A young man’s cry,
Of pain and fear,
Brings about the same,
In his overseer.
The tunnel dropped down through the holographic image of a stagnant cesspool nestled in mud at the back of a lichen-draped cavern. Its walls were narrow at first, stealing his air, grasping at his burly shoulders. Raiden huffed. He was too restrained, vulnerable, wondering if maybe it wasn’t the best decision to follow the demon back into its underworld. In addition to the insanity of chasing an enemy into its own territory, there was another concern gnawing at his wits. His rifle was extra light in his hands, reminding of the click it had made at the end of its most recent bout of fire.
The clip had run dry. Now he had only his sword.
Yet there he was, stealing his way down the twisting passage, rafter after rafter passing overhead as the hectic footsteps of the Reticulan general echoed from afar. The sound was his only means of choosing which corridors to take, and it was growing faint as the Reticulan’s sprint took it farther from his brisk, but cautious, walk. Thinking ahead, Raiden had been scratching the cement floor with the tip of his blade, scoring a line at every corridor intersection that ran from where he’d come to where he was going. Once he killed that Reticulan bastard, he’d need to find his own way back to the surface.
As he rounded the next bend, a voice like darkness engulfed him. “I’d mistaken you for a wise and formidable enemy, but now I see you’re simply a fool at heart. Just like the rest of your kind.”
Raiden passed beneath a carved archway and stopped in the center of a large, circular room with a high ceiling, dull lights, and tiered benches of black metal lining the walls. Looking toward the far end of the room, there was an opening into what appeared to be a dark tunnel beneath the seats. At first, he assumed the general had gone into that tunnel, but closer now, it was clear that the opening led to but a single, small room. His only exit was at his back, and now a voice was calling to him from unknown origin. He realized too late that he was not chasing his enemy. Instead, his enemy had been luring him into a trap.
Raiden made no abrupt motion at the sounding of the words in his head. He kept his face forward, scanning as much of the room as he could but seeing no one and nothing: only nicks, and scratches, and dark stains like old blood on the concrete floor. At his feet, a rusty smear spread about a large gash in the stone. Only gruesome thoughts came to mind.
“Did you really think you could follow me without detection? I could feel your malintent nipping at my heels.”
Raiden gripped his weapon and shifted his feet, watching the room behind him scroll in the reflection on his blade. It would be sheathed in blood soon.
“Where are you?” he screamed. Even as his voice still echoed from the shadows, footsteps sounded at his back, and metal twanged, and his muscles tensed in preparation for that to come.
6 months earlier
The crimson smear upon the snow was no longer the glaring oddity it once had been. Two days of fleeting glances had abolished the novelty. Now it was just a part of the landscape, stretching like a bleeding gash on pallid skin, marring the solid white of the frozen lawn. Raiden’s breath rose and spread before his eyes, taking to the wind with the sound of his grunts and the grate of breaking ice beneath his shovel. He chipped at the red stain, sending fractures off across the ice, parting rifts and crushing chunks until unadulterated white revealed itself below.
Damn wolves, he thought to himself as he hoisted a chunk of bloodied ice into the air and dumped it into the metal bin with a heavy thud. The carcass within shrank beneath the weight of the snow, silver hair vanishing under frozen blood that, two days ago, had flowed in vessels just beneath. It had been wild blood, savage blood, the kind that fuels a beast with no remorse, or in this case, a saber wolf with an empty stomach and a full-grown Fraquian in his sights.
Despite his wife’s concerns, Raiden felt he was lucky that his daughters had been with him when the wolves had come. At the time, of course, he was dreading the fact, but their presence had bid him a kind of strength he had not yet discovered. It was greater than that of a mere cornered animal. He couldn’t die, for it would have meant his daughters’ deaths all the same, and that was somehow far more compelling than the forces driving him as a single entity. Their cries were all he could hear—their whimpers and pleas for daddy’s protection—and these were what drove his feet through the powder, his eyes through the darkness, his fingers through the fur of wolf after wolf until one had fallen with a knife in its chest and the others had limped away, whining like poor puppies back into the outlying wood.
