Thursday, April 19, 2012

Birthday Dragon

I didn’t tell anyone it was my birthday. Ma, apparently, told everyone.

I had a surprise party waiting for me when I got back from the Texas Workforce Commission today. I’ve had to adjust my schedule to daytime people hours. Gah.

Donovan bought a turkey. Sounds like a weird birthday present, I know, but I absolutely love turkey. Ma cooked it up with all the fixings for everyone else. My birthday dinner looked like Thanksgiving. I had a lot to be thankful for, too.

Brad got a job. He was real cagey about the details, wouldn’t tell us what it was, but apparently it paid well. He volunteered to start paying rent. In fact, he offered to start out with six months back rent that he felt he owed us. Jack, Ma and I all told him that was silly. Brad had lived with us long enough that he was practically family.

With him putting a few hundred bucks in the household kitty every month, it would make it a lot easier for Ma to buy groceries to feed this herd. And, I could put gas in my Jeep again. We wouldn’t let him put in much, but it eased up the pressure. Now, if I could just get the hospital I used to work for to stop hassling me about paying the copayments for my two recent stints as a patient. Hmph. If they hadn’t fired me, I wouldn’t be struggling to make the payments.

Jack got me a necklace, rainbow obsidian, hand made. It’s possibly the most beautiful piece of jewelry I have ever owned. Did I mention that I have the most awesome boyfriend ever? I gave him shit about spending the money on me, though. I knew he didn’t have it to spare.

Tamara said that she chipped in on it some, too. She had a friend at the Abzu Emporium who cut them a deal on it. Once Jack put it on my neck and I saw how gorgeous it looked, I’m not sure I could have let it go anyway.

Liberty got the prize for most amazing present, though. She showed up as Ma had me blowing out candles on a cake everyone else was going to eat. (I got the turkey liver in mushroom gravy, yum!)

Liberty brought me a badge.

The badge was an official Protectors thing. I’d been training and working with them for a while now. They’d voted me into the club, I suppose. Once I let them know about my various identities, I passed the government security checks and such. Lots of folks can’t be a superhero full time, or they’re support crew, not front liners, so the Protectors have the Adjunct role. It doesn’t pay, not for part-timers, but you’re considered part of the team. You get an official Protectors badge which grants you access to the Protectors facilities and authority in the field.

My status with the local police department just got upgraded.

I thought that was a pretty cool thing Liberty did for me, a way to give me some of the prestige and respect of a Protector without putting me in the spotlight, or dragging me away from home when they got sent on assignments.

"Thanks, Catherine." That’s her real name. Not Cathy or Cat, Catherine. She’s very picky about that.

She grinned like a Cheshire cat.


"The badge isn’t your present. As an official Protectors adjunct, you’re not on the payroll, but you do get certain perks. Like access to and the services of … the lab techs." She handed me a small suitcase. I thought she’d brought it because she was planning to sleep over, maybe join us in a marathon D & D session. But no. It was my present.

I opened the little black shiny metal suitcase, not sure what to expect.

It was purple. That was my first impression, deep, vivid, awesome royal purple, my favorite color, with shiny silver accents.

I picked it up. The fabric had an odd feel, sort of like a fireman’s coat, sort of like TakeDown’s body armor. Most of it was just fabric, but chunks of it were actually solid, shiny metal armor. It was really light, though, some kind of super-alloy. There was a thin, flexible helmet and mask with it, too, with built in sunglasses to protect my eyes, open over the ears so it wouldn’t block my hearing.

"It’s fireproof and stab resistant," Liberty said. "The heavier parts are also bullet resistant, although they won’t stop armor piercing rounds. The lab techs will make any necessary repairs if it becomes damaged. I’ll have them make you a spare, once I get your feedback on any design changes you’d like." She thought a second, then said, "Oh, and its machine washable."

"It’s a real superhero costume." I didn’t quite believe it. There were boots with it, too, and a belt with special handcuffs and compartments to put stuff in. It had a big D on the belt buckle in silver. "Wow." I just looked at it for a few seconds, stunned.

Jack grinned at me. "I can’t wait to see you in it."

