Paragon vs. Plastica
She looked them over, her eyes raking them with fire. Six team members against her one would end sorely for her, perhaps in death, despite her legendary powers. And she did not want to risk it.
It was up to Cinnabar to say the obvious. "You're too late, Countess."
Kylasha took in Plastica's immobilized state and the thorny spikes erupting from her skin. "Quite," she said archly. The vortex continued to swirl behind her; she was spending precious energy keeping it open, for a quick escape if need be.
"Your plan has failed," Cinnabar said evenly. "I am free."
"I see," Kylasha said. There was nothing sarcastic in it, it was just a simple statement of the truth. Kylasha didn't waste time ranting over fruitless endeavors; she learned, and moved on. That was what made her so dangerous.
Kylasha looked them all over once again, measuring and cool, then began to walk forward. Cinnabar did not move to stop her. Chrystar and the others looked to her for guidance, but she only shook her head: Let her pass. Kylasha gave their nudity an amused look -- inferring, perhaps, the reason for it -- but her attention was solely on her former lackey, who began to gibber hysterically as she approached.
Plastica could only stare her helplessly in the face, as she couldn't move her head. Her eyes darted everywhere but the sorceress's. "Kylasha. I didn't m-m-m mean... I had them, but... they... "
"Silence," Kylasha said sternly. "I put faith in you, Plastica, and you broke it. I do not care why you failed, or how. I care only that you failed." Her eyes traveled down Plastica's transformed body, then up again. Her eyes flicked back to the Team. "Which of you was responsible for this?"
There was no reason for any of them to answer her, but Darlene spoke up bravely. "I was," she said defiantly. "I can do it to any living matter."
The sorceress smiled, a dark perversity glinting in her eyes, as if regarding Darlene as a kindred spirit. "So can I." Her eyes went back to Plastica's.
Plastica's composure, if it could be called that, fell even more apart. "No, Countess, please, not that! I'm begging you! Free me, and we can take care of these bitches. I still have my formulas, we can run this business together -- "
"I do not like failures, Plastica," Kylasha said in a sinister yet mellifluous tone. "Especially noisy ones." She raised her beringed fingers to touch Plastica's face.
Plastica screamed, the sound shrill and loud. A dull unreflective grayness covered her cheek where Kylasha's fingers had touched, the transformation moving like liquid to cover the rest of her face. Her scream was sliced off abruptly as her features froze in place, even her hair becoming a single, solid mass. Her pupils dilated in terror, but it was too late for her to speak again. As Cinnabar watched her eyes filmed over with gray and went dull. Only a lifeless metal statue stood there now, features contorted in fear.
"I will take her," Kylasha said in her strange, growling accent.
"But--" Shana began helplessly, fixated on the idea of bringing Plastica to justice.
Cinnabar shook her head, telling her it was no use arguing with the sorceress lest she do something worse; none of them wanted a battle just then. "As you wish, Countess."
Kylasha muttered a charm into the blue-stoned ring she wore on her index finger. A pale ray shot out of the gem, enveloping the clumsy statue and lifting it from the floor. It hovered three feet off the ground, bobbing gently like a child's balloon. "We will meet again, Cinnabar," she said lightly. "When we do, trust that I will be better prepared." Trailing her prisoner, she entered the vortex and was gone in a flash.
The others shook their heads as if not sure of what they had seen. "You said she was a sorceress, Cinn, but that --" Noelani said, drawing a deep breath of shock. "I thought you were speaking figuratively."
"She has magic, and it is real," Cinnabar said tiredly. "Let's hope she plans on keeping Plastica a statue." She might stay a statue for the rest of her life... if statues had lives, that is.
"Was that... for real?" Cal said in a low tone, hovering ARTIE by her side.
"Yes," Cinnabar said. "She was real." Cal went quiet. He was probably wondering why he'd let himself become so mixed up in all this. "Will she come back?"
"Not soon," Cinnabar said. Yet Kylasha was like food poisoning; she came at the most inopportune moments. She'd have to check with ALOSH on her most recent whereabouts. "Don't worry about it for now."
Cal zipped off to Arctica's side. Those two would probably have an intense conversation once they got back to HQ.
