A bee hive cleared of all its stingers,
Left a globe of honeyed wealth,
Tucked away for future salvage,
As winners tend their stings to health.
By the time Raiden and Lexus had resurfaced, the patter of gunfire had fallen to silence and the living were gathering up their dead and wounded. Raiden leaned heavily on the small Calrian, his massive arm draped about her neck, his wounded leg covered with dried blood and singed hair—for he had since cauterized the laceration. His adrenaline had gone, and now there was but pain and fatigue and an overwhelming desire to fall to the dirt and sleep. As the pair descended the mountainside, they cringed at the sum of devastation caked upon the valley floor: nothing but corpses, blood, upturned soil, and the smoldering hulks of fallen crafts, all filling the air with an odious reek.
When they drew near to the bottom, bustling soldiers took notice and halted to look. Activity ceased all about them, their strides attracting the curious gazes of men and Andromedans alike, some staring in awe, others with grins stretched across their faces. Aric and Darren had retrieved Osyrus from his hiding place, and they sat upon the ground a short ways from the crowd. When Raiden and Lexus waltzed up, the three of them stood almost immediately, wide-eyed with shock.
“What the hell’s that?” Aric asked with a smirk, gesturing toward the stick that Lexus carried in her hands.
“It’s my trophy,” she replied. “When I say I’m gonna do something, I do it.”
Like a puppeteer, her hand bobbed, nodding the Grey head that was impaled upon her staff. A worm of dried blood spiraled down from the gaping hole between its eyes, disappearing at mid-throat where there was no more flesh to cling to.
A familiar voice came from amidst the blue-skinned crowd saying “Kruxor? You killed him?”
Lexus turned . . . and the general too. “Luthor?”
The Andromedans in front of her stepped back to make way, and another came forward, his black suit smeared with mud and his bald head glistening like ocean water on the horizon. His eyes were warm, but nothing about him was familiar.
“Yes, it’s me. A little different now, huh?”
“I don’t understand.”
“I was in disguise before. Cloning cloak, remember? I was here on reconnaissance, assessing the situation. As soon as we’d discovered a new planet amongst you, we knew that the Zetas were back to their tricks. The Bowltren allowed us intervention, so we came as soon as possible.”
As Raiden listened to Luthor speak, his confusion concerning the bewildered Arthian on the battlefield began to fade. He had not been able to understand the look in Luthor’s eyes the day before when he’d had no recognition of Raiden’s face. Now, he understood that it wasn’t Luthor at all. It was simply the soldier whose DNA had been utilized in the construction of Luthor’s cloning cloak.
“The head you carry,” Luthor continued. “That belongs to General Kruxor, does it not?”
“I’m not sure of his name,” said Lexus, “but I do know he was a general.”
“And he wore gauntlets of gold upon his forearms?”
“Yeah, with swords coming from them.”
“It was Kruxor, then. He was a dangerous, evil being. How did you manage to kill him?”
“Well, Raiden here cut his arms off in a swordfight. He was gonna let the bastard live after that, but I put a bullet in his brain and then cut his head off.”
Luthor chuckled at her candor. “If you speak the truth, then remind me not to get on your bad side.”
Lexus started to smile but then glared suspiciously, her face stern and cold. “Are you saying I might be a liar?”
Luthor straightened out, taken aback by her sudden shift in temperament. If he wanted to be on her good side, things didn’t seem to be going well. “Umm, no . . . I . . . .”
“Just ignore her, Luthor,” Aric chimed in. “She’s giving you shit. It gets her rocks off.”
“Hey! Don’t mess with me, little boy.” Lexus swiveled toward Aric and lowered Kruxor’s lifeless face to stare at him. “It’s bad for your health.”
“Sometimes, I have trouble with human humor,” Luthor said. “But God’s humor I can often appreciate, and in you, Lexus, I see a nice bit of his revealed.”
“What do you mean?” Lexus asked, unsure as to whether this was going to be an insult or not.
“You have such a sweet smile, but it’s only there to distract your victims as you prepare your sour bite.”
Lexus thought for a moment before deciding that she liked the Andromedan’s words. She was pretty, but tough: that was nice of him. Her lips curled up and her teeth sparkled in a crescent.
