Jamison was proud when he qualified as a sniper. Then he was assigned to the Zilkas Asteroid Belt around the star called New Orion.
His team’s assignment was to pick a rock, set up a camp and watch. They would warn the colonies if any Kilkian ships approached. Smithers was to his left and Black was too his right. All three of them stationed about the same distance apart from the others in the ring of rocks.
They had been told they would probably stay between six months and a year. It had been thirty-nine months since they had each chosen a rock and clamped hold. Their ships had turned themselves into permanent camps once they drilled in. Only way out was for the colony to send them a ship.
They must never forget they were snipers. Each had a weapon capable of destroying any space vessel. The sniper’s shot always revealed their presence and the enemy ship had more than enough time to launch retaliation before being destroyed.
The team could communicate in short bursts disguised as the white noise of solar flares. The last time he heard from Smithers was four weeks ago. He hadn’t heard from Black in eighteen weeks.
Every cycle he prayed for those men—right after he read his Bible—right before he exercised with the bungies. His routine was supposed to keep him sane.
His camp was self-sustaining. If necessary he could be there for forty or fifty years. Sweat trickled down his back. He swallowed hard and reminded himself he had been proud to become a sniper.
He consumed his dinner—perfect nutritionally, passable for taste. When the clock marked time he strapped himself into his bunk. But he didn’t close his eyes. He was busy not thinking negative thoughts.
A few hours later he was startled awake by the proximity alarms. Lights flashed and someone screamed. It was him, of course, no one else was there. He had forgotten what it was like to be startled awake.
He took up his position at the console. He had a checklist. First, was the message sent off to the colonies? His eyes widened when he saw the message had not been sent. He could manually send a message, but it would reveal his position. The automatic message would have been done before the enemy was close enough to track it.
He couldn’t think. Did he really have no choice but to warn the colonies and then die on this rock? He would send the message. He wished he could think. His training had been so long ago.
“Zilkas Asteroid Belt, Camp Beta – New Orion proximity breached.” He typed it in smoothly but his hands shook as he pressed send. Why did he have to be a sniper?
Then it occurred to him. He could fight back. He was a sniper. The enemy should already have a shot off at him, but he had enough time.
He skipped the rest of the checklist and switched his station into tactical mode. He spotted one ship, and to his amazement he recorded no incoming rounds. He laughed a nervous cackle. If they missed his transmission maybe they would also fail to see him fire the shot. These thoughts, these fears, were in the way, he needed to remember his training.
He had the computer analyze the course of the incoming ship. He also studied the movement of the asteroids around him. In the lonely months waiting he had thought it would be convenient to have a large asteroid pass between him and an enemy ship if he ever fired. It might be enough to protect him.
This would be his plan, he had just such an asteroid, seconds away. He would fire, right as the mass approached. If he was very lucky he might fool the enemy into thinking he had fired from the other rock.
His eyes twitched. He was having a hard time focusing. He wished he could think more clearly, more quickly. He would time the shot by hand, but the computer would plot the course of the projectile. Now or never. “FIRE!”
He hit the button so hard he was certain he had broken a bone in his hand. The pain was too sharp to be anything else. Camp Beta slipped into the silent space behind the other asteroid.
The console started a countdown with 472. His eyes stared at his hand, already turning color and showing the first signs of swelling. According to his calculations his rock would come out from behind the one shielding him about twelve seconds before the ship was killed. 460 seconds of dread waiting on twelve seconds of vulnerability. He couldn’t think clearly.
460 secondswere passing too fast because they might be his last and passing too slowly because of fear and adrenaline. The computer monitor ticked down past twelve, and the rock exposed his camp.
Darting eyes watched every monitor for the warning of impending death. He couldn’t think straight but he didn’t see an incoming shot. The ruse must have worked. But why was there not a missile aimed at the other rock. He didn’t understand.
The short range radio crackled to life. “The Colonial Frigate SS Grover Cleveland is arriving to collect snipers assigned to the Zilkas Asteroid Bel . . .” There was a short burst of unexplained static and then total silence.