In Which August Explains A Decision That Will Probably Kill Him
The sun had just started setting when August started walking. He didn’t have a particular destination in mind, just wanted to clear his head. As he wandered, he found his feet taking him on the familiar paths of his childhood, heading south toward the river. This might be the last time he walks these paths, he thought. When he was young, the paths weren’t as rough as they are now. There were solar lights along the guardrail then, but they had been torn apart for parts long ago and only the mounts with the occasional dangling wire remained. The cement that had been fresh poured when he walked the path to school as a child was now cracked and uneven, uprooted by frost and flood over the years. August walked slowly now, weighed down by the gravity of his decision.
He would miss these paths. But, in all honesty, the town he had grown up in had been gone for a while, and very few of the people were even still alive. Even he had failed to make it so far unscathed, he thought, tightening the fingers of his prosthetic right hand into a fist. He had lost his hand working as a medic after the hospital closed. Most people left him alone in those days because they knew they’d eventually need his help, so he hadn’t thought he needed to be able to defend himself. A few scavengers from out of town came to the clinic to steal…something. He didn’t know what, although he suspected they were after drugs. They didn’t bother asking, just came running through with their knives out. He tried to stop them or at least to make sure they didn’t hurt his patients. When they saw he was resisting…he was lucky all they took was his hand.
Saffron taught him to fight after that. She always said he was too trusting, too reckless. He reckoned he was, seeing as how Saffron was always so careful and it hadn’t kept her safe. But he wanted to help people. That’s all he ever wanted, to make life a little easier, a little longer for a few people. And he had done that and done it well. Wasn’t that enough? He knew it wasn’t. It couldn’t be, as long as there were still people coming to him with empty stomachs and infected wounds and terrible stories of how they had gotten them. He had people helping him now, but he still worried about what they would do if he couldn’t make it back. He had tried to teach his apprentices everything they needed to know. How to stitch a wound and how to make a meal out of nothing. It was probably enough. It would have to be enough.
August became aware of a second set of footsteps on the path and quickened his pace. There were a few people who knew where he was, and he didn’t want to talk to any of them. They would only try to talk him out of what he needed to do. A dirt path forked off the main trail and he took it, moving as quietly as he could so his pursuer wouldn’t know where he had gone. Still, he was used to avoiding being tailed by strangers, not by his friends. The footsteps followed him down the dirt path. He sighed and turned to meet them.
“All right, which one of you is following me? I thought I made it clear I wanted to be alone.” He peered into the dark at the approaching figure as they stepped into the moonlight.
“Hello, Hannah. Care to explain why you’re following me?”
“I know you wanted to be alone, but I think you’re making the wrong decision.”
“And what would you have me do instead? Abandon my friend? Keep going about my life like she isn’t in danger?”
“Surely there’s someone else who can go! You’re a medic, for God’s sake! Not a spy!”
“I won’t be spying. This isn’t an intel mission.”
“You know what I mean. It’s dangerous out there, and we have people who are trained for things like this” Hannah crossed her arms and frowned.
“You’re right. We have me.” August rubbed his temples. “Listen, everyone else who has the training to rescue Saffron is either already on a mission or injured. I’m it.”
“Then why not wait until someone gets back or recovers? Why not train someone else?”
“There’s no time, Hannah. Frankly, it’s a miracle she’s stayed alive this long, and if she wasn’t Saffron, she wouldn’t have.” August turned towards the path. “Let’s keep walking.”
“Please, August. We need you here. If you go, we’ll lose you and Saffron. What would be the point of that?”
“You don’t need me as much as you think you do. Do you think I would even consider going if I thought everything would fall apart when I left? I’ve been training all of you for years to be able to take over from me. Even if I wasn’t going on this mission, I wouldn’t be able to work for much longer anyway.”
“You’ve been talking about retiring as long as I’ve been here, and it hasn’t happened yet. Besides, even if you retired, you’d stay here. There’s nowhere else for you to go. We’d still be able to go to you.”
