Dark Dragons

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Chapter 22 - The Beginning Of The End

Saturday, May 22

The SPAS12 shotgun was slick with Towsley’s sweat. He rubbed his hands on his uniform, but it too was damp with perspiration and did little to dry his palms. Geils walked just behind him. The 9mm Beretta looked clumsy in the kid’s hands as much as it must have felt clumsy. It gave Geils a bit more confidence and helped alleviate his noisy flights of terror, but the kid didn’t know that there was only one round in the gun. Towsley wasn’t dumb.

He peered around the corner into the vestibule and the swinging doors leading to the hangar and sweet freedom beyond. Caliban could have gone there to seek out a place of ambush——there were plenty of niches and corners in the hangar in which to launch a surprise attack——or the alien could have entered the stairwell and returned to the dark confines of the base. He swore at himself once again for failing to remember to bring his radio. A couple of squads of Forrester’s men would be nice backup right about now, but Towsley wondered if any of them would risk reentering the base, even on orders, with Caliban threatening to nerve gas everyone.

He gave the swinging door into the hangar a soft kick. Nothing reacted to the movement, and he stepped out, motioning Geils to stay back. Towsley put his back against the skeleton of an overturned 5-ton truck and peeked around the smoking cab.

Caliban was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the hangar, his back to the colonel and facing the tunnel entrance. The alien had his open hands on his knees. He looked like a Hindu guru in deep meditation. Towsley could not see the nerve gas canister, if Caliban had it at all. It might be hidden between the alien’s legs, he thought.

Towsley moved forward, his shotgun level and steady, until he came into Caliban’s peripheral vision.

I am tired. Caliban clucked his teeth. Very tired.

Towsley was not about to drop his guard. Billings had dropped his and received a disembowelment as a result. He glanced back at the vestibule door. Geils was peeking out through the glass, his eyes in continuous blinking mode. “So what are your intentions?”

I will allow the child to leave. You will stay with me for now. Caliban reached down between his legs and revealed the VT canister still taped to the end of a cocked 9mm Beretta. He rested his makeshift nerve gas bomb on his legs.

Towsley’s heart beat faster, and he felt the blood rush out of his face. “Geils! Come on out!”

A moment later, he heard footsteps behind him.

“Run up the tunnel . . . now.”

“What about you?” Geils asked.

“Don’t worry about me. You just got a free pass. Now go!”

The kid’s footsteps exploded behind him, and he watched Caliban’s head turn as the alien watched Geils run to everlasting freedom. Towsley never hated Geils Woodbury more.

Your weapon will not save you. You know my redundant nervous system will still allow my dead body to pull this trigger. Now sit down in front of me. To emphasize his demand, the alien raised his weapon slightly. How you respond in the coming moments will determine both our fates.

The colonel gave Caliban a wide birth and sat down cross-legged about fifteen feet away. “Alright. Now what?”

A smart phone appeared from the hidden space between Caliban’s legs and slid across the concrete. It struck Towsley’s boot.

Call your daughter. Sarah will want to hear from her long lost father.

Something twisted like a hot blade. The panic clawing inside him spiked, his mind racing, his limbs going numb.

No, I cannot read human thoughts, though my heart would desire so. I can only project my voice into your undeveloped brain. Caliban tilted his head to the side as if Towsley represented a mystifying piece of art deserving deeper scrutiny. I’m afraid too many careless conversations with Dr. Billings in the observation room over the years have revealed old wounds.

“When I contact my daughter, it will be on my terms. Not yours.”

The alien tightened his grip on the Beretta, Towsley hearing the knuckles crack from this distance. You are in no situation to declare terms . . . call your progeny . . . now.

He picked up the smart phone and recognized it as belonging to Dr. Billings. Caliban must have rummaged through the doctor’s quarters sometime earlier. Towsley used his thumb to call his daughter, a number never dialed but known by heart. His mind continued to scramble for answers as he tried to understand Caliban’s intentions.

