Of Masks and Marvels (Part 10)
Of Masks and Marvels
By Bek D Corbin
edited by Steve Zink
I looked around the AEGIS Headquarters. The corridors were spacious, well lit, and were lined with panels that probably concealed all kinds of esoteric equipment. The length of the corridor that Tigress led me down made me think that the rooms or suites were very large. I just gotta find out how I can invest in Covert Construction. Beats Tech stocks hollow.
I tried to chat up Tigress, but she shushed me. Then she led me into what you might call the 'Round Table' room - you know, the room that every superhero group has, with a big table, surrounded by chairs that have the logo of the specific hero on the back? Hey, I always thought that it was a goof - I mean, why bother?
But there it was, with all the assembled members of AEGIS seated around the table, including Justiciar and Power Woman. Tigress must have led me around the long way, in order to give them time to get here ahead of me.
A section in the table opened up, and I was led into a hollow in the center of the table. I crossed my arms and struck a pose. "I suppose you didn't call me here to find out my recipe for brownies?"
Power Woman grumped, "Of course not."
"Pity, they're really good brownies."
Power Woman wasn't amused. "Exactly how did you know that what you faced in the Controlled Combat Area-"
"Hey, it's a Danger Room! Marvel never did manage to copyright the phrase!"
"Again, how did you know that you weren't in mortal peril?" Mortal Peril? Who talks like that? "For all you know, you could have been facing androids, or we could have been under some kind of mind control! But you blithely assumed that you wouldn't be harmed. That kind of careless-"
I cut her off in mid-nag. "FIRST, I knew something was up when you teleported me into that Danger Room-"
"Danger Room. If you had been serious, you'd have teleported me into an area where I couldn't fight back, or into working furnace. Second, Battalion fired at me with a visible laser. Despite what you see in movies, Combat Lasers are almost invisible. They have to shift wattage over from damaging power in order for it to be seen. Therefore, I knew that he must be 'counting coup' on me. Third, you sent Titan into a cramped area where he would actually be at a disadvantage, if I had the wits to see it. That could only be intentional. Fourth, if you were serious, you'd have had a close-range, medium-range, long-range team waiting for me, and not sent them in one at a time. Face it, the only way that it would have been more obvious that it was a test, is if you had patted me down for crib sheets beforehand."
One of the two AEGIS members that I hadn't yet met - after all, facing someone in combat is a form of meeting them - stifled a laugh and spoke up. Her name was Madam Hex (who comes up with these names, anyway?), and I didn't know that much about her. She wasn't one of the flashier members. "Well, Lady Lightning, just in case you haven't figured it out - which you probably have - you've been nominated for membership in AEGIS."
I cast looks at Tigress, Sapphire, and Justiciar. Which one do I thank - or more to the point, blame? I spread an apologetic grin. "Ah, well, I'm honored, and all that jazz-"
Power Woman stood up and glared at me through that helmet of hers. "Are you declining to join us?"
"Well, if you're gonna be that way about it, YES!"
"Well, then, why don't you just leave?"
"Because, thanks to that stupid teleportation system of yours, I don't know where the door is!"
Power Woman was about to tell me where else I could go, when a deep base voice said, "It seems that we have gotten off on the wrong foot." It was Iron John, the other unaccounted for member. Besides being a founding member, Iron John had been a local superhero since I can't remember when. I remember reading on AEGIS's Superhero Shrines, that capewatchers claim that while Justiciar and Power Woman are the hot shots in AEGIS, Iron John is considered something of an Elder Statesman.
"You have an almost British gift for Understatement," I drawled back at him.
He took the wrought iron mask off, revealing his face. His mask is a rather stylized bearded man's face that somehow shades his eyes from sight without blocking his vision. He wears a long blacksmith's apron over workman's clothes, and carries a large sledgehammer - sort of the blacksmith from Hell. Under the imposing mask, he was a stocky black man in his late forties or early fifties, with a broad face and a receding hairline. But what grabs you are his eyes - he has the kind of eyes that suggest that he's seen everything stupid, wrong and vile in humanity, and learned to forgive. It's a pity that he hides those eyes behind that mask. Or maybe it isn't. I imagine it's a lot more intimidating to face an unyielding visage of iron than it is your confessor.
It occured to me that Iron John and Power Woman might be running a Good-Cop/Bad-Cop routine. Especially with the neat little ploy of taking off the mask in that melodramatic way. But then, I'm basically a very suspicious person. He waved a hand around the dramatic table situation. "This is supposed to suggest some kind of King Arthur's Round Table."
