Saturday, April 30, 2011


Fafnir told me some great stories before he left the state to follow the renaissance faire circuit. He likes the faire scene. Feels homey to him. He's not real big on the stinky, busy, asphalt and steel of the modern world. Folks in leather chilling while watching jousters and jugglers is more his idea of proper civilization.

I've been meaning to write down some of the stuff he told me about my family history, and dragon history, and all kinds of cool things. He knew my dad! And my grandad and grandmother, too! I had no idea my family was so famous.

But instead of writing in my diary about my amazing family history, I've been helping out with fires. It feels like half of Texas is burning.

The fires in North Texas are so bad that the smoke made it look like Austin was having a foggy day a few days ago, and Austin is hundreds of miles from the actual fire.

The Protectors had the good sense to leave a few heroes here to help out, and even some of the Alliance supes are starting to come back. They're allergic to bad PR. The Protectors sent heroes to help with the fires in North Texas, but supes aren't real well-equipped in general to fight wildfires. White Knight knows a thing or two about fighting fires, so he gave the other heroes hints on how they could help. The Devastator and a couple of the other flying heroes could carry people out of the worst hit areas, for instance.

It's ironic, really. When supervillains were our biggest problems, the Protectors were on the other side of the world. Now, the simple lack of rain presents a far bigger threat to the lives of the people of Texas. And the heroes are largely worthless. Firefighters from several states are all helping out, something in the neighborhood of 450 plain normal humans banded together to make fire breaks and controlled burn areas to stop the flames from spreading further.

I didn't go with them, even though Liberty and Devastator asked, not just White Knight. I had a badly neglected day job to think about. I have to pay bills, keep a roof over my head and Ma's. I don't get a salary and benefits from the government like the Protectors do. Plus, I'd already seen what happens when all the heroes leave an area. I told them I'd stick in Austin.

At first, it seemed like I'd stayed home just so I could get a serious cold shoulder from Jack at work. He absolutely refused to talk to me about anything other than our jobs. He just shut down if I brought up the subject of us or Vlad or any of it. I hope if I give him a little time, he'll cool down enough that I can talk to him, and make it up to him somehow. This dating thing is really complicated.

About the time the fires in North Texas got more or less contained, a wildfire started in Oak Hill in south Austin, where residential neighborhoods and woodland mesh. Jack and I were called in along with the firefighters as a precaution.

More than 20 homes were wiped out, but the people got out early for the most part, so no injuries. There’s always a few holdouts who won’t go, but a huge fire gets people’s attention.
The only people Jack and I treated were the firefighters, gave them some oxygen hits to help with the smoke.

It seemed to be going as well as any wildfire fight in a residential area could go when I saw a kid’s face in the window of a house that was already half on fire. The kid ducked down a second later. No one else saw her.

I should have told the firefighters, but I didn’t think about it, just ran for the house. I’ve been spending more time as a superhero lately than as an EMT, so my reflexes are mixed up. Jack shouted behind me, “Dee! What are you doing?  Dee! Don’t be stupid!”

The smoke already made the interior of the house look like a dense fog. I coughed, and headed down a hallway off the living room that led in the general direction I’d seen the kid. “Hello?” I shouted. “Come with me. I’m here to help.” Lame, I know.  But what do you say to a scared kid to convince them to leave their house before it burns down?

I turned into the bedroom I thought I’d seen the kid in. I wasn’t entirely sure. The smoke was messing with my sense of direction. The room looked like a little girl’s room. Hannah Montana posters on the walls, stuffed animals, but no kid. “Kid? You in here?”

No answer, but a small, high pitched bark from under the bed. I got on my knees and looked under.  There was a little girl about eight clutching a blonde ball of fluff that barked at me.

“Hey, there. What’s your name?”

“Cassie,” the kid said with eyes as big as saucers. “This is Jenny.” She introduced me to the ball of fluff.  Looked to be a Pomeranian pup, just a couple months old.

“How about we get out of here, Cassie. You, me, and Jenny, too. Dogs don’t like fire much.”

“I couldn’t leave her here to burn up. Mom said she’d be okay, but I didn’t believe her.”

“Well, I think you’ll both be okay. But we really do have to go right now.” The room was noticeably hotter, and I couldn’t see the ceiling for the thick smoke. I put my hand out and the kid took it.

I hauled her out from under the bed, and started back out the way I came. The fire had spread and I could see flames in the living room between us and the door.

“How about we go out through the window?” I suggested. I went back into the kid’s room to the little window where I’d seen her face. It wasn’t much of a window, only about a foot by two, but the kid was pretty small.

“The window doesn’t open,” Cassie said. I picked up a little wooden rocking chair, about Cassie size, and stood between the kid and any flying pieces as I bashed the window glass.  I cleared the glass slivers from the bottom sill and stuffed a section of the quilt off Cassie’s bed over it to make sure she wouldn’t get cut. Then I fed her through the small hole carefully, feet first, still clutching her squirmy ball of fluff.

As soon as the kid’s feet touched ground, she ran for the firefighters.

That taken care of, I turned around to find another way out. The window was way too small for me, even if I wasn’t much for eating sweets. Hips my size were never going to make it through.

I took a deep breath of the clean air from the window and dove into the fog, groping for the door I’d just come through a few minutes ago.

