Dark Dragons

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Chapter 6 - Shakedown

Saturday, May 15

Darren glanced quickly at the sensor box on his visor. The alien fighter——which looked like a giant trilobite with short, diamond-shaped wings——had not lost sight of him, still blazing away with its laser cannons.

“I need help!” he screamed. But his friends, engaged in their own furballs, couldn’t assist.

He dropped the Dragonstar’s nose and banked hard to starboard, simultaneously jamming the mental-stick forward. He accelerated toward the surface, searching for cover, but the icy terrain revealed no place to hide——just a sheet of flat white in every direction. Laser fire across his wing reminded him the alien fighter was still on him. He gripped the hand struts on the armrests tighter as he thought-rolled his bird to port then to starboard, trying to jink his opponent. The computer signaled that another trilobite fighter was streaking in to join its companion, this one from Darren’s four o’clock.

His sensors cried that one of the aliens had fired a missile. On his visor, a tiny dot was speeding in for the kill, and Darren immediately went cold. Instinctively, he surged forward and down, jinking to port in hopes of losing it. A quick thought-command activated the anti-missile pod at the rear of the fuselage, and a bright red star shot away to intercept the incoming weapon. A bright flash in his windshield told him the micro-nuke warhead had destroyed the enemy missile.

He decelerated immediately, and the two aliens shot across his windshield. He put the optical-crosshairs on the left one and fired. A twin blast of laser pulses cut the alien fighter in two. The other alien quickly sped off his starboard quarter, out of his forward sight; Darren locked on with the Aerial Mass Displacement Sensors and thought-fired an all-purpose missile programmed for air-intercept. The fighter’s weapons computer slaved the missile’s guidance into the AMDS with an in-flight signal, and the projectile accelerated after the alien like an angry fish.

“Get it, baby,” he murmured.

Suddenly his missile went stupid. The alien had somehow projected a pair of false mass fields. The missile slaved into his fighter’s AMDS now had three bad guys to choose from, two of which did not exist. The weapon was suddenly lost and confused.

Quickly, Darren switched to a more primitive back-up——a low-energy pulse, synthetic-aperture laser-radar——and hoped the alien fighter did not have stealth. His Dragonstar immediately reacquired the target and regained control of the missile’s guidance, but one second later, his laser-radar lost contact. The alien had activated some kind of active stealth field similar to his own. Darren switched to the infrared search and track sensor in a last ditch attempt to guide his missile, but the alien fighter emitted not one photon of infrared radiation. The alien was now so invisible to Darren’s sensors, it didn’t even exist.

Scratch the fire-and-forget modes. Now he had to use his laser cannons’ optical-tracker, which meant he had to get up close and personal again, but his opponent was nowhere to be seen. A beep in his helmet told him his missile had self-destructed. He accelerated and turned in the direction where the computer had last tracked the alien.

There! A glint of sunlight at one o’clock. Darren increased magnification, put the optical-crosshairs on it, and accelerated. Before he could fire, however, the alien shot skyward. The trilobite was directly above him about six miles distant, searching for escape in the solar glare. Before the alien could go any higher, Darren looked up, the laser cannons in their cradles simultaneously rotating to match his line-of-sight, and put the crosshairs on his adversary. He thought-triggered his guns and turned the bad guy into a blazing comet.

He scanned the sky for more bandits, but only an innocuous supergiant red star and a blue crystal moon filled the heavens. Nothing on the short- or medium-range AMDS/laser-radar scopes either.

Darren had time for a quick missile inventory. Looking at the status box on his visor, he counted 220 optical-guided interdiction rockets, beer bottle-size——used for assaulting ground troops, buildings and light-armor vehicles——and 170 all-purpose fire-and-forget missiles, baseball bat-size, with heavy warheads programmed for air-, space- or ground-intercept. The 140 singularity missiles had dial-a-yields of .5-to-80 kilotons, designed for deep bunker busting, city-size “urban renewal,” or attacking large spaceships. MACH twelve anti-missile orbs, eleven hundred of them fired from two automatic servo-pods fore and aft, lay ready inside internal magazine canisters. Lastly, Darren tallied eight proton destroyers hidden within the retractable rotary carriage in the fighter’s belly——enough about them, he thought ominously.

The electromagnetic gauss cannon on the tip of his Dragonstar’s nose had not been fired yet, and Darren was itching to test its armor-piercing capabilities. Like the laser cannons, the gauss cannon was optically-controlled, slaved to the crosshairs that moved with Darren’s line-of-sight across his visor. The gun fired poly-coated slugs made of the same super-carbon armor as the Dragonstars in single-, ten- or fifty-round bursts at dial-a-speeds of two thousand feet per second to a whopping twenty thousand fps.

One obvious issue Darren noted very early concerned their limited inventory of missiles, anti-missile orbs, and gauss rounds. They would have to fight with what they already packed, which placed more emphasis on the use of their primaries, the pair of five-hundred megawatt laser cannons.

Darren held a special place in his heart for the Dragonstar’s last weapon system. Hidden in a recess bay under the dragon’s head, the hydra shroud was a defensive, computer-automated, individual-kill weapon——an anti-intruder, 40-gun cannon that also served offensively as an anti-personnel weapon with ghastly effect. Its shroud of “snakes” were flexible laser barrels that could target up to forty living beings with a long-range brainwave sensor and zap them all in less than half a second before acquiring the next forty bad guys in the same time. Using pre-set programming and the main computer’s virtual intelligence, it could also discriminate “bad guys” from “good guys” in a hostage rescue situation or on a mixed battlefield of enemy soldiers and friendlies . . . or alien invaders among frantic humans. Also, if the Dragonstar’s VI computer identified an object as being a possible weapon, it would kill whatever held or picked it up, again based on pre-set determination. This was effective against “artificials” like robots, which didn’t have brainwaves required for sensor lock.

Checking his long-range, aerial mass displacement scopes, Darren spotted a pair of mass shadows four thousand kilometers to the southwest. The passive AMDS’s one irritating drawback was its inability to properly identify aerial objects. It could only detect the target’s mass. Proper IFF identification had to be determined with the synthetic-aperture laser-radar, an active sensor that, in turn, would reveal Darren’s position to the enemy.