"From where I'm standing, the Star Chamber or the 'Vehmsrichte' of Germany come more to mind. Look, if you want to talk to me, fine - but I'm not gonna just stand here and let you pass judgement on me. I mean, what are you gonna do if you decide that I don't cut the mustard - take away my superheroing license?"
Iron John tapped his metal gauntlet on the table. "Good point. What say we go into the lounge, and talk this over like regular people."
I shrugged. My subdued paranoia suggested that this was exactly where IJ had wanted to go in the first place. But, who was he playing games with - Me, or one of the others?
"Okay, Hex, Tigs, Galahad, you come with me and the Lady. Titan, sit on her-" he indicated Power Woman, "if her nose gets too out of joint."
Titan grinned, and grew from his six-foot-something base height to about ten feet. Was Power Woman having problems within AEGIS? Oh, lovely - Politics, the Breakfast of Idiots.
They led me into a nice break room, and helped themselves to coffee. Tigress and Justiciar pulled their half-masks down around their necks, and Madam Hex pulled her hood down and pushed those wrap-around sun glasses up atop her blonde hair. Madam Hex wears a simple outfit that rather reminds me of a Playboy version of Wendy the Good Little Witch - a red, skintight, one piece bodysuit with a peaked cowl that manages to conceal a lot of her face. The red was broken by short black gloves, a black belt with a green 'gemstone' buckle, a black garter on her left hip with a matching green 'gem', black shoes covered by red 'spats', and a black necklace holding a 'gem' to match the buckle and garter. She carries a black shoulder-high staff with another 'gem' at the tip - that is, she carries it, when it isn't floating around after her.
I took the hint, and pulled my own mask off. Since she wanted me to put my best foot forward while sticking it in the door of a motherlode of information, Reyes had insisted on doing that trick with eyeshadow on me, so I was looking pretty good. No brag, just fact. Dammit.
I remembered to smooth out my cape under me as I sat down. Even though it's damn hard to wrinkle chainmail, it's always best to observe appearances when trying to pull off a masquerade as I am. I settled in, and smiled politely at my hosts. Madam Hex floated a cup of coffee in front of me.
Iron John sipped his coffee and gave me a measuring glance. "So, is there a particular reason for turning us down, or are you just 'not the joining kind'?"
"Ah, well, I have been doing reasonably well by myself so far, but-"
"But, adding to that is the problematic fact that I am not in this superhero business by myself."
Justiciar said, "Yes, Maxine, we rather figured out that you had some kind of backup, providing transportation and information."
Maxine? "Oh. You intercepted our radio messages." And mistook Maxham for Maxine. (Memo to self: Burn 'On Air Security' onto Reyes' forehead with an acetelyne welding torch!)
"Yes, you really should build some kind of scrambler into your communications unit."
"A-henh, not just transportation and information. Money. My 'backer' helps me get these outfits, upgrades my equipment, and permits me to pursue my 'career' while managing to keep a job. I repay my backer's money outlay with the proceeds of the royalties from those posters." I discretely avoided mentioning the 'preferred journalist' status that Reyes' enjoyed. "My accepting membership in AEGIS could very well put in a conflict of interest. You'll probably want to know things about my backer, for security reasons - things I can't in all good faith tell you. And my backer will absolutely certainly want to know things about you - count on it. And there I am, in the middle, privvy to too much information. All things considered, I think it will be best for all concerned if I just say 'No Thanks'."
Iron John nodded, and said, "Understandable. I appreciate your candor. But there's something you don't understand. Have you ever wondered why there's a superhero group in almost every major urban region where there's a notable superheroic presence?"
I shrugged. "Cooperation, information sharing, pooling resources, the company of other superheroes-"
"Yeah, all the textbook answers. Which are admittedly legitimate reasons, but they came later. The real reason why these things got started in the first place, and still the main reason why they get formed, goes back to the 1930's. Back then, the top lawman in the country was J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI. Hoover hated amateurs meddling in Law Enforcement, and he really hated competition for press coverage in his 'war on crime'. So you can guess how he felt about the Mystery Men."
