Dark Dragons

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Chapter 20 - Merge

Towsley found himself airborne and upside down once again before sailing through the window into the infirmary vestibule. He landed on a waiting room chair and struck the floor, bits of glass imbedded into his skin.

He laughed, wiping blood from his face. “You could have just tossed me through the doorway you know?”

Caliban hoisted himself up onto the window sill and sat down like a monstrous vulture perched in a tree. The VT canister the alien had taped to a pistol was gone. Murder-suicide had apparently been rescinded until later.

Towsley crawled away on his back. A bone had snapped just above his left wrist, and his entire arm howled.

Caliban ejected the clip from Towsley’s Beretta, cleared the chamber, and tossed the weapon away. Your voice is different when it is not sent through glass.

Incredibly, he heard the alien’s voice in his mind, and he impulsively reached up to touch his temple. It was as if a tiny radio had turned on inside him. The sound was accompanied by a soft crackling, the voice itself rhinal, like a swarm of bees speaking English all at once. Towsley also recognized the change in Caliban’s syntax. Gone was the garbled, stereotype Indian-speak, apparently just a ruse to mask a high intellect. An ignorant alien was a harmless alien.

“You can understand me, can’t you? You’ve always been able to understand our speech.”

The alien wiggled his fingers slightly. A sign of amusement. I learned your vocabulary while eavesdropping on Dr. Billings and his assistants during their daily visits. He was a wonderful pet to have. Too bad he believed I was his.

Towsley knew he was about to suffer the same grisly death.

Have you ever read National Geographic, Colonel Towsley? Interesting magazine. The aquatic species known as Orcinus orca often tortures seals by flinging them into the air and slamming their limp bodies into the water before inflicting the fatal bite. Your scientists do not know why they perform this unusual behavior. Caliban landed on the floor and slowly approached. I think I understand, now.

Towsley wobbled to his feet and continued to back away, helpless, heart racing.

Caliban swung, and his huge hand batted Towsley’s head to the side, and the colonel’s body followed, up and over the nurses’ station desk. Again, he found himself sprawled across the floor. That hadn’t been a punch with a clenched fist but a hard, back-handed bitch slap, fierce just the same.

Towsley crawled toward the door, but the alien loomed over him before he could flee. Caliban seized him by the ankle and dangled him upside down like a hooked tuna.

Towsley coiled his other leg back and slammed his knee hard into the alien’s jaw. Caliban screeched, momentarily stunned, and snatched Towsley’s other leg before he could kick him again. This time, Towsley remembered Caliban’s soft spot under his armpits akin to a human’s solar plexus, and punched the alien as hard as he could.

Caliban gave out a horrendous squeal, almost like a shrieking bird, and dropped him to the floor. The alien wrapped his arms around his sides and went to his knees. He inhaled a huge gulp of air, and his eyes nearly rolled back into their black sockets. Towsley wasn’t done. He gathered his entire weight into one leg and kicked the creature under the jaw. Caliban’s head went up and his body backward.

“You’re right!” Towsley shouted. “I think I also understand the unusual behavior of Orcinus”——he kicked Caliban in the head——“orca!”

Suddenly, Towsley lost touch with his soul. It came on fast, like boiling mud from a volcano. He balled both fists together into one hammer and brought them down into Caliban’s abdomen where the growing fetus lay peaceful in its womb. The alien reacted and kicked Towsley out the door. He fell on his ass and sprawled across the floor like a rag doll.

Go! He was up and running for the stairwell. “Geils!” Behind him, he heard Caliban roar, a savage sound, a beast in rage. “Geils, answer me!” He saw a single Nike shoe at the foot of the stairwell. Geils had already fled.

He took three steps at a time and swung the door open to Level Two - Hangar Deck.

“Geils!”

“I’m here!” a voice called out from down the corridor near the Response Team Quarters. “I got lost!”

Towsley looked back into the stairwell and saw a bouncing shadow against the wall, felt the floor trembling. He ran to his right. “Geils! Get to room A-7 and open the closet!”

“What? Eighty-seven?”

“A-7! Open the closet!”

Behind him, Caliban put his weight into the door, rending it off its hinges, and slammed it against the opposite wall.

Towsley felt his senses let go as he tried to run harder. The child inside him screamed. The hallway narrowed. Glue spread across the floor, and he couldn’t sprint faster. He heard Caliban hiss with every leap like a crazed Rottweiler. Ragged pieces of Towsley’s body would be flung from one end of the corridor to the other.

Towsley spun around the corner and stormed into the Response Team Quarters ready room. Giels stood outside room A-7. He had something in his hands. Arm-length, black and metallic. Geils had found Major Forrester’s pride and joy——a SPAS12 shotgun with folding stock and 8-round magazine.

As Towsley snatched the bulky weapon out of Geils’s hands, he pushed the kid back into the room and spun on his heels to face the enraged demon behind him.

But Caliban had disappeared.


Marcus looked like he had been partly digested. Had the Invicid decided to eat him rather than transform him? His linebacker’s physique was gone, his entire body a pasty white. He had no hair anywhere remaining, and his eyes had sunk deep into their sockets. One crazy eye even wandered to the side, and his right arm had developed a Parkinson’s twitch. When he smiled, his teeth rolled forward.

“We didn’t think you boys took the bait,” Marcus said. “Until you showed up here. Nice sneaky entrance by the way.”

He even sounded wrong, Darren thought. His voice had a heaviness to it. Hollow. Like he was broadcasting from somewhere else, another dimension, his body only a transmitter.

“My little plan actually worked,” he said.

“And what plan would that be, Marcus?” Darren asked.

“You actually know this bloke?” Middleton asked.

“Yeah, I know him. He’s the designated school asshole, four years running.”

Marcus smiled, but it resembled that of a leering child molester. “It really came down to Vanessa’s play.” As the result of some twisted ability he now possessed, Vanessa’s frantic voice emerged from Marcus’s mouth. “‘Darren, please, they’re going to do it!’ I bet I had you all twisted up, didn’t I?”

“Where is she?”

He did not answer the question. “We know about your bomb. Our VI sensors detected its plutonium signature the moment you entered the lower tiers. We’ll have a battalion of crack hover knights to deal with that soon. Don’t concern yourself with warning your squad . . . you may have already noticed that comms don’t work here.”

“How is it possible you’re here?” Darren asked.

Marcus smiled in a way that seemed to hurt him, and he exhaled sharply through his nose. “I went to your place that night . . . to kill you . . . in your own house. No shit. But that’s when they captured me. They thought I was you.”

“Tough luck. Should have stayed home in your cute leather outfit and whacked off with your two boyfriends.”

Marcus’s face twitched, and Darren caught just the slightest look of rage and a move toward him before something restrained him. The slimy pink umbilical attached to the back of his head pulsated. His eyes fluttered.

“Easy, Marcus,” Darren said. “You don’t want to piss off your new mommy . . . or daddy . . . or whatever it is.”

