Dark Dragons

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Chapter 21 - Last Stand

Darren jumped on the elevator pad and aimed his pulse rifle down. What he saw squeezed out the last ounce of confidence he still had left while the gloom and horror of this place finally overwhelmed his resolve. He couldn’t take much more of this shit. Darren stood there for another few heartbeats before lowering the elevator.

The Guardian, a dark monster bred from a childhood nightmare, stood in front of the ruptured portal. The being was a cyborg——an atrocious, surgical union of living flesh and machine that looked like it still hurt. It was bipedal and tall, at least twelve feet high—— cumbersome in appearance, but its muscular body moved fluidly. It had the hooded neck and head similar to a cobra’s, only metallic. In fact, both legs, the right arm and its long neck had been replaced with mechanical replicas. The only organic components visible were the torso, the bottom of its long neck and the jaws, but even there, wires just under the skin twisted around like metal veins. Its real eyes were gone, replaced with electronic sensors of similar function. Darren wasn’t able to imagine what it looked like before the surgery, but it couldn’t have been any more attractive.

This thing certainly looked like it could kill an elephant. The huge jaws opened to release another ghastly roar while it lumbered toward Nate who continued to back away from it, cursing in defiance and terror. He pumped round after round from his grenade launcher with no effect. The creature had some kind of repelling force, Darren unable to tell whether it projected the field mechanically or biologically. Maybe both. Only a shimmering static pulsated outward at the point of deflection. Lasers seemed to disintegrate, while solid matter merely bounced off. Most of the ricocheted shrapnel zipped around piercing bulkheads and computer consoles.

The Guardian continued to advance rapidly, and it spoke with a deep and eerie monotone through a translator imbedded into the top of its metal head. “This Voyager spacecraft was constructed by the United States of America. We are a community of 240 million human beings among the more than 4 billion who inhabit the planet Earth.”

Darren fired his laser rifle, aiming everywhere and looking for a soft spot. However, the being’s repulsor field seemed to shield every part of its anatomy.

The Guardian continued to advance, its jaws of incisors and fangs bared and clenched. “I wish to extend greetings and friendly wishes to all who may encounter this Voyager spacecraft and receive this message.”

“Nate, run!” Darren screamed.

“Mitotic duplication of deoxyribonucleic acid in cellular nucleus, dual genders, polychromatic heterotrophs, symbiotic with photosynthetic autotrophs”——now it was describing humans and their environment——“surface dwelling omnivores, oxygen breathers, iron-bearing corpuscles in circulatory fluid——”

Nate was still backing up, firing everything he had.

“——fossil fuels, progressing nuclear and solar energies, astronautical chemical propulsion . . . greetings from a human being of the Earth, please contact . . . how are you?”

The being brought its fists down like mighty hammers and bashed the deck in a rage directed at everyone, everything.

Brutus was up in the air before anyone registered the movement. The bridge lit up in crimson when the battle drone fired its disrupter cannons. The crimson bolts struck the Guardian, the kinetic energy stored in the blasts slamming it back against the broken portal, its force field sparking but still holding. The behemoth lunged forward after regaining its balance and swatted Brutus to the side before the robot could line up a BAS shot. He crashed into the bridge tower hard, and Darren heard Jorge shout, “Oh shit!” It sounded like damage. Brutus’s right disrupter arm hung uselessly and his head had twisted at an odd angle.

Nate had momentarily paused to watch the huge alien and Brutus clash before turning away for the safe confines of the tower, but Darren saw helplessly that the beast was too close and too fast.

The alien lunged forward, its powerful limbs outstretched like a frog’s, and clipped Nate’s legs out from underneath him as if a bear had just brought down a fawn.

“I will kill you now!” It repeated its threat in German, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, then back to English. “I will kill you now!”

Darren ran forward to save his friend. He saw Tony and Jorge racing toward the thing looming over Nate. It began to maul him like a rabid pit bull, growling, trying to tear through the armor suit. Nate was screaming and firing his weapon uselessly up into the alien’s face. Carruthers, Middleton and the remaining SAWDOG’s were firing their .50-caliber assault rifles to absolutely no effect.

The Guardian seized Nate by the legs and began to hammer invisible nails in the floor with his limp body, making deep guttural sounds. “We are sending greetings from our world——”


“——wishing you happiness, good health——”


“——and many years.”

Darren raced forward, knowing Nate had to be dead by now. Without regard for his own life, he leaped onto the creature’s back. The energy field enveloping its body equaled the kinetic force of Darren’s collision and bounced him away. He landed on his back and scrambled to get on his feet, his nose assailed by the creature’s dank, musty odor.

Tony brought the end of his rifle down on the Guardian’s head, and the recoil soundlessly deflected the weapon to the side. Snarling, the alien looked up and batted him with the swipe of a mighty arm, and Tony landed on his chest ten feet away, laser rifle sliding across the floor. The creature returned its attention to Nate’s mangled body and resumed the attack, even though Jorge continued to smash the side of its head with his rifle in angry futility.

Darren fired his pulse rifle, cursing, screaming, trying to hurt this fucking animal any way possible, but his weak laser blasts simply vaporized against the alien’s repulsor field. Tony rejoined the attack, but the beast ignored their harmless assaults. It was going to finish the job on Nate without interruption.

Darren suddenly discovered the Achilles’ heel. A laser pulse found the inside of the Guardian’s mouth, blasting out a row of teeth and flesh in a spray of amber blood and smoke. The creature inhaled sharply and jumped back, knocking Darren to the floor. There came a wild scream, high-pitched, and it backed against the bulkhead, then its repulsor shield bounced it off again.

