By Jonathan P. Brazee
The Expanding Universe, Volume 3
Copyright © 2017 Jonathan P. Brazee
Publishing date: November 2017
Edited by Cat Rambo
By Jonathan P. Brazee
Staff Sergeant Gracie Medicine Crow, United Federation Marine Corps, accepted the cup from Rabbit as she scanned the almost-deserted village below. She blew on the coffee, then took a sip, nodding in appreciation. She thought she recognized the brew as Cushington Blue, and she wondered where her new spotter had scored it. Lance Corporal Christopher Irving—“Rabbit”—had only been assigned as her spotter for a week now, and she hadn’t formed an opinion as to his skillset yet. He’d had good grades at Triple S, the United Federation Marine Corps Scout-Sniper School, but school performance didn’t always reflect performance in the field.
Still, if he can shoot as good as he can scrounge up a good cup of Joe, then he might have potential.
“Take the west side,” she told him in dismissal. “Let me know if anyone takes an unusual interest in the library.”
“Roger that, Staff Sergeant,” Rabbit said as he scurried, as much as a two-meter tall, 120 kg Marine could “scurry,” to the other side of the roof.
Gracie could sense his eagerness. Like all snipers, he’d proven himself in combat as a grunt before being accepted into Triple S, so technically, he wasn’t a newbie. Despite that, he still had that new-sniper smell to him, straight out of the package. More than that, he was still only a PIG, a “Professionally Instructed Gunman.” This was their first live-mission together and, for once, Gracie was fine with the fact that it should be a cold mission. As part of a routine security element, she would have the opportunity to observe him in a field setting while the stakes were relatively low. Scout-sniper teams had to depend on and trust each other, and that usually meant months of training before going in hot, but after Saracen had been killed three weeks ago, her previous spotter, Sergeant Halcik Sung, had been pulled from her to fill Saracen’s slot. Forty-one confirmed kills made Gracie the most accomplished sniper in the platoon, so she’d had to take the newbie.
She took another sip of the coffee. Five floors below on the ground, Sergeant Rafiq exited one of the shops surrounding the small square. He and his squad had been conducting a sweep before the rest of his platoon escorted the major to the meeting with the local commissioners. He looked up and caught her eye, then nodded. Gracie acknowledged him with a half-salute.
She really hadn’t expected Second Squad to find anything. Tension Gorge—why “Gorge,” Gracie still hadn’t figured out as the area around the village was as flat as a rugby pitch—was not in a high-risk area. The last incident, an IE attack, had taken place thirteen days prior, eight klicks away. But with a field grade officer coming from division, all precautions had to be taken, and the village had to be swept. So, instead of pursuing the FLP commandos in the Mist Mountains, she and Rabbit were here, glorified security guards.
They hadn’t even set up a proper hide with overhead cover and concealment. They were meant to be seen. Gracie felt exposed to the world, making her nerves crawl. Every instinct told her to get into a hide from where she could deal death unseen, but orders were orders. Not many fighters, even FLNT commandos, would choose to take on a Marine sniper. She was there as a “Warning: Attack Dogs on Premises” sign.
The slightest bit of movement caught her eye. Gracie raised her Windmoeller, scoping the spot. About a klick away, at the western edge of the village, a woman shifted her weight behind a window, looking out. She stood there for a moment before stepping back out of sight. Gracie pulled the map of the village onto her helmet display, noting the two-story house, then running a line-of-sight to the library. She didn’t think the women could see the library entrance, but she could have a sightline on several of the library’s upper-story windows. She ranged the building, getting 984 meters, then entered it as a “C-level” target in her data book, joining the 44 other potential target positions she’d identified since arriving early in the morning with Second Squad.
She ran through the target positions again, seeing if she could remember the range for each one, starting with the A’s. She got 39 of the 45 correct.
Come on, Crow. Get them down! she chided herself before going over the list yet one more time.
It would only take a moment to pull up the range on a specific target, but even a split second could make the difference between taking out an aggressor or allowing the enemy to engage the Marines. Some fellow Marines thought her anal-retentive insistence on memorizing details was over-kill, but none of them had notched 41 kills, either. Gracie believed in leaving nothing to chance.
This time, she got 42 out of 45 correct. Better, but not good enough. She’d wait twenty minutes, then try again. It wasn’t as if range was the only parameter that went into making a good shot. Her angle to the ground, the temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity, the planet’s rotation, gravity—those and more would affect her round’s trajectory. The constants were already entered into her scope’s firing computer, but the variables had to be measured or determined at the time of the shot. The more variables she could enter into her scope AI, the better her chances of success, and the quicker she could do that, the quicker she could fire. If already knowing the range could slice off even a microsecond, it could be worth it.
At Triple S, a wall plaque proclaimed: Snipers aren’t deadly because they carry the biggest rifles; they’re deadly because they’ve learned how to weaponize math. This hit the nail on the head. Some people, even fellow snipers, claimed that sniping was an art, but Gracie knew it was pure physics, pure math, and ever since she’d become a sniper, she’d dedicated herself to making her math the best possible.
“Staff Sergeant Medicine Crow, your package has been delayed. He’s still at Hornsby. Call it 80 minutes late,” Lieutenant Diedre Kaster-Lyons passed over the platoon net.
“Roger that,” Gracie passed back. “Any idea as to why?”
“That’s a negative. We just got the word. I’ll keep you posted.”
