Of Masks and Marvels (Part 9)
Of Masks and Marvels
By Bek D Corbin
I cha-cha-ed down the hall in my bathrobe, feeling better than I'd felt in months. Eli came out of his room, ready for his morning ablutions. "Hey, Dan! You're looking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed this morning! What's up?"
Ma was already off to work, so I didn't have to watch my words. "I just measured myself! After months of shrinking, I'm finally growing again!"
Eli gave a whoop. "All Right! How much!"
"One and half inches, up to a towering 5' 7&1/2".
"And what about-" he gestured, indicating his chest and hips.
"No signs yet, but I'd say that it's only a matter of time!"
Eli grinned at me. "Awww, and here I was looking forward to playing the annoying little brother, when guys started coming over to date you!"
Grinning back, I said, "You already are the annoying little brother!", grabbed him in a headlock, and noogied him mercilessly.
As we rolled out in the NewsLemon to listen to Reyes' daily debriefing.
[Author's Note: I am pointedly not including any references to the WTC crash or the efforts in New York to recover from the attack. First, it pin-points the time reference. Secondly, this is supposed to be escapist literature. Third, the efforts of the firefighters and rescue workers put any superhero to shame.]
"Let's see now, the world is in it's usual state of mess- yet another giant reptile surfaced in Japan- this one's called Thanaxera-"
"How do they know what to call these things?" Eli complained. "If something big and nasty crawls up out of the sea anywhere else, it takes a while for the Media to come up with a name. Even then, it's something like 'The Dunwich Horror' or 'The Fresno Weevil' or something like that. But in Japan, it's like they automatically know it's given name."
I knew that one. "Japanese school kids. Somehow, if there's a bunch of grade school kids in the area, they all just point and chant out it's name in unison. Or at least they all makes noises, and the media somehow makes up a name from it. Go figure."
Reyes took charge again. "Anyway, Thanaxera caused a couple of trillion yen in damage before the local hero Seidai Masurao -which roughly translates to Magnificent Tiger- kicked it back into the sea, only doing another trillion Yen or so damage in the process; there were still more signs of Global Warming, but Washington D.C. still isn't buying; Economists are tactfully avoiding the 'R' word; there's a story about a gang of counterfeiters who were using a haunted house as a cover-"
"Yeah, and they would have gotten away with it if not for a bunch of meddling kids and their pet Great Dane!"
"-The ISP lost a solar panel, delaying some projects again. On the local scene, Crazy Lenny is still known to be in town-"
I wasn't handling that one. "Yeah, but he's generally considered to be Power Woman's problem, and after meeting her, I can only wish them on each other."
"There's the usual scandal and corruption, and the local utility says that there's something in the sewers again (wink, wink, nudge, nudge!), won't some gulli-, er, brave superhero go down there and take care of it for us?"
I made a disgusted face. <yecchh!> Sewers again! "Okay, if it's gotta be done- but if it's those stupid turtles, trying for a come-back again..."
Okay it was a weak joke, but you'd think that Reyes would at least let me go down into the damn sewers in hip waders or at least galoshes. But, Nooo..., I gotta slog through these stinking- literally- tunnels in those damn needle-heeled boots. I think she spotted a new style at that Kinkaterium where she shops, and she's looking for an excuse to replace the pair that I'm wearing. The imagination boggles...
At first, I thought it was just another carnivorous blob. But carnivorous blobs leave very distinct trails in the sewers- the tunnels are almost sparkling clean after they pass by, devouring everything in its path. No rats, no roaches, no fungus, not even excrement. If they didn't try to eat Sewer Workers, the city would probably declare them a protected species.
But there was no such trail. Down in the sewers, it was revolting business as disgusting usual. I was beginning to wonder how Reyes was gonna get the smell out of my cape and wig when it happened.
Rats. Hundreds of rats, accompanied by buh-zillyuns of roaches! Now usually, rats will try to eat roaches, as the little filth-factories are near-all protein. But they were completely ignoring each other in their rush to get away from something.
