Dominating the front page was a large news photo of a black-clad figure projecting a very dramatic lightning bolt at Berserker's brutish form. The distance and lighting made the black figure slender, and a trick of the angle made the bulges of the gel-packs too prominent. Above the photo was the simple title, all in capitals: LADY LIGHTNING.
I was so angry I set the newpaper on fire with an electric shock. "Lady Lightning? Lady Lightning? LADY Lightning ?" I started to hyperventilate.
Eli tried to be helpful. "Hey, Bro, it coulda been worse."
"Well, *this* newspaper," he held up one of the dailies, "tried to name you 'Foxfire', but it didn't stick."
Foxfire? It actually was worse!
Reyes jumped in, "Maxham, before you start going into shock, let me point out that at this point you have three options: one, you can go out as Thunderbolt - a guy - and be ridiculed without mercy as the Drag Queen Superhero. And remember, a superhero's street credit is almost as important for surviving as their superpower. Remember what happened to the Golden Pharaoh?" We all shuddered.
"Two, you can give up the whole superhero schtick, in which case you owe me a pile of bucks for the money I advanced out of my Expense Account.
"Three, you keep going out as Lady Lightning, and we adjust your costume to promote the illusion." She held up a restraining hand as I started to sputter outrage. "Look, you keep saying that eventually you're going to bulk up, right?"
"Yeah, well, that's the theory, anyway. Eli and I figure that the energy running through my body is changing it, and that it has to finish, um, compacting, me before new muscle tissue starts to grow."
"So, while you're - compacting, you go out as Lady Lightning. You learn on the job the Ins and Outs of the whole super-cape bit; not to tell tales out of school, but people are a LOT more forgiving of rookie mistakes from a girl than a guy. When you start bulking up, we arrange for a dramatic heroic on-camera demise for Lady Lightning. And, a few months later, Thunderbolt makes his debut, and blows everybody away with his moves."
"Can't we just come up with a new costume?"
"It wouldn't fool anybody. If anything, it would make it worse, because it would be de facto admitting that you're ashamed of it."
"But I AM ashamed of it!"
"Worse and worse." Reyes tried to lighten things up a bit. "Hey, look at the bright side - it's only temporary, it gives you a chance to get on-the-job training that won't be used against you later, and all you have to do to maintain the illusion is wear the costume and keep your trap shut. Besides, it's a lot easier to merchandise a superheroine than a superhero."
"Whooooa, waitaminnit! *Merchandising?* Who said anything about merchandising?"
"Hey, how do you think that we are gonna pay for all the stuff that you're gonna need? I mean, I can't keep paying for all your toys out of my Expense Account. Eventually, Schroeder is gonna want confirmation of my expenditures. So either we find a way to replace the money, or we tell Schroeder that he has a cross dressing superhero on the payroll."
"Hey, I'll only be a cross dresser if I go along with this."
"Yeah, well, I'm not the one who felt that he needed a set of falsies for his big debut."
"That's not what the graffiti in the Men's Room says."
"Very funny. So, do you want Schroeder in on this?"
I sighed. Even if he didn't out me, Schroeder would probably have me doing things like County Fairs if he knew. "No, I'll go along with it - " Reyes beamed smugly. " - but NO cheesecake posters!"
"Oh, perish forbid !"
Eli and I were having the, ah, memorable experience of re-tooling a sports bra into being a gel-pack holder, when there was a knock at the cellar door. It was well and truly locked this time - we do learn, if you whack us over the head hard enough. Eli stashed the evidence while I went to the door. I looked through the peep-hole and saw somebody that resembled a femme fatale out of a bad old spy movie. "Waddaya want, babe?" I said in my least gentlemanly voice.
"Can the crap, Maxham, let me in!" Reyes' voice snarled out from under the blonde wig, sunglasses, floppy hat with veil and thick makeup. Not being a total fool, I let her in. Or maybe that shows that I am.
Reyes came in, heavily laden with shopping bags.
I rose to the bait. "Okay, color me intrigued, what's with the getup? I thought that *I* was the only one in this crew fool enough for out of season trick-or-treating."
