I opened my eyes and I saw her just as I remembered. Standing on the front porch, arms wide open, inviting me in for the biggest hug I'd ever had. Her eyes. I could never see them – worried I was starting to forget. Her apron painted with splotches of green and blue and an ear-to-ear smile on her face as I rushed to her. She engulfed me in her arms. Hints of butter, sweet apples and spicy cinnamon danced through my nostrils. That smell, pure nostalgia. I would never, ever forget.
"Hi, ma," I whispered to my mother as she put her white-haired head into the center of my chest. I closed my eyes and held her tight. "I miss you."
Voice muffled against my shirt, she uttered through heartbreaking sobs, "My dear boy. I miss you too. We will meet again, soon."
My eyes shot open again and I shook myself from the reverie. The deathly silence in the briefing theater I found myself in erased any sluggishness I might have felt. There was another nudge from my left and I looked over to see Tango, my wingman. His brown eyes flared with a hint of mischief that almost made me blush.
"I can't believe you can sleep at a time like this," he said.
"If someone hadn't kept me up all night," I fired back at him.
At the front of the room, the General started his briefing. I tuned him out. We all knew what was at stake here and we knew what the mission was. We pull it off? We stop the invasion cold and end the war today. We don't? Then those alien bastards win. It was that simple. No amount of rah-rah bullshit was going to change those facts.
I looked over at Tango, dialed into the General's every word. Maybe when this was over, he and I could think about starting a life together. A part of me, deep down, knew, however, that would never be.
The General continued with his rundown of the battle plan. As flimsy as it sounded, it could work. It had to work.
"If we all do our jobs, we can all go home," the General proclaimed. "Good hunting, everyone. Dismissed"
Yeah, for those of us who have homes to return to. I saw a vision of my mother standing there on the front porch and felt nothing but sorrow. Nothing but dread.
That dread vanished the moment I strapped into my A-23 Rapier. Burner lit, Tango and I roared down the runway and into the sky with the rest of the strike group. Stealth wasn't a concern – this was a last ditch effort. We knew it. So did the enemy.
The first rounds of anti-aircraft fire filled air around the strike group. Without warning, my early warning system trilled an alarm.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
It quickened pace.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
The would spun around me as my vision blurred back into clarity. I rattled away the strobe lights going off with a shake of my head. An alarm on my A-23 Rapier's flight board wouldn't shut up.
Nice landing, Tank. Ten out of ten.
I tried to climb out of my downed fighter's cockpit.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
The alarm quickened pace and my heart kept time with it, skyrocketing to anaerobic rates. The flight harness, designed to keep me pinned down during high-G maneuvers, dug into my shoulders painfully - just as intended. The damned lock release clicked, but the harness didn't come loose - not as intended.
It never had a use until now - the small high-frequency blade I kept in my boot. It cut through the harness strap with ease and a leapt from the charred out hulk that was once a functional bird of war, stumbling to the ground
The beeping evened out to a resonant tone, then something deep in the heart of the crashed fighter jet sparked.
The flash blinded me before the concussive force of the explosion lifted me into the air. I crashed into a heap a dozen meters away… but was still alive.
Two crashes in one day. Not good.
I gathered my feet under me and stood on shaky knees. Once composed I took in my surroundings - not much to look at, just dirt, granite and darkness. And the flaming wreckage of another Rapier.
Not just any Rapier. It was Tango's. I didn't see a command chair, so I could only hope that he punched out. That very instant, my senses finally about me, I knew our mission failed.
No, not just failed. FUBAR – Fouled up beyond all repair.
This was our last shot at winning the war, they said. Take out the queen with a precision anti-matter strike, they said. They won't know we're coming, they said. I'll be damned. It sounds like a list of bad action movie cliches now that I think about it. Oh, and they were wrong.
They were ready for us. Even our worst-case scenarios didn't account for what they hit us with. But we had to try. I always wanted to be Luke Skywalker and blow up Death Stars. This was my shot. And I - we - failed.
That was when I heard the voice. Faint. Distant. Weak.
"You're almost there," it said echoing in my head.
I keyed my comlink, "I didn't copy. Say again. Over."
