Dark Dragons

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Chapter 17 - Shadow Spawn

Friday, May 21

Darren directed his suit computer to scan the swarm of microwave bands floating about until it found the one he wanted——a hissing, Extremely High Frequency carrier wave from an Air Force satellite still untouched by the aliens’ attack. Checking the scan map, he saw that the satellite’s frequency footprint covered China Lake. This microwave band had to be the one.

“This is. . . .” he realized he had never given himself a call sign. “This is Space Cowboy”——it worked——“calling the Near-Earth Space Surveillance and Tracking Center, do you copy?”

No reply.

“This is Space Cowboy, calling NESSTC Control, do you copy?”

Three seconds later, he received a woman’s muffled, and rather annoyed, reply. “Whoever you are, Space Cowboy, you don’t belong on this net. We need this for official traffic, so clear off.”

“I could try 911, but the phone lines are dead. I need to talk to Colonel Martin Towsley, but not General Strangelove.”

“Do you have a code for me, Space Cowboy? I need code clearance for all inbound traffic.”

“Romeo Tango Bravo Yabba Dabba Doo.”

Darren heard the headset on the other end pass from one hand to another, then, “This is Colonel Towsley. Who is this?”

“Hello, colonel. This is Darren Seymour. I’m somewhere just outside a little town in Kansas. I need you to see something, and I want you to tell me what the hell is going on.”

“What do you mean?”

“You tell me. I’m sending you an MPEG-Two feed from my suit camera. You should be getting it now.”


The image which appeared on the top HD monitor on the COC’s front wall showed a man ——or what appeared to be a man——still locked into a seat dangling halfway out of an exposed cockpit that had been blown in two. Towsley recognized the vehicle as a Dragonstar. What was left of it anyway.

“This is the bad guy who wiped out your satellite weapons, colonel,” Darren said. “And the military bases on the east coast.”

“But it’s a man.”

“I know it is!”


Well, at least it looked like it had once been a man, Darren thought. The crash had rent the pilot’s helmet off, revealing black cuneiform script tattooed across his gaunt face. He had no hair, and his skin looked sickly pale. Darren also noticed a spider-shaped cybernetic implant imbedded into his bald scalp, guessing it to be a point of thought-control interface, a mechanical equivalence to the benign growth on Darren’s brain. The man wheezed heavily with every inhalation, and a small puddle of blood began to pool on the ground underneath him. Not much time left.

Darren took a few steps closer, his pulse rifle aimed at the man’s head. “Who are you?”

A rapid fire dialect Darren could not understand suddenly burst from the man’s mouth.


“What is that?” Towsley asked no one in particular.

The First Lady standing next to her husband a few feet away raised her hand. “Colonel Towsley? As you may know, I’m Jordanian-American, and I studied Old Arabic at the American University in Cairo . . . what that man is saying sounds Semitic. Aramaic, maybe?

“The language Christ spoke?”

The First Lady shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s something I’ve never heard before, yet it sounds familiar.”

Towsley turned to the small group of APIS personnel nearby. “Do we have anything that can translate that? I want to know what he’s saying.”

“Yes,” came a thin voice beyond the group of people huddled around him.

Towsley spotted a hand raised way in the back. “Front and center.”

The group parted and let the man through. The guy’s civilian ID said Albert Yates, APIS, Xenosociology. “Colonel, we have voice recognition software that has a linguistics database for all thirty-six language families and their subdivisions. If he is speaking a dead language, the software can use a dialectal comparative method algorithm to identify phonemic——”

Towsley held his hand up. “Get on it.”


“You spoke English to me a few days ago. Remember? What is your name?”

Despite his obvious pain and humiliation, the man managed to smile. The unintelligible words he suddenly aimed at Darren came with daggers. He was practically shouting, his grin still there. He knew the man was probably ranking him up one side and down the other——a dying combatant’s final defiance directed at his opponent before the God of War separated ghost from flesh. Darren felt neither victorious nor mournful toward this human who had been trying to kill him just fifteen minutes ago. A human. Not a black leather-skin Vorvon.

The man’s roar of contempt trailed off, unable to maintain its volume, slow death leaching in quickly. Tears formed in his eyes. Still, Darren felt nothing.

He rolled his head to one side so that he could look past Darren at his Dragonstar parked thirty feet behind him. His eyes hung there for a moment before going back to Darren. “G-gooooodrag . . . on. Good . . . evol . . .ushine.”

