Of Masks and Marvels (Part 25)
Of Masks and Marvels
By Bek D Corbin
edited by Steve Zink
Chapter Twenty Five
Man, I wish that my Unconscious had an Internet account. Then it could just leave me a nice, clearly understandable e-mail. As it is, it's ruining my sleep with all these weirdo Fellini-esque dreams.
God, I hate symbolism.
I woke up from the latest, feeling like a wrung out rag. I stretched, did a few jumping jacks, and got ready for another day. My daily routine now has a new element. I have to check to see what kind of hair day I'm having, and how much effort I'm gonna have to put in, in order to look presentable. Ma has her standards. I checked myself out in the mirror, and was reasonably pleased with what I saw. Then, I saw my 'fat suit'.
On a perverse whim, I pulled it on. Normally, I don't do that until the very last minute at the station, as I'm about to change from 'Maxine' to 'Dan'. I checked myself out in the mirror. The fat suit was getting old and shabby, in more ways that one. Yep, sometimes you just need a little something like this to put things in perspective.
I peeled the fat suit off, and got ready to go down for breakfast.
Ma was ready with some coffee; we were expected to cook the rest ourselves. "Well, Maxine! You're looking lovely this morning!"
"Thanks, Ma." I leaned over and kissed her temple. "Ma'am, I am aggrieved for your tragic loss."
"Missuz Maxham, I am sorry to say that we lost your eldest son Daniel in the night."
"What's this you're trying to say, Dear?"
"I can't keep up the charade, Ma. The fat suit just ain't cuttin' it anymore. If I keep trying to be 'Dan Maxham' at work, I'll just wind up making a fool out of myself, maybe get fired, and maybe even have to explain what happened to the 'real' Dan Maxham."
"So, you're saying that you want to live as woman full-time now?"
"Hey, I AM living full time as woman! I can't help it! I'm just wearing Guy-Drag at work! And it's getting embarrassing!"
"Embarrassing?" Eli was, as per usual, the last one down for breakfast. "What did you do NOW, Max?"
"Maxine has decided that it's time to drop the 'Dan' masquerade."
"'Bout frickin' time, Sis. Gettin' embarrassing," Eli mumbled through some toast that I'd just made. My family, folks - how heartwarming.
"Yes, dear, it IS well past time." Ma took a slurp of coffee. "I suppose I should be grateful that we didn't have to drag that fool suit away from you, the way that we did your wubbie."
"Okay, OKAY, we've established that the fat suit has outlived its usefulness. Now, onto more pressing matters. Like, where does Maxine Fitzgerald get a JOB that will allow her to drop everything at the drop of a hat and go play Lady Lightning? Especially in THIS economy?"
"You're going to do WHAT?" Reyes said as we pulled out of the station for her first story of the day.
"I'm going to pull double-duty," I replied calmly. "I've given Schroeder notice, and I'm going to be 'breaking in' the new Electrician who's replacing me."
"And this new Electrician IS?" Reyes asked, one eyebrow cocked archly.
"Why, Maxine Fitzgerald, of course!" I said, sliding up to a more feminine range, and showing 'Maxine Fitzgerald's' IBEW card.
"How did you pull THAT off? Getting into a Union is supposed to be like pulling teeth!"
Eli grinned from where he was driving. "Oh, ah, 'Dan' and I offered to help with the Local's filing and data entry. They're always backlogged. So, as of now, Maxine is a fully paid up member in good standing with three years seniority in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers."
"Though," I mused, "now that I'm viewing it from THIS side of the street, I can't help but wonder about the appropriateness of that 'Brotherhood' business"
"So, 'Dan' is just gonna walk out, and 'Maxine' is gonna take his place? Sorta asking for someone to put Two and Two together, ain'cha?"
"NO, as I said, 'Dan' is going to be helping 'Maxine' get the hang of the place for three weeks. Of course, no one will actually SEE the two of us together - and I expect you two to back me up on this - but, hey, it's only for three weeks, and who really cares about the fat guy with the beard?"
Reyes slumped back in her seat. "Jesus Marimba, there are just SO MANY ways that this could go disastrously wrong."
"Hey, if you have a better idea, I'd love to hear it! I'm gonna be pulling time and a half for no extra pay, this way!"
"Bull!" Reyes shot back. "You'll be getting double pay, 'cause you be clocking hours as Dan AND Maxine!"
I paused. "Y'know, you're right? I hadn't thought of it like that! And God knows I need the extra money - gotta update my wardrobe."
Predictably, Reyes perked up at the sound of this. "Oh? And you're going shopping on your own?"
"Well, actually, I was thinking of asking maybe Ms. Hex to go with me."
Reyes folded her arms across her chest and sniffed, "Typical. They hit the big time, and they immediately start running around with their new big shot pals, forgetting all about their old friends."
I sniffed right back at her, "Hey, you have style all right, but it's YOUR style! I wanna have some things that say 'Maxine Fitzgerald', not Elena Reyes."
"Yeah, you should be so lucky to have my style," she grumbled back. Then she smiled her shark-smile. "And of course, now you're gonna have to cope with the office wolves and grab-asses"
"Oh," I moaned, "The Horror---"
"THE HORROR! THE HORROR OF IT ALL!" Eli and Reyes crowed as one.
Yeah, it was THAT kind of day.
