The Lorelei Signal

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Flecks of Gold

Written by Jason Lairamore / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow

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The creature stood, if you could call what it did standing, just outside the ramshackle, old barn where I’d bedded down the night before. I should have known better than to pick a place with a decent roof. They always checked solid looking structures first. But I’d been so tired of sleeping under dead leaves, and after my fight from yesterday I’d thought I deserved a little reward.

 

Served me right.

 

The thing looked like a giant lobster, complete with a brownish-red carapace, a fuzzy maw, and powerful looking pinchers. As I looked at it, I limbered up my joints and silently warmed up for the action I knew was soon to occur. I didn’t think the creature had seen me yet, but I had no doubt it would come and check.

 

Yet it didn’t advance. It just stood there, as if it was waiting for the sunrise to paint the scene a prettier shade of gathering orange.

 

“Karen Parson,” it called and I frowned. It not only knew who I was, it knew where I was. How?

 

The door squealed on rusty hinges as I opened it. The newly risen sun was low and behind me. The barn where I’d slept cast a long shadow that covered both me and the alien monster.

 

The thing laughed with a clicking of its internal mandibles.

 

“You are nothing but a little, frail morsel,” it said around its clicking.

 

I didn’t respond to its taunting. I knew what I looked like, and I knew, too, that it did not matter, not in the least.

 

“I am Grokin Bledor, a champion of the Quailar campaign. A hundred and forty-seven Ciznites fell before my might and twenty-one of your own people.”

 

A verified killer then. This would be no new-fangled design unused to its parts. I stepped from the doorway and entered the little clearing where the monster waited.

 

“I’ve killed fifty-one of you, Grokin,” I said. It seemed the right thing to do, since it had felt it necessary to lay out its own stats.

 

I paced back and forth in front of the monster to get a good feel of the ground and to size up the dimensions of the freak. It would be slow with all that chitin armor, and limited due to its segmented joints. I did a mental tally of it weak spots as it flexed its pincers in my direction.

 

“I am no newly risen, human. Your luck has come to an end.”

 

I jumped as it was leaning back to laugh yet again. It caught my movement, but was not fast enough to use its greater reach to its advantage. It had to lean forward to bring its claws down to my lower size, and as it did so, I darted in and snatched out both of its black, bulbous eyes. Yellow ichor covered my hands as I ducked and spun away.

 

“Luck to the rescue again,” I said as I tossed the slimy orbs to the grass.

 

My snarky comment was wasted on Grokin. It was in no condition to pay attention to me. The creature had fallen to its belly and was using its tail in a curling action in an attempt to get away, just like a giant crawdad. I ran after it and jumped on its back just like I would have one of my grandfather’s old horses. Grokin bucked and I squeezed tight to its carapace. It tried to bring its pincer back, but was unable to get to me due to the heavy chitin at its joints.

 

I slid back and punched with rigid fingers at the seam where the tail met the carapace. My hand went into the beast to the wrist. I grabbed a handful of its insides and ripped my hand free. The thing bucked in spasm and threw me clear. I landed on my feet some five paces away and watched it die.

 

Grokin Bledor would kill no more. As for me, my tally was up to fifty-two. Fifty-two and many more to go.

 

But first things first. Breakfast.

 

I chanced upon an out of the way filler station and, after making sure none of the aliens were about, went inside to see what I might find. The pickings were slim. I settled for a couple cans of beanie-weenies.

 

“The breakfast of champions,” I said as I peeled open the first tin.

 

With food in my belly and what cans I could carry in my backpack, I set off skirting the old highway, somewhat hidden by the roadside growth. I didn’t really have a direction in mind. I just picked a way and started moving. It wasn’t like there was any safe place to head towards. The aliens had taken away any such place in the first month of the war.

 

War. The concept didn’t fit in with reality, not anymore. The aliens had come and destroyed our defenses as easy as somebody might swat a bothersome fly with a rolled-up newspaper. The countries had fallen and that had been that.

 

Then the deathfights had started.

 

I smelt the oily stink of a fire before I saw it. Up ahead there was an old Ford pickup in flames. I scanned the area, but didn’t see any bodies.

 

“Don’t you worry none, miss,” a man called. He stepped around the back side of the truck and gave me a wave. “I’m just having a bit of barbecue here with this visitor that dropped by unannounced.”

 

I got closer and the man pulled off his ball cap and scratched at his unruly mass of black hair. He shook his head as he continued to gaze at the flames.

 

“Course, I’d a rather not have used my dear, old truck for the cookin’, but it is what it is,” he continued.

 

 I shrugged. “Sorry about the truck.”

 

He turned to face me and gave me a crooked smile. He ran his thumbs up and down the straps of the overalls he wore and nodded.

 

“Truck’s a death sentence nowadays anyway. Better it dead than me.”

 

He had the right of it there. Any human caught using tools or technology was killed on sight.

 

“I’m surprised you chanced it,” I said. Only the dumb did things like drive and there were precious few of those type left.

 

“Pressing my blessed luck, to be sure, but I missed the old girl and wanted to give her one more go, ya know, for old-times’ sake.”

 

He extended a hand and we shook. His hands were hard and rough, the kind used to heavy work.

“Names Randy Lowry,” he said, tilting his cap. I nodded and glanced at the truck. In its bed was the burning corpse of one of the aliens.

