Chapter 8 - Jupiter Storm
A rich, galactic ocean of stars filled Darren’s canopy: yellow ones, blue ones, some red and white, all so sharp and clear. This wasn’t like lying out in the middle of a darkened field under a soupy atmosphere which made the stars twinkle. Here, the atmosphere ceased to exist, every star and galaxy in sharp focus.
Darren let the wonderment of the universe soak into him, appreciating his accomplishment of conquering outer space for the first time, and then cast it aside to face the daunting task ahead. They were at war, not on a field trip.
He cut-out the anti-graviton drive and activated the faster sub-light engines for space flight. The Dragonstar emitted a slight hum and shuddered when the sub-lights fired and Darren felt a momentary thrust. He screamed away from Earth at 110 miles per second, the slowest speed that the sub-lights operated.
Last semester, Darren had written a ten-page typed report on Jupiter for Mr. Ichikawa and had received an “A” for his heavily researched paper. Now he would see Jupiter up close, one of four humans to do so with their own eyes for the first time in history, content he actually knew something about their destination.
From the various Jupiter plots on the space positioning graph, Darren selected Io, a moon constantly tortured by its mother planet. Jupiter’s strong gravitation forces had been pulling and pushing on Io for millions of years, turning the moon into the most pliable, volcanic body in the solar system. Io was made up of a lot of silicates and molten and solidified sulfur compounds along with a thin atmosphere of sulfur dioxide and sodium.
‘Okay, everyone access my readouts. I’m going to show our reentry point.’
‘Got it,’ Tony said.
‘I’m in,’ Nate replied.
‘Ditto,’ Jorge said.
Darren accessed Jupiter’s plot once again and selected the closest moon next to Io, Thebe, a lonely little rock sixty miles in diameter and currently four hundred thousand miles from Io.
‘We’ll exit metaspace, here’——Darren marked a red glyph on the map——‘just on the opposite side of Thebe from Io and do a little spying. The computer indicates a fourteen minute jump.’
He entered Thebe’s position into the warp drive computers and primed the metaspace thrusters, heard the generators whine to a vibrating growl. The charge level on Darren’s visor climbed to eighty percent, seconds from reaching one hundred.
He leaned back in his seat just as a two-toned beep in his earphones informed him that the warp drives were at max charge. Before he thought-activated his fighter into metaspace, he took a last look at Earth behind him.
Why did he suddenly feel cold? Was he really doing this? Everyone he loved lived down there. Mom had shacked up with Sam somewhere, unaware that her only child was in outer space and about to jump into the quantum unknown. He wondered what Vanessa was doing.
A dark circle opened in front of him, blocking out the stars behind it. At the edges, trapped star-images bunched together to form a sparkling wreath of light, and Darren felt a momentary tug as the fighter lunged forward into the puncture. Goose bumps rose on his skin, and he heard a ringing in his ears build and fade away. As suddenly as the abyss appeared, it vanished, along with the sea of stars around him. The universe had completely disappeared. No stars, no sun or Earth, nothing but blackness.
Darren felt gnawing panic seep into him. Isolation and claustrophobia, with a little fear thrown in, suddenly overwhelmed rational thought. He was gone from everyone and completely closed off. Darren tried to communicate with his friends but heard nothing over the comm-set. Even the drone from the engines had stopped, and the only sound he could hear was his own ragged breathing.
He wasn’t sure if he did something wrong. Could he get back? Maybe this was how metaspace travel looked and felt. He would be glad when he returned to his own universe——Jupiter, Earth, he didn’t care which.
Colonel Towsley was finally bound for George Air Force Base aboard the APIS’s C-21A Learjet, along with Major Deanna Weinholt and General Taggart. Towsley was staring out the window, picking out animal shapes in the clouds, when the sat-radio signaled. He picked up the headset.
“Tango,” he said.
He heard the voice-recognition computer acknowledge him with a beep, followed by Admiral Breuer’s voice. “Colonel? We just monitored visual Flash Traffic. Four bogeys just left the atmosphere from East Pacific sector about two minutes ago.”
“Two-one-six, but we aren’t sure of destination because they just up and disappeared on us. We got a GEODSS visual track from our Maui station when they came into line-of-sight. Medusa Stare acquired telescope lock, too. No radar echo or infrared from the targets.”
Towsley stared directly ahead. “Did our weapons engage at all?”
“They locked on with visual-remote but shut down when the bogeys vanished on us. They were quicker than hell, colonel.”
“Thanks for keeping me abreast, admiral.”
A soft beeping emanated from somewhere inside the cockpit, but in the absence of sound, it reverberated like a roar. Darren looked out to see he was finally coming out of metaspace. The stars blurred into focus, and he heard ringing build in his ears. The fighter shuddered when the black and silent universe of metaspace spit the Dragonstar back into the known realm of matter. The sea of stars returned, and directly to starboard lay a dark brown orb pocketed with craters. Thebe. Nothing exciting, really. Just a drab little rock.
Darren looked to port, and the contrasting view there was distinct and imposing, a majestic sight which made him feel even smaller. He had seen the Voyager pictures of Jupiter in science books and on television, even printed a few color photos for his science report, but they didn’t quiet steal the breath the way the Roman King of Gods did personally up close. White-blue splotches of lightning flashed like strobes across the planet’s dark side, from pole to pole. Multi-colored cloud bands of pinks and oranges, reds and yellows swirled and eddied, but the titanic hurricane, the Great Red Spot, went unchallenged in the Jovian skies. Darren couldn’t really scale Jupiter to size which seemed nothing more than a tie-dyed orb ten feet in diameter five feet away, but he had to keep reminding himself that Earth’s dimensions would be equal to a baseball held at arm’s length.
‘That is off the hook, gee!’ Nate murmured. ‘I can’t believe we’re here.’ His Dragonstar had reentered two kilometers off Darren’s starboard. Then Jorge’s fighter appeared. A few seconds later, Tony joined them.
Nate was right. They were here. Millions of lonely miles from home. Darren suddenly felt icy, alone, but quickly redirected his attention on the elaborate functions of his fighter to keep his mind occupied. He checked the frequency hopper to verify the effectiveness of their tap-proof communications. Check. Active-stealth assimilation field. Check. Their Dragonstars were quite hidden from the universe. All weapons systems primed. ECM suite functional.
