Of Masks and Marvels (Part 24)
Of Masks and Marvels
By Bek D Corbin
edited by Steve Zink
Chapter Twenty Four
I may have my shortcomings, but one of my redeeming qualities is that I can sit in the middle of a raging battle and think analytically. Okay, we were caught in the middle of a feud between two supervillains, so no matter what we did, we sort of lost. If we slapped down the Symbiont Syndicate, then Dr. Daedalus went scot-free. If we let the Syndicate into Dr. D's lab, then there was no telling what they'd walk away with.
Besides, there's something hinky going on here. Why in God's name would Daedalus open up his lab, if it meant that he'd lose it, even if it meant snagging Whelkera? No, if he went for the Syndicate's bait, he'd try to pull something on them. Like when he teleported those Iron Lance goons out of that factory---
HA! Gotcha! He's not going to open up his lab! That cage thingie of his (when did I start thinking of technical equipment as 'thingies'?) has a teleportation thingie built into it!
No, that doesn't work. When we analyzed the teleporter pad that sent the Iron Lancers back, we found out that the mechanism was pretty delicate. Daedalus couldn't be sure that it wouldn't get wrecked during the fight with King Conch. So, there's probably another one of those teleporter pads around here somewhere. The 'Mekka Tai Lung K'un' cage would roll Wheky over to the pad, and *Bamf!* Whelky would be teleported to Dr. D's lab without letting any of the air conditioning out.
No, it's still hinky. The Syndicate seems to know Daedalus pretty well, and they know about the teleporter---
Unless that's the entire point!
They want Daedalus to drag Whelky into his lab! Heck, even their showing up here is just to throw Dr. D off his guard. They have some sort of tracking device---
No, what kind of tracking device could they come up with, that Daedalus, paranoid paramount that he is, wouldn't have sixteen different kinds of ECM for?
"Well, L. L.?" Hex prodded. "I can hear the gears turning, but I don't hear any plans!"
"Gimme a break, Hex, there's some very twisted-" Then I looked at Amy, and the penny dropped. "Oh, of course!" I opened up my Communications link. "Heads up, guys! Twist, Tigs, I want you to start searching the area around where Voltron there has Whelky tied up. I think that there's one of Daedalus' teleportation pads in the area. We DON"T WANT Whelky getting into Daedalus' lab!"
"You think that Daedalus has something fiendish planned for Chowder Boy?" Titan asked.
"T'other way around. We're saving Daedalus."
There was a general "Say WHAT?" response to that.
"There's one more player in this game that we haven't seen yet - The Egg. See that big black splotch on Whelky's 'forehead' for want of a better term?"
Hex picked up immediately. "You think The Egg is what's controlling Whelkera?"
"Sure! You remember what The Egg's psychic powers are like - real powerful, but no finesse whatsoever."
"Just what it would take to control a rampaging Titan," Hex finished for me.
"Ex-CUSE me?" Diego cut in.
"More to the point," I sort of bowled poor Diego over, "if The Egg gets teleported into Daedalus' lab with Whelky, it's a coin toss as to whether The Egg leads the Syndicators there, or if it just hijacks Daedalus' brain right then and there."
"So, whadda we do?" Battalion asked.
"We save Daedalus' armor plated butt," Iron John said. "L.L., take out the Syndicators as best you can. Twist, Tigs, you find that teleporter pad, like the lady said. We can't let one side or the other in this idiot feud win, at least not until we find out what the HELL they're fighting about!" Good old Lamarr; he always keeps his eyes on the prize.
"Okay, John, but I want you here to take care of Nasghul. He's an absorber, you're an absorber, and you've got a big whacking hammer. Battalion-"
"Installing Energy Absorption Foam sprayers, even as we speak."
"Okay! Bernice, you listening in?"
[On tenterhooks, L.L.]
"Fill in the Nine and the real Midnight Watch as to what's happening. Have the Watch hold back, and deal with 'Sweeping', so they don't confuse things any more than they already are. Okay, I figure the one passing himself off as 'Chimera' is Kraken. He's the only one that they could really trust to do the talking."
"Hold on!" Ted intterutped, "Kraken can't fly!"
"Right. Neither can Nasghul or Berserker. Must be using a flight pack."
"Okay, I'll get it off of him, and-"
"No, if he's flying, then he thinks that he has an advantage. Actually, he'd probably be more dangerous on the ground, where he knows how to move. Nope, keep him in the air, where YOU have the advantage. I'll bet that the quiet, enigmatic type in the cape is my old sparring partner, She-Devil. Leave her to me. The rest of you, leave Nasghul to Battalion and Iron John, and pick your opponents carefully." With that, I thundercharged into 'Enigma', catching her square in the back.
Now I really wish I could provide a more detailed description of the donnybrook that followed, but that stupid smoke screen was so thick that I almost lost ol' Sheila in the smog. She tried switching form a couple of times, and even tried the old wheeze of trying to copy me and calling to Justiciar to save her. Yeah, right, like he couldn't tell it was her with that syrupy thick Hungarian accent of hers.
I had ol' Hell-Bunny down on the ground, and I was giving her a constant barrage of punches across the mouth. Hey, anything to keep that yap of hers shut! Then I got a good taste of turnabout, as I got a flying tackle on my blindside.
