Dark Dragons

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Chapter 15 - Brutus

Friday, May 21

Colonel Towsley woke from the couch in his office and looked at the clock on his desk——7:44 AM. His personal quarters two levels up had not been visited all week. Too much activity had kept him in his office.

He stepped into his tiny bathroom and splashed cold water on his face, some on his neck, and let it run down his torso, wetting his camouflage uniform. Outside the open door, the entire Third Deck comprising the office wings and the COC was the quietest Towsley had ever heard.

He put two Zoloft on the edge of his desk, crushed them under a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red and wiped the powder into a rocks glass. A stiff measure of scotch swirled the medicine around.

“Breakfast?” Major Weinholt asked from the doorway. The look on her face matched his mood.

Towsley tipped his head back and his scotch-laden, anti-anxiety concoction disappeared down the hatch. “I’ll have eggs and hashbrowns later to soak it up.”

“The president has asked for a meeting at oh-nine-hundred.”

“What for?”

“I don’t know. The president’s National Security team made it out of Washington along with the Congressional leadership. They’re holed up at the Alternate Site. The president wants a conference. He’s also going to address the nation from our studio around eleven-hundred.”

The president, the First Lady, Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were currently residing in the executive suites on the NESSTC’s top level.

Towsley sat down at his desk, and the first thing he spotted was Sarah’s Atlanta phone number on a notepad he had placed there last night. After returning from the COC. Still, he did not have the resolve to call his daughter after nearly twenty years since their last spoken words.

Weinholt sat down in the seat in front of Towsley’s desk and placed a glass vial of something blue and powdery next to his lamp.

Towsley felt a quick jolt of apprehension pulse through him. “Is that what I think it is?”

She nodded. “Two infectious disease specialists from Fort Detrick flew it to us for analysis. Their teams say this stuff is all over Washington D.C. like snow, in some places four, five inches deep. Someone came up with a million and a half metric tons. You can relax, sir, it’s dead.”

“Dead?” Towsley picked the vial up and brought it close to his nose. It felt surprisingly heavy. The stuff looked more like sand grains instead of a powder or dust. “Let me guess . . . microscopic robots?”

Weinholt nodded. “‘Non-replicating nanobots of an advanced technological production’ is how Mr. Jacobi put it. They can link together and form large, solid shapes, anything that’s in their programming . . . like little flying meat grinders. Our engineers haven’t figured out how they fly.”

“What killed them?”

“They did themselves. Some kind of chemical self-destruct. Don’t know if it was initiated by self-infliction or remote downlink.”

“Has there been an estimation of dead?”

“In Washington or worldwide?”


“Fort Detrick is saying two million, maybe three . . . plus a hundred thousand wounded. Some with a single cut, others missing limbs. The bubble was only seven miles in diameter so it didn’t cap the entire city. It could have been six million dead. Fort Detrick is sending in teams to gather bodies, but there’s so many, the Army is saying they won’t be able to find them all in time for disposal, so they’re sealing off the infected areas and declaring them biological hazard zones . . . they’re also setting up funeral pyre sites on the National Mall.”

“Jesus Christ,” Towsley whispered. He shook his head, his eyes fixed on the blue grains of destruction tumbling over one another as he turned the vial in his fingers. “You know the Mongols catapulted corpses infected with bubonic plague into the city of Kaffa to convince the citizens to surrender?”

“No, I didn’t know that.”

“Tamerlane built a pyramid of ninety thousand human heads before the walls of Delhi to convince the citizens to surrender. Vlad Tepes had thousands of Ottoman soldiers impaled through the rectum with sharpened stakes and suspended in the air while they were still alive . . . just to convince the Turks to surrender . . . now this”——he gave the vial a saltshaker-sounding didder——“brilliant psychological warfare. They could have easily dropped an asteroid on Washington or used an orbital laser strike. But that wouldn’t have proved the point. They picked the capital of the most powerful military on Earth to make a statement——‘we’re the top predator now . . . we dictate policy.’ And it worked. Shook the president out of his socks so hard he ordered a cease fire.”

“Would you have done the same?”

Towsley placed the vial of blue slaughter on his desk and poured another pull from his bottle of scotch. “Probably. What’s the enemy’s status?”

“They stopped their orbital attacks about four hours ago. There’s nothing strategic left for them to strike. We, the Russians and Chinese, the Brits and the French, all got our asses kicked. ICBM and bomber bases gone, ballistic missile sub pens, too, although we have all four guided-missile submarines still active. The president ordered them to go deep and stay there until further action.”

“What else?”

Weinholt paused, shaking her head, frustrated with her reluctance to answer his question.

“What else, major?”

“All eleven carrier strike groups have been destroyed. At least we’ve lost communication with them. It’s reasonable to say that America no longer has a surface navy. Basically we have a tactical Air Force and our entire Army and Marine Corp. The enemy apparently has decided that they’re not a threat. For now.”

Towsley took another swallow of Johnnie Walker and chuckled. “They’ve bombed us back to a third-world country,” he mused. “Nicaragua could fly up and napalm Houston in an F-86 Saber and we wouldn’t see them coming.”

“Sir, let’s go upstairs and have some breakfast. You need some eggs and hashbrowns to soak up that alcohol.”

“I have a better idea, major. Let’s go down to the infirmary.”


Towsley stood up carefully, the alcohol beginning to take effect. “I’m going to have Ngatia stop the Propofol drip and ready four syringes of Dexedrine, Epinephrine, Starbucks espresso or whatever the hell he’s got. We’re going to have those boys on their feet in fifteen minutes.”

The inside of Darren’s mouth felt like sandpaper. “Gimmie some’ t’drink,” he murmured.

“Hey, buddy.” Somebody’s palm flapping against his cheek. Sweet boozy breathe on his face. “Elbows and assholes, soldier, c’mon wake up.”

