Look here, where I want you to,
Ignore the spots that matter none,
Distract yourself within my game,
The end’s begun, you’ll soon be done.
An hour passed with the humans and Greys in an eerie stare-down across a thousand yards of open plain. The sky brightened and the fog lifted as the world lost its nighttime chill. The day was overcast, a mist enshrouding the sun, and a strong wind picked up from the South, carrying with it the sounds of Grey movement across the valley.
The humans were confused. They’d never witnessed such a large massing of enemies, never even heard of such a battle occurring since before the advent of guns back in the days of Earth. Since then, war had changed. It was trenches and urban combat. It was stealth, and strategy, and not seeing the opponent till it was too late, either for you or for them. This bold deployment of entire armies in open terrain felt almost medieval, and the newness of it had the human leaders baffled.
Should they just start shooting? Should they wait for the other side to begin the conflict? Should they send their best generals by carnivorse and chariot out to meet the enemy’s leaders in the middle, to come to a compromise before the bloodshed? The last option seemed almost comical, but it did cross their minds. The uncertainty began to eat away at them, creating such tension that soldiers on the frontline were fidgeting and biting their lips and squeezing their weapons, deciding for themselves whether they should just get it over with and fire the first shot. They didn’t have to.
Provoked by an unknown catalyst—possibly they had grown impatient or possibly they’d been waiting for something to fall in place elsewhere—there stirred considerable activity upon the Reticulan front. In moments, the leading ranks had hauled forth large shields, hoisting them up before their faces. Like falling dominoes in reverse, a solid wall of metal rose up from left to right with a scrolling clank, clank, clank that tingled human skin with fear. Standing on near-equal ground, the bulwark of shields rose high enough to block the sight of almost half the Reticulan army. The humans looked to each other, baffled, and then the wall began to advance.
A voice buzzed across the communal radio frequency: “That’s it!” It was General Oswald, one of the many generals stationed back within the base’s HQ but the one that was named in high command of the entire human army. Of course, he wasn’t making all the decisions himself. That was a group process. He was just passing on the determined orders. “We’re taking this as an enemy offensive. Long-range units, begin your attack.”
With the directive came a 5000-shot salvo of sniper rounds from the thousands of sharpshooters positioned along the base’s walls and amongst the mountainside at the army’s rear. They’d all been waiting with their fingers on the trigger and their first targets in the crosshairs, and the order came like a breath of air after near suffocation. The simultaneous sounding of them all was like an atomic bomb—or what they would have assumed one to sound like had they still had such technology—and the men on the ground had the misfortune of seeing only the wall of shields while the snipers, themselves, watched bodies fall amongst the Reticulan formation. After that initial attack, the shots came like firecrackers, sporadic and jolting. Quickly, the mortar teams began their assault, firing off grenades of white phosphorous that burst in bright explosions and spewed massive clouds of toxic smoke throughout the enemy’s ranks.
The ground infantry could only watch from where they were, and they did so with wide eyes of excitement and grins that cut from ear to ear. Then, suddenly, explosions rang out from beyond that shook the ground beneath their feet. Sprays of dirt sprang up in lines across the plain, and large strips of land seemingly disappeared, dropping down as if all the support beneath had given way. The wall of shields parted now, and Grey soldiers poured out through these breaks and flowed down into the landfalls.
“Trenches,” Raiden said under his breath, but loud enough that the others heard. “They’ve made their own trenches.”
Once the majority of no man’s land had been scored by ditches, a different grumbling arose within the crust, and pillars burst up from below, rising almost instantly as if giant fingers were poking the ground from beneath. It all passed within but a minute, and now the open plain had morphed itself into a battlefield of winding trenches and scattered, stone obstructions. A short time of bewilderment passed—all the while plagued by the explosions of mortars down range and the persistent crackle of sniper rifles—before the generals in HQ realized they were being outmaneuvered.
“Storm the trenches! Storm the trenches! They’re trying to take the entire field and leave us in the open. Move out!”
