Surprised muttering rippled through the tent. As the private, barely concealing his trepidation, strode past Carlyle, the field psych said: ‘He’s in the mess. Starting a fight.’
The wail of the storm fell to a whisper and a rustling of canvas as the guard zipped the door closed. For a moment, nobody said anything.
The marshal was the first to speak. ‘Have they been briefed?’
‘They’re seeing it, sir,’ said Carlyle, ‘but I’ve left the explaining to you.’
A nod. ‘Very good. You can leave or stay, chief, I suppose it makes no difference to you.’ He motioned the others forward. They waited until the lieutenant came bursting in, red-faced and glaring, his escort maintaining a careful distance.
‘Bullshit,’ the man snarled, and saluted furiously. ‘Utter fuckery.’
Squaring his shoulders, the marshal began. ‘There is good news, ladies and gentlemen,’ he said. ‘Actually, a stroke of luck. As it turns out, corporal Parthaguin, you get a very good look at the arc of descent on the shell that kills you—good eye—and so, thanks also due to our field psych here, we have an excellent position on that artillery.’ The marshal’s hands danced over the smart table in front of him. Topology rose out of its surface, a bright red spot nestled near the mountain’s peak. ‘We’ve got a barrage inbound. If our sat’s on schedule it’ll be slag before that goddamn shell hits the ground. You have a question, corporal?’
‘Sorry, sir. It’s just I’ve never been clear on this. Why can’t we just hit it before I’m fucking destroyed? Sir.’ At this, more grumbled cursing from the lieutenant.
‘You’re excused. I’ll let the expert field that one. Chief?’
Carlyle pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘It’s not going to ease your mind any.’
‘If it’s going to kill me,’ said Parthaguin, visibly holding herself back, ‘I damn well want to know why.’
He sighed. Oh, people had tried. Everyone had heard of the Aberration, although more to the point nobody seemed to be able to recall anything about it. Even its ruins were mad. ‘Best guess?’ he began. ’Observance. You can only affect what you haven’t locked down. In every event on record, every trial we’ve run, once someone’s seen some poor sap’s future there’s nobody can nudge it a fucked-off inch.
‘Let me tell you something: most folks figure a psych just sees shit through future-you’s eyes. Right? Now, there’s a talent to that, let me be clear. But the hard part is only seeing the right things. Something you can use. You get carried away, you’ll lock the whole engagement down, and then you’ve screwed your whole unit. Might as well go home. Only you can’t, because that’s not what happens.’
‘Field psychologist,’ Slough spat. ‘Field psycho, more like. What a load of … .’ He caught the marshal’s eye and reeled himself in. ‘… Baloney.’
Carlyle snorted. ‘There’s no bigger.’ He turned back to Parthaguin, who was staring at him in disbelief. ‘You want a better explanation, ask a quantum historian. Could probably get one on the comm, you’ve got enough time. Although between you and me they’re more confused than anyone.’
For a few moments, Parthaguin said nothing. She opened her mouth; closed it. Then: ‘You’re telling me you chose to let my death play itself out? What if you’d stopped looking before the shell hit?’
‘Compose yourself, corporal,’ the marshal warned.
Carlyle frowned. He didn’t like where this was going. ‘I made a call and I stand by it. That’s the job. Yeah, I locked you down. I’m real sorry about it, too, and I wish you could’ve had a say in it, but the intel from that shell’s descent will save lives. Lots of them.’
‘How do you know they’re visions of the future? How do you know you’re not imagining them? What if you’re making them happen?’
He scoffed. ‘I’m not God, lady.’ That theory had been discarded almost as quickly as it had been proposed. But he could see the gears turning in her head. This was bad. The bleeding hearts were holding it back, but sooner or later something was going to go badly wrong and the legislature that enforced notification of future-death would get rewritten.
Parthaguin’s eyes narrowed. ‘In theory, then,’ she said, ‘what if I, for instance, drew my sidearm and shot you in the head? I’ve still got to make it up that mountain to die, but what about you? Are you locked down yet, chief?’
Everyone froze. Carlyle felt an itch begin at the back of his head. No. Oh, no. He resisted it, but they could take you, these things—she wouldn’t dare, would she? … But she had planted the suggestion, damn her, the jury was still out on the many worlds claptrap, and who knew if the observer’s mental state had an effect on how the waveform collapsed or however the fuck they said it worked and oh God, oh God—
The marshal shot to his feet. ‘That’s enough! Was that a threat, corporal?’
Parthaguin didn’t take her eyes off Carlyle. ‘I don’t know,’ she said, and winked. ‘Why don’t you have a peek?’