“Uh oh, look out,” said Aric. “There’s that damn sweet smile.”
The inferno had been brilliant, glowing for miles above the dark peaks of the Midline Mountains. It had taken many days to gather the Grey corpses for burning on the valley floor, but here was the beautiful reward of it all, flickering in the night as a beacon of human triumph. Nearly all the Reticulans on Centrum had been turned to ash, the remainders found and captured by Andromedan legions that swept the underground over the following days. Once the Grey presence had been eradicated, the blue ones left in great ships toward their home, leaving the humans, again, on their own . . . only this time with full memory of what had transpired.
Since the start of the war, great damage had been caused to the human bases across the globe, but no one was in a hurry to repair them. Their enemies were gone now. The planet was open and free for colonization, and it would happen, just not before the saviors of humanity had the chance to go home and visit the ones that they saved.
The withdrawal process was longer than most would have liked, for there were only so many ships to shuttle them back, but the wait was like Heaven compared to the weeks preceding. Men relaxed and shared stories and spoke of how they would see each other again and how they’d like to visit each other’s homes and see the worlds they’d never known.
The dark space between Fraq and Calri and Arth had always been like light-years of distance in the minds of the humans, but never again would such remoteness exist. The war had been intended to break them further—to the point of dust, of nonexistence—but in its vile struggles man had found a way to reunite. They had found a way to love each other, and this was a gift far more valuable than the planet of Centrum itself. Those light-years of space were now cracks in the ground, and men would traverse them as readily as such. Earth would no longer be a world apart, but rather a single world of parts, united by the understanding that, in their hearts, they were all the same. They were all humans, and humans were a proud and powerful race.
Surreal. No way. Impossible. Alive?
It was the way the world appeared to slow as if the air had thickened—and the sudden heat on her neck and face and the way her knees grew weak and wobbly—that had Lexus confused as to the validity of where she was and what she’d just heard. Was she dreaming? She had to be, for never had she even thought for a second that he’d still be alive. But then again, if she’d never even had the faintest trace of such a notion, then why would she dream it as if it were real? Her subconscious maybe? There was no doubt that she liked the news—loved it even—but had no clue as to how she should respond, and so just asked a quivering “What?” as a means of expressing shock and inviting further explanation. Tears swelled in her eyes as the captain carried on, but she wouldn’t let them fall.
“A group of Fraquian soldiers found him down within the tunnels near their Northern base. He was unconscious when they did: passed out from blood loss, looking pretty bleak. Took him in, thank God, and gave him some much-needed medical attention before turning him back over to Calrian forces. He was shipped back here with a number of other wounded soldiers. You can find him at the Tronstrot Military Hospital down in the South District. It’s been two weeks, but last I checked—which was two days ago—he’s still a bit out of it. Kept asking about you, but I had no idea what to say because I hadn’t heard from you until you got back this morning.”
Lexus turned her face to the ground as a tear rolled down her cheek. She swiped it away and sniffled, hoping the captain hadn’t noticed. This wasn’t a dream, she’d concluded, though it was a dream-come-true.
But now things would get complicated. What about Aric? What about the plans they’d made? He was supposed to come see her on Calri, test things out, see what they could be, if anything. His feelings for her were real, it seemed. Her feelings for him were . . . real too? She wasn’t sure. She’d never been sure. Not about Aric. Only about one man—after he’d been taken from her and it was too late for her to act on them—had her feelings ever been surely real.
But he wasn’t taken from her, after all. He was waiting for her, having denied death because he couldn’t stand the thought of not seeing her again, or so she hoped. She smiled as the simplicity of her situation dawned. There were feelings for Aric, but anything more than friendship was simply her attempt at filling the void that Bradley’s apparent death had opened within her heart. They were forced emotions, not real. She knew what she’d do. She knew of this as resolutely as she knew that war was of the devil.
