Dark Dragons

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Chapter 12 - Teenage Commandos

Wednesday, May 19

Voices. A machine beeping. He was slowly coming out of a strange sleep.

“There’s another artifact. Weird. That’s forty-three in just——how long?”

“Ah . . . five minutes, twenty-four seconds since we started.”

Darren couldn’t move or open his eyes, unsure why. His brain tried to stir him into action but no good. He was very much conscious, able to make out three other people in the room, but he had little memory before now. He did remember a helicopter . . . and a dart gun.

“He has hyper-brain activity just like the other three. I bet an MRI will show that he has that strange growth on his brain too.”

Growth? Darren became a little more attentive.

“Doc, what do you mean by artifacts?”

“They’re stray electrical signals from a non-cerebral origin. Eye blinks, cardiac rhythms, tiny muscle flexes. EEG data is always contaminated by artifacts, but these particular artifacts are unusual because of their astonishing high number and signal strength. A PET scan might help us isolate their origin . . . my money’s on those tumors.”

“Are they malignant?”

“I don’t know . . . strange.”

“Can I ask what’s with the anesthetic? We have guards posted outside, he’s not going to escape.”

“We’re using Diprivan to keep him under general anesthesia. It produces a more rapid, nonreactive EEG pattern and gives us a cleaner baseline. Besides, he is conscious now, Colonel Towsley. He can hear every word we’re saying.”

That’s right asshole.

“When will he be able to talk?”

“We’re almost done with our brain analysis. Another two hours, and he’ll be able to move and talk.”


Two hours later, Darren had a terrible headache and a queasy stomach. He was laying on a cot in a small white room. Sitting up, the room began to spin. He quickly laid down again. Up in one corner, a small video camera watched him. He saw a large glass window to his left and another room just beyond that. The other room was dark, but from the lights in his cell, he could see a desk and some chairs. An observation room, he thought. To watch the monkeys.

The lights in the other room came on, and he slowly elbowed up to a sitting position, his forehead pounding. A man and a woman both wearing camouflage Airman Battle Uniforms entered. The woman he guessed to be in her forties. She had short, blond hair and had her sleeves rolled up, a little perspiration glowing on her skin. Her piercing blue eyes cut into his like hypnotizing lasers. Gotdamn Air Force Viking goddess! The old guy he barely noticed. The two officers sat down at the desk. Darren heard a speaker in the ceiling crackle to life.

“Good morning, Mr. Seymour,” the man said. “My name is Colonel Martin Towsley and this is Major Deanna Weinholt. Are you feeling all right?”

“I have a headache, and I feel like I’m gonna throw up.”

“That’s just the anesthetic working out of your system. It’ll go away in a bit. Would you like some aspirin?”

Darren thought about the possibility of being drugged again with something other than aspirin. “No, I’m fine. Answer my question. Why did you knock me out?”

“The location of this base is something we’d like to keep to ourselves.”

“Just like the Bat Cave——clever.” Darren rubbed his eyes. “Where are my friends?”

“They’re in the cells next to you. They’re doing fine.”

“Where’s our fighters and our suits?”

“Up on the hangar deck.”

Darren looked at him longer and then laid back down. “I don’t have anything more to say.”

“We just need a few questions answered. You don’t know how glad we are to see you. We thought we were in this fight alone.”

Darren sat up again and said with a straight face, “What fight?”

“We know about the aliens. We’ve known about them much longer than you have.”

“Why have you kidnaped us? We’re not the enemy.”

“We want to know who you are.”

“You could have just asked us, you know? I don’t think kidnaping was necessary.”

“This situation goes much deeper than just asking you boys questions.”

Darren shook his head. “Then I don’t have anything more to say to you.”

“Do you realize what’s going to happen? Every human on this planet is in danger, and we need answers.”

“I realize everyone is in danger, so why don’t you let us go?”

“You know we can’t do that.”

“Then hit the road.”

“Darren, listen to me. How did you get your weapons? Where did your fighters come from?”

“Name, Darren Seymour. Rank, civilian. Social Security Number, four-seven-six-three-three. . . .”


Weinholt turned off the microphone and said, “He isn’t going to cooperate. We have to try something else.”

“Are you suggesting torture?” Towsley asked. “Waterboarding, CIA-style?”

Weinholt rolled her eyes. “No, sir. Something subtle.”

“Such as. . . ?”

“Maybe we should put all of them in the same cell. I wouldn’t want to talk to anyone either if I were cooped up alone. Once they’re together, they might loosen up.”


A guard in a yellow CBRN suit escorted Darren around a circular corridor to a door marked CONTAINMENT UNIT 1——RESPONSE TEAMS REQUIRED BEYOND THIS POINT. The guard opened the door with a plastic card he inserted into the wall and punched a few numbers on the button pad. The door slid open, and Darren stepped in.

