Plans are made of yielding gel,
Their structures shift with novelty,
What once was thought is soon forgot,
What lies ahead can’t first be seen.
The meeting of Isaac’s team with the Arthians was but one of many reunions that occurred throughout Centrum. Exploration parties were fortuitously stumbling upon each other all across the planet, and even the Calrians showed up to join the gathering. It was evident that the curiosity of man remained an underlying trait connecting them all, even if their paths had parted thousands of years before. One might expect some form of hostility between the strangers, but surprisingly, their common ancestry was enough to instill a quick sense of camaraderie.
Previously, the minds behind Fraq, Arth, and Calri had been unconcerned with each other, almost to the point of forgetting the others’ existence. In fact, none was even certain what the other humans looked like or if they even existed at all. The physical appearance of their otherworldly counterparts was but a forward-looking speculation written in the pages of a 5000-year-old manuscript. Merely one copy had been allotted to each planet, the importance of its contents emphasized greatly to the initial founders by their Andromedan saviors.
Although the book’s value was apparent, its claims, without proof, were thought by some a mere fairy-tale. Centrum offered an opportunity for the stories to find firm footing in reality. For the first time, satellite communication was established between Fraq, Arth, and Calri, and the leaders spoke freely as allies. Together, the three races would work toward achieving mutual goals. This was the shared resolution of each planet’s leaders.
The initial stages of their agenda involved the simple pursuit of knowledge. Was the planet habitable? Did it present novel elements, unknown compounds, new breakthroughs in the scientific realm? Were its resources useful? Was it inhabited by intelligent life? All of these questions needed to be answered, and many more. To attain this knowledge, it took time and it took manpower. Fortunately, these two ingredients were not in short supply. Men and women—some military but mostly intellectuals—were ferried to Centrum from all planets, their numbers growing with the passing weeks. Small housing units were built to shelter these pioneers. Most of them solely contained individuals from a respective planet, but some kept mixed company.
The next item on the agenda, and one that came to the forefront before the first had been exhausted, was the partitioning of the planet. After setting satellites in orbit, maps of Centrum’s surface were constructed and territorial lines were agreed upon. The humans established nearly 40 colonies: over a dozen represented by each planet. A majority of the Fraquian bases were established in regions nearest the poles, where the sun’s light came at more of an angle and the temperature was much cooler. The Calrians colonized mostly around the planet’s equator where the temperatures were more comparable, although still significantly below, those of their home. Arth, in turn, laid roots at more intermediate latitudes.
Because each region presented its own unique resources, it was mutually agreed that these main divisions would not be absolute. Fraq established a few territories that strayed toward the equator, between the borders of Arthian and Calrian lands. Arth and Calri, as well, specified provinces that sat flanked by allied territory. With the land divided fairly, mankind began the expansion of their settlements. Large transport ships were constructed for the conveying of necessary machines and building materials, and engineers and construction workers poured over the space divide with them.
In less than four months, the groundwork for civilian inhabitation had been laid. Large bases had been constructed to center each world’s provinces, and around these bases were to spring the houses and other buildings that would comprise their Centrumian colonies. Months of preparation still remained before civilians could begin to make the move to Centrum, but that time was fast approaching. It appeared, to all, that the planet truly was a gift from the heavens, and the humans had every intention of accepting that gift for all it was worth.
“Inform the general of my desire to speak. Bring him to me at once.” Zuron Troy commanded his minion as he sank his putrid fangs into the side of a roasted Nizuan swamp boar, its tiny form shrinking beneath the bite with an eruption of fluid that splashed his face and trickled repulsively down his chin. He chewed the hunk of flesh with a grimace and spat it to the floor in a messy wad. “This meal is undercooked!” As he spoke, he lifted the miniature swine before his face and ripped its head from its neck. The bones snapped beneath his furious grips, the sound lost amongst the flopping of innards as they escaped the wound and spread about the table. “Send me the chef who prepared this pestilent course!”
Twenty guards of his imperial aegis stood along the walls of the room with rifles held steadily at their sides. The one nearest the door nodded at his king’s command and passed hurriedly into the kitchen adjacent to the dining hall. The guard returned momentarily with the squirming culprit, his frail grey body trembling in terror, his large black eyes blinking uncontrollably. A stained apron draped from his waistline. Its surface, the chef feared, would soon be tainted with his own blood as well.
“You summoned me, my lord,” he uttered.
“Do not speak,” Zuron replied. His voice was forceful, but unnervingly calm. “Come to me.”
