I looked at the mirror across the bar and surveyed the damage. The youthful man looking back at me was a mess. My hair was full of dust; from the explosions, from the powdered concrete of ruined buildings, and from the ever-present road dust. You couldn’t escape it. The caked mud on my face was where the dust in the air had mixed with a bloody scrape. a I sipped at the beer in my hands – the first I had found in a week – and sighed, savoring this respite from the chaos.
My companion was a more grizzled man. He looked like he was used to conflict. His hair was cropped shorter than mine, a week of beard went unnoticed by any razor, and a jagged, torn scar snaked along the line of his jaw like a disfiguring rope. “You’re new to this, ain’tcha?”
“It’s my first time ‘in it.’ I took some fantastic shots, but . . . it’s chaos out here. This country is a wreck.”
He smiled, putting an empty glass down, and the bartender refilled it with an amber liquid that smelled like kerosene. “Y’get used to it. Learn to function in chaos, or go home. Got some good shots myself. See that bell tower up there?” He pointed through the window – a church steeple was visible from a few blocks away. The top of it had been destroyed, leaving only a broken wall, and the crumbling stub of a staircase. “Before they secured the city, got some of the best shots of my life up there.”
I turned back to my beer and sipped, sighing. “Must be nice. All that elevation, just you and the wind.”
“Forty-x magnification. You could see the whites of their eyes.”
I imagined it – the wind on your face, able to look down into the crowd, picking out individuals without worrying about them seeing you and changing their behavior, ruining a careful shot. You could practically read their mind if you could see their expression. “That’s serious magnification. It’s always best when they’re unaware. You can anticipate the moment, frame your shot two steps ahead.”
He gestured with the cup, pointing past it at me. “You know how it is. You pick your place, and you look for your shot. Sometimes you don’t get a thing, sometimes you just get the one perfect shot, and sometimes everything you do is golden.”
I nodded, knowing the feeling. “The day before yesterday, I was attached to some local forces guarding the west road. No visibility at all, just blown dust. Yesterday, though, the wind was up, it cleared the dust, and I was death itself.” I picked up my rifle and set it to my shoulder. I let my hand drift over the scope. I had too much respect for the scope’s alignment to touch it; instead, I caressed the air millimeters from the glass and metal.
His brow furrowed, shock and horror creeping into his eyes. “You’re . . . talking about killing people.”
Confused, I looked up to meet his gaze. “. . . what are you talking about?”