Dark Dragons

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Chapter 10 - The Bogeyman

Tuesday, May 17

The late, late show on channel five looked like The Manchurian Candidate, the original with Frank Sinatra, but the house drew more of his attention than the movie. The strange rustling in the bushes outside Vanessa’s house reminded him that nothing was as it seemed, and ever since returning home something did not feel right.

He couldn’t stay awake forever, though. Where the hell was Tony? For once, Darren wished his mom would abide by her own ETA, but midnight always meant three or four in the morning on her time scale. Not that she could protect him from Marcus Lutze, but a motherly presence would certainly be nice. Darren smiled at the thought of Allison brandishing a patio chair to ward off Marcus like the big raccoon she heroically repelled from the garbage can a few nights ago.

The TV movie had something to do with Chinese officers brainwashing a squad of G.I.’s during the Korean War and sending them back to America to carry out their nefarious plans. Real paranoid, Cold War stuff. Darren didn’t catch many details because he kept going in and out of sleep. Just before his eyes finally closed, he read 12:09 AM on the cable box. Darren tried to fight the battle but lost the war. He was finally asleep.

A howling whistle blows. Darren turns his head in the darkness to search for its direction. The ominous sound comes again, followed by a low hiss. A woman moans in terror behind him but he cannot turn his head to see who it is. Her shrills of agony grow louder as the train approaches.

The whistle blows harder, longer. He hears the woman’s moan slowly climb to a nerve-twisting scream. A bubble of icy air circles him, chilling his skin.

Long plumes of smoke rise above the tree line a distance away. The black train screams again while it speeds around the bend with frightening velocity, blowing fire from its sides. A child on a tricycle appears from the dark woods, waving and laughing as he tries to hail the train. He watches helplessly as the tricycle’s brakes fail, the train picking up speed to catch the toddler. Darren wants to scream, but for some reason cannot. His mouth opens in a contorted struggle to warn the engineer to stop, but he can only watch as the train smashes the child up in a rage of grinding metal and flame. The engineer’s fangs glisten in the train’s fire when it chugs past.

The woman’s screams are louder, piercing his heart with a cold blade.

He tries to flee, but paralysis overwhelms his body.

The black wheels spit out a long shower of sparks when the locomotive slows in front of him. The woman’s piercing shills of horror burn his senses. Passenger cars roll up, hissing brakes engaging. A bell tolls in the distance.

The silhouette of a man wearing a bowler hat steps into the opening between the cars, trench coat blowing in the icy wind like raptor wings flapping around a dying prey.

The man’s eyes glow with fire, and he rears his head in Darren’s direction.

The visitor has arrived.

Darren snapped his eyes open, read the cable box clock——2:42 AM——and sat up so fast he bounced. He had been asleep for two and a half hours.

“Mom?” he shouted to the house. No answer came.

Darren leaned back in the couch and exhaled air he’d been holding for some reason, quickly regretting his loud inquiry. He got up and went to the kitchen to pour himself some lemonade from the fridge. When the liquid touched his throat, a dreadful uneasiness came over him, as if the cold drink had finally brought him out of the dizziness of sleep into a world full of danger.

The darkness around him said, Someone is watching. At that moment, his ears began to ring like cathedral bells at Christmas mass. He quickly scanned the dining room and backed up against the wall, hot panic building inside him.

Slowly, he crept along the wall toward the staircase. He heard something click back in the kitchen——weapon?——and his feet grew roots. A hum rose listlessly from the silence, reaching a low steady drone. Just the refrigerator’s compressor.

Shit. Working saliva back into his mouth, he reached the stairs and bounded quietly up to his room. Before entering, he reached around the wall and flicked on the light switch before presenting the rest of himself as a possible target. No one there.

Where’s the dog? he thought. He wanted to call out to Elvis but vetoed that.

Darren grabbed the pulse rifle he had leaning against his bed and turned for the door. He stepped into the hallway and looked toward the stairs, listening intently for a tremor, a click, any sound that would send his rifle screaming, but there was only unnerving silence. Returning to his room, he opened the closet door where his combat armor suit lay in pieces. Darren stripped his clothes off and grabbed the gray sub-suit.

There came a soft pop from downstairs, and the light in his bedroom went out. He looked at the alarm clock on his night stand to see it too was out. Someone had just cut the power.

Darren trembled in the darkness, tried to muster some John Wayne-tough guy into his thinking but cowardice had replaced bravado. This situation was going to get out of hand.

One of the steps to the staircase suddenly creaked.

Darren dropped the bodystocking and leveled his rifle toward the open doorway. Darren knew for as long as he had lived in this house that he had never——ever ——heard the stairs creak. Whoever it was, had to be huge. Had Marcus finally paid him a visit? He told Darren not to go to sleep tonight. Something in the far corner of his mind, however, told him it wasn’t Marcus.

Darren tried to find the opening to the sub-suit in the darkness. He found the left leg and slipped his foot in. Wrong slack.

Another creak.

Shit! Darren moaned, pulled his left leg out and put his right foot in. Within five seconds he had the sub-suit on, and he felt the flesh-like material conform and tighten around his body with a satisfying slither. He reached into the closet, groped around for his armor boots, and slipped his feet in. The thigh modules came next, then the hip module with the bandolier compartments. The cuirass armor slid smoothly over his torso, and he dug under a pile of board games and dirty clothes for his arm plates and gloves.