"You know, the masked vigilantes, like Radio's The Shadow, who came along just before the superheroes. Whenever they could, the FBI slapped these guys down hard. The ones who killed were arrested for Murder - can't blame Hoover for that part - and the ones who didn't were threatened with exposure. And you know what would happen after that. Most of them got rounded up in the late 30's in something called 'The Pimpernel Project'. Exactly what happened to them is still highly classified. When the first super-powered costumed crime fighters came along, Hoover did the same to most of them that he did to the Mystery Men. He also pushed a thing called the 'Superheroes' Code', that got published in the papers. It was kind of an oath that the superheroes of the period were expected to take. It involved things like not carrying guns, not killing, obeying the Law, and so forth. The heroes he couldn't make quit but did knuckle under, he made join toether into groups like ours. The main point of all that was that Hoover didn't want to risk his own G-Men's lives - or the bad press - by tracking down superheroes openly. The idea was that the superhero groups would keep tabs on each other. If one went over the line, the others would hunt him down and deliver him to the authorities, in order to prove their good faith."
"So, the government doesn't trust superheroes?"
"Of course not. Would you? Think about it - a bunch of weirdos in circus costumes, using strange powers, and running around taking the Law into their own hands. When I was younger, the thought of the Federal Government making these high-handed demands on us used to make my blood boil. These days, after all I've seen, if anything, I find it rather reassuring. I've seen one too many 'heroes' decide that they're above the Law, or flip out using some 'performance enhancer' of some kind. It helps keep things in perspective, if there's someone you have to answer to."
I sat back and chewed on this for a while. It sucked, but it also made sense. It was sort of a way for the government to 'register' super powers without having to actually pass a law doing so. I looked at Iron John and Madam Hex. "So, there's actually an agency, like SHIELD, that keeps tabs on superheroes?"
Madam Hex shook her head. "No, doing that more or less falls under the purview of the Attorney General's offices, both at the Federal and State level. Let's face it, Maxine, troops of guys with esoteric weaponry don't really scare most superheroes - but quiet, methodical, diligent investigators asking questions and looking through files scare the bee-jeezus out of us!"
"But I haven't committed any crimes!"
"Maxine, odds are that you violate some minor law or regulation that you never heard of, every time you use one of your powers. They just don't bother to enforce that law or regulation, since you're doing it for the greater good. But, if you don't make some sort of arrangement that reassures them that you can be handled somehow, they will trot out laws, statutes and regulations that make your even breathing punishable by six months."
I took a deep breath. Shit. "Well, that puts me in an awkward position - if I join, I may have to violate one set of trusts to another. If I don't, I can expect a whole flock of nit-picking indictments to come flying my way." I paced up and down the room for a few minutes. I sat down and rubbed my face with both hands. Then a thought occured to me. "Iron John, the whole point of this 'super hero group' thing is basically that the superheroes are acknowledging the authority of the government, right?"
"More or less."
"So, how about this - I don't become a full-fledged member, which would require that I tell you too much about my backer and put me in a position of refusing that same backer sensitive information about you. But I do become some kind of auxillary member, or associate, or affiliate, or whatever we decide to call it. That would satisfy the bureaucrats that I'm safely under wraps, so to speak, while not putting me in a position where I would have to start talking about things that I'd prefer to avoid. Man, the things they don't tell you in Comic Books!"
Iron John frowned. "We don't have any provisions in our charter for 'associates'. It's either a full-membership, or nothing."
"More to the point, it doesn't specify that associates or affiliates, or whatever we wind up calling this status, can be accepted," Justiciar pointed out, "_but_ it doesn't specify that it _can't_ either."
"Yeah, come to think of it," Tigress mused, "we are a little heavy on the 'full time members'. It might be a good idea to diversify a little - have a full-time Core Team, and have more 'affiliates' who aren't expected to go off with the Core Team when they go off to fight an invasion of extra-dimensional Elvis Impersonators."
"That way we would be honoring the terms of our charter," Madam Hex added, "while still having superpowered people in place here in the city to handle all the stuff that just seems to wait for us to pop out of town before they drop the hammer."
Iron John raised his eyebrows and nodded thoughtfully. "Not bad. Titan will probably want to change over to the auxillary - he's been carping that AEGIS duties have been cutting into his study time. And-"
Madam Hex held up a restraining hand. "That is for later. Also, we have to determine exactly how being an affiliate is different from being a full-time member. The FBI will want to know." Iron John looked at her hopefully. "Yes, John, I'll handle the paperwork!" Hex then said in an aside to me, "The man will charge down a rampaging magma-beast without thinking twice, but try to get him to handle a little red tape! <pffagh!>"
Tigress leaned back and gave me a measuring look. "So, with this 'affiliate' status, you would be willing to hang with us?"
I laughed. "Do I really have a choice?"
"You make it sound like a prison sentence. We do most of the things you mentioned earlier. It's just a matter of making the best of a hard situation. Even with your excellent relations with the cops, they would have made you the 'offer you can't refuse' sooner or later. It's better to get with the program sooner, get the good stuff, and be able to do the things that you put the mask on to do in the first place in peace. So?"
