Dark Dragons

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Chapter 16 - Dragons Unchained

“Let your plans be as dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”

——Sun Tzu

“I am En’rev’k Y’rid Zet——‘He Who Greets With Fire.’”

——Darren Seymour

Friday, May 21

As soon as the tunnel shields went down, the Dragonstars roared one after the other. Darren scanned their surroundings——a mountainous desert terrain under a bright blue sky——and quickly located their position on his scopes as central California.

A global map appeared on his visor, and the AMDS computer cataloged twenty-two mass shadows 1,100 miles above the earth, all of them on polar orbits. One shadow in particular had less than half the mass of the others. Darren did not have to use his active sensors to precisely ID the object to know that it was the needleship which Towsley had spoken of. Target Number One.

’Warm up the ‘nightmares,’ guys,’ Darren ordered. ‘We’re going fishing for the big sharks.’ He activated the proton destroyer launcher to STAND BY. Three beeps in his helmet informed him that Tony, Nate and Jorge had done the same. ‘Pair up and attack at close range ——one shooter, one wingman. I see a lot of fighter pods near us, and you can bet that Scorch is out there somewhere, so keep your active-stealth on at all times. Jorge, you’re with me.’

Darren and Jorge throttled their Dragonstars east to ten thousand knots. They dropped to the surface and thought-activated their first proton destroyers to READY mode. Up ahead, the Mississippi River twisted across the green and brown mottled landscape like a yellow snake in the bright afternoon sunlight.

His warning-receiver quickly snapped him out of his pre-battle trance. A powerful search sensor had just bounced off the ionosphere from over the horizon. The Vorvons were spewing out sensor pulses in 360-degree sweeps, and not just light waves of fuzzy sensor fog but high-energy blasts strong enough to produce dazzling fields of green, pulsating aurora visible in the afternoon sunlight. Darren had just caught the blurry edge of the beam, and he banked to port to avoid the center of the pulse. He knew the active-stealth field was working as it should, but the aliens’ probing sensors had given him a momentary pang of surprise anyway.

The number of enemy fighter formations began to increase, too. Several pods were zeroing in on North America from every direction high up in the stratosphere, their tiny mass shadows represented as yellow dots on Darren’s visor. The Vorvons were actively searching for them, unaware of the boys’ exact position but conscious of their close proximity. Darren began to feel that Scorch might have some kind of extra sensory perception on them. How else could the enemy have a vestigial cognizance of their presence?

‘Mass shadow ahead, Darren,’ Jorge said. ‘Might be that needleship.’

The object gliding along five hundred miles above the surface was not following a polar orbit like the assault cruisers but held an easterly course toward Europe. Darren had no choice but to verify and tag the ship’s ID. Simultaneously, he activated the Feint Mode and the synthetic aperture laser-radar, transmitting a deceptive cloud of false radar echoes across the sky thousands of miles in every direction and hoping to lose their position within the illusion. Five Vorvon pods around them reacted and split into smaller, offensive formations. The laser-radar echoes returned a detailed picture of the needleship——eleven miles long, a bulbous stern tapering to a fine, pointy bow. Darren shut off the FEINT and he and Jorge accelerated toward their target ahead and above them.

‘This one’s mine, Jorge. You get the next shark.’

‘Roger that.’

Jorge peeled away, decelerated slightly, and put himself in position on Darren’s six o’clock, two miles above to provide enemy fighter defense.

With seven proton destroyers remaining, Darren would not repeat the same mistake he made during the Jupiter battle. This time, he would pull within damn near point-blank and fire his nightmare upon the enemy. No intercepting asteroid would ruin his anticipation for quantum hell unleashed into the universe.

Some three hundred miles above the earth’s surface, the atmosphere was finally thin enough for the main computer’s thought-resident, lock-out command to permit Darren to fire his proton destroyer safely——and not ignite the atmosphere and disintegrate the entire Earth in a blinding conflagration of violent, atom-shredding superstrings. Good thing.

He heard Tony and Nate cheering and shouting curses at the enemy. They had just zapped their first assault cruisers, two of them over the Pacific.

‘That was beautiful!’ Tony cried. ‘I am the god of hellfire!’

When Darren and Jorge closed within forty miles beneath the needleship, Darren, thinking of millions of Washington D.C. residents who died senselessly and unknowingly, put the optical crosshairs on the mighty vessel and thought-fired his second proton destroyer. The Dragonstar gave an exhilarating shudder as the missile screamed ahead and the rotary carriage retracted back into the fighter’s belly. Five and half kilometers ahead, the missile’s warhead ignited into a swelling, purple orb of sparking, electrical tendrils.

The four anti-matter drives at the needleship’s stern ignited like giant arc-welders, and the massive ship began to pull away surprisingly quick out of the proton destroyer’s line-of-sight ingress. Twenty-three miles distant.

No! he screamed in his mind. No!