He’d been hoping nature would repent and bring fresh snowfall to cover the final remnant of the scuffle, but two days had passed, and Victoria was tired of looking at it. So here he was, removing the blood himself, shoveling it into the bin where the wolf formed a frozen ball of flesh and fur at the bottom. His tundra truck sat idling to his right, warming up amidst the subzero air of early-morning Fraq. With the final scoop and toss, Raiden dragged the trashcan to the driveway’s edge and climbed aboard his monstrous ride. His daughters’ bedroom window illuminated as he backed his way out, their faces breaking through the curtains to wave him off as they did most mornings. He rolled his window down and cast a hairy hand into the bitter cold as he pulled away.
It was time to leave his family: the hardest part of his day, offset only by the supreme joy he felt upon his return at night. Rarely did he get to dress his daughters, make them breakfast, brush their hair, drop them off at school with a goodbye kiss and a “Have a good day!” All that was Victoria’s place, and he was glad for it because no one could ever do it as well as she. An amazing wife and an even better mother: there was never any question that he had found his one and only. Of course, he wished he could spend every hour with his family, but this was simply that—a wish. It was impractical. He had school to attend.
Raiden watched his daughters’ faces disappear in the rearview mirror and then set his eyes to the glistening road and the brightening sky of dawn. The red needles of the forest looked like black walls in the gloom, guiding him in a winding path toward the snow tram in the unseen distance. His heart was still quickened by the morning’s extra activity, so he took some deep breaths and forced it to slow. He was sure he’d be late to class, and it was starting to snow as he’d been hoping for two days it would.
He whispered a curse to Mother Nature.
Above the crunching of snow, a piercing whistle rose up from beyond, resounding from the snow tram station where his ride was arriving and soon would depart. Anxiety assailed his spine, and he slammed his foot to the floor and sent the treads of his tundra truck spinning at full speed. The roar of the engine shook the hairs on his face, giving him a place to divert his thoughts as he actively avoided any further insult to Mother Nature. He’d make the tram. He had to. People were waiting for him.
With one hand, Raiden reached to his belt, appreciating the smooth handle of his knife and the chilled grip of his trusted pistol. Check and check.
Suddenly, the image of the road vanished, giving way to the macabre sight of a bursting skull and a man collapsing behind the red dot of a rifle’s scope. Raiden cringed. Bodies littered the snow like trash. The chalky scent of gunpowder floated on the breeze. He was responsible.
This memory flashed for but a moment, arising from a deep corner of his mind where he’d tucked it away in hiding. He’d killed. He’d killed a lot. This was the truth, and it haunted him. But there was reason. This was how he lived with himself.
The vision came and went. The road returned to sight, and he was still driving. Years ago, he might have swerved with the sudden intrusion, but flashbacks like this came like clockwork now. He was habituated.
He refocused on the road as the station grew in sight, his train still docked and waiting. Would he kill today? He never knew. He was prepared though. He always was.
What was it about the past that made him feel so damn unsure, that fed and starved him all at once and had him satisfied yet craving more? Questions would come, and he would find the answers, but somehow, in that search, there would arise more holes, more mysteries, more reasons to attend to ancient documents, forged by those unlike himself: by the Earthlings.
In some way, though, he was an Earthling, but there were 5000 years of branches parting him from that trunk.
He was Fraquian, now. There was no Earth, and there were no Earthlings. But why? Such a deceptive question it was. So short, so quick, so outwardly simple yet more impossibly complex than any other question he could think of. This was the never-ending itch that plagued him so.
These thoughts roamed silently behind his spoken words, separating his thinking mind from the unconscious encoding and orating of his reading. Raiden closed the textbook with a crack and stared out at the faces of his students. His dark eyes were piercing but surprisingly warm, his chiseled jaw channeling down toward an amused grin. Half of them were sleeping, their faces buried in the fur of their forearms. He chuckled to himself. Half awake was better than usual.
At the back of the room, a naked branch clawed at the glass pane, clicking violently beneath the hail of snow and the Fraquian northern winds. It was just past noon, but the light was faint and the sky dismal with storm. Despite the rapping of the limb, his students had still found it easy to drift away beneath the sound of his voice. How flattering.
“Now who has something to add to what I just said?” Raiden inquired. Scanning the room, he waited for the eager hand that never came. “Come on, guys. You’re all training to be soldiers. You must have opinions about politics, and diplomacy, and the role of our military in all this.” He looked around and still no one raised his hand to speak. “Fine. I’ll call on someone if no one wants to volunteer.”