He looked around and noticed he was in another white room with a pair of bunk beds. He also saw Nate, Jorge, Tony——and Geils.

“Hiya, Darren,” the runt said . . . with the voice of a postman frozen before an unchained pit bull. “How’s your world?”

“You gotta be shitting me!” Darren shrieked.

As soon as the guard in the yellow suit closed the door behind him, Darren walked over to Geils and without hesitation put him up against the wall with a hard right hook to the jaw. Geils slid sideways and landed on the floor.


“Okay, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea,” Weinholt said.

Towsley peered through the glass grinning from ear to ear at Geils sprawled on the floor. “Let’s just wait and see.”


“Loose lips sink ships, Geils!” Darren shouted down at him. He felt vengeance coming on like an aphrodisiac. He scented blood.

“Listen,” Geils said, getting to his feet. “This Towsley dude told me you guys were terrorists, and that you stole those fighters from Area Fifty-One.”

Tony gave both hands a hard clap and chuckled.


“Nice,” Weinholt said.


“Terrorists?” Darren cried. “You circumcised donkey dick. He just fed you a line, and you fell for it.” Then he threw his hands up and looked away. “Why doesn’t that surprise me?”

“Look, I’m sorry. I really am.”

Darren sat down on the bottom bunk, realizing that their plans had been waylaid by self-serving, loud-mouth, social leper Geils Woodbury. They had been careless, too, however. They should have left days ago, striking camp in a remote corner of the tropics somewhere. Five miles north of America’s second largest city hadn’t been the wisest choice for a base.

The left ear began to ring. Then the right. Darren leaned against the wall and closed his eyes, praying the headache wouldn’t knock him out again. It came slowly like a sinking blade obstructed by bone. He squeezed his fists, tears coming to his eyes. He took in short ragged breaths and hoped he didn’t draw attention while Tony and Geils continued to bitch at one another. Then the pain in his head began to roll away, until a moment later, he felt nothing. The withdrawals were weakening, he noticed with relief, but he knew eventually he would have to plug into his Dragonstar again. To get his fix.

Darren jumped back into the argument. “Shut up, Geils. We’re screwed because of you.”

“Excuse me,” Towsley said through the ceiling speaker. “If you boys are not in the mood for questions, then we might as well escort Darren to the lab and get his analysis out of the way. Our medical staff would like to perform some tests.”

“You guys just unplugged me an hour ago!” Darren shouted. “What kind of tests?”

“Blood and urine analysis. EKG. PET and MRI, too.”

“Don’t forget the spinal tap,” Tony said.

“Say what?” Darren asked.

A wry grin came to Tony’s face, one that said I got a secret to tell you, pal. He turned around and lifted his shirt tail to reveal a large gauze patch on his lower back.

“No way,” Darren said, his face just bare inches from the window to the observation room. “You better come at me with another dart gun because I’ll go for the testicles on the first goon who comes within range.”

“Do you want to know if that growth on your brain is cancerous?”

Forthcoming words of defiance forming in Darren’s mind suddenly stopped before they could reach his mouth. A coldness slithered across his skin, the source of his excruciating headaches revealed.

“A test of your spinal fluid may not be completely conclusive than a full-on biopsy,” Towsley said, “but it’s quick and not as messy as the docs having to peal open your skull. Sergeant Collins?”

The soldier in the CBRN suit opened the door to their cell, a service pistol in his right hand, and waited there.


The rest of the evening involved irritating medical tests and tedious psychological experiments involving hidden flash cards, Rorschachs, and mental puzzles. After serving him two slices of pizza and a Diet Coke, the doctors returned Darren to CONTAINMENT UNIT 1 around midnight, and he collapsed on his bunk bed without saying a word to his friends. He was asleep in five minutes.

The next morning, Colonel Towsley paid the boys another visit, and this time Darren noticed the colonel’s hard-nosed, drill instructor demeanor had disappeared.

“Good morning, gentlemen!” he snapped with a warm smile after turning on the microphone. “We’re done with our medical examinations, so you can wipe those sour faces away. Did you enjoy your breakfasts?”

“The scrambled eggs were dry,” Darren said.

“The bacon tasted like cardboard,” Tony added.

“That’s BS. You just had the finest in military chow.” Towsley didn’t sit down. “Our tests have confirmed that none of you are infected with alien bugs, so we’ll be letting you out of your cell in a bit to take a breather.”

Darren asked, “Since we’re not infected, are you still going to keep us in here?”

“I’m afraid so. We don’t have accommodations for guests.”

“Look, this is bullshit. We don’t want to stay in here. It’s boring and there’s nothing to do.”

“If you haven’t noticed by now, this isn’t exactly the MGM Grand. You’ll each have periods to get out and stretch your legs, one at a time, and under guard. You can visit the galley if you like. We have some old arcade video games there that our staff plays sometimes to relieve the boredom.”

“Oh, joy,” Jorge said.