As it began to ring, the terror of an unforgiving daughter’s rejection began to supersede the threat of suffering an agonizing death.


Towsley forced his lips to move. “Is this Sarah Kline?”

“It is.”

“Sarah . . . this is your dad.”

The Awkward Pause came, and it was long and painful, heavy with twenty some unspoken years. Towsley worked spit into his mouth.

“My dad?”

“Yes. Do you have time to talk right now?”

“Not really . . . how did you get my number?”

“Your mother gave it to me a few years ago.”

He heard a sharp huff of air. “And you’re just now calling me?”

“I know. It was hard for me to work up the nerve. Every time I picked up the phone I just put it back down.”

“So what convinced you now? Because it’s the end of the world and you wanted to make your peace?”

Towsley watched Caliban stroke his abdomen where the fetus lay peaceful, the alien’s eyes locked squarely on his own. He felt tears forming. “Something like that. I just want you to know that I am so very sorry for what I did to you and your mother. I hate myself for it.”

“Good. You never told me that twenty years ago. You didn’t tell me anything when mom pulled the car away, so I spent the rest of the years thinking you felt nothing. Mom was right when she denied weekend visitations, but you didn’t even fight for them. Why?”

Towsley heard a small child in the background giggle and a dog bark, and his heart ached a little harder.

“I guess I couldn’t stand to be reminded what I did every time I looked at you.”

“That’s a weak ass excuse.”

Towsley closed his eyes, knowing his whole life was full of weak ass excuses. “Sarah, I said I was sorry.”

“You didn’t see my mother in a bathtub full of blood. You didn’t wrap your t-shirt around her wrist to keep her alive. I don’t think you really saw what you did other than what the lawyers filtered to you.” Sarah did not shout——it gave her words more weight. Her hushed matter-of-fact tone cut deeper. “I hated you for so long. But that hate dried up years ago. I can’t hate someone I don’t know.”

That was the blade tip that finally found the center of Towsley’s resolve. He had been gritting his teeth, trying to keep from sobbing over the phone and not sound spurious. But his quivering bottom lip would no longer allow his words to come out easy. “I want you to know me again, Sarah . . . I . . .” Now he was heaving, twenty years of rehearsed “I’m Sorry’s” jamming up in his brain.

“How could you possibly want to call me now?” she shrieked, her composure finally gone. “At a time like this!” His daughter began to weep, her breath jagged. “You always had the worst timing. Will forgiveness really erase twenty years of your pain?”

“I just wanted . . . to . . . to say something to my . . . can I talk to my grandson?”

“My son has only one grandfather, and that’s my husband’s father!”

Towsley watched Caliban’s fingers wiggle, and he re-gripped the shotgun from its loose position in his right arm. The alien’s intentions were slowly becoming apparent, and Towsley felt the first pinchers of anger under his skin. Along with a reckoning.

“Please don’t push me away. If you want to punish me, fine. You want me to hurt, I am. But please don’t let it go on forever. I miss you, and I want to see you again.”

He listened to his daughter cry, praying that there was at least a sliver of hope coming, some indication that the remaining years would not involve monthly nightmares of dying co-pilots and soul-wrenching guilt.

Crazy images of promise swam in his head: of a tearful embrace on a front lawn as a taxi pulled away, a shy child reluctantly hugging an old man he did not know, a warm handshake from a mystery son-in-law, open photo albums spread across the kitchen table . . . a daughter’s soft words of love spoken inches from his ear.

“Don’t ever call me again,” Sarah Kline said.

There came a soft beep and a dial tone that whispered finality into his ear. Towsley held the phone to him just a little longer, his collar wet with tears. After about ten seconds of listening to the droning dial tone, he thumbed the phone off.

You have destroyed so many children. Caliban held his hand to his stomach. I produced twelve beloved offspring during my stay here as your unfortunate guest. Taken from me and butchered in your laboratory. Some of them enduring unspeakable horrors during your experiments for the perfect poison. The nerve gas bomb moved in his hand. Tell me . . . did you watch them convulse?

