Of Masks and Marvels (Part 7)
Of Masks and Marvels
By Bek D Corbin
I ducked into the phone booth, and ripped open my shirt, revealing the blue shirt and red 'S'; but where did the tits come from? I ignored them, ran the necessary three steps, and it was Up, Up, and barely avoid copyright infringement! I scoured the streets of Cosmopolis, searching for my arch-nemesis. There he was! I landed and struck a pose, let the photogs take a shot, shift the pose, make love to the camera, give a kiss... Dr. Demoniac aimed his Doomatronic Doom-ray at me and fired! I easily blocked the ray with my star-and-striped shield, and turned to my sidekick Bucky Parks, who was singing "There she is, Captain Ameri-Marvel!", and putting a crown on my head and sash around my shoulders. Then the Green Giggler appeared out of the smog-choked skies, which had only moments before been golden with hope, riding in his laughing gas filled balloon. He kept throwing razor edged banana-creme pies at me, but I batted them aside with my Estrogenium bracelets. The Darksider stepped out the gloom and gazed lustful beams of destruction at me. They hit me square in the chest, shredding my costume, almost completely baring my breasts, but not quite showing the nipples, which would have been against the Comics Code. I felt a surge of PMS, and the more bloated I get, the more powerful I become! I started to bulge with power, but only my tits got larger and my hair got longer, and greener and more lustrous, with more body and bounce, which is why I use Flairol hair-conditioner. Kraken ran long, razor-like fingers through my hair, and told me that I had great hair follicles before he tried to slit my throat. I ducked out of the salon-chair, before he could attack again, or even finish rinsing out my hair! She-Devil was holding my hand, with Arnold Ziffle under her arm, while trying to give me a manicure with a chainsaw. Then Berserker came crashing through the top-secret salon glass storefront, with big bouquets of roses soaked in Obsessive-Compulsive, the new scent from Calvin, Hobbs and Klein. And I simply couldn't decide who to go to the Maximum Security Prom with, Berserker, Ransack, or Gunhawk, or Archie who was making eyes at that bitch Marilyn Manson. Then Tigress came along bouncing on her rubber tail, giggling "hoo-hoo-hoo!" and gathered them all up like stuffed animals. Justiciar came riding in on the obligatory white horse- there's always a white horse, have you noticed? - and swept me up. He said in a voice like Sean Connery- I have always loved Sean Connery's voice- "I know what you really are!" and brought his glowing energy phallic surrogate down between by eyes-
-and I woke up, covered in sweat.
Man, I Hate that dream!
I staggered out of bed and managed to get into the shower. As I washed myself off, I sourly thought that Dream 'A' was at least more amusing that Dream 'B', where I'm walking down the street in my jump-suit, but my constantly enlarging tits keep popping out. I'm trying to keep my Date with Destiny- whoever she is, I bought bon-bons- but I have to keep tucking in my breasts and keep people from seeing them, but they already do and they're laughing...
But the one that really sucks is Dream 'C', the one where I'm flying along in my Lady Lightning costume, looking great and everyone's applauding and waving, and then I notice that I didn't shave off my mustache, and my dick is hanging out a mile. Tigress swings up on a line- never mind that there's nothing around for her to swing up on- and pulls my dick out and begins to put it in her mouth, which is full of long sharp fangs-
Yep, Dream 'C' really bites.
The problem with looking, is that you get so involved with looking that you stop seeing. Checking my body for further signs of feminization was becoming part of my morning wake up ritual. Are my tits an A cup, A- or A+? Is my ass getting wider? Are my eyes going from gray to blue? Is poor old John Thomas really getting smaller, is he just shy? Its all so subtle and gradual, that I was driving myself crazy looking for things, finding them, and then frantically telling myself that they weren't really there.
But the truth only really hits you when you aren't looking for it- and by looking for it, blocking it out. I got out of the shower, dried off, wrapped my around my waist and was surprised by the cute chick in the terrycloth sarong standing there. Oh, yeah, the mirror.
