"This is the place," concluded the MASTER OF TRAVIS AND TIME (power over industry and news papers), Joshua McKee, indicating an insignificant point above Shreveport, Louisiana.

"You think so? Doesn't your gut tell you this?"

"Think back to the cyber attack on Space Command," Josh demanded his new co-investigator, Holloman, looking into the man's eyes for recognition.

"For all of NASA's innovations, they are not responsible for National Defense."

The white African concurred.

"Okay, they are a civilian organization."

"Yes. So our Space Force must be the defender."

Josh took a long sip of water.

"I'm not following."

"The remote access Trojan Horse attack was too easy to clear up, was it not?"

Hollow considered.

"Right. I just rebooted a terminal and it all worked fine, come to think of it."

The mercenary rolled his chair closer to his new partner's side of the table.

"My boy Hampton says only a Bosque/Spanish hacker named Matrick could carry out that attack. He surely doesn't want to interfere with some space spectacle."

Wallace chose to take a guess.

"A nuclear test in space?"

It was confirmed with silence.

"Which brings us to Louisiana. A mobile-cabin belonging to M.E. rests there," he pointed at a close-up of an astronomy-astrography commune.

"Great place for viewing what many will believe is a supernova."

"No amount of computer simulation is good enough for the military, ergo, a thermo nuke will attempt to vape a ten-mile diameter Kuiper object tugged into Venus orbit."

Josh, Norman, and Wallace, with Johan, arranged a quick conference, held in a nightclub after hours, a short drive from the Holliday Inn, where Thurman Dynamics checked in. Norman and the Vampires stayed at a slightly shabbier inn, still cleaner than a packed immigration den. Josh and crew had an RV at a park near the theatre complex, minutes away in average traffic.

"From the imitation-marble stage, General Dynamics grudgingly asked everyone if they accepted McKee's hypothesis.

The majority didn't express opinion (the majority being under someone's command), but the remaining leading minority voiced "yea!"

With that finished, the Viscount gained leadership status. Legion likened him to Lex Luthor's role in the LEGION OF DOOM.

"Thank you for your confidence. Many others here have earned enviable reputations, and I'm confident this boat would run smoothly under the command of these others," he accepted the position with modesty.

"Now that we have a location we agree on, we must agree on a mission based on solid intelligence. That means, in part, an experienced scout party. Legion and Taylor are the best we have. They should sit-in with my team in a general discussion, while General Thurman Dynamics supervises the detectives in public information gathering. Strike Team Saturn should train at the paintball range. My boss will pay for all expenses."

The masses put hands together repetitively, welcoming the smiling coalition leader.

PATCHING THE ALLIANCE

"He's in the air, Zack, and he's going south at nearly 400 knots. Now, may I have some clear instructions?"

Josh McKee verbally blasted his employer, hoping for a strong resolution in the Husk affair.

"I thought your type relished information gathering duties, preferring such jobs to the dirty deeds of Warlords," replied Hamlet, absenting, "Very well, underneath it all, I couldn't find a masterstroke but this- align your team to his, and find those kids. Look, we can't beat ourselves just to beat him. I'm sure we'll all betray in the end, anyway!"

The Viscount turned to Max, seeking approval. A nod. Sarah, a nod. Jake and Brock, thumbs up. Ford shrugged.

"Zack, we can set it up, but I'm not sure he has the trail," Josh relented.

"His team will bounce thoughts at you, and vice versa, ergo, voila!"

Only Brock spoke dweeb, helping with a translation.

"Oh, he deduct as we reconstruct!"

Ergo, voila; from dweeb to dude-speak.

"Leave it to us, Hamlet, I actually wield some power where he's going."

"That's so cavalier of you; do as you wish."

Zack phased away, leaving the bounty hunters alone.

An awkward silence followed.

"Gee, I was hoping for a spare minute to liberate President Kennedy's head from the mother ship and instate Elvis as Shah of Iran, but you just volunteered that bit of my calendar," Cracked Sarah, laughing, "I'll order Dominoes to heat a pizza as we fly over."

Brock seconded longingly, wishing for something other than coffee in his system.

"Okay then, we have a mixed flight element of old F-22s and F-25 Workhorses, feigning a lack of power for aerial refueling. Throttling fangs to the wall, we can catch Husk. The Raptors land at the Municipal Airport, while the "Stallions" land on him as he parks the rental car," decided Hamlet's Chief Plummer, the Viscount.

"I'll have the flight controller circle the leer around so the F-22s can land and taxi ahead. That way, maybe he won't know something's afoot," Brock suggested, as his partners boarded fighters.

"I don't see a reason for that, but it can't hurt," said Josh, bruising Brock's pride, before a carted generator "Turned over" the twin Pratt and Whitney engines.

That ingrate cowboy.

So it comes to pass that the bounty hunters shave time to cloak deep into a hanger.

The private eye stifles a blink, tunneling vision while sweeping all the venue, but still, he spies no trail.

Jake, exhibiting mild curiosity, glances about the parking lot after closing the hood on a "wreck" – a pre fuel cell Mustang SS that runs just fine, but thanks.

He exchanged a few words with the distraught Community College student about his own jalopy, his aged Camero, and about his planned investment in a Dodge Viper from the late fossil fuel era.

The student thanked him for his Texan chivalry, and gave him an address to a secret rave in the failed industrial park.

"The smurfs (police) don't breakup unions (parties) there, so don't spaz (panic). The pass(word) is bail."

Jake repeated "bail" as Husk and his agents motored away.

"Let's move, Sarah," said Jake, entering a completely legal zero emitting Oldsmobile.

"You should lose the wig."

Sarah chucked her blue hair, opting for dark plagued rows.

Jake lightened his skin and sported rimless glasses.

The Olds, a Towncar, couldn't hold a candle to the limitless power of the Detective's Pontiac GTO, but the need didn't exist, for Josh and Max circled seven miles above, watching via a holographic charged coupled device (HCCD) pod, viewed through a retinal etch, or if of secondary importance, a liquid crystal display (LCD).

Josh and Max didn't speak, because the mere existence of radio traffic between flights at that altitude could tip off Norman.

Jake and Sarah, however, shared a car.

"Awe, this one has four different cheeses with otherwise a supreme topping," decided Jake, offering Sarah a slice.

"Gimme!"

"Sure thing. The other pizza is a patchwork of peppers, yum."

An idea struck Sarah as she handled a pizza slice with her freehand.

"Max must be dying to speak with Josh, so why not route him through our phone?"

Max agreed.

"I agree."

His finger pressed TALK.

"Hola! Soy Jake. Habla a Josh?"

"Wait, you just said, 'Hello, I'm Jake, you want to talk to Josh? Max translated well.

"What of it? This phone can open a line to you and Josh," responded Jake, dialing the other jet.

"Jake?" Josh guessed.

"No, it's Max."

"Max? But you might-"

"Jake and Sarah's phone is working as a switchboard, so we ain't violating you rule."

Josh conceded, seeing this to be true.

"I guess you're right, but what do you have to say?"

"I dunno, but arranging it's cool, huh?"

"Yeah. Check it out, they're really speeding down that country road!"

A giant dust tail trailed in wake of Husk's GTO.

Like a cloak hiding among daggers, the shroud highlighted the car.

"Look, Chief," screamed Max, "That roadrunner is simulating a carrier's wake! Permission to touch-and-go, Sir?"

Josh thought it over.

"I saw a small airfield just south of us. Do your mock landing, then let's stop there and fill up."

"Roger!"

Landing gear extended, Max held the HOTAS firmly as he tapped the car's end at 135 knots.

"You're nuts, Man, a flying circus nut," Josh laughed, corkscrewing at ten gees, "Now we land, okay? Our other team is on 'em now."

Max said nothing as he turned deeply to the east, arming his radar when finished.

"Where'd he go? Sarah, Jake?"

But they replied,

"Sorry, Max, we're watching someone else."

Panicking, Max popped his stiff neck peering past one shoulder, then, the other- still, blue sky. Forward.

"Ah!"

Josh and his Stallion passed by Max; a brief metal-on-metal sound followed.

"You're dead. Now land that sucker!"

After touch-down

"Man-oh-man, you weren't in the sky!" Max flinched away as Josh tossed his helmet overhand, striking his right flank.

"That's right, I landed, just like I told you to do, but you didn't listen! I came in hot and touched with my front and left wheel, hopped, helicoptered 35 degrees, and taxied 145 degrees. Then, I eyed you visually while rollng through my own touch-and-go."

Max laughed hysterically.

