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World Apart

By C.J. Connor All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Action

Chapter 36

Retribution found at last,

A bout of mercy will not do,

After so much pain has passed,

A swift beheading must ensue.

It was from the base of the far mountains, at the rear of the Grey army, that specks lifted off into the air like a flock of birds, so quick and smooth. Raiden wasn’t sure what they were, but he knew they were bad news, almost instantly releasing a barrage of grenade rounds down upon the battlefield. In seconds, they’d covered 300 yards of airspace at least, and Raiden could see, now, that each spec was a Grey, soaring through the air with the help of a jet propulsion pack strapped to their back. In their hands, they carried cylindrical weapons, releasing balls of fire that exploded upon impact and blew craters in the earth. Farther downfield, men were jumping from the blasts, some doing so in time to survive, others just a moment too late, their heels engulfed with flames while scorching fumes propelled them an extra 20 feet through the air before landing, dead, their insides cooked.

“Snipers,” Oswald’s voice crackled, “take out the aerial units.”

“SWUN team, go prone,” Raiden commanded. “Swat those flies before they get too close.”

He lay down upon his stomach, his rifled wedged snugly between two adjacent stones. His men did the same to his left and right, maintaining their cover while they sought out the airborne enemies. Raiden’s circle of vision found its way to a flying Grey, but before he could get his red dot settled, the Grey’s jet pack burst into flames and he plummeted out of his sight. The snipers on the mountainside were doing their job. He didn’t mind, just readjusted his aim and put a bullet in another’s head. The victim went limp and began to descend toward a cluster of men on the battlefield. Raiden was quick to recognize the danger, and put his eye back upon his scope to send a slug into the silver tank upon the flyer’s back. Whatever was in there made one hell of a bang, dropping flames like napalm down upon a cluster of cowering Greys below.

His men’s rifles were sounding at his sides, and with them came more fireworks. Aric and Lexus were doing some shooting of their own, Aric on the far right and Lexus on the left, covering the Fraquian’s flanks as Greys approached from a distance. Even as exploding jetpacks became a single, steady roar, the air seemed still saturated with the flyers: hundreds swarming left and right, near and far, blowing craters in the ground so thoroughly that human corpses began to pile and smolder.

More commands had been given off the main frequency, Raiden figured, for suddenly the hiss of fighter jets rose at his back and grew deafening in seconds. His whole squad turned as Calrian drones whooshed by overhead, muzzle flashes blaring from the ends of mounted miniguns. The crafts were unmanned and extremely maneuverable, banking and rolling through enemy fire, their guns never ceasing to spin: 6000 rounds per minute, and each drone carried two. The first Grey flyer fell like a stone that starts an avalanche, and then they all began to dive, most exploding in midair and often killing others around them.

Only maybe 20 drones had been deployed—all dispersed widely about the thousand-yard combat zone—but even in their small numbers, they’d demolished the flyers within a short while. At one point, a grenade round struck the stones behind which Raiden and the others hid, sending flames toward them through the spaces between adjacent rocks. They all backed away quite quickly. All but one, that is, whose head, afterward, looked like a ball of burnt meat with the top half spooned out. The pillars had cracked beneath the blow, and Lexus now insisted they relocate to a more secure spot.

By the time the drones had wiped out all the flyers, Raiden and his squad were down in a trench, shooting over the edge at any Greys they saw.

“What the hell?” Aric suddenly said, his eyes affixed upon the southern valley wall. From over the mountain tops, a line of dark figures soared through the clouds, disbanding as soon as they breached the far edge of the battlefield.

“Looks like they got their own,” said Osyrus.

The alien crafts were similarly-sized, not shooting yet but completing impressing evasive movements in response to drone fire. One craft began to smoke in mid-roll, a large piece of its frame sinking back behind it. A black spiral trailed against the white sky until it slammed to the earth in a spray of clanking parts. It was still sliding when the first enemy craft displayed its firepower: a missile that moved in a straight line toward nothing, it seemed, until a drone banked left into its path and disappeared in a blue flame that left nothing but a small, charred chunk to fall.

“How’d it do that?” Aric asked.

The others took the question as rhetorical, even though they knew it wasn’t. How should they know how the alien craft predicted the seemingly random trajectory of the drone’s flight? They shouldn’t know. It was impossible, after all.

“All trenched soldiers, listen up.” It was Oswald again. “This scene is one big clusterfuck. We need some order. Those of you within the eastern half of the valley, head as far east as you can get. Those in the West move west. We need to circumvent the main mass of the enemy force and try to attack the rear flank. All soldiers above ground, your job is to keep the enemies occupied. Continue advancing forward, but take your time. If we can synchronize this attack correctly, we’ll have them surrounded. Keep fighting, men. We’re gonna win this thing. Over and out.”

Aric sent a shotgun blast across an open 50-yard stretch and into the torso of a tall, Grey soldier who was running from one cover to the next. The alien went instantly red with blood, its body like a stuck pin cushion, punctured all over. He’d heard the general’s order, and the last bit left him weary. It was partly what Oswald said, but mostly how he said it. We’re gonna win this thing.

Aric peeked over the trench’s top edge, looking out across the rolling battlefield, his eyes at ground level. What he saw, mostly, were human corpses: burnt, mutilated, covered in blood. Sure there were a lot of Grey bodies too, but less of them. This would have been fine had the humans outnumbered the Greys at the battle’s outset, but this was far from the case. If they were actually going to “win this thing,” then there’d be 10 Grey corpses for every human. Things looked grim. There were just too many of them. At the far end of the valley, he could see the line of shields, still standing strong, concealing behind them an unknown number of fresh, Reticulan soldiers. Maybe most had already funneled forth and into the fracas, but maybe only a small fraction had. He prayed it was the former. He feared it was the latter.

