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Science, Speculation, Space Opera

Betsy Dornbusch lives with her family near the foothills of Boulder and alternately in the heart of Grand Lake, Colorado. She enjoys snowboarding, writing speculative fiction, editing the magazine Electric Spec, and pretending to be a soccer mom. (Nobody's buying the soccer mom bit, though.)


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To Stop A War
I decided 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 war.

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 down.

“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 snipers.

I gave him the cigarette. I didn’t want to, but Sarge was Sarge. You didn’t fuck with him.

Cigarette dangling 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 bullet.”

“Arrow,” I said.


“Where’d you get him?” I asked.

“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 nine left.

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 as any.

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 the time.

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 in Hutchinson.

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 24/7.

“On leave?”

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 sniper?”

“Front line, sir.” I snapped off a salute. The locals like military-speak.

“And how’s it going up there?”

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 slack.

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. I relaxed.

“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.”

“Got I.D.?”

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?”

I nodded.

“Oh, yeah? Who’d you get?”

“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 miss him?”

“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 Oklahoma City.

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?”

(continued on page 2)



To Stop A War by Betsy Dornbusch 1 2
originally published December 28, 2009

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