Special thanks to CMQ for lending me Cosmic Girl from his Fem-Fantastique
"What's with you, Lori?" Cal said. "I was calling you, and you didn't even hear me."
Lori halted guiltily by the cafeteria entrance, her arms full of books. She'd called that morning to tell him she couldn't meet him for lunch. But he must not have gotten the message and gone to the cafeteria to meet her anyway. "I'm sorry Cal, I left you a message." She hefted the books. "I have a big research project that's due."
He glanced at the titles. She'd gotten them from the UCLA library, and they all dealt with criminal pathology. " 'Sexual Dysfunction in the Criminally Insane?' " he read, and grinned. "Whoa. That's pretty heavy. Remind you of someone you know, maybe?" He walked around in front of her, goosing her waist. "Do you have time for a quick cup of coffee, then?"
He was so innocent; he had no idea that she was Arctica, the same way thousands of other Angelenos had no idea there were living, breathing superheroes in their midst--that is, until the latest crisis hit. But that was why she loved him, and why she couldn't involve him in her life as Arctica. "I'm sorry," she said, shaking her head. "I just can't."
"What's wrong?" he said concernedly. "It's more than your project...you look so...tense."
"It's nothing," she said, starting to walk towards her car.
"It is not." He caught up to her. "I drove by your house yesterday and there were all these strange cars there, and people going in and out. I wanted to drop by, but thought I'd better not."
*Good thing you didn't,* she thought. She wondered what the ALOSH scientists would have made of him. The Team would have been friendly, as long as they were in their mundane identities; they all knew each others' relationships by now and were tolerant of them. "Cinnabar's been called away on a dig," she said, thinking quickly. "She'll be gone for a few weeks, so we've decided to sublet the space. I was interviewing people all day yesterday."
"They were awfully strange," Cal said, his forehead wrinkling.
Lori suppressed a smile. Yes, Dr. C'sungh and The Red Mamba were definitely strange, even out of costume. But she had Cal to think of. "That's why I told them they wouldn't work out as roommates."
"Oh." She threw the books in the back seat of her car and climbed into the driver's seat. He began to look desperate. "What about tonight, then? Are you free?"
*Oh please,* she thought. She wanted him to go away, not the least because he was tempting her--his tiny apartment, a movie rental, the always-untidy bed, donuts in the morning...the perfect palliative for the pain and stress she was going through. But no. "I really can't. I have to go to the airport to pick up a friend."
His expression turned determined. "Then I'm going with you."
"Cal!" she said as he climbed into the passenger seat.
"No buts. I haven't seen you in ages, Angelfire. What's a trip to the airport? Any friend of yours is a friend of mine." He turned on the radio. "We can have a cup of coffee there before the plane gets in."
"All right," she said. Actually she was going to pick up Darlene Wilson, the member Fem-Fantastique had sent to help them, but of course she couldn't tell him that. Gangly, innocent Cal with his rumpled thrift-store clothes, the slight hint of blonde beard always on his chin; he either wanted to be a lawyer and work for a Greenpeace, or a reporter and write for Greenpeace. Superpowers his age were already beginning to show the stress, in the skin and eyes if not in their well-sculpted physiques; there was a titanium-hard confidence to them that came from years of seeing the worst that mankind dished out to each other. Cal had confidence too, but it was the idealism of youth rather than hard-earned experience. His world was black and white; there were no shades of gray in it, and that was what made him so appealing to her. "So how's your International Law class going?"
They chatted about school all the way to LAX. Lori was glad of it; it was a welcome distraction. They had no trouble parking and soon found the gate where American Airlines flight 1129 was arriving from the east coast.
Lori stared intently at the passengers as they debarked. White Rose had talked only briefly to Darlene--known as Cosmic Girl to the world--and she hadn't said what she looked like. Lori felt more than a little nervous. She'd never heard of Fem-Fantastique, but that wasn't surprising since superpowers tended to work alone or in local teams.
It had been a full flight, so there were plenty of people passing through the gates--businessmen, retirees, some Japanese tourists, other people who might be visiting friends or family members. Cal began to fidget.
At the end of the line came an exhausted mother carrying a diaper bag and a baby in a carrier seat. Directly behind her was a young woman with curly dark brown hair and lightly tanned skin. She carried a 4-year-old child in one arm, a heavy carry-on suitcase in the other with a folded-up stroller tucked under her arm. A second heavy bag had been slung over her shoulder, and she wasn't even panting.
