Sunday, August 26, 2012

Nuclear Meltdown

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.

D. Dragon

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Smoking Mirror

Panic was in the air. I don’t mean that in some figurative sense. I could smell the overwhelming scent of human fear. It permeated everything. And blood. I smelled blood.

I was in an odd sort of bedroom, with beautiful, elaborate carvings on the wall and brightly woven blankets. I lifted the hanging blanket from the doorway to peek outside. A small, dark woman slammed her elbow into a man’s face, smashing bone. The man, with fierce-looking yellow paint across his brown-skinned face dropped dead next to three others.

The small, dark-haired woman who had killed them ran into the room and slammed right into me.

She fell. The baby she carried tied and bundled in a bright blanket flew from her arms.

“No!” she shouted.

I dove like a volleyball player and made a desperate catch.

The kid burbled up at me with a grin that only had a few teeth in it, including one fang. The baby’s huge eyes were dark blue in a light-brown-skinned chubby face. The thick hair on the tiny head was bright purple.
I cuddled the dragon baby close and turned back to hand the little bundle back to the woman who fell.

I turned around, but the woman was gone. In her place was a creature that filled the room. Sleek and deadly like a panther the size of a Clydesdale, the creature growled low, showing fangs as long as my hand.  It stood on its hind legs. Deep purple scales rippled as the beast half spread wings that folded like a dragon’s, but were feathered like an eagle’s.

The creature extended both arms toward me as I backed into a corner of the room, hugging the toddler dragon close.

“Give her to me!” the creature growled. It must have been a dragon of some kind, but different from any dragon I’d ever seen. One hand popped out long black needle-tipped claws. The other held out to me palm up. “Give her over willingly, or I will take her from your limp, useless body, and rip your heart out while you watch.”

“I won’t let you hurt her,” I said with a bravery I’m not sure I was really feeling. I kept frantically looking for a way out. The only door was behind the strange, feathery dragon. The walls were carved stone. I had no idea how I’d gotten into the room, much less how to get out.

The creature hesitated. Its great cat-like head with back swept ears, that I now realized were pointed head scales, leaned down until it was nearly nose-to-nose with me. Its vivid yellow cat eyes squinted as if struggling to see me. “Daughter of my daughter?” It asked.

“Great great grandmother?” I asked back.

The dragon let out a sigh of relief and sheathed her claws. She was Cuicatl, wife of Quetzelcoatl, also known as Agmund Drage. Which meant that the baby in my arms was probably my great grandmother.

“Forgive me, child. I thought you were some sort of servant of the Smoking Mirror,” my ancestor said.

“What the heck is the Smoking Mirror?”

“Smoking Mirror is a powerful dragon. He has come while my husband is far away, with fierce soldiers who slaughtered our defenders. He demanded my daughter as sacrifice, to be skinned alive in honor of his conquest of the city. He will slay a child of the village every hour that my daughter does not volunteer to die.”

“But, why? What could that possibly gain him?”

“He wishes to claim me as his mate. I am the bride of this city. He who rules the city, I must take as husband.” My ancestor looked simultaneously disgusted and ashamed. “The dark Obsidian one seeks to slay my sole living child by my beloved true husband.”

“Agmund is going to kick this Smoking Mirror’s ass when he gets back.”

Her cat eyes narrowed and glowed with a wicked inner light. “I too believe it will be so, but he will be too late to save my daughter.” Tears as big as my fist ran down the dark scales of her face.

“I’m so sorry. What can I do to help?”

“No one can help my eldest daughter. She will give herself up within the hour. She cannot abide for an innocent to take her place in death.” The dragon sniffed and wiped the tear from her face with her bent wrist in a very cat-like way. “She will die as a true servant of the earth, giving her life to save others.” She said that with pride overshadowing the sadness.

She reached out to the tiny toddler in my arms, stroked her chubby little face with a deep plum-colored giant fingertip. “Smoking Mirror does not know that I have another daughter. I sought to hide her, but it is hopeless. The dark one will find me. I have a sister in a nearby village who could claim her and care for her until my husband returns, but if I try to leave the city, the dark one will know.” She gripped my arm and stared earnestly into the general area of my face. “Can you take my child to safety daughter of my daughter?”

“Of course I’ll help. But I don’t understand how this is possible. I shouldn’t be able to affect things that happened more than a thousand years ago.” The kid grabbed a handful of my hair and pulled, trying to stuff it into her mouth. As I gently freed it, I had a weird thought. “I was drawn to this time to Agmund, so he has to be my ancestor. If this is your only remaining child with Agmund, this little girl couldn’t have died. She must have survived somehow.”

