Chapter 15 HEART OF THE SNIPER
They kept to the main road leading out of the compound, only taking a small detour to retrieve Haides’s cached slugthrower. He considered leaving it but didn’t know when he’d be back this way. The pistol was the only weapon he had access to, and much too valuable to abandon.
Haides was pretty sure Luca wouldn’t be bothered by the gun. He was right—the veteran soldier didn’t even blink. Instead, the man asked pointed questions about gun handling as they walked—and proceeded to give advice on how to carry, aim, fire, reload, and care for a firearm. The exchange made young Haides realize just how little he knew of weapons and survival—and how valuable Luca could be if he played his cards right.
Luca also talked about caring for the weapon’s umbra. Like the technomancers, Luca believed everything with a neural chip had a spirit, a ghost in the machine. Caring for the machine’s umbra sounded a lot like cleaning and lubricating to Haides, but Luca insisted that it made the weapon less likely to jam or otherwise misbehave. Which of course it did: a well-maintained piece of equipment would always perform better than a rusted, decrepit machine. Superstition was what it was, but Haides didn’t call the sniper out on it. Luca knew a lot about guns, Haides very little. It was better to let the man talk, learn the useful bits, and ignore the nonsense.
After getting the slugger, the pair went up to Red Square. That’s what the GIs called the Plaza of the Hallowed Dead. Haides couldn’t blame their choice of name: the plaza was a vast open space with at least a hundred towering statues made of akite—a reddish, marble-like local mineral—arranged in three concentric circles. The figures depicted mostly old men, with a few young heroes and a handful of women in the mix—Akakio’s hallowed dead, the local equivalent of the Conclave’s paragon-saints. Most of the statues had been damaged or outright destroyed—some during the actual battle for Thira, but mostly during the occupation—leaving the square covered in red rubble.
Red Square was about halfway between the compound and the Forbidden Zone. If you wanted to go east from the square, you had to first go north or south, bypass the Zone and then resume your original heading. South was longer, but safer. North was shorter, but snipers from both sides liked to take potshots at passersby. Sometimes there were bombings, and the Coalition would go there in armored columns occasionally. It was an area best avoided in Haides’s opinion.
Mother would have gone south, the longer but safer route, so that was their route of choice as well. Luca suggested they should keep some distance between them. One GI and a local boy would look like an odd couple, sure to attract attention. Plus, they’d be too easy to take out at once. Easy targets were tempting targets, according to Luca. Haides would go first—and the Coalition sniper would follow at a distance.
Haides wasn’t fooled. He knew he had been set up as the bait. But that was the way it was. You had to give something to get something. He didn’t worry too much. If they ran into trouble, Haides was confident that Luca would become the primary target: a shooter wouldn’t want to reveal himself to bag an unarmed child, not when there was a man with a gun walking behind. The kid walking point would be ignored long enough for him to slink away.
They kept going for about an hour before Luca called a break. They’d come around the southern edge of the Forbidden Zone and started to turn east again. The area was, in the sniper’s opinion, the most likely place something—he didn’t say ‘bad’ out loud—could have happened.
Haides didn’t like the implications—that Mother could be injured, dead even—but said nothing.
The odd couple took cover in the ruins of a shattered commercial building. One half of a fallen info-sign said ‘Garad,’ but Haides had no idea what kind of business that might have been, and with the Grid down, there was no way to check the infobanks. Haides ate the energy bar he’d gotten from Colonel Joaquin back at the compound, and they shared water from Luca’s canteen.
The scout-sniper wiped the dust from his gun. When he saw Haides staring, he held it out for the boy to inspect. It looked a lot like a standard pulse rifle, only it was a bit longer.
“This here is a Syndicate Mark 212 pulse rifle,” Luca said with pride in his voice, “made on the world of Epiphanet, in of the Syndicate’s mega-factories,” he said, pointing at a stamp in the gunmetal.
“What’s the Syndicate?” Haides asked. “Is it part of the Technocracy?”
“Nah, kid, it’s not. They license stuff from the technomancers, same as everyone else, but it’s a separate entity altogether. How do I explain this...it’s like the biggest manufacturing and transportation guild in the Milky Way. Like half of everything you own is made by them and delivered by them. Well, not here on Aka...Protasia. You made your own stuff and had your own starships. But everywhere else. Back where I’m from, a place called Loches, we make tractors and hoppers, tanks and aerospace fighters, but everything else is imported from the Syndicate.”
Haides nodded, hoping Luca would talk more about guns and less about factories, merchant shipping, and far-away places.