Cinnabar swept her eyes around the factory. They still needed to deactivate Plastica's traps and call the police; they also had a couple hundred doses of the formula to make, and those of Plastica's victims who'd been sold had to be tracked down and recovered. Plastica's bank accounts had to be frozen and her assets recovered. And of course her formulas had to be destroyed, to insure they wouldn't later fall into the wrong hands later on. Cinnabar sighed. They had a lot of work to do tonight, not least of it recovering from the ordeal themselves.
"Let's get to work," she said.
They were busy through the remainder of the night and the morning of the next day. It was afternoon before Gina could call the studio with an explanation of why she'd been absent. No one gave her an argument; it was headlines in all the LA papers by then. She could even file for crime victims' comp if she wanted.
Jayce, her policeman boyfriend, took the news with more surprise. "Holy fu --" he began when he saw her shaved eyebrows and bald head, her scalp felted with the tiniest growth of new hair. "You never told me you wanted to be a model!"
"I was afraid you'd laugh," she said, leaving out Chrystar's involvement. She ran her hand over her head, the soft brush of hair feeling like fine-grained sandpaper. "Anyway, that's one thing I'll never do again."
"It's not so bad," Jayce said, fumbling for words. "It could even be, ah, alluring, in the right setting." He cut himself off like he was ashamed he'd said it.
"Yeah, if you're one of those BDSM freaks," Gina snorted. She pushed past him into the apartment. "I hope they give me enough to buy a decent wig."
"I can't let you do this," Cal insisted.
Lori regarded him with sad amusement. Her ordeal would have been terrifying if she remembered it clearly, but she didn't. It was all vague, like a barely remembered dream. She hadn't come back to full consciousness until being sprayed with the antidote.
She knew, however, that she'd been in grave danger; but it strengthened her resolve to fight crime rather than defeating it. "It's who I am," she said softly. "I can't stop it, be something I'm not, for anybody. Then I wouldn't be me anymore."
"But --" He waved his arms. He was going to say you could have died, I could have died, but it was so meaningless. She had sacrificed for him, he had sacrificed for her; the healing burns were still livid on his skin. "I love you. I don't want to see you get killed, or mangled, or -- "
"I have been in worse situations, long before you met me," she said. "I survived. I am sorry that you got it hurt. Perhaps it's better if we..." she trailed away and didn't say it.
He stumped over to her on his crutch, putting his long arms around her. His lips rested on the back of her neck. That wasn't an option, and they both knew it.
"What are we going to do?"
Darlene packed slowly, refolding the mountain of trendy clothing she'd never had the chance to wear. Her LA adventure had ended sooner than she'd thought, but there was no time for sightseeing. She was catching a flight to San Francisco where the West Coast branch of ALOSH wanted to perform some tests on her. There was a good chance, they said, that Dr. C'sungh could free her of her unwanted transformation ability. Yet that wayward ability was what had finally gotten Plastica to talk, and deflected Kylasha's wrath in the end.
Darlene was surprised at the control she had when the power was finally used with her consent. Plastica had been mere putty in her hands, her bodily composition switching elements in less than a heartbeat. She could be partially transformed with no ill effects, or even embellished on, like Darlene's impulse to create the spikes. Darlene had been simultaneously in awe of herself, and aghast... and ashamed, because deep down, she'd enjoyed it. Is that the dividing line between evil and good? she thought. Such control over others, having them at my mercy?
But Darlene hadn't liked using the power for torture, even on a woman who richly deserved it. She didn't want to go down that path no matter how tempting it was. To do so would be to become like Plastica, or worse.
Then there was the troubling thought that in some private erotic moment she could transform herself, as had happened before, and remain that way permanently. No. She opened a fresh foil pack of the anti-sex drug, letting one of the capsules dissolve on her tongue. It's too dangerous, both for me and for others. She put all thoughts of using the power again out of her mind.
Still, the adventure had proved to her she wasn't entirely useless. Her quick thinking and physical strength had saved the day as much as the power had. That was a step in the right direction. For the first time in weeks she felt optimistic about rejoining her team.
"Sorry, ma'am," Noelani said, firmly but sympathetically, to the art gallery owner. "But we have to take them back."
