Prologue

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.

His 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. He jammed his head into his helmet, grabbed his gun from the wall rack, and sprinted to his post. He passed hundreds of Nexus soldiers doing the same.

Superior Officers bellowed orders as if their words could change the outcome of the next few moments. 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. Colorful text and graphics scrolled across the screen. He swallowed as he read the information imparted before his eyes.

Hot.

It was too hot for the temperate summers this planet was known for. His uniform was damp as if he'd just run five miles instead of the four hundred or so feet to his post.

He tugged at his collar. Sweat trickled down his neck and into his uniform.

His uniform...

He would never forget how happy his mother was the first time she saw him in his Nexus blues, her eyes sparkling with tears. She had never been more proud of him.

Before he'd left for boot camp, she'd kissed him on each cheek and told him to make a difference in this world.

He promised her he would.

His heart stuttered at the memory. He bit the inside of his cheek to stop his own tears from falling and prayed to the stars above that today he would make a difference.

He was 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. Massive, mounted missile launchers and tanks bordered them. Nexus jets darted through the skies above, ready to intercept, 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. It was an uneasy quiet. Pounding hearts and heavy breathing the only sounds.

Through their in-ear receivers, they could hear the battle raging high above them. Faint laser blasts peppered 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 displays flashed a single number: Five.

His entire being zeroed in on that solitary number. His stomach dropped 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 mixed with the overwhelming scent of too many overheated bodies.

He shook 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 and anchored 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!"

He stopped breathing.

Everyone. Stopped. Breathing.

At that moment, hope became tangible. He could see it taking form in front of his eyes. No doubt other soldiers were having a similar experience. He wondered what shape hope was taking for them. For him, his mother slowly solidified. 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.

He could barely make out the shouted updates and commands over his receiver—the chaos above too volatile for any on the ground to comprehend.

The soldier next to him started to pray. Her name was Mina Rodriquez. They'd enlisted at the same time. Went through boot camp together. Shared a secret or two.

He turned his head and watched her lips move. Her words were 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.

His eyes snapped to the sky as a crackle in his ear indicated a change in station. 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.

No.

He wasn't ready.

No one could ever be ready for something like this, but he didn't have a choice. He held his gun higher and narrowed his eyes. The crosshairs on his display aimlessly moved, searching for a yet to be detected horror. His breath hitched as it locked onto the enemy's ship.

A boom echoed as the ship broke into the planet's atmosphere. It spiraled out of control, black smoke billowing from its engine as it hurtled straight for them.

"FIRE!"

An unrelenting barrage of lasers shot from their guns, the sky erupting in blues, reds, and greens. They hit the ship, slicing off bits and pieces as it careened toward them.

"FALL BACK!"

The soldiers ran for cover. Running in organized madness to their designated foxholes.

The fighter jets swarmed, continuing the attack. Ground missiles provided additional cover. Little by little, the enemy's ship broke apart.

His helmet emitted a harsh low-pitched tone.

Everyone dropped to the ground.

He watched as 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. 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 himself.

He glanced behind as the object crashed into the earth.

The ground shook with terrifying force.

Buildings collapsed.

Soldiers screamed.

The ground rose up around him as the shockwave rippled with ferocious intent.

He tripped, slamming into the ground. His teeth cracked as his helmet shattered. His body slid backward, the earth moving with him as he was pulled down. Down, down, down. He kicked and groped 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. He flopped 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.

His gaze traveled into the pit, at his fellow soldiers. Their bodies bloody and bent at unnatural angles or missing parts completely.

Soldiers around the crater slowly rose 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. He tasted a metallic tang in the air. His attention laser-focused to the center of the crater. He could barely see through the smoke and debris. But then...

Sparks.

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.

He scrambled to his hands and knees and watched in horror as a man rose out of the crater.

No. Not a man. These abominations could no longer be called human. This thing was an Energy Fighter.

He blinked. He had never seen an E-Fighter in person before. He'd only ever experienced Tom Cazar's Monsters in theory. 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. Lightning cracked and slithered around the orb of light encasing it. Its body limned in a greenish-blue glow. Its clothing and hair fanned and fluttered in the rushing air current contained within its protective sphere. Its eyes were closed and a cruel smile framed its mouth.

Its fists opened.

A strong 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. He found a discarded gun and aimed it at the E-Fighter. His fellow soldiers moved to the lip of the crater with their weapons drawn. Some only carried large rocks or hunks of concrete, but it was something.

The image made his heart swell. This was his family, and they were going down together.

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. It rose 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.

Soldiers scattered.

Some were crushed as giant slabs of concrete slammed into them.

The soldier zigzagged as he ran, hoping he would not be hit. He didn't know where he was going, he just knew 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.

Trapped.

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 dirt as it flew. He crouched into a ball and covered his head, certain this was the end.

The cement wall snagged on something underground and pitched forward. The top banged into stone and halted. Pieces of cement and stone fell, hitting the soldier's back and arms and head. It hurt, but he wasn't dead. 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.

He lowered his arms and clutched his chest. His body shook uncontrollably as he tried to get air into his lungs—his breathing erratic, hard and painful.

He leaned his head back against the wall.

He was here. He was alive.

He regained control of himself and listened.

It was quiet. There were no guns firing, no rushing winds, or crashing debris.

No soldiers screaming.

There was only his thundering heartbeat.

He dared to peek out from his hiding place.

Smoke and dust gradually settled, but there was no one—no one alive.

He could see Mina. Her body no more than a few yards from his hiding spot. Her eyes open, 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 Mina's 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 and landed next to him with a traitorous and ill-fated thump. He clamped his hands over his mouth to silence his breathing, his screams.

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. They grew louder, closer.

Silent tears streaked down his dirty cheeks and over his hands.

The footsteps stopped.

He shut his eyes and prayed. He 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. The soldier blanched in horror at the creature standing before him. His hands dropped to his sides like dead weight, the muscles no longer functioning as if his brain knew they could fulfill no further purpose.

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.

The soldier was paralyzed by fear. His 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 eight-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.

The soldier smiled. Then chuckled. Then outright laughed.

The Energy Fighter arched an eyebrow as his laughter grew hysterical.

He thought of his mother again and her undimmable joy when he 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 held firm.

His vision blurred. Stars burst 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, but it would not break his spirit.

As darkness inched closer, he sent one final message to his mother. Through the cosmos. From his heart to hers. He told her he missed her every day and wished things had ended differently. He wished Tom 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 gasp of air was stolen from his lungs...

He begged her to run, to hide, because they could not be stopped.