Dark Dragons

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Chapter 3 - "I don't think this is a plane"

Friday, May 14

“Seymour, you’re turning out to be a juvenile delinquent,” Tony said.

“Juvenile? He’s eighteen, man,” Nate said. “If they catch him, he’ll go to county with the big boys.”

“I wiped my prints off,” Darren said with a whisper, looking to see if his mom was near. “They won’t find me.”

Jorge shook his head. “Not if Marcus tells that woman who stole her car.”

Darren shrugged. “He’s too stupid to think of that.”

Tony Simmons, Nate Douglas and Jorge Lopez were watching Darren going caveman on the bad guys. He was playing War Rabbit III. His character, General Bunny, had a variety of weapons to choose from in which to trade shots with hunters and psycho weasels who threw their turds at the hero.

“Grand theft auto,” Tony said, shaking his head. “Just when you thought you knew a guy.”

“I had to do something to get out of there,” Darren replied. “They would’ve caught me and decided to ass-rape me first before smashing every bone I have.”

“Marcus Lutze is someone you don’t wanna antagonize,” Nate said. “Just let him get in the occasional face punch and let him be. The guy is psychotic.”

“Yeah, don’t give him any puppies,” Tony said.

“No shit.”

“Why?” Darren asked.

“In fourth grade, he put one in the microwave in the teacher’s break room.” Tony said it so nonchalantly, it almost sounded fake.

Darren nearly choked on his gum and hit the PAUSE button. “What?”

Tony nodded. “You were never told that one? Yeah, me and Nate where there in school when they led him out with the cops, remember Nate?”

“How can I forget that? We didn’t see him for two years until he came back in the sixth grade. Spent a little time at St. Michael’s with the Jesus shrinks. That obviously didn’t work.”

For the longest time, Darren thought he was dealing with just a token school bully. Now the slow feeling of dread began to coil into his gut.

“Did his mom drop him on his head when he was a baby?” Jorge asked.

“I think the guy’s a psychopath,” Tony said. “You know . . . someone with the inability to feel guilt or empathy. Disregard for morality, prone to violent tendencies, and all that shit. Two years ago, he was ragging the hell out of Stewart Smalls who was some goth emo kid who picked the wrong time to announce on his blog he was coming out of the closet. Stewart wound up eating his dad’s .38 Snub-nose, and I heard Marcus’s name got mentioned a few times in the suicide note they found.”

“Jesus,” Darren said, handing the video game controller over to Tony.

“This Rated-T for Teen game is turning me into a psycho killer!” Tony shouted. “Video games are evil, yeah!” He promptly began killing bad guys.

“Don’t forget the carrot!” Nate cried. “Get the carrot! It’ll give you——”

“I got it, I got!” But General Bunny got squashed by an 18-wheeler before the carrot could give him an M-61 Vulcan Gatling cannon.

Tony Simmons was the rebellious, reckless type but one of the smartest kids in school, which invoked a little envy in Darren. Yet Tony never wanted to admit he was intelligent. He chose to hang with the burnouts and smoke reefer in the school parking lot during lunch hour. He had spiked hair which he dyed yellow, five hoop earrings in each ear, pierced nose and naval, pierced tongue and eyebrows, and wore t-shirts that said things like “I’m the teenage girl you masturbated with over the Internet” or “I only support gay marriage if both chicks are hot.” Tony, like Darren, was relegated to a lower social status at school, just another loser lost in the fog that was Verdugo Valley High.

Tony lived with his dad and older brother Curtis. Mom wasn’t around. She had gone out for cigarettes one night when Tony was only ten, and as the usual story went, never came back. His dad, a fat slob partial to the drink, got his kicks beating the shit out of Tony only when he couldn’t catch Curtis. Tony would show up at Darren’s house on more than one occasion sporting a cut lip or a black-and-blue shiner on his cheek. “Oh this? I fell off my bike,” he would say.

Darren figured this probably explained the reason why Tony smoked pot and pulled fire alarms instead of thinking about SAT’s and wondering about his life’s possibilities. Tony didn’t care if he graduated——he only had ten credits——but Darren knew he had brains. One time, Darren went over to Tony’s place and found him on his bed reading Virgil’s The Aeneid . . . whatever the hell that was . . . and scribbling notes in the margins. As soon as he noticed Darren, Tony shut it quickly and said, “Just a book I found in a trash bin.” He had a burnout image to protect.

