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A Whateley Academy Story

silverghostgoldenangelby Bek D. Corbin

 

SPECTRUM HQ, Dec 15th

“And I don’t even wanna think about what Rick Standish is gonna say about it this afternoon,” Stacy groaned at the debriefing the next morning at SPECTRUM.

“I wouldn’t worry about it too much,” Swashbucker assured her. “The Press went there expecting Three Stooges, and that’s pretty much what they got.”

“Yes, definitely your métier,” Goldstar sneered.

“Oh, like you’re one to talk- SHEMP,” Stacy sneered back.

Captain Patriot gave them the ‘mind your manners’ clearing of his throat. “And what can you tell us about this ‘Mock Madcap’?”

Stacy gave a wide ‘who knows?’ shrug. “I was hoping that you could tell ME! Tall, or at least as tall as Goldbug here if that means anything, really fit, hella built, really strong, and way disciplined.”

“How could you tell that she was disciplined?” Tawny asked warily.

“Well, she broke into the museum at the first stroke of Eleven, didn’t say nothing, was real professional about everything, was TOTALLY prepared for both me and Madcap, but she didn’t blink an eye when Golden Boy here showed up. She handled Buckethead real smooth, took him right out of the picture. She went straight for Madcap, or the ‘Golden Angel’ or whatever, when she showed up. When Violet and Red Thunder showed up, she didn’t say ‘Curses, Foiled Again!’ or anything, she just split. She was WAY scary. I stayed away from her as best I could, ‘cause she pulled that glitter thing on me, and if she got her hands on me, I think she would’a put a major hurting on me, just to get me out of her way.”

Goldstar made a disgusted noise, but the other members nodded.

“The important thing,” Swashbuckler said, “is that we now know what this ‘Mockcap’ wants: namely, the real Madcap. And from there, is it such a stretch to induce that they want her apparent ability to empower those burnt out power items?” There were looks of grudging acceptance of Swash’s point.

“Well then, this changes everything,” Goldstar said in a very ‘I’m taking charge’ way. “FIRST, the kid is out of the picture. If there’s a real supervillain out there, it would be endangering her-”

“Who died and made YOU Patton?” Blue Streak asked acerbically.

“NO, nothing has changed,” Violet said levelly. “Madcap, or the Golden Angel, or Charlie’s Angel, or whatever that screwball calls herself next, is still the crux of the situation. Silver is still the best person to handle Madcap on several levels. Taking her off handling Madcap would cause far more problems than it prevents. We suspected that a supervillain might be behind this; now we know it. Silver, what’s your job?”

“My job is to handle Madcap and get her into Police hands!” Stacy recited chipperly. “If it comes down to it, I’m to keep her away from Mockcap- or whoever she is- but handling her or whoever else who shows up who’s not Madcap is not my job!” Violet raised a thumbs-up in approval and Stacy felt a glow of pride. Violet didn’t talk much, but when she did, it was always important.

“Can you tell anything about Madcap from that bit of cloth that stayed behind in Silver’s hand?” Cal asked.

“Just that the silk and lace came from a manufacturer who markets to mid-range to upscale fabric stores,” Tawny said. “She uses a thread that’s strictly mass manufacture. The only thing even vaguely indicative of Madcap as a person is that she did the stitching by hand.”

“Really?” Stacy peeped. “She must be very good. Da-Dang near the only thing professional about Madcap is the fit of those outfits.”

Hmmm…” Swash said, deep in thought. “If Silver is right, and Madcap does these things purely for attention, then I’d say that Madcap comes from a large family that is middling prosperous, with both parents in the home, or a father and stepmother. It’s a large family with several boys, but Madcap is the only daughter. Madcap is an average to mediocre student, and if she’s involved in Scouting or any other extracurricular activities, she’s always been lost in the crowd, if not lagging behind. Her family is rather… marginal, socially, but also quite conservative in many ways. And I doubt that Madcap has ever traveled further than 50 miles from Cincinnati.”

“And how do you get THAT, Sherlock?” Goldstar asked snidely.

“There are THREE indicative bits of evidence that Madcap left behind,” Swashbuckler said, getting into his theorizing. “First, the stitching on that scrap of costume that was left behind in Silver’s hand, and secondly, her reactions regarding her father, and third, her insistence that Silver is her best friend.

“The stitching is hand-sewn and of good workmanship. This makes sense: asking someone to sew you a superhero or supervillain costume is just asking for trouble. There are services that do that for both sides, but there’s no way that Madcap could be expected to know them. So, Madcap sewed her own costumes. Now, Sewing is a fading- not quite dying- art. Most girls her age have been conditioned to buy off the rack and regard a designer label as part of the value of the clothing. The most likely way that Madcap would have learned that skill with the needle is the old-fashioned way: Practice, Practice, Practice. She most likely learned the art from her mother, and mastered it. Which suggests that she either made clothing from scratch, or she did a lot of repair work. Which would suggest a modest, possibly even poor background.”

“It doesn’t work,” Stacy said with conviction, surprising herself. “If a working class or poor kid got a super power, even a bozo one like Madcap’s bouncing ball, she wouldn’t go around pulling big noisy pranks like this; she’d go for the money.

“Well, you’d be the expert on that,” Goldstar quipped smugly.

“Madcap never even thought about money,” Stacy continued, ignoring Goldtooth. “She’s all about the glory goon-out, she’s all about the attention. And… she doesn’t sound like any of the rich kids I’ve heard lately, so I’d say that her family is… comfortable, at least.”

“Very good,” Swash said with an approving nod. “And the fact that she used silk and lace, not polyester or some cheap blend, agrees with you, Silver. So, we have a girl who comes from an affluent background, but whose mother makes her sew for the family. You sometimes see that bit of thrift in otherwise affluent families who have to make do because they have so many children. If Madcap had an older sister, that sister would keep a better eye on her, and if she had a younger sister, she’d be busy keeping an eye on that one. Also, to be honest, from the footage I’ve seen of her, I get a rather… male biased vibe off of her. So, I’m seeing the only girl in a family dominated by boys. I’ve heard that women in that situation sometimes fall into the trap of treating their daughters more like servants than family, as there’s so much to do, and well… it’s women’s work…

“And how do you see Madcap’s father factoring into this?” Captain Patriot asked.

“I’d say that Madcap adores him. He’s probably the only positive influence in her life. But she doesn’t get anywhere near enough of his attention.”

“So you’re saying that she’s doing this to get his attention?” Azure asked.

“I’d say that she’s doing it to get anyone’s attention.”

“And I think that you’re over-thinking this,” Stacy said firmly. “I think that she’s a screwball who’d set her own terrier on fire to get on TV, and that’s about IT.” She leaned forward and said, “Check out the News: there are always people from nice, safe, wonderful homes doing weird stuff, just ‘cause they think they’ll be famous for 15 seconds.”

“Also a valid theory,” Swashbuckler admitted, rather shame-facedly.

“Okay, both good readings of Madcap’s character,” Red Thunder said. “But now it gets sticky. Does anyone have any ideas what ‘Ten Lords a-Leaping’ could be?”

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“So, Spence got any ideas what ‘Ten Lords a-Leaping’ will be?” Nate asked his buddy at the Sonic Burger™ franchise that was the Mansfield kids’ semi-official afterschool hang.

Weeellll…” Spence drawled, “The only things that come to mind are Chess kings, and the Three Wise Men.” He punched irritably at his net book. “The problem is I can’t find anything valuable that’s chess related on any of the local activity sites, and nothing for anything valuable for the Three Wise Men either.”

“So, who says that it has to be valuable?” Terri asked.

“Right!” Mindy piped up. “We know that it’s not Madcap doing it, but they still might not be doing it for the money.”

“Well, if it was valuable, then it would stick out,” Stacy said. “That Mock-Cap wants Madcap to figure out where she’s going to strike next. And let’s face it, Madcap is NOT Sherlock Holmes.” Spence shot Stacy a finger, as to give her a point for logic.

“And does Rick Standish have any theories?” Nate asked. “Or at least do any of the yoyos who call in to him?”

“Oh, they are ALL OVER the place on that one,” Lauren said. “Standish is almost killing himself to keep from giggling so loud that you can’t hear what they’re saying.”

“Isn’t there a basketball team called the Kings?” Stacy asked.

“Yeah, the Sacramento Kings,” Nate said. “BUT, they ain’t in town. Besides, Cincinnati doesn’t have a Pro B-Ball franchise.”

“But the BearCats rawk!” Dylan said defensively.

“Well, yeah….”

The gang thrashed it over for a while, but none of them was able to come up with a reasonable idea as to what the ‘Ten Kings’ might be about.

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So, at 9:55, well after her usual bedtime- if there was such a thing as ‘a usual bedtime’ for superheroes- Stacy was standing on the roof of the tallest building downtown, and was very glad that her ‘silver’ kept her warm. Still, she felt that she should have been squatting on some gargoyle on a ledge somewhere, watching the city, brooding. But there weren’t any gargoyles up high enough. Damn modern architecture.

Stacy looked around, and it struck her that she was probably all tied up in knots worried about nothing. If Stacy couldn’t figure out what the ‘10 Lords a-Leaping’ was going to be, and nobody at SPECTRUM could, and nobody at Cincinnati PD or DA’s Office could, and Rick Standish’s listeners couldn’t come up with anything, then there was no way that a dingbat like Madcap could figure it out. Okay, chances were that Madcap was out there- she’d probably found the only gargoyle in Cincinnati and was brooding on it- but what were the chances that she’d even find out about whatever Mockcap was pulling before Cincinnati PD showed up?

Then Stacy’s jaw almost hit the floor. There was a premier of some kind over at the Cincinnati Aronhoff Center, Cincinnati’s premier venue for high profile events like the Symphony, Ballet, and like that, with spotlights shining. But over one of the buildings was floating a large glowing golden hologram halo.

It was obviously a trap. Only a complete idiot would fall for it.

Madcap was probably already there.

Stacy lifted off the roof and made all haste toward the Aronhoff Center. She wished that she’d thought to add a jet belt or something to her rig, to add some speed. As she flew with everything she had, Stacy called in to SPECTRUM to request backup. This wasn’t some nice secluded closed museum or shopping mall; this was a major performance place, with seating for hundreds, and it was a premier, so the attendees would probably be real high-profile, local elite types. Whoever was pulling this off probably intended to use the audience as mass hostages somehow. HOW would you hold hundreds of people on multiple balconies hostage? The possibilities made Stacy’s blood run cold. Odds were that she’d need EVERYONE to keep a lid on this.

But when she called in, she immediately got a reply text from Red Thunder to use only text. Why only text? Well, Red Thunder was their resident Tactics & Strategy guy. Then it hit her: Stage lights and sound systems! He must figure that whoever was doing this was expecting SPECTRUM, and had rigged the theater’s systems to act as an area affect weapon. Or at the very least distract the hell out of them while they got away with Madcap. Trying to communicate when a sonic weapon was going was… not a good idea. That brought up very unpleasant memories for Stacy, and if the Silver Ghost reacted to a sonic weapon the way that Stacy Conrad had, Spence might get suspicious. He was smart that way. Stacy dug into her utility belt and shoved the Bluetooth gizmos into her ears, and activated them. That reminded her of the special glare-reactive eye-shields (you couldn’t really call them ‘sunglasses’, could you?). She put them on and then had to tip them up to read the text. Red Thunder’s text said that the audience and the layout of the theater made going in too risky. SPECTRUM’s best move was for the rest of the team to cover the exits of the theater while Silver went in invisibly. She was to concentrate on getting Madcap out and into the hands of the Police, and if at all possible, get the supervils to follow them out of the theater, to where SPECTRUM could deal with them.

Okay, that sounded reasonable. It would be easier to get the supervillains away from the hostages than it would be to get all those hostages away from the supervillains. And it would be supervillains, plural, if only Mockcap and some henchmen; there’s no way that anyone as sharp as Mockcap would try to keep all those people under control by herself. She’d have backup. And if Stacy was lucky, they’d only be goons with guns.

Okay, the obvious thing would be to go invisibly through the main entrance. BUT, the perp was obviously one of those ‘chessmaster’ types who got off on second- and third-guessing heroes, and taking nasty precautions. And Stacy wasn’t an experienced hero- or really, any kind of hero at all- so he’d only bother second-guessing her. So, she’d go through the fire exit on the roof, which would lead directly into the main performance area of the theater, which was where all the action would be. She’d go in and see what was going on, and send snapshots of the situation to Red Thunder or Cal, and wait for people who knew what they were doing to make the smart call. Like Halloween, only with a LOT more hostages. She just hoped that Goldstar got how touchy the situation was, and he didn’t wind up getting people killed, trying to make Stacy look bad.

As she flew in, Stacy noticed the sign for the Jarson-Kaplan Theater saying that they were presenting a special Christmas offering by the ‘Riverdance’ company.

By the time that Stacy got to the fire exit, her watch told her that it was 10:05. She must have caught a headwind. Well, the bright side was that Mockcap would have whatever she had planned out in plain sight. Every performer and member of the audience would be covered somehow, but it would be nice and quiet and still, at least until Madcap showed up, and it went to hell in a handbasket. So Stacy could get a good idea what was going on, and could pass that along to SPECTRUM. Yep, good thing about the situation was that at this point, it was still nice and quiet, and everyone was still trying to figure out what was going on.

It was complete chaos.

The audience was crammed back against the far wall of the seating room, apparently unable to open the exit doors. They were crouched protectively, anxiously watching the mayhem on stage. Mockcap was furiously mixing it up with a squad of people in red specialized power armor. She was getting unexpected support from a group of ten men, also in power armor. Well, sort of. They were strapped into red enameled exoskeletons that left their heads and torsos- indeed, most of their bodies- exposed and vulnerable. The men were pretty uniformly screaming their heads off in naked fear, even as they bounded around, leaping nimbly to strike at the more conventional power armor units, and then adroitly jumping away.

Oh. Riverdance. ‘Lord of the Dance’. Ten Lords A-Leaping. Someone thinks they’re clever…

There was a guy in a suit, Stacy couldn’t get a good look at him, because he was jumping around like Errol Flynn on crack, leading a squad of guys in red ‘goon squad’ outfits in a merry chase. Off to one side, there was a guy in an outfit in various shades of red, including a billowing cape with a hood and a full-face mask. He was screaming at the top of his lungs, and gesturing wildly.

Oh. He wasn’t wearing a full-face mask; he was only wearing a half-mask. He was so pissed that the part of his face that was showing was as red as the rest of his outfit.

Then Stacy got a look at the emblem on his chest: a stylized claw. Despite the fact that she’d never met the man himself, Stacy knew that design all too well; she’d lived in one of his cast-off lairs for a couple of weeks, and the man had that logo on everything except the toilet paper. It was the Crimson Claw, and sure enough, there was something technological looking on his left hand, but he wasn’t doing anything with it.

Stacy took pictures of this and sent them to SPECTRUM, and waited to hear if they had anything they wanted her to do before Madcap showed up. Good Lord knows, she didn’t want to get mixed up in that mess, and she wondered what the guy in the semi-formal suit was up to. He wasn’t old enough to be Swashbuckler…

Then Stacy checked her phone. She wasn’t getting any bars. Why wasn’t she getting any bars? SPECTRUM must be waiting for her to send them some pictures, but for some reason, she wasn’t getting through. She’d have to go out again and send the pictures and come back in and hope that nothing really horrible happened while she was doing it.

Then she heard some heavy breathing, and a boy about her age in a good suit came clambering up the ladder onto the catwalk. She dropped her invisibility and put up her silver, and stalked over to the ladder. She grabbed him by the scruff of his collar and hauled him up onto the catwalk. “What are you doing up here?” she demanded in a hectoring tone.