Tigress beamed. "Kewl! So, with that out of the way, how about a little 'getting to know you-" She broke into the show-tune from The Sound of Music. Pillows levitated off of the sofa, and pummeled her into silence. Madam Hex serenely sipped her coffee.
<sigh> "I guess it's mind-numbing, senses-stunning super secret origin time! Well, the bare-bones version is that in my civilian identity, I work with heavy electrical power lines a lot. My guess is that somehow, the flow of electro-magnetic force that flows through my body got polarized, like a piece of iron being magnetized by prolonged exposure to a lodestone. Don't ask me why it hasn't happened to other people, 'cause I don't know. I fell from a high place one day, and it suddenly kicked in. It started out weak, just the ability to glide along strong lines of magnetic force, but it developed as I worked with it. And that's pretty much it."
Madam Hex snorted. "You think that's a lame, mind-numbing, senses-stunning super secret origin? I read a book, and developed my powers!"
"No, How To Develop Your Cerebro-Cosmic Mind Powers."
"Hunh? Don't they sell that in the back of the National Inquisitor?"
"Yep. And even I haven't the slightest notion of why it won't work for everyone!"
Tigress bounced on her seat in her eagerness to add to the subject. "When I was thirteen, I took Aikido lessons, and it turned out that I have a genius for manipulating Ki, the quasi-mystical force that is supposed to run through everyone's body. When I started, I was fat, slow, and out of shape - by the time I was eighteen, I was more or less like this!" She swept her hands down her body in demonstration.
"And since we're sharing, how about you, Iron John?"
He slugged down his coffee, took a deep breath, and started. "When I was a young man, back in the late 60's, things were real bad for black folks. The Civil Rights Movement was making things better, but it was also making things worse. The real leaders of the Movement, like Dr. King and Malcom X, were getting shot, and the ones that were left were either media hounds or hoodlums looking to cover themselves with Radical Chic, or at each other's throats. People didn't trust the cops - not that they ever did, but they started thinking of The Man as The Enemy. Young black men started running around in gangs - before, street gangs were a white thing or a Mexican thing, not a black thing. The only Heroes that blacks had were sports stars, or singers - people all wrapped up in themselves. No heroes at all.
"I looked around, and I saw that things in my part of the City were getting worse. I knew that I had to do something. I went to an Obeah Woman- kind of a voodoo witch - and I asked her for a charm to protect me, while I protected The People. She gave me this weird look, and brewed up the most God-awful crap in a iron pot, yelling stuff in some kind of really off French. She gave me a cup, and told me to drink. I didn't want to. She yelled at me that how could I be a Hero to The People, if I couldn't choke down a simple potion. It was boiling hot, but I drank it all down in one gulp. Then I fell down and had a vision of Ougan Feray, the Loa of Iron, the Maker and Breaker of Chains, Master of Righteous Battles, Bringer of Reason and Wisdom. He told me to make this mask-" he patted the wrought iron helmet beside him, "and guided my hand as I took what bits and pieces of junk that I could find and formed it to my will. When I was finished, I hestitated. I thought that maybe it had all been just a psychedelic high from witches' brew full of mushrooms and god-knows-what-all. Then I put on the mask, and I was filled with the power of Ougan Feray. At first, I was only a very strong and tough man, but as I fought, I grew stronger and tougher, strengthened by the hammering of my foes and purified by the fires of conflict. I grew savvy in the ways of both conflict and diplomacy, and I grew wise enough to see that conflict was not the only way to make things better. Ougan does not come to me in council as often as he did at first, but then maybe he doesn't have to, and he has many things to do." He finished his tale with an air of 'that's my story, and I'm sticking to it'.
I kicked back and gave him a long look. Well, it obviously worked for him, and he didn't have to go running around in a padded bra to be a superhero.
Justiciar held up a hand. "Believe me, you don't want to hear my story. I don't believe it, sometimes."
We talked for a while, and then Tigress offered to show me around the place. The AEGIS base was reasonably well equipped - a full infirmary with a complete suite of examination devices, a completely equipped gymnasium, that Danger Room (no matter what Power Woman calls it), a complete Law Library, well stocked technical and known-offenders libraries, a Situation Room with several monitors and secure communications, and of course, that stupid 'Round Table' room.
