to take matters into my own hands when part of my trench
mate’s head landed in my lap. Most people don’t realize
that an arrow can blow apart a man’s skull about as well
as a bullet, or even as well as one of those new Pasers.
The enemy was almost as poor as us, and we were fighting
in a lo-fund sector, so rumor had it they raided old
museums for weapons. Our bows were newer, but not that
great. I had a hunch the old ones worked better.
By the time I entered
the war we were fifteen years into it. Between the
two armies, thirty million soldiers were fighting,
not including support personnel. Weapons manufacturing
just couldn’t keep up—especially the enemy’s. Both
sides started to improvise. You never knew what you
might get killed by: manic-gas strafed from a heli,
swizzle sticks that made soup in your trench, chunks
of building flung from high-power trebuchets, scorch-lights
that fried your synapses, or an old arrow.
I stared at the dead
guy. His cigarette was still burning. It sounds nasty,
I know, but I took it and put it in my mouth. We
had to earn our smokes. If we moved our line forward
a quarter mile our company got a week’s rations of
cigarettes. We hadn’t moved in months.
I didn’t even know
the guy’s name. It was a jinx to introduce yourself.
Say your name and you’re sure to get shot. Let a
journie take your picture and you’ll get killed.
Names and pictures gave away power, like they could
control the fate of your soul or something. Weapons
weren’t the only old thing we adopted during the
His wound steamed in
the cold air. I dragged heavy on the cigarette, hoping
the smoke would cover the smell of his blood. No
point in scrounging further. His boots and body armor
were worse than mine. I was only a year into my tour.
My sergeant poked his
head in my trench, and then rolled inside and crouched
down next to me. “What? Got shot?” Sarge was always
one for stating the obvious.
I picked up the arrow
and showed him. It had sliced through the guy’s head
without breaking because it had a titanium broadhead
and a carbon shaft—the kind people used for deer
hunting back when there were deer.
“Got up to take a leak
and got hit from the back,” I said, tossing the arrow
“Dumb way to go,” Sarge
said, nodding sagely. “Give a smoke, Snipe.”
That’s what they called
me, Snipe, because I was one of the company rifle
I gave him the cigarette.
I didn’t want to, but Sarge was Sarge. You didn’t
fuck with him.
from his lips, Sarge lifted his bow and nocked the
bloody arrow. Then he peeked over the edge of the
trench, laid his bow parallel to the ground, and
shot. We were closer than I usually posed as a sniper,
about thirty meters away from their trenches. I’d
been providing cover while the dead guy dug.
“Gotcha.” Sarge gave
me a wry grin. It had been a clean shot, no scream. “Irony,
isn’t it called? Hitting a Sacred with their own
“Arrow,” I said.
“Where’d you get him?” I
“Her. In the throat.”
Sending fems up to
the front lines was one of the things the enemy had
done on the psych front. I got over killing them
pretty quick, though. We had to.
I washed the blood
off my cloak with some water from my bottle and waited
for him to give my cigarette back.
Sarge took the last
drag and threw it down in the mud. “Get back to it.
I’ll send de-con to clean up this mess.”
But I didn’t start
shooting right away. I counted my bullets instead.
It was one of those compulsions I got from living
in a trench. We all had them. A lot of guys shined
their boots. I can’t tell you how many dead guys
I saw with clean boots. Some guys wrote back home
like crazy, their fingers cramped from chatting on
their personals until they could barely pull the
strings on their bows or grip a shovel. I could give
a fuck about how my boots looked, and I had traded
my personal for beer, so I counted bullets. I had
And that’s what got
me to thinking.
I thought about those
nine bullets. I could fire them all and take out
nine frontline enemy and call it day and it wouldn’t
make much difference because now that they had the
fems the Sacreds had no shortage of bodies to put
in their trenches.
The journies wrote
about all the senseless killing in “Time” and “War
Weekly”. They said we hit the twenty million mark
not long ago, and rehashed how they never thought
we’d hit a million. I don’t remember when a million
made headlines because I was just a little kid then.
But still, even knowing the numbers, you sort of
had to be there to get how stupid it all was.
I looked at the dead
guy next to me, who had just been trying to piss,
and my mind made itself up.
I crawled out of my
trench, belly dragging, keeping low. We dug gutters
between the trenches, just deep enough to snake through.
We weren’t supposed to do it. Trench regs said a
meter deep minimum. But it saved a hell of a lot
of time and labor, and got us firing quicker.