“Woof! The Silver Ghost!” the boy gawped, and Stacy almost lost it when she recognized him as Spence’s friend, Dylan!

Stacy covered for herself by asking in her ‘superheroine voice’ (and praying mightily that the silver affect that distorted her face worked as well up close as it did for photographs), “Yeah, that’s nice, but WHY did you climb all the way up here?”

“Well, I thought that I’d come up here and drop some sandbags on their heads, y’know, take ‘em by surprise.” He looked around. “But… where are they? I mean, they use sandbags up here to hold up drapes and curtains and scenery, right?”

“They don’t DO that anymore,” Stacy said coldly. “Now it’s all done with electrical motors, so they don’t have guys climbing up here, dropping sandbags on people, ‘cause they saw Bugs Bunny do it in the cartoons!

“Weelll… I could loosen one of those lengths of pipe and drop it-”

“OR, you could get out, call Emergency Services, and get some rescue workers to get those doors open, so those people can GET OUT to safety!” Stacy pointed out.

“oohhh… Yeah… that would work, too…” Dylan realized, as Stacy stifled the urge to pound a little sense into his head.

Stacy went to the railing and started snapping pictures with her cell phone. “What are YOU doing up here?” Dylan asked.

“I’m not allowed to do any superheroing,” she explained as she snapped away. “Except when Madcap’s involved. So I’m just doing some forward scouting for SPECTRUM, so they know what’s going on. At least I will when I get out of whatever they have jamming the signals in here. When Madcap gets here, I’ll grab her and get her out the nearest door, if I have to break it down! Those yahoos will follow us, and SPECTRUM will be waiting for ‘em, where they won’t have any innocent bystanders that might get hurt. When that happens, go find your parents, and get them out of here, ‘cause the Crimson Claw probably has the lights or the sound system here rigged and… who IS that guy, and WHAT does he think he’s doing?

“Oh, that? That’s my buddy, Nate, and he’s kicking some serious ASS!”

‘Oh Crap, that’s NATE?’ Stacy thought to herself. Why hadn’t she recognized him? Oh, well, it was at least a good 40 feet down, and the angle was all wonky, but still… And, well, give him his due, he was doing a very good job of making the minion-types look like monkeys. But what was he holding, that the minions were so hot to get? “What IS that that he’s playing them for?” she asked Dylan.

“Dunno,” Dylan said, quickly taking a selfie with himself and the Silver Ghost, and then snapping a few pictures of Nate working the set for all the advantage he could. “It was on stage, and that Not-Madcap chick was going for it, and then the red guy and his goons joined in and it got real weird.”

What? Why would Mockcap attack a performance of Riverdance in progress, just to steal a stage prop?

“Look, take that ladder up to the fire escape on the roof, and call SPECTRUM’s emergency number- here, I’m sending your cell phone the images and the addy- and get them this information. Then call 911, and tell them that we have a hostage situation, and pretty much what’s going on. I gotta stay here in case- oh crap!

Nate’s streak of luck had run out. He was pulling a fancy maneuver, but as he took a leg up to do a flip, the prop that he was kicking off gave out, and his flip went badly wrong. Two of the Crimson Claw’s goons grabbed him and the rest of them dog-piled on him. “Oh Crap!” Stacy shoved her cell phone to Dylan and told him to get out the fire exit and hit the ‘Send’ button to get the images to SPECTRUM. If anyone called back, he was to tell them that she was up to her neck in an emergency and to GET HERE ASAP! With that, she jumped off the catwalk- and isn’t it amazing how being able to fly quickly overrides a lifetime of learning to be quite reasonably afraid of heights?- went invisible and dropped down to the dogpile. The Crimson Claw and the audience were treated to the surreal sight of large burly men in red jumpsuits flying backwards off the pile.

“It’s the Ghost!” the Crimson Claw snapped. “Beta, Gamma, you take care of her, the rest of you, stay on that one!”

As Stacy kept peeling goons off Nate, six of the power armor goons, two of whom had been keeping the ‘Leaping Lords’ off the others’ backs, peeled off Mockcap and advanced on Stacy. By this time Stacy had gotten Nate free. Nate was a little punch-drunk, but relatively okay. He was holding what looked like some sort of, well, at a distance, you might mistake it for a golden, jewel-encrusted goblet, but the ‘cup’ part was solid. That was what Nate had been playing ‘keepaway’ from the red goons with. She held up the not-goblet on high and managed to catch the spotlight just right. It gleamed for a moment, and then Stacy brought it under her cloak, making it invisible.

“No!” the Claw screamed, “Stop her! Get that… whatever it is!

One of the red power armor jockeys stood back from the others and swept the stage with a thin red beam of light. When the beam of light hit Stacy, she was suddenly outlined with a glowing rainbow silhouette. “There she is!” the Claw thundered. “GET HER!”

The guy with the laser stood off to the side and kept the tattletale ray on Stacy, as the other five moved to surround Stacy. Stacy gave a little *gleep!* of panic, but she wasn’t completely screwed. She’d known that she might have to face Mockcap before she could get Madcap out of the way, so she came with a little backup: Gluegun Joe’s long range gooper. She’d even warmed it up on her way flying in. And she had a few other tricks that she’d come up with, some for Madcap, and once she managed to stop that guy with the beam-thing from spotlighting her, she’d-

But then, something happened that completely derailed Stacy’s planning. There was a light from the Orchestra Section, and a high reedy voice squeaked out, “Don’t worry, Silvie, your best friend, The Golden Angel is here to SAVE you!”

‘Oh God,’ Stacy groaned silently, ‘It’s official: Madcap lives only to humiliate me.’

“Delta,Gamma, Epsilon- GET HER!” the Crimson Claw bellowed. “Alpha, Beta- stay on the Ghost! Get that… whatever it is from her!”

“NO!” Mockcap yelled, finally saying something, “Whatever happens, the grail must never fall into the hands of the Golden Angel!”

“Hey Silvie, throw me the grail!” Madcap called, amazing Stacy with her apparent bone-deep gullibility and conviction that it was all about her. But there was no way that Stacy was letting that ditz call the shots on this. First she shifted from invisible to silver, causing the laser to both reflect off of her and defract into dazzling bursts of rainbow-colored light that blinded almost everyone on the stage. Then she whipped out Glue-gun Joe’s gooper and put a big neon blue glob right on the faceplate of the guy with the laser/ light energy weapon/ whatever it was. She would have glopped the weapon itself, but why waste a shot when he’d just burn it off? Stacy sincerely hoped he was smarter than to try and burn the glop off his faceplate with the laser. Then she did the same with the guy with the big honking power-sword-type- thing that Stacy wasn’t entire sure how it worked, but if a master criminal like the Crimson Claw brought it along knowing that she’d be there, and then specifically sicced it on HER, well, the odds were it did something like pass right through telekinetic energy (don’t ask her HOW), and proceeded right into ‘OMG, where’s my ARM?’

Snapping out of that particular near-panic attack, Stacy went invisible again and flew back up to the catwalk with the ‘grail’ or whatever that thing was. Dylan wasn’t anywhere near in sight, hopefully making that phone call to SPECTRUM, so Stacy left the dingus on the catwalk. Then she dropped back down to the stage. Nate had snapped out of it, and was spraying some of the red power suit guys with a fire extinguisher; exactly what THAT was supposed to do, Stacy had no idea. Well, Madcap was bouncing around from power suit guy to another inside her protective bubble, so Stacy figured that her duty was to make sure that the civilian (Nate) was protected. At least, that’s what she thought; she knew that she wasn’t the soundest person when it came to legal logic. The power suit guy, who was piloting a rig that looked like someone dumped a truckload of weapons in front of a welder and told him ‘make it fit!’, was turning around with a sense of humor practically the only thing not attached. Stacy came up behind Nate invisibly, picked him up and flew him up to the catwalk. “There’s a fire escape over there!” she told him, pointing the way. “USE IT!” Then she remembered that she was invisible, went silvery and said, “GO,” pointing. Nate started to say something, so she repeated in a more severe tone, “GO.” Nate stuck out his lower lip and stalked over to the fire escape.

Once the fire escape door was shut, Stacy knew that, no matter how much she didn’t want to, she had to go help Madcap. The real one. The bogus Madcap didn’t really look like she needed a lot of help. But Madcap needed a lot of help. Maybe there were drugs that would do something for her.

Looking down from the catwalk, she saw that the dancers in power frames seemed to be helping Madcap from being taken by the Crimson Claw’s men for some reason. Mockcap was the third corner of their triangle of chaos. Between the three sides, they were working very hard to try and gain control of Madcap’s hamster-ball of doom as it bopped around the stage like some kind of demented pinball. Stacy just wondered why the dancers were helping Madcap like that. It wasn’t like they were enjoying the fight; if anything, they were screaming their heads off.

Well, the only way to defuse this cluster fuck, and get all the players out of the theater so the civilians would be safe, was to get Madcap out of the theater. And, hopefully where either SPECTRUM or SWAT were waiting. Going invisible again, Stacy dropped down, and found a position where she could insert herself and get an idea of the ‘traffic flow’ of the chaos. Which was a lot more easily said than done. Then as Mockcap was coping with the ‘whirling top of doom’ guy, Madcap’s ball slammed into him, giving Mockcap the hold she wanted, and sent Madcap screaming in Stacy’s general direction. Stacy reached over, caught the ball with one hand, and stopped it dead in its tracks. Once she had the ball securely under her control, she turned it and herself invisible, and lifted off. Unfortunately, the guy with the light weapon had managed to clear his faceplate, and he repeated his ‘oh, there she is’ trick. Somebody did something, and Stacy got blindsided. The force of whatever it was knocked her into Madcap’s ball, and she was sent furiously flying around, along with the *ahem!* ‘Golden Angel.

Having the two girls inside the globe made it even more imbalanced and unpredictable than before. It took a few hits, caromed off something more, and just as Stacy was about to toss her cookies, the ball crashed into one of the box seats. Stacy was just getting her bearings, after a ride that reminded her uncomfortably of the time that George had made Stanley ride the Tilt-a-Wheel after eating two hot dogs and some cotton candy, when she was snapped out of it by hearing Madcap snap, “WHAT? You AGAIN?”

Pulling herself together, Stacy looked over, and SPENCE was sitting there, where he could peek over the edge of the box seat, with what looked like a high-end remote control in his hands. Well, he would have been peeking over the edge of the box seat, if he wasn’t staring at them owl-eyed in shock

“What? What are you doing here?” Stacy asked, agog.

“I… was here with my family, to see Riverdance,” Spence answered, stating the flippin’ obvious.

Then Stacy focused on the remote control in his hands. “What IS that thing, and what are you doing with it?”

Oh, this is what the Crimson Claw was using to control the dancers stuck in those power rigs,” Spence explained with the tone like he was showing off his favorite new toy. “My buddy Nate got it away from the Claw and threw it to me, and I managed to get away from them all.”

“Oh, so you can be a pain in the butt to people besides me,” Madcap groused.

“And what are you doing with it?” Stacy asked, leaning over to get a better look at the gizmo.

“I’m controlling those guys in the power frames. Which would be really hard, but this thing is Ultra’d to the max, so all I have to do is designate a target and hit one of the routines-”

“You mean you’re the one making those poor dancers fight the Crimson Claw?” Stacy asked aghast

“COOL!” Madcap exulted, and she grabbed the remote away from Spence. It seems that Madcap never heard the old stereotype that ‘Boys experiment; Girls read the manual’, because she immediately started fiddling with the control. Stacy looked over the rail of the box seat, and saw that the power frames had gone completely haywire, completely upsetting what balance of power existed between Mockcap and the Crimson Claw

“What are you DOING?” Stacy demanded of Madcap.

“I’m using them to take out the bad guys! Well, what else would you do with them?”

Stacy simply shot Madcap a ‘you’re an idiot’ glower, grabbed the remote control and looked it over. Yes, the thing really was idiot-proofed, and even Stacy could figure out where ‘release’ function was. One at a time, Stacy guided the Riverdancers away from the main fracas and released them from their bonds. As they hit the floor the dancers scrambled for the sides and got out of the line of fire.

“Oh… THAT,” Madcap grunted. “Yeah, you could do that, I s’poze…”

Stacy’s second thought was to give the remote back to Spence and have him use the puppet-frames to capture the Crimson Claw’s henchmen and use THEM as grunts against him. But when each dancer was released, the frames retracted into turtle shell-like lumps on the floor. Apparently, the Claw saw that gambit coming on Saturday.

But as the dancers scrambled to safety, the Crimson Claw showed that he did know more about leadership than simply screaming for someone to DO something. He ordered his power armor minions to surround Mockcap, and told his regular grunts to go find Madcap. “We’ve wasted enough time! Go GET her, before someone actually dangerous shows up!”

But the grunts were cut off from the stairs to the backstage when a sheet of fire sprang up. “Too Late!” Boomed a loud theatrical voice with an odd transatlantic accent. “Someone dangerous has already shown up!” Eight people, 6 men and 2 women dressed for an evening on the town, strode forward from the huddled mass of bystanders and marched up the aisles and onto the stage. Completely ignoring the Claw’s minions training weapons on them, they formed a line behind one of them, the one who’d been speaking. “You call yourself a ‘Master Criminal,” the leader sneered. “It’s time for a TRUE master of crime to take control!”

“And who are you lot supposed to be?” the Crimson Claw demanded.

“Why… we are…” the leader gestured, and all of them flared up in a gout of fire, reappearing in vaguely clerical vestments of black with red trim, except for the leader, who was dressed in Cardinal’s reds, with a look that suggested a high-tech villainous Cardinal Richelieu, complete with the proper mustache and chin beard. “- CARDINAL SIN and The CONGREGATION of CRIME!” he exulted with bravura.

“What” The Crimson Claw bleated. “There’s no such thing as a ‘Cardinal Sin’: there are Deadly Sins and Cardinal Virtues, but you can’t mix and match.”

“TAKE HIM!” the Cardinal trumpeted, “Take him, my Seven Deadly Sinners! Mete out harsh penance on this pouncetrifle! You too, my lovely Mother Superbia!”

‘Mockcap’ said, “FINALLY!” Her clown-costume went up in a flare of hellfire, to be replaced by a sleek, form fitting outfit of black latex with a white latex wimple- and a long, nasty looking whip at her hip.

“Oh, this just got even nastier…” Stacy whispered.

“Okay, you’re the superhero,” Spence said to Stacy. “What do we do now?”

Stacy locked for a second. Then, furiously trying to think what Captain Patriot would say, she improvised, “Okay, my first priority is to get you to safety, and my second priority is to get Madcap into the hands of the Police. There’s a fire exit that goes up to the roof. If we take the hallway instead of flying up directly, all that we’ll have to cope with are the regular goons, which shouldn’t be that bad. Heck, I could probably invisible you past them-”

“RIGHT!” the ‘Golden Angel’ piped up, suddenly all enthusiasm. “And while yer gettin’ the civilian to safety, I’LL secure Madcap so she doesn’t get away! BANZAI!” Madcap leapt over the railing into the main theater area, hitting the buttons on her power gauntlet obviously at random. As she streaked into the fray, she glowed and five copies of ‘the Golden Angel’ appeared and clustered around her.

Stacy’s eyes bugged out and her jaw dropped. “How the HELL did she do THAT?”

“Hey, you’d know better than I would,” Spence said defensively.

“What does she think she’s DOING?”

“She thinks?” Spence shot back.