The first 200 yards before the human frontline were completely untouched by the Reticulan pyrotechnics, leaving them a hell of a run before they’d reach any kind of cover. The Greys were clever, indeed. As the men rushed the battlefield, enemy fire passed up from within trenches and behind stone cover, dropping the exposed soldiers in mid-sprint. Men fell left and right across the advancing human line, croaking and groaning as invisible shots blew holes in their heads and chests. A man would tumble, dead, and the next in line would jump his body only to be dropped the same some 20 strides further.
Hundreds died across that open space before the first men reached the trenches and barreled down in relief. At the far end of the valley, Greys were still pouring into the trench network, and many took the high ground and advanced from pillar to pillar, shooting as they ran, sometimes taking a bullet in the scramble, other times making it safely ahead.
Many of those traveling above ground moved swiftly, straddled atop the backs of strange creatures like green ants with large antennae. Their jointed legs rippled violently backward, tearing up the earth as they darted ahead. Their riders hunched low, evading bullets that whistled overhead, their hands upon twin cannons mounted out front on either side of their saddle. From these barrels came green lasers, thick and fast and unavoidable, firing once every few seconds.
Raiden ran on frantic feet, hurdling corpses in his path and ducking as men around him took wounds or burns from laser fire. The others were at his back and to his sides, doing the same as him, praying to God that they’d reach cover before a random gunshot found their flesh. He’d reunited with his SWUN platoon—or what was left of them—soon after the ground detonations began, and now he moved with 20 others at his side. As his eyes scoured the bustling field, he caught a glimpse of a familiar face to his right. Luthor?
Raiden ran after and the others followed, bending and stooping as lethal sound waves whistled by their heads. “Luthor!” he yelled, but the Arthian bid no attention. Raiden sped up and tapped the man’s shoulder from behind. “Luthor, it’s Raiden.”
Luthor turned for a moment, his face swathed in utter confusion. “My name’s not Luthor.”
Now, it was Raiden who assumed the expression. “What are you—” he began, but stopped because Luthor had already turned and ran off. Raiden watched him disappear amongst the crowd of men, still watching when the masses parted just enough to see half of Luthor’s skull blown off in a crimson mist. Raiden looked instantly away, as did Lexus and Aric. The mourning was only momentary, for one of their own men interrupted with a scream as he took a shot in the chest and toppled over right between them. They needed to find cover, and fast.
Raiden waved them on, and the group continued forward, one man down. He looked briefly to his left as a soldier took a laser to the face and the back of his head flashed green and then grey, the color of the sky that now showed through. Aric was just behind the man and let out a short scream as he stumbled over the body, his shotgun-wielding hands striking the ground and saving his fall. He scrambled back to a run and looked to Raiden with a horrified expression that showed he wasn’t having fun.
Raiden was shooting downrange, as were Lexus and Darren and Osyrus. Aric wouldn’t waste his rounds. He knew the shotgun wouldn’t quite get there, and not without pelting a few of his own on the way. He slung the weapon back over his shoulder and pulled two submachine guns from their holsters at his waist. He’d come prepared. They rattled in his hands as he fired, sounding like nothing as they blended with the clamor of war that filled the air.
He was aiming at an ant rider, trying to shoot just ahead as the creature dashed from side to side on agile feet. His bullets speckled a stone column as the rider past behind its cover. He swiveled the barrels more swiftly in response and held them at the boulder’s edge in wait. It took only a moment for the creature to emerge, passing right through his line of fire with spurts of blood bursting forth from head back to thorax. Its pinchers opened wide and shuddered with unheard agony. Its legs went limp beneath its racing body and it fell hard and slid. The rider toppled upon impact, rolling murderously until an abrupt collision wrapped his bones around another pillar. He didn’t move again.
They were nearing, now, the beginnings of the trenches, where men were already crowded inside and disappearing off into the maze. Raiden was fretful. High ground or low ground? Now’s the time to make the call. Whatever he chose could mean the difference between life and death for him and his squad. He didn’t want such responsibility, but he had it. What was new?
There was something about the trenches that he didn’t quite trust. Maybe it was his minor claustrophobia speaking out, or maybe it was his paranoia that, possibly, the Greys wanted them in the trenches for a reason. The plain was more open, and they’d be exposed more often, but at least they could maneuver and evade and attack all at once. He stopped thinking. He’d clearly made up his mind. And not too soon either, for the nearest ditch was just yards away.