"Oh man! Are you a cowboy or what?"

Josh seemed pleased.

"You know, if I'd simmed an old AIM-9 Lima, you'd still be toast," he chuckled, scooping his thrown helmet.

"Now let's fuel Up."

"They shouldn't play around like that, especially at night."

Jake considered himself reckless, But Sarah knew better.

"Those guys ARE adventurers, but they think as responsively as 1950s test pilots, and they'll know their limits when they find 'em," he answered, before burning his throat

on chunky pizza pepper.

"Wow, so you can think about more than machines!"

She was rewarded with a pre-emptive food strike, as a result, the car became stained with tomato sauce- but hey, it's a rental, so who cares?

"Take that back!"

"Stop it, you're getting topping on my binocs!"

Amazing any survailing was accomplished, with these agents violating all the "time and place" rules.

Time Flies

At long last, Norman and Company finished observing the plot of packed lime and gravel, and hit the road once again- the dust escapes the road.

Despite the GTO's speed and dust trail, the Oldsmobile, with all its reliability, kept its thermal imager on the Pontiac.

Sarah played cautiously, blunting the 'mobile's headlights, and lagging, as Husk entered the highway.

From above, Josh and Max stalked in 'a vulture's eight,' as added insurance.

A few miles ahead, all seems well, when a white van suddenly rushes across the median, abruptly sending Husk's car into a fence.

"Go ahead (then) pull over at that station, Sarah- we'll watch from here," Josh ordered, helplessly viewing the makings of a roadside shootout.

One party, a party of one, hides among a flock of emu, masking his heat source, as two vampire bodyguards do their job.

The lone man now comes out, resolving things, and it seems they chat.

"Sarah, they've halted; let's make our move," Josh gave the word, dropping for a vertical landing as Max buzzes the Pontiac.

Meanwhile, Sarah drives Jake along the shoulder, touting a sedative-smoke grenade launcher in her freehand.

The maniac's return (Max's buzzing) caught the astonished attention of the two parties concerned. Naturally, they turned their astonished heads.

This saved Sarah and Jake the long range trouble of alert armed opponents.

The first round of smokes, because of Max, landed without notice.

Without complete awareness, Husk and friends failed to prevent the next wave.

By the time Legion freed a round, McKee and his stun gun tapped Grendal, then the sleepy Husk, from behind.

"Surrender right now!" Jake flashed a pulsating laser toward Legion for his benefit, while Max parted the emu flock in his landing.

"Now we just want to patch an alliance so we can figure some questions out, 'kay?"

2

ALL PATCHED UP.

Seamlessly patched under the Viscount's leadership.

It's another balmy Texas July night, and the Audition begins.

An astronomy camp is set up, a patchwork of trailers and cabins.

Ford, the master spy, moves into the prefab near the 'nowhere gate,' while the 'Noun cabin' rests nearer the 'Shreveport gate.'

Grendal plays the M.E. security boss. Josh, being Isaiah's size, plays him, and Sarah is now Chelsea.

Brock is somewhere in the commune, operating as an 'unmarked' McKee guard, while Jake and Max are fully glittered with badges and whistles.

A Chevy Suburban carries a M.E. strike team two miles out. M.E. sharp shooters, two a team, cover four corners.

Besides Brock, Saturn team has Legion counter sniping, and Saturn team itself jumping High Altitude Low Opening at Legion's command. (Ford, if Legion is canceled.)

The two guards have "blue" paint cartridge-loaded 357s and Brock has a "blue" .38 Walther PPK. Josh carries a paint-tipped epée' fencing sword. Sarah is unarmed- while everyone else uses MILES gear.

The HALO is being preformed in an L-188 Electra- a gutted P-3 Orion- in this case, an EP-3 Orion, surplus from Japan. This ELINT bird no longer passes muster along the Korean coast, with Pyongyang's island growing policy- tossing dirt-covered barges at sea to expand territorial waters, so Japan's Self Defense Force is upgrading.

America has another idea; as signers of the Open Skies Treaty with Russia, the Air Force flies its RC-135s (707s) along the northern border, where not even a semi-legit reason for a shoot-down exists.

The US Navy hopes to fill the gap with a hidden pod somewhere aboard airliner flights.

Saturn team's leader, the Carpathian Io Romanov, understood the need for these planes, although, he admits, he used to believe all these flights were conspiracy bent, an elaborate ruse to cover up the Satellite intelligence biz.

Zack Hamlet, called him "a Neanderthal, and told him only a fool would believe Nations would beam secret transmissions into an ELINT satellite if possible not to- and the western nations would risk an international crisis on a ruse…fathead!"

Okie doak, so Japan really needs a new airframe, and so the US will provide two trial EF-18 Electric Hornets, until SDF finds their own solution.

'Well, their dilemma gives me a solution here,' though Io.

'This'll make a great jump, once that vampire squares things away.

After a long crawl, Legion slowly moved to square things away.

A McKee Enterprises sharpshooter, hidden in a tree-house like duck-blind, scanned his perimeter with a wide-angle scope.

At 700m out, Legion, half buried under his shapeless gillie suit, placed his red LED "crosshair" on the man's temple, and depressed the three pound force trigger, freeing the MILES equivalent of a .30 Dragonev round.

Under the rifle lay a Nokia phone. He pressed send.

One instant, Ford Taylor sits in an observatory, pretending to watch stars, and the next, he has to drop some guards.

"Thank you," he prays, as the call comes in. Through his observatory's black curtain, he peeks out and hoses around his micro uzi.

He pretends to wince as he's notified Security Guard Max managed to take his arm off with his .357, before being completely hosed.

Then he cursed for missing Brock, the Walther carrier.

Brock had no celebration, for he fended off the paras- poorly.

"Man down," said Io, leading his team forward.

"Dazzle 'em."

A team member did so, using flashing lights and sound.

But as expected, Grendal suffered no ill effect, and her hypersonic slugs ripped through a trailer, drilling Io.

"Man down!"

More rail-run rounds brushed by, until…silence, then the go code from Legion.

"And hurry, I can't kill that guy with the sword!"

The team survivers "rogered," sprinting to the rescue.

Josh jinked and jumped his dervish dancing like a galloping Barry Sanders of red foxes, switching the light fantastic for Sarah and her flanking attack.

Legion madly gunned for his feet, knees, thighs, but a wounding shot proved to difficult for the sniper rifleman at short range.

En garde, he fended a long thrust, parried a sweep kick, hooked an ankle, Josh being exhausted from his charge.

Downed, Josh kept Legion at length, feet blocking bold action.

The vampire settled with a kick in the base of "Isaiah's" spine.

At that time, "Chelsea" somersaulted her feet into his cheek, dropping Legion half-cold.

At that time, Saturn arrived, tasing the Nouns at range.

Sarah fell ill, but Josh swatted the taser-wires to ground.

One man gummed the dead-man switch shut (on his stun gun) and tossed it to the man's torso.

Josh bought time for the strike team, however, for the Chevy arrived in the nick-of-time.

Legion came to, and set to work.

At 800m, the Chevy machine gunner ate a MILES round, the passenger gunner grew a simulated Cyclopes-eye; the motor-works shut down.

"Find the LZ," yelled Legion, dropping the first 'derelict Chevy exiter,' capping the next.

And next.

Two rounds left.

The third man stuttered, but Legion held patient. A forth man fired his long rifle over the back door; Legion held still.

Surely "Covered," the third man charged. Zap.

As man four adjusted aim, his M-14 took a MILES hit.

Legion only carried two magazines, and mow they're gone.

So are his buds.

At last, after a lull in action, a survivor ended Legion's role with a proximity-fused LAW-66 rocket.

Strike Team Saturn, and two prisoners, were gone.

At the Inn.

It's not every day people are happy about being zapped in a way game, but Io Romanov's team couldn't help but applaud Legion, the hey player in the mission.

"Excellent work, everyone," said Josh, after announcing Legion's kill count at seven: two sharpshooters, Grendal, and four men from the Chevy (as well as the Chevy itself and a rifle rendered useless), "You out fought computer simulations and defeated the worst case scenario with two casualties. Ford, your injuries were survivable, but for all practical purposes, you were eliminated."

"Suits me- I'd rather see a nurse than the Reaper," Ford replied, with members of the opposing team seconding.

"We all understand your sentiment, and that's why we drill. Everyone passed. Legion, myself, and Grendal pass with honors. Ford, Brock, good spying. Under the circumstances, good shot, Max," he laughed deviously, "You okay where Sarah nailed you?" Everyone looked at Legion; he shrugged.

