Scattered pebbles go unseen,
Scraping underfoot, no more,
But gathered from across the land,
A mountain forms to end a war.
By the time the three of them had made it down to the foot of the mountain, the shooting had since ceased, the final turret shots echoing off the stones around them and then fading off into the open valley. If it weren’t for Raiden alerting the guards of their approach at the top of his lungs, they would have probably been added to the piles of flesh that littered the shadows beyond the base’s outer wall. Raiden, impressed, skirted the bloody corpses as he led the way toward the gate. The beasts hadn’t fared too well. Even though the automated turrets had no inclination of the creatures’ vulnerable spots, shooting an accumulated one thousand rounds per second clearly had its benefits.
Once the gates were open for their passage, the voices that had beckoned them from the wall were given identity: Calrians. A tall man—“tall” being relative in relation to the other Calrians in the area—approached them almost immediately, his khaki uniform tightly pressed, patches layered upon his chest, his brown cap low on his hairless head. His face was cold, his lips pursed. His attire held that he was a high-ranking officer, but even naked, this fact would have been apparent by his Spartan demeanor.
“Stop there and lay your weapons at your feet.”
The words came like whips, lashing away any comfort that had begun to develop. That’s when they noticed the men on the balconies with their guns aimed at their chests. It was hard to get much more uncomfortable than sitting in the crosshairs of 10 automatic rifles. Aric set his gun down and Lexus her knife. Raiden relaxed his fists and raised his hands above his head to gesture that he was unarmed. Another man, small like Lexus, shuffled forward and grabbed the articles before retreating back behind the tall one.
“Who are you and what are you doing out here in the mountains by yourselves?”
Naturally, Raiden spoke. “Just soldiers, sir. I’m Lieutenant Whitmore of Fraq. This is Private Aric Trent from Arth, and Lexus here is one of your own. Our paths crossed days ago, and we’ve been together since. We’re on a mission and it happened to take us to your front door.”
The officer looked intrigued but skeptical. No doubt he was judging the legitimacy of that story, how and why a Fraquian and Arthian and Calrian would run into each other and join forces like some kind of vigilante squadron. And a mission? What the hell was that supposed to mean? Who sent them? What was the goal? This was a curious situation, indeed.
The officer raised an open palm to the air and the men on the balconies lowered their weapons. His face softened a bit, although Raiden wondered if maybe it was just a shifting of shadow. “Well, it’s quite clear to us, now, that these aliens we’ve been fighting are the true enemies. You three, being one of us—eh, humans that is—are welcome. I’m General Oswald.” He nodded his head warmly and Raiden cast a salute, Lexus next and finally Aric, once he realized what was going on. “We could use a few more guns, especially if we have to deal with more of those things that just attacked us. I’m sure you heard the scuffle.”
He pointed back to his left and the trio noticed, for the first time, a beast sprawled out upon the ground, unmoving. “That one jumped the wall like it was a stone in its path. Ripped four of my men to shreds before we managed to take it down. I couldn’t believe it. The turrets stopped all the others, but that one managed to sneak by while its friends had the guns occupied. It wasn’t a pretty sight, let me tell you: that thing flying down from the darkness all stretched open, screeching like it came right outta Hell. And it was so strong, storming around, punching men 20 feet in the air and ripping their heads off like dolls. We can’t face those things up close. That’s the lesson I take away from all this.”
“It’s their lower chest, sir,” Raiden said. “On the right side. That’s where it hurts them, kills them.”
Oswald looked surprised. “And how do you know that, Lieutenant?”
“I’ve killed my fair share in the past few hours. We all have, actually.”
“Jesus. All by yourselves?” Raiden and the others nodded coolly. “Well, how many of these things can there be?”
“Quite possibly hundreds, sir. And that’s just what we saw. They were airdropped earlier this evening. If any more were dropped elsewhere on Centrum, then we’re looking at a whole lot of ’em.”
The general’s face went cold again, his eyes wide and then narrowing to hide his distress. It was clear he’d been hoping that they’d killed them all and wouldn’t have to see another six-limbed, hundred-eyed demon spawn again. “Well, I suppose we’ll be using your advice more than I’d anticipated. The biologists are already on their way down to dissect the body. I’ll have them take a closer look at the lower right chest and see what exactly we’re shooting for. For now, let’s get you three cleaned up. Looks like you need it.”
