Our dreams may guide us in our lives,
May show us things we’ve never known,
But when you’re lying fast asleep,
Can you be sure that you’re alone?
“Yes, it’s mine! Every bit of it is mine!”
Trees looked like smears of blood from above: the forest a puddle stirring in directionless waves as the wind took the leaves in erratic loops. Soon the leaves disappeared, and the naked branches were like skeletons in a graveyard, stretching off in orderly rows.
It’s invigorating to fly, and even more so to know that every inch of land beneath you is yours. Gerald Brownstein beat his arms, just one quick flap to propel himself higher into the sky. The air felt like water against his open palms, flowing and spraying but leaving him dry.
Beneath him, the woodland parted for a colossal estate, the manor at its center like a child’s dollhouse, the acreage surrounding it paved and decorated with fountains, and flowers, and intricate sculptures. The biggest statue, near the gate, was of him. Of course, he was far too high to see that, but he knew it anyway. He looked back as the mansion faded behind, forward again as the forest thinned and ended and the land became flat and open and scored with roads. Along them, cars inched like tiny bugs upon twigs, the sounds of their tires and their humming drivers too quiet for his ears, but he knew they were there.
In time, the fields grew populated with buildings, and the roads took on more geometric designs. The houses came first—the suburbs and apartments—and then the businesses and the trains and the tall buildings like block towers into the sky. The city spread as far as he could see in all directions: shades of grey and black and brown organizing themselves in squares and rectangles like the intricate motherboard of some advanced computer.
Dots—that were his people—moved chaotically across the motherboard. They were the electrical charges. They were making it all work. And all for him. This was his capital, on his planet, on Centrum, and there was not a single Arthian or Calrian in sight to challenge that fact. But where were they then? He knew the answer.
Lowering his left arm and raising his right, he banked left and swooped gracefully up toward the clouds. It wasn’t hard to break the atmosphere: just a powerful flap of the arms, a stiffening of his body, and the confidence that he would continue upward. In seconds he was there, floating weightlessly in a sea of black, tumbling and turning and enjoying the ride. Centrum, large in his field of vision, spread far beneath his feet and he felt, suddenly, like a diver looking down upon the pool.
To his left, Fraq hovered like a shard of shattered crystal.
“Hello!” he screamed. “Hello!”
There was no response. He’d expected as much. Only he could hear his scream, vibrating through the bones of his skull, mutated and stifled. There was no sound in space: a lesson he’d retained since the space battles years before.
To his right and straight ahead, Arth and Calri completed the tetrad of his empire. The men and women who had fought for their homes were the providers of the screams that had granted him the wisdom of sound in space. It was the silence of their ships exploding, and the mouths behind transparent masks, opening and closing in muted shrieks like fish gasping to breathe on dry land. They were all no more. There were no Arthians. There were no Calrians. Those worlds were his and his people’s now, for they were the most fit of the humans and the others were weak and stupid and undeserving.
Brownstein smiled a crescent of white teeth, licking his lips and feeling the hair of his beard creeping up. Everything before him was his. He could be no more powerful. He could be no more triumphant. He was a god among men, and the feeling was indescribable. He laughed. Although unsure as to why, he laughed, and he drooled, and he wiped it away and laughed some more. Only he could hear those snorts and snickers, and somehow this made him ever more powerful.
In mid-cackle, from somewhere within his spacious empire, a deafening bang rang out like an acute crack of thunder. It was so loud, in fact, that President Brownstein hadn’t enough time to interpret it before stirring from his dream to a reality of shadows and walls and an open, lit doorway. Three figures stood within its light. One, he could tell, was his secretary. Her curves were unmistakable. The other two were mysteries, but one was surely a child.
“What in the world! Becky, what are you doing? Who are these people? Why are they here?”
He was shouting, still shocked from the swift change in setting. His heart was drumming in every inch of his body. Although aware of his consciousness, he felt more like he was dreaming now than he had before.