His heartbeat played out as a rhythmic beep, sifting from beneath the doorway where Lexus stood and peeked through an inlaid window. He was sleeping, unaware of her presence but possibly dreaming of it. Even in his white hospital gown, he exuded manliness: his stubbly jawline chiseled and firm, unmoving as silent breaths sent his brawny chest surging. These were details she’d always noticed, but ones that had never affected her in the way they now did. Now, she was accepting her true emotions and embracing them, not looking the other way and tucking those yearnings within the shadows of her subconcious. She liked this better.
The door made a slight hiss as it closed behind her, but Bradley didn’t stir. She watched him for a short while before the urge to touch became too strong, and then she stepped to his side and wrapped her tiny hand about his. He flinched at the touch, but only in a reflexive way, shifting a bit within his bed and smacking his lips as if his mouth was too dry. She wanted to help him with the problem. As she leaned in to share the moisture of her own soft lips, her fingers curled and squeezed his palm, pulling him from sleep just as her kiss commenced.
She knew it too—for his eyes opened and grew large just as hers began to close—but she wasn’t going to stop. The kiss was one-sided at first, but only just as long as it took for Bradley to discern that this was no dream and that Lexus was truly there by his bedside kissing him from slumber. After that revelation arose, Bradley closed his eyes again and the two shared a moment—or rather a series of moments—locked in an electrically charging kiss that matured from tender lip sucking to a more unrestrained catharsis of licking and biting and ravenous groping.
Breathing breaks were the only times in which any verbal communication took place.
“Lexus . . . I . . . can’t believe . . . you’re here,” Bradley uttered between kisses. “I was afraid . . . I’d never see you again.”
“And I . . . thought you . . . were dead.”
They continued kissing—the beeping in the background quickening with every passing second—until Bradley pulled away, his hands on Lexus’ cheeks, physically holding her back from lunging in for more. When she noticed his eyes staring deeply into hers, she eased her aggression.
“I don’t want to lose you like that again, Lexus. I want you to know how I feel. I want you to know that you’re more to me than a pretty face—” his eyes scrolled from her eyes to her lips “—and a sexy body.” He glanced down her loose, low-hanging blouse to her half-exposed breasts, smiling in approval. “I love all that, but it’s because I love everything about you. It’s because . . .” He stared again into her eyes, so deeply and so confidently that Lexus could feel the tingle of his coming words already building. “I love you.”
There it was: his final declaration of love that she’d always suspected but had never known. His gaze did not waver. He was waiting for a response, his manly hands still pressed upon her cheeks, his fingertips caressing her hair in gentle strokes. There was fear in his eyes—stowed behind all the stars and the fireworks—for he was still uncertain as to Lexus’ true feelings. What would she say? Did she love him too, or was this just some emotional explosion to mark the culmination of a tumultuous time of pain and sadness and unknown. Was this the product of love or just something else?
Bradley was the sole thinker of these questions, for Lexus already knew the answers as resolutely as she knew that love was of God. She was sure of what she felt, and she was tired of hiding it. She released the breath she’d been holding and inspired, allowing the butterflies in her stomach some much-needed oxygen. With her hands, she reached up and caressed Bradley’s at the sides of her face, sharing his gaze and never faltering.
“It took me a while to realize it,” Lexus began, her voice soft and warm, “but I love you too.”
She wasn’t quite finished—she’d taken a slight inhalation as if winding up to say more—but Bradley took control and pulled her in to touch his lips again. He’d heard exactly what he wanted. Lexus released a faint moan between their mouths, surprised at the man’s abrupt aggression . . . and loving it. His hands left her cheeks, descending down about her slender throat to fill her with the sense that she was being taken. She moaned again, turning into a sharp exhalation as he ripped her buttoned shirt apart and sent her full breasts bouncing in liberation. Buttons pattered upon the floor but she ignored them, lost within the passion of their swirling tongues and his palms against her tender nipples.
This was a Bradley she’d never seen before. She was happy to meet him.
He brought his lips down upon her neck, and she shivered in the warmth, her trembling hands upon the buttons at her waist. Her pants fell with a slap against the cool concrete, bringing a sudden breeze against her naked thighs. Her shoes came off as she stepped out from within the slumped fabric. Bradley stopped to admire her bare body—she’d decided on wearing no bra and panties that morning and so was standing in all her glory—and then smiled in excitement and resumed by kissing down between her breasts.
