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Masks VII



by



Rodford Edmiston






The Assembly




Author's note: I have long been fascinated with the concept of a mystical champion. These are people of great courage talent and fantastic - even low-level superhuman - physical ability, who are effective far beyond what you would expect even from that. Think of Captain America as the champion of the United States (or at least his view of the United States). Batman is the champion of violent crime victims. There are many more from both comic and non-comic fiction, such as Elric. I've explored this somewhat in other stories - Tina Metu in my Fox Kid stories is repeatedly described as a champion. In this story, you have someone who is rightly chosen as a champion, but finds some of the conditions burdensome.





Part One








"I suppose you're wondering why I called you here," said Dr. Piano, feeling a bit nervous but not showing it.

"Not just wondering," said the curvy blond woman, enjoying the comfort of the chair she had chosen. Piano, fortunately, was not an ascetic sort of mystic. "Astounded. You don't like groups, and you never allow anyone in your home."

The study was... anachronistic. Not severely, perhaps forty or even thirty years. Considering its owner was in his fifties that was certainly nothing unusual. The furnishings and their owner were both very upper middle class. Maybe lower upper class. Not ostentatious, but quietly expensive, and immaculately kept. The heavy drapes were currently drawn, the lighting subdued, lending a slight gloominess to the room. Much of this description could also apply to the owner, who gave the impression of being someone lost in the past. In truth, that was only one of many places he had been lost.

"Not true. Neither of those. I value my privacy and my time, but I have worked with groups before, and had guests here before. This matter is important enough to override my personal preferences."

"So just why are we here?" said a rather hyperactive man.

Where the woman was modestly if fashionably dressed, the man was sloppy in appearance. Where she sat up straight, almost primly, he slouched.

The fourth person in the room - who had not spoken since entering - was notably younger than the others, barely more than a boy. He was dressed modestly, in clothes appropriate for some schools and only mildly out of place most other locations typical for someone his apparent age. He appeared to be a bit shy.

One thing all the current occupants of the room - including the owner - had in common was that they were quite fit.

"We need to wait for our final member, so that I don't have to repeat myself. She should be here soon."

Indeed, not long after he spoke the doorbell rang. The blond wondered whether this was coincidence, or something more causal. This was Dr. Piano, after all. Moments later, the senior butler ushered into the study a tall, very striking, athletic young brunette in an oddly styled dress. She looked rather confused, especially when she saw the other guests.

"Welcome!" said their host, taking her right hand in both of his. "I am Dr. Piano. We were just about to start, please, take a seat."

"I'm sorry, but..."

"I know, you were told to come here to see if I could help you with a problem," said Piano, gently ushering her into a chair. "I believe we can help you while you help us do something good for the world."

He waited for her to settle, and the others to resettle. Then he took a deep breath.

"In the wake of the recent pogrom against masked heroes, many supers - and even entire teams - have announced that they are dropping out. Others have simply vanished. Criminals - super and otherwise - are taking advantage of this, and the confusion among law enforcement agencies. President Gould is taking measures to deal with the situation, but there are still many in power who supported Thurlin's measures, and Gould's reluctance to appear to be as totalitarian as his predecessor have hampered his efforts. Someone needs to step up and boldly go counter to the trend."

"You want to provide a positive example," said the blond.

"Yes. I have already arranged for funding, equipment and facilities."

"Is this something to do with mystical visions of the future?" said the hyperactive man.

"Something like that," said Dr. Piano, dryly. "All of you know who I am. I know who you are. But you four are strangers to each other. I think you should all introduce yourselves. Milo, would you go first?"

"Sure," said the young man, smiling as he finally spoke. He was very muscular, but proportionally, and by no means musclebound. When he smiled he practically filled the room with boyish charm. "I'm Milo Pagano. My family has been in the business - I guess you could say - for over a hundred years."

"Milo is a legacy," said Dr. Piano, smiling and putting a hand on the young man's shoulder. "His family has been producing heroic strongmen for many generations, possibly all the way back to Heracles himself. My great-grandfather and Milo's great-great-grandfather not only knew each other but worked together, predating the Shepherds by several years. Both of their sons emigrated to the US when they saw what the fascists were doing in Italy, coming to this country separately. The men in his family who take up the good fight generally use the name Maciste, which Milo is also doing."

"I've heard of Maciste!" said the blond, startled. "Not just the heroes, but the movie actors."

"Most of whom were related to me," said Milo, smiling proudly.

"Well, I guess I'll go next," said the blond, shifting position a bit. "I'm Doctor Lucille Gorgeous. Please, trust me when I say I've heard all the jokes about my name. I'm generally a consultant, often for super teams."

"I'm Buzz," said the rather nervous man. "Worked with teams and on my own. Looking to get back in a team, but all those I worked with before or am interested in are either full up or broken up. Oh! Super speedster."

"Okay," said the brunette woman, with a sigh. "My name is Paula Theremin. I was doing field work for my degree in ethnography, in the capital city of Arcady when I got my powers. I... need some help dealing with them."

"Cool!" said Buzz, breaking in. "That's two team members named after musical instruments."

"Ah, no," said Paula. "Theremin is my family name. I'm distantly related to the inventor of the musical instrument."

"And in my case," said Dr. Piano, "an immigration official misheard my great-grandfather."

"Were you really in the Hidden Civilization of Arcady?" said Dr. Gorgeous, finally able to get a word in.

"Well, never really hidden, and these days it has an international airport," said Paula, dryly. "They do restrict access pretty carefully. I was there on a two-year student visa, part of a small community of scientists and artists. After fifteen months I had some pretty good contacts among the Arcadians, including a couple of Priestesses of the Goddess. Thanks to them, I was having the second of a series of interviews with the head Priestess in her quarters at the temple when a small group of people from a dissident faction broke in. They were planning to kidnap or maybe kill her. I managed to get her to safety, but was badly injured. To save my life, she tried something which no priestess had done in generations: made an appeal to the Goddess, to save me - an outsider - in reward for saving her. To the surprise of everyone, including the priestess, she not only did, but chose me as her champion."

"So what are your powers?" said Milo, with a friendly smile.

"Well, I'm at about three times the normal human limit in all physical and mental stats," said Paula, blushing a bit.

"You might want to tell them the rest," said Piano, gently.

"Just how do you know so much about me?" said Paula, irritated.

"We mystics have a communications network which long predates the Internet," said Piano, with a mysterious smile. "It's up to you. However, I and others in this group can help you better if we know more about you."

She signed, and nodded.

"My birth name is Paul."

"So you changed your name and now your parents are mad at you?" said Buzz, looking puzzled.

"Uh, no. I was a man. All champions of the Goddess are women."

"Do the math," said Dr. Gorgeous, rolling her eyes.

"Who is this Goddess?" said Milo.

"Another of her appellations is 'She Who Must Not Be Named,'" said Paula, dryly.

"Atana," said Dr. Piano, startling the woman. He looked at Paula and shrugged. "It's only her worshipers who are prohibited from saying her name. As a gesture of respect."

"I'm... not actually a worshiper," said Paula, looking even more uncomfortable. "It's just... since I changed I literally can't say her name."

"I know this is a strange way to assemble a team," said Dr. Piano. "However, each of you has a reason to want to join; and there is something being in this team has to offer each of you. Each of you also has a proven record of courage and ability. I propose an assembly of colorful heroes, to restore the confidence of both other heroes and the general public."

"And we're pretty colorful," said Dr. Gorgeous, dryly.

"Together, we are the mystic, the myrmidon, the mover, the mind and the muscle," said Dr. Piano. He gave a modest cough. "If you'll forgive my alliteration. We are a good balance of strength, speed, intelligence, experience, charisma and youthful enthusiasm. We're large enough to have a good balance of talent, small enough to become familiar quickly."

"Familiar with each other and to the press and public," said Dr. Gorgeous, nodding thoughtfully.

"Exactly. I have alternates for each of you, so if you have a reason for not joining don't feel pressured. But I'm not the only one working on such a project, though I am the only one doing so in the area."

"What about that Blue woman?" said Buzz.

"Blue Impact is a teacher at the Pine Island Academy," said Dr. Piano. "While she has told me she would be willing to help when school is on holiday, for the most part she is not even in the country, much less this area. Other local heroes are similarly indisposed. Mano Dura is still officially missing after escaping from the prison hospital, for example, even though charges against him were dropped. I do, as I said, have alternates, but they are less suitable for one reason or another."

"This really isn't fair, you know," said Paula, wryly. "One of the mental changes I underwent is an increased sense of duty."

She sighed and shrugged.

"I'm in."

"Please, don't rush into this," said Dr. Piano. "I want - need - a committed team."

He picked up several folders and handed them out.

"The standard contract options are available. A generous stipend, health benefits, incorporated insurance to reduce individual liability in the event of accidents, protection of identity, valid mask ID. Some of you are already familiar with these procedures. Please help those who aren't. Take your time, discuss this among yourselves. I'll be just outside if you have questions."

"Hey, you going to be in this team?" said Buzz.

"Yes."

"You the leader?"

"I have the most experience, both with groups and solo. I expect to lead at least for the first few weeks. Once we become practiced that could change."

"Okay."

He began leafing through the folder in fast-forward, while Dr. Piano stepped out of the study, closing the door behind him.





Part Two





In the end, they all signed on. That, however, was only the first step in establishing a team. They had good, raw ingredients, but how those were put together would determine whether the result was a hearty meal or a fallen soufflé. Dr. Piano knew that constructing a good framework for the team - not just command structure and duties, but how they would interact with the press and public - was vital. He presented some basic suggestions and then he and Dr. Gorgeous began filling out that framework.

Buzz, interestingly, turned out to have several good ideas about how the team should be organized. Apparently, he'd paid attention the times he'd been in teams before, and also when they worked with other teams. He had a good idea of what worked for whom, and why.

Dr. Piano was pleased with the result. In just three hours they had ironed out a workable arrangement. Even Milo had produced some good suggestions. They were surprise to learn that not only was he a business major, but already had a BA degree.

"You don't look old enough," said Dr. Gorgeous, impressed.

"Late bloomer, and low-level regeneration," the young man said, with a modest shrug. "Both common in my family."

"Well, we finished sooner than I expected," said Piano, looking over at the antique long-case clock in the corner. "I also think we could use a break. If you are amenable, I would like to stop now, and resume at nine in the morning."

That was fine with all of them. However...

"Uhm, I got a room at the airport hotel, left my things there, then took a cab here," said Paula. She gestured at her outfit. "So I need a ride back, or to call a cab. Also, my clothes are all either guy clothes or stuff like this. Arcadian women's clothes. Could... Well, Dr. Gorgeous, would you help me get some clothes?"

"I'm surprised your friends in Arcady just let you go like this," said Dr. Piano, puzzled.

"The Arcadians were very helpful," said Paula, defensively. "They helped me get new ID, including a passport, so I could get back into the US. Even provided me with money. A lot of money, actually."

She dropped her gaze, and became more subdued.

"They were grateful, yeah, but I think they were also uncomfortable."

"You came here, instead of going home, or back to college, though."

"Well, the priestess made it pretty clear she thought this was a priority," said Paula. She shifted, appearing uneasy. "I'm not really sure I want to try to deal with family, friends and teachers right now, either. And, well, they're not expecting me back for a few months, yet, anyway, so I have time to work things out."

"I would be glad to help," said Dr. Gorgeous, smiling and putting a hand on the younger woman's arm. "I know the nearest part of the city fairly well. There's a mall with several appropriate shops not far from here. It also has several good restaurants."

"Thank you," said Paula, relieved.


***


As they exited her rental car in the mall parking lot, Dr. Gorgeous seemed far too cheerful.

"First, we need a good foundation. I can tell you're not wearing a bra, though there's something under that dress."

"The Arcadians have something like bras which they call 'little hammocks,'" said Paula. She grimaced. "No idea how they compare with bras from the standpoint of actually wearing them, but I'm convinced they were designed to support while giving full sway - so to speak - to horizontal movement."

Dr. Gorgeous laughed.

"Well, assuming that's not what you want, there's a lingerie store here which should be able to help." She moved closer and spoke in a conspiratorial tone. "Trust me. We well-endowed gals need more than most men - or even less-blessed women - realize. You're not as big as me, but you still have a lot there to support. Especially if you're not used to dealing with it."

***


"I bet going the other way is a lot easier," muttered Paula, tugging at the bra as she twisted left and right, watching her reflection in the dressing room mirror.

"Yes, but for some reason that's much rarer. Those straps look like they're wide enough to be comfortable."

"I have no idea," said Paula, sighing. "I'll have to learn as I go."

"Well, you're super enough that you can get away with a lot of things a non-super woman couldn't."

"Listen, Doctor, I really appreciate your help with this," said Paula, blushing as she turned from the mirror to look at her companion.

"Call me Lucille. With what we're sharing, I'd have to be a medical doctor for you to keep using the title."

She laughed.

"Uh..." said Paula. "Do all you super genius types have weird senses of humor?"

"Yes," said Dr. Gorgeous - Lucille - nodding. "We tend to see associations others don't."

She waggled her eyebrows.

"You should hear our pun contests. Two of the last three ended in lynchings."

"I think this one will work, too," said Paula, studying her reflection, both front-on and side.

Lucille moved close and tugged and prodded a bit, then nodded.

"That makes three white, one black and one each pale blue and pale green." She gave Paula an evaluating look. "I'm surprised with some of your choices."

"This thing has made me completely female," said Paula, in a low voice. "Including in some ways which would probably outrage the more stereotypical feminists."

"So you're attracted to men?"

"Yes," said Paula, voice a whisper. "But I'm still attracted to women, too."

"So you're probably finding all this very arousing," said Lucille, nodding. "Well, we're about finished, here. Let's find you some basic outerwear, get supper, then call it an evening. Oh! There's a sex toy store near here we should probably visit, too."

"Buh?!" said Paula, scandalized.

"Well, you need to work off all that sexual frustration, right?" said Lucille, apparently with complete sincerity. She frowned. "We should probably see about getting you on birth control as soon as we can manage, too. Even if you don't plan to experiment, things can happen on impulse. It'll also help with your periods."

"Oy..." said Paula, slumping.

***


When Paula arrived the next day - riding with Dr. Gorgeous, who was staying at a different hotel but one which was also near the airport - she was wearing a nice Summer dress, sandals and even a bit of makeup. She seemed self-conscious at first, but once they settled down to talking became completely at ease. Dr. Piano felt relieved when no-one mentioned Paula's clothing or makeup. He had the feeling that this would have made her very uncomfortable.

Following a short meeting to finalize some things, the team members piled into Dr. Piano's limousine and rode for nearly two hours. Finally, they arrived at a tall hill outside a neighboring city.

"This was originally built by the Guild, back in the early Sixties," said Dr. Piano, as they exited the vehicle. "It was actually their first new-built Guild Hall, the previous - and to that point only - one being an old train station they rented for a few years. They used this facility for nearly twenty years, before moving to the space station. Later, the Border Patrol - wanting a facility on this part of the east coast - bought the land from them, and built a new base on the other side of the hill."

He led them to the massive armored doors, pulling out keys and pieces of note paper as he went.

"I was up here just last week," Piano said, as he carefully worked the lock. "I have all the keys and passwords. We'll install modern security equipment later."

"What a magnificent view!" said Milo, shading his eyes as he looked out over the wooded countryside. "Hard to believe we're so close to a city."

"It wasn't nearly so close when the base was built," said Dr. Piano, stepping back a bit as the doors creaked slowly open. "They had the foresight to buy just under a hundred hectares. Turned it into a private nature preserve. From the top of the hill, if the weather is clear, you can just see the ocean with binoculars or super vision."

