For the Fallen

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Science Fiction

On a far off colony world things have gone from bad to worse, now the surviving citizens do what they must to survive, and bring those responsible to justice.

For the fallen



“Are you sure he’s in there?”
“The info says he is, as does your heartbeat sensor. All it takes is confirmation through a window.”

We lay in the grass atop a hill, the morning dew wetting the foliage around us and forming on our clothing.
“You don’t actually think he will just walk by a window do you?”

Trying to stay quiet and out of sight, we had been here all night. Our breath was visible and we both were chilled to the bone.
“He’s alone and for good reason. He probably thinks no one knows he’s here. Also knowing these types, he’s probably over confident.”

Carmen was a couple feet to my left, lying in parallel with binoculars in her hands. We were both looking out at a small building in a clearing, about three hundred and fifty meters away. We were obscured by the tall grass and other foliage in a small grove of trees.
“You think others are scouting him?”

The sun starts to peek over the ridge behind us, lighting up the clearing in which the building sits.
“I doubt it. As far as I know we are the only ones who know this one is here.”

We sat in silence for a good ten minutes, Carmen glued to her binoculars. Suddenly she tapped my arm and signaled towards the building. I leaned in and looked down the scope, I could see a figure moving inside but a full ID was not possible for me.
“Can you confirm it’s him?” I asked as I keep him in the scope.
“Standby.”

She fiddles with the controls on the side of her binoculars, as I waited silently and still.
“Confirmed it’s him, you are clear.”
“Here we go then.”

I lean back in and look down the scope. The figure is looking at a screen in the room we can see in. From our distance, the window is not a very big opening. I line up the crosshairs, accounting for distance and wind. With my thumb, I flip the safety and move my finger off the side of the gun and onto the trigger. Taking a breath, I line up and gently squeeze the trigger.
The morning stillness is broken by a loud crack, the sound of the gun discharging. It echoes for a short time until the surrounding forests silence it back to a stillness. The gun beeps, indicating that its capacitors are depleted and is now in standby. We both look out at the building. Through the scope, the figure is no longer visible. The glass in the window is completely shattered out.
“Can you confirm a hit?” I ask Carmen as she scans for signs of movement. She checks the heartbeat sensor on the binoculars and scans for a second.
“Confirmed, no life signs detected.”

We both get up and shake off the moisture and plant matter accumulated on us. As we stand in the sun we see steam rising off us and our equipment, the dew evaporating off us as we start to warm up. I sling the railgun on my back and we start to walk. The air is still, and there are no sounds around us.  The forests are still very much dead; even the trees are starting to die off. I can see a river embankment off to our side through the trees. A small stream still flows through it, but the shoreline used to be much closer.

As we approached the building, we were careful to be quiet and make sure to check all our surroundings. As far as our scans could tell, we were alone and the target was down. However, it is possible to jam heartbeat sensors so you can never be too cautious. Looking in the window, I could see broken glass blown into the room a ways in. It was sparsely decorated and was pretty empty. Panning around, I saw the target, laying on the ground, dead. He was laying a meter or so back from where he was standing, pushed by the impact of the projectile. We climbed in and walked over to him.

We both looked down at him. He was wearing a well-kept suit. Clearly, he still thought high of himself despite his situation. A large portion was missing from the back of his neck. I always aim for the base of the skull, as it’s very quick, very painless. Not that targets deserve much mercy, but by showing mercy it puts us above them in the ladder of morality. I don’t like doing this, but it’s all I really have at this point. Carmen leans down and pulls out her imager. She takes a few pictures and compares.

“As I confirmed this is him, David E. A. Ward, pre fall occupation: Colony Corporate representative of Veraa-Trex Mining industries. Pre fall net worth 30.5 billion estimation.”
“Looks like that tip payed off. We got one of the higher profile targets.”

Carmen drabbed a small skin sample from him and placed it in a stasis unit in the pack. “Can we not bother burying this one? He’s one of the higher profiles. He’s not worth it.”

She said this with a hint of anger in her voice. I agreed with her internally, but I still felt we needed to offer at least some respect. He wouldn’t do the same for us but that’s what places us over him. After a bit of arguing, I talked her into it. We took a few hours out of our day and buried him in the clearing outside the building. His grave is unmarked and will remain so, but he will leave this world with some dignity. Dignity we granted him regardless of who he was or what he did to us all.

