"Embarrassed," I murmured to myself, and it was certainly true, "she realized the wardrobe malfunction and quickly changed into something more suitable to the time and place she now occupied." Now I wore a sort of business-casual outfit, being jeans, boots, a blouse, a vest, and a leather blazer. I smiled; this was more like it. I decided to wander around and try to find out more about this place, and what could be so unique about it. I stepped into a coffee shop; it looked normal enough. I was nearing the counter, ready to order, when I realized one small hitch: I did not have a purse. Of course, I knew the remedy for this already. Under my breath, I whispered, "Going inside, she bought a coffee."
Instantly, I held a steaming cup in my hand, a coordinating purse hung from my shoulder—and no one in the building knew anything out of the ordinary! I calmly walked out of the coffee shop and, spying a newsstand on the curb in front of me, I went over to get a feel for my setting.
Nothing in my previous adventures prepared me for what I read, but then, it came as no surprise, either.
PHANTASMIC CITY SAVED AGAIN! GERONIMO AND STORMGALE HONORED IN PUBLIC CEREMONY!
I seized the paper and gawked at the photograph. If you took Captain Stormy and Sheriff Jerry and dressed them in spandex uniforms, they would verily look exactly like the two people I saw in the photo. They stood proudly amid the rubble of some great battle, hardly a stain on the brightly-colored costumes they wore.
Superheroes! I couldn't believe it! Apparently some underworld overlord had tried to take over the city, and these two had stopped them, Geronimo because he was impervious and thus unstoppable, and Stormgale with her control of the elements. I wondered who their arch-nemesis was, or if the arch-nemesis existed at this point in the narrative.
I kept walking through the city. It looked just like a city in the real world. There were grungy hobos begging on the curb, there were the powerful executives trying to find the subway station. There were the kids taking their time on their way home from school. I was grateful to see that at least in this world there weren't as many people giving me the stinkeye as I gazed around at everything I passed. I came to a large city park that had many tree-shaded paths and a large gazebo and fountain at the center. I overheard a group of college-age students speaking and paused to listen unobtrusively.
"—at any rate, I don't see why there should still be four of them. Geronimo and Stormgale are perfectly capable of handling anything a villain could dish out, all by themselves." One young man finished his speech by pushing the thick glasses up his nose yet again.
"Hey, no fair!" the girl standing next to him whined, "Marksman has always been my favorite, ever since he—"
"Oh jeez, not the purse story again!" A jock standing next to her pretended to gag.
"It's true!" her friend interposed. "I saw him leave the alley where he dumped the thief, and then he just vanished! I believe you, Prissy!"
"I'm just saying," Glasses interjected yet again, "Stormgale and Geronimo are the real heroes; Marksman and Shellie are never going to be anything much."
His comment hung in the air, until Prissy spoke again. "Do you think it's true?"
Glasses looked at her, "What is?"
"That the time of the superheroes is coming to an end."
Jock waved his hands, "I really don't see how that could happen; I mean, what else are they going to do?"
"Hey Priss," her friend glanced at her cell phone and looked up, "We need to get to the mall if we want to meet up with Brianna in time."
Prissy nodded, "See you later, guys!"
"Bye!" Glasses and Jock chorused. They too departed the area.
I moved on, thinking about what I had just heard. The news article hadn't mentioned the other two superheroes at all. I wondered what their powers were. Marksman, at least sounded something like Bullseye, someone with quick reflexes and pinpont accuracy, but the fourth one—if her name was Shellie, it certainly wasn't descriptive at all. Maybe she was like Rogue, of the X-Men, and had a power that could not be put into a cool superhero name for her. But why wouldn't they be as impressive as the other pair?
At any rate, I knew I needed to find these superheroes. Or perhaps I needed them to find me. I smiled; I knew at least one of them was an expert at catching purse-snatchers. And I had a purse just ripe for the snatching.
I walked deliberately in front of a panhandler and made a grat big show of holding my purse loosely at my side as I hailed a cab. Sure enough, he nearly jerked my arm out of it's socket as he lunged for my purse and dashed around the corner.