Having no choice, Darren swept the area ahead of him with a sensor sweep. The computer processed the return echoes and formed a three-dimensional image on his visor. The database identified the mass shadows as a pair of enemy troop carriers hovering over one of the planet’s metropolitan zones. The invaders were landing.

He turned in that direction and accelerated to full speed, activating his missile launcher to STAND-BY and selecting the singularity missiles to air-intercept mode. Still, no flat trilobite fighters that his sensors could see.

“I’m getting my ass kicked, here!” Tony screamed in Darren’s headset. He was somewhere to the north. “Somebody give me a hand!”

“Nate? Jorge? Can you assist?”

“On my way,” Jorge said.

Darren had almost reached the city. The rolling horizon slowly revealed the pair of humongous troop carriers at his twelve.

“They’re all over the place . . . I can’t shake——”

A sharp crackle of static filled Darren’s headset followed by ominous silence. His comm-unit beeped to indicate Tony’s transponder had quit broadcasting.

That’s because Tony was dead.

Darren’s eyes went tunnel-vision as he concentrated on the troop carriers now hurling a wall of frightening, defensive fire at him from their position just above the mushroom-shaped skyscrapers. He activated the fighter’s Feint Mode, which projected a swarm of “radar ghosts” across the enemy’s sensors. The aliens’ fire now spread across the sky in a fruitless attempt to bring down fighters that did not exist. The horde of angry laser pulses zipping across the sky looked kind of cool, Darren mused, but this was a trivial observation he quickly pushed aside.

He thought of the eight proton destroyers nestled in the retractable missile carriage inside the Dragonstar’s fuselage, the perfect weapons to finish off gigantic targets quickly. No . . . the bad guys are in the atmosphere. Those horrific weapons could only be used in space.

When nature created the proton——the elementary particle which provided the basis of all matter——it produced a particle with a rate of decay the Xrel discovered to be older than the universe itself, some 14 billion years. However, nature left a loophole for its destruction in the quantum design for a technological intelligence to discover. The proton destroyer accelerated that decay to nanoseconds . . . in short, it was a massive disintegration weapon which not only erased the target from existence but also any matter in contact, be it gas, liquid, solid or plasma, and leaving a deadly blast of positrons, pions and gamma radiation in its wake. Not a choice weapon to select for use within the atmosphere or anywhere near a planet for that matter.

One of the singularity missiles screamed out of its launch carriage and signaled that it had locked onto one of the giant troop carries in AMDS mode.


He had for just the slightest of moments thought of the singularity missile sliding out of the launcher, the actual visual command that fired the weapon. It had only been a split instant within the time frame of a giant second, but that had been plenty of time for the computer to acknowledge an okay. The target was too close to the city.

Darren sent out the self-destruct command, but the deadly warhead had already armed. The cockpit glass polarized to keep the flash out of his eyes just before the missile’s proximity fuse shut down the warhead’s magnetic field separating a pair of mass points. The sudden release of concentrated gravity against the alien vessel’s hull created a blinding flash and a 4-kiloton shock wave.

The windshield re-polarized, and Darren watched what remained of the enemy ship slowly fall from its perch in the sky, smoking and burning all the way down. It landed hard, taking out entire blocks of alien skyscrapers and power grids directly beneath it before the collapsing power plants inside the vessel finally finished it off.

Darren gasped and accelerated to starboard when ten kilometers of nuclear hell suddenly came at him with every electromagnetic wavelength on the spectrum. He kicked in the mental-afterburners, but the radioactive bubble was already on him, the gamma ray alarm howling.

“No, no, no!

The image of the alien landscape faded from the cockpit glass. The virtual intelligent flight simulator beeped, and rendered on his visor in the Xrel alphabet of strange glyphs and symbols came ALL SYSTEMS INOPERATIVE - TWENTY MILLION INHABITANTS KILLED.

“Thank you,” Darren mumbled. The VI simulator computer then scrolled through several alternate attack profiles, showing Darren the correct usage for singularity missiles, but the rush of 3-D images sweeping across his visor just mocked him. He shut the simulator off, and the windshield re-polarized. Early morning sunlight streamed into his fighter’s cockpit. He popped the canopy, unplugged the thought-control cable and removed his helmet. Warm Santa Anna wind blew in his face.

Nate and Jorge’s windshields were still dark. Tony sat on the nose of his fighter, smoking a cigarette.

“What happened to you?” he asked.

“I got into a major furball,” Tony replied. “I thought you were going to help me?”

“I was busy myself. Besides, you shouldn’t have separated from us to begin with. Once they saw you alone, they went in like lions. I would have, too.”

“At least I didn’t kill twenty million civies.”

“At least I killed something.”

Not only had they become the pilots of interstellar death machines; they were now soldiers designed for thought-controlled, close-quarter combat.

Sitting on the ground, they examined the pieces to their combat suits like curious children trying to appraise the function of a new toy. The suits were made of the same super-carbon armor as their fighters and could repel any non-gauss projectile fire up to 30mm or an angled laser blast. Each suit had four separate power packs: one for the helmet, another for the rifle holster clamp on the back of the suit, one for a hoist-cable gun on the right forearm, and a whopping 300-kilowatt pack the size of a TV remote for the suit’s armor-piercing gauss gun mounted on the left forearm. Like its big brother on the Dragonstars’s nose, the gauss gun, with a powerful telescopic sight, used an electromagnetic accelerator that fired tungsten-carbide slugs at adjustable speeds of two thousand feet per second to an armor-piercing ten thousand fps. Thankfully, no recoil.

The hoist-cable gun on the right forearm fired a shaped, tungsten-penetrator attached to a 120-foot metal twine. A powerful reel motor in the gun could then lift or lower the operator to whatever height he desired. It would come in handy in zero-g or if he had to rappel from one ship hull to another.

The combat suit also had a row of bandolier compartments mounted to the hip module holding fourteen grenade magazines, fifty gauss gun slugs, three hoist cable spools, and one needle pistol clip. Additional suit ammo was located in the personal effects compartment in the Dragonstars’ cockpits above and behind the seats.