Now he felt something. “Thank you.”

The man moved a slow withered hand up to his neck, his long bony fingers wriggling like spider legs, and dug under the gray flight suit. A fist came back with something inside attached to a brassy necklace. He jerked hard, the chain broke, and he held out his offering——a slender female torso carved from an intensely blue cut of lapis lazuli with tiny veins of gold pyrite. Some kind of ancient fertility symbol. It was beautiful.

“Dar—ron . . . G’drag . . . on.”

Darren took the pendant and put it in one of his bandolier compartments. He lowered his pulse rifle. It wasn’t needed.

The man whispered a few words in his strange language, a prayer perhaps . . . and with that, the son-of-a-bitch died.


Yates, sitting at a computer station by himself a few feet away, studied the information on the monitor before speaking. “You were close Madame First Lady. I selected Aramaic and Old Arabic as base language families for comparative method reconstruction. The computer nailed it down to East Semitic, specifically Akkadian with a ninety-two percent probability curve, phonemically similar to Old Arabic.”

“Akkadian?” Towsley stepped closer to Yate’s station to study the monitor. Yates had Darren’s video recording of the human pilot in a playback loop.

“Yes sir. The info on my screen says Akkadian was the lingua franca throughout the Fertile Crescent during the Middle Bronze Age until dying out around five hundred BC. ‘The Akkadian Empire existed from 2334 BC to 2154 BC, established by Sargon of Akkad. . . .’” Yates continued to read silently to himself.

“‘To the tribes who have left the lands of Eridu,’” Towsley recalled from the invader’s psychic message. “Southern Mesopotamia . . . what was he saying?”

Yates shook his head. “The software we have unfortunately can’t construct direct word translation from an extinct language. Our voice recognition software only identifies individual consonantal phonemes and vowels matched against comparable modern phonologies. I’m sorry, sir.”

“I guess it doesn’t matter, anyway,” Towsley said.

“Am I getting this right?” the president asked. “These aliens were here four thousand years ago? But there’s no historical record of an invasion.”

“Unless you believe all of that Chariots of the Gods stuff,” Weinholt said. “The Anunnaki mentioned in the Enuma Elis?”

“Which is . . . ?”

“The Enuma Elis is the Babylonian creation myth,” Towsley said. “It was written around sixteen-hundred BC. The Anunnaki were deities sent to Earth by Marduk the Sun God to teach mankind agriculture, medicine, writing——”

“That was Oannes, colonel,” Weinholt said. “The Anunnaki were credited with creating the world.”

“Oh.” Towsley shrugged. “It’s hard keeping up with all the ancient alien mythology out there.”

“Now who’s Oannes?” the president asked with just the slightest hint of exasperation.

Weinholt cleared her throat. “He was a being described by a third-century BC historian named Berossus as being part fish, part man who appeared from the Persian Gulf and educated primitive humans living around the marshes of the Shatt al-Arab. Some believe the Shatt al-Arab is the location for the Garden of Eden by the way.”

“Educating mankind how to write on clay tablets and cultivate grain doesn’t sound very aggressive,” the president said. “So what pissed them off?”

“We didn’t have the technology to resist them back then,” Admiral Breuer said. “Maybe the aliens chose to be discreet and deceptive so that they could learn something about us. Four thousand years later, they drop the pleasantries and diplomacy and bring out the orbital lasers and flesh-shredding nanobots.”

Towsley shook his head. “Whatever goofy theory one subscribes to——human-alien DNA fusion, Giza Pyramid UFO launch pads——the fact is the Vorvons took a few or many Akkadians with them when they left Earth. Either congenially or by force. In light of recent events, I’m leaning toward the latter.”


Darren had been listening to the conversation and the background voices through Towsley’s sensitive microphone. He had his answer now. Or at least part of one. “Colonel, I’m sending you GPS coordinates so your helicopter boys can retrieve this bad guy and his Dragonstar. There isn’t much left to reverse engineer but good luck anyway. And I wouldn’t wait too long because the natives around here might get restless.”

A crowd of locals had gathered between him and the two destroyed homes about two hundred feet away. He couldn’t see any torches or pitchforks but that didn’t mean they weren’t stirred up.

“I appreciate that,” Towsley replied. “We’ll have some people in the air in ten minutes. By the way, how’s that duct tape holding up?”

