Of Masks and Marvels (Part 21)
Of Masks and MarvelsBy Bek D Corbin
Chapter Twenty One
Being carried in my arms as I flew was a new experience for Eli. I just hope that the rest of his experience at AEGIS will be better. I landed at the telephone booth - y'know, there are like five in the entire target area? Cell Phones are murder on our teleportation layout. As Eli collected himself, I began to punch in my code. "Now Eli, I want you to actually act cool for once. I don't want you embarrassing me in from the the AEGIS crew."
"When did I ever embarrass you?"
"How about when you came downstairs in only your underwear when I brought Cindy Haggarty over?"
"Oh, come on! I was only ten!"
"I remember it like it was yesterday. You looked at her and said, 'So, where's my broad?' She was out of there so fast, she almost broke the sound barrier!"
Eli started to retort, but was cut short when we teleported into AEGIS Headquarters. I think I'm getting the hang of this being a woman thing - never give a guy a chance to defend himself logically.
Ms. Hex was at the controls. "Hey, Max! Who's this?"
"Hex, this is Tech Support. He's part of my backup team. Yeah, I know that name is a little goofy, but it was either that or 'Mr. Fixit'. I brought him in to help Bernice with the teleporter overhaul."
Hex looked at Eli strongly for a moment, and nodded with a knowing smile. Y'know, hanging out with telepaths can really suck sometimes. Looking at me, Hex's knowing smile broadened into a wiseacre grin. Oops, I think she heard that. "Bernice is down in the Pit - the patient is still on the critical list."
"Okay. Is Justiciar here? Tell him I'm here, but that it'll be a bit. I'll take Tech Support down, introduce him to Bernice and get him settled in."
"Fine by me! Anything, as long as it get this thing up and running properly again. Say, 'Tech Support' - if you're any good, maybe I'll drop a word with the Finance Committee about springing for some 'volunteer recompensation' for you hanging around and keeping this puppy up and running."
I said to Eli, "The 'Finance Committee' would be her, Iron John, Justiciar and Power Woman." Then I turned to Hex. "So, any word about that bogus Whiplash lawsuit that you got slapped with?"
Hex's grin went feral. "Let me put it to you THIS way - I have something for you and <ahem!> 'Tech Support' to handle. But don't worry - you are going to Luuuvvv this..."
"God, I am SO glad that you aren't an enemy of mine."
"It's dangerous to make assumptions, Max."
Before the conversation could turn any nastier, I steered Eli out of the teleportation room. This was more easily said that done, 'cause Eli was sort of wrapped up in looking at the superheroine in the tight red outfit. I figured that it would be best if I showed Eli around the place and let some of the others know that the skinny guy in the leather coveralls was with me. I found a knot of them in the lounge. Sapphire and Twist were good naturedly giving Ted a hard time about our date tonight, and Power Woman was standing there looking sour about something. "Hey, Gang! I'd like you all to meet Tech Support, he's part of my backup organization. I brought him in to help Bernice out with her re-fit."
I started to introduce 'Tech Support' around, but Eli froze. Sapphire and Twist are drop-dead gorgeous, each in their own way, and Power Woman? Hell, Brenda could knock Hugh Hefner into a benumbed haze. I gave Eli a sharp knuckle rap upside the head. "Snap out of it! You're embarrassing me!"
Eli snapped out of it, but Twist, seeing an easy mark, slinked over and got in close, making Eli very uncomfortable with her feminine proximity. Sapphire joined her. If you've ever had a couple of cute girls razz you in the halls back in Junior High, you know what I'm talking about. I shooed them off. "Get back! Give the man room to breathe, already!" I glared at Sapphire. "I expect this sort of thing from Twist, but YOU?"
Sapphire just gave a flip of her long, flame red hair. "Just having a little fun." Odd. She wasn't like that before...
<Hummpphh!> "Anyway, Justiciar - this is Tech Support. Tech, this is Justiciar." Ted got up and shook hands with Eli. As I'd hoped, Ted's raw male presence acted as sort of an antidote for all that overwhelming female pulchritude. As Eli shook Ted's hand, he sort of grew, as if on some level, he was trying to measure up. Hmmm.... So this is what women find so amusing about watching men...
