Of Masks and Marvels (Part 18)
Of Masks and MarvelsBy Bek D Corbin
edited by Steve Zink
Illustrations by graz73 and Lynn LeFay
One thing that I still haven't gotten used to about being female - other than the necessity for a bra - is women's insistence that they 'share their feelings' about everything. Now, I can understand venting every now and again, but really! Women seem to think that they have to explore every single little nuance in excruciating detail.
Ma was still poking away at it over breakfast. "Now, Maxine, just because you can't peg a name on your feeling, that doesn't mean that it isn't real!"
"That's real nice, Ma, but what good does it do to go raking it all over? I don't know what I'm feeling, and until I can figure out what's going on in my gut, I'll only be spinning my wheels."
Ma was about to say something, when Eli walked in. "What's this? Already you're doing 'girl talk'? First you go to pajama parties, now you're dishing the dirt over breakfast. What's next? Waddling around the house with tissue between your toes while your toenail polish dries?"
Ma was as unfazed as only the mother of three sons can be. "Oh, we were just talking about Maxine's date last night."
"Ah-HAH! So you admit that it was a date!"
"_Yes_, Beaver, it was a date. You may have heard of such things. People with real lives go on them."
Eli sat astraddle the back of a chair with a snarky grin. "Sooo...how DID the date go last night? Did Justiciar get fresh or anything? 'Cause if he did, it is my bounden duty as your brother to give him a butt-whuppin' that he'll never forget!"
"Eli, first of all, Ted was a perfect gentleman. As a matter of fact, from what the girls at AEGIS said, that may be his problem. Second, in a fight with you, Ted's biggest problem with you would either be keeping from accidentally crippling you, or keeping from falling down laughing."
"Ahh, he ain't that hot - take away the armor, the super powers, the incredible strength, the lightning reflexes and the finely honed fighting skills, and what's left?"
"Someone who could STILL tie you into origami without breaking a sweat."
Mom wasn't through with me. "Now, dear, what you have to understand is that you are reacting to the possibility of a relationship, not to Ted himself."
Eli blinked. He looked aside at me. "What's she talkin' about, Max?"
"Female Emotion 050 - Sensitivity for Insenitive Clods. Ma's trying to get all my emotional baggage so it matches my shoes and purse."
"Now, Maxine, just because you're not used to dealing openly and honestly with your feelings-"
"Max, is Ma doing an emotional vivisection on you?"
"Pretty much. I made the mistake of telling her that I wasn't quite sure exactly how I felt about going out with Ted last night, and she hasn't let up since."
Eli shrugged. "So, you went out, and you're not sure if you're okay with it or not, right?"
"More or less."
"If Ted asks you out again, will you say yes?"
"Did he pay for dinner?"
"Then what's the problem?"
Ma put on her 'Guru Hat'. "Eli, the beginning of a new relationship-"
"Relationship!" I started. "Who said anything about a relationship? We just went on a date! One lousy date, and you have me in a relationship! What are you gonna do after the _second_ date, start picking out bridesmaids' dresses?"
"Well, dear, given your habit of hiding your head in the sand like an ostrich every time anything that smacks of the feminine pops up, I have to keep pushing! Indeed, I'm downright amazed that you didn't break and run when this Ted asked you out! But, as I was saying, at the beginning of a new relationship, you have to get a grip on which way that you're going to go. Are you going to start seeing Ted exclusively? Are you going to start playing the field? Have you even looked around to see what other men might be interested?"
"_Mom_, I'm taking it as it comes. I don't know, one way or the other!"
Ma started to say something, but Eli interupted. "Ma, if Max doesn't know how she feels, then she doesn't know how she feels. Period. She'll sort it out eventually."
"But if she just keeps avoiding the issue, then she might let a perfectly good man slip right through her fingers!"
I looked at Ma askance. "Are you THAT eager to get rid of me?"
Eli was getting into his 'voice of reason' act. "Ma, if Max doesn't know her own mind, then it's best if she goes slow on this whole dating/relationship thing, don't you think?"
"Yeah! And it's not like I'm on a strict deadline or anything. Miz Hex says that she's been doing the superhero thing for a long time, and she looks like she's in her early thirties! I can afford to take the time to get my head on straight and do the whole 'relationship' thing right. Besides, can you imagine how nasty an ugly breakup between superheroes could get?"
For maybe the first time in our lives, Eli and I seemed to have won an arguement with Ma. She sniffed irritably, looked at me and said, "Very well, Maxine, it IS your life. But since you bring her up, I'd like to meet with this 'Ms. Hex'.
Uh-oh. It is never a good thing when the women in your life get together and start comparing notes. The last time that happened, Ma and Reyes got together and dragged me off to the mall. "Why?" I said suspiciously.
"Well, if she's a telepath as you say, then she must know a good deal about how the mind works. And, you do have a point - being a superhero definitely has complications that I wouldn't know anything about. If she's been a superhero as long as you say, then she must have a good deal of experience with realtionships that involve superheroes. Why not ask someone who really knows what they're talking about? See if you can arrange for her to meet with us at the Moulin Rouge Cafe at 5 tomorrow afternoon."
With that Ma dabbed the crumbs from her breakfast from her lips and walked away imperiously. Eli looked at me, I looked back at him, and we both shrugged.
Eli finally got the collar removed from his neck that morning, and was greeted back at work with a celebration consisting of a doughnut and Arnie Hotchkiss saying, "Oh, you're back." But at least Eli seemed to have undergone some kind of Trial by Fire, at least in the eyes of the other camera hogs. Apparently getting sent to the hospital in the line of duty is their way of making your bones.
Eli was so happy to be out of his collar that he forgot to watch his mouth. He was nattering along happily, when he mentioned my date last night.
"Date?" Reyes gave me a chilly look. "You told me that you had some -quote- 'superhero business' -unquote- to take care of."
"Ah, yeah, well, that's what I thought it was when he asked to talk to me, but it turned out that he asked me out for some dinner and conversation. What was I supposed to do, say 'sorry, but I gotta get back to work, a circuit panel might be overheating?'"
