No matter how real something seems,
Or how much one believes it true,
The facts may differ far and wide,
Deceit can lead millions askew.
It was a cool night on Arth’s Highland Base. The wind whipped freely through the streets, whistling from shadowed corners and dragging leaves along rough stone, the rustle of their travel barely audible above the ghostly soprano. The fortress stood upon a large plateau, protected from attack by steep cliffs but all the more vulnerable to the sharp bite of Centrum’s midnight breeze. The central building served as the main headquarters for all Arthian activities on the planet, as well as the residence of General Barry Stoops, the man appointed by President Rogers to lead and supervise Arth’s colonization efforts. It was a monstrous edifice whose outer gate was built within a tall stone barrier encircling the HQ. Guard towers ribbed the wall, reaching 30 feet into the air, each equipped with a sniper, at all times, as well as a spotlight projecting visibility into the darkened surroundings.
Presently, one of these watchmen sat in the eastern tower, leaning back in his chair with a minced leaf of androweed rolled in a strip of paper and wedged between his lips. He inhaled deeply and held for a few seconds before releasing the breath through his nostrils, a cloud of smoke barely taking form before the wind swept it away. It was 10 minutes into the third hour of his eight-hour shift. He killed the time as most soldiers did: sucking on a nice psychoactive treat and enjoying the buzz with some quiet techno beats. His Hexler M-110 sniper rifle sat on its bipod upon the desktop before him, its clip filled with .50 caliber rounds and a full box of extras in the drawer to his right. He didn’t know why he had so much ammo; there was no one to shoot.
His spotlight was the only real light on that side of the compound because it was late and the housing units outside the wall had already shut down. It was a one-moon night too, meaning, in this case, that only Fraq’s pale glow broke the black sky while Arth and Calri were lost to the other side of Centrum. The night’s shadows loomed tangibly darker, but they couldn’t resist the white circle he cast about the sidewalk a hundred feet out. He targeted this particular spot so that the patrolling sentries would cross through the light on their routine rounds and either wave or flip him off, depending on their mood. It was always one or the other, so he’d made a game of it to guess which would come. Every five minutes, a guard strolled by and made their chosen gesture as they passed beneath the limelight, but at that moment, it had been six minutes since the last man had come around.
As the guards were characteristically a punctual breed, this tardiness did not go unnoticed. The sniper lowered his chair from its balancing position on its back two legs and leaned forward to gaze through his rifle’s scope. Maybe the delay had good reason. Maybe the guard had eaten tacos earlier, and his upset stomach had forced him to the bushes for an unexpected diarrheal conniption. This was his hope at least. He wasn’t accustomed to actually serving his role as a vigilant lookout. In fact, he wasn’t sure if he even knew what to do now, especially with the androweed flowing through his nervous system.
His scope was nearly useless in the dark, so he activated its night vision mode and illuminated the world in shades of green. There was nothing extraordinary in the vicinity—other than the fact that there was nothing in the vicinity, of course. Two immediate buildings, each made from stone bricks and separated by a thin alleyway extending out of his field of vision: these and the trampled dirt patrol path were the only items of note. He pulled his eye away from the scope and reached for his radio. It was approaching seven minutes since the last sentry’s pass. This, he feared, was no taco’s fault.
“Command, come in. This is Private Marquez at watch in eastern tower number two.”
“This is Command. Proceed, Private Marquez.”
“Something doesn’t feel right. I haven’t seen a patrolman pass by for a while, so I’m worried something’s wrong. As of now, the next guard is two minutes behind schedule. Not something I’ve dealt with before.”
“All right, Private. Thanks for the update. Keep your eyes open, and alert us of any new developments. We’ll send some men to investigate.”
Marquez set the radio on the desk and stood to jut his head out beyond the plane of the tower. As he did so, a faint noise caught his ear from the distance to his left: nothing blatantly alarming, just new. He retreated back into the tower to stop the music and then returned, his hand cupped about his left ear, trying to catch and concentrate the faded sound. It was still indistinct but growing louder and more familiar each second. Rustling grass, he soon discerned. Someone was running toward him.