“You speak of children being taken from you when you invade my world to do the same?” Towsley hissed. The SPAS-12 shook in his hands. He knew what was coming. He wanted it. Caliban wanted it. “I saw the images of dead children in the streets . . . after they endured unspeakable horrors during your experiments for the perfect killing machines . . . we are all destroyers of our future. But in the end . . . the offspring will endure . . .” Towsley sat up straighter, leveling the shotgun “. . . they always do.” Sarah had saved her mother from suicide. Her father would not be so fortunate.

Towsley aimed his weapon directly at the VT nerve gas canister held over the alien’s torso and fired. A white cloud exploded, and Caliban’s body propelled backward in a spray of blood, his arms flailing. The head crashed hard on the concrete and the chest heaved once——a leg twitched. The swirling cloud roiled out in every direction.

It enveloped him. Towsley waited for his painful deliverance, hyperventilating with a high-pitched squeal, wanting this, needing it. Past visions came to him as he waited for death——of Barbie dolls laying everywhere among the coloring books with chocolate fingerprints, a pair of discarded training wheels, a girl’s beginner make-up kit . . . happy detritus of an innocent age.

The violent spasms, the drooling, the tears of blood dripping from the eyes . . . did not come. Towsley wondered why he was still breathing. His diaphragm continued to heave. The deadly toxin had not shut anything down. Smoke from the shotgun blast was like the sweet aroma of baking bread . . . he could almost taste it . . . and he knew he was still alive. The white cloud had already evaporated.

It took all of his strength to stand. He nearly fell but righted himself at the last second with the shotgun. Slowly, he approached Caliban’s dead body, the alien’s cold black eyes staring at the hangar ceiling, limbs splayed like those of a dissected frog.

The 9mm Beretta was still attached to the ruptured canister, the white gauze tape peeled back to expose large words in yellow lettering underneath——argon.

Harmless, odorless argon gas.

“You son-of-a-bitch,” he whispered.

The APIS engineers used argon in their gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers. Caliban must have broken into the storage lockers some time ago and switched out the VT canister with the bottle of compressed argon, concealing the entire surface with gauze tape.

His entire body numb, Towsley turned and headed for the high desert of California. He could detect the enchanting scent of eucalyptus on the crisp air wafting down the tunnel, leading him away from the emotional tumultuousness behind him. It smelled pretty damn good, he thought. He had worked and lived here for almost fifteen years, and in all that time he had never really been conscious of the various scents of the clean, dry desert. A smile graced his lips. His head felt like a balloon filled with the scented air outside.

Though his entire body felt anesthetized, he detected a faint buzzing in his left hand. He looked down and realized he had never let go of the smart phone. It was vibrating.


He heard a deep breath and a child’s nonsensical chattering in the background. “Hi dad,” came his daughter’s soft voice. “It’s me. . . .”

Around seven PM local, everyone stepped off the Andromeda into the hot air of the high California desert bleary eyed and weak. A disheveled and sweaty Tony sat on the nose of his Dragonstar a few feet away, smoking a cigarette and looking like Darren felt.

Towsley was waiting for them at the bottom of the ramp with two Response Team guards. Darren suddenly went into defensive mode for some reason, even though he had been assured on the ride in that tensions had been settled. Two Navy corpsmen stood next to a Humvee with a red cross on the door. Nate’s ride to the NESSTC infirmary.

“Take it easy, bro,” Tony said, ambling over.

Nate gave a thumbs up as the two medical officers gingerly guided him into the back seat.

When Darren introduced Vanessa to Towsley, he noticed something different about the man’s camouflage Airman Battle Uniform that he couldn’t place. He nearly disregarded it until he realized what had changed. “Hey . . . your colonel’s eagles are gone.” They had been replaced with a pair of single stars glistening on both lapels. “Brigadier general . . . congratulations, sir.”

Towsley beamed. “Thank you. Presidential commendation.”

“You earned it.”

“We brought your clothes for you. We knew you were going to need them.”