"But --" the woman sputtered, glancing over helplessly at the bronze nudes she displayed in her shop window. "I have twelve thousand dollars tied up in those two."
"They are people, not statues," Shana emphasized. "And last thing I heard, slavery is still illegal in this state."
"I cannot believe that," the woman said with a twist of her mouth. Obviously, she hadn't been watching the news. "That's impossible. I mean, look at how still they are! If they were alive, wouldn't they be breathing, blinking?"
Shana sighed, exchanging a silent look with Noelani. They both knew how thorough and dehumanizing Plastica's transformation had been. "If you're worried about your money you will get it back, eventually," Noelani explained patiently. "The people you did business with have been arrested and their assets frozen."
"But when?" the woman said beseechingly. "I run a small business here. I don't have a lot of cashflow. Can't you superheroes understand that? No, all you do is run around half-undressed with a cape fluttering behind you."
This time both superheroines sighed. It had been like this all that day, and the day before; it was one of most unpleasant aspects of being a superpower, mopping up the messes the villains left behind. Shana peeled off several business cards from the ones she carried and handed them to her. "I'm really sorry, Ms. Seidel, but we really must take them back, now. They have families who are missing them and I'm sure they will be very happy to be restored to their normal state of being. Here are the cards for the prosecutors and detectives on the case, and Team Paragon's. Call them, or us, if you have any questions. This is very surprising and inopportune to you, I'm sure, but we must follow the letter of the law." She leaned in close. "They have heard everything that you have said here, by the way."
"Oh," the owner said, and her mouth snapped shut. The way power ran in Hollywood, her comments could come back to haunt her later on, if one of the statues was an up-and-coming actor.
They removed the statues from the gallery without any more protests and laid them carefully in the van outside, joining the others they'd rescued earlier from Rodeo Drive. "Philippe Lacerte, Ryan Jay Aherne," Allison said, ticking off names. "Looks like we have six more to go, not counting the female one sold to the movie executive."
"He flew to Hong Kong yesterday morning, and he isn't returning calls," Noelani said, pulling a face. "Looks like we'll just have to break in and take her."
"From the guest bathroom of his six million dollar mansion?" Shana shuddered. "Oh, I know him. I've worked on his movies before. He'll scream bloody murder."
"He'll have to scream," Noelani said firmly.
Allison surveyed the row of silent figures in the police warehouse: Plastica's victims. More were being brought in all the time. How many did she make? She'd restored at least two hundred, but there still seemed to be no end in sight.
She put on her mask and gloves, picking up the ten-gallon tank of antidote; because of the mass restoration, she needed to spray as quickly and thoroughly as possible. She checked the flow from the nozzle, then moved the wand down the stiff, plasticized flesh of the first girl in line. The girl's thoughts were a dreamlike jumble, but that would change soon. The minds of most of the would-be models, entertainers and dancers were pretty much offline, only barely aware of their horrible predicament; but a few stronger-willed ones were more alert, and to these Allison sent soothing mental messages, reassuring them they would restored soon.
The girl's flesh began to ripple and change, losing its hard, glossy, sheen; but Allison was already moving to the next one in line, and the next, and in this way the row was finished. Medical professionals were on hand to wrap the ex-mannequins in blankets and check their vital signs, after which they were taken to police detectives for interviewing. Crisis care workers were available, too, but most of the transformed took it pretty well. They didn't remember much, and for most the only thing they'd lost was time, and hair.
Allison grinned. The bald pates and missing eyebrows would turn out to be LA's hottest fashion trend that fall...
"There," Kylasha said, pointing.
The slaves grunted, putting shoulders to the heavy manacled rack and moving it away. One dawdled behind to sweep up the floor; another, with a wet rag, sopped old bloodstains from the stones. Soon the area was clean, and, with the new spotlights she'd installed, well-lit... the better to display her new statue, and old ally.
She activated the Ring of Air and pointed it at the heavy leaden figure. The former plastics expert drifted across the dungeon floor, feet scraping on the stones, and settled into the spotlit corner with a stiff tottering motion. There she would be a mute witness to the sumptuous private games Kylasha played with her favorites, as well the crueler sport she inflicted on those who fell from favor. Her sightless eyes would see everything, her lead-filled ears overhear every sexual gasp or victim's scream of pain. Kylasha had informed her of this fate when they had come through the vortex. She had not spoken to Plastica again. After today, she would never treat her as anything other than a statue.