Darren opened his eyes, Colonel Towsley above him. He quickly realized he was again horizontal on a medical bed and not remembering how he got there. Super pissed once more, he suddenly snapped awake and sat up quickly, nearly head-butting Towsley in the process.

“Goddamn it, what is it with you guys and the tranquilizers?” he cried out, tearing the EEG leads from his head. “You guys have tanks full of that stuff?”

“This was not my idea.”

Darren put his hand to his chest. “Why’s my heart going a hundred miles an hour?”

“Dexedrine. It’ll wear off in a bit. On your feet, soldier. We’re getting you guys out of here. And your fighter’s sensors have been repaired, Darren. You got your eyes back.”

“For real?”

Towsley nodded. “Come on, get up.”

Weinholt, Ngatia, and one of his assistants were practically dragging Tony, Jorge and Nate out of their beds. Eyes still closed, Tony rolled his head to the side and buried his face in Weinholt’s buxom chest. The major rolled her eyes and gave him a curt jab to the head, and Tony sat upright quickly with feigned surprise.

“Terrible things happened while you guys were out,” Towsley said.

“You mean the voice?” Darren asked. “I heard it.”

“So did I,” Tony said. Nate and Jorge both nodded.

“Then you know what the enemy wants,” Towsley said.

“We’re not going to offer our children like lambs,” Darren said.

“You didn’t see what happened to Washington D.C. as a small taste of punishment of what would happen if we don’t.”

“What happened?”

Towsley gave them a detailed version of the high-tech, mass slaughter which took place. “Possibly one to two million dead,” he finished.

Darren stared at the floor, his stomach turning.

“I probably shouldn’t have told you guys that, but . . . maybe it’s important that I did.”

“Yeah,” Darren said, looking him in the eyes. “Yeah, I’m glad you did. That needle ship is going to be target number one. So . . . how are we getting out of here?”

Towsley went to the sink and splashed cold water on his face. “My job is to get you guys past our incredibly inquisitive, hair-trigger Response Team guards to the electronics lab one level up. Major Weinholt is going to deactivate the security cameras in the corridors upstairs so you can get to the hangar without being spotted. Once you’re in your combat suits, the order of battle is up to you.”

“How am I deactivating the security cameras?” Weinholt asked.

“I haven’t planned that far ahead yet.”

“Why don’t you just hit the guards with anesthetic?” Darren told her. “You guys are the shit when it comes to knock-out.”

“Not a bad idea actually,” she replied.

Towsley nodded. “There’s only one guard at the security monitor just off the main corridor on the Level 3 office wing. Knocking him out would give us ten minutes or so of free reign about the place.” He looked at his watch. “There’s a shift change in eight minutes, major. You’re on it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Doc, I want you to grab Geils Woodbury out of CU One after Weinholt signals that the coast is clear.”

“No way!” Darren said. “He’s not coming with us.”

“He’s not staying here. Drop his ass off next to a highway somewhere. I don’t care, but he’s used up his vacancy. Everyone has.”

Weinholt cleared her throat. “Um . . . Dr. Ngatia . . . I’ll need a Sevoflurane canister from your pharmacy.”

Darren could tell by her sudden fidgetiness that she wasn’t exactly thrilled with her forthcoming role in this harebrained plot coming together at the last minute. The chomping speed on her gum had begun to redline.

Towsley sensed her anxiousness as well. “Cancel that major . . . I’ll take care of the guard, and you escort the boys to the hangar.”

“I can do this, sir.”

“Negative. Do not leave this room until I give you a single chirp on Channel Four to tell you the coast is clear. You know that little side corridor left of the elevator on Level Two?”

“Yeah, the power plant hall.”

Towsley nodded. “Take them to Generator Room One. There’s a door behind the reactor that opens to the hangar just below one of the gantry crane legs.” He turned to Darren. “The electronics lab is left of that door, but there’ll be at least four or five guards strolling around the hangar. Do not go for the lab until the lights in the hangar go down, which I’ll take care of. After the lights go out, you’ll only have about fifteen to twenty seconds to reach the lab before someone in Circuits sees they’re out for no apparent reason and overrides my shutdown.”

Darren shook his head. “Why don’t you just order a couple of your guards to escort us down to the electronics lab with some bullshit story so we don’t have to do all this sneaking around?”

“Only General Taggart can give the Response Team an order. They’re basically his personal Praetorian guards anyway, and Papa Bear thinks you’re still asleep. No go on that.”

Towsley gave the guys a last individual look——similar to one a platoon sergeant would afford his troops before shouting “Fix bayonets!” and charging across an open field rippling with enemy crossfire. The color from Towsley’s face had disappeared. A bead of sweat ran out of his salt-and-pepper hair. “Gentlemen, the enemy has put a serious ass whooping on us from which I don’t know if we’ll ever recover. It’s probably too late to do anything anyway, and all I’m doing is just sending you to your deaths. But . . . our right to exist unmolested and our nation’s shattered might demands retribution.”

“Thanks, colonel, you’ve inspired us,” Darren said.

Towsley studied his face for a moment before he winked and tussled Darren’s hair. “‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.’” He turned and headed for the elevator.

Darren gave themselves three-to-one odds.

A U.S. Secret Service agent stood blocking the way into Level 3 when the elevator doors slid open. Shit. The president’s conference. “Hello.”

The agent gave Towsley’s ID card a quick glance and stepped aside. The entire office wing seemed to be packed with Secret Service agents. Several officers and civilian national security members stood outside the conference room next to Taggart’s office. The mood here was as cheerful as a funeral wake. He spotted the president and recognized some of the faces circled around him, before he turned and headed in the opposite direction toward the security monitor room.

A voice from a side office called out, “Marty?”

