Dark Dragons

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Chapter 11 - Icarus Hammer

Tuesday, May 17

Darren cleaned himself in the men’s room down the hall the best he could and took the elevator to the top floor, telling curious onlookers he was going to a costume party. After finding an ancient Pacific Bell pay-phone and graciously asking a lady for a quarter——“I’m going to a costume party, thanks”——he dialed his number.

His phone rang three times before someone answered, but it wasn’t Allison. A deep, male voice said, “Hello?”

Darren stared at the receiver and hung up. He asked for another quarter, received three ——“Thanks a lot, really”——and dialed again.

The telephone rang twice, then the same voice: “Hello?”

He hung up. The neighbors had apparently called 911 during the shootout and now L.A.’s finest was walking around his demolished house. He picked up the receiver again and dialed Jorge’s place. The phone rang twice before he heard Jorge’s old man say, “Sí?”

“Is Jorge there?”

“Jorge! Teléfono!”

A second later, “Yes?”

“Jorge, this is Darren.”

“Darren! Where are you? We just got back from your house . . . the place is crawling with cops . . . and your mom was sitting in the driveway bawling, and they had to call an ambulance because she was going bug-shit crazy.”

Darren heard Tony in the background. “Is that Darren? Where’s he at?”

“Where are you?”

“Downtown. The Paul Hastings Tower on the corner of Fifth and Flower. I need one of you guys to pick me up on the roof. The other two I need to wait for me in the ravine two houses down from mine. You got that, Jorge?”

“Yeah, I copy. So how did you get down there?”

“I’ll tell you when I see you. Just have somebody come pick me up.”


While he waited for one of his bros to show, Darren spent time watching the firefighters attack the blazing Blackhawk from the roof of the Paul Hastings Tower, its emergency air-rescue exit now with a shattered lock from his alien needle pistol. The helicopter had landed in the L.A. Central Library Park across the street, and thank God, there wasn’t anyone on the ground killed. At least the ambulances on site were still empty.

Five minutes later, he heard a whistle behind him. Darren turned and saw the upper half of Tony’s body suspended twelve feet in the air, his helmet off. He had just brought the helmet, not needing the rest of his combat suit.

“Going my way, miss?” he asked. “I’ll let you sit in my lap and promise to keep my hands to myself.”

Darren walked over. “Boy, I have I got a story to tell you.”

“We got nervous when we didn’t see you in school this morning . . . called your PDA and your cell but no answer, so we left and booked over to your crib. We saw two police cars parked outside, and about three or four cops walking in and out of your house.”

“Great,” Darren said.

“I thought you were dead or something. So I go up to one of the cops and ask what’s up. He says”——Tony lowered his voice——“‘You live here, young man?’ I say no I don’t. Then he says, ‘There’s been a fight inside. You better stay off the premises.’ That’s when we started shittin’ bricks because we thought you were dead.”

“I almost was.”

Darren gave Tony about a three minute brief detailing the events since two o’clock this morning. When he finished, Tony had that look on his face that usually pissed Darren off.

“You dove out of a falling helicopter and used your hoist-cable to fly into an office? C’mon, Spider-Man.”

“You don’t believe me?”

Tony looked off in the distance. “Yeah, I believe you.”

“No you don’t, asshole. You see the smoke from across the street? That was my ride.”

“Okay, okay . . . so what did this thing look like?”

“It was huge. About seven foot maybe. Ugly fucker with black-leather skin and fangs like a piranha. . . .”

“Far out.”

“. . . and it had armor, kind of like ours, and a big ass gun. It was practically a cannon.”

“I wonder how it found us?”

Darren looked out at the skyscrapers around them, pondering that. “Must have followed us back from Jupiter.”

Tony nodded. “There might be more of them out there looking for us.”

“Maybe.” Darren changed the subject. “Where were you last night?”

“I got my old girlfriend back.”

“It took you all night to get her back? I thought you’d be back by two or three.”

“Sorry, we just talked a lot, that’s all.”

“Uh-huh. I nearly got my ass killed. You should have been there to back me up.”

