Steps retraced with anxious hope,
Three sets go in, will four emerge?
Assumptions guide the seeing blind,
The sky rains chaos down to purge.
In the interest of time, the trio decided upon an alternative route back to the ruins than through the turbulent wood. Although less direct—the path would take them north along the forest’s edge until the trees gave way—they would be able to take the truck and get there within an hour. No one talked on the way, for their minds were distracted by the urgency and the danger. The vehicle couldn’t move fast enough, and the fear of Lexus’ torture was growing more real with every passing minute. It was a short ride, but it felt eternal.
Once they came upon the valley, Luthor parked the truck and the three got out to walk. It was a bit of a trek down the slope and back to the right entrance, but they didn’t want the sound of the engine giving them away. The walls grew tall as they neared, solid brown from afar slowly shifting to the sullied roughness of weathered stone. In light of Luthor’s previous remark, Aric couldn’t help but think of this as some ironic, fairytale-like quest. A kidnapped damsel in distress, hidden away within the depths of an ancient labyrinth, her time running out. Her only hope: the prince—no, the incredibly handsome prince—and his loyal companions. As the clock winds down, the heroes find themselves entering the deadly interior of the maze with nothing but the weapons on their backs and their unwavering determination. Will it be enough? Aric hoped so.
“Right there,” Raiden said. “I think that’s where we went in.”
“Are you sure?” asked Luthor. “We’ll get lost in there quick if we go the wrong way.”
Raiden nodded his assurance, and the men moved cautiously into the corridor. Aric watched their backs as they advanced. Everything was quiet. No one else was around.
Once they reached the hidden door and Raiden triggered its opening, they slipped inside. Aric barely made it through before the door spun closed and squashed him within the wall. The Grey Lexus had lied: this wasn’t a pitch-black room with no place to go. It was a small, circular space with hallways stretching off to the left and right and straight ahead.
“Should we split up?” Aric whispered. “Each take a path?”
“No, I don’t like that idea,” said Raiden. “We stick together.”
After a couple mental coin tosses, Raiden led them down the left hallway, his SWUN held before him. Almost immediately though, Aric ordered them to stop and listen.
“Something’s banging. Behind us I think.” He turned around and moved back to the circular room. “Yeah, I definitely hear it. This way. Come on.” He shuffled on down the opposite hallway and the other two followed in faith. Once they’d moved a few feet in, the banging sound became apparent, far-off though, or through many layers of stone.
Aric was running imprudently, taking corners and passing open corridors without the slightest bit of caution. His image kept disappearing and reappearing as Raiden and Luthor struggled to keep up. They were afraid he’d vanish around a turn and then be dead on the ground once they’d rounded it as well.
“Aric, slow down,” Raiden said, attempting to be loud and quiet at the same time. Apparently, he’d been too quiet, because Aric only sped up and disappeared around a left turn. “Damn it.”
As they approached the corner, both recognized the absence of Aric’s pounding footsteps and feared the worst. They stopped at the edge and counted to three before taking it swiftly with their rifles aimed.
Up ahead, Aric leaned with his ear pressed against a door in the right wall. He pulled away as he saw them emerge. “It’s coming from in here.”
Luthor and Raiden stepped to his side, each taking a turn to ear the door.
“Yeah,” Luthor said. “That’s definitely where it’s at, whatever it is.”
“Well, what are we waiting for?” Aric asked. “It could be Lexus. They could be hurting her. Let’s go in.”
“We need to make a plan about it,” said Raiden. “I’ve got a stun grenade. We’ll open the door and toss it in, first. Then, we—”
He stopped speaking because Aric had already pressed the button on the door and was rushing through with his gun held high. Raiden took only the time to think Son of bitch and barged in after. Luthor followed just behind.
No shots were fired, for the men were too busy with the shock of what they saw. There, hanging by her hands from the ceiling, was a stripped Lexus wearing nothing but her bra and panties. Her body was swinging from the rope, her heels striking the wall at her back and sending an echo through the room. This was the sound they had heard. Once they’d entered the room, the thumping quickly ceased. She was alive.
“Lexus!” Aric yelled. “Are you all right?”