Brutus rejoined the attack and put the Guardian up against the wall with another twin disrupter blast, and this time it screamed in agony, the force field slowly beginning to fail. Sensing Brutus the immediate threat, the beast lunged for the robot again, this time to finish him.

The battle drone was not built for combat strength, only to serve as a heavy shield and stand-off weapons platform——it could do little to ward off the alien’s savage strikes to its failing armor. A point blank BAS shot momentarily stunned the Guardian, staggering it back a couple of steps, but did nothing to its protected skin. Brutus fired several laser pulses up at the being’s mouth, but the alien had learned to keep it shut this time.

Darren spotted Vanessa emerging from cover behind a computer console, his needle pistol still in her hand, and he shouted her over. “Come on!”

A swarm of hover knights appeared from the shattered portal, preventing them from recovering Nate’s body. Darren fired his gauss gun at one, and the Vorvon exploded. He fired again . . . and again, but still more hover knights were pouring in. Darren trotted backward toward the opposite portal and laid down a volley of fire to cover their escape.

“Come on!” he screamed at everyone. “This way! This way!”

The Guardian snatched up an unlucky SAWDOG trying to back away from it. The man screamed, and Darren saw that it was Carruthers. The CO fired one last burst from his useless CAR-15 before the cyborg propelled its mighty jaws forward and bit the man’s head off, helmet and all. The alien flung the headless body over its shoulder and searched for more victims.

Stomach turning, Darren turned away from Carruthers’s mutilated form and lobbed an electricity grenade at the other side of the bridge. The 2,000-amp ball of destruction burst outward and fried several hover knights taking flight from the broken portal. All of them crashed smoking and sparking like dead birds from atop a transformer. Through the haze of smoke and combat, Darren spotted Brutus laying in an undignified heap on the floor next to Nate, both of them still.

Darren gritted his teeth, sending out a cry of hate and pain between them as he stole a last look on his friend’s body, knowing that they could not retrieve him, more hover knights and shocktroopers pouring in. Middleton surely must have felt the same for his fallen commanding officer.

The angry behemoth started after them. Darren watched it move, aghast a creature with its size and bulk could move as fast as it did. He glanced quickly over his shoulder and saw everyone had left the bridge through the second portal. He turned his back on the thing and followed suit.

“Where are we going?” Middleton asked.

“This way!” Darren screamed. “This corridor leads to what could be a faster escape route out of here! Just keep going!” He kept his back to them, aiming his rifle at the portal from which they came. “What’s the status on our ships, Tony?”

“My fighter’s got a lock on my beacon!” Tony said. “Andromeda’s right behind her.”

Behind them, the Guardian roared.

“Go!” Darren said.

The alien ducked its head, bending over to squeeze itself into the corridor. It moved much slower this time, hunching down on its knuckles and lumbering forward like a gorilla in the confined space.

Darren thought-fired the recoilless gauss gun on his left forearm, the weapon emitting a high-pitched whine. The kinetic pellet failed to pierce the Guardian’s repulsor field but did slam the cyborg backward, hard into the bulkhead, its head bobbing like a Jack-in-the-box. The dense-metal round ricocheted into the opposite wall, and a cloud of high-speed shrapnel exploded.

He turned and ran after his friends, searing Nate’s face into his memory so that he would never forget it. The counter on his visor read 1:17:05.

The corridor turned and dipped down into a monitor room of computer consoles. Giant machines of some unknown utility lay on the other side of a long window. There was no way out other than through the glass. A couple of laser pulses shattered the window, and Darren leaped on top of a console and took a peek into the machine chamber.

“We’re going to have to repel down,” he said. “There’s a catwalk about a hundred feet below us. You SAWDOG boys have enough length for that?”

“Roger that,” Middleton replied.

“How am I going to repel?” Vanessa said.

“It’s in your belt, missy.” Middleton pressed a blue button pad on his suit’s hip piece. A grapnel hook popped out, and he gave it a yank.

“You got to be kidding me?” she said.

“You want to stay here?” Darren asked. “You can do this, Vanessa.”

She put Darren’s needle pistol in her suit’s holster compartment and unspooled the grapnel line. “Okay . . . where do I hook up?”

“Right here,” Darren said, pointing to a console under the shattered window. “Jam it into this gap.”

Darren fired his hoist-cable gun into the same console and put his back to the machine room. “Let’s go people!” Before backing out, he tossed a thermobaric mine into the room on a twenty second timer. “Move!”

He turned to see Vanessa was already repelling out, a look of determined grit on her face. A hard pump from his legs vaulted him into the air, the reel motor whining. Vanessa faltered a couple of times but quickly regained her footing. Seconds later, eight humans landed on the catwalk almost simultaneously and unhooked.

Darren’s mine signaled that it had armed. “Down here and to the right,” he said, studying the map revolving on his visor. They were inside a monstrous installation with humming silo-like objects arranged in long columns, similar to the inside of a ballistic missile submarine. Electricity arced and jumped from rotating transformers at the top. Darren guessed them to be generators or power relays.

“We’re less than a mile from the hull. Tony, how’s our evac looking?” He glanced at the counter. 1:11:23.

“Redhawk One, this is Space Cowboy, do you copy?” Tony asked.

“Go ahead Space Cowboy.”

“What’s your status?”

“We followed your fighter like you asked. It stopped at a position outside the alien ship at the center. We’re holding position and awaiting further orders.”