“I have to go, Hannah. I know Saffron better than anyone. I know the empire better than anyone. I’ve been supporting people on missions like this for decades, you think I don’t know what it takes? Listen, let me take you home. I’ll show you what I’m going to do. Maybe then you’ll understand why I have to be the one to go.” August placed his hand on her shoulder and led her back up the path toward town. He didn’t want this any more than she did. He just wanted to help a few people, but isn’t that what Saffron wanted, too? He wondered if maybe Hannah was right, maybe there was someone else who could go, one of the newer agents. Maybe that kid Jamie—but he couldn’t send anyone else. Couldn’t risk another person’s life. And the empire knew him, trusted him, as much as he hated to admit it. He had helped anyone who came to his door, without asking questions. Some of those people had been soldiers, and a few of them had gone on to be quite successful at their jobs, getting promoted up the ranks. They would help him now, he was sure, at the very least by turning a blind eye to some of what he needed to do.
Back at the house, August led Hannah to his office. He had shared the office with Saffron before he started traveling and her desk was still there, the drawers still full of her research and notes. He hoped she would be back in the office someday, that they would sit next to each other again. He hoped at least that he would see her again before either of them died.
He encouraged Hannah to sit down while he dug through his own drawers, pulling up schematics and protocols. He could have stored his files digitally, but he found paper made his plans feel more real, more possible. And besides, it was easier to destroy. The empire devoted a lot of resources to surveillance, including reconstructing digital data from fragments to figure out where the rebels planned on going next. With paper, there was nothing to reconstruct. His life’s work could be erased with a single match.
Eventually, he found everything he was looking for and turned back toward Hannah, laying the papers out on Saffron’s desk.
“Look, Hannah. You’re right. This is a suicide mission. If I succeed, it’ll be because of luck or because I had a lot of help. I’m calling in every favor I can for this, and it still probably won’t be enough. But the people helping me aren’t people who would help anyone else. They don’t work for me, and if they did, they probably couldn’t help me. But because of that, they don’t trust any of our other agents. They barely trust me—if I give them any reason to think they might get hurt because of what I’m doing most of them would probably turn me in immediately. I am almost as likely to get killed by the people helping me as the people I’m trying to avoid. Do you understand that?”
Hannah was looking at the papers on the desk, shuffling them around.
“I can see why you’re the only person who has a chance at saving Saffron. But if the dice are loaded against you why even try? We would lose both of you, do you really think it’s worth it?”
That was the question, wasn’t it? August thought. Was the barest possibility of saving Saffron worth losing his own life?
“Yes,” he said firmly. Of course it was worth it. “Saffron has done so much for all of us, for me especially. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her. She’s saved my life countless times. It’s the least I can do to try to repay that debt.” August sat down heavily in the chair opposite Hannah. “There is a chance I will succeed. I must try. But I would not risk anyone else’s life for such foolishness.”
“You took an oath” Hannah realized. “You’ve left debts unpaid before, but this one’s different. You’re bound to repay her.”
“Yes. It was a long time ago.” He paused. “You are young still. Save yourself some trouble and don’t take oaths. An oath is easy to say, but much harder to keep. Better to keep yourself out of trouble with whatever god still watches this cursed planet.”
“Let one of us go with you, at least part of the way. I would not have you break your oath, but we can at least make it easier for you. Please, August. Let me go with you” Hannah touched his hand, briefly.
He considered her request. As determined as he was to go, he was afraid. It would be good to have some company, at least part of the way.
“Very well. You can come with me to the edge of the wastelands, but no further. I won’t have your blood on my hands, they are dirty enough already” August stood up. “Come. We have talked long enough. I’ll tell you what I plan to do while we pack for the journey.” He gathered the papers from Saffron’s desk and led Hannah out of the office, shutting the door behind them for the last time.