Old friends will reunite,
In circumstances not ideal,
Killers will be saviors too,
And death will seem, to one, surreal.
Isaac felt as if the end for him would come at any moment. The impact at his back was deafening. The door’s thick steel was thinning with every shot and would soon give way to the one that would find his brain. He thought of shooting back, but just to try could expose him. He thought to flee, but the stairwell was 20 feet to his left with no cover in between. In the midst of his frantic deliberation, the wall before him flashed intensely and a wave of air rushed past with an ear-splitting roar. Isaac recognized the effects of a stun grenade as a Fraquian rifle began to blare at his back.
He peeked around his cover to where a soldier stood behind a pillar sending bullets into the cluster of dazed enemies. Five of them were already on the ground and only a few remained standing, collapsing in moments to join the others. From across the room, Isaac could tell that the Fraquian was black. Drake? Maybe if he’s grown a beard.
The soldier looked to him and smiled as if to say “I just saved your ass, but no need to thank me. Just doin my job.” He ambled over in a way that let Isaac know it wasn’t Drake. Drake only strutted.
“Looks like you had yourself in a bit of a jam,” the man said.
“Yeah, I’d say—Behind you!”
It was a Grey that must have hid in the corner after the flashbang went off. He didn’t have a gun for some reason, but was charging the soldier with a spiked dagger cocked above his head: chest level to the Fraquian. At Isaac’s warning, the soldier dropped his rifle and spun to evade. The little guy charged past, unable to stop before the man had added to its momentum with a powerful push, one hand dropping a grenade, it seemed, down the back of its tight, grey bodysuit. The shove had nearly lifted the Grey from its feet, redirecting it toward the exit where it vanished into the courtyard, stopping just in time to squeal and explode.
The two men were speechless for a moment, the soldier from shock and Isaac from astonishment.
“Wow,” Isaac finally said, “nice move.”
“It was just a reaction, but thanks. What are you doing down here in the middle of all this? You should be upstairs.”
“I know. I should. But I used to be a soldier back in the day, and I guess that part of me came out. As soon as I got pinned down and thought I was gonna die, though, it seemed to shrink back inside of me.”
“Well, if you came down here with nothing but a pistol and you’re still alive, I’d say you must be doing something right. You’re a little crazy, but you’re doing something right.”
Isaac nodded and lifted his gun swiftly as a blur of motion came in from the doorway. He expected to pluck two rounds into grey heads, but stopped when his shifting eyes settled and resolved that the entities were human. One face was familiar, somehow.
“Osyrus,” said the familiar one. “Are you all right?”
“Lieutenant Whitmore,” replied the black soldier. “Yes, I’m good, sir. I stopped this bunch here.” He pointed his rifle to the mound of dead Greys.
“Whitmore?” Isaac asked, suddenly realizing why he knew the man. “Is that you?”
The man turned and squinted, and his face grew warm. “My God, Izzy? Izzy Wild? I watch your show all the time. My daughters love you. What are you doing here? And . . . how do you know my name?”
Isaac smiled. “Call me Isaac. Does that ring a bell?”
Raiden stroked his beard. “Isaac . . . Watson?” He cocked his head in recognition. “Private Watson?”
“Yeah, it’s me. I’m a bit bigger now, and my beard’s longer and graying, but it’s me.”
“Wow, I can’t believe it.” Raiden stepped forward and the two shared a quick embrace. “This whole time I’ve been watching your show and wishing you’d get eaten by something. I had no idea it was you. It’s been what . . . 25 years since boot camp? What are you doing here?”
“Haha, yeah, it’s been a long time. I’m an ecologist now, so they needed my help with the colonization effort. I’ve been here on Centrum since the beginning.”
“Here at the North Base? I didn’t know. I got here a couple weeks ago when the Calrians were attacking. Been back on Fraq for the last week, though.”
