Of Masks and Marvels (Part 20)
Of Masks and MarvelsBy Bek D Corbin
"Nope - I'm working that night."
"Rats! I've got a business dinner Friday, and I have to be out of town all weekend."
"Ted, I do NOT go out on dates on Monday nights. It's a matter of principle."
"Woof! Who'd have thought that settling on a date for a date could be so hard! I've wiped out legions of killer robots in less time!"
"Well, you know what they say about people with full, busy lives..."
"No, what do they say?"
"I dunno. I was hoping that you knew."
"Oh, be serious, Max! You said that you'd go out with me, and I took that seriously!"
"_Ted_, I am taking going out with you seriously. I'm just having a hard time taking this scheduling thing seriously."
Joyce - or Twist, AEGIS's resident teleporter, if you must - walked into the kitchen and saw us. "Hey, what are you two up to?"
"Oh, Ted and I were just trying to get our schedules straight for our second date."
"Oh, that's riiiggghhht! You two had that date where Maverick and Desperado-"
"Twist, I know what happened! I was there!"
<snicker> "Not for long!" She took a cup of coffee and sashayed over to the table with the kind of wiseass smirk that bodes well for no one. "So, ah, Ted...do we still call you 'Sir Galahad', or would 'Sir LANCE-a-lot' be more appropriate?"
"What IS this, Junior High? What Ted and I do or don't do on our date is...My God, I didn't know a man could turn that RED! Ted, are you all right?"
Ted nodded through his blush.
"Ted and Maxie, sittin' in a tree... K-I-S-S-I-N-G..." Twist sang out as she skipped out.
"Oh, so now we're in THIRD GRADE?" I yelled after her. "Go through puberty already, willya?"
Ted gathered his cool with a little effort. I gave him a look. "Ted, is it that easy for a woman to ruffle your feathers?"
He nodded, shamefacedly. "Yeah. What can I say, I was a chubby kid, and the girls used to get their kicks teasing me."
"Oh, I know what you're talking about. And we never really do completely lose who we were in school, do we?"
"Nope, not completely. Anyway, what about Tuesday night?"
I checked my calendar. Yep, that's my day off, and since I also have Wednesdays off, it's my equivalent of Saturday Night. "Perfect!" I put my datebook down, leaned over the table, and smiled at Ted. "So, what are we gonna be doing? I gotta know, so I can dress for it."
"Oh, well, I didn't have anything special in mind. Dinner, a movie, like that."
"I can deal with that. But no chick flicks or artsy movies with subtitles. I don't mind an action movie, but it has to have more to it than a hundred explosions in ninety minutes."
"How about something by Merchant Ivory?"
"Well, that comes perilously close to 'Chick Flick', but I'm willing to give it a shot."
We were about to go into it further when Bernice, our resident Pissy-Not-Mad Scientist, walked in. "Max! I was wondering if I could ask a favor of you."
"Sure, Bern. What is it?"
"Well, I just started a strip-down refit on the teleportation array. It'll take days, and I'm going to need some help."
"Sure, no prob. When will you need me, and for how long?"
"Well, I'm only gonna really need help for a few days, and I can handle almost everything myself through the weekend. How about next Monday through Wednesday?"
"Sorry, Bern, I'd love to help you out, but I just made a commitment for Tuesday night, and Monday's a little iffy... <flash of genius!> BUT I can get you some help for those days!"
"Uhm, Maxine, I'm really gonna need experienced help on this, someone who really knows and loves circuitry the way that you and I do."
"Not to worry, Bern! I'll call _Tech Support_!"
"Sure! You don't think I maintain all my equipment all by myself, now do you?"
Ted piped up, probably eager to keep me out of the grasping clutches of a really involved High Tech Geek Out, "Sure, remember, she has that support organization behind her? We've heard her talking on her link to 'Control' and 'Tech Support'."
Bernice folded her arms across her chest and pouted. "Is this 'Tech Support' any good? I don't wanna entrust my baby to any greasy-fingered yahoo off the street."
I made a Boy Scout salute and crossed my heart. "Honest, Bern, 'Tech Support' reconfigures communications arrays for laughs. AND he's been champing at the bit to get his teeth into a real technical challenge. Talking him into coming in should be a snap!"
Bernice tensed even more the folded arms across her chest, hunched her shoulders and stuck out her lower lip. <Nnnggg....> "Oh, awlright! But if he hurts my baby, I'll disassemble him and use him for parts!"
Holding back a smirk, I murmurred, "There's a little Doctor Frankenstein lurking in the dark recesses of the soul of even the noblest Mad Scientist."
"I_ AM_ NOT_ MAD_! I'm just a little pissy, that's all."
"You want me to come into AEGIS headquarters?" Eli gave me a long stare. "Aaannnddd....?"
"Aaannnddd....what? There's no 'And?'!"
"And WHY do you suddenly want me to go to the place that you have repeatedly told me would pose a threat not only to your secret identity, but my physical well-being?"
Reyes wasn't staying out of it. "Yeah, Maxham, Why? And if he can go, why can't I?"
"Because, I have a context for bringing him there as 'Tech Support'. Look, Eli, Bernice needs a set of well-trained hands to help her with the teleportation array, and you need a chance to work on something more challenging than focusing that camera and telling supervillains to say 'Cheese'. It sounds like a perfect 'Win-Win' arrangement."
"And why don't YOU help her out, if it's such a rippin' weld-job, hunh?"