Gracie took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. She wasn’t surprised. Nothing seemed to ever go according to plan on this planet. Part of it was normal Marine Corps operating procedure, but more seemed to be because of the local government’s maneuvering factions. Everyone agreed that the Frente de Liberación de Nuevo Trujillo was the enemy to all that was good and just on the planet, but none of the various political factions seemed willing to cooperate lest they cede some sort of advantage to another. She should be used to it by now, but the thought of sitting up on the roof for an additional hour-plus made her want to scream. By the time she got back to camp, she’d have spent at least 14 hours doing absolutely nothing.
“Did you hear that?” she passed to Rabbit on the P2P.
“Roger that. Uh . . . is it always like this? I mean, the changes?”
She suppressed a chuckle. As a junior grunt, he wouldn’t have been kept in the loop as much as he was now as a scout-sniper. This wasn’t even the first change: the meeting had originally been planned for yesterday, and this was now the second delay for today.
“Hurry up and wait, Lance Corporal Irving. You know how it is in the Suck.”
“Yeah, I guess so. It’s just so . . . well, you know.”
Yes, I do know, Rabbit. Boy, do I know.
Gracie could bitch with the best of them—usually just to herself and not aloud, though. But she still wouldn’t change her profession for anything. She was meant to be a Marine. A member of the Apsaalooké Nation from Montana on Earth, she came from a long line of warriors, and her lifestyle was embedded into her DNA. She might chafe at the delay, but this was her life. Without conscious thought, she reached under her collar and rubbed the “hog’s tooth” hanging from her neck between her fingers, a recovered round from her first victim’s magazine, but more importantly, the symbol of being a HOG, or a “Hunter of Gunmen.”
She continued to scan the area below her, working quick firing solutions in her mind for various locations, almost on autopilot. Sitting in a hide for days on end waiting for that one shot, there wasn’t much else to do, and she’d done this tens of thousands of times over the ten-plus years she’d been a designated scout-sniper. Tens of thousands of calculations, more than a year of combined time in hides, all for 41 kills. Civilians used to the Hollybolly war flicks might think it a lot of effort per kill, but some snipers never even registered a single kill. Never became HOGs. Gracie’s total was now the fourth-most among active duty snipers.
“Dingo 3, Charlie-Two-One, we’ve got a cargo hover approaching your position from azimuth Two-Zero-Five, range two-point-three klicks. Looks like it’s got agricultural products in the bed. There are a few anomalies in the scan, but within accepted parameters. Just keep an eye on them,” an unnamed voice passed over the command net.
“Roger that,” Gracie and Sergeant Rafiq said in unison.
“You got that?” Gracie asked Rabbit over the P2P, but turning her head to see him.
Two-Zero-Five was to the south west of their position, and her spotter should have a straight line-of-sight to what they had designated as Route Bluebird, the road leading into Tension Gorge from that direction.
Rabbit swiveled his body to glass to the south-west before shouting “Got it!” ignoring the P2P.
They might not be in a concealed hide, but Gracie winced. In the open or not, snipers didn’t shout like that, giving away their positions. It was a bad habit to start, and she’d have to remind him of that.
“Looks like a typical hauler, one of those gas jobs.”
Which was to be expected. Nuevo Trujillo relied heavily on methane for ground transportation, methane extracted from agricultural waste. She ran a scan through the available feeds before picking up a micro-drone that had the hovertruck in its sights. The truck, three-quarters loaded with cargo pods, was making its way north down the road, the secondary north-south thoroughfare in the sector. Salinas, another small farming town, was twelve klicks south along Bluebird from Tension Gorge.
Gracie wasn’t overly concerned about the truck. Tension Gorge was not a restricted town, and while it had been largely abandoned during the fighting of two months ago, some people still lived there, and there were still crops to be harvested and transported to the processing plants. Still, Second Squad would have to stop and search the truck as it reached the village.
“Keep your eye on the truck as it gets here and Second checks it out,” she passed to Rabbit.
She was tempted to move to his side of the roof and do it herself, but he needed to get his feet wet. To her side in its case was her Kyocera, her hypervelocity sniper rifle, and with any other spotter, she might have told him to take it. Rabbit, however, had not snapped in with it, and without being able to key in the cheek weld and eye position, he wouldn’t be very accurate. No, better he keep his standard-issue M99. It had more than enough range to cover Second Squad, and he had it zeroed in for his shooting position.
She turned back to her area of responsibility. The Navy and Marine Corps scanners hadn’t found anything suspicious about the truck, but using something so obvious as a decoy was not unheard of. With short quick movements, she covered the mental grid she’d constructed, using both her prime focus as well as her peripheral vision to spot anything out of the ordinary.
One of Second Squad’s four-man fire teams was moving to where they could meet the truck. Gracie shifted her focus to the two local security standing outside the library door. They’d arrived with the first three commissioners. Casually sucking on stim sticks, flare-barreled Munchen 44’s held at the ready, the impressively lethal-looking men didn’t watch the fire team as it left. If something was up of which they were a part, they were hiding it well. Gracie didn’t suspect the two guards of anything, but she had a firing solution for them already locked in, and her Windmoeller’s WPT-331 rounds had the penetrative power to defeat the Cryolene body armor they wore. Better safe than sorry.
