Hey INNers, today’s fiction has been written by one of our hosted fiction writers who has migrated his way onto the INN writing staff. Please enjoy another segment from Dragonfiremalus’s Hunted and Hunter series.
I lay on the surface of a long, thick, wooden table near the top floor of a skyscraper, my new LR-620 sniper rifle nestled against my shoulder. I faced the window, looking out at the skyline of a compact city. Wind whipped around the building, whistling past the small hole carefully cut in the glass. Liquid ice ran through my veins and my breath came in long, slow draws. At that moment my world had sharpened to the circular patch of street and storefronts I could see through my scope, but my mind couldn’t help but wander back to the meeting that had put me there.
“You’ve proven yourself again and again over the weeks,” Captain Brannigan said. “I’ve got something that I could use you for. Normally I would pass on a job like this… but I think it’s perfect for you.”
“ETA on convoy seven minutes,” crackled the comm in my ear.
“Thanks,” I responded, then muted my microphone. Ajax sat beside me, gazing through the spotter scope. I addressed him without taking my eyes from my own scope. “Why did you become a mercenary, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I don’t mind.” Even though I wasn’t looking at him, I could hear the slight smile in his voice as if he had been expecting the question for a while. “Short answer, Captain Brannigan. I knew him from way back, and when I mustered out of the army and heard he had a crew, seemed the thing to do.”
“What did you do in the army?”
“Combat medic. That’s why I was the one to patch you up back in Nul.”
Brannigan handed me a photograph of a dark haired man with bright eyes, wearing a dark blue business suit.
“Who is he?” I asked.
“Small time politician who someone wants out of the way. Mayor of some backwater city I’d never heard of before.”
“What’d he do?”
“Pissed off the people payin’ us.”
“Target is in the back left of the third vehicle,” the comm informed me.
I gave a word of confirmation then flipped the mic back off. “So you patched people up?”
“Yeah,” Ajax said. “That’s what I usually do for Brannigan too. I’m only here because.. well…”
“Because Brannigan trusts you to keep an eye on me,” I finished for him.
“Security won’t be too tight, but tight enough it will have to be a long shot.”
“So we’re assassins now?” Ajax objected. “I don’t remember signing up for messing in politics.”
“We’re guns for hire,” the captain countered. “Whether it’s protecting goods or going after targets, we’ve always killed for money. This is no different. Just pays a lot more.”
“Does it still seem like the thing to do?” I asked.
“Joining the mercenaries. Does it still seem like the thing to do?”
“Captain Brannigan’s a great guy,” Ajax assured me. “The best.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“That’s an answer.”
“When I joined this crew, we used to help people,” Ajax said. “We’d protect honest traders from pirates, run gangs outta towns. Why don’t we take those jobs anymore?”
“We need the money,” Brannigan answered in a tone that said he very much did not want to discuss this, especially in front of me. “We got pirates and gangs and other merc companies on all sides, costs are risin’ and profits goin’ down. What the hell do you want me to do? You got a better idea, I’m listening. But I’ll take whatever job I can get to keep us goin’.”
I watched a line of five black vehicles came rolling down the street below, still far away. Heavily armored, but you wouldn’t think it to look at the graceful designs.
“Why don’t you leave?” I asked.
Ajax didn’t answer for a while. “That’s dangerous talk, that is.”
“Not with me,” I said. “It’s no secret I would disappear if I could.”
“After the captain saved your life?”
“It was him and his allies that made it need saving in the first place,” I said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful he didn’t leave me to die. But not so grateful I’d give him the rest of my life.”
“Leaving’s not that simple,” Ajax replied.
“Why not? I know you don’t like what the Vipers have been doing. Drug deals, thefts, protecting slavers, and now this.”
He took a deep breath. “Shortly after I joined the Vipers, we went to help protect a town against a Vanduul raid. A tiny little mining outpost on some barely terraformed world. It was a long, bloody battle. We wouldn’t have come out of it without the Captain’s leadership and brilliance. He saved us all, and saved the town. We were heroes. After a thing like that, you can’t just get up and walk away.”
“This is just hard times,” he continued. “He needs all the support he can get to keep the Vipers from turning total pirate. But we’ll come through, we’ll be back on top.”
“You can’t save him forever,” I said. “One of these days he’s going down. All you can decide is how many people you’ll help him kill in the meantime.”
There was a long silence before he spoke at last,. “You’re a good kid, Pup.” I cringed at the name.
“Remember, they want him dead for good. AntiLaz him. Means bullet to the brain, so there isn’t anythin’ to rez.”
“That’s a tough shot,” I said. “I’m not sure I can pull it off. At least it would be better if there wasn’t a chance of hitting a bystander.”
“I’ve got faith in you,” the captain assured me. “And the shot will be a lot easier since our employer is providing an LR-620. Hit him with that, and there’ll be nothin’ left to rez.”
That did make things easier, at least physically. The LR-620 was top of the line, pure killing machine. Nothing topped its long range precision. It had taken some getting used to, but the high-powered rifle was more than up to the task.
My crosshairs followed the third vehicle as the convoy came to a stop, the rangefinder reading 1821 meters. That’s where my shot had to be, that’s the closest the target was going to get. A small part of my mind was trying frantically to get the rest to realize what it was about to do, to set my heart racing and ready to run. But Cameron’s chemicals forced my heart to remain calm and my breath steady. It drowned out the objections in cold calculations.
“Wind speed 5 m/s from the southwest,” Ajax said. “Distance to target, 1821 meters. Punching through the calculations.”
I listened as Ajax listed off more factors, and clicked the scope to compensate, not even waiting for the calculating mobiGlas to tell me what they needed to be. The door opened and out stepped a man with close-cut black hair in a dark suit. The facial recognition in the scope confirmed he was the target. I paused.
In the couple months since I had joined the Vipers, I had shot more than a dozen men. Drug dealers who tried to scam us, pirates trying to rob us, gangs trying to kill us. I had even shot a man off the turret of a speeding train at eleven hundred meters. With Cameron’s chems helping it all seemed so easy. I could calmly shoot a man and not think about what I had done till later, and my hands never shook, my nerves never failed.
But this was different on some gut level I couldn’t quite place. Perhaps it was that I couldn’t rationalize it away, couldn’t argue that this was really a bad guy. Perhaps it was the way the crowd lining the roadway cheered and waved flags. Or perhaps it was just that this man, with his rugged features and dark hair and warm smile, reminded me of my father.
“My father’s a doctor too,” I whispered. “I never knew my mother, but he raised me as best he could by himself. Always had time to care for people. He spent time as a navy doc, patching up the kids flyin’ for Squadron Forty-Two. Always said he never wanted me to go anywhere near the military.”
“What would he think if he could see me now?” I wondered, lying behind a sniper rifle, aiming at some unknown mayor of a city I couldn’t name. Surely he would understand. Surely he would look back on everything that had led me here and agree I had no choice.
But I did have a choice. I didn’t know exactly what would happen if I let the man walk safely inside, if I put down the gun and refused to kill anymore. But I had that choice.
I chose to pull the trigger.