I walked from the bathroom to my bedroom that way, A-cup tits swinging in the breeze. I didn't care. It was Monday, and it was my day off. Mom was at work at the DMV, and Eli's 'weekend' wouldn't start until Tuesday. Y'see Eli and I work weekends, which can really suck, but the Union demands that we get two days off a week, just like normal people. So, I get Mondays and Tuesdays, and Eli gets Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Today, I'm all by myself. I walked into my room, and took another look in the mirror. The thing that really pisses me off is that I look better than women who still won't give me the time of day do. But there is no way that I'm putting on a bra and going over to one of those dyke bars. Talk about complications when push comes to shove!
I climbed into the coveralls that I am really starting to hate, and got ready to do my 'weekend' chores. Eli and I had them divvied up between us- he got the detail work, and I got the heavy lifting, for obvious reasons. An hour later, I was done. I always do my 'weekend' chores on Monday morning, when nobody's looking. That way I pull my own weight, in a fraction of the time. I'm not sure what I'm gonna do when summer vacation rolls around, and there are kids all over the place.
The toting and hauling done, I settled in to do a lot of relaxing. At least, that was the theory. Instead, I got a first-rate case of boredom. I mean, I never claimed to be this big Esthete, but what was on the tube sucked! I tried tinkering down in the basement for a while, but just couldn't get into it. So, I went up to the living room, and tried to think about nothing. Not that my unconscious was having any of it. It kept drifting back to those dreams. It was saying, Hey! I left you a message on your answering machine, pick up! Obviously, I wasn't as upset about slowly turning into a woman as I was about my harumphrodite status- not one thing, nor really another. Hiding this or that, never being able to stand square on two legs about anything.
I could take the bull by the horns, buy some dresses and makeup, and start calling myself Danielle. But I don't really think that would fly either with my family or the neighborhood. Eli is having enough problems with this- not that he doesn't have enough trouble of his own, but I gotta come out of a closet that I never went into in the first place? Mom raised three sons and lost one- I don't think she could handle losing another son, even if she gained a daughter in the process. And the neighborhood? Well, the neighborhood has rather strident opinions about girlie-men. The kind of opinions that got Matthew Shepard strung up on a barbed wire fence.
I could move and do it, but that would only remove the problem of the neighbors' harsh opinions. I would still have those tense, what-am-I-doing?-kind of problems with Mom and Eli. Besides- I don't make enough money to rent my own place. Have you seen what they're asking for a run-down little studio apartment? Hey, there are reasons that two grown men are still living with their mother!
And, who's fooling anyone, I have some problems with it myself. For all its problems, being a guy is still a pretty good deal. Nobody looks at you funny if you can fix a car. You're given the benefit of a doubt that you can tell one electronic component from another. The salesmen give up trying to sell you bogus software after the first time you show that you know how to type ENTER. Hey, when you're a tech-geek, these things matter. And, to be honest, I really don't see myself as being they type whom can tell Melon Madness nail polish from Caribbean Coral.
After a couple of hours of totally failing to get into the soaps, the cartoons came on, and my mood lifted a bit. Though, I noticed that I was steering clear of the superhero cartoons in favor of the funny animal ones- I guess that since I was on my day off, I didn't want to deal with work in any form.
The cartoons ran their circuit, and feeling a little better, I wandered over to the local watering hole for a few brews and a little camaraderie.
I forgot what kinds of guys hang out in neighborhood bars at 4 in the afternoon.
I went in, plunked down for some Pilsner, and put a number on the jukebox that was really cutting edge- back in '84. Annie Lennox started keening that Sweet Dreams are Made of These, and I was actually starting to feel good for the first time that day. Which, of course, is like dropping blood into the water; the sharks immediately started swimming my way.