As we were poking around the known offenders library, I answered a memo to myself and 'Asked Someone Else'; "Tigress, when Justiciar, Power Woman and I were fighting She-devil and Berserker a few weeks ago, I caught Justiciar and She-Devil smooching away like a couple of hormone happy teenagers. Thing is, I always thought that Sir Galahad and Power Woman were the hot and heavy number around here! When I asked her about it, Power Woman got all defensive and hostile. I hate tuning into a Soap Opera in the middle and not knowing who's who - what's the dirt?"
Tigress shrugged. "Well, to be honest, the bit about Justiciar and Power Woman is pretty much a complete invention of the Media - Ted, that's Justiciar's real name, never did have much luck with women, and if ol' P.W. has the sex drive of a carpet tack, it's news to me! I haven't the slightest idea what the story with She-Devil is all about - God, I hope not! Ted has had enough women problems without walking into a Batman/Catwoman thing with someone like She-Devil!" She shuddered.
I gave her a long askance look. "And that's another thing! What IS it about that bimbo? Okay, she has that teenage boy's wetdream of a body, but give me a break! If that kind of physique was all it took to get that kind of reaction from everybody, then Pamela Anderson would be Empress of the West Coast! I have faced her twice, and I am still more impressed by the quality of the henchmen that she hires than I am with her!"
Tigress' jaw almost hit the ground. She spent the next five minutes actually trying to convince me that I'd been phenomenally lucky to walk away with my life the two times that I'd fought She-Devil. Weird.
I managed to get her off the topic by asking her about AEGIS's teleportation system. A puckish grin crossed her face, and she almost dragged me to a centrally located suite. There, so help me, was an exact replica of the transporter from the original Star Trek. I gave Tigress a very long look. There was no way that any of the members of AEGIS that I'd seen so far was this particular kind of geek/cool, so I took a guess. "You have a Mad Genius In Residence, right?"
Tigress quirked an annoyed look at me, and admitted, "Yeah, she should be in here-" and opened a door to a side room. Imagine a junk cocktail - take one part Radio Shack, one part toy store, one part TV/Movie memorabilia shop, and two parts Junior Misses' department at Monkey Wards, shake vigorously, and pour over the furniture. There was an island of order in the middle of the chaos, a worktable where a short, slightly chubby young woman in mechanics' coveralls was furiously at what I think was the shoulderplate from Battalion's power armor that I trashed.
Tigress tried to introduce us, but was rebuffed with a furious, "I'm Working!"
I leaned over and took a look. I offered a little helpful suggestion. The young woman started to snap at me, then blinked, looked at the array again, and said in surprised voice, "That will actually work!" She squinted at me through her magnifying glasses, then realized that she was wearing magnifying glasses and took them off. She looked a lot less like a Central Casting Geek without them.
"Bernice, this is Lady Lightning, our newest mem-"
"Our newest Affiliate. Affiliate is a new thing we're trying, we haven't quite decided what it means yet. Lady Lightning, this is Bernice, our 'Mad Genius In Residence'."
Bernice bridled at that. "First of all, I am not Mad! A trifle pissy, I'll admit, but I Am Not Mad! Secondly, I practice real, Hard Science, not that fuzzy 'Weird Science' crap! I-"
Tigress cut in. "Bernice is also the Keeper, Operator and High Priestess of The Artifact."
Hunh? "The Artifact?"
Tigress grinned. "Yep! A Gen-Yew-Wine Mystery of Modern Science! Bernie, you wanna-"
Bernice was already well ahead of her, and was pulling out a ring of keys. She went back into the Transporter room, walked over to a security door that looked like it should be in the main vault at Fort Knox, and unlocked a security box. Then she went through the whole song-and-dance with the hand-print, voice print, retina scan and PIN punch-in. The doors slid open, and Bernice pulled me in to show off her favorite toy. We walked out onto a catwalk on the third level of a huge underground chamber. Dominating and almost filling the entire area was one of the weirdest things that I have ever seen.
It was well over thirty feet tall. Its base consisted of seven ten-foot tall pyramids arranged in a chevron. While most of each pyramid was conventionally linear, the very tops twisted off into glassy strands, which rose and joined together into an irregular teardrop shape that twisted off into a fan at the very top. The whole thing, pyramids, teardrop and fan, looked like one of those things that you dig out of a really hot fire, where glass, metal and other things all melt and flow together into a surreal blob. I tried to focus on one part of the thing, but for some reason, my eyes simply couldn't seem to get its range, and it was constantly out of focus.
I shrugged. "Okay, I'll bite - what is it?"
Bernice glowed as she looked at it. "We don't know."
"What does it do?"