We were back at the station, and I had one of the Control Booth panels open, when my AEGIS beeper went off. Fortunately, Bernice has recently installed a 'snooze' alarm on it, which basically sends back a signal that tells the folks back at the office 'I'm doing Secret Identity things - I'll get to you ASAP.' Hey, Murphy's Law applies to Superheroes, and then some. I finished up the control booth panel, did three dry runs, just to be sure, and closed it up. Then I casually strolled down to the lobby, found a pay phone tucked away in a nice, unwatched corner and dialed in.
Without a tell-tale flash, I was out of the lobby AND my fat suit, and was in the Teleporter room at AEGIS and into my Lady Lightning togs. I paused to get used to the difference in footwear (and in the way my crotch was packaged), put on a little lipstick, and made my way to the Situation Room. There was a sign taped on the door to the Situation Room, saying 'Go To The Council Room'.
I walked in on a meeting in progress. "Sorry, Guys! I was up to my armpits in work when you paged!"
A middle aged balding guy, who looked like he'd been weaned on a pickle, glowered at me. "And what if this had been an emergency? How many people would have died, while you got all your dishes put away?"
I gave him a glower right back. "First of all, our pagers have a priority system, and this was rated a Lowest Urgency. Secondly, if it where an emergency so great that AEGIS as a group, less me, couldn't handle it, then I'd know about it, and drop what I was doing toot sweet. And Third and most importantly, who the Hell are YOU, Jack?"
The guy sitting next to him, a much more dapper type, who sort of looked like Alec Baldwin, just as he was going from his heartthrob stage to his screen-heavy stage, stood up. "Well, I have to apologize, Lady Lightning. I'm Lionel C. Clarke, and this is C. Marlon Jeffries, my lawyer. Please excuse Jeffries - too many hours in the courtroom."
"A lawyer," I said, a sour taste in my mouth. For THIS I rushed through that control booth panel? "What, yet another lawsuit?"
"Oh, far from it," Clarke breezed. I got a ping of recognition from the name and the face, but I wasn't pinning it to anything. "Far from trying to shake you down, we're here to try and help AEGIS continue on with what we recognize as your valuable - indeed, maybe Invaluable - work."
Oh Lord - Good Cop, Bad Cop. I was getting a bad feeling about this.
"We're pretty well funded already, Mister Clarke," Iron John said neutrally.
"Yes, I understand that. What I am offering is a way of allowing AEGIS to focus on the real business of what superheroes really do - rescuing people, fighting the bad guys and generally setting a higher standard for everyone - by taking over the nagging details of running an official body. Among my endeavors, I am a major stockholder in the Great Rock Insurance Company. I can offer AEGIS what you might call a 'special consideration' in coverage, seeing as how, while the various fights you get in do cause a lot of collateral damage, that damage is actually significantly less than what it would be if you allowed whatever it was to happen unopposed."
Even through his iron full face mask, I could tell that John was thinking about it. But then, John hates paperwork, and he usually leaves that to- "Hey," I said, "Where's Ms. Hex? She's usually the one that ramrods the bureaucratic stuff."
"Hex is on her way," Tigress said, "she should be here any time."
"And I'll be more than happy to discuss it in great length with your Ms. Hex," Clarke said smoothly. "What I want to talk to YOU, the 'rank and file' of AEGIS, as it were, is just to get you to think about it. Besides insurance, we can offer a better medical and dental package, a wider base of legal resources, and-"
Clarke's lawyer, Jeffries, answered a call on his cell-phone. "I'm sorry to break this up so abruptly, Mister Clarke, especially after calling everyone in here on such short notice, but I'm afraid that ANOTHER emergency involving the Riverside property has come up, and it needs to be handled NOW."
Clarke gave a wide 'What do you want?' shrug. "Very well. As I said, at this point, I just want you to consider it. I'm sure there's a lot that I can do for you, in thanks for all that you do, so often, for this city."
Tigress showed them to the teleporter. We were only beginning to talk it over, when Amy walked in. "So, what's the big emergency?" she asked.
"Oh, just a bunch of hurry-up-fer-nuthin'," I breezed back at her. "Some Wall Street type looking for an AEGIS tie-in was here, chatting up some sort of financial rigamarole."
"I have his card, Hex," John said, "if you wanna talk to him more about it."
Amy shrugged. "Well, maybe it's all for the best that you're all conveniently here, so I don't have to tell you all individually. Dr. Paragon of Storm Front called - he's managed to book an entire resort in the Rockies for The Con!"
The room erupted in cheers. I looked around confusedly. "The Con? What are you guys so revved up about?"
"The Superhero Convention!" Twist yelled at me. "What? You've never heard of the Superhero Convention?"
"Oh Gawd!" I moaned. "You have GOT to be kidding! You're looking FORWARD to being in close proximity to thousands of drooling fan-boys?" An image of me being totally surrounded by slavering, overweight Marvel Zombies came to mind, and I shuddered.
"No, Max," Ted chuckled, "not a convention ABOUT Superheroes, a convention FOR Superheroes!"
"A Convention FOR Superheroes?" I echoed incredulously. Oh My God! I could meet Lady Liberty! I wonder if CyberHawk still comes to these things
"Oh, YEAH!" Tigress exulted, "That's the look that I was waiting for!" She leaned forward and grinned. "There's someone that you wanna meet, mebbe?"
I blushed. "Well, YEAH!" Then, I tactfully changed the topic. "So, howcum I haven't heard of this Convention? Where is it held? How often is it held?"
