A hated face, against all odds,
Reveals itself to vengeful eyes,
Blinded by the storm of rage,
The smart can act as the unwise.
The morning crept upon them with the welcomed warmth of the coming sun. When Aric opened his eyes, the first thing he noticed was that Lexus was still snuggled up against his chest, her dark hair draped upon her shoulders but parted just enough to reveal her enticing cleavage. He stole a glimpse and then looked away as the temptation to touch grew too strong. The storm clouds had gone without rain, and the sky now spread dark blue and paling over the distant hills.
Not wanting to wake the sleeping beauty, Aric lay and watched as the horizon’s light blue grew red and then orange as if a fire raged on just below. Once the tip of that fire peeked itself above the blackened hills, it took but minutes to emerge fully into view. Huge, bigger than he’d ever seen it, the blazing hydrogen-helium mass floated higher like a bubble on the breeze. The sun’s light brushed across the land until the trio was enveloped and the two sleepers stirred: Raiden with a baritone groan and Lexus with a cute squeak and sigh.
“Finally you two wake up,” Aric said. “Raiden, you snore like thunder, I swear.” Lexus laughed. “You were worse, little missy. If you weren’t so fun to cuddle with, I would have carried you over to the rover and shut you up inside.”
“Oh please,” Lexus said with a shove.
Raiden stood and brushed his pants off, staring out across the rolling expanse. “We should get moving. I know there’s not so much of a rush now, but we don’t want to get caught out here alone if the Greys decide to come up again.”
Aric pushed off Lexus to stand and she grimaced beneath his weight. “Plus, I’m getting hungry. We need some breakfast.”
“What’s with you and food?” Raiden asked. “Did they not feed you on Arth or what?”
“I’ve been eating prison food for the last five years. Army rations are like fine dining to me. I can’t stand when I hear guys complaining.”
Lexus sat up with a startled look upon her face. “Prison?”
“Uh, yeah. Five years. Murder. But—”
“And you didn’t think to tell me that before you got all touchy feely last night?” Lexus quivered in disgust as if she’d accidentally smashed a juicy bug barefooted. “I’m a cop. Criminals aren’t my type.”
Aric looked hurt. “I’m not a criminal. If you’d have let me finish, I was about to say that I was set up. It’s a long story, but I used to be involved with the wrong crowd, and man in charge didn’t like me much. Figured he’d dump his dirty deeds on me and get away free. And he did.”
“Oh,” Lexus mumbled. She didn’t usually trust criminals, but there was a sincerity in his voice and a distance in his eyes that told her to make an exception.
“Yeah. But that’s enough of me for now. I don’t know a damn thing about you, so I can’t be giving away all my secrets for free.”
Lexus rose to her feet. “I have no secrets.”
“Hmm, I have a hard time believing a pretty little thing like yourself has no secrets. But that’s all right.” Aric’s eyes scanned the length of her body, admiring the thinness of her legs, the curves of her torso, her breasts, her slender neck, full lips, big eyes. He was quick about it, but he wasn’t subtle. “I can think of a few other things you could offer instead.”
Lexus gave him a sexy little grin because she knew it’d drive him crazy. She liked to do that before crushing a man’s spirit. Aric saw her smile and knew she was into him, so he reached out to grab her around the waist and pull her closer. In a flash, his hand was bent sharply and hoisted so far up his back that his shoulder was only a hair away from dislocation. The pain shot intensely up his neck, its severity augmented by the shock of the moment.
“Don’t get your hopes up, big boy,” Lexus said from behind. Her breath filled his ear with warmth. Her little hands clenched tightly around his wrist, steady and sure as they held him in submission. “I’m not that interested in you.”
Aric forced a laugh to lighten the mood. “Damn girl, I was just playing. Relax.”
“Well, I’m no fun to play with unless I’m in a playful mood.” She released her grip and let his arm fall back to his side. “There’s a free secret for you. Try to remember it.”
Aric exhaled the breath he’d been holding and rubbed his shoulder. “Okay, you’re the type that needs to be warmed up first. Got it.” She gave him an icy gaze and his mouth straightened out. Tough cookie, he thought.
“Are you two done bickering yet?” Raiden said. “We do have places to be.”
“Yes,” Lexus replied, walking past toward the rover, “we’re done.”
Her hips swayed and both men couldn’t help but look. Raiden just glanced. Aric’s head swayed in unison.
Raiden slapped him on the back. “Might as well give up, buddy. I don’t think she’s havin’ it.”
“Naw, she’s just playing hard to get. Trust me. I know it when I see it.”
“Ha, yeah. I see it, I guess. Nearly snapped your arm off like a twig, but she’s totally into you.”
Raiden moved toward the vehicle while Aric lingered to marinate in the sarcasm. Damn, that hurt. He massaged his shoulder some more. She’s a feisty one. Through the rover’s side window, Lexus was brushing her hands through her hair, straightening it up as if she weren’t out in the boondocks in the midst of a war. I like her, though.
