandered. The message was of the highest importance, he’d been assured, even if it was given only to a single soldier to carry. It was a message to end the war, intelligence that would see the fighting finally cease if it only found the right hands. A message that could send him home.

Home. He didn’t actually remember home, but he could recall a time when he remembered home. A memory twice removed. The actual memories had been burned away in the bunker.

The tank appeared ahead again. Was the road going in circles? Had he been so distracted by thoughts of the mission that he’d turned around? Again he saw the soldiers gathered around, lit by cigarettes and the flashes of tracers. Tullis sped up to get past, looking away from them as if that would prevent their mocking laughs at his getting lost. At least he wouldn’t see their leers. Soon he was swallowed by the darkness.

Tullis slowed down. There was no way he could keep up that pace all night. The recovery time in the field hospital had killed his endurance. The anti-aircraft guns faded behind, replaced by the sounds of actual aircraft flying low. He dove into the brush beside the road as the sound brought him back to another night, farther south along the front.

The memories of that night were fuzzy, as was so much in this war. They had been in a bunker. Tullis was adjusting his protective mask when suddenly a noise passed overhead and the room was lit with a white light so bright he could only see the edges of it. The last he remembered was a fear that the light would burn him. No, burn him wasn’t right … but change him somehow. Something he no longer understood. He remembered thinking that the protective lining of the bunker had failed and that now his body might attack itself.

And then the hospital, and everything had seemed vaguely archaic. The memories he had were all tinged with that soundless fire from the bunker.

Planes still passed overhead, but Tullis pulled himself out of the brush and set off again along the front, searching.

When the dark shape of the tank appeared a third time, he thought he must have entered an impossible labyrinth. He panicked and ran. He would have to leave the circling road, strike off along the front in search of an answer. But then he noticed something: this tank had no soldiers around it. As he neared, he made out dark shapes on the ground and the smoke rising from a hole in the tank, obscuring the sky beyond. The smell of melted metal filled his nostrils, and he was reassured. All was well with the world.

The sounds of artillery cannon grew closer as he went. No more tanks appeared, and he breathed easier, knowing that he hadn’t been going crazy, that each of those tanks really was different. Lightning flashed and the big guns that lined the front answered, revealing trees beside the road as dark shapes backlit by the harsh light. Tullis wondered if the trees really existed or if the light merely created the silhouettes of trunks and interwoven branches for effect, the trees themselves ceasing to exist as darkness returned.

An hour must have passed, and the road led on, unchanging.

Machine-gun fire rang out through the night, and a curve in the road brought Tullis in view of a group of soldiers, fighting fiercely, firing into the night. His left hand crept to his pocket, felt the outline of the metal cylinder inside, guarding its fragile magnetic tape.

The incoming gunfire seemed to slow a bit, and Tullis took advantage of the break to run, crouching, behind the nearest sandbag barrier. Three soldiers sat where four might easily have fit. Only after he was crouched beside them did Tullis notice a fourth soldier lying prone beside the sandbags, his arm and half his torso missing. The living soldiers barely spared Tullis a glance.

Every time he tried to talk to one of them, the soldier would twist around and fire shots into the dark. One took a grenade, pulled the pin with his teeth and heaved it over the sandbags toward the enemy. That seemed pointless, since the enemy gunfire seemed too distant for a grenade to do anything. And yet it struck Tullis as just like old movies, though when he tried to examine that thought, he realized that he couldn’t remember any movies. He half expected the ground around them to be muddy and the skies spitting a ceaseless rain, but where that image came from he wasn’t sure. The muffled thud of bullets striking the sandbags punctuated his attempts to talk.

Finally he was able to ask his question as one soldier pulled new ammo from a large box in front of Tullis.

“Do you know where the commander is, private?” He had to shout even from so close. “I need to find someone in charge.”

At first the man merely shrugged as he dug about in the box, but as Tullis kept looking at him, he shifted a bit, glancing at Tullis and back at the ammo. Finally he pointed with his barrel, a vague wave that might have indicated anything from along the front in the direction he’d been going to inward away from the fighting. “That way,” he mumbled.

Then he was back to fighting, but he shouted over his shoulder, “We’re better off without commanders, sir.” Tullis slunk away from the fighting until it disappeared behind a low hill. A helicopter whirred low overhead, quickly toward the line. Enemies fleeing after a raid, or friendlies heading to offer support, he wondered which.

