THE WATER TRAIN
The boy’s hand opened and closed as if he reached for a glass of water but it was just the nerves dying through his body.
With the thick rain the blood from the wound ran a thin washed pink.
Nearby again a pheasant crowed, a klaxon call as they make before thunder.
The bullet had gone in at the boy’s jaw and removed that side.
Branner stood over the body, the rain hitting his hood, drumming out the last rush of the train. Heavy and rhythmic, heavy and rhythmic.
Felt the shudder drop from the ground as the train gained distance.
Still the boy’s hand gaped, a fish dying in the air.
The rain hit Branner’s hood. Hit. Hood. Made a shelter for his mind. A building he hadn’t stepped out of yet. It closed him off.
The uppermost side of the boy’s face was visible and perfect and untouched by the bullet.
Branner wore the earpiece out so he could hear the rain and the sergeant’s voice seemed to come from afar.
– It was a kid, Branner said at the mic.
There is the silence as of after a great push of wind.
They stand at the crest of the field, overlook the ocean, the pines that stand in their line of sight.
She tightens her grip when she feels his words start.
– I don’t want there to be pain.
Her hand tightens. Do not speak.
He wants to say, I do not want there to be time, to think of you in pain.
– I do not want time to think of you in pain.
The light intensifies, as if it grows in volume. Time. There is no movement to the air, but in the ground now a minute growing shake.
Then far in the distance the sea at the horizon seems suddenly to smooth, the way soft butter goes with the pass of a blunt knife.
She squeezes his hand, as if she silences the earth. Silences him.
I thought I would be stronger than this. Not this, not anger.
He is aware in the last seconds of her great dignified fear as the trees ahead of them explode. Explode with silence.
A bird crosses the sky. Lone and black. Burns mid-air, disintegrates to ash.
A split second before he wakes, the force comes through his eyes.
The dream is like a dry mouth.
The hiss in his earpiece brought Branner round, and he saw the red dot flash on the grid scanner in his hand. He was sheltered from the rain partially, pushed in against the willow at the fifty-metre line. The rain came down heavily. Subdued the dawn light.
The distraction was a relief. When he’d heard the doctor’s words, they seemed spoken through water. Had grown every moment since in volume and solidity. Seemed now to knock against the shell of the dream he’s had for weeks. A recurrence he braces for in sleep. The dream now like a premonition.
‘I’ve seen it,’ Branner said into his mic.
He watched the red dot shift across the scanner, hesitate, then apparently settle. A slight condensation come to the edges of the screen.
There was no way of knowing what the red dot was, but it was in the sector and big enough to trigger the sensors.
Deer. Dog. Man. If it was still alive and present when the water load passed, the defence guns of the train would fire automatically.
They weren’t taking any chances now. Attacks on the line had increased.
Branner had the choice to stay out of the way or neutralise the risk himself. He could take the shot, or, if he could identify it as nothing threatening, call it in to the tower and they could stand the train guns down.
‘Can you get there?’ The sergeant’s voice came through the earpiece, through the snap of rain on Branner’s hood.
‘I can get there,’ Branner replied. It was relatively close. The opposite side of the track.
‘Let the train guns take it,’ said the sergeant.
Branner felt the old scar on his jaw catch slightly against the nap inside his hood.
‘No. I’ll go.’
It will be an animal, Branner thought. There’s no need for it to pointlessly die.
The drops gathered and fell heavily from the long leaves of willow.
Branner checked his rifle and walked into the rain.
There was a slowness in the watch post. The rain patting on the corrugated roof.
The sergeant and the line officer watched Branner on the monitor – a green dot – zoomed in a few clicks. It was difficult for them to see only the green dot and not in their minds Branner himself.
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