In the tunnel beyond the doors elderly fluorescent bulbs flickered on reluctantly. The artificial light revealed dust and cobwebs, but surprisingly little debris. Dr. Piano strode boldly into the base, the others following a bit less confidently.

Down a short corridor to an internal security door, through that into a small room with several exits, taking the leftmost of those. Down another short corridor into a large room with sheets draped over oddly shaped furniture.

At Dr. Piano's urging, they began pulling away the sheets, to reveal control consoles.

"This stuff is ancient!" said Buzz, as he yanked a sheet off the wall to reveal a rear-projection video screen.

"Hardly," said Piano. "The base was kept in reserve by the Guild until 1986. When the Border Patrol bought the facilities they operated out of here while the new base was being constructed. There's even a connecting tunnel through the hill. They upgraded what was here with spare equipment from their other facilities, so they could use this base during the construction of the new one. It, of course, was all new.

"Their base on the other side of the hill was attacked by federal forces as part of the recent pogrom; the members, as a precaution, had already moved most of their equipment and belongings in here and made the new base look abandoned, concealing that end of the connecting tunnel. The trick worked. The feds blasted their way in, found the place cleaned out and left, without finding the connecting tunnel. So while this place is very disorganized, and most of the equipment more than twenty years old, there is some newer equipment installed, and more waiting to be installed."

"Do we get the other base, too?" said Buzz.

"Yes. All the Border Patrol's facilities were damaged, and they're cutting back, so I was able to acquire everything in the entire property. However, if we find any personal belongings I do plan to return them."

"Cool," said Milo. "It's like a treasure hunt."

Dr. Gorgeous sneezed. Then again.

"Gluh. The sooner we get this place cleaned, the better. Do you have any contractors yet?"

"Brighton and Downs," said Dr. Piano. "I expect you to help organize them."

"Will do," said Gorgeous, smiling.

"The rest of you will need to pitch in. Those who are staying here should pick out rooms and make a list of what you need for them."

As it turned out, they all planned to begin staying at the base as soon as it was made habitable, even Dr. Piano.

"I'll be here for at least the first few weeks," he explained. "I do have other responsibilities, but can handle them from here or with brief visits to my home, at least for a while."





Part Three





"That's the last load from the rooms I was supposed to strip," said Paula, with a melodramatic groan, as she tossed a huge double armful of mildewed bedclothes into the appropriate dumpster. One of the first things Brighton and Downs had done was set up several dumpsters and a trash sorting area in the old hangar, the largest internal volume in either base. "They can spray that special stuff whenever they're ready. Sweat equity is one thing. Nobody told me that 'housekeeper' was part of the requirements for this job."

"I don't think that describes anyone here," said Lucille, who was sitting in one of the chairs which had been put in the hangar until they could decide whether to keep them. She sneezed, and rubbed her nose absently "Certainly neither of us."

"Problem is," said Paula, dropping into the very Sixties style kitchen chair to Lucille's right, in preference to the rather deflated Seventies beanbag to her left, "some folks here think it does."

This was a vulnerable time for the nascent team. Well aware of this, their contractor was supplying heavy security, most of it in the form of guards. The addition of these personnel had caused some unexpected embarrassment for Paula, because nearly all of the guards - mostly male but about a quarter female - were young, fit and attractive. While they were also professional, they - mostly the men - would sometimes flirt with her on their breaks. Paula was startled to find herself flirting back.

"They warned me being a champion came complete with a healthy libido," she groaned to Lucille. "They didn't warn me so many people would hit on me. I'm not used to being attractive. I went from being rather a nebbish to being, well, striking. I hadn't realized how many people liked that in a woman."

"Champions usually are very attractive," said Lucille, "if only because they represent before humanity whatever they're champions of. They're avatars of something more than human, and some have been, well, overwhelmingly charismatic. You should be grateful you're still within the human range for looks."

She paused for a moment, looking thoughtful.

"You know, that could be your mask name."

"I'm not going to wear a mask," said Paula. "What could?"

"Champion. There have been... Three supers who used that alone, and six more who had that as part of their name, but none of them have been active for years."

"That... might work," said Paula, looking thoughtful. "I doubt anyone would connect my current face with my previous one, but the name could seem familiar. I need a public - a mask - name."

Her thoughts were interrupted by Buzz skidding to a stop. Unfortunately, due to the dusty floor, overenthusiasm or some combination, he overshot, sliding past the end of the dumpster for fabric, out of sight. He made a sound which might have been high-speed swearing and walked very quickly back to where he could see them.

"There you are!" he said, as if it was their fault he had missed them. "Magic guy called a meeting in the monitor room stat!"

He then dashed off, actually slipping again as he tried to accelerate too hard for the available traction. He almost ran into the dumpster reserved for old mattresses on his way out.

The two women looked at each other, then burst out laughing.

"Are all speedsters like that?" said Paula.

"No, but many are," said Louise, rising. "Come on. Let's go see what's so urgent."

The monitor room had been stripped bare, sprayed down with a special anti-mold, anti-bacteria, anti-fungus detergent, scrubbed and rinsed. Like most of the larger rooms in the old base it had floor drains, greatly easing cleaning process. Base ventilation was still out, but the contractors had installed large fans to move air through the complex of rooms and corridors, so the air in here barely felt damp.

Currently the only things in there besides their teammates were a table and some chairs. All scavenged from the kitchen of the new base on the other side of the hill. They were in very good condition, but still smelled faintly of smoke and explosives.

"Hey!" said Paula, as she and Lucille entered. "Our team mind helped me pick a hero name. Champion!"

"Appropriately, the reason I called this meeting relates to the choosing of a name," said Dr. Piano. "The hero registry refuses to accept our application until we pick one for the team."

"Oy," said Paula. "Who knew there'd be so much paperwork in the superhero business?"

"This isn't the Thirties," said Buzz, who was enjoying a cup of Starbuck's hot cocoa he'd apparently picked up in the city on the way back here. "Besides, all this stuff is for our benefit more than anyone else's. Provides legal protections and stuff."

"We are an assembly of disparate individuals with a common purpose," said Dr. Piano, rather ponderously.

"That's it," said Paula, nodding, before he could continue. "That's our name. The Assembly."

They looked over at Dr. Gorgeous, who was in turn looking off into the distance, frowning.

"I don't believe it. No-one's used that before!"

"That's it, then," said Buzz, grinning.

"But..." said Dr. Piano, in protest. He sighed, and laughed. "Here I was, looking forward to a long and possibly heated discussion, and it gets settled before I can get properly started. The Assembly it is."

"Okay, then can we talk about costumes?" said Buzz. "I remember you fussing about that, too."

"I already have a costume," said Milo, proudly. "My grandfather gave me one of his spares."

"I've been on three different teams, and heroing independently, too," said Buzz. "I've had several costumes. Got two similar ones still serviceable."

"I don't have a specific costume," said Dr. Piano, "but my mode of dress is distinctive enough to serve."

"I just wear normal clothes," said Dr. Gorgeous, with a shrug. "I mean, I'm rarely in the field, so..."

She shrugged again. Emphasizing the fact that her appearance was striking enough without a costume. And definitely causing the others present to wonder how she'd look without any clothing.

"Do I really need to wear a costume?!" said Paula, after an abrupt shake of her head to get her mind back on business.

"We can put you in something which looks like mundane clothes," said Lucille. "However, with your physical abilities you need something much more rugged than normal fabric."

"We each need to present an immediately recognizable presence," said Piano. "Since the others who will be in the field with you wear colorful costumes or other obviously non-normal clothing, a more casual mode of dress would be acceptable for you. Just be certain what you pick is something which is distinctive and which you will be satisfied with wearing on the job for at least a few years. We need to create recognizable public personas quickly and thoroughly."

"So when do I start?" said Paula, with a tired sigh.

"There's plenty of costume components between the wardrobes of the two bases," said Lucille. "The materials used in super fabrics - even those from the Sixties - are so durable that they've probably held up far better than the bedclothes and such. I'll help you go through the stuff after the contractors leave for the day."

"Where would be a good place for that?" said Dr. Piano.

Lucille's gaze grew momentarily distant again.

"The old armory. It was the first place they cleaned out, and they've used it to store some partitions and stuff, so we can set up a makeshift dressing room."

"Excellent. Buzz, when you have a few spare seconds, please bring all the costume components from the two bases into the old armory."


***

"You finished with your room already?" said Lucille, when Paula joined her walking towards the old armory a few hours later.

"Yeah. The room was cleaned and rinsed and dried when I got there. I put furniture back in, the new mattress and bedclothes on the bed, and all my clothes in the closet and dresser. You?"

"All done," Lucille replied, beaming. "Though having to use body wipes to get clean after all that work was insufficient. I hope they have the showers working soon."

"I just hope this isn't going to be too... girly," said Paula, with a resigned sigh. "I... You know I get mixed feelings."

"Evolution drives members of species which reproduce sexually to instinctually make themselves attractive to prospective mates," said Lucille. "Sexual dimorphism - especially social - usually means the two genders use very different approaches to this."

"Exactly," muttered Paula.

"Would it help if I matched your state of undress during the fitting?" said Lucille, helpfully.

"No!" said Paula, actually yelping. "God, no. Do you have any idea what that would do to me?"

"Oh. Yes, I suppose you would rather not have the distraction."

"Super geniuses," said Buzz, laughing as he suddenly appeared in the doorway to the old armory, just ahead of them. "Always missing the obvious."

"Who invited you?" snapped Paula, as Milo innocently peered out into the hall from inside the room.

"I did," said Buzz, grinning. "Besides, I brought all those clothes in here and organized them. I deserve to see the result."

"Oh, come on," said Lucille, sharing his grin. "It's not like you'll be changing in front of them. Besides, we could use other opinions."

"So where's our other doctor?" said Paula, as the four of them entered the room.

"Haven't seen him lately," said Buzz.

Given his attention span, that could mean within the last five seconds.

"I'm impressed, Buzz," said Lucille, examining the clothing, which was laid out on makeshift tables assembled from wall partition sections. "Each type in a separate group, all neatly arranged. Good work."

The speedster beamed at the praise.

"OCD and super speed," said Paula, muttering loud enough for all of them to hear.

Paula walked slowly down the long row, examining pieces of costumes. Then she walked back, slowly shaking her head.

"What was with these people? Some of this stuff looks like fetish gear."

"Remember, this is the stuff they weren't usually wearing," said Lucille. "Some of it was probably never worn. Some of it only in private."

"Very private," said Buzz, lifting a set of straps off a pile and holding it up with both hands. "Yowza."

Paula realized what parts of anatomy some of those straps were obviously meant to go around, and flushed.

"Yeah, that's definitely in the reject pile," she muttered. "Maybe in one of the dumpsters."

After some consideration, she picked a pair of deep blue tights with foot straps attached, what looked like a light blue t-shirt made with heavy fabric and a pair of mid-calf boots. There were things she liked better, but they weren't in her size. These were, and were reasonable.

"That looks... very practical," said Milo, diplomatically.

"You'll need this, too," said Lucille, turning, holding the garment she meant for display by its straps. "Socks appropriate for super wear, and what's called a plastron."

"Looks like a very stiff sport bra," said Paula. She scowled at the thing. "With nipples."

"Part of the costume discretion. Since you chose what looks like an ordinary t-shirt this gives the impression that's all you're wearing. Now, how much padding do you want?"

"Padding?" said Paula, thinking she already knew what was meant but wanting to make sure.

"You're a nice C-cup, now. Want to go for D?"

"Oh, a D at the very least!" said Buzz, smirking.

"I hate you all," said Paula. "Look, I have no reason to have a secret identity beyond keeping my real name private. I'll take this outfit, plus a sport bra."

"And panties," said Dr. Gorgeous, brightly.

"Yes. Of course. Panties," said Paula, gritting her teeth. "And I suppose ordinary ones won't do."

"Too likely to get torn or burned or dissolved," said Lucille.

"You're not bullet proof," said Buzz. "The outer fabric helps, but having a padded undergarment helps more. Trust me on this."

"All right, I'll take the plastron," said Paula, sighing.


***


"I understand you chose a costume last night, Paula," said Dr. Piano, when they encountered each other on the way to breakfast in the old base's break room the next morning. "Or should I call you Champion, now?"

"Do you like it?" she asked, posing.

"That's the costume?" said Piano, his friendly smile fading. "Uhm, it's very..."

"Plain, I know," she said, rolling her eyes.

"I was going to say practical." He frowned, looking at her. "You don't seem happy with it."

"I just... I'm conflicted. I don't want to wear anything fancy, but this outfit I picked just doesn't do it for me. It's too... utilitarian."

"Paula... You're going to be a superhero," said Dr. Piano, gently. "What would you want to wear as a superhero?"

"I used to dream about that," said Paula, softly. "I guess every boy does. I just never though about needing a female version. All the superheroine costumes I liked or designed were... rather risque."

"And now the bra is on the other chest, so to speak," said Piano, sympathetically. "You don't need to rush into this. What you have now is fine for wear inside the base. You do need something to train in. But you should think about something else for when we make our debut."

"When will that be, anyway?"

"At least another three weeks. Though I've already started the publicity groundwork."

"I'll work on it," said Paula.





Part Four





Given the amount of damage caused to the new base by the federal forces raid, and the months of abandonment, restoring basic utilities had actually proven easier in the old base. By the end of the second day electricity was restored to all light fixtures and outlets. One of the last things which would be done was replace the fluorescent and incandescent lamps with modern, high-efficiency electroluminescent panels, so little had been done with the old light sources so far. This resulted in odd shadows in some areas, but where Paula was now was well illuminated.

By the fourth day, water was on in the kitchen, break room, several of the restrooms, and one shower.

"The men's shower, naturally," said Paula, muttering to herself as she quickly dried.

"Oh, don't worry," said Dr. Gorgeous, as she walked in, startling Paula. "I'm sure the sign you put up will keep the men out."

"But what about the boys?" said Paula, reflexively covering herself with her towel.

"What boys?" said Lucille, puzzled, as she started to undress.

"Buzz. Uhm, I'll be done in just a moment."

"Just be sure you leave the sign up when you leave," said Lucille, absently, as she tossed her blouse aside.

Paula tried to keep her eyes on her own body or someplace neutral, but couldn't help getting glimpses of the other woman as she finished drying and dressed. The teasing aspect this introduced actually increased her discomfort. Somehow, Lucille managed to completely strip, casually pick up her shampoo, soap and loofah, and saunter into the shower in the time Paula was ready to leave.

"I have got to control myself," Paula said, under her breath, as she tossed her dirty laundry in the hamper. "All this masturbation can't be good for me."

She walked out of the locker room, not glancing at the door as it closed behind her. She already knew what the warning said: DEATH! To all males who enter while this sign is in place!

Paula was almost back to her room when she encountered several of the security guards, either going on or coming off break. They greeted her in a friendly fashion as they passed. Some of them with definitely more than casual interest.

"Good morning!" a voice behind her called out, reminding Paula that she was staring after the guards.

She turned to see one of the supervisors approaching, waving and smiling. A handsome, middle-aged man, he had always been merely courteous to Paula. That he wore a wedding band may have had something to do with that.

"Can you tell Dr. Piano that we confirmed that all external and internal security doors are up to spec?" he said, stopping in front of her.

"Oh, of course," said Paula, who was distracted by the fact that he smelled very good.

"Believe me, that's a good thing," he said, with a chuckle, oblivious to Paula's emotional state. "We'd have to outsource to get replacements. Only people making that sort of steel-tungsten-cermet composite these days is in India! The Bombay Door and Window Company!"

He walked away, shaking his head. Paula stared after him for a moment, before jerking herself back to task. She hurried the rest of the way to her room. By the time Paula reached her door she was literally sweating. She was glad she wasn't wearing her actual costume, even though she had taped the fake nipples down.

