Corporal Carlisle Beckett had known from the beginning that teasing the truth out of forty-six (at last count) verses about the Ardua County Sniper would permanently engrave the lyrics into his memory. Still, he hadn’t planned on the tune insinuating itself through his subconscious. The song was just so damned catchy, and right now he didn’t dare tap along to the beat. The slightest noise would give away his position, neatly tucked under a twig and leaf-covered net half a mile upslope from the ghost town.
He let his lips mouth the chorus while he stroked the sniper rifle’s trigger and watched the long grasses shine amber in the sun’s dying light, bowing in the wind as if an unseen figure were passing by.
Hail to the West, to the land of the sun,
To the Ardua Sniper, the Lord of the Gun,
Till all chains are broken and all Terrans gone,
We fight through the night and we rise like the dawn!
Corporal Mbeki was convinced that the Sundowner bards had gathered an anthology of war stories and set it to music: a sort of Separatists’ Greatest Hits. If her theory was right, the Sniper was a fiction invented to protect the guilty, to hide real-life terrorists under a cloak of mythology, and Beckett was wasting his time out here on this godforsaken hill. He did not believe it for an instant. The Ardua County Sniper was always the same man. The lyrics of the folk song were as good as a confession.
Verse twenty-nine — the Terran garrison at Rouge-Soleil sent counter-snipers into the mountains, hunting for a Separatist hero. Verse thirty — the Sniper sent them back in body bags. The garrison requested close air support; the Sniper and his compatriots retaliated with surface-to-air missiles — verses thirty-one and thirty-two. Finally the Terran military had set the whole damned mountain range afire, prompting five verses of lamentations, as though the villages of Ardua County hadn’t had anything to do with harbouring the Sniper and his associates.
And while the hills blazed and the sky rained ash, the Ardua County Sniper had gone to East Solregit, to the seat of Terran power — verses thirty-eight through forty-five — and assassinated General Carlisle Beckett, Senior, for the unspeakable crime of reuniting Solregit with the Terran Confederacy.
Beckett hoped the bards had been practicing their lamentations in the years since, because they were going to need a few more of those verses when he was through.
The town lay cradled like a baby between the crests of two hills; an infant stillborn, a casualty of war. Beckett let the crosshairs in his combat helmet’s heads-up display track down the overgrown laneways until a white gleam caught his eye. He blinked and zoomed in for a better look. The display blurred for an instant; then the image resolved itself into sun-bleached bone, lying amongst scattered shingles and crumbled brick.
He switched the helmet view to panorama and moved his head right to left. A swaybacked barn still stood on the north side of town, and some of the buildings on the south side had only one wall caved in, but most of the village had been reduced to nothing but carpets of running ivy and bird’s-eye trefoil stretching tentative tendrils over the foundations of little homes. A single blood-red flower rose out of a clump of twitch-grass lining the side of a collapsed house, the sole survivor of a long-gone flowerbed.
The Sundowners had fought off several alien incursions in the century they’d been without Terran support, but it wasn’t aliens who had taken this town off the map. The Sundowners had let it burn rather than surrender to his father. Beckett clicked his back teeth together in time with the song, hoping his lips would swallow the sound and keep it contained within his skull.
In the open patch of land that had once been the village square, a wooden pole stood twelve feet high. A plank nailed across the mid-point bore the town’s name, written in the western dialect. The town pole was a Sundowner tradition, but Beckett was certain that this was not the original. It was too brightly painted, too whole, to belong to the decomposing village that surrounded it. Beckett blinked, and his computerized scope zeroed in again.
Yes — there, nearby, was the blackened stump of the former pole, a crown of splinters above the scrub shrubs and bracken. He blinked to increase the magnification. Now he could see the pole itself, lying on its side in the long grass, half-swallowed by moss.
Beckett moved his magnified gaze up the pole, tracing the ornate carvings and impossibly detailed painting, reminiscent of scrollwork, unique to the traditional handicraft of West Solregit. Growing up in the Loyalist East had given Beckett a passing familiarity with the symbolism, enough to guess that the town pole told a story: a baby, holding a gun, crowned with the setting sun; a figure with a sword, menacing kneeling figures; the sun-blessed hero, grown to adulthood, standing over the fallen swordbearer while a child held tight to the hero’s leg. The solar rays emanating from both gunman and weapon indicated their sacred nature. A holy weapon, Beckett surmised, a single gun, as in the song …
The forty-sixth and final verse of The Ardua County Sniper contained instructions on how to bring down the wrath of the Lord of the Gun upon your foes.