"It looked jaw-shattering to me, but if you're fine, we'll drop you tomorrow night, and Ford, go get five hours of sleep. Then shower, have a snack, then sleep on the turbo-prop flight. That's all."

With that over with, the team flooded from the lobby.

In an RV park, somewhere in the Red River valley, Matrick worked completely alone, on his own time.

Minutes before, he'd worked in augmented reality while assembling a late dinner of garden goods and processed roast beef, but now, he rests back in his chair, immersed in the web.

Online, a buoy tosses with the choppy sea, around Baker's Repair Shop; Wallace Holloman's sentry.

Matrick wishes to raise enough red flags to make it squeal, so in this case, he starts by raising another flag, the McKee Enterprises standard.

Flag one.

He spams the Baker E-mail box.

Flag two.

He inquires about the Holloman crash and pays 300 on a part (a tip?).

Flags four and five.

He says "Put this on credit for me (the 300)"

Flag six.

Next he weakly interrogates the sentry, before punching out with RESET.

Flags seven and eight.

The sentry is compelled to call Wallace directly.

This was traced by Mat's A.I. probe, using the high-end hyper-computer Matrick is currently logging onto.

"I may not skate, cracker, but I'm a lubefoot just the same," he said, tickling his holdout keyboard.

"The Holiday Inn, Paris, Texas. Hombre! Room number-oh- a big ole suite! And what does out mapping former NRO say?"

He tapped the quick dial button.

"What a rip-off! No high resolution shots? Fine, I have other means."

The guest registry windowed up, listing a Wallace Holloman and a Johann Schmitt. Colonel Thurman Dynamics also showed up.

Grainy low resolution bitmaps windowed with a mouse-arrow hover.

"MPEG would be welcome, stingy manager man," he raspberried.

Obviously, the man controlling the "books" enjoys cutting back.

"No fooling? Have I found you working with Dynamics?"

On the other end, Johann sat with his tablet pc, running his thoughts.

"Wallace, wake up, a team of hackers sniffed us out," he alerted, leaving an invitation.

" Yawn , McKee Enterprises? Are they McKee hackers?"

"Yep, and they know our room."

Without another word, the South Africans sprinted to the door, slapped the lock, and motored out.

Wallace keyed the engine and slid into the van.

He gunned into reverse, applied some break, and 180ed a bit sloppy, before flooring.

He left a rubber arc as he turned off the exit ramp and scrambled for a twenty-four hour store parking lot.

"Can we do anything for Thurman?"

Even as Johann asked, he new the question would prove futile.

"Absolutely not! He's not on our side, even if we are working together!"

""Fine, let's just hide away."

By a twenty-four hour supermarket.

It took a Labor Day weekend of sitting at a curb in a Pontiac Aztec, interpreting static radio-transmitting from the home computer of an Oklahoma Highway patrolman putting in hours and hours of work at home, but Matrick fully understands the workings of the criminal justice system throughout the state.

From the experience, he's compiled a one-thousand-four hundred and four bit holographic smart card, with unfettered access to the law and order process.

These days, he reaps information as easily as Holloman can, but at this delicate time, the South African sentries loom the traffic logs.

Sometimes, the delicate times will trip the wires; and Matrick is in that time.

So, much like a bull in a china shop, he goes postal, copying whole folders, leaves the Highway Patrol logs, and digests Holloman's monitored drive to the Inn offline, commits them to disk, and heads out again.

Before dawn, when most eyes are sealed shut or rapidly moving across dreamworld, an eight foot Australian primate dodges every deviant non-night-sleeper, and scopes for a white utility van.

As he covers all the concealable places, this night-crawler tugs at his two-way radio.

"This is Raven," said the shaggy Yowie, "We have no shooters, so punch."

Simultaneously, buses cover the exits, both front and back.

M.E. agents, toting stun carbines, spill from both buses.

"Stand by to storm."

The strike team is seconds away, and Matrick must hurry to legalize it.

Quickly, he flows through the proper channels, and files a bounty.

His request goes through, naturally.

"Go! Go! Go!"

They moved.

Careful not to ignite conflict, the agents spotted the lonely van with gun-barrel flashlight beams, and announced themselves as bail enforcement agents.

One could count the agents by the lightbeam, the illuminating guns were so tightly focused.

Schmitt and Holloman stubbornly held still.

Bang!

Suddenly the back service door gave, exposing rump.

"I got the door, and they should be sedated, though I wouldn't count on it," Herman Hill spoke for the record, though no one listened.

"Advance!" Everyone heeded Captain Stone, however, and moved to apprehend the surrendering duo.

"I'd also like to say, for the record, the water cannon blew off the lock, and the zeppelin drone's electric wench wrestled the remaining door off."

"Down! Down!"

"Stop clubbing us!"

Once the nabbing ended, Shannon looked over.

"Herman?"

"Yes?"

"You can edit that last part out, can't you?"

"You can't do this, you know, you're violating international law."

Herman and Shannon shared a laugh.

"You have a poor understanding of international law. You see, here in Texas, we have loopholes to such distractions. We may not be as enlightened as people from other states and nations, but we make our laws work for us. We just captured a registered bounty in the state the contract was filed, and we brought you in legally," Shannon lectured, adding, "Being on secretive missions all the time, you lack diplomatic status, so we'll detain you until your interview is finished."

"Very well, I can even volunteer information, if you wish," spoke Holloman, unwrapping caramel hard candy.

"We were with Colonel Dynamics, you know, so where is he?"

Ms. Stone frowned.

"At the Inn. Now, please continue making your statement."

"Yes, of course…" Herman typed the statement until his fingers swelled too stiff.

Nocturnal life scrambled for their lives as Sol returned the world to man, so they could safely go about business.

In hotels and trailer parks reflecting the rays, men rose and took their leave.

One alliance of men walked to their work place, along and across a major multilane highway.

Soon they met with Thurman Dynamics and Io Romanov- just Dynamics and Romanov.

"Are we missing anyone? Should I role call?"

Thurman sighed.

"No, Josh. Wallace and Johan just aren't around anymore. It seems they just fled last night, sorry."

Josh nodded.

"And Husk?"

"Nature called. Their leaving left him anxious."

Brock snickered audibly.

"Here he comes, guys."

Did Sarah say that?

He rushed past tables the best he could, breaking a light sweat.

"Josh! Is everything still a go?"

"Yes," he began, "Taylor goes into the field. In the meantime, I'll seek guidance from my boss. Max, come with me. Thurman, you and Husk are one and two in the chain-of-command until we return. We'll see you."

Josh and Max retraced paths before finally detouring for the Oldsmoble.

Max, wrecklessly dodging traffic, turned the key and claimed the driver's chair.

Josh breathed heavily as a passenger, eyeing the controls with envy.

"To the municipal airport; we take the workhorses out for a flight to New York- and no dog fighting!"

"Roger that."

7-4-2023Priority

Dear Sir,

At one zero nine AM, by legal order of the court, the signatory members of 'My Corona' captured United Nations Inspectors Wallace Spitz Holloman and Johannes Anzel Schmitt in the WAREHOUSE SAVER parking lot.

As Matrick's report will confirm, the arrest was legal.

Interrogation

After the arrest, Lieutenant Hill and I interviewed our subjects.

Using standard tactics, we separated the two men in custody into different detention areas.

Results are below.

Stone: " You are to speak clearly in English with as little profanity as possible, and any untrue statements can be held against you. Understand?"

Holloman: "I do."

Stone: "Great. Now let's begin."

Holloman: "Yes?"

Stone "Mr. Holloman, what is your relationship with Colonel Dynamics?"

Holloman: "Thurman and I have, or had, rather, a cooperation with Io Romanov, Josh McKee, and an unknown employer of Josh. Our goal was the capture of two people of interest- Isaiah Noun, and Chelsea Noun. I don't know the motive for the other parties, but my intent was an interview with the Romanians, because, you see, the UN senses tension between Ukraine and Romania."

Stone: "You and your evil crew discussed a kidnapping plot; we need operational details."

Holloman: "Of course. Josh labeled an astronomy commune north of Shreveport the location of the Nouns.

Within hours, an observer team will drop into a WAYERHOUSER tree farm besieging the commune.

Once scouted, the area will be over run by a strike team. The strike plan depends on factors Josh is still unsure of, but a helicopter extracts the team and the two Nouns."

Stone: "Thank you. Now if you please, who were the mercenarybounty hunters with Mr. McKee?"

Holloman: "Max, Jake, Sarah, Ford, and Brock."