Allison Babineaux sat on her bed, painting her fingernails and listening to her son Darren and his friends playing a hotly contested video game downstairs in the den. She tried not to think of what the room looked like but couldn’t escape from the image in her head. Soda bottles and potato chip bags probably littered the floor, half-eaten candy bars melting on her expensive carpet, or better yet, everything she cherished was either broken or damaged beyond repair. She tried to forget the night when Darren had one of his get-together’s and someone had knocked over her favorite Chinese figurine. Nobody had claimed responsibility of course.

After drying her nails, she faced the mirror to count how many wrinkles and crow’s feet had appeared on her face since the last time she looked. No additional, face-disfiguring features had materialized that she could see.

The ruckus downstairs grew louder. Someone cursed. Great, she thought. What teenage atrocity would overtake the house this time? An argument? A wrestling match? Loud music? At times, Darren and his friends jumped on Allison’s nerves like a herd of peevish elves.

She almost hit the roof when someone cranked up the TV surround sound, and the window-rattling base of hip-hop pulsated through the house. Elvis, Allison’s four-year old black lab, groaned in protest.

“Darren!” she shrieked. She flew down the stairs, and burst into the den. To her surprise, the room wasn’t as bad as she had imagined.

Darren felt a headache coming on when he saw his mom and let out a slow, placating breath. It wasn’t the overbearing motherly presence he detested but the manner in which that presence arrived hell-bent. Or rather the way it was dressed——as usual.

Darren’s mom was only eighteen years older than him. Allison had gotten her teenage self in trouble at summer collegiate camp after high school graduation, endured several parental lectures on abortion and adoption, and nine months later rejoiced she had carried Darren to term and decided to keep him. Darren was told all of this, of course, whenever he pissed her off.

Thirty-six years old, and she dresses like a college girl out Saturday night bar hopping. Tonight, it was a tight pair of embarrassingly short, Daisy Duke cut-offs and a dress shirt tied at the bottom over her navel which practically pushed her boobs up and out of the damn thing. Darren noticed at a very early age that his mom didn’t look like most moms. Allison was a young, good-looking brunette not shy about showing herself off in public.

The first time Tony met her, he had said to Darren unbeknownst with a wink-and-smile, “You gotta hook me up with sis.” And that’s what sucked even more——Allison looked much younger than thirty-six. She could pass for Darren’s older sister, and Tony hadn’t been the only one fooled in the past.

“Did I not say in the past when you guys got together, ‘No loud music’?” Allison said.

“Nate accidently hit the wrong button,” Tony said, his smile lopsided. “Sorry, Misses B. It won’t happen again.”

Nate and Jorge both nodded in agreement with dreamy faces. It wasn’t hard to tell Darren’s friends really didn’t give a crap about playing video games at his place. There was sightseeing to be had. At least Jorge, a devout Catholic with an amicable nature, was always sensible enough to sense Darren’s discomfort and not leer.

“Going out to the bar again, mom?” Darren murmured, his eyes on the TV.

Pause. “Yes.”

“Which boyfriend is it this time?”

The air in the room became suddenly charged with the threat of a brewing storm. The other guys sensed it. The dog sensed it. Hell, even the fish in the tank stopped swimming.

“Excuse me?” Allison said, teeth slightly clenched.

Darren fell silent. Not in fear from his mother, but in dread that if he said anything more, it would come out in a scream of absolute poison. His face felt hot, his stomach turned, and—— if Tony and Nate don’t stop leering at my Playboy-centerfold-wannabe mom, I’m going to. . . .

“Sam,” she said. “You like Sam, remember? He took you to the Lakers game?” She looked at the clock. “Seeing that it’s almost eleven, I assume you guys will be staying over. I wish you would tell me these things, Darren,” she said, sweeping The Mother Stare over them.

“Must have forgot,” he replied.

She waved her hands toward the back door. “Come on, party’s over. Get your tent, hon. You’re all sleeping outside. I don’t want you guys breaking something in here. Tony, I told you not to smoke in my house. Another reason everyone’s staying outside.”

Tony stomped the butt out in a Coke can. “Sorry, Allison.”

“And Darren . . . go to school on Monday. Please?”

“I’ll just be in detention for a week.”

“Don’t worry,” Tony said. “I’ll make sure he’s there. Remember, I’ll be there, too.”

“Imagine that,” Allison replied.

“Hey, I thought there was a fire. Somebody had to pull that alarm.”

