A life that’s saved is one indebted,
A life that’s lost is one that’s mourned,
A killer’s often unsuspected,
And victim, heedless, rarely warned.
“They’re toying with him,” Aric said. “Beating him to death. We gotta do something.”
The three of them lay side-by-side along the crest of the hill, their bodies angled down the incline with nothing but their heads above the surface. The land stretched ahead for a thousand yards before a black forest rose up to smite the plain’s crimson solidarity. More immediately—about 200 yards before them—six Greys were beating a cowering Arthian with wooden clubs, their rifles dangling at their backs, unused. It was true. They were having fun.
Raiden’s SWUN was propped upon its tripod and he watched through the scope, questioning whether it would be best to take the gang on or just let them finish and walk away without conflict. The latter thought was but a spark that fizzled instantly and gave way to the flame that was his conscience: the protector. Without warning those beside him, he sent a shot out over the plain and followed it immediately with five others just like it. The explosions were deafening, and each one brought a Grey to its back. All but the last, that is, which missed its ducking target and sent a cloud of dirt into the air directly behind.
The final creature ditched its club and began zigzagging fearfully to the right. Raiden took a breath and held it as he swiveled his rifle and chased the Grey with his scope’s red dot. With all its swerving and jumping and speeding and slowing, the thing was giving him a hell of a time, and before he’d managed to get a clear shot, a bang rose up and the Grey fell and rolled. Raiden brought his scope back to the Arthian, who was sitting upright with a Reticulan rifle in hand and blood smeared across his face.
“Targets neutralized,” said Raiden.
“Damn, that was some good shooting,” Aric said.
“Yeah, impressive,” added Lexus.
“Thanks. I’ve had some practice.” Raiden pulled his eye away from the scope and the strewn corpses of his past victims suddenly broke into his mind. Cracked skulls. Splattered brain matter. Pooling blood. He cringed at the faces, disgusted by their Fraquian identity. They were his own.
“Raiden, you okay?” Aric asked, placing a hand on the man’s shoulder.
Raiden jumped at the touch, sucking in a sharp breath. He blinked the images away and nodded. “Yeah. Yeah. I’m good. Let’s go check it out.”
Aric and Lexus looked to each other, perplexed by their comrade’s uncharacteristic demeanor. Aric shrugged, and they rose to follow Raiden, who had already started into the field.
As the three of them jogged onward, the beaten Arthian lay on his back with his eyes closed and his chest rising and falling. Encircling him were the draining corpses of his assailants, the previous smiles on their faces now straightened and cold.
“Are you all right, soldier?” Raiden asked as they neared.
The man sat up and watched them approach, his blonde hair long and waving in the breeze, his head nodding in response because he was too weary to speak. His forehead sported a nice-sized lump, and his face was a mess of dried blood and dirt, but other than that, he appeared in decent shape.
“They were going at you pretty good,” Aric said. “You must have done a hell of a job covering up. I thought you’d look like a smashed tomato.”
The Arthian chuckled under his breath and struggled to stand. “I’m all right,” he said. “They’re small. They hit like girls.” He noticed Lexus and cleared his throat. “No offense.”
“It’s cool,” she replied. “I’d beat you up, but I don’t like sloppy seconds.”
“What’s your name?” Aric asked. “I don’t think I’ve seen you before.”
“That’s not hard to believe. The Arthian military is huge. I’m Luthor.”
“I’m Aric. The man that saved your ass, here, is Raiden. The warm, bubbly one over there is Lexus.”
“Thanks for the help,” Luthor said. “To be honest, I figured I was screaming to no one. Thought I was a goner.”
“No problem. We’re all in this together, now. I look out for my own.”
“Yeah, I can tell. No complaints here.” Luthor stepped over a dead Grey, making sure to dig a heel into its head for some post hoc retribution. “So what are you three doing out here? An Arthian, a Fraquian, and a Calrian teamed up. I know that’s the deal now, but it’s still an odd sight to see.”
“Yeah, it’s new to us too,” said Raiden, “but we’re making it work. We’re coming from Fraq’s North base out west. Initially, we were headed to the Calrian base east of us to help defend, but we heard the fight was won. Now, we’re just going there as emissaries to ensure the alliance.”
“And for food,” Aric added.
“I was heading there as well. My men and I came up from our base a few hundred miles south of here. On the way, though, we were ambushed by a squad of Zetas. We were traveling by truck, so I managed to drive away and stash it at the edge of the forest before running in to try and lose them. My friends were already dead.”
“I’m sorry,” said Raiden. “How far did you run?”
“Five miles, maybe. They were on my heels the whole time. Once I came out of the forest on the other side, there were more of them waiting to intercept me. I didn’t have a weapon on me, so they were bold. Tackled me down and dragged me a ways. Then, they started hitting me, and that’s when I thought to scream. Got real lucky, that’s for sure.”
