Dark Dragons

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Chapter 4 - Hot Rods Of The Gods

Saturday, May 15

“Then what is it?” Tony asked.

“What do you think?” Darren replied.

It took Tony three seconds to answer. “Oh, get off the babysitter. It can’t be. Maybe it’s just a top secret Air Force jet . . . or something.”

“Tony, look at it . . . it’s not a jet!”

Jorge took a step back and murmured something in Spanish. Nate’s mouth just hung open, a blank stare in his eyes.

Darren continued forward, his flashlight darting back and forth. Immediately, a low-pitched drone rose from the stillness.

“What’s that?” Jorge whispered.

Darren stopped and listened, trying to hear over his pounding heart. A jet of hot steam burst from a ruptured line above them and breached the silence. The boys jumped, and Darren felt everything inside him twitch. The steam slowly died when whatever inside relieved the last of its pressure. Darren waited for something else to surprise him, and when he deemed it safe, continued forward. The hum wavered now, but he couldn’t tell from what part of the ship. The whole vessel sounded alive.

They came to a large wound in the hull that strangely did not appear to be the result of the crash. Jagged sections of hull plating, torn cable conduits and bulkheads had been rent inwards as if struck from the outside. The crash would have done this to a much larger section of the vessel, not just this small area, and the damage went several feet into the ship’s guts. Something fast and nasty had done this

“Looks like something hit it,” Darren whispered.

The creature paused for a moment, then continued to advance. A young male. Human. As were the other three. The computer could not determine if the creatures were suitable for the “objectives.” Too many variables. These humans were considerably younger than its intended selection, but young males were more stalwart than older ones: sturdier bones, higher pain thresholds, quicker reflexes, yet intelligence and logic levels were significantly inferior along with a tendency toward incorrect decision-making.

The AI had little choice. The Vorvon menace drew near, and the freighter was beyond repair with only vapors for fuel remaining. It took the computer just milliseconds to decide.

Steady . . . steady. . . .

Darren was about to turn and tell his friends to high-tail it when something large and metallic appeared from the top of the ship in front of them. Sudden, hot fear had not forced the urge to flee but to plant him where he stood. His stupefied friends next to him apparently had identical reactions. No one could move, and Darren quickly discovered it wasn’t by terror alone.

He literally could not rouse his muscles! Something had shut down the brain’s ability to stir the body into action. His first response was to scream, long and hard with shameless intensity, but his lungs had turned to granite.

The thing slowly hovering down toward them was metallic, ovoid-shaped, maybe six feet wide, emitting warbling chatter like a computerized songbird punctuated with a low drone. A large panel slid open, and Darren saw that the machine now looked like a large, robotic eye. He could see fluid machinery behind the glass pulsating almost organically like a pumping heart. A long, wavering arc of bright green light erupted, and Darren suddenly heard a buzzing inside his head begin to build to a loud growl.

The eye swept blue beams of light over his body in curious patterns: from the head down, left and right across his head, shoulders, chest and waist, almost as if——

——as if it’s measuring me.

The laser beams then moved on to his friends, and when it finally finished with Nate, the green glow inside suddenly exploded with the brilliance of stadium lights. Darren lost touch with the world around him and could no longer recall where he was or his own identity, all of his cognitive functions nullified. He felt hot urine run down his legs, heard ringing in his ears. Blood trickled out of one nostril. It felt like rape——whatever rape felt like. He was at the mercy of this fiendish machine and prayed for his life to continue.

A deep bass sound emanated from the machine and a new, more terrifying procedure began. Blindness suddenly closed Darren into his own universe. He saw the sharp image of his dad’s crumpled Mustang being towed away, brown stains of dried blood on the seats . . . watched his grandma bath him in a plastic baby tub, and then the doctor trying to give him a vaccination while he screamed and kicked as Allison tried to steer his eyes toward the Cookie Monster poster on the wall; he saw Aunt Michelle’s dog shitting on her carpet, Mr. Rogers feeding his fish on TV, the umbilical cord being cut from his belly. . . .

A rush of emotions popped from his mind as if a swelling balloon had released them—— joy, rage, depression, sexual arousal, jealousy. Alien images swept across his conscious like frames from a reeling film strip, each vision different from the last: hand-held weapons, dark fighter interceptors, black combat suits, hideous creatures from hell, a violet sky full of giant triangles——a gray, crater-scarred moon with its equator missing, replaced by a colossal ship at its core. . . .

