Chapter 13.8 - 'Shadows of
(NOTE: The following chapter is rated TV-14 - DLSV. It contains scenes of nudity and disturbing psychological situations. Reader discretion is strongly advised.)
There are still many people who, even in hindsight, question the logic of Quinn Morgendorffer's choice - to send Brittany along with her (Quinn's) sister Daria for recon duties on the night of the raid at the Appleton Industries animal research facility.
Those people are not very bright.
- Mostly Harmless: The Brittany Taylor Story, by Shawn Anthony Wright, Jr.
We're running with the shadows of the night
So baby, take my hand - you'll be all right
Surrender all your dreams to me tonight
They'll come true in the end
- Shadows of the Night, by Pat Benatar
"I don't see why we couldn't just bust in there, grab this freaky molester guy, and stomp on anybody who says we can't."
"That's why we get to wait here, Sandi," Mack Mackenzie, standing with the former members of the Fashion Club - Sandi Griffin, Tiffany Blum-Deckler, Stacy Rowe and Quinn Morgendorffer (along with Tom Sloane, who sat slightly off to the side) - as they looked over the city of Lawndale from the 360-degree vantage point they had from Legion Tower's fifteenth floor, which also served as a public observation deck. "Subtle is sometimes a good thing. You can't just always go in somewhere and bust heads – that'll always come back and bite you in the butt."
Mack didn't understand why Sandi suddenly turned to look at him with a scowl, and the other girls began to titter. "What did I say?" he asked, actually taking a step back from Sandi. "What?"
Quinn stopped laughing long enough to prevent Sandi from taking a step towards Mack. "Sandi – he wasn't making fun of you," she said, barely controlling her mirth. "He doesn't know – He wasn't even a Legionnaire back then, remember? - And it was funny. Not right then, you know, but afterward."
She snickered as she made a big production out of leaning back to look at Sandi's bottom. "Get it? 'Butt-?'"
Sandi looked Mack over, his earnest, yet confused expression making her relent. "Yeah," she said, the anger in her face sloughing away. "Sorry, Mack. You're not the type to make fun like that, anyway."
Turning back to the huge windows, Sandi looked out over the nighttime sky of Lawndale. "How soon until they get back, anyway?"
"They... should... have... let... me... go...too," Tiffany spoke up, coming as close as she could to pouting. "I... could... help... them... get... inside..."
Yes, but Daria and the others are trying to get information – and we didn't want you pulling people into walls and leaving them there, Tiffany, Quinn thought very loudly, remembering her talk with Maryann Lyter after they (and most of the other female Legionnaires) watched the male Legionnaires and Rafael Vargas have a B.S. session over Cluster Burgers and fries. You've got a bad rep, sister. Thank God you're on our side.
"How long until they get back?" Tom asked, turning in his chair to face the others. "It's been over an hour since they left."
"It takes as long as it takes," Jane Lane's voice rang out from behind the Legionnaires; they all turned to see Jane step from the elevator. "Jodie's in MTAC – she wants us all to come down there."
Three minutes later, the Legionnaires were standing in the Legion Multiple Threat Operations Center – the huge area on the fourteenth floor of Legion Tower where all Legion operational, monitoring and communications duties were handled in concert with current metahuman and meta-oriented special-operations organizations under the aegis of the Unites States. "Glad that everyone decided to show up," Jodie Landon said, turning from the multi-purpose monitor that took up the entirety of the west wall in the room. "The first act of tonight's show is about to start – thought that you guys would want to see this."
Jodie reached back to touch the monitor with her left hand, and the Mercator projection of the Earth on the screen retracted back to a six-by-six foot image in the upper left-hand corner of the display. "They're here, M," Jodie said, "How's everything going on your end?"
In the parting lot of the Lawndale Post Office, Daria Morgendorffer and Brittany Taylor sat in a silver Prius. "Everything's fine, Braniac," Daria said, her annoyed expression directed at the tiny video camera mounted on the dashboard of the car. "These code-names are dumb."
"But yours is cool, Daria!" Brittany Taylor squeaked out. "Everyone can say it, it's something that everyone will remember, and it's the same as the lady who tells James Bond what to do!"
Daria silently counted to ten before she spoke. "Well – at least I got the satisfaction of payback."
"Not really, Daria," Jane smirked, looking at the giant image of her best friend. "Quinn will probably get trainloads of cash with that code-name – well, if she decides to go with 'Coppertop'. Meanwhile - it's night, you're in your cool car, and you've got a cute blonde with you."
Brittany's expression perked up. "Thanks, Jane!"
Daria shook her head. "Brittany..."
Jane's comment didn't disappoint. "Nobody's going to complain if you uncover 'Cover Girl' for a quick make out while Charles and Fran do a quick recon of the area."
Sergeant Brenda Nemec, helping to monitor events in Legion MTAC, had to smile at the expression that crossed the buxom blonde's face, and the skeleton-decalcifying squeal of disgust.
"EWWWWWW!" Brittany squealed. "Jane – that's gross!"
Jane wasn't finished, now that she had a fish on the hook. "How would you know, Brittany? Speaking from experience? Does the former cheerleader squeal too much. – or only with the right person?"
Laughter filled the room as the image of Brittany turned a bright pink - and suddenly vanished from view! "Wow, look at that," Jane sniggered, getting in one more shot. "Form-fitting shoulder seat belts."
An annoyed sound came from the empty space next to Daria. "Hmmph!"
"Anyway," Daria continued, looking out the window at a large, windowless brick building that sat about two blocks from them, partly hidden by the forest, "Chameleon and Fran have been gone for twenty minutes. I told them to call in every thirty minutes."
"Okay, ladies," Jodie said. "Check with us as soon as they call in."