Before he could grab his rifle, the approaching figure broke into his spotlight’s beam and stopped to face him. The man was tall and built, his frame bearing a black Arthian uniform and one hand waving above his head while the other grasped his throat. It wasn’t the usual wave Marquez was used to seeing: more of a frantic flailing of the arm. It appeared as though the man wanted to scream—to give some sort of warning—but he said nothing. Marquez deactivated his night vision and zoomed for a closer look, and in that instant, the profusion of blood became apparent.
The man’s waving hand dripped with red and glistened in the light. Blood spilled between the fingers that grasped his throat and fell to stain the ground. An expression of terror gripped the soldier’s face, and though his bulging eyes pleaded for aid, Marquez was too far away to respond.
“Command, this is Private Marquez. The guard showed up, and he’s hurt real bad!” Marquez was yelling, his voice a jumble of fear and confusion. The radio trembled uncontrollably in his grip. “He’s a hundred feet out from eastern tower two, and it appears his throat’s been cut. No suspects in sight—just him. He needs a medic ASAP. He’s bleeding out.”
“Roger that, Private. We’re sending an assault team with a medic close behind. For now, we need you on that rifle scanning the area for hostiles.”
“I’m on it.”
Before the last words had passed his lips, Marquez was already grabbing for his gun and digging its butt securely into the pit of his arm. No sooner had his finger reactivated night vision than did a burst of automatic fire ring out in the night. The soldier in the spotlight took a bullet to the head and slumped over, another round striking his chest before he hit the ground and lay unmoving. The flash of the attacker’s gun appeared for only a moment, but Marquez had seen it and swiveled his rifle in its direction. Within the tunnel of his scope, he saw a man’s torso rushing toward the downed soldier, but it was a blur. He zoomed out to see the suspect’s entire image but was unable to keep an eye on the sprinting figure.
Steadily, Marquez’s rifle turned about its axis as he trailed the fleeing man back toward the light source. The haze of motion rendered the assailant’s identity unclear, but abruptly, that haze sharpened as the target came to a halt amidst the bright spotlight. The area was too intensely lit for night vision, so Marquez flipped it off at once and finally distinguished the identity of his chase.
The man was tall—a giant, in fact—with a full head of blonde hair and a thick beard that continued down beneath the neckline of his black outfit. He stood over the fallen Arthian for but a moment, as if posing for a picture, and then vanished into the darkness just as Marquez released a shot into the dirt beyond.
“Damn it!” he huffed, reactivating night mode and instantly realizing he was too late. The man had vanished. Marquez’s face grew hot. He grabbed his radio. “I had visual on the suspect, but he got away. Keep the assault team coming, but forget the medic. Our guy’s gone.”
He leaned into his seatback and released a sigh of defeat, his mind muddled with images and questions: the dead soldier’s anguished face, his personal failure to avenge the man’s murder, the inexplicable reasoning behind the suspect’s intentional romp beneath the spotlight. The radio crackled from his desktep.
“Roger that, Private.” The voice on the other end came slowly, quietly. Sadness loomed beneath feigned composure. “Can you identify the attacker?” Marquez sat silently for a few moments. He tried to slow his heart rate with some deep breaths. He could still see the image of that titan standing there beneath the light, smiling over his victim’s lifeless body, taunting. Marquez would never forget it. The man’s hair, size, attire: the pieces of the puzzle were quite simple to assemble, really. “Private Marquez, are you still there?”
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“Can you identify the attacker?”
“Yes I can.” He paused another moment to finalize his conclusion within his own head. “It was a Fraquian soldier.”
There was a period of silence as his words registered on the other end.
“What? The Fraquians are our allies.” The voice was almost skeptical. “Are you sure?”
Marquez closed his eyes and questioned himself for a moment. When he opened them again, the first thing they saw was the body in distance, sprawled out amidst a growing pool of blood that extended into the shadows. He clenched his jaw in anger. “I’m positive,” he responded boldly. “It was a fuckin’ yeti with a damn assault rifle. Trust me, he was Fraquian.”
