For some, it kills to take a life,
And others do it void of care,
And many will if faced with death,
And, only later, feel despair.
Impact shook the stone, chipping it away in shards and transmitting force in vibrations through its core. Lexus took cover against the far side of a lone, moss-covered boulder, the quaking of its face against her skin warning her to stay put. Bradley, she could see, was off 10 yards to her right in a similar position behind a capsized tree. His rifle was too heavy to hold with one arm, so he fired rounds blindly with his pistol, reaching up with just one hand to maintain cover behind the trunk. He was occupied, but she wanted his attention.
A cluster of small stones sat an arm’s reach away, so she palmed a handful and threw them toward him until he noticed. He dropped his handgun back down to his side and turned to yell: “What are we gonna do?” His voice was faint beneath the gunfire, so Lexus watched his lips as he spoke. “There must be over 500 of these guys, and probably more on the way. We’re not prepared for this.”
“I know!” she screamed back. “The base is a lost cause. We’re going to have to issue a retreat.”
“We don’t have the authority for that.”
“More Calrians are going to die. It’s what needs to be done. I don’t know about you, but I’m perfectly capable of picking up my feet and getting my ass the hell out of here.”
“Oh yeah?” he said. “Then do it.”
Lexus flashed a cocky smile and began to creep to her left where a hill rose from the ground a few yards in front of her position. If she could make the dash through the small amount of space, she could find cover behind the mound and make her escape. The shooting had paused and the air now hung with a mysterious silence. She prepared to leap, but thought better of it and grabbed a fallen branch off the ground nearby.
The stick was rough in her hand as she reached its leafy end out beyond the boulder’s edge. Almost instantly, readied gunfire yanked the limb from her grip, splintering wooden pieces into the air about her face. She gasped as the coarse bark grated the dead skin from her palm.
Bradley smiled and shrugged his shoulders, and she glared at him with a playful anger. “You need to get over here with me so we can make our move out of here,” she said. “I’ll give you covering fire, but you need to haul ass. They’ve got their weapons aimed and waiting.” Bradley nodded, and she snapped a grenade from her belt and pulled the pin with her hand clasped tightly on the triggering mechanism. With the other hand, she flipped up three fingers, two, one . . . .
She sent the grenade soaring beyond the boulder’s top, its booming detonation bringing an orb of fire, and leaves, and shrapnel about the area. Bradley cowered his head and sprinted toward her as she fired her rifle through the rapidly disbanding throng of smoke. Rather than stopping to join her side, he ran straight past and on along the hill that hid him from the Arthians’ view. Just as he made it behind the cover, the bullets began to fly back from the other side, and Lexus ducked down to lean against the quaking stone.
She was a sitting duck taking fire, and Bradley had apparently left her behind to figure out for herself how she was going to get out of there. He—her partner on the force for the last five years, the one who’d been drafted right along with her, the man that wooed her every chance he got—had finally had enough rejection. He’d abandoned her. She sighed.
In seconds, the Arthians stopped shooting to preserve their ammo, so she hunched there in silence while she waited and thought. A minute passed with nothing but the muffled clatter of distant battle. Her breaths were slow and calm as she deliberated, and then burst from her throat in a startled shriek as the abrupt sounding of a lone rifle broke the stillness of her thinking.
Multiple guns began to fire at once, the cacophony of automatic rounds insistent and remorseless. The fracas lasted for but a brief time and ended as unexpectedly, the echoes of the final shots fading to an eerie hush. Suddenly, the noise of fighting broke out near at hand, just beyond her hiding place. She could hear men grunting, leaves rustling beneath their feet, a hard thud and more rustling, and finally a groan, a sigh, and then quiet.
“Come on, Lex. Let’s get back to the base.”
Lexus smiled and rose to stand. “Oh my God, Bradley, are you all right?”
He stood before her, blood-soaked and panting, with a superficial knife wound sliced across his chest. She ran to his side to attend the lesion, nearly tripping over the swollen-faced Arthian at his feet whose chest bore the upright hilt of a dagger; the blade was sheathed within the man’s heart.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Most of this blood is his and theirs,” he said, turning to point out the mess of dead bodies that littered the forest floor behind him. “This special guy here,” he continued, giving the one at his feet a slight nudge with his toe, “decided he wouldn’t go down without a fair fight. I took them all out from behind with my rifle, and then, once I passed by, he sprang up from the dead with a knife in his hand.”
