The siren’s wail reverberated through his skull, a screaming death knell piercing flesh and bone.
Years of training and he still wasn’t prepared.
Brain scrambled, unable to accept the reality of the situation, his muscle memory took control, working on autopilot to carry him to his position whether he liked it or not. Jamming his helmet onto his head, he grabbed his gun from the wall rack, and sprinted to his post, passing hundreds of Nexus soldiers doing the same, their alert bodies and blurred faces moving in every direction.
Superior Officers bellowed orders through the base’s speaker system, their determined voices reflecting off of the smooth, concrete walls. Some soldiers would hear their commands and breathe easier, but he knew better, or perhaps he knew worse and knew their words were pointless.
He activated the display on his helmet’s face shield, the tempered glass ending just below his nose, leaving his mouth and chin exposed. Forcing his lunch to remain in his stomach, he swallowed as colorful text and graphics scrolled across the visor.
It was too hot for the temperate summers this planet was known for. Sweat trickled down his neck and into his uniform, the thick, rough fabric sticking to his skin, its weight much heavier than the day before.
A memory burbled to the surface of his thoughts. A happy memory, fighting its way to the forefront of his mind, clawing through the thick, oily sludge dread and despair had drowned him in. A memory of his mother...
She had nearly fainted with pride when she first saw him in his Nexus blues, eyes sparkling with tears, her fingers fidgeting with the lapels and Velcro pocket flaps of his jacket so they would lay flat before her hand finally rested over his heart... So happy, yet so worried.
Before he’d left for boot camp, she’d kissed him on each cheek, hugged him close, her hand tight on the back of his neck, and told him to make a difference in this world.
He promised her he would.
Heart stuttering at the memory, he bit the inside of his cheek to stop his tears from falling and prayed to the stars above that today he would make a difference.
Skidding to a stop on the tarmac normally reserved for docked aircraft, he stood in position among his brothers and sisters in arms—row after row after row of perfectly lined soldiers with their guns aimed at the sky, the base at their backs, and miles of rolling hills covered in lush, auburn grasses before them. Massive, mounted missile launchers and tanks bordered them, while Nexus jets darted through the skies, ready to intercept at a moment’s notice, but they were the last resort. Getting too close to the enemy did not end well—it just ended. Period.
A tense hush descended upon the base as they waited. An uneasy quiet. Pounding hearts and heavy breathing the only sounds.
Through their in-ear receivers, they could hear the battle raging high above, see faint laser blasts peppering the heavens. If they could destroy the enemy’s ship before it entered the planet’s atmosphere, the lack of oxygen would kill them, but even then, they would need to keep them occupied until they ran out of air. The freezing temperatures and lack of gravity were not enough.
A warning beep echoed throughout the base, their helmet-displays flashing a single number: Five.
His entire being zeroed in on that solitary number, stomach dropping as he read it again and again.
Five, five, five, five, five...
A rattling noise broke his mind’s numeric cycling. All around him, guns shook. Sobs and gasps escaped the lips of hardened military men and women, the smell of urine now mixing with the overwhelming scent of too many overheated bodies.
Shaking his head, he needed to focus. Being afraid would not help him survive. It would only make things worse. He pushed his fear deep, deep within himself, anchoring his reality back to the here and now.
He would make a difference.
He had to.
The grip on his gun tightened, the plastic groaning beneath his hands. This was it.
His earpiece sputtered, “Direct hit! Direct hit!”
The air in his lungs vanished, robbed by a desperate plea for miracles to be real as he stopped breathing.
As everyone. Stopped. Breathing.
At that moment, hope became tangible, taking shape in front of his eyes, his mother solidifying before him, her smile wide and arms opened wider. If he could just touch her, hold her, he knew everything would be all right, but she disappeared. There and gone in an instant.
Hope was poison, a disease, a mirage in a desert. It infected mind, body, and soul with impossible possibilities.
He whimpered, forcing himself to pay attention to the task at hand, but wanting to run, to cry, to magically find himself back home, safe and sound. But with death close, so close he could already taste the rancid decay of lives lost, there was no escape.
The shouted updates and commands over his receiver were barely understandable—the chaos above too volatile for any on the ground to comprehend. It was difficult to focus on what they were saying, to decipher what was happening when...
The soldier next to him started to pray.
She held her gun firmly, but her body quaked.
He knew Mina Rodriquez better than most. They’d enlisted at the same time. Went through boot camp together. Shared a secret or two.
Turning his head, he watched her lips move, her words slurred and unintelligible through her tears, but their meaning was undeniable. He wanted to reach out to her, hug her, tell her it was going to be okay, but his words would be as useless as the gun he held.
Against a Five or above, the gun might as well have been a prop from one of the many Space Soap Operas his mother loved to watch. But maybe he wouldn’t have to use it, maybe this time the Five wouldn’t breach the atmosphere, maybe this time, they’d win.
A crackle in his ear indicated a change in station. His eyes snapped to the sky. They were no longer being fed information from the interstellar base. The commands would now come from terra base. His base.