“You heard Oswald,” Raiden suddenly said. “It’s time to move. We head east, slowly but steadily. Keep your eyes open, and stay on your toes. We can’t afford to lose anyone. Their numbers are their main strength, and we need to maintain ours if we’re gonna stand a chance once we get south amongst the bulk of them.”

When Raiden said they would move slowly, he wasn’t exaggerating. The group of them crept along, sustaining an elliptical formation with Raiden at the front next to Darren and Lexus, Aric watching their rear with his shotgun aimed, and the others looking left and right over the trench’s brim, making sure that no Greys got too close. All the while, the sound of Calrian and Reticulan drones whooshed overhead in an aerial battle. Once in a while, the occasional explosion would ring out, marking the destruction of one more craft. The blasts had a particular sound that distinguished them from just another distant grenade detonation, always carrying with them the loud buzz of stalling jet engines and the clinking and clanking of shattering ship components.

The aerial skirmish never seemed to die, and the soldiers could only assume that both sides kept sending out more and more crafts. Whoever would claim the sky would have a significant advantage in the ground battle, and it’s this advantage that both sides fought endlessly to attain, into the night, in fact. Darkness fell upon the war as Raiden and his team reached what they thought were the trenches stretching farthest east. Looking out across the valley, they could see no more activity to the left and all of it off to their right, although vaguely, for the blackness of night was thick in most places, its solidarity broken only by scattered fires where fallen aircraft or burning clothes—still on their bearers—clumped and glowed and flickered.

When they reached those eastern trenches, they came upon a group of 10 men, mostly Arthians but some Calrians too. Together, they trudged toward the south, winding and weaving through their dark passageways, shooting down Greys whenever they appeared around the next bend or shuffled by at ground level. Some of them fell to quicker gunfire, absorbing shots and dying so that the others could live long enough to avenge their deaths. This was painful, especially when the sacrifice came from one of Raiden’s own. The worst part was leaving them behind, letting their lifeless bodies shrink at their backs without the slightest bit of consideration other than to close their eyes and whisper something like “I’m sorry” or “We’ll win this for you, buddy.”

In the dark, nothing was known, and every sound was a possible enemy and any delay meant potential death. The suspense was too much. The fear was too strong. Their adrenaline was running so thickly that their bodies began to break down, and after an hour of nighttime wandering, the group of them was overly-fatigued and more than welcoming of the general’s next orders:

“Everyone, this is General Oswald. Units with night vision capabilities are urged to continue onward if exhaustion is not an issue. All other units should dig in and set up a defensive perimeter wherever they are. I’ve been getting reports of what men are calling Reticulan “assassins.” They’re dressed in all black, moving with stealth as single entities, attacking by silent means. The man right next to you could die without your knowledge. This isn’t something to gamble with. I don’t want the sun to rise on a field of trenches filled with nothing but dead soldiers. It’s too dark to move for now, so maintain your positions until dawn. Officers, organize your own formations and establish guard shifts. Get some rest. As much as you can. Over and out.”

That night, Lexus took the first watch, and Aric volunteered to stand guard with her. He’d wished some time to talk to her, but Raiden put him at the opposite end of their gathering. The air battle had ceased—although no one knew who had won—and all the animals and insects had long since fled the valley. Now, the night was quiet, disturbed only periodically by the echo of distant gunfire or the yells of men as they discovered an assassin amongst their camp. After what seemed like hours, and was really only 30 minutes, Raiden realized he wasn’t sleeping and stood up.

Even with the trench walls and Aric and Lexus standing guard, he felt much too exposed for comfort. He thought back to what Oswald had ordered them to do: “dig in.” A light went off inside his head, and he gently nudged the others from sleep. It ended up that none had been sleeping anyway. His sense of vulnerability had been widely shared.

Raiden huddled the men, leaving Aric and Lexus on lookout. “Okay, listen up. It doesn’t feel safe sleeping like this. One of those assassins could slip right down one of these walls and slit all our throats one-by-one. But I have an idea. If we dig our way into one of these walls, far enough that we can all fit inside, then we won’t be seen from ground level. It’ll just look like an empty trench.”

“We can’t dig that big of a hole,” said one man.

“It doesn’t need to be big if we all dig our own. We’ll line up along the wall and dig a couple feet deep, low too: at foot level. Dig just enough that you can lay down inside.”

“But what will we dig with?” asked another voice. “We have no shovels.”

“Knives,” Raiden replied. “I’m sure you all have knives to use. And my men have swords. We’ll all dig in at the same time, and when any of my men have finished, they’ll pass their sword on to someone else. Does this sound reasonable?”

“Yes,” they all whispered.

“The first two to finish their hole should swap places with Lexus and Aric so that they can dig their own.” The others nodded. “Okay then. Let’s start.”

*****

As a general, he was not to see combat. He was to sit at his desk, watching the holographic display, tracking the enemy’s movement and strategizing accordingly. But the sounds of battle beckoned him, too muffled by the layers of earth to be enjoyed. It was music, indeed, and he wished to turn the volume up. His blades rested on the tabletop, shimmering flawlessly and wishing to be corrupted, contaminated, stained. They, like the stifled gunshots above, called for him to join the melee.

