Monday, November 15, 2010

The telegraphist (I)

He was the last one left. Just before decamping the legionnaires loaded up the barrels of gunpowder that remained onto carts, piled on all the old carbines and anything else that was portable, and blew it all up at the edge of the desert. The shock wave whipped the overhead wires that hung slack between the weatherbeaten poles and blew out two windows of the command post, but the adobe walls held firm. The little generator in the next room, after skipping a single beat at the initial concussion, resumed its steady chugging, brushing off the aftershocks that echoed, ever more faintly, for the better part of an hour.

They left him a mule and some fodder, a rifle and cartridges, and enough fuel and food and water for two months, three if he was careful with it, and not very much rum at all. By the time his provisions ran out, if he was lucky, he would be relieved; in the meantime his presence would be essential to communication along the line, sporadic though it might be. In the absence of the lieutenant, who had never returned from a reconnoitering expedition the year before and was assumed to be among the casualties of war, the sergeant formally transferred his authority in a brief ceremony several times interrupted by boisterous outbursts on the part of his subordinates, all of whom were in varying states of drunkenness and immune to the sergeant's halfhearted rebukes. They wished him good luck, embraced him one by one in turn, and clambered into the back of the hulking, wheezing truck just as the driver, who perched alongside the sergeant was by no means the soberest of the lot, ground on the gears until he managed to cajole the reluctant vehicle into lurching forward, blowing up clouds of dust and sand as it lumbered haltingly to the edge of the oasis. He watched them drive off for a moment, waved his cap three times over his head, and returned to his desk.

During the first few weeks his duties kept to their normal routines. He slept in a cot in the office within earshot of the alarm. Each morning, at precisely 0600 hours, the office at Z---- would transmit an identical message inquiring for his report. He would respond that all was well and await instructions. A few moments later the machine would jigger into life again, with a one-line order to expect a further communication at 1800 hours. After breakfast and coffee he would make a brief circuit of the immediate environs of the command post in order to stretch the kinks out of his legs, he would feed and water the mule, and then go back to sleep until evening, when there would be a similarly terse exchange with the operator on the other end. He would warm up a few more spoonfuls of canned rice and beans, knock back a single precisely measured shot of spirits, and call it a night. On rare occasions and at unpredictable hours a brief message came down from further up the line, transmitted by an operator in some even more isolated and woebegone outpost. When that happened he tapped out an acknowledgment and promptly relayed the information; as these messages were usually encrypted and he had not been entrusted with the key this entailed the careful replication of a string of apparently meaningless syllables, a task for which, he decided, he was particularly suited.

Only twice did he see any sign of life other than the vacant and imperturbable mule. One morning, during his constitutional, he discovered the faint traces of hoof prints across his path. That the marks were visible at all, considering the incessant drifting of sand over every square inch of the oasis, proved that they had been made the previous night, perhaps just before dawn. He traced their origin back as far as the last palms, but no further, then reversed course and followed them to the point at which they trailed off into the desert. He determined that there had been three camels, that their riders had never dismounted, and that they had found nothing of interest to detain them or even to cause them to veer from their course. A week later, by chance, on one of the few relatively windless days, he spied a small caravan -- twenty riders or so, from the look of it -- very far off, but it never approached and he lost sight of it, even with his binoculars, after an hour. His report of each incident was duly noted and acknowledged, but nothing more was said of either one.

It was somewhere near the end of the fourth week, or perhaps the beginning of the fifth -- he had become increasingly indifferent to the calendar -- that his orders failed to arrive on schedule for the first time. He wasn't alarmed by this. Interruptions along the line, due to downed poles or balky generators, weren't particularly unusual or unexpected. The lack of communication posed no imminent danger, as the front lines -- to the extent that those could be defined in a guerrilla conflict in inhospitable and poorly charted terrain -- lay hundreds of miles off, and even the odd raiding party, should it by chance happen to break through, would have no reason to venture into a region that offered little in the way of opportunities for pillage. The telegraph remained dormant through the evening, but when at 0600 the next morning the alarm sounded and the operator at Z----, making no reference to his silence of the previous day, inquired for an update on local conditions, the telegraphist neither sought an explanation nor gave it a second thought.

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