“The future is never set, young one. It changes with each action and choice that we make. If my little one is mother of your mother, and she dies, …” She trailed off. The implication was obvious.

“Then I might never be born.” I had to save the kid, or I wouldn’t exist. But if I didn’t already exist, then how could I save her?

“All the more reason to get her to safety quickly.” Cuicatl looked over her shoulder at the stone archway into the chamber. A hanging blanket blocked the view, but the sound of heavy feet was close enough that I could hear it as well as she could.

She lifted one of the woven hangings on a side wall, and pushed with dragon strength on a section of the stone. It shifted inward to show a dark, narrow stone passage, half blocked with cobwebs. “Go quickly. The passage comes out near the path to my sister’s village. Travel forward until you find the path. Then turn toward the rising sun. Walk for a day and a night and you will find my sister’s village.”

There was more commotion outside the door. Men's voices, angry, although I couldn't yet make out words. “Hurry, child.”

As I hunched down the low triangular corridor, pushing aside icky spiderwebs, some of them still inhabited. I heard the stone door grind back into place behind me. Just before it shut completely, I heard Cuicatl’s voice, “Thank you daughter of my daughter. I will not forget what you have done.”

Closing the door left the dank narrow corridor in near total darkness. There were occasional cracks in between the stones that sent shafts of light inward. They came at regular intervals as if planned for lighting. I could hear men shouting and smell fear and blood coming down from above. I found the light adequate to see by, although not enough to always spot the cobwebs before they touched my face.


At least once, a spider crawled across my cheek as my face invaded his web.

I did not scream.

Only because I was terrified that Smoking Mirror’s men would hear me and come after the baby cooing in my arms.  I did smack my head against the low ceiling getting the many legged critter off me, then stomped it really hard, and then stomped it several more times for good measure. Damn thing was the size of a rat. I could have put a saddle on it and rode it.

That was when I finally noticed something that should have been obvious. My feet had scales and an extra toe. I'd been deciphering my world largely by scent. It was far too dark in that corridor for a human to see anything, yet I could see fine.  I looked at my left hand. Scaly. My claws popped out when I flexed them. I was a dragon again.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but it was worth noting.

I reached the end of the stone passage and pushed aside a boulder that blocked the exit. Thick jungle canopy overhead meant that the light was only a little blinding. The baby fussed a little as I brought her out. I shielded her face with the hand woven blanket.

I kept walking as straight ahead as I could around the bases of the tall trees. I didn’t hear any sounds of men anymore. The passage must have taken my baby great grandmother and me well outside Cuicatl’s city.

I heard lots of other weird sounds, probably birds or monkeys or who the heck knows what. It’s not like I’d ever heard the sounds of a South American jungle anywhere, except maybe on the Discovery Channel.

I crossed the path and had to double back. I didn’t realize it was a path at first. It was just a strip of beaten flat ground on the jungle floor, no wider than two feet, that meandered between the trees.

I turned around in a circle, trying to figure out which way the sun came up. It was getting later so the sun was lower than before. I put my back to it and walked the other way.

Suddenly, I heard something that didn’t fit, but that was very familiar. My alarm clock.

I felt my grip on the baby in my arms fading. “NO!” I couldn’t wake up, not until I got the baby to safety. If I vanished now, she would be left in the middle of the jungle for anyone from a hungry jaguar to one of Smoking Mirror’s men to find her.

I ignored the insistent sound and started running down the path as fast as I could.

Cuicatl had said walk for a day and a night to get to the village. There was no way I could stay asleep that long. I shifted the kid to one foot, gripped her carefully, unfolded my wings in a wide spot between trees and leapt for the air.

Easier said than done. I couldn’t flap properly. There wasn’t enough room. I half jumped, half climbed to the treetops and finally launched into open air, squinting against the blinding light of the evening sun. I flapped as hard as I could. I had to fly faster than I ever had.

The insistent beeping pulled at my mind. I felt myself fading more than once. When I vaguely felt Jack’s cat licking me, I actually dropped the baby. My feet just faded to the point where she fell through them. I had to scramble to catch her before she impacted the trees.

I couldn’t wake up. No matter what. I had to stay asleep.

This was real. This wasn’t a dream.

My experiences with my grandmother and father in Camelot had taught me that my dreams really were a form of mental time travel, that only happened when I was asleep.