“Right now, I’m here to escort one of you up to General Taggart’s office. It’s Q and A time. Darren, your incredibly abrasive personality and strutting brutality leads one to believe that you possess the attributes of leadership and authority . . . so you’re up first.”

“I told you guys yesterday, I don’t have anything to say.”

The door behind them whooshed open, and Sergeant Collins armed with an MP5 submachine gun this time stepped in. Instead of yellow polyurethane, he wore a camouflage Airman Battle Uniform with pant legs tucked into tall combat boots and a beret with an eagle clutching a lightning bolt. He looked business.

“Mr. Seymour,” he said. “Time for a walk.”

Darren turned to his buddies. “Later days,” then to Geils with a scowl, “See you, butt cheeks.”


Judging by the distance he had to walk, Darren estimated the underground base had to be bigger than the Rose Bowl. He passed a variety of rooms: the infirmary, a small cleaning room, computer stations and many doors marked AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. It seemed pretty crowded down here, too. All kinds of Air Force and Navy people were buzzing around the place.

After riding the elevator up two stories——Darren counted the bells——he, Towsley and their armed escort came to a long corridor of offices. A wooden sign hanging from the hallway ceiling said EINSTEIN DOESN’T WORK HERE. Below that phrase, someone had added with a Sharpie “and Carl Sagan is dead.”

“Knock, knock,” Towsley said, entering the last office. Four people stood in the room drinking coffee, reading reports, talking on telephones.

“Come in, colonel,” a man with general’s stars said from behind a desk. The name plate on his desk said LIEUTENANT GENERAL LLOYD TAGGART, CINC, NESSTC.

Towsley saluted. “Good morning, sir. Mr. Seymour is here to see you.”

“Good. Come in Darren and have a seat.”

General Taggart looked like everyone’s ornery-fart grandpa, with just a touch of George Patton around his crazy eyes, crow’s feet and all. He had a few pounds on him, too, and paper white skin, no doubt from sitting in offices for much of his career. His Dixie accent was thick.

“Thanks,” Darren replied with sarcasm. “I’m glad to be here.” Then he noticed the large wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling window on the other side of the office and the elaborate room beyond it. “Wow,” he murmured, his sour attitude gone. The room resembled pictures he’d seen of Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center. “What’s all of this?”

“That’s the Combat Operations Center,” Towsley replied. “And this base is the Near-Earth Space Surveillance and Tracking Center. We conduct solar system and near-Earth space intelligence from here. The same place we spotted you boys with our satellites.”

Darren sat down in the chair in front of Taggart’s oak desk and looked at the general’s photographs on the wall. One showed a young and skinny Taggart standing next to an F-100 Super Sabre fighter with the words “Yalu River Raiders” written in the corner of the picture. Another was a framed reprint painting of someone called General Curtis LeMay, cigar clamped firmly in mouth, B-52’s in flight behind him.

“I see you’re looking at my pictures,” Taggart said. “That’s me stationed in Korea, 1967. The others are of me in Vietnam. I used to fly fighters, too. Just like you, Darren.”

“You’ve never flown anything like I fly.”

Taggart smiled. “I’ll agree with that.” The general looked around the room. “You’ve met Major Deanna Weinholt, Towsley’s second-in-command. This is Mr. Nellis, our chief astronautics engineer. And Mr. Chapman from the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Massachusetts. They design and build futuristic combat suits like yours.”

“You’ve never built anything like we have,” Darren replied dryly. Darren noticed a rather nettled expression come over Taggart’s face when the general gave him a look. This is going to be a lively discourse. “I’m really glad to be here,” he said with fake joviality. “Nice to meet everyone.”

“Excuse me,” a tall black man with a thick African accent said from the door. “Am I interrupting something?” Darren recognized him as Dr. Ngatia, the physician who had poked and prodded him yesterday.

“Just a little Q and A,” Towsley said.

“I have the medical reports on the five boys finished. I think you should see them.”

“Interesting?”

Ngatia nodded his head, a queer expression on his face. “Quite.”

“Come in. Would you care to hear this, Darren?”

“I know I’m screwed up, so why do I need a doctor to tell me?”

Ngatia closed the door behind him, and opened a manila folder. “These are my summaries. I won’t have a detailed report until this afternoon.”

“That’s fine,” Towsley said, sitting down on the corner of Taggart’s desk. “What do you have?”

Ngatia handed Towsley what looked like five colored pictures of a human brain. “These are three-dimensional MRI-PET scans of the five boys’ brains. It appears Mr. Geils Woodbury is normal . . . meaning he has no abnormalities within the cranial structures. Notice the false-color red area of the other four pictures? That’s the growth I was telling you about.”

Darren reached up and grabbed the bottom corner of the paper. “May I?”

Towsley let go, and Darren examined the false-color pictures. Four of them looked similar, including the strange, spider-shaped splotch stretching from the base of the brain to the top of the cerebellum. He recognized the pattern immediately——it was in the same form as the arrangement of thought-interface electrodes inside his helmet. “Is this the tumor you’re talking about?”