Of course, we hadn’t
moved the line in months. We would have had plenty
of time to dig the trenches right.
“Where you going?” Sarge
asked me, as I passed by his hole. He had his personal
up to his ear, talking to Topeka, probably.
“Out of bullets,” I
said. Lied. Whatever.
He gave me a funny
look. I’d been in his company long enough that he
knew about me counting bullets. I never ran out.
But he didn’t say anything.
I hung around the cache-hut
for awhile. Somebody had boiled potatoes. Most days
one guy would fix a whole bunch of stuff, enough
for the whole company, but our rations were low since
it was the end of the month. I didn’t really care
what I ate, but I wished for a beer.
The other sniper was
firing. It sounded like a cannon going off. He was
way down the line from me, but the guy carried one
big-shit gun with a piggy-back grenade canister.
He was third tour so he had his pick. The line had
heated up again, so everybody was busy.
Now was as good a time
I had to crawl the
rear gutters to get out of range. They ran about
a thousand meters behind the trenches. It doesn’t
sound far, but it’s a long way to go on your belly.
I was used to it though. My biceps were as big as
my calves because I used them so much to get around.
Once I was out of range,
I just got up and started walking. The trenches were
muddy from the melted snow, but the fields were pretty
dry. I strapped my flasher to my chest so the checkers
would know I wasn’t a hostile, and most of them didn’t
give me a second glance. Guys walked back there all
I passed a labyrinth
left from enemy occupation days. It was an ugly thing,
just a spiral of burned dirt through the dead grass.
That was about the stupidest thing I’d heard of the
enemy doing, as if walking in circles would keep
somebody from getting shot. We should have acid-blasted
it for morale, but who had the time?
Finally, about three
miles out, a checker stopped me.
“Got your leave on
your personal?” he asked. I could see he was all
about the regs and creds.
“I don’t have a personal,
sir,” I said. “It got stolen. I’m legit, though.
I’m on an errand for my Sarge.”
“What’s your I.D.?
I have to call you in.”
I started to panic
as I thought how much trouble I’d be in if I was
blown. He was alone at the checkpoint so I shot him.
It wasn’t the best decision, I admit it. Stupid to
waste one of my bullets. But I featured eight would
be more than enough to do what I was planning. I’m
a dead-on aim. That’s why Sarge liked me as a sniper.
I kept track of my bullets, and I didn’t waste them.
I was well behind our
lines, so I didn’t have to worry too much about getting
hit. Nobody else stopped me, and by morning I was
The town didn’t have
much left to it. It had been frontline for almost
a year, before we shot them back and dug in seven
miles to the south-east, where we were now. That
had been a rush, leaping forward like that.
Now, I knew better.
We hadn’t gotten out of Kansas in four years. Getting
stalled out that long meant the war would just go
on and on.
I put away my flasher
as I walked into a little bar on the main street.
Dawn was just breaking, but they kept the bars open
I shook my head and
leaned on the counter to drink my beer. “Mission.”
The bartender eyed
my camo cloak and my rifle, slung across my back.
The barrel stuck way up over my shoulder. It was
a long-range gun with a flash and noise suppressor,
and I’m short.
“You’re an infantry
“Front line, sir.” I
snapped off a salute. The locals like military-speak.
“And how’s it going
I shrugged and didn’t
answer. What was I supposed to say? Small talk is
for peace time.
“I’ve been open since
occupation ended,” the bartender said, like he deserved
a medal for it.
Big fucking deal. No
point in disrespect, though, so I glanced around.
The bar had seen better days, for sure. It was dark
in there, with the blown-out windows all boarded
up and the daytime power outage reg.
He featured I didn’t
feel much like talking and left me alone. I drank
my warm beer and ordered another, all the while thinking
about what I had to do and how I could get it done.
I had a little money
saved. There isn’t much time to spend your pay when
you’re trenched. I didn’t have anybody to send cash
to. My whole family had died in the first San Francisco
gassing, when the enemy almost won three years ago.
I’d been away at Boy Scout camp.
“Are there any enemy
recovery shops around?” I asked the bartender.
He nodded. “Just down
the street, there, on the left.”
“I just want some souvenirs
to send home,” I said, in case it was odd that I
wanted to go there. “Crosses and stuff.”
“So they think you
took it right off the enemy, eh?”
“Right.” I was getting
to be a cred liar, which probably would come in handy.