Towsley nearly tripped over his feet when the man burst out to shake his hand.

“Jesus, Martin, how’s it going? You’re a colonel now?”

“Hey, Paul,” Towsley said. “How are you?”

Senator Paul Saunders, Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee replied, “As well as I could hope for. I didn’t know you worked here? This place is unreal.”


“It’s been . . . what? Eight, nine years since we last met in Washington?”

“Sounds about right.”

“Yeah, we had beers at the Hawk ’n’ Dove, remember? You look like you’re in a hurry.”

“Actually I am. Got a little business to attend to down here.”

“I’ll tag along.”

Towsley continued toward the security monitor room, his heart now doing the Jitterbug in his throat. The canister of Sevoflurane in his camo jacket’s bottom pocket felt a little heavier.

“Guess who I talked to on Monday?” Saunders asked. “Frank Adams. Yeah, he’s working for a security firm in Bethesda. We talked about the old days in the Thirty-Fifth, Desert Storm, and all that old school stuff. Hell, we must have talked for three hours.”

“Is that right?”

“I still got that picture of us and the wives half naked in Antigua? Remember that?”

Towsley did recall that. His first foray into marital infidelity began that night on the beach with Jack Mitchell’s wife. The good Senator Paul Saunders knew that, too. “Yeah, I remember.”

Towsley rounded the corner into the short hallway leading to the security monitor room. For the first time as far back as Towsley could remember, the guard now sitting at the console was not alone. A Secret Service agent stood quietly behind the guard with his hands locked behind his back, both of them staring stoically at the dozens of tiny camera monitors. How quickly a plan could unravel the moment it was carried out. The sweat under Towsley’s t-shirt grew thicker. The agent turned to give the colonel’s ID badge a cursory glance before returning his attention back to the HD screens. There was hardly enough room for four people in the room.

“You don’t look good, pal,” Saunders said.

“I haven’t been feeling well lately. Sinuses.” Towsley could see the guard had the image of the corridor outside the infirmary on one of his biggest screens.

“Can I help you, Colonel Towsley?” the Response Team man asked.

Think fast. “Toggle the camera in Caliban’s cell, sergeant.”

The man flipped a switch and the image from a corner camera appeared on the big screen. Caliban was sitting on the floor drawing with his pastels. The alien had several pictures spread across the floor. His hands were quick, insect-like.

“That is the creepiest goddamn thing. . . .” Saunders said, trailing off.

“Keep an eye on him and let me know if he does anything irregular.”

“He’s always doing something irregular,” the sergeant replied.

“Well, more than what’s typical.”

“Yes, sir.”

Towsley stepped out and headed for his office just around the corner. “Can you give me a moment, Paul? I’ll catch up with you.”

“Sure, Marty.”

Towsley closed his office door behind him and sat down on the couch. Now what? He didn’t have enough gas to knock out the entire floor. He paced around his office for a couple of minutes, drank a glass of water from the bathroom, and guessed Senator Saunders had to have left the monitor room by now. He stepped out of his office. The Secret Service agent was talking to another agent in the main corridor, and Saunders stood at the candy machine stuffing in quarters. Thank you.

The security guard in the monitor room was finally alone.

Towsley rounded the corner.

Check that.

“Wow, they do look like dragons,” the president of the United States said. “Can you zoom in, sergeant?”

“Yes, sir.”

Towsley couldn’t wait. He had to do both of them. He closed his eyes, his head still swimming from the scotch. Ten-by-eight cell. Small toilet next to a flimsy mattress with springs poking out. Meals served through a slot in the door. Twenty-three hour lock down with one hour spent stretching in the yard. For the rest of Towsley’s miserable bastard, rotten ass life.

“Colonel Towsley, how are you?” the president said with a low, somber tone.

“Hello, Mr. President.” Towsley saluted his Commander-in-Chief and he received one in return.

The president turned back to the security monitors, and Towsley’s right hand disappeared into the bottom right pocket of his camo jacket. His fingers wrapped around the cold can of knock out, one of them finding the spray trigger.

He savored a fleeting memory of him and a 9 year-old Sarah jumping up and down on a trampoline in the backyard, that girl now a married twenty-six year-old woman with a son living in Atlanta. A woman he would certainly never see or hear from again. Not after this.

Towsley pulled the Sevoflurane out of his pocket, turned ever so slightly toward the president, his heart nearly out of his throat.

“Mr. President, General Taggart would like a word.”

Towsley pressed the cannister tight to his leg, afraid to jam it into his pants pocket and cause unnecessary movement, the steely eyed agent right behind them.

As soon as the president left the monitor room, Towsley swung the door shut with his left boot, wrapped his arm around the guard’s head and sprayed a short burst of knock-out into his face. The man’s right hand went for the service pistol on his hip but never made it. He let out a wheeze . . . a gurgle . . . and went spaghetti noodle all over. Towsley turned the lock on the handle and closed the door on his way out. He pushed the squawk button on his radio, signaling Weinholt the coast was clear.

“Colonel, can I talk to you for a moment?” Senator Saunders stood between him and the elevator.

“Not now, senator, I’m in the middle of something.”

“It’ll be quick.”

“Colonel Towsley,” Taggart said over the group of men huddled around him. “Yourself and Major Weinholt are requested in the conference room in five minutes.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Bring those culture assimilation reports as well.”

“Yes, sir.”

Towsley maneuvered around Saunders and entered the elevator. He pushed LEVEL 2 HANGAR DECK. Saunders took another bite of his Snickers and followed him in.

“Look, Marty, I just want to . . . well . . . about Jack. I’m really sorry about . . . everything, you know? They made me testify against you, Marty. I didn’t want to. I know it’s been twenty-some years and a lot of water has passed under the bridge, but . . . oh for Christ sake, are you still pissed at me?”

