Silver Linings 1 (Part 2)
A Whateley Academy Adventure
by Bek D Corbin
August 20th, 2006
After a lot more red tape, Stacy lead SPECTRUM and the DA and his assistant to the Crimson Claw’s hidden lair. Among other things, Stacy had to pick up her things. Once she had her stuff, she was a little surprised when the Green Witch took her aside. “What’s up? Aren’t we going to go arrest Boss Hogg?”
“Not necessary,” the Witch said as she made strange passes in the air that left trails that Stacy could just barely make out. “They picked up Hoag at the airport an hour ago for causing a disturbance. It seems that he wanted to get out of town in a screaming hurry, but he couldn’t, because his wife had maxed out their credit card.”
“Where are we going?”
“You have a car?”
“This is America, dear; everyone has a car - it’s the Law!” the Witch joked. The car turned out to be a sedate late-model ‘luxury’ sedan.
“Aren’t you afraid of people seeing your car?”
“Not at all, dear. The spell that I just cast is an attention-diversion spell. It isn’t that we’re invisible, as you can tell; it’s more that people simply won’t remark us. They’ll SEE us, and not blunder into us, but it just won’t occur to them that two people in odd clothing are worth noticing. I cast a similar charm on the car when I drove it here.”
Stacy gave a wide, ‘What the hell’ shrug, removed her cape, and got in. As she buckled up, Stacy asked, “Back to headquarters?”
But they missed the turnoff that went near HQ, and the Witch kept heading in the general direction of one of the priciest suburbs in Hamilton County, the sort of place where there weren’t houses, so much as small estates. Stacy almost gave herself whiplash craning her neck looking at all the beautiful houses that looked like something out of those 1980’s prime-time soaps, Dynasty and Falcon Crest, which her mom was still hooked on. Then the Witch pulled out a cell phone and speed-dialed someone to tell them that she was coming to the gate. The impressively-wide, wrought-iron gates of one of the estates opened up just as the sedan pulled into the driveway, and they drove through without even slowing down.
“Whoooaaa…” Stacy breathed as the car rode through the wooded estate to a big, overwhelming house that just HAD to be over a hundred years old. “What IS this, Stately Wayne Manor?”
“Close enough,” the Witch chuckled. She pulled up at the front door, and waved her fingers around. Suddenly, instead of being an impressive if stern looking woman in her late twenties with movie star features in an elaborate green outfit, she was a handsome-looking woman whose age might be anything from her mid-thirties to late fifties in a gray tweed outfit with a fawn turtleneck sweater. She smiled at Stacy, “Well, shall we go inside?”
“You mean, you work here in your secret identity?”
“No, I LIVE here.”
The Green Witch was greeted at the door by a servant wearing what Stacy guessed was some sort of domestic servant’s uniform. He called her ‘Miss Wickham’, and accepted the car keys, presumably to take the car to the garage. Then a woman came up to Miss Wickham, and asked how the day had gone. Miss Wickham gave a polite but vague reply and introduced the woman to Stacy as Mrs. Kelling, the housekeeper. Then she told Mrs. Kelling that the guardianship hearing had gone as planned, and that Stacy would be staying there as her ward.
Mrs. Kelling nodded politely and said that she’d take Stacy’s things up to her new room. When Mrs. Kelling left them in some sort of study, Stacy asked, “Umm, ‘ward’? Then where’s Alfred?”
Miss Wickham smiled and nodded at the joke. “Oh, he’s around here somewhere.”
“I thought that all of SPECTRUM was supposed to be my guardians.”
“We are. But, you need a place to stay, and of all the members of SPECTRUM, I can take in a stray orphan or two and not raise any eyebrows.”
“So, you’re rich?”
“I believe the word is ‘stinking’, but yes.” Miss Wickham looked around the Queen Anne-style study and remarked, “I don’t blame you - I felt the same way, when I first came to this pile. You’re not quite sure whether to genuflect or run screaming.”
“You weren’t raised here?”
“Oh, Good Lord, NO! No, I was raised in a nice, safe, professional class family, with no idea what my heritage was.” She raised her eyes and folded her hands. “For which blessings, Lord, I am duly grateful.”
Stacy looked around uncomfortably. “So… what now?”
“Well, first, you get a decent dinner and a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow, we start thrashing out your tutoring schedule, and working out your powers testing.”
“Testing?” Stacy said with a crack in her voice.
“Nothing invasive or embarrassing, I assure you. It’s just that there IS a possibility that your powers aren’t a result of a mutant trait, which would vastly simplify things.”
“I thought that all superheroes were mutants,” Stacy blinked, confused. “Aren’t they? I mean, that bit about being bit by a radioactive spider or being from Krypton is a load of s- stuff, right?”
“Well, it’s comic book stuff, at any rate. No, there’s a chance that you might be a Dyna-Host, or you might have had an ‘Origin’. You’re God’s own young for that, but it’s possible.”
Stacy looked at her as if she was speaking another language. “HANH?”
There was a pause as a maid came in with a tea tray. Miss Wickham poured them some tea, and waited until the maid left, to resume. “Stacy, there were superheroes and supervillains long before anyone connected them with the idea of being mutants. And, while a lot of them concocted bizarre reasons for their having super powers that were only justifications for being mutants, others weren’t mutants. While mutants outnumber other kinds of super-powered folk badly, there ARE other kinds. There are those people who somehow survive things like being struck by lightning, or getting nuked, or something like that, who SHOULD be d-e-a-d DEAD, and instead of pushing up daisies they walk away with strange paranormal abilities. For some reason, their bodies just… adjust… in order to survive, and their powers are the side effect of that adjustment.”
“So, all superheroes who aren’t mutants have this ‘Origin’?”
“Nope. Now, Captain Patriot and Blue Streak are both ‘Origin’ heroes, but they’re the only ones on SPECTRUM.”
“What about Red Thunder and Violet, or Azure?” Stacy asked, feeling like she was back in Science Class, and that she should raise her hand when she had a question. “Didn’t they have ‘Origins’?”
“Sorry. As a matter of fact, while there have been Origin heroes who have been quite powerful energy projectors, most Origins tend to be either ‘Bricks’ - that is, big, strong, physically tough guys like Captain Patriot - or powerful psychics with telepathy or ESP or psychokinesis. Which is one reason why we think that you might be an Origin.” Miss Wickham took a sip of tea. “Although Origins who are as young as you are quite rare, dear, and they usually have a much more… dramatic… trigger for the factor than you did.”
‘Hey, getting the crap beat out of you by an insane adult is hella dramatic enuf for ME!’ Stacy thought to herself.
“The next possibility is that you might be what’s called a ‘Dyna-Host’, like Violet.” Stacy felt that stupid expression cross her face again. “Stacy, dear, you may have heard that there are these strange, invisible energy beings that exist and sometimes bond with people.”
“You mean those ‘Power Beings’ that you read about in the ‘Midnight Star’ and ‘National Inquirer’ are REAL?” Stacy was appalled. Does that mean that there really IS a ‘Bat-Boy’ or a ‘Spy Cat’? “And those ‘you can capture a Power Being and get super powers’ gizmos that they sell? I thought that those things were, like, totally bogus!”
Miss Wickham gave an amused chuckle. “They are. There’s a reason why they’re listed next to the miracle weight-loss powder diets, or the pumps that are supposed to increase your bust line, and the ‘Psychic Power Headsets’. They sell just enough of those plastic toys to stay in business, but, NO, the silly things just don’t WORK. If they did, you know that the Government would make them illegal before you could say ‘Jack Robinson’. Mind you, there are ways of detecting and capturing Power Beings, but we’re talking large, bulky very sophisticated equipment that doesn’t do very well outside the lab. Not that that stops the daydream believers.”