"This is ridiculous!" she said, as she closed - and locked - the door behind her. "This can't just be because I'm new to all this!"

She resisted the urge to break out the "toys" Lucille had persuaded her to buy. Instead she lay on her bed and began her meditation breathing.


***

"I have asked Mitchell Hayes - aka The Combatant - to coach us in fighting skills," said Dr. Piano, at yet another team meeting, on the weekly anniversary of their first arrival at the base. "Even those of us who have had training could use a refresher. He should be here tomorrow morning, and will be staying for the foreseeable future."

Paula was actually looking forward to this. She'd had plenty exercise in the early days of the refurbishment, thanks to the sweat equity they'd put into the work, but the past two there had been work only for experts. The base was quite livable now, and well connected to the outside world, but she was getting antsy. Runs through the woods outside helped, but not enough.


***


Hayes was an older man, in his sixties but still very fit. And very professional. Even - as Buzz put it - a "real hard-ass." He knew what he was doing. He made no bones about the fact that he was teaching them how to hurt and kill, to keep themselves or others from being hurt or killed. After just a few sessions, the team was already improving. Not just individually, but cooperatively.

Each of them - including Dr. Piano - attended every two-hour class, twice a week. All of them also had individual training, tailored to their specific strengths and weaknesses. Each session, Hayes made certain they all took turns working with him and everyone else. He even had some of the security people participate. Buzz took far too much pleasure in being partnered with Champion. However, he never actually did anything untoward.

Paula actually found her libido behaving itself during these sessions, even when working with Lucille. Eventually, she decided that this was due to her heightened sense of dedication causing her to focus on something seen as necessary. Now, if she could only use that mindset deliberately...

Oddly, Milo proved to be the most difficult student.

"Can you please try to lead with something besides your face?!" said Hayes, plaintively.

"Sorry," said Milo, blushing. "It's just that people in my family are so tough we usually just bull our way through things."

"Yes, but there's a lot more very strong people - and powerful weapons - today than in your grandfather's day. Please, try to block, dodge or both."

"Yes, sir," said Milo, abashed.

"And you," said Hayes, turning to Paula. "You managed to dodge, but you didn't take advantage of that. With your reflexes you should be able to do at least three other things before your opponent recovers."

"Yes, sir," said Champion, blushing.

"Why do you push her so much harder than the rest of us?" said Piano, quietly, during a break.

"Because she has the most potential. She's talented and dedicated. She works hard in class, remembers what I teach, and obviously practices outside class."

He looked over at where Champion, instead of resting, was shadow training.

"She's going to be one of the greats."

***


A month along and the refurbishing of the base was almost done. Their security system was online and performing well, so most of those healthy guards had been sent to other duties. That greatly eased Paula's mind. Perhaps because of that, she was focusing on other things.

"The ideal is the ippon nukite, using just one strike to end the fight," said Hayes, in a private, advanced session with Paula. "However, keep in mind that this may not happen. Be prepared to use the renzoku ken, the continuous fist. That is, if the one punch doesn't do it - and you can tell, if you're paying attention - keep going until the fight is over. Learn and apply what I'm teaching, and you will be the one still standing."

Paula nodded, drinking in every thing he told her. Fighting had never been a priority for Paul, but as Champion she knew she would be expected to deal with violent people. That lives would depend on her being able to do so successfully.

"I think that's enough for today," said Hayes, patting her shoulder in an almost fatherly fashion. "Are you sure you've never had any previous training? You're advancing very quickly."

"Not me," said Paula, rolling her eyes. "I was a real wimp."

"I just can't keep up with modern slang. Last I heard, 'wimp' only referred to guys. Oh, and subatomic particles."

Paula manfully kept quiet.

As they gathered their stuff, though, she broached another subject.

"You've seen the costume we put together for me. I think you know I'm not fond of it. Do you have any suggestions?"

"It depends on what you want to say about yourself," said Hayes, frowning. "You look at some costumes, and they say 'Hi, I'm a dangerous lunatic!' or 'I am both sexy and formidable.' Of course, costumes can also lie. Just look at the Jester; by appearance you'd think he was a harmless flake. Some folks don't need a fancy costume. Tiger, for example, can project his aura, so doesn't need special clothes to show who or what he is. The Night Master has an outfit which tells criminals 'I'm your worst enemy, you'll never even see me coming, and I'll end you with style.'"

His frown faded, and he nodded.

"Think about how you want both the public and criminals to think of you. Then figure out how to say that with a costume."


***


The next morning, when Doctor Piano entered the gym he was surprised to see Paula, in cycling shorts and a sport bra, dancing to a dance instruction tape showing on the old projection TV. In fast-forward.

She manage a brief wave without breaking rhythm, and continued to follow the speedy movements until a break. She quickly hit Pause and grabbed a towel.

"Hi, Doc! How are you doing this morning."

"I would object to you calling me 'Doc' if I weren't feeling rather intimidated just now."

"I've always liked dancing, but never had the time to practice enough to get good at it," she said, breathing already returning to normal. "I figured this would be a good way to both learn to dance better and get some aerobic exercise."

"Well, I was walking down the hall and wondered what all the noise was," said Piano, dryly.

"Oh! Glad you came in," said Paula, digging into her gym bag and pulling out a manila folder. She removed a sheet of paper and handed it to him. "How can I get this made?"

It was an actual, honest-to-Ghu superhero costume. Or, rather, a sketch of one.

"It doesn't have to be exactly like that*," said Paula, a bit embarrassed. "I do want that general idea, though, and can't piece it together from the costume sections we have here."

"Interesting," said Dr. Piano, as he considered the sketch. "Yes. We have contacted a professional costumer named Angelina Thurgood who recently branched out into super costumes. I'll fax this to her and see what she can do with it."

"Thanks," said Paula, feeling oddly relieved.

"What options do you want with this?"

"I think I'll talk with Lucille about that," said Paula. "I don't really remember them all."

"Well, there's no hurry. Yes, I think this just might do..."


* Image at:


http://www.dcr.net/~stickmak/Art/Champion01.jpg


Not exactly what I have in mind, but about as close as I can come with Hero Machine. I really need to start drawing again...

***


Paula and Lucille worked back and forth on the costume for two weeks before both were satisfied. The finished product lacked the straight, sharp lines of the original, having color patterns which blended into rounded shapes. This helped break up Paula's outline, much like modern camouflage. The colors were also altered a bit, which helped with the stealth function without making it blatant. Simulations showed that the final design would make evaluation of Paula's actual dimensions difficult, reducing the need for "discretionary" padding. When the package finally arrived, nearly a month after Paula showed Dr. Piano the preliminary version, she practically ran back to her room with it.

She was staring at her reflection in the full-length mirror she had attached to one wall when she was startled by a knock.

"Come on!" Lucille called through the door. "You've made us wait long enough!"

Shyly, Paula opened to door, to find her teammates standing expectantly in the hall. At Lucille's urging, they backed up so Paula could step out.

Buzz whistled appreciatively.

"Wow," said Milo, staring openly.

"Looks good," said Lucille, nodding and grinning.

"I do believe we have a winner," said Dr. Piano.

"This thing feels like a second skin," said Paula, absently rubbing her hands up and down her sides, "but it's actually several layers."

"It looks skin tight," said Buzz, openly leering.

"Did you get all the option items you chose?" said Dr. Gorgeous, pragmatically.

Paula nodded.

"Everything except the restricted items. And the outfit has storage places for those when we get them in."

"How do you get that thing on?!" said Milo, walking around her. "It looks like the only opening is in the neck."

"Zip strips. Those're new. They're like clothing versions of those food storage bag closers."

"I'm surprised she was able to complete that this quickly," said Dr. Piano.

"Well, we paid a premium for fast service," said Paula, with a nervous laugh. "Also, she was able to piece it together from parts on hand. The only custom work was coloring the outside. That even involved some airbrush work, to make the 'muscles' and such."

"Lets go try it in the gym!" said Lucille.

"She's had it on less than ten minutes, and the team brain already wants to get it dirty," said Buzz, in a comic voice.

In the base workout room, Paula did some basic warmup exercises, then performed several strength training and gymnastic moves, to see if the suit bound or pulled.

"It's perfect!" she gasped, smiling broadly, after nailing a vault landing. "It's... well, it's embarrassing to say it, but it feels almost like I'm naked."

"Now that I'd pay good money to see," said Buzz.

The others laughed as she mock-chased him around the room.

"I do believe this calls for a team photo," said Dr. Piano. "Paula, did you get the cleaning kit and instructions?"

"Yeah," she said, from where she had Buzz cornered.

"Well, you picked up some smudges during your trial. Go clean that, then join the rest of us in the monitor room. Everyone else, go put your best costumes on!"





Part Five





"That actually looks like a real superhero team," said Paula, staring at the life-size print of the group in their finery. "Don't you think, though, that putting it in the back of the monitor room, where it will be seen by any one who calls, is a bit... egotistical?"

"Just a bit of promotion," said Dr. Piano, looking at the framed poster with satisfaction. He turned toward the team Brain. "Speaking of promotions, Doctor, did all the envelopes go out?"

"Yes," said Lucille. "Delivered them to the Post Office myself, this morning. Local media, national media, local, state and federal governments, special interest groups... If anyone is paying attention, they'll know about our press conference."

"In just two days," said Paula, with a sudden attack of nerves.

"Yes," said Dr. Piano. "All of you need to wear your costumes as much as you can between now and then, to get used to them. Also, from now on wear your costume whenever you are in here, the security room or answering the door. Any place where you could represent us before the public or an official."


***


The call came the next day, just after lunch. Champion was feeling quite mellow after a large meal - they didn't have an actual cook, but one of the mechanics they'd hired to help keep the team vehicles working loved to cook and was good at it - and the others were also not in any hurry as they ambled away from the break room. They had accomplished much in the past month, and were enjoying this period of quiet before their press conference the next day.

That enjoyment was shattered by a call over the PA system from one of their new security staff members. This man was a low-level super named Max Finlay who had never taken a mask name but had worked for several teams and came highly recommended.

"There is a call over the hotline, from the mayor."

"Wonder which mayor," said Buzz, frowning, as they shifted gears and hurried to the monitor room. He stayed with them, for once not wanting to rush ahead.

The base was located just about equidistant from two major east coast cities. One had proven itself super-friendly during the recent pogrom. The other was where Dr. Piano lived.

"No bets," said Champion.

Sure enough, there on the huge new monitor was the florid face of a man who had personally ordered all the supers in his city arrested, and killed if they resisted.

"Is there something we can do for you, Mayor?" said Dr. Piano, tone neutral and expression blank.

"Yes! We need your help! We thought the drug problem was bad before, but a gang of supers has taken over the local drug market and things are going haywire in a hand basket!"

Champion found that the man's appearance and voice were setting her teeth on edge. She moved to the rear of the group, grimacing, actually hiding behind Maciste.

"I see. Well, just fax us the assurance form and we'll take a look at the problem."

"What form?" said the Mayor.

"I assume you knew to contact us through the press release we sent your office. The form is in that."

"Look I don't know anything about any form, or any press release. Are you going to help us or not?"

"Not!" said Buzz, triumphantly.

"Given your administration's history with supers, we would be risking our freedom and even our lives if we entered the corporate limits without the protection of having you fill out and send us that form," said Dr. Piano.

"What sort of assurances are you talking about?!"

"Written assurances, ahead of time, that we will not be punished for responding to your call."

"Why in the world would we do that?!"

"You did it lots during the past few months!" said Buzz, angrily. "You and half the rest of the mayors and governors in the US!"

"Nonsense. We were just cracking down on illegals. You're a real team."

"The requirement stands," said Dr. Piano, sternly.

"It primarily states that you acknowledge the city, state and federal Good Samaritan laws," said Dr. Gorgeous. "No admission of guilt for prior offenses is required."

"What prior offenses?" said the man, obviously confused. "Listen, are you going to help or not?"

"Unless you fill out and sign that form guaranteeing that we can operate openly in your city without repercussions, the answer is 'not,'" said Dr. Piano. He reached for the control panel.

"Wait! Wait!"

The mayor hit the mute button and turned to someone offscreen.

"Oh, that bastard..." said Champion, as she closely watched his mouth moving. "He's talking to a city lawyer. Asking if complying would be an admission of guilt for previous times when he didn't follow the law. And how hard it would be to arrest us later if he signs."

"You read lips?" said Dr. Piano, startled.

"Yeah," said Champion, absently.

The Mayor turned back to the camera and turned the sound back on.

"I need your assurance that this won't..."

"Mayor!" said Piano, interrupting icily. "You arrested several people I know and have worked with, one of them a good friend. You shot another of them. No member of this team will set foot in your city without your assurance, on paper, that we won't be punished for responding to your call. I doubt you will find many supers who would."

The man on the screen turned so red Champion briefly wondered if he was going to explode. Then he sagged.

"I'll sign your damned paper."

"Excellent. The fax number is on the form. Send it, along with copies of all the information you have on the problem. We will review all the material and help if we can."

This time Piano did cut the connection.

"Can you believe the nerve of that guy?!" said Maciste.

"Politics is largely bluff and bluster," said Piano. He laughed. "I wonder if he even knows I live in 'his' city and go back there every evening?"

"We'll have to proof the document, to make sure he didn't alter it," said Gorgeous, looking thoughtful.

"I hadn't even considered that," said Piano, startled. He scowled. "Yes. I expect you and Champion to go over it with me."

"My lunch isn't sitting well," said Maciste.

"I doubt any of us are currently digesting smoothly."


***


The information they received later that afternoon showed the problem to be every bit as bad as the Mayor had implied.

"Without hero masks to keep the criminal masks in check, they have taken over the drug business in the city," said Piano, perusing the documents. "Except for a few small fish, all distributors have been taken over by a consortium of supers under the command of Fallon, a super who is also from an organized crime family."

"Double whammy," said Buzz.

"We don't have time for this," said Lucille, protesting. "We have to get ready for the press conference!"

"Oh, I fully intend for us to give the press conference priority," said Dr. Piano, with a slight smile. "However, as soon as we're finished I also fully intend for us to take care of this problem. From what I can see, the reason the local police can't handle this themselves is largely intimidation. Most of the hero supers they arrested surrendered peacefully. Mano Dura was an exception, and he was only captured when a patrolman made a lucky shot. This new drug lord isn't cooperating. His people fight back. Also, every time the police have taken action against him, he has responded quickly and severely. These actions have shaken the confidence of the cop on the street, the upper ranks and the city government."

"So what do you suggest?" said Lucille.

"The mistake the city is making is going after the small fry," said Piano, thoughtfully. "I suggest finding someone who works for him, then following the chain of command to Fallon himself, as quickly as we can. Don't even bother capturing the lower level operatives, just use them to get information. Remove the head, and the body dies. Or at least is so disorganized as to be easy to clean up."

"This whole plan seems a bit rushed," said Champion.

"Yes, but if we can handle this quickly and competently, within days or - dare I hope - hours of announcing we're in business, think of how competent that will make us look."

***


The press conference the next day was a bit of an anti-climax. The general press had the attitude that the public was tired of reading about supers and was therefore pointedly ignoring them, except for when they could cover a news item which made some hero or team look bad. Closer to the truth was the observation that many members of the press were embarrassed by their own recent actions, while the rest were miffed that things hadn't turned out the way they wanted. They were dealing with their own failings and disappointment over supers winning the day by ignoring supers.

The good news was that while the press was sparsely represented nearly everyone there was super-friendly.

"Not bad," said Lucille, throwing herself on a couch in the break room after their guests had left. "Not bad at all. We got our message out concisely and effectively, made a good impression and kept to schedule."

"I hope I didn't come across as too cold," said Champion, a bit worried.

"More distant than cold," said Dr. Piano. "Shy rather than anti-social."