Back in the car, Daria turned to Brittany as the signal shut off. "Well, I guess now we just wait-"
A large shadow fell across the car, and the two Legionnaires had no time to scream as the Prius was swatted across the parking lot to crash against a light pole!
As Daria and Brittany lay unconscious in the twisted wreck of the car, a hulking, metallic figure, a full fifteen feet tall, strode across the lot - followed by two others just like it.
The first robotic figure reached the car. "Winkie One to Oz, come in," a voice spoke from inside the first mechanical. "We've taken care of the ones outside. The area is secure."
"Good work, Winkie One," a second voice replied from the cockpit radio. "Secure the 'Munchkins', their vehicle, and return to the Farm."
"Roger that, Oz." Marvin Delos – the operator of the Sceptre (the name of the robot chassis) known as Winkie One – switched from the main radio channel to the inter-team frequency that the other pilots in his three-man team of Scepters were on. "Okay, boys – let's clean it up. Winkie Three – grab that wreck and bring it in. We'll watch your back."
One of the Sceptres walked over to the twisted wreck of the Prius, picking it up with surprising ease as it turned and walked through the lightly wooded area towards the brick building; the other two followed along.
One mile above the factory, Julia Carlyle hovered above the hidden animal research lab, watching what had happened below.
The color of her new Legion uniform (built with active camouflage elements for flight) had shifted from black to gray-white (the pink trim and her tunic had shifted color as well), helping to make her less visible to anyone who might happen to be looking upward; for this reason, she had also chosen to fly with her Legion flight ring, instead of using her own wings.
"Archangel to MTAC," the tall redhead broadcast through the Ring's mental-communications link. "They've taken the bait. Green lights, all the way. Start the show."
On the other side of the parking lot, where a row of eight Post Office service vehicles sat empty, the third vehicle momentarily disappeared – and Daria's Prius (with Daria and Brittany inside, unharmed) appeared in its place.
Daria looked down at the Mark 30 Psychon-series augmenter on her left wrist, and ran her right index finger over the tiny display. >>I'm still projecting the image of us and the car into the minds of the guys driving those robot-things,<< she thought-cast, as she and her teammate exited the car, >>and the image of the truck in a wide-spectrum mental signal. Even if anyone sees the car on closed-circuit TV, their minds will still tell them it's a truck, and they're still seeing what we want on their robots' screens. Hurry up and get down here-<<
Daria almost screamed as a figure touched down directly in front of her. "Good – save the screaming for your own room, when you've got a guy who can appreciate it," Julia said, still communicating through the link as she picked up Daria with her left hand and Brittany with her right. "Cloak us, Cover Girl, and both of you - hang on!"
The top floor of the large brick building (it was three stories tall, with several subterranean levels) was split into two sections, reachable only by two elevators.
The first elevator was for the secure documents storage area; the entrance on the first floor sat right next to the main security office, and anyone managing to get past that point would meet up with a group of guards who always wore tactical gear, carried assault weapons (including machine pistols as sidearms), and more than enough ammo to fight a holding action long enough for the real backup to arrive.
The second elevator opened onto William Appleton's personal quarters whenever he was in Lawndale... accommodations as luxurious as any five-star hotel. Different than the first elevator, it was instead designed to act in the fashion of the turbolifts (of Star Trek fame) and was designed around a series of shafts that provided full access to anywhere within Kansas - the underground areas beneath the building, and the true heart of the facility.
That access included including the secure VIP parking area in the Badlands (the name given to the service area on the first subterranean floor that everything had to pass through going in or out of the building), Topeka and Wichita (the respective containment areas for the smaller and larger animal 'research subjects' called Totos) – and Lawrence - the human research and containment area.
The turbolift system was one of the many changes made by Appleton Industries to Kansas in the roughly two-year period since the humiliating infiltration of the facility by three well-meaning (but utterly clueless) Animal Liberation Front activists. The three college students had freed hundreds of test subjects (unknowingly changing the course of human history in the process) at the cost of their own lives – and also, accidentally, proved the worth of Kansas.
The Emerald City – the main research facility – was vastly expanded, taking up the former space of Topeka and Wichita; three additional subterranean levels were built, with Topeka, Wichita and Lawrence each occupying fully one-third of what was now Level Two.
Level Three was dedicated to storage, the on-site power systems and The Farm – the hanger for the Sceptres, and Level Four – also known as Kansas City – was home to on-site living quarters for the hundred or so members of the research staff. It boasted 24-hour food service (of four-star quality, no less), excellent exercise facilities (including a pool), and a media services center that could provide any film, television program or televised event requested within a day.
The security force for the facility – augmented since the ALF debacle - easily rivaled that of many heads of state's personal security details, and was located in the Badlands (except for the ones in the secure records section). A security breach of these grounds would never be allowed to happen again.
Kansas was now an incredibly secure, self-contained facility.
Or so William Appleton believed.
Enjoying the smoky taste of a particularly fine single malt scotch, William lounged on a couch in the living room when his eyes were drawn to a small metal box on the table just in front of him.
The touch-screen on the box began to blink with a slow blue light; William sighed, and put the crystal tumbler to his lips.
"Hello, Fran," the man said, supremely unconcerned as he took another sip. "You know I'm not fond of your using your powers when you're here. Take your normal form."
The room remained silent and empty; William leaned back and held out his tumbler. "Frances. Take your normal form, and freshen up my drink. Now."
A tiny speck in the middle of the room began to grow larger, expanding; William looked on with annoyance as Fran grew to normal size. "I am not happy with you."
Fran stood quietly in the middle of the room; her posture the gentle, slightly restrained feminine carriage that he had cultivated in her – but now, something was different.
The young woman visibly flinched as William hurled the tumbler across the room; the sound of fine crystal shattering hadn't begun to fade as he leaped to his feet. "Do you think I'm a fool, Frances? Do you?"