There came another creak from the staircase . . . and another. The intruder was coming up the stairs much faster now. Ears ringing louder, almost unbearably.

Darren found the arm plates and gloves and put them on. With every piece of armor donned, the link-up signal went out, and all of the suit components attached themselves to one another with a quick prattle of soft clicks. Darren holstered his needle pistol and vibro-knife into their appropriate sheaths and dove into his messy closet for his helmet. A basketball, old sneakers, countless board games——but no helmet. He stopped and thought for a moment, trying to remember where he put it.

A thin beam of blue light lanced into his bedroom from the hallway, quickly forcing Darren to forget his helmet. He seized his pulse rifle and backed against the wall, watching the laser slowly sweep across his bed, along the far wall, across the dresser. Another beam of light joined the first and inched over the floor as the intruder probed the room. The blue lights disappeared. No, this wasn’t Marcus.

He stood motionless, trying to make not a sound, thinking that maybe whatever was outside might go away if he just remained still and quiet.

At that moment, his entire skin prickled into gooseflesh, teeth tingling, and he knew he was about to be attacked, seconds before there came a great whoosh of motion at the door. A humongous shadow spun through the doorway, and Darren cried out, saw it was carrying a weapon of some kind. He had already pressed the trigger before leveling his pulse rifle, and the laser bursts tore through the floor in front of him before blasting the door off its hinges, strobe lighting his bedroom with blinding intensity.

The shadow vaulted back out of the bedroom with astonishing agility, and a volley of laser fire suddenly came through the wall from the hallway. Darren dove for the floor, one bolt nearly striking his head. With the rifle’s trigger still pressed, he managed to blast his clothes dresser in a thousand pieces before finally aiming toward the wall and the hallway on the other side. He heard the alien intruder shriek, the sound like a shrill bird and a bear singing with one another.

The Vorvon must have stumbled back toward the stairway, because Darren heard the descending crash as the creature bounced down into the living room. He got to his feet and stepped into the hallway littered with chunks of smoking drywall and wood studs. The alien, wearing some kind of protective armor suit and helmet, got to its feet and sprang away from the stairs out of sight. Darren saw that the alien had to be at least seven feet tall but moved like a damn gazelle.

Nagging anger suddenly tore through him with such suddenness that he didn’t realize what it was. A few seconds ago he had been cowering in fear but now found himself rolling in a wave of fury and not sure why. Another Pavlov’s Dog. A response had ignited in his reprogrammed brain, and the only reaction was rage.

Darren took one stride toward the stairway and jumped. He landed on the bottom most step and rolled down to his sides toward the kitchen. The alien’s lasers went wide, striking fiery holes across the wall into the den behind him. He retreated backwards into the kitchen, spraying his escape with pulse-fire, the house charged with the atmosphere of some futuristic saloon fight, the air full of wild, drunken belligerence.

The Vorvon had a large weapon cradled in its right arm but held something else in its left hand——small and metallic, pointing the object in Darren’s direction. He spun around and ran for the patio door, not wanting to see what the weapon did, and shattered the glass with a single burst from his rifle, quelling the anger inside him so that he could flee instead.

Pickens Canyon Channel, a partial concrete gully built to drain winter flood waters from the foothills, ran south parallel with Sutton Cannon Drive. It had excellent tree and bush cover for most of its length, and Darren made excellent use of the shelter it provided. He had quietly jogged just over a mile before sprinting up the ravine bank and crouching next to a Dumpster behind an elementary school to catch his breath. The concrete water channel, where Tony and his fellow skateboarders liked to shred when it was dry, had its own highway overpass which took the stream over Interstate 210, eventually emptying into the Los Angeles River down in Glendale. Nate’s house lay just on the other side of the highway next to the overpass. Darren had at least another mile to go. Nate had better damn well be home, he thought.

Darren scanned his surroundings but saw no killer alien. Or aliens. He didn’t have his helmet, so he couldn’t communicate with anyone. Nor could he use his battlefield imager and 3D map builder, the gauss gun launcher, the computerized gun sight to his pulse rifle or the floating scout cameras. His only sure bet remaining was his pulse rifle, the vibro-knife, the needle pistol, and a five-mag clip of grenades already loaded in the rifle’s under-barrel EPG launcher. He checked the tiny bandolier compartments on his hip plate and found three grenade mags and one 100-pin clip of needle pistol ammo. Again, no suit computer, but at least he had some decent firepower.

Darren stood up and peered over the Dumpster to gauge his surroundings once more. It appeared to be clear, but his biological intruder alarm was still making both ears ring. He wiped the salty sweat from his eyes and combed his slick hair back with a gloved hand. Screw it. Darren turned, ran back down to the dry channel and continued south, this time at a dead run, expecting a laser blast from any direction to bring him down. He felt exposed and vulnerable, stalked by an unseen enemy, much like Scorch in the invisible Dragonstar had taunted him across Jupiter and its moons.