Stacy thought furiously, trying to keep up with the Witch. “So… these dynamorph thingies are the genies and witches and fairies and like all that, back in olden times? I mean, they thought that lightning was the wrath of the gods! And these dynamorphs would explain a LOT about old myths! And the Origin thing would explain TONS about myths like Hercules and Ulysses and Perseus!”
“Yes, they would,” Miss Wickham murmured. “Pity it doesn’t work.”
“Dear, there are very magical beings out there, and they uniformly agree that the ‘Origin’ phenomenon is new. At least, new by their standards. Besides, we know that Dynamorphs aren’t magical. As a matter of fact, Magic and Dynamorphs don’t mix very well.”
“Okay, they where do they COME from?”
Miss Wickham shrugged. “We don’t know. We’re reasonably sure that they’re comparatively new, quite possibly since the turn of the 20th Century. The first identified case of a Dynamorph bonding was the Bristol Marvel, who first surfaced in Great Britain in 1934, although there WAS a man in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania who mysteriously floated in the air from 1883 to 1885. But we still don’t know why he started to float, or why he suddenly stopped.”
“Do you think that I’m one of these Dynamorph hosts?”
Miss Wickham took a deep breath, paused to consider and said, “Possible, but unlikely. First, while there ARE teenaged Dyna-hosts, they’re pretty scarce. The current theory being that Dynamorphs prefer mature nervous systems to settle into, and they also seem to prefer… dynamic, active, motivated hosts, which is why you hear about superheroes and supervillains being Dyna-hosts, not farmers who use their powers to clear out fields. Also, they’ve noticed that Dyna-hosts who go insane tend to lose control of their Dynamorph, so the hob that hormones play on teenagers’ minds may have something to do with it. Second, from all that I’ve heard, when a person bonds with a Dynamorph, they KNOW about it, it doesn’t sneak up on them, they way that you said it did on you.”
Stacy still though that these ‘Dyna-hosts’ had it easier than mutants did. “What would happen, if I turned out to be a Dyna-host?”
“In all probability, Kaltenborn would insist that it be removed from you, ‘for your own safety’.”
Stacy almost dropped her tea. “They can DO that?”
“Yes. It’s rather controversial, but the prevalent Legal Argument is that being a Dyna-host isn’t a natural condition, as being a mutant is, and that people don’t have a right to possess one. A criminal who abuses his power can have the courts order that the Dynamorph be removed. It doesn’t happen a lot, as there are all sorts of legal tricks to keep the authorities from doing it before the super-crook can arrange an escape, but it does happen.”
“What do they do with the captured Dynamorphs?”
Miss Wickham blinked. “To be honest, I don’t know. Damned good question, though.”
While it had caused her nothing but problems, Stacy really didn’t like the idea of them strapping her into a machine and taking away her powers. “Can they just give a captured Dynamorph to somebody?”
“If they can, I haven’t heard of it. Still there are any number of ‘Mad Scientist’ types who are trying to do just that - capture a superhero or supervillain Dyna-host, steal the Dynamorph, and bond with it. They usually tend to fry themselves doing it, but they keep trying.”
“What about Origin guys? What happens to them?”
“Oh, they get chucked in jail for VERY long periods of time.”
Stacy decided to get off this rather nasty topic. “So what are Azure, Tawny and Red Thunder? Mutants, Origins or Dyna-hosts?”
“None of the above. Azure got her powers when some ‘Mad Scientist’ type tried to use her as a sort of crucible in which he’d create a synthetic Dynamorph. It didn’t work that way, and it’s not quite an Origin. Still, the damned fool killed three people trying to replicate what he’d done, before Az finally stopped him. Red Thunder bonded with a Power Gem.”
“Y’mean, like Green Lantern?”
“Sort of, only without the jazzy special effects. We’re not really sure whether Red’s power stone is a receptacle for a Dynamorph or not. Every so often you hear about power stone wielders getting into fights, and it can get very nasty. Red’s got this rather… strained… ‘Batman/ Catwoman’ relationship going with a supervillainess called ‘Black Sapphire’. She’s interested, but no one’s really sure whether she’s hot for his power stone or his bod.
“Tawny is what we call ‘Imbued’. Remember when I said that Magic is real? Well, there are apparently quite a few magical entities - ancient gods, devils, demons, great spirits, kami, oni, whatever - in the world who aren’t able to directly affect human affairs anymore for some reason. There are about a hundred different reasons for this, most of which are a lot of hot air. These days, they need a human agent to get things done. Some Cat-spirit or another chose Tawny for some reason - I have my suspicions about that belt-buckle of hers, though - and it granted her powers in keeping with its feline nature. That’s the way that it goes with the Imbued - the powers they get reflect the magical nature of their patron. Nature spirits aren’t big on electricity or abilities to affect high technology, Earth spirits don’t grant the ability to fly or create storms, Winter spirits don’t give you the ability to control fire, and so on.”
“And what about the Golden Knight?”
“CAL?” Miss Wickham laughed. “Oh, he’s as mundane as Toledo on a Wednesday night! Oh, he’s what we call a ‘Science Hero’. All of his ‘powers’ are tied up in that fancy high-tech rig of his. He’s a good man, and all the more the hero for not having those powers, but he’s nothing special, beyond a genius brain and a lion’s heart!”
Stacy suddenly felt very uncomfortable. “So… are there ANY mutants in SPECTRUM?”
Miss Wickham shook her head. “No. Just you. It’s not that we have a rule against it, it’s just… Well, Cincinnati is a real city, but it’s not New York or Los Angeles or even Chicago. Also, this region isn’t exactly what you’d call… welcoming… to mutants. I think that those mutants who… arise - I think that’s the word - in this region either try to lay as low as they can, or they move on, or they get picked up by the MCO, or they go supervillain or berserk.”
Stacy shrank into her chair. “Why do people get so weirded out by mutants?” she asked in a very small voice. “I mean, it’s not like I… we try to become mutants… And guys with Dynamorphs and the ones who are Imbued and like that are just as weird and powerful as we are…”
Miss Wickham paused and mulled over her answer for a long while. “I’ve read a lot on that very topic. Most of it was pure gas, written by flaming racists justifying their bigotry. Mind you, there ARE people who get weirded out by non-mutant supers, especially the Imbued. I think that part of it is that you can ‘turn off’ a Dynamorph or an Origin hero. They have triggers and limitations and bans and weaknesses that are innate to their condition. You can take away a power gem. Mutants, on the other hand, can’t be turned off. They don’t need power items or super suits or anything like that. You can’t take their powers away from them, because their powers are a part of them.
“But, beyond that… I think that there’s this sense that mutants are a whole other race. Origin heroes, Dyna-hosts, Experiments, even the Imbued - we’re all still basically human. People assume that our fundamental loyalty is still to the human race. But mutants? Mutants make people feel… inferior. There’s this real ‘Us/ Them’ mentality at work. Worse, mutation was identified as a source of paranormal powers in the early 1960s, when World War Two had only been over for less than twenty years. The idea of people claiming to be a ‘Master Race’ pushed a LOT of hot buttons. And there was ‘The Next Master Race’, a rabble-rousing book that claimed that mutants felt an instinctive need to displace humanity as the dominant race on Earth, along with a lot of other claptrap that pushed at the ‘New Nazi’ button with a jackhammer. It was complete pseudo-scientific garbage, but it was a best seller for years, and sadly, it influenced a lot of the way that people see mutants. And, worse, there were small groups of mutants who agreed with all of that tripe, and did stupid things like try to hijack nuclear weapons to try and trigger World War III, which they figured would only be survived by mutants.