The two guards handed them four bags.

“Thanks, general,” Darren said, taking his Detroit Pistons duffle bag. “I need to get the hell out of this thing or I’m going to scream.”

“We knew you were coming, too, Miss Vasquez,” Towsley said, “so our female staff gathered some spare clothing for you. Hope you don’t mind camouflage.”

“Far out,” Vanessa said with a grin, pulling out a blue-gray airman uniform. “Even a bra and underwear . . . gee, I don’t know what to say.”

Towsley cleared his throat. “Captain Middleton radioed ahead and gave us your approximate dimensions.”

“He did, did he?” She gave the wily Brit a lopsided grin.

Through a cloud of cigar smoke, Middleton shot her a wink.

Darren opened the bag and examined his blue jeans. He saw his wallet in the back pocket, house keys and cell phone in the front left and his PDA in the front right.

“Everything’s where it’s supposed to be,” Towsley said. “We didn’t steal anything.”

“I trust you . . . finally.” Darren put his blue jeans back in the bag. “I guess that leads me to my next question. Where are we at? As far as us and you guys?”

“We’ve all been invited to have lunch at Camp David next week to discuss that. So wear your best suit and tie. It looks like the president and his national security team may decide to abolish the threat tag placed on you boys, but only if you agree to a few concessions.”

“Which are. . . ?”

“One, that you maintain a low profile. You are not to make yourselves known to the media or the public in any manner.”

“No ticker tape parade?”

Towsley shook his head. “The SAWDOG’s are going to have that honor in lower Manhattan next week. Sorry, Darren, but that’s the way Uncle Sam wants it.”

Darren had that momentary jolt of anger of not being invited to the party, especially since the four of them had saved the world . . . but the thought of some crazy banging on his window at three in the morning shouting “Take me to Venus, buddy, take me to Venus!” shot that down pretty quick. Maybe obscurity wouldn’t be so bad.

“We have no problem with that . . . I guess.”

Tony and Jorge both nodded and shrugged.

“Two, that you will not contrive and/or commit any acts deemed hostile against the United States or her NATO allies.”

“Hmm, I’m not sure about that . . . it’s going to be difficult for us to resist the urge in destroying the already weakened foundation of Western civilization and——”

Towsley held a hand up. “All right, all right.”

“Jesus, after what we just did, how could we do something like that? We’re patriotic Americans, general.”

“I know you are, Darren, but you need to tell them that. Everyone is still spooked and paranoid and not just about alien invaders. Our military got its ass handed to it. The Navy and the Air Force are all but gone, and the Army and Marines combined lost nearly thirty percent of their fighting force when the bases on the east coast were destroyed. In two days, the president is going to sign an Executive Order that will institute the military draft and begin a massive build-up to replenish America’s war machine. We’re talking World War II-era, twenty-four/seven churn out of tanks, jets, aircraft carriers and fresh troops. It’s important that the U.S. shows the world that it still has claws . . . and we need you boys to be the vanguard in this. You’re not being enlisted, but the president wants a promise that four Dragonstars will be on call to defend the nation if needed. So you need to go in there next week and speak softly to the president and promise to carry a big stick for America. Get it?”

“Yeah, I get it,” Darren said.

“Good. I’ll be there as your representative and to vouch for you. After the handshakes are finished, the government will agree to make no attempt to steal, kidnap or monitor you gentlemen or your alien technologies. Basically, if you leave us alone, we’ll leave you alone.”

“I think that commitment might be a stretch for Uncle Sugar, but we’ll agree to it.”

Brigadier General Towsley offered his hand which Darren gladly shook.

“Thank you,” Towsley said. “All of you.” He shook Tony’s and Jorge’s hands. “You guys did well. You brought down the righteous fist of God, and the whole universe shook. Let the villains out there, shall any be there more, quake from the roar of human defiance.” He shook his head and smiled. “Eighteen year-old kids . . . who would have thought?”

Towsley turned and climbed into the Humvee. “See you guys at Camp David next week.”