A half-mile or so later, Pickens Canyon Channel funneled into a tight concrete tunnel that disappeared under Foothill Boulevard, the traffic now beginning to grow busier. Interstate 210 lay a quarter mile away, Nate’s house just beyond the channel’s overpass above the tall embankment that bordered the eastbound lanes. Darren paused for a couple of minutes to catch a blow inside the tunnel, making sure to aim his weapon back and forth every few seconds at the tunnel’s ends. He was still unsure whether more than one Vorvon could be out there, and the dire thought of being trapped from both ends lit the fire under his ass, and he quickly hauled it out of there.

He passed through two more tunnels which traversed under a couple of side streets before he arrived at the last tunnel, this one going under a street above I-210 that followed the freeway east and west. Beyond that, Darren could see that the water channel flattened to a concrete slab with heavy wire fencing built atop a forty foot wide overpass above the highway.

He stopped at the opposite end to catch his breath and check the traffic below——not too busy for this hour of the morning, around three or so, but there appeared to be a long convoy of semi-trucks heading east. Darren could see Nate’s house on the other side, and couldn’t believe his luck when he saw that most of the lights were on, the only house on the street that were.

Still, Darren hesitated. The channel overpass was rather wide open and perfect for an ambush, too exposed for his comfort. The ringing in his ears had never stopped since he escaped from the house, although it wavered off and on occasionally. He anticipated the moment his skin would start to crawl and teeth tingle, the alarms that alerted him of danger just seconds away.

Checking his left, right and rear, he stepped out from the tunnel and slowly approached the bridge, his pulse rifle sweeping side to side on his shoulder, trigger finger ready to unload. Darren realized he was slowly “duck walking” in a low crouch just like SWAT officers and special forces operatives, the perfect forward motion for well-aimed gunfire. He wondered, though, if he had learned it long ago or had been programmed with that information by the alien ship.

Goose bumps! Darren spun around, dropped to one knee, and laid down a fierce sweep of laser fire. The blasts struck the trees and the concrete walls of the tunnel, but nothing was there. Then he heard what sounded like a growl whiz past him and fade away, so loud it sounded like it had been right in front of his face. Darren followed the sound with the end of his pulse rifle and fired but only managed to blow apart a couple of metal fence posts on the opposite side of the overpass. A five foot section of wire fencing fell away and landed on the eastbound lanes below. Darren heard tires screech and a car swerving.

At the south end of the bridge, he spotted a figure materialize from an invisibility cloak, a tall dark silhouette against the yellow street light behind . . . and floating in the air.

The Vorvon, momentarily staring him down like a Dodge City cowboy on an empty dust-swept street, reactivated its invisibility and disappeared. Just great——a heavily armed alien assassin able to cloak itself . . . and fly.

Darren thought of Scorch and the horrifying taunts the alien had inflicted upon him before attempting the kill shot. He was being tormented once more. The alien could have lugged him anytime between here and the house. The bastard had probably been floating behind him, following within arm’s length, carefully studying his adversary for weaknesses maybe.

Did this happen to be Scorch himself, pissed that Darren had thwarted him in his Dragonstar and now desired to slay the puny human face-to-face? He wasn’t sure. Maybe all Vorvons behaved this way with their enemies . . . perhaps a quick kill was not honorable for some innate dogma. Cats chose to torment mice before finally biting their heads off for a reason. Because they could.

Darren knew he wouldn’t be able to match the assassin’s abilities, and the only rational thing he could think of was to do something so irrational that it would give him a momentary advantaged. He wouldn’t be able to outrun a flying alien but maybe he could out pace it. Darren had been thinking all of this the moment he remembered the eastbound convoy of tractor-trailer trucks speeding underneath. The hole in the fence, however, was not directly above the lane the trucks were using, and if Darren was going to do it, he would have to go at an angle with as much speed as he could squeeze out of his legs.

Die here or die there, tomorrow’s universe, shit happens. He was on his feet, slamming his pulse rifle into the magnetic holster clamp so that he could use both arms to pump himself forward, dashing across the bridge toward deliverance or doom, hoping he had timed it correctly. A laser shot from his right struck the concrete next to him. Another flashed in front of his face.

Darren was not scared, his reprogrammed brain running hot, recalling Tony’s inert reaction to the garter snake crawling between his boots. He put one boot on the edge of the overpass and the other into the air——and hurdled off the precipice, and for one split moment thought he had jumped too soon. The semi looked like it was going to smash him into the grill before he even struck the pavement, but down he fell ten or twelve feet to everlasting glory and crashed hard onto the trailer’s roof just behind the cab.

Darren did a couple of painful somersaults halfway down the length of the trailer, smashing his head and limbs all the way, before skidding at an angle toward the trailer’s right side. The speed of the semi and his own momentum was about to shove him off the edge, and he dug his boots and gloved hands into the roof to slow himself, feeling unconsciousness beginning to squeeze him. Both legs were dangling off the roof when he finally stopped. Darren felt wetness trickle into his eyes, knew it was blood, and hauled himself backward away from the trailer’s side. He rolled over onto his stomach and passed out.