Kruxor turned his eyes from them, the piercing wail of a wounded Grey calling his attention. The sound had been getting more frequent since the sun had set and the humans had decided to rest. Now, the wounded were pouring in, back down through the caverns to the hospice where the shaman and surgeons worked to save them. Duvanon resonated with the pained cries of war: hundreds of Reticulan soldiers, burnt or bleeding or missing limbs, dragging themselves back down by their own, failing strength.

It was a sad reality. Pitiful really. Kruxor had no sympathy for their weakness. This was war, and he’d seen many in his life, some against opponents whose savagery made the humans look like cuddly bullthrog pups. The Shuvaki tribes of Typerion would paralyze masses of enemies with a potent nerve gas that only they could concoct. Once their victims were unmoving—but all-too conscious—they’d inject each one with a hypersensitizing agent that made a pinch feel like an axe blow. It was a slow and excruciating death from there: dismemberment, beginning with the least vital of parts and working toward the head. Kruxor shivered. His brother had died that way.

He refocused. The holographic screen before him told all that he needed to know. The humans were trying to be smart. They were trying to pass around to his army’s rear: to surround his forces. He grinned in amusement. Oh no. Uh uh. There shall be no entrapment. The only thing those maggots shall have is a levitas disc through the midsection. The image of the humans, all with torsos free from legs: it warmed his cold heart.

He reached out, in thought, to the main Reticulan camp up above. “Heavy weapons squads, ready the levitas launchers and arrange them about the army’s circumference. The humans will soon be there, and I want them well-greeted.”

At that, he stood and grabbed his gauntlet blades with one swift sweep of the hand. He strolled out of his quarters, moving down the hallway to a door where low grumbles sifted from beyond. Inside, he reached an unwavering hand between two vertical bars, stroking the Tetroll that shifted within. Its enrapturing belt sparkled in the room’s dim light, flaunting the skill of its shaman creator.

“Prepare yourself, friend, for you will soon be free.” Kruxor looked up to the beast’s high back, admiring the artistry of the saddle he had fitted. “And I will be free with you. Tell me, are you hungry?” The Tetroll snarled in response, and Kruxor bared his jagged teeth. “As am I,” he whispered, glaring at his clenched fist that held, tightly, his blades. “As am I.”

*****

The sound of the collapse had been stifled by the others chipping away at the trench wall and pulling at loose dirt with muddied hands. If Lexus hadn’t been looking right at him, she’d never have noticed the Arthian guard topple to the ground with a throwing knife lodged in his forehead. She had been looking, though, and she did notice, and in that moment of realization, she lifted her rifle and began to shoot. In the weak flash of each bullet’s detonation, the disjointed image of a four-foot assassin jumped and flipped and bounced off trench walls, somehow avoiding the automatic fire. The others were scared senseless from the sudden outcry of shots, unaware of just what was happening and unable to see what Lexus was seeing.

She swiped her barrel chaotically, sending bullets flying at so many places that she couldn’t fathom how the creature was still moving. Any second, she worried, it would release another knife in mid-flight and catch her between the eyes. She felt as if she were on a time clock, and it was counting down until her death: ten, nine, eight . . . .

A fearful groan began to escape her throat, involuntary and growing louder as her doom approached. At about the time her clock reached four, her whine became an all out scream, and she jumped to her knees. This was a startle reaction in response to a deafening blast that came directly by her ear. As she fell to the ground, the image of the assassin flashed transiently before her, its tiny body flying brusquely back as if it had run into a wall at full speed.

She looked over her shoulder where Aric stood, his shotgun still aimed. “And that’s why I love this thing,” he said. “You just can’t dodge a cloud of a hundred bullets.”

Lexus was gasping, unable to smile. That crazy little boy. Always coming to my rescue.

It was a frightening encounter, but that incident had passed in the night, hours ago. Now, it was getting bright, and the sun was inching over the mountains to the east. Their group was moving again, all still tired but now rested enough, at least, to focus on their mission and not on their exhaustion. None had slept soundly, but the concealment of their dirt beds had managed to ease their minds enough that, every so often, one could catch a nice stretch of sleep before their survival instincts woke them.

The air was again filled with the uproar of battle, as well as the hissing of Calrian drones. Yes, it had been a sweet surprise when the first had taken back to the air. Most had assumed the Greys had won the sky. There were only three crafts left though, zipping above the main army and sending whips of minigun fire into the horde. Rockets and fireballs whizzed up from behind the wall of Reticulan shields, cutting the sky with trail after trail of rippling smoke, never quite able to take down the elusive drones. Raiden wondered how much damage they were causing, how many Greys still loomed behind that barrier.

Heading south was proving much rougher for the humans than heading east. As they pushed their way onward, more and more Greys appeared down amidst the trenches. Their squad would fight hard only to travel just 50 paces further before another encounter. The southward trek claimed seven lives from their group, including three of Raiden’s SWUN platoon. Eventually, they reached the southernmost trench on the eastern half of the battlefield, and Raiden immediately radioed HQ with their success. After Oswald forwarded the message to the rest of the army, it was only a matter of minutes before others joined their ranks, and the passages began to fill with human soldiers.

