First off, I’m still revising this, so keep in mind this hasn’t been copyedited and may still be changed. I’ll put up a chapter a week until the book is published, so one way or another you’ll get to read the story. (I also just realized I really don’t have enough chapters from Jesse’s point of view…so I need to do something about that too.)
Six years ago.
Never underestimate friendship.
Dirk Overdrake stood in front of a glass case in the Bonaparte Residence Museum and wondered how many years in prison people got for stealing priceless historical artifacts. A replica of Napoleon’s laurel leaf coronation crown was nestled securely behind the glass. The exhibit label reported that the original had disappeared after Napoleon’s death and no one knew where it currently was. Well, no one except Dirk, because he was pretty sure he’d seen one just like this in his father’s bedroom vault.
His father wandered over to the case, done looking at the previous display. Even while on vacation, his father looked crisp and professional, as though it were some sort of sin to put on jeans and Nikes. He wore beige pants and expensive Italian shoes, his dark hair perfectly in place.
Dirk pointed to the crown. “Hey, don’t you have one like this?”
His father made a curt shushing noise to indicate he shouldn’t speak of it here. Which pretty much answered Dirk’s question. Should he be impressed or ashamed that his father had somehow managed to get a hold of the original? He wasn’t surprised. After all, his father also had a golden breastpin worn by Julius Caesar and a small silver horse statue that had belonged to Alexander the Great. His father liked to collect souvenirs from conquerors.
Dirk’s father motioned for him to follow, and the two walked out of the museum onto the streets of Ajaccio, France. They’d already passed one statue of Napoleon on the way to the museum, and now they headed toward another.
Dirk’s father slipped a pair of sunglasses over his eyes. “Do you know why I brought you here?”
Yeah. Because his father had no idea what normal families did on vacation. Dirk’s friends were all at Disney World and the beach. Places twelve-year-olds actually wanted to go.
Dirk knew better than to say those words. “You like Napoleon because he used to live on St. Helena?”
Napoleon had been exiled on the island where his father grew up. Every time Dirk had visited St. Helena, he’d been forced to visit the Napoleon shrine there too.
“No,” his father said, drawing out the word to indicate he was turning this into one of those annoying teaching moments. “I brought you here to see the people lined up, eager to pay their money just so they can walk around the home where Napoleon was born.”
His father waved a hand in the direction of the museum. “The curators were able to recreate the drapes and wallpaper because so many people cut off pieces and saved them—as though they were relics of the saints.”
Dirk and his father had reached the second town statue of Napoleon. He sat atop a horse, wearing his gold leaf crown and gazing triumphantly out on the plaza.
“I brought you here,” his father went, “for the same reason I brought you to Julius Caesar’s tomb. Thousands of years after his death, people still daily leave flowers on his grave. What does that show you?”
Dirk shrugged. “Tourists like to throw away money?”
“No. People admire greatness. It doesn’t even matter that Napoleon lost in the end or that Caesar was murdered by his friends. Both had the wherewithal to take control of their nation’s destiny and meld it to their will.” He gestured at the statue. “War is like love. It’s better to have fought and lost than never to have fought at all.” He lowered his voice. “And of course, it’s better still to win.”
Dirk nodded because he knew his father would continue lecturing if he didn’t think Dirk was listening. Mostly Dirk was wondering if Napoleon would have taken his kids to Disneyland or whether he would have dragged them around to look at statues.
His father wasn’t done. “Do you want to be the sort of person Napoleon and Caesar were?”
Banished from civilization or murdered by his friends? Not really.
His father didn’t give him time to answer. “Do you want to have cities across the world named after you like Alexander the Great? Or do you want to be like one of these pathetic tourists, so devoid of your own greatness that you pay money just to see the places where a great man once stood?”
Dirk knew the right answer to this question, still he looked skyward as though pondering it. “Dirk the Great has a nice ring to it.”
His father laid his hand on Dirk’s shoulder with approval. “To be a great leader, you need to know who your enemies are. You must know how they think, where you can find them, and how they plan to destroy you.”
Dirk nodded again. It was always better to agree with his father when he went on about leadership.
His father dropped his hand from Dirk’s shoulder. “That’s why I signed you up for Dragon camp.”
Dirk cocked his head, not understanding. “There’s a camp for dragons?”
