“Safe on” came the whispered command; almost instantaneously, the faint click told Ran Stiller the gun was ready to fire. He remembered the mnemonic BRAS—breathe, relax, aim, squeeze—he had learned in Basic; they always found some way to make those procedures that were the most difficult sound like the most fun to remember or recite.
The big Browning LVR hummed slightly; only those who had their cheek stock planted firmly could hear it through their skull, so as not to alert the target. “Range near” came the next command—the scope blurred to near focus, showing a glimpse of the schleireen ahead of the muzzle. “Range fore” forced the scope to focus on the target slowly, showing the waves of heated, moving air along its presumed path—air that would move the bullet in windage or elevation as it careened toward the victim.
The info was fed into the onboard computer, which plotted the proposed hold point on the scope’s eyepiece—six point two left, seven point five up—and Ran moved the dot right over PT’s left chest. “Initial PT placed, Dog Three” he softly said. The broadband transmitter in the gun’s stock relayed the sighting to Dog Three’s laptop for review.
“Hold that, Dog Two. Ready for re-aim.” This was the most exasperating part of the sniper’s job—the waiting game. PT would eventually move; the movement of the air would require re-calibration of the baseline information; he’d even lose his cheek stock. But this was what the sniper school had warned him about, and what they trained him to do.
Not that the selection of the Prime Target was something with which he was entirely comfortable—the Quack had been here on Earth for a scant twenty years, having been shipwrecked on their celestial journey. The metal salts they needed to fuel their ships were exceedingly rare on this planet; some of them were only processed using spent reactor fuel, which led to an entanglement of bureaucratic involvement. As one would expect, mankind’s usually suspicious tendencies created an atmosphere of distrust and paranoia, and although the Quack were allowed to live freely amongst Earth’s teeming billions, they were regarded by intelligence departments as security risks.
“PT103 stand down, all points” came the next command. Dog One had that right, that responsibility. It was a fluid site; there were people moving about constantly, and there was little room for error. He had the entire site displayed on the screen from the drone satellite, and he knew what was best. “Matter of fact, full stand down, we’ll follow PT and re-set; we may have to re-bunker. Take lunch.”
Ran breathed a few words to ‘Annie’, the name he had given his weapon after his favorite female gunslinger of a hundred-year old TV show. The LCD lights on the panel flashed and the disc drive began to power down as he laid her to one side and rolled over on the hot, rubber roof of the building. He switched his two-way to ‘alert’ and began to spread out his mobile ration, heat exchanger and food; the sandwich began to heat and his drink began to cool down; he inwardly marveled at new technology.
As he ate, he stared around on the flat roof, nearly fifty stories above the street, and smiled at the thought of how his parents and grandparents would have marveled at what he now took for granted. To the left was a patch of cat tails and flowers, refreshed by a pond of yesterday’s rain and serving as a welcome home for butterflies and bees; to the right, architects had placed two feet of soil and another ephemeral pond, using sun-powered irrigation lines to water a patch of lettuce and radishes that would make any home gardener proud. He got up and walked over for a few greens to give his sandwich a little kick—no one would miss them today, and after all, he was protecting the peace, wasn’t he?
Protecting the peace…hmm…there was that nagging concept again. It seemed that the ten billion residents of this world would never miss a chance to become immersed in their petty paranoia and jealousy whenever some new wrinkle in life surfaced. It took a while before most governments let go their suspicions about the Quack as terrorist threats or cold-war spies; it didn’t take Hollywood long to realize the investment that could be made using them as fuel for a whole new genre of disaster movies; then there were the not-in-my-backyard types, trying to shuffle off these new beings as undesirables, vagrants, even criminals; not to mention the stimulus plan passed to support them while they were here—it became fodder for conservative talk shows everywhere. But they did get to make appearances on late-night shows.
Ran mused over the garden as he picked a few choice leaves. Mankind had realized the problems that arose from his relentless consumption, installing these green roof systems, the windmills he could see in the distance, and the solar-cell landscapes built atop the buildings below. He had used every bit of technology he could muster to stem the tide of his unchecked growth; now he had to deal with another realization—that he was no longer alone. With all the attention he focused on the environment, he had become cold and hard; the newcomers had become a nuisance.
He continued to eat, wondering about the crime that 103 had committed. It wasn’t unusual for a Quack to run aground of the law—their society was much removed from Man’s set of rules and regulations, and it was difficult for them to adjust. They swore their intentions were good, but since when did the Government trust anyone? So here he sat, eating a leisurely meal, preparing to sentence 103 for whatever infraction it was. He tried to banish the thoughts from his mind, something that his ethics training, or rather his ethics white-washing, made imperative. This wasn’t the lenient, God-loving world his parents often told him about as a child.