Lexus saw the safety of the trench approaching and began to feel the dread of their mad dash diminish. Her strides were doubly quick to keep up with Raiden’s long legs and she was tiring, more-than ready to stop running. The muddy walls of that opportunity were nearing, now, quite readily. She closed her eyes and thanked God, opening them again only to feel like she had thanked too soon. Raiden was crazy. He must be. Sidestepping the trench? Leading them off into the open field?
“Raiden, what are you doing?” she screamed. “We need to go down!”
He looked back briefly and shook his head. “No. We stay above ground.”
She bit her tongue and passed the trench with a stinging heart, so close to breaking off from the group that it brought a tear to her eye. Raiden was smart, though. He was a thinker and a leader. She’d follow him, even if he led her down what seemed to be a deadly path.
Raiden took them to a line of thick pillars that formed a wall amidst the field, concealing the whole of them from enemy fire. His head was aching, and not because of the ringing in his ears or the overstimulation of his senses—which saw chaotic motion all about, heard screams and explosions and mystery sounds, smelled blood, singed flesh and burning hair, felt the fatigue of a 200-yard sprint over fallen comrades. No, none of this was causing his throbbing skull. Deep down, he feared he’d made the wrong decision—that he’d brought them all to their demise—and peeking around the wall’s edge, his heart stopped, and his brain popped, and he saw that maybe this was so: regrettably, and dreadfully, and wretchedly so.
Luthor—better known as Captain Lazarus—crouched low behind a stony ridge, his plasma rifle nestled in the pit of his arm. He’d since shed his cloning cloak and now was bald and blue-skinned, his other features quite humanlike save for the fact that his eyes were twice as large. The rest of his legion was nestled in similar positions along the mountainside. He was their captain, not their king, but on this day, he’d be as powerful as ever he was. The reason for this was that their king, by Andromedan law, was there amongst them, suited up with rifle in hand and awaiting Lazarus’ orders: as visibly equal as he ever would be.
It was a stupid law, Luthor had always thought. Sure, no king should throw his army into battles without weighing the risk, but was it really necessary to demand that he would face that risk as equally as the soldiers themselves? It might make sure that they only fought the meaningful fights, but now he had a king to protect, and that was one great responsibility to bear when trying to lead his men to victory. He brushed the worries from his mind. A rock had shifted within the valley. The Zetas were surfacing.
Luthor sent out a telepathic alert. His men shifted silently from their relaxed positions and tuned down their brainwaves. The Zetas would detect them, otherwise. There would be no more communication until the first shot was fired. They all knew when that would be.
The Zetas were emerging from underground, now, funneling out in a single file line that folded into rows as it grew. Farther off to the left, a bush moved sideways, giving way to more of them. The valley before them was big, but not half the size of the one on the other side of the mountain that Luthor and his men now hid upon: the one that had been, for the last 10 minutes, sending forth the bone-chilling commotion of gunfire and screams and death. The humans were clashing with the bulk of the Reticulan forces, but they were unaware that others remained—an entire legion of 1000, in fact—prepared to sneak up from behind the Calrian base and descend upon the unwitting, human leaders. Sever the head and the body will die: not a bad plan. And it probably would have worked, too, had Luthor not predicted it in advance and positioned his warriors to waylay.
It appeared that this Reticulan unit was mainly composed of hybrids, some 80 percent of them six feet tall with the others disappearing amongst their ranks. Captain Lazarus gave each face a hard look, searching for a particularly dark aura. No luck. General Kruxor wasn’t present. That would have been an amusing stroke of irony: to sever the head of the Reticulan army while they were in route to do the same to the humans. Luthor stifled his disappointment, keeping a steady eye to make sure that none had noticed the short flicker of his emotional energy. Fortunately, they’d all been distracted, their attention drawn to a hybrid that wore an obsidian gem fitted amidst the center of his uniform. He was an officer.