So, it can't be a carnivorous blob. Blobs are slow, but they are stealthy little boogers! They have to be, to creep up on things and envelop them. Whatever it was, it was sending out signals louder than a Mexican radio station.
I fought against the nauseating tide, toward whatever was getting their verminous pelts in a knot. After a bit, I heard a, for the want of a better word Tone, coming from straight ahead. The Tone was a low, steady not-hum that set my teeth on edge.
The light from my hand-held electric lantern lanced forward-
I couldn't make any details out in the darkness. Then my mind went through one of those 'Is It A Skull Or A Lady At Her Vanity?' perception flip-flops. The darkness wasn't concealing it, the darkness was it!
It was an Egg.
Or, should I say, it was a six-foot high ovoid patch of starless, moonless night. Or an egg-shaped hole cut in the fabric of reality, showing the existential darkness we all fear show through. Or an- stop me before I rip off H.P. Lovecraft again!
Anyway, it was a great honking big, matte-black, egg-shaped thingie, floating down the sewer at the rate of a leisurely stroll, accompanied only by that gawd-awful Tone.
All right, my first reaction was to blast the thing with the most powerful electric jolt I had. My second was that I'd been reading too many Marvel Comics. I cleared my throat and said in my most authoritative voice, "You There! Wait a minute! I have a few questions that I want to ask you!" Right, like I had any authority what-so-freaking-ever down here!
The Egg stopped. I approached, frantically trying to come up with those questions that I'd been talking about. Then I hit a wall. Well, not a wall, as much as a stubborn refusal on the part of the air in front of me to part like it should. Then I felt it.
IT was a pressure that I felt right in the middle of my forehead. There was something trying to get in. It wasn't physical, but there was an over-whelming sense of intrusion. It was powerful and focused and coming straight at me. I tried to shock the Intrusion, and the electricity ran down an invisible line that shot out of its center, and then dispersed all around the Egg. I tried to move towards the Egg, but the force that had created that 'wall' wrapped around me and kept me from moving at all.
I devoted half my concentration on resisting the Intrusion, and the other half on how to get the fuck out of this mess. I thought about running a current of electricity through the water at the Egg, but it was floating a couple of inches off the surface of the filthy water. Water. The water trap. Electrolysis. I could split a bunch of water into Hydrogen and Oxygen and ignite it. But there was no way that I could build up any pressure for the Hydrogen and Oxygen. But there was a lot of loose methane, and that might suffice. But in the water-trap, I could duck under the water to escape the force of the blast. Even if I could make myself duck into the sewer water, it simply wasn't deep enough to shield me. I'd just have to take the force of the blast, and hope that I could take more punishment than It could. When I agreed to go down into this stupid sewer, I covered my face, neck and shoulders in petroleum jelly to protect it from the possible acidic burns from the theoretical carnivorous blob, (wouldn't you?) so I didn't have to worry that much about burns- hydrogen/oxygen ignitions are comparitively cool and very quick.
I split as much water as I could, as I felt my mental resistance to the Intrusion begin to crumble. As the Intrusion first made its bulldozer like presence known, I ignited the air around me with a spark.
The sense of Intrusion ceased, and that's the last I remember before the back of my head cracked on the wall of the sewer.
"...can't get that stupid mask offa her-"
"Eeeewww, what happened?"
"Gee, I wonder if those are real-"
Don't ask me where the instinct came from, but my hand shot up and grabbed the lecher who was about to find out if they were real or not. I opened my eyes and looked through cracked eyepieces at a very surprised paramedic.
