Just move on, goodbye means death,
For now it’s simply time to flee,
A charge bestowed, a target set,
A trio of diversity.
“Bradley! Say something, Bradley!” Lexus struggled to dismount from Raiden’s back, but he was gripping her legs tightly in restraint. Her tears were falling steadily now, hitting the shoulder of his jacket and soaking through. “Let me down. I need to help him.”
“There’s no time,” said Raiden.
Aric and Osyrus stood in the doorway, looking back uneasily. Aric stomped a foot. “They’re right behind us. After those shots, they’ll be here any second. We gotta move.”
Lexus glanced back to Aric with a fire in her eyes that wanted to consume him. He shrank like a scared pup, and she returned her focus to Bradley, crying and flailing.
Beneath the heat of her gaze, Aric had felt, suddenly, the numbness of war leave his body. Of course, he’d seen her friend lying there in his own blood, dead or dying . . . probably dead. This wasn’t a shock—at least not as much of a shock as it would have been a week or so before. For the past hour, he’d watched men die around him, hurdled bleeding corpses as aloofly as he would rocks, ignored screams and cries and his own emotional responses to it all. His attention had to be on his own survival, and cold disregard was a necessary component.
This woman, though: she wasn’t numbed like himself. She was feeling that man’s wound as if it were her own, and she was letting that pain show, no matter how vulnerable it made her. This was humanity. Empathy, compassion, emotional connectivity. She was being human. What had he been that past hour?
Aric felt her sorrow and saw her tears and turned his back before his own began to fall. She just wants to say goodbye. He thought of his daughter and of Whitney, the only two people he loved. Neither had heard the word fall from his lips before his departure. Goodbye. It’s so simple, but it means so much. They deserved that from me.
Someone nudged him from his thoughts, and he turned as Raiden rushed into the room and the door closed behind. Lexus was still on his back, but she had given up her fight. It was true and she knew it. There was no time for what she wanted.
“Hurry,” Aric said. “Go.”
Osyrus rushed onward and Raiden as well, Lexus clinging to him like a little girl. There was never time for goodbye, Aric realized. That’s why she didn’t get to say it now, and that’s why he hadn’t said it either. But that wasn’t to be dwelled on, for it couldn’t be changed, and he pushed it aside. The important word now was “hello,” and he would do everything in his power to make sure he could say that again to the ones he loved.
The group moved swiftly through the room and into a corridor that took them left a ways, past doors that led to unknown places. They hadn’t the time to explore nor the least bit of curiosity to encourage it. If the Greys had already begun to retreat back into their hideout, then there was no telling how close the next batch was to barging in through the exit they now depended on. This was enemy territory, and they were but four strong. Fighting wasn’t an option. They needed to reach that outlet before the enemies came pouring in with strength.
It took them only a few minutes to reach the ladder, and just one more to climb through the holographic ceiling and out the exit tunnel. The tunnel had been capped by a heavy slab of wood that ended up being the bottom surface of a fake boulder. They stood at the edge of the forest.
“Wow, it looks so real.” Osyrus brushed a hand along the replica’s stony face. “And feels it too.”
“They’re definitely good at hiding,” said Aric. “We’re lucky we have a map.”
“That tall one,” Lexus began. “The one that killed Bradley.” The men turned at her sudden words. They listened, but it appeared she was talking more to herself than any of them. “I’m gonna put a bullet in his fucking head. I’m gonna put a bullet in it, and then I’m gonna cut it off and carry it on a stick like a fucking trophy.”
“Whoa there, lil missy,” Osyrus replied. “The passion is good, but the anger won’t help you. Vengeance always feels like the right path, but often it will lead you straight to your own death.”
She looked at him as if he were an idiot. Vengeance was the only path. She saw no other, nor would she have chosen any if she did.
“He’s right, Lexus,” Aric said. “I once had someone I wanted to kill, because he’d screwed me over real bad, and my hatred for him did nothing but eat at me. Finally, I realized I’d probably never see him again and I’d never get my chance, so I managed to bury that craving deep inside and forget about it. Of course, soon after I did that, I ended up running into him by chance.”
She looked at him curiously. Surely, he’d say more . . . . “So what happened?”
“That craving rose up from deep inside me as strong as it had been when I’d put it away. The second I saw him, I did what needed to be done. Didn’t even let him finish his first sentence before I killed his ass.” Aric’s eyes glazed over as he drifted back to the moment. “Damn, that felt good.”
