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“You’re a dick.”
“You like dicks?” Nate leaned back on the barstool, eyeing the blonde he’d been trying to pick up all night.
“I’d like to be left alone,” she said.
“Then go on.” Nate waved at the half-full bar. “Be alone.”
She scowled. “I’m not leaving.”
He took a long swig of his beer. “Why are you playing hard to get?”
“I’m not playing.”
Nate chuckled. “I apologize, my lady. I’ve been a twat. An asshole even. Let me buy you a drink. Make amends.”
“How am I going to get in your pants if you don’t let me get you drunk?”
Her reply was drowned out by a deafening roar. Dust fell from the ceiling and the bar top cracked in half. Bottles and glasses slid to the floor.
“What the fuck?” He heard a loud moan, and then a whooshing sound a few seconds before the back end of the bar lit up. Flames spread across the floor, reaching out like smoldering tentacles.
Half-full glass still in his hand, the bartender gaped at the flames consuming the DJ booth and his patrons.
The fire alarm drowned out the screams of the human candles burning just a few feet away from Nate. Sprinklers activated, but the flames seemed to multiply.
Nate ran for the door. Thank Christ it was a Wednesday and the bar had only a couple dozen patrons. He made it outside with only a few jabs to his back.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” he muttered as he walked outside.
“Is that a…?”
“Spaceship,” Nate finished for the stranger standing beside him.
“Well it is, unless we’re both having the same hallucination. And goody, there’s two more.”
The spaceships’ shape reminded Nate of the bat signal, but with a long, curved tail. They hovered, shitting black things out of said tails.
He couldn’t breathe.
“People of Earth,” a voice called from above. “If you resist, you will die.”
Like that’d calm everyone down.
Nate backed away from the bar. If he could get to his bike…
A dragon swooped down, shooting a long flame from its mouth. The bar exploded. Nate gagged on the smell of melted flesh.
“People of Earth,” the voice said again. “Submit and your death will be merciful. Resist and you will suffer.”
Nate increased his pace to a slow jog. He looked at the dragon-filled sky as he ran. A dark mass filled his vision. It screamed and then something struck his back.
Nate landed hard, the breath leaving his lungs in a quick burst. Something was on top of him. He struggled and got a hard knock to the head for his efforts.
“Trying to save you, shit for brains. Stay down. They’re like bears.”
“If they think you’re dead, they’ll move on.”
Nate stopped fighting. He couldn’t breathe under the weight of the other man’s body, though. “Can you get off me?”
“Just shut up for a second. Play dead.”
“I won’t be playing if you don’t get your ass off my goddamn lungs.”
A sigh and then the weight shifted. “Don’t move. Face to the ground.”
Nate did as ordered. Screams still filled the air. He waited silently until they stopped, although he still heard the sound of wings flapping.
“What’s happening?” he whispered.
“Ask a stupid question.”
“Can I get up?”
Nate stared at the pavement. Just beside his cheek was an old piece of gum. It was purplish, flattened so that it showed the texture of the stone beneath. An ant crawled toward it. Nate blew on it, but the little shit kept coming. If it crawled up his nose, or in his eye… he pulled his face back.
“I said don’t move,” the stranger whispered.
“An ant is going to crawl up my nose.”
“Fucking spaceships and dragons in the sky, and this guy’s worried about an ant.”
The ant crawled over the old gum. It didn’t seem interested in his nose. Still, ants were unpredictable. Maybe he had something sweet stuck up there. The ant would smell it — could ants smell? — and maybe decide it’d make a nice spot for laying eggs. God, baby ants in his sinus cavity. Nate heard a whimper. It was his.
“Okay, Nancy,” the stranger said. “You can get up.”
Nate stood slowly. His shoulder hurt. Probably scraped all to shit.
The stranger was a full head taller than him, and twice as bulky. A black beard covered most of his face. “Who are you?”
“Name’s Salvatore.” The man walked toward the edge of the parking lot. “I’ve been following these assholes for three weeks.”
“How is this not on the news?”
“Can’t report shit if you’re dead. Also, they took out the Internet.”
“The Internet? I know this is a backwater but tell me you guys at least have electricity.”
“Yeah,” Nate said. “We aren’t living in the dark ages.”
“You are now.”
“Why would aliens have dragons?”
“Haven’t asked them. Could be the dragons are the aliens. My hunch is that the dragons are pets, like attack dogs.”
“Attack dogs aren’t pets.”
He pointed to the orange cloud moving north. “After them.”
“Why would I go toward the danger?”
“Why the fuck do you think, Christine? To save humanity.”
Nate didn’t want to save anyone. Hell, he could barely keep himself alive. “What do they want?”
Salvatore shrugged. “My theory is their planet is dead or dying and they need one with the same atmosphere or whatever. Earth has what they need. Humans are easy pickings.”
“Yes, Darla. Dragons. Let it go.”
“I just don’t understand why dragons would invade Earth and kill everyone.”
