By Anna Madden
Chase stared across the prairie of Aelous, a planet named for a long-forgotten god. Like any frontier, this place bred trouble.
Weeds rustled. The musk of bighorns filled his nose. Chase stalked closer. He gripped his faithful rifle, given to him by a man he no longer spoke to, and crouched behind blue-stemmed tallgrass. To the sides, night-bur grew. It was dense, spiny, with neurotoxic\ thorns. Good cover for a marksman in flat terrain. As Chase took a prone shooting position, his armor pinched. He ignored it, raising the rifle butt to his neck. His left arm supported the barrel.
The magazine held ten rounds. That’s all he had been given. No doubt a precaution in case he defected. Chase’s orders were clear. Despite that, his thoughts were sharp daggers. If he got caught, he would meet a fast bullet. If he ran, he’d be hung by the neck until dead. Beneath his helmet, Chase set his jaw. He wasn’t one to miss targets, and he didn’t waste bullets either. He would earn his surname back before sunset.
Ahead, quick footfalls approached his position. The shadow of a nomad sentinel, sharp-eyed, with a shotgun slung over his shoulders, fell over Chase. He held his breath, but his left elbow slipped, and his rifle’s butt shifted. Grit scraped free underneath it.
Chase silenced a curse even as the nomad halted, a mass of night-bur between them. A glare bounced off the other’s firearm, peeking through the thorns. Chase might have time to reposition and fire off a round. Still, he waited, experience staying his hand. His armor hid him, its surface capable of mirroring the dense overgrowth. His rifle poked through the grass blades. The dark walnut finish was irregular, easily spotted, like a misplaced branch where no trees grew or fell.
Boots stepped closer. They creaked, made of old leather. The nomad shifted his weight. A pause, then a fiddle of cloth. Piss watered the thicket in a hard stream. The nomad sighed, shuffled again, then turned and walked away.
Chase relaxed his shoulders. He moved his rifle into better cover.
A bighorn bellowed. The herd grazed nearby, their tails flicking back and forth against a plague of hungry flies. Even closer, dome tents flattened a patch of blue-green meadow. Through his rifle’s scope, Chase counted. There were twelve nomads, their skin and hair a bright copper, and five visible firearms. A couple shotguns and single-barrel pistols. No long-ranged weapons, but even so, this job wouldn’t be easy.
Like coyotes, these nomads were skittish, yet still great fighters. The Selbon hated the nomads for having first claim to this planet. They were of old blood—descendants of the maiden colony. The nomads didn’t respect laws, and walls didn’t hold them. In their territory, Chase was glad to be downwind, his scent masked, with the glare of the sun at his back.
He marked his target for capture and return. She caught the eye, though not from beauty or grace. Her skin was worn from strong UV exposure, and her limbs were lean, hardened by a nomadic life. Still, there was something about her open expression and her stark black hair. A depthless color—those strands of darkness—like the vacuum of space.
Her name was Susan Wuther. Chase had read her file with care. Born on a large Selbon estate where wind turbines rooted the prairie as artificial white trees. Susan was five when her home was raided. Her parents died in the
violence. Her relations had thought Susan dead too until a month ago. She had been spotted by chance. Dark hair stood out on this planet, especially among the natural groundcover and the dull brown-backed bighorns.
She was the last seed of a withering bloodline. Once reclaimed, she would be a bride of wealth and prestige. Sons of vultures, the Selbon, even if they were the social elite. Chase knew this, for he had been born into their number years ago.
Chase eyed the captive and magnified her image in his visor. His helmet compared it to the picture attached to her file. A facial match confirmed it was her via a blinking green icon across his visor, but she had grown much. Susan wasn’t a helpless child anymore. Her strong countenance proved hardship couldn’t break her. Or maybe she hadn’t experienced strife beyond the shortage of food, or the harshness of winter.
With ease, Chase remembered looking into a stranger’s face and accepting it. As a youth, he too had been taken from his family estate, then raised by a man of no relation. A man who killed for a living. He taught Chase how to clean a gun, how to shoot without flinching, and how to mend armor. Chase was content until he learned the truth: his blood family had been a contract, and that contract had been completed.
Chase left without a word, unable to confront his would-be father. Instead, he hunted down the Selbon responsible. He got caught and was offered a choice: die, or recover Susan Wuther. Chase blinked hard. He felt the old rage—a fire burning hot inside him. It had taken a week, but he had found her.
A bighorn’s cured skin clothed Susan’s chest and legs. The rough fabric didn’t hide the swell of her belly beneath it. She turned, and Chase frowned, for a rifle hung off a leather strap on her back. It was a single-shot model, inferior to his, but the range and accuracy matched. She stood beside one of the nomads, and her eyes softened when she spoke to him.
Chase detached a hand-sized mimic off his belt. It was a risk, for it contained one of five batteries feeding his armor. Still, he hadn’t counted on the nomads possessing a rifle. They weren’t commonplace, thanks to Selbon laws. He set a five-second delay on the mimic. Satisfied, Chase threw it hard to his right, well clear of his position. It would project his voice if he spoke, and echo his shots. A decoy to make it seem like he wasn’t alone. Shooters did best in pairs.