If I woke up, the baby would fall to her death, and then what? Maybe I would wake up only to find that I was now a ghost in my own time.

I had no idea what would happen if I failed to save my own great grandmother from death, but even if that wasn’t an issue, I wasn’t about to drop a helpless baby from a considerable height into a wild jungle full of men who wanted to kill her.

I flew as fast as I could, grateful for the physical training in human form that had made me stronger than I had ever been. Finally, in the distance, I saw the peak of a stone pyramid-shaped building sticking out of a clearing in the trees.

“Almost there, little grandmother. Almost there.”

A massive shape rose up from that pyramid to confront me. The shape was like a huge bird of prey against the too bright sky.

As it got closer, I recognized the shape of one of the panther/eagle-like local dragons.

“What are you, shadow? Leave my city. We do not traffic with ghosts.”

“Not a lost shadow of one dead, a memory of one yet to be born,” I said, repeating what Agmund had said as best I could. “Are you Cuicatl’s sister?”

“I am. Who asks?”

“Her great, great granddaughter, and her daughter.” I could feel someone shaking me violently. I was starting to fade and I couldn’t fight it this time. “Catch!” I yelled, and tossed the little bundle of baby toward her aunt.
Just as the jungle world faded away, I saw the dragon catch the baby in gentle-clawed feet.

Then I woke to Jack shaking me so hard my teeth rattled. “Okay, okay. I’m up.”

“What’s wrong with you, Dee. We’re half an hour late already.”

“Oh, crap! We’ll get a demerit!”

“Forget that. What’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you wake up? It was like you were in a coma or something.”

“No, just time travelling. I had to save my great grandmother from being a human sacrifice to an evil Aztec conqueror or I might have ceased to exist."

Jack blinked. He sat there for a few seconds speechless, then sighed. “With anyone else, I’d say it was time to call the guys in the white coats. With you …” He shook his head. “Just get dressed. We don’t want to be any later than we already are.”

I sat up and realized, I was covered in skin, not scales. In the dream, I’d been back to my old self, all dragony. But here, I was still human.

I felt a tug of painful disappointment mixed with relief. Somewhere down deep, I was still conflicted. I desperately wanted my dragon self back so I could help when people were hurt, and fight the good fight. But I also really wanted to be normal. It was kind of great to just be one of the guys at the firefighter’s academy.

So, that’s where I’m at. Only one week of firefighter training to go, but two out of three demerits down. I just have to make it one more week. How hard can that be?

D. Dragon

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Meaning of Fear

It’s been a long few weeks. I haven’t had much of a chance to write. I need it after what happened though. So, I'm making time.

I’ll start with the normal stuff.

Firefighter training gets harder every week. We’re in the home stretch now. Only two more weeks to go. It looks like I might make it.

Or, I might die. Every inch of my body aches, every night. I have muscle aches in places I didn’t even know humans had muscles.

Yeah, I’m still human.

My jeep got a flat the other day, and I realized just how much I took being a supe for granted. I don’t even own a jack. Liberty says there’s still a chance I’ll get my old self back. Sometimes, I’m not sure if I want my old self back, but there are always things I miss. I miss being able to fly, and not skinning my knees when I fall, and being able to open pickle jars.

Brad’s pretty handy for the pickle jars. When he’s around anyway. His new job has him working some odd hours. I heard him talking with Jack the other day about being a little uncomfortable with some of the stuff his boss is asking him to do. He would never tell me anything that personal. Brad’s a little awkward when it comes to talking to women, but he and Jack are best buds. He won’t tell even Jack what his new job is, or who he’s working for, though. Something top secret, we gather. Brad figures he’ll lose his lucrative new gig if he spills anything, so we don’t push.

Jack and I are good. I keep telling him every day, “That’s why,” when he does something that reminds me why I love him. Sometimes, he just studies with me and Roy for the next tough Friday test, explaining something patiently to both of us that we didn’t quite get. Sometimes, I see him giving Brad advice, or helping Ma in the kitchen, or playing ball with our dog, Rocky. And sometimes, he does something really amazing like figure out how to prop up my jeep on spare tires, pump the spares up with extra air to lift the jeep, and change the flat.

My boyfriend rocks.

I keep trying to get a chance to wear that lacy green underwear thing that Jack bought me. But it’s like life is conspiring to keep me a virgin forever.

Firefighter training eats up all of our time. By the time we get home, I’m so tired, and my body aches so badly that a hot bath and bed is all I can manage. Picking up a pen to write in my diary has felt like too much work.