Loading our gear into the vehicle, we headed off back to the nearest town, Chavez Atoll. It wasn’t too far away, a couple hours at best. Still the sun was up, but as cold as it gets at night, you don’t want to spend too much time in the sun. Carmen was driving, and I was looking out at the landscape as it hurried by. Not a very pretty sight these days. Old growth trees that were first cultivated from saplings brought here from Earth, expansive forests almost a hundred years old. Now most stand in silent petrification. Long ago, their leaves fell and now they stand as nothing more than dead trunks and dry branches. Many burned down in fires, others were knocked over in storms. Some still live but they don’t look healthy and every year we have fewer. Walking through a forest on Rennick is very quiet these days. The trees are lifeless, the ground is still, the sky is empty. All you might hear is the wind passing through the bare limbs of the trees around you, or the occasional crack as a branch falls. In the winter among the higher latitudes where snow still falls, the fallen snow is undisturbed. You won’t find tracks, you won’t find prints, just desolate silence and a creeping loneliness.
Rennick no longer has an ozone layer.

I remember the trouble starting when I was young, but it was always something on the news that was of little consequence to me. I went to school, played with friends, and life went on. Rennick was a frontier world for the Federation. First settled 176 years ago, it required very minor adaptation, mostly just Terran vegetation and soil bacteria. It had a primitive biosphere of simple plants that Terran life took to easily. After that, people started relocating here. This planet is rich in resources, and exports allowed for prosperity and rapid development of the planet. When I was 10, the population was around 4 billion. Large local industries cropped up and began to dominate the local economy and exports. The influence of the Federation decayed over time. We were so far out from core territory that travel was long and very few felt it worth the trouble. All that was left was automated cargo ships for exporting goods, coming and going on a schedule. Cargo out, capital in. With the decline of the Federations’ influence, what followed was the decline of federal guidelines and regulations. Corners cut here, standards relaxed there. The principal industry was mining. The planet is abundant in useful minerals used for everything from household appliances to spacecraft construction.

The road we were driving was in disrepair. Not a smooth ride. Driving through a valley, the sun would duck behind mountains as we went. Around a bend, we were heading past one of the huge abandoned mining pits. A huge gash in the landscape, with dilapidated machinery still dotted around in places. Sadly, these are not an uncommon feature. With the Federation no longer regulating the mining industries on Rennick, they became self-governing and self-regulating. At this point, a lot of us wondered if the Federation abandoned us or no longer existed. There was sporadic news of a situation developing involving the federation, maybe a war or internal issue, we didn’t know. The news was usually second-hand, and not always in agreement. Whatever really happened, all that was left where the automated cargo ships. Looking back it’s very obvious what the problem was on Rennick, and how we could have kept it from getting to what it is today. But too many of us didn’t listen or care. As the greed grew within the hearts of the powers that be, so did the harm they did. 
“You still with me over there?” Carmen asked.
“Yeah, just thinking.”

She was still staring out at the landscape.

“What do you think happened to the Federation?” I asked.

“I have no idea. They may still be out there, and maybe they just forgot about this planet, but will remember it’s here and come back for us.”

Her eyes not leaving the road as she replied, a tone of doubt in her voice as she spoke; “How about you?” She asked over to me.

I thought for a moment, watching the skeletal trees and sandy pit of the mine rush past.
“I don’t think the federation exists anymore, I don’t think – if they did still exist – they would just abandon outer colonies like this.”

I’ve always been skeptical about the Federation. I’ve never been to another Terran world, and I’ve never spoken to someone not born on Rennick. I believe they did exist, the development of this planet is proof enough, but the seemingly abrupt abandonment of us has always made me feel the Federation collapsed. Why or how I don’t know and will probably never know. There are no starships on Rennick, or spacecraft of any kind anymore. There is a rumor of a Federal cargo ship still in orbit, maybe still operational maybe not. It’s been a topic of discussion for years. Some say they’ve seen it with their telescopes as it passes overhead. The concept of there being an FTL capable ship in orbit has led some to want to reach it, but in order to do so they need to rebuild a spacecraft from the ground up. A lot of people view the construction of these spacecraft as wasting resources, others see them as the last hope we have. If there is a cargo ship in orbit and it can be reached, a small group can seek help from another Terran world, perhaps if the federation still exists. As for me, I’m not sure, I have seen objects flying over at night, but I can’t tell if it’s a derelict ship or a dead communications relay. I spend most of my time with Carmen searching for targets, very little in cities speaking with others. If there is a hope of getting off this planet, I want to make sure none of the targets get off. Too many escaped when the collapse happened already.

“When we turn in this recent hit do you want to go straight into looking for the next or take a break?” Carmen asked.
“We can take a break if you want, but personally I would rather get back on the trail.”