Lexus grinned. “By the looks of things, that probably wasn’t the best move for him, eh?”
“Yeah, I’d say you’re probably right about that one. These guys are big, though. It was hard to get him down.”
“I bet. What the hell are we gonna do with the Fraquians?”
Bradley shook his head as he looked down at the size of the dead Arthian. “I don’t even want to think about that. It’s something I’ll probably figure out on the spot, but I hope I never have to.”
“Well, let’s head back before more of these guys come around,” Lexus said. “We need to round up anyone we see on our way and then call in some helicopters to get us out of here before the Arthians close in on the base. Like you said, we don’t have the numbers to fend them off.” Lexus stared off into the depthless forest. “It’s gonna be a hell of a loss, but we’ve got other bases.”
“You’re right,” Bradley said, yanking his dagger from its new flesh home and returning it to his side, blood and all. “Let’s go.”
The two of them took off through the trees, walking briskly for they knew the Arthians were close at heel. The shaggy vines of the jungle dangled in low loops that would have snagged their necks in chokeholds if they weren’t so short. It was the thick roots that bid them grievance, rising roughly from the soil like traps that rigged their every step. Lexus grunted in frustration. The dunes of Calri were a far cry from the landscape of this new world.
A sharp incline rose before them, and they clambered up its side where the roots were like rungs of a ladder for their fingers to clasp and toes to push upon. Once they gained the hill, the woodland dispersed to the left and right, opening up into a treeless ellipse of dirt and underbrush. At the far end of the clearing, a group of four Calrian soldiers huddled in discussion with their weapons hanging at their sides and sticks in their hands.
“Desert dogs!” Bradley screamed. The soldiers looked up from the plans they were drawing in the dirt. “We need to retreat. There’s too many of them.”
The familiar face of Captain Hughes was among them. He opened his mouth as if ready to speak, but stopped at the very beginnings of an utterance to turn, as the others, and stare off into the trees at their side. In their startle, they struggled to lift their guns but were blanketed, promptly, with a barrage of bullets. Convulsing beneath sporadic impact, they crumpled to the forest floor.
Lexus and Bradley ducked as the bodies of their comrades slumped to the ground. Without speaking, they ran to take cover behind the nearest tree trunks, peeking from behind, waiting for the killer to emerge into the clearing and expose himself. Thirty seconds passed without any sight of the enemy, and Lexus grew anxious. A twig snapped near to her right, and she turned her head wide-eyed as a heavy stick came swinging toward her face. Reflexively, she managed to duck beneath the bludgeon, its length striking the tree just above her and breaking in half against its tough bark. Before she could think to make another move, her attacker brought a hard knee up into her chin and dropped her to the ground in a daze.
Her eyes blurred with teetering consciousness, a ringing in her ears so shrill and overpowering that all other sounds came stifled and vague. She managed, though, to hear a scuffle: scampering feet among leaves, punches taken, grunts of exertion. Her face was to the ground, but she worked, in her stupor, to roll over and observe. Bradley and an Arthian stood squared up, toe-to-toe, both their hands up in guard and their noses leaking blood. The stranger appeared nearly a foot taller and much broader in structure, his red camouflage blending with the foliage that her low angle placed behind him.
Despite his size, Bradley appeared to be holding his own. The two exchanged jabs, their eyes keen for openings within which to commit true force. Lexus kicked Bradley’s ass every day, so she feared for him. It was her turn to come to the rescue. It was her turn to show she cared, even if she’d never made it obvious. Still quite woozy, she closed her eyes and felt the sturdy ground, attempting to muster her strength to join in the fight.
A nice jab, jab, hook brought the Arthian’s face sharply to the side, sending blood from his mouth to splatter the leaves. He came back with a combination of his own, but Bradley deflected the blows and circled away on light feet. Bradley delivered another hard hook with his right, bypassing the man’s guard and smashing into his temple with the loud crack of bone on bone.