“Yes, and we’re pretty sure they are not malignant. So you can breathe easy,” he said with a smile. “But it is very strange that all four boys have this same, symmetrically structured growth on the posterior cerebrum. You see these filament-like structures that radiate out from the main body? Some connect to the basal ganglia, which is a region of the forebrain that plays a key role in action selection. The basal ganglia generates inhibitory signals to action-generating areas of the brain . . . I wonder . . . Darren have you recently performed actions you normally would not have under . . . rational conditions?”

Darren thought of his dive off the culvert bridge and perfect landing on the top of the semi-truck. His fight with the Vorvon assassin. The aerial rodeo aboard the falling helicopter and spectacular Tarzan window-crash on his hoist-cable.

“No,” he lied.

“Hmm,” Ngatia replied. “The filaments also radiate out to the cerebellum, the pyramidal tract and the M-one region of the cortex. These are all areas that control motor movements—— muscles and reflexes.”

“Have you noticed having faster reflexes, Darren?” Towsley asked. “Grabbing objects, running, jumping and so forth?”

“No,” Darren lied again.

“Most of these tumorous filaments, however, connect to the frontal lobe which is involved with higher mental functions. I have read about brain experiments on the frontal lobe involving electrical stimulation of that area, and the subject described an immediate feeling of being watched, and in some cases predict an event seconds into the future.”

“Precognition?” Towsley asked.

“Future sight, yes,” Ngatia replied. “That would be important in a battle if you ‘saw’ a tragic event seconds in the future and were able to quickly correct it from happening.”

“Have you had a precognition event, Darren?”

“No,” he replied truthfully.

“There have also been reports from the experiments involving remote-viewing, or able to describe hidden objects. This could be a cause for Darren and his friends being able to sense danger when they cannot readily see it.”

“Have you ever sensed this kind of activity, Darren?”

“No,” he lied. Again.

Towsley gave him a perplexed look that was totally fake. Darren could tell the colonel knew he wasn’t being truthful.

“I did a little experiment on the boys involving a tennis ball. You remember, Darren?”

He nodded.

“It was quite remarkable. I tested the boys one at a time. I had them sit in a chair and close their eyes. One of my assistants stood behind them and tossed a tennis ball over their shoulder——and each one of them snatched it right out of the air.”

“Come on,” Taggart said.

“I have it on videotape, general, if you wish to view it. The strange growth connecting to the frontal lobe of the brain got me thinking about the possibility of ESP, so I wanted to try a simple reflex test.”

“So where did this brain growth come from?” Towsley asked. “Is there some kind of ‘external’ component involved?”

“It doesn’t appear to be. In fact it seems to have grown directly from the brain. How, I do not know.”

Darren knew. The machine from the alien ship had apparently stimulated their brains into producing the tumors.

“Is that all, doc?” Towsley asked.

“For the time being, yes. I’ll have a full report this afternoon.”

“Well, Darren. What do you think?”

Darren shrugged. “I now have concrete, scientific proof that I’m a mutant space monkey. I could have told you that.”

“What appears to us, is that your central nervous system has under gone a drastic change. Somehow, someway. And I think we deserve some answers.”

Darren put his foot up on one knee and played with his shoestring, beginning to see there would be no way out of this. He could easily bullshit his way through the interrogation if he wanted but thought if he just cooperated, he might get some answers to his questions, too. “Fine,” he said. “What do you guys want to know?”

“Where did you get your fighters?”

“From a ship that crashed in the forest behind my house.”

“Last Friday night?”

“How did you know that?”

“We tracked the ship from orbit. It took us a few days to find the crash site, though, but eventually we found it. And your fighters, of course. Were any living beings aboard?”

“No, it was a cargo drone. Artificially intelligent auto-pilot.”

“Did you go inside?”

Darren shook his head. “We just got close to it and this . . . thing . . . a machine came out of it. I remember a lot of machinery moving inside it. A lot of lights. It . . . brainwashed us . . . or something.”

“Brainwashed you?” Towsley asked.

Darren nodded. “That’s the only word I can think of.”

“Is this how you can fly your fighters? And operate your suits?”

“Of course.”

“Fascinating,” Ngatia said. “Did this machine have any physical contact with you?”

“No. There were just lights that came out of it. We couldn’t move or do anything. All I remember were lots of lights. A few seconds later it stopped, and the next thing I remember is waking up the next day lying on the ground where I fell.”

“Where did this ship come from?” Towsley asked. “Who sent it here, and why?”

Darren went deep into his mind, artificial memories beginning to flicker beyond his consciousness before welling up from the abyss. “Eta Cassiopeia. A binary star system nineteen light-years away. The second planet orbiting the primary star is similar to Earth.” Darren paused to let other memories gather strength and reveal themselves. He was almost in a trance. “They’re all dead,” he whispered. “The Xrel. That’s what they called themselves. They were destroyed by the Vorvons. Where they came from, nobody knew.”