“I-I-I tried to stop them, Mr. President. Th-they wouldn’t—”
“Mr. President,” Raiden interrupted, “it’s me, Raiden Whitmore. My companion is Aric Trent of Arth. He comes as an ally.” Brownstein’s eyes widened. “But what’s more important, and what I can’t answer, is what the hell that thing beside your bed is.”
The president recoiled, his spine suddenly tingling with horror. Was there some kind of demon by his bed? Something come to kill him in his sleep? Did he even want to know? Was it safe to lean over and look or would he suddenly find his head flying through the air, watching the room spin as the final electrical impulses escaped his neuronal circuitry? His curiosity, of course, was far more demanding than his apprehension.
He inched to the side of his bed, clutching at the sheets as if they would keep him from falling off the edge. “Shit!” he shouted, jumping backward and nearly off the other side. He looked to the three in the doorway, all of them straight-faced as they glanced to him and then back to the thing on the ground. He took a breath and crept back across the bed.
The room was still dark, even with the light from the hallway, but it was bright enough to make out a grey lump stretched out upon the floor maybe four feet in length. Lanky legs, stringy arms, a bulbous head with enormous eyes: it was clearly a living creature, but none he’d ever seen before. It was dressed, it seemed, in a dark grey suit that was all one piece. Its chest was black, but that was blood, he could tell, for it formed a messy circle and drained down about the carpet. The creature wasn’t moving.
Perplexed and intrigued, Browstein grabbed a remote from his nightstand and flipped the lights on. That’s when he noticed that the lieutenant held a pistol.
“Whoa,” Aric said as the lights brought detail to the bleeding creature.
Brownstein examined it some more. “What the hell is it, and what’s it doing in here?”
“I have no idea, sir. We came to talk about the war and your secretary turned us away. Considering we traveled all the way from Centrum, we decided to come in anyway, and that’s when I saw that thing sitting on top of your chest, staring at your eyelids it seemed. It barely had time to turn and look at me before I put a round in its heart . . . or where I assume its heart is, I guess.”
The president’s face was one of disgust and terror. “It was on top of me?”
“Yes, sir, it was. Now that I have a better look at it, I can make the guess that it’s what The Rebirth calls a Grey. I’m a history professor, so I’ve read the book many times, and that’s exactly how I’ve pictured one to look. But as far as what it’s doing in bed with you, that’s something I’m not sure I can answer.”
“Ahh, yes. The Rebirth. I know it well. That hadn’t occurred to me, but yes, I believe you’re right.”
“Can you think of any reason why it’s here, sir? What it could have been doing to you while you slept?”
President Brownstein sat upon his bed with the sheets bunched at his feet and his blue, striped pajamas glaring beneath the chandelier. He stroked his beard with one hand, licking his lips and ignoring the coarseness of straying hairs. As he waited, Aric looked up at Raiden for some kind of unspoken expression, but none was granted. Raiden was busy watching the president think. His face was stern and focused. He looked as if he was trying to help. Aric turned back and joined the collective brainstorm.
After a minute, the president perked up as the answer finally came. “The dreams,” he said. “I’ve been having some really vivid dreams lately: ones about money and power and respect and how the war is my ticket to all of it. They were thoughts that didn’t quite seem like mine, but I’ve been having them so frequently these past weeks that I began to think maybe they actually were. I started thinking that maybe I didn’t know myself as well as I thought. I became so sure that the man I was in my dreams was the real me. So sure, in fact, that I began becoming him. I didn’t even realize what parts of me I was losing.”
“So you think that thing was manipulating you through your dreams?” Aric asked.
“Yes. I believe I know that’s what it was doing. It was implanting these ideas in hopes that I would think they were my own and listen to them. I guess it was right . . . .”
Aric nodded. “But why do that?”
“Because it wants us all dead,” Raiden replied. “That’s why Earth was so messed up before the Rebirth. The Greys wanted the humans gone, so they manipulated Earth’s leaders and stirred up all sorts of trouble. If the Andromedans hadn’t intervened, we wouldn’t be here. I think the Greys must be trying for round two, hoping to finally get rid of us.”