“Continue to hold position, Redhawk One. We’re coming to you.”

The air around them gave a lurch. The catwalk shook under their boots.

“There goes the mine.”

Their RCS’s scouting ahead found the portal Darren saw on the schematic map. The entry led into a labyrinth of corridors and access ways which serviced another machine chamber, this one a long ring-shaped device that looked to Darren like a particle accelerator. It spanned the entire seven mile length of the bridge superstructure. Whatever it could be, the machine was the last stop before sweet everlasting escape.

Jorge was already on the door with his welding gel. The Vorvons had locked down every access in the area. In the distance, the alarms continued to blare.

“Do we have any idea how thick the hull is?” Tony asked. “This schematic doesn’t say.”

“I would assume it’s not thin,” Jorge replied. “Welding gel probably isn’t going to help us.”

“Maybe if we use all three gauss guns at once, it will open a hole big enough for us to zero-g out,” Darren said.

“Speaking of which,” Vanessa said. “What am I going to do about this?” She pointed to the jagged hole in her suit.

“Oh shit,” Darren said.

“Everything’s fine,” Middleton said. He opened a compartment on Vanessa’s belt and took out a small canister and a square mesh resembling window screen. “This ‘Cheese-Wiz.’ will patch you up.” Middleton stuffed the mesh inside the hole and worked it under the torn bodysuit above her skin. “You’re going to feel a slight burn, but it won’t hurt you, okay?”

“Let it rip,” Vanessa said.

Middleton squirted the contents of the canister into the hole, and it did look like yellow Cheeze-Wiz as it puffed out like foam insulation.

“Ow!” Vanessa cried.

“It’ll go away in a couple of seconds. That’s the mesh melting into your bodysuit and sealing it shut.” Middleton gave the yellow material a hard rap with his knuckles. Solid. “There you are then . . . right as rain. The red sliding lever over your neck will seal your helmet to the bodysuit, and you’ll be ready for zero-g.”

“Wonderful,” she replied. “I can’t wait.”

“Now that’s the spirit!”

Jorge kicked in the chunk of portal he cut out and vaulted to the left. “Clear!”

Tony followed him in and went to the right. “Clear!”

Darren tossed another invisi-mine behind him, this one set for ultrasonic flesh burst. Something to instill a little psychological panic in their pursuers. He turned and bust into a dead run when he saw that everyone else had left. “Hey, wait up!” The cold thought of being left behind was nearly paralyzing, and his mind went back to Nate lying dead on the bridge. Again, he gritted his teeth, wishing somehow they could have retrieved him. He hoped the Vorvons did nothing unnatural to his friend’s body.

Eighteen fruitless minutes were spent navigating the empty corridors which turned out to be nothing more than spaces separating storage cubes resembling shipping crates. It went on and on, frustrating everyone and sapping their hopes of a timely escape. Finally, they came out to a platform that spanned the entire length of a straight tunnel which, according to the map, terminated at the particle accelerator more than half a mile away. The platform had several machines and computer consoles all along its length, all of them monitored by more harmless squid drones. In the middle of the thirty foot tunnel, several ring-shaped devices were levitating in the direction of the accelerator with bright crackling balls of electricity in their centers. It was loud as hell, and Darren could smell the burn of ozone.

“We have to go this way!” Darren shouted over the machine din. “Toward that particle accelerator!”

“Are you sure this is the way?” Middleton asked. “We’ve been running through mouse traps since the bridge.”

“If this schematic map is correct, yes. The walls of that accelerator run across the hull, and our rides are waiting for us on the other side. You still got a fix, Tony?”

“Roger . . . two thousand, seven hundred feet at one o’clock.”

00:47:22. “We got forty-seven minutes. Let’s pick up the pace!”

At the end of the tunnel, the hovering rings deposited their balls of energy into a buzzing machine jutting out like a giant finger. The rings disappeared into a slot in the ceiling. Stray electricity arced away from the machine, nearly reaching a slender walkway that vanished into the wall next to it. The noise level was nearly unbearable.

“This looks dangerous!” Tony exclaimed. “Don’t touch the railings and stay against the wall!”

The eight of them passed through without incident save for one SAWDOG who received a nasty shock to the left arm. The dark corridor led into a room with more large machinery pumping, twisting and revolving about. Immense surges of electricity could be heard thrumming all around. Mindless squid drones took no notice of them, focused solely on their banal tasks.

00:35:50. Darren took point and watched his RCS screen. His last scout, about fifty feet ahead, found a corridor beyond the machine room which ended at a portal that, according to the schematic map, opened into the particle accelerator. Or whatever it could be.

Still no bad guys.

“Either they’re laying a trap for us up ahead or they lost us,” Darren said.

“Trap,” Jorge said. “I bet they got a whole division of hover knights, shocktroopers and tentacle tykes waiting to pop us . . . damn, I wish Brutus was here . . . and Nate.”

“And Nate,” Darren repeated with a murmur.

Jorge used his welding gel to open a hole in the locked portal just big enough to send three scouts through. The control room beyond was open to the inside of the great machine which curved off several miles away in each direction. Several more control room platforms lined the inside of the tunnel along its length which the scouts measured to be over three hundred feet in diameter. A few walkways spanning the tunnel’s width near the bottom connected the control rooms. The most prominent feature was a bright stream of what looked like blue-white neon gas shimmering inside a huge coil running down the tunnel’s core. Darren guessed the gas was actually a plasma stream contained within a magnetic field. The crickets read an ambient air temperature of 94̊ F and the stream 5,240̊ F. Definitely plasma.