"Let me get this right - You went on a date. With a guy. Without being forced at gunpoint. Or even two weeks of whining and foot-draggin. Okay, bitch, who the hell ARE you, and what have you done with Dan Maxham?"
"You go on a DATE and you don't spend the better part of a _month_ sucking your thumb about it? All right, who was it?"
"Nobody that you've met."
"Well, since you've been so damn stingy about introducing me to your superhero buddies, that doesn't narrow down the field much."
I was about to defend myself further when my AEGIS communicator beeped. Reyes quieted down and listened intently. I secured the frequency and answered. "Lady Lightning here. What's up?"
"Hey, L. L., Tigress here. We have a situation that's right up your alley. Five minutes ago, a Black and White unit spotted Iron Lance deploying from a moving van into an electronics parts recycling plant."
"Iron Lance? Who's he?"
"Not He - Them. They're a squad of Power Suit mercs. They don't normally work stateside; they usually do the Third World firefight shtick."
"Power Suits? Mercenaries? Sounds more like Battalion's cup of tea."
Leaning back in her chair, Reyes mouthed 'where?'
"Yeah, well, L.L., the thing is, this is a police operation, and Hesczeck wants AEGIS to coordinate with SWAT on it. Battalion might be aces in terms of strategy and tactics, but he doesn't do diplomacy or liason work worth shit."
<nnggg> "Yeah, I can see that. Who's ramrodding the SWAT team?"
"The guy we worked with tricking Kraken into that vault?"
"Okay, that's something. I think that I can squeeze out of work. Where does Hesczeck want me to meet up with him?"
"The Humboldt Warehouse at L_____ Place and T______."
I repeated it for Reyes' sake. "That's gonna be a problem. It's across town from where I am right now. Is there a chance that Bernice could double-bounce me from here to HQ and from there to the warehouse?"
"Just a sec." In more like a minute than a sec later, she was back. "Yeah, Bernice says she can pull it off. Anything else?"
"Yeah. Even with SWAT backup, there's no way that I can take out a whole crew of Power Suits. Who else is on deck?"
"Oh, we really called out the reserves on this one - Battalion, of course. He'd never forgive us if we kept him out of it. Justiciar, Sapphire, Iron John, and Power Woman."
"What about Twist, Titan and Ms. Hex?"
"Battalion called the line-up, and they weren't on it."
"Get on the horn and see if Hex is available."
"Think about it - these guys are packing lots of weapons and armor, but probably not much in the way of mental shielding."
I could hear Tigress grin over the phone. "Good point. I'm _so_ going to rub Wendell's nose in that later."
"Okay, give me a few minutes to change and get to a land line."
As I hung up, Reyes glowered at me. "Y'know, eventually you're gonna have to give me a straight answer, and you won't have a superhero emergency to bail you out."
"Straight answer to what?" Reyes just responded with an irrascible snarl and opened the door for a flying dismount.
I teleported into a hastily put together command center. Hesczeck and his partner Sanchez were there and greeted me. Battalion was in intense 'conversation' with the SWAT honcho, Lt. Scarapelli. Justiciar, Power Woman, Sapphire and Iron John were standing there, apparently waiting for Battalion and Scarapelli to come to some sort of understanding. I walked over to them. " So, what's going on?"
Sapphire slid her visor down her nose and looked at me. "Dueling Military History geeks. Battalion wants to re-enact Pickett's Charge, and Scarapelli wants to do Gallipoli."
"How long have the goons been in there?"
"Fifteen minutes or so."
"What are they packing?"
"Dunno. No sounds of gunfire yet, no explosions from missles, and no electromagnetic signatures for energy weapons."
"Hunh? What are they doing in there, then?"
Sapphire shrugged. "Scarapelli thinks that maybe Iron Lance is using the place as a base of operations for a raid on one of the nearby buildings."
I took a deep sigh. "Oh well, once more into the breach, dear friends-" I walked over to where Scarapelli and Battalion were arguing over a map. "So, is the invasion force landing at Normandy or Calais?"
Wendell barely spared me a look. "Hey, L.L.. Would you please tell this Tactics 101 drop-out that surrounding that processing plant and waiting for them gives the raiders the initiative? We don't know what they're in there for, and if we allow them to achieve their objective, they might have a deadly weapon when they come out. A sucessful general always takes the offensive!"
Scarapelli snarled, "Don't quote Sun Tzu at me! If we send in a penetration force, we don't know what we'll be running into! We don't know what armaments they've got, we don't know what's inside the plant, and we don't know what they're doing! Charging into a situation like that is suicide!"
I cleared my throat. <ahem!> "Guys, do we know which building they're going to hit? And why they haven't done anything yet? Heck, have they even commited a crime yet?"
Scarapelli nodded with feral anticipation. "Oh, I think unlisenced possession and operation of restricted Military Specification equipment gives us both a clear and present danger and probable cause to respond to. But I agree, once they deployed, they should have started firing almost immediately."
I took a look at the map. "So, what do we know about these guys?"
Wendell pulled out a laptop (how he keeps it in his rig, I dunno...) and keyed up a page. A schematic of a bulky anthro-mechanical form scrolled up. "Well, according to the Soldiers of Fortune and Mercenaries websites that I've visited-"
"Mercenaries and Soldiers of Fortune have their own websites?"
"Doesn't everybody? Anyway, Iron Lance doesn't do that much domestic work; they usually work in places where their technological edge gives them the winning advantage. They occasionally go up against super-powered opponents, and they have a pretty good win-lose ratio in that kind of match-up. They deploy in five units patterned after the SAS five-man squad-"
"So there are twenty-five of these guys. It must have been a bear to get twenty-five of those things in that plant unnoticed."
Scarapelli interrupted. "They didn't. The Black & White unit that spotted them estimated only ten of them."
Wendell scratched his head. "So, where are the other fifteen guys?"