Raiden took a shower and let the hot water wash away the lingering trauma of his near-death experience. Lexus had her foot cleaned and bandaged. Aric ate like he’d never seen food. The three reassembled in the officer’s quarters of the base’s HQ: a tall, stone edifice in the shape of a cross with small windows facing out across the valley.
They entered Oswald’s office, for he hadn’t abandoned his curiosity about their supposed mission and their purpose for being there amidst the mountains on their own. He wanted answers, and they gave him the full spiel: Aric and Raiden’s trip to Fraq, their discovery of the underground tunnels, their rescue of Lexus, and their theory concerning the Greys’ next move. Raiden showed the underground map he carried on the projecting drive. It was the first time any of them had looked at it since they’d taken off toward the mountains with Luthor. Given that, all four of them were equally surprised when they found that the enormous underground city was located just beneath the very valley they were sitting on.
“We need to go down there as soon as possible,” said Raiden. “The Greys could be massing their forces and preparing to attack at any moment, and we need to be ready for them if that’s the case.”
“Not now,” said Oswald. “Not with those . . . things running around outside these walls. It’s too dangerous. I won’t risk the men.”
“Then send us,” said Aric. “Give us weapons and armor, and we’ll go ourselves.”
Lexus glared at him as if he were crazy, then to Raiden and Oswald with a look in her eyes that said maybe she wasn’t ready to go back out there. Maybe it was her foot, or maybe it was just her common sense, but she wasn’t feeling confident in that idea. It sounded like a suicide mission if she’d ever heard of one.
Oswald saw her eyes. They were certainly perturbed, certainly unwilling, certainly looking for another option. And she was stunning. Of course, he noticed that. If his men weren’t worth risking, then surely neither was this delicate flower. He wouldn’t stand for it. And maybe it was this sentiment that fueled the engine of his imagination. It was this opinion that dug from the depths of his mind an idea that would render Aric’s proposition utterly unnecessary. His eyes sparkled with the birth of the thought, and his guests could see it. They wondered what it was that had sparked inside the man’s head.
Oswald smiled at his own intelligence, apparently a very prideful man. “No, Private, that won’t do. You’ve come under my care now, and I’ll hold you as highly as my own men. There’s little chance of anyone getting into that city and back out alive, and to take such a chance for no reason but to prove a theory would be foolish.”
“Then tell us your plan, General,” Lexus said. Her voice was alluring when she spoke, intentionally sexualized. She was amused by the way he dramatized the situation, pussyfooting around the fact that he had an idea that he was sure would impress. He wanted to build some suspense before the big revealing, but she wanted the damn prize already.
She saw the way he’d looked at her. Maybe she’d toy with him the same way he was toying with them. Make the man in charge a little nervous, a little flustered. She winked at him, and he gave a confused smile and looked to the men to see if they had noticed what she’d done. His cheeks grew flush.
Men are so easy, Lexus thought. “I know you have something smart to share. That’s why you’re . . . the big guy.”
“W-well yes,” he began in a forced, authoritative tone, “I am the big guy, and I do, in fact, have an alternative plan.” He walked around his desk as he spoke. Eventually, he reached a spot where only Lexus was looking at his face and, at this moment, flashed his pearly whites like it would turn her on. She humored him with a one-sided grin, just slight enough to look naughty. “The dilemma we’re in is that your map shows only the ground structure and not the real-time location of actual individuals.”
Yes, we know that. Stop with the bullshit already.
“But we have an instrument here on the base that will be able to measure the infrared radiation for miles into the crust. It collects one thermal image every second, so can stream into a live feed that will show the movement of heated bodies beneath the crust. If we look down beneath the valley, then we can see if there are any Greys gathered there now, as well as monitor whether more are funneling in.”
Not bad, Lexus thought. Could have been conveyed a bit more concisely, but worth the wait. Any idea that keeps me from going back out with those damn monsters is worth the wait. “That’s quite a head you got on those shoulders, General.”
“My head is one of my most-prized features,” he replied with a wink that only she saw. Lexus gagged a bit in her mouth. She didn’t mind when a man made sexual, double entendres, but at least let him be moderately good-looking so the image wasn’t disturbing. Oswald’s crooked nose and bushy eyebrows weren’t quite doing it for her. She returned a meager smile—visibly unimpressed—and looked down to her lap. The game was over.