“Excuse me, but I was gettin’ some trim last night. Priorities, pal.”

“Whatever.”

“You didn’t need me anyway. You took care of bid-ness. You’re bad ass, Seymour.”

“Thanks. I need you to do one more thing for me . . . drop me off in the ravine a couple of houses down from mine . . . and then wait for us at Wolf Flat. I have to find my helmet, and I hope it’s still in my house.”

“How are you going to get past the cops?”

Darren felt along the Dragonstar’s invisible skin until he found the indentation rungs to the cockpit. “I’ll figure that out when I get there.”

“You sure you don’t want me to hang around? I can take out some cop cars for you to create a diversion or something.”

Darren stopped to give Tony a look.

“Fine, whatever,” Tony said.

He had to sit sideways in Tony’s lap because of the pulse rifle stuck in its back holster. The comical pose they made would have demanded a wise ass crack any other time, but now was not that time.

Fifteen seconds later, they were over Darren’s house. He spotted a single unmarked cop car parked in the street. A plainclothes detective stood guard near the front door, reading a newspaper. Yellow police tape had been strung up, barring the door and the garage.

Nate and Jorge sat on their bikes in the dry ravine two houses down. Darren pointed his finger down, and Tony nodded, unable to communicate. The Dragonstar hovered down, and Tony popped the windshield. Darren jumped out, and he heard the fighter’s soft whine as Tony gently lifted his dragon and took off for Wolf Flat.

“The whole force must have been out here this morning,” Nate said. “But there’s only one car sittin’ in the street now. We’re wondering where the rest went to?”

“Some more could be inside,” Jorge replied.

“There’s only one car here,” Darren said. “There might be no more than three cops inside, but I doubt it. It’s breakfast time, so they probably went to get doughnuts and left the rookie to babysit. We got to do it now. We’ll go in the back door real quiet like, and hopefully he won’t see or hear us.” He checked the magazine clip to his needle pistol.

“You’re not going to kill him are you?” Nate asked.

Darren didn’t answer.


As they walked along the ravine bank past the back yards, the worst possible thing that could happen——happened. Geils stepped out of his back door with a toothy grin. “Hey, guys, what’s going on? You missed a lot of action around here earlier.”

“Go back inside, Geils,” Jorge said.

“Aw, come on. I just wanna be pals.” Geils walked up to them and looked Darren over real good. “Like your outfit, Darren. Where’d you get it, huh?” Then he smiled again, his eyes squinting into tiny raisins.

“Why didn’t you go to school today?” Darren asked, trying to change the subject.

“Go to school? And miss all the action? No way. I told my mom I was sick. She bought it, of course. So . . . what are you guys hiding?”

“We’re not hiding anything, douche nozzle, so beat it.”

Geils shook his head. “I saw ’em guys. I saw your fighters, or whatever they are. I go up to Wolf Flat all the time. My dad’s a ranger with the Angeles National Forest you know, and me and him built a deer blind up there. So I go up there Saturday night to hang out——”

“And wack off,” Nate cut in.

“——and all of a sudden, I see the blackest, bitchiness, outer space fun toys come out of the sky and land, and who do I see pop out . . . ? You guys.” Spit formed in the corners of his mouth. “Totally wicked.”

Darren swallowed hard. Their mission would fail. Geils could tell the authorities, maybe even the military. Geils’s dubious IQ made him harmless, but persistence was one of his quality traits. He could easily inform the cops who——not knowing what to do with four alien spacecraft——would call the Air Force. Everything would fail. All because of a little runt nobody named Geils.

“I like your superhero suit, Darren.”

He felt surrender coming but tried to push it off. He wasn’t about to cave in to this peckerwood just yet.

“All I want to do is fly one of those cool fighters.”

“No way,” Darren protested. “We’re the only ones who can.”

“Then I’ll spill my guts. I don’t want to be a tough guy, but when I went grocery shopping with my mom this morning, I seen a lot of white vans with U.S. Government plates driving around all over town. Weird, huh? I bet it’s fulla National Security dogs looking for you guys. I could just go up to one of them and tell everything I know and where to find you.”

