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Useful Guinevere and the Bio-Mechanical Dragons of Neptunias

Tina Connolly's books include the Ironskin and Seriously Wicked series, and the collection On the Eyeball Floor. She has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. She co-hosts Escape Pod, runs Toasted Cake, and is at .

Guinevere deNeptunias scratched her blonde wig against the boulder she was chained to, watched the dragon approaching, and wished that she had taken up any other career in the universe.
The trick handcuffs seemed tighter than usual. Her girlfriend Io had designed them to break away, so Guinevere could draw her sword and dispatch the flying serpent. There were generally a good range of dirty jokes about this subject, but lately the jokes had taken a sharper edge. It wasn't that she really suspected Io of wishing Guinevere would "accidentally" fall prey to one of the large bionic pests that were currently the plague of Neptunias. But she was starting to think her girlfriend would find it convenient if Guinevere had an excuse to leave. Io craved adventure, and dependable (dull) dragon-dispatching Guinevere was apparently not supplying it.
The dragon swooped closer, excited by the sight of the (fake) blonde princess on the (real) granite rock. Fire billowed forth, brightening the sky and turning a passing raven into ash.
Oh, Neptunias (the planet, not herself) had had problems from the beginning, and she should know. Her however-many greats-grandfather had purchased the planet with his business partners, and terraformed it to some hodgepodge ideal of old Earth legends. It was all rolling green hills, dotted with ramshackle castles. Automation took the place of serfs, of course, and everyone lived in some sort of villa or chateau. Nearly everyone was descended from the founders, and thus she could count her own lineage as eighteenth in line to The Throne of Neptunias. (Ceremonial only, nobody in her family was interested in ruling. There were AIs to do that sort of thing.)
The dragon ignored the beautiful, flammable haystacks and fifteen tasty cattle to lob a disgusting steamy breath her direction. Yet another evening spent vinegaring her clothes and scrubbing the sulfur reek off her skin. She could already hear Io's complaint: Boring!
Every Good Ruler needs a Dark Lord, and one of the founding mothers had been delighted to play that role. The two families had continued their feud over the centuries--in some generations with tedious pranks, in some with full-scale pretend wars, fought entirely by those automated serfs. The serfs had been filled with red fluid, so when the carnage began, the wheatfield ran crimson with it; the golden stalks beautifully trampled. Poets had had a field day.
The current Dark Lord had apparently been inspired by some trashy book of fairy tales. Thus the bio-mechanical dragons programmed to seek out anything belonging to the Royal Family and ignite it. Several wheatfields and many fleets of robotic serfs had gone up in smoke before someone in the Family found the same book and hit upon the solution of staking out a Princess for the dragons to find.
Cut to good old Guinevere, she thought wryly as she twisted her wrist in the special way to loosen the handcuffs. Useful. Dependable. Always up for some crap job for the Family. Who do you call when the Dark Lord sends zombie bears? Guinevere. Mechanized squid? Guinevere again. Through trial and error she had found the dragons were most attracted to someone resembling the waifish blonde on the book, and thus even though she was neither waifish nor blonde, she dutifully poured herself into a facsimile of the diaphanous blue gown on the cover, put the (now quite tangled) blonde wig over her cropped brown hair, and had Io design her a concealed scabbard for her trusty sword.
It was useful to be dating an engineer, she thought, not for the first time, as her wrist pulled smoothly free from the trick handcuffs. Useful. Another word Io hated, along with practical and responsible and settling-down-on-one-planet-instead-of-vagabonding-around-the-galaxy, fixing ships, and living by her wits. (Io's previous life as an itinerant mechanic, which she never missed an opportunity to wistfully mention.) For a time, being useful in the hero department had been exciting enough to impress her adventure-craving girlfriend. But now...?
The dragon banked to an awkward stop on the ground, then waddled forward. Guinevere drew her sword and moved closer, wary of its flame. The closer she got, the better able she was to hear the mechanized click click click of its internal ignition.
Click click--the dragon began, and Guinevere lifted her sword to plunge it into the killing stroke where the neck met the body. There had to be a solution, after all, or the game wasn't being fairly played. Her back was stiff from being chained to the boulder, and it made the balance of her sword feel off.
No matter, it would soon be over. Guinevere plunged the sword into the join of its neck to short circuit the dragon.
Except her sword broke into a million pieces on contact with the dragon's scales.
It is a terrible idea to look at your jagged hilt in shock in the middle of a battle, but nevertheless, that is what Guinevere did.
The dragon opened its mouth, starting the ignition over.
Guinevere had never thought to meet her death while dressed in a blonde wig and flimsy blue dress, but there you were. Sometimes the honor of your death was not readily apparent from context.
But a hero did not give up until they had tried everything. Guinevere pulled the blonde wig from her head and hurled it straight to the back of the dragon's throat. The minute she did, she thought of a hundred more sensible things she could have done, ninety of them involving her broken hilt, ten of them involving the spiked princess heels she wore, and zero of them involving attack by wig.
Nevertheless. The little bit of dragonfire that tried to erupt went straight into the flame-retardant blonde wig. The strands of synthetic hair tangled up the delicate mechanisms that made up the dragon's ignition. The whole thing became a giant blonde hairball, and the majestic beast plopped down on the grass and began hacking like a housecat to eject it.
Whereupon Guinevere walked right up to the dragon, felt around the join of its neck for the on/off switch, and pressed it.
Usually at this point the dragons would smoke and fall over. (But usually she pressed that button with a long pointy thing.)
This dragon froze mid-cough. Its eyes whirled. And then, after a final spit of hair, it said in a growly voice: "Reboot. Reboot. Property of Iolanthienne deDarkLordicus. Return to proper owner. Reboot."
Guinevere raised two dark eyebrows, because she had never mastered raising one. "Are you telling me that the girl I've been shacking up with all year is the Io, long-missing heir to the Dark Lord's throne?"
The dragon nodded yes. The hairball was apparently out now. It rolled over and made a playful snap at her blue hem. "Snacks?"
Guinevere looked down at her shattered hilt in less and less surprise. She had checked her supplies... but Io had checked them last.
"Daughter of the Dark Lord. No wonder she's getting bored," Guinevere said under her breath.
The dragon opened limpid green eyes at that.
A smile crept over Guinevere's face. It was the sort of smile that a descendant of heroes might make, when suddenly presented with the opportunity to break out of the useful (predictable) dependable (fine, boring) role she'd fallen into. "Now that I've interrupted your core programming," said Guinevere, "Would you be interested in a new bargain?"
The dragon rubbed its scaly cheek on her gauzy blue leg. "Snacks?"
"Yes, all the snacks you can eat," promised Guinevere. "Just as soon as you fly me to see a descendant of the Dark Lord on some verrrrrry interesting business."
The dragon raised one eyebrow, because its programming allowed that.
"But first," said Guinevere, and she grabbed the handcuffs.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 18th, 2020

Author Comments

I had a good time coming up with all the ridiculousness in this story. My favorite part is probably "attack by wig."

- Tina Connolly
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