In the distance, the Invicid’s gelatinous body quivered, and the huge legs dangling underneath wriggled with more fervor. Darren detected the psychic hiss in his brain heighten, making his hair stand up, and fade back quieter once more. The creature was agitated.

“It’s beautiful isn’t it?” Marcus’s gaze had slid down to the floor of the chamber and the alien version of Hell on display. “Shadow spawn . . . the next step in human evolution.”

“Sure,” Tony said. “Does your daycare center use sleepy time towels after practicing their beheading skills on their teddy bears? I want to make sure my child gets plenty of rest if I sign up for the late afternoon rate.”

“You dumb bastard, you don’t even understand the absolute brilliance of what you’re seeing. The destiny of your children . . . their calling.”

“Whatever, dude.”

Captain Middleton cleared his throat. “What in the hell is that monstrosity anyhow, and what is it doing exactly? And most importantly . . . why?”

“I see you have pleasant manners, too, Captain Trevor Middleton who has two ripe kids named Jasper and Kylie living with your ex-wife in Dorchester, so I shall tell you. The Proscions got caught playing with fire and got burned.”

Darren took note of this unknown label. Proscion is what the Vorvons apparently called themselves.

“They thought they could experiment with interdimensional constructs and quantum doorways, but they wound up opening a portal they wished they had never exposed.”

Darren had been cognizant of six very large machines on the sides of the chamber since they had entered. They resembled radar dishes, all of them pointing toward the center where the Invicid hung from the ceiling like some living chandelier. The machines continued to bellow the strange sound they had heard earlier down in the catacombs.

“The Invicid was rather . . . proportional . . . from whence it came, but when the Proscions accidently sucked it into our universe . . . well . . . as you can see, our paltry four dimensions don’t exactly do it justice. I’d be pissed off, too, and wanting to take out my anger on every civilization within reach. And that’s exactly what it’s been doing for the last five thousand years.

“So . . . for their sin and folly, the Proscions suffered the disgrace of enslavement. You hear that hiss in your head? That’s the sweet sound of slow, psychic indoctrination. The Proscions succumbed one by one. The Old Race never stood a chance.” Marcus pointed to a spot above and behind them. “The Invicid kept a few living trophies on display. For purely scientific reasons, of course.”

Everyone turned around. Darren had not been aware of what lay behind them since entering the Invicid’s life chamber, his heedful attention focused solely on the horror in front of him. Thousands of transparent stasis cells lined the wall of the chamber in several rows behind the altar, a quarter of them occupied. He put his pulse rifle’s scope on them to get a better look.

The “Vorvons” sleeping in suspended animation here had pale skin with a powder blue sheen, not sadomasochistic-looking glossy black leather. They did not have hideous fangs jutting out from lipless mouths nor bony protrusions on their shoulders or heads. Their faces had color and a radiance of grace. Most noticeably, these Proscions of evolution’s original mold had two genders. Several of the creatures had petite breasts and supple bodies compared to the larger, broad shouldered specimens. They were beautiful, alluring creatures actually . . . unlike their current brethren who had their bodies broken and their DNA violently shredded and altered within the bowels of a cantankerous jellyfish . . . thing.

“These ones were holdouts from the Old Race,” Marcus said. “Those who vilified the grace of Ascension. They stole aboard the moonship many years ago and destroyed the parents of our precious shadow spawn with their poison.”

“So that’s why you came back for seconds,” Middleton said. “To restock your pens.”

Marcus inhaled slowly. “Can’t fight a war without the best fighting breed this side of the galactic core. Humans are the worst monsters. No other race stands a chance against the shadow spawn.”

“Why children?” Nate asked.

“Have you ever offered a child a piece of candy?” He paused to let everyone ruminate over the question. “That’s why. They accept everything they lay their greedy little hands on. Besides you can’t teach an old adult new tricks.”

“Why not just clone human DNA and grow them in a lab?” First Lieutenant Webber asked. “Why invade Earth and steal our children from us, you coward?”

Marcus shook his head, eyes closed with a smile, enjoying his moment of haughty clarity. “Because we can, human. Did you not witness the attack on Washington D.C.? Was that by designs of civility? No. Why display banality and weakness when you can demonstrate power and brutality? Why make cheap replicas in a test tube when you can just tear babes from their mothers’ arms instead. Nations are built on rape and plunder. Your race knows this very well, lieutenant.”

“Jesus, you must feel right at home now, don’t you?” Tony said. “God knows you’ve demonstrated power and brutality on my face a couple of times. Just a month ago in gym class in fact.”

Marcus grinned but did not retort.

“So how’s your new status as an aborted, mutant fetus working out so far? Are you done baking, or is it going to slurp you back in and give you tentacles? It must suck having a tiny, mutated prick.”

“I accepted my new piety when I was inside. . . .” Marcus trailed off, his wandering eyes showing he was trying to describe his feelings. “It . . . it does things to you . . . shows you things.”

“Yeah, I bet,” Tony said. “Shoves a phallic tentacle in your mouth so you can breathe and eat. Right? Sticks its purple penis up your ass and sucks out the waste while it shows you things . . . like what? Here’s one for you.” Tony put a finger up to his helmet and closed his eyes. “Are you picking this up? It’s the night your mom gave me a hand job in your Corvette rolling down Sunset.”

Despite the environment of abomination surrounding them, a few SAWDOG’s managed to chuckle at Tony’s crack.

Tony continued his vitriol. “The only piety you’ve accepted is the belief in an interdimensional meat bag with a God-complex. And stop using big words, talking like some cliched James Bond-villain. You’re still a dumb fucking jock whose grammar competency never passed Green Eggs and Ham.”

Marcus’s left arm twitched, and his face began to show an all too familiar expression. “Let me tell you why no one has answered our SETI signals!” he screamed. “For the past forty years humans have been shooting signals into space and hoping to hear a reply, but the only radio show we get is the Great Silent Treatment Comedy Hour. Why? Because no one’s out there anymore! We’re all alone, buddy! We’re the last crop in the neighborhood and it’s harvest time!”

They may have been the ones holding weapons, but Marcus had control of the room like Jim Jones before the Kool-Aid. He was simply rambling, regurgitating random crap from his brain. Or what remained of it.

“I’ve felt other dimensions on my skin, smelled supernova . . . played marbles with ions, and heard angles shout blasphemies at me from the darkness. I know . . . everything!”

“You don’t know shit,” Nate said.

“I know daddy was boning your big sister when she was seven,” Marcus hissed. “But mommy and little brother don’t want that dirty little secret escaping the Douglas household . . . oops . . . already out.”

“Ouch, you got me,” Nate said, clutching his heart. “You found my Kryptonite.”

Darren stopped partaking in the conversion going on and turned his back on Marcus to face the huge field of stasis cells on the chamber wall. If Vanessa was still alive——and still human for that matter——she would have to be there among the Old Race Proscions, contained in one of the stasis cells. But as he swept his rifle’s scope back and forth, up and down, he did not see her.

“She’s not there, buddy,” Marcus said.