Six-foot-three, 270-pound Nate suddenly seized Geils by the collar and threw his punk ass to the ground, a haughty smile still plastered on Geils’ face. “You keep that pie hole shut, bitch, or——”

“Sure. Uh-huh.” Geils never showed fear. Because Geils was stupid.

He continued to smirk, certainly knowing that his beaming Cheshire Cat had everyone’s ire thoroughly whipped up in a frothy lather.

Nate tightened both fists on Geils’ collar. “Mother fucker, you got three seconds to quit flashing those stanky, yellow-stained, snaggleteeth or me and Darren gonna punch a hole clean through both ears and bump dicks in the middle.”

The smile faded just slightly. “Lemmie up, Douglas, you bad white Negro from the ’burbs.”

Darren quickly unholstered the needle pistol and put a shot in the ground next to Geils’s ear, a handful of dirt flying. The runt reacted with a jolt, and the smile thankfully disappeared.

‘Welcome to the Terrordome,’” Nate sang, just like his baritone idol, Chuck D.

Darren bent down and put the muzzle to Geils’ eye. Nate let go, but the guy didn’t move, rooted to the ground where he lay.

“Chill out, all right?” Geils begged, his mouth forming a big O.

“Darren . . .” Jorge murmured. “Relax, guy. Geils isn’t going to rat on us.”

Geils was nearly choking on his tongue, trying to get it to work. “I-I won’t tell. I s-swear . . . just kiddin’ around . . . y’know I like to get under your skin.”

The air around them had that brewing charge of an electrical storm coming on fast again. Darren hoped Geils was closely appraising the desperate expression on his face. He let Geils tremble for another ten heartbeats before he withdrew the pistol. “Good . . . I believe you. You can go back inside now.”

Geils got to his feet and eagerly walked back to his house, occasionally throwing a twitchy look or two over his shoulder. He locked the sliding patio door behind him.

Nate and Jorge gave Darren little smiles, but he knew they were just trying to figure him out, gage his emotions. Darren simply let his shoulders droop. “I wasn’t going to kill him,” he said.

But Darren lied. He had been very close to pulling the trigger. He had every intention of watching Geils’s head explode like a ripe watermelon before waning sanity pulled him back from the void.

Dresed in his best civies, Colonel Towsley was finally on the move, heading down Foothill Boulevard in a Ford Econoline van he had borrowed from a staff sergeant at the APIS’s secondary set-up at Bob Hope Airport. A morning report on the police scanner convinced him to head for La Crescenta. Local police accounts had described a rash of “unexplained explosions” and “strange gunfire” in that area. It could have been any local problem, but something told Towsley to snoop further. Unexplained explosions and strange gunfire did not sound of a local problem. The recent incident at Los Alamitos Army Airfield, along with reports of “flying men” and laser weapons, and the runaway downing of a Blackhawk helicopter downtown both begged for investigation. These chain of events were connected, Towsley convinced himself, with interstellar overtones.

He had insisted on coming alone but wasn’t really sure why. What possibly lay ahead for him could mean personal prosperity. Maybe this was something to cherish alone, like a child discovering a valuable in the back yard while digging for worms and proclaiming the secret as his own. Something sacred.

Of course, Towsley’s secret had to be told once, and if, he found one. But he wanted to be a kid digging for worms again. Just for a little while. By himself.

Heading down Foothill Boulevard, Towsley had a Glendale/La Crescenta city map tapped to the steering wheel, looking for Sutton Cannon Drive. He glanced at his notes once again and found the address reported in the 2:57 AM 911 call: 2130 Sutton Cannon Drive.

“Tango Leader, this is Echo One, acknowledge,” Major Deanna Weinholt said over the radio.

Towsley picked up the secure phone. “Go ahead Echo One.”

“We got our EB. Or what’s left of it. Landed in a back alley in the Fashion District. Had to flex a little muscle on the LAPD to release it into our custody. No harm done.”