Allison pointed her finger at Darren. “Go to school.”

Darren’s friends went to the garage to get his tent while he stood in front of her, no doubt waiting impatiently for more motherly counsel.

Allison studied her son’s face, trying to peek through his eyes that had lately become stone walls. Despite having decent grades, he was having so much trouble at school with arguments, fights and back talk. She would love to get her hands on this Marcus Lutze. Maybe the move out here had been a mistake. It had only been a year since his father’s death, ten months since she had divorced Zach after ten years of marriage——which gave Darren no heart loss since they never really got along——but a job with a starting pay of $88,000 at an upstart computer firm in Simi Valley was worth the move. She merely snatched the offer and ran without thinking of Darren and his adjustment to a new school. Go figure.

She looked at Darren longer and was again amazed at how much he looked more and more like his father the older he grew. Same dark eyes, wavy brown hair . . . which needed to be cut . . . and a lithe build. His father’s death had affected Darren more than it had her. She hardly knew the man who had been Darren’s father . . . other than a few nights of teenage bliss at summer camp and, later, nods of greetings when he picked up Darren every other weekend. She was just now beginning to accept his death and get on with life, but Darren truly missed his dad and their pilgrimages to NHRA car races, the Detroit Auto Show at Cobo Center, and all the dirty jokes he used to tell which Darren would relay to Allison that made her groan. The image of that mutilated classic 1970 Mustang Boss 429 would be etched in their minds forever.

“I’m sorry,” she said finally.

“For what?” he said.

“I’m sorry if I embarrass you.”

Darren shifted his weight from one side to the other, looked at the clock, to the floor. “You wouldn’t embarrass me if you would just stop . . . dressing like that . . . when my friends are over.”

Allison nodded. “You’re right, and I’m sorry.”

Darren turned for the door, his face still dark. “Why can’t you just dress normal?”

“Normal?” Allison truly felt sorry she had embarrassed her son in front of his friends but wasn’t about to be lectured. “How about June Cleaver. Or Carol Brady. I’ll wear pearls and a gingham dress from now . . .” Nope, she thought. She closed her eyes and put her hand up to her temple. “Darren I said I was sorry. I will remember to go normal whenever your friends are over, but when I’m going to social functions not attended by horny teenage boys, I intend to dress to kill with high heels.”

Darren spun around in the doorway. “Happy hunting, man-eater.” He gave his mom the pistol-firing motion with his forefinger and thumb. “Tell Sam I said hi.”

Allison watched her son walk out the back door. She stood there for several seconds, staring at the footprints he left in the plush carpet leading to the patio door. Slowly, as the floor regained its flat contour, Darren’s trail vanished. Allison went back upstairs to get herself ready for a nightly round of bar hopping with Sam, but she couldn’t get that goddamn lump out of her throat.

Darren lived at 2130 Sutton Cannon Drive in La Crescenta, a small suburb at the base of the San Gabriel Mountain foothills which formed the northern boundary of Los Angeles. Darren’s house was the last one on the street, the hills rising sharply just beyond the dry ravine that separated them from his backyard. The peaks were a mecca for summer hikers, campers, deer hunters, and on this night, four teenagers in search of serenity. The peaceful milieu of chaparral, oaks, pepper trees, and eucalyptus conflicted noticeably with the harsh existence of smoggy L.A. just a few miles to the south. Darren enjoyed the transition.

Tens of vacant shacks were scattered throughout the forest, left by those who at one time cherished the solitude of the woods but chose to return to the hurly-burly of city living. Darren found one of these shacks a few weeks earlier during a bike ride and mentioned this to his friends, which they decided would be a cool place to camp out sometime.

Allison had been left with the impression that they would be sleeping in Darren’s tent in the backyard next to the pool. Instead, they set up the tent and waited for Allison to drive off in her Jaguar XK——a gift from some past infatuated boyfriend——before sneaking off for the foothills on their bikes. Mt. Lukens Road lay just east of Darren’s house and went northeast before curving around to the northwest toward the peak of Mt. Lukens itself.

The boys were just now approaching this turn when Nate whined, “Are we there yet? Jesus, my asthma’s startin’.”

“We’ve got a ways to go,” Darren replied. “We’ll get there.”

“Let’s stop and take a rest,” Nate protested.

“For Christ’s sake,” Tony mumbled. “Remedial Phys Ed hasn’t helped yet, huh?”