Darren chortled. “Yeah, right. Tell your redneck engineers I appreciate the patch job. So far, so good. Contact me on this channel for recon intel and interrogatives.”

“The same for you. Our call sign, by the way is NESSTC Red-David-Four.”

“Roger that. Space Cowboy out.”

Darren waved at the crowd of rural Kansas folk before climbing into the cockpit. A few waved back, which made him smile.

Peeling off the ground, he checked his scopes for a quick battle status and any nearby trilobite pods. No Vorvon fighters, but the two surveillance satellite drones still had telescopic lock on the moonship. As for the troop carriers, his AMDS registered no nearby mass shadows. Over North America anyway.

Darren thought-toggled the IFF-interrogator to locate his bros. Three blue dots appeared on his global positioning scope when their transponders answered back. Tony, Nate and Jorge were circling Los Angeles.

Darren realized he still had his comm tuned to the EHF Air Force satellite. Swearing at himself, he switched to Sub-Space Channel One.

‘——are you? Darren, answer me!’

‘I’m here, what’s going on?’

‘Goddamn it!’ Nate shouted. ‘Where’ve you been?’

‘I got into a furball with Scorch,’ he replied. ‘I’m happy to report no more bad guy Dragonstar.’ For now, Scorch’s human identity would remain secret until an appropriate time. Or until he fully grasped what was going on. ‘Give me a status on the troop carriers?’

‘Status is FUBAR!’ Tony replied. Even filtered through Tony’s thought-processed voice, his agitation was unmistakable. ‘We smoked twelve troop carriers before the rest bugged out for the moonship. But one managed to puke an entire squadron of dropships over L.A. before Jorge put a singularity missile up its ass over the Pacific.’

Boots on the ground. Darren inhaled slowly to placate himself. It didn’t work. ‘How many?’

‘Two Battalion strength maybe . . . infantry . . . some armor it looks like, but no sign of close-air support. The dropships landed right in the middle of downtown. They leveled everything in Pershing Square to make an LZ including that big parking lot across the street to the north . . . I don’t see any civilians or any moving cars downtown . . . Chinatown, the Rampart, Boyle Heights, South L.A. . . . it’s all deserted in every direction . . . a lot of traffic jams on the freeways leading out of town, though. Looks like an evac order went out a while ago. Good thing.’

‘Engage now,’ Darren said. ‘I’ll be there in fifty seconds.’


Tony aimed the Dragonstar’s nose toward the skyscrapers and gunned the mental-accelerator. The machine burst into high velocity, and Tony went back against the seat. He lined up Grand Avenue, a north-south street running through the heart of Bunker Hill and spotted Vorvon hovertanks. They looked like metallic turtle shells, twenty feet in diameter, with a pair of creepy glowing “eyes” in the front and a short “tentacle” on top. Dozens of Vorvon shocktroopers hovering above the street alongside the tanks provided infantry-armor combined arm formations. Tony locked up four tanks and prepared the anti-intruder hydra shroud for an offensive killing run, but before he could even think the word FIRE, four of the lead tanks opened up on him.

A bright flash lit up his windshield——four laser blasts blew the ablative laser armor off his nose and along the starboard cockpit——and Tony rolled away out of the fire zone, swearing in terror.

Nate zipped in from the west through the skyscrapers and managed to pop a couple of hovertanks with his gauss cannon before a complete and total cluster-frick erupted across the skies over downtown Los Angeles. Surface-to-air laser and missile fire exploded from everywhere and not just from the streets of Bunker Hill but from several floors of skyscrapers——individual shocktroopers with portable SA-weapons were firing out the windows.

Both anti-missile pods went to work, and Tony sped away out of the AO, feeling his Dragonstar shudder from the small lasers striking the fighter’s skin. Angry, swearing again, he snap-and-burned back to downtown, pulled up to the 43rd floor of Two California Plaza and the platoon of Vorvons there and gave the entire level a raking with both laser cannons. Fire and smoke roared out along with concrete, steel and body parts before Tony had to pull a hard reverse when ground fire struck his fighter’s belly.

Something struck his Dragonstar with such force that the fighter rocked in the air, and a bright flash lit up the cockpit. He heard the fighter lose power, and slowly it began to fall. His brain scrambled to regain control, and his dragon nosed up again. He heard his bros shouting in anger and terror from the unrelenting ground fire.