“Hmm. Well, I’m not surprised we’re just now seeing each other. It’s a big base, and I’ve been out and about collecting EMIRMS readings all over Centrum.” Shit. The projecting drive. Isaac shifted his focus and hurried to the late Sergeant Mars, casting over a bloody Grey corpse to get at the man’s coat pocket.
“EMIRMS?” Aric said. “What the hell’s that?”
“It’s a tool that can give you a picture of underground geography,” Isaac said half-mindedly, finding the first pocket empty and patting his way over to another. When he felt the device within, his nerves eased. “I’ve got the data on this projecting drive.” He stood with the small stick in hand.
“This is Aric by the way,” Raiden spoke up. “He’s an Arthian that helped me establish the ceasefire by coercing President Brownstein.”
“Ah, nice to meet you, Aric.” Isaac reached out to offer a handshake but pulled back quickly at the sight of blood on his fingers. He offered a head nod instead and wiped his hand on his pants. “Although I’d like to sit down and chat, I’m afraid we’ve got a pretty big problem to deal with. These things attacking us are living underground, and I think I know where they’ve been surfacing.”
He pressed the power button on the stick and fiddled with some others buttons until a blue light rose up from the glass orb at one end. The light formed a spherical hologram in the air. “That’s Centrum. The network of caverns you see running beneath the surface are tunnels and rooms and possibly entire cities burrowed down within the ground.” The faces of the group froze with captivation and Isaac continued. “Now, if I zoom in to our position”—he pulled a small window from the stick’s side and placed two fingers on its face—“you can see the local network in more detail.” The sphere rotated as he talked and then grew until only part of it showed. “That tunnel right there is at the corner of our base. I believe its entrance is concealed by a stone building that was already here when we arrived. There was a whole battalion of those little bastards coming out of it.”
Raiden knew the building. The Black Widow.
“Now, I’m not saying we have to do it right away,” Isaac went on, “but I think we should send a team to investigate. Maybe get some images or something to help us figure out what we’re dealing with.”
“Right now,” Raiden said. The group looked up to him in surprise. “We’ll go now. I imagine a majority of the Greys that reside in these near tunnels are on the surface, either caught up in the fight or already dead. The tunnels will be empty. It’s the perfect opportunity for some reconnaissance.”
“Are you sure we shouldn’t wait, sir?” Osyrus asked.
“Yes, I’m sure. Even if the Greys decide to retreat and pull back to the tunnels, we’ll be there to catch them off guard. And we’ve got this map if worse comes to worse and we need to get out through a different exit.”
In his head, Raiden knew they should alert General Glaskgow and get more men, but the thought of her made him ignore all that. He was running on instincts. They needed to go now.
“You keep saying Greys.” Isaac noted. “I know that name from somewhere.”
“It’s from The Rebirth,” Aric said. “They’re the aliens that destroyed Earth. We’re pretty sure that’s who we’re dealing with.”
“Yes, that’s it,” Isaac said. “I guess they’re not done with the humans yet, huh? Lure us all to one place and then jump out for the kill. Very clever.”
“Yeah, they’re crafty little shits,” Raiden said. “And that’s why we go now. They don’t anticipate us finding their hideout. They think we’re so dumb that they can hide right beneath our feet and not be found. It’s time we take a step ahead of them.”
“I agree,” said Aric.
Osyrus popped out his SWUN’s clip and shoved a fresh one up into the frame. “I follow you, sir.”
The three looked to Isaac, who felt himself suddenly torn. Isaac the risk-taker—the one that toyed with huge snakes and stuck his hands in fang-rimmed mouths—was pushing him toward those tunnels, yelling to him that facing death was the only way to feel alive. There had always been a hint of truth in that statement, but his logical side was reminding him that it hadn’t felt too great being pinned beneath enemy fire just minutes before. In fact, he’d regretted putting himself in the situation. It’s true he was a soldier, and he felt like he always would be one, but some fights are meant to be fought by some and not others.