Why is there wind howling in my room? He opened his eyes, both of them stinging, and the first thing he saw was a large green sign lit by the truck’s headlights whoosh by overhead ——INTERSTATE 605 SOUTH - THRU TRAFFIC. He was still in the city but where

He squinted from the biting wind and slowly crawled forward toward the front of the trailer to avoid being spotted by the truck driver behind him, if he hadn’t already. Headlights from a passing car highlighted the cab. It was painted Army green. As the freeway curved gently to the left, Darren saw in the headlights from the cars in the next lane that he had hitched a ride on a California National Guard convoy of 18-wheeler tractor trailers, 2 ½- and 5-ton trucks, and Humvees.

Up ahead another large freeway sign in the median read: DEL AMO BLVD - 3 ¼ MILES, KATELLA AVE - 6 ½ MILES, SAN DIEGO FWY I-405 - 8 MILES. He was on the San Gabriel River Freeway heading for Orange County, a good thirty miles south of home, which meant the time had to be around four in the morning . . . at least another two hours of darkness left.

Darren put his face down against the roof and put his hands over his forehead to shield the burning wind from his eyes. Was the Vorvon following him somewhere close behind? Or in front of him? Or standing on the roof directly behind me? Darren didn’t think so. The torment session had to have ended back on the bridge. The next time the alien spotted him, it would go for the kill. No more playing.

Through the uproar of wind and semis-on-pavement, the sound of helicopters overhead broke through the tumult on the ground. The navigation lights and anti-collision beacons of dozens of what could only be National Guard helicopters strobed across the night sky, some as far back as the northern horizon. They were following the semi convoy south, destination unknown. A couple of Blackhawk helicopters were so low that Darren could see from the city lights that they were hauling artillery guns. He had seen California National Guard helicopters flying between L.A. and their bases upstate before but never in extraordinary numbers like this. Something was going on.

A half-mile north of Katella Avenue, the convoy began to slow and pull over to the right shoulder, traveling at around twenty miles an hour. It looked like they were getting off here. Darren scanned the ground for a jumping off point, but there were too many headlights and not enough tree cover to conceal himself. A large strip mall lay on the other side of the fence, though there didn’t appear to be any hiding spots in that direction either.

With dread, Darren saw the first ever-so slight wisp of morning dawn on the horizon. He didn’t want to be seen wearing an alien combat suit and armed to the hilt with alien weapons, especially to National Guard troops likely armed themselves. This is going to get really, really interesting.

The helicopters were landing close by to the southeast, maybe a mile away.

The semi-truck began to pick up speed, still traveling along the shoulder. A minute later, they were on the circular off-ramp curving toward Katella Avenue and being waved to the east by a pair of flashing California Highway Patrol cars holding up traffic in the middle of the street.

Darren had to jump now, even though the semi was picking up speed, but again there were too many headlights from cars on the on-ramp next to him and nowhere to go on the right. He told himself to wait . . . there had to be a better spot in town to ditch his ride, but the thought of another painful jump, this time from a speeding semi-truck, made the bruise on his forehead throb harder.

Darren didn’t know what to do——the helicopters slowing down for a landing nearby told him that his destination lay very close, and he sure as hell didn’t want to go anywhere near there. A cop from another flashing CHP car ahead was waving the convoy through a red light. He had a bad feeling these trucks were not going to stop until they arrived at their final resting place. Two more blocks to the east, the convoy slowed and turned south, again with the assistance of a couple of patrol cars, through a residential neighborhood until they came to a well-lit gatehouse:





Darren quickly scanned his surroundings for a place to ditch, edging to the roof’s left side, but the damn truck did not slow down. In fact, a soldier waving a light cone next to a Humvee directed the convoy straight through the open gate. What kind of Homeland Security is this? A terrorist can just bring in a suitcase nuke on top of a National Guard truck?

Further into the base, the trucks turned west up a street. On the north side were several buildings which looked like family apartments, barracks and parking lots; to the south, several support buildings including the tall control tower, hangars, more parking lots and a fire station. Beyond that he could see the multi-colored lights of the runway and flashing beacons of military transport planes sitting on the tarmac. It looked more like an Air Force base than an Army airfield.

Darren checked behind him. The semi had separated quite a distance from the one behind it——and there was tree and bush cover up ahead to the right. Time to fly. He slid over to the roof’s edge, got to his feet and selected a nice patch of hopefully-not-to-hard grass between the street and the sidewalk. Darren went airborne again but this time had his arms wrapped around his exposed head to protect himself. Still, it was another hard landing. He tumbled across the sidewalk right into a large bush, as he had planned, but now his entire left leg seized up in pain. The next truck did not slow down but continued on without incident. The driver was probably half-asleep.

He got to his feet and hobbled over into the shadows of an apartment building away from the street lights. His leg didn’t appear to be broken anywhere, but a dull pain in his back thigh told him he might have tweaked a hamstring. One would think the designers of this suit, using technology far beyond humankind’s, would have employed the use of servo-motors or some kind of muscle-enhancing actuators that reduced the chances of injury. The body pains that came with being shot at and jumping onto moving semi-trucks, however, reminded him that his suit’s primary function was to serve as an armored flak uniform with a smart computer. Pilot first, commando second, he guessed. Still, it would be nice to flip a car over like Ironman.