“Maybe they’re bloodthirsty demons who go around the galaxy killing entire civilizations for shits and giggles. Like I said, I haven’t asked them.”
Nate sighed. “If they’re leaving, then this is the safest place to be.”
“They’ll be back.”
“Look sweetheart, they’ve taken out the major cities. Burned the government. All that’s left is the little guys. They won’t stop until everyone’s gone or dead.”
“How do you know?”
“That’s classified.” Salvatore started walking again.
Nate followed. “Are you CIA?”
“Something like that.”
“The government knew this was coming?”
“If the government knew—”
“They’re all dead, so it doesn’t matter now.”
Nate shrugged. “If everyone in the government is dead, I don’t see why the aliens would be classified.”
“You’re either coming with me or you’re staying here and dying. Make up your mind.”
Nate weighed his options. He could stay, and if Salvatore was right, the dragons would return and kill him. If he left with Salvatore, though, he’d be running to the dragons, and would probably still die. “I suppose I’m dead either way, so I may as well have company while I wait for it.”
“That’s the spirit.”
“Where are you going?”
“Got a truck.” Salvatore pointed across the road.
“That is not a truck.”
“Sure it is.”
“It’s a tank.”
“Beautiful, isn’t she?”
“Where did you get a tank?”
“From the military base a few miles back.”
“They just gave it to you?”
“You stole it?”
Salvatore shrugged. “Can one really steal something from dead people?”
“The base is…”
“If times get desperate, maybe, but no kissing. Don’t want you getting attached.”
* * *
Salvatore navigated the tank through the streets as Nate huddled in his uncomfortable corner. His teeth clattered together for most of the short ride and his ass hurt from bouncing on the metal seat. Finally, Salvatore stopped.
“What’s happening?” Nate asked.
“Nothing. We’re here.”
“Are we staying here for the night?”
Salvatore laughed. “Uh, no. We’re going swimming.”
“I almost never joke.”
“It’s a little cold.”
“The ships dove into the mountains over there. Dragons followed. I bet it’s some kind of base.”
“Still don’t see why we’re swimming.”
“They don’t like water.”
Nate didn’t like it either. “How do you know that?”
“On day one, which was a month ago, a dragon was shot down by an American naval vessel in the Atlantic. It landed in the water, where it screamed and flailed until it drowned.”
“Maybe it screamed and flailed because it was shot,” Nate said. “Wait. The government knew about the aliens for a month? Jesus Christ, did they do anything to try to stop them?”
“No, Francine. They sat around with their thumbs in their asses and said ‘oh please, alien overlords, fuck us like the whores we are’, because that was obviously the best course of action.” Salvatore opened the hatch and climbed out of the tank. He disappeared for a moment and then his face reappeared in the opening. “Of course, we tried to stop them. Shot at those dragons a hundred times since seeing the first ones. Never killed any of them. One lands in the water and it’s done. Enough proof for me that the water is the safest place to be.”
“I’m not as convinced.”
“Look, Shirley, you can stay here and get barbequed, or you can follow me.”
He disappeared again.
Nate considered staying in the tank, driving somewhere to hide out, but Salvatore seemed to know shit and Nate had no clue how to drive a tank. Sighing, he followed him out of the tank. It was nearly a clean exit, until he tried to jump to the ground. His knee went squirrely and he ended up face-down in the mud.
Nate got to his feet and wiped his face on his sleeve. Salvatore was already past the trailers and headed into the trees that led to a beach.
Nate jogged to catch up. “How are we going to hide in the water? We’re not exactly built for that.”
“Got a camp set up.”
“Under the water.”
Nate was close to deciding Salvatore was crazy. “Okay, say you really do have a camp ‘under the water’, it’s not like we can stay in there forever.”
“Oh, we won’t.” Salvatore winked as he turned right, skirting the shoreline. They walked to a cluster of boulders. Salvatore pushed the largest one back, revealing a metal chest full of guns and scuba equipment.
“Put this on.” Salvatore handed him a snorkel-like thing.
Nate put the device on his face.
“No.” Salvatore adjusted it, pulling the strap until Nate thought it might squeeze his brain right out of his head. “Like that.”
“Thanks,” Nate said.
Salvatore donned a mask then handed Nate a tank of what he assumed was oxygen. He watched Salvatore sling a tank over his back and did the same.
“Now,” Salvatore said holding up a roundish piece of rubber and plastic. “This goes in your mouth. There’s a switch at the base where it connects to the tube. Turn it, and try to breathe normally. Don’t be all weird about it or you could die. Oh, and don’t take it out of your mouth until I tell you to. Clear?”
“Good. Get your pants off and let’s go swimming. And don’t worry if you haven’t had time to ladyscape. I prefer my women natural.”
“If you’re lucky, Annabelle, we’ll get to that. Now stop flirting and get swimming.”
* * *
The tank combined with the limited vision of his goggles made Nate’s movements slow and clumsy. He felt boxed in. Trapped. Finally, Salvatore stopped under what looked like an old boat and pointed upward.