The bottom two-thirds of the pole bore a collection of petitions in many forms: rolled papers, holographs, leather pouches, cipher chips, attached with screws, twine, wire, adhesives, or even rolled up and stuck into the carvings. The song’s instructions are being followed, Beckett thought with a vicious certainty. He glanced over the top portion of painted carvings and suddenly stilled at the sight in his crosshairs.
The round white dome of a human skull crowned the pole, its rear to Beckett, staring sightlessly into the setting sun. His father had been right. Leave the colonies to their own devices for a couple hundred years, and what happens? They return to savagery.
Beckett was feeling more than a little savage himself. He had been born in East Solregit; this planet was his homeland too. He had come to this town to kill a hero, and if his theory was right, all he had to do was wait for the Ardua County Sniper to come home.
The voice of Beckett’s AI spotter sounded in his ear, pulling him out of his study of the town pole. He knew the sound was wholly contained within his helmet, inaudible to a person standing next to him. It startled him anyway. Funny how his imagination had conjured the image of the Ardua County Sniper lurking behind him, watching him, smirking, composing a forty-seventh verse.
“Directions?” Beckett asked the computer in his headgear.
In reply, a blinking red arrow appeared in his heads-up display. Beckett obligingly turned his head in the direction of the arrow and a man’s head came into focus. What do you know, Beckett thought. The old barn is now the finest house in town.
While a scroll of data down the right side of his screen provided Beckett with data — distance to target, barometric pressure, wind direction and strength, temperature, everything he needed to calculate the perfect shot — the lieutenant studied his adversary skeptically. Young, tall and fit. Classically handsome, strong jaw, a day of stubble on his cheeks. If he were Terran, he would be the kind of man who could star in a recruiting holo.
In this land, he might be the kind of man who inspired a song.
The Sundowners could never afford combat armour like the type Beckett wore under his camouflage-covered ghillie suit. The man standing in the barn’s doorway wore only a thin cloth shirt under an old-fashioned, threadbare Terran military-issue field jacket dyed slate grey and hand-embroidered with rebel insignia. He carried an assault rifle on a sling over his shoulder.
The spotter had said targets, plural. Beckett let the scope trace the curve of the man’s arm towards a second target, then a third. The shadows cast by the barn rendered the targets’ edges indistinct in the waning light of the setting sun.
If the Separatists were making a propaganda diorama, they needed a new leading lady. The woman next to the leading man was younger still — a girl, really — and very plain, her eyes too far apart, her lips too wide, her nose crooked as though it had been badly broken. She wore ill-fitting grey fatigue pants, held up by a belt, and a simple blouse patterned with native designs. A toddler clutched the flap of her thigh pocket. Even at this magnification, Barrett could not tell if the little one was a boy or a girl.
If the woman were Terran, she’d still be in school. But in West Solregit, adulthood began at thirteen, and adult responsibilities, often sooner. She was heavily pregnant. Her shoulders hefted a pack and her arms cradled a long gun swaddled in canvas.
She’s maybe my daughter’s age.
Beckett tried to imagine Carla as the head of a household — or as a mother — and his imagination failed him. Carla was smart, but unfocused and unmotivated, and her grades reflected as much. Typical sixteen-year-old. And yet, as he looked down at the leading lady, Beckett felt a strange gratitude. Youthful immaturity had been priced far too high for the rebel girl to afford it for long.
The man gestured downhill, back towards the valley to the north. There were thriving towns down there, most of them filled with rebels or rebel sympathizers. The woman shook her head. He grabbed at her hand and she tore away from him, snarling at him, gesturing towards the pole with its macabre figurehead. The toddler clung to its mother. The leading man seemed apologetic, but she was having none of it. She picked up the child and shoved it into the man’s arms; then she shouldered the long gun and turned her back on him, striding towards the center of town. He called after her, and his voice echoed from the distant hillside, but she did not look back.
Beckett had gone to war when Carla had been three. He would never forget the way she’d wailed and reached out for him when he boarded his shuttle; how his wife had tried and failed to soothe her. This little one sat perfectly still in uncanny silence, watching its mother depart. Then its head turned and met Beckett’s gaze.
