Author : Julian Miles, Staff Writer

The seasonal rains have set in; bringing the battle for the planet we call Tango to a bogged-down halt. High above, the grey clouds flash blue-veined white as miniature suns blossom in orbit. The war continues across known space, committed men and women laying down their lives for a cause that became tenuous months ago.

I’m not here to contemplate the vagaries of politics. Like all hierarchies, we have our share of champions, villains, and those who simply do the best they can for the people they represent. They couldn’t do my job. I couldn’t do theirs. Neither of us would want to trade places.

“Hangman Seven, this is Gallows. What’s feeding the crows?”

I smile. Someone has a darkly appropriate sense of humour back at headquarters.

“Eight this morning. Awaiting this afternoon’s first customer. H-7 out.”

A long time ago, men in trenches never lit a third cigarette – an early form of chemical inhaler – from the same match. This was because enemy snipers would have ranged them from the first two ignitions, and the third recipient would die.

These days, all the battlefield drugs arrive by patch or spray. Nothing to betray a position. The beams from combat lasers are invisible to an unaided human eye, which is all I have. My people joined the war when the enemy decided that our homeworld was more valuable as a vast open-cast mine than a place of ancient forests and sky-piercing peaks.

For centuries uncounted, we hunted fairly. Man versus beast, intelligence our only advantage. When command found out about our far-sighted hunters, they tried – and failed – to fit us into the armoured warrior ethos they had fostered. Then a smart man asked us what we needed to kill our foe. We took body paint that hid our heat and did not run in any liquid, then learned about rifles. What they made for us are short, very accurate – and place us within range of enemy rifles. That is only fair. When we told them to let the enemy know, many regarded us as lunatics. A few nodded and smiled coldly.

Our prey is hyperaware that we are nearby. They know we have to be within range of their guns. They cannot use area devastation because of that caveat. Their initial contempt has turned to fear, because they cannot stop us. We are far better unseen hunters than their technology, or skills, can neutralise.

Forty feet away, a bored enemy watch-sniper idly vapourises a raindrop. The little puff of steam is not detectable, as far as he knows, but I see it. To honour tradition – something that has always separated us from the beasts we hunt – I wait until he does it a third time before putting a silent projectile into his nasal cavity, which explosively removes the back of his skull as it fragments.

My first for the crows of the afternoon.

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