"Well, I had to do some, um, rather specialized shopping, and I didn't want to be recognized."
"So you decided to go shopping as Ivana Humpalot?"
"Hey, I never claimed to be a woman of a thousand faces. Anyway, most of this junk is for you, so don't give me a hard time!" (Memo to self: remember to check the receipts for these purchases. It would be just like Reyes to sneak in stuff for herself, and let the "Lady Lightning" merchandising pay for it.)
She was on a roll, and kept bitching as she started unpacking the bags, "D'you know how much a set of boots in your size costs?" She pulled out a pair of black boots with pointed tips and thick high heels.
Knowing better than to flat out challenge her at this point - I knew that I was more or less at her mercy, and would be until I got something on her - I evaded my primary concern. "Um, why not just use the boots I wore last time? I mean, I pulled it off pretty well, and they're still in good shape."
"Yeah, but they're clunky, and you blindsided everybody last time. This time, they're gonna be expecting you, and little things like this will perpetuate the illusion. Yo! Weasel!" she threw a pair of black gloves at Eli. "Wire these things for those laser thingies." He held up the gloves. They were slightly different from my old ones. The old ones were thicker, clumsier. These were thinner, and suggested a quality of elegance in the fingers.
In another of the boxes was the replacement for my motorcycle racing suit. It was still the same basic black, but it was somehow different. I couldn't put my finger on it, but it was different.
Reyes had opened all her bags but one. I asked her, "Wacha got in there?"
She gave a phony smile, "Oh, nothing you wanna know about." That should have been a flashing red light warning. She swiftly diverted the issue. "So, whacha doin'?"
"Well, given requirements demanded by our new look - " Eli gave me a dirty look, " - we had to reconfigure the gel packs." He held up a pair of the new batteries. They were still neon blue in transparent plastic, but the shape was now small domes instead of squares. On a perverse whim, he jiggled them slightly.
"Jeezuz, Eli! Don't do that!"
Reyes snickered, "It is kinda twisted, isn't it?"
"Hey, you just gotta look at it - *I* gotta wear the damn thing."
In addition to the, ah, new storage system, we fixed the cracks in the helmet, reinforced it with thin titanium plates, and installed a gold-tinted antiglare visor. And, as I gave Reyes a pointed lecture about on-air security, we installed a scrambler chip into the two-way link. Anything to keep Reyes from thinking about the next logical step after buying those high heeled boots.
It's a funny thing. I've lived in this area all my life, and I've never seen a superhero, or supervillain, or monster, except on the tube. Not much happened between the time my powers first manifested themselves and my first battle. After that, it seemed like weirdoes were dropping from the sky.
We were working on a bioethics story; Reyes was asking a few pointed questions of a researcher at a lab, when some idiot in another lab irradiated a squid. Don't ask me why they would irradiate an octopus - I mean, everybody knows that when you throw weird radiation at a lower life form, it grows uncontrollably and gets an attitude!
Octo-zilla had just torn the roof off of the east wing, and was preparing to nosh on the staff. As our grilling subject went screaming for the exit, we split for the NewsLemon. Eli kept his camera on the MegaMollusk, while Reyes helped me change. Thanks to the miracle of modern electronics, Reyes was able to keep up her NewsFace commentary while helping me get those stupid boots on. The real problem came when I zipped the suit up. The damn thing was at least two sizes too small!
"Dammit, Reyes, can't you read a size?"
"Yes, I can! It fits, you just need the proper equipment." She reached under a stack of equipment and pulled out a long, shallow box. It had a logo of a Victorian woman in her underwear on the lid. She opened it up and pulled out a contraption of reinforced rubber and chain-metal straps. "It's a corset. According to the research that I did into crossdressing, the most important thing about presenting a 'feminine figure' is a narrow waist."
"No! NO Way! I am *not* putting that thing on!"
Reyes didn't argue with me. She just sat there, letting it dangle from one hand, as the sounds of the octopus tearing things apart filled the van. I knew that I couldn't just sit there; I needed the suit in order to keep my secret identity; and I couldn't fit into the outfit without that stupid corset. And she knew it. Bitch.
