The Affinity Bridge - By George Mann

India,August 1901

The flies. Always the damn flies.

Harrison slapped at the insects buzzing incessantly around his face and checked his rifle for the fifth time that hour. The heat was proving even more oppressive than usual and the hair at the nape of his neck was damp with perspiration, his uniform tight and uncomfortable. The other two weren't faring much better, either: Hargreaves was perched on a nearby rock taking a long swig from his water bottle and Taylor was pacing backwards-and-forwards, kicking miserably at the dirt. Only two days remained before the start of their return journey to England, and the lieutenant was still riding them hard, forcing them to go out on patrol in the stifling midday sun. Harrison cursed under his breath. The man was an egomaniac.

From the craggy outcropping on which he stood, Harrison could just make out the village they had trudged their way here from; a small collection of farms and ramshackle buildings that leaned awkwardly against each other like rows of uneasy siblings. Behind him, a line of trees marked the edge of the village boundaries, and to his left a series of distant specks denoted a smattering of local farm workers, hard at work tending their crops in fields of leafy green. The place had an air of expectancy about it; like somehow it was holding its breath in anticipation of something yet to come.

Yawning, he turned to his companions, resting his rifle against a nearby rock. "So, what's the first thing you're going to do when we get back to London?" They'd had this conversation a hundred times in the last few weeks, and he already knew what Hargreaves was going to say. Still, it was a conversation that reminded them all of home, and as far as Harrison was concerned that was no bad thing.

Hargreaves looked up from his water bottle. He mirrored the other man's smile. "The minute I step off that airship I'm heading for a pint in the Fox and Hound. I've missed the sorry beggars that prop up the bar in there, and I've missed a good pint of English ale." He chuckled at the memories. "After that, who knows? Maybe I'll take the train out to Berkshire and spend some time on my parents' farm." He glanced over at Taylor, who was still kicking up clouds of dust with his feet, a bemused look on his face. Hargreaves dabbed at the perspiration beading his forehead with the back of his sleeve and then leaned in, conspiratorially. "Not sure about him, though." He indicated the other man with his water bottle. "He's not in a good way. Too wet behind the ears for the things he's seen out here." He lowered his voice even further. "May be the asylum for him, when we finally get him home. Poor sod."

Harrison let the comment pass without a response. They'd all been too wet behind the ears for the things they'd seen out here. India was a world apart from England, even with its thin veneer of Empire. He couldn't wait to get home, to get away from the heat and the noise and the ever-present flies. He watched Taylor for a moment, pacing backwards and forwards like an animal trapped in a cage. Hargreaves was right, of course; India had clearly broken the man. He wasn't sure if there was anything to be done for him now. But the asylum? Even the thought of it made him shudder. He'd visited an asylum once, back in Wandsworth, and the screaming of the inmates still rang out in his dreams, sometimes, during the long nights when he lay there trying not to think of all the terrible things he'd seen. If Taylor was headed for the asylum, what hope was there for the rest of them?

Repressing another shudder, Harrison turned his attention back to Hargreaves. "Well, if luck be with me my Ruth will be waiting at the airship port when we arrive." He smiled at the thought of her. In another week he'd be holding her in his arms, spinning her around in the pale winter sun. His heart felt like it would burst in his chest. That was the thing that would keep him sane, the thing that he was out here fighting for; his life back in England, and the lives of everyone he loved.

Hargreaves smiled. He'd heard all of this before. He reached for his water bottle again, and Harrison turned to survey the horizon once more.

There was