Darren grabbed the laser pulse rifle, his primary weapon, and put it to his shoulder to get a feel for it. A rather short rifle at only thirty-one inches long——suitable length for tight combat environments——it possessed a 50-kilowatt attitude which could punch fist-size holes out of any material be it rock, dense metal, flesh or bone. At any other time, he would have felt clumsy and nervous with a weapon in his hand, but the pulse rifle instilled no such feeling . . . nothing more than just another extension of his body. The rifle could fire a single- or unlimited-round burst, depending on the situation. A sniper hit would require only a single shot, but for an advancing phalanx of bad guys——unlimited-round, “street sweeper” mode would suffice.

Mounted under the rifle’s barrel was a stubby Electromagnetically-Propelled Grenade launcher, or EPG, capable of spewing grenades out to a maximum range of five hundred feet. The grenades came in five-round magazine clips, each grenade with a microprocessor so the user could program for a direct-impact, proximity, or timed detonation. Blast fragmentation spread death within a twenty yard radius. These grenades did not belong to grandpa’s army because they were ‘in-flight omni-directional’, meaning they could zip around corners or behind obstacles like missiles.

“Teenagers solving their problems with violence,” Darren cracked.

Tony aimed his own pulse rifle at something in the distance. “There goes the school cafeteria. Boom! Just like those psycho kids on the news who took too much shit——and snap!——cafeteria’s got a new paint job.”

Darren’s grin evaporated, and he suddenly felt numb. “Yeah.”

“Kill ’em all!” Tony shouted with a grin.

He looked down at his rifle, scared, cold. “I bet that’s how D.B. felt, too.”

The mood in the air suddenly changed, stifled by Darren’s somber comment. Everyone looked away, recognizing the painful weight of that remark.

Tony put the rifle away and picked up his helmet. “I was just kidding, man. I’m not that whacked.”

Darren couldn’t be sure if he was either. Still, the presence of their old friend, D.B., still lingered like a reminder, a cautionary tale. They would use these weapons for good, he thought. Survival, the right to peacefully exist . . . all that Superman stuff. Not for whacking a school full of teasing jocks and mocking girls. Right?

A large spherical hologram of Earth’s solar system suddenly appeared in front of Jorge who had a disk-shaped object in his upturned palm. Planets, moons, comets, and near-Earth asteroids were displayed in real-time, provided by sub-space signals from the two early-warning satellite drones which the Xrel cargo ship had deposited in stability orbits at the L1 and L2 points.

“Any bad guys?” Darren asked.

“Nothing specific,” Jorge replied. “But there’s a lot of heavy-gravity interference in the continuum outside the solar system.” Jorge squinted his eyes and gave Darren a What-did-I-just-say? Look. “What I mean is that something big is moving out there.”

What Jorge had in his hand was a PDA, or a personal data assistant——a kind of alien smart phone. The disk-shaped object was made to be carried at all times when “out-of-suit” just like a smart phone, and performed a variety of utilities, four of which were crucial: the first, holographic early-warning provided by the two satellites drones; second, a homing beacon/range-finder to locate their fighters if separated over a long distance or caught in adverse weather; third, an auto-pilot retrieval function which brought the Dragonstar to the pilot’s location, regardless of the distance, by tracking the device’s sub-space beacon signal, and finally, a jam-proof, tight-beam communicator linked to the other three PDAs.

“Make sure you keep these on you at all times,” Darren said, and stuffed his own PDA into his front right pocket. “Use them when we’re not suited up.”

Three thought-controlled, flying reconnaissance camera scouts each the size of a small bee were attached to the helmet, used to spot bad guys hiding around corners or behind obstacles. How they flew remained a half-understood mystery to Darren, something which involved positive and negative magneto-gyroscopes. All three RCS’s working together could send back instructions to help the suit’s computer build a 3-D tactical map of the battle area and also establish waypoints to retrace one’s starting point.

Darren unholstered the heavy-needle pistol from its magnetic clamp on the right thigh module, and went over the characteristics of this weapon: fires exploding flachettes, able to penetrate heavy body armor, semi-automatic with a 100-pin clip——a lot of mayhem packed in a small, back-up weapon.

It was the vibro-knife stored in a scabbard slot under the left arm, however, which drove home the serious shit that now confronted them. The dark gray monster with an 8-inch blade was actually powered——molecule-agitating motors inside the handle gave the weapon the ability to slice through heavy body armor with barely a pause. Its very crudity seemed more blood-chilling than an advanced pulse rifle or gauss gun.

Tony had his own vibro-knife out, the blade just inches from his face, with an awestruck gaze of both timidity and anticipation. “Wow,” he whispered.

Darren began to think of things he didn’t want to, things he had been so cruelly thrust upon to face at the ripe age of eighteen. But kids always died in war. Kids his age. War had a cruel affinity for young blood, Darren thought. His Grandpa Seymour had disintegrated in a Vietnamese rice paddy in 1967 at the age of twenty-two, his dad less than a year old.

Darren put the knife back in its scabbard and looked inside his helmet. Tiny electrodes along the inside lining were nestled within the folds of padding. He rubbed one of them lightly, expecting an electric shock for some reason. He possessed the most advanced weapons system ever to exist on Earth and felt god-like. As he stroked the row of cold electrodes, however, the feeling of something dark and sinister slid through him like a constricting anaconda squeezing the life from a lamb. Thought-control, yes, but who had the control? Me or the suit?

“Enough stalling,” he said finally. “Time to get the show on the road.”

They had to remove every stitch of clothing to wear the gray sub-suits, which meant stripping down to the bare ass in broad daylight——a feat accomplished in record time. The light gray suit worn under the armor modules was about a half-inch thick, but it didn’t feel like foam or rubber. The sub-suit actually felt like flesh. Creepy, Darren thought. Once they had the loose garment on, the little computer housed in a thin box behind the neck sensed the body’s presence and quickly constricted the suit into a tight-fitting undergarment that covered the entire body from neck-to-toes, even going halfway up the butt crack.

“Whoa, hello!” Darren said. “That’s kinda kinky.”

“Hey, look,” Nate said, looking down at his crotch. “There’s even a little access door for piss ‘n’ shit maneuvers. Wonder if this thing is machine washable?”

The sub-suit maintained a variable temperature from very cool to very warm depending on the wearer’s preference and pulled sweat through micro-evaporation patches throughout the entire membrane. Charcoal lining inside of the sub-suit absorbed body stink, too. Farts and all.

