"Somebody get this damn thing off me!"

Another quake rocked Danguard Ace, rattling every bone in Major Jim Rieger's body. He shoved and stabbed the controls in front of him, all the while looking at a screen in his helmet's visor. The rear camera showed a black and gray monster with a stubby, reptilian head and huge, sharp spines running from its skull to its tail sitting on Danguard Ace's back. It raised its right front foot and slammed it down on the robot's back. The massive blow bounced Rieger in his seat. Had it not been for the restraints, he would have been on the cockpit floor.

"Bob, you think you can do something about this?"

In the seat below and to his left, a tall, skinny man with black hair tapped some buttons and screens. He then turned to Rieger and shook his head. "We still have multiple systems failures to Danguard's weapons."

Rieger grunted and looked to the paunchy man with thinning brown hair in the seat next to Captain Bob Martinez. "Heath."

Another blow by the monster Varan shook their robot.

"Heath, we need weapons, like five minutes ago."

"I'm trying to re-route power to the maser, but it's difficult. There are too many electrical failures."

"Find a way to make it work."

Another blow from Varan.

Rieger clenched his teeth. Even if Heath could get the maser to work, the weapon was housed in Danguard Ace's chest, currently pressed against a hillside overlooking Salt Lake City. The eye-mounted particle beams were off-line and the shoulder-mounted 75mm gatling guns had been wrecked by Varan.

The monster pounded Danguard Ace's back again.

Data streamed across Rieger's visor. Engine One was damaged. Structural integrity of the rear armor plating was degraded by 40 percent.

He didn't have time to wait for Heath to fix the maser.

"Looks like I'm gonna have to improvise."

Martinez looked up at him. "I hate when you say that."

Rieger grinned. He gripped the control stick and settled his finger over the engine start button.

"Time to go for a ride, you ugly bastard."

He stabbed the button.

A rumble echoed through Danguard Ace. Engine Two fired, flames gushing out the nozzle. The robot bounced over hills and trees, and smashed through power lines. Rieger pulled back on the stick, straining as he slowly gained altitude. Thirty feet . . . forty . . . fifty. At 100 feet, he performed a barrel roll.

Varan still hung on.

Rieger dropped closer to the ground. Varan's spikes dug a huge crevasse in the green countryside. His head banged against the ground.

C'mon, c'mon.

Varan's grip slackened. Finally the monster let go. He rolled across the ground, kicking up huge dust clouds until he finally came to a stop.

Rieger twisted Danguard Ace around until it hovered upright. He landed the white and blue-colored robot 40 feet from Varan. The monster struggled to get itself up on all fours.

"Maser online!" Heath shouted. "But I think it's only going to be good for one shot."

"Roger." Rieger looked over at Martinez. "Bob, make it count."

"I will."

Rieger called up the link to the weapons systems officer's helmet-mounted display. The red, computer generated crosshairs settled over Varan. The monster was up on all fours and turned to face Danguard Ace.

A shrill beeeeep sounded in Rieger's helmet as the crosshairs came to rest at the base of Varan's neck.

"Good tone," Martinez announced. "Firing maser."

A bluish-white beam burst from Danguard Ace's chest. It struck Varan in the shoulder. The monster howled as the beam burned through its thick skin.

More beeps echoed throughout the cockpit.

"Maser overheating!" warned Heath.

"Keep at it, Bob," Rieger ordered.

"But the beam emitters are going to melt," said Heath.

"Then they melt. We've only got one shot at this. Bob, keep firing."

"I never intended to stop."

Smoke and flame rose from Varan's neck. The monster unleashed an agonized wail.

A gusher of blood and skin exploded from Varan. He tumbled backwards and crashed on the ground.

"Disengaging maser," reported Martinez.

The beam shut off. Danguard Ace stomped over to the fallen monster. Gray smoke billowed from its neck and shoulder. A lake-sized pool of blood spread around it.

Still Varan twitched with life.

Why do these things have to be so damn hard to kill?

"Heath. Can we still use the left side rail gun?"

"Hang on, Sir." Danguard's engineer looked over his screens. "Yes. Left side rail gun is still functioning."

"Thank God. Bob, I got this."

"Weapons control is yours, Major."