Darren’s Dragonstar touched down in the center of Wolf Flat into the shadows of tall gray pines and oaks, the sun setting low over the Pacific. Tony’s and Jorge’s fighters were already there, but they had both gone home. Darren knew they had to eventually find a better locale to base their fighters and keep them away from curious and covetous eyes. Including those of the military.

Darren wore just his helmet. Vanessa had suggested he keep the suit off anyway so that she didn’t have to sit on hard, prodding surfaces. That was just fine with Darren. He enjoyed the feeling of her soft body pressed against his own, his arms wrapped around her the whole time. Eventually, she would rest her head on his shoulder and put her arms over his. Eventually, she would turn her face toward his and place warm breath on his cheek while they flew through the clouds. Darren took his time going home.

Vanessa had a tearful phone conversation with her family while she and Darren walked along the path that led to the canyon behind his house. The Vasquez family was staying with relatives in Santa Barbara and, because of the snarl of traffic jams still leading out of L.A., wouldn’t be getting home any time soon. Darn it.

Darren had tried calling his mom but he couldn’t reach her cell. He tried his grandparents in Michigan, but still no luck. Maybe there was a lot of cell phone towers knocked out along with everything else. Half of the United States was supposedly without electricity.

They reached the top of Pickens Cannon which dropped down into the dry gulch separating Darren’s back yard from the foothills. He looked southeast and saw tall columns of smoke and dust still rising from downtown L.A.

“Damn,” Vanessa said. “You guys had a hell of a fight.”

“Yeah . . . we couldn’t help that, but . . . we won.”

“Yes, you did.” Vanessa held his hand and led him down the steep cannon.

“You kicked ass, too. I saw you room-brooming my needle pistol like you knew what you were doing.”

She huffed. “I was scared out of my mind.”

“We all were, but you turned that fear to your advantage and came out alive. Just like a real, bloody soldier gautdamn it,” he said with his best Middleton.

Vanessa snickered, and he put his arm over her shoulder.

The neighborhood of Sutton Cannon Drive looked abandoned along with the rest of La Crescenta. There were no cars in any drive-way up or down the street. Spooky. One sound that Darren had grown accustomed to since moving here was the continuous traffic drone of Interstate 210 which the foothills naturally heightened, but that, too, was gone.

“Looks like we have the whole neighborhood to ourselves,” Vanessa said as they climbed the gulch into Darren’s back yard.

His heart flip-flopped again.

“We can crank music as loud as we want!” she shouted at the top of her lungs, bouncing up and down like a little kid.

Oh . . . right.

Without warning, Vanessa vaulted into Darren’s arms and wrapped her legs around him. “And I can scream in pleasure as loud as I want and no one will hear,” she breathed into his face.

Darren silently thanked Major Deanna Weinholt for the pointers when he opened his mouth hard against hers and began playing with her tongue. He felt her heart slam against his chest and her fingers dig into his hair. Moments later, they came up for air for a split second before diving back in. He stumbled up the steps to the deck, caught himself, and strolled toward the patio door he had shattered so many days ago, his hands squeezing both butt cheeks.

Ringing in both ears. Skin tingling. His biological alarm screamed warnings, killing his arousal.

He pulled away from her. “Oh god, no,” he whispered.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

A shadow moved in the kitchen . . . and Vanessa’s head exploded. Blood, brains and hair smashed him in the face, into his open mouth and eyes. He tripped over his feet and fell, screaming and screaming, madness filling his heart. Her legs were still clamped tightly around him, her fingers digging into his back. Darren rolled down the steps, slammed his head hard against the railing, and tried to separate himself.

“Sorry about that, Darren, but my finger slipped on the trigger!” Marcus shouted.

Vanessa’s once gorgeous body finally went limp and . . . fuzzy blackness . . . eyeballs tingling . . . ocean waves rushing in his ears . . . and then . . . Vanessa?

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

Darren jumped to his left as fast as his legs could pump before the laser blast pierced the air where her head had been one second before. They landed on the deck, knocking the propane grill sideways into the patio table.