“Where is she?”

In the distance, from somewhere deep within the dark confines surrounding the Invicid’s chamber, a long noise rose languidly. It was the eeriest, most savage roar Darren had ever heard. The howl rose again and sliced through the air like a slow blade. It reached a high octave, hung there, and then wound down with a throaty staccato. That was no machine.

“What is that?” Nate whispered.

“That,” Marcus said, “is the Guardian. Protector of the Invicid’s life chamber. Kind of like a nasty watchdog with a violent temper. And I led you dumb, damsel-saving assess right to it.”

The hidden beast bellowed again.

“Where is she?” Darren repeated.

“You’re too late, buddy,” Marcus said, his voice now with a strange eagerness to it, his acidic words fast. “We fed her to the Invicid, and she went kicking and screaming all the way.” He pointed to one of the fleshy mouth pods on the edge of the altar. “Not before they let me fuck her brains out, though.” He let out a quick slurp. “Finger lickin’ good. You should have seen the expression on her face, Darren, that ‘I-can’t-believe-this-crazy-shit-is-happening-to-me look.’ She’ll make a lovely wet nur——”

A single blast from Darren’s pulse rifle put Marcus back against the large orifice securing him to the Invicid, punching a ragged hole in his chest. His body slumped to the steel deck, one arm pinned behind him. Then the body gasped, smiled. “Best piece of ass. . . .”

“You son-of-a-bitch!” Darren roared. Tears forming, throat tightening. No, it wasn’t satisfying. The desire which had been burning inside him all school year to hurt Marcus, to kill him even, had finally come, but it did not bring feelings of triumph or finality. Only coldness. And more fear. I tried baby. I’m sorry, but I tried. “Where is she, goddamn it!” Hot rage like snakes coiling in his belly. Madness. “Where?”

Marcus suddenly popped his head up like a Jack-in-the-box, eyes to the ceiling, his shoulders still hunched forward, and said, “I see gamma rays, Darren. Satan says ‘hello.’” Then the umbilical on the back of his head yanked his body back, and Marcus disappeared down the pulsating gullet.

Ripples of pulsations coursed across the Invicid’s body. The hiss built up in their minds once again, and it nearly drowned out sounds. Several men brought their hands up to their helmets.

“Leave your helmets on!” Middleton ordered. “Do not take them off!”

From out of the unbearable hiss . . . you have rescued nothing Dar-ron . . . she lives within me . . . her mind is mine.

Darren detected a swirling cacophony of multiple consciousnesses within the hiss. Of humans. He could not understand what they were saying. But he shut his eyes tightly, the roar of the Guardian much closer. Should he reach in? Would he come back? He focused until his mind became a spear into the abyss, and suddenly. . . .

. . . they were screaming. Children being dragged toward gaping, pulsating mouths. He saw countless visions of the same sacrifice, and Vorvons dressed in red robes, presiding over the hideous rituals. Those that did not accept their new piety were destroyed inside and liquified to feed the believers. It was a long torture. They spent years inside the Invicid. A milkmaid’s sunken eyes blinked at him, her body ravaged by hungry demons just birthed from the alien viscera. Darren heard himself screaming with her.

The flash of Sammy Vasquez’s face looking up at him would have blown away forever in the psychic maelstrom had Darren not recognized Vanessa’s little brother and willed his mind to focus harder. Darren hugged him, reassured him. Sammy looked up to him, but Darren was being assaulted by two creatures and could comfort him no longer . . . dragging him away . . . securing him to a table . . . a ridiculous clown with fangs dancing around him . . . his body being manipulated by a machine . . . inserting him into a glass womb . . . a stasis cell.

A stasis cell! Darren tore himself away as the Invicid’s demon voice called out to him, cursing him, mocking him, and he shouted back to be released, but the psychic tentacles had his mind firmly seized. It would never let go.

A girl’s angelic voice rose from the depths, and its jarring presence shattered the Invicid’s hold. Darren sped through the tunnel . . . and halted before the horrified face of Tony Simmons.

“Darren, stop screaming!” Tony shouted at him. “Wake up!”

He was lying on the floor of the altar, staring up into Tony’s agitated face. His vocal cords were sore.

“Are you okay? Talk to me buddy!”

“She’s alive!” Darren said. “I saw her . . . she’s there.” He grabbed his pulse rifle lying next to him and stood up, facing the rows of stasis cells.

The steps to the altar curved down and leveled out fifteen feet above the chamber floor. The walkway there went two hundred feet straight away before disappearing into a darkened tunnel just beneath the bottom row of stasis cells.

“And it knows that I know.” Darren broke into a dead run down the altar steps. Someone called out to him, but he did not stop.

The Guardian roared again, closer this time. The trap set for them was about to be sprung. On the corner of his eyes he spotted swarms of shadow spawn scrambling toward the base of the walkway. They began to form ladders just like ants, and Darren knew they would overwhelm him before he could reach the tunnel ahead.

From behind him, Tony and Nate launched grenades from their rifles and obliterated a cluster of the creatures that had reached the top. Darren moved his rifle to his left hand and pulled out one of Jorge’s nasty grenades. Priming the weapon for acid detonation with the flick of his thumb on the appropriate button, he threw it to his right with a wide side arm like he was skipping a stone over water. The grenade exploded with a horizontal cloud of yellow-green death just over the heads of the monsters ahead of him. Angry war screams turned to cries of agony when the cloud descended and liquified the flesh of everything moving. The nano-acid splattered and jumped off those impacted to those who weren’t, forming a ghastly chain reaction across the chamber floor which eventually reached the Invicid’s birthing vessels.

Darren lobbed another acid grenade to his left to clear out the mass of skirmishers aggregating at the base of the walkway there. Acrid yellow smoke filled the air, and he closed his visor quickly to keep out the acidic choke. He turned to see all three of his bros right behind him and Vega Platoon following them, everyone firing rifles and throwing grenades.

He reached the tunnel entrance. Twenty feet in, he came to a stairwell that ascended to the base of another chamber hidden behind the first front of stasis cells. There were countless rows of tubes to his left and right, all of them unoccupied.

“Fast movers!” Nate shouted.

Darren saw the blips on his surveillance scope. Five coming in hot through the tunnel. Weapons fired . . . an explosion behind him. A squad of SAWDOGS were killed instantly . . . by a grenade or missile Darren couldn’t be sure. Their bodies went flying in a cloud of shrapnel and fire. The flying Vorvons exited the tunnel and broke ranks, fanning out in all directions to confound the gunfire from the humans seeking shelter among the stasis cells below.

These were not shocktroopers, Darren realized, but the hover knights Marcus had mentioned. Their attackers wore gray heavy armor, bulky with red markings on the chest and shoulders; armed with huge guns in their right hand and some kind of weapon mounted on the left shoulder.

From outside the chamber, the Guardian screamed in wrath again. Darren faced the entrance to see a fleeting, dinosaur-size shadow move against the dim lights and disappear. Whatever the creature was, its size prevented it from entering the tunnel.

