By Ian A. Cooke T.
Sergeant Anders Lethebridge gritted his teeth as a shard of broken tile poked into his ribcage. He pulled his weight off the ceramic piece, and reached to remove it. With that bother gone, the angry cacophony rising from the streets bellow reached his ears with the strength of a locomotive.
The sound was horrifying; shouts, screams, breaking glass, sirens, and chanting. It was the sound of a city up in arms, a city in riot. Cars crowded the streets in a day-long traffic jam that had contributed to the overall irritation and heat in the city. Business had come to an abrupt halt, schools had closed, and homes had been abandoned as families fled into the country. And yet the city was full, crowded. People pushed against one another like cattle.
He was crouching on a roof of red ceramic tiles, which crunched and broke under the weight of his every move. The Sergeant was high above the city, on top of one of the tallest buildings in the area. From there he had an uninterrupted view of the heart of the turmoil – Plaza of Melchor was a round park with once beautiful gardens and trees. It was here where his query was scheduled to appear and where the rioting mass was at its thickest. The thunder he heard was coming from that plaza, almost a mile away.
Grimacing, Sergeant Anders looked up from his scope. They look like ants, he thought, seeing the dark dots that were people so far down and so far away. The thought helped him relax. Without his scope he could barely make out shapes right under the building he was on, and could barely made out the shapes of the familiar and famous buildings around Plaza of Melchor. Being closer would be best, but there were no bloody good spots, at least none that would give me such a view. And if I were discovered… A shiver went down his spine and he had to suppress it. How would it look in his report that he was spotted because some broken tiles fell off the rooftop because he couldn’t keep still? Licking his lips, he looked down through his scope.
When he had arrived at the top of the building nest hours ago, the Sergeant had been continuously buffeted by powerful gusts of wind. Twice he was almost pushed off the building top. In time he had gained a foothold and the wind had died down.
Looking closer with a trained eye he managed to spot several flags on top of every building in the Plaza. The shapes and forms on those flags gave him mixed feelings, but whatever he felt for the flapping pieces of cloth was ignored as he blessed them. Ugly as they might be, they were perfect tools to measure wind velocity. From so far ahead, wind meant inches. And inches meant lives.
Sweat was forming on his brow and his muscles ached.
There was an explosion of voices and screams and shouts somewhere to the East of his position, but he didn’t let the Plaza and the Cathedral in the heart of everything away from his sights. Things could break into real, stampeding chaos at any moment.
“Nesting Guardian calling Control, over. Nesting Guardian calling Control, over.” He spoke onto the comm attached to his ornamented helmet. “What the hell was that sound? East of my position, something loud. Over.”
Static filled the lines before a voice picked up. “Nesting Guardian, this is Wheelbarrow,” Came the voice at the other end. He could hear Wheelbarrow’s lips smacking, a bad habit that had made many of Anders’ fellow soldiers mad in the past several months. “Command says not to worry about it. Over.” Usual words coming from that old goat’s throat. How could he not worry about it?
“Goddammnit, Wheelbarrow!” The Sergeant cursed. “I need intel on enemy movements. I must to know what is happening around the Plaza to prepare for any contingency. Over.”
The silence lasted for a long while, and Sergeant Anders studied the movements in the Plaza of Melchor. A thick line of blue-uniforms – local policemen – with anti-riot gear had formed a perimeter around the Cathedral of Melchor, were trying and failing to contain a mob of hundreds upon hundreds of wrathful men and women. He spotted a man in a commanding green-blue uniform barking orders at the policemen, issuing good decisions that kept the mob back and his men calm. Scared or nervous people with guns never brought positive results.
Whichever daring person tried to get close enough to the line of blue, Anders noticed, was quickly pushed back with a riot shield. There were no movements from within the Cathedral, its windows covered with thick wooden boards. It seemed the mob was concentrating their dislike on the anti-riot teams and forgetting why they had gathered. For now. As long as the man inside the Cathedral didn’t dare show his face, the time bomb down there will not explode. Anders hoped more distractions would materialize, and soon.
A whistle of static and a different voice came on the comm. “Nesting Guardian, come in.”
Anders grimaced. “Nesting Guardian over, Control.” He took a deep breath to calm himself. “What is the situation? Over.” He knew he had to keep his ears open for commands and directions from Control – hell, that had saved his skin several times – but, right now, after so much fighting, the voices of Control, and Wheelbarrow specifically, were not welcomed.