“Most of that has died down. All but the most psychotic of Mutant Supremacists realize they can’t simply get rid of six billion-plus human beings, just like that. Unfortunately, the other side of the equation doesn’t seem to realize that.”
Stacy sipped at her tea, absorbing all of that. George had been particularly loud when he started ranting about mutants. George hated mutants just as much as he hated fags and communists and Muslim terrorists. Then it occurred to Stacy that she didn’t really have to worry about what George thought anymore. She took a deep drink of her tea and cast about for a new topic. “So… what are you?”
Miss Wickham leaned back in her chair, a pussycat smile on her lips. “I’m a witch.”
Stacy blinked. “You’re a witch.”
“That’s what I said.”
Stacy thought about that real hard. “You’re real young to be a witch.”
“Who says that you have to be old to be a witch?”
“Don’t you have to… y’know… study… like… for YEARS? And go t’ someplace like Tibet or sum’thin’, or like that to become a witch? And yer awful powerful to be a witch… I mean, I think that most super-heroines who call themselves a witch are actually somethin’ else, right?”
Miss Wickham sipped at her tea with some relish. “Those are all quite valid points, dear. I am what’s called a ‘Legacy Witch’. Now, I’m sure that you’ve read stories or seen movies where power seems to be handed down in a family from one generation to the next. That’s more or less what happened.” Karen could see the incomprehension on Stacy’s face. <sigh> “Let me see… there’s a money analogy that often works… Think of magical power as being rather like money. Most people create a minor amount of magic, but squander it in their daily lives through pointless dreaming or ineffective wishing, or to thousands of subtle invisible magical predators.”
“Sort of like a truck driver frittering away his salary and living paycheck to paycheck?” Stacy offered, thinking of George, who was a truck dispatcher, but had a truck driver mentality.
“Very good. But others manage to save away some of this magical power, and like money in a savings account, it begins to accrue interest and grow. After careful cultivation, the magical power is great enough that the individuals who have done so are able to do things with only the interest.”
“Never dip into capital?” Stacy asked wryly.
“Ah, I see that you do understand that much. Yes, financial terms work quite well explaining this. You have profit generating ventures, investments, loans, fund-sharing arrangements and so on. Oh yes, and good old-fashioned fraud, embezzlement and theft. At any rate, like money, there are ways of gaining this ‘seed money’. You can save it up a little at a time. You can gamble for it - with pretty much the same odds of winning, I might add. You can fight other mages for it. You can swindle it out of someone… OR-” Karen took a melodramatic pause to sip her tea. “-you can inherit it. I inherited my power - and many of my tools, this house, and a great big pot of MONEY from my grandmother.”
“Okay, and where did SHE get all that from?”
Karen set her tea down and gave out a gusty sigh. “Well, circumstances dictate that you already know my secret identity, so there’s no harm in you knowing the whole story.” She got up and walked over to bookcase, where a bust of Shakespeare rested. “Earlier, you made a remark about ‘Stately Wayne Manor’?”
Stacy flashed on the old 1960s ‘Batman’ show that she’d see on ‘TVLand’, the Nickelodeon channel that showed old sitcoms and TV shows. “Oh, you’ve GOT to be kidding.”
“Nope!” Karen said chipperly. “I first came into my Legacy in the late 1960s, and I just had to do this.” She flipped the head of the bust back, revealing a knob. She turned the knob, and a section of the wall paneling slid into a recess, revealing a single firehouse-style pole.
“No Way…” Stacy breathed.
“Way!” Karen sang.
Stacy looked down the shaft, and indeed, it went way down, far past where she could make out. “Why the pole? I mean, with your powers, couldn’t you just, y’know, float down?”
“Of course I could!” Karen took a hold of the pole. “But where’s the fun in THAT?” With a whoop, she slid down the pole. Stacy waited a bit and jumped onto the pole. She slid WAY down, and finally hit a cushion at the bottom.
The pole chute opened up into a vast underground chamber that immediately reminded Stacy of the TV ‘Bat-cave’. But the impression immediately dissolved like a morning mist with her second look. The Bat-cave was all high-tech (by 1960s standards), with lots of metal and chrome and something that suspiciously resembled what they probably thought a nuclear reactor should look like. All that this place had in common was the wide-open area and the naked rock. Most of the area was covered in polished wood and carpets. The entire cavern radiated out from a large natural pool in the center. From the steam that wafted up from the water, Stacy guessed that it was a natural hot spring. There were areas where there was strange equipment with odd mystical-looking runes everywhere, which Stacy guessed were Miss Wickham’s magical labs. They were interspersed with other, more mundane looking areas. There was an odd… fuzziness… that Stacy could just barely make out about them. There was an area with exercise equipment like a Nautilus, a Bowflex, parallel bars, uneven bars, gymnasts’ rings, a punching bag, a speed bag and a wooden martial arts sparring dummy. There was an area that looked a lot more like the CSI labs that she’d seen on TV. There was an area that had glass cases, which were full of odd things. There was a tall portrait of an elegant woman who looked out mockingly at the cave. And across from the portrait was a large gleaming steel vault door. One section was full of books, which had a stairway up to a mezzanine that ran all the way around the cavern, which was also full of books.
“Well,” Miss Wickham said in a declamatory tone, “welcome to my Witch’s Lair!”
“Wow! How did you get all of this down here?”
“To be honest, I didn’t. Most of the woodwork was installed over a hundred years ago. I, ah, upgraded it a bit in the past few decades. And that took a lot of work, money, and the judicious use of ‘Forget’ and false memory spells.”
“What’s with the pool of hot water?”
“Ah!” Karen all but glowed. “THAT is the Pool of Vigor. That is the reason why not only this chamber, but the house up above was built here in the first place. The Pool of Vigor is a source of great magical power. Bathing in its waters helps the body heal from disease and injury. As you can imagine, it’s been a huge advantage in keeping my secret identity. It can be pretty da- danged hard to keep explaining mysterious cuts, bruises and broken limbs. Superheroing is hardly what you’d call a ‘low-risk endeavor’. Goes a long way towards easing the passage of years, too. Besides making my booboos all better, I also tap into the pool’s power to help with my various efforts in Alchemy, Conjuring, Enchantment and Scrying.” She indicated each of the various areas by with a gesture. “And, of course, there’s the gym, crime files, the obligatory crime lab, my *ahem!* ‘private library’, and of course, the Trophy Room.”
“You mean you actually take trophies from the villains you beat?”
“More to the point, the Police or the Mayor sometimes gives me one of these things, and what can you do? They’re Gifts! Mind you, I haven’t run into anything involving giant pennies yet. Thank God, it would be a nightmare getting it down here.”
“And who’s she?” Stacy pointed at the large painting. “That grandmother you told me about?”
“Oh, Heavens Above, NO!” Miss Wickham responded. “That’s Lady Jettatura, my arch-enemy! Or at least… she’s the nastiest villain that I’ve personally faced. I think that I run well after the Magus as HER arch-enemy. And Dr. Merlin. And Reverend Englund. And the Golden Mandarin. And…” Karen let that trail off, reluctantly allowing that while she might be the predominant practitioner of the Mystic Arts in Cincinnati, on a global scale, she was pretty small taters. “Anyway, she’s a dark mage of great age, great power and great evil. She’s given me a world of trouble over the past couple of decades. She’s decided that I’d make for an excellent donor for essence. And she wouldn’t mind taking possession of the pool. Or what’s behind that door.” She pointed at the steel vault door, which was on precisely the opposite side of the chamber from the portrait. Indeed, the woman’s painted visage seemed to be smirking right at the vault door.
