Sgt. Rachel Friedman remembered the Fourth of July. She remembered when her family would drive out to Lake Havasu before it was finally closed indefinitely because of the toxic levels of pollution found in its water. She remembered how she and her brother would have their dad light sparklers for them and they would run in the night and twirl the sparkling sticks and hold them high and watch the lights flicker and fall and extinguish before finally reaching the ground. She remembered the smell and the sounds they made.
She remembered this as a large, glowing mass of pure blue energy shot across her line of sight as fast as a bullet from a gun and made contact with the back of the prisoner in front of her. His back exploded like a tomato and the blood that popped out of it rain down against her face, mingled with remains of flesh and lung tissue. The man in front of her slumped dead in an instant mid-sprint and slid across the sand, halfway burying his face, but his eyes remained alert, staring up at her. His pupil dilated and he let out a final sigh before going limp.
“Keep moving!” Captain Ridgeway shouted at them.
There were now eleven of them remaining.
“Don’t stop running!” The captain continued to shout.
It was hard to run, but she knew she had to if she had any chance of survival. The sunlight was bright and her eyes unaccustomed to it. Her emaciated frame wobbled feebly as she made her way out of the barracks she had spent so many nights in.
The camp that the survivors found themselves in was laid out simply. There, they looked back and saw where they had been kept. Other similar buildings had been erected, but looked empty—possibly, they were planning on having more captives eventually. They were plain, reminiscent of a basic human architecture to house and imprison up to as many as 50 people.
The other buildings, however, were unlike anything she had ever seen before. A large building in the middle, which she assumed may be for central communications, laid flat and low with a large door that slid up to open on tracks. It was made of a curious material that looked neither metallic nor organic. What may have been satellites or maybe even weapons were positioned on each corner of the building, these black discs that hovered in place with a low, nauseating hum.
When the entrance to that building had opened three more of the creatures had filed out. They spread out to cover more area between them.
Surrounding the entire compound was a fence of sorts. It was barely visible, looking only like stripes of a slight distortion of color, but when Friedman had reached it, finally stopping from her sprint, and touched a finger to it, it burned. Above that fence were gun towers with no visible creatures manning them. They seemed to be automated. The shot that had killed the man in front of her were coming from them, and they continued to rain down with a dull thwack! sound when they hit the ground. The energy shots being pounded at them were relentless, turning the dirt a blackened, burned color.
Another thwack! sounded out, this time right beside Friedman’s left foot and the sheer force of it knocked her off balance, shards of broken pieces of rock cut through the skin on her face. As she fell, she heard someone yell out and felt her arm glide along the perimeter fence, the heat of it scaling her skin. What disturbed her the most wasn’t the agonizing pain of being burned, it was the smell.
She found herself laying on her side in the dirt. She once again found herself facing Captain Ridgeway, with him looking terrified as he had before inside the barracks. Before this, she had known him in passing, knowing his reputation a career-minded commander who was nice enough, if lacking in the personality department, but always pulled through in a moment of need. She hoped now that his reputation would prove correct.
Captain Ridgeway’s eyes looked over Sgt. Friedman to survey her damage: Some cuts on her face, pretty nasty burn over her bicep and shoulder, fragment of rock sticking out of her thigh. She would require medical treatment immediately, given her malnourishment, but once they had a chance to recover and rest, she would hopefully pull through.
He saw something else, though. Beside Friedman’s right arm, the perimeter fence was emitting a fizzling spark, popping lightly and spilling out blue light. Above that were the discolored stripes he saw capable of burning human flesh, but right at the spark, he could see clearly through it. He crouched down and waved his hand. No effect. The bottom portion had been disabled due to the last blast that knocked the sergeant down.
The captain waved the other ten over. “Here,” He said, crouching down beside Friedman. “If we get as low as we can and crawl on our bellies we can get to the other side. Move, move, we have to move now.”
Another thwack! was heard, combined with the sound of something wet hitting the floor. One of the self-appointed sentries to guard the door during their escape slumped forward, fell to his knees and a thin line of blood flowed freely between his lips. When he fell face-first into the dirt, the back portion of his skull was missing and the skin around the wound was still sizzling.
The first to run through was a woman, a corporal by the name of Megan Vasquez. She had done the job inside the barracks of pummeling their captor with a loosened floorboard. She deepened the gap between the ground and the next-highest beam on the perimeter fence as best she could with her hands as makeshift shovels and slid down on her belly. The energy beam of the fence connected with the back of her neck. She hissed an, “Ow, fuck,” and out of instinct touched her hand to the wound and felt her fingers and forearm singe. She swore a few more times and wriggled to the other side. Once there, she looked too tired to be excited or to celebrate her victory; she simply sighed.
Corporal Vasquez offered her hands to the gap and held them out for Friedman to grab on to. With her help, Friedman went beneath the energy beam’s protective layer and popped out on the other side, lightly burning only the back legs of her pants. She leaned against a boulder and gave the Captain and the rest of the crew a half-awake thumbs up.
Sgt. Friedman dropped her thumbs up and screamed when she saw their jailor creatures rush the area by which the surviving human members were using to escape.
One by one, they began crawling through the small clearance between the ground and the weaponized perimeter as quickly as they could. The surviving self-appointed entry crawled through and the smell of burnt hair followed.
By the time the captain had dropped to crawl and join the rest of his survivors, he had been grabbed. Vasquez could feel his hand slips from hers as he was pulled away fast enough for them to hear a dull snap from somewhere inside of him. His expression went slack and his arm hung limp. The creatures held onto him.
From the time they exited their holding cell and ran across the gate, only five minutes off time had passed, but it felt like an eternity. Only ten seconds or so had passed since Captain Ridgeway had been grabbed and hauled off by their captors when the shots from the unmanned sentries began to target the other side of the perimeter, and in a few blinks, the entire perimeter went offline.
Friedman saw the semi-translucent bars flash, become a darker shade, and then completely vanish. It only took her a moment to realize that wherever they went, they would be followed. She yelled to everyone else, “This way! This way!”
On the other side of the camp was a downward-sloping hill with a small creek between another hill emerging on the other side. She ran down to build up speed, splashing through the water with her bare feet, to reach the high ground. When she fell she scrambled along the loose foliage and slippery mud on all fours to keep moving at as brisk a pace she could manage. The others behind her, led by Vasquez, scrambled capably.
They could not see or hear the aliens pursuing them yet but she knew they were there. Friedman could hear distant thwacks! far away enough that she knew they were outside of the gun towers’ range of fire. Once on the top of the hill, they kept moving, not stopping for a moment of breath (despite how impossibly irresistible the cold water of the creek felt), feeling the hot fiery air in their lungs and the stinging sensation in the malnourished legs they kept pumping.
A large fallen tree provided an adequate-enough shelter for them to rest. The self-appointed sentry climbed atop it and walked to the end and scouted. He listened for the sound of their pursuers, any sound, and put his hand up in a fist to alert everyone to be silent. They held their breath and breathed slowly through their noses, trying to contain the amount of air that went in—they were all winded and on the verge of collapse from how weak they’d become in captivity. After a silent moment or two, he put his hand down and they began breathing… or rather, wheezing and coughing again in comfort.
The surviving members converged together in a semi-circle beneath the fallen tree. Sgt. Friedman surveyed them. She recognized some, but not all of them. She was afraid of what would happen next: Where they would go, how they would get there, how long they could continue this pace.
“So,” Friedman asked. “Who’s in charge here?”
There was a moment of silence. Finally, someone spoke up.
“I guess you are.”