“Vorvons?” Towsley asked.

“The bad guys. They appeared from the direction of the Xrelmaran constellation named after the Third Prophet of Revenge, Vorvon. The Xrel were a very religious race.”

“These . . . Xrel . . . obviously didn’t speak English,” Taggart said. “So how do you come up with these names?”

“They mainly communicated telepathically but were also capable of physical speech. Linguistically, their language was similar to human-speech believe it or not. They had a twenty-three letter alphabet. I’m very fluent in it actually,” Darren said with a smile. “En’rev’k Y’rid Zet.”

“What’s that?” Taggart asked, with just a slight irritated tone.

“It’s my Xrel name,” Darren said, pleased he was causing the general irritation. “He Who Greats With Fire.”

Taggart smirked. “Dances With Wolves,” and gave Towsley a smile which was not returned.

A-ha, Darren thought. Good cop, Bad cop. “I hope you and I are going to get along,” he asked, making direct eye contact with Taggart. “This Q and A won’t get very far if you keep the sass going.” Darren really wasn’t offended by the general’s cute wisecrack. He just wanted to play off the Bad Cop machismo building in the room. Find a soft spot.

“Don’t let the sass bother you, Mr. Seymour,” Taggart said.

Towsley rocked a bit on the corner of Taggart’s desk. “Why did the Xrel send this ship to Earth?”

Darren went back to the alien memories swirling around in his head. “Our sun was their polestar. Nineteen light-years away, it was barely visible to them, but the Xrel held it to a very devout status in their scriptures. Ancient Xrel believed their gods and prophets lived on our sun. Can you believe that? Anyway, I think the ship was sent here as a sort of . . . sacrifice, or an offering.”

“Do you think this ship specifically choose you and your friends?”

“No, but I don’t think it had any choice. It crashed, and we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Why do you say that? Why don’t you think you were at the right place at the right time? Haven’t you accepted your new status?”

“What’s that? A brainwashed looser with the violent streak of a chimpanzee? No, not exactly.”

General Taggart cleared his throat. “Well, there’s a wonderful way to look at yourself. A reluctant monkey doesn’t win the war.”

Darren played with his shoestring again. “Who said I was reluctant?”

Taggart gave him a long stare before speaking. “You don’t appear to be approaching our dire situation with steely-eyed enthusiasm. Morale and motivation is something you learn in boot camp with a drill instructor screaming in your face. Not a twenty second brainwashing by a machine.”

“Believe me, it works.” Darren noticed a little smirk on Taggart’s face. He had seen this picture before. Like sitting in Barstowe’s principal’s office, firing off quick answers and dodging conceited verbal shots from tyrannical adults. He could take it, though.

Towsley went back to the Q and A before tensions could escalate. “I want to talk about your fighters. How would you describe them?”

“The Xrel referred to them as Interplanetary Multi-Target Combat Vehicles. They’re multi-role fighters——we can engage up to twenty bandits simultaneously, and I don’t mean with just stand-off, fire-and-forget missiles, I mean actual dogfighting. They’re also ground interdiction platforms that are very effective against hardened facilities or armor units; triple-A suppressor, day-night, all-atmo. It can operate in atmospheric pressures up to three hundred bars or heavy gravity environments up to seven g’s. We can also single handedly engage large spacecraft like cruisers and dreadnoughts with proton destroyers. A single Dragonstar can zap an entire armada of heavy ships rather quickly . . . if certain conditions are right and the pilot is quick on the stick and suicidal enough.”

“What’s a proton destroyer?” Taggart asked, nearly a whisper.

The general had a ghostly look of worry on his face, as well as it should. Darren didn’t like to think of the absolutely frightening weapons they had racked up in the missile carriages hidden within the Dragonstars’ bellies. Having the power to destroy any form of matter regardless of its size scared him too.

“It’s a disintegration weapon designed to kill large spacecraft. It aggravates superstring fields to a particular frequency which tear the pion bonds that attach the particles making up protons. Each atom of matter becomes part of the anti-pion matrix and converges the adjacent atom it’s connected to into the process before it’s annihilated. So you get a nasty chain-reaction where matter actually destroys itself. The Xrel called the process R’trev Goev Wir—— Creeping Underworld Demon. An appropriate epithet, since it uses superstrings from another dimension to destroy matter in our own dimension. The Xrel scientists who created the proton destroyers were so frightened of what they created, they committed ritual suicide to save their souls from damnation . . . they were religious freaks. Science was just a hobby.”

The only sound heard in the room was the air conditioning wafting out of the ceiling vent. Then Taggart spoke. “So theoretically you could disintegrate the sun with just a single missile?”

