“Ma’am, the ships have begun their braking, and we have a definite target - Cincinnati, Ohio.”
“Sergeant? Any word from the Pentagon?”
“We have a colonel who’s willing to put his birds on the line by ordering a lift-off of five wings, pending an okay by a full general to order an actual attack. Ohio Air Guard has already lifted two wings. Wait a minute. We have a hail from the bogeys… Ma’am, it’s Doctor Diabolik…”
“Tell Toledo and Springfield to recall their birds! Entering that air space would be suicide! Tell those idiots to TURN BACK!”
Stacy felt something wash over her, and for a moment, it was real hard for her to think straight. She sort of ‘whited out’, and couldn’t really focus on anything. Then she came out of it with a wrench. “Cal? Cal, what happened?” But Cal was just looking blankly at the screen, his face slack, his mouth slightly open. “Cal? Cal? Are you all right?” She slapped his face, but she got the clear impression that he was wrapped up in the same ‘white mind’ funk that she’d just snapped out of.
Then there was the sound of another emergency message. From NORAD, and they said that they’d identified the incoming ships as belonging to Dr. Diabolik, and to take ‘appropriate precautions’. What the hell were the ‘appropriate precautions’? She tried calling the SPECTRUM heroes on their communicators, but the ones that responded at all were up to their eyeballs in action. Not getting any ideas as to what she should do from others, she used the HQ database to Google ‘Doctor Diabolik’. It took her a couple of tries (computers weren’t her big thing), but she got an answer:
DIABOLIK, Dr., ‘well-known independent supervillain and mastermind’ (well, DUH!), blah, blah, blah, then it finally got down to the nitty-gritty. ‘Diabolik has several ventures that fund his activities, including marketing illegal smart drugs such as Solon-3, building custom exotic equipment, and a brisk business creating and implanting custom bionic implants. But his most famous and troublesome money-making venture is paralyzing and raiding median-scale cities. Diabolik’s SOP is to pre-arrange the layout of an array of ‘perimeter pylons’ that encircles several square miles of a metropolitan area and then drop a core broadcast generator from orbit in the center of the array. The array broadcasts what is called a ‘Mind Web’, which induces a mind-null state in everyone within the containment area. People who have survived the Mind Web describe the experience as like being in a mental cloud, seeing what is going on around them, but unable to grasp what is going on, and unable to think. Once the target area has been paralyzed, Diabolik brings down a force of dropships from orbit and sacks the city of everything that can be loaded onto the dropships, in a manner all-too reminiscent of the Vikings. When the dropships are loaded, or if enough people have resisted the Mind Web and are mounting an effective counter-attack, or the core broadcast generator has been destroyed, the dropships lift off to affect a getaway. Diabolik’s Mind-Web is far from perfect, and not only can individuals fight the mental paralysis and act of their own volition, but a dramatic enough example has repeatedly been shown to inspire others to break free of the paralysis. While the paralysis is reasonably harmless in and of itself, the mass paralysis routinely causes accidents and fires and medical situations to go untended, resulting in hundreds of deaths per raid.’
Stacy looked from the monitor to Cal. She went over to him and patted his cheek. “Cal? Cal? Can you hear me? C’mon, Cal! You’re stronger than this! If I can break out of that fog, then YOU gotta be strong enough!”
Dr. Diabolik’s dropships came in on a very steep vector and braked less than a thousand feet from the surface, each shedding several pods that impacted on the ground. The pods were designed to use the impact to split them open, releasing the occupants. The occupants of the pods were Dr. Diabolik’s infamous ‘Devil Dogs’, pony-sized biomechanical constructs with an unnerving selection of horns, barbs, claws, and fangs, along with an intimidating general mien. Some of the Devil Dogs cleared an area for the dropships to land, while others loped off to join the First Strike teams, or other errands that had been programmed into them.
As the dropships came down, the men and women who had planted the perimeter pylons had gathered into eight First Strike teams of twenty each, and were waiting near their assigned targets on the outskirts of the Mind Web area. Theirs were the A-priority targets. When the dropships landed, many of them were very close to where the First Strike teams were operating, to act as pickup for them. Other dropships disgorged squads of men that charged into buildings nearby. Other squads were made up of synthoids, cheap and disposable chemical androids designed to resemble the other drop-troops. The synthoids joined some of the devil dogs guarding the dropships. One dropship landed and disembarked synthoids and devil dogs for the sole purpose of protecting the Core Broadcast Pylon on Ross Avenue.
While the rest of the dropships landed, Dr. Diabolik’s Command Ship hovered over the city, acting as overwatch, if any superhero tried to stop the raiders. In the Command Ship’s bridge and CIC, Doctor Diabolik watched his henchmen go about the prosaic business of sacking yet another city. He was 75 years old, but he still managed to look in his late forties. He wasn’t a handsome man. He was tall and gaunt, with a long thin hatchet of a face, a knife of a nose, a shelf-brow and a knob of a chin. His reddish hair was graying, but his trademark ‘horn’ forelocks were completely white. The obvious optic implant in his left eye made his good right eye seem hollow. At one time, he’d cut his clothes to display his bionic left arm. But these days, he left the sleeve of his red labcoat on; if an idiot trying to attack him didn’t know about the always-upgrading bionic arm, there was no reason to give him clues. Dr. Diabolik sighed quietly to himself. This was NOT why he became a renegade. He had stepped outside the Law in order to try to achieve results in elevating the human condition that politics, economics and legalisms wouldn’t allow. He’d had some successes, but in order to effect real change, he’d need to work harder. And that meant money. His people were loyal to him, but they still expected to be paid. And orbital dropships didn’t grow on trees.
“Doctor, Protoplasmik just reported in; he and his team have just extracted all the blackmail files, as per contract. Dexter and Sinister have found the Mackinnons’ secret vault and are breaking in. Major Ironhand reports that he’s found the black lab on Yale Road, and his team is loading the prototypes as per orders. Derrick says that he’s going to need another team to help, if they’re going to get everything from the police evidence locker. And we have a request for backup from Team G - they’re having superhero problems.”