The four of them glared at the perpetrator, a feeling of resentment oozing forth to unite them in common sentiment.
Becky glanced to the men, seeing in them a solemnity that made her feel like she didn’t belong amongst them. Aliens, war, important decisions: this wasn’t her place. She had enough problems of her own. Without a word—for it wasn’t the time for a common woman’s voice—she exited the room, feeling, upon leaving, as if a pillow had been lifted from her face and she could breathe again.
“I’ve been so confused since the violence began,” Raiden continued, “but it all makes sense now. I know you, Gerald. You’re a good man, with strong morals, keen insight, and self-restraint. Your decisions over the past weeks have demonstrated none of these, and I was beginning to worry that the power had gotten to your head. I began to think that you were seeing our operation on Centrum as one big game, with toy soldiers that you could send here and there and lose without remorse. I’m sure you can step back and see what’s wrong with the way things have gone.”
“Yeah,” the president replied. “War has never been my answer to anything. When the revolutionaries in Southeast Fraq threatened civil war, I sat their leader down and we came to an agreement that eased their anger. When the Diablos overtook the North with their drugs and their crime, I created a law allowing citizens to carry weapons and defend themselves against gang members without fear of reprimand.
“The gang disbanded within a week after realizing the people could fight back. None of them wanted to wear their colors for fear of getting shot just for being a member. Problem solved. Key point: I’ve always been about compromise and making smart moves. That’s how things on Centrum started out. Then there were the random attacks, and things began to tumble out of control. I think that’s about the time the dreams started too.”
“Those random attacks have always seemed a bit fishy to me,” said Raiden. “We were accusing Calri and Arth, they each were accusing us, and nobody ever owned up to anything. It just didn’t feel right, and now I think it’s because it wasn’t. I think the Greys had a hand in it all, and I can imagine the leaders of Calri and Arth are undergoing the same treatment as you. Those sneaky little bastards lit the fire, and they’ve been sprinkling gasoline on it all along, laughing as we’ve burned.”
“I can’t believe I didn’t see this. I can’t believe I let myself get strung along so easily.” President Brownstein held his hands in his lap. They were trembling. “How many Fraquians have died because of my weakness? How many Calrians and Arthians too? The loss of life has meant nothing to me this whole time, and now it’s all coming down on me.”
“Don’t talk like that, Gerald,” Raiden said. “You’re not weak. Any man in your position would have fallen to this ploy, maybe even more so. These Greys are smarter than us. A lot of other life forms in the universe have been fooled by their tricks too. They’re like professional exterminators. It’s what they do. It’s what they’re known for.”
“So how do we stop them?” Aric asked. “How do we make sure we don’t become another line in their tally?”
Raiden began to speak, for he was passionate, but stopped himself before the first word escaped. Brownstein had a fire in his eyes. This was his time to redeem himself, to prove that he could lead his people and the entire human race if need be. He stood to speak.
“It’s obvious that the first step is to end this useless war. Calri and Arth are not our enemies anymore, they’re our allies. I’ll get in touch with Presidents Titus and Rogers personally, and I’ll make sure they understand the deception that we’ve all been victims of. There’s only one true enemy now, and we’re gonna need to work together if we want to come out on top. I have a feeling the Greys won’t be content with just letting us be. If they’re really out to get us, then we need to be prepared for confrontation.”
“Still as smart as I remember you,” Raiden chimed.
Brownstein smiled. “And you’re still as valiant. To come all the way back here in the name of saving us all? It makes me wonder if maybe you’d be better in my position.”
“Oh no. I’m a professor and a soldier. Politics aren’t for me.”
“Well, soldier, I know I owe you my life for what you’ve done for me in the past, so maybe it’s time I repay the favor. This fight is going to get brutal. I just know it. How about you stay here on Fraq and be my right-hand man? I could use someone like you, and I’m sure your family would feel a lot better knowing you were out of harm’s way.”