As they broke the surface, Nate realized they weren’t actually out of the water. Dark rock surrounded them on three sides. It arched overhead, and icicle-looking bits hung from the ceiling. Several lamps were tucked into various crevices, illuminating the cave.
Nate took the mouthpiece out. “What the shit?”
Salvatore chuckled. “Cool, right?”
He didn’t see how they’d get out of the water. “We just hanging out here? Floating around getting pruned up while the world burns?”
“You’re kind of annoying, Darlene,” Salvatore said. “Follow me.”
They swam to the back of the cave. Salvatore led him to the left side, where a ladder stretched several feet upward.
“Up we go.” Salvatore climbed the ladder. “Mind your tank. Kind of screws with the balance.”
“Kind of,” Nate said as he stepped on the rungs. He managed to climb several feet before the weight of the tank and his wet clothes took their toll. “We almost to wherever we’re going?”
“Yep.” Salvatore was about three feet above him, standing on a ledge. “Hurry up, Linda. They’re waiting.”
“Who?” Nate struggled the last few feet.
Salvatore’s hand appeared. “Grab on, Debra.”
“My name is Nate.” He grabbed Salvatore’s hand and was dragged to the ledge. “Don’t know why you keep calling me girls’ names.”
“Start acting like a man and I’ll call you whatever you want. Except Daddy. That’d be weird.”
Nate followed Salvatore into a large gap in the rock. They walked a few feet in darkness and then he heard a soft rumble. White light burned his eyes and voices drifted to his ears.
The walls were still the same wet rock as the cavern, but screens, tables, chairs and cabinets filled the space.
“This is our base,” Salvatore said. “Only safe place from the aliens and dragons. Or just the aliens if the dragons are the aliens.”
“How’d you get all of this down here?”
Nate’s throat tightened. What if this was his life now? Endless moving from one underwater hidey-hole to another inside claustrophobic death tubes just to stay alive… He tried to swallow the panic that threatened to overwhelm him. “So, we’ll stay here until they leave?”
Salvatore laughed. “Oh no. We’re here to debrief, get you geared up, and then it’s back out to track the beasts. How do you feel about being bait?”
“Because,” a woman said as she approached them. Her voice sounded robotic, which, Nate admitted only to himself, was kind of sexy. “Humanity’s only hope is to find these bastards, kill them, and take back our home.”
“My name is General Jarvis. I used to be Secretary of Defense, but the dragons burned down the Pentagon while I was on holiday. I went to see if there were any survivors, and found Salvatore. He brought me here and we formed a sort of resistance.”
“One base isn’t going to stop those things.”
“He’s cute,” she said to Salvatore.
“This isn’t the only base,” she said. “There are several all over the world, most underwater, but some hidden in areas the invaders haven’t touched yet. A few of Salvatore’s colleagues are helping to locate them, and we’re working toward creating refugee camps for survivors. The goal is to hide as many people in these areas as we can, save as much of the population as possible while gathering intel on the dragons and their masters so we can launch a counterattack.”
“Listen, Josephine,” Salvatore said. “I can take you to the refugee camp a few miles south. They’ll let you shave your legs, fix your hair real pretty, maybe find you a nice boy to settle down with until this blows over, and the men will do the dirty work.”
“It’s just a lot to digest. Dragons, aliens, underwater military installations. Let me just process it.”
“Okay. By all means, take your time. I’m getting some shut-eye. We’ll debrief in a few hours?”
“Yes,” Jarvis said. “Take him with you. Mark’s got sedatives in Medical.”
“No need.” Salvatore patted his pockets.
“I don’t want a sedative,” Nate argued. “Can’t a guy freak out a little bit when the world is invaded by aliens?”
“Hold still, Rita.” Salvatore grabbed his arm.
Nate pulled away. “No. I’m fine. And stop calling me—”
Salvatore stuck a needle in his neck. “You talk too much.”
“What did you—?”
* * *
“Can’t believe you drugged me.”
“Can’t believe you needed to be drugged,” Salvatore said as he stared at the trees ahead of them. “You need to squeeze your balls now and then, Denise. Remind yourself you’re a grown man. I can’t be dancing around your feelings all the time.”
“You’re an asshole.”
“And a sexist pig.”
When Nate had woken from his drug-induced slumber, Salvatore was polishing a sword. He had called Nate another woman’s name and then ordered him to suit up. Back into the water they’d gone, emerging on the beach again. Then Salvatore had handed him a backpack and a gun and led him into the woods.
“Why don’t I get a sword?” Nate asked as they trudged through dense foliage.
Salvatore cut at the thick branches. “Until I know you can actually use one of these, you’re on gun duty.”
“Seems it’s safer to hand me something that doesn’t shoot high-speed projectiles.”
“Shh,” Salvatore said as he crouched.
Nate did the same. “Is it a dragon?”
“I said shut up, Sharon.”
“Stop—Jesus.” Nate watched as the leaves ahead of them parted, and a long, grey mass filled the space. It huffed, and then a wing brushed the air above their heads.