I had to try it on, of course. The fabric was stretchy, form fitting, but thick enough that I looked smooth. There was no sign of scales showing through, and it covered me completely, neck to toe. The heavier armor parts were all on my right side, over the parts of me that weren’t naturally armored. The asymmetrical armor had a sort of Mad Max look to it that I liked.

The upper body section was held on with Velcro strips that ran all along both sides, and under my arms. If I had to pop out my wings in an emergency, the only thing that would get ripped would be the strips. If I had time, I could un-velcro the strips and fly without messing up the suit at all.

I put on the little helmet mask combo. That girl in the mirror looked like a real superhero.

I showed everybody. They all said I looked great. Jack practically drooled on me.

Ma was the only one who didn’t say much.

While everyone dove into the cake, I went and helped Ma in the kitchen a little. Seemed odd to rinse dishes in my new supersuit, but I could. The built in gloves were thicker than surgical gloves, but about as easy to work in. They were a huge improvement over the clumsy leather glove I had before. I punched holes in the left one when I popped out my claws experimentally, but the weave of the tough cloth made the holes inconsequential.

"You okay, Ma?" I rinsed the big pan she cooked the turkey in, and passed it to her.

She nodded. She placed the pan in the dishwasher without saying anything.

"I should be less recognizable as me now. No one will know me in this getup."

She nodded again, still loading pans and utensils.

"What is it, Ma? What’s bugging you?"

She straightened up, sighed, put her hands on her hips and faced me. "Damson, I know this is what you want. It’s what you always wanted, to help people. I just worry that you don’t realize the potential cost."

"Liberty said the outfit was a perk of helping the Protectors. No charge."

"The cost to you, Damson, of pursuing the life of a superhero. The outfit makes it seem that much more real to me."

"It’s real, Ma. I love helping people and making them safer."

Ma sighed again. "I know you do, dear. It’s just that this has already cost you your job. I’ve spent a lot of my life keeping you safe from Georgians, but they’re not the only threat in the world. Next time, the cost could be your life, or someone you love."

"I can’t spend my whole life hiding, Ma. I’m a dragon, not a mouse."

She chuckled, and the tension went out of her shoulders. She resigned herself a little more to my new career path. She hugged me hard. "Your father would be so proud of you."

Having spent some time inside my dad’s head when he was a young man, I know she was right about that.