“Ready, soldiers!” screeched in his ear.
He wasn’t ready.
No one could ever be ready for something like this, but he didn’t have a choice. Holding his gun steady, he narrowed his eyes, the crosshairs on his display aimlessly moving, searching for a yet to be detected horror. His breath hitched as it locked onto the enemy’s ship.
The ship broke into the planet’s troposphere, spiraling out of control, black smoke billowing from its engine as it hurtled straight for them.
An unrelenting barrage of lasers shot from their guns, the sky erupting in lines of blue light. They hit the ship, slicing off bits and pieces as it careened toward them.
The soldiers ran for cover, running in organized madness to their designated foxholes.
The fighter jets swarmed, continuing the attack with ground missiles providing additional cover. Little by little, the enemy’s ship broke apart.
His helmet emitted a harsh, low-pitched tone.
Everyone dropped to the ground.
The jets tried to pull back, but they were too close.
A blinding explosion from within the enemy’s ship blasted outward—the ship destroyed.
The resulting wave of energy disintegrated the attacking Nexus jets.
Black smoke expanded and rose as debris rained from the sky.
Blast waves assaulted the base before being drawn back up into the air.
His crosshairs locked onto something small streaking through the hazy sky, a trail of thick smoke in its wake. Soldiers leaped out of their foxholes as their displays calculated the object’s trajectory and final resting place. They fled in a panic while commanders fruitlessly shouted over their earpieces to hold the lines, but there was no point. They all knew what was coming.
He jumped out of his foxhole and ran.
Need to move. Need to run. Need to live, he told his body.
He glanced behind as the object crashed into the earth, the ground shaking with terrifying force.
The ground rose up around him as the shock wave rippled with ferocious intent.
He tripped, slamming into the ground, teeth cracking as his helmet shattered. His body slid backward, the earth moving with him as he was pulled down. Down, down, down. Kicking and groping as he slipped, his feet found purchase on a thick pipe sticking out of the rock face. He grunted as his hands dug into the dirt, nails splitting within his gloves as he hauled himself up and over the side, flopping onto his back, gulping down air.
The tremors in the earth ceased, but his body continued to tremble.
He sat up, mouth gaping.
He was on the edge of a giant smoking crater. And within the newly formed cavity... his fellow soldiers, their bodies bloody and bent at unnatural angles or missing parts completely. Skewered on shards of metal, or crushed under rock, their final resting place was more junkyard than graveyard.
Soldiers around the crater slowly stood as they took in the destruction. Too few. There were so few of them left. Their military base was no more. The only home they’d known the past few years, obliterated within seconds.
The hair on his body stood on end as a shiver walked down his spine, a metallic tang coating his tongue. His attention laser-focused to the center of the crater, barely able to see through the smoke and debris. But then...
Flashes of light here and there. They multiplied, growing more and more frenzied and concentrated, moving closer and closer together to form a glowing dome around the base of the pit. A light pulsed outward from its center, knocking the soldiers watching onto their backs.
Fumbling to his hands and knees, he watched in horror as a man rose out of the crater.
No. Not a man. He may look like a man, may have at one time been considered a man, a hero even, but these abominations could no longer be called human. This thing was an Energy Fighter.
Blinking rapidly, he had never seen an E-Fighter in person before. Even before they had turned, before they had become nothing more than careless, thoughtless weapons of mass destruction, he had only ever experienced Dr. Thomas Cazar’s creations through Coiler War histories, or through theories and hypotheticals. But here he was, watching as Death itself rose from the pits of Hell.
The Energy Fighter’s arms were tucked close to its body with elbows bent out at its sides, hands fisted as it floated up. Eyes closed with a cruel smile framing its mouth, its body was limned in a greenish-blue glow. Lightning cracked and slithered around the orb of light encasing it, its clothing and hair fanning and fluttering in the rushing air current contained within its protective sphere.
Its fists opened.
A tornado-level wind blasted the area before being sucked back in.
Enormous chunks of their former base flew toward the E-Fighter, circling it like a cyclone.
Five, five, five, five, five, five...
The soldier gazed unbelievingly at the E-Fighter—a Level Five E-Fighter. No one was getting out of this alive. The thought broke and remade something within him. He searched his surroundings for anything he could use as a weapon. Other soldiers had the same thought as they rushed to grab what they could. Finding a discarded gun, he aimed it at the E-Fighter. His fellow soldiers moved to the lip of the crater with their weapons drawn, some only carrying large rocks or hunks of concrete, but it was something.
The image of his military family ready to fight, to go down as one, made his heart swell.
Mina stood directly across from him. Her face bloody, her uniform in tatters, she leveled her gun, and with hate and tears in her eyes yelled, “Die Effer!”
Every single soldier took up her war cry as they fired as one.
The Energy Fighter opened its eyes, rising higher and higher into the sky, laser bullets and rocks following its path but bouncing harmlessly off of its energy shield. It smirked and the debris surrounding it shot out.
Some were crushed as giant slabs of concrete slammed into them.