Out of the corner of her eye, Lexus saw him staring and turned to give him a mischievous smile. To him, it looked playful. Maybe she was ready to play. He headed to join. Here goes nothing.
According to the rover’s mileage, the three had traveled nearly 200 miles during the night, leaving a little over 100 left before they’d reach the Calrian base. It was an easier journey to make in the light because Raiden could actively avoid obstacles rather than see them last minute and simply tense up to barrel over. The young light of dawn had barely aged when they came upon a stretch of stone ruins set within a valley before them. From their high perch, the structures looked like toy blocks laid across a red carpet, but as the travelers descended the slope, the blocks gradually grew until they towered quite high: ancient walls, worn and crumbling. With the sun still low, the shadows stretched a great distance toward their approaching vehicle. They were still a hundred feet away when they passed into the chill murk of the shade.
“Wow, this place is wild,” Aric said. “Looks like a maze.”
“Yeah,” said Lexus. “Maybe you should go check it. We’ll wait for you . . . to get lost. Then, we’ll leave.”
“We don’t need to spend time here,” Raiden said. “Everything has already been explored, I’m sure. I’ll drive around it.”
Lexus and Aric looked out the window as Raiden drove along the edge of the complex. The brown walls were chipped and jagged, and large hunks of stone littered the ground where gravity had banished them ages before. One wall stretched for a majority of the way, opening in places where corridors led into the depths of the labyrinth. Sometimes, these passages stretched on into darkness. Other times, the light came in from above and revealed the stone walkways and the inner forks of numerous paths. The trip to circumvent the structure proved to be longer than they’d anticipated, and soon the repetitive sight of the scrolling walls began to bore them.
From the silence of their monotony, Lexus suddenly wailed an acute “Wait!”
Startled, Raiden slammed his foot on the brake, and the rover locked up and skidded roughly to a halt. A cloud of dirt took to the breeze and rushed past as Aric and Raiden tried to slow their hearts. Confused, they looked to Lexus for an explanation.
“I saw something move in there. A person. Maybe something else. I don’t know. Back this thing up.”
“We’re in the middle of nowhere,” said Aric. “There’s no one in there.”
“I saw someone. I’m positive.”
“We can check it out,” said Raiden. “No harm in looking.”
He shifted to reverse, and the tires spun in place for a moment before pulling them back through more airborne dust.
“Stop right here.”
The three of them stared down the passage, which had no roof and was hence open and lit. It reached straight back for a dozen yards or so and then ended with a wall as it took a sharp left. There was nothing in the path but stones and debris.
Someone spoke, but only Lexus heard: “I’ll kill you like I did your friend, and you will see me as but a shadow streaking on the wall. It will be but a moment that it’s there, and you will hear only a faint whisper like the wind, and feel nothing but the utter pain of knowing death is coming too quickly to be avoided. Then it will done.”
Her heart sputtered. Her face flushed. It was a combination of terror and rage, and the pressure of those emotions built too rapidly to avoid exploding.
“Whoa, what’s wrong with you?” Aric asked.
“He’s here,” was all she said before bursting through the door of the rover in full sprint toward the passage. As she ran, she unholstered her Fraquian submachine gun and flipped the safety off. By the time she reached the opening, Aric and Raiden were already out of the vehicle with weapons in hand.
“Lexus, wait,” Raiden screamed. “Who’s here?”
They were 50 feet away, but even from their distance they could see, as clear as day, the bulging grey head peek from behind the corner at the end of the corridor. It emerged for barely a few seconds—only far enough for the very tops of its black eyes to come forth—and then disappeared back behind the wall. The height of the head had been enough to answer Raiden’s question. It was that tall Grey, the leader, the one that had killed Bradley, and Lexus was rushing after him before Raiden could express his concern about the circumstances.
This meeting was a bit too statistically unlikely to be a mere coincidence, and the way the Grey taunted them simply reeked of foul play. Too late, though. Lexus wasn’t thinking straight. She vanished around the corner just as Raiden screamed for her to stop. The gunfire began almost immediately.
In seconds, the men had covered the distance and rounded the corner with their rifles aimed. A group of five Greys stood 30 feet ahead, firing to the right where the path made another turn. Only one of them noticed the two men emerge, and it had no time to turn before they’d peppered it with lead, along with the others.
They approached the next corner, nearing the pile of bleeding bodies just as another group of Greys came around from the right. Raiden and Aric jumped flat to the ground as the gunshots went whistling over their heads. They sent rounds right back before the Greys could lower their guns, and the three creatures took holes and fell to join the others.
Raiden knew an ambush when he saw one, and this was surely an ambush. Quickly, he turned to watch their backs the way they’d come. As he suspected, another squad of Greys was sneaking up behind to catch them off guard. He fired toward the corner where the new foes were just emerging. Stone chipped away in clouds of dust, but no bullets found flesh before the Greys had receded back behind the wall completely.
Without warning, Aric tossed something toward the far end of the passage, and it bounced off the wall and landed on the stone floor with a metallic thud. Raiden recognized the grenade just before it exploded with a violent burst of flame and smoke and flying rock. The men lay waiting with their rifles aimed, their fingers straining to hover on the triggers and their heavy breaths shaking their barrels up and down. When no enemies came forth after 30 seconds, they stood and continued further into the maze.