"Stop thief!" I shrieked, running after him, stumbling pitifully all the way, of course. "That man took my purse!" I yelled as I charged down the sidewalk in pursuit, "Someone help me!"
He ran around a corner, and I began to hope that now one of the heroes would come rescue me. I charged after him—and nearly bowled over a dashing young man wearing a dark wool trenchcoat and holding my purse. The hobo who had taken it lay unconscious on the sidewalk. The man extended the purse to me, the wind rippling through his thick dark hair as his piercing green eyes sparkled.
"Is this yours?" he asked warmly.
I didn't have to fake my shock, but I knew if it was one of the heroes I would need to show proper respect to gain access to the rest.
"Thank you so much!" I gushed, catching my breath and accepting my purse. "You're a hero!"
The man smiled, "Yes, I am."
My heart nearly jumped into my throat. "You are one of the heroes?" I inquired.
The man raised an eyebrow and chuckled, "Not quite; unfortunately I am a hero by opportunity, not by profession."
"Oh," I felt my cheeks burn. Here I was expecting that the only people to do good deeds in this city would be the ones with super-powers, and my purse had just been returned by a simple Good Samaritan! "Thank you," I said, and turned to walk back out to the street.
It took me several blocks to recover my composure. As soon as I did, I immediately began mulling over where exactly I could find the heroes.
"If I was part of a group of superheroes," I murmured, "I would be..."
I thought carefully; Geronimo was very good-looking and most likely enjoyed the high-profile life. To me that said something like a penthouse; heck, maybe they had a whole highrise to themselves! I started scanning the upper floors of the buildings I passed.
Stormgale, with her control of the elements, would probably want something with a terrace, or at least plenty of windows. I started looking for the more modern-style buildings. Marksman, with extreme accuracy as his superpower, would probably prefer a place with optimal vantage points, in a key area of the city. I stopped on a corner near the City Hall and scanned down the various streets, muttering the description under my breath as I searched for a building that best suited it.
"Tall, modern building, glass penthouse, terrace garden, central—"
I spotted it. Down the street to my left stood a lofty skyscraper, modern design, and just a hint of a garden on the terrace. Of course it was nearly impossible to see into the penthouse—but didn't that make it the perfect headquarters?
I moseyed down the sidewalk toward the building in question. Everyone around me was so incredibly normal that it was almost hard to remember that this was a fictional universe in which superheroes existed.
I reached the corner in front of the tall building. It was called The Spire. That certainly sounded like a high-end apartment to me. I surveyed the territory.
A doorman stood under the awning at the front door. To the left of the building was the parking garage. I figured I wouldn't get too far past the stony-faced man out front, so I quickly darted across the street and strolled into the parking garage. I paused just inside the door, but it did not appear that anyone noticed me. The gate was even automated, no one sat in the tiny square booth at the center.
I walked up the steep ramp to the first level of the garage. At the end of the long double-row of cars, I saw an elevator designated with a sign "To The Spire." I was in!
An engine revved next to me. I quickly skirted the bumper and headed for the elevator, but the car pulled out and headed toward me! I broke into a run. Maybe I could reach the elevator in time—
A second car backed out of its slot just ahead of me, and I couldn't stop in time. I slammed into the side at full speed and blacked out.
I came to in total darkness. I felt a chair beneath me, but I could not move my arms or legs. I felt a hood over my face. I listened as hard as I could, but heard only silence.
"What are you doing here?"
The voice came so close and so sudden that were I not tied down I probably would have hit the roof.
The hood split open just in front of my mouth, and I eagerly gulped fresh air.
Something tightened against my chest.
"Don't make me ask again, why are you here?" I could not find my voice before she continued, "We know you were looking for us; are you in league with the Madman? What is he planning?"
"How close is he to finishing the Madness Ray? Where has he hidden it? Tell us now! He can't hide from us forever. We've protected the city so far! We know he claims to provide freedom from the need for superheroes, but the truth is that it will be a result of his controlling everyone's minds himself!"