‘Let’s form up,’ Darren said. ‘Keep your active sensors offline and follow me in.’
When the computers sensed they were approaching Thebe and its rising gravity well, they automatically shut down the sub-light engines and fired the slower anti-graviton emitter drives. Although Darren appreciated this safety feature, it was annoying. Like any pilot, he got off on the speed.
Just sixty meters above Thebe’s rocky surface, the guys swooped over the dark terrain at 1.5 mps. Their passive aerial mass displacement sensor sweeps detected no fast moving blips yet. Darren tuned the AMDS for long range scan and to its highest setting to locate low mass objects. He found several, and the computer immediately disregarded slow moving asteroids and icy balls floating throughout the Jovian system and highlighted several objects that had identical density ratios and were under their own power, all of them buzzing around a central point that he assumed was Io. Most were lightweight mass shadows, probably fighters, while other objects were extremely heavy, one in particular. A troop carrier, Darren guessed. He wouldn’t be able to properly ID and catalog them until he used his synthetic-aperture laser-radar. Which would also give away his location. No go on that yet.
They crested a short mountain, and finally Io appeared above the horizon. Darren immediately activated the targeting telescope in the fighter’s nose and aimed the camera at the red and orange mottled orb. From his vantage point, Io looked similar to typical medieval interpretations of Hell with its seas of molten sulfur and hot gases of sulfur dioxide spewing into the thin atmosphere. Darren could see what looked like water fountains scattered across the tormented surface but were actually volcanic ejecta shooting hundreds of miles into space before gravity pulled the debris back to the surface. Io was indeed a world literally turning itself inside out, agitated so by Jupiter’s intense gravity.
The Dragonstar’s computer spotted a Vorvon base northeast of a particularly large caldera. Darren increased magnification. A circular metal city, like the hub and radial spokes of a sports car wheel, occupied the bottom of a crater. There were several oddly shaped structures and hundreds of lights scattered across the complex, which appeared to be nearly fifteen miles across. Support vehicles slowly buzzed around the base like fireflies above a nest. Twelve domes, each perhaps a quarter-mile in diameter, circled the fortress in the obvious defensive formation of anti-spacecraft batteries.
‘Why would they build a base on a moon like that?’ Darren asked.
‘They could be using geothermic energy to produce power,’ Tony replied, his true intelligence showing through the self-imposed, dumb-kid facade. ‘Or maybe they’re mining something. Sulfur, uranium, whatever.’
‘Look on the other side of the moon,’ Jorge said. ‘What is that?’
It hung in a low-orbit above Io and had six large gray orbs clumped together, four forming a square, the other two above and below them. From the various parallax angles calculated by the telescope, the computer estimated the object to be just under fifty miles in diameter.
‘They look like storage tanks,’ Nate said. ‘My pops has pictures of the Exxon plant in Alaska where he used to work. Big tanks there.’
‘I think you’re right,’ Darren said. ‘That’s not a military base on the surface. It’s some kind of refinery.’ A methodical procession of cylindrical vessels docking to the giant tanker in orbit and returning to the alien complex certainly gave the impression of fuel transportation in action. ‘They’re using Io as a fuel depot.’
Behind them, a metaspace portal opened and spewed a nightmare into the universe. The silhouette of a great monster suddenly materialized against the bright Jovian surface and approached quickly, silently, undetected.
‘We have a wonderful opportunity here for mischief,’ Darren mused. ‘We can use a proton destroyer on that tanker and zap the refinery with our singularity miss——’
Thebe suddenly went dark. Sunlight reflecting off Jupiter for some reason suddenly quit shining. Darren had a cold sensation of doom sink into him before he turned in his seat to check his six. ‘Oh my Jesus God.’
A black moon, 1,400 miles in diameter according to the mass displacement sensor, bore down on them. Or at least it had once been a moon, but the Vorvons, employing some unknown and incredible feat of gargantuan engineering, had transformed the barren world into a spaceship. The entire equator was gone, the aliens having blasted out the midsection to accommodate the ship at the core, or perhaps it had been obliterated by an enemy weapon which had exposed the vessel underneath. Several craters spread across the basaltic surface were actually charred to a glassy black, no doubt as the result of harmless thermonuclear strikes which the moonship wore like proud scars, badges attesting to its invincibility. The most distinguishing feature——a gargantuan scar hundreds of times larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon stretched across the southern hemisphere. It could have only been created by a massive kinetic weapon striking from an oblique angle but failing to kill the behemoth. The ship itself at the core had no true symmetry, just mountains upon mountains of steel piled upon one another, clamping both hemispheres together into a misshapen, hourglass shape.
From out of the moonship’s depths came a tight, fast moving formation of flat X-shaped assault cruisers, twenty-eight of them, each thirty miles in length. The aft section of each vessel had an X-shaped winged configuration while the front half of the ships looked like elongated clamshells. Moored along the X-wing arrays of each cruiser were countless triangular troop carriers, themselves about a mile across. Darren picked out one cruiser and began counting troop carriers attached to its hull. He counted forty before the flight of colossal assault cruisers passed overhead for Io. Eleven hundred and twenty troop carriers total, he thought. Each carrier over a mile wide, a battalion-size force aboard each, maybe an entire division. That meant a surface force anywhere from eight hundred thousand to three million alien troops.
‘I didn’t think we would be this outnumbered,’ Nate whispered, processing the same conclusion.
Any God-like feelings of invincibility pumping through their veins had now been sucked out of them and cast to the winds. Darren felt colder, depressed, and very scared.
The moonship passed overhead one hundred thousand miles away and proceeded for Io. Darren spotted eight enormous engine thrusters on the moonship’s surface arranged in a cross-shape.
‘What are we going to do, Darren?’ Tony asked.
‘Get the hell outta here before they spot us,’ Nate replied. ‘That’s what.’
‘Let’s just sit tight and watch,’ Darren told them. ‘Maybe we’ll learn something.’
On the AMDS scopes, the twenty-eight assault cruisers began to quickly insert themselves into polar orbits around Io. In just four minutes, they were all in line. Suddenly, brilliant laser pulses flashed downward into Io, stirring up the moon’s already violent surface. They were shooting at several targets on the ground.
‘What are they doing?’ Jorge wondered.
‘I don’t know,’ Darren replied. ‘Target practice maybe. Keep your telescopes on them.’