Over the bodies and around the next bend, they hurried on until a wall rose up to block their path.
“Dead end,” said Aric.
“Then where the hell’s Lexus?”
The two stood clueless amidst the corridor, scratching their heads as they surveyed the walls and the floor, searching for some kind of hidden opening. Suddenly, the wall to their left began to thump from the other side. It was weak, but audible, drawing them closer to where the dust was rustling down the stone with every strike.
“Lexus?” Raiden yelled. “Are you in there?” The drumming continued, and he could only assume that his voice, as hers, was not passing to the other side. “Look for something. A lever. A button.”
Aric nodded and began to brush the wall’s face with his hands while Raiden turned and did the same to the opposite wall. They were frantic because her pounding was frantic. Was she running out of oxygen? Was she being pursued? Was it they who were in danger and she was simply trying to warn them? These unknowns had their feet stamping, and their hands trembling, and their eyes darting around like a couple of druggies on a bad trip.
In short time, Aric’s fingers rumbled over a stone that depressed into the wall, bringing about the clanking sound of turning gears beneath his feet. Raiden spun at the commotion, and a four-foot section of the wall twirled about a central axis, pausing in a perpendicular position—just long enough for Lexus to burst from the other side—before turning another 90 degrees until the surface was flat and intact again.
“The general. I followed him in there. Then . . . the wall closed behind . . . and,” Lexus was panting, “it got dark and I couldn’t see a thing. I was alone. I don’t know where he went.”
“Okay, that’s fine,” Raiden said. “The important thing is that you’re all right.” He surveyed the Calrian, recognizing her severe anxiety but noting that she was uninjured. “You can get him later. For now, we need to get the hell out of here. Obviously, this is a hot spot. There could be more of them popping out any moment, and we’re not prepared for that.”
“What are you doing running off like that, anyway?” Aric said. “You nearly got us all killed.”
“I’m sorry. I lost my head a little.”
“I’d say that’s an understatement.” Aric moved and put an arm around her shoulder. “And I’d also say you have to be extra nice to me now for saving your ass.”
Lexus ducked out from beneath his arm. “I’d say we should get going.” She walked on down the passage, and neither man looked after her for she moved without the usual provocative swaying of her hips.
“She must be shaken up a bit,” Raiden said. “She’ll be all right.”
“I hope so,” Aric replied.
The men followed after, still watchful and wary of potential attack. By the time they reached the exit, they could see, past Lexus’ figure, a sight that made their stomachs turn. The rover sat haphazardly on four flat tires, the windshield shattered in such a way that seeing through would be impossible. The doors were wide open and their belongings—what little they had brought—were strewn across the grass.
“Looks like we’re walking,” Lexus said as she heard the men’s footsteps approaching at her back.
“Shit,” said Aric.
Raiden sighed and the two looked to him for a plan. “Well, let’s grab the stuff we need and get going. We still have a lot of sunlight, so at least that’s on our side.”
“Really?” Aric said. “It’s gotta be like 30 miles at least. Probably more.”
“Suck it up, man. We don’t have any other options.”
“This is great.” Aric walked out to the mess and began sifting through in search of useful bits like bullets and grenades. “Thanks for this, Lexus. I’ve been meaning to burn some fat from my ass but could never get myself to hit the cardio.”
“You’re welcome,” she replied sincerely.
“That was sarcasm,” Aric pointed out. “Do you guys have that on Calri? It means that I say something, but I actually feel the exact opposite.”
“Oh. Well, thanks for that, then.”
“Yeah . . . right.”
Raiden shuffled past to search the vehicle and, in a minute, surfaced with worry on his face. “Did you see the map in any of that stuff?”
“Umm, no,” Aric replied hesitantly.
“Damn it! They took it.”
“So we have no vehicle, no food, and no idea where we are and where to go?”
“It looks that way. Except we have a general idea of which direction to move. The rover’s pointed that way, so that’s where we’ll go. Once we get around these ruins, we can take a right and we’ll be going east again, I believe. Into the sun. We’re bound to run into some Calrians, eventually.”
“Yeah, if we don’t die of hunger and exhaustion first.”
“Hunger. Always with the hunger. You can go weeks without food before it kills you.”
“Maybe your giant ass can. I think I’d be close to death in two days. Three tops.”
Raiden chuckled and decided not to argue.
The trio gleaned all the ammunition they could find and then set off toward the distant edge of the ruins. In 30 minutes, they were hiking up a hillside with the labyrinth looking like toy blocks again, far behind in the valley. It was another 200 yards to the top when the reverberation of human screams drifted down from beyond the summit. A single individual: male, frightened, clearly in trouble by the way he yelled “Help! Somebody help me!” in a frenzied, cracking voice. Raiden forced full sprint upon his legs, and the others too, despite the burning in their calves. The cries pulled them upward, but soon only the memory of their urgency remained, for no more were coming, and this was unsettling.