Lexus ran her fingers through his hair and clenched, ripping his head backward and away from her chest. Slowly, she lifted a leg upon his bed, spread for a moment before her standing leg followed and she was mounted upon Bradley’s thighs. After all his flattery and his failed attempts, she was finally ready to reward him. It would be a glorious reward too, overflowing with the contents of his wildest fantasies and most vivid dreams. She didn’t know what those fantasies were, but she was prepared to cover all the bases to ensure they were met.
There within that hospital room—with doctors and nurses and visitors shuffling by just beyond the door and Bradley’s heart rate monitor speeding up to levels that threatened to trigger an alarm—Lexus surrendered to the feelings she’d long resisted. and Bradley found himself restored to full health, at least in mind and spirit.
It had been three days since he’d taken that dreamlike stroll down the cold stone corridors and through the locked gates—the ones he hadn’t seen for over five years—that took him, free, from the prison that had once consumed him. It had been two days since he’d visited Deb at the same white rectangle of a house in her similarly-ridiculous exercise attire but with a faint hint of noticeable age about her face. But that could have been the product of her scrunched eyes relaying shock and confusion and, vaguely, disdain. It had taken some charming to get her daughter’s address out of her, but Aric had always known Deb’s soft spots.
Now, he was there, standing across the street from the yellow, one-story house with its neatly-trimmed bushes and its stone-bordered sidewalk. It had taken him two days to get to this point because he’d been afraid. Scratch that. He was still afraid. His hands were shaking and his mouth was dry.
At first, it had been all about getting there to see Destiny. He wanted his daughter in his arms more than anything in the world, and he also wanted to see the look on Whitney’s face when he told her of his new woman and how they were going to be so happy together. But that plan had been spoiled with Lexus’ call—made possible by the newly-established, interplanetary satellite communication networks. Damn those satellites.
There had been sadness in her voice, but it was clear that this was meant for him and that, really, she was overjoyed. It had hurt. He’d cried after hanging up, for he thought he’d been in love and that, once again, he’d been thrown aside for another man. But this, he soon realized, was far from the case. Now that he was out of the war and away from Lexus, he could see his feelings for what they truly were: desperation and loneliness. She’d been so physically attractive that he was pulled to her, and his desire to find love again—the kind he’d had with Whitney—had been so strong that he’d convinced himself that he had found it in her. There had even been times when he had caught himself in this, recognizing the way his mind compared her to Whitney. His unfounded love for Lexus had always been the remaining love he still had for his daughter’s mother, reaching out from behind a wall of emotional scars and forced resentment.
So here he was, outside the abode of Whitney and Scott, unsure of what he was going to do and say but fully aware of what he hoped would come of it. Of course, his chance of getting Whitney back was slim. He was fresh out of jail, living in a cheap motel with no place to go and no belongings, no job. He had nothing to offer her. Nothing but his love, that is. But would she want it? What made his love any more substantial than Scott’s? He didn’t know, but he was ready to find out.
Aric walked hesitantly across the street, his hands in his pockets, his eyes fixed upon the door as if he feared someone would open it before he got there. Upon reaching the grass, the murmur of muffled shouts rose in the air, drifting from behind the placid, yellow walls ahead. Aric stopped so that his footsteps wouldn’t distort the sounds. He strained an ear forward but couldn’t discern what was being said and tiptoed closer until he was just outside the front door.
Scott and Whitney were arguing. He listened intently, recognizing the intermittent cries of his daughter as she protested the violence in the only way she could: with tears. There was a piercing shriek from Whitney and then the sound of breaking glass, and Destiny—in her tiny, innocent voice—screaming “Mommy!” Aric felt the scream like a fire at his back, and he reached for the doorknob, jiggling and ramming with his shoulder but to no avail; it was bolted shut. He knocked furiously and all went quiet within.
A few seconds later, the turning deadlock clicked and the door swung open to Scott’s ugly, red face. Aric glanced at the man’s eyes and then past him to the room where Whitney sat upon the ground, her face a wet mess of smeared makeup. Destiny sat with her, hugging and crying, the fragments of a shattered vase scattered across the carpet around them.