Darren shifted his weight to the other buttcheek. “Theoretically?” He thought a little bit more about that scenario. “Yes, but it would take a few days. You have to consider mass to gravity ratios and the sun’s gamma ray fields resisting the anti-pion matrix, but that would eventually slack off after. . . .” Darren stopped and glanced around at the adults in the room who looked like wide-eyed Cub Scouts having been told the scariest ghost story ever heard. Darren could even hear the campfire crackling.

“That’s a lot of God-like wrath for an eighteen-year old kid to possess,” Taggart said.

“We have steady hands,” Darren replied coolly.

The general just stared at him. Towsley twitched again on the corner of the desk. The guy named Nellis cleared phlegm from his throat.

“I’d like to add that our Dragonstars’ main computers have a thought-resident, lock-out command that prevents us from attacking a natural object like a planet or a star, intentional or unintentional.”

“I’m glad to hear of that,” Taggart said.

“I’m glad you are too.”

“Change of subject,” Towsley said. “I want to know about your trip to Jupiter.”

“How do you know about that?”

“The whole world saw your handiwork on the news. An hour or so before the explosion, we spotted four unidentified objects hauling ass out of the atmosphere. Wasn’t hard to put two and two together. What did you destroy?”

“A deuterium refinery they were building on Io. Their assault cruisers and troop carriers use deuterium in their anti-matter engines.”

General Taggart gave Nellis a look. “Deuterium?”

“An isotope of hydrogen,” Nellis replied. “Makes sense. It’s a cheap and easy fuel to produce.”

“The explosion came from the orbital tanker we took out,” Darren said. “Along with seven assault cruisers moored to it. That was a quarter of their invasion force.” Darren made sure he was looking at Taggart.

“Do you know when the aliens will arrive?” Major Weinholt asked.

“No, but I have good reason to believe it’ll be soon.”

“Do you know of their intentions?”

“No I don’t,” he said truthfully. “But I wish I did.”

“We wish we knew, too,” Weinholt said. “What other kinds of ships and weapons do they have?”

“They have troop carriers.” Darren paused to pull memories out of his brain. “They’re triangular, about a mile across. With a sphere in the center where the bridge and hangar bay are located. They have anti-spacecraft blister guns all along the hull, too.”

“Anything else?” Taggart asked.

“Like what?”

“You have to know more than that. What other kinds of ships do they have? What kind of tactical weapons? You mentioned assault cruisers earlier. How many troop carriers do the cruisers support? Do they have weapons like tanks or APC’s?”

Darren, for some reason, no longer wanted to respond to the general and his Bad Cop act. “I don’t know.”

“I have the suspicion that you’re not telling us everything.”

“I’m telling you everything I know!”

Towsley pushed off from Taggart’s desk that he’d been leaning against as if goosed in the ass with about two thousand volts. “I think we’re done with our questions for today. We have what we need for now. You can go back to your cell if you want, Darren, or we can take you up to the galley for some chow.”

“Look, you just grilled me for a half-hour, and I spilled my guts when I should have stuck to name, rank and serial number. I have a few hundred goddamn questions I’d like to ask, too.”

Towsley folded his arms. “What’s on your mind?”

“When are you going to let us go?”

Taggart replied, “We haven’t decided.”

“Well, why don’t you take a stab at it and make up your mind now.”

“We’ll let you go when we feel you’re no longer a threat to us.”

“A threat?” Darren almost leaped out of the chair. “We’re not the enemy!”

“Frankly, Mr. Seymour, we don’t know that. This ship that brainwashed you could actually be a scout probe of some kind from the invaders and not from another alien race as you say. You could be a pre-invasion strike force here to disable our communications, strategic missile sites, bridges, oil refineries, whatever.”

“Unbelievable.”

“You might not even realize that you’re one of their pawns. There may be a trigger response in that brainwashed noggin of yours that may turn you from friend to foe at any time without your realizing it.”

“If we’re secretly working for them, then why did one of them try to plug me the other day?”

“Sir, I don’t think these boys are part of the invasion,” Towsley said. “Like Darren said, they tried to kill him. I think the aliens perceive the boys as a dangerous threat.”

The general shook his head. “The aliens might have felt they choose the wrong people for the job and decided to wipe the slate clean. Darren even said the ship that crashed was not meant for them. For whom then?”

“That ship was not Vorvon!” Darren said.

“Sir,” Towsley said. “I have to agree with him. I think your observations are too partial.”

“Colonel Towsley, at this point in time, we know very little about the state of affairs we are in. As far as I’m concerned, anything is possible, no matter how subjective or silly you may think. Until I’m convinced that these boys are not a national security risk, I’m not authorizing their release.”

“You saw the explosion from Jupiter,” Darren said. “We wiped out their only source of fuel and a quarter of their ground invasion force!”

“That’s what you contend,” Taggart responded. “Unfortunately, we here on Earth are unable to properly verify that claim. Maybe you were just practicing your proton destroyers on Jupiter’s moons.”

