by Elle Cyre
A rookie learns the cost of trust. Entry for "The Writer's Cramp" 6/2/12
Trust isn’t freely given; it must be earned. Matt Charger learned that the hard way—by experience. As a soldier, nothing has more value than being able to rely on those around you.
Corporal Greg shoved the cartridge back in his rifle. His green eyes lifted to meet the steady blues of his long-time battle companion, Fred.
“When you are.”
Private Matt Charger swallowed hard. He was in elite company. The scraggily-bearded vets beside him were legendary corporals of the 85th Squadron. Their reputations preceded them, already claiming twenty-six successful campaigns in three years of service.
Fred turned and faced the nervous rookie. “Wait for my signal, Private.”
Matt nodded. His body tensed as his fingers closed around the firing mechanism. Greg counted down on his fingers and then sprang to his feet. His weapon zeroed in on the on-coming machines, releasing a stifling rain of lasers.
“Go, go, go!”
Fred leapt over the low protective wall into action. His boots touched sand and took off, sprinting for the next barricade. Diving behind, he somersaulted into a seated position. A jerk of his head told Matt it was his turn. The rookie scrambled out while the veterans provided cover. He soon splashed sand beside Fred. Greg arrived shortly after.
“Remember what’s next?” Fred shouted.
“My favorite part,” Greg grinned. He turned to Matt. “Good luck, Private.”
The two corporals wormed away commando-style behind the solid barricade. Matt lifted himself on one knee and squinted down his rifle sight, dispatching any machine that broke containment. Their mission: take out the enemy’s central command vehicle. If Greg and Fred could sneak past the lines, they’d decommission the protective shield. It was up to Private Matt to distract attention to allow their passage and then dispatch the command vehicle once exposed; serious responsibility for a rookie, but a chance to earn a place in the 85th.
As soon as the legends’ sandy boots disappeared around the far-end of the embankment, Matt leapt to his feet. Fully exposed to enemy fire, he emptied the remainder of his clip straight ahead. Then he ducked and raced for the battered ship-hanger opposite. Lasers spit wet clumps of earth at his heels. A rocket-propelled grenade barely missed, imbedding a pace behind. Matt clamped his teeth together and dove. A violent explosion rocked his ears, dislodging yards of wet sand fifty feet into the air. Matt sprawled wildly, landing on his face as the debris hailed down. He was unharmed, a mouthful of grit the only inconvenience. He lifted his chin and spat, peering from beneath his cockeyed helm. The weather-beaten shed’s door was ajar scarcely a foot away.
The rookie crawled within the tattered structure as more laser-fire ricocheted through. He yanked off his pack and primed two explosive grenades. One, two, three, four—Matt hurled them through the window and covered his ears. Wood splinters peeled off the walls in their ensuing detonation. Four more followed and then Matt dragged his pack out the rear.
Momentarily concealed by a trench dug through the beachhead, Matt ran hunched over toward the beam lighthouse. He kicked the square door open and shouldered his pack again. Two-at-a-time he raced up the black, circular stairs. The powerful laser beacon used for warning starships of nearby asteroid fields would be a perfect weapon.
Matt dared one glance below. The mechanical foot-soldiers of the enemy sifted through what remained of the hanger. They had no programming designed for adaptations of a battle-plan. A team of three men, working cohesively, could out-wit thousands of them—if each fulfilled their role.
The private blasted the focusing device off the laser. The restrictor-plate clanked to the floor and he scrambled atop the massive light. A re-aiming of the powerful beam would direct it against the command vehicle. He had only to await the shield’s destruction.
A brilliant flash of blue erupted in the distance followed by a glowing fireball. The energy shield flickered and went out. His turn! Matt zeroed in on the target one last time. Everything was ready. He sprang down to the beam’s computer controls. After powering up, he slapped the button to unleash the nasty laser upon the enemy. Mission complete!
Something was wrong! The beam did not fire! Matt glanced at the screen. ‘Error’ flashed in brilliant red font.
“No, no, no!” he cried. “Fire, stupid machine!”
Reading the error message further, he realized the safety program would not allow functioning of the device without the protective restrictor. The whole tower would be vaporized. Panic seized the rookie. The success of the mission depended on the completion of his part.
“Private, what’s the holdup?” Greg’s voice cackled over his radio.
“Fire the laser!” Fred cried.
Their stressed voices revealed they were under heavy fire. The legendary heroes' very lives depended on the machine’s destruction, upon the rookie private! What could he do? Matt’s fingers raced over the control panel. He could remove the safety and release the beam, but could not change the result. If he was to finish the mission, he would perish with the beam’s tower.
With his finger hovering over the firing key, his thoughts flashed rapidly over the past months. He had worked hard to earn this chance with the 85th squadron, to fight alongside the famous corporals. His first opportunity to impress them would be his last? Matt grimaced and pressed the big red button.
Jolting upright, Matt found wires attached to his skull and chest. A constrictive chair hindered further motion. Moving his eyes, the private saw corporals Greg and Fred detaching from similar devices. They stepped on either side of him with pleased expressions.
“W—what just happened?” Matt asked.
“You’ve just experienced the Battlefield Simulator,” Fred told him. “It’s a computerized test of character we put our men through. You passed in record time.”
“You’ve earned our utmost respect,” Greg grinned. “Congratulations are in order. Welcome to the 85th Squadron, Matt Charger.”