We materialise close against a concrete wall between two squat buildings, on what appears to be a loading platform of a late twentieth century freight train yard. It’s cold, not long after dawn, with a misty rain drifting down from the overcast. For a brief moment I wonder if I’ve lost the ability to see in colour, until I notice the grubby neon of a discarded safety vest nestled between the sleepers a few lines away.
As I feel us resolve completely, I keep staring at that vest. I don’t look around at the group, don’t dare count them. I know we lost a few more on this jump – but if I think about it too much, I’ll lose the ability to think about anything else.
This war is madness.
Simmonds starts counting off the names while I eyeball our surroundings a second time and fumble in my webbing for the datescanner. Simmonds’ voice betrays him; the strain is showing.
â€œWe lost Lemmern and Tung-Sing, sir,â€ he says. â€œI’m sorry, sir.â€
â€œAt ease, man,â€ I tell him. â€œAnd knock it off with the formality. It’s no use to us out here; not any more.â€ It also sticks in my throat when I talk to my superiors, and I hate to think that it does the same to the men whose lives I am now responsible for.
â€œAye,â€ says Simmonds, and sighs. â€œTung-Sing I expected, really. He’d become pretty tenuous over the last few jumps. But Lemmern … Bellings said he just let go of his hand during the last countdown. Slowly and deliberately, you know.â€
I do know. And I should have guessed, too. Lemmy was a quiet kid; he rarely complained, but his eyes told you everything he was thinking. I can’t blame him for splitting. I’d be a hypocrite if I did â€” I’ve considered it daily for months. The only thing that has stopped me is the fear of ending up in an occupied timeshard. Or, even worse, an unoccupied one that gets invaded after I arrive and settle down.
â€œScanning complete, sir!â€ Bellings’ voice shakes me from my reverie, and I ask him for the bad news.
â€œWe’re geographically secure, sir; no Council agents within two hundred klicks. But this shard is teeming with Council monitoring stations. It’s a totally compromised timeline, sir.â€
â€œThanks, Bellings. And stop calling me sir, will you? Round up the others, and lets get the hell out of here.â€
Bellings and Simmonds start prepping our dwindling group for another jump, and I think again of Lemmern. I imagine myself letting slip of Simmonds’ hand mid-jump, trusting to blind chance and probability that I end up somewhere â€” somewhen â€” that can support me.
It’s a beautiful fantasy. But I know I can’t abandon the others. Not through any sense of duty; that eroded months ago. But I couldn’t live in peace with myself if I just bailed out on them. I promise myself that as soon as we find a safe shard, I’ll disband the squad, let them make their own choices. Set them free.
â€œReady to jump, sir,â€ says Simmonds.