The green glow from the eye faded, and Darren dropped face first into the hard soil.

The computer digested its new information, storing body dimensions, brain wave speeds, and skeletal strengths into its memory, every physiological response recorded.

With the appropriate data now stored, engineering automatons within the ship’s holds began to modify the cargo.

Darren was having a strange dream. He stood on a hill overlooking a burning alien city while a large, white sun blazed overhead and a much, smaller orange star hung over the western horizon, both bathing the sky in beautiful fires of pinks and yellows. Behind him, a prairie crowded with curious animals resembling reptilian kangaroos fed on tall purple grasses. He knew he was dreaming and sleeping somewhere else, but why had his mind brought him here? He had never seen this place before.

He sat down and spotted a lone figure approaching from the blazing city, maybe one or two miles away, strolling among the herd of grazing animals. The figure did not seem to be in a hurry.

Darren heard a loud hum above his head. A pulse of light pierced the sky and touched the ground beyond the horizon. A cloud of heat and bedrock rose at the impact. Darren did not recoil in shock from this. Even when the shockwave blew his hair back seconds later, he remained still.

When he looked back at the approaching figure, he saw it had come much closer. It couldn’t have covered that distance from the time Darren had last spotted it. But it had. The person was short, maybe five feet, and wore a brilliant cerulean tunic waving in the hot winds.

Darren closed his eyes, waited a few seconds, and opened them again.

Only forty feet now separated Darren and the figure. The rolly-polly creature had a long toothy snout and brown, pebble skin, two thick legs and fat, clawed toes. Bony projections across its forehead nearly concealed three reptillian eyes which Darren could tell were endowed with reason and wisdom.

“Hello, stranger,” it said in its alien tongue.

“Hello,” Darren replied with the same language.

“I am Kalaar, and you are En’rev’k Y’rid Zet, ‘He Who Greets With Fire.’”

“No, my name is Darren,” he corrected, although he dug his new alien name. He Who Greets With Fire . . . I’m a member of the tribe!

“D-Dar-ron. Fine, fine.” The creature sat down with a slow huff like an old man settling into his rocking chair. The being withdrew a gnawed, yellow stick from his tunic and nibbled on the end of it. He looked up at the sky and the events unfolding there. Darren could feel the creature’s distress and uncertainty.

“Where am I?” he asked.

“Xrelmara. But I believe you call it. . . .” Kalaar rubbed his snout and stared at the grass “. . . Eta Cassiopeia? I am not quite certain. I am an old man, you see, and my brain is crumbling.” Kalaar removed a metal ball from his pockets. Its sides opened into the shape of a silvery flower, and it rose from the creature’s hand to drift above their heads. It began to sing a melody of strange chimes and mewls. An insect darted after it and fluttered away.

“What’s happening here? Why is that city on fire?”

Kalaar took a breath and slowly exhaled. “War. They have come and destroyed my people. I don’t really know why. Only the Prophets understand, I guess.”

“Are you the one who sent your ship to Earth?”

“Earth?” Kalaar scratched his snout. “Oh . . . yes, the Eye of the Gods, our polestar——I am the one.” The creature chewed harder on his root and found the juicy center where the spices were. “Too bad it crashed. You were not my first choice. Much too young for war.”

“Why did you send it to Earth in the first place then? Out of kindness or something like that?”

“Kindness? Perhaps. I am too much of a miscreant for an act such as that. I guess my actions were uncalculated at the time. Maybe I was merely thinking out of proper judgement. Like I said, I am a senile old man.” Kalaar turned to him. “You are full of doubt, Dar-ron. That I see. When Dy’uvic, the Seventh Prophet, rode his dragonstar across the clouds to crush the murderous Three Clans, he too was just a boy. Outnumbered. Full of questions and uncertainty.” Kalaar leaned in closer, his eyes reflecting the fires from the city below them. “But he prevailed,” he whispered with steely finality.

Darren couldn’t be sure what this kooky old man, a kind of alien Buddha, was trying to say. Somewhere in him, though, he did. Darren looked out at the fields of grazing animals while Kalaar talked. The creature’s voice, full of age and grit, became softer, feminine. He turned to the alien and saw that it had changed form into a beautiful, blond woman. This dream was playing out with typical surrealism.

