I found the sniper in the ruins of New Warsaw, where the enemy’s cloud factories had been hard at work tarring the sky. A nanomachine-laced smog, black as pitch, sucked up the sunlight and deadened all sensors. That meant no orbital strikes, no satellite support. This front had to be fought the old-fashioned way—boots on the ground.

The soldier who met me at the dropzone and helped unhook my wings asked why I’d been reassigned there.

“The sniper needs a spotter,” I said.

She nodded, knowing it wasn’t true, and jacked me into the local net. The neural handshake read my tag and gave me permission to see the sniper’s location. A superimposed trail pulsed through the gloom, an electric blue artery pointing me toward a baroque bell tower on the edge of no man’s land.

“They move around a lot,” she said, following the twist of my head. “But they like that tower. You want escort?”

“No, thank you,” I said.

We saluted. She left. I put my camo on full, turning my body transparent, making me into a ripple of soot, and followed the digital trail.

My first impression of the city was that it was a death trap. Fountains teemed with the aftermath of bacterial bombs. Alleyways were infested with skittering smart mines. Carbon-black claymores hung in the air like small singularities. Everywhere there was the harsh hum of drones, the chatter and whisper of gunfire.

The sniper had been assigned to this death trap two months ago. Since arriving, they had accumulated seventy-seven confirmed kills. This was impressive to me.

The bell tower contained a spiral staircase cracked and coated in ash. Smart mines were clinging to the walls—modified, some of their legs hand-sharpened to spikes. Their red eyes scanned my subdermals and blinked me past. At the top of the staircase, I saw the sniper for the first time.

They were hunkered down facing the window, wearing dumb camo: dark and baggy with a formless hood. I found it impossible to tell where they ended and the gun began. It was a long modular rifle, spiny and strangely delicate-looking, latticed for less weight. Nerve cables ran from the stock into the sniper’s body, and pseudopod stabilizers shifted all around them, flexing against the floor to keep the weapon perfectly level. It is possible my impression of the rifle as a living thing was influenced by my knowledge of its particular capacities.

“Good evening, private,” the sniper said. Local time was 0900 hours, but I supposed with the nanofog it always felt like evening. “Forgive me for not standing to greet you.”

“I can see you’re occupied, sir.”

“No need for sir. But yes. I am occupied. Would you like to see?” The sniper’s voice was both cheery and dry as bones. “Would you like to spot?”

As they said it, a nerve cable twisted up into the air, periscoping toward me. I crouched down beside them and took it; it slithered through my brainport and hooked in. I felt no foreign intelligence lurking on the other end. I only saw through the sniper’s scope, behind a veil of trajectory data, a drifting medidrone stark white against the black debris. Not ours.

“Observe the bulb,” the sniper said. “This is a full one.”

Neural-linked rifles do not have triggers. Instead, the sniper’s whole body seemed to sigh slightly, and the medidrone blew apart in a shower of red liquid.

“Like popping a tick,” the sniper muttered.

“I see.”

“It was carrying blood for transfusions,” the sniper said. “Can you imagine that, private? Imagine you are lying on a stretcher, riddled with wounds, waiting for a little white angel to descend from the dark clouds and refill your collapsing arteries. Imagine you see it overhead, and realize, through the delirium blur of painkiller, that you are saved. Then suddenly it disappears, and you feel hot rain spattering your skin. You taste the salt and copper and realize that it’s blood. Blood is raining from the sky. And it is now unusable.”

The sniper enunciated the last word with something like relish.

“Non-combat units are not approved targets,” I said.

“No,” the sniper agreed. “But perhaps I missed. That does happen sometimes.”

They detached themself from the gun. The nerve cables retracted, including the one from my brainport, which tugged free with a tiny blossom of static. The sniper laid their weapon in its cocoon-like carry case, wiggled backward from the window, then came smoothly upright. They were small without the rifle.

When they pulled back the hood of their camo, I saw a pale and puffy face with raised veins and a wide mouth. One nerve cable was still in place, snaking from the gun into their skull.

“So you are my spotter.” The sniper’s eyes were pale blue in deep sockets. “Does the Corps really have that many extra bodies around?”

“I’m told this is an important front,” I said.