She nodded in annoyance. What did he expect her to say? Her mouth was taped shut.
The three of them got over the sight of her nearly-naked body and rushed to her, avoiding the two Greys sprawled, dead, beneath her dangling feet. A hook hung from the ceiling and clasped the rope about her wrists. Raiden wrapped his arms around her tiny legs—trying to ignore the lustful thoughts, for he was married—and lifted her up until her restraints slipped free from the hook.
He lowered her down and she ripped off the tape and used her first seconds of freedom to spit upon the Grey corpses and give each one a kick. “Motherfuckers!”
Aric laughed, which was more out of relief and joy than humor. She was alive, just as stunning and just as feisty. This was the real Lexus, and damn was he happy to see her.
“What happened to you?” asked Raiden. He looked down at the dead aliens and chuckled. “What happened to them?”
Lexus lifted her arms for some assistance, and Aric jumped to untie her. She slipped him the sexy smirk that he loved. “The Grey that killed Bradley was here. The tall one. He was taunting me, and I was stupid and chased him. As soon as I turned a bend in the path, 10 Greys were on top of me and then I passed out. I think they hit me with something.”
“Not in the face,” said Aric. “You’re still just as gorgeous.”
She smiled: a flattered but embarrassed smile. Embarrassed for him, not for herself. Aric nodded and looked down. He needed to control himself, not look stupid. Sure, he was happy to see her and had realized, upon thinking she was dead, just how much he cared for her, but she didn’t know any of that. Be cool, Aric. Don’t suck up. Be cool.
“When I woke up,” Lexus continued, “I was hanging here. Those two,” she bobbed her head at the corpses, “were assigned to watch me. I learned that the tall one is their general, by the way. Not just a general, but the general. The head honcho. He’s calling all the shots here on Centrum.”
“Kruxor,” Luthor mumbled.
“What was that?” asked Lexus.
“Oh nothing. Sorry. Just speaking to myself. I said my neck’s sore. That’s all.”
She looked at him unsurely. “Oh. Okay. Um, who are you anyway?”
“Oh, I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Luthor. These guys saved me from an ass whoopin. Now I’m tagging along.”
“Ah. Well, it’s nice to meet you, Luthor.”
“Thanks. It’s nice to see . . . I mean meet you too.”
Lexus grinned, suddenly remembering the fact that she was standing there in nothing but two thin scraps of fabric. Every guy was the same. Nice hot . . . I mean shot; That sex . . . sucks; I was thinking of getting a new tit . . . tat. Her life of male conversation was packed with Freudian slips that never lacked a sexual spin. Even so, it never got old. There’s nothing better than seeing a man’s face after he’s blatantly revealed his intentions and knows he’s been caught. Luthor looked down, blushing.
“So back to your story,” said Raiden. “What happened to these two?”
“Those two pissed me off.”
“Apparently so,” said Aric.
“They’re the ones that took my clothes off. They were fondling me, and I could hear their thoughts, talking about how they needed to hurry up and they couldn’t afford to get caught. I’m not sure how something that looks so different could be attracted to me. It just doesn’t seem right. But then again, maybe they were curious. I’ve made a few straight girls curious in my day.” The men laughed and couldn’t help but picture a college-aged Lexus in bed with another girl, or group of girls in Aric’s mind. “This one here got a little too close to the prize. I ended up wrapping my legs around his head and snapping his neck like a pretzel stick.”
Aric imagined what that looked like too. The first part sounded nice. The last part, not so much.
“After seeing I’d killed his friend, the other one was freaking out. He wasn’t supposed to kill me, but he was pissed off. He grabbed a knife and came at me, so I had no choice but to kick the damn thing up into his chin. Stabbed himself right in the throat and fell down almost instantly. Had to listen to him choking and spitting for like five minutes before he finally stopped moving around and went quiet. After that, it was just me. It’s been that way for the last 10 hours, I would guess.