I broke up Ted and Eli's grip before Eli got the idea to try and do the crusher grip or something moronic like that. Not that I think Eli is stupid, but you can never tell what a man is going to do under the influence of Testoserone.
Ted and I showed 'Tech Support' down into Bernice's lair. Our resident technical wizard had crawled up under a console and was loudly cursing the device's innards. I nudged one of the legs that was showing. "Hey, Bernice!"
"Max! It's about damn time that you showed up! Where's that technician that you're so hot about? This damn grid coordinator won't synch up with the rest of the outlay!"
Now, how could Eli not rise to that challenge? "Maybe if you hadn't overloaded this bank, the charge would balance out."
"Who's that?" came from under the console.
"That's Tech Support, the 'technician that I'm so hot about'."
"Don't touch anything!"
With a puckish grin on his face, Eli said, "You mean like this?" and pulled the cable linking one bank relay point from the rest of the network.
"Gee," I said, trying to keep the satisfaction out of my voice, "it looks like the coordinator has enough power now."
Bernice skooted out from under the console, and stood up, smoke damn near coming out of her ears. She looked furiously from me, to Ted, and finally settling on Eli, who was leaning arrogantly on the relay console. "You! What did you DO?"
"I think I balanced out your charge problem. Is that all?"
"How did you do that?"
From there Eli launched us into a detailed Tech-Geek Out, with Bernice and me joining in. After a few minutes, Ted *ahemed* rather loudly, reminding me that we did have a date that evening. Yeah, I know. But when you're a Tech-Geek, it's easy to fall into that sort of thing.
As Ted and I left the lab, Eli and Bernice were vigorously arguing about the virtues of a decentralized/integrated layout versus a semi-centralized layout. Twist was peeking in the door. She sang, "Young Looove, Geek Looove!"
"Don't you have a home to go to?" I snarled at her.
Ted and I split up to change. When I was done, I took a long look at myself in the mirror, and had a rather jarring realization. I actually wished that I was prettier! I was just getting used to accepting that I'm pretty, now I want to be prettier?
No, I AM NOT going to make myself crazy obsessing about this! I have a date with Ted, and he doesn't deserve to be stuck with a crazy woman, especially after all the hassle that we had to go through just to get our schedules straight!
I took a deep breath and pushed it all out of my mind.
Despite the differences in how we were dressed, I had to wait for Ted to get finished. "Finished putting on your face?" I ribbed him as he finally showed up.
"It's that stupid teleporter. I'm so used to just pushing a button and being zapped out of my super-suit, that it took me forever to get out of it."
"It's only going to get worse, you know - with pay phones getting scarcer and scarcer, and even land lines being phased out, we're simply going to have to find a another way of getting in and out of this place."
"You mean - we might actually have to put in a DOOR?"
"There IS a door to this place, isn't there?"
"To be honest - it's been so Long---"
"There IS a way out of here, isn't there? I mean, this place IS up to Building Safety Codes, right?"
"Ahhh - well, to be honest, I wouldn't know about that."
"Is this place on the same plane of reality as the rest of the planet?"
"Oh, I'm sure it is - well, I THINK it is."
"How comforting." With that, we exited AEGIS Headquarters. <Memo to Self: Sit down and have a LONG conversation with Bernice. Bring along Physics texts.>
At the movies, I was deeply torn between keeping a touch of lingering male dignity and insisting on paying for my own munchies, and letting Ted play the gallant suitor and shoulder the costs. He said something about a second mortgage, and I sprung for my own popcorn. So much for that upgrade patch.
The movie was Merchant Ivory. We knew what we were getting ourselves in for. But there was still the awful realization that these people had absolutely NO sense of humor. I mean, I kept seeing set-ups for one wonderful joke after another, and they just threw them away. No self respecting American should have to sit through that much earnest soul-searching without a single good pratfall to break the tedium. I started beating the characters on-screen with one-liners.
Ted stiffened and then shook. Then he came up with the perfect retort.
Dear Reader, we became THAT couple. The couple that sits at the movies and back-chats at the screen. But we HAD to.
Finally, the woman sitting in the next row leaned over and hissed at us to shut up. Ted leaned over and whispered, "Y'know, the Iron Man movie is playing two theaters over."