*That's her,* Lori thought. She made eye contact and waved.
The other girl smiled at her and waved back, then helped the young mother settle the preschooler into the stroller and fasten the other bags to the back, to the mother's grateful thanks. Then she came up to greet them. Lori quickly ran to embrace her. "Are you Darlene--Cosmic Girl?" she whispered.
"Yes," the other girl said, puzzled but pleased by the display.
"We're going to have to play it straight, that's my boyfriend over there. He doesn't know I'm Arctica. I've told him you're an old high school friend."
"OK," Darlene said, adapting quickly. "Oh, Lori, it's so good to see you!" she said loudly.
"Same here," Lori said. They went over to Cal. "Cal, this Darlene. She's the friend I was telling you about. She's going to be staying with me while Cinnabar's out of town."
"Nice to meet you," Cal said, shaking her hand. His eyes lit up as he took in her miniskirted slip dress and the close-fitting t-shirt she wore under it.
"Thanks," Darlene said. She smiled at him in a distinctly flirtatious way. Lori felt her hackles rise a little, but maybe she was just being friendly. She was certainly was nice enough to that lady with the kids.
They began the walk to baggage claim. Lori wanted desperately to talk to Darlene alone, but because of Cal all they could make was small talk about the differences between the east and west coast, and how different Los Angeles was. Lori noticed there was a definite flirtatious component to Darlene's personality. She charmed everyone she met with her long curly hair and mischievous grin. But when she turned away, Lori saw the smile quickly vanish from her face and an incredible sadness appear in her eyes. She wondered had happened to make Darlene feel that way.
"I hope we aren't taking you away from anything important," she whispered as Cal went to pluck Darlene's suitcase off the carousel.
"Don't worry about it," Darlene said. "Besides, I'm on a sabbatical of sorts. The other members of my team thought this assignment would be good for me."
"How so?" Lori said.
But Cal came back then with her suitcase, which, by its many odd-shaped bulges, spoke of a fondness for clothes, shoes, and hair styling equipment. He tried to handle the heavy suitcase with masculine ease, but Darlene took it from him as if it weighed no more than a packet of kleenex "Thanks," she said cheerfully.
"You sure are strong," Cal said.
"I've been working out for five years." Darlene said. "I won the Miss Golden Girl title last year." She struck a body-building pose, drawing cheers from several male passengers. Not only did she have an incredible body, she was incredibly muscled as well. "I've got another piece of baggage, it should be coming off the plane separately. I had it shipped fragile."
"What is it?" Lori said.
"My...computer," Darlene said after a slight pause and a glance at Cal. "Oh, look, there it is," she added as an airport baggage tram pulled up. In the front of the bin was a large, many-banded black trunk of the kind commonly used to ship fragile scientific equipment. The code RT-10 had been stenciled on it in large white letters. Lori wondered immediately what it really was. Darlene signed for the crate then lifted the heavy box by its handle. Cal gaped; the crate had needed two men to wrestle it off the tram. "Shall we go?" she said.
Cal still insisted on coffee, so it was early afternoon before they finally dropped him off back on campus. "I'll call you later, OK?" she said. "Darlene needs to get settled in."
"Promise?" he said, looking stubborn.
"I promise," she said, giving him a kiss. He still tasted like a hazelnut latte.
"Sorry about that," she said when they back on the main road. "He's my boyfriend, he insisted on coming along. He doesn't know what's going on, but he's still worried about me."
"I know," Darlene said. "My girlfriend was the same way."
Lori didn't feel quite so bad about Darlene's flirtatiousness anymore. "Look, we can straight back to HQ, which is where Cinnabar is, but I'm a little hungry. Why don't we stop and get something to eat first, and I can bring you up to speed on what's happened. How do you feel about dim sum?"
"Sounds good to me," Darlene said. They headed towards Chinatown.
Plastica leaned out of her red Maserati, her eyes glued to the binoculars as she watched the jeans-jacketed young man make his way across campus, hands in his pockets. Her sharp white teeth bit the overripe cherry of her lower lip. *So that's what Lori Olson's boyfriend looks like.* She lowered the binoculars, a thoughtful frown on her face. Carter McCale; called Cal by friends and faculty. It shouldn't be too hard to get an address and place of employment for him. She had the feeling it would come in very useful later on.