Ted took over. "Well, the reason that you've never heard of it, is probably that we try to keep it very low-key. It's not some big secret or anything, we just figure it's best that we don't have to cope with Fans, the Media, or the inevitable super-goon who wants to try and make a name for himself. Hey, when the whole point of these Cons is to get to meet other Supers, exchange ideas, information and tips, and let our hair down a little. Can't do that, with the Eyewitless News hanging around. As for the Time and Place, well, we just sort of pick someone to take care all of that, and they handle it. It's mostly a matter of picking a time when we can be reasonably sure that nothing major's gonna come popping up out of the woodwork. We try not to have it at the same time each year, so that the Bad Guys don't start planning their schedules around it."
"And," Amy took over, "after that debacle with Whelkera, I think both Dr. Daedalus and the Symbiont Syndicate will be laying low for a bit. So, I think we're cool for this year."
"So," I asked, absolutely brimming, "when IS it?" Please, please, don't let it conflict!
"Well, we try to avoid all the usual times - Holidays, Weekends, like that. The Villains love working holidays, have you noticed? And we prefer to keep the amount of time between the announcement and the actual event as short as possible - harder for the news to leak out, that way - so, it's this Wednesday and Thursday."
YES! Yes, yes, yes! I can trade off with Eli for those days, no problem! "So, how do we get there?"
"Well, each team is generally expected to have its own means of transport."
"Y'mean, like the Fantasticar©, or the Avenger's QuinJet©? But we don't have anything LIKE that! We use the Artifact to teleport us around. Does the Artifact have that kind of range?"
Power Woman looked uncomfortable. "errr...We don't know. And to be honest, I'm a lot more comfortable not knowing. Hex?"
Amy smiled. "It's all arranged. We're hitching a ride with the Nine Just Men."
"Well, All RIGHT!" Wendell enthused. "Now we get to see if that ThunderCharger that Number Five was bragging about can deliver the speed that she was talking about!" Yes, as it turned out at the After Crisis party that we held for the Night Watch and the Nine, three of the 'Nine Just Men' were in fact women. And Number Five was apparently something of a velocity junkie.
"So, what should I pack? Will we be in costume the entire time? Will we be expected to wear our masks at all times?"
"Oh, we'll be in costume most of the time," Amy informed me, "but bring along a couple of changes of costume, maybe something informal, a swimsuit and one formal dress for the closing dance."
"errr...The change of costume and informal outfit, I can handle. But the swimsuit and the formal dress - well, I just haven't had a lot of opportunities for that stuff since I got The Power."
"Not to worry," Hex breezed, "I have a dress that should be perfect for you, and I recently spotted a swimsuit that somebody probably thought up hoping to cash in on your look, so there's no reason that you shouldn't use it. I'll pick it up for you, Hon."
"You're a life-saver, Amy."
"Yes, I am, aren't I? And just to show you how much of a lifesaver I am, here's the Convention schedule, a copy for each of you." She handed around printouts.
I eagerly skimmed through mine. 'Advanced Psionics Workshop'; well, at least I know where Amy's gonna be between 3 and 4. 'Super-Strength: Asset or Liability?' I sneaked a peek at Power Woman. Make a note of that one. 'Electro-Magnetics Workshop'; ooohhh! Gotta sign up for that one! Then I spotted something. "Hey! What's this "Rookies Roundup' thing?"
Power Woman smiled acidly. "Oh, that's sort of a safety precaution. They round up all the newbies and make sure that everyone knows who they are, so that they don't get hurt."
Sapphire gave her an energy projector's version of a slap upside the head. "NO, it's more like a 'coming out party'. Y'know, where you're formally introduced to society and all that? Bascially, it's a party for the Rookies, so that they can meet everyone. Among other things, it sort of sets a context for you to go around and talk to people without that embarrassing 'I'm new around here' thing."
"Cool! Okay, what's this 'Villain Forum'? It lasts for FOUR HOURS!"
Titan said, "Only four hours? Are they rushing it this year?"
"No," Hex replied, "they decided to streamline it by limiting it to a request for information of specific individuals. Before we go, we're supposed to fill out requests for information on a particular villain. A team of computer specialists will do searches for information on those villains, and they'll be outlined at this forum, people who have handled them will speak, and they're be sort of a 'Does Anyone know anything more?' request from the audience."
"Well, that's cozy!"
"Maybe, but remember, a villain being a particular hero's 'nemesis' only works in comic books. In real life, it doesn't matter WHO brings the bad boy down, just that they do it before he does too much damage. Just because some punk decides that they don't like you, doesn't mean that the rest of us can't slap him down."
The meeting broke up, and I had just enough time to get back to work before I was missed. Then, I got myself home, calling Ma, Eli and Reyes on the cell phone, and making plans all the way. <Memo to Self: Remember how effective the 'Superhero Business, Can't Explain' bit is. It may come in handy later.>
Before you could say 'Marjorie Banks' (WHY you would want to say 'Marjorie Banks', I have NO idea), I had my extra costumes, complete with spare boots, masks and wigs, and nice little casual outfit, and teleported straight over to AEGIS HQ. Now, with normal people, this would have taken a couple of days to get together. But superheroes have to know how to focus on the task at hand, and only take what they need. God knows, I've whittled down on the junk that I carry around on my utility belt! So, the rest of AEGIS was already there.
And, as usual, it was 'hurry up and wait'. We wound up breaking out the cards as we waited for the Nine to get there. And when they did get here, I had to teleport out to where there ship was hovering, and patch them into the telephone grid, so the rest could teleport inside the ship. I was the last one in, so, of course, I got stuck sitting on the luggage. This did not bode well for the rest of the trip. Luckily, the Nine's ship had a nice roomy cargo space that they normally use for their power suits, which they weren't lugging along on this trip, and Ted was nice enough to sit by me, so it wasn't that bad. And indeed, Number Five was showing off how fast the Thunder-Charger could go, so I did have to grab a hold of Ted for safety. Hey, that's my story and I'm sticking to it!