Senator Saunders received a full blast of Sevoflurane in the face.

Weinholt motioned for them to stay in the elevator until she scoped the main corridor on the Hangar Deck for guards.

“Hallway’s clear. This way.”

She led the guys around the corner to the left. A dim hallway lay on the other side of a swinging door there.

Weinholt stopped at one of the doors in the corridor marked A4G REACTOR – AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY and inserted a plastic card into a keypad panel, typed a few numbers, and successfully unlocked the heavy steel barrier.

Three large steam turbines being turned by three equally large General Electric A4 nuclear reactors sat in the middle of the room, sunk in a long pit below the floor. Each of them had to be ten feet high, twenty feet long.

“It smells like my mom’s old electric blender in here,” Nate said, looking up at the giant transformers and cables buzzing above their heads.

Weinholt pointed to a door at the other end of the catwalk. “This is as far as I go. The hangar is on the other side of this door. Remember to wait for the lights to go out. As soon as they do, run for the red emergency light above the electronics laboratory entrance just to the left of this door.” Weinholt used her card to unlock it. “Tony, stick your foot in here to keep the door open, and don’t let it close or it’ll lock.”

“Roger,” Tony replied. He put the tip of his PF Flyer in the doorway.

“Darren over here.” She motioned him back to the reactor room door, behind a tall electrical switch box. “Here. I don’t want them to see this.”

Darren received the butt-end of Weinholt’s 9mm Beretta. “Are you serious?” he asked.

“Yes, I’m serious. You cannot let anyone get between you and your suits. If you do . . . it’s all over. Understand?”

Darren checked the safety and tucked the pistol into his jeans behind his back. “Why can’t you come with us? At least to the lab.”

She shook her head, smiled. “I’m not into the gunplay thing like you.”

“You just gave me your service pistol, major.”

“The Air Force issues guns to secretaries for crying out loud. I’ve never fired it. This is your fight anyway, soldier, not mine.”

“Soldier . . . yeah, I almost forgot.”

Her choice of words seemed to have a demoralizing twinge, and a sad hint around her radiant blue eyes bored that melancholy into his own. He felt a lump forming in his throat.

“You and the colonel aren’t ones for rousing pep rallies before the big game are you?”

Weinholt let a tiny smile grace her face, which highlighted her soft crow’s feet. Then she slipped two forefingers through the front loops in Darren’s blue jeans, pulled him forward, and sucked his tongue hard into her mouth with a sloppy, spearmint-scented lip lock. A few seconds of oral grinding later, or it could have been a minute later——he couldn’t be sure——they disengaged with a slurpy SMACK.

“Good luck, Darren Seymour,” Weinholt whispered with a breathy look. She gave him a wet, follow-up smooch, spun around and left the reactor room.

Never mind.

Towsley saluted the guard posted at the desk in the vestibule and stepped into the vast, airy hangar. The air here was thankfully cool on his sweaty face. Taking a quick look, he spotted a second guard standing next to one of the Dragonstars impassively watching the engineers gathered around the machine. A third was smoking a cigarette about two hundred feet away, gabbing with the crane operator in the control box. Count three guards.

“Tony, I got this.” Darren slipped his foot through the door and kept it open. Several storage crates, wooden pallets of food and ammunition, and fifty-five-gallon drums of diesel were stacked against the wall next to them. Lots of Humvees and what looked like armored personnel carriers, too. Through a gap in the crates he spotted his Dragonstar with the access doors still open. To the left he could see the far corner of the building which housed the electronics lab beyond a tall row of metal racks loaded with pallets of stuff.

“I can’t see the guards, but they have to be out there somewhere. Looks like there’s a clear path through the crates all the way to the lab. So sorry, Geils, but you’re staying here.”

“What?” Geils spat. “Towsley told you guys to take me with you.”

“You’re the one who got us caught, ass wipe. We’re not going to let you screw anything else up.”

“You can’t leave me here. I wanna go home.”

“Shut up Geils, or I’ll let Nate do what he said he was going to do to you in the ravine behind my house.”

Geils looked over at Nate and received a wink.

Towsley passed the engineers, giving them a curt nod, and saluted the guard there. Instead of using the main door to the electronics lab, he walked around the building and opened the side entrance with his ID card. Towsley stepped inside and down the short hall to the computer terminal desk in the vestibule.

Crap. For whatever reason, the Response Team had posted a guard at the desk.

Towsley quickly saluted. Make that four guards.

Darren felt the life nearly go out of him when one of the guards appeared right in front of the door. His first reaction was to pull the tip of his foot from the doorway, but Weinholt had told them not to do that. The man had his back to the door, maybe fifteen feet away, carefully looking around and peeking through the spaces of the 5-ton truck in front of him. Slowly, he turned and faced the cracked reactor room door.

“Why are you here, sergeant?” Towsley asked as nonchalantly as he could.

“General Taggart has ordered all auxiliary posts manned. We’re at war now. It’s a crazy reg if you ask me.”

Towsley’s eyes went to the computer terminal at the desk. Christ, he was so close to the touch-screen

“Can I ask why you’re here, colonel?”

He felt a single bead of hot sweat twist out of his hair, past his ear, down his neck.

“Colonel? You look sick.”

A great surge of electricity suddenly galvanized him, stirring him into a state of potential rage. Towsley shoved the end of his 9mm Beretta into the startled guard’s face, afraid of what he could do, what might happen.

The guard apparently didn’t notice the door ajar, or he did but just thought nothing of it. Besides, Darren figured, he seemed more concentrated on something else. The guy was still peeking around, making sure he couldn’t be seen, until he revealed a tall plastic drinking cup and promptly relieved himself in it. A long half-minute later, he set the glass down next to the truck’s tire and zipped himself.