“Aric?” Scott scoffed. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
Aric didn’t speak. He replied, but he didn’t speak, just cocked his right fist back and threw it forward so quickly and so forcefully that Scott couldn’t even flinch before his mandible separated from the rest of his skull and he toppled, unconscious. Aric paid the man no more attention as he stepped over Scott’s sprawled body—bleeding from the mouth, for his jaw was most certainly broken—and moved swiftly toward the crying girls.
Destiny looked up and sniffled. “Daddy?”
Whitney, nearly at the same time, said “Aric?” with a trembling voice.
He bent down and wrapped an arm around each one, pulling them to their feet. He said nothing, just enjoyed their touch as they buried their wet faces into him: Whitney upon his chest, Destiny upon his thigh.
“Come on,” he finally said. “You’re coming with me.”
“But Aric, this is our home,” Whitney said, not so much in resistance as in uncertainty. The way she clung to him was enough to show that she still loved him. She wanted to be swept away, just needed to feel like they were headed somewhere.
“I know a place we can go.” Aric put his hands over Destiny’s ears. “Just get your things, and I’ll take you away from that piece of shit.”
Whitney nodded and turned, but Aric pulled her back again, planting on her lips a kiss that felt, to him, like water on a long-parched tongue. It was shorter than he wanted, for Destiny was right beside them, but it was more satisfying and refreshing and incredible than he’d ever remembered. When she pulled away, her eyes still closed, he knew in his heart that they were together again. This was his time to reclaim his life and have his family as he’d always wanted.
Whitney flashed a quick smile, her eyes still red from crying, and then disappeared down a nearby hallway with Destiny by her side. Aric turned to the doorway where Scott was still laid out, now emitting the rhythmic frog croak of a comatose snore. Aric reached into his pocket for the only possessions he’d taken with him from his jail cell, hauled from the dark corner where they’d been crammed for all those years. He pulled forth a crumpled ball of notebook paper, leaving others like it behind.
Looking at the ragged wad, he knew just where the three of them would go now. He trifled with the paper until it opened up to reveal line-after-line of black ink: words he’d read only once before, five years ago. If war had taught him anything, it was that life is short. Life is valuable. There’s no time to waste on hatred. There’s no point in holding grudges when there could be happiness instead of regret. Family was the engine driving almost every soldier, including himself, to survive that war. Family was what life was all about.
He let his eyes fall upon the first line of words and smiled:
Dear son, I’ve been sitting here in the darkness of this lonely house, wondering how I let things get so bad. I’ve failed you in so many ways that I can never take back, but I want you to know that I’m sorry and, although I haven’t shown it much, I love you . . . .
With his new state of mind, Aric couldn’t imagine these words being as empty and insincere as he’d initially assessed. This was a man that was truly sorry. It was a man that didn’t realize what he’d had until he lost it, and then it was too late . . . or so he’d thought. Aric knew, now, that it was never too late. Not until death was it ever too late.
Two weeks had passed since the Centrumian Greys had been expunged. Osyrus, being injured, had been granted the chance to be one of the first to leave for home. He wasn’t headed for the same home from which he’d left, though. He was a free man now. He’d earned that title. But where would he go? Darren had the answer to that question, and Raiden provided the support.
He’d go with them, back to the Fraquian Military Academy, back to where Darren would finish his education and Raiden would continue his teaching and Osyrus could apply—with a shining list of references, Raiden would ensure—for a job as an assistant SWUN trainer. Much better than prison, Osyrus had decided. And he’d get to stay close to Raiden: a compulsion that hadn’t yet left him, even after the conflict had clearly been settled. He’d put that aside for now, though. All he wanted was a warm hospital bed and the soothing whistle of Fraquian winds outside his window. He took the second ship out, and Darren, by Raiden’s order, joined his side.
Raiden hung around, watching the pool of human soldiers slowly evaporate into Centrum’s atmosphere, back toward the places they called home. He waited his turn—even volunteered to stay longer so others could go first—but quickly he realized that he needed his family. There were still thousands of soldiers up there, waiting to leave for their loved ones, but Raiden wasn’t one of them.