As it turned out, Luthor’s hypothesis proved truer than any of them could have feared. The thermal imaging revealed a yellow pool that spanned the entire valley floor, the pool being composed of thousands of tiny, yellow spots that were in fact Greys. The video feed showed them bustling about, swirling amongst themselves as they organized their ranks. If the sheer number of them was any intimation of their army’s preparedness, then it was possible that the attack could begin at any second, and this was far from reassuring.
The summons left at once, making its way by phone and radio to every human base on Centrum: “Come here now! Bring all your provisions, all your weapons, every single fighting man. Win or lose, the war will end here.”
The days passed, and human troops poured in by airship and convoy: Fraquians, Arthians, and Calrians alike, all prepared to fight side-by-side for the first time as allies. Every one of them had faced the sinister black eyes, and the creepily gaunt limbs, and the absurdly large heads of the Zeta Reticulans. There was mutual contempt. They were united by this hatred.
But maybe it wasn’t the hatred that united them at all. Maybe it was the love. Maybe it was the love of humanity, which they all shared, which they all recognized in each other, no matter what planetary allegiance they swore, which they all would die to preserve. It was a push-pull situation, with their likenesses pulling them closer and their common enemies pushing them there, and the bonding accomplished in just those few days was enough to make the Greys tremble in fear.
Of course, the humans didn’t know it, but the Greys could sense the energy that they released. At the start of the human war, the energy was dark and vile and self-consuming. It weakened their species, both in numbers through deaths but also in actual strength and morale and ability. Now, the energy was pure, vibrant, unyielding. It was the kind of energy the Greys wanted for themselves, not for their enemies at the time of battle. And it was only getting stronger.
Aric was happy to have already been at the base when the order was given. He, along with Raiden and Lexus, reserved sleeping quarters in the pre-established barracks within the base’s walls. The new arrivals, after filling up the space within the fortification, spilled out onto the valley floor beyond, setting up large tents and building campfires, praying to God that none of the beasts they’d heard about came back for more. Not that the walls of the base offered any more protection for those inside—the creatures could jump them after all—but it was the illusion of added security that eased their nerves, comparably.
The weapons and ammunition were stockpiled in two places: one within the base and the other just outside of it, in a tent backed up against the outer wall. One day, Aric took a stroll past all the boxes and cases and overflowing bags, his insides jumping wildly like a child in a toy store, unable to decide which toy to choose.
Should he take the standard assault rifle, or maybe a sniper rifle, or a flamethrower, or two, single-handed submachine guns? Even with all the options as to weapon class, there was also the added variable of which planet’s arsenal he wished to borrow from. They were all clustered together: many that he’d seen before, many more that he hadn’t.
He decided he wanted power. Brute force. A grenade launcher maybe, but that was impractical as a primary weapon. How about a Fraquian shotgun? Those things looked mean, but no, they weren’t quick enough. Calri: that’s the inventory in which he found exactly what he wanted. It had power, speed, and charisma. A fully-automatic, gas-operated, low-recoil, 12-gauge shotgun with a double-drum magazine holding 100 rounds and capable of pumping them all forth in less than 20 seconds. Of course, he didn’t know these details off hand. He just knew it looked as badass as any weapon he’d seen. The details came later after a test run with one of the Calrian soldiers he met that used the weapon religiously.
Each shot sent forth a concentrated spray of over a hundred titanium alloy balls that could travel, accurately, up to 100 meters. The real fun came with the introduction of the fragmentation grenade rounds, which armed themselves in midflight and detonated upon impact in a burst of flame and shrapnel that would make tatters of anyone within 10 feet.
Aric blew a dozen holes in the side of the mountain and brought stone shards tumbling down beneath his fire. When he saw the way that mountainside looked after just a single drum of shells, he knew without question what he’d be holding on the day the Greys popped up from hiding. And knowing felt good. Damn good.
Raiden was sitting at the dinner table with his wife and daughters when the sirens blared up from outside the window. His girls began to cry, and he took them in his arms and ushered them away toward the basement where they’d be safe from the storm. But it wasn’t a storm that the sirens warned of. It wasn’t even his daughters that he held in his arms, but rather a pillow that he’d pulled from beneath his head in the midst of the night. No, he wasn’t home at all. He was on Centrum, in the mountains, in a springy cot that moaned as he leapt from its surface toward the closet where his uniform hung waiting.
