Shooting between heartbeats is ideal for a sniper.
The blood flow can affect how one’s fingers move. Of course, keeping check on wind, humidity, and temperature are all vital. Whether a streetlight is shining in the dark of night, or the sun is out, light has to be kept in mind. Not to mention the target’s distance and movement.
Alice found it all to be second nature.
Her finger hovered the trigger. She inhaled, a quiet breath in, and listened to the beat of her heart. Her target stood about 250 meters out. Snow drifted down. Another long winter in Middknight. Steadied, one eye squinting, Alice squeezed the trigger.
The rifle fired. The crack broke the silence. Her shot hit the paper silhouette, right between its painted-on eyes, sending it to its figurative grave. She pulled the bolt action lever back, and a bullet casing flew into the air.
“Alice,” a voice came. Edward stood behind her. “You’re a damn good shot.”
“I’m alright.” She got to her feet and slung the rifle over her shoulder. “Got something for me, captain?”
“A package,” he said. He handed it to her. Straight from postal, opened up—poorly resealed. “I’ll need you for a minute, too.”
Alice nodded. She walked beside him while her fingers tore apart the bag. A slate-blue scarf resided within. Made of wool, handcrafted, intended to match her uniform. A letter rested beneath it, her name in familiar handwriting.
“What’s got you smiling?”
“It’s a letter from my sister,” Alice said. “I’ll read it over later. Make it quick, captain.”
As they left the shooting grounds, into the war camp, a squad of Middknight soldiers ran in formation—jogging down the path. Their boots broke into the snow with each step. The soldiers shouted as they ran.
“Assault rifle, loaded, by my side,” they called together. “This is the tool that will make a man die. Got my knife for C.Q.C, step too close and get gutted by me. These sand-rats deserve nothing but pain, and we’ll send them all to hell in the Goddess’ name.”
Their tune trailed off as they moved on.
To her left, an officer ran a briefing on sandworms and how to take them down. Photos and diagrams of the colossal beasts, labelling their anatomy, were pinned to a board. New recruits stood at attention.
“The empire of Sola,” the officer said, “thinks their fifty-foot beasts will topple us. Those sand-rats are missing one thing. Their worms can’t burrow if they don’t have sand. Once we mark them for our artillery, they’re as good as dead. Got it?”
“Alice,” Edward said. He motioned to a canopy. “Right here-”
A pegasus rider landed nearby. The rider blew a whistle as she slid off the winged horse, then called for a stretcher. She turned to lift an injured soldier off the pegasus while medics rushed to help.
Alice followed Edward beneath the canopy.
Edward motioned to a map laid out over a table.
“Solan generals plan to break the stalemate,” he said. “They want to weaken us now, and make a push for Middknight as the weather heats up. They’re not stopping until they take our capital. We’re not giving in. Their forces are moving here...”
Edward pointed to a small town on the map named Goldenleaf, circled in red. “If they take this area, they’ll bunker down, and turn it into a supply route. We need to hold it at all costs.”
“Right,” Alice said. “I just got back from a mission-”
“I know, but you’re my best shot. One of the best Middknight has to offer. Higher ups don’t see how important this town is, and without my call, we’re leaving a couple dozen soldiers stranded there without reinforcements.”
Alice exhaled. “Fine,” she said. “Time off after, and you have my word.”
“I’ll get you two weeks.”
They shook on it, and set out at daybreak.
- - -
A truck carrying Middknight soldiers rumbled over snow-covered roads. Alice sat with her back to the wooden boards, clear sky above, forest beside them. Her rifle rested in her lap. A tank paved the way ahead.
“Once we’re off the defensive,” a soldier said, “we’re going to conquer Sola. Show them the world doesn't belong to just them. We'll raise our flag—our lion will best their scorpion, and we’ll turn all of their country’s fields into farmland.”
The truck rocked as they drove over a bump. A deer, or some animal, snapped a branch further off. Alice narrowed her eyes.
“Are you dull?” another replied. “It’s all sand over there. They can’t farm. It’s desert. I’ll spell it out for you-”
“Yeah, they farm! How do you think they live?”
A soldier, dressed in tan, ran out of the forest. He called out in Solan tongue, then fired an anti-armour missile at the tank ahead. It broke into the plating. The insides were set ablaze. Alice shot and killed the Solan. Everyone stopped.