"What is going on here?"
The voice that cut into hers was infinitely more powerful, echoing as if in a large room. A massive hand yanked the hood off my face. I squinted against the bright light.
Four people stood in front of me. Geronimo, the brawny, tall hero, wearing jeans and a dark tee shirt that showed off every inch of muscle. Beside him stood Stormgale, lithe, regal, and dangerous as a Russian prima ballerina. The other two—
I gasped at the young man standing next to Stormgale.
"You're the hobo who stole my purse!" I cried.
Marksman snorted, "Stole? You practically dropped it in my lap! I only pulled it off because obviously you wanted me to take it!"
I turned to the other guy, standing next to Geronimo. It was the same man who had returned the purse to me! Then who had been speaking to me just now?
I glanced at Stormgale, but she was glaring at the second young man.
"Shellie," she reprimanded him, "Whatever you're up to, stop it now!"
I blinked, and suddenly before me stood a young woman who looked almost exactly like the man who had been standing in her place. Almost—except for the fact that she was a girl.
Shellie's power was shape-shifting! So, not like Rogue, I thought, but more like Mystique.
Stormgale approached me and crossed her arms.
"Now, stranger," she said, "Tell us who you are."
"My name is Laura," I answered.
"Does the Madman know you're here?" Shellie's eyes gleamed as she pressed her own assumptions.
I shook my head, "You have nothing to fear from me. I don't know anything about the Madman. I only just arrived in the city."
Marksman tried to save face as the older pair glared with disapproval at the youngers. "Why were you looking for us, then? Why try to find us? And how did you know where to look?"
Geronimo walked around behind my chair and snapped my bonds at one pull. I massaged life back into my limbs to stall while I tried to formulate a reply. I mean, there was no way I was going to tell them I had nearly invented their hideout without their realizing it.
"I heard people talking about you," I explained, telling only the truth and as little as possible. "I wanted to meet you because I am here to help you."
"Help!" Geronimo boomed, laughing so loudly that his voice echoed around the vaulted ceilings. "We're superheroes! We don't need help!"
"Oh yes, you do," I countered, a little bolder now. "I know that your enemy, the Madman, has a plan, but you don't know where he is, who he has working for him, or when he plans to strike."
My words brought instant silence. All the heroes stood warily, watching to see if I would do something unexpected.
"How do you know all this?" Stormgale asked.
I nodded toward the stricken young girl at her side. "She said so, while I was tied up."
"Shellie," Geronimo growled sternly, glaring at the young woman.
Shellie looked from one to the other like a cornered mouse between two cats.
"It was Marks' idea!" she whimpered.
Stormgale whirled on Marksman. A tendril of ivy splayed from her hand and crept toward him.
"Watch it!" He batted the vine away, "I just thought she was being way too obvious, so I figured she must know something."
"Yeah," Geronimo snorted, "Especially after you bring her here to the Spire and tell her everything we know!"
Stormgale sighed, "All right, everybody huddle."
I watched the four heroes group together at the side of the room. I saw some soft-looking couches, but the minute I moved to go take a seat, a thin cord with weighted ends wrapped around my ankles. Another cord, longer and thicker, wrapped around my chest and pinned my arms.
"Stay there," Marksman ordered, looking none too happy about the current situation.
They spoke in low tones so I couldn't eavesdrop, nor could I move, wrapped in the cords as I was. I waited a long while. Finally, the four heroes surrounded me, Stormgale behind me, Geronimo in front of me, and Marksman and Sherrie on my right and left.
Geronimo nudged Shellie.
"Sorry for lying to you and kidnapping you," she muttered.
Stormgale punched Marksman in the shoulder; or rather, she went for it, but he saw the hit coming and dodged.
"Sorry for running you down with the car and tying you up."
"Speaking of tying..." Geronimo glanced suggestively at the cords now restraining me. Marks gave a sharp pull in a certain direction, and the cords came loose.
Geronimo extended his hand. "If you're going to stay here, we'd like to know your name."