“Sorry about that, Darren, but my finger slipped on the trigger!” Marcus shouted.

Darren scrambled to get to his feet, pulling Vanessa with him, but Marcus was already there on the deck, naked, pasty white, hairless, teeth bared in a hot, mutated rage. He brought the butt of the Vorvon laser rifle down on his face, and Darren’s sight went black.

When he slowly came to, he found himself sitting in the middle of the living room, all four limbs tied up in one of the kitchen chairs, his hands bound to the wood loops connecting the back legs to the seat. Five feet in front of him sat Vanessa, mouth duct taped and facing him with all of her limbs as well tied to a kitchen chair. Marcus was courteous enough to leave her bra and underwear on, Darren still fully dressed. She was coming around, a line of dried blood marking the spot on her forehead where Marcus struck her with the alien weapon.

Darren’s mind went in a hundred directions as he tried to think how in the hell Marcus could possibly be here.

He appeared from behind Darren dressed in his studded leather harness and rubber thong. His pasty, broken body looked even more grotesque than before, wrinkled pimply ass checks hanging down like lumpy candle wax. He smelled like fishy ammonia.

For some reason, he had a single layer of white gauze bandage wrapped completely around his head so that only his mouth showed, making him look like a crazed burn victim. Darren could see through the material, and there didn’t appear to be any traumatic damage on his face save for the imperfections the Invicid had caused. For whatever dark reason, the gauze was just part of his disturbing, S&M outfit. A true paraphiliac.

“You forgot your lipstick again,” Darren said.

Without warning, Marcus lunged forward and sank his teeth into Darren’s ear and tore the lobe away with a snap of his head. Squeezing his toes, Darren stifled a scream, but Vanessa screamed for him through the duct tape, her face going red.

Marcus leaned over and spit the little glob of meat in his face. “Now, now. Mustn’t let that wise ass interrupt the proceedings. It won’t save you.”

He moved around Vanessa, and she tensed up in the chair, expecting to be attacked. Marcus picked up something from the floor behind her——Allison’s curling iron, which he gently inserted upright into Vanessa’s crotch, careful and deliberate, as if she were a sensitive bomb that would go off suddenly if he pushed too quickly.

“Hold this for me,” he whispered in her ear. “I’ll come back later.”

She began to sob.

“Well Darren, we have arrived. This is the beginning of the end.” Marcus shook his head like he was truly disappointed. “You almost made it, buddy. Almost. Thanks for saving the world by the way. I’m sure you accomplished amazing feats of bravery. They’ll sing songs of your martyrdom——” his right eye slowly oozed out on a gray-pink tentacle and popped back in with a slurpy pucker—— “but the portal to your universe is still open while the seed of the Invicid stirs inside me.”

Marcus looked down at himself. “You remember my leather? Yeah, it’s mine. Brought it along with a few other . . . things.” He nodded to a backpack resting on Darren’s couch next to the Vorvon rifle. “We’re going to have a screaming good time.”

Darren found his eyes on Vanessa’s trembling body and realized he was growing an erection. Embarrassed, guilty, hating himself . . . still he stared at her near naked body. The curling iron wedged deep between her legs affected him in disturbing ways he didn’t think were possible. Dark sexual images flashed through his brain, and he squeezed his eyes shut so that she couldn’t see his visions. His erection grew harder as tears formed in his eyes for the first time.

“Jeeeeesus! Ach! Christ!” Marcus howled. “Is that a bulge I see?”

Marcus reached down and unzipped Darren’s fly, pulling out his swollen penis.

“Vanessa, are you seeing this? He’s getting off on this shit! Look!”

Her eyes, which had never left Darren for the last five minutes, were now shut tight, her head to one side.

Darren finally began crying, unable to contain his torment, his chin down to his heaving chest. The sick prick had finally broken him. Tears and blood were ruining his nice t-shirt.