The proton destroyer might have missed the needleship were it not for a single, pulsating finger of destruction that curled out and away from the center mass like an electric whip and caught the rear of the vessel, reeling the purple ball into the hull like a tight rubber band. A blinding, atomic cancer began to fester out from the point of impact. Darren could see the vessel’s guts——engine storage tanks, entire decks, giant machinery of unknown utility——as the outer hull vaporized, then the guts were gone too. The anti-matter engines sputtered and died before they disintegrated. The entire bulbous stern had disappeared five seconds after impact as the destructive chain reaction moved forward toward the tip; Darren hoped the Vorvons on board died slowly and painfully but more than likely went quick and mercifully. He had a momentary jolt of terror go through him when he spotted aurora-like shimmers of diluted atmosphere being eaten around the ship but thankfully spreading no further downward.

Ten seconds or so later, the eleven mile long needleship was finally gone to the ether. Only withering glitters of nitrogen and oxygen harmlessly ionized by diminishing gamma rays remained to mark where the ship had once existed.

Darren’s heart raced. It was beautiful. And so damn easy.

‘Here come the fighters!’ Tony said. ’Keep ’em off me, Nate, I’m going to pop those three cruisers ahead to port!’ Tony was racking up an impressive number of kills already. Darren had to get on the ball.

Judging by the aerial mass displacement scopes, their proton destroyer attacks, successful thus far, had an immediate effect on the remaining Vorvon assault cruisers, and it did not look good. The signal to launch troop carriers apparently had been sent because smaller mass shadows began popping up on the scopes around the larger shadows. This was not what Darren had expected. The bad guys were going for broke——enemy ground forces would be landing.

‘Here comes the shit storm!’ Darren said. ‘Split up! Tony, Nate, Jorge . . . attack as many assault cruisers as you can before all of the troop carriers purge!’

Jorge broke off his wingman position and went for a single cruiser coming up from the South Pole. Darren already had one locked up over Africa and jammed the mental-throttle forward.

He had not anticipated this. Now the four of them would be alone and at the mercy of Vorvon fighter swarms, not to mention the nimble and unmerciful Scorch prowling somewhere.

Everyone in the Combat Operations Center was cheering.

Colonel Towsley sat in General Taggart’s Throne——which felt very comfortable, thank you——with his hands interlocked across his lap. Medusa Stare did not have the precise magnification to pick up the boys’ fighters, but the absence of four . . . now five Vorvon assault cruisers proved they were still alive and killing. It seemed too easy, Towsley thought. He wouldn’t be popping the cork off the Champaign just yet, however. His glass-half-empty world view sensed something was wrong. There were still seventeen assault cruisers orbiting the planet and the gargantuan moonship hanging above the world like an omen, an eclipse of the ancient world heralding impending doom. Who knew what hidden weapon, if any, it had yet to unleash.

The cheering in the COC slacked off a bit when everyone stopped to watch an assault cruiser over North America begin to pull out of orbit. The flight characteristics data next to its green radar icon indicated that the ship was beginning to execute wild, evasive maneuvers, rolling wildly and yawing about its vertical axis almost sixty degrees. Abruptly, the FCD box and the vessel’s radar signature disappeared.

Darren let out a war scream when the assault cruiser’s clam-shaped bow took a direct hit through the gap between the shells. The proton destroyer ate the ship from the inside out. It took a few seconds for the blinding cancer to appear on the hull. The giant x-wings along the aft section separated from the body and flamed out like burning leaves on the wind, taking out the troop carriers still moored to it. The three carriers that did manage to peel away from their berths met three of Darren’s singularity missiles primed for 80 kilotons. The assault cruiser’s demise was impressive, but not as nearly surprising as the rather listless defense it had put up. Only a few banks of anti-spacecraft batteries amidships across the main fuselage had challenged him, but his Dragonstar’s speed and nimble maneuvering kept their wild shots far off his tail. The active stealth field around his fighter helped, too.

Darren had visual of a triangular troop carrier hovering over Egypt at an altitude of sixty thousand feet and slowly heading north-east. With the zoom scope, he saw the ship covered with blisters of anti-aircraft batteries like an alien chicken pox. The monster was heading into a flashing thunderstorm to find cover.

Darren slowed to five thousand knots and mentally pictured a singularity missile screaming out of the small rotary carriage underneath the cockpit. A satisfying little shudder went through the Dragonstar when the missile leaped ahead a nanosecond later. He booted into higher velocity to ride the missile home. He wanted to watch the troop carrier die.

The missile activated its optional guidance——AMDS/radar, infrared, optical viewing ——immediately found the alien ship, and locked on. The missile disappeared into the thunderstorm, and for a split second nothing happened. Darren thought at first the missile had been destroyed or self-destructed and prepared to fire another when the towering, dark-gray thunderstorm exploded. The first retina-burning glare was the twin black hole warhead detonating against the ship’s hull followed by the brighter, secondary flash of the ship itself as it succumbed to the gravity-shearing forces unleashed upon it. The cloud evaporated when pulsating bubbles of glowing, universal properties spread across the sky.