"Probably being held in reserve, waiting to see if their advance guard runs into anything. Hmmm...these guys are too heavy duty to be doing just Industrial Sabotage, which leaves three options - there's something ridiculously valuable being stored there, and it's a heist-"
Scarapelli shook his head. "Nope. None of those buildings are rated for High Security, and the insurance companies would demand that a building storing anything valuable enough to send those guys in for, be rated."
I looked over to where Hesczeck was kicking back. "Hey, Hesczeck!"
He ambled over, an amused look on his face. "Oh, I'm actually going to be consulted on this?"
"Very funny. The other two options - a hit or a raid on a covert base - might be aimed at a secret Federal base. Is there any chance that our old buddies Agents Ashe, Bishop and/or Elgyn, have found a new place to put whatever it was that they were hiding?"
Hesczeck shook his head. "I doubt it. SOP demands that when the location of a secret base has been compromised, nobdy puts anything in that general region for at least three years. If there's a secret base under any of those buildings, it doesn't belong to the Feds."
<sigh> "One of these days, I have to find out how to invest in Covert Construction. At the rate that secret bases are going up in this town, it must be the investment opportunity of the new millenium!"
"AND it wouldn't hurt that you'd be helping your own business every time you busted one of those bases, now would it?" Hesczeck smirked.
Then a telephone rang, Sanchez answered it, and Ms. Hex teleported in.
"Hex? What are you doing here?" Battalion asked.
"I asked her to come."
"Why? She isn't a front line fighter! She'd get scragged in a firefight with Iron Lance!"
"You're right, Battalion, she isn't a front line fighter. And I don't intend to put her in the front lines. But someone who can take a man in power armor out without even scratching the power armor would be a great person to have in the rear eschelon, wouldn't you think?"
"Hey, this is MY operation and it's MY call!"
"Ahh...I hate to break it to you, Battalion, but this is a _SWAT_ operation. It's Scarapelli's call. We're just here as emergency civilian assistance."
"It's about time one of you long-john jockeys managed to get that through your skulls!" Scarapelli snickered. "So, we surround the building, and deliver the ultimatum."
"Well, Scarapelli, the walking hardware store does have a point. If we surround them, then we have them on one side, and their backup on the other. And we'll never know what they really want here. How about this? We wait until they make their move, and see what they're after. We'll have probable cause up the whazoo then, right? To send in that kind of firepower, they must be expecting some heavy duty resistance. Let them mix it up for a bit. Then we send the Power Squad - Justiciar, Power Woman, Iron John, Battalion, and Sapphire - in to keep them off balance. While the two-legged tin cans are split between the defenders and the Power Squad, your SWAT guys, Hex and me sneak up behind them and get the pilots out of those suits one at a time."
"Oh, and how do you propose to do THAT? Knock on the door and ask to borrow a cup of sugar?"
I grinned evilly. "Well, high-tech or not, these things are basically just tanks with legs, right? And a tank has to have a hatch. Either Hex 'convinces' the pilot to open up, or I magnetically spring the latch. Either way, we get the pilot out, and put one of your SWAT guys inside. This way we take out the Power Suits, and we can use them in case the Lancers' backup decides to show up and try to finish the job."
I rotated the schematic of the Power Suit. "See this carapice plate that covers most of the top of the back of the unit? If _I_ were designing this thing, I'd make it so that it swings up and forward, acting as the entry hatch, without compromising hull integrity. See how this part over the shoulder is curved? The only reason for making it like that is if it swings forward. If this is so, then the most logical places for the hatch securing bolts should be here, here, here and here. But that's just my best guess. I'll have to do a little hands-on checking - and that's where I'm really gonna need you SWAT guys to keep me alive - but I should be able to get the stupid things open. That is, if they didn't use non-magnetizable materials to construct the bolts..."
We batted it around for a while. We mollified Battalion by letting him brief us all on the known structure and armaments of the Power Suits. This lasted for a grueling ten minutes, and then we were saved by the sniper's announcement that the Power Suits had broken through the wall of the processing plant, charged twenty feet through a chain link fence and smashed through a chemical detoxifying plant.
We sent Sapphire in to watch what the Robo-goons were up to. Among her other versatile talents, Sapphire can create a crude 'camoflague' field. It isn't very good in open areas, but in close areas like that industrial shell, against people who are real busy, it should work.
"Okay, guys, the Lancers are moving through the main detoxification area in overlapping formations. They're being met with pretty nasty small arms fire - hold on, somebody found a LAWS. YOWch! That _had_ to hurt! Yep, Jethro looks like he's been hurt. Oh, lookie! Those two guys are clamping down a mini-gun!"
"Sapphire, can you give us a description of what these guys are wearing?"
"Looks like gray urban cammie with level 3 body armor plates. Hmmm...the plates look like they've been heat-proofed. Bucket helmets with radio externals, battle dress harnesses, with lots of goodies. *Owch!* Frag grenade just went off, knocking one of the Lancers off his pins. They're concentrating fire on him, and he does _not_ look happy.
"Just a minute, sports fans! That chemical treatment tank is NOT what it seems! A door just opened, and the reinforcements are here, and they look like they are loaded for Tyranosaur! Oooh! Plasma Carbine! That one guy looks like he just lost an arm - or whatever you call that thing. But the Lancers look like they have a few surprises of their own! They just popped their shoulder units, and they are shooting something nasty right back."
Back at the command post, I said, more or less to myself, "I would just love to know where these guys keep getting all this weirdo high tech crap."
Power Woman growled, "Doctor Daedalus. It has to be that bastard Daedalus."
"Which side? Invaders or defenders?"
"Either side, neither side, both sides. I can just smell his hand in all of this."
"It has him written all over it - lots of high tech, lots of collateral damage, lots of underlings and innocent bystanders getting hurt or killed, and all of it by remote control. He's probably in Bermuda, watching all of his by satellite relay while he drinks a Mai Tai."
"Okay, if it IS Dr. Daedalus, what's he up to?"
"If he's behind the defenders, then he's set up another plant. But those don't look like his men. If he hired Iron Lance, then he's either trying to steal something that the defenders have, or destroy something they have."