 

“Aye,” he said, catching my interest. “A hairy beast out of a nightmare. It’d been terrorizin’ a bit too close to my place, had killed a few of my distant kin from up near Pushing. I was coming to look for it when it found me.”

 

I shook my head at his mention of a place. Nobody had a ‘place’ anymore. Setting down roots left you ripe for the picking for any of the thousands of scouting drones.

 

He smiled at me anew with his crooked smile. “You’re welcome to join. There’s a might few of us left, that’s a fact.”

 

I almost asked him how he’d managed to stay hidden this long, but refrained. It was none of my business. I didn’t plan on going anywhere with him anyway. I was better off alone.

 

Just then a transport ship dropped out of the sky not twenty paces away. From it exited a most unusual looking creature. Every alien I had seen to date was in some way a warrior, but this one wasn’t. It was three feet tall, a tri-ped, with three spindly arms and a globular head too big for its narrow chest and shoulders. It wore what I took to be a white toga.

 

“Karen Parson,” it said in a fluting, feminine voice. This was the second time in one day I’d been singled out by the enemy. I didn’t like the attention. No good could come of it.

 

“You know this fella?” Randy asked. His shoulders were relaxed, but I noted the telltale signs of a natural fighter. He had bent his knees a trifle and had released the straps of his overalls so his arms hung free.

 

“Sure I do,” I said. “Been dating the little guy since the start.”

 

Randy chuckled as the odd-looking creature sauntered up.

 

He turned his watery eyes toward Randy and gave him a once over.

 

“Randall Lowry,” it said. “Twenty-nine wins. Keep up the good work.”

 

Randy laughed outright at the thing’s outlandish sentiment.

 

“Will do, boss,” he said.

 

The creature pressed its thin, colorless lips together and nodded like it was pleased then turned its attention to me.

 

“Karen Parson. Come with me.”

 

I looked at the angular transport behind the creature and shook my head. There was no way I was going in that thing.

 

As if the machine understood my head motion, a pair of guns extended out from the gray hull.

“You plan on shooting me?” I asked.

 

The creature’s soft features didn’t show an ounce of emotion as it answered. “Only the willing have a chance, gold fleck or no,” it said.

 

I sighed at the odd little alien’s choice of words and gave Randy a shrug. “I’ll see you later.”

 

“Have fun on your date,” he replied, giving me another of his easy smiles. His eyes, though, were not easy. They were hard and challenging. I’d seen eyes like his before. He was a survivor.

 

As I followed the creature to what I assumed was my death, Randy spoke again.

 

“Do it,” he said.

 

I didn’t turn around, only gave him a wave to indicate I’d heard him. The metal floor of the transport vibrated through the soles of my shoes as I took my first tentative step into the belly of the machine. The alien followed at my heels and the strange box closed up tight. A soft, blue light filled the small space. The alien was too close for comfort.

 

The bottom fell out of my stomach as the machine took off.

 

Whatever this was about, I wasn’t going to like it.

 

“The last unit you fought was one of rank,” the little alien said as we travelled to who knew where. “It had ventured upon the barrens for practice before its next testing.”

 

“That’s great,” I said. “Any reason why it knew my name and where to find me?”

 

The thing laughed like a six-year-old girl after getting a new kitten, sweet and condescending.

 

“You’ve passed the golden line,” it continued, ignoring my question. I considered interrupting it and pressing my question then remembered I was inside alien tech. This little flying box probably had any number of ways to kill me if I misbehaved.

 

“Still, any from the barrens is suspect. You’ve a hard time ahead of you.”

 

I blew air from my nose. ‘Hard time ahead’. The whole world was destroyed and what remained of humanity was hunted and killed like cornered animals. Life had been a ‘hard time’ for quite a while.

 

The alien rubbed its delicate little hands together and flexed them into pitiful fists.

 

“They’ll think its luck that got you so far. That happens from time to time.” It turned its soft, round eyes up toward me. “The lucky never make it past the first Green.”

 

I shrugged and rubbed my belly. The transport’s movement had made me a little queasy.

 

It must have taken my discomfort for worry because it raised one of its emaciated arms in a humanlike gesture of calm. “I’m just trying to prepare you. I do hope you succeed. You are different than most of the other official Flecks. Variety is the spice of life, after all.”

 

I smoothed my pulled-up black hair against my scalp and gave my ponytail a tug.

 

“Why are you doing this?” I asked offhandedly, not really expecting an answer.

 

Its probing, intelligent eyes looked at me for a long moment. It was hard to discern any feeling there, but I thought I caught a hint of fear in the alien.

 

“Win,” it said.

 

Win—well yeah. That went without saying, since losing meant death.

 

We landed with a soft thud not long after. The transport opened and the little alien ambled out on its three little legs. I followed it, glad to be out of the constricting death trap.

 

Freshly tilled and recently graded dirt covered the ground. We stood on a field surrounded by a great, empty stadium. It looked to be one of the college, or maybe professional, sports fields. I couldn’t tell which, since any of the old team logos had been removed.

 

“Your test,” the alien said, pointing to my right with the largest of its three arms. Its oversized head bowed respectfully. The silence of the vast arena only added to the ceremonial mood.