“That sound was the decoy exploding. Enemy groups have started using Molotov cocktails and are attacking whichever car they find that looks remotely fancy.” There was a pause and it seemed people at Control were deliberating. The decoys… God… Anders thought, running a finger over the length his rifle’s barrel. If the enemies had caught on the decoy ploy then his job would be more difficult than he had initially thought. “We just received intel that there is another mob coming from the north-west, towards the Cathedral.” Control’s static-covered voice turned grim. “Anders, they have weapons.”
Anders’s heart skipped a beat, as he quickly moved his sights towards the westernmost side of the Plaza. Little had changed, but a pack of people seemed to be grouping together and building a not-so-improvised roadblock. They are organizing, Anders thought with dread gripping his gut.
“Command has authorized use of deadly force for all operatives, Anders.” His jaw clenched. Anders felt the words ring in his ears. When he was assigned this mission he knew that eventually the order would be issued, but no matter how long Anders thought about it he wasn’t ready to actually hear the words. And now he had heard them. He knew some of the people in that mob!
“The evening bells will start ringing in two minutes, at that time the Grail will leave the Cathedral and make its way through the plaza to rendezvous with one of the cars. It will be escorted by the police.”
“Control, I see crowd movement to the west of the Plaza. Over.” Anders said.
A curse from the comm. “Anders, what do you see!? Over.” Wheelbarrow’s voice was shouting in the background.
“A growing group, organizing. They are rallying in key points to the west…” Through his scope he could see the group parting, making way for cars to move and park at key points. They were blocking the ways in and out of the Plaza. “And they just moved cars to block the western side. These guys are organized. I repeat: these people are organized. Over.”
There was a prolonged silence in the comm, but outside the sound of a city in distress and anger rose. They knew things were moving around them, that a line of events was coming to meet at this very place. They knew things would come to an end soon. Anders felt it, in his bones, in his soul. The city was a balloon being filled with water, and it was just a matter of time before that balloon burst and chaos spilled from it. It had been filling up for years, long before the war broke out, long before people took up arms against and invading force and an inside force. But the months of war had proved to be a magnifying glass that allowed people to truly see the tiny yet numerous cracks within their society, and to filter out those willing to push their fellow patriots down the gutter if it meant saving themselves. One of those persons was inside the Cathedral.
And Anders had to protect him.
Control said something over the comm, some order or directive not given precisely to Anders, but he recognized the tone. He immediately set his sights upon the Cathedral’s doors. He could see policemen organizing three walls of men, each one separated in order to allow an officer to walk between the men. It ran down the length of the plaza, from the Cathedral to a spot that even if Anders knew even if he couldn’t make out the features on the statue of the first president. The mob was getting restless and more violent. It was time.
“One minute ‘till the bells ring. Two minutes before the northwestern front of enemies reach the Plaza.” Enemies, they refer to our brothers and sisters as enemies. Anders thought, barely believing what he heard. “Deadly force is authorized. Everyone but the Grail is expendable. I repeat, everyone is expendable but the Grail. Understood?”
There was a clamor of words as the other operatives, of which the Sergeant knew little, answered. He could hear them, but could not directly communicate with them. And that made him feel even less prepared for accepting the order. Deadly force. How could anyone order that? How could anyone say yes to such a direct order for murder? Hypocrisy, Anders thought. All his life he had killed on command, and now he worried about the morality of it. The mob down there was a danger to themselves, to the city itself and its citizens, but did that give soldiers like him the right to kill them off just like that? How could he shoot to kill the people he grew up with? For the first time in his military career, Sergeant Anders Lethebridge questioned the wisdom of his superiors.
“Nesting Guardian?” Wheelbarrow said with a smack, his voice clear over the static and chaos in the streets. “Nesting Guardian, confirm you understand the orders. Over.”
Anders hesitated. Friends, neighbors… all hate the Grail for good reasons. The Grail… “Orders acknowledged, Control. Everyone is a target, save for the Grail. Over.” His body seemed to weigh a thousand tons. A thousand lives he had taken.
The comm system went silent just as the bells began to toll. Their sound was a century old, and it seemed to carry with it the cries and songs of the recent war. It was loud, it was clear, it was penetrating, and it silenced the cacophony of the mob. As the echoes of the bells died in the distance, the breif calm was almost unbearable. Anders had to speak his thoughts to remind himself he could still hear.
Through the enhanced view of his scope he could make out the Cathedral’s massive doors opening. If he concentrated, he could remember the sound those doors made. But his memory was killed when he saw the bearded and ghastly face of the Grail. His hands clenched over his rifle, his heartbeat increased, and his breathing became an angry snarl.