The officer had turned to face the far end of the valley in the North. His hands were waving rhythmically upon the air, his head swaying, his thoughts muddled but, to Luthor, sounding like some kind of beckoning call. Then, the roars blared up, rolling down from the distant hills, louder than the sounds of war that droned in the background. Dark figures appeared above the hills, unrecognizable from afar and just as unrecognizable once they’d torn their way down the slopes and across the valley floor toward the Zetas.
Captain Lazarus shivered beneath the evil radiating from the mystery creatures. What were they? He’d never seen such hideousness in all his studies and travels. And how was it that this Reticulan general could summon them in such a way?
Something bound each creature’s midsection. Luthor’s confusion pined away as he noticed, through his rifle’s scope, the embroidered microcircuitry shimmering within the fibers. Enrapturing belts. They’re hypnotized.
He knew, now, why these monsters held such a malevolent quality about them: their thoughts were more Reticulan than their own. Whatever they were, and wherever they’d come from, they were prisoners, slaves, mindless brutes to be thrown at the enemy and expended without remorse. They stood on two legs, some 15 feet high with two arms dangling down toward their feet and two more crossed in front of their burly chests. He counted 10 of them. This fight would be tougher than he’d hoped.
A short time passed as the Zetas organized themselves, and then they began to march, heading toward the valley wall where Luthor and his soldiers waited. There was a frail, orange-flowering tree springing from the valley floor at about the distance that the Andromedan plasma rifles would do the ideal damage with significant accuracy. It was when this tree found itself in the middle of the Reticulan forces that Lazarus and his legion would emerge on the offensive.
Luthor’s heart began to quicken as the enemy formation reached the mark, parting to either side so that the orange petals sank amongst them. He flicked the safety off his weapon. The tree was nearing the center of the advancing, grey rectangle. The time was close. His men were watching him, waiting for the first shot that would signal their own. He inhaled a deep breath of mountain air, tasting the burnt gun powder that floated on the breeze from beyond the peak at his back. The tree was centered. The time was now.
He rose from behind his rock cover, the sound like a whistling vacuum pulsating as spheres of superheated plasma rocketed forth in rapid succession. The first of his shots burst against a Zeta’s cheek, consuming half its face before the next round struck another in the nose, and the next one a throat. It wasn’t until these three victims had died and were collapsing that the rest of the Andromedans sprang forth in full assault.
Like the roaches they were, the Reticulans scattered, their sonance rifles clapping feverishly, sending forth the shrill buzz of deadly sound streams. Many of them were already dead before they’d realized the ambush, and so the ground was painted red and grey beneath the scrambling survivors. A soldier to his left took a shot to the chest and coughed blood, and Luthor bid him but a glance—just enough to see he was gone—and then ducked as more sound rounds zipped about his head and into stones behind him.
A handful of the Zetas were hunkered down behind stone structures on the valley floor, shooting desperately—blindly—along the mountainside. The majority of them, though, had bum rushed the slope and were now fighting their way up toward the attacking force. Luthor leaned over the boulder before him and rained down plasma, feeling confident from his high perch. He shot continuously until his rifle overheated, and then quickly tapped the infrigidation button that would trigger a highly-endothermic reaction within and absorb the excess heat. The process lasted for only five seconds, but it felt like an eternity as he cowered beneath the hail of chipping stone at his back.
The sensor beeped and flashed upon completion, but he didn’t need to look at it. The time delay was second nature. He was shooting again the very moment that he could, burning holes through grey flesh and melting sand to glass with stray rounds. All about him, Andromedans were shooting, some falling beneath enemy fire, some ducking for that eternal five seconds of frantic helplessness.
Luthor looked toward the king, far off to his right, just as one of his Royal Guards was blown to pieces by a grenade on which he’d courageously dived. The king’s face twisted in fear and remorse, speckled with the blood of his loyal protector. It shifted, quite quickly, to anger and rage, and he stood from his crouch and shot down, yelling wildly with dripping lips. He didn’t notice the pack of three beasts hurtling viciously up the slope toward him.
Luthor yelled to the minds of his men, “Protect the king! Protect the king!” and then concentrated his fire toward the charging creatures. They were quick—too quick—and screened from his rounds by the swells of the rocky hillside. They would reach the king unscathed if no others joined in shooting at them. He refocused on the king’s position, and his soul wrenched with terror. Another Royal Guard lay dead, and the king . . . he was gone.