Salvatore crept forward, sword at his side. He was clearly insane.
Nate had always imagined dragons would have scales similar to a snake, but its skin was smooth with fine hairs on it. The tail swung toward them. Nate ducked. He felt the air stir as it grazed the top of his head before swinging back again.
Salvatore had moved so close he could touch it. Christ, he was going to get eaten and then what? Nate didn’t know the way back to base, and he sure as hell didn’t want to be stuck out there with the aliens. Salvatore should think about other people now and then. This suicide mission that involved going right up a dragon’s ass seemed very selfish.
Nate reluctantly crawled forward. Maybe he could convince the psycho that stabbing this thing with his sword was a terrible idea.
As he neared Salvatore, though, the dragon turned its head, and Nate realized its yellow eye was looking right at him.
The dragon let out a low growl. It turned, the tail swinging again. Nate ducked, avoiding the barbed end, but the motion distracted him long enough for it to get within breathing-on-his-face distance. Its breath was uncomfortably hot and smelled of hardboiled eggs.
“Don’t move,” Salvatore whispered. “And don’t cry.”
The dragon shrieked, causing Nate’s ears to ring. Something moved on his right side, but he didn’t look away from the very large mouth coming at him. The teeth had to be as big as his own head. He was going to get eaten. Barbequing wasn’t as terrifying anymore. At least it’d be quick.
The mouth moved closer, closer…
“Get down!” Salvatore yelled.
Nate let his knees buckle. He closed his eyes, waiting for the awful giant teeth to crush his head.
The dragon screamed. Nate heard a swoosh as the tail swung again. Salvatore cursed, grunted, and then a loud boom echoed over the mountains.
Nate stayed on his knees. His face felt hot. Like he had a sunburn. No, ten sunburns. “Hot. Shit. It’s so… ugh. I’m dying. Definitely dying.”
“Water,” Salvatore said. “In the backpack. Pour it over your face and stop whining.”
He fumbled with the backpack, found the bottle of water in a side pocket, and then poured it over his head. The burning sensation faded but didn’t disappear entirely.
“Good job, Mavis,” Salvatore said. “You make really good bait.”
Nate opened his eyes. The dragon lay on its side. A black, tar-like substance covered the ground around it. “Is it dead?”
“Yep. You might want to get up before the blood gets too close. Shit’s like acid.”
Nate scrambled to his feet and backed away from the black pool. “So, it’s that easy to kill them?”
“I wouldn’t call that easy.”
“Stabbing is pretty simple.”
“Not everyone can handle a sword, Lucy. You have to get them just below the throat, which means you’re in uncomfortably close proximity to their razor-sharp teeth. And you’ve gotta drive it deep enough to pierce the heart. Lucky mine was long or we’d be toast. Literally. Long blades are heavy, by the way, and not easy to maneuver unless you’re strong. You see where I’m going with this?”
“Their heart is in their throat?”
“I don’t know, to be honest. Until just now, I thought I had to drown the screamy bitches to kill them. I’m assuming I hit the heart. Maybe dragons don’t even have hearts.”
“But it’s obviously dead.”
Nate’s face still felt like it was on fire. “My cheek hurts.”
Salvatore leaned closer. “Damn.” He set his pack on the ground and opened it. “Look at me.”
Nate turned, but felt like laying down and dying.
Salvatore held up a water bottle and a large strip of white cotton. He poured the water on Nate’s cheek and then dabbed with the cotton. “Better?”
Salvatore poured more water, dabbed, and then stepped back. “Should get you to Medical.”
“Blood spattered on your cheek. You’re lucky it only blistered. Last guy got blood on him, it burned the flesh clean to the bone. Didn’t even kill the dragon, so he died for nothing.”
Nate gagged on the bitter fluid that tickled the back of his throat.
“Hey now, Rebecca. Don’t you puke on me.”
“I’m okay,” Nate said.
“Surrender, humans,” a voice said from beyond the trees.
“Ah, shit,” Salvatore said. “Nate! Gun!”
Nate reached for the gun. The trees bent and swirled.
“We will show mercy if you submit,” the voice said.
He felt himself falling, heard Salvatore curse, and then the pop-pop of a gun.
* * *
“Son of a bitch,” Salvatore’s gravelly voice preceded the bright light. “I should’ve known.”
Nate realized he was on a bed. He sat up. “Jesus. My head is like… Oh no.”
“Welcome back,” Jarvis said. “I trust you’re feeling better?”
“Wait.” Nate pointed at his new friend ‒ and he used that term lightly ‒ who was bound to a metal chair. “Why is he tied up?”
“She’s an alien fucker,” Salvatore said.
“I am not,” Jarvis said.
“You sure look like one.”
“Can we just stop for a second?” Nate said. “Someone please tell me what’s going on.”
“Allow me,” Jarvis said as she reached beneath her hair. Her skin puckered and then her head split in two.
“Jesus Christ,” Salvatore whispered.