There was no way the child could see him at this distance, not when his ghillie suit and netted blind rendered him all but indistinguishable from the foliage. Still, for a moment his crosshairs rested right between the toddler’s eyes, and the child stared back, unblinking. Beckett, unnerved, turned his attention to the leading man.
The man turned and headed for the tree line. Beckett settled his crosshairs on the back of the man’s skull, hoping he could make the shot without striking the child. He did not check, even for a second, to see if the toddler was still looking his way. He had only a matter of moments before the separatist disappeared into the trees, and the light was rapidly fading as the sun descended. Still, he held his fire, and not only because of the toddler.
Beckett didn’t want to go home empty-handed, but he had to shoot the right target. If he chose wrong, then perhaps one night, on her way back from having a few drinks in town, his friend Mbeki might stumble into the Ardua County Sniper’s gunsights. That, after all, was what had happened to Lieutenant Jane Cremini in verse eighteen.
With a quick movement of his eyes, he ordered his AI spotter to return his sights to the girl with the long gun. She had made her way to the town pole, where she went down slowly on one knee, using her weapon as a crutch. Beckett could see a strange harlequin pattern painted on the rifle: yellow, red, white swirls, their patterns similar to those on the pole. He blinked again, and the gun became huge in his helmet, so magnified that he could read the painted glyphs: courage, endurance, victory.
Verse three said that the Sniper carried a holy weapon. Beckett felt a spike of excitement lance through his system, bringing a wash of adrenaline in its wake. The world became hyper-real — colours brighter, scents stronger, sounds louder — and he tamped down the thrill in his chest, the excitement of a hound that had scented its prey.
Beckett held his fire while the leading man and the little child vanished into the forest. Slowly, carefully, he reoriented his weapon until it aimed at the girl’s head.
The girl used her hands to sweep back the long grass, revealing a flat stone slab at the base of the town pole. From her pack she produced a lucifer, a shallow bowl, and two fat seven-day candles encased in glass. She lit the candles, and then reached under the altar for a handful of herbs which she set to smouldering in the bowl. Beckett watched her lips mouth words that were blown away by the wind. The girl leaned forward, breathing deeply of the smoke.
Beckett had heard the same rumours as every other Terran: the Sundowners were sun-worshippers, ancestor-venerators, witches. There were several lines in The Ardua County Sniper which Beckett didn’t understand, though he suspected they might be religious references. Perhaps he should have taken the time for more research. Perhaps then he would understand what the girl was doing.
And perhaps she would have killed more of his friends while he waited.
She bowed her head. Beckett’s breath caught in his throat as a creeping sensation overtook his excitement. His family wasn’t religious, but he still felt strange about shooting a girl at prayer, a girl who could have been his daughter.
Beckett dredged his memory and stirred up other thoughts. Cremini, for one. And Jasper Wu. Poor Wu. Verse Nineteen was about Wu, and how the Ardua County Sniper had shot him while he sat in a goddamned outhouse.
He wasn’t looking at Carla. He was looking at a terrorist.
Prayer finished, the girl looked up, her eyes unfocused, and reached out her hand. A leather cord attached to a dangling leather pouch caught her searching fingers. She wrapped her fist around it and yanked down, hard, snapping the leather. She fished a tiny chip out of the pouch and snapped it into her wrist tablet.
The song in Beckett’s head obligingly began the forty-sixth verse:
O victim of tyrants, O Child of the Sun,
Tell ye your tale to the Lord of the Gun,
Tight to his pole our petitioner ties,
Prays to the gods that a Hero will Rise.
The song wound through Beckett’s brain and in between the lines he could read the verdict: guilty, guilty.
Even heroes fall, Beckett thought, and pulled the trigger.
Two weeks since his kill, and the girl’s blood had been washed away by rain and dew. Beckett guessed that her companion had taken her body, but he’d left the petitions behind, and, surprisingly, her long gun as well. The weapon was laid out across the stone slab like a sacrifice, in between the smoke-stained pillars of the seven-day candles, now burned down to puddles of wax.
Beckett approached the primitive altar and felt like an atheist in church. He had a hero’s medal pinned to his jacket now, and sergeant’s bars on his shoulders, and a pack on his back. His wrist tablet contained official orders posting him off world to a Terran garrison in the Oya system. Someplace where he would be in no danger of becoming part of the next folk hero’s legend.