The riot, the chaos, the destruction of towns, the treason, the violence… the dead. Oh, the bodies of the dead staring at him. The fiery fields where they had been burned. His friends marching into a volley of artillery. All because of one man. All because of one man who betrayed his country. And he, Anders Lethebridge, who had played in Plaza Melchor, who had grown in this city, who knew the people in that mob, who despised him more than anyone could, had to protect him.
It made him sick. But orders were orders. He was a soldier, and a soldier’s life was to follow orders.
He checked his instruments, he checked the wind, and he checked his own breathing and heartbeat. Sergeant Anders was ready to shoot to kill, at least in the practical sense.
The line of riot police kept a wide space for Grail to walk along. Four men walked in a circle around him, his closest friends; people Sergeant Anders also held responsible for the atrocious events. All are expendable but the Grail… The thought was tempting. Anders’s finger caressed the trigger as he considered the ramifications of such an action.
Suddenly the cacophony was back, angrier, faster, louder. The balloon was just about to burst. At the sight of the grail the mob became even more violent. What had been a show of force had suddenly turned into widespread violence. Molotov cocktails started to fly all over the place, and the people by the western side of the Plaza had started to mobilize. To what end, Anders couldn’t tell – his orders were to keep an eye on the Grail, and that was what he was going to do.
The riot police held, barely. They were outnumbered eight to one, and they were being quickly pushed closer and closer together. People threw stones and sticks at them, some daring men even ventured as far as to hit the policemen with clubs. But the policemen held their ground, held their shield wall.
It seemed that everything was going to work out right, that nothing was going to escalate. But Anders knew better. He had seen such scenes before, been on the offensive side of such a police force before, and only one thing was needed to spark an avalanche of ever-growing violence. His hometown will not survive the night.
There was a line of people dressed in oranges coming from the west. The crowd parted before them or ran away screaming. It was then that the horrible echoes of gunshots reached Anders’s ears. His sights were back on the Grail in time to witness the breaking of the police line. The gunshots had punctured the balloon. An avalanche of citizens swallowed the police; they were holding sticks, rocks, clubs, shovels and all manner of workman’s tools – every man’s weapon. The sight of a woman hitting a policeman with a rolling pin made Anders smile. But the smile soon faded as he remembered his duties. Men were getting closer to the Grail, who tried desperately to escape the onslaught of people trying to engulf him. One of his friends slipped and fell and was soon swarmed. Had Anders been there, he would’ve heard the man screaming. The Grail, seeing someone so close to him fall, started to get desperate and fearful. In his rushing, he walked out of the security ring of policemen.
The mob took their opportunity.
And it was then that Anders’s orders had to be enacted. One man with sunken eyes, a bushy moustache, and an expression of absolute hate rushed towards the Grail. Through the scope, Anders saw the rock in his hand, the intent, the anger – the indignation. He shared the man’s feelings, oh he did! But orders were orders. With a heavy heart, with a steady finger, Anders pulled the trigger.
“Orwell Johnson.” He whispered as the loud song of his rifle echoed off the nearby buildings. Before Orwell Johnson’s lifeless body hit the ground, another bullet was flying towards another man approaching from the Grail’s back.
“Jon J. Rogers. Milton, from the Corber Pub. Son Miller. Frederic Miller.” The names of people he had played with, people he had spent time with, people he had grown up with during his childhood years rang in unison to the sound of his rifle, to the sound of their head’s exploding as a high caliber bullet pierced their skulls. It was the poetry of an unjust cause. Each of the names he repeated weighed on Anders’s soul and memory. It would’ve been the same had he strolled into a family get-together and stabbed everyone.
He unloaded his clip upon the unsuspecting people with the speed of a perfectly trained soldier. It was not until he took his time to reload that people started to scramble away and trample over the still-warm bodies of those who had died for what they believed in. The following second Anders saw a ring of policemen regroup around the Grail, kicking, pushing and occasionally shooting at whoever got close enough. He should’ve felt angry, sorry, or exasperated, but he felt glad that the policemen were around that detestable man. The better job they did, the fewer bullets he would have to fire.
The Sergeant nested in his hideout, crunching tiles underneath him. The sound of several, several gunshots reached his ears and he just hoped that no one he truly treasured was at other end of someone else’s scope.