He shooed at an annoying fly and brought his gloved hand up to wipe the sweat from his face. When he did, he noticed on the corner of his eye a tiny——something——attached to the back of his left shoulder plate, a spot where he wouldn’t have normally seen it. It looked like a sewing thimble with a tiny red light.

Darren pried it off . . . some kind of resin underneath . . . examined it closely, and realized how the alien had been able to track him. His mind went back to the house, in the kitchen, the alien rising from behind the couch in the living room with something in its left hand.

Darren couldn’t help but smile at this, feeling like a cheetah with a radio-collar, a soon-to-be trophy on a poacher’s rec room wall. His helmet of course would have warned him immediately the moment a foreign object had attached itself to his suit. The thought that perhaps the alien had down something to his helmet while he slept in front of the TV crept into his mind. Did the son-of-a-bitch really go to great lengths just to play with him like a cat would a half-dead chipmunk?

It took him only a second to decide what to do next. He walked over to a Dumpster and tossed the alien’s beacon inside and headed for a tall oak tree on the other side of the parking lot. There——a nice heavy branch about twenty feet up to give himself altitude advantage. He aimed the hoist-cable gun on his right forearm and used the manual fire button. The shaped charge missed the branch, however, and the wire spool ran itself out. Wishing for the tenth time he had his helmet, Darren detached the spool with a second button and took better aim. This time he struck under the branch and walked himself up the tree like a rock climber, the little reel motor in the gun having no problem with his weight. He parked himself in the nook of the branch.

Behind him, he could hear a large transport jet taking off. True to military form, everyone here seemed to be up before the crack of dawn before most civilians. A lot of military and civilian vehicles were moving about: Humvees, GM pick-ups, sedans, even an M1A2 tank on the west end of the base. He spotted here and there a few people walking in the distance, too. The place was definitely getting busier even though it had to be around five in the morning. The sun had yet to show itself but orange began to glow on the eastern horizon. Anybody on the ground below could now look up and easily spot him.

Darren pulled the rifle holster’s manual release lever on the left shoulder plate and seized the weapon with his right hand, the hoist cable still attached to him. He had a five-round grenade clip already loaded and he selected——manually with a small button pad on the EPG launcher——the first grenade for proximity detonation and the last four for direct-impact. His eyes had never left the area around the Dumpster.

The Vorvon of course could have already been watching him for the past ten minutes and had his little ambush foiled from the start. Darren told himself to be cool, positive, and think like a sniper in his nest. Wait for the enemy to poke his head up, or in this case look for the ionizing sparkle of superheated air agitated by an invisible pulse weapon firing.

Several minutes had passed watching the Dumpster and resisting all movement, when he had a moment of ominous clarity, a thought he had not considered, and he knew he had put himself in peril if he did not correct it quickly. There was no reason to believe that the Vorvon did not have an Incoming Fire Sensor. The moment Darren burped a grenade, the bad guy would instantly have his location, especially since the grenades didn’t travel very fast. Darren had nowhere to go to avoid return fire. Except twenty feet down. Acquiring the high ground hadn’t necessarily given him an advantage.

Darren was about to lower himself with the hoist-cable, when a vicious round of flashing bursts erupted across the Dumpster’s surface. He spotted the ionizing glow from the alien’s invisible weapon, aimed and fired the EPG. The moment the grenade was halfway home, the Vorvon’s laser blasts suddenly swept across the parking lot and toward him. The grenade exploded a few feet from the alien’s position as Darren leapt out of the tree on his cable.

Shrapnel tore through the air in a thousand directions followed by a satisfying shriek of pain. The invisibility cloak flickered once and finally malfunctioned while the alien stumbled back under the shock of the explosion. Now that he could see his opponent, Darren fired the remaining four grenades primed for direct impact, but his attacker was already in the air before they found the mark. All four exploded with thunderous echoes across Los Alamitos Airfield. Every soldier would be spilling their coffee and running to investigate now.

Darren detached himself and ran back toward the large bush he had landed in next to the street. He hadn’t killed the Vorvon but at least he would be able to see the damn thing. Across the street toward the runway, he spotted a large building with several more dark spots for concealment, and Darren hauled his ass across the pavement in a jagged zig-zag movement.

Flash!——he suddenly found himself airborne, flying forward, and he landed on his chest. He knew the laser bolt had come from an oblique angle or he would have been lights out dead. The armor may have repelled the angled pulse but not the kinetic force. Another blast kicked up pieces of pavement as he got to his feet . . . more vollies of fire as he sailed over a hedge and rolled behind the building. He spat dirt and somehow stumbled to his feet again, raising his weapon to kill, but the alien flew out of sight toward the west and disappeared into the dark sky.

Neither of them was getting off good, direct shots. This strange battle was waging on far too long. One of them would eventually get lucky, though, and the other would die. That simple.

Darren went to the other side of the building, checked the area and dashed across the parking lot to the steel door of a single-story building, this one smaller with no lights on. Locked. He wanted to find a hiding spot inside so he could lay low and plot his next move. Shit was moving way too fast.

Mounted on the wall next to the door was a caged access ladder. He powered down his weapon, which also made it quieter, and put a shot into the ladder’s security hatch. Maybe there was a vent on the roof to gain entrance. Darren slapped his pulse rifle into the back holster and climbed the twelve feet up to the roof.