"Bernice asked me just seconds after I told Justiciar that I'd go out on another date with him. I couldn't just flake out on him right after saying 'Yes', now could I?"
Reyes all but had a microphone up my nose. "You're going on another date with Justiciar? How did that happen?"
"We sat down, pulled out our appointment books and worked it out. Y'know, for someone who doesn't have a real social life, my calendar is really booked."
"That's NOT what I meant! What happened to all the whining and moaning and trying to weasel out of it? You mean, right after I got used to you being in denial, you have to go and accept the fact that you're turning into a woman?"
I grinned at her. "Aaahhh...what's the matter? Did your little scams all go flush down the toilet?"
Reyes was revving up the chainsaw that she keeps behind her lips, when my AEGIS beeper went off. I shushed Reyes and answered. <Memo to Self: Rig beeper to do that on a cue, so that I can pull this whenever I'm losing an argument with Reyes> "Lady Lightning here. What's up?"
"Ms. Hex here. You got a message from Lieutenant Heszcheck. He wants you to get in touch with him ASAP."
"Why didn't he page me directly?"
"Bernice is reconfiguring the teleportation array, remember? The teleporter's location targeting system is all tangled up with our communications system. Everything is on bare minimum."
"So, how are we supposed to get in and out of HQ? Thanks to that stupid teleporter, I don't even know where HQ really IS!"
"Oh, you just do the normal entry gig, but you'll have to use a payphone in the area between 14th Street and 17th Street, and H_____ and N___."
"Okay. By the way, is Bernice going to configure a mannikin for me, so that I can do that 'Instant Change' bit?"
"I dunno. Ask her yourself - then you'll be able to ask all those persnickety techy questions."
"'Kay. Well then, I should call Heszcheck and find out what's got him in an uproar. Ta." I switched off, and using that credible reason, put Reyes' rant on indefinite hold. Then I dialed Heszcheck's number.
Fortunately, the local PD had recently sprung for Caller ID, and I was using an AEGIS encrypted cell-phone, so I got through their Anti-Crank measures without a hitch. "Hey, yer Ladyship. Would you get over here ASAP? We have a situation here that I think you'd be perfect for."
"Yeah. Color me honored! What is it?"
"I'll tell you when you get here. I don't wanna prejudice you." One thing about Heszcheck - he knows how to get you curious.
I've been in and out of the local cop-shop often enough that Travis, the Astro-cop on duty on the roof, signed me in with barely a pause. When I got to Heszcheck's office, he and his partner Sanchez were going over some documents with a woman wearing a bulky overcoat. The woman was wearing, besides the overcoat, the kind of wrap-around glasses that some people in the superheroing line of business use instead of a mask, and a form fitting bodysuit with glassy plates over various sensitive parts.
"Ah! You're here. Lady Lightning, I'd like to introduce you to Gallowglass. Gallowglass, this is Lady Lightning, one of the more responsible members of the local superhero community."
Gallowglass? Gallowglass? What kind of name is Gallowglass? Still, it rang a bell somewhere...Gallowglass, Gallowglass, Gallowglass....
Ah! The Warlock In Spite Of Himself! I always knew that my low taste in Sci-Fi literature would come in handy some day! The main character, Rod D'Armand, used the name Gallowglass when he landed on the planet Gramayre in the classic Sci-Fi book by Christopher Stasheff. "Gallowglass? Isn't that an Irish term for a mercenary soldier?"
She quirked a rueful smile. "Oh. Another Sci-fi junkie."
"And exactly how did a bonny little colleen like y'self get a tag like that?" Far from being Irish, 'Gallowglass' was very African American, with coffee-dark skin and a hair tied up into bleached out clumps.
The semi-smile never left her face. "I couldn't imagine" She held up one hand and a glassy black knife sort of grew to fill the empty hand. With nary a move, the knife dwindled back into nothing.
"*Ahem!*" Heszcheck interjected. "Miz 'Gallowglass' is a registered bounty hunter, and she's come here following a lead."
Bounty hunter? Well, that supports the 'mercenary' side of the word. "Oh? Who are you trailing?"
"A second-rate supervillain who called himself 'Prism'. But he's not my real target - I'm after a much bigger score."
"'Prism' pulled off a series of heists in the Mid-West, capped by his ripping off and killing a mid-level loan shark. I have information that he did all of this so that he could come here and meet with Doctor Daedalus."
"Doctor Daedalus? Okay, now you have my complete, undivided attention. So, you think he's going to buy some kind of power enhancing device to kick him up to the Big Leagues?"
"Oh, more than that. Lieutenant?"
"Over the past few days, there have been a couple of break-ins at high-tech installations. The burglar broke in at high levels - at least five stories up - and burned his way in with a very powerful laser. Two nights ago, our perp broke into Guirudir Applied Technologies using his trademark high altitude burn-in. We got a security camera shot of him. He burned two security guards, killing one and almost cutting the legs off the other." Heszcheck handed me some printouts.
The first picture was of a man with a stock 'comic book' physique, with the bodybuilder muscles but none of the real life bulkiness. He was wearing a silvery bodystocking with gold trim, and pair of shortened wings along the arms, and a hawk-like helmet. He was pointing at something. In the next picture, he was facing a couple of men in security guard uniforms, but most of his face was obscured by a blur of light. The third shot had him pointing at one of the guards; the guard's face was scrunched up in agony, and there was a burn on his shoulder. In the fourth shot, the intruder had extended the wing on one arm and was slicing through the other guard's leg with it. In the fifth and last picture, the intruder was going out a crudely burned hole in the wall, both wings extended for flight.