Darren fired four more of his singularity missiles, and they raced ahead, searching for bad guys. One of the missiles turned north——it had found a target. Two others turned northeast when they found targets. The last missile kept heading east, and seconds later it, too, turned northeast. The Vorvon troop carriers over the Middle East quickly descended toward the surface to evade the incoming missiles. Blue pulses of energy flashed out in a futile attempt to bring them down, but Darren’s weapons were jinking too quickly for them to score a hit.

Darren thought-throttled his Dragonstar to maximum velocity, and the fighter pulsed over the landscape at MACH sixteen. He caught the image of the Pyramids, the Nile River, and Cairo zipping past him before a miniature sun flared ahead over the Suez Canal, so bright the early evening side of the planet lit up in false daylight. Another explosion tore open the sky, followed by another, and another. Darren banked to starboard to avoid the deadly fireworks and turned a few degrees back to port, descending toward the Mediterranean, slowing his descent to five thousand knots.

Checking the AMDS, he did not see any more troop carriers or assault cruisers in his immediate area but for an intimidating formation of seven Vorvon pods——sixty-three fighters ——pulsing west over Russia between 35,200 and 42,400 feet. The incredible number of bandits would have given another pilot pause and trepidation, perhaps, but not to Darren’s brainwashed death-defiance. Sixty-three fighters were too juicy a target to ignore. He turned in their direction and accelerated.

Six equally brave Su-27 Flanker air superiority fighters rose from the vicinity of Moscow to meet the invaders, too. A single Vorvon trilobite peeled off from the formation and dove to contend with them. Four hundred miles away, Darren put the Dragonstar’s targeting telescope on the enemy fighter, a rotating reticle forming on the vehicle, and fired an optically-guided laser blast. At this distance, atmospheric diffraction degraded the punch of long-range laser pulses, and Earth’s pea soup atmosphere had abated the laser strike down to half its kill strength. Still, Darren managed to knock the Vorvon out of the sky, the vehicle spinning and smoking to the ground.

Four invading fighters broke formation to deal with the pesky Russians below them. Darren smiled and repeated the same attack times four. This time, two pods of Vorvons fanned out into a pair of flat, offensive-formed wedges and dove for the vexing humans who they believed had killed five of their brethren.

Darren switched on the Feint Mode and transmitted a single false echo quickly rising up from the surface to meet the Vorvons at MACH seven. Darren blew away three fighters closest to the radar echo with the laser cannons, and the entire formation of fifty-five alien invaders reacted accordingly, broke ranks and pounced on his darting, zigzagging ghost like an army of dimwitted cats chasing an imaginary mouse.

Darren directed the false signal away to starboard and toward the surface, adding two more echoes to the deception and inciting further erratic, reactionary maneuvers among the enemy. In the confusion, one of the Su-27 Flanker’s had managed to smoke a Vorvon fighter with an air-to-air missile. Nice one, Ivan.

About fifteen cubic miles of Russian airspace had become the semblance of a swarm of insects buzzing around a street lamp. Darren’s eyes flittered across his visor as he picked off Vorvon after Vorvon with his rotating laser cannons from three hundred miles out. Programming twenty all-purpose, fire-and-forget missiles for air-intercept, he triggered the mental FIRE button in his mind. The weapons spewed forth out of the Dragonstar’s wing ports like Chinese rockets. The missiles communicated with one another, locking up individual targets, and accelerated after their marks.

Darren finally arrived on battle and waded into the furball. He brought down ten Vorvons in a flash with the laser cannons, and accelerated out of the cloud of Vorvon fighters before one of the pilots could spot him. They were still chasing his bogus sensor echoes, firing lasers and missiles at imaginary enemies. Four Russian pilots, however, had died valiantly, the last two Su-27s holding their own for the moment but it would not be long. . . .

Darren stood his Dragonstar on its tail, on its back, and then rolled it right-side up. The Earth’s surface completely filled his windshield as he dove for the confused fighters again, pressed into his seat before the centrifugal counter compensated. He primed fifteen missiles for air-to-air mode and let them fly; fireworks lit the skies above Moscow as fifteen bad guys died.

Surface-to-air missiles, slow, clumsy and useless, rose from the ring of air-defense batteries surrounding the Russian capital. Darren inadvertently flew into the path of one and had to swat it out of the sky with the forward anti-missile pod.

A diamond-shaped trilobite shot across his windshield, and he inhaled sharply, turning his fighter to starboard. A laser shot from an oblique angle struck the starboard wing underneath, issuing a loud BANG and a momentary shudder through the fighter, but the Dragonstar’s ablative armor absorbed the brunt. Darren’s breath exploded from his lungs.

Rushing toward the ground, he promptly leveled out, booted east and back up again. The remaining fighters, twenty-seven of them, dove for him just as he climbed to meet them. The Feint Mode clearly had lost its effectiveness because they now had a visual lock on him.

