Stillicide by Cynan Jones




Knowing about Branner’s wife made them think of him differently.


‘Where’s the train?’ The voice that broke abruptly into the room seemed to have no connection to the dot.


‘On time. Forty seconds to sector.’ The digits flicking.


The rain thickened, drumming the watch post. Thumping down.


‘Don’t you love summer?’ the sergeant said.


‘They should have built a gutter to the city,’ said the officer. ‘This rain. Not a train track.’


‘Well, we won’t run out.’


The sergeant felt the warmth of the coffee through the cup, mesmerised for a moment by the swirls on the surface of the liquid. The contained clatter of the runnelled rain.


The hostile red dot did not move away. It moved just sporadically in the same place.


‘It’s waiting,’ the sergeant guessed. Tried to sense something from the dot.


It was a dog last night, caught up in the bramble. Scruffy, thick-set mongrel thing.


‘Is the growth there cleared?’ he asked the line officer.


‘Eighteen months ago.’


Branner was leaving it late to get over the track. Why was he doing that?


A barely perceptible tremor started in the water that hung in the rain collector just outside. The sergeant looked for the tremor in his coffee cup.


‘They should just burn it away every year,’ he said.


He could never take his eyes from the counter in the last few seconds. The digits fluttering. Damn, he’s leaving it late.


They knew it was coming but their bodies tensed when the tone came on.


‘Okay,’ the sergeant said, into the comms. ‘Train in sector. You need to speed it up, John.’


~


Branner went over the track by one of the old footings of the pipeline that had taken water to the city before the train.


The memory thudded against the shell the dream made around his mind, a dull moth against bright glass. The time they met. Out here as a young soldier on patrol, before he transferred to the police. An activist group had bombed the pipe. He’d been one of the few still standing. Dragged drowning men from the spilled water.


She was with the medic team. He was the first person she had ever sewn up.


The rain had brought the biting insects out and they hung above the line in brief clouds, hypnotised by the high-pitched hum feeding back from the pressure converters.


There was a smell of wet metal and stone.


Branner was not connected properly to himself. He could not step out of the moment with her in his dream just before the trees exploded.


It was a muntjac we were eating, that day, he thought. Before the charge went off. It’s probably a muntjac, this red dot.


As he went over the track, he paused to put his hand on the rail, his habit to touch the world to try to bring it back. But he could not fully focus.


He saw himself for a split second reflected in the rain collected on the solar sleeper. A black bird bursting into ash.


Dissipated into sky, as the rain broke his brief image.


Not too distantly a pheasant called, shuttered its wings, sensing the coming shudder in the air.


~


At the watch post, the blackbirds started to call and quickly their noise was thorough. The rain collector now trembled where it hung, and the post hummed with the bizarre accidental song that came into its iron stays.


‘Why isn’t he there?’ the sergeant asked. At least the green dot had gained pace. For a while it had seemed to falter, as if the dot itself had to cut its way through the dark backdrop of the monitor screen.


They saw Branner when he came into the cameras, as he went over the track.


‘Can you make this?’ the sergeant asked, bluntly into the comms.


They saw Branner, the rain somehow haloed around him, as if he moved in a bubble.


‘I can.’ But the voice was far off.


‘He’s leaving it late, Sarge.’


‘It’s Branner,’ said the sergeant. ‘He’ll shoot.’


The rain intensified again. A noise oncoming. The train transporting ten million gallons of water to the city at two hundred miles per hour.


Don’t go red, John, the sergeant thought. You’re not the type. You told us you were fine.


All he’d have to do is switch off his greenlighter and . . .