I looked at Heszcheck. "Can I get an enlargement of this first picture, with better clarity?"
Looking satisfied, he handed me a large glossy.
"That's not an outfit that he's wearing - it's another one of those damned symbionts."
Glallowglass nodded. "Right. I think Prism came here to have that symbiont attached to him. My guess is that he's doing 'chores' for Doctor Daedalus to test the symbiont out while under close observation by the Doctor."
"Hold on - something isn't adding up here. If Doctor Daedalus is the one behind the symbionts, then who sent the Iron Lance against She-Devil's set-up down in the Industrial District? Why would Doctor D send troops against his own customers? Talk about bad customer relations!"
Sanchez shrugged. "This whole Symbiont thing reeks of Doctor Daedalus. Maybe She-Devil is trying to muscle in on his racket. Maybe she's been stealing technology from him, and is trying to build up her own symbiont syndicate."
Heszcheck nodded. "OR, maybe the good doctor has some kind of security over-ride device built into the symbionts, and She-Devil is trying to get out from under his thumb."
"Well, that would explain both why she and Berserker broke into that lab of his, and why she made sure that I was the one who went in first to deal with the traps and turn off the security system."
Gallowglass piped up, "Hey, this is all very interesting, but can we get down to business? I have a contract to bring in Donald Q. Prisker, a.k.a. 'Prism', a.k.a. 'Lightburst', a.k.a. 'Laserblast', a.k.a. whatever he's calling himself now that he has that stupid thingamabob. I'm hoping that I can bring in two bounties at the same time by bringing in Doctor Daedalus. The Lieutenant here insists that I have a (quote) Responsible Member of the Local Superhero Community (unquote) along with me while I track this asshole down, or he won't let me hunt in peace. But I gotta know - are you going to be a help finding Prisker, or do I take my chances doing it on the sly?"
I looked her square in the eye. "Listen up. I haven't met Doctor Daedalus face-to-face yet, but I've had to deal with his messes before. AND I'm a trained technician. AND I have a good track record dealing with symbiont opponets."
Heszcheck nodded proudly. "Yep, her Ladyship is one of the few people that I know of who've gone toe-to-toe with both Berserker and She-Devil, one-on-one, and not only live to talk about it, but kick their asses!"
Even through the big glasses, Gallowglass registered some reaction. "Berserker? The Big Red Brick? You took him out all by your lonesome?" I nodded. "How?" I explained my trick of blocking Berserker's breathing system with ozone. Gallowglass nodded. "Not bad, not bad at all...and this 'She-Devil' - she's supposed to be hell on wheels?"
Sanchez gave a low whistle. "VERY Nasty. And VERY powerful. And she's still out there."
I leaned over and muttered confidentially, "Actually, she's not really that hot - but she's got a crew of goons backing her up that I'd stack against Special Forces of the same numbers. And they'll do damn near anything for her. But I doubt we'll have to deal with her on this. Everything we've seen so far indicates that she's at daggers drawn with Doctor Daedalus, so even if she knows about it, she'll just let us take him out for her.
"But, let's turn your question around - and what makes you think that you're up to taking on Doctor Daedalus and his latest science fair project?"
Gallowglass just smiled ferally and whipped a hand out to the side twice. There on the wall of Heszcheck's office, spelled out in glassy needles, was 'G.G.' She purred, "Oh, I think that I'll manage..."
I gave the needle pattern a brief look. "Okay, that's good enough for me. But not all. I'm going to insist that another person come along."
Gallowglass gave an disgusted sound. "ANOTHER share to pay out? Who is it?"
"Oh, don't worry about your bottom line - Power Woman will jump at the chance to get her hands on Doctor Daedalus, free of charge."
"Yeah - apparently she and the good Doctor have a history together. And she's far more familiar with his MO and layouts than I am. Not to mention being pretty damn good in a knock-down-drag-out fight. I'll call AEGIS and arrange a rendezvous point."
Gallowglass chewed on it for a moment. "'S'okay, the price is right. But understand this - I have informants on this case, and I want them to stay MY informants. I meet with them alone, Capice?"
I went over to the door and opened it. "Fine by me! And in that spirit, you'll understand if I want to have a word with the Lieutenant? In _Private_." I gave her a pat on the back as she walked out into the main office space.
When I turned around, Sanchez was already over at the far wall, pulling the needles out with tweezers. "You're going to have them analyzed?"
"Then have the boys in the lab take a look at these as well..." I handed Sanchez the threads that I'd pulled off of Gallowglass' overcoat.
"Why? Do you think they mean something? Besides the fact that Gallowglass shops at really cut-rate stores?"
"It strikes me that a professional like Gallowglass must wear that bulky, loose-knit coat for some reason. And God knows that it doesn't look bulletproof. So it must mean something. Also, make sure they check both the needles and these threads against the Symbiont Tar samples that you took off of Berserker and Nasghul."
"Why? You think there's a connection?"
"Well, the way that Gallowglass manifested that knife just reminded me uncomfortably of Nasghul. And did I ever get around to telling you that She-Devil can manipulate that symbiont of hers so that she can disguise herself as others?"
"That's right! That's how she suckered you into leading the way into Doctor Daedalus' lab, isn't it? You think that 'Gallowglass' out there might be She-Devil trying to pull a version of the same game on you?"