“And that story is supposed to help me forget about it?”
“No, not forget. You’ll never forget. I’m just saying to ignore it for now. You’ll probably never see that one specific Grey again. There’s no point preoccupying yourself with thoughts of him when you’ve got other enemies to worry about in the here and now. Focus on surviving, and maybe, by chance, he’ll pop up again. I wouldn’t count on it, but I’m sure you’ll know what to do if he does.”
Lexus’ eyes showed a glint of insight. He was right. Sure as hell she’d know what to do, but that would come then. For now, she had to put her mind on other things. She had to make sure that she lived long enough for chance to bring the tall one back around to her.
“We can’t hover here,” Raiden spoke up. “Any straggling Greys will be looking to get back underground, so they’ll be coming here.”
He looked off to his right where the wind moved in grey waves through endless miles of grass. The sun had already fallen behind the hills, leaving the world faintly-lit with a receding glow. A forest spread to his left, and, through it, the base. The battle had apparently ended, for the air was still and silent: not in a tranquil sort of way but rather the ghostly ambiance of desolation.
The wind was slight but cold, and Raiden couldn’t help but shiver at the thought that escaping souls were streaming through his hairs. “Let’s move back toward the base and see whether it’s us or them who holds this silence.” The others nodded, and they began to creep into the trees. “Be on your toes. If they lost the fight, there may only be a few Greys on our way, but if they won, there could still be a lot.”
The tunnels hadn’t taken them too far into the woods, but the walk was lengthened by their wariness. Compared to the tumult of battle, the sounds of the forest were like nothing, and the crunching of their steps felt like they were waving a flag and screaming to the world “Here we are.” After a short time, voices began to grow in the distance to their left. The crew stopped at once and listened intently for what they hoped would be a human intonation.
“Sounds like our guys,” Osyrus whispered.
“The Greys don’t really speak, anyway,” Lexus informed. “They use their minds.”
“So maybe we’re not hearing any voices after all,” said Aric. “How do we know we’re not just tuning in to what they’re thinking?”
“Because the voices are coming from over there. It’s weird, but when they tap into your mind, there is no direction. The message is just there.”
Aric nodded, although he wasn’t quite sure what that’d be like.
“Okay, let’s head over there,” Raiden said, stepping toward the voices. The others followed, their strides more lax than before, and soon the sight of Fraquian uniforms materialized amongst the trees ahead.
Raiden cupped his hands around his mouth. “Soldiers. Hold your fire. This is Lieutenant Whitmore. I’m with three others, and we’re coming to you.”
A voice shouted back. “Sure thing, Lieutenant.”
Raiden waved the others on with his rifle, and as they neared the Fraquians, he realized that many of them were his own men. There were twelve soldiers total, 10 of which belonged to his SWUN platoon, including Darren.
“Sir,” Darren said, rushing to Raiden like a boy to his father after a long day of work. “I didn’t know you were back.”
“I got in just a bit ago, in the midst of the battle.”
A smile curled upon the young man’s face. “That was you in that battle ship, wasn’t it? The one that tore those fucks into piles of hamburger.”
Raiden laughed and nodded his head. “Yeah. Ha. That was Aric and me. We did pretty good, I guess.”
“I’d say you did. That turret was taking care of business.”
“All me!” Aric chimed.
“Nice. So who’s the pretty lady?”
Darren looked to Lexus and flashed his pearly whites, puffing out his chest like some kind of avian mating ritual. It was unimpressive, but she gave him a courtesy smile for the effort and batted her eyelashes as if she were wooed. The kid was cute, she supposed.
“Her name is Lexus,” Raiden replied. “A Calrian . . . obviously. The Greys had her locked up in their underground tunnels.”
“The Greys? Tunnels? What?”
“Well, if you didn’t sleep in my class, maybe you’d know that those things that just attacked us are the Zeta Reticulans, otherwise known as ‘the Greys.’” Darren opened his mouth in a silent “Oh” as the vague memory of the story returned to him. “The underground tunnels are where they’ve been hiding this whole time. It’s like a whole world of their own down there. That’s where we just were. There’s an entrance back there through the woods a ways.”
“Wow. So what will we do?”
“Let’s not worry about that right now. Where are the others, the rest of the platoon, your four pals?”