Kylasha chuckled. After years of the treatment, she might come to believe it, eventually.
Nodding in satisfaction, she summoned her slaves, idly wondering which hard, youthful body would have share her bed that night. She switched off the lights, leaving the statue alone in the darkness to contemplate its new life.
Cinnabar surveyed the lights of LA from her perch high atop the Hollywood Bowl. It was her favorite place to sit and relax, late at night when the custodial staff had gone home.
On the whole, the adventure had resolved itself well. But several things disturbed her... her own lack of vigilance in letting herself be captured, and the overconfidence individual team members had displayed in infiltrating Plastica's many hideouts. That overconfidence had nearly led to disaster. True, Plastica was a formidable enemy, not least because of her unpredictability and disguise capabilities. But they should have been more alert. She shuddered at the thought of the damage the mannequin gas could have caused in the subway system, or at a large public gathering like a concert or sports event. That Plastica hadn't tried such a stunt could be attributed only to her lack of ambition.
Even more alarming was what she had tried with Cal. The Team's identities had always been too well protected for an enemy to identify, and kidnap, someone's SO; but Plastica's success was a reminder that they were not invulnerable. Of course, Plastica could had gotten her personal information from Kylasha the Damned, and probably had; Kylasha, as a sorceress, had special ways of getting that information. But if Plastica had tried it, others could too.
She sighed and stretched out, lying on her back with her arms tucked behind her head. At least they had prevented worse disasters. Plastica might be gone but Phanxine and Iza were in custody, as was Tiger, who'd been restored (reluctantly) by Allison from his mannequin state. Officials would be throwing the book at all three of them. Iza had shown signs of turning states' evidence; but no matter what, they would probably be put away for a long, long time.
A soft rush of air and a shower of blue sparks told her Shuriken had arrived. The Korean-American superhero sat next to her, tearing off his mask. She caught a scent of man-scent, a mixture of spice and sweat, that the gold and black costume could never fully contain. "They told me I could find you here."
She nodded. "How was Burma?"
He shook his head, running his hand through his thick black hair. That told her he didn't want to talk about it yet. Sometimes they never talked about what had happened, hearing of it only from the others' official team briefings. She knew it was a means of emotional self-defense. If she knew, she would worry, as would he; the effectiveness of both of them would be impaired. And then there were things he would have to torture her to disclose... such as what it felt like, for her, to be embedded in plastic, a vibrator whirring havoc inside her, for Kylasha's titillation and Plastica's profit while headed for freeze-dried, vacuum-sealed death. Such things couldn't be said. Even the thought of them was harsh and horrifying.
But even more horrifying, she'd taken sexual pleasure from the experience. The shameful memory of it was arousing her now, bringing up long-buried needs that demanded to be fulfilled. Was it weakness to admit the pleasure of the experience, even as it could have killed her? Could she triumph over the humiliation by exulting in it?
"I heard you had a rough time," he said, looking to her for an answer.
"Kylasha," she said shortly, the sorceress's name bringing her back to earth. "She's back. She made an... assassination attempt on me."
He shook his head. "We knew she'd gotten away, after Stuttgart..."
"... but not where she went." She and Kylasha were now at a stalemate. She knew Kylasha was after the Sword of Screams again, and that she would try again to kill her, again, some time in the future. But though Kylasha's plans had been exposed and foiled she hadn't actually lost anything, except face. Plastica was the one who had lost.
"I'll ask ALOSH and ELOSH to double their vigilance on the remaining pieces of the sword."
"Thanks," she said. His seniority was slightly higher than hers; maybe now both Leagues would sit up and take more notice of the sorceress, rather than dismissing her as an eccentric.
He stroked her arm through the thin sheathe of spandex she wore. "I've got two weeks in LA," he said hopefully.
She laughed. "You know, I still haven't been to Universal Theme Park..."
Together, they soared off the roof, to the waiting lights of the city below.