Gangs can clash, even draw blood,
But soon some realize it must stop,
Friends are made across chalk lines,
Who fight to sway the ones at top.
His captor’s voice was deep and laced with age and experience. “Drop your weapon,” the man demanded. As Aric threw his rifle to the leaves, unseen hands unclipped the holster at his belt and drew the pistol from within. Another hand then brushed along his leg until reaching his knife and pulling it, too, from its place. Aric’s stomach dropped. He felt naked without his weapons. “Darren,” the man continued, “pick up his gun and hold it on him.”
The young soldier followed the order, promptly and with a confident grin. Aric put his hands up like white flags.
“Face me,” said the voice, removing the sword from Aric’s neck.
Slowly, Aric turned around, his eyes meeting a collage of patches like medals stretched across a broad chest. Pockets bulged with ammunition. Dark hairs curled out like smoke from beneath his green jacket. Aric knew the man’s whole body was consumed by them. He turned his head up, following the hairy neck to the towering eyes that looked down upon him.
“Holy shit,” Aric said under his breath. The man was a behemoth: hopefully one of the big ones.
“You’re just huge. That’s all.”
“Have you never seen a Fraquian before?”
“No. How could I have?”
“Did they just drop you here in the middle of combat without any idea who you were fighting?”
“Hmmm.” Aric hadn’t thought of that before. “I guess so. I mean, they told us you guys were big, but that was it.”
The man bobbed his head as he listened, stroking his short beard with an oversized hand. “It blows me away that you’re so eager to go and fight a virtually faceless enemy. If you don’t know who you’re fighting, then do you even know why you’re fighting?”
“That I do know,” Aric replied. “But the reason why I’m fighting is very different from the reason why Arth is fighting. I’m here for my freedom. On Arth, I’m a prisoner. On Centrum, I’m a free soldier with my fate in my own hands. I have options. I can die, which I would have done had I stayed on Arth, or I can survive and live my life the way I want. I have a family waiting for me. A daughter. This is my only way to her, so this is what I’m doing.”
The Fraquian continued to nod, thinking for a few moments before speaking again. “What’s your name, son?”
Aric flinched. Son? He hadn’t been called that for years and years. In fact, he didn’t even remember the last time. It was surely from his mother’s mouth, never from his father’s. It was so strange to hear. “It’s Aric.”
“Okay, Aric. I’m Raiden,” the man said warmly. “I assume you’re wondering why I’m talking to you instead of just having Darren over there put a bullet in your head.”
Aric nodded. “Yeah, a little bit actually.”
“The man that organized the ambush and arranged for that fire: that’s not me. Well, technically it was, but that’s not who you’re talking to now. That was Lieutenant Whitmore, carrying out orders from higher up. Right now, I’m just Raiden Whitmore, a concerned man with a greater picture in mind: a man that recognizes worthless bloodshed when he sees it.
“If your reason for fighting in this war is not the same as the reason your leader orders you to fight in it, then something’s wrong. I’ve been fighting because I’m a soldier. It’s what I do. Now, I’m realizing that, above all that, I’m a human being. You’re a human being. The Calrians are human beings. We shouldn’t be killing each other. This isn’t right. We’re told we’re fighting for Centrum. It offers space, resources, a new place for our people to live, but look behind me. Look at the inferno. War is not only destroying our people, but also the prize for which we’re fighting. Do you know anything about history, Aric? About Earth?”
“Not a lot. I mean, I know the basic stuff. It was destroyed by an asteroid. The original colonists were saved by aliens and put back. Not much more than that. I always figured it doesn’t matter what happened all those years ago. There’s no point spending my life in the past.”
“Ahhh, a remark I’ve heard a thousand times, but no the more correct. You couldn’t be any more wrong in that. If everyone knew Earth like I know it, then we wouldn’t be in this mess that we’re in. Earth was destroyed on purpose. It was destroyed because the humans were already in the process of destroying themselves. War was the mode of self-destruction, and greed was the motivation.”
Raiden glanced past Aric toward the fire in the distance, reassuring himself that the three of them were all alone, no Arthian soldiers in sight. “The people were filled with hatred, and fear, and all kinds of negative energy that did nothing but bring them and the rest of the universe down. The planet, itself, was feeling the pain of their senseless violence too: endless fires, melting ice caps, pollution, radiation, dying plants and animals. None of this was enough to deter their continued warring, and so the aliens of distant worlds decided they would put the humans out of their misery.