Darren’s face instantly drooped, his smile inverting, his bright eyes dimming and falling to the dirt. Raiden felt his heart stop as the heat of dread coursed down from his brain stem. His shock revealed itself as a faint groaning of words that didn’t know what they were to be.
“A dozen or so are back at the North entrance where I had positioned them to defend. The other half of the platoon . . . well . . . they’re gone.” Darren’s voice was trembling the way it does when someone’s speaking and fighting tears at the same time. He was still looking down. “Doug, Greg, Henry, Jeremiah: they, uh . . . they’re part of that half.” He let out a quick gasp and brought a hand to his eyes.
Raiden felt the news as a punch to the gut. His men were dead, including all of his students—his sons—but one. The tears welled in his eyes and he was no longer a military officer but a devastated father. He wouldn’t stand and be stern and unmoved. He was human, not machine. He stepped to Darren and wrapped him in big arms, and the two shared sorrow while the others looked away and judged not.
I should have been here. I shouldn’t have left them. This is all on me. “This is my fault,” Raiden said. “You did well. You were a soldier, and you took charge and helped to save our base and those that are still here. All you can do is make good decisions, and I know that’s what you did. Some things are out of your hands.” Darren nodded miserably as his leader attempted to console. “I’ve said it so many times and you didn’t get it, but I know, now, that you do. War isn’t pretty, no matter how you look at it.”
Darren said nothing. Maybe he agreed that it was Raiden’s fault for abandoning them. Then again, maybe he just didn’t want to speak because he was afraid it would come out high-pitched and airy and cause his tears to fall. They stood for a minute in silence before a soldier’s voice interrupted.
“Sir, you may want to come check this out.”
Raiden stepped back and straightened his jacket before setting off to the right where a soldier stood by himself looking down into a patch of weeds. The rest of the men—and Lexus—followed behind. When he neared, he could see the object of the soldier’s attention: a blood-soaked Grey with its eyes wide and glossy and its head shaking erratically. He couldn’t tell if it was alive or already dead and just convulsing like the legs of a smashed insect. The eyes were so blank that his intuition leaned toward the latter, but he took his pistol out and put a quick bullet in its head just in case. The shaking stopped before the echo of the gunshot had faded.
The creature’s weapon rested by its side, and Raiden picked it up, surprised by its weightlessness. He turned it around, inspecting from every angle. It looked like a toy in his huge hands.
“There’s no clip,” he finally said. “I can’t see any place for ammunition.”
“Maybe they don’t need ammunition,” said Aric.
“They’re shooting something,” replied one of the men. “I saw a man’s arm blow clean off at the elbow. Another one took a hole straight through the chest.”
“Shoot it,” said Lexus.
All the men shifted their gaze to her, for they’d been wanting to look but were resisting in the name of good manners. Stealthy side glances were all they had caught. Not too stealthy, though; she’d seen every one. She didn’t mind.
Raiden nodded at her suggestion and fired the gun into the empty forest with that loud, woody clap. A tree 20 feet away splintered with impact, and he moved to inspect the wound. No bullet. Nothing. It was just a crater four inches into the trunk with no culprit lodged within.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “Something dug in here, but there’s nothing.”
“It reminds me of an air cannon,” said Osyrus. He moved closer and rubbed a finger within the crumbling wound. “Like a powerful burst of air or something just blew a chunk away.”
Raiden pondered the thought. “Maybe. Or it could be the sound. It could be some kind of concentrated, longitudinal wave that simply burrows through anything in its path.”
“I’d say that makes sense,” Osyrus agreed.
“We need to have it looked at by our physicists. Invisible ammunition and a limitless supply of it: that doesn’t sound good for us. We need to see if there’s some way to defend against this.”
“You think they’ll attack again?” asked one of the soldiers.
“Yes. I know they will. We’re nothing but pests in their eyes. This is an extermination. They won’t stop until we’re all dead.”
“Or until they’re all dead,” added Lexus. The men stared again.
“By the way, sir,” Darren began, “we weren’t the only ones to be attacked. Before we joined the fight, we were told that every human base on Centrum was under siege. Ours, Calri’s, Arth’s. I bet most of the fights are still going on.”
“What?” Lexus shouted, suddenly at attention. “I need to go.” She turned in a hurry and began to walk briskly through the crowd of men and into the trees.
“Where are you going?” Raiden yelled after her.