The AMDS sensors indicated that new signals had appeared from the cruisers——the troop carriers. They cast off from their berths and now roamed free from their motherships, all 1,120 of them. Seconds later, the troop carriers began deorbit maneuvers.
‘They’re playing war games,’ Darren said. This was definitely a military exercise on a grand scale, something that would both impress and scare the hell out of the generals at the Pentagon, he thought.
When the troop carriers arrived at an altitude of two kilometers, each ship disgorged a squadron of what Darren guessed to be fully loaded dropships since he could only see their drive flares from this distance. The tiny lights swarmed toward the volcanic surface like flies on a corpse. The entire exercise had taken only ten minutes to complete.
Darren checked his weapons. Laser cannons, gauss gun, missile launchers, anti-missile pods, ECM measures——the telemetry reported everything functioning properly. He glanced at the moonship and wondered what kind of weaponry it possessed, if it was armed at all. ‘We have the element of surprise. They don’t know we’re here, and we can sneak in and do work on these fuckers. Maybe even stop the invasion all together.’
‘You’re kidding, right?’ Nate said.
‘No, I’m not kidding. Look around. We have major TRE . . . Target Rich Environment. The assault cruisers will have to refuel eventually, and when they do, we’ll attack.’
Almost two hours later, a sudden change in the Vorvons’ activity roused Darren’s attention away from the Dragonstar’s flight simulator where he had been studying a series of possible attack profiles proposed by the VI computer. The troop carriers hovering above Io began returning to their appropriate docking berths on the assault cruisers.
‘Maybe they’re going to refuel now,’ he said.
With all of its troop carriers finally moored, one cruiser pulled out of orbit and slowly inserted itself into a higher trajectory, parallel with the giant tanker ship.
‘Yeah, here we go,’ Darren said.
Another joined its companion. Then another. Almost three minutes later, seven assault cruisers had left low orbit, leaving the other twenty-one behind, to form a column behind the bulbous tanker ship. It took another three minutes for all seven ships to completely encircle the tanker with their bows pointed away. The assault cruisers carefully began to back into the tanker’s many refueling berths.
‘Okay, here’s the game plan,’ Darren began. ‘Jorge and I will go after the moonship. Tony and Nate, you guys take the tanker and the assault cruisers docked to it. Obviously, we use the proton destroyers.’
‘Wrath of the gods coming right up,’ Tony said.
‘We don’t know too much about the effects of these weapons so make damn sure you’re clear of the blast fields. If the radiation gets close to supernova range or something, we light the hell outta here quick like.’ Darren glanced at the navigation box. ‘We’ll establish an emergency escape point at Europa. That’ll be our rally point.’
The AMDS sensor signaled for attention. A tight formation of unknown mass shadows were approaching their position, and the computer indicated PROBABLE HOSTILE SPACECRAFT. No kidding——those diamond-shaped, trilobite-looking fighters again. In fact, there were clouds upon clouds of Vorvon fighters suddenly buzzing about, apparently protecting the assault cruisers during the vulnerable refueling procedure.
‘Now what?’ Tony said.
Darren closed his eyes and tried to calm himself. ‘We stick to the plan. With our active-stealth fields, they won’t see us coming.’
‘So we’re not going to do anything about the fighters? And what about the refinery on the surface?’
‘Those are smaller targets that can be dealt with later. Right now, the moonship and the assault cruisers represent the biggest threat. The invasion comes from them.’
The seven Vorvon cruisers had finally docked to the tanker, and Darren hoped that highly volatile fuel was being pumped by the millions of tons into the ships’ tanks. More to fuel the bang. The time to execute with extreme prejudice had come.
As soon as a squadron of seventy trilobite fighters came within nine thousand miles, the Dragonstars burst from their cover, fanned out and booted up to full interceptor speed, 1,800 miles per second. Darren felt himself pressed into the seat as his fighter screamed with ungodly acceleration. Rotating cross-hairs appeared on his visor display, and he selected his laser cannons for READY, the weapons system immediately locking on to fifteen targets.
His mind said, Fire.
The two laser cannons on the wing tips opened up, and Darren felt a blood rush when he saw for the first time the frightening power he possessed. From eight thousand miles out, the maximum range his weapons tracking could acquire, he iced all fifteen aliens in an eye blink——so sudden that a moment of disbelief crept through him. Was that it? The AMDS indeed read fifteen less bogeys. It was so easy.
His friends opened fire, and the last of the alien fighters disappeared from his scope. No reaction from the moonship or the other Vorvon cruisers and fighters. Yet.
‘Feint Mode?’ Tony asked.
‘Wait’ll we get closer,’ Darren replied. ‘Let’s not spook them to soon. They don’t know we’re here, yet.’ At least the aliens hadn’t executed any evasive maneuvers or opened fire with their anti-spacecraft batteries. Darren guessed right. Their assimilating, active-stealth fields seemed to be effectively absorbing the enemy’s——
Wrong! A green, murderous laser pulse suddenly exploded in front of him, and every warning sensor screamed in surprise. It had grazed the starboard wing, low from a shallow angle. Guessing the bad guys had their own blind-proof AMDS sensors, Darren jammed the mental-throttles to port before another blast shot through the space he had just occupied and screamed, ‘Feint Mode!’
Everyone activated their electronic countermeasure systems and triggered the Feint Mode. Immediately, fifty radar “ghosts” formed around each Dragonstar and fanned out in evasive maneuver patterns, each on a separate course. Confused, the Vorvons began to spew forth wide-field blasts of defensive laser fire, and not just stray, intermittent volleys but frightening zones of sweeping crossfire thousands of kilometers deep. Bright green pulses of energy flashed across the Jovian system like an alien Fourth of July.
‘Feign Attack pattern!’ Darren ordered.
The radar ghosts, which had been simulating escape, now turned on their attackers. Two hundred false echoes shot silently toward the Vorvon fleet. The fervidness of enemy fire intensified. Everywhere Darren looked came a flash of green laser fire. Sooner or later, one of the Dragonstar’s was going to get hit if they didn’t take immediate action.
‘Tony! Nate! Hit that tanker and the cruisers. Jorge you’re my wingman!’