*Chik Pak Da Grec told me about these flashing things…many of them, colors of human green, red, yellow…metal conveyances move when green…said to be careful…humans stare, still not used to us…so small, so ugly, strange written language, everywhere…how have they advanced with such primitive society?… have managed to unleash power of atoms…but not for transport, not for flight…
PT103 moved in a jerky manner, still not having acclimated himself to the harsh gravity and thick air. No Quack had gotten the feel for it, even after twenty years—their mannerisms, hence their nick-name, seemed well earned. Their weaker muscles and smaller bones would take generations to naturally build themselves stronger—they all hoped they wouldn’t have to wait that long. There was some talk of the Quack having psionic powers, but most of the intelligence dismissed that outright as urban myth.
The planet Quekoz seemed like it was an eternity away right now. Their ship had taken quite a beating, as they weren’t used to such heavy atmosphere and therefore, re-entry friction. A few humans offered help, but the ship itself was of a metal not readily found here. Progress had continued, though, along with the search for propulsion—that was the job of PT103’s team.
“Dog Two, Dog Three, PT on the move, reposition to stage three. Lunch time over.” Ran rolled up his dinner pack and stuffed it into his backpack; he reached down and released the air from his steadying rest, rolling it up; he gently lifted Annie and walked to the other side of the building’s roof past the gardens, where he reset his area at the curb of the rooftop.
Stage three offered him a better view of the main complex of the Reynold M. Weaver Nuclear Facility, and more importantly the main reactor vessel housing. Being a state-of-the-art facility, the lower Building Three was replete with security measures, and he was interested in how PT103 would be able to breach them. The Quack were blessed with a level of electronic technology that far surpassed mankind’s abilities, and they were known to go wherever they pleased. They had been warned and given strict instructions, but there were a few of them who decided to hasten their pace to leave Earth.
Ran knew how the CIA worked, especially their more covert operations. It was better for them to eliminate those who blatantly broke the law than to cause a public scene. They would be able to cover the scene quickly with ground troops and discard the body with minimal disturbance.
Ran sat up his station and peered over the parapet. PT was still ambling along the sidewalk past a few workers, and just now coming into view. The operative wondered how such an amusing being could possibly be such a terroristic threat; he shelved the question quickly, as it might tend to ruin his aim.
It wasn’t adding up, came the wave of logic, unfettered by his training. Here they were, preparing to kill a visitor from another planet because of some small infraction. They were here by accident, weren’t they? Their need was critical—scientists theorized that their skeletons would eventually succumb to the greater gravity of Earth, and they’d die here. That seemed a little far-fetched to Ran, but then again who could be sure of their regenerative and adaptive capabilities?
There was an underlying groundswell of negative opinions and fears concerning the new visitors, mostly put forth by staunch right-wing conservatives—HR1192 was proposed by Henry Shipley of Utah and voted in last year, limiting the Quacks’ access to certain government facilities and controlled material. It would figure that his home state would serve as the first testing ground of that legislation.
Ran tried his best to filter out those thoughts that weren’t allowed while turning Annie on and aiming her down to the street below. Her programming relayed the readings from her sensors back through the GunSat1 satellite, back to Dog One’s laptop, where his crew leader could read out the sniper’s vital signs. At that point, the sophisticated software calculated and compared them with those expected in such tense situations, giving Dog One a feel for the mental state of his canine friends. In other words, there was little room for wayward thoughts.
Get readings from meter this way…humans don’t realize, but particles are bad for them…seem to be coming from this building…signs, everywhere…told that this one means ‘Do Not Go Here’…Dem Gah Tong Ik said was allowed… One-oh-three watched for the traffic and walked across the street to the main reactor vessel housing, Building Three.
He pulled a pouch from his belt and placed it against the high-security door system, which opened immediately.
“Dog one, you watchin’ this?”
“Yeah, I saw it. Triple secure, too. We’re not dealin’ with just any criminal, here.”
The word ‘criminal’ struck Ran strangely. The only thing PT103 was guilty of was impropriety and illegal access, in his mind. He was there to find a way to go home, and we’re here to shoot him…
Almost as if he heard Ran’s thoughts, PT turned as he entered the door and glanced to the rooftop, but then turned inside.
“Dog Two, you say somethin’ to him? Why’d he turn around?”
“I have no idea, One. I didn’t even blink.” Great. Just what he needed—more scrutiny, especially on the heels of a recent non-performance Level 2 shutdown and freeze-up.
“Nothing we can do here, Dogs. Break down and proceed to Station Four.”
Stiller lifted Annie and broke her down into two more manageable sections, covering her to avoid alarming anyone; he placed her over his shoulder and walked to the rooftop entrance. He unlocked his own padlock and entered, acclimating his eyes to the darkness, and made his way to the first floor.
Stage four of Building Three was a more relaxing hike of twenty stories, and he whispered thanks for that—he needed steady nerves and a calm heart. He swiped the universal control card over the door’s panel and waited for the retina scan—no good. Three beeps meant he had to feed it. He placed his right hand over the handprint icon and waited for the pin prick—after all these years of advanced technology, you’d think they would find a more painless method… The blood check passed and the door swung open.