There were lots of squidies walking around but no troops with guns. If this was an ambush, the Vorvons must have shrunk themselves down to insect-size and were hiding in the cracks.

“The hull is on the other side of the tunnel,” Darren said. “We’re almost home.”

“My Dragonstar is three hundred and seventy feet at twelve o’clock,” Tony said. “Redhawk One, this is Space Cowboy, you still copy?”

“Roger, Space Cowboy,” the Andromeda’s pilot radioed. “Holding position next to your fighter.”

Jorge cut a six-foot hole into the circular portal and kicked out the chunk. It landed with a loud clang on the metal floor of the control room platform.

Darren went with his pulse rifle to the left, Tony to the right.



Middleton and his three SAWDOG’s took center and knelt at the platform’s edge. It was a long, one hundred foot drop past the railing. Jorge and Vanessa brought up the rear.

Darren scanned the far wall. “Let’s look for a point where we can aim our gauss guns together. Full acceleration.” He suddenly became aware of something humming behind him, and he turned around.

One of the squidies was looking at him, its black shiny eyes sunk into slimy sockets. Darren quickly noticed that the creature had no cybernetic implants. Nor did any of the others, and he cursed himself for not noticing it earlier on his RCS screen.

The squid was growling at him.

“Oh shit.”

It puffed out like a hissing cat and bent down on its tentacles as if were about to pounce him. Darren pumped two blasts from his pulse rifle before it could.

A whirl of motion exploded from every platform all around them when the squids reacted. The creatures called out in a chorus of gaggles like honking geese, and began bouncing in their direction.

“Aw, you gotta be kidding me?” Middleton said.

Tony fired his EPG across the walkway, disintegrating five of the squidies before they could cross.

One bounced in the air from an adjacent platform and landed in the middle of their group, spraying black ink in every direction from a squirming proboscis. Short pulses finished it off before it could empty its bladder. The dark substance turned sticky, and before long, it turned to a hard epoxy. One of the SAWDOG’s had his left shoulder plate cemented permanently to his chest piece. He couldn’t move his arm.

A two-tone klaxon began to boom around them, as the squids advanced.

“Everyone zero-g up!” Darren said. “Tony, Jorge! Hit that blue light on the opposite wall!” He raised his left arm, put the reticle on the mark and fired his gauss gun. His shot instead struck a point several feet away. Tony’s and Jorge’s errant slugs also missed their target, none of their rounds doing significant damage to the tunnel’s skin. Darren cursed and fired once more, but again his tungsten-carbide round failed to strike the blue light.

He looked up at the giant coils generating the intense magnetic field above their heads and shook his head. “We have to get to the other side to take our shots!”

However, the swarm of squids converging on their position forestalled any attempt to cross the walkway at the moment.

“How?” Tony shouted back. “He got calamari in every direction!”

“Clear ’em off the crossway!” Darren fired his weapon as he moved forward toward the bridge spanning the tunnel. He cut down three aliens bouncing at him like crazy characters out of a kiddie video game. If it wasn’t for the debilitating, black resin they squirted, Darren would have thought their audacious but benign manner comical. He was a third of the way across when his suit sensors zeroed in on several bogeys speeding up the tunnel from his right——hover knights.

Darren had no cover in which to protect himself. He switched on his invisibility and clambered back to the control room platform, but a long range shot from a laser cannon struck the crossway in front of him. A shower of blazing metal burst forth, and the structure gave way. Darren reached out and seized the thin railing as the bridge fell with a grinding metallic squeal. It seemed to fall forever, and he gritted his teeth, squeezed his eyes shut when his boots rose above his head. One hundred feet from where it began, the descending crossway smashed down onto the floor of the tunnel. Darren was upside down before he realized it and landed hard on his shoulder, his pulse rifle flying out of his hand. A broken crossbeam came down across his chest, and he heard his suit’s integrity warning sound in his ear. A hairline fracture spread diagonally over his cuirass just under the echolocation projector, but the device did not falter.

He pushed the crossbeam, a damn heavy chunk of rent metal, off his chest and rolled away. His head swiveled to and fro as he looked for his missing weapon. It was lying about fifteen feet away in a fold that separated two large tubes running along the tunnel’s bottom. Darren got to his feet, his eyes still swimming, and vaulted forward.

To his left, he spotted shadow spawn skittering down the tunnel toward him. Hundreds of them!

Darren reached his rifle and snatched it up. He ejected the empty grenade clip from the EPG and slammed a fresh magazine home while he trotted back to the smashed crossway. His Incoming Fire Sensor detected a hand grenade arcing away from the platform above him. The weapon detonated over the first formations of shadow spawn just a hundred feet from him. Darren let out a war scream when blue-white bolts of electricity coursed through their ranks, connecting over a dozen mutants in a flesh-scorching embrace. The survivors scrambled away, many clambering over one another like panicky ants trying to avoid a flood.

Darren struggled over twisted beams of rent metal before racing up the crossway’s other end still connected to the opposite wall. He looked over his shoulder to see the action on the control room platform. Everyone was pinned down behind consoles and machines. All the squidies were dead, but they had inflicted some alarming damage. A SAWDOG had one of his boots glued to the floor and had to unlatch it to escape, and Tony had removed his right forearm and shoulder plates. His gauss gun lay useless on the floor.