The sub-suit’s primary operation was to serve as the point-of-assembly for the individual armor modules. The secondary function provided medical analysis, physiological monitoring and first aid administration controlled by the suit’s main computer located in the helmet. On the upper-right of the visor screen, Darren could monitor his EKG and EEG rates, oxygen levels, respiratory counts, blood pressure, adrenaline count——even a fancy toxicity monitor continuously tasting the blood for foreign chemicals and dangerous microorganisms through several painless, subcutaneous sites.

Pneumatically injected through these same sites, many first aid medications were stored inside the upper back cuirass module: four pain narcotics of various potencies, nine different beta blockers, epinephrine, potassium iodide to protect from low level radiation, a large bladder filled with an intravenous saline/glucose solution, and an oxygen-rich concoction used to treat circulatory shock with a low-blood pressure vasopressor and a physiological positive-feedback inhibitor.

Most impressive, a universal antidote of intelligent, DNA-shredding nanobots castrated foreign bacteria and viruses, even cancer cells instigated by radiation poisoning. These same medical nanos could also chemically attach their carbon-atom bodies to harmful agents like nerve gas or animal venom, rendering them inert by altering their atomic structure. Here, within their alien combat suits resided the World Cure for every known scourge of mankind—— malaria, HIV, cholera, E. coli, influenza, tuberculosis, Ebola, smallpox, bubonic plague, and the worst of all, cancer. Darren could only shake his head in stunned admiration.

The sub-suit was also filled with a thick nano-salve that pumped through the suit’s pores and formed a synthetic skin to seal off puncture wounds and isolate burns, as well as provide a local anesthetic and antibiotic to the damaged area. The sub-suit even had heart defibrillator electrodes and chest-pumping, constriction rings in case of cardiac arrest. All of these fancy, medical tinker-tots were designed to perform one purpose . . . keep the combatant alive, healthy and primed for battle.

Thinking of his sub-suit’s amazing properties, Darren felt confident about his physiological integrity as he donned his knee-high boots. The next piece to go on were the thigh and pelvic modules, the two-piece torso——the cuirass, a rather tricky piece to squeeze into—— and the four separate arm modules including the forearm sections with the hoist-cable gun on the right and the armor-piercing gauss gun on the left. The gloves with shrapnel-proof scales were the last section the guys put on, and when they did, something startling occurred. All of the armor modules, sensing the adjacent sections, snapped together into position with tiny servo motors, conjoining themselves mechanically and electronically into a single, holistic unit. An outlet inside the back cuirass module plugged into the sub-suit’s computer port and linked the two up. Darren moved his limbs around, bent down to touch his toes, even did a couple of jumping jacks, and discovered he still had a full free-range of motion. Joints like elbows and knees were never exposed, continuously hidden under silently rotating and whirling scales of the armor modules with almost liquid-like movement.

“Far out,” he said.

They stood quietly in the California sun, looking themselves over for a while before Tony spoke up. “We look like we just jumped out of a video game.”

Nate and Jorge snickered, agreeing with Tony’s remark, but for some reason it pissed Darren off. Teenage Star Warriors—Rated M for Mature or not, this was real. He couldn’t deny that a real-life, video game ambience had taken over, but it instilled no feelings of disconcertion. In fact, it made him nervous, and he hoped Tony, Nate and Jorge warmed up to his line of reason soon. Darren would rag the first person who thought of a name for their group, Tony the likely romantic. The very notion of an epithet infuriated him. He didn’t know why. Hubris, maybe.

When he put the helmet on, the main computer activated three separate actions at once. First, the flexible metal ring around the bottom of the helmet constricted and interlocked with the matching ring around the sub-suit’s neck. When he was ready, the sub-suit would ziplock him into a pressurized, zero-g spacesuit with a one-hour supply of oxygen stored inside the front cuirass armor module; tiny servo motors in the helmet would connect air lines in the neck, otherwise non-zero-g breathing was done through a filtered breather mask. Second, a small motorized appendage hidden under the helmet plugged a cable from the helmet computer to the electronic sub-systems in the back armor module, forming a link to the sub-suit and opening communications with the gauss gun and the hoist-cable. This same appendage also connected a drinking nozzle in front of Darren’s mouth to a hose leading down to a removable hydration bladder inside the back cuirass armor module. Finally, the suit’s first aid pack pumped a tiny 5cc dose of medical nanos into his bloodstream to act as a small “rapid contingency force” against a chemical or biological infection before a larger dosage could be administered. Wires in the blood, Darren thought. He barely felt the injection.

Five soft, red flashes twinkled in his eyes. The optical monitor above the visor had just calibrated his line-of-sight. The device used invisible micro-lasers to track both eyeball movement and the ciliary muscles controlling the shape of the eyes’ lenses. When he plugged into his Dragonstar, this would link his eyes into the weapon system’s optical-guidance that controlled the servo motors in both laser and gauss cannons. It also generated a crosshair reticle on his visor and kept the computer data there in sharp focus regardless of focal distance——eight inches in front, a hundred yards off, or ten miles away.

The visor’s upper right corner was reserved for the biomedical sensors, while the upper left displayed suit functions, damage information and Chemical-Biological-Radiological-Nuclear analysis of the surrounding environment. On the bottom center, a box showed various computer messages and other relevant information like weapons status and remaining ammo counts. A 3D compass rotated in the lower right corner as Darren pivoted his head around. Next to the compass were several indicator arrows slaved to the Incoming Fire Sensor on the top of the helmet which retraced projectile or laser fire back to a hidden enemy’s position. The center of the visor remained free of graphics, retained only for night-vision/infrared viewing and weapons sights.

Darren grabbed the butt of his laser rifle secured to his back and sent a thought-command to the magnetic clamp there. The pulse rifle vaulted out of its holster with a quick snap. He put it to his hips, aimed at the trees in front of him and accessed the weapon’s scope. A gun sight with red cross-hairs immediately appeared in the center of his visor with range and IFF data. The weapon would not fire if Darren accidently aimed at one of his bros or another human during the heat of combat, clearing the Fog of War quite a bit.

Although this feature can be deactivated quickly by code override, he reminded himself.