I managed to twist my attacker off of me, and get back to my feet. The guy just getting up was the one passing himself off as 'Skybolt', which meant that it was probably Lighthawk - or whatever he was calling himself now. Well, even more than She-Devil, ol' Dimbulb loves to hear himself talk. If he's talking, then he's not thinking. At least, as much as he ever thinks. So, I fed him an opening line. "Hey, Lighthawk! What happened to that snazzy little gold and silver ensemble that you used to have? Did the Fashion Police slap you with a citation?"
'Skybolt' gave me a nasty smile. "Not Lighthawk." His classic superhero features and conformation sort of melted away. He sort of took on the appearance of a rather reptilian demon with green scales, large clawed hands, big clopping cloven hooves, a long undulating barbed tail, huge bat wings, and a magnificent pair of sweeping black horns on his shaggy head. "I AM BAELROG!"
I crossed my hands into a 'T'. "Okay, okay, Time OUT! First 'Nasghul', and now 'Baelrog'? If you yoyos bring in a guy named 'Uruk-Hai', then nice-nice time is OVER! I'm bringing in the J. R. R. Tolkien Estate, and may Gawd have mercy on your souls!"
'Baelrog' didn't say anything. He just pointed at me and let out a blast that I just barely managed to miss, which chewed a big chunk out of what was left of a masonry wall. Odd, a terminal motormouth like Lighthawk should have jumped on that Tolkein crack and worked it for all that it was worth. Instead, he was right on me, pounding away for all he was worth.
Y'know something? He was better'n I am. "Yo, Pee-Dubya! I could use a little backup here! Lighthawk's better'n he was last time!"
I spend the next few moments ducking Baelrog's barrage, when Power Woman came looming out of the inky cloud. "Lighthawk! Do you think that changing your appearance and putting on a silly Halloween costume is going to make you a real man? Come, face me, and learn the power of a real woman!"
Horn-boy barely spared Pee-Dubya a second look and went right back to pounding away at me. Y'know, I think he might NOT be Lighthawk? He may actually be someone competent?
Still, he wasn't competent enough to pay Brenda as much attention as she deserves. Or at least not in combat. As Baelrog was wailing away at my force field with his flaming claws, Power Woman came up from behind him, grabbed him by those magnificent horns and threw him into a wall.
Well, Brenda seemed to have the new kid well in hand, so I went back to taking care of She-Devil. Or at least I would have, if she were anywhere to be found. "SHIT! Heads up, people! Anyone seen She-Devil? She was here just a second ago---" Then I felt a barrage of shots against my back.
Luckily, whoever was shooting hit the part of my costume that, between the chainmail cape and my personal electromagnetic field, is the most heavily armored. Even so, the shots sent me tumbling. From the ground, I spotted several figures in familiar Combat Grade body armor. "News Flash! We have more new players on the field! It's She-Devil's hench-goons! Take these perps seriously, guys!"
As if in response, Iron John came barreling out of the smoke, and sent one five man team sprawling with a single sweep of his hammer. "Power Woman!" he shouted, not bothering with the link. "Switch targets! You handle these idiots, I'll take care of the D&D drop-out!"
Brenda spun away from the grapple that she'd been locked in with Baelrog, and sent another team of hench-goons sprawling. Baelrog took advantage of this to build up a really powerful charge before blasting Iron John as he charged. Not that it mattered. Iron John chugged it down like cold beer on a hot day, and went back for seconds.
I went back on the comm-link. "Okay, I'm back! So, anyone got any idea where Zsa-Zsa Gazongas got to?"
Sapphire piped back, "Sorry, nothing on the glamor trap, but I got a situation here, L.L.! That idiot Daedalus' robots keep pulling themselves back together! I have my hands full keeping them off of everyone else's back! I think we're gonna need a pretty heavy duty EMP to scramble their circuits or something like that!"
Oh yeah, right. Like Daedalus hasn't already improved on Tempest hardening by several generations of upgrade! Oh well, at least they're robots. Robots are fun to screw with, even if they're leading edge stuff like Daedalus'. That, and I could find the stupid things! She-Devil was still hiding in the middle of all that inky garbage, probably planning to screw with me---
Or with someone else---
"Te JUSTICIAR! Justiciar, are you there? Justiciar, answer me!"
There was no answer.
"Bernice! Bernice! Can you get me a fix on Justiciar's location?"
Eli's voice came back at me. [Why? You think something happened to him?]
"I think She-Devil happened to him!"
[Hey, _I_ should be so unlucky- Yow!] I think Bernice heard him. [aahh...he's about ten feet away from you, 15 degrees, five minutes, North by North-East.]
That was all I needed. I thunder charged in that direction (hey, having a perfect senese of direction really helps at times!), and barely missed a few others in the smoke before I got over to where Ted and She-Devil were. Ted was there, locked in a passionate embrace with a caped figure in black and gold. That nervy bitch had 'morphed herself to look like ME. She must have run into Ted and was keeping him occupied in a way that didn't involve her getting punched.
Or, at least she THOUGHT it wouldn't get her punched.
I plowed into her from her side, and knocked her off of Ted. Ted just stood there, sort of thunderstruck. Oh, come ON! She can't be that good a kisser!
I tried to shake Ted out of it, and I gave him a jolt of electricity that snapped him back to himself. He snapped to, just in time to stop She-Devil from getting her hooks into him again.