Up close, he could see the weapon was an antique Sorcerer S-7 precision laser rifle covered in ornate swirls of paint. On Earth the thing would have been in a museum, part of an exhibit on the Terran military before the colonies were forced into independence. Here on Solregit, the Sorcerer had probably seen two centuries of service. The focusing apparatus appeared to be a homemade replacement. Its detailed paint had been touched up several times, with some of its restorers clearly more skillful than others.
Beckett was not the first visitor.
Tributes ringed the town pole: bunches of wilted blooms, platters of rodent-nibbled cakes, hand-carved wooden figurines, boxes of power cells. Beckett picked up one of the boxes and discovered to his shock that the cells within were all fully charged. There was even a container of the very expensive, very tightly restricted Terran armour-piercing ammunition that even Beckett hadn’t been able to get his hands on. On top of the container rested a single blood-red flower.
The floral fragrance could not quite cover a rancid stench that hung heavy in the air. Beckett looked up purely by coincidence and felt his stomach turn over.
The girl’s head had joined the skull at the top of the pole.
If he had felt any guilt about the blasphemy he had come here to perform, it was gone now. He was no songwriter, but he knew how to give the Sundowners some inspiration. In his left jacket pocket: nails. In his right hand: a hammer.
Beckett was over six feet tall, but even so, he had to stand on the rock altar to get enough height to do the job. The treads of his left boot bit into the still-warm wax stub that had once been a pillar candle. He hooked the hammer’s claw under the plank that bore the name of the ghost town. Beckett tugged; the town pole screamed as it gave up its sign. He repositioned the hammer, yanked again, and the plank tumbled to earth with a satisfying thud. HEROES RISE, it proclaimed in the western dialect to the unseeing sky.
Beckett steadied himself on the altar and took a new sign out of his pack. He dropped the pack, took the first nail from his pocket, and began to hammer. Soon he was hitting the nail in time to the beat of the song, the damned song that just wouldn’t get out of his head.
When he was done, the ghost town had a new name.
He took her weapon with him when he left.
Ten years later, Carlisle Beckett finally came home to the planet of his birth.
Straight off the space elevator, he came to attention in front of Colonel Kumani Mbeki. Colonel. The attrition rate on Solregit had made Mbeki a colonel, while Beckett, despite his Paladin’s Cross, was only a major.
It was good to see her again. Strange how he couldn’t find the words to say so.
She greeted him with “Goddamn it, Carlisle, I can’t believe they sent you back here.”
“I’ve been requesting it since I left,” Beckett retorted as he saluted her, and then he spoke the words that had defined his whole life, like a mantra. “I was born in East Solregit. This is my planet too.”
“You’re going to die,” Mbeki said flatly. “For ten damned years, every time we lose soldiers to that goddamned Sniper, we find one of these,” she said, and thrust a scrap of leather at Beckett.
Beckett felt a chill run through his blood.
This was war. War was not supposed to be personal.
HEROES FALL, said the words burned into the leather. In the back of his mind, there was a sound like his daughter’s old music box starting up; then the first hesitant notes of a half-forgotten song rang in the back of his skull.
“I thought you didn’t believe in the Ardua County Sniper.”
Mbeki gave him a bitter look. He deserved it. Her theory had been wrong; but he had been wrong too.
The leather was proof he’d shot the wrong rebel in Heroes Rise.
“How many verses are there now?” he asked softly.
“Sixty-eight,” she whispered.
Beckett took the leather from Mbeki and tucked it into his pocket. He had only wanted to end the threat that had taken a child’s daddy away. Instead, he’d brought down the Lord of the Gun’s fury on his friend and her soldiers.
“It’s our planet,” he said firmly, as if the claim could ever justify the cost. The medal he no longer deserved pulled at his uniform, weighing him down. “I’ll …”
Mbeki’s eyes blinked; her lips pressed together into a bloodless line. He did not dare say that he would make this right. There were too many new verses in the Sniper’s song that he could not undo.
He could only make sure there would be no more.
“Are the instructions still at the end?” he asked, and his voice cracked.
