Sometimes friendship is the guise,
Of love unwelcomed, feared, unknown,
It could be foolish, shallow, weak,
Or strong and built deep in the bone.
A billow of smoke spread before Lexus’ face, its form so transient that it went unnoticed. For just that moment, its interior ignited in orange radiance from the tails of flame that intersected its core. From this unseen splendor birthed a zipping bullet at the height of its velocity and the commencement of its flight. In her grip, the pistol felt just right: solid, steady, confident, true. Even as this bullet still passed amongst the cloud of smoke—before it’d even moved a foot—she knew in her bones that the man’s skull was a goner.
Not just one, but three shots she fired through the trees to find her unsuspecting targets. The first found rest inside a brain, the latter two in chest and throat. A scarlet fluid seeped from wounds that would never heal. It wasn’t blood, but something else. She emptied her clip into the bodies: a clear overkill, but she was practicing. When the echo of her final shot faded from the air, she lowered her firearm and peeked to her left where Bradley stood freshly finished, as well, with a proud smirk upon his face.
“They don’t shoot back, Bradley,” she said. “Don’t get too full of yourself.”
He smiled and released his empty clip from within the pistol’s grip, catching it in free fall and sliding it into his pocket. His hand emerged, instantly, with a full clip that he jammed back in place while lifting his gun and blasting 10 quick rounds down range. Lexus watched his bullets impale the evasive mannequins, each one finding its mark as easily as a bum to a blubeer. He was good, but she refused to think he was better.
Bradley glanced at her with a quick flicker of the eyebrows and holstered his piece at his side. “When I hit every target with a 95% kill rate, I think I’m allowed to be a little full of myself. It doesn’t matter if those things could shoot back or not. They’d be dead before they got the chance.”
“Maybe so,” Lexus replied, “but I guarantee that if you stood out in the open like you just did, you wouldn’t make it away from the exchange without a hole in you somewhere. Face it. There’s nothing like a true gunfight. Standing there with your giddy little smile and all the time in the world, no danger, no fear: you can’t compare it.”
“Yeah, well I guess we’ll see what I’m really made of pretty soon,” Bradley said, glancing at his watch. “We’ve got less than an hour till we leave for Centrum.”
“Oh wow, you’re right. I hadn’t even noticed the time pass. You know what’s funny about us, Bradley?”
“Well, I know you scrunch your nose up real little when you smile. Not one of those fake ones, but when you really smile.”
Lexus giggled and her nose curled into a tiny ball.
Bradley grinned. “But when you say ‘us,’ I’m assuming you mean a trait that we both share. In that case, I’m gonna say I have no clue what you’re talking about.”
“The funny thing about us is that we’re here at the firing range, spending what could be our last hour on Calri firing slugs into some jelly-filled mannequins and arguing about who’s better at shooting.” She paused to look around at the empty range. They were the only ones there. “Everyone else is with their families, kissing their loved ones goodbye, possibly crying that they may never see each other again.”
Bradley nodded in contemplation. “Well,” he began, “we could kiss each other.” He said it sincerely, trying hard not to crack a smile and laugh to protect himself from rejection. He meant it, and he wanted her to know that.
Lexus stared at him for a few seconds, waiting for him to slip that lighthearted grin on his face as he always did. She realized it wasn’t coming and smiled to ease the tension. “We’re not even going to be leaving each other. You’re sitting next to me on the ship.”
Bradley knew that if she was going to make excuses, then it wasn’t happening. He fell back on his usual humor to save face. “So? I think we should still do it. Makes sense to me.”
“Please, Bradley. I’m too used to punching your mouth. I can’t be kissing it.”
She spun away from him, her dark hair floating on the air and brushing his face with the scent of flowers. She couldn’t tell if she was shutting him down to preserve their friendship or if she was playing hard to get. Her feelings for him were a bit blurred. She decided it was the friendship thing. They’d known each other too long.
Bradley lingered behind for a moment, his eyes closed to remove sight and focus solely on her delicious aroma.
“You sleeping, Bradley?” Lexus asked from the doorway. “Save that for the ride.”
“You’re right. I should wait till you’re next to me so we can fall asleep together.”
Lexus grinned. “You’re too sweet. Let’s hope you sour up on the battlefield so I don’t have to hold your hand the whole way.”
Bradley rubbed his chin in thought. “Naw, I think I like that idea. Holding hands in the heat of battle as we use our free hands to blast holes in the enemy. That sounds romantic.”
“Right,” she replied. “Well, let’s get going. The intercom out here is telling everyone to board the ship.” She moved on and let the door to the firing range close between them.
“Damn it,” Bradley mumbled to himself. He took a couple deep breaths and followed behind her.
Their bags were in lockers at the center of the station, so they stopped by to grab them before heading on to the helipad where the craft awaited. It was a large concrete surface adjacent to the parking lot and separated by a chain link fence with metal panels connected to its face. There was space for five helicopters, but normally only a few were parked there while the others roamed the air in use. At the moment, none were present. The spaceship’s colossal form now consumed the entire area.
The back wall of the craft was open, lowered by hydraulic rods suspended from the inside ceiling. It touched the ground at an incline with rough patches on its breadth for traction. The police captain stood at the foot of the ramp with a small spiral notebook and pen in hand and an impatient expression plastered on his face. Lexus and Bradley walked toward him, and he gave a nod and scribbled a couple check marks on his paper. “How are you two, today?”
“Good, sir,” Bradley responded. Lexus shook her head in accord.
“You got all your goodbyes said and all that mushy stuff outta the way? None of that’s allowed once you step into this ship. It’s gonna be all business from here.”
“Well actually, we didn’t really—”
“Yes, sir,” Lexus interrupted. “We both have a whole line of people praying for us and crying their eyes out as we speak. I told ’em it’s just gonna be another day on the job, only a little longer than usual. I’m ready to take care of business. No-holds-barred.”