Darren noticed Towsley shake his head ever so slightly. “I love this Good Cop, Bad Cop vibe happening here,” Darren said. “Thanks for being a friend, colonel. By the way, you’re going to see a big risk to national security pretty soon if you don’t let us go.”

“We’re capable of dealing with the situation ourselves,” Taggart said.

“How’s that?”

“This complex is not only a command for surveillance and tracking. It’s also where we control our screen of orbital weapons.”

“Orbital weapons?” Darren felt a grin coming on.

“There are currently fifty satellite weapons in orbit. X-ray lasers and electromagnetic railguns, to be exact. Not to mention a surface-to-air shield of ScramHawk missiles with plasma warheads that will be waiting for our guests when they arrive, as well as capable naval forces. If your——Vorvons did you call them?——happen to get through, we have a battalion-size unit of special operations forces that are licking their chops for an E.T. breakfast.”

This peaked Darren’s interest. He sat up straighter in his seat. “Special operations forces?”

Towsley said, “Ten years ago, we created an SOF specializing in covert and direct action operations in astronomic environments. They wear computerized combat suits designed by Mr. Chapman’s Natick Soldier Center. They’re not as . . . technologically cutting-edge . . . as your suits obviously but we trust their reliability.”

“What kind of personal weapons do they use?” Darren asked.

“None of your fucking business,” came the graveled, Dixie-laden reply from across the desk.

Darren turned in the good general’s direction. “I just want to know if they have what it takes to fight effectively against alien invaders, that’s all. Don’t go ornery grandpa on me.”

“We use mostly conventional weapons with some unconventional assets.” The solid voice behind Darren had the weight of steel.

Darren turned in his seat to see a black, six-foot-five muscular statue of flesh and bone decked out in a form-fitting green t-shirt that revealed cannonball shoulders, armored pecs and 20-plus inch guns. Leaning against the doorway with his arms folded behind his back, he had a tight salt-and-pepper afro and a rather unmilitary goatee. How long he’d been holding up the wall, Darren couldn’t be sure.

“Lieutenant Colonel LaShaun Carruthers,” he said. “Commanding Officer, Space Warfare Development Operations Group. We’re one of four Tier One units under the JSOC’s Special Mission Unit. You may have heard of the other three . . . SEAL Team Six, Delta Force, and 24th Special Tactics Squadron. SAWDOG you’ve never heard of . . . we don’t officially exist . . . which means we get no media-glory like the SEAL’s, but the pay is outstanding. Better than the chump change Delta paid me.”

“Hoo-ha,” Towsley said.

“Hoo-ha.”

Darren shook his head. “Having to transfer from macho-Delta to pussy-Air Force must’ve been a blow to your ego.”

Carruthers gave just the slightest of grins. “Yeah, but we get to play with the coolest toys and the travel is out-of-this-world.”

Yeah, right. “Picnics on Mars, huh?” Darren said.

“Better than Iraq and Afghanistan,” Carruthers replied. “To answer your question about personal weapons . . . we use the latest Marks of conventional systems that fire fifty-caliber BMG and NATO-standard 7.62-millimeter munition, twenty-five and forty-millimeter grenade delivery systems, and a nasty piece of hell-raiser called the FGM-172 Predator which is basically a giant shotgun. We also have a few toys straight out of Star Wars.”

Apparently, Darren was supposed to be dazzled by Carruthers’s effusive observations. He wasn’t. “News flash, lieutenant colonel. Unless your boys are using armor-piercing SLAP rounds or high-explosive fifty-cal and aiming for head shots where their armor is thinnest, your Starship Troopers are going to wind up as cannon fodder. So forget the ‘center of mass’ body shots, okay? You’ll just tickle them with SLAP or high-explosive rounds there. Go for the head where their armor is thinnest, and just maybe you’ll put up a valiant defense. That advice is free, by the way, so you’re welcome. And I hope your ’toys straight out of Star Wars’ aren’t heavy and bulky because your guys will have to move fast and furious against crack Vorvon troopers. The one I killed the other day could move like a fucking gazelle.”

“I’m impressed with you, Darren,” Carruthers said. “You teenage commandos are bad-ass, stone cold to the bone, no doubt about it. I’d love to jump in my suit and face you down in yours——”

“You wouldn’t last two seconds.”

“——just so I could show you with brazen abandon how capable SAWDOG is to defend Earth against a more tech-superior foe.”

“Like the Aztecs against the Spaniards?” Darren asked. “Like the Poles against the Nazi blitzkrieg?”

“No . . . like the North Vietnamese against the United States,” Carruthers replied. “Like the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviets. Have a little faith, Darren. I know you will.” There came an uneasy silence in the room before Carruthers started up again. “Kudos, by the way, for your daring bank robbery foil. The security camera footage the LAPD turned over to us is recommended viewing among my boys. They love that invisibility shit.”