Stacy let out a sigh and was gearing up to tell Spence that it was time to head out for the exit and see if they could sneak him out, when there was a loud crash that stopped the action ‘on stage’. And what to Stacy’s wondering eyes should appear, but four lances of KoP in full battle gear. “Oh. Crap,” Stacy said, eyes wide.

“Who called in those assholes?” Spence wondered aloud.

“Good question,” Stacy agreed. “I gave Dylan my phone, but I specifically told him to call SPECTRUM…” she waved that aside. “Not the point. There’s too much firepower down there, and not enough common sense. I can’t let Madcap screw this up or she’ll get everyone killed. Let’s see if I can decoy the Golden Dingbat away from there.” She reached into the cache of tricks that she had hidden by her cape (Stacy didn’t know why people were so het up against capes; she found hers incredibly helpful), and pulled out a compressed packet of silver foil ‘cloth’, something very much like the ‘space blankets’ that you see advertised in Popular Mechanics. Actually, it was a space blanket cut and reconfigured into a hooded cape, with a chemical hand warmer packet and a small walkie-talkie taped into it. Stacy crushed the packet, turned on the walkie-talkie, and sent the decoy out of the box with her PK.

The cape didn’t go 30 feet before it was riddled with holes.

“Oh crap.” Then the havoc started for real. “Oh crap…”

Thinking furiously, Stacy said, “Let’s head out through the corridors.”

“But they have guards there!” Spence objected.

“Yeah,” Stacy said, going invisible. “I know.”

“But they can still see ME.”

“Yeah, that’s part of the plan,” Stacy fudged. Okay, she lied as she feverishly prayed that some idea would come to her.

The first hundred yards or so were smooth sailing, but then when they came to the stairwell, it was guarded, as any reasonable Master Criminal would have done. But then, there were only three guys, so maybe the Crimson Claw was feeling the pinch from the time he got run out of Cincy.

“Okay, Spence, don’t worry, I’ll-”

“You don’t have to spell it out,” Spence said as he folded his arms across his chest and gave the three henchmen a cocky confident smirk. The goons pulled themselves together when they spotted Spence (but not Stacy, who was still invisible), and pulled out carbines. They advanced on him with the expectation of chasing after a panicky kid, but they stopped surprised when Spence didn’t move. Then they noticed the confident smirk on his face and the sparkle of anticipation in his eye. They advanced, but they advanced far more cautiously, which was just what Stacy needed. She grappled the three crooks, throwing them around and using them as weapons against each other. This succeeded in completely freaking them out, as they thought that he had some sort of weird super power, which only made it easier for Stacy to beat the crap out of them.

Taking keys, a communicator, an ID card and what she took to be a Capture Net Grenade from one of their belts, Stacy led Spence to the lobby. There, she used the ID card to disengage one of the large obvious anti-entry demolitions packet that was keeping the doors shut, and shooed him in the general direction of the SWAT barricade. At the door, she reached for her phone, as to contact SPECTRUM, but she remembered that she’d given the phone to Dylan.

Well, when in doubt, defuse the time bombs. Stacy used the ID card to deactivate the seven other bombs. Then there was another crash from inside, and she remembered that there were a couple of hundred more civilians who were in clear and present danger, and if she was obliged to get Spence, Dylan and Nate out, then she had to get the grownups out too.

The Crimson Claw had emptied out the Box and Balcony seats, so all of the civilians were jammed up against the doors to the ‘Orchestra’ section. Taking out the two guards who were guarding that side of the doors took Stacy so little time that it’s a shame to bother mentioning it. The doors were held closed by large bars that were buttressed. But Stacy was still very aware that the Crimson Claw was a criminal mastermind type, so she checked the buttresses that were propping the doors closed, and sure enough there were tamper traps. She waved the ID at the booby-traps and they shut down. Fortunately, the Claw was well aware that overcomplicating traps and ambushes had a nasty tendency to backfire.

Removing the bars was one thing, but keeping the semi-panicked audience from rushing out of the theater like a herd of elephants was another. Fortunately, SWAT had come in, and they handled getting the bystanders out of the line of fire without starting a stampede. Stacy helped the officers get the civilians out, and when the last of them was out the front doors, she let out a glad sigh of a job well done. Mission accomplished!

Then she looked around with some surprise. “Where’s SPECTRUM?” she asked the SWAT honcho.

He gave her an odd look. “They said that you wanted to handle it on your own, and for them to hang back.”

“What?” Stacy yelped, “Why would I do something stupid that? And who called in the Knights of Purity?”

“Aaaahhh… they said that YOU called them in, that you said you couldn’t handle it.”

“WHAT?” Stacy screeched. “What IDIOT said that?” Then there was another burst of heavy gunfire from inside the theater. “Never mind,” she snarled, “I got a good idea who.”

“You gonna go back in there?” the SWAT honcho asked.

“Are you kidding?” Stacy gleeped. “Even MADCAP has the brains to get out that mess! She must have gone when-”

Stacy’s very rational rationalization withered on the vine when a loud whine of “siiiillll-VEEE!” came over the sound of the combat.

Stacy let out a martyred whine of her own and said, “And I gotta go get her. It’s my duty…” With another ‘I don’t wanna DO this…’ whine, she slumped into the theatre area, going invisible as she went.

The stately theater was a complete mess. The Knights of Purity had come together in a close formation with one of the four lances acting as ‘loaders’ for the other three squads. The three squads that were firing were burning enough ammunition for an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, and tearing up the theater something fierce. The Knights had managed to hedge in the Crimson Claws’ men, but the ‘Congregation of Crime’ was taking advantage of that to begin maneuvering Madcap (or the Golden Angel, if you really want to encourage that sort of thing) into a corner. Madcap kept poking at her bracer, trying to find something that would work. It was pure desperation, but the tactic had worked before. She jabbed away, and suddenly a vortex of wind, snow and ice billowed out from the gauntlet. Madcap waved it around, blowing as many of the congregation off their positions as she could.

However, one of the ‘nuns’ of the congregation, whose habit was a brighter shade of red than the others, gestured, and a cone of fire erupted from her hands. The two columns of temperature extremes collided and filled the theater with clouds of billowing steam. Stacy leaned in to deal with it, but the side effect of it was that her position was made obvious.

“There’s the Ghost!” someone said, and far more hostile attention was focused on Stacy than she was really comfortable with. The Crimson Claw’s men, the Congregation of Crime, and even the Knights of Purity all trained their weapons on her. Somehow, Stacy just knew that most of them had some sort of move anticipation computer things, just so that they could guess where she’d head if she went invisible. ‘Cause, y’know, they’re master criminals, and they knew that Stacy would be there, ‘cause that’s what master criminals DO, right? Stacy figured that the KoP wouldn’t fire on her, ‘cause having their bullets in her body wouldn’t look good in court, ‘cause she was a DA’s Special Investigator and all that, but if they could finesse the Crimson Claw and Cardinal Sin into doing it for them…

It suddenly occurred to Stacy that she didn’t have a lot of time.

Oh well, it worked for Goldbug: “MADCAP, no matter what you do, DON’T turn on your rocket boots!”

“Why would I-whooop!” While everyone had been herding Madcap into a corner, they’d turned their backs on her, taking Stacy for the bigger threat. So everyone was caught with their smartypants around their ankles when she rocketed out from her corner, bouncing off of one bigshot after another, and whatever badass attack they had planned for Stacy went off on someone else. The chaos escalated as each of the three sides tried to adjust their postures and tactics to a situation that had already changed by the time they’d decided what they were going to do. ‘Quarterbacks’ were screaming out cryptic instructions that only confused their ‘players’ even more. For herself, Stacy found a niche under one of the balconies and clung to the underside invisible, waiting for the pandemonium to play itself out.

To give her proper due, Madcap was doing a first-rate job of mopping up the place, especially for someone who had no idea of what she was doing. Or possibly it was because she literally had no idea as to what she was doing that she was doing a much better job than she would have otherwise.

Finally, two of the ‘Congregation’ coordinated to steer Madcap into the largest of the seven, a man who’d somehow grown to over ten feet tall. He managed to catch Madcap’s ‘hamster ball of doom’ and hold onto it. It knocked him over, but he held on. Again, Madcap was trapped inside her own ball, which protected the man holding her prisoner from anything that ‘the Golden Angel’ might try. Taking this in, the Crimson Claw’s crew re-grouped and the Claw himself barked out, “En GARDE! Gambit Triple Red-4!”

The Claw Crew responded by ignoring both the Congregation and the Knights and scrambling to take up positions around the theater. Then one of the ‘nuns’, the one wearing the really skanky outfit (even worse than ‘Mother Superbia’s kinky latex catsuit) blurted out, “Cardinal! Gambit-” Whatever she was going to tell him, it was cut off when the Riverdance Troupe’s massive special overhead lighting and sound system (Stacy had seen a superficial piece about it in the Cincinnati Observer’s Lifestyle section) erupted into an overwhelming onslaught of strobing light and ear-shattering wailing noise. Even with the ear and eye shields, and her own protected position, Stacy was rattled to the core and barely managed to keep her grip on herself. Wow, it looked like Red Thunder was right about that sound and lighting system. The guy was-

-the sound and lighting system. Red Thunder would tell her to take out the sound and lighting system. The Knights of Purity probably had anti-dazzle measure in their armor; they were probably holding back, and letting the Crimson Crew handle the Congregation for them. And if they could take out Stacy in all the confusion, say with a backup firearm or something, which could easily be blamed on the Crimsons, that was probably a bonus too. So, her best option was the wreck the lighting and sound system, and then get Madcap out of there in the confusion. Well, it was a start, anyway.

Stacy remembered from coming down from the roof that there was a big electrical control board up in the catwalks. She knew enough about electrical systems from working with Cal to know that she didn’t know that much about stuff like lighting systems, but she knew how to spot a main switch and throw it. Not trusting the situation enough to fly up, Stacy crawled along the wall up to the catwalks and then hurried to the electrical control panel.

Which was locked down tight. The Crimson Claw had probably seen that play coming on Monday. Stupid criminal masterminds!

Stacy smashed at the heavily armored covering plate with frustration and looked around for some idea as to what to do. Even if the Knights of Purity didn’t bag Madcap, letting either Cardinal Sin or the Crimson Claw get her would only give them ammunition. Then her eyes fell on the heavy golden ‘chalice’ that ‘Mockcap’ had been playing keep away from the Crimson Clowns. It was solid, not hollow, and if Stacy’s impression of ‘Cardinal Sin’ was correct, then he was just as big a wiseass as the Crimson Claw was, maybe bigger. It would be just like him to foist some sort of grenade off on the Claw, and set it off just as his faithful minion was handing it to him. On an off-note, it struck Stacy that criminal masterminds seemed to get a lot of their ideas from old Warner Brothers cartoons.

Grabbing the ‘chalice’, Stacy went silver and flew over to the sound and lighting platform, trusting to her silver more to protect her by increasing the flashing lights than her invisibility to cope with it. Letting the rockdrill agony in her ears guide her, she flew as close as she could stand and heaved the ‘chalice’ into the platform with all her strength. Even if it didn’t go off, it was heavy enough to bust up some of the gear.

It turned out that the ‘chalice’ wasn’t an explosive; it was an EMP grenade. Something set it off the second that it hit the lighting platform. The lights flared even more blindingly for a second and then went dead. Even through her silver, Stacy almost lost it as her ear-shields reacted, and she felt the fillings in her teeth arc with electricity. Stacy dropped, only putting up her silver sheath back up before she hit the floor, out of pure reflex.

The only lights in the otherwise totally dark theater were the ‘Golden Angel’s’ backlit wings and halo. One of the Knights remedied that slightly by setting off an illuminating flare and throwing it into the center of the room. Both the Knights and the Crimson Claws’ men were standing oddly still. It immediately struck Stacy that the EMP had fried the systems in their power frames. The only one who seemed heartened by this was Cardinal Sin, who loudly sneered, “Better living through technology…” With a grandiloquent wave, the Cardinal sent waves of fire to burn his followers free of the snares that the Crimson Claw had wrapped them in.

Stacy took advantage of that to sneak over to where Madcap was trapped in a cradle of cables that turned her force ball against her just as effectively as Cardinal Sin’s giant had. Madcap’s ace in the hole was turning into an Achilles heel. But instead of seizing the opportunity to douse her lights and get out of there in the darkness, the second that Stacy broke the key cable, Madcap exulted, “Great work, Silvie! Yer a GREAT sidekick!”

Sidekick?

Standing up in what she probably took for a heroic pose, Madcap declared, “And now to take down that Arch-Cleric of Arch Evil!” Having apparently spend her time inside the bubble-trap hammering away at her gauntlet, Madcap grandly pressed the triggering button and produced another whirling vortex of icy wind that issued from her gauntlet.

Which would have been very impressive, IF Madcap had been expecting that and was properly anchored. Instead, she was taken completely by surprise and yanked off her feet into the vortex, and the maelstrom tore through the already wrecked theater, tearing up seats and debris and throwing them around. Over the howl of the mini-tornado, Stacy could just make out, “SILLL-veee!!!

Stacy stood there, completely dumfounded. How could anything that small cause that much destruction? But even as she framed the question, the nagging nitpick arose as to whether she was talking about the Crimson Claw’s power gauntlet or Madcap. Oh well, it wasn’t like it would make the situation worse… Stacy had gone out that night as prepared as she could be, especially since she knew that there was a then-unknown master criminal plotting to capture Madcap. Besides as Batman a utility belt as she could throw together and Glue Gun Joe’s adhesive gun, Stacy had borrowed the Living Vacuum’s vortex gun. She had no idea as to how it worked. Heck it looked like an old 1950s Electrolux vacuum cleaner, scaled down and put on a pistol grip. She hadn’t used it in the theater since she didn’t want to be blamed for all the destruction, but that was a moot point now anyway. Stacy figured that the vortex gun would either neutralize Madcap’s whirlwind or increase it to the point where it overloaded the gauntlet. Or… something.

Stacy turned on the vortex gun and turned the clunky power dial all the way up to Ten. Apparently, the Living Vacuum had never seen ‘This is Spinal Tap’. At first, the vortex seemed to be working, forcing supervillains and power armored mercenaries alike to drop to the ground after being thrown around like so many dolls. But then, just as Stacy was getting the feel for the situation, and she thought she might actually bring Madcap down and get her out of there in one piece and get this entire fiasco OVER with, one of the Congregation did… something… and the equation changed completely.

Suddenly, it was like Stacy was trying to reel in a fish that had suddenly turned into a whale. The two vortexes synched somehow, and Madcap’s vortex tried to drag Stacy into it. Stacy fought it with everything she had, digging in and trying to hold on. Then the connection went slack. Stacy relaxed with relief, which suddenly turned to horror as Madcap’s ball came roaring out of the chaos and smacked right into her.

The collision with the bubblehead-ball only fazed Stacy a bit. But crashing through the cinderblock wall of the Jarson-Kaplan Theater, thrown by the force of that ball, knocked her clean out.

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Madcap was vaguely aware that she wasn’t bouncing around anymore. She snapped to, and became aware that she was outside the theater. And there were HUNDREDS of news crews with their cameras on her! Then she realized that she was laying on top of something lumpy. Looking down, she made out the still figure of a girl in a gray jumpsuit, with a partially concealing hooded cloak. It took Madcap a few seconds to connect this girl with the Silver Ghost- that weird ‘silver’ thing really threw you off something major- but then she peeped, “Silvie?” The Ghost didn’t move, not an inch. Madcap poked at her, and it was like poking at a normal person, not at a weird slippery steel wall. Then remembering the TV cameras, Madcap swept the Ghost up in her arms and hollered, “I WILL AVENGE YOU!

