Corporal Maxwell had progressed faster than Space Force Sergeant Jackson had anticipated. In a few short months, he had already logged the fastest time on the endurance training run, even beating Jackson's personal best which had stood for nearly three years. That's how Jackson knew Maxwell was ready for his first real mission: deliver a critical piece of intel to the mothership docked on the remote moon of Tiberius.
It was a two man operation, and Jackson needed someone reliable by his side, someone willing to risk everything to fulfill the mission. They landed their space craft on the outer rim, about a 100 clicks from the target. Due to the treacherous terrain, they had to make the rest of the journey on foot. "Don't try to be a hero," Jackson instructed. "Stay close. Do as I say. And we'll both be home in time for dinner." "Sounds simple enough."
"That's cause you've never been to Tiberius before." Maxwell was excited to be on his first mission. It had been his dream to team up with Jackson on a real mission. Jackson had been more than a mentor and coach, he was a father figure to the young mentee who had grown up without a father. "You have your photon gun?" Jackson asked. Maxwell pulled his gun from his holster. "Yes." "Keep your eyes out. The Tiberian moon wolves are nothing like we have back home. They're apex predators. They can hear movements miles away. Keep your head on a swivel." Maxwell followed closely behind Jackson as they walked up a precipitous hill. "Crater up ahead. We're going to have to jump it," Jackson ordered. Jackson went first, clearing it easily. Maxwell planted his foot early, causing him to barely land on the other edge. Jackson grabbed him to keep him from falling down into the bottomless crater. "Piece of cake," Maxwell said. "That's nothing compared to Devil's Crossing." Maxwell replayed his jump in his head. He knew what he did wrong. He would be ready next time. They came to what looked like a lake with white opaque water. "Can we swim across?" Maxwell asked. "No, my reader indicates it's got toxic chemicals. Deadly if it touches the skin. But we can cross in this?"
Jackson pulled something out of his pack. He yanked a cord and an inflatable raft appeared. "The bottom has a bronze coating that can withstand any elements." They took the raft across the misty white waters. Maxwell saw a mountain range in the distance and a million stars overhead. "Is this Devil's Crossing?" he asked. "You'd be so lucky." They glided through the toxic waters until they landed on the other side. Jackson pulled Maxwell aside. "You sure you're up for this? No one would call you a coward if you went back now?" "If you're going, I'm going." Just then, a vicious beast lunged at Jackson. He dodged in time. "Moon wolf! Run Maxwell!" They ran along the cratered surface as the moon wolf followed in pursuit. Maxwell could hear the wolf panting behind him. Jackson wrestled something else out of his pocket and threw it on the ground behind them. The wolf broke off the chase and began tearing into it. "What was that?" Maxwell asked as they kept running. "Beef jerky!" Jackson said. "They love the stuff, but it will only buy us a few minutes. We have to make it to Devil's Crossing." The path came to an abrupt end, a river of molten lava blocked their way. "What's this?" Maxwell asked. "This is Devil's Crossing. This is the last thing standing in our way." "How do we cross?" "We have to jump across those stones." Maxwell saw two small stepping stones spread out across the lava river. "I'm never going to make those jumps!" Maxwell cried. "Yes, you will. I have faith in you, Maxwell. Now jump!" Maxwell didn't want to let Sergeant Jackson down, so he took a running start and jumped to the first stone. "Way to go Maxwell! Keep going!" The next stone was even smaller but Maxwell landed right in the middle. He only had one more jump to get to safety which he made easily. Jackson was too busy watching Maxwell to see the moon wolf coming at him. "Jackson, behind you!" Jackson jumped just as the wolf pounced, the wolf's front paw catching Johnson's back leg causing him to land short of the stone. His upper body clung to the stone, while his lower half seared with pain as the lava melted his flesh and bones. "Awwww!" he screamed. "Jackson!" Maxwell yelled helplessly from the other side. There was nothing he could do but watch in horror as Jackson's body was consumed by the burning magma. "Finish the mission, Maxwell! Finish the..." Jackson sunk into the burning fire. Maxwell wiped the tears from his eyes, then made it to the destination point. Once inside the mothership, he pulled out the message, and handed it to a woman who was sitting at a table. The woman was surprised to see Maxwell alone. "Where's...?" "He didn't make it." "Oh, dear." "He gave his life to get this to you." She looked down in her hands to see the message Maxwell and Jackson had come all that way to deliver. Happy Mother's Day to the best mom in the galaxy. Love, Max and Jackson.
“That's so sweet boys," she said, as she hugged Max. "Now you better clean up the mess you two made in the living room before dinner." "Yes, ma'am," Maxwell said, picking up the laundry basket that had served as their raft. "Yes, ma'am," Jackson echoed, who was still laying on the floor gripping a couch cushion and warding off licks from Dusty, their golden retriever. "One more thing boys, have either of you seen my beef jerky?"
Shawn Casselberry sees the world through stories. He's written fiction and nonfiction books, including "Strange Fire," a short story collection, and a dystopian fiction novel called "The Hemingway Bible," which is coming soon! He's the co-founder/editor for Story Sanctum and lives in the Chicago area with his wife Jen and their introverted dog Colin. You can check out more of his writing at: www.shawncasselberry.com.
Photo credit: Krin Van Tatenhove via Midjourney AI