Slowly, she stepped out of the Jarvis-skin and a man-shaped figure stood before them. His white and gold marbled skin shone like it was wet. He blinked his bright green eyes and smiled. Nate realized he had two mouths.
Two. Fucking. Mouths.
“You, ah, got some pretty mouths there,” Nate blurted. Off the deep end. No turning back. Dive right in.
The alien rolled his eyes. “My name is Eclia,” he said. Without the disguise, his voice rose in pitch to an almost painful sound.
“Suck my nuts,” Salvatore muttered.
He was suicidal, apparently.
Eclia ignored him. “I am here for your collagen.”
“Um…” Salvatore looked at Nate, his eyebrow raised, and then returned his attention to Eclia. “Considering you’ve got a mouth on your shoulder, I’d say wrinkles are the least of your worries.”
“I have no wrinkles.”
“What’s the collagen for then?”
“Perhaps I’ve misunderstood the data we recovered. Isn’t collagen a protein in the human body?”
“One that is intoxicating.”
“I suppose it does nothing for humans. That is logical, as it is part of your biology.”
“Never mind. Can’t believe I’m even trying to speak rationally to an alien.”
“We’ve consumed human flesh for years,” Eclia said. “Which reminds me, I skipped lunch.”
He opened a black cabinet tucked into the corner between a metal table and a stack of plastic bins and removed an item from inside.
“This juicy morsel is a heart,” Eclia said and then put the heart to the mouth on his shoulder. He closed his eyes as the arm mouth bit down, making slurping-sucking noises as it ripped off a chunk. Blood dripped from his black lips, and a stringy bit of flesh clung to his bicep.
The bile choking Nate’s throat prevented him from speaking.
Eclia shoved the rest of the heart into his arm mouth. The face mouth smiled. “Until recently, though, humans were little more than a tasty delicacy consumed by the galaxy’s elite.”
“I think it’s speaking English,” Salvatore said to Nate. “But it’s making no sense.”
“We tried to find the collagen elsewhere,” Eclia said. “Because humans are tedious. Taking you on a large scale, as we must, would result in… headaches.”
“I agree,” Nate said. “Words are coming out of its mouth, but it’s not saying anything.”
Eclia’s lips pulled back, exposing long, pointed teeth. A growl escaped his throat, but as quickly as the anger appeared, it vanished, and he smiled once more. “The bottom line is we are taking the collagen.”
Nate inched toward Salvatore. If he could get close enough, he might be able to loosen the ropes. Had to distract their alien captor to do that, though. “So, what you’re saying is,” he said as his knuckles brushed the edge of Salvatore’s chair. “You get high on collagen.”
“I do not get high,” Eclia said.
Nate winced at the sharpness of his tone.
Eclia stared for several seconds. Those seconds stretched into a minute. Finally, Nate couldn’t stand the weight of those green eyes on him.
“Okay,” he said. “So, you don’t get high. My bad.”
“Correct. Collagen is highly addictive, which makes it extremely lucrative. My clients are happy and I am rich. I also deal in black market items that are not drugs, such as llamas and cats.”
“What the fuck?” Salvatore asked. “No. Don’t. I’d rather die than listen to more of your bullshit.”
“Why are you so bitter, Salvatore? I was good to you.”
“I put you in the breeding program. If you’re going to continue to behave like a child, though, I suppose killing you is probably the best course of action.”
“So, um, do you get high on llamas and cats too?” Nate interrupted to stop Salvatore from sparking an argument that’d get them both killed.
“I’m sure there’s an easier way to get high.”
“As I said, we have always sold human flesh,” Eclia said. “In the past, we just drained the blood, sliced them up, and then dried the meat so we can sell it to exclusive dining establishments in the northern quadrant of our galaxy. Turns out, we destroyed the best part that way.”
“Human jerky,” Salvatore said. “That’s a lovely fucking thought.”
“It’s becoming more and more appealing,” Eclia said. “We might never have discovered collagen if not for a fire destroying our cargo ship. A pilot ate a human eyeball he found while cleaning up the mess.”
“He ate a what?” Nate asked.
“An eyeball. They have a delicious gooey center,” Eclia said. “But that’s not the point. He experienced a high that lasted far longer than anything we’ve seen. If we could duplicate it, I thought, my client base would grow to a size I’d never imagined possible.”
“Is this for real?” Nate asked. “Because if I’m dreaming, I want to wake up now.”
“We identified collagen as the source of his euphoria.” Eclia kept talking as though Nate hadn’t uttered a single word. “It binds to our cells, reducing the flow of blood to our brain, which leads to a hyper response from the pleasure receptors. Once I learned that collagen is in many parts of the human body, I knew I had a veritable gold mine.”
“Awesome,” Nate said.
“We won’t eradicate humans entirely,” Eclia said, picking at the face of Jarvis skin suit. He pulled a long strip from the “nose” and then smelled it. “Collagen is easily harvested from living donors. It’s an unpleasant procedure for you, of course, but needs must, as Salvatore once said.”
“That’s not at all what I said.” Salvatore shifted in the chair. “I can’t wait to kill every last one of you assholes.”