Her cell phone beeped softly. "Yes?"
"Sorry for interrupted, boss, but it's an emergency," Iza said. "We're down at the agency, and guess who walked in. Chrystar."
Plastica breathed deeply to calm herself, even though she knew something like this would happen eventually. "Did she bring the cops?"
"No, she's calling herself a model, and she looks it. She's got a portfolio and everything."
"A disguise," Plastica muttered. She hadn't considered this; she'd thought Team Paragon would make a frontal assault. But it seemed Chrystar hadn't counted on the intimate knowledge Plastica had of Team Paragon, courtesy of Kaylashat and her spies. "Well, if she wants to be a model, then treat her like one. Play her along, then plastify her the same way as all the others. I'll be down there as fast as I can. "
"But boss!" Iza said.
"No one is immune to the gas," Plastica, said feeling cocky. "It took care of Xenon and Blue Cymbidium, it should take of her. Do the photoshoot as normal, then send her to the showers. There's no way she could have found out about that. She'll be as surprised as any of the other girls are. Or guys," she amended; the Fairfax Plastic Fantastic was processing men in a separate room, purportedly as entertainers and waitstaff for a new cruise ship.
"But what if she gives us trouble?" Iza whined.
"She won't be giving you any trouble," Plastica said. "Team Paragon doesn't endanger innocents, and you've got a room full of stupid, bubble-headed models who'd jump into a pool of gasoline to escape a forest fire. And if she starts a fight, well, I've got the new Plaszti in the trunk. One shot and she's stiffed. Now keep cool until I get down there."
She cased her binoculars and turned the key. She'd deal with that young man later; already plans were brewing in her mind.
"Ms. Lubinski? You're next."
Gina put down the copy of Vogue and walked over to where the receptionist waited. The other would-be models gave her envious glances. Eat my dust, she thought. She'd taken a chance and dropped in on the agency without making an appointment, but they'd been more than happy to see her after getting a look at her skin-tight spandex miniskirt and halter.
The studio looked rough and unfinished, as Gina knew it would. "Ms. Lubinski? I'm Iza." A petite woman with dark hair cut in a geometric bob stood up from a desk, extending her hand. Her lipstick was very red, her skin pale; she looked like an art deco vampire. "Ms. Nyll is not here today, but she gave us full charge of her studio. I've looked at your portfolio. It was very impressive."
What bullshit. Gina suppressed the urge to laugh. They probably hadn't even looked at it. "Thank you," she said gracefully, with the toothy vapid smile all models soon learned to cultivate.
"Now, if you'll but your purse down here, Tiger can start taking his shots."
Gina stood on the crisp white paper, bemused by the amount of detail Plastica put into the operation. She wondered if there really was film in the cameras. Tiger barked out pose after pose for her to take as Iza and the receptionist conferred, heads bent and out of her earshot. Gina wished she had Blue Cymbidium's enhanced sense of hearing. But they were probably talking about nothing.
After ten minutes Iza handed her a bikini. "Now we're going to do some swimsuit shots. We want you to shower first, using the special soap and shampoo we provide. It will give your hair and skin the high-gloss look we want."
Gina tried to give a good impression of being pleased. "I guess this means I got the job, huh?"
Iza smiled cryptically. "Yes, I guess it does."
Tiger escorted her to a small bathroom that contained a glass-walled shower. "Take as long as you want, but not too long," he said. She thought she saw a smirk cross his face as he shut the door. She waited until the sound of his footsteps receded, then tried the knob. Locked, as she knew it would be. She ran her hands over the surface. Her power gave her the ability to test the strength and density of other materials by touching them, and there was a steel core under that wood veneer.
Well, she'd expected no less. She touched the walls: ceramic tiles, plain wood and drywall. If she got into serious trouble she could always go *through* them, as Chrystar, though it might give her a headache.
She turned her gaze back to the open door of the shower. It had a futuristic-looking plumbing set that reminded her more of a mad scientist's lab. I'm damned if I'm going in that, she thought, remembering how Aubrey had been trapped and helplessly transmuted. But if she wanted to infiltrate Plastica's lair, it seemed she would have to.