Stone: "And Io Romanov, can you tell me about him?"

Holloman: "Sure, Blond haired Carpathian Mountain Man. Tall, 185 centimeters, and cut like Jean Claude Van-Damm.

He had around eight guys with him, but I can't be sure. They had the He-man vibe, and they all looked like Dolph LundgrenHulk Hogan knock-offs."

Stone: "Was their hair cut like Anakin Skywalker's in Star Wars Attack Of The Clones?"

Holloman: "Yeah, that's the cut!"

Stone: "Thank you, Sir."

(Discontinued).

There you have it, Boss.

Supplemental interview with J. Schmitt.

Hill: "So Norman Husk, A.K.A Rene Dupuis, had vampire bodyguards, and Strike Team Saturn is made up of Norse Warriors?"

Schmitt: "Both statements are true."

Hill: "Quite the pantheon of monsters, huh?"

Schmitt: "Was that a question?"

(Discontinued. Smack).

3

"He's my brother!"

Matrick snorted.

"Are you auditioning for a role in one of my web-films, Sir?"

Travis roared with laughter.

"It is one of the clichés you're fond of!"

That's cold, really cold.

"So, Mat, can you find… my brother! I hope my security team has followed my orders to always probe for him," the boss warned, eyeing his steepled hands.

"Yes, Sir, we always have a loose enough net around him and many contacts of his," assured the hacker, "to the point that we know the pay from his last job. As I've told you before, he didn't take a wet work job. Okay, we have high resolution Zeppelin drones on many drop sites, and we now have people looking over intercepted public surveillance

Photos.

I know. If I can trust his transponder, he's got some fighter planes hidden in Paris, Texas. That's no small feat!"

"You'll know where he goes when he takes off?"

Mat affirmed.

"I'll need Daedalas, Shannon, and Herman to move into 'My Corona' and we'll prep for takeoff."

"Yes, Sir, but what of Louisiana?"

Travis lifted the phone.

"I think we should show them some of the finer parts of the State."

"Please, just another minute, it's airing!"

Bjorn, if no one stops the insanity, will scream like the woman in King Kong's hand if this continues another minute!

"Look, I found religion! I get it I truly get it, a-and it's so funny!"

'I understand something else,' Bjorn thought angrily, 'Isaiah Noun, you are a definite sign of the coming apocalypse!'

As the caramel commercial waxed away, the cyborg grasped the clicker, pressed power.

"Isaiah, your anonymity has been compromised- where's your sister?"

The hybrid vampire's mind swam back into reality.

"She's probably jumping on that vaulting trampoline thing with Jewel and Greek Goddess what's-her-namesake."

"How much television did you watch, anyway?"

Struggling from his chair, Isaiah answered.

"Enough that I forgot how to move."

'Oh brother!'

"Do you need a crash course?"

In waved his hands protectively.

"Chill, man, it's all good!"

Oddly, he couldn't help it; Bjorn shared a laugh with the TV addict.

"You're right, I watched to much, but let's put that behind me; let's go."

From the mobile-cabin they left.

Sure as Isaiah's word, the girls were on the hopping platform, though they seemed in a post-jumping state.

"You sure you want to pull her from her new friends?" In whispered to Bjorn, seeing Chelsea enjoy her friendship.

"Of course not, but like I said-"

(Rude interruption).

"I know, but how many times do we need to pull her from a compromised location? Do you think that's good for her?"

Bjorn stared, dumbstruck.

"Did you watch to much Lifetime, boy? We need to be serious here and logical, like real people!"

The Count observed the green grass.

"I must have overloaded with my viewing," he laughed, "So I guess I should steer clear of vices!"

Bjorn joined the chuckling, but still, difficulty remained.

"Hey, girls, I've got a stack of Ben Franklins; want to go gambling on a paddlewheel?"

Problem solved.

The brother climbed vertically from zero to nearly sixty thousand feet in a few shades over a minute, while the other brother pinnacled at more-or-less eighty thousand feet in more time.

One climbed from North Texas, while the other ascended from Southern Oklahoma.

Through the careful coordination of the B-70 Valkyrie crew, My Corona never exposed itself to F-25 radar.

"All is perfect, Sir. We are steadily holding 85,000 feet at mach 3.3, and our MCSTAR uplinks contact us to our Fokker RoboJager UCAV fighters, trailing the Workhorse deuce," Shannon reported to the flight cabin, via intercom.

"Smashing, as James Bond might say, as a pun in a silly scenario, of course," McKee relied, while playing virtual scifi squash with a holographic player; poorly, this time.

He notched down the opponent from rocket belt totting moon girl-fashioned contender, to the slower moving lumpy-suited astronaut.

"If I might make a suggestion, Sir…"

Shannon paused.

"Yes, Captain?"

"Apollo there is to easy for you, so I think you should set silver-clad sixties chick to novice, and continue stacking skill."

'Nuts, novice.'

"Computer, down one Luna tic, but up one unit."

A wise idea.

Over Pennsylvania

"Josh, those UFOs have been flirting with my vision since we crossed into Tennessee," Max cautioned, "They're now at forty thousand feet on your eight."

"I see them, a deuce of drones, the new Fokker models," he answered, taking a long look himself, "Let's split-S and splash them!'

"Attacking, Sir!"

Matrick booted Travis from the moon to a cockpit, too abruptly for most to handle.

Herman Hill, already in a cockpit, assumed a virtual one.

Exchanging preliminary low percentage shots, four warbirds descended, reaching different troughs in their dives.

Max came out highest, while Travis had the low ground.

As promised in an unwritten contract, Josh half climbed and corkscrewed in a high- gee Immalman, painting Hill's drone, while Max gunned his engines to dash away from the fray.

Here, as in theory, Hill banks, in this case starboard, to escape Josh's weapons umbrella.

With the F-25's powerful engines, the underpowered drones have no chance of catching Max before he can turn and acquire with his radar.

The contract assumes the second drone has only two options, assist in hunting Josh, which gives a slim chance of a kill, or chase Max, a bad move, for it gives almost no chance of a kill, and a slim chance of surviving a few seconds more.

Travis placed his thoughts on an alternative; a variation, granted, of option two.

"Josh, I only have one shot; your bandit. The other is terrain-masking: I can't get a shot!"

That's right, when Travis had the low ground, he kept it.

"Then kill this one, will you?"

Josh and Herman sky-danced, doomed never to resolve their match.

"Right!"

Max squeezed off a medium-ranged shot, dared to wait three odd seconds, and curved toward the other drone.

Literally battling uphill, drone two fired a poor shot. Next, nearly stalling, the drone rudders to a skid, and popped more shots.

"Some of those were descent shots!"

Max, however, handled the unimportant damage.

Entering Josh, throttling mach two.

Lacking a clear AMRAAM shot (Drone two was eclipsed by Max), he flipped to short range and passed his pal.

Whack!

"Splash two," shouted Josh, "Though my airframe's cracked up- he kamikazed me in the nose!"

The pilot drained some altitude, for his canopy loomed on the verge of shattering.

"My damage is on the other end," Max spoke, descending with him.

Once all looked swell, he grinned at breaking Josh's post-takeoff rule.

4

"Once we're in International waters, you can play, but right now, watch the cyborg," Bjorn scored twenty-one again.

"That's right, but once outside US jurisdiction, I can have you leave the blackjack tables, Shredder," snarled the dealer, upset at his negative profit margin.

"IF you use that Ninja Turtles slur again, I'll take my business to Gold City!"

That's right, South African casinos have worked up a good reputation, including a reputation of equality!

"Twenty-one!"

Cybrogs have their own reputations.

After the Cold War, America searched for more and more means to assert it's manifest destiny across the world; but it wasn't the fifty states, like terrorists would have the world believe, but an Anglo-American corporate alliance.

Aurora became the knight.

See, between the years 2000 and 2015, the UK and US enforced mandates to remove ballistic weapons worldwide.

First, guided munititions removed these fiery-serpents, but later, hypersonic slugs, then lasers, used to destroy the evil hiding in cities.

With death taken out of tyrant hands, murderers needed a new arms dealer, with an acceptable weapon.

American industry provided a hypersonic transport capable of seating hundreds of people.

President Reagan's "new orient express" could carry bombs.

Fleets were sold on four continents, but there was a catch; artificially intelligent transponders, encased in synthetic globes of diamond, forbade the military use of the passenger planes.

All planes up-linked with Space Force if tampering was detected.

Warlords bought legitimate machines, and legitimate machines they stayed.