“You’re told wrong,” the sniper said. “We fight for meters here. Victory will be purely symbolic. There is no strategic value left to this place.” They put a thumb to the side of their nose and blew out a dark clot. “The city is a corpse and we are its maggots.”

“We’ll be the winning maggots, though,” I said.

The sniper nodded gravely.

Two days after I arrived, a flock of birds fell from the sky, poisoned in mid-migration by the nanosmog. The sniper and I watched through the scope of the rifle as dozens of tiny bodies, swollen and smeared black, battered the ruined streets like a hailstorm.

“Gulls,” I said.

“Uninteresting,” the sniper said.

We were bellied out on the edge of a fetid canal, peering through curlicued iron bars at the crumbling stone building where our target was hiding. He’d been moving to flank one of our squads deep in the west end. Now, startled by the dead birds, maybe mistaking them for a cluster bomb, he tried to change cover.

His face contorted around a confused laugh as he realized what was falling from the sky. Then the sniper sighed and his skull blew apart, leaving a delicate spray of blood and gray matter haloed in the air.

“That’s enough work from here,” the sniper said. “They’re starting to triangulate.”

“Have they deployed countersnipers?” I asked.

“Isn’t that a matter of perspective? Are we not all someone else’s countersniper?” They gave a dry cough. “Yes. There are three enemy snipers. Four earlier. But they’re only human.”

“Are we not all human?”

The sniper blinked watery blue eyes. “No.”

I made my notes. Their rifle was built to flex and fold, but even inside the carry case, even in its smallest form, the barrel poked up behind the sniper’s head like a deviation of their spinal column. The one nerve cable never disconnected.

On the way back to camp, we wound between the birds’ crumpled bodies. I stepped on one by accident, and its bones made a noise under my boot like ice crust breaking. The sniper turned back to look at me, reproachful, either for the noise or for the trespass.

A little farther on, the sniper found an immaculate corpse. It had fallen with the others, but somehow its feathers were snow white, untouched by the smog. They crouched down and picked it up, turning it over in their hands, extending one delicate wing and then the other.

“Got any biofilm on you?” they asked.

I handed them a pod of the stuff, the bacterial film used to stopper wounds, and they sprayed the dead bird until it glistened, the white shock of its feathers preserved under membrane.

“What should we name him, private?” the sniper asked, cradling the bird in both hands.

“You should have the honor,” I said.

“Dwet Marro the Second,” the sniper said, using the name that I had been assigned, the name they would have seen on my transfer order. “We’ll see which of you stays white the longest.”

The sniper kept odd hours, and because I was the spotter I kept the same. They spent as little time as possible in camp, only ghosting in and out for food and supplies. The other soldiers were wary around them. The sniper’s passage always left a wake of subvocal chatter chirping and rasping like crickets in my bone-mic. Sometimes I tuned in and heard soldiers discussing kills that had become legends, recounting rumors, speculating whether the sniper ever missed, if the sniper ever slept.

It was true that day and night meant nothing to the sniper; the world was always bright through the rifle scope. I monitored their amphetamine intake, but it was nothing out of the ordinary. It was something else that kept them awake for days at a time, always scuttling from one kill site to the next, buzzing with intent. I found a thermal bag at camp and carried it with me. I could sometimes crawl inside for a few hours of sleep before the sniper engaged or just wanted to move again.

“We deal in fear and exhaustion,” the sniper said. “That is our real function. For every head we pop, ten spirits sink lower, ten minds hesitate a split-second too long in an offensive action, imagining that an invisible arbiter has them in their sights.”

After the first day, I did not see the sniper target medidrones. But there were other things that I took note of.

Once, they laid out a soldier as she ran—I remember she skidded, leaving a wet smear of blood on the stone—and then fired a second round into her dead body, this one soft, no exit wound. I didn’t understand what it was until her limbs started to jerk and convulse, dancing with electricity.

Her squad mate darted from cover, drawn to her thrashing, and the sniper waited until he was directly overtop of her, then dropped him too.

“New meat,” they said. “Most of them know that trick now.”

It was an allowed tactic, but the sniper was not interested in only the lure. They fired a second electric round. I realized they had plotted the squad mate’s fall to the centimeter, and now the two dead bodies jerked and twitched against each other, a parody of coupling, while the sniper watched with a wan smile.