He dove for the surface again, leveled out at 200 feet and dropped the throttle. His Dragonstar went to full speed, and the terrain-following radar automatically snapped on. Approaching Moscow, he stood the fighter on its port wing, split the spaces between the skyscrapers, and right-sided his bird again as the city fell behind him.

The aliens were still on him and descending. A narrowing cloud of missiles materialized on the sensor scope at his six. The EKG line on his visor bounced faster, and panic tried to overtake him. The anti-missile pod at the rear of the fuselage was about to get busy. The defensive launcher went active and fired a fusillade of red stars to the rear. Suddenly chilled with dread, he went to port to dodge the incoming weapons.

A man standing next to his car on the M-9 east of Zubstov caught a split-second image of a black something zip overhead. A sparkling crescendo of light erupted above his head, and thunder pealed back the earth. He hit the deck just when the windows in his car exploded. All along the highway, people were locking up their brakes.

Darren looked at his scope, saw he had killed two-thirds of the missiles, but the rest were still on him. The anti-missile pod spewed its fire again, but the alien projectiles were too close. He reared his Dragonstar to a halt, praying his impromptu maneuver would work. The missiles sped past him, lost their lock-on, and detonated. Light blazed into the cockpit, and missile fragments rattled off his fighter. The enemy fighters were still behind him, searching.

He dropped his Dragonstar to the surface, rounded a clump of forest trees and descended a few feet above a cobbled street which ran through a pleasant little farming village straight out of a Renaissance painting. He didn’t see anyone in their yards or in the streets this time of night. Everyone had probably locked themselves in their basements.

The aliens appeared above him, and Darren hovered his fighter up into someone’s front yard next to a large birch tree for extra cover. A pair of horses in a pen next to the stone farm house were jumping and bucking wildly to his alien presence.

The fireflies high overhead were continuing southwest. It looked like they had slowed down. They were definitely looking for him.

A minute or so later, the Vorvon fighters disappeared over the horizon, and Darren relaxed his ridged posture in the seat. He looked to the house next to him and saw an old man recording him with a cell phone from the living room window. When he realized Darren had spotted him, the man quickly closed the curtains.

He looked up and searched for bad guys, but the dimming early evening skies over western Russia were finally clear. As he eased the Dragonstar out from under the birch tree, his comm began to buzz.

He opened Sub-Space Channel One. ‘What is it?’

’Darren, this is Nate! Our surveillance sat just detected a gravity flash over Fort Benning in Georgia! Jesus, there goes Fort Jackson, Camp Lejeune! Fort Bragg! Right in a straight line! Rad sensors say they’re singularity missiles! Eighty kilotons!”


Darren gunned the throttles, heard the anti-graviton emitter roar as his Dragonstar screamed over Poland. He knew what the alien was thinking——the bastard had given up its search for them and decided to get their attention instead with a brazen, methodical attack on three defenseless army bases. Fort Benning, he remembered from somewhere, had over 100,000 people stationed there. How many humans had just died because of one megalomaniacal alien pilot? Satellite data showed the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia currently disappearing under an incinerating mushroom cloud. Scorch was going up the east coast, zapping every populated military station he came upon. The alien was calling them out.

Forty-three hundred miles away, it would take Darren about twenty minutes to reach the U.S. at full speed with the atmo drive. Looking at his scopes, he saw that he was the closest to intercept, the others too distant.

‘I’m on him!’ Jorge shouted. ‘It’ll take me a few minutes!’

‘Negative! You guys stay on the troop carriers! I know his tricks . . . this bastard’s mine!’ He heard Tony garble what sounded like a protest, but Darren’s revving sub-light engines momentarily distorted the comm signals. He wasn’t going to wait twenty minutes.

Darren ignored the GRAVITY PRESENT warning on his visor and the very possibility of damaging his Dragonstar with the breakneck sub-lights in the atmosphere. He sent the bypass code to the propulsion computers, and the sub-light engines kicked the fighter ahead on their slowest speed setting of 110 miles per second. Darren heard a bang behind him, and a damage window popped up on his visor. A tertiary circuit relay had just fried . . . nothing serious. With the air-control force fields unable to reduce the air friction at this ungodly speed, a three thousand-degree fireball flared across the Dragonstar’s forward surfaces, and another warning appeared——the telescope’s circuits in the nose were overheating as were the tips to the laser cannons.

It took Darren nearly forty seconds of 110 mps ass-hauling across the Atlantic to arrive at the east coast, and he would have shot himself out of the atmosphere in a straight line had he not shut down the sub-lights and re-lit the anti-graviton drive.

His fighter shuddered as the air-control force fields reacquired the airflow and let out a loud bang when the starboard shock absorber took the brunt of the massive deceleration and blew two of its seven coils out of their emitter cells. Towsley’s engineers won’t be able to duct tape that. Fire suppression automatons inside the engine chamber spewed retardant and quickly killed the flames but not before wisps of orange radioactive gas released from the emitter cells rolled into the cockpit. Darren’s helmet, sensing the deadly toxin, closed off the filtered breather mask as a precaution and switched on his suit’s air supply.