Darren spotted the control tower to his left and a single helicopter with an artillery gun slowly descending for a landing, a flatbed truck waiting for the chopper’s cargo directly underneath it. At least twenty other Blackhawk and Huey helicopters were already on the pad, their rotors slowing.

The pilot kept his Blackhawk steady, despite the strong Santa Anna winds buffeting his whirly bird and the 105mm Howitzer dangling from the belly. The single technician on the ground waved his light cone to starboard, and the pilot obeyed the direction.

Behind him, the starboard cabin door blew inward with a resounding concussion that sent the crew chief sailing head first into the opposite door. The pilot reflexively tightened his grip on the cyclic and jerked the Blackhawk in response. A nightmare apparition appeared in the doorway, peering in at the pilot with huge yellow eyes behind a helmeted faceplate, an inhuman growl coming through gnashing teeth.

The alien jumped in and aimed its steely weapon. A pair of laser bursts cut the humans down in their seats in a hail of blood that showered the windshield. The creature snatched the dead crew chief by the helmet and launched his limp body out of the cabin.

The helicopter’s turboshafts were still idling.

Darren had no clue what the alien was thinking or planning. Did it know how to fly a helicopter? Maybe it reasoned that the only next step was to do something unpredictable as Darren had done back on the channel overpass. The alien had lost the advantage of invisibility and therefore its edge, now fighting at his level.

The helicopter was slowly spinning down toward the tarmac. The technician on the ground had seen what had happened and was already hightailing it toward the control tower. The artillery piece landed on the tarmac next to the flatbed truck, the helicopter above it following it down as well. It touched down hard on top of the truck, still gyrating around and threatening to tip sideways off the vehicle. To Darren’s disappointment, the Blackhawk came to a halt before it could fall off and explode and send the alien’s smoking carcass shooting into the air.

Let me oblige. Darren could just pump a single grenade into the chopper and be done with the whole fucking affair. One loud boom to finish the game. He pulled the holster’s manual release lever to eject his pulse rifle. Nothing. A quick pang bit him in the chest.

Darren pulled it again . . . and again, but the holster refused to detach his weapon. He kept pulling the lever, even though he realized the alien had damaged the release mechanism when it shot him in the back earlier.

The thought of somehow escaping off the base to get his buddies passed through Darren’s mind——he had already eliminated the alien’s ability to track him——but that idea quickly evaporated when he realized he couldn’t leave. He had to finish the alien now, somehow, or it would return, next time with friends. Blind rage, the same memory-inserted response that tore through him back at the house, suddenly came out of him like a shotgun scatter, and he stepped off the roof to the concrete twelve feet below. He drew his needle pistol and activated the weapon.

Up and running toward the Blackhawk still idling on the flatbed . . . he spotted people on the corner of his eye waving at him. Security personnel armed with submachine guns were pouring out of the control tower building, their shouts silent under the helicopter’s turboshaft engines.

The helicopter had landed on the flatbed pointing southwest, so Darren had to approach in a wide arc from the northeast to avoid the Vorvon spotting him. With the rotors whipping his hair and the stench of burning aviation fuel filling his nostrils, Darren leapt onto the flatbed just behind and under the Blackhawk’s starboard door which the alien had blown off.

He crawled forward, stood up, and was about to hose the cabin, but the alien had been waiting for him. One round struck the creature’s helmet and shattered the visor before it lunged forward and hurled him inside into the aviator’s seat, jarring the pilot’s corpse off the chair onto the cyclic stick. The dead man bounced off the dash and back against the collective throttle, and the Blackhawk’s turboshaft engines suddenly howled. The helicopter leapt forward off the flatbed like a gazelle.

Darren strained to get himself upright against the helicopter’s forward momentum, and knocked the alien’s weapon out of its grip, then jammed his boot into its mid-section as hard as he could, sending the snarling behemoth backward. It wasn’t enough to hurt or even confuse it. The maneuver did provide Darren enough time to kick the Vorvon’s cannon out the door and witness the events about to take place outside.

The artillery gun still attached to the Blackhawk snagged itself in between the flatbed’s cab and the deck. The chopper’s ten mile-per-hour advance came to a wobbling halt, but forward momentum shoved Darren and the alien forward into the blood-splattered windshield along with the dead copilot.

The crazy motion caused him to fire his needle pistol, and the round exploded against the floor, tearing out a huge hole. The alien shoved him away back to the rear of the cabin.

Something else seemed to be in control of him now, and he was scared. Scared because he liked it——the wild sensations pumping inside him, the gratifying desire for chaos and reckless action. Everything around him seemed to move with rapid, blurry coordination teetering on the brink of potential anarchy, a miscalculated move threatening to summon death and inertness like organized traffic suddenly exploding into a fiery dance of somersaulting cars, twisting bodies and bouncing tires. And, strangely, he was getting off on it.

Darren watched with stunned curiosity as the alien seized the dead pilot by the neck and shoved the body down onto the control sticks, winding the rotors up harder. The creature appeared to be aroused by the violence as well and wished to contribute to the turmoil. The Blackhawk lunged forward and began to drag the flatbed truck sideways. The vehicle was about to tip over on its side. When it did, the gas tank ruptured and spewed vulnerable fuel across the pad. On the ground, airfield personnel scrambled in the chaos. Yellow-green firetrucks were approaching with the red-and-whites- flashing.

