X Marks the Spot
by Eric J. Krause
The cursor glided across the screen. He did his best to scan every bit, every pixel. Nothing, so he hit the "Enter" key, bringing up the next screen, the next bit of battlefield, and started the process again. This time he found an "X," and a quick mouse click shifted it to a "0." In the next few minutes, three more popped up, which he likewise eradicated.
"Good work, Private."
Jackson almost swallowed his gum in his haste to turn around and salute the general.
"At ease, Private. I don't want to break you out of your zone. You're doing good work. God's work."
"Thank you, sir." He saluted again, hesitated, and spun back to his screen, hopeful that's what the general wanted. He threw a glance to his right and saw his partner, O'Sullivan, doing everything he could to keep his eyes on his own station.
The general clapped Jackson twice on the shoulder. "Keep it up, Private, and there'll be plenty of promotions in your future."
"Thank you, sir." He found another "X" and obliterated it, hoping the general noticed. A slight chuckle proved he did.
"Carry on, men."
Once the general was gone, O'Sullivan stood and looked over at Jackson. "Dude, you're a stone-cold killer. Five in less than ten minutes." They'd been working side by side for over two weeks, and that was the most he'd ever said.
Jackson shrugged. "Just clicking the mouse."
"To you, maybe. Not to them."
"I'm not following."
O'Sullivan scoffed. "Rookies. They don't show that holo anymore. They just point you to a comp-station and tell you to find and click the "X's." If you only knew."
Jackson looked over his shoulder at the door.
"Don't worry. You hit your quota. You'll get a medal for that short ten minutes of work. It takes me a month to get that many, no matter how many I find." He reached into his pocket and flicked a tiny ball of paper under Jackson's chair. "Don't pick it up now. Wait until your shift is over. Then take it to a secured holo room, punch in the code, and get yourself an education."
O'Sullivan said no more. He went back to his screen. After a few seconds, Jackson did the same. At the end of his shift, he scooped up the discarded paper and headed for a holo. His stomach growled at not hitting the mess, but curiosity won out.
The holo accepted the code, and General Rackers, leader of Earth's Armed Forces, appeared. "Operation Smart Bomb is a go. We've finally found a signal that'll locate the mines, and a way to dispose of them. Our satellites x-ray the ground and send their findings back in a basic code. The enemy disrupts any other possible signal--one so simple must be below their worry. As for the disposal method, it's of a high cost, but it's the only way we've found effective. We'll beam a trooper to the exact spot our code monkeys back at base tell us. It costs one life per mine, but it's better than a whole platoon. Or more. We're working on alternative answers, but so far only a living, breathing human will do. Not even a synthetic robot or laser blasts from a war cruiser will work. For now, this is the best and only solution."
The holo shut off, and Jackson sat staring at the now-empty room, his appetite gone. He'd sent five men--five of his brothers--to their graves today. Not even their graves, considering there'd be nothing left after that explosion. Had it been the enemy, the Spacers, he'd have patted himself on the back. But not fellow humans. Not his brothers in arms.
He staggered towards his bunk room, trying to get his head around it. How could he go back tomorrow? How could he sentence more men to die? He ran the general's words over in his head and had his answer. One man rather than a hundred. Yeah. It wasn't fair, but it was what it was. War. It'd let him sleep at night. Maybe not that night, but soon.
As he neared his bunk room, he saw O'Sullivan ahead in the hall. He almost hailed him, but the other man made a show of ignoring him. Jackson could play that game, too. But as they passed, O'Sullivan whispered something that ruined Jackson's career as a code monkey.
"What if that mine would never have been tripped?"