“This life we have—Fraq, Arth, Calri—it’s all a second chance. It’s a second chance that we were given as a human race, and up until now, we’ve used it well. But not anymore. War is a drug, and it’s highly addictive. The humans of Earth lost everything because of their addiction. They OD’d. That asteroid was an intervention, and we humans have been clean for 5000 years. Now, it seems we’ve relapsed. This violence needs to stop because all we’re doing is taking ourselves back down the same road. We have to prove that we’re above petty quarrels, that we’re stronger now. Do you get what I’m saying?”
Aric hesitated, unsure why the man was talking to him at such length. “Yeah, I guess so. I mean, trust me, if I could snap my fingers and end all of this, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But I can’t. What can we do to end this? We’re just two soldiers in a war of millions.”
“You leave that up to me. I have an old friend that owes me a favor.”
“So what are you gonna do with me then?”
“You’ll only be in the way,” Raiden replied, raising the point of his blade toward the Arthian’s throat.
Aric sucked a breath of shock and stepped back until the barrel of his own rifle prodded him between the shoulder blades. “Just let me go then,” he said.
Raiden stared at him with squinting eyes, breathing slow and deep in contemplation. His sword didn’t waver. Seconds seemed like minutes, and then he knew what he had to do. Without further hesitation, he plunged his blade briskly upward into the soft flesh beneath the Arthian’s chin, ignoring the rush of blood and the pained gurgle that followed. In fact, he ignored the entire exchange as he did with every other unwelcome fantasy that forced its way into his world.
Unfazed, Raiden sighed. “I suppose I can let you live,” he said. With his words, the sword shrank back and vanished in an instant, revealing the rifle that it truly was. Aric exhaled. “I actually need you, anyway” Raiden continued. “Consider me a friend, but for now, you’re my prisoner. That’s the illusion we need to create.” He reached into his belt pack and pulled forth a rope of synthetic fiber. “Put your hands behind your back.”
Aric did as he was told, and Raiden bound his hands together with a tight knot.
“Ahh, don’t you think that’s a little tight for an illusion?”
“It’s gotta look real,” Raiden said. “Now let’s walk.” He slung his rifle over his shoulder and grabbed Aric by the arms, pushing him forward.
Darren turned to lead the way out from beneath the trees. He spoke to Aric over his shoulder. “Just for the record, he was totally shitting with you a minute ago. He was never gonna kill you.”
“You’re not supposed to tell him that,” Raiden laughed.
“Sorry, sir. I thought maybe it would be good for him to know you’re not a bad guy,” Darren said. He redirected his words to Aric. “He’s a good guy.”
“Yeah,” Aric said. “Good to know.”
Once they shuffled out of the forest, the air grew bright and fresh. There was an open field for a hundred meters or so before a wall rose up and stretched far to the left and right. Aric analyzed a large break in the fortification where stones and debris littered the ground.
“The damn Calrians,” Raiden said, noticing Aric’s attention. “They’re crafty little shits.”
“Do you have radio contact with the rest of your company, Aric? We need to know if they’re planning on attacking still or if they’ve retreated.”
Aric felt his heart skip as he suddenly became aware of his ear and realized his headset was no longer present. He’d not taken note of the fact that no one had said anything for the last 10 minutes. “Damn. I dropped it in the forest.”
“What was the last thing you heard?”
“I’m not sure. They were yelling about falling back, but I don’t know if that meant they were retreating or just moving away from the fire to regroup.”
“Okay. We’ll just have to hope they don’t attack until we get out of here. We’re gonna need a ship, and that sure as hell won’t be happening if the base is taking fire.”
“A ship? Why do we need a ship?”
“This whole war is coming from the top, from the presidents of each world. The only way to end it is to convince them that it needs to. President Brownstein, or Private Brownstein when I first met him, is the friend I mentioned earlier. I saved his life once after he’d been taken hostage by a group of drug runners with machetes and a desire to send a message. They were preparing to cut him to pieces on camera when I busted in and put a round in each of their foreheads.