"I hope you're right."

"Well, shall we get to work on the Mayor's problem, then?" said Piano, rubbing his hands together in a show of eagerness.

***


They were an odd pair, an older, well-dressed man accompanied by a much younger woman more casually dressed. In this part of the city that usually meant john and hooker, but she wasn't that casually dressed. Or, rather, she wasn't dressed for business. As they passed a street hustler playing three card monte the man realized he'd lost his companion. He quickly backtracked.

"What are you doing?" said Dr. Piano, quietly, as he moved beside Paula.

"I can see what he's doing," said Paula, giving him a flash of grin. "I can see the palming. Almost like it's in slow motion. I think I could even do it, with a bit of practice."

"So it's not all bad, eh?" said Dr. Piano.

"I've never said it was."

"I hate to distract you, but we do have a planned destination."

"Oh, right."

Between the information supplied by the Mayor and some divination, Dr. Piano had been able to select three locations where he felt there would be activity by the drug dealer's minions this afternoon. Milo had been sent to one, and Buzz to another, with Piano and Paula taking the third together.

The problem with both the mundane and mystical information was the same; lack of precision. They knew the general areas and times, but no more, and little about what the illegal activity would be. So, they wandered around trying to appear innocuous while they kept an eye out for trouble.

"I thought major drug deals took place at night in abandoned warehouses," said Paula, softly, as they walked.

"Normally, yes," said Piano. "However, as the police have grown more timid the drug dealers have grown bolder."

"What's that?" said Paula, stopping and peering.

"Please try to at least act casual," said Piano, exasperated.

"Not a problem. They're 'way over there."

"Where?"

"See that van, two blocks down?"

"Barely."

"Two people just went in, with others left outside to stand guard. I saw lots of wooden boxes, stacked floor to ceiling, in the van. Before the door closed I saw one of the men put a large briefcase on his lap, open it, and turn it around so the other guy could see what was in it. As he spun it around I saw money. Lots of it."

"Definitely worth investigating," said Piano.

They walked past the van on the other side of the street. Piano could see the men waiting outside, obviously keeping watch, but that was all.

"Hoo, did you smell that?"

"No."

"Sharp, a bit like petroleum... Definitely an alkaloid. Just like those samples in that kit."

"Incompletely processed cocaine."

"Yeah. Like someone opened a bag. It's getting stronger."

"Yes, I'm encouraging the wind to blow in our direction from there."

"Cool!" said Paula, grinning.

"Let's go this way," said Piano, guiding them down a dingy, narrow side street.

With Paula looking on curiously, Dr. Piano cast several spells, then nodded.

"Cocaine. A large amount of it."

"Let's go get 'em!"

"One moment," said Piano, dispelling the illusion which made them appear to be wearing normal clothing and somewhat disguised their features. "There."

"That is far better than finding a phone booth," said Paula, smirking as she looked down at herself, waiting for Dr. Piano to finish a cell phone call to the police. "Okay, what do we do?"

"We have good information that a serious crime is taking place right now," said Piano, closing the phone. "We do our best - like any good citizen - to stop that crime. At the very least, we should be able to delay the criminals until Buzz and Maciste get here."

"I hope you don't mind if I try to do more than that."

"You seem very eager," said Piano, who couldn't help but smile.

"I have a lot of stress to work off."

"Then, by all means, let us act."





Part Six





There was no attempt at stealth. Piano waited until there was no traffic nearby on the street before signaling the go. Then the two of them - Dr. Piano in his distinctive if monochromatic garb, and Champion in her colorful costume - simply walked out of the alley and diagonally across the street. Champion was surprised at this show of bravado. She was even more surprised that they were almost to the van before anyone seemed to notice them. Even then, that recognition was from bystanders... who quickly faded out of sight, leaving the drug dealers alone.

The first person among their targets to react was the driver of the van. He was spending more time looking over his shoulder at the transaction than out the windshield. By the time he noticed the approaching pair they are almost close enough to touch the van. He started, opened his mouth to shout... and was mesmerized by Dr. Piano.

"I can only maintain this on three or four normals at a time," he told Champion. "The rest are yours."

Champion nodded, took a short run, and used the front of the van to vault onto its roof. She ran along the top and dropped down at the rear of the van. And found herself surrounded by thugs.

She had been worried that she would hesitate, or freeze completely. Instead, she burst into action, preempting their response. Champion punched with both hands, to either side, sending two of them flying. As she pulled her arms back she lashed out with a front snap kick, sending the man directly in front of her hurling backwards.

The men on the sidewalk were starting to react. Two were turing and lunging for her; two others were grabbing for guns. Champion spun right and charged, ducking under the reaches of the two heading for her. She grabbed the wrists of the men before they could complete their draws, and yanked their hands up and out so hard their guns went flying. Champion jerked their hands downwards in a whipping motion, breaking bones and dislocating joints. She let got, lowered her hands and shoved, leaning into the motion. Both men slammed into the brick wall of the building behind them.

Champion spun around, surprised to find the other two men still moving forward, just staring trying to turn. She grabbed their belts and yanked, her feet sliding despite her leaning hard against the pull. They also went flying, colliding with meaty thuds against the other two, still in the process of slumping to the sidewalk.

The handle on the back door of the van was turning. Champion jumped to the rear of the van and yanked the door away from the man coming out. This was the one she had previously seen with the briefcase of money. He didn't have that, now, but he did have a gun. Pointed straight at her face. Champion frantically spun away and dodged to the right. The gun fired, the sound and flash momentarily dazzling her. She swatted blindly with both hands and felt herself hit his arm. She tried to grab him, became confused because she couldn't find either of his arms, until she realized he was falling out of the van. She pushed back against the door which was still closed, to get out of his way and hopefully out of the line of sight of anyone inside, frantically shaking her head and blinking.

Vision came back before hearing. She saw the other man struggling to free himself of the briefcase and a plastic bag full of white powder. He was trying to put both away without spilling the contents of either. By the time he managed this feat Champion was in the van with him. She noted again that tang she had scented before, but far stronger.

"Okay, I give!" he shouted, throwing up his hands.

Champion froze for a moment. The fight was over. What did she do now? The training she had received started to take hold. She opened her mouth to inform the man she was making a citizen's arrest. Only, something flickered in her peripheral vision. She jerked her head around just in time to see something black go by, through the windshield. Out there, where she had left Dr. Piano.

The van was too full of boxes to make going through and out the right front door quick or easy. Champion leaned back, grabbed the top of the rear door frame, kicked off, and swung up and over, landing on her feet on the roof. From there she saw a woman all in black, including her face. A black so black that actually seeing her was difficult, even in full sunlight. She was holding an apparently unconscious Dr. Piano by the collar with her left hand, her right drawn back to deliver a punch.

Up until now, Champion had felt like she was simply moving faster than those around her. This scene, though, put her into overdrive. She recognized the woman, though from description only; there were no known photographs of her. There were few enough people who had survived to describe her. She was a professional heavy named Shiner. She was potent against people who were physically normal, roughly a match for Champion's abilities but more experienced. And she had already noticed the costumed woman on the roof.

Champion took a quick step forward and jumped, but to the right. One of lessons drummed into her by Hayes was that jumping directly towards someone who knew you were coming was a very bad idea. Instead, she aimed for the middle of the street, to get Shiner away from Piano.

By the time she landed Shiner was already charging towards her, Dr. Piano slumping to the pavement. Champion stepped, ducked, and rammed the oncoming woman in the gut with her shoulder. Shiner tried to twist away, but was only partially successful, bouncing away in a glancing blow which put her off balance.

Champion took advantage of this by grabbing Shiner's arm and performing a crude but effective takedown. She was surprised at how effective the technique was. Shiner hit the ground hard, and went limp, groaning. Champion thought at first that she was faking, and went ahead and put her in a solid joint lock. However, the woman was truly stunned, almost unconscious. She was also something else, which Champion only just now realized.

"This isn't a costume," said Champion, with rising alarm and disgust. She glanced over towards Dr. Piano, relieved to see that he was already rising to his feet. He began walking over to where Champion was kneeling, holding Shiner. He seemed shaken, but not seriously harmed. "It's not even body paint. This is her skin. She's naked."

"Interesting..." said Piano, peering closer. He winced. "Please continue to hold her down, despite your offended sense of propriety. She blind-sided me and my head is still ringing. I am very glad you saw her."

"Oh! There's one more guy, in the van..."

"I don't think he's going anywhere," said Piano, smiling in spite of his pain. He pointed.

Champion looked back at the van to see the man timidly looking out the door, hands in the air.

"Yeah, you just sit back down in there until the police arrive," said Champion.

The man meekly obeyed.

"I'm starting to wonder if I shouldn't have gone with Maciste," said Piano, with a wry smile. "I intended to help the rookie, but you wound up helping me. Well, there is something I can do which I doubt you could."

He knelt beside the slowly reviving woman.

"By the laws of association, I find your master," said Piano, making a series of gestures which left glowing green lines in the air.

"You can't do that!" Shiner suddenly yelled. She was obviously more aware than she had appeared. "You can't cast a spell on me to find who I work for! That's self-incirimnation!"

"I did not cast the spell on you," said Piano, smiling in satisfaction. "I cast it on reality."

He tipped his head to one side, and appeared to be listening to something.

"Interesting. She reports to Fallon directly. I can use that connection to trace him."

He frowned.

"You being here, so close to where we interfered with one of your master's operations, isn't a coincidence, is it?"

"Go fuck yourself," the black-skinned woman muttered.

"You think Fallon was warned we were coming?" said Champion.

"I think we should assume so. Which means our partners could be in danger."

He cast another spell, and Shiner suddenly went limp. And began snoring.

"That's handy," said Champion, carefully pulling herself loose from the joint lock and standing.

"Yes, but it is slow to take effect and can be resisted," said Piano. He pulled his cell phone back out. "I sincerely hope I get through in time."

He hit the general alarm button for the team. Champion felt her own com vibrating gently in a concealed pouch. She watched over Piano's shoulder as the indicator for each team member but her responded.

"Fallon may have been warned. Buzz, please come to us. Maciste, hold where you are if you can until we come to you. Dr. Gorgeous, please come here to pick us up."

Buzz arrived first. Then Lucille, in the innocuous vehicle they had chosen for this mission. She wasn't happy about being in the field, but this mission required someone to drive and be ready for pickups while the rest of them went trolling. Hopefully, an actual team driver would be available by their next mission.

"Buzz, please restrain - gently - these people. We'll wait until we hear sirens, then proceed to Maciste's location."

Even before the sirens, the cheering started. It was timid, and made from concealment. But it was definitely cheering, and whistling, and even some clapping.

***


They arrived where Maciste was waiting less than twenty minutes later, spotting him standing just inside the entrance to an alley. As the van slowed he started forward, waving. He was almost to them when someone lunged from a nearby doorway and delivered a devastating right cross.

Maciste didn't just go down. He bounced off the pavement and slammed into the back of a parked car hard enough to leave a huge dent. Glass sprayed and the alarm started sounding as Maciste dropped to the ground.

Champion was already leaving the car.

"That's Bolide!" she heard Dr. Gorgeous shout.

Champion already knew he was a heavy hitter from what he had done to Maciste. She remembered hearing of this man in one of her briefings. He was muscle, and not just strong and tough. He was faster than human range, very agile and well trained, also very experienced. She wanted to try and jump him before he could respond, but like Shiner before him he saw her coming, so she went wide and slowed.

Bolide swung. Champion ducked and dodged, going under his arm as she put her whole body behind a hook punch to his solar plexus, twisting into it and planting her feet as she struck. He grunted and staggered back. Champion immediately followed through with a right roundhouse kick, continuing the twisting motion as she had been taught. This he saw coming, and braced for it. Champion felt like she had kicked a hundred year old oak, but again he staggered.

Champion kept pounding, using hands and feet, knees and elbows, moving smoothly from one strike to the next without pause. Whittling away at her much stronger opponent. Bolide never got another punch off, and after several frantic seconds finally collapsed.

Champion stood over him, panting and sweating, watching for signs he was faking. But, no; he was genuinely out. She slowly relaxed, and heaved a huge sigh. Then turned to see how her teammates were faring.

They were watching, stunned. The first to react was Buzz (naturally) who began applauding. He had approached, but not too closely, not wanting to risk getting in Champion's way while she was still fighting. The two doctors joined the applause.

Champion grinned, and blushed. She looked over at Maciste, and saw he was already getting to his feet, apparently none the worse for wear. Well, except for obviously being embarrassed.

"I didn't even see him coming," the young man said, sourly.

"You all right?" said Champion.

"Yeah," was his surly reply.

"If it's any consolation, Shiner got the drop on Piano, too," said Champion. "I've just been lucky so far that both went after someone else first, so I had a chance to be ready."

"So, what next?" said Buzz, as Dr. Piano mystically rendered Bolide inert.

"I know where Fallon is. We need to ignore whatever this brute was guarding and go straight there. Quickly, before he can figure out we're on the way."





Part Seven





They drove slowly past the gaudy mansion, one of a long row of openly ostentatious structures on that side of the road. The had an unobstructed view of what lay on the other side of the road; a private park, something so heavily managed as to be barely connected with nature. This was a gated community, but Dr. Piano had shown the gate guard something and he'd simply waved them through. Champion had no idea whether any magic beyond old money was involved.

Dr. Gorgeous was driving, magically appearing to be a male chauffeur. In the back sat Dr. Piano and the others, all but the mystic also disguised by magic. Champion was mildly irritated to find herself concealed by the illusion of a buxom blond in a tight red dress. Though not as irritated as Maciste and Buzz, who were similarly adorned.

"This is doing very strange things to my libido," said Maciste in dulcet alto voice, pouting prettily.

"You should try living it sometime," Champion muttered.

"I am having difficulty obtaining information through my accustomed means," said Piano, sounding both irritated and embarrassed. "I knew to be cautious, since Fallon is certainly aware of magic and can afford to hire protection of that type as well. Now that we are here, I find there are, indeed, magical protections around his property. I am reluctant to probe further. There are likely also spells to detect attempts to spy."

"So we need something subtle," said Gorgeous, her voice also startlingly altered.

"So, do we sneak in?" said Champion, who was becoming impatient for a number of reasons. Not least because she currently sounded like a giggly ditz. "It's getting dark and my costume and Dr. Piano's are the most subdued."

"No offense, Champion, but you are not subtle," said Lucille.

"I can do subtle," Champion said, defensively.

"You can do stealthy. There's a difference. You're much less subtle than even Milo, because he's not 'on' all the time."

"He knows we're coming," said Piano, sounding distracted. "Fallon's abilities are primarily mental; he's a mastermind. Like our driver, he is an analyzer and coordinator. That does not mean he is helpless in a fight. If we reach him, be careful. He has lightning reflexes and a deadly accurate aim with any weapon. There is also considerable evidence he can influence people. He literally walked out of a police station where he was being held under arrest two years ago. Whether this is an actual domination power or simply a demonstration of his persuasiveness is as yet undetermined."

"Noted," said Champion, nodding. "So, we just charge in?"

"There are legal considerations weighing against that. Also practical ones. For now, we observe while trying to remain unseen."

They drove around the curve at the far end of the street and a bit beyond, until Gorgeous found a place to turn around which was out of sight of their target. Piano subtly altered the appearance of the car, and they repeated the pass, giving those on the other side a better view, now.

"Around the block this time," said Piano. "Circle all the way around and keep going."

Once more, and again with a different appearance, they drove past the mansion.

"I got nothing," said Champion, who had been leaning her generous false bosom out the window, pretending to marvel at the expensive homes while actually using her keen senses to try and detect something illicit. "Looks like a very expensive but otherwise ordinary building."