The fact that she barely stepped back from his vocal explosion caused his anger to fully blossom.
Oh, you think that something's changed in our 'relationship', do you now, you little bitch? William thought. Do you really think that?
William stopped, forcing calmness over himself before he took a single step towards Fran, whose lower lip was now trembling. Oh, no, he thought, looking her over. You think that little thing you do when you get nervous or scared will save that perfect, tiny ass of yours now, woman?
Fran began to speak. "I – I needed just to get away for a while, and think-"
William's voice seemed to calm; a peaceful vibe seemed to flow from him, making the young woman's lip quiver even more than before. "About what, Frances?" he said. "You know that you can talk to me about anything..."
Fran looked directly into his eyes. "I... I was at the Tower, and I saw-"
William took a single step towards her. "You saw what?" he said.
"Jane Lane," the tiny girl replied, her voice wavering. "She – she was with her boyfriend, that Tom Sloane, and they were-"
"You're not an innocent virgin, Frances," William said, cutting her off bluntly, "and you've seen plenty of people fuck before-"
"But it was different," Fran interjected, not realizing how much effort it took for William to restrain himself from launching across the room and smashing his fists all across her body for her – disrespect – of speaking out of turn.
I won't hit her again, William thought, forcing his anger back. No. The last time I had to – discipline her – I had to go to Brasília, and personally ask Mikayla if she would allow Sarasota to heal Fran.
William remembered the humiliation that he felt as he had to stand before Mikayla Aguilar – a regal Brazilian woman ten years his junior, and the Executive Director for South America - and so full of herself that she looked down on me as if I were a child! he thought, remembering his humiliation, and then ask for her permission for Sarasota Meyers - the most powerful of the four healers within the Elite's ranks - to come to New York City.
That's another one that I owe John, he thought bitterly, thinking on how John Dynell – flush with power on his own recent ascendancy to the Executive Directorship of North America – had actually made him wait a full day before answering William's constant, desperate calls for help. If it wasn't for that Toto down in Wichita – the albino orangutan with the purple eyes and the ability to drain health from one creature and use it to heal another, but both only in modest amounts – I might have lost Fran that weekend.
William abruptly changed direction – and went to fix himself another drink. They've both lorded that over me ever since... and I'll be damned if I give him another marker to call in on me someday.
The gentle splashing sound of the Scotch as it flowed into a fresh tumbler, and the smoky flavor of the liquor as it flowed down William's throat like gentle, liquid fire, allowed him to regain a measure of calm as he continued to go over his current circumstances in his head.
If I could only use the formulas we have to create an all-powerful healer, or a stable regenerator - one whose powers didn't simply start destroying his body the first time he's wounded or sick, because his power just sees everything as a threat, or act as a super-inducer of cancers, because of the uncontrollable growth... Jesus. If some of the new lymphomas that our 'healers' generated in their bodies had ever made it into the general population...
William suppressed a shudder of fear that momentarily erased his anger. Thank God for plasma-based incinerators – they even vaporize the bones.
Fran shifted uneasily. She knew that Appleton was lost in thought. Sometimes there was an explosion at the end as something would set him off. It could be a terrifying prospect, as William had taught her – literally and figuratively – that she was to 'stay in her place'.
The image of a tall redhead with spectacular legs from a Christmas party a few years back caused him to sigh inwardly. I wish I could have gotten my hands on that Julia Carlyle – in more ways than one. I've heard about her healing factor – but from what I heard, not even she could help Fran much more than the drops do. Perhaps I could ask John about those three paranormal mercenaries he's used for several jobs here in the States...
William stepped up to her, and reached out to stroke Fran's face. You're the most docile, demure woman I've ever had – and you're still not demure or docile enough, he thought. It's a pity that actual regeneration – and healing – are the two most difficult abilities to isolate and induce – otherwise, I'd have punished you as you deserve.
Fran somehow managed not to draw away or even flinch as William's right index finger slid gently down to the nape of her neck, teasingly stroking just beneath the locket she wore (a gift he had given her the first time he had given her the Cinderella drops, and then bedded her). You're still wearing that, eh? William marveled silently. I guess you're not as free of me as you – or your new friends – think.
William smiled as he walked slowly around Fran, allowing his finger to trace along her neck as he stopped behind her. That's all right, then, he thought. I guess that I'll keep you around – ragged face and all – until I beat every trace of backbone out of you. Like the man said in that old film – 'You're going to be respectful, compliant and appreciative – the way a woman should be' – and you'll get to watch as I do the same with your big-breasted blonde friend... and that ice cube – Morgendorffer. I've wanted to spread those slender legs and defrost that little bitch ever since I saw her at the Quest special powers demo.
William felt his throat burn as he finished his drink. Did you think we didn't know that you'd bring friends back here?
"You didn't answer me, Frances," he said, towering over her; his face still calm, even concerned. "Do you think that I'm a fool?"
"It – it was different," Fran spoke; the stammer in her voice. "They were – it was – they care about each other... well, she cares about him, and-"
William cut her off by pressing his index finger to her lips. "They should have let you practice more."
Fran's soft, gray eyes went wide as William stormed back to the table where the small box lay, the blue light still blinking, and thrust it out for her to see after scooping it up. "You stupid bitch! Do you think I'd let you go anywhere without a leash?
The girl's voice wavered with a blossoming tinge of fear. "Wha- what is that?"
William shook his head. "It's a tracking device – keyed to the radioactive 'tag' my people placed in your artificial wings. It registers as part of your own body's own energy signature, so radiological scans wouldn't have detected it – but our monitors can."
Fran's voice held a touch of defeat. "You know."
Almost apologetically, William nodded his head. "That you went to Daria Morgendorffer's home? That she took you to Legion Tower? That she and her friend were down at the Post Office doing surveillance while you decided to sneak back in here – for what, by the way? What were you going to try and steal from me?"