“Very good, officer. I’m glad to hear it. The same goes for you I take it?” the captain said, turning eyes to Bradley.
“Umm, yes, of course, sir. I’m always ready to do the job.” He slipped the words out and then gave Lexus a confused look that she ignored.
“Very well. I’ve got you both marked off here, so you can head on in and take your seats. We just have a few more people we’re waiting on, and then we’re off.”
“Thank you, sir,” the two said in unison.
They moved up the ramp to the single-room cabin that clearly wasn’t designed for long stays. It was rather grey and barren with seats along the walls and a small hallway in the back that led to the cockpit. Fortunately, Lexus spotted a door in one corner leading into a 4’ x 4’ cavity she assumed to be the bathroom. Four days would be a long time, and an impossible time if there was no restroom. Of course, looking ahead, that little area may be impossible to use depending on which of the 30 cops onboard had used it last, and for what purpose. She shuddered and forced the image from her head.
The seats were already nearly full, but Bradley spotted a couple on the end and ushered Lexus along with him. “This looks good,” he said as he sat. “I mean, it’s not the best seat in the house, but it’ll do.”
“Yep, good enough,” Lexus replied. She lowered her small body into the chair, her shoulder touching Bradley’s but her other side decently spaced from the man next to her.
Bradley looked at her arm as it brushed against his. “I take that back. This is the best seat in the house.”
Lexus smiled with her eyes straight ahead, attempting to refrain from blushing at his charm. Two more cops from the force entered up the ramp and filled in the remaining seats. A minute later, another man rolled in followed by the captain, whose irritation seemed to have subsided to relief.
“Lady and gentlemen,” the captain began, winking at Lexus. “Everyone seems to be here, so we’re going to lift off as soon as I give word to the pilot. I know none of you, nor myself, has been on one of these things before, so enjoy the experience. They tell me it’s pretty calm for the first few minutes while we gain altitude, but then we pick up some speed, and the acceleration gets pretty intense. Your seats swivel so that you can face the front of the craft and allow the back rests to hold you while we blast off. I’d suggest spinning them now just to be prepared. There’s a lever by your right hands.”
Like a synchronized dance, the entire group pulled their levers and spun to face forward. The captain had disappeared down the small hallway to inform the pilot of their readiness, and in seconds, the rear door began to rise with a mechanistic drone, its figure slowly stealing the sun’s natural light from the cabin. The captain returned and found his own seat, which he immediately swiveled to join the others.
In seconds, the walls began to purr with the starting engines. Lexus pulled her seat belt across her lap and then grabbed the base of her chair to secure herself further. A shrill hum arose as the jets about the exterior of the craft forced powerful streams of air at the ground, lifting them from the surface in gentle ascension. The propellers on top of the ship spun simultaneously and pulled them higher into the sky. After only a few minutes, the craft halted to hover and then began to rotate in midair as its jets maneuvered to point the ship’s nose straight up to the heavens. The propellers retracted back into the ship’s frame.
“Prepare to launch,” the pilot announced over the intercom, “in 3 . . . 2 . . . 1.”
An explosion rang out that brought with it an acceleration like Lexus had never felt before. In sum, the passengers shed a hundred years almost instantly as the skin of their faces stretched back tighter than any plastic surgery could ever manage. The ultramodern rockets spewed swarthy clouds in their wake—combustion creating over 100,000 pounds of thrust. Lexus exhaled as Calri’s gravitational pull tugged at her body, drawing her into the back of her chair with its rapacious claws. Its grip was a strong one, but it was by no means powerful enough to defy man.
She rattled in her seat for what seemed like ages before they finally broke free of the atmosphere and the rockets were extinguished. The squad returned their seats to their original positions, and Bradley looked to Lexus at his right with an amused expression on his face. “So how’d you like the ride?”
“It was amazing,” she replied. “I coulda sworn I heard you crying up there, though. Was it a little scary for you?”
“Oh no, I wasn’t scared at all,” he began. “I was just sad that we didn’t get to enjoy it together.”
His eye had a twinkle in it: the same one that always gleamed at her after he’d say something flattering. She smiled and stared off across the cabin. Some were reading books, others talking or attempting to pass the time with sleep. None of them, it seemed, were thinking of the war they now rode into. In fact, she was guilty of the same. She didn’t want to dramatize the unknown. After all, that’s what they were dealing with: the unknown.
She’d never been to war, never been fired at by more than a couple guys at a time, never killed a person who hadn’t committed a crime of some sort and had it coming. The people she’d be shooting at in the coming weeks would likely be normal individuals with families at home and good intentions for the future of their own kind. Who was she, she began to think, to kill mothers and fathers and brothers and so on in the name of preserving her own life: a life with no one weeping in her absence? Lexus forced the thoughts away, for she was doing exactly what she didn’t want. For now, she’d live in the moment and think about the world in terms of her own survival. If she spread her consideration too widely, there’d come weakness with her understanding.
To her left, Bradley was slumped slightly in his seat with his eyes closed and his chest pulsing gently in sleeping breaths. She tried to move her arm so that it wasn’t touching him, but they were too close. She took a deep breath. Oh, what the hell, she thought. After sliding her butt away from him, Lexus leaned over gently and put her weight into his side, resting her head on his shoulder to sleep.
Bradley felt her touch and slowly opened his eyes, just a hair, to see Lexus resting like a tired angel against him. His mouth curled into a genuine smile and he closed his eyes to enjoy himself. Although he’d taken care to not stir her, Lexus peeked back and caught a glimpse of his giddy grin. He’s loving this. She shut her eyes to sleep, and although she tried to fight it, a smile forced its way upon her lips, as well.