"And if he's behind both of them?"
"Then he sold both of them prototype weapons, targeting systems or anti-targeting systems, and he's field testing them by setting them against each other."
"I thought Crazy Lenny was your arch-nemesis."
"Crazy Lenny is an extremely annoying psychotic; Dr. Daedalus is an utterly ruthless sociopath. Daedalus would shoot a child just to make sure that a pistol was working."
Then Sapphire was back on the air. "Hey, guys, better get the lead out! The Lancers have taken that secret door and they seem to be waiting for something."
Scarapelli snapped on his radio. "Lookout, do you have any signs of activity?"
The Sniper doing fire overwatch replied, "Nope, Nada - Hold On! A semi trailer just pulled in. And something's happening. Oh, shit. More Power Suits just popped out."
Scarapelli looked triumphant. "Well, there's your missing fifteen Power Suits. The forward guard will hold the door while the reinforcements take whatever's in the inner sanctum."
We waited three minutes and headed in. Sapphire reported that the Lancers had gone through the door, leaving three damaged units from the forward guard to hold the entrance. Sapphire wrapped them up in 'power gems' as Battalion jammed their communications frequencies. Power Woman, Justiciar and Iron John went in the door, with the understanding that Sapphire and Battalion would be in right after them.
First, Sapphire dropped the 'power gem' around the captured Lancers one at a time. This gave the SWAT squad, Hex and me a chance to shell them. My guess as to the locking mechanism was a little off - there were eight circular restraints, rather than six bolts - but I managed to figure it out anyway. The back carapice swung open, and the merc inside found himself facing an impromptu firing squad. After a brief, reflexive twitch for his pistol, the Lancer surrendered and climbed out.
Hex took a long hard look at the headset that he was wearing. She reached over, disconnected the power leads and pulled it from his head. She turned it over in her hands. She handed it to me. "Any ideas what this is?"
I gave it a quick once-over. "Not sure. It sort of looks like some of those inductive direct sensory input devices that they use in Sensory Simulation. But all that they've been able to do is give the test subjects headaches and make them a little confused. Hex, I'd file this under 'Hunh?'."
Then we heard a resounding *Kshang!* from the inner sanctum. With a quick glance at each other, Sapphire and Battalion went in as the second wave. I gave the two remaining Lancers in their dark blue prisons a regretful look.
Kirschner, Scarapelli's field sergeant, looked nervously at his watch. "How long has it been? When do we go in?"
I looked at Hex. "I don't remember any specific time limit - we were just supposed to go in when we thought both sides of the opposition were good and busy."
Hex shrugged. "No time like the present."
Kirschner and I helped one of the SWAT guys into the Lancer armor. As the hatch swung down, Kirschner sprayed a stripe of blue paint across the unit's front, back and both arms. "You good to go in there?"
"Oh yeah! This thing is idiot-proofed to the max! I've seen harder video games to figure out!"
"Just remember that that thing was left behind because it was damaged - don't get fancy, or something might blow up under you."
Pollard - that's the guy we put in the suit - got the suit up and chugged it through the door. Beyond the door was a sloping ramp down. The sounds of lots of very loud mayhem echoed up the ramp. Weapons at the ready, the SWAT team followed the Power Suit and me down the ramp, with Ms. Hex discretely bringing up the rear.
It was a screaming mess. The ramp opened up into a large open area which was dominated by eight large vats in a sunken area, with gantryways and suspended railways over them. Sapphire and Battalion were mixing it up with guys wearing jetpacks and those gray urban cammies. Power Woman was zipping around the periphery, wrecking weapons implacements. Iron John and Justiciar were down among the vats, going toe to toe with the Iron Lance units. Both the guys in gray and the Iron Lance mercs were splitting their attention between each other and the AEGIS guys. Unfortunately, none of the Lancers were anywhere near us, so that we could conveniently hijack them one at a time. Oh well, no plan survives contact with the enemy, anyway.
Then one of the SWAT guys tapped me on the shoulder. "This doesn't look like it belongs here. Any ideas?" He pointed at a thick triangular plate that was set up on the floor near the entry to the rampway. It had several thick power cables attached.
"I have no idea. And when you're dealing with Fiendish Technology, it usually isn't a very good idea to mess with it until you're sure that it's safe to do so."
"How fiendish can it be? It runs on AC."
"So does an electric chair."
"So, what's the plan now, Miss Strategy and Tactics?"
"Uhm, Lessee now - Hex, I asked you along on this clambake because the Lancers should be armored against everything except Psi. See if you can lure one of them over to where we can grab 'em."
Hex grimaced. "You make it sound so easy. These guys are in battle mode; getting them to do anything that isn't in their battle plan is gonna be a bear." She held her staff in front of her and started muttering something under her breath. Then a look of bafflement crossed her face. "Well, THAT was weird!"
"What's the matter?"
"I couldn't get a fix on their thoughts! It was like trying to watch a TV program where the channel kept switching and the picture kept rolling."
<Nnrrgggh!> "Well, now we know what those stupid headsets were for! They must randomize surface thoughts enough to prevent psychic intrusion, but not enough to keep the Lancers from being combat effective." <Flash of Genius!> I banged on the Iron Lancer unit. "Hey Pollard! You got that headset in there?"
"Yeah! I figured it had to be for something!""
"Open up and let me see that thing again!" Once I had it, I managed to analyze the inductive plate quickly. On a wide-hail frequency, I told the other AEGISers, "Listen up! The plan just went balls up! But I have a new one - Battalion, equip with your frequency jammer, set to ____ frequency at _____ megajules. Everyone else, when the Lancers stop moving, turn your attention on the defenders."
Hex arched an eyebrow at me. "Okay, I'll bite - what did you just pull out of your hat?"
I gave her my best 'Evil Genius' grin. "At that setting, Battalion's jammer will act as a broadcast power amplifier, sending the randomizing magnetic waves that those headsets generate into overdrive. The randomizer must be very delicately balanced to let the Lancers operate in combat conditions, so-"
"So, if they're sent into overdrive, they'll scramble those poor suckers brainwaves to the point where they'd be lucky to remember that two plus two equals four!" Kirschner finished for me. "Okay, guys, we're going in - concentrate on the guys in gray. Remember, people - restrain and capture. After that fiasco at the white sale, we can't afford any screw-ups!"