“Gnaw on my fat one.”

They stopped to take a blow and watch the bright, shimmering grid of L.A. lights to the south and lonely jets taking off from LAX. Darren always loved the Money Shot from here.

Nate was trying to catch his breath, and Darren smiled at his effort. Nathan Douglas was a tall, heavy-set Irish kid who must of woke up one morning and decided he wanted to be black for the remainder of his adolescence. Darren neither condemned or condoned Nate’s choice of dress, talk, and hand motions. Close your eyes while Nate was talking “street” and you’d think you were in Inglewood or Compton. Open them, and you saw a white kid from an upper-middle class family wearing baggy pants belted four inches too low and any choice of oversized designer shirts. Hip-hop always played on Nate’s iPod, never rock ’n’ roll. “Wannabe” was one name for Nate’s social breed. A less flattering epithet invented a long time ago was “wigger.”

Surprisingly, he got along with the black kids at school who either tolerated him or actually liked his company. Other than that, Darren didn’t know too much about him since he just started hanging out with Darren, Tony and Jorge a few weeks ago. Nate was a somewhat popular guy around school, and Darren couldn’t figure out why he would hang out with losers like them until just a couple of weeks ago. It seemed Nate liked Jorge’s older sister and probably thought he’d warm up to him first. “Hey, Mexico, you think I could come over and check out that stereo you was talkin’ about?” or something like that. Anything to get closer to sis.

After resting for a few minutes, the boys continued up the road, leaving the bright lights of Los Angeles behind them. The San Gabriel mountains lay ahead.

Jorge Lopez brought up the rear of the group. He had successfully “hopped the fence” west of Yuma, Arizona, with his parents, two brothers and four sisters in April of last year, and Marcus Lutze had wasted no time in initiating his own brand of immigration reform on Jorge. Darren first met him in algebra class and remembered that he was always smiling. Maybe his mother told him that if he smiled a lot in America, he would make more friends. However, as the days wore on and Marcus played his usual part, Darren noticed Jorge smiled less and less when he came to class until his face was as still as stone.

Jorge was the first person that Darren befriended on his first day at school last semester and the most quiet of their group——he used to torture the English language helplessly which always aroused a few snickers from kids at school including some of his fellow Latinos. However, Jorge had a fire inside him that fiercely spurred a determination to talk more clearly, and after months of intense self-instruction, finally gained the ability to speak fluent English. During homework, Darren would find that he had to often consult Jorge on the proper placement of punctuation or the eternally hopeless attempt to understand the correct usage of “lie,” “lay,” and “lain.” Despite this, Jorge was still a rather quiet guy unless someone really pissed him off, and then an amazing mixture of brand new English profanity and machine-gun Spanish would roar out of his mouth, much to the delight of Tony, the usual instigator of Jorge’s outbursts.

After another fifteen minutes of uphill bicycling, Darren led them off the dirt road into a field that once had been covered with tall grass and bushes only to be scorched by a brush fire stoked by the Santa Ana winds the previous month. They were now going downhill on the north side of Mt. Lukens towards a large swath of pine and oak in the distance.

The shack lay on the edge of a secluded clearing in the trees. Hunters had built it many years ago with loose boards and other fittings. It was empty except for some trash can rubbish, a few old broken stools, and a lantern with a little kerosene left at the bottom. The windows had been replaced by mosquito netting which allowed a cool Pacific breeze to swirl in and ruffle some old newspapers in the corner.

The roaring campfire they had built outside the shanty a few hours ago now barely held enough light for them to see, just red embers cooling in the night air. The blabber of usual topics important to teenage boys——dirty jokes, what athlete had more skills than the other, the endless diversity of female body parts——eventually faded away when they grew tired in their sleeping bags.

The moon glided on silver clouds, its light filtering through the canopy of leaves and pine cones from where squeaking bats darted at flying insects that dared to take flight. The forest was alive with the nocturnal prattle of crickets and distant coyotes. A few miles away droned late night traffic on Interstate 210.

Darren squirmed to get comfortable in his bag, trying to ignore the snoring induced by Nate’s sleep apnea. Eventually, however, his own slumber found him.

It had not moved in three thousand years.

Asteroid bombardments throughout the eons had covered it with a blanket of moon dust and meteorite powder, providing a natural camouflage. Over the great expanse of time, the ship had shut down the most meaningless functions to conserve energy until only a handful of operations remained. However, three thousand years of cold sleep was a long time even for Xrel technology, and it would be a divine miracle of their gods if the ship could fly again.