D Dragon

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Jupiter Joe

It’s been a while since I had time to write in my diary. You’d think that with no job, I’d have more time on my hands, but no. With job hunting, applying for unemployment benefits, nearly full time superhero training with Liberty, not to mention actual superhero assignments, I wish I had a regular job so I could have some time off occasionally. The paychecks would be nice, too.
My birthday is this week. I’ll be sixty-four, if you don’t count the chunk of years Domina Death stole. I’ve been keeping it mum. Jack and Brad are both looking for work, too.  Everyone’s short right now. It kind of brings home just how tightly we’re squeaking by when I’m afraid to tell my boyfriend it’s my birthday for fear he’ll spend some of what’s left of his savings on a present.
Donovan keeps showing up with groceries, claiming he had a sudden urge for Ma’s cooking. He’s not fooling anyone.
I’ve been flying more. I try to only do it when no one will see, but with gas pushing four dollars a gallon, my old Jeep just isn’t the best option for getting around.
I’ve been thinking pretty hard about what I’m going to do. Liberty hasn’t been pushing, but the option to be a full time Protector is there. I’d have to go where they go, follow orders, play with the team. Ra, ra. Plus, I’d have to do the public relations aspect of being a government superhero, emphasis on the ‘public.’ Ma really, really hates that idea. I’m not so keen on it myself, but the decent paycheck and full health benefits are hard to turn down right now.
There’s another option. In some ways it’s worse. Ma would have conniptions. But it would pay, not just a reasonable living, but a fortune. I’d go from living in someone else’s borrowed mansion to being able to buy a mansion of my own if what Jupiter Joe said is on the level.
Oh, right, Jupiter Joe. I skipped some stuff. Some really major stuff.
A couple weeks ago, someone blew up a section of the upper deck of I35, right in the middle of downtown, right in front of the police station. That’s what Liberty was calling me about on the night I got fired. It was a terrible mess. Cars crashed everywhere. There were people underneath there, too, when all that concrete and rebar collapsed. It’s a fairly popular place to park for access to downtown. It’s also a bit of a street festival gathering point.
The casualties were brutal.
When I got there, Liberty was in the thick of it. She was hauling half ton chunks of concrete off of cars, hoping to find someone alive inside them. There were police and ambulances and firefighters everywhere.
Liberty looked up as I got there. The latest car she’d uncovered had people in it. But they were way past saving.
The heroine in the diamondite crown wiped tears from her eyes and left smears of grease on her perfect cheek.
I gave her a quick hug before I dove in to help. She needed it.
Liberty is all heart. If she had been born with no powers at all, she’d have probably spent her life working for some cancer charity, fighting for civil rights, or raising orphaned kids. I’m honored that she considers me a friend.
I looked around at the devastation and had no idea how best to help. I saw Detective Long kneeling next to a half crushed car. He held the hand of someone still inside it.
“Can I help?” I asked him.
Long wasn’t crying like Liberty, but I could tell that it was only because anger was ahead of grief for the moment. “Can you do anything for him?”
I looked into the car at the person whose hand he was holding. A boy, maybe seventeen, barely old enough to drive, had his head resting back against the seat, face gory from a head wound, and part of the steering wheel embedded in his side. There was a girl in the passenger seat, but she wasn’t going to make it home. Only her head and part of one arm was visible. The rest was crushed under the roof of the car. A two or three ton chunk of highway sat on top of the car.
I gently moved Long to the side, got a careful grip on the car door and ripped it off its warped hinges. “Hang on, kid. I’m going to get you out of there, okay?”
The boy nodded weakly. Tears mixed with the blood on his face. “What about Sherry?”
Sherry. I wished I hadn’t known her name. “We’ll get her out later. Promise.”
The steering wheel assembly, the kid, and the car seat had pretty much merged. I did something I probably wouldn’t have considered before the time I accidentally bent a shotgun in half. I used my stronger left hand on the steering column. I ripped away wiring and plastic, and deliberately bent the metal back and forth at the narrowest point I could see. The metal was already weakened. In a few seconds, I was able to work it until it snapped. I used my right hand to hold the wheel steady, so it didn’t wiggle and hurt the kid.
Once I had the steering assembly separated from the car, I popped the bolts that held the seat to the car. I pulled kid, seat, and steering wheel, all out of the car at once, with Long helping me hold it all as steady as possible.
The kid groaned as we got him free.
Long knew what I was, but he’d never seen me pop out fangs and bite someone. “Hey, um, can you check his pupils, see if they’re dilating together?”
While he looked into the kid’s eyes, distracting them both, I bit the boy’s wrist.
“It was just a piece of glass. I got it.” I squeezed his hand, squeezed Long’s shoulder, and went to get them a paramedic. One that was on duty that is, and who had proper equipment to use to separate boy from steering wheel.