Darren fired on one of the Vorvons making a pass on Nate from behind and discovered that it took more than one blast to destroy the hover knight’s heavy armor plating. Three shots blew it out of the air. The dead alien took out several empty stasis cells when it crashed to the deck.

One of the SAWDOG’s dropped his .50-caliber assault rifle and picked up the dead alien’s weapon. He managed to bring down one hover knight with a single shot before being literally blown to gooey splatter by an invisible blast of sonic energy, the aliens’ shoulder-mounted weapons revealed.

“Fuck!” Tony shouted. He popped that Vorvon with a well-placed contact grenade from his EPG.

“Shocktroopers!” Nate called out.

Darren saw them on his battle map. Two large squads on both flanks were moving up quickly through the rows of stasis tubes a hundred feet away and closing fast. Darren focused his pulse rifle scope on them——lightly armored with shielded helmets and stubby laser rifles—— and immediately noticed that more than half of them had to be human . . . Akkadians. They were much shorter than the average Vorvon and did not have long limbs, short torsos and teardrop-shaped helmets like their alien overlords. To be sure, Darren put a single 50-kilowatt blast into the chest of one who popped out from cover and was greeted with the sight of bright red blood blowing out of his back. “You gotta be kidding me?” he shouted. “Some of them are human!”

“I see that!” Carruthers shouted over the comm.

The surviving SAWDOG’s began to converge on Darren, Tony and Nate’s location into a circled wagon formation. Darren took a blind shot at the last two hover knights who were darting in like fish, picking off the humans not concealed behind cover.

Darren ordered his bros to take point outside the ring of human defenders. Darren and Nate took left while Tony took right. Dashing behind a stasis cell, he spotted the first squad of bad guys less than thirty feet away, four humans and two Vorvons hunkered together in a tight formation. He would make them pay for the group huddle. He aimed his pulse rifle, sent the fire solution to the first grenade in the EPG launcher——I’ll name you Cherylyn——and pumped her down range. The armor-piercing little girl zipped in between two baddies, found the space in the center of their mistake and detonated, sending pieces of armor and flesh outward in a bright flash.


“Achilles One, this is Able Dog!” Sergeant Taylor shouted in Carruthers’s headset.

Carruthers jerked a .50-cal round into the air, clipping the left leg off a hover knight as the monkey flew by. “Go ahead Able Dog!”

“Sir, we are under attack by multiple alphas! Situation critical!”

“Join the club Able Dog!”

“Sir, I’m no longer reading telemetry from our nuke!”

Carruthers turned away from the battle and stared at the steel floor. “Come again your last!” Even though his chief engineer was thousands of feet below him trapped in a stone temple, he had heard the man just fine.

“Our bomb has been compromised! Some kind of focused EMP burst! I can’t prime the trigger and there’s——” The sound of an unhuman scream cut Taylor off, then silence.

Carruthers looked up at the hover knights flitting about, blazing away with their weapons. “Shit!” He slammed the butt of his carbine down on the deck. “Shit!”


Jorge rolled out from cover and fired on the shocktroopers concealed behind a thrumming machine at the far end of the room. This allowed two SAWDOGS to jump from cover and retreat to the stairwell leading back to the stasis cell chamber. They were in a power support room under the chamber. Jorge’s suit sensors had picked up movement there, so he led two of the men into the room to block the enemy’s advance. But there were more Vorvon and Akkadian shocktroopers pouring in from somewhere, and he knew he had to move.

Jorge burped a grenade from his EPG, and the weapon found three baddies behind a corner to his left. No longer pinned down, he stood and retreated backwards. He primed an invisi-mine for thermobaric detonation, slid it underhand hard across the floor before it stopped thirty feet away, and hauled ass back to the stasis cell chamber. Brutus was there at the top of the stairwell, concealed behind a huge pipe elbow rising from the floor and curving away to feed one of the large life support machines. Jorge pitched one more invisi-mine at the bottom of the stairwell, this one set for ultrasonic tissue burst. He ran hard out of the mine’s blast radius and joined six SAWDOGS and Captain Middleton behind cover.

A deep explosion and a sharp smack in the air nearly blew everyone’s eyeballs out. Jorge gritted his teeth, and dust blew off every surface in the stasis cell chamber, filling the warm air with an amber haze.

“Count eight less bad guys!” Jorge shouted with gusto. “Thermobaric death god!”

Middleton contorted his jaws. “Try not to plant those so gautdamn close next time!”

“Sorry, sir!”

Seconds later, a high-pitched, wavering shrill erupted from the bottom of the stairwell followed by the sickening sound of multiple splatters.

“Peanut butter and jelly!” Jorge said, leveling his pulse rifle toward the entrance. “Here they come!”

Brutus hovered into position and fired down into the support room. Immediately, his force field came under enormous strain from the shocktroopers’ return fire which caused the robot’s generator to divert power from his weapons system to maintain the shield’s integrity. This limited Brutus’s weapon selection to just one 50-kilowatt laser pulse gun, but the battle drone was using that one weapon with commanding skill. Jorge counted at least five enemy dead with a quick peek at the robot’s forward point-of-view screen on his visor.

Brutus backed off his position at the top of the stairwell behind cover to let his power level out and primed his disrupter cannons for maximum discharge.

“Mess ’em up, boy!” Jorge cried.

Brutus returned to his cover spot and spat red lightning into the support room with earsplitting destruction. Every machine, computer console and power conduit burst into molten shrapnel and fire as he swept his arms in wide arcs, armor and flesh vaporizing under the ultra-heated energy. Those Vorvons and Akkadians not cooked in the beams instead were thoroughly ventilated and cauterized by the supersonic shrapnel. The robot’s disrupter capacitors finally drained, and Brutus hovered back behind cover to let them recharge.

“Wow,” Middleton gawked. “Sure knows how to clear out a room!”


This is Sandra . . . she’ll keep you warm at night . . . and this is Jackie who likes piña coladas and gettin’ caught in the rain. Darren spat his third grenade, taking out three Vorvons at his eleven o’clock. A laser strike grazed his helmet, and he ducked down, scanned his battle map screen and spotted a single shocktrooper sneaking up the adjacent aisle toward him. Darren steered his rifle slaved to the suit’s Firing Angle Locator and pulled the trigger when the little light on his visor turned red. A pair of blasts cut through a life tube and blew the hidden creature backward, dead.

Nate struck a Vorvon’s anti-gravity pack on its hip, and the alien flew out of control over the field of stasis and rammed head first into one of the big life support machines, killing it instantly.

Ears suddenly ringing, Darren sensed an enemy presence above him and jumped back just before the son-of-a-bitch fired a shot into the deck. Darren swung his rifle up, but the shocktrooper——a human——kicked it sideways out of his grasp. The Akkadian landed in front of him war screaming, his eyes wild under the faceplate. Darren’s right hand found his vibro-knife’s handle in the scabbard slot under his left arm. Before the human could rebound upright and fire its stubby assault weapon, Darren turned ninety-degrees to the left and returned with the humming 8-inch blade through the air, slashing though the man’s armor and into the body with barely a pause. The Akkadian screamed, bent over, and Darren came back with the knife underhand this time and sunk his weapon into the helmet, pulling the blade toward him and nearly slicing the head in two.