“Back up,” Towsley ordered, false calm in his voice.

It took two or three seconds for the guard to realize what was happening before he did as directed. He stood up and backed himself against the wall. Towsley went around the desk and collected the guy’s radio and 9mm sidearm. “Over to the other side of the vestibule. Go!”

Towsley inserted his PI card into the appropriate slot next to the touch-screen. On the corner of his eye, he could see the guard slowly sliding away against the wall.

“I didn’t tell you to move, sergeant.”

The guard had a new look on his face. Confidence. Ire. He was still backing away toward the short hall with the emergency exit. Towsley aimed the Beretta. Still, the guard didn’t stop, probably thinking, You don’t have the guts, or some other foolishly defiant belief.

“Sergeant, can you see the desperate, shit-happens look in my eyes?” Towsley shouted.

The guard took another step. And stopped.

“Now, back up to where you were.” Towsley returned to the touch-screen, accessed the circuit schematics to the entire base, and pressed HANGAR. On the bottom box, he selected LIGHTING.


He touched OFF.


Darren watched the second row of brilliant sodium lights go out. “There they go.” He pulled the Beretta out of his blue jeans and clicked off the safety.

“Whoa, where’d you get that?” Jorge asked.

Everyone in the hangar looked up at the ceiling. One of the guards removed the hand-held radio from his belt. The third and final row of lights flickered out.

“Let’s go, let’s go.”

Everyone stormed out of the door, into the hangar. Through the tall crates, Darren spotted the red emergency light above the side door to the electronics lab, fifty feet to his left.

He heard the guard far off on his right say into his radio, “We just had a shut down in the hangar. Tell Circuits to get on the ball.”

Thirty feet.

Someone behind him stumbled, murmured a curse. Darren kept running.

Twenty feet.

“Hey, Jim!” the guard on the other side of the hangar called out. “Can you see well enough to make it over to the electronics lab? Circuit Room says the cut-off was accessed from there!”

Ten feet.

“Who shut it off, and why?”

“I wasn’t told! Go check it!”

The touch-screen suddenly went blank, replaced by a center box which read SECURITY OVERRIDE - PLCR433V3. Someone in the Circuit Room with higher clearance than Towsley’s had just cut him off. The lights would be coming back.

Just as Darren reached the front door into the lab, the darkness around them disappeared. “Go!” he screamed, holding the door open. “Go!”

“Hey!” A guard not more than twenty feet away, blind just a second ago, drew his sidearm. “Halt!”

Towsley appeared from the hallway and shoved another guard he’d been holding out into the hangar.

“Colonel, what are you doing here?” Darren asked.

He pushed Darren inside and locked the door with his PI card. “Third door on the left! Go!”

Their combat armor suits were still spread out on the low stainless steel table, clumped in four separate piles under rows of fluorescent lamps and other bizarre testing instruments. Darren tossed Weinholt’s Beretta on the table with a smile, knowing that the gun had just been her crafty excuse to get him alone. He could still taste spearmint on his lips.

He gave the individual modules of his suit a quick once over to see if they had been taken apart or altered in anyway, but nothing appeared to be meddled with. Darren laid his sub-suit on the table in front of him and began to remove his clothes.

Towsley had his ear pressed to the door. “I think they have the service exit open. You boys have to hurry.” He reached over for a chair and jammed it under the door knob.

The door suddenly thumped, and Towsley backed off.

“Colonel Towsley, open the door,” came a muffled plea behind the door.

“Where’s Geils?” Towsley asked.

“We left him in the reactor room,” Darren replied.

“I told you I didn’t want him left here!”

“Screw him!” Darren growled back. “You deal with him, colonel. We don’t have the time or space to babysit him.”

The guys were finally in their sub-suits and began locking the armor modules together. The door thudded again, harder this time.

“What do we do with our clothes?” Tony said.

“Leave ’em,” Darren said, putting his helmet on. All of the components appeared to be working properly: gauss gun, pulse rifle, hoist-cable, first aid, IFS, surveillance sensors, everything. Nothing had been tampered with. He popped the rifle off his back-holster with a thought-command and switched it on. “Set your rifles on low and go for the knees.”

That’s when the guards outside opened fire and began to punch a Swiss cheese design into the door. Towsley spun away to his left from the disintegrating door. Someone kicked it in, and two guards rushed in like a pair of brazen cowboys stupid enough to believe they could take on the whole saloon. The guys lifted their pulse rifles and fired over the guards’ heads. The two startled soldiers ducked and ran back for the door.

“C’mon!” Darren shouted over the comm. The guys rushed the door and sprayed the entrance with laser fire, pushing the guards there back down the corridor.

Darren stepped out into the hallway into a hail of harmless, armor-piercing fire where six guards had lined up against the wall, and swept his blazing weapon in a straight line, walking the laser pulses across their legs. All six went down screaming, their submachine guns spitting fire blindly.

Darren tuned the rifle back to high-power and squeezed off a single shot that blew the door to the vestibule off its hinges. Five of the guards on the other side went flying backward in a hail of splinters. Beyond that, he spotted through the lab’s front door at least ten Response Team soldiers with a Stryker Infantry Carrier Vehicle taking up fire positions in the hangar. There were certainly more beyond his line of sight.

The congregation of civilians and officers milling about in the office wing had moved down to the Combat Operations Center to observe the melee down in the hangar unfold on the front hi-def screens. Taggart was sitting in The Throne with his headset on.

The four shitheads appeared to have hesitated in the electronics laboratory. They hadn’t come out since the firefight began almost five minutes ago. Perhaps their resolve had deflated because of the increasing number of Response Team personnel now gathering in the hangar with a pair of 8-wheeled Stryker ICV’s. Stalemate.

“Major Forrester,” Taggart said into his microphone.