The driver crawled out of the tank, uniform on fire, skin burning. He rolled off, then hit the ground and flailed. “Father!” he cried. “Help me!” The heat scorched his lungs. Alice jumped down with the others. Gunshots erupted from the forest.
“By the tree line!” Edward called. “Right side, ambush, open fire!”
Alice scoped in from beneath the truck. Between two trees, hiding in the snow, lay a rifleman. She inhaled. “Goddess take you,” she whispered, then pulled the trigger. The shot struck the man in the skull and knocked him dead. The gunfight ended soon after—Solan forces far outnumbered.
Two men walked out. They raised their hands above their heads and spoke in their language. Surrendering. A soldier beside Alice raised his rifle and shot them both.
He looked at her.
“For all I know,” he said, “they wanted a pack of cigarettes. Goddess be damned if I’ll give them my last one.” He laughed, expecting her to as well.
“They surrendered,” she said.
“Don’t care. Not in the slightest. Don’t feel a thing for sand-rats.”
Alice breathed in. Out. There’d be no use in arguing it. Once the area had been cleared, she sat back on the truck, and they drove around the tank. A radio would signal to pick up the remains.
The charred corpse of the driver lay in the snow.
- - -
By nightfall, they reached the town of Goldenleaf. Groups of soldiers broke apart. Some took patrols. Others rested in the abandoned buildings. Homes and shops—architecture from times of old, were left destroyed by bombings.
Alice rested in a church. One of the few buildings left untouched by the destruction. She’d lit candles found in the back, shadows flickering along the walls. On a bench, her head down, she murmured a prayer. Edward moved to take a seat beside her.
“Alice,” he said. “Are you alright? You didn’t eat.”
She looked at the statue of the Goddess. It watched over the church from the front, candlelight setting its ashen marble aglow. A sculptor had put it together almost a thousand years ago. It could go any second in an artillery strike. She sighed.
“I heard him,” Alice said. “The Solan with the anti-tank missile. I thought it was a deer. It’s my fault.”
“I need you not to think about it.”
“How old was that tank driver?” Alice turned to him. “Because he called out for his father. These soldiers are young enough to cry for their parents when they get hurt. Every time I think I’ve toughened myself, grown thicker skin, let go of my humanity, I see something like that. And this time it’s on me.”
Edward breathed out.
“You always been religious, Alice?”
“I…yeah.” She nodded. “Yeah. It’s what helps me. I…”
“I used to hunt with my dad,” Alice said. “Wouldn’t be a good shot without him. Except, when I was a kid, killing animals, I felt something awful. So I prayed. It numbed it. And it does the same now.”
“Then keep at it.” Edward got to his feet. “If prayers get you through this war, by all means, ask for forgiveness for every life you take, and don't hold yourself to the ones you can't save. Our people rely on us to protect them. Every country that can't stand up to Sola relies on us. Keep your focus. Got it?”
“Got it,” she said. “Are you religious, captain?”
“No,” he replied. “I’d rather there be no one watching over me these days. Get some sleep. Pegasus scouts reported Solan forces on their way, eight hours’ time.”
His boots tapped against the wooden floors.
Before resting her head, Alice reached into her uniform for the letter her sister had sent. In the candlelight, she ran her thumb under the seal and unfolded it.
Hi Alice, it read.
I was looking forward to writing to you the whole day, and I rushed straight from school to the post office. I really hope
your you’re alright. It is lonely without you. Mom is still sick, and I can’t see her often. I’m excited for you to come home.
Ally, I made you a scarf! I hand-knitted it myself, just like you taught me. It’ll keep you warm during the cold nights, and it will match your uniform.
Its It’s dark blue, almost grey, so it won’t stand out. It is woolly and comfortable.
Please be safe. I miss you a lot.
Alice sighed. She wiped one hand against her eye, catching a tear.
“Damn kid,” she whispered. “I miss you, too.”
- - -
“You’ll be in the bell tower, Alice,” Edward said. The sun dawned, and he ordered his soldiers into action. They readied machine guns, stacked sandbags, and rolled out barbed wire. “Can’t get you a spotter,” he continued, “but as far as I can tell, you’ve never needed one.”
“No, I don’t,” she said. Alice readied her rifle. She walked through the town, and the surrounding soldiers pointed her out, whispering rumours of a cold-blooded sniper who only aimed to stack her kill count.