 

In the center of the brown dirt of the field there was a circle of black sand, and on that sand stood what looked like a green, tailless lizard. From this distance, it looked just like a long-bodied iguana that stood on its hind legs.

 

I rolled my shoulders and loosened my neck. This wasn’t the first time I’d had to fight two monsters on the same day, and I was sure it wouldn’t be my last.

 

“Wait,” the alien said as I took my first step toward the green creature. “You must go without covering. The contests are being against being.”

 

I frowned at the diminutive, little creature. I wasn’t a shy girl, but I did observe the basic rules of modesty.

 

“Naked?” I asked.

 

“That is your word, yes.” It gestured toward my stained T-shirt and jeans.

 

I glanced around and didn’t see anybody else, not that it would really matter. I wasn’t prepared to die over showing my skin. With a sigh, I shucked my old clothes and let them fall to soft dirt.

 

The alien eyed me up and down with its expressionless face and shook its head.

 

“You’re too skinny,” it said.

 

I patted the muscles of my flat stomach. “Waste not, want not. Wish me luck.” I turned my back on the creature and headed toward the circle of black sand, loosening my joints as I neared.

 

The creature I was to fight remained still as a statue as I approached. Its legs were short and its feet were long. Nasty looking curved talons dug into the sand. Its scaly arms were nearly twice the length of mine, with heavy, rippling muscle that ended in delicate hands. Its neck was long as well. I imagined it could turn its head nearly all the way around to face its narrow back.

 

The eyes were overly large, red and slit like a cat. The look it gave me was flat and lifeless. I could see how any thinking creature might be afraid of the thing’s attention. I would have been before everything had happened.

 

But that was then, and this was now.

 

As soon as my foot hit the sand the creature sprang into action. It dropped onto its long arms and charged me like a silverback gorilla. I watched the cadence of its limbs and crouched. Its eyes were fixed on me, trying to pin me to the spot. I held my ground and took a slow breath.

 

At the last possible second, I sidestepped to the right. It planted its right hand to correct its path, and, as its left arm came up and extended toward me, I stepped in, grabbed its scaly wrist in both hands, and used my knee as a lever against its elbow. One good tug and the arm broke.

 

It rolled away without a sound, bringing its wicked, clawed feet up in a curling, protective swipe. I jumped toward it and landed with my full weight on the thing’s long neck with both my knees before it could complete the roll.

 

I somersaulted over the black sand and was back on my feet in an instant, ready for the next attack.

 

But the lizard didn’t move. It laid there, its eyes still flat and staring. But it wasn’t looking at me. It gazed up toward the high ceiling of the stadium.

 

I turned from the black sand. The little alien stood there holding my clothes in a bundle using two of its three arms. Its overly large, round eyes were wider than before as it stared at me. Movement caught my attention beyond it. The transport guns were out again, pointing in my direction.

 

“Worried?” I asked as I took my clothes from its trembling arms.

 

The alien blinked at me a time or two as if confused.

 

“Sometimes humans become emboldened after killing due to your heightened adrenaline response.”

 

I dressed quickly then looked long and hard at the creature, wondering what manner of being it was in their hierarchy. That I hadn’t seen one so weak and fragile before had to mean something.

 

“So, first I’m lucky, and now I’m stupid. Keep on thinking things like that,” I said.

 

“Who are you Karen Parson?” it asked. I could feel its nervous concern even if I couldn’t properly read its body language.

 

It was my turn to laugh, and I did so loudly, my face to the metal ceiling. The sound echoed around the large arena, breaking the reverence that filled the place.

 

“What’s next?” I asked.

 

It didn’t dally or threaten that I tell it some nugget about myself. I imagined if they really wanted to know more about me they could torture it out, though I’d never heard of such a thing. But, who was to say why the aliens did what they did. Their motives were a mystery, and something most would consider of moot interest at this point. The damage had been done. Earth was theirs to do with as they saw fit.

 

It turned from me and started walking across the soft dirt.

 

“I am to take you to the other Flecks,” it said.

 

I followed.

 

“Flecks?”

 

The transport lifted away before we reached it and slid through a slot in the metal roof just big enough for it to come and go.

 

“Those who have passed the golden line and have killed a Green,” it answered.

 

We left the stadium through the large opening at its back. Another Green opened the gate to let us through.

 

“What’s so special about killing a Green?” I asked. The lizard hadn’t been any harder to kill than some of the other monsters I’d faced.

 

The alien ignored me and led on, though I did note an added tension from it in response to my question. We crossed the street and entered a large building. From the looks of it, it had been a hotel before the invasion. I couldn’t tell which chain however since any insignia had been removed.

 

I didn’t see any Greens guarding the lobby, but there were guns attached to the walls, and their points followed us as the alien led the way to the elevator.

 

We didn’t travel far. On the third floor we exited. More guns festooned the walls. A great hall opened up before us. I saw three people lounging about on the floor. They rose at our approach.

 

“Three people?” I asked.

 

“With you, the count is six. The others must be in their rooms,” The alien said.

 

There were two men and a woman. The taller of the two men was the size of a tree trunk and bald. He smiled at our approach. One of his front teeth was missing.

 

“Another for the sifter,” he said.

 

The other man had a hard, emotionless face and the beginnings of a beard. Wrinkles crinkled his eyes as he studied me.