“Very well. Nice work, Private. Please come to HQ so you can be debriefed. Another soldier is on his way to relieve you.”
“Oh, and Private?”
“You’re not to speak a word of this. The incident remains classified for now. This is very sensitive information. The kind of stuff that starts wars.”
Meanwhile, 500 miles northeast
“Mammal, reptile, reptile, insect,” Isaac mumbled.
He had been pent up in his lab for nearly five hours with boxes upon boxes of bagged fossils that had been recovered by archeologists in the area over the last few months. While they were stuck with the tedious job of discovering and extracting the remains of ancient Centrumian life, he was blessed with the exciting task of classifying each creature’s taxonomy in terms of conventional nomenclature. In all seriousness, he was starting to wish he were a fossil so he didn’t have to deal with any of it anymore.
With a black marker, he wrote some biological jargon on a blank white sticker and pressed it to a nearby plastic bag:
Amblyrhynchus cristatus coprolite
He didn’t know why it had to take so many letters to correctly convey the fact that the bag contained a piece of petrified shit from some kind of marine iguana. It was the high phosphate content that gave it away, along with the traces of sea weed and algae. The turd, he figured, could be utilized in the manufacturing of munitions and bombs because of its highly flammable components. He imagined, for a moment, pitching the idea to his friends in the military. “Coprolite grenades: they blow shit up!” It had a nice ring to it. He chuckled and set the fossilized feces into a box with the rest of the labeled remains.
As he reached for the next bag to continue the monotony, his radio suddenly perked up with an acute spray of static and a deep, commanding voice.
“Attention Fraquian forces. All military personnel are advised to stay armed and vigilant. Two soldiers have just been shot dead near the fountain at the southern gate. The three attackers were identified by reliable witnesses as Calrian assassins, clothed in grey and last seen heading south toward the outskirts of the complex. The suspects have likely fled the compound, but there remains the possibility of other enemies in the area or that this particular group will return.
“Additional security measures have already been taken, and turret trucks have been sent in pursuit of the guilty. If they’re near, we’re gonna get ’em. Stay at arms until we’ve confirmed that the threat is removed. Furthermore, it is imperative that this news be kept from civilian knowledge for the time being. The last thing we want is mass panic amongst the people. General Glaskgow, over and out.”
Isaac pulled his face from the radio and rose from the chair he had moved to sit in. Confusion plagued his mind. Why did Calri attack them? It was an inexplicable and unwarranted assault, and now two young men—who never dreamed that the day would be their last—lay dead for no reason in the yard. There would surely be hell to pay, and if he knew the Fraquian military—which he did—retaliation would seek not only to avenge their loss but also to set an example for all to see.
Isaac tapped his foot in thought, and finally, he gave in to the urge to quench his curiosity. General Glaskgow was a close friend. They had served together in the same battalion back in the day. He could surely provide some more details as to what had happened and what was to come. Isaac’s phone sat on the corner of his desk, behind the box with the petrified iguana feces.
He moved the box to the ground and picked up the phone. “Yes, this is Dr. Isaac Peterson. I need to speak with General Glaskgow, immediately.”
“The general is quite occupied at the moment, sir.”
“Don’t give me that. His big, grumpy ass is probably standing over your right shoulder at this very moment?”
Taken aback, the man on the other end paused for a moment and then groaned the beginnings of a sentence he hadn’t thought up yet. “Umm, excuse me, sir. Who should I say is calling, again?”
“I’m a friend. Just tell him it’s the animal man. He’ll know who you mean.” Isaac waited for a few moments as the soldier on the other line relayed his identity to the general, who apparently was standing right beside him.
A deep, raspy “ha-ha” came from the far end and made him grin as the general grabbed for the phone and spoke. “Isaac, you demanding bastard. What’s this about?”
“I heard about the Calrian attack. I want to know what happened. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“Where did you hear that? I gave strict orders that this episode remain between military personnel only.”
“I know I’m theoretically considered a civilian nowadays, but my veins still run with military blood. I remember how much stuff I knew back then and how little of it ever reached the ears of the everyday man. Ignorance is one of my biggest fears, Gary. I can’t deny myself knowledge, and I refuse to let others manipulate my access to it.”