“You can try.” Eclia said.
“I still don’t see the need for the dragons and the killing,” Nate said. “You could use any other mammal on Earth to get what you want. We get it from cows.”
“Where’s the fun in that? I quite enjoy killing humans. Your skin splits so easily beneath a blade. I am rewarded with your warm, slick blood almost immediately after my knife penetrates your flesh.”
“Lunatic.” Salvatore poked Nate’s knee with his bound hands.
“We did attempt to take what we needed peacefully,” Eclia said. “Your leaders shot down our ships. Those aren’t easily obtained, and they’re quite expensive, so you can see why we retaliated.”
“Naturally,” Salvatore said. “I mean, the nerve of those cocksuckers protecting their planet from an alien invasion. It’s a fucking crime how we try to stay alive.”
“We defended ourselves.” Eclia shrugged. The face mouth smiled, but the arm mouth didn’t follow suit. Instead, as though it knew Nate couldn’t look away, it licked the bottom lip with its long, thick black tongue, while the other mouth continued to speak. “To obtain enough supply to meet the demand, we disguised ourselves, infiltrated your military, killed off the threats, and convinced loyal soldiers like yourself to lead us to hidden defense installations like this one.”
“So you could take over without resistance,” Salvatore said.
“Right. I admit, even without the high, there’s nothing like human flesh. I’m particularly fond of boiled appendix. When you bite down, and it pops open, releasing that sweetness into your mouth… divine. However, I don’t recommend the intestines. They appear to be tubes of juicy delight, but the gritty bits inside are shockingly foul.”
Nate puked. He couldn’t stop it. Didn’t even realize it was going to happen until his stomach forced its contents out of his mouth.
“Easy now, Janet,” Salvatore said.
“Fuck off.” Nate wiped his mouth. He looked at Eclia. “And the dragons?”
“An insurance policy.”
“Where’d you get them?” Not that it mattered, Nate supposed, but he was curious.
“Dragons do not exist outside of your legends, so we made our own.”
“Just like that?”
“Well it wasn’t easy, but once we found the perfect marriage of technology and biology, it was smooth sailing. They even breed on their own, which was an unintentional bonus.”
“Fucking awesome,” Salvatore said.
“The dragons will ensure you don’t mount a counter attack or something else that’s silly and ill-advised while we’re away.”
Nate yanked at the rope binding Salvatore’s hands, and felt it loosen. “So, you’re leaving?”
“I’ve only enough ships to carry a few hundred humans, which would give me about a year’s supply, and this base holds all the crew I have.”
“You can’t think you’ll get away with killing all those people.”
“Are you going to stop me, Janet?”
Clearly, Eclia didn’t fear him, or he’d be tied up with Sal. Nate supposed he should be grateful for that, but it burned his pride just a little knowing no one viewed him as a threat. “I can’t stop you on my own, but we’ll figure out how to get rid of you eventually. Destroying entire species is kind of what humans do best.”
Eclia patted Nate’s head. “I’m willing to take the risk.”
“Might as well kill us all now,” Salvatore said. “Because we’ll fight back no matter how many dragons you drop on us.”
Eclia laughed. “If I kill all of you, then my supply is gone. That’s just bad business.”
“Take the cows!” Nate begged. “We’ll breed them for you. It can be like a… a mutually beneficial relationship that involves no killing.”
Salvatore was free, but kept his hands behind his back.
“Cows are cumbersome and difficult to transport,” Eclia said. “And I doubt their collagen would have the same effects as yours. Something to look into if we run out of you, I suppose.”
“You’re cocky now,” Salvatore said. “But if it’s the last thing I do, I’ll make sure you suffer a slow, bloody death.”
“Your threats are amusing, but I don’t have time to indulge you anymore.”
“Fuck you…” Nate said. “You piece of shit alien douchebag.”
“Now he starts talking like a man,” Salvatore grumbled.
“I’m granting you a favor,” Eclia said.
Salvatore laughed. “Is that what this is?”
Eclia shrugged. “I have business to take care of, but I’ll return in an hour. If you wish to die today, so be it. Your life or death is of no concern to me. I care only about your potential to make me wealthy.”
After Eclia left the room, Salvatore untied his feet.
“I can’t believe the end of the world is about an intergalactic drug war,” Nate said. “Collagen as a drug. I can’t even.”
“Listen, Rachel,” Salvatore stood. “There’s no time for your panic attack. Get ready to fight.”
“We can’t fight them. They’re aliens that can make dragons for fucksakes.”
“Better to fight and die than bend over like a little bitch and let them fuck us. Man up, Julie. We have to warn the other camps. Get them out of the water and… I don’t know where they’ll go, but I will not let that two-mouthed son of a bitch abduct another human so he can suck fat from some poor shit’s asshole.”
“You think this is funny?”
“It’s kind of funny.”
“Your face is paralyzed. How funny is that?”
Nate touched his cheek. It was numb. “What’d they do to me?”