I struggled to keep from grimacing under his crushing grip. "It's—I'm, uh, Laura," I stammered.
Stormgale smiled and gave me a small courtesy hug. "Welcome, Laura."
"Wait," I didn't understand the sudden change of attitude. "You're letting me stay here?"
Marksman shook his head, "Can't have you running around unsupervised. Not with everything you know." He sneered pointedly at me.
"And especially not after everything you've seen," Stormgale nailed both Marksman and Shellie with a pointed stare.
"Shellie," Geronimo rapped out quickly, "Get Laura a room and meet us in the Situation Station." He turned away without making eye contact.
Shellie looked like a kicked dog. "Follow me, Laura."
I did, and she led me to another larger room adjacent to the main penthouse, with several rooms leading off of it.
"This one will be yours," she opened a door for me.
Shellie walked over to a console and began swiping through screens.
"This room is equipped with state-of-the-art custom environment technology. Anything about this room that can be controlled is done from here: temperature, lighting, shades, entertainment, the works. If you need anything, go to this menu and order it. Whatever you want will be delivered to this door." She pointed to a second door that looked like an alternate entrance to the room. "Bear in mind that this door," she pointed to the one we entered, "is for going in and out of the room. That one is for deliveries only."
I tested out the bed. "This is soft," I remarked gratefully.
Shellie rolled her eyes. "You're not here for merit, you know." She sighed, "Yeah, I realize it's Marks' and my fault for bringing you up here without checking first, but really, we're not letting you stay here as much as we're intending now to keep you prisoner here."
I blinked. "You mean—"
She smirked, "What has been seen cannot be unseen," she quipped, "so now that you are the first civilian to see our digs—"
"With a hero like Geronimo? I highly doubt that!"
"Ahem! The first civilian to see our real digs," she amended, "you now cannot leave without our permission."
"But feel free to participate in our family discussions," Geronimo's grinning face appeared on the console. "All settled, Laura? Come on down!"
Shellie and I went back through the penthouse into a room that looked like a cross between a laboratory and a surveillance bank. Monitors, test tubes, maps, chemicals, weapons cache, and steel worktables spread across a room the size of a football field.
Stormgale and Geronimo were looking over some data on a screen and discussing it.
"—But if that's so, why would he get a shipment of swamp coolers?" Stormgale was saying.
Geronimo waved his hand, "Red herring, Storm. I am pretty certain that the Madness Ray is coming into full capacity, and if we can locate it somewhere in Europe, we can stop the apocalypse before it happens."
Marksman came forward and scanned the holographic map. Red blips flashed at various points over the terrain. I watched as he tapped on a few of those dots and scrolled through the news reports about suspicious activity going on in all these areas. I saw him scan certain areas with keen interest, much like King Marcus poring over the map of Phantasia.
Geronimo still argued with Stormgale.
"I'm telling you, the strike is coming!"
"Don't you think I know that? Chatter in the Middle East has intensified, and my sources are saying that more and more known hideouts are turning up empty and strongholds left unguarded: in the Amazon, the Arctic, China, Russia, Africa..."
Both heroes looked up in surprise at the unmistakable certainty in Marksman's voice.
"Where?" Stormgale asked.
Marksman made a stretching motion with his hands to expand the map in one area, just off the coast of Norway. He used a prying motion to bring the terrain closer to him, highlighting one particular mountain peak. He pinched the image, and a blinking red dot appeared on the west side of the mountain.
"More precisely," he added, "It's here."
"No way," Stormgale shook her head. "If he were hiding out in Norway, we would know."
"You do know," Marksman replied evenly. "You've been tracking his movements, haven't you? All the shipments, the workers—"
"None of them ever suggested Norway."
"Oh did they?" Marksman backed the map out to a view of all the continents, with the several red dots highlighting suspicious activity. He entered some information into the computer, and a host of red lines appeared, connecting all the dots—and every one of them crossed the dot in Norway.
"And from there it's a clear shot to Phantasmic City." Marksman crossed his arms, smiling judiciously.