He extended his gangly fingers and curled them in as if reeling the frightened Grey to him by an invisible leash. His servant shuffled forward, shoulders hunched feebly and head down in shame. Zuron grabbed his dinner knife with a furtive sweep and brought it low to his far side. Although his head was down, the chef’s eyes looked up and did not fail to see the motion. His gait slowed in apprehension, his throat beginning, uncontrollably, to whimper like a frightened puppy.
“What is this that sits before me on my dinner plate?”
“I-i-it’s a Nizuan swamp boar, my lord.” The chef was stuttering. He bit his lip and tried to get control.
“To me, it’s the death and suffering of my people.” Zuron’s eyes were sharp and solemn.
“I-I don’t understand, sir.”
“You’ve spoiled this meal. You’ve wasted this food.” Zuron paused for a moment and took some breaths, his expression insinuating thoughts unshared. “Times are hard. The billions of Zeta Reticulans in this galaxy look to me for guidance. Starving children grab at me as I walk through the streets, begging for relief. Struggling fathers beseech me for a solution to their dwindling fortunes and suffering families. It’s these thoughts that plague me in wakefulness and in sleep. It’s my people who I wish to protect and to care for, yet here you are putting waste to an entire meal with your incompetence. You disgrace your people. I wish to vomit, but I know that this would only represent yet more wastefulness.”
“I’m sorry, my lord. I’ll remove it from your table, at once.” The cook stepped forward and reached for the dish, eager to take leave.
“Stay your hand or I shall remove it!” Zuron’s words froze the chef in fear more than servitude. He stood from his seat and vanished swiftly to the trembling Grey’s back. Hot breath collected in a cloud of moisture against the chef’s neck. He shuddered. He could feel the knife in Zuron’s hand, its chilled blade resting against the skin of his arm.
As Zuron spoke, he moved the knife slowly up the cook’s arm, its razor edge peeling dead skin from its path. “Now I’m thinking of how I can fix this problem: how I can teach this important lesson of prudence.”
“Please don’t kill me, my lord. Please. I’ll be more careful.”
“Stop talking!” Zuron roared, his arm jerking up to bring blade to throat. It sliced the tender skin, crimson blood forming a line from left to right. The cook gasped, closing his eyes to await death. It didn’t come. He opened his eyes again and brought his hand to his throat where the blood was smeared but not gushing. The cut was merely superficial. He slumped in relief, tears swelling in the corners of his eyes and falling in tributaries down his sunken cheeks.
Zuron slammed the knife onto the table before them and then smashed the cook’s face into the bleeding meat. “I won’t eat this sordid fare. It’s not at all fit for a king, but for a slave. You will devour these repulsive contents until every last drop of blood and pus is licked clean from the platter.”
Zuron’s hand remained firmly on the back of the chef’s head, smearing his face about the meal, its juices coating every inch with a reeking paste. The poor Grey cried and coughed and gagged as he forced the glutinous heap down the back of his gullet. Saliva fell from his lips in frothy strings that pooled about the plate. He sucked the viscous puddles up and heaved in disgust, falling to the floor as Zuron released hold on the back of his head. His chest writhed with pained breaths, his eyes shut but still disgorging tears.
Zuron stood above him looking down, saddened at the pathetic sight. He shook his head in pity. “I hope you’ve learned how important it is that we treat our food as a blessing. Do not waste another ounce, or I promise that my cut will run deeper . . . and your blood the same.”
Zuron shifted his eyes as a guard entered through the double doors at the far end of the room, his boots clicking with each step and echoing off the high walls.
“My lord, the general awaits in your meeting hall.”
“Very well,” Zuron replied with a nod. His guard disappeared back through the same entrance, and Zuron returned his attention to the blubbering chef at his feet. “I suspect we are in understanding?”
“Yes, my lord,” the chef slurred, his lips parting with threads of slobber like stitches stretching at the seam.
“Good.” The king turned to walk away but then rotated back to look down upon the Grey one more time. “You missed a piece.” He pointed to his first bite, which sat in a sappy ball on the floor by his chair where he’d spat it. “Do not waste one bit, I said.”
The chef looked at his king with pleading eyes and then flipped to his stomach to lick the waste clean from the tile. Zuron turned. He did not wish to witness such a pitiable act. There was no joy in his eyes, just emptiness. Being a king meant making decisions that others did not want to make, and committing acts that others would not commit. It meant establishing rules and enforcing them at any cost. Some things he did not like, but all things he did had their basis in reason. Taking care of his people was his number one priority, and if he was to kill or torture or humiliate to advance this greater good, he was more than willing.