I shrugged off the suit and wordlessly strapped the corset around my middle. I tried to pull it tighter. Radiating smug, Reyes said, "I had it specially designed. Given your denser tissue, I knew that it would be even harder to get you into shape. So I arranged for you to be able to use your electromagnetism to tighten the straps."
I have since read that being strapped into a corset is a very intense experience. Lemme tell you, it can't hold a candle against magnetically rearranging your own lower digestive tract. After a few false starts, I managed to fit into the suit, and was able to get out there and blow that damn mollusk into calamari. I must say that I was impressed - the stupid corset really put up with a lot of abuse, and still kept me in the suit.
After I let the squid swallow me, I burst out of it's digestive tract and scrambled it's brain from the inside. That was the easy part. The hard part was sifting through the wreckage of the lab while trying to seem super-heroineic (is heroineic even a word?). Once the rescue workers arrived, my responsibility ended, and I split with what dignity I could muster. What is it about going out in drag - even as abstract a drag as this - that makes you absolutely positive that everyone is looking at you? Well, maybe the fact that they were, because I was lifting two-ton slabs of concrete.
When I got back to the NewsLemon, Eli started looking at me funny. Pulling off the helmet, I snapped, "Hey, what crawled up your ass?"
"Ah, more to the point, Bro, what crawled up yours?" He pointed at my backside.
I twisted around to get a better look. Then I figured it out - or more to the point, it figured me out. The cut of the suit conformed the flab displaced by the corset into a rather neat derriere. I gave Reyes a dirty look, which she returned with a look of utterly unconvincing innocence.
And that's the way it went for the next month or so. Every time I went out as 'Lady Lightning', Reyes would tack on some new bit of business. For instance, she stuck a pair of freaking spurs on the boots, claiming that they would improve my mobility when flying. Actually, they did slightly, but I still think that she did it just 'cause they look sexy. She even managed to talk Eli into making a cape(!) lined with steel chainmail. Again, she claimed that it was for protection and to act as an antenna to help me recharge. She just wants the traditional cape, I can tell.
Y'know, I thought that I was doing a good job. I was going out for Truth, Justice and whatever, and kicking ass. And doing it in the next best thing to drag. But it looks like I was wrong.
I was hanging out in the kitchenette at the station - hey, we can't spend every second on patrol, y'know - and a few of us guys were talking about one of the few truly universal guy topics - women. After rating the ladies of the station, we rated the current media types. After exhausting that topic, we moved on to various superheroines. The first few choices were no big debate - Power Woman is a stone-cold fox, Tigress is hot, and so on. Then they started talking about Lady Lightning. Hey, I did not bring the topic up, they did. Arnie Hotchkiss more or less summed up the consensus on Lady Lightning: "Bitch".
I blinked at this. Not that I really cared what these guys thought of 'Lady Lightning', but some morbid curiosity egged me on to ask, "Where do you get that she's some kind of bitch? I mean, she's never stuck around long enough for anybody to talk to her!"
"Exactly! She's so damn full of herself, Wayne," Arnie's pet names for Eli and me are Wayne and Garth, despite the fact that I have a mustache and Eli doesn't wear glasses. Oh, well, it's an improvement from Laurel and Hardy, which is what they called us from third to eighth grades. "She just flies in, does her 'I'm so hot' number, and splits!"
"But you admit that she's hot." Do NOT ask me why I felt that that was an important point.
"So what? She's still a bitch. If she weren't, why doesn't she ever take off that stupid helmet, or even just stop to talk to anybody?"
"Did it ever occur to you that maybe she isn't that good looking under the helmet? Just 'cause she has superpowers doesn't automatically mean that she's a beauty queen. And as for flying off, maybe she has a life that she's eager to get back to! So she doesn't hold a press conference every time she crosses the street! It's nice to see somebody who's more interested in getting the job done than in improving their publicity profile!" (Memo to self: Do something about publicity profile.)
"Why are you so hot to defend this stuck-up bitch? You got the hots for her or something?"