Darren thought-activated the rifle’s zoom-scope, and a tree 120 feet, 4 inches away suddenly shot up in clear focus. He could actually see ants wriggling around the creases in the bark.

He pulled the trigger, and a recoilless burst of invisible laser-light struck the tree two feet above the ground. The tree hung momentarily in the air before it finally smashed down on the severed stump and slowly keeled over into the ferns below.

The others released their own rifles and sighted in targets. Jorge spotted a large rock the size of a volleyball and reduced it to a cloud of flying stones. Tony and Nate opened up on a stand of oak in the distance.

“Let’s try the gauss guns!” Nate said like a kid on Christmas morning.

Darren shook his head. “No, let’s save our ammo, all right? Pulse rifles only.”

Tony drew the needle pistol from his thigh clamp and fired a single shot at one of the trees. The flachette embedded itself into the wood and exploded, removing a huge chunk from the pulp with a loud bang and a smokeless cloud of splinters.

“Tony, save the ammo.”

“You didn’t say anything about the pistol.”

“Our ammunition is limited. Let’s try to be conservative.”

Tony looked down at his feet. Darren caught movement there and looked too. A garter snake was weaving between Tony’s boots toward Nate. But Tony just stood there. At any other time upon the sight of a snake, he would have been trying to climb onto the nearest person’s shoulders and screaming for his mommy.

Tony looked around at everyone with a bemused expression. “Weird, huh?”

“You all right?” Darren asked.

Tony watched the snake disappear into the tall grass at the edge of the woods. “Yeah,” he said with a smile. “What the hell did that thing really do to us?”

“I don’t know,” Darren replied. “But I like it.”

Nate began to chuckle like a mad scientist.

“What’s so funny, home slice?” Tony asked with a sneer. “You just find out you longer have a phobia of fat-free Twinkies?”

“No, asshole,” Nate answered. He closed his helmet visor with a thought-command, and his suit let out a soft, machine-hum, and Nate——disappeared. “I forgot about this.”

“Yeah, that’s right!” Tony shouted. A split second later, he too faded from the world of visibility.

Darren and Jorge looked at each other. Jorge smiled . . . and joined Nate and Tony in camouflaged wonderland. Everyone’s pulse rifles, needle pistols and vibro-knives, all separate components from the suit, were also invisible. Microscopic receptors on the suit absorbed photons of visible light, infrared and ultraviolet and redirected them to their opposite receptors. Like the Dragonstars’ invisibility feature, the suit cloak was used for quick defensive and evasive operations because it drained so much juice from the suit generators. Nighttime invisibility would be less stressful on the suit.

Darren sealed his visor shut and sent a thought-command to the invisibility cloak, and he too slid into the ether. Because the outside of the visor as well as the VIS/IR/UV camera on his helmet was now invisible, he was literally blind. Observation had to be done with high-frequency sound through a 360-degree echolocation projector on the chest cuirass. This formed a 3D image of his surroundings on the inside of the visor. The world around him appeared in various, false-color shades of blue——nearby objects bright blue, extreme distances deep navy, and the sky pitch black. Everything remained surprisingly detailed, although one notable drawback was the inability to see through transparent objects like helmet visors or render 2D forms like pictures or the images in a mirror. Or the pupils of someone’s eyes.

Is this what a bat or dolphin sees? Darren wondered. “Weird,” he said.

“We better switch off,” Tony said. “The receptors are bogging.”

He was right. The power bars in the upper left corner were slowly dropping. In just a couple of minutes, their suit computers would shut down the invisibility cloak, the gauss gun, the hoist-cable and every sensor so that the reserve capacitors could kick in and recharge the primary batteries. Which would take about ten minutes. Ten minutes in combat without weapons and sensors——not good.

One by one, they reappeared in the world of visible light.

“I foresee a trip to the girls’ shower at school,” Nate said after opening his visor to reveal an evil smile. “See who’s shaved and who’s Brazilian.”

Everyone bust out laughing.

“Aw, man, to see Angela Howard’s double-D titties. . . .” Tony trailed off with child-like wonder on his face.

Darren thought of Vanessa in the shower, face upturned into the hot stream of water, fingers skimming through jet black hair. He was about to share that image with his buddies but quickly decided against it. Perhaps out of some dutiful sense of honor.

Nate, apparently, didn’t share similar obedience. “Vanessa Vasquez! How ’bout watching cold water boilin’ off the skin of that hot Puerto Rican habañero? Oh, cariño, dame un pedazo de su pastel de crema!

Jorge responded to Nate’s lewd remark with a curt chortle and a high-five raised in the air, which Nate promptly answered with a hard slap. Something about cream pie.

Darren rolled his eyes.

“Only milk will soothe the burn of a hot chili pepper, huh Darren?” Tony asked with a naughty grin. He knew full well about Darren’s unbridled hots for Vanessa.

“Shut up.” Darren turned to face his Dragonstar. “Time to fly, bros,” he said.

“Already?” Tony asked.

“Why not?”

Tony shrugged. “I dunno. I think we need to practice with the close-quarter battle stuff.”

“We don’t need to practice, Tony,” Darren reminded him. “We’ve got special forces training already planted.” He tapped the side of his helmet with a finger. “It’s all up here.”

“That’s not what I meant. I mean we should practice . . . on some bad guys.”

Darren saw a weird little light in Tony’s eyes. There was a hunger for something wild there. “I don’t get where you’re going.” But he did. Tony wanted to find some god-forbidden hotspot and jump right into The Shit.

“Y’knows what I’s talkin’ ’bout,” he jived. “I bet there’s a patrol of Iranian soldiers romping around in the desert somewhere . . . or . . . how about those drug cartels down in Mexico who are killing cops and tourists? We could . . . you know. . . .” Tony thrummed his fingers on his pulse rifle “. . . practice.”

A sliver of Darren’s brain, the one that processed right-and-wrong, was alight. He wanted to tell Tony to shut up. He wanted Nate and Jorge to stop waiting for him to respond and tell Tony to shut the ‘f’ up, too. But they didn’t. Figures.

“Even Spider-Man practiced on diamond burglars and getting cats out of trees for little old ladies before kicking the Green Goblin’s ass.”

“Then let’s stick to helpless animals,” Darren replied.