She was more concerned with the young boy, who she’d nicknamed Space Dog due to the brightly-colored image on his t-shirt. Perhaps ten or eleven years old, he sat on the stoop of a home a block off the square. He wasn’t armed, the best she could tell, but he’d been sitting there for half-an hour, seemingly interested in the goings on. That could be merely normal adolescent curiosity, but he could be acting as a lookout, feeding information to the bad guys. Gracie had zoomed in on him several times with her scope, but she hadn’t seen any signs of him communicating with anyone.
“The truck’s almost here,” Rabbit shouted across the roof.
“Use your comms, Irving. You trying to paint a bullseye on us?” she passed.
“Oh, yeah. Sorry, Staff Sergeant,” he said, this time over the P2P.
“OK, then. Just keep an eye on them.”
She pulled up Rabbit’s feed, reducing it and sending it to the top left of her helmet display where she could monitor it but still have a full view of her own area of responsibility. She quickly ticked through her known potential target list. Silver Hair was still in his garden, Red Shirt was walking along Calle Jones from where she’d gone to the lone store still open, and Limp Man was no longer in sight. She shifted to the right where Route Robin led into the town and from where the major would arrive. A local policeman still stood at the edge of town, ready to hop on his scoot and escort the major and the rest of First Platoon to the library. He looked bored out of his head, something Gracie completely understood.
Closer in, she checked Space Dog, then Gollum 1 and 2, the two security guards at the library. Shifting her view farther to the fight, she—
What’s with Pot Belly? she wondered.
The older man, his protruding gut hanging over his belt, had risen from where he’d been sitting on a porch for the last hour, supposedly reading a novel. The reader was now on the small table beside his chair, the screen dark, and the man was standing, looking with poorly disguised interest to his left. Gracie followed his gaze’s direction, but nothing jumped out at her. That wasn’t a comfort—something was tweaking her instincts.
“I don’t have anything for certain, but something might be up,” she passed on the local command circuit, keyed into Rabbit and all the Marines from Second Squad. “Keep alert.”
“What d’ya got, Staff Sergeant?” Sergeant Rafiq asked.
“Nothing for certain, but Pot Be . . . the man at building 23,” she passed, using the number Lieutenant Diedre Kaster-Lyons, dual-hatted as the battalion intel officer and the scout-sniper platoon commander, had designated the house, “seems a little too interested in something.”
“The fat guy? Eric?” the sergeant asked. “I spoke with him. He seemed OK, happy to see us. Tired of the fighting and all.”
Maybe, but something’s up, she thought as she continued to watch him. I can feel it.
Pot Belly—Eric whatever—was now looking in every direction except to the left, which could mean something, but he sat back down, picked up his reader, and started to read again. Gracie wondered if her nerves were playing with her, making her see things that didn’t exist, but something still nagged at the back of her mind. She zoomed in on the man, and something hit her. The reader. The display was off. Pot Belly was “reading” a darkened screen.
“Stop the truck!” she passed. “Something’s wrong!”
From Rabbit’s feed, she could see the truck, now a mere three hundred meters from the village’s edgee. Corporal Ben-Zvi, the fire team leader waiting to search the truck, didn’t wait for orders from his squad leader. He stepped out in the middle of Route Bluebird, weapon raised while his amplified voice called out, “You, in the truck. Halt!”
The truck sped up.
Gracie bolted across the roof before conscious thought registered what was happening, yelling for Rabbit to take her place on the roof’s east side. Ben-Zvi’s fire team had spread out and was taking the truck under fire, but it was a big, hulking thing, and their M-99s weren’t having much effect on target. There was a whoosh as a Marine launched a Hatchet, but the missile hit high on its right side with an impressive but ineffectual blast, missing the engine block and anything vital.
Firing at a moving vehicle, through a windshield, and from a high angle, was one of the most difficult shots a sniper could make. Gracie had spent countless hours in simulators and on ranges from Tarawa to Alexander, but still, this was no sure thing, and she both hadn’t pre-calculated a firing solution and didn’t have time to calculate one now. She’d have to go with her gut.
Firing from a height meant the round drop would be less, but firing through the windshield meant that the round would most likely deflect downwards upon hitting it. The WPT-331 rounds she’d loaded to take care of the security officers armor had more punching power than the standard WPT-310 Laupa sniper round, so the deflection would be less—but how much less?
Gracie hit the roof’s edge, flipping off her helmet as she brought up her rifle and laid it across the top of the low retaining wall. Her scope was zeroed at 300 meters. She had already ranged the edge of the first house where Route Bluebird entered the village at 445 meters. The truck was still 150 meters or so away from that, and the wind had been blowing north to south at a slight eight-to-ten KPH. She didn’t have time to enter any of that; it was pure Kentucky windage time. Unable to see through the windshield’s glare, she put her crosshairs slightly high and to the right of where she thought the driver would be. Just as she started to squeeze the trigger, she saw the slightest of cracks from the driver’s side door.
He’s not suiciding! He’s going to try and get out!
The car that Gracie had taken out on Jericho had been driven by a suicide bomber. This driver was either not as dedicated or was still needed. If the latter, then this was just the initial act in a larger assault.
With a last-second shift to the right, figuring the driver would be scrunched over to be able to bail out, she squeezed off a round, then shifted lower and to the left before firing off a second. The flower blossomed on the windshield as the 285-grain jacketed round punched through it, and the truck started to veer before the second round hit.
“Axel-Three, this is Dingo-Three. We are under attack. Cancel the mission,” she passed on the command net before adding, “But send the rest of Charlie-One. We’re going to need them.”