“And what’s in there?” Stacy fed Miss Wickham her leading question.
“In there are the, *ahem!* ‘trophies’ that I can’t safely store out in plain sight. Things like cursed masks, demonically possessed dolls, Deathrune’s power ring, the Nighthag’s Ba Stone, Devil-Tiger’s power talisman, Lord Balefire’s Hellsword, the Troll Bride’s wedding rings - stuff like that. Stacy, for your own sake, DO NOT GO IN THERE.”
Stacy had the nagging feeling that she should know those names, for her own sake. Then a thought struck her. “Uhm, ‘scuze me… but isn’t it sorta… asking for it… to have a picture of this bigtime badass dark witch, just lookin’ straight AT that vault? I mean, I don’t know nothin’ about magic, but that just strikes me like waving a red flag at her, sayin’, ‘Lookie what I got!’”
Karen stifled a snicker. “Ah, you picked up on that? Good for you, dear, good for you! Come; let’s take a closer look.” As Stacy got a better look, she decided that Lady Jettatura looked like Audrey Hepburn’s nasty older sister. She was beautiful and refined with regal angular features, but she looked down her sharp nose as if she’d been born to sneer in amused disdain at the rest of the world. “When Lady Jettatura first came to Cincinnati, she was planning to take this place over and use it as her base of operations in the US. She had a local portraitist paint this - how’s that for vanity and arrogance? She gave me a run for my money, but I - and Cal and Red Thunder and Violet - sent her packing. I sensed that she’d treated the canvas of this painting for some purpose, but the artist hadn’t had time to finish it - you’ll notice that some of the background details are still just sketched in - so she hadn’t had a chance to properly enchant it. I pegged her as the sort who’d keep coming back until she got what she wanted, and I knew that I couldn’t keep up the wards that hid this place from her forever. So, this painting was a godsend. It’s an excellent likeness of her, painted by a true artist who was working from the living model, and putting certain mystic dimensions into the painting. So, I added a little something of my own. Look at the spot on her forehead, just above her nose.”
Stacy peered closely at the painting. “What’s that funny mark on her forehead?”
Karen stopped in mid-gesture. “Oh, you can see it? Well, THAT is the Enochian word for ‘Blindness’. I wrote it over where her ‘third eye’ should be. That image that Jettatura created of herself is a sort of surrogate for her. So, by the Laws of Magic, with that word written over her third eye, in this place she is effectively blind. This is one place on Earth where she is magically incapable of scrying into.”
Stacy nodded. “So, by pointing that blinded painting so’s it’s always looking at the vault, the vault is something that she can never find, no matter how hard she looks for it?”
Karen smiled. “Ah, so you picked up on that? Very good!” Karen paused and took a moment to look at Stacy. “Yes, very good indeed.” She filed the thought away for another time. “But we’ve gone rather far afield. We came down here to find out about the Wickham Legacy. Come.” Karen walked over to a wooden door with a rounded top, set into a stonework arch that had something that Stacy couldn’t read set into each stone. Karen produced three latchkeys, inserted them all at once, and turned them in some special sequence. Karen pushed the door open and turned on a light switch. Behind the door was a hallway with overhead lights shining on seven portraits, three on each side and one at the very end. Displayed in front of the painting at the very end was a large book on a pedestal. Karen walked up to the book and laid a hand on it. It was a big old book, bound in thick black leather, with belt-like straps that held it closed with fancy iron buckles. The book was secured by twelve colored ribbons, six binding the length and six binding the width, and they were all sealed with wax that had strange markings on them. The book was fastened to the pedestal by four thick lengths of chain. “THIS is the Wickham Legacy. This book is what’s called an ‘Agrippa’, which is a hideous slander on the good name of Heinrich Agrippa, a German occultist. An Agrippa isn’t a Grimoire, which is just a book of spells and occult lore. An Agrippa is a minor demon bound into the shape of a book. Besides occult lore, Agrippas give their owners infernal power to work their magic.
“But the Wickham Legacy is more than that. The Wickham Legacy is an Infernal Pact that was signed some four hundred years ago by my great-great… er, by my ancestress, Anne Wickham in Keswick, England in the late 1600s.” Karen walked over to one of the portraits, this one portraying a dowdy looking elderly woman in homespun clothing with pouchy cheeks and a long nose. “Great to the seventh power grandmother Anne. The tale goes that Anne here had just lost her husband and eldest son to a disease. She had three daughters to raise, none of them older than ten, her older sons were at sea, they were massively in debt, and one of the neighbors had his eye on the family farm. She, so the story goes, was sitting on the front porch lamenting her fate when a traveling peddler comes walking down the path.” Karen turned back to the painting over the padlocked book. The painting depicted a careworn-looking man in brown homespun clothing of the period with a well-laden knapsack on his back. His face was long and doleful with a beak of a nose and a small mouth. And yet, there was something about his eyes, a mixed air of predatory intensity and malicious glee that belied his woebegone mien. Under the figures’ feet was the legend, ‘Ye Forelorne Peddelar’.
“The story that I heard has a lot of fairy tale style back and forth dialogue with Granny Anne suspecting that there’s a lot more to this peddler and the Peddler never quite copping to it. Long story short, the Peddler cuts Gran a deal for magical power. But Granny Anne wasn’t dumb enough to sell her soul outright. No, she insisted on hammering out a deal where she could buy back the Peddler’s claim on her soul with Grace.”
“Stacy, you may have noticed that you feel better, and sometimes you suddenly get lucky breaks when you do the right thing. In Asia, they call this ‘good karma’. In Europe, they call it ‘Grace’. Basically, what the Peddler did was, he set up sort of a ‘magical line of credit’ for Granny Anne and her children. They could draw on the power of whatever Hell the Peddler was working for-”
“There’s more than one Hell?” Stacy asked, incredulous.
“We’re not really sure,” Karen admitted. “It’s one of those ‘optical illusion’ things- when you look at it one way, there’s one hell; you deal with one demon and you’re dealing with them all. But then you look at it another way and suddenly you’re looking at the Thousand Hells that the Chinese talk about. Anyway, Granny Anne and her daughters could draw on the power of Hell. BUT they had to pay back every bit of it, with interest, in Grace. The Peddler let Anne make the provision that she could pass the magical power, the soul-debt and the pact down to her descendents, down to the seventh generation. Each generation that accepted the pact accepted both the power and the debt. But here’s the catch: if, by the seventh generation, the entire soul-debt, including the interest and the whole schmeer, ISN’T paid off, then the Peddler gets everything: magic, grace, luck, money, magic items, debts owed both fiscal and mystic, and, oh yes, all seven of their souls. The whole shebang.”
“And… you’re the seventh generation?”
“Pretty much, but there’s more to it.” Karen pointed at the book. “The Peddler gave Granny Anne this book, which was the source of all her magic. He also gave her this-”
Karen unlocked a cabinet worked into the wall. Inside the cabinet was a large birdcage dangling from a hook. Inside the birdcage was a small golden-haired girl of maybe five or so, bruised and filthy. The girl looked at Stacy with tragic eyes and mewled, “Please? Please let me out? I’ll be good!”