The ThunderCharger got us to the Rockies, where Doctor Paragon had booked an out-of season ski resort for us. Okay, I admit that I showed how much of a rookie I was by pressing my nose to the window like a kid ogling a candy store, checking out all the super cool superhero vehicles parked in the lot. Yep, there were even a couple of honest-to-God flying saucers. You have to wonder about the superheroic sense of humor some times.
The lobby was like a spandex fashion show. Capes, boots, and masks everywhere! The resort staff, which I was assured had all signed confidentiality agreements (and think about it - would you really want to cross an entire CONVENTION full of superheroes?), were taking our reservations with a sort of glazed awe. The girl at the desk was barely through ogling Battalion (who does cut a rather nice figure, when he isn't inside his shell), when she asked me my name. Oh well, I always knew that I didn't have a lot of recognition value outside the region. "Lady Lightning," I said with my best gracious smile.
"Okay, you're sharing a double - Room #214, withMsHex?"
"Yo, Hex! We're gonna be bunking together!"
"I know, I made the reservations myself." Ah, good, so I don't have to pull any bedroom farce antics with my roommate. Amy thinks of everything. But then, she really is our details person.
The first afternoon was gonna be settling in, a Mixer and the 'Rookie Roundup', followed by more mixer. The next day, the convention would start for real, with panels, round-tables and special interest discussions. God, I hope I don't geek out! I peeked around the lobby, hoping to spot one of my personal favorites, but the crowd was such a throng of capes and stuff that it was hard to pick out any one person.
*Sploosh!* Suddenly, something hit me, and I was suddenly dripping wet. "Whoops, L.L.!" Titan chuckled, "Looks like you got tagged by the first water balloon of the Con!"
"Well, of course!" Power Woman smirked, "Rubbernecking Rookies are such easy targets."
Amy took me up to our room, where I changed into one of my spare suits, dried out my hair and put a fresh wig on. "What the HELL was that all about?" I sputtered as I toweled out my hair.
"It was a water balloon; what did you think it was, some sort of death ray?"
"But water balloons is soShriner's Convention."
"Hey, a convention is a convention. People gotta blow off steam somehow. Besides, most superheroes got a double scoop of 'Big Kid' in 'em anyhow."
"Oh Man, I just hope the high jinks don't include panty raids."
As if on cue, someone wearing a long black robe, a skull mask and carrying a scythe walked through the door. He didn't open the door or break through it, he just sort of walked through it. "Oh! Sorry! Wrong Room!" Then he phased back out through the door.
Amy didn't even blink. "I wonder if that was the Toledo Reaper, the Atlanta Reaper, the Detroit Reaper or the Seattle Reaper," was all she said.
"What? I thought that there was some sort of rule against cribbing someone else's act like that."
"There is, but there's sort of an understanding that there are certain bits that you can't hog for yourself. For instance, two 'Super Patriot' types don't go casting snooks at each other, and 'Angel' theme supers don't argue religion. The Grim Reaper is such an obvious and effective image, that it's sort a given that there would be several guys who would use it. Come to think of it" she started riffling through the Con schedule. "Yep! 'Creatures of the Night: a workshop examining the uses, techniques and drawbacks of terror tactics'."
"Oh? When is it?"
"When else? Midnight!"
We ran into the Reaper again in the elevator. I know it was the same guy, because he apologized for barging in like that. "It's a bad habit that you get into, when you can walk through walls."
"We were wondering," I opened, "exactly which of the Reapers are you?"
"Oh, I'm the Toledo Reaper."
"How do you tell each other apart?"
"Well, it's sort of understood that we vary our outfits to differentiate. For instance, I have the franchise on the vaporous hem bit, while the Detroit Reaper has a metallic skull and that belt of skulls, the Atlanta Reaper has a glowing scythe and wears gray, and the Seattle Reaper is a power suit user."
"Hold on - isn't there a Marvel Comicsô character called the Grim Reaper? Don't you guys catch some serious flack from their lawyers about that?"
"Nope! First of all, the Grim Reaper is SO in the public domain-"
"Hey, it goes back to the Middle Ages," Hex interjected, "how Pubic Domain can you GET?"
"Exactly. And besides, they tried that bit, back in 1979, when the Grim Reaper of Baltimore started operating. The courts in a glint of jurisprudence decided that unless a superhero infringed on the specific and distinct likeness of a copy-righted character - and who would want to do a thing like that? Talk about a LAME outfit! - the use of the Reaper name and essential theme constituted no violation. Not that it did poor old Baltimore any good."
"Well, by that time, he ran into Verago. The bitch pinned him to the asphalt with his own scythe."
We had a moment of silence, in respect for poor old Baltimore, and then the elevator opened. As we left the elevator, Toledo paused. "uhm, Ladies, I realize that this is asking a bit much, given our brief acquaintance, but could you do me a small favor?" Hex and I raised our eyebrows. "See that lovely creature in the cobwebby gray outfit with the long red hair?" He pointed at a rather spectral - yet curvy - woman whose features were partially concealed by a gauzy full-face mask. "Well, that's the Boston Banshee-"
"How many Banshees are there?"