After that the road led him farther from the front itself, though never so far that the sounds of fighting were absent. The night dragged on as he hustled along, expecting at any minute to come across more fighting or enemy troops. Nothing happened in what seemed like hours of razor-edge tension.

Still no natural light, but the flashes of war lit the eastern sky beyond the front when Tullis finally came down to a dry streambed where a small camp was set up. He had nearly stumbled into the camp itself before a voice said, “Stop!”

He hadn’t heard anything behind him, but suddenly his arms were held tightly and pulled to the small of his back. He could hear the click of guns aiming at him out of darkness.

“Did you find the thread in the labyrinth?” The voice that spoke had the slightest hint of an accent … or maybe just a resonance that had disappeared from most voices these days. Once again Tullis felt a flash of a memory of a movie, but all he could see was the grainy black and white before the memory vanished.

He almost answered that he didn’t know anything about a labyrinth when suddenly the code response was there in his mind, as if given him by the secret message in his pocket. Lake. “I took it to the Mirror Lake.”

The weapons were lowered, and some of the soldiers drifted back to the camp. Other voices, though, added their own questions about who he was and why he’d come and where his ID was before Tullis could finally answer. “I have an important message here.” He reached his hand out, then realized his ID was on the tags around his neck. Why did that surprise him?

The sergeant pulled at the chain around his neck and examined them. “Looks authentic. Come over here into the camp. We’ll need to ask a few questions.”

They walked down into what was a much larger camp than Tullis had suspected from the road. He held the dog tags, fingering their abrupt edges, and wondered why he’d thought his ID would be embedded in the back of his hand. Then he thought of the password challenge and response. Lake? How had he known that? Something wasn’t right here.

They sat him down on some rough benches in the dim light of a small lamp. He immediately brought his left hand to his pocket to assure himself that the small tube, like those carried on pigeons’ legs, was still secure. That message was too important to risk loss or damage. It represented his release from war, the end of war.

Despite the noise of battle, Tullis saw soldiers lying at the edge of the lamplight, fast asleep. He watched them, fascinated, as they stirred and snored and snuggled back into the ground for every precious minute of sleep.

“You’re a messenger? Who’s the message for?” The speaker was a fairly large man and spoke with a voice of great authority. He handed Tullis a bit of rough bread that he gratefully stuffed into his mouth.

Tullis spoke around the bite of bread. “Someone who knows what’s going on, sir. A general, a commanding officer, anyone still in contact with central command.”

“And you know where to find one? Where are you headed?” The sergeant’s words came out with an urgency that surprised Tullis. The man leaned forward, intent on the answer.

“I … I guess I don’t really know, sir. I’m asking along the way. That’s all my field sergeant instructed me.”

The man leaned back again, seeming suddenly smaller. The hungry light in his eyes flickered and died. “We can’t help you. We haven’t heard from anyone in command for … months at least. We just keep fighting according to our last orders.”

Tullis nodded. “It’s the same back down the line where I was.”

The sergeant seemed about to add something more, but was interrupted by the scream of approaching shells from enemy artillery. The sergeant swore and jumped to his feet as the other soldiers swarmed the area. He shouted to Tullis, “You’d best head out from here. And …” He glanced at the soldiers surrounding them and bit back the words he’d been about to say, but the plea remained in his eyes.

Tullis nodded. “I will. Once I find someone.”

As Tullis left the dry streambed, a small plane flew low, its engines screaming, and dropped cluster bombs across the area. Other planes followed close behind, but none came as far as the road itself. Before the sounds of the planes had faded behind him, the road dropped down into what must have been a swamp.

Tullis did his best to follow the road, but no light shone to guide him through. He found himself wishing for grenade fires and the flashes of bullets to light his way. The mud deepened. He knew he couldn’t be on the road anymore, but he had no choice. He plunged ahead. Soon he could only proceed in a low crawl. When he stood, he sank too deep into the mire. He did his best to keep his weight spread out and inched forward, if forward it was.

Mud seeped into every part of him, and he prayed to the gods of war that the oilskin envelope protecting his secret letter would survive the grime and filth.

Time in that swamp seemed to flow differently. It had been night when he left the command tent, and it was still night what seemed days later. He thought of stopping, of just sinking down through the mud and resting there beneath the world.