From their current position, they could finally see behind the shields that lined the northern edge of the Grey formation. There were still thousands of enemies, the most external of which were shooting constantly toward the brim of the human-occupied trenches, kicking dirt down upon the soldiers as if trying to bury them alive. Really, the Greys were scared. Much of the human army had stayed above ground and had worked their way up the center of the battlefield, and their constant assault kept the shields from being moved to protect the sides of the Reticulan formation. Those on the sides, then, were completely open to enemy fire, and the only way to avoid taking any was to relentlessly bombard the trenches and hope that no humans dared stick their heads out for a counterattack. This stalemate lasted for about an hour before Oswald broke in with new orders.

“Alright, troops, this is General Oswald. All units are in position, so we’ve got them pinned down from the front and the sides. Now, we need their backs. Central forces are to maintain fire upon the enemy shields so that they can’t relocate. Southernmost forces must make a dash to the mountains and use the mountainside cover to work their ways behind the Grey Army.

“We need at least a thousand men on their asses, so 500 from each direction should do. The remaining units are to fill in the empty spaces left by those who took to the mountains, and immediately proceed to engage the enemy from the side flanks. The more you can distract them, the better chance the others have at making it safely behind. For those rushing the mountains, use smoke grenades to block yourselves from Reticulan sights. The drones will cover you as much as possible. The rest is up to you and your fellow soldiers.

“Begin the operation as soon as the drones have returned and the first missile blows. If you were wondering where they’ve been for the past half hour, they’ve been with us receiving some minor modifications that we’re sure you’ll appreciate. That’s all I have. Let’s end this thing, men. Good luck and God bless. Over and out.”

Raiden looked around at the faces of the others. They all held the same, fearful undertone. They were at the front of the field: the first to make the suicidal run across the 100-yard stretch of wide open plain separating their trench from the mountainside. Basically, they were the guinea pigs, and none looked too pleased about it. Raiden gave his squad one last talk, at least the members that could hear above the ceaseless gunfire. He spoke of courage, and of confidence, and of believing in one’s self and not accepting failure. His words boomed forth with such conviction and such power and truth, unplanned until they were already flowing off his tongue.

The soldiers’ faces shifted steadily, growing bright where once they flickered. It’s true that expecting death is to invite it. They had to see death as an impossibility. They had to envision themselves running so quickly that no enemy fire could possibly catch them. This mind frame had to be set in place, and then they had to act it out. Life would stay with those who truly believed and fail in those who doubted themselves.

The loud roar of ripped air tore at their ears from across the valley, and they turned as the drones shot off toward them, flying in a “V” formation.

“Ready your smoke grenades,” Raiden commanded. “Throw all that you have.”

When the aircrafts neared, one minigun fired from each drone’s frame, and the other was missing, replaced with a missile launcher that sent forth a screaming demon. Thunderous explosions rang out upon impact, raising domes of flame into the air that collapsed on themselves and then began to smoke. Agonizing screams followed swiftly, floating from amongst the Reticulan masses, hundreds dead or burning alive, others watching in horror and hoping that they weren’t next. Within these first moments of utter shock, Raiden threw his two smoke grenades 50 feet out and they instantly began spewing white plumes into the air, amassing into a solid sheet as more and more were hurled by his comrades.

No longer could he see the Reticulan army, and this meant that they could not see him. “Come on,” he yelled. “It’s time to run.”

With his words, he leapt up over the trench’s rim, already in full sprint within seconds, his eyes affixed upon the mountainside and the safety of its stony ridges. Behind him and all about him, soldiers were running, ghosts in the smoke, unheeding of the massive army beside them. Gunshots began to ring out at their backs where the men remaining in the bunks were shooting toward the Greys, distracting them from those in transit.

Aric was running at Lexus’ back, unwilling to pass because he wished to make sure she stayed safe. Suddenly, a shrill whistling rose up, and out of the smoke came a circular blade, spinning and soaring and slicing the air. He pulled at Lexus’ shoulder and forced her to an abrupt stop as the disc passed right before them and through a man’s abdomen without slowing. It continued on, parallel to the ground, never dropping until it had carved through a dozen men and disappeared off into the smoky distance. Its victims died quite instantly, their bodies parted at the chest or the neck or the hips—depending on which human race they represented—and collapsing in two pieces with their guts simply falling out.

Cries echoed throughout the smoke as more discs came in rapid succession, screaming past so quickly and ruthlessly, unwilling to fall as gravity would dictate. Aric and Lexus leapt to their bellies as many others had begun to do. They crawled their way forward through blood-soaked grass, gasping at the gruesome sight of corpses so completely slaughtered.

“Aric, Lexus, over here!”

The pair turned toward Raiden’s voice, and there he was upon the hillside, crouched behind a cluster of rocks. They wanted to stand and run the last 50 yards, but logic and patience obliged them to stay upon their stomachs. Twice, they heard the surreally-intimate hum of a circular blade cutting the space above their heads, bringing with it the slightest breeze that swept their hair and made them shiver. Then, they were there, next to Raiden and Darren and Osyrus, all huddled behind the stones, all covered in the blood of their fellow soldiers.

It took Aric a moment to notice that Osyrus was hunched over, gripping his left shoulder with his right hand, breathing heavily with a sickly face. “Osyrus, what’s wrong?”

“My arm,” the man replied hoarsely.

Aric leaned forward, and that’s when he saw the empty space: the empty space where Osyrus’ arm should have been. Only a short stump protruded from his shoulder, tied at the end by a line of red cloth and already singed from where a SWUN blade had been used to cauterize the wound. Aric looked to Raiden for an explanation, noticing the Fraquian’s jacket was undone and his white undershirt pulled loose with a large shred missing.