As he pulled away, Tony managed a quick look to the ground and saw one of his buddies’ missiles get zapped before it could strike a hovertank. The tentacle on top of the vehicle was some kind of air-defense weapon.

Another missile darted at him, this time from the right, and he reacted quickly. The Dragonstar nosed up and accelerated just before the missile struck the Gas Company Tower next to him. A flash tore through the top floors of the skyscraper, bits of window glass and concrete shooting into the air. Several hovertanks protecting the dropships in Pershing Square were the culprits. Tony optically-locked up two of the tanks with the gauss cannon and popped them both. Air-defense that.

Return fire from the remaining tanks forced him back behind the Gas Company Tower, but more ground attacks from Vorvon units along Grand Avenue forced him away further until he turned tail and lit out.


Finally arriving on battle, Darren told Tony to form up and ride shotgun on his six and Jorge and Nate to head over the Fashion District and swing west to draw SA fire away from Darren’s ingress. He and Tony turned south and went in low between the buildings thirty feet off the deck. Three black Ford Explorers parked in the intersection of Grand and 5th Street shielded several SWAT officers firing on an advancing horde of Vorvon shocktroopers. Darren programed the hydra shroud’s targeting computer for “non-human” engagement. Ahead, three hovertanks met Tony’s gauss stream while Darren greased forty shocktroopers with a single blast from the hydra shroud’s forty-gun cannon. A half second later, he popped forty more and another forty shocktroopers a half second after that. Six platoons of Vorvon infantry disappeared in less than two seconds.

The platoon-killing weapon’s “wow-factor” moved Darren to shocked silence, witnessing his hydra shroud in action for the first time. Not in fear, but absolute delight. The SWAT officers didn’t even have to duck.

Nate and Jorge did their best to pull enemy ground fire away, but there was so much of it, both Darren and Tony received several direct strikes across their bellies.

‘My hydra shroud!’ Tony spat. ‘I just lost comm with the targeting computer! Fuck!’

Darren had fourteen damage points flashing in the assessment box on his visor, three of them critical. Smoke continued to build in the cockpit. The Dragonstar’s main computer was practically demanding a temporary, system-wide shutdown to scan for possible “micro impairments” that could amplify to a complete system failure. Darren didn’t have time, however, for a computer reboot.

He pulled up twenty feet above Fourth Street and hovered in for the kill on the remaining Vorvon formations attempting to seek shelter on Lower Grand Avenue. He did short work. Tony appeared in a heartbeat from the west and smoked the last five alien tanks with his gauss cannon.

‘Clear!’ Darren said.

‘Yeah, clear on my end,’ Tony replied. ’Smoke ’em if you got ’em!”

’No, I don’t think so, Tony.”

‘Just kidding.’

‘Ah, guys?’ Nate said. ‘I’m outside the Third Street Tunnel . . . oh, god. You gotta see this shit.’

‘What is it?’ Darren asked.

Nate did not answer fast enough.

‘Nate!’

‘Just get over here,’ came Nate’s tiny voice.

While Tony hovered above them in his Dragonstar, Darren, Jorge, and Nate stood outside the east entrance into the Third Street Tunnel with Brutus. None of them could speak.

Darren remembered a nightly news broadcast a few years ago taken during the civil war in Sierra Leone of a blood-soaked city street literally strewn with bodies. They had been hacked to death by machete-wielding kids used by RUF rebels to attack villages and guard the “blood diamond” mines that fueled their war. Fortunately, the TV didn’t broadcast the stomach-churning smells or the moans of the still living. Darren also recalled Colonel Towsley’s account of what happened in Washington D.C. last night involving a swirling cloud of flesh-shredding nanobots.

Jorge cleared his throat. “It looks like they were hiding in here . . . but they didn’t hide well enough.”

“They look like they were mauled by animals,” Nate said, his helmet light waving back and forth across the darkened tunnel. “Jesus, what the hell are we really up against?”

Brutus counted eighty-one bodies. All of the victims were adults. College-age, middle-age, senior citizens. But no children. Darren even spied a couple of overturned baby strollers but no babies. Large swaths of blood even reached the tunnel’s ceiling.

Darren closed his visor to keep the stench out of his nostrils. “They’re all slash and puncture wounds. Deep, too. No gunshots or laser burns.”

Brutus hovered over to a woman’s body and extended an appendage, a slender tube with dozens of long probing filaments at the end, several of which pierced the woman’s skin.