“Roger, Dingo-Three. Understand you are under attack. Axel-Three-Five is being recalled. Will get back to you on Charlie-One.”
The major had to be pulled back, but Gracie thought they’d need the rest of First Platoon here in the village. She scanned for more fighters as the hovertruck left the road and slowed to a stop in a field of knee-high, green, leafy crops.
On Jericho, the suicide VBIED had exploded as the driver she’d killed released the suicide switch. This truck didn’t. Gracie looked over her scope at it, wondering if she’d jumped the gun on declaring a full-out attack.
The truck erupted into a fireball that roiled into the air.
Of course. It was on a timer so the driver could escape with his skin.
Gracie was half-listening to Corporal Ben-Zvi who was on the net with a quick sitrep when the sound of firing from the center of the town reached her. She bolted back to where Rabbit, who had taken her place, stood, peering over the building’s edge.
“Get down. You can see just as well if you’re prone, and you won’t be exposed,” she told him, jerking him down by the collar.
“I’m hit, Sergeant,” someone passed on the net.
Without her helmet, Gracie didn’t have her display to see who it was, but she swung her scope to the two security guards. One was crouching, weapon ready as he scanned for a target, while the other was running forward. Gracie put her crosshairs on him, ready to take him out if needed, but he reached the wounded Marine and dragged him back to the base of the library.
Guess they’re not part of this.
Someone was, though, and Gracie’s job was to take them out.
“I’ve got someone. Looks like he’s got a Halstead,” Rabbit said.
“Where? Give me a location.”
“Uh . . . Building 38, second floor.”
“Building 38, 185 meters,” she mumbled, then “Take him out.”
Such a close distance was child’s play to a Marine with an M-99, much less a trained sniper. She could leave the target to Rabbit as she searched for more. She heard the whisper-snap of darts as Rabbit fired, then an excited “I got him!”
“Well, HOG, go find your number two kill,” she said, wanting him to focus on the task at hand.
“A HOG, really? But that was with my 99.”
He was right. A kill like that wouldn’t be tallied as a sniper kill, and she’d jumped the gun on anointing him a HOG. Now wasn’t the time to get into technicalities though.
“Later, Irving. We don’t have time to discuss it now.”
“Roger that,” he said. Gracie heard him quietly add, “Shit, a HOG.”
A string of automatic fire opened up, but with the sound reverberating between buildings, Gracie couldn’t pinpoint its origin. Putting that weapon out of her mind for the moment, she shifted back to Pot Belly. The man was gone, his reader abandoned on the floor of the porch. She kept scanning the direction where he’d been looking. Tension Gorge was not a very densely populated village, but still, there were enough buildings to intermittently mask her view. She was dead sure, though, that there was somebody there.
A flash of movement proved her right. Two people, pulling an ancient but effective looking crew-served gun that she didn’t recognize but looked like an anti-tank weapon of some sort, passed between two buildings, moving out-of-sight before she could aim and fire. She swung her barrel left to the other side of the house that now masked them and waited. Automatic fire still echoed in bursts throughout the village, but she slowed her breathing, letting her sight picture become her world. A few moments later, a head peered around the corner. At 210 meters to the home’s front door, she could easily drop him, but she wanted the gun in the open.
Come on out, the coast is clear, she implored him.
He turned back, said something, then disappeared for a moment, reappearing holding the crew-served gun’s controls, leading it forward. He pointed towards the square, saying something to his companion, who followed him into sight.
Gracie and Rabbit were not exactly in stealth mode, and their position had to have been noted, but the two FLMT fighters didn’t even look her way.
Five meters out from the house’s protection, Gracie squeezed the trigger, going for center mass. The man dropped as if poleaxed, and Gracie cycled her action, swinging to take the second man into her sights. With cat-like reflexes, the second soldier bolted back into cover. Gracie snapped off a shot, but she was sure she missed.
“Staff Sergeant, do you got eyes on whoever is on our asses?” Sergeant Rafiq asked between heavy breathing.
“Where’s it coming from?”
“Through the fucking wall, from the north. It’s chewing the shit out of the place, and we’ve got no cover.”
“Lance Corporal Irving, we need to find that automatic weapon. Move to the edge over there and see if you can spot it.” She keyed back to the command net and asked, “Rafiq, what’s the status on your platoon? I’m not hearing anything. When’s their ETA?”
A round pinged just below Gracie, taking a chunk of cerocrete off the wall.
So much for them ignoring us.
“As soon as the major’s lifted out of there, they’ll break free. We’ve got a Minidrag on the way, though. ETA in six minutes.”
Gracie half-expected the delay in the platoon. They couldn’t just leave the major out there on the road, cooling his heels. The Minidrag was a nice piece of news, though. The Marines had two “Dragon” drones. The “Mini” was the smaller, but depending on its combat load, it could still pack a decent wallop. It would have been providing overwatch for the column bringing in the major, and she was frankly surprised that the S3 had cut it loose to support Second Squad and her sniper team.
As Gracie watched, chunks of the closer wall of the store in which Rafiq and two of his fire teams had taken cover blew out into the square. The enemy gun was shooting all the way through the building.
“Fuck! Can you get them off our ass, Crow?” Rafiq passed. “If we weren’t hugging the deck, that would have cut us in two. I don’t think we can wait for the Minidrag.”
“I think I have the position, Staff Sergeant,” Rabbit shouted, forgetting her earlier admonition. “I saw a flash.”