Battalion served up his jammer and aimed it down at the Iron Lancers. As I thought, they almost immediately stopped fighting. But instead of just standing there, they all turned en masse toward the ramp, formed a double file, and marched out of the chamber.
Kirschner goggled. "What the _hell_ is that?"
I goggled a bit myself. "Aaahhh.... Autopilot? Well, it just makes it easier for us to shell them." I radioed the AEGIS crew, " Hey, Guys! We'll take care of these guys - you take out the boys in gray!"
Well, anyway, that was the plan. But the auotmated suits just ignored us as we tried to intercept them, and marched toward the triangular plate. When the first pair stepped on the plate, there was a bright flash of light, and they disappeared. The next two followed, and so on, until the Iron Lancers were gone.
Kirschner looked at me and said, "Do you suddenly have this overwhelming feeling that you've been greviously had?"
Before, the AEGIS heroes had been off-balance, trying to keep both sides from shooting them. Now they could concentrate on the defenders. Battalion blasted the implaced weapons, and Sapphire coccooned gunmen.
But that swung both ways - now that they didn't have to worry about the deadlier threat of Iron Lance, the gray guys were able to pull out the stops. And the Number One stop came blasting out of one of the windowed recesses that lined the huge chamber. A red and black blur came rocketing out, climbed up at Sapphire and body blocked her.
I must be spending too much time with Reyes, 'cause my first reaction was that it would make a great shot. A killer redhead in shiny skintight black and red duking it out with a killer redhead in shiny skintight blue and white. Sapphire out-firepowers She-Devil, so S-D was keeping it hand to hand. Those flaming talons were giving Sapphire enough of a problem that she had to drop her 'power gems' around She-Devil's men.
I snapped out of my media-trance, and yelled into my my AEGIS communicator, "Battalion, whistle up an extinguishing foam projector and use it on She-Devil! She needs her flame to keep her flying! Justiciar, catch Sapphire, it looks like she needs help. Everyone else, when She-Devil hits the ground, dog-pile on her!" I might as well have been telling a bunch of toy soldiers to take San Juan Hill.
All the AEGIS crew, and even the SWAT guys were riveted where they stood, and they were all gaping up at Sapphire and She-Devil. She-Devil's goons were pelting Power Woman, Justiciar and Iron John with weapons. Mind you, the heaviest thing the goons had would only bruise them, but there were thousands of rounds going off. You can get bruised into a pulp.
She-Devil clawed a gash in Sapphire's side. Sapph tried to get the bitch off of her by doing an explosive discharge all around her. She-Devil hung on, and snidely gave Sapph a long lick on the cheek. Sapph gave a revolted shudder, and seemed to collapse in on herself.
"Oh, give me a screaming break!" I muttered to myself, and thunder-charged at She-Devil.
I knocked her off of Sapphire and into a catwalk. "Hiya, Shiela! I'm glad you showed up for our ESL class! Our first lesson: Can You Say 'OWCH!' ?" With that, I clocked her.
Her goons suddenly shifted from shooting the good guys to shooting the good girl (that would be me). She-Devil screamed at them, "Stop, you idiots! She can take more of this than _I_ can! Keep shooting them!" Okay, I need to come up with a classic 'superhero pulls victory from the jaws of defeat' plan, 'cause it looks like I just went from being a team player to a lone wolf here.
Then I saw the open vat, and it struck me that while She-Devil's heat might give her a lot of lift, there's no way that it could give her anything like actual horsepower in the air. Ignoring the intense pain of the heat, I grabbed her around the waist. "Y'know, Hellbunny, you worked up a real sweat clobbering Sapphire - you need to take a _bath_!" I thundercharged us both down into the chemical vat.
Y'know, soaking burn wounds in concentrated industrial chemicals is NOT something that I would suggest that you try.
But, at least the chemical - a complex long-chain polysilicate peptide - worked as an effective fire retardant. Or it was just goopy enough that she wouldn't ignite. I powered up out of the goop, leaving She-Devil cursing in the gunk.
As I rose up, the AEGISers and the SWAT guys were snapping out of whatever spell She-Devil had them in, and the battle with the goons in gray started again in earnest.
We had the gray guys in the ropes, when there was a strange sound.
No, not a sound, a tone. It was a low, steady not-hum that set my teeth on edge. It permeated the factory and worked its way into the sound of the battle. Then I remembered where I'd heard that tone before.
"Hey, Hex, are you back among the living, yet?"
"Yeah. I _hate_ it when she does that! What does she have up her sleeve this time?"
"No time to tell you, just get ready to shield everyone's mind. You are not going to believe this one!"
The tone grew louder and louder, until it was reverberating in the teeth and bones of everyone there. Then, from out of one of the vats, a large black ovoid shape rose.
It was that damn Egg that I'd faced down in the sewers all those months ago. I'd hoped that that methane explosion that I'd set off had scrambled it. No such luck. It lashed out at Power Woman with a bolt of telepathic force that I could feel even though it wasn't aimed at me - yet. Pee Dubya screamed and folded like a busted flush.
"Kirschner!" I yelled. "Get your men out of here _right now_! Hex can't shield us all!" Kirschner gave the signal, and his men retreated, their flank protected by Pollard in the Power Suit.
When the Egg moved to the edge of the vat, Iron John charged at it with his hammer. With a mighty swing, he brought his hammer down right on the very top of its peak. The hammer sunk in without meeting any noticable resistance and stayed there. With an outraged roar, John swung a fist into the Egg and promptly got stuck. A reference to a tar baby that I'm absolutely sure that IJ wouldn't appreciate immediately popped into my mind.