"Please, Lady Lightning, don't move, you've been very badly burned." Burned? My mind raced- there goes my secret identity, the secret of my uhm questionable gender, the whole magillah! Even though the EMT tried to stop me, I reached up and touched my face. Even through the glove, I could feel the dry crackling that is associated with a Third Degree burn. I looked in the reflection of the nearest piece of polished metal. One half of my face was blackened and cracked. I was disfigured! There was no way, Power or no Power, that I could heal from this! It was all over! There's no way I could keep my secret identity with a disfigurement like this! It was all gone! My family would be in mortal danger, my job was finished, and my career as a superhero was shot! I gently prodded my face- waitaminnit!, if this is a Third Degree burn, then either I should be in howling pain, or the nerves in my skin were destroyed, and I shouldn't be able to feel my hand against my cheek!
Against the semi-panicked objections of the EMTs, I pulled at the seared covering on my face. The burned petroleum jelly covering that I'd put on me to protect me from the filth in the sewers had instead, protected me from the damage of the fire. The hydrogen/oxygen burn must have been too brief to completely burn through the petroleum jelly. I breathed a sigh of profound relief.
The EMT started to fuss again, but I shooed him off. "Get on the radio and get in touch with Lt. Hesczeck at Metro. Tell him I need to talk to him." Hesczeck set a face-to-face for a few hours later. I signed an AMA (Against Medical Advice) form, and split.
I went through all the hassle of contacting Reyes through her cell phone (the radio built into my mask was busted- I hadda use a payphone. Man, did I get weird looks from the guy in the next booth!), and arranging a change of clothes. Eli almost had a heart attack when he saw my face, and Reyes pitched a fit at the condition of the costume (Memo to self: Find out where Reyes gets these things dry-cleaned).
I spent the next two hours taking a very long, very hot shower, with disinfectants that could strip paint off of a garbage truck, and I still felt soiled.
I landed at the Metro division helipad at the agreed on time, and signed in with Huygens, the Astro-cop on duty. I've been through there enough times that I'm starting to know these guys by name. My cape, wig, boots and costume were fresh, but I still worried about offending the big hairy biker being transported in the elevator with me. I needn't have worried- he made an unfortunate comment, and had to be carried to his holding cell. Honest, I never laid a hand on him!
Hesczeck greeted me without getting up. "My, but you look fresh for someone who just got hauled out of the sewers!" He smiled to show that he didn't mean anything by it. "I assume that your urgent message that couldn't be discussed over the phone has something to do with you blowing the covers off seven manholes?" Man, I love working with professionals!
I described my encounter with The Egg. Hesczeck looked at me askance. "An EGG?"
"At least six feet high, matte black, and floating down the sewers."
"I don't know who to call- the X-Files, or the USDA."
"So this doesn't sound like any supervillain or registered monster-type that you've heard of?"
"NO, and believe me, I'd remember if I ever heard of anything like this! Man! Can you imagine what would hatch out of an egg like that?"
"That's not what scares me- what scares me is imagining what could've laid an egg like that!"
Hesczeck blinked. "Speaking of laying an egg-" he reached into his desk, "-this is a police station, NOT your private post office box." He handed me an envelope with only my name written in calligraphic letters on it.
I took the letter. "What's this? Fan Mail from some flounder?" The envelope was sealed with red wax, and the interior was lined in thin gold foil. I broke the seal, and there was a soft sigh as the hermetic seal let air in. Whoever sent this was serious about their security! Inside was a piece of formal stationary on linen paper, and a blank card with a magnetic strip on it. I opened the letter and read.
Hesczeck leaned back in his chair and drawled with a nonchalance that only convinced me that he was eaten up nose to tail with curiosity, "So, is Archie finally asking you to the Prom?"
I gave him a half-smile in return. "Sorta. This is a formal request to speak with the members of AEGIS at their headquarters. The card is a key to that door at their storefront."
Hesczeck grinned and drawled in an exaggerated hillbilly accent, "Wayll, y'all go to that fancy big city hoe-down, Mary-Lew, but don't y'all let them fancy city slicker boys try none a' them so-fis-tee-cated tricks on you, y'hear?"
I grinned back at him and replied in my best 'Ellie Mae' voice, "Why shore they won't, Uncle Jed. I done learned my lesson with that there travellin' salesman!"
