Authors: Joanne Macgregor
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“If we let things terrify
us, life will not be worth living.”
philosopher, mid-1st century AD)
“The spirit of resistance
to government is so valuable
on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive.
It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so
than not to be exercised at all.”
The Kill Shot
Why is it that even when you get what you thought you wanted, it
never works out the way you thought it would?
That Sunday, two days before the black van came for me, all I
wanted was to kill
. Because pancakes for
breakfast are good, Sunday morning reruns of
are good, finding
the perfect jeans in my size and on sale at Hunter.com is really good, but
That would be better than good. It would be awesome.
So I waited, as still and quiet as death, for the perfect moment
to take the shot. He was out there somewhere, the enemy who had invaded our
world, and he had to be stopped.
I had been stalking my prey for hours, and preparing for years —
honing my skill with drill after drill, target after target, shot after shot.
My eyes burned with fatigue, my throat was parched and my stomach empty. Sweat
trickled down behind my goggles, but I kept myself motionless and focused.
I’d tracked him over the course of days, and I was not about to
get myself shot by giving away my position. Three times before, I’d had the
chance to take him down, and each time I’d blown it with some stupid mistake.
The first time, he’d pinpointed my position and sent a round into my thigh. The
next time, I’d taken the shot and missed. And in our last encounter, he’d
melted away into the background before I could line up a good angle. Today I
was determined to get it right.
So no matter how loudly my hollow stomach growled, I was not
going to reach for the pack of candy lying beside me. Tempting morsels of
sweetness — creamy, melting milk chocolate and sticky, salty peanut-butter. No,
I was not even going to think about that.
I was also not going to hand over the take-down to the other
sniper that I knew was camped out somewhere to my right, near the platform. We
might be on the same side in this war, but
noise signaled the approach of a chopper. Was it from his army, or mine?
My enemy was hiding somewhere in the deserted railway yard ahead
of me — about 700 meters away, I estimated. I had long since stopped thinking
of distance in feet or yards. Modern snipers used meters. I studied the scene
through the high magnification of my scope, trying to identify the spots I
would have chosen to hide. Maybe there — at eleven o’clock, in the dark shadows
behind the open sliding door of a freight car. Or perhaps to my right, at two
o’clock, behind the crumbling walls of the deserted station’s ticket booth, or
in the shade cast by any of the sidelined passenger cars, standing empty and
abandoned on the unused sidings. I scanned systematically, side to side and
near to far, for the usual giveaways: shine, movement, contrast to background,
or the distinctive head-and-shoulders outline of a target.
I forced myself not to look up at the chopper. It was a
distraction I couldn’t afford. Silently, I cursed the downdraft it pushed
across my field of action. The wind whipped dust and old bits of paper and
debris up into the air, obscuring my vision, and it would have unpredictable
effects on my shot.
A movement down on the railway siding caught my eye. One of
small robotic reptiles scurried mechanically
across the rails. Through the rifle’s scope I could see the unblinking green
lights of the
twin “eyes”. Was it merely
reconnoitering the field of action, transmitting back the same information
about conditions that I was trying to ascertain manually? Or had he sent it as
a decoy, to tempt me into taking a shot? Either way, I should ignore it.
Just as I made the decision, the robot exploded into fragments of
steel and wire and microchips as the loud shot of a rifle cracked the air,
followed a split second later by another report and a grunt from nearby. Damn.
I hadn’t wanted Striker22 to get the shot, but I hadn’t wanted him to be shot
either. He’d fallen for the lure and
spotted him in an instant. Now it was just the two of us left in this battle to
I refocused my scope on the scene, searching the spot where, in
my peripheral vision, I had caught sight of a muzzle flash.
In the deep shadow of the freight car I had noted earlier, there was a
contrasting patch of light and dark and the faintest glint of shine about one
foot off the ground — right about where a rifle would be if the target was
lying on his belly aiming out. At me.
Moving slower than the second-hand on my father’s old wristwatch,
I adjusted my rifle. I had studied my enemy and knew he was right-handed, so I
aimed fractionally to the right of the glint, where his head and chest would
be. I did the mental math — running through the calculations to account for the
distance, bullet spin and drop, the fast cold air of this high altitude, and
the wind kicked up by the circling chopper. Then I doped my scope, adjusting
dial to compensate for the air currents,
and the elevation dial to offset the effect of gravity on the bullet over this
distance, so that my aim would be true. Settling the rifle between my shoulder
and cheek, I closed my left eye, squinted my right, and fine-tuned my aim. I
pulled my attention away from everything but him and me, pushed away worries
about my fellow soldier, and tuned out the noise of the helicopter. All of me
was here. All there was, was now.