"Well, there's two in the US - Boston and Chicago, one in Canada - Vancouver, I think, two in Ireland, three in Great Britain, one in Australia and one in New Zealand."
"Sorry I asked."
"Anyway, I was wondering if you'd ask her if she's going to the 'Creatures of the Night' workshop tonight."
"Gotcha." Hex and I walked over to the lady in question. It turned out that Toledo and Boston had worked together on a case - in Pittsburg - and there had been some chemistry there. With a bedroom smile that we could see even through that veil, she sashayed over to Toledo. After a bit of chat, they walked off together.
"Well, there goes a couple made in the Twilight Zone," I muttered.
Hex did a 'Mae West' pout. "ooohh, Come up to my mausoleum sometime, and take a look at mygravestone rubbings..."
"Gawd," I cracked, "I hope she's a moaner."
"'Cause if she's a screamer in bed, we're ALL in trouble."
Hex gave me a swat on the arm and we went to find the rest of our crew. Everyone was still pretty much catching up on who was there, and renewing old acquaintances. I spotted Ted and Power Woman, standing with a couple that seemed familiar, but didn't ring any bells with me.
As we got closer, Hex stiffened. "Oh Christ, this brings back bad memories" she forcibly brightened. "Jack! Della! It's so good to SEE you!" She gave the woman, who was wearing a legless body stocking in two shades of blue, with a silver winged halo on her chest that matched the stainless steel rig on her back, a big hug and an air-kiss. Then she gave a milder hug and no kiss to the man, who was wearing a visored speed-skating helmet and a red outfit that was dominated by a large stylized 'F'. She indicated me with a wave of her hand, "Jack, Della, this is Lady Lightning, our newest affiliate."
"Affiliate?" 'Jack' asked. "And exactly what is an 'affiliate'?"
"Well, we were getting over-stocked on full-time members, and Max here had some confidentiality problems, so we created sort of a 'part-timer' position. Titan and Twist have also down-shifted to 'affiliate'. Anyway, Max, this is Fast Track and the Blue Angel."
"Oh!" I snapped my fingers. "I knew that you two looked familiar! You used to be with AEGIS, right?"
"Sic transit gloria mundi," murmured Fast Track. "Yeah, Del and I used to be on the team, but you know, real life - anyway, Del and I are kicking it up with the Seattle Sentinels now."
There was a bit of polite chitchat, during which I got a distinct sense that there was a lot being left unsaid. Why had Blue Angel and Fast Track left AEGIS? Was there some sort of dirty laundry that they were all trying to keep from getting aired in public?
Then other people butted in, and Ted got pulled off into one group, Power Woman another, and Fast Track another. Which left Della, Hex and me standing here, looking a trifle awkward. "So," Della said, obviously fishing for a topic, "you're new in AEGIS?"
"Oh yeah, Max is quite the up-and-comer," Hex answered, beating me to the punch. "She's only been with us for a while, and she's always out there in front, giving orders like a drill sergeant."
"And Brenda puts up with this?" Della asked with a laugh.
"Well, Max here is pretty quick on the uptake. She usually figures out what's really going on well before the rest of us." I blushed and tried to get a word in edgewise, but Hex seemed to be leading up to something. "She's been seeing Ted pretty regularly, too."
That definitely gave Della a pause. "Ted? And Brenda...?"
"Oh, she's the same, only more so."
"But I thought"
"So did I. But nothing happened."
Della looked utterly croggled, and walked away without a word.
I gave Hex a cross expression. "Okay, what the hell was all THAT all about?"
Hex sighed. "Romantic Geometry. Y'see, the reason that Della and Jack left AEGIS wasn't because Della got a job in Seattle. She jumped on the offer as a pretext to get out of town, and Jack followed her."
"Oh, you mean, Della and Ted?"
"And Jack. And Brenda."
"Fast Track and Power Woman? A couple?"
"No, it wasn't quite that complex. Might have been better if it were. At least we might have been able to make a smutty movie and made some money out of it. No, it wasn't a romantic quadrangle, it was more like two linked romantic triangles: Fast Track versus Justiciar for Blue Angel, and Della versus Brenda for Ted."
"So, Della and Ted?"
"Yeah, it was pretty thick there for a while. It was obvious that Ted and Della had it pretty bad for each other. But, there was the whole thing with Brenda getting in the way, and you know Brenda - she just stood there and waited for Ted to make the first move, never admitting that he really had a chance, but always with those weird vibes that said there's more going on."
"And you couldn't tell what she was really feeling?"
"Reading those with The Power is always harder than unempowered humans, and Brenda's harder than most. She keeps a lot stashed away inside herself. Hell, probably from herself. Anyway, while all that noise was going on, along came Fast Track. Now, Jack is a jerk - a good hearted jerk, but still a jerk. So, he figured that if Ted wasn't making up his mind, then he had an open shot. He made all the moves that Ted was too-"
"Gentlemanly? Sensitive? Considerate?"
"-too big a wuss to make. So, Della had a choice between the boy scout with uncertain loyalties or the bad boy who left nothing uncertain. So, Della left for Seattle, and Jack followed, which seemed to make it clear how Ted chose. Which should have left the door open for Ted and Brenda to get together."
"Which didn't happen."
"Nope! Confused the hell out of everyone. And then you came along, and it started up all over again. But this time, Ted doesn't seem as conflicted."
"Really? It took him long enough to ask me."
"True. But he asked you. I wonder what's different this time?"