"Nope. Gallowglass is too chatty. She-Devil's disguise was perfect, but she couldn't cover that goulash accent of hers. So, she cooked up an excuse not to talk. On the other hand, if a bimbo like She-Devil could pull off a stunt like that, and so could Nasghul, wouldn't it make sense that a smart operator like Kraken - who's still at large - could do it?"
"So, what's the plan?"
"Have the samples analyzed. Arrange a containment cell in a place where we could reasonbly talk 'Gallowglass' into entering. Power Woman and I will keep Gallowglass busy while the lab boys do their thing. If the samples match, I cook up an excuse to bring the fancy dancer out there back."
Heszcheck whined in a lame 'Maxwell Smart' impression, "Ahhh...the old 'talk the bad guy into a containment cell' trick! They fall for it every time!"
"And even if this Gallowglass is who she says she is, it's best to be absolutely sure, ne c'est pas?"
I made my phone call to AEGIS and made the arrangements. "Well, that's that. You can pull up the Cone of Silence now. Agent 86, 99...." And I made my exit before they could say 'Sorry about that, Chief!'
A few hours later, I was on a rooftop downtown, waiting on both Power Woman (who was disentangling herself from her personal life) and Gallowglass (who was talking to one of her 'contacts', who apparently worked in an electronics distribution warehouse). My cell phone rang. "Yo!"
"Heszcheck here. I bumped that analysis to the head of the line, and I already got some good news and some bad news."
"Oh, lovely - Vaudeville time! <sigh> Okay, Heszcheck, here's your straight line - What's the Good News, Mister Bones?"
"The good news is that neither the needles nor the threads match the Symbiont Tar. The boffins tell me that the Symbiont Tar is actually a micro-fine crystalline dust or sand, with dodecahedral - what the fuck is 'dodecahedral'?"
"Dodecahedral means it's a dodecahedron, a twelve-sided solid figure, sort of like a planed-off ball. Go on..."
"Whatever - the individual grains of dust or sand are dodecahedral, hollow filled with tiny amounts of liquid, and made up of some weird, unlikely compound of iron, silicon, carbon, copper and a grab bag of other trace elements. The needles are made up of carbon, iron, sulphur, and again, a grab bag of trace elements, compressed into fibrous crystals."
"Hmmm... So far, so weird. Okay, I'll bite - What's the Bad News, Mister Bones?"
"The threads. The lab techs say they're partially comprised of human DNA. No matter what happens, when this is over, we're gonna havta sit Miss 'Gallowglass' down and have a rather strict talk with her."
Partially comprised of human DNA? I looked down at the distribution warehouse where Gallowglass had gone trolling for information. Gallowglass walked out a door and passed a truck as it was warming up to leave. Then I noticed something weird.
As Gallowglass passed the exhaust, the smoke from the exhaust pipe followed her and was soaked up into her longcoat.
"Don't worry about Gallowglass, Lieutenant. I think I just figured her out. I think what Gallowglass does is she emits some sort of energy or force that interacts with Carbon-based matter. She reaches out into the air around her and gathers all the particulate carbon. Once she has enough of that stuff at hand, she forms it into those fibrous carbon crystals, which she forms into various glassy things such as those needles."
"And what about the human DNA?"
"Heszcheck, the vast majority of the inside pollution we run into is dust. And 'Dust' is 85% human dander, or dead skin cells. And since the human matter that isn't water is 70% carbon, it's just more building matter to her. My guess is that she uses that coat of hers as a method of both collecting and storing carbon for later use."
"So, basically you're saying that she schmootzes her enemies into submission."
"Hey, have you ever tried to fight a stain that simply will not go away?"
"Yeah, well, you watch out, Kid. I hear that she plays dirty!"
"I'll keep my nose clean. Oops, here comes Dirty Harriet. Gotta Go!"
Gallowglass rose up the side of the wall on a slender cord that constricted, pulling her up.
"Hey. So, you get anything from your source?"
"I got a time and a place. My guy is selling Prisker some information."
"So, 'your guy' is selling Prisker information, and he's selling Prisker to you; how can you be sure that he's not also selling you to Prisker?"
"From the information that I've been getting, Prisker is in the first stage of pulling up stakes and getting the hell outta Dodge. My boy is worried that Prisker might try to 'clean up after himself' by getting rid of a few people who can ID him now that he has that symbiont. Besides, if Prisker leaves, then he ain't gonna be a customer anymore, now is he?"
I couldn't help it. "Oh, it's a dirty business, isn't it?"
"It pays the bills. Now, where's that 'expert' that you insisted on?"
"She's on her way, and yep! There she is!"
Power Woman swooped down. She nodded to me, and cocked her head at Gallowglass. "Gallowglass, may I introduce Power Woman. Pee Dubya, this is Gallowglass, registered bounty hunter."
Power Woman folded her arms across her chest. "So...Gallowglass...I understand that you have information regarding Doctor Daedalus?"
Gallowglass flicked me a look through those glasses of hers. I shrugged. "Not directly. I have information that a goon calling himself 'Prism' - though he's probably thought up a new name for himself now that he's got that symbiont - is connected with Daedalus. I've managed to get a line on Prism, and we should be able to get him to lead us to Daedalus."
"And where is this 'Prism' now?"
"I dunno. But I _do_ know that he's going to pick up some information from my informant at a particular place at a particular time. At that time, I'm going to plant a tracker on him, and follow him back to Doctor Daedalus."
"What makes you think that he'll go directly to Daedalus?"