On top of that, Jack and I are still taking Krav Maga with Tamara three days a week. Just when my new body thinks the abuse is over, I get shoved around, and have to punch, kick and block until I can’t hardly lift my arms. The way Tamara and Jack joke around in class bugs me still, but I try not to get weird about it. It’s not like I caught Jack sitting on the floor hugging her while she was half dressed, or saw him kissing her on national television, but still. It doesn’t seem to matter whether I’m a dragon or a normal, I’m constantly afraid I’m going to lose him. I’ve never been in love before. I didn’t know there was so much fear involved.

Last weekend, I found out what real fear felt like.

Jack and I finally got a little time to ourselves. Jack took me out to the Erwin center, Austin's stadium in the round, on a real date. I wore the lacy green one piece underwear. I thought that was going to be The Night.

Instead, I thought I lost him.

Jack took me out to see “Celtic Woman.” I’ve seen them on TV a few times. The music is hauntingly beautiful. It’s like part of me remembers music like that. Considering my tendency to remember things that happened to my ancestors, maybe that’s actually true.

They were doing a concert at the Erwin Center last Saturday. Jack and I booked our tickets on line way ahead of time to get decent seats. Parking downtown was the usual insanity. We had to walk four blocks to get in, but I didn’t mind. At least the humidity was back to normal.

Last year, we had the worst drought in recorded history. This year, the weather made up for it by raining nearly every afternoon for weeks. It was like living in Houston there for a while.

Now, we’re back to a baking 105 in the daytime, and warm, blessedly dry evenings. I never realized how much the heat affected normals until I found myself running obstacle courses in hundred degree heat and 90% humidity in a human body. I barely noticed the temperature when I was a dragon. Temperature was like texture or color, just an attribute of the air, not anything that affected me.

With Jack holding my arm and a fluttery new sundress on that I never could have worn before, the weather seemed just fine. I enjoyed listening to the grackles settling in for the evening with their raucous songs, and the humming buzz of the cicadas playing counterpoint.

It was a great evening to just be alive.

The concert was lovely right up until it turned into hell on earth.

We had seats toward the front of the arena section, just behind and above the floor seats. The stairs leading back to ground level were right beside us. Jack went to the bathroom. It was the only time all night that we were separated. So, of course, that was when the bombs went off.

The bombs weren’t loud. I remember hearing something strange, a few deep distant-sounding booms. I wondered what the odd sounds were, if it was part of the music in some way. There was a second or two where everything sort of paused, and then the screams.

The section I was in was miraculously spared. The Erwin Center is famous for all around view. Every seat is a good seat. The rest of the building fell all around me. I watched as if it were some horrific show.

I didn’t know what to do at first. I wasn’t a supe anymore. Most of the people around me stampeded for the exit down the stairs. A lady tripped, and three other people stepped on her. I jumped into the mess without thinking. I shoved people aside as best I could, but a lot of them were bigger than me, and stronger. I got elbowed a couple times hard enough to bruise. I managed to plant my feet in front of the downed woman, holding onto the stairway railing to keep from getting knocked over, and extended a hand to her.

As soon as she was back on her feet, she started running again, holding an arm that looked broken.
Everyone seemed to think this section of the building was going to blow up next.

Leaving seemed like an okay idea, although I couldn’t really think clearly. I started down the stairs and someone shoved me, hard. I rolled down the stairs, each one embedding a black and blue impression of itself into my flesh. I curled into a tiny ball at the bottom as people kept running all around me, kicking me as they went.

The feet stopped their abuse for a moment. I looked up to see a tall blond man who looked completely familiar, although I was sure I’d never met him before, at least not while I was awake. “Agmund?”

The man looked startled, then smiled. “Agmund was my brother. I’m Alrek. Did you know my twin?” He was a perfectly calm rock in the chaotic river of fleeing humanity.

“I met him a few times.” I accepted a hand up. The tall twin of Quetzelcoatl pulled me in close, sheltering me with his large body against the flow of panicked humanity pouring toward the row of shattered glass doors and out into the relative safety of the street.

I ignored the flow and turned left down the huge round corridor that surrounded the formerly drum-shaped Erwin center. The closest men’s room was that way. I stopped short as I rounded the curve. The corridor was blocked. That entire section of the building had come down.

People were trapped under rubble, moaning or lying unmoving, crushed, hurt, or dead.