I stumbled into the hallway and bonked my nose on the opposite wall. There was no seeing in this mess. My eyes streamed like I was heartbroken, and when that last breath of clean air ran out, there weren’t any more. I felt my way along the hallway to the living room, coughing and trying desperately to see. I tripped over what was probably a coffee table, and fell sprawling. My head hit a couch leg.

As I struggled back to my feet, I had no idea which direction the door was in, and felt a little dizzy.  I could hear, more than see, flames licking at the walls and feel their heat. But it was hard to tell which direction the fire was in.

I struck out in a random direction, feeling my way with hands and feet. If I could find a wall, it might guide me toward a door.

I made it to a wall, but was coughing so hard, I could barely keep moving. My head swam, and the wall was the only thing that held me up.

I think I made it a couple of steps, but don’t really remember. Next thing I remember clearly was an upside down view of a nicely shaped rear end covered in silver scales, and something very solid digging into my belly.

White Knight had me over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. He laid me down on the gurney and Jack put an oxy mask over my face.

I shoved it away. “The kid, Cassie? Is she okay?”

Knight nodded. “Yeah, fine. You really should know to get down low in a fire where the air is cleaner. Would have thought an EMT would know better.”

I could feel my face flush with embarrassment, even as I coughed. He was right. Bastard. I should have gone out on hands and knees. I might not have had to be rescued by mister self-righteous.

That was when it hit me. The White Knight had saved my life. A Georgian saved my life.

I looked pure resentment at him and his mouth twisted under the scale coif. “You’re welcome.”
It made my jaws tighten. “We’re even then.”

He nodded acknowledgement and walked away, leaving me with Jack, who looked really pissed off.

“What the hell were you thinking, Dee?”

I coughed until I thought a chunk of lung was going to come up, and it saved me from having to answer. Jack stuck the oxygen mask over my face whether I wanted it or not.

My life was a lot simpler when I had no close friends and my main goal was not to be noticed. Less interesting maybe, but definitely simpler.

Dee Dragon

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Defusing Explosive Situations