“I think that you’ve got bigger problems on your plate, just at the moment,” said a rich, creamy, cultured PBS kind of voice behind her. Looking around, Madcap saw that ‘Cardinal’ guy standing there all badass, with his seven flunkies lined up behind him. “So. No Superheroes, no howitzer-toting security guards, no third-rate posers to protect you. Now, you face the Supreme Synod of Sin! Tell me, Golden Angel, what act of Divine Intervention will save you now?”

Then, as if in answer, a light shone down from above, and you could just make out the silhouette of the Golden Knight. Violet and Red Thunder were floating in reinforcing positions near him. Captain Patriot swooped down between the Congregation and the two girls and Azure moved into a supporting position. Blue Streak zoomed in and removed the two girls. And finally the Green Witch came down from the night sky riding her staff, with the terrible visage of every wrathful mother-goddess on her face.

“Wow, I really walked right into that one, didn’t I?” Cardinal Sin said to himself.

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Dec 16th

“Okay, I can see Cardinal Sin and his goons getting away,” Stacy said at the debriefing the next morning. “They are a really tough crew, and they didn’t have to worry about protecting the Press. I can even see the Crimson Claw and his goons getting away; the Claw had an escape plan ready. He’s a master criminal, they DO stuff like that. But tell me: HOW did a scrawny little screwball like MADCAP get away?”

Blue Streak looked at Goldstar and started to say something, but Goldie cut him off, saying, “NO, the question is: what kind of bizarre mutant power did you use to shut down the Knights of Purity’s armor? They’re tempest-shielded, so how did you DO that?”

Cal cut off a squabble about the improbability of a EMP grenade overloading both the Knights of Purity’s and the Crimson Claw’s armor setups by saying, “The Jarson-Kaplan Theater is a premier showcase for high-end performances in Cincinnati. It’s signal shielded to prevent people from sending cell phone images of the performances.”

“And to keep assholes from ruining shows with loud ringtones and taking ‘emergency calls’ during performances of Pagliacci,” Violet said soto voce.

Ignoring that Cal continued, “The shielding caused the EMP to implode and heterodyne on itself, causing a massive Dirac spike. For a microsecond, the pulse was a thousand times stronger than it normally would have been. And that’s all it takes to completely fry an electronics system.”

“Yes, but their very expensive armor was totally trashed,” Goldbug complained, “so WHY is the KoP being dinged to pay for restoring that theater?”

Maybe because they burst into a volatile situation without authorization and endangered hundreds of civilians, when they don’t have a license to operate in Cincinnati- AGAIN,” Karen suggested with an arch something in her voice.

“Ah, but they HAD authorization!” Goldstar insisted. “SHE gave them authorization!” he pointed at Stacy. “She called them in when she realized that she couldn’t handle the situation.”

“Tinstar, why would I call in the Knights of Stupidity?” Stacy asked in a voice that said, ‘that’s not just a lie, it’s a stupid lie’. “Besides the fact that I don’t know their number, if I thought that I couldn’t handle the situation, why wouldn’t I just call SPECTRUM here and let them handle it?”

“Then why didn’t you?”

“Because I got a text message from Red Thunder to go in and concentrate on getting Madcap out of the building.”

“Gee, it’s a SHAME that your cell phone got trashed by that EMP that you set off,” Goldstar said with a snarky smirk. “Then you might be able to back that up! Why don’t you just admit that you ditzed out and called in the KoP ‘cause you were just too chickenshit to admit to SPECTRUM that you couldn’t handle it! Just ‘fess up and pay for the damages that YOU caused!”

Stacy gave Goldstar a feline grin and produced her cell phone. “Actually… it didn’t get trashed by the EMP. Y’see, I gave it to Dylan, one of those three boys who were being so… ah… helpful? He took it out of the theater before I had to reveal myself, rescuing that other boy Nate. The text that I got is still on this,” she handed it to Cal. “AND it was physically impossible for me to call in the Nerds of Purity when you say I did.”

Goldstar started to quibble, but Cal cut him off, saying, “It appears that someone very tech-savvy designated himself as a ‘gatekeeper’ between Silver’s phone and the rest of the SPECTRUM hookup,” he gave Goldstar’s high tech suit of armor a withering glare. “He was able to intercept texts between Silver and the rest of us. And make a credible request call to the Knights of Purity.”

As the rest of SPECTRUM gave Goldstar glowering looks, Stacy added. “Actually, Goldbug, I’d like to thank you for your suggestion.” She spelled out how she had interpreted the false message from ‘Red Thunder’. “If I hadn’t been wearing my shields, that thing with the sound and light platform could have really messed me up.” Goldstar returned her sweet smile of thanks with a beetle-browed glower.

“Fortunately, the Aronhoff has supervillain insurance, and can move the rest of their productions from the Jarman-Kaplan to other venues,” Swashbuckler cut in. “We can leave the issue of liability to the lawyers. So, the question as to who has been baiting Madcap has been answered: either the Crimson Claw or Cardinal Sin.”

“Cardinal Sin,” Stacy corrected him. “The Madcap poser turned out to be one of Cardinal Sin’s flunkies. The Claw set up the ambush at the theater, but I got the definite impression that he was muscling in on Cardinal Sin’s game.”

“How shockingly unprofessional of the Claw,” Swashbuckler mused. “You know, we’re going to have to come down hard on both of them. Turf wars between normal thugs are bad enough; but supervillains are willing to cause collateral damage and civilian casualties in their feuds that no organized crime family would even dream of allowing. So, what do we know about these two?”

“We’ve dealt with the Crimson Claw before,” Azure said as she called up a file on a monitor. “He’s your basic ‘Criminal Mastermind’ type. He had a weird ‘power gauntlet’ that had various strange abilities, but to be perfectly honest, Madcap is doing things with that gizmo that the Claw never even tried. Silver, any idea as to how she’s doing that?”

“Later,” Cap said. “For now, let’s focus on the real threats. Anyway, the Claw is an old sparring partner. What do we know about Cardinal Sin?”

Nothing that he doesn’t want us to know,” Tawny said as she brought up a computer composite compiled from various pictures. “He’s a skilled professional criminal who has managed to avoid being arrested, or even captured long enough for his fingerprints and other vital stats to be recorded. If he’s ever been arrested, it was under another name with nothing to connect the two personas. From post-event forensic analysis, that ‘fire’ he produces is probably just some multi-sensory illusion; there was no sign of fire or smoke at the scenes of any of his strikes that couldn’t be nailed down to another source.

“Career-wise, he’s been at this for about 25 years, at least using this pseudonym. He was a little rocky at first, more lucky than smart, but he wised up quickly. He currently runs a small but very effective team of super-powered agents with a slightly larger body of armed thugs as backup. He mostly operates in the Great Lakes region, but he’s made strikes throughout the Midwest.”

“He’s a smartass,” Swashbuckler said sourly.

“And what else can you tell us about this pot, Mr. Kettleblack?” Goldstar sneered.

“I’m not insulting him,” Swashbuckler shot back. “It’s an important point. The whole ‘Anti-Clergy’ image speaks of someone who thinks that he’s smarter than everyone else. Much of his modus operandi revolves around proving that he’s clever by pushing people’s buttons. The ‘evil cardinal’ shtick is just offensive enough to push people’s buttons. I’ll lay you odds that he’s learned how to read a menu of basic reactions from people’s body language, and that he’s got another menu of baits and gambits that he chooses depending on those reactions. Then again, I’ve never met an illusion projector, innate or equipment-based, who didn’t have a strong streak of the wiseass in him.”

“OWCH,” Captain Patriot said with a wince. “And the Crimson Claw’s sense of humor could fit inside a peanut shell. HALF a peanut shell.”

The Claw is pretentious and arrogant enough to keep cranking up the threat level, and the Cardinal is reckless enough to keep goading him,” Cal said with his chin in his hand, worry written all over his blocky face.

“Okay then, School Play time is over!” Goldstar said, thumping the table with a fist and looking stern but just. “If we make a big deal about removing the Silver Ghost from Cincinnati, then Madcap will go looking for her. The Claw and Cardinal Sin are obviously after Madcap. The Claw wants his power talon back, and the Cardinal wants Madcap for however she’s making those fool things work. Remove Madcap from the equation, and the Claw and the Cardinal will go looking for better things to do. Madcap has consistently been involving the Ghost, so remove the Ghost from the equation and Madcap will stop doing foolish things and go away.” He glowered at Stacy. “We should have done that weeks ago.”

Stacy looked at him, her eyes wide. Her face scrunched up, her mouth clamped tight and tears started to form. The Green Witch was about to offer some words of consolation. But just as she was about to speak, Stacy erupted in a peal of laughter. She almost fell out of her chair roaring with laughter. “Woo!” she finished with a gust of breath. “And people say that you don’t have a sense of humor, Goldenboy,” she said puckishly to his stormy expression.

“Silver is practically the only thing keeping Madcap on anything even vaguely like an even keel,” Azure said like she was a Second Grade teacher explaining basic arithmetic. “Remove her from the equation, and Madcap stops having something to react to and becomes a complete loose cannon.”

“If anyone needs to be removed from the equation, it’s the Knights of Purity,” Stacy said with a minxish puckered smirk on her face.

“Or at the very least, for them to scale down their reaction plans, and get rid of the heavy firepower,” Tawny said matter-of-factly. Goldstar gave Tawny a look of betrayed surprise, to which she silently responded with a ‘you know I’m right’ stare.

“Will someone explain to me how those yahoos are getting around running around a civilian area with military specification weaponry?” Cal asked with a snarl.

“Let me put it this way,” Captain Patriot said with a flat voice, “the Aronhoff won’t have to wait for their superhero insurance to come through to start rebuilding. Yet again, Herb Goodkind papers over the Knights’ blundering with a lot of green.”

“Indeed, we may be ignoring our greatest asset in this entire mess,” Swash said, giving Stacy a sneaky look. “Letting Madcap and the Diabolical Divas set the stage keeps us on the defensive. And Cardinal Sin probably won’t bother with the ‘Nine Ladies Dancing’- if he’s even figured out a crime for it- now that his hand has been shown. But we know that it’s a good chance that if Madcap- or the Golden Angel for this purpose- will show up if the Silver Ghost makes an appearance. And it follows that the Claw and Cardinal will try to make a grab for her if the Golden Angel performs a visitation. So the question really is: how can we stage a personal appearance by the Silver Ghost that won’t needlessly endanger civilians?”

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Art looked at the report in front of him and said, “There are no words that I can say that tell how much I hate this.”

“What do you mean, Big Guy?” Herb Tellock asked from where he was seated on the couch in Art’s office. “So the Silver Ghost is giving some sort of press statement about what happened at the Aronhoff. So what? I mean, she’s asked the Knights of Purity to be there, so we get the troops out to show support for them and-”

“That’s what they want us to do!” John snapped from where he was sprawled across one chair, his habitual cup of coffee in one hand. “Why would they want both the KoP and us to be there?”

“Madcap,” Art said, things visibly coming together in his mind.

“Madcap!” Bailey said, clearly following where Art was coming from. “Either as Madcap or the Golden Angel, she’s always been about the Silver Ghost in one way or another. If the Silver Ghost shows up, then the Golden Angel can’t be far behind. And if the Golden Angel shows up, then Cardinal Sin and the Crimson Claw will be there to bag her.”

“But… the Knights of Purity will be there to capture Madcap, the Claw AND the Cardinal, right?” Les not so much stated as asked.

“If the Claw and the Cardinal know that the Knights will be there, one or the other of them, if not both, will open up with something to take them out,” Gordon said, focusing intently over folded hands.

“And the Knights can’t beg off making an appearance, especially not after the Aronhoff fiasco,” Travis said, his eyes darting back and forth, as though seeking out new factors to add to his calculations. “And if they hold back and wait for Madcap or the Claw or the Cardinal to make appearances, then they can’t act, as they’ve refused the meet.”

“Is that legally valid?” Jennifer asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” Johnny said decisively. “That’s how it’ll play out in the Press.”

“That’s not the problem,” Art growled. “Like Herb said, Goodkind will expect us to rally the troops to support the KoP. He’ll expect us to send untrained, unarmed, unprotected civilians, most of them with children, into a closed hall where a super powered firefight is being staged to happen!”

“But the Cardinal and the Claw managed to not hurt any of the bystanders at the Aronhoff!” Les objected.

“That was a fluke!” Travis snarled. “As it was, four people were lightly crushed by being forced against those doors, and two were almost trampled!”

“But the Knights will be there to protect them!” Les maintained.

The rest gave him withering glares. “IF the Knights are there,” Johnny said in quiet, over-controlled tones, “they’ll be the first ones targeted, remember?”

“But if the Silver Ghost is going to be there, doesn’t it follow that the rest of SPECTRUM will be nearby to step in, even if the Knights are taken out?” Bailey asked.

“We’re going to rely on a bunch of spandex wearing freaks to protect our Rank and File?” Art asked dryly. “After years of screaming at the tops of our lungs that that’s exactly the situation that we DON’T want?”

“And if the Ghost saves members of H1! - in front of the Press…” Gordon let his sentence fade unfinished, leaving the others to ponder the potentials.

“But if any of ours are hurt, we can ram that down their throats!” Herb said grimly.

Art looked at him with pain in his eyes. “Do we really want to send unarmed civilians into certain danger? Even if SPECTRUM’s PR flacks don’t lambast us over it, do we really want to BE that kind of people?”

“Then what will we do?” Bailey asked, her eyes wide with confusion and dismay. “If we don’t show up, whether the Knights do or not, then Goodkind will withdraw all of his funding! And after that mess with that Conrad girl- not to mention the mauling that that bitch Wickham has been handing us- the Goodkind money is the only thing keeping us afloat!”

“But if anything happens, not only will we give SPECTRUM a flamethrower to roast us with, we’ll lose the support of those members we need the most,” Art said morosely. “The only ones who’ll stay with us will be the hardcore nutcases that we’ve been trying to distance ourselves from for years. And even if nothing happens, then we, us here in this room, will still have sent innocent lives into danger, just for our own advantage. That’s… a long step down a road I don’t want to travel.”

“Then… what DO we do?” Les asked with the face and voice of a lost child.

Then Gordon broke out into a sly smile. “We use that. We call out the troops, but we don’t bring them into the press hall for the announcement. Instead, we rally about a block away, and make the point that the very fact that the Ghost is there is dangerous.”

“But… that’s lame!” Herb objected.

“It doesn’t matter,” Travis said with a sigh. “Sometimes the best move isn’t to try and win; it’s to just stay in the game. This is the only gambit that we can come up with that won’t get our people hurt on one hand, and won’t set off Herb Goodkind on the other. Goodkind won’t like it, but if the Knights don’t show up either, there won’t be a lot he can bitch about.”

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“So, what do you think the Silver Ghost is gonna say at her press conference this afternoon?” Nate asked at lunch break at Mansfield.

“You pay attention to press conferences?” Corey Griswold asked with a look askance.

“I do when it may be my first public acknowledgement of my heroic deeds,” Nate copped a pose like he was sitting for a statue.

“Oh puh-leeze,” Jennilee groaned. “We don’t even know that you three goobers were even really there last night. Are we really supposed to believe that you fought seven supervillains all by yourself before the Silver Ghost came to save you?”