 

The woman was a short-haired blond with long, muscular legs who frowned at me like she disapproved of my presence.

 

“I give greetings to those with potential and introduce Karen Parson to your ranks,” the alien said with a bow. “May you all win your future tests.”

 

“Go away,” the woman said.

 

The alien pursed its lips and nodded. Without a word, it turned and left me standing there. The three people in front of me stood quietly until the alien was in the elevator. I studied them each in turn during the silence and decided that each of them was dangerous.

 

Without warning the woman kicked at my head with one of her long legs. I leaned back just enough to miss the crushing blow.

 

“Hello,” I said as she completed her kick. She scowled at me.

 

The big, bald man rushed me, his arms wide. I dropped down and gave him a light punch in the groin for his trouble, then spun away.

 

“It is really nice to meet you all,” I continued. The big man folded over.

 

The squinty-eyed man hadn’t moved a muscle. He wore boxing shorts and nothing else. Scars covered much of his body. He’d seen his share of monsters, it seemed.

 

“They are trying to do you a favor,” he said. His voice was as rough as his face.

 

“Their hospitality really redeems my opinion of humanity,” I said.

 

The big man had his hands on his knees and was taking deep breaths.

 

“Didn’t have to poke a man in his lovelies,” he grunted.

 

I backed a step from the three to give me a little comfort zone.

 

“It was just a tap. I could just have easily taken out a knee,” I said.

 

The big guy stood and winced. “And I would have thanked you for it,” he said.

 

I shook my head as I eyed the three hard faces staring at me. “Let’s act like I just got here and don’t know what’s going on.”

 

“The aliens don’t mind if we hurt one of our own, as long as it is only one. They take it as a cost of training,” a new voice said. I turned my head slightly to take in the newcomer.

 

An old man with spiky, gray hair sauntered into the open hall wearing a pair of stained sweatpants. Behind him was a dark-skinned woman at least two feet taller than him.

 

“The injured are taken to the alien hospital and made well. You come back feeling ten years younger,” he continued.

 

I scanned their faces as they each looked me up and down.

 

“So a cracked skull or a couple of broken ribs is how your reward a new fellow. Call me old fashioned, but I prefer a firm handshake,” I said.

 

“Just trying to give you a leg up,” Blondie said. “You’ll need it. It only gets harder after the Green.”

 

I smiled at the woman and she scowled back like she thought me ungrateful.

 

“You could have asked my opinion before trying to knock my head off.”

 

She shook her head. “Suit yourself.”

 

“Are you ready, Jerry?” Squinty asked. He was looking at the old man.

 

The old man, Jerry, looked around the room before answering.

 

“I am,” he said, taking a deep breath.

 

As if his statement was a signal, the elevator chimed. None of the others seemed the least bit surprised by the timing. Another of the little, three-legged aliens came walking out into the great hall. This one was even thinner in the chest than the one that had escorted me around. It wore a red toga.

 

“Jerry Black, today is a great day.”

 

Jerry nodded then turned to me.

 

“Welcome to the civilian Flecks,” he said, then turned and walked toward the waiting alien.

 

The others followed at a respectful distance and I joined them. I wanted to ask what was going on, but figured I was soon to find out.

 

We all huddled in the elevator, shoulder to shoulder. The tension in the little box as it descended to the ground floor was a near palpable thing. The elevator dinged merrily and we all exited. The alien and Jerry walked side by side. The rest of us kept pace a few steps behind.

 

Back to the stadium we went. We passed the Green on guard and entered the soft dirt of the arena. There, we parted ways with Jerry and the alien. Our little group hung back against the tall concrete walls at the arena’s edge. Jerry and the alien continued on toward the black circle of sand.

 

A monotone wail rose from the stands. Hundreds of little aliens lined the railing.

 

“I’ve never seen so many,” the big, bald guy said.

 

“Neither have I,” the tall, dark woman added. Her voice was soft, delicate even. It did not match her broad torso and long limbs.

 

The others looked to her as if her statement meant something special.

 

“Talitha has been here longer than any of us,” Blondie said to me, nodding to the tall, dark woman.

 

“A month,” Talitha said, shaking her head. “Jerry’s been here a little more than three weeks.”

 

“Eighteen days for me,” Squinty said.

 

“Lucky thirteen here,” the big guy added.

 

“Seven,” said Blondie.

 

“Jerry is the first I know to ask to face a champion,” Squinty said.

 

“He’s crazy,” Talitha replied.

 

Baldy chuckled. “I’ve seen a dozen of us die in that black circle of hell since they brought me here. Ain’t none of us making it, anyway. Least Jerry is going out in style.”

 

The wailing cheer subsided. Jerry stood naked upon the sands. The little alien in the red toga stood off to one side.

 

“Jerry Black,” announced a soft, feminine alien voice over the loudspeaker. “One hundred and ninety-eight wins.”

 

The dull roar from the stands rose again. It was like they were happy Jerry had killed so many of their people. I sighed at the notion.

 

“There they go, cheering us on,” the big guy said. “Crazy stuff. They make the monsters to kill us then are happy when we kill them instead.”

 

“It’s a game,” Blondie replied. “Arena style entertainment.”

 

“His opponent on this great day is Jarinta Ophir, winner of seven hundred and forty-six challenges on four worlds,” the announcer said once the cheering had subsided.