The last robot on the other side of the dam hightailed it at a speed I wouldn’t have expected such a big piece of machinery to manage after Fafnir pitched the third one over the side. Once Fafnir neutralized all the threats, my mind immediately went into EMT mode, and I checked the injured. TakeDown who had taken a couple of bullets to the back, waved me off. His body armor kept the bullets from going through, and while he was badly bruised, he was going to be okay.
Vlad, on the other hand, still wasn’t moving. I knelt next to him in the crater left by the giant robotic hammers. His wings were clearly broken in several places. One leg and one arm bent the wrong way. I had no way of telling how bad the internal injuries were, but it was obvious that Vlad was in really bad shape. He was still breathing though, thank goodness.
I felt like the worst kind of scum as I straightened his wings and set his bones. I was glad that he wasn’t conscious to feel the agony, but I felt it as if it were my own bones broken. I’d done this to him. I’d used his infatuation with me to con him into a battle he otherwise wouldn’t have fought. I had to wipe away tears a few times as I worked.
Beyond caring if the news crews saw me do it, I started to bite him, just under the wrist where his wings attach, and I’d only have to pierce tough leathery skin, but Fafnir landed next to me. A dragon the size of a freight train car landing next to you really gets your attention.
“Take care, fledgling. You have your father’s gift of healing, but you must clear your mind of anger and guilt first.” His voice, always deep, sounded like it came from the bottom of a well.
I vaguely remembered my dad telling me that a dragon’s state of mind was all. I didn’t entirely get it at the time. I still didn’t, really. “What do you mean?”
Fafnir, the gigantic reptilian creature out of legend, closed his eyes, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. As he did, his body shrank and changed until he was more like he had been when I first met him: big as an extended cab pickup, and scaly, but humanoid. His state of mind certainly had an effect on him. (Note to self: Don’t make Fafnir angry.) “Have you ever tried to heal when your mind was not calm?” he asked me.
I remembered Pete’s bright blue staring eyes. I’d been frustrated and a little pissed off. The men had poisoned themselves and ruined my evening doing it. And Pete hadn’t healed completely. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d forgotten to take the steadying breath I’d always seen Dad take. Pete was blind because I wasn’t in the right state of mind when I bit him. If I did the same with Vlad, in his current condition, he might be crippled for life, might never fly again.
“Yeah, okay, right. Calm. Got it.” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath and tried not to think of the time bomb ticking under my feet somewhere on the huge dam that when it broke would kill thousands. I tried not to think about the sexy dragon who had gotten himself beat to hell because I’d said please. In other words, I failed utterly to be anything that resembled calm. “I can’t do it. I can’t just decide to be calm.”
“You can, child. And you must. A dragon who cannot control her emotions becomes a monster.”
I looked up into the glowing red eyes of a creature that could probably rip this dam apart with his bare hands, and knew he was right. I tried to distract myself from what was making me so agitated. “Why did you help me, Fafnir? I thought you weren’t going to fight unless someone paid you.”
Fafnir grinned, showing fangs and teeth gone pointy. “I will not fight the human’s battles with no reward, but those automatons would have killed you. You are the only female dragon I have encountered in half a century. There are far too few of us left, fledgling. We cannot afford to lose you.” He shrugged and managed to look sheepish. “And, you remind me of my eldest daughter. She, too, was headstrong and determined to change the world for the better.” He put a hand with the circumference of an extra large pizza on my shoulder.
“Thanks, Fafnir. I think you’re pretty cool, too.” I patted his hand. Fafnir was a legend, as ancient and wise as the sphinx in Egypt. And he believed in me.
Okay. Calm. I could do this. I closed my eyes and breathed three times, each time slower than the last, and thought about the view of the ranch I grew up on from high in the sky, soaring on my father’s back. When I opened my eyes, my heartbeat was slow and steady, my mind at rest, and my emotions stilled.
I didn’t want the cameras to see me bite Vlad, so I lifted his head gently, and kissed him. Well, it seemed like a good excuse, anyway. Under cover of the kiss, I injected venom into his tongue with my fang. He came awake during the kiss, and put his hand with the unbroken arm into my hair. I’d kissed Vlad once before and it had been nice enough, if a bit odd with the scales, but this time, there was more to it. He wasn’t just sexy; he had nearly gotten himself killed for me. He had been willing to risk anything to please me and protect me. There’s a fine line between stalker and romantic hero.
When I broke the kiss and looked down at him, his dark eyes burned with that inner red fire. He touched my face gently with a scaly clawed hand that could rip armored steel. “Your hair is burned,” he said. “Are you all right?”
I grinned at him. “Yeah, I’m good. You?”
“I am feeling less than ideal, but I shall recover.”
TakeDown had come up behind me, movements slow from obvious pain. “You’re a dragon!” he said to Fafnir.
Fafnir looked at me, and we both laughed. “No shit, Sherlock. What gave you your first clue?” Fafnir said. He likes that saying for some reason.
TakeDown looked embarrassed to have blurted out the obvious.
“Don’t worry about it, TD. It’s the same thing I said first time I saw him.” I made the introductions, as I helped Vlad carefully to his feet. He’d be fragile for a few days, and he couldn’t fly until his wings healed fully, but he really was going to be okay.
Both Vlad and Fafnir now stood, wings folded, side by side, and the similarities were obvious. Fafnir was far bigger and more bulky in the muscles, and red and black where Vlad was all black, but aside from that, they were clearly built along the same lines.
“You’re both dragons!” TakeDown said.
I nodded. “That’s why the White Knight has issues. He thinks all dragons need to be slain, on principle.”
TakeDown shook his head, obviously on my side of that argument. “Knight needs to move his head into this century.”
Fafnir nodded approval. “You are a brave warrior. My intention was only to protect Damson, but you have kept the young black’s secrets, and fought well beside the fledgling. I’m pleased that my actions spared your life as well.”
“He means me.” I could see TD’s brain clicking through what he knew. “It’s because I can’t fly yet.” And that did it. The gears clicked into place.
“You’re a dragon, too.”
“So, are there a lot of dragons?”
“Just us that I’ve met. And my dad, but White Knight’s religious order killed him a long time ago.”
TakeDown opened his mouth to ask another question, then closed it, and shook his head. “Look, this is fascinating, but we’ve got a bomb somewhere on this dam, and less than half an hour to find it, and defuse it.”
“Oh, right.” Hell of a thing to forget about.
Fafnir said, “I saw a large device that did not look like it belonged when I flew near the downstream side of the dam. I can show you where.”
So, we found the bomb with 15 minutes to spare. Great. I looked at the thing with 50 gallon barrels of no doubt explosive stuff and wires and a big timer, and realized something important. “I have no idea how to defuse a bomb.”
TakeDown was already pulling tools out of his pockets. “I recognize the detonation trigger. Seen it before. Vile’s people are consistent, at least.”
Things were a bit tense for a while, but TD managed to render the thing harmless with about 10 minutes to spare. Fafnir did a quick fly around to make sure he couldn’t see any other devices. It looked good.
Fafnir flew TD to the next dam downstream, much to his delight. We couldn’t get there fast enough otherwise to stop the other bomb. Fafnir seemed to figure if he was in for a penny, he was in for a pound. They got it taken care of with a few seconds left on the timer. Crisis averted. The city was safe.
After dropping off TakeDown, who had a grin on his face like a kid on Christmas morning, Fafnir promised he’d come have dinner with Ma and me before he left town, then flew away. Vlad shifted back to half naked human form, and started shivering, even though the air was mild. His body was still badly damaged, although healing. He limped when he walked and held one arm gingerly. I located his jacket for him and helped him put it on.