As Zuron walked across the hall, his body progressed silently as if suspended above the floor. The stealth of his steps was in stark contrast to the erratic movements that moved him forward: a ghostly inconsistency, indeed. A black cloak fell from his shoulders like a demon’s silhouette, caressing the tile floor with a touch of death behind his gait. Two guards parted the doors to allow him passage and shut them behind with a booming resonance. The sound swept the dining hall like a warm wave of comfort, relieving the tension of those within—especially the chef.
The hallway without was carpeted with the fiery pelt of a Drotrolian blood whale. Along the pasty walls, there stood an echelon of statues, their figures depicting the timeless kings of the Zuron Dynasty. Zuron Troy disregarded his predecessors as he passed swiftly beneath extravagant chandeliers and toward the meeting hall where his general awaited. As he approached the doors, his trailing guards sped to pass and open them.
“Remain here,” Zuron snapped, his arms outstretched to stay their passage. “I can open the damn door myself.”
He swung the doors inward and entered the room, the fresh aroma of burning pine seizing his nostrils with an invigorating zeal. The room shimmered with the glow of flames convulsing in his crystal hearth, the heat conducting through the air to kiss his cheeks in reverence. The general stood with his face to the blaze. He was too close, but the pain excited him.
With the entrance of his leader, Kruxor turned to face him in rigid posture, unmoving and silent until ordered otherwise. His loyalty and obedience were built deep into his being: at the level of his DNA, in fact.
“Relax, General Kruxor. You’re in friendly company.”
The king passed beside the long conference table and took his seat on the throne at its head. The general nodded and moved to sit in his designated chair at Zuron’s right hand. It was his chair, indeed, for any other company would find their feet dangling insecurely above the ground . . . if they could even manage to mount it. Kruxor was a hybrid, meaning he was not the product of a Zeta Reticulan union but rather a creation born in a test tube and developed in a lab. He shared the impressive intellect of the Zeta Reticulans but without the physical setbacks of small stature; he was over six feet tall and significantly brawnier than the average Grey.
His roots traced back to the time of Earth when the Greys had gained footholds within world’s governments and established treaties authorizing human abductions for the expansion of their biological program. Back then, the Greys had been extremely active in seizing humans for genetic experimentation, mind control, and the creation of a hybrid race that linked their two species. After the destruction of Earth and their extradition by the Bowltren, the hybrids—and there were many—were forced by Reticulan law to breed only with each other: a necessary statute to sustain their unique genes over the years.
Kruxor sat with his forearms resting on the translucent table. On each, he bore an opulent gauntlet of gold-plated carbon steel: the symbols of his high military status as well as powerful articles of armor. His enormous eyes were as dark and depthless as his master’s, and possibly even more sinister. It was clear that he took comfort in knowing that all of his decisions were made for him. With this in mind, he could commit even the most heinous of acts and suffer not the slightest trace of regret, or sympathy, or sadness. His heart—if there existed one—reserved no place for such emotion.
“Tell me, General, of the state of our plan. Do the humans yet suffer beneath the weight of their characteristic greed? Do they quarrel and war with prideful spite? Are they yet weakened by each other’s blows that we may deal the ending strike of death?” Zuron slouched back into the supple cushions of his throne. As he spoke—without voice, of course—he sipped through straw the lymphatic fluid of a swamp ox, his bony fingers twisted about the chalice within which he swirled the fuming brew.
“I’m afraid the news I bring is of a more abhorrent nuance. The humans, it appears, have strayed from the path that history envisaged for them. They do not fight for more. Instead, they negotiate and flourish. Their numbers on Hitra grow with time, but their militia on the planet remains steady and in short supply.”
Zuron’s face contorted into a hideous scowl. He threw his goblet to the floor where its contents spread and rippled.
Kruxor closed his eyes to hide his shame. “But they know not of our presence, yet. We may still attack with great advantage, although I would advise against this stroke. Our victory, of course, would come with ease, but I fear it would be of little use in advancing our chief cause. We must draw the full strength of their militaries to Hitra, leaving only civilians to protect their home planets. Beyond this, we must, as you know, weaken them before revealing ourselves. To do—”
“Thank you, General Kruxor. You may stay your tongue.”
Kruxor bowed his head slightly and mumbled in compliance, “My lord.”
“You bring me foul news, but you do so humbly and not without wise counsel. War is what our plan demands, and it is such that we shall force upon the humans if they will not fashion it themselves.”