He was standing, now, upon his small front porch, the dynamic tint of snowfall thick upon the night sky at his back. The comfort of Fraquian sub-zero weather had him breathing with an ease he’d long gone without. Despite this comfort, his heart was beating fast. There were voices from within: the happy shouts of his daughters and the motherly tenor of Victoria’s futile requests for inside voices. They were just beyond the wooden door, acting out their normal routine without the slightest idea that Raiden was back on Fraq, let alone just outside. This was a surprise, and it was the anticipation of disclosure—and the reaction that Raiden could only imagine—that had him so worked up.
But he was not alone upon the porch.
“Stand over there until I’m in. Then wait for me. It’ll only be a minute.”
Raiden knocked, the dull thud beckoning forth Victoria’s footsteps from the living room. No doubt, she was wondering who in the world would be at her doorstep at such an hour. She’d be cautious, but not scared. He knew her well.
“Who is it?” she asked.
“A lost traveler,” Raiden replied, “just trying to find my way home. I thought maybe you could take me in for the night.”
Now normally Victoria would play along, come up with some kind of realistic response and relay it in a tone that revealed the fact that she could never mistake Raiden’s voice, even if he was trying to distort it. This wasn’t the normal, night-after-work scenario, though, and there was no humoring response from his wife, just the excited swinging of the maple door and a lunging body that nearly knocked him to the ground as she wrapped her arms around him.
He hugged her back, caressing her hair as she nestled her teary face into his chest. His eyes, too, began to grow moist, giving way to tears only when the two of them had walked into the house and Kristen and Katie yelled “Daddy!” in their little voices, charging forward to take their usual places about his legs. There he was, his three girls—his whole world—embracing every part of his body and crying so joyously that the love in the air was too much for him to maintain composure. He wept, running his giant hands along Victoria’s silk-sheathed back and down to the hair of his beautiful daughters, absorbing the sensation of their touch and the fact that there was resistance against his palms because he wasn’t imagining this. They were really there with him.
After a minute of this affectionate huddle, the girls peeled off, looking to each other in disbelief and utter delight—and communicating with their eyes in ways that only twins can do. Victoria released her bear hug, and Raiden shut the door behind him, blocking the biting breeze from sweeping in more of the white powder now scattered upon the carpet. He corralled the girls with his heavy arms and led them over to the couch where they had all been sitting before his interruption. They talked for a few minutes about his trip and how it had been so exciting traveling into outer space and how they’d missed him and had no clue he’d returned.
The television was blaring and Raiden glanced to see the familiar face of his daughters’ favorite show, babbling on about the acrobatic tree-hopping abilities of the blue-lipped gibbon. The sight flipped a switch in his head and let fall the drapery of his distracted mind. In all the excitement, he’d forgotten about something.
“Well, young ladies,” he said to his daughters, “I’ve got another surprise in store for you.” He rose to his feet and walked toward the door, grinning, as he did, beneath the onslaught of eager screeching, his daughters demanding the secret be revealed at once. “I’m about to show you. I have to get it first.” He reached out for the doorknob and pulled, letting in a swift gust of snow-laced wind that brushed past the dark figure standing on the porch. “I’ve brought somebody I think you two would like to meet.”
The man stepped forward into the light of the room, taking down his frosted hood so that his face could gleam like the fluorescent-cheeked snow owls he had once observed in Fraq’s forested district of Genua in the Northeast. The gleaming was contagious as Kristen and Katie grew wide-eyed and smiley, looking to each other for a non-verbal confirmation that they were indeed seeing who they thought they were. This glance was instantaneous—for they were well-aware that it was him and their excitement would not be contained—and then they shrieked like preteens at a boy band concert, jumping from their seats as their exclamations streamed in unison:
Isaac laughed at their enthusiasm, bending down to accept their hugs and feeling, for the first time in a long while, that he was back where he belonged. Raiden stood with his arms around Victoria’s waist, basking in the glee of his daughters and their animal-loving hero. He couldn’t help but feel the same way. Saving the world had been amazing, but this was where he belonged. This was his home, and he never wanted to risk any of it again.