The AI computer pilot still had life, and one of its sensors had picked up something quite alarming. A mass-displacement analysis of the solar system’s curved space-time field indicated that a sharp increase in additional gravitational flux was being added to the surrounding continuum. Sensors quickly studied the quantum spray of natural radiation coming from the universe and discovered a moving source highlighted against the background field which could only mean artificial fusion reaction. The mammoth Vorvon sector ship, which appeared over Xrelmara centuries ago and brought total genocide to that planet, had finally arrived from deep space . . . exact position unknown but likely prowling somewhere among the solar system’s gas giant planets.

This was not one of the few Vorvon scouting missions to the surface the AI had observed over the past one hundred years. There had been three visitations that it had recorded. No, with the Vorvon sector ship now present somewhere nearby, this was the main force. Earth would face the wrath of invasion, possibly within days.

The AI acted immediately. The recharging unit jumped to life, and the cold molecular generators began to feel the first twitches of energy. Ceiling lights flickered on, though no living creature walked the corridors. Navigation computers and telemetry functions came to life, yet no pilots existed to study the data.

The tired fusion drives ignited, and the vessel began to vibrate as the engines gained power. Stray static electricity flowed across the hull, repelling millennial layers of moon dust. The engines reached their charge limit and roared to life. The ship rose, blasting dust and rock from underneath it, and climbed higher still, searching for escape velocity.

With a final push, it screamed away from the moon’s gravity and turned its bow toward Earth. Trajectory vectors were plotted, and the ship selected the shortest route in. It detected thousands of artificial objects in orbit around the blue and white orb, but none appeared to be planetary defenses——at least highly advanced ones.

The AI pilot opened a topside airlock, and two early-warning surveillance drones shot out. Both machines fired their actuator rockets and peeled away, each heading for the Lagrangian points known as L1 and L2 where the gravity of the sun and earth canceled one another and an object could maintain a stationary position in space relative to Earth. The drones’ surfaces bristled with instrumentation which used a variety of sensor technology long forgotten, all able to spot moving objects hundreds of millions of miles away, natural or artificial.

The ship shut down its fusion drives and ignited the orbital boosters along its hull, then pitched to starboard to insert itself into an equatorial orbit. Its destination was a structure it had identified on one continent where dignitaries from various societies of the planet gathered to negotiate worldly affairs. Once there, it would select four individuals it considered capable of accomplishing the objectives. Surely humanity would then have a chance against the advancing invaders.

A large section of the port-side hull suddenly exploded. Chunks of metal and tongues of white flame spewed from the breach. The mighty Xrel freighter pitched sluggishly to starboard and gunned its fusion drives to evade, throwing itself out of its insertion window into a course intended to push it away from whatever had attacked it. Sensors had not detected any incoming asteroids or human-made debris as the likely culprit. No Vorvon spacecraft either. The ship sustained another strike, this one a high-angle shot that grazed the bow but forceful enough to take out the entire communications array.

There! In a low orbit. The computer spotted not just a single satellite but an entire net of human-made weapons burping high-velocity rounds in its direction——weapons using electromagnetically-fired iron slugs.

Coolant and deuterium fuel burst from conduit lines, and internal fires began to spread amidships. A klaxon blasted through the corridors, and automatic fire suppressors activated to extinguish the flames. The ship was far off its intended course and dropping quickly. The AI pilot attempted to realign along its previous trajectory, but navigation controls began to fail one after another. The ship was dying.

Twenty-two thousand miles above the Pacific, a 23-telescope surveillance satellite code named Medusa Stare continued to track the ship since acquiring it the moment it left the lunar surface. The early-warning satellite transmitted a signal to a ground station in Maui, Hawaii, which immediately relayed the broadcast to the Near-Earth Space Surveillance and Tracking Center buried in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Standing in the back of the Combat Operations Center, Colonel Martin Towsley, elated that his group had finally pulled their trigger finger, watched the radar image of their “duck” falling to Earth on the hi-def projection screen. Delta-v and other telemetry readings indicated that the object was descending quickly but erratically, meaning that it wasn’t quite dead yet.

“Captain Connors, tell NORAD to stand down,” Towsley told the chief communications officer. “We got this one.” Time to set the “dogs” loose.