Through his scope he saw groups of violence break out. The mob was segmenting, becoming independent pieces in a puzzle. Each group fought against another group, in whatever manner possible. Anders wondered if it was opposing groups fighting each other, or the same group following primeval instincts of survival. Cars started to catch on fire, as well as the once beautiful trees of the Plaza. How long would it take for the whole town to be aflame? For the whole city?
About two yards from the Grail, the Sergeant saw a man maneuvering around the groups, a massive Molotov cocktail in his hands. He was running towards the Grail, screaming, his eyes set with a killer’s intent. “Robert… no.” Anders whispered and tightened his grip on his rifle. An echo of gunpowder and metal, and Robert Longhorn lay dead on the floor, the bottle of fuel and fire crashing over his body.
Anders raised his head and looked over his gun at the Plaza in the distance, his finger away from the trigger, his lower lip quivering. He had not fired. Somewhere out there another sniper was taking lives without remembering their names. The Sergeant’s eyes were quick on the lookout for the sniper, darting from every other obvious sniping place he had spotted while he waited for society to break down, but he couldn’t find anyone.
“Control, Control. This is Nesting Guardian, over!” He screamed into his comm. Six more shots rang in the air before there was a response.
“Nesting Guardian, this is Control.”
“Control, there is another sniper here. I need to know if we have any other operative acting as sniper. Over.”
“Cannot relay that information, Nesting Guardian. It goes against orders. Over.”
Anders took a deep, ragged breath. “Fucking Christ, Control! There is another sniper shooting at people here, both enemies and friendlies. I need to know if he is one of ours, or of he is another threat! I cannot shoot or I will give away my position.”
“No!” Anders screamed into the comm, three more shots echoed in the distance. “My orders are to defend the Grail, and I can’t bloody well do it if I am dead, can I? I fucking need to know if that other sniper is ours, and I need to know where he is!”
As usual, Control took time to answer. In that moment Anders saw four more people die, two of them policemen. He didn’t look at their faces. He turned to look at Grail, seeing him and his entourage of defenders holding their ground against a force of orange-clad people, whose numbers dwindled were as they were shot down, one by one.
“Nesting Guardian,” Control said, static almost drowning the voice. “There is another sniper at the top of the Cathedral, at the second tower to the west. She is ours. Over.”
Anders took a deep breath. “Thank you, Control.”
And with that, Anders killed the comm. No more static, no more orders, no more complaining; only the sound of the mob and the dying and of extended war. He wanted to concentrate on those sounds, of the sounds of the dying as he killed them. He wanted to remember them.
He found the other operative perched inside the Cathedral’s tower, hidden behind a pane of stained glass. She was shooting from a hole in the glass, and was all but invisible. Anders wondered if the hole had been there or if she had made it. Another shot and her rifle’s recoil brought his attention back to the Grail.
“Maria Johnson. Ronald Kohli. Chuck Lovosko.” He whispered to himself, as three more bodies littered the street. One of them had been a policeman. The men charged with keeping the man who had betrayed the country and allowed an invading force to destroy entire towns had had enough of it. Anders wondered if they knew why they had been charged with keeping that bastard safe.
Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.
He dropped three with shots to the head, and shot at one woman’s Molotov cocktail, spraying liquid fire all around her. Anders could make out those individual screams in the cacophony. He suppressed the need to vomit.
He turned to look at the Grail, who had started to climb up one of the few trees not on fire. His entourage had been reduced, but was still holding its ground around him. He saw some of them talking over comms and walkie-talkies, most likely calling for backup or a quick way out.
It was then that Anders saw him. Dressed in orange, holding a grenade, Anders saw him as just one more threat. But then his scope found his determined, quiet, clean-shaven face. At the end of his scope, almost a mile away, he was the one face that really, really mattered to him. He remembered how that face got the scar over his right eyebrow, how that face tended to blush when he laughed really hard, how that face would make him feel at home after a tour of duty.
Memories played in front of his mind’s eyes like an old projector showing slides. Their time playing in the plaza, chasing cats and other kids. Anders remembered their first drinks, the bottles they had stolen from their old uncle’s cabinet. He saw their time in college, and their time as farmers. And he saw that fateful day when they had decided to fight for their country, to protect it – Anders from the outside, fighting against the enemies at the borders; and Jonas fighting inside, protecting the good citizens from criminals and thieves. They promised each other that their legacy would be one of serving and protecting others, and upholding what was right.
“Jonas…” Anders whispered the name of his brother. And before he could register what was going to happen, what would happen, the danger his brother was in, he heard it – the harrowing sound. The worst sound he had ever heard in his life. His body trembled, his hands shook. There was no sound but the sound of a high caliber, high precision sniper rifle shooting in the distance. It was the only sound he could hear. It was the sound of a military career ending with a decision to change a life and a nation.