After the informal settling in, there was the dreaded 'Rookie Roundup'. Basically, it consisted of us newbies going up on a stage, standing in a group and coming forward as our names were called. The guy with the mike, a 'super-patriot' type called Major Victory, gave a thumbnail sketch of our powers, told who we were working with, and any noteworthy achievements so far.
Thus far, we were being called alphabetically. The ones that went before me simply walked forward, accepted the polite applause, and went down from the stage. Which was pretty boring, if you ask me. I mean, we're superheroes, fer the luvva Pete! When my turn came, I levitated about a foot or so off the stage and floated forward, spreading a corona of electrical discharge out around me. I did a slow spin and lit down with a pirouette and bow.
The applause was stronger this time, but as I stepped down off the stage, I heard a mutter of, "There's always a show-off."
The guy behind me must have felt that he had to measure up, because he stretched up to his spot and did a sort of one-man dragon dance. And after him, it was a parade of one-upmanship. Which was pretty embarrassing for the Winter Queen, who had to erect a small ice castle on the stage in order to keep up. And worse, clean it up afterwards. Hotels are SO picky about their cleaning deposits.
I was standing with a few other electro-magnetically biased heroes (what can I say? We were sort of drawn to each other!) when Hex walked up with another woman. This woman was wearing a silvery body stocking that was overlaid with a circuitry pattern - real circuitry, not just a pattern! - that really made the most of her rather slight figure. She wore a full helmet with a silvered visor that was up, revealing a small, delicate face with a rosebud mouth, that would have been a natural to be cast as 'the prissy but cute librarian or grammar teacher'. "L.L., this is Override, she's in charge of the Villain Forum this year."
"Yes," she said, looking down officiously at a clipboard, "Lady Lightning, we were wondering if we could count on you to provide some information about the individual knows as *ahem!* 'The Egg'."
"The EGG?" Turbocharger hooted.
"ah, Sure, but why me?"
"Well, the description which you gave to Lt. Hesczeck of the Paranormal Affairs office of your city WAS the first report of that individual. Also, according to our notices, you've faced off against *ahem!* 'it' three times, and you've been instrumental in defeating it twice. So, you're the closest that we've got to an 'expert' on it."
"Wellll...okay, but it's under lock and key, so it's not really a threat."
"Oh? Hadn't you heard? When we did our information update for this forum, we found out that the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that somehow The Egg was lost in transport to Wuthering Mountain. They don't know where it is, but they're operating under the assumption that it's loose."
"WHAT?" I sputtered. "We just got through putting it IN, and it's OUT already?"
"The hero's always the last to know," Dynaflux commiserated.
"You beat the egg?" Sapper wanted to know. "How?"
"Why, with her handy-dandy, all-purpose KITCHEN WEASEL!" Turbocharger joked in a 'Ronco Products Announcer' voice. "It whisks, frappes, whips, purees, sautÈs, slices, dices, cubes, minces and does everything but coddle the villain! It even makes Julienne fries - whatever the hell they are."
Before he could go on to sell us Pocket Fission Drives, Override said, "She'll let us all know at the Villain Forum. Please be sure to put some notes together tonight, and be sure to try and remember as much as you can. We're giving The Egg a 'B+' rating, with every expectation of upgrading it to an 'A-' soon."
"err, I assume that an 'A+' rating is someone along the lines of Galactus, and an 'F-' is your basic street thug."
"Not exactly, but you have the general idea."
"Okay, I'll admit that it's tough, but a 'B+'?"
"Since you reported it, The Egg has been involved in no less than twelve violent incidents in various cities."
"Really? I feel so...betrayed...to know that The Egg has been seeing other heroes...!" I let out a mock sniff and wiped a faux tear from my eye.
"There, there," Dynaflux 'consoled' me, "it's not like you haven't been beating up other villains!"
"It's not the same!" I 'wailed' facetiously, 'wringing' my hands, "I mean, Lex Luthor never stepped out on Superman! And can you really see the Joker mixing it up with anyone but Batman?"
There was a general snicker at this, and Override confirmed that I'd add what little that I knew to the Forum. As she briskly walked away, Sapper leaned over and, indicating Override's backside as we went over to another group, said sotto voce to Turbocharger, "Comes across all business-like, but I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that she's a wild woman in bed."
Dynaflux gave him the obligatory 'girl overhearing guy-talk' glare, and tried to steer the conversation back to shop talk about energy storage systems. But Turbocharger smirked at Sapper and said, "Well, if you wanna try and see if you can do it without overloading her motherboard, you go right ahead." He turned his attentions to me. "Personally, my tastes don't really run that way. I prefer my women long and dark." He finished up with a knowing smile aimed in my direction.
I blushed, and looked around. I had a stroke of luck, and spotted Power Woman standing by herself. "'Scuze me, there's some business I gotta take care of." I separated myself from the rest of the electromagnetics, and headed over to Pee-Dubya. "Hey, Brenda, a word in your shell-like ear?"
She gave me one of her intense looks. No wonder Hex has such a hard time reading her. "Well, what is it?"
"Well, I just found out about what happened with you, Justiciar and the Blue Angel."
"And, I'd like to hear your end of it."
"And why does any of that concern you?"
"Well, I'm sure that you know that I'm seeing Ted now. I'd like to know whether we can expect a replay of what happened with the Blue Angel."
She gave me that intense look again. "I'm not interested in Ted. I wasn't then. They completely misunderstood my concerns."