“Superhero problems?” the doctor perked up a bit. One of the reasons why he pulled these raids was that he’d found a way to advance his primary goal and pick up operating capital at the same time. He hadn’t developed his Mind Web as a weapon; he’d been working on a method of increasing cerebral activity and achieving higher mind states through electromagnetic induction. But the best that he could do was to induce a sort of blank, dreamy state where the subject was thoughtless and unresponsive. However, he discovered that a sizeable minority of the people that he experimented on were not only able to struggle through the ‘mist’, but were able to completely throw off the power of the Mind Web. But this wasn’t a flaw; rather, he discovered that, having done so, the subjects were more awake, more aware, and actually thinking about things. It was rather like the way that someone who figures out a problem for himself understands the problem better than someone who has it explained to them. Diabolik’s best analogy was that his Mind Web synched with the mental inertia that most people suffered, leading to a near-torpor. But if they managed to overcome the inertia, then thinking came more easily to them.
After 25 years of tweaking, Diabolik was still trying to get the Mind Web to do what he’d originally intended for it, and had gotten some very interesting serendipity, but he’d only had a few real breakthroughs. His dream was to someday perfect a ‘thinking cap’ that could improve the wearer’s ability to think, learn and create. But, in the meantime, he found that if he placed people under the influence of the Mind Web in intolerable conditions - like their cities being overrun and looted - that they’d snap out of the Mind Web and retaliate. The effect often lasted for weeks after overcoming the Mind Web. Weeks, during which the subject was performing at greatly increased levels of effectiveness. While the ‘high’ always faded, it sometimes created new stable patterns of thinking and insight. The percentages were high enough that Diabolik regarded it as a mitigated success; especially when it could be done on a vast scope. It sometimes took a single dynamic, heroic individual to break the social ‘surface tension’, rather the way that a crowd will hold back until one person acts. Superheroes were wonderful for that. Most superheroes, even the dingbats, were by the very nature of their vocation more active, more dynamic, more inclined to take the bull by the horns. And their powers and costumes leapt out and seized the public’s attention, inspiring imitation and action. Dr. Diabolik loved superheroes. They were a royal pain in the butt when he was pulling one of his other plans, but on these raids, they were absolute godsends. “Do they have an identification on the superhero?”
“A local super-mystic called ‘the Green Witch’.”
Diabolik’s face fell slightly. A super-mystic. Too removed from the everyday person’s experience, too strange and alienating to inspire others to break out. Even robots were better, and they were pretty iffy. “Dispatch Team E to help Team G, and tell Protoplasmik that his team is to help Derrick. Dispatch some warbeasts and synthoids to reinforce Teams G and E. Send some men to get the art from Dexter and Sinister once they’ve extracted it from the Mackinnons, and then tell them to assist Team E.”
“On it, Doctor.” After a few minutes, Madam Lash reported, “The Mackinnon art is secure, the blackmail is secure, the prototypes from the black lab are secure, and Ironhand says we picked up a couple of tons of bleeding edge components as well, the tanker cars are being loaded, Teams B and C report that they’re just about to complete their goals, and Dexter reports that they’ve just managed to take down the Green Witch. Priority A and B items on the agenda have all been achieved.”
Diabolik sighed. Well, at least they were paying the bills. “Very good. Well, no signs of any discipline problems, so we might as well give the ground troops their Scooby snacks.”
“Right, Doctor.” Madam Lash opened up an all-user band and announced, “Good news, troops! Priorities A and B are filled, and Priority C is well-underway, so it’s Free Swim Time! For those who are working with us for the first time, ‘Free Swim’ basically means that for the next five to ten minutes, you can take practically anything you want: money, jewelry, furs, weapons, whatever. But, be aware that we ARE on a space and weight restriction, so do everyone a favor and keep it to stuff that you can carry. NO HOSTAGES. PERIOD. We don’t do that. Also, the rules about random bloodshed and rape are still in force. So keep it in your pants, or we’ll make you walk the plank at 100,000 feet. For your looting convenience, we’re providing lists and maps of banks, rare coin and stamps dealers, jewelers, diamond exchanges, pawn shops, and other low-mass, high value goods centers, available on your pickup. Have fun, boys, you earned it!”
Stacy watched the monitors in sick horror as men in red body armor burst into banks and stores and wherever they pleased, obviously ransacking the entire city as best they could within whatever schedule they were on. Again, she tried to roust Cal from the fugue he was in, but she couldn’t get a response. She checked all the members of SPECTRUM, and the only ones moving were Karen and Captain Patriot. No, Karen was down, and two ninja looking guys were tying her up. Captain Patriot was walking towards Ross Avenue, but it was like he was walking against a stiff wind, and not flying. Stacy guessed that the Mind Web thing was messing with his ability to fly.
Dr. Diabolik checked the advance intelligence report on Cincinnati. “Are there any signs of the superheroes Tawny, Captain Patriot, or the Golden Knight?”
“No signs of Tawny or the Golden Knight, but I have some reports of a man in red-white-and-blue approaching the Core Pylon on foot.”
“Put it on the main screen.” The screen showed a powerfully built man wearing a blue hood and cape striding purposefully down the street. Madam Lash cycled between several different possible cameras until she got a street-level forward shot of him. Captain Patriot was doggedly putting one foot in front of the other, determined to get to the core pylon, even if he wasn’t quite sure what was going on just yet. “Hmm… It looks like he hasn’t beaten the Mind Web yet. He’s resisting, I’ll give him that much, but he hasn’t beaten it yet. Let’s give him something to focus on, maybe that’ll snap him out of it…” The Doctor cued in a few sequences, which launched three devil dogs and a squad of synthoids at the superhero.
