This was my first week as an official firefighter, and I didn’t fight one single fire. We fought a lot more fires in the academy. Car fires, tall building fires, oil fires, weird chemical fires, brush fires. Now, I feel like I’m back working for the hospital. We just have a much bigger vehicle to answer emergency calls. They won’t let Jack drive yet, because we’re rookies, but Sam Martinez, the guy who does drive, is a kindred spirit with Jack. There isn’t an ambulance driver in town that’s going to beat us to an emergency call.
I’m just glad I made it. We almost didn’t become firefighters.
I almost didn’t anyway. Jack was fine.
I had two demerits, and only two days to go. All I had to do was make it through those last two days without getting another demerit. Thursday morning, I took my Jeep, and left a little early, rather than ride to work with Jack in his Toyota. I wanted to stop and get him a graduation present. I didn’t tell Jack that, of course.
I got him a new watch, the old-fashioned kind that doesn’t need batteries and winds itself when you move your arm. I’d already ordered it on line. I just needed to pick it up from the jeweler. I had “That’s why” engraved on the back. I figured that way, even if I forgot to say it, or we were apart for a while, all he’d have to do was look at the watch and I’d still keep my promise.
With my luck, I half expected the jewelry store to get robbed while I was there, which made me maybe a little more paranoid than usual. It was really early. The sun wasn’t quite up yet. I wanted to be there the minute the jewelry store opened, get the watch, and get to the academy with time to spare. No way was I taking a chance on getting that last demerit with only two days to go.
I used the old section of 1325 as a shortcut to avoid the new toll road, like I usually do. I only take the toll if I’m in a huge rush. That took me past the University of Texas science center where they have that little mini nuclear reactor that they use for research. It’s a pretty non-descript boxy building, surrounded mostly by a big open field, and a tall chain link fence. It’s not really what anyone thinks of when they think of a nuclear reactor. People drive by that little section of campus every day for years and never realize there’s a nuclear plant there. UT used to offer tours to students. That's the only reason I knew it was there.
I saw three cars parked by the side of the road and thought that was a little odd.
That was when I noticed something that really worried me. A stylized cloaked figure with a big scythe was spray painted on a telephone pole near one of the cars. It was the symbol of the Death Dealers, but they generally didn’t bother leaving any kind of calling card. Dead people sliced up, missing eyes, ears, and other body parts were generally enough to identify where they’d been.
I knew immediately what I’d just seen. Whoever had been blowing up pieces of my city and blaming it on other known villains was about to blow the nuclear reactor. It didn’t even occur to me to think I might be jumping to conclusions. I’d seen the devastation of the last three blasts. If that wasn’t what was happening, then I’d be a little red-faced, but if it was, I had to do something.
I passed the cars, until I was out of sight around a corner, found a wide spot on the shoulder and parked right behind a big black pickup that looked very familiar.
What the heck was Brad doing out here in the wee hours before dawn? I realized I’d parked right behind him. Crap. He’d probably seen the same thing I had, and done the same crazy thing I was about to do.
I took the time to call Detective Long’s direct line. It’s kind of cool having a police detective on speed dial. Unfortunately, I got his voice mail.
“It’s Dee. Our bad guys are at the UT nuke plant. Get here fast.” I whispered into the phone. Not sure why I was whispering. It just seemed like the thing to do. I called Liberty next, but her voice mail said she was in Washington DC until Monday. Wonderful. TakeDown’s number also got voice mail, and I thought that guy never slept. I dialed White Knight in desperation, but apparently at this time in the morning, no one answered their cell phone.
I badly needed someone with superpowers, or a badge, or both. I didn’t have either, but I couldn’t just do nothing.
Brad’s big truck made it clear that he was here. He wasn’t a superhero, but he had some pretty intense supe abilities. Having spent some time with Liberty and White Knight and Jupiter Joe, I now clearly understood the difference.
I didn’t really have a plan, but if I could find Brad, the two of us might be able to do something.
I dialed 911 and left the phone in the car. I figured if they didn’t hear anything, they’d trace the GPS in the phone and send someone. I didn’t want to stay long enough to explain. If that plant blew, it could do incredible damage to my city.
At least, this target didn’t seem to have anything to do with me. It was just a nasty way to hurt as many people in the area as possible. It was a relief in a way. I was just being paranoid before. Whoever the bad guy was, he wasn’t targeting me in particular, just my city in general.
I crept along, just outside the chain link fence that surrounded the plant. The weeds were knee high, and seemed to be largely made up of thistle that kept catching on my pants, but at least the thick grass didn’t make much noise as I moved through it. The grass was mowed inside the fence. No place to hide in there.
I spotted a guy from a fair distance in non-descript jeans and t-shirt painting a few poles. He wasn’t really who I was worried about. I wondered where the guys planting the bombs were. I also wondered where the cameras were. I spotted a few hung from the power lines. They were small, inconspicuous, and wireless. No telling where their signals were being sent to.