Raiden walked slowly around his desk and moved down an isle of sleeping young men. His dark hair fell about his shoulders like a midnight cascade, swaying with the rhythm of his heavy gait. As he moved, he stroked, thoughtfully, the coarse hair that decorated the lower half of his face. Most men of his age let their beards grow long and proud, the physical manifestation of the strength and wisdom that their years afforded. He kept his trimmed short like forest moss: just long enough to protect from the biting winds of Fraq.
Raiden eyed his victim.
“How about you, Mr. Slater?” he shouted, smacking the desk of the unconscious class clown. Darren Slater jolted awake with a gasp, managing to muster a sentence in his surprise.
“Umm, I don’t know, sir. Could you repeat the question?” He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, licked his lips, felt the gazes of his laughing peers and threw a cocky smirk on his face as he leaned back in his seat.
“I asked you what your thoughts are about the history lesson I just gave, and about Fraq’s diplomatic stance with Calri and Arth. If you missed what I said, then you should still be able to weigh in. Chapter two was the assigned reading for today.”
“Oh, yeah, yeah,” Darren began. “I know what that one book said, but I don’t understand why we remain so neutral. All that history about Earth and countries at war, conquering each other and taking things they need from those they defeat. It just seems like that would be easier for us, you know? Like survival of the fittest, and I think we’re definitely the fittest.
“The Arthians are supposedly small and the Calrians even smaller. It’d be an easy fight. We could attack Calri and take all their ocean treasures, and do the same with Arth so we could get all their different foods. Even if we didn’t focus on taking their things, we could at least conquer them and take some of their land to live on. I mean, things are getting way too crowded here on Fraq. I think some more room would be just what we need, and we could take it if we wanted.”
Raiden rubbed his chin in thought. It was a response he hadn’t expected and so wasn’t quite prepared to counter. After a few moments, he turned away and walked back toward the front of the room.
“Very nice, Mr. Slater. Thought-provoking, indeed. But I imagine you need to think about things a bit more deeply in order to understand why we maintain our neutrality in light of the potential benefits of war.” Raiden turned to face the class again and leaned himself against his desk to continue. “I take it ‘that one book’ you’re referring to is The Rebirth, correct?” Darren nodded.
“Well, we’re set to study that entire piece in depth. The writers of that book were far more advanced than you and me. They knew things that we can’t even possibly perceive, and they explicitly asked that we refrain from contacting the other humans. Our compliance has fared us well, so far. I can’t pretend that I know their reasoning for the demand, but I can assume it was given for an important purpose.”
Darren looked skeptical, annoyed almost. “But we have a right to know why. Why do we ignore the fact that those two planets in the sky have other humans on them? We pretend there’s nothing there for us, but we all know that there is.”
Again with that damn question, Raiden thought. Why? God knows I wish I knew why. “We’re starting to stray from the content of your initial response, so let’s return to that. You spoke of going to war and conquering Calri and Arth. You said it would be an easy fight because they’re smaller than we are, but it’s their smaller stature that allows them to survive in the warmer environments that we could not withstand. Fitness is relative, and the environment in which a fight takes place can be a deciding factor. An andro lion in the ocean would not defeat a saber shark, but it would certainly win the fight on land. I want you to think about that for a moment.
“Do you see that hair all over your body? It’s all over me too, as well as everyone else in this class and on this planet for that matter. How do you think it would feel to make a visit to Calri? Do you think that’d be a very hospitable environment? Furthermore, if we took their treasures, what will that do for us? Who will get them, how will they be distributed amongst the people, and what good will they bring?
“You need to think about the answers to all these questions before you think about starting a war for such reasons. Even more importantly, you need to weigh any alleged benefits against the inevitable loss of life. Would you want to risk your life for some ancient treasures that you probably wouldn’t ever possess personally?”
Straight-faced, Raiden stared at Darren and then shifted his gaze to the others. He had read enough books about the wars of Earth to make him despise the concept. The founders created the Fraquian military to maintain order and produce a standing army in case of attack, but that was all. It was not intended to start conflict, and he firmly believed in upholding that proposed course.
“Well, Professor Whitmore, I must admit that I agree with what you said and don’t believe that it would be beneficial to attack Calri, but with all due respect, it appears you’ve completely avoided responding to the potential of attacking Arth. To me, this seems like the more difficult option to refute, so as a debater, it was wise of you to avoid comment, but as a teacher, I believe it’s necessary. Unless you don’t know what to say.”