I joined Battalion in flying over the Egg and pelting it with energy bolts. After all, Iron John absorbs energy, so we wouldn't be hurting him any. As I was blasting the damn thing, I looked around for something with which to scramble that stupid egg. Then I spotted a huge bucket on a movable rail, the kind they use to transport very hot liquids from one vat to another. If I could move it over the Egg and release it from the rail, *splat!* scrambled eggs for anyone fool enough to eat it!
I gestured to Wendell at the bucket, and he nodded. I manipulated the motor on the rail, moving the bucket, and Battalion shifted to a cutting laser and started to cut the chain supporting the bucket.
Then I heard Wendell scream. I turned my attention from the motor just as he dropped, and She-Devil came right at me. She was on fire again, but not as hot as before. She wasn't flying, she was stretching out her wings so that they acted like tentacles and was climbing with them. What flame she had, she concentrated in her betaloned hands.
I ducked and dodged, using the fact that I could fly, while She-Devil couldn't. But as I was trying to figure out what to do about both her and the Egg, I could feel the Egg power up for another blast and release. I heard Ted give a yowl of pain. I turned to see him drop from trying to help Iron John out of the Egg's clutches.
She-Devil used my distraction to give me a flaming slash in the side. I looked for Hex to see what she was doing, but I saw that she had her hands full psychokinetically deflecting the plasma-blasts from She-Devil's goons to spare anything for shielding the rest of us.
Okay, fun's fun, but now I was pissed!
As I dodged another of She-Devil's blasts, I wondered why the plant's fire sprinklers weren't doing anything. Chemical plants like this always have kickass anti-fire systems; not having one is stupid going on suicide! Yes, indeed, there were sprinkler pipes hung all over the place. She- Devil must have had them turned off just before she joined the party.
I thundercharged over to the office that She-Devil had erupted out of. Yep, there was a major waterpipe with a large red shutoff wheel marked 'Fire Sprinklers! Do No Touch!'. I reached out with a magno-snag to turn the wheel back on. She-Devil, probably seeing what I was up to, came barreling into me. It was a distraction, but I managed to turn the wheel.
Water came gushing out of the sprinklers, drenching the plant and everyone in it.
She-Devil sputtered as the water doused the flames at her hands, but she still grinned at me. "Fool! Yow may have beaten my fire power, but you defeat yorself! How will you use your electrical powers without short-circuiting yorself?"
I grinned back at her. "Y'know, Zsa-zsa, you read too many comic books!" I took a deep breath, and cut loose. I tapped into every electric source and spat it out in an explosive corona. I was putting out so much wattage that I lost awareness of what I was doing. I moved into the center of the chamber and I became as a star. I was vaguely aware that She-Devil was knocked for a loop, and that one of the chemical vats caught on fire. I just kept pumping out more and more lightning.
But then the resistance stopped, and if anything, it got hard to stop. The power just kept flowing through me, at higher and higher rates. I was putting out far more power than I was pulling in. Finally, I ran out of juice, and dropped hard on the floor.
I woke up feeling like ten miles of bad road. I was in an infirmary somewhere, wearing only a hospital gown. I was tired, dead tired. After a bit, I recognized the feeling. It was similar to the way that I'd felt back after that explosive tantrum that trashed the News Lemon. I'd gotten better. How? Oh yeah. I grabbed a TV and absorbed the electromagnetic fields.
I looked around blearily, and saw something suspended over my bed. I strained to reach up and grab it. Finally, I managed to get a grip and start draining it. Ooohhhh Yeeaahhh... BABY! The current flowing through me was like a cool beer on a hot day.
A few minutes later, Ms. Hex came tearing into the room. "MAX!"
"What are you doing?"
"Oh, I was feeling a little run-down, so I decided to get my batteries recharged."
"You can recharge yourself from electrical devices?"
"Well, that explains why your vital signs monitor suddenly went flat. Will you be able to completely recharge yourself like that?"
"Not completely, but it will get me up to the point where I can start recovering on my own. I've over-discharged like this before. While I doubt that I'm gonna be fighting anyone tougher than Woody Allen today, I should be up and running soon."
"Hey, don't dis the Woodster - did you ever see him on 'Celebrity Deathmatch'? He kicked ASS!"
"Nnngg. So, what happened after I blew my fuse?"
"Oh, you trashed the place! You knocked She-Devil for a loop, you set a couple of the vats on fire and detonated another one. That scrambled that Egg-thingie but good. Have you faced that thing before? You acted like you knew that it was coming."
"Yeah. I met that thing down in the sewers a while ago."
"Howcum you never mentioned it?"
"That went down just before you invited me in to audition for AEGIS. I would have mentioned it, but the topic just never came up."
Just then Justiciar came running in. "Amy! What's wrong with Max?! Joyce said something about her Vital Stats going flat!"
"Hey, Ted!" I greeted him from the bed.
"Oh, it's nothing. Max just needed to 'recharge her batteries', and the handiest thing around was the Vital Signs sensor."
"Phew! You had me worried! Especially after what happened to Sapphire-"
"Saphhire? What happened to Sapphire?"
Hex sighed, "Well, she was unconcious when you went nova, so her force field wasn't up. She got some pretty nasty electrical burns."
"Ick! How is she?"
"Well, even without the force field, she's pretty tough, but she's gonna be out of action for a while."
"Did I hurt anyone else?"
"Mostly She-Devil's thugs; some pretty nasty electrical burns, some chemical burns from when that vat went up, concussions, abrasions. I think you can reasonably expect some 'Excessive Force' lawsuits from those guys."
"Hey, let 'em stand in line, with all the other vultures. What about the rest of you guys?"
"Well, when the Egg went *splat!*, Iron John was able to get free, and when you set off the sprinklers, I made for the tunnel. Between the two of us and Kirschner's SWAT guys, we were able to get everybody out okay."
"So, She-Devil's finally under lock and key."
"Ah, _no_. When you hit the pavement, I'd say about five of her guys that had been hanging back broke out some jetpacks and Air Evac-ed her. John, the SWAT guys and I were too busy getting everyone else out to stop them."
"DAMN! What, did that broad win a couple of extra lives from a cat in a poker game? I mean, what does she have on those guys?"