What am I doing here? This isn’t my place. How will I survive?
King Pilitreus trembled in his tiny alcove, flanked by four members of his Royal Guard. Even with his fear and his doubts, he never second-guessed whether he had made the right decision in joining this fight. The conflict between the Zeta Reticulans and humans had been made theirs, as well, 5000 years ago when the Andromedan councilman, Tiras Dron, had discovered the Reticulan presence on Earth: when he’d discovered that the Zetas had been manipulating human affairs and stirring them to self-destruction behind the backs of the Bowltren. Insidious creatures, those damn Zetas. Of course, they’d already convinced the union to send the asteroid, to catalyze the hopeless humans’ demise and get their obstructive energies out of the way.
But Tiras was clever, seeing light where any other would have found only darkness and doom. When he had made that legendary decision to abduct hundreds of humans before the collision—and to reimplant them afterward and tend the planets back to health with Andromedan flora and fauna—he’d placed the protection of humanity upon Andromeda for all time. This was a duty of high moral importance. It was a role that his people wanted to play, and Pilitreus would not fail them. Their grudge with the Zetas was ancient, and it needed to be dealt with. Now was the time. But that didn’t make him ecstatic about it.
Grotinbras, the most senior of his guard and a trusted friend, put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry, my lord. I won’t leave your side.” Pilitreus nodded. He’d already known that Grotinbras would be with him till the end, but hearing it out loud was reassuring. “They’ve no idea we’re even here, and with the guidance of Captain Lazarus, this is sure to be quick.”
“Everyone, ready yourselves,” Lazarus interjected, as if summoned by his mention. “The Zetas are coming out. Alpha plan is still in order.”
Alpha plan? What was that again?
“That means no more commo until the shooting starts,” Grotinbras whispered. “And we shoot on his command, some time after the enemy has passed the orange turelta tree.”
The king nodded and glanced from behind his cover to where the grey-suited soldiers of Reticulum were already emptying forth. This was real, now. This was it. He closed his eyes and wished to pray but knew that he should keep his thoughts silent. His royal ring shimmered blue on his finger, calming him as always it did. He was about to get dirty, but still he’d refused to remove the item. It was more to him than a symbol of status. It was his hard work, and his honor, and his life. For 20 years, it had hugged that same finger, in the very same spot, and in the very same way. He liked it like that. It would stay like that until he died. He squeezed the handle of his rifle, his ring finger steady while his trigger finger quivered. He focused intently on nothing. The wait was short.
It started as a single rifle, which Pilitreus assumed was Lazarus, and then the air was saturated with gunfire and screams and groans sounding from both sides. For some moments, he was cowered down, too afraid that he would catch a stray shot to the face if he were to rise. Grotinbras was at his right, shooting madly, grinding his teeth, baring them through curled lips like a rabid wolf. At his left were Howzer, Ritzpa, and Mal, all garbed in their lavender suits of the Royal Guard, shaking against their rifles as they pelted Reticulans with Andromedan hellfire.
They were warriors, and what was he? A king, yes, but was he at all more deserving of respect than them? He, the one that now lay at their feet sulking in his own fear, unwilling to stand and fight as those around him died for the cause that he, himself, had determined was worth dying for? The answer was no.
He glanced at the blue sparkle of his ring. This was the shine of his honor, and it was shaming him. It was turning its back and asking that it be removed and wielded by a better man. Pilitreus felt this disgrace and cringed. He was a better man. He’d prove that point now.
He jumped from his burrow of self-pity, his rifle buzzing and shaking, disgorging orbs of carnage down the slope. As he fired, he felt a power rise within him like he’d never felt before. He was greater than a king; he was a warrior king, and he would embrace it. But this euphoria lasted only a minute before a pair of hands grabbed him about the shoulders and pulled him backwards onto the dirt, their owner—Grotinbras—screaming as if it meant his life, “Grenade!”