“Dragon blood killed the nerve endings. Still feeling jolly, Ashley?”
“You need to stop with the girl names.”
“Not likely. Let’s get out of here.”
“And then what?”
“Save the world.”
“Now who’s the junkie?”
Salvatore tried the door. It opened. “Good thing about stoners is they overlook shit, because they’re high. See? No locks. Idiots. He also confirmed that they don’t have much of an army. We take this place out, no more aliens.”
“I don’t think that’s right.”
Salvatore didn’t seem to hear him. “Once we’re out, we focus on the dragons. Then we can figure out how to rid ourselves of Pluto Escobar and his buddies for good.”
Nate didn’t hold out much hope for humanity. They couldn’t beat the regular drug cartels. How would they defeat an intergalactic one? Humanity was done. Over.
“Where are the wet suits?” Salvatore asked.
“I don’t imagine they left them here.”
“Bingo!” Salvatore pulled a duffel bag from under a cot on the opposite side of the room. “Project DEA is active.”
“You’re ridiculous. I’m not going out there.”
“Okay, Judy. You stay here with Captain Overdose and I’ll save the world while he shoves his nose in your ass.”
Nate sighed. “Collagen isn’t in your asshole.”
“I don’t think the particulars are important right now, Maria. Fight or die. Which is it?”
Salvatore was right. If they stayed, they’d be drug mules on a planet far, far away. Who knew what else the aliens would do to them. “Fine. But next time, you’re bait.”
“And you have to stop calling me girl names.”
“I’d promise, but I’d be lying. Help me with this.” He rolled a large canister to the middle of the floor.
“What is that?”
“Like I said, they’re high and stupid. I mean, who leaves a bomb just lying around? Only idiots who get stoned on the regular.”
“You can’t set off a bomb.”
“When I say go, you run like the little bitch you are. Go straight down the hall, out the hatch and to your left. Shoot anything that gets in your way. Keep going left until you see a red door. There’s a bomb shelter in there. Only got two minutes, so no time for procrastination. Got it?”
“There’s a what down here?”
“Did I fucking stutter?”
“I feel like I should talk you out of this.”
Salvatore pressed a button and the canister beeped. “Run.”
“Cocksucker!” Nate dropped his sword and then tore off his bloody shirt.
He never regained feeling on the right side of his face after the first kill, but you couldn’t tell unless he was smiling. And he almost never smiled anymore.
“Here, Sally,” Salvatore threw his canteen. “Wash it off so I don’t have to listen to you scream like a little bitch.”
Scowling, Nate poured the water over his chest. The burning abated somewhat, although it still felt like he’d sat in the sun three days too long. “Not bad enough they breathe fire. They’ve gotta melt the skin off you after they’re dead.”
“Fuck your skin. We’ve got bigger problems.” Salvatore picked up his sword. He walked around the black pool of dragon’s blood and toward the back of the cave. “Lucky this one wasn’t in the open or we’d have her buddies after us.”
Dragons could smell the blood of their kind from miles away, and it pissed them off. Nate learned that the hard way too. It was best to kill them in their lairs whenever possible. Problem was, they were pretty adept at hiding.
“Funny,” Nate said as he followed Salvatore. “Females usually have a guard when they’re nesting.”
“There’s not enough of them to do that. Reports say there’s only a handful left.”
“Still, never seen a female left alone with her eggs.”
“Stop looking gift horses in the mouth.”
Nate couldn’t shrug off the dread as they approached the eggs, which were tucked into a crevice at the back of the cave. It was too easy. Sleeping dragon. New eggs. No guard. Never that easy.
“How do you want to do this?” Salvatore stared at the globes, which were about the size of Saint Bernard. “If we break them in there, the innards might burn into the ground. Could end up in the water that feeds the river near camp, and then we’re fucked.”
“We can’t carry them out.”
“Can’t leave them here to hatch.”
The walls of the cave shook.
“Shit.” Salvatore raised his sword. “Daddy’s home.”
“I don’t even have a shirt on.”
“Sometimes I wonder about you, Beverly.”
“If I get blood on me this time, it’s right on my skin. Sorry, but it’s not an experience I want to repeat.” Nate took a couple of breaths. “Okay, we’ll wait until it leaves and then we’ll figure out how to get these eggs out of here.”
Salvatore pointed. “Over there.”
Nate followed him to an almost human-sized crack in the cave wall. Somewhere within the crack water flowed. The ground trembled as Daddy entered the cave. His body took up most of the space. Males were massive and ugly. The females were also big, but smaller than the males, and their skin had a purplish hue, which was kind of pretty. Nate said that once, and Salvatore slapped him. He never mentioned it again.
Nate watched the male dragon sniff its mate’s corpse. It raised its head, screamed, and then went right for the eggs. His heart pounded as the dragon took the eggs into its mouth.
“He’s going to hide them,” Salvatore whispered. “This is our only chance.”
“Your turn to be bait, Connie.”
“It’s always my turn.” Nate took a breath and then ran out of the crack. “Hey, asshole!”