“Your Dragonstar is a cold parasite,” she said. “It will feed off you. A price to pay for such a primeval brain, but you will overcome this.”


“The dragonstars helped Saroot the Fourth Prophet defeat the Third Prophet, Vorvon, the false oracle. We call the invaders who have destroyed my people Vorvons. We do not know their true names nor would we speak them anyhow.”

She seemed to be describing events in an alien version of the Old Testament, their own religious scriptures, Darren figured. A good campfire tale, maybe, but he couldn’t understand the relevance of it.

“The Vorvons are simple destroyers. What you create and celebrate over the eons—— monuments and philosophies, art and song——they come and obliterate in just days. The soul of your planet will cry out in grief with the loss of its children.”

This woman looked so damn familiar, and her name was right on the tip of his tongue. She wore a sexy white skirt with thin shoulder straps, showed a good deal of cleavage, had short curly hair and a mole near——

Marilyn Monroe? Darren sat upright when it finally hit him. He was talking to Marilyn herself. What was the dream interpretation with this one? With the wind rustling her hair, Marilyn looked off toward the city. He didn’t think he ever saw a more beautiful woman in his life. Vanessa maybe.

Darren knew he was dreaming, anyway, so he had no reservations about placing his hand on Marilyn’s thigh. She looked at him and smiled.

“Wanna get naked and wild?” he asked.

“I’ve had enough mindless sex in my life, thanks,” she replied, removing his hand.

Darren looked away and watched the herd of grazing animals in the distance. “Can’t even get play in my own dream.”

“You don’t want me, and you know it,” she said. “There’s someone else you want.”

Darren pulled up a few blades of purple grass. “Yeah, right.”

“I think Vanessa likes you, Darren,” she said with a breathless purr. “You should stop looking at yourself as an ugly turd and stretch out and take a chance.”

“Likes me? I don’t think so.”

“How do you know? I think she swoons every time she sees you in the halls.”

Darren shook his head. Marilyn didn’t know shit. She was just a projection of himself talking to himself in his sleep anyway.

“I’m not just a dream,” Marilyn purred. “Believe me——Vanessa likes you. She sees you in the hallways and looks away before your eyes meet. During lunch, she always sits where she can get a good view of you.”

Darren stood up. “Bullshit.”

“No it’s not. You should see her when you pass her in the halls. You leave her breathless. Your dangerous with power like that.”

“For crying out——”

“Why are you being so despondent? I’ve never met a person living in so much denial. You’re unreal.”

Darren turned to her. “Look, you’ve——” Marilyn Monroe had vanished. Darren could only stand there and tremble. He felt his stomach churn.

“Did you hear me?” Vanessa Vasquez said. “I said ‘You’re unreal.’”

No reply.

Vanessa smiled, and he thought he was going to reach orbit. “I’ve watched you for a long time, Darren.” She slowly approached. “You are . . . without a doubt . . . the most captivating and . . . and seductive guy I have ever seen.”

All Darren could spew out was a dumb-ass, “Thanks.”

Suddenly a fist came from nowhere and smashed him in the mouth. His head jerked back, and he fell on his ass. He saw blue lights, felt loose teeth rolling around on his tongue. She hit him! The lights cleared from his world. No, she hadn’t.

Todd Lutze had, who now stood between them. “I don’t think so,” he said.

Vanessa shook her head. “Sorry. Todd is kind of jealous. Gets it from Marcus.” She looked at her boyfriend and put her hand on his chin. “You need to curb your anger, baby.”

Darren got to his feet and walked away in the direction of the burning city, now a smoldering wasteland of ashes and crumbling girders. He looked over his shoulder. Vanessa and Todd were making love in the tall, purple grass. He turned away, wanting out of this fucked-up dream. A laser pierced the sky and touched a mountain in the distance, and the rocky formation disappeared in a flash and clap of thunder. The animals reacted and stampeded for the trees to his left.

Kalaar’s cargo drone tore the quiet, nocturnal order of the forest asunder with the ignition of its drives. It was severely damaged, only a fraction of its original power remaining, but possessed just enough fuel to complete its final task.

Slowly, with much effort, the ship rose from the forest floor, wailing as it fought gravity. Dust and dirt filled the air while the tired engines struggled to gain altitude. It hovered momentarily when the drives sputtered but then regained speed. Higher it climbed, clawing for elevation, away from the city. A loud sonic boom issued behind it.

