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.Branner stood over the body, the rain hitting his hood, drumming out the last rush of the train. Heavy and rhythmic, heavy and rhythmic.
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.
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.The rain thickened, drumming the watch post. Thumping down.
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.Not too distantly a pheasant called, shuttered its wings, sensing the coming shudder in the air.
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 . . . 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.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.
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.
Excerpted from Stillicide, copyright © 2020 by Cynan Jones, reprinted by permission of Catapult and originally commissioned for radio by BBC Radio 4 (2019).