 

“Oh Jerry,” Talitha said quietly.

 

Jarinta entered from the other side of the arena and the crowd cheered again. From the distance, I couldn’t make out much detail of the monster. It was twice the size of Jerry and black and yellow stripped like a tiger. As if to prove my supposition, it let out a cat-like roar that echoed off the arena walls.

 

“Do it Jerry,” Squinty said.

 

The fight started without any formal announcement. The two tiny figures met, spun, parted, and stalked each other.

 

“We can’t see anything from here,” I said.

 

“Can’t get closer, ain’t allowed,” big and bald said. “At least he’s still alive.”

 

That Jerry had made it this long was, indeed, a good thing. I had no clue the skill level separating a champion from any other monster, but if the champion had been something truly special, it shouldn’t have had any problem dispatching a human in the first moments.

 

Another roar bounced against the walls and the crowd cheered its monotone wail. I strained my eyes to see. The stripped creature was standing. Jerry was not.

 

“Dammit,” the big guy cursed.

 

“Jerry,” Talitha said in a hollow voice.

 

Blondie and Squinty didn’t say anything. They just stood there and stared at where Jerry had fallen.

 

The alien in the red tunic was walking back toward us.

 

“What would have happened if he had won?” I asked.

 

“He didn’t,” Squinty said and spat.

 

“He…,” Blondie said haltingly, “was the best of us.” She had a vacant look in her eye. I’d seen that look a thousand times over and had thought I would never see it again. Those with defeat in their heart were already dead. The remaining had stayed alive out of sheer determination. It wasn’t pride or some fizzled out sentiment like hope. All that remained to those left was expectation.

 

“What would have happened?” I asked again.

 

“Nobody knows,” Talitha answered.

 

The little alien was almost back. I stepped forward to meet it.

 

“Another sad day,” the alien said. Its shoulders sagged, which just added to its already diminutive stature.

 

“I want to fight a champion,” I said.

 

The little alien’s already round eyes widened a little and its thin lips parted. Maybe my words had shocked it.

 

“Don’t be an idiot,” Squinty said from behind me. I didn’t turn from my position in front of the little alien.

 

It didn’t immediately say anything, so I added more.

 

“Make it the best you have.”

 

The little alien shook its head. “But you’ve not been truly tested like many of the other Flecks. You make this decision without thought.”

 

What was there to think about? If facing a champion meant anything, if there was a chance, however slim, that winning came with some sort of reward—then I was more than willing to do it.

 

“Fighting more monsters isn’t going to make me any better than I am right now.”

 

The alien looked away for a moment then seemed to come to some internal decision. It was nearly bouncing with energy when it turned back around.

 

“It will take a couple of your hours to prepare,” it said.

 

“Sounds good,” I said.

 

“Lass—, “the big guy began. I cut him a glance and he shut his trap. It wasn’t his life. Let him deal with his own skin.

 

We walked to the gate and the Green stationed there.

 

“See these honored Flecks back to their rooms,” the little alien said to the lizard.

 

Without a word the towering green creature led us back to the hotel.

 

Everyone looked at me like I was some new, never seen before, monster hybrid after our escort left us to our own devices. I was used to those types of looks from before the aliens had attacked, so it didn’t bother me.

 

“What are you thinking?” Blondie asked. Her scowl had returned. “You saw what that thing did to Jerry.”

 

I looked at each one of them in turn. They were each survivors in their own way. They had made it this far when so many others had not. None of them wanted to die, but I could see in them the inevitability of it mirrored in their eyes. They would each go down fighting gloriously, no doubt.

 

Here we were, some of the few humans remaining, cozy in our little hotel room, just waiting for the next horror to face. The question was—why? It could not be as simple as entertainment, as Blondie had said. There had to be more. I refused to believe the aliens had come all this way just to rape and pillage. Their behavior spoke of something else.

 

“They are disappointed,” I said.

 

“To hell with how they feel,” Squinty said. He walked away. Blondie followed him.

 

The big guy smiled at me. “Good luck. It was nice knowing ya.” He too walked away.

 

Only Talitha remained. She studied me. Her hard, dark features were penetrating.

 

“Who are you Karen Parson?”

 

It’d been a long time since I’d had anybody to connect with. Talitha might have done nicely for somebody to unload my tortured past upon, but I wasn’t ready. Truth be told, I’d held my own humanity in check for so long I didn’t feel like it was really me anymore.

 

“The past is the past,” I said.

 

She nodded, but I could see the troubled doubt under her hard surface.

 

“I’ll make you a deal,” I said as she was turning away. “I’ll tell you all about me after the fight. How about that?”

 

Her smile was full of bright, white teeth. “That might be difficult.”

 

I smiled back. “I’m sure the aliens will help you find me, one way or another.”

 

She barked a laugh. “I’m sure.”

 

She left me to my own devices soon after, probably sensing I didn’t want to expend the effort required to be sociable. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Talitha. In fact, I thought she and I might have been friends given different circumstances.

 

But we weren’t living in that circumstance and probably never would be.

 

The time ticked by quickly. I mentally went through all the forms I’d learned over the years. I never risked actually performing any of the moves, however. I had no doubt I was being watched and there was no way I was going to give my enemy the slightest inkling of my ability.

 

When the alien returned to the open hall I was all alone. The others hadn’t come to see me off and that was fine by me.