Okay, it quickly devolved in to a classic catfight, with She-Devil and me clawing and kicking at each other. But then, most catfights don't involve third degree burns and high voltage electrocution. All right, I admit that I went a little overboard, but hey! What I have going with Ted is complicated enough, without little miss 'ball of fire' mixing it up even worse!
Then Nazghul and Baelrog walked out of the gloom. Nazghul was cackling insanely, and Baelrog had Battalion draped over his shoulder. I broke away from She-Devil and tried to get some air between me and Nazghul, who was obviously high on power that he'd probably stolen from Wendell. But She-Devil threw a wave of fire at me, which didn't really hurt me all that much, but it disrupted the magnetic wave that I was trying to ride up. I fell to the ground, and Nazghul marched up to me and laid those ice-cold hands on me.
As I felt my electric charge drain out of me, I hoped to see a giant foot repeat history and squash the walking sponge.
No such luck.
On the other hand, a metallic net came out of the smoke and wrapped itself around ol' Nasty. I managed to get away before he emptied me like a bottle of Coke© and returned me for the deposit. Nasty snarled and broke free of the net, but three more nets came flying out and wrapped him up like a mummy. Baelrog tackled me, delivering a powerful charge as he did it.
Of course, that was just the thing that I needed.
The Charge, not the tackle.
I mean, if I'm gonna be tackled by a guy, I want him to be a cute guy like Ted, not some refugee from a Heavy Metal album cover.
But the charge was vastly appreciated. A zap of electricity that would have slagged a city bus was just the thing I needed to get me back in the black. I thanked Baelrog by flipping him off of me, over to where Ted was waiting for an opening. No, Ted is not a wimp, but ever since that debacle with our last run-in with Nasty, he's rather cautious about waving that energy sword of his around in the wrong places. But Baelrog isn't Nasghul, and Ted waded into him with a fury that I suspect wasn't completely motivated by an outraged sense of Civic Commitment.
Well, a guy doesn't like it when another guy tackles his girlfriend.
As Ted handled Bill-Rog, I looked around for She-Devil. Nowhere to be found.
For all I know, she's running around looking like me, writing bad checks in my name.
Then, I heard someone yell, "Hey! What are you waiting for? Do something about that idiot in the black!"
Well, at least they called Nasghul the idiot, not me. But I saw their point - Nasghul was dangerous, and he was working on the snare with a will. I looked around for a large I-beam or telephone pole or something to hit him with from a decent range. But I spotted something even better.
Battalion was still out - Nasghul must have drained him. But he still had his Energy Absorption Foam sprayers connected to his harness. I guess either Baelrog or Berserker had gotten him out of the foam. Or at least, I was hoping that they did, 'cause I disconnected the sprayer from Wendell's harness, and found the power cable.
Nasghul saw what I was doing and his struggles went from enraged to near-panicked. Heartened greatly by that response, I aimed the sprayer at him and gooped him.
Nasghul gave a disgruntled, "Ah, Fuck," and slumped in the wrap. The goop sort of blistered out, which is how I know that it was slurping up all that energy that Nasghul had stolen from Battalion. <Memo to self: Talk to Bernice about maybe making grenades of this stuff, just in case Nasty becomes a recurring villain for me.>
Then the voice that had told me to do something about 'the idiot in black' said, "Well, it's about time!" Then cables came flying out of the smoke, latched onto Nasty and lifted him up off the ground.
After a bit - I assume they were hitching Nasty up where he'd be out of reach - three nearly identical armored figures dropped down. "Everything's going to be all right. The Nine Just Men are here."
Okay, I think a word of explanation is called for here. Most superhero teams are very big on individuality, with every member having a distinct look, so that they know immediately who everyone is at first sight in the middle of a melee. The Nine took almost exactly the opposite tack. They all wear nearly identical copies of the same power suit. It's a dark green combination of hard and flex suits, with some white trim here and there. All the suits are equipped with a flight pack, a strength boosting exoskeleton, a standard blaster on one arm, a 'utility' blaster with interchangeable modules on the other, a sensor suite and a scrambled communications link. The point being, I guess, that everyone has certain aspects of combat covered so that the others don't have to compensate for him. Still, I think each of the Nine has a superpower of his own; I saw one of 'em zipping along at speeds that I really doubt that flight pack could handle. I think part of the concept is that besides losing that 'circus troupe' air that some superhero teams have, the uniformity of their suits keeps their opponents guessing. They must have some kind of kick ass IFF/Locator system in that sensor suite, so they know who's the blaster and who's the brick, while their enemies don't.
Which has got to be a bummer for their hometown fans. I mean, how are they supposed to have those long, involved geek discussions about favorites? I mean, 'Number Six is SO MUCH cooler than Number Ten'? And they can't be making much from the poster sales and like that. They must have some kind of sponsor defraying the expenses.
I was about to tell - Number Seven, from the stencil on his right breast - where he could shove the 'here we come to save the day' attitude, when another one of the Nine came barreling out of the smoke. He plowed into Number Seven and sent him sprawling. As the others (#4 and #8) were reacting to this, the phony grabbed them and smashed them together.
I lifted off and broadcast: [AEGIS! The Syndicate is pulling another fast one! At least one of 'em - Berserker, I think - has shape shifted to look like one of the Nine! Be very careful!]
[You couldn't have said that a minute ago?] I heard Diego groan. [One of 'em just clipped me bad!]