But he had his mission, and the promise of an end to this war, even if that promise was sounding hollow by then. He refused to die so undignified, face-down and buried in mud. Images of his comrades, of the exploding bunker, of waking to debris and guilt flooded his mind. They were free of war now, but not really. Surely the battlefield dead relived the war eternally. And so would he, dead in the mud, his body repeatedly pounded by shells, cast up by bomb craters, pushed around by tanks …

He forced himself to keep crawling.

At one point in the night — how much later he wasn’t sure — planes flew low overhead. He could hear the thrum of their prop engines and the hollow pop of machine-gun fire as a dogfight unfolded overhead. But even when one plane exploded into fire and disappeared closer to the front, the light did nothing to show Tullis his surroundings.

He knew that if he stopped now, he’d go mad. The only thing keeping him from that final step into insanity was the focus he had to give to the physical aspect of moving onward. Maybe when he finally had to stop, he’d be too tired to think about it.

When dawn’s cold light finally crept over the swamp, Tullis saw that he’d left the road — as he’d expected — but not by much. He also saw that he had nearly reached a rise where the swamp ended. Down slope, where a stream drained off the swamp’s water, lay the front itself, looking almost as muddy as the swamp did. Tullis crawled up the rise and stood to get a better view of the fighting.

Trenches cut through the open land, wounds in the earth that would never heal. The muddy stretches he had seen from below were dwarfed by vast expanses of dusty, dry land. Across the middle curled endless coils of barbed wire, a crown of thorns for the wasteland. The sound of gunfire was steady but irregular, not a constant stream of bullets but repeated enough to give the sense of some staccato drumbeat in a rhythm too complex for Tullis to follow.

He watched for many minutes, seeing the men scurry about below him. To the north he saw the conflagrations of trench-clearing flame-throwers. Directly before him the fighting consisted of massive machine guns which frequently fell silent so their chambers didn’t overheat. Nearby, small teams of gunmen surrounded lone grenadiers. The shots of pistols and rifles punctuated the explosions of the grenades. Farther south, troops advanced with lighter machine guns, hopping from trench to trench and tearing through the barbed wire.

He could sense the thrill, the excitement that fear inspired in the soldiers below. Every step could be the last, and so every step was precious and terrifying.

A few tanks lumbered toward the line here and there — he recognized a D1 to his left and several M1917s directly before him — and far to the north Tullis thought he caught a glimpse of men riding horses into battle. Wood and canvas biplanes flew noisily overhead. All the sounds mixed together into something different from what he’d known so far to the south and yet the same, like a tiny variation on an established theme.

It was the music of the battlefield, and Tullis longed to go down and dance.

This was what he was meant to do, to fight on the front among comrades, not skulk behind the lines like a coward. He stepped forward toward the line. He thought of his old comrades, of the fighting they had done together, the enemy lines they had cleared and infiltrated.

A group of grenadiers drew his attention. They were stationary at the time, having cleared out a section of trench that appeared to be switching sides regularly. They used the stop to rest while lobbing grenades ahead toward where there might be enemy trenches. Tullis could see enemy troops closing in on them from neighboring trenches, but the thrown grenades were going in the wrong direction to protect the grenadiers. The soldiers would die unless Tullis got down there to save them.

He began down the hill in a crouch, the whole time seeing his own comrades in the distant figures in the trenches, facing the same doom they had. A bullet struck the hillside at his feet, and he dove to the side behind a large stone that offered small protection.

When he’d found his breath, he wiggled his body forward to peer from around the rock. The grenadiers were still below him and lobbing their grenades, tearing apart the empty trenches before them. The enemy troops still advanced to one side. But as he inched forward, wriggling down the slope, his clothing caught on a briar. He yanked away, but as he did a tearing sound came from his uniform. It was not the sound of cloth tearing. His hand flew to his pocket where the message lay, wrapped in oilskin. He drew it out and examined the tear. It was small, and the oilskin had done its job in the muck of the swamp, but he’d have to be careful now to keep it dry. He folded the edge beside the tear to protect it as well as he could.

He glanced north. Fortifications topped the hillside. A large mortar fired repeatedly. If anyone on this battlefield knew where to find someone in charge, it would be there.