Immediately to his right, a huge shadow reared over a humming machine. He spun quickly to the left and came out of his 270-degree turn with the needle pistol in his left hand. Darren pulled the trigger from the hip and blew the Vorvon back against the machine just when another bad guy appeared in front of him. He turned and fired point-blank into the alien’s face.

“Darren!” Nate screamed.

He spun around in time to catch the last hover knight blown sideways by Nate’s EPG grenade. The alien had been right behind him and about to fire point-blank into Darren’s head. He did not notice the creepy giant sneak up on him.

Darren holstered his weapons and seized his pulse rifle from the floor. The wild belligerence cascading around him drugged him into more violence. His moves were fluid, precise like an insect’s, as he picked up where he left off and swept his rifle to and fro, anesthetized from the adrenaline, emotions and fears suppressed.

His suit computer counted four aliens remaining, but the shocktroopers were retreating, firing sporadic blind shots to cover their escape. Brutus, of course, had racked up most of the kills.

“Jesus, Darren . . .” Nate was eyeballing him up and down. “I watched you die, man.”

“What are you talking about?”

Nate took a sip of water from his dispenser. “The Vorvon that came up behind you . . . I watched it . . . shoot your damn head off . . . and then, like, I got all tunnel vision and fuzzy . . . and there you were again still alive and standing, and I see the same Vorvon coming out from behind that stasis cell, and that’s when I shouted at you . . . damn, that shit was weird.”

“You had a precognition event, or whatever that military doctor called it,” Darren said. “Remember he thought we might have the power of future sight? You just had one. You saved my ass . . . right here, bro.” Darren offered his hand for a high-five and Nate obliged. “I hope that comes in handy for me sometime.”

“There’s a chance the enemy will be back with reinforcements,” Carruthers said scanning the air above them. “Fish . . . Rizzo . . . Whiplash . . . holster your carbines and use those dead toads’ laser weapons. Everyone else, collect dog tags.”

The hidden Guardian screamed again, a beast in wrath promising violence. An icy hiss like a low murmur arose from the thing——some kind of voice, a deadly warning in its own tongue.

“Darren, I think I see Vanessa,” Tony said.

Darren turned to him to acquire his line of sight. “Where?”

“I have an RCS lock two hundred feet, ten o’clock.”

Darren ran through the fields of empty stasis cells, ignoring the warnings from the men behind him to slow down and not get separated. He finally inhaled air when he reached a clutch of glass cylinders surrounding a large machine where Vanessa hovered unconscious in the only occupied cell. Fleshy lace growing from a repulsive mass of organic growth at the bottom of the cell covered her nude body.

Darren took a moment to study the machine at the base of Vanessa’s glass prison, but he did not know what button to push. He wanted to get her out quickly and shield her modesty from the others approaching but was powerless as to how. Finally, Darren fired into the base of the tube, and deep cracks spider-webbed upward. The butt of his pulse rifle finished the stasis cell’s integrity, and the invisible force levitating her body shut down. Darren quickly pulled her limp form out, tearing the slimy organic tendrils from her body.

“Vanessa, can you hear me?” Darren checked her over quickly to see if she was indeed all right and not growing anything abnormal, but Vanessa appeared to be fine. In fact, color began to return to her pale skin.

“Vanessa wake up,” he said inches from her face.

A SAWDOG medic knelt down next to her and placed his backpack on the floor. “Let me look at her.” The moment he flashed a pen light in her eyes, Vanessa suddenly lashed out screaming, striking Darren across the helmet and shoulders, her eyes bugged out.

“Vanessa, you’re okay!” Darren shouted, dying inside.

Her body went rigid as steel, and her eyes rolled back into their sockets. She was fainting.

“No, it’s all right!”

Vanessa stopped thrashing long enough to look him in the face——and slipped back into unconsciousness in his arms. How fucking humiliating. I’m not that ugly! He knew this wasn’t the time or place to sulk that the girl of his dreams had fainted away at the sight of him, but Darren’s face glowed hot with embarrassment anyway. I came all the way here for this?

From his bag, the medic unfolded an aluminized thermal blanket and wrapped it around her body. “She’s going into shock,” he said. He pulled a small oxygen bottle with a breather mask from his medic bag and placed it on her face.

“Are you sure that’s all, buddy? How do you know?”

The medic withdrew another device from his bag, something that looked like an industrial-sized smart phone connected to a pen with a long red wire. He touched the pen to the inside of Vanessa’s elbow, and the gadget beeped. The guy repeated the process to her left wrist. “I just did a CMP and ABG blood test. The analyzer will give us a reading in a minute or so. Then we’ll know for sure if she’s . . . okay inside.”

Another scream from the Guardian turned everyone’s heads in the direction from which it came.

“We might not have a minute,” Darren said. He holstered his pulse rifle and slipped both arms under Vanessa’s limp form. “We gotta move.”

“My RCS found a lift platform at the other end of this chamber,” Tony said. “Eight hundred feet in that direction. Don’t know where it goes, but it has to be better than here.”

Vanessa had not gone into shock after all, looking from side to side, gathering her bearings. Her roving eyes stopped at his face.

“Please don’t scream at me again,” Darren said. “We’re here to get you out of here.”

“I won’t,” she muffled through the oxygen mask.

“Are you okay?”

Vanessa took a moment to ponder that, then, “I think so.”

“The blood analyzer says she’s alright,” the medic said. “A little dehydrated, but no foreign particulates present.”

She continued to stare at him with blank eyes. Almost like a newborn baby fascinated with its mother’s face.

Recognition? I doubt it, he thought. Probably disappointed that Dorkboy has come to her rescue and not Todd the Romance Novel Coverboy.

“Darren Seymour?”

He smiled. “I promise I will explain everything in full detail after we get out of here and save the day.”

“Okay . . . but . . . is there something I can wear . . . other than this?” She tugged at the thermal blanket.

“As a matter of fact, yes.” Darren looked over at Carruthers’s tired face. “Sir, permission for Vanessa to wear one of your men’s suits?”

Carruthers looked back at the group of his fallen brothers, their dog tags being silently claimed by their solemn comrades. “Granted. Let’s just hurry it up. We have to double time it back to the rendezvous.”

Vanessa found a hidden niche next to one of the life support machines to suit up. Darren found only two AIEAS suits out of three that were fairly intact. One guy looked too big, but the other dead operative Darren guessed to be close to Vanessa’s height . . . the name on the chest plate said STEINBERG. Except for the golfball-size hole in the chest and the bloody bodystocking underneath, the man’s suit was acceptable. The helmet fit fine, but the suit was a little too big for her frame, and the pieces just kind of hung off her; still, the boron-carbide armor would offer modest protection. Vanessa stuck a finger in the ragged hole in the torso plate and the bodystocking, whimpering something to herself.