"Bernice, can you patch me into the Nine's communication band?"
[Sorry, L.L., but that's a very complicated encryption system they've got going. I can hook you up with one of 'em, but it'll be a one at a time link. Aaannnd...go.]
"Hello, Nine Leader? This is Lady Lightning."
[ah, Well, I'm not exactly the 'leader', but I can relay what you tell me to the rest of the guys. So, go ahead]
"Whatever. I'm assuming that you have some kind of individual location and/or coordination system that can let you know if the guy coming at you is one of yours or not?"
"Okay, we're gonna let you handle the Syndicate from here. We'll concentrate on taking out Daedalus' combat robots. So, if anyone who looks like one of ours comes up at you without one of us calling first-"
"Good, you've got the idea. Hopefully, we'll be able to take out these damn smoke screen generators-"
Then, as if on cue, a powerful whirlwind rose up, and the choking clouds lifted, suddenly revealing where everyone was. About thirty feet above the ground, was a group of six people, four of whom I recognized. In the center of the whirlwind effect was a trim woman with long dark hair, wearing a blue-and-white outfit with the meteorological symbol for 'storm' on the chest. The caped guy who was probably the real Skybolt said in a loud voice, "The Night Watch is on duty! So, what the heck is going on?"
I flew up and gave them the brass tacks, as the Nine and the Syndicate slugged it out below in one of the most confusing fights I've ever seen.
"So," the real Chimera started, "how do we-"
Then Twist called in. [Hey Guys! Big Problem!]
"Oh, Lord, what now? What is it, Twist?"
[Tigress and I found the damn teleportation plate that you described.]
"Good! Wreck the damn thing!"
[We can't! It's armored so fucking thick that a fucking LAWS rocket couldn't make a fucking dent in it.]
"Hey, Twist, lighten up on the language! You don't know who's listening in!"
[Hey, %$@*&%^#! You! Tigress and I can't DO anything to this thing, and that fucking - ah, Gol-Durned cage thingamabob is rolling this way!]
Oh, wonderful, more good news. "Okay! Listen up! Chimera, you and the Watch, take over trying to take out those stupid combat robots. Nine Leader, you keep the Syndicate off our backs. AEGIS! Listen up, people, head over to that Cage thing! Titan, see if you can stop it. Justiciar, Power Woman, try and move the teleportation plate as far away from the Cage as possible. Everyone else, see if you can take out the propulsion system without actually letting Whelky OUT of that thing. Hey, I know it's not much, but it's the best that I can come up with on the spur of the moment! So, let's GO, people!"
I heard one of the Nine mutter over the link, [Jeez, Bossy much?], but no one had a better idea, so they went along with the semi-hysterical woman in gray, black and gold.
As AEGIS headed over to the slowly trundling cage, Hex floated up next to me astride her 'staff'. "Hey, Max, I figure that if I stay behind with the Nine and the Watch, Enigma - she's the Watch's resident psychic - and I could help the Watch tell the Nine from the Syndicators."
"Sorry, Amy, but if The Egg is that big black splotch on Chowder-boy's forehead, then we're gonna need a psychic."
"Are you KIDDING? That thing is like a thousand times more powerful than I am!"
"Yeah, but it's about as subtle as a bulldozer in a ballet company. Dammit, Amy, what's the matter with you? You're slicker than that refugee from an omelet, and you know it!"
"Yeah, yeah, I know that. I just wish my duodenum knew that."
Sapphire was there first, and she slowed the cage thing down by blasting the ground just in front of one the drive wheels, loosening up the ground so that it couldn't get any traction. Titan was right behind her, and he took the brute force approach, doing the classic 'Superman stopping a runaway train' bit. I zipped along the side of the cage, looking for weak points and showing them to the others. What we really needed was Battalion and one of his over-ride gizmos, but he was still down for the count.
Then I heard Amy scream.
She was up by Whelky's head, trying to get a sense as to whether that black splotch was The Egg or not. The blackness had erupted out of the gelatin and was wrapping itself around her. I charged over and knocked Amy out of the goop. Unfortunately, in doing so, I sort of got myself all wrapped up in the gook.
Okay, I won't try to diminish it - it was icky, and I'm not talking about the stickiness. The gook was hungry and cold and it wanted IN. There was this incredible sense of violation, of somehow being unclean. I had to get out! I tried burning it away, but it didn't burn. So, I just sort of forced it out. It wasn't anything electrical or magnetic, I just sort of WILLED it to get the fuck off of me.
And if fell off of me.
Mind you, in the process of trying to latch onto me, the goop had disengaged itself from Whelky. So, though that hadn't been my plan, I just managed pull the plug on the Syndicate's dastardly scheme. Of course, I still had a huge blob of disgusting tarry black glop on my hands that I didn't have any idea of what to do with. It wasn't doing anything now, but it might be playing possum until it could latch onto someone else. Hey, disgusting tarry black glop can be very untrustworthy. "Hey, Sapphire! Wrap a Power Gem around this thing! It's ruining my gloves!"
"I can't! For some reason, I can't form then anymore, remember?"
Oh. Right. Fuck.
"Hey, somebody, ANY body! I need a container for this thing!"
"Coming right up!" Power Woman upended a dumpster, emptied it and flew it over to me. I dropped the glop into the dumpster and welded it shut.
Well! So much for that!