“You three go on ahead. I think I need to sit this one out. Me and my trusty pistol here have had enough violence for the day. This is your guys’ business. I was just taking a short trip down memory lane.” The others nodded in understanding. Their acceptance was surprising. “But take this with you, of course.” He closed the holographic map with a quick button click and handed the stick to Raiden. “I’ve still got the original data on my computer, and I’ll take it to Glaskgow and hopefully get a squad sent in after you guys real soon.”
“Thanks, old friend,” Raiden said.
“It’s no problem. Good luck and watch your backs.” The trio said goodbye and turned to head out into the setting sunlight. “Don’t get too wild without me.”
Raiden chuckled. Back on Fraq, he’d heard that line on television once a week, and now he’d gotten his own, personal telling. Although in the past, for the most part, he’d kept his wildness to a minimum, this time he was certain things would be much different.
It took 15 minutes to make what should have been a five-minute trip to the vine-swaddled hovel at the southwest corner of the base. The Greys’ numbers were thinning, but that almost made it trickier. No longer did they travel in large groups or cluster together in unified attack. Instead, it would be one or two of them popping out from hiding, and they were small, so hiding places were abundant.
By the time the men had reached the building, 15 more Greys were dead and Osyrus had a bruise on his chest that he described as feeling like acid bubbling beneath the skin. He refused to look at it, though. Maybe afraid of what he’d see or maybe worried that, once he undid his vest, his lungs would come flopping out. He also refused to complain. If it weren’t for his flak jacket, he’d have been back in the mud with a hole through his thorax.
“Okay, on three,” Raiden whispered. He did a finger countdown, and the other two opened the wooden doors with a quick creak. It was getting dark out, so the room inside was gloomy in all places but the circle of Raiden’s rifle light. A quick scan revealed that the place was empty, and also that the floorboards had been lifted in the far corner of the room. The three approached, looking down where a dark hole dropped 10 feet onto a floor of stone tiles and dried dirt grout. There was a ladder built into the wall and they used it.
There was no light down there except for Raiden’s, which extended in an expanding cone toward a concrete wall 30 feet ahead. Aric’s shadow shrank on that wall as he crept forward, freezing when Osyrus whispered that he stop.
“It’s a dead end,” he said. “That hardly makes sense. I wouldn’t move a step farther. There could be some kind of secret passageway or something. Move over for a sec.”
Aric looked confused, but stepped left to lean against the wall. Osyrus reached into his pocket and returned with a bullet, which he tossed as if trying to skip on a lake. It clanked along the tile until vanishing some 20 feet along.
“What the hell,” Aric said, confounded.
Osyrus flashed a smile. “As I said.”
“But it went right through the floor,” Aric noted.
“Must be some kind of illusion,” said Raiden. “Let’s check it out.”
Aric waited for the two to reach him, and then they moved together, their steps gaining caution as they approached the approximate spot of the bullet’s disappearance.
Raiden led with a foot extended, tapping the ground until nothing tapped back. “Here we go. Still looks like solid ground up close, but it’s definitely not.” He dipped the barrel of his rifle into the airy patch of floor. “Must be some kind of hologram. A damn good one too.”
“So now what?” Aric asked. “It could be another 10 foot drop, or it could be 50 feet. Then again, could be some kind of snake pit or something. Like a booby trap. How are we gonna know? I’m not sticking my head in to see.”
“Good point,” Raiden observed.
“Here, let me look,” Osyrus said, nudging the men to the side.
“No, Aric’s right. I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Don’t worry, sir. I got this.”
Osyrus dropped to a knee and the other two felt like reaching out to stop him. They also felt like just looking away and hoping that when they looked back, the Fraquian still had a head. They did neither. Just watched in suspense. The tension only lasted for a moment, though, as Osyrus submerged his rifle halfway into the floor and put an eye to the scope.
“You’re a clever one,” said Raiden.
“Don’t tell him that. He knows. Can’t you see that shit-eating grin?”
Osyrus’ smile widened. “I see a cement floor. It’s a ways down, but I think there’s another ladder.” He lifted his SWUN and stood. “Place looks empty.”
