TWENTY-SIX SECOND SOLDIER
Within the window of a crucial hour, Cruz felt compelled to waste precious minutes taking in the cancerous stench surrounding the planet he had just touched down on.
To a non-smoker, it was an odious, intimidating aroma. A result of negligent beings and an environment being just as dismissive of itself as they were to it. An environment that had long given up believing in its own beauty and sense of worth.
It cut itself loose, it gave in, and the smoke from a thousand factories on its service filled its lungs.
A cancerous habitat and one which Cruz, for now, relished.
It had been seventeen months since he had a cigar locked firmly within his lips; he likened it to a star-crossed love affair. Interplanetary restrictions had banned the practice of smoking across much of the inhabited quadrants. There was not one colony he could go to that would permit a cigar, or a pipe, or a lighter. The very sight of them would see you given a cushy few days in an isolated cell. Away from more than just that one unhealthy method of occupying your time.
On the plus side however, you wouldn’t see much of the war. And you wouldn’t have to make sacrifices quite like the one Cruz was going to make.
Maybe that’s why he wasting his time, for there was none to lose. These seconds, as abundant in number as they were for the time being would still prove ultimately finite. These were his judgment calls, and he was off to a poor start.
As he looked up at the burning skies above him, and looked west towards the fortified structure ahead, he knew taking in these moments, these pleasures, was the right course of action. It was these moments, this embrace of the corrupted air that ignited the inner fire necessary to storm the fortress and test his race.
Yes, he was looking to label an opportunity to inhale second-hand smoke as a benchmark moment for humanity.
Anything to fashion his ego into a crucial portrait. After all, it had taken a bruising in the last day or so.
But he needn’t think about that now, not when the next judgement call had to be more serious.
He examined his inventory with precision. He was somewhat disappointed in the overall simplistic approach. It was something of a school lunch than a main course.
Your basics were there. Ray gun with seven or so recharger packs, a jet pack, grappling hook, headphones, and a stop watch.
And there was even a note from your mother, telling you to utilize all of it, and to omit nothing.
Those that had assigned him this task had given him precious amounts to work with, and that was just not the kind of world that easily overwhelmed a man of Cruz’s calibre who had been in the heat of a harsher time, and where the colonial military had once taken so many precautions that it felt like they were overcompensating. That they had overdid it for the wars they were involved in.
Probably why they won those wars so easily, and why Cruz was so easy-going about any that came long after the military had been downsized and all manners of deterrents blocked from importing.
To be so easy going about war meant you could face death in the eye and shrug your shoulders at what it meant, even if the notion still terrified you at heart.
Cruz realized just why he was chosen, why he was expendable. The time he lived in had long passed, there were no easy solutions to win this war any longer, these were the hard choices, and people of his kind were being gradually phased out in a manner that would make them folklore no matter which way the outcome went.
To bestow a heavenly legacy on to a hero with a noble pathway to hell.
Alright then. Cruz would accept.
He took the gun, fastened the jet pack to his back, slipped the grappling hook into his side pocket, put on the headphones, and disembarked from his ship, and relished the continuous cancer inviting cauldron of smoke surrounding the planet.
He switched on the rocket pack’s thrusters, which catapulted him across whole craters and long abandoned cities. Before long, he was listening to the ‘music’ on the headphones.
In reality, they were instructions, no music, telling the good little soldier what to do when he got to the fortress, but Cruz, in his head, chose to fashion the instructions as if they were a kind of jingle, like an old fashioned commercial one would hear on the radio back in the wartime of yesteryear, back on the parent planet.
The soothing sounds of his own head merged seamlessly into the cold, commanding, logical tone of the instructor, telling Cruz his goal was to penetrate the fortress, and from there, he would have a twenty-six second window or thereabouts to do whatever he needed to do to strike deep at the heart of the enemy, and then make a scramble for freedom.
He could win the war in twenty-six seconds if he knew precisely what to hit.
See, the creature’s humanity was war with, the Sha’Doza, had a reputation for being quite timely, they could respond to an emergency situation before a minute was barely up, but there was always this moment in time where they would hold back. Nobody knew why.
Not knowing was probably Cruz’s sole disadvantage. He wasn’t the kind to let things like that slip his mind, it nagged at him. Persistently. He couldn’t escape it.
Even as the more urgent matter of evading his enemies came up as he approached their gates.