Geronimo leaped to action. He grabbed a communicator. "All teams move in on Norway, Mount—" he hesitated before totally butchering the pronunciation of the name. "Madman is—Yes, I'm aware of that! I'm telling you now, everyone go—well of course I understand! Get your team out of the Vatican and GO CLIMB THAT MOUNTAIN." He slammed down the receiver and turned to Stormgale.
"Storm, you and I will suit up," he said. "We'll join the team in Norway as soon as we can get there."
"Can I come too?" Marksman reached for his bow.
"Not a chance, Skippy,” Geronimo stopped him scornfully. “You wouldn’t do us any good, anyhow. Everyone knows I’m the only one who will be able to get close enough to disable the Ray gun.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of Stormgale, just emerging in her super-suit. “Storm is my diversion. Now you and Shellie stay here and hold the fort.” He turned and caught sight of me. “Oh,” he added, “and keep an eye on the girl.” Geronimo left the room chuckling, and the three of us—Marksman, Shellie, and I—stood watching the empty door.
Shellie and I jumped as Marksman launched a paper wad through the air and into a trashcan at the far side of the room, nailing the lid with a resounding clang.
“This is incredibly not fair!” Shellie fumed. Marksman said nothing, but marched over to the monitors tracking the two heroes’ movements. Already they were halfway across the Atlantic.
“Yeah, well,” Marksman muttered bitterly, “I can’t say I’m surprised. Geronimo and Stormgale have done all the big hero work in Phantsmic City for so long, what chance do heroes like us have?”
Finally, Geronimo and Stormgale landed at the mountain peak. The surveillance kept close tabs on them as they snuck around the outer defenses (behind a fog created by Stormgale) and into the heart of the Madman’s lair.
We watched as Stormgale and Geronimo progressed through the maze of halls, silencing every minion they saw before any of them could make a sound. Swiftly and surely, they disabled all defenses. Any time a door or a gun confronted them, Geronimo smashed through it. Any time a minion thought to alert the rest of his unit, Stormgale blasted them with fire or tied them up with vines. At last, they came through one last door, and it opened into a room just like the Situation Station.
“Ah, heroes!” a sinister voice mused, “How kind of you to join us!”
Instantly, the two of them were set upon by hundreds of minions. It was truly an amazing sight to see Geronimo tossing bodies about as if they were made of paper, and Stormgale creating a confusion of roots and vines and blocks of ice as she kept the minions at bay. We saw the onslaught of minions separate the two of them, as each was forced to do battle on their own. They drifted further and further apart, so it became more difficult for us to watch both of them at the same time. Madman had already inundated his forces with the Madness Ray, so he only had to sit back and watch his minions do the work. He taunted Geronimo and Stormgale.
“You didn’t think I’d just sit back and wait to be arrested, did you? I have been planning this for months, I know exactly how to defeat you! You cannot stop me, not after all I have done to arrive at this, my final moment! This weapon has been tested enough; you have seen what I can do with it. Now imagine an entire city under my control. Imagine an entire nation! There will be no more fighting, no more wars, no more senseless killings, no more crimes—because everyone will be doing only what I tell them to! Oh dear,” he clucked his tongue, “You know what that would mean for heroes like you. No criminals to apprehend, no disasters to avert—you’d be out of a job! What will you do when you don’t have hero-work to accomplish? No one would need you—how boring!”
His words accomplished exactly what he wanted them to. The three of us were so wrapped up in watching the devastating effect of the Madman’s words on Geronimo’s ego, that we were just as oblivious to everything as he was until Stormgale screamed, “Geronimo, HELP!”
He turned around, but they were too far apart. He was too late to rescue her before the flood of minions herded her into a giant silver sphere. It clamped shut around her, and though it was evident from the noises that she was doing everything in her power to escape, not even a crack showed on the surface of the sphere.“Oh my!” Madman exclaimed with glee. “Did you lose something, Geronimo? Oh, how unlucky!” His voice gave us all the chills. What would Geronimo do now?