"I am finding my skrying and other methods of mystical investigation stymied," said Piano, sighing at the admission. "Those are, of course, not illegal."

"But we know he's in there!" said Maciste.

"Actually, no. We know he owns the property, thanks to the good Doctor and her proficiency with digital equipment. Any other connection could be a false lead, planted by those other mystics. They are of a lesser degree than myself, but had much time to prepare."

Champion sighed and pulled her upper body back inside to sit normally. Beside her Buzz snored softly. Champion elbowed him in the ribs, and was disturbed by the way his illusory breasts jiggled.

"I'm up, Ma!" said Buzz, in a shrill soprano voice, sitting bolt upright. He looked down. "Wha...?! Oh, right. Sorry."

He brought his hands to his chest, and looked like he was feeling himself up, but scowled.

"Too bad this doesn't include tactile."

"Mind. On. Business," said Piano, irritated.

"Do we really have enough to justify charging in there?" said Dr. Gorgeous.

"Yes," said Dr. Piano.

"You don't sound certain," said Champion.

"I... I am having a bit of doubt. There are obviously magical protections at work. They could conceivably be misdirecting me."

"We need more information, then," said Dr. Gorgeous.

"Stop the car," said Champion. "Get this damned illusion off me."

"But..."

"I have an idea. If it doesn't work it's on my head. If I go in there and it's empty, or there's an innocent family having dinner, it's my responsibility. We're not going to get this far and stop because of a lack of confidence. This is a situation which requires boldness, not self-doubt."

"She's right," said Gorgeous, nodding. "A reconnaissance in force - or perhaps a provocation - is just what we need."

She stopped around the corner from the mansion. Piano dropped not just Champion's illusion but all of them. Champion stretched, as if actually having physically shed that form. She knew that both Maciste and Buzz were staring at her and actually felt a bit turned on by that. She brushed her hair back into place with her hands, then opened the door.

Champion simply strode across the street and up the front walk to the door with what appeared to be great confidence. There she used the knocker, loudly, ignoring the bell.

There was a pause. The door opened a crack. Those in the car couldn't see who answered but could hear Champion ask to see "Mr. Fallon."

"Fascinating," said Dr. Gorgeous, watching intently. "This could very well work."

"She just walked right up to the door and knocked!" said Maciste.

There was a gruff reply and the man tried to close the door. Only Champion had the palm of her left hand on it, making a show of holding it open with no effort.

"I know he's in there. Is he afraid to see me?"

The door was yanked open and a real bruiser of a man in well-tailored servant's clothes took a swing at her. He landed in the grass, just short of the street. They could see more well dressed brutes inside, rushing towards Champion.

"And that's our cue," said Dr. Piano, getting out.

"But you said..." Maciste began.

"They just assaulted someone without provocation. And they are continuing that assault."

Buzz shot ahead, and began helping Champion with the gorillas. They had finished by the time the others reached the door. However, they were now being held back by a handful of non-costumed supers at the far end of the entrance hall.

Maciste charged in, barging past his two teammates to take point. Dr. Piano followed behind the physical fighters, performing cleanup. He was surprised to find Dr. Gorgeous accompanying him.

"What are you doing here?"

"Got caught up in the moment," she said. "Look out!"

They were moving into a large foyer, with a double-spiral staircase winding in opposite directions on opposite sides of the room. On the balcony to their left a rather exotic looking woman in a very revealing costume had just run to the railing. She waved her hands and cried something in a tongue which raised their hackles. A bolt of bluely flaming mystical energies spiraled down towards the intruders.

Dr. Piano cut her off with a quick counterspell, which caused a glowing, yellow, translucent shield to appear in the air, in the path of the bolt.

"The Movel Crone," he said, startled. "No wonder their magical protections were so intricate!"

"Minions!" she cried, in a strangely accented voice. "Aide me!"

Piano was very busy for the next several seconds in his duel with her. He soon noticed that he was also under attack from another quarter. Besides the first set of hoods and these supers, there were also gunmen on the balcony. This group was now sniping at the invaders. Dr. Piano and Dr. Gorgeous were protected by additional versions of his shield, Buzz by his speed, Maciste by his toughness, and Champion by a combination of her lesser speed and toughness and the armor built into her costume. That did not mean they were safe. If nothing else, the bullets were a distraction from more substantial threats. Buzz finished his allotment of criminal supers and ran upstairs to deal with the snipers after only a few rounds were fired, fortunately. However, when he tried to grab the Crone there was a blue flash as he bounced painfully off her protections.

Though he was concerned about Buzz, with the shooting stopped Piano was now able to focus his full attention on the Crone. Dr. Piano set to work with great vigor, and a Technicolor battle commenced. She was not an easy opponent, but one-on-one could neither defeat him nor flee. By the time he finished - causing her to shrivel into what looked like a very dusty mummy, complete with wrappings - the others had just about finished with the rest of the supers. He couldn't help but be impressed.

"Looks like he sent his best people into the field," said Maciste, triumphantly, as he repeatedly pounded someone he had in a secure headlock. He had the beginnings of a black eye and seemed as cheerful as they'd ever seen him.

"Yeah, I think he's done, there, big guy," said Buzz, grinning.

Maciste dropped the super heavy he had rendered insensate, and they marched towards the large double doors at the back of the room, flanked by the spiral staircases. Champion did a little hop into a side kick to open the doors. They crashed back against the wall on either side and rebounded, shaking.

There stood Fallon, alone, in the center of the room, his hands raised. He was smiling, slightly.

"Are you really just going to surrender?" said Champion, suspicious as she approached him.

"Why shouldn't I? No normal jail can hold me. With so few crime fighting supers around I'll almost certainly wind up somewhere without any to stop me. If not, my lawyers will have me transfered. In fact, I'll probably be out and in another hideout before you get back to your base."

Champion did a not-so-slow burn. Then, in one swift motion, she closed the distance, grabbed Fallon by the lapels, jerked him into the air, and slammed him into a wall.

"Still think it's funny, jerk!?" she screamed in his face. "Answer me! What's wrong, no snark left?"

"I believe he's unconscious," said Dr. Piano, hastily moving in.

"Oh," said Champion, letting him go to slump bonelessly to the floor and stepping back in shock. "I... I mean, he's superhuman. I didn't think he'd be so... fragile."

"Is he dead?" said Buzz, a bit too hopefully.

"I'm not a medical doctor," said Piano, checking his pulse. "Well, he's alive, but..."

"Don't you have any healing spells?" said Maciste.

"I'm not that kind of magician!" said Piano, exasperated.

"Move over," said Gorgeous. "Okay, pupils equal and responding to light. Pulse strong and steady. Dent in wall and knot on head both minor. I'd say he has a concussion, maybe a bad one, but otherwise is fine."

She glared around at the others.

"You should be very glad I came along on this one."

"Yes, ma'am," said Champion.

"All right," said Piano, with a tired sigh. "Here's what we do. We secure the premises, and be very careful to stop anyone from leaving or destroying evidence. We then call the police and paramedics and just give them the bare details; we uncovered evidence of illegal activities, investigated, were attacked without provocation, and defended ourselves. For now we consider this an accident, and tell the police Fallon was injured in the general brawl. But you... Keep quiet unless asked a direct question."

He glared at Champion, who sighed and nodded.

***


"Hell, yes, I was angry," said Champion, during the debriefing back at the base. "But I wasn't trying to hurt him. I just wanted to intimidate him. I honestly thought he was tougher than that."

"For what it's worth, so did I," said Maciste. He winced. "Imagine if I'd done something like that to him."

"I knew he wasn't physically superhuman, but also assumed he had sufficient resiliency to withstand that sort of rough handling without injury," said Dr. Gorgeous.

They all turned to Buzz, since it was his turn. He looked confused for a moment, then suddenly remembered what they were talking about.

"Yeah. Me, too."

"All right," said Piano, sighing and running a hand tiredly through his salt-and-pepper hair. "If the police ask specifically about his injuries we simply tell them what happened. I don't think there will be any problems coming from this. But I want all of you - not just Champion - to keep in mind that people - even supers - should be considered fragile unless you know they're physically superhuman."

He gave them all a long, serious look. Then not only relented, but smiled.

"That and a few other minor problems aside, good work, people. This was a very good performance for a new team. Especially since it was a first mission for two of you. I doubt we've seen the last of Fallon, but for now he's on ice and his drug distribution business in pieces."

"I can't believe it was so... easy," said Champion.

"Largely due to overconfidence on their part," said Dr. Piano. "They got used to dealing with cowed normals, and our boldness and abilities took them by surprise. However, if I may b allowed to brag a bit, I put together a Hell of a team."

"To the Assembly!" said Maciste, raising an imaginary glass. "Long may we kick bad guy ass!"

They joined him in the imaginary but very sincere toast.





Part Eight





The next morning found the base subdued. After Dr. Piano had left to return to his home, the staff began pestering the team for details. This soon turned into an outright brag session and informal party. No small part of the unusual quiet pervading the base when the live-in team members assembled for breakfast was a general atmosphere of mixed satisfaction and regret.

Buzz was on his third helping when Paula - in civvies - slunk in, trying to be subtle and failing miserably.

She wasn't hungover, though she was subdued and looking miserable. In fact, the only member of the team who did appear to need the hair of the dog was Milo, also in civvies and looking a touch green. Paula had already noticed that several of the base staff were definitely under the weather, and actually felt glad of that fact; this suited her mood. Some, though, were looking as abashed as she felt.

Paula gathered some food and sat by Lucille, who peered at her curiously but said nothing while the other woman ate. She jumped a bit as Buzz slid to a stop next to her, and spoke in conspiratorial tones.

"Hey, I noticed you and Max left together towards the end of the party," said Buzz, smirking.

"Does the whole base know about this?" said Paula, burying her face in her hands.

 One thing which struck Lucille was that Buzz wasn't following up on his opening jibe. Instead he zipped back to his plate and resumed eating. After finishing her breakfast - with surprisingly little show of appetite - Paula waited for Lucille to finish, then followed her to the tray dump.

"Could we talk?" said Paula, quietly, after they had finished.

"I'm not a psychologist."

"Just... girl to girl."

"All right. I think I know a good place."

"I didn't even know this was here," said Paula, a few minutes later, as they entered a small room.

"Old bases are full of little nooks like this. Leftovers from renovations and repairs. The smart teams put them to good use. This one was converted into a private meeting room, complete with excellent soundproofing. Now, sit down and let's talk."

There was a small, round table with three chairs. Paula sat opposite from the other woman. Given the size of the table, this was actually more intimate than sitting beside her.

"I think it's pretty obvious what happened last night," Paula opened, blushing. "I... want to make clear that I wasn't drunk or mind-controlled or... anything more than horny, and with a willing partner."

"Did you enjoy it?"

"Yes," said Paula, quietly, looking down at her hands, which were clenched hard together.

"Did he?"

"Huh? Uh, I guess so. He was smiling when I left."

"So what's the problem? I assume you both understood this was a one-time thing with no promise of commitment."

"Lucille... I woke up in bed with a man!"

"You just said you both enjoyed it. Did you do something embarrassing when you woke up?"

"No!" she said. She began nervously rubbing her hands up and down her upper arms. "I didn't scream, I didn't panic. In fact, I almost cuddled back against him. I still... felt good. Even though part of me was starting to curl up in a corner of my mind and gibber, most of me wanted to do it again."

"So you did enjoy it," said Lucille, nodding. 

"That's... part of what scares me. I did enjoy it. A lot. He's almost as strong and tough as I am, and more experienced... with a lot of things."

"Do you still want to do it again, in the harsh light of day?"

Paula nodded, mutely.

"Have you looked at any women this morning?"

"Huh?"

Lucille reached up and undid the top two buttons on her blouse, then pulled it open a bit.

"Uh..." said Paula, staring and flushing.

"You're not averting your gaze," she said, tipping her head a bit to one side. 

"S-sorry," said Paula, looking away.

"I don't think anything about your situation has changed," said Lucille, smiling as she re-buttoned her blouse. "You just allowed your feminine side free reign for a few hours. Let the bitch out for a night of fun, so to speak. Just be glad you're on the pill."

"Wait a minnit," said Paula, suspiciously. "You mean you know I look at you in the showers..."

"I'm not as oblivious as people think," said Lucille, her manner briefly and subtly changing. Becoming more feminine, sexier. "Though it often benefits me to have them continuing to think so. I know you won't do anything without invitation, so I don't mind you looking. In fact, I find it flattering. Just don't expect me to actually issue an invitation."

She laughed, and Paula smiled, feeling a bit better. Lucille reached across the table and briefly squeezed both her hands.

"I've heard it called things like victory sex, and celebration sex," said Lucille. "Basically, you're pumped on endorphins and glad to be alive, inhibitions are lowered and everything feels really good. Trust me when I say, some have had far more regret the next day than you are experiencing."

"That... pretty much covers it," said Paula. She shivered. "Thing is, I knew what I was doing, and enjoyed every moment of it."

"I have a feeling there's more to your current mood than just getting laid," said Lucille. "Or even losing your virginity."

"I just realized this morning that I have less than three weeks before my family expect me back," said Paula, looking miserable again. "I have no idea what to do. I've been writing letters, occasionally, sending them to Arcady to be postmarked there. I... I... I've been lying to them, not just by omission but..."

"There, there," said Lucille, gently hugging her across the table. "Listen, you have been very patient with us about finding a solution. I think you're justified pressing for that, now. Let's go see Dr. Piano."

"He's not in yet," said Paula, sniffing, surprised to actually find a tear running down her cheek. "That's what set this off. The attack of remorse, I mean. I feel like I've betrayed my family and friends by finally... giving in. While I was showering I made up my mind to go see him about finding a way to change me back, and I went to his office as soon as I dressed. His secretary told he he'd called to say he'd be here late. So I came to breakfast."

"Just bad timing," said Lucille, reassuringly.

"And how often does that happen with him?" said Paula, pointedly.


***


Dr. Piano was, in fact, meeting someone at the closest federal office to the team's base. He'd received an urgent letter requesting - almost demanding - a meeting with the regional Trade Commissioner to clear up some matter regarding the team's legal status. Piano felt he knew what the real problem was. He had not informed his teammates, in part due to this realization but mostly because he felt certain he could better handle the matter alone. He was not surprised to find the meeting starting with an interrogation.

"By what authority did you incorporate this team?" said the man, in an accusing tone.

"The Interstate Commerce Act of 1948," said Dr. Piano.

"The what?" said the man, blankly.

Another political appointee of Thurlin's, yet to be weeded out, the Doctor thought.

"It's the root legislation delineating the rules under which superhuman groups may form a business - non-profit or otherwise - in the United States. While it has been amended multiple times the core remains untouched. And we did follow the current version, as last amended in 2003."

"Buh... Buh... But that's not right!"

The man was already floundering, out of his depth. He'd obviously been chosen for his willingness to toe the party line, rather than for any extensive knowledge of trade law.

"I assure you it is. I have a degree in law, specializing in super matters but with considerable background in business law. Including interstate trade." He smiled a bit. "There is actually a surprising amount of overlap."

"President Thurlin declared non-government superhero teams illegal!"

"Ex-President Thurlin was an idiot who failed the bar exam three times," said Piano, acidly. "I passed it the first try."

"But President Thurlin wrote a presidential declaration that only government sponsored teams were valid!"

"And current President Gould wrote another one countering that one. So assuming such declarations actually held the force of law - which they don't - the one you are trying to enforce was invalidated."

"But you can't just... make a new superhero team!"

"Of course we can," said Dr. Piano, calmly. "We already did. In the words of the great philosopher, there's nothing you can do that can't be done."

"This is not over! There are regulations, rules, customs..."

"And all valid ones have been observed," said Piano. "Now, if that's all, we have work to do. Good bye."