Pilitreus hadn’t the time to interpret what was happening before Howzer leapt down, face-first, upon the ground. As he landed, his back arched up abnormally like a bubble were expanding beneath his frame. Then that bubble popped, and it did so with a burst of dust, and smoke, and pieces of Howzer. Pilitreus blinked the blood from his eyes, his vision blurred but still capable of making out his guard before him, sprawled in two pieces with a crater in between. It was shock that plagued him for those first moments. Then, it was utter sorrow. Then, it was pure hatred.
He rose to his feet, firing ceaselessly at every grey body in sight. As he shot, he shrieked, blood-thirsty and numb, feeling nothing as Zetas burned by his hand. A black heart scorched clean out, a grey head blown straight off, a gangly arm seared, then the leg, then the neck. He stood tall and undaunted like the warrior king he now was, ignoring all sounds but that of his rifle, ignoring Captain Lazarus’ voice in his head commanding the others to “Protect the king!”
Out of the corner of his eye, Ritzpa fell to the ground. Pilitreus stopped his mad assault to attend, instantly wishing he hadn’t as the man convulsed from a punctured throat.
“Run!” Mal screamed in actual voice. Pilitreus looked up, confused. “Run!”
Grotinbras’ hands, again, seized him by the shoulders, this time turning him rather than pulling him down. As the world spun, the king saw a glimpse of something that chilled him to the bone: enormous monsters, their fanged mouths open and black, their arms extended forward, claws grasping for his head. Now, he understood Mal’s order. Now, he wished he’d been given it 10 days in advance.
Grotinbras urged him onward along the mountainside, Mal right behind, shooting at the coming beasts. Pilitreus ran frantically—he knew for his life—taking them uphill until the slope began to level out. Grotinbras was at his heels, and Mal had apparently stayed behind to hold the creatures off. It was just the two of them now.
“Keep moving!” Grotinbras demanded. “They’re right behind us.”
Pilitreus heard only his breaths booming in his ears. His legs felt like jelly after the uphill sprint and they wanted so badly to run no more. He couldn’t appease them.
As he ran, the roars of his hunters lashed his back like whips to a carnivorse. His world quaked with each frantic stride, and then his stomach twisted in despair. Fifty yards was all he had before a steep cliff face rose up to block the path. He looked left and right, realizing that neither side offered anything more than a deadly fall.
“Where do we go?” Pilitreus screamed.
“As far as we can,” said Grotinbras. “Then, we turn and fight.” He was hoping that maybe they’d find another way down once they neared the wall, otherwise he’d have advised they turn and fight at that very moment. When they reached the dead end, he regretted his optimism.
The cliff face was sheer and too smooth to climb. A waterfall came down from the top and slapped a small pool with a rainbow of mist. The pool drained both to the left and the right where the water fell again down those sides of the rock. Pilitreus, in accord with his friend’s suggestion, ran as far as he could, which was right to the edge of the rippling pond. He turned around and Grotinbras was shooting. The soldier stopped right away, though, as his rifle overheated and began its cooling reaction.
The beasts were big: even bigger than Pilitreus had thought. There were two of them, 20 yards away and prowling now, moving away from each other and preparing to attack from both directions. Their snarls were hair-raising, their eyes—hundreds of them—black and piercing. They walked on four limbs, the remaining two extended forward like tusks with sharp claws that could have been severed and used as longswords. They glared down upon the Andromedans, analyzing them, assessing how good their meat would taste and how crunchy their bones would be. Pilitreus could see it in their eyes. So sadistic. So filled with Reticulan malice.
Grotinbras stepped back until his shoulder touched Pilitreus. “I’m with you, my king.”
“Warrior king,” Pilitreus corrected, lifting his royal blue ring to his lips and kissing it: not a kiss goodbye, but rather a kiss that said “See? I am deserving of you.”
In the back of his mind, he hoped that his ring would protect him for proving his worth. If not, then at least he would die having upheld the honor that it represented. The king would die for his people and, in doing so, would ensure that they would be willing, in the future, to die for their king. This was a righteous sacrifice.
Grotinbras’ rifle beeped and flashed. He raised it up and aimed to the left. Pilitreus raised his and aimed for the right. They screamed and shot and shook violently. The beasts jumped, and dodged, and roared, and charged, and Pilitreus watched as his reflection grew within their hungry, evil, depthless black eyes.