The hover knights, his sensor counting sixteen of them, were levitating in stationary positions several feet from one another, negating a lucky grenade blast. Darren did not open fire, respecting the assurance he would be spotted by their own IFS if he did. Instead, he remained cloaked and patient.

The shadow spawn had regrouped and several were shinnying up the crossway after him. Darren had an alarming feeling that they could see him. Many still on the floor of the tunnel had their heads craned upward in his direction, their limbs and tentacle stingers thrashing about in wrathful desire. Darren dropped a flesh burst mine at his feet to really whip them into a froth.

“Incoming behind us!” Tony shouted over the comm.

“I got them!” Jorge replied.

Shocktroopers had followed them from the electric-ring tunnel. Jorge and Middleton bottlenecked them in the short corridor leading out of the machine room. Everyone on the platform was now officially trapped. A couple of hover knights were firing their heavy laser cannons into the control room, doing serious damage to the computer consoles concealing the human defenders. Soon there would be no more cover.

As soon as Darren reached the opposite wall, the ultrasonic flesh burst mine detonated. He turned around in time to see a red mist about thirty feet across bloom off the crossway. The surviving shadow spawn held back and did not advance. Perhaps they weren’t brainless skirmishers as advertised. Darren ran across a short deck leading to another control room platform and knelt down behind a humming, cylinder-shaped machine.

00:24:09. Darren suffered fleeting visions of not making it out and vaporizing painlessly in the core of the sun. Screw it . . . Tomorrow’s Universe and the Next Life . . . Shit happens. He hoped the park rangers cleaned the pigeon shit off his memorial plaque daily.

The hover knights had not changed position except for the two making short work on the computer consoles. It wouldn’t be long.

“Tony, is that fifty-cal sniper still alive?”


“I want you and him to start taking these bastards out when I give the word! I’m on the other side of the tunnel! Let’s put ’em in the kill box!” Darren saw that if he moved to his left about ten feet and crouched down, he could unfriendly two hover knights near point-blank with one high-speed gauss gun shot and maybe hit a couple more before their IFS dialed in his position. He just hoped his slug’s short flight would not be affected by the magnetic field above him.

He checked right to see no shadow spawn had yet to climb the collapsed crossway and moved left to line up his shot. He smiled with a venom-filled heart. For Nate.

A ten thousand fps slug blew an exit hole the size of a grapefruit out of the first Vorvon, nearly separating the torso from the hip, before deflecting upward and decapitating the second. Darren swung his arm to the left, put down another hover knight and adjusted downward and tore the leg off a forth before their IFS found him. The moment all twelve spun around in his direction, he rolled out of the way behind cover.

Twelve heavy laser pulses converged on the console behind him and blew the whole device into a thunderous cloud of shrapnel.

“Now!” Darren shouted as fire and chunks of metal rattled off his armor.

Tony and the sniper with the XM500 Barrett, Sergeant Wallace, swung out from cover and popped two Vorvons closest to them. Tony had to use three laser strikes on the same point to find the flesh under the armor of his target. Wallace’s high explosive/armor piercing round took the right shoulder and arm off the other. Both dropped out of the air. Tony and Wallace quickly dialed in two more toads.

Darren was already kneeling on the deck when a hover knight landed on the platform ten feet to his right and went room-broom with its steely cannon, the alien unable to see him. Senses heightened, nerves pulsing, Darren shot toward the Vorvon in a low crouch and pumped a single blast into the creature’s faceplate.

The invisibility cloak signaled that one minute remained before it would shut down; it would suck nearly all of his suit’s energy to recharge if it did. Darren bent down and inspected the dead alien’s suit. The hover pack probably used an electromagnetic gyroscope propulsion similar to his flying recon scouts. It looked like a giant mechanical crab, the long slender legs used to secure the device to the wearer’s lower back. He scanned the pack for some kind of control pad until he spotted what could be one strapped to the alien’s left hand and fingers. Darren knew he wouldn’t be able to holster his rifle, but that didn’t concern him. Death from above!

Vanessa pierced the shocktrooper’s thin armor with a single shot to the chest. Four of them had rushed the control room from the short corridor, but Jorge brought down three while Vanessa leaned out from cover and clipped the forth. Her first kill. She glanced at Jorge, and he saw a turbulent look of both revulsion and delight on her face.

“That’s the way you do it!” Jorge said. “Put ’em down fast before they put you down!”

The alien’s laser rifle had landed five feet in front of her, and she went for it.

“Whoa, hold up!” Jorge shouted, following her into the corridor to provide cover. He fired a grenade into the machine room to clear out any shocktroops that might be around the corner.

Vanessa picked the alien weapon up and retreated back into the control room, shoving Darren’s needle pistol into the suit’s nylon side holster. She pulled the trigger to test the rifle and smiled when a bright green burst of energy fired. “Human-friendly!” she shouted at Jorge.

An explosion flashed back in the machine room, and he heard several Vorvons screech in agony. The familiar sound of laser pulse guns echoed off the walls, and Jorge’s eyes lit up.

“No, it can be. . . !”

He peered around the corner in time to see a shocktrooper’s ragged body spinning through the air. A huge black shadow appeared . . . and Brutus’s mangled form hovered into the corridor. The battle drone’s head drooped to one side, and he had only one disrupter cannon working. His upright body looked cracked, but his force field was working just fine.

It wasn’t until Brutus moved under a ceiling light that Jorge noticed Nate lying on the robot’s back, one arm wrapped tightly around Brutus’s neck, the other hand holding his needle pistol.

