“There can be no leadership where there is no team.”
- Jocko Willink
Matt lifted the glass case next to his desk monitor and retrieved the MASSgaming device, a small golden disc resting upon a silk podium.
His hands shook in anticipation of the mission that lay ahead. His head throbbed. Pausing for a moment with the disc in hand, he reached for a glass bottle on the other side of the table--a cheap brand of vodka, he couldn’t pronounce the name. The clear liquid eased his craving as it burned down his throat. His peripheral status symbols shrieked at the reality of more alcohol, but he ignored their cry and placed the coin-sized golden disc onto his temple. His eyelids slipped shut and in moments he observed a new scene, through clearer eyes.
After a series of blinks to configure the videographic world, Matt was flying him a hundred and seventy miles per hour above a desert plain, the clapping of helicopter blades giving a background rhythm. A strong wind almost blew him off his feet.
To his right, a machine gun rested on the edge of open doors and partially blocked the view of cactuses and tumbleweeds rolling by, all a surreal mirage painted beyond squiggles of disintegrating heat. Sandy hills continued infinitely in every direction.
Matt looked at his hands and clenched them into fists, feeling comfortable in the familiar skeletal structure of his avatar. He twisted his wrists. The warrior’s muscles and thick joints loosened and popped. He swung his arms in a circle. His gargantuan fingertips just grazed the titanium ceiling of the unoccupied bird.
He felt strong.
On his back, he carried the weight of his typical loadout. With a problematic reach over his shoulders, he removed the PKM light machine gun. He had come to love his tiger-striped LMG, and not just because he had attained infamy for it in all ranks. The orange gloss between black stripes glistened as he wielded the gun across his lap, unscrewing the barrel.
Lucky. He liked his nickname, short and rather indecisive. Not one he would choose for himself, but then again, that was what made a nickname a nickname. Other players gave it to him, and over time the weight the name carried solidified trust within his own clan--the most important thing he could ask for.
But it wasn’t as if he hadn’t earned that trust. It took years of teamwork in intense combat situations, proving to his fellow soldiers day-in and day-out that through the toughest arenas the game could generate, the success of the mission was always greater than their individual accomplishments. That’s what made them so great. Trust in the mission.
He expected the rest of the squad to arrive in the next ten minutes. First Martyr, then Echo. Always the same routine.
Lawless sat on the ripped seats and disassembled his weapon for maintenance, preparing both his equipment and mind.
A clean gun sent Matt into battle with a calm, spotless conscience. Nothing was more reassuring than to be sure that he’d prevented any possibility of technological malfunction, or more humbling than knowing that the enemy might be doing the same exact thing with him in mind.
Not these enemies, though.
If the outcome of the mission was negative, he’d be certain not to blame his guns or the actions of his teammates.
With a grunt at the limited ammo, Lawless counted the last bullet and slammed the magazine in.
He studied the lifeless, burnt orange desert.
Our last mission was miserable. We didn’t stand a chance against those goddamn things. Not even half… he shuddered, recalling the morbid events of yesterday’s attempt. We didn’t even make it halfway through the stage. If we fail again, we lose our top spot in the rankings. We lose the right to play spec-ops missions and have to work our way up, yet again, from the mud.
Matt queued up the leaderboards in the center of his vision and admired the sacred ‘1’ next to the clan’s team name, Bruiser.
Three years of blood and sweat, all resting on the line today. Not to mention the effort I gave to rise from the lowest ranks out there. Man, if Inferno were to see me now... Matt forced a laugh but his anxiety recoiled. It’s all thanks to Inferno.
A specific memory jumped out to Matt, the memory of his first mission with the clan before they earned the name Bruiser. It was a memory he thought of often.
The night that MASSgaming became his life seemed no different than any other. He received a call while watching an old sci-fi film. Inferno, the man he’d met just a few nights ago in a party chat room, said that his clan needed a third player to replace him while he was sick.
Matt eagerly accepted the invite, it’d be his first clan game.
At exactly seven he entered the game lobby, finding himself in a room of broken concrete that lay embedded in the sandy floor.. Scanning the walls, he discovered a metal table, laden with the guns of a typical loadout. From the pile he retrieved his most reliable weapons--an M4A1 strapped with an ACOG scope, and a crossbow outfitted with high-explosive-tipped bolts. For tactical purposes, he grabbed semtex grenades and a pair of flashbangs.
Bullet holes on every wall, from long ago fights, parted the room in lasers of early sunlight. Fresh morning air blew in through an open window.
Another man appeared in the room, and they stared at each other, though the other man’s face was covered by a black cloth with white markings, his eyes obscured by shady goggles. Matt dipped his head, realizing he was blocking the loadout table, and moved aside. Without a word, the man took his spot at the table, his back to Matt.