Lexus stopped and turned back. “If Calrians are being attacked, then I need to go and help fight. I know this alliance is new and all, and you probably don’t care, but those are my people. I’m not gonna stand here and talk while they’re getting killed.” She resumed her walk.
As her small frame grew smaller, the men looked from her to Raiden and back again, expecting him to say something because none of them were going to. She knows what she wants, Raiden thought to himself. I can tell there’s no stopping her. But, then again, I know there’s some reason the two of us came together. I can’t just let her run off to get lost and die in the wilderness. I saved her. Now, she’s my responsibility.
“Lexus, get back here,” he screamed. “Calri’s closest base is 300 miles east.” His words were more-than audible, but they did nothing to slow her gait. So stubborn. How predictable. “You’re going west.” She stopped and spun around with an irritated look upon her face. She looked sexy when she was mad. “Get back here and I’ll take you myself. We can use a ship from the base.”
She went from irritated to surprised and then warmed up with a smile as she jogged back to the group. “You’d do that for me?”
“We just barged through the enemy’s front door to save your ass. You think I’m just gonna let you wander off and get eaten by a wild animal after all that work? Not a chance.”
“You didn’t go there to save me. That was just a fortunate side effect.”
“I saw you the day your army attacked us. You caught my eye. Then you disappeared. When I found out about the tunnels, I had a feeling you’d be there.”
Lexus smiled, knowing that her rescue had been intentional and that Raiden was her hero. Aric, on the other hand, squinted in disbelief. “Are you kidding me? So that’s why you were in such a hurry to get down there? That’s why you didn’t want to wait to get more men and plan it all out first?”
Raiden looked him in the eyes. “Maybe it is. Does it matter? You’re alive, Osyrus is alive, I’m alive, Lexus—thanks to us—is alive. Mission accomplished.”
Aric nodded and didn’t push the matter. It was true. Everything was fine, and at least they’d managed to save the girl.
“So let’s head back,” said Raiden. “All of you need to get cleaned up and resupplied and ready for the next wave if one comes.”
“Aye aye, sir,” the men sounded.
As Darren led the squad back through the woods, Aric drifted to Lexus’ side for a little flirting and Raiden summoned Osyrus over to his.
“Osyrus, I need to ask you to do something.”
“What is it, sir? I follow you, so no need to ask. Just tell.”
“You’re a great soldier. I’ve trusted you to have my back, and you’ve never let me down. Considering that, you’re the best guy I know to assign this task. Darren’s in charge when I’m gone, but he’s just a kid. He’s good at what he does, but he doesn’t have experience. Not like us. I’m worried for him. I’m worried he’ll end up like the others, and I can’t have that on my conscience. God knows I’m already torn up enough as it is.”
“You want me to watch the kid’s back, sir?”
“Would you? I’d feel a lot better if I knew you were. I want to stay, but Lexus is kinda mine to look after now too, at least in my mind. She’s heading right into a fight, and she’s gonna need me. I’m hoping things here will stay quiet for a little while, at least until I get back.”
“I understand, sir. Nothing’s gonna happen to that kid as long as I’m sucking air. You have my word on that.”
Raiden felt a cool rush of relief. The confidence in Osyrus’ voice was enough to remove all lingering qualms. He put a hand on the soldier’s shoulder. “Thank you. That takes a big burden off my mind.”
“You’re welcome. But sir, a word of advice: try not to beat yourself up over the things you can’t predict and can’t control. You’re a leader and a protector, but everyone’s got to be that, to some extent, for themselves. Ultimately, everyone’s responsible for their own survival. You need to stay focused on yours. It’s important to all of us, more so than you may think.”
The words were true, but Raiden had trouble accepting them. He needed to be there for his men, all of them. If they died, it was probably because he hadn’t prepared them well enough as their teacher, or because he hadn’t strategized correctly or been alert enough to detect when something started going wrong. These guilty thoughts plagued him as he finished the trek back in silence. No matter how absurd it sounded when he said it to himself, he was responsible for the death of any man under his command. This was an undeniable truth with impossible demands, but he was determined to figure out how he’d meet them.
After a brief meeting with General Glaskgow, Raiden managed to convince the man that Lexus needed his escort back to her army. The general was reluctant to let one of his best officers leave the base, but Raiden was persistent, and an emissary, after all, would be a beneficial tool for ensuring the coalition between the two worlds. And with the Arthian—who Glaskgow insisted tag along—the three would represent a union of the human races and embody the sense of alliance they would all need to defeat their common enemy. A good example, he thought, and so he’d allow it, but no way in hell was he letting them take one of the ships into combat. A rover, he could risk, but not a ship.