One mile per second, two, three . . . .

With its objectives completed, Kalaar’s beloved ship——the remedy for his shame and guilt so many eons ago——shut down the coolant pumps to its engines. A millisecond later, the ship detonated into a blinding, pulsating flower of fire strong enough to blow out windows in the skyscrapers fifteen miles below.

Darren heard chattering squirrels and birds calling to mates, and wondered how the animal kingdom had found its way into his bedroom. He opened his eyes to see he was outside, and judging by the sun’s position, it was early morning. Tony, Nate and Jorge lay asleep on the ground next to him. Ground. Not floor.

He sat up. Something huge, black and menacing, sat on the ground twenty feet in front of him. An evil dragon had landing a while ago to watch him sleep, and Darren nearly shrieked. It took him a second or two to realize the thing was a machine and not a fire-breathing beast. He looked to his left and right. There were three more, all arranged in a semi-circle around the boys.

Darren’s stomach knotted up when a wave of emotions and memories burst from the modified regions of his brain. The alien fighters triggered a response, something like the Russian dog Darren learned about in psych class that salivated every time its master rung a dinner bell. The answers came to him one after another, until no questions remained.

An invasion. Not by Red Chinese or terrorists or vengeful right-wing militiamen from the sticks, but extraterrestrials. H.G. Wells and The Twilight Zone. Not a comic book or a movie. Right here in the real world.

A brief moment of cold panic gripped Darren tight as if the doctor had just shown him an ugly x-ray or an oncoming car had just slid into his lane. He faced up to it quickly, an image so clear like a desert landscape in every direction. They had become the blocking force, the unwilling but eventual warriors representing the only line of defense against alien invasion.

“Oh my god,” he whispered.

If one of these beasts had been hovering in the air in front of him on a moonless night any other time, he would have shit his pants and passed out in the mess. The overall design and shape of the fighter gave it the appearance of an alien dragon as opposed to an earthly medieval one. The wings bent downward slightly one-third away from the fuselage and widened to the ends as if they were about to wrap a prey in a locking embrace. The dorsal and stabilizer wings at the rear even angled back sharply away from the fuselage just like a tail. A short, thick neck curved upward slightly from the body to a large, reptilian head; canard wings on either side of the cockpit’s head provided the horns. Even the two landing skids looked like talons which carefully balanced the fifty-six foot long, 28,000 lbs. fighter.

The designers did not seem to have logical practicality in mind when they nightmared these beasts into reality but instead had poured a sleek, sexy terror into the mold. These aerial war toys were built to either scare a smart enemy from coming out to fight or kill the foolishly bold who did.

Somehow Darren knew every control and function, every maneuver and trick, something known since birth. An instinct. What took an Air Force or Navy pilot five or eight years to learn, had taken no more than ten terrifying seconds of “advanced memory alteration” to teach him the awesome capabilities of these alien machines.

He rose to his feet but did not approach. Instead, he remained in one spot and studied their new fighters from a distance, trying to accept the sobering fact the machines now belonged to them. They looked fast, even sitting motionless in the sun, but the word “fast” fell considerably short of accentuating their unnatural speeds. Capable of vertical take-off and landing, he told himself. It has three different propulsion systems, neither of which rely on an on-board fuel supply but instead on perpetual energy tapped from an interdimensional, sub-atomic source.

The first engine was an atmospheric drive called an anti-graviton emitter, impractical for operation in outer space because it needed gravity to function, but could out-fly anything that Earth’s skies were accustomed to. It had no visible components. The entire emitter sat inside the large spherical chamber at the rear of the fuselage. Only the top and bottom of this sphere could be seen. The atmospheric engine was really a force field projector that used an omnidirectional anti-graviton emitter cooled by liquid nitrogen to produce 0-degree radius thrust-vectoring. Gravitons were the elementary particles of gravity which every massive body like Earth or the sun possessed. When a graviton met an anti-graviton, they repelled from one another in the opposite direction. Positive and negative.

He slowly approached his fighter. His fighter. Somehow he knew this one belonged to him. Did a machine-to-flesh connection exist? He shivered again.

The AG emitter produced a maximum acceleration of 3.5 miles per second or about MACH sixteen in just 0.17 seconds. Point-seventeen seconds! Darren imagined that if someone were watching his fighter take off from a stationary position at that speed, it would appear that his fighter had simply vanished quicker than it took to blink an eye. A ring of force field projectors inside the cockpit, equaling the acceleration in the opposite direction, negated the crushing g-forces by pushing against every molecule in the body, not just the body’s surface like other forms of acceleration.