The synthoids opened up with low-wattage plasma blasters, which the Captain stoically waded through. Then the devil dogs pounced on him, and the Captain concentrated on tearing the mechanisms apart.
“Okay, not bad…” Dr. Diabolik watched the scene clinically. “I think we have something that we can work with here… Lash, patch this over to all broadcast and cable channels for the area. We want everyone to see this. Carver? Find me a screen to project on, I want to see if I can’t piss him off.”
It took a few seconds, and Dr. Diabolik had to find another squad of devil dogs to send as Captain Patriot was mobbed by synthoids, but Carver said, “Okay Boss, I got you a screen, and Lash should have your hookup by the time that you’re ready.”
“Good.” Dr. Diabolik cleared his throat, made sure of his best side in his chair monitor, and twisted up his face in a truculent sneer. “Venever you are ready,” he said, kicking up his Eastern European accent several notches. Lash gave him a five-count and he began, “Goot afternoon, Cincinnati. I am Doktor Diabolik. I can see that you are not being gracious hosts, and some of your fellow citizens are rezizting my troops. This is futile. Beholt! Your greatest champion is unable to stop me!”
As Captain Patriot struggled under the onslaught of plastic men, one of the office buildings lining Ross Avenue, one with a sheer glass face, suddenly turned into an immense screen, showing the huge leering face of Doctor Diabolik. “Beholt! Your greatest champion is unable to stop me!” boomed tinnily from the makeshift viewplate.
“Is THIS the best you’ve GOT, Diabolik?” the Captain roared as he smashed two synthoids together.
“NO, it’s NOT.” Another wave of devil dogs piled onto the Captain and a much larger demonic appearing humanoid combat robot came charging at him.
Dr. Diabolik put the image on auto-gloat and watched as Captain Patriot slugged it out with his Cyber-Demon. “Come on, come ON!” he said impatiently, “Get GOING! You can do better than this!”
“Come on, come ON!” Stacy said anxiously as she watched Captain Patriot slugging it out with a big demon-looking robot, “Get GOING! You can do better than this!” Then Captain Patriot finished the robot, but another wave of synthoids washed over him and it didn’t look like Captain Patriot was coming up again. “NO!” Stacy screamed in horror.
“NO!” Dr. Diabolik screamed in frustration. “Lash, what do we know about Captain Patriot?” he asked more calmly.
Madam Lash checked the database. “Your basic FISS [Flight, Invulerability, Super Strength, Super Speed] Superman retread, but with a patriotic theme. He’s been active for sixteen, going on seventeen years. Several major fights, been counted down and out a couple of times, but managed to spring back. More politically active than most superheroes, but nothing really controversial. Vets Rights, Civil Rights, better education, stumps for the PAL, the Scouts, the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, that sort of thing.”
Diabolik’s nose twitched as he worked out an idea. “Is there anything on his record that would contraindicate the Batson Factor?”
Lash checked. “No. As a matter of fact, all things considered, I’d say that he’s a prime suspect for the Batson Factor.”
Diabolik gave out a sharp curse in Croat. “Then by broadcasting his image as I gloated, I may have sabotaged him! I’ve got to do something!”
“I’ve got to do something!” Stacy gasped. She turned to Cal’s blank face and said, “Cal, I’m going to go help Cap! If you can hear me, FIGHT THIS! We NEED the Golden Knight!” She looked at the Golden Knight control rig, and just knew that she’d screw it up if she tried to use the Golden Knight, and only make things worse. She’d have to do this the hard way. She ran to the Launch Room, where her ‘Silver Ghost’ cape hung (more for the statement that she was a member than anything else), pulled the hood over her head and stepped into one of the launch tubes. The tube shot her out of the building and up into the air. Not bothering to put anything into invisibility, Stacy silvered up and flew like a shot in the direction of Ross Avenue.
The second that he heard the Launch alert go off, Cal finally broke through the Mind Web. “Stacy! NO!” he went to the monitor and spotted her, but she was already only a quarter mile away from the scene of the battle and closing quickly. He hadn’t thought that she could fly that quickly. He tried to contact her, but she wasn’t wearing a SPECTRUM communicator. Lacking any other options, he strode purposefully over to the Golden Knight station and began warming up the rig. He was NOT going to let that young girl get herself killed!
Dr. Diabolik dyspeptically watched Captain Patriot sink under yet another layer of synthoids. “Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m stumped. Anyone got any ideas how we can get this guy back on his feet, without making it fucking obvious that we’re throwing the fight?”
“How about we broadcast a ‘peeve’ frequency against the glass, covering it with a filtered gloat rant?” Dzerzhinski suggested.
“It might work. Get on it, Dzerzhinski. But if anyone else has - what?”
The synthoids held Captain Patriot braced as the devil dog reared and aimed a strike at his head. But before the red ceramet horror could bring down its claw, a flash came down like a silver comet, knocking it away. A mirrored figure in a gray cloak started tearing synthoids away from the Captain. “Cap! Are you all right?”
“C’mon Cap! Get the lead out! Let’s show these bozos how we do it in Cincy!”
“Who’s this?” Dr. Diabolik asked.
“I don’t see anyone listed on the headshots for SPECTRUM that fits her description.”
“Details! Get a shotgun mike on them and splice it into the feed!”
“C’mon Cap!” Stacy said as she tore another robot - this one looked like a metallic octopus with a spherical body - apart “Snap out of it! You’re better than this!”
“C’MON! REMEMBER! You’re CAPTAIN PATRIOT!”
“I… I can’t…”
“YES, you CAN! You’re Captain Patriot! You’re a HERO!” Stacy wracked her brain for something, anything that would snap Cap out of this funk. Then she remembered something, something that he did every time he powered up. Maybe if she got him to say it, he’d sort of super-charge, and throw off the Mind Web. “I pledge allegiance… C’mon Cap, say it with me, you know this better’n I do… I pledge allegiance…”
“I pledge allegiance…” he said weakly.
“To the flag…” Stacy prodded him on.