“The crazy bastard saved my life,” Raiden said. “Pushed me out of the way of one of those discs. If he hadn’t, he’d have his arm still.”

“Yeah,” Osyrus said, coughing. “And he’d have no lower body.”

*****

Against his will, they left Osyrus behind, propped against the far side of some boulders, covered in his own blood and weary, his SWUN wedged under his remaining arm and pointed out. There would be no need though, Raiden was sure, for the Fraquian was invisible once they’d moved onward toward the rear of the Reticulan army. No enemies would find him. That is, as long as the humans won the fight. That was still to be seen.

Lexus looked to her right where Aric walked hunched over, avoiding the Reticulan rounds that flew toward them from the main army. All around them, rocks were cracking and booming with the sound of impact. He looked at her, his face hard, and then smiled when he realized she’d been staring.

She looked away. Never get caught staring at a man: this was a rule of hers. She’d blown it, but that was okay. He was a boy after all, at least as far as she was concerned. But there was something quite manly about him. Maybe it was the way he never gave up, or the way he protected her. These were manly traits. These were desirable traits. And he was cute, although in a boyish, manly sort of way.

She looked up the slope to her left where more human soldiers were running onward, ducking behind stones, staying low beneath encroaching gunfire. The entire mountainside was shifting with men: a beautiful sight, both for its appearance and its significance. Up ahead, soldiers were running toward them from the western half of the battlefield. One man’s face turned suddenly red and he collapsed. A friend close at heel knelt to shake him. He didn’t move.

This was so common now that it hardly fazed her, but the other man’s face was clearly in anguish, sorrow. Almost immediately, he turned and threw a grenade down the mountainside into the midst of the Greys, already firing his rifle furiously before the frag had even blown. He managed to kill maybe two dozen enemies—including those that disappeared in the grenade blast—before taking a shot to the chest . . . and another and another.

She looked away, the man’s gun still firing, his expression that of fresh death and his body starting its descent. A large explosion drew her attention to the right where one of the Calrian drones was sliding to a stop in a ball of flame. Within minutes, the other two were down as well. They’d lived short lives, but had taken thousands of Greys from the fight. Courageous deaths, even if the things were unmanned and technically couldn’t be courageous.

“Lexus, behind you!” Aric suddenly screamed.

She looked to his face first, noticing the extreme size of his panicked eyes and the way they didn’t look at her, but rather past her. This was but a glance, for the urgency of his expression bid her spin so quickly that her helmet fell off and her hair waved wildly, slapping Aric’s cheek. Her weapon—a Calrian K-16 assault rifle with a half empty 100-round magazine that, on “burst mode” as it was, would send forth five quick rounds with every trigger pull—was already rising toward whatever threat was approaching from behind.

To her relief, that threat was not quite as near as Aric’s eyes had suggested. Something like 10 of her favorite Reticulan beasts were storming down the mountainside, running so violently that their giant, clawed hands and feet completely obliterated men in their path. Their two arms that weren’t used for running were flailing side-to-side, punching at shooting soldiers and propelling them violently through the air until they struck stones, leaving smears of blood. She began to fire—as did Aric and Raiden and Darren at her sides—but stopped as a familiar face reared itself at the top of the slope.

A new sensation rushed through her veins: the awakening of a deep-seeded hatred. Her fists clenched up without her notice. Her eyes grew wide and her face flush with rage. The Reticulan general scanned the battlefield with his chilling eyes, mounted high upon the back of an enormous beast. He didn’t see her, but she saw him, and instantly she opened fire. To her dismay, he’d gone already, barreling down the hill quite recklessly with each hand firing a miniature version of the standard Grey rifle. Upon his arms, he wore his blades: the same ones used to kill Bradley. She glowered in disgust, wishing she could close her eyes and find herself right by his side with her barrel pressed against his bulbous head.

The general’s steed slashed out and bit and stomped, and he continued shooting from its back, left and right and crossing arms as if it were for sport, the deadly sound rounds of his guns escaping from beneath the extended swords on his gauntlets. Men shot futilely, for this beast was different than the others, sheathed in armor that dinged, and clanked, and sparked but never seemed to give. Humans fell beneath the mauling monster, and others beneath the general’s gunfire.

Soon, the Grey jumped from his high saddle and charged forward. He lashed out with his blades, hewing men down like weeds in his path. Most were preoccupied with the beasts, unaware of his presence before their necks were severed or their backs pierced or their stomachs slit and spewing blood. Lexus wished to fire, but the demon surrounded himself with men, unwittingly blocking her view.

The general moved so skillfully, jumping, slashing, slicing, stabbing, never stuttering in his motions, always transitioning smoothly from one kill to the next, and fast. So fast, in fact, that he was often but a blur of grey amidst the rocky brown background that was slowly turning red. Barbaric and relentless, the general continued, releasing entrails with his razor edges, adding to the clamorous air the clang of sword on iron cap and the ringing grate of his blades upon rifles that were raised in defense. Even when his attacks were blocked, another would come so swiftly and from such a different angle that the helpless soldier could do nothing but watch his guts spill out or his limbs fly free.

Lexus made her way toward the general, avoiding the remaining few beasts and firing, intermittently, downhill where the main mass of Greys was still on the offensive. This main mass was surrounded now, though, and they were taking fire from all sides. Before Lexus could make it within 50 feet of her most-hated target, an uproar of shrieks lifted upon the air, and the army of Greys was scattering, abandoning their clustered arrangement and rushing right toward the trenches and the pillars and the mountainside where humans hid in attack. She fell to her knees behind a nearby rock, more than aware that this new threat was much more pressing than her pursuit of vengeance.