With a nod, Carmen looked back out front as we drove. She’s usually the one who doesn’t take breaks. I suspect she was asking for my sake, which I appreciate, but she knows that, like her, I’m dedicated to what we do. We met shortly before the collapse, working in the lower rungs of a trading company. By that time we didn’t get much out of our work. The CEOs had pretty much pulled back as much as they could, and redirected as much savings and wealth to themselves as they could. There was even talk about making healthcare services partially or fully for profit, which was a very odd concept. I believe Earth had a system like that centuries ago, but never in the history of the Federation would a vital service be a profit-based system. That plan never came to pass however. It might have just been a rumor as well. It was hard to discern reality from speculation. The news was largely corporate controlled so skepticism was a given. When it became apparent, the unchecked industrial activity was starting to harm the already fragile biosphere, and the corporate powers used their financial sway to re-direct the discussion away from blame and onto misdirection and implanting dismissive and denialist attitudes into the narrative. It was like that for 50 years until it became hard to ignore what was happening. At first it was just cosmetic, people where growing tired of seeing new mines opening up so close to cities and towns, but then it started to become more problematic. Crops started to fail, livestock started to die. No one knew why at first, but when rates of skin cancer started to rise it became hard to ignore the reality of our situation. Cancer isn’t a major issue – treatments are readily available – but skin cancer is a major sign of increased ultraviolet radiation. Rennicks’ ozone was being stripped away and with it, the protection it afforded us. Animal populations started declining, slowly at first, but what was of major concern was soil bacteria was being depleted. As it died so did the plants. Cargo shipments from the federation abruptly stopped around this time too, we were completely on our own.
The self-regulating industrial complex failed to self-regulate. It saved them money to not care. What’s worse is they knew far in advance what would happen, but kept doing what they were doing for short term gain. As the ozone depleted, crops failed and starvation started to grip the planet. Society broke down. Many tried to flee in ships that were present. Many where damaged and destroyed in the chaos, but some got away with the affluent onboard. We can only hope if the Federation no longer exists, they had nowhere to go and perished in the void of space. Civil war and the complete collapse of civilization was the future chosen for Rennick. Maybe if the cargo ships continued it would not have happened. But you take a population of otherwise civilized people, and tell them there isn’t enough food, and Terrans tend to revert to our baser instincts. The wars didn’t last long, a few years, but they along with famine and disease from the shutdown of the medical service had reduced the population too only a few million. No way off this dying planet, those who survived decided to try rebuild what they could. Indoor farms produce food now at a reasonably sustainable level, some livestock survived and also has to be kept in indoor spaces. Manufactured meat was no longer possible so we are stuck with traditional meat production, but most of the population is vegetarian out of necessity. Meat is a supplement not a main course. Most of the power generated is from solar and wind since the infrastructure for it was largely intact and easy to maintain. The fusion plants lay inoperable.

As life returned to a new normal the feelings of hopelessness turned to anger. As the reality of our collective situation set in, there was a building hatred for those responsible. Many in the higher levels of the industrial world, their supporters and the privileged few who used their influence to either support what was happening for personal gain, or simply did nothing to stop them, became targets of social unrest. Many were killed in those early years, causing the rest to flee and go into hiding. Bounties where setup for them. A massive list compiled of their names, positions and last know locations. Bounty collections didn’t offer much, usually food or luxury supplies. But most who hunt don’t do it to collect the bounties. They do it for personal reasons. Carmen and I do it out of a feeling of civil responsibility. Every target taken out results in a positive reaction for everyone, it’s piece of good news in an otherwise bad news world. We do it so the dead can rest.

Lost in my thoughts I almost didn’t notice we were arriving. The city was fairly big; most of the large buildings were deserted and converted to farming. It was a coastal city. Half was built on the water, forming a natural atoll. Marine life in the atoll is sparse. Deep-water life still exists but shallower life is largely killed off by the higher UV levels. From a distance the city looks almost as if it’s a normal city, but up close you get a similar feeling you get in the forests. A once lively space now rendered largely dead. We pulled up to a building near the city center. There were lights on in the windows and people milling about inside. Carmen grabbed the pack and we went inside. It was a lounge. There was a bar in a connecting room, with seating and food kiosks scattered about. There was a connected library down the wide hall, even an arcade. The whole area had the layout of a shopping mall, but with fewer stores and more focus on entertainment, food, and socialization. Social centers like this are common. Being outdoors during the day is obviously not a great idea, so people spend a lot of their non-working time in places like this. As we walked, a small group of children ran by, laughing and obviously playing. If nothing else, that’s a sight worth coming to these places to see.  We entered a small stall that had screens on the walls and a man sitting behind a desk reading a book. The screens had names of targets, unclaimed and eliminated. The man saw us approach and put down his book.

