I stare up the barrel of a rifle and feel my heart racing as if I’d just run a marathon. I adorn myself with an air of confidence I don’t feel at all. I am statue still despite a surge of adrenalin. I take a slow deep breath and let it out to a count of ten. I think my heart slows fractionally. I fix my steeliest gaze on the gun. I know what I need to do. I’ve trained hard for this situation. I’ve run through endless exercises and scenarios but here, now, it is just him and me. No one is yelling. It’s a preternatural quiet that blows around like a whisper of a breeze. Yet, I suddenly experience difficulty recalling all that I’ve learned. I’m even rethinking all the values that I’d ever possessed. I’m questioning all my choices. All of this is happening in a single heartbeat.
All the early mornings, the drills, the physical conditioning and the firing range seemed so long ago and very far from here. How come I’m not able to lean on the strategic and tactical training that I’ve been given now when I need to leverage these skills the most? Many weeks and months of my life have been spent filling grueling days preparing me for this, or at least that’s what the intention was. It’s him or me. Fear starts to run down my spine like ice water.
Don’t shake! He’ll see your weakness. Don’t give him that.
I need to be absolutely still. More importantly, I need to stay focused. I have to concentrate; to keep his face in my sights. I fix my gaze on him and see danger staring right back at me. My mortality is fixed in his gaze just like his is in mine. He is challenging me; daring me to be fearless. It’s impossible. But, I can act fearless… I hope.
Do I have what it takes to do this? Can I pull the trigger even when facing the greatest danger I’ve ever known? It seems like it should be an easy choice; a no-brainer in fact. It isn’t. I press my finger more firmly against the trigger. I stop on the edge. Any more pressure and the bullet will explode from the barrel and cross the divide that separates me from him.
I wonder if he’s as scared as I am.
Are we both unsure about taking this ultimate step? I look at the enemy who is glaring at me confidently, his eyes blazing with anticipation and I believe that he is.
He looks very focused and sure of himself. Do I?
Damn it! This is what I’m employed to do. I’m supposed to be sure, confident and cool. Never let the enemy see any weakness. Never show any fear.
When I started basic, I was the recipient of a lot of hazing. I wasn’t surprised, really. I wasn’t the only female recruit but I was pretty and petite. I was told on my first day, before I’d even settled my gear on my bunk, that I should be featured on the posters that adorned the male quarters. They said that I shouldn’t be scaling rocks and running until my lungs burned and my feet ached. The guys in my unit all expected me to wash out quickly. None of them had counted on my mental strength or my determination. I knew that those two things could overcome any physical deficit. I knew I’d make it. I’d rather have died than fail.
I took the hazing well. These were the same recruits that were going to have my back in the field, it would have been stupid not to. No, a little hazing wasn’t going to deter or anger me. I wanted to; no I needed to be part of the team. On my second day, they hung my undies from the rafters of the rec hall. That was the first episode. I remember it like it was just yesterday. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon. I could see the men from the other squads hooting and making lewd comments about my underwear. The sun dazzling, even through the streaked windows, illuminated every piece of intimate apparel I owned. They wafted gently in the breeze from the door jammed open with male recruits pushing in for a closer look. I howled like it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. I think the perpetrators were the most surprised at my reaction. It didn’t stop them though. No, they kept pranking me but it was all quite good natured after that. I took it as their way of saying that I was part of the team. It was only a short time before I knew that I’d made it. I was one of the ‘guys’.
My looks, on occasion, earned me some favours with the odd new recruit but never with the brass or my commanding officers. However, it never hurt me either. I was grateful for that. I was just another grunt who was tested and pushed beyond all my limits. It was a long road to get here but I made it. I was mobilized into action. But, I was supposed to be ready for today.
It’s me or him.
Wait, did I see his gun waver? It was subtle, barely perceptible. Did it really happen or am I imagining it? Am I seeing what I want to see? No, I think it moved! Oh my God, he’s as scared of my gun as I am of his!
My looks and my diminutive stature might have lured him into a false sense of security. Maybe he thought that I would blink first. It didn’t matter what he’d thought, my weapon was still leveled directly at his head, just like his was at mine.
I wonder if he has a family, a wife and children at home.
I need to stop thinking like this. He is the enemy. This is no time to be feeling sorry for him or myself. No time at all. I push back the vision of my Mom crying as I leave the house with my duffle slung casually over my shoulder. She never wanted me to go into the military. I black out the image of my Dad’s proud, smiling face. He’s so proud to have a tomboy daughter going off to serve. Right now I need to be single minded. I can reflect on the wisdom of my career choice later. This is the moment, the one that will define my life or end it. Which of us will twitch first? Which of us gets to go home tonight?
Did he flinch?
Perhaps my eyes are playing tricks on me. Maybe I should just pull the trigger quickly. I should take my chance before he takes his.
No, he did flinch. He’s really shaking; I can see his hands tremble.
It’s him or me. In spite of my physical limitations, I seem to have the upper hand. I didn’t think it was possible. Wait, he’s tightened his grip on the gun again. He’s steadier now. I knew it was too good to be true .
Did I miss my chance?
I can’t believe that I’m thinking this much. I always believed that killing would become reflexive after all my training. It should be intuitive after all the hours I spent in field exercises. I am a good shot; I always excelled at it actually. But here and now it’s different. The target is real. It’s him or me. That should be motivation enough, shouldn’t it?
His green scales are standing up, pulled away from his shell. His rich rust coloured eyes are boring into my soul. He is at the ready. Or do I see something more there? It’s likely my imagination.
It’s his planet. We’re the invaders... No, stop thinking! Just shoot.
His gun is steady once more and aimed directly at my head. My body armour makes it his only sure kill shot.
Do his scales protect him the same way?
No matter, I need to take the chance before he does. I have my gun pointed at his head too. It’s the kill; now it’s nothing but the kill.
It’s him or me.
This long moment, a tiny episode in my life may be all that I have left. There is no training that can prepare you, really prepare you for this. I believe that nothing can.
Is he thinking the same thing? Am I seeing things? No. His eyes are wet. Can these beings cry?
Maybe I have worn him down? Perhaps I have won? What a prize; a weeping alien’s life. It’s not what I expected. I breathe deeply and try to remember what’s at stake. I can’t lose my focus. It’s him or you, him or you.
I’ve learned something today. I’ve discovered that there is one thing that all the training in the world will never prepare you for; the first moment that you stand up and gaze directly upon the specter of death. Training can’t predict how you’re going to react or feel when you are face to face with an enemy who wants your head and you’ve been ordered to take his. Nothing in my training has taught me how to want his life that badly. I thought that my strength, determination and will would make me into a ruthless killer. I thought my aversion to failure would set me up for this. It didn’t. I will shoot but I won’t want to and I won’t enjoy it. I don’t want to do this. It’s all about my orders now. I will obey.
I press harder on the trigger and I feel myself stiffen; I’m ready to take the final leap, to do what I’m supposed to do.
Wait! He’s lowering his gun.
He raises his scaly limbs above his ears as I stare at him incredulously. His snout and eyes are lowered to the rock beneath his scaled feet. He can’t do it. He just can’t do it!
My held breath escapes me with a whoosh. I hadn’t realized that I’d stopped inhaling. It’s no longer him or me. Thank God. I could have killed him. I think no, I hope that in the end I would have but I can’t rid myself of the fear and the reluctance to kill. Yes, in the end I would have done it. I am a good soldier. But it was him or me. I now realize that neither is an acceptable outcome.
Someone should teach that.