“Okay, Isaac. All that’s fine, but it doesn’t tell me how you came to hear about the attack.”
“Oh yes. Well, I borrowed a CB radio from the military surplus room. It was getting dusty, so I figured it could use a better home.”
“And how did you pull that one off, you crafty bastard?”
“Yours isn’t the only life I saved back in the day, General. I cashed in on a favor. That’s all.”
“So tell me what happened out there. Do we know for certain that the Calrians are responsible?”
“The two young men, Private Grillis and Private Stewart, weren’t even scheduled on guard duty today. It was believed, given the placement of their bodies, that they were simply standing and conversing by the fountain. They were found without any weapons on them, so it’s clear that they were killed in cold blood and without provocation. Multiple bullet wounds were found in the victims, but no shots were heard. We believe the murder weapons were silenced pistols of some sort.
“Their bodies were discovered by two sentries who claimed to have seen a group of three short men fleeing by foot from the vicinity. They didn’t shoot after them because they were too far away and their main concern lay with the dying soldiers. In some of his last breaths, Private Stewart specified that it was indeed a group of Calrian soldiers that had attacked them. As soon as I was informed of the incident, I sent a special ops team with two turret trucks to track down the culprits and hopefully capture them alive for questioning. They’re out there now searching. That’s all I’ve got for you.”
“Wow, this is bad.” Isaac ran his fingers through his hair and then returned to anxiously stroking his beard. “Have you and your team thought up any reasons why the Calrians would do something like this?”
“We know too little at this point to speculate. I intend on speaking with the president as soon as he wakes. I already tried him once, but his secretary said he was sleeping. As soon as we have opportunity to discuss the event, I’m sure I’ll have a clearer picture on where we go from here.”
“Okay, I understand. Thanks for speaking with me, Gary. I know things are probably hectic there at HQ right now. Is there anything you’d like me to do?”
“Actually, I need to go. I’m getting an incoming call from an untraceable number. We’ll talk again soon.”
“Sounds good. Good luck, General.”
Isaac’s words were too late. The dial tone was already humming. He looked at the phone for a second and then placed it back on its hook. He grabbed the next fossil bag and leaned back in his seat with its contents held up to his eye. The chair pivoted backward with his weight and then sprung forward slightly. He rocked like this, back and forth, staring intently at the fossil. He could tell right away that it was a reptile: a snake, in fact. It was so easy for him. Why then, he wondered, hadn’t he realized that the Calrians were snakes as well? He continued rocking. He was done with fossils for the day. Now, there was more important shit to think about.
From a distance, the base looked impenetrable, its walls tall and unyielding, trimmed with coils of razor wire and thick enough for snipers to lay prone along its top. Calrian soldiers moved frantically beyond its gates. President Brownstein steadied his binoculars, his breath fogging in the chilled air as it floated before his sight. He wondered what the commotion was all about, why they moved with such excitement, their faces betraying inner nervousness.
Then he noticed something new. The soldiers carried swollen cloth sacks, filled to the brim with an unknown substance. Whatever it was, he realized, it had them happier than pigs in shit and more paranoid than a schizophrenic in a camera shop. As if his curiosity had willed it, a soldier suddenly tripped and fell, his sack striking the ground and exploding in a burst of paper money. Brownstein gasped, his interest piqued.
All that money, he thought to himself. Where did they get all that money?
He moved his binoculars to a different side of the complex and, once again, was shocked by what he saw. The Arthians were there, too. Many of them. They pushed wheelbarrows filled with some kind of shiny silver metal, advancing in a line through the far gate of the Calrian fortress. They were leaving. Their eyes, as well, shifted uneasily as if they feared being seen. The outer wall of their own base, he suddenly noticed, was only a short distance away from where they came.
Brownstein lowered his binoculars and saw, in the distance, a plume of smoke rising into the sky. The smoke billowed forth from the back of a large digging machine whose jointed arm descended into the earth. Its claw emerged with a handful of that same silver metal, but it was the Calrians who were mining. The situation suddenly made sense to him.