“So your truck,” said Aric. “It’s just right through those woods over there?”
“Yeah. And there’s food inside.”
“We’re going,” Aric said. “Let’s get that truck.”
The others laughed.
“That would be great,” Raiden admitted. “Our vehicle was destroyed a little ways back, so we were planning on making the rest of the trip by foot. Wheels would really be a nice treat.”
“Absolutely. Let’s go. You guys saved my life. The least I can do is give you a lift.” Luthor glanced to Aric with a grin. “And get some chow in your bellies, of course.”
The trees of the forest loomed dark and menacing: thorny vines dangling from above, serrated, black leaves curling on twisted branches, rough trunks tall and wide and discolored like giant trolls with patchy stitched skin grafts. The journey was long, for the trees were packed closely and the underbrush was thick on soft mud, encumbering their feet with resistance every step. By the time they emerged out the other end, the sun had passed its peak in the sky and was on its way back toward the ground.
It took another short while to skirt the forest’s edge and find the truck, but when they did, their worries subsided. Luthor pulled a hefty duffel bag from the back and emptied its contents upon the grass: fruits, and vegetables, and dehydrated meats all canned, and bagged, and ready to satiate their appetites.
“I remember there’s a stream a little ways over there,” Luthor said. He returned to the truck and came forth with a large pot. “I’ll go get some water and cook us up a nice supper. We’re in no hurry, right?”
“No, no, not at all,” Aric said before the others could reply. “Supper sounds like a great idea.”
“Perfect. I’ll be back soon then. In the meantime, how bout you guys build a fire?”
“No problem,” said Aric. “Will do.” Luthor nodded and walked away along the tree line, the crunching of his steps growing fainter until he vanished. Aric turned to the others with a clueless expression on his face. “How the hell do you make a fire?”
Raiden laughed. “Let’s grab some sticks, for starters.”
The three of them stepped back into the forest and began skimming the ground for kindling. Once they each had their arms filled, they dropped it all into a pile and Raiden grabbed a handful of dead weeds and stuffed them at the bottom of the stack.
“So now what? We get some rocks and bang ’em together till they spark?”
“Yeah, something like that.” Raiden picked his SWUN up from the grass and drew its blade, bringing it to a blinding white glow before he touched it gently to the weeds and set the stack of branches burning.
“Oh yeah,” Aric said glumly. “You Fraquians are professional arsonists . . . I almost forgot.” He recalled the inferno that had consumed his entire company just over a week before. It was angering, but he forced it away. That was then. They were friends now.
Lexus resigned to the truck to sit and wait for Luthor’s return, and Aric and Raiden laughed and shared words as they worked to keep the fire burning. A half hour passed before the crunching of Luthor’s steps arose again above the crackling of the fire. The men looked up as he hobbled forward, his pot sloshing, heavy with water.
“Here we go,” Luthor groaned as he lugged the vessel to rest by the fire. “You all ready to eat?”
Raiden wrapped an arm around Aric and shook him. “With this one here, is there any doubt?”
“That’s what I like to hear.” Luthor rummaged through the pile of foodstuff, picking certain items out with care. “Now, let me show you how we cook where I come from.”
With Lexus resting in the truck, the men were free to joke and tell stories, the kinds of which they’d otherwise avoid with a lady present. Luthor seemed, to them, a veteran chef, discussing the reasoning behind every move he made: why smash this, why cut that, why leave this whole and that dissected? He even disappeared to the forest to retrieve some plants, their leaves instilling the stew with a tasty zing. Who would have known?
Once finished, the men yelled to Lexus and the four of them sat around the pot. It was the only bowl-shaped article available—other than Aric’s helmet, which he was unwilling to dirty—so they shared the meal from the single container, taking turns to avoid bumping hands and upsetting each other’s spoonfuls. Needless to say, Aric had the others waiting a disparate amount of the time. He slurped loudly and unabashed, and Raiden scolded him as if he were one of his daughters.
Once Lexus had finished her modest meal, she set her spoon down in the grass at her feet and leaned back, licking the taste from her lips. “So what’s our plan?” The men looked up from their meals, confused. “Where are we headed? What are we gonna do?”
“To your base,” said Raiden. “Where we’ve been going this whole time.”
“Oh yeah, I know, but after that. What are we going to do to beat the Greys? What’s our plan?”
“Well, that’s thinking a little bit further ahead than I think we’re prepared for. We need to get to the base first and see where things stand. Then, the generals can meet and strategize. We’ll know soon enough.”
“Do you Fraquians have any secret weapons? Or how about Arth? Anything the Greys don’t know about that we can really knock their heads off with?”