Det Long told me he’d chased that angle. Whoever set the cameras up had a first class computer hacker on their side. The signals bounced through so many proxies, the final destination might have been in Beijing. I didn’t care where the signal went right then. I was just worried about who might spot me with those things and warn the bad guys.
I tried to avoid them, but really, I had no way to tell if I succeeded.
The cut and bent back chain link fence section near the guy with the spray can told me exactly where the guys with the bombs had gone.
I backtracked to my Jeep, pulled it right up next to the fence, and climbed on the roof. The barbed wire at the top of the fence was nasty. I still had the old leather jacket I used to use as superhero garb in the back. Throwing that over the barbed wire gave me a safer way over.
I was probably also in full view of whatever security the plant itself had, but that didn’t bug me in the least. If they saw me and it put them on alert, so much the better. But I suspected the security had been neutralized in some way by the bad guys.
Sure enough, as I got closer to the building, I saw standard security cameras in the eaves. The telltale red LED lights that should have been glowing on each one were dark.
I’d nearly turned my ankle a couple of times getting across the field. I missed my dragon vision.
A metal side door with a substantial-looking lock stood ajar a few inches.
I peered inside, glad the lights were on.
No sign of bad guys, just a stairwell with down as the only option, and a door opposite. I tried the door, but it was locked. The bad guys must have gone down.
I tip-toed down the metal stairs, glad I was wearing my Sketchers. The stairs led down to an open metal mesh walkway. The whole area was essentially a huge open room with metal mesh walkways all around and a deep swimming pool in the center. Down in the bottom of the pool, I could actually see the bright glow of the mini nuclear reactor.
I’d gotten the tour before, so I wasn’t shocked or anything, but it was still pretty awesome looking through a few feet of clear water straight into the glowing heart of a nuclear fire.
I could see guys setting little devices with wires around the edge of the swimming pool. There were two guys, one practically under me, the other on the other side of the pool. The one under me was a black guy with a baseball cap turned backward, probably not much past a teenager. The guy on the other end of the pool was white with dark hair spiked up on top and a navy blue polo. Even from here I could tell that guy was big. His biceps strained his shirt sleeves.
I couldn’t see behind the room-sized concrete housing for the cooling and fueling mechanisms on one end of the pool. There was another section of building around the corner where the monitoring station was. I couldn’t see in there either, although there was a window up a level that looked down. Anyone in there could probably see me.
So, there could be more bad guys. And they could already know I was there. If not, the moment I did anything, they would know.
Well, no point in being subtle then.
I jumped off the metal walkway, landed right behind the black guy with the cap. He was crouched down on the edge of the pool that kept the reactor from overheating messing with a nasty little device. I considered just knocking him into the pool for a second. He’d probably get enough of a radiation dose to kill him eventually, but in the meantime, he’d just be wet and really mad. And I didn’t see any guns, but I’d have been stunned if those guys weren’t armed. He could shoot me from the pool and I wouldn’t be able to do a damn thing about it.
So, instead, I did my best hammer fist strike to the back of his neck, putting my full body weight into it like Tamara had taught me. It didn’t take him out, but it dropped him to hands and knees. I drew back and kicked him in the face. That took him out.
He lay on his back, eyes rolled back in his head, and didn’t look inclined to move again for a while.
I ran as fast as I could around the edge of the pool.
The other guy looked up from what he was doing just before I rounded the corner. His brows crinkled a second like he wondered who I was.
I closed half the distance between us.
He glanced over where his buddy was sprawled unmoving on the concrete.
I was six feet away, running full out.
His eyes widened as he reached behind his back, lifting the edge of his polo shirt with his other hand.
I hit him with a full body tackle just as he got the gun out of the back of his waistband and started to bring it around. The gun went clattering out of his hand, slid along the concrete, and splashed over the edge into the pool of heavy water.
So, he wasn’t going to shoot me.
He was, however, twice my weight with biceps as big as my thighs. He wrestled me over onto my back, grabbed me around the throat with both hands, and squeezed.
Not good. But not as bad as it could have been. Tamara spent a fair amount of each class on what she called ground fighting, ways to defend yourself even flat on your back. Breaking choke holds was basic level. I tucked one foot up under my butt, trapped the big guy’s leg with the other, and bucked hard, while yanking the guy’s hands outward.
He flipped over until I was on top. I shoved his hands down with my full body weight on top of them, and added a hard knee to his groin to discourage him. No matter how big a guy is, a knee to the groin gets attention.
That knee made him cough and curl up. I followed it with adrenaline fueled punches to his face, belly and groin again. I’d never gone up against an opponent who was stronger than me in a real fight before, except that one time when I punched Brad with everything I had. He accused me of tickling him.
I punched and kicked and elbowed until the guy was curled into a little ball, arms over his head, begging me to stop.
I might have taken it a bit far, honestly, but I was seriously scared. If I failed, not only would the guy kill me, but he might kill my whole city.
I had my feet back under me by the time it was clear that this bomber wasn’t going to kill me or anyone else today. I was starting to feel a little relieved. I’d done it. I’d stopped them.
That was when I felt the gun barrel against the back of my head.
“Don’t move, bitch.”
