Art Pact 62

In the interim, in the break between the fighting, we could not talk to each other. It was as if the lead in the air acted as a catalyst to speech, and only when bullets were flying around us could we communicate with each other. Of course, under those circumstances the words we could share were strictly limited to the contingent. There was no opportunity for terms of endearment, just single words: "Down!" "Left!" "Reloading!".

But those breaks, tense and silent though they were, were of course welcome. Our guns, that had grown hot in our hands, began to cool. Our hearts, so long straining at their absolute thresholds of activity, relaxed to the simple elevated rhythm brought on by our nearness to one another. I breathed in gasps of gas from my inhaler, Alison fiddled with her clothing, adjusting her bra straps, which the weight of her flak jacket tended to drag out over her shoulders.

We had abandoned our first line in reception, falling back to the top of the building's main staircase. It split halfway up, but the last group who'd occupied the building had managed to barricade all the other routes between the two halves of the floor, so we could pick one side to defend. At nineteen fifteen there was a slackening in the assault, the night-time armistice that we'd come to expect from the enemy, and I guarded our position while Alison disappeared into the building to scout for some means of escape should things go south.

The main stairwell led up to a sort of mezzanine floor, open in the centre so that I could see down into the front line of the enemy position. They'd clambered over our own barricade after we withdrew from it and had set up their own defences, the rusty metal plates that most of their structures seemed to be built from. I could see into it if I crawled to the side of the upturned tables I was using as a shield. Indeed, I could with a steady hand have sniped at some of them (my hands were not that steady after a day of fighting, but I believe possibly Alison could have hit a couple, she being a bit more knowledgeable about bullet drop and other such esoterica). I did not want to, though. I knew that they themselves could easily have picked me off as I watched them, and I was interested to know why not, since they had spent the better part of four days apparently flinging every bullet in Western Europe at me.

Having set up their defences, the squad who'd been sent ahead of the main ranks (seven of them, six of the normal-sized ones and one of the big ones with the spines), formed a circle within them, facing inwards. Then they each began to talk in a sort of intricate ritual. First the larger one said something - a single syllable. Travelling anti-clockwise around the group, each of the others said a different word, all of them single syllables. This was repeated, but this time with two-syllable words. I noticed that although each individual said something different from his peers, I was pretty sure that the first syllable pronounced was the same as the single syllable that individual had said on the first round. This was enough to make me pay attention, and sure enough, they next came to three syllables, and for each of them the first two syllables were the same as the two they'd just said. It was as though each person were building up their own sentence, word by word, all talking at the same time rather than taking it in turns as so many humans would have done.

By the time Alison returned, the creatures were up to twenty syllables each, and they had also begun to make strange head movements - never when they were talking, only when they were listening to each other. Or where they listening? I found it hard to decide. At some moments the movements looked like spasmodic twitches, at other they so closely resembled human conversational nods and acknowledgements that I could almost believe they were talking about football, or politics.

"What's going on?" Alison asked, lowering herself beside me. As I had, she winced as she got onto her hands and knees. "Christ, my joints. Why couldn't they have attacked thirty years ago?"

"They're talking, or something," I reported - the first sentence I'd spoken to her in two days, I realised. "Here, come and have a look."

I shuffled back to give her a better vantage, and after a few seconds she withdrew herself, crawling back so that we were lying side-to-side.

"It looks more like they're singing a round," she said. I felt my heart flutter a little.


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