The king quieted his thoughts from Kruxor as he pondered his options in a protected region of his mind. His fingers rapped rhythmically on the arms of his throne before he brought them to his lap and laced them. For a minute it was this way. The two sat unmoving, the crackling of the fire the only sound to break the silence: Zuron thinking, Kruxor unthinking. In time, the king’s tongue protruded from his lipless mouth as the hideous birth of a devious scheme. It slithered side to side as he raised his bowed head and released his thoughts to satiate Kruxor’s curiosity.
“I’ve returned from a lonely realm whose silence gave voice to mute ideas and whose isolation uplifted me in rumination. There, my mind is liberated from morality’s chains, and in this ephemeral freedom, I’ve ascertained the solutions that your hand shall enact. When you breathe life into my ideas, and lend them hands and feet with which to act, the humans will fall in their graves without the slightest suspicion. We know their kind to be a greedy bunch. This fact my grandather exploited to bring self-destruction upon the Earthlings. If their descendents need help in discovering their true selves, then we shall lend it generously, but discreetly.
“Although the notion may currently be feeble and unfounded, the mere presence of military elements on Hitra suggests the potential threat that each planet sees in the others. Our task, now, is to substantiate these feelings and amplify them to levels above and beyond those that would warrant a declaration of war. We need them to abhor each other so that victory is defined solely as he who spills the most blood.”
The general’s eyes enlarged with excitement, his head nodding in accord and leaning into his king’s words with overwhelming acceptance. “And how, my lord, shall my men and I bring forth this outcome?”
“With deception, my loyal friend. We will feed their eyes lies, and trick their minds with false encroachment. Quick to draw conclusions, the humans will feel their friendships fester to virulent enmity in short time. Meanwhile, and by that I mean as soon as possible, send shamans to their home planets. Just one to each. They will catalyze the process by infiltrating the presidents’ quarters and poisoning their minds with violent thoughts. Their secrecy, inform them, is of paramount importance.
“The human leaders must believe the thoughts to be their own or the entire plan will crumble as an ashen twig. If you succeed in carrying out my orders, the gunfire will be so thick and so thunderous that their ears will be deaf to the sounds of our laughter. Their blood will run so deep that Hitra’s tunnels will imbibe it like nectar, and when they flood to reach your soldier’s knees, you will know your ambush has been primed.”
“Your genius never ceases to impress, my king. After all these years, my gun shall finally be treated with human blood, and my swords the same.” He pulled, from his side, two naked silver blades: no grips attached, simply point-to-point by razor edge. “Recently, I had our blacksmith forge these for me. I’m growing tired of the guns. With them, the deed is much too detached. I long to be close to my victims: to smell their fear and look into their eyes as the life escapes them. It’s an intimacy that only my hands can grant, and these blades I’ve made as lethal extensions of myself. Shall I show you how they work?”
“Do demonstrate, General,” said Zuron, intrigued.
With his king’s sanction, Kruxor grabbed a blade with one hand and pressed its flat surface down into the decorative groove of his other arm’s gauntlet. With the press of a small button barely visible at the blade’s center, the inserted end expanded in all directions with the clanking of metal contact, its splaying fingers holding firmly to the gauntlet’s inner walls. Zuron flinched slightly in surprise and then grinned with titillation as he watched. Kruxor inserted the second blade into his remaining gauntlet with another click and then rose to stand, his hands clenched in fists with 18-inch swords extending from their backs.
Zuron applauded in approval: a slow, sinister applaud. “Very impressive, General. I’d very much like to see them in action.”
“I was hoping you would say that. Please wait just a moment, my lord.”
The general exited the room and returned momentarily, a soldier of his army close behind. He was fairly young, maybe 30 standard years, with a smile on his face and a hop in his step. His head reached only to the bottom of Kruxor’s chest: average height for a Zeta Reticulan.
“And who is this fine soldier?” Zuron inquired. “I don’t recognize his face.”
“My name is Izor Milus,” the Grey replied. “I’m a new member of the Dark Vanguard. General Kruxor told me that I may have a word with you.” His voice wavered with nerves, but he smiled extra big to draw attention from it. “It’s my son’s birthday tonight. He’s turning 10. I have this card here.” He pulled a folded piece of paper from the pocket of his buttoned jacket. “I was hoping you may sign it and add a few words: a special gift to celebrate his first decade of life. His name is Bryus, and he absolutely adores you, my lord. I can’t think of anything he’d like more than your blessing.”
It appeared Zuron was flattered, for his cold stoicism gave way, momentarily, to a warming smile. “Well, Izor, I’d be happy to sign your son’s birthday card, but judging by the general’s stance behind you, I’d say that card has little chance of making it to young Bryus’ 10 year-old hands.”