"Hey, if you're quite through taking care of the unsightly bathroom tile scum, I could use a little HELP here, ladies!" Diego grunted from where he was holding the Cage back, as it tried to plow its inexorable way toward the teleportation plate.
"What? Haven't you stopped that thing YET?"
"Hey, what can I say? Dr. D builds 'em Tonka tough! Maybe I should ask him to take a look at my Volvo. It's always in the shop and-"
Diego was in the middle of a smart ass crack when Eli suddenly popped out of nowhere. "E- ah, Tech Support! What are you doing here?"
"Well, you look like you're gonna be here for a bit, so I thought that I'd wire Escar-Godzilla here for basic Cable! What do you think that I'm doing here? I'm saving your buts!" He quickly scrambled over to the teleportation plate, which was the size of a Little League baseball diamond. Ted stopped trying to move the thing, and started to help Eli clamping things to the plate. When it was done, there was a crackle of electricity, and suddenly the plate jostled and smoke started to leak out of minute cracks in the plate. I also noticed a flash and then some smoke coming from a building about four blocks away.
Eli brushed his hands off rather smugly. "Well! That's that!"
"Okay, 'Tech Support'," I glared at Eli, "what did you just do?"
"Well," he drawled, "Bernice and I figured out that this Teleportation system must need lots of energy to work, especially to move a load like Chowder Boy over there. And, since there were no visible power leads to this thing, and there's no way that Daedalus could have fit a battery powerful enough into the plate itself, we figured that he was using some sort of broadcast power relay. The system that I just rigged on this thing caused a force feedback effect that I think just shorted out both the circuitry in the plate and in the broadcast relay."
"Does that mean that I can let this thing go?" Titan grunted.
"Oh? Oh! Sure! Go ahead, big guy!"
Diego let the rolling cage go and it moved to over the plate, where, rather anticlimactically, it just stayed. Whelky just sort of pulled his head in, and decided not to deal with anything.
"Very well, Crew," Power Woman said, "I say we give ourselves a ten-count to get our breath back, and then go back and hand She-Devil and her boy band their collective behinds."
[Sorry, Pee-Dubya, but Number Three tells me that the Syndicate lit out about the time that L.L. ripped that goopy thing off of Whelky.]
"What? ALL of them?"
[ah, No, they still have Nasghul and the new kid, Baelrog, under wraps]
"Oh, well," I sighed, "at least the lawyers for the Tolkein estate will still have something to chew on. Did they say how the others got away?"
[Later. Right now, FEMA wants you guys on 'Sweeping' and 'Pacification' duty.]
"But what about Whelky here? We can't just leave him here, for anybody to haul away?"
[FEMA says that the Army Corps of Engineers is already on the job. After 'Sweeping' and 'Pacification', they say that they want a de-briefing with all you guys. They'll explain everything then.]
I managed to get Ms. Hex off alone. "uhm, Amy. There's something that I have to talk to you about."
"So? Go right ahead! After today, nothing could weird me out."
'Ah, Not here. I'm afraid that this might take a while, and it's very personal."
Amy raised an eyebrow and nodded.
After three hours of 'sweeping' and 'pacification', we had to put up with another hour and a half of bureaucratic nattering. Then, the Nine Just Men, the Night Watch and the rest of AEGIS got to go home. Eli and I were faced with the horrific task of facing Reyes.
"Okay, okay!" she badgered us the second that Eli and I got back to the NewsLemon. "The Press Conference was the standard spin-pablum, so I want some real facts! First, what happened to the big snail?"
"Oh, the Army Corps of Engineers is arranging an airlift to get it to the Pacific."
"What? They're just going to let it GO?"
"Like we could really hold it for very long. Down at the bottom of the Pacific, it's shielded from all our broadcast natter. But if it was stored anywhere in the US, it would charge up and go berserk inside of a month."
"What? Like it wasn't berserk already?"
"Not really. Remember, Whelky didn't come here because it was berserk - it came here under duress from The Egg. If you'll remember, it never used either its acidic spit attack or that ear-splitting scream that was bothering Bernice so much. That's because it could only use those powers when it was fully charged; which it wasn't, 'cause The Egg brought it here while it was still controllable."
*humpf!* "I'll bet Djakarta and Singapore are going to be real happy about the Feds just letting that thing go."
"Oh,. they aren't just going to let it go. They're going to take Whelky to a remote island at a secret location, somewhere in the Pacific."
"WHAT? You mean there really IS a 'Monster Island'? I thought that was only in the movies! How the hell do they keep the damn things ON?"
"Well, I don't know the exact details, but from what I understand, they don't really keep them on the island. What they do is, they have this broadcast station that transmits a signal that's as close to the signal that Titans send out. It's a lot closer to the deep-sea stomping grounds of most Titans than places like Tokyo or Djakarta, so the idea is that the Titans will head there to get their itches scratched. The broadcast station is very well shielded, so it can keep broadcasting until another Titan shows up to fight with the first one. Since Titans keep going back to the same cities over and over, we think they must have some kind of homing instinct, like a salmon returning to the stream where it was born. So, the ACE is going to take Whelky there, on the hopes that it will remember the way back when it does build up a big enough charge to go berserk.''
"But why would it go back? It goes back to Djakarta because it associates that place with relief. Why would it go back to 'Monster Island'?"