 

“Karen Parson, are you ready?’ the alien said. This one was a wizened, wrinkled creature wearing a gold toga.

 

“Does that gold mean you are important?” I asked, not expecting an answer.

 

“You asked for the best,” it said.

 

I nodded. “Yes, I did.”

 

“Then come with me.”

 

We left the hotel and once again entered the arena. Over a thousand little, three-armed aliens were in the stands and over a dozen drones floated in the air above. I stripped off my blue jeans and t-shirt without being asked and led the way to the circle of black sand. The crowd roared in a monotone wail as I approached.

 

“Today, Shilatiya will fight,” the announcer said over the noise. The crowd stilled at the mention of the name and the entire arena tensed. I flexed my fingers and toes to loosen my nervous energy.

 

“One thousand, two hundred, and forty-seven wins,” the announcer said. I let the number roll off my back as much as I could. I’d known this wasn’t going to be easy. They didn’t call them ‘champions’ for nothing.

 

The alien crowd roared again as Shilatiya entered the arena. I focused on how the monster moved, checking for any weakness. At first glance I thought I was to face another Green. Shilatiya had the scales and the color. There was no denying this creature was the one they had fashioned the Greens after. But my fighter’s eyes noticed Shilatiya was different.

 

The monster wasn’t very big, as far as the other aliens I’d faced went. It was about a head taller than me, with long, slender arms that had twice my reach. And those arms ended in wicked looking claws. Its two legs were slender as well. They too, ended in sharp, piercing talons.

 

It didn’t have any ears and its mouth was lipless and small. The nose was a pair of holes in a snout-like button that stuck out from its face a couple of inches.

 

All that external stuff I took in the moment the creature stepped into view. Every alien fighter was different, sometimes in dramatic and mostly in horrific ways. The aliens were doing some kind of genetic manipulation. That was the theory, anyway. Not that it mattered. Facts were facts. They had come and they had destroyed humanity bit by bit. Only the fighters were left, the survivors, and they were dying one by one.

 

I watched Shilatiya move. The thing had surety and grace-like balance. That body confidence was what set it apart from the others I’d fought. This creature knew itself, and knew it well.

 

After its first initial steps, I switched my interest to its eyes. They were small and deep-set, but I could see them. I could see, truly, what it was I was about to fight.

 

Shilatiya stopped at the edge of the circle.

 

“Good luck,” it said. Its voice reminded me of the little alien’s falsetto, but with a harder edge.

 

I didn’t respond as the creature stepped to the sand.

 

It didn’t rush at me blindly like most other monsters had. It just stood there, loose limbed, waiting. I edged around the outside of the circle, getting closer. The thing still didn’t move. I crossed the sand slowly and kept my guard up for any indication it might act. I didn’t know how fast Shilatiya was. For all I knew, the monster might have lightning reflexes.

 

At the circle’s far side I edged in a little closer. Still, the monster didn’t budge.

 

This wasn’t working. I had hoped to egg Shilatiya into action while I still had plenty of buffer room to recover. I was going to have to try something else.

 

I dropped back to my original spot and mimicked the monster’s relaxed, but ready posture. We stood there facing each other for a long, silent moment. The monster was going to force me to make the first move.

 

So be it. I’d better make it count.

 

I went to all fours and began kicking and rolling and hooting like a monkey. My every form was defensive. Shilatiya tensed up a little at the unusual technique, but didn’t make a move toward me.

 

I shifted into more attack-oriented styles as I got close, goading the creature with a few low sweeps and a fake lunge or two. Again, the monster tensed, but did not attack.

 

I coiled and struck out, always controlled, always at a safe distance to change if the creature did anything besides stand there.

 

I was close, so close. It was now or never.

 

I dropped all pretense of defense and kicked out at the thing’s scaly head with my left leg.

 

Shilatiya’s claws left hand crossed its midline to intercept my attack. I flexed my flying knee to avoid the thing’s sharp claws.

 

Using the gathered power on my back right leg, I pushed my center forward to close the gap between us. As I did so, I twisted my trunk and punched at the monster’s left chest with my right fist.

 

Shilatiya turned with the punch, making my attack useless. Before I had time to pull my arm back, it raked my forearm with the claws of its right hand.

 

My momentum was spent. I was a bullet heading straight for the beast. I left my feet and jumped at the creature. My chest crashed into the creature’s right shoulder and my legs wrapped around its waist sideways. Its right arm was pinned to its side. My left arm wrapped around the thing’s neck. I squeezed myself to Silatiya with all the power I had.

 

 My right arm was a useless ache that no longer mattered. Our faces were close enough to touch. Shilatiya tucked its neck down protectively and turned its face away from me. Searing agony ripped through my left arm as Shilatiya clawed at my hold.

 

I threw my head into the back of the creature’s head. I couldn’t lose my hold. I would never get this close again. My arms were all but useless. I head-butted it again and again.

 

Something hot and achy tugged at my guts, but I kept at my gristly work. The world spun around and starburst filled my vision. The color leaked from my eyes until everything was a darkening gray.

 

We were falling. Silatiya twisted with me still attached like a leach to its side. Its left arm caught the ground and I jolted, nearly losing my hold. Such was the monster’s strength that we did not hit the ground.

