On The Black: Anarchy


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Burroughs Rice, Grace, Jimmy and cyborg Hunter are re-united for a chase to the ends of the earth.


GRACE DREAMT ONE DREAM countless times, her eye pressed up against a Zeiss scope, a target standing off at such distance that the movement of air molecules between rifle and human seemed to make the distant body quiver and squirm.

In the dream, as in real life, she squeezed her left eye shut and squinted through her right. The shape she was focused on refused to coalesce. She could not recall who the target was, but the urgency was painfully clear: something was about to happen, something that would change her life, the lives of her friends, her family, her community, her country. She was the only one who could change history: her and her watery and unfocused eye, the vibrating barrel of her rifle, her hands slick with perspiration.

She knew the man in the sight was miles away. Grace felt the curvature of the earth mocking her. Nothing is straight, a voice leered. No one can shoot a target that far away. Not with one shot.

Grace felt her fingers knotting up. One impossible shot. Her head hurt from the calculations: the drop of the trajectory from gravity, the relentless pressure of wind against the shell. She couldn’t will the bullet to the target no matter how hard she focused. She had tried.

She had never witnessed mind over matter and believed she never would.

She squeezed the trigger, the weight of the pull  adjusted to precisely 2.2 pounds. The .338 Lapua Magnum bullet twisted out of the barrel, and after that, chaos ruled.

An instructor once drew a formula on a whiteboard, an impossible calculation full of randomness and circles of confusion. The bullet will strike eventually. But where?

And who was that man? A symbol really, a dark quivering shape, two arms extended, feet slightly apart, the head a blur. Impossible.

Yet everything hinged on her and the solitary bullet crouched in the chamber.

Grace woke with a headache, one of those hoary monsters that seems to fill the entire room with pain and flashing lights.

She turned, her arm brushing Hunter’s chest, the man she shared a bed with. He felt cool to the touch as usual, seemingly lifeless. She could hear the shallow rhythm of his artificial breathing. He wore a mask when he slept: a positive ventilation respirator that made him appear more helpless and frail than he ever would be.

A voice rang out from the speaker on Hunter’s tracker wheelchair standing at the foot of the bed.

“That dream again?” the disembodied voice asked.

Hunter had lost the ability to speak years ago. He used a voice synthesizer now, controlled by an implant in his neck and shoulders. By manipulating impulses in a bundle of nerves that used to control his left hand and arm, he could assemble words and whole phrases that a computer would turn into very life-like speech.

“Why is it haunting me?” she asked.

“Snipers regret,” answered Hunter, motionless as always.

“Is that a professional opinion?” she asked.

“It’s an opinion from someone who has gotten to know you. It’s the shot you never took, the target you let go.”

“I never let a target go.”

“Now you’re disassembling.”

Grace sat up, her head propped on her elbow. Her skin was the color of chocolate, her head shaved clean every morning. Down to the wood as her Marine buddies used to say.

“It’s just a dream,” she said.

“A dream that drags you out of your sleep, drenches you in sweat, is not a triviality.”

“Here’s what it feels like: the fate of everyone depends on a single, nearly impossible hit. The whole world, all life, you, me, our friends and family— everything disappears if I can’t take down one target.”

“Who is it?”

Grace laid her head back on her pillow. “I don’t know. I can’t see a face. It’s a man, average height and weight, moving slowly, like he’s reluctant or sleepy or dazed. Or drugged.”

“Is he your enemy?”

Grace thought for a minute, her dark eyes closed.

“No, it feels like I know him or know of him or have seen him before. But he won’t look in my direction, he’s moving away.”

“And why not pull the trigger?”

“I only have one bullet and the shot isn’t right. Something is wrong—the wind, the ground is moving. Everything is out of sync somehow. I—”

“You’re troubled by the hit.”


“It’s not the wind or whatever. It’s you. You’re the problem.”

Grace looked up at the ceiling and exhaled. “You are a frightening man, Quinten Hunter.”

Maybe an ordinary man, a man who spoke through his larynx and voice box, a man with a typical mind might have chuckled at her observation. Might have enjoyed the subtle humor of her comment: frightening man. But Hunter was not ordinary. His mind was already rushing ahead, combing through a billion bits and bytes, exploring the world’s entire digital nervous system before breakfast, while others craved a second cup of coffee or a hot shower or morning sex.