Raiden’s head bobbed back in surprise. Thoughts of his wife and daughters came flooding to him. Victoria’s kiss tasted like berries. He suddenly craved berries. Her touch made his mind feel weightless and free. He suddenly felt an overwhelming heaviness massed within his skull. Katie and Kristen gave his world light and his existence meaning. He suddenly felt blinded by darkness, and lost.
Blood, fire, screams, death: these images came next, cutting him harshly, filling him with a pain that transcended the physical. It was the pain of war: a pain he’d always feared, and a fear he now knew had rightfully existed. Centrum was not his home. There was nothing there for him but more of what he wished never again to experience.
“Wow. I-I don’t know what to say, sir. That would be amazing. I’d be honored to . . . .” Raiden let his sentence of acceptance trail and fade as new thoughts overcame. He looked out the bay window to his left where Centrum loomed enormous against the night sky. It wasn’t true that there was nothing for him up there.
His family was on Fraq, but not all of it. Darren and his other students were up there right now. They were all caught in combat, shooting, screaming, possibly dying. All of them, he knew, were scared, and none had their leader there to guide them, and to look out for them, and to make sure they made it back all right. He was letting them down with every passing second he spent on Fraq. His stomach turned as if he would be sick. He was failing them, and it was a realization with which he could not, and would not, cope.
“I’m honored by the offer, sir, but I’m afraid there’s no way I can accept it.” Brownstein’s eyes narrowed in confusion. “As much as I wish I could forget about the war and just be with my wife and daughters, I know that I won’t be able to forget. I’ve got promises to keep and men to oversee. My students are up there fighting like soldiers, and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if any of them got hurt. These are tough times, and they’re only going to get tougher. I can’t back out. I can’t just give up and say it’s time for a break. Everything unfolds whether I’m a part of it or not, but I want to be there to help decide when and how the folds are lifted.”
President Brownstein nodded. “Although I’d hoped you would take me up on it, something in me knew you wouldn’t. You’re a dear friend, Raiden. To lose you would be a devastating blow, not only to me and your family but also to mankind as a whole. Good men like you are a rarity, and I wish I could keep you here and make sure you stay around as long as possible, but I can’t say I don’t feel a hell of a lot better with you fighting on our side. Your path is yours to choose, and I trust that whichever one you take will be the right one for all of us.”
Raiden reached out and grabbed the man’s hand in a firm handshake. “Thank you, sir. I’ve spent years teaching history and even more studying it. I think it’s about time for me to live it. I’m going back to Centrum.”
“Very well,” the president replied. “I wish you all the luck in the world, old friend. And your Arthian comrade here, too.”
“Thank you, Mr. President,” Aric replied with a slight bow of the head. He left from the room and Raiden followed close behind, stopping in the doorway to bid his pal some parting words.
“A long time ago, a man once said that history is written by the victors. I’ll have you know that I have every intention of writing. You’ll see me again, Gerald, and when you do, we’ll talk about that favor you owe me.”
Brownstein smiled, wishing he could trust in Raiden’s words but feeling, somehow, that even Raiden wasn’t very sure of them. He watched as his friend turned away and disappeared down the hallway. He was sure he’d see the man again. But alive or dead? Of that, he was uncertain.
Aric waited for Raiden at the bottom of the winding stairs that had led to the president’s living quarters. The main hall in which he stood was large and spacious with decorated, white walls reaching 40 feet into the air. He stared straight up to where an array of crystal chandeliers dangled from a great dome of gold beams fitted with glass. In front of him, a hallway stretched off to the nearest exit. Two members of the Presidential Guard stood on either side of the corridor’s entrance, rifles held to their chests with both hands, prepared to shoot at the first sign of trouble. They were eyeing him because he clearly didn’t belong, but fortunately, they were the same guards that had allowed them passage on their way in, probably wondering, now, where his escort was.
Quite quickly, Raiden appeared at the top of the staircase and stomped his way down, not because he was mad but because he was nearly 300 pounds and always stomped.