 

My vision was fading and my throat was dry as I sucked in air.

 

Shilatiya’s neck was exposed.

 

I sank my teeth deep into the scaly skin and bit down. I tore a hunk free and spat it out. Shilatiya rolled me onto my back and on over. I held on with my legs. My left arm had come free from its neck at some point, and I didn’t know where it was. I bit again, ripping deeper into the acrid flesh.

 

We rolled once more. My face felt broken, but my teeth felt strong. I bit and ripped and yanked like a thing possessed. I was nothing but teeth. I bit and I bit until the grey cast of my vision turned as red as my mind.

 

I didn’t remember stopping. My head rested atop Shilatiya’s in an almost loving way. Pain consumed me, but I managed to untangle my strained legs from their iron grip around the monster’s waist. With a couple of tugs that threatened to push me to unconsciousness, I rolled free from the inert beast.

 

My abdominals didn’t want to work and neither did my arms. My lips felt like they were ripped and more that one of my teeth was gone.

 

I gained my feet by somehow getting my legs curled up under me enough to balance my center. I couldn’t straighten fully, however. My stomach was screaming at me. I tried to put a hand to it and cried out with the attempt.

 

Lifting my head, I saw the row upon row of little aliens staring at me. Their wide eyes drank in the sight of my blood drenched body.

 

“What next?” I said hoarsely and they cheered. A trio of little aliens in blue rushed out toward me on the black sand.

 

“Let’s get you to the hospital,” one of them said.

 

All I could do was nod. Darkness was edging my eyes, giving me tunnel vision.

 

I was so tired.

 

I must have slept, though I couldn’t recall doing so. I was lying on a hard, metal table with bright lights blinding me.

 

“Fixed up nicely,” an alien voice said.

 

The light dimmed and I swung my legs off the table. I felt strong. Energy coursed through me like never before. I wanted to drop to the floor and see how many pushups I could do.

 

“Feeling well?’ the alien asked.

 

“Well enough,” I said, looking around. The entire room was shiny metal.

 

“I’m surprised your bowels remained inside,” the alien added nonchalantly. “Your abdominals were in shreds.”

 

I stood and looked down at my stomach. It was as flat as ever. Little, white cross-marks were the only indication that I’d been injured at all.

 

The little alien handed me my clothes.

 

“The council is waiting for you,” it said. I glanced at it. There was something like happy respect in its words.

 

“What do they want?” I asked as I got dressed.

 

The little thing bounced from foot, to foot, to foot in nervous excitement. It lowered its head like a nervous child.

 

“Congratulations!” it blurted then put one of its hands to its mouth like it’d said too much.

 

I couldn’t help the huff of a laugh that escaped me. These little aliens were a strange lot. The monsters, I understood. They were there to kill you. But these little guys, the ones obviously in charge, acted like they were on the human’s side, when it had to have been their tech that had killed most of the world in the first place.

 

“Well, come on. Let’s go meet the council,” I said.

 

The little, blue toga wearing, alien nodded a time or two then led the way from the metal room.

 

We entered one metal hall then another. I’d never seen anything like it before. And there were no guns on the walls.

 

My stomach got queasy as we turned down yet another hall.

 

“Are we on a ship?” I asked. The only time I ever got sick was when I was flying.

 

The little alien glanced at me in surprise.

 

“Yes. How’d you know?”

 

I growled internally and pushed down my nausea.

 

The council was three aliens wearing sparkling silver sitting high on a raised dais behind a large, glossy, black desk. The room was a big circle whose edges were obscured by the soft, blue light that filled the space.

 

The blue toga left me as I entered the hall. The three aliens behind the desk stood.

 

“Karen Parson. Thank you,” one of them said.

 

I didn’t have it in me to say ‘you’re welcome’. They’d ruined any chance of welcome with their invasion.

 

“We have visited so many worlds, and finally have found you. We’d all but given up hope,” another said.

 

‘Hope’—what a crock. I shook my head. Hope wasn’t worth even talking about. Anybody with hope had died still hoping long ago. That wasn’t the answer, if there even was an answer. There were only my actions. That was the only thing I could control.

 

“How did you win, do you think, where so many other intelligent races failed?” one of them asked.

 

I ignored the ridiculous question and gestured around the room. “Why are you here?” Since the onset of the invasion, nobody had ever got an answer to that simple question. The aliens hadn’t gone after the gold or any other resource. They’d simply destroyed everything man had built and then had begun killing man himself.

 

“Straight to the heart, good. Of course you have earned the right.”

 

There was that beaming respect again, just like the blue toga from the hospital.

 

“We are looking for worth,” one of them said and smiled. The others nodded.

 

“We toyed with the idea of leaving the developing cultures to their own devices and setting out more grandly to find our equal, or even our betters, on the technological front,” another said.

 

The trio laughed like children at that for some reason.

 

“Then we came to our senses. All an intelligent species needs is time to learn how to manipulate the physical. That is no true measure of worth.”

 

“So we set out to find races worthy enough to call brothers. We used ourselves as that gold standard and destroyed any who didn’t match up.”

 

Well, that answered that, and I didn’t like it one bit. The whole thing struck too close to home. Their mission sounded a lot like how my entire life had turned out, not counting the world-wide genocide, of course.