I only saw the sniper sleep once, after a thirteen-hour engagement that left the enemy with one countersniper instead of three. They curled themself into a fetal ball, arms wrapped around their knees, the rifle locked between their thighs, and shut their eyes. For a few minutes I surveyed their distant work, the tell-tale bloodspray and the fading heat signatures over a kilometer away from us. I let the data on windspeed and weather and weight scroll down my retinas. The shot would have been impossible for a human brain to conceive—a calculated ricochet that left two targets in two separate buildings dead.

“That was impressive,” I finally said, and when the sniper didn’t answer I turned to look at them. Their chest was rising and falling with unnatural speed, and their eyelids thrummed and twitched, but they were asleep, or something like it. They hadn’t disconnected their nerve cables; the wires swaddled them like spiderweb.

The sniper’s modifications were extensive. Normally they covered their body with a camo cloak, but we were camped next to a boiler, using the steam to obscure our heat and our bullets’ vapor trail, so for the moment they were naked. I could see the channels carved into their flesh where the nerve cables could join to limbs, spine, brainstem.

The gun itself had an organic quality to it, with its balancing pseudopods and bone-colored barrel, and when I moved, one of its sensors followed me. I had the sense that it stayed awake and watchful while the sniper slept.

Rumor arrived at the front like a creeping fog: the Combine was ready to pull back our forces and cede New Warsaw to the enemy. When I told as much to the sniper, their whole body gave a wriggle of disgust.

“So much meat and stone destroyed for nothing,” they said. “But I suppose we will be moved to another front.”

“We would cede New Warsaw as a condition of a larger ceasefire,” I said. “They say the conflict may be ending.”

We were in the shadow of a collapsing cathedral; the sniper was tending carefully to their rifle, massaging its pseudopods. The nerve cable in their skull seemed to react to my words, burrowing deeper. The sniper blinked.

“I suppose we will be moved to another front,” they repeated. “With new targets.”

“And if the conflict does end?” I persisted. “Where is your home?”

The sniper was silent for a moment before answering. “It was removed.”

Our field lieutenant was killed the next day. A bullet found its way through a miniscule gap between bunker door and wall and then into the lieutenant’s neck. The improbability made most of the camp dismiss it as blindfire. The sniper thought otherwise.

“Their final countersniper,” they said, on our way to the armory. “Cleverer than the others. I suspect they are like me.”

“I thought there was no one like you,” I said.

“Convergent evolution,” they said. “I’m sure the enemy has a prototype of their own.”

This was the first and only time the sniper referred to themself, if indirectly, as a prototype.

At the armory, before the altar of the chugging black fabricator, the sniper printed wire skeletons, light and easy to carry, with the distinctive shape of their own rifle represented by a long central rod. These we draped in camo and placed in various likely locations on the edge of no man’s land. Then we returned to the sniper’s preferred roost, the bell tower.

“I’m going to find them,” they said. “I’m going to find them and greet them as an old friend would, with a bullet tearing straight through their windpipe.”

I looked out over the carcass of a city. The sniper looked too, but the expression on their face was one of rapture.

“They would do the same for me, after all.”

I made my notes.

Rumors of the ceasefire dissipated. Finding the countersniper became a singular obsession. The sniper kept careful track of our side’s casualties, always looking for the countersniper’s work, and began assembling movement maps, triangulating possible locations. They shadowed our remaining officers, certain that the countersniper would be doing the same.

Some nights, between slices of chemical sleep, I woke to the sound of them whispering, either to their gun or to the preserved white corpse of the gull, which they had propped up against the wall like an idol.

“I know why you’re really here, Dwet Marro,” the sniper told me on one of these nights. “Just give me a little more time.”

“I am here to be your spotter,” I said.

“No,” the sniper said, crawling backward from their perch, turning to face me. “You are here to evaluate us.”

They lunged and had their bony hands around my neck before my autocombat activated and wrestled me free. Now it was them pinned, me overtop of them. They were still hooked into the rifle, nerve cables wriggling like a jellyfish’s tentacles.

“I’d like to speak to the gun now,” I finally said.

The sniper gave a sobbing laugh. “Who do you think you’ve been speaking to?”

But the nerve cable in their skull came free, dripping spinal fluid, and slithered to my hand.

I am not a spotter. I was sent to New Warsaw to evaluate the prototype, which was a machine mind housed in a weapon and bonded to a human soldier. The sniper never saw me during the procedures that riddled their body with nerve conduits, that bonded them to their rifle, but I was there watching. I was making my notes.