"He won't. He'll pull a heist, and then take it to Daedalus. When he does that, we bag them both."
"And we're supposed to just stand there watching and let him commit a felony?"
I interrupted. Pee Dubya was getting up Gallowglass' nose, and GG wasn't having any of it. "Of course we don't just let him break in. After he's broken in, you and I stop him, beat the crap out of him, but let him just barely manage to escape. If he's hurt bad enough, he'll make a bee-line for Daedalus for treatment. And if he's watching for two fliers, he won't be keeping an eye out for Gallowglass, making it that much easier to track him, No?"
Gallowglass nodded grudgingly. "It works. And, this way we don't have to face Daedalus AND Prism when they're both at full strength.
"_But_, before we go any further, I want something understood. I'm in this for money, but you two are the ones that are supposed t'be doin' it for 'Truth, Honor and the American Way' - I don't want you guys crabbin' about a cut of the bounty on Daedalus."
"He's worth that much?"
"He's wanted in all fifty States, four Canadian Provinces, Mexico, Cuba, most of the NATO nations, Japan, the PRC AND Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Sinapore and India. Heck, he's even wanted in Tonga. And they're All putting up money to have him brought in."
Oooggg... If Tonga is putting up cash, then Daedalus must be even more of a scumbag than I thought - Tonga is perennially broke.
"Hey, if it's that much, then I think that, on behalf of AEGIS, I should make an agreement for, oh say, 10% of that."
Gallowglass crossed her arms and sneered, "Whatsa matta, those 'Lady Lightning' posters not selling like they used to?"
"Oh, they're selling quite nicely - last month, they underwrote 10% of the local General Hospital's Burn Ward operations, and next week they're going to pay for reconstructive surgery on a kid who had three-quarters of her face burned off. But that's not the point - I'm not getting any of that money, AEGIS is; do you have any idea of how expensive running a superhero HQ is?"
"Yer breakin' my heart - 3%."
"You need us just to operate in this city without getting busted on a thousand trivial violations - 8%"
"Flying without a net is SOP with me - 4%!"
"Without us, you'll have to deal with Prism and Doctor Daedalus both, at their peaks! 7%."
"That's just a routine business hazard for me. 5%!"
"I think we can accept Five percent of what you get for Doctor Daedalus as just recompensation. As a gesture, we'll let you keep all of what you'll get for Prism."
"Damn White of you." I'm still trying to figure out if that was a compliment or an insult.
As we watched, Power Woman groused, "You could have held out for six percent."
"The money wasn't the point. Gallowglass is a mercenary - she doesn't respect what she doesn't pay for."
"Why do we need her?"
"Because it's simpler this way. We help her get Daedalus. She gets paid, we get Daedalus' weirdo technology off the street. Everybody wins. If we tried to freeze her out, then it gets complicated. Guys like Daedalus thrive in complicated situations."
"It's already complicated."
"Oh? How so?"
"Do you remember that factory of She-Devil's that the Iron Lance mercs stormed? It wasn't Doctor Daedalus' style."
"Hunh? But I thought you said it was exactly Daedalus' style!"
"The situation was, the factory itself wasn't. That place was thrown together with off-the-rack equipment. Daedalus always makes his own equipment himself. That way he doesn't have to trust the sub-contractor's ethics or workmanship."
"And he doesn't have to worry about his source of supply being interrupted or traced back to him."
"Exactly. So, Daedalus wasn't working with She-Devil or that Egg thing. But that teleportation device - that had Daedalus written all over it. He might as well have put a logo on it. So, Daedalus was probably Iron Lance's client. But if Daedalus is the one supplying second rate supervillains with these symbionts, why is he trading shots with She-Devil?"
"Given her personality, I'd say that it was a matter of good taste on his part. No, but seriously, I think you may be on to something. When I was Maverick and Desperado's hostage, they let drop that they had stolen that doo-hickey for someone who was paying them in high-tech goodies."
"More'n likely. They snatch whatever it is, and Kraken - another symbiont supervillain - comes along to fetch it back. And there was that time that She-Devil and Berserker suckered me into breaking into one of his labs. You think that maybe there's some kind of feud going on between Deadalus and the symbiont supervillains? Why?"
"I'm not sure. Too much speculation, too little real information. Maybe he has some kind of obedience device that they're afraid of."
"Well, that would make sense - only an idiot would give those kind of people that kind of power, and just trust them to keep on paying him his cut."
"So, there we are - a very complex situation, into which this 'Gallowglass' comes blithely in, with 'information' from an unknown source about Daedalus' whereabouts. How can we be sure that she isn't one of the symbiont supervillains?"
"Simple - I already checked. I had Heszcheck analyze a few samples that she left behind. The symbionts are based on a silicon-carbon compound, while Gallowglass down there works almost purely in carbon, and - whoops! The ball is in play!"
Gallowglass had been talking with a disreputable looking type, when a dramatic looking guy walked up. Disreputable Looking sort of shooed Gallowglass off.
Brenda made an unconviced noise. "What makes you think that's Prism? It could be Illegal Business As Usual."
"Look at their feet - see that pool of darkness forming at Gallowglass' feet? She spread it out just before this guy came up. My guess is that Gallowglass just marked her pigeon. After all, who really looks at the bottom of their feet unless they step in something?"
Brenda grunted again. "That 'pool of darkness' just reminds me too much of Kraken and those other symbiont scumbags."
"I told you - I checked her out. However her power works, it isn't a symbiont thing."