Reyes was less than happy about being left out of my trip to go see the assembled members of AEGIS, so she vented a little by razzing Eli and me about our purchases. Eli and I were working on improving the storage ability of the gel-packs, so we reduce their size- the damn things are starting to crowd me out of my own bra! Our current idea is to 'disguise' them as the padding for the breast protector under the bodice cup. [a Wink, Nod and No-Prize to Ken, a.k.a. Usmar, for the idea] We think that most superheroines use a version of those metal cup-things that female fencers use. The trick is how to ask without looking strange...
I touched down in front of AEGIS's Community Access storefront, feeling a tad foolish- I felt like a kid knocking on a door and saying, 'Excuse me, Ma'am, can Justiciar come out and play?'.
The receptionist is blonde, always fresh, always chipper, and always there- whether she's identical triplets, clones, an android, a computer generated hologram or just damned annoying, nobody's sure.
"Good Afternoon!" she chirped. "You're Lady Lightning, right? You have an interview scheduled for... ten minutes from now. Right through there-" she gestured at the large, obviously ridiculously armored door braced by a pair of pale milky white pylons. As I stepped between the pylons, a slender line of light played over me, and I wondered if this thing could see through that gaff that Reyes talked me into wearing.
I slipped the card in, and the Cecil B. DeMille surplus doors opened. Now here's the weird part- AEGIS's Community Access storefront is housed in a single story building that looks like it should be one of those real estate/ insurance/home loan type cooperatives. There is no way that anything like a respectable superhero group HQ behind or beneath it.
And there is no way that the humongous room that I stepped into should have been anywhere near it either- but there I was. Big, dark, echoing room, bright lights beating down on me, and nary a fruit basket to be seen.
Okay, you don't have to subscribe to The Uncanny X-Men to see what was coming down the pike, and neither did I. I jigged off to the left- I figured that almost everyone jigs off to the right, or goes straight up if they can fy- just as a huge gelatinous glob of something landed *Splooosh!* right where I'd been. I crabwalked sideways as carefully as I could, my radar going in all directions at once.
I noticed an energy spike off to one side, and turned just in time to see a man wink into existence in exactly that spot. I cramped down a snide thought about how AEGIS could have teleporter technology but the city trash removal system was still having problems finding landfill area. I vaguely recognized the guy- he was called Battalion, and he was wearing the basic no-frills armored combat exo-skeleton (see Pg. 124 of our catalog. The lovely Battalion is wearing the Urban Camouflage motif). He held up one arm, there was another power spike, and voila!, there was a nasty looking energy weapon mounted on his forearm. A pencil-thin laser played out, and he slashed across the room with it. I dodged it, and powered up to about 6 feet from the ceiling, and as close to one of those blinding lights as I could get. Either he'd shoot them out and have to deal with ranged combat in the dark, or he wouldn't and have to deal with being blinded by them.
He took the first option and shot out the lights. In the minor explosion, I thunder-charged down to him. I did not hit him when I arrived, having more consideration for my knuckles than to pointlessly scrape them on meta-ceramic compounds. I ducked right behind him, and lifted him off the ground. His exo-skeleton was probably several degrees stronger than I was, but without a flight pack or some kind of grounding, he had no leverage to use that strength against. I had him in a Full Nelson, which gave me an excellent view of the socket/hardpoints built onto his shoulderplates. Perfect! And, Battalion used them just as I thought he would. I sensed a building power spike, and before the incoming weapons could materialize, I shifted my hands just as the automatic covers that protected the energy weapon control and power junction leads opened. I ran a very nasty DC current through the leads, and Battalion's weapons array was functionally useless.
Battalion was manually checking his systems as I calmly walked around him, smiled into his faceplace and snapped a flick of the middle finger right between where his eyes should be. There was another power spike, and Battalion winked out.