The last beasts were dead—including the armored one who had been taken out with a well-placed frag—and now every soldier around was firing down the mountain at the charging host of Greys. One-by-one, all who gained the slope fell beneath the blanket of gunfire, their bodies tumbling down and piling into a fleshy blockade at the base. Lexus let her bullets rain, piercing swollen heads like dummies on the firing range. Suddenly, a thousand yards away upon the opposite wall of the valley, a landslide began to rumble down in a heap of flying rubble. This interpretation lasted for but a moment before she realized it wasn’t rocks that stirred those clouds of dust: it was an army.

Her heart sank, for just as she’d thought they were gaining the upper hand, here came more Greys to smite them. They were already outnumbered as it was, and with these fresh reinforcements, victory would be nearly impossible. She forced away her hopelessness and sent more bullets down the mountainside. The approaching forces moved with haste, riding upon great mounts that, when they neared, she recognized as carnivorses. But this seemed odd, for the carnivorse was not a Reticulan animal—at least she assumed—but rather one of Andromeda.

Then she saw it, and her confusion died: a long lance rising up from the lead rider’s side, its point protruding from the stomach of a Grey corpse that flopped limply amidst the skewer. And the rider: he was no Grey at all. He was blue. These were allies. Saviors. Andromedans.

They raced past the human forces that crouched behind pillars in the midst of the field. There were thousands of them, their weapons blaring, sending forth streams of red orbs that sizzled and burned when they struck Grey flesh. Lexus couldn’t help but smile, for she had been deep within a pit of doom and, now, was high upon a peak of elation. She continued her own assault, glowing at the sight of the falling Grey army. When her clip ran dry, she fumbled for a fresh one, looking off to her right in search of her companions.

Aric quaked behind the kick of his shotgun, its automatic fire sending spheres of lead balls that spread and sank like fangs into their prey. His mouth was open, baring clenched teeth, and his eyes were glazed and lost within the simplicity of a single trigger pull and hold. His shots attacked like ravenous piranhas, tearing bits of flesh off Greys until they were nothing but warm heaps that looked to never have possibly lived.

Darren knelt behind a stone, his tripod up as he sniped the Greys that were overwhelming the human forces down within the trenches. He, too, was recoiling with each shot, but his face was much more stolid than Aric’s: cold and calculated, not at all amused. This was war. This was death. These things did not amuse him.

Where was Raiden? Lexus couldn’t see him. She finally found a spare clip and jammed it into her rifle. She plucked a few rounds down into the crowd of enemies—just enough to feel accomplished—and then returned to looking for the Fraquian. No luck. But what about the Reticulan general? She’d nearly forgotten about that son of a bitch.

She turned to where she’d last seen him, and of course, he wasn’t there. Farther up: that’s the only way he could have gone. There. There he was. Running like a coward, higher up than all the humans and, hence, unseen as he fled the battle. He vanished up over the hill’s crest, and with his disappearance came an utter feeling of failure. She’d failed to kill the bastard. She’d failed Bradley. She’d missed her chance to avenge his death, and now she could feel only misery and regret.

Death. Maybe it wasn’t so bad. With no family, Bradley was all she’d had. Maybe she’d rejoin him, just stand, spread-armed, and let a Reticulan round find her heart. But no, Aric wouldn’t like that. He’d saved her so many times, it’d be horrible for her to take her own life in spite of it all. And that kid was dreamy-eyed. He liked her. A lot. Who knew what he’d do upon finding her dead. The same thing she had? Possibly. It wasn’t worth the risk, either way.

But then she saw something that lightened her darkness. It was Raiden, up high upon the hillside and running higher. And it wasn’t a run of cowardice as with the general. It was a vigorous, gallant, purposeful run. He was in chase, and the general was his quarry. He stopped upon the very summit, staring out until it seemed he saw what he was searching for. Then he was gone, a determined hunter in the deep of pursuit.

*****

The tunnel dropped down through the holographic image of a stagnant cesspool nestled in mud at the back of a lichen-draped cavern. Its walls were narrow at first, stealing his air, grasping at his burly shoulders. Raiden huffed. He was too restrained, vulnerable, wondering if maybe it wasn’t the best decision to follow the demon back into its underworld. In addition to the insanity of chasing an enemy into its own territory, there was another concern causing him trepidation. His rifle was extra light in his hands, reminding of the click it had made at the end of its most recent bout of fire.

The clip had run dry. Now he had only his sword.

Yet there he was, stealing his way down the twisting passage, rafter after rafter passing overhead as the hectic footsteps of the Reticulan general echoed from afar. The sound was his only means of choosing which corridors to take, and it was growing faint as the Reticulan’s sprint took it farther from his brisk, but cautious, walk. Thinking ahead, Raiden had been scratching the cement floor with the tip of his blade, scoring a line at every corridor intersection that ran from where he’d come to where he was going. Once he killed that Reticulan bastard, he’d need to find his own way back to the surface.

As he rounded the next bend, a voice like darkness engulfed him. “I’d mistaken you for a wise and formidable enemy, but now I see you’re simply a fool at heart. Just like the rest of your kind.”