Raiden threw his rifle strap over his shoulder. “Good. Head down and we’ll follow.”
Osyrus nodded and got back on his knees, lowering his feet into the opening—slowly until finding the first rung—and then sinking below. Aric went next and Raiden followed.
When he set foot on sturdy ground, Raiden turned to see an open room with barren walls and nothing on the floor but a smeared puddle of blood in the corner. He bowed his head. I’m too late. Damn it, I’m too late.
“There’s blood,” Aric said, pointing as if he were the first to see it.
“Yes,” Osyrus confirmed. “Prisoners perhaps?”
“Or maybe one of them got a paper cut.” Osyrus looked down at the Arthian with an Are you shitting me? expression. “A really bad paper cut,” Aric added. Osyrus shook his head.
“It could be human or it could be alien. Let’s hope its alien,” said Raiden. This, of course, was a joke. One he hoped to believe. But really, he knew it was hers. He didn’t know how, but he did.
“Yes, but blood doesn’t mean death,” said Osyrus. “Whoever was bleeding could still be around. If it’s a human, we need to find them.”
Raiden put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “You’re right,” he said. Thank you, he thought. “We’ve only got one option, so let’s see what’s in there.” He pointed to an iron door to their left and walked hastily toward it. He was halfway there before the others had taken a single step.
With an ear against the cold metal, he listened intently and heard nothing. A square button sat in the center of the door. He pressed it and the door swung open, a bit too boisterously by his standards. The door’s swift opening startled him, and Raiden rushed in with his SWUN aimed, Aric and Osyrus on his heels the same.
Again, no Greys, but this room was actually furnished. A table stretched out for 20 feet at the center of the room, surrounded by stools that looked like they were upholstered with burn-scarred flesh. Along the left wall was a series of black boxes like lockers, and on the right was a white sheet draped atop a cube the size of a refrigerator. A chandelier dangled at the center of the room, its four golden claws forming an inverted pyramid with a brilliant orb of energy pulsing at the peak. The room was as bright as any could ask for: no shadows, not even where there should have been. This detail, though, went unnoticed. The trio only noted the brightness, and that something was off but they weren’t quite sure what.
Raiden rushed toward the mystery cube. He knew what it was. That’s why he wasted no time in pulling the sheet from overtop, revealing, as he suspected, a series of vertical bars with a body behind them. In fact, there were two prisoners in the cage— he’d forgotten all about her friend—both tied and blindfolded and seemingly unconscious by the way their chests moved rhythmically up and down. Even behind the rags and dried blood, the woman’s beauty refused to dampen.
Aric and Osyrus rushed over at the whoosh of the flailing drapery, recoiling at the sight more intensely than had their companion.
“Calrians,” whispered Osyrus.
“I know them,” Aric said almost simultaneously. The other two looked to him like he was crazy. “Or, I mean, I’ve seen them before. They tried to kill me. The guy did, anyway. Shot me right in the back, but I was wearing armor and he didn’t know.” Aric had a fierce look in his eye that seemed to be growing fiercer as he reflected. “They left me for dead. Now, I guess it’s my turn to leave them.” Aric reached for the bunched sheet as if he was going to replace it and then they’d move on as if nothing was seen.
Raiden stepped out and forced the sheet from his grip with a heavy boot. “Oh no,” he informed, “we’re not leaving them.”
“They tried to kill me,” Aric protested. “I can’t turn around and save their lives.”
Raiden appeared irritated. “They were your enemies before. Now, they’re your allies. Our allies. They need us, and there may come a time in the near future when we need them.”
“I’m not gonna debate it.”
Aric looked down at his boots. “Fine. But I’m not going to be nice.”
Raiden shot him a look of disapproval, and Aric felt suddenly stupid and immature.
“They’re humans, man,” Osyrus said. “They’re our own. It’s us against those damn aliens, now. You need to remember that.”
Aric nodded. He understood.