“I don’t blame you buddy. Vanessa Vasquez is one hot, Chicano pussy. Would you like to see it? Hmm? I bet the whore hasn’t even shown you yet . . . I’ll let you watch me use your mom’s curling iron on her.”

Darren strained against the ropes binding his hands to the chair, wanting to gouge out Marcus’s eyeballs and skull rape him.

“Yes . . . this is the new me. Scary, huh? I told you the Invicid showed me things. I learned a lot while I was on the other side . . . things I never knew possible.” Marcus bent down, his face close to Darren’s. “Ohhhhh, all right . . . I’ll be honest . . . I shoved a hundred milligrams of Viagra down your throat while you were knocked out.” Out came a small brown medicine bottle which he shook vigorously with a jerk-off motion. He gave Darren a soft slap on the cheek. “Were you thinking naughty thoughts? It’s okay. You can’t help that when you got a raging hard-on sitting in front of a hot naked girl.”

Marcus disappeared behind Darren and returned with a soldering iron plugged into an extension cord, a long thin tip screwed into the tool’s head. He squatted between Darren’s legs and seized his penis. Darren could smell the metallic burn.

Vanessa cried out behind the duct tape and leaned her head back, not wanting to watch.

“Before I incinerate you from the inside out, I want you to know that you were the greatest of all my adversaries, and I’ve had many . . . I truly mean that.”

Darren inhaled a large gulp of air. “Kill me . . . please kill me.” He began rambling on nonsensically, pleading, crying, snot running out of his nose. “Just shoot me in the head please!

Marcus just shook his head with a melancholic look. “I have to hurt someone today. I can’t leave here till I hear the screams——it’s my orgasm, man. You understand, right?”

“But I’m your greatest adversary! I deserve it quick and painless! An honorable death!”

“You gotta be fucking kidding?”

Darren was dying inside, thinking of his next words. He had to say them, though they sliced his soul into little pieces with slow blades. “Then hurt her! Make her scream! She’ll get you off! But kill me!”

He saw the pensive look on Marcus’s face and the incredulous despair and venom in Vanessa’s eyes. His heart tore at his throat. From out of the psychotic turmoil in his head came Marcus’s ghostly words spoken aboard the moonship: “Humans are the worst monsters.”

“Shoot me! Shoot me, just please don’t make me hurt down there! Please!”

Marcus couldn’t figure Darren out. He whispered, “You know if I kill you quick and painless, I’m gonna have to make her hurt. Really . . . really . . . bad. She will experience unspeakable horrors she never thought one human could inflict upon another. Every nerve ending in her twitching body will scream. I’ll loot her daddy’s drug store and bring back intravenous bags of saline and dextroamphetamine just to keep her alive and alert for the next twenty-four hours. Is that what you want? To go out like a coward not man enough to take the pain for her?”

“I figured you out, asshole! Remember? I broke into your locker and found your picture. Remember? Shoot me! PUT ONE RIGHT BETWEEN MY EYES YOU GUTLESS PRICK SO YOU CAN WATCH THE BRAINS THAT PLASTERED YOUR SICK PICTURE ALL OVER SCHOOL BLOW OUT THE BACK OF MY HEAD!”

Darren continued to hurl curses and invectives when Marcus finally lost it, throwing the soldering iron against the wall like a sulking child, and vaulted toward the couch and the Vorvon pulse rifle that lay there.

Darren was laughing, crying maniacally with relief, a snot bubble blowing out. “Yeah, that’s it! Ha ha . . . yeah!”

Vanessa was absolutely going berserk, thrashing about and screaming through the duct tape. Marcus thought of ramming the curling iron down her throat just to shut her up.

He slowly approached Darren with patience, enjoying his own erection growing under the rubber thong . . . his first without medicinal aid in many, many months he realized with relief.

“Thanks for unzipping my pants, asshole,” Darren said——calmly.

Darren’s suddenly out-of-place composure froze Marcus where he stood. The corners of Darren’s mouth had turned up ever so slightly, his eyes no longer filled with terror and crazed desperation but alight with something else . . . excitement.