“Then I saw you guys walk in on that security monitor over there.” She pointed to a corner of the room they hadn’t noticed yet where a series of holographic screens hovered just off the walls. “Thank God I did, too, or I’d probably be hanging here until I turned to bone. Wasn’t sure anybody was coming back for me.” She paused and her eyes grew cold. “Where the hell were you guys for the last day and half, anyway? You just abandoned me. I couldn’t believe it. For the first couple hours, I kept thinking you two would be busting in and saving me at any moment. After that, I lost hope. Realized I was on my own. Not gonna lie, it hurt pretty bad . . . really bad actually.”
“I know,” said Raiden. “I can’t imagine how you were feeling.”
“I’m sorry,” said Aric. “We can explain, though.”
Lexus looked unconvinced. “I’m all ears.”
“I don’t mean to intrude,” Luthor blurted, “but I think that discussion can wait. It’s gonna take a good deal of explaining, and I don’t think this is the best place to be doing it. More Greys could be here at any second.”
“He’s right,” said Raiden. “We’ll pick this up once we get to a safe place.”
“Y-yeah,” Aric said. Great, now she hates me. Thinks I left her for dead. “We’ll explain it all then.”
Irritated, Lexus shook her head and turned her back to the men. “Yeah, you better.” She walked toward a corner of the room where her clothes sat in a heap amidst the shadows. “I gotta get my clothes, first. My ass is cold.” She reached for the garments and grinned. “I can feel your guys’ eyes. They’re not helping. It’s still cold.”
As Aric had suspected that morning, the sun had warmed the world up by the time they made it back to the truck. The four of them slumped themselves into a seat and rested with the doors open. They were tired and sweaty from the hike, and the gentle breeze swept over them with a welcomed chill.
“So now what?” Lexus suddenly asked. “What’s the plan?” The men looked to each other with serious faces and then let grins creep slowly in place. “What’s so funny?”
Aric laughed. “Inside joke. Don’t worry guys. I think she’s the real deal this time.”
Lexus looked confused and prodded some more until Raiden finally spoke up. It took him a good while to share with her the story of their last day: why they left her behind because, as far as they knew, she was right along with them the whole time, how they came upon Luthor and saved him from the gang of club-wielding Greys, how they camped for the night and awoke to a dead Lexus by their sides, and how they found out that it was in fact an imposter and that they needed to go back and save the real Lexus before it was too late.
When the story was done, Aric felt relieved because Raiden had said it all as well as anyone could have. Lexus couldn’t be angry at them. She had to understand. In fact, she had to be thankful.
Lexus was silent as she reran the story in her mind. It made sense, although no sense she’d ever imagined. A clone of her? With the same voice? The same personality? “So the whole time you had no idea that something was different about me? How could you not tell?”
“Well,” Aric began, “you didn’t walk quite the same. I noticed that.” Raiden nodded. “And you were being a bit of a bitch.”
“So why didn’t you wonder what was going on with me?”
“Well, the walk had me confused. But then when you were a bitch, I realized everything was all right.” With those words, Raiden stopped his head nodding. Lexus’ face took on an evil look for just a moment, and then relaxed as she noticed Aric’s difficulty in fighting back a smile.
He was joking. Flirting. Just as a child flirts. But what did she expect? He was a child. She laughed at this realization, and Aric laughed with her, thinking she’d enjoyed his joke. The sight of him unwittingly laughing at himself made her laugh yet harder, and then Aric the same. The whole while, Raiden and Luthor stared at each other with awkward smiles on their faces, thinking What the hell is wrong with them? It wasn’t that funny.
After a minute, the laughter faded to heavy breaths and then silence.
“On that note,” said Raiden, “I do think maybe it’s time we figure out our plan.”
“I agree,” said Luthor. “It’s hard to know what the Greys are planning, but one thing is sure: they’re not happy about how that first wave of attacks played out. The humans gave them a good beating, last I heard. Of the 40 colonies here on Centrum, 30 were attacked, and all 30 were successful in their defense. But those assaults were just the beginning. No doubt, the Greys were just looking to test our strength.”
“So what will they do now?” asked Aric.
“I don’t know, but I’m sure it has to do with changing up their tactics. Reticulum is a constellation with numerous inhabitable planets, so their army is undoubtedly enormous in size. We saw just a small fraction of what they have to work with. Next time, I have a feeling we’ll be seeing a lot more of them.”
“So their real strength is in their numbers,” said Raiden.