I was knocking back the last of my Pilsner, when something jogged my arm, spilling the beer all over me. As I staggered up, Kurt Baumgartner was theyíre making all sorts of soft-voiced apologies. I immediately stiffened. Kurt Baumgartner never said anything nice about anybody, unless that guy could hand Kurt his ass in a mason jar. Kurt Baumgartner being solicitous was either diverting me from one of his buddies picking my pocket (Nope, still there!), or setting me up for one of the bullshit bully routines that he learned from his beloved older brother Harold. Harold was doing 5-to-10 for Armed Robbery. I know that Kurt learned his routines, 'cause there's no way that he could have figured them out himself. There seems to be this whole body of bully lore that is passed down orally from one hardass to another, each adding little touches and nuances of their own. Really, if it weren't about emotional torture and social sabotage, it would be touching.
Baumgartner was using the old innocuous lead-in, which I ignored. I turned to get another beer, when Baumgartner grabbed me by the shoulder and pretended that he was enraged at my turning my back on him. Now, a year or so ago, I would have been really scared by now. Kurt and his brothers have been sending me running home to my mommy since third grade. But, in the last year, things have changed. Now, I give nightmares to the guys who give nightmares to the guys who give Kurt and his buddies nightmares. I am simply not afraid of him, and unfortunately, I let it show. I mean, Baumgartner couldn't hurt me- not him and both of his slimepig buddies trying with all their might. Unfortunately, I couldn't hurt them, either- not without severely injuring them. He screamed an insult in my face, and I was trying to issue a civilized retort when Baumgartner's buddy Luke knocked me down from behind with a beer pitcher. It hurt, but it wasn't nearly as bad as any of the damage I'd taken wearing a cape. But it did kick in those bad old playground punching bag reflexes; the ones that say lay down and stay down until the teacher comes. They hit me, and kicked me, and poured beer on me. I tried to get up, but every time I managed to get to my feet, they tripped me or broke something else over me. Drolich, the owner/bartender did nothing- at 4 in the afternoon, this was entertainment as usual, unless there was a ballgame on.
Finally, I managed to get out the door, followed only by jeers and catcalls. I staggered home, not noticing anything that was happening around me. I wasn't hurt- I was enraged. I'm a goddamned Superhero, for Christ's sake! _WHO_do_they_think_they_ARE_, doing that to me? I could tear them all apart, and burn the whole stinking bar down, and nobody could stop me! No, not them all- just Baumgartner. I had to get Baumgartner, and I'd be damned if I'd do a single minute in jail for it!
I stormed to my house and went in the basement. We kept the old 'Thunderbolt' costume there, for some reason. I knew that I would wait until Baumgartner and his slimepig buddies were done for the night, about 10. Then they'd go to their next stop, another bar about 16 miles out of town, where they like to hang out with bikers, and pretend to be tough until closing. I'd knock out their steering with an electric jolt- no, I'd just knock them off the road with my strength, don't want anything electrical connected with this. I'd pull Baumgartner out of the piece of shit van, then take him up a few hundred feet and let him dangle for a while. When he was finally broken, and sobbing for his pathetic, misbegotten life, I'd let him drop. I'd just leave him there, and let them wonder how he got there. And nobody could ever trace it back to me, let alone prove it.
I was in the Thunderbolt outfit, with the gloves and boots on, and was just zipping up, when it hit me like a brick wall. I was going to kill a man. For embarrassing me. I was going to commit cold-blooded murder, because a mean-spirited, pointless little man and his equally worthless cronies had picked on me.
I'm no better than Berserker, or Gunhawk, or Ransack, or Baumgartner, even! I'd kill a man, just because he pissed me off! All my superheroing, all my do-gooding means nothing! When push comes to shove, I'm just another thug with superpowers!
My rage left me, leaving only ashes. Ashes of my self-righteousness, of my self-respect, of my self-worth.
I sat down right on the floor, and started crying. I didn't try to stop, I couldn't stop. And the worst thing was that that ratsass Baumgartner was going to win again. I couldn't hurt him back. Even if I used all of Lady Lightning's police contacts, or Reyes' press connections, they'd all lead back to me, trying to get some payback. Just like all the other bullies that had made my life hell. Just like that bastard Roglin, who'd killed Hughie and got off with probation, 'cause he had a good lawyer. None of them ever got what was coming to them, no matter what I did.