The corporate plot, perfected at Groom Lake, revolutionized the world.

Smart fascists did all they could with the scram jets, but new quantum-encrypted code refused to mesh the jets to cruise missiles, or anything other than Aurora HST airframes.

Only the Anglo-American corporations use these crop sheers as swords, and with ballistic missiles banned and destroyed world wide, (except in submarines), no one had first strike capability anymore.

The City of New York

"Zack should be hyped in by now, you think?"

Max thought, but he remained still to psyched to speak.

"Remember when everyone couldn't stop saying internet? Can you guess the 'it' that follows hyper?"

Following people from hyper planes, Josh and Max passed a hyper exit to a hyper rail, a maglev, to hyperventure through NYC, the hyper city, where most people remain hyper linked to the New York Stock Exchange through most of the day.

From the hyper rail, Josh and Max hyper walk on hyper belts, the new trollys, to a safehouse of SIP- Simon Ichabod Presscot- owner of HYPERVAULT.BIZ, an illicit banking site.

"A recent study say 80 of people who use the word 'hype' in a sentence can't define 'hyperbole."

That's not interesting to know.

"Though ninety percent of people say this year's X Games will be all hype, though psychologists say they're just being negative," Josh reasoned, "Though the study was biased, because everything is hyped equally in commercial media, except things related to the past, the enemy of the latest hyped trend, deemed 'cool."'

Nano followed the internet, of course, though economists, trying to dump stocks, predicted biotech would follow.

In they're dishonest strategy, they further recommended dot com investing even after the dot com bust.

Average people, following the trend, lost savings back then, and it's worse this time, only, the guilty are emigrating to space, avoiding prosecution.

Old truths seem like lies to the losers, until they don't really believe anything.

Old truths can herd like common wisdom, but still it leads like a lie.

Most people are aware of William Shakespeare's proverb: "The pen is mightier than the sword," but only the successful few are aware of Phillip K Dick's own sagely advise in Blade Runner.

The "Eye of the tiger" line from Rocky would suffice, however, if people could amend that advice themselves.

"Sir, I understand you're on a winning streak, but if you say we're taking over!

One more time, I'll have to ask you to leave!"

Boy! These people work in a casino, so how can they be such fogies?

Cyborgs always have people stashing away fun- what's so threatening, anyway?

Bjorn shrugged.

"Haitian witchdoctors are taking over!"

Welcome to Rural Louisiana! Imagine you've just laid a video camera over a ridge, and now you're crawling under the thorny brush allowed by the seasonal fire ban, and you're un-spooling fiber optic cable.

The going is tough and it's a steamy day, but at least God's razor wire shades your back.

You've bugged your own cables, and through augmented reality glasses, you see from your previously lain cameras.

You see cabins and trailers in your first cameras, and in others, you see ideal wooded or cleared high grounds, as important to soldiers as the board's center is to chess pieces.

At this time, people aren't moving around, but that will change in a few hours, that's just human or humanvampire nature.

The Noun's have left for the day, but you're not surprised; these places are rented for night, after all, and really doesn't have much of interest the rest of the time, except amateur astronomers, who have sleeping habits like bats, or true vampires, so, you're lucky to find one awake.

Surely, you haven't been spotted, for they left with Chelsea's friends and a bag of money.

Many boats, and Mexico, will let teens gamble, watch shows, and drink whatever they like.

You have to watch over things anyway, because people count on you to stake it out.

"Oh yeah, cybernetic soldier sinks the eight ball!"

Bjorn didn't know why those skinheads found themselves on this ship, but he knew he'd baited them enough.

"You'll be sorry about gloating around us, Terminated!"

Was that a joke? At least they recognized me as a German cyborg!

Backspin; Bjorn clutched and marine styled a pool ball toward the lead man's head, but it broke downward, impacting just above the groin.

He plunged his pool queue under the second man's swastika-laden arm, side stepped past him, clutching his wrist, and wind milled the arm unnaturally.

After a groan, the German side-power-kicked the pained and shaved nazi over the table.

He slid beside the recovered bearer of the fleshy head, and dropped a knee on his Hitler-hailing hip.

"Told you we were taking over!"

This is such a small spot, but it's an underdeveloped spot, nonetheless.

A monolithic dome house holds a niche, nestled between two condos.

This safe house truly is a house.

On second examination, this house held it's own in cubic area.

Nonchalantly, Josh and Max walked between two patches of grass, leaping distance in length, easily.

A convincing impersonation of a Day Trade Analyst helped with the door.

"I'm glad you caught me at this time. I was just stepping out to skate at the park!"

Max said his own pleasantry and let himself in.

"Have you ever bid on the floor?" Josh asked a real question as the door closed. He's heard that's a good one to ask.

"Yeah, I've been one of those guys, but Sip turned me over here. I was on the Tokyo Exchange."

"Were you recruited there?"

The trader shook his head.

"Hong Kong, formally, but yeah, I spoke with men in Tokyo first."

Two well ironed Shoalin Warriors searched and picked weapons from Josh and Max.

They were Caucasian, not Asian, but Josh knew Shoalin fighters.

"Let's go to the visitors room," the warriors led the way.

Unlike places Prescot liked to visit, this place was drunk in Gothic mystery.

"I feel tempted to use Fox Mulder's line," Max cracked.

They journeyed the entire nightly row, and entered the lit room.

Their hearts stammered.

Hey! W-what h-happened here?

Before the bounty hunter duo stood the coolest image a power-lusting twelve-year-old boy could see; a pair of muscle-shirted strapping males with impossibly "cool" chain-fed heavy multi-barreled cut-down fully automatic pieces of human-butchery, complete with eye-catching chrome-incased shells studding the ammunition belts (they were the belts, in all honesty).

Turreted pen-lasers clearly marked foreheads for destruction.

Miniature missiles, or maybe guided fleshettes or darts, stared warningly at the laser-points.

"Consider yourselves arrested," Travis demanded, exhibiting his masterful piece.

Herman gestured for everyone to retrace the path, waving his gatling minutely.

"Sip, how'd they sneak in with weapons?"

The banker could only shrug, awestruck as he was.

"The camera grid is looped, Sir. Time for people to lose faith," from a M.E. utility van, Shannon alerted that Dae was leaving the vehicle for the door.

Seconds later, Josh and Max came face-to-face with a live ape-man!

Hopefully, no, surely any eyewitnesses will lose credibility over what heshe would report.

Matrick added a nice touch; he added a flickering effect on Travis and Herman's guns.

He overdid it a little, having the guns phase in and out of existence, mistakenly, but no harm came of it, for Max and Josh had their backs turned.

Much unlike Bjorn, Chelsea signed on for a sanctioned fight.

Yeah, really, a prizefight kickboxing match against a champion lady Thai boxer!

For an entrance fee of three hundred dollars, she can win one thousand for every survived two minute round, and ten thousand for a knockout!

Boy, the Thai boxer was only a welter weight, but she still had to tilt her head down, to fully eye her challenger.

Undeterred, Chelsea laced up her gloves and tied back her hair for a duel of fists.

She also proudly wore her Romanian flag-patterned tank and boxers, while the champion showed her colors.

After a referee briefly orated the rules and code of accepted conduct, the still-popular ex-pro wrestler announced the fight's beginning.

The dog-like posturing and probing began.

5

Nothing could be more unfair; Travis McKee stole two really important bounty hunters right in front of his face!

Fumed, yes, Zack Hamlet fumed.

"Your security couldn't strive to be idiots, could they? Come on, Simon, they were wearing summer cloths, yet they sneaked in with gatling guns!

I brought my business here because I thought you were reputable, but instead you have standards below inept!"

Ouch.

What could Sip say? His security features were the most intrusive on the market, without being cancerous, that is.

"I'm sorry- unless it was some sort of illusion, I can't explain it without wormhole physics," was all he could think of.

Zack scoffed, saying:

"Or maybe someone dropped the ball, or was bought!"

Ouch!

"Zack, maybe so, but let me make up for it, I beg for a chance!"

Wow.

How could anyone reject free help from- oh yeah, a banker.

"Sorry, but I'll have to put that on hold, and fix the problems at hand myself."

Hurricane season hasn't really started yet, but a tropical storm is dissipating on track to South Carolina in early July 2023, and the best way to avoid a conspirator tempest, is to fly into a real tempest.

That was the plan when Shannon filed a course for the historic city of Havana, via a wide hook around the American South.

Although designed for flight at 70,000 feet, Captain Stone ordered Dae to hold 90,000 until the storm is cleared.