Darren unholstered his needle pistol and handed it to her. “Here. This will make you feel better.”

She put both gloved hands under her armpits and stared at Darren’s sidearm as if it were a freshly laid turd. “Are you kidding me?”

“No, I’m not. You have to protect yourself.”

Vanessa thought about his offer for a moment before taking the pistol and rolling it over in her hands. “It’s light.”

“Shoots armor-piercing flechettes, no recoil. Ever fired a gun before?”

“No.”

“Just point and pull the trigger. As soon as we take down a bad guy, you can use his laser rifle.”

Vanessa looked up at him sharply with an incredulous look.

“You’ll be able to protect yourself better with a heavier weapon.”

In the distance, much further away now, the Guardian creature bellowed again.

Vanessa turned away from the sound and closed her eyes. “Tell me what is going on. What happened to me?”

“The aliens captured you. We’re aboard their moonship. And we’re now on our way out. These commandos are——were——here to blow up the ship with a nuke . . . well, before it got zapped.”

“How did you know I was here?”

Because the aliens were spying on me spying on you outside your house. He wanted to tell her the truth, but that would mean revealing his embarrassing “stalker in the bushes” episode from last Monday night. He would tell half the truth for now. “Marcus Lutze came to my house. They must have thought he was me and captured him. And they used him to get to you . . . so to get to me.”

“Marcus?” She glanced over at Nate and Tony who were both smoking cigarettes, Nate practically choking on his first one. Jorge was doing serious work on his rosary beads nearby. “Is anyone else from school here?”

Darren smiled. “No, just the five of us.”

“Why do your suits look . . . alien? They’re different than these ones.”

“That’s because they are alien.”

Vanessa just stared at him.

“I promise you I will explain everything later. Jorge, I need you to get Brutus to start a sensor fix on the moonship’s bridge and uploaded it to our maps.”

“All right . . . but why are we looking for the bridge?”

“I’ll let you know when everyone’s together.”


Carruthers had only fourteen men remaining. None of the SAWDOG’s was in obvious rosy spirits. Darren learned that one of the standing orders devised in their tight group long ago was to “collect dog tags only.” It would be near impossible to retrieve and haul their dead in the kind of environments they operated in, so it kind of made sense, but it was antithetical to every soldier’s unwritten edict and solemn respect to bring their bros home dead or alive. The men of the Space Warfare Development Operations Group understood this, but they didn’t have to like it. Three dead and five missing, likely due to the hover knights’ horrifying sonic weapons that atomized everything. The bitterness showed on the men’s faces, and Darren could see it stung like a mother fucker.

He stole several glances at Vanessa, Tony, Nate and Jorge, and knew he would feel the same acrimony in his heart if any one of them fell. The apprehension of losing the people he cared about rose up inside him again. Strange——Darren had never considered himself to be strongly religious, but that was changing now. After what he had witnessed in the Invicid’s life chamber and feeling an ulcerous dread taking up space in his gut, Darren could understand why Jorge had his blue wreath of rosary beads out and was silently moving his lips in silent prayer. No atheists in foxholes.

“All right, Mr. Seymour, what are your plans?” Carruthers asked. He had taken off his helmet to let the cool air dry the sweat from his short crop afro. His eyes were bloodshot, and he looked like he needed four days sleep. They all did. “I hope they’re good.”

Upon hearing his question, everyone moved in closer to hear the answer.

Darren rubbed his eyes and took a sip of cool water. “As soon as Brutus pins down the location of the bridge . . . we’re going in guns blazing . . . and find the scuttle switch to blow up the ship. If there isn’t one, then we’re going to overtake the helm . . . and autopilot this bastard right into the sun.”

His bold declaration was met with a long, uncomfortable silence and just a few looks of anxiety.

“With plenty of time to escape, right?” Nate asked.

Darren nodded, shrugged. “My optimism is based on the hope of some kind of timer.”

“Jesus Christ,” Tony murmured, turning away to light another cigarette.

“You got a better idea? Then spit it out!”

Carruthers turned away to stare at nothing in particular in the distance for a moment. Then he gave Captain Middleton a look, who nodded back, both men apparently reading each other’s thoughts. “It’s so crazy, it just might work,” he finally barked with a sharp laugh. “I’m diggin’ your style, Darren. You like to think big.”

“Brutus found the bridge,” Jorge said. “Uploading the position now . . . but it looks like we may have a problem.”

“Of course,” Darren said. “Tell it to me straight.”

“There’re actually five bridges . . . one main and four auxiliaries. Brutus can’t hack in because the bridges’ control systems and VI servers are on a separate network from the rest of the ship with over a million firewalls. So much for Brutus doing anything by remote. He’ll have to access navigation and propulsion controls from the main bridge. That is if he can.”

“‘If’?”

Jorge shrugged. “He may not be able to operate the scuttle or fly the ship. The VI systems may function totally different than the rest of the ship. We won’t know until we reach the main bridge and plug Brutus in.”

“Is there any way he can isolate the auxiliary bridges and prevent the enemy from overriding his commands from them?” Middleton asked.

“Like I said, it’s on a different network. We won’t know until we get there. If we get there.”

“Ye of little faith,” Darren said. He pulled up the schematic map on his visor. A superstructure resembling a vertical, flat mushroom approximately seven miles in diameter contained the main bridge. The superstructure was exposed to space, constructed into the side of the core ship which secured the northern and southern hemispheres together, and it did not lay far, just over fifty miles away.

They would have to demo into another air duct on the other side of the stasis cell chamber and walk several thousand feet to another tri-rail tunnel. A short walk along an electrical conduit would bring them to another platform station. Brutus could set up another bogus fire alarm to clear out any toads waiting to catch a ride, and everyone would be off toward the bridge. One ominous issue that Darren predicted was that the tri-rail tunnel was the only way in or out of the superstructure containing the main bridge. Their op would have to be silent and executed flawlessly or the Vorvons would trap them there, bottlenecking the tunnel and prevent their escape back to the Andromeda transport six hundred miles above them.

Darren gave themselves four-to-one odds.


Still mimicking the dead squid drone, Brutus was electronically brushing their tracks as they moved through the ship. No alarms or approaching alien troops hounded them as everyone boarded the tri-rail vehicle. This short tunnel was not vacuumed, and their speed would only be around two hundred mph. Still, Darren wasn’t feeling cozy about their too-easy infiltration.

He sat down in one of the acceleration chairs next to Vanessa before the machine whisked them down the tunnel. Her scared face was gone. In fact she looked a little pissed. “You okay?”

“Sure.”

Uh-oh. He turned away. Even with never having a girlfriend, he knew that female reaction. That look. Darren’s mind raced with a hundred different responses but couldn’t come up with anything consoling or wise. As a result, his stupid man-brain inadvertently went into defensive mode.

“Did I say something to piss you off?”