The Calrians owned land in which this precious metal could be found, and they were selling it, at great profit, to the Arthians. The two parties were nervous, because he—the President of Fraq—was being excluded from the dealings. In fact, he had no idea what the metal even was. Was it some kind of radioactive element for bomb construction? Could it be utilized as a form of energy source or fuel? Was it extremely hard and thus useful for building weapons, and vehicles, and defenses? These questions ran through his mind, but not as overwhelmingly as the one that made his blood begin to sear the veins through which it flowed. Why were they operating behind his back?
He began to imagine the worst. He knew that, whatever that metal was, he wanted it, and since it appeared to be so valuable and his supposed “allies” didn’t want to cut him in on the deal, he was going to take it—all of it. He rose to stand, his figure unnoticed on the outlying hill. He couldn’t take control of the land himself, but he was the president of an entire planet with an entire planet’s worth of soldiers to command. The sound of chatter stirred him to turn, and there, dispersed atop the back side of the mound, his army stood at arms and waiting.
“Kill those traitors, and get me that metal!” he demanded. His voice carried in the breeze and spread about the sea of men, ushering forth their forward march. They approached the top of the hill and spilled over to the other side, sprinting now with rifles aimed. “Fire!”
With his command, their rifles sounded in unison, an incessant barrage bringing great explosions about the walls of the enemy bases. Stones crumbled beneath the hail of bullets, and adversaries collapsed in pools of dirty blood. The carnage did not register in his mind, for all he thought of was the metal, and the money, and the land that he would gain.
As his men stormed the compounds like a horde of vicious ants, a strong rumbling began within the hill on which he stood. Brownstein glanced down at his feet where the grass began to part and the soil to rattle. From beneath him rose up a black platform, the dirt on its face vibrating around his boots as it shook and lifted him high above the action. He gazed out at his army. The men were done fighting, for they had accomplished the seige, and now they worked diligently to rebuild the damaged structures as their own. When he looked down again, it was not a platform on which he stood but a throne on which he sat. This change, as with the carnage, did not register.
His men cheered and chanted in their victory, eyes set fixed and revering on their towering leader. Brownstein smiled, and laughed, and lifted his open palms in the air to feel the vibrations of their praise: the pulse of his power. Although it was but a single victory at a single location, in his mind he knew, without question, that all of Centrum was now his. All of its land, all of its hidden resources, all of its potential was now for him and his people. He was as free as ever up there upon that throne with the resonance of his grateful men and the wind of his new planet surrounding every molecule of his being.
Out of the exaltation came a sudden ringing. The sound was louder than the cheers, as if directly in his ear. He recognized it but couldn’t quite determine what it was. It rang and stopped and rang and stopped until finally he had it.
Forcing open the eyes he hadn’t realized were closed, President Brownstein roused from sleep and threw from his body the cool, silken sheets that covered him. As he crunched to sit up, he glanced at the clock that hung on his door. It was 4:00 AM, the time of the night when his secretary was instructed not to let calls through. It wasn’t his office phone, though. It was his personal phone.
With a quick, annoyed swipe of the arm, he snatched his phone from the nightstand to his left. “This is President Brownstein.”
“Hello, Mr. President. This is General Glaskgow. I apologize for disturbing you at such an early hour. I know you’re probably sleeping because your secretary wouldn’t redirect me no matter what I said, but this is too important to wait.”
“You’re right. I was sleeping. But if you’re going to call me on my personal phone and wake me nonetheless, I’m sure there must be a good reason. Tell me what’s going on, General.”
“President Rogers of Arth is on the other line and wishes to speak with you. He says that the matter is of grave importance and can’t wait until the morning.”
Brownstein shrugged his eyebrows in surprise. “Okay, buzz him into the conversation. You set your phone down, though, so that we can speak privately.”
“Okay, sir, but before I bring him on, I think you should know that two of our men were shot and killed today by a group of three hostiles. We have no suspects in custody and no ideas as to why they would have done this, but one of the victims was able to confirm, before passing, that the attackers were Calrian soldiers.”