"Y'know, Brenda, I'd recommend a costume change for you. I dunno what it is, but there's something about helmets that just makes people sound like pompous idiots." Understandably, she didn't take that very well. "I'm not saying anything against you, Pee-Dubya, I'm just saying that you might want to be a little more forthcoming. Okay, let's try and do this in a civil manner. You say that you have concerns. Mind telling me what you're concerned about?"
"Dating within a superhero team is a bad idea. Even if you don't have complications such as we had with Della, Ted and Jack, there are too many ways that it can backfire."
"Brenda, I don't think that's all that's going on here. I'm not exactly Little Miss Empathy, but even _I_ can tell there's something bugging you. C'mon, what's got your panties in a bunch?"
Pee-Dubya sighed and shook her head. "Maxine, look around you. If you're hot to get in on with a superhero, there are literally dozens of guys here who would be more than happy to jump-start your battery, without dragging a lot of sticky complications back home. As a matter of fact, that guy with the gold-tone backpack-bracers array is still giving you the eye. Why don't you see if you can make a few sparks with him?"
I gave a rueful laugh. "Well! I never thought that I'd hear Power Woman, the Stern Sentinel of Righteousness, pitching the idea of a one-night stand!"
"Even with normal people, at the best of times, Sex is a messy proposition. All that I'm saying is that dragging romance into a superhero team is asking for trouble."
I wasn't buying it, and I was about to say so, when Ted walked up. "So, Ladies!" he said cheerfully.
Brenda just gave him a cold look and stalked off.
"What did I do?" he asked.
"Don't stress, Ted," I reassured him, laying a hand on his shoulder. "I don't think even SHE really knows what's gnawing at her." I waved Brenda and her troubles, whatever they were, aside. "So? You wanted?"
"Well, I was wondering if you'd like to get together later."
I gave him a wry smile. "Ted, I'd love to, but Hex sort of roped me into a commitment to giving some information about The Egg at the Villain Forum. I've got to make some notes, and that should take a while."
Ted wasn't put off by this. "Not a problem. I have a few things to take care of first, anyway. But maybe later, say Eleven-ish?"
"Weeelll, Okay." I cocked a smirk in Ted direction. "Why, Sir Justiciar, are you thinking of making advances?"
"Well, it's about damn time! Where shall we get together?"
"Well, I can't be sure about Hex. Besides, I'm not really sure if I'm ready to take it to THAT level."
Ted took my chin in his hand. "I didn't think you were. Well then, what say we meet up on the roof?"
"Ted, every couple looking for a little privacy is going to be up on the roof!" We thrashed it out, and settled on the Ninth Hole of the resort's golf course. I took my leave of him with a kiss on the cheek, and headed up to my room. I had some notes to write and polish before Eleven.
And besides, I needed to get straight in my head, exactly how I really felt about blow-jobs.
I was rushing through my notes, when Hex walked in. "Cramming for the Big Exam?" she quipped.
"No, I'm in a hurry to get these notes together for that bit in the Forum that you roped me into."
"What's the rush?"
I shot a wanton grin in her direction. "I'm meeting Ted at Eleven."
Amy smirked back at me. "Good Girl! God, I love these Cons! They're like Love Boats, only without the seasickness." She gave me a curious look. "And, Young Lady, exactly HOW FAR are you planning on going?"
I slumped on the desk, pouting. "That's the problem. The kissing is great. I'm even trying to psyche myself up for, y'know, providing Ted with a little 'stop-gap relief'. But the problem is, at the rate we're going, it's only a matter of time before Ted, y'know, is gonna want, y'know...more..."
"And you're having problems with that?"
"Well, YES! But, more to the point, I just don't have the..."
"And you're having problems with that?"
"Well, YES! But, more to the point, I just don't have the...y'know...equipment...to go there. And even if I tried to finesse him into, y'know, 'taking the back door', well, that could open a real can of worms. Worms of a size that even Frank Herbert wouldn't know what to do with 'em."
Hex sat down on the bed. "So, you're still at the, *ahem!* 'peanut' stage?"
I hung my head.
Amy walked over and gave me a big hug. "There, there, kiddo. I've got a good feeling about you and Ted. I think you'll be good for each other."
"Maybe. But did you see the way he was looking at the Blue Angel?"
"Yeah, but I also saw the way he was looking at you. Come to think of it, I also saw the way Fast Track was looking at you. Max, you watch yourself with Jack - he has more hands than an Octopus convention."
"Maybe-" I droned. "But I'll bet that Della doesn't have to come up with excuses as to why SHE won't put out."
Hex slapped me upside the head. "Hey, Snap Out Of It! Max, I am NOT going to just stand by and let you dump on yourself like that! You KNOW better! Dammit, you're LADY LIGHTNING! You deserve better, especially from yourself!"
Then it occurred to me that I'd dragged out my old 'U Trash Urself' kit. I was harshing myself over things that I had no control over. Again. I quashed those feelings and bucked up.
"You're right, Amy!" I said brightly. "Time to take the bull by the horns-"
"Or whatever," Hex said naughtily.
"Or whatever, and make this relationship work!" I settled down a bit. "Still, I wish I could get this whole 'turning into a woman' thing OVER with. Even having a period would be better than shining Ted on like this."
"Truly spoken like someone who's never had a bad case of PMS!" Amy quipped. Then she looked at me measuringly. "But are you serious about that 'wanting to get it over with' bit?"
"Yes," I said flatly. "There's no way that I could go back, and to be perfectly honest, if I did, I'd be giving up a lot of good things that I never saw coming. Becoming a man again - even a buff, macho man, like I pictured Thunderbolt being - would be a step backwards."