“Wait one,” she passed to Sergeant Rafiq on the P2P. “Let me see what I can do.”
“Hurry up, Staff Sergeant. I’ve got one down, and I don’t have anything to engage.
Gracie slid back behind the retaining wall, then crouched, scooted to where Rabbit hunkered behind his section of the low wall.
“Give me your helmet,” she ordered.
She should have put hers back on—then she could have simply downloaded his feed. But it was still 20 meters behind her, so she threw his on, then reversed his feed 60 seconds, and started it up again. Her image appeared first from what looked like just after she dropped the FPL fighter.
Don’t look at me, Rabbit. Look out at the bad guys.
She heard her voice telling him to move over to try and spot the shooters, then the herky-jeky image as he ran to the roof’s far corner. He was scanning, back and forth when there was a flash at the corner of his vision immediately before the burst of automatic fire could be heard. Gracie made a mental note of the building from where the flash originated: Building 14, the Ag Co-op, a two-story office made from the same cerocrete as the bank on which she now perched.
She gave Rabbit back his helmet, then did a quick turkey hop to orient herself before dropping back out of sight. From her adjusted position, the window on the building would be about 465 meters, still an easy shot. Gracie’s longest kill to date with the Windmoeller was 2005 meters, so this would be child’s play—if she could acquire a target.
She entered the data in her Miller, then eased up, bringing the window into her sights. The sharp report from behind their position startled her for an instant, but the cracka-cracka-cracka was from a Marine M110, the standard automatic slug-thrower for a fire team. Corporal Ben-Zvi’s team had engaged, and she hoped they’d taken out the soldier she’d missed. She acquired her sight picture again, and immediately, the muzzle of a barrel edged out before firing off another string of 15 or 20 shots. This was their baby, but the gunner hadn’t exposed himself. She was pretty sure that whoever he or she was, they knew exactly where she and Rabbit were, and they didn’t want to become targets.
“Can you get them?” Rabbit asked as she slid back down to sit on the deck, back against the low wall.
“You didn’t happen to bring a Hatchet, did you?”
“No, Staff Sergeant. You didn’t tell me to.”
She hadn’t expected him to have brought one of the little personal anti-armor rockets, but it didn’t hurt to ask. Semi-smart, the rocket could take out most armor and would blast its way through any civilian construction.
She shrugged, then half-turned her torso to reach up and touch the wall’s rounded top. It was about 10 centimeters thick. Only three buildings in the entire village were made of cerocrete, and she had to figure that they were probably made in a similar fashion. Cerocrete was more expensive than the pressed vegaboard that was used for most of the village buildings, and not surprisingly, it was more robust. The walls of the building in which Rafiq was taking cover might as well have been paper for all the protection they were providing, but the cerocrete was different.
How different? she wondered, dropping her magazine and checking the rounds inside.
She had one of her remaining WPT-331 jacketed rounds in the chamber and two in the magazine. The WPT-310 Lapua was a much better round for long distances, but the 331 had more punch. She didn’t know, however, if it could punch through 10 centimeters of cerocrete. Once again, the math of sniping had raised its head, but this time, she didn’t have the numbers to plug into the equation.
Only one way to find out.
More firing was erupting from around the village. With Sergeant Rafiq pinned down, only Ben-Zvi’s fire team and maybe the two civilian security officers were returning the fire. That had to change. Marines took the fight to the enemy, not let the enemy take it to them.
“Sergeant Rafiq, if I cover you with that automatic crew-served, can you make it to the library? It’s made of stone, and it’ll give you better cover.”
“If you can get some rounds to the east, too, I think we can. We’re taking small arms from there, and we’ve got to carry Parker.”
“Can you let the two security guys know you’re coming? I don’t want to see them take you out.”
“Roger that. They pulled Omato out of the line of fire, and she’s fucked up, but she’s on her comms now.”
Another heavy burst from the crew-served gun tore through the building, and Sergeant Rafiq passed, “With you or without you, we’ve got to go now!”
“Irving, on my go, I want you to put rounds downrange to the east. No one-shot, one kill. I need volume.”
He nodded, his hand squeezing and relaxing on the pistol grip while Gracie checked her scope one more time.
“On three,” she passed on the command net so every Marine could hear her. “One . . . two . . . three!”
Gracie swung her barrel over the top of the wall, set her cross hairs on the wall about 15 centimeters to the left of the window’s edge, and squeezed the trigger. She shifted lower and slightly to the right and fired again as Rabbit started sending hundreds of hypervelocity darts across the square and in amongst the buildings.
“Go, go!” Sergeant Rafiq shouted over the net.
The muzzle of the enemy gun disappeared, and Gracie put her last 331 into the wall. She wasn’t sure if the rounds had penetrated through it, but she’d certainly gotten the shooter’s attention. With a WPT-310 now chambered, she swung back to the square, looking for a target. A flash of movement caught her at the edge of the scope, and she brought the crosshairs to bear, but realized that it was the boy, running away from the square, not toward it. A door opened ahead of him, and a panicked-looking woman came out, wildly beckoning the boy to her.
She didn’t bother to see if the boy made it. Rounds started to impact around her, and she looked over the top of her scope, trying to spot a real target. She immediately picked up an FLNT soldier running full tilt towards the square, firing up at her as he went. With a smooth move, Gracie acquired the man through her scope, adjusted high, then fired. The round hit him just below the throat, and Gracie knew he was dead before he hit the ground.