It was a good shop
because of the occupation. The enemy uniforms were
a lot like ours; brown and cheap. T-shirt, pants,
armor with ID patches, and snipers always got a beam-deflective
camo cloak instead of a jacket, even on the enemy
side. The idea was that we could lay flat on the
ground with just the nose of our weapon sticking
out and no one would see us, even with an LED flood
on us. I didn’t care how tech the gear was; I never
cached my life like that. Neither did anybody else
I knew. But the cloak was warm and a cred rag.
I bought a couple of
crosses to hang around my neck, some armor with their
patches, and a blue t-shirt that said “Crusading
for God since 1095.”
Transport was harder
to arrange, but I found a repair shop and bought
a GI-Tran on the sneak. They could say it was stolen
easily enough, and I got it for only 2K. And the
enemy used Chrysler, too, so I’d blend right in once
I unscrewed the Secular Independent Army plates.
I loaded up the GI-Tran
with my gun and new clothes and started driving toward
Wichita, avoiding trench terra. About two miles out
I stopped to put on the armor and the t-shirt and
the crosses. I covered it all with my cloak. Snipe
rags gave you cred in SIA no matter what your rank
was, and I cached it would on the enemy side, too.
Besides, the city had been under enemy occupation
for so long that I figured their guards would be
They stopped me outside
the limits, at a barricade made of old kegs. I could
have driven around it, or even through the barrels;
the treads on my GI-Tran were huge. But I didn’t
want to draw attention to myself.
I examined the two
guys as they walked up to me. They had a canister-style
grenade shooter. You couldn’t hit the broad side
of a church at ten meters with one of those things.
“Coming from enemy
terra?” the guy asked me. Funny how he didn’t have
an accent. I’d guessed they all had the same drawl
as their General Norwood.
I nodded. “Sniper mission.”
I sniffed, like he
was an idiot. He was; he was just barricade meat. “Can’t
carry in case of capture.”
He seemed to accept
that. “Mission complete?”
“Oh, yeah? Who’d you
“NTN, I guess,” I said.
Jarg for need-to-know.
He gave me an odd look.
But it was pretty common jarg, right? I’d heard it
on the Net before I’d ever thought of joining SIA.
“Snipes always think
they’re cagey,” the other guy said, shitting me,
but not quite smiling, either. He waved me through.
I felt their eyes on
the back of my head for a long time after, and I
had to keep reminding myself that I was doing them
a favor. The enemy were all dying, too.
There aren’t bars in
occupied towns, so I wasn’t sure where to go to get
the gossip. And then it hit me like a flop-bomb:
church, of course. I found the nearest and went inside.
There were plenty of guys and fems around, talking.
The service had just ended.
They were friendly
enough when they saw my cloak.
“I’m Kelly. You’re
new?” one fem asked me. She was a blonde and cute,
and she filled out her rags in mostly the right ways.
I nodded. “Yeah, just
back from Oklahoma City.” That was where their Basic
was. Every SIA trench rat knew if we could get to
Oklahoma City we’d win the war.
“See Norwood while
you were there?” another guy asked. After a minute
I featured he was shitting me.
“No, sir,” I said,
trying to sound regulation. “Was he there? Did I
“Still there. Been
there a month.”
I played with one of
my crosses and wondered what to say.
The guy reached out
and touched my cross. “I like that.”
“My mom gave it to
me,” I said. “I feature no one will kill me if I’ve
got God’s charm on.”
“Oh, you are green.” His
laugh was rough. The way he didn’t quite look at
me straight made me feel itchy. He was so pale and
skinny, I knew I could take him.
“Well, I’d better go
find out where I’m supposed to sleep,” I said. I
needed to get away before I did something stupid.
“Yeah. Come back around,
anytime. You’re funny.”
Real funny. But now
I had a place to go.
When I got back in
the GI-Tran I was feeling pretty good about how things
were working out. I had gotten across enemy lines
with no hitch. But if this was the enemy, then why
weren’t we winning the war? It only confirmed my
suspicion that the stupidity of both sides started
at the top. I started my Tran and headed south, for
The trouble started
on the road. I realized my GI-Tran wasn’t quite right.
I passed several of their transports, and mine was
a lot newer than theirs. It even got some looks,
which wasn’t good at all.
Finally, I turned off
down a dirt road toward a farm. The house was all
boarded up and the barn door hung open, half off
its hinges. There weren’t any animals, of course.
I banged up the GI-Tran
with the butt of my rifle, and threw some mud on
it. When I stood back to look it over, I heard a
voice from behind me.
“What are you doing
to that perfectly good truck?”
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