The Sha’Doza, terrifying six-armed green toad-like critters with lethally diamond-tipped teeth and large tongues, also had wings, they could fly, and they were coming at him from all sides.
He charged up his ray gun, and took three or four of the swarm surrounding him, before they began levelling him with blow after blow from their six arms; they pummelled his jet pack with ease.
They could have watched him fall into one of their homeworld’s many craters or bottomless pits, they chose to spare him and hoist him up high.
Cruz smiled, their obnoxious gloating, their mistimed mercy, had given him the ideal window.
As one of the Sha’Doza lifted him high above its head, his ray gun still in hand, he aimed it just above the temple of the creature and pulled the trigger.
The lighting fast laser shot pierced the creature’s temple and splintered it in two, it fell, and its grip lessened, Cruz somersaulted through the air and clutched the back of another, threatening to do the same to it if it didn’t carry him the rest of the way to the fortress.
Easier said than done, for Cruz then realized there was no reason for the remainder of the swarm not to have their brother’s backs.
So Cruz went with a wild notion, and disembarked from the back of the Sha’Doza, he cut himself loose from the swarm, and left himself open to the brightly lit sky.
He descended. Nobody followed him down; they assumed he would be a goner.
Cruz counted the seconds as he rapidly approached the craters below, he thought about the window of opportunity, he thought about his judgement calls. He thought back to what had bruised his ego earlier in the week.
He set his eyes sharply on a large mountain just to the right of him, he took his grappling hook out of his side pocket and aimed it carefully, before pulling the trigger, the hook snagged on to a piece of the mountain and he was able to halt his momentum.
Now he was a sitting duck. All he had was his ray gun to fend off the equivalent of extraterrestrial vultures that could approach him at any moment to finish what they had began, he was nowhere near the top of the mountain either.
Fortunately, the mountain had some steep ledges to the right of him that he could find firm footing on. He steadily put one foot forward on the ledges, holding on as best he could with his hands, and took in big intakes of breath, trying not to make too gentle or loud a sound in case he tipped off the Sha’Doza, who were circling overhead.
Making his way around the mountain took close to an hour, but Cruz was able to hold his nerve, as well as his breath, and impressed even himself with how much distance he was able to make across the ledges.
Finally, he reached a clear path and set about on his way again. His mind paced itself like clockwork, wise to the seconds and hours ticking away, he knew he did not have much longer. His body was failing him as the pollutants and fumes that littered the atmosphere seized being a privilege to the desperate aspiring smoker and became an albatross that was dragging down a weary and tired human being.
He found himself on the outskirts of a heavily fortified structure. His destination reached at last.
He shrugged his shoulders. There was no way he could get in to that. He knew it deep down.
It dawned on him that no one was ever sent here by the colonies to do any sort of damage, to put up any sort of fight against these forces.
He’d suspected for some time that the old ways weren’t working, and that the colonists had not really put much into the war effort these last few years. In many ways, things had been quite peaceful on their end, but there was always the voice that protested loudly, Cruz having such a voice, that minimal was being done, and that they would step up and be the ones that made things happen.
So it was just that those voices be sent into the wilderness, to try and make some noise.
And, always, it would fall silent, until the next voice got a little louder.
The gates to the fortress opened and Sha’Doza in their millions came out, charging their ways, sharpening their teeth on electrical cattle prods. All manners of torture, all designed with single outcome. That of a swift fatality.
Cruz, bold colonist warrior, had about twenty six seconds to think of something. He chose what to make of those twenty six seconds.
One great notion he had other than being a warrior was to be a writer, to be a capable one. Not to seek it as a means to get fleeting fame, just to prove to a cantankerous mentor in his school that he could do it.
One time he had watched a video interview with a great writer whose name time had neglected to mention consistently over the generations. What mattered was the message he had conveyed to the interviewer. That in your mind, you can recite dance steps time and time again when writing, but all you have to do is watch the story sort itself out, that there no other high you could muster than to watch what the story does and write it out in your head.
He loved that interview so much, he wove it into the framework of a short story he wrote and published online.
Then he did research on the writer, and found he had already used his own advice in a story of his own.
He had unwittingly plagiarized.
Cruz had twenty six seconds to say he was sorry.
And that he did.
As he fell to his foes, he thought, as long as he could, more confidently about things.
This was his story.
And he had sorted it out.