His face looked hopeful as I helped him. “Have I proven my worthiness to court you?”
I grinned back at him. “I still don’t want you staring in my window, but I suppose you’ve earned a dinner date.”
“Guess that means I’ll be eating alone,” Jack said, and I spun around. Oh, crap. “This isn’t what it looks like.”
“It looks like a handsome dragon you didn’t tell me about has been trying to date you, and now you’ve just said yes.”
Um, yeah. So, it was exactly what it looked like.
Vlad, of course, made it worse. “Your dragon blood is long diluted, Dragon Lord. I am a far more suitable mate to Damson. I can protect her where she must protect you.”
Jack’s lips tightened, but instead of getting pissed off, he nodded to Vlad. “I’ll see you at work,” he said to me, and walked away.
“Wait! Jack!” I let go of Vlad’s arm to go after Jack, and Vlad wobbled on his bad leg from the sudden lack of support. I steadied Vlad for a second, turned back around and I’d lost Jack in the crowd of reporters and shouting, celebrating bystanders. The police were doing a good job of holding the crowd back from us, but it was obvious that a lot of reporters wanted to talk to me, TakeDown, and Vlad about saving the city, and about the giant red dragon.
Then the reporters forgot all about us as the dark figure of the Devastator soared overhead, his hands glowing white with power. Two ropes dangled from a belt around his waist attached to harnesses.  Liberty and White Knight touched their feet to the concrete of the dam, hit quick releases, and dropped into impressive-looking, and thoroughly pointless, fighting crouches.
I don’t know why, but somehow, the Protectors showing up late seemed almost worse than not showing up at all. If the bomb had gone off, they’d be right in front of the cameras making desperate saves and coming to the rescue of the beleaguered city.
I stalked up to the most powerful heroes on the planet, the Devastator and Liberty, and told them, “You’re too late.”
Liberty stepped forward to speak. She looked just like she did on TV, only a bit shorter, a lovely, delicate-looking blonde woman in drapey stars and stripes with a diamondite crown that was worth more than my apartment building. “The bomb threat was a hoax?” she asked.
I barked a laugh, and gestured at the exploded cop car and the shattered combat robot parts scattered over a quarter mile area. It looked like what it was, a battlefield. “It was no hoax.”
White Knight stepped forward next to Liberty, and the Devastator landed just in front of them. TakeDown and Vlad stood behind me, at my left and right shoulders, and I was struck by the parallels. Did I become the leader of this little band at some point?
The Devastator asked in an authoritative bark. “Cut the nonsense, girl. Is the city still in danger?”
I got so pissed off at the way he called me girl that I couldn’t speak for a second.
Vlad limped up right into the Devastator’s personal space, eyes glowing red. “You will not speak to her in that tone.”
I put an arm on his shoulder. “Don’t sweat it, Vlad. I’ve been called worse.”
TakeDown practically saluted. “The bombs are defused, sir. The city is no longer in danger.”
The Devastator’s shoulders noticeably relaxed. He looked at Vlad who was still fuming, and nodded. “My apologies. I gather that I have you three to thank for not arriving to mass destruction.”
“Four,” I said. “TakeDown defused the bombs. Vlad, Fafnir, and I took out the combat robots. Mostly Fafnir.”
“Fafnir? Fafnir the Red?!” White Knight blurted.
It was my turn to get in someone’s personal space. “Yeah, Fafnir. If Fafnir hadn’t defeated two of the robots himself, we’d all three be dead, and most of Austin would be waterfront property.”
“Who is this Fafnir?” the Devastator asked White Knight.
“An ancient evil, one of the most feared, blood-thirsty, horrific monsters who has ever lived.”
I ignored White Knight, and answered the Devastator. “Fafnir is a dragon, possibly the oldest and most powerful dragon living. White Knight is a member of a religious order that believes dragons are evil and should be killed on sight. His view is skewed, to say the least.”
“And who are you?” the Devastator asked.
His big dark eyes bored into me, and I damn near told him. But I couldn’t just blurt out my name and nature right in front of a Georgian, not and even pretend to keep my promise to Ma.
TakeDown bailed me out. “This is Dee. She’s a local EMT with super-strength and limited invulnerability who has been helping me hold back the tide while you’ve been away. And she’s right. Fafnir saved the city. If he’s a monster, then he’s the kind of monster I wish we had more of.”
Liberty asked, “And who is this young man who moves as if wounded, and defends your EMT from insults? Did you fight for the city as well?”
TakeDown said, “This is Vlad. He’s saved my life and Dee’s a dozen times in the last few weeks. He nearly got himself killed trying to destroy Vile’s combat mechs single-handed so that Dee and I could get through to defuse the bomb.”
Liberty and the Devastator and even White Knight looked at Vlad with something like respect.
“Tell them the rest, these great heroes of the age,” Vlad said.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said, but his eyes were still bright red, like angry LED’s. It wasn’t really a request.
“The cameras have seen my true nature. Soon, all will know. I would tell this one Georgian right to his face that I do not fear him.” Vlad looked White Knight straight in the eyes and said, “Who am I? I am Vlad, son of Vlad. Grandson of the first Dracul prince. I am the last survivor of my clan since my wife, my tiny sons, and all of my relatives were slaughtered by religious zealots of the order of St. George.”
White Knight’s hand fell on his sword, knuckles white.
Vlad nodded. “Yes, I am a dragon.” He braced himself, in his fragile, wounded, human form, fists clenched.
White Knight drew his sword, face grim under the half concealment of the silver coif as he faced the ancient enemy of his order.
“So, this is the truth, then,” I said to White Knight, and stepped between them, incidentally putting the point of the Knight’s sword against my own chest. “You’ll kill a dragon, no matter what he’s done to prove he’s not a monster.”
“Move aside.”
“You can’t possibly understand. This is between his kind and mine. It always has been.”
“Vlad saved my life today. And it’s not the first time. You want to kill him, kill me first.”
I heard Vlad take a sharp breath through his teeth behind me, and reach for my arm to pull me back, but I yanked it free.
TakeDown stepped beside me, and stood between the wounded Vlad and the Knight’s sword, too. “If you want him, you’ll have to go through me. He saved my life more than once.”
The Devastator spoke in a soft, deep voice that held the snap of a command and a reprimand without ever being raised in volume. “Put the sword away, Knight. You’re way out of line.”
Liberty looked shocked by Knight’s actions, her cheeks flaming with shame. She simply reached out, and with her famous invulnerability, grabbed the Knight’s blade and wrenched it out of his startled grip. “Enough. This is nonsense.” She looked down, surprised, as blood trickled through her fingers. The blade had cut her. No one knew of any substance other than diamondite that could cut Liberty.
“Remarkable,” she said thoughtfully, then shifted her grip to the hilt, and faced White Knight with his own sword in her hand. “You will not attack a man who has committed no crime, and who has, in fact, been wounded in action while defending the innocent like a true hero, regardless of your personal prejudices against his race. Stand down immediately, or I will arrest you myself.”
“But you don’t understand. It’s not a hero. It’s not even a man. It’s a dragon.”
“We get it,” TakeDown said. “He’s a dragon.” He grabbed Knight’s white tunic and pulled him in close to get his full attention. TakeDown’s power meant that he was currently stronger and faster than White Knight, and Knight was unarmed. Liberty still had his sword. TakeDown said very calmly, like he was explaining to a retarded kid. “What you don’t get is that he’s a dragon who’s on our side. And I don’t care what you think of his kind, if you lay a finger on him, you’ll be missing a hand. Do we understand each other now?”
Knight looked from TakeDown to Liberty to Devastator to me. It was clear we were a united front on this issue.
 No killing Vlad.
Knight nodded reluctantly, and TakeDown let go of his tunic.
Knight held out his hand to Liberty, and she placed his sword hilt in his palm without hesitation.
Everyone else stayed tense until Knight got his sword sheathed. He did as he was ordered, but his eyes glared hatred at Vlad.
I happened to glance at Vlad and saw a small, smug little smile. “Are you enjoying this?” I whispered to him.
“Immensely,” Vlad answered.
And I couldn’t really blame him.