Dog Two waked the stairwell to the upper story with little problem, and heard the door open and close behind him as Three entered. Stage Four was inside the intertwined roof structure, fifteen feet above the traveling crane used to maneuver the control rods of the reactor—he knew the position well, having scoped it out several days before.
The catwalk was sturdy, but looking down into the bowels of a nuclear reactor was a little frightening. He walked across the grating to a location he created out of cardboard and some plywood—it enabled him to aim out over the vessel, yet still remain hidden. He quickly, yet quietly assembled Annie and turned her on; even above the constant hum of recirculation pumps and fans, slight clicks and ratcheting sounds might be a giveaway to the Quack.
“Dog Two set, PT sighted.” Ran aimed down to the vessel platform; he used the scope to watch his movements, and the high-def infrared sound detector to listen. PT walked forward toward one of several technicians in their ubiquitous white lab coats.
“Sir, you’re not allowed here without proper clearance – where is your badge?”
PT held his hand up toward the worker and through the digital re-mastering of the image, Ran could see an aura of light coming from his hand. The worker stopped talking and moving, dropping his papers and staring straight ahead.
“You see that, Two?” asked Three. “Some sort of mind stuff…thought that was some sort of myth, or something.”
“Yeah, guess not - must be some kinda Jedi or somethin’, Three.” Still, Two wondered why PT didn’y incapacitate the worker completely. PT pointed his hand to two other techs, then to a group of four more congregating near the exit. They all stopped moving.
“Yeah, power up, check aim.”
“Oakley”, whispered Ran to the gun. The keyword initiated a slight hum of her disc drive. “Range far, near, check.” The scope went through its standard auto-aim sub-program, compensating for air currents and the high vertical angle of fire. “Arm.”
The BR44 bullet was accessed by broadband; the tiny micro-motor began spinning the tiny stabilization vanes; the explosive primer was set; the trajectory was downloaded from Annie to the bullet; the OK icon lit up in the scope. Three’s icon lit as well.
PT103 reached for the hanging controls and lowered the clamp to one of the hundred-or-so beryllium rods that controlled the rate of radioactive decay. …Breathe, relax. Aim…
“Steady, two, three…changing aim point to fleshy part just below right armpit…adjust…adjust…scope should recal…” Lights flickered as information coursed between the laptop, Annie and BR44/PT103. The “Aim” icon flickered as well, but soon settled to a steady glow.
PT pulled the control rod out and as it ascended, he retrieved a small container from his belt pack. He hit the button to stop the hoist motor; with a duck-like lack of agility, he reached down with the lid of the container to scrape off some of the crusty gray corrosion into the jar. As he placed the cap back on, however, Ran reached up and brushed a bead of sweat that dropped to the eyepiece, thinking “Damn…hope this isn’t really what it looks like…”
“Dog two, steady, breathe; your signs are high; relax…”
PT stopped and looked up to Ran as he slipped the jar back into his belt. He held his hand out slightly, and it began to glow again.
Stiller blinked and his finger left the trigger. His eyepiece was gone, as was Annie herself. He was standing on a dirt road, with a field of flowers on either side. To the left was a large pond among the yellow- and white-dotted plain, with some white bodies floating on it. The Quack were swimming, their heads bobbing up and down as they spoke their strange language. He could hear the sounds of laughter, as a smaller Quack surfaced and took a deep breath of air.
He felt as if he could fly; the gravity was so slight, and the air was so thin. The pinkish sky above him was lit by two small suns; to the other side were groves of evergreen trees and in the background he could see beautiful cyan mountains.
Ahead of him were two Quack—one tall, one shorter and more feminine. They held hands as they walked along the path, looking into each other’s eyes and, what appeared to him as smiling. As they approached, the larger one bowed slightly and led his wife around Ran; his loved one nodded and smiled as they passed.
Ahead on the path he could see his destination—a silvery gray city of high spires, gleaming in the suns. It called to him; it beckoned him to come; it pleaded with him…
Two blinked forcibly, and Annie’s scope reappeared. He stared into the eyes of Get Na Ik Lem, whose countenance turned to one of soft pleading.
“Two, your readings are off the chart…Two…Two!
Ran took a deep breath and re-stocked his cheek. “I’m okay…” He whispered into Annie, “Hands on, trajectory manual…”
“Two…what the hell…Three…red…”
Annie’s scope blinked and the icons went blank. Two aimed his rifle to a point just beyond PT, into a bale of insulating material. Annie screamed as BR44 landed in the soft bundle and harmlessly exploded into tiny fragments, few able to leave the pile.
PT103 took the cue and began waddling to the exit. Ran noticed a glint of red laser crossing the ceiling, running down the rafters, originating from Three and settling on his chest. He didn’t hear the retort, but felt the explosion.