"Maybe, but I still think that this is too damn easy. Even if Gallowglass is on the level, it's too likely that the symbionts sent him at Daedalus to get him out of the way."
"So? And this is bad?"
"Without Daedalus on the scene, the symbionts won't have any checks on them."
"And again, this is bad? I mean, She-Devil is NOT a checks or plaids kinda girl...though maybe she should try paisley..."
"Will you be serious?"
"Okay, seriously - even If the symbionts are all together in jumping on Daedalus, it doesn't follow that they're gonna stick together once that's done. I mean, it's a minor miracle that Berserker can stand She-Devil, and can you really see Kraken putting up with either of them? And if Nasghul is in on this, it won't last an hour past the moment that Daedalus goes down. He's your classic megalomaniac who won't listen to anyone else. Heck, there's a good chance that they'll try to make a go of being a team, and they'll wind up gacking each other. And Daedalus scares me a lot more than all the symbionts put together."
"Daedalus is a menace, but She-Devil by herself is enough to warrant the attention of all of us. She has to be dealt with."
"Brenda, what IS it that you people see in her? I mean, you of all people should know that a great body doesn't neccessarily mean that someone's all that great!"
Even before Prism left his street contact, Gallowglass left and got back to us by a roundabout route. "M'man Slick said that every time he sold Prism some inside info, that he did his thing no more than three or four hours later. So, we gotta keep an eye on him, 'cause Prism's gonna be busy real soon."
I screwed up my face in confusion. "Three or four hours? Doesn't he do any kind of legwork on his own?"
"I get the impression that Prism doesn't really trust ol' Slick. With good reason. I guess he doesn't want to give Slick a chance to peddle off second hand information on him."
"Y'know, the more I hear about how crooks work, the better I like Cops?"
We tagged after Prism for about three hours, keeping well out of his sight. Sure enough, about three hours after he left 'Slick', Prism was standing at the side of a building. You could tell that he hadn't had his symbiont for very long - he did the 'Dramatic Pose' thing to change from 'streetwear' to 'fighting togs'. Then he spread his mirrored wings and flew up six stories, where he paused to cut a big gaping hole in the wall. Gee, talk about Mister Subtle!
Once he was inside, Power Woman and I flew to go whup his ass so bad that he'd have to go back to Doctor D to put a band-aid on it. It was understood that Gallowglass would stay back and track him when he split.
When we got to the hole, Prism was in the process of aiming a shot with one of his razor-sharp wings to take the head off of a security guard. Pee-Dubya assumed her 'Stern Goddess of Justice' pose and blared, "Halt, Miscreant! Harm that man, and you shall answer to--- POWER WOMAN!"
I looked at her askance. " 'Halt, Miscreant'? Who talks like that?"
Prism could have gone for ruthless and used the guard as a hostage, but instead he went for stupid and threw the man at us. Pee-Dubya caught him, but before I could do anything, he struck another pose and said, "Foolish women! Leave while you can! Nothing can stand in the way of the mighty LIGHTHAWK!"
Oh, Lord, give me strength!
I took the security guard from Power Woman. "Pee-Dubya, you wanna handle this? You two can trade pomposities until one of you drops."
Giving me a scowl, Power Woman launched herself at Dimbulb.
Now, I could go into a long involved, blow-by-blow account of how we kicked his nice, shiny ass, but to be honest, it wasn't that interesting a fight. If wearing a symbiont turns second-raters into front-line menaces, then Prism must have been a real fourth-eschelon super-crook. Or maybe he was just unfamiliar with his new powers. To be honest, it was sort of difficult to throw the fight enough to let him run without making it obvious.
As Lighthawk whizzed off, I looked at PW, "Well, let's see if Gallowglass waited for us."
She had. Being carried in Power Woman's arms, Gallowglass tracked Dimbulb to a low-lying building on the outskirts of the warehouse district. Oh well, at least it wasn't the Industrial district this time. When we lit on a roof near the building, I asked Gallowglass, "You're sure?" She nodded. "Okay, Pee-Dubyah, this is why we called you in on this. You've dealt with Daedalus often enough - given the shape of this building, how would he lay it out?"
Power Woman gave the outlay a long hard look. She had some good notions, but you could tell that she wasn't an engineer. Between her personal experience and my formal training, we were able to get a general idea of how the place was put together. Using my 'radar', I was able to pinpoint the places where Daedalus' security devices were thickest. That was very important - we had to know the spot where to hit the place the hardest.
I picked up Gallowglass and gave Power Woman the nod. She rose up into the sky, almost out of sight. Then she came powering down at top speed and rammed a hole through the building.
As I carried her through the gaping hole, Gallowglass was nicely impressed. "That's reinforced concrete. She went through it like it was cardboard."
"Well, ol' Pee-Dubya never did have problems in the raw power department. Finesse, now - that's always a problem."
I'd assumed that the greatest concentration of power would be the main control room. It looks like I was wrong and Brenda was right: Daedalus always has at least three standby power generators. I owe her a dollar.
Fortunately, the control room wasn't far from the generator. It was set up pretty much the same way in which the control room that She-Devil had suckered me to was. I sat down and got ready to work. "Gallowglass, go find Power Woman. She should have dug herself out of that hole by now."
"And what are you gonna be doing?"
"Shutting down all the automatic defenses. Or at least trying to. The security protocols for this installation are much better than they were at the last one. I may not be able to gain access."
"Can't you just use your electrical powers to do it?"