Fran's resolve seemed to break; the girl took a step back. "I wasn't going to-"
William's eyes bore into her like lasers. "Do not lie to me, Frances. Do not lie to me, ever again. Why did you come back here?"
The girl tried to avert her eyes from William's predator glare. "I – I thought that, maybe, I could get some money – from your safe – or I could get something from the computer and sell it, a file about the animals, or about the drugs you're making, and some of the Drops..."
Fran backed up three steps as fire began to flicker into life behind William's eyes; her voice began to break as she felt the man's anger wash over her. "I'm [i]sorry![/i] I – I don't want to – I didn't want to-"
The fury in William's eyes never touched his voice. "To do what, Frances? To steal from me? To take what's mine? To go behind my back, use the skills that I provided for you, and use them to stab me in the back and then, slip off into the night as if you were a distaff, modern-day Jack Dawkins, as if you'll be able to have a life of beaches, bikinis and night life, full of fine food and well-hung Senator's sons with my money? After you were going to let that bastard Stark's kid club of little paranormals into my property and give me over to them like the little Judas goat you are?
William took a breath before continuing. "Or is it that you think that somewhere out there, you'll find someone with the power to heal your face? I'm sorry – but that's not going to happen, either. None of it – and by the way, your new friends are downstairs, in the 'Emerald City'."
Fran reacted as if he had hit her. Her knees wobbled, almost as if they would unlock and send her falling to the floor, but she somehow steadied herself as William watched.
William sighed. "Frances. If you think that somewhere out there, you'll find a healer that can help you look normal, so you can go off and have a 'normal life'... you are deluding yourself."
Fran's eyes seemed to focus at his words; she looked into his eyes, and for a moment, supreme joy flooded through William as he realized that she was close not only to tears, but to a sudden mental breakdown. "No..."
William nodded. "I asked your friend Sarasota to heal your face, and your internal injuries. She tried, but she couldn't – because of your powers."
Fran looked small and lost in the center of the room. "Your injuries – your disfigurement – it's simply a physical part of who you are, now," William continued. "When your mutant powers manifested themselves, it became part of your body's default template; the part of your powers that allows you to retain absolute control of your molecular structure also locks it into the form you had when you first manifested."
William walked three steps to the left. "Your slender form is a result of your nutrition deficiencies caused by your accident. Though your physical form suffered – you most likely would have been taller and had a fuller figure, we'll never know – it nevertheless became a part of who and what you've become. As for the Drops – and of course, you stole some of the formula, I'm looking at your face – they won't work on you forever."
Another crack in Fran's armor appeared; the young woman flinched at his words. "That's not true," she said, more to herself than to William. "That's not true..."
"Diminishing returns, mon petit ange," William replied, smiling as he addressed Fran with his pet name for her in bed: 'my little angel.' "The Drops can heal a normal human completely. For those with powers - well, physical powers - the effect is only temporary. It differs in duration, depending on what abilities one has, but after a period of time, no more than twenty-four hours – any injuries or trauma you had beforehand return. Even worse...the more you use it, the shorter the duration of effect becomes."
William's smile grew wider as he allowed his eyes to roam over Fran's body. "I know for a fact that you took a dose no more than two hours ago. The science boys determined that with your powers and the length of time you've been using the Drops, the effect would have been lessened to that period. It's why they aren't really effective for medical use, either – even with normal humans, every use diminishes the effect the next time it's used... and for humans, it's even less. However, on people with mental powers - it's the silver bullet. Perfect healing – and no side effects whatsoever to the user. One of the biggest successes we've gotten out of this lab "
Fran couldn't even speak as William continued. "The average human can only use the Drops three times for healing – and I wouldn't use that third dose on a critically injured person. Sixty-percent failure rate."
The room became absolutely silent as William let Fran digest all that he had said. "You used me," she finally spoke.
"With a sense of enjoyment that is beyond expression," William acknowledged, bringing himself up into perfect posture. "As an infiltration specialist in my service, you are superb. As a woman, in my bed... you are transcendent."
Allowing himself a smile of triumph, William walked across the floor to the computer terminal seated besides his magnificent oak desk on the far side of the huge room. "Come see for yourself."
Fran didn't even bother to turn and follow him with her gaze; tears had fallen from her eyes, and one hung precariously upon her chin. "See what-?"
"Oh, I'm sure that you know what this is, being the excellent little thief I paid good money for," William chided her, tapping at keys after turning the terminal on. "Everything that you were hoping to get your... talented little hands on: complete and unfettered access to not only everything here at the lab, but all of Appleton Industries. Finances, ongoing projects, complete access to all reports from all divisions – but here's what you were probably looking for. Take a look over at the television."
Fran's eyes flickered over to the eight-foot, wall-mounted plasma-screen television – and her face drained of color as she saw a crystal-clear image of her and William, both unclothed and passionately embracing as they slid deep into the roiling waters of an exceptionally large outdoor Jacuzzi, with several palm trees visible in the shot and the dark-blue waters of an ocean in the background. "Turn it off," she said, her voice pleading. "Just - just turn it off..."
William watched as Fran turned her head, unwilling to watch as her image slowly lowered itself down upon William; the sound of her sudden, strangled cry as their bodies became one echoed through the room, gurgling off into pained, gasping huffs of feminine pleasure as they began to move together. "Frances Irene Lawrence," he said proudly. "I've had more than my share of beautiful young women, but you... are... flawless."
Fran could barely bring herself to speak. "Turn it off..."
William nodded; the screen went off, and he reached into his desk for a small, silver case. "How... many?" Fran asked, forcing the words from her mouth. "How... many... how many times did you tape us -?"
"Oh, Fran, that's not important," William said, opening the case. "I tape all of my young lady friends. What's important is that you are my special girl - and that you came back to me. Now, you will have to be punished – you've been a bad girl, and you must take your medicine – but you've also done me, and yourself, a great service."