Raiden passed beneath a carved archway and stopped in the center of a large, circular room with a high ceiling, dull lights, and tiered benches of black metal lining the walls. Looking toward the far end of the room, he could see an opening into what appeared to be a dark tunnel beneath the seats. At first, he assumed the general had gone into that tunnel, but now that he was closer, it was clear that the opening led to but a single, small room. His only exit was in the direction from whence he had come, and now he could hear a voice calling to him from uknown origin. He realized too late that he was not chasing his enemy. Instead, his enemy had been luring him into a trap.

Raiden made no abrupt motion at the sounding of the words in his head. He kept his face forward, scanning as much of the room as he could but seeing no one and nothing: only nicks, and scratches, and dark stains like old blood on the concrete floor. At his feet, a rusty smear spread about a large gash in the stone. Only gruesome thoughts came to mind.

“Did you really think you could follow me without detection? I could feel your malintent nipping at my heels.”

Raiden gripped his weapon and shifted his feet, watching the room behind him scroll in the reflection on his blade. It would be sheathed in blood soon.

“Where are you?” he screamed. Even as his voice still echoed from the shadows, footsteps sounded at his back, and metal twanged, and his muscles tensed in preparation for that to come. He spun to face the motion, his blade outstretched and prepared to slice the approaching attacker. Nothing but empty space struck its edge. Raiden narrowed his eyes

He regretted ignoring his intuitions. Coming here had been a rash decision, fueled far more by emotion than logic. He hadn’t known Bradley, but seeing Lexus in such pain had been enough to make him hate the general as much as she. Well, probably not as much. Probably not even close. But he sincerely wanted the Grey’s head on a plate. There was no doubt about that.

Raiden began to turn—slowly, quietly, uncertainly—waiting for the moment that his narrowed eyes would meet the general’s at his place somewhere within the bleachers at his back. The seats were empty.

“Where are you?” he repeated.

“Ahh, that’s right. You humans are so stupid that you cannot trace the source of telepathic communication. How amusing. Sad, really.”

“Stop with flattery and show yourself.”

“As I said: a fool, indeed.”

At his back came the scuffling of boots, and Raiden turned as the Reticulan general emerged from the shadows. First came the brilliant points of two blades, materializing from the darkness until golden gauntlets came forth and then arms and then an evil face. The general’s hands wielded guns, aimed, as the swords, at Raiden’s head.

“In your eyes, I may be a fool, but in mine you’re a coward, and that’s far worse.”

“A coward? Such an accusation is only further testament to your stupidity.

“You fled like a scared child at the sight of the Andromedans. You deserted your army and left them to die. That’s a coward, no matter what part of the universe you’re from.”

“I did not desert my army, for I was to never have been by their side in the first place. I’m a general. My place is not on the battlefield, and yet I went and fought. My departure was one of logic, not of fear. Survival is key. This is true of all creatures. We live to keep living and we procreate so that, even after death, a part of us lives on. I left in logical reference to this underlying truth. I know what it takes to survive. You, on the contrary, seem to be a bit confused on the matter.”

To Raiden, the gaze of the general’s guns became increasingly grim, their firing ever more imminent. “If you’re no coward, then lower your guns.” As Raiden spoke, he released the empty clip from his SWUN’s frame and let it bounce upon the ground. “I see you’re a fellow swordsman. Fight me honorably, unless your survival instincts tell you it’s a fight that you can’t win.”

Raiden grinned tauntingly and the general glowered. His face was laced with such contempt that Raiden needed no superior perception to detect it.

“You pitiful scum. Your size will be of no use to you once I’ve parted your legs from your waist. Did you not watch as I rushed into battle, solitarily? Did you not watch as I unraveled intestines, and tore out hearts, and severed heads like a god among your men? No, I’m no coward; I’m fearless, and you’re now to suffer the pain of that reality. Prepare yourself for the agonizing sting of my blades as I run them across your pasty flesh.”

“It seems your head is swollen in more ways than one,” said Raiden, raising his sword before his face so that its silver image cut through that of the fuming Grey. “Maybe your neck needs relieved of the extra weight.”

“Not even the smallest part of me believes that you can stand toe-to-toe with my blades.”

“Well, that’s okay. With all your apparent wisdom, I still have something to teach you. Doubting your enemy won’t protect you from him. Now come get your lesson, you grey piece of shit.”

With his words, Raiden’s knees bent, and one foot dropped back, and his muscles tensed in anticipation of the first strike, which would come soon, for the general was already charging with fire in his eyes.

It was somewhat of a double attack that started the assault, the general jumping as he approached, one sword straight out to stab, the other cocked over his head to slice. Raiden sidestepped the impaling tip and shook beneath the force of the other sword dropped down upon his guarding SWUN. He blinked at the shrill chime of their colliding steel, pushing and ducking as the general’s other sword came swiping horizontally toward his neck. Once the blade had passed overhead, Raiden lunged forward at the Grey, using the length of his rifle as a ram that drove the smaller fighter backward on wobbly feet. He pursued with his blade at point, thrusting it forcefully toward his enemy’s armored chest.

The general turned as the sword came toward, gasping as its edge screeched along his breastplate. He followed through his evasive rotation with a swinging blade that, again, whistled just over Raiden’s bowing head, then flew back again from another hard shove, this time tumbling down as his feet failed to catch. Raiden rushed forward and plunged his sword upon the Grey, grunting with the blow as it chipped the concrete where once a head had been. The general was rolling, scurrying away, and Raiden traced his path with the cracked stone of failed slashes, each one finding the ground just a moment too late.