Only McKee Enterprises' modifications make this possible, but they can ride the storm.

That seemed the best time to take the controls, as the storm loomed in.

The Yowie relinquished control over to Shannon; he sluggishly retired to a bunk.

"Hey Hill, we've never flown Corona like this with the boss inside, so could you give him our first turbulence warning?"

Herman followed through on the good idea.

"Buckle up, Sir, we're not exactly pushing the envelope, but we're flying well over a tropical storm!"

As usual, the shaking of tea cups is the only evidence of turbulence in the cabin, but outside a giant eddy cycled in the slow rotation of a gray theatrical wormhole.

Once beyond the storm, Shannon switched off the transponder, as Dae flushed an emergency beacon from a lave-like dispenser.

"We'll release a statement we dropped it later," Stone said offhandedly.

A freak accident.

The game is five card draw, the jokers are wild, and Count Isaiah Noun is dealing this low stakes hand.

Even a novice should be able to guide the jokers for a three-of-a-kind, but a dealer with vampire blood can stretch out a royal flush, and avoid detection.

Unfortunately, one can't shuffle cards to many permutations before one becomes suspect.

The best he could do was string out the con as so: bait the Arizona dude-ranch owner with three-of-a-kind (three aces, to put stars in his eyes), and cut ace, king, queen, Jack, and ten, in diamond suit to his partner-in-con, Chelsea's friend, Jewel.

Now, to insure a successful con, the Count of course…

Keeps a poker face.

Let's cowboy place bet.

Raise the bet.

Let's Jewel pitch in a raise.

Fold.

As it turns out, the forth player stays, with an unknown hand, but it doesn't matter, for nothing trumps a royal flush.

Betting reaches its zenith at $500, but it is sure money, and the players are good sports about the end.

It's an easy thousand, and she shuffles next.

This is what superstition is made of; Jewel saw they're cards, and her own, so she already possesses foreknowledge of the cards reintroduced to the deck.

A little bad shuffling, with few permutations, and she cuts four-of-a-kind for herself.

Now the Count must…

Play the hand.

Bid high.

Bluff. He's a little overdo anyway.

Isaiah's partner leaves the flush intact until it's division among the players, so it's a statistical impossibility to beat her hand.

Ergo, voila! The girl has a winning streak, but next, the poker rules change, but they'll manage, and turn a profit for sure.

At this time, Athena distressfully storms in, saying one player's sister is in trouble with a champion kick boxer.

Isaiah hastefuly excuses himself and receives Jewel's winning chips in a classic of spy field-craft, the brush-pass.

He leaves her free to lose, as Athena collects his own chips for him, and performs her own brush for more chips.

This is where the house sees a chance to insert their own con, as they fill the forth seat with said con.

Although the house still wins, two players avoid losing here, and that's the real victory.

Sorry, Isaiah, but Chelsea can handle a pro fighter all by herself.

All she has to do is put her cranium at risk so she's open to jab the sternum and ribcage.

As she ducks in, Chelsea "feels it out," brushing her forehead across the opponent's fingertips.

At this time, the Romanian lands a blow.

The Thai's next hit dissipates at Chelsea's shrugged shoulder. (Big deal!)

Undeterred, (completely) Chelsea whipped a cracking jolt at the lower left ribs.

She moved closer, upper cutting a rush, then a torrent of jabs.

Still skipping and sliding, Isaiah's sister punched some more open areas.

Bored of this, Thailand's fighter jumped from her near-kneeling stance to a snap kick… but such intentions are so easy to read!

Chelsea reacted, brushing into a forklift move, she tilted her opponent, hopped behind, and snapped a back-kick to the lower back.

As the Thai boxer lurched forward, Noun fell to her other foot as she crescent-kicked the fallen.

The head kick quarter-turned the recipient, landing her to the side, whip lashing the neck.

"Start the countdown!"

"Right," the wrestler-ref returned to duty, counting.

"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten!"

Chelsea Noun wins in two rounds earning the total of thirteen thousand and seven hundred dollars!

It was near the bout's end when Bjorn received a coded transmission through his receiver.

The encrypted text sank into his mind as it decoded to understandable text.

CORONA WILL FIND YOU

PLEASE DITCH YOUR CRAFT

Thirty-seven symbols, very concise.

It's crack able, but barely, and the message is clear.

Surely, Matrick, the suspected author, didn't expect them to dump into the sea. Instead, Bjorn and the other are just getting a heads-up.

Uh, where is the Count? Ah! He's just now coming on deck!

Another enciphered message flashes in, reading:

EXPECT ETA UNDER ½ HOUR

BRING ALL AFFILIATED

Again, thirty-seven, very impressive, Mat, and this message is clearer.

The casino's fighter hit the canvas, so at least Bjorn needn't breakup the fight.

"Brother, and Max, we need to talk," somewhere over the Caribbean, Travis attempts to engage in conversation with the prisoners.

"About what?" Josh sneered- all prisoners do.

"About threats to humanity," the Robber Boron replied, moving close to the well-wired cage.

"Threats like vampires, including those you protect?"

Travis placed himself in a desk chair, shaking his head.

"You sound like the other side, Franzbolt, but you work for the other guy, the Austrian, Zack Hamlet. I don't know enough about him, but I hope you can enlighten me about the workings of this guy. Count Noun knows everybody, it seems, but I'm hoping you can add a volume."

He turned away from his chair, and summoned someone else.

"Meg, please type a record of what these men say, will you? I'll need it filed away in Zack Hamlet's folder."

By the sliding of the door, Travis passed.

The subject is closed.

"Great fighting, Chelsea!"

"Yeah, you were all that!"

Isaiah and Bjorn said their own complements, much like Jewel's and Athena's, but they also brought news.

"Hey Sis, the jet My Corona will be here to pick us up in a few, so we should all change into our neoprene suits and wait at the rail," said the Count, pointing out said rail.

About this, Chelsea cracked a smile.

"He's not playing another trick, is he, Bjorn?"

The cyborg slowly wagged his head.

"No trick. The boss is coming, so let's move our butts, ja?"

All made a hasty dash inside for the hotel room (No, they weren't planning to stay in a single room all night!) where the group's items waited.

Through the glass-paneled doors, rested a bench and table near a suit of snack machines: a good place to sit.

There, Chelsea parked the butt Bjorn wanted moving, so she could unlace her shoes.

"The water's warm, so I'll go as I am!"

Not sure Bjorn and the others heard, she shrugged off everyone else, so she could proceed.

Whether attired properly or not, Count Isaiah Noun, Bjorn Rickstein, and Chelsea's two friends had a room to loot, and it happened to be full of the group's winnings.

"Guys, we've got to wire the winnings to an account! Athena, come with me. Isaiah, you and Jewel keep moving!"

In grasped point, snaring his own hardcore scuba-skin, green-on-black, and of full length.

Jewel's suit better befitted the degeneration of western culture, too fleshy to retain heat.

Retreating the bathroom, he suffered a change of heart.

It's not so fleshy as it is flesh-colored.

Did you change out here?" The question's rhetorical.

"Well the door is closed, In," she answered defensively, tugging her zipper.

"Let us not waste time, shall we?"

Regaining normal heart-pace, Noun wasted no more.

"Hold this to your mouth and feign asthma, and remember not to look rushed," Bjorn reminded Athena, palming her whistle, one sharing poor resemblance to an inhaler, but this is thinking on feet, as it's said.

The perfectly fit German seemed perfectly at ease, as he was, turning the corner for the banking booth.

He presented his authentic McKee Enterprises Pursuit Card, issued to Bjorn Rickstein.

"Fortune was my mistress, Cherie, yet my stay is drawing short, and I must retire my chips," he charmed the old world charm, being European.

"Monsieur…Rickstein, I'm curious about your accent," the banker probed, interested? In what way?

"The land of Alsace, Madame, by way of Wurtumburg, the land of my ancestors," he spoke, holding the card in her hands.

"Here's your card, Monsieur. You struck gold, hum?"

Wow, I dropped one French word in a sea of German-accented English, and I tripped a wire! Casino bankers are Samurai blades in the drawer, right?

"Gracie!"

"Athena, Amore, have you your breath? Dear, the climate, it is helping?"

He escorted her out, still the gentleman.

Chelsea, Isaiah, and Jewel waited at the railing with the newly arrived Bjorn and Athena, out of runway-fresh European designer cladding, and into swim ware, when the sky cracked a boom.

The cyborg saw it first, but all new it, even the novices.

At that moment, the floating casino turned port ninety degrees.