Dee Dragon

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Giant Robots on Mansfield Dam

Crap, I never wrote down what happened with the robots and the bomb on the dam. So much has happened since, that I’ve hardly had time to sit down with my diary.
TakeDown and I went to scout out the situation. It could have been a hoax or a bluff. Sometimes, minor criminals and crazies impersonate Lord Vile in order to get attention. It’s one of the reasons that the cops can’t ever pin anything on him. There’s never any solid evidence that he’s the one who actually sent messages with his emblem on them.
It was pretty clear when we got to the dam that this was no bluff. Four big machines akin to military robots patrolled both ends of Mansfield dam, shooting warning shots at anyone who got too close, and keeping even the normal dam maintenance crew from getting in to do their jobs . If you’ve seen any of the shows on the History channel on modern combat robots, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what we saw, tracked vehicles with no place inside for a driver, just a whole lot of impressive weaponry, and a single video camera eye on a 360 degree swivel. Unlike most of the robots I’ve seen on the military shows, these weren’t man-sized, these were as tall as a two story building. And, in addition to two 50 cal machine guns, and a tank sized four-barrel monstrosity that I did not want to know what would come out of, each one had two robotic arms with mechanical smashers like giant hammers.
And there were four of these behemoths, two on each end of the dam, keeping anyone who couldn’t fly or pitch trucks from getting near enough to even find, much less disarm any bomb.
Vile was serious about only heroes of the caliber of the Protectors being able to stop his plan. Unfortunately, all of those heroes were on the other side of the world. There was just TakeDown and me.
I wondered about TakeDown’s power. With no human opponent to focus on, his power generalized to all of humanity. He became just a little bit stronger than the strongest weight lifter, a little faster than the fastest Olympic runner, a little more agile than the most agile MMA fighter. Nice. The Protectors were idiots not to get him on their team.
We both made half-hearted attempts to get past the robots, but 50 caliber rounds chasing our heels were really good incentive to back off.
“Well, that’s not going to work. Now, what?” I asked TakeDown. He was the experienced hero, after all.
He shrugged. “I have no idea.”
I watched the robot sentries for a minute. They were motionless except for their swiveling camera eyes. Tall slender antennas stuck up above the cameras.
Antennas. The robots weren’t autonomous; they were remote controlled. “There’s probably someone controlling them from nearby.”
TakeDown nodded. We had some time. Still 12 hours before the countdown ran out. Surely, the Protectors would arrive and save the city well before then.
In the meantime, TakeDown and I scouted the area for miles around the dam looking for someone who could be operating the robots.
After 10 hours of searching, we had both come up empty. We met back at the dam, just out of the range that the robots seemed to regard as too close. The police had cordoned off the area to keep civilians from getting injured.
We’d gotten word that there was a Protectors jet en route, but they’d been delayed by bad weather. They might not arrive in time. Lovely. That meant it was just me and TakeDown. Again.
So, TakeDown and I were back where we started, looking at the huge, heavily-armed battle machines, wondering what the heck we should do. Only now, we only had 2 hours before the bomb Lord Vile’s people planted blew the dam, and flooded Austin.
For all we knew, Vile was bouncing signals off a communication satellite from Timbuktu, or maybe MadSpark, Vile’s rogue technologist, had built a sophisticated AI for the robots, and just put those antennas there to throw us off.
If there was any chance at all that the Protectors weren’t going to make it back in time, that meant we had to do something.  We tried watching the video cameras, thinking maybe we could get past them by running when they were both looking another direction. But no. The two robots were clearly coordinated, making sure that they covered each other’s blind spots.
“Maybe, if those antennas really were controlling the robots remotely, we could knock out the antennas?” I suggested.
“How?” TakeDown asked. 
“Maybe one of the SWAT sharpshooters?”
“Good idea.”
We got one of the SWAT guys positioned behind the door of a police car and pointed out the antenna. The SWAT guy breathed slowly, took careful aim, but before he could pull the trigger TakeDown shouted, “RUN!”
The giant four-barrel weapon of one of the robots swung toward us until it was aimed right at the cop car we were crouching behind.
I grabbed the SWAT guy around the waist and leapt 20 feet back along the road. I heard a loud WHUMP kind of sound as the big weapon fired just as I landed. I shoved the SWAT guy under me and laid on top of him. The police car exploded behind us. The car door we’d been crouching behind flew over us and landed a few inches from our heads.  
“Um, maybe that wasn’t such a good idea,” I said. I pulled a chunk of what used to be rearview mirror out of my unarmored right shoulder, and put pressure on the wound until it stopped bleeding.
The SWAT guy’s face looked gray under his black coffee skin, but he wasn't injured. He just swallowed and nodded agreement.
“TakeDown?” I didn’t see where he went for a few seconds. Then he stood up from under a car where he’d taken shelter.
A booming crackly loudspeaker voice came from the robots. “Second rate hero wannabes and police are not enough. This city and this country need their real heroes to step up and show us what matters to them: the spotlight, or protecting the innocent.”
“Second rate hero wannabes?” Seriously? Did he really just call me that? “This Vile guy pisses me off.”
TakeDown looked like he ate something sour. “If it makes you feel any better, that was aimed at me, not you. Vile and I have a history.”
That sounded like a really good story, but I stomped on my curiosity and didn’t ask. We only had about an hour left.
I looked around, frantically trying to come up with another idea, and saw Fafnir in human form towering over the press and particularly brave bystanders watching the spectacle. Jack was there with Fafnir, and Vlad stood a little behind the crowd by himself.
“I’m going to see if I can get some help.”
I pulled Vlad and Fafnir out of the crowd, and asked them if they could help. Jack started to follow, but I told him to stay back. Last thing I wanted was a chunk of flying car to get him.
Fafnir said that he had done such work in the past, but only if he was paid well, in gold, preferably, since human currencies shifted so frequently.  “I will accept half of whatever you are being paid, fledgling.”
“I don’t have any gold, Fafnir. I don’t get paid to do this.”
Fafnir shook his head at the naiveté of youth. “Then you are a fool. Humans will pay quite well for this sort of thing.”