Darren quickly sat up in his sleeping bag. Something wasn’t right. He had been on the fringes of sleep, the area between consciousness and dreamland where the brain could not discriminate between the two worlds. In that spiraling funnel, Darren noticed something strange just outside his body, and a reflex made him sit up. He sat there for a moment, trying to collect his bearings, and finally took a look around. He couldn’t figure it out. Something seemed out of place. It was still early morning, probably about three or four o’clock. The animals were unusually quiet.

That’s it. The entire forest around him sounded dead. No hooting owls or chirping insects. Nothing. It was weird. Birds, bats, even the baying coyotes in the distance had succumb to silence as if some godly hand had grasped the entire area and suppressed the forest with a divine spell. Not even the slightest of breezes moved the leaves.

Immediately, Darren felt an earthquake might be coming on. He had read somewhere that people could often predict earthquakes by the sudden silence or agitation of animals. Since the move to California, he hadn’t been in one. A mule deer startled him when it trotted quickly out of the trees not ten feet away and bounced across the clearing to the other side. It too had sensed——something.

“Hey, you guys!” he whispered coarsely. “Get up. I think there’s going to be an earthquake!”

They stirred in their sleep. Tony mumbled something.

“Get up!” he shouted.

“What the fuck, man?” Tony murmured, slowly sitting up in his sleeping bag. “You never been in an earthquake, Seymour? It’s no big deal.”

Nate rubbed his eyes. “What makes you think we’re gonna have a rumble?”

“I don’t know. The forest got quiet all of a sudden. Listen.”

Everyone fell silent to eavesdrop on their surroundings. It was definitely eerie with no campfire or the glow of city lights to help pick out movement of any kind. Even the moon had disappeared behind a layer of clouds. Just an omnipresent wall of darkness around them.

“Oh, man. We are gonna have a quake,” Darren heard Nate say off to his left. “My dad’s bulldog went apeshit the last time one hit. Jake’s probably pissin’ on the couch right now and tryin’ to hump the cat, yo.”

“Oh, shit,” Darren murmured.

“Naw, it’s cool, man,” Tony assured him. “Earthquakes are only deadly when you’re in town with the gas leaks, fires, and rubble, and stuff. Out in the boonies like this, it’s actually pretty exciting. Just sit there and let nature rock your world.”

Darren nodded his head. “Sure,” he mumbled.

“This is gonna be so great!” Tony exclaimed.

“Oh no,” a member of the Tracking and Impact Team said. “Sir, we just lost it.”

“What?” Towsley said. “Lost it?”

“Yes, sir. It was approaching the southern west coast when it just winked off the screens. I had infrared and ultraviolet tracking, but it just disappeared. No heat, no light, nothing.”


The tech shook his head. “The satellite isn’t registering a return.”

“Pull up the trajectory,” he said to another officer.

A computer profile of the object’s entry path came up on the screen. A long, descending red line began in the stratosphere over Japan, snaked across the Pacific and ended just before reaching California.

“It’s somewhere in southern Cal,” one of Towsley’s men said.

“Yes, but where?” Towsley replied.

“The best I can do is give us a probability triangle, sir,” the TIP man said, his fingers moving across his keyboard. Trajectories, wind direction and atmospheric pressure data scrolled up on the screen. The supercomputer found the average velocity of the object, including direction and average angle of motion, and began determining impact prediction. A moment later, the TIP man shook his head. “Well I tried, sir, but this is the best locale I could give us.”

A red triangle covered a small portion of southern California. It stretched from Ventura county, across northern and central Los Angeles county to the southwest corner of San Bernardino county. A box of data in the upper left corner of the screen displayed ground coverage——4,763 square miles.

He turned to his silent staff members who now looked gloomy, understanding the difficulty they now faced. “This is an Icarus Hammer directive, people.” Then he raised his voice so the others beyond the group of men standing around him could hear. “Listen up! I want our choppers bound for George Air Force Base in one hour. We start our search from there.”

They sat motionless in the dark, waiting for the ground to begin rumbling. The woods were quiet, but occasionally they would hear the ghostly munch of leaves or a twig cracking nearby from an agitated animal. Spooky shit going bump in the night.

“Ya know, it might be awhile before it happens,” Tony said. “Couple hours, maybe. Let’s smoke a bong and really get off on it.”

“Shhh!” Darren shot at him. “I hear something.”

Tony fell silent for a moment to listen, then, “That’s just a jet or something, man. Let’s toke on this.”