The dragon turned, eggs glittering between its teeth. It stared at Nate, but didn’t put the eggs down. Good. Couldn’t breathe fire with babies in its mouth.
“I killed your… wife,” Nate said.
The dragon huffed. Salvatore’s shadow snaked to the left. Nate hoped he got it the first go, because if he didn’t… nope. Not thinking about that.
“Come on,” Nate taunted. “Put the kids down and let’s do this man to man.”
Salvatore was between the dragon’s front legs. He held his sword upward. Shit, the blood would be all over him. Nate walked to the right, forcing the dragon to turn. Salvatore narrowly avoided being crushed under its foot. He glared at Nate, but now had a better position.
“You’re welcome, dick,” Nate muttered.
The dragon growled, lowered its head, and then Salvatore attacked.
As with every kill, everything slowed for a breath. Salvatore yelled, and the dragon fell onto its side. He drove the sword into its neck again, and then jumped back.
“Shit,” Salvatore tore at his clothes.
The dragon mewled, but didn’t open its mouth. Nate wondered if the eggs would hatch in there. He circled the head. Salvatore had stripped to his boxers. He picked up his sword.
“It still has the eggs in its mouth,” Nate said.
“Yeah.” Salvatore scratched his head. “I’m not going in there after them until I’m sure he’s dead.”
“Could just cut the head off. Drag it back and let the nerds take care of it.”
“They’ll cum in their khakis.”
Salvatore lifted his sword. “Just a few more and we’re free of this nightmare.”
Nate joined him in hacking at the head. “Until the aliens come back.”
“We got them all in the explosion. Haven’t seen a sign of them since. It’s all good, Nadine. Like I said, don’t look at the gift horse.”
“What about that hospital-full of people that disappeared?”
“Could be anything.”
“Hundreds of people vanishing can only be one thing. You know I’m right.”
“Fuck, it’s like talking to a toddler with you. Trust me, they’re not coming back.”
They hacked at the head until it hung on by a few black, sticky tendons. Nate still felt a nagging dread about it all.
“Just saying,” Nate dodged the blood that spattered from Salvatore’s sword as he finished severing the head. “Haven’t seen many cats lately. Llama populations are down too.”
“Yeah and someone’s stealing cattle. Ever heard of poachers? It’s a rough new world out there.”
Nate paused. “Who poaches cats?”
“Or two-mouthed, collagen-addicted aliens.”
Sal sighed. “Fine. We take care of the rest of the dragons, and then we look for aliens. Happy?”
“You’re never happy. Just like my ex-wife.”
“And what’s the common denominator in both equations?”
“You’re both ladies?”
“Shut up and help me tie the rope around its mouth.”
Salvatore mumbled but Nate couldn’t make out his words. Together, they dragged the dragon’s head toward the mouth of the cave.
“Give it some muscle, Sheila. I want to get back sometime this year.”
* * *
Nate tossed and turned in his bunk. He hated sleeping on a poorly stuffed mattress in a tent city outside of whatever town Salvatore decided to stop in, but survival meant he had no choice.
Somewhere outside he heard voices. The guys on watch talked all night long. He hated that too. Closing his eyes, Nate smiled at the memory of the nerds’ reaction when they saw the dragon’s head. Salvatore was right; they were orgasmic. He wished he’d been found by a nerd that first day. It’d probably have extended his life expectancy.
“Hey, Sleeping Beauty,” Salvatore called from outside the tent. “We’ve got trouble.”
Nate groaned. “What kind?”
A sigh. “You were right.”
Being right never felt good when Salvatore was involved. Nate got off the cot and walked to the flap. “About what?”
“Jesus, Mabel. Just get out here.”
Nate opened the flap and stepped outside. “Crap.”
At least a dozen bat-shaped spaceships hovered above them.
“They’re back,” Salvatore said.
“I guess it’s rude to say I told you so.”
“Surrender and we will be merciful,” a voice said from above.
“What should we do?”
Salvatore waved at someone behind him. Nate turned. Three soldiers wheeled a cannon-like thing toward him.
“So, we’re resisting?”
“Now,” Salvatore ordered.
A loud boom and then a fiery orb tore across the sky. It struck a bat-ship, obliterating it in an explosion of bluish-white and orange fire.
“What kind of gun is that?” Nate asked.
Salvatore smiled. “One that shoots awesomeness. It’s good to have nerds on your side. Fire that bitch again.”
One by one Salvatore’s big gun took out the remaining ships. They fired back, blew up a few tents, but in a matter of minutes, it was over. No more alien drug cartel.
“I knew there was a chance they’d be back,” Salvatore said. “So I had the nerds whip up something a little more powerful than a cannon, but less catastrophic than a nuke.”
“Uh huh,” Nate wiped his eyes. “So, what now?”
A shriek echoed from the trees.
“The dragons must’ve been attracted by the fire,” he said. “Think your big gun will work on them?”
“Where’s the fun in that? Get your sword, Barbara. We’re going hunting.”