“I don’t understand, my lord.”
“Well turn and let your confusion part.”
Izor spun slowly to face the general, who leaned back on a bent leg with the other extended forward and toe pointed. Izor’s eyes met themselves in the reflection of Kruxor’s blades, barely able to grow in terror before the weapons came at him. The first sword to propel forward sliced clean Izor’s head from his neck. The second came in a thrusting stab that pierced the bulbous skull and bore it on its length as a finger bears a ring. The Grey’s small body stood for but a moment longer before its knees yielded beneath its dead weight. Kruxor stood tall and proud, the lifeless torso draining at his feet and the head leaking red streams down his blade and about his fists.
“That was quite the exhibition, General, albeit a tad unfortunate. That Izor Milus appeared a nice young man, and he leaves behind a family.”
“You are a great judge of character, my lord, but his status as an individual far exceeds his ability as a soldier. He has struggled with training, and as a member of the Dark Vanguard at the frontlines of our army, he would be little more than a shield to catch a bullet.”
“Yes, but that one stray bullet may be the one that finds your brain, General Kruxor.” The two met eyes in solemn stare. Kruxor strayed gaze first to break the tension. “Either way, it was an exhilarating display, and one which I asked for. See to it, though, that young Bryus and his mother are provided for generously. Private Izor suffered a valiant death while defending me from a loosed Tetroll: this is to be their tale.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Free your right blade from its snare and hand it to me.”
Kruxor looked perplexed but followed the order, passing to Zuron’s open claw the dripping head kabob. The king held the sword carefully to avoid its sharp edge, rotating it before himself to peer about the lifeless face. He cocked his head like a confused puppy, meeting eyes with the late soldier and glaring into their black centers with creepy intent.
“This shall be the fate of every human I encounter, my lord,” Kruxor interrupted. “And when we’ve run through their numbers on Hitra, I’ll lead the invasions of the remaining three planets. When I’m finished, their surfaces will be littered with corpses, and we will be free to transcend to levels of glory we’ve only dreamed of.”
Zuron grinned at his general’s words, his stygian eyes still transfixed on the bleeding skull. “When that time has come, Hitra will be in need of a new king.”
“But what of King Viteroy Gosh?” Kruxor asked.
Zuron’s tongue flicked from his mouth like a serpent, his gaze unmoving. “King Viteroy and I had a bit of a falling out. He has since resigned from his post, so the position remains empty for the time being.” Kruxor nodded. “This I discuss with you, for it is a void I believe can be filled with your loyalty and passion. If you were to do as you’ve said, and if you were to bring me the heads of the three human presidents—their eyes yet open so I may read their dying thoughts—then I shall place you in this high position, if you so wish it.”
Kruxor recoiled at the offer, his emotionless face revealing neither his surprise nor his elation. “King Zuron, I’m honored by your consideration. The words for which I search evade me, so I’ll be blunt and unremarkable and say ‘Yes, I would like nothing more and so it shall be done.’ My anticipation of this great reward will drive our army to a swift victory.”
“Splendid. I’m delighted to hear that. Take caution, though, that your haste does not lend to itself from effectiveness. The throne awaits you no matter how long the conquest takes. Patience often proves a vital attribute and an invaluable battle tactic. Remember that.”
“Yes, my lord. Yet more wisdom escapes your temples. The supply, it seems, is endless.”
“Thank you, General. Your flattery serves you well, although my regard for you cannot rise much higher. Those heads are what I need now. It’s time for our talking to cease and your blades to swing freely. Take my plan to your army within Hitra, and infuse in them the zeal that exudes from you like a gripping aroma. If the flame of your passion can spread and grow, then there is no doubt in my mind that I will one day call you a king.” Zuron peeled Izor’s head from its slayer’s foil and placed it on the table before him. “Take your blade and go, my friend. We’ll speak again when you have news to share.”
“Right away, my lord. I’ll begin travel tonight on our fleet’s fastest ship and arrive within the coming days.” Kruxor turned and began toward the exit, his boots splashing through the pool of blood on the tile and stepping, carefully, over the headless body responsible. His feet slipped slightly as he moved, red prints following in their wake. Before exiting, he turned to speak. “I’ve brought more men.”
“There’s no need, General,” Zuron replied. “I’ve had my show. One lost life was enough to demonstrate your dangerous new toys.”
“Oh, but of course, my lord. These men I’ve brought to clean up my mess. Playing with my toys, I knew, would be a sloppy game, indeed.”