I stood there, looking at the pile of concrete and dust. Blood from crushed people oozed from between the stones as if the wounded building were bleeding.

“Are you not going to aid them?” Alrek asked, gesturing to the people on the floor. He had an odd accent. It sounded Mexican or Spanish, sort of.

“I don’t know what to do.” I’ve never felt so lost, so helpless. I needed Jack.

I looked at the impenetrable pile of bleeding building as if Jack would appear if I just watched long enough. I thought about Angela, staring at the hospital entrance where her partner had gone in.

“We should go, Dee,” Alrek said softly. “This building may yet prove unstable.”

I nodded. “You go ahead.” I walked to the wall of rock and started picking up chunks of concrete and setting them aside. I couldn’t pick up very big chunks with my normal human hands. I scraped around the big pieces, pushed, and dug at them until bloody fingerprints marked the concrete.

Alrek pushed me gently aside. “Let me help.” He shifted to scaly form, not the giant dragon battle form that wouldn’t have fit well in the corridor. He was three times as big as a normal human, even so.

He lifted a chunk of concrete that had someone’s leg trapped beneath it. “Help him while I dig.”

I nodded. I didn’t have a kit. The guy had a compound fracture, bone showing.

I snagged a broken piece of steel rebar, tore strips off the hem of my dirty sundress, and splinted the leg. I don’t even remember what the guy looked like. All I saw was the wound. And even that was hard to focus on. I kept looking back at Alrek, as he moved chunk after chunk of concrete.

It seemed like an endless task. There was so much rubble. And bodies. So many dead. Alrek moved nearly as much shattered flesh as steel and concrete.

I kept looking for the bright red shirt I’d given Jack for his birthday, with the embroidered black silk dragon. It looked so gorgeous with his skin tone. Fit for a dragon lord.

I kept expecting to see it, wrapped around some crushed, barely recognizable body part.

I heard people moaning. Even though I moved like a robot and I kept looking back at Alrek to make sure he was still digging, I helped the people around me. I put an improvised pressure bandage around a woman’s leg, where a piece of steel had gone through. I splinted a few more broken bones.

Those who could walk, I sent after help for those who couldn’t.

When there was no one left to help, I started moving small stones again. I couldn’t walk away and I couldn’t just sit there and watch Alrek dig.

With an elder dragon’s strength, Alrek had made a significant dent in the pile. He had cleared a hollow place next to the inner wall of the wide corridor, about ten feet deep and across.

Firefighters and paramedics came in to help the worst wounded.

Someone put a hand on mine and took the chunk of concrete I was carrying from me. The hands were covered in shiny silver mail.

“Dee, what are you doing?” White Knight said. “We need your healing power. Why aren’t you topside helping?”

“I can’t.” That was when the tears started. “I can’t help anyone.”

I put my head against his armored chest. “I can’t help Jack.” I realized I was shaking.

Knight wrapped his arms around me. He looked over my shoulder at the purple dragon steadily digging.
“Who are you?” he asked, one hand on his sword. Old Georgian habits die hard, but at least he talked to the unknown dragon, rather than immediately attacking him.

The dragon turned with a slight bow. “I am Alrek. I have only recently come to your country.”

“Well, I appreciate you helping, but the main rescue efforts are on the other side of the building. There isn’t likely to be anyone left here to save.”

I shoved Knight away from me so hard, he actually stumbled back a little. “Jack is alive.”

I went back to picking up concrete chunks and moving them. I tried to pick up a piece that was too big for me. I struggled with it with tears streaming down my face.

Knight put a hand on my arm. “Dee, there’s no point…”

“NO!” I yanked my arm away from him and went back to struggling with the heavy rubble.

“Allow me.” Alrek lifted the heavy concrete easily in one hand and tossed it aside. We went back to digging side by side.

I picked up a broken piece of plastic with letters carved into it. “Me…” Men. “There!” I said, and dug into the pile of building where the remains of a doorway could just barely be seen. It was pretty clear that where the Men’s room had been was just more rubble.

“Dee, …” Knight tried again.

I ignored him and kept digging, Alrek at my side.

Knight stood there for a moment, watching, then turned and started to walk away. He stopped after a couple steps, next to what had been a stairwell up to the next level. He cocked his head to one side, and said, “Dee!”

“Go away, Knight.”

He turned and started digging himself, in a different spot than we were. “Dee! Alrek! Dig here! I heard something. There’s someone alive in here.”