"We don't know. We use it to teleport things in and out of the base, but as near as we can tell, that's a secondary effect. See those Control Rings?" She pointed at a set of five circular arrays of electronic equipment that surrounded the teardrop main body. "Those interact with a field of spatial irregularity that surrounds The Artifact. We don't dare actually do anything to its main body."
"Weird shit happens. Let's just say that there are certain names you simply Do Not say in this room."
"And the Government lets you keep this? I'd think they grab it, and put it in that warehouse, right next to the Ark of the Covenant!"
"They did confiscate it - they had it for three months, then they returned it, and they haven't said a thing about it since. Right about that time, three Ph.D.s in Physics from MIT went mysteriously missing. Personally, I think it ate 'em."
"Where did it come from? Where did you get it?"
Tigress scratched her nose. "Long Story. Y'see, a few years back, there was this second rate supervillain team called Cataclysm. It was lead by a telepathic gadgeteer type called Brainstorm, and had a Marvel Sandman rip-off called Landslide, an energy projecting brick called Volcano, a whirling speedster called Cyclone, and I forget what the other two assholes called themselves."
"The old 'villains with a theme' gag, hunh?"
"Yeah. Any-hoo, this Cataclysm gang was pretty rinky-dink, largely because they weren't really a team, just a bunch of super-powered punks with more or less the same agenda. But, time after time, the thing that kept them from getting busted was that right as they were about to get beaten, they'd simply disappear." I jerked a thumb at The Artifact. Tigress nodded. "Eventually, we managed to track them down to the site where they had The Artifact stashed. Synthesis managed to track them by monitoring fluxes in power usage during the time of each teleportation."
"Synthesis? Who's that?"
"Oh, Synthesis was AEGIS's technical whiz at the time. She could monitor and control the flow of electricity in circuits. Most of Battalion's hardware used to be hers."
"What happened to her?"
Tigress jerked a thumb at The Artifact. "She tried to 'read' its 'programming'. That was four years ago, and she hasn't snapped out of her trance since. She's under supervised care now."
"Where did this 'Brainstorm' guy say he got it?"
"He didn't - y'see, when we tracked them down to their site, Brainstorm decided to use The Artifact to teleport them and it to another location. As he was twiddling with his knobs, Iron John wrecked one of the Control Rings with his hammer. They disappeared, but The Artifact didn't. We found out later, that somehow The Artifact overlaid them, and combined them into a single entity. This entity named itself Cataclysm, and started trying to get the damn thing back. Fortunately, Cataclysm the single being had the same problem that Cataclysm the supervillain team had - since he was derived from six different mentalities, he kept changing his mind and his tactics. This made him erratic, and we were able to use that against him. But as he got used to being one entity, he got smarter and subtler."
"And where is this Cataclysm guy now?"
"In six different holding facilities around the country, including one in Canada's Northwest Territory and one at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Part of the power that he inherited from Landslide was a diffuse body that scattered when you hit him. We managed to sucker him into wrapping that body around a depth charge and exploding it. Mind you, he was fighting the entire contingent of AEGIS and the Cyber Squad at the time, so it was mostly a matter of keeping him distracted and not paying attention to what he was doing."
"ICK! He was that powerful?"
"More. Anyway, while he was scattered around the missle silo, those of us who were still standing managed to gather parcels of him up and put them into containment units. There is a chance that we missed some little bits of him, but it's been four years, and we haven't heard from him since."
I tried to digest that info-dump without losing my lunch. I looked at The Artifact. "Did he drop any hints as to how he got this thing?"
"Oh, he dropped lots of hints - all of which disagreed with each other. The Star-Drive from a Flying Saucer that crashed. A Pagan Idol worshipped on some uncharted island somewhere. The Keystone of a lost Atlantean city that he found. The Egg of a preter-dimensional being. The power unit of some bizarre alien war-machine. Ol' Cataclysm loved to play mind-games."
I turned to their resident genius. "So, Bernice, you obviously have spent a lot of time with this thing - how do you think Brainstorm got his hands on it?"
She shrugged. "Me? I think Brainstorm tried to build a teleportation device, and that popped out of nowhere into his reciever. I don't think he knows what it is any more than we do."
It was decided that as an 'affiliate' of AEGIS, I would have restricted access to the base and data-bases, I'd be able to use AEGIS's lawyers, and I'd be on call for emergencies. I got an ID card and a beeper.
Reyes looked at the ID card and gave me a disgusted look. "Affiliate? Does that mean that you at least get a 10% discount at the Super Depot?"
I grinned back at her. She was pissed that I wasn't in a position where I would have to give her all kinds of priviledged information. "Yeah! AND I'll get half off at the Box Office for the next Batman movie!"