“Anyway, to get to the point, I think it’s time I call upon that debt and use my relationship with the president to try and talk some sense into him. From experience, I know that a simple phone call won’t cut it. This is too big. I need to stand in front of him and look him in the eyes. He needs to feel the importance of what I’m saying.”
“So you just want to take a nice little impromptu trip over to Fraq?”
“Yes I do. But if you have a problem with that, I guess I could just cut your head off.” Raiden’s sword sprang, once again, from its hiding place, gleaming in the pale blue light.
“Umm, no, nope, no problem here. I’m cool with it. I’ve never been. Let’s go.”
“I thought maybe you’d say that.”
Darren turned around and flashed an amused grin. “I think he was serious that time.”
Aric offered an awkward “ha” and shuffled onward.
It was a 10-minute walk to get to the main structure of the camp, one that took them through a lightly-decorated courtyard and a series of security checkpoints and electronically-locked doors. On the way, soldiers cast them intrigued gawks, whispering to each other, spitting in Aric’s direction, cursing at him: “look at that piece of shit,” “beardless little bastard,” “fucking Arthrat.”
General Glaskgow was the man in charge, and he welcomed them in his office with a salute for Darren and Raiden and an oh-so-friendly scowl for Aric. His beard was long and graying and his nose wide like two thumbs upon his face. He wasn’t quite as big as Raiden, but his eyes were much meaner and his mouth seemed to frown in its relaxed position. He waved a hand at the chairs in front of his desk and then sat down in his own as they accepted the offering.
“Nice to see you, Lieutenant. I’d ask the occasion, but I can see it sitting next to you. Smell it even,” he added, fanning the air before his face. Aric glowered.
“Yes, sir, we managed to capture him near the edge of the forest. He’d parted with the rest of his army some time during the ambush.”
“Ahh, so you’ve not only found yourself a piece of trash, but a dishonorable one at that.”
“Hey, fuck you,” Aric blurted.
The general looked tickled. “And feisty too. Good thing you’ve got it on a leash.” He and Aric met eyes, unwilling to blink. “So what’s the situation?”
“The prisoner wishes to negotiate. In exchange for his life, he’s agreed to disclose classified information concerning Arthian security, military strategy, and future plans. Secrets, he claims, that would ensure our victory.”
“I have a keen sense for dishonor. I could smell it on him the moment you dragged him in here. Well, that and dog shit, but dishonor was the primary odor.” He cackled, and the others joined to appease him. “Very well. This sounds promising. Bring him to the holding cells in the basement, and tell the guards not to feed him. He’ll eat once we’ve got our intel.”
“Actually, sir, it’s a bit more complicated than that. He refuses to speak with anyone but President Brownstein himself. He says it’s nonnegotiable.”
Glaskgow leaned back in his seat. “Is that so? Even with his hands bound behind his back and a gun to his head, he thinks he gets to call the shots? The Arthians are dumber than I thought.” He hunched forward, his forearms pressed upon the desk, eyes like a snow lion fixed upon an intruder, deciding whether to pounce. Aric returned the gaze, unwavering. “Throw this piece of trash in a cell. The president is a busy man.”
Raiden sighed. “This is important information, sir. We can’t afford to miss out on it. I think it’s best we speak with the president. I know him well. He’d be more than willing to spend a few minutes if it meant saving the lives of our soldiers and securing the victory.”
General Glaskgow looked annoyed but nodded. “Fine. In the morning, we’ll set up a secure line to the president and the prisoner can have his talk. Until then, he gets locked up. And no rations.”
Now, Aric was getting annoyed. This asshole was making things way too difficult. “Goddamnit, if you want what I know, then you’re going to listen to what I fucking say! I want to speak with your president, and I want to do it in person. You take me to him now, or I promise that you’ll be sorry you waited. There’s a shitstorm on its way, and you big bastards are gonna wish you had even the slightest bit of preparation. I’m offering you a chance to survive it. If you keep on going like this, I can guarantee, on my baby sister’s life, you’ll be nothing but a heap of smoldering ash by the end of the month. Do you get what the fuck I’m saying . . . sir?”