Vanessa didn’t respond right away. Her eyes darted back and forth, then, “How did Marcus use me to get to you? What’s our connection?”

Shit. “Okay . . . I was . . . damn it . . . I was in the bush——I was outside your house Monday night . . . and the bad guys must have followed me.”

“In the bushes?” Vanessa spat. “Todd was with me that night!”

Tony snorted. “Jesus, Seymour. The bushes?”

“It wasn’t like that! I had . . . there . . . goddamn it! I was——”

“Were you the one who called my dad home?”

Darren swallowed hard, but he had no spit to swallow. “Yeah, I pretended to be a cop.”

“Oh my god,” Vanessa groaned.

Tony, Jorge and Middleton began to crack up.

“Wow,” Nate said.

“Hey, I saved you from a bad decision!” Darren said. “Todd Lutze is a dipshit who unintentionally lowers the I.Q. of anyone standing around him, and he would have absolutely lobotomized you if you had slept with him. So you’re welcome.”

“How do you know I haven’t already slept with him?”

“Because your still upright and talking sense.”

Vanessa shook her head, rolled her eyes. “So why did you come over to my house?”

“Whack off in the bushes,” Tony said.

Darren checked himself before he could bring his pulse rifle down on Tony’s head. Black clouds swirled in his head. Here they were talking about something so inconsequential, it pumped unholy fury into his heart. He didn’t know what to think, how to feel. “I guess I just wanted to talk.”

“About what?”

“About the Lakers’ chances in the playoffs this year. What do you think? You! Me! My promise to rock your world every minute you’re around me . . . a promise to listen to you when you have something important to say——even though I may not agree with you all the time . . . to . . . to not get jealous or start drama just to get attention . . . picking you up in a piece of shit car and taking you to a dinner and a movie I can hardly afford . . . to talk to someone who might understand how scared shitless I was and still am.” Darren felt his world spiraling every which way, and his eyes grew wet. He didn’t give a shit any more. “Sorry if I inconvenienced you Monday night. I’m sure Todd misses you.”

Silence. Darren did not turn to check Vanessa’s expression. He didn’t care if she was still pissed or not. Even Tony had clammed up, unusual for him.

“What kind of piece of shit car?” Vanessa asked after a lengthy pause.

“A rusty 1997 Cutlass Supreme with a coat hanger holding the muffler up,” Darren said.

“And oil leaking from the heads?”

“A lot of it.”

“Where are we going to eat?”

“Bubba’s Greasy Spoon over in the Valley.”

“Sweet, I can’t wait.”

Middleton placed his right hand over his chest. “Ahhh, ‘This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath, may prove a beauteous flower when next we meet.’”

Taming of the Shrew?” Darren asked.

“Ha ha,” Vanessa said.

“No, Romeo and Juliet, mate.”


Everyone in the air duct stopped as Darren crawled forward and took a quick peek through a grate in the side of the duct. “Yeah, here we go. This is definitely it.”

The bridge’s ceiling was perhaps a fifty feet high, and a giant tower like a metal mesa stood in the center of the room where it almost touched the ceiling. The tower had four levels and a pair of elevator pads at the rear of the structure. All around the bridge and up in the tower, medium-size Vorvons wearing green bodysuits worked, carrying out the duties demanded of them like honest little worker bees. Some sat at consoles, operating their strange machinery, while others walked around monitoring the activity going on. Just like humans, he thought. Unlike bridges of navy ships, however, there were no windows to outside space.

These Vorvons were not as big as the soldiers——of which he could see two standing guard on the bridge——but considerably larger than the red aliens which Darren guessed where engineers or scientists. The color of the suit seemed to denote rank or caste. Darren took no further interest in their social structure. He wasn’t here to observe and take notes like an anthropologist in the field.

“Captain Middleton,” he whispered down the air duct. “Can you come take a peek?”

Sock moved forward and knelt next to Darren.

“See anything that might look like a helm?”

“Are you kidding?”

“You’re the astronautical engineer specializing in advanced propulsion, right?”

“Your robot friend might do a better job, mate.” Middleton let out a little huff of air and peered into the bridge.

Darren was trying to appraise the functions of the controls scattered around the bridge, but he knew he would have an easier time trying to guess equally confusing functions in NASA’s Mission Control room. Every Vorvon looked like they were doing the same thing: pushing buttons, reading computer schematics, walking around from post to post. Human designs favored a helm to be located under a forward window or at least in close proximity to one, but none existed.

“Here we go,” Middleton said. “Up on the top floor of the tower. See that ugly little bastard sitting down?”

“They’re all ugly, captain.”

“The one closest to us in the red suit, manipulating that sphere. Check out his screens. Looks like flight patterns. Trajectories, orbital windows, navigation corridors. I think that’s the helm.”

“Are you sure?”

Middleton shrugged. “No.”

Darren turned back to the rest of the people in the air duct. “Okay guys, game plan. Jorge, bring Brutus forward. He’s going to be the first one to punch in and drop those two guards. The rest of us will clear out the rest and secure the portals on both ends of the bridge. And for God’s sake, don’t damage the helm.”

The guys leaned against the air duct’s opposite wall and fired their pulse rifles into the grate. The twenty or so unarmed Vorvons screeched in surprise and turned to see big, angry Brutus emerge from the hole and pump several laser shots into the troopers guarding the two entrances. As Brutus vaulted in the air for the tower, everyone else spilled out and landed on the floor ten feet below the duct, laying down a methodical arc of weapons fire.

The bridge was suddenly thrown into chaos. Darren kept the trigger down, sweeping his weapon left-to-right, cutting the enemy in two. Jorge brought down three of the green-suited creatures and pumped a single blast into the chest of a Vorvon trooper that had been hiding behind the tower. Another trooper appeared from an enclosure and crouched down behind a computer console against the tower wall to return fire, but Tony charged his gauss gun and blew an armor-piercing slug through the machine, clipping the alien’s body in half.

After about five seconds, the bridge was clear. Dead Vorvons were strewn about, a few not so dead, trying to crawl away. Tony and Nate took a stroll around the room, blasting a single shot into each head for good measure.

“Tower’s clear!” Jorge shouted from above.

Darren waved Vanessa out of the duct.

“I hear an alarm,” Tony said, looking up at the ceiling.

“I hear it, too,” Darren replied. It was faint, high-pitched. “Here come the bad guys. Button up that portal, Nate.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. Look for a switch.”

Darren went to the opposite side of the bridge, and just as he guessed, found a three-button panel on the wall next to the circular portal. The far left button moved the door out of its recess and sealed the portal shut. He pressed the second button and heard a dull clunk inside the door followed by a hiss of pressurized air. “Press the far left button to shut the door and the second to lock it,” he called to Nate at the other portal.

Darren headed for the bridge tower’s elevator lift. “Jorge. Captain Middleton. Come with me up to the helm.”

The top level of the tower had more computer consoles, bright buttons and hologram monitors than any other section of the bridge. In the center of the room sat the helm, which looked like a flight simulator or an elaborate arcade game. The machine had a padded recliner with a control board mounted on the floor in front of it and a metallic sphere imbedded into the board.