In the dark, Darren immediately smelled burnt pot under his nose and realized Tony had shoved his water bong in his face. Darren slapped it away. “Cut it out. It’s getting louder.”

“Oh, man,” Tony whined. “I don’t have my screen in it.”

“Shut up!”

This wasn’t beginning to feel like the rousing of an earthquake. Something else entirely. What Tony had described as only being a jet didn’t sound like one either. The engine pitch was lower, and it pulsated slightly. Not like the continuous, high-pitched roar of jet turbines.

Darren stood up as warm Santa Ana rustled his shaggy hair. His eyes darted around the darkness, but he couldn’t see anything. The rumbling——whatever it could be——grew louder, coming closer.

“Is that a jet?” Tony asked.

“I can’t see anything,” Nate murmured with sudden dread in his voice.

Something was coming toward them from out of the darkness. Something big. The deep growl of a great machine vibrated in Darren’s chest, and he wanted to run but couldn’t tell from what direction.

“What is it?” Nate shouted.

The howl of warbling engines erupted directly above them and moved eastward. Darren went to his knees, terrified of whatever it could be would come crashing down on him.

The ship descended acutely, almost too quickly for a soft landing, its axis pivoting as it roared out of the sky toward the woods on the other side of the clearing. It pitched up and tried to clear the trees but sheared off the tops as it rotated sideways into the forest. Finally, it struck the surface, heaving tons of timber and earth into the air.

The ground rumbled under Darren’s feet, rattled his teeth, shook his senses. He found himself mashing his mouth with both fists, embarrassingly, like a little girl and quickly pushed them away despite the terror. After the sounds slowly echoed away, silence returned to the Angeles National Forest.

Finally, he got his lips to move. “Jesus, was that a plane?”

“Let’s bug outta here,” Nate begged, gathering up his sleeping bag.

Jorge followed suit, scrambling for his shoes. “I’m with you, ese.”

Darren and Tony, however, remained transfixed to their spots, trying to see into the darkness toward the east.

“Come on, you guys!” Nate shouted.

“What do you mean, come on?” Darren said. “People might be hurt.”

“With body parts laying all over the place?”

“People might be dying, Nate, so don’t be an idiot.”

“Screw that,” Nate spat. “Let’s get back to the house.”

“You and Jorge can pussy out if you want,” Darren said. “Tony and I are going to help.”

Darren went inside the shanty to grab his high-tops and took the flashlight out of his backpack. He walked past them and continued across the clearing. “You can stay if you want. I’m going.”

“Body parts!” Nate spat. “Think about it! Headless bodies still strapped in their seats!”

“Tony, are you coming?” Darren asked.

Tony was quiet for a moment. A real long moment. Then he murmured, “Yeah,” and followed Darren into the darkness.

At the end of the flashlight beam came a rolling cloud of dust billowing out of the trees like thick brown fog. Darren put his palm to his mouth and squinted. Through the odor of fresh dug-up earth and cracked timber, he smelled something hot, something electric. Then he nearly tripped over a tree trunk. There were several strewn all over.

“Somebody oughta go tell the cops,” Nate said. “That should be me.”

“We may need your help, so shut up,” Darren replied.

“I can’t handle dead bodies, man.”

The dust began to settle. Darren could see something at the extreme limit of his flashlight. A huge metal wall.

“There it is,” he whispered. Darren waved the flashlight up higher, trying to pick out colored tail markings——Southwest, United, Delta, whatever. He couldn’t see the top of the jet because of the swirling dust. “No body parts yet, Nate.” But Nate didn’t offer a reply, or a retort.

As a warm Pacific breeze swept in to push the fading dust away, strange outlines began to take shape around them. Pieces of wreckage, snapped tree trunks, bubbling puddles of what looked like steaming mercury. Spilled fuel?

Darren approached the side of the plane and touched the surface. Warm. He walked further along its length toward what he assumed to be the nose. One thing he noticed immediately, which bothered him, was that he couldn’t smell smoke or see any fires for that matter. How could a jet take a dive into the ground without disintegrating into a million flaming pieces?

Darren swept his flashlight across the hull once again, up, down, sideways. The notion of a crashed passenger airliner began to fade from his mind, slowly replaced by the realm of irrationality where the silly shit lived. He had walked a good forty yards and still had not spotted any wings or the tail. It was bigger than a 747.

He stopped to look at his friends. “I don’t think this is a plane.”

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