There was a thud next to her, and Rabbit grunted before spinning around and falling to the deck.
“You OK?” she asked.
He gave her a weak thumbs-up, then rubbed his upper chest, saying, “My bones stopped the round, but shit, that felt like someone hit me with a club.”
The “bone” inserts that acted as body armor would stop most small arms rounds, but while darts might barely be felt, larger caliber slugs could still beat a Marine up pretty good.
“Where was the shooter?”
“Over there,” he said, pointing past Gracie. “I was turning to you when I got hit.”
He picked himself up, and with a grimace, popped his head up and pointed. Gracie followed the direction, then both dropped as another round zipped past where Rabbit’s head had been an instant before.
He can’t be, she told herself as she tried to analyze what she’d seen.
There had only been one structure higher than their building in that direction, the water tower. While water towers seemed to be the platform of choice for snipers in Hollybolly flicks, they pretty much sucked for the job. A sniper on one was completely exposed with no route of egress. Not only a suicide position, but a stupid one because a sniper perched there would get taken out immediately.
But this guy’s already proven himself to be pretty dumb. Why try to take out Rabbit instead of me?
Gracie knew that she didn’t look much like a Marine at times. At 1.4 meters and 38 kg (and that after a Harvest Festival Banquet), she could look like a little girl playing dress-up in daddy’s gear, especially when she had on her full battle rattle. But any soldier should have realized that since she was carrying the Windmoeller while Rabbit had his standard-issue M99, she was the threat, not him.
Being a sniper, despite all the advances since the Evolution, was still pretty much a man’s game, and Gracie had run across misogyny more than once. But this was ridiculous, and she was going to enjoy taking advantage of it. If that cretin didn’t think she was the threat, she was going to prove him wrong—and enjoy doing so.
“You ready to play Rabbit, Lance Corporal?”
He looked up at her in confusion. Gracie wasn’t one much for nicknames, and she’d always kept military discipline in her professional relationships.
“He doesn’t seem to recognize that I’m the sniper here. You’re twice my size, so you must be the threat. So, if you’re up to it, can you pop up for a moment and run a few steps while I disabuse him of his notion?”
A smile crept over his face. He nodded, saying, “My chest still hurts, Staff Sergeant, so yeah, I think I owe him this.”
She held up her hand while she entered the range and the height differential. More math, lethal math. At 884 meters, this would be a longer shot, but the calculations were done the same way.
“No matter how good he is, it’ll take two seconds minimum for a round to reach you, so no hero stuff. I want you back down in two.”
She muted her earbud to the sounds of Sergeant Rafiq directing his squad and took three deep breaths, calming her pulse, then nodded. When Rabbit bolted up, she rose, rested her barrel on the top of the retaining wall, and only had to nudge her scope slightly up and to the right to have the enemy sniper in her crosshairs. She’d just acquired him when she saw him fire.
“Down!” she shouted at Rabbit as she started squeezing her trigger—just as the man picked up his head to look over his scope as if trying to see if he’d hit Rabbit. Gracie raised her point of aim to take advantage of the larger target and fired. She could see the trace as the round pierced the air, and she immediately knew she was on target. Long range sniping might be math, but it was almost art to see the round arch up, then come back down and slightly to the right to impact with his chin. Blood splattered the white paint of the water tower behind him as his weapon fell forward to tumble to the ground.
“Did you get the bastard?” Rabbit asked.
“What do you think? Of, course, I did.”
Firing below them was intensifying. She keyed her earbud back on. Second Squad was getting in it deep. At least now, from inside the library, they were dishing it out as well as taking it in.
“Back to work, Irving.”
She started scanning with her scope, trying to find targets and take the pressure off of Second Squad, but while she caught a few shadows, she was having a difficult time. The Marine Corps Miller was an outstanding scope, its targeting AI second-to-none, but snipers usually engaged at over 1000 meters at a minimum. Even with the scope at its widest display, she just wasn’t getting the field of vision she needed to be able to spot the enemy as they maneuvered below her. Rabbit had fired four times since she’d taken out the sniper, and she’d yet to engage.
“I need the Kyc,” she muttered.
Gracie was more attached to the slug-throwing Windmoeller, but at 45,000 credits each, she only had one Miller Scope. On her hypervelocity Kyocera, she had attached a normal combat scope, something quite a bit less sophisticated, but with a much wider and higher-contrast field of view. Normally, she wouldn’t even have brought the Kyc on the mission, relying on her Windmoeller for sniping and her Rino .358 for personal defense. Since she had an eager Rabbit there willing to hump it, however, she figured it wouldn’t hurt to bring it. And now that might have proven fortuitous.
Keeping low, she scurried alongside the wall to where Rabbit had left the weapon. She powered it up and checked its readouts. Power was at 98%, and while the Kyc didn’t carry the 1000-round dart mags of the M99, she still had 150 slightly larger 3mm darts ready to throw and another two mags ready to use. She brought it to her shoulder and looked through the combat scope. As if a gift from the gods of war, she immediately picked up two soldiers hugging the wall of a building that was giving them cover from Marine fire.
Not all Marine fire, buddy.
The combat scope might have brought her back to her time as a regular grunt, because instead of squeezing her trigger in the best Triple S fashion, she snapped off five shots in quick succession. With negligible recoil and semi-automatic action, she could fire three darts per second, which beat the 1.8 seconds per round for the Windmoeller. The first two darts punched through the head of the lead soldier, both probably hitting the second soldier in the chest. He didn’t drop but lunged back as the next three darts chased him. He fell out of sight, only his legs visible as they churned to push him back, so Gracie fired two more darts, at least one hitting him in the left leg.