Sonic boom? No such thing. His fighter possessed a third set of force field projectors that manipulated the air molecules, eliminating air compression around the fighter’s skin, creating “potential flow”——smooth, silent, loss-free . . . an aircraft designer’s wet dream. Silent, hypersonic flight . . . no bow shock in front of the fighter or heating of the surface, and certainly no sonic boom existed.

He moved on to the characteristics of the second engine. The primary engines, the sub-lights, were a pair of bizarre animals born from another universe of physical law. They too had no visible, external components like the nozzles of a rocket engine. The pair of magic machines that pushed the dragons across outer space lay hidden inside the fuselage on both sides of the AG emitter chamber. A certain wave particle similar to a superstring millions of times smaller than an electron existed in the quantum soup——perhaps a billion within every cubic micron of space——that fused the heavens together and kept the chaotic gods in check. These particles provided an interstellar road in which the quantum wheels of the sub-light drives could push against in whatever direction so desired. No on-board fuel needed.

These speed demon drives, far too fast to use for atmospheric flight operations, could accelerate at full impulse to eighteen thousand miles per second before a restricting governor called a magneto-caliper put the brakes on to avoid relativistic peculiarities like time dilation and dangerous mass increments. Again, the anti-g cockpit fields negated deadly centrifugal force on the pilot’s body.

Darren did a quick bit of math and realized he could reach the moon in just two minutes. Logically, the sub-light engines had to produce this speed in order to exceed the escape velocity of a super gas-giant planet or main-sequence star.

Hot rods of the gods, he mused.

The third engine wasn’t actually an engine but a metaspace warp generator that could produce an artificial wormhole in which to escape from the known universe and reappear elsewhere. The way Darren understood it, every cubic micron of space surrounding a massive body like a planet or star contained several fluctuating wormholes. The warp generator dilated these wormholes until they merged with one another to form an entry portal; the generator then agitated the same fixed particles that the sub-light drives pushed against to a higher frequency, preventing the wormhole from collapsing in on itself. The time it took to arrive at the destination depended not only on the distance but the mass of the target object, too. If heading for Mars, about forty-five million miles away, it would take perhaps two minutes. If heading for the sun——much more massive than Mars——93 million miles distant, perhaps two minutes as well. Neptune, maybe ten minutes. Alpha Centuari? Darren thought with a smile but with a cold chill on his skin. A couple of days perhaps to reach the nearest solar system to Earth’s own.

The fighter’s power plant was probably the most astonishing feature that Darren barely had enough mental capacity to understand. At least the three propulsion systems had some sort of far-out logic to them that an eighteen year-old could decipher. The power plant had a pair of microscopic, black hole singularities contained within a revolving magnetic field, spinning around each other millions of times per second. Two lethal genies were locked in a threatening knife-fight, circling one another for the kill, and ready to unleash untold destruction upon the universe if ever let out. Here was a machine wrapped around a power generator which contained an interstellar Pandora’s Box of magic. The chills that Darren felt across his skin reminded him that he was now in possession of technology that scared him witless.

“They’re invisible,” came a ghostly, monotone voice.

Darren turned and saw Tony standing ten feet behind him, a weird glint of sunlight in his eyes. He looked like he was a million miles away.

“I know,” Darren replied. The fighters were not invisible now, but he knew what Tony meant. They did possess the capability of invisibility, a strictly defensive and evasive feature because it was nearly impossible for the pilot to fight while invisible. An ECM repulsor, which also provided an active-stealth feature, produced an energy field which redirected visible light, infrared and ultraviolet photons back to the opposite side and spewed them out as if they had not encountered anything. The drawback was that neither the pilot nor any of his electronic sensors could see through the blackness. Invisibility also sucked a lot of precious energy, especially during daylight operations, which drew power away from other systems like the engines and weapons.

Darren could smell the machinery and electronics inside the fighter as he approached. It certainly smelled new, looked new, but the fighter was over three thousand years old. He placed his fingers on the tip of the fighter’s nose and received a static shock. Whoa, horse! He recoiled away, anticipating something inside to react, and then placed his hand on it again. Smooth. The most delicate surface he had ever touched.