She peeled herself out of her tight spandex clothes and hung them in back of the door, then removed her bra and panties. But before she could step into the shower it started on its own, gushing out a thick cloud of pink gas.
It must have been set to a timer. She held her breath as the cloud swiftly enveloped her. *Well, here goes.* Blinded in pinkness, she swiftly changed her molecular structure to approximate a lightweight material with the surface sheen of plastic; at the same time she halted almost all atomic movement in her body so she appeared stiff as a statue. Aubrey had said the pink gas had an arousing effect, though Gina couldn't feel it. *Good thing too,* she thought. *I might be too distracted to do my job!*
After a long period the gas was sucked up through a vent in the ceiling, leaving Gina to contemplate herself in the bathroom mirror: nude, stiff, and shiny. She'd done a good job: she was almost indistinguishable from a normal mannequin. She could exist indefinitely in this state without the need to breathe or eat.
The door opened. Gina forced herself not to turn and look.
"I told you it would work." Plastica's voice. "Scaredy-cat."
"Hey, I didn't know," Iza said.
Chrystar tried not to flinch as Plastica lifted her by her arms, standing her to face the door. If anything the villainess looked even more bizarre in person: she had healing burns on her face, the bones of which looked oddly misaligned, and her long electric-blue hair was now slightly shorter and a bright magenta color. Her model-thin limbs were as long and thin as a spider's. Hell, Gina thought, switch heads and you'd have Commander Ripley's latest alien enemy.
"Hmm, she never got in the shower," Plastica said, running her platinum-taloned fingers through Gina's hair. "She must have found out about the process somehow...not that it did her any good." She pinched Gina's nipples.
Gina suppressed a gasp. Though her body structure had been altered her skin was still sensitive in this form, and the tweak caused the normal amount of pain.
"Shame the others didn't have tits like this," Plastica said. She cupped Gina's copious breasts, feeling them up like a connoisseur. "I should look into some sort of resculpting process after they've been plastified."
Gina bit back her revulsion. *She thinks I'm a mannequin,* she thought. *Therefore, she's doing anything she wants to me.* The impersonal yet admiring treatment sent an odd erotic sensation zinging through her.
"And you thought you were so smart, Chryssie," Plastica gloated, her hands now caressing Gina's buttocks. One set of fingers darted between Gina's legs to play with the two hardened grooves that had once been her labia.
*Oh God,* Gina groaned. *If she keeps this up I'm going to move, or twitch, or something!* But thankfully the fingers moved away, brushing Gina's pubic hair as they did so. "Looks like her collar and cuffs don't match," Iza said, grinning.
Gina gave a silent groan; she'd used a black rinse on her hair to disguise herself. "Take them both off," Plastica said. "I want her to match the others."
*You bitch,* Gina thought as Iza sprayed her with a thick white foam. Her skin tingled as it began to work. A few minutes later Iza rinsed her off in the shower, and all her hair went with it. She was now as smooth and bald as a real mannequin. *I'm going to have LAPD throw the book at you,* she thought angrily.
Plastica patted her cheek. "Don't look so glum, Glass-Ass. You've got a long and interesting career in front of you. Bet you'll have a lot to talk about--that is if you could talk--with your friends Xenon and Blue Cymbidium!"
*Blue Cee--so that's what happened to her?* Gina had to know more. But Iza was toweling her dry, humming to herself as she rubbed the rough fabric across Gina's ass, and behind her the receptionist was wheeling a second victim down the hall, a mannequin with the lush brown curves of a Brazilian beach bunny. She stood stiff as a board on the dolly cart, her eyes dark and dull as two chocolate kisses, fear-erected nipples trained at the ceiling.
*That's what I must look like,* Gina thought sourly as Iza wheeled her away on a similar cart, to a loading dock at the back of the building where two trucks waited. One contained male mannequins, the other female. The males took Gina by surprise. How many people did Plastica plan on transmuting?
But Iza wheeled her inside the truck for female mannequins, cutting off her view, and slid her into a storage rack. Gina felt her buckle thick straps around her waist and legs to keep her from jostling in transit. As a final indignity she took out a black magic marker and scribbled a serial number across Gina's denuded scalp.
*Plastica, I'm going to kill you,* she thought.
On to Chapter 9: Dim Sum and Diamonds
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