Tony smirked and gave Darren a sly look, eyebrows high. “How about Marcus Lutze?”

Darren shook his head in disbelief. “Welcome to the dark side, young Skywalker.”

“Chicken shit.”

“Tony, we’re not going to practice on people! Bad guys or not. Flight ops training is more important. If we sharpen our skills in the cockpit, work out a defensive plan, we won’t have to fight on the ground.”

And that was that. Pecking order established. No more guessing among the four of them whom that robotic AI had selected leader.

“Yes, sir,” came Tony’s dark reply.

Darren stared at him a little longer. Was Tony really just a hypnotized monkey like the rest of them, yielding to an implanted demand to not question orders and comply with his superior? Or was he just tired of arguing, waiting for a later time to be uncooperative?

Tony must have been doing a slow burn from Darren’s continuing stare-down because he suddenly shouted, “I said ‘Yes sir,’ M-F!”

“Thank you.” Darren turned to face his Dragonstar once again. “Fly time, boys.”

“Wait. . . .” Tony said.

Darren turned and caught the alarming——and nearly hilarious——look on Nate’s and Jorge’s faces, both of them probably thinking that Darren and Tony were about to pull weapons on one another.


Tony put his gloved hand out for a group huddle and threw Darren a solemn look. “To D.B.”

Darren nodded his head, his esteem for Tony Simmons returning to the seven-spot on his One-to-Ten Respect Scale where it had just crashed to a five moments ago. “You’re right.”

Everyone placed their palms over Tony’s hand.

“To D.B,” Darren said. “Wish you were here, buddy.” Nothing more was spoken of their old friend. Out of respect.

Tony clamped his hands together and roared, “Let’s do it!”

Darren climbed into his fighter and placed the pulse rifle in the personal effects compartment above the seat. The canopy slid shut, the cabin pressurized and the recliner’s motorized brace locked him in. The EKG line on his visor began to bounce like a neon basketball on a fastbreak, and his mouth had turned to sandpaper. He found the relay cable coiled on top of the seat and plugged it into the socket behind his helmet.

FLIGHT OPERATIONS, SIMULATION, and DIAGNOSTICS popped up on his visor in Xrel script. Darren selected Flight Ops, and as soon as THOUGHT UNIT ENGAGED appeared, he felt an enormous pressure build in his head and suddenly release, almost like the painful sensation after eating a bowl of ice cream too fast. A sharp, aching headache stole the breath from his lungs, and he clenched his fists tighter around the hand struts on either side of the recliner. Cold panic seeped into him. Oh God, what is that?

The fighter’s computer had just done something to him. His brain suddenly fell free from the confines of his flesh and now flowed uninhibited through the fighter as if it were just another component of his body. His eyeballs tingled, and his breathing wavered. He could actually feel the machinery working, hear the computer signals zipping along the alien circuits.

The fighter immediately came to life with a whine. The center of his visor displayed fighter avionics: altimeter, targeting sights, global/space positioning, laser-radar display and ECM/communication status.

Then Darren noticed something even more alarming than the brain reorganization. The world outside his fighter had decelerated. The trees whipped by the stiff Santa Anna winds just seconds ago now swayed lethargically like no breeze existed. He spotted a jetliner in the distance climbing into the sky, so slow that Darren was certain its engines would stall at that speed. Yet, the jet continued to inch skyward.

A quick check of his bio-readouts revealed the answer. The world hadn’t slowed down. He had sped up. The alpha-beta lines on the EEG graph looked like those skittering across a seismograph during a nine-point-seven. His brain was simply perceiving and processing the motions of his environment at a faster rate. He felt both astounded and terrified . . . wiping out a squadron of bad guys and erasing an entire city block in the blink of an eye was no longer a figure of speech.

Darren parted his lips to communicate and discovered that he couldn’t speak. His lips and tongue were simply not fast enough to keep pace with the rapid signals pouring from the speech areas of his energized brain. The slurred words coming out of his mouth sounded like those of a drunk driver trying to talk his way out of a roadside sobriety test.

Before he could wonder how they were going to communicate with one another, Darren heard in his head-set: ‘I feel funny. I don’t like this.’ The voice belonged to Nate, but it sounded different, processed somehow.

Darren wasn’t actually reading Nate’s mind. The fighter’s comm-unit was only rerouting the synaptic-pulses from the speech-producing areas in his brain to an inverse-signal processor which converted them into audible words.

‘This is freaky-deaky,’ Tony said. ‘Can you guys hear me, okay?’

‘I hear you fine,’ Darren responded.

Nate and Jorge replied affirmatives, too.

Darren’s computer finished the pre-flight check and gave the okay for final ignition with an electronic chirp. ‘Roll them out, guys’, he ordered.

At those words, they thought the engines into ignition. Darren felt goose bumps prickle across his skin. He turned on the Dragonstar’s radar assimilation field, an active-stealth cloaking mechanism, and entered his current position into the inertial navigation matrix. This was a three-dimensional gyroscope system which kept constant track of the fighter’s relative position from a known starting point. Handy in finding one’s way back.

Slowly, the fighters rose vertically on a cushion of anti-graviton propulsion, and the landing skids contracted into the bellies. Darren looked out at the surrounding trees and saw them dropping as he climbed. Los Angeles suddenly appeared as he reached the top. ‘Oh wow,’ he murmured like Tony on one of his marijuana trips.

A patch of smog hovered over the city, but he could still see far into Orange County some thirty miles to the southeast. Traffic on I-210 was at its usual, rush-hour congestion, and the bright Pacific Ocean spread out before them, lit with gold in the sun’s light.

‘Where are we going anyway?’ Nate asked.

‘I don’t know,’ Darren replied. ‘Just follow me. I’ll find someplace.’ With that, he booted his interceptor into flight and turned northeast, avoiding the neighborhood in Big Tugunga Canyon directly north of them. He streaked over the forest and then climbed into the sky at a heart-pounding velocity. Darren felt his stomach knot up and chuckled from the rush. He was flying——and doing it by thought alone.

As he gazed out at the clouds around him, Darren’s mind went back to Tony’s group huddle and of the person spoken there. D.B. would have enjoyed this. He would have been with them Friday night, too, if it hadn’t been for——well——for what happened back in January.