Darren could feel starboard lateral control had gone sluggish. The fighter jolted slightly like a spooked horse whenever he rolled or yawed hard to starboard, the remaining five shock coils warning him to ease off or they too would blow. Damaged, listless, and now about to tangle with Scorch——Darren did not have time to contemplate his dilemma.

Incredibly, the alien had his active-stealth shut off in a deliberate effort to reveal his location, like a twitching sea snake faking injury in order to draw its prey in closer.

Darren would oblige him. The automatic-search telescope acquired Scorch five miles below at thirty-eight thousand feet over New Jersey and computed the targeting data to the weapons system. Darren fired a hate-filled, ten-round blast from his gauss cannon. Unfortunately, Scorch had been tracking Darren with the alien’s passive AMDS. He received four rounds of imprecise return fire just behind the cockpit before jinking left to avoid the last rounds in the gauss stream.

Scorch appeared to have been hit. Darren watched the enemy Dragonstar lurch violently, roll left to right a bit before activating its invisibility and active-stealth. He spotted dark smoke, a blood trail following the wounded beast, and Darren felt a hunter’s relief that all was not lost. But slowly, the smoke dissipated and vanished altogether when Scorch activated its internal fire suppressors.

Darren still had Scorch on his AMDS scopes——momentarily——but the alien quickly dove for the surface where he concealed his Dragonstar’s mass displacement with the earth’s much larger signature. Darren imitated Scorch’s clever evasion, rapidly dropping his Dragonstar to two thousand feet altitude. . . .

. . . directly above New York City.

Scorch couldn’t stay invisible for long, Darren knew. Not during these energy-draining operations. Not in the middle of a sun-drenched afternoon. Darren ascended a little higher to sweep his forward hemisphere around and give his targeting telescope a clearer 360-degree search, ready to jam the trigger down. Don’t be a wuss . . . come out and fight. He kept one eye on his AMDS scope——if Scorch got too close to him, the alien’s mass displacement signature would get hot, and Darren would have him.

He knew the duration of a one-on-one engagement between two Dragonstars would either be very short or a drawn out, error-free slugfest blazing across an airspace thousands of cubic miles wide. It would not be the interstellar equivalent of the Marianas Turkey Shoot either, like furballing with lightly armed, easily overpowered Vorvon trilobite fighters. The rules of engagement differed greatly when two opposing Dragonstars came together——deployment of air-to-air missiles would be nearly impractical in all but the most exceptional circumstances because of the fighters’ superior anti-missile systems.

Instead, it would be a close-range, optically-guided gun battle . . . a futuristic World War II-style dogfight engaged not with .50-caliber bullets but five hundred megawatt laser blasts and electromagnetically-propelled gauss slugs piercing the air at twenty thousand feet per second. Velocities would exceed speeds faster than it took for an eyeball or head to move, limiting the probability of a successful kill to just a raking “snapshot” with some luck mixed in. Attacking and defending would alternate relentlessly at unbelievable time frames, perhaps one or two seconds apart, and Darren predicted a lot of praying and spraying between the both of them.

“Snap-and-burn” would be the most widely executed maneuver for attack and defense but unfortunately would also stress the anti-graviton emitter not designed for such non-ballistic rough handling. Whereas a “snap-yaw” was a hard, 0̊-turn “rudder” that pointed the nose to the rear envelope while maintaining forward flight and velocity, a snap-and-burn was simply a snap-yaw followed by a massive blast of acceleration against the fighter’s forward momentum——a breakneck change in direction designed to escape from an attacker’s forward weapons hemisphere before optical-gun lock up. The escaping pilot had to predict and execute the snap-and-burn before the attacker put him in the forward guns envelope.

Welcome to the suck, Darren, he thought.

The skies over New York City were clear except for a single cumulus cloud, about a mile above Staten Island. You wouldn’t be that stupid. Darren narrowed the detection field of the aerial mass displacement sensor down to a tight beam and probed the cloud. Hidden within the earth’s own mass signature, came a fuzzy blur almost nonexistent on Darren’s visor, so obscure the AMDS passive sensors told him POSSIBLE RETURN. The absence of civilian aircraft told him that the FAA had grounded all flights across North America. A military aircraft then?

Darren began his stalk. He dropped the Dragonstar down to the Hudson River fifty feet above the water’s surface, his active stealth still running, and propelled his fighter south. People on the ferries were pointing up at him, some aiming cell phone cameras. He dared not use his invisibility, which would blind him and hinder his attack. Stay cool.

He passed the Statue of Liberty to his starboard and entered the Upper Bay. Still, his weapons system failed to register a target. He was growing impatient, but that would get him killed. Maintain the stalk, he told himself. The cloud, slowly moving east, began to break up as he neared Staten Island.

Darren arrived at a crawl over the St. George Terminal, the cloud now above him. He pitched the Dragonstar’s nose up sixty-degrees, the trigger finger in his mind ready to jam home. The fuzzy signature on the AMDS grew sharper. AERIAL MASS DETECTED. His weapons computer issued a howling demand to engage, and Darren obliged. He fired a ten-round blast from the gauss cannon.