“Can I help you?” He asked.

“We are here to turn in a target,” I responded.

He sat up and looked over to his computer.

“Alright do you have a name and tissue sample?”

Carmen handed him the small vial and stated his name. The man walked into the back to test the sample and verify our kill. A moment later, he came out with a smile and handed us a slip with a barcode on it.

“Well done. He was a higher level target, so your compensation slip will entitle you to a week of luxury food of your choice, and a selection of clothing of your choice.”

The man updated the listings and we could see on the screen, “David E.A Ward
 Status Deceased.”

As I took the slip and went to leave, Carmen was looking at the screens to see what targets were known to be in the area. Reports indicated there was a past CEO possibly spotted in a town just south of here. He was a high priority target. He didn’t work in the mining industry, but he was in product distribution and industrial chemical production. He was very wealthy and had a lot of sway. However, he used his sway to cover for other industries and shield them from accountability. His businesses also had poor worker protections and abuse was common.

“Looks like my lucky day,” Carmen said with a smile.
“I’ve hated this windbag for decades.”

Before I could say anything, she told me to come on and we were now walking back out. I asked about the compensation, but she didn’t care much for it.
“We have enough food and our clothing is fine. You can have it if you want.”

I thought for a moment. She was right, however. I was comfortable, we aren’t hungry, and our clothing is fairly new. I put it in my pocket and kept walking. Near the exit, I noticed the children again. They were huddled about a woman as she handed them each something. A candy or food bar, I’m not sure. It would seem they weren’t just friends, they were siblings. The women looked exhausted. I put my hand on Carmen’s shoulder and stopped her.

“Hang on, I need to do something.”

I walked over to the woman, the kids were back to running around, playing as she sat in a chair watching them. 

“All four of them yours?” I asked.

She looked up and responded with an affirmative nod. She looked like she hadn’t slept in days. I reached into my pocket and grabbed the compensation slip. As I handed it out to her, she looked up with surprise.
“Here, you need this more than I do,” I said with my arm outstretched.

She paused for a moment before reaching over and taking it and looking at it. She looked as if she was about to tear up, but she kept her composure and asked me, “Thank you, but why are you giving this to me?”

“It would do more good with you than me,” I responded, smiling at her. A look of happiness filled her face. She still looked tired but no longer vacant. I nodded at her with a smile and walked back to Carmen to head out.

Loading back into the vehicle we drove back out of the city. I was driving this time as Carmen plugged the rifle into its pack to recharge the capacitors and work out the location of the next target.
“Is there enough info for a proper trace?” I asked.

“Possibly. The most recent sighting was yesterday by a water well driller working in the town. Says he was spotted just outside the town in an abandoned camp.”

The town was a couple hours away, so it gave us time to work out the plan and look over the data from the net. A positive ID is very important in this line of work. You do not want to take out a civilian by accident.

The drive was uneventful. It was the afternoon by the time we arrived in the small town of Punarnirmaan. It was one of a few settlements that were built after the collapse. Many cities and towns where destroyed during that time, so people who had nowhere to go set about rebuilding. It was mostly residential, with some large improvised greenhouses that have clearly been improved on over the years as limited industry returned. With no plants or trees, the ground was pretty barren. It was a desert town in appearance, but not in climate. Water wells were common and it did rain. The rainwater recently started to become drinkable again. For a while before, during, and after the collapse, the rain was rather polluted and quite toxic. We drove around and talked to locals, people working outside under large brim hats or robes with hoods. Most outdoor work happened at night or during cloudy days when exposure was slightly lower. But there will always be people out during the day. The information we got gave us more confidence he was close by. Most of the bounty hunters operate further inland around the few cities and towns there – many targets are known to be there – but a few check the coasts and more remote areas. Not counting Carmen and myself, there are only around four hunters on this coast right now. This target is probably feeling more confident because he knows that. Incidentally, a big bank account doesn’t equal a big brain, so his slip up works in our favor.

We eventually made out way to a dirt road leading to the abandon camp. Not sure what the camp was used for before the fall but if I had to guess it was probably a maintenance camp for local mining infrastructure.

“We walk from here,” I said, stopping the vehicle and getting out. 

We put on our draping cloaks and packs. Carmen carried the gun and we started walking.
“You want to take this shot if it’s confirmed?” I asked.
“Glad I didn’t have to ask,” Carmen said with a smile.

We walked for a kilometer down the dirt road, talking about what we saw and what we miss about Rennick.
“I miss hearing birds in the wild. There’s something very calming about birds overhead, even if you can’t see them you can hear them.”

Carmen was always fond of birds. Some still exist in enclosed sanctuaries where some tried to protect the last of the wildlife. She always enjoys visiting those.