 

How many times had people called me a freak for being better that them, for being stronger, for being faster, for advancing too quickly in my training? Even my instructors, who at first had looked at me with pride, had eventually turned to viewing me with skepticism and downright anger. It had been like the whole world was against me for being as good as I was and for training even harder to become even better.

 

All I’d ever wanted was to find somebody that could keep up.

 

And now, here was an entire race who had taken it upon themselves to eradicate any who did not make the grade they themselves had set. I’d had impulses like that before. Maybe not to kill, but I had definitely wanted to show everyone how lazy they were. People had lost their zest for life.

 

The world had made me bitter and alone, an outcast, long before the aliens had arrived on the scene.

 

“A monster,” I said.

 

“Yes, the monsters,” one of the three up on the dais said cheerfully, mistaking my musing for a question. “They aren’t really monsters at all. They are members of our own race who have been genetically modified to improve them physically.”

 

“Do you understand now the importance of your beating our best?”

 

I nodded. “Yeah,” I said. I did know, but it didn’t make me feel any better. So many people had died, and for such a simple thing.

 

“Please, enlighten us?” one of them asked.

 

I took a deep breath before answering.

 

“It’s in the eyes,” I said. “I knew I could beat Shilatiya after I saw its eyes. It is spirit you are searching for.”

 

I knew this because it was what I had been looking for all my life as well. I wanted to see another and recognize that power, that greatness I believed all people had, if only they had the strength to seek it out and develop it.

 

The three were all nodding in human-like gestures.

 

“Yes, and you have proven humans are worthy.”

 

“So many have died,” I said. Good people, people with families and jobs. Engineers and scientists. Smart people dedicated to technology and medicine. People who were probably my equal in ferocity within their own field but who just hadn’t been able to fight when the time had come.

 

“It only takes one to validate a species’ worth,” they said in unison.

 

I’d had enough of this whole, sick situation.

 

“What’s next?” I said tiredly.

 

The three up on dais stared down at me with their globular eyes.

 

“We leave so you may rebuild. After a number of generations we will return and help you attain our level of technology so we may be on more equal terms in that regard.”

 

I couldn’t believe them, not after all the destruction they had caused.

 

“We want greatness in the universe and are proud to call you brother.”

 

I nodded. Sure…brothers. I couldn’t see us ever considering them anything but enemies, not after the decimation we’d suffered. But, who was I to say what people might think a hundred years down the road.

 

“Is there a place you would like us to drop you before we leave the system?” they asked.

 

A place. I didn’t have one. I hadn’t really had one before the invasion.

 

But I did know of a place. I’d even been asked to join it not too long ago.

 

“Sure,” I said. “I got somewhere that might take me in.”

 

All of a sudden, I was tired of being alone.

 

One of the little, blue-lit transports dropped me from the main ship a few minutes later. After a couple uncomfortable rolls of my stomach, I landed. The door cycled open and I stepped out.

 

There was bubbling creak right in front of me. Randy sat on a dead log with a fishing pole in his hands and a piece of grass in his mouth. He raised a couple of eyebrows at the sight of me. His eyes danced.

 

“How was your date?” he asked. The transport lifted off from behind me and disappeared from view in less than a second.

 

“I’ve had better,” I said. “I don’t think there’ll be a second one.”

 

He set his pole down and pulled off his cap then frowned at me.

 

“Is your invitation to join still open?” I asked.

 

 He glanced to the sky toward where the transport had disappeared.

 

“What happened on this date of yours?”

 

“They’re leaving. No more monsters.”

 

He whistled threw his teeth.

 

“Impressive. You’ll have to tell me how you managed that.”

 

I shrugged. I wasn’t ready to put to words what the aliens were after. How my personal feelings and my entire life had kind of mirrored their mission didn’t sit right. I didn’t like thinking I had anything in common with a race that would kill planets.

 

Randy smiled crookedly up at me. “Another time. I’m just glad to hear your date didn’t go well. You’re too good for those types anyway.”

 

I laughed at that. His grin grew. He held my eye for a moment then glanced toward the creek. His bobber floated in a little, clear pool between a set of ripples.

 

“How’s the water?” I asked.

 

“Nice and cold.”

 

“Great.” I jumped in, clothes and all, and waded out till the water was up to my chin. There, I pulled off my clothes and threw them up on the bank.

 

Randy shook his head. Just then, another transport landed and Talitha came strutting out like she owned the place.

 

Randy did a double take at the tall, powerful Talitha.

 

“That looks like just what the doctor ordered,” she said in way of greeting. The transport took off as she stripped off her clothes right there on the bank and jumped in. Randy just stared, open mouthed.

 

“The aliens helped me find you,” she said as she waded out towards me.

 

“I told you they would,” I said.

 

“Well, I think this is the best day of fishing I ever had,” Randy said. He unhooked his overalls and joined us.

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Jason Lairamore is a writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror who lives in Oklahoma with his beautiful wife and their three monstrously marvelous children. He is a published finalist of the 2012 SQ Mag annual contest, the winner of the 2013 Planetary Stories flash fiction contest, a third place winner of the 2015 SQ Mag annual contest, and a Writers of the Future contest Semi-Finalist.

 

His work is both featured and forthcoming in over 80 publications to include Perihelion Science Fiction, Stupefying Stories and Third Flatiron publications, to name a few.