"Hey, Arnie, in case you haven't noticed, Reyes and Eli have been getting their best footage from this Lady Lightning character. Do you honestly think I'm gonna let you badmouth a source of regular bonus money?" With that, I calmly saunted out. But it still stuck in my craw - did people really see me that way? And why did it bother me so much?
Showing a decided masochistic streak, I talked to Reyes about it. It was a scene of the crassest betrayal. "Y'know, they're right?" She faced me directly across the coffee shop table. "I mean, the silent, dark, grim avenger bit doesn't really work with women. It's pretty much a guy thing."
"So, what do you want me to do? It's kind of hard to be perky and chipper in basic black."
"So, we do the best with what we have. I think it isn't so much the colors as it is the sense that you're holding something back. It's hard to get a warm, fuzzy feeling about someone who won't talk to you or let you see what they look like."
"But almost every superhero to come down the pike wears a mask! It's part of the whole thing!"
"Yeah, but most superheroes wear masks that let you see part of their face. Think about it - Spiderman wears a mask that hides everything, and gets his chops busted regularly; Superman doesn't wear a mask at all, and they throw parades for him."
"You do realize that we're talking about comic book characters like they're real, don't you?"
"It's the principle, Maxham! You have to give them something to identify with! And you've got to talk to them. Not the 'press conference on the hour every hour' kind of thing that politicians do, but give them a sense that Lady Lightning stands for something. Right now, all you are is some macho bitch who swoops out of the sky to beat the crap out of someone. Y'gotta go a little further, give a little more."
"Well, take off the helmet, let them see your face, talk to the press - or at least me - on camera."
"Take off the helmet? Do you really think that the world is ready for a 'superheroine' with a mustache?"
"Hey, we all have to make sacrifices - shave it off!" The woman has NO appreciation for the sacred bond between a man and his facial hair.
The next few weeks were interesting if nothing else. Reyes let me start wearing a natty little close cropped fake beard. I wore it for a week before I shaved off the mustache. It made the changeover less obvious - not that most people pay any attention to tech geeks. Shaving off the mustache was an experience unto itself. The face in the mirror wasn't really what I expected. I even got out an old pre-'stache picture of myself and compared it. The face in the picture was roundish, with a broader nose and a cruder brow. The face in the mirror was narrower, with a pointed chin, a straight but slender nose, and eyes that seemed larger than those in the picture. There was also something about the mouth that was off.
It was me, but it wasn't really me, not the me that I remember from the last time I took stock. Not that I do it all that often - it's too damn depressing. It struck me that if my body were compacting, that it must be affecting the hard tissue of my bones slightly more than it was the soft tissues. I knew that taking all that punishment without breaking any bones had to have a down side. But if the bones in my face were changing...
I did the old 'mark-on-the-doorsill' trick and measured it. I'd dropped from my old height of 5' 9" to 5' 7". I hadn't noticed it because it had taken place over the space of a few months - kind of like that 15th-year growth spurt in reverse. When I started to bulk up, it had better damn well make me at least 6' 2", or I was going to be seriously pissed. Once I noticed that I was actually smaller, I started noticing other things that had simply slipped my attention. My shoes were loose on me, and I started wearing double socks to keep them secure. I didn't have to use the corset as much to get into my 'Lady Lightning' suit. My general build was still getting slighter, to the point where Eli and I had to kludge together a "fat suit" to wear under my coveralls. I started eating lots of red meat, hoping to encourage the bulk-up.
Y'know, when you start off doing the superhero thing, you expect to have to learn a lot of things - martial arts, electronics, detective stuff, first aid, extra-terrestrial anatomy - things like that. But somehow I never thought that voice lessons and makeup would be on the agenda. Fortunately, all I had to learn to paint was the lower half of my face. The top half would still be covered by a tough plastic mask, that Reyes said would suggest a slightly different face shape. We debated leaving the eye parts open where people could see them, but that would mean making up the eyes. And it takes me long enough to get in and out of costume as it was, without having to do a complete paint job. So we covered them with gold-tint shades, that suggested rather than revealed my eyes. Reyes insisted on at least that.