She was referring to an alien corpse that had been discovered by a meter reader for Southern California Edison who then called the local cops. “Good job, Echo One. Call in the whirly to retrieve the biologic and get it on ice.”

“Yes, sir. Echo One, out.”

The boys quietly walked through Darren’s back patio door——it was shattered anyway ——and stepped into the kitchen.

“Is that cop still out there?” Nate whispered.

“Yeah,” Jorge replied. “He’s leaning against his car, reading a paper.”

The house was nearly totaled. Chairs and tables were overturned, and dirt from Allison’s tropical plants covered the floor. The police had used fluorescent orange chalk to circle the charred laser holes in the walls and floor, and the wall between the kitchen and den had a gaping hole where the alien had punched through.

“Damn,” Nate murmured. “Rock ’em, sock ’em.”

Elvis, Allison’s beloved lab, was nowhere to be seen.

Darren went up to his room to grab some clothes and immediately spotted his helmet on the top shelf of his closet. Not remembering placing it there, he quickly pulled it down in disgust and rolled it around in his hands to look for any tracking bugs, muttering more angry curses. Now his short term memory was going buggy. Would this shit get worst or hopefully plateau? Next time, he would keep his suit together in one spot, fortunate he had brought it to the house in the first place.

Darren slid the helmet on and prayed that just the rifle holster’s manual release lever was damaged and not the holster itself. Grabbing the butt of his rifle, he activated the holster with a thought-command. With a satisfying click, the weapon sprung from its clamp. Thank you!

He stuffed some clothes, his PDA, cell phone and wallet into a duffle bag. He jogged down the stairs still in his combat suit, bag in one hand, helmet in the other, pulse rifle in the back holster.

The cop was still leaning against his car. Darren, Nate, and Jorge quietly slipped out the patio door.


Towsley turned north onto Sutton Cannon Drive that led into a subdivision of upper-middle class homes. A few blocks later, he came to a woodsy neighborhood overlooking La Crescenta and most of Los Angeles.

People were out and about, riding bikes, planting in their rock gardens, cleaning boats in the drive-way, kids playing hooky. Norman Rockwell and white picket fences, Towsley thought. Yet, nothing looked to be from a world light-years away.

He came to 2130 Sutton Cannon Drive and saw yellow police tape around the front door. No car in the drive, but there was one parked in the street with someone leaning against the fender, watching the house. So, the police were here. Towsley would have Lieutenant Colonel Carruthers’s boys contain the cops if anything went down. He slowed to a crawl. The house was a modern, two-story home of brick and dark umbra wood. A covered front deck, pool in the back yard, two-car garage. Beautiful house, he thought.

He made a U-turn in the cul-de-sac, passed 2130 again and turned east onto a side street. The pilots would most likely keep their vehicles up in the wooded foothills nearby. With his free right hand, he thumbed through a stack of U.S. Geological Survey maps on the passenger seat and found the one he wanted. It was a chart of La Crescenta with Big Tujunga Cannon at the top of the map, plus a wide patch of forest just east of Mt. Lukens called Wolf Flat.

He drove through the low foothills on an old meandering dirt road, looking for a good place to park and get out for a look. Occasionally, a mountain biker or jogger would pass him, and he wondered how an extraterrestrial ship had avoided detection in an area where many L.A. citizens liked to hike. Finally, he pulled over and turned the van off.

He stared at the 9mm Beretta in the seat next to him, and reminding himself that he was in Crazy California, thought it best to bring it along. He tucked the gun into his blue jeans behind him and draped his shirt over it. He grabbed the USGS map, a hand-held GPS meter and locked the door behind him.

Towsley strode into the wilderness to dig with his imaginary shovel.

Here there be treasure.


A half hour later, he frowned and stuffed the map into his back pocket, now hopelessly lost. There were more trails around him now than there were on the chart, which had probably been made back in the 80’s. In spite of the uncooperative map, Towsley continued west into the forest along a deer trail, away from civilization.