The object exploded. A Vorvon trilobite——offering itself as bait! Darren didn’t have time to scream. In anger or terror. He kicked the spurs to the anti-graviton emitter, just as Scorch’s Incoming Fire Sensor found the point of Darren’s gauss cannon fire. Four laser strikes raked across the top of the rear fuselage, blowing the port dorsal off the main wing. Bright flash. A violent shudder and an ear-splitting bang.

Darren went invisible, the windshield turning black and every sensor going blind. He snap-and-burned to his four o’clock that was now his twelve o’clock, the atmo drive grunting. The 110 anti-personnel rockets and their two launchers inside the port dorsal wing were gone as well as three plates of ablative laser armor. One more strike there, and he would die.

The IFS told him Scorch had fired from a spot twenty miles away over Long Island. Darren executed one more snap-and-burn to three o’clock, hoping that the move would put him toward Long Island and not into the ground. He exited invisibility.

Darren swore and gunned to starboard before he could mop the top three floors off the Chrysler Building. There! Black speck to one o’clock. FIRE! The first two slugs from his ten-round gauss stream found the alien before it could evade. A bright flash, heat generated from the kinetic blast, blazed in the sky, followed by a trail of smoke. Scorch immediately vaulted into high speed, a straight southwest burst across the surface away from the city.

Darren stood his Dragonstar on its starboard wing, pitched up and gunned after him, slamming the pedal to the floor. The targeting telescope found the alien and zeroed in. Scorch was still visible. In fact Darren spotted red glitters sparkling around the enemy fighter. With a satisfying surge of exhilaration Darren realized he had——finally——hurt the fucker. The crimson sparks were from the damaged assimilation field generator. The image of Scorch’s Dragonstar flickered as the alien desperately tried to cloak itself. No good. Darren activated his synthetic-aperture laser radar for a just a quick scan and saw that the alien’s active-stealth was gone, too. The entire assimilation field generator was toast. He turned the sensor back off before the alien could track him.

The alien was jinking his bird hard to port and starboard, wide maneuvers several miles across in order to throw Darren’s targeting telescope off. The enemy was also climbing higher into the atmosphere. Darren followed him, and the optical tracker in the nose was indeed having difficulty acquiring a direct lock on. Darren had to get in closer for a successful shot, and he had the AG emitter floored to maximum speed. With Scorch zigzagging back and forth, and Darren on a straight beeline, he would close the distance soon and give his telescope a better lock for Darren’s eyes. Scorch would know that, too, of course, and Darren expected the alien to pull a snap-and-burn any moment.

Instead, the enemy executed a simple snap-yaw to the rear. Darren spotted the move and jammed to starboard and the alien’s long-range laser stream fell off his tail. Scorch’s attack had foiled Darren’s pursuit and put the alien rapidly back on the offensive. Darren inhaled sharply when he realized the bad guy had tricked him to a higher altitude away from the earth’s mass shadow. He dug himself into invisibility, dropped the nose and dove for the ground, knowing he had to be glowing hot on Scorch’s AMDS scopes.

The human went invisible and executed a snap-and-burn out of the forward envelope, directly underneath Sryik-of-the-Three-Suns less than five points away, but it had the human sharp on the AMDS. It slaved a single air-to-air missile to the AMDS and fired. The weapon locked onto the invisible Dragonstar, and Sryik-of-the-Three-Suns followed the missile, knowing the human would not see them coming.

He went cold in the chest. Ringing in his ears. The same biological warning that pumped through him the night the Vorvon assassin attacked. Hot sour saliva rushed into his mouth, and he knew something bad was——Missile!

He realized what was coming, knowing he too would have used AA missiles tied into the AMDS if the roles had been reversed. Darren stayed invisible, knowing Scorch was following its missile and expecting him to come out, so that the alien could line Darren up for a close-in kill shot. Instead, he sent a manual fire command to the rear anti-missile pod to fire ten intercepting orbs, unsure how many missiles were coming. Free from the Dragonstar’s invisibility field, the anti-missile orbs found a single incoming missile. Too close! Fifty feet off the tail, all ten defensive weapons intercepted Scorch’s missile. A thick cloud of shrapnel pulsed out, showering the rear fuselage of Darren’s Dragonstar.

Several pieces of missile fragmentation found their way into the fighter’s guts. A warning blared. Darren ignored it, knew Scorch’s IFS had spotted his anti-missile launch point, and pulled his dragon to the left to escape the alien’s attack. He heard something strike, another loud bang, another warning, and he snap-and-burned to port, leveling up and departing invisibility. The world returned to his windshield. The Great Smoky Mountains——western North Carolina according to the positioning system. The targeting telescope swept around, automatically searching for the enemy. Nothing. Darren stayed low five hundred feet off the deck and slowed to three hundred knots.