I gave up on Fafnir and asked Vlad.
He pointed out the cameras. “If I aid you, my love, I will be exposed. I believe the Georgian threat has been much reduced, but we both know that at least one still lives. And as long as any Georgian draws breath, it is not safe for us to show our true nature to the world.”
“If we don’t do anything, in less than an hour, thousands of people will die. They’ve been trying to evacuate the city, but the highways are jammed. There’s no way they’ll all get out in time.” I took his hand and squeezed it. “Please, Vlad. If there’s anything you can do. I need you.” It probably wasn’t fair to pull the feminine wiles thing on him, but I knew it was the one thing that would work.
Vlad bowed and kissed my hand. “As you wish, milady.”
He kicked off his sandals, took off the black leather jacket he wore and handed it to Fafnir. He wasn’t wearing a shirt underneath, just a well-fitted pair of jeans that rode low on his hips, exposing a six pack that would make any heterosexual female salivate. You know, it’s kind of hard to gripe about having a stalker when he’s as hot as sheet metal in summer. And he keeps flying in and saving your bacon.
I glanced up and saw Jack in the crowd, eyes narrowed slightly.
I still hadn’t told Jack about Vlad. I was going to have some major explaining to do later.
Vlad shifted form, growing to twice his previous size, sprouting sleek black scales over his entire body and claws from his fingers and toes, all twelve of them. Then he spread his wings.
There was a collective gasp from the crowd.
He crouched down and launched himself upward, a leap like I can make with wing assist to get me up good and high, but once he was up, he spread his wings again and flapped hard, surging upward. He gained altitude fast, flying entirely away from the robots.
I was confused until he reached a height that made him a tiny dark speck in the morning sky. Then, he turned, folded his wings, and swooped down like a peregrine falcon striking at a pigeon.
The robots’ video eyes had tracked him up, and when they saw him diving for them, they both opened fire with two machine guns each. Bullets filled the air where Vlad dove, and I flinched, even though I knew his scales were bulletproof.
His dive shifted subtly into a twisting, erratic zig zag that made it harder for the robots’ guns to track him. Only a few bullets sparked off his scales. They knocked him off track a little each time, but with the speed he was diving and the crazy course he flew, it barely mattered.
I tapped TakeDown and pointed. The robots had all their attention and their video eyes fixed on Vlad.
We ran, hoping to get past them in order to search for the bomb.
Vlad hit one of the robots hard, knocking it off its very stable rolling track base with the sheer momentum of his body mass and the velocity he was travelling. A cheer rose from the crowd. The robot spun tracks frantically, but couldn’t right itself. It could only spin in circles. Its two smashing arms flailed, trying to smash its attacker.
Vlad’s claws dug into the metal, clinging like a leach while the thing tried to throw him off. Vlad ripped the antenna off the top of the robot’s “head” and it stopped spinning and flailing and went limp.
Ah, it WAS being controlled remotely. 
As we ran past the second robot, TakeDown tossed one of his gadgets, some kind of tazer grenade. It exploded under the robot, in between its two tracks with lots of crackling sparks. The robot stopped trying to shoot Vlad and paused.
“EMP!” TakeDown shouted.
I grinned and gave him a thumb’s up. All he had to do was get close enough, and he’d taken care of that thing, no problem.
Then, the video eye rotated around and stared down at us. Crap. The thing was probably EMP shielded.
The machine guns shifted around and fired at us. We both ran, but these weren’t warning shots.
TakeDown caught two rounds square in the back and slammed into the concrete guardrail on the side of the dam. He went down and didn’t move.
“Vlad!” I screamed. The bullets stitched across me, and I crouched and covered my head as best I could with my left arm. My scales are bulletproof, too, but they only cover about a quarter of my body. The rest is plain old flesh, that bleeds. A bullet hit me in the shoulder and another in the ribs. The impact slammed me to the pavement, but I got lucky, both shots hit scales. My first time getting shot by something that caliber. It felt a lot like getting hit by a car.
I looked up and saw my dark admirer launch himself at the second robot. He grabbed the machine gun that had just shot me and ripped it off the body of the machine with a screeching groan, leaving sparking dangling wires and wrenched sheet metal.
The robot tried to fight him, but it couldn’t shoot someone attached to itself, and its smashing limbs weren’t jointed right to allow it to smash itself.
I cheered Vlad and lifted a fist in the air. Ow. Broken rib. My scales might be bullet proof, but my ribs weren’t quite as tough as Vlad's.
Then I stopped cheering. I watched in horror as the robot that I had thought was disabled got up. It pushed against the ground with its two arms with the hammers on them and righted itself onto its tracks. It must have had some sort of backup AI in case it lost contact with its controllers.
It drew back one of its arms and I shouted a warning, “Vlad, look out!”
He looked up in time to drop off the second robot just as the first robot’s smashing arm hit the other one, right where Vlad had been a moment before. Instead of squashing Vlad like a big black bug, the big hammer destroyed the giant four-barrel weapon that had taken out the cop car.
But Vlad was on the ground, without the maneuverability he had in the air.
He realized how vulnerable he was and leapt into the air. One of the robots slammed him back to the ground.
He staggered to his feet and the other robot hit him with the giant hammer. They hit him again and again in cooperative rhythm, giving him no time to recover. His armored skin could only protect him so much. Underneath was flesh and blood and organs.
He was being pounded to hamburger because I asked him to help. And he loved me.
I screamed so loud it hurt my throat and leapt onto the robot that shot me. I grabbed one of the smashing arms and yanked as hard as I could. It ripped free of the mooring with a screech and crackle of live wires, and I threw it at the other robot, distracting it from hitting Vlad who lay in a crumpled heap next to its tracks.
Unfortunately, that meant it tried to smash me instead, and I’m far more smashable than Vlad is.
I let go of the robot I was on and dropped, just as a giant hammer crashed into the fragile video camera eye and associated machinery of its partner robot. Bits of metal and glass and wire showered over me. The crippled, half ripped apart robot shuddered to a halt and stopped, murdered by its own partner.
The other robot, ripped asphalt with its tracks as it accelerated toward the one remaining threat. Me.
Two machine guns, two giant smashing hammers, and a four barrels as big around as my thighs all swiveled toward me.