"Oh? Justiciar, the living embodiment of Law and Order, is suggesting that we _theater hop_?"
"Hey, did you see the price of the tickets? They owe us a couple of decent movies, at the very least."
"Your facts are dubious, your logic specious, and your motives self-serving - you're on."
We ducked out of the theater, to everyone's relief, especially our own. We made another trip to the concession stand and endured the cost of a box of Junior Mints. Then we went over to the theater where Iron Man was playing. It was worth the risk of getting booted out of the cineplex - It was Hilarious! I mean, nobody expects Hollywood to be perfectly accurate, but really! The scene with the fight between the Crimson Dynamo and the Black Lama was worthy of the Three Stooges! And they obviously didn't intend it that way.
As we walked out of the theatre, we were gasping for air. "I don't know which idea is funnier," I wheezed, "the thought of a muli-millionaire munitions manufacturer who actually tries to sell systems that work, or a techno-geek who's a bodybuilding hunk!"
Ted wiped a tear from his eye. "No, the really funny part was where Tony Stark refused to pay the two-star general a bribe! Talk about a fantasy!"
I looked at Ted. "Gee, y'think maybe we're being a tad cynical?"
Ted looked back at me and we said in unison, "Naaahhhh!"
We did the walk and talk thing for a while. Our walk took us to a scenic spot by the river with a view of the bridge. Ted looked around furtively, and I thought that maybe he was going to try something. He was, but not what I was expecting. He levitated a foot or so off the ground, and held out his hand to me. "Come on. There's something I want to show you."
I lifted up and took his hand. We flew toward the bridge, and Ted led me up to the top of one of the suspension towers. We landed, and My Friends, the view was Spectacular! The city was all lit up and blazing. Y'know, from a distance, the old dump doesn't look half bad! I appreciated all the electric glory in silence for a while. But silence really isn't my bag, so I turned to Ted. "So, you come here a lot?"
Ted just smiled and shook his head. "Nope. I come here only so often, when I need to remember why I became a superhero."
"Oh? And why- she said, picking up the rather obvious cue- DID you become a superhero? I mean, I don't remember how you said that you got your powers or anything."
"That's because I didn't say. It's rather embarrassing, and _I_ don't really believe it half the time."
"Oh, c'mon! We just came from a movie where a multi-millionaire industrialist spends a major fortune developing a personal weapons system that he uses to benefit Mankind, instead of leasing the patents to the Department of Defense! After that, what could seem silly?"
Ted sighed. "Well, it's like this - in my civilian job, I'm a Consumer Rights activist. I help track down proof that this company or that is screwing over the Public, and try to either get them to stop or start up Class Action lawsuits."
"Sounds like something that you'd do."
"Well, I didn't always work for Consumer Rights. When I first got out of college, I went to work for a land title company. I handled 'Property Acquisition'."
"Maxine, at the company that I worked for, 'Property Acquisition' was a euphemism for 'screwing over tenants and small landholders'. My job basically consisted of either finding people who owned parcels of land that the company might want that were in some kind of difficulty, or arranging those sorts of difficulties for people who had parcels that the company already wanted. I was pretty good at it; I made a lot of money for the company. One day, the company sent me to a small commune of rather esoteric monks that had owned a piece of land outside the City since the 19th Century. After a lot of wrangling, the monks managed to get a loan that would have stopped us, by putting a very valuable antique chalice up as colateral.
"A co-worker of mine decided to get in good with the Boss by breaking in and stealing the chalice. I went after him to stop it."
"Well, good for you!"
"Maxine, I didn't try to stop him because stealing the chalice was wrong; I went to stop him because stealing the chalice would have put us in a position where we'd be vulnerable to all sorts of criminal and civil actions. Besides, I figured that the Abbot of the monastery had had the chalice insured. Stealing it would only have given the monks the advantage - if it was returned, they got the loan; if it remained missing, they got the insurance money. But then Hendricks always was a bit thick.
"Anyway, all of that is just trivia. The really important thing is, the Brothers aren't just a contemplative order - they're an order of Wardens, jailers who keep a very powerful supernatural being under restraint. When Hendricks took the chalice, he violated the wards that kept the being trapped."