Justiciar took my hand and patted it. "Hey, don't worry about it, Max. You'll get her next time."
I blushed and felt a little flustered - I mean, I am not used to this kind of attention. Hex smiled and said, "Oh, so it _was_ a date last night, wasn't it?" My blush went crimson red.
"Date? What date?" Power Woman stalked into the infirmary.
Ted looked like he wasn't sure what to say, but Hex just breezed, "Oh, hi, Brenda. Well, I was just confirming that Ted and Max had a date last night. Tigs and Sapph were saying that it couldn't have been much of a date, what with Ted zipping off to mix it up with Kraken and all."
I felt a need to defend Ted. "Well, what was he supposed to do when those two idiots Maverick and Desperado grabbed me at the restaurant? Just sit there and order a salad?"
"You were involved with that fiasco with Kraken, Maverick and Desperado?" Power Woman asked, her body language odd.
"I was the lovely hostage the nefrious malefactors grabbed to make their getaway. Once we got away from Kraken, I talked them into the county lockup, no problem."
P.W. crossed her arms and glowered at us. "And since when have you two been dating?"
"Since last night - weren't you listening?"
Ted looked down at me hopefully. "Oh, we're dating now? Does that mean I can pick you up at Five tomorrow afternood?"
<Heh> "As a matter of fact, Ted, I'm busy at Five; what say we get together later, and check our schedules to see what's available?" Okay, one foot boldly stuck out into thin air, and praying that I don't land on my face.
Ted gave a happy nod, patted my hand and left the room. Power Woman just shot me a glance, and left without a word. I looked heavenward, and asked the air, "When did my life become a soap opera?"
Hex snickered and said, "If you wanted a simple life, you shouldn't have become a superhero - let alone a superheroINE."
"Oh, like I had a lot of choice in the matter. By the way, Amy, who, uhm, prepared me after I got knocked for a loop?"
"Oh, don't worry about your secret. I took care of that personally - 'Peanut'. But why did you give Ted the brush-off?"
"I didn't! I really do have something planned for Five tomorrow!"
"Oh well, I can't force you to tell me...."
"Well, as a matter of fact..."
The next day at Five, I was sitting with Ma at the Moulin Rouge Cafe. Ma gave me one of those 'I'm still your mother' looks. "Dear, are you sure that you're feeling all right? You were very tired when you came in last night."
"Oh, sure, no prob. A good night's sleep under an electric blanket, and I'm fine. By the way, did you get Eli to tell you how they managed to hack into the plant's security system? Not that I'm not glad that I'm getting a bonus for the footage of the fight, but I'd like to know how 'we' did it, in case anyone at the station asks."
"Oh, he told me. In detail. And I still don't understand it. Are you sure your friend Miss Hex said she'd come?"
"Yeah, and it's MS. Hex, and oh, there she is!" Indeed, Amy was getting out of a late model Mercedes-Benz, and looking very preppy in a red blazer with a black velvet collar, a white silk blouse, a black skirt and matching designer boots and purse. I think she was wearing some kind of hair extention, or at least she was wearing her hair differently. Funny, I never used to notice that kind of thing. I waved through the window and caught her eye.
When we'd finished ordering and the usual polite chit-chat, Amy looked at Ma and said, "So, Maxine said that you wanted to have a little talk?" She raised a sculpted eyebrow.
Oh lord, I thought to myself, Ma is going to drag yet another woman into her conspiracy to prod my journey into feminity along.
"Yes, Miss Hex-"
"Call me Amy, Amanda."
"How did - oh, never mind. Amy, Maxine here tells me that you are the person that everyone at AEGIS looks to for personal advice."
"Why, thank you, Max! I do try."
"Yes, well, I have a rather tricky ethical problem regarding Maxine here, and I'd like your input."
"Ask away. Though, I must tell you that Maxine does have to make her steps into womanhood as she sees fit." Thank You, Lord.
"Oh, Maxine is coming along nicely, Amy. My question is a little more...removed. You see, since I learned that I had a superheroine in the family, I've begun noticing things."
"You're sayng that you think one of your neighbors is a supervillain?"
"Good Lord, No! I"ve just begun noticing how much of an influence that you superhero types have. Indeed, I'm very glad that by and large you superheroes try to stay out of politics."
"Well, actually, that goes back to J. Edgar Hoover and his 'Superhero's Code'. He made sure-"
"Yes, I'm sure that it's fascinating, but I don't want to stray too far off the point. You see, recently I overheard a conversation at a beauty parlor - a young woman named Lorna Sileski is worried about her daughter, Jessie. It seems that little Jessie is a Huge fan of 'Lady Lightning'-"
"Well, there's no accounting for taste, especially with children," Amy murmurred wryly.
"-AND she's fooling around with a lot of electronic equipment. Lorna is worried that Jessie may be messing around with High Voltage lines."
"High Voltage?" Okay, NOW I was worried. I know exactly how much damage somebody can do to themselves when they mess around with heavy wattage, especially if they don't know what they're doing.
Amy was taking it seriously too. "And she's afraid that Jessie might try something foolish, to give herself electrical powers?"
"Well, there were those kids back in the 1950's who hurt themselves trying to fly like Superman-"
"Yeah, but there are no reports that any kid ever tried to set themselves on fire, trying to be like the Human Torch."
"True, but the Human Torch is a comic book character. Miss Hex and Lady Lightning are real people, who this little girl sees on TV doing fantastic things. She knows that Maxine's body can hold a powerful electrical charge. Maxine thinks that her powers are due to prolonged exposure to high power induction fields-"
"How do you know that?"
"I've had to sit through the lecture three times. Anyway, that exposure happened over a space of years; even if she understood that, do you honestly think that a ten-year-old girl would or even could wait that long?"
I shook my head. "Not if she's already made up her mind. So, you want me to talk to this kid?" Ma nodded. "But why did you insist on having Amy here?"