The fighter’s armor was made of carbon nanosphere sheets woven with boron-carbide and crushed and baked by singularity forges into a super-dense matter similar to ceramic. Able to withstand temperatures from absolute zero to fifteen thousand degrees Fahrenheit, the skin had an ablative effect against angled laser blasts and could survive a high-kinetic ballistic shot made from any material in the universe, except, of course, a shot made from the same super-carbon material.

Darren spotted two rectangular indentations under the cockpit windshield. Footpads. When he placed his right hand on the bottom one, it began to vibrate, the fighter’s computer identifying his bio-impulse patterns. When it recognized him as the only pilot for this machine, two struts popped out above his head just below the windshield. He grabbed them and boosted himself up. As his weight pressed down on the second footpad, a sensor there slid the windshield back with a whirling hum to reveal the cockpit.

He expected to see a hundred confusing buttons and lights with some kind of heads-up-display across the top of the dash but quickly remembered that there would not be a solitary instrument. No throttle, no rudder stick, nothing. Just a well-padded seat——

——where a black-armor, combat suit sat like a robotic mannequin. A conditioned response sparked new memories in his brain, and immediately Darren understood. The fighter didn’t require buttons, dials or cockpit avionics; rather the suit’s helmet functioned as a relay and processing center for the controls, the pilot’s brain the ignition key which started the beast. The fighter was completely thought-controlled: weapons, navigation, propulsion and guidance, everything.

Darren uncoiled a rubber-coated cable from the main computer’s thought-control processing terminal above the seat. The computer’s brain impulse-recognition device made sure the correct person was sitting in the correct fighter or the main computer would refuse to activate the avionics and pre-flight check.

Thought-control——actual symbiosis with a machine. In your face interface. The idea was not too farfetched. Darren had a distant paraplegic relative who got around in a special wheelchair that responded to simple brain-impulse commands. Quite a remarkable machine but nothing like this futuristic engine of destruction, without a doubt the most user-friendly piece of machinery he had ever seen. A thought-controlled weapons system was a volatile package, and it would seem that just one unintentional bad thought could wipe out an entire city block or blast the pilot’s wingman out of the sky. However, Darren knew the ship last night had given him an electronically assisted push up the evolutionary ladder. Unused areas of the brain not meant to be used for a million years had been accessed. As a result, he had been conditioned to think and react in a faster, transcendental state, a kind of “cockpit Zen” that allowed him to maintain mental harmony with an accelerated system. Inadvertent thoughts were nonexistent.

When the helmet’s internal circuits were activated, the glass visor——no it was not glass, he reminded himself, but something else——became a transparent monitor from the inside. The visor displayed status info, infrared night-vision, air-to-air and ground targeting, damage reports, altitude, speed, global and space positioning.

I am En’rev’k Y’rid Zet, Darren thought with a smile. ‘He Who Greets With Fire.’

He looked around the cockpit again to see if he had missed anything. The seat was shaped more like a recliner, so when the pilot sat down, it automatically clamped him in with a restraining brace. The cockpit was shock-proof, mounted on springs to safeguard the pilot from the concussion of close-proximity explosions.

When Darren climbed down, the windshield automatically slid shut, and he walked under the port wing. The fighter of course did not use lift or angle of attack as a force to achieve flight, but rather the faux wings were used to store an impressive selection of exotic missiles and rockets since the propulsion and generator systems took up nearly eighty percent of the internal fuselage.

“We’re supposed to fly those?”

Nate was standing on the spot where he had fallen last night.

“Yes,” Darren replied. He turned back to face his fighter. “They’re called Dragonstars.” He had pulled that from his new memory: named for the giant, acid-spitting, apex predator that once terrorized the skies of Xrelmara some 3 million years ago and had forever burned their legacy into the myths of a long-forgotten history.

Jorge had woke too, still sitting on the ground behind Nate who began to chuckle nervously like he always did when confronted with something beyond his control. Heartless laughter . . . Earth faced alien invasion, and they were chosen to stop it.

Random heroes.

But why did the ship select them? Maybe it had been heading for the United Nations building or the White House south lawn. Certainly not here. Why not land in the middle of Camp Pendleton to brainwash a squad of Marines with the scary light show and brain scans? Or some fighter pilots in the Air Force? Darren answered his own questions when he remembered the crippling, high-ballistic strike.

“Hey.” He spun around. “What happened to that big ship?”

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