***


"I want you to know that I have not forgotten your plight," said Dr. Piano, when Paula finally was able to speak with him not long after lunch. "Neither have your friends in Arcady. I recently received a missive from the priestess whose life you saved in regard to this. She says there are portents hinting at a turning point for you ahead. A great choice which must be made. While she was not able to discern any great detail - there seems to be some powerful mystical event involved, which always muddies the waters - there would definitely be a chance - soon - for you to return to your former gender."

"Why do I not find that reassuring?" said Paula, uneasily.


***


"Why do I even need a driver's license?" said Paula, sourly, as they entered the room.

"So you can legally drive a highway vehicle," said Lucille. "Look, don't be so tense. You aced the exam when I gave it to you."

"I just... feel like getting a new driver's license is another surrender," said Paula.

"You need a license. We've got more than enough operational team vehicles now; you could be called on to drive somewhere without advance notice. Since you don't keep Paula Theremin and Champion legally separate or wear a mask it makes sense to get one as Paula."

She sighed, seeing the reason behind this, but still wishing she didn't have to go through with the process.

"Sorry. Part of this is bad memories from getting one as Paul."

"Oh, my," said Lucille, grinning. "I really must hear about that. Later."

The written exam was a cinch. So was the eye exam; Paula thought about showing off by reading the tiny company spiel at the bottom, but limited herself to simply reciting the smallest test line.

The car was Lucille's personal vehicle, which she'd finally brought down from her home a couple of weeks before.

"You waited a bit late to get your license," said the tester, making casual conversation as he checked the Volvo to make sure it was in good condition. "Most people get theirs as soon as they legally can."

"Oh, I've had a license before," said Paula, with practiced casualness. "I was out of the country for three years, working on a graduate project."

If pressed, she was supposed to claim Lucille was her graduate advisor, but this seemed to satisfy the man so she remained quiet.

The driving test went well, except for Paula nearly jumping out of her skin a couple of times, almost overreacting to some innocuous stimulus. She was still soaked in sweat by the time they got back to city hall. Lucille was right; she was "on" all the time. This was almost as unsettling as the near-constant arousal. Fortunately, her tester was a pudgy man in late middle-age.

"Congratulations," said the man, beaming as he handed Paula a piece of paper. "You passed! Take this inside for your photo and payment."

"Thank you!" said Paula, almost gasping, and for a moment thinking he was pretty attractive, after all.

Soon, she and Lucille were walking out to where Paula had parked the Volvo. She was holding the still-warm piece of plastic, staring at it as she walked. With her abilities this posed no hazard.

"Still hard to believe that's me," said Paula. "But, you know, I'm glad you talked me into this. I feel like I've accomplished something. Not given something up, but taken something back."

"Americans see driving as an expression of freedom," said Lucille, as she unlocked the car. "Now, let's go get you checked out on some team vehicles."

***


"What in the world is that?!" said Paula, staring at the thing Joseph - their chief mechanic - had just pulled the cover from.

"One of Scarborough's Scarabmobiles," said Joseph. "He was a mechanical genius who first gained attention during World War Two, designing armored vehicles for the US military. He worked for several super teams through the early Sixties. This was one of his last designs. It's nuclear powered."

He said that last in a tone of worrying reverence.

Paula looked around the room. The lighting had been completely revamped in the large, underground garage, but it still seemed a place of shadows and echoes.

"As the team acquired newer vehicles, the older ones were mothballed and pushed back into this corner, held in reserve," said Joseph. He looked back fondly at the large vehicle. "This thing actually has better armor than all the other vehicles in here except for the Rampaging Turk. Suspension which still looks modern. Wonderful acceleration. But no autodrive, no current navigation or sensor equipment."

"Well, it's interesting," said Paula, "but not what I'm looking for."

"Then take a look at this. It's really the only vehicle in here suitable for a civilian owner."

He led Paula over to a much smaller shape. Joseph pulled cover away with a flourish to reveal a neat roadster.

"Custom-designed and built road rally car," said Joseph. "Late-Sixties design. That's a detachable hard top which can be stowed in the trunk. The team member who owned and drove it didn't have any close relatives so he left just about everything to the team. Oh, it was natural causes; he was over eighty."

"Nice," said Paula, unable to keep from running her hands over the back of the driver's seat. "Wow. That leather's still soft."

"They used a special preservative on everything they stored here," said Joseph, nodding. "Now, if you choose this I recommend several upgrades. This was fine in its day, but, as one example, the suspension was designed for bias-ply tires. You'd have buy specialty tires to match the suspension, or rebuild it to use radials. I'd also have to install some modern security and communications equipment."

"How much trouble would all that be?"

"Trouble?" said Joseph, smiling. "I'd love to work on this little jewel. Probably take me about a week, unless there's an emergency."

"You've sold me," said Paula, looking at the little car with admiration. "Can I sit in it?"

"Sure. Might as well be sure it'll fit you."

It did.


***


"I hear it was love at first sight, you and that car," Buzz teased, as they assembled for a meeting that afternoon.

"It's just so... I don't know. I can't say cute, because the thing is all business. Purposeful? And it'll have good performance once Joseph is finished with it."

"I hate to interrupt but I'm afraid there is something important to relate," said Dr. Piano.

He gestured at a pile of correspondence on the briefing room table.

"The media have been praising us. This has brought in pleas for help from a wide range of people, scattered over the entire planet. One would think we were the last mask team left."

"Typical," said Lucille, scathingly.

"Dr. Gorgeous and our tactical team have been evaluating the pleas, and I have also looked over them. I noticed something. Several pleas with something in common."

"Eh?" said Lucille, sitting up. "I'm certain we would have noticed a pattern..."

"It's the mystical significance I noticed," said Piano. "Something progressive, meaningless to anyone not educated in certain rituals. A series of mysterious thefts and kidnappings."

He had the attention of all of them, now.

"I believe that a group known as the Twilight Faction is taking advantage of both the disruption in attention caused by the recent pogrom and an upcoming celestial event to attempt something they have tried again and again for millennia."





Part Nine





"They are descended from an Atlantean tradition of magic," said Dr. Piano, tone very serious. "Some say their predecessors were even the reason the gods sank Atlantis. What is certain is that down through the millennia they have repeatedly tried to summon the servants of a particular demon to our plane. These creatures in turn would prepare the way for their master. This demon is most often known as Infernus among English speakers. These cultists have given different reasons for their actions through the ages but the most common factor in all their motivations seems to be a desire to punish those against whom they have a grievance."

"So they're fundamentalists," said Buzz, smirking.

"We mystical types are always on the watch for activities by them and other cultists. Even those of us normally thought of as 'evil' don't want the world consumed by infernal flame. But these cultists either do want this, or refuse to believe they will also be consumed.

"The watch normally heightens during certain periods with mystical significance. However, this upcoming event is so minor that we normally don't even consider it. Few know - and I pride myself on being one of those few - that the minimal mystical energies of this event can be drastically increased by a specific series of rituals. Unfortunately, it seems that another of these few is someone involved with the Twilight Faction."

"Just... how serious is this?" said Paula, looking worried.

"Potentially very serious. However, the only known source of this knowledge is an ancient tome which was damaged during its long term of storage in a secret compartment in the bottom of a Renaissance grain bin. The last part of the section dealing with this ritual was very badly damaged when it was at last found and copied. Many have attempted to extrapolate the final step; so far all have failed. However, in the process they slaughtered a huge succession of chickens, sheep, cattle, horses... and humans."

"God..." said Paula, feeling sick.

"Several recent livestock mutilations on farms in this region, plus the kidnapping of several families in parks, and tour busses gone missing in remote areas leads me to believe that someone is attempting the ritual again, this time to summon a major servant of Infernus. The volume of sacrifices - and kidnap victims - is most likely due to the cultists intending to keep trying different things until one of them works. However, preparation for this ritual takes time and material resources. And they are running out of the former."

"So how do we find them?" said Lucille.

"Detective work," said Piano, flatly. "They are mystically shielded. By the time they do anything noticeable, dozens more people could be dead. However, while the energy released by the animal sacrifices can be stored and channeled, the human sacrifices must all be made the day of the mystic confluence. Culminating in a final sacrifice at the exact moment. Which is just over a week from now."

"We should notify other teams, too," said Lucille. "This is very large, and even if for some reason the activities are focused in our area there could be crimes and clues connected with these events elsewhere."


***


Champion and the state police investigator scoured the ground, searching for any clue.

"Nothing," said Champion, tiredly. She straightened, winced, and put her hands to the small of her back and pushed. There was a loud pop, eliciting a mild yelp. "You'd think being a mystically empowered avatar would come with better health benefits."

The plainclothes trooper gave her a brief, poker-faced glance.

"There are people's lives at stake."

"Sorry," said Champion, but with a trace of irritation.

He resumed going over the ground around where the school bus had been found, sometimes with a magnifying glass. Champion, not trained in forensic investigation, had hoped her heightened perceptions would provide some insight, but so far she was coming up as empty as the initial investigation team.

"Thirty-nine grade schoolers," she said, quietly. She shuddered, shook her head and sighed.

The forensic specialist continued moving slowly away while she stood and thought.

Okay, grade schooler students. Mostly pre-teens. Driver left gutted, to die slowly, dead by the time the bus was found. All their bags taken with them. No tire tracks besides those of the bus. Too many footprints to sort out around the bus; none elsewhere except those left by the investigators. No-one saw anything. Not even on satellite photos. By plan or bad luck, none had been pointed here during the period of the kidnapping.

Piano said authoritatively that the cultists couldn't use heavy-duty magic because of the risk of detection. The lack of tracks could be explained by minor magics, but what if the cultists decided not to take chances and used more mundane methods?

Champion moved to the edge of the crime scene and began walking slowly, spiraling outward. She was wading through an overgrown field on the other side of a dilapidated board fence when she literally stumbled onto a track where the tall grass had been pressed down. She stopped, looking carefully left and right.

"Lieutenant! You better come check this!"

He was obviously doubtful... until he saw the track.

"It comes from that old barn over there," he said, pointing with sweeping gestures, "and stops there. Deep tire tracks from something very large and heavy. Isolated, square depressions where outriggers were lowered."

He stared at Champion, looking stunned.

"They used a big crane to somehow pick up all those children and the kidnappers!"

"Let's check the barn," said Champion.

The Lieutenant got out his cell phone and began speaking excitedly to someone. Champion was too focused on watching for clues to pay much attention. As they drew closer to the barn they could see that the doors had fallen away at some point in the past and were now simply leaning against the barn.

The area around the barn was very rocky, but the big vehicle had still left discernible tracks.

"You can see where they drove it in here, up that access road, turning there to back in," said the man, with more sweeping gestures. "They left it in the barn until the school bus arrived, drove out, extended the outriggers, lowered some sort of platform to just above the ground, had everyone climb aboard, raised it, then backed the crane here. Dropped everyone off to climb in the vehicles which left these tracks, then put the crane into the barn, there."

"I bet they used those sections of cribbing for the platform," said Champion, pointing. "Tack them together, tie with cables... wouldn't have to be very strong or last very long. Once the job was done just break them apart and put them back."

"The forensic team will be here within the hour," said the Lieutenant, with determination. "I'll also have my contacts check satellite photos for a large crane in this area, and whether there's one missing."

"They wouldn't have counted on this going undiscovered for long," Champion mused. "We still have four days, but will we get enough from this to find them?"


***


Buzz was applying a brute force force methodology. Dr. Piano had provided a description of the sorts of places appropriate for the type of ceremony required for the final summoning. Dr. Gorgeous had used this to assemble a list of all known places within a reasonable distance fitting those requirements. Buzz was checking all of them.

Oh, the list had also been given to city, county and two state police agencies. But they couldn't visit every site in the time remaining. Buzz could.

Every couple of hours he'd return to the Assembly's base for a huge meal and a quick nap. Then it was back out. He made sure to drop off the list of the places he'd already checked and pick up a new one each time, to help keep his search organized and to let others know where he'd been and where he was going.

So far he'd accomplished nothing useful except familiarize himself with the region. Which wasn't a bad thing. It just wasn't what he was hoping to accomplish.

He whipped past the location where Champion and the forensic team were investigating. He thought about stopping to say hello, but she seemed busy. Instead, after seeing the crane through the now-open doors, he checked his list. Yes, there were a couple of construction sites on it. He skipped straight to the closest.

There was nothing obvious, here. A few signs that heavy equipment had been moved away recently, but not enough to be certain the crane came from here. He went to the next. There he saw police and security guards and some supervisors and suits milling around, looking confused.

"You folks missing a very large wheeled crane?" he asked, scaring them half to death as he suddenly appeared.

"Yes!" said one of the fanciest suits.

Buzz described the crane, looking at the notes he'd hastily scribbled.

"That's it!" said one of the supervisor types.

Buzz excitedly called this in.

"Oh, that's very good," said Lucille, after she got him to slow a bit. "Yes. I'll spread the word. Please, get back to your list, focusing on that area."


***


"Over thirty people missing in this new incident," said the state official, handing a large folder to Dr. Piano. "A cross-country bus tour group didn't arrive where and when it was supposed to. The vehicle was found on a back road, well off its planned path. No-one on board."

"This could definitely be connected with our investigation," said Dr. Piano, as he leafed through the material. "These people could have been captured for a group human sacrifice. With that many there should be enough variety of people..."

"They need a variety?" said the Captain, as the mystic trailed off, deep in thought.

"For variations on attempting the ceremony," said Dr. Piano, absently. "But... no, this is too many. What are they planning? We have just two days to figure this out."


***


"Here is what we have," said Dr. Gorgeous, touching a button on her keyboard. The main briefing room screen behind her, and all their personal screens, lit, showing images to accompany what she said. "The crane and bus were scrubbed. However, fingerprint and DNA evidence found at the construction site and a few scraps from the old farm showed that these seven at least were involved. All are known felons, most of them with a history of crimes involving mysticism. Find these people, and you'll find the cult."

"So are the rest hired thugs or converts?" said Champion.

"Undoubtedly converts," said Dr. Piano. "These people are paranoid; they barely trust each other. No outsiders would be included."

"We have just over a day," said Champion, intensely. "We have to find those people!"

"Just wish I could do more," said Maciste, sourly. "I've been stuck in here, held in reserve, in case someone needed muscle. I want to do something to help!"

"You will," said Piano, encouragingly. "Trust me. We will all have a role to play."





Part Ten





"I found it!" shouted Maciste, triumphantly, as he rushed into the briefing room. "I found where they are!"

"Slow down," said Dr. Piano, making settling gestures with both hands. "It's not that I don't believe you, but... How?"

"Business degree, remember? I had an idea, and started checking through recent property acquisitions in isolated areas. I found a familiar last name. A played-out coal mine was recently purchased by the brother of one of the people whose DNA was found at that farm! And, get this, he bought it outright! No mortgage, just paid the whole amount, hardly even bargained!"

"That's it," said Dr. Piano, nodding. "And we still have almost two hours until the conjunction begins."

"Begins?" said Champion, startled. "How long does it last?"

"This time, just under sixteen minutes."

"What if that's not the place?" said Buzz.

"I'll keep checking," said Dr. Gorgeous. "I'll even put a couple of my interns to work pursuing Milo's approach. You go ahead."

"Super help is on the way, from both teams and individuals, but will take time to arrive," said Dr. Piano, as they scrambled for the hangar. "State and local law enforcement are closer but I don't know how effective they'll be."

"Just what can we expect from these cultists?" said Buzz, who stayed with them, since the hangar crew would have the hopper ready to go by the time they got there.

"Fanatical disregard for their own safety," said Dr. Piano, the limiting factor on their travel speed. Though even he was in fantastic shape compared to the typical office worker. "They will have modern weapons, archaic weapons, spells, probably traps laid, including explosive charges. They may have military weapons. Most will not be able to cast spells, and those who can will be preparing for the ceremony. In short, they will use every tool they have been able to acquire to keep anyone approaching at bay."