Eli found me a few hours later. I hadn't moved, not an inch. I didn't want to move again, ever. "Hey, Dan! Whatcha doin' down here, Bro?"
I told him, in clipped, terse terms what had happened.
"Why didn't you lay him out? You coulda broken him in two, him and his toadies, without raising a sweat!"
"I'da killed them, you know that. When you have the Power, you can't just let loose, unless the other guy has powers too." I gave a rueful laugh. "I can't do anything right. I could've just torn into them, and said that it was adrenaline. Instead, I come here and plan to murder him. And then I'd have to murder his shitwad pals, Luke and Steve, 'cause they'd see me. I was going to KILL them, Eli! What AM I? What have I become?"
Eli grabbed my face and forced me to look into his. "Dan- You're the guy who could have killed all of them and gotten away with it, but didn't. You wanted to- So What? If I had a dime for every time that I wanted to strap Kurt Baumgartner or his little brother Silas down naked on a red anthill and smear his balls with honey, the house would be filled with silver! Or whatever they're using to make dimes these days. Dan, You DIDN'T. Baumgartner would have. For laughs."
Dan, you are, and always have been, my hero. Forget about tits, you could grow scales, horns, hooves and a forked tail, and you'd still be the guy who stepped in front of me to take the thumping that Roy Crider was gonna give me."
"No, it was Hughie. It was always Hughie."
"Dan, Hughie got all the good genes in the family- he was two inches taller than you at two years younger, and he loved sports. He could afford to do that kind of stuff. He enjoyed it. You got stuck with the fat slob genes- and you still stood up for me every time. _Every_ time."
But you're right about one thing- you can't just tear into them with your powers. And they can't get away with this. They get away with it all the time, but that was before they picked on Lady Lightning!" I gave Eli a harsh glare. "Or more to the point, Dan Maxham!", He covered.
"Eli, I can't just use my powers on them- even if I didn't kill or maim them, it would completely blow my cover!"
Eli grinned and his eyes sparkled the way they did when we came up with the plan that got Principal Caldwell and Mrs. Kaunert stuck atop the water tower in his Civic. "Ah, but, Brother Daniel, you have a super-power that will not only put Baumgartner permanently in his slimy gutter-sucking place, and earn you the respect you so rightly deserve, but pay for that cataract surgery that Mom's been needing!"
It was 8:45, just before Baumgartner and his butt-wipes were scheduled to leave for their biker-worship ceremony. The regular crowd was in, and the rules were a little different. The guys who work for a living are in the majority, so truly egregious scuzzbucketry is harder to pull off. Not that Kurt, Luke and Steve wouldn't try.
Eli did the talking. He was better at that, and he enjoyed it. "HEY, BAUMGARTNER!" he yelled, "Yeah, You! The scumsucker who bush-whacked my brother!"
Baumgartner sucked on his cigarette, and laughed, "Yeah, and what are You gonna do about it, ya little Weasel?"
"Me? I ain't gonna do a damn thing! My brother Dan here is gonna reclaim his own honor!"
"Hey, Maxham! How can you reclaim something that never existed?" His lickasses laughed at this. But then they laughed if Baumgartner broke wind after eating beans.
Eli spoke to the crowd. "My Brother, Daniel Joseph Maxham, here and now, formally challenges the sewage-sucking lowlife known as Kurt Algernon Baumgartner to a contest!"
Baumgartner grabbed a pool cue and said, "And why don't I just ram this stick so far up both your asses that one can taste the other's shit?"
Five beefy Union guys stood up and wordlessly let Baumgartner know that that was an extremely poor idea. Predictably, he backed down.