Darren had dropped his needle pistol, and he couldn’t find the damn thing. This situation was already out of control and threatening to get worst. He wanted to plan his moves, to reason, but there wasn’t time. The Blackhawk continued to drag the overturned flatbed with the artillery gun tangled up in the vehicle’s frame like a demented dog leashed to a hapless owner . . . and still the cable refused to snap.

However, the big gun finally separated from the truck, and the helicopter dramatically accelerated, not upward but forward, thirty or forty feet off the deck, dragging the bouncing, disintegrating artillery piece behind it. One of the firetrucks swerved to avoid the collision, and the helicopter continued to race across the tarmac toward a small building with several trucks parked next to it——white tanker trucks with FLAMMABLE - NO SMOKING WITHIN 50 FEET painted on their sides.

Of course! Darren turned and raced for the doorway and the violence outside, ready to jump and take his chances, but the helicopter was just too high.

He felt the helicopter jerk brutally, as he knew the artillery gun had found one of the fuel trucks. The deafening explosion sent a billowing mountain of fiery debris in a million directions, and the inside of the helicopter lit up in orange. Blue sky above suddenly disappeared behind a boiling fire of aviation gas which engulfed the Blackhawk, the rotors fanning the flames into the cabin and across the ceiling. Darren could taste the burning stench as it seared his nostrils. Gagging, he got to his feet and searched for the doorway in the smoke, no longer concerned about the helicopter’s altitude.

The explosion must have severed the cable mooring the chopper to the artillery gun because the bird was vaulting forward and up. Darren felt centrifugal force push him to the floor. The helicopter was indeed climbing——fast.

He glanced out the open doorway for a split second, just enough to see how quickly the helicopter was really moving. Streets and houses began to go gray and fade in detail. The chopper was moving north toward downtown L.A. and still climbing.

Darren turned away from the door, found the Vorvon right behind him, its arms outstretched and ready to attack. Without a weapon, the alien could only punch. And it did. Hard. The fist came from the left, and Darren found himself up against the back wall, two feet off the floor. Pain of broadening horizons opened across his left face. He slid away, trying to regain his stance as well as his senses. The alien stepped forward to attack again.

He backed away for a split second of momentum, still trying to shake the hurt from his jaw, and then lunged to retaliate. With a wide, countryboy roundhouse, Darren aimed for the alien’s exposed face and connected against its toothy jaw. The head went sideways, and then Darren came with the other fist and a terror-laden cry. Stunned, perhaps surprised, the Vorvon took a few steps back and tried to block his attack with its arms, but Darren kept slugging away, little jets of purple blood striking the walls with each punch.

He had been in agitated, desensitized states before during fist fights——that feeling of being distant and detached from the world with only the single-minded intent to destroy——but nothing like this. Darren was absolutely gone. He had forgotten about the rising helicopter and where it could be going. He ignored the pain in his body and the great howl of the turboshaft engines. Only the desire to kill this beast mattered.

His right hand went under his left arm and came back with the 8-inch vibro-knife from the scabbard slot. The alien’s eyes locked onto the weapon, and Darren grinned when he saw them widen. He outstretched his arms.

“C’mon, bitch!” he screamed.

The Vorvon’s right forearm vanished behind its back . . . and reappeared with what looked like a cross between a sword and a chainsaw connected to a power cable. Darren heard it thrum to life. It outstretched its arms, too.

To his left——the needle pistol. With the helicopter’s slight tilt, the weapon was slowly sliding away toward the door, and he scrambled for it. So did the alien. Darren swung his leg up and around like Jackie Chan, just under the Vorvon’s swinging blade weapon, and booted the creature square in the head.

The kick pushed the alien’s clumsy weight toward the open doorway. It was as good as dead, just seconds from taking a backward dive, but Darren snatched the pistol up anyway and squeezed off a single shot with a defiant war scream. The needle pierced the alien’s exposed forehead and exploded, spraying the ceiling with purple blood, brains, and black-leathery flesh before the behemoth leaned out and fell to earth.

Still aiming his weapon toward the doorway, Darren gave himself a quick moment to collect his bearings and some much needed oxygen. He stood there surveying the battered cabin, the urge for action and violence still with him, his thoughts crazy. Any more takers? You want some? No? How ’bout you, mother fucker, huh? You want some?

Cold wind howled through the shattered windshield, swirling around the battered cabin and whipping his hair. Squinting from the icy air, his gaze went across the control board——the altimeter read 10,500 feet. He looked for the auto-pilot controls but wasn’t sure a helicopter even had an auto-pilot.

Then he remembered the dead pilot still jammed into the collective and cyclic sticks where the alien had stuffed him. Darren reached down and tried to pull him off, but the guy was heavy. He tugged harder, and just when the body began to budge, heard something outside the helicopter snap.

Darren let go of the pilot, stared up at the ceiling, his mouth suddenly dry. The helicopter shuddered violently, dipped its nose slightly, and Darren was sure his balls had just shriveled up into his butt crack.