Marcus looked down and saw that in unzipping Darren’s fly, he had loosened the top of his blue jeans, allowing Darren to strain his right hand against the rope and find its way into the front pocket. Fingers moved underneath.

He detected movement outside the living room window. Confused by the quickly unfolding events around him, Marcus turned his head toward the large window and felt every cell in his body explode in terror. A black, avenging dragon from outer space was staring at him through the glass.

“And thanks for grabbing your gun, mother fucker,” Darren growled. He thumbed the button on the PDA, and his Dragonstar’s anti-intruder defense activated. All forty guns of the hydra shroud locked onto Marcus with his Vorvon weapon and roared to life.

His body literally disintegrated. The sensors targeted every ragged, meaty chunk of flying flesh, reducing them to smaller bits before they could hit the floor. Two seconds later, it was over. A stiff breeze from the shattered window pushed Marcus’s pink mist——the only thing left of him——toward the couch where a large Rorschach of blood began to form.

Darren accessed the PDA’s communicator and shouted for help.

Jorge drove his dad’s car. He was at the front door in four minutes with his pulse rifle. Tony arrived ten minutes later.

Darren and Vanessa sat on the edge of the front deck, both of them staring off into the night. They had not spoken a solitary word since being untied an hour ago. Tony and Jorge had noticed the strange tension between them and got the hell out of there a half-hour later.

Darren leaned his head against the wood rail. The soft sound of crickets and a distant owl helped to calm him. So did the cold bottle of Miller Lite on his torn ear. He would have to change the gauze bandage soon.

Vanessa’s voice startled him. “I know what you said, you didn’t mean. About you wanting him to hurt me and not you. I know you were just trying to spin him around and get him to go for his gun . . . still . . . it hurt Darren. It scared me. It made me hate you . . . and for some reason I still can’t shake it.”

Darren closed his eyes.

“I wish you had never sat outside my house.”

He inhaled slowly. “Vanessa, I’m sorry. For everything. I didn’t mean for you to get hurt . . . look . . . I meant what I told you on the ship. About rocking your world every time you’re with me and promising not getting jealous over stupid shit and . . . I realize your time with me so far has been nothing but running, shooting, screaming and every horror and pain imaginable. Not exactly a dinner and a movie date. But I promise that it’s all over. There are truly no more monsters out there . . . and even though I want you with me . . . I’m not going to force the issue. If you want time to meditate about shit, that’s cool . . . just don’t take too long . . . if you think life with Todd would involve less drama, well, you’d probably be right. If that’s what you want, then I’ll walk away and not bother you with my stupid hopes and dreams. After what just happened to us, I would understand.”

Darren stood up and entered the house. He didn’t want to hear her response. It was a cold move to just leave her out there alone, he knew, but the uncertainty was unbearable. He finished his beer and went to the fridge for another.

What are you doing, asshole? Go back out there and tell her straight! After all you’ve been through, you’re going to mope away from a girl? He was practically marching back toward the front door. He gave the screen door a slightly harder push than normal, ready to get his Rick James on——but Vanessa was not there.

He saw her dark silhouette highlighted against the street light at the end of the driveway. She was on her cell phone.

In the dead silence of the city around them, he heard her say, “Where are you . . . ? Oh, good, can you pick me up at the corner of Sutton Canyon and Kenmore . . . ? I’ll tell you when you get here . . . okay, I’ll see you in a bit.”

Vanessa slowly walked away in the dark stillness toward Kenmore a block down the street. Darren went to the curb and watched her go. A minute later, he saw her appear under the street light at the corner and sit down on the curb.

He knew who was coming for her.

Minutes later, a familiar red Chevy truck pulled up, and Vanessa got in. The truck did not move for several seconds, until finally it U-turned and drove back down Sutton Canyon toward Foothill Boulevard.

Darren climbed into his Dragonstar’s cockpit, leaving the windshield open so that he could listen to the soft prattle of the crickets and the owl still hooting in the distance.

“What a week,” he murmured.

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