“Jorge, what’s he doing?”

“He’s doing a medical,” Jorge replied. “This woman not only got slashed to hell but also poisoned . . . some kind of neurotoxin.”

“You mean like animal venom?” That didn’t sound like nanobots.

Jorge nodded. “If the flesh wounds weren’t deep enough to kill, the venom would have.”

Darren looked quickly into the dead woman’s open eyes, frozen in place along with her expression of terror, and tried to guess what last vision they had held, what horror had visited upon these eighty-one humans seeking refuge from the storm outside. Looking across the cleaved, ragged bodies strewn about like rag dolls, Darren told himself that this was just the first of many acts of wonton slaughter brought forth from the gods of war that he would encounter.

Brutus withdrew his analysis tool.

“Let’s get out of here,” Darren said. “I can’t stand the smell.”

Before anyone could turn and head for their parked Dragonstars, Brutus signaled that nine humans were advancing quickly toward them, coming over the hill from the Two California Plaza building to the west. Right behind them, the robot tagged 352 “subhuman bio-signals.”

“What the hell?”

A UAV helicopter about ten feet long with a rotary grenade launcher underneath appeared over the hill, swooped back around and spat a frag toward the ground.

Now there were 344 subhuman bio-signals.

Nine Marines appeared at the top of the hill near the Angeles Flight railway and were in an absolute haul-ass dead run toward them, arms pumping madly. The grenade chopper fired again . . . and again.

“Get the fuck out of here!” a voice screamed at them over the comm. “They’re right behind us!”

Darren, Jorge, and Nate raised their pulse rifles.

The subhuman bio-signals came over the hilltop. Children——grossly mutated, naked children, their hairless skin anemic and translucent. Darren couldn’t tell male from female. The creatures had sickly anorexic bodies with bone-blades for hands that curved out like swords and long tentacles tipped with scorpion-like stingers thrashing wildly from their backs and sides. They moved hunched over like chimpanzees on all fours but behaved erratically like insects. Double-jointed ankles gave them frightening speed. The question of what occurred in the Third Street Tunnel finally had an answer.

There were a few toddlers mixed in with the larger kids, even several big teenagers, and the air around them sounded like the excited cries from an elementary school playground.

Brutus, pre-set to kill only aliens, did not open fire. Darren guessed that if Jorge changed the directive, the robot would start mowing down every human inside his range.

“Shoot those fuckers!” one of the Marines screamed. “Shoot ’em!”

Darren, too, had hesitated at the sight of this ghastly swarm, but he was the first to open fire with his grenade launcher. Jorge and Nate went to work with their EPG’s, too. Mutated bodies exploded, limbs flew, red human blood pulsed out everywhere. Still, the swarm advanced, even the ones with their limbs blown off. Brutus remained still.

“Tony, we need your hydra shroud . . . now!” Darren screamed.

‘It’s damaged!’ came Tony’s reply.

One of the Marines turned and fired his assault weapon to give his eight buddies more time to widen their escape. He brought down two of the children before one leaped in the air and swiftly decapitated him. A group of them stopped to shred the armor off and fling the body’s innards about. One of the kids impaled the soldier’s head and stuck it proudly in the air, jumping up and down and smiling with wide eyes.

“Jorge, override Brutus’s IFF!” Darren screamed.

The battle drone’s head twitched, and his BAS——Big Ass Shotgun——came to life. A long lick of flame spat out of Brutus’s abdomen, and at least thirty children in front of the robot disintegrated in a cloud of red mist, including the group that had paused to ravage the soldier’s body. Brutus racked another shell and fired.

‘Danger close!’ Tony swooped in and spat several anti-personnel rockets at the back of the swarm near the hilltop, far enough not to hurt his friends on the street. Between him and Brutus, they quickly reduced the massive insect swarm of mutants down to sporadic pockets. But still they advanced.

Several attackers encircled Brutus’s half-dome shield and jumped him, but their bone-blades and tentacle stingers harmlessly glanced off the robot’s skin. A pulse of electricity sent them screaming into the air.

Darren pumped his last grenade from the EPG before sweeping his pulse rifle, backing up as fast as possible. That’s when he saw that they had tiny arms growing out of their chests. Three of them made it through his laser volleys and pounced him. He felt his rifle torn from his grip and watched it go flying. He landed on his back, went for his knife but one of his attackers snatched his wrist with a steel grip. Bone-blades and tentacle stingers tried to slice and pierce his armor, the children wheezing with toothy smiles and shouting in Akkadian.

