This was originally written for /r/WritingPrompts: “[WP] After the aliens invaded retired sergeant Frank Rogers decided to go on one last mission. A trip to the store to get as much booze as possible. Go out in a blaze of drunken glory! Then he saw a bus of abandoned students and his mission perimeters changed. He sighs…‘One Last Mission’”.
I would never have thought to write anything for this prompt were it not for the typo in the title. The original poster deleted the prompt thirty seconds after I posted my story, once he realized his mistake, but I regret nothing.
What is a mission?
Sergeant Frank Rogers swerved through panicked and stalled traffic. He may have been driving on the correct side of the road, but that was little help; he was the only one doing it. For some strange reason, everybody else wanted to leave Los Angeles. As he saw explosions ahead of him, Rogers couldn’t imagine why. What good was it to run away, only to be shot in the back? What glory was there in cowering and hiding until the aliens found you? What was the point?
It didn’t make any sense, as far as Rogers could see. He was going to go in, grab as much booze from some abandoned store or other as he could to get some liquid courage, start shooting at whatever he saw, and make sure when his blood was on the streets, there’d be green or purple blood mixed right in with it. Simple as that.
A mission is a pretty simple thing, when all is said and done. Go here. Gather this information. Kill that person. Destroy that facility. Rescue this hostage. Don’t waver, don’t get sidetracked, and don’t fail. Do all of the above for the betterment of your country. If captured, give name, rank and serial number, and give nothing else. If injured, stick your intestines back inside you, seal up your gut with duct tape, and get out. If tortured, make the interrogators kill you before you give the information they want. If killed, take as many enemies with you as you can. That’s it. A mission may be difficult, but a mission isn’t complicated.
As he walked through the abandoned Ralph’s in the financial district, he found a few cases of beer left from whatever people had already looted through the area. He grabbed as many as he could carry, left a small stack of bills at the self-checkout (Frank doubted that the owners would be back to get the bills, but then Frank also doubted that the money would do him much good either), walked back out to his truck, and just stopped to listen. The explosions were getting closer, by the sound of things, but they were still in Downtown, hidden by the skyscrapers in between. He heard a handful of sirens, which he considered fairly redundant. He heard the ominous crunching sounds of small buildings toppling, and the shattering sounds of thousands of panes of glass falling onto the street. What he heard was music to his ears.
Stopping to listen was his mistake. He might never have heard the crying had he stuck to his original mission.
What is a mission perimeter?
Despite himself, he ran towards the sound in Great Hope Park. What he saw was a school bus, filled with children whose ages ranged the whole gamut, parked haphazardly on the stairs by the abstract-art-looking gate on the corner. There was no driver in sight. As he watched, he heard an explosion behind him, and saw the children duck and hide lower beneath the windows at the sudden sound and light. Frank cursed under his breath. This wasn’t the mission.
Moving almost against his will, he pushed the doors of the bus open, and smacked them against the stairwell, loudly. Gauging the reactions, he pointed to the teenage boy in the front who’d flinched the least, and who’d reflexively moved his arm in front of the little girl next to him. This was the closest he was going to get to a level head.
“What happened? Why aren’t you evacuating?”
The boy’s voice cracked, but was steady. “The bus has a flat. Mr. Harris said he was going to get a new tire. He told us to stay in the bus, and hide, until he got back.”
Yeah. Maybe the bus driver really was running to get a spare tire. And maybe his dad had just been in line to get cigarettes. And would be back any day now.
Every mission has its terrain. The battlefield. The deployment region. The country to be liberated. There’s a perimeter inside which a soldier is allowed to act. The mission perimeter is what separates a soldier from a savage, who slays the weak until slain by the strong; from a criminal, who disregards orders and law; from a zealot, who never sheathes his sword save on Sundays. The boundaries around a soldier’s action is what makes him more than a killer. The boundaries around a battle are what it more than murder.
Rogers thought frantically. None of the kids were old enough to benefit from booze or (probably) trained enough to benefit from firearms, so there was no point going back for the truck. The weapons and ammo he was wearing would have be enough. The tire was flat, but if what he saw on the Harbor Freeway was any indication, the bus wouldn’t get them out of the city too quickly. And he didn’t need to glance backwards to know that the crunching and shattering was getting closer.
When the world is on fire, the boundary around the fire looks enormous. It’s not.
What was the new mission?
The metro station was three blocks away, on 7th. If he could get the kids there, if they could be brave enough to run towards Downtown, they could get into the subway. There was no way the trains were running, but the tunnels might provide enough protection to get around to the south side of the carnage, as the aliens worked their way north. From there, they could find a city bus or a delivery truck or something and keep moving through the ruined sections, where the aliens might not return for a second sweep. Maybe.
And then what? His old mission was short. It had a purpose, a duration, and an end state. It was fixed. But what about this time, this one last mission? He couldn’t figure out the end. He couldn’t see beyond his immediate next move.
A fence around almost all the world is a fence around almost none of it.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“James, you are a soldier now. You are going to follow my orders. We are going to get these kids out of the city alive. Do you understand?”
The kid paused, then stood up straight. “Yes, sir.”
When the world is on fire, the mission perimeter surrounds not death, but life.