The sun blazed overhead through clearings in the trees, and the air felt cool on his skin. Countless birds squawked among the branches above, and he could hear squirrels chattering and scurrying through the underbrush. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. No monsters or spaceships so far.

He sat down on a fallen tree trunk to smoke a cigarette and enjoy a beam of sunshine warming his face. Then he noticed the trunk was not the only fallen tree in the area. He stood up and looked around. There were tens of them! He hadn’t noticed them before because on the corner of his eye, he had unconsciously passed them off as brush-covered mounds nestled among the trees still standing. He walked over to the nearest pile about fifteen feet high and could see no trees standing on the other side. A wide open area of some kind.

Carefully, he climbed one trunk and hauled himself up to another. He had to be cautious of the wide spaces in between them. One slip and he would end up breaking a leg or his neck. He balanced himself along a trunk that angled upwards and made sure his tennis shoes had a firm purchase on the slick moss. When he reached the roots, he peered over the trunk.

An area about three hundred square yards had been completely removed from the forest as if Godzilla had smashed through here recently. Patches of soot and dried mud pocketed the elongated crater. Trees had piled up along the edges like matchsticks, the tallest heap of twisted timber on the eastern side of the crater. It was easy to tell the ship had come from the west. The tops of trees in that direction had been sheared off when the vessel smashed into the woods.

Entering the crater’s coordinates into the GPS meter, Towsley then continued on through the forest along a deer trail. According to intelligence, there had been four vehicles, but no hint of interstellar craft could be seen. Had his assumptions been wrong? Perhaps the origins were further north of here, higher in the mountains where most of his team was searching. But it seemed that if one of the pilots lived at 2130 Sutton Cannon Drive, the fighters could not be very far. This seemed to be the only logical area to hide——

“Who the hell are you?”

Jesus! Towsley spun around, his hand going for the Beretta in its holster. Behind him, a small, acne-faced boy came sliding to a halt . . . on a girl’s purple bike.

“Who are you?” the kid asked once more, slightly out of breath.

Towsley withdrew his hand from the gun’s butt and said the first name which came to him. “Walter,” he answered.

“Well, what are you doing back here, Walter?”

“Jogging.”

“In blue jeans?”

“All right, I’m not jogging. Who are you?”

“Geils,” he said. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

“No, I’m not.”

A long pause. An evil grin. “You’re looking for space jets, ain’t you?”

Towsley hid his surprise behind a quizzical look. “Space jets?” He hoped the kid hadn’t caught the astonished twitch in his face.

Geils apparently had. “I know you are. You’re probably Air Force or NSA, ain’t you?” He looked at Towsley’s street clothes. “You guys suck when it comes to incognito. I can smell you military types a mile away.”

“Oh really?”

“Sure thing.”

“Why do you think I’m looking for space jets?”

“’Cause you’re military, Walter. You guys probably picked them up on radar and assume they belong to you now.”

“I think you watch too many cartoons, Geils.”

“I think I know where they’re at. I can take you there. I know who flies them and where they live, too.”

“You do?” Towsley looked Geils over carefully. Harmless. Nerdy. Socially inept. Mother probably breast fed him until he was four. “Why don’t you show me because I don’t think I believe you.”

Geils gave him the thumbs up. “Sure thing . . . Walter.”


They took a trail that meandered west into the heart of the forest. As Geils led the way, Towsley tried to figure the kid out. He was a smart, smooth talking little punk. Much too cocky. Towsley liked him.

“Almost there . . . Walter.” Geils smirked.

It was obvious the kid knew Towsley wasn’t who he claimed to be, but he didn’t care. He pulled the pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket and felt around the inside with his finger. Empty. He crumpled the pack and put it back in his pocket. His smoking had gotten worse over the past three days.

Suddenly, a piercing hot blast of ultrasonic sound assaulted him. Towsley’s palms immediately went to his ears and he bent his body away from the direction of the sound. Geils, too, reacted similarly. It was excruciating. His hands barely helped muffle the sound.

“That’s some kind of anti-intruder effect!” Geils screamed. “We can still get a quick look at them just over that mound! Before they fire warning shots at us!”