"Where will the ceremony take place?" said Champion, as they entered the hangar, raising her voice to be heard over the shrill note of the hopper's engines.

Dr. Piano waited until they were inside and the hatch closed to answer. So far, none of them could fly this particular craft - a short-range VTOL plane with high maneuverability and a good turn of speed - which meant they had a pilot on board. That meant they weren't supposed to land close to danger, but from what Champion knew of Michele Sauders that safe distance might get shaved a bit.

"Anywhere they have room, and opportunity to prepare," said Piano, voice a bit strained as the craft shot out through the roof hatch. "There will be an altar - carved stone, modern or ancient - and symbols carved or painted on the floor. Disrupting those or desecrating the altar - wish I'd thought to acquire some holy water or host - will abort the ceremony."

"You should drop me right on top of 'em," said Maciste, with a grim eagerness. "Fall won't hurt me and I can get a quick start. Clear the way for the rest of you."

"No. We go in as a team and stay together unless we absolutely can't help it. Don't underestimate these people just because they aren't supers."

Travel time was fifteen and a bit minutes, and that only because they weren't cleared for supersonic flight.

"Michele, circle around the location," said Piano, peering out a window. "Everyone look for signs of recent activity, entrances..."

"Missile coming at us!" yelled Buzz. "Port side!"

Thanks to his accelerated vision he provided enough warning for Michele to dive and swerve. Champion stared in alarm as the smoke trail shot past barely twice the length of their hopper from a wing tip.

"Too close to the launch site for the warhead to arm," said Michele, "but if it had hit us..."

"Put us down before they try again," said Piano. "Did anyone see where me might get inside?"

"That was a shoulder-fired missile," said Buzz. "Didn't see exactly where it came from, but I can lead you to the area."

"Probably stationed outside behind a rock," said Champion.

"According to the old mine plans there were two side entrances at different levels and a vertical shaft at the top," said Maciste.

"Do either of the side entrances face east?" said Piano.

"Yeah," said Maciste. "The upper one. Almost due east."

"That's the one they'd use, then. Religious significance."

"So do we go in there, the lower entrance, the shaft..."

"Fighting upwards is always hard," said Piano, as the hopper settled into a small clearing southeast of the mountain the mine was dug into. "The eastern entrance will probably be the most heavily guarded. The shaft will be guarded and trapped, but Maciste can drop rocks down it to help with that."

"The shaft it is, then," said Champion. She gave Buzz a stern look as they climbed out. "Do not run ahead. Oh! Do we have any rope or cable on board?"

"Good idea," said Dr. Piano, mentally backtracking.

Soon the three physical fighters were each equipped with a strong coil of rope. Also hard hats with lamps, plus backup flashlights.

"We still have well over an hour," said Piano.

"Should we wait for the police?" said Champion.

"That... might draw some of them out, to see where we are and what we're doing. No. Too much chance of something going wrong. We need to stop them as soon as we can."

"Charge it is, then," said Champion, with determination.

"But carefully!" said Dr. Piano.

They scurried up the hillside, a bit puzzled by the fact that they saw no-one, encountered no resistance. They reached the top of the steep hill - less of a mountain now with the top cut off for placement of buildings and the elevator equipment - and paused at the edge to look around and catch their breaths. Thirty years had worked some changes to this place. The metal was rusty, the wood weathered, weeds and small trees grew everywhere. There was still no sign of resistance. Or any movement besides their own.

"You sure this is the right place?" said Buzz, puzzled.

"They shot at us, remember?" said Maciste, impatiently.

"Oh, right."

He blurred forward, forgetting the order for the group to stay together. Suddenly, a blast of mystical flame swept across the little plateau, towards the speedster. He frantically backpedalled, feet digging deep gouges as they kicked up grass, dirt and then gravel. He spun in place, actually scurried on all fours for a moment, then began making headway in the opposite direction. A look of pure panic on his face, he began accelerating back towards his teammates. The rapidly spreading sphere of fire almost caught him, but he managed to build enough speed to match - then exceed - its velocity before it touched him. Dr. Piano began casting. As Buzz raced past point man Maciste the flaming attack was rebuffed, splashing around them, briefly forming a hemispherical hollow before it faded.

A figure, surrounded by eldrich fire, floated up from the other side of a decrepit building.

"Baron Avogadro," said Dr. Piano, flatly.

The man was smiling, and not in a pleasant way. He raised his hands, and a bolt of mixed fire and lightning hurtled towards Piano. The mystic barely blocked this with a magical shield, which shattered from the effort.

"Scatter!" yelled Champion, following her own advice. "Flank him!"

"You fool!" Piano yelled at their opponent, as he launched some sort of concentrated beam of silvery force at him. "You know what they plan! Why help them?"

"To defeat you I will gladly sacrifice all life on Earth!" the Baron shouted, in a hoarse baritone voice, swatting the beam aside. "And I am not alone in the effort to delay you. Rise, warrior!"

Something burst through the walls of an old garage. Champion expected some sort of undead ancient soldier, or perhaps an elemental creation of rock and earth. What she got was far worse.

"A Myrmidon!" Buzz screamed, veering hard to the right to get away from the thing.

This is just dandy, thought Champion. Not bad enough that we're facing one of the worst technological menaces the world has ever seen, it's animated by magic!

Maciste leapt towards the six-legged machine, but was swatted out of the air by one of those legs. Meanwhile, a pair of lasers - mounted one on either side of the Myrmidon's head - were tracking across the ground, trying to hit a wildly dodging Buzz. A large gun on the back swerved to target Champion.

She dodged, grabbing a large nut she saw on the ground. She lobbed the rusty piece of metal at the gun, actually hitting the muzzle just as the gun fired. The blockage wasn't enough to damage the gun, but it did deflect the shell, which exploded against an old diesel fuel tank, which went up with a hollow boom, a sooty fireball and a nasty stench as the remaining - and very old - fuel ignited. Fortunately, there wasn't much left.

Champion used the miss to close with the machine. It tried to stomp her with the middle right leg, but Maciste was attacking from the opposite side. He'd managed to catch the front leg there when it swung at him, and his struggles with that threw off the attack against Champion.

She jumped onto the back of the delivery-truck sized machine. A quick glance showed her that the gun was armored, but the lasers looked more fragile. She scampered up the short neck and - before it could think to shake her off - grabbed one of the lasers in each hand. She braced both feet against the back of the head and heaved. There was a frozen moment during which she worried they might be too strong. Then the right one gave, and immediately after the left.

Champion backflipped onto the Myrmidon's back, near the gun. Fortunately, it wouldn't fire while pointed towards any part of the machine. She took a moment to throw the two lasers at Baron Avogadro. She didn't think he even noticed, so preoccupied was he with battling Dr. Piano.

Now the machine's tail swung up and tried to skewer her. Just standing on the back of the thing was difficult, what with Maciste still wrestling with that leg, so Champion jumped onto the ground. She took the rope off her shoulder, briefly contemplated hog-tying the thing, then had a better idea. She tied one end around the leg trying to stomp her, just above the foot. She ran under the belly to the rear, jumped up to whip the other end around the stinger, and dropped back to the ground, pulling the rope tight.

The machine was in trouble. Maciste had finally managed to rip the left front leg completely off and was using it as a makeshift bludgeon. No longer being harried by the lasers, Buzz was whacking away at the joints like a manic jackhammer, using a rusty pick he'd found somewhere. Champion was weaving the light but strong rope among its tail and remaining legs, hampering its mobility. It had other weapons, but they were either unsuitable for antipersonnel use or simply couldn't be brought to bear.

Just when Champion thought they had it on the ropes - literally - though, it managed to kick the right middle leg hard enough to break free. The rope quickly went slack.

This isn't going to be quick, thought Champion, looking frantically around for some weak spot.

This being a Myrmidon, there were none.

"Maciste, don't worry about the head! The brain's inside the body! Try to open a panel or disable more legs! You, too, Buzz!"

She glanced back at the mystic battle taking place not far from them. The Baron was on the ground and looking hard-pressed. Unfortunately, so was Piano. That battle didn't look likely to be over soon, either. She briefly contemplated going inside on her own to at least find and free the hostages, but decided that was a bad idea on several levels. Instead, she grabbed the two ropes the others had dropped, and resumed tangling the thing's limbs.

Champion had to keep changing tactics. This was a learning machine, and it was also pre-programmed with many tactics and techniques.

In the end there was no quick solution, no clever trick. They wore the thing down until it was simply incapable of attacking, and left it quivering helplessly on its back.

Champion glanced over at the other fight, and saw only Dr. Piano. He was leaning forward, hands on his knees, looking like he could barely stand.

"Buzz! Help the Doctor!"

He zipped over and supported the mystic; the others quickly joined them.

"I'm all right," he said. "I managed to banish him to a mystic dimension. He should be there quite a while."

"Damn," said Champion, taking stock. "We're not even inside yet, and we're already exhausted."

"We must push on," said Piano. "If we stop we may not start again soon, and we give them time to prepare."

"To the shaft, then," said Maciste, nodding.





Part Eleven





"Fifteen minutes," said Champion, snarling. "We spent fifteen minutes on those two. We're not even to the mine shaft yet!"

"We still have over an hour," said Dr. Piano, reasonably. "Don't minimize what we accomplished, here. Even a late model Myrmidon like that is no easy opponent. To defeat it in such a short time is extraordinary."

There was a fence around the actual hole, with a gate to keep people out when the elevator wasn't at that level. However, the elevator - in fact, all the lift equipment - was long gone. As the others looked down into the darkness Buzz dropped a rock.

"Uh, I didn't hear it hit," said Maciste.

The structure above, where most of the lift equipment had been, put them in shadow. Shining their lamps down in the hole showed only the rock sides of the shaft for a short distance down, before the beams were swallowed by a darkness which did not seem natural. They did see that the elevator rails and a ladder were still there.

"Do we drop a lamp?" said Buzz.

"Drop this," said Dr. Piano, bending over to get something.

He cast a spell on a fist-sized rock, causing it to glow brightly even in the indirect sunlight up here. Buzz obligingly tossed the rock into the shaft. It illuminated the sides as it fell... until it suddenly vanished.

"That ain't natural," said Buzz, shying back.

"You're right," said Dr. Piano. "Maciste, could you find something very heavy to drop down there, please?"

Their strongman obligingly fetched a decrepit donkey engine, too old to have been worth salvaging when the mine was shut down. He set it on the ground beside the shaft, then pushed it into the shaft, the gate, going with it. The gate and the stationary engine both dropped out of sight. There was clattering and thumping and a sudden silence. Then a creaking, and an odd pop, and a sudden release. Followed by loud crashing sounds for another couple of seconds. Finally came one great crash, echoing up the shaft. Then silence.

This time when they looked they could see the lit stone, much further down the shaft.

"I'm not certain what that was," said Dr. Piano, satisfied, "but it's gone, now. Quickly, before they recover!"

They roped themselves together and began climbing down, Maciste on the bottom and Champion at the top. The old ladder was rusty, but still sound. They descended, quickly.


***


They were nearly to the first landing when the attacks began. Leaning out all the tunnel entrances below them, cult members - most wearing outlandish garb - aimed and shot. Bullets, arrows, spears and spells flew up at the Assemblers. Maciste simply ignored them. Dr. Piano cast shields to protect himself, Buzz and Champion.

"I just realized," Champion yelled above the noise. "In addition to not having a flyer, we don't have anyone with ranged attacks except for Piano."

"Maciste! Which of those tunnels corresponds with the east-facing entrance?"

"I'm all turned around," said the strongman, sounding apologetic.

"East is towards the wall we're on," shouted Champion.

"Maciste, when I give the word slide down the ladder and jump for the first tunnel in this wall. Charge in for a short distance, then make a stand. No time to explain, but we'll be with you!"

Piano cast several extra shields, then began working on something more complicated during the respite those gave him. There were only four shields left - one apiece - when he suddenly shouted.

"Go!"

Maciste was no simple brick. He was strong and tough, yes, but also quick and agile. He slid down the ladder a short distance, then swung away, landing at the lip of the tunnel. The elevator gate had been torn away, most likely when he dumped the donkey engine down the shaft. He was in the midst of enemies, but they were taken unawares by his sudden maneuver. Obediently, he simply bulled his way forward, past the first layer of defenders. He stopped, turned, and was surprised to find his teammates right behind him.

Dr. Piano looked rather smug. The other two... very, very confused.

"That," said Buzz, "was the weirdest thing I have ever experienced."

"Look out!" Maciste shouted, pointing.

They were still in the middle of a fight, after all, though their enemies were even more surprised than Maciste at the sudden appearance of the trio. That gave the Assembly time to gather themselves and resume the fight. Hastily ditching the rope, they turned to face their attackers.

In less than a minute they had rendered all the defenders in this part of the tunnel helpless. Some had fled. Some had jumped for the ladder. All of those latter had been killed by their compatriots, who were still attacking the tunnel mouth with mindless determination.

"Further along the tunnel!" said Piano, urgently.

Maciste again took point, as more cultists came rushing in from ahead. They fought their way to a cross tunnel, where the defenders had hastily erected a barricade. Getting through that took time, but left them with no-one immediately ahead.

By now all of them had various injuries. None were serious, but there was no time to tend them. Maciste and Champion were little affected, but Buzz and Dr. Piano were being hampered by their wounds, even though they were apparently less serious.

"Champion!" said Dr. Piano, as they took a very short breather. "Can you tell if this tunnel leads to the outside? If it does they will have it open to the air."

She paused, frowning. Already, reinforcements were charging down on them from four directions. Concentrating in such a din was difficult, but...

"Yes! Coming from straight ahead, there's a breeze, carrying outside scents!"

"Then we charge!"

"Try to keep up!" Maciste shouted cheerfully as he took off.


***


Cultist after cultist fell, each gaining them a small victory, and a small advance. Still, there were dozens of them, most armed, many with modern weapons. The quartet of heroes was bloodied and exhausted by the time they broke through into a chamber. As with the tunnels, this was lit by the original electric lighting, though in here this was supplemented by flame from several braziers and ceremonial lamps. Through a short tunnel in the far wall they could see the outside.

A final gauntlet of the most dedicated, fanatical, skilled members was arrayed in an arc between the Assemblers and an altar. The altar was drenched in blood, much of which had run off at notches on the sides to fill grooves in the floor. Those grooves formed an arcane symbol in the floor. The blood pulsed with a soft, ruddy glow, almost like a hearbeat. Along the left wall were numerous dead animals and, tragically, several dead people, some of them children. More humans were sitting, bound, blindfolded and gagged, along the right wall. And there, beside the altar, was the most extraordinary sight they had yet seen in this place. Two men, dressed in elaborate robes, were having a no-holds-barred brawl. A third lay on the ground, neck at an awkward angle.

Yet more cultists were coming down the tunnel behind them in a suicidal charge.

"Buzz, cover the rear. You two must defeat all those between us and the altar. I'll counter whatever magics they use against us."

Maciste turned right. Champion left. They didn't need to move far; the cultists came at them. That let the pair guard each other's backs. The fight was short but furious. Through a red haze of exhaustion Champion saw the last man on her side fall. The details of the past several minutes were a blur in her memory. Looking right, she saw Maciste was on his last two defenders. Looking forward, she saw that one of the two priests had won, and was staggering towards the altar, reaching for a bloody sickle laying on the stone, beside the next sacrifice.

All she wanted to do right then was take a moment - just one moment - to rest. Champion forced herself forward, clumsily, slowly. She reached the man and lifted leaden arms to grab his shoulders, pull him back, away from the young man lying there naked in the blood and gore. Fortunately, he was as exhausted and battered as she was. She threw him down, and stared, numbly, as he lay there, weeping and bleeding.