“Nate!” Jorge screamed. “You’re alive!”

“My comm is damaged,” Nate said through his external speaker. His wheezing voice cracked. He sounded weak. “I thought I wasn’t going to . . . see you guys again.”

Jorge was not receiving any of the robot’s data feeds nor could he communicate mentally with him. “Brutus is messed up, too, so I couldn’t see you guys coming. How messed up are you?”

“Would you believe my sub-suit . . . is still intact . . . but I got broken bones everywhere . . . and I’m coughing blood . . . but I’m purple haze, baby . . . purple haze.”

Nate was absolutely back stroking in a pool of pain narcotics. Jorge smiled at his friend and thanked Jesus for answering his prayers. “Stay right there on Brutus’s back, okay? Don’t go heroic and try jumping off.”

Nate nodded his head with a dreamy look. “I can’t walk anyway, man.”

Darren flicked his left wrist and fingers and quickly discovered up, down, forward, reverse, clockwise, counterclockwise and stop. Unbelievably simple. The hover pack barely hummed under his weight. He lowered himself to the deck behind the cylinder machine and checked his RCS screen. The saturating magnetic field slightly disrupted the signal feed from his scout, but through the static Darren saw seven hover knights remaining. They had sought cover behind a tall spherical object on the floor of the tunnel two hundred feet away. The shadow spawn had yet to climb the broken crossway and overrun him. Perhaps they were still suspicious of another invisi-mine.

Stalemate, Darren guessed. Or the Vorvons were waiting for fresh troops to arrive before the final push. Everyone had to bust through the hull and soon. 00:15:48.

Darren looked up at the great river of superheated plasma racing through the coils and wondered if it was possible to redirect the magnetic field into the side of the tunnel and burn their way out. He still didn’t know exactly what this thing was. Perhaps the plasma tunnel could be a fusion reactor or a component of one, and that the reason for its construction near the hull was so that excess heat could be shed into space. Which would mean that some kind of venting system existed somewhere. Darren saw a structure on the schematic map that could be something of that nature, but it lay over two miles down the tunnel. In between them and the structure were seven hover knights, hundreds of shadow spawn . . . and hover tanks?

“Oh shit!” Where did they come from? “We got incoming armor, people! A whole damn column!” He counted eight metal turtle shells slowly levitating toward them in single file, their main guns locked upward like angry fingers. It was time for him to move.

Darren flicked his wrist and leapt off the deck, racing through the air toward his friends on the other side. A couple of hover knights took shots at him, but his evasive zig-zagging put them off. Darren landed on the deck, nearly tripping over a dead squidie.

“Look at you, Seymour,” Tony said. “A flying monkey.”

“Nate!” Darren shouted.

“Whuddup, ma’fucka?” Nate moaned with a grin.

Darren raced over to his friend nearly passed out on Brutus’s back. “Oh my God, we thought you were dead.”

“That ugly brute couldn’t kill me, bro. I’m a mushroom cloud layin’, superfreak piece of dolo-mite . . . could you do the dishes for me? I gotta finish my homework.”


“He’s doped out, man,” Jorge said. “Catching flies on the ceiling, and he ain’t coming down for a while.”

“How much juice has Brutus got left?” Darren asked. “Can his disrupter cannons punch through the hull?”

“I don’t know,” Jorge replied. “He’s only got one left, and his data comm is damaged. I can send him messages, but he can’t transmit anything back to me. He’s mute.”

“Is everyone zero-g ready?”

Everyone corroborated.

Middleton reached down and intertwined his arm around the arm of an injured SAWDOG, pulling him to his feet. “We’ll have to secure ourselves when the tunnel depressurizes or we’ll get sucked out and go spinning off into space.”

“Isn’t that what we want?” Tony asked.

“No, laddie. We use the SPIE rig I have in my pack and secure it to something solid. When the atmosphere is cleared out, we’ll untether and kick off. Darren, your hover rocket there is most convenient——you’ll take lead. Tony, in order to get to your fighter, you’ll have to cut loose after we exfil——so you’re the last fish on the line. Let’s do this.”

Middleton removed the Special Patrol Insertion/Extraction rig from his pack and unspooled it on the deck. The cable had several O-rings inserted into the twine every four feet. It looked like it had enough slots for twelve people. The captain fed the first O-ring through the closed clamp of Darren’s rifle holster and secured him to the second O-ring with a loose carabiner, leaving the first ring open. Another trooper hooked Middleton to the third O-ring through a permanent carabiner on his suit’s back, and the process was repeated until all nine people were strung out like minnows on a line. Jorge held Nate up on one shoulder.

“Tony, use a carabiner to secure the last O-ring to that machine there,” Middleton ordered. “Loop it through and around.”

Tony did as directed and removed his vibro-knife from its slot. “Just let me know when to cut us loose.”

“Redhawk One, we’re going to need a hook up on a SPIE rig coming to you,” Middleton radioed.

“Roger that. Prepping ROHV now. Stand-by.”

“ROHV?” Darren asked.

“Remotely-Operated Hydrazine Vehicle. It’s a little rocket pack trailing a tow cable. Look for the flashing red light.”

Darren nodded his head. “Alright, Jorge, tell Brutus to put a hole in that hull.”

“Will do.” Jorge sent the thought-command.

Two seconds went by. Four seconds went by.

“Umm . . . .”

Brutus did not move.

“Is he still functional?” Middleton asked.

“Yeah, I can hear his insides humming,” Jorge replied. “He still has power.”