Deliberately relaxing my shoulders, I breathed in through my nose
for a count of four, held the breath for four beats, breathed out through my
mouth for four, and held for four. One more time. In … two … three … four …
Hold … two … three … four … Slowly out … two … three … four … Hold … two …
In the pause between breaths, in the space between heartbeats, I
squeezed the trigger.
I watched the faint vapor trail of the spinning round as it
travelled through the air and disappeared into the shadows of the freight car.
A second later, all hell broke loose.
Bells, alarms, flashing lights and the message box spelling out
in bold, red, 3D letters:
I yanked off the virtual reality goggles, stared at the message
on the screen, which was a little fuzzy now without the special lenses.
I screamed and punched the air, snatched up the realistic-looking
sniper rifle — my game console’s wireless controller — and crowed, “I win! I
win! I win!” into it as if it was a microphone, all the while victory-dancing a
small circle between my bed and desk.
My mother came rushing through the door, her face pinched tight
and as white as her floury hands.
“Are you alright? You screamed!”
“I won! I won The Game!”
Emma James! You nearly scared
the life out of me. I thought for sure you must have seen a —”
“Mom, you don’t get it. I killed
Me, little old
“You and that blessed game!” She wiped her hands on her apron.
“If you need me, I’ll be in the kitchen, having a stiff bourbon for shock. And
counting my new gray hairs — for which I hold you responsible, young lady.”
“I win, I win,
I resumed my war dance. I needed music, applause, fireworks.
Robin ambled into my room, running a hand through his rumpled
hair and looking, as always, as sleepy as if he had just woken up from a
“How is it possible that we’re related?” he said.
He yawned, clearly unimpressed at my uncontrolled display of
glee. We’re twins, and although we both have blond hair and blue eyes, we’re
about as un-identical in our natures as it’s possible to get.
“I won!” I yelled at him. “I killed
“You won The Game?” He wasn’t yawning now, no sir. He was staring
at me in shock. And, if I do say so myself, awe. Robin might not be a sniper —
he played the Game as a programmer when he played it at all — but he, unlike my
mother, at least got what this meant.
“I did! I’m the first sniper to take the leader down in eighteen
months! That’s one and a half years, brother! Woohoo!” I sparred with the air,
hugged Robin, and then started my war-dance again.
“You know what this means,
You’re going to
As he said the words, my screen flashed a new message to the
accompaniment of a repetitive bleep.
Congratulations! Jinx E. James, you have killed
, won The Game, and qualified for the ultimate prize
of a real-life simulated sniper mission at
Southern Sector Headquarters, along with three of your highest-ranking
competitors. Please be ready for collection on April 3 at 09:15. Full details
and a liability waiver have been forwarded to your registered guardian, Marion
(mother), but you are directly advised that the wearing of Personal Protective
Equipment is mandatory.
I screamed again.
Four years ago, when I was twelve, three things happened that
The plague began.
My dad died from a heart attack. He went to work one day and just
never came home.
And then my mom sort of sank inside herself for a long while.
They say bad things happen in threes.
Three: the number of (confirmed) ways in which
Viral Hemorrhagic Fever (aka rat fever) spreads: contact with bodily fluids,
contact with airborne and surface contagion, and bites. The pathogen was a
Biosafety Level 4 hot agent, a superbug combination of Ebola, Bolivian
Hemorrhagic Fever (black typhus) and
been engineered by our enemies to decimate our population. In the early days when
the terrorist attacks were first launched and before the borders were sealed,
infected agents entered the country as human suicide bombs, infecting as many
people as they could. They even took civilian hostages in supermarkets and
subway trains and once, horribly, kids in a school, injecting their victims
with plague serum before turning them loose to become human virus bombs
themselves. These days, the
mostly use rats.
Three: the average number of days after infection that it takes
the virus to incubate. Once infection begins, with a relentless headache and
high fever, it soon penetrates the brain’s blood-barrier, sending the victims
into an increasingly demented and uncontrolled state until they die from
multi-organ failure and hemorrhage.
Three: the number of mega-sectors the US was divided into for
better control and security: the Northeast, the Mid-and-West, and the South,
where I live.
Three: the number of remote, ultra-high security prisons
resurrected from their mothballed status: Guantanamo Bay, Alcatraz and Florence
ADX. No facility was too remote or too severe for the terrorists who had
infected our population and continued to try to do so.
Three hundred thousand and rising: the estimated number of
plague-infected giant rats believed to be running around our sector, biting
wildlife and pets. And, of course, people.
Three: the number of rat poisons against which the mutant rats
already appeared to have developed an immunity.
The total number of people who have died from the plague in the US
alone? 12.5 million.
I guess not all bad things come in threes, after all.