In an extra-quick motion, the Grey flopped away and rolled to his feet, jumping into a back handspring as Raiden’s sword swiped upward at his groin. Raiden kept on him, slicing and stabbing with nothing but the sound of ringing metal as his blows were parried skillfully. Somehow, the general weaseled around to Raiden’s back, and Raiden groaned as the Grey dug a spinning elbow into his spine, emptying his lungs of air. Momentarily, his SWUN threatened to fall from his grasp, and he fumbled desperately to maintain possession. Catching it securely, he took a giant leap forward before turning to where the general’s swords were just cutting the air that should have been him. Both blades finished their motions and then descended on him simultaneously, testing his strength as he blocked them, his SWUN braced by bent arms that trembled.

Still straining to hold off the general’s swords, Raiden kicked out a foot and smashed his assailant’s right knee backward. The blow was a surprise, and the pain was intense, and the general let up and hunkered back from the man, falling to a crouch. Again, Raiden kicked, this time a punt that nearly decapitated the hunched Grey’s bulbous skull and hurled him to his back. Blood leaked from his nose to further stain the floor. He was coughing and blinking and seemingly dazed, so Raiden sprang forward to finish him off.

His SWUN was raised high and prepared to plummet but fell prematurely from his grasp as the general lashed swiftly out, a razor edge grazing the bone of his shin, burning, and bleeding, and stunning at once. The Grey stuck again, still from his back, slitting a gash in the meat of Raiden’s calf while the Fraquian dove to regain his weapon. The arena resonated with a bellowing cry, but Raiden had no time to react any more than this, for the general was standing to pounce for the kill.

Raiden’s naked hands rejoiced at the feel of his fallen weapon, gripping and pulling and pushing it out again as a sword came down to smite his face. The plunging blade had nearly succeeded, its glinting edge now hovering at the tips of Raiden’s eyelashes, held at bay only by the opposing force of his guarding SWUN. Though Raiden struggled from his back, he was bigger and stronger than the Grey, able to resist the sword’s descent and even force it back up against the effort of its wielder. With the giant boot of his uninjured leg, Raiden kicked up into the general’s stomach and hoisted him off of his feet like a doll, hurling him overhead to the ground.

Ignoring the pain, Raiden stood. The general was already up and coming toward him with arm blades pointed. Raiden shuffled back in shock at the sudden charge, his mind unable to think of a counterattack before his instincts said to retreat. By the shape of the room, he could tell without looking behind that the first row of benches was coming up at his heels. He stepped up onto the rise—easily because the benches were made for small beings—and jumped as two swords came slicing at his legs.

The pain of his lacerated calf had since numbed with adrenaline, so landing did nothing but bring more blood to trickle down into his boot. This was good, too, for the blades came back around for another go and he had to jump again, this time retreating farther up to the next tier of seats. Raiden lashed out with his own sword, but the general deflected the blows and continued slashing at the Fraquian’s legs as he’d mentioned he would. Raiden withdrew higher still, and this pattern continued—abounding with grunts and gasps and sharp twangs—until the two were nearly at the top of the bleachers.

The coming wall filled Raiden with anxiety, imploring him to figure a different method of evasion for soon he’d have no higher step to which he could retreat. This was when the general decided to make a change, stabbing instead of slicing so that Raiden, upon jumping, recognized a new opening. Instead of moving higher with his leap, he slammed his huge feet back down upon the same bench, trapping, beneath them, the general’s swords. There was a look of pure shock upon the Grey’s dark face, and then it was dread as he struggled, for a moment, to pull his arm blades free from beneath the titan of a man. It was only a moment that he struggled, not because he’d given up hope but because Raiden had instantly brought his sword swinging in a downward arc and its quick edge had severed the general’s pinned arms like two taut strings.

The general fell back as he yanked at thin air with his two bleeding stumps, his eyes growing faint at the fleeting sight of his gauntlets dangling from beneath Raiden’s feet with half an arm in each. He fell, and he hit hard, and he continued to fall, somersaulting down the layered benches with streams of blood trailing his entire descent. When finally he landed and stopped on the cement, he lay motionless. Raiden hobbled down the steps, his heart racing and his breaths escaping in raspy bursts. Is it over? Is he dead?

As he came upon the final step, the general began to writhe, coughing and groaning in a crimson puddle. He had no arms, and hence no weapons, and hence he posed no threat at all. Raiden walked casually to the dying Grey’s side.
“Don’t kill me,” the general pleaded. He was actually speaking. He looked up with his enormous black eyes, and they pierced straight to Raiden’s heart and grabbed at it, begging. “Please, don’t kill me.”

Part of Raiden wanted to cut off the bastard’s head. Another part wanted to just kick him over and over. Another part—by far the most characteristic of his parts—thought that maybe the punishment had been dealt and the violence was done. This creature was squirming in its own blood, croaking at the intimacy of Death, no arms, no hope: as helpless as a landed fish with a gasping mouth and bulging eyes. It wouldn’t feel right to hurt him further. Even in the dark of war, there was room for mercy, or so he believed.

“I won’t kill you,” Raiden said, and the general’s face relaxed, and his eyes grew kind, and a warm energy began to radiate from his being. He struggled to sit up and then started to speak, but the crack of a rifle roared above his voice and blew a hole in his massive forehead. Quite instantly, he dropped to his back in a splash of blood and moved no more.

“But I sure as fuck will,” Lexus screamed from the doorway, her rifle streaming smoke and a sober look upon her face that masked the ecstasy of triumph. “That was for Bradley, you son of a bitch.”

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