by Paul Alex Gray
The light is brilliant and absolute, surrounding me. I reach forward.
An alarm sounds, loud and jarring, a warning that cascades around me. I rub at my eyes, blinking as a dark line takes shape above me.
Something stirs in my thoughts, a message or a command: You are the sniper. Defend the citadel. Do your duty.
I flinch, reaching to my right thigh. I sigh in relief, running my fingers over the pulse blaster, slotted into my black nano-armor. I sense the weight of my arc-rifle on my back and I swing it around, checking it quickly. Although bright shapes flash in my vision, I can see more clearly now.
I’m standing beside a black pillar, its rough edges glinting. The ground here is dusty and uneven, marked by more pillars leading to a copse of tall trees. Beyond them, the citadel rises, impossibly high, its pinnacle shrouded by clouds. Around it float dark oval shapes, lined with jagged spikes. Deathships, ready to defend against raiders.
The alarm ceases and, in its place, comes a song of war: deep rhythmic beats, and synthesized melodies, strangely familiar strains that course through me.
I kneel and tap my faceplate. Glowing words and symbols appear, and I cycle through them. Health is maxed, armor optimized. My arc-rifle is on full charge, and so is the blaster. Okay, I’m good.
I open my instructions and see a message from the Glyphmasters, simple and succinct: RAIDERS INBOUND. DEFENSE TEAMS ACTIVATE.
I call up the map and an image of translucent red lines appears before me. I can see the positions of other defenders, thunderbeasts, trapjaws, and plenty of grunts.
RAIDER KILL: 67 CREDITS
I pull up my status: SNIPER 7XA18.104.22.168d: SILVER - 859 CREDITS
I nod the data away. Sixty-seven credits is a good bounty, better than the crud you get from wiping out raider grunts. I shake the last bits of fog from my head and move into a slow jog through the pillars.
I reach the trees and slip between tall trunks. This is a fair place for an ambush shot, and I’ve taken out plenty of targets here, but it’s also risky. Recently, raiders have been using new weapons, including swarms of drones that drift out over an area. If they spot you, there’s just a second or two to move before they explode. Here in the tangle of the woods, that might be dangerous.
I follow the creek upstream, careful to avoid any traps the Glyphmasters have set for our enemies. I catch glimpses of the citadel through the boughs overhead.
PRIME FOR COMBAT
There’s a flash of light, followed almost instantly by a thundering noise A deathship is firing its cannons rapidly: sizzling hot bursts of energy. Not very accurate, but good for strafing.
I reach the edge of the trees and gaze across a narrow field. At the other side, stone bluffs rise, cut here and there by narrow passageways. It’s the maze of the sanctum, the area just before the base of the citadel. I rush ahead, my nano-armour boots kicking up grass and stones behind me. I keep an eye on the deathship, watching the flash of its guns as I estimate how far away the raiders must be.
I reach the bluffs and move into the passageway, reaching a corner. Shadow and light intersect here. There’s a loud explosion and I see the deathship spiraling downwards, smoke trailing in its wake. One of the raiders must have hit it. Taking down the deathship suggests they’re trying a rush strategy, meaning they’ll be here soon.
Something moves in the shadows and I fall and slide forwards, aiming my weapon, my finger on the trigger.
It’s just a stupid grunt. Equipped in basic red nano-armor, carrying a standard issue pulse rifle. He’s walking slowly towards me, although he hasn’t seen me. No wonder he’s worth so few credits, he’s mainly blaster fodder.
He turns around and starts walking back the way he came. I’m sure he’d do this all day, pacing back and forth, waiting to shoot or be shot at.
“Hey!” I shout, and the grunt turns, aiming his weapon.
“I’m on your team!” I stand slowly, keeping my weapon aimed at him. He looks at me, then his eyes shift left and right.
“The raiders have breached the defenses.”
“Yeah, I know,” I say, moving towards him.
He says nothing, but his eyes shift left and right again.
“The Glyphmasters spy seven raiders.”
I nod and look back to the pillar. Maybe he’ll be helpful after all. I could hide out up there, use him as bait. See if he can draw targets in and, when they get close, I can take them out.
“Come with me,” I say. “By the way, I’m Sniper. What’s your name?”
He looks a bit confused and doesn’t answer.