Mbeki closed her eyes and recited:
“O outlaw and orphan, O Child of the Sun,
Bring ye your plea to the Lord of the Gun,
Take up the mantle when dusk tints the skies,
A hero will fall and a legend will rise.”
The verse had changed, but the gist was close enough. The same town; the same killer. “I’ll go back and finish it,” Beckett vowed. “I swear.”
Six days. Six days he’d been waiting out here, and nothing. Beckett frowned as he rolled onto his side under the camouflage netting and counted the nutrient bars in his left pocket in the rapidly fading dusk, even though he knew already that he had only two left, and his stomach was rumbling. And the song, that damnable song; he’d memorized all the verses they’d added while he’d been gone.
He’d been fishing for words to justify himself to Mbeki, and fearing that no such words existed, when he heard the sound of a motor making its way up the mountain trail.
In ten years nobody had rebuilt the village, or even bothered to change his sign. HEROES FALL, read the pole in the centre of town, and yet the place was not entirely abandoned. The flowers on the stone altar were fresh; when he’d arrived here, a curl of smoke had been rising from the incense bowl. The girl’s head was nothing but pale bone now, watching him with accusing sockets, and the town pole still hung heavy with petitions. A decade of silence, and the true believers kept the faith, praying for the return of the Lord of the Gun.
His AI pinged, alerting him to movement.
There. At last.
The rebel parked the truck and slid from the driver’s seat. Beckett’s throat tightened in anticipation of a holy vow made good.
Ten years of hard living hadn’t destroyed the leading man’s looks, though there were streaks of silver in the hair at his temples, and a scar across his right cheek that made him look harder, not just older. The man’s fist clasped a thick bouquet of wildflowers. The leading man had a rifle slung over his shoulder — an assault rifle, not a sniper laser — and he didn’t bother to scan the landscape with the binoculars around his neck.
It was though he wanted to be shot. He walked in perfect cadence through the long grass and brush that carpeted the main street, with the precision of a stage performer; then he knelt before the altar at the town pole and bowed his head. He reached his left hand into his pack for a seven-day candle, his right hand into his coat pocket for a lucifer, and lit a single flame against the coming night.
The whole damned time, like any professional, he never once took a look at the audience.
Beckett’s danger-sense crept over the back of his neck on little mouse-like feet. Beckett rolled onto his back, hard, fast, and the first bullet buried itself in the dirt where his neck had been.
His helmet refocused on the target. She was far too close, a pistol in her hands, and he’d never heard her approach. Small for her age, she looked about ten, but Beckett knew she was older. She’d inherited her mother’s looks, poor kid.
He needed just a second to bring his rifle to bear; but his armour did not provide it. She had armour-piercing ammunition and her mother’s aim. Her second shot did not miss.
Carla, he thought.
I was supposed to leave you a better world.
Lieutenant Carla Beckett found no satisfaction in we regret to inform you and his sacrifice will never be forgotten. In the decade since her father’s famous kill, she had grown up in his image: joining the Terran military, qualifying as a sniper with the cutting-edge Shadrach laser rifle. Now, she hoped she’d cultivated even a fraction of her father’s patience.
She would need every ounce of it to sit through her father’s funeral, wait for the tribute in the officer’s mess afterwards, and ply Colonel Mbeki with drinks. The information in her father’s diary, written in old-fashioned ink on old-fashioned paper, had been incomplete. It might be coldblooded to play the grieving daughter card and pump her dad’s old friend for information, but she knew he would have understood that the best way for her to mourn him was to honour him.
It wasn’t until the sixth drink that Mbeki told her how the search platoon had found her father’s body: laid out on some sort of tribal altar, a sacrifice to the Lord of the Gun.
On the seventh drink, Mbeki mumbled something about how heroes fall, and how the Ardua County Sniper was still out there, hunting. Coming for her. Coming for them all. Adding lyrics to his song.
On the eighth drink, Lieutenant Beckett asked Colonel Mbeki to sign a four-week compassionate leave pass. She held her breath when the colonel read it over, because she had lied on the form — an offense under military law. Section 9A indicated that she wanted the time off in order to attend a spiritual retreat in West Solregit. Surely it sounded plausible, given that she’d recently lost her father.
And yet, judging by the look on Mbeki’s face when she authorized the pass, it dawned on Carla Beckett that her excuse might contain a certain degree of truth after all.