Eli reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of bills. "THIS is Two THOUSAND dollars! We are willing to bet this, against ANY amount of money that anybody is willing to put up, that my brother here can drink that sad excuse for a sad excuse over there Under The Table!" He theatrically slammed the wad down on the bar in front of Drolich. The wad was the household emergency 'Oh, Shit!' money. Eli looked Drolich straight in the eye. In a level tone, he said, "Drolich, if this money somehow takes a walk, this bar, your house, and one of your kidneys will All mysteriously disappear before the end of the week. You know us, you know we can do it, you know that nobody will ever prove a thing." Then, again in his fight promoter's voice, "We will take all bets, and whoever is still standing when the other hits the floor, wins! IN ADDITION, the loser will pay for the drinks! Well, Baumgartner, are you MAN enough?"
Baumgartner just sneered and flipped Eli the bird.
Finally breaking my silence, I said in a level voice, "Hey, Kurt! It's almost 9 o'clock! About this time, your big brother is probably flat on his face, going "Oh, Big Daddy, gimme some more!"
Fire in his eyes, Baumgartner pulled out his wad and slammed it down on the bar. He sat down with the finality of a man who's serious about what he's about to do. "Drolich! A bottle of your best Rye whiskey! Since he's gonna be paying for it, I don't want lardass over there saying that he got short-changed on cheap booze!"
I sat down across the table from Baumgartner. I smiled. I have a system that processes alcohol like it was Kool-Aid. It took enough ethanol to poison a normal man to get me even so much as merry. Drolich brought the bottle and two shot glasses. He filled them. As one, Baumgartner and I lifted our glasses and began.
An hour and five bottles later, I tossed off the shot like it was lemonade. Baumgartner struggled to lift his hand to pick up the glass. His backers urged him on. He wrapped his hand around the glass and began to lift it. His partisans gave him gentle words of encouragement. He looked intently at the shot, and then he looked intently at the tabletop. He was so entranced with the wood finish that he put his nose next to it and took a good long look. A small rivulet of drool dripped from his mouth onto the table. I reached over, took the glass from his hand and knocked back the shot. Then I chased it with a can of beer. I patted him on the cheek and said, "When you learn how to drink, little boy, come and look me up." I placed the shot glass upside-down on top of his head.
Eli collected our winnings. We didn't double our money, let alone make enough to pay for Ma's cataract surgery, but we did haul in enough to pay for the new water heater. Ma was still royally pissed off at us, and we were grounded all the next day- hey, she can do that, it's her house! Like we cared. We spent it in the basement, working on one of Eli's better practical jokes.
Just before going off to work Wednesday, Eli and I spent an enjoyable few hours driving Baumgartner's van by remote control- with Baumgartner and his pals inside. We left them hanging from a magnetic crane in a wrecking yard. I think the wreckers were trying to make up their minds whether to scrunch Baumgartner's van or not.
"What do you mean, I'm being sued? By who?"
"By several people, actually." Reyes pulled out a thick sheaf of official looking documents. "I picked these up at the bank, while drawing some funds out of the Valhalla Legal Fund. It seems that the news of the Fund's existence has made the rounds among the shyster elements of the legal community. Apparently Conrad Paulsen decided not go quiet into that good night, yada, yada, yada. All these people know that you have money from the royalties of those posters, and they want a piece of it. We have a suit here from an old lady who claims that one of your electromagnetic pulses damaged her pacemaker, and wants you to replace it, plus legal and medical costs, pain and suffering, etc, etc, etc. Here we have a man who claims that you assaulted him with your electric bolts, thus causing him to be impotent, and wants recompensation for pain, suffering, emotional trauma, and the failure of his marriage, blah blah blee... OH! This is a good one! This guy claims that you're his wife, Silvia, who ran out on him and their three kids, and he's suing you for divorce, alimony, and child support!"
"How much you wanna bet that last guy is planning to take this to the talk show circuit? 'My Spouse Left Me To Become a Superhero! Abandoned husbands and wives confront their vigilante spouses!' Odds are she just left him to become a run of the mill lesbian."
"Or maybe a biker mama.", Eli chipped in from the driver's seat.
"So, what do we do?"