The FLNT soldiers had layered plate armor on their torsos, but their legs were unprotected, and the man left a smear of blood on the ground as he pushed himself out of sight.
“Dingo-Three and Charlie-One-Two, we have two armored vehicles, Kuang Fen 10’s, approaching your position from three-four-niner, two klicks out. We are diverting the Minidrag to intercept, and Charlie-One is on the way. ETA for the platoon is 45 mikes, so hold on.”
Gracie glanced over to Rabbit, who met her eyes. Kuang Fen, an Alliance-registered company, was a new supplier of relatively cheap military equipment. While nothing they made could match up to Federation, Brotherhood, or even Confederation equipment, they were a match for what Gentry, the major supplier to local governments and mercenary units could put out. More importantly, a KF-10 was more than capable of taking out a lone Marine squad and sniper team. Intel hadn’t caught on to the little fact that there were KF tanks in the sector.
“Hope the Minidrag can take them out,” Rabbit passed on the P2P.
“That’s out of our hands for now, so keep firing.”
Over the next five minutes, Gracie dropped three more FLNT fighters, one as he crouched to fire a shoulder-launched missile at the library. She picked up the Windmoeller again to put a round through the missile as it lay in the dirt so no one else could pick it up and use it. As she searched for more targets, her mind was on the Marine drone as it closed in on the KF-10s.
The fight, more than a klick-and-a-half away and within sight of them on the roof, was over in seconds. The lead KF-10 erupted in a ball of flame, and moments later, the Minidrag was knocked from the sky. That left one tank still in the fight, and it looked huge as it pushed forward.
“Now what?” Rabbit asked, firing off another burst of 20 darts.
There was whoosh, then a boom as a missile crashed into the side of the library, blowing a hole through the stone. Gracie tried to spot the gunner to no avail. She could almost feel the enemy close in though. The hammer would fall when the KF-10 arrived.
“You still with us?” she asked Sergeant Rafiq on the P2P.
There was a pause before he answered, “We’re down to three effectives. That last one, shit, I’m down hard, bleeding like a stuck pig. I’m not going anywhere. I just gave Ben-Zvi the order to retreat to the west, and I’d suggest you do so, too. We’ll try to give you some cover, and when that fucking FLNT tank gets here, well, we’ll see what happens.”
A death sentence, Gracie knew. The FLNT didn’t see the value of prisoners.
She tied in Rabbit to the net, then said, “I don’t think so, Sergeant. We can keep them off you.”
She looked over to Rabbit. He nodded his agreement.
“You can take out a KF-10? Don’t think so,” Rafiq said with a groan of pain.
“Lieutenant Hjebek and the rest of your platoon are almost here.”
“Look, Staff Sergeant, I . . . we appreciate the sentiment, but this time, the dice rolled against us. All of us here, we talked about it, and we agree. Get out of here. Semper fi,” he said before breaking out into coughs and cutting the net.
“Keep at it, Irving,” Gracie said, snapping off another round, not hitting the running soldier but making him dive for cover.
The enemy tank was getting closer, and Gracie pulled up a threat assessment. The KF-10 would be vulnerable to any Marine anti-armor, but the two teams, or whoever was left of them, had used theirs in anti-personnel mode to push back the assault. A few antennae and the periscope were vulnerable, but not to her when armed with only a Kyocera.
What about the Windmoeller? she wondered.
She didn’t have any more WPT-331 rounds, but a WPT-310 would still be better than her 3mm darts. She changed weapons, then shot a range to the tank. It was about to enter the northern edge of town, 1,245 meters away from her. She took a few moments to enter the environmentals. Gracie was an excellent marksman, but hitting a 4cm-wide periscope lens on a moving tank at that range was going to be a task.
“You can’t take out a tank with that,” Rabbit said as he realized what she was doing.
“No, but maybe I can blind it,” she said as she took her three calming breaths.
The tank was still advancing, and Gracie had to estimate what that would do to her sight picture. She made her decision, then fired. A moment later, she could see the round ping off the periscope turret, four or five centimeters low.
She immediately adjusted, but the driver juked the tank to its right just as she fired again, and she never saw the impact of her round. Now, with an almost side aspect, the shot would be almost impossible, but she held the target in the hopes that it would turn back to her.
There was an explosion behind her. Gracie spun around as three figures burst through the door to the roof that had been blasted right out of the frame, hitting Rabbit hard on the head. Gracie swung her Kyocera around and fired an un-aimed shot which took one soldier in the thigh and dropped him, causing the man behind him to stumble. She fired again, hitting that second soldier on the top of his head. The third soldier, however, fired a three-round burst at her, one hitting her in the left arm and causing her to drop her Windmoeller, her entire arm aflame with pain. while another hit her square on her left knee.
With a smile of . . . satisfaction? . . . scorn? he lowered his rifle and pulled out an enormous boarding gun. Probably over 100 years old, it fired a short-range rocket that had the power to blow right through her body armor, something it had been designed to to. He was slowly raising it to bear down on her when a string of darts hit him in the side where his plate armor deflected them. He spun and fired, the rocket crossing the ten meters to where Rabbit lay on the ground, the muzzle of his M99 wavering as he tried to keep it on target.