“Yes, sir?”

“I don’t want the enemy to escape. Do you understand? And if you see Colonel Towsley and Major Weinholt, I want them arrested.”

“Arrest the colonel and the major?”

“Towsley assaulted one of your guards and a U.S. Senator. That’s affirmative, Forrester.”

Darren confidently strolled toward the entrance and sent one of his RCS scouts hovering out the door to get a look at the hangar. “They’re all waiting for us to pop our heads out,” he said, examining the tiny screen on his visor shield. “Jesus, they’re armed for a rock concert. Fifty-cal on the Strykers, assault rifles, grenade launchers, a squad with AT4 anti-tank launchers. They even got a technical——goddamn Chevy truck with a Gatling cannon in the back . . . are you kidding me?”

“We’re not going to kill any of them are we?” Nate asked, but Darren didn’t answer.

“Darren?” Tony asked.

Darren instructed his suit computer to build a battle map of the hangar and calculate zones of fire. “If they don’t back off, we just might.”

“They’re people out there, yo,” Nate said. “We can’t kill ’em. Our enemy is outside wiping out our military!”

Darren checked the battery to his rifle. “If they back off, we won’t have to.”

“You know they’re not going to back off.”

“Then we’ll have to kill them!”

A small tracked vehicle no bigger than a large dog appeared at the entrance to the electronics lab and pointed a camera in their direction. It had a telephone. A speaker under the tripod crackled. “My name is Major Forrester, and I’d like to——”

Darren promptly pumped a narrow blast from his pulse rifle into the vehicle. Negotiations over. He let out a slow breath and sent a thought-command to his comm. He scanned through all the closest radio frequencies until he found the one the guards were using, and opened the channel. “Hello, hello, hello,” he said. “The bogeymen are here. I suggest everyone back off and let us through, and nobody will get their heads blown off.”

“Listen, you little cocksucker,” Taggart growled. “This is going to end right now, so put your guns in the dirt. You are not going to get out of here. Like I told you.”

“What is wrong with you?” Darren shouted. “We’re not the enemy! Tell your guards to clear out of the hangar and let us get to our fighters, or I swear to God we’re going to cack everyone out there!”

“You are not on our side!”

Darren closed the channel and looked to his bros. “Remember the last scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? We’re going out with guns blazing like Redford and Newman. Make sure your pulse rifles are on high.”

“This shit ain’t workin’, Darren,” Nate said. “There’s gotta be another way.”’

“There isn’t another way. Set your rifles on high power.” Darren opened the channel again. “Taggart, I’m telling you one last time. Call off your Praetorians.”

No reply.


“I heard you,” came the placid response.

He used a calmer voice. “Please, I am begging you. Let us go. We’re not going to hurt anyone. Just call off the troops.”

Without warning, the voice on the other end changed. It wasn’t the cool, smug voice he had tolerated in the general’s office yesterday. It was now full of rage and insanity. “There’s five of you, not four! Your friend in his dragon fighter destroyed our orbital weapons! We could have plastered them all over the moon! You’re gonna——!”

“This guy’s gone,” Darren said. “Listen to him. He’s schizo.”

“——kill all of us! Major Forrester? As soon as they take one step into the hangar, you take them out! That is an absolute goddamn order!”

Long pause.

“Major Forrester?”

“Yes, sir, I concur.”

“Major Forrester?” Darren said. “I would like to apologize in advance for killing your brave men who are about to fight with honor and sacrifice but die senselessly for Emperor Nero while Rome burns.” He shut off the radio comm. “Nate, cover the door.”

“Come on Darren,” Tony moaned. “Let’s just chill the hell out and think of something else.”

“I’m just curious, Tony, but what happened to the wild-eyed kill-freak who got to ‘practice’ on bank robbers last weekend?”

“Those were bank robbers who killed some poor shmuck in cold blood. These guys are just following orders!”

“They’re standing between us and our Dragonstars, denying us the enemy who is killing millions of people. Somehow I don’t see the disparity. Nate, cover the fuckin’ door like I ordered!”

“Before I cover the door,” Nate said. “I want to know when you decided to be squad leader?”

“For real?” Darren cried. “We don’t have time for this!”

Jorge had been standing off to the side, watching the three of them go back and forth, before he slowly raised his hand. “I think I might have a solution,” he said.

“What’s that?” Darren shot.

“This will be a little . . . awkward . . . but . . . I’ve been hiding a secret from you guys.”

“You’re gay,” Tony said. “I’ve known about it for a while.”

“That’s right, gringo, and I’m gonna make you my pink punta!” Jorge took a single threatening step in Tony’s direction.

“Alright, already!” Darren shouted. “What is it, Jorge?”

Jorge paused to let his temperature drop. Then said, “I have a battle drone assistant stored aboard my Dragonstar. Just behind the cockpit. It has a non-lethal riot control that might help us. But I’m the only one who can operate it.”

Darren’s jaw dropped. Tony’s jaw dropped. Nate’s eyes went wide.

“A battle . . . drone. . . ?”

“. . . assistant,” Jorge finished. “A robot. I named him Brutus. He’s a nasty piece of work, too. But I haven’t had a chance to play with him yet.”

“Jorge, why in the hell didn’t you tell us this?” Darren asked. “It’s been a week!”

“I was told not to. By that machine. Not until we started ground operations. Something about the possibility that you guys would force me to give up control and use it yourselves.”

“Why can’t we use it?” Darren asked.

“Because I have a cooler head than you guys. Always have. It takes a soothing hand to control the beast. You hair-triggers would use a grenade to kill a mosquito. That’s why I get the robot sidekick with the itch for destruction, not you.”