It was a fast lock up and shoot. Darren put the optical cross-hairs on the moonship and immediately the enemy vessel’s flight characteristics data appeared next to the rotating aiming ring. He thought-activated the missile carriage which immediately retracted from the fighter’s belly. A second later, a single proton destroyer missile screamed off the rack. As soon as it reached its programmed 5.4 kilometer distance from Darren’s Dragonstar, the missile essentially destroyed itself by arming the warhead and unleashing the matter-destroying terror within. Now it became what Darren could only describe as a quickly swelling ball of purple electricity with arcing fingers of lightning probing for matter to destroy. It pulsated as if it were breathing like a living monster from another dimension full of wrath and bent on the destruction of the universe. A thousand kilometers ahead of Darren’s Dragonstar, it had bloomed nearly fifteen miles in diameter and still continued to swell.
The synthetic-aperture laser-radar suddenly caught something on the long-range grids screaming away from the moonship. It was heading directly toward the flaming proton destroyer on an obvious intercept at about 500 miles per second. From what Darren could tell, it looked like——an asteroid——and a big one, about four miles in diameter. He guessed the Vorvons had used some kind of gauss launcher to hurl the asteroid. What could a four-mile rock do to a matter-eating proton destroyer now almost twenty miles across? Then the answer suddenly came to him. No!
When the asteroid struck the fiery core of the proton destroyer, a flash of intense light and radiation exploded across the heavens, bright enough to bathe the entire night side of Jupiter in blue radiance. Instead of eating the tiny asteroid like a Tic-Tac and continuing forward, the proton destroyer’s quantum matrix had been triggered and exhausted its entire energy in a millionth of a second on a four mile wide rock. With no matter left to consume, the weapon had burned itself out. What remained was a harmless glowing cloud of positrons and pions now blowing away with the solar wind.
Darren swore at himself. He had fired his valuable weapon from too far a distance, allowing the enemy sufficient time to counter attack. Using a simple asteroid as an anti-proton destroyer weapon was simple and clever, too. Darren would have to gun the engines to full speed and close the distance quickly in order to get off a successful kill.
Before he could dial up a second shot, however, thick clouds of Vorvon fighter interceptors began spewing from several craters across the moonship’s surface. They were heading straight for him and Jorge.
Reminding himself that the Vorvon fighters were faster than his heavily armored Dragonstar, Darren activated the ECM suite and selected the Feint Mode once more but all of the aliens——124 of them——ignored the buzz of false radar echoes on their sensors. They had already zeroed him in, and it was too late to take a shot at the moonship, the trilobites nearly on him. He broke from his ingress run, and jinked upward to port, hoping to loose himself within the intermittent swarm of his radar ghosts. Jorge had done the same, but Darren could see that his friend had fallen off his four o’clock wingman position. ‘Stay with me, Jorge!’
‘You’re jinking around! I can’t tell where you’re going!’
Darren suppressed the urge to fire his weapons and give himself away. For the moment, his evasive move appeared to be working. The alien fighters had broken formation and begun to chase false sensor echoes.
All except one. . . .
Nate provided wingman coverage with Tony as the trigger man. Tony had watched Darren on his long-range radar fire his weapon from too far away and was not about to allow the aliens enough time to shoot some goddamn rock at his proton destroyer. He and Nate were at full sub-light speed, closing the distance quickly on the tanker and the seven assault cruisers moored to it.
Some of the cruisers had begun to slowly disengage from the tanker. The “Terminate-Refueling-Immediately” order had apparently been sent, an impetuous maneuver to save the thousands of Vorvon invasion troops aboard the carriers. In a panic attempt to escape, one of the assault cruisers had prematurely fired its engines before it could complete its separation and had subsequently tore the massive refueling boom from its foundation. Several apertures each the size of the Hoover Dam were blowing lethal hurricanes of sparkling pink fuel into space.
Tony couldn’t believe the incredulous sight. At that moment, he selected the proton destroyer missile launcher for STAND DOWN. He would not waste those valuable weapons on such an easy kill as this.
Instead, Tony aimed with the optical tracker and fired a single twin-blast from his laser cannons. Like flaming arrows on a keg of gunpowder, the laser pulses crossed the distance at the speed of light and ignited the volatile fountain. A white, mischievous fire erupted and slowly made its way down the stream of gas and disappeared into the tanker.
One heartbeat later, the solar system had a second sun. The explosion not only vaporized the entire fifty-mile wide tanker and the seven assault cruisers trying to flee but swatted every squadron of Vorvon fighters providing defensive cover. The moon of Io, just a few hundred miles below, took the brunt of the gargantuan blast. The entire volcanic surface facing the detonation, already tortured by Jupiter’s colossal gravitation, was blasted clean——whole mountains ranges and smoldering craters, lakes of molten sulfur and the Vorvon refinery thoroughly erased from the surface.
A glassy splotch of black char had appeared hundreds of miles across. Dazzling auroras suddenly flared from Io’s poles, scattering across the atmosphere toward the equator as the moon reacted violently. Sparkling, yellow streamers zipped across the sky from clouds of sulfur ionized by the blast. Chambers of pressurized magma just below the surface were suddenly released, and new volcanoes erupted like a spreading pox. Io, which Mother Nature had selected for perpetual torment from Jupiter’s flexing gravity and magnetic fields 4.5 billion years ago, screamed with an agony it had never known before.
Tony and Nate were screaming, too. Screaming the hell away from the blast. The proton destroyer would have produced a more “cleaner and contained” kill. Tony, the Sultan of Chaos, predicted that the dirty, thermonuclear effect would be catastrophic, but he had not counted on the utter destructiveness of it. Now he and Nate were racing away from the shock front for their very lives.
. . . all except one.
Darren didn’t understand what he saw. At first he thought the IFF sensor to his laser-radar was malfunctioning. The sole Vorvon fighter heading straight for him was not . . . Vorvon. Darren checked Tony’s and Nate’s current position and confirmed their location——they were on the ingress run and about to pop the fuel tanker and the assault cruisers docked to it. Then he searched for Jorge, who had finally formed up on Darren’s seven o’clock, three hundred feet off his tail.
The fighter heading straight for him and Jorge was another Dragonstar.
Both Darren and Jorge immediately knew what they were dealing with, and their instincts told them that the most lethal position to be in was in front of a Dragonstar and within prime optical-tracking range of its laser cannons.