Danguard Ace brought up its left arm, the only arm it now had. A large tube emerged from the side. A steady hum went through the robot as Rieger aimed for the gaping hole in Varan's shoulder and neck.

A thump came from the rail gun. The 100-pound projectile reached mach five as it tore through Varan's insides. Rieger fired three more hyper-velocity rounds into the wound.

Varan closed his eyes, finally dead.

Rieger let out a sigh of relief and slumped in his seat. "Well, that wasn't so hard, was it?"

Martinez looked over his shoulder at him. "Yeah. Sure."

Heath shook his head. "I can't believe we're still operational. We've got fried circuits, damage to our solar collector, cracks in two of our battery units. We're even missing an arm, and the number one engine is down."

"But we should still be able to fly back to base," Rieger said.

Heath gaped at him, as though he couldn't believe he'd actually made the suggestion.

"C'mon, Heath. You know Danguard Ace inside and out. You know we can fly this thing on just one engine."

"Well, yes, but we can't push it, especially with the damage to our batteries."

"Then just sing out if there's a problem with the engine or the power supply."

"Yes, Sir." Heath turned back to his console, his nervousness evident.

"Just one more thing before we get going, Major," said Martinez.

"What's that?"

"Don't forget to pick up our other arm."

XXXXX

With its severed right arm clutched in its left hand, Danguard Ace flew over the Rocky Mountains. Several times the engine temperature neared the red line and they experienced sudden power drop-offs. But Rieger nursed the giant robot through it as they reached the Teton Range in Wyoming.

"Lair, Danguard Ace on approach vector."

"Lair copies, Danguard Ace. IFF confirmed, voice recognition confirmed. Danguard Ace, cleared for landing."

"Roger."

Part of the ground below slid away, revealing a large metal platform. Rieger eased the damaged Danguard Ace onto it, then shut off the engine. All his muscles loosened as the platform lowered them three hundred feet below the surface to Danguard Base, aka "The Lair," home to the US Air Force's 1st Monster Assault Wing, or MAW-1.

After Danguard Ace had been secured, Rieger, Martinez and Heath exited the cockpit and boarded the elevator in the robot's back. It lowered them to the floor of the spacious hangar, where dozens of technicians and engineers looked at the battered Danguard Ace, then to its three-man crew.

"You should see the other guy," Rieger grinned at them.

Someone whistled nearby. Rieger turned to a tall, muscular black man wearing a tan and olive Airman Battle Uniform.

"You guys still haven't learned to take care of your toys, huh?" commented Senior Master Sergeant Greg Hopkins of the Air Force Security Forces.

"I think we were lucky to get back here at all," said Heath.

Rieger gave the tech sergeant a dismissive wave. "Aw, he's exaggerating."

Martinez exchanged looks with Hopkins, then shook his hand back and forth in a "so-so" gesture.

"Gentlemen." A round man with thinning black hair approached them.

They snapped attention and saluted Major General Frank Grimaldi, the commander of MAW-1.

"At ease. Good job today." He looked up at Danguard Ace. "At least when it comes to eliminating Varan and saving Salt Lake City. Not so much on bringing our robot back in one piece."

"It could have been worse, Sir," said Rieger.

"Let's see if you feel that way when we submit the repair bill to The Pentagon." The General took another look at the damaged Danguard Ace. "Doctor Kawasumi is not going to be happy about this."

"Please, I can handle the doc."

Hopkins looked at Rieger with a doubtful expression. "Good luck with that, Sir."

XXXXX

After their de-briefing, Rieger headed to his quarters to shower and change. He was about to head to the mess hall when someone pounded on his door. The veins in his neck stuck out. He didn't need to play three guesses to figure out who stood on the other side.

Rieger pressed a button on the wall. The door slid open to reveal a lithe Japanese woman with smooth, beautiful features, long black hair and glasses.

"Doctor Kawasumi." He gave a slight bow.

"What did you do to my robot?" She stormed into his room.

"Hey, I didn't do that. Varan did that."

Hiroko Kawasumi, formerly of the Japanese Self-Defense Force's Kaiju Response Team, glared at him as the door slid closed. "Danguard Ace lost an arm. The beam emitters for the maser have all but melted. The armor plating in multiple areas will have to be replaced, along with the shoulder-mounted gatling guns."

"What can I tell you? These monsters are tough. They don't go down without putting up a hell of a fight."