“Oh, Please!” Karen zapped the ‘girl’ with a pointed finger, and the heartbreaking moppet sort of dissolved into an ugly gnarled figure that glowered back at them. “That’s Granny Anne’s imp. He’s part of the way that the Peddler kept tabs on Granny Anne and her descendents. He gave me a hell of a time, before I figured out what he was.” Karen shut the cabinet and locked it again. “I only showed you that, so you know what you’re dealing with.”
Karen returned to the portrait of Anne Wickham. “Anyway, Anne used her new charms to seduce the neighbor who had his eyes on the Wickham family property. The neighbor married her, adopted her kids and even took the Wickham name. That’s important, all the Wickham Witches have used the Wickham name; it was part of the contract. She trained her daughters in the use of the craft, and they tried to pay off the debt with good works and such. They also used their power to hijack the power of other witches, so that they had magic of their own that wasn’t beholden to the Peddler. But even so, all in her own good time, Granny Anne shuffled off this mortal coil.
“Her daughter Catherine took over the legacy,” Karen moved to another portrait, this of a rather dour-looking woman in the sort of clothes that Stacy associated with the Pilgrims, “and almost immediately found herself in a pack of trouble. James the First, sometimes called ‘the Witch Burner’ had come to the throne of both England and Scotland. Catherine’s husband was accused of witchcraft and condemned. Catherine and her daughters took to their heels and Holland. There she fell in with some malcontent Puritans, and took the name ‘Prudence’. Prudence used her wiles and magic to seduce one of the Puritans. They sailed for the New World colonies - NOT on the Mayflower, thank you very much! - and Prudence set up shop in Massachusetts, doing pretty much what Granny Anne had done in Keswick. Mind you, she wasn’t quite as scrupulous about keeping that soul-debt down as her mother was. Still, she did prefer to use the magic that she wrestled away from other witches and sorcerers, rather than dip into the dark power of the Agrippa.
“But even with all the kafuffle about Salem, the rest of the New World colonies were damned suspicious about Witchcraft. After Prudence died, her granddaughter Esther moved the operation to Buffalo, New York - or at any rate a township that would eventually get absorbed into Buffalo - and she tried to keep up the Wickham tradition as best she could.” Karen moved along to a portrait of a prosperous - if unhappy - looking woman in the cap and gown that Stacy associated with the American Revolution. “Now here’s where it gets nasty.”
“You mean, it hasn’t been nasty already?”
“Not like this!” Karen assured her. “Granny Esther, like Anne and Prudey before her, had daughters and sons, and taught her daughters the Craft. The sons hoed the fields. They mostly used the more wholesome nature and elemental based magics that they won from or traded with other magic users to do their business. Mind you, they were still racking up soul-debt, but other than that, their witch business was still coming along nicely. Unfortunately, Granny Esther’s youngest daughter, Isobel, wasn’t happy. Unlike Anne and Prudence, Esther had been brought up as a wealthy man’s daughter, and she raised her daughters as rich man’s daughters. In other words, Isobel, being the youngest, was a spoiled brat.
“She wanted more. I personally suspect that the Peddler came to her and whispered things in her ear that she liked. Things like how she was owed more power and recognition. I suspect that the Peddler may have had a hand in both Granny Prudy’s and Granny Esther’s problems as well.”
“Why? They were pretty much working for HIM, right?”
Karen gave Stacy a wry lopsided smile. “Stacy, have you ever heard of a demon who was happy with a FAIR deal? He has a chance of getting EVERYTHING, and by now, he probably figures that everything is nothing less than his due!” Karen walked over to a portrait of a very handsome woman with a hard mien wearing a gown that looked to date about the Civil War. “Isobel was the youngest of the three daughters, and she managed to *ahem!* ‘arrange’ the deaths of her two older sisters in ‘accidents’. Then poor Granny Sadie just suddenly upped and died in her sleep, poor soul.”
Stacy blanched. “You mean… Isobel killed her own mother?”
“Pretty much,” Karen said with a weary voice. “Mind you, the other magic users in the area weren’t fooled, not for a second. Isobel sold what she could, and lit out as quick as she could and headed west. She went as far west as she felt safe doing and set up shop here in Cincinnati. She found herself a wealthy husband quickly and set about making herself rich and powerful. Oh, and her husband, too. Isobel’s first and greatest acquisition was this property,” Karen waved around, indicating the cavern. “When she took control of the pool out there in the main cavern, Isobel not only got a source of renewable magical power, but she gained a means of extending her life - and her youth - almost indefinitely. Bathing in that pool cures diseases, fends off things like strokes, gout, cirrhosis, arterial sclerosis, arthritis, and a whole lot of other aches and pains, and generally staves off the advance of aging. Mind you, a good dip in there also does wonders for the bruises and breaks that I pick up superheroing.
“Anyway, between the Pool of Vigor and the Agrippa, Isobel had the clout to rip off the magic of every medicine man, minor lodge, wise woman, hedge witch, fortune-teller and powwow doctor in the region. She gathered an impressive collection of occult texts, magical items, and formulae for various potions, balms and so forth. She also made her husband a very rich and powerful man - as long as he remembered who was really in control. Now here’s the catch. Isobel was the youngest daughter, and Granny Sadie taught her the basics of the Craft as a matter of course. But Granny Sadie only taught the really major things - like the true nature of the Pact - to her eldest daughter. So, when she took control of the Legacy, Isobel didn’t know about repaying the debt with Grace, or that it was a good idea to keep from borrowing power from the Agrippa. She thought that the Black Book was this bottomless well of magical power and lore. And, well, she thought that the Legacy protected her from the consequences of her actions somehow.” Karen scowled at the prim visage in the portrait. “IDIOT!”
Karen took a deep breath and continued. “Give the idiot bitch her due, she was a damned good businesswoman, and it can hardly be said that Cincinnati withered under influence. She married and was widowed three times, and she had nine children without losing her figure. Still, it can be said that her second husband, who was fifty at the time, showed an unseemly enthusiasm for going off to fight in the Civil War. As did her sons and grandsons. It appears that Granny Isobel ran her household like a cross between the ‘Addams Family’ and ‘Dynasty’. She was ruthless, and she didn’t have a lot of patience with children who weren’t useful to her.
“Granny Isobel racked up a HUGE soul-debt, but she did lay the foundation for the Wickham fortune. She built the immediate predecessor to the house up above us over this cavern so that she could always have access to the pool. And she made sure that the Wickham family would be an important player in Cincinnati area politics. And she kept this up for a little over ninety years-”
“Yep. And probably would’a kept it up even longer, but one night she just upped and died in her sleep. Her eldest – surviving - daughter, Jezebel-” Karen pointed at a portrait of a haughty looking woman in maybe her sixties in high Victorian dress.
“Jezebel?” Stacy hooted, “She named her own daughter ‘Jezebel’?”
“Tell me about it. Anyway, Jezebel here said that it was a heart attack, pure and simple, and people lined up around the block to agree with her. Jezebel inherited the Legacy, and business went on as usual. While Jezebel may not have been the walking nightmare that Granny Isobel was, she still grew up in a very hard school. Still, she did focus less on extending her power, as Isobel had, and more on keeping what she’d already inherited. Not that she couldn’t be downright evil when she wanted to be, but she hadn’t been allowed to develop those acquisitive habits while Mommy Dearest had been alive. Unlike Isobel, who’d been in her late teens when she took over and in her late twenties when she gained the Pool of Vigor, Jezebel only gained the power of the pool in her late fifties. So, she only lasted about thirty-five years, and popped off on Black Friday in 1929.