Darren checked the RCS monitor. The Response Team was still waiting, all of them pinned behind the Strykers, the Dragonstars’ landing legs, stacks of crates, and mobile computer stations. A couple of guys were setting up another direct-comm tracked vehicle to send in. The stalemate was not yet over.

“Does it talk?” Darren asked. “Or have an artificial intelligence?”

“No to both,” Jorge replied. “It’s actually a virtual intelligence that sends text messages on my visor. It complies mostly with fixed programs, but it can learn to adapt like an AI.”

“Non-lethal riot control, huh?”

Jorge nodded, smiled. “Alien hippy pacification.”

“Alright, Jorge, let’s see it then. Release the kraken.”

Darren maneuvered his recon scout over to Jorge’s Dragonstar to get a look. A panel slid back and revealed a dark alcove behind the fighter’s head. Something stirred . . . and a jet-black praying mantis nearly eight foot tall uncoiled out of its niche and hovered above the cockpit.

“Whoooaaa,” everyone murmured.

It didn’t have legs but instead three anti-graviton spheres under its curvy, upright torso. Where its arms were supposed to be, alternatively, were two large cannons of some unknown utility. It had other appendages and weapon-looking devices poking out everywhere. The head bent down on a segmented neck, and it had three concave eyes set forward into its metal skull with one in the back and two on the sides.

It spread its two cannon-arms out to its sides above the startled guards closest to it like some dark avenging angel of death. Darren could just barely make out what looked like shimmering heat waves emanating out from its chest, blasting the guards hiding behind the Dragonstars’ landing legs. The men waved their arms around their heads as if they were shooing flies, their faces contorted into looks of absolute agony and panic as they backed away.

Brutus hovered down to the hangar floor and blasted more guards. Soon every man was running toward the elevator-stairwell alcove halfway down the hangar. That’s when the battle drone began cutting loose on the now unoccupied vehicles, and the sight gave Darren the chills. The robot’s two arms were actually a pair of heavy disrupter cannons. Red lightning bolts, curling around one another, shot out and disintegrated the front half of the closest Stryker vehicle with an ear-splitting ZZZZZZZZZ loud enough to crack the glass in the lab’s front doors. Brutus finished the vehicle off with a second disrupter blast and pumped a single EPG grenade into the Chevy technical. The robot began to move slowly across the hangar, destroying every object around it with a fluid, methodical bent.

Tony cackled like a mad scientist. “It’s like The A-Team! Bullets and all manner of destruction whizzing everywhere but no one’s getting a scratch!”

Sprinklers in the hangar’s ceiling kicked on from the clouds of smoke roiling upward, and it turned into a deluge. Suddenly, Brutus appeared through the smoke outside the lab doors, hovered to a stop and turned to face the hangar.

The 8-foot insectoid robot folded its two disrupter arm-cannons across its chest. Darren received Brutus’s info specs in the lower box on his visor along with an exploded diagram. Poking out of its upright chest, the robot had an EPG grenade launcher, two 50 kilowatt laser pulse guns——stubby versions of their pulse rifles——and a large-target utility, automatic shotgun at the bottom. This nasty weapon fired a supersonic spray of tungsten BBs in a 30-degree spread. The damn shells were the size of baseballs. Brutus also had eighteen reconnaissance camera scouts, and a storage compartment containing extra ammo like grenades, shotgun shell magazines, needle gun clips, and fully charged pulse rifle batteries. Demolition tools and invisi-mines with fragmentation or thermobaric cores completed the inventory.

“C’mon,” Jorge said. “Stay behind him and don’t stray off.”

Brutus had activated a green-tinted force field——a forward facing, half-dome shield about ten feet high and fifteen feet wide. Darren noticed that a half-inch hole formed in the shield wherever he pointed his pulse rifle and traveled with his aim. Nice, he thought. Happy times ahead.

The force field wasn’t needed, however. The Response Team had cleared out of the hangar.

Darren leapt up onto the rungs of his Dragonstar, and hefted himself over the cockpit onto the beast’s neck. He trotted back to the open access doors to examine the patch job the engineers had given his fighter. Like he had requested, they used a silver electric cable to replace the superconductor gel tube and spun-glass insulators at the connection points. Incredulously, however, they used what looked like ordinary duct tape to seal the bonds along the insulators.

“You got to be kidding me?” He jumped down into his fighter’s guts for a better inspection. It was duct tape! They had at least coated the tape with some kind of clear epoxy. There wasn’t time to continue bitching, though. He had to move.

Darren closed the access doors and jumped in the cockpit. As the canopy slid shut, he plugged the main computer cable into the helmet socket. THOUGHT UNIT ENGAGED flashed on his visor, and his Dragonstar roared to life, Darren’s senses reaching into the machine’s circuits as the fighter’s computer juiced his brain into a faster rate of cognition. The chair brace locked him into the seat, and the pre-op check beeped in his helmet——flight operations ready.

Nate’s fighter was already rising on its anti-graviton propulsion and rotating to face the tunnel opening at the end of the hangar. Darren went airborne next, followed last by Jorge and Tony.

Darren led his squadron into the tunnel, but stopped halfway to the surface when he saw that the tunnel’s blast shield was still secured. He fired his laser cannons but only managed to gouge blackened pits into its surface. The guns would overheat if he continued. Darren popped the mental-safety to the electromagnetic gauss cannon and let loose. The stream of kinetic energy slugs managed to slice through the shield, but through the hole Darren spotted another shield beyond that. He was not about to empty his magazines of precious gauss shots. He contemplated using a singularity missile, a half-kiloton explosion certainly able to do the trick, but that would also blow the top of the mountain off like a volcano and destroy the base underneath.

‘Son-of-a-bitch!’ He opened the channel the Response Teams had been using and switched on the fighter’s inverse-signal processor so that the persons receiving his message could understand his faster rate of communication. ‘Somebody down there better open these doors!’ he shouted, then activated the mental TRANSMIT key.