The Legend of Delbert Morehead was still in its infancy but so well renowned that even kids from other high schools knew of it. Only four months had passed since “the Incident” that rainy winter day, but it had already reached the status of box-office epic by the time spring came around. Delbert “More-Head-Please” was just another castaway on the Island of Misfit Toys who wandered the school halls in a catatonic state thanks to Marcus Lutze. D.B. hung around with Darren, Tony, and Jorge, at first because of safety in numbers, but later Darren discovered he was a novice writer, too, and liked to swap ideas with him. Nate hadn’t been around at the time . . . still hanging with his homies from Ramsdell Avenue.

Delbert, like Nate, was on the hefty side, but it was his name that had provoked torment from the Verdugo Valley High Hitler Youth Club. What kind of messed-up parents would name their kid Delbert fresh out of the womb? And with a last name like Morehead to boot. Poor bastard. To hide his dread secret, he had gone by the name of D.B., but some punk working off his detention in the principal’s office had stumbled across D.B.’s records and let it out. “Delbert More-Head-Please” began echoing off the walls soon after. Marcus’s knuckle imprints began showing up on D.B.’s face soon after.

“You know what?” D.B. mentioned to Darren one time over pizza at the mall. “Sometimes I have this dream where I’m trying to crawl out of this muddy hole but I keep slipping. Every time I force my fingers into the wall and pull up, I just ruin the sides and fall even deeper.”

After that, Darren had his own vision of news helicopters circling the school and SWAT rushing in with riot shields and smashing windows out. “Karen, we have just learned the name of this social afterbirth as Delbert James Morehead, age 17, virgin, death metal listener and player of violent video games, as the assailant who walked into the cafeteria during lunch hour and sprayed the place with an AK-47 but not after slipping his big toe onto the trigger and putting the last round in his mouth. Thank god for that, Karen, or Mr. More-Head-Please most certainly would have killed more.”

“He seemed okay. He was quiet, never bothered anyone.”

“I can’t believe he would do something like this.”

“No, he never acted violent before.”

“Yeah, I knew him . . . the guy was a (bleep) wack job. Caught him (bleep) in the bathroom once.”

Darren kept a wary eye on D.B. after that little moment of candid openness at Giuseppe’s Pizza, but Delbert never hinted that he would depart this world with a hole in his head. In Darren’s opinion, what happened four weeks later was somehow worse than mass murder/suicide, anyway.

Darren could easily recall every detail of that hour in Mr. Morgan’s Algebra II class. He closed his eyes and saw the classroom now. He had been sitting in the back where he always did so that he could establish an early warning radar on Greg Shaw’s paper spitballs. While Mr. Morgan was factoring polynomials on the board, Darren spotted Denise Garvey sitting behind D.B., poking the flab under his shirt with a pen, smiling and whispering to her friends. Darren knew something bad was about to happen but did not expect the severity of revenge which exploded from the second row, third desk back.

D.B. suddenly lost reality with the world. He leapt out of his chair, seized Denise by the hair, and went absolutely caveman on her. The girl’s face was covered in blood by the time Mr. Morgan got to him. D.B. was still wailing on her, while she screamed and screamed, by the time Darren jumped on him. Darren, the teacher, and almost every guy in class tried to pull him off her, but Delbert Morehead’s mind and determination had been set. He simply wouldn’t let off. Denise was already unconscious, her jaw to one side, bloody streaks running across her face, when everyone finally managed to pry him off. He was mumbling something, but Darren couldn’t tell what. The scariest thing was that D.B. had displayed not one hint of emotion. No rage, no fright. Just a calm, impassive face. No shouting, no “Bitch, I’ve had it with you!” Nothing.

Delbert won a court-ordered ticket into St. Michael’s Reformatory, and as far as Darren knew, he was still there mopping floors, staring at Rorschachs, and attending group therapy sessions. Denise’s upper-crust parents had a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon reconstruct their daughter’s face, and she wound up sucking her supper through a straw for the next five weeks. Now all of the girls at school would smirk to one another whenever “Dentures Denise” walked by. Verdugo Valley High had notched up another victory.

Darren opened his eyes and watched Tony’s Dragonstar slowly pass to starboard in front of him. He and Jorge were joking about something over the comm.

Denise Garvey did not deserve the retribution she received. What she should have had coming was a clever insult, or worst, a harmless slap upside the head. Tony’s toast to the Del was not to laud the unforgivable violence he had unleashed but to remember what the school, clueless parents and an obtuse mass media extolling pimple cream and six-pack abs had done to him. Most importantly, it was in recognition of a cautionary tale——don’t let them get you. Don’t let them use you as an avenging angel of vengeance on a gullible girl who was just trying to impress her friends and fit in herself.

Don’t let the fuckers win.

They were at twenty thousand feet, heading northwest toward the Pacific at a sluggish twelve hundred knots. On his visor, he could see over a hundred green blips on the aerial mass displacement sensor. He selected one bogey, and the synthetic-aperture laser-radar tagged it as a 747 airliner at thirty thousand, heading east at 520 knots. He chose another——a squadron of F-15 Eagles flying at twenty thousand at 470 knots over Nevada.

The clouds over Santa Barbara suddenly unveiled the Pacific, the sky full of pink and orange radiance. He spotted countless ships on his Forward-Looking targeting scopes traveling so painfully slow compared to him.

Darren checked their position on the IN map. The computer cataloged their fighters as four yellow dots with adjacent flight data approaching the Pacific Ocean north of Santa Barbara where the land jutted into the sea at Point Conception.

‘Okay, guys, let’s drop the throttles.’

Darren thought-powered his fighter up to full speed and dropped every last ton of thrust out of the atmospheric drives. A momentary pang of fright burst through him when his fighter vaulted forward into MACH 16 overkill, the anti-graviton emitter growling behind him. He felt his body forced back into the seat slightly as the anti-g force fields in the cockpit allowed a little “feel.”


His memory quickly went back ten years ago, sitting in the passenger seat of his dad’s beloved 1970 Mustang Boss 429 at the corner of Woodward and Twelve Mile, eleven o’clock at night and not a cop around. “I am the night rider!” his dad shouts when the light goes green. The duel 650-cfm, 4-barrel carburetors on the Tunnel Ram high-rise engage, kicking the Ford big-block monster below. The entire car is screaming, vibrating; the sound in Darren’s ears is violent, and his eight year-old heart loves it. He had his “speed cherry” popped that night by 540 horsepowers, and he had not since experienced that sexual-like thrill of terror and exhilaration until now.