“Well, maybe her granddaughter, Belinda here, had something to do with it.” Karen moved on to another portrait of a smug-looking, sixtyish woman in a pink Eisenhower-era outfit who smirked out at them. “Despite that start, Belinda didn’t really have the killer instinct that Isobel had shown. She was a hard taskmaster, but she was more interested in keeping a low profile and coping with the changing times. And she had two problems to contend with. First, Granny Jezebel never told her about the Pool of Vigor. So, Belinda didn’t know how Granny Isobel and Granny Jezebel extended their lives so long, which meant that she aged right along with the rest of us.
“Her second problem was her family, especially her eldest daughter, Maribel. Like Granny Isobel, Granny Jezebel had run the Wickham family with all the gentle care of a prison warden, and Belinda was stuck with a large extended family that acted more like a pack of starveling wolves than loving kin. Worse, while the extended family knew that Belinda had magic, and was teaching her daughters the Craft, they didn’t know the details of the Legacy. So, there was a lot of pushing and wheedling for Belinda to cut Maribel off and pass her power onto their favorite daughter, whoever she might be at the moment. Worse, Belinda, being wary of what she’d done to her mother and her mother to Granny Isobel, hadn’t even informed Maribel or her other daughters of the nature of the Legacy. Maribel conceived the idea that Granny Anne was somehow passing her spirit down through the generations, passing from mother to daughter to granddaughter. And she had NO intention of switching bodies with her mother and dying an old woman before her time.
“When World War II broke out, Maribel ran away from home, changed her name, joined the WAACS, and met my father. They married when the war ended and became just another young couple in the Post-War boom. But it didn’t take that long for Granny Belinda to find them. But it was too late - Maribel, or just Mary as she was known, had sworn an oath forsaking the Legacy in all its particulars. BUT her oath hadn’t included her daughter - namely, ME. She thought that by forsaking the Legacy, she was cutting off the line, and that one of her sisters would be only too glad to take up the power when Granny Belinda died.
“It didn’t turn out that way. The pact was that the Legacy would pass from one generation to the eldest daughter of the eldest daughter, and the Peddler was determined to keep his word - to the Letter.
“In 1964, when I was 17, my mother died, and a lawyer from my Grandmother approached me. He told me that my Grandmother wanted to mend the bridges that my mother had burned. I moved from Los Angeles to Cincinnati and moved into this house. It was… well… bizarre. My Grandmother was bedridden, and she tried to keep the family minding their manners as best she could. It was all very… ‘Eugene O’Neill in the Twilight Zone’… She taught me a few of the basics of the Craft, and kept the relations off my back as best she could. Mind you, Granny Belinda wasn’t a nice person, but in order to keep faith with the Legacy - or at least what she understood of it, she needed to pass it along to me.
“A little over a year after I came to live here in Wickham house, Granny Belinda died. In her will, she dictated that I would inherit everything, the whole shooting match, IF I changed my name to Wickham and accepted the Legacy. Figuring that I’d need the both the money AND magical power to keep the other Wickhams off my back - and, hey, let’s face it, I wasn’t immune to greed myself - I accepted. I took control of all the Wickham investments, both mystic and financial, and put the fear of God - or should I say, ME - into Godfrey, Winifred and Lucille, the worst of the wolves. But I needed some information that I couldn’t find in any of the books, so on All Hallows Eve, despite all sorts of obstacles, I summoned up the shade of Granny Belinda. BOY, did I get more than I bargained for!
“Instead of just Granny Belinda, I found myself faced with all SIX of the Wickham Grandmothers! They’d been in Limbo all that time, constrained from contacting any of their descendents from beyond the grave by the Peddler. Granny Anne filled me in on the truth of the Legacy, and told me that for the sake of all of our souls, I had to buy out the Legacy with good works and Grace.”
“Wooof…” Stacy said in a sick voice.
“Pretty much what I said,” Karen rejoined. She let out a long sigh. “Each of the Grandmothers gave me a little something that I could use: Granny Isobel told me about this grotto, for instance. Granny Sadie gave me a way of keeping tabs on both my Soul-Debt and the amount of Grace that I was generating. So, I started out doing all the usual ‘Good Works’ stuff - charities, activism, all that. Didn’t do squat. Hell, I spent most of my time keeping those vultures that share my name from picking the meat from my bones. I think that the Peddler was playing little ‘letter of the agreement’ games.
“Then, in 1966, some idiot calling himself ‘the Hellfire King’ started pulling off a series of very nasty arsons in Dayton and Cincy. He was the same one that managed to set the Cuyahoga River on fire over in Cleveland. I had an epiphany - I could use my magical powers to stop him! I realized that superheroes must be absolute oil wells of Good Karma! Well, I managed to stop the Hellfire King - more because he just never saw me coming than any real skill that I had back then.”
“Wait a minute,” Stacy stopped Karen. “1966? You’ve been a superhero for Forty Years?”
“Yep!” Karen beamed. “Between the Pool of Vigor, a few tricks that I learned from Granny Jezebel and Granny Belinda, a few tricks of my own, and some good old-fashioned clean living, I’ve managed to stay pretty spry for an old lady, hunh?”
“And you haven’t managed to pay off the Legacy yet?”
Karen’s expression dropped. “No. Part of it’s my own fault. At first, I kept a close watch on how much Good Karma I was generating. It was damned frustrating how little was coming in, but it was still better than the ‘Good Works’ crap - which, by the way, I still keep up with. But after a while, I stopped bothering with how much Grace the things that I was doing generated, and I just started doing them for the simple reason that they should be done. And you know what? The next time that I checked the Grace, it was coming in at over four times the rate that it had before!
“Even with the Grace that I get for doing superhero stuff, whittling away at almost four centuries of witchcraft, cunning, selfishness and spite - and I’m sure that all the crap that the other Wickhams have been doing all this time also got thrown onto the heap - is damned slow business. Most of it has been digging out from the hole that THIS ONE-” Karen jabbed a finger at Isobel’s portrait, “managed to dig. IDIOT!” she snapped at the painting. Somehow, the woman in the picture seemed hurt by the name.
“Still, I’ve managed to ‘buy out’ Granny Belinda, Jezebel, and Isobel, and right about now, I figure that I’m halfway through getting Granny Sadie out of the hole. And to be honest, after Isobel, the rest is pretty much downhill. Anne, Prudence and Sadie were a LOT more cautious and circumspect about what they were doing.”
“But they still racked up this big karma debt?” Stacy asked.
“It’s the nature of the business, especially when you’re dealing with the Inferno, Stacy,” Karen said. “Believe me, there’s a reason why I went after satanic scumbags like Deathrune, the Nighthag and Lord Balefire. And Lady Jettatura, of course. I figure that paying the Peddler back with Grace won through crossing other agents of the Pit is almost the only way that I’ll ever really be able to get back at the Peddler for all the crap that he’s inspired.”
“But Karen!” Stacy objected, “You’re a superhero! Every time that you go out there, you could get KILLED! If you die before you pay off the Legacy, you’ll go to HELL!”
“Tell me something that I don’t already know,” Karen said matter-of-factly. “I may have started out being a superhero as it was the most efficient way of paying off the Legacy-debt, but in the forty years that I’ve been doing it, I’ve learned better. It’s worth doing, for its own sake. The world is a better place for my placing myself at risk. And you know what, Stacy? When I pay off the very last of the Legacy - and I WILL pay it off! - I’ll still keep going out as the Green Witch! Why? Because someone SHOULD!”