He had an implant in his brain connecting him to the Internet, a DARPA invention. DARPA was a division of the US Military that dreamed up crazy new ideas and then built them. Hunter contracted to DARPA part-time. When he wasn’t writing or saving the world.

“When did your feelings change?” asked Hunter.


“When did you stop feeling like a sniper?”

“Even for you, that’s an odd question.”

“Let it go, Grace. Next time you experience that dream, just put the rifle down. Retire your AWSM. Walk away.” The AWSM was Grace’s weapon of choice, a single-shot, bolt-action sniper rifle often used in competitions because of its accuracy. And noted for having the record for the second longest sniper kill in history. 3001 yards.  Over one and a half miles. Held by Grace, of course.

“Walk away?” she murmured, unbelieving.

“Yes, put that part of your life behind you.”

“I can’t do that.” Grace bit her lip, felt a heaviness in her chest pressing down on her. What was she if she wasn’t a protector, a guardian, up on the roof watching over her team?

“One bullet won’t change the world. Or a million bullets.” Hunter was obsessed lately with some pending disaster he could see in the future. He wouldn’t say what it was. He was uncharacteristically mum on the subject. Was he giving Grace advice or telling himself to stop obsessing?

“You want me to stand on the sidelines? Watch your apocalypse play out and do nothing?”

There was a pause filled with the gentle sound of Hunter’s respirator. “I didn’t say that, Grace. There will be much for you to do.”

She knew better. He meant there will be much for us to do. He just couldn’t say that at 6 AM in the morning. Or ever.

But that was enough for her. She reached over and stroked his prosthetic hand, the surface covered in sensors that fed directly into his brain, one of the few places on his body where he could feel her touch. She tried to imagine what that might feel like but couldn’t.

When she had asked him years ago what happened he answered “The doctors don’t know very much. These things generally strike people in their thirties or forties. I was hammered by this at the age of seventeen. I’m an outlier. I’ve always been an outlier. You’re going to have to accept the uncertainty—the mystery of it all.”

Mystery. Grace pushed her head back against the padded headboard. She didn’t find mystery the least bit appealing. Mystery to a soldier was an unsurveyed terrain, a room no one had cleared yet, rounds ripping past your ear in the dark. Nothing good can come from a disease that strikes people young. He got Lou Gehrig’s disease: the malady that struck Stephen Hawking in his twenties. She wanted to know more about the prognosis. Would he still be around in ten years? An odd query for a professional soldier. You don’t ask those questions. So, she dropped it.

He was here now: focus on that. Who knew what might happen tomorrow?

“You’re good to me,” he remarked. A rare moment of thankfulness from the world-famous scientist and curmudgeon. Quite a compliment, but completely out of character.

Grace smiled warmly at him. “You’re cute.”

“I have never been even remotely cute. I’m simply a decent brain suspended in a useless, non-functioning meat bag.”

Grace glanced over at the graphite and steel monstrosity parked by the bed: Hunter’s exoskeleton—he liked to call it that—a dull black graphite cage with an upright seat and two industrial-strength movable neoprene tracks glaring at her in the dimness of the bedroom. Getting him into the tracker required the assistance of at least one other person, one of Hunters full-time assistants, who she should be calling, but Grace wasn’t eager to break the spell of the morning.

“A quite significant human brain behind some strikingly clear blue eyes,” she commented.

“Which are staring up at a nondescript ceiling. Incredibly boring. The Internet is far more interesting.”

Grace lifted herself up on her knees and stared down into Hunter’s expressionless face. He was incapable of moving his head. Once she filled his field of vision, his only choice was to stare back or shut his eyes, courtesy of small electrodes that activated nerves in his eyelids.

“How’s this?” she asked.

“Much better. Are you sure you’re not a Russian spy?”

Grace laughed and kissed him on his lips. They were cool. She felt a slight movement in his face, a tremor.

“Did that tickle?” she asked.

For a few seconds there was no answer. Then a slightly metallic whisper. “I’ve got a better idea than surfing the Net. Why don’t you take off your clothes?”

Which Grace did, slowly.

Until the building alarm went off.