Untitled (Dialogue Under Pressure)

The cacophony of black, coughing, hulking beetle-like machines bristling with weapons and troops in the heat of bloodlust were finally passing away. The ground rumbled and shook as they ascended the ridge; they were so close at one point that the two Soldiers hugging the floor of the tower, praying that they hadn't been seen, could hear the enemy shouting orders to one another. The younger of the two opened his eyes only once and when he did, he swore that he could see the very grit and dust on the naked concrete floor bounce and dance in time with the enemy's passing. Soon enough the roars and rumblings were behind them, the advancing machines of death were but dots on the plain to the north inside the broken perimeter, their dust and smoke caught and dissipated by the breeze, their clatter joining with the greater backdrop of fighting beyond their field of view. Soon enough the only sound that they heard was the alert siren at the top of the tower.

The elder of them got up and made his way to the window, being careful to stay in the shadows. He peeked for a moment or two and then was fully in shadow again.

"I think, we'll be alright, they've bigger problems to deal with than we."

The younger of them, still on the floor, was spread eagled, his cheek to the grit, eyes still closed, breathing. The elder looked back once at him as he moved to the west wall. Using his knife to cut the cable that fed the bleating siren, it's wailing winding down and mercifully dying on the wind. Then they were wrapped in silence.

The elder took up his toppled stool, placing it by the south window, and continued his observations of the lower plain and the enemy massing there. They looked like ants from his vantage, and he feared that their luck wouldn't hold up to the test the next time they passed.

The elder looked again to his comrade on the floor and finally said, "Can't lie there all day, you know."

The younger didn't say anything, but he had at least opened his eyes now and appeared to be studying a pockmark in the floor with some intent.

"Are you here?" The elder said, moving over to the younger and looking down at him.

"Do I have to be?" He managed to say through slack mouth, his eyes still on the cracked divot in the floor. The elder squatted down and offering a hand, said, "There is no other place you can be."

The younger sighed, and waving off the hand, got up. He looked the elder straight in the eye and said, "Next one that comes through – we're dead men."

"The thought had crossed my mind."

At that, as if the tower heard them, the floor beneath their feet took on another a degree or two of angle. The younger swore and the elder's face betrayed his own bravery for a moment, showing just as much worry written beneath. Both waited for the floor to take on an impossible cant, to send them crashing down onto the ground.

But that didn't happen. The tower's compromised beams and stanchions, its steel and concrete legs that had been sunk into the earth on the slope of the ridge from the plain below onto the plain above, still held – for now.

The Soldiers sighed and looked at each other.

The younger nodded his head, his brow rising in time, and said, "We're gonna die in this tower."

The elder looked away, not because he knew what the younger said to be true, he still didn't want to give away that he believed it too.

His eye caught sight of the radio in its cradle, an old thing, but suited to its singular task of receiving and transmitting; it's one power indicator, small and green, stared back letting him know that it was still functioning.

The cable connecting the radio to the antennae had parted from an errant round that had nicked off the side of the tower, the radio was gagged, quite useless. The elder picked up the end from the radio and looking to the south window, but not out through it lest a wandering eye spy him, said to the younger, "You're a Signalier, right?"

The younger didn't answer, and the elder was starting to get tired of the uncaring face that his fellow Soldier was projecting.

"That box can't transmit without someone fixing that cable."

The younger shook his head, but before he resigned himself to his fate by either waiting to die or taking matters into his own hands by maybe opening the hatch in the floor, his feet taking the empty space created by the rocket hours before that the stairs in their ever winding spiral to the door and the ground below had once occupied, and plummeting to his death, the elder asked him again, "You're a Signalier?"

"I was."

"I need you – they need you," referring to the comrades behind them. "We've got to warn them where they're coming from."

The younger smiled, "I think they already know." He looked again at the handle for the iron hatch in the floor and thought of stepping into it again.

"You could do it, though?"

"Yeah," Breathing in. "Yeah, I could."

The elder reached behind his back to his belt and pulled out a compact multi-tool. It looked like a round, silver idol in his hand.

"You can do it."

The younger accepted the offering by the elder and went to the radio to take up the end of the cable, the lifeline, and set about cutting and peeling back the insulation to expose the wires.

The elder picked up the younger's weapon off the floor and placed it against the rounded wall. He righted a fallen stool and sat on it in the shadow by the south window again and continued his watch.

The younger had taken to speaking to himself again, a habit that the elder noticed he would do in times of stress.

"… stayed in Ccorin."

"What's that?" The elder asked, keeping his gaze on the line of mountains in the distance and the crawling, beetles massing there. He thought on his wife and child back home.

The younger spat and said, "I said, I should've stayed back home instead of joining up. It was a hellhole, but it was our hellhole."

The elder already knew the story but let the younger talk anyway.

"Had a good job – not the best job – but Jen's dad died, and I had to take care of her. How did I know that this would happen?"

"You did what you are supposed to do – you took care of your own. That's all that we can do."

The younger shook his head. "Not infantry, I thought to myself, it isn't infantry. Thought I could learn a trade."

"And it's a good trade, radios and all of that. I couldn't do that." The elder sniffed, the smoke in the stairwell below suddenly strong again in his nostrils. "You'll make a living when you return."