The Pacific Ocean blurred underneath, and the clouds above and beneath him became undistinguishable streaks of white and gray. Hawaii zipped past in a flash, and he banked the Dragonstar to port, heading 210 degrees for the Kiribati Islands. His friends were hundreds of miles behind him, but he didn’t care, enjoying his own world now, closed off from the one rushing past him outside the cockpit. It was rather quiet inside, except for the steady drone from the fighter’s AG emitter projector.

He shivered from the feelings that came to him again, as if the icy air outside his fighter had found its way into his suit. He felt unstoppable, god-like. You could take over the world with one of these things. You could kill high school thugs with one of these things. Darren smiled at the image of Marcus’s petrified face in his gun sights, but quickly remembered D.B. and Denise Garvey. Still . . . he savored dark images.

We could . . . you know . . . practice.

It had taken him just under three minutes to jaunt four thousand miles. Fiji Island approached on his Forward-Looking screen, and he spotted a multitude of military aircraft swarming around Japan and Korea on the long-range AMDS sensor, all blind to his presence. Darren could sneak up on anyone of them, two of them, ten of them, and blot them out of the sky in two seconds without conscience or guilt.

Darren rolled his fighter on its axis, spun twenty times, and ditched the machine toward the surface. The altimeter dropped like a rock in unison, and he felt the quick jolt of g-forces hammer him before the cockpit centrifugal compensator could sense the overload and counteract. Darren quickly thought-pitched the fighter to starboard, and the machine turned on a sharp right-angle over fifteen thousand knots.

The ocean rapidly came up to greet him. He clinched his fists around the hand braces and thought the interceptor to level out. The fighter pulled up just a hair-second before it could plunge into the water like some monster pelican and skimmed the wave tops, zigzagging back and forth at twelve thousand knots. Tiny tropical islands and countless ships of various shapes and sizes rushed past him so fast he could only see them on the targeting scopes.

Finally, he reduced speed to two thousand knots and activated the auto-pilot. He slid his helmet visor back and massaged his eyes, trying to rub some reason back into his brain perhaps. What happened to the real world he had just left?

Suddenly, Nate’s fighter zipped across the canopy, and he waved his wings. ‘Death from above!’ he shouted in that strange, computer-processed voice, so loud it hurt Darren’s ears.

Tony and Jorge appeared on Darren’s port side. The others were shouting at each other, whooping it up like football players before the big game, laughing and daring any enemy to come after them . . . teenage gods with newfound power casting thunderbolts upon the world.

Darren wasn’t really paying attention to their cocky banter. His glass usually half-empty, he instead entertained thoughts of uncertain, fractured time . . . far in the past, thousands of years ago to a planet, much like Earth, with two suns. Why couldn’t the Xrel defeat the Vorvons with their superior Dragonstars and proton destroyers? Now there’s four of us against—— what?——five thousand . . . five million?

Then to the present. Were they really trained for combat? Hypnotized know-how couldn’t be the same as actual combat training. Could it? Darren certainly felt that he could fight SOF-style, close-quarters fighting. Vibro-knives and all. He understood the mechanics of countless move-and-fire team formations, firing stances, hand-to-hand sparring, hallway coverage, room-to-room movements. He knew the vulnerable locations of Vorvon anatomy—— although he only possessed a hazy vision of what a Vorvon looked like——and where to strike first, where to sink the blade or place the killing round of a single laser blast. Even the basics of small unit leadership and team development were now lucid principals which Darren would have never understood or practiced before. Could all of this hypnotized crap really produce a futuristic, small-unit killing force assembled to defend Earth from millions of alien invaders?

Darren brought himself out of his thoughts and back to his Dragonstar’s sensors. The four of them were cruising west, 134,000 feet above Russia at 1,200 knots. Tony, Jorge and Nate were quiet now. Gone were the shouts and cat-calls of cocky defiance earlier, the boys now perhaps lost in their own thoughts of the inevitable. Reality strikes again. Darren closed his eyes and listened to the warbling low drone of the anti-graviton emitter as the propulsive machine pushed his fighter across the sky, felt the computer’s signals in his nerves, even “see” an Airbus A340 jetliner behind a thundercloud two hundred miles at his nine o’clock.

‘Anything yet?’ Tony asked.

‘No, just a lot of stuff in German, Italian and Russian,’ Nate replied.

Darren opened his eyes. ‘What are you guys doing?’ Apparently not thinking of pessimistic thoughts of combat and the fact that they would be outnumbered four-to-who-knows-how-many?

‘I thought you were listening, too,’ Tony said.

‘For what?’

‘Police scanners,’ Nate said. ‘Tony wants to play crime fighter.’

Darren wanted to protest but kept his mouth shut.

‘I think that’s French,’ Tony said. ‘Darren, your old lady taught you French . . . what’s that guy saying?’

Darren listened for a bit. ‘It’s just a cop calling in a licence plate on a drunk driver.’

‘Screw this. Let’s head home and listen for some Yankee cop chatter,’ Tony said.

‘What exactly are you listening for?’ Darren asked.

‘Anything. Armed carjackings. Rapes in progress. Kiddie lemonade stands without permits . . . who cares? Crimes of the highest order.’

‘Good luck.’

‘What we need are some real bad asses,’ Tony said. ‘Some hard hittin’ bruisers you only see in the movies. Someone who’ll give us a challenge.’

‘Yeah right,’ Darren said. ’Where are we going to find these bad asses? What are the odds of some ‘crime of the highest order’ happening right now?’

Ex-Major Duke Patterson——former Delta Force trooper still burning after a two-year stretch at Fort Leavenworth for raping a 14 year-old Afghani girl in front of her Taliban father——burst through the bank’s front door and fired a burst of ear-splitting gunfire into the ceiling. His five squad mates quickly followed him in, their own H&K UMP9 submachine guns waving.

“Okay, mother fuckers, everybody hit the mother fuckin’ floor! This is a mother fuckin’ robbery of the first mother fuckin’ magnitude!”

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