“It’s based on the tried and true Mark 210 pulse rifle. You don’t need to be an expert to see the similarities in design. Only this one has a longer barrel, a collapsible bipod, and,” he carefully removed a scope from a webbing pouch and fitted it to the gun, “the best optics the Syndicate has to offer.” A big smile had crept onto his face. “I got it off a dead sniper during my first engagement on Azania. He didn’t look like he needed it anymore, and Athena doesn’t like seeing good guns going to waste, so I was only doing my duty.”
Haides didn’t know about any of that, but the gun looked absolutely amazing. Sleek, purposeful, deadly. The light autopistol stuffed into his pocket felt suddenly inadequate. He wanted that gun, more than he had wanted anything in his life. It was an insane thought, really. Chances were he wouldn’t last another year. Even if he did survive, what would he do with it? Go hunting? Shoot at targets? A boy of twelve, lugging around a rifle as long as he was tall.
“You point and fire it, same as a projectile weapon,” Luca explained, “only there is no bore and no bullet. Instead, there is a mechanism inside that transforms the energy stored in the energy pack,” he patted the rather plain-looking square box protruding from the gun, “into a pulse of extremely focused energy. That pulse only lasts for an instant. Which is good, because the shorter the beam duration, the more violent the reaction in the target.”
Luca let Haides hold the gun. It was much too big for a kid his age, but it was the most fantastic thing he had ever held in his arms. Even cradling puppy Nik for the first time paled in comparison. “I like your laser gun,” Haides said, pretending to be a bit less knowledgeable about such things than he really was. Not that he was a technomancer or anything, but Haides certainly knew the difference between a utility laser and a high-energy pulse weapon.
The feigned, childish ignorance earned young Haides a pat on the shoulder. “It’s not a laser. Lasers are tools. This is a pulse rifle. It shoots a beam of energy—the same as a laser—but there the similarities end. This baby can shoot in all kinds of weather conditions and still kill at long range. Even particulate smoke screens won’t stop it. A laser can’t do that.”
Luca pointed back down the way they had come. “Have a look. Do you see those fellows? The ones sneaking up behind us, trying to stay hidden, but doing a shit job about it?” Haides nodded. “I guessed as much. You’re pretty observant for a kid. Here,” he removed the front and back covers from the optics and flipped down the bipod, “have a look through the scope. The safety is on, so you won’t hurt them.”
Haides did as he was told, and suddenly it looked like Sarge, Mazzo, and Roverto were standing a couple of meters away. Mazzo was up front. If the gun had been live, Haides could have pulled the trigger, and the man would have died.
“Quite something, isn’t it? To have the power to decide who lives and who dies. Too bad you don’t hold that same power over your own life.” Realizing he was talking about life and death to a boy he probably took for a ten-year-old, Luca dropped the subject.
Haides thought it sounded quite reasonable. He’d seen more than enough death over the past year to appreciate the sentiment.
“It’s superior in almost every way to a projectile weapon. Being an energy weapon means no moving parts. It’s completely sealed—no sand in the chamber, no fouling of the barrel. It can be used underwater, in space, under just about any combat conditions. It will fire straight and true every time. The beam is nearly speed-of-light: you pull the trigger, you hit whatever you’re aiming at. There is no ballistics to worry about. A bit of atmospheric diffraction perhaps, but nothing compared to the spread of a gun shooting metal bullets. In short, it’s perfect for sniping.”
Luca picked the gun out of Haides’s hands. The young Akakian was sad to see it go. “There is almost no recoil, just a little snap when you fire. That comes from the thermal bloom around the tip of the barrel, like a small explosion of heat.” Haides gave the gun a thoughtful, longing look. “Fortunately it comes with a thermal baffler,” Jon pointed to a sleeve of grey ceramics covering the end of the barrel, “to keep my aim steady and to avoid giving away my position to nasty people with thermal sights. If you know what you’re doing, you can keep your aim though shot after shot. Projectile weapons need compensators or other shit to cope. Bulky and inelegant compared to this baby.”
The Coalition sniper detached the scope and carefully returned it to its padded pouch. “I call it the Eye. Without the Eye, it’s just another pulse rifle. It’s the Eye and the heart of the shooter that matters. A gun is just a tool.”
Haides nodded in agreement. “With the Eye, anyone can be a sniper. You don’t have to be much of a shot.”
Luca shook his head. “No, they can’t. A sniper has to be more than just a machine pulling at the trigger.” He scratched at his temple. “See...the beam is invisible, but it excites the hell out of the air, which gives you these bright lines, almost like miniature lightning bolts, only they are straight as razors. They will give away your position if the enemy is observant. DEW lines they are called. Short for Direct Energy Weapon lines. If you’re a real sniper, you fire only a few shots before changing positions. Shoot and scoot. End of problem.”