After watching the ghost town through the night and into the next morning, Beckett was satisfied that her father’s killer was currently not in residence, and neither was anyone else. No matter. The town pole was festooned with petitions; the Ardua County Sniper would eventually return.
The wait left Beckett with precious few distractions. She set aside her Shadrach sniper laser and made a detailed examination of the village through the crosshairs of the antique Sorcerer S-7. The altar to the Lord of the Gun was just as her father had described in his diary, down to the bouquets of fresh wildflowers and the offerings of ammunition. The skulls at the top of the town pole watched her watching them, their expressions enigmatic. Beckett moved her gaze down the pole, glancing over the intricate carvings of the folk hero and his sword-bearing adversary, until suddenly words in her own language caught her eye.
The Sundowners had kept her father’s sign, all these years. Then they’d added their own sign beneath, painted on a board, written in Terran Fundamental so foreign eyes would understand.
Didn’t they, though. A weight settled over her chest, where a patch bearing her surname had been stitched above her heart and her father’s diary and pen hung heavy in her pocket. At the funeral, Colonel Mbeki had called Carla the Becketts’ living legacy; and the sixty-sixth verse of that Separatist song her dad had always been humming spoke of the next swordbearer. She studied the pole’s carvings and began to understand.
Throughout the afternoon, Beckett observed the skulls through the Sorcerer’s sights and thought of the Lord of the Gun and his daughter, and how somewhere to the east, two white headstones, side by side, bore the names of General Carlisle Beckett and Corporal Carlisle Beckett, Junior. She thought of the rebel her father had called the leading man, the toddler he’d held in his arms, the children she hoped to have someday, and history repeating through an endless cavalcade of verses. Her crosshairs traced the carving of the child clinging to the hero’s leg, and the tune in her head changed key. Variations on a theme, but always the same damned song.
She thought of what she’d told Mbeki and asked herself what she’d truly come here to do. When dawn had broken bloody over a village called Legends Rise, she would have said vengeance. Now, she had no answer.
In the orange glow of the setting sun, Carla Beckett climbed out of her blind and stretched her legs. She slung her Shadrach over one shoulder, her father’s trophy over the other; then she moved downslope towards the village square. Foolish, perhaps. But any pilgrimage required a certain degree of trust in the gods.
She reached deep in her pocket, digging for a lucifer, and lit the fat pillar candles at the foot of the town pole. Her back prickled, as though eyes watched her from the hills, but she knelt before the enemy’s altar regardless. Beckett took her father’s diary from her pocket, laid it on the altar, opened it, and tore out the last page, ripping out the sixty-eighth verse of The Ardua County Sniper. Turning the paper over, she flattened it on the altar before fishing her father’s pen from her pocket and pressing the tip to the page. Quickly, before she could change her mind, Beckett scribbled her petition, signed it The Swordbearer and rolled it up into a tight cylinder that she stuffed into the barrel of the Sorcerer S-7.
A New Song.
Was it too much to ask?
Beckett needed to stand on the altar in order to reach high enough to hang the holy weapon’s strap over the twin signs on the town pole. She stepped carefully, so as not to disturb the candles, the diary or the previous offerings left there. When she was done, she gave the Sorcerer a crisp salute before beginning the long walk out of Legends Rise.
Beckett had just passed the swaybacked barn on the outskirts of town when she heard the tremulous notes of a child’s voice singing.
She looked back before she could think better of it. A girl of perhaps twelve sat on the altar under the town pole, cradling the Sorcerer in her arms like a doll while she sang. Beside her, a middle-aged rebel, still handsome despite the scar on his face and the scowl on his lips, stood glaring daggers at Beckett. He was restrained, at least for the time being, by a small hand on his thigh. The girl’s hand was decorated with tattoos that matched the ornate paint on the holy weapon. She held Beckett’s petition in curled fingers.
The Lord of the Gun was not a strong singer, and the rhythm of her song was still familiar. Beckett could pick out snatches of notes cribbed from The Ardua County Sniper, as if the girl couldn’t entirely get the old tune out of her head. Still, Carlisle Beckett’s diary had not contained any verses about stolen relics returned. Carla’s heart thundered, Beckett blood, Beckett legacy, but she forced herself to keep walking.
It wasn’t quite the new song she’d asked for, but Carla Beckett turned her back anyway, trusting variations on a theme to be enough.