The man reached out a skinny, uncovered arm and retrieved two matching submachine guns, Matt thought they were Uzis. He strapped both onto the back of his belt. Then he went to the other end of the table where he picked up a matte black Dragunov and slung it over his back. In a swift motion he turned back to Matt, revealing the face of the black cloth once more. As Matt focused, this time from a distance, he realized the painted white markings came together in the shape of a skull.
The man inspected Matt for a minute, and Matt spent every second of which fighting the urge to run from the room. Because he’d heard so much about the man’s talents, he fought his intimidation in hopes that he could learn something.
“You’re a rookie,” the man said from across the room, his voice a fuzzy static from the device in Matt’s ear, which gave each member of their team a channel to communicate with the others.
Matt’s heart sank. “That doesn’t mean I can’t fight.”
The man’s face stayed on him, his gaze undetectable amidst that dark tint. “Possibly. Prove yourself today, and we’ll see where you fit in our scheme, if you do at all. Inferno is a great warrior, and it would take much effort to replace the role that God has given him in our group.”
The man walked slowly to the open window on the other side of the room, picking up a grenade from the desk on his way. He looked out, inspecting the run-down buildings. Shafts of metal hung from broken shop windows and whole roofs lay amidst exploded cars and other chunks of concrete in the street.
“Call me Martyr,” he said, strapping the grenade to his side. Using the same hand, he popped open a compartment of his belt, and retrieved a silver tube. “Echo is always late. Give her five minutes. In the meantime, read this and stay calm.” Martyr threw a metal tube at Matt.
“Her?” Matt asked, lunging for the tube, only for it to bounce gingerly off his hand and collide with the floor. He picked it up and unscrewed the lid.
Martyr had returned his attention outside of the window and a short breath escaped him--an unsettling, scraping sound through the mic. “Echo is her, yes. And you better tighten up. She has very high expectations.”
Matt chose not to respond. He removed a roll of paper from the metal tin. The mission task looked different than all the tasks he’d ever seen before. Usually the task sheets were devised by the game, given to present the mission’s purpose and how to accomplish it, but the clan clearly marked up and refined this one themselves. Matt had never thought of revising an issued game task list, but now it seemed like such an obvious means to success. By recreating the plan, you had a better chance of catching your opponents off guard.
A few things remained unchanged--the layout of the city, and the clear objective at the top, which read: To win, either rescue the hostage or eliminate the enemy team.
Over the next five minutes, Matt laboriously studied the parchment’s route through the city and starred buildings where skilled snipers were thought to be waiting. When Matt thought he comprehended the plan in its entirety, the third player of the clan showed up and the ghost-faced man shifted his gaze away from the broken city.
The woman called Echo glanced at the other two. She wore no mask. Her hair was dyed green and braided behind a blue cloth that tied at the front of her hair line. Like Martyr, all of her attire was an urban, tactical camo that matched the color of the city.
When her gaze reached Matt, it stayed on him. He gulped, placing the plans on the table next to him. “Hey Echo, it's nice to meet you.” He reached out his hand, and with a slow, intimidating stride she approached.
As she drew closer, Matt became worried because her hand wasn’t outstretched to shake his. When she stopped a few feet away, he dropped his arm and waited.
She studied his face. Her breaths were strong and deliberate. “Do not fail me,” she said, “or I shall make it known that you’re never to be trusted and my denouncement will end your chances of ever joining a clan again.” She spoke with a heavy tongue, her jaw hardly moving, leaving the words thick and all the more serious.
Matt’s face twitched from nervousness. “Got it.”
Echo grabbed her supplies from the table--an AK-47 and two 1911s strapped like daggers on her waist--and walked over to Martyr. The two conversed in a low tone that wouldn’t have been audible if it weren’t for their mics.
“They’re in building J-7, I’m sure of it.”
“We have to navigate through these streets in a wider formation than we thought. If we start getting tagged from snipers above, we can tighten the formation. Regardless, we have to be as silent as possible. The last thing we need is our target fleeing from the specified area and splitting us up. You got that?”
The two turned to Matt.
“Copy,” he said.
“Then let’s move.” Echo opened the door, triggering the skitters of empty-city rodents. Matt moved toward the door and Martyr gave him a nod to follow Echo out, leaving him in the middle of the formation as the plan specified.
The formation’s center was the most important position, requiring, above all else, leadership and command. Matt wondered why they’d placed him there.
Dust swirled between buildings in the streets. Once the initial dust storm subsided, morning air invigorated Matt’s lungs. They picked up their pace, running crouched alongside the buildings. The far horizon melted from a dark blue into orange. Morning was fast approaching. Whispers of wind carried from building to building, the only sound in the village. Despite it being a new day, the village left a taste of rusted metal in Matt’s mouth.