“The lock has no keyhole,” Raiden said. He was kneeling down, fiddling with the silver square that dangled from the cage door’s latch. When he tilted it just right, the lustrous surface went nearly translucent and he could see a faint grid of green within. He let it fall in frustration. “I think it’s some kind of sensor. Probably only a certain Grey can open it.”
“Great,” said Aric. “So now what do we do?”
Raiden shook his head as he thought.
“Sir, you can try—”
“My sword,” Raiden interrupted. Osyrus grinned and nodded.
The blade came forth in a blur and quickly assumed a dark orange glow, lightening, in moments, to a radiant white. It took only some slight pressure to melt its way through the lock’s troublesome arms, and then Raiden withdrew the blade and flashed a smile that, to Aric, came straight from Osyrus’ armory.
“Good thinking, Raiden,” said Aric. “Great idea. That was all you.” He gave Osyrus a courtesy pat on the back. “Maybe next time, big guy.”
“Hey, wake up.” Raiden was shaking the female. He’d already removed her blindfold and gag. In seconds, she opened her eyes, and the men—even Aric—wondered if they’d ever seen such a beautiful pair.
“What?” she mumbled faintly, confused. “Fraquians? And an Arthian? Together?” she analyzed their faces. “What’s going on? How’d you get here?”
“That’s a lot of questions from such a little girl,” Aric said, already starting with the flirty banter.
She cast him a slit-eyed glare that conveyed Young man, I’d eat you for breakfast. “That helmet,” she said. “I’ve seen it before.” Aric reached up and touched the piece as if her words had just reminded him it was there. “You’re the one that attacked us in the forest. I thought you were dead.”
Raiden grew hot. “You attacked them, huh?”
“No,” Aric denied. The female glared again. “I mean, maybe. Yeah, I guess.” Raiden and Osyrus shook their heads in disbelief. What a hypocrite.“We were taking their base, though. It’s what I was supposed to do. And my friend had just been killed. I was in a different state. I’m sorry.”
It seemed sincere enough, so the three let it go. Plus, the other Calrian began to stir from sleep, grunting at the noise of their voices.
“Bradley,” the woman said. “Hurry, undo him.”
Raiden freed up the man’s eyes and mouth but couldn’t figure out how to undo the wire that bound his wrists and ankles.
“Lexus, you’re all right,” Bradley said. “Who are these guys?”
“Soldiers, I think. They haven’t told me who they are yet.” She looked to Raiden for a response.
“Yes, we’re all soldiers. My name’s Raiden, and I’m a lieutenant in the Fraquian army. Osyrus here is one of my men. Aric, as you already know, is from the Arthian army.” Bradley winced as he recognized Aric for the first time. “We believe the creatures that are holding you here are what The Rebirth calls the Greys. They were responsible for destroying Earth, and if you haven’t figured it out yet, they’re the real enemy in this war too. Our governments, including yours, have established a ceasefire in order to deal with the new threat. The Greys are off attacking our North base as we speak. We learned of these underground tunnels and came to investigate, and here you are. I know it’s a lot to absorb, and I can explain it more, but not here. Not now. Those things could be back at any moment.”
“Okay, I trust you,” Lexus said. “You’re saving our asses, after all.”
“Yeah. I’m down to get back at those bastards. But first, you gotta get us out of this.” Bradley struggled within his wire restraints. They weren’t any looser than before.
“Over here,” Aric said. He ran across the room and grabbed something from one of the open lockers. “They look like scissors, so maybe they’ll do the trick.”
The holes in the handles were barely big enough for his fingers, but he managed to make it work. Aric knelt at Bradley’s side and snipped the wire at one point. The coils loosened and fell to the floor with a jangle. From their previous skirmish, Aric somehow felt like he knew the other well: like maybe they were old friends, so-to-say. He extended an open palm. “Sorry for attacking you.”
Bradley looked at him, at first with disdain, and then slipped on a humored smirk and accepted the handshake. “Sorry for shooting you in the back.”
Aric chuckled. “I guess our apologies cancel out, then.”
“Yeah, I guess they do.”