“Thanks, lieutenant colonel. I’ll see if I can teach your boys how to do that over coffee and doughnuts sometime.”

“Cut the horseshit,” Taggart said.

Darren looked at General Taggart. “X-ray lasers? ScramHawk surface-to-airs?” Then he turned to eyeball the others. “Naval forces?” His eyes went to Carruthers who had a defiant, tight-lipped expression. “Bulky spacesuits made in Massachusetts and 7.62-millimeter?” He shook his head. “Spears and rocks, man. You know the problem with alien invasion movies? They’re so unrealistic——the humans always win in the end. Sure, you’re supposed to suspend your disbelief and just go with it. But it’s all a crock. Alien technology will always trump human valor . . . and by the way, the North Vietnamese weren’t exactly primitive savages—— they had tanks and fighters and SAMs just like us, and the CIA was arming the mujahedeen with hundreds of Stinger missiles which is why the Russians left Afghanistan because they were losing all of their aircraft. How come? Equally-matched technology, that’s how. Which me and my bros had possession of just two days ago until they were captured and locked up in an underground base with a general who thinks we’re the enemy.”

“You must get a lot of A’s in school,” Taggart said, sarcasm on full boil.

“Made the honor roll last quarter,” Darren said.

“Good for you. Your extensive knowledge in military history is praiseworthy. But I have a curveball to throw you . . . ‘He who tries to defend everything defends nothing.’”

Darren nodded. “Sun Tzu. The Art of War. I’m familiar with the quote. I hope your group understands the meaning of that proverb, too.”

“We have on many levels. The question is . . . ‘have you?’”

“We did. We had five contingency plans drawn up based on a single point-defense using our proton destroyers as primary stand-off weapons. The Vorvons would have never have come within fifteen million miles of Earth. But now——” Darren shrugged his shoulders “——since you guys showed up in the helicopters and threw a monkey wrench into the works, the bad guys could show up any time and make low-earth orbit while the four of us are still squatting in a military cell.”

“Which is exactly where I want you,” Taggart said. The general leaned forward. “That . . . thing . . . you fly is a goddamn killing machine. What we like to call around here in military parlance as a weapon of genocidal confidence. ‘Weapon of Mass Destruction’ isn’t strong enough to apply to extraterrestrial technology. I’m supposed to trust eighteen year-olds with proton destroyers? Not to mention a thought-controlled weapons system? Son, all it would take for you is to have one bad thought and, poof, a whole city evaporates in the blink of an eye.”

“As I explained earlier, there’s a thought-resident, lock-out——”

“Oh, that’s right. I forgot, so I can still trust you?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

The general opened a manila folder on his desk and pulled out a single sheet of paper. “Your buddy, Tony Simmons? Smart ass like you. High IQ. Only thing is, we detected—— what was the wording you used Dr. Ngatia?——copious concentrations of THC in his urine sample? Marijuana to be exact. Now am I supposed to trust him with proton destroyer missiles and a thought-controlled weapons system?”

Darren, for the first time, found he had nothing clever to say.

“You’re not exactly a clean bill of health either.” Taggart paused to leaf through some more notes in the folder. “Your blood pressure taken yesterday was one-seventy over ninety. I’m sixty-three years old, and I’ve never had my blood boiling that high, and I’m a true-blood Texan who eats dry-aged porterhouse every night. Tells me a lot about your physical condition.

“I can sit here in my comfortable chair and openly admit that I don’t trust you. We don’t know who you are. We don’t know if you are friend or foe, and we sure as hell are not going to let you go.”

Darren still could not queue up a response.

Taggart leaned back in his chair and suddenly looked tired. “Darren, I’m not trying to be a hard ass, here. You have to look at this from our perspective. We have known since 1994 that Earth will be recipient of an extraterrestrial invasion. And then suddenly, you and your friends show up with alien-fabricated weaponry that can zap everything on the ground from here to Kansas. And you claim that another alien race sent these weapons here for reasons you have explained rather ambiguously. It appears to me that these Xrel were much more technologically advanced than the Vorvons invading their planet, so how come they lost?”

Darren looked up from the floor and gave Taggart a cold stare. “It was brand new tech. They didn’t have time to fire up the conveyer belts and mass produce——”

“Oh, I see.” Taggart looked down at his desk and adjusted himself in his leather chair. “Then how did this cargo drone manage to escape and make it all the way to Earth without a scratch?”

“I don’t . . . know.”

“There’s my point. I think you know more than what you’re letting on. We’re done with Darren today, Colonel Towsley. You can take him back to his cell.”

“We’re going to bust out of here,” Darren said, getting out of the seat. “With our fighters. So just get ready for it.”

“You have a better chance of busting out of Fort Knox with two bars of gold bullion in your back pockets,” Taggart said. He slowly rubbed the general’s insignia on his shoulder. “Have a good one, He Who Greets With Fire.”

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