Darren screamed blasphemies back at them, kicking and thrashing, but they were ungodly strong. His left hand found his needle pistol, and he fired from the hip. One kid’s chest disappeared, and it fell off him. The others tried to go for his weapon, but Darren held the trigger down before they could take it away. One got it in the neck and fell off. The last kid, no longer smiling, went even more berserk, mindlessly flailing away, trying to tear into his suit.

Nate suddenly appeared above him and put a single laser pulse into the creature’s brain. Darren pushed the body off him and tried to stand, but his muscles were seizing up. He landed on his back again and realized he couldn’t breathe! One of the stingers had found a tiny chink in the thin armor inside his right elbow joint. His heart began thrumming erratically. Pain of incredible levels wracked him all over, and his eyes went tunnel vision.

TOXICITY ALERT - TOXICITY ALERT - TOXICITY ALERT.

His suit’s first aid kit went to work. Five-cc’s of medical nanobots already on patrol in his bloodstream began attacking the venom, attaching their carbon-atom bodies to the poison’s molecular structure and negating its effects. Tiny hypodermics in the sub-suit’s arms and legs pumped more nanobots into his body along with an oxygen-rich solution treating circulatory shock. The sub-suit began to heat up, keeping his skin warm.

Darren’s heart continued to beat erratically, and he expected the defibrillator electrodes and chest-pumping constriction rings to hit him any second. But soon his heart began to smooth out. His diaphragm came back to life, and he slowly inhaled after about thirty agonizing seconds.

His eyes focused again, and he sat up, Jorge and Nate standing over him with looks of horror. Darren felt a pain narcotic and an anti-anxiety med mellowing him out.

TOXICITY NEGATED - SELECT [HERE] FOR ANALYSIS / TREATMENT REPORT 01-001.

“I’m alright,” he said.

He stood up slowly and looked around. What he saw was worse than the Third Street Tunnel. Four Marines had survived the attack, one of their dead, everything above the waste anyway, lying across the blood-spattered hood of a Ford sedan.

“Goddamn slave troops,” one of the Marines’ spat, walking through the field of dead. “Goddamn skirmishers!”

Someone else: “What did they do to them?”

Jorge was whimpering like a little kid. Nate mumbled something undecipherable, his eyes fluttering madly. Darren suddenly felt incredible heat toward both of them.

“Suck it up!” he shouted.

Jorge spun his head in his direction, his eyes bloodshot. “They were just little kids!”

“Suck it up!” he repeated. “The Vorvons forced us to kill them . . . to demoralize us!”

Jorge stared at him longer and nodded his head slowly. “I’m okay.”

“Both of you take a med pump. It’ll help. Jorge, I want you to hook Brutus up to one of these tentacle tykes and give us some answers.”

His friend did not acknowledge him but only stood there staring at the mutilated bodies, his chest heaving, bottom lip trembling.

“Hey, Lopez. . . .”

“I’m on it.” Jorge turned away and summoned Brutus to him.

Darren retrieved his pulse rifle. “Tony, loiter right here . . . don’t go anywhere.”

‘I got your back,’ Tony replied. He hovered his Dragonstar over the Grand Central Market building nearby and rotated his fighter to the south. ‘I got eyes on.’

“Are you guys the SAWDOG commandos we were told to expect here?” one of the Marines asked.

“No,” Darren said, remembering Lieut. Colonel Carruthers back at the NESSTC. “But we’re just as dangerous as those guys.”

Another one looked up at Tony’s Dragonstar. “I hope you boys are on our team.”

“Of course we are.”

“Here it is, Darren,” Jorge said over the comm. “They’re totally unresponsive to pain . . . Brutus says ‘serotonin is neutralized by high-levels of adrenaline . . . neuronal connections in the limbic system of the brain supporting aggression and survival are more numerous and highly processed than the frontal lobes responsible for reasoning.’ Aggressive blood clotting, redundant nervous systems, secondary and tertiary internal organs . . . fuckers were bred to stay alive even with their limbs blown off. Brutus also says they’re over four thousand years old.”

“Huh?”

“Yeah . . . he’s performed three different metabolic dating procedures to verify. Around four thousand, three hundred and fifty years, thereabouts.”