The younger moved to the east window that the cable ran down and through from the antennae on top and then looked around the round, bulbous room for something to catch it with. There was a chair by the table the radio sat on, and he set about separating one of its legs.

"There wasn't much opportunity in my town either, you know." The elder said. "I was going to be an artist." He smiled at the thought as a snatch of lyric came to his mind from those earlier days when the world was brighter, the color more intense. "I was doing work that my professors said was better then what the other, older students were doing."

The younger took a look out the window and quickly leaned out, using the chair leg and got the antenna cable to start swinging. He grabbed it on its return swing. Thankfully, there was enough slack in it so that he wouldn't have to work on it so near the window's edge, exposing himself to potential fire. He sat cross legged against the wall and worked on the cable's end in the same way as the first.

"Why in the world did you join?" The younger focusing intently on the wires.

The elder laughed, "I needed the money."

"I thought artist didn't care about money."

"So did I. So did I." Then: "I think that I always wanted to be a Soldier. Ever since I was a child, did I think that."

That snatch of lyric came back again and the elder sang:

Safe in our homes away from it all

What makes a world turn in spite of it?

True to we while answering that call

Time and a word go before others, but we refuse to sit

"I heard that one before," The younger said. "Too out in the world for me. I always liked something you could dance to." The image of he and Jen at the fair, moving in time to the fiddle and drum of the local band, flowers in her hair.

They were both silent, each lost in their own world of wondering what steps or missteps in their lives brought them to this moment in time. The elder thought that at least they weren't in their own country fighting and dying. His family was safe and that is all that mattered at the moment. He didn't want to dwell on what was probable in the next hour or few minutes. It wouldn't be right. He looked and saw that two of the enemy's war machines were making their way toward the cut in the ridge, toward the switchback that made up their part of the perimeter.

"Hey, do you got that thing fixed yet?"

The younger didn't answer, but only pressed the button on the handset and spoke into it, his face haggard beyond his years. Then his eyes lit up and he began speaking animatedly into the mouthpiece.

The elder looked back at the approaching enemy and judged that they probably had a moment or two before the beasts began their march up the ridge. His brow wrinkled in confusion when they stopped and sat idling there.

The younger signed off with higher and said, "They said that they cannot send anyone to help us out."

"Then why are you smiling?" The elder turning back, blue eyes flashing.

"They said that they are sending a strike to burn this whole area out up to the mountains. They said that it'll be here in 5 minutes." The younger threw the handset away from him. It hit the wall and lay still.

The elder looked away and said, "That's it then."

The younger breathed in and walked over to the door in the floor of the tower. He opened it and the smoke from below began to well up inside. Forgetting about the tanks in the distance still sitting side by side, the elder came to the younger and pushing him away from the door, shut it with his foot and stood on it.

"We stay here, we don't run."

"I'm not trying to run, I'm trying-"

"I know what you're trying to do. And killing yourself isn't going to help."

The younger as if sensing that the next few moments were to be his last, sat down on the floor and through tears said, "I have to tell you something."

The elder squatted down and putting a hand on the younger's shoulder said, "What is it, Jesu?"

The tower took another lurching sway and canted another degree or two. The end was near, and they both knew it, whether it was to be from the tower falling, the machines below, or the bombs from above. The end was at hand.

"Jen's father didn't die in that accident. I killed him."

The elder let him talk, he had heard the story many times, but now it seemed that he was going to hear the real story for the first time.

"Both of us were hunting bird and when I went off to gather what we had felled, another man came by and spoke with him. When I came back, I hid in the rows of Konar and heard them talking of selling Jen to another. Her own father was going to sell his only daughter to be this man's slave. I didn't show myself until the other man left and when he did, I confronted Jen's father. I told him that I had heard everything." His teeth gritting as he looked up into the elder's eyes, "I killed him with his own weapon. I went to get the authorities and led them back to him and I said that it was an accident. That I had heard shouting and before I could get to him some other men had killed him. The gangs in that area are terrible, but we didn't have much to eat, and we had to go out and see if we could find food. And do you know what?"

"What is it?" The elder asked. The distant scream of the sloops coming to deliver their payload became discernable now.

"They believed me! They believed my story, Cam. I wasn't arrested, but only asked what happened. Later when I told Jen, she cried for her father. She cried for that miserable wreck. I never told her what I did. But I did tell her that I would take care of her. I told her that I would marry her and take care of her for the rest of her life." Tears spilled from the younger's eyes as he asked, "How can I care for her now?"

"All I know is that the Service will fulfill their promise to you when you joined. They will now care for her. And they will care for my family when I am gone."

Only moments left and the elder grabbed hold of the younger and pulled him to his feet. His weapon forgotten. "Come on, let's be on our feet at the end."

Missiles flew and the two machines down below disappeared into flame, the first things to be swallowed at the beginning of a column of destruction that walked out and spread into the valley and toward the mountains and the enemy horde.

The earth shook and encouraged the tower to finally let go. With a scream of bending steel, it fell back against the ridge heavily, the heat and concussion of the loosed munitions having the desired effect on all below as the sloops arced under the shining sun back toward the embattled forces to the north.


S. I. M.