Fran looked up at William. "What do you mean?"
"Your little friends in the Legion," he told her. "With them – my scientists can do research that will expand what we've done here a hundredfold, especially since that bitch Luthor has working for him won't share any of her data – and she doesn't leave any of the males capable of breeding afterwards, so we can't get any genetic material from them."
The young woman looked at William with puzzlement. "Why do you want the Legionnaires?"
"Well, most of them will go into the labs, but the girls – I'm going to personally see what they're capable of," William said, taking a small bottle from the case and filling the injection needle in his other hand with it. "Then, they'll all go – except for Daria Morgendorffer. I've been thinking, Fran... I've been thinking that you need - a friend."
Fran looked at him in horror. "You don't mean-"
"I'm already going to punish you later on, Fran," William said tiredly. "Don't make me add to that by your being prudish. Now, come, take your medicine... your scars are starting to reappear. We'll enjoy ourselves while my people take care of any other Legionnaires who decide to show their faces – we've been preparing for them for a bit, that's why we replaced the security staff, in case you'd wondered – and then, a late dinner. I had Elijah fly in some lobster tails for you; I know how much you love them."
"Oh, that won't be necessary," murmured Fran, causing William to look at her with a touch of surprise.
"What did you say?" he asked.
Fran shrugged. "The lobster tails – and the sex. That's not happening. I don't sleep with men."
William's laughter rocked the room. "Really? Since when?"
Fran's gaze was icy. "To quote two guys from one of my all-time favorite movies - 'you're ten seconds away from the most embarrassing moment of your life'."
William looked at the young woman with a touch of confusion in his eyes. "I beg your pardon-?"
Fran looked directly at him – and her form shifted and grew into that of a young man with flame-red hair... and the expression of an avenging angel arriving to greet a horde of sinners. "For all [i]you've[/i] done? Even if it were my place, I wouldn't."
Appleton's face twisted with recognition of the young man standing before him. "Ruttheimer."
Charles nodded, and looked at his watch. "I'll tell my dad you said 'Hi.' Ten."
A length of thin, gold-hued chain, reminiscent of the weapons martial artists use, somehow, impossibly, passed through the ceiling from a point halfway between Charles and William!
"What the – FWAHAAAAAAA?"
Before William could react, the chain wrapped around William's waist and he was jerked upwards, passing through the ceiling without leaving a mark!
"The Rapture - Legion-style, " Charles said, grim satisfaction in his voice. "I'm sorry that we – I'm sorry that you had to go through all of this, Fran. You can come out now."
Smaller than a speck of dust, Fran emerged from her hiding place on Charles' collar, reverting to normal size as she looked at the ceiling. "He's not – dead, is he?"
"Legionnaires don't kill – even if they deserve it," Charles said gravely, walking over to Fran. "Especially if they deserve it. Why deny everyone the chance to see him in 'day-glo' prison gear for the next century or two?"
Charles opened up the telepathic com-link. "This is Chameleon. Legion Espionage Squad – report!"
In the Badlands, over forty security personnel lay unconscious, their weapons strewn everywhere, with the walls pock-marked with bullet holes and the scorched blast-points of energy weapons-fire. Brittany – standing in the middle of the carnage in the loading/transfer area that lead directly to the surface - turned visible to briefly survey the havoc she had wrought before she answered Charles' call.
"This is Cover Girl. The security guys in here are on their break. I got the ones in the room across from you, too!"
In the vehicle storage and refurbishment area known as The Farm - one floor below Brittany, thirty Sceptres lay in broken heaps. The unconscious pilots hung limp in their harnesses, while other personnel lay unconscious all over the area as Julia – hovering in the air, her wings fully extended and her PFT-M1 in her left hand – entered the link.
"This is Archangel. All hostile Robbies are down."
Directly across from The Farm, in the main foyer of the massive research area known as 'Emerald City', Daria looked about at all of the researchers, support workers and security guards that she had disabled with a single telepathic command:
"This is M. I've knocked down everyone in the lab areas, but there's no way that I'm calling this place secure. Somebody give me a hand down here!"
Fran's gasp of surprise caused Charles to turn around just in time to see William's unconscious form hit the floor - followed by Tiffany and Jodie, as the two female Legionnaires phased through the ceiling and set down in front of him. "Phantom," she said, releasing Jodie's hand. "I... brought ... Jodie... innnnnn."
"Not bad, Charles," Jodie said, stepping over William as she went to the active computer terminal. "My turn."
Fran watched as Jodie took several cords from a pocket on the left leg of her uniform, and plugged them into the terminal. "What are you doing?"
"My 'Niobe' impression," Jodie said, actually cracking a smile as she took out a pair of wraparound sunglasses and put them on - then plugged the cords into a pair of gloves she took from another uniform pocket before putting them on. "I'm in."
Her mind working faster than the ubertech artificial intelligence in the Emerald City that serviced the entire facility, Jodie took less than thirty seconds to take absolute control of all systems in the merry old 'Land of Oz'.
"I've got full access," she told the others. "I'm shutting down all security protocols. M – the internal monitors show that you're the only human awake in your section. There's still a few stragglers running around through the facility, and there are over a hundred people in 'Kansas City' – the on-site living quarters for the research staff. They've gone 'hard-shell' and are trying to get messages out."
"Can they?" asked Charles.
"No," Jodie said with brutal honesty. "I've disconnected all signal access to this facility by using a free-form reconstituting wide-band data simulation generator."
"What... does... that... mean...?" Tiffany asked, her eyes blinking as she tried to understand what Jodie had just said.
Jodie glanced over at Tiffany, and then, kept typing. "It means that I've got every form of communications going out of or coming into this entire place fooled into thinking that they're all still talking with who- or whatever they need to be communicating with and at what they would consider nominal readings or comm traffic."