Raiden turned toward his critic, surprised to see Joel Munson staring up at him with an eager expression. The kid was extremely intelligent, but he never talked. Raiden smiled at his sudden temerity.
“Nice observation, Joel. It must have slipped my mind . . . . Arth: the piece that stayed where it was and didn’t float astray, that shares similar but less extreme environments than Fraq and Calri. You question why we don’t attack them and take their land for ourselves?”
The students nodded in response, so he continued.
“Do you remember our talk of Earth and their path of self-destruction? It was a path paved by war. The weapons and the killing destroyed the environment, the people, and the morality and honor that once existed. It hindered their ability to perceive the truly important things of life and to discover the means of ascending out of their three-dimensional reality.
“War is a false solution to a problem. Sure, it may be the easiest or most apparent method of solving disagreements or attaining greedy desires, but it creates death and hatred and a negativity that will consume us while we’re blinded in the chaos. It’s the reason why the Bowltren sought to destroy the human race. War is not the true solution, and they knew this. Considering that their wisdom is so far beyond our own, we should accept their judgment and actively seek out the true answers to our problems, not return to old ways and watch things play out in the same manner.
“This time, there will probably be no second chance for mankind. It’s our job as educated men to recognize the problems with our history and make sure that such mistakes are not made again. We must show the Bowltren that we are worthy inhabitants of this universe, and prove that humans are not the weakest and most ignorant of them all—that we can learn from our past mistakes and grow as a race to help support the progression of knowledge across all life. Does anyone disagree with this?”
His words were powerful and brought silence to the classroom. The hiss of the storm sifted from the window. Trees leaned and creaked beyond, breaking the calm. No one moved. The students stared at the floor, avoiding eye contact for fear that it would challenge Raiden’s statements.
Raiden smiled. “I’m glad to see that I’ve opened your eyes a little more than they were before. If I can succeed like this more often, maybe we can all ascend to the fourth density of consciousness by next week.” He laughed and brought smiles to his students’ faces. “That’s all for today, men. Tomorrow, I want you each to bring in a one-page essay on what you think is good or bad about our intentional isolation from Arth and Calri, as well as any changes you would make. Be sure to think about the gravity of your propositions, though, and make sure you support them thoroughly. If you think we should go to war, I want to be convinced that it’s the best option.”
Raiden shifted his gaze to the clock on the wall and then returned it to his students.
“It looks like it’s time for specialized weapons training. I’ll see some of you over in the SWUN facility in 15 minutes. The rest of you, report to your usual training locations.”
The cadets stood to salute, their ironed pants straight and bodies rigid beneath their decorated white jackets, skillfully concealing the hair that covered them from head to foot. Raiden returned the gesture, and the students relaxed and exited the room.
He took a deep breath as the last cadet walked out. Things had become quite heated, at least for himself. If someone spouts out a statement that challenges something he feels passionately about, he’ll go at them until they’ve changed their mind. Some people called him stubborn. He called it confidence.
After closing up the classroom, Raiden moved down the lengthy marble hallway of the Fraquian Military Academy. Framed pictures lined the walls, presenting the visages of past presidents and various military personnel, including himself. The others were stern-faced, their expressions implying importance and demanding respect. He hadn’t received the memo, so his striking smile stood out amongst the rest.
He reached out to rub the picture, scratching gently where his tie hung crooked, never to be straightened. He had stroked that photo enough times to leave a faint smudge of oil at its center. Even so, the damn thing never budged. It never would. He’d come to terms with that. The attempt was more of a habit now: part of his routine. He finished and moved on.
Through the double doors and out into the arctic breeze, Raiden caught a snowflake in his eye and blinked as it melted away. “Shit,” he mumbled, wiping it with the fur on the back of his hand and then flipping up his hood and pulling the drawstrings.
The campus sat in the midst of a scarlet forest, surrounded on all sides by a seemingly endless expanse of Andromedan firepines. At dusk, when the sun descended behind the trees and its light was forced through their crimson needles, the snow-covered earth served a palate on which the red was painted. It was a beautiful sight, but now the sun was high in the sky, its light filtering through thin storm clouds and striking Raiden’s face with gentle warmth. Across the courtyard, the digital temperature gauge flashed its most recent reading: -20°F.
