Doctors, lawyers, scientists,
All will fight if life’s at stake,
When blood is spilled and screams ring out,
The inner soldier stirs awake.
Isaac reclined in his computer chair and scanned the tabletop before him, reveling in the number of discs and admiring his hard work. He’d spent an hour labeling the discs and organizing them upon the map of Centrum that he’d spread across the table. The last four hours he’d spent uploading the data onto his CPU and naming each individual file the same as the district of Centrum in which it had been collected. Now, he was finished, just waiting for the program to amalgamate the individual files into a single map of Centrum’s subterranean geography.
Over the past week, he and a team of nine others had collected the EMIRMS (Electromagnetic Induction and Radar Mapping System) readouts taken in nearly a hundred Centrumian districts, which included every region they could safely access without taking enemy fire. Their goal was to construct a three-dimensional image of Centrum’s layout down to five kilometers beneath the surface. With the subterranean map, they’d have the ability to locate deposits of oil, underground water supplies, and potential mining spots, all of which would help to guide Fraquian colonization efforts.
The merging process was 90 percent complete when a boisterous blast shook the trinkets from his office shelves and sent a wave of hot air bursting through the window to his left. The noise caused his hands to spring up just in time to shield his face from a spray of shattered glass. He toppled to the floor as the fragments exploded about him like rain drops, clinking and clanking a tune of destruction. Through the broken window, there came the sound of gunfire and shouts and, amongst it all, a foreign clapping like two boards being smacked together in rapid succession.
Who’s attacking us? Isaac wondered. We’re supposed to be in a ceasefire.
As he struggled to rise, a siren began sounding from the center of camp and the building’s intercom crackled to life with an officer’s voice:
“This is a code green. All personnel, arm yourselves and defend. The enemy is of unknown allegiance. They’re wearing grey and heavily-armed. Kill on sight. This is a code green . . . .”
The message repeated in the background as Isaac moved to the window. He gasped at what he saw and ducked low to hide behind the wall. With just his eyes above the sill, he peered off across the base to where a horde of grey humanoids oozed forth from a small, stone hovel on the edge of the forest. A great number of them emerged—far too many for the building to reasonably contain—and they rushed the field, spreading out in all directions.
A pillar of smoke rose from one of the barracks below. As Isaac followed the dark trail into the sky, he saw past, to the forest, where yet more of the enemies were emanating from within. The outer wall of the camp still blocked their entry, but just as he appreciated this fact, a dark red ball of what looked like fire soared through the air with a glowing tail. It disappeared, for an instant, behind the far side of the wall, but just as quickly reappeared on the near side, having burrowed straight through without even a sound. Just as the projectile’s red nose peaked through the wall’s face, it burst into a cloud of smoke and sent stone shards in all directions. When the plume cleared, the barrier was no more, and the creatures charged in through the fresh, 20-meter gap.
In seconds, grey bodies swarmed every visible area of the camp. There were so many of them. Isaac ran his fingers through his hair and then down along his bearded jaw-line. Where the hell are they coming from? He looked back to the small shack in the corner of the base. Something wasn’t right. It was just far too small to produce so many of them. There had to be another exit inside. His eyes lit up. A tunnel!
He jumped back into his chair, keeping low, and cast eyes on the monitor. The data merge was complete. A couple clicks and he had the image open. He didn’t need to scroll to their zone in order to see what he was looking for. It was in every region of the planet. Caverns networked like ant tunnels everywhere he looked, but they weren’t natural formations. They were intentional, artificial, geometric. Large rectangles and squares and circles decorated the web of passages like rooms or possibly small cities hollowed out beneath the surface.
Shit, Isaac thought. This place isn’t empty after all. He sighed at what it meant, feeling somewhat dirty. We’re not colonists. We’re invaders.
Another explosion shook the walls, and Isaac felt the reality of the situation come jolting into his consciousness. It didn’t matter if they were the bad guys, all of a sudden. Their intentions had been pure, and now they were being killed by some angry natives who hadn’t the decency to reveal themselves and attempt peace before popping out, guns blazing. The humans weren’t bad guys. I’m not a bad guy.
He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a 3D projecting drive, which he jammed into the computer. It took but a few moments to transfer the subterranean map file. Pocketing the device, he slid open the bottom drawer and retrieved his trusted pistol with a swift swipe of the arm. Although he’d spent the last 20 years of his life handling scalpels and magnifying glasses, the tool he held in his hand, now, felt more like home than anything. Instinctively, he flipped off the safety, cocked a round into the chamber, and pulled a spare clip from the back of the drawer, dropping it into his lab coat pocket as he hurried out the door.
In the hallway, there was chaos. Men and women—soldiers and civilians—scrambled like fleeing goats in all directions, the commotion of their scuffling feet and frantic shouts forming a tumultuous undertone for the siren and intercom commands that blared from every corner. Isaac followed behind the bulk of uniformed bodies, passing left, down the main southbound corridor, and dropping over the edge of the HQ’s southern stairwell. Their boots struck the steps with the incessant echo of a thousand metal drums.
Coming from the fifth level, it took a minute for the crowd to spiral all the way to the ground floor. When they finally reached the bottom, Isaac cleared the stairwell exit and emptied into the spacious, marble foyer that welcomed anyone entering from the courtyard. It was usually a pleasant area, but wounded soldiers now littered the floor and screams of agony replaced the classical music that always played softly from above.