The Black Legionnaire spared them all a glance. "As far as the computers at Lawndale Power and Light are concerned, their meters are all connected and still running."
Fran's eyes were huge. "How can you do that? William said that the computer here was better than the one the government has for the Pentagon-"
Jodie held up a metal case the size of a package of cigarettes, which had the cords from her glasses and gloves leading into it. "This is a logic machine – and it is five times more powerful than the one in the basement," she said in a flat tone. "I built it this morning – moving on."
She reactivated her connection to the Legion comlink. "This is Brainiac. Legion Heavy Squad – the alarms are off. Kick the door."
Brittany had barely taken cover when the heavy doors that led up to the surface went white-hot, twisted, and exploded in a shower of burning, twisted metal!
Their PFT batons extended into fighting-staff mode as they marched through the gaping hole like Terminators hunting prey, two of Sandi's triplicate selves (each wearing her new Legion uniform of black and burnt gold) were the first ones through the breach. They were on either side of the third Sand (her uniform gloves and sleeves were aglow with gold 'Tron lines' from the firing of her MAGNUMS energy sleeves to blow the door down) - with Stacy, in full-feral form, a heartbeat behind.
"Triad on point," the Sandis spoke through the link in unison as Stacy, her energy claws extended, leaped past them in a blur, pulling up short in the middle of the area as she began sniffing the air for prey. "Wildcat has our backs. The MAGNUMS work - just like promised."
Jane came through seconds later, stepping through the metal with Quinn on her right, and Mack to her left – the latter two's powers fully active as both checked their fields of fire for targets. "Polaris here," she broadcast through the link. "Lightning Lass and Inferno are with me. Looks like we missed the party – Cover Girl filled everyone's dance card."
"Roger that, Ops," the Sandis spoke, looking around the area – and each suppressing the need to grimace as Brittany popped up from behind a massive concrete beam, waving to her teammates as if they were on a field trip. "The Badlands belong to us."
Back at Legion Tower, Tom Sloane turned away from the multi-purpose monitor as he heard the sound of applause behind him. He blinked in surprise as the Legion support and monitor personnel gathered in Legion MTAC the room, huge smiles on their faces were applauding him.
"Not bad, Sloane," Colonel Kyle Armalin said, something that might have grown up to be a smile passing across his face. "Between this and your plans against the Academy cadets - you seem to have a winning flair for tactics. If we can keep your mind out of your pants, and teach you to keep using the only muscle that matters first-"
Armalin poked Tom in the forehead. "You might just grow up to have a future in this. Carry on – and well done."
Tom couldn't keep the smile out of his voice as he turned back through a warm sea of applause to the monitor. "Legionnaires, this is MTAC. Ultra online. Good work, everyone. Secure the area."
William was still unconscious when the elevator doors opened to allow Daria, Jane and Quinn access to the personal quarters. "Nice digs," Jane remarked, a low whistle passing her lips as she noted the paintings on the walls and the sculpture around the area. "For an absolute bastard, he's got great taste in art."
"Then he can teach the Art Appreciation course in prison – when he's not face-down on the laundry-room floor wondering where his pants went and the 'curious anteater' came from," Daria hissed. "Jodie – what have you found?"
"I'm in everywhere but the executive-access section – and that's really protected." Jodie said, still typing as she spoke. "I've downloaded everything I can get my hands on to my machine – but Appleton lied when he said that he'd unlocked the entire system."
"Get what you can," Daria said, noticing with a start the way Charles couldn't look Fran in the eye – and as she looked him directly in the eye, the way he couldn't face her, either. "What's wrong with you?"
Charles looked down at the unconscious form of William Appleton. "He is."
"Hmph," muttered Jodie, drawing the attention of everyone there.
Daria turned to Jodie. "You have something you'd like to add to the discussion, Brainiac?"
"Charles thinks that because he was a horny, sex-crazed little geek through high school and up until he joined the Legion – and especially because of the way you threatened him with your mental powers, which is valid to a point, considering the section of his web site devoted to you – that he can see himself, or a possible future of himself, in Appleton there," Jodie pontificated, drawing the attention of everyone there. "It's just easier if you get it all out in the open."
Jodie turned to Daria. "That's not who he is anymore. He's still a teenage boy – which means that he's got hormones and he'll ride anything that offers, given the chance – but he's not the freak that all of you treated him as back at Lawndale. He's grown four-point-one inches and put on 22.11 pounds of muscle in the time between the day that LHS was bombed and today, and has cut his time online at porn sites down by 99.57% from this time two years ago – that accidental stop that you had at that one site back in June doesn't count. You need a new anti-malware suite; I'll make a new one for you when we get back. He also hasn't tried to cheat on that Langston girl once, and he's had 4, 396 confirmed opportunities in the past nine months, three weeks and two days to do so, including eighty-four opportunities for sex when he and other Legionnaires were at the Jerry Lewis Telethon in Las Vegas on Labor Day."
The room was silent.
"Actually, that figure only includes women who made clear, overt attempts to offer you sexual favors," Josie continued; her fingers never left the keyboard. "Counting women who gave you very clear signals that they were interested in having sex with you, the number jumps to four hundred ninety-six, and factoring in men who also gave you equal signals, the total number of sexual opportunities that you were offered at the Telethon was 1,156. Apparently, you've become something of a minor gay icon, and in this year's July issue of The Advocate, you were voted number three in a poll of men that straight men would 'go gay for'."
"But how straight could they be if they read The Advocate?" Jane smirked. "Jodie – do you read The Advocate?"