‘What . . . ?’ Darren turned to see a supernova appear above Io and the entire solar system seemed to react. The battle being waged above the volcanic moon had froze. The Vorvon fighters slowed to a crawl. Even the enemy Dragonstar heading for him suddenly veered to port and away. Then there came a moment of panic that seemed to galvanize the flesh of both human and alien. Fighters were suddenly scrambling for cover.
Darren and Jorge went quickly to starboard and down toward Io in hopes of using the moon’s far side as a shield against the explosion’s blast waves.
Io spun in Darren’s windshield, and the surface came up fast. Anti-spacecraft laser fire from the remaining twenty-one assault cruisers chased them toward the undamaged side of Io’s surface, but several radar ghosts from Jorge’s ECM suite appeared and drew the Vorvon’s fire away. Darren felt his Dragonstar shudder unexpectedly. Part of the blast waves had wrapped around Io’s surface, but by the time they hit Darren and Jorge, they had diminished rapidly.
Almost as quickly as it had appeared, the Vorvon anti-spacecraft fire ceased, every gun silent. Darren checked his six, and knew what was coming.
‘Get mean!’ Jorge shouted. ‘Here they come!’
‘Aw, shit!’ Darren said. ‘Jorge, keep those fuckers off me. I’m going in!’
An alarm sounded in Darren’s helmet when the laser-radar detected twelve Vorvon fighters coming down off his four o’clock. The heavens were full of the trilobite-shaped craft, darting fish hunting prey in a black ocean. The enemy Dragonstar was nowhere in sight.
‘Cover me, Jorge!’
‘I got your back, bro!’
At that, Darren went down and to starboard, Jorge riding his seven o’clock as wingman. Geysers of molten sulfur, lakes of red fire and belching volcanoes sped past them. Darren pulled up to avoid a high plateau and dove for the deck. A ball of blue light screamed past his canopy. Missile. He rolled to port a few degrees and leveled out, searching for his attacker. Jorge stayed with him, but moved to cover Darren’s starboard off his rear quarter.
‘There they are!’ Jorge shouted. ‘Twelve baddies at five!’
Darren didn’t want to look up to see the aliens baring down on them. He swore at himself for getting too close to the deck and offering the enemy the altitude advantage. He and Jorge were exposed. The aliens opened fire, and fountains of heated rock erupted in front of his fighter. He jerked to port, hoping his Dragonstar’s dense super-carbon skin was indeed strong enough to repel a laser blast.
From the look of the aliens’ wide, blind shots, he could tell the Vorvons had them targeted visually but were unable to lock the invisible Dragonstars on their laser-radar, or whatever they used for weapons tracking. With so many of them blind-firing, however, it would be just a matter of seconds before one of them scored a hit.
‘Jorge, split up and take some of them with you!’ he shouted.
Jorge broke from his wing and accelerated toward the north. Five of the Vorvons chased him, but the remaining seven stayed with Darren.
Strangely, he wasn’t frightened at all, only pumped and alert. He felt focused, undaunted, his thoughts mechanical and instinctive. Closing his eyes, he could still see the red after-image of the enemy blips imprinted onto his retinas. He “reached” out and activated the AA missile launchers. His Dragonstar leaned to port and quickly slowed as a group of mesas appeared over the horizon. He knew the aliens were directly behind him and spreading to cover his flanks, zeroing in for the kill.
On the laser-radar scopes, four of the Vorvon fighters mysteriously broke away, the remaining three still on Darren. He guessed the other four were probably speeding away to establish a trap somewhere up ahead with these three beating the grass behind him.
As the first mesa appeared——a towering, flat-topped skyscraper of rock——Darren pulled back on the imaginary throttle, and his fighter reared up and stopped at the base of the cliff. The three Vorvons zipped past him and shot around the left side of the mesa, circling around to search for him again. He thought-fired three of his all-purpose missiles toward the right side of the mesa and felt the fighter vibrate when the projectiles vaulted out of their launch-carriages from within the wings. He accelerated his Dragonstar again, moving up the slope toward the mesa’s peak, and as he did, the aliens appeared from around the mesa and met his missiles head on.
Darren did not have time to enjoy his success. The other four fighters appeared again, this time off a high angle, their trap now spoiled.
Darren executed a quick Snap-Yaw, rotating his fighter to face the rear while still flying forward, and pressed the mental trigger that fired the kinetic gauss cannon on the Dragonstar’s nose. The gun pivoted in its cradle, and a surgical stream of high-velocity, armor-piercing pellets sheared off the wings of the two nearest trilobites. The remaining two did crazy aerial cartwheels to evade, but Darren found one with his cannon. The last Vorvon fighter went out of sight, disappearing behind a spewing volcano. Darren spun his beast around and gunned the AG emitter to full speed. The single Vorvon appeared once more and sped up as well to catch him, now on his six.
The alien fired a bright blue star, and Darren saw the missile on his visor approach with horrifying speed. He banked to starboard and thought-triggered the aft anti-missile pod. A golfball-size orb fired to six o’clock and intercepted the enemy missile with a flash of explosive shrapnel just forty feet off his tail.
The iciness of space seemed to be seeping into the cockpit, chilling Darren to the core. He felt rivulets of sweat under his helmet run through his hair and soak his neck, making the shivering worst. He “told” the sub-suit under his armor to increase temperature.
Another alien fighter appeared from above and joined its wingman in pursuit, arcing inside Darren to the right, closing range and spewing wide volleys of laser fire. Darren rolled his beast to the left, as if to bank to port, then suddenly sped off to the right, but both Vorvons stayed with him.
He jerked the Dragonstar up with a suddenness that caused him to bang his helmet on the thought-computer terminal behind his head. Jorge’s fighter suddenly went across Darren’s windshield, and one of the Vorvons died, victim of a well-aimed blast into the cockpit. He heard Jorge scream something triumphant in Spanish as Jorge swung around wide to catch up, but Darren and his remaining adversary were already over the horizon.
This last alien did not want to give up on his human opponent. Darren could only roll back and forth to stall the alien’s best firing position that it would achieve in just a few more seconds. C’mon, Darren, he thought to himself, put this fucker in your pocket! Three volleys of laser fire went wide to his starboard. With a last hope in mind, he accelerated to full velocity to gain some distance and spun his fighter around in another Snap-Yaw. The alien saw what Darren had done and shoved itself to port to escape, but a pair of laser blasts caught it square. The vehicle flared into a comet and sailed into Io’s molten surface.