His father turned away from the statue. “No, there’s a camp for Slayers and this summer you’re going to attend. It’s time to meet your enemies.”
Dirk’s father had warned him about the Slayers enough times: kids his own age who would try to kill the dragons and him too if he got in their way. How many of them went to this camp? “You want me to fight them?” Before Dirk could decide whether to feel pumped or terrified by the idea, his father laughed.
“Not yet. You’ll learn their secrets first, their weaknesses, so you’ll know how to fight them. Never underestimate the power of friendship.”
Dirk rode dragons so often that sometimes he forgot how powerful they were. But tonight wasn’t one of those times. He sat in a saddle chair astride Minerva, acutely aware that she carried danger in every wingbeat.
At Dirk’s command, Minerva raced toward Philadelphia with arrow-like determination.
Bullets wouldn’t pierce her, radar couldn’t detect her, and her talons could rip through a car like she was shredding tinfoil. But the dragon’s most destructive weapon was the electromagnetic pulse she sent out when she shrieked. Minerva had already crippled most of Boston.
Cold air whipped around Dirk, making a shrill reproachful sound. He hardly heard it. Another sound was still playing in his mind: the screams of five hatchlings, bludgeoned to death by the Slayers. He hadn’t actually been there, hadn’t heard the noise, but it replayed in his mind anyway, wouldn’t fade away into acceptance.
Down below, the shimmer of Philadelphia came into view. Time for the second strike.
When Caesar crossed the Rubicon, an action of defiance that began the Roman Civil War, he’d said, “The die is cast.” Those same dice were tumbling now, falling through the air. Dirk had taken a stand against his own country. No turning back now.
Fly lower, he told Minerva.
The dragon dipped lower until she skimmed a few hundred feet above the buildings. Disabling the city this way wasn’t as safe as hitting it from higher above, but with more directed pulses he could spare the areas around the hospitals. Taking out people’s lights, cars, and electronics was one thing. Taking out people’s backup generators for life support was another.
His father would probably think it was sloppy work—too compassionate—but the point of tonight’s attacks was a show of strength. And that point would still be made. Everybody would understand how vulnerable they were. The government wouldn’t know where the attacks had come from, let alone be able to prevent more.
Not even the Slayers could stop him. By the time they realized a city had been hit, Dirk would be long gone. All that practicing at camp had been for nothing.
Roar, he told Minerva.
The dragon drew in a breath, energy swelling in her lungs, then let out a shriek that matched her size. Darkness rolled outward like a black wave, extinguishing lights.
He tried not to listen for the screech of brakes or the sound of smashing metal. He didn’t want to hear the noises from drivers who’d been plunged into blindness and found their power brakes were out.
He always heard them anyway. He wondered, with a certain amount of bitter satisfaction, if Tori heard them too. The last time she’d been with Dirk, she’d gone into Minerva’s control center, but after that she’d had a run in with Khan so she might be connected to either.
More than once he’d nearly spoken to her and then decided against it. What more was there for either of them to say? Tori had chosen whose side she was going to be on, and it wasn’t his.
Dirk circled to another section of the city, blotting out more lights, ruining technology. When the dragon was done, Dirk pulled higher into the sky and turned toward Baltimore. That was the next unlucky city to receive a visit.
By the time Dirk made it home, the edges of dawn peeked over the horizon. His anger had dimmed with the stars and remorse was seeping its way into the cracks of his thoughts.
How much damage had this night’s work done? How much suffering would it cause?
Well, this was just par for the course. No matter what he did, he was going to feel horrible. When he was loyal to his Slayer friends, dragons died. When he acted like a dragon lord, this happened.
Minerva flew across his family’s property, across the acres of trees that stood between the Overdrake’s house and the freeway. They were all bare now, just jumbles of reaching sticks. She headed to the dragon enclosure without Dirk even commanding it. She knew the drill. And this was just another night flight. Except it wasn’t.
Not my fault, Dirk told himself. Revolutions came with a cost.
Thomas Jefferson had said that the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. That’s all Dirk was doing: making sure that the tree of liberty didn’t wither and die under the weight of America’s bureaucrats. It was time for some pruning.
Besides, people weren’t worth feeling remorse over. People did nothing but let you down.