He adjusted his rifle, took aim on an armed nomad, and switched off the safety. Squeezing the trigger, gunfire split the air. The rifle kicked back against Chase’s shoulder. Startled bighorn stampeded off, stirring dust and grass blades and pollen. An empty cartridge fell free. It smelled of burnt metal and sulfur.
The scared bighorns provided a good distraction—one Chase would use to full advantage. The nomads scrambled into action. Three broke off, their feet like loosed arrows, close on the heels of their herd.
Chase saw Susan dart for cover, losing her behind the tents. A shotgun-wielding nomad pointed a finger toward Chase’s position. He must have seen the muzzle flash. Chase took the informant out. At ten o’clock, another nomad sprinted, weaving back and forth. He kept to the tallest growth. Leading the target, Chase predicted his shot and fired. As the round landed mid-chest, the mimic echoed the rifle’s crack. To Chase, it was a sound to filter out. Dust made Chase’s breath taste of dirt, and a haze distorted the immediate area. Two more spent cartridges spilled out.
The remaining nomads ducked for cover. They hid in the tall weeds and behind the domed tents. A blood-stirring yell rang out in their language. It sounded like a challenge, an insult, or both. On second thought, it was definitely both.
A gust blew. Searching, Chase spotted a leg through the shifting tallgrass and the clouded air. It wasn’t a woman’s, so he took aim without hesitation. The injured nomad flailed, and Chase moved into a crouched position to give the kill shot.
An enemy fired back. It was a deep-throated crack. It wasn’t the mimic. There was no mistaking the sound of a true rifle.
On instinct, Chase flattened himself. He glanced down. A nick marred his shoulder-guard where the bullet had ricocheted off. Luckily, not a direct hit. His armor flickered, the mirror broke, then deactivated, its surface going back to its default—a sand-like limestone color. It had been an insane shot, especially considering the sun, the dust, not to mention his superior camouflage. Chase pictured the rifle on Susan’s back. Was she so skilled a markswoman, then? He hadn’t expected that.
Time to decide: intimidate or negotiate. Five rounds left. He had enough ammunition, barely, but his damaged armor made him feel naked. He was outmanned, outgunned, and his position was compromised. If he could have, he would have eliminated the rifle-wielder first, but taking out Susan Wuther wasn’t an option. Not yet.
Chase whistled. The mimic relayed the sound five seconds later. Movement across the prairie stopped. Dust settled, and a silence stretched. Even the wind seemed to listen, going stale.
“Let’s talk,” he called out. His voice repeated from the mimic. It sounded brash in common tongue. “I marked your location. If you kill us, the Selbon will send more. Many more.”
“What do you want?” a nomad said, using common speech too, his accent thick. His voice was confident. Definitely the tribe’s leader. The nomad would have earned his place among the pack. A stark difference from the Selbon, who ruled not by merit, but by birthright and cheap tricks.
“I’m here for Susan Wuther,” Chase said back. The battery icon flashed. Chase cursed. The mimic and the camouflage had drained his power supply fast. He was running out of time.
“Says that isn’t her name,” the nomad leader said. A shotgun fired for emphasis, the round hitting the dirt several feet in front of Chase.
Out of range. Chase smiled, tight-lipped, but kept still. He activated his heat sensors. If wise, his enemy was using this opportunity to flank him. His visor painted heat sources red. He needed to take out a couple more nomads before the batteries went dry, and he had to locate Susan’s position.
On the other side of a flapping tent, a red-marked silhouette stepped backward, repositioning. The curve of a rounded belly stood out.
“I’d like to hear it from her,” Chase shouted back.
Movement in the grass drew his attention. He counted five red marks advancing fast. The nomads had fanned out, encircling to the rear of his hideout, nearing the thick night-bur. Up close, Chase saw facial hair and detailed expressions. Saw their sweat, the pores on their cheeks, and hungry eyes.
Two men took the nigh-bur at a run. One carried a shotgun. The other a knife. Red cuts soon laced their bare arms while invisible toxin entered their bloodstreams.
Chase rolled to intercept them, his expression a void behind his helmet.
Their approach slowed, their muscles twitching. Chase claimed a headshot. The other nomad reached out, catching his comrade, using his friend as a shield even as his shotgun stared Chase down. The enemy peeled back his lips and showed off his teeth.
The buckshot bent Chase’s breastplate, slamming across the surface. Like a boulder, it hit hard. Planting his rifle into the ground, he caught himself and kicked the wolf-faced foe into the night-bur again. Chase slammed his rifle’s butt into the man’s skull, corrected his stance, and fired at point-blank. The neurotoxin would do the rest.
A third nomad growled a challenge. He threw a small knife, targeting Chase’s knee joint. Chase grunted as the knife found its target. He fired a single shot into his enemy, then pulled the blade free—the metal streaked with crimson—and threw it into the night-bur.