A shot rang out, but he couldn’t locate the source. Echo slid to an open wall on the opposite side of the road, and let off silenced rounds toward a roof a few buildings ahead.
Her shots were steady, as deliberate as her movements. She nodded and the team continued forward.
This happened twice more before they converged tighter and reached building J-7 in a closer formation, one that limited blind-spot exposure with Echo watching the front and Martyr on their six, leaving Matt to survey the side streets. Each time one of the others picked off an enemy, Matt’s sense of helplessness gained weight until he felt heavy and inept.
Their target building appeared like every other in the city--war-torn, except for a remarkable absence of bullet holes or windows in the walls. As they burst through the door, Matt and Echo found nothing, and signaled for Martyr to follow through and close the door to secure their flank.
It was darker in this room than the one they started in, and they had no way to see the buildings surrounding them. They securely searched the downstairs area in uneasy haste.
“Clear,” Echo said, emerging from a side room. Most of its wall was blown off so that it practically connected to the main area. She pointed a finger at Matt. “Stay down here and keep eyes on the door. We need someone to protect us from a surprise attack while we rescue the hostage. And above all else, remain calm.”
Matt nodded, feeling another hit to his pride. Still, he wouldn’t sulk and miss an opportunity to prove himself, or give the others a reason to doubt him. He hadn’t failed the mission, yet, and even though he hadn’t racked up any kills, as long as he could get through without making a complete fool of himself he’d still have a chance at joining some other clan.
As the others reached the top of the stairs, Matt heard a brief firefight and the dull thud of bullets connecting with bodies.
He looked about the area and took cover behind the partial barrier of the side room’s waist-high wall. Here, his flank was covered by the miracle of the intact building, and he had eyes on both the stairs and the door.
He didn’t doubt for a second that Echo and Martyr had rescued the hostage above, but he didn’t hear the expected unbound cries from the hostage, or celebratory cheers. And he didn’t see a victory screen.
He leaned his head to his shoulder, and spoke softly into the mic. “Front door secured, over.”
Then a heavy trample of feet ran across the floor above. He readied his gun. Echo and Martyr would never be that loud.
He rested his barrel on the broken ledge just before two soldiers wearing loose clothing descended the stairs, partial figures in the darkness. Stay calm, Matt told himself. He lowered his breathing to mimic the sound of the wind.
The soldiers emerged from the stairway and searched the main room, only a few feet away, speaking to each other in a language that was altered by the game so he couldn’t understand.
The tension in Matt’s trigger finger escalated.
The enemy in his sights raised his hand toward the other, and motioned for him to search outside. Matt watched in silent desperation, hoping to get a better situation than two-on-one, especially in this small space. He knew that his fallen mates watched him from the post-death cam. He needed to make his impression now or never.
One of the enemies left the room, and Matt switched his scope back to the other. He steadied his sights, waited until the soldier’s foot landed off-guard on the first stair, and squeezed the trigger.
The bullet thwacked into the wall next to the man’s head. After a few stunned seconds, the soldier recovered, drawing his gun and letting an entire mag loose in Matt’s direction.
Matt ducked and outwaited the barrage.
When he heard the click of the enemy's empty cartridge, Matt leaped over the barrier and sprinted toward him. The white in the enemy’s eyes widened in the darkness as Matt scrambled toward him.
Disrupting the enemy’s flustered attempt to retrieve his knife, Matt landed a solid blow to his sternum, sending him crashing into the opposite wall.
While the man recovered from his daze, Matt readied his gun and ended the soldier. As the last of his shots fired and smoke still rolled from his barrel, shouts from outside and above alerted him to incoming soldiers from both directions, the outside and the stairs.
Makes sense. If Echo and Martyr hadn’t eliminated any of the enemies, there would still be two left.
Matt retreated back to his post in the open side-wall, sliding into position while grabbing the flashbang from his waist. He released the pin and threw the stun grenade.
The door burst open.
Clink, clink, clink.
A startling flash illuminated the room. Matt covered his ears and listened as the stupefying bomb whined.
Enemy shots let off in every direction.
After a few moments, there was again, quiet.
Matt didn’t rise. Instead, he tilted his gun barrel over the top of the wall’s barrier and fired shot after shot in no particular direction, spraying the width of the room until a blue and white screen displayed in front of him that read: Victory!
Yet he squeezed more, until his last bullet left and the gun clicked. He threw it on the floor in front of him, and rose.
A continuous line of bullet holes ran across the opposite wall, undisturbed. Three bodies lay on the concrete floor, one at the far end of the room, which Matt had personally taken care of, and two others, their guns lying next to them. They were lined up in front of one another like wild west duelers, multiple bullet holes in the torso of each, blood spilling from places where Matt’s bullets couldn’t have reached, not from his angle. The bullet holes were courtesy of their teammate.