A coil from the port shock absorber had took a shrapnel hit and so had the AG emitter ——Darren was down to eighty-eight percent of maximum thrust. He was losing this battle. In his withering heart he knew it. Darren wanted to call his bros for help but realized they had to stay on the remaining troop carriers. He would have to face Scorch alone. And possibly die alone. Still one more chance to level things. Something unpredictable. Being unpredictable had saved him from the assassin’s gun Tuesday morning.

With no other course open to him, Darren booted into high velocity, activated his synthetic-aperture laser-radar and sent out a single pulse of energy. The laser-radar, a much sharper and smarter sensor than the AMDS, found Scorch and fed location data to the targeting telescope. Darren put a reticule on the alien, but before he could press the mental fire button, Scorch dove for cover behind a spruce-covered mountain twenty miles to the west of him. Darren could have lobbed several fire-and-forgets at the alien, but its anti-missile pods would have made short work of them.

He could still see the alien on the laser-radar scopes. It was stationary, hovering twenty feet above the treetops in a thickly forested and secluded valley behind a misty six thousand foot peak. Darren’s ECM sensors signaled a warning . . . Scorch had just activated his own laser-radar, trying to pin point Darren’s position, but his active-stealth negated that shit.

A game of chicken. Who would make the first move from cover? Darren waited, thinking of what to do next. But he couldn’t wait, because a singularity missile suddenly spat into the sky and skimmed the mountaintops toward him, followed by another . . . and another! Pissed that he didn’t think of that, Darren reared up and shoved his Dragonstar in reverse. The incoming weapons were too far out of anti-missile range, but they were not intending to strike his position anyway.

The first eighty-kiloton missile struck the surface fourteen miles in front of him, the second eight miles, and the last, three miles. Billions of metric tons of sandstone, granite, timber and unlucky hillbilly moonshiners were thrust into the atmosphere, an Appalachian Krakatoa unleashed upon the earth. Intense heat from the gravity-shearing forces of kinetic energy incinerated hundreds of square miles of pristine forest that had not been flattened by the shockwaves. From out of the dark mushroom clouds of rising dust, fire, trees and bedrock, Scorch attacked with guns blazing.

Anticipating this impudent tactic, Darren pounced on him with guns hot from a lead pursuit angle. Scorch identified his intercept and turned inside him. Darren knew he could no longer match speeds because of the damaged AG emitter nor could he maneuver hard to starboard because of the shot absorber coils.

Countering Scorch’s inside turn, Darren rolled and pitched left into a defensive barrel roll, a coil-shaped maneuver that caused Scorch to overshoot. The alien banked to starboard to put Darren back into its forward envelope, but Darren predicted this and shoved his Dragonstar’s nose up and inverted into an offensive barrel roll, a maneuver used by a slower fighter to turn with a faster fighter ahead of it. Darren reached the apex of his short climb, inverted his dragon, and dove into Scorch’s rear starboard quarter. Scorch saw this, decelerated, and jammed the stick to port. Before Darren could overshoot the alien, he opened up with a raking snapshot from the laser cannons just as Scorch’s Dragonstar filled his windshield, the bastard coming within thirty feet from Darren’s nose. Bright secondary flashes filled the sky around him. Gotcha, asshole!

Darren snap-yawed to port, spotting a dark trail of smoke but no Dragonstar. Scorch, obviously damaged, had dove for the surface to hide himself among the ground clutter. Darren maneuvered into a split-S, rolling his Dragonstar, and pulled into a vertical dive toward the ground, too. He right-sided back up and skimmed the houses of a small town and peeled away. The laser-radar found the alien ten miles off his forward-quarter one thousand feet off the deck. Scorch was turning hard back toward him.

Suddenly, a nine-fighter pod of Vorvon trilobites which had been hiding on the surface on Darren’s eight o’clock were hauling ass toward him quickly. They would be on him before he reached Scorch. Judging them the more immediate threat, Darren peeled off his ingress on Scorch and went wing-over to meet the nimble wedge-shaped fish. He linked nine all-purpose fire–and-forgets into the laser-radar and fired. The air-to-air missiles sped ahead, disappearing over the mountains, and intercepted the targets on his scopes. But the trilobites kept coming.

Scorch had tricked him with its own Feint Mode. The alien’s slick deception had allowed it to close in with a wide ten-mile turn into Darren’s starboard rear-quarter. Pissed he had been fooled by the same dodge he had used on dozens of unlucky trilobites, Darren had one-fifth of a second to snap-and-burn sixty-degrees off Scorch’s lead pursuit.

A raking snapshot caught Darren’s Dragonstar just behind the cockpit, and his fighter let out a metallic squeal. His sphincter puckered up hard enough to break a doctor’s finger. One of the life support oxygen tanks exploded, and a brief lick of fire roared into the cockpit from the air vent above his head.

Finishing the snap-and-burn, Darren appeared on Scorch’s eight o’clock and tried to pull lead on the alien, but Scorch saw it coming, pitched up and executed his own snap-and-burn straight at Darren. He swept his gauss cannon left and right, spraying the front hemisphere with bursts of hot slugs, hoping to catch the alien with a lucky shot. Nothing.

