Fragility
A Short Story by Jim McCollum
Written using the suggestion "Satellite"
Originally featured on 09-20-2007
As part of our series "Alternative Universals"

As night fell, Ambrira and his son Oren watched the orange glow of the burning oil fields, laying like a thick layer of gauze on the desert horizon. Their government had taken to burning the oil fields to the west, which meant the fighting had taken a turn against them. Of course, the official news remained optimistic, providing a steady stream of stories of courage and victory for the defending troops. However, Ambrira knew the fire in the west meant that Koraha, their town, would soon be engulfed in war. He had sent his wife and daughter to his sister-in-law’s as soon as the fighting began to spread towards their town, but the family did not have enough money to all leave together.

“It is time we stay together, Oren,” Ambrira told his son. “We must stay as a family.”

His son was still at a playful age. Oren liked to run through the town square, hiding and climbing on the hundreds of glass statues that stood in the city, immortalizing famous persons both of the village and of the world.

In the streets now, Ambrira and his son could hear the clamor of people trying to flee the town, car horns and the sounds of yelling as traffic filled up the small, windy roads.

“Father, will the men of iron be here soon?”

“I suspect they will, Oren.”

Oren watched the orange haze in the distance.

“I have heard that they drink the oil like water, and that their teeth are like the knives the butcher uses to cut bones.”

“Is that what your friends have said? The men of iron are just like you and I, they are made from skin, hair, bones, as we are. They drive metal tanks and carry large guns, but those are things they have made, not part of who they are.”

Ambrira lay awake for a long time that night, the dull roar of machinery sounding in the distance. He had fallen asleep for what seemed like only minutes when he awoke to the sound of the first blast. Artillery had begun to fall onto the town. He could hear the sound of explosions, and the sound of glass breaking, as the statues in the center of town shattered.

Ambrira made his way to Oren’s room.

“Oren, it’s ok, everything will be alright.” His heart fluttered in his chest, and he could feel a light sweat on his brow. Oren lay asleep, somehow, through the bombs. Ambrira sat beside his bed, when he awoke, Ambrira thought, he would be there to comfort him. He sat beside the bed and listened as the mortars fell into the town.

 

The bombs continued to fall for two days. Their government’s defending troops were retreating, and moved through the town in un-orderly packs. The bombs followed them, blasting holes in houses, and decimating the intricate glass work throughout the town.

On the third day, the men of iron came into town. Ambrira and Oren watched them from the window in the basement. They wore heavy metal suits that moved with a series of hydraulic pumps, hissing and whining with each step they took. They wore iron ringed sunglasses that reflected the bright desert sun. They carried long rifles and machine guns, slung over their shoulders, and cradled in their hands. They walked slowly through the streets, alongside their iron tanks, scanning the alleys and the rubble from the blasts.

Sporadic bursts of gunfire periodically broke out across the town. From their house, it sounded like popcorn popping in a pan to Ambrira and Oren. The men of iron clashed with insurgent fighters, those still loyal to the government.

 

On the fifth day, the fighting had mostly stopped. Ambrira had left the home to go to the men of iron’s military outpost in their town to receive food and water rations. While there, the men of iron discovered that he could speak their language. He was offered a position as a translator.

Ambrira returned home that day tired. He had not slept a full-night’s sleep in five days. He opened two of the packages of food rations. They contained freeze dried fruit and small metal cans that one, according to the directions on top, simply needed to add water to in order to create a meal. He began to boil water.

Oren had fallen asleep on the couch in the living room, but now woke at the sound of the stove clicking on.

“Father?”

“Yes, I brought back some food from the military camp.”

Oren got up and walked over. He picked up one of the cans and looked at the powder inside.

“What is it?”

“It’s ‘just add water,’” Ambrira said, “Other than that I don’t know.” He smiled.

Oren continued to look at the can.

“Oren, I am going to translate for the men of iron,” Ambrira said, “They need people who can speak their language as well as our own. However, this means being a traitor to our own people.”

Oren looked up at him.

“The other night when you were sleeping,” Ambrira said, “I watched you. I want you to know that there is nothing as important to me as you, not even my loyalty to my country.”

“Will you move to live with them?” Asked Oren.

“We will both have to move into their camp for a short time, yes,” said Ambrira, “It would be too dangerous for us to live here, and collaborate with the enemy.”

“I’m afraid of them. I’m afraid of their metal bodies, and their large machines.”

“I know,” said Ambrira, “but this is a time of sacrifice. We need the money they will pay us to reunite with your mother and sister. When that happens, we can all leave this country together.”

Read More By Jim McCollum

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Portland Fiction Project

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