“Are you kidding me?” Towsley shouted back. But Geils was already running full bore over the mound into the storm of sound with his hands over his ears. Towsley wanted to turn back, his stomach threatening to pump the pancakes and sausage upward, but he ran forward up to the top of the mound where Geils had already turned around to beat a hasty retreat, a sour look on his face.

Towsley crested the mound. In a clearing about two hundred yards in diameter, arranged in a semi-circular formation were four black——somethings. He gave himself another second to store as much visual information into his memory before the painful ultrasonic blast forced him back.

He retreated and ran down the mound toward Geils who was bent over, leaning against a tree, puking something yellow with brown chunks. Fifteen or twenty feet from the mound, the sound blast ceased. Towsley followed suit and hurled his half-digested breakfast into the air.


Sitting in his cockpit and smoking Curtis’s fat, Jamaican blunt which he had stolen this morning, Tony heard the intruder alarm go off in his helmet resting in his lap. He opened his Chinese eyes to look out, but he couldn’t see through the cloud of smoke. Probably just a deer.

“Dank you fur flyin’ Jamaican Airline, mon . . . Eye-eeee shot the sher-iiiiiiff.”


“You knew that was going to happen didn’t you?” Towsley growled.

Geils nodded. “It’s my second time. First was Sunday. But I didn’t puke then.”

Towsley spit the last of the bile out of his mouth. “Effective burglar alarm.” He pushed off his knees and stood upright, recalling his three-second vision. Being around military aircraft for the past thirty years had gradually curtailed any wonder he felt for them, much like an average person’s view of automobiles as just ordinary tools to get through one’s day; now, after years of drab cars, Towsley found himself within the presence of four black Lamborghinis with V12 engines and 600 ponies.

Every power that he could imagine they possessed made him shiver under the sun. They looked like a cross between the SR-71 Blackbird spy jet . . . and a dragon? The F-35 Lightning was a beautiful fighter, but Towsley felt these alien-made war toys were the most terrifying and sexy flying machines he had ever seen.

“Listen to me, Geils. My name is not Walter. I think you’ve already figured that out. It’s Colonel Martin Towsley.” He flashed Geils his twenty year-old ID from George AFB. “These fighters are top secret Air Force property. They were stolen from . . . Area Fifty-One . . . in Nevada two weeks ago. We want them back, and the pilots arrested. If you love your country, son, you’ll keep your mouth shut.”

“Your ID said ‘major,’ not ‘colonel.’”

Towsley ignored his crack. “There may be a reward if you can show me where the pilots live, but I can’t be sure if you’ll get one.”

“Tax free?”

Towsley smiled, gave a curt nod. “Tax free. If you don’t get a reward, you might receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”

Geils cocked his head to one side and squinted. “Quit bullshittin’ me.”

Towsley put on his stern poker face, the same one that had always pissed off his ex-wife. “Do you realize the dire state of affairs we’re in? These fighters are very expensive and deadly weapons, and a dangerous terrorist group operating from within the U.S. is behind it. I don’t know if these pilots are part of this organization, but we’re going to find out. You’ve been a valuable help to us and, yes, I’m sure an award of high stature will be bestowed upon your grace, but only if you keep your mouth shut and cooperate.”

“Wowww,” Geils whispered.

“Now, I need you to follow me back to my truck, so I can call it in. We’re going to need your help finding these pilots, all right?”

Geils lowered his eyebrows.

Towsley knew his thoughts. “No, I’m not a pervert who likes boys. Trust me, this is a serious situation, and we need your help.”

“All right, Marty. Let’s go.”


Military officers, top-secret jets, over-the-shoulder glances and whispers——Geils

could smell the espionage in the air like his mom’s homemade soup. His boring life had just gone up a notch on the excitement scale. Finally, something to think back on when I get older. Geils would become the most popular kid in school for exposing his friends. The most popular kid in the whole country. He was still thinking of his Fifteen Minutes on CNN and presidential citations when he and Towsley walked up to a van parked along the road.