Sryik-of-the-Three-Suns did not react to his close comrade’s death but only watched closely. It was right on the human’s tail, but it did not fire. Not yet. Wait. It even suppressed the urge to open the comm and taunt the human in its own tongue with the translator.
But not yet.
Sryik-of-the-Three-Suns checked the power level to its Dragonstar’s invisibility cloak and saw that it had sufficient power——and time——remaining. It summoned four deathfish to join it for the final kill.
‘Everyone hit the rally point!’ Darren said. ‘We got to get out of this shit and regroup!’
‘I hear that,’ Nate said, his voice distant. ‘I’m out of here!’
‘Me too!’ Jorge said.
‘Ditto!’ Tony screamed. ’I still got three of ’em on my six!’
Darren thought-triggered Europa’s waypoint on the positioning map to the warp drives. He heard the hum begin to build——
——but something fast came across his windshield. Something else entirely flashed off his starboard, and an alarm began to howl in his helmet. Darren cried out and shoved the mental stick forward. He rattled in his seat, heard his Dragonstar shudder. The laser-radar screamed for attention——four Vorvon fighters were angling in off his starboard quarter, closing the distance fast, two hundred kilometers out.
Darren realized the enemy Dragonstar had attacked him with a single shot from its gauss cannon, its invisibility cloak and active-stealth field running. He also knew the alien pilot could have easily plugged him if it had wanted but for whatever reason had delayed the kill. Apparently, the bastard wanted to play first. Darren triggered his own cloak and active-stealth but quickly discovered that the alarms pinging in his helmet had been trying to tell him that those two vital features were now inoperable. The enemy Dragonstar knew exactly where to hit him. The Vorvon pilot had uncanny accuracy. Even Darren wasn’t sure he could place a dime-on shot like that.
Darren cursed, rotated his wounded Dragonstar 180-degrees and swept his rear envelope with a wide volley of every weapon he had. He hit nothing. He spun back to twelve o’clock and accelerated to maximum, putting Io off him, but the four Vorvon’s, their trilobites more quicker off the stick than his heavier Dragonstar, would be on him in just seconds. He heard the AG emitter shut down and the sub-light drives kick in as the computer sensed the gravity drop from Io, and he accelerated harder.
He looked to his IFF scope and saw that Tony, Nate and Jorge must have already jumped for Europa, their transponder signals nowhere to be found.
There also appeared to be considerably more damage to his Dragonstar than he previously noticed. In addition to the cloak and active-stealth, the warp generator no longer responded to check-up inquiries. He was now stranded in the Jovian system. Darren’s mind reached into the Dragonstar’s electronics, and he “felt” the wound’s location: one of the sub-routers on the third power relay had been severed by the gauss strike. This particular sub-router supplied electrical power to the systems he now lacked.
Teeth clenched, Darren banked to starboard and sucked every drop of acceleration he could out of his Dragonstar. He quickly closed the distance between himself and the moonship, mindful that the four trilobites were still on him off his rear quarter.
Darren came up to the mammoth vessel, and the rising gravity from the ship triggered the AG emitters. The Dragonstar’s sub-light velocity evaporated which caused the faster trilobites behind it to overshoot the kill zone they had established. Darren watched them peel off his tail as he raced over the moonship’s rocky surface.
Suddenly the great chasm appeared ahead of him, a five hundred-mile wide canyon with the heart of the Vorvon ship below. He rolled left and bore down on the massive structure, aghast at its size. Darren could see the trilobites on his sensor scopes scrambling along their vectors to reacquire him, and they would very soon.
The Vorvon Dragonstar suddenly appeared from its cloak of active-stealth directly above him. Darren reacted and shoved his fighter’s nose down but the Vorvon kept with him. In fact, it had not budged, and Darren noticed that he was unable to accelerate. It felt like his Dragonstar was carrying the weight of the other Dragonstar, or rather, the other fighter had intertwined its force field projections with his own.
Both fighters were locked in a spinning embrace, and the Vorvon pilot had done it on purpose . . . behind them the four trilobite fighters were bearing down on their position. Darren looked up to see the Dragonstar was actually upside down. They were cockpit-to-cockpit, and Darren saw that this fighter, like the moonship, was incredibly damaged, its surface covered with scars like smallpox, gouges and laser scorches——proud scars of previous battles which needed no repair. The Dragonstar’s head had a particularly nasty scorch across the top ablative plating where an adversary’s weapon had nearly pierced the cockpit. Yet the damn thing was still operational.
Scorch was looking down at him. Darren saw that the Vorvon did not have an armored combat suit like his but a gray jumpsuit with some kind of centrifugal-absorbing pads across the body. The helmet, however, looked similar. Scorch turned its helmet toward him, tapped its head twice with a finger, pointed at him . . . and then shook its head.
An obvious taunt of some kind, but Darren didn’t know what it meant, and he was suddenly even more frightened and angry than before the gesture. I’m not gonna let this fucker toy with me. Darren sent a thought-command to the main computer and primed the sub-lights for immediate fire. A warning flashed on his visor, GRAVITY PRESENT, but Darren sent the bypass code and lit the rockets. The sub-light engines kicked hard, and his Dragonstar tore itself away from the other’s force field lock and roared ahead past the moonship’s metal core, coming within three hair-raising kilometers of a large bulbous structure. Darren headed straight for Jupiter.
Behind him, Scorch’s Dragonstar pitched about wildly from the shock of Darren’s sudden escape, but quickly compensated. Seconds later, Scorch and the other Vorvons were back on the pursuit, the four trilobites quickly gaining on his tail.
Jupiter lay 390,000 kilometers ahead. The gas giant filled Darren’s entire windshield. At max sub-light velocity, it would take him three and a half minutes to reach Jupiter’s upper atmosphere where he hoped to loose himself in the turbulent clouds and magnetic storms. The darting trilobites, however, would be on him in just forty seconds, the enemy Dragonstar bringing up the rear. He wouldn’t make it.
‘Death blessed, human. Do not be fright.’
Darren cocked his head slightly, at first not sure what he just heard in his head-set, but quickly realized it was Scorch. The Vorvon’s processed voice sounded gender-less and void of age. ‘Soon glorious kill. Succumb to honor.’ Scorch had an ego.