“To the flag..” he said more firmly, as if remembering something important.
“Of the United States of America…”
“Of the United States of America!” He said in a firm, clear voice. He stood up, lifting the remaining synthoids off their feet.
“Drop the launch beacon, and hit the bug-out button,” Dr. Diabolik said, “I think we have a live one.”
“And to the Republic, for which it stands!” Captain Patriot shed his ‘cloak’ of synthoids with a mighty shrug.
“One Nation!” He smashed two devil dogs together as they charged him, but he was far more intent on his proclamation than his attackers. Not that it slowed down him tearing them apart in the least.
“Under God!” Another Cyber-Demon charged him, but was quickly turned into scrap.
“Indivisible!” A squad of Dr. Diabolik’s goons had set up one RC rapid-fire blaster, which sent a line of plasma bolts against Captain Patriot’s chest. The bursts merely ricocheted from his chest in a ‘fireworks’ display.
“WITH LIBERTY!” By now, Captain Patriot was shouting.
“AND JUSTICE!” His proclamation rang like a bell down the streets and alleys of Cincinnati, and everywhere that people could hear him, they started, shaken from their torpor.
“FOR ALL!” And even where his voice couldn’t immediately be heard, all over Cincinnati, people watched and heard his televised speech, and inspired, they fought their way to full waking, and streamed out of their offices, shops and homes to the defense of their city.
“God Bless America!” Dr. Diabolik choked, a tear in his good eye. Then, remembering what was going on, he switched off the auto-gloat and assumed an expression of shock and horror. “NO! NO ONE escapes my Mind Web! You are too WEAK and-”
As Dr. Diabolik’s image ranted in the background, Captain Patriot waded through the last of the core pylon’s defenses and ripped it from its base.
Dr. Diabolik switched the image over to auto-rant, and asked, “Any results?”
“Doctor, people are snapping out of it all over the city. We have a near-riot on our hands. Dropships #2, 5, 7 and 8 have already lifted off, and ships #1, 3, 6 and 9, are in the queue, but dropship #4 is under attack by civilians and the superhero known as ‘Red Thunder’. Enforcer 2 is assisting, and Enforcer 1 wants to know whether to assist the core pylon or #4.”
“Oh, assist #4, by all means. What kinds of numbers are we looking at?”
“Off the cuff, I’d estimate at least 30 thousand people.”
“Thirty… THOUSAND… people?” Dr. Diabolik was entranced by the magnitude for a moment, but shook it off. “Carver, initiate the ‘Dramatic Explosion’ destruct for the Core pylon, and the ‘quiet immolation’ destructs for the perimeter pylons. Valencia, give the good captain down there a couple of *ahem* ‘near misses’ with the main gun. Dzerzhinski, after the shots, take us over to assist #4, and once they’re free, head for the queue, ‘cause we’re out of here! Lash, make a note - I’m giving a $1000 a head bonus to all combat troops. Issue bravery and initiative bonuses based on recommendations by team leaders. Oh, and a bonus for Dzerzhinski; he had a good idea, even if we didn’t have to use it. Radio ahead, I want a celebratory feast ready for the troops when we get to Karedonia.”
“Doctor? I’m revising my estimates. According to our sensors, we’re estimating that at least 50,000 people are acting against the synthoids and devil dogs that we left behind.”
“At least, with more probably getting into the mix once the core pylon goes.”
“Lash, insert the appropriate names into the auto-rant for a ‘Curse You, You’ll Regret This!’ parting speech. Highlight Captain Patriot. He deserves it. I’d do it myself, but I’m just feeling too good to do it right.” Dr. Diabolik watched as a bunch of Cincinnatians brought down a feebly struggling devil dog. “This is what I love about Americans. If they’re confused or lack direction, they’re nothing. But give them a common cause, something to really work towards, and they could build a bridge to the moon out of popsicle sticks!” As his command ship, the last in line, hit the launch beacon that lifted the ship up into orbit, Dr. Diabolik sighed, “God BLESS America.”
“Ma’am, sensors indicate that Dr. Diabolik’s Mind Web has fallen, and his ships are exiting Cincinnati by way of orbit. They are gathering at L-3.”
“Okay, alert all responsible agencies, and keep an eye on them. Maybe we can follow them to Karedonia this time.” The Watch Commander made a sour noise. “There’s always a first time, and…”
“And they’re cloaking.”
“…Just not this time.”
“Doctor, we have achieved cloaked status, our path to the Azores is locked, and we should have no problems in rebounding to Karedonia.”
“Excellent. Carver, shoot me the Priority A result specifics. Very Good. Lash, contact my American and Asian market brokers. Tell the American brokers to set the Buy parameters at about 350 average for the stocks I have options on, and to hold onto them until they hit 1750 on the rebound. Tell the Asian brokers to set the Buy at 275 and sell at 1900. Valencia, call the lawyers for my front companies, and tell them that, quote, ‘Gold Star loves Arascham’.
“Oh, and this is very important - get in touch with Huffmann at IG Aracham, and tell him that the *ahem!* ‘talcum powder’ that they were expecting from the Cincinnati evidence locker was taken in the raid, and we’re going to DUMP it in orbit. That should teach that Nazi bitch Purifier not to mess with me!
“Barton, contact Typhon and tell him that the blackmail has been acquired. Contact the Syndicate rep in Karedonia, and arrange an escrow for the exchange of goods. And tell them that the ‘personal effects’ they requested have been obtained. Oh, and get in touch with Brigand, and tell him that if he wants the information about Barnes-Wentworth Oil, to talk to Typhon. I’d love to give him the information gratis, but a deal is a deal. Not that it really matters; Typhon likes Brigand, and will probably pass the information along anyway.”
Dr. Diabolik leaned back and relaxed. In a rule-of-thumb estimate, Diabolik guessed that his maneuvers, extrapolated from the effects of his raid on various companies and the market, would net him somewhere between 10 to 15 times the value of what his men had stolen. And to think that some supervillains just robbed banks.