“It’s cool,” I laugh. “You don’t have a name.”
“The citadel must be protected,” the grunt says.
“You’re not real, you know? You’re a construct.”
He shifts his eyes again. “The raiders have breached the defenses.”
“Okay, sure man,” I say. “Stay there, watch out for raiders. Maybe, don’t stand there waiting to be shot. How about, you know, you crouch maybe?”
He nods and kneels.
I leap up to the wall, grabbing an outcrop and pulling myself up to the top. It’s okay but not great. There are some towers around me that can see directly into it, but I suspect the raiders are already at our level. Without the deathship taking pot shots at them, this would be their smartest way to the citadel.
There is a sudden pulse of energy and a scream. I look down to see the nameless grunt thrown against the wall, energy rippling in white arcs around his body. He flickers a few times, then disappears.
A glyph shimmers where he fell. He’ll be back again soon.
I gaze through my sight, finding the place where the shot came from. There are some trees and other vegetation there, lining a few exits to the maze. The raider must have snuck in from one of those, or might still be hiding inside.
I need to be careful. The first to the citadel wins and takes the most credits, but sometimes we work in teams at this stage. Once or twice, I’ve even helped a raider, before turning on them when they’re the last one left.
I see movement and a hulking raider stomps out of the tunnel. Its red and white nano-armor is made of intersecting plates, more than an inch thick. It carries a massive gun, and I suspect it’s the one that took down the deathship. Impressive. Still, even the mightiest can fall.
I aim carefully, finding a sliver of space in the plates by its head. I pull my trigger and a blast of energy bursts out, the bolt catching the raider in the neck. It’s thrown like a rag doll, spinning and crashing against the tunnel entrance before slumping down.
OUTSIDER KILL. +67 CREDITS
It flickers a few times, then disappears. I won’t have to worry about this one. I watch the other tunnels as I shimmy myself back, listening to the sound of my arc-rifle priming. In a few seconds I’ll be ready to shoot again. I check my status. Just two more credits and I’ll—
A loud noise shatters around me, and I’m suddenly twisting and falling, my rifle skittering away. I crash to the ground and growl in pain, my nano-armor shrieking alerts and warnings. My health bar flashes red and I struggle to get my bearings, forcing myself to crawl behind a pile of stones.
My arms work, but there’s just numbness below. I’ve been hit by some sort of exploding projectile. My legs are pocked with shrapnel. I reach for my blaster.
I hear footsteps and the sound of metal crashing to the floor. A figure approaches, pointing a short, three-barreled weapon at me. I squint in the light as it moves closer, passing by the shadow of the wall. It towers before me, dressed in heavily customized blue and white nano-armor.
As smoke rises from its weapon’s muzzle, the raider lifts its faceplate. She smiles at me. “The sniper’s down!” she says, leaning into her shoulder.
Laughter spills through her commlink.
“Tell me you got that for the cast?” she says. “My fans will love it!”
“Please,” I say, reaching up with my left arm. If I can fool her, I might be able to take a shot with my blaster.
“Help me. I’ll pledge myself to you... Help you defeat the others. I just want the kills. You can take the citadel for yourself.”
She laughs as I wrap my fingers round my blaster. “Sorry,” she smiles. “I’m not looking for NPCs.”
I whip my arm out, but she’s too fast. Pain explodes inside me and I’m twisted and slammed into the stone as alert messages flash. My nano-armor burns hot and the stink of burning flesh. I can see my legs, several meters away, no longer attached to my body.
My health is crashing and all I can hear is the wail of alarms. The world spins upside down and the last thing I see is the raider dashing past me towards the citadel. Its dark shape becomes a line that I fall towards and within.
Machine-like sounds spin up, the coiling churn of gears twisting and a buzz of energy. Visions flash around me, scenes replaying silently. I see myself moving forwards, backwards, pulses of energy searing in slow motion. These loop and replay, subtly changing over time so that I’m not struck by the bolt of energy, but instead fall out of the way just in time.
Then darkness, and a whispered instruction: You are the sniper. Defend the citadel. Do your duty.
The darkness shifts and forms and I’m spinning, twirling. The space around me begins to glow, and I feel my body again, stretching fingers and arms and legs.
The light is brilliant and absolute, surrounding me. I reach forward.
Copyright © 2017 by Paul Alex Gray