The digits fluttering, the rain collector swinging now.
‘Just leave it, Branner. Stay clear. It’ll be another dog.’
The rain hit with the rhythm of train wheels. Hit hood. Hit his hood. His brain was in a cave.
‘What is it?’ asked the sergeant.
‘I do not know.’
There was just the red dot, anonymous, a threat, superimposed on the undergrowth in the mid-scope of Branner’s rifle, moving sometimes minutely.
‘We cannot greenlight it without a visual, Branner. Take the shot,’ the sergeant ordered.
Branner could feel the train now in the ground. The shudder come, a growing shake, still the veil of dream, the image of the pine trees bursting. Explode. Explode with silence.
He thought desperately of his wife.
A shudder through the earth, his body.
The future now, a drop from a high building.
I do not want there to be time, to think of you in pain.
I could just switch off my greenlighter. That’s all it would take. The train guns wouldn’t recognise me. And they’d fire.
He imagined for a moment the thrashed material lifted in suspension in the air, a cloud of smashed greenery and blitzed stick, the thick earth orbiting through the pink miasma of his own obliterated cells. The sudden leap of everything, before settling down to ground.
He felt drips riddle down the body of the gun and well against his hands.
His soul was just there, curled up in the scope, as if he could witness it.
Hit. Hood. The rain. The train. The puddles gathered round him where he knelt vibrating, loosening. Ten million gallons of water, two hundred miles an hour.
There was urgency now in the sergeant’s voice, the rain, the air seeming to shatter ahead of the oncoming force.
Branner thought of the crossfire shatter clatter; the stub guns rippling like a millipede’s legs.
A great noise. Then I would be gone. I wouldn’t have to live with it. The doctor’s words.
He felt the rifle calculate for distance, calculate for force.
‘. . . seconds,’ lost in the thickening noise. The bullet’s path, a dream burst into flame and char, disintegrate to ash. The train some crashing wave.
It would happen with no more effort than it took to pick away a hangnail.
‘Clearing sector,’ Branner said.
It’s all you have now. Duty.
The electric passenger trains hiss along the nearby tracks and it sounds like I remember wind does, moving through wide forests. A rhythm to it, a pulse almost, as if the city’s breathing.
There is only early morning light. Then the Water Train passes. Different. A weight of sound. The sound of a great waterfall crashing into a pool. It has the power church bells must used to have.
I have seen it pass above the houses on its lifted steel tracks and felt the shake it brings to the floor. Seen its hoses and pipes. The heavy protection.
It is meant to look magnificent, impregnable, but it looks uncertain, like a person others have decided to make into their hero.
It’s always about the image of a thing, in most minds.
It thunders by. And after it has passed, all the sounds seem to drop from the air for a moment. As if it leaves a vacuum.
I hear the soilmen then come for the soilets, clattering in the street below. Nita moves gently, next to me in the bed, the faint acidity of alcowash and the covering scent in her hair, and I am certain the noise they make will wake her.
There is something daring about the way they make such noise. As if to provoke you to complain, so they can say ‘Is this a job you’d like to do? Is this a job you’d like us not to do?’ The games we make of our jobs.
But she stays asleep.
Hillie though, her daughter, wakes. I hear her get up from her mattress and quietly play behind the sheet they modestly hang across the bedsit when I come here. ‘Happy in her own skin.’ A phrase I learnt from Nita when we met. Like an object she gave me to keep.
I hear the little one say ‘pooh’ and ‘yuk’, the stink now as they empty the chute bins out into the truck. Lie there, listening to the soilmen move along the buildings, the throb of the pipe sucking, chugging up the fibre and muck until they are too far down the street to hear; but the smell lingers. Treacly. Or perhaps just seems so, because my mouth is sticky and dry. The cement dust gets everywhere.
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