I saw Novak, the White Knight in his civilian firefighter persona, putting fire suppressant down on some of the cars that were burning. I nodded to him, but kept going.
I glimpsed the bright red and black of TakeDown’s uniform at the far end of the mess, doing his part.
There was so much devastation, so many people hurt. Everywhere I looked there were people with blood and concrete dust mixing on their skin, eyes dazed with shock.
I headed for the center of it, the gigantic mound of concrete, asphalt twisted cars and steel girders where the highway had fallen in on the parking lot. I did whatever I could as I went.
I stopped for a moment, again wondering where I could help the most. I heard something, under the sound of weeping and shouting all around me. A groan, and a tiny, muffled voice, “Help! Somebody, help me!” My hearing is about as good as your average dog these days. No one else heard the voice.
I tilted my head from side to side to pinpoint the location of that faint voice. “Oh, no.” Someone was under there. Somehow, someone was under that massive section of highway. Someone alive.
Liberty was a half block down, moving a twisted semi trailer.
I was afraid if I walked away, I wouldn’t be able to find that voice again.
I worked my way under one end of the chunk of mostly intact street, chunking boulders aside to make a path. There was a half dozen crushed cars under there at least. The voice wasn’t coming from the cars I could get to. I worked my way to the other end of the big chunk of road, but I couldn’t get in that way either.
The only way I could see to get to the cars underneath that section of highway was to move it. Once, I’d managed, with a whole lot of help, to flip a twelve ton semi over. This chunk of highway was built to support a dozen multi-ton trucks at once. I was looking at trying to move half a city block.
Yeah. In my dreams maybe.
Then this guy fell out of the sky. Literally.
He was wearing a long black coat, an Australian style black leather hat, and fancy sunglasses that merged into an ear piece. The look had a sort of steampunk feel to it, although I couldn’t put my fingers on exactly why. When he landed, it made a Whump! sound like something a lot bigger than a man hitting the ground. His booted feet left small craters in the concrete where he landed. He looked around, saw me, and sauntered across the rubble with a smile on his face.
“Just the lady I’m looking for. Jupiter Joe, at your service, maam.” He tipped the hat like I hadn’t seen anyone do since I was a kid. He was a good-looking man, late thirties, maybe early forties, long brown hair tied back. His accent was a little more East Texas than central, but he was definitely a native. I’d seen him on TV a few times, but I couldn’t remember what he’d been advertising. He was one of the Alliance heroes. They all had corporate sponsors.
“Why are you looking for me?”
“My organization would like to offer you employment.” He gestured at the devastation around us. “I believe that discussion can wait until after we’ve dealt with the current situation, though. How can I help?”
It was the same question I asked when I arrived. I liked him for it.
I sighed, looking without hope at the vast section of highway that I needed to get through in order to save a life. “I don’t suppose you can move that? There’s someone trapped in one of the cars under it.”
He gave the chunk of displaced road an assessing look, and nodded. “Can do. Make sure no one is in the way.”
He worked his way under one end like I had. Then lifted his hands up to the steel under supports, focused for a second, and just walked forward, one heavy step at a time. And I do mean heavy, I swear he left tracks in the asphalt under him, as if he walked in mud.
The highway moved.
I’d already made sure no one else was going to get crushed by hundreds of tons of road. I quickly got out of the way myself, as the highway twisted and tilted.
Jupiter Joe worked his way slowly down the length of the structure. It groaned and shrieked in protest as he moved what was never meant to move. Ponderously, it rolled over on its back, like a lazy whale. It crashed down in a cloud of dust and grinding, horrible noise, a localized avalanche.
That pretty much got everyone’s attention.
One minute, a hundred rescue workers, cops, superheroes and random volunteers were all doing their own bits to try to save lives. The next, everyone was staring at me and Jupiter Joe.
Liberty, Detective Long, and Novak all came over to see what the hell I thought I was doing. Strange that they all blamed me, even though it was Joe who did the street demolition. They all tried to talk to me at once. “What the hell do you … “ “Did you make sure no one was under … “ “What if that had …”
“SHUT UP!” I shouted. “I can’t hear.”
Liberty got the, “Ah, I see,” face. She knew I had super-hearing.
She raised an eyebrow at me, but put her finger to her lips at Novak and Det. Long. They shut their mouths grudgingly.
The cars that had been underneath that chunk of highway were flattened down to their wheel wells. Blessedly, most of them had been parked and empty. But I knew one of them wasn’t empty. “Maam, say something,” I shouted at the line of crushed cars.
“Hello?” came the small voice. “Can you hear me?”
There. “I hear you! We’re going to get you out. It’s going to be okay.”
The others all gave me blank, confused looks as I talked to a bunch of crushed cars.
Three cars had sort of been crunched together into a single mound of tangled car. The car in the center was slightly less smushed than the others. “In there. There’s someone in there alive.”