His brother was dead.
His brains splattered on the ground, the grenade he had been holding close by, inactive. Inactive, just like the dream of law and peace their lives had been built upon.
Anders acted with the coldness of a military man. His tears were quenched down, lest they ruined his sight. His hands didn’t shake. His heart didn’t beat more than necessary. His scope found the Cathedral, found the tower, found the stained glass. One shot. One shot that rang true, one shot that made the most beautiful sound in the world. The other operative slumped against the stained glass, stone dead, before slowly slipping farther and farther into the cathedral. Swallowed by a lie. It was fitting.
There were more shots. More music. He found another operative setting explosive on the trucks blocking the western side of the Plaza. He found another one away from the Plaza, setting up a clear area for reinforcements. If there were any other operatives, Anders didn’t find them. And he didn’t care to find them.
Slowly he rose, standing tall, tiles breaking under his weight and falling off towards the street. His body was stiff and cramped, but he barely felt it. He turned on his comm.
“Nesting Guardian, do you copy? Nesting Guardian!? Somebody has shot our operatives! Do you copy?” Control screamed into his ear as he allowed the comm. to come back alive.
Calmly, ever so calmly, Anders responded. “Nesting Guardian here, Control. Over.” He whispered as he raised his rifle. It was heavy, but he could lift it easily. He only needed to have it up long enough. The Grail was about to be overrun. He smiled.
“Nesting Guardian, three of our operatives have been shot down. Can you see any shooters from your position? Over.”
“No need to look for them. I know who shot them.” The Grail’s forehead was in his sights, clear as day. The man’s thin, disgusting face was wet with terror.
“Remember what the superiors told us about the Grail when I asked about him? Why we were ordered to defend the man who had given information to the enemy; information that allowed them to sneak into our borders and attack us where we least expected them? The man who betrayed us. The man who almost became a dictator.”
Not a word came through the comm.
Anders took aim, and in the distance, hushed over the fading sounds of a dwindling mob, he could hear a mechanical song of war. A rescue for some, a doom for others. The thrumming of the helicopter had been called, and it heralded something… beautiful? Irreparable? Anders couldn’t tell,yet.
“Command’s answer to all of my questions was simple: money. They said that we had to protect the man who financed the military, even if he was a traitor. Because it was him with his billions, who allowed the military to thrive and grow.” He took a deep breath. “Amazing, don’t you think? The country doesn’t matter, the people don’t matter, the land doesn’t matter. All that about protecting our nation and its people? Bullshit. It is all a lie, Control. Wheelbarrow. We are but cogs in a conspiracy, in a plot, in a lie disguised as an ideal.” His finger brushed the trigger. “And I am here to end it.”
The Grail was no more.
For the longest of moments there was no change, and, then, suddenly, the crowd’s anger subsided as they confirmed the Grail’s death. The cacophony of chaos died out, and was replaced by a cheerful undertone.
“Nesting Guarding! Nesting Guardian!? Anders!?” Control screamed into Anders’s ears, but he couldn’t hear it.
He felt oddly at peace. The sounds bellow him were beautiful. He closed his eyes and took a deep, deep breath. His body felt fresh. When he opened his eyes, he saw the chopper in the distance, a speck of black. It was coming towards him, playing its deadly cello. Anders looked towards the Plaza and the chaos. He had disobeyed an order, killed someone he was meant to protect, and severed the military’s main artery.
He would not survive for long.
Anders placed his rifle on the roof while he collected his things, took off his comm and threw it off the building. He delighted in the clear air up in the building, in the wind blowing, in the sound of victory underneath. The chopper was close, very close now. He raised his rifle, aimed, and fired. One, two, three, four shots.
The chopper lost control, its pilot dead. It crashed against a building on the outskirts of town.
Sergeant Anders Lethebridge screamed. He screamed at the top of his lungs. He screamed in victory, in pain, in sadness. He screamed and screamed, venting out his rage and fear.
Steadying himself with the long-barreled reminder of his wrongdoings, he jumped down onto a ledge underneath him. He turned to look at the city in flames, and the ongoing violence. The Grail was dead, people were happy, the shadow of that man was gone, but what happened today was but a spark, a catalyst, in something that will go on for months if not years.
Anders’ brow furrowed, his fists clenched. With the wind blowing his indecisions away, Anders left the nest and looked towards righting all the wrongs he and others had committed that day.