Karen walked back over to the chained book under the portrait of the demon-peddler. “Stacy, many of the people who work in the house up above know about this place, and who I really am. Keeping a secret identity is a lot harder than the comic books make it seem. The people who work with me are people who I helped as the Green Witch, and wanted to repay me, not out of any debt but simply because they knew that I was doing the right thing. But even that isn’t enough to keep my secret. Each person that I bring into my household, I bring down here, and ask them to take an oath. You don’t have to take the oath, it’s strictly voluntary; I have spells that will erase all your memories of this place and what we discussed. However, if you are to live here, I need two binding oaths from you - first is, of course, to keep the secret of my two identities and this place.”
“And the other oath?”
“That you will never, under any circumstances, ever open this book or release the creature in that cage. If anyone, and I DO mean anyone opens this book and asks anything of the demon bound into its pages, then they are tapping into the Legacy, and the karmic debt of what they do is added to the debt that I’m already repaying.”
Stacy looked at the book. Could it… somehow… make her a real girl? Then she shook the idea out of her head. How had it gotten there in the first place? “Have you had problems with that?”
“I’ll tell you a couple of stories someday - but I warn you, none of them are nice stories. The Peddler makes sure that the evil that his ‘gifts’ wreak is particularly vile and spreads as much misery and corruption as possible.” Karen had Stacy place her hand on the eerily cold book and recite an oath. While the oath was very long and very detailed, fortunately, all that it required of Stacy was that she say ‘Yes’ at the right time. At the end of the oath, there was a flurry of energy around Stacy’s hand as it rested on the book, and suddenly, it was just a normal book under her touch. Karen smiled at her. “That wasn’t just a promise. Now, it is impossible for you to open that book and look inside it, let alone use any magical power it might loan you. And remember this Stacy: the Pit never GIVES power away - it only loans it, and it charges an interest that you don’t want to pay.”
That done, Karen showed Stacy around the ‘Witch-cave’ for a bit, before she took her up the spiral staircase that was the way back up to the mansion above. Looking up at the imposing flights of stairs, Karen said, “THIS we can fly.”
Stacy was surprised - and gratified - to learn that she’d be home schooled. Part of it was because the tutor that Karen hired for the basic stuff - Math, English, History, Spanish - was very good. Another part was that Stacy was just picking up what people meant a lot more easily now. And she just remembered a lot better. And numbers didn’t seem as hard as they used to.
And there was another girl who lived at Wickham House, named Lauren Copely. Lauren was the daughter of a couple who worked at the mansion, a groundskeeper and one of the assistant cooks. The mansion was very large, with extensive grounds, and required a large staff to keep in shape. Lauren was barely one year older than Stacy and went to an expensive private school as part of her parents’ benefits package, and she knew all about Miz Wickham and the Legacy and all that. She’d even been down in the cave and taken the oath. Stacy and Lauren quickly became friends. Lauren was eaten up from nose back with curiosity about Stacy, and she helped Stacy get settled in. Hanging out with Lauren was like being a real girl to Stacy, just like she’d always wanted to do back in Oakwood, but never dared.
Still, as nice as it would have been to just hang out at Wickham House, Stacy was the ward of all the SPECTRUM heroes. They decided that they’d take a hand in Stacy’s education, on top of her tutoring. Cal, the guy behind the Golden Knight, taught her Math, Science and Electronics. Azure took over Grammar and Literature, though Violet insisted on handling Poetry for some reason. Red Thunder taught her First Aid and how to act in a disaster situation.
Captain Patriot insisted on teaching her American History and Civil Affairs. The Captain had an interesting way of looking at American History. It wasn’t the ‘Afro-centric’ stuff that Stacy had heard about, but it was rather a sort of ‘warts and all’ version of History, instead of the glossy, magazine article version of history that she’d had so far.
“Ah, Cap?” she asked after a session about George Washington. “Howcum you do the whole ‘super patriot’ thing? I mean, you sure don’t need ME to point out that Blacks have gotten royally reamed by America, going back to before the Revolution! So, howcum you wave the flag so much?”
“Stacy,” he began his deep voice settling in for a long talk, “as you point out, Blacks HAVE gotten reamed throughout American history. But, we have been there through all of American history, as you said, going back to before the Revolution. We have EARNED our place at the table! But, you see, you can’t ASK to be allowed at the table; you have to go up and claim your rights on your own. Despite all the efforts of the last fifty years, African-Americans have largely been shoved off into their own group. And this is wrong. When I gained my powers, I thought about identifying myself as a ‘black hero’. But I decided that these colors were a more powerful statement. I may be an African American, but, first and foremost, I am an AMERICAN!
“I make the statement that African-Americans are Americans, not some bizarre grafted-on appendage. Stacy, I love this country. I don’t love it for what it IS, or was it has done; I love it for what it CAN BE. If America has a single redeeming virtue, it is that from the very beginning, we have defined ourselves as a growing and maturing nation. We accept that we will make mistakes. We accept that we occasionally will be in the wrong. We accept that things will not always be as they have been. We focus on the FUTURE, and we strive to make that future as bright as it possibly can be. I enjoy freedoms and liberties such as my grandfather couldn’t have dreamed of, and my father only saw the beginnings of. My children and grandchildren may look back at me, and wonder at my courage for enduring such oppression as I do, much as I look back at my grandfather and marvel at HIS courage.
“When I put on this uniform, I recite the Pledge of Allegiance. It is not a promise of loyalty to me. It is an affirmation of what I fight for - the Republic, one nation under God, with Liberty and Justice FOR ALL. THAT is what I fight for - Liberty And Justice For All!”
Stacy wondered if she was expected to salute when he talked like that.
A week after she arrived, Karen took Stacy and Lauren out to buy some new clothes. “You’re going to need some good clothes,” Karen said with a sigh.
“Well, you’d need some new things, and some good outfits anyway, but you’re going to have to be presentable when you meet the family.”
“Family?” Stacy asked, unsure. “Do I have to?” She wasn’t sure that she was up to dealing with high society people. Heck, she was just getting used to living in that big fancy house and being around the SPECTRUM heroes.
“Yes, you do,” Karen said firmly. “The family will have heard about me taking you in, and trying to keep you hidden will only make things worse.”
“Yeah,” Lauren said confidentially, “the Wickhams are something else. Better you than me.”
Three weeks later, Karen was wearing the nicest outfit that she’d ever even seen in person, and was wishing that she was back in Oakwood, George and all. The Wickhams were a family of over twenty adults, maybe that again in teenagers, and a few more kids. Only twelve of them, eight adults and four teenagers, showed up for dinner, but from what Stacy was picking up, they were the nastiest of the bunch. They were sleek and high-class, but high-class in the way that makes ordinary working folks scared to talk to them. And Stacy got the impression that they liked it that way. Karen brought Stacy in to meet them all when they were assembled in the lounge, waiting to be taken in to dinner. Stacy picked up from… something… just a sense that they’d been picking at each other. But the second that Karen introduced her as the girl that she’d taken in, the Wickhams sort of fell in, like a pack of wolves drawing together against an outside threat.
One of them, a glossy-looking blonde glamour-puss broke from the pack and greeted Stacy with this big plastic grin, saying how nice it was to have someone new in the house. Like she was living there. She wanted to, and she wanted her husband to inherit the house and as much of the Wickham fortune as he possibly could. She regarded Stacy as a threat, to her, to her husband, to her daughter, and most especially to their chances of winning big in the inheritance sweepstakes. Of course, she didn’t SAY that, but Stacy was picking up on her, loud and clear.