The room went quiet, save for Aric’s enraged exhalations. The general stared for a moment longer and then leaned back in his chair again, fingers laced upon his lap. Heads straight, Raiden and Darren looked at each other through the corners of their eyes, sharing in mutual astonishment. The air grew heavy. None of them knew how Glaskgow would respond, not even Glaskgow himself. A minute of this tension passed before Raiden thought to break it.
“Ahem, if I may, sir, I think it would be in our best interest to take him to the president. I’ll volunteer to transport him myself.”
“Damn it, Whitmore, the president isn’t sitting next door. He’s on an entirely different planet.”
“Give us a ship and a pilot, that’s all we need.”
“An army of Arthians is banging at our front door, Lieutenant. Now’s not exactly the best time to be dealing with this.”
“Actually, now is the only time,” Aric interrupted. “Like I said, you don’t have much room to play around. The longer you take to get me to your president, the bloodier this mess is gonna get. There’s no doubt about that.”
“And why are you so concerned about us all of a sudden?” Glaskgow probed.
Aric glanced to Raiden and smirked. “This isn’t my war. I don’t want this. Every minute, more men are dying somewhere on Centrum, and it’s not just you guys, it’s my people too. I don’t care who ‘wins’ the war. In reality, we’re all losing. If I have to aid the enemy to save the lives of my fellow soldiers, I think I’m taking the higher ground. And, to be honest, most of those guys would probably thank me for it.”
“Okay. I get it.”
“Then give us a ship, sir, and I’ll give you victory.”
General Glaskgow unlaced his fingers and began, again, to stroke his beard, long breaths of frustration hissing in escape. His face loomed emotionless and cold, wrinkled where there wasn’t hair to hide it. “It’s a deal,” he finally said. “Lieutenant, take the prisoner to the airfield now. I’ll call down and have a pilot waiting for you. There will also be a medic there to administer a thorough cavity search.” Aric’s eyes widened. “I won’t let an enemy set foot on one of my ships without first being searched, especially one that’ll be face-to-face with our president.”
“Good call, General,” said Raiden. “Thanks for seeing us.”
He stood to salute and Darren did the same. Aric remained seated, sulking. Thorough cavity search? That didn’t sound pleasant. Maybe his little outburst hadn’t been the best plan after all.
“Private . . .” Glaskgow strained to see Darren’s name upon his uniform “. . . Slater, you’re to remain here at the base. I want as many soldiers on site as possible.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
“With that, you’re dismissed. It’ll be four days until you get to Fraq, so have a safe trip and be sure to inform me of what comes of it.”
“Thanks, General,” Raiden said. “I’m sure the president will be in contact as soon as things become clear.”
He pulled Aric up from his seat of despair, and the three of them moved to exit the room.
“Just relax and let it in, Arthian,” the general said after them. “It’s just standard procedure. It’ll be quick.”
Aric bit his tongue, wishing he could run back and tackle the arrogant son-of-a-bitch. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, the monsters at his sides grabbed his shoulders and urged him onward.
“Let it go,” Raiden whispered as they moved. “Let it go.”
When they’d cleared the headquarters and stepped back out into the night air, Raiden relaxed his grip and laughed a jolly laugh. “Nice going in there, Aric. That was quite the act. Shitstorm? Smoldering ash? Your baby sister’s life? Really?”
“Ha, yeah. I just let it flow,” Aric said nonchalantly. “I’m actually an only child.”
“Wow. Very nice.”
“It worked didn’t it?”
“That it did,” Raiden replied with a slap to the back.
It was a short walk to the back of the complex where an open field had been laid down with concrete and covered in its entirety with ships. In the distance, they could see the pilot and medic standing amid the pavement like a pair of phantoms with the light at their backs. Goose bumps rose across Aric’s skin. It wasn’t the sight but rather the expectation of what was to come.
Darren could see Aric’s anxiety and shook his head discreetly in pity. “Well, I suppose I should head back to my barracks,” he said.
“Yeah, probably so,” Raiden agreed. The two shook hands, bid salutes, and parted.
“Good luck, Aric,” Darren said as he left. Aric knew exactly what he was talking about. He turned again to the growing image of that shadowed medic with his white latex gloves and his big fingers—so fucking big.
Raiden saw the fear in his eyes. “Don’t worry, man. I’ve got your back.”
“Yeah,” Aric replied, “and that guy’s gonna have my ass.”