After the ‘dandelion’ thing exploded in Captain Patriot’s hands, Stacy concentrated on making sure that people didn’t get hurt, trying to take on the units that Dr. Diabolik left behind. The guys that had been left behind bled this icky green syrup stuff when they got hit. *Ick!* After that, Stacy focused on helping Captain Patriot take out the big ‘devil dog’ things. Then, just as SWAT arrived to take over the situation, the Golden Knight showed up. “Stacy! What are you doing here?”
“But I had to help Captain Patriot!”
“You’re not supposed to do any superheroing, remember?”
“I wasn’t superheroing! I just… helped out a little! Captain Patriot did all the hard stuff!”
But the Golden Knight still told Stacy to get back to HQ, as the rest of SPECTRUM showed up to give SWAT a hand in handling the crowd. Stacy turned invisible, and managed to sulk all the way back to headquarters, as only a teenager who was being yelled at for doing the right thing (at the wrong time) can.
Dr. Diabolik’s raid was front page news in the Tri-State area for the next five days, with the Media pushing the image that Dr. Diabolik had been driven off. Not that that cut any ice with the insurance companies, who were screaming about the expense of paying off policies on stolen cash and valuables. They (quite accurately) claimed that there was no way that Dr. Diabolik could have hauled off everything that the claims said he did. Unfortunately for the insurance carriers, Dr. Diabolik’s raids had already been ruled as being covered by the ‘Supervillain’ clauses in most standard contracts. It took a while, but Dr. Diabolik wound up pumping much more money into the Cincinnati economy that he took out of it. Captain Patriot was, of course, the big hero of the day, and not even Red Thunder, who had been out there fighting the good fight as well, could gainsay him that glory. But the Press demanded to know who the silvery figure who’d come to his aid had been.
District Attorney Kaltenborn wasn’t happy. “Look, I thought that it was understood- NO SUPERHEROING!”
“I wasn’t superheroing!” Stacy wailed, “I was just helping C-er, the Golden Knight out with the communications gear, and everything went all crazy, and Cap needed HELP, and someone had to DO something, and-”
“Kaltenborn…” Captain Patriot said ominously.
“Yeah, yeah, I know, I know… the kid did good,” the DA headed him off. “That’s NOT the problem. The problem is that the press has already connected the silvery heroine who saved Captain Patriot to the Silver Ghost. So far, we’ve been able to simply gloss over the fact that we cut a deal with Stacy here, so the Hoag prosecution wouldn’t be compromised by association with coddling a supervillain. But now, the fact that the Silver Ghost was very publicly helping Captain Patriot is something that we can’t just gloss over.”
“Yes, but who says that that’s your problem?” Azure said, very reasonably. “We hold a press conference, and announce that the hubbub about the ‘Silver Ghost’ was a whole lot of fuss about nothing. We say that you dropped the charges because there weren’t really any charges that would stand up in court, and we’re taking care of the ‘Silver Ghost’. You issue a statement saying that you were just too busy with the Hoag prosecution to bother making a statement about Stacy. We say that we were very proud of Stacy for helping Cap, but she’s a minor, and she did so without permission. They ask a bunch of damn-fool questions, which we will field. If anyone decides to ask you questions about it, you just wave the Hoag prosecution banner and - oh, what am I doing, telling you how to handle the press?”
“I was rather wondering,” Kaltenborn responded dryly.
Captain Patriot called the press conference and ran it more or less as Azure spelled it out. Stacy (with her ‘silver’ up) came out with her best big smile and said hello, and answered a lot of questions, and she walked away with a nasty headache from the force of all that attention being slammed in her direction. Well, she was a fresh, perky, new face on the local scene. The local Media decided that they liked her, and her image was all over the place for a while. There were a few editorials saying that she might not be the best example for young people, but by and large the coverage was favorable. Karen warned her that this would last right up to the second that she slipped up, and then the Media would go for the throat.
However, already, there were some who were less than pleased about the ‘Silver Ghost’.
Humanity First! did NOT like comparisons to the Ku Klux Klan, especially in a town like Cincinnati, where African-Americans were roughly 40% of the population. Indeed, a large part of what the higher echelons of the organization did was keeping their activities from tipping over into what could be considered ‘hate crimes’. The party line was that their primary concern was protecting baseline humanity. They were very careful to let the listeners provide the ‘from dangerous mutants’ themselves. They didn’t put up a burning ‘H’ on the lawn of a known mutant (other people, not connected with Humanity First!, did that); they made sure that the mutant’s neighbors were safe, in case anything went wrong. They made sure that the neighbors knew that they were living near a mutant, and if the mutant was a minor, that their children were going to school with one. After all, they had a RIGHT to know that. “So, Les, what are the chances that this ‘Silver Ghost’ is a mutant?” the Cincinnati city director for H1! asked his current events advisor.
“Two to one, at the very least, and probably a lot better,” Les answered. “She might be Imbued, or she might have found a power gem. She’s too young to have bonded with a dynamorph, or had an ‘origin’.” He crooked his fingers for quotation marks around ‘origin’.
“But kids DO occasionally have ‘origins’,” Gordon, the City Hall go-to man, pointed out. “And some have been reported bonding with Dynamorphs.”
“Yeah, but not very often,” Travis, the PR honcho pointed out. “And if it was a power gem, they’d make her give the damn thing up for her own good.”
“Given her age, and the way the powers that she’s supposed to have work, I’d say that there’s a 70-to-80 percent chance that she’s a mutant,” Herb, the office’s rep with the business community said.
“Kick it up another few points,” John, the office liaison with the police and MCO, said. “The only reason that they’d let SPECTRUM have custody of her, is if she was homeless or a runaway. Which might happen if she bonded with a dynamorph or got Imbued or had an ‘origin’. But, let’s face it, it’s a LOT more likely to happen if she’s a mutant and her parents gave her the boot.”