“I miss the bugs.”
Carmen looked at me with a confused look at that comment.
“What? Bugs are important. When you see bugs flying about or walking around you know it’s a healthy place.”

“Not a fan of bugs, I don’t mind having to not deal with them,” Carmen responded.
“Not me, bugs are important, when you don’t see any that’s a bad sign. Sure, they can be creepy and you might not want them to touch you. But a world cannot survive without them. When I see them, I see a healthy biosphere. When I hear them, I hear a healthy biosphere.”

Carmen smiled and sarcastically nodded. She knew what I meant, I don’t like bugs touching me as much as the next person, but I value their role and what it means when you see a healthy population of them vs none. We spent the next few minutes of the walk making jokes involving bugs, in a playfully mocking tone any time I would talk about something I liked or say I saw something, she would insert a joke about it being involved with bugs or “maybe it was a bug”. It was a stupid banter but I kept finding myself getting a chuckle out of it. It was possibly how she said it, or her quick wit that I found funny.  

We finally saw the camp. The ground was fairly flat with not a lot of cover, no trees or shrubs to hide under. We kept to one side, using a small hill as cover. We got down on the ground and slowly crawled up the hill. Carmen grabbed a can of adhesive spray we use for applying temporary camouflage to our cloaks. It was a piece of art and crafts supply that we found a more serious job for. We would apply a layer and toss sand and any surrounding debris on it, the extra would fall off and we were left with cloaks that resembled the ground. The cloak was now heavier and a pain to wear, but we crawled the last few meters to the top and looked out over the hill at the camp keeping a low profile. I grabbed the binoculars and Carmen still had the rifle. We scanned over the area. A few small buildings, some old rusty equipment, a well, and footprints around the ground. Someone has clearly been here. I checked infrared on the binoculars, but the buildings where all sheet metal and the ground was still too warm, I couldn’t make out a figure among all the noise. Turning to the life signs detector I scanned again.
“Bingo,” I said quietly to Carmen.

The detector had picked up a heartbeat. In the viewer, I could see a small blip as I panned over a building. It was faint but we were a few hundred meters away. It was no doubt a heartbeat. The building had no windows so we could not confirm the target. For all we knew it was a random civilian, but there was only one signature here. All we could do is wait for the person to leave the building to get a confirmed identification.

We waited for an hour, watching quietly, and waiting. The surroundings where quiet, not even wind. All we could hear was our breathing and the quiet hum of the electronics when they were on. We had to stay alert. It may be time-consuming and uncomfortable to lay in a prone position quietly for hours, but that’s what you need to do if you want to succeed as a marksman in this work. This man was another high-priority post-billionaire target. The camp felt weird the longer we looked. It didn’t look like it was used much pre-fall, but the buildings looked well made for just a camp. The possibility arose that perhaps we found a so-called fallback bunker. These were usually underground or fortified complexes built by some to escape in case of disaster. It was not unheard of for wealthy people to construct them. A few were found and raided in the northern areas. The camp may be a front for a larger bunker underground. This would explain why someone presumably of high standing would spend hours in a small seemingly useless building.

The signature started to move. I bumped Carmen with my elbow and we watched. A man walked out of the building to the well. I zoomed in as far as I could and got a look at him. I had to see his full face, not just the side or the back. I took pictures with the binoculars every time he moved his head to look around. The image was then stitched together and compared to references, such as his face and his height relative to fixed objects. Distance and angle, his hair color, and if possible, identifying marks were accounted for as well.

“We have a ninety point two percent probability,” I whispered to Carmen.

“We need over a ninety five percent for it to be a go,” she replied.

I kept watching, trying to get better images and more data. The man scratched the back of his neck as he waited for the well pump to fill some jugs he brought out. A discoloration was noted on the back of his hand. A birthmark that matched reference material.

“Ninety eight point five percent probability. We have a go on the target.”

Carmen relaxed a bit as she looked down the scope, aligning her shot carefully. The rangefinder gave us a distance of three hundred and two point two meters to target, negligible crosswind, air temperature twenty seven degrees Celsius. The target kept moving around as we waited, his walk having a somewhat smug tone about it. Even in his situation, he gave off an air of superiority. He was even wearing a suit, dusty but otherwise well kept. He leaned up against a wall and Carmen was able to get a shot lined up. She moved her finger off the side and onto the trigger, pushing the safety with her thumb. The gun hummed. Carmen whispered three words quietly.
“For the fallen.”
The stillness is broken by a loud crack.

 

End
 


Submitted: January 04, 2021

© Copyright 2021 adev. All rights reserved.

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