Dirk took Minerva into her enclosure, unsaddled her, and fed her a half dozen sheep carcasses. She’d worked up an appetite. By the time he’d finished unpacking the weapons from the saddle, she’d devoured her meal and lain down, tail curled around herself, ready to sleep. He stopped by the fledglings’ enclosures and tossed them each a carcass so he wouldn’t have to worry about feeding them later.
His father called him as he was leaving the enclosure. “Any problems?”
Oh, Dirk had problems but none his father wanted to hear. Dirk headed to the house, gliding above the leaf-strewn path. “I didn’t encounter any resistance.”
He’d known the first few cities wouldn’t have time to protect themselves, but he’d expected that once the nation realized it was under attack, other cities would at least try to mount a defense. But none had. The strikes had been frighteningly easy. Good thing he’d talked his father out of hitting New York and Chicago. Those two cities comprised 11 million people.
“Perfect,” his father said. “Things went flawlessly on this coast too. The nation is one step closer to shaking off the shackles of mismanagement.”
Dirk didn’t answer. Maybe his silence carried its own message.
“No one mourns the death of bureaucracies,” his father said. “Future generations will thank us.”
They might, but everyone without electricity was probably not feeling the gratitude. Dirk’s breath came out in puffs that hung in the air, proof of the chill. And January would only get colder.
His father’s voice turned light. “My only problem is that I’ve started second guessing my decision to go by President Augustus.”
Yesterday, his father had settled on the title president because he figured it would be an easier transition for the masses. The title Augustus was from Roman history. Caesar had chosen it for himself because Augustus meant great.
“Taking over may be so easy,” his father continued, “perhaps I don’t need to help the population grasp the idea of a new dynasty. Perhaps I should go with First Citizen.” That’s what Caesar had called himself when he took power.
Dirk landed on the back patio, unlocked the door, and went inside. “First Citizen sounds like you’re taking numbers for a communist deli.”
“President it is, then. Get some rest. We’ll have another long night in front of us.” His father said the words cheerfully. He was happy, and for the first time in a long time, his father was also happy with Dirk. Proud of him.
That should have brought Dirk some comfort. Probably would later. Right now, despite his ability to fly, he felt as though his limbs were being dragged downward.
Cassie, Dirk’s stepmom, sat in the family room watching the news on TV. She was wrapped in a blanket, her dark hair tucked into its folds.
A solemn-faced man stood in front of a Costco relating how many people in Boston were without heat and transportation.
Looked like reporters from other cities had showed up before the police.
Cassie turned to Dirk, a smile perched on her lips. “Glad you’re home safe.” She returned her attention to the TV, resting her hand on her abdomen as though checking the baby. Was she glad her own children weren’t risked in the attacks or was she was eager for her son to grow up so he could take part?
The news anchor went on, “All night widespread looting has plagued the city. Alarm systems are down, phones inoperable, and police are without the vehicles or the manpower to respond to crimes.” As if to prove her point, a steady stream of people emerged from the store behind him, pushing grocery carts piled with items. The food Dirk could understand, but the furniture? And the guy hauling the big screen TV clearly didn’t understand what EMP did.
Dirk had known theft would happen, but he hadn’t anticipated so many people would be unmasked and unconcerned, strolling out of the store.
“Hospitals and pharmacies were hit especially hard,” the reporter continued.
Dirk stared at the TV in disbelief. He’d spared the hospitals and all the buildings around them. They should have been fine.
“Armed thugs forced their way into both Massachusetts General and Shriners Hospital, held staff at gunpoint and demanded narcotics and other drugs.”
While the reporter detailed more of the crime, Dirk turned away from the TV. He shouldn’t have been surprised by any of it. What had he expected—for people to pull together and help one another out? He ought to know by now not to overestimate human nature.
Cassie clicked the remote, flipping through channels. “Six cities are in near anarchy. The government will have to give Brant whatever he demands.”
An optimistic hope. Politicians never relinquished power easily, even if it meant making people suffer. “They won’t surrender after the first day.”
His father was staying at an enclosure he’d built in California and would make his way back to Pennsylvania, traveling at night and hitting more cities along the way.
“They’ll see reason soon enough.” Cassie settled on another news report. “Have you fed the dragons?”