Luthor nodded. “I wish we could see into the ground. See where they’re all going. We could try and direct more of our forces there before the next battle. Try and cancel out their numbers as best we could.”
“Raiden, what about that map you have?” asked Lexus. “That hologram. I mean, we can’t see the Greys themselves, but we can see the tunnels. That’s a start.”
“Oh yeah, I nearly forgot I had that.” Raiden fumbled through his pockets for the device. “Good idea.”
Aric looked to her, dreamy-eyed. She was glowing at Raiden’s praise. Beautiful and smart: a double threat, just like Whitney had been when they were in love so many years ago. He saw some of Whitney in Lexus. Maybe this was why he felt so attracted to her. But the love he had with Whitney was theirs alone. It was not between him and Lexus. His mind needed to realize that. It needed to realize, too, that there was no love anymore. Whitney left him. Well, he left her, but not on purpose. He had no choice. She had a choice.
She had the choice to promise that she’d wait for him, and then to give up so soon, to sleep with another man, to let someone else become his daughter’s father. No, there was no love there. Not anymore. These feelings he had for Lexus, whatever they were, they were real, and they were for her and her alone. She was a fighter and a thinker and, holy shit, a looker.
This was a woman: a real woman, not the kind that would give up on her man. He wanted this, needed this, wouldn’t accept losing the chance to get this. He’d watch over her as if they were already together. This was the promise he made to himself at this moment, as he admired her dark hair and her eyes and flawless, tanned skin. He looked away as her emerald eyes took on a blue glint beneath the projecting drive’s light.
The hollow sphere of Centrum hovered at chest height, its shell thick with the blue lines of tunnel walls extending deep beneath their feet. Raiden zoomed in on their approximate location before Luthor said to stop and scroll back out.
“Look at that,” Luthor said, his finger tracing the network of passages. “There seems to be a pattern, at least somewhat. Every tunnel seems to radiate from this one enormous cavity. Every path, including the dead ends, leads back to it. Could that be their stronghold? Their headquarters?”
“I would imagine that hole is nearly 50 kilometers wide,” Raiden said. “Considering the fact that the EMIRMS radar can only reach five kilometers beneath the crust, and assuming that what we see is the top of a dome with a flat bottom, it’s possible that the whole thing is several hundred square kilometers along the circular base. That’s not just a room. It’s an entire underground city.”
The men looked to each other in awe. Aric scratched his head. “An underground city? Is that possible?”
“Yes, it’s possible,” said Lexus. “We have plenty of underground areas on Calri. Nothing quite on this scale, but these Greys are advanced. With the right architecture and structural support, I can see a hole this big being fortified and safe for habitation.”
“It’s the largest open area that we can see,” said Luthor, “and clearly an important center within the underground network. I would wager my left leg that this is where they intend to muster their forces. I could be wrong, but we can’t afford to ignore this if I’m right.”
“So what do we do?” asked Aric.
“We warn the generals,” replied Raiden. “We get our troops gathered to meet the Grey army when it surfaces. Maybe we even initiate an attack before they’re ready. The army that strikes the first blow, if it does so forcefully, may need not strike another. Surprise will be on our side. Surely the Greys expect that we have no idea what they’re planning.”
“Great,” said Aric. “So let’s get to that Calrian base so we can spread the word.”
“I’m afraid it won’t be that easy,” said Luthor. “There’s no way that a smart general would relocate all of his strength to one area, at least not on the basis of some unsubstantiated theory concerning the enemy’s plan. It would be a waste of time to contact any leaders until we’ve gotten proof of the enemy’s assembly within the city.”
Raiden looked concerned. “You’re right. General Glaskgow is a friend of mine, but I know he wouldn’t make such a rash move just because of my endorsement. In fact, I don’t know if I’d feel right giving that endorsement. We’ve only assumed these things, after all. If we’re wrong, it could cost us all our lives.”
“So what are you guys suggesting?” asked Aric. “That we sneak into this underground city, potentially amidst a billion Grey soldiers, and take some snapshots? I don’t know how I feel about that.”