“Nah, not all by myself!” Nate grinned like a goon, “I had my BOYS backing me up!” He draped his arms around Dylan and Spence’s shoulders. With a matching goon-grin Dylan showed off the selfie of himself up in the flies of the Jarman-Kaplan with the Silver Ghost. Then Spence showed off YouTube clips of first himself being shown out the door by the Silver Ghost, and then some of Crimson Claw goons flying off of Nate, with Nate himself being flown off the stage dangling from an invisible hand. “AND we managed to handle it without tearing up the place, unlike the Knights of Triggerhappy!” There were high-fives and bro-fists all around.

“So, when are you three going to start patrolling the streets, waging a relentless war against Crime and Corruption?” Lauren asked snidely.

“Gee, that’s a toughie,” Spence replied, screwing up his face and tapping his chin. “All the GOOD colors have been taken….”

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David looked around the table uncomfortably. Unlike his informal meetings with Courtney, Jennifer, Lisa and the Matts, this was a formal meeting with Dagny, Imbas and *shudder* Mills, and what they said there mattered for Evolution Rocks! Or at least the Cincinnati chapter. And while their strategy of focusing on the dangers of the Knights of Purity had so far been quite successful, with very good local response, and they’d added several city councilmen to their list of contacts. Unfortunately, all that that had been done without any major input from Dagny, Imbas or Mills. And the ‘proper synergy of input and processing’ (translation: their egos) required that those three have a material say in how the support demonstration for the Silver Ghost should be handled. “Look, guys, I can understand your desire for a more positive emphasis,” David started off. “But the real thing to keep in mind here is the very real danger that a privately run paramilitary group poses, especially in a high civilian area like Cincinnati! And given the Knights open- blatant, even!- disregard for mutant’s basic rights-”

Imbas cut David off imperiously. “Positive isn’t the point! What’s the point of getting hundreds of people to show up, if all they do is stand in the rain holding a few signs? Yes it’s well-mannered, but well-mannered people rarely make HISTORY!” Imbas was very big on showy theatrical displays. He (at least David thought that Imbas was a ‘he’; it was hard to tell and so far it had never been an issue) was the leading light (there was a joke there somewhere, but David had no idea as to what it was) of the Coalition for Economic Advancement. How mutants figured into Economic Advancement was unclear. But then, so much of the CEA was nebulous. They were into Avant-Garde theater, reclaiming misused urban spaces, finding new venues for recycling, integrating the internet more closely into everyday life, helping the Mentally Handicapped, changing the American diet to something more sustainable, Online Education, reconfiguring Mass Transit, and a mess of other things. They were so into ‘thinking outside the box’ that they had trouble coloring on the page. While David disagreed with Conservatives on many points, one thing that he admired was their clarity of purpose and focus on their issue. The NRA had been against Gun Control 50 years ago, it was against Gun Control now, and it would be against Gun Control 50 years from now. They knew how to, if you’ll pardon the expression, stick to their guns. Imbas and the CEA, in pointed contrast, had a nasty case of Cause Faddism. They were so in love with being at odds with the Mainstream that they forgot that they were actually trying to DO something, so they floated around from cause to cause, never applying themselves long enough to actually achieve anything. On the upside, the CEA was very good at nailing down funding; the CEA provided almost 35% of the funding for Evolution Rocks!’s chapter in Cincinnati.

“History?” Dagny sputtered, “We’re not here to make history; we’re here to make sure that a bunch of cybernetically augmented Brownshirts don’t trump up an excuse to institute a Fourth Reich in Ohio! We’re trying to prevent history!” In David’s rather jaundiced view, the only way that Dagny could be more of a textbook illustration of a Social Justice Warrior would be if she wore armor with a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King on the shield. Like their Field Marshall (or whatever Dagny’s official designation was) the rest of ‘Justice for Arbin Tendoves’ (David had no idea who Arbin Tendoves was; he assumed that Tendoves was the tragically stern looking yet photogenic First Nations type on their logo) were very confrontational. Which made them very handy to have around on demonstration lines when the violent anti-mutant bozo splinter groups that Humanity First! loudly denied using as their goon squads showed up.

“Yes, in slightly less paranoid terms, that’s what we’re trying to do,” David tried to keep the meeting from derailing (again). “We need to keep the focus on the Knights of Purity and the fact that they have opened fire with military grade weapons in Cincinnati AGAIN, while they STILL don’t have a license to even have that kind of firepower, let alone USE-”

“Red Paint,” Imbas breathed, “We cover ourselves in red paint, to symbolize the reckless slaughter of innocents-”

“But why limit our critique to the Knights of Fascism?” Dagny asked. “Why not widen our scope to the outrages perpetuated by the Police against mutants?”

“Not a good idea at the moment,” Matt butted in. “Right now, the Silver Ghost is getting some serious good buzz with the Boys in Blue, and we don’t wanna spoil that by giving them some grief, especially while we’re supposed to be on the Ghost’s side.”

“What?” Dagny asked with a note of betrayed disappointment. She was the sort of Lefty who reflexively regarded the Police as the enemy (even as she expected them to keep her car from getting stolen). “How would you know that? You’re in Education!”

“We do a lot of work with the PAL and other community -engagement programs for the Force,” Matt explained. Matt worked with Stairway to Tomorrow, a group that ran programs geared toward better education for impoverished and marginalized youth. “Cops like to meet people under circumstances when no one’s bleeding or getting arrested.”

“Why would the Silver Ghost be getting ‘buzz’ with the Pigs?” Mills asked.

“Well, she’s got these powers, but she doesn’t think that ‘cause she can fly and lift a buffalo over her head with one hand, she can do the Cops’ business better’n they can,” Matt spelled out, ticking things off on one hand.

“First, remember when Madcap first showed up at the U? The Ghost was only there to see what the hubbub was about. When Madcap tried to sucker her into a fight, the Ghost just said ‘I’m not a crime-fighter’. Cops LIKE that attitude.

“Second, when she came up with that idea about following Madcap home invisibly? Don’t have a big super fight, just tell Madcap’s parents and let THEM bring her in. She got a ton of kudos for that one. Pity that that columnist spoiled it for her.

“Third, when she comes in and either sets up a trap for Madcap or is called to consult about Madcap? She actually talks to the Cops. She admits that they’re the pros, and she’s an amateur. She learns their names and develops relationships with them. And given the crap that the boys in blue put up with on a regular basis, that simple common sense respect goes a long way.

“Fourth, the Ghost has her priorities straight. She doesn’t go in swinging, looking for the big showy battle. She goes in quiet and looks around and sends information back. She tries to protect the civilians first whenever she can, and get them out of the way. Cops see that, and they like that.

“And last night at the Jarman? After she got the civilians out, she didn’t wanna go back into that mess. Hey, who in their right mind would? But she hears that Madcap’s still in there and she goes in to save her. Why? ‘Cause it’s her duty. She doesn’t wanna do it, but she has to do it, and she winds up getting knocked through a brick wall because of it. Trust me, Cops really get that.”

“Oh wow, Groovy-cool, so WHAT?” Mills snarled.

“So, the Ghost having good relations with the PD is good for her and it’s good for us,” Courtney said firmly. “It says that she’s a sane, responsible citizen who’s about doing the right thing, not showing off. If the Cincy PD see the Ghost as a good kid who got a break and is behaving herself, then they back off and relax. Police reporters pick up on it and start writing about it, and the word gets around that the Silver Ghost is cool. Then, we’re people trying to help-”

Dagny cut Courtney off. “That’s very, very NICE, but the very Police that you’re talking about sucking up to are gun toting GOONS who are little better than the iron-plated fascists who call themselves the ‘Knights of Purity’! Knights? Purity? They can’t even be bothered to hide that they’re brothers under the sheets with the Klan! They’re a pack of STORM TROOPERS who are running around Cincinnati firing off guns they’re not even legally supposed to HAVE, trying to kill one poor little girl!

“Ah? Dagny?” David cut her off. “That’s sort of the entire POINT?” Once he had the floor, David kept on, “The POINT here is that, yes we’ll be there to support the Ghost, but we take the opportunity to keep the spotlight- and the pressure- on the KoP. Not the Cops, but the K-o-P. Yes, they ARE a pack of stormtroopers, running around with military spec firearms, pulling off illegal military actions on American soil, not only against civilians, but against a civilian minor. And we’re calling them on it! That’s what this demonstration has to be about: calling the Knights of Purity on the fact that they don’t have a license to operate in Cincinnati. BUT they keep showing up, trying to throw their weight around, and getting off with slaps on their wrists.”

“Our Ad campaign, focusing on the Knights and their illegal operations in the Chicago Cloisters is some of the best work that we’ve done,” Courtney added. “Not our best work in Cincinnati, but some of our best work in the country. Chicago is using our ads, and they don’t have to change them a bit! New York and LA are watching us and taking notes. People, I know that we don’t say this very often but… we’re making a difference!”

“And check it out,” Matt stepped in again. “My guys in the force tell me that the Blues are starting to sour on the K-o-P. Goodkind’s Goon Squad has tried to pull off a fait accompli one time too many here in Cincy, and the guys on the Force are getting sick and tired of them. Dagny, Imbas, what I’m tryin’ to tell you is that we’re not up against the wall on this one! If we don’t go haring off, trying to tar the PD with the KoP’s crap, we’re golden! If anything, we should play up that the KoP are Not the Police! Trust me, Cops hate pushy civilians trying to do their job. If we just let the Ghost keep making all the right moves, while we keep a spotlight on the Knights making all the wrong moves, we could have the Cincinnati PD on our side for a change!”

“Kay-Oh-Pee is Not Pee-Dee!” Imbas chanted out, obviously trying out a new picketline mantra.

“Aaahh… that’s Nice, Imbas,” Matthew said with a wince of discomfort. “But we’re trying to show this town that we’re NOT a bunch of kooks who’re looking to rattle the Establishment’s cage, we’re just trying to get people to understand what the KoP are really like!”

David, Courtney, Lisa, Jen and the Matts tried to get Dagny and Imbas to realize that making nice with the Police and the mainstream was the strategic thing at the moment. Unfortunately, dissing the Cops and freaking out the squares were Imbas’ and Dagny’s favorite forms of entertainment. Both sides squabbled over it for a bit and then, out of left field, Mills said, “Dags, Imbas, as much as I hate to say it, they’re right.” That stopped all conversation dead in its tracks. “Put it down to even a stopped clock being right twice a day. YES, Cincinnati PD’s Civil Rights record sucks. But, let’s be honest here, they’re still the Cops. Really taking them on is a helluva lot more than we can handle right now. But the Knights of Purity? They’re the next step in heavy handed totalitarianism, a heavily armed GOON SQUAD for a billionaire bigot. They have footholds in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Now they’re trying to take root in Cincinnati, but they don’t have a license. YET. So, we CAN stop them. AND, if we make a big enough noise about not letting those assholes get that license, and get the courts to stop just slapping them on the wrists when they start shooting up the place, maybe we send the message that NO this is NOT a good idea, and NO, we’re NOT letting it happen! If we, here in Cincinnati can show the country that the KoP can’t just roll in and set up shop, then Chicago will finally work up the guts to kick those assholes out! And then Los Angeles, and then New York! And once we do that, maybe, just MAYBE we can start doing something about the God-awful corruption in the country’s police departments! THEN, we can talk about having made a difference!”

“Well put, Mills,” David said carefully. “Nice to see that you can actually contribute.” ‘But what are you really trying to contribute?’ he wondered silently.

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“How did they all get together so quickly?” Stacy asked Karen, looking around the general area of the Cincinnati City Hall, where Stacy was slated to give her press announcement. There were clusters of various groups dotted here and there, from a wider range of the political spectrum than Stacy had any idea that Ohio had. Besides Humanity First! and Evolution Rocks!, there were groups representing both the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice movements, there was an NRA group, a Black Rights group (what that had to do with Stacy, she had NO IDEA). “And what is the PTA doing here?”

“I’m… not 100% sure, Sweetie,” Karen admitted. “I think they’re protesting the DA’s office using a minor as a Special Investigator. Maybe.”

Karen and Stacy managed to enter City Hall unseen by flying close to the rooftops and landing on the roof of the 4-story quarried-stone building. An aide showed them to a room where they waited for a while. Finally, DA Kaltenborn, an assistant, a couple of ADAs, a Special Investigator, a secretary and a bodyguard walked in. Kaltenborn looked at Karen and said, “Well, it’s set up the way you wanted. Are you sure that this will work the way you want?”

Karen shrugged widely. “Who can say? Especially when you’re talking about a couple of professional wiseasses like Cardinal Sin and the Claw. The idea is to give them something to react against within a tight schedule and limited circumstances. This press announcement will last 15 minutes, and not a second longer, and it’ll take place on our terms. Period. Tricksy foxes tend to take situations like that as a challenge to their ingenuity. Hopefully, they’ll be so intent on getting over on us that they’ll trip each other up. We ARE working on other gambits, as I’m sure that your office and the PD’s Metahuman Affairs division are, but this is the best we could come up with so quickly, that will at least bring the Media into the situation in a way that will spike the guns of the mouthier gadflies.”

Kaltenborn nodded in a way that suggested that he saw the logic, even if he wasn’t particularly happy with it. “Okay, and I’ve had a few words with Goldstar’s parole officer, so there won’t be any repeats of last night.” He looked at Stacy. “And how do you feel about this?”

Stacy screwed up her face in an uncomfortable grimace. “I don’t like it, but the team’s been pretty good to me, so I’m willing to take one for the team.”

Kaltenborn nodded approvingly. “Have you worked out your statement?”

“Sorta. I haven’t written it all out. Swashbuckler- not the guy from Los Angeles, but a retired superhero who used to go by that name and has been staying with us- told me to ‘block out’ what I’m supposed to say, and just wing it. Otherwise, it’ll sound scripted, and it wouldn’t fly right if I was making noises like I was just reading off what someone else decided that I should say.”

Kaltenborn weighed that and nodded. “Okay, then give me the highlights of what you’re going to say.”

Stacy cleared her throat and looked at the index cards that she’d use to help her keep track of things. “Okay, first I say that I’m glad that no one got too hurt at the Jarman, and then I say that I’m going to do something to keep anyone else from getting hurt. What happened at the Jarman was Cardinal Sin’s fault more’n anyone else, but I can’t do anything against him directly. So, I’m stepping down from my hunt for Madcap, and leaving the field clear for the grownups. And I ask the Golden Angel to do likewise, at least until both Cardinal Sin and the Crimson Claw are caught, or at least move on.” Stacy said the last part with a ‘I’m only doing this ‘cause I absolutely have to’ look on her face.

Kaltenborn gave Stacy a look of weary sympathy. With a gusty sigh, he said, “Yeah, Sweetheart, I know: it stinks. But then, so do most of the really necessary things in life. Some of the best surgeons in the world have said that they’d prefer to never slice open a living body. But they have to, because things don’t just get better on their own.”

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Roughly two blocks away from City Hall, there were four trailers with markings that claimed that they were for Lee-Kirby Reconstruction Contractors (“Fixing Superhero Damage for 15 years”). But Lee-Kirby was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Goodcorp, Herb Goodkind’s company, totally discrete and separate from Goodkind International. Inside each trailer, one ‘lance’, a balanced 5-man team of Knights of Purity with the appropriate armor, was doing last-minute checks and tests on their combat frames. The Knights were always careful just before going into a fight. But today, they had special reason to be absolutely certain that their armor would do the job right. Last night had been a fiasco. They’d gotten creamed. And the reaming they got from their boss was nothing compared to the savaging they’d gotten in the Media. The Press was calling them gun-happy vandals. But in their hearts, they saw themselves as modern day knights, fighting for the very survival of humanity. If they failed today, that could be it. They wouldn’t just lose the Cincinnati contract. They wouldn’t just lose jobs. They’d lose a little bit of the bulwark that was protecting the very nature of humanity. They’d gone into the Jarman without really knowing who they were facing. But now they had reports, analyses, histories, detailed tactics for the Crimson Claw and his organization, and Cardinal Sin and his ‘Congregation of Crime’. This time it would be different.