"Well, dear, it strikes me as one of those delicate 'do it just right, or don't bother' kind of things. Amy, you've been a superhero for as long as I can remember - mind you, I haven't been paying attention for a while, so I don't really know when you started - but do you have any 'Must Do' or Must Not Do' things for Maxine?"
Amy worried her lower lip <hmmmm...> "I'd say that the most important thing is to keep a low profile on it. Don't approach her at her school, or on the street, or anywhere that anyone outside her immediate family will see it. Keep it One On One as much as you can. Make it about _you_ talking directly to _her_ as a person, not as a representative of a demographic. Also, if this girl, what's her name again?"
"Jessie. Jessie Sileski."
"If Jessie is linked with you by the media, then you'll be flooded with requests for personal attention by other kids. And by their parents, who'll want to see their kids' names in the paper. And by politicians. And activists. And Con Artists. And cranks. And nutcases. And..."
"I get the picture! Sheesh!"
"And it won't do Jessie any good, either! I mean, can you imagine what Berserker would do, if he thought that he had a way of hurting you without exposing himself?"
<Eeeyeeewww!> "Good point. So, Dear Abby, any more advice?"
"Yeah. Watch what you say. Remember, Max, you're a big time superheroine, and she's ten. She's gonna take everything that you do and say REAL serious."
"Yeah, well, I wouldn't worry about that too much, Hex. Once she actually meets me face to face, I might just lose a fan. I mean, I'm NOT that impressive up close."
Ma and Amy stopped and sort of gave me this weird look. Ma gave a wry grin. "Oh, I wouldn't say THAT, dear. Recently, you've developed quite a way about you."
"Oh, you're kidding! In school, the only office that I held was eraser monitor, and that was because Milly Schlesenger, the previous eraser monitor, got elected Class Treasurer!"
"No Max, she's right. Whether you realize it or not, people do sort of stop and listen, when you get up on your hind legs and say something. Like yesterday - Warren and Scarapelli were at loggerheads, but you talked them into a completely different third plan. And in battle, when you start barking out orders, people jump!"
Who, me? "Hey, I just try to talk sense and hope that people see the logic."
"And when did sense and logic ever get people to stop and listen?" Amy smiled wryly. "Maybe you developed personal as well as physcial magnetism."
Personal Magnetism? Me? The biggest schlub in the neighborhood?
Amy shook her head. "Well, Amanda, I think we've rattled Max's personal reality enough for today. Anything else that you'd like to talk about?"
Ma shook her head. "No, as you said, that's all for now. But there IS something that I think we should talk about soon."
With that settled, Amy finished her tea, gave me a kiss on the cheek, and shook Ma's hand good-bye. Ma watched Amy closely as she left and headed for her car.
"So, Ma, exactly what is it that you want to talk to Amy about later?" Ma shushed me and kept watching Amy as she got into her Mercedes and pulled out.
As the Mercedes headed for the parking lot exit, the brown Chevy right in front of it suddenly jerked to a stop. It was too sudden for Amy; the Mercedes skidded slightly on the wet asphalt, and she piled right into the Chevy's rear fender.
Amy got out of her car to see to the other driver. A thickset woman with a mop of badly peroxided blonde hair got out, clutching the back of her neck and howling like a banshee. I watched Amy try to deal rationally with the yammering harridan for a while. Then, leaning my chin on one hand and strumming the fingers of the other on the table, I gave Ma a hard look. "Gee! I wonder what the odds might be, that Missuz Baumgartner, who we had talked about siccing Ms Hex on, would just happen to show up in this parking lot, and get rear-ended by Amy's car?"
"Well, I may have mentioned, just in passing mind you, that I might be having coffee today with you and your very wealthy friend, while I was having my hair done."
"At the salon where Missuz Baumgartner has her hair done?"
"Well, actually, she wasn't in, so I had to settle for her lickspittle, Lisa MacGillicutty."
"Amy is NOT going to like this..." Then I saw Missuz MacGillicutty scamper up to the cars, loudly proclaiming that she had seen everything. "I'll lay you odds that Kurt and his buddies are going to just happen to drive up in that bogus 'towing truck' of theirs."
Ma didn't rise to the bait. After Amy waited for a reputable towing service to show up, she walked up to us with a rather purposeful stride. She cocked a querying eyebrow at Ma, who just smiled blandly back at her.
She may just pulled a fast one on a friend of mine, but she's still my mother. "Ah, Ames, before we start throwing around accusations, just let me remind you of something."
"Well...do you read X-Men comics?"
"You know that I do."
"Well, have you ever wondered exactly HOW it is that Professor Xavier, a man with no declared profession other than Education, or discernable source of income, can afford to totally underwrite the Xavier Institute? I mean, they have at least two Lockheed 'Blackbirds'. Not to mention funding not only the construction and maintenance of that extremely expensive Danger Room, and that HUGE, State-of-the-Art Computer of theirs, but the complete restoration of both hideously costly complexes after multiple destructions by one enemy or another."
"Max, what does a plot flaw in a comic book have to do with what just happened here?"
"Well..." I took a long meaningful look at the extremely expensive Mercedes being rigged by the front suspension for towing. "A low-minded, cynical, suspicious person might suspect that the Prof was abusing his telepathic abilities by tip-toeing through the mental tulips of certain well-connected financiers and business leaders, looking for useful business information about secret agreements and confidential negotiations. Why, he might even use mental suggestion to promote settlements that were profitable to his portfolio."
Amy raised an arch eyebrow. "AND?"
"I'm just saying that when your back is against the wall, that you do what you have to. Sometimes we have to do things that aren't entirely kosher. And, keeping that in mind, that we should have a little compassion for the shortcomings of others. As it says in the Lord's Prayer, 'Forgive us our tresspasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us'." Under my breath, I said, "Hey, I didn't know anything about this. Besides, she's my mother."
Amy sighed and massaged the bridge of her nose. <Nrrgghhh> "Okay." She shot Ma a hard glare. "But you OWE me one."
I draped an arm around Ma's shoulder. "Hey - she works for the DMV. She owes you TWO."
Continuted in Part 19...