“You ready to head out?” Aric asked.
“Yeah. Let’s get going.”
With their shadows looking like father and son, the two men ambled back down the hallway through which they’d entered, the eyes of the guards following behind them the entire way. Two more guards buzzed them through the door at the other end, taking them out into a standard, late-night, Fraquian blizzard. Their ship was waiting for them at the private airstrip 200 yards away. A heated walkway spanned the distance like a black line on a piece of white paper. An aura of fog enshrouded its surface, feeling like hot breath as they walked along. Raiden seemed detached from the world. He pursed his lips but didn’t notice. Squinted his eyes and didn’t notice either. Dragged his size 25 boots as if they were too heavy to lift or he was too preoccupied to exert the energy.
Aric didn’t like to see him in such a way. He appreciated the strong, rational man he’d come to know over the past four days: the man who seemed always in one piece, always ready to provide support for the normal people that weren’t as soundly put together.
Aric lifted a hand above his head in order to give his giant friend a cheering pat on the shoulder. “I’m really glad you decided to go back. You were my only ride,” he said with a laugh. “This place definitely isn’t for me. It’s a bit too cold. Too much snow. I’m not a fan.”
Raiden’s lips relaxed and his eyes opened to look down at the Arthian. The corners of his mouth, which had previously been drooping if anything, perked up slightly. “Ha, yeah. I can imagine it’s an acquired taste. How’s that thermal suit treating you?”
Aric patted the puffy fabric that bloated from his abdomen. He had nearly forgotten about his ridiculous apparel, which Raiden had pulled for him from the ship’s supply closet. “It seems to be working all right. I mean, it’s a bit big on me, but I’m not frozen yet, so I’m not complaining.”
“Good. No complaining.”
“So what’s the plan now, big guy? We gonna find a hotel for the night or what?”
“A hotel?” Raiden laughed. “No. You can sleep on the ship. We need to get there so I can call General Glaskgow and let him know what’s going on. I’m sure the president will be getting a hold of him soon, but he asked me to report back.”
“Okay. So you can call the general and then we’ll go find a hotel. That’s fine with me.”
Aric shifted his eyes straight ahead, hoping that doing so would end the conversation and cement his suggestion. He had just spent four days cooped up in that ship, and he wasn’t about to step right back in for another four, at least not without a fight. Well, a verbal one anyway. With Raiden’s huge form looming in the corners of his eyes, arms as big as his own legs swinging back and forth, of course he wasn’t thinking of getting physical. Enduring another four days was worth keeping his head on his neck.
“No, we’re going back as soon as the ship is finished refueling. There’s no telling how things are going to play out up there on Centrum. We need to make sure that the ceasefire is enacted and that we’re prepared for the Greys’ next trick.”
Aric sighed. “But I’m sure—“
“No complaining, Aric. Remember I said that? After all, you are theoretically my prisoner, so you need to do what I say. And I’m bigger than you . . . and I have a gun.” Raiden peeled back the right flap of his hanging coat to reveal the handle of his pistol, flashing with it a boastful smirk that disappeared in the white snowfall.
Aric rolled his eyes and decided he’d lost the argument. The airstrip was growing close, so he figured he’d use his final minutes to take deep breaths rather than waste them. The air chilled the inside of his nose and throat, warmed in his lungs and then escaped in a plume of fog that vanished in the haze already enshrouding them. It was clean and refreshing, holding in it the faint scent of firepine and the taste of ice. He wondered if these would be the last breaths he’d ever take in this world. Would he ever make it back to Fraq again? That was a fleeting thought: possibly a psychic tap into Raiden’s worried mind. What came more pressingly was whether he would even make it back to Arth, back to Destiny.
The two men were silent as they traveled the last half of the walk. Neither thought of the cold, or the four-day journey, or the war and the danger and the mystery of what was to come. Their minds were in a world of warmth and happiness and love. Their thoughts were to their families, and each of them smiled without noticing the other. It was a short walk. Too short.