Karen led the family in for dinner, and all through the meal, the Wickhams were at Karen for clues about Stacy. Why was Stacy living at Wickham house? Had Karen adopted her? Was she in line to inherit? Had Karen set up some kind of trust fund for Stacy, and if so how much? Stacy got that ‘pack of wolves’ image again, with the added image that the wolves thought that Stacy was getting between them and their meat. Karen deftly parried their questions, and Stacy didn’t know WHAT Karen had in mind, so she just answered as honestly as she could, without blowing Karen’s cover as a superhero. It was sort of like some of those really intense soap operas that her mother watched, with the Wickhams trying to ferret out any little tidbit that they could use to their advantage.
After dinner, Karen went off with the adults, letting the ‘young folks hang out’. ‘Hanging out’ wasn’t exactly what the Wickham kids had in mind. Matthew, Justin, Megan and Ashley didn’t seem to like each other much, and they weren’t into the Inheritance Game as much as the adults, but Stacy still posed a threat. At least, that’s how Justin, Megan and Ashley saw it. Matthew was more interested in peeking down Stacy’s cleavage, and figuring out how she’d react to getting squeezed into a corner. Megan and Ashley played ‘good cop/ bad cop’, and tried to get Stacy to say something that they could use against her. Justin just slouched in a chair and resented the fact that the old folks were hogging the liquor cabinet all for themselves.
When the evening wound down, some of the Wickhams went home steaming about the new complication in their lives. Others were still playing the game, even as they were out the door. Watching the last of the poisonous crew leave, Stacy said, “Wow, Karen, your family is…”
“Yes,” Karen sighed with a smile. “They’ve really improved in the last forty years!”
October 8th, 2006
Nobody saw them coming, but then, nobody ever did. They took great care that it was this way. They came in separately, in thirty-two separate units, and they didn’t do anything to attract a lot of attention to themselves. They spent most of their time making absolutely sure that their unit was properly positioned and oriented, and that there were no obstructions. Some of the units that they positioned were disguised as cars. Some were disguised as dumpsters. A few were disguised as storage locker modules. And a few were disguised as locked port-a-potties. None of them looked like dangerous exotic technology. All together, they created a rough misshapen circle surrounding the heart of the Cincinnati metropolitan core, with a few units covering some of the richer neighborhoods in Hamilton County.
It took three hours, but they got everything set in place, and when the last team called in, the Mission Commander sent a message.
Over a thousand miles to the south, in a secret base somewhere in Venezuela, a woman turned to her employer. “Protoplasmik reports that all units are in place and charging. 29 units respond at 100%, 2 respond at 90%+, and one responds at 80%+.”
“Very good,” answered a brusque voice with a mild Eastern European accent. “Tell Protoplasmik to recall the Advance Guard and reconfigure them into First Strike teams. Then alert all troops that launch is go… in five minutes and counting.”
Cal was having Stacy double up her Math and Electronics homework by helping him do routine maintenance on the communications and observation gear. It was fiddling little work, but Stacy found that if she concentrated, she could sort of ‘see’ things, even if they were hidden by another component or something like that. Cal said that she was a great help, and she got the warm fuzzy feeling that he wasn’t shining her on. Cal was on a pallet, under one of the consoles, doing some fine work. “Okay, Stacy, let’s run through the observation array. Keep track of the settings I give you. Okay, I think that I’ve got that glitch cornered… hit it.”
Stacy started running through the various locations that the SPECTRUM cameras covered, looked at the result on the monitors, and let Cal know what she saw.
At NORAD at Peterson AFB just outside Colorado Springs, a Technical Sergeant called out, “Ma’am! We have multiple launches into orbital space from 5.7o latitude/ 66.42o longitude!”
“Where is that?”
“The Guiana Highlands of Venezuela, about 250 miles south by southeast from Caracas!”
“Contact the Venezuelan Air Force, and ask what they know about those things. That is, if they’ll talk to us. In the mean time, I want to know where those birds are headed…”
“Sir, we have achieved orbit, all vehicles are functioning, and drop ship #6 is back in formation.”
“Very good. Are we being monitored?”
“We confirm that we are being tracked by several surface and orbital services, including NORAD.”
“Good. I’d be surprised if we weren’t. How are the synthoids coming along?”
“We have the first and second wave reconstituted and operational. The third wave is 70% reconstituted, and the rear guard is being prepped for reconstitution. The first and second wave of wardogs are in their pods and ready to be dropped,”
“Not perfect, but well on within mission perimeters. Launch the Core Broadcast Pylon and the decoys, in the usual patterns.”
“Ma’am, I have Venezuela Air Command. They say that there are over twenty birds, and they didn’t launch any of them. Jamaican and Cuban Air Commands confirm the estimate, and best guess trajectory should put them in a striking zone for between latitudes 350 and 500 North. They’re in an orbital blind spot, so our best guess is that the target zone could be anywhere from the Rockies to the Black Sea.”
“Lieutenant, alert NATO and all relevant Services that someone’s launching an orbital strike of some sort-”
“Ma’am, the birds are still flying, but they’ve sent some sort of preliminary drops at targets in the North-East quadrant of the US, specifically the northwest quadrant of the Ninth Air Force region.”
“Scratch that order, lieutenant; it looks like the paper is dropping on our porch. Alert the Air Guard for those regions, and alert the commanders for all Air Force bases in the region, tell them to ready their pilots for scramble. Sergeant, alert the Pentagon, and ask for permission for them to scramble. Alert the appropriate national guards, air guards, police departments and superhero teams, and let them know that someone’s coming knocking.”
“Ma’am, it looks like the target is either in Indiana, Kentucky or Ohio; our closest air force bases are on the wrong side of the Alleghenies.”
“Which means that we’d better have the birds warmed up and ready to fly, ‘cause they’ll have to haul tail if they want to get there in time, once they get the green light!”
“Cal!” Stacy shrilled, “We have all kinds of reports coming in! Something’s landed on Ross Avenue and there are reports of things dropping out of the sky in Dayton, Columbus, Toledo, Louisville, Evansville, Springfield, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and South Bend!”
“What?” Cal said, struggling to get out from under the panel.
“OMIGAWD!” Stacy gasped. “There’s an emergency bulletin from NORAD! They say that there’s a small fleet of ships in orbit, and they think that they’re gonna drop in on someone in this area!”
“Stacy!” Cal barked as he struggled awkwardly to get up, his physique not helping in the least, “Alert everyone, and I DO mean EVERYONE, and get a camera trained on that spot at Ross Avenue, quick!”
Using the keyboard probably would have been faster and a lot more professional, but Stacy understood the joystick better. She moved the cursor to the location where the report said that whatever it was had landed. As she worked it, she heard various SPECTRUM members calling in, saying that they were doing one thing or another, and a couple of them wanted backup. Captain Patriot said that he was headed to the Ross Avenue scene. SPECTRUM’s observation system jockeyed the POV back and forth between cameras, until they got a lock on the desired spot. That part of Ross Avenue had several high-rise office buildings, which made the lock difficult, but they finally got a shot of a large cylindrical object sticking out of the blacktop, with several cars clustered around it, the drivers having abandoned their vehicles in panic.
“What the HELL?” Cal muttered softly as he stood up and looked at the main situation monitor. Then the object jettisoned some panels a few feet from the level where it stuck out of the ground. Then the part above those panels sort of swiveled on some kind of pivot, pointed straight up, and telescoped out at least 40 feet. More panels popped off, and a bunch of rods dropped out, forming a sort of metallic dandelion effect. The dandelion impression was increased as the thick tips of the rods popped out into white balls, creating a big white pebbled ball.
Cal let out a surprised sound. Stacy was about to ask him what was going on when his eyes popped wide open with recognition and he gasped, “Oh, NO… It’s Doctor Diabolik…”