"What most people do! Send them a letter telling them to go screw themselves! In the nicest, most polite of terms, of course. I'm having stationary with a letterhead printed up. The majority of these are either crackpots, or lawyers' relatives who are hoping for an out-of-court settlement, or just people desperate for a little recognition- from a big shot superheroine, from the courts, from a lawyer- hell, anybody!"
"Maybe the next time I run into a member of AEGIS, I can ask them how they handle that kind of thing. After all, they have that headquarters, that voice-mail number, and a web-site. They must get hundreds of these things ever month!"
"Yeah, actually I'm a little disappointed- if we had more, then we might be able to justify a segment on frivolous lawsuits involving high-profile persons like superheroes. But we don't even have twenty here; we'd need at least fifty to provoke the kind of indignation to avoid looking like you were whining. Nobody likes a superhero that whines-"
"Tell that to Spider-man."
Eli chipped in again, "Hey, Reyes! I thought that Roy McGwuire was handling a story on frivolous lawsuits against high profile people."
"Yeah, but not against superheroes-"
Eli cut Reyes' justification for poaching short, "Hold it! There's a really weird message on the emergency band." He switched it over to the speaker.
"-er Woman, making an emergency call for backup from Lady Lightning. I am in dire straights, and AEGIS is not responding. I fear the worst. Please help me. I am at D_____and E_____. Come as quickly as possible. I am recording this, and it will replay continuously until turned off. This is Power Woman, making an emergen-" The voice was strained but controlled, and there was definitely something wrong. I just couldn't put my finger on it.
Reyes said, "I didn't know that you met Power Woman."
"Its gotta be either a prank or a trap."
"OR she's really hard up agin' it." I looked around. "Well, I admit, it's a real long shot, but it had to be said! Any way it pans out, we gotta check it out, 'cause it'll only be worse if we ignore it." I slapped Eli on the shoulder. "Set course for D_____ and E______, Mister Maxham, Warp Factor Six!"
"Aye, aye, Captain Janeway!" Eli responded, trusting to the fact that we were moving and he was driving to save him from just retribution.
I made my patented Flying Dismount en route, and approached from the air. It wasn't a complete hoax, because a Dumpster came flying out of an alley. And not an empty Dumpster, either (*yuck!*). There was a large chunk of masonry torn out of one of the buildings. Dodging around in the cavity were two figures, one in red, one in white. The one in white was Power Woman, local superheroine, founding member of AEGIS, and starring attraction in many adolescent sexual fantasies. She's tall, somewhere in the 5'11" range, and sleek yet curvy. Her outfit is white- white high boots, white gauntlet gloves, white bodice, and long white cape, all with gold trim. She wears gold metal shin and forearm guards, a gold faux-Greek breastplate, a wide gold belt with a medusa's head on it, gold cape buckles, and a gold faux-Greek helmet that covers half her face. Her face, what you can see of it, is an absolutely perfect oval, with a cupids bow mouth and a strong chin. When you can see her eyes through the holes in the helmet, they're an icy blue. long golden hair falls from under the helmet, down to the small of her back. She's very strong, very tough, and flies. She's what superhero aficionados call a 'brick'. Why not? She's built like one! The one in red, or more to the point made out of red, was my old buddy Berserker. What the hell was HE doing out of the slammer?
Weird as it seemed, Power Woman's message must have been on the up and up, 'cause there she was, doing her best kickass. That didn't bode well, what with AEGIS not taking calls. But first things first- Power Woman was only just holding her ground with the B-guy.
Power Woman was picking up a piece of masonry to smash him with, when Red Boy points at her and a spray of something moist-looking hits her right in the face. She screams, and clutches her face, dropping the masonry on herself in the process.
Shit! I hate being rushed! I thunder charged down, hammering him into the asphalt with both feet. Using my perch and his temporary lower body immobility to my best advantage, I immediately started pouring my 'foxfire' down his back. Hey, if it worked once-
Out of the unsettling blankness where his face ought to be, formed an even more unsettling maw, framed by a set of gigantic fangs. Double Shit! Somebody wised up the chump!††
He formed a pair of wicked looking cleavers at the end of his hands and came damn close to lopping off one of my legs. I did a periodically interrupted flamenco on his head, dodging his meat-choppers while driving him further into the street. Then I leaped out of his reach and over to Power Woman.