Brutus suddenly popped his head up at an odd angle, and his anti-graviton generators thrummed as the robot rose off the deck. His forward barrier snapped on, and he moved off the platform. Enemy fire from the hover knights began striking his weakened force field.

“Those laser pulses are going to drain his power!” Jorge shouted. “He won’t have enough juice to fire his disrupter cannon!”

Without warning, Brutus burst down the tunnel with the howl of an electronic motorcycle.

“Where’s he going?” Darren exclaimed.

The Vorvon hover tanks opened fire on him.


Brutus found second gear, and now the robot was hauling so much ass, Darren could see a thin line of blue smoke pouring from the overheated anti-graviton generators. Two thousand feet from their platform, Brutus suddenly veered upward and smashed into the giant coil above the tanks.

Flash! God just took a picture from the largest camera ever made. Darren squinted before his visor could polarize and block the intense light from his eyes. A millionth of a second after the magnetic field gave way, the ionized plasma flared at the break into a miniature sun, a five thousand degree fireball that cauterized the tunnel walls into red hot molten metal. Thunder pulsed out and nearly blew them off their boots. More plasma rushed into the fireball, swelling the inferno until the walls turned white hot.

The deafening squeal of rending metal echoed through the blistering air.

“There it goes!” Middleton screamed. “Get ready!”

A five hundred foot length of bright, molten hull suddenly bulged outward and exploded. The fireball rushed into space along with millions of cubic feet of air. The monstrous plasma stream followed the fireball into the vacuum and began to sputter out as the magnetic field coursing through the undamaged sections of coil abated. Stray ionized gas, infrared heat, dead aliens——anything not bolted down was sucked into the void. Everyone on the SPIE rig was picked off the deck and pulled toward the gapping breach, bobbing about and spinning in the gale force wind.

“Now?” Tony shouted.

“Not yet!” Darren answered. “Wait for the air to slow down!”

“That could take forever!”

“Goddamn it, Tony, don’t cut us loose yet or we’ll go shooting off into space!” The counter on Darren’s visor read 00:08:17.

He saw spinning hover tanks and shadow spawn thrashing their limbs helplessly in the hurricane rushing past them. Darren squeezed his eyes shut. He should have felt no fear with his alien-modified senses. But the thought of the SPIE rig snapping or a carabiner bending open quickened his heart rate and breathing. If he was going to die, he hoped for the prompt and painless variety——either having his neck snapped against a bulkhead at two hundred miles an hour or plunging into the surface of the sun——not a slow and suffocating death in the cold of space with the reflection of Mother Earth shrinking on his visor.

Suddenly, the air slowed quickly, and Darren shouted, “Now!”

Tony gave his vibro-knife a short flick, and they hurdled toward the rupture 1,500 feet down the tunnel. Darren kicked the hover pack on and steered them against the falling wind. The machine growled hard under the enormous weight. He pulled them up higher, feeling the escaping air dying quickly, praying the hover pack had enough power to keep everyone airborne.

“Redhawk One, this is Space Cowboy,” Darren said. “SPIE rig on the way!”

“Roger that, Space Cowboy. ROHV deployed.”

Darren noticed the hover pack seemed to be straining less and less and was actually gaining speed. Gravity, produced by the mass focal generators deep inside the moonship, was beginning to weaken the closer they got to the hole.

Tony’s Dragonstar appeared through the gap and moved silently toward them.

“There’s my ride!” he shouted. “I’m cutting loose!”

Tony levitated away from them in near zero-g, carried by his own momentum toward his approaching fighter.

They reached the gargantuan rupture, its smooth lumpy edges still glowing red, and Darren cut hard to the left into open space. The edge of the black flying saucer lay less than a hundred feet away. He spotted the red flashing light to his ten o’clock and flew toward it. The ROHV, spooling out a steel cable and a fiberoptic wire, also sped in his direction. Darren passed his pulse rifle to Middleton so that he could grab the loose O-ring on the end of the SPIE rig with his right hand. As soon as the boxy device spitting out hydrazine fuel came within arm’s reach, Darren shoved the O-ring into the ROHV’s single carabiner.

“SPIE rig secure, Redhawk One!” Darren shouted.

The rocket pack jerked hard in reverse, reeling them in toward the SC-138A’s airlock. The Andromeda’s five electrostatic wave propulsion engines fired, and Darren felt the hard g-forces course though his body when the flying saucer transport pulled away.

Jorge let out a cowboy “Yee-haa!” and something said rapidly in Spanish.

Twenty feet ahead, he spotted two crew chiefs standing in the circular airlock . . . and the fleeting vision of a blue and white Earth 300,000 miles away. The moonship behind them slowly began to shrink away.

His counter read 00:05:33.

Tony thought-guided his fighter straight to him. The windshield opened, and his beloved machine swooped in gently, swallowing him into the cockpit.

“Yeah, bitches, back in the saddle again!”

As soon as he plugged the thought-control cable into the back of his helmet, he felt his brain pour into the Dragonstar’s body. The pre-flight check sensors beeped an okay, and he pulled his fighter toward the rupture.

And suddenly——impossibly!——there was the Guardian above him, dropping literally out of nowhere, its arms outstretched and its fangs jutting from salivating jaws.

Tony inhaled sharply and tried to draw a bead on the falling creature with the laser cannons, tried to guess where it had been hiding, but the Guardian quickly closed the distance and landed on his Dragonstar’s nose. Its weight forced that end of the fighter downward, but Tony quickly compensated and shoved the mental-throttle forward, gaining speed. The beast raised a mighty fist to bash the windshield, but Tony slammed the creature hard against the side of the tunnel. The monster’s repulsor field merely bounced it and the fighter’s mass away from the wall, but still it clung to the Dragonstar’s nose.