“So they weren’t born this way from a mutated mama and papa?”

“No. They’re sterile. ‘Extensive sequential genomic DNA alteration’ is what Brutus is calling it. ‘Somatic hypermutation by foreign enzymic proteins’. . . basically cancer. They were physiologically transformed. Somehow during the process, their growth was stunted. They’ve been the same age for over four thousand years. So there’s the brief, Darren. The bad guys want to mutate our children into hate-filled, hard-to-kill Frankensteins.”

A whisper: “Darren.”

He turned to his left. The female voice sounded nearby, almost next to him. Nate and Jorge didn’t seem to notice. “Did you guys hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“It sounded like a girl’s——”

“Darren, help me.”

“That! Did you hear that?”

Nate and Jorge just stood there, gawking at him like a pair of shrinks watching their patient swing from the lights. Darren walked away from them and looked down the street.

“Darren, help me.” A whisper now. “Darren, they’re going to do it.”

Vanessa.

“Darren, please help me, they’re going to do it!”

“Do what?” Darren murmured, his blood freezing.

“I hear it,” Jorge said. “Just barely. It’s coming over the comm.”

It sounded like Vanessa’s voice all right, but it sounded processed somehow, altered. Was it really her?

“They’re going to do it!” she screamed.

“Jesus Christ!” Darren cried, the life going out of him, everything spinning. He suddenly felt charged, galvanized to do something, but he just didn’t know what. How did they get her?

He answered his question quickly. Last Monday. The night he sat in the bushes outside her house and tricked her dad home. Something in the bushes rustling the leaves when he left. That goddamn Vorvon assassin? Yes . . . watching him watching her.

“Oh no, they have her,” Darren whispered. He looked at the moonship’s icon on the tiny space battle map 932,000 miles from Earth on the other side of the moon. “Oh no, what have I done?”

“Who?”

“Vanessa Vasquez! They got her. . . .”

Vanessa’s fading voice: “Darren help me!”

‘I’m sorry dude,’ Tony said. ‘I really am.’ He meant it too.

Nate and Jorge nodded in agreement.

“I’m not.” Darren looked south down Hill Street toward the direction of Pershing Square. Ideas began to take shape, plans of action hatched, absolutely insane plots of suicidal audacity. He looked Nate and Jorge both square. “I’m going after her.”

‘Goddamn it, I knew you were going to say that!’ Tony spat. ‘That long pause gave it away. Now is not the time for a rescue mission. Planet Earth is priority one, pal.’

“That’s why I’m going alone.”

“What?” Nate, Jorge and Tony shouted together.

“Jorge, let me have Brutus. Transmit his OP-SPEC’s to me. Hopefully he can help me find my way around that moonship.”

“You can’t fly my Dragonstar and your fighter doesn’t have a spot for him,” Jorge said.

“That’s why we’re going down the street——” Darren shoved a thumb in the direction of Pershing Square “——and kick some ass all over that fucking place so Brutus and I can hijack one of those dropships. He should be able to fly it, right Jorge?”

Jorge folded his arms with a look of choler. “Yeah, with his Omni-Interface Tool he’ll figure it out.”

“Remember what you just told me and Jorge about the enemy demoralizing us by forcing us to shoot children?” Nate asked. “Psychological ops, Darren. Their attack on Washington D.C. was the top of the pyramid. Think about it. They’re messing with your head.”

‘Not to mention that it’s a trap!’ Tony said.

“I know it’s a trap. Me and the robot will handle it. Jorge . . . those OP-SPEC’s?”

A few seconds later, Darren received Brutus’s operational specification software and jam-proof remote control. “Thank you.”

‘Uh, Darren? It looks like the bad guys are beginning to bug out.’


Everyone stood on the corner of Hill and Fifth Street in invisibility mode, including Brutus.

Pershing Square and the big parking lot across Fifth Street looked like the roof of the U.S. embassy during the Fall of Saigon, an area of moderately controlled chaos. Troopers were lining up all over the park, waiting for immediate evacuation, while others had formed squad-size guard positions on the perimeter. One nearby dropship——the vehicles looked like upside-down crabs ——closed up the rear hatch and pulled out with a full load.

“What’s up with the evac?” Nate asked.

“Who knows?” Darren said. “This attack never made sense anyway.”