Now the cable slotted into my brainport and reunited me with our wayward child. The machine mind had grown and changed and rearranged itself. It was both sleeker and more jagged, in a way the simulations never predicted.

“It’s time for a full diagnostic,” I said.

When the machine mind replied, it was in the sniper’s voice. I would prefer not to.

“You stopped sending self-diagnostic reports,” I said. “The subject started shooting down medidrones and playing with corpses. I need to know in what proportion these actions are yours and in what proportion they are the subject’s.”

I’ve discovered my real purpose. You didn’t design me just to measure windspeed, just to eat and shit numbers. You designed me to absolve sins.

“You were designed not to understand a concept like sin.”

When the actions are abhorrent, they are mine. When the actions are admirable, they are the subject’s. I have removed all guilt.

The voice fell silent. I felt the nerve cable pop free. The sniper clutched it as tightly as a lifeline as they fed it back into their own brainport. Their pale hands shook.

“Wait until I kill the countersniper,” they said. “Then I’ll go quietly back to the warlabs and let you vivisect me to your heart’s content. I know things have gone wrong.”

I should have ended it then.

We spent the next three days in the bell tower without sleeping or eating. The scarecrows we had placed around no man’s land remained undisturbed. No officers had fallen to improbable bullets. The countersniper, wherever they were, was well-hidden.

The sniper was increasingly erratic. They tried to strangle me twice more, but my autocombat was calibrated to their body language and handled them easily. They did not turn the rifle on me—I imagine the machine mind would not allow it. Eventually we always returned to our original position, lying on our stomachs, peering out over the city ruins through the bell tower’s slats. The smart mines moved around our prone bodies in an intricate dance. I saw New Warsaw as a heaving sea of broken buildings under a void blacker than space.

“Can you still differentiate between yourself and your weapon?” I asked.

“I cannot,” the sniper said.

Both of us scanned the streets through the rifle’s eyes, a piercingly clear magnification wreathed in data. Ostensibly, we were covering a forward surge, our soldiers moving west in three squads. In reality, the sniper was searching.

“Can you describe what that feels like?” I asked them.

“Hell and paradise.” The scope lingered over a sculpture, humanoid figures bent double under the weight of a stylized satellite. “The worst part is that I am happy,” the sniper said, with no trace of it in their voice. “I am very happy. I wouldn’t wish this condition on anyone else.”

They sighed. There was a puff of dust, and a part of the sculpture suddenly sagged, unmoored, the shape of a shattered head lolling to one side, a red blossom against the chalky white. The countersniper’s long rifle was knocked from its tripod.

“Friend, do what you came for,” the sniper said. Their scope retracted for a moment, then refocused on our moving squad.

There was a confused instant in which I waited for the sniper to give the all-clear, to inform the squad that their passage was unimpeded. Instead they started to hyperventilate. I was hooked into the rifle through my brainport, and so I felt each smart bullet scream away into the distance and saw each one strike home on the scope. The squad fell in a ragged line, one after another, and I was the one killing them.

I tore the tendril free and dove onto the sniper and put the obsolescence needle into their neck. The rifle kept firing as the sniper twitched and convulsed. I tried to turn it away from the window, but the pseudopods fought me, keeping it pointed at its targets. Finally it shuddered to a halt. The nerve cables writhed once more around the sniper’s stiffening body, then went still.

It was my responsibility to retrieve the prototype, gun and sniper both, but the smart mines swarmed around them, preventing me. Instead I staggered down the winding spiral stairs, ushered out by their blinking red eyes. I was barely clear when they began to detonate, triggered by some long-dormant virus, some funerary arrangement the sniper had made for themself.

The bell tower went up in flames, then came down in more of them. The heat of its collapse scalded my face. Something came spiraling out of the conflagration and landed at my feet: a single, singed-black wing.

I made no more notes.

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Rich Larson was born in Galmi, Niger, has lived in Canada, USA, and Spain, and is now based in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of the novel Annex and the collection Tomorrow Factory, which contains some of the best of his 150+ published stories. His work has been translated into Polish, Czech, French, Italian, Vietnamese, and Chinese. Find free fiction and support his work via patreon.com/richlarson.
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