"Theophrastus," said Piano, walking towards the priest. Sometime during that last, desperate fight his right arm had been deeply cut; he was holding it with his left hand, blood trickling down. "Of course. And what was that little disagreement you had with your peers?"

In response the man drew a dagger from his belt and swiped at Piano, who barely dodged. Champion, without thinking, stepped forward and decked the priest with a hard right cross.

Beyond Piano she could see Buzz, slumped against the wall, gasping, surrounded by fallen foes. They were all exhausted, barely standing. However, every single opponent she could see was down for the count. Slowly, she began to realize they had won.

"I think... That's it?" she said, straightening and looking around.

"No Boss fight?" said Maciste, almost as tired as Champion but still game.

"Not this time," said Buzz, with a smirk.

"Untie the hostages," said Piano, gesturing and wincing. "Champion, release that young man and get him some clothes."

There was the scythe there on the altar, but no way was Champion touching the thing. It had obviously been used - without cleaning - to perform the sacrifices. Instead, she pulled a knife out of a hidden pocket on her costume and cut the man's bonds. She was so exhausted, and so disgusted, that she didn't even think about the fact that there was a handsome young man laying naked and helpless before her.

"I think I hear police sirens," said Champion, as she handed the fellow a mostly unbloodied robe.

"I think, if they can walk, Buzz should escort the hostages outside, then go lead the police and paramedics here," said Piano.

The speedster eagerly complied. He wasn't the only one to be glad to leave that dire cave. As frightened and benumbed from their long bondage as they were, every single hostage was very willing to leave. A few actually ran. This took several minutes, especially since some needed time to get the feeling back in their legs.

"They weren't hurt," said Champion, as the last left the small cavern. She looked around the cave and shuddered. "The ones they didn't kill, I mean."

"They were supposed to be in good condition for the sacrifice," said Dr. Piano. He moved over to the altar.

He stood for a moment, examining what had been done there. Champion didn't know how he could stomach looking at that closely. He passed his hands slowly over the table, the scythe in particular catching his attention. He paled.

"By the ancients!" said Dr. Piano, stepping back. "That was close. One more victim, if they had found the right one, and they would have succeeded."

"Has that cosmic thing already started?" said Maciste.

Piano looked at his watch.

"Yes. Less than five minutes ago."

"Damn," said Champion, weakly. "If they had the right guy..."

"No way to tell now," said Piano, with a weak but relieved laugh. He shook his head. "Just one more victim."

"Not... victim, Doctor," said Theophrastus, staggering to his feet. "Sacrifice."

He lunged past the astounded Piano, seized the scythe, and opened his throat. He fell forward, onto the altar, his blood pouring out onto the stone, through the notches and into the grooves in the floor.

There must have been magic in that action, or perhaps they were simply too exhausted to react in time. Everything seemed to proceed both very slowly and very quickly, as if natural laws were askew. The deep, pulsing glow changed into a brilliant glare, and the room filled with smoke billowing from the braziers; there was a roaring sound not of this world.

When she could see again, Champion immediately realized there was now someone else in the room. Someone standing on the left side of the altar, where there had been only the dead before. All the sacrifices were gone, including Theophrastus. Champion shook her head, trying to get a good look through the weird, stinking smoke which still filled the air. Finally, it began to clear, to reveal more details, and she saw... A harmless-looking little man?!

"Infernus, himself..." gasped Dr. Piano.





Part Twelve





He was dressed like an accountant; at first glance appearing quite innocuous. However, closer examination gave the distinct impression that something about him was... off. His proportions were just a bit wrong, his face slightly misshapen, his bland gaze backed by something chilling.

"That's the Big Bad?" said Buzz, sounding insulted.

"Fall back!" said Dr. Piano, sounding both frightened and determined. "We have to..."

The strange little man gestured... and Champion threw herself in front of whatever he was sending towards their mystic. A horrific impact sent her flying into the cavern wall. She dropped limply to the floor.

Champion sat up, feeling disoriented. She figured she must be badly hurt; everything seemed dim and grey, and sounds were muffled. Yet she felt fine. She sensed movement, and jumped to her feet, spinning towards the source. Only the person there was so far from hostile as to leave Champion floundering. She suddenly realized she was no longer in costume, but standing naked, on a flat, grey, featureless landscape which stretched to infinity in all directions. Around her she could see the cavern, and the people and things in it, but indistinctly. That, though, was far from the most astonishing thing about the situation. There was no sign of her friends or the demon king, but there was someone else there.

"G-goddess?!" said Paula, recognizing that face, that form, some of the adornments, from Arcadian artworks.

"Infernus has weakened the barrier between worlds," she said. "I can now speak to you personally, which I was unable to do before."

"I... I appreciate this, but my friends are in trouble."

"You will be able to help them. Again, thanks to Infernus warping time and space."

Paula glanced around. All but her and the Goddess had gone vague and still. Was time frozen? The Goddess moved closer, smiling sympathetically.

"You have done well, but I know you are suffering. Therefore I offer you a choice."

"What sort of choice?"

"There is something my followers should have told you, but which they did not know, due to the passage of time causing a loss of knowledge," said the goddess. "Sacrifice is required to qualify for the honor of being my champion. However, that is not intended to be a punishment. Neither is it meant to be permanent. Generally, a chosen one will be my champion for a few years, until the need has passed, then resume their previous lives."

"You mean... I'm not stuck like this?!" said Paula. Several different emotions confronted each other at this news.

"No. And therein lies the choice I mentioned. Knowing that this is such a burden for you I will allow you to give up the status of my champion now, instead of a few years. It will pass to another worthy. However, that person is not close to the battle, and even if she were would still need weeks of training to reach your level of proficiency."

"But... What about my friends? What about, well, Infernus?"

"He will probably be defeated without you, but with great difficulty, and - most likely - casualties on your side."

"And if I'm there to help, as your champion?" said Paula, knowing the answer.

"Then you will almost certainly win, and with no serious injuries on your side."

"But then I'll be... this. For several more years."

"Creating a champion is no trivial matter. Neither is removing that status. It is the most interaction with your world we are normally allowed. While circumstances might let me remove your burden sooner, that is unlikely."

"So it's me or somebody, somewhere, new," said Paula, sourly. "Someone who can't help with Inferuns. Well, there's no choice. Change back now and risk seeing my friends die, or live like this for a few years. You know what I'll chose."

"Yes. But I still must ask. Part of free will, you see."

"I'll do it. Let me save my friends."

"Done," she said. She smiled and moved closer, actually reaching out to stroke Paula's face. Something both searing hot and icy cold passed into the human, making her gasp and shiver. "As a reward I will help you with your largest problem. You now have complete control over your passions. Finally, remember the rules of magic."

"Wh-what?!" said Champion, suddenly sitting up.

She blinked and looked around. Gone was the vague, grey, misty background. Everything was now back, in harsh color and sound. Speaking of sound, she could hear screams outside, through the short tunnel facing east.

Champion jumped up and started to charge out of the cave, towards the battle. Then skidded to a stop and abruptly reversed course. There, on the floor by the altar, was the blade used for the sacrifices. She grabbed it, wincing at stickiness she felt on the handle.

"Symbolic magic," she said, staring at the gory blade as she remembered the parting words of the Goddess. "If it brought him into this world, maybe it can send him back."

She again charged for the cave mouth. Infernus stood just outside, back to her. Beyond, her teammates had made a stand. Below them on the hillside the freed hostages were fleeing in panic. Several state troopers were trying to move up the hill, but not having much luck against that flood. Infernus was momentarily halted, though she could tell he was merely taking a moment to drink in the scene, basically ignoring the insignificant threat of her teammates. Champion ran up behind the creature and swung, using both hands. The point of the curved blade struck the right side of the odd little man's neck, and went all the way through, popping out just to the right of his spine. Quickly, before Infernus could react, Champion braced her foot against his side and heaved.

The sickle was razor sharp, and empowered by sacrificial blood and most likely other magics. It still took all her strength to pull the blade through the demon's flesh.

The scream of Infernus as his neck was sliced open shattered boulders. It was a scream of rage rather than pain, which made the infernal sound all the more daunting. Champion fell to the ground, dropping the sickle and covering her ears, doing some screaming herself. The demon king clamped his left hand to his neck, seeking to staunch that dire wound. Black, smoking blood sprayed through his fingers, etching stone where it struck. The other Assembly members began a charge forward. Which was fortunate, as Infernus now saw the cause of his injury.

He reached down to smite her. Champion rolled out of the way, realizing that she was deafened as everything was happening in silence.

Missing her, Infernus reached instead for the scythe. Buzz stumbled past, barely grabbing it first, heading into the tunnel.

Infernus frowned in disapproval, and made a gesture with his free hand. Buzz spun around in the air as the scythe was yanked from his hand. Infernus, smiling, held his own hand out to receive it. Champion leapt up, intercepted the weapon, whipped around as she descended and buried it in the demon lord's skull.

That, finally, seemed to actually hurt him. Some odd shock threw Champion away, but the scythe stayed where she had put it. The creature fell back against the face of the hill, expression confused and vacant.

Maciste lunged forward, putting all he had left into a punch to the creature's gut. Infernus grunted, and looked mildly surprised. As the strong man dodged aside, Dr. Piano ignored his wound and wove a spell with voice and both hands. Silvery darts shot from his fingertips, those which missed wreaking havoc on the hillside. Those which hit left smoking holes in Infernus' clothing. There were dribbles of that black blood, but apparently he had bled out; inkiness began to leak from the holes instead, seemingly moving on its own. Reaching out, searching.

Infernus gathered himself. He shook his head, straightened, and stepped forward, away from the hillside. He gestured, and Maciste and Piano both flew away, into the trees further down the hillside. He turned towards the tunnel, to do the same to Champion and Buzz. Champion was already in the air, again plunging towards him, swinging a large rock.

She hit the scythe, driving it further into his skull.

This time the scream was one of pain, piercing even the deafness wrought by his first cry. The earth shook, and a huge crack appeared in the hillside. Lightning crashed down from a clear sky, striking at random on the hill, the ground, the trees. Champion forced herself back to her feet.

Infernus was in trouble. He had gripped the handle with both hands, leaving that horrible wound in his neck open to the air, to grab the handle. White smoke rose from where he touched the sickle. He was yanking frantically, but all that did was jerk his head around.

Champion staggered towards him, warily watching for him to strike at her, but he appeared blind to all but his pain. She hesitated, just out of reach; what to do?

Some instinct spoke to her, or perhaps it was a last bit of help from the Goddess. Suddenly determined, she reached past his hands to grab the base of the blade with her hands. This was the first time she had actually touched him, skin to skin, and an icy shock of pain made her gasp. She still took a firm hold, braced both feet against his chest and heaved. There was a sound like an overripe coconut splitting. She suddenly flew backwards, barely managing to hold the scythe. Looking at Infernus she saw she had sliced his face open. Inside, something dark and horrible writhed, like living ink. She realized that the black smoke she had seen earlier was Infernus. The little man was merely a shell... and that its likely purpose was some form of protection. He certainly didn't seem to like having air and light touch his actual substance.

Quickly, before that... thing could react, Champion swung, underhanded. The tip of the scythe struck the demon king's crotch and tore upwards, splitting his lower body as it had his face. More of the thing's true nature showed now, and Champion cringed, tasting something sour in the back of her throat. Swinging downward again, she planted the tip in the darkness sprouting from the shell's neck and shoving, completing the cut, opening the mannequin's entire front.

There was some sort of eruption, blackness blasting outwards, hurling her away. She lost consciousness.


***


Champion felt unfamiliar hands on her body, and tensed.

"Easy!" said Maciste. "You're safe. These are paramedics."

She relaxed, the world gradually coming back into focus. They were trying to undress her, but having a hard time of it.

"Zip strip," she said, clearly, fumbling for it.

"Please, ma'am, lie still," said one of the men. "We haven't finished examining you yet and you could be badly hurt."

"There's a concealed zipper... thingy," said Maciste, pointing.

Between the four of them they soon had her top off, leaving her with the just the sport bra from the waist up.

"I... better check on the others," said Maciste, blushing.

"Sir, we may need your help getting the bottom off."

He sighed and showed them the fastener there, then retreated.

Laying there, on a disposable blanket in just her underwear, Champion felt strangely at peace. They had won, she assumed, or the paramedics wouldn't be able to treat her. For that matter, she wouldn't be alive.

They were surprised to find that while she was badly bruised and had some nasty burns on her hands and wrists she was not seriously hurt. They cleaned her, dressed her injuries and gave her another disposable blanket to wear. Her costume was a mess, and she had no desire to put it back on.

Speaking of desire, she realized that having two hunky young paramedics putting their hands all over her nearly naked body was only eliciting a mild embarrassment. Was that shock, or what the Goddess had promised?

Experimentally, as the pair packed their equipment to move to the next patient, she... thought about being aroused by them. And felt a surge of lust.

"Whoah..." said Champion, quickly turning that off.

"You okay?" said one of the paramedics.

"Yeah," she said, smiling. "Just realized something."

She walked over to where Buzz and Dr. Piano were being treated. On the way she looked around at various men and women, experimenting. She could be turned on by men, women, or a combination, at her choosing, and she could control the degree of attraction. The knowledge left her a bit... giddy. After figuring that out she put the switch firmly in the "Off" position for now. There would be time for more later. Right now she wanted to check her teammates.

Dr. Piano was the worst off, but he was conscious and interacting with those treating him. He had an arm in bandages and a leg in an air splint. Smaller bandages adorned several other parts of his anatomy.

"We won," said Champion, grinning, when she caught his attention.

"I'd say so, yes," he replied, sharing her grin. "Maciste already contacted both Lucille and our pilot. The latter is taking the hopper back to the base."

Champion looked over at the team speedster, who was being treated nearby.

"How is he?"

"When he saw that one of the paramedics tending him was a buxom brunette he suddenly took a turn for the worse," said Piano, rolling his eyes.

Champion laughed, and the two men working on Dr. Piano smiled and shook their heads.

"Where are you taking him?" she asked one of the men.

"County General," he replied. "He'll be ready for transport in a moment. You want to ride with him?"

"Yeah. But I better get my costume, first. You got anything I can put it in?"

Moments later, her filthy costume in a large hazmat bag, she climbed in to join Piano in the ambulance. Maciste - hardly bruised even after all this - was riding with Buzz.


***


"So what happened back there?" said Buzz. "You said they were summoning a minion, but we got the big baddie."

The four teammates were in a secure private hospital room. Buzz was being kept overnight for observation. So was Piano, but he was also going for a permanent splint and some stitches in a bit. This might be the only time for all of them to talk together and privately for a couple of hours.

"Theophrastus discovered the missing component," said Piano, tiredly. "A willing sacrifice. Which worked far better than expected. Of course, the particular steps leading up to that were known only to him and the other two priests. I believe their disagreement was over what they needed to do next. Which I unintentionally revealed."

"Well, they won't hear about the willing sacrifice part from me," said Maciste. "I do not want to go through that again."

"I just hope we can keep this between us," said Champion, worried. "You know what they said about the atom bomb. The only real secret was that it could be done."

Piano looked at her curiously.

"You seem... more at ease."

"I'll tell you about it later," she said, with a sly smile. "I think for now I'll just say I had a religious experience."

"Ah," said Dr. Piano, trying to look as if he understood but not quite managing it.

"So what do we do for an encore?" said Buzz, putting his hands behind his head.

"Don't rush things," said Maciste.

"Yeah," said Champion. "Let's recover from this, first. Then we'll figure things out."





End




This work is Copyright 2009 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to reproduce it please contact the author at: stickmaker@usa.net