Tullis hesitated. Images of his comrades, of the soldiers he’d spent so much time with, flashed through his mind. He pictured them — their names forgotten — play punching in the barracks, hiding pictures and stealing letters from sweethearts, sneaking up to scare each other at the urinals and all the other silliness, the slapstick bravado as they tried to take their minds from the killing and getting killed of war. He saw the serious faces and careful rituals — touching a gun here, walking and turning just there, yawning over and over and just sitting calmly and rock-faced — the intense focus they put on at the start of a job. And then came the drunk relief after a battle as the living returned to celebrate life with drink and lovers and wild gambling. Then he saw those friends, long dead, in the figures below him, minutes from death.

But his fingers, still deep in the pocket of his uniform, played with the message he’d been entrusted with. He thought of the promise of victory, empty as it had seemed in the night. He thought of the madness racing to overtake him if he stopped or tried to understand the war all around. Then he abandoned those doomed soldiers and scurried across the hillside toward the mortar. Bullets pinged off the rocks around him sending puffs of shattered stone into the air, but nothing hit him.

He was panting when he dropped behind the barricade, but a soldier immediately handed him a large package of something. Tullis merely looked at it, wondering if it was powder or ammunition or something else until a lieutenant yelled at him.

“Come on, get moving we have orders here.”

“Orders? Is there a general here giving new orders?”

“New orders? No, they haven’t changed in months. What we do is too important to the war effort. Why change that? Now get that over to the back of the mortar.”

Tullis headed for the cannon itself, a monstrosity on two giant wheels. He could hear the booms of the smaller mortars down in the trenches below until he brought his package to those loading this mortar. The explosion deafened him, and even after it was done and the soldiers had reloaded, all he could hear was a shrill buzz. If the soldiers had anything else to add, any other knowledge to help him, he knew he wouldn’t be able to hear it.

Tullis did his best not to get in their way as he made for the north side of the fortifications and headed up the hill and back to the road. For a long time he looked across the road away from the front while his hearing returned, wanting to shout into the emptiness, “Where are you?” But it made no sense to leave the road where he wouldn’t even have the tracks of tanks and marching soldiers to guide him. Somewhere along the front the generals must be that close to the fighting. All he could do was keep looking.

He seemed to walk for days, though afterward he couldn’t recall the cycles of night and day, couldn’t remember lying down to sleep or even eating. MREs, a part of him he’d nearly forgotten wanted to call them, but he knew that voice for a lost one of his past. The madness caught up with him sometime in there, but he made no effort to fight it or deny it or run away. He simply stopped trying to understand, and then it seemed that the madness passed him by. Or maybe it possessed him and he no longer had enough sanity to recognize that.

At one time the message in his pocket became a bottle of wine — and he wondered if the message was encoded in the label or somehow a part of the wine; it became a bouquet of flowers, the proportions of the different varieties conveying the message; it became the alternating colors of threads that hemmed the pocket of his uniform. But most of the time it was paper of some sort, paper in strips and paper with holes and simple, unassuming pages torn from a book.

As he walked, he passed through the great armies of history. He saw cavalry sweep in on enemy flanks, their revolvers blazing. He saw soldiers advancing amid cannon fire, their bayonets pointing defiantly out. Rank after rank of infantry passed him by, marching to the front, to their deaths, with muskets over their shoulders.

Nowhere did he meet a commander. Nowhere was there anyone who knew more than his own unchanging commands.

The road finally led Tullis into a rough landscape of rocky hills and narrow canyons. The sounds of battle carried easily across the hard land, but closer sounds seemed muffled. At least that was the excuse Tullis told himself when the strange man came within a few meters of him before Tullis noticed.

He was the first person Tullis had seen not in uniform since he’d begun his quest. Instead of the uniform, he wore a simple green shirt, clean and barely frayed, and light tan trousers. His dark hair showed flecks of gray, and his face was smoothly shaved. He was barefoot and drew circles in the dirt with his toes while he stood there.

The stranger spoke first. “This is a strange road to travel, soldier.”

Tullis hesitated. Should he tell this man, likely a civilian, what he sought? He’d had no problem explaining the situation to other soldiers in uniform, but he had no idea who this man might be. Finally he answered, “And strange for you too, sir. Why do you walk so near the war?”

“All roads pass near the war. I am merely another pilgrim looking for something to catch my fancy.”