"No, Polaris – I wasn't sublimating my desire for sex, nor am I interested in experimenting sexually with any of you," Jodie said, taking her glasses off as she turned to face her teammates. "Miss Lawrence has been traumatized by her recent experiences, and while 'M' would prove more than satisfactory, her passive-aggressive, somewhat caustic personality, one which she obviously uses as a defensive measure to defend herself from the possibility of developing any emotional involvements that could cause her pain, doesn't balance out the overwhelming pleasure such an experience with her would provide."
Daria drew back in shock. "Hey!"
Jodie barreled on through a field of stunned stares. "Lightning Lass' has her own matters to deal with involving this subject, 'Phantom' evidences a 74.54% probability of being sexually frigid, barring mental or physical impediments we are currently unaware of, and as for you, 'Polaris'-"
Jane felt Jodie's brown eyes all but burn through her. "With all due respect – and my condolences upon your recent relationship – I calculate only a 12.3% possibility of you actually engaging in a sexual encounter with anyone, regardless of gender, under any circumstances barring your being in a long-term romantic relationship – said encounter involving actual penetration.
Even Jodie was impressed by the way Jane didn't appear to be embarrassed. "However, factoring in 'petting behavior' only, your chances of having an intimate encounter jumps to a solid 79%. By cross-referencing a database of known individuals that you would be most likely to engage in these encounters with dating from your joining the Legion, that number goes up to 92.51% - with 'Inferno' - and 97.95% with M. Going by the analysis results, you two should have already had a minimum of eleven sexual encounters in the past two years, including seven with full physical intimacy."
Quinn felt herself growing sick. "I need to sit down somewhere. Is there a shower nearby – or a waterfall?"
Charles felt as he had been dropped feet first into a giant deli meat-slicing machine. Afraid to say anything, he simply stood back and hoped that Jodie wouldn't talk about his sex life... or the beginnings of it.
Jodie turned to see Tiffany tapping on her shoulder. "Yes?"
"Are... you... still... connected... into... that... computer...?"
Jodie blew an errant lock of hair out of her eyes. "Yes-?"
Tiffany looked at the micro-sized computer, and then, turned back to Jodie. "Maybe... you... should... stop."
"Or at least stop talking and keep typing," Jane said. "Especially if you're not going to say who you'd want to-"
"Ultra'," Jodie answered without hesitation. "He's the most sexually experienced member of the Legion to date and the most sexually experienced male member – pun certainly intended – and his powers are the most well-suited for providing the optimum sexual experience for a partner. His ability to channel his energies into the power whimsically known as 'super-endurance' would ensure that he remains-"
"Thank you," Jane said, cutting her teammate off. "Daria – read this prick's mind so Jodie can have what she needs, and unplug herself from the Matrix – DON'T-"
Jane turned and held up her hand before Jodie could get a word out "Don't – say –anything. You – scan."
She turned to Charles. "You – pick up that slug and put him in a chair somewhere."
Nodding, Charles shifted into the form of a massive silverback gorilla; he easily picked up William and trundled over to a couch, where he deposited him without ceremony and shifted back to human form. "Daria-"
Daria waved him silent. "From what I saw with us and the Planesrangers – and what a friend of mine showed me a while back concerning you – I think I can cut you some slack," she told him. "If nothing else – for what you said about Stacy the other day, I can cut you a break."
Charles drew away from her as he recalled hanging out in Tom's room the night before - and realized what Daria had just let slip – but wisely stayed silent. "Charles-"
Even Jodie took notice of Daria using that word as she continued. "Why don't you take Fran out of here? You're not a pig like this guy. You want to be better than he is – you're trying – and as far as I'm concerned, you already are."
Nodding, Charles escorted Fran to the elevator; just before they entered, Fran took off the locket that she wore.
"Thanks for helping with this," Charles said, watching as she tossed the locket out the elevator door, "and for agreeing to let Daria mindlink us. It took a lot of trust from you – and I couldn't have fooled him if you hadn't been guiding me through all of it."
Fran tried to smile, but failed. "I'll do whatever it takes."
The doors to the elevator closed, and Charles looked at the tiny girl. "Fran – about those recordings-"
Charles hated himself as tears began to flow down Fran's cheeks. "There are so many girls that he took advantage of," he continued. "When the police – when the Feds step in, and they will, because he brought you here from California-"
"All over," Fran said, the tears dripping. "We went all over the world together. That – that – what you saw – that was from this summer, in Mazatlán, during the Memorial Day weekend last year. He wanted to go..."
"There's so much evidence against him that one more case won't matter," Charles said, "and with you in the Legion, the media's going to try and run you into the ground, even though you're only seventeen; they'll find out who you are. It'll be too sweet for someone to resist selling your name for a lot of money."
Fran pressed back against the wall of the elevator, going white as a thought went through her head. "My aunt... my uncle... they're going to see this," Fran continued, her hands covering her face as she tried to block out the images in her mind's eye. "They're going to find out... they're going to see what happened...what I did... oh, God - they're going to find out what I did..."
The tiny girl began to shake with tears, and Charles took her hand in his, not drawing away as Fran went into his arms and began to sob. "It'll be all right, Fran, he said, letting her cry. "You're part of the Legion now... we take care of each other."
Daria wrinkled her brow. "That's odd."
Jane turned to her. "What's that?"
Daria turned away from the unconscious William. "I'm picking up his surface thoughts easily, but when I try to probe deeper, I'm being blocked."
Jodie looked up from the terminal as Jane went over to Daria. "Blocked?"
"In a strange way," Daria confirmed. "I can see all sorts of things in his mind, but when I try to push in for information about this place whatsoever, it's like a big, black wall comes up in his head."
In Legion Ops, Tom whirled around as he heard Daria's comment. "What did you just say?"
