It's his job. He's good at it. Too damned good.



How many times? How many ways?

I thought about it silently, my eyes on the target, and I grunted softly. Might as well count all the blades of grass in the world. Might as well figure an accurate number of the stars. And, suppose you really could do it, what then? It's never a stagnant number. It's never still.

If you know it now, you won't know it in a second. I pulled the trigger. His face went wide with the surprise of the impact. He stumbled backward a step. I racked the rifle's bolt, preferring its solid report to a semi-automatic weapon, never mind the time. And I laid the barrel straight again, my eyes, wide open, fixed upon his, opened wider. I pulled the trigger again, but I left the weapon alone. I watched through its scope. I watched the number jump a notch.

So what? One more.

He fell, and was dead before he hit the ground. His entourage scurried for cover.

Grinning smugly, I slid backward, into the shade. Rising to one knee, I searched for and found the single brass case that I had ejected, just where I knew it would fall. I gathered my weapons. I ruffled the grass and the undergrowth to rid it of my impression. I disappeared.

Minutes later, I was oozing through the tangle of a dense temperate forest. Nothing like the jungle, this, I thought. The going was easy. I followed my compass in absence of a trail to a streambed. Then I followed this as quietly as I could manage south for a time.

From my briefing, I well knew the lay of this land. I knew its pitfalls and its safe harbors. I knew where men moved and did not move. And I knew best just how and where to find the enemy. More importantly still, I knew what to do with the enemy, when the moment of confrontation was come.

I climbed a low hill, pressing nearly silently through the huge, drooping overhang of omnipresent ferns and conifers that comprised the foliage. At its top, I knew, grew a tree. It was a huge, gnarled oak. At some time early in its life, much like my own, lightning had struck, stunting and warping it. Though it had survived, it grew crookedly.

Into the crook of its loving embrace, I crawled, but shoulder height off the ground and an easy evade down the hill in any direction. To the north and the west, I knew, lay the enemy. While to the south, my own kind huddled in the bomb craters of the battlefield. And to the east... nothing. Endless forest and bandits.

I paused a quiet moment to listen. Nothing came to me, nothing save the forest. All was quiet. The sounds of birds and small furry beasts filled the air. No sounds of following feet.

I grinned again. They knew better, I guess.

Arranging my gear, I lifted a pair of binoculars, and sighted the distance. It had been a lucky shot, I knew. A colonel. Forward command. And not three steps from his own quarters, in front of his council.

I didn't know how the enemy felt about it, but I knew how OUR guys felt about it. A ranker's assassination within safe lines just before an attack was bad ju-ju. Very bad ju-ju. I didn't know how the enemy felt about it, but I decided they couldn't feel secure. Not even where they shit and slept. They must be thinking their futures were bleak, indeed, if a ranker could not be saved.

Good. Fuck them. I'd kill them all the same way, if I could. Every last mother's sons of them, if it meant I could go home when it was finished. It wouldn't even be a thought or a consideration. It would be... the action of a machine, set to 'auto' and left to run.

I turned my eyes south. There, the forest was burning. A great clearing had been cut for miles alone the bank of a serpentine river, which snaked through this latest hotbed of the conflict like a devil's familiar come to mark the time with its tepid flow. My guys were there, I knew, hunkering down in their foxholes and craters, their hands slick upon their weapons, ready for the onslaught that was indeed verged on rolling them over.

Where was she, I wondered? Stationed to the rear, I hoped, though I knew better. She was a soldier. She would be fighting this one out, I guessed.

Damn. And damn again. Foolish pride. Foolhardy courage. Death by the mile, so the stink of it filled me with every breath.

One more. And a big one, I hoped. Maybe worth a thousand men on the field tonight. The fear of it would grow, I knew, with each set of lips that passed the news. A colonel could be a general or the entire chain of command to the average grunt in the middle of a firefight, the bullets buzzing round his head, the bombs sounding in his ears. A colonel, shot before the flaps of his own tent on the eve of a critical attack, might be enough to turn the tide of advance into retreat.

Exhaling laboriously, struggling not to see those eyes looming before mine like the double image of a horrid full moon, I turned my attentions north. Another broad swath of land had been cleared along the bank of a separate fork of the same river. And there, again, the forest was burning. Great piles of trunks and savaged foliage were blazing fiercely along that front.

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