The others gave me dubious looks. It just didn’t seem possible that anyone could survive in there.
I got on top of one car to reach the one in the middle. Big tangled mess. We had to get it apart, but I couldn’t tell where a person might fit in there. If we moved the wrong chunk of steel the wrong way, we might kill her.
“Joe, can you help?”
“No, maam. I don’t think that’s a good idea. I can only control my body’s density. If I stand on top of a car and get dense enough to rip steel, I’ll crush the car I’m standing on.”
Density control. Well, that’s different. “Liberty? Novak?”
They each got on different sides of the car mound, and carefully peeled away pieces of car.
Liberty had more strength than Novak and I did, so she made the fastest progress. She peeled away a chunk of sheet steel, and there was a person’s leg. It was a tiny, slender leg in ripped hose. When Liberty touched it, it moved, and this time we could all hear the little muffled voice. “Help me!”
We got the lady out pretty fast after that. She was young, mid twenties, pretty and petite, like a ballet dancer, maybe ninety pounds soaking wet. She was dressed in a nice tailored business suit. She was also almost completely unhurt. One arm was broken where the seat had twisted and taken her arm with it. We got her free. I splinted her arm with some seat belt straps and a piece of the bucket seat she’d been leaned back in when the sky fell on her.
“I had to work today, but my friend Jenna wanted to go out tonight. I thought if I slept in my car for a couple hours, …” She pushed stylishly cut thick brown hair out of her eyes with a shaky hand. “Maybe it wasn’t the best idea after all.”
Liberty shook her head in disbelief that I’d managed to find the lady under all of that and get her out safely. “If not for Dee, you might have been stuck in there for days. I’d say you’re actually pretty lucky.”
The lady squeezed my shoulder as I finished splinting her arm. “Thank you … Dee? That’s an odd sort of superhero name.”
I was wearing a black cloth mask. My favorite denim jacket was long gone, shredded by Bobcat. I’d ended up wearing an old leather biker jacket I found at Goodwill and jeans. My budget for superhero outfits was pretty much nill.
“Yeah, well, I’m an odd sort of superhero, I guess.”
That made her smile and I did feel like a hero for a moment at least.
Novak walked the nice lady back toward an ambulance, or someone with a phone who could call her a ride since the ambulances were all pretty full.
I looked around for someone else to help, and spotted Detective Long. He was staring at the end of the chunk of road Jupiter Joe had flipped over. As I watched, he picked up something tiny in the rubble, then walked over to one of the blown highway supports.
A blue globe with wings was spray painted onto the remaining vertical section of concrete pillar.
“You think the Free Earth people did this?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “They’ve been known to blow bridges or highways, but they usually do it when they’re deserted, or even set up phony detours to clear them first. They wouldn’t have blown the bridge right on seventh street in the middle of Saturday night. They want sympathy for their cause. They only use deadly force when they’re desperate.”
“Well, someone planted bombs right here under the noses of the Austin cops and hundreds of other people. Did anyone call in, claim responsibility? Do you think it was Lord Vile’s people?”
He shook his head again. “This isn’t Vile’s style.” He held up the bit of twisted blackened steel in his hand. “This isn’t one of his devices either. And no. No one else has claimed responsibility. I think someone wants us to think it was Free Earth, but it wasn’t.” His jaw muscles worked and his eyes got cold and hard. “Whoever did this, did it deliberately at the worst moment to maximize loss of life.”
I looked around at the devastation. “Why? Why would anyone do this?”
Det. Long looked around, too. “Every superhero and emergency worker in town in one place. That doesn’t happen often.”
I felt a cold shiver up my spine. “Maybe that was the goal.”
I searched up under the bridge supports that were remaining, and the raggedy edges of shredded highway dangling above me. Hidden in the corners where human eyes would have a very hard time spotting them, I saw several shiny black eyes. “Cameras.”
Det. Long looked, but he couldn’t see them. It didn’t matter. He trusted that I saw them. He nodded. “Someone wanted to see Austin’s finest at work, see what we could do.”
I’d bitten the boy’s wrist, and given a couple of other folks a furtive dose of healing venom when I thought no one was looking. Whoever was behind those black camera eyes now knew one of my secrets.
I’d flown here. I landed a few blocks away on a roof where I was less obvious, but I wondered how far those cameras extended. I wondered just how much our mysterious new enemy now knew about me.
I wondered if finding out my secrets was the point of all this horror. Most of the rest of Austin’s heroes were known quantities. I was the new kid.
Or, maybe I was just being paranoid.
Det. Long saw me biting my lip and looking nervous. “Do you think this could be the people who are after you?”
Georgians? No way. “They’re ruthless. They’ll kill anyone in their way. But, they wouldn’t do something like this … this random slaughter and pointless destruction. This might have been done to find out about us, but it’s also like whoever did it, just did it for …” I couldn’t say it.
“Fun.” Long’s jaw muscles jumped.
“Yeah.” I looked up at the many soulless black eyes.
I could almost hear someone laughing at all of us.
D Dragon