I unwound the tape measure from around my waist. I double checked my weight on the bathroom scale. Shit. Double Shit. I was a full inch and a half taller, but my hips were proportionately wider, and my waist was, if anything, smaller. I cupped my breasts in my hands, and gave a ballpark estimate - I'd say that I'd gone from an A cup to an A+, maybe B-. Time to face facts - I wasn't compacting, I was feminizing. And there was no way that I could stop it. My days as a guy were dragging to a close, and I had a feeling that my days as an androgynous freak were kind of numbered, too.
I wrapped my bathrobe around myself, went out into the hall, and leaned over the railing. "MA! Are you still here?"
"Yes, dear! What is it?" she called back.
"Would you hold off leaving for work? There's something I gotta talk with you about!"
"Can't it wait until tonight? You know how Anal that idiot Gunderson is, he thinks that the only excuse for being late is being under a streetcar!"
"Believe Me, Ma - this isn't the kind of thing that you just keep on the back burner!" She agreed, and I went into my room to change into my 'guy-suit'. This is the kind of thing you try to work your way into.
When I came down, Mom was sitting on the couch with her feet up. Ma puts her feet up every chance she gets, 'cause she works at the DMV and has to stand for hours. If you think that you have to stand for hours at the DMV, just think about those poor souls who have to do it every work day!
I sat down next to her and started rubbing her feet. With something like this, I want her as comfortable as possible.
She brushed a reddish lock of hair (Lady Clairol, Autumn Auburn) out of her eyes. "So what did you and your brother do now? You wouldn't keep me away from work and start rubbing my feet if it weren't big." Her eyes widened. "You met a girl! What's she like?" Her entire face brightened up in the way that only a mother with two unmarried adult children, and suddenly has the chance of unloading one of them, can.
I took a deep breath. "No, Ma, I haven't met a girl. Ma, how's your heart?"
"Oh, Crap. You and Eli didn't mortage the house and blow it on a horse race, did you?"
"No, Ma, we only made that bet with the emergency money because it was a Sucker Bet, and Baumgartner was the sucker this time. Ma, I had an - accident - about a year ago."
"An Accident? Why didn't you _tell_ Me? How bad is it? How much is it going to _cost_?"
"It wasn't that kind of accident." I told her about my fall from the tower.
She blinked at me. "You just Fell? How did that happen? What is this all leading up to?"
"Well, Ma-" I filled her in on how I developed my electromagnetic powers, and how Eli worked on all the gadgets.
She gave me that hard, 'oh, please' look that only your mother can give. "Really, Danny, did you have to make me late for work, just to play a silly joke on me?"
I pulled the sleeves of my coveralls back, just to show that there was no electrical gadget up them, and ran an electric arc between my hands.
Mom jumped back like I'd shocked her. Then she recollected herself and assured me that she was all right. "Oh, God, Danny - you've become a supervillain?"
My jaw hit the floor. "Oh, Thank You, Ma! It is so wonderful to have a mother that has such a high opinion of me! No, the Other side! Jeezus! I never even thought of going out and robbing banks!"
She looked at me, and reached out to touch my arm. "The Other side? You mean, you're a superhero?" I nodded. It was her turn for her jaw to drop. "Ohmigawd! A superhero! Your father would be so proud! Which one? Are you Justiciar? No, he's been around for years! Uhhhmmm - Titan? No, you have electrical powers... Damn! I haven't kept up with Superheroes since Night Tiger retired back in the 70's! Danny, honey, what do they call you?"
I closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. Trying heroically to restrain my embarrassment, I said, "Lady Lightning."
I told her about 'Thunderbolt', and my first battle with Berserker. She almost fell off the couch laughing when I explained about the 'power belt'.
I grumped at her, "It's not that funny!" which of course only set her off again. This time she did fall off of the couch.
When she pulled herself back up onto the couch and giggled herself out, she looked at me and asked, "Exactly how do you get people to accept that you're a woman, with that beard? I mean, if you're going to have a secret identity, pretending to be a woman is a great way to distance yourself from your civilian identity, but how? Do you wear some kind of mask or helmet that covers your whole face?"
"Actually, No." I pulled the false beard and mustache off.
Mom looked at me quizzically. "Your face - it's different. If I didn't recognize you with the beard, and then see you take it off, I wouldn't believe that it was you, Dan."
I explained to her about my bones contracting, and its effect on the bone structure of my face. "And that's not all..." I took yet another deep breath, and took the Leap of Faith. I unzipped my coveralls and pulled out the 'fat-suit' padding, revealing my bare chest. Oh, Gawd, I'm flashing my own mother!