When Tullis made no answer, a knowing look came into the stranger’s eyes and he continued. “But you seem to be looking for something more definite than I am.”

Tullis decided then that it didn’t really matter if he told the man the truth. He stuck his hand into his pocket and fingered the long, thin strip of leather there. He could feel the outlines of letters branded into it. “I’m looking for someone in charge. A general or commander.”

The man stopped drawing in the dirt with his toes, swept away whatever he’d drawn, and looked directly at Tullis. “Come with me a moment down the road. I’d like to show you something.”

The man was pointing the way Tullis had been heading anyway, so he shrugged and followed. Soon they reached the crest of a hill, and below them stretched a plain full of soldiers fighting. Tullis scanned the area for any signs of a command position.

“You won’t find any commanders here. As far as you go along this plain, the war continues, but you’ve guessed that now, haven’t you?”

Even at that height above the plain, Tullis could hear the clash of swords, the screams of the dying.

“And wherever you go, you’ll find no one who knows more, only soldiers following orders they barely remember receiving.”

Tullis tried to remember the bunker so long ago, tried to remember when he’d last seen anyone in charge, but all he remembered was the explosion that killed his comrades. The explosion that had only spared him.

The stranger broke into his thoughts, his words now sounding harsh and bitter. “So whatever top secret code or plea for help or perfectly crafted message you carry there, you’re too late.” Without another word, the man disappeared into the rugged hills behind Tullis.

The knowing bitterness in that speech made Tullis try to call after him. “Wait! Were you a general once? Do you know anything about this war?” But the civilian was gone, and once more Tullis’s questions went unanswered.

He stared across the fields of war and tried to decide what to do.

Had he really been promised victory for delivering the message? Even the meeting had now become hazy in his mind, as if the effects of the fire in the bunker were stretching out and burning away more recent memories. Or had the promise been different? More … or perhaps less than total victory. Peace.

He pulled out the long strip of leather and examined it. A jumble of letters ran up and down its length. He spent an hour there above the clash of battle, wrapping the leather around sticks of different sizes, thin and thick. Each time, he imagined the letters forming the perfect message, and each time he could well believe that this was it, that around this stick the letters finally made sense. In the end, he shoved the leather back into his pocket, deciding that the possible meanings were infinite. He would never know the truth, and he turned his back on the front in frustration. But he did not run away, like he thought he might. What mattered was not that he understood, but that he deliver it to someone who could decipher it.

And if no generals or commanders existed on this side of the front, he would have to cross over and search there. If the message could end the war, it could end the war for both sides, no matter who received it.

Tullis climbed down to the field below.

He moved beside the tightly packed phalanxes with interlocking shields, ducked out of the way of charging horsemen with their small, quick bows, and watched in curiosity as chariots bounced past, speeding toward the front. In all of it he was never injured, never hit by a stray arrow or swing of a sword, as if something protected him among the chaos. The sounds constantly changed, and yet Tullis soon found that at a deeper level they were all the same, every sound a part of the music of war, ultimately no different from the scream and whine of guns and missiles, the crash and bang of mortars and grenades.

As he crossed the front, in that no-man’s land between the two infinite armies, a single bullet struck Tullis in the foot and he dropped to the muddy ground. The pain was intense and for several minutes distracted him from the question of where a bullet had come from on this battlefield so far from the firearms of the south. By the time the pain had receded, he decided that it didn’t matter. In the end all battlefields were the same.

He felt for the message in his pocket, hoping the mud hadn’t harmed it. Inside he found a bewildering tangle of strings, each tied in a careful series of intricate knots. It was not a message mud could ever harm.

He hobbled to his feet and made his way through the other side of the front, where he found the same armies as before, reflected as if in a mirror. He hobbled through the ranks of speeding horses and chariots, past the marching soldiers and screaming warriors until he reached the far side of the fighting. Here he could see no command positions, but as on the other side, a road ran behind the front. He turned south and resumed his limping search.

And the coded message in his pocket, the labyrinthine missive to end all war, began again to change.

A writer, runner, reader, parent, and teacher, Daniel Ausema has had short stories and poems in many publications, including Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Diabolical Plots, as well as earlier issues of Bourbon Penn. He is also the creator of the steampunk-fantasy serial fiction project Spire City, which recently wrapped up its final season. He lives in Colorado, at the foot of the Rockies.