Tony shouted in anger, in terror, and shoved the fighter upward toward the ceiling, trying to throw the goddamn thing off so he could take a shot. Its force field may have been too strong for small arms fire to punch through but certainly not against a pair of five hundred megawatt laser cannons. He bashed the Guardian into the ceiling, but the alien still refused to let go.

The creature’s robotic eyes began to glow yellow. Wavering arcs of blue-white electricity erupted underneath its cobra-like hood. Tony didn’t know what this bright shit was all about until he realized it might have activated some kind of weapon. He banked the Dragonstar hard to starboard, hoping he reached the opposite wall in time to smash the beast again before it could use its weapon.

Suddenly, an incredible flash of intense light erupted outside the cockpit, and not just a flare but a stadium full of klieg lamps erupting in his eyes at once. Momentarily blinded and confused, guessing he was about to die somehow, Tony could only stop his fighter’s forward momentum, and reared up. Overload alarms flashed on his visor. The Guardian had tried to fry his Dragonstar’s circuits like some crazy, electric eel. The fighter’s internal dampers absorbed the shock but would not be able to take much more.

Growling in anger, Tony spun his dragon around and vaulted toward the hole in the tunnel. He dashed the Guardian against the edge of the rupture, and this time it lost its grip on the Dragonstar’s nose and slid across the top of the fuselage as Tony raked it against the edge. Sensing the alien’s weight missing from his fighter, he spun his machine around and found the Guardian silently turning toward him, propelled by a large hover pack of its own.

Tony backed off to give himself some distance and fired a fifty-round, twenty thousand fps burst from the gauss cannon. The full-speed blast shredded the monster into a thousand flying clumps of flesh and yellow blood quickly freezing in the cold of space.

Tony let out a sharp huff of air. For Carruthers.

As huge as the SB-138A Andromeda was, the inside hold was not as spacious as Darren would have believed. Generators, engines and life support machinery took up about seventy percent of the total area, leaving the rest for personnel and cargo. The cockpit oddly enough was constructed at the top of the ship with tiny windows for the pilots. Five rows of acceleration recliners ringed the cockpit tower, able to seat an entire battalion of infantry. Rolling deck plates on floor rails were used to secure palletized cargo or vehicles as large as five-ton supply trucks. These took up the spaces between the transport’s three loading ramps. The SB-138A was an impressive pinnacle of human engineering——R&D’ed from Vorvon tech of course.

Jorge hovered back to his seat, holding onto the handles of a retractable ceiling pulley which deposited him in the recliner with the control of a thumb stick.

“I dig the toilets, man,” he chuckled. “Like pissing in a shop vac.”

“Same ones NASA used on the Space Shuttle,” Middleton said, firing up a stubby cigar. “Try taking a dump. The first time is always a little awkward, shall we say.”

The Andromeda’s pilot came over the comm. “We’re on final approach. Altitude seven-four-zero miles.”

“How you doing Nate?” Darren asked his friend.

Nate slowly shook his head, his eyes no bigger than slits. “These drugs are wearing off, man. Fuckin’ pain is everywhere . . . I gotta broken rib sticking in my right lung . . . and I know the bones in my arm are jacked. I can hardly see out of my left eye . . . other than that, I’m ready for some backyard football.”

“We got the best trauma doctors in the military,” Middleton said. “As soon as we touch down at the Nest, they’ll have you back in killer mode in no time.” The captain shook his head. “I’m jealous of your suits. Whatever the hell that armor is made of, it sure as shit saved your arse from that gautdamn beasty.” Middleton took a long drag off his stogie and looked away. “Too bad Carruthers. . . .”

The other SAWDOG’s strapped into their recliners nearby said nothing. Silence for the dead. Congressional Medals of Honor had better be in order, Darren thought.

He glanced at his counter. 00:00:12. “It’s almost time.”

Everyone looked up at the high-definition TV screens angled above them. An external camera had a lock on the Vorvon moonship almost 300,000 miles away. Darren, Nate and Jorge had seven proton destroyers remaining between them if the warp procedure failed to work. Tony had none. Darren could summon his Dragonstar and be out of the airlock in less than two minutes. He tightened the grip on the recliner’s armrests. Burn, you bastard.

Deep within the moonship, the Invicid screamed in fury with an intense barrage of sonar which reverberated across the walls of its life chamber. The mighty creature bashed its tentacles against the walls and the floor, killing scores of shadow spawn and smashing the altar tower which had served it for millenia. The shadow spawn still alive beneath it cursed blasphemies against their creator. Millions of Vorvons raged in unison.

A lone voice: Let me go. Let me be the seed in this universe for your return.

Your piety is blessed . . . I will ignite your ascension.

A black, metaspace portal opened in front of the moonship and sucked the behemoth into its quantum depths. One thousandth of a second later, it reappeared and struck the sun’s wispy, fiery corona. The vessel was already vaporized down to the atoms before it could plunge into the star’s churning surface below.

No one cheered, everyone too exhausted to do so. Only quiet lamentation and reflection occupied their minds. Not rousing fist pumps and conga lines. The thrum of the transport’s magnetic field disrupter and tons of spinning mercury was the only sound heard.

Darren closed his eyes. Vanessa sitting next to him reached over and held his hand.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

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