Daria and Jane jumped at the sharpness of Tom's comment. "Ease up off the decaf, Tommy boy," Jane said. "She said that she's-"
"I'm not talking to you, Polaris – and this is important," Tom shot back. "M – what you just said. When you try to do a deep scan on Appleton, what exactly are you visualizing? Is it a giant black wall, some sort of huge barrier that separates you from something as if it's a force-field or a barrier – or a wall, as in one wall of a giant cube or block?"
Daria thought for a moment before speaking. "Umm... it's more of a – hey! It is a giant black cube-"
Tom's voice was as forceful as any of the other Legionnaires had ever heard it. "Step away from him right now, M. Polaris – don't let her scan him again!"
Predictably, Daria exploded into pure, absolute anger.
"Who the hell do you think you are to talk to like that, Sloane?" Daria hissed, her voice full of venom. "You DON'T raise your voice and dictate to me as if I'm one of –"
"It's a 'trip box', Daria!" Tom said, forgetting all about code-names as he recalled his own experience with the psionic 'booby trap' in his own mind from several months back. "It's a special kind of mental block that seals off very important memories and information from even really powerful probes – and if you try to push it, it goes off!"
There were several seconds of dead silence before Daria's voice came through the link. . "Would you define 'goes off' for us?"
"The long and short of it? He dies, you get no info, and you either end up brain-dead, lobotomized or just burned to a crisp by the backlash!" Tom could see the way that Daria went pale on the screen. "If he's been set up with a 'trip box', someone's gone through an awful lot of trouble to keep his secrets secure."
Jane came into the conversation. "How do you know so much about this thing anyway, Tom? Something you learned while you were off playing Jake Ryan's stunt double in the off-world production of Zombie High?"
"No – I learned about those here. He can't be subjected to deep scans." Tom let a tiny smile cross his face. "You can always tell Tiffany that you heard him refer to her as 'Kobe beef walking' – and watch her get info out of him the old-fashioned way."
Tom could hear the smile in Daria's reply. "We'll hold that in reserve," she said. "I won't try to scan him again."
Jane saw Daria turn back to William, and she grasped her friend's arm as she saw Daria's irises momentarily turn electric-blue. "DARIA-! I thought that you weren't going to scan him again-!"
"I didn't," Daria said, the thin smile she wore only when she had mayhem and manipulation on her mind suddenly present as she undid one of the leg pockets on her uniform. "I keep my promises. You can say that I set us up with some... insurance."
Having gained the access she needed (after linking her portable logic machine to another computer at the Tower that the other Legionnaires hand no idea existed until that moment), Jodie was busy at work on the Appleton main computers from the terminal in William's quarters.
After binding William's wrists and ankles with plastic restraints, Tiffany had suggested that she check the couch for any weapons or means of escape that William could use after waking up - as well as for other surprises that even a person under restraint could use to turn the tables on them.
"Stacy... likes... those... kinds... of... movies," the young Asian beauty said, wrinkling her nose at the memory.
The others agreed, and Tiffany spent several minutes using her powers (with Jane's powers to help) removing a wealth of weapons and communications devices from the immediate area where William had been placed – including several heat-sensitive/ touch-sensitive panels embedded in every single piece of furniture in the quarters, and a number of retina scan-capable devices that could be activated by a simple, pre-set signal of his eyelids blinking.
"Nice," Jodie said, quickly looking over one of the panels retrieved from the couch. "These are combination heat sensor-enabled ID scanners – everyone has their own unique heat-signature – and broadcast-quality two-way communications suites made with nanotech systems imbedded throughout the microfibers. It's a miniature, portable TV studio that records everything in the area."
She tossed the panel back to Tiffany. "In all respects, this is only a couple of steps down from the holographic generator panel-strips that they use to coat the walls of the 'artificial reality' chambers at the Academy – or the 'rumble-cams' I built for use in our uniforms."
She looked up at Daria and Jane, both of whom were fingering the Legion patches firmly attached with Velcro backing to their uniforms – each patch, in actuality, a removable nanotech-level, secure videocom system outfitted and built to withstand the stresses of metahuman activities. "Not the VR rooms," she continued. "The 'artificial reality' training – oh, never mind."
Jodie placed the five-by-five-inch panel – designed with a passive cloaking element, so that it would blend in almost anywhere – back in Tiffany's hand. "You learned about these at the Academy?"
"Kaliq's... learning... to... be... a... security... guy," Tiffany droned on. "He's... okay... with... me... around."
From listening in on Julia's conversations with her Academy friends, Jodie knew Kaliq Murat to be a telepathic Iranian-American student at USAES who was in Tiffany's training cadre, and who'd become a good friend of hers.
Tiffany's put what she's learned at that place to some good use, Jodie thought. Maybe I could do the same - so to speak.
Jodie's fingers kept moving across the keyboard with a speed that would allow her instant employment in data entry anywhere on Earth. Haven't actually been to the Academy yet, but I've met more than a few cadets from there. They keep popping up as if Legion Tower's a vacation spot – and from some of the looks I've gotten, as if I'm on the dinner menu!
A tiny smile peeked from behind the eerie, neutral expression she usually work. Sooner or later, I'll have to fly out there for a 'meet-and-greet'. You never know. Lots of boys with super-strength and loads of endurance... after some tutoring, they could prove... useful.
After all, even a super-girl with a super-intellect has the occasional... needs.
Jodie's reverie was disrupted by Mack's voice coming through on the link. "Jane, Daria, Quinn – we need you down in Topeka."
The Legionnaires could feel the pain in his voice. "You need to come down here now."
"I'll... guard... him," Tiffany said, her eyes fastened upon William's form, now in a deep sleep, courtesy of Daria. "If... he... tries... anything..."
Jane nodded as she and the Morgendorffer sisters headed for the elevator. "Amen."
"I'll send you down to Topeka," Jodie said. "That's listed here: Level Two, Section Two - 'Subject Containment Area Beta – Class Two and Three subjects only'. That does not sound good."
TO BE CONCLUDED