“No. I mean, I don’t know. Why are you so interested in all this all of a sudden? We gotta stay focused on the here and now, and on the things we can control. Leave the big picture stuff to the upper echelon. They’ll tell us everything we need to know when the time comes.”
“Yeah,” Lexus mumbled. “I guess I’m just nervous. I want to know what’s ahead of me at all times, so I can prepare.”
“I know how you feel, but this is war. Some things, you just can’t prepare for because you don’t know they’re coming till they do. Try to go with the flow. It’ll help you think more clearly.”
Luthor sipped a spoonful of soup and glared at her through the tops of his eyes. “Yeah,” he said. “We can talk some small-time strategy tomorrow if you’d like. I’ve got some ideas to share. But not now.” He reached back into the pot and emerged with another bite that he took to his mouth. “It’s getting dark and we’re all exhausted from that hike. Plus, big meals always make me tired, not to mention the jutoba leaf I added has some minor sedative properties. Tastes damn good, though.” Aric nodded and hummed his agreement with a full mouth. “I think it’d be best to call it a night and get some good sleep until the sun comes back up. Then, we can take off and talk on the way, with rested minds.”
“Sure,” Lexus replied.
Luthor glared at her again, but she didn’t notice. He wasn’t digging her vibe, but he’d keep that to himself. These three were friends. He was the stranger.
By the time the group had finished eating and Aric was scraping the bottom of the empty pot, the sun had freshly gone, leaving them in nothing but the wavering, orange glow of the fire. Above, the sky was an ocean of dismal clouds, and stars glistened from deep within islands of darkness. In the distance loomed the Midline Mountains, frosted at the tips and sheathed in shadow. They stretched from east to west for hundreds of miles, separating the North from the South until the ocean jutted inward to finish the division on both sides.
The four travelers lay sprawled upon a large sheet, the chirping of nocturnal insects making songs with frogs and owls—or the Reticulan counterparts of such. Luthor had discovered another blanket in the truck, so they all shared its woolen warmth. Aric was a little sad when the blanket came out, for then he had no case as to why Lexus should get close. He decided not to try. She had seemed in a bit of a bad mood all day, anyway.
The snowcaps beamed like beacons in the night, and Raiden admired them past the black stumps of his giant feet. It was extra dark now, because he’d insisted—to the others’ dismay—that the fire be extinguished for the night. They didn’t need any Greys stumbling upon them while they slept. He glanced around at his companions, who had all since fallen asleep, and felt a strong sense of unity, of family.
They’d traveled together, fought together, shared stories and laughter and food. They had the same enemy, the same fears, the same goals, and this connection, no matter how different they all were, was as strong as any he’d ever felt outside his wife and daughters. This feeling was a good one: to know that you’re not alone, even in the darkest of times. This was how it should be for all humans, not just the four of them. Harmony and love. The hippies had it right. Maybe if the Earthlings had listened, then their planet would never have been destroyed. Too late now. But Raiden was listening. He closed his eyes and drifted off to the lullaby of the forest creatures.
An hour of stillness passed before Luthor gave up his charade and opened his eyes. The others were fast asleep. It was time to act. He was on the end, so it was easy to peel off the blanket and slip out from under without disturbing Lexus at his side. Kneeling, he hovered over her, his pupils dilating to absorb her beauty. It was vast. Her hair was so dark that it couldn’t be seen, but her face was light and soft, no wrinkles, no blemishes, just smooth and warm and beckoning his touch. He reached down and lowered the blanket to her waist, gawking at her swelling shirt, the buttons clearly wishing relief from strain. He granted it.
Starting at the base of her throat and moving down, he unbuttoned her blouse with tender fingers, his breath held and nerves thrashing at the risk of getting caught. Four buttons was all it took to release her breasts from their fabric prison. They were still concealed, for the most part, by her bra, but the gentle curve of each one had him giddy. He leaned in for a closer look and a grin crept swiftly across his face. He was right about her. She was bad. She would bring them all to their death.
His hand disappeared behind his back and returned as a fist bearing the serrated edge of a combat dagger. If he were sick, he would run its tip along her tender throat and down to cut her bra in half. He would savor the sight of her bare breasts, maybe touch them lightly, squeeze them, close his eyes and imagine it was all consensual. Imagine she was moaning and egging him on. He would use her in this way before killing her. But he wasn’t sick. He was smart.
Without another wasted second, he put a heavy hand over her mouth and jammed the blade into her chest, twisting to entwine the heart. Blood flowed forth and spread across her sternum. She sucked a quick breath of air between his fingers. Her feet kicked once, but very weakly, like a reflex. Her eyes opened for but a moment, just enough for him to see the life escape. Then they closed.