There was a really Big power surge, and there towering above me was Titan. As you might have guessed from his name, Titan is not a small guy. BIG Guy. Forty feet tall, god knows how heavy, and wearing enough armor to plate an column of tanks. He has a pretty good track record with keeping property damage down, too- being that big, you must either be constantly reminded that there are these tiny little normal sized people scurrying around underfoot, or you completely forget about them. He bent over and reached down to grab me. I didn't try to fly out of the way of his hand- I figured that was exactly what he wanted me to do, and I have closely held opinions about doing the things that people expect me to do. Just as that telephone pole sized finger reached me, I grabbed it and used his own off-balance weight to throw him. He awkwardly crashed upside down against the wall. He tried to right himself, but every time that he exerted himself to getting right, I pushed that effort too far, and he fell on his face again. After a while, it was kind of like those Tom & Jerry cartoons where Jerry reads a book on Jujitsu, and starts slamming Tom into the floor. After five throws, Titan was flat on his back on the floor, and disappeared.
I intently probed the electromagnetic spectrum for another power spike, and that rose up and bit me in the ass quickly. I felt a foot clip me on the back of the head, pushing me down. I lashed out behind me, and got the weirdest impression that I'd just missed something. There was no power spike, so it couldn't have been the teleportation gizmo. I ducked and weaved and managed to avoid another blindside kick. This time I saw a rather petite Hispanic looking young woman in a black sleeveless bodysuit with a red twisting design that briefly made me wonder if she was either shilling for Coca-cola, or being sued by them. I sent a jolt of electricity at her, but she disappeared in a weird looking 'wrinkle in reality' effect. Oh, yeah. Now I remember- she's called Twist, and some people regard her as one of AEGIS's more dangerous members.
She twisted back into reality a few feet away from me, and smirked at me. I sent another bolt of lightning at her; she just gestured, and the bolt jagged off in the wrong direction. Which wouldn't bother me that much, except that it violates several rather basic laws of physics, and I tend to get nervous when that happens. She smirked again, and said in a high pitched Rosie Perez voice, "Well, that was pathetic! Let's see if we can liven things up a skootch!"
She swung one finger down in an arc, and one of those 'wrinkle in reality' things came flying at me. I have no idea what it would do to me, and to be perfectly honest, I'd just as soon keep it that way. I executed a power leap over it, and it hit the far wall and did some truly bizarre things- the kinds of things that gave H. P. Lovecraft headaches- before spending itself.
We danced around for a bit, trying to hit each other. I managed to blind her with one of my Light Arc attacks, but she threw this kind of Salvador Dali butterfly thingie at me that followed me. When the damn thing hit me, it was like the floor and the roof and the walls and everything between them had had this Huge labor disagreement, and nobody was willing to agree on simple things like Up, Down, Left or Right.
I dropped to the floor (actually, I just dropped, and the rest was a matter of pure faith in Sir Isaac Neuton). I knew that she'd come in to finish it, so I wrapped an invisible but very powerful 'cage' of lines of magnetic force around me. I also built up a powerful Amp charge. Anything breaching the cage would discharge the Amps right into them.
Twist teleported in, crossed the lines of force, and would have been fricasseed before she was halfway out of her 'twist', if I'd put some real voltage behind it as well. She dropped, stunned. I went over and felt along her neck. Heartbeat steady, breathing level- she's cool.
Then I heard the sound of bolts being pulled. A door opened up, and standing there were Tigress, Sapphire, Power Woman and Justiciar.
Justiciar leaped straight at me, energy sword high over his shoulder, ready to swing.
I stood my ground.
He landed almost on top of me, sword coming down.
I did my best not to blink.
The sword stopped a gnat's eyelash ahead of my nose.
As coolly as I could, I looked past the sword into Justiciar's eyes and said dryly. "So, is the initiation over, or do I have to push a peanut up a hill with my nose?"
Justiciar slumped, lowered his sword and looked at me exasperatedly.
I walked past him, saying "Jeez! How Marvel Comics can you get?"
Find out in the next chapter of "Of Masks and Marvels" Chapter 10