"Nope. I don't have that level of fine control. I'm gonna have to do it the old fashioned way." I picked up a telephone. "I'm going to get somebody smarter than I am to do it."
Fortunately, the control room had a schematic and some security monitors, so we knew which room Daedalus and Lighthawk were in. Through the monitor, I saw PW and GG make their entrance. Brenda started off with her usual 'strike a pose and make pompous noises' bit. Luckily for me, the security pickups didn't include microphones. Then Bernice picked up on the other side of the phone.
"What is it?" she snarled in her usual telephone charm.
"Hey, Bernie! It's Lady Lightning. Quick, listen up, I don't have a lot of time, here's the skinny-" I ran down the bare essentials of the situation. I'll spare you the techno-geek-speak interchange. I patched Bernice into Daedalus' mainframe over the phone line and let her take it from there. "Bernice? If you don't need me for anything, there's a classic shindig brewing, and if I don't shake a tailfeather, I'm gonna miss it."
"Not to worry - the Kid is on the job." With that, I was out of the control room.
The fight was going on in one of those large, open rooms that mad scientists are so fond of. Gallowglass was throwing glassy knives at Doctor Daedalus. Power Woman was guarding her back by using Lighthawk as a club to batter combat robots and as a shield to deflect incoming energy blasts from the lab's weapon emplacements. Somehow, I doubt this was what ol' Prism had in mind when he signed up for Dr. D's symbiont treatment.
As I charged in, I finally got a good look at the notorious Doctor Daedalus. Now, I admit that I'd rather been expecting something along the lines of Marvel Comics' Doctor Doom© - dramatic pseudo-chivalric armor, a flowing cape, an expressive faceplate, and like that. The reality was rather disappointing. Dr. D's armor was a prosaic off-white articulated cermet with a blank faceplate that was only broken up by some sensor aperatures. Instead of a cape, he wore a bland - if practical - lab coat. And he wasn't posturing dramatically, firing energy bolts from a guantlet (that shouldn't have enough room for any circuitry, let alone room for an energy weapon) and ranting away. Instead, he was just standing there, calmly reviewing the battle. He was probably directing the emplaced weapons by remote control.
Remote control weapons in a research lab - evil scientists are so untrusting!
Okay, so Daedalus didn't waste room in his power armor with weaponry, preferring to put all his firepower in remote hardpoints in his lab. Engineering-wise, a sound move. But, it means that it has to be operated by remote control. So, the communications band that he's using is the weak link. Advantage - Good Guys.
I thunder-charged over to Dr. D, and did a wide-area sustained electric discharge. Or, for the technologically challenged, I filled the air with static electricity. Now, I didn't really expect Daedalus to use a radio frequency - it was far more likely that he was either using an ultrasonic tone or an infrared light beam. Either way, the static burst would either interfere with the infrared beam or the speaker chip for the ultrasonic tone.
It worked. I'm still not sure which way it worked, but it worked. The weapon hardpoints went quiet, but the combat robots were still frisky. Daedalus must have designated Power Woman and Gallowglass as targets before he took the joystick for the emplacments.
Oh course, if I were really slick, I would have jammed Daedalus' gear while staying out of his reach. As it was, he resorted to the decidedly low-tech, but admittedly effective ploy of slamming me in the ribs. While he couldn't be bothered with putting weapons systems in his hard-suit, I guess he thought that a strength amplifying exo-skeleton was worth the space. He sent me flying into the nearest console and then went stock still again. I guess he was trying to get the emplacements up and kicking again.
Gallowglass reached into her coat and yelled, "Stay back, Lightning!" She whipped her hand toward Daedalus, throwing a stubby disc at Daedalus. When the disc was a few inches away from him, it exploded in an inky cloud. Then the dust settled. Despite myself, it was sort of like those old cartoons where a character gets blown up with dynamite, and is changed to a 'pickaninny'. You don't see those scenes much more these days - they keep getting edited out, in the cause of Political Correctness. Daedalus was covered from head to toe in blackness.
Then he slipped and fell. He tried to get up, but he kept losing his stance and floundering.
The lights flickered for a moment, and I heard Bernice's voice on my headset, "Hey, LL - I got in! His database is MINE!" Then the last of the Octobots went limp, just as Power Woman was about to batter it into scrap.
PW looked at Gallowglass. "What did you do to him?"
I leaned over and poked experimentally at the black stuff that was on the floor near Daedalus. It was very slippery, but it didn't feel wet... Then it clicked. "Buckminsterfullerite!"
I could see the flummox through Power Woman's helmet.
"Buckminsterfullerite, or 'Buckyballs', is a form of carbon that takes the shape at the microscopic level of a 'ball' arranged in a form like a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome. [Author's Note: Yes, this stuff really exists!] It makes an extremely efficient lubricant, and unless I miss my guess, Gallowglass used the residual static electric 'cling' from my burst to make this stuff cling to to his armor. So, with this stuff covering him from head to toe, there's no way that he could keep any traction to stay standing or get back up."
Gallowglass gave me an odd 'and how did you know about that' look. "Yeah, right, Buckminsterfullerite." It struck me that she'd never heard of it before. With her power, she wouldn't have to know the name or the details, she'd just form the stuff and use it. "I got the idea from your story of how you took Berserker down."
Power Woman tied Lighthawk to a pylon with a length of pipe. "Yeah, yeah, very clever. Now, how are we going to get that cybernetic scumbag out of that shell of his if we can't get a grip on him?"