"Well, y'gotta remember, it may be a huge snail, but it's still just a freaking snail. They're hoping that it will just backtrack to the island as the last place that it went." I shrugged. "Hey, it's better than just blowing the damn thing up. After all, ol' Whelky isn't that bad, as Giant Monsters go. Who knows what would move into Whelky's feeding ground if it weren't there to protect it's turf?"
Eli leered at Reyes, "By the way, you DO realize that you can't use any of that, don't you? After all, all that's really classified, and if you use any of it on the air, you'd have to cite a source, right?"
Reyes pointedly ignored him. "So, what happened with the Syndicate? Who did you bag?"
"Well, Nasghul never did get out of that snare that we put him in, and they jumped real hard on the new guy, Baelrog."
"Nasghul? Baelrog? What no-"
"Please, we've already done all the Tolkein and D&D jokes already."
Reyes pouted. "Okay, so what's the word on Disaster Relief? That shellbacked disaster left a big mess behind it!"
"Well, FEMA says that Whelky let us off pretty easy, as Titan attacks go. The damage level was so low that normally we wouldn't qualify for Disaster Relief. But an attack by a Class-A Titan automatically qualifies us for Federal Assistance. So, we should at least get the power and water back up and running in the damaged areas pretty soon."
"Why do Class-A Titans get an automatic qualification for Federal Assistance?"
"Well, I guess they figure that there are small storms and minor earthquakes, but there's no such thing as a 'small' Giant Monster."
Later that evening, I arrived at the address that Amy had given me. It was a very nice house in an upscale part of town. I guess my deductions about Amy's standard of living had been pretty much on the money.
Amy answered the door before I could ring the bell. "Okay," she said, before I could say anything, "I admit that I don't exactly use my mental powers in a totally unselfish way."
"Well, I can see that you've used them to make yourself comfortable, but not obscenely wealthy. Given the amount of money that I make from poster sales and such, I can't really point fingers."
"Good to hear it." Amy ushered me into a tastefully done living room and sat down in what was obviously her favorite chair. "So, I can sense that you're troubled..."
"Owch! Cliche Much?"
"Hey, you'd complain if I didn't say it! So, what brings you here?"
I got comfortable on the sofa and told her about my 'Thunderbolt' dreams. Amy nodded. "All right, from what I'm hearing - and other ways - I'm getting the impression that you're deeply conflicted."
"Hey, I'm doing my best to come to grips with becoming a woman!"
"Yes, and doing your best may very well be what's causing the conflict. The Conscious, rational mind and the Unconscious, emotional mind aren't often on the best of terms."
"Are you saying that I might be driving myself nuts, trying to acclimate to being a woman too quickly?"
"Possibly. But I rather doubt it. From your description of the 'party', before things start going sour - and the emotions that you give off when you describe it - I'd say that you're doing a very good job of realizing the benefits of embracing your new female life. However, there is something, symbolized by this 'Thunderbolt' and by the image of your brother, that's blocking all of that, and turning the positive imagery into very negative imagery. What this 'Thunderbolt' image really means if very important. It may not clear up all your problems, but I think it will still be a major issue."
<groan!> "So, you're telling me that I need major therapy, at least two sessions a week with a licensed analyst..."
"Max, you're not nuts, just a little unhappy. And, actually, you're pretty good at handling your own life, all things considered. But I think this 'Thunderbolt' image is definitely something that you're going to have to deal with, or it will get worse."
"Yeah? And how am I supposed to 'deal with it'? You gotta admit, going to a shrink would be difficult at best."
"There is that." She gave a heavy sigh. "There is something that I can do, but I have to warn you, it will be...uncomfortable."
"What are you talking about?"
"Normally, I only sense surface thoughts and emotions, the things that someone's thinking or feeling at the moment. But, I can go deeper. I can go INTO your mind."
I tried not to squirm. "How uncomfortable are we talking about?"
"We're talking about having someone in your mind. If you aren't accepting, if you don't offer absolutely NO resistance, it can be very unpleasant, for both of us."
"Inside my mind?"
"Exactly. You'll have to show me things that you've shown no one else, not even your family. Maybe especially not your family."
I leaned back and wrapped my head around the concept. <whew!> "Okay, I'm game if you're game."
Amy smiled at me. "What's life without a few challenges? Besides, I owe you for getting me away from that gunk today."
"Hey, Amy - we're teammates, and more, I think of you as a friend. If we start counting out who owes who what, we'll go crazy."
"Exactly. And I'm not counting this, either." And that was that.
I relaxed as best I could, and Amy guided me through the stages of relaxation, until I was in a state of Profound Hypnosis. "Okay," Amy gently said, "I'm here at the edge of your mind. I'm coming in-" I felt something at the point right between my eyebrows. It prodded at my inner head and pushed in. I resisted a bit at first, but I forced myself to relax even more and I allowed Amy in. "Good Girl," I heard inside my head.
Suddenly, I was aware of a person standing inside of a large room. No, it wasn't a room, it was a long hallway. "Amy? Is that you?"
"Yes, Max, it's me."
"Where are you?"
"I'm inside you, Max. What you're seeing is sort of a version of the 'Palace of the Mind' that the Jesuits still use to train memory."
"But I don't remember ever seeing anything like this inside my head before."
"Well, something that you must understand, Max, is that you're used to things being very subjective inside your head. There was only you in here, and there was no one to put things in here into perspective. But I'm here now, and that adds an element of objectivity."