The fourth enemy hadn’t followed the rest. Instead, the man approached the mimic. Chase used two precious rounds on that one. He shook his head, panting hard. These bastards were tough.
The tallgrass closed over the dead bodies. The battery icon flashed across his visor again, then died. The smell of gunpowder kept him on edge. Unease twisted his stomach. No heat signatures dotted his vision.
The fifth nomad was the largest. He charged the night-bur, a war cry in his throat. His cheeks were angular, and he grasped an elbow-length knife in capable hands. He looked fierce. The night-bur toxin still flowed through his blood, but it was apparently slow to take effect.
Chase raised his rifle, but Susan fired, forcing him to the ground. Suddenly, Chase knew. This man who approached was the nomadic leader, and he would not go down fast.
The nomad broke free of the thorny growth. Using his rifle, Chase met the nomad’s knife. He needed to protect the weak points in his armor: the joints, the neck, and the visor.
The nomad reared back and headbutted Chase. With a shudder, his visor cracked. A sharp ring hummed in both ears. Blinded, Chase swung his rifle like a long spear. A solid impact vibrated his fingers, and he heard a gasp, then footsteps staggering backward. Chase couldn’t see. With one hand, he pulled his helmet free.
“That explains it,” the nomad said, spitting bile on the ground. “You fight without honor, tricking us. Making us think there are two. Only a Selbon would fight so.” He stood on bent knees, his hands grasping them, panting heavily. Poisoned scratches marred his forearms.
“I can’t choose what I am,” Chase said, stalling, his eyes darting to the nomad’s thorn-made wounds. “I was born a Selbon. Blood is blood.”
The nomad leader scoffed. “You Selbon travel too much back and forth, up high, through that blank space. You’ve forgotten you’re just an animal, same as us.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” Chase said. “I know too well what I am.”
A rifle interrupted them. Its sharp bite tasted Chase’s shooting arm. He groaned and lost hold of his rifle.
The sun glared, catching the reflection of metal. The knife! Chase dove, his injured knee aflame. The nomad leader cried out, then jumped forward too. Chase reached it first. He picked up the blade and slashed without hesitation. Blood spilled from the nomad’s forehead and dripped into his eyes, hindering him, and his hands shook.
The enemy rifle fired, closer now. Chase flinched, but the shot missed by a hair. He tossed the knife, grabbed his rifle up, readying it, and limped through the night-bur. His armor protected his skin against the perilous thorns. The encampment looked uglier without a screen filtering it. The colors were bolder. Scents of dung, stirred pollen, salt, and gunpowder mingled together. Wet blood stained the tents. Through the dust, Susan appeared, her rifle at the ready.
His arm throbbed, but Chase raised his gun. His index finger brushed the trigger. “You don’t have to fight, Susan. Not anymore.”
The woman didn’t blink. “I said that isn’t my name. It’s Blue Star.”
Chase pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. Chase pulled again, heard a distinctive click, and realized his mistake: no more ammunition. Susan discharged her weapon. At this range, a pointed rifle bullet pierced breastplate without effort. Chase staggered to his knees.
“All…I wanted…was to get…home,” Chase said, his voice breathless. He put a hand to his chest and felt the wetness there.
Soft footfalls approached. “I am home,” she said. The woman reloaded her rifle. “This is my family. My place. My people. You took them from me.”
Chase twitched his fingers and winced. The pain helped Chase focus. “The nomads took you from your home. From your true people. They killed your parents and seized what they wanted.” Grass crunched beneath him. His hair caught the breeze—it was dark, the same as hers. “You fight for your enemy.”
“You don’t get to decide for me,” she said. “You judge what you cannot understand.”
The rust-orange horizon beckoned. Chase thought of his own family. But which family was the true one? The marksman had been like a father to Chase. Had shaped him. Had taught him that life was unfair, but worth living. Chase had barely known his true parents. Only their name was left, and it had been stolen. He hated the Selbon. No wonder Chase looked at this woman and tasted his own bitterness. He looked at Susan Wuther and saw a reflection, though he wondered if this, like his mirrored armor, prevented him from actually seeing her.
He swallowed, then nodded. “Best keep that hair of yours wrapped, or dyed, so you aren’t so easily spotted.”
Susan took her stance. Her left hand tight on the forestock, her feet shoulder-width apart.
Chase coughed. His blood darkened the blue-green grassland. He wondered if she was sure of her choice, or if she would change it. He might have changed his if he had been given more time. Chase breathed out, then shuddered, the air rasping in his throat. Chase stared at Susan. He couldn’t look away. She was a wildflower: hardy, determined to face the sun, determined to live.
Susan’s rifle fired, deafening him. His vision blurred. He saw blackness, as though he had never been to this prairie, or seen this girl-turned-woman. It wasn’t hard to imagine himself fading out of existence, turning to dust, blowing across this prairie. A forgotten man, on a planet named for a long-forgotten god.
© 2020, Anna Madden