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?”
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.
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 …