The soldier zigzagged as he ran, hoping he would not be hit, not knowing where he was going, just knowing he had to run.
He ran until a wide stone wall blocked his path. Going around it would take too long and it was too high to climb.
Dirt and rock skittered and crunched behind him. He turned, eyes wide with panic as a cement wall raced toward him, the bottom digging into the ground as it flew. Crouching into a ball, covering his head, he was certain this was the end.
The cement wall snagged on something underground and pitched forward, the top banging into stone. Pieces of cement and stone fell, hitting the soldier’s back and arms and head. It hurt, but the pain was good. The pain meant he was still alive. Heart lodged in his throat, he waited a few heartbeats before looking up. The cement wall had hit at an angle, leaving just enough space to not be crushed within the makeshift lean-to.
Lowering his arms to clutch his chest, his body shook uncontrollably as he tried to get air into his lungs—his breathing erratic, hard and painful.
Every molecule in his body was both on fire and freezing like his bones were suddenly made of ice, yet his blood was boiling.
He was here. Breathing. Thinking. Alive.
He leaned his head back against the wall, regaining control of himself, marveling at the heart that was still pumping, and listened.
It was quiet. No guns firing, or winds rushing, or debris crashing.
No soldiers screaming.
Only his thundering heartbeat.
He dared to peek out from his hiding place.
It was oddly serene as the smoke and dust settled around the battlefield. The planet’s landscape forever changed.
Squinting, he searched for survivors, but there was no one—no one alive.
Mina’s body was a few yards from his hiding spot, her eyes open and vacant. He would have sworn she was staring at him, but she couldn’t be. Her body had been squashed under a boulder, her shoulders and above sticking out—blood leaking from her eyes, nose, mouth, ears.
The Energy Fighter landed with a heavy wet thud on top of her head. Her skull crushed like a paper cup beneath its boot.
Startled, the soldier jerked back, hitting the wall hard. A chunk dislodged from the top, landing next to him with a traitorous and ill-fated thump. Clamping his hands over his mouth to silence his breathing, his muscles locked.
Please, no. No, no, no, no, no, no, no.
He heard nothing, then... footsteps. Heavy, unrushed footsteps. The footsteps of an animal that lived at the top of the food chain, growing louder, closer.
Silent tears streaked down his dirty cheeks and over his hands. Blood vessels burst in his eyes from the effort to keep silent when all he wanted to do was scream.
The footsteps stopped.
He shut his eyes and prayed with such fervor his whole body shook.
Spare me. I will do anything. Please!
The cement wall was ripped from the ground and tossed over the soldier’s head with ease. Hands dropping to his sides like dead weight, the muscles no longer functioning as if his brain knew they could fulfill no further purpose, the soldier blanched in horror at the creature standing before him.
The E-Fighter was... substantial. Broad shoulders and chiseled features. Thick veins protruded over large muscles, mottling its tan skin with blue and green. It moved with unquestionable power and strength. A weapon hewn from terror and nightmares.
The Energy Fighter bent down, wrapped its large hand around the soldier’s neck, and picked him up as if he weighed but a few pounds.
Paralyzed by fear, the soldier’s legs and arms dangled limply as he gawked at the E-Fighter, noticing details that truly scared him.
First, the heat. The air surrounding the creature twisted and curved as intense heat radiated off of its body. The soldier could feel the skin on his neck burning under its touch.
Next, the E-Fighter’s eyes. Its pupils were enlarged and shaped like jagged twelve-pointed stars edged in white.
Lastly, its uniform. Its Nexus uniform. It would have been identical to his own if not for the ENERGY badge sewn over the left breast.
The soldier blinked. And blinked again. He had to be hallucinating, but, no, it was the same uniform. After all these years, the bastard still wore the blue camo of Nexus’ military.
The soldier smiled. Then chuckled. Then outright laughed.
The Energy Fighter arched an eyebrow, almost seeming amused, as his laughter grew hysterical.
He thought of his mother again and her undimmable joy when he had decided to join the Nexus Intergalactic Space Force. What would she think after she learned her son was murdered by someone wearing the same uniform?
Would she ever find out?
The laughter died in his throat as the E-Fighter squeezed. He wrapped his hands around its thick forearms, his palms burning on contact, but holding firm.
Vision blurred, stars bursting in his eyes...
This truly was his end and... he was ready. Calm. He rose above the pain, above the fear, and stared Death in the eye.
This Effer may break his body, the vessel soon to be no more than a soulless husk, but he would not let it break his spirit. No matter the strength of another, a spirit could only be broken through self-destruction. He would not yield.
As darkness inched closer, he sent one final message to his mother, through the cosmos, from his heart to hers, telling her he missed her every day and wished things had ended differently. He wished Thomas Cazar had never been born and the E-Fighters never created. He was sorry he hadn’t made a difference but hoped she was still proud of him. He loved her and promised they would find each other in the next life.
But most importantly, as the light left his eyes, as the last puff of air was stolen from his lungs...
He begged her to run, to hide, because they could not be stopped.