In unison, all turned to Bjorn, while he turned to Athena, explaining.

"You didn't think I was really seducing the bank clerk as I was leaving, did you?"

She frowned.

"I palmed a note to her, alright?"

In one quick pass, the old bomber set down.

"Terrorists! Terrorists!"

Men and women scrambled under tables or into the pool, as Bjorn and the gang howled their laughter.

Shannon Stone brought the bird parallel, while the Yowie tossed a line close to the hull.

Crazy.

"Norman."

"Thurman."

At the nightclub, two men stare in standoff, waiting for word from Josh and Max.

Someone's got to say something.

Come on, the silence is killing softly.

"So," Norman broke the silence, kind of.

"So," Thurman could say that much.

"So" has been established.

So what? Or is it…'so what now?'

"So, we were put in charge so we could move ahead with the operation," so Norman concluded.

"That is so, so let's move ahead."

"You first."

"You gave all the gamblers a fright, Shannon."

Bjorn spoke matter-of-factly, but Irish ears often hear whatever tone fits their expectations.

"Well I wasn't doing it for their benefit," she barked defensively.

" Laughter I heard shouts of 'terrorists'!"

Surprise. Yes, surprise. Stone expected a safety lecture, although the whole idea of landing a two hundred ton mach three bomber in water is a silly half-baked prospect.

Athena chimed in.

"It was all that!"

Jewel seconded.

"Yeah, real daft!"

Isaiah shared a whisper with his sister, then a rush of whispers, as the flight attendant, Meg, carried towels into the cabin.

"Dry yourselves, then I'll try to dress you," she said, hurling the cluster to Bjorn.

"Will do, Meg."

"Hey, we're grease-monkeys!" Bjorn admired his own jumpsuit, before comparing with the others.

His remained supreme, in the size issue, anyway.

"Sure, your eyes wander after they've changed they're immodest wear," spoke Meg, in irony, as she stuffed away Jewel's fishnet wetsuit.

Tsk-tsk-tsk, she thought, who's facing Judgment Day with this design?

6

It's now sunset, the hour of Judgment, and Josh hasn't returned.

"We've drilled for this, well, not really, but we drilled with Josh on the red team, so we're close," Brevet General Dynamics addressed Husk, Legion, and Grendal, making the judgment call, "and I think three A.M. will be high time to storm."

Vampire instincts said otherwise, but how much otherwise, Grendal couldn't say, though something doesn't square, and all present feel it, but what does, with this case?

"Ford says the cyborg returned with the kids, though the human girls left. All wore…gray jumpsuits? Ford can't explain that one, though he hopes Brock can touch the subject," Husk read his speech, related to Ford's surveillance, obviously.

"I think I can explain," boasted Brock, "the cyborg, one Bjorn Rickstein, took the people of interest to a riverboat casino, the Cochin China, where he checked out of the hotel as a quarter hour before a delta winged plane landed dangerously close beside the boat. They must have changed as the Corona picked them up."

All gulped.

"Yeah, that's pretty weird. Have you heard about the emergency beacon in the Atlantic?"

Nope, but you're connecting the dots here.

"Anyway, it belonged to My Corona, says the Coast Guard and NTSB. I think we should wash our hands of this business, 'cause we don't understand anything."

Preschoolers can connect dots, so what's wrong with you?

"I think M.E. is still catching up."

All laughed at the unintentional bumpkin speak of Legion.

He grinned, understanding.

"Although Solomon Grundy here sounds the moron, I agree," Husk seconded.

A drawn blank.

"Grundy, Justice League, Superman? Any of you read comics?"

That's cool, never mind.

"We dropped a guy to recon the commune this very day, and mission details would depend on what he finds," Josh spoke vaguely, hoping enough variables in the equation would beg Travis to abort any notion of trap-setting.

"A vampire bodyguard of Norman's, the Master Franzbolt's very own Legion, replaces my guy at sunset. General Thurman Dynamics, United States Army, will plan the op in my absents."

Meg just typed the same old routine, the waltz these prisoners dance.

He's being truthful enough, but what difference does it make when the guy doesn't know anything?

"Can you tell me about rehearsals?"

Josh recounted Legion's heroics at the paintball range.

Whenever possible, he downplayed the roles of his own people, if he couldn't omit them.

That was epic, Meg thought, in all seriousness, impressed by the vampire tale.

She asked more about the vampire, and learned he had a twin sister, and she also learned how he fought bravely when he first encountered Josh.

The prisoner spoke of Grendal with the same level of respect, opening Meg's imagination.

Could I be like that, if I could have one of them change me? Or would I be just as dull, like Isaiah Noun?

He then spoke of what Travis wanted to hear, news of the old sagely Zack Hamlet.

Sounds like at least one vampire grew old, but he still has power of observation, it sounds. Could it be only the dull smart ones grow old?

A scant hour before sunset, Colonel Herman Hill, Israeli Defense Force, (on leave) carefully settled the old bomber on Cross Lake, to the far west, within sight of South Lakeshore Drive.

"From here we can meet Highway 169, and head north for stargaze central," he informed the cheery crew.

"We'll be driving the tour bus of Ned Rayshield, who's touring New Orleans clubs this month, recording a live performance DVD," Shannon added, before backing from the cockpit, to the cabin.

"That's right, he's not going anywhere."

Herman followed Stone, mindful to taxi Corona later.

The girls and Isaiah followed Bjorn to an escape door, really the still-existent bomb bay, leaving the cabin.

Travis and Matrick stayed with Meg and the prisoners, waiting for a coming jump jet.

Hill and Stone prepared a zodiac raft for ferrying the Nouns and company.

"Why did the boss arrange the bus ride?"

Bjorn failed to grasp reason to this.

"Perhaps he felt guilty for putting any dent in the vacation plans, so he arranged something fantastic," wagered Herman, as he hoisted the raft.

"Yeah, that could be so."

"You'll be taking the normal exit door, once we pull the craft under Corona."

Having said this, Shannon dropped Gouch, the crew's robot, into the blue.

Slowly, the raft floated away.

"Let's go."

"Near the bow of the bus, we see Ned's GAMESTATION console, with the best LED display you can find, 'cause the law forbids holographic game displays in vehicles, you know? All these controls are wireless and strap able. They also have multi-axis rumble," Bjorn gave a guided tour for the teens, starting with games.

"A good Dragon program allows the player to scroll lists with verbal command, a must for multiplayer games. Previously, the GAMESTATION used parallel listings, and most players still use that one."

Bjorn walked on.

"Next is his mobile studio. His MIDI instruments," he waved his hand, "percussions around the plugged-in drums. He keeps demos from these recordings in his Mac, sometimes burning the concepts to disk, so he can pass them around."

They walked again.

"The kitchen is here. He keeps a rotisserie for keeping things warm. Basically, this is a personal deli and sandwich shop."

To the bedroom.

"Here, you see he violated the law with this Dolby surround video projector, with the stereo to match.

The bed actually performs a pet scan to learn how best to satisfy the sleeper. I can't be sure how many gadgets are networked here until I jack in," the cyborg finished.

"Further on you'll find a game room, a bathroom, and a writing lounge, but you can figure out all that."

Legion, the oblivious Uberkommando of all uberkommando, the Lancelot of vampires, jumped into the purple haze of sunset, kissing the sky like a good airborne soldier, completely free of his transport, a gutted, ugly, EP-3 Orion, the least sexy spy plane Lockheed ever built.

A super soldier needs his uber instrument, so he packed Grendal's railgun, retooled for the sniper role.

An "omni scope," an augmented reality environment, provided complementary footage from Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar, and liquid nitrogen-cooled infrared, gave him omni vision of the battlefield.

Both sensors came from Romanian-funded NASA flying wings, which have been flying over for months, to the annoyance of the astronomers.

The feed "leaked" to Legion as it linked down to Houston.

(NASA, sympathetic to science-minded space-nuts, carefully flies patterns over uninteresting portions of the sky.)

After much freefall, he pulled the ripcord, slow dancing, as it were.

Yeah, he was experienced; landing seemed natural, which is a good thing, since vampires can't count on blessings.

Clank!

Locked behind a heavy steel door, Josh and Max met two other men locked in darkness.

"Don't feel morose, newbies, they light the room at daybreak, and we can exercise a setting."

"And they hand us tea in recycled Styrofoam cups."

Max knew those voices to be those of (in order of dialogue above) Wallace Holloman and Johan Schmit.

Johan: "How'd they catch you?"

Max: "They followed us to Empire City- long story."

Wallace: "Is this divide and conquer?"