“Which puts her squarely in the near-certainty range for being a mutant,” Bailey, the office manager summed up. “So, we’ve got a super-powered mutant operating in Cincinnati. What are we gonna do about it?”
“Why isn’t she being arrested?” Les asked. “Isn’t she supposed to have stolen thousands of dollars?”
“They said that there weren’t any charges that would hold up in court,” Jennifer, the office’s legal representative said. “And, let’s face it; ripping off a mob boss isn’t the kind of crime that gets the man on the street hot under the collar.”
“We can’t let this happen,” Herb said with more intensity than the normally unctuous man projected. “She is EVERYTHING that we don’t want. She is young, she is cute, she’s wholesome, and she sends the message that mutants are safe to have around. Mutants like that are worse than the big scary freaks, because when it looks like Godzilla, at least you know that you’re in danger!”
“Which is gonna make working a picket line up into anything like a righteous snit a real bear,” Travis said.
“And she’s got the fact that she saved Captain Patriot going for her,” Gordon pointed out. “And he’s stumping for her.”
“Any way that we can get him to back off?” Les asked. “We got any leverage on him?”
“Nah,” Gordon said, “going up against him would be iffy normally, but after his big show against Dr. Diabolik, the man is GOLDEN in Cincy.”
“And the Silver Ghost was a big part of that,” Herb said. “Hell, the whole bit with her getting Cap to buck up by saying the Pledge of Allegiance? They couldn’t have planned a better bit to get Cincinnati on their side!” A look of realization snapped onto his face. “Hey, maybe there’s a chance that they arranged that?”
“NO,” Gordon said with finality. “We do NOT mess with Captain Patriot. Right now, the people of Cincinnati are convinced that they chased a world-class supervillain out of town, and that Captain Patriot led the charge. That and the Pledge of Allegiance bit tap into the patriotism something fierce. And with Bush’s policies dragging the country’s name through the mud, we need all the patriotic pride we can GET. We call that into question, and they’ll blame us for harshing their glow.
“And don’t let the Technicolor jammies fool you - Captain Patriot is very sharp, politically. Check it out, he’s playing the Flag Hero card, but he doesn’t make a big deal out of the fact that he’s Black - he’s just there, stumping for the American Dream. That brings a lot of people who wouldn’t root for a ‘black hero’ over onto his side, without costing him much from the black community; the people who get turned off by the flag-waving are the exact same people who’d be turned off by a superhero in the first place. He backs popular local issues like the PAL, keeping the fact that he’s a black man doing right by the community unspoken, but in everyone’s mind. He knows how to work the media.”
“And after that Charlie Denver thing, he’s gotta be touchy about mutants,” Bailey pointed out. “And the NAACP is backing him on that.”
“Look, the problem is that she’s a cute young girl who looks harmless, right?” Les summed up. “What if we did a few unobvious tests, and found some way of provoking some sort of attack, set her off on some kind of berserk?”
“No,” Art, the city director, said with heavy authority.
“How about we hire a known mutant supervillain to attack her?” Herb offered. “The National Office has contacts with the Syndicate, and-”
“NO.” Art cut him off with even more weight.
“We could sic ‘Keep Ohio Pure’ or one of the other whack-job “*ahem!* ‘splinter groups’ that we have on tap,” John suggested. “It would be a good way of showing them that we’re serious and help keep the others on a low profile.”
“NO!” Art said, slamming his desk with his fist. “GOD! You people just don’t GET it! All the stuff that you’re talking about could come back and bite us on the ass and it would cost us everything that we’ve built up! And I’m shocked that you’d even think about the kind of things I’m hearing here! We’re not a bunch of racist goons! We are just people who have made it our business to make sure that our city is SAFE! So, this girl is a mutant. So what? That doesn’t make her evil. It doesn’t make her SAFE to be around, but it doesn’t make her EVIL. She has rights! And so do we.”
Art leaned over his desk, clasping his hands before him intently. “You guys don’t remember the Sixties, but I do. It was bad. Between the nuclear stalemate with the Ruskies, and the Vietnam War, and the Hippies popping up all over the place like weeds and pissing on the flag, people were jumping at anything that looked weird, and beating the crap out of it. We had some mutants come through here, and it was a fucking bloodbath! Before you knew it, Eugenix came to town, and Abbadon ripped the heart out of the guy who was the Golden Knight back then. Just reached in and ripped it out! People wigged out! There were no less than four lynchings of kids that someone said were mutants. Y’know how many of ‘em were mutants? ONE! And one poor girl got lynched just because someone in her class got her nose outta joint ‘cause that girl was the prettiest girl in school, was on the track & field and swim teams, and was an A student! She didn’t even get the A’s honestly, ‘cause it turned out that she had a friend doing her homework for her! It got so bad that the GOONS took over! There were firefights in the streets with superheroes! You had hit squads killing eight-year-olds! In ’73, it turned out that the ‘Commission for Public Safety’ was a front for the Illinois NAZIS! The NAZIS! Do you how humiliating it is to find out that you’ve been working for NAZIS?”
Art let himself calm down a little. “It took over ten YEARS for the saner Pro-Baseline groups to get together, get rid of the psychos and re-think our strategy. The first thing we came up with - We’re about SAFETY. We PROTECT people. The name says it all: ‘HUMANITY First!’ We don’t go around in sheets and pointed hoods, burning churches, and trying to whip up riots. We are a respectable, law-abiding organization with open membership and everything.
“If it got around that we’d even talked about using terrorist tactics, or - God HELP us all! - hiring a supervillain to attack this girl, it would flush everything that we’ve built up over the past twenty years down the crapper. If we ran that girl out of town, it would send the wrong message to the worst elements on both sides of the issue. The goons would take over again. There aren’t many mutant supremacists anymore - thank God - but the few still around were would come here, and it would be a war zone. If the news people found out about anything, then we’d be up to our eyebrows in lawsuits. Our local contacts and supporters would drop us like a hot brick. Our membership would be listed as ‘belonging to a hate group’.”