Mom's eyes almost popped out of her head. "Are those...?"
I nodded. "Yeah. Eli thinks that it's all some kind of package deal, that this is a side effect of the strengthening aspect of my condition. Don't ask me why, that's just the theory."
Incredulous, Mom reached over and gave one a squeeze. Oh, Gawd, I'm getting felt up by my own mother!
Mom gave me the snake's eye. "Daniel Joseph Maxham, is this some bizarre, convoluted way of coming out of the closet? Have you been taking some kind of weird hormones in order to turn into a woman?"
I zipped up the coveralls. "Of Course Not! It happened pretty much the way I told you. I didn't even realize that this whole feminization thing was happening for months! I thought that I was kind of compacting, becoming physcially denser, and that I would start to build a standard superhero physique after the compacting part was finished! Instead-" I gestured with both hands at my chest.
Mom looked like she just realized that the pill she had just swallowed wasn't the pill that the doctor prescribed. She looked over at me and asked, "So, Why tell me Now? You and your brother have been keeping this little secret from me for months, if what you say is true. If you've kept it a secret this long, why tell me now?"
*sigh* "Because I just checked my development in the bathroom. Recently, I started another growth spurt, that I thought might result in a masculinizing effect. But there's no way that the results that I've been tracking are going that way - my bust is still developing, my hips are widening, my waistline is thinning, and my muscle tone is firm but not bulky. He- heck, even my voice is changing! It's getting easier and easier to get into my 'Lady Lightning' voice, and I've even slipped into it once or twice without thinking. I haven't needed to shave in a week. Mom, not only am I turning into a woman, at the rate that I'm going, I may not be able to pass for a man for very much longer. The only reason that I haven't told you about this before is that I didn't want you to worry - now, I have to tell you, 'cause I dunno how I could keep it from you." I looked at her, worrying what she was gonna do.
She reached over and hugged me tight for the longest time. "Danny, I love you. I love you whether or not you're a superhero, or a woman, or a ring-tailed baboon - which you have acted like on more than one occasion! I don't know how, but we're going to get through this somehow, You, Eli and Me." Then she started crying softly. I held her tightly, and let her cry. I must be turning into a woman faster than I thought I was, because I was getting kind of misty myself.
Mom cried herself out, and blew her nose on a tissue. Then she took a deep breath and sat up straight. "Well, aren't you going to show me?"
"Haven't I showed you more than enough?"
"Oh, don't be a priss, Danny - I want to see you in your superhero costume."
"I will, but only if you call it a uniform - calling it a costume suggests that it's just a Halloween trick-or-treat gag." She gave me a wiseacre smile that suggested that that was exactly what it was.
I went into the garage, got the spare uniform that had just come back from the dry cleaners (Memo to self: Cosgrove Dry Cleaning - find out how they bill Reyes), and took it up to my room to change. Weird, I pride myself in being able to get into Lady Lightning mode in under five minutes, but it took me the better part of a half hour to change for Mom. Finally, I was ready. I marched out of my room, swung over the bannister and floated down to the first floor.
Mom gave me an owl-eyed look of wonder. "_Oh_My_God_!" she breathed in wonder. "It _is_ all_ true!"
I grinned, and sketched a curtsy to her. "Well, you wanted to see what I look like!"
"My voice? Oh, right! This is my 'Lady Lightning' voice. It started out as a kind of mimicry of Kate Mulgrew, 'cause I figured that I could do that reasonably well, but I've grown so used to talking like this that I sometimes slip into it."
Her eyebrows raised. "So, tell me all about it - I want to hear everything that you've done as a superheroine. I called in with a family emergency while you were changing, and that ass-wipe Gudnerson can't do a thing about it." There was a sound of a tea kettle whistling. "Oh! I put some tea on - what will you be drinking, dear?"
We spent the next few hours talking. I spent most of my time telling her about my 'adventures' (it's strange to think of a schlub like me having adventures), and answering questions. When I outlined the details of my relationship with Reyes, she had me change back into my guy-suit, and we went over to the Station together.
Reyes and Mom spent the better part of two hours arguing about the fine points of Reyes' and my arrangement in the back of the NewsLemon, as Eli and I hid in the relative safety of the front seat while Eli drove.
When the dust settled, Reyes looked at me in disgust. "Some Superhero! Hiding behind your mother!"
What the heck - Mom got the expense reciepts that I've been after Reyes to let me take a look at for weeks!
Read more in the next chapter of "Of Masks and Marvels!" Chapter 11