I have not written action, pure, enjoyable action – not a deconstruction or a subversion or any such thing – for a very long time. Whenever I try I find I want to subvert expectations – and so, in this season of writing short stories against my grain I thought I would write a simple cyberpunk-esque fight scene. There is not much to comment on – my intent was to simply try and write an exciting vignette rather than an in-depth dissection of a genre.
Loose stones, flat chips of slate and rougher-shaped detritus of building-work, made a quiet crackling, crunching sound as the still sunrise was disturbed by movement. The edges of the gravel avenue that one day would become a wide flagstoned pedestrian zone were lined with the skeletons of unfinished buildings, some nothing more than windswept grids of metal pillars and others almost complete. The half-finished city. A quiet place on the edge of a conurbation that curved up and around the space colony’s interior, and crucially an unimportant place. Most likely an undefended place. Miles from anywhere useful, only accessible by incredibly unsubtle trains on special, hardly-used lines. The colony as a whole was on a war footing, paranoia forcing mechanical soldiers out into the streets as its people retreated deeper within its strongest buildings.
An invasion of the colony would be fruitless, tactically stupid and unlikely ever to achieve its aims. A single push in the right place could do more in a day or two than an army could in a month.
The push walked down the avenue’s side under the shadow of the more complete buildings, not quite taking the hunched, eyes-glued-to-sights stance of a soldier in hostile territory but still moving with something less than brazen arrogance. Someone more confident in their immortality would have walked in the centre of the path, announcing their presence. But the push being applied to this colony was somewhat more aware of their mortality than perhaps another soldier would have been in the situation, and stayed cautious.
Her progress so far had been unpleasant and lacking in things to kill. Infiltrate aboard a shuttle bringing essential goods to the colony, ore and chemicals to produce more of the drone soldiers that were the reason for this intervention. Conceal oneself not even in the cargo (for raw minerals of that sort would be taken wholesale to furnaces that were quite impossible to escape) but in the vessel’s degradable waste bins, which were taken to a treatment plant, filtered and passed on. Climb out of a filter reeking of all manner of biological debris. Douse oneself, in a brief but welcome diversion from the mission, in a decontamination station before one vomited inside one’s helmet from the smell. Check equipment. Make one’s way from the slimy underdecks of sewage treatment to the surface, and now proceed through an unfinished sprawl towards the target point.
One advantage of automation was that the “staff” of the sewage station were largely simple industrial machines, computer minds in workstation bodies that moved along rails to manage pumps and valves. It made infiltration so much easier, for the only thing these machines could recognise was the human form and the identification tag on its chest. Each of those could be faked for long enough to make it through unchallenged, should one’s technology be of a high enough quality. Because after all, one person may have successfully entered the colony – but one could not bring an army through a drain. Those “comforting” words from the faceless voices on screens who had sent her to do this were pushed to the back of her mind for now. Her armour technically could let her listen to more of their similar wisdom, offering a direct line (courtesy of a borrowed communications relay) to the flagship. Disabling this had been her first modification to state-provided equipment. The second had been replacing it with a direct line to all the online music channels she could find.
This deserted city needed something lively, and as she scanned the plaza before her her foot tapped against the ground in time to a heavy, insistent beat. Seeing nothing, she slipped back around the corner with something of a showy pirouette, checked her weaponry once again, looked over the photographs of the area a last time and leapt as the music hit its climax, verniers on her backpack firing and-
In a flash of red lights she twisted out of the way of angry warning signs before her eyes and fell to the ground, engines pushing her along in a spray of shale, and something behind her exploded into white dust. Oh, very good. Nearly a good shot.
There were procedures for if you were under sniper fire. The attacker was probably reloading now. Seconds passed. He would have chambered another round, brought the scope back to his eye…
There would not be a red dot over her heart. That was not necessary any more. An invisible targetting dot could be projected and then displayed only on the firer’s scope.
Half a brick was within arm’s length. Depending on how jumpy her enemy was, that would be enough to get her to another scrap of cover. Throw long, like there’s all to play for in the last minutes of the big game. She had always liked the woman who had taught her that, one of the instructors at the academy and – when not throwing recruits through hellish obstacle courses – a mean ball player. Someone who could clear an enemy defence with one throw could sure as hell teach you how to throw a grenade.
The brick arced out distinctly unlike a ball would, and she pushed off in the opposite direction. Unsurprisingly it exploded like a clay pigeon, and she allowed herself to breathe momentarily. He would reload again-
The ground mere inches from her feet exploded with a second impact, the shot leaving a scar in the flagstones. Then a third, even closer somehow, and the fourth smashed into the abandoned excavator she was hiding behind now. Four shots, seconds apart. All fired from the same location. This isn’t a bolt-action rifle then. Shit.
Even the most advanced weapons used by the snipers modern armies deployed could not put four rounds on a target with that kind of speed and consistency. So that meant one of two things. Either there was more than one shooter, or the shooter had some armament she was unfamiliar with. The former was impossible, the angles made it so. The latter was terrifying.