Gallowglass shook her head. "I can't make the soot dissolve without letting him get back up again. And he's too dangerous to let that happen."
I chewed it over. "He wasn't manipulating any controls when he was operating the lab's weapons - he must have some kind of control system fixed into the interior of his helmet. He'd also have the opening mechanism built in the same way, for the same reason. See how the faceplate is designed? My bet is that it swings up like a visor. How's this - Gallowglass, you dissolve the soot on his faceplate, and only on his faceplate. Pee-Dubya, when the soot drops you force his faceplate open. As soon as it's open, I'll stun Daedalus. Once he's out, I can figure out how to open up the armor."
Gallowglass shrugged. "It's a plan." The layer of schmutz around the faceplate dropped away. Power Woman tried to open it, but failed on the first try. Then she straddled his body, got as much leverage as she could and gave it everything she had. The visor snapped open, but before we could do anything, there was a flash of light that came from the interior of the helmet.
When my sight cleared, I looked inside the armor. Nothing. It was empty. Not only had Doctor Daedalus managed to fly the coop, but every circuit inside the helmet (and I'll give you odds inside the entire suit) was fried. "He's gone!"
"WHAT?" Gallowglass snarled incredulously.
"He must have had some kind of emergency teleport gizmo built into the visor. In case he was ever knocked unconscious or something. The only way to get him out of that armor is through the helmet, so if he were knocked out, or paralyzed or mind controlled, nobody could get at him." I looked at the armor. "Hell, teleportation may be the only way to get IN this thing at all!"
Then a voice that I know all too well piped up. "Oh, the doctor's out? But it's not even Wednesday! He CAN'T be golfing"
I whipped my head around just in time to see She-Devil and Kraken standing in one of the holes that had been punched in the side of the building during the fight. Before I could do anything, She-Devil let fly with the fireball that she had in one hand and caught me square in the chest.
The fireball sent me flying, and by the time that I got back up, both She-Devil and Kraken were gone. "What just happened?" Gallowglass and Power Woman were both staring at the hole in the wall in the same awe-struck way. "Hey! Hey, Gallowglass! What just happened here?"
"Who was THAT?"
"THAT was She-Devil and Kraken. And what did they do, besides take a cheap shot at me?"
"The long, dark stretchy guy - he ripped the bar from around Prisker and carried him off."
"-And while Power Woman and Gallowglass are just standing there with their teeth in their mouths, Kraken comes in and carries Lighthawk off like a sack of groceries."
Reyes took some notes. "So, that kind of confirms that She-Devil and Kraken are working together, and they're in some kind of plot against Doctor Daedalus. And given that She-Devil and Berserker were working together when they pulled that phony distress call from Power Woman, we can safely assume that he's in on it, too. What about that nutjob Nasghul?"
"No way to tell. Last I'd heard, he was still in the lock-up. Given the way these symbionts seem to be working together, if he were with them, they'd have sprung him by now."
"OR they're just laying as low as they can for now. What about the other known symbiont supervillains?"
"Way ahead of you. There are four other known symbiont wearing supervillains - Nightgaunt, Junkyard, Agony and Ice-Age. Nightgaunt and Junkyard are still at large and have been committing crimes as usual. Agony is doing hard time at the Federal Paranormal lockup up in Alaska. There was a big dust up involving Ice-Age and parties unknown a few months ago, and nobody's heard from him since."
<Hmm...> "Interesting. How did Gallowglass take losing both of her bounties?"
"About as well as you might expect. Once she snapped out of it, she was blistering the air with trash talk about 'amateurs'. She lodged a complaint with the PD."
"Oh, like she didn't just stand there and let Kraken and She-Devil walk out with Lighthawk. Do you think they're going to induct Lighthawk into their 'Symbiont Syndicate'?"
"I hope they do! Lighthawk is a third-rater with a gimmick. Having him on their team will only slow them down. And speaking of being slowed down-" I clapped my hands, "Hey, ELI! C'MON! Let's see how you look!"
"Are you absolutely sure about this, Max?" Eli's plaintive voice came from the next room.
Ma stifled a smile. "Yes, come on out here, dear! If this is going to be a family tradition, I want to make sure that you make us look good!"
Eli walked out, looking a bit like a kid wearing his first good suit. The outfit consisted of a black leather set of bib overalls (with lots of pockets and loops), a gray long-sleeved top that included an early X-Men style hood, a gold metallic visor (for that all-important Cyclops© look), black gloves, gray boots and a gray tool belt. On the buckle of the tool belt and on the fasteners of the bib were gold-tone 'T's set inside a silver-tone box.
"Hey, Li'l BRO! Lookin' Good!" I gave Eli a cheery smile and a thumbs up. Then I whispered aside to Reyes, "Exactly where did you find that get-up anyway?"
"Oh, I had it made up a while ago. I figured it was only a matter of time before 'Tech Support' had to make a personal appearance of some sort. I'm just glad that it wasn't under fire."
Good. That meant that it was already paid for. "Okay, enough of the fashion show! Reyes, would you please pull the Newslemon out to the side of the house? We gotta go."
Ma gave me a look. "You're going out dressed as Lady Lightning?"
"No, but I have to deliver Eli to AEGIS first. I'm going to meet T- Justiciar there, and change at HQ." I held up a garment bag in explaination.
"And what are you going to be wearing?"
"The long sleeved red silk dress. And yes, I have shoes and a clutch purse that match."
"Show me." I did, and she was satisfied.
Continuted in Part 21...