‘And if we don’t?’ Taggart’s computer-processed voice replied in his earphones.

The guards who had survived Brutus’s alien version of hippy control were slowly coming back into the hangar when Darren reappeared and hovered to a stop. He cut loose on a stack of fifty-five-gallon diesel drums with the laser cannons. A billowing mountain of flame shot upward and rolled across the ceiling. He put the cross-hairs on three five-ton diesel trucks parked together to his left, cutting them in half with the gauss cannon. The Dragonstar rotated to the right and pumped a single optical-guided grenade-rocket into the Learjet’s cockpit, scattering the aircraft in a million, flaming pieces.

‘My next shot is going into the electronics lab . . . now open the doors!’ TRANSMIT.

“Open them,” the president ordered.

Taggart turned to face his commander-in-chief. “Sir, you don’t understand. These boys——”

“I understand enough, general,” the president replied placidly. His face did not show composure, however. “Open the door.”

Taggart felt his knees weaken. “Mr. President, this situation has gotten way out of hand.”

“No shit it has.”

“These boys are dangerous. Look at what they’ve done to the hangar.”

The elevator door into the COC suddenly whizzed open, and Major Forrester stormed in with four of his men, weapons drawn. The major had rivulets of blood running down his forehead, his teeth clamped around one of Taggart’s Cuban cigars. “Open the door, sir.”

“Major, you’re out of line!” Taggart could feel the world slipping away, the enemy moving in like oily snakes, ready to pump the poison.

Forrester took the cigar out of his mouth and aimed his SCAR assault rifle at Taggart’s chest. “No. You are out of line. Sergeant Mitchell, open those blast shields.”

“Yes, sir.” The sergeant hit a switch on his computer console.

“You’ll be arrested for this, Major Forrester!” Taggart said. “I swear to God and Jesus!”

The president shook his head. “I’m afraid you are the one who will be arrested, general.”

“This is outrageous!” Taggart screamed. Repel boarders! “You’ll all be hung for this. I’ll see to it!” Repel boarders!

Forrester had known Taggart for years and had never seen his commanding officer behave this way. The general’s sweaty face had puffed out. His eyes were bloodshot, his lips trembling like a child’s. Forrester never saw a man so completely gone from his senses. It was frightening to watch Taggart go down like this.

“You hear me?” Taggart shouted again. “Hung! By the rafters!” The veins in his neck sprung out like tight cords of rope, his face turning a shade pinker.

Forrester said to his men, “Confine General Taggart to the brig and put him on suicide watch.”

“They’re gonna get us!” Taggart cried. “Can’t you see? They’re gonna get us!”

“Come on, sir.”

Finally, Taggart fell silent. His eyes went around to each face, looking for sympathy and accordance, but the judging faces that encircled him only showed sorrow, anger, disgrace. Nothing the general sought. The Secretary of Defense had tears in his eyes.

Two of Forrester’s security men grabbed Taggart’s arms and led him to the elevator.

“Admiral Breuer, you’re in command now,” Forrester said.

Breuer’s eyebrows rose. “In command?” The admiral looked around the now inactive Combat Operations Center and the sullen people watching him from their consoles. “In command of what?” he cracked.

Vanessa heard something to her left.

She couldn’t see anything but clearly made out the slow clomp of feet nearby. She tried to reach out and grab something but couldn’t move. She was horizontal, laying on some kind of machine. A breathing shadow appeared next to her. Something cold and metallic clasped over her head, and immediately she heard a voice.

Vanessa? Vanessa, honey? Where is the boy?

Mom? Where are you? I’m scared!

Where is the boy, honey?

Vanessa’s lips trembled, the only part of her that could move. What boy?

The boy with the machine——the machine that can fly. Where is he? We have to see him?

I don’t know who you’re talking about. Mom, I’m scared! I want to go home!

The voice changed——Marcus. Hey, Van, where is he? I want to kick his ass.

Vanessa felt callow anger stir inside her, the tantrums of a child released unexpectedly. No! Marcus, don’t you hurt him!

You have to remember. Who is he? Where is he?

Darren Seymour. Mr. Davis’s English class, fifth hour, sits in the next row, five seats back. Second lunch period, sits with Tony Simmons.

Darren? He’s a little cock!

No he’s not. He’s just quiet. Everyone teases him.

A deep penetrating voice screamed, Where is Darren? Where? The voice sounded ageless and void of gender, a sound not of a living creature or a machine. Tell us where!

I don’t know.

Tell us!

I don’t know! I want to go home!

A large brown bear rose up on its hind legs next to the machine and roared. Vanessa screamed, and her cry echoed off the cold metal walls of the room. She smelled the animal’s hot breath, like a dog’s, scented its musty fur. The bear slowly evaporated, its image rippling like a reflection on water.

Remember the bear, Vanessa? Her mother again. Yellowstone National Park? When you were a little girl wading in the stream? Tell us where Darren is.

Don’t let it get me, mommy.

Then tell us where Darren is.

I don’t know!

A cackling clown somersaulted in the air and landed on the machine between her legs, a red smile full of white fangs cut into its face, its eyes wild, sparks spitting out of its ball of green hair. Snickers the Clown swooned with glee, eyes fluttering, hands upon his chest. Vanessa remembered Snickers from her fourth birthday party. She remembered him sliding through the front door like a hungry snake. She remembered screaming.

Vanessa squeezed her eyes shut and kept crying, the mind of a terrified four-year old now controlling her emotions, evil memories torturing her.

Where is Darren? Snickers popped a balloon, and blood spattered out. He giggled and did a little dance, twirling like a circus monkey dancing for peanuts. His face got suddenly serious and came down inches from her’s. Where . . . is . . . Darren? he whispered inside her head.

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