Rabbit never had a chance. The rocket blew apart his upper torso. The man stopped, looking at Rabbit’s body for a moment before turning back to Gracie. That small delay was enough to give her a chance to pull her Rino from her thigh holster. His eyes widened in shock as she fired, double-tapping the trigger, the first .358 hollow-point hitting him in the forehead, the round expanding and lodging ten centimeters deep into his brain.
Gracie felt a pang of loss, but she couldn’t stop to mourn Rabbit. She stumbled to her feet, arm numb, and picked up the Kyocera again. Below, the final assault was about to kick off, and she intended on taking out as many of them as possible. Heedless of how exposed she was, she leaned over the top of the wall, firing round after round. She thought she dropped at least four of them, but she wasn’t sure. All the time, the sound of the KF-10 reverberated between the buildings as it made its way to the square.
She heard Sergeant Rafiq ask the lieutenant how far out the platoon was. She didn’t bother to listen to the reply. She knew there was no way they could reach them in time.
“I’m still here with you, Dylan,” she told him. “Hang in there.”
“Shit, Staff Sergeant, you’re as stubborn as they say. But you sure the hell ain’t no Ice Princess like they say, though. You’ve got balls, sister.”
“And so do you.”
And the KF-10 rolled into the square, big and mean, blue-diesel engine pumping out smoke. She knew her Kyocera would be useless against it, but she fired off 100 rounds, more a statement than anything else as the tank gunner raised the 80mm gun to take her under fire.
She knew she should do something, but there wasn’t much left in her box of tricks. The big gun was going to take off the entire top of the building, and her leg was already swollen and immobile. Math worked for snipers, but also for tanks—80mm trumped 3mm.
Gracie kept firing, though. The gun was halfway up when there was a loud whoosh from beneath her, and a smoky plume raced across the square to hit the tank right below the commander’s cupula.
The gun stopped moving. No massive explosions, no turret flying through the air. The tank just stopped.
“Scratch one tank,” Corporal Ben-Zvi passed on the command net.
“Fuck, Abe, I told you to take your team and get out of here,” Sergeant Rafiq passed.
“Ah, I’ve always been a fuck-up, Sergeant. You know that.”
The cracka-cracka-cracka of an M110 sounded below her, the rounds shooting across the square to disappear out of sight.
“I’m still effective up here,” Gracie passed. “And thanks for taking out the tank, but this isn’t over. We’ve still got a job to do.”
But it was over. With the KF-10 gone, the will of the FLNT fighters seemed to slip away—that or the fact that they knew a Marine platoon was minutes out. Gracie fired one more shot at a retreating figure, but that was it before Lieutenant Hjebek led the rest of the platoon into the village.
The fight was over.
“Corporal Ben-Zvi, can you do me a favor?” she passed on the P2P as the new Marines swept the area.
“Sure thing, Staff Sergeant.”
“Go find one of the dead FLNT fighters before they get policed up, one who looks like he was taken out with an M99. Get a round from him and bring it to me.”
“Uh . . . Staff Sergeant, you know we can’t take trophies.”
“I know the regs. But just do it, OK? It’s important.”
“Shit, if you say so, of course. We owe you.”
“And I owe you. Thanks.”
She moved back to the wall, her Kyocera at the ready. Her arm and leg were aching, but at least she could move them now. She could go down to get one of the docs to check her out, but she was a sniper, and two squads of Marines were clearing the village. Her job was to cover them.
A day later, after the Heroes Ceremony, the members of Third Battalion, Seventh Marines’ Scout Sniper Platoon held their own ceremony. Gracie took the round Ben-Zvi had scrounged up and had attached to a piece of parachute cord the night before, and with Doc Rhymer turning off the stasis chamber for a moment, she slipped it inside with Rabbit’s body. The corpsman turned the chamber back on, then left the snipers alone.
Technically, by rules developed over centuries, Rabbit had not become a true Hunter of Gunmen. He hadn’t used a sniper’s weapon to make a kill at distance. Just as Gracie wouldn’t get a kill credit for dropping Rabbit’s killer with a handgun, Rabbit’s kills with his M99 were considered merely part and parcel of being a Marine. Gracie had asked that he be put in for a medal, and the battalion commander had agreed, but that didn’t make him a HOG.
Gracie was a dedicated Marine, and as a habit, she didn’t lie. She’d never made a false official statement—until the night before. She hadn’t been sure of what kind of Marine Rabbit was, but he’d proven the quench of his steel. Without him, she doubted anyone would have made it out alive. So, she lied. She said she’d given her Kyocera to him, and from the enemy bodies recovered, five had died from the tipped 3mm darts. Gracie didn’t need the kills on her record, but he did.
Gracie was sure that Gunny Adams, the Scout-Sniper platoon sergeant, didn’t believe a word of it. He knew how possessively she treated her weapons. But after staring into her eyes for a full 30 seconds, he nodded and accepted it.
As the other stasis chambers were being loaded for a return, either for resurrection or burial, each of the snipers in the platoon made their way past Rabbit’s chamber. Each Marine quietly made their goodbye. As his sniper, Gracie was last. She wasn’t much for long talks, so she kept it simple.
“Fair winds and following seas, HOG.”
She gave the chamber a little slap, then turned to join the others.
“Do you need a day or two?” Gunny asked her.
She gave one last look as the loading crew came to take Rabbit, then said, “Nope, I’m ready. What’s my next mission?