Josh: "They're veteran players, I guess."

Max: "Can we break out?"

Wallace: "We don't have much time, either way-"

Johan: "So we could just get some rest."

Josh: "You've got nothing to lose there, but I have comrades out on the swamps, so my fight isn't over!"

Wallace: "Good night."

Johan: "Same here."

Max: "Lemme help, Dawg."

Josh: "Appreciated, Playa."

Max strutted to the stainless steel toilet, gave it a wicked kick.

He did it again.

He gave some soccer-style kicks.

Max struck gold, and proceeded to the sink, which he jumped on, planting his feet down hard.

Josh's friend tossed a tantrum until the sink collapsed under him.

"Now we let the water rise," Max whispered, taking a high bunk.

Within minutes, a commonly overlooked flaw in cell design became apparent; the room was watertight.

Wallace grumbled about a wet floor, and turned away from the "clowns."

A few minutes more, and the bottom bunks grew soggy.

"Now you've done it: McKee Enterprises wet work leaves four dead!" Johan and Wallace co-occupied the top bunk.

The water level grew and grew, until four heads held dearly to the ceiling, purchasing more room in the undersized ventilation ducts.

"What did you think to-"

Something gave, for a crack broke through the other ambient noises.

Gurgles and the sound of falling water fell in wake of the crack.

"Jackpot! We are free men!" Max beamed with pride, as the suction pulled them doorway.

THUD!

Four tailbones smacked in synchronicity, reinforced with the water to fill the cubic area for a cell accommodating up to six adult males.

Remaining flooding brushed the door, and four inmates, free.

Way to McGiever out of a jam.

"Way to McGiever out of a jam, Max. I guess I wasn't fair to you," Wallace said, prompting a protest from Johan, who wanted to say that.

"Oh, let's just go," said Josh, ushering them to a locker room, "let's hope someone keeps their keys in their locker."

"You could have unscrewed the pipes, you know!"

Oh yeah!

Beside Johan's point, Max's plan seemed perfectly elegant.

"Try this one," Josh pointed at a locker with black silk fabric hanging out.

One swing of a pipe, and the lock is not a problem.

"Yep, one Versace' tie, and keys for a Farrari Maronello!"

Alarm klaxons sounded, and the gang heard rustling of guards.

"We know the exit!"

Out the door, unlocked from the inside, Josh ignites the engine as he enters the parking lot, feet away form Matrick's privileged space.

"I drive!"

The Italian car gunned in reverse before the scrambling guards phrased "freeze!"

"They stole my auto, Gregory, my Verona!"

Gregory, stroking the land with his 20-5 vision, seemed detached.

"The car that proves I'm not a nerd- Josh and his geeks stole it!"

He never drove it anyway, unless that Italian Swiss girl was around, anyway, Greg thought, visually combing the grass for that fanged wraith.

"Give him a lobotomy with some bullets, will you, Gregory? He's as evil as they are."

Greg sighed, focusing.

"Go bother someone not dueling invisibility," he grumbled, still looking away.

"I can help," Mat pleaded, "just look at this aura map!"

The Troodon did, astounded.

"I see him!"

He made a mental note not to beat Matrick to within an inch of his life for holding out, while he lined his Dragon TOW missile sight up on the vamp's general location.

"Mat, you know I'll kill you, but, thanks."

Legion, the warrior elite, settled behind his self-nominated staging area, a patch of dry sod on the side of the hill, so slight it's more of a berm, facing away from the cabins.

To his right, he saw his sniper perch, a drainage ditch, now defunct, but still a place for ducking into.

He reached for two radios, both in his webbing pouches, held them together while pressing talk simultaneously. He did it again.

That's the signal, repeated interference sounds.

Putting the radios away, he- scrambled from an incoming smoke-trail!

A hair-raising event, an explosion rocked him into his ditch, planting his face into drought-caked hardness.

Fragmented dirt, the lion's share of shrapnel, paddled off his back, Lilliputian fists barraging his rising back.

Who sold me out? The South Africans? The Bounty Hunters? Or could someone still with us have sold me out?

He shot incoming skeet, but held no illusions. More missiles will follow.

The resultant inferno masked his dash into Taylor's flesh-eating thicket, where he opted to abort his mission.

A third missile followed him in, detonating into a well-grown birch, miraculously grown in a pine tree farm.

What technology is this? He felt troubled, and it wasn't about the savior tree, which splintered into his back, lurching him into a neck-breaking (for mortals) flight headfirst into a stump, but about the shooter's tracking abilities.

I would have welcomed being betrayed to this!

Pain shuddered through his bones, yet still he slapped away the reaper's hand, crawling for his life.

A rifle bullet ripped open a beehive, sending a cascade of comb, honey…and enraged bees crashing down.

"He's out of missiles, but he's still out to get me." More rounds splintered stone, wood, and an anthill, into rains of chaos.

Legion futilely moved for his fallen rifle, but it shattered also.

Hope dwindling, he opted for a Notre Dame gambit.

In all the fervor of such a Catholic student-athlete, the vampire galloped to the right, rushing over the mound when, in his estimate, he'd flanked the cabin's facing side.

He unholstered his secondary gun, an AKMS submachine gun, while cutting for the corner, a possible blind spot.

It worked, for, while the gunner still held a line-of-sight, poor placing rendered the weapon unstable, allowing the vampire to cover most of the kilometer separating the cabin from the berm.

Legion's salvo leaped through the window, skirting over an orange iguana's head.

A laptop exploded into millions of sparks, but the sniper remained composed, finally nicking Legion's left arm.

The Romanian still showered his clip through the cabin, instantly slipping another clip.

His peripheral sight spied a robot-carted shotgun; he traded hits.

The mechanical screamed a death-wail, as molten slag erupted skyward.

Bleeding freely, he embraced the house for shielding, as a large cyborg edged around the backdoor, firing a bundle of cybernetically fitted micro missiles.

Legion hosed as he stumbled into a dinosaur's gun-muzzle.

It punctured a gaping hole of hot blood, while the corner exploded into supersonic chunks of lumber fragments.

He still pulled the gun and shooter from the house as he collapsed to twin knees, grappling with persistent strength.

His struggle plunged his remaining clip into the dino's hip, equalizing the hand-to-hand fight.

Losing the gun, he maneuvered his foot behind Greg's heel, and lifted hard.

He groaned, but they toppled, and Legion mounted over the lizard.

And hit like a machine gun.

Only to die.

Bjorn ended him with a punctuated typewriter fusillade of his German submachine gun, riddling all he could to save his friend.

"I'll help you, friend," Bjorn gasped, clenching his bruised chest, where an entry wound lay.

"Ja- just… helped me, bud," the troodon murmured, rolling off the slain enemy.

A stone-throw off, Travis's black helo descended, swirling dust.

Bjorn gripped Greg's three-fingered hand, and supported him, gave him a shoulder.

Men yelled at the landing zone, while others shielded the Nouns, more-or-less gaining on the helicopter.

Greg and Bjorn made their own way; the German lost grip of his MP-5, but didn't stutter a step to the vehicle.

Pulling hands bid them welcome.

Afterward

"Now our top story tonight; an Israeli raid on a major Arab League tank plant seizes an illicit mafia operation!

Saladin Tanks, produced legitimately at day by consortium owners, were also built and funneled through the black market at night!

Israeli officials confirm one dead, a national hero, Heston Hill.

Sources say the bullet came from a distant high rise window.

On this side of the world- a deadly shootout, or was it?

Residents of a popular astronomer community witnessed a major gun battle!"

Bystanders were interviewed.

"It was like Somalia."

The commentator spoke over cut-scenes.

"Exotic bullets and shell casings littered the site, but no bodies were found, and guns are nowhere to be seen.

Law Enforcement offers no further comment."

Later, the reporter recapped the tank sting, covering the technology angle, praising a new "human emission detector" as being a "major factor" in the raid's success.

He summed up the hour with an interview with a retired veteran of the failed operation in Somalia, and better ops in the WAR ON TERROR.

"Breathtaking job. Heston, I met him a few times, led from the front, and led the charge, like Israeli senior officers do. Tragically, he didn't make it through the door, but the mission didn't fall apart.

Some of those tanks could have fired rounds, but it all ended in seconds, like the hostage rescue missions we've seen before."

"Thank you, Colonel. Tomorrow, Washington's reaction: will the President impose sanctions on Israel for possibly escalating a retaliatory crime wave?

Also, you haven't been mugged lately, but will that change? Experts discuss implications of Israel's raid."