Amy nodded. "Well, in that case, there's a man here at the Con that I want you to meet. He might be able to help you, or at least give you an educated guess as to what's really going on inside you."
With that done, Amy unzipped her costume and stepped out of it.
"Excuse me, but what are you doing?"
"Hey, Max, you're not the only one with a date!" She pulled on a dressing gown and went into the bathroom.
"Oh?" I asked curiously. "Anyone I know?" It took a while to get an answer, what with Amy showering and primping. An hour later, Amy came out of the bathroom, looking dressed to thrill in a pink frilly negligee peeking out from under her bathrobe. "So," I repeated, "anyone I know?"
"The Thaumaturge, out of New York." I raised my eyebrows. "Well, some like 'em big and dumb; some like 'bad boys'; you, apparently like 'boy scouts'. Me? I like 'em magical. There's just something about that hint of the mysterious, the dangerous, the sinister, kept in check by an iron will!" She shuddered delightedly.
"Yeah, but YOU do the 'Mistress of Magic' bit; doesn't that cause some friction?"
"Max, honey, I only ACT like I do magic. He really DOES magic!"
"You're kidding! I always thought all those 'super-magician' types were just guys with The Power, using magic as a rationale! They even have a workshop on it!"
"Oh, Ninety Percent of them are. Even low level Real Mages are pretty scarce on the ground. But some of them really DO magic. And believe me, they're head and shoulders above the rest of us." She psycho-kinesed a picnic basket into her hand, and fitted a long red cloak with a red hood over her shoulders. "Well, if you'll excuse me, I have some goodies to bring to Gran'Ma. I'm hoping to run into a big, bad wolf on the way. Don't wait up." And with that, she was out the door.
I spend a little more time on my notes, and decided that I'd done enough. It was time to go see Ted. Maybe he had something important to talk about. Or, better, maybe he didn't have talking on his mind.
Ten minutes later, I was lost. Man, this map is useless! The golf course should be due North, but every time I headed North, I wound up at the freaking parking lot! Trying to use the parking lot to orient myself wasn't working, and I couldn't pick out the North Star to save my life!
I turned around and decided to go back to the hotel and ask directions from there, when I almost walked right into someone. "Oh! Excuse me!"
Turbocharger got a good look at me and brightened up. "Ah! Lady Lightning! What are you doing out here?"
"Trying to find the golf course, which should be due North, but I keep winding up here!"
"I'm, ah, looking for the tennis courts."
"Which, according to my map, should be East of the hotel."
"Map? You have a map?" He went looking for something in the dark in a strange resort, and he didn't ask for a map. ...Guys...
"Of course, I have a map! Not that it's doing me any good." I handed him the map.
He switched on a light built into his harness and looked at it. "Why are you out here? According to this map, the golf course is north of the hotel."
"I _know_ that! But my internal directional sense tells me that this is north!" I pointed in the direction of the parking lot.
He concentrated. "You're right, it does seem to be North. But, the North Star is right over there..." He pointed off to the left. "...so why am I getting the sense that North is over there?" He pointed at the lot. Then, as one, we spotted one of the more exotic craft, which appeared to be a perfectly reflective silver sphere hovering about a foot off the ground.
Then the brick dropped. "Oh, you don't think..."
He nodded. "That thing is putting out a field that's confusing our directional senses? Yep."
I looked at the map and snarled. "Damn! And I SUCK at Astronomy!"
Turbocharger smiled puckishly. "What? It's only a matter of finding the North Star and keeping that in mind."
"Hey, they're all just DOTS to me! I have a hard time finding Orion's belt, and that's when I know which way is which. Okay, the parking lot's over here, and the hotel's over there, so..."
"Hey, not to worry, pretty lady!" Turbocharger got in close and came up behind me. "The North Star is right over there" He took my right arm and pointed it up at the night sky, in what I assume is the general direction of North. As he did, his left arm wrapped around my waist and he pulled me close to him.
I stiffened. This guy was sweeping me off my feet! And I was liking it! Oh God- where was Ted when I really needed him?
"The North Star is right over here" Turbocharger said in a purr right next to my ear.
I let myself enjoy it for a second, and then spun out of his hand. "Oh-Kay, thanks for the directions, I think I can find my own way from here. Now, as for the tennis courts-"
He advanced. "Oh, come on! Admit it! There were sparks there!"
I backed. "Hey, we each generate in the vicinity of 2500 Kilowatts each! It'd be a minor miracle if there weren't sparks!"
He grinned. "Methinks the Lady doth protest too much."
"Hold on, Turbocharger-"
"Call me TC."
"Okay, TC, let's get real here for a second. Yeah, I'll admit that I'm attracted to you." He seemed to like that. "BUT, I was on my way to be with someone that I have something real going on with. Now, what kind of schmuck screws up a good thing, for a shipboard romance?" He paused at that one. "And besides, weren't you heading for the tennis courts?"
He grimaced sheepishly. "Yeah. And she's not the kind of lady that a gentleman lets wait." He gave me an odd look. "Still, it would have been sweet."
I cocked a glance at him. "Y'know? I don't think you're all that far from right."
Slowly, and I admit, a trifle reluctantly, we walked in different directions.
Well, I still can't find the North Star for shit, but at least now I knew that since my sense of 'North' was heading West, I was able to orienteer my way onto the golf course.
Once on the course, I managed to pick my way to the Ninth hole. And there, on the green by the pin was Ted-
- who was holding the Blue Angel tightly.
Continuted in Part 26...