“What? Calrian?” The president’s tone was of surprise and anger. He paused in silence for a few moments as images of his dream flashed in his mind. “We’ll discuss this more later. Let’s not keep President Rogers waiting. Put him through.”
“Right away, sir.”
The receiver clicked, and the line went quiet for a moment before clicking again to cue Brownstein’s salutation. “Hello, President Rogers. This is President Brownstein speaking.”
“All right, Brownstein, let’s skip the pretentious formalities and get down to the reason I’m calling, which I’m sure you’re already well aware of. I need to know—”
“Stop right there, Mr. President,” Brownstein interrupted. “It appears we’re not on the same level here. Let’s get one thing straight, first. You’ve called me in the middle of sleep to talk, so given your intrusion, you’ll address me in a respectable manner or I’ll send you back to speak with General Glaskgow. Secondly, you’re in no position for speculation as to what I am and am not aware of. In this case, you’re incorrect because I have no idea why in the world the president of Arth would need so urgently to talk to me at such an hour of the night.”
“You’re right, we’re clearly not on the same level because, in my opinion, when an assassin is sent to kill one of your men, you call that assassin’s commander and you give him hell; you don’t talk pretty. And I’m inclined to believe you know exactly what I’m talking about . . . Mr. President.”
“An assassin? Killed one of your soldiers?”
“Yes, earlier in the night.”
“Well, he certainly wasn’t one of ours, and I don’t appreciate your assuming such.”
“We have an eyewitness—a sniper on scene with a clear view—who swears his life on it. The man was a Fraquian dressed in your military’s apparel, so whether you did or did not authorize the attack, it was made, and it was made on your behalf. If you won’t own up to what you’ve done, and you won’t look to right this wrong, then I don’t know what to say. You’re forcing my hand. I’ll have no other choice but to retaliate.”
Brownstein scoffed. “Now you listen to me, you smug little asshole. You best not even consider attacking any of my men or my facilities, because if you do, you’re gonna find yourself in a war you won’t win. As of now, I’m giving you one last chance to withdraw your threat and preserve our alliance. I can guarantee that Fraq, if you accept, will bring only benefit to your affairs on Centrum. If you deny, then I can’t guarantee a preemptive strike will not promptly ensue.”
“What nerve! You’ve made this decision an easy one, Brownstein. The alliance is dead, and no matter how confident you are and how doubtful you may be, so are your plans on Centrum. We’re done here.”
President Brownstein slapped his phone shut—before his new enemy could hang up on him—and then tossed it across the room. He sat on the edge of his bed, hunched over with his hands in his lap and his gaze the same. That didn’t go well. His breaths were quick, his mind clouded so much with rage that he tried to think but couldn’t. He stroked his lengthy, white beard as was customary when he was angered. The motion usually helped his stress subside, but not this time.
After a minute, he glanced to the clock but couldn’t read its hands. The light from his window was casting a glare about its face. He was confused because it had been clearly decipherable just a few minutes before. It was the door, he noticed. It was opened slightly, the new angle allowing the light to reflect obstructively off the attached clock’s face. A light breeze flowed in from the hallway beyond, its touch cooling his flushed skin. He scratched his head.
Before the thought had much time to stew, his phone burst into sound again. He jumped from his bed and rushed across the room where the device roared obnoxiously from the carpeted floor. He answered it. “This is President Brownstein.”
“Yes, Mr. President, this is General Glaskgow again. Sorry to keep bothering you, but as soon as your conversation with President Rogers ended, I received a call from President Titus of Calri. He’s on the other line and he sounds irate. I wanted to give him a piece of my mind, but I bit my tongue. I figure that’s your place.”
“What does that prick want? I thought he’d be avoiding me if anything.”
“I don’t know, sir. He’s demanding to speak with you.”
“Okay, put the little guy through. Oh, and I almost forgot. Ready our troops for combat. It appears we’ve got ourselves a confirmed enemy in Arth, and as things look now, we’re about to earn ourselves another.”