‘Screw you!’ Darren shot back.
Either the curse didn’t translate from human-English to alien-Vorvon or Scorch didn’t understand the reply because there came no further taunts.
Sryik-of-the-Three-Suns switched its comm channel to communicate with the rest of the deathfish squadron. Put this old arthritic dragon in the bubble on the leading quarter and contain its escape. I will finish the human.
Darren pivoted his Dragonstar on its center axis and sprayed his six o’clock with laser fire. He iced one of the trilobites square before it could evade, but the remaining three darted out and away before he drew beads on them. Extremely nimble and unpredictable, the trilobites were good at dodging his fire as long as they maintained a relative distance. It was a hopeless action, Darren knew, keeping them off guard and on the defensive, but it only took one of the Vorvon fighters to slide into a position where it returned a blind, aimless fire. The trick worked. Darren had to react and pull up, throwing his kill zones out of range to avoid being struck.
He was back on the defensive as the three trilobites regrouped behind him. This time, however, they began spewing a continuous stream of laser fire, not directly at him, but immediately off his nose, rear quarter, port and starboard. They had contained him within a shrinking kill box.
In a few seconds, he wouldn’t be able to even pitch or yaw away or pivot around on the center axis again to sweep his six. He wouldn’t be able to accelerate either without being struck by a laser blast. The only movement the trilobites allowed him was straight forward, and even one of the laser streams ahead of his nose began to close in, forcing him to decelerate. Scorch would be coming in for his “glorious kill.” Darren checked his scope and saw the Vorvon Dragonstar zeroing in up high on an oblique angle where he would intercept Darren in just a matter of seconds.
‘Human with stout heart,’ Scorch said. ‘But little evolution.’
Darren screamed shamelessly. With terror. With rage. He was about to die and could do absolutely nothing about it. His stomach knotted into a tight fist.
‘A gentle dragon slayer, Sryik-of-the-Three-Suns. No pain.’
Darren’s lungs extinguished the last of his breath, and the hot scream died in his throat. Scorch was almost on him, twelve thousand miles out . . . six seconds until death. The scream continued in his mind, and his Dragonstar seemed to scream with him. He felt the ghost of the machine stir deep within the guts of circuits and processors . . . and from out of the chaotic babble in Darren’s head came a lone thought-command——the Dragonstar’s rear anti-missile pod suddenly fired!
The angry weapon shot away and searched for an incoming missile but one did not exist. What the anti-missile orb did lock onto, however, was the nearest trilobite just three kilometers off his rear port quarter. The Vorvon reacted and went to starboard to evade. Darren watched the alien’s crossfire stream go wide, and he shoved his Dragonstar through the opening in the kill box. He was free.
The anti-missile orb found its mark, lit the proximity fuse and detonated above the Vorvon, showering the alien fighter with blazing shrapnel. It didn’t have enough punch to destroy an entire fighter, but the anti-missile orb did heavy damage and knocked the trilobite out of the fight. Darren Snap-Yawed to sweep his six once more, ignoring the wounded trilobite, and put a murderous blast of laser fire with generous helpings of hate and revenge mixed in on the two remaining Vorvons. In forming the kill box, the trilobites had moved in too close, and Darren made them pay for their temerity. Each received a single laser pulse square into the fuselage, their unlucky pilots gone to the ether whence they came.
Remembering Scorch, Darren banked hard to starboard toward Jupiter. A long volley of laser fire suddenly surrounded him from the alien’s direction, one beam so close to his windshield that Darren actually saw sparks of ambient hydrogen atoms ionized by the blasts light up and flare away like dying embers. Scorch had fired on him from a distance outside the Dragonstar’s weapons tracking range, but that had not stopped the Vorvon from throwing a few blind shots at him anyway.
‘Poor Vorvons with stout heart!’ Darren shouted. ‘No evolution. Too close to the dragon!’
Scorch did not reply, but Darren knew the alien certainly understood him this time because more inaccurate laser fire came at him along with a pair of intercept missiles now tracking Darren with the alien’s mass displacement sensors. Darren told himself to cut the chatter and knew that being a wise ass wasn’t going to get his wise ass out of this situation. The fact the alien had fired intercept missiles from so far out, allowing Darren more than enough time to swat them with the anti-missile pod, told him something about his adversary. Scorch could be easily upset, allowing emotions to cloud judgment. Funny. Darren thought it interesting aliens had emotional quirks just like humans which belittled their god-like status somehow.
Scorch activated his stealth field and disappeared from Darren’s scopes. Shit! Darren kept going straight. As long as was eight thousand miles ahead of Scorch, he wouldn’t fall within weapons range, but he knew the alien had given up the direct chase, now likely maneuvering to another position where he could catch Darren from another angle and snare him in range.
On his AMD scopes, three signals appeared from metaspace near Thebe. Tony, Nate and Jorge had come back from Europa to find him.
‘Darren, are you out there, buddy?’ Tony asked.
’You guys turn on your stealth! He can see you! Do it now!’
‘What? Darren where are—?’
’Jupiter! There’s another Dragonstar out here, and he’s not one of us! I’m heading for the clouds! Help me tag this one, he’s close on me! Activate your stealth! Now!’
‘Do it!’ Tony ordered Nate and Jorge.
‘He’s a surgical bastard . . . likes to mess with you before he finishes you. My stealth, cloak, and warp generator are gone!’
’Did you say, ‘warp generator’?’
Darren closed his eyes, feeling colder. ‘Yes.’ With the sub-light engines as the only mode of interplanetary travel left to him and Earth currently 900,000,000 miles away, it would take him almost six days to get home. How long can a person go without water? he wondered. A lot could happen in five days. The Vorvons could unleash whatever they had planned for Earth during Darren’s crawl home.
He kept the sub-light engines on, overriding the AG emitter trigger, and decelerated to the slowest possible velocity to 110 miles per second and nose-dived deep into Jupiter’s turbulent clouds. The force field projectors eliminating air compression around the Dragonstar suddenly howled in protest. Jupiter’s violent winds were battering the fighter relentlessly, and the computer signaled to Darren that he had to decrease speed or the projectors would shut down to avoid a power overload. Darren turned off the sub-lights and heard the AG emitter activate. He reduced speed to ten thousand knots, now able to take in his surroundings.