"Oh? What kind of icky-nasty are we talking about?"
"Oh, it would take too long, and it's one of those things that sounds silly when you hear or read about it, but are downright horrifying when you see one up close for real. Anyway, just as I was about to stop Hendricks, the...thing started to rouse itself. It grabbed Hendricks and turned him in six seconds from a really hefty guy into a paper-skinned skeleton. Fortunately for me, the chalice was only the first line of defense. There was also an emergency measure, in case the thing ever got loose: The Sword of Saint Clovis of Witgenau. More out of panic than anything else, I grabbed the sword and started swinging. That's when The Power kicked in. I managed to keep the thing at bay long enough for the Brothers to restore the wards.
"At first, I thought that I needed the Sword of Saint Clovis to use The Power; then I thought that I just needed to touch it. Then I discovered that I didn't need the sword at all, that The Power was within me.
"At any rate, that was sort of a wake-up call for me. After making sure that the company could never take the land away from the Brothers, I quit and became a Consumer Rights activist."
"And, you became Justiciar."
"More out of a sense of guilt than anything else."
"Hey, if it works for Peter Parker..."
"Still, sometimes I feel like a fraud, like I'm passing myself off as this great Hero that I'm not."
"Well, you're not alone there, Ted. A lot of the time, when I hear people telling me that I'm freaking impressive, I almost turn around to see who they're really talking to. I mean, if anyone in my family was born to be a superhero, it was my brother, Hughie."
"You have a brother Huey?"
"Not 'Huey' as in 'Huey, Louie and Dewey', Hugh." <long rattling sigh> "Damn, it should have been him. It should have been me."
I gave another long sigh. "Have you every known a real 'Golden Boy', someone who just had everything so together that you thought they could do anything?"
"Yeah, well, I've met a couple of people like that. They were usually no good where it really counted."
"Well, that wasn't Hughie. Hughie was one of the good ones. He was athletic, and good looking, and funny and smart and brave. He was two inches taller than me, even though he was two years younger, but he never took advantage of it. I always felt that HE should have been the older brother."
I was starting to breathe heavily. I sat down on the ledge. Ted sat down beside me and laid a comforting hand on my shoulder.
"I mean, _I_ was always the one screwing up, _I_ was the one who always needed rescueing. He was always the one pulling my fat out of the fire - HE should have been the one to get the super powers.
"But he never got a chance. One day, when I was twelve and he was ten, we were playing with a bunch of other kids. Hughie was up at bat, and I - well, I was out in the outfield where the losers are usually stuck. Then some idiot who'd been doing Happy Hour a couple of hours early came driving through. It was OUR street, we had a Right to be there! He didn't even live anywhere near there! He was drunk and he - _HIT_ Hughie. And I was out there in the outfield, where I couldn't do anything. I LET him - _Die_!" Telling the truth is supposed to be a good thing that leaves you free; then why do I feel like I'm coughing up barbed wire?
Ted wrapped an arm around my shoulder. "Max, take it easy! You were only a little girl! There wasn't anything that you could have done! You were only twelve!"
"You don't understand! He was MY responsibility! _I_ was supposed to look after everyone! But I was too fat! I was too slow! If I had been the one hurt, Hughie would have found some way to save me. But I couldn't - I let him Die!"
At that, I broke down crying. I've never broken down crying, not even when they buried Hughie. But I couldn't control the emotions. The memories just washed over me, sweeping all my self-control away. The grief at losing Hughie, the shame at not being able to help him, the hate at that scumbag Roglin, and the rage when he got off with a slap on the wrist, all overwhelmed me.
Then, suddenly, Ted was kissing me, and a whole new raft of emotions kicked up, more than I could passibly name, even to myself. But in the middle of all that emotional chaos, Ted's kiss demanded my full attention, shoving all the other things aside.
Yes, kiss me, Ted.
I don't want to feel like this. Make me feel some way else.
Make me feel alive, not dead. Make me feel like a hero, not a failure. Make me feel like someone to be chrished, not despised.
Make me feel like a woman to be resepcted, not a fat kid who can't wipe his own ass right.
Make me feel loved.
Just Kiss me.
Continuted in Part 22...