Towsley unlocked the driver’s side door. “I want to show you some pictures, Geils. I want you to see if you recognize anyone.”

“All right.”

Geils stood behind him as the colonel bent over to retrieve something from the glove compartment. A palm-size can of some sort. Towsley spun around, seized the hair behind Geils’s head with a steel grip and sprayed something into his face.

“Nighty-night, kid.”

Geils leaned forward——“Please don’t ass rape me”——and the world went dark.


Towsley tucked the canister of Sevoflurane, a nice James Bond toy the APIS engineers had R&D’ed years ago, back in his shirt pocket and dumped Geils across the passenger seat. Reaching over the kid, he hauled an aluminum case off the floor, opened the top and pulled out a secure satellite phone. “Hotel Base, this is Tango Leader.”

“Go ahead, Tango Leader,” an APIS member acknowledged.

Towsley accessed the data on the GPS meter and read the data scrolling across the LCD square. “I have location for an ‘Amazing Retrieval.’ Our targets are confirmed at the following coordinates. . . .” He quickly gave degrees of longitude and latitude down to the seconds and finished with, “This is an Icarus Hammer directive.”


Five minutes later, four heavy-lift Chinook helicopters took off from a secure hangar at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank and headed northeast toward La Crescenta. Aboard were members of the APIS’s special operations forces, all dressed in yellow anti-chem suits, M4 carbine assault rifles in hand.


They walked into the clearing in the middle of Wolf Flat, to find Tony’s cockpit white with smoke.

“Oh, you gotta be shitting me?” Darren groaned. “Tony, pop your windshield!”

Tony’s magic dragon let out a roiling puff. Darren had never seen a cloud of pot smoke so huge and thick.

He climbed out and sat on his fighter’s nose. “I doan wan’ ta wait . . . in vain fer yo love!”

“Great,” Darren mumbled. He took off his combat suit which had gotten damn heavy after a while and put on some fresh clothes from his duffle bag. He was glad to take the suit off, knowing he didn’t need it to fly his Dragonstar anyway.

Darren looked around at the forest, expecting a threat to reveal itself. “All right,” he said. “All right, let me think.” He stuffed his duffle bag into the personal effects compartment behind the pilot’s seat. An emergency evac was in the planning. To where he didn’t know. They just had to get the hell out of Dodge. There would be no going home for a while. Their Dragonstars had to be hidden, along with themselves. Someplace remote. Very remote. “Okay guys, we’re going to Australia.”

“The outback?” Tony said.

“It’s the only far-off place I can think of where the natives speak English and we can hole up someplace warm. Anyone got money on them? We’re going to need food.”

“I got twenty bucks,” Nate said, digging for his wallet.

“All I got is a couple dollars,” Tony said.

“No money with me,” Jorge replied.

“Me neither. We’ll have to make do with what we got for a while.”

Darren had to make one call before he hit the road. He couldn’t use his cell phone because the cops could triangulate his location, but they could not trace his alien-made personal data assistant. Darren used the tiny keypad to open the communicator and tapped into the local cell phone network. Computer servers at a telecommunications company had a few firewalls blocking his way but his PDA’s countermeasures blew through them with hardly a pause. He did a Google search for Verdugo Hills Hospital, the closest hospital to his home and tagged the main number.

“Patient Information, can I help you?”

“Yes, I’m looking for Allison Babineaux who may have been admitted this afternoon.”

“One moment . . . yes, she was here for about two hours but it looks like she was discharged just an hour ago.”

“Thank you.” Darren hung up and dialed his home number, thinking he might have just missed her.

After four rings . . . “Hello, you have reached the Babineaux-Seymour residence but we’re not home right now. If you leave——”

“Darren?” Allison said. He could hardly hear her voice.

“Hi mom.”

The sound of lungs sharply filling with air came through. “Oh my god, baby, please tell me you’re okay.”

“I’m okay, mom. I’m not hurt. Are you okay? You sound drunk.”