“Disperse!” Edward yelled. “You all know what to do! Check your ammo! Have a knife at the ready! Hustle up! Move, move, move!”
Alice ascended the tower. Cobwebs grew old in the corners, weighed down by flakes of snow. At the top, frost lined the silver bell—once polished weekly, now left to tarnish. She laid down against the stone. She checked her ammo, then stared down her scope, getting a view of the town. The minutes passed slowly.
Yet, sure enough, the rumble of a Solan tank droned in the distance.
Alice caught Edward’s eye. She gave hand signals. Open palm, four fingers, then five. Right side wave. One finger. Closed fist. Right side wave again. Back of hand. Forty-five infantry, right flank. One armoured vehicle. Right side course, no notice of us.
The tank drove over a bridge, and Solan troops followed behind it, guns at the ready. One inspected his rifle. Another wore a medic’s helmet, counting supplies.
As they passed the bridge, Middknight’s soldiers fired.
The Solans scattered for cover. They yelled to each other, frantically. Rapid-fire from a machine gun tore holes in one enemy uniform, shredding his stomach, dropping him to the ground. The tank’s cannon rotated, fired, and hit a building. A cloud of debris and blood exploded into the air.
Alice aimed down her scope. She inhaled—slowing her heart—and focused on the soldier taking cover behind a truck, getting up to fire his gun.
“Goddess take my hand,” she whispered.
She pulled back on the trigger. The bullet struck the man’s throat. He rolled over and grasped at the wound. Alice flicked her aim to the next, a soldier running across the rubble, looking to get a better angle.
“And lead me to the light.”
She fired a shot. It missed. She wrenched the bolt action lever, then fired again, hitting the man's chest. Below, a Middknight soldier cried out for a medic. Others threw grenades and incendiaries at the tank, ruining its treads, rendering it immobile.
“Blessed Goddess, my fortress.” Alice steadied herself. She shot at a man who held a rocket launcher. “My castle, my shield, in whom I trust, I ask for strength.” The tank driver opened the hatch. She killed him before he could get out.
“And to show mercy in times of need.”
She flicked her aim. A Solan, no older than a teenager, stood panicked by the ruins of a home, hands trembling. Alice inhaled, then fired a shot beside him. Rock blasted into the air. He dropped his weapon and ran off.
“My faith is dedication, and-”
A man ran up the stairs behind her. Alice stood, fumbled her rifle, and reached for her side pistol. Too slow. The man got to the top and shot at her. The bullet struck her side, digging deep, and Alice fired back. Her pistol shot hit him in the head. His body collapsed down the stairs.
She stumbled, then slouched against the wall. Her rifle had fallen off the side of the tower. In the town, the battle was lost; the Solans gaining too much ground. The sky whistled above. Artillery. She closed her eyes-
Middknight’s fighter planes flew by, strafing the field. Paratroopers dropped seconds later, hitting the rubble, then snapping off their parachutes. Soldiers cheered for the air force as the Solans called for a retreat.
She pulled the slate-blue scarf off her neck, then tied it around her side, tight, slowing the bleeding. “Thank you, kid,” she muttered. “Might have saved me with this.”
Minutes passed. The gunfire slowed to a stop. Middknight’s soldiers rounded up prisoners. A pegasus rider flew up to Alice, the medic atop the winged horse helping her get on, tying a belt to keep her mounted on the saddle.
They flew to ground level. Edward stood among the wreckage, face covered in dirt and sweat. He motioned to them, and they landed. Alice rested her head on the medic’s back. The pegasus kept its wings high to shade her.
“What do I do with her, captain?” the medic asked.
“Right back to base. Medical attention A.S.A.P. Alice, if you can hear me, you did good. I’ll file for your two weeks first chance I get. Go.” Edward dismissed the medic, then turned to his soldiers. “I want all the bodies of our own brought back for burial. All prisoners are to be kept in an orderly line. Do not mess with them or you will be reprimanded…”
His voice faded out as the pegasus took off.
- - -
Alice walked with a limp. She’d be back to the camp in two weeks, off the front lines, but away from home nonetheless. Too good a shot to be lying around. For now, she approached her front door. She brought a fist up to knock—forgetting it was her home, and she’d always owned a key. With a smile, she reached a hand for her pocket.
The door opened before she could do so.
Ella stared at her in shock. Tears formed in her eyes.
Alice took a step forward, and her sister rushed to embrace her.