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One of the paradoxes of peaceful demonstrations is that while demonstrations are at their core all about drama, standing in line for hours is incredibly dull. Travis, the H1! Cincinnati chapter PR director, had started out organizing pickets and demonstrations like this, and given how scretchy Herb Goodkind was these days, he figured that if anything happened, it would be best on multiple levels if he was there on the scene. Art had wanted to be there as well, but Travis figured that that might be taken as a sign of desperation. And that was the real bear, all the subtle things that could be taken out of context. You had to be very careful about the mix of races, without being too obvious about the mix of races. Cincinnati was roughly 40% Black, so getting some buy-in from the African-American members was crucial. Then again, given the strained relations between the Black Community and the Cincinnati PD, having too many black people standing around wasn’t the best idea either. Travis checked his watch, and called the next shift of demonstrators to take over. One of his tricks was to periodically rotate the demonstrators, as to relieve the tedium of standing around in the cold. It also broke up the blandness of the same people standing around in the same spot, and fostered an impression of a wider support base. Travis made sure to have some kids on each shift, to remind the Rank and File why they were there. A major reason why people joined Humanity First! was a need for some sense of control over their lives. The amount of power that the Federal Government and Big Business had was galling enough as it was, without bozos in circus costume flying around busting up the place. Having the kids there would remind the grownups that they were grownups, so they wouldn’t start acting up out of sheer boredom. He allowed himself the luxury of looking over at the Evolution Rocks! group and laughed silently. He’d leave the acting up and looking stupid to the opposition.

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Contrary to how the lurid Media likes to portray them, most demonstrators don’t want to get violent. Indeed, given the political timbre of Ohio, Evolution Rocks bent over backwards to keep from presenting an image of long-haired hippie freaks baiting the Police and pissing on the flag. Well, David, Courtney, Jen, Lisa and the Matts and their factions did. And Imbas and Dagney were wrapping their heads around the novel idea of ‘making progress’. Of course, that left Gifford Mills, if not the leader of Catalyst for Social Change (being an anarchist group and all) then at least its guiding light and driving force. Looking around at the various groups huddled together against the cold, Mills felt that snide blend of amusement and disdain that was his favorite state of mind. When faced with an opportunity on a short schedule, most people default to the tried and true; or tired and trite, depending on your point of view. But a blessed few, such as himself, rose to the occasion with bursts of true inspiration.

Idiots like that crackpot Philby in Wichita thought that mutants were a plague on humanity. But Mills knew better; they were a blessing. Not in their oddball powers, but rather in the fact that they simply could not be crammed down into the soul-crushing machine that was Western Commercial Culture. You couldn’t Cosby-fy them, you couldn’t make them bland and safe. Even the pretty ones defied the conformity-imposing ‘Glamour’ industries, because they didn’t need the glops and paints that the Beauty and Cosmetics businesses required their girly-dolls to use. The huge teeth of the cogs of the Money Machine broke on mutants, and Mills had every intention of exploiting that for all it was worth.

The Silver Ghost was the best thing that could happen in Cincy. She was EVERYTHING that he wanted. She was young, she was cute, she was wholesome, and she sent the message that mutants are safe to have around. She was the blonde girl next door that everyone wants. And he was going to see to it that the Knights of Purity, if not the Cincinnati PD, blew her to bloody bits on local (and eventually national) TV. That would send the message to all the mutants, especially the teenage ones, that there was no place at the table for them. Even a cute, wholesome, perky, (presumably) blonde, blue-eyed cutie like the Silver Ghost was a monster to the Power Elite, and the mutants would use those wonderful powers to rip the corrupt racist Capitalist structure apart. And of course, the vast Baseline majority would turn on the mutants and destroy them in return. It would be a bloody mess that would kill millions, if not billions, but when you have a global population of nearing 7 billion, you have enough to rebuild in a better, cleaner world. And even if the Silver Ghost wasn’t the match to the tinder that would set the world ablaze, her death would be one more nail in the coffin of any hope that mutants had that they could ‘all just get along’.

“We’re just another bunch of nobodies with signs!” Imbas moaned. “No one’s paying attention to us! Our message is being lost in the babble!”

“We need to do something to make people-” and by ‘people’, Dagny meant the Media, “- pay some attention to us!”

David stepped up and was about to spew forth yet more of his ameliorist Pablum, but Mills cut him off. “Yeah, I saw this coming, so I had something prepped, just in case.” He grandly held out his hand to one of his alleged peers at CSC and was handed a triangle of slivery plastic wrap. “Something that catches the eye without being offensive, and sends a clear message without words or jingles.” With a snap of a wrist, he unfolded the plastic ‘cloth’ into a thin hooded poncho made of the material that ‘space blankets’ were made of, just the thing to suggest an association with the Silver Ghost. “It’s even warm; just the thing for this weather.”

David stood there, eyebrows high and face drawn in mild surprise. “Wow, Mills… that’s actually a very good idea. Nice one!”

The CSC people started handing out ponchos, but they ran out quickly. “Damn, it’s always something,” Mills snarled. “We’ve got more, but we gotta go get ‘em. Just… put the ones with ponchos out front.” With that, Mills led his anarchist confreres off in search of more ponchos.

Courtney looked at David with a skeptical smirk. “It takes 12 people to carry maybe 60 ponchos?”

“Well, they are very nice ponchos…”

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“Mr. Goodkind actually had his Knights show up for this?” Stacy asked looking at the closed-circuit camera image of the designated Press Announcement room, where there were two ranks of Knights of Purity lined up in their trademark power armor.

“Last second change,” Coleman, one of Kaltenborn’s ADAs commented with a wary note in her voice. “You have to wonder what angle Goodkind’s playing. He needs a win, especially after that debacle at the Jarman. He’s pulled too many strings to keep his Knights out of Wardell’s court. He’s got to pull something out of a hat, just to keep what standing he’s got. Another mess, and forget about getting a contract in Cincinnati, his Knights of Purity will start to become a joke in the Midwest.”

“Where’s Goodkind’s spokesman?” Karen asked. “I mean, no matter what Silver says, the KoP are going to want to throw in their ten cents’ worth.”

“Don’t you mean two cents’ worth?”

“The Goodkinds always insist on five times more say than everyone else.”

“Whatever Goodkind’s planning it’s got to be a pip,” Kaltenborn remarked. “He’s brought in Humanity First!,” he indicated the bank of civilians along one side of the chamber, “and they’ve got children with them.”

“What?” Stacy peeped, “I thought that the Firsters were saying that it was too dangerous to even be the same room with me.”

“When the Goodkinds- or at least their money- speak, people snap to and say ‘Three Bags Full!’” Karen muttered snidely.

“Well, we said 3 o’clock,” Kaltenborn sighed. “The Press is going to be bitchy enough about this as it is, don’t want them complaining about being tardy…”

Stacy nodded and followed Kaltenborn and his entourage, with the Green Witch, Captain Patriot, the Golden Knight and Azure backing her up. They filed into the designated announcement room, and Kaltenborn warmed them up with a few words about the situation, just to set the context of what was to follow.

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“Blah, blah, blah, blee, standard boring Establishment crap,” Mills thought to himself from his position well outside the room. Then he wondered, ‘Dammit, where’s Rosalee?’ Rosalee had been very amped about her role in the maneuver. Not that she entirely understood it, or had been completely briefed by Mills. After all, if you’re the only one who knows what’s really going on, then you’re in charge. Then his cell phone buzzed against his ribs. “What?”

[Giff!] Lester, who was on duty handling the fuse box, blithered, [they’ve busted Rosalee!]

“What?” Mills asked confused. Then he focused, “Why would they arrest Rosalee?” And why now?

[She was, ah, carrying]

“Carrying? Carrying what? A weapon?”

[No, they found a packet of white powder on her]

What? But Rosalee didn’t do drugs! Okay, she had a few issues holding her liquor, but she didn’t trust drugs. Mills thought furiously for a moment. “Okay, I’ll get in touch with Jijanja-”

[Jijanja’s keeping the van warm for the getaway, remember? Even if we rotated, there’s no way that she could get here in time. Even if that Ghost kid has a terminal case of motormouth, there’s no way that we could sneak someone into position in time]

Mills racked his brain furiously. He’d managed to find a function for almost everyone in his cell, and everyone who might get there in time had a job that no one else could reasonably fill. Except him. And he’d designated himself a ‘utility’, someone who was free to fill in in case something went wrong. It was his way of ducking work. “Fuck,” he said disgustedly. “I guess it’s true- if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself! Les, Skyfall is still go, on schedule. Get someone to pick up my bag, I’ll be leaving the building too fast to get it myself.” ‘Well, it won’t be perfect,’ Mills mused to himself as he took one of the silvertone ponchos, a lucite halo, a pair of ‘angel’ wings, and a shaving kit out of the bag. He assembled several bits from the kit together into an odd-looking contraption. ‘But it will be better than backing down and letting Declan have a shot at undermining my position in the cell.’

Mills pulled the wings onto his back, but left the lights off and tucked the halo under his arm. He clipped a small LED light to the breast pocket on his denim work shirt. The LED was a UV light; it would be invisible to the unaided eye, but blur any camera that managed to get a shot of him. All-too aware that his contraption would be very suspicious if he was searched, he left it in his backpack. Then he told Lester, “Les, Skyfall is Go. Pass it along: when I hit Ultra A, you execute B, and pass along to C and on like that.”

[Roger That]

That done, Mills carefully walked closer to the announcement room, listening in on the DA’s boring presentation, listening for the kid to start her piece and praying that no uniformed goon stopped him and searched the bag. When he was close enough to the room, and he heard the girl start to talk, he hit Ultra A. Five interminable seconds later, the lights in that part of City Hall went out. Mills turned on the back-lights for those stupid wings, slipped on the idiot halo and lit that as well. Then he pulled the dingus out of his bag and stepped into the unguarded announcement room.

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The second that the lights went out, Stacy hit the floor. Then, because her reflexes were better than most baselines, she dragged Mr. Kaltenborn and Ms. Coleman down to the ground behind the podium, which was very well armored. She did so just in time for what would have hit Ms. Coleman to hit Azure and blow her head clean off.

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Mills was expecting to step into a room full of confusion and TV camera lights flashing around in confusion. But it was worse than chaos; it was a scene out of a Medieval vision of Hell. There were lights flashing around and guns going off and spurts of flame and screaming and people rushing around. Mills froze, but then someone said, “It’s the Golden Angel!”

Lights suddenly fixed on him, and on pure reflex, Mills threw the bomb that he’d cobbled together from plans he’d gotten from a book by Paladin Press®. But the bomb only increased the confusion, and a choking gas started to fill the close room, and suddenly something happened to make all the lights shut down, and he heard the unmistakable sound of reporters bitching that their equipment wasn’t working. Then Mills saw the headless body of a tall, athletic woman advance on them all, he knew that it was time to get. He scrambled as best he could for the door, shucking the ‘halo’ as he went.

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Cursing all high-IQ lowbrows who just had to complicate everything all out of control, Stacy dropped the android replica of Azure that she’d been using as a shield and let the KoP shoot it to bits. It had gotten her past all the insanity, and that was as much good as it could do. Some yahoo had set off an EMP grenade- more likely several of them- and had shorted out the cybernetic decoy drones that Cal and Swash had been piloting. Not that it had taken out the KoP, who had apparently upgraded their tempest shielding even more. But Stacy couldn’t stop to deal with them. Madcap had gotten rid of her halo, but she had spaced on the lit wings on her back, which were disappearing down the hall.

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Cardinal Sin cursed as his ‘hellfire’ slagged the only one of the now-obvious robotic doppleganger drones that had survived the EMP barrage. It was a copy of the Green Witch. He’d hoped to slap down the Witch quickly, taking her by surprise. But looking around, he sensed that things were well out of control, and the last thing that he needed to do was expend himself and his followers dealing with this, only to run into the real Green Witch- and no doubt the rest of SPECTRUM- when he was spent. “Brother Acedia! Exonera Mentem! All of you, Gambit Receptum Tres!” With that, he burned an escape path for himself and his followers.

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“Damnation!” Cal blurted, pulling the telepresence synchronization helmet off his head in the trailer three blocks away from City Hall. “I HATE dealing with Magic Users!”

“Why?” Swashbuckler asked, even as he shook the woofles out of his own head from when the Azure decoy was decapitated. “They were expendable decoys, after all. We knew that they’d be one of the first things the scoundrels would target.”

“That’s not the point!” Cal snarled as he started the power-up sequence for the Golden Knight drone. “For some reason, magic interferes with my synchronization signals, causing a feedback that’s… almost… vindictive.”

“Vindictive?”

The synchronization works because it takes its cues from the most effective template for emulating human movement: namely, my own body. So, the feedback causes a sympathetic reaction that's interpreted by my body as whatever causes the feedback.”

“So,” Swashbuckler put the pieces together and added them to his own recent experience, “when your drone takes damage, you feel pain?”

“Some,” Cal hedged as he finished the final steps of synching up with the Golden Knight.

“Why would you arrange for a remote drone that places you in as much danger as it?”

“Because, to be effective, people, especially criminals, have to think that the Golden Knight is a living human being. He can’t just fly and blast and like that, he’s got to move and react like a human being. And in order to get that level of natural reflexive reaction, I need the best response input that I can get, and this synchronization scheme is the only way to get that level.”

“Are you absolutely sure about that?” Swash asked.

“You can’t expect to be a hero without taking a few lumps,” Cal said mulishly as he synchronized with the Golden Knight and launched it out of its bay.

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Mills pulled out the silver Mylar poncho in his hoodie pouch and pulled it on, never missing a single near-panicked beat as he tore out of City Hall. He had no idea as to what had gone on back there. But he was all-too aware that his personal safety required that he lose himself in a crowd of Silver Ghost posers as quickly as possible, whether the KoP opened fire on them or not.

But as he pelted out of City Hall into the Civic Center, the situation was not as he’d anticipated. The formerly discrete groups were being herded together by two lances of KoP. There was a cry of ‘there’s the Silver Ghost!’ it took a moment for Mills to connect that they were talking about HIM, under the poncho. One of the lances turned away from herding the sheep into manageable groups and advanced on him, guns drawn. For all of his ruthlessness on the macro-strategic level Gifford Mills had never shot a real weapon in his life, let alone been shot at. Cruel potshots on forums, yes; but actually shot at? He gaped and locked up, unable to create a real world plan to save his own life. Then he was forced down to the ground by a hand that had the power of a tow truck.

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“Remember, I want the Ghost alive,” the Crimson Claw barked at his men over the commandeered KoP communications link. “Mess her up as much as you need to, but we can’t use her as a hostage for that Golden Angel nitwit if she’s dead!

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Huddling on the ground, Mills barely managed to connect the silvery figure standing over him with the girl who’d been the subject of so much spin doctoring. KoP thugs were advancing with oversized shotguns that shot out thick slow-moving cylinders that spun out into nets, which the Ghost somehow swatted aside. Mills started to pull his wits together, but then one of the hardsuits started flashing rotating lights and emitting an ear-shattering yodeling wail. What? But they’re not supposed to use sonic weapons in areas with civilians around! The Ghost crouched over him, her hands over her ears. He could just barely hear her mutter, “Aw Ke-krist, not this crap again…” She rummaged around in her belt and stuck something in one of her ears. She was going for another one, when another one of the hardsuits skated at her and tackled her. With a snarl, she grappled the KoP goon and savagely threw him against the ground, back and forth like one of those old ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoons. She finished getting the ear-thing in her ear, just in time for the really BIG armor suit to come charging at her with that big-ass club. She just lifted off, leaving Mills completely exposed, the focus of much attention- and for the first time in his life, not enjoying it.

