This story by Adam Murton was the winner in the 2020 Antares Action Fiction Competition.
The twisted creatures charged, devouring the distance to the crater where Sniper Tuahi lay. They moved faster than any human should, but then they weren’t human. Not any more. The IMTel cautioned her to not let them within spitting range, but there were some things you didn’t need to be told.
Tuahi tried to focus past the rejects, ignoring the raw flayed flesh and the swellings around the inserted wires. They weren’t her prey. The real target, their nuhu, was concealed behind the charging misgenic horde. She steadied her breathing and tried to ignore the bladed limbs and pincer claws, which were getting closer and closer. Between her and the horde was a narrow chasm that glowed dully red with magma flowing through it. The twisted creatures reached it, spread out to make the jump.
There was the opportunity.
Tuahi inhaled and time condensed. The creatures’ leap slowed to almost nothing. Sighting over a reject’s warty shoulder, she recognised the NuHu Duron Shai clearly even through the cloud of buzzing buddy-drones. A memory formed briefly of serving alongside him in the Jurata campaign. She blinked that thought away. He wasn’t the Duron she remembered: he was a traitor. With that thought, she fired. The drone-symbiote sent a stream of nearly simultaneous shots towards Duron’s head and then time unfolded and the rejects continued their charge. Behind them, the drone cloud condensed around Duron, as sacrificial buddy-drones threw themselves in front of Tuahi’s shots. Once, she had admired the speed with which he could block incoming shots, but now she swore. “Kaha!”
The misgenic creatures landed on her side of the lava chasm, only a couple of dozen paces away. She focused once more and as they stilled, she fired. Sometimes, you had to make your own opportunities and sometimes you had to ensure you survived long enough to have an opportunity. Time unfolded and the blasts struck the rejects: three fell, sliding along the glassy rocks. A fourth flinched back but continued. The closest rejects spat. Their aim was wild and acid spattered all around her, bubbling and steaming on the stones. Tuahi was grateful once again for the camo-drone which concealed her.
Over the fallen rejects, Tuahi could see Duron. She focused once more, but could feel time resisting her; it was too soon after the last fold. The rejects ran nearer still: step, step and the gap began to close. Then, time slipped and they were frozen once more. She fired more urgently this time; the fold wasn’t going to hold for very long this time. The shots melted the last few buddy-drones and one shot flew on, unblocked. For a moment she thought she had succeeded, but the shot deflected harmlessly off his nano-field.
The five remaining rejects unfroze and closed ranks, blocking Tuahi’s sight-line to Duron. They were only a handful of paces away, too close for the camo-drone to stop them. Close enough for Tuahi to see their venom sacs swell, ready to spit again.
There was a rush of air and then a dull hum. The rejects froze again, but it wasn’t Tuahi’s doing. A hyper-light mesh wrapped round them and shone brightly as they struggled to move. She didn’t stop to admire the placing of landing a grip shot so precisely in front of the crater and from so far away.
Instead, she moved, running out of the crater and round the struggling rejects towards the trapped and thrashing Duron. The phase-rifle floated ahead of her. She couldn’t fold time on the run. She would only get one shot, one chance.
If you enjoyed this story, the overview page with links to all the winners can be found here.