One man, barely 18 it seemed, sat propped in the arms of a medic, his stubbly chin a mess of blood that continued to erupt in pained coughs from his open mouth. He trembled uncontrollably, rambling something about “their eyes” and “they have no soul.” Isaac shivered a little himself.
The young soldier’s white uniform was torn and frayed and stained dark red in the stomach. Behind the mess of fabric, a wound like raw meat pulsated, disgorging blood with every beat of his heart. The soldier’s left leg was blown clean off at the knee where his pants appeared singed and threads, that were actually veins, reached out for more flesh, emptying yet more blood to the floor. From the puddle, a long smear stretched all the way across the room to the doors that led to the courtyard.
Isaac glanced around at the other injured soldiers—a dozen or so—all of their paths of escape tracing back, in blood, to the doors that blocked the battle beyond. He looked at his pistol, suddenly confused with himself. What am I doing down here? This is too close. I’m not a soldier anymore, damn it. He lowered the gun and began to backpedal toward the stairs.
A group of six men stood at the courtyard exit, listening to the gunfire beyond, planning their moves before heading out into it all. Each of them was looking down when the double doors blew off their hinges and rammed their bodies across the room like ragdolls. They were unconscious before they hit the ground.
A cloud of smoke hung in the open doorway, and Isaac suddenly felt too vulnerable. Through the haze, a lone enemy sprang without warning, its weapon quick enough to blow holes in two Fraquian heads before Isaac put a round in its chest and dropped it to the floor.
Those in the room that hadn’t previously seen the enemy were screaming to each other.
“What the hell was that thing?”
“Look how small it is.”
While they shared words of shock, Isaac hauled one of the heavy doors from off the ground and carried it 10 feet back to where it belonged, propping it up over the opening. Another soldier, realizing he was being useless, retrieved the other door and did the same, although a bit more laboriously.
“Thanks, kid,” Isaac said. The soldier nodded before scurrying off to the corner where his squad leader was calling out to him. Isaac followed. “Are you an officer?” he asked.
“Yeah. Sergeant Mars,” the man said. “What are you doing down here, sir? You need to get upstairs with the other civilians. Leave the fighting to the soldiers.”
The words hit like a bitch slap, and Isaac struggled to restrain himself from reaching out and crushing the man’s trachea. He didn’t mean it. He doesn’t know. “It’s been 20 years, but once a soldier, always a soldier,” Isaac said.
Mars flicked his eyebrows in surprise. “I take that back, then.”
“It’s okay. I knew you didn’t mean it.” Mars smiled, realizing his words had struck a nerve. “Anyway,” Isaac continued, “I’ve got some information that General Glaskgow needs to see immediately. It’s a 3D image of Centrum’s underground structure, and it clearly shows an extensive network of tunnels and rooms existing up to five kilometers below the surface and probably even farther. These things attacking us, I believe, live underground within this network.”
The sergeant seemed stunned, but intrigued. “What? Are you sure?
“Yes, I’m sure. I have the image with me on a projecting drive. I’d show you, but now is hardly the time. You need to bring it to the general ASAP.”
“Okay. I’ll take it.”
Isaac pulled the device from his pocket and handed it over. “One more thing. From my office upstairs, I saw an army of them coming from a small, stone hut at the corner of the base. I think there must be an entrance into the tunnels within. We need to get a team there pronto.”
“I know the building you’re talking about. I’ll let the general know, but I think defending our base is more of a priority at the moment.” He turned to the three soldiers of his squad—obviously the rest of the group was fighting or dead—and told them to follow in case any enemies were encountered on the way. “This information is too important to lose,” he said.
“Okay, go,” said Isaac. “I’ll stay here and help defend this entrance. But get back here as soon as you can. Most of the men here are wounded, so this entrance is vulnerable and the enemy may figure that out.”
The sergeant nodded and moved off across the room with the others at his back. Isaac watched them go. He also watched a mass of crimson plasma burn its way through the metal doors wedged against the exit, exploding immediately and sending forth a breathtaking shockwave that thew him backward. The fire ball was so bright that it nearly looked white, but Isaac didn’t see this as he fell to the ground with his arms about his head.
Inches away from his face, a half of one door had tumbled and slid to rest. He peered up from the ground and over the smoldering metal to where a veil of smoke was diffusing through the room. Sergeant Mars was facedown with a sliver of steel protruding from the back of his skull. His men were equally as misfortunate, lying motionless with charred uniforms rippling streaks of smoke into the smog.
Suddenly, the sound of running feet arose through the gloom. Isaac jumped to move, picking up the fallen door and enduring the pain of its scorching touch as he propped it against a nearby pillar. He fell quickly to sit behind its cover, cowering low and retracting any straying limbs as tightly to his sides as possible. In the glass display case in front of him, he could see the room’s reflection. He watched as the enemies filed in, the clapping of their strange weapons sounding sporadically at his back. There were at least 10 of them, all short and crouching even shorter. He was still a secret to them.
A moment later, the clapping stopped, and the ETs stood still and scanned the room. In the glass, Isaac met eyes with one of the creatures, and instantly, the steel at his back began shaking and booming and denting beneath gunfire. He was trapped. A sudden stray shot—or possibly intentional—broke through the display case and sent a web of fissures all about the glass plane. For a fraction of a second, the pieces hung suspended like a puzzle, but then they dropped, falling as a crystal cascade and exploding in a mist of glass against the marble floor. No more reflection. Now, he was blind. Now, was he dead?