“I know it seems crazy,” said Luthor, “but that’s exactly what needs to be done if we’re going to come out of this war on top. The Zetas won’t be expecting us to come down after them, especially such a small number of us. We can do it. We have to try.”
With wisdom comes much responsibility, and with Luthor’s words, the group suddenly felt the weight of theirs like a planet set upon their backs. Actually, four planets. One for each of them. Humanity was theirs to save . . . or theirs to let crumble beneath the strength of the Zeta Reticulans. The fact was that they held the dice. None wished to throw, but each knew they had to.
“We’ll travel above ground, of course, since the Greys are all beneath. The closest entrance into the city appears to be south, just past the mountains.” Luthor pointed a finger to the surfacing tunnel and Raiden zoomed in. “Time, as usual, is against us. There’s no telling how far along they already are in gathering their forces, so we should head there immediately. Once we reach the entrance point, we’ll reassess the situation and plan our infiltration.”
“But what about ensuring the truce?” Lexus asked. “Beyond helping in the fight, one of our reasons for going to the Calrian base was to establish a secure bond between our planets. That’s an important mission that we shouldn’t just abandon.”
“Other emissaries have already been sent,” Luthor stated. “The human alliance will be well-established, if it’s not already. What’s important for us, now, is to investigate this city and see if our assumptions are accurate. If so, then we must issue a widespread, preemptive repositioning of our troops. To warrant such a drastic action, we need evidence. No evidence, no defense, no victory. It’s as simple as that.”
“I’m in,” said Raiden. “I promised my family that I’d return, and even though this is going to put us right in the crosshairs, it’s also going to put us in the driver’s seat. Otherwise, we’re along for the ride, and it’s not gonna be a smooth one.”
“Yeah, I’m in too,” Lexus said.
The three looked to Aric, whose eyes were glazed with contemplation. What choice did he really have? Maybe they were wrong, though. Maybe they’d get down there and there wouldn’t be a massive army waiting to attack. Maybe they’d get killed before escaping and all of it would have been for nothing. Then again, inaction would mean certain doom if they were right.
And it wasn’t just about him. It was about every man, woman, and child living their lives back on the home planets, clueless of the fact that things were growing dire. It was about Destiny, who needed him. Maybe even a little about Whitney. He wasn’t a boy anymore. He wasn’t going to leave them on their own, without his protection and his guidance. This was his place as a man, to look out for their lives even if they didn’t realize it was happening. This was the man he now was.
He gripped his rifle and shook it so that the loose parts rattled with his words. “Let’s go. We’re wasting time.”
The truck was fast and served them well as they sped across the open plain, the engine’s purr fading in empty space. By the time dusk set in, the group was passing into the ranks of a forest. After only a short ways, the trees drew closer to each other and the terrain so cluttered that the travelers were forced to ditch their ride and take to foot. When night fell, they slowed their pace, weary from the hike and troubled by the wildlife, which howled and screeched and scuffled menacingly amongst the black obscurity.
Very soon, they chose to stop for the night, taking shelter in a small, mud cavern that burrowed in amidst a steep and crumbling hill. The fire they started was warm and comforting and hidden by the cave’s walls so that its light was not a threat. The humans fell asleep quickly, only to awake once Aric screamed beneath a violent nudge at his side. Apparently, the cave had an owner, and the giant boar had returned from its hunt with a bloody carcass to eat and four strangers asleep in its dining room.
It was a struggle to fight the beast with only the faint glow of orange embers to guide their strikes. In the dark at such close range, friendly fire was too risky, and the soldiers, except for Raiden and his sword, were restricted to their fists and feet. Grunting, Lexus punched the charging swine in the snout and sent a shrill squeal ripping through the darkness. Aric, at one point, was backed against the wall with two tusks tight against his sides. He dropped an elbow on the brute’s head and then it fell limp to the ground. It wasn’t the blow that dropped the beast. Raiden had cut it in half with his white-hot blade, leaving its abdomen parted by a heap of guts at Aric’s feet.