The colony had, she knew, a robotic army. And so it would have a machine built purely for feats of impossible marksmanship. Clearly not infallible, but capable of things that no invader could expect – which in most cases would be enough to put them down. Calming down enough to think clearly, safe for now behind a solidly built excavator, she ran through the next steps in dealing with an enemy with the firepower, stealth and terrain advantage this machine had. It would be a reasonable assumption that smoke would be of limited use, because when even a human soldier could be given a visor to see through it who would not make the perfect sniper without one? On the other hand, smoke and some other distraction, like…
A building was close now, one of the more solid ones and crucially one which could be used to reach the buildings she was fairly sure her enemy was hiding in. She had outrun this enemy twice now, all that was needed was a third lucky dash. The music screamed in her ears, suddenly kicking her back to the real world. She hadn’t turned it off, hadn’t had the chance to, and now it was the last distraction she needed. Noise, repeating notes, stopping her concentrating. The stop button was welcome. This would need precision and care, and-
She jumped, high this time, letting her jets push her even further up as her suit’s launcher spat out three smoke grenades in one direction and a cloud of flares and chaff in another. Technically she was supposed to keep this in case someone tried anything fancy with a missile, but as bullets pinged in all directions except her flight-path it seemed excusable. Permitting herself a smart corkscrew in the air, she slammed through a glassless window, nearly smashed straight through a floor that was mostly insulation foam and boards, and ended up scrabbling for purchase as first her foot and then her leg up to the knee disappeared through a growing hole in the ground. The disadvantage of heavy armour.
Compromises had had to be made in preparing equipment for this operation. One of the many advantages of the growing mechanisation of war was that weaponry was a standard fit whether or not a human sat in the suit carrying it or not, and so with only a personal field engineering kit she could scavenge enough weaponry to get by. As a result she had travelled light, and this mad dash for cover had used a quarter of her smoke grenades and too many flares. Countermeasures like that could be found once she reached civilisation, for even the riot police in a place like this would have them in gauges that fitted an armoured suit. Once she reached civilisation. All she had to take this opponent in her way on – and whatever awaited her at the rail depot – was a couple of personal defense weapons and a pair of disposable rocket pods. Firepower enough to bring a single machine down, but lacking in ammunition for a sustained encounter. So no levelling the city block.
Another brick thrown long for the endzone. No bullets met it. Of course not. Why would he waste ammunition? I need to blind him. Not just throw down a smokescreen but stop him detecting me. Get high. Climb. Half-built stairwells were easy to jump up with gymnastic elegance, and soon enough she was looking at the roof access, expecting incoming shots, finding none. Assume the building he’s in is in this state. Assume I could get into its stairwell with one jump. Assume a few more things and assume the stars align and I don’t die from smashing my head into the edge of the roof and he doesn’t pick me off mid-jump, and I can get into his building and as I freefall scan the place and then he’s at a disadvantage and I need to stop planning before he works out where I’ve gone and-
She jumped again, one rocket fired at her initial position and another at the height of the trajectory. The projectiles hit cleanly, and she was falling now, straight down, wasting her bullets raking the landings with fire and there he was. Engines burned to arrest her fall, the sniper was trying to bring its gun around, and she- no, not now, not this, shit.
Her attempt to slam into him, combined with the damage her wild firing had done to the building’s carcase, sent them tumbling to the ground floor, chunks of plaster and wood falling around them, and then one struck her on the back of the head and sent her cameras out of alignment for just long enough for him to slip away – but not before she could jam a metal fist into where its face had to be. Once again there was the four shots in quick succession, and now the whole world was dust and falling debris and noise for a few moments.
Sunlight filtered in through the hole blasted down the building’s floors, leaving its foyer a neat forest of girders that would one day become pillars. Tarpaulins hung over the doors and windows, casting it into a strange half-light of sun from above and shade from the sides. She breathed slightly more easily, realising that unless her opponent was above her he couldn’t see-
With a grinding resonance a bullet hit the pillar she was leaning against, punching a hole in the tarpaulin. How the hell? I blinded him, I know it-
She ran. Every time she passed a pillar a shot followed.
No no no no no-
The sound. He’s using them as-
Triangulating the movements of a target by acoustics needed impossible calculation speed. A robot would not have the slightest problem doing so.
On the other hand, he was once again giving away his position, and firing at very predictable intervals. The sort of data her own computers could fashion a co-ordinate from, assuming he’s not repositioning but he can’t be unless he can fire on the move now. Those bricks seemed useful again. The supporting beam rang as the brick hit like a dulled xylophone, and sure enough the sniper fired. She pulled the trigger. I can reposition. Her arm moved on its own, her suit locking its movements to keep the aim on where the sniper had to be, and she fired until the gun was empty. Increasingly erratic return fire threw up more dust, and then stopped.
Nervous, she crawled along the floor, waiting for another shot. Nothing. In the middle of the plaza the sniper machine lay dead. Its arm was a four-barrelled weapon with a complex ammunition feed, its head (partially crushed by her punch) a knot of lenses.
Should I confirm the kill? What do I do now?
The railhead was still quite a distance away. Frozen between an unknown threat and the risk of this thing not being quite dead, she hesitated.
Then she saw the red dots playing over the plaza, the glint of light on lenses far less subtly concealed. Contrary to popular belief, killing the boss didn’t make all his minions magically disappear. It just told them where you were.
On the other hand, if the enemy thought she was still there, then they wouldn’t be looking where she was going…