To make life more interesting, while I’d been focusing on the two robots on this side of the dam, one of the robots from the other end of the dam had come across to reinforce its comrades.
I looked behind me, and right down the barrel of another huge gun.
I was so completely screwed.
That was when I saw the most extraordinary thing I’d ever seen. A dragon. I know, not that unusual for me, but the dragons I’d seen had always been more or less humanoid, wings, weird feet, scales and claws, notwithstanding.
Flying above the robot that was about to turn me into a greasy pavement smear was the biggest, most dragonlike dragon I’d ever seen. It was Fafnir, had to be. The red and black scales were the same. But he was easily three times as big as he’d been at the theater. And he was different. His face had distended, gaining huge crocodile jaws, his feet, lengthened until they had the ideal leaping shape of a kangaroo’s hind legs, his body became long and sinuous, and his hands grew proportionately huge. He looked like a drawing out of a children’s fairy tale. He had even grown a long scaly tail with spikes on the end.
He landed on the robot that was about to shoot me and bit its head off. His teeth crunched the video eye and what had to be the central processing area into metal confetti.
The other robot moved its massive barrel up and fired at Fafnir point blank.
Whump BOOM!
I ducked and crouched, covering my head with my scaled arm as chunks of robot zinged everywhere.
When I looked up, the robot Fafnir had beheaded was just a smoking broken hull with one lone track still intact.
Fafnir’s blood red and tar black scales looked untouched. Not so much as a scratch.
He inhaled deeply, pursed scaly lips, and blew at the other robot, like a kid trying to blow out birthday candles. A focused cone of intense blue flames with a blinding bright smaller cone of yellow at the center cut the robot in half as neatly as any cutting torch.
The heat was so intense from where I was that my hair shriveled and burned on that side.
The fourth robot had started across the dam, but stopped when it saw the destruction the creature out of legend had caused. It backpedaled, tracks spinning hard in reverse as Fafnir launched into the air, soared out over the side of the dam where the water was a tiny trickle far below, and circled up.
The robot fired its machine guns at him desperately, but they had no visible effect, other than the sparks as the bullets bounced off his scales.
He grabbed the multi-ton robot with his feet as he swooped by and dropped it over the side. It fell onto the rocks below and smashed into a million pieces.
Whoah. That was awesome!
So much for the robots.
But we still had to find the bomb.
More in a bit …
Dee Dragon