“Hey, the Kentucky chapter-”
“THAT’S KENTUCKY. They’re covered. We’re not.”
“So…” Les started off, confused, “we just let her STAY?”
“Oh God, No!” Art said, leaning back. “She’s a mutant! She’s safe now, but she’s what? Fourteen? Fifteen? God alone knows what’s gonna happen to her in the next six years.” He paused and a startling realization swept across his face. “Dear God - NORMAL teenagers are dangerous enough! We don’t need one who can lift a city BUS!” Art lightened up a bit. “Look, all that I’m saying is that we have a good, established low-profile procedure for handling things like this. We don’t ‘whack’ her, we don’t frame her for bogus crimes, and we don’t arrange attacks or ‘accidents’ or any of that ‘spy movie’ crap. We don’t need to target this ‘Silver Ghost’. All we really need to do is get her to move somewhere else.”
“NIMBY?” Jennifer said with an arched eyebrow.
“What’s wrong with NIMBY?” Herb asked. “The big guy’s right! All that we have to do is put a little pressure on her and SPECTRUM, let them know that she’s not wanted around here.”
“That’s easier said than done,” Travis pointed out. “Like Gordon said, Captain Patriot’s backing her, and he’s pretty sharp for someone who runs around in his pee-jays. Most of our usual stuff won’t cut it.”
“For instance, we can’t even say flat-out that she’s a mutant in the first place,” Gordon said. “Now, agreed, the odds are pretty damn good that she IS, and I personally agree that she’s probably a mutant… But, we don’t have any PROOF. And Captain Patriot’s probably sharp enough to avoid saying anything one way or another.”
“Wait a minute…” Bailey said, a light switching on in her eyes. “He won’t commit one way or another about the Silver Ghost being a mutant. What if we use that against him?”
“Attack Captain Patriot? What would we do for an encore? Dig up John Wayne and spit on him?”
“No! No, I mean, don’t use it against HIM; just keep focusing on the question. ‘Is the Silver Ghost a mutant: Yes or No?’”
Travis’ eyes popped open. “YES! That’s IT! We just lob the question at him, let him duck it a couple of times, and then we make the question the issue, not the person!”
Herb raised an appreciative eyebrow. “The question is the issue… and why Captain Patriot won’t answer it…?”
“Suddenly, big, bluff, honest Captain Patriot is making noises like a lawyer…” Gordon said with a sly smile.
“After all, we have a RIGHT to know whether she’s a mutant or not…” Jennifer said, bringing one of H1!’s National Committee’s hot topics into it. “If she’s going to a public school, we have a RIGHT to know if our children are safe, right?”
“Right!” Bailey shot back. “And if she’s NOT going to a public school, why NOT? Are they afraid of something?”
“But it won’t look right, if we field the question,” Les pointed out.
“So?” John said right back. “I know a police reporter who’d love to put the screws to ‘Captain I’m-more-patriotic-than-you’.”
“And I know a couple more reporters who love nothing more than a good smear campaign,” Gordon grinned.
“Three different voices should be just enough to give the question wings,” Travis said. “It needs work, we need to thrash out a few variations, but I think that after a couple of repetitions, the rest of the media will jump on this and come up with angles that we never even dreamed of.”
“But we can’t just throw this question at Captain Patriot out of thin air,” Les pointed out. “We need a context.”
“Good point, Les,” Travis said. “Right. Context. We need a reason for Captain Patriot to speak in front of reporters, where he can’t hide behind some screaming emergency.”
“Protests,” Herb said. “Nothing big, nothing nasty pointed at SPECTRUM, just some people with signs saying that they don’t want mutants in Cincinnati.”
“And how are we going to arrange that without having ‘Humanity First!’ in flashing neon all over the place?” Travis asked with asperity.
“Easterbury Christian Church,” Art said, referring to a controversial ultra-right-wing fringe-Fundamentalist church in Wichita, Kansas with a reputation for picketing gay funerals, and proclaiming that God had forsaken America for tolerating gays. “Reverend Philby hates mutants almost as much as he hates fags. God knows what he’d do if he ever found out about a gay mutant. I’ll call the Wichita office, and see if they can’t get one of Philby’s picket squads over here to rattle SPECTRUM’s cage. The Easterbury crowd may be wacko, but they know how to push it right up to the line, and not a toenail more. I’ll tell them that we’ll pay for bus fare and a lunch at Denny’s.”
“The Easterbury Church?” John chuckled. “If we’re not careful, people might start to worry that we’re too easy on mutants!”
Art leaned back in his chair, his hands across his wide stomach and beamed like a cherub. “See? This is how it should be done - no bullets, no violence, no insanity, and nothing illegal or actionable. All you need is a little brains, a little sweat, and some faith, and the Good Lord looks after his own.”
At Whateley Academy
It was odd to see Magni-Girl walk up to the Bad Seeds’ usual table with a newspaper in her hand. The Cape Squad usually avoided the Seeds, as exchanges between them tended to end loudly, with the Peacekeepers coming to break them up. It wasn’t good for the Capes’ image. “Oh, Jadis!” Magni-Girl said with an acidulous grin. “I’m so sorry to hear that your father was sent running out of Cincinnati like a scalded cat a couple of days ago! Why, making those raids is SO EXPENSIVE! And all the time and expense of arranging all of that, too! Why the costs of those ‘devil dogs’ and plastic androids that he had to leave behind must have been staggering! To have to leave all that behind, before he could steal anything really valuable, and have to settle for chump change, after all that effort! Ah well,” she sighed happily. “I guess that crime really doesn’t pay!”
Magni-Girl turned and pranced merrily back to the Cape Squad table.