We upgraded my outfit as well. The black motorcycle outfit was good enough for when I was just starting out, but if I'm gonna shave off my mustache, I might as well bite the entire bullet. The revised outfit consisted of a gray bodystocking (which I carefully avoided trying on in front of Eli), the same black cape with gold lining, a black bodice, pair of long black leather gloves, a pair of still stiletto heeled thigh high black boots, all with the appropriate gold lightning trim. I could wear the body-stocking and bodice under my coveralls, and leave the gloves, boots and stuff for the last minute. Thank gawd, I don't suffer from heat as much as I used to, or wearing all that stuff would've left me flat with heat prostration.
Like it or not, I was gonna have to wear a wig. I lucked out here a bit. Since I made it abundantly clear that I was NOT going to go trolling wig stores, Reyes got one of those makeover computer programs. Then the arguments started. I wanted a blonde wig, which I thought would balance out the darkness of the rest of the outfit - and further distance me from 'Lady Lightning'. Eli wanted a redhead for the simple reason that Eli has a thing for redheads. (Memo to self: Have a LONG talk with Eli. I don't think he's taking this well.) Reyes insisted on long dark hair. Exactly why she was so insistent is still a little unclear. Part of it was that Power Woman had the local super-blonde concession, but I don't really see how that applies.
We were still fighting about it when the next Lady Lightning-appropriate minor crisis arose, so I went out in the new outfit, but kept the helmet on.
Y'know, sometimes I wonder about people's priorities. I mean, most cities don't have the money or technology to get Mass Transit working reliably, but a lone thug like Gunhawk can lay his hands on a suit of power armor with a fuel-efficient jetpack to go a-viking with. Where do these assholes get their stuff?
Gunhawk had intercepted a bank courier. He shot both the courier and his armed escort, and made his escape at about 140 m.p.h. down Rayburne Ave. We managed to guesstimate his approximate course and did a little head-'em-off-at-the-pass. Besides the fact that his armor was largely a meta-ceramic compound, he was airbourne and so almost completely ungrounded, so hitting him with an electric shock was out of the question. He saw me coming, and unlimbered what looked like a 50-caliber heavy machine gun. (What ever happened to those nice, comparatively safe ion blasters that they were using back in the 70's?)
So there I am, hanging in the air at least 100 feet above the street, with a heavily armored goon aiming heavy weaponry at me, and all I can think of is that the damn leotard is riding up my ass.
Gunhawk let fire at me. I deflected the steel-jacketed rounds easily, but every bullet that didn't hit me went somewhere else. Nothing like the sound of shattering glass to remind you that you aren't alone. There are people trying to earn a living in the buildings around you.
I let Gunhawk close without doing anything. As he passed me at full speed, I reached out with a magnetic field and snagged the courier's metal dispatch case. He was two blocks down the street before he realized that I had his loot. He could escape empty handed, with only a couple of possible Murder One wants for his pains, or he could come after me to get it back. I held up the case; come and get it, dirtbag!
He went for the bait and executed an Immleman turn. I powered up a couple of hundred feet above roof level. I knew that Gunshmuck would keep using that .50 cal HMG as long as he still had ammo, and wanted to keep collateral damage to a minimum. Up in the open air, we jockeyed around for the better part of 10 minutes. Finally, his ammunition gave out.
I dropped down below roof level, and patted the case. I figured that any guy who carries a .50 caliber phallic substitute wouldn't be able to resist a challenge to his masculinity. He rose to the occasion - something that I'll bet his girlfriend never said - and came after me.
During our one-sided dogfight, I observed that his jetpack was a lot better than I was in terms of acceleration and top speed, but he cornered like a jet. It took him the better part of a quarter mile to turn around. I led him down the concrete canyon at my best speed, bobbing and weaving to keep him from building up to his top speed. Eventually, he was right after me and closing the gap. A long sharp spur extended from the cuff of his left arm, and he came in for the kill. The second he hit the afterburners, I used the steel skeleton of one of the buildings to brake. He shot past me, and slammed full-tilt into the brick facing of an oncoming building. As he dropped like Wylie Coyote, I masterfully resisted shouting out, "Beep! Beep!"
