Former Corporal Asala Sikou lay prone on the rooftop of Khayyam’s largest hydrogen-processing factory, the pad of her finger just grazing the trigger of an 18-100B sniper rifle. The spotting stats flickered through her eyepiece, measuring distances and wind speeds, a translucent overlay of her vision that she barely noticed even as she absorbed it all. Her cheek stayed welded against the stock of the rifle as if both woman and weapon were carved from a single chunk of iron, and even her breath didn’t shift the rifle’s sights more than a hair.
Lines from an old, anonymous poem layered themselves gently through her waiting mind: The sands so red, a sky so blue, but not the blue of home. The sky on Khayyam was blue above her now—always blue, always cloudless. And silent, at the moment, as Asala had dialed her hearing implants off. Her military career had taken her hearing before she left the Forces behind, but these days when she watched and waited she used her deafness to add focus.
Below her, President Ekrem’s retinue glided to a stop in front of the Summit building. Ekrem’s entourage preceded him out, peacocked in the flashy colors that were popular on Khayyam right now. Asala registered their presence, but kept her focus across the square. Her protectee would be appearing soon . . .
With a twitch of her eye, the field of Asala’s scope stretched and flattened to show the whole thruway in front of the Summit building. If an attack were to come on the general, now would be the time.
Asala had lain on this rooftop for nine hours, since the moment General Cynwrig had arrived on Khayyam and been ensconced in visitors’ quarters. The seconds had dripped past, and the general had stayed inside. Gaggles of environmental protesters had made a few efforts at approach, but the riot police had easily dispersed them—they’d been tame demonstrators, not like the sensational self-desiccators who’d been plaguing the governors down south, and they’d made no move toward violence. But if Asala had been the one planning an attack on an Outer Planet dignitary instead of having been tasked with preventing it, she would have waited until . . . Yes. Just about now.
The first of General Cynwrig’s people came out on foot and turned in sharp parade format toward the Summit building.
And there. Movement. The checkpoint cordoning off the street at the crest of the hill . . . a gang approaching on individual scooters, small but clear in her scoped vision. Over a dozen people—too many to mean anything harmless.
Asala hovered between breaths, waiting for the confirmation that they weren’t more protesters or misguided tourists. She got it almost instantly, when the first human guard crumpled to the ground. They were here to kill the general, and she was here to stop them.
Asala squeezed her finger back.
The rifle report impacted through her shoulder and chest. She couldn’t hear the chaos in the street below, but her bullet had found its mark—it always did.
Or marks, to be precise. Only an instant later, her homing bullet was followed by others from tripods across and along the square, programmed in patterns she’d preset into the master rifle against her shoulder. Fully half the attackers went down at once, and most of the rest staggered.
By then, the Khayyami riot police were on the scene. The survivors screamed and cowered beneath clouds of nerve gas as bouts of electricity arced over their ranks. Asala took a last glance through her scope—it looked like the general herself had barely made it outside before being quickly ushered back in. Cynwrig was out of danger.
Something caught at Asala’s strategic senses, and she frowned. Could the assassins have made a mistake? Or was she missing something about their plan? She ran the incident back through her head, but it only served to verify her instincts: the best time for the would-be assassins to make their advance would have been when General Cynwrig was halfway across the square, farthest from any shelter. Asala still would have gotten them first, of course, but this attempt maybe even the riot police alone could have foiled.
Why had they gone so early?
She watched through the scope a moment longer, but whether the mistiming had been incompetence or intended as something more calculated, the attack was clearly over. The Khayyami forces could clean up.
Asala snapped her rifle into its transport case with the ease of long practice, dialed her hearing back up, and headed for the outside stairs to street level.
Asala walked casually down the thruway to the Presidential Palace and scanned herself through two sets of guards to a side entrance. Ekrem would want to see her after an incident like this. The first guards took her weapons, tagged them, and entered them into storage lockers, and the second set passed her off to a butler who politely left...