That was fine with Raiden. He was just happy to be granted the permission to accompany Lexus. The extra time it would require to take a rover would also mean they were more likely to arrive after the fight had already ceased. He wasn’t going to complain about that. In fact, none of them were, not even Lexus. To her, it was more about the principle of making the effort. If the battle was over, as long as the Calrians were victorious, she would be more than content keeping her weapon holstered.
Raiden said his goodbyes to the remaining men of his platoon. He pulled Darren aside to officially assign him as acting platoon leader: a responsibility he assured was well within the young soldier’s capabilities.
“You’re a strong leader,” he said, “and you have a good head on your shoulders when you actually use it. If I didn’t trust you to do this, I would pick somebody else, so don’t doubt yourself.” Darren nodded, hoping his uncertainty would fade in time. “Osyrus will be your right-hand man. Listen to what he has to say, but use your judgment to make the right calls.”
Darren was worried, and his face wasn’t hiding it. Raiden took notice and slapped the young man’s back. “Don’t worry. I won’t be gone for very long. A day or two at most. Those bastards shouldn’t be ready for another attack before then, so you probably have nothing to worry about.”
That seemed to work, because Darren smiled and grew visibly more optimistic in demeanor. “Sure thing, sir. And if they do, we’ll handle it. We were trained by the best. There’s always a time when the teacher is gone and the student has to use what he’s learned on his own. If this is that time, then I’ll be sure to make you proud.”
Maybe it was Raiden that had been the worried one, because he felt himself suddenly grow lighter with Darren’s words. The young man didn’t need his hand held. None of his men did. They were soldiers, and they were trained, and they were confident. It’s true he couldn’t always be there, but his men were well-aware of that and well-prepared to carry themselves. It was the father in him that had him thinking they needed him at all times, but these were grown men, not little girls.
His anxiety was irrational, and all he’d needed to oust it was Darren’s permission to leave him on his own. This was it, and with a “See you soon,” rather than a “Goodbye,” he hopped in the driver’s seat of the idling, all-terrain rover and rumbled across the base with Aric and Lexus conversing in the back.
The roads came to an end some 50 miles outside the base, so Raiden took the rugged tires to the grass and plowed streaks of mud behind them. Lexus’ urgency—which she made audible every 10 minutes—had Raiden with the pedal to the floor and their vehicle zipping along at 60 miles per hour over a bumpy field of rocks and sticks and thorny weeds. Thick clouds had rolled in above, rendering the night exceptionally dark save for the transient flashes of lightening flickering within them. The rover’s headlights pierced the night in beams that sparkled with the static of drifting dust and pollen. They could see straight ahead for a couple hundred feet: always more grass and more ground and more black sky.
Eventually, lone trees began to spring up in the distance, appearing like the reclusive guards of the darkened plain. After a radio transmission from General Glaskgow informed of the Calrians’ successful defense of their base, Lexus finally shed her restlessness and agreed that they should rest for the night. The men were ecstatic, especially Raiden whose eyes had been growing heavy over the preceding hour. He couldn’t even remember the last two hours of their trip, despite the fact that he’d been in the driver’s seat the entire time.
He pulled their grumbling vehicle up beside a mammoth tree whose trunk appeared 10 feet wide and quite possibly a hundred tall. Up and down the length of the trunk, crooked branches came twisting outward like arthritic fingers, each one beleaguered by dark leaves the size of Raiden’s torso. The rover was too cramped for them to sleep in, so they exited and spread a blanket out beneath the splaying boughs. The air was chilly, but only for Aric and Lexus who weren’t covered in a coat of hair.
After some time of resistance, Lexus finally gave in to the Arthian’s argument and nestled her body into his for warmth. Raiden fell asleep almost instantly, the thought of his family barely able to take form before his exhausted body gave up. Lexus thought of Bradley, even imagined that Aric was him, and Aric thought of nothing but the sweet scent of Lexus’ hair and the way her petite body felt so warm and soft within his arms. It wasn’t long before they drifted off to the far-away howls of Centrumian black wolves and the placid fluttering of leaves whooshing over them from the darkness beyond.