Darren predicted Scorch’s pursuit angle, went wing-over to port and found the alien less than sixty feet inverted above him. Both tried to pull guns on each other, but they had unintentionally turned into one another cockpit-to-cockpit, forming a tight Rolling Scissor——a pair of barrel rolls resembling a double helix designed to compel one of the pilots to force his opponent to overshoot for a raking snapshot. It was a knife fight in a phone booth. They were too close to fire their guns, but if one of them deviated just a few feet out of the formation, they would receive a cannon blast right into the cockpit. Dogfight over.

And Darren knew Scorch had the advantage in this maneuver. The alien just didn’t know it yet. Soon he would notice Darren’s Dragonstar was slow off the stick and missing starboard lateral control because of the blown coils. Scorch would quickly exploit Darren’s weakness and kill him.

Darren kept up with him, trying to think of possible evasions before Scorch discovered his wounds, but he could not come up with a solitary idea. Fear began to creep into him, and his Dragonstar seemed to feel it, too; shuddering now, violently, as Darren tried to push the damaged AG emitter beyond its impairment. Scorch fired a blast of off-boresight laser pulses at him when Darren began to fall slightly off formation, but they missed.

There it was. The first clue. Scorch would have him any second now. Darren’s stinking panic rose to absolute terror. He knew a snap-and-burn this close to Scorch wouldn’t work because the alien could easily get off an easy cannon shot before Darren could peel away.

Darren was now nearly out of the double helix formation, and a terrifying gauss blast across his cockpit missed literally by a few feet. Scorch knew for sure now. The alien, twirling around with him in the Rolling Scissor, yawed a few degrees to port, and Darren knew what the alien was about to do——invert across his beam and attack from an angle where Darren would have to jam hard to starboard to counter the maneuver——something he could not do. Darren was about to die. His guts went tight. He fought the urge to cry out.

Something unpredictable!

Darren popped the windshield, and the glass slid back, the force fields keeping the hurricane gusts out of the cockpit. Darren whipped his left arm out and fired a murderous ten thousand fps blast-stream from the gauss gun. He raked Scorch’s Dragonstar from nose tip to canard wing, shattering the windshield. Internal guts of hardware——the laser-radar, the gauss cannon, and most satisfyingly, the anti-g cockpit field generator——exploded into flaming, spinning comets of debris as the dragon’s head began to disintegrate. Scorch’s Dragonstar flipped violently upward and away, the crushing g-forces on the alien’s body certainly killing the poor bastard quickly.

Darren sealed the windshield and inverted into a split-S to ride the alien to the surface . . . and watch him pancake into the ground. A thick contrail of evaporating steam from spewing liquid nitrogen poured from a blown access door. As soon as the coolant emptied, black smoke and flames shot out as the overheated anti-graviton emitter now began to burn into the surrounding guts.

Instead of tearing off, the starboard wing rent backwards, nearly folding back flush against the fuselage. The Dragonstar nosed up somewhat into a half-ass attempt at stabilized flight. Scorch, incredibly, was still alive. The alien’s engines, however, were dead.

Darren was tempted to lock him up with both the laser and gauss cannons and just finish off the cold-blooded bastard. But the thought of thousands of people the alien had killed with its senseless attack on the American military bases kept his finger off the trigger.

Spend a little more time thinking about it on the way down. ‘Death blessed, Vorvon, do not be fright!’ Darren shouted, repeating Scorch’s taunt from Jupiter.

The alien responded to his mockery with a blind salvo of air-to-air missiles from the undamaged port wing, but Darren’s forward anti-missile pod swatted them effortlessly out of the sky.

Scorch pulled one last insolent act out of the bag when the alien reared up with just hundreds of feet to spare and executed a controlled crash straight into a neighborhood of homes on the outskirts of a small town in central Kansas. The alien took out two houses before rolling to a stop in a wheat field.

‘You bastard,’ Darren growled.

There was nothing he could do for any possible survivors in the two demolished houses. Dozens of neighbors were already rushing toward the burning homes. Darren didn’t see any cars in either driveway, so that was a good sign. Still, he could not help, his mind set on Scorch.

He swooped in low behind the Vorvon Dragonstar and destroyed both wingtip laser cannons with a pair of shots from his own guns, then raked the still intact port wing, destroying the missiles launchers hidden inside. Scorch was finally toothless. Slowly, Darren hovered around to examine the demolished dragon’s head and the cockpit there. What he saw inside didn’t make sense.

He hovered in closer, his Dragonstar’s nose just feet from the pulverized alien fighter. The cockpit was exposed and rent slightly askew, the windshield missing. Black smoke roiled out of the engine chamber where the white hot AG emitter had melted, now burning through the bottom of the dome which contained it.

Scorch was still locked into his chair.

He was barely alive.

Scorch was a goddamn human.

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