"Then you should use the weapons more instead of resorting to hand-to-hand combat. That's why I installed them."

"We do, but sometimes it's hard to keep these monsters from getting up close and personal."

Dr. Kawasumi's eyes narrowed. "Do you have any idea how long it will take to repair Danguard Ace? I will likely have to stay up all night just to assess all the damage."

"Hey, I'm sorry, Doc." Rieger raised his hands, hoping to calm the scientist. "Let me make it up to you."

Dr. Kawasumi stepped closer to him. "How do you intend to do that?"

"How about dinner at a nice restaurant?"

She tilted her head and folded her arms.

"Um . . . dinner at a really, really nice restaurant?"

"Uh-huh."

"Followed by a night of red hot passion at a really nice hotel?"

A wry grin formed on Dr. Kawasumi's lips. She reached out and put her arms around Rieger's shoulders. "That will work."

He smiled and kissed her.

XXXXX

An unexpected, but welcome development.

That was what Major General Arash Karimi thought as he watched the TV monitor in his cabin. It showed overhead footage from the battle earlier today between Varan and Danguard Ace. Despite its victory over the monster, the American robot had lost one arm and sustained other damage.

"The Americans will need a great deal of time to repair their robot," commented Colonel Jalal Borhani, Karimi's chief of staff. "They will certainly not have it ready by the time our operation commences."

"I believe you are correct." The stocky, bearded Karimi leaned back in his leather chair. Even if Danguard Ace had been fully functional, he had every confidence his forces would be able to defeat the robot. Still, he had to be grateful to Allah for delivering such a severe blow to the infidels. Karimi and the men under him would need to rely on His help and guidance to see them through this most audacious plan.

The General's attention drifted away from the TV. Thirty-five years it had taken him to reach this point. Thirty-five years of cultivating allies, eliminating enemies, accumulating wealth and distinguishing himself in battle during the war with Iraq. He commanded the Pasdaran, what the infidels called the Revolutionary Guards, the most powerful entity in Iran. More powerful than even the government. For all practical purposes, the Pasdaran was the government. That meant Karimi had no difficulty making it even more powerful. Under his command, the Pasdaran increased its manpower, built up its strategic missile forces and expanded its commercial enterprises. It even boasted a real navy, not just a bunch of patrol boats and suicide speedboats. His business and diplomatic ties helped him strike a deal with the Russians to build the Pasdaran frigates, cruisers, even a pair of modified Kiev-class aircraft carriers, including the one he was currently on.

But all that was nothing compared to the weapons within the three converted oil tankers that sailed with his fleet.

Karimi felt the urge to laugh. All these years the Americans blustered and stomped their feet about how the Iranians could not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons. He never imagined his campaign of deception would work this well.

What would the Americans and their infidel allies think if they knew the truth?

America. The very name made him want to spit. Who were they to dictate what weapons Iran could possess? His ancestors had ruled half the known world when America was nothing more than a land covered by vast forests and populated by savages.

Well no more. No more demands. No more threats. He would make certain of that.

"Tell our analysts to go over all the footage available on the battle between Danguard Ace and Varan. I want them to determine the exact nature of robot's damage and how long it will take to repair."

"Yes, Sir." Borhani replied. "Though I doubt we will have to face Danguard Ace, given the beating it took. The so-called Guardian Monsters concern me more."

Karimi scoffed. "You worry too much, Colonel."

"It is my job to worry, especially considering what monsters like Godzilla, King Kong and Mothra have done to large threats in the past, both biological and mechanical."

Karimi said nothing. He just reached for a remote control on his desk and clicked a few buttons. The monitor divided into three screens, each one showing a large, robotic gorilla dark gold in color.

"One Mechakong is sufficient to deal with Guardian Monsters like King Kong, Mothra or Anguirus. As for Godzilla, as powerful as he is, even he cannot stand up to an assault by three Mechakongs."

Karimi continued to stare at the Mechakongs. Pride surged through him. This was, by far, his greatest achievement. The Americans and Japanese were fools, only using their giant robots to fight monsters. Weapons like that were meant to grind an enemy to dust.

America was entering its final days, and its death would herald the rebirth of the Persian Empire.

General Karimi, and his Mechakongs, would make certain of that.

TO BE CONTINUED