“Yeah.” Dirk headed toward his bedroom before Cassie could think of more chores to give him. Originally Aaron was supposed to stay here and help Dirk, but their last fight had convinced their father to take Aaron with him. His brother had leaked the location of the eggs to the Slayers. Dirk was sure of it.
What was Aaron doing now? Trying to get more tactical information out of their dad? Well, it would serve his father right if Aaron betrayed him and blew the whole mission.
Dirk shouldn’t think that way. As of tonight, he’d committed himself to the revolution. No point in wishing for failure. The only way all the damage and looting would be worth it was if it led to a better government. Dirk would have to watch his brother carefully and make sure he didn’t cause more damage. And on the bright side, as long as Aaron was with his father, he couldn’t easily contact Tori and spill any other secrets.
Not that Aaron knew many. Their father hardly told Dirk anything and Dirk was a key player in the revolution. No way would his dad entrust important details to a twelve-year-old.
Dirk went to his room, threw off his clothes, and climbed into bed. He waited for sleep to wash away his thoughts. He didn’t want to think about children waking up and shivering because their houses no longer had heating. Or water pumps that no longer worked.
An hour later when his phone rang, he was still awake. Awake, but not alert. If he’d been alert, he would’ve checked the ID instead of assuming the call was from his father.
His mother’s voice poured from the phone, high with emotion. “Dirk, I’m sorry for everything you’ve been through. I shouldn’t have left you with your father. I should have found a way to take you.”
It was surreal to hear her voice. It belonged to the past, to the place of half-forgotten childhood memories, the soundtrack of years long gone. She’d been larger than life then, tall and graceful with shiny blond hair that framed her face like a halo.
“If you had a choice,” she went on, “I know you wouldn’t have been involved with this.”
How had she gotten his phone number? Dirk knew the answer as soon as he thought of the question. At some point he’d left his phone unattended and Aaron had gotten ahold of it. He’d called their mom and given her this number.
She wouldn’t be able to trace him with it. His phone was a specialized computer with a program that routed their IP address through dozens of cities.
“Dirk, are you there?” she asked.
“Yeah.” He rubbed his forehead wearily. He was too tired for this; his thoughts were too raw. “Aaron isn’t here.”
She let out a pained laugh. “I want to talk to you.”
Doubtful. He shut his eyes and let his head sink back into his pillow, not even sure if the emotion that was pulsing through him was anger or guilt.
“I love you, Dirk.”
She was only trying to manipulate him. “You don’t know anything about me.”
“I do,” she insisted. “I spent years with you—how could I not know? You were the boy who used to slide tissue paper underneath my bedroom door when you heard me crying. You have more tenderness inside you than your father will ever be capable of.”
Dirk hadn’t remembered about the tissue paper until she mentioned it, and then the memory came back: the fights his parents had that always left his mother crying.
“That was a long time ago,” he said. “You don’t know me anymore.”
“I know you hate what you’ve just done.”
He didn’t answer, couldn’t contradict her.
“Find a way to leave your father,” she urged. “Go to the nearest police station and tell them you’re my son. I’ll come and get you.”
Dirk lowered his voice. “You want me to leave so I’ll take Aaron to you. He’s the one you really want.”
“I want you too.” Her voice was ragged insistence. “I’ve always wanted you.”
But not enough to take him when she skipped out. She couldn’t undo the past with a few words.
“Tell me where you are,” she said. “I’ll come for you.”
A surge of worry went through him, one that verged on protectiveness. His father had probably bugged this phone. “Don’t say that.” Dirk’s father wouldn’t appreciate hearing him warn his mother, but he had to do it anyway. “And don’t ever make a deal with my father. You’ll end up being used as pawn to force either Aaron or me into doing something we don’t want to do. Just stay away. You shouldn’t call this phone again. It isn’t safe for you.”
“Dirk, leave him. Take Aaron and go.”
How could he tell her Aaron didn’t want to go—that Dirk had already offered to help him escape and Aaron had refused?
“I can’t. I’m already a part of this.” And because he didn’t like hearing her so upset, he added, “I’m not the person you think you know. That person is gone.” He’d become someone else last night—a revolutionary. Someone whose hands were no longer clean.
He hung up, put his phone away, then went into the bathroom to find some sleeping pills. There was no way he was going to get any sleep without them and he had to get some rest. He would have to go out with Minerva tomorrow night, and this time the government would be watching for him.