I looked at Knight, frantically throwing chunks of concrete big enough to crush me over his shoulder.
Jack went to the bathroom. Our seats were on the second level. He had no reason to go up those stairs to the third level. There might be someone alive in there, but it wasn’t Jack.

Alrek paused, looked at me for guidance.

I remembered hearing the woman trapped in the car when no one else could. Dragon hearing. White Knight was a dragon. I wasn’t anymore, so I couldn’t hear anything but the occasional grinding of dirty stone shifting against stone.

“Do you hear anything?” I asked Alrek.

He cocked his head to one side and listened. “Yes. There is someone moving in there.” He gestured to where Knight dug frantically.

I nodded permission. Someone was alive in there, but they might not be alive for long if there was no way for air to get in. Alrek helped Knight to move larger and larger chunks of wall and ceiling. It didn’t occur to me at the time to wonder why a dragon I had just met waited for my permission. I wonder now, but it’s too late to ask.

Within moments, the two strong dragons had cleared a hole through to a hollow space under the heavy reinforced concrete stairs. A man’s arm pushed out of the hole, shoving rubble outward as the two dragons dug inward.

The arm had bright dusty red silk on it.

“Jack!” I ran to the hole and grabbed that hand.

Jack peeked through the hole at me and grinned. He squeezed my hand. “Good to see you too, Dee.”

Knight and Alrek dug the hole further open until it was big enough for people to squeeze through.

Jack came out first, then reached back in to help a lady, two kids, and another guy out as well. They were all completely uninjured aside from coughing up dust.

I hugged Jack so hard that it was a good thing I wasn’t super strong anymore or I’d have squished him. “What happened? How did you get under there?”

Jack shrugged. “I heard the bombs go off just as I was coming back from the men’s room. The stairs seemed like the sturdiest place to be, so I grabbed as many people as I could and ducked under, just before everything came down.”

“That’s why,” I told him, and kissed him hard. Did I mention that my boyfriend was awesome?

We all made our way out of what was left of another destroyed Austin landmark. The giant drum-shaped building was shattered beyond repair. People wandered lost, hurt, and panicked.

All I could think at first was how beautiful the sky looked. A part of me had thought I’d never see it again, at least, not with Jack beside me.

Alrek offered to help with the rescue efforts. Knight, the former Georgian, accepted the offer of aid from a dragon with only a slight hesitation. It was a real step forward for him.

Jack and I pitched in when we spotted Dave among the fire crews. He located us a spare med kit off one of the fire trucks and we went to work.

Alrek left me his cell phone number before we parted ways. I can add one more dragon to the small number that I know.

We worked all night long, searching for survivors and helping the wounded. I saw an awful lot of wounded that I knew would be crippled for life, or might even die. And I couldn’t fix it.

I don’t want to be normal anymore. The price is too high.

I saw Detective Long poking around the rubble. The Defilers’ red crossed bones symbol was spray painted around in several conspicuous spots.

I asked him if he thought the Defilers had done this.

He grunted. “Yeah. Just like the Free Earthers blew up the highway, and Lord Vile blew the hospital.”

“It’s the same person for all three, isn’t it?”

He nodded. He pointed at the black camera eye on a nearby lamppost. “And he’s watching us closely every time. He or she or they.” He looked back at the only intact portion of the structure. “What I don’t understand is why just this section was left standing.”

“It’s a good thing it was. I was in there when it happened.”

He looked at me, eyes narrowed. “Lucky for you.”

A sick feeling twisted in my stomach. Something had been bothering me from the first explosion. “I’m not sure it was luck.”

“What do you mean?”

“The hospital that blew, I worked there for years before I was fired a few months ago. And, the first explosion, so central and public, like it was meant to draw out all the heroes, to get them to show what kind of people they were, and what they could do. I’m the only new hero in Austin right now. I’m the only unknown. TakeDown’s been an Austin fixture for two decades and The Protectors are all national news.”

“And now, the building you’re in blows up, everywhere but where you’re sitting.”

“I bought my tickets on line, weeks ahead of time. Any decent hacker could have figured out when I’d be here and where I would sit.”

Det. Long straightened his bright blue tie, squinting at his tie tack as if it were fascinating. “Why you, Dee? You said this didn’t seem like the Georgians’ style. Too bloody.”

“Maybe I’m just being paranoid. Maybe it’s just coincidence.”

Det. Long frowned down at a red crossed bones symbol painted on a still standing brick ramp railing. “Mmm. And maybe the Defilers did it.

D. Dragon