"Are you Okay? Can you still fight?"
She made a rasping sound out of a face contorted with pain, but nodded.
"Why did you call for me? What happened to AEGIS? What's going on?"
She tried to speak, but it wasn't happening. She pulled out a pair of 10-minute rebreathters out of a compartment on the back of her belt. Nice to know that I'm not the only Batman fan in the local superhero scene. She stuck one in her mouth and handed me the other. Then she pointed past Berserker and into the hole in the masonry. There were the torn remains of what looked to be very high tech equipment, including the remains of what might be an energy weapon. Another secret base? I gotta find out how I can invest in covert construction! It has to be a booming business, what with secret bases being built all over the place!
The simplest story would be that most, if not all of the other members of AEGIS had been captured somehow, and that Power Woman was trying to free them. For some reason, superheroes seem to hate to involve the police in things like this, but feel free to call on other superheroes. Pointless pride, if you ask me. If the other AEGIS members were in there, why were the people behind this only sending out Berserker to cover the place? There should be an army of high-tech henchmen covering the place!
Berserker took a swing at Power Woman, but she caught the blade and turned his own momentum against him, throwing him across the alley. Unfortunately, this freed him from the asphalt snare that I'd had him in. We ran into the rubble. There was the interior of what I think was a security lock, the high-security version of an air lock, where you walk in, are scanned to a fare-thee-well, and if you aren't exactly what they expected, they blow you to bits. I felt around with magnetism and was able to pull back the restraining bolts. The door slid open and I allowed it to re-lock. Let Berserker find his own way back in.
She pointed off to the left, and we went. Still no sign of the foot troops. Then the poison gas started filtering down from the ventilation system (Oh, by the way, just by looking I could tell that the air duct system was too small to crawl into. The guys who built this place saw the same movies). But, Power Woman had foreseen this, and made sure that I had a re-breather. She's probably dealt with this bastard before. I'd really love to know who he is.
we checked back and forth on each side of the corridor for some clue to the whereabouts of the AEGIS. I tried to use logic- they would either be in the deepest, most isolated part of the place, or in a research lab being used for an experiment, or in the heart of the lair, where Dr. X (for want of a better name) could keep an eye on them, all depending on the personality of the guy who runs the place. So far, all we were finding was storerooms of raw materials.
On the other side of the next security lock, I noticed that the polished concrete had been replaced with bare steel. Looking up, it noticed the rather prosaic fire sprinklers. Simple, but effective, I gotta admit. Tapping Power Woman's shoulder, I pointed out the sprinklers, and then the floor. I bridged a span between the floor and a suspicious spar jutting down from the ceiling. Sure enough, a powerful current ran through me. The floor was electrified, wanting only a decent conductor to make it a death trap. Taking the breather out, I gasped "Fly."
The next segment was dominated by semi-finished parts lying in orderly piles on pallets. A couple of automated forklifts were moving things about. Then they carefully put down their pallets and charged at us like a pair of mechanical bulls. They didn't last long. They didn't need to. They were only supposed to delay us.
It came clanking out of the next security lock. It was a cubist sphere (if that means anything) studded with twelve camera lenses and eight long tentacle like flexible waldoes. Two of the tentacles whipped out and entangled Power Woman. I created a powerful repulsive field around myself and got in close. Well, that was the idea. Even if it couldn't grab me, it could send me careening into the wall- and did. Taking the breather out again, I shouted, "Back, through the lock!"
Together, we managed to drag the Octo-bot through the corridor, past the security lock, and onto the electrified floor. We left it there, the current burning its circuitry into post-modern art.