"What does that have to do with the fact that I suddenly have lockers in my lobes?"
"Well, when I entered your head, I suggested to your subconscious that it create something like this."
"What? You messed with my head?"
"It wasn't a direct control or anything. It was more a matter of context. I'm in here now, and I didn't want to deal with a morass of images, impulses and so on, so this structure sort of grew in response."
"Okay, what is it?"
"I'm not sure. After all, it is your imagery we're talking about here."
"Okay. So, where am _I_ in here?"
"All around me. I'm inside YOU, remember. So, you're everywhere, so to speak. So, any idea of where we are?"
"Not really. But then, it's so dark, I can hardly make anything out."
"Easily taken care of. Lights, ON!" And suddenly, the overhead neon lights flickered on, revealing a long corridor with black and white linoleum floors, and rows of green painted lockers, broken up by doors with numbered, pebbled glass panels.
"How did you do that? I thought that this was my mind!"
"Just the power of suggestion, Max. It's nothing to get your panties in a bunch about. You're still in control." Amy looked around her. "Well, isn't this cozy. Well, any idea of what this is supposed to be?"
"I don't think --- hold on. Over there, to the left. That bulletin board. Go over there. I can't seem to see it from here."
"It's that objectivity that I was talking about. If I see it, then you'll see it better." She walked over to the bulletin board. "Hmm...meatloaf on Wednesday. That mean anything to you, Max?"
"Oh, God. It's my old High School! What the hell are we doing here?"
"High School. Interesting."
"What's so significant about a high school?"
"Now, now - High School is a time and place of great psychological importance in the modern American psyche. After all, don't they say that no matter what you do, on some level, you're always who you are in High School? It's a place of learning, of definition. And it's a place where your identity is forged, and your relationships to other people are established. Why do you think they keep making all those teen comedies and dramas on TV?"
Amy looked around for a bit. "Well, let's see if we can find some clue to why this 'Thunderbolt' asshole is ruining your sleep. First, we'll have to find your Core Self Image Template."
"Well, on some level, we all build these ideas of who and what we are, and who and what we're not. These images tell us how smart, confident, friendly and so on we are. A lot of the reason that we sabotage ourselves is because we've constructed these images, and what we're trying to do is conflicts with what these images tell us we can do."
"Are you talking about the old saw that we fail because we want to fail?"
"Something like that. But more to the point, we tend to fail because we've been programmed to fail." Hex took a deep breath. "Well, if I were a Core Self Image Template, where would I be?" She looked around. "Let's see. Homeroom? That's where you're supposed go to, when you're not supposed to be somewhere else. The Auditorium? That's where everyone gets together, and the people in charge make declarations. The Principal's office?" Hex cocked an eyebrow. "Were you a troublemaker in school, Max?"
"Not really. Okay, a couple of times, but it wasn't really my second home, the way it was to a lot of kids."
"So, where DID you hang out, in school?"
"Well, to be honest - in Shop Class."
Amy chuckled. "Well, of course. Where else? And, it's a place where you built things, wasn't it, Max? Well, which way to Shop?"
As I guided Amy through the corridors, people started to appear in the otherwise empty hallway. "Amy, who are these people? What are they doing here?"
"Oh, they're flickers of worry, old memories, and doubts. If you were here without me, they'd be trying to distract and sidetrack you. They don't mean anything to me, so they aren't as effective."
We finally came to the Industrial Arts classroom.
And here's where it gets weird. So far, the school had been pretty mundane - if you allow for the flickering phantoms. But the Shop Class should have been a well-laid out arrangement of worktables in the center with the lathes and larger machines lining the walls, and Mister Kemp's office off to the right. But what was behind the doors was a Jack Kirby vision of a mad scientist's laboratory, a cavernous hangar with huge, towering, over-complex machines and cables running across the floor. But toward the center of the room were two pedestals, with two figures standing on them.
The figure on the left was large, but it wasn't a glorification of the subject, it was rather so that the glaring flaws were more apparent. It was a cartoonish image of the archetypal fat nerd, with all the vices, weaknesses and perversity showing for all the world to see. It was a Frankensteinish hodge-podge of ill-matching parts; not that the individual parts were any good, but the clash of defects made the mess even worse. Amy 'hmmm'ed,' and walked around the mish-mosh. As she looked at it from different angles, the images shifted and changed, but it didn't get any better.
"Amy, please, please tell me that's not my Core Self Image Template."
"Sorry, girlfriend, but I'm afraid it is. Or, at least it's ONE of your Core Self Image Templates."
"Well, Max, I'd say that this...mess...is the self image that you built up over your childhood. MAN, somebody hit you good with the insecure stick, Max! Now, this one over here-" she pointed at the other figure.
The other figure was as graceful, glorious and gorgeous as the first one was revolting. This figure was female, but she wasn't a weak, demure female; she was tall, athletic and dynamic, with grace and power written on every line of her curvaceous form. She was full-breasted, but she held her chest with a pride that defied sleaze. Her face was fine-featured but strong, and her expression showed a deft blend of intelligence, willpower, concern and humor. Her hair was long and black with two streaks of silver that ran from the temples, and it fell to the small of her back. There was a general sense of competence and nobility about her that sort of made you think that maybe there was hope for you, after all.
God, she was beautiful.
"Amy, who's that?"