The momentum of the punch sent the Arthian’s helmet hurtling to the ground where it tumbled to rest at Lexus’ side. She glanced from the fight to stare at the item, its red camouflage surface tarnished by a yellow smiley face painted on its crown. She found herself engrossed with the peculiar image, stunned by the incongruity of its message and the conditions surrounding it. It was a picture she’d expect to see painted on a child’s cheek at a fair, not the helmet of a soldier amidst a war of blood and death.
A scream from Bradley’s mouth broke her spell. Frantically, she shifted gaze as the Arthian grabbed him about the waist from behind. Bradley struggled to break the man’s locked fingers, but was hurled from his feet and slammed backward onto his shoulder blades with a painful thud. The Arthian reached frenetically for his belt, and when the smooth handle of his knife brushed his fingertips, he gripped it tightly and pulled his blade from its sheath. In one swift motion, he lifted the knife up to his ear and began its descent.
Just at the sight of the blade’s glossy edge, Bradley could feel the sting of its mortiferous kiss. In frenzied resistance, he freed a leg from beneath the man’s body and thrust the knife from his hand with an upward kick. The dagger fell into a clump of bushes behind them and, with it, the attacker’s wits. The Arthian’s face went blank in that moment of confusion, and he dropped a heavy hand onto Bradley’s nose and rose to dive in after his weapon. Bradley winced with the strike but took it well, barrel rolling to his right where his pistol had slid unseen from its holster. He scooped the piece up with one hand and crunched forward, plucking two rapid rounds into the retreating Arthian’s back.
The man was running as he was gunned down, so his body continued forward as he fell face-first. He skidded across the brush, bulldozing a line of leaves into a pile before coming to a halt and lying still. Bradley lay on his back with his eyes closed and his chest heaving in exhaustion. His face was smeared from the nose down with blood that had dried in messy design.
He and Lexus thought to lie there for hours, renewing in that fertile wood until the sun’s light shrank away, leaving only the vibrancy of its flora to illuminate its darkened corridors. They were tired, not only from the fighting, but also of the fighting. They’d had enough war in that last hour to sustain their subconscious bloodlust for the rest of their days. And why were they fighting anyway?
Centrum was a large planet: large enough to be shared. The President of Arth was indeed brazen to attack them, but then again, so was President Titus to send Calrian troops up North for the first fight of the war. Calri would retaliate, but would Fraq do so first? It didn’t really matter. Either way, Centrum would become a scene of mayhem like the Earth of old. Would anyone rise the victor or would they destroy the planet as their ancestors had destroyed Earth?
Lexus writhed amidst the underbrush, searching for a comfort that her thoughts would not allow. She wished to return to her own planet, to its welcomed sands and blazing sun. Let the Arthians return to their own world, as well, and the Fraquians the same. Centrum was not a gift, after all. It was a curse disguised as a gift. It had floated its way amongst them, touting new land, and water, and resources, but really it offered only blood.
Greed. This was the way of humanity. This was the lesson Earth had learned, and now they, too, would learn the same. How could history repeat itself so obviously yet go unnoticed? She had no answers, just a throbbing head and an empty rifle.
Bradley, to her left, squirmed uneasily, dispersing unkind twigs beneath him as bits of dust and pollen collected on the sticky surface of his red-blotched face. Neither of them spoke. They simply relaxed, disregarding their previous urgency in light of their more immediate fatigue. But a minute passed before the sound of voices and crunching leaves broke the serenity of their ill-placed rest.
Bradley was on his feet and at Lexus’ side within a second, grasping at her shoulders to pull her from her back. “What are we doing? Neither of us can fight right now. Get up. We need to move.”
She nodded and rose, and the two of them fled through the labyrinth of timber. They forced on their tired feet a sprint, now, as the Arthians shrank behind them but still grew ever near. They needed only to reach the gates of their base and they’d be safe, at least for the time being. The base was well-fortified, and the attackers still needed to unify their scattered troops and formulate an assault. By then, the two of them would be long gone, afloat on the air in a chopper bound, they hoped, for somewhere safer: somewhere where the silence was not yet soiled by the far-away patter of automatic gunfire, where their inhalations were not tainted by the sordid smell of excessive death, where they could meander casually and their shadows were of empty darkness and not the lead of their enemies’ malicious intent. This place, though—this escape—they knew would not be immune. The plague of war would spread, but for now, all they had was their hope, no matter how naïve.