They had a good laugh and went back to sleep after blocking the entrance with a mess of sticks and weeds. In the morning, Aric woke to find that the entrance was open again and Luthor was gone. With the previous morning in mind, he rushed to Lexus’ side and shook her, only to receive a harsh stream of cursing and a punch to the chest. He accepted the reprimand, for it hurt much less than a dead Lexus had. The two woke Raiden before finding a crumpled piece of paper flattened into the mud near the exit. It was a scribbled note:
I’ve gone to call upon the help of friends. You’ll see me again when things get bad. Good luck.
“At least he was polite enough to leave a note before deserting us,” said Lexus.
“This was his idea,” said Aric, “and he bails once he’s got us all committed? And to think I actually liked the guy.”
“There must be a reason,” Raiden replied. “I have a feeling he knows more than we do. He’s a smart guy. Whatever he’s gone to do, it’s more important than staying with us.”
The others took comfort in that thought. It was true. Luthor did seem quite well-informed. If anyone knew what move to make, it was he, and so they trusted it.
After filling their stomachs with a breakfast of flame broiled pork, the three set off to continue their journey. A few hours passed as they trekked south amidst the trees. Soon, the forest opened out and the pines grew larger and more dispersed. There were no shadows, for the sunlight came from straight above, bright and warm against their skin. A couple kilometers ahead, the mountains towered like supreme watchers of the world, stretching left and right until distance blurred them to a dark brown haze.
The land became hilly and harder with stone. Short trees rose in bunches, clinging to scattered patches of soil where the rock was not so dominating and the roots could take hold. The cloudless sky spread a vibrant blue and, often, brought the shadows of birds to sweep against the ground about them. They were nearly to the first foothill when unusual shadows appeared upon the stone, large and square and clearly inanimate.
Lexus was the first to turn and look, her hand raised to her brow. “What the hell are those?”
Aric and Raiden cast their eyes to the sky. Neither knew the answer.
Large boxes fell suspended by parachutes, floating silently overhead like a fleet of surveying drones. They took to the wind, some of them drifting far to the left or right and out of sight, others going straight overhead and deeper off into the mountain range. A handful descended quite suddenly and crossed over their heads and just above the foothill before them.
“Emergency supplies, maybe?” Aric posed.
“They look the part,” Raiden said, “but for who, and where’d they come from? I didn’t see any planes pass by.”
“I don’t know. Let’s go check it out. They couldn’t have landed too far away.”
It was a long run uphill, but their strides were fueled with anticipation and so they didn’t tire. Their weapons banged against their backs, prodding unrelentingly, ushering them onward toward the waiting packages. As they neared the ridge, their breaths came loud and fast with excitement. The top of the hill was flat and not long, ribbed with boulders and thorny bushes that they hurdled and dodged in passing. The land dropped off up ahead, descending sharply down the hill’s far side. It was but a minute before they were there along the craggy edge, panting, wide-eyed, open-mouthed.
The trio stood at the apex of the mount, huffing as they stared across the valley before them. The sky was already shifting red with sunset, the hills on the horizon looming dark silhouettes on the fiery backdrop. The basin thrived with grasses and shrubs but trees were absent, the openness revealing every detail to their sight. At the far side, a towering precipice enclosed the valley floor, its rugged walls embracing stones that threatened to fall but did not. The cliff’s shadowed face rose at such an angle that scaling it would be impossible without equipment. The only exit was where they now stood.
Darkened objects littered the glade, tall and rectangular but glistening in spots where the retreating light bounced off their lustrous surfaces: metallic they inferred. But what these objects were, they didn’t know, and it plagued them until the answer interrupted with a deafening boom that sent them reeling and ducking.
The racket of smashing metal boomed and echoed throughout the enclosing, initially the product of one box but then, slowly, the sporadic sounding of them all. The silent vista morphed into chaos, the walls of the metal boxes shifting from within against blows of inhuman strength.
The three stared at each other, their hearts racing as they awaited the moment when the structures would give way. They gripped their weapons tightly and cocked them in preparation. The click of bullets dropping into position drowned instantly amongst the clamor. Whatever they were, the creatures within were sent to kill, and their ferocity flaunted this charge. Even so, the humans stood firm, their confidence refusing to wane. Heartbeats walloped within their rib cages. Their knuckles turned white with frightened grip. Breaths came rapid in the delay. The wait would be brief, but the fight, they feared, would be extensive.