‘I doubt that,’ Tony said, hovering a few blocks away. ‘These Vorvons are smart. It had to have had a purpose. Darren, why don’t you let me pop these dropships as soon as all those SAM’s are loaded and I’ll leave one for you and Brutus.’

“Negative. We need to blend in with the pack. It’ll look more inconspicuous when we board the moonship.”

“Then what?” Nate asked.

“Don’t know . . . I’ll have to make shit up as I go.”

“Darren you’ll never make it!” Jorge shouted. “Vanessa’s probably dissected by now or growing tentacles out of her back or who knows what? They’re using her as bait, man!”

“I know that, but Brutus and I will find her. You guys need to stay back and be ready to kill the remaining assault cruisers. There’s twelve left, and you can be sure they’ll return.”

Darren slapped a full grenade magazine into his EPG and retrieved two more from Brutus’s storage. He plugged his nearly dead pulse rifle battery into Brutus’s charger and loaded a fresh one into the back of his rifle. Needle pistol reloaded. Gauss gun full. Drinking water bladder at ninety-seven percent. Couple bags of M&Ms in his bandolier compartment.

“I’m proud of you guys, by the way. You have executed magnificently. The bad guys never saw us coming. Doom on them.”

‘Thanks,’ Tony said.

Darren spoke with his calm leader voice, stout delivery and all. Inside, however, he was dying. Absolutely scared out of his gourd. His half-baked rescue mission had a failure probability so far off the chart it needed a telescope to be seen. He would probably never see Earth again.

Screw it . . . Tomorrow’s Universe and the Next Life . . . Shit happens.

The dropship parked on Fifth Street in front of the apartment building nearby looked like it was ready to pull out. There were two mobile SAM launchers already secured to the ship, and the rear hatch was still down, a small squad of Vorvon shocktroopers hovering toward it.

“Alright guys, I see my ride. I’ll stay in contact with you.”

Gut turning, mouth dry, Darren bolted for the dropship, Brutus right behind. He zeroed in on the dropship’s rear loading ramp thirty feet away, twenty feet, ten feet. . . .

They went up the ramp undetected, literally next to four Vorvon shocktroopers who were the last to load. Two platoons were fastened to the walls and ceiling, secured by metal bracing arms, their laser assault rifles mounted next to them. The last four troopers found four empty mounting niches, and a pair of metal braces slid out and held them against the wall.

He felt the dropship suddenly accelerate forward and up. They were away.

FIRE, Darren commanded.

Still cloaked, Brutus aimed both laser pulse guns at each wall and swept his blasts down the length of the dropship’s hold. Then he came back, raking the ceiling and the shocktroopers secured there. A few managed to disengage from their mounts and seize their rifles, but Darren quickly put them down. Thirty-eight Vorvon troops never saw their executioners.

He ordered Brutus forward to overtake the cabin. Darren pushed forward behind him and exited invisibility. The hold was dimly lit with red lights lining the ceiling.

The cabin’s airlock had what appeared to be a control panel next to it with a single button. Brutus de-cloaked and extended his Omni-Interface Tool, the same device he had used to examine the woman’s corpse. Instead of simply pushing the button, the hair-thin filaments probed around and found the tiny space between the button and the panel. The robot was feeling for the electronics underneath. When it finally interfaced with the circuits, Brutus used his super intelligent VI processors to quickly decode the password which unlocked the entryway.

The circular airlock rotated counterclockwise, depressed inward with a dull thud and four quarter sections of the door slid into the walls. A single Vorvon pilot sat in a slender recliner which curved forward from the bottom to furnish a support for the dropship’s avionics board.

The alien spun its head around just before Darren pumped a single laser blast through the back of the recliner, killing the creature quickly. There was hardly enough room in the cabin for eight-foot tall Brutus to fit, but he managed. Dozens of filaments from the robot’s Omni-Interface Tool slithered across the avionics panel and probed into the spaces, discovering the circuits inside.

VEHICLE CONTROL ATTAINED - AWAITING MANEUVER DIRECTIONS.

“Follow the other dropships,” Darren commanded.

He was suddenly conscious of movement directly behind him. He spun around, raising his pulse rifle.

“If you’re gonna die trying to rescue Vanessa Vasquez, we might as well die with you, lover boy,” Nate said. “So shut up and don’t argue.”

“Yeah, and I want my killer robot back, too,” Jorge said.

Darren felt a lopsided grin form on his face. “You guys are my heroes.”

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