I dropped to street-level to check on Gunhawk. I was pretty sure that his armor absorbed most of the original impact and the impact of dropping five stories, but there was always the possibility that he might drop on somebody. Nope, nobody directly hurt, but that SUV he landed on was never going to be the same again. I checked on Gunhawk. It's very hard to tell the condition of somebody wearing 400 pounds of power armor without a chainsaw, which I didn't happen to have on me.
Reyes beat the cops and other newscrews there by about five minutes. She and Eli poured out of the NewsLemon in the best MediaVulture style. Reyes shoved her mike in my faceplate and asked, "Lady Lightning, in light of the fact that this man was heavily armed, do you think that you have a right to endanger others by trying to catch this man, instead of leaving it to the Police?" Well, nobody could say she was soft pedaling on me.
I launched into my Kate Mulgrew imitation, hoping that the helmet would muffle my voice enough to make the flaws indistinct. "Do I have a right? This man used a $12 million piece of ordnance to steal just under a million in cash, shooting - possibly killing - two men to do it. I have the ability to help the police stop this kind of thing. When we hang back and just hope that somebody else will do the right thing, we encourage men like this. Civilization isn't a minimum effort achievement - it takes people actively doing what they know to be right. I don't just have a right; I have an obligation to do what I can, when it's needed. Yes, it's corny; but that doesn't mean it isn't true."
As Reyes was about to ask me another 'hard-hitting question' - or more likely, tear my shoddy logic apart - the cops showed up. (Memo to self: thrash out these 'spontaneous statements' with Reyes beforehand, so I don't sound like a right-wing asshole.) I handed over the courier's case to the police. Pointing to the trashed SUV, I told the officer, "I believe the bank offers a reward for the return of these things - if they do, give the money to the owner of this car to pay for the replacement. I don't think that their insurance covers being smashed by heavily armored idiots."
With that, I lifted off before any other news-sharks could get in any questions. Hey, I know which slice of bread my butter's on.
When the NewsLemon picked me up later, Reyes started in immediately. "Not bad, Maxham, but your voice still needs work. We got the only tape of your little interview - d'you think you could be a little more right wing next time? - so we can alter it a little in editing to make it sound more feminine, and - Hey-zoose, Maxham, what happened to your leg?"
I looked down at the leg she was staring at. There were two jagged holes on the outside of my right leg, and a stream of red had soaked the boot down to the sole. I gaped at the blood, and did what no superheroine, let alone superhero posing as a superheroine, should do. I fainted.
I jolted awake, not knowing where I was. I was lying on somebody's couch in what looked like a living room. Whose living room, I couldn't say. It looked like sometime in the afternoon; again, which afternoon, I couldn't say. I felt a stab of discomfort on my leg. When I reached down to check it out, I noticed the flannel I was wearing. Or more accurately, the flannel nightgown I was wearing. As I got up, I noticed something strange on my head. Somebody put a stupid wig on it!
I got up and staggered around 'til I found the bathroom. When I looked in the medicine cabinet mirror, somebody else looked out. I'd done makeup with Reyes before - largely to get her off my back about it, but I'd always done it with the mask on. The mask distanced me from it all. I didn't have a mask now. As I said, I had a wig on. It was dark, slightly waved, and fell to my shoulders. The really noticeable thing was the two 'Bride of Frankenstein' streaks that started at the temples and went to the shoulders. The hair was slightly askew - hey, I'd been sleeping on it. The face beneath it was slightly made up. Angular, kind of aristocratic. The mouth wasn't the pouty cupid's bow that's all the rage these days; it was more like the full mouths that Al Capp used to put on all his cute women. It hadn't seemed that full without the lipstick. What little eye makeup I had on did something to make them seem larger, more expressive. Not a supermodel face, but not my face, either. At least not the face I was used to. A woman's face. Attractive. Not pretty, more like handsome.
All together, with the now-slender body in the flannel nightgown, I looked like a very attractive woman. Maybe I wouldn't stop traffic, but definitely better looking than any of the women that I ever dated. I didn't know exactly what was going on, but I knew that I was in BIG trouble.
To Be Continued in Part 3 of Masks and Marvels