Nothing but static in my ear. I didn't know exactly where I was, but I knew I had to be beneath the surface. No way comms would reach me down here.
I drew my sidearm - a semi-auto, 9-round pistol that wasn't good for much more than denying the enemy the satisfaction - and made my way deeper into the darkness.
The voice returned louder in my head this time. Stronger. Closer. As if right on top of me. "Come home."
I heard the explosions above. The battle raged on and here I was, helpless to do anything about it, except but to continue on following the voice in my head. After what felt like kilometers of walking in the darkness, I felt a presence behind me. I brought my gun around to bear, flashlight shining a beam into the darkness. Nothing.
I spun around again and found myself face to face with… I don't know what it was, actually. She appeared human, but the aura that surrounded her made my skin crawl. Her skin, pale - almost blue - and thin enough to see the varicose veins pulsing rhythmically.
But I wasn't alarmed. No, not in the slightest. I should have been, but the sight of her, put a part of me at ease.
With a taloned hand, she wrapped her fingers around the barrel of my pistol and lowered the weapon. She smiled at me, sharp teeth bared in an intimation of a smile. We stood there in silence for what seemed like an eternity, her heartbeat so loud in my head I couldn't tell if it was her heartbeat I felt, or my own. She raised a hand upward and the darkness in the underground cavern lifted.
All around us, hundreds, thousands of them - of the very same enemy I sent to their deaths from the cockpit of my Rapier. They watched in stillness as I stood at the heart of this cavernous room. I should have been scared. No, I should have been rightfully freaked the hell out. But I wasn't. I felt nothing but eerie calm.
That wasn't it at all. I blinked twice. This! This was the mission! She was the target, the queen we'd all believed had been leading the invasion - the one we failed to…
She chuckled, amused. Though her lips didn't move, I heard her voice clear as day in my head. "You didn't fail, dear boy. You did what you were supposed to do. You saved your mother."
I tried to level my gun at her. Draw a bead. Blow her away. Just do it.
But. I. Couldn't.
My hand, my arm, nothing moved. It was as if I was no longer in control of my body.
"You are our greatest prize. And you… have returned. Welcome home."
The enemy stayed still no longer. They didn't cheer, no. They buzzed in celebration at me. For me. Though I couldn't move, my skin crawled. If I could have, I would've dropped to my knees.
Slowly, she danced a circle around me, taloned finger tracing itself around my shoulders.
"Thank you, my child," she said. "You delivered them to me. When I wanted by the means I wanted. They had no idea their plan to bomb me with their anti-matter abominations would fail. But I did. Because of you. This is all because of you, my dear, dear boy. Now this war will finally end."
Frozen in place, the entirety of my being pulsated, all of the muscle fiber in my body flared. She didn't need to say anything else, because deep down, I believed every word. It made sense, though. It's why I survived suicide mission after suicide mission and people I cared about didn't.
A vision of Tango flashed in my head, the burned-out husk of his Rapier forever with me. He'd flown on my wing this whole god-forsaken war. He was my friend. If not for the war, maybe he'd have been more than that. And he was dead - because of me. Because I was one of them.
An unimaginable pain surged down my spine - the worst convergence of electricity and fire setting every nerve ending in by body ablaze. I don't know if I screamed in agony, but my vision went white. Then there was nothing but quiet. I no longer heard the song of the enemy.
And I no longer heard the voice of the queen in my head.
I was in control again. Again? No, I was in control for the first time. My actions were my own. My fate in my hands alone. Also in my hand, my hold-out pistol.
Slowly, I raised my arm and took aim at the queen, her back to me. With no urgency at all, she faced me. There was no attempt at a smile this time, but her lips did move. Her voice was husky and buzzed with the same harmony as the rest of them - alien, but still human.
"I am a part of you, my child," she said, stepping closer to me. "If you pull that trigger, you will die as well. You are mine. And I am your queen."
I felt something jar my memory, as if the queen was trying to reconnect with me. I felt warm and at ease. My arm lowered itself. I closed my eyes and saw Tango and me, in embrace.
"In that case…"
My arm snapped back up, putting the barrel of my pistol right between her eyes.
"… God save the queen."
That was the last thing I said before I pulled that trigger and then everything went black.