“I just got back from the hospital a few minutes ago. They gave me Ativan. I’m alright; I just got scared this morning. Tell me what happened? The cops say it looks like there was some kind of gun fight here, and the kitchen wall is demolished, and my poor baby Elvis is dead, honey . . . someone nearly decapitated him. Please, baby, tell me what happened.”

Darren closed his eyes, and his heart nearly let out. “I can’t tell you. All I can say is that I got into a very nasty fight.”

“With who? Was it that Marcus asshole from school?”

Darren chortled. “No, mom, it wasn’t Marcus . . . I can’t tell you.”

Another deep breath. “Darren, please come home.”

“I can’t. In fact . . . I’m going away. Someplace very far.”

“Tell me where?”

“No. I know the cops are there right now listening——you won’t be able to trace my call assholes! Mom, do me a favor . . . get to the airport and go to grandma and grandpa’s, okay?”

“Why? I’m not safe here?”

“No, that’s not it.” Darren’s grandparents lived in the country outside Flint, Michigan, and he figured his mom would be safer there than in a big city when the alien shit hit the fan. “I just think you’ll be less worried about me with you being with grandma and grandpa, that’s all.”

“Darren, I can’t take this shit anymore!” Allison shrieked.

“Why are you going hysteric?”

“Because it sounds like you’re saying goodbye forever to me, damn it!”

Darren leaned against his Dragonstar. “Mom, I’m going to be okay. I’m eighteen now, all growed up. Just pretend I’m going off to college. I was going to leave in the fall anyway . . . back to Michigan like I planned . . . right? You knew this was coming. It’s just happening a little earlier, that’s all.”

Allison began to weep. “Darren, I know you are in trouble and not going to college.”

Darren saw Tony poke his head up and gaze skyward, his bloodshot eyes blinking rapidly. The pose looked rather comical, instinctive and animal-like, the way a prairie dog would stand when startled. Darren would have cracked wise about it but realized something was wrong.

He looked around. “Mom, I’ll call you in a couple of days, okay?”

Allison didn’t answer.

“Mom?”

“I love you, Darren.”

He listened carefully. A breeze with the scent of ferns and pine blew into the clearing. But smells weren’t the only things carried by the wind. Sounds too. Faintly, he heard the reverberating whump-whump of approaching helicopters in the distance.

National Guard? No, it wasn’t Saturday. These weren’t Weekend Warriors.

“Choppers!” Tony cried, pointing southwest through a clearing in the trees.

“I-love-you-too-mom-gotta-go-bye!” Darren hung up and closed the PDA.

Two . . . no, three . . . no! Four large dots in the sky! Growing bigger, getting closer, louder. “Forget your suits! Get your helmets on! Get your helmets on! C’mon, go!” They broke into a scramble. Darren grabbed the modules to his suit and began tossing them into the cockpit.

Darren spotted his precious helmet to his right, the last piece, and ran for it, just as a helicopter appeared over the trees and hovered above his Dragonstar. A pair of ropes dropped, and yellow-suited soldiers slid down with rifles slung over their shoulders. Darren seized his helmet and ran for the indentation rungs under the cockpit. One of the troopers landed on his Dragonstar’s nose. More helicopters appeared, more ropes, more men in yellow suits, everything happening too fast.

Darren’s escape would not be by air. Sadly, he knew he was going to lose his fighter——no time to get in and start it up, the trooper on the nose about to jump right on top of him. He turned to run, saw another soldier behind him raising a strange gun at him, and he swung his helmet to bat the weapon away. The gun careened out of his hand, but so did Darren’s helmet. The trooper lunged for him, but he spun around hard like a running back escaping the clutches of a blitzing linebacker and sailed out of the guy’s hold.

He ran hard, hoping he was quick enough to dodge hands and flying tackles. If he could just make it to the trees, he’d have a decent chance. Off to his left, he saw Nate being taken down but couldn’t help his friend. Someone had to escape.

On the corner of his eye . . . a soldier with a small pistol . . . Darren heard a sharp crack, and something sharp stuck in his side. The trees got fuzzy. His head got heavy. He managed to take three more strides, before the ground spun under his feet and the lights went out.

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