Haides nodded again. It made sense. A sniper was pretty useless if he was killed by return fire during his first engagement.
Luca pulled a small, well-worn book from one of his many pockets. “Here, take it,” he said and pushed it into Haides’s hands. “It’s the Infantryman’s Handbook. We GIs like to joke about it, but there is actually lots of useful stuff in there. Plenty of drawings and illustrations to liven it up. I can get me another, the Colonel won’t mind.”
Haides accepted the book with a camouflage pattern and seven golden roses on the cover. Knowing your enemy was an advantage you didn’t turn down. “Thanks,” he said and put the book into his satchel.
“There’s more,” Luca continued. “You got to know how to stay out of sight. How to pick out the good spots, places where you won’t be seen, but where the enemy will pass by within shooting range. Remain motionless for hours or days. Stay cool when the enemy tries to flush you out. That sort of thing.”
Haides nodded eagerly. He could do that.
“And—perhaps most of all—you gotta handle killing people from up close. The Eye puts you right there, kid. Puts you right there.”
Jon looked at Haides, catching the boy’s eyes. “You think you could do that, kid? Do it, then sleep well, and do it again the next day? Do you have the heart of the sniper?”
Haides looked right back at Luca and gave a single firm nod as confirmation.
“Then I guess you’ll be a sniper someday, kid. Someday you’ll be the man with the Eye, taking shots and calling warriors to face Anubis,” he said, making the Half-Pyramid—thumb horizontal and trigger finger at a steep angle—with his free hand.
Luca turned halfway around and waved the rifle over his head as a signal to the approaching men. “You could come with us when we move. You look like a clever lad. We could find a place for you. The Colonel likes you, he’d let you come along.”
“What do you mean? Moving where?” Haides said. This was unexpected.
“Dunno where, dunno when, but we’ll be moving. Seems we’ll be staying here on Protasia, that’s what they call the planet now—it’s forbidden to call it Akakios. We’ve been given settlement rights, and each man will receive a piece of land or other property according to rank and merit. Then we won’t be soldiers, we’ll be citizens of Protasia.”
“But why not here? Why not settle here, in Thira?”
“I don’t know. Heard there was this article that forbids soldiers from settling where they’ve just kicked the shit out of the locals. Says it’s bad for long-term stability and stuff.” Luca spat into the dust. “Loads of crap if you ask me.” He sighed. “No, I bet there is someone high up the chain of command that thinks Thira is too nice for the 57th Loches Mechanized—but just about right for themselves.” He shifted his position to better observe the approaching trio of men. “You don’t have to decide right away, kid, but give it some consideration. If...when we find your mother, I’ll ask her if she’d like to come too. Good women are hard to come by in this place.”
“What about my sister?” Haides said. Eli was pretty useless, but family should stick together. And she might just be his ticket out of Thira if Mother was unavailable.
“What about her?” Luca replied.
“She’s a woman too—can she also come?” Haides said, putting emphasis on the word ‘woman,’ despite his sister’s tender age.
“Didn’t know you had a sister...and this sister is how old?”
“Eli was thirteen about half when the first bombs fell. So I guess she’s like fourteen and a half now,” he replied in an innocent tone.
“Takes after your mother, does she?” Luca sounded hopeful.
In more ways than one, Haides thought, but on the outside, he just nodded.
“Yes, your sister can come too.”
Haides was pleased to hear that. Whether or not they found Mother, he had secured his passage out of Thira.
“And Nik, my canine, can he come too?” Haides asked in as thin a voice as possible. It technically wasn’t his dog, it was Janus’s, but since his brother no longer took care of it, he had no say in the matter.
“You have a dawg?” Luca smiled. “Yes, your dawg can come. Of course, it can come!” He laughed heartily. It made Haides think he used to have a ‘dawg’ of his own back when he wasn’t a soldier.
“...my brother Jan...what about him?” Haides had to ask, even if he already knew the answer.
“Sorry, son, but your brother is too old.” Luca shook his head for emphasis. “I saw him when I came around last time. He must be what, sixteen now? The Army won’t allow it.”
There was a drawn-out silence.
“You, your mother, your sister, and the dawg—yes. Your brother—no.” He said it matter-of-factly. There was no maliciousness in Luca’s voice.
“I guess he’ll be all right without us, Sir,” Haides replied, trying to sound sad without overdoing it. “Him being a man grown and all. It’s not like he spends much time around the house. I’ll talk to Mother, and maybe we’ll come without him,” he put in a little pause for effect, “but I doubt she’ll agree. Family is important to us Akakians.”
Since Haides was going with Luca and his comrades, it would be best if the sniper had a good impression of him. He didn’t need to know that the boy had absolutely no intention of bringing his brother along.