The next trap was just plain icky. Thick nozzles sprayed us with neon blue, green and red liquids that bonded into a thick gooey gel. We could break out of the gel all right, but then it would just stick to something else. If it hadn't been so damn disgusting, it would have been funny. The breather that I'd been using was running low. (Memo to myself: Gotta get one of these for my utility belt.) I started clambering around, opening small hatches. I was almost out of air when I found what I was looking for. I took out a bright yellow canister that looked a lot like a fire extinguisher and sprayed first her and then myself. It dissolved the gel, but we looked ghastly! I managed to spruce up a bit by burning what was left off, and Power Woman just shrugged the now non-adhesive stuff off somehow. Maybe that's part of her power- God knows, I've never seen her looking anything other than smashing. If my 'feminine' looks really meant that much to me, I'd have been really intimidated by now.
Past the next security lock, it opened up into a large semi-circular room, a sixty-degree fan radiating out from what looked like an elevated control booth at the axle of the angle. It appeared to be a large assembly or fabrication area, littered with at least twenty complex material working devices. The place was some kind of factory or workshop. I gotta admit, I'd love to sit down and talk tech with the guy who put this place together. There was a nice Bauhaus elegance to the design, without being constrained to the usual boxy rectilinear limitations that Bauhaus is prone to.
We walked toward the control booth along an aisle against the far wall of the fan. Power Woman preceded me, and walked over a segmented plate. A nozzle popped down, sprayed her with a white foam, and the segmented plate opened up under her. She dropped, and I barely managed to catch her in time to keep her from falling into whatever was under it. And I am proud to say that I didn't waste any time drooling over the foam dripping off that perfect form of hers. Well, at least, not much.
Risking whoever was throwing all this in our faces using the fabricating machines as weapons, we flew the rest of the distance, and smashed through the glass of the control booth.
There was nobody there. The damn place was on automatic!
Looking at the control panel, I found the main power board and shut the entire place down with a single switch.
It was finally safe to take that stupid rebreather out of my mouth, I did so. I looked at Power Woman and said, "So, any ideas of where AEGIS might be being kept?"
Power Woman took her rebreather out, smiled and said with a fruity Hungarian accent, "Why should I bother? You're the one whose been having all the ideas so far!"
With that, she 'morphed from 'Power Woman' into She-Devil's laughing form. She brought up her hands in her brazier posture. "You were so easy to trick! You think that you are so clever, with your fancy toys!"
I jumped back, getting my back against the glass, ready to break through it when she started throwing fireballs. But Berserker beat me to the punch, pooping up out of nowhere and breaking through the glass to grab me in a grip of steel. I managed to keep him from crushing me by devoting most of my power to my force field.
She-Devil sauntered forward, grabbed a handful of 'hair', and pulled it. If I hadn't been wearing a wig, it probably would have hurt. She brought her face right up to mine. Oh Gawd, she started talking again! Again with the going on and on about how glorious and powerful and unstoppable she was. Hey, just kill me and get it over with, but don't torture me!
I looked up at her in pain and said, "She-Devil?"
"In my belt? Second compartment on the left- there's a roll of breath mints. Take them all, Please!"
She slapped me, and said to Berserker, "We've wasted enough time- just toss her in the water trap, and be done with it."
Making a hissing noise that I'm still not sure was either irritation or amusement, Berserker hauled me over to the segmented plate and forced it open with his foot. Against my strenuous objections- accompanied by as powerful electric shocks as I could muster- he stuffed me down the hatch. I landed in a tank of very cold water. I heard the clicks and clanks as the hatch was re-secured.
I swam up to the surface. There was only a foot between the water and the hatch. I felt around my utility belt. I'd left the rebreather in the control booth. Not that it really mattered- it only had a few seconds of breathable air left in it.
I groped around the hatch for some escape mechanism.
I tried to magnetically manipulate the catches.
I blasted at the hatch.
The bitter cold of the water began to bite into my skin.
IS THIS THE END OF LADY LIGHTNING?
WHERE IS THE REAL POWER WOMAN?
WHAT IS SHE-DEVIL UP TO?
WILL ELI EVER GET A REAL DATE?
Find out in the next chapter of "Of Masks and Marvels"! Chapter 8