He was currently thirty miles below the upper most cloud tops, and from his vantage point, the scene around him invoked awe. Jupiter’s 340 mph jet streams were confined in high-altitude, eastward-flowing “zones” which blew adjacent to darker, low-altitude, westward-flowing “belts,” mammoth vortices and eddies sandwiched between them. Convection heat boiling up from the planet’s liquid metallic hydrogen core stirred everything to life. Darren rode one of these belts now, soaring west with the wind, the sun high off his nine. The pink and orange clouds in these bands were stretched hard like taffy, resembling the high-altitude cirrus clouds on Earth.
‘I think we lost him,’ Darren said. ‘I’m going to shoot for space now and fix my dragon. You guys follow me up.’
A pounding knock at the door jarred Towsley awake.
He opened his eyes, trying to remember his location in his state of semi-consciousness. He had been taking a quick nap in the VIP quarters at the Southern California Logistics Airport at George AFB. He flipped on the light and opened the door to see a young kid with staff sergeant stripes holding a sat-radio.
“I’m sorry to wake you, sir, but there’s a secured Priority Message for you.”
“Thanks, sergeant.” He took the radio, and the kid left. “Tango.” He heard a beep on the other end——the voice-recognition computer at the Nest——and a voice say, “Colonel Towsley? This is Captain Rye, senior watch officer on duty.”
“Yes, go ahead.”
“Sir, we have a possible situation occurring. I’ve already notified Admiral Breuer and the rest of the head staff here.”
His heart began to flip-flop. “What’s going on, captain?” Not now. Not ever.
“Two minutes ago, Medusa Stare detected a massive EMP event from Jupiter.”
Towsley sat down on the bed, his legs suddenly weak. “A nuclear explosion?”
“Thermo, sir. The Associated Press is reporting that several telescopes around the world picked up what many think is a supernova, but our analysis concludes that it came from Jupiter. The supercomputers are putting the explosion, whatever it was, at a yield just under seventeen million megatons.”
“Jesus,” Towsley whispered.
“We’re continuing to focus our surveillance on that sector, but so far we’ve detected nothing unusual outside naturally-produced phenomena. No spacecraft or drive flares, but Io is casting high levels of radiation, higher than usual. Looks like it bore the brunt of the explosion, whatever it was.”
“Good enough, captain. Notify me of anymore activity.”
“Yes, sir.” He heard a click, and the transmission went dead.
Towsley set the radio on the night stand, turned off the light and climbed back into bed. Three hours ago, the NESSTC had tracked four unidentified objects leaving Earth’s atmosphere.
Now what was happening near Jupiter? Something had exploded with enough energy to shear an entire continent off the Earth’s surface. An attack maybe?
He sat up, suddenly restless with ideas. Yes. That was very possible——an alien base or ship which had been destroyed. Caliban had never mentioned an interstellar rival during his many interrogations.
Four bogeys had left Earth. Three hours ago.
Towsley smiled. The cavalry is here.
Darren had touched down on Ganymede to begin repairs. He allowed his historical landing to give a slight pump to his ego before thought-opening the panel at the bottom of the AG emitter dome which hid a button that opened the fighter’s access doors. He could see the softball-size hole where Scorch’s slug had punched through. Motors inside the Dragonstar’s fuselage popped open the port and starboard access doors and angled them back over both wings, exposing the fighter’s guts.
‘The primary sub-router on the third power relay is severed.’ This one supplied power to the warp generator’s main coil and the active-stealth and invisibility cloak.’
Darren stepped down and tip-toed across the portside coil, one of two cylindrical objects running the length of the inside fuselage that served as force field shock absorbers. Between the coil and the secondary AG-emitter transformer laid the primary sub-router and the power relay.
Instead of copper wiring, the Dragonstar’s electrical system used flexible hollow tubes ——sub-routers——filled with thick, super-conductive gel which changed its molecular structure when applied with a current to relay electricity. Like different gauges of copper wiring, the sub-routers also had dissimilar voltage and amperage ratings. Darren reached in and yanked out both damaged ends of the tube.
With no spares to replace the sub-router, he had to use the only other tube with the same amperage rating: the sub-router to the AMDS/laser-radar sensor. Darren had no choice but to unplug his Dragonstar’s eyes. He disconnected both ends of the electrical tube, plugged one end into the socket on the third power relay and the other into the vacant spot on the power plant socket board. He now had active-stealth, invisibility and warp generation back online.
‘Well, there it is. I have a blind dragon, but it can still fly and fight.’ Feelings of indestructibility and god-like swagger before the moonship battle had died away. Their Dragonstars were not invincible. And neither were they.
‘Are you done, Seymour?’
‘Affirmative. Running pre-flight now.’
‘How did the Vorvons get a Dragonstar?’ Jorge wondered. ‘What’s going on anyway?’
‘The only thing I can think of,’ Darren said, ‘is that they captured one when they invaded Xrelmara. War booty.’
‘Yeah, but how many?’ Tony asked. ‘Hopefully just the one. He’s enough to handle.’
‘Scorch is quite the bad ass. He’s accurate as hell.’
Darren grinned. ‘Just a nickname I gave him. He knows a lot more tricks than us, that’s for sure. He’s been flying and fighting a hell of a lot longer than us, too.’
‘How is he so accurate?’ Jorge asked.
‘Accurate?’ Nate interjected. ‘How come he just doesn’t plain kill you? He’s gotta toy with you like a cat does a mouse.’
‘Ego,’ Darren replied.
‘You think the Vorvons modified that Dragonstar somehow? You know, upgraded the performance. It just seems he can do shit we can’t.’
‘That’s a possibility, too,’ Darren said. ‘But I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s not as good as he thinks he is. He lets his emotions cloud his judgment. We can use that to our advantage if and when he comes at us stupid again.’
Darren’s Dragonstar finished the pre-flight and was ready for operations. Enough hair-raising adventures and death-defiance for one day. Time to go home.
As his Dragonstar lifted off Ganymede’s powdery surface, he caught movement on the corner of his eye. He turned but saw only Orion and bright Sirius to starboard and Jupiter to port. He looked behind him, to the right and left, but still nothing. A meteor, he figured.
A metal sphere cloaked within a blanket of active stealth slid beneath Darren’s Dragonstar and silently attached itself to the fuselage.