Lexus, from her stomach as she was, gave Bradley a nudge to the leg with her head. “And I’m sorry for breaking up the beginning of your love-hate relationship, but I’m still tied up over here and it’s not exactly comfortable.”
“Geez, is she always this feisty?” Aric replied.
“Oh, it gets worse,” Bradley assured. “She talks so much game, you’ll be wishing you’d kept that gag in her mouth.”
Lexus gave him another headbutt. “Come on, asshole.”
“So eloquent. How could I refuse?” Bradley grabbed the sheers and freed her, and the jangling of her wire sounded in unison with a distant rumbling from the next room over. She hadn’t heard it, but Osyrus crouched instantly with a silencing finger to his lips. Everyone stopped breathing until the rumble came again.
“Footsteps” Osyrus said. “They’re coming back.”
Lexus cursed under her breath and scooted clear of the cage. When she stood, she was just up to Aric’s chest and more like Raiden’s bellybutton. Bradley wasn’t much taller.
“We’re not prepared to fight our way through them,” Raiden said. “We need to move farther in, and now. We’ll find another exit.”
The group, now five strong, hurried off to the only door through which none of them had yet passed. As with the other, it opened a bit indiscreetly, but they didn’t wait around to see if it had drawn any attention. On the other side spread a large, circular hall with a black and white checkered floor and golden chandeliers like giant versions of the one in the previous room. A gold fence squared off three sides of a staircase descending to a deeper level, and doors decorated the room’s exterior at every 30 degrees around the outside.
“What is this, some kind of labyrinth?” said Aric. “Which way do we go?”
Raiden had already pulled out the projecting drive and was summoning the blue light for an answer. The sphere came forth, and Raiden zoomed and took it to the place they now stood. Another surfacing location was straight and left through two hallways and a handful of rooms. He memorized the path and retracted the map back into the stick. “Go straight. Right through there.”
Lexus and Bradley struggled to keep up: not because their legs were shorter but rather because the effects of the sedatives they’d been given were still wearing off. Lexus, particularly, was having difficulty, reaching out for stability on Bradley’s shoulder, which wasn’t, itself, that much more secure. The hall was nearly a hundred feet in diameter, and they’d just passed the halfway point when Raiden looked back and saw the situation.
“Here, I’ll take her,” he said, crouching down so that Lexus could mount his mammoth back. He grabbed at her thighs and pulled them tightly beneath the pits of his arms. Her legs weren’t long enough to lock ankles about his waist, so they bounced at his side as he strode.
“Thank you,” she said.
Up ahead, Osyrus had reached the door and was listening through to the other side. He must have heard silence, because he pressed the square button and moved swiftly through with Aric close behind.
“Trying to escape, huh?”
Lexus snapped to. It was that voice again: the one with no direction and no distance. It was the tall one’s, and only she heard it because Raiden said nothing, just kept running.
“Maybe you will, but turn first and see your friend’s demise.”
“Bradley!” she screamed, unable to see anything but her ride’s bouncing locks. Raiden turned in response, and the two of them watched as Bradley reached at his chest where a blade extended forth with a foreboding sheen. A circle of blood was creeping outward through his shirt, and his face growing pale, twisting and shuddering.
It was instantly that Raiden raised his rifle to fire, but even quicker was the tall Grey, who pulled his arm blade from the Calrian and hurtled the gold railing of the staircase. Bradley slumped to his knees as the Grey disappeared into the depths of the stairwell, the bullets flickering sparks against the gold that covered his retreat. This all passed in but a second: not long enough for Lexus to fully register what had transpired, or long enough for her to scream again, or long enough for her to feel that what she was seeing was real and not just some kind of drowsy hallucination.
When that second ended, though, it had all sunk in. When that second ended, Bradley lay unmoving in a puddle of blood, the killer was gone, Raiden’s rifle was smoking before her face, and the first of her tears was rolling down her cheek. Bradley wouldn’t wipe it away. This, she knew, and so more would come.