An alarm began to blare like an electric goose. Dozens of lights lit up on the control board, and Darren caught the dark flash of something rotor-like just outside the open door before it disappeared. The fuel truck explosion had caused damage after all.

With nightmare slow motion, the helicopter rose a few feet more, carried by its own momentum, and simply stopped in midair. It seemed to hang there impossibly, a blasphemy of gravity. Unexpectedly, absurdly, Darren imagined Wile E. Coyote suspended over a precipice in the same manner, an “Oh Shit!” sign in hand, before the Blackhawk began to drop. His boots drifted off the floor. The dead pilot, too, rose from his spot and hovered toward the ceiling. Through the open doorway, he watched the ground trade places with the sky and back again. The helicopter began to nose dive.

Darren’s head touched the ceiling, and he managed to pull himself to the rear wall. Now he was shouting, screaming words that made no sense. He felt vomit coming up and tightened his throat to keep it down.

The helicopter began to roll to starboard like a spinning, plunging toy. Darren’s universe became a revolving, gut-wrenching world of horrifying motion. He looked out the open doorway, but what he saw was surreal——it didn’t make sense——the horizon was spinning.

That’s when he knew he was going to depart this world flatter than a sheet of tracing paper. He continued to bawl and scream as he waited for the impact, gritting his teeth, feeling vomit rise again, his stomach up in his chest, the butterflies in his gut stinging like wasps.

Darren felt an indentation on the wall next to him and seized it, as if it were the only thing that meant anything to him at the moment. He pulled himself toward the open door and the spinning world outside. Downtown L.A. and the sky filled his view as they spun after each other in a crazy promenade.

He groped the hull outside with his gloved hand, found something he could hold on to and reached out with his other hand, shifting his weight toward the entrance. Now he was outside the helicopter along with the icy wind biting and pulling at his face, riding the wild chopper toward the ground like some crazy bull rider in an aerial rodeo.

Everything spun too quickly and violently to register. He didn’t care anymore. He wanted to die, to end the nightmare, not even sure what he was trying to do. All he knew was that he wanted to get away from the helicopter. It seemed to be the only sensible act to do, the only one he could think of.

Darren let go of the strut, and the helicopter’s rotation shot him away from the dying machine. Now he was free-falling, nothing but air and downtown streets beneath him. He dreamed for a Dragonstar to magically appear below, piloted by Tony perhaps, and by the living will of God put something solid between himself and the ground. He began to blackout but accepted it. A peacefulness came over him, and he finally felt calm, not afraid to die, ready to see dad in heaven.

What’s your name?

Below him, slightly to the left——a massive skyscraper.

The name!

Then with a move that had come from nowhere, without rationality he brought his right arm up and fired the hoist-cable gun toward the approaching skyscraper with the emergency fire switch. He closed his eyes, relaxed his muscles, and waited for the impact he knew he wouldn’t feel.

“What’s your name?” he murmured to the wind.

Darren felt the cable suddenly tug on his arm, heard a dull sprong! when the slack in the cable tightened. He snapped his eyes open.

He hit the goddamn skyscraper! The grapnel’s exploding tip had embedded the device into the steel between the windows. He swooped down in a wide arc, just as the helicopter rushed past him toward the street below, the dead pilot hung up in the rear seats.

Darren realized he had to be going over a hundred miles an hour toward the building. He was either going to smash through a window or strike a steel partition——fifty-fifty. Praying his armor suit was strong enough to absorb the coming smack, he stretched his legs out against the air to stop spinning the way skydivers did so that he would go in feet first to shield his unprotected head.

Fifty-fifty. Darren said goodbye to the world.

And to her.

Dick Edmonds, of Edmonds, Coyne and Taylor Advertising, Inc., stood at the head of the long conference table, cleared his throat, and nervously began to sing an experimental jingle for Kind Kitty Kat food for the painfully bored execs at the other end of the table. “Kind Kitty Kat tastes soooo gooood, and when he comes ’round, I’ll know——”

Something dark and fast smashed through the window like a 150-pound sparrow drunk on fermented berries and slammed into the conference table between two people, upending that section of it toward the far wall.

Darren caught a split-second image of startled faces in business suits, flying BlackBerries and laptops, before finally cartwheeling through the air into the bathroom and smashing into the toilet. More white lights flared in his eyes, and a fountain of cold water exploded around him. Chunks of porcelain and plumbing scattered across the bathroom, and he suddenly found himself lying in a rapidly spreading puddle of water. A sheet of paper with a smiling cartoon cat landed gently on his chest.

He heard people gasping, cursing. A woman cried out. Something fell over.

“Goddamn window washers,” a whiny voice called out.

Darren just laid there, arms splayed, lungs sucking air, trying to decide if he was still intact. Legs?——check. Arms and hands?——check. Testicles?——check.

Another voice: “You okay in there?”

He disconnected the grapnel cable and staggered out of the bathroom, giving the room a quick once over. Then he finally let his stomach do what it had wanted for the past ten minutes and began to dry heave.

“Goddamn drunk window washers!”

With nothing to puke, he straightened up. Blood gushed off his scalp. A ringing had come to a high pitch in both ears. His left wrist felt badly sprained, and both ankles were screaming . . . but he was alive.

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