Hmm, it’s warming up, he thought. How pleasant.
He set his suitcase in the snow and opened it up to retrieve his Snow Rockets—new gadgets his wife had recently gifted him for his birthday. He had to return the first pair because she had underestimated the size of his feet. He was a size 25, which he realized was a bit big for 7’4”, but it didn’t explain why she had purchased a size 20, which was too small for even an average teenager. But he had appreciated the thought behind the gift. His daily cross-campus trek was always a chore, especially in areas where the powder rose several feet above the permafrost. Her thoughtfulness was one trait that had drawn him to her back in high school. He recalled the time she had so thoughtfully decided that messing around in the girls’ restroom would be exhilarating. She basically had to wrestle him in, but when that door swung shut and her skirt dropped to the ground, he was going nowhere. He tingled at the memory.
After securing his feet, Raiden used the remote to start the tiny engines turning and proceeded to ski toward the SWUN training facility a quarter mile across campus. Teaching SWUN combat was the highlight of his day, and he was damn good at it. For 10 years, he had worked with the M4SG2. The weapon, better known as the SWUN by those that used it, had been conveniently named after its two inferior predecessors, the sword and the gun. As a cadet himself, he had worked alongside a professor to develop the weapon as an installment in the next line of more efficient combat weaponry. It took the standing form of a small automatic assault rifle, but with the flick of a switch, produced—seemingly from thin air—a lustrous metallic blade with the capacity to transmit white heat.
A rundown of its range capabilities revealed effectiveness in both close-quarter combat with fully-automatic fire, as well as long distance sniper capabilities with the use of the red-dot scope positioned along the barrel. A sword could be summoned from within the gun’s structure and, with a button press, could draw intense heat from a specialized cell that absorbed, pressurized, and stored the energy produced from firing the gun. This would bring a radiant white glow across the length of the blade, enabling the user to start fires, cut through metal, and burn enemies. From a defensive standpoint, it was also useful for cauterizing wounds to halt bleeding, if indeed such an injury were sustained without immediate medical aid.
Raiden was proud of his product, and he believed it would bring a unique diversity to the Fraquian military—one that would give them an edge over enemies if ever they acquired any. He hoped, though, that the need to prove its supremacy would never come in the form of war. Fortunately, Fraq had developed under a single world government, rendering the threat of internal conflict, like the wars that destroyed Earth, extremely low. The closest resemblance to war was the ongoing battle between police and criminals, but the latter group seldom put up a difficult fight. Their access to weapons was limited to second-rate replicas sold out of the garages of local crack heads, and their proficiency in using them was pathetic, to say the least.
Raiden squinted as he skied through the haze of falling snow. His mind began to wander to another time as he approached the obsidian hedges that would funnel him into the Passage of Past. Rows of statues formed the corridor’s walls, depicting some of Earth’s most notorious historical figures, both good and bad. It was a silent standoff between all the men that Raiden loved to read about—Jesus, Gandhi, Lincoln, Hitler. Their stories, as well as their images, had been preserved by those few founding survivors that had recognized the importance of their history. The monument was over 5000 years old, and every time Raiden took a stroll through its interior, he felt the power and importance that each depicted soul commanded.
He drifted across the snow-covered earth, the faces flying by his peripherals with the pulsing hum of his Snow Rockets bouncing off each one. Every figure held a story that he wished to fully understand but knew he never would. As his mind sifted through the past, the piercing resonance of a pained scream rose up from the distance, sending a small flock of birds flapping wildly from their unseen perches above. Farther ahead, the SWUN building stood alone, its core giving rise to the echo of someone’s agony.
His heart began to beat rapidly, for he recognized his students’ voices fretting in the panic. Even in the cold, he felt himself grow hot. It was his job to take care of these young men, to be their second father or, for some, their first.
Adrenaline flowed forth, subduing the trivial sounds of the area and leaving only the cries of his students to fuel his attention. Ten feet from the entrance, he flipped off the Snow Rockets and kicked them into the bushes that lined the front of the building. Bursting through the doors, the scent of blood instantly assailed his nostrils, coursing his veins, gripping his heart, eliciting the worst of his assumptions and ushering him forward with a hastened stride. As he moved, he pulled his sidearm from its holster beneath his jacket. The smell was getting stronger, and the screams had been absent since his entrance. This worried him.