Brutus blasted the recliner out of his way and used his omni-interface tool to manipulate the metal sphere in the center of the helm console.

A long, thin line of light glowed atop the control board, and a bright dot no bigger than a dime materialized in the air above it. The dot abruptly expanded into a bright square in front of them, about a meter across.

“Another hologram,” Middleton said.

Darren put his hand through it. “A hologram to what, though?”

Strange data rendered in the Vorvon language scrolled up on the hologram, followed by a series of computer graphics which looked like trigonometry diagrams.

“We’re in,” Jorge said.

“Yeah, look at this.” Middleton pointed to a computer box where a group of status lines wavered rhythmically across a grid in the hologram’s corner. “I recognize this pattern. These are power feeds. They use magneto-fusion technology. Only NASA meters its mag-fuse experiments in minicycle increments. Looks like the aliens measure their feeds in macrocycles. It would have to be a heavy-duty engine to push a ship this big.” Sock shook his head. “Wow. Wish we had time to copy all of this shit down.”

“Brutus can’t find any kind of scuttle mechanism. Sorry, Darren.”

“Then we go to Plan B.”

“Well Plan B means Brutus has to set up a virus in a server room that ties into the other bridges. That will close off the auxiliary bridges and prevent them from altering the moonship’s course. Problem is, this virus is going to take several minutes for Brutus to create, plus he has to set up about a thousand firewall nodes to protect it.”

“Well get him on it.”

“He already is.

Down below, Nate shouted, “You better hurry up with whatever you’re doing! My sensors are detecting Vorvon troops massing outside nearby!”


Nate stood at the main bridge entrance with Vanessa when he heard a loud thump against the sealed portal at the end of the corridor.

Vanessa heard it too. “What was that?”

“Darren! I think the bad guys are here!” He leveled his laser rifle at the portal. “Darren!”

“I heard you! Just give us one more minute!”

“I don’t think we have a minute!”

Whump!

Nate and Vanessa backed away from the portal.

“You better go hide somewhere,” he told her. She accepted his advice wisely and ran to the other side of the bridge.

The portal suddenly plumped out like a ballpark frank, and a small tear ran down the length of the seal.

“Darren, I think——”

“Just hold them off, Nate. We’re almost there!”

“I don’t think these are Vorvons!”

Whump! The portal came off at the bottom. A deep growl made Nate step back. He caught movement through the expanding tear in the door——something black and fleeting. A pair of huge, impassive eyes like ghostly fog lamps peeked through the hole, blinked once, and withdrew.

Nate felt both testicles shrivel when he realized the devil himself was at the gate.


Nate yelled something again, but Darren couldn’t make it out.

“You better hurry,” he said. “Something’s going down and we may have to bug out of here quick.”

“Almost there,” Jorge responded as he read Brutus’s data feeds on his visor. On the hologram, a blinking red circle appeared with a yellow dot in the center——the nav computer’s icon for the sun. The red circle around it represented the limit of the star’s gravity well. Lines indicating approach vectors came up on the hologram next, and Brutus quickly selected one with his omni-interface tool.

Jorge turned to Darren with a frown. “Brutus found your timer, Darren. It’s used for delta-v propulsion . . . not for warp ignition, but Brutus can tie it in so that it does. The only problem is that the timer has a max of one hour and thirty-five minutes.”

Darren felt the blood drain out of him and saw it on Middleton’s face, too.

“Is that enough time for us to make it back to the Andromeda?” the captain asked. “It’s seven hundred bloody miles away.”

Darren shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“We’re going to have to leave Brutus here to fly the ship,” Jorge said with hopelessness. He did not want to lose his pet.

“He’ll never make it,” Darren said. “The Vorvons are massing to overtake the bridge, and we need to cripple the helm before we leave.”

Middleton closed his eyes and turned away. “And I actually began to get my hopes up.”

Darren scanned through the schematic map of the bridge superstructure, quickly studying all seven miles of its interior, looking for an escape route. They certainly couldn’t back out the same way they came in. That was blocked by the enemy. Darren spotted a couple of possibilities. “Have Brutus set the timer, Jorge. I think I found a way out. Tony?”

“Yeah?”

“The SAWDOGs’ comms are shot. I need you to relay a message through your Dragonstar to the Andromeda pilots. Have them follow your fighter out of the landing port to our position outside the superstructure.”

“How are we going to get to our ships?” Tony asked.

“Easy. We’re going to demo through the hull.”

Tony nodded, chuckled. “Righteous, Seymour. I’m on it.”

“Jorge, get Brutus to open the landing port airlock.”

“Got it.” Moments later, Jorge let out a defeated sounding exhalation. “Damn it!”

“What?” Darren replied.

“It appears the computer doesn’t allow premeditated collision courses.”

“Override it!”

“Brutus is trying . . . but he’s not having much luck.”

Nate: “Darren, get your ass down here!”

The hologram switched to a computer schematic of what resembled an immense spider web of circuit lines. Brutus probed inside the main navigation computer, looking for another route to the primary warp controls. Diagrams swept past with hypnotic velocity, too fast for a human to read.

“Virus and firewall nodes uploaded,” Jorge intoned. “Still looking for that override.”

“Darren!” Nate shrieked.

He turned for the railing and shouted, “What is it Nate?”

“There’s a fucking giant monster outside the portal! It’s almost inside!”

Darren couldn’t see the portal from his vantage point. He ran down the walkway and spotted huge, black fingers with crazy claws peeling one side of the heavy portal out. The Guardian. The Invicid’s watch dog had followed them all the way from the life chamber. “Jorge, we gotta go!” he screamed.

The scrolling schematics suddenly stopped, and a single circuit line glowed. Jorge shouted, “Gotcha! Here comes a nine second burn!”

Brutus activated some unknown control from within the helm’s circuits and avionics systems, and Darren heard a deep rumble rise from the depths of the moonship. The primary delta-v engines had fired.

He could feel the thrust pushing against his body, practically leaning forward to stay on his feet. Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one. . . .

Brutus’s omni-interface tool danced across the metal sphere on the helm, and the rumble stopped as the robot cut out the engines. Darren straightened himself after the thrust abated.

“Abandon ship!” Jorge shouted, turning around for the tower elevator.

“Is that it?” Darren called after him.

“The moonship is pulling out of its L2 orbit and heading for a warp point two hundred thousand miles away. We have an hour and a half to get off this ship or we’ll start developing a serious tan.”

Darren charged his rifle and pumped a long volley of laser blasts into the helm, crippling the controls beyond use. “Ninety minutes should be plenty of time,” he said with a matter-of-fact snap. He activated a stopwatch countdown on his visor——1:30:00.

There came the piercing sound of rending metal below. A terrifying bellow from a creature full of wrath and bloodlust reverberated off the bulkheads. One and a half hours suddenly felt like one and a half minutes.

A grenade launcher fired. Nate screamed.

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