It was time. It was happening. The Greys were surfacing and the war was soon to reach its climactic peak, there within the valley. It was a beautiful valley too, but neither side would hesitate, for even a fleeting moment, to mar its grass with an enemy’s corpse or taint its river with blood. War was no place for beauty. The siren: that was the sound of the beauty escaping, whistling like steam through a tiny hole, fleeing as quickly as possible before the violence commenced.
It took him only a minute to suit up and escape into the hallway with his SWUN in hand. Men were blurs as they zoomed by with panic in their hearts, shouting, wheezing, scared of what they knew would come and even more so of what they didn’t. Aric and Lexus stood still amongst the scrambling masses, their weapons hanging by straps off their shoulders, their eyes set on Raiden, waiting for him. He liked the gesture, thought almost to smile but stopped himself because no one was smiling.
Lexus looked calm, but deceptively so, as if a firestorm raged on within the shell of her skin. Aric seemed nervous, but more antsy than scared. He was longing to see what a shotgun round would do to a Grey skull. Raiden moved to them. These two would be his team, and he couldn’t think of anyone else he’d rather have.
Just as he reached them, a voice rang out from behind: “Lieutenant, wait up!”
Raiden turned as Darren rushed forward. Good kid, he thought. He follows orders well.
“I’m here, sir. Just like you said I should be when the sirens go off.”
“Yes you are. I’m glad you remembered. You stick with me out there, you hear?”
From back in the hallway, Osyrus rushed forth, his eyes showing relief upon seeing them standing there. “There you are, sir.”
Raiden nodded. “Ye—”
“Yeah, where were you?” asked Darren. Raiden smiled inside. He’d forgotten that Darren was now “sir” to his men.
“I lost you in the crowd.” Osyrus looked to Raiden and gave a salute. “Lieutenant, it’s good to see you in such a time. Your leadership was well-replaced while you were gone, but I’m looking forward to following your voice again.”
“Thank you, Private. I knew I’d be leaving you all in good hands.” Raiden placed a palm on Darren’s shoulder and the young soldier smiled proudly. He had no idea that Raiden had really left him in Osyrus’ care. It was a valuable illusion.
“We should go,” Lexus spoke up.
“Okay, yeah,” Raiden said. “Let’s move.”
The five of them hustled off down the hallway and out to the balcony where they slid down a pole to the ground three stories below. The main gate was open and men were massed about it, the sea of their heads rolling like the mountains around them: Calrians as valleys, Fraquians as peaks. The group ascended a staircase to the top of the outer wall and moved along it until they stood above the front gate with the valley spread before them. What they saw, as Raiden had expected, was far from the beautiful panorama that they’d become accustomed to. What they saw had their hearts stopping and plunking into the pits of their stomachs, had their eyes widening and blinking in disbelief, had their knees wobbling and their hands shaking and a few of them pinching themselves to see if they’d wake.
A dream within a dream? Raiden hoped. No such luck. It was just one dream he’d woken from. This right here: this was a cruel reality.
A warm fog had settled within the trough of the valley, making ghosts of everything that loomed within. There was a stillness in the air that felt as heavy as each man’s pounding heart dictated. To Raiden, it felt as if he were swathed in thick mud. To some, it was water. To others, it was the weight of their world.
Silence dominated, broken only by the occasional cough or whisper or scuffle of one man’s shoulder against another’s. The silence, with the stillness, was exceptionally unbefitting, for off across the valley there stirred such movement as should bring their ears to bleeding. It was like a fleet of ships drifting from amongst the fog, slow and steady and dauntingly immense: the Greys, springing forth from their hidden crypts, their figures baring raiment of war from another world.
The alien ranks materialized on the horizon, rising up from where the towering mountains cut through the dark and dreary sky of young dawn. They came from nothingness, a solid line of armor-plated bodies stretching from left to right like a darker, denser, more ominous front of fog: a coming storm. The depth of their broad formation continued out of sight, delving deeply into the caverns that now produced their numbers. They drifted up from below and rolled over the gentle valley slopes, their distance still great enough to mask the clanging sound of armored footsteps.
The coming sun brought a blue aura amongst the darkness, its rays reaching slowly farther into the dark sky and forcing day upon the impending battle. In time, the frontline ceased its creeping advance, and the vastness of the Reticulan army spread like a blanket over the red expanse.
So what happens now? Aric thought. He would have spoken it, but no one was speaking.
Osyrus released a wavering sigh. “I hope this is their entire army.”
The others looked to him, stunned for a moment by the sudden sound of voice.
“Yeah,” said Raiden. “But I fear it’s not the half of them.”