Sunday, April 3, 2011


The crime lull after SXSW was temporary. The bad guys took a day or two off, then went right back at it. TakeDown and I have been running ragged again.
Since the Protectors put their third headquarters here, Austin has enjoyed the lowest crime rate of any city in Texas. We also had to endure occasional attacks by powerful villains like Lord Vile or the Defilers who tended to target the super-groups specifically, but most of the time, The Protectors had turned this into a peaceful and pleasant place to live. I don’t know where all of these super-bads were coming from.
 Yesterday, TakeDown and I bagged and tagged a super-powered gang trying to rob the local museum during a travelling display of ancient artifacts from Thailand. Some fancy sword that looked all glowy to me, but perfectly normal to TakeDown was apparently their target. They didn’t get it. We got them instead. But we both got beat up doing it, and might have broken a few priceless things here and there. I’m glad they don’t bill us for collateral damage.
As we were doctoring our wounds, hidden from others inside a SWAT van, I asked TakeDown why he wasn’t a Protector. He told me it was because of his power. He was mainly a gadget guy.  While tazer gloves and glue grenades are cool, and very effective against human criminals, they weren’t so effective against supes.  His only real super-power, other than good night vision, was that he could be just a bit stronger and faster that any one single opponent.
It seemed like a pretty impressive superpower to me. That meant if he fought me, he’d be stronger and faster than me. He’d beat me. He could take on N-Rage, the Protectors powerhouse with the mechanical clawed hand, and win. He could defeat a lot of the most powerful Protectors like Liberty, or even Iron Angel!
TakeDown told me that was true, but only if he went up against one of those heroes alone. If say, N-Rage were a villain, all he would have to do is put a weak henchman in a fancy suit in front of TakeDown, get him to focus on that opponent, and TakeDown’s own powers would make him only slightly stronger and faster than that weak henchman.
That was one heck of an Achilles’ heel. And, his power was useless in a lot of other situations, like fighting Mr. Flame. Being a little stronger and faster doesn’t help when your opponent’s main ability is hurling fire, not punching things. And TakeDown had no defensive powers, just some customized military body armor.
“So, the Protectors don’t think you’re good enough?”
TakeDown grinned at me like I’d said something funny. “I never asked them. Austin is my home. I’ll fight to keep it safe as long as I’m breathing. What the Protectors or the Alliance do or think?” He shrugged. “Not really my business.”
Like I said before, TakeDown is good people. If I ever needed an example other than my dad of what a hero is, I didn’t need to look any further.
The would-be museum robbers were on their way to jail in time for me to make my dinner date with Jack and Fafnir. We ate on the patio at Chuy’s, enjoying the beautiful spring weather for just a few quiet moments before my shift started at midnight. Fafnir works as a travelling Renaissance Festival performer. He’s been working the Sherwood Forest Faire an hour east of Austin for the last month. Next Sunday is the last day, and he’ll be moving on. I’m really going to miss him.
Vlad’s still stalking me, btw. He was up on the roof of a nearby building, but I’m getting pretty good at ignoring him. I wonder periodically, though, “Does he have a day job?” “Why is he even in Austin?” I’ll have to ask him eventually, I guess.
When TakeDown called, I excused myself, and walked a few feet away where I could hear better. Fafnir and Jack kept right on talking like old friends.
They stopped talking when they saw my face.
The cops had received a message, anonymous except for Vile’s emblem at the bottom. The message claimed that there was a bomb set to blow up the Mansfield dam. That would dump all the water from Lake Travis, Austin’s main water reservoir, into LakeWay, the wealthiest section of town. The message said that the bomb would go off in 13 hours, and the Protectors were the only ones who could stop it.  Another bomb was set to blow the next dam, just as the water hit and it was overloaded. That would flood downtown, the financial district, and all of the homes along Lake Austin. If those bombs went off, it would be as disastrous for Austin as Hurricane Katrina had been for New Orleans.
Thousands of lives would be lost and the property damage would be economically devastating.
It would take the Protectors’ jet about 12 hours to get back from Japan. The message claimed they were being generous by giving the Protectors an hour to make up their minds what really mattered to them.
The message said, “Heroes who only seek the spotlight are no heroes at all. If what the Protectors care about is protecting, they will return. If not, Austin will pay the price just as other cities already are paying.”
There had been a lot of controversy over the Protectors and the All American Alliance heroes all leaving the US so publicly at the same time.  Several cities were under martial law, but the Protectors and the Triple A guys still showed no sign of coming back.
I know the Japanese folks needed help, but did the Protectors have to take everyone? Even the Protectors’ reservists and part-timers had left for the high profile disaster, leaving their normal duties undone. Police all over the country were suffering casualties, trying to fight super-powered criminals that they normally wouldn’t have to face alone. The crime rate in the US had tripled since the heroes left a few weeks before.
The Japanese are a very capable people. They were rebuilding entire roads in days that normally would take months. Things were still looking pretty bleak there in parts, but a lot of folks here in the US felt like it was time for our guys to come home and take care of business, and let the Japanese heroes take it from here.
Takedown and I had done what we could in Austin, but really, all we were doing was holding back the tide by the skin of our teeth. The local cops were stepping up and handling a lot of the lesser powered supers as well. Apparently, Vile thought our efforts were just keeping Austinites from realizing the full impact of their heroes’ abandonment.
Lord Vile had issued an ultimatum, the Protectors had to come home, or let their city be destroyed.
Dee Dragon