Next

Three shots. 

That’s all you get. 

And if you miss even one, you’re next. 

***

I’m wide awake and staring into the empty space above me, waiting for the base sirens to shriek. I don’t think anyone can sleep the night before the final evaluation. Dropping to the cool cement floor, I mechanically make my bed and dress. The ritual usually soothes any anxiety I have about the upcoming day, but not now. I rub my hands on my temples, then through my hair, trying to loosen the tension resting there. The action reminds me I’m out of dress code. I bend and flip my long stringy hair, then twist it up into a tight bun. Straightening, I smooth my shirt and check that my badges are in order. Satisfied that I’m inspection ready, I step into the sterile corridor. 

I bypass others with a salute or a nod as I make my way outside. I avoid meeting their eyes. During these years in training we have forged bonds closer than family. We learned to fight for each other, but not today. Any one of them could be lined up next to me. Overwhelmed by my cowardice, I race through the base’s exterior door. The sun has barely begun its daily march over the horizon as I lunge into the cool morning air. Fall is here. It is a time of change, even in this barren, secret site. The season brings new recruits and qualifies the training of their predecessors. Today, I’m the one being evaluated.

Its early, so I take my time on the long walk to the range where the evaluation will take place. I feel strange without my squad and the familiar echo of their boots in step with mine. The silence is a stinging reminder of the task ahead. The way is unpaved, a path well worn into the landscape by the steps taken by thousands before me. Only a small number of them walked back this way with a victory to celebrate. I hope to count myself among their honored ranks. 

Far too soon the silhouette of the range is in sight, illuminated by the rising sun. I glance back, unsurprised to see the others now working their way down the path. Everyone is anxious to get the final qualification over with. I continue on, the faded wood awning of the judge’s pavilion now visible from the ridge at the back of the range. It’s empty now. The judges will be driven over after breakfast. Then it will start. 

A crisply painted white line greets me as I approach the range. I walk along its edge, the still wet color leaving faint traces on the soles of my boots. It leads to the foot of a steel folding table, lined with four identical weapons. One gun for each of us. I run my hand along the cool steel frame of the table, morning dew coating my fingertips. Movement catches my attention and I turn to see the rest of my peers approaching, our instructor behind them. We acknowledge one another with solemn nods but I keep my eyes down as we take our places on the line.

“Pre Graduates, to attention!” Our instructor booms from behind. I keep my eyes trained ahead on the judges arranging their seats beneaeth the pavilion. The instructor’s boots crack on the gravel as she comes down the line. One by one, she hands us each a loaded gun. I toe the line anxiously and feel the weight of the weapon in my hand. It is generic, but serviceable. Despite the gurgling nervousness in my stomach, I am ready. 

The instructor relays the rules of the evaluation in her even tone, though we know them by heart. “The four of you have identical guns, loaded with three shots each. When the judge’s flare goes up, step over the line, and the final qualification will begin. If you do not step over the line, you will receive a dishonorable discharge and be ordered into exile. I do not need to remind you that no Pre Graduate in the history of this program has ever failed to cross the line.” She eyes us dangerously, as if daring one of us to be the first, “The eval ends when all shots have been fired or only one of you remains. Good luck.”

The judges are still getting settled in on the overlook as a digital scoreboard flashes to life near the pavilion. Our faces light up on screen, the unsmiling portraits from the start of the year staring gravely back at us. I skip my profile and sweep over the others. My heart drops in recognition. Baron Fitzgerald and Gra Lakner are friends. I’ve studied with them since first year. Each is a good shot, but not great and not better than me. The fourth face, however, causes the anxiety in my stomach to lunge into my throat.

Subtly, I jerk my gaze to the left, scanning the others on the line. Farthest from me, I spot Ezra Lee. She is staring stonily forward – which I should be doing – waiting for the judge’s flare. Her dark hair is swept up in a bun like mine, the gun hanging in her hand at her side. Top shot in her class and an ace on every course, it’s just my luck that she would be in my group. If I go down, it will be to her bullets. 

The sun is over us now, illuminating the slopes and slants of the range’s uneven landscape. There is little cover and for a moment, my heart aches for the tall, stocky Fitzgerald. He will be the first down. Sweat is building on my brow and palms though I’m unable to infer if it’s due to nerves or the beating sun. Lakner, Lee, and I are built similarly, though Lakner is notoriously slow. It’s not difficult to divine how this will play out. 

The judges have taken their seats and the scoreboard begins to countdown. Glaring red numbers flash in an agonizingly slow procession. Ten, then nine. I unlock the gun’s safety. Seven. Shift into a low, ready position. Five. Deep breath in. Four. Exhale. Three. Bend my knees, poised to sprint to the nearest cover. Two. This is it. One. I step over the line. 

Three shots. 

That’s all I get. 

And if I miss even one, I’m next.

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