I froze. Tamara had showed me a few moves that would disarm someone who had a gun touching me. One of them fit this scenario exactly. But all gun defense moves were incredibly risky, only to be used in extreme circumstances.
Preventing a nuclear explosion and meltdown in a city with a million people seemed pretty extreme to me.
“Did you think you could stop u..”
The guy never finished the sentence. While he was talking, I twisted to the side, leaned back, and swung my arm up and around.
His arm ended up tucked under mine, the gun safely aimed away from me. He had a tattoo on his forearm of a black skull with large staring eyes and a thick stripe of yellow across the upper half of the face, like a superhero mask.
I hit him in the nose as hard as I could with an elbow. I felt bone crunch. It was a good hit.
Something harder than flesh slammed into the back of my head.
What my training hadn’t covered was if the guy with the gun had a buddy I didn’t know about, with another gun.
I dropped to one knee, blinking to try to get the world back in focus.
My grip on the first guy’s gun arm loosened.
The two men stood over me, both of their guns pointed at my head, but not close enough for me to do anything about it.
I managed to get their faces in focus. One guy had curly, bushy dark hair and a spectacularly bloody nose. He looked really pissed off. The other was older and shorter with Hispanic dark skin and a scarred face that looked like fifty miles of bad road. Danny Trejo would look pretty next to this guy. His thick-veined arms had the same black skull with a yellow stripe tattoo.
In the frantic fight with the man with the big biceps, I’d barely noticed it, but he had the same tattoo.
I hadn’t seen it, but I’d be willing to bet money that the black kid in the cap had one too.
That was some brilliant detective work there, which wasn’t going to do me a bit of good with a bullet hole in my skull.
“You can’t stop Him, stupid bitch. He rules over all the ages of man.” That was the curly-haired guy with the bloody nose.
The “Him” was definitely capitalized. You could hear it in the way he said it.
I looked up, and fought to keep my face from showing my surprise and relief. There was someone tip-toeing up behind the two bad guys with the guns pointed at my face. Someone huge, hairy, ugly, and wearing a Crippen Steel gimme cap. Brad Spiers would never be mistaken for Brad Pitt, but right then, he looked just as gorgeous to me. Brad can move surprisingly quietly for such a big guy.
I wasn’t sure if Brad was bullet proof, but I knew that no punch these guys could throw would so much as phase him.
I said, “Well, whoever “He” is, he clearly needs to hire better help. Three out of four of you got taken out by one lone unarmed girl. You guys are the lamest henchmen ever.” If I kept their attention on me, Brad could get to them without getting shot.
Unfortunately, their attention came in the form of a cowboy boot to my temple from the ugly Hispanic guy.
I kind of took a little nap there for a few seconds. I vaguely remember some shouting and a scuffle.
Next thing I clearly remember was Brad carrying me out of the building.
Then there were some sirens and some flashy lights.
Cops pointed guns at us, but I waved at Detective Long and they stopped.
Apparently, he got my message.
He insisted that I go to a hospital, something about a concussion. That meant that I didn’t make it to my second to the last day of firefighter training.
After ten weeks of hell, I failed two days short of the goal.
I protested, but the fact that I wanted to puke every time I sat up, and I kept seeing two of everything made it pretty much impossible for me to convince anyone I was fine and needed to get to the academy.
Detective Long threatened to arrest me if I didn’t go to a hospital.
They discharged me later that same day.
Jack and Ma took turns staying up all night with me, waking me up every few hours, which was a truly miserable way to spend a night, I have to say.
The kicker of it was, all the bad guys were gone when the cops went into the building. The bomb squad disarmed the bombs, so the nuclear reactor didn’t blow up or melt down, but the bad guys got away.
I told Detective Long about the striped skull tattoos, and the bad guys referring to “Him.”
It was a little more than we knew before, at least.
I also told him that I was relieved that this attack didn’t have anything to do with me, personally. So, that shot my paranoid theory about the bomber targeting me.
Detective Long nodded like he agreed, then said, “So, why were you there?”
“I just happened to be driving by. The jeweler where I picked up the present I ordered for Jack is just up the street.”
“Did you order that present on line? Like you ordered your concert tickets?”
I felt really stupid. “Yeah. I did.”
“We’ve already established that whoever we’re up against, he’s got an exceptionally skilled hacker working with him.”
Detective Long nodded. “Watch your back, Dee.”
He sent a police escort with me to the hospital. Officer Flynn stood outside my room the whole time they did CAT scans and such on me at the hospital. When I got home, Flynn briefed Donovan.
I haven’t been able to go anywhere since then without an unmarked police car and Donovan’s Ford crew cab F250 both shadowing me.
I rode in Friday with Jack. I’d blown it, but I still wanted to see Jack graduate from the academy.
When I got there, I got a bit of a surprise. The mayor gave me a firefighter’s medal of valor.
Dave laughed when I told him I thought my last demerit meant I was out. He told me that saving the city from a nuclear meltdown was the best excuse for missing a day he’d ever heard. Under the circumstances, my demerit was excused.