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Stacy’s first reflex was to go invisible. Isn’t it strange how doing something that unnatural can become a reflex? But she almost automatically was targeted by that same damn annoying laser thingie that the Crimson Claw had used on her last night. So she went silvery just in time to almost get nailed by the flying KoP hardsuit guy. Stacy went as high as she could. She knew that she was playing to the flyguy’s strong suit, but it still got her away from the guys on the ground, especially the guy with the sound system. Oh, and it also got everyone firing up, instead of where it might hurt the folks on the ground. But still, the flyguy had some serious dogfighting skills, and Stacy had almost exactly jack in that department. Oh, and whoever was bouncing those stupid lasers off her was probably feeding him all kinds of useful intel. Stacy tried to make a run for cover, but the flyguy cut her off, and pointed his arm at her, and she just knew that the only thing worse than the hurting he was about to put on her was gonna be hitting the concrete from 40 feet up while she was unconscious and didn’t have any silver protecting her.

But just as Stacy was feeling a world of hurt gathering up in the flyguy’s forearm array, a bolt of red energy nailed him square in the back. Or, more to the point, the main lift thrusters of his flight rig. Besides completely knocking him off his balance, the blast had set him spinning madly, and flyguy was putting everything that he had into not crashing. Then he managed to get control of his balance again, just in time for Red Thunder to peg him with an energy punch right upside the head, sending him down to crash on the concrete. The big heavy-duty Knight came clumping up, prepping some sort of throwing iron to chuck at Red. But just as he was winding up to chuck that iron, Captain Patriot swooped down, caught that arm and leveraged it all to throw the big Knight way up into the air. The ‘Batter’ armor is built to take a lot of damage, like a tank, but like tanks, it was heavy and wasn’t designed to take drops very well. Despite herself, Stacy hoped that the pilot inside wasn’t hurt that badly. The ‘Shortstop’ hustled over to assist the Batter, not even bothering to shut down that siren. But that was taken care of when the Golden Knight dropped down on top of him and cleaved the shielded speaker system in twain with the hand-and-a-half sword that he rarely used. Cap and the Golden Knight then started bashing the Batter and the Shortstop units together. The Catcher unit was staggering around, trying to sneak up behind Captain Patriot to try and snag him in those capture arms, but the combat was too fluid for him. The Runner tried to body-check Cap into the Catcher, one of the KoP’s signature moves, but it was like running into a brick wall. As this was going down, Violet brought down a wall of purple energy to shield the demonstrators, regardless of their credo, from the fight, and Tawny and Blue Streak ran interference to keep the chaos contained as a team from the Cincinnati PD Power Suit Squad took positions with tower shields.

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“Crap!” The Crimson Claw snarled, “Their front string has showed up, and I can’t find the Green Witch anywhere on the field. SHIT! There goes my deposit, AND my overhead for this operation! Squad Four, prep the Asset Red Capsule, I say again, the Asset Red Capsule! Squad Three, abandon your rigs as best you can. Squads One and Two, assist Squad Three if you can. Squad five, warm up your rigs and wait for my signal.” The Claw watched the individual and team lights flicker green and red as they responded, and silently wondered how much insurance fraud, hijacking and industrial sabotage he’d have to do to pay for all this.

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Suddenly, the KoP frames just keeled over and popped open their hatches. The pilots, who weren’t wearing KoP logo-marked padded suits, scrambled out of the frames and headed for the sidelines. Cap and the GK tried to grab them, but another ‘Runner’ and ‘Pitcher’ from another Lance kept fouling them up. Red Thunder went aloft to dogfight with the Pitcher and Blue Streak got into a speedsters’ duel with the Runner. But as Cap and the Golden Knight resumed trying to capture the unmounted pilots, the second ‘Catcher’ trotted out of the sidelines with a large enigmatic plug of some sort held in his capture arms. The Cincy PD PSS broke their shield wall to try and deal with that, but the second unit’s Batter and Shortstop waded in to mix it up with them. Even as the Shortstop was grappling with Power Suit Cops, he was launching grenades of a thick brightly colored ‘crowd control’ smoke that was rated ‘Only for Use Against Mutants with Known Enhanced Metabolisms’.

Blue Streak was just barely nudging the Runner into a compromising trajectory, when the Runner suddenly popped up, tumbled forward at 120 MPH, and did a very painful looking dump-roll. Stacy, who was scrunched up in a heap right in the Runner’s path, turned off her invisibility and went Silvery again. She trotted over to where the Runner was, to check on the pilot. Blue Streak zipped up and said, “Spoil my fun, why don’t you? Gotta remember that gimmick. Good work!” Then he zipped off to dispose of the gas grenades in a dumpster. As Blue Streak was doing this, the Catcher carefully inserted that strange plug into the ‘cockpit’ of the fallen, battered Batter unit.

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The Crimson Claw watched the engage, set, prime, and ready lights flicker on one at a time, followed by their matching green lights. “GOD, I hope this works,” he groaned. And then he wondered at the appropriateness of calling on the Almighty for what he was about to do. He pulled two special keys from the lanyard around his neck, inserted them into locks each on the far side of his control panel from each other, and turned them.

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Mills, who had been scrambling around in all that havoc, frantically tried to find some way out of the crossfire, which kept jerking around, seeming to perversely move its focal point exactly where he was trying to run. Currently, his escape was being cut off by that crablike KoP thug who was shoving some kind of thick canister into the pilot space of one of the big bat lugging suits. The bargain basement Dr. Octopus finished whatever he was doing, and then scrambled away quickly. Mills paused to wonder why he’d plant a bomb inside one of their own suits of power armor, when the Batter suit erupted in flames. A stench of sulfur overwhelmed the area, and the power armor rose up in a column of unclean fire. Tendrils reached out from the column and dragged the abandoned Catcher and Shortstop armors, attaching them to the lower side of the Batter. Then those tendrils snagged the fallen Runner and Pitcher suits, affixing them to the places where the shoulders would be, as arms. Despite himself, Mills wondered, ‘Doesn’t Voltron always have something that acts as a head?’

As if in answer, the fiery titan flexed its ‘arms’ and gave out a hissing roar.

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Checking the monitors as best he could, the Crimson Claw was reading that the composite beast was operating at 89.7% efficiency, well within acceptable parameters. Devilmaster might charge an arm and a leg (when he didn’t charge worse), but dammit, he provided value for his price. “Overwatch, keep an eye peeled for the Green Witch! She’s the only one of that crew that’s a danger to Asset Red! As soon as she shows her broomstick anywhere near our operating area, open fire on her. Do not waste time trying to kill her, just keep her busy! Squad Five, I have you running Green! Deploy now, and focus on Target B. All scouts, keep an eye out for Target A, and give me her pertinents if you spot her. Squad Four, hold back for a minute; if I give you no new orders, assist Squad Five. Squad Three, assist Squads One and Two if you can. And if you’ll excuse me, I’ve always wanted to drive a monster!” With a vicious grin, he gripped the manual controls, and inflicted his will on a devil.

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Karen had been holding back, just in case something really nasty popped up. And while she’d seen nastier, whatever whomever was fielding the faux- Knights of Purity had put on the field was more than nasty enough for her. The hard part was that she had no idea as to what that thing was. Magic tended to favor specialization: generic spells worked more often, but were weak; narrow, target-specific spells were more powerful, but only worked against select targets. And she had no idea as to what that thing was, other than the fact that it was batting the Golden Knight drone around like a toy, and it was hurting the hell out of Captain Patriot.

The Crimson Claw had neatly put them in a double-bind. They could either protect Stacy from his remaining phony Knights of Purity while leaving themselves open to that composite thing, or they could fight this thing, but leave Stacy to the Claw’s mercy. Stacy was tougher than she realized, but the Claw had a nasty tendency to find weak spots and go for them. And she’d really rather find out about any weaknesses that Stacy might have in a more academic context.

Still, this critter was clearly Fire-based. That gave her something to work with. She silently called forth the minor Water-spirit that she’d bound years ago. Fire and Water mutually destruct, but the Water-thing was still a nasty fucker, even after years of grooming and discipline. Maybe a reduction in its power was called for. “Cap!” she called out. “Protect Silver! I’ll-” her intention was drowned out by a scream of pain as three hovering drones dropped their stealth shells and trapped her in a triangular snare of crackling electricity.

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Sgt. Murrow of the Cincinnati PD Power Suit Squad was profoundly conflicted. On one hand, he was a stout defender of the notion that well- trained, properly-equipped professionals were a better way to protect the General Public than well-intentioned if eccentric masked vigilantes. On the other hand, the Knights of Purity had clearly been acting way out any acceptable bounds by operating in a jurisdiction where they had neither a contract or license. On the third hand, he was getting his ass handed to him by the Knight in the ‘Batter’ rig. It got worse when the Runner knocked him off balance, the Pitcher used that to knock him down on his back like a turtle, and the Batter took advantage of that to use him like a hockey puck, knocking him well out of position in his shield wall.

Just as he got his unit rocking to the point where he had a chance of getting back up and into the fight, he felt himself rise off the ground. Looking around, he saw that he’d been grabbed by that Transformers rip-off thing that Captain Patriot and the Golden Knight were fighting. Despite himself Murrow gave a scream of fear as he noticed the damaged bits of his rig being drawn into the mess of whatever it was. Red Thunder broke off from his dogfight with the Pitcher unit and blasted at the arm that had Murrow clutched in a composite claw.

The Composite Giant gave a roar and swatted at Red Thunder. But even as it did that, it kept wearing away at Murrow’s armor. And Murrow felt a cold chill in the pit of his stomach as it registered that when the armor was completely integrated into the Composite’s body, it would start on him. A cold sweat formed on his brow as he unbuckled himself out from his ‘cockpit’ (for want of a better word for the cavity within the main body of the rig), and tried to initiate bail-out procedures, $100K per unit price tag be damned! Unfortunately, that was easier said than done when he was being shaken around like a ragdoll being played with by a terrier. Then the backplate hatch swung open and he was dragged out of the unit. He vaguely recognized the cat-themed heroine ‘Tawny’ as they tumbled to the ground and she helped him past the shieldwall to safety.

Wonderful. Murrow was even more conflicted. Not only did he have to account for a $100K unit that he was responsible for, but he had to re-evaluate his position on whackos in spandex.

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“Dammit, Man, stand back!” Swashbuckler roared at Cal. “That stupid thing is tearing your drone apart!”

“I… know… that…” Cal grunted as he swatted away with the 16” baton that corresponded to the 70” sword his drone was carrying. “But Cap is getting his ass handed to him, and if this thing gets at them, he’ll tear the Power Suit Squad apart! And the civilians are still trapped in there!”

“SWAT is getting them out of there as quickly as they can,” Swash assured him. “Agreed, the line has to be held, but… at least back down long enough to do some remote repairs!”

“I can’t let up on that thing,” Cal replied as his body registered another blow as a rib-cracking blunt trauma. “If you’re going to complain, then get on that terminal and supervise the remote repairs yourself!”

“At least let me take over!” Swash insisted. “I know tricks that would make that thing’s head spin! And you’d be a hundred times more effective on that remote repairs control than I would.”

“This control rig is geared to MY body, specifically,” Cal pointed out. “Recalibrating the system would take the better part of an hour. An hour we don’t have.” With that, he went back to hacking away at a horror that was a good thousand yards away.

‘Fine thing, when I’m the voice of reason and restraint,’ Swash thought ruefully to himself. ‘Errol, Tyrone, Doug, wherever you are… forgive me…’

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“Why don’t you help us evacuate these people?” the SWAT officer asked Blue Streak as the hero zipped in to deflect a stray energy bolt from the rogue Pitcher unit. “We could have had them out by now if you did!”

“Normal people, especially children, don’t handle zero-to-300 mph acceleration in five seconds very well,’ the Streak pointed out in the tone of someone answering a Frequently Asked Question.

The cop paused and wrapped his head around that. “Ah… yeah. I can see that. Good call.”

The Streak was about to make a rejoining comment, but saw something that he thought was more worthy of his time. He zipped over to where a group of Catholics had been making a demonstration (the exact nature of their beef wasn’t completely clear, or how it related to the Silver Ghost, if it did), and stopped in front of a cassocked priest. “A moment of your time, Padre! You wouldn’t happen to have any holy water on you?”

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Blue Streak zipped up to the devil-thing and emptied the flask of holy water into what passed for its face. It reacted by thrashing around violently, but beyond that, the problem was that there simply wasn’t enough water to affect it. Blue Streak zoomed off, presumably to find larger amounts of water for the father to bless.

But as brief as that respite was, it did give Captain Patriot and the Golden Knight some breathing room. More importantly, it gave Cal an idea. “Hold the line, Cap. I think I can get an edge.” With that, the Knight drone stepped right into a flailing tendril that spared the Captain the effort. Cal rolled the drone over to where the priest was still standing, and righted in a single fluid move. He kneeled before the priest and presented his sword and shield. “Bless me, Father. Bless these weapons, so that I might strike down the unholy, and protect the innocent,” the Golden Knight intoned.

“Ah, I’d love to,” Father Grover said with perfect honesty. “But I don’t remember the words to the Benedictio Armorum right off the bat. Heck, I’m impressed that I remember the name! And it’s certainly not in any of the texts I have on me at the moment.”

“Hold it!” said one of the Father’s younger parishioners. “Gimme a second! He fiddled with his Blackberry™ furiously for a second and, “Got it!”

He handed Father Grover the Blackberry, and the TV crews got a wonderful shot of a knight in shining armor kneeling as a priest read off a blessing from a handheld digital device. As Father Grover finished the consecration, his congregation added a group ‘amen’. And maybe it was a trick of the mind, or a fluke of lighting, but when the Golden Knight stood and took up his arms, he seemed to shine, just with an added gleam.

The Golden Knight charged into the fray, relieving Captain Patriot, and the unclean agglomeration of technology and conjury finally shied away from the cleaving edge of the blessed blade. It lashed back at him, but his shield held the attack back like a brick wall, not a sheet of metal, and even touching it seemed to cause the unthing pain.

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Unaware of this, one of the real Knights of Purity had managed to get at a spare pry vice and powered the handcuffs off his wrists. He quickly released the rest of the Knights of Purity. “Okay, we have a Defensive Recovery under Fire situation!” the Knight Commander said. “Break out the long arms and suit up in what personal armor we have. Elwell, SOP requires us to detonate the anti-hijacking charges in all compromised rigs.”

“Sir! But those guys were slick- they probably disengaged the anti-jack, first thing!”

“Doesn’t matter, Knight- it’s SOP. Besides, we might still get one of the SOBs.” With that the Knight Commander threw Elwell the keys to the ‘red button’ panel. Elwell opened the panel (which was NOT marked, thank you very much) turned the key, and hit the large red push button to detonate the charges.

The world wending that way at the best of times, the only charges in the stolen KoP rigs that hadn’t been disengaged were the ones that were currently a part of the mess of unclean spirit and high tech.

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The Golden Knight was making good progress hewing at the amalgamate body of the Composite Devil, hacking away at bits and pieces of metal and ceramic, trying to find that red capsule that Cal suspected was the true body of that thing. He was giving Captain Patriot a much-needed breather, he was giving Red Thunder an open sky, and on a purely personal level, he was disproving several of the unwarranted accusations that the Knights’ PR flacks had been making about the design of the ‘Golden Knight’. But just as he spotted the telltale red plastic of the capsule, the whole thing blew up in the Golden Knight’s face.