Hex laughed. "Max, that's you!"
"WHAT? Are you Kidding?"
"Okay, it's a slightly idealized version of you. I mean, you're nowhere near that well built! But still, that's you."
"You're pulling my leg."
"How can I? I can't even see your leg. Nope, that's you, Max, more or less. Allowing for the fact that you haven't had The Power that long."
"The Power? What does that have to do with anything?"
"Max, Max, Max! This is YOUR psychic imagery we're talking about here! See those cables that lead into the pedestal?"
"Yeah, I see - and they connect to the figure, as well."
"Well, given your techno-orientation, I'd say that's your way of showing that you channel The Power through this image."
"But where did it come from? I don't know anyone who looks even vaguely like that!"
"Well, besides a personal image, most people develop a fantasy image of the perfect member of the opposite sex. I think that's what this was originally - a composite of all the images of women that you've gathered up through the years. From women that you know, women that you've seen but never met, and of course, all those Media Beauties that are shoved down our throats in the Movies, Magazines and on TV." Amy look another long look at the figure. "Though I will say this - you have a LOT of respect for women! Heck, given the way that you idealize them, that may have been the root of a lot of your problems with women back when you were still a guy!"
"So, this is basically my dream-girl?"
"More or less."
"But why would I channel The Power through this? And what does that have to do with anything?"
"Well, what it has to do with anything, is that The Power is what's shaping your body. It's using this pattern over here to shape your body."
"So, this is what's changing me? But why didn't it use that pattern over there?"
"Hey, be thankful! Do you really wanna look like THAT?" Amy jerked a thumb at the freakazoid on the other panel. "I'll admit that it probably does happen occasionally, 'cause there are some guys on both sides of the Law that are pretty damn twisted."
Then something occurred to me. "Hold on - okay, so I have this sort of pastiche self-image over there that I pieced together from all the guff that I got from all the bozos in my neighborhood, and I have this composite Uber-Babe over here. But shouldn't I have some sort of male version of Uber-Babe here? I mean, shouldn't I have some kind of image of what a man SHOULD be like, an idealized version of myself, instead of Franken-Dweeb over there?"
Amy raised her eyebrows. "Good Point! And, given the way that you sort of had to be dragged, kicking and screaming into accepting your femininity, it would make sense that you'd hook up The Power to your masculine ideal, since you obviously had too much good sense to hook it up to ol' Franken-Dweeb."
"Okay, so where is it? Shouldn't my Masculine Ideal be around here somewhere?"
"Yeah, it should, especially since you think that it should be here. Okay, Maxine, where IS it?"
"I dunno. And that bothers me. It should be here, somewhere. But I can't find it."
"Maybe that's why The Power had to go through Uber-Babe here. Your Masculine Ideal just wasn't there to do the job, and you had too much sense to hook it up to Franken-Dweeb."
"That's nice, but where's my Masculine Ideal?"
"Thinking about maybe doing a little re-wiring, Max?"
"No, even _I_ know that if I did that, I'd screw up my body something fierce. But it's something that's really important, and it ain't here! I wanna know where it is, and what happened to it!"
"No need to yell, Max!"
"It's okay, Hon. You have good point there. It should be here, even if you aren't going to be using it anymore. Well, let's look around, and see what clues your unconscious leaves for us."
"Why would my unconscious leave clues for us?"
"Because I just suggested it. Heck, that's a large part of why these Self-Image Templates are conveniently out here in plain sight, because I suggested that they'd be here."
Amy started poking around the big Kirby-esque machines. Then, suddenly, they started to spring to electronic life, with lights flashing and sparks arcing, and pistons driving. "Max! What are you doing?"
"Hey, I'm not doing anything!"
Then the machines started going totally haywire, and they started crowding in on Amy. I caught a glimpse of a figure darting in between the machines, throwing switches and pushing buttons. But Amy was being herded into a corner by the berserk gadgets. "Max! Stop this! Pull a plug or something!"
I desperately looked for the main power panel, but it was blocked by the mob of machinery.
Then, the double doors to the Shop Class burst open, and Ted - or more to the point, Justiciar was there, in full combat armor, with his white cape blowing in the breeze. He leapt in, shoved the machines aside, and pulled Amy out of the Shop, into the hallway.
I started to ask Ted what he was doing here, when he flickered and faded away. "Thanks, Max. It was getting pretty damn crowded in there."
"What do you mean? Ted-"
"Ted isn't here. You called on a heroic presence, and since Lady Lightning was sort of tied up being a Core Self-Image, you called Justiciar up for duty. Well, I think we've done all that we can for the moment."
Amy concentrated and she faded from the hallway. A few minutes later, I was back in Amy's living room. Amy took a deep breath and made her way to the kitchen to make tea. When she came back with the tea, she said, "Well, that was productive for a first session."
"What? You mean, after all that, you're willing to go back?"
"Of course! After all, we can't realistically expect to discover exactly what's giving you so much trouble on the first trip in. Besides, while we've found out a major issue for you - exactly where that Masculine Ideal of yours got to - we still don't have any idea of who or what this 'Thunderbolt' of yours is, and why he's giving you so much grief."
"Maybe. But he's turning out to be even more trouble than I thought."
"Amy, when the machines in the Shop went berserk, I spotted a figure running around, turning them on. I think it was Thunderbolt."
Continuted in Part 25...