“Passive-aggressive putz,” Jadis muttered under her breath. “Hey, Mal! Let’s see how Dr. Dad really did!” Mal and Jadis pulled out their laptops and opened them. “Cheese? If you’d do the honors?” They set their laptops in front of Cheese, along with his. Cheese flexed his fingers and stroked back his hair in parody of a piano prodigy, and then attacked the three computers in a flurry of keystrokes.
“’Really did’?” Lindsey asked. “But I heard that Dr. Diabolik made off with over sixteen million dollars from the Cincinnati raid!”
“Sixteen mil is chump change at Dr. Diabolik’s level,” Kate said dryly.
“Yes, sixteen million American dollars would barely cover the costs of the broadcast pylons, the lift beacon that they used, and the repairs and maintenance on the anti-grav units, let alone the manpower costs,” Nephandus said. “Anti-grav units are expensive. Why do you think only supervillains and superheroes use them? They’re the only ones whose budgets will allow for it.”
“Lindsey, it’s a truism that crime does pay, but it pays minimum wage at the street level,” Jadis said, not taking her eyes off the laptop screens. “Even when you start talking about drug wholesalers and fences, it’s not that much more profitable than a decent honest business. The real money is in playing the market, using the fact that you know what really happened in something like one of Dr. Dad’s raids hours before the rest of the market does. Knowing for a fact who was and wasn’t affected, and how badly, is a real edge.”
Cheese ceased the blur of fingers over the keyboards and looked at the screens. “Analysis of the businesses projected to be affected by the Cincinnati raid suggests computerized bidding with a 350 average Buy parameter and a 1150 Sell parameter on the rebound for the American markets, and a 275 Buy and a 1500 rebound Sell on the Asian markets.”
“Well, the Asian markets are always a little nervous about American business fluctuations,” Silver Serpent said.
“Nothing on the European markets?” Romeo asked.
“They were closed for the ‘golden hours’ on this one.” Cheese looked at a blurb on Bloomberg.com. “Hmmm… it says that Zabriskie, Howland & Von Schaack™ extended their loans to Benthic Petroleum®, despite the fact that over 150,000 gallons of unspecified chemical resins were stolen in the raid, in exchange for 50,000 units of Preferred stock.”
“Gee, Mal, doesn’t Benthic handle all of the Purifier’s fuel needs?” Jadis asked puckishly.
“Gee, if the Purifier is a certain overdone Wagnerian blonde neo-Nazi supervillainess that Dad’s pissed at, I think you’re right, Sis!” Mal answered just as puckishly.
Cheese clicked through another series. “This suggests that Perez & Guttenberg called in ALL their loans to front companies of MARS Industries, citing loss of high-tech components in the raid as the reason. But it looks like Cowles, Bullock & Ludlow is going to ‘white knight’ MARS. They’re asking for as much voting stock as they can, and they’re trying to get a clear majority there.”
“Gee, Jads,” Mal continued the comedy routine, “doesn’t MARS Industries provide most of the exotic weaponry, vehicles, and other such gear for the Purifier?”
“WOW, Mal! WHAT a CO-INKY-DINK!” Jadis gushed. “And don’t Cowles, Bullock & Ludlow handle most of Dr. Dad’s legal affairs in the Midwest?”
“Ah!” Cheese exclaimed, leaping on another news item like fleeing prey. “Dennis Howland announced that they are NOT extending the loan to Primatech Paper at 10 AM, but at 4 PM he announced that due to new developments, they were extending the loan. At 3 PM, Erwin Zabriskie bought all of Saburo’s MARS stock at $345 per share, with strong indications that they did so for the consideration of extending Primatech’s loan.”
“Wow! ANOTHER co-inky-dink!”
“Gee, Mal, it’s a good thing that ZH&VS extended that loan… Primatech Paper is the front that the Purifier uses to handle most of her money laundering and payoffs. If that had gone under, her operations would have been crippled!”
“And according to this, Deon International extended Global Dynamics’ deadline on a contract for RidPest© a half-hour after GD withdrew their bids in the RAMJACK dissolution,” Cheese added.
“Wow, pity about Global Dynamics withdrawing their bids for the RAMJACK properties,” Mal said with an ingenuous sigh. “With the FBI and INTERPOL somehow mysteriously identifying so many of her operating fronts, the Purifier NEEDS new properties for her bases, labs, and other rackets.”
“It seems that IG Aracham is reacting to all of this by transferring as much of their liquid capital over to one of their fronts, Initech™. But from what I’m seeing, Zabriskie, Howland & Von Schaack has quietly managed to seize control of the Voting stock for Initech.”
“Gee, Mal, don’t I recall Dr. Dad mentioning something about IG Aracham being the front that handles most of the Purifier’s liquid assets?” Jadis did a patently false moue of shock. “Ooo… if she lost all that money when Dr. Dad took over Initech, it could be very bad for her! Well, maybe she can make it up with a big move. A nice big drug score is always good for a fresh infusion of cash.”
“Oh, look at this,” Malachi was checking his PDA. “It seems that the Cincinnati Police Department is now saying that over 4000 pounds of uncut refined cocaine, which had been collected over the past two years, was stolen, along with many pieces of esoteric technology and several supervillain power items, from the police evidence locker. Some sharp questions are being asked inside the Cincinnati Police Department, as SOP is that confiscated drugs are supposed to be destroyed immediately after being presented as evidence.”
“Okay,” Lindsey said, her eyes crossed in confusion, “but what does all that MEAN?”
“It means that Jadis’ dad made out like a BANDIT!” Ray said, looking at the screens in undisguised admiration.
“It means that my mother really needs to re-think her operating strategy,” Romeo sighed.
“It means that that Nazi bitch, the Purifier, really should have known better than to mess with Dr. Dad’s Paraguay operations,” Jadis smirked. “She was counting on that coke to finance her North American operations next year. And if Dad snaffled Initech, there goes her operating capital for the rest of the Americas.” Jadis gave a miffed look. “And the Mossad probably won’t even send a thank you card!”