The blast completely knocked both Captain Patriot, Azure and the Golden Knight off their feet, and threw both his shield and sword well out of his grasp. It knocked Red Thunder, Violet and the Green Witch out of the air The blast also knocked the Power Suit Squad off their feet and shrapnel did some serious damage to the remaining civilians, though ironically, the hijacked KoP frames, the actual target of the maneuver, were shielded by the Police.

In his harness back in the trailer, Cal shook his head to clear it. Then he looked around, using both the drone’s direct sensors and the sensors built into the remote relay drones that he used to power the Golden Knight. “Where’s my sword?” he asked. “Where’s my shield?”

“No idea,” Swash said as he furiously guided the drone’s auto-repair functions. “It’s somewhere under all the wreckage. Also, you lost two of your six relays.” Then, as he scanned the wrack for some sign of either the sword or shield, Swash saw something. The debris started to move in the direction of where the devil-thing had been. “Oh. Crap…”

The high-tech rubble reformed around the red capsule, and the devil thing was new and fresh, although it had lost some structural integrity.

“What?" Cal gasped, “But a blast of that size…”

“WHY would they detonate charges on that thing, if it destroyed their ace-in-the-hole?” Swash asked, not realizing who had set off the charges.

Sweeping sensors across the ruins, Cal spotted Captain Patriot pull himself out from under some remaining rubble. Blue Streak and Tawny were helping the Green Witch and Violet get out from under, while Red Thunder did it for himself. But… “Where’s Silver?” Cal asked, scanning the area even more frantically than he had for the sword. “Where’s Stacy?”

“No sign of her,” Swash said, backing up Cal on the search. “But she’s tough. If she’s still invisible, then she’s still awake. She’s probably left the scene. It’s the smart and tactically effective thing to do.”

“No, she’s still here,” Cal said, furiously sending out his reserve relay drones and a remote ‘care package’ of repair materials. “She’s probably looking for some way to surprise the Claw and end this. She thinks that she has something to prove.”

“Oh, like she’s the only one,” Swash thought sardonically.

Cal remotely jettisoned the flight pack that was hidden by the Golden Knight’s cape, and the ‘care package’ slipped into its socket, injecting plastics and other quick-fix measures that were stopgap but still better than nothing. That cost the Golden Knight his greater mobility, but at the moment, that wasn’t an issue. Cal would rather die than run away.

Picking himself up, the Golden Knight staggered over to where Father Grover still stood, a shepherd standing guard over those of his flock still there. “Father…” Cal grated out through lips bruised and bloody through sympathetic action, “Bless me… Bless These…” he held up the drone’s fists, “so that I might strike down the unholy, and protect the innocent.”

Numbly, Father Grover repeated the Benedictio Armorum. The Golden Knight turned and shouted, “Avaunt, Thing of Evil!” With that, he launched himself straight at the piecemeal monster. They came together with a resounding crash, and the Golden Knight plowed into the thing with both fists, almost digging his way into the hell-spawn’s body.

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“All forces, be aware,” the Crimson Claw said into his mike from his comfortable chair in his own command module. “Do not, I repeat, Do Not assist the Red Capsule unit. That unit is no longer under my control. Avoid that thing at all costs. Squad Six, Deploy NOW. Squads One and Two, concentrate on finding Target B. There is no sign of Target A, so now Target B is our only hope of getting anything out of this debacle.” Switching off the mike, the Claw looked sourly at the ‘Red Capsule’. Oh well, the better part of being an evil genius is getting other people to do your dirty work for you.

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Red Thunder and Violet finally got themselves together enough to go aloft. Tawny and Azure stood guard over the Green Witch as she rummaged through her pouches for something to handle the main threat.

Pity she didn’t get the chance.

Seeing this on his monitors, the Crimson Claw pulled an executive override on Squad Six’s entrance. He had the catapult deposit them around the Witch, Tawny and Azure, landing with a big crunch in the kipple.

With the fluid grace of near-constant practice, Azure unfurled her steel-cable lariat and snagged the Clawman who had the two poles that were crackling with electricity between them. Power ran down the cable, but Azure not only ignored it, but was bucked up by it. She snapped him off his feet and used him as a club on several of the other clawmen. One of the Clawmen still on his feet stretched out his ‘arms’ at the Green Witch, but Tawny ducked under them and took the fight to him. The Green Witch lifted off and resorted to her stock witchbolt effects. But the Crimson Claw was paying them to keep the Green Witch from interfering with the Composite Creature, and they were earning their pay.

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“Scouts, is there any sign, any sign at ALL of Target B?” the Claw asked as he scanned the scene himself. “Nothing?” Damn! What was she doing? This was what the Claw hated about invisible operatives, white hat or black: there were simply so many ways that they could screw up an operation, even when they were being stupid. Hell, especially when they’re being stupid; he flinched at the thought of some of the monumental cock-ups that invisible supervillain ‘allies’ had inflicted on him in the past. He had a subtle but effective cordon around the area which would pick up the Silver Ghost if she passed by it. An inexperienced teenage girl should have gotten out of there like a scalded cat. But there was no sign of her. So what the HELL was she up to?

Then, he spotted something on the monitors that made his blood run cold, even as four of his scouts reported it to him. Four teams of five men each wearing Knights of Purity BUDs and rear echelon body armor burst through his cordon screens with an array of weaponry that didn’t look rear echelon. A man in each squad was armed with an adhesive launcher. As one, they aimed and the Pitcher and tracked him, but they fired one, then two, then three. When the third one hit, bringing down the Pitcher in a near-ball of hardening foam, the last one switched off and nailed the Runner as that unit skidded to a stop to avoid Blue Streak. Another task-specific assortment from each team stripped the Pitcher out of the ball, inserted a tool into the armor and dragged the pilot out of the suit. Then another team brutally beat the pilot into unconsciousness as a KoP pilot climbed into the rig and prepped for takeoff.

“Oh… Crap…” the Claw breathed in sick horror. He KNEW that he should have sprung for Minders! Damn tight budgets, they ALWAYS bite you in the ass eventually! “Team Three… no Six… break off and deal with the KoP. All Teams, prepare to withdraw with all due haste. Scouts, stop looking for Target B and concentrate on mapping an exit plan.” Shit! A hundred grand in the hole! He was going to have to hijack a cruise liner to pay for this mess!

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Mills looked around as the new crew of goons in costume (Mills maintained that combat uniforms were just as much ‘costumes’ as tights, as it was ultimately a costume for the Fascist drama that is warfare) entered the mix. There was a shift in the tide of battle as the new guys took out the KoP armor one at a time, pulled the pilots out, and took over with one of theirs. Each time they did this, the Cincy Power Suit Pigs peeled off a man, who either committed to taking down a cordon screen or to flanking one of the redsuits. Finally, it settled enough that Mills saw his chance. Breaking from the huddle he’d been in ever since the shit hit this fan, he ran in the general direction of where the protest groups were being evac’ed through the gaps in the screen. But dammit, where were the Evo Rockers? He couldn’t spot anyone in the silver mylar ponchos. Then he spotted someone waving at him, and lacking any safer course of action, he burned rubber in that direction. “HEY MILLS!” yelled the ditzy blonde from that idiot civil rights group.

As he recognized Dagny and Imbas and a few other lights from the other Evo Rox factions, Mills gasped, “What happened to the ponchos?”

“Oh a TV crew came to get a photo/byte, and those reflections were murder on the images,” the sleek brunette, Courtney said. Even as she raised a film camera and snapped a few pictures of him through a filtering lens that should negate the glare from his poncho. As Mills reeled from the implications of this, a Tac Squad cop walked up to him and said, “Sir, how long have you been wearing that poncho?”

“Oh, not that long!” the big beefy meathead, Matt, answered for Mills. “Only since he left us, about 20 minutes or so ago.”

“Remember Mills!” the perky blonde, Jennifer called out, “Just tell them that Evolution Rocks! squarely rejects the use of violence in protest. You’d never do anything with a terrorist bent, because that would be immediate grounds for expulsion! And neither would the rest of CSC, who’re in a pale blue Nissan van with the license plate 4NRKY1N0H10, parked a block over that away!”

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The remaining red Clawsuits clustered together and did something that joined their lifting power together, and they jetted up and out of the melee. “Come ON, Gee-Kay! Finish that thing! Maybe we can catch up with them!”

But the Golden Knight was wrapped up with the hell-thing, battering away at it with his blessed fists, even as tendrils of conjoined rubbish tore at his chassis. He had a general idea of where the red capsule was, and he’d get to the damned thing if it killed him. The Green Witch finally managed to cobble together an effect that bound most of the tendrils, but there were still a few lashing around so viciously that even Tawny was leery of getting too close.

Then, out of the wreckage, the Golden Knights’ heater shield came flying into the composite beast, separating it from the Knight. Then he heard a young female voice call out, “SIR KNIGHT!” Turning, he saw the Silver Ghost throw his sword to him (hilt first, thank you). It flew with uncanny accuracy to his hand, and he wheeled around, spotting a single chink in the armor of debris burned away by the shield. That revealed a patch of red plastic about the size of a man’s hand. He thrust into the irregular ‘bullseye’, burying his sword into it, up to the hilt.

Maybe it was just a trick of the mind, as the thing had no mouth, but almost everyone there heard a scream from the Amalgamate Abomination. It let out a silent ‘explosion’ of uncanny energy that knocked both Red Thunder and Violet out of the skies. Then, almost bathetically, the thing started to fall to pieces, bit by bit, until there was a rude base of trash, upon which sat a red plastic cylinder, with the Golden Knight’s sword still thrust through it. Then, and only then, slowly, like a great tree falling in the forest, the Golden Knight collapsed onto the ground.

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“Dammit, Cal, stay with me!” Swash said as he furiously applied CPR. “Do you have any IDEA of what Karen will do to me, if I let you die?”

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The Silver Ghost wavered into view over the fallen form of the Golden Knight. She gently touched his chest and asked if he was all right. But Captain Patriot picked up the still form, and stood there for a moment with it in his arms, their capes tattered, but their honor intact. Wordlessly, he lifted off. The Silver Ghost, and then the Green Witch, and then the other members of SPECTRUM left in the general direction of their headquarters.

The heroes were waiting on tenterhooks at the loading bay as the trailer backed in. Red Thunder opened up the back, and Swash immediately wheeled out a gurney with Cal’s battered, bruised and barely conscious body strapped to it. Stacy let out a horrified gleep, Karen gasped, Azure was aghast and even the usually laconic Tawny was openly appalled. Karen immediately started arrangements for Cal to get to her Pool of Healing, Stacy gushed over him, Azure and Violet quibbled over the logistics of getting him there the quickest.

Swash pulled back and commented to Blue Streak (where the ladies couldn’t hear him), “The damn fool just kept wading in, no matter what. If you ask me, I think he feels like a fraud, running that drone from safety, while you all go into battle personally.”

“But you have to admit, he really went the distance today.”

Swash gave an amused smirk in Cal’s general direction. “True. But then, having wife and daughter substitutes fuss over you is all the hero’s reward that a man his age can really ask for.”

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Back at the Civic Center, a scrawny figure in gold lame hovered over the battle scene. “HEY! WADDYA MEAN THEY STARTED WITHOUT ME?”

TBC

Comments   

+1 # Horrid 2016-12-27 01:59
OMG! Just a new Bek submission is enough to get my heart beating faster. But a second installment of SGGA? OMG OMG OMG !!! :lol:

Someone reading a Bek story is expecting action and adventure and intelligence and lots of humor. A Silver Ghost story? Even more so. It is obvious Bek loves this character and Madcap/the Golden Angel is such a great foil for her.

Thank you so much, Bek, for all that you do in general but for this story in particular. How did you know it was one of the things on my Christmas list?

Five stars! :-)
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-2 # Negation 2016-12-27 09:31
“Also a valid theory,” Swashbuckler admitted, rather shame-facedly.

Hypothesis: a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation.

Theory: a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained.

Please don't make me rage about how scientific hypothesis is not the same as a scientific theory.
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+3 # PhaineOfCatz 2017-01-04 13:42
Firstly, your tone could use some work. Constructive criticism is appreciated, but the key word here is constructive. We, as a community, are trying to build something, not tear it down. The writers here, of which Bek is pretty prolific, put in a lot of work to bring us this world on the cheap. In fact cheaper than cheap, gratis. We could at least pay them back by taking the time to be courteous when using one of our few lines of communication with them.

Second, as you stated above, theses are the terms for scientific usage. This is not a scientific paper. This is not even a word actively used by the author to describe the situation. This is dialog from common people, about a common problem, using common terms. The closest any of these characters is to a scientist is that Cal is probably one HECK of an engineer. In common terms, 'theory' is not only used interchangeably with 'hypotheses' it is actually the more common term. While one term might be more technically correct, the current usage is far more likely for the conversation taking place.
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0 # Naldru 2017-01-08 23:35
I would to provide further backing for PhaineOfCatz, and I happen to have an advanced degree in engineering. A hypothesis is actually a theory. Hypo means "below", so hypothyroidism is thyroid activity below normal, hypotension is blood pressure below normal, and a hypodermic needle injects things under the skin. A hypothesis is a theory with a low level of evidence. Even in technical circles, the terms are often used interchangeably except in the formal description of experimental protocols.

By the way, I suspect that the definitions above were taken from a normal dictionary rather than a technical dictionary or encyclopedia.
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+1 # PhaineOfCatz 2016-12-27 16:56
All that crazy at the end there even without Madcap or GoldStar.

With all the politics and media play tied up in Stacy's stories, that last scene is going to have major effects. Not to mention that half the reason for it all was a press conference, so you KNOW there was footage.

That's actually one of the things I love about these arcs that take place away from the school. Whateley has a very different social and political climate than the surrounding world. Stacy doesn't get up to much trouble compared to her maybe-someday-schoolmates, but her actions are under much more public scrutiny.
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0 # Horrid 2016-12-30 03:02
Quoting PhaineOfCatz:
All that crazy at the end there even without Madcap or GoldStar.


Yep! But you gotta love it when Madcap is pontificating one second and screaming "Sil-vee!" as a call for help the next. That was kinda crazy and she did it more than once lol.

But PhaineOfCatz may be on to something: In her way Madcap is actually a lot less "crazy" than several of the recurring characters in this story who pass as respectable and responsible. Bek is getting us to the point where we can understand her and sympathize with her and and even like her and trust her. Goldstar is crazy and evil. The leaders of the various special interest groups? Some are crazy and some are evil and some are both. Madcap is a fine upstanding citizen and totally rational compared to a rabid rodent like Goldstar.
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0 # Sunhawk 2017-01-01 15:06
Thank you Bek for the great story. :D
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0 # Stickmaker 2017-01-01 23:58
Whew! :-)
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0 # Rose02 2017-01-31 23:52
Dear Bec,
Did Swashbuckler foreshadow future events by calling Karen and Stacy as Cal’s wife and daughter surrogates? I mean “I” can see Stacy’s issues with abandonment being solved by a Family unit forming around Stacy with Cal and Karen getting together. Cal will need time to recover and since he will be staying at the “Stately Wickham Manor” to avail himself of the “pool of vigor” he and Karen may see what they haven’t seen before.

And back to the Witches Cave (